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Jazzin' the Black Forest

(US DVD: 10 Oct 2006; UK DVD: Available as import)

If I mention humor, it’s good humor. There’s a scene in Jazzin’ the Black Forest in which some elderly ladies immediately recognise a strange contraption on a table. It’s the forgotten invention from the SABA electronics firm which at last allowed recorded music to be played in a moving car! A tape cassette player, sure enough! The cassette, however, was about as big as a VCR tape.


After that scene in this mostly German language television film with English subtitles, the plot continues along as a shade scatty, but simultaneously becoming more interesting. Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, who was co-proprietor with his brothers of the big electronics firm SABA (with their mother still presiding), had the bright idea of consulting people who would be useful, nay necessary, if SABA followed his idea of providing music to be played on this odd apparatus.


It’s an old story. For example, makers of bicycles also made gramophones, and then the records to play on them. The late record producer John Culshaw had to battle some Swiss bicycle manufacturers before his employer, Decca, would sign on a young tenor called Pavarotti. (Actually, Culshaw lost; Decca signed Pavarotti only because one of their stars wanted to record with him.) Unlike the average bike-builders, Brunner-Schwer knew his music – especially jazz music. Unlike Culshaw, he was a partner in the firm, and had his own millions to spend when the family refused to back his idea. With both love for jazz and the money to back it, he started up MPS (Music Production Schwarzwald). 


Brunner-Schwer invited Oscar Peterson to his large house in Germany in the Black Forest near the Swiss border (Schwarzwald),a landscape of meadow, mountain and trees, so that Peterson could audition him. Would MPS be worthy to succeed Norman Granz’s Verve as the company that recorded the Peterson trio?


Prior to this meeting, Peterson and his band played in Zürich, and a worried Brunner-Schwer heard over the phone that Peterson was on his fifth encore. After the concert, they were due at a party, then record date, in Brunner-Schwer’s mansion. The party atmosphere in the mansion drooped as Peterson’s arrival was delayed, and more booze than predicted flowed into guests.


Eventually, the Peterson trio arrived, were regaled and refreshed, and Oscar sat at Brunner-Schwer’s stupendous Steinway while Brunner-Schwer manned the recording console in his attic. Peterson climbed to the attic to give the device a listen while Brunner-Schwer sweated in sight of Peterson’s paralysed face.  Suddenly Peterson said, “That doesn’t sound like a recording of a piano! It sounds like a piano!”


Soon thereafter, Peterson fans around the world knew Peterson’s sentiments that after a quarter-century of having his music recoredd, he had at last begun to make the real recordings he’d always wanted to, thanks to Brunner-Schwer’s recording device.


During a period when various otherwise unrecorded, even unattended, top class American musicians were visiting European festivals, or had settled in Europe, Brunner-Schwer could easily lure important musicians to his studio.  Such was the too-little-documented case of veteran pianist Milt Buckner, a major stylistic innovator and the object of a manhunt on Brunner-Schwer’s part – he must be recorded—before the pianist returned to USA.


Some of the musicians Brunner-Schwer captured included jazz violinist Stuff Smith as part of a violin summit, along with Stephane Grappelli, their Scandinavian contemporary Sven Asmussen, and Jean-Luc Ponty.  Ponty was then a young lion. He turns up on the film with a report of how the date went wrong but the project was saved because Brunner-Schwer had taped the concert at which these men performed solo with rhythm or in twos, threes, or all together.


Another major ensemble venture, with its own complex tale which can’t be reproduced here, was the wonderful big band co-led by the giant drummer Kenny Clarke and the French pianist-arranger Francy Boland. This was truly an all-star group with Sahib Shihab, Johnny Griffin, and Benny Bailey among the Europe-based Americans.  Among the Europeans were Scottish trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar and such English majors as Ronnie Scott, the altoist Derek Humble, and the drummer Kenny Clare (not to be confused with Kenny Clarke—each had his own kit in a two-drummer big band).


Brunner-Schwer was not only among the best-funded independent jazz label proprietors, he was also as incredibly artistically ambitious.  If MPS began on the model of the original recording companies that provided recordings to play on their own machines (G&T, for example, stood for Gramophone and Typewriter), he created a major jazz label covering the music’s wide range, be it ‘Prestige’ or ‘Contemporary’. He brought George Duke over to the pretty villages among the hills and trees, and asked him if there was any MPS artist he wanted to record with. Duke’s answer: Ponty.  So, too, he recorded Ponty on Ponty’s own very modern merits.


There’s so much detail—tributes and tales and comments—in this film, that one implication of the title winds up being almost hidden away rather than developed: the apparent incongruity of a jazz recording company that is comparable to the best, but is located in the rural borderlands of southwest Germany and Switzerland. But that is where the millionaire who loved jazz could be found. Brunner-Schwer created an independent label which produced hundreds of albums over 40 years, and quite a few of them very major ones.  That accomplishment would be remarkable no matter the locale.


There are two George Duke-related clips displaying amazing digital dexterity: one of Duke rehearsing at a keyboard, the other of a local lady preparing Spaetzle by taking skeins from the edge of a mass of noodle dough on a breadboard, and skimming them into a pan of boiling water. After trying these German noodles, Duke wouldn’t thereafter have a meal without them.


I don’t suppose skill like that shown by the film’s cook closed the noodle company whose disused factory became the MPS studio, where the mixing desk and console were brought through an upstairs window with a crane.  When Brunner-Schwer signed Friedrich Gulda, and began that not exactly predictable Austrian’s career with some Mozart recordings, he had to demolish a stair to install the grand piano. One grand which didn’t materialise was the cash advance of a thousand Deutsche Marks that Gulda asked to be paid. Gulda did, at last, get cash in hand after one gig, pocketed it, hailed a taxi, and used the money to pay for a long trip home to Vienna.


Brunner-Schwer personally supervised recordings of pianists and swing musicians dear to his soul, although his wife seems to have personally supervised the feeding and entertaining of more, when they weren’t filling themselves with home-made noodles a la George Duke. Brunner-Schwer also had a team—it was a most professional venture—with expert staff to handle what he thought important but wouldn’t handle himself. For example, when the German jazz guru Joachim Ernst Berendt had finally brassed off one man too many with too many avant-garde sessions, a fellow with little authority around the studio brought in friends over the weekend, gave them instruments they couldn’t play, recorded them blowing their awful sounds, and sent the tape to Berendt, claiming it was a new band from Prague. Berendt cabled back, “Sign them immediately!” and in the long term never forgave the joke.


Berendt lived into his 70s in prime condition, only to die suddenly in an auto accident. As did Brunner-Schwer too, in 2004, just past his 75th birthday. It seems odd, since Brunner-Schwer had been so fond of cars and owned so many himself. Speakers appearing in the film include Brunner-Schwer himself, as if not to lessen the shocking nature of his death; the English critic Mike Hennessey, recorded at different times and maybe not both specifically for this film (his looks change between the two); and Lee Konitz supposing himself clever for having composed a tune called “Feeling Villingen” (the “V” is indeed pronounced like an English “f” but Milt Buckner’s blues “Feeling Kinda Villingen” antedated Konitz’s title by some years). Wolfgang Dauner is there, as is Rolf Kuhn, who incredulously remembers that when he proposed something expensive to Brunner-Schwer, the answer was usually “Ja”. Nice to hear Kuhn’s clarinet. And more. And there’s longtime German resident Charlie Mariano, looking well in his trimly cropped 80s, intercut with his younger grey mop-head look. The pianist Georg Gruntz reminisces about the folk drumming of his native Basel and a project it inspired. God, it was lovely!


The last, and written, word is from the late Albert Mangelsdorff, major trombonist, who toured not so long ago in a Germany all-star veteran band, most members with immediate cause for gratitude to Brunner-Schwer. Mangelsdorff might well have known then, and when he spoke for this film, that he hadn’t long to live. He remembered his startling, entirely solo album (playing chords on trombone), and what he thought his best: with Alphonse Mouzon on percussion and Jaco Pastorius on fretless electric bass, one of the most impressive of several clips included. At the end of the film, Mangelsdorff’s words come up on screen. What would have happened to him, and to European jazz, without Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer?

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