Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

April 19, 2013


Don't let the "S" word put you off, Heinen reworks Stockhausen's ideas comprehensively and this is a damn fine jazz album by a highly accomplished sextet.

Bruno Heinen Sextet


Babel Records BDV13119)

London based pianist Bruno Heinen made a favourable critical impression with his 2012 album “Twinkle Twinkle” (also Babel Records), a set of intriguing variations on the tune of the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. In the company of his Dialogues Trio, bassist Andrea Di Biase and drummer Jon Scott, plus guest Julian Siegel on reeds, Heinen cleverly fragmented and disguised the familiar wisp of melody to create a series of fresh compositions and group improvisations. 

The album was very well received and Heinen’s follow up presents another themed album, this time a reworking of avant garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Tierkreis” (or “signs of the Zodiac”). Now I’ll readily admit that the sight of Stockhausen’s name on the cover did rather fill me with a sense of foreboding. Back in my teenage years in the 1970’s myself and some of my contemporaries were briefly obsessed with the “Kraut Rock” of Tangerine Dream, Faust, Neu!, Kraftwek, Can, et al, desperately trying to prove our (pseudo) intellectual credentials to the massed hordes of T.Rex and Slade fans. Into this scene one of the guys introduced a record by Stockhausen (don’t ask me what it actually was), the spiritual father of the whole Kraut Rock thing. Frankly it was a step too far -  to virtually all our collective ears it was just horrible, totally unmusical and looking back I suspect that even the guy who brought it in didn’t really like it and was just trying to show off.  At that time it was totally beyond my understanding and I’ve paid Stockhausen precious little regard ever since. The point of all this is don’t let the “S” word put you off, Heinen reworks Stockhausen’s ideas comprehensively and this is a damn fine jazz album by a highly accomplished sextet. 

Heinen has a direct connection to Stockhausen through his parents, the cellist Ulrich Heinen and the violinist Jacqueline Ross. Both worked with Stockhausen in the 1970’s around the time of the writing of “Tierkreis”, originally a piece for twelve wind up music boxes, the twelve melodies being written on the “tone row” principle. Heinen’s father subsequently acquired four of the boxes and Heinen himself was recently given a fifth, the Aquarius box, which appears on this new recording.

“Tierkreis” is one of Stockhausen’s most popular works with the music box melodies subject to interpretation by other musical instruments and with Stockhausen happy for any combination of instruments to be used. Latterly the composer re-worked the piece for chamber, vocal and orchestral ensembles but Heinen’s version is believed to be the first for a jazz ensemble. Stockhausen’s brief instructions for the performance of the work were that the cycle should begin and end with the melody of the reigning star sign at the time of the performance. Heinen’s recording took place in April 2012 and the album thus begins and ends with “Aries”. A live performance of the piece by Heinen and his sextet at the Vortex in Dalston, London in September 2012 ( reviewed by Tim Owen on his Dalston Sound website thus began and ended with “Virgo”, evidence that “Tierkreis” is a living and breathing work of art.

This recording is Heinen’s second setting of the piece having also arranged it for a performance for cello, double bass and piano, the featured cellist being his father Ulrich, principal cellist of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The jazz sextet recording has been endorsed by Stockhausen’s son, the trumpeter and composer Markus Stockhausen and features Heinen on piano together with his Dialogues Trio colleagues Di Biase and Scott plus three horn players in the shape of Fulvio Sigurta (trumpet), Tom Challenger (tenor sax) and James Allsopp (bass clarinet). It is dedicated to Heinen’s former teacher, the late Pete Saberton, who died in 2012.

Heinen explains that certain movements feature the sextet improvising with the melodies of the music boxes whilst others involve the process of re-harmonising. In his review for Dalston Sound Tim Owen concluded that the resultant music seemed to owe as much to Wayne Shorter as Stockhausen, a fact that should encourage jazz listeners to seek out and persevere with this remarkable record.

Opener “Aires” begins with the sound of a music box being wound up followed by its other worldly tinklings. Heinen seems to listen to this and then extemporise on the melody at the piano, effectively duetting with the music box. The effect is strangely beguiling, almost hypnotic, as the music box slowly fades away leaving Heinen alone at the piano, his gently lyrical probings effectively becoming a kind of overture for the music to follow.

“Taurus” begins with the dance and chatter of Scott’s drums in jaunty simulation of the mechanical sounds of the music boxes, a sound that then extends into sparky rhythmic dialogue with Heinen and Di Biase with the pianist’s left hand particularly busy. It’s playful, pithy and highly rhythmic and offers proof to any doubters that Stockhausen can actually be fun!

The horns are introduced to the proceedings on “Gemini” which becomes a beautiful, smouldering jazz ballad featuring the smoky sound of Challenger’s tenor sax and the deliciously rounded tones of Di Biase’s bass.

“Cancer” shows Heinen moving further away from his source and edging ever closer to jazz on a lively piece that features the bright and eager trumpeting of Sigurta and the leader’s own piano on a lively piece that seems to combine Blue Note sensibilities with more contemporary ideas and grooves. The piece also includes a drum solo from the always inventive and colourful Scott. 

The following “Leo” remains firmly in jazz territory albeit more freely structured and with a bustling bass/drums undertow. Solos come from Challenger on garrulous tenor and Sigurta on trumpet, gently exploratory at first and later more assertive, once more exhibiting that bright, incisive tone.

Sigurta’s extraordinary technical abilities are again in evidence on “Virgo”, a brooding duet with Heinen featuring darker tones and longer lines. In this exposed chamber like setting both trumpeter and pianist excel themselves with the sound of one of Stockhausen’s music boxes arriving mid tune to add a decidedly other worldly feel to the proceedings.

“Libra” also features a music box, this time it’s drummer Jon Scott who enters into “dialogue” with it as the album begins to establish a pattern of alternating set pieces for individual soloists with fully formed band pieces. The following “Scorpio” falls into the latter camp with Di Biase and Scott establishing an unexpected funk groove which is enhanced by percussive piano and punchy unison horns. The first solo comes from Allsopp on woody bass clarinet, making his strongest contribution so far and sounding almost Dolphy-esque. He’s followed by Sigurta on trumpet, delicately probing above a more freely structured backdrop, and then by Heinen himself before the funk groove returns by way of resolution.

The Dialogues Trio remain at the core of the recording and “Sagittarius” is a feature for the solo bass of Di Biase, his sound veering between deeply resonant pizzicato and alternately grainy and eerie arco. It’s both impressive and highly effective.

“Capricorn” is another “set piece” this time for the horns who intertwine delicately and sinuously both with themselves and the sometimes accompanying music box.

A third set piece features Heinen duetting with a music box, the pianist matching the mechanical timbres with ethereal sounds of his own, some derived from the piano’s innards. Like so many of the “set piece” vignettes that punctuate the album it’s a strangely compelling listening experience. Ditto “Pisces” for what sounds like double tracked bass clarinet.

As stipulated by Stockhausen the recording ends as it began with “Aries”, this time offering an alternative look at the theme with the music box supplemented by piano and bowed bass plus a splash of colour from the drums.

I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this record. There are some fine individual moments but these are fully integrated into a whole that stays close to the spirit of Stockhausen yet owes much to the vision of Heinen. The solo pieces are all pithy and cogent and absorb the listener’s attention throughout and the ensemble performances are equally impressive. This project has obviously been a labour of love for Heinen and his attention to detail is crucial to the success of the album. However the playing of his colleagues is equally vital with each soloist making maximum use of the improvisatory space allotted to them, there are some excellent solos throughout the album. Heinen himself takes a relatively egoless approach, placing himself at the heart of the ensemble and soloing judiciously. To these ears it’s a more fully realised album than the earlier “Twinkle Twinkle” and one which confirms that Bruno Heinen is becoming an increasingly significant figure on the UK jazz scene. 

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