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Mulo Francel

Crossing Life Lines

by Ian Mann

October 07, 2020


This album represents a substantial piece of work as Francel and his colleagues embrace a variety of musical styles, bringing a tangible jazz sensibility to the music of Central and Eastern Europe.

Mulo Francel

“Crossing Life Lines”

(GLM Music FM 261-2)

Mulo Francel – tenor sax, soprano sax, clarinet
with; Phillip Schiepek – guitar, D.D. Lowka – bass, percussion, Sven Faller – piano, Izabella Efenberg – vibes, array mbira, Jiri Barta – cello, Bernd Lhotzky – piano, Stefan Noelle – drums, percussion, Diknu Schneeberger – guitar, Robert Kainar – drums & timbales

Mulo Francel is a German saxophonist and composer and his latest album release brings together a pool of musicians with biographical roots in Central and Eastern Europe. The recording celebrates seventy five years of peace between the countries of the participating musicians following the end of the Second World War in 1945.

The inspiration for the project came from a tour of the Czech Republic and Poland made by Francel’s band Quadro Nuevo. The saxophonist’s experiences on the tour raised in him the question; “How do I deal with the suffering caused by our grandfathers’ generation, do I address it, do I apologise? The end of the Second World War was 75 years ago. Gone are the occupation, the internment, the mass rapes and killings, the expulsions from the homeland. Finished. At least in central Europe and the bordering countries of Eastern Europe.” Francel arguably overlooks the Communist era that followed a little too easily, but we’ll let that pass.

With the history and the legacy of the Second World War in mind Francel began to seek out European musicians from the former Nazi occupied areas. “I was looking for musicians who understand my concern”, he explains, “who because of their biography have a sense for overcoming borders and building reconciling bridges between borders. People whose family DNA historically carries Slavic, Germanic, German-Bohemian, Czech-Bohemian, Sudeten German, Silesian,  Caucasian and Hungarian-Austrian roots, and both Jewish and Christian influences.

Among the pool of musicians chosen by Francel are the Polish vibraphonist Izabella Effenberg, who now lives in Nuremberg, and the Viennese guitarist Diknu Schneeberger, who has Jewish and Romany (Sinti) roots. These players seem to have been singled out as the embodiment of Francel’s message;

“Our music is a message”, states the saxophonist, “let us pass on our knowledge about the inestimable value of peace like a shining torch, by celebrating our encounters with respect and appreciation.”

He continues, “Regardless of their origin, the artists come together to create meaningful art via the languages of contemporary jazz and world music.
Here their lifelines cross. By meeting each other in their musical art, in their songs, songs inspired by the biographies and roots of the participants. It was important to me that each of these fantastic musicians could freely develop his or her creative power on the album”.

I have to admit to knowing precious little about Francel (born 1967) until the review copy of this CD arrived via the post, courtesy of the British organisation Jazzfuel. However he is clearly something of a star in mainland Europe and has appeared on more than forty recordings for a variety of labels, including GLM, ACT and Sony. He is best known as the leader of the popular and long running world jazz ensemble Quadro Nuevo (formed 1996), which also includes pianist David Gazarov and bassist / percussionist D.D. Lowka.

Turning now to this lavishly packaged new recording which includes an illustrated booklet explaining the inspirations and stories behind the individual tracks.

The programme commences with “Valse du Bohemien” Francel’s re-titled jazz arrangement of the classical piece “Moldau”, or “Vltava” by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetena. This is played by a sextet featuring the leader on tenor, Schiepek on guitar, Gazarov on piano, Faller on bass, Kainar on drums and Lowka on percussion.
The familiar piece is given a grooving arrangement in waltz time with Francel stating the famous melody before embarking on a more discursive solo. He’s followed by Schiepek on fluid guitar, a young musician of considerable promise. Gazarov subsequently takes over at the piano, before the sextet, led by Francel’s tenor, return to Smetena’s memorable and much loved theme.

Co-written by Francel and Lowka “Ada” is dedicated to the memory of Francel’s grandmother, who lived through both world wars but still retained her great love of life. This features a different line up with Lowka switching to bass and with Schiepek joined by his fellow guitarist Schneeberger. The line up also includes Effenberg on vibraphone, Lhotzky on piano and Noelle at the drums. Introduced by Lhotzky at the piano there’s a delightfully playful and ‘old school’ feel about the piece with solos coming from Effenberg on vibes, one of the guitarists on ‘gypsy jazz’ style acoustic (the other player is on rhythm), Lhotzky at the piano and finally the leader on tenor.

The album also includes Francel arrangements of jazz standards, including a jaunty take on the Jerome Kern / Buddy DeSylva song “Look for the Silver Lining”. This is played by a sextet featuring Francel on tenor, plus Schiepek on guitar, Lhotzky on piano, Lowka on bass, Noelle at the drums and Kainar specialising on timbales.
The song is given an unusual Latin / reggae style treatment with Francel’s sax sounding almost clarinet like at times. Lhotzky delivers an Afro-Cuban style piano solo over a reggae-fied groove. The album booklet reproduces the upbeat lyrics as Francel and his colleagues bring us something of that sun and silver lining.

This album is more than an excursion around Europe, it’s a veritable word tour with the next piece taking us to pianist David Gazarov’s home town of Baku. Co-written by Gazarov and Francel “Schaschlik” is a song written in the style of music played there at wedding and grill parties. “Composed of musical motifs of the multi-cultural Caucasian region, we had a lot of fun with this!” enthuses Francel.
The piece is performed by a sextet featuring the leader on soprano sax, Gazarov on piano, Faller on bass, Kainar at the drums and Lowka on percussion. With Francel and Gazarov doubling up on the slippery folk melodies there’s a real sense of place as the quintet race joyously through the tune. The individual solos from Francel and Gazarov are both stunning, captivating the listener with their energy and virtuosity.

Next up is a Francel arrangement of the jazz standard “Lover Man”, inspired by Billie Holiday’s 1945 version of the song. Here the line up is pared down to that of a classic jazz quartet with Francel on tenor, Gazarov on piano, Faller on bass and Kainar at the drums.
Introduced by Faller at the bass this is a classic jazz ballad performance with Francel’s tenor warm and fluent, his sumptuous sax solo followed by Gazarov’s bluesy, slightly subversive piano ruminations.

The same quartet remains in place for Francel’s composition “Blues in X Moll”. The album packaging tells the tale of Mr X. Moll, a trumpet player in an Eastern European Shtetl who played at marches, funerals, bar mitzvahs and parties.
Mixing playfulness with bluesiness the piece is a representation of Mr. Moll’s personality,  which is described in some detail in the short story that graces the album packaging. Fluent solos come from Francel on tenor and Gazarov at the piano, the latter inserting a playful, Monk like dissonance into his solo. Faller and Kainar provide witty rhythmic support, the pair occasionally coming to the fore.

Bassist Sven Faller composed “The Rabbi from Namyslow” and is dedicated to the “forefather” of the composer’s extended family, who is buried in the Jewish cemetery at Namyslow.
The performance features the composer on bass alongside Francel on clarinet, Schiepek on guitar, Kainar on drums and Lowka on percussion. The album notes also detail more of Faller’s family history and the music reflects the composer’s obvious affection for his family and his ancestors. Along the way the listener can enjoy concise solos from Francel on clarinet, Schiepek on guitar, Faller himself on bass, plus a brief cameo from Kainar at the drums.

Vibraphonist Izabella Effenberg wrote “Wiosna”, the title being the Polish word for the season of spring. The composer also plays the array mbira and the steel drum, bringing elements of Africa and the Caribbean to the music. Francel appears on soprano sax alongside Schiepek on guitar, Faller on bass and Kainar at the drums. The gently twinkling sounds of mbira and vibes introduce the song, seemingly announcing the arrival of spring. There’s an elegance and an essential joyousness about the music, embodied by the sound of Francel’s soprano sax. Solos come from Schiepek on guitar, Effenberg on both steel drum and vibes, Francel on soprano and finally Faller at the bass.

“Ein Sommertag” is an arrangement by Chris Wells of a composition by Hans Winterberg. Born in 1901 Winterberg was part of a Jewish family from Prague who was a citizen of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and then of Czechoslovakia before surviving the concentration camps and eventually settling in Bavaria, Germany where he worked with Sudeten German artists, winning the Sudeten German Culture Prize in 1963. His story raises many questions with regard to national identity.
The performance features Francel on tenor, Effenberg on vibes, Lhotzky on piano, Lowka on bass and Noelle at the drums. Lhotzky introduces the piece at the piano before Francel states the theme on tenor, shadowed by Effenberg’s vibes. Lhotzky takes the first solo, fluent and lyrical, followed by the more assertive and celebratory sound of Francel on tenor.

“September Remember” is a Francel composition that features Francel on tenor, Schneeberger on guitar, Lhotzky on piano, Lowka on bass and Noelle at the drums.
This has a deliberately ‘old fashioned’ feel about it, redolent of the dance halls and cafés of the 1930s,  as personified by France’s smokily seductive tenor and Schiepek’s languid, gypsy jazz style guitar solo. Lhotzky also features on flowingly lyrical piano.

“Sam s devcetem v desti” translates as “Alone with a girl in the rain” and is a dance song that was popular in Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the 1930s. Written by Kamil Behounek it has been arranged here by Francel and Leonhard Kuhn.
Cellist Jiri Barta joins the ensemble alongside Francel (tenor), Effenberg (vibes), Schiepek (guitar),
Lhotzky (piano), Lowka (bass) and Kainar (drums).
Again there’s an ‘old school’, almost courtly feel as Barta’s cello combines with Effenberg’s vibes and Francel’s tenor. The cellist continues to feature prominently in an arrangement that includes solos from Lhotzky at the piano, Francel on tenor and Barta himself as the music opens up,  becoming more exuberant and obviously danceable.

Faller takes up the compositional reins once more for “Naab”, named after a river in the Upper Palatinate Forest on the German / Czech border. The composer’s liner notes acknowledge the social damage done by the Iron Curtain years with the meandering river frequently bisected by the unwavering, ruler straight border.
The ensemble features the composer on bass alongside Francel (tenor), Effenberg (vibes), Schiepek (guitar), Gazarov (piano),  Faller (bass), Kainar (drums) and Lowka (percussion).
This is a more obviously contemporary composition that combines a fierce drive with a percolating rhythm that borrows from minimalism and approximates the sound of running/bubbling water. A suitably diverse and meandering composition incorporates solos from Gazarov at the piano, Effenberg on vibes and Schiepek on guitar, plus something of a feature for Kainar and Lowka on drums and percussion. For me this is a compelling piece of contemporary composition that contrasts well with the ‘old fashioned’ feel of some of the earlier performances.

“Frieda” is a composition by Schiepek that celebrates the memory of his late great grandmother, who died at the age of ninety, and her eventful and colourful life. This is performed by a quintet featuring the composer on guitar plus Francel (tenor), Effenberg (vibes), Faller (bass) and Kainar (drums).
Introduced by guitar and vibes, these subsequently joined by the warm tones of Francel’s tenor this is a suitably tender and respectful tribute that includes solos from Schiepek on guitar, Effenberg on vibes and Francel on tenor. Aside from Francel himself Schiepek is THE discovery of this album. He plays guitar, both electric and acoustic, in a variety of different styles, but always with an assured grace and with consummate skill. This piece also reveals him to be an accomplished composer. He’s definitely a musician to keep an eye on in the future.

The album concludes with “Fredinand’s Prelude”, an adaptation by Lhotzky of Frederic Chopin’s “E Minor Prelude” in the style of Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton. Chopin’s composition is a piece that holds considerable appeal for jazz musicians with Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Shavers and Eugen Cicero having previously offered their own interpretations of the work.
The performance here features a quartet comprised of Lhotzky (piano), Francel (tenor), Lowka (bass) and Noelle (drums).
Naturally Lhotzky, for me another exciting discovery, features prominently in the arrangement, alongside the leader’s tenor with Lowka and Noelle providing subtly nuanced rhythmic accompaniment.

With a total running time of over seventy five minutes this album represents a substantial piece of work as Francel and his colleagues embrace a variety of musical styles, bringing a tangible jazz sensibility to the music of Central and Eastern Europe.

All of the musicians impress with the quality of their playing and the engineering and production is also of the highest standard

“Crossing Life Lines” is often nostalgic in tone, but its music also has a contemporary resonance. It represents a celebration of what Francel describes as;
“A historically unprecedented peace, which is anything but granted. A peace that must be preserved”.

Amen to that.

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