On Mikrojazz, their cutting edge joint project for RareNoiseRecords, German saxophonist Philipp Gerschlauer and guitarist David Fiuczynski explore the world of music that falls between the cracks of the tempered scale. Joined by jazz drumming legend Jack DeJohnette, fretless electric bassist Matt Garrison and microtonal keyboardist Giorgi Mikadze, this daring crew creates dreamy, otherworldly soundscapes on tunes by Gerschlauer like aptly-titled "Hangover" and "LaMonte's Gamelan Jam" along with a swinging microtonal tune "Mikro Steps" and other originals like Fiuczynski's "MiCroY Tyner", Zirkus Macabre and "Lullaby Nightmare".
Fiuczynski, who heads up the Planet MicroJam Institute at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, previously released two microtonal recordings on RareNoise - 2012's Planet MicroJam, which opened a Pandora's Box on non-Western tuning, and 2016's Flam! Blam! Pan-Asian MicroJam!, which was jointly dedicated to 20th century classical composer Olivier Messiaen and innovative hip-hop record producer JDilla. Gerschlauer, who was inspired by French composer Gérard Grisey and Paul Desmond had been independently exploring the world of microtonal music in Berlin and New York before developing a method of dividing an octave (12 notes in equal temperament) into 128 notes on the alto saxophone.
"I started to use microtones on the saxophone about ten years ago," Gerschlauer explained. "I wanted to extend the harmonic and melodic language which was used in jazz music so far. I began noticing that the regular piano and keyboards could not provide the full harmonic and melodic spectrum that was needed for my compositions. So five years ago, I decided to also develop my own microtonal keyboard which now fills this gap. The tunings and programming I am using are a complete novelty in a jazz context. When I found out about David and what he is doing, I naturally was very excited and it made sense that we would be meeting and playing at some point."
This meeting of the minds was jump-started when Fiuczynski invited Gerschlauer to Berklee to present his music, talk about playing microtonal saxophone and playing with Berklee's resident Planet MicroJam Ensemble. "David and I had already been in an intensive email correspondence on microtonal music, so I knew that he was combining jazz with microtones and that his music was really grooving," said the saxophonist. "I couldn't wait to meet him in person and felt honored by the invitation to hold a workshop there. I was pleased to find out that David's microtonal ensemble at Berklee sounded great! You could hear right away that they played and rehearsed on a regularly basis. I think it's awesome that such a band can exist in a university context."
For Fiuczynski (aka Fuze), this collaboration with Gerschlauer was marked by a kindred connection that was apparent from the outset because of their mutual interest in melding micro- jazz and grooves. "Just as there are jazz and classical snobs and uptight indie rockers, there are many divisions in microtonality," he said. 'I've had plenty of micro-snobs turn me away because I was injecting a groove element into microtonality. But Philipp was stunned at how I was using grooves and coloring microtones in a completely unique way, and I was intrigued by how he was working with a very high order of microtones - 128 notes per octave and untempered - amazing! So we decided to join forces because both had something to offer to the other."
Fiuczynski has been operating on the fringe for decades, flaunting mondo-chops with his avant- jazz-funk band Screaming Headless Torsos in the early 1990s, as a member of Hasidic New Wave in the late '90s and in collaboration with keyboardist John Medeski on 1994's Lunar Crush and subsequently with his KiF trio and experimental Black Cherry Acid Lab. A longtime exponent of the fretless guitar, his wicked whammy bar articulations over the years have gone well beyond the 12-tone Western chromatic scale. In more recent years he's been studying microtonal music in a more formal sense while also experimenting with a quarter tone guitar.
Perhaps eerie-sounding, unsettling and 'out of tune' to Western ears, microtonal music, which employs intervals smaller than a semitone, has nonetheless been around since the Hellenic civilizations of ancient Greece and continues to be prevalent in musical cultures around the world today from India to the Balkans to China, Turkey and Africa.
As Fiuczynski noted, "When taken outside of the context of blues, gamelan, Middle Eastern music - in other words the 'micro' sounds we're used to - it can be jarring, especially since we're doing microtonal harmony. You don't hear harmony in East Asian and Middle Eastern music. At times it's polyphonic but harmonies are incidental. Microtonal harmony started with Julian Carillo, Alois Haba, Ivan Wyschnegradsky (and also Charles Ives) in the first half of the 20th century. These are our microtonal classical forefathers. But what Mikrojazz does - and I've done this on Planet Microjam and FLAM! - is jazz microtonal chord scales. This is fairly new, I don't really know anyone else doing this. And when you play those microtonal melodies and then you stack them in harmony, it can certainly throw you for a loop."
"I can't understand why the wide majority of jazz musicians is still using only 12 notes per octave," Gerschlauer added. "I feel we are stuck in this system because there aren't many people who seriously think about this. Art has always been a reflection on the time it is created in. The Zeitgeist or 'sign of the time' we live in is rapid communication and innovation and artists should be the interpreters of this Zeitgeist. I feel this is my mission. Microtones build the foundation of my scale and harmonic language. None of the pitches I am using fits into our predominant tone system. And I believe that due to it's physiology, the ear finds justly tuned chords more consonant than other tunings. Hermann von Helmholtz suggested in his book On the Sensations of Tone that there is a direct link between the physics of a sound wave, the physiology of our ears, the reception in our brain and music theory. This opened up a field of study for me. When I listened to the opening chord of Grisey's "Partiels" it hit me like a wave. Microtonality is the sound of TODAY, of NOW! This is how today, the time we are living in, sounds like and I hope that when people will hear this music, they will realize how rigid the predominant tuning system is."
Kindred spirits Fiuczynski and Gerschlauer dive headlong into the microtonal pool on Mikrojazz and are ably supported in their explorations by the empathetic crew of DeJohnette, Garrison and Mikadze. As an added visual treat, each piece on Mikrojazz, which is subtitled Neue Expressionistische Musik, meaning 'new expressionist music', is paired with expressionist paintings by the likes of Georg Grosz, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, August Macke, Egon Schiele, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Jean Michel Basquiat and more. "Both Philipp and I grew up in Germany and expressionist painting is an influence, certainly for me," said Fiuczynski. "I do consider myself to be a Black German expressionist and those paintings are major influences. The jagged forms, the intense colors and the African-American elements (Basquiat) and other non-Western elements that influenced many German expressionists are kind of a visual summary of what I do. I feel very 'Black'' when listening to James Brown or playing with Jack DeJohnette, but I feel very 'German' when injecting microtonality and jagged lines and so forth. It's a personal thing, I don't have a rationale for this, I'm just reacting."
"So Mikrojazz is about our affinity with expressionism, something that's been close to my heart for a while," Fiuczynski said of his joint effort with Gerschlauer. "I love painting in general, but particularly expressionist painting. We've paired paintings with our music in a very intuitive manner, based more on emotions than literal or direct connections. It's literally a personal EXPRESSION of our music and art."
Regarding the provocative music heard throughout Mikrojazz, Fiuczynski believes it just might be, to borrow the title of a 1959 Ornette Coleman album, The Shape of Jazz to Come. "I would like to think that Western microtonality is an evolutionary extension of 20th century music, and since our 12 note per octave musical language is becoming exhausted and repetitive, I think microtonality is a very natural and necessary musical development," he said. "Here is where Philipp and I can contribute the most to the evolution of jazz and hopefully bring new insights and perspectives to the art form. I think this record will change the way people hear and listen to music."
Bold words from a bold visionary. But he delivers once again in this microtonal meeting of the minds with the amazing Mr. Gerschlauer.