I want to pass on condolences to Irmin, Hildegard, Sandra, Holger and all the Can Family. And to Jaki's nearest and dearest.
I was sad but then I did what I should have on the first day; I just played his music. Maybe not the obvious stuff. I played Michael Rother's Zeni - where Jaki does this dazzling mathematical roto-tom thing - all quite beautiful. I played the first Phantom Band album, which I always loved - me and my mate Fred listened to that through the summer of 1981 when we were kids learning to drive cars. I listened to Club Off Chaos' The Change of the Century and the first of the many Friedman & Liebezeit CDs: Secret Rhythms. Of course by this point Jaki had perfected the old Ben Hur school of drumming: Slow Ahead and Ramming Speed. Somehow it was music stripped of all pretense but not stripped of all romance - a joyful, sometimes mysterious reduction.
I am on holiday on the east coast of Spain and it is a clear day, so I drove up onto the lighthouse point with all this music going, from where you can just see the heights of Ibiza - the strange Jurassic Park of la Isla Verde, (Tago Mago is beyond!). Jaki was a young man over there and I reflected upon that. Then I went and ate some good mocha ice cream - his favourite flavour. You know, he liked Ian Paice of Deep Purple too!
To Jaki: Drops of Water
Drops of water in an ocean. Do you know how many?
You could question, how many stars in the heavens or could you count the many grains of salt in that shaker that sits in front of you on your table.
So with that as a measure of great drummers, at least great drummers that I have had the pleasure of playing with, He was the one.
He kept me in touch with a pulse that I did not know I had. Sometimes the beat moved through as undertone, as if ones heart had been stirred by the beast within.
Sometimes the pulse, that was He, guided you through the darkness to show a light and a direction to travel.
His drums were his voice.
He could imagine the sound and add to the rhythm He first played.
He could recreate the rhythm that you thought was once there and now, it becomes what is heard.
© 2017 Malcolm Mooney
I don't speak lightly when I say that the drumming of Jaki Liebezeit, who died of a sudden bout of pneumonia yesterday at the age of 78, is among the most miraculous acts of music making I have ever heard. At his very best, he managed to transform the drum kit from a ritual beating tool into something subtly textured, incredibly sensitive to the pressure of touch, with an overarching sense of structure and development that kept you mesmerised over the length of an entire track. This was as true of his work in Can, which he co-founded in 1968, to all the collaborations he later did with Michael Rother, Jah Wobble, Burnt Friedman and many others over the years.
Like everyone associated with Can, Jaki was entirely unsentimental about the past. I interviewed him several times between 1997 and last year, and while he would dutifully trot out his various war stories of studio struggles and scuzzy live venues, there was clearly a certain discomfort, and even impatience, with the mental task of looking back. When I spent a long afternoon with him in his rehearsal space/percussion workshop in Cologne in May last year, the memory seemed to be failing him even further about many details relating to Can itself. What he did rhapsodise about was the idyllic life he spent in the early sixties in Barcelona and the Balearics, jobbing as a jazz drummer for blind Catalonian pianist Tete Montoliu and touring musicians passing through, living a simple but sunkissed life, taking each day as it came. About his childhood and parentage he was always reticent, even mysterious, but I managed to push for more information on that than he has ever divulged before, and which will appear in my biography later this year.
Jaki (real name Hans) was not someone for whom material things or great wealth mattered much. He told me he had always lived in small flats (including the tiny apartment above the Can studio for a time) and currently lived in a place with very little furniture, although he did spend time at the flat of his current partner. His work, the construction and perfection of 'secret rhythms', consumed him. His music room contained a lifetime collection of rhythmic apparatus collected from all over the world and somehow surviving all the moves, tours and life upheavals. Gongs and rattles from south east Asia, African congas and shakers, Chinese cymbals, castanets and maracas, Buddhist finger cymbals, Indian and Moroccan pipes and clarinets. In the strange hybrid and stripped-down drum kits he used in his final years, he pointed out to me the black tom toms he said were part of his jazz kits in Spain and during his mid-sixties years with the great German trumpeter Manfred Schoof – and which he used in Can's early days. I also recognised spangly turquoise toms from the kit he bought in Can's mid-70s heyday, and which you can see in the various TV clips that appear online.
John Coltrane's drummer Elvin Jones was one of his great musical heroes, understandably as they both shared an intuitive understanding of multiple-accented pulses and extreme forward drive. He refined and distilled complex modern jazz technique for a rock framework. When he needed to, he could hew out a monolithic groove ('Father Cannot Yell', 'Moonshake'), or push for a machine tooled James Brown-style funk ('Halleluwah'). The drumming on 'Spray' and 'Bel Air', from the 1973 LP Future Days, acts as a kind of delicately weighted perpetual motion device, micro-adjusted on the fly; technique plus telepathy equalling magic. Time and tempo bent to his will.
Jaki was the only member of Can to arrive with extensive experience as a performer and working live musician. Within Can, a group whose progress was a constant musical argument, Jaki acted as a brake on some of the other members' eagerness to create 'artificial' studio collages. His outward modesty, humility and quietness concealed an iron will, and an innate sense of musical rightness, and he expressed impatience with multiple takes and overdubs, retaining his jazzman's preference for the spontaneous. This was his contribution to the constant conversation that drove Can through its peak years. True or not, the story of him threatening Holger with an axe over some studio disagreement sums up his musical zeal.
I could tell Jaki was fatigued at the end of our nearly two hour interview, punctuated by breaks to brew numerous cups of tea. He very kindly drive me back to my hotel behind Cologne train station, and pointed out the building where he and Malcolm Mooney shared a flat back in 1969. Again there was no nostalgia there. I genuinely think he achieved a kind of inner peace and happiness in these last years, glad and yet slightly bewildered to be listed among the world's greatest drummers in various international polls and magazine surveys, and to be passing his knowledge and skills on to others. I'm so sad that he's no longer here, and that I won't be able to see him one more time at the historic Can event at London Barbican on 8 April. I don't think any musician has ever amazed me more.
Above this level, there is none.
Jaki Liebezeit who died on Sunday 22nd January was one of the great musicians of the 20th Century and as such his career shows the trajectory and development of much of the music in his lifetime.
Born in Dresden in 1938 it’s hard to imagine the horrors and disruption he experienced as a child although he never talked about the war or his childhood, or even his parents. He had a disgust for egotism and displays of drama or self-pity so whatever was back there, stayed back there. He was playing jazz drums as a teenager with American servicemen, and in his early 20s moved to Barcelona and played with the likes of Chet Baker in the jazz clubs of the Catalan capital. This was no tourism, it was no year out for a young German to pack his bags (or, knowing Jaki, his single bag) and move down to Franco’s Catholic Nationalist Spain to live in the underground, in the resistance, largely under cover of darkness. This move was a political act, the reward for which was the opening up of one of the most important themes in Jaki's life: his lifelong study other cultures, particularly in terms of music and language. The rhythms of Flamenco and Arabian music fascinated him and he began to see forms and structures in music and technique that were cross-cultural.
In ‘63 he moved back to Cologne and began work with Free Jazz pioneer Manfred Schoof as a member of his quintet. Free Jazz obviously appealed to Jaki politically and theoretically, in fact Free Jazz is the ultimate example of a form that is a great idea on paper but in reality doesn't quite achieve its promise. So whilst on tour with the quintet Jaki found himself playing among the hippy communes of 60’s Ibiza and from there followed the trail into Morocco and finally up the Atlas mountains to hear the Master Drummers of Joujouka. It’s probably a neat oversimplification to make sense of the story, but it was on this journey that he realised the role of the drummer was not to express himself, or tell a story. That what music needs from a drummer, that the way a drummer communicates with the audience and emotionally engages with them and uplifts them, is by getting it right. By playing the rhythm as cleanly, as regularly, as precisely as humanly possible. To set people free the drummer has to be disciplined, concentrated and pitiless. Monotonous.
It was with this newly crystallised mind-set that Jaki returned to Cologne to be asked to contribute to an experimental arts group: Can. They were introspective and intellectual at first, but with the arrival of sculptor Malcolm Mooney, Jaki had another beat to play off and the monster groove machine at the heart of Can, the pounding pulse that wrenched them from a cerebral sub-Fluxus group into the juggernaut of Krautrock, was put decisively in gear. The whole world had been Waiting for the Streetcar and it had finally arrived.
As Can developed so did Jaki’s groove mastery. He continued with his research into other cultures, particularly asymmetric rhythms (5/4, 7/8, 9/8 etc.) and began to recognize what he called regularities in drumming; natural laws that transcend cultural borders.
Can was by then no artistic research initiative, or commune, this was a real working band with touring, deadlines and the inevitable personal friction of working within that structure. Jaki had egos like Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt to contend with, famously once throwing an axe across the studio at Holger. I asked Irmin about this incident once, particularly about Jaki’s recognition of what he’d done as it seemed so utterly out of character, but apparently his response was to turn to the others in the band, shouting “look what you’ve turned me in to!” Holger survived but you can hear the cathartic power in Jaki’s drums from this period, particularly in the Can live recordings:
It was during Can times that drum machines appeared and were, naturally, embraced by Jaki. A big inspiration was Sly and the Family Stone’s use of drum machines and soon the new technology was appearing on Can tracks. Jaki was practicing playing with a machine that stayed mercilessly in time. His vision had become a reality and he was clearing the way for the entire methodology of contemporary drummers, and also setting the standard. By ’78 the wheels had fallen off the Can Lastkraftwagen and Jaki, with the help of Holger as producer, began working as a session drummer. According to Discogs, he appears on 439 recordings. Can, Eurythmics, Jah Wobble, Depeche Mode, Eno, The Jesus and Mary Chain, David Sylvian plus virtually every significant name in German post punk - and it’s definitely incomplete. He also recorded 3 albums with his own Phantomband before finding a kindred spirit in Jah Wobble. With Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart Jaki played with even more non-european musicians, deepening his understanding of the universality of music and rhythm, eventually developing his own drum system and theory based on E-T code. This has nothing to do with aliens (although the pun wasn’t lost on him) but was a systematic reduction of drumming technique, regardless of cultural origin, down to 2 basic poliarities – the dot and the dash, or in Morse code E and T. He applied and developed this theory and derived techniques with his band Drums Off Chaos – “no musicians only drummers” as he referred to them in an interview. I caught their last gig together in Cologne in December: as sharp and as mesmerizingly inventive as ever. Peculiarly with this band they had played together so much over the years that there was a sense of fun, a playfulness about their performance that belied the deep knowledge and theory behind their work.
I first met Jaki in ‘97. I was working with Irmin Schmidt on realising his opera Gormenghast. Jaki was one of the first musicians we got in to play on the pre-recorded part of the score (only the singers and a string quartet were live). I had excitedly prepared everything in the studio in Irmin’s house in Provence and Jaki arrived bang on time despite a 12 hour drive in his tiny car. I helped him carry the few cases he brought with him down to the studio and courteously made myself scarce while he was setting up his kit. After 15 minutes or so I popped down to see how he was getting on but only half the kit was set up. Just a floor tom, a tiny snare drum, a couple of toms on a stand and some ancient little cymbals. Jaki was nowhere to be seen. I tracked him down having a coffee in the sunshine and asked where the rest of his kit was – the bass drum and the hi-hat, all the stuff a drummer plays with his feet. Totally dead-pan he said, “People have been playing drums with only their hands for 50,000 years. Why should I be any different?” Over the next few days he taught me how to interpret a rhythm, how to find the pulse and stick to it, the importance of tuning drums and what were the important beats to emphasise in an enormous range of music. Those lessons never left me. While we were having dinner one night I was putting on some music, at one point some Charles Mingus. Without looking up Jaki said with a mixture of confusion, astonishment and disgust: “Jazz?”
Been there. Done that.
With that in mind I asked him if there were any other drummers whose work interested him:
“Yes. 808 and 909”
I continued working with Jaki, visiting him and seeing him play over the next 20 years. I was with him in the studio the day after his son was born. We were working on tracks for his band Club Off Chaos and he was fooling around and overjoyed like any other young father, albeit in his 60s. Club off Chaos was a vehicle for Jaki to demonstrate his reductionist approach. A guitarist, a synth player and a drummer. He insisted they should be able to go on tour with just one piece of hand luggage each. On one of the first rehearsals he cut 5 of the six strings off the Dirk Herweg’s guitar, never to be replaced. He would play perfectly in time with Boris Polonski’s sequencers, but at a Club Off Chaos gig in Hamburg I saw him relax for a moment and smile whilst settling into one of Boris’s 11/8 rhythms. Then he missed a beat, unnoticed by 99% of the audience. A cloud came over his expression, his concentration and focus became absolute and he played flawlessly through the rest of the set. It was years before I saw him smile on stage again.
He continued to make some fabulous records, particularly with Burnt Friedman releasing a whole series of Secret Rhythms albums. Later, together with Irmin Schmidt the four of us played together as Cyclopean, releasing an EP in 2013. This track, Fingers features Jaki exploring all the subtle stresses and balances of one of his favourite time signatures: 5/4.
It was Jaki that told me the human heartbeat is in 5/4. In many ways he was a mentor to me. He was quiet to the point of taciturn sometimes for days on end but when he decided the time was right he would get a glint in his eye and impart some wisdom. About the relationship of rhythm and harmony, about breathing, about history, about Hindi, the pagan etymology of a particular word, the development of language and music... all things that would take weeks and months to sink in before I saw him again. Despite his knowledge and his stories, how he really expressed himself was with his sticks in his hands, which was most of his waking life.
Jaki is survived by his son Ben, partner Birgit and a legion of those of us who have learned and gained so much from his talent, tenacity, knowledge and humility.
RIP Jaki Liebezeit 1938 - 2017
Jaki shortly before his last gig 3/12/16