One of the joys of being able to play vinyl again on my restored turntable is that I have finally been able to listen to Hans Koller’s marvellous 3-LP collection Retrospection on the Stoney Lane label.
It’s a wonderful presentation of the range of Koller’s music. It shows how his writing for large ensembles and the full blown big band has really blossomed in the 2010s and how he taken the tradition of large ensemble writing of Gil Evans and Mike Gibbs and given us his own interpretation of that tradition. Koller has worked closely with Gibbs, both as a tutee and as the one who has instigated the various tours of UK that Gibbs has taken in recent years. Koller’s writing shows a strong influence from Gibbs, but is gentler, making less use of the brass section and providing really appropriate contexts for the various soloists featured on the albums. Koller also likes to return to tunes from the 40s and 50s era; Lennie Tristano’s East 32nd Street and Charlie Parker’s Ah-leu-cha are on Retrospection1 and Herbie Nichol’s The Gig is on Retrospection 2. On these tunes the ensemble writing reminds me of the sound of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool album on which Gil Evans presence and influence was dominant. Koller also acknowledges a strong influence from composer George Russell though that seems less immediately apparent on these albums.
Retrospection 1 features a 13-piece band with Steve Swallow featured on electric bass who adds an elegant solo on one track and some lovely interactions with the brass soloists on others. The band is largely UK-based apart from Swallow and the Paris based French-Canadian Francois Theberge on tenor saxophone, and it is notable that Koller provides brilliant settings for largely mid-generation musicians. Trumpeters Percy Pursglove, Chris Batchelor and Robbie Robson, trombonist Mark Nightingale, French horn player Jim Rattigan, saxophonists Julian Siegel, Francois Theberge and Finn Peters all excel when featured, and it is good to hear them in such a rich setting. It is especially pleasing to hear Peters’ extended feature on Automat as we do not hear so much of his playing these days. Drummer Jeff Williams drives it all along with great strength showing how good a large ensemble drummer he is. He also provides one of the tunes: Fun House Living.
Retrospection 2 shows in Koller’s writing a stronger influence from Gil Evans’ writing, in both the early writing for the Birth of the Cool session, but also Evans’ later more orchestral sessions with soloists such as Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley et al. Four of the tunes are settings for translations of poems by the German Friedrich Holderlin beautifully interpreted by Christine Tobin. The album is also
a feature for the two nicely contrasting guitars of Jakob Bro from Denmark and Phil Robson from UK. Again the band is mostly from that excellent British mid-generation of players who came between the Loose Tubes Jazz Warriors generation and the younger generation that emerged in the 2000s, but John O’Gallagher from the US makes some lovely contributions on alto-saxophone.Retrospection 3 is with the NDR Radio Big Band from Germany. It features 6 tunes all written by Koller for the full big band with London-based American Gene Calderazzo taking over the drums. The NDR Big band has a large brass section with four trumpets and four trombones and there is a strong brass feel to much of Koller’s writing for this session. But there is also some beautiful writing for the saxophone section that at times reminds me of Duke Ellington’s writing for his saxophone section and some lovely call and response passages between the brass and reeds. There is also rather more space for certain soloists with excellent improvisations from trumpeter Claus Stotter, tenor saxophonist Christof Lauer and Koller himself on piano.
Koller gave an interview about the music at the time of the launch of the albums; you can access it here.
Please note that John O’Gallagher is now based in Birmingham with a full-time post teaching on the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire. He is also completing a PhD on late Coltrane at the Birmingham City University.