The 1984 double live album Zurich by the ultimate power trio, Borbetomagus (from left in photo above, saxophonists Don Dietrich and Jim Sauter and guitarist Donald Miller) has finally been reissued on CD via their own Agaric label. (Buy it from Amoeba.)
When I profiled the guys for Signal to Noise a couple of years ago, I wrote this about the album, which documents a single astonishing gig:
The Sauter/Dietrich duo album Bells Together aside, it’s as close as you can come to something you could label “Borbetomagus Unplugged.” The two saxophones are heard almost without effects pedals, which allows Sauter and Dietrich to demonstrate their astonishing, symbiotic yet thoroughly individualistic techniques. There’s a passage about three minutes into “Ohne Fleisch Loaf,” the second track on Side Two of the double LP, that recalls the keening opening passage of John Coltrane’s “The Father & The Son & The Holy Ghost,” the piece that opens the Meditations album, where Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders are sort of simultaneously going at each other and working in tandem. It’s quite beautiful. But on “Loaf” there’s also Donald Miller grinding and roaring behind the two men and eventually, in the piece’s final seconds, abandoning his instrument entirely, leaving it to feed back in a low-frequency (but very loud) crunching growl.
There are a lot of moments of raw beauty like that on Zurich. “Ms. Fisch Brotchen” finds one hornman or the other creating sounds like a didjeridoo as the other sputters and slaps the keys in an almost Evan Parker-like manner, while Miller does his best to yank the strings entirely free from his guitar. Another interesting track on the disc is “Fried Tampons,” which finds the Donalds—Dietrich and Miller—switching instruments. Dietrich takes up the guitar, while Miller plays alto sax, and the difference in approach isn’t honestly all that discernible, particularly when Dietrich just lets the instrument issue another long stretch of staticky, crunching feedback and distortion without releasing the chopping, blender-eating-bone “chords” that are Miller’s specialty.
Recorded live in the titular city in 1984, Zurich is much closer to free jazz in the classic, recognizable sense than later eruptions like 1993’s Experience The Magic or Songs Our Mother Taught Us (recorded 1999, released 2005). Again, there’s a lot of separation in the mix, and the saxophones aren’t slathered in distortion or electronic processing the way they would be a year or two down the road. And yet, even if you’ve heard Sauter’s work with Rudolph Grey’s Blue Humans or Dietrich’s work with the New Monuments, it’s extremely difficult to tell which man is making which noise. It’s not like listening to John Coltrane’s Live in Japan and knowing exactly which stream of notes is coming from his horn and which is coming from Pharoah Sanders’s. After playing together since grade school, developing their individual techniques side by side in near-total isolation from other out-jazz musicians, like two Kaspar Hausers, they’re almost a two-headed, four-handed organism.
And now, a short interview with all three members about the album and that era of Borbetomagus.
What are your strongest memories of this performance, 30 years on?
Jim Sauter: As soon as we started playing I knew that it was going to be amazing. The sound on stage was great and I could feel instantly that the audience was totally with us.
Don Dietrich: My overwheming recollection of the concert was being frustrated with Donald [Miller]’s slowing down of the musical pace. My head was into the “frenetic” at that point (more like the last cut on the disc). I wanted ideas to come fast and furious. I think ultimately it made or a more interesting performance. Ironically, listening to the new CD after a very long time, I think his playing was the strongest and most interesting of the three of us.
Donald Miller: The Rote Fabrik show was the centerpiece, literally, of our first actual tour; not just of Europe, but anywhere. Up until October ’84, we had been limited to monthly (if lucky) one-off gigs in New York City and across the river in Don and Jim’s neck of the suburban woods, or the odd long-weekend jaunt to some other free improv communities (with small grants and big hearts) across the eastern US. This tour was the first time we ever had to work out night after night for three weeks straight. And Zurich was smack in the middle, and one of the two big money gigs that paid for our flights. And it was a venerable institution in the European “scene”, with a great sound system. And we were ready. Hence, the strongest memory is of seizing the moment on stage that we had worked towards for over four years, and stomping it to death. We were on, and we knew it.
Was this show a one-off or part of a larger European tour? Are there other unreleased live recordings from that time period?
JS: This was our first major tour abroad. We are indebted to Udo Jahnke at the Rote Fabrik in Zurich and Anthony Wood at Actual ’84 in London for committing the necessary “real” financial support we needed to get things started. West Germany: West Berlin, Hamburg, Muenster, Bremen, Frankfurt; East Germany: Leipzig (Jazztage Festival); Switzerland: St. Gallen (with Norbert Möslang and Andy Guhl), Saignelier, Zurich; England: London (Actual ’84 Festival) and London Musician’s Collective (with John Tilbury, Keith Rowe, Eddie Prévost and Hugh Davies). It was really something to be in East Germany before the wall came down. Going through the armed border checkpoint was pretty intense. People were starved for music from the West. When we were introduced, “from New York—free jazz extreme,” the audience of about 600 went wild.
We immediately bonded with Norbert and Andy. This was the start of a long friendship that has led to numerous tours, collaborations, and some pretty amazing recordings together. There are plenty of other recordings from this time period in the archives. Some might be historically interesting but not necessarily release-worthy. Zurich had everything—inspired playing, good balance between the three of us, and a great recording.
What made you decide a double LP was worth the investment, at that point in Borbeto’s career?
JS: I don’t know if we thought of it as an investment as much as the best way to present the music. Bob Rusch, the editor of Cadence magazine, advised against it. He recommended we put it out as two separate releases, Vol.1 and Vol. 2. That might have been more sensible, but it wouldn’t have had the same impact. We wanted people to experience the concert in its entirety—so we put it out the right way!
DM: We had the document: The concert was a classic; full-tilt boogeymen with two phasers-on-disintegrate 45-minute sets, and we had good recording; a rare combination, indeed. And there was the small political statement from a small independent label that, by putting out a self-produced double LP, you were here to stay, doing the long haul, not getting out of your face any decade soon. We were hardly the first to make this statement, but we knew it was our time.
The album features some long pieces, but also a lot of short ones—many of your early CDs (Sauter/Dietrich/Miller, Seven Reasons For Tears, Buncha Hair That Long) include shorter pieces, where more recent releases have tended to go long. Were these edits, or did you guys play more short, discrete pieces back then, and when/how/why did that change?
DD: What you hear is what we did. No edits.
JS: We may have had to rearrange the sequence of a few cuts to fit the LP format. One reason we have a lot of shorter pieces is because we kept getting called back for encores. So we’d huddle and try to come up with a strategy—do something short, or another “bells,” or change up the saxophones. Things do change over time but not for any reasons in particular.
DM: Technology may have effected our inclination to go longer. The pre-effects years of the saxes, with selected use of amplification, were once described by Don [Dietrich] as like “John Henry,” with Jim and him working overtime acoustically to match my “iron horse” of a guitar amp. Going for, say, an LP side’s length of 20+ minutes was usually what we could muster, granted a few times per show, if we had the entire evening. The advent of digital delay boxes, e-bows, etc., and, let us confess, the effects of aging, however, gave us more time to enjoy the roar while on stage. But in recent years and tours we have been returning to actual hard playing; call it evolution, we always have. And audiences seem to appreciate the digestible chunks, so we are also having to figure out how to end pieces like we were able to back at the time Zurich was recorded.
What saxophones were you using on this date?
JS: I’m playing tenor, alto and baritone saxophone. Don, tenor and alto saxophone.
The sound of the horns is very “naked” on Zurich—it hardly seems like you’re using any pedals at all. Did you not bring all your equipment, or was that the way you were operating at that point? It really is one of your “jazziest” albums because of the ease of figuring out which sounds are being made by saxophones and which by guitar…
DD: At that point we were not using any effects pedals (that would come the following year). The fact that you thought we might be is because we were playing “bells together” on a number of tracks. For the first several years of Borbeto, Jim and I were playing through amps (I have a Sunn Concert Lead) with vocal mics down the bells to accentuate the metallic timbre. My recollection here was that the venue only had one guitar amp so we occassionally put the PA mics down the bells.
JS: We were not using pedals. We might occasionally shove a microphone down the bells of the horns but the use of pedals started around the time of New York Performances (Agaric 1986).
Most of the track titles just seem like Dadaist jokes, but do any of them have any real significance?
JS: “Nein is the Loneliest Number”—From our experience at the checkpoint to East Germany. “Ohne Fleisch Loaf”—Donald, a vegetarian at the time, learned enough German to say “no meat.” “Refried Tampons”—Perfectly describes a semi-petrified late night snack I ate from an automat in Amsterdam. “Schwarma Death”—Another late night favorite: schwarmas smothered in hot chili sauce. “Fleetwood DeKooning” and “Elaine DeFleetwood”—Don, Rev. Dr. Paul, and I came up with these on a fishing trip not far from East Hampton, Long Island—home of the great Dutch expressionist painter and his wife Elaine.
DD: All of the titles relate to some actual occurence or recurring nonsence during the tour. “Pink Pants,” for example, refers to a bit of clothes shopping we did earlier in the day in Zurich. Jim found a pair of bright pink plastic slacks at just the right price which I thought would perfectly round out his ensemble. He stepped into the fitting closet in the middle of the shop showroom and proceeded to get stuck in the pants as they were too small, the plastic laminated to his thigh skin. When he expressed his dilemma from inside the booth I grabbed the cuffs and gave a mighty tug resulting in him sitting in the middle of the showroom in his Fruit of the Looms, pink pants wrapped around his ankles, to the shock of the shopkeeper and other bemused customers.
When manufacturing these LPs back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, did you have any difficult discussions with mastering engineers and whatnot about what the music was “supposed to sound like”?
JS: We had a problem with our first album in 1980. The mastering engineer asked me to come to the studio because the tape reels weren’t labeled clearly. They couldn’t tell if the tape was tails in or tails out—if it was playing forward or in reverse. The only other time they had that problem was with an album of Yiddish and Hebrew folk songs. We’ve always been pretty good at communicating our general aesthetic, LOUD, BRIGHT, IN YOUR FACE.
DM: I recall Jim telling Don and me that someone from a pressing facility came back by to see him with the mastered reels of either our first or second LP. Even though we had clearly indicated that we had the “tones on tail” on all the tapes, he still could not figure out which way the tapes ran, and was deathly afraid he was going to press a whole vinyl run of our music backwards. Years in the music biz, and there was nothing in our work for him to reference as an actual instrument. And these were live and undoctored studio recordings, with actual instruments, and musicians. Jim probably has any other horror stories, but as I understood it, by and large, our money was as good and green as that of anyone else.