The early instrumental work by German guitar duo Martin Kolbe and Ralf Illenberger is quite breathtaking. When one hears of a guitar duo, immediately one assumes the worst: verbose technicality over concise emotion, bluesy runs used as crutches to help them work together, and a general lack of understanding of what a duo is (and what two soloists jammin’ together it’s not supposed to be). Martin and Ralf, luckily, seem to have an almost unmatched technical and creative relationship that feels, and sounds, like it was born at the hip, and not the project of two vastly different guitarists creating together. 1978’s release, the out of print Colouring The Leaves, on Mood Records captures them at their most free and quite possibly at their most intertwined.
They were both 19 when Martin and Ralf met in the small city of Waiblingen outside of Stuttgart, Germany. Rolf the classically trained one had achieved a modicum of as a member of an early folk duo he had created with fellow fingerpicker Jürgen Kirsch. It was Ralf, though, that Martin, the autodidact, who had already caused a stir with his own American-influenced folk covers, caught on stage some evening in Waiblingen, and immediately felt an intimate, creative kinship with. Spending countless hours on that fateful day talking and jamming on their acoustic guitars together, their apparent, symbiotic relationship was then decided to be explored on tape. Countless performances as a duo allowed them to form a graceful, copacetic idea of what they wanted to do as well. It was in 1977 when they took the next step.
Signed by the small, but still quietly influential, German jazz-rock imprint run by Germany’s pioneering Jazz guitarist Volker Kriegel. There, at Mood Records, they were granted the freedom to record their genre-less music. Not quite Jazz, folk, classical, blues, rock or anything else, on their debut (Waves) Martin Kolbe + Ralf Illenberger were joined by ECM bass giant Eberhard Weber and proto-ambient-jazz keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner. Forgoing any kind of percussion, Martin and Ralf took it upon themselves to revert the guitar to function both as percussive and melodic driver. Utterly gorgeous, at times, it recounts the folk side of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma or the equally free-folk jazz of early Pentangle, meeting the new, aesthetically ambient/yearning sound of European neoclassical music like Einsjäger & Siebenjäger-era Popol Vuh or other Teutonic slightly psychedelic groups like Gila, Between, etc. A refreshing listen, Waves, especially on songs like “In de Halle des Bergkönings” and “What About Nose” brings to mind the head-clearing pseudo-travelogue sounds of William Ackerman, Richard Schneider Jr., and Pat Metheny…without the dreaded weight of icy detachment those leave you their aftertaste with.
Just a year later, in 1979, they’d arrive at Colouring The Leaves. Even more thought out and developed, Colouring The Leaves once again found Martin and Ralf joined by Eberhard and Wolfgang to further experiment with their unclassifiable bit of instrumental guitar music. Far less tied to the rock, Jazz, or blues ideas of Waves, Colouring The Waves trafficked in ideas that touched on ambient, minimal, and New Age music. Intricate in a way that made it less obvious who was playing what and in a way that allowed each guitar to cycle through modular ideas, Colouring The Leaves ventured beyond mere table-duo-dressing. Filled with well thought out layers of overdubs, echo, and delicate tape experimentation, Martin and Ralf found ways to truly make their guitars sound “orchestral” and engrossing like never before.
A “Free Man In T’harde” introduces you to that new sound. Introduced by a backwards played, and barely there, guitar harmonic, as the duo layer upon layer guitar atmospherics, the track builds to a fever pitch where each new accompaniment perfectly filling the revolving musical movement. Songs like “Walzer” and “Groove” do even better to build on every technical trick in their arsenal to show the full extent of what their guitar sound can do. It is in these songs that light reverb effects allow their guitars to glide, approaching the impressionistic, moonlit, en plein air sound of the Southwestern desert music of Thomas Almqvist with every new counter-harmony and tasteful guitar pull-off. A marvel to hear, Colouring The Leaves leaves you forgetting that it’s just two extremely talented guitar players fomenting all the atmosphere in this music.
The obvious highlights, which spur me to share this album, are songs like “Veits Tanz”, “Emotions”, and “Colouring The Leaves”, moody, multi-varied pieces that follow one winding road to only fork through another, settling you in a land where very little sounds like what Martin + Ralf can only conjure together. Four hands, perfectly placed, tracking one gorgeous arpeggio upon other gorgeous, sympathetic arpeggio, coloring the spectral musical ambiance Eberhard and Wolfgang who add it wisely, sparingly, and brilliantly. Cloudy, sinewy, and quite lovely, Martin Kolbe + Ralf Illenberger’s Colouring The Leaves was quite possibly where the sound of this two became one.