Solstice Liner Notes

Twenty years ago, in 1992, Heinz Geisser assembled a New York band called Collective 4tet, a group remarkable for its development of a genuinely collective language within the traditions of free jazz and free improvisation. With Solstice he launches another group, similarly named, Ensemble 5, this time in his native Switzerland. Geisser seems to approach putting together a band much the way he approaches his drum kit, as a broad spectrum of sounds, equally significant, knitted together spontaneously in complex patterns with precision and passion. Ensemble 5 possesses its own distinct character and also includes three outstanding young musicians likely new to listeners of improvised music.

Glancing at the biographies of Ensemble 5’s members, one quickly gets a sense of the range of experience and the differences among the musicians in both age and orientation. Heinz Geisser, born in 1961, has been largely oriented toward free jazz, creating substantial bodies of work with both fellow-Swiss pianist Guerino Mazzola—an array of duo, trio and quartet recordings made as far afield as the U.S. and South Korea—and with Collective 4tet—the latter documented on six Leo CDs. Trombonist Robert Morgenthaler, born in 1952, is the group’s most senior member, and a frequent poll winner in the Swiss magazine Jazz. His resumé includes work with Carla Bley and Lee Konitz and a long-standing duo with the great German drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer.

Those jazz traditions are evident as well in the background of bassist Fridolin Blumer, born 1984, who works regularly in a trio that includes repertoire by Lennie Tristano, Charles Mingus and Carla Bley. Pianist Reto Staub, born 1979, and Vincent Daoud , born 1978, share roots in contemporary composed music and work in that arena in Ensemble Nikel. Staub’s solo repertoire includes music by Stockhausen, Elliott Carter and John Zorn.

Ensemble 5 grew out of a series of musical encounters and gradually flowered into the group heard here. As Heinz describes it, “I was not looking to put together a new group, but it just happened that our ways crossed in time, coming together step by step and evolving over the last year and a half.

“I've been working with Fridolin Blumer in various contexts of improvised music over the last four years, for example in a trio with the reed player Sandra Weiss who would eventually bring along Frantz Loriot, a very gifted viola player from New York City. The collaboration with Fridolin eventually became the core of Ensemble 5. On the other hand, I've known Robert Morgenthaler for almost 30 years. In the ’80s, when I was still playing jazz guitar, we made our way through the standards and played other bop-oriented music. For the last few years we've experimented in various trios with bass players like Jonas Tauber or Christian Weber, but it never became an ongoing project.”

Heinz describes the mixture of long interactions and sudden encounters that brought the present group together: “One day about two years ago, Fridolin called me and asked if I would come over for a session with a flute player from Berlin who was hanging out in Zurich for some days. I agreed and when I got there this guy had brought over Reto as well. I didn't know Reto at the time, but his playing was just overwhelming. So after the flute player returned to Berlin, we hooked up for another meeting. I asked Robert to join us and it turned out to be a promising choice. The very first session as a quartet just clicked.

“It was at one of the following sessions in November 2010 that Reto spontaneously brought in Vincent. Vincent lives in the French part of Switzerland and the morning after our session they were about to take an early flight to Tel Aviv for some performances with Ensemble Nikel, so they came together and the same thing happened again. The quintet immediately clicked and Vincent, who none of us except Reto knew before, was just another revelation. The group was born and we started to work regularly.”

For Heinz, there’s fresh stimulation in the make-up of the band. “With the exception of Robert Morgenthaler, an experienced jazz musician and improviser, the other musicians belong to a younger generation and I feel that everyone is excited about our collaboration.

“Coming from contemporary composed music, Reto and Vincent are both on top of their instrumental technique and--equally significant--they can improvise. It’s an ability that has become more and more important for interpreters of what are often aleatoric compositions. Both of them have big ears and an incredible sense of rhythm, color and time.

“Fridolin has a wide open musical horizon. He initially was classically trained on violoncello before changing to the double bass and going through jazz college. In the last few years he has developed a very strong individual voice and a beautiful sound. His remarkable ability to understand complex rhythmic structures makes him an ideal partner for me. He knows very well how to find his place in the sound space.

“Robert is a very experienced jazz musician able to perform in any given musical context. His intuitive approach to the music has always been kind of a landmark for me. He somehow personifies what jazz means to me.”

For Heinz, “This is not about notes, aesthetics or styles but rather about the aim and the ability to exchange gestures in a musical space resulting in a collective dance that creates a distributed identity in between the dancers. I see this subliminal identity in the figure of a ropedancer, in perfect yet moving equilibrium. Now, the ensemble has become an important project for me and given the fact that everybody lives close to each other it promises to become a working group.”

Each of the musicians shares Geisser’s enthusiasm and vision. Each brings his own sense of purpose to the group, too, but it’s always about listening and energy and collective creation. Robert Morgenthaler says, “The main thing that makes Ensemble 5 so special to me is the high energy level I can always feel when we play together. Another reason is that I feel no stylistic boundaries, none of the players is dogmatic, whether in the jazz tradition or in the contemporary direction. We don’t play compositions or arrangements, or even concepts. Nevertheless we use some concepts when rehearsing in order to explore new options for musical interaction. As examples, sometimes only duos or trios are allowed, or everybody plays in his own pulse. The conceptual work helps us to develop tools to be able to compose instantly.”

Fridolin Blumer says, “The combination of Heinz, Robert and me coming from the jazz tradition together with Reto and Vincent coming from classical new music is very thrilling and special to me. For me, playing music is not about which style you play, but with whom you play. Different combinations of people result in different kinds of music and require a different approach to playing. All the musicians in Ensemble 5 are very good listeners, beyond all their other skills and this may be the main ingredient for our music. It’s very interactive and connected. We don’t plan our pieces or have given structures for them, but we do rehearse. When we do so, we give ourselves a harmonic or rhythmic task, a mood or a form for a piece of music. And we approach those tasks in different ways. The music flows very naturally and out of the moment. It’s like a good conversation.”

Reto Staub emphasizes the freedom of sounds: “When we play with Ensemble 5 I feel a strong sensibility in listening to each other, going together, commenting, answering the trombone, creating together with the drum a shape of sound or a structure of rhythms. It’s making a ballet of rhythms, meeting the bass through playing in the low register with sticks on the strings or playing harmonics or counterpoint. It’s about experiencing the sounds of the piano in plucking strings, damping, scratching, working with different materials in the piano, always trying to go with the musical flow of an improvisation and keeping together a common energy.”

Vincent Daoud remarks, “I like to stay away from analysis as much as possible. I try hard to be inside the sounds which are being played. This can lead to ecstatic moments where the only thing that matters is the present moment and the mates you're playing with. When we play, we are influenced by our musical backgrounds and idiosyncratic colorations, but the improvisational process is also partly its own cause and effect. This often leads to an autopoietic dynamic which carries along sui generis effects.”

Listening to music as fully formed as that of Ensemble 5 confirms the value of improvisation as a methodology. As I first listened to it, I was reminded of the orchestral breadth of Collective 4tet, the way that group sounded like a cohesive expression rather than a group of individuals. Part of Collective 4tet’s identity was forged in its original instrumentation with trombone, piano, bass and drums, with the group avoiding much of the rhetoric of free jazz, most specifically the rhetoric of saxophones. Part of what makes the arrival of Vincent Daoud in Ensemble 5’s midst so fortuitous is the immediacy of his approach. His gestures are directly involved in the collective expression, the idea of genuinely instant group composition. If Collective 4tet were masters of long-form improvisation, then Ensemble 5 show distinguishes itself in the brevity of some of the pieces, works that are individually distinguished, whether it’s by playfulness, evanescence, or agitation.

One of the great qualities of improvised music is the way it both includes and transcends the past. Heinz is able to feel both the Collective 4tet and Ensemble 5 itself in the music of the new group: “At the beginning I was even surprised that the language of the Collective 4tet somehow had crept into the new group without any preconceptions. At the same time the project constitutes the start of something entirely new because each of the band members possesses a profiled individuality and a strong voice of his own.”

Like any improvising group of the first rank, Ensemble 5 is an unlikely combination of the virtuosic and the self-effacing, whether it’s Blumer’s underlying sense of architecture or Staub’s sudden brilliant flights, Morgenthaler’s evolved flexility of timbre or Daoud’s subtle insertion of the micro-gesture . It’s continuous with the character of Heinz Geisser’s own playing, yes, virtuosic and self-effacing, that remarkably detailed, polyrhythmic tapestry that might already suggest that it’s coming from more than one musician.

What ultimately stands out about Ensemble 5 isn’t the range of age or genre orientation in the band. As Heinz remarks, “Our music is not just a matter of combining different elements. It’s a synthesis which is based on close listening and--equally important--the ability of all musicians to contribute to the creation of a coherent musical space. We are not trying to define a new style on purpose but given the fact that we are able to speak a common language the music speaks for itself and may result in a new style. The younger musicians bring in a different vibe than the old masters.”

Stuart Broomer
June 2012