Jazz concert: Between Swiss Alps and Mongolian grassland. Archaic, virtuoso, unbelievable: Zehnder, Brennan and Shilkloper playing Jazz in Allensbach..
A Swiss man who joins the wild Mongols and completely breaks the mould with his voice. An Irishman who tells Swiss jokes. And a Russian who plays the alphorn. It is indeed a curious mix. Christian Zehnder (vocals), John Wolf Brennan (piano) and Arkady Shilkloper (horn) were guests at the Gnadenkirche in Allensbach. It was the final concert of this year's jazz series. Sold-out, as it frequently is in Allensbach, where a core audience regularly meets. At the end, the audience were too excited to keep to their seats in the face of what this unique trio had to offer.
One thing that needs to be said right away: At the heart of all activity of these extraordinary musicians are melodies that send one's soul on a journey. To far-off Asia, up to the Säntis, into the realm of fairies – and into the archaic depths of one's own consciousness. Archaic is the only way to describe the sounds that emanate from Zehnder's larynx. This vocal wizard is at the very focus of everything that happens on stage. Zehnder seems to think of his body as an instrument. That there is even space for anything other than air and sound in his slender, tall frame becomes hard to believe during the show.
He doesn't sing a single line of lyrics, and that on its own already lends his improvisations a timeless aura. As if these vocalisations had always existed. And his spectrum is incredible: Roaring bass sounds, airy sound effects, energetic yodels and amazingly well-placed overtone vocals. In his improvisations, he comes very close to his fellow musicians. Much of it is spontaneous interaction, which works almost eerily well if you consider that the three of them have not been playing together for very long.
Rarely does the wavelength of different musicians overlap so well: The other two also display a wonderful self-irony along with virtuosity at the highest level. Arkady Shilkloper plays the horn with a light-footedness that makes it easy to forget that the instrument is notoriously difficult. Even the weighty alphorn somehow isn't taken entirely seriously by this “non-native alphornist”. He plays runs, plays only on the mouth piece or dispenses with it entirely. When needed, he adorns his horn melodies with emotion and flourishes, thus ensuring that this wild mix always remains exciting music.
The driving spirit at the grand piano is John Wolf Brennan. In his hands, minimal figures become a tight accompaniment, and he conjures up a velvet-like carpet of sound. And how much he understands the piano as a percussive element becomes clear long before he takes to his feet and starts drumming on his instrument. He joins in with the general delight in experimentation that marks this evening, reaches directly into the grand piano and plays the instrument with drumsticks and strings there, turns the most classical of all instruments into a zither and a Swiss cimbalom, only to then turn it back into that heavy body of sound that takes care of adding drive to the show.
They play hymns to the Swiss post bus, the Russian steppe, Irish fairies and Swiss cheese. They examine and explore the possibilities. And when push comes to shove, nothing here sounds like it looks any more. Please come back soon!
Furious vocal pirouettes and sound sculptures: The Zehner-Shilkloper-Brennan trio earns frenetic applause at the Ulmer Stadthaus.
Swiss vocal virtuoso Christian Zehnder, horn player Arkady Shilkloper and pianist John Brennan have joined forces in an unusual new trio, the live experience of which can easily be described as “unique”. This special show at the Ulmer Stadthaus, part of the excellent “Stimmen” series of the Society for New Music, was completely sold out. The three musicians quote, compose and paraphrase their way across the musical world of the entire European continent. Common roots are not difficult to detect: Wild folk music, gentle classical sounds, alpine impressionism and cosy music to imaginary films. The perfect interplay of these musicians and the cleverly devised arrangements easily create epic pictures before the mind's eye. The soundscapes into which the audience blissfully sinks consist of complex rhythms, playful ostinati, multi-layered grooves and Zehnder's crazy excursions into vocal acrobatics, which draw an arch from simple yodels through proto-language up to operatic sound sculptures, with dadaism standing smiling by his side. With Moscow-born Arkadi Shilkloper, he is accompanied by an exceptional horn virtuoso, who also plays the flugelhorn, corno da caccia and the alphorn with breath-taking ease. Shilkloper turns the alphorn into a funk instrument, and in an equally smooth fashion he coaxes silky-soft blues and jazz sounds from it. The clarity and warmth with which Shilkloper and pianist Brennan open the tracks, how Shilkloper congenially links up with Zehnder's near-absurd vocal pirouettes, but also leaves his colleagues enough space for solos and experiments, is simply grandiose. Like Shilkloper, Brennan also pursues melodic fantasies with a sure hand and with a technique full of classic clarity. Once this trio is warmed up, few things could be finer.
For virtuosos like Zehnder, Brennan and Shilkloper, no limits seem to exist – that is the impression once gets after the Stadthaus concert. The astounding range of sounds Zehnder coaxes from his vocal chords is a sight and sound to behold. He creates an idiosyncratic world of sound through overtone singing, a technique he has command over like few others. He loves not only to touch the limits, but to walk their entire length and serves virtuous acoustic journeys through experimental world of sounds, from buzzing drones to the highest overtones. All this is so pleasantly unconventional, so full of musical enthusiasm, so absolutely serious and simultaneously humorous, that a dazzled audience rewarded the musicians with dazzling applause. Yodelling, as Zehnder makes clear, is a global phenomenon. The grab bag of international yodeling language becomes a sheer unending two-hour feast for the ears thanks to the fine culture of sound exhibited by the trio. A particularly captivating example is found in the 127 variations of the chord played by the horns of Swiss post buses. In the twilight atmosphere of an album sheet from the highest North, the piano becomes a string instrument, while Zehnder's singing evokes fine, sharp-edged figures of sound. Mutations of sound, lightning fast at times, grows into an acoustic landscape painting that echoes on for a long time. Furious onomatopoeic opera material is provided by “Gruy-AIR”, complete with rapid Ennio Morricone quotes and alpine scat singing.
The audience's gratitude was expressed exuberantly: With a well-tempered “yodel” of thanks.