Thursday, September 10, 2015

Berlin Existential

Either because of its pure rhythmic functions or the carefree, even primitive feeling of playing it, bongo has been associated with the beat movement on film, literature, and also in life. The story of Toby Fichelscher (pic: above), a Berliner beatnik, is alsohas its bongos, jazz, and free love.

Toby Fichelscher (1927-92) was a jazz singer, bongo and piano player in post-war Germany who also tackled on the blues and rock 'n roll. (There is a Tutti Frutti single, recorded by him in 1956, a year after Little Richard made it a hit.)

Released on the compilation album, Busting the Bongos, this is a rare chance to listen to the "lost sounds of a jazz phantom", one of so many forgotten European musicians of the post war period.

Interesting enough, the recordings presented on this album are the soundtracks of three films (Tobby, Max Knaack, and Schatten), all directed by Hansj├╝rgen Pohland.

I've been interested in Pohland since watching his short masterpiece Schatten [Shadows], an experimental film in which the jazz soundtrack is providing the rhythm for a series of shots form shadows and silhouettes on the walls and the grounds and it features a West Coast-sounding soundtrack, probably the best of this compilation.

A 30-year old Toby, singing the Basin' Street Blues, in 1957

Tobby, I haven't seen. By the early 1960s, Toby Fichelscher was quite established in Berlin to have a film made about him. That's how Tobby, a psydo-documentary portrait of Fichelscher and the Berlin jazz scene, came about. Made in the New Wave style of the time (French Nouvelle Vague hit the Cannes Film Festival in 1959), the film documents the spirit of Berlin, shortly before it was divided into two disconnected sectors. Joachim Ernst Berendt described it as "a film that produces the real atmosphere of jazz."

The Cool Scene. Courtesy of Sonorama Records.
Here, some of the tracks are less musical as they feature the sound track of the film and the spoken dialogue, nevertheless in a surprisingly good quality. But even these tracks (for instance, With Cash Like This) are valuable in appreciating the intensity and the art of sound editing - the way bongo provides a back beat and a pace to spoken dialogue or rather jazz it up.

The liner note gives further information on this hard to find film:

"The Berlin singer not only shows his face and devotes his voice to the film, but also provides autobiographical material and its – slightly modified – name as the title: “Tobby” draws his inspiration from personal experiences, from dealing with his two children, from the sounds of waves at the “Wannsee” shore, from a boozy party with the Berlin beatniks or the hollow sound of tapping on an iron tube in a ruin. In short, he is inspired by all that he is confronted with, what he sees and hears. The film depicts two days in the unusual life of the jazz musician. Tobby’s music pushes the plot forward, reflecting experiences, moods, even noise. It is Tobby’s strongest expression. He has new rhythmic ideas during a musical jam at the “Riverboat” club or while bike riding through Berlin at night. Living in harmony with himself appears more important to him than a high salary as a pop singer. His Afro American friend Charles Francis Conrad tells him, however, to purchase financial independence. But Tobby cannot decide himself. The music he would have to play on this big tour would not be “his” music. He would not have the freedom of improvisation. The reaction of Tobby towards this tempting offer of an agency was only fixed in a comprehensive ten-page treatment. Therefore the cutting was one of the main factors in intensifying the story and paved a new way for “inner monologues” or “consciousness fades”. Tobby is not an actor – just as we see him, he lives. That makes the film production very special because the atmosphere could not be established in a studio. The team had to visit Tobby and his friends with the camera in their surroundings, which caused a number of problems for the director and his technicians: the sound had to be recorded together with the pictures, in rooms that were not set up for it, so dubbing was impossible. The team often had to work with a hidden camera, or in the case of music recordings with four cameras at the same time, because jazz as improvisation is not repeatable. All of these things helped to capture the real Tobby and his true jazz feeling."

Lastly, one of the three films (see below), Max  Knaack, is a fascinating fashion ad. The witty sound track features imitations, scats, and spoken words. Speaking of the spirit of Berlin, in the opening shot, when some smartly dressed people are getting into a sport car, look carefully for a ruined Kaiser-Wilhelm-Ged├Ąchtniskirche in the left hand side of the frame.

The album was released on CD and vinyl by Sonorama Records and can be ordered online here.

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