Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Vienna Blue Tomato, 24 October 2011

Another enthralling evening of free jazz and improv from two masters of the art. As with the last time I saw this duo two years ago, the concert showed how the sheer unpredictability and daredevilry of improvised music can translate, when handled with such intensity, into aesthetic realms of beauty and passion. For I can find no other way to describe Vandermark’s astonishing reeds work, the way he constantly fired molten riffs and melodies from his tenor sax while Nilssen-Love orchestrated a vast and enveloping presence on the drums.

It wasn’t all out-and-out Fire Music, though. When he turned to the clarinet Vandermark was tender and jazzy, to which the Norwegian responded with gently brushed and hand-played snare work. That wonderful sense of intuition and mutual understanding, the confidence and will to take the music into new and unexpected directions, was what made the concert so thrilling. As was the fact that we, the audience, were able to watch and listen to this unbridled creativity unfold as it happened.

2012 concerts wish list

Here’s my wish list of concerts for 2012. Except for Dead Can Dance, who have announced a reunion tour in 2012, these are all artists who still tour on a regular basis and for whom it has been a good long while since I last saw them. Kathleen Edwards and the Hold Steady I’ve never seen, much to my disappointment.  One or two of them I know will be touring but I have no idea whether I will get to see them. I shall revisit this list at the end of 2012 and check how many I got to see.

1. Dead Can Dance
2. Peter Hammill
3. Okkervil River
4. Gillian Welch
5. Kathleen Edwards
6. Home Service
7. Einstürzende Neubauten
8. The Dirty Three
9. Tindersticks
10. Cowboy Junkies
11. Spiritualized
12. The Hold Steady

Letter to The Wire, December 2011

In The Wire 332 you printed a letter from me, pointing out the existence of a second Peter Brötzmann documentary, Brötzmann, as well as the Soldier of the Road DVD featured in The Wire 331. My observation seems to have fallen on deaf ears, since David Keenan’s review (On Screen, The Wire 333) again fails to mention Brötzmann. More to the point, the review makes a few bizarre sideswipes alongside its acute remarks on Brötzmann’s status as an internationalist figure.

Keenan may not like the Full Blast trio, but the fact remains that since 2004 Peter has toured more regularly with this line-up than any other, so clearly he must see something in it that David doesn’t. For my money, the Full Blast rhythm section of Marino Pliakas and Michael Wertmüller is a thing of awesome power and range, shepherding Brötzmann away from jazz and towards some kind of free-noise take on speed metal. Swing isn’t part of the equation.

Elsewhere in the review, the idea that the Die Like A Dog quartet, which hasn’t played together since 1999, is “the fulcrum of [Brötzmann’s] back catalogue” is as strange as the claim that none of the other configurations included in the film (namely the Chicago Tentet and the all-reeds trio Sonore) is “quintessentially Brötzmann”. Indeed, the notion that there is a quintessential Brötzmann at all seems strangely at odds with Keenan’s spot-on identification of the inscrutability of the man’s art.

Letter to The Wire, October 2011

Thanks for the piece on Bernard Josse’s new Peter Brötzmann documentary Soldier of the Road (Wire 331). What you didn’t mention, however, is that there is also another Brötzmann doc out at the same time. This one, by René Jeuckens, Thomas Mau and Grischa Windus, is called simply Brötzmann and follows the saxophonist to Chicago Tentet gigs in London and his home town of Wuppertal.

Me, I’m waiting for someone to write the guy’s biography. Until that Herculean task is accomplished, these films will have to do.

Peter Brötzmann’s Long Story Short (Music Unlimited Festival), Wels, Austria, 5-6 November 2011: Day 4

(Review of day 3 here.)

The fourth and final day of this epic festival began for me with a stroll around Wels city museum. The two elderly ladies working the ticket booth put down their knitting to sell me a ticket; it was that kind of museum. Unsurprisingly, I had the place to myself. Soon afterwards I rolled up at the Stadttheater, where the first concert of the day was to take place. I arrived so early that I was able to wander into the auditorium unchallenged and reserve a seat. It was a good thing I did, too, as later on the theatre staff got wise to this ruse and closed all the doors. Come showtime, there was an almighty crush at the one entrance being used to let people in, as folk jockeyed for places in the queue. Ever the smart alec, I let the eager hordes push in front of me before taking up my previously nabbed favourable position.

Anyway, the curtain-raiser for day 4 was a special concert by the most fearsome big band in music, the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet. The saxophonist had lined up four leading Japanese musicians to play a set each with the Tentet at this benefit show in aid of the Fukushima nuclear disaster recovery effort. Each set lasted for thirty minutes, resulting in a two-hour tour de force of music. One of the four, guitarist Otomo Yoshihide, opened the concert with a brief speech about the aid programme in which he revealed that he actually grew up in Fukushima and that his parents still lived there. The Tentet were then joined by Brötzmann regular Toshinori Kondo, who added his astringent blasts of trumpet to the looming clouds formed by the core group. The set began in sombre fashion, with the brass and woodwinds tracing a funereal path in seeming acknowledgement of the tragic events in Japan. As is normal at the group’s concerts, the musicians split off into exploratory sub-groups before reuniting for a full-tilt finale.

The rest of the gig saw koto player Michiyo Yagi, Yoshihide himself and finally saxophonist Akira Sakata take their places alongside the Tentet. Yagi’s arco and pizzicato work was dizzyingly forceful, while the searing guitar improv with which Yoshihide opened his set was far more focused and direct than Keiji Haino’s effort the night before had been. Sakata, a trim little man in a smart waistcoat and an incongruous pair of black trainers, squared off against Brötzmann on alto sax before engaging in an epic soundclash with Mats Gustafsson on baritone sax and the inspired stickwork of Paal Nilssen-Love. At each turn, the Tentet allowed their guests plenty of room to make their presence felt before reaching a euphorically collective conclusion of the kind that only they can summon. A staggering performance by all concerned.

Back at the Alter Schlachthof later that evening, I continued to be much amused by the determination of the hardcore element of the audience. These guys – and they were nearly all guys – displayed astonishing speed and agility in charging to the front when the hall was opened for the evening’s concerts, ensuring that the first few rows were fully occupied within perhaps 30 seconds of the doors being opened. And of course I count myself as one of those fanatics, although I seemed to be the only person around me who was not clutching either a camera or some form of recording device.

The evening’s proceedings got underway with another configuration that was new to me, Brötzmann’s trio with the young American rhythm section of Eric Revis on double bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. I wasn’t overly convinced by this line-up, to tell you the truth. Brötzmann’s tenor was as incandescent as ever, but I had trouble relating it to the bass and drums. Although both Revis and Waits were superbly accomplished musicians, their playing seemed to lack verve and frequently tended towards the gruelling.

Which was not a criticism that could by any stretch be levelled at the next set by a revolving cast of Mats Gustafsson, Ken Vandermark, Massimo Pupillo, Kent Kessler, Hamid Drake and Paal Nilssen-Love. This immensely powerful set was the highpoint of the whole weekend for me, which was hardly surprising considering that the line-up contained two of everything – two saxophonists, two bassists and two drummers. What more could anyone wish for? Kessler was an unscheduled addition to this formidable aggregation, which was no bad thing as it meant that his long established trio with Drake and Vandermark, the unimaginatively named DKV Trio, were able to open the set. Never having caught this trio before, I was as enthralled by Drake’s vital and creative drumming and Kessler’s rock-solid bass as I was by the hyperactive swing of Vandermark’s tenor. This trio was followed by that of Gustafsson, Pupillo and Nilssen-Love, a Wels world premiere and the occasion for some staggeringly berserk bass work from the Italian. For the inevitable climax the two trios combined to produce the sextet to end them all, a breathtaking, overdriven performance by all concerned.

The not-quite finale of this exceptional weekend of music saw Brötzmann make his final appearance of the festival with the Full Blast trio of electric bassist Marino Pliakas and drummer Michael Wertmüller. This choice might have raised a few eyebrows, since the Swiss guys tend not to feature as visibly on the European improv circuit as folk like Vandermark, Gustafsson and Nilssen-Love, perhaps because of the fairly oblique relationship between what they do and free jazz. On the other hand, it should be noted that in recent years the saxophonist has played out with Full Blast more than just about any other group, which makes the decision to end his involvement in Long Story Short in this way not a surprise at all, to me at any rate. I stand by my description in the December issue of The Wire of this group as proposing “some kind of free noise take on speed metal”; it’s never less than engrossing to see Brötzmann’s livid tones cutting through the dark throb of Pliakas’ bass and the endless vistas of Wertmüller’s rapid-fire percussion. A typically non-conformist way to bow out.

Except it wasn’t really the end, since Brötzmann had chosen to give the final say to his guitarist son Caspar, playing a rare concert with his group Massaker. If there seemed to be an implication of passing on the baton about this unexpected piece of programming, it was one that was bolstered by the loudness and aggression with which Caspar brought down the curtain on Long Story Short. Backed by a monstrous bass and drums low end, the guitarist issued virulent sheets of metallic noise that twisted and juddered as though possessed by demons. I’m not sure why he was playing a left-handed guitar upside down in right-handed fashion, but by this point my synapses were so scrambled by Brötzmann fils’s deafening sonic attack that nothing seemed to make sense anymore. A shame that father and son did not appear onstage together, but in any event this was an appropriately disorientating end to the most extraordinary and enjoyable festival I’ve ever attended.

Concerts of 2011

Here’s some kind of list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2011, with links to the reviews I wrote at the time. In chronological order:

1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Arena, Vienna
2. Frode Gjerstad Trio with Mats Gustafsson, Blue Tomato, Vienna
3. Didi Kern & Philipp Quehenberger, Shelter, Vienna
4. Home Service, Half Moon, London
5. The Thing with Ken Vandermark, Porgy & Bess, Vienna
6. Glen Hansard, Porgy & Bess, Vienna
7. Peterlicker, Waves Festival, Vienna
8. Death In June, Ottakringer Brauerei, Vienna
9. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Stadttheater, Wels
10. Ken Vandermark/Mats Gustafsson/Massimo Pupillo/Kent Kessler/Hamid Drake/Paal Nilssen-Love, Alter Schlachthof, Wels

Peter Brötzmann’s Long Story Short (Music Unlimited Festival), Wels, Austria, 5-6 November 2011: Day 3

Peter Brötzmann has been on tour even more than usual in 2011, this being the year in which he celebrates his 70th birthday. But where did he choose to have the main event, the one that brought together pretty much all of his musical friends and collaborators, the Brötzfest to end all Brötzfests? Not Germany, not Japan and certainly not the UK, but Austria of course. Two years in the planning, Long Story Short was also the 25th Music Unlimited festival, an annual event rivalled only by the Konfrontationen festival in (this is getting embarrassing) Austria in its ability to attract, year after year, the world’s leading names in free jazz and improvised music. I was only able to make two of the festival’s four days, but the riches presented on those days were more than enough to convince one of the epochal, never-to-be-repeated nature of the event. As, indeed, was the staggering fact that the festival was sold out weeks in advance; how often has that happened at a free jazz fest?

Having said all that, I could probably have done without the extended set by Keiji Haino which opened the third full evening of the festival (I unfortunately missed what must have been a corking clash between Mats Gustafsson, dieb13 and Martin Siewert in the afternoon). Haino’s schtick is beginning to grate on me, a feeling planted by the lengthy vocal improv with which he kicked off and confirmed by the even longer instrumental passages which followed. The anguished cries, moans and utterances were those of a man being sick, while the pieces for guitar and analogue devices were intermittently entertaining but dragged on long after the point had been made. Ultimately, I would be more inclined to look favourably upon Haino’s performance if his persona weren’t so wilfully enigmatic and impenetrable, a pose that set him apart from just about every other artist at the festival.

It was something of a relief, therefore, when Peter Brötzmann took the stage for what turned out to be one of the grooviest, most sheerly enjoyable sets I’ve ever heard him play. This was due in no small part to his three co-musicians, all of whom were new to me: bassist Bill Laswell (yes, the man who ruined the sound of Swans on The Burning World), drummer Hamid Drake and guembri player Mokhtar Gania. You could tell this set was going to be unusual right from the moment Brötzmann hauled the bass saxophone onstage, a beast I’ve never heard him play before. Kicking off in duo format with Laswell’s undulant bass lines cascading around the thick resonances of the sax, the pair were shortly joined by Drake, who made an immediate impression with the deep rolling thunder of his percussion. As Brötzmann switched to tenor the exotically voiced Gania entered, and slipped with the rest of the troupe into an extended, irresistible groove. This extraordinary meeting brought into sharp relief one of the most remarkable things about Brötzmann’s recent work: the fact that he is not only a European, not only a member of the Chicago axis, but also, and increasingly, an internationalist.

From a completely new configuration to one of Brötzmann’s regular gigs, the Hairy Bones quartet with Massimo Pupillo, Toshinori Kondo and Paal Nilssen-Love. I’ve said all I have to say about this scorching line-up in previous reviews, so let me just note that this was Peter’s third full show of the day (a feat he was to repeat the following day), that the Alter Schlachthof remained packed even though the group didn’t come onstage until 12.30am, and that Brötzmann was, unusually for him, moved to complain about the onstage sound. It sounded fine to me in row 3, but who’s to say what he was or was not able to hear through his monitors. Isn’t that the sort of thing that’s supposed to be sorted out at soundcheck, though?

(Review of day 4 here.)