Peter Kowald is one of the architects of contemporary improvised music, as well as one of its most influential voices. His presence on the scene has been constant and significant, beginning with his work with Peter Brötzmann and Sven-Åke Johannson in the mid-1960s, through countless performances and recordings with improvisers in Europe, the Americas, and Asia, to his ongoing and ever-changing Global Village line-up. His discography is as a course in modern improvisation in all its various guises. His recordings—in particular the landmark Duos and his remarkable CD for solo bass Was Da Ist (What There Is)—attests to Kowald’s standing as one of the world’s top improvisational bassists. The latter record was one of only 55 to be distinguished with a crown in the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, the highest rating awarded by the authors. Kowald’s willingness to play with any and all serious improvisers, taken together with his decision in 1994-95 to spend a full year playing exclusively for his home community of Wuppertal, Germany, provide a model for local engagement tempered by cultural openness and curiosity.
Kowald started playing both double bass and tuba as a 15-year-old high school student in Wuppertal, Germany, his hometown, “because these were the instruments nobody wanted to play in the school orchestra.” Early on, he developed a taste for jazz and began playing it himself, starting in local Dixieland groups. When he was 17, his life changed forever when he met a fellow-Wuppertaler and saxophone player, Peter Brötzmann. Brötzmann was three years older than Kowald, but more than that, he was fierce in his dedication to creating his own musical voice.
The two began playing together regularly, working their way into progressively more adventurous musical territory: Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and on into ideas of their own. They found a local bar where they could play and rehearse, but Wuppertal was not quite ready for their musical experiments. “We played like twice a week,” he said, “and for one and a half years, nobody would come. I think the first person who came to listen to us came after a year and a half.”
In 1965, Kowald and Brötzmann attended a concert by pianist Carla Bley, and afterwards sat in with her band. Impressed, Bley invited Brötzmann and Kowald and to play on her 1966 European tour. Kowald spent three months touring with Bley, an experience he found valuable because the group was playing cutting edge free jazz without any time or regular metrical structures. Around the same time, they were asked by pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach to join the Globe Unity Orchestra, a big band that included many of the leading European free improvisers of the day.
With the Bley tour, Globe Unity Orchestra, and various festival experience under their belts, Brötzmann and Kowald started thinking about making a record of their own. “But of course nobody wanted to put it out,” Kowald said. “Peter found some person who gave us some money, and then we did it as cheap as we could. Which also meant the label on the record. On the first edition, we didn’t pay for the labels to be printed, we made rubber stamps and stamped them by hand.” Featuring the trio of Brötzmann, Kowald, and drummer Sven-Åke Johannson, the record was titled For Adolphe Sax, in honor of the inventor of the saxophone.
Described by Ekkehard Jost as music of “monstrous vehemence, which reduced the norms of the traditional jazz aesthetic to rubble,” For Adolphe Sax was a pivotal early document of the European free improvising movement. The music—sometimes called “Energy Music” because of its devotion to sheer, unrelenting volume—was eliciting a variety of responses from listeners. Traditional jazz fans found it abhorrent, Kowald recalls. Occasionally their anger was expressed as physical violence against Brötzmann. They found a far more sympathetic audience among younger artists and students, who sympathized with Brötzmann and Kowald’s goal of simply destroying all the old worn-out musical forms. Their brand of Kaputtspielen, or “playing it till it’s wrecked,” extended to virtually all music, even hard bop and the new classical music of composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen. Students in the 1960s saw in the music of Kowald and Brötzmann a reflection of their own attitudes toward conventional social ideas. Brötzmann and Kowald did not discourage the interpretation; they also considered their music a revolutionary act fully in the spirit of the times.
Born in 1944 in Germany. Education: Folkwangs-chule and Musikhochschule Köln, Germany.
Met saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, 1962; toured with Carla Bley band, 1966; joined Globe Unity Orchestra, 1966; met Evan Parker and John Stevens in London, 1967; recorded For Adolphe Sax with Brötzmann and Sven-Åke Johannson, 1967; played Brötzmann’s Machine Gun, 1968; joined Pierre Favre Quartett with Irène Schweizer, 1969; formed Peter Kowald Quintet, 1972; joined Alexander von Schlippenbach Quartet, 1973; helped re-form Globe Unity Orchestra, 1973; conceived Jahrmarkt for Globe Unity, 1975; formed trio with Leo Smith and Günter Baby Sommer, 1979; began playing solo concerts, early 1980s; formed Global Village, mid-1980s; Duos box set released, 1992; spent year performing only in Wuppertal, 1994-95; released solo CD Was Da Ist, 1995; spent three months playing concerts in the United States, 2000; performed as soloist in symphonic composition “Verlorenwasser by Helmut Oehring with State Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart, 2001.
Awards: VonderHeydt Preis, Wuppertal, 1984; Albert Mangelsdorff Prize (Deutscher Jazzpreis), 1996.
When Machine Gun, the next blast in the revolution, was issued in 1968, it included, in addition to Brötzmann and Kowald, musicians from England, Holland, Sweden, and Belgium; it was clear that a Europe-wide free improv scene had sprung into being. Kowald played an important role in bringing the scene together and nurturing it. He had made a trip to England in 1967, where he met and played with Evan Parker and John Stevens. Shortly afterwards, when the trio played a festival in Germany, the English and German scenes encountered one another for the first time. Kowald also played a concert in Holland with Belgian pianist Fred van Hove and Dutch drummer Han Bennink, both of whom would also play on Machine Gun. Later in the 1960s, Kowald lived for extended periods in Belgium and Switzerland, forging musical relationships in both countries.
During the 1960s, he began to develop his strong technique on the bass and cites Gary Peacock and Henry Grimes as two important early influences. An important step was playing with the bow. It boosted his sound when he was playing with the volume-heavy saxes and drums of the Kaputtspielen era. “In those times, we didn’t have amplifiers,” Kowald said. “So I found a way to be heard more, when I used the bow.” Ornette Coleman’s record Live at the Golden Circle showed Kowald a direction he could take with his bowing. “Somehow the sound of [bassist] David Izen-zon and Omette Coleman’s violin kind of freed my bowing technique,” Kowald said. “Ornette played so unconventionally that I kind of tried to translate that to the bass a little bit. And then I found my own techniques.”
The Globe Unity Orchestra had ceased to exist in 1969. However, in 1973, Kowald secured grant money from the city of Wuppertal that enabled Alexander von Schlippenbach to re-form the Orchestra. For the next five years, Globe Unity had a high profile in Kowald’s hometown, playing every year in the Wuppertaler Workshops. Kowald began to take a leading role in writing for the orchestra. A particularly noteworthy performance was documented on the recording Jahrmarkt/Local Fair, on which Globe Unity performed two of Kowald’s radical compositions.
Taking his cue from Charles Ives, Kowald placed different groups of musicians around the market place in Wuppertal: an orchestra from the city, a traditional brass band, a group of Greek folk musicians, an accordion orchestra, a barrel organ player, and the Globe Unity Orchestra. “Everything there was on a time schedule,” Kowald explained. “It was supposed to start midday at 12 o’clock, and then there were breaks. So the accordion orchestra would play three minutes, but then the brass band in another corner of the market had started already. So the audience always had to walk around and follow what was happening. And as soon as they arrived, that orchestra had stopped already and another orchestra had begun. So it was a little confusing for them. But the idea was to have very different things going at the same time, like Charles Ives’ idea.”
Kowald left Globe Unity in 1978 and essentially began giving up the tuba to devote himself fully to the bass. A year later, Kowald formed a trio with the American trumpeter Leo Smith and the East German drummer Günter Baby Sommer that was to be a major turning point in his musical life. It was the first real group of his own; but Smith/Kowald/Sommer also helped Kowald’s playing evolve away from pure energy music into a new, subtler kind of improvisation. “This was my step, when I formed my own ideas and my own group,” Kowald said, “to say OK, I still want form-wise to stay in free improvisation, but not necessarily do this energy music all the time. But to find all kinds of other areas. That’s what this trio was about.” The trio remained together for some three years and released two LPs of spacious, even meditative improvisation.
During the 1980s, performed throughout the world. He visited Japan several times on extended visits and spent a long period of time in New York City, playing with virtually all of the city’s important free-improvising musicians, including John Zorn, Butch Morris, William Parker, and Rashied AN. “I would play one night Coltrane music and the next night we would play some kind of avant-garde rock or completely different things all the time,” Kowald said. “That was really good for me.” He performed in Southeast Asia, India, Australia, and New Zealand, and in 1988 gave what he called “the greatest gig I ever had,” when he played before an audience of 120,000 people at the Seoul Olympics.
By the beginning of the 1990s, Kowald was able to play with virtually any musician from virtually any background. This is demonstrated in the CD Duos, on which Kowald performs in duos with 19 musicians from Japan, Greece, Holland, England, and the United States, some of whom were improvisers and some performers of traditional, folk musicians. Such experiences eventually led Kowald in the late 1980s and 1990s to establish the informal, rotating network of improvising musicians, which he called Global Village. “I always keep saying that all local music has a certain form. Whether it’s the Inuit women singing into each other’s mouths, or an Indian raga, or Bach or Beethoven. But what we have been doing since the ’60s is working without a pre-given form,” Kowald explained. “This idea of the global village is that people from different cultures bring in many aesthetic qualities of their culture. But the form is completely open, and we can instantly work together.”
Kowald’s Global Village Suite, featuring Danny Davis and Takehisa Kosugi, was released on FMP in 1986 and was an early Global Village project. The Duos project, which stretched out over a seven-year period on three continents was another phase. The CD When the Sun Is Out You Don’t See The Stars, with Swiss saxophonist Werner Lüdi, American cornetist Butch Morris, and Siberian vocalist Sainhko Namchylak, was a particularly successful and beautiful product of Kowald’s cross-cultural experiment.
By the early 1990s, Kowald sensed a strange contradiction in his musical life. He was playing for audiences in locales as diverse and far-flung as the Tuvan Republic, Thessaloniki, Greece, and the Lower East Side of New York City. But the baker in the shop across the street from Kowald’s home in Wuppertal knew nothing about his music. So, in 1994 Kowald resolved that for his 50th birthday he’d spend a year in Wuppertal, giving only local concerts. Every Saturday evening, he converted his loft into a concert venue. At seven o’clock, he performed on solo bass for about 40 minutes; at eight o’clock other musicians who were in town—they eventually included names like Butch Morris, Evan Parker, Carlos Zingaro, and Mischa Mengel-berg—could set up and play with Kowald. He stayed at home for exactly 365 days and documented the year in a box set of books, a CD and a video entitled 365 Tage am Ort.
Since the year in Wuppertal ended, Kowald has been on the road almost constantly; in the first half of 2001 he spent only five days in Wuppertal. He undertook a major tour of the United States in the spring of 2000, crisscrossing the country in 90 days and playing about 62 concerts. As in his Wuppertal performances, he usually began with a set of solo bass, then was joined onstage by local musicians, known and unknown. “In many places it was little networks of young improvisers,” Kowald said. “But in Orlando Florida—I never expected that I would play this music in Florida—Sam Rivers came out and played a set with me. I played with Kidd Jordan in New Orleans, with Fred Anderson in Chicago, with George Lewis in San Diego. Some really established and well-known, older musicians played with me also. So in each place I found people to play and it was wonderful.”
Kowald has consistently refused to limit himself to a particular group of musicians, or a single type of venue. He pushes inexorably forward into new territory—even when it is not completely comfortable for him. A case in point was playing as a soloist with a symphony orchestra—his first ever—in January 2001. It was an adventure that Kowald, with limited conservatory training, looked forward to with a little trepidation.
He sees his Unites States tour as illustrative of how his music has changed over the course of his career. Never knowing with whom he would be playing, he had to be a musical chameleon, adapting to the styles of whoever climbed onto the stage with him. “One day a singer came, then another day a recorder player came. One day a homemade instrument player came, and stuff. I think this is something I’m more confident in than ever before, that I really can adjust to very different ways of playing,” he explained. “This is something that I feel quite happy about, that I seem to be able to do now. No matter who comes and says ‘let’s play,’ that I can do that with the bass.”
Peter Kowald Quintet, FMP, 1972.
Die Jungen Random Generators, FMP, 1979.
Touch the Earth, FMP, 1980; reissued on CD, Touch the Earth, Break the Shells, FMP, 1997.
If You Want the Kernels, You Have to Break the Shells, FMP 1981; reissued on CD, Touch the Earth, Break the Shells, FMP, 1997.
Paintings, FMP, 1982.
Two Making a Triangle, FMP, 1982.
Open Secrets, FMP, 1988.
Duos Europa FMP, 1988.
Duos Japan FMP, 1989.
Global Village Suite - improvised, FMP SAJ, 1988.
Duos America, FMP, 1990.
United Music of Marantz, UMOM, 1990.
Duos: Europa America Japan, FMP, 1992.
When the Sun is Out You Don’t See Stars, FMP, 1992.
AngelicA 93, CAICAI, 1993.
Was Da 1st, FMP, 1995.
Cuts, FMP, 1995.
Bass Duets, FMP, 1999.
With Globe Unity Orchestra
Globe Unity, Saba, 1966.
Live in Wuppertal, FMP, 1973.
Hamburg ’74, FMP, 1974.
Rumbling, FMP, 1975.
Jahrmarkt/Local Fair, Po Torch, 1976.
Improvisations, JAPO, 1977.
Pearls, FMP, 1977.
With Peter Brötzmann
For Adolphe Sax, BRÖ 1/FMP, 1967.
Machine Gun, FMP, 1968.
With Schlippenbach Quartett
Three Nails Left, FMP, 1975.
The Hidden Peak, FMP, 1977.
With Pierre Favre
Santana, FMP, 1968.
Pierre Favre Quartett, Wergo, 1969.
Industrial Strength, Leo, 1981.
Borbeto Jam, Cadence, 1981.
With Butch Morris
Conduction 28/Conduction 31, New World Records, 1993.
Conduction 31/Conduction 35/Conduction 36, New World Records, 1993.
Cook, Richard, and Brian Morton, Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 3rd edition, Penguin, 1996.
Jost, Ekkehard, Europas Jazz, 1987.
Noglik, Bert, Jazz-Werkstatt International, 1981.
European Improvisers Pages, http://www.shef.ac.uk/misc/rec/ps/efi/index.html (March 22,2001).
Peter Kowald Official Website, http://www.kowald.de (March 22, 2001).
Additional information was obtained through an interview with Peter Kowald on January 10, 2001.
—Gerald E. Brennan
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