by Martin Longley –
On the last day of the Moers Festival, German reedsman Frank Gratkowski will be presenting his Z-Country Paradise quintet. He’s mostly been known for a concentration on hardcore improvised jazz, or possibly even purer free music, untethered, for complete abstraction. Gratkowski’s new Z-Country outfit makes an unfamiliar venture into the groove, even though that groove might be fragmented and distressed. Improvisation remains at the core, but the spontaneous elements happen to be rooted in riffs, repeats, rhythms and progressions.
The new, eponymously-titled album sounds impressively angular and aggressive, the spiky instrumentation topped by a wordy layer, as Serbian vocalist Jelena Kuljić sings, intones, declaims and dissects some of her favourite poetry, her style not quite jazz, rock, soul or cabaret, but some devilish confusion of all these languages. She’s selected works by the French titan Arthur Rimbaud, the Serbian-American Charles Simić and the more obscure Berliner artist-poet Gabriele Günther, who has regularly provided artwork for Gratkowski’s album covers.
Gratkowski deliberately desired a fresh combo that revolved around groove, featuring a singer, and a pronounced rock influence, as a radical alternative to his accustomed free-forming. He had Can and James Brown on his mind. “I was trying different bands, different rhythm sections, and everything didn’t really work the way I wanted it to,” he explains. “It was still too jazzy.”
Gratkowski had taught the Finnish guitarist Kalle Kalima whilst he was studying in Berlin. “He’s one of the very few jazz-trained players who really sounds like a rock guitarist.” Kuljić also arrived in Berlin to study, around the same time, in 2003, at the Jazz Institute. She had hitherto been more of a soul-rock singer, but found herself moving closer to the avant jazz realm. Gratkowski saw her perform in The Black Rider (the stage production by Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs), at Theater Basel, later attending a party where Z-Country’s drummer-to-be Christian Marien was performing. Gradually, the new band was coming together. Bassist Oliver Potratz brought along his rack of effects pedals, and Marien arrived with his complete Led Zeppelin collection.
Gratkowski still couldn’t resist the ingrained improvisatory impulse, so Z-Country ended up going into the studio without any specific material, with the aim of laying down a test sound. “This recording was almost the first thing we did together, we did a rehearsal, and we just jammed, basically. This is almost exactly what happened at the recording session.”
Gratkowski just counted in, and they started playing. The results smoulder with the tension of instantaneous creation, but the player-skills are so advanced that the pieces still sound disciplined, and surprisingly compositional. “We recorded the whole album in a couple of hours,” says Kuljić. She remembers that they listened back, and were very satisfied, even more so when the mix was completed, refining the sound even further.
“I brought the words,” she says. “But in a musical sense, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Having the words is a very good base to the music, especially the words that I like.” Kuljić kept the poems pure, accurately reproduced, but free to add phonetic embellishments, often at the end of a line. It would be limiting to call this ‘scatting’. “The way I use my voice: at the beginning it’s a word, at the end, a sound.”
“These people can improvise in that genre,” Gratkowski says of his bandmates. “They can change the harmonies, and they’re immediately there, they change from one part to another, with a bridge coming up out of the blue.” The saxophonist and bass clarinetist often remains outside of these structures, aligning himself more with the wayward voicings of Kuljić, darting around or underlining her phrases. “Put her onstage, and she has a presence that is quite amazing,” he says. “This band is like earth: it’s grounded. It’s not about virtuosic things, it almost has a blues relationship. I have to be creative in a different way, because I don’t know so much about it…”
A curious thing happened following the original recording session, Gratkowski recalls: “Now, we tend to play the tunes which we improvised in the first place, more or less,because they became tunes on the fly. Sometimes it’s a little more free, sometimes it goes somewhere else.” Despite the altered funk-rock nature, Gratkowski thinks that the music is still a touch too much out-there to be completely embraced outside of the jazz-improvisation world.
Z-Country debuted at Porgy & Bess, the famed Vienna jazz club, only last December, and they’ve only played a handful of gigs up to Moers-time. This won’t necessarily lead to a radical evolution in their sound, though. “It gives us a certain base,” says Kuljić. “A certain atmosphere that we want to produce, so it’s going to be different, but we’re not going to produce a completely new sound.”
Kuljić was more of a rock singer until around the age of 27, when she moved closer to jazz. “The more interesting aspect was the combination of attitudes that people have in jazz and the strength that rock music has, or punk. We all, more or less, grew up with punk music. I read somewhere that, as people get older, they start to listen to simpler music. In puberty we listen to the music that is connecting us with the rest of our group, the group that we would like to be a part of, and from 35 we do go to a more folky sound, or to the roots. And my roots are in rock music.”
Kuljić’s selection of the poems was pretty instinctive. “I didn’t think very carefully about it. I’m not really a very well-organised person. I have different projects, but I don’t really work very hard for them,” she laughs. “I’m happy that I managed to combine being lazy and doing what I do, and that I can allow myself to be lazy. I don’t read a lot of poetry,” she admits, having been prompted to pick up Rimbaud via punk poet Patti Smith. “He is like an earthquake, which is very good ground for me! I do like big emotions..!”