Album Appreciation: Live in Vienna by Karaba

There’s an old YouTube video freshly doing the rounds of Swedish Jazz multi-instrumentalist Gunhild Carling playing jazz on the bagpipes (see below). It is a remarkable bit of footage of a superb musician at the top of her game, improvising with an instrument in a way that boggles the mind.

I mention this because it came up while I was listening to this new live release from Karaba, a band who are themselves new to me. It got me thinking about how jazz is often misunderstood by fans of rock (despite its clear role in rock’s formation), as well as… perhaps to a lesser extent… by those of what we commonly call ‘Krautrock’.

Jazz has, over the years, proved to be a wide and flexible medium which can occupy other genres without necessarily gaining hegemony over it… yet leaving it with an unmistakable vibe which I think is captured by the joy and freedom expressed in that Gunhild Carling video.

These are certainly qualities that I would associate with this album which, for me, uses jazz to really loosen up some of the other structures on show here… to the extent that if you were to ask me what sort of album this was in one sentence, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you.

What I can say though was “I wish I’d have been there” because this this is some performance, the vitality of which really comes across in the mix (and I’m only listening to it on mp3 here, goodness only knows what it’ll be like on vinyl). I can only imagine what it must have been like to be there.

It was recorded, as the title suggests, in Vienna… in 2019, as the band opened for a Damo Suzuki Network Festival. Beginning with ‘Ozmose’ Karaba very quickly gets up to speed with what is a pretty funky number that blooms quickly into a stream of joy as eddys of jazz, psychedelic and space rock, and more experimental elements swirl in the mix gradually opening out into a wonderful final section which sees the keys and guitar alternately take the lead and really take the track home.

After that it’s straight into ‘Fräulein Dümlein’ with is luscious organ which simultaneously takes you back in time and gives you a real feeling of now. In many ways the band play like a jazz band, with different instruments coming to the fore… however there’s always that solid rhythm section in the background which is more at the rock end of the spectrum. What I like in particular is that as you really get deep into each track (and this one weighs in at ten minutes) you feel constantly surprised by what comes next. The playing is superb, but it’s also eclectic… one minute hard and angular, the next moment soft and soulful… and this just enhances the whole experience for me as, in this case, the track progresses and develops. In one place they even seem to mix funk and harpsichord… rad!

I already feel deep into the set as ‘Bemmselbrühl’ kicks in. One of the things that I always found interesting about ‘Krautrock’ was how it seemed to develop outside of the more traditional rock template than most of its contemporary genre did… perhaps owing more to (post-)modern expressions of classical (unsatisfactory term) and other European avant garde music… this somehow feels like the missing link between them, with a fat and funky baseline with some seriously motorik moments, especially early on, before heading out into a free-jazz explosion that is still somehow anchored in a rock aesthetic.

That last paragraph feels very messy, but I want to keep it like that because I think there are so many musical forces at work in this performance that it is really rather hard to encapsulate them without writing something akin to an essay on each number. So what I would say is that this music is anything but messy… it is just complex when analysed but ultimately easy on the ear, which is just really a testament to the quality of musicianship on display here.

Nowhere is this more the case than on ‘Fiji Fiji’ which, put simply, is just joyous! It is played with such enthusiasm, and I like how the band gradually layer the whole sound up into something that just seems to get more and more dense before they release themselves around halfway through into a torrent of free-playing music which, I hope, had the crowd in an absolute frenzy of funky syncopation… I’d certainly have been embarrassing myself on the dance floor had I been there… I’m feeling breathless just sitting and thinking about it… and I’d probably have been pleased of the break that the lovely chilled final section brings…. as the band perform a soft landing…

…only to hit the ground running again with ‘Gentrification’ which feels a bit more ‘Prog’ in complexion. Again there are many more elements at work here though, again, proving that you really need to ‘get under the hood’ of this band to truly appreciate them. If you were at this performance I would imagine that it was mesmerising and you were able to give it your full attention. This is something of a requirement when you have it coming out of your speakers… you’re really not going to get it by having it on in the background.

This then is an absolutely terrific album of live improvisations from a band on top form. It is one of those live albums which really seems to convey the dynamics of the performance, and make you thankful that this moment in time was not only captured, but it a manner that really brings out the nuance of what happened. So while we’re mostly stuck at home, and live music seems a long way away… this can perhaps serve as a way of not only reminding us of the sort of thing we might be missing, but also whetting our appetite for getting back again.

For, like Gunhild Carling on the bagpipes, this is a set that is full of surprises and one that will keep on giving as you listen to it again and again…. and again.

’Live in Vienna’ is available now on Adansonia Records, and can be ordered here.



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