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OUT OF BLUE

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On The Right Places

 

 

To be open-minded without forgetting where one comes from. A cosmopolitan attitude with strong regional roots: Wolfgang Puschnig, both as a person and musician, embodies this essential bi-polarity which is being reduced to a simple catch-phrase far too often. From the early 1980ies onwards, this has made him not only an advertisement but a perfect example in the world of European jazz. For Puschnig, Austria`s southernmost province Carinthia has been the basis for his socialisation, the foundation of his musical thinking and feeling, located at the intersection of Germanic, Slavic and Romanic culture and language. He was born in Klagenfurt (Celovec in Slovenian) on 21 May 1956 where he also spent his youth, characterised by folk songs ( there always was a lot of singing ), jazz and a variety of other musical movements. Shortly after his school-leaving examinations, in the autumn of 1974, he turned his back on Carinthia in order to try his luck in Austria`s faraway capital Vienna. His only artistic experience until then had been the Klagenfurt-based underground-band Sokrates Sixtinic Bongoloids  and an amateur theatre. Wolfgang Puschnig registered to study musicology and English at the University of Vienna. Due to problems with the embouchure, he cut short the study of classic flute at Vienna`s Academy of Music and Performing Arts. Instead, he went on the look-out as a saxophonist in Austria`s jazz scene and attended jazz lessons at Vienna`s Academy of Music. On 19 May 1977, in the course of a concert during which he originally wanted to perform only as a duet together with pianist Mathias Rüegg, he unexpectedly contributed to the foundation of an ensemble which should become famous as Vienna Art Orchestra  (VAO). The recording of their first single Jessas na!  ( Oh my God! ) in co-operation with the working class poet  Otto Kobalek and a concert for four trees, fireworks, Swiss military pay-book, semi-militant kids and orchestra  were exemplary events of the anarchistic, flux-like early phase of this big band. They achieved their breakthrough by recording the LP Tango From Obango  in 1979 and through their first important festival-performances abroad in 1980/81. In the years to follow, Wolfgang Puschnig became the leading soloist of the orchestra in many legendary programmes such as Concerto Piccolo  (1980), From No Time to Rag Time  (1982), The Minimalism of Erik Satie  (1984) and Lonely Nightride of a Saxophone Player  (1985), both composed and arranged by Mathias Rüegg. Guest performances in Thailand and the United States in the mid 1980ies and first places of VAO in the ranking of Down Beat -polls within the TDWR-category (1984 and 1985) consolidated their reputation as leading European big band as well as leading European big band-musicians.
From the beginning, quite a few bands within the band  circled the original orchestra just like satellites in order to swing onto own orbits at some point. Puschnig performed i. e. as part of the quintet Part of Art  (together with Herbert Joos, Uli Scherer, Jürgen Wuchner and Wolfgang Reisinger) which recorded two LPs between 1980 and 1983 and took part in projects with the highly experimental poet Ernst Jandl, their first project manifesting itself through the LP Bist eulen?  in 1984. In the mid 1980ies the co-operation of Puschnig and Reisinger continued being prolific and constant in the much celebrated ensembles Pat Brothers  (with Linda Sharrock and Wolfgang Mitterer) and Air Mail  (with Harry Pepl and Mike Richmond). As far back as the 1970ies, Puschnig had indulged in a musical duet-relationship with Alter ego (old Ego) Uli Scherer, VAO`s pianist of many years. Now, this preference became even stronger: From 1981 onwards, Hans Koller, then aged 58 and father-figure of Austrian and European jazz, was happy to invite Puschnig to so-called free sax-dialogues. Puschnig`s duet co-operation with Wolfgang Mitterer resulted in the highly experimental electroacoustic LP Obsooderso  in 1986. The degree, of how much Puschnig cared for this most intimate and concentrated of communication-forms, became also visible on Pieces of a Dream , his debut as a soloist published in 1988: duets with Carla Bley with whom he had been working since 1985, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, the ex-bassist of Ornette Coleman, Hans Koller, Linda Sharrock ,Hiram Bullock, Harry Pepl and many more were being given finishing touches through a choir-arrangement of the Carinthian folk song Is scho still uman See  (It`s already quiet around the Lake), representing a programmatic statement for Puschnig: for the first time, the big world of international jazz met the small one of his homeland. And for the first time it became clear that his most expressive inspiration, the singing , Blues-like phrasing which had already in the 1980ies become the unmistakable trade mark of Puschnig`s alto saxophone-playing, actually had its roots in the melancholy of Carinthian traditional music, heavily influenced by Slavic culture. Soon came the turning point: out of the vast number of co-operations and projects he has been involved ever since (mostly side by side with Linda Sharrock), only the most important are to be named here: his working together with the Korean percussion-quartet Samuel Nori  (since 1987), the electrifying Gemini -duet-funk-twin-relationship with Jamaaladeen Tacuma, the equally bizarre and brilliant venture Alpine Aspects , in the frame of which Puschnig confronted funky-groovy jazz dynamics with the brass band-like harmonically dissonant compressed properness of the Amstetten-based folk brass band in traditional costumes. This can probably be regarded his most inspired coup.
Carinthia, Afro-America, Korea and back. Especially as the soloist in Carla Bley`s Very Big Band  or in formations such as Mixed Metaphors  which confronted Ernst Jandl`s Konkrete Poesie  (concrete poetry) with jet-black Rap-lyrics which are the contemporary grooves and rhymes of Afro-America, and moreover, side by side with the Austrian bard and singer Willi Resetarits, better known as Kurt Ostbahn, together with whom he makes standards into rituals, Puschnig has always remained himself. His elegiac intonation, melodious vocal expression of lines which contribute to his personal style, move both amateurs and connoisseurs. They furthermore show that even today  in the era of an irritatingly confusing post-modernist variety  it seems possible to develop an idiom, already recognisable at first sound, so to speak romantically grown . Open-mindedness without forgetting one`s roots. Only very few succeed in such aesthetic splits. Hardly any are as credible and disarmingly sensuous as those of Wolfgang Puschnig. A message which can provide a model. Not only for Europe. Not only for Carinthia.

Andreas Felber