Mojo APRIL 2017 - by Mike Barnes


Jaki Liebezeit, the peerless drumming superpower of Can, left us on January 22.

When Jaki Liebezeit - whose surname translates as 'Lovetime' - joined Can in Cologne in 1968, he found himself in the company of like-minded musicians who wanted to de-learn what they had been taught and create something entirely new.

Born in Dresden in 1938, Liebezeit was a young devotee of Indian, Turkish and Arabic music, as well as jazz. He was a reluctant free jazz drummer, when he recalled being collared by "some kind of freak" after a gig who told him that he "must play monotonously". That famous exchange may have gained both in translation and the retelling, but it nevertheless represented a moment of epiphany, for after joining Can, Liebezeit began exploring rhythm in the most singular manner.

Whether playing straight 4/4 or more complex compound rhythms, his drumming had both a formidable precision and an elegant 'feel' in the timing and weight of each beat, which provided its hypnotic quality, and made him both enormously influential and impossible to emulate. In 1974, journalist Ian McDonald joked that the drummer could "stop clocks at will".

Creating spontaneously with Can, his playing could be flamboyant and expansive, and of the competing elements within that most telepathic of groups his was arguably the most important. He admitted that 1971's mighty Tago Mago was his favourite of their albums, and that he was less keen on later, more technically accomplished works.

After Can's dissolution in 1979, with collaborators including Phantom Band, Jah Wobble's Solaris, Club Off Chaos, Burnt Friedman and Cyclopean, he pared down his drumming style as if in single-minded pursuit of some underlying rhythmic truth. He also stripped down his kit,with the bass drum deemed redundant. Liebezeit described sitting behind it, perched on his drumstool, as too much like "riding a horse".

Singer, guitarist and songwriter Robert Coyne recorded three albums with Liebezeit from 2013. He was surprised that Liebezeit had also ditched the hi-hat. "He'd devised a kit that would oblige him to be more creative," says Coyne. "He was still trying very hard to improve and refine what he was doing. He was particularly disdainful of hi-hats, saying, 'It was invented to play the Charleston! I am not often playing the Charleston these days.' He had a very dry wit. He played simple but perfectly conceived and executed parts to everything. After one take, he said to me, 'I'm not trying to show off, or show you how much I can play. I just want to make music.'"

A man not given to unnecessary talk - in 2012, he described his modus to Mojo simply as "I must obey the rhythm" - Liebezeit had planned to write a book on his theories of rhythm, titled, with typical economy, Drum Rhythm Theory. He continued playing until his death from pneumonia, and had been looking forward to appearing at The Can Project concert at The Barbican in April, with bandmates Irmin Schmidt and Malcolm Mooney. "He was quiet, gentle and thoughtful," says Coyne. "An incredible musician and a wonderful man."