Full Blast and Friends: Crumbling Brain

Peter Brötzmann’s recent live work seems to be mostly divided between ad hoc, one-off collaborations and a small number of regular touring ensembles. Like all improvisers, Brötzmann thrives on the new and unexpected; but he also values the deep and intuitive understanding that comes from playing with likeminded souls on a recurrent basis. In addition, it’s with his regular touring groups that he gets the opportunity to give full rein to the more intense and overdriven aspects of his art. The Chicago Tentet are the best known example (and I was much amused by the gee-whiz-look-at-us tone of London hipster venue Café Oto’s promotion of the Tentet’s recent London residency there, which conveniently ignored the fact that they have toured all over mainland Europe for a number of years), but there’s also the Hairy Bones quartet and this Full Blast trio with Swiss improvisers Marino Pliakas and Michael Wertmüller.

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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.)

Ether column, November 2007

Fans of American alt-rock are faced with a difficult choice this month, as two of the more literate exponents of the genre play in Vienna on the same evening – a scheduling anomaly likely to halve the audience for both concerts. First up, Texas’ Okkervil River, who hit the Szene as part of an extensive European tour. Named after a river in St. Petersburg, Okkervil River have since forming in 1998 racked up four increasingly confident and powerful albums. Their current release, The Stage Names, is an exhilarating train ride of emotions hinging on the words and vocals of singer and lyricist Will Sheff. Sheff delivers his texts in a passionate, utterly persuasive style, switching from an outraged howl to a desolate and unearthly croon. Musically, Okkervil River present a feast of lush instrumentation, with cornet and lap steel guitar augmenting the band’s standard rock line-up and bringing Sheff’s precise and evocative lyrics sparklingly to life.

Across town at the Flex, New York’s Fiery Furnaces have their own album, Widow City, to promote. The brother and sister duo of guitarist Matthew and singer Eleanor Friedberger are a more challenging proposition than Okkervil River, with jarring changes of pace and blasts of concrète noise among the treats on offer. The Furnaces are songwriters at heart, however, and it’s never too long before their music returns to solid ground. With the core duo joined for live work by other musicians, the band specialise in lengthy medleys incorporating elements from a number of their songs.

Meanwhile, Porgy & Bess continues its ongoing mission to bring the finest free jazz musicians in the world to Vienna with a concert by the tenor saxophonist David S. Ware and his Quartet. Ware has an impeccable pedigree; he was taught circular breathing by the veteran saxman Sonny Rollins, and in the 70s played in pianist Cecil Taylor’s band. He didn’t set out with his own group until the late 80s, but he has more than made up for lost time with a relentless schedule of gigging and recording. With his febrile, provocative style, Ware is arguably the foremost living exponent of the Fire Music espoused by 60s greats like Ayler and Coltrane.

Finally, a quick mention of an appearance by someone even more out there than Ware: the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. I raved at length about Brötzmann in my June column, so this time I’ll simply note that he’s playing a special concert, starting at midnight, with the Japanese guitarist Keiji Haino. I can think of no better pair of musicians to keep the audience from falling into a small-hours slumber.