Peter Brötzmann – Solo + Trio Roma (Victo CD 122/123)
Hairybones – Snakelust (CF 252)
The revisionist position on Peter Brötzmann is that he is not “really” a screamer after all, but a lyrical improviser whose frequent assaults on the altissimo range are perverse confirmation of a quieter and more accommodating nature. Revisionism has its uses, but this example fails to convince. It is a little like describing Muhammad Ali as a “poet” or Joe Frazier as a “singer”: neither false, neither sufficient, both misleading. For a start, it confuses exception with rule, the most obvious exception being the unaccompanied 1984 14 Love Poems. It is also, quite transparently, an attempt to rebrand the “saxophone terrorist” (vile phrase!) in line with a gentler and less confrontational market aesthetic. In reality, we still look to Brötzmann for high-energy playing, putatively engendered by Coltrane, Sanders and Ayler, but bearing surprisingly little of that strain and far closer in terms of development and basic texture to Sonny Rollins than is usually acknowledged.
These performances were recorded some four months apart, in Victoriaville and Lisbon respectively, during the summer of 2011. The first disc is a set of solo reed improvisations, including a new, alto version of Ornette’s “Lonely Woman,” which led off 14 Love Poems, but on baritone. The other disc is a trio performance from the following day with drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and electric bassist Massimo Pupillo. The use of an electric bass in a Brötz group stretches back to Last Exit (if indeed they can be placed in his column), but is still somewhat surprising. The saxophonist has had close and creative associations with master bassists, Peter Kowald most obviously, but William Parker and Kent Kessler as well. Electric bass put in an appearance on the relatively obscure 1999 Noise of Wings from Kungälv in Sweden with drummer Peeter Uuskyla and Peter Friis Nielsen whose juicy, uncomplicated sound sets a mark for Pupillo’s role in the more recent trio. Critics love to feign surprise, even shock, at musician’s recruitment decisions. It reached something of a hysterical peak with Miles’s appropriation of Michael Henderson. I’d say Brötzmann’s use of electric bass is closer to Rollins’ loyalty to Bob Cranshaw, one of the few players of the older school who invests bass guitar with real character and personality. But I was also irresistibly reminded of some of Brötz’s work with his guitarist son Caspar Brötzmann, and in particular the remorseless Last Home on Pathological (!), on which there is little sign of interplay between the two duo voices, just parallel lines. Where once I might have thought this was a criticism, it may turn out to be descriptive and definitive. Pupillo throbs away, sometimes in a meter that seems to waver from bar to bar but that on a closer and more detailed count maintains its relentless progress. Again, not a criticism; just the way this music seems to function, with Brötzmann worrying away at ideas for many minutes, Nilssen-Love providing much of the movement and color. It’s an intoxicating blend.
The solo disc from Victoriaville begins with a version of “Never Too Late But Always Too Early,” a title which became associated after a previous Canadian performance in Kowald’s memory. It’s a brooding, reflective piece here, taken on alto with supple use of the lower register. The other pieces are for clarinet and tenor, with the surprise appearance of “I Surrender, Dear” tacked on to the end of “Frames of Motion.” The trio performances seem to share some energy, if not an actual body of musical material, with the solo date. Certain phrases, and their inversions, play a part in both. The solitariness proposed in the Ornette piece seems to give way to a group philosophy that does not depend on clichés of empathy, “telepathy” or even communication, but a constructivist logic that relies on simple co-presence and co-existence. It’s worth listening again with this in mind. Parallel elements have no necessary connection. They simply work, and work very powerfully as a musical unity.
That sense is complicated slightly with the addition of Kondo for Hairybone’s Lisbon performance. This is a format that has been around for many years. Its language is implicit in the inchoate Marz Combo sessions of 1992, when Brötzmann was still evolving a language for larger-scale ensembles. It was made explicit on Die Like A Dog and the two volumes of Little Birds Have Fast Hearts, on which William Parker and Hamid Drake form the two other legs of the quartet. Kondo’s electronics significantly fill in the sound, in a quite different way to, say, Evan Parker’s marshalling of electronics within his recent larger ensembles, but here in a curious balance between a bigger, “orchestral” palette and the “intimacy” (another curious cliché) of a small group. It doesn’t sound intimate. It sounds challenging, and in a very particular way because there is no obvious common cause among the players, no sense of a consistent front or message. The result is far from chaotic, but it is also far from normative or routinely cohesive. Again, Nilssen-Love creates the most obvious sense of movement. The reeds (which this time include tarogato) worry away at ideas and then drop abruptly silent, marking deep and dramatic transitions in what is otherwise a continuous 53 minute performance. The title is taken from and the piece dedicated to poet and short story writer Kenji Nakagami, who died prematurely in 1992. The group’s collective title should offer some warning against any assumption that this is Brötzmann’s project, but equally one shouldn’t assume that the dedication to Nakagami is Kondo’s sole responsibility. The aesthetic it implies is one Brötzmann thoroughly understands, a body of work that draws much of its energy from the divisions within Japanese society, of race, language and class primarily. More than ever, Brötzmann draws his energy from the Babel of contemporary styles and from the uneasy truce between once-irreconcilable approaches. Both the trio and Hairybones have some elements of rock and noise, and show some resistance to virtuosic soloing. It’s the nature of that resistance that makes this music so compelling.