Albert Mangelsdorff

Master of the unaccompanied jazz trombone
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The Independent Online

On the face of it Albert Mangelsdorff's playing sounded like a Teutonic joke. An album of unaccompanied trombone? A concert of unaccompanied trombone? Chords on the trombone? In fact Mangelsdorff was a real innovator.

Although his innovations came to sound grotesque, he was a jazz musician from the start. He had heard jazz on the radio when he was 11 and the Nazi era was in full flight. Bolstered by the jazz records his elder brother brought home, he became enchanted.

Living with his uncle, the first violinist in the local theatre, he announced his intention to become a jazz player. Not a recommended ambition in the Germany of the late Thirties. He took possession of the records when his brother Emil was drafted into the army. By the time Emil returned in 1947 after five years in a Russian POW camp Albert had, self-taught, begun a career as a guitar player. But, after hearing Bill Harris with Woody Herman and Kai Winding with Stan Kenton, he had ambitions on the trombone.

After the Second World War German musicians in Frankfurt mainly played to entertain American troops. "We always tried to play for black units, because they'd let us play jazz." His prodigious abilities on the instrument marked him out and he worked in radio orchestras and small jazz groups throughout the Fifties.

In 1958 he was chosen to represent Germany in the Newport International Jazz Orchestra, put together to play at the Newport Festival. He spent six weeks with the band in the United States and it changed his approach. In Europe musicians were judged by how well they copied their American counterparts. Mangelsdorff decided that originality was the important thing.

He moved instinctively to the avant-garde edges of jazz then occupied by Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano. In 1961 he formed his own quintet, which included his long-time associate the saxophonist Heinz Sauer, and toured with it in Asia, the US and South America.

At a festival during the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 Mangelsdorff played his first concert as an unaccompanied soloist. He was the first musician to develop in jazz a technique that had been known in symphony music as polyphonics, and this technique became the mainstay of his performances. It demanded a phenomenal technical ability. "You play a note," he said,

and you sing another, usually higher note. Through the purity of the interval between the played and sung notes overtones are created which become so audible in this technique that you end up with real chords.

As the years went on he incorporated modal improvising, free jazz and elements of rock.

In September 2003 a concert was held at the Frankfurt Old Opera House for Mangelsdorff's 75th birthday. "It's important," said Britain's representative, Barbara Thompson, because Albert is a venerated musician, one of the most important of the last century. And a nice person.

Steve Voce