Jaki Liebezeit, 1938-2017

Earlier this week, Jaki Liebezeit, drummer in the hugely influential German band Can, sadly died. Rob Young, author of Electric Eden and a forthcoming biography of the band, considers this wildly gifted, cerebral, generous musician.

The drumming of Jaki Liebezeit, who died of a sudden bout of pneumonia on 22 January 2017 at the age of 78, is among the most miraculous acts of music making I have ever heard. He transformed 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 the German group 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.

‘I have survived everything’, he once said. Born in Ostrau near Dresden on 26 May 1938, Hans ‘Jaki’ Liebezeit lost his father during the war under mysterious circumstances, was taken to live with his mother and grandmother near Kassel, and took up trumpet at school, inspired by Louis Armstrong. He played in school marching bands where he became inured to the physical force of regular metronomic rhythm. In his next school band he filled a vacancy in the drum seat, just as he was discovering the new worlds of modern jazz and bebop, epitomised by the likes of Max Roach and Art Blakey. His principal jazz ally at this time – they met at Kassel high school in 1956 – was trumpeter Manfred Schoof, one of Germany’s most forward looking jazz players in the sixties and seventies.

With Schoof in Cologne from 1958, he developed a circle that included the likes of Alexander von Schlippenbach, Günter Hampel, Olaf Kübler (who would later manage the Krautrock group Amon Düül II and guest on Can’s Landed LP) and Lothar Meid (future bassist with Amon Düül II) in a loose collective known as the Jazz Cookers. By the early sixties Jaki’s listening was broadening out into Indian and Arabic musics, and he lived between 1961–65 in Barcelona, Spain, where he studied the intoxicating rhythms of flamenco. Playing in local bands, including that of local pianist Tete Montoliu, brought him in contact with musicians passing through the city, and he accompanied Chet Baker among others. Schoof and Liebezeit went on to form a hugely successful free jazz quintet in 1965, which occasionally played in constellations that included Swedish percussionist Sven-Åke Johansson and took part in a recording of a contemporary work by Bernt Alois Zimmermann, The Numbered (1967).

Why then did he quit this successful career in 1968? ‘I was fed up,’ he once told me, ‘and I was afraid there was no real freedom in it, because it was so limited. Things like pulse were forbidden in jazz, so I was frustrated with free jazz, and I felt as a drummer you have to play some pulse and rhythm, and not always play around the rhythm like they did. Don’t play the direct rhythm, but just feel it and play around: I think that’s nonsense. So I came back to kind of monotony in the beginning of Can.’

When Can was formed in Cologne, 1968 by various trainees under the Stockhausen school of avant garde and universalist electronic music (Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay), and a Jimi Hendrix-inspired guitarist just out of his teens (Michael Karoli), Liebezeit was the only founder to arrive with extensive experience as a performer and gigging live musician. Within Can, a group whose progress was a constant musical argument, he 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, 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 this quiet man threatening Czukay with an axe over some studio disagreement encapsulates his musical zeal.

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 polyrhythmic 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 ‘One More Night’ from Ege Bamyasi (1972), or ‘Spray’ and ‘Bel Air’ from Future Days (1973), 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.

Can was fluid, pluralistic and outernationalist, open to influence from all manner of ethnic musics and modern genres. Jaki’s expertise in the timbres and tinges of Africa, Middle Eastern and Asian music introduced a playfully exotic dimension to their so-called ‘Ethnological Forgery Series’, but when the time demanded it, he could rock harder than anyone. ‘You Doo Right’ (Monster Movie, 1969), ‘Mother Sky’ (Soundtracks, 1970) and ‘Pinch’ (Ege Bamyasi, 1972) are proof of that.

When Can’s clockwork ran down in 1978, he graciously accepted that the project had run its course, and simply and practically continued his work as a drummer backing various solo Can members and other friends and collaborators. From the surging motorik beats on Michael Rother’s late 70s solo LPs to the covert work on releases by Pluramon, Primal Scream and Depeche Mode; from a slot on Eno’s Before and After Science to his own groups Phantomband, Club Off Chaos, Secret Rhythms with Cologne musician Burnt Friedman, and a recent duo with Hans-Joachim Irmler of krautrock band Faust, he was rarely idle. He was for many years the resident drummer for Jah Wobble’s various solo groups and in 2013 recorded an EP with Cyclopean, a composite of Liebezeit, Friedman, fellow Can founder Irmin Schmidt and the British electronic producer Jono Podmore. The alliances he forged were long and fruitful.

He was looking forward to appearing on stage in London in April with the first Can vocalist Malcolm Mooney – with whom his more abrasive side particularly gelled – and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. There was no sense, when I last met him in Cologne in May 2016 in the final research stages of my forthcoming Can biography, that he was winding things down. On the contrary he was actively lining up new concerts and tours into 2017. The illness that finished him took hold with alarming suddenness, but he died at peace in hospital, happy and in the presence of close loved ones. The heartbeat may have stopped, but his pulse will live for ever.

About Rob Young
Rob Young author photo
Rob Young is the author of Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music,  Rough Trade and Warp, and the editor of Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music and The Wire Primers: A Guide to Modern Music. He has contributed to publications including The Wire, Uncut, the GuardianSight & SoundFrieze and Art Review. He lives in Oslo.