“Thirty-three years after it was recorded, this document remains startling. It is, on one hand, a treasure unearthed from the archives, an exceptional unknown tape from the halcyon days of free jazz. But more than that, it is what was at the time occassionally referred to as “living music” – that is, it’s music in/about/of LIFE. Three decades after it was waxed, it is still very much alive.
For many, perhaps most, free music fans outside Denmark, this disc will be a revelation. But The Contemporary Jazz Quintet was an active part of the European free jazz movement, and trumpeter Hugh Steinmetz and alto saxophonist Franz Beckerlee were also visible in other parts of that international scene. The core of the ensemble, including bassist Steffen Andersen was formed as a quartet in ‘59, reportedly playing hard-bop in the Miles Davis/John Coltrane vein. When Ornette Coleman’s first recordings appeared in Denmark, the band’s direction was definitively changed, and they began playing Coleman’s pieces, delving extensively into his songbook and beginning to experiment with freeplay. In ‘64, Bo Thrige Andersen took the drum chair; his cymbal playing was clearly influenced by Sonny Murray, with whom the band had recorded on ACTION, the first of its three LPs released on the Danish Debut label and Fona. In ‘65, the ensemble made a record, THIRD STREAM MUSIC (Fona), with classical composer/performer Niels Viggo Bentzon. Remarkably open to collaborative projects, they succeeded as well in developing a personal voice unlike any other- which was quite an accomplishment for a free jazz unit in the mid-60s.
Over the second half of the ‘60s, before it made its last commercially released LP in ‘68, the group was very active, playing with most of the leading lights of the American free jazz and European improvised music worlds. Members of the group appeared on two records led by John Tchicai, and Steinmetz joined a large group of Manfred Schoof’s to make EUROPEAN ECHOES- which would become the first release for the German FMP label. The group quickly moved more fully away from conventional jazz structure and form, and in this period they became a quintet, adding a member whose sound is a big part of what makes this record so startling: on saw (and elsewhere on organ and tenor saxophone), Niels Harrit.
There is simply nothing else like this sound in the whole gamut of free music. There have, of course, been other percussionists who have doubled on saw – Han Bennink, Paul Lovens, Jerome Cooper, for instance. But in this case the singing saw is woven into the fabric of the ensemble; it is a deep part of the very soul of The Contemporary Jazz Quintet- a wailing, sorrowful/joyous sound that echoes the saxophone and trumpet and leads them to squalls of energy and interaction otherwise unforseen– this is unprecedented music, totally fresh and pulsing, at times frightening in its intensity. Music of its time. Music of our time. Startling music. Any time.