Burnt Friedman & Jaki Liebezeit – Secret Rhythms

Odd not odd

It was 2006. Burnt Friedman and Jaki Liebezeit had just released their second album in what would become a five album series called “Secret Rhythms”. I had just left advertising for the first (not last) time preferring to write about music for a living. Like just about every other music journalist I was making almost no money – but I happily traveled across the country to talk to inspiring people, sometimes even legendary ones.

One of those trips brought me over to Cologne, visiting the studios of Burnt Friedman and Jaki Liebezeit. A wonderful place in an old factory that was filled with probably every percussive instrument ever created and an equally impressive array of electronic gadgets, a place where I could have easily stayed forever, just listening and watching in utter amazement, and the two might never have noticed me sitting somewhere between all those instruments.

Luckily, I had decided to bring my portable DAT recorder to do the interview, and not the skimpy little gadget that I had used until then. It turned out to be the longest interview ever. For several hours we were sitting there chatting and discussing. I felt both lucky and stupid at the same time. Not because they made me feel stupid, not at all, but I fully realized how much I didn’t know about rhythmic structures.

Not that I hadn’t known that before. A few years earlier I had somehow gotten my hands on an advance vinyl edition of their first “Secret Rhythms” album and as much as I loved it, I really had a hard time understanding the rhythms at the heart of these eight pieces of music. Over and over I would listen to them and try to count, failing miserably.

That was one of the most interesting sections of the interview, talking about the rhythms of the world and how we are so used to our simple four by four, how we call everything else strange, judging from what we call normal, in our colonial way of looking at things, and how we all fail miserably trying to dance at a Turkish wedding when everyone is happily moving to a 9/8 rhythm, chuckling at the ineptitude of the dude from the West that’s just sort of dorkily bobbing up and down.

Years later when I was actually invited to a Turkish wedding, I remembered that interview and was very relieved when no one asked me to join them on the dance floor where I could only have made a fool of myself.

Another interesting aspect of our conversation was trying to describe exactly how I experienced the music and the odd rhythms it was based upon. Not surprisingly, I had abandoned my attempts to understand the rhythmic structures and just listened to the music, more or less letting it flow, not caring where beats were placed, not looking for the 1, none of that, finding a way to enjoy the rhythms by not trying to understand them.

I probably sounded like a really enthusiastic idiot, trying to tell them how ignorance can be bliss, but they were both very generous hosts.

Looking back at the first edition of “Secret Rhythms” (later to be renamed “Secret Rhythms 1”) also reminds me of how I got things totally wrong at first, playing the album at 33, really badly misled because the first piece “Rhein Rauf” does sound pretty cool at this reduced speed. But I did finally get it right.

“Rhein Rauf” is probably the least rhythmically challenging piece in the whole series – but it features everything that I like about this project as it includes the contributions of two really important collaborators – Joseph Suchy on guitar and Morten Grønvad on vibraphone. As much as the series may be Friedman and Liebezeit’s platform – these two (as well as Tim Motzer and Hayden Chisholm on the following albums) were absolutely crucial to the project.

And there is something else that was fascinating about this collaboration, something that could even be felt during the interview in Cologne. It was Friedman’s grace, respect and gentleness in his attitude within the project. He didn’t have to say that he felt privileged or maybe even honored to be able to work with Liebezeit, he seemed to genuinely care about the man. At one point during the interview Jaki Liebezeit made a comment about working with David Sylvian on the second album – a comment that wasn’t meant to be shared in the press. Friedman just smiled and didn’t say anything at the time but sent me a very friendly email the next day, explaining the situation and asking me to stay quiet about it. Of course I kept it to myself.

Friedman’s projects are never very much about Friedman. I like how you can hear that he is always fully focused on the project and nothing but the project. If you listen to “Royal Roost” on this album for example – you marvel at Grønvad’s wonderful work on the vibraphone, you enjoy what Suchy does with his guitar, and of course you admire the sparse but infinitely liquid play of Jaki Liebezeit – and almost wonder where Friedman is happening. He’s sort of the mastermind – but he really doesn’t place himself in the limelight.

As the man who is in charge of production, arrangement and mastering, he does put the others there though. Especially Liebezeit. The way he captures even the tiniest of percussive events is amazing, and the Can legend not only possessed a huge array of things to drum with, he used them as well. Bells and gongs and dhols and even steel drums.

Almost 20 years after its original release I am still not able to fully understand the rhythm of a track like “Shades Of Soddin Orion”. And I am still catching myself trying to make rhythmic sense of this spaced out jam – only to toss all of that aside again and wonder: how is it possible for an album to be so demanding and hard to figure out rhythmically and still come across as easy listening (in the most positive sense of the words)? Amazing accomplishment, really.

One of the reasons is probably found in the fact that despite these intricacies the album approaches and makes use of familiar musical categories. There is a good dose of Dub to be found (not unexpectedly in “Rastafahndung”, a very German play of words that still gives you an obvious hint), and as often in Friedman’s productions you will get a dose of Cocktail Jazz – it all helps to keep the album warm, playful, approachable and sometimes even a little bit romantic.

I don’t remember what Friedman and Liebezeit said when I asked them how they initially got together. No matter how, it’s been the best of fates that their paths crossed and that Jaki Liebezeit still had more than a decade left to spend on this project. Five albums full of odd, uneven, strange and secret rhythms. And this one started it all.

Release for review:
(Misprint on the first edition identifying it as NON11 on the sleeve and NON10 under the barcode)

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