By this time last week the calls had already piled up from Vermont and New Mexico, from Alabama and Quebec, and even from Switzerland: calls from fans of free-music improvisation who had heard, or read, or downloaded details about this weekend’s activities in Chicago. So when a sizable contingent of musicians arrive from Free Music Productions, Europe’s most respected collective of avant-garde improvisers; and when the subsequent storm of cross-cultural sound settles in over Chicago (their only stateside port of call); and when they finally join forces with a slew of Chicago compatriots–well, it would be unseemly to claim that nobody warned you.

In new-music circles, FMP carries a resonance not unlike that of Chicago’s own Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Part production company, part record label, and part artistic think tank, FMP grew out of the short-lived New Artists Guild, conceived by saxophonist Peter Brotzmann as a loose cooperative of avant-gardists. After organizing a sort of “counter-festival” to a mainstream jazz event in Cologne in the summer of ’68, these musicians moved east, where they organized another series of concerts to oppose the Berlin Jazz Festival. Christened the “Total Music Meeting,” this event drew artists from Germany, Holland, and Britain, which are still the hot spots of European free jazz; it has recurred every year since, gradually evolving into a fully accepted adjunct to the Berlin festival–and a true mecca for free-jazz aficionados.

By the fall of 1969, these musicians had founded FMP as a cooperative venture and had released their first LP by the Manfred Schoof Orchestra, which featured a who’s who of Europe’s least fettered improvisers. If anyone thinks that the group coming to Chicago is some ghost band of Johnny-come-latelies, consider that four of the visiting Europeans–the wizardly saxophonists Brotzmann and Evan Parker, the influential Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer, and Peter Kowald, one of the most arresting bass players on the planet–appeared on that very first FMP release. (Also on the bill are others from the original FMP class, saxist Rudiger Carl, the hyperactive but unsurpassedly soulful drummer Paul Lovens, and the British violinist Phil Wachsmann, who’s incorporated electronic effects into his improvising.)

More than any other organization, FMP has promoted the internationalism of avant-garde improvisation, starting in its own backyard. In the 70s, FMP began booking concert appearances by East German colleagues, thus making it possible for them to obtain one-day passes to West Berlin; because of these efforts, such musicians as the saxophonist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky and the drummer Gunter Sommer could capture listeners in the world west of the Wall. Like the AACM in Chicago, FMP has provided its artists with a degree of self-determination over their careers, no small matter in the music business. It has spawned a hothouse flowering of cross-pollinated groups and projects; and although subsidized by the German government, FMP has managed to exist as a going business concern while presenting the most intrepid and challenging music.

All of which gave Marguerite Horberg the idea of an FMP festival in Chicago. Horberg–proprietor of the currently nomadic HotHouse and founder of the Center for International Performance and Exhibition–received a call from Hans-Georg Knopp, director of the Goethe-Institut Chicago, asking if she was interested in presenting German artists. Having recently visited Germany, and having previously hosted both Brotzmann and Parker at the old HotHouse, Horberg proposed an FMP invasion; the Goethe-Institut provided monetary assistance and enlisted the efforts of the German American Arts Foundation.

Horberg then organized a local planning committee, including clarinetist, composer, and concert producer Gene Coleman and writer, DJ, and guitarist John Corbett, both of whom have strong professional and personal ties with many of the FMP players. From the beginning this group intended to stage a musical meeting between the Europeans and their Chicago counterparts, and Coleman and Corbett have acted as “curators” for this culminating event.

Tonight Brotzmann parades his hall-of-mirrors sound and multidimensional improvisations in a trio that features Chicagoans Harrison Bankhead on bass and Hamid Drake on drums, followed by the more traditionally structured music of the September Band, with vocalist Shelley Hirsch and Rudiger Carl in the front line. Saturday a three-ring event starts with a solo bass performance by Kowald, who uses a dazzling repertoire of unique techniques. He’ll be followed by the duo of Evan Parker and Paul Lovens–whose frequent collaborations have created a pronounced artistic empathy–and finally the Cowws (pronounced “Koffs”) Quintet, starring Schweizer, Wachsmann, and the American-born British bassist Barre Phillips. On Sunday more than a dozen AACM musicians are scheduled to join with the Europeans in a program designed to forge and test musical alliances through a series of “spontaneous exchanges”–a conscious re-creation of the forces that energized the first Total Music Meeting nearly 30 years ago.

You’ve been warned.

Tonight and Saturday the FMP festival lands at the Chopin Theatre, 1541 W. Division; sets start at 10 PM, and tickets go for $20. Sunday the festivities move to Goodspeed Hall at the University of Chicago, 1010 W. 59th St., at 4 PM, with tickets at $10. A photo exhibit will accompany the programs. Call 235-2334 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dagmar Gebers.