Philipp Gropper’s Philm – Licht (2012)

Many are the jazz adventurers who have run aground on the rocky shoals of the Thelonious Monk sound.

They either come off as gimmicky impersonators, the portrait of studied eccentricity, or as well-meaning but genuinely confused – unsure of what to do with all of that dissonance. Philipp Gropper’s Philm gets it just right on Licht.

Gropper begins with “Synthesizer,” accompanying himself on saxophone through an angular double-tracked journey. When drummer Oliver Steidle joins in, it’s with an off-kilter abandon. Pianist Havard Wiik and bassist Andreas Lang echo Gropper’s sense lateral improvisational wonder, before Wiik steps forward with a series of unorthodox runs. Gropper’s return is, at first, like a moment of guttural consternation, before he begins working inside the folds of the displaced rhythms all around him. Wiik couples then decouples, and Gropper sounds – if only for a moment – like a lonely romantic. But, just then, Steidle brings his kit back to a rolling boil, and Gropper returns to his initial harmonic distortion as the track concludes.

The album’s title track charges in with a thrumming sense of urgency, instantly identifiable as having come from the Monk tradition – but at the same time restlessly allusive on its own. After Gropper scales and then descends, then scales and descends – sounding just like a sudden bolt of fear – “Licht” ultimately settles into a more conventional, if still eye-poppingly dynamic, propulsion. Cleverly arranged, this sounds more like “jazz,” but yet is remains enormously imaginative. Gropper’s solo is a fleet, chest-pounding romp, pushed along by Steidle’s insistent retorts.

“2-22” begins as another daring contretemps between Gropper and Wiik, and as they tangle, Steidle adds a stunning cacophony behind them. The results are among Licht’s most tension-filled passages. When Wiik initially comes to the fore, he plays with a pent-up abandon – spurring Gropper into a more contemplative tack. Suddenly, the sax isn’t emitting sheets of sound so much as these curly-cues of smoke. Lang and Steidle slow to an intermittent shamble, as Gropper offers a frankly gorgeous meditation. By the end, though, as Wiik returns, Gropper can’t help but push his horn to its outer limits once more – and there, through that slurring and grating, he’s inverting your expectations once again.

“Robot” sounds like a funky R&B tune that’s been cut up into pieces, catching what sounds – for a beat or two – like a grease-popping groove, only to stop dead. Then they start again, with Gropper honking happily along. Next, there’s stony silence. Then, it begins again. It’s a wholly authoritative performance from the rhythm section, which had to approximate something very similar to stop-and-go traffic on their instruments.

“Club 49,” on the other hand, begins with a weirdly transfixing ambient hum courtesy of Gropper, whose exhalations hang over this equally ominous piano figure. Lang and Steidle softly clang about, soon joined by Wiik, as Gropper continues along with his lengthy ruminations. Slowly, almost imperceptively at first, the composition begins to pick up steam, until finally the quartet has rejoined its earlier sense of dissonant abandon.

“Epilog” restates the album’s debt to Monk, in that it’s utterly oblique at first, but then Philipp Gropper’s Philm quickly reclaims its own frisky sense of originality for a final brilliant charge: Gropper offers a brawny sequence of shrieks and scronks, even as Wiik makes these dashing runs. As with so many moments of this album, the track reveals new treasures on repeating listens. Later, I became transfixed as Lang and Steidle answered back with these ruggedly individualistic splashes of color – all while keeping this adroit cadence.

It’s that kind of album, better each time you listen.

Somehow, and this is the magic of Licht, Philipp Gropper’s Philm has found a way to reference the improvisational genius of Monk, without forgetting the sense of adventure that always powered his best work. Along the way, they’ve made his ambitions – not just his sound – their own.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.