Hans Koller ‘Retrospection’ 3LP (Stoney Lane) 5/5

hans-kollerBavarian born pianist/arranger/composer Hans Koller has been based in the UK for the last 25 years. He now spends much of his time between Birmingham and London, writing, arranging, performing and teaching. Yet it was his musical upbringing in rural Bavaria that first planted the seeds for the jazz innovator he has now become. Born into a musical family, Koller first came into contact with jazz musicians in his teens, before moving to England where he started playing in bands with saxophonist Stan Sultzmann and trumpeter Chris Batchelor. It wasn’t long before Koller had formed his own band “Neverland” which was then augmented into a nine piece outfit for his 1997 debut album “Magic Mountain”. The recording established the pianist as one of the leading new jazz composers in the UK. After winning the JOEY award for composers, he was awarded major commissions by both Birmingham Jazz and the Freden International Music Festival. More albums followed, and in 2002 “New Memories” was hailed by John Fordham in The Guardian as “the most expansive, expressive and exciting new jazz orchestral sound to have emerged in this country since the late-lamented Loose Tubes”. Over the past decade or so Koller has worked on refining his sound, working with large ensembles and big bands, as well as projects with Dave Liebman, Gerard Presencer, Evan Parker and Bill Frisell. More recently Koller has been to America to study, and since 2011 has been researching the musical concepts of George Russell and Jimmy Giuffre and studying counterpoint with Edwin Roxburgh. Many of the musicians he has met on his journey throughout the last 25 years are featured on “Retrospection”, including legendary bassist Steve Swallow, American saxophonist John O’Gallagher, the German NDR Bigband, Danish guitarist Jakob Bro, drummer Jeff Williams and an outstanding line-up which is practically a who’s who of UK jazz musicians, including Christine Tobin, Julian Siegel, Percy Pursglove, Phil Robson and Mark Nightingale, to name but a few.

“Retrospection” is a triple vinyl album release, bringing together three distinct and fascinating recordings from the last five years of Koller’s broad musical adventures. “Retrospection One” was recorded in London in June 2011, featuring a twelve piece horn-led ensemble with special guest Steve Swallow, playing three Koller originals plus arrangements of music from Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano and drummer Jeff Williams. “Retrospection Two” was also recorded in London, in February 2013, and sees Koller switching from piano to wurlitzer, and brings together alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher, vocalist Christine Tobin and the twin guitars of Jakob Bro and Phil Robson as part of an eleven strong band. The recording features Koller’s two-part composition “Half of Life”, J S Bach’s “Der Tag Mit Seinem Lichte” and Herbie Nichols’ “The Gig”, plus two further Koller compositions. The final, and most recent of the three recordings, “Retrospection Three”, was recorded in Hamburg in November 2014 and introduces the exceptional German NDR Bigband which traces its origins back to 1945. The seven Koller originals offer strong echoes of Gil Evans’ influence on Koller’s writing, brought to life by the energy and intensity of the NDR.

The triple vinyl album is a beautiful thing to behold. Original, inspiring artwork graces the sleeve, along with extensive liner notes from John Fordham. But let’s tackle the potential elephant in the room; why is this a vinyl only release? I spoke with Stoney Lane Records’ head honcho Sam Slater for the answer; “Hans was very keen to release some music on vinyl (which musician wouldn’t?!). He already worked with Ben Lamdin (Impossible Ark Records) who co-engineered on two of the records, so when Hans revealed he also had the brilliant NDR recording hiding in his vaults, we thought it would be pretty special to release them all as a triple-vinyl album. Alas it just wasn’t financially viable to release it on vinyl and cd at the same time, but hopefully we can look at doing CD’s in the not too distant future if we sell some records first!”
Stoney Lane Records is an artist led independent label based in Birmingham. Last year saw them release excellent albums by Mike Fletcher Trio, TG Collective and Mark Pringle, and with some very exciting releases planned for the next 18 months, in addition to this Hans Koller triple album, one can only admire their dedication to the cause – they’re definitely a label punching well above their weight.

The sound quality coming from my speakers is impeccable as the opening track from Retrospection One, Lennie Tristano’s “317 East 32nd Street” kicks into life. Big, beautiful brass is the order of the day. Koller’s originals are stunning, the pristine and intelligent arrangements a beacon of light, at times piercing and fierce, whilst at other times, as heard on “Solitudes”, swimming with subtlety and grace. Koller’s music isn’t necessarily always the easiest to connect with, but once my ears were tuned in correctly, I discovered a depth within the music that is rarely heard. The celebratory “Ah-leu-cha” takes Charlie Parker’s composition onto a new level. It swings like hell and brings the best out of the soloists. Steve Swallow provides the backdrop for “Clouds of Joy”, a tune that begins like a traditional jazz/blues piece, before developing into an uplifting journey, its melody carrying the listener skyward. The skill of all the musicians involved is of the highest order, with Finn Peters on alto, Julien Siegel soprano and Francois Theberge on tenor providing the saxes. Percy Pursglove, Robbie Robson and Chris Batchelor play trumpet, with Jim Rattigan on french horn. Mark Nightingale and Jeremy Price feature on trombone with Sarah Williams on bass trombone. Koller’s musical relationship with drummer Jeff Williams is of obvious importance as the drummer shows his class throughout. His composition “Fun House Living” sits very nicely with the other tunes, Koller’s piano, as with much of Retrospection One, rarely comes to the fore, just there, a masterful voice watching over, ensuring everything is well-balanced and just as it should be. The first album ends with Koller’s “Automat”, completing the first intensely enjoyable vinyl.

Retrospection Two is perhaps the most surprising of the three albums. Putting together guitarists Jakob Bro and Phil Robson is a masterstroke. It is though, the sublime vocals of Christine Tobin that take centre stage on the opening number “Content The Boatman Turns”. She sets the scene alight on this contemplative musical jazz-poem. The swing is back in force for Herbie Nichols’ “The Gig”, providing the listener with some brilliant soloing from the guitarists. There’s a vibrancy to this tune that could shake the coconuts from the trees, breezy and mouth-wateringly refreshing. Once more it is the beauty of the horns that show just how clever and subtly engaging Koller’s arrangements are on “And No-One Knows”. The horn section is similar to the first album, with Pursglove and Robson on trumpet, Rattigan on French horn, and with John O’Gallagher on alto, Francois Theberge on tenor. Jeff Williams is still on drums but the bass is now taken up by Dave Whitford. The sensitivity of Koller’s arrangements, particularly the horns, works so well alongside Tobin’s lovely vocals. J S Bach’s “Der Tag Mit Seinem Lichte” has that wonderful colliery brass band sound to it, uplifting in its gentle repose. Koller’s “Half of Life”, Parts 1 and 2 marks the deep influence of his jazz-loving father with two different interpretations of Holderlin’s poem, Half of Life. The slightly tense, ethereal atmosphere is largely created by Jakob Bro’s guitar and Jeff Williams’ drums. Phil Robson’s soloing alongside Bro’s ambient backdrop is incredible, the music being performed being both invigorating and inspiring. As the horns brush the guitars aside, with an infectious swing, the tune adventures on in a brilliant haze of exceptional contemporary jazz.

The NDR Bigband take the helm for Retrospection Three. Featuring Gene Calderazzo on drums, and with Vladyskav Sebdecki at the piano as well as Koller himself, there is generally a darker, deeper feel to this recording. The opener “Neden” sets the tone, with a glorious depth and sincerity. The piano is in the foreground for the first time on this three album set, and the contrast is quite stunning. Rich and full of expression, the second interpretations of “Half of Life” Parts 1 and 2 are significantly different to those on Retrospection Two. Here, the pieces are more accessible, with the NDR Bigband in full swing. Incredible solos ensue, before a calming piano takes the lead, once more providing a beautiful contrast to the proceedings. “Eins Zwei Drei Tier” has a lighter feel to it, the classical/jazz elements combining in a stripped back piano trio piece of music. As the horns are brought in at the end it has its own wonderment and is simply exhilarating. Another version of “Automat” takes me by surprise; searching, probing, grasping and provoking. There’s a late night jazz club feel to Koller’s “Ohr/Uhr”, with the closing piece “Siguariya” allowing the sophisticated arrangements to shine with the lush horns taking pride of place once more. The reflective yet infectious nature of the tune is a fitting end to this three album set.

Whether you are a big band music lover, a Hans Koller fan, or a jazz enthusiast who just enjoys great music, “Retrospection” is a must-have triple album. There’s so much to enjoy and it’ll keep you occupied for days…weeks…months. Whichever way you look at it, it’s an incredible achievement from Hans Koller, and has to be rated as one of the most important and musically rewarding releases in 2016.

Mike Gates