Bengt Berger: folk-jazz pioneer /2

    Initially fired up by Elvin Jones, the Swedish drummer has added folk, classical and 'ethnic' colours to his musical palette. Part 2

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    Bengt Berger in the halo of the sun. Photo by Anna Inteman

    The year that Notes From Underground was recorded, Berger played with Don Cherry – who from 1965 to 1985 made Sweden his home – on the soundtrack to film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky spoke of the result as “ another kind of music – something that wasn’t entertainment, something that wasn’t a show, something that went to the soul, something profound”. A potent strain of what the jazz world would call “something else” also marked Berger’s work on another striking collaboration with Cherry at this time, the trumpeter’s genre-dissolving Eternal Now.

    Recorded in Stockholm in spring 1973, the highly atmospheric, spiritually charged and rhythmically compulsive music features Cherry on multiple instruments, including harmonium. Berger is on midrangam, piano, Tibetan bells and cymbals, as well as African finger-piano, while Christer Bothén contributes piano, dousso n’Koni and Tibetan bell and Agneta Arnström plays dousso Kynia (as well as Tibetan bell).

    One especially beautiful track, Love Train, features Rosengren – whose Stockholm Dues had concluded with his Tribute To Don – on tárogató. The rapt rubato intensity of Love Train would be reprised on See You In A Minute: Memories Of Don Cherry – Berger’s richly conceived 2005 production for Country & Eastern which featured, among others, Eagle-Eye and Neneh Cherry (v), Jonas Knutsson (s), Christer Bothén (dousso n’Koni, bcl) and Christian Spering (b).

    Berger has wondered whether the fact that there was a touch more Ed Blackwell than Elvin Jones to his playing might have been part of the reason why he and Don Cherry got along so well. Whatever: Cherry played an essential part in Berger’s development at this time – as he did for much Swedish jazz. Hear his Caprice Records Live In Stockholm sessions from 1968 and 1971 and the diverse material on Flash Music’s Brotherhood Suite from 1968-74 (with Rosengren present on both releases) as well as the related Organic Music Society cuts of 1971-72 (where Berger features, as do, e.g., Nana Vasconcelos, Christer Bothén and Okay Temiz) and Modern Art: Stockholm 1977 on Mellotronen. Cherry toured with Berger, Bothén and their colleague, the saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Kjell Westling, and would eventually contribute to Berger’s strongly North Ghanaian-inflected suite Bitter Funeral Beer, recorded in 1981 for ECM.

    So, how was it to work with Cherry? “Oh, mostly it was lovely. I learnt so much from him, and not just musically. Fortunately, most of the time we worked together he was in pretty good shape. You know, I’m pretty sure it was Don who first came up with the term ‘world music’. This was when an Italian journalist asked after a concert what it could be that Don and his colleagues had just played – because it surely wasn’t jazz. ‘Oh, no,’ said Don. ‘World music, that’s what we play now.’

    “I first met Don in 1969 after my return from India. He used to come up and sit in on Arbete och Fritid gigs and we soon starting playing quite often together. Don and his Swedish wife Moki bought an old school in Tågarp in the south of Sweden. I was there with them many times – Moki’s visual art contributed a lot to Don’s concerts, in which she also participated – and we would play and practise a lot.

    “On summer Sundays there were concerts in the school. The audience consisted of music lovers who travelled there as well as the farmers and other locals and the farming neighbours baked and sold coffee in the school yard. It was amazing to see how naturally the mix of really far-out or avant-garde things, simple songs and whatever guesting musicians might offer was accepted by the audience. Don really had a magical way to get everybody on the right track, whatever the level of musicianship or professionalism.

    “In 1980 we did a European tour with a large-ish group which included the Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper (Hung-a-che-eda, or Flying Eagle, in his native tongue). Don, who was part Choctaw, would play on Jim’s 1983 Comin’ And Goin’ on Antilles. That European tour was a bit special: among others, we had Jan Cherry on violin and David Ornette Cherry on keyboards, as well as the magician Abdul LaFraise and the mask dancer Binoche. You can see a recording of our July concert from Antibes on the Country & Eastern website. The visual quality of the video isn’t great, but the spirit is there. And there were some later concerts before Don went back to the States, like the 1982 Live In Frankfurt version of the Bitter Funeral Beer music.”

    The original 1981 recording of this now gravely beautiful, now up and irresistibly affirmative music – its ECM packaging featuring Berger’s fine sleeve photography – is one of several Berger releases of masterwork status. These include the 1975 collective quartet session with Bothén (ts, bcl, p, pc), Nikke Ström (elb, idiophone) and Westling (as, ss, bcl, f, vn, clo, p) which is Spjärnsvallet. Released on the small independent Musiknätet Waxholm label – and later reissued on Country & Eastern – Spjärnsvallet remains as shot through with what one can only call a glorious life-force as it was the day it was cut, with its incisive versions of Cherry’s Desireless and Ornette Coleman’s Orn 2 complementing many a lyrically compelling, diversely rendered folk melody underpinned by effervescent ostinato polyrhythms. The 1986 Praise Drumming by Berger’s Bitter Funeral Beer Band and the 2016 Beches Indian Brew are no less outstanding.

    Recorded by Jan Erik Kongshaug in Oslo’s famed Rainbow Studio and released on the eminent Dragon label, Praise Drumming contains some of Berger’s most imaginatively cast, energising and affecting writing for large ensemble. It includes Pire For Palme, a cello-fired threnody to the Swedish prime minister who was assassinated in Stockholm a bare month before the recording. Recorded three decades later for Country & Eastern, the Indian Brew music brought to full, multi-hued realisation the drummer’s long-time dream of synthesising his interests in Indian and West African music, as well as aspects of his own Swedish folk tradition, in music distinguished also by a refreshing and fruitful balance of gender in the personnel. While this album was recorded during a tour of Sweden, the Country & Eastern site has a number of excellent visual documentations of some of Berger’s appearances in India, with a medium-to-large Indian Brew ensemble and also his wide-ranging trio with Jonas Knutsson (s) and Christian Spering (b).

    Today, the many achievements of the Bitter Funeral Beer ensemble are being refigured and developed in the context of what Berger calls his new Cool Funeral Beer band. This recently played in Copenhagen to much acclaim. “We were in this grassed amphitheatre, which was great. I don’t call what we offer today ‘concerts’, but rather ‘open rehearsals’. It makes things more relaxed. And let’s face it, if you had had the choice of hearing Miles in concert or Miles rehearsing his band, what would you have preferred?

    “I have a large pool of musicians to draw upon, as so many can be busy with all sorts of projects: Lars Almqvist (t); Christer Bothén (bcl); Robin Cochrane (balaphone, pc); Signe Dahlgren (s); Marque Gilmore (pc); Thomas Gustafsson (s); Peter Janson (b, elb); Sir Thomas Jäderlund (s, bcl); Jonas Knutsson (s); Sigge Krantz (elg); Sten Källman (s); Marianne Nlemwo Lindén (v, pc); Emmanuelle Martin (v); Lise-Lotte Norelius (pc, electronics); Viktor Reuter (b, elb); Staffan Svensson (t); Mats Äleklint (tb, sousaphone).

    “Of course Covid has made the last two years very tough, especially for the younger generation. There are so many fine young players in Sweden now, especially women, who really deserve that things get better quickly. We can only hope that playing opportunities soon multiply. For myself, I remain busy with the Country & Eastern label. We have over 40 physical items now as well as some 30-plus digital releases. I hope that one day the Cool Funeral Beer project can become a three-day funeral celebration: The creation of the final ancestor shrine / The bathing of the widows / The settlement of the estate.”

    Around the time that Berger was born, his late compatriot, the poet Gunnar Ekelöf, had just had his great volume Ferry Song published. Music played a central role in Ekelöf’s life-long quest to find an a-religious and undogmatic way over to “the other side”. But this was a special kind of music. His advice, when one felt in need of sustenance of sound, was: “Turn to the wilderness / and you will perhaps even hear the forest’s gongs / if there is anything to you!”

    Whether realised on stage or in the recording studio, the music of Bengt “ Beche” Berger – a drummer of multivalent inspiration, who truly can play like the wind – would seem to contain all such deep within its most notable, even noble, poetics.

    See part 1 of this article