Peter Brötzmann turns 70 this year, but despite this milestone is showing no signs of easing off on his famously prodigious work rate. In the spring he’ll tour once again with his Chicago Tentet; no Vienna date for that massive big band this time, alas, but then again we were rather spoilt by the three-day Tentet-fest that took place here last November. In the meantime, here he was in a duo setting that was new to me, with American cellist (and Tentet member) Fred Lonberg-Holm. Sounding unlike any Brötzmann gig I’ve ever seen before, it proved a fascinating face-off.
What Lonberg-Holm brought to the party was a somewhat cerebral avant-garde sensibility that marked him out from Brötzmann’s usual collaborators from the worlds of jazz and improv. The cellist spent much of the time crouched low on his chair, reaching down to manipulate his arsenal of effects boxes. He also exhibited a fondness for extended techniques such as manipulating sticks which he had placed between the strings of the cello. Other sections sounded more composed, flowing, romantic even, while at odd moments Lonberg-Holm also showed himself not to be averse to a bit of fuzz-heavy rocking out as well.
Brötzmann responded to this variety of approaches with his customary adroitness and sympathy. Switching from tenor sax to tarogato in the first set, then to alto for the second, he graciously allowed the cellist to set the agenda for the music and was at times unusually restrained as a result. I got the impression that Brötzmann’s playing was vexed by its surroundings, struggling to work itself free from the structures imposed by Lonberg-Holm. As a result, the German’s signature volcanic eruptions were slower to come than usual. When the moment called for it, though, Brötzmann didn’t hesitate to reach deep inside and produce a solo of staggering incandescence and vitality. He’s still the master at 70, and if anyone is insolent enough to ask how long he can continue like this, these words (taken from a 2000 interview) should provide all the answers they need:
If I said at the time and if I still say it today, that we’ll just play until we drop, it’s not because we’re heroes. We have to. There isn’t much else for us to do but to carry on playing. You don’t make a fortune playing this kind of music. I just hope that I’m aware of it when my head and my body aren’t fully there anymore and that I can afford to say, Brötzmann, that was it – the rest I’ll keep to myself.