Joachim Zoepf

NurNichtNur / 1990720

Joachim Zoepf / reeds

Solo saxophone albums of such extreme tendencies can easily be hard going even if they’re interesting in short bursts. Zoepf, however, avoids boring us with long, screaming harmonics and instead turns in an album in the old-fashioned sense — a collection of pieces which stand alone, which are all very different, and which enthrall by, in part, making you wonder what’s going to happen next.

Let’s start at the beginning where, if you haven’t inspected the liner notes, you won’t even be sure what sort of instrument Zoepf plays at all. He has a range of techniques involving special articulations, and especially vocalising, which can go completely beyond the sounds which we’re accustomed to hearing coming out of a saxophone. Even those who listen regularly to players like Butcher or Doneda who are constantly exploring “extended techniques” will be astonished by some of the things Zoepf can do with a soprano sax, and will be amazed that he wants to do some of the others.


The album opens, then, with a selection of mouth-noises which barely engage the reed at all, although they do, and with hindsight the tenor sax can be detected right from the start. Initially, however, one is more likely to be reminded of players who specialise in junk or invented instruments, or even avant garde vocalists. It’s a bravado opening, quiet and wily, toying with the listener’s expectations and leading those who haven’t yet read the information right up the garden path.

Just to keep the surprises coming, Zoepf then reveals the other side of his peculiar musical personality, striding into the second piece on bass clarinet sounding for all the world like Eric Dolphy opening the album Last Date as if nothing untoward had happened. Although, as one would expect, Zoepf uses far more varied articulations than Dolphy ever did, that close connection remains throughout the piece.

What to make, then, of this odd double strategy, opening the disk twice, as it were, once as an experiment in post-saxophone sound manipulation, then again as a freebop workout? Well, whatever we make of it, the two tendencies survive intact throughout the disc, in various combinations. Make no mistake, this can be as in-your-face as solo sax gets, pushing articulation way beyond the handful of tricks associated with jazz expressivity. Yet Zoepf chooses to keep a link to jazz in here, and not just on bass clarinet; on tenor or soprano he can sound like Dolphy’s oft underrated alto, too.


That’s a rather unfashionable approach right now. European improvisation has long distanced itself from free jazz in an attempt to educate the less enlightened about its origins in classical Modernism and, in some cases, performance art. No post-Webernianisms for Zoepf, however; this is a sort of jazz, although if it’s free jazz then it certainly doesn’t sound like David S Ware. Focussing on the serpentine complexities of post-bop rather than reaching back into the blues, Zoepf is doing something which seems to be all his own.

Walter Schreiber’s sleeve notes — in rather flakey translation, to be fair to him — imply that much of this is arch postmodernist irony, and cast Zoepf as a sort of deconstructionist clown, mucking about with genres as the whim takes him. Nothing could be further from the impression gained by sitting down and listening to this album. Zoepf comes across as a musician making a brave attempt to forge a personal language out of almost incommensurable ideas. He is striving to bring together the kind of jazz which Braxton likes to play — fast, hard-edged, gleaming, complicated — with an outsider set of techniques which almost preclude the articulation of notes at all. The results are boiling with something quite different from emotion; the music Zoepf plays may be detatched and witty, but it’s also very compulsive listening. Richard Cochrane