CULT CLASSIC: SUNBIRDS-SUNBIRDS.
Cult Classic: Sunbirds-Sunbirds.
Back in the seventies, the only German band most British people had heard of was Kraftwerk. A few more knowledgeable music lovers have heard of Can, and maybe, Neu!, Cluster or Harmonia. That however, was the extent of their knowledge of German music. That was a great shame, as Germany in the seventies, had one of the most vibrant and eclectic music scenes. One of the best kept secrets of the German music scene was Sunbirds, who released two albums between 1971 and 1973.
Sunbirds were a Munich based jazz-rock band, who released their eponymous debut album on the BASF label in 1971. Two years later,and Sunbirds returned with their sophomore album Zagara. Sadly, Zagara was also Sunbirds’ final album. After just two albums, Sunbirds recording career was over. Zagara was Sunbirds’ swan-song, and brought to a close what could’ve been a glittering career.
No wonder. Sunbirds lineup featured five talented and experienced musicians. They came from Germany, Austria, Holland, England and America. These five musicians had worked with some of the biggest names in jazz, before Sunbirds recorded their eponymous debut album on 21st August 1971.
Drummer Klaus Weiss was born in Gevelsberg, Germany, in 1942. By 1971, he ahd previously alongside Bud Powell, Johnny Griffin and Kenny Drew. Klaus Weiss had also been a member of the Klaus Dinger Quartet. However, since 1967, Klaus Weiss was the drummer Erwin Lehn Orchestra. In his downtime, Klaus collaborated with many musicians, including Hampton Hawkes, Leo Wright and free jazz pioneer Don Cherry. Although he was only twenty-nine, Klaus was an experienced musician. So were other future members of Sunbirds, including Klaus Weiss’ partners in the rhythm section.
Bassist Jimmy Woode was born in Philly in 1928, and compared to the other members of Sunbirds, was almost a veteran. Jimmy had already enjoyed a glittering career, and had been a professional musician for over twenty years.
Originally, Jimmy Woode had played piano and trombone, but later, switched to double bass. On graduating high school, Jimmy studied music in his home town of Philly, and then in Boston. He then went on to play alongside some of the great and good of jazz.
This included Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fiztgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Louis Armstrong. Then in 1955, Jimmy Woode joined Duke Ellington’s big band. For the next five years, Jimmy was part of the Duke’s band. However, in 1960 he left the Duke’s employ, and headed to Europe.
Jimmy Woode wasn’t the first American jazz musician to head to Europe. Many jazz musicians had made Europe their home, and were enjoying a renaissance in their career. So Jimmy headed to Sweden, and later, made Germany his home. By the time he joined the Sunbirds, Jimmy was living in Munich. So was guitarist Philip Catherine.
Just like Jimmy Woode, Philip Catherine had made Munich his home. He was born in London in 1942, into a musical family. Phillip’s grandfather had, at one point, been the first violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra. Phillip was similarly talented.
Phillip Catherine had been inspired to play the guitar after hearing George Brassens. From the first time he picked up a guitar, music seemed to flow from Phillip. Soon, he had developed into a talented guitarist. Unlike Jimmy Woode, he didn’t study music. Instead, he learnt from listening to the great jazz men of the day. Eventually, he was playing alongside them.
From 1969, right through until he joined Sunbirds, Philip Catherine accompanied Lou Bennett, Dexter Gordon and Stéphane Grappelli. Philip’s versatility allowed him to adapt to playing alongside a wide variety of artists. That was also the case with Dutch saxophonist Ferdinand Povel.
He was born in the Haarlem, near Amsterdam, in 1947.Growing up, Ferdinand Povel learnt to play the saxophone. Eventually, Ferdinand Povel was equally comfortable playing the tenor and alto sax. Ferdinand could also play the flute. Success came early in Ferdinand’s career.
In 1964, when Ferdinand Povel was only seventeen he won the prestigious Loosdrecht, the Netherlands Jazz Festival. This essentially launched Ferdinand’s career. By 1969, he was touring with Goykovich’s Summit Quartet, where he switched between the tenor and occasionally the alto saxophone. It was only when Ferdinand joined Sunbirds that he switched to flute full time. The final member of Sunbirds’ cosmopolitan lineup was Austrian pianist Fritz Pauer.
He was born in Vienna born pianist, was born in 1943, and was the youngest member of the Sunbirds. However, he already had a wealth of experience. Fritz Pauer had played alongside Fatty George and Hans Koller in the early sixties. Then as the sixties drew to a close, Fritz formed a trio with Erich Bachtragi and Jimmy Woode. Then in 1970, Fritz joined the ORF Radio Band By 1971, Fritz Pauer had written a number of new songs, and was about to show them to another future member of Sunbirds.
Having written some new songs, pianist Fritz Pauer decided to take them to Klaus Weiss. When Klaus saw the songs, he was impressed, so much so, that he suggested to Fritz that they record these songs with a new band.
Gradually, the new band took shape. Cosmopolitan described its lineup. The rhythm featured Klaus on drums, American bassist, and Fritz’s friend Jimmy Woode and English guitarist Phillip Catherine. Augmenting them, were Fritz on electric piano, and Ferdinand Povel on flute. However, there was a problem, the new band didn’t have a name.
It was then that one of the band was looking at the three songs Fritz had written. They had were Sunrise, Sunshine and Sunbirds, and were all written in the key of E. There was a reason for this. E was regarded as the sun note in esotericism. That’s why one of the band suggested Sunbirds as the name of the band. It stuck, and Sunbirds began work on their debut album, Sunbirds.
Given Fritz had already written Sunrise, Sunshine and Sunbirds, the members of Sunbirds only had to write a few more songs before they could record their debut album. Eventually, another five tracks were written. However, only three would feature on Sunbirds’ eponymous debut album; the Phillip Catherine composition Kwaeli; the Jimmy Woode penned Blues For D.S. and Spanish Sun, which was penned by the five members of Sunbirds. These tracks were recorded on 24th August 1971 at Union Studios, München, Germany.
The five members of Sunbirds worked with Reinhold Mack at the Union Studios. He recorded what became Sunbirds, while twenty-nine year old Klaus Weiss produced the album. Sunbirds recorded eight tracks in one day. All that was left was to mix the tracks.
On 25th August 1971, the five members of Sunbirds returned to Union Studios. As they began to mix Sunbirds, they chose the songs that would make it onto the album. Eventually, two tracks didn’t make the cut. The first was Fire Dance, which would be rerecorded on Sunbirds’ sophomore album Zagara. Now there were only seven tracks left. Still it was too long to fit on one album. Something had to give. Eventually, it was decided that Dreams a ten minute epic would be cut from the album. The six remaining tracks became Sunbirds. Now all they needed to do was get a label interested in Sunbirds.
Luckily, Klaus Weiss had connections at BASF, one of Germany’s biggest labels. When Klaus let the the A&R people at BASF hear the album, they were so impressed by Sunbirds that they signed the new band. Things began to happen quickly.
Later in 1971, Sunbirds was released on BASF. However, there were no critically acclaimed reviews. Instead, Sunbirds seemed to pass critics by. This however, wasn’t unusual.
In the early seventies, across Germany, many talented groups were releasing albums of groundbreaking music. Often, this music was way ahead of its time. Kraftwerk and Amon Düül II were finding this out the hard way. So would Sunbirds, and would only be later that their music found the audience it deserved.
Sadly, when Sunbirds was released in 1971, the album sunk without trace. Part of the problem was, by 1971, BASF was a vast conglomerate. A record company was just part of its business portfolio. However, BASF didn’t seem to have the personnel to run what was a pan European record company.
They seemed to lack the expertise to promote Sunbirds. That essentially killed the album. BASF seemed to lack a proper distribution network that ensure the album found its way into shops. That was the last straw. So it was no surprise that Sunbirds across not a commercial success.
Far from it. Only a few discerning record buyers bought Sunbirds’ eponymous debut album. At most, only a few thousand copies of Sunbirds were sold. For Sunbirds, this was a huge blow. A bigger blow came when BASF pulled the plug on Sunbirds.
For the five members of Sunbirds, this came as a crushing blow. A tour had been planned to promote Sunbirds. That fell by the wayside. As it was, Fritz didn’t have the time to head out on tour. So a decision was made that Sunbirds remainder a studio project. It was a case of what might have been.
Opening Sunbirds is Kwaeli, where the the Klaus’ drums provide the backdrop to Jimmy’s bass. As it’s plucked confidently and deliberately, it takes centre-stage. Meanwhile, Klaus provides the heartbeat, before pounding the cymbals. That’s the signal for Fritz’s Hohner Electra-piano and Ferdinand’s flute enter. By then, the arrangement is moodily meandering along, with Phillip’s chiming guitar joining the fray. Soon, the tempo increases as Sunbirds enjoy the opportunity to stretch their legs, as elements of fusion and progressive rock melt into one. The result is a truly timeless track.
Sunrise is the first of a trio of tracks penned by Fritz Pauer. From the distance, the sound of Sunbirds’ rhythm section draws closer. They seem to almost gallop along. That however, is down to the way Klaus plays the cymbals. He eschews the drums, allowing the rest of the rhythm section to join forces with the flute and chirping guitar. Repetition is the key as Sunbirds thoroughly explore the groove. Once they’ve taken things as far as they possibly can, they throw a curveball. Washes of keyboards and wah-wah guitar add a psychedelic hue. By then, it’s fusion meets psychedelia and classic rock. Soon, Sunbirds are off and running, as they head in the direction of progressive rock. Sci-fi sounds are added to the arrangement. So is a Hendrix-esque performance from guitarist Phillip Catherine, as Sunbirds become sonic explorers, adding space rock to their heady musical brew.
Spanish Sun is a twelve minute epic. Its elegant sound gradually unfolds. Just a wistful flute accompanies the probing bass, and soon, the unmistakable sound of Fritz Pauer’s Hohner Electra. Everyone is playing within themselves, leaving space in the music. That’s until the bass is let off the lease, and a smattering sci-fi sounds show that it’s all change. Another clue is Klaus’ drums. They lock horns with the rumbling bass and glistening guitar. By now, the tempo is rising, and Phillip Catherine has stepped forward and begins to unleash his finest solo so far. Seamlessly, he and his guitar become one. Behind him, the rhythm section lock into a groove where jazz and rock unite. Swirls of sci-fi sounds dance, while Sunbirds’ rhythm section take centre-stage. Later, Fritz lays down a solo on his eclectic piano. It’s augmented by Phillip’s guitar, while the rhythm section drive the arrangement along. For twelve magical minutes, Sunbirds combine to create what’s their Magnus Opus, Spanish Sun.
From the get-go, Sunbirds kick loose on Sunshine. Klaus’ hypnotic drums provide backdrop as for the buzzing bass and airy flute. Soon, a chiming, funky guitar is unleashed. Choppy licks accompany the Fritz Pauer’s Hohner Electra. His fingers fly across the keyboards, as he and Phillip seem to drive each other to greater heights. Meanwhile, the rest of the rhythm are content to let them enjoy the limelight. Later, Klaus gets in on the act, and works his way round his kit. Ferdinand then joins the fray, and Sunbirds are in full flight. Later, Phillip steps forward and steals the show; delivering what’s without doubt, his best solo on the album. His fingers flit up and down the fretboard, as he delivers a fluid, jazz-tinged musical masterclass. This proves to be the icing on a particularly tasty musical cake.
Dramatic describes the introduction to Sunbirds. Space is left as the bass hums menacingly and cymbals shimmer. Ferdinand’s flute adds to the cinematic sound. Meanwhile, the keyboards add a brief otherworldly sound. Soon, Sunbirds are playing as one, and the arrangement meanders along. The feel-good sound they create brings back memories of long, sunny summer days. At 3.26 guitarist Phillip Catherine steps forward, and delivers another of his trademark glistening solos. It’s another stunning solo. Sometimes, it seems Phillip has nowhere to go, but he seems to find another note. It’s like slight of hand. Behind him, swathes of otherworldly sounds are joined by the rhythm section. Later, when Phillip’s guitar drops out, Sunbirds play as one. They fuse elements of fusion, classic rock, psychedelia, space rock and avant garde, as they take the listener on a magical, musical mystery tour.
Closing Sunbirds, is Blues For D.S. The title is ironic. By 1971, many new German groups had rejected the blues influence on music. This included pioneers like Kraftwerk, Kluster, Cluster and Neu! For them, the blues was the ghost of music past. It wasn’t part of Germany’s musical past. So a new generation of German musicians rejected the blues influence on modern music. Still, though, many other German bands embraced blues, and blues rock was a popular genre. However, Sunbirds were musical alchemists.
Granted there’s a brief blues influence on Blues For D.S. However, jazz is the most obvious influence. Keyboards and the rhythm section combine, before the mellow, airy sound of the flute breeze along. It’s accompanied by chirping, funky guitar licks. Soon, jazz funk shines throughs. When Phillip Catherine takes charge, Fritz Pauer is at his side. They breeze their way through the track. His guitar runs are augmented by stabs of electric piano, before Ferdinand’s flute takes centre-stage. He’s helped on his way by Jimmy’s bass and Phillip’s chiming guitar. Then it’s Fritz’s turn to shine, when he delivers a glorious solo. Meanwhile, Klaus is content to let other people take the limelight, as this wistful, but beautiful sounding track draws to a close and an album that features a band who could’ve and should’ve, had a glittering career.
The problem was, Sunbirds signed to the wrong label. BASF in 1971, seemed to a be somewhat dysfunctional record company. It wasn’t equipped to promote new artists. If they had been, then Sunbirds would’ve found a much wider audience. Sunbirds, it seemed, had signed to the wrong label.
Who knows what might have happened if Klaus Weiss had had contacts at Ohr, Brain or even Liberty? Maybe these labels would’ve promoted Sunbirds more effectively, and the band wouldn’t have been relegated to a studio project. That’s why it was another two years before Sunbirds returned with their sophomore album Zagara in 1973. Sadly, it didn’t fare any better than Sunbirds. However, Sunbirds weren’t alone.
Far from it. In the early seventies, countless bands released albums of groundbreaking music. However, many of these albums sunk without trace. Often, it was through no fault of the band. Many had the misfortune to sign to the wrong label. Some of these labels lacked the knowledge, nous or funds to promote an album. As a result, albums that could’ve played an important part in German musical history were lost for a generation.
It’s hard to believe that Sunbirds was recorded back in 1971, as the album has a truly timeless sound. It’s an album that could’ve been recorded anywhere between 1971 and 2019. In fact, it’s an album that could’ve been recorded in the last few years. However, there’s an important clue as to the when Sunbirds was recorded.
While fusion is the most prominent genre on Sunbirds, and to some extent, provides the biggest clue to the date of Sunbirds’ ‘birth’. However, this isn’t just a fusion album. There’s diversions via avant garde, classic rock, jazz, funk, progressive rock and psychedelia. These curveballs disguise Sunbirds’ age, and play their part their part in the album that should’ve launched what was a long and illustrious career for a talented and versatile band.
Sadly, that wasn’t to be. However, a small crumb of comfort to the four remaining members of Sunbirds is that their eponymous debut album is being discovered by a new generation of music lovers are discovering Sunbirds’ music. They’re belatedly discovering one of German music’s best kept secrets and their cult classic Sunbirds.
The genie is out the bottle, and somewhat belatedly, Sunbirds are receiving the credit and critical acclaim that their music deserves. At last, Sunbirds’ timeless eponymous debut album is starting to be heard by a much wider, and appreciative audience than heard its release back in 1971. They’ll cherish Sunbirds’ groundbreaking, genre-melting debut album, which is a musical treasure trove, from what was, one of the finest Munich-based bands of the early seventies.
Cult Classic: Sunbirds-Sunbirds.