Embryo: Some Postcards From A 30 Year Trip

by Doug Walker

From Aural Innovations #8 (October 1999)

I'd assume that most KrautRock fans have heard of EMBRYO, but not that many seem to have investigated their music. This examines three of their myriad of releases since their inception in 1969. Founded by Drummer/Percussionist/Vibraphonist Christian Burchard and Saxophonist/Violinist Edgar Hoffmann at the beginnings of the movement, German musicians playing Rock that was indigenous to their country. Almost immediately the group found itself at odds with contemporaries like Amon Düül and Tangerine Dream as Burchard refused to abandon his roots in 60's Jazz.

Embracing the music, Burchard & Hoffman were able to mix in influences from the emerging European Prog scene (as exemplified by Soft Machine, Pink Floyd & Jimi Hendrix) with ideas about Free Improvisation, Atonality, Electronic Music, and an especially large dose of African, South Indian and Asian musical traditions.

After releasing their 1st LP (a minor masterpiece for 1969) on OHR records, EMBRYO signed with UA/Liberty Records; expected to churn out the faux BigBand music that was as commercially successful as the JazzRock of the days, they recorded 2 LP's, one of which was described by Burchard as "Pop Bullshit" (the other, "EMBRYO'S RACHE", is excellent!), the band met and made an alliance with former Ray Charles band Organist Jimi Jackson, as well as adding Guitarists Roman Bunka and Seigfreid Schwab to the fold, recording in one day enough material for 2 LP's in March of 1971, and again in January 1972. It was in early 1971 that Burchard met and played with Pianist Mal Waldron, who hired the group to back a German tour he had begun as a solo artist. A Pianist of amazing gifts, Waldron's entry into the band brought much attention, and even a bit of controversy as he was accused of "cashing in" on Rock music, then a sacrilege from the view of the "crusty Jazzbos", who (up until recently) decried any Jazz musician with interests in Rock music.

"STEIG AUS" was the first LP released by Ohr founder Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser's new "Brain" record label, and is an excellent place to begin discovering the band and its music. The side opens with a religious call broadcast over Radio Marrakesh, then tosses you into an interlude of thunderous percussion, out of which rises the 6/8 rhythms of Jackson's "Orient Express", riding on a great Bass Groove by Dave King, with the Mellotron stating the head like a steam-driven musical engine; Jackson employs the full range of the Mellotron's capabilities displaying complete mastery of what can be one of the world's most frustrating keyboards. The interplay between the keyboards is quite impressive, Waldron's Electric Piano work being some of the most distinct playing I've ever heard on electric piano.

"Dreaming Girls" is up next, an almost lazy little Blues vamp laced with Burchard's Walt Dickerson-influenced Vibraphone solo! Jackson shows a strong Larry Young influence on this one, forming smears and atonalisms into chords, and his solos are drenched in echo. Edgar Hoffman's violin sound has a South Indian tonality as he states the slow looping melody line, as one of the Bassists (not sure if it's King or Jörg Evers, the track notes are dodgy and they don't play simultaneously on any of the tracks) uses the ostinado to pace the band.

Waldron's "Call" originally took up side two of the LP, and is another loose jam based on a call/response structure that belies "Church/Gospel" roots, Jackson delivering some lusty Fatback Organ, and super Mellotron; Hoffmann, again on Violin, slides in the almost-Childlike melody line. The piece progresses into an Organ solo that can be described as "extremely unusual"; it's Jackson's show, and after experiencing it, one could state his was an individualist innovative sound, that didn't get the hearing or investigation that his playing deserved. Again the Electric Piano shines, and the rhythm section work is stunning. In all, a great release, which actually sounds MUCH better than the original release, which is dark and muddy. However, the CD is only 37 minutes, and far too expensive as it is an import; other material could've been added, or they could've issued this as a double CD with "ROCK SESSION".

"ROCK SESSION" was the band's next release, and appeared almost a year after STEIG AUS, although most of it was recorded at the same session. Most of the same players are involved, with Guitarist Siggy Schwab replacing Roman Bunka. The same spirit is evidenced on this release as the rest of the session, with the band playing loose but completely in sync with each other; notable is how natural and relaxed Mal Waldron sounds on Farfisa Electric Piano, and he plays as intensely on the band's music as he does on his own compositions. The release opens with "A Place To Go", which has a strong Lebanese/South Indian flavor to it, and is driven by multi-ethnic percussion, great Vibraphone and strong drumming by Burchard. The interplay between Drums and Violin is close, emotional and intense, a piece in the true spirit of "World Music", not just a sleazy marketing ploy. "Entrances" is based on a nifty little R & B Bassline, and shows an obvious debt to 1969 Miles Davis. The piece develops quickly, led by some biting Electric Piano by Waldron, and some upfront guitar from Schwab. Mal seems right at home during his solo, expressing his ideas with fluidity and complete control. Jimi Jackson's work is up next, real Fatback Soul Organ feeding off the inventive comping coming from Burchard and Waldron.

Next to play is Edgar Hofmann, who finally lays down the Violin for Electric Soprano Saxophone. His solo is hot, and it sounds like he's using the Maestro Woodwind System (a late 60's Effects device for Winds/Reeds, made famous by Saxophonist Eddie Harris) to give the horn a more brittle sound. It is a joy to hear him on the Reeds however good his Violin might be! There is an all too short Guitar solo, and then the track is faded before the players begin another round of solos. Waldron's "Warm Canto" is up next, and has strong roots in an almost "Gospel" Vibe. Hofmann articulates the slow melody on Violin, and Burchard provides really beautiful comps on Vibraphone. Jimi Jackson gets to state his case first, killing again with the Fatback sound, he voices some interesting chords on his Hammond's lower manual, then makes way for the Violin to be heard. Guitar kicks in a nice solo, mixing the soul jazz feel of Grant Green with the noises of Syd Barrett, with a hint of John McLaughlin's arabesques; Mal then takes his turn, followed by a dynamic shift, and a bluesy Vibes solo from Burchard.

"Dirge" is the last cut, and quickly develops a driving swing despite the somber intro; the listener is drawn in once again by Hofmann's effected Violin, whilst vibes open the sound harmonically. The others creep in carefully, but are into comping almost immediately, and Mal takes a nice bop solo over the vamp. Burchard's drumming smokes on this cut, his snare accents cutting the rhythm up into smaller beats without faltering. Criminally the track is faded, ending the side.

This is fun music, but the major criticism of the CD release is the fact that both Steig Aus and Rock Session should've appeared on one disc; the other is the high cost (nearly $20) for the CDs. Although they are imports, listeners who are interested in the band's work would've bought them, and could've used the extra cash to purchase more of the band's music.

My other beef is that not enough of Edgar Hofmann's Saxophone work is heard on either release; he has a strong unique sound on his horns and should've played them more on the two dates. However, his contributions on Violin are excellent, and he has a variety of sounds on the instrument, which in turn allows the group to explore exotic harmonic material. After these recordings, both Mal Waldron and Jimi Jackson left the group. Waldron moved to Paris, where he got involved in music-making with Saxophonist Steve Lacey's group; Jackson made sessions for AMON DÜÜL II, appearing on their LP "Wolf City", and on spin-off project "Utopia", which recorded two LPs before disbanding, Jackson's subsequent career and current status unknown at this time (October 1999).

In 1972, EMBRYO had a meeting with Saxophonist supreme Charlie Mariano, who'd come to Europe to engage in creating a non-clichéd fusion of JazzRock and Asian music. Mariano recorded two LP's with the group, but moved on in 1974. During this period the band existed as a quartet of Burchard (Drums, Vibraphone, Marimba, Percussion), Roman Bunka (Guitars, Oud, Saz, Percussion), Edgar Hofmann (Electronic Reeds, Flutes and Violin). The BassGuitar slot was alternated between Norbert Domling and underground legend Uli Trepte. At the time no recordings were available, but in 1998 Discinforme Recording started issuing EMBRYO's back catalogue, and included a previously unheard live show as a major release for the label. "Live at the FARBRIK" displays the band in full form; only recently had they begun using the tag "International Rock Band", and this CD confirms it; the recording is clear and the playing hot as the band cycles through riffs that had yet to appear on LP. Thankfully Hofmann is heard mostly on Winds, and makes his mark as a very intense fiery soloist. "Invisible Documents" opens the CD, Hofmann getting the piece started, as Buchard sets up Drum polyrhythms, and Bunka and Hofmann state the melody. The jam gets going when Domling enters with an ostinado, and Bunka gives a hot little solo. More jamming, the sound very much in Miles Davis/Soft Machine territory. Although the track is 19 minutes long, it is faded oddly at a point Hofmann is about to solo on Electric Soprano; such a cruel cut! Hopefully, the rest of the jam will see the light of day soon.

"Minaret" begins with a percussion jam, as the band takes a trip through central Africa, Iran and Syria! The trip is enhanced for the listener due to the band's respect for these cultures, and the study of their musical literature, rather than just a jive rip-off using samples over Western beats!

Burchard switches to Marimba during the jam, and Hofmann is heard on Flute, and the music sifts again to a South Indian motif. Bunka plays Oud through this passage, and sounds as at home on it as he does on Guitar. The band sounds as if they're really enjoying this jam, and maintain the spirit as they switch back to the Electric Instruments, again done without cliché or melodramatics, just solid musicianship. Hofmann gets off a tough solo over a killer rhythm section and lively guitar chording, then they slide into a riff from the LP "We Keep On". (Released in 1973, and features Charlie Mariano. Disconforme have reissued that as well, see their website. The disc itself is strange, as they try to cut the length of their tunes down for commercial reasons!) Burchard gives a quick transition, and the riff goes into a swinging funky odd meter, very up-tempo and Hofmann blows again, his sound modified electronically, and the piece ends abruptly. Every minute of the track (it runs 31:45) is played without dead spots, but this one too is faded out; in fact every track is faded or chopped! Shame on the label, this could've been released in installments if the whole show was too long, rather then get butchered as the music EMBRYO makes shouldn't be denied the listeners cause it's great stuff.

Disc two begins with "Singing", which opens with a bright interchange between Bunka and Burchard, then Hofmann and Domling pick up the groove as the band moves through various riffs and melodies which appear on "Surfin" (released in early '75, and possessing the same dynamics as "We Keep On". The disc has been reissued, see Disconforme's website). Again, Hofmann stands out as a distinctive soloist, able to both play within and over the group, yet always tightly attuned to the shifting passages the band sets up. This is the longest track (38:15) on either CD, it never drags or loses momentum, and they display a great understanding of the lessons taught by Miles Davis regarding small-group Electric Jazz (aka "Fusion").

The CD ends with "Ode to Walt Dickerson", and is Burchard's show; he is a master on Vibraphone, possessing a warm, fuzzy tone and displaying a beautiful four mallet technique! Like Dickerson (a Philadelphia native, active since the 1950's and sadly under-recorded; Walt's approach to the instrument took a different direction from the "hard Bop" sounds that emanated from players like Bobby Hutcherson or Milt Jackson during the sixties) Burchard's phrases are studies in how to manipulate time, and he intergrates this with strong harmonic invention, and an almost "folkdance" rhythm that seems very European in origin.

This CD was pricey (around $35.00 import) but is well worth your hard earned dollars. Bravo to Disconforme; the CD package is done well, and the accompanying booklet has an Embryo family tree which is well-done. Kudos also to the Freeman brothers (who provided much research for the package), and finally to Disconforme records for making EMBRYO's music available again.

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