So much has been written about Embryo that bringing it onto the pages of Sonic Asymmetry could even be deemed superfluous. Spanning almost 4 decades, the creative persona of Christian Burchard, a drummer and vibraphonist, has inspired two generations of artists from several musical traditions. From Morocco to India and from Nigeria to Turkey, Embryo never ceased to look for that perfect cocktail of polymetric narratives, timbral exoticisms and figurative improvisation. These valuable efforts have invariably bathed deep inside a cauldron of spirited pancultural communication and cross-pollination.
Influenced early on by the unlikely combination of Mal Waldron’s exile jazz and Munich’s wacky improvised rock scene, Burchard was fortunate enough to agglomerate a core of fellow travelers who contributed hugely to the band’s immortality. Guitarist Roman Bunka, and saxophonist and violinist Edgar Hoffmann were the key forces that managed to propel the caravan in times of recurrent and well-deserved fatigue. Charlie Mariano, a well-known jazz figure, further enriched Embryo’s heritage.
The record presented here, published only several years ago, documents a hitherto unknown phase of the band at the crepuscule of its vintage inventiveness. These live recordings were taped only two months after the first perilous “sell-off” LP – something that major labels imposed on the most talented bands in the wake of the first oil (and therefore vinyl) shock. “Invisible Documents” is a testimony to the creativity of the underground band that was forced, for several years, to come out in someone else’s skin whenever appearing over-ground. Happily for Sonic Asymmetry, that unlucky period did not last long and Embryo’s re-birth was spectacular. We will certainly come back to its epiphenomena one day.
We are in Hamburg’s “Fabrik”, September 1974, watching a rump Embryo. Just as we walk in, a repetitive, almost cavalier jazz guitar à la Lifetime fends off advances from a strangled soprano sax. Very early on for a public performance, we are served with a drum solo and then a drum and percussion duo – skins courtesy Christian Burchard and bells from Roman Bunka. Edgar Hoffmann’s soprano saxophone injects short squeaks into this well-behaved racket. Bunka puts in some Latin accents on the dull, non-resonant bells, poles apart from an almost cymbal-less drum galore. The duo climaxes and ends unusually, with orientalizing violin from Hoffmann. Two or three phrases leave us with little doubt that Hoffmann must have enjoyed Indian sarangi playing. This is surprising – at that time Embryo was yet to embark on its first venture into India. The violin loses its distinctiveness in higher registers, where Hoffmann often penetrates. Meanwhile, Norbert Dömling’s bass is unobtrusive and will remain so throughout this concert, but it does help Burchard with articulation. A nervous high-hat squashing and guitar crescendo will eventually drown the violin. Unimpressive vocal calls allow the machine to accelerate and Bunka to proceed in solo mode. The fast pace of his guitar solo spans the rock and fusion formats, engraving a territory of his own. The bass becomes more prominent and quasi-melodic, whereas the effects from the gritty guitar are now more diverse, with a slower release. The rhythmic groove flows organically until the soprano sax ushers in the closing section. The locus is the theme that we hardly recall from the intro. Guitar and sax etch this plastic matter, sometimes in holistic unison, sometimes as a cluster of separate strokes. Here the track ends as if the Revox reel had run out of tape…
This half-an-hour improvisation unfolds slowly from a forest of shakers, brake drums and cabazas of nearly Art Ensemble of Chicago – like density. Finally, a small-toned marimba will apportion equatorial temperature, clearing the veld for an agitated saz. This long-necked, fretted instrument of Turkish origin has a fuzzy, muddled flavor, even though Bunka always appears keen to hammer down the expressway of his chordal exploration. In the meantime, an always collectively-minded Burchard opts for a very simple figure on marimba. An alluvial flute forces its way into this interplay, compressing the saz part into hallucinogenic micro-helixes around the robust core of marimba. Throughout his pyrotechnic exposé, Bunka stays obediently within the metric code provided by Burchard’s gradated idiophonic attractor. When the flute briefly vanishes, the duo between marimba and amplified (?) saz enters a tawheed territory. The flute later returns, but misses the point completely, failing to rise to the religiosity of the occasion. With the change of guard, the drumset replaces the marimba and the soprano substitutes for the flute. Quieter, snaky passage leads into a dark corridor where the origins of various sounds are of uncertain origin. We can only surmise their epidermic, valvate or diodic provenance. Scraggy, porous, cinderblock soprano disambiguates this enigma and enters a new space within its lukewarm, low base register. An almost invisible Dömling intones a familiar ethno-funk bass phrase (probably from “Holy Ghost”). The others follow, in an elliptic, potentially endless fashion. The electric guitar is, naturally, the most nimble of all the participants in this 8-beat long, revolving structure. Later Dömling reprises the figure at double-speed and the soprano squawks in a fidgety manner, as if to avoid full involvement. Cut.
This is a type of jam that Embryo, groping for direction, perfected from mid-1970s onwards; it is based on a sequence of various bass figures, with little logical or diachronic connection. Early on, a very basic drum’n’bass flow gives us some misleading cues for the daunting 36 minutes to come. The soprano sax flounders under some crunchy accents from the guitar. This now will be Dömling’s only moment in the limelight on this recording, as elsewhere he is usually squeezed into a basic ostinato between a very expansive drummer and an occasionally greedy guitarist. His cameo appearance in Embryo saga was sandwiched between Uwe Mullrich and none other than Uli Trepte, and so his shyness shows here. Twist, shake and we are in a plunky funk mode with recurring time signature shifts around the refrain – somewhat of an Embryonnic trademark. Burchard’s indistinguishable vocalizing and soprano saxophone squeals alternate for a while. Hoffmann’s is a Bb soprano, pitched an octave below the Eb variant and much warmer in the middle register that he typically prefers. But nothing lasts here. The way the ungainly sub-sections connect brings back the memories of live rock medleys from before the sampler era. The next part is more jagged and overdependent on the saxophone and the guitar, leaving too much vacancy. This is a tendency that Embryo unfortunately perfected in its least innovative era between 1975 and 1978. Regrettably, this is also the least inspired moment of this recording, but it soon segues onto a “song” and ends on a higher sax note with a more relaxed wah-wah guitar. Then the drummer speeds up. Bunka picks up cowbells. The sax quacks, distinctively edgy, almost shrill, and occasionally muted (a cup?). A melodic guitar/bass rock theme crashes in. Clearly, the loop pedals were not yet available because when the guitar goes solo, the background is occupied squarely by the hard-working bass hand. The dynamic ebbs a little, just enough to cramp some rarefied lyricism from the guitar. But the morphology of this musical body is a medley. Faster time keeping will provide a different easel for Bunka’s improvised art. One or two bass themes later, the “vacant” part returns. It is problematic. There is simply too much space, devoid of proper use of silence, syncopation, or a properly amplified and articulated bass figure. Luckily, Bunka graces us with several valuable seconds of his guitar orientalism. His knowledge of Middle Eastern string instruments makes him a natural heir to (US) Kaleidoscope and Orient Express. There is even that short Cippolina quote in which the sustained twang is allowed to scale up to the instrument’s top pitch in little more than a second. And from there, we are back in a de-clustered funky land. Hoffmann is back on his suffocating soprano and, for a moment, a guitar and drum duo exposes its mellower jazz side, pruned as fast as it appears. The endomorphic closing is formless, and seemingly exhausted, but the guitaris will strike out a farewell that prefigures his solo exploits several years later.
Roman Bunka’s masterful oud solo explores the Nahawand mode. The notes are occasionally bent, except in skilful run-ups, with limited reverb. Hoffmann’s flute operates in a more familiar, Western scale, but the roles are not clearly distributed between the two instruments. It is like a casual, hushed conversation in the early afternoon when everyone is seeking shade and daily activities slow down to absolute necessities. The flute silences it all in an almost baroque Rameau style.
Shine of Walt Dickerson
Post-bop vibraphonist Walt Dickerson died three weeks ago (May 15, 2008). His most memorable contributions were with John Coltrane and Sun Ra. It remains to be established how strong his influence was on Christian Burchard. Walt Dickerson R.I.P.
The track opens with a solo vibraphone, poised, exploratory, clean, but not crystallographic. The vibrato is well controlled. Burchard is comfortable with tremolos and grunts occasionally, but white noise glissando is almost entirely absent in his play. After a while, Bunka’s guitar thickens shadowy harmonic background and Hoffmann joins on low-key soprano in low register, while Dömling takes care of muted agogo bells and shakers. Once the entire quartet is back alive, Burchard moves over to cymbals, generating succulent overtones. The guitar/soprano unison is quite unique, with the more mobile guitar making shorthand commentaries on saxophone’s soaring lines. Here again, the bass is very sparse, almost imperceptible in this exchange between guitar and soprano. Hoffmann’s tone color is excellent, but he avoids rapid skips – so tempting on this instrument, and leaves ramp-ups to Bunka. Here the recording ends abruptly.
Embryo’s discography is extensive, though mostly dominated by immortalized live jams, many of which are of highest quality. With the possible exception of the quirky indo-funk period (1975-78), and possibly the heavily “African” recordings in the mid-1980s, most of their output is highly recommended. Positions 2, 3, 4, 5 and 9 best document the young band’s exploratory transition from an early rock format to a unique ethno-jazz concoction. Position 15 documents their legendary voyage to Central and South Asia (also on dvd). From the later recordings, positions 18, 21, 22, 23 and 30 are of highest quality and blend many other Asian and neo-psychedelic styles.
1. EMBRYO with Mal WALDRON: “For Eva” (1968)
2. EMBRYO: “Opal” (1970)
3. EMBRYO: “Embryo’s Rache” (1971)
4. EMBRYO: “Bremen 1971” (1971)
5. EMBRYO: “Steig aus” (1971, 1972)
6. EMBRYO: “Father, Son & Holy Ghost” (1972)
7. EMBRYO: “Rocksession” (1972)
8. EMBRYO: “We Keep On” (1972)
9. EMBRYO: “Invisible Documents” 2CD (1974)
10. EMBRYO: “Surfin’” (1974)
11. EMBRYO: “Bad Hats and Bad Cats” (1975)
12. EMBRYO: “Live” (1976)
13. EMBRYO: “Apo-calypso” (1977)
14. EMBRYO: “Anthology” (1970-1979)
15. EMBRYO: “Embryo’s Reise” 2LP (1978, 1979)
16. EMBRYO & KARNATAKA COLLEGE: “Life” (1980)
17. EMBRYO: “La blama sparozzi” (1979, 1981-1982)
18. EMBRYO: “Zack Glück” (1984)
19. EMBRYO: “Africa” (1985)
20. EMBRYO: “Yoruba Dun Dun Orchestra” (1985)
21. EMBRYO: “Turn Piece” (1989)
22. EMBRYO: “Ibn Battuta” (1990-1993)
23. EMBRYO: “Ni hau” (1992, 1995-1996)
24. EMBRYO: “Istanbul Casablanca” 2CD (1998)
25. EMBRYO: “Live in Berlin” (1998)
26. EMBRYO: “One Night in Barcelona” (1999)
27. EMBRYO: “2000, Live vol.1” (2000)
28. EMBRYO: “2001, Live vol.1” (2001)
29. EMBRYO: “Hallo Mik” (2002, 2003)
30. EMBRYO & NO NECK BLUES BAND: “EmbryoNNCK” (2004)
Some unique tracks are available on concert compilations, such as “Umsonst und Draussen” (1970s), “F/E/A/R This” (1980s) and “Open Air Herzberg” (1990s). They have a high documentary value for all Embryologues worldwide.