Short Cuts 4: FM Einheit, Peter Brötzmann/Full Blast, Terry Riley, Naked Lunch

The fourth in an occasional series of handy bite-size reviews of recent concerts I haven’t got the time or the energy to write more about.

FM Einheit, Vienna Fluc Wanne, 5 October 2010

Enjoyable evening of metal-bashing and whatnot from the ex-Einstürzende Neubauten man. Einheit had kitted out the venue with long metal coils suspended from the ceiling, and played them with mallets and hand drills to the accompaniment of backing tapes. He also made the already dusty atmosphere of the Fluc Wanne even murkier by pulverising concrete blocks into rubble. It was all very industrial, but I can’t help feeling that the moment for this kind of thing has come and gone. Neubauten didn’t replace him, after all. Plus, it wasn’t Mufti’s fault but this concert had the most annoying audience member I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter, a bloke down the front who insisted on dancing – dancing, I tell you – and shouting incomprehensibly throughout the entire set.

Full Blast, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 18 October 2010

The incomparable Peter Brötzmann returned to Vienna for the first time in a year, this time with his Swiss rhythm section of Marino Pliakas on bass guitar and Michael Wertmüller on drums. The trio was augmented on this occasion by the ubiquitous Ken Vandermark on reeds, plus an additional trumpeter and percussionist. Unusually, the first half of this evening was devoted to a composed piece by Wertmüller, who conducted energetically from his drumkit. It was something of a surprise to see music stands onstage at a Brötzmann gig; he didn’t have one himself, of course, but all the others did.

It was “as you were” after the interval, as the sextet launched into a furious, raging improv. Great to see Peter end the set by jumping into the air on the last note, just like Springsteen with his guitar. Except for a blistering duet with Brötzmann in the second half, I felt Vandermark struggled to make his presence felt in this context.

Terry Riley, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 23 October 2010

A grave disappointment, this. I went along on the basis of Riley’s peerless reputation as a minimalist composer, rightfully gained from his seminal works In C and A Rainbow In Curved Air. But on this occasion Riley proposed a series of shortish, dreary piano pieces, with meandering and soporific accompaniment from Talvin Singh on tabla and George Brooks on saxophone. I’m out.

Naked Lunch, Vienna Arena, 30 October 2010

This was the first time I’ve seen Naked Lunch do a proper show of their own, rather than play the Universalove soundtrack. It was a superb, engrossing performance. Oliver Welter prowled the stage intently, his haunting voice tracing patterns of love and loss around the emotionally dissonant forces unleashed by the music. There’s a troubling, volatile core to this group; the songs obey many of the rules of alt.rock, yet they contrive to keep the listener off balance with their jagged, restless qualities.

And by the way, am I really the only non-Austrian who thinks Naked Lunch are great? Apart from the growing pile of unread and uncommented-upon reviews on this blog, I’ve never seen a single word written about them in English.

Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Vienna Blue Tomato & Martinschlössl, 3-5 November 2010

I nearly fell off my chair when I read the announcement of these dates. On both previous occasions when I’ve seen the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet it’s been at Porgy & Bess, the kind of spacious venue where you might expect this huge free jazz aggregation to play. But the tiny stage of the Blue Tomato, and the local Gasthaus Martinschlössl? Some mistake surely?

There was no mistake, of course. The first two of these nights saw the Tentet perform in various subgroups, while the last night saw the whole shebang come together for the kind of all-out aural assault in which this group specializes. The idea of subgroups made good sense for a couple of reasons. Firstly, these breakout groups are kind of fundamental to the ways of the Tentet, with their gigs flowing freely between full-on blats and quieter duo/trio sections. And secondly, there was no way that all eleven [sic] members of the Tentet were going to fit on the stage of the Tomato anyway.

Having said that, I did feel that the first night at the Blue Tomato could have got off to a more rip-roaring start. The first group on was the Brass Choir, consisting of Johannes Bauer and Jeb Bishop (both on trombone), Joe McPhee on a little trumpet (a pocket trumpet, apparently) and Per-Åke Holmlander on tuba. This was heavy going, with Bauer throwing his usual self-satisfied poses and a comparative lack of timbral variation adding to the monotony. The set dragged on for much too long, but things perked up soon after when Sonore (Brötzmann’s reeds trio with Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson) took to the stage. Of course, lack of timbral variation is something you could equally well accuse Sonore of; but in their case it hardly matters when the music is as deliriously joyful and bouncy as this. McPhee re-emerged on sax to round off the evening, accompanied by the all-guns-blazing cello of Fred Lonberg-Holm and Michael Zerang’s rippling, surging percussion work.

The second night kicked off with Sonore sans Brötzmann, a wild and lusty duo in which Gustafsson and Vandermark gave full vent to the sheer physicality of their playing. It was dizzying stuff, and there was to be little respite as the great Paal Nilssen-Love sat down behind the kit, on this occasion across the stage from Jeb Bishop. Having developed a dislike for the trombone I didn’t particularly expect to enjoy this set, but Bishop convinced me with his flowing and disciplined approach to the instrument, the antithesis of Bauer’s tiresome flights of self-indulgence. Nilssen-Love, needless to say, was formidable.

I opted to skip the trio of Bauer, Holmlander and Lonberg-Holm in favour of some much-needed fresh air outside, and was able to exchange a few words with Brötzmann, who was also outside, smoking his way through an enormous cigar. Returning indoors, the saxophonist lined up his quartet with McPhee, Zerang and double bass player Kent Kessler, a group that has played together on many occasions but which I had never had the pleasure of catching before. It was a storming finale, the four of them perfectly attuned to each other as only great improvisers can be.

The appearance by the entire Tentet the following night at Martinschlössl was an extraordinary experience, and without a doubt one of my concerts of the year. I had never been to this joint before, and had little idea of what to expect; what I certainly had not banked on was the hall being filled with long wooden tables and the stage being barely big enough to contain the group (indeed, I believe it was specially extended for the occasion). What was even more unbelievable was the capacity audience, many of whom I had never seen before at places like the Blue Tomato or Porgy & Bess. As on so many previous occasions, I marvelled at the way normal people in Vienna – not trendies or hipsters, nor weirdy-beardy jazzers – turn out in their hundreds to listen to this loud, wordless, ecstatic music. There was even a girl of about ten in the audience, who seemed to be having a great time even though she did spend most of the evening with her hands over her ears.

As for the Tentet themselves, the thing that struck me was how badass they are. For all their smiles and outwardly friendly demeanour, these guys are a gang, and once they get onstage they mean business and are not to be f*cked with. Their music is like a juggernaut, destroying everything in its path with its blistering, volcanic energy. They are, as my son is fond of saying, deadly serious, and seriously deadly.

Konfrontationen Festival Day 2, Nickelsdorf, 16 July 2010

Konfrontationen is a festival of free jazz and improvised music held every summer in Nickelsdorf, a small village in the Austrian province of Burgenland close to the border with Hungary. To hold any kind of Improv festival in such surroundings must be counted an achievement; to hold one that year after year attracts the world’s biggest names in free jazz bar none brings the endeavour closer to one of heroism. The festival’s organizer, Hans Falb, has weathered the storms of bankruptcy and seen his commitment to the festival vindicated not only by the quality of the artists who come to play there but by audiences numbering in the hundreds – a uniquely European, perhaps even uniquely Austrian phenomenon.

This year Falb curated the festival (which stretched over four days for the first time, another indication of its rude state of health) jointly with Swedish sax maestro Mats Gustafsson, fresh from his wedding in Nickelsdorf a few weeks earlier. Their joint pulling power ensured that the festival line-up read like a virtual who’s who of improvised music. I was only able to make two of the four evenings, but these alone provided a surfeit of riches, beginning on the Friday with the trio of Agusti Fernandez, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paul Lovens. This group proved a bracingly effective curtain-raiser, with Fernandez’ glacial Schlippenbachian piano cascading around Håker Flaten’s flaying bass runs and Lovens’ ever forceful percussion. Flowing effortlessly from hypnotically quiet passages to full-on kit-driven assaults, the trio were never less than engrossing.

Much the same could be said of Swedish Azz, Gustafsson’s homage to Swedish jazz of the 1950s and 1960s. This unit seem to have hardened up their act somewhat since the last time I saw them in Vienna, with Gustafsson and Dieter Kovacic in particular ramping up the electronic and noise elements of the group’s sound. Those still labouring under the misapprehension that Improv is po-faced and humourless could have done worse than to lend an ear to the last piece, introduced by Gustafsson as “an old Christmas song” and which saw the vestiges of the song in question being laid to waste by the two men’s scouring blasts of noise. More entertainingly still, Per-Åke Holmlander’s calm four-note tuba motif proved itself equal to this tempest and was more or less the only thing left standing by the song’s end.

Without doubt the highlight of the evening, though, was a devastating set by an extended line-up of The Thing, with the standard trio of Gustafsson, Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love augmented for the occasion by Ken Vandermark, Joe McPhee, Terrie Hessels (of The Ex) and Johannes Bauer. It was truly awe-inspiring to watch this septet take the stage at 2.00am and play as if their lives depended upon it to a large audience that stayed rapt on their every note.

Given the size and line-up of the ensemble, it came as no surprise that The Thing XL (as they were billed) approached the ecstatic fervour of the sadly absent Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet. The German, arguably the godfather of this whole scene, was to have his chance to shine two nights later; in the meantime, his gifted protêgés and collaborators made their own presence felt with their hugely exuberant big band sound. Live as on record (check out 2009’s Bag It! for the definitive Thing studio document), The Thing consistently astonish with the euphoria of their swing and their groove. You want to see gorgeous Swedish girls dancing the night away at a free jazz gig? You’ve got it, courtesy of The Thing and Konfrontationen 2010.

(Review of day 4 here.)

Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love/Lasse Marhaug, Vienna Blue Tomato, 20 February 2010

One of the things I occasionally rant about in my more intemperate moments on these pages is the inability of avant rock and noise fans to understand that the qualities they supposedly value in those musics – dissonance, atonality, extremity and so on – are also present in abundant quantities, and far more interestingly, in free jazz, a genre in which they have no interest. How else to explain the fact that there is practically no crossover between the regular audiences at the Rhiz and the Blue Tomato, Vienna’s kindred temples to these respective musics. What prevents people from making this leap of faith, of course, is the appalling image under which jazz still labours in the rock world. I’ve even heard the nonsensical claim being spouted that The Thing are “the jazz band it’s OK to like”, as though all it takes is a guest appearance from Thurston Moore to save one fortunate group of musicians from the opprobrium deservedly heaped upon their peers.

What did we have at the Blue Tomato last Saturday, then, but a concert by Fire Room, a collaboration between free jazz titans Ken Vandermark on reeds and The Thing drummer Paal Nilssen-Love on the one hand, and noise/turntable maverick Lasse Marhaug on the other. And what do you know? The Tomato is frequently sold out for these big free improv clashes, but on this particular occasion it seemed even more rammed than usual – and was it my imagination, or were there an unusually large number of young hipsters in the audience, no doubt there to see Marhaug? All well and good to get some crossover going, perhaps, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see those same hipsters returning to the Blue Tomato for an improv session that doesn’t involve a lugubrious bloke in a Napalm Death T-shirt sitting at a table, twiddling dials and scowling.

Anyway, this concert was in many ways a more exacting version of the Vandermark/Nilssen-Love duo show at the same venue last November. The mighty confidence and exuberance of that evening was still in ample evidence but there was a harder edge to proceedings as well, due in no small part to the lowering presence of Marhaug. Deftly manipulating a turntable, a laptop and some kind of analogue console, Marhaug unleashed wave after wave of sonic detritus which battled for supremacy against Nilssen-Love’s thunderous percussive attack and Vandermark’s wonderfully varied reed work.

Vandermark impressed me hugely on this occasion, I have to say. Writing about the show in his Facebook diary (a fascinating read, by the way, and a fine illustration of how much this tireless traveller thinks and cares about the music; the Musician documentary is highly recommended for the same reason), he expressed the concern that his acoustic playing might have been overwhelmed by the drums and electronics. He needn’t have worried; the endless twists and turns of his sax and clarinet solos came over loud and clear. Whether he launches into a surging, irresistible groove, alights on a moment of stark beauty or unleashes a spectacular passage of circular breathing, Vandermark is surely the most inventive and creative saxophonist in the world today.

Records of 2009

Here’s some kind of list of the 2009 releases that made the most impression on me last year.

1. Peter Hammill, Thin Air
2. Naked Lunch, Universalove
3. The Thing, Bag It
4. Fire,¹ You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago
5. Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Chicago Volume/Milwaukee Volume²
6. Full Blast,³ Black Hole
7. Steven Wilson, Insurgentes
8. Æthenor, Faking Gold and Murder
9. Christina Carter, Seals
10. Alela Diane, To Be Still

Notes

1. Fire is Mats Gustafsson, Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin.
2. Released as two single CDs, but it’s hard not to think of them as a double.
3. Full Blast is Peter Brötzmann, Marino Pliakas and Michael Wertmüller.

Concerts of 2009

Here’s a list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2009. There’s not much of an order to these ten, except for number 1, which was an incredible evening for me for all sorts of reasons.

1. Jandek, B72, Vienna
2. Spiritualized, Krems, Austria
3. Peter Brötzmann/Toshinori Kondo/Massimo Pupillo/Paal Nilssen-Love, Fluc, Vienna
4. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love, Blue Tomato, Vienna
5. Mats Gustafsson/Barry Guy/Raymond Strid, Blue Tomato, Vienna
6. Sonore/The Thing, Blue Tomato, Vienna
7. Naked Lunch/Universalove, Gartenbaukino, Vienna
8. Sunn O)))/Pita, Arena, Vienna
9. Bruce Springsteen, Ernst Happel Stadium, Vienna
10. Kraftwerk, Wiesen, Austria

Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love, Vienna Blue Tomato, 20 November 2009

Another superb and – let’s not forget – entertaining evening of high-powered free jazz from two masters of the art. What with all the vague descriptors of power and intensity I keep reaching for in my fumbling attempts to describe why I love this music so much, it’s easy to forget how hugely enjoyable this stuff is. Watching these guys it’s hard not to break into a broad grin at the sheer audacity and confidence of it all, quite apart from the fact that they are clearly having a great time onstage themselves and that it’s utterly infectious.

Furthermore, there’s a palpable sense of involvement here as well. Bizarre as it may sound, the closest parallel I can think of is with watching your favourite football team, or (to take an example from my recent experience), watching your son take part in his first football tournament. You’re willing them on, urging them (often audibly) to ever greater heights, and when those heights are reached, you celebrate together with them. With very few exceptions (Swans and Godspeed You Black Emperor spring to mind), that kind of delirious communion between performer and audience is something I’ve never come close to experiencing at a rock concert.

Anyway, this evening saw the American saxophonist and clarinettist Ken Vandermark squaring up to Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. Vandermark’s playing ranged from swinging Ayleresque Fire Music to out-and-out free sections, via quiet lyrical passages and an arsenal of attacks on the reed which produced all manner of way-out clicking sounds. There were exhilarating sections of circular breathing as well, Vandermark proving himself the equal of Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton in his mastery of this most challenging of techniques. Whether on clarinet, tenor or baritone sax (the latter borrowed for the evening from Mats Gustafsson, fact fans), Vandermark’s performance was superbly gripping.

You couldn’t say any less than that about Nilssen-Love, either. Here’s another musician who was clearly having great fun onstage, with huge smiles lighting up his face at the beginning and end of each piece. While playing, though, he’s a study in relentlessness, his shirt getting steadily drenched in sweat as he produces an astonishing battery of percussive rhythms and dramatic textural interventions. Driving the saxophonist on to ever more frenzied bursts of manic inventiveness, Nilssen-Love shot electric sparks from his drumkit with every movement. Together, the two men touched awe-inspiring levels of energy and creativity.

Ether column, November 2009

Another cracking month for concerts. Top of the list is the visit of Six Organs of Admittance, playing in the grimy surroundings of the Kleine Halle at the Arena. Six Organs is more or less guitarist Ben Chasny, joined by various collaborators for both live and studio work. Chasny tends to get lumped in with the “weird folk” crowd, which is actually not a bad shorthand for his uncanny and hypnotic blend of acoustic guitar-driven, mostly instrumental music. Calling to mind mystical Eastern ragas alongside the primitivist fingerpicking style of the late John Fahey, Six Organs music sparkles with melodic invention. On this tour, Chasny will be joined by electric guitarist Elisa Ambrogio, whose playing is as thrilling to watch as it is to listen to, and Alex Neilson, one of the most gifted and inventive drummers of modern times.

Moving right along, there’s an unmissable evening of free jazz and improvisation at the excellent Blue Tomato club this month, featuring two of the key figures in the genre. American saxophonist Ken Vandermark is a workaholic who spends most of his life on the road. His fierce and passionate playing effortlessly combines the swinging Fire Music style of Albert Ayler with the more abstract European style of Peter Brötzmann. Like most free jazz musicians, Vandermark has a list of collaborators as long as your arm; he’s one of those who believes in improvisation and ad hoc groupings as essential elements in keeping the music fresh and vital. On this occasion he’ll be joined by the awesomely talented Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love, sticksman with The Thing (see the March 2009 issue of Ether), Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet and too many others to mention. This kind of duo concert, with two musicians facing up to each other onstage with no preconceived notions of what they are going to play, represents for me the perfectly symmetrical essence of free improvisation.

And rounding things off, a very different kind of duo, KTL, the guitar and laptop pairing of Sunn O))) mastermind Stephen O’Malley and Vienna’s very own Peter Rehberg. O’Malley is the master of the drone guitar, playing pulverizingly loud sub-bass frequencies that resonate deep within you. Rehberg, meanwhile, coaxes all manner of hectic and crystalline sounds from his laptop. As well as being a formidable presence with their own records and concerts, KTL have often created music for dance and theatre pieces. It’s a natural move for them, therefore, to make film soundtrack music. As part of this year’s Wien Modern festival, they’ll be performing their own score to the classic early Swedish silent horror film, The Phantom Carriage, live as the film is shown.

Sonore/The Thing, Vienna Blue Tomato, 15 October 2009

A truly blistering night of free jazz and improvisation from five of its finest exponents. Consisting of a series of combinations of the all-reeds trio Sonore (Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson) and Scandinavian power trio The Thing (Gustafsson plus Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on double bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums), the evening showed up the rock and noise crowds’ frequent claims to ‘extremity’ and ‘intensity’ for the empty boasts they are. With no guitars, no electronics and no amplification, these five gentlemen conclusively demonstrated that there is no music in the world more extreme and intense than the cry of a saxophone being flayed from the inside out, and the thunderous rumble of a drummer assaulting his kit into submission.

The concert began with a beautifully balanced set from Sonore, followed straight after by an incandescent duo set from Brötzmann and Nilssen-Love. Next up, Vandermark and Håker Flaten varied the mood and pace considerably. Vandermark showcased his sheer versatility, foregoing his usual Ayleresque attack with a bout of cerebral blowing that reminded me of Anthony Braxton. Håker Flaten remained onstage for The Thing’s set, during which Mats Gustafsson played sax with a jaw-droppingly physical ferocity. The inevitable conclusion saw all five men come together in a breathtaking show of mutual understanding, improvisational flair and deranged sonic attack.

Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 23 May 2009

A stunning evening of molten free jazz and way-out Improv from the ever reliable Brötzmann and his largest, most diverse configuration. Over two hour-long sets, the saxophonist led his group down a maze of glorious soloing and bravura ensemble interplay. Never letting up, always reaching for higher and more dangerous territory, these guys took your breath away.

Without any need for prior planning, the ten gifted musicians knew instinctively when to come together and when to step back to let in other members of the troupe. This is the magic of group improvisation – that wonderful blend of intuition, togetherness and respect.

Brötzmann’s co-stars, for me, were his regular collaborators Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson (both on saxes) and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. The two reedsmen proved themselves the German’s equal with their ferocious blowing; Vandermark took a particularly fiery solo with no-one but Nilssen-Love for company, while Gustafsson’s relentlessly physical approach was perhaps underexposed. As for the Norwegian percussionist himself, his face told a story of formidable effort that was reflected time and again in the awesome power of his playing, including a fierce double-headed drum interlude with the more undulant approach of Michael Zerang.

It wasn’t all plain sailing; I could certainly have done without the irritating presence of trombonist Johannes Bauer, whose entire demeanour radiated smugness and self-satisfaction. But his solo interventions were thankfully brief. Other than that Bauer was part of a brass section that, when it was not tussling spiritedly with the reeds, laid down a slew of brisk and imaginative patterns, bolstered by Fred Lonberg-Holm’s whizzy, effects-heavy cello work.

Now twelve years into its existence, the Chicago Tentet is a group at the height of its powers. Brötzmann may be the nominal bandleader, but there was precious little evidence on Saturday night of him shaping and controlling the music to any great extent. Which is as it should be, of course. In the mysterious, elemental world of free improvisation, meaning and inspiration come not from individuals but from the spaces and the traces between them.