Reviews by Massimo Ricci

The A23H chronicle


ALFRED HARTH - eShip sum (1000 CD)

Mother of pearl is very much loved by Alfred Harth, for several reasons. The inlays of the 23 keys in his saxophone, first of all; also, the traditional Corean artworks, attentively studied by our man. The first CD in his "mother of pearl" series, whose cover represents longevity, sun and moon through symbols made of the same material, "eShip sum" (2003) is also one of his most accomplished and beautiful records, being veiled with deep consciousness and permeated by a lingering sadness that no irony can overcome. Limited to 1000 signed copies (of which Mr.23 has still a few left - act now), it was composed in Harth's own Laubhuette Studio in Seoul and represents his homage to Corea and "its virtues and beauties". Besides the boss, who played about ten instruments and fine-tuned all the parts into cohesion, Choi Sun Bae's cornet is featured in four tracks while Yi Soonjoo lends her voice and Joe Foster his cornet, one track each. The first pieces are so intensely profound that alone are worth of owning the record. "Sejongno Boulevard" is, as Harth describes it, the "Champs Elysees of Seoul"; its melancholy is elicited by recurring piano chords that, remaining undercurrent throughout the piece, define a sort of "jazz minimalism" upon which the reeds describe a crepuscular atmosphere with very sensual slow lines, multitracked in hypnotic fashion; a splendid opening. "Neoview Mine" is a thoughtful reflection for bass clarinet that after a few measures flows into a pastiche of sampladelia and circular repetition, yet maintaining the mood on the sombre side, while in "Der Feinheit Wesentliches" more sax superimpositions intertwine with a McCoy Tyner-like pianistic progression that halfway through the piece becomes a hiccuping loop upon which muted trumpet lines and vocal moans go hand in hand. Things move faster in "Celadon", which is the name of the ancient Corean art of porcelain (whose fruits, according to the author's view, were mostly stolen during the Japanese occupation from 1906 to 1945) and above all in "De gloria Oliviae", a peculiar cross-pollination of sequenced techno-dissonance and snippets of orchestral music, reminiscent of black-and-white movie soundtracks, that morphs into a gorgeous layering of strings, reeds and car horns blemished by studio-conceived interferences. "Godswing" sounds like a Coltrane cut-up in a muffled mix, swarmed by an army of voices and reversed tapes that ends in pure mayhem, while another milestone of the album is "Buy the way", a slow "ballad" where a voice that I perceive as familiar (Chet Baker?) mumbles a few words before Harth tears our heart out with a sorrowful, if oblique recollection of unknown memories. "Shambhala" could inculcate a few notions of mentally disturbed ambient muzak to many dilettantes, being a fabulous voyage through the oneirism of our unconfessed radiophonic fantasies: from warm psychedelic illusions to fractured post-jazz rock in two minutes. "Leganza Daewoo Call Taxi" would make Glenn Miller proud at first, angry at last (picture a sci-fi variation on "Moonlight Serenade" bothered by alien videogames), and the conclusive "Nitya-mukta" is Alfred's response to lounge music, in his hands becoming an obsessive nightmare, a never ending two-chord samba danced by a couple of drunkards at 4 in the morning. But the bar has already closed and the orchestra didn't realize it. Fabulous stuff - give me this over Arto Lindsay anytime. How do you spell "delightful" in Corean?

In Touching Extremes



"I want more POPEYE", writes Alfred Harth. "Possessing uncompromising moral standards and resorting to force when threatened". He also refers to "my artist's way through postmodernism", which at the beginning of the 90s brought him to grow tired of "all those mixes, remixes, postmodernisms and pop" that he had gone through during the previous decade: he was ready to return to a "pure" approach, essentially based on real players and real instruments. Enter Russian drummer Vladimir Tarasov from the Ganelin Trio, a long-time admirer of Harth, met for the first time in 1992 when Mr.23 was invited by Moscow TV for a program about him; the next character after his portrait would be none other that Popeye the Sailor (hence the album's title, a word game with the ironical "end" of the "pop phase" of Alfred's career). Tarasov had imported all the early Harth albums in the USSR, contributing to make him a Michael Jackson-like star in the Northern area of the country; playing together became a necessary consequence. The QuasarQuartet, formed by the saxophonist in the same year, sees Harth on tenor sax and bass clarinet and Tarasov on drums and percussion, plus the fabulous pianist Simon Nabatov and the excellent Vitold Rek on bass. "POPendingEYE" features two half-hour tracks in which everything (Coltrane-derived ascensions, logical freedom, contaminations of marching band rhythms, folk melodies, pyrotechnical pianism, sadly pensive reed lines) obeys to a logic that's inspired by Harth's idea of "opening to the East": in fact, besides this new musical situation, he met his current partner - South Korea's visual artist Soonjoo Lee - right at that time (hers is Alfred's photo gracing the digipak). Even the track titles, "1st2nd3rd&4th" and "BukzokWestWostokSude", respectively refer to the world's divisions ("...we know what the 3rd world is, but which would be the 1st?" says Harth) and to a mixture of Korean and English language to describe directions. And many directions this music points at, with a stimulating alternance of high-charge improvisations and melodic crystals that doesn't remind us about the players' originary lands, but it rather stands as a primary example of reciprocal instant comprehension: no language is a barrier when the instruments are the ones doing the talking. "POPendingEYE" - a meaningful record in the free music scene of the early 90s - has remained pretty obscure despite its quality; but it sure helped Alfred Harth to be "strong to the finish", as the Sailor himself would have it. The fact is, his creativity shined then and it still does. What finish, then? And what's your favourite brand of spinach, Alf?

In Touching Extremes