Concerts of the year

As usual, I find myself way behind with writing for this blog at the end of the year. I hope I’ll be able to go back and fill in some of the gaps in the list below, but who knows. Anyway, here is a list of the best concerts I attended in 2015:

  1. King Crimson, Paris L’Olympia
  2. Glen Hansard, Vienna Konzerthaus
  3. Sun Kil Moon, Vienna Arena
  4. Mono, Sarajevo Kaktus
  5. Al Stewart, London Royal Albert Hall
  6. Neil Cowley Trio, Vienna Porgy & Bess
  7. Einstürzende Neubauten, Munich Haus der Kunst
  8. Jaga Jazzist, Vienna Porgy & Bess
  9. Peter Brötzmann & Steve Noble, Vienna Blue Tomato
  10. Schlippenbach Trio, Vienna Martinschlössl

Peter Brötzmann/Jason Adasiewicz/Steve Noble, Warsaw Pardon To Tu, 19-20 November 2014; Peter Brötzmann/Steve Noble, Vienna Blue Tomato, 1 October 2015

I never got around to reviewing Peter Brötzmann’s two-night residency with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and drummer Steve Noble at the Pardon To Tu club in Warsaw last November, an event that happily for me coincided with a work visit to the Polish capital. Now is as good a time as any to revisit that occasion, since the saxophonist also turned up the other week at the Blue Tomato in Vienna, with Noble this time but without Adasiewicz.

Pardon To Tu was an excellent venue, staffed by friendly people and with a relaxed yet enthusiastic audience. The club was crammed to capacity on both nights, while the walls were decorated floor to ceiling with strikingly effective black, white and red posters giving the history of previous events at the venue. Moving along the corridor that adjoined the main room, I was able to take in those posters and marvel at all the wonderful artists that the club has hosted in its illustrious past. The backdrop of the stage, meanwhile, was covered with the names of hundreds of luminaries from the worlds of creative and experimental music (Peter Hammill being the only notable omission I could spot). The only downside to the place was the unwelcome presence of a dog, which the owners allowed to run uncontrolled around the place.

Ever since Brötzmann put the Chicago Tentet on ice, he’s been trying out new configurations and collaborators as a way of preventing the music from lapsing into predictability and routine, and this new trio is certainly an example of that. The Warsaw residency was the first time I had seen either Noble or Adasiewicz play, and both of them proved to be more than worthy foils for the sax legend. With Brötzmann kicking off strongly on alto, Adasiewicz was a gleeful presence on the vibraphone, the unusual timbre of the instrument forming warm clouds of invention that contrasted vividly with the saxophonist’s razor-sharp improvised lines. As for Noble, he was a formidably focused and inventive drummer, as was demonstrated in a thunderous duo passage with Brötzmann.

Both nights of the residency consisted of one long, 90-minute set, with pauses between the songs but no intermissions. This approach paid repeated dividends in terms of the trio’s intense and concentrated approach to free improvisation. Switching to clarinet, Brötzmann played a long jazzy solo that was as tender and beautiful as anything I’ve heard him play and cast the room into utter silence. Heading for the home stretch, Adasiewicz’s harsh metallic interventions prompted Noble into ever more pulsating activity while the saxophonist ripped the insides of his tenor to shreds.

Back at the Blue Tomato earlier this month, Brötzmann squared up to Noble for a truly engrossing evening of reeds and drums dialogue. I remain of the opinion, expressed last year in this review, that this duo form represents improvised music at its most elemental and dangerous. And anyone who heard the German rent the air of the Tomato’s hallowed back room that night with the warlike cry of his tenor and tarogato would surely think twice before disagreeing. Noble, meanwhile, picked up some irresistible rhythmic grooves in among the wow and clatter, the unerring dream logic of his percussion work harking back to his early days with Rip Rig & Panic.

It occurred to me while listening to this concert that, whereas the other four great reedsmen of our time (Braxton, Gustafsson, Parker and Vandermark) are all apt to launch into sections of circular breathing at one time or another, Brötzmann has always steered clear of the technique. Listening to the colossal intakes of breath that punctuate his playing, it’s not hard to understand why. Eschewing the heady spin and swirl that comes with the territory of extended soloing, Brötzmann’s playing remains firmly grounded in the earth, hewn from rock, soil and blood.

Peter Brötzmann/Full Blast, Vienna Chelsea, 5 October 2012; Caspar Brötzmann/No Home & Primordial Undermind, Vienna Chelsea, 29 September 2013

I never got around to reviewing Peter Brötzmann‘s concert at the Chelsea last year, but now I have a good excuse to rectify the omission. In what was a rather nice alignment, the saxophonist played there last October with his longstanding Full Blast group of Marino Pliakas on electric bass and Michael Wertmüller on drums; and then, almost exactly a year later, Pliakas and Wertmüller showed up at the same venue with Brötzmann’s guitarist son Caspar as No Home. It’s a measure of the Swiss rhythm section’s skill and versatility that they sounded just as right for Caspar as they always have for Peter. Trading squally sax for sheets of guitar noise as their front end, the bassist and drummer provided a dense underpinning for the lead instruments’ wild and disorderly conduct.

Peter Brötzmann seems to have rather fallen off my radar of late. Once a regular visitor to Vienna, he’s only played here once this year, at Porgy & Bess in February, which of course I missed. Full Blast’s gig at the Chelsea was one of only two occasions on which I saw the man play in 2012, the other being a magnificent two-night stint with the now defunct Chicago Tentet at Martinschlössl, which I never got round to reviewing either. Props to the Trost label for putting on the gig, although I must admit to being not the world’s biggest fan of this label or of its sudden interest in Brötzmann, The Thing and free jazz. Trost have been going since 1992, but they only started releasing Brötzmann product in 2011 and Thing product this year, prompting the obvious question, why now? What’s more, they seem to have a strange aversion to jazz gigs. By situating Brötzmann in a grungey rock club rather than a jazz club, they seemed to be trying to take him out of a ghetto (jazz) that he doesn’t actually need to be taken out of. In doing so, they felt the need to appease Brötzmann’s core audience, who wouldn’t normally be seen dead at the Chelsea, by including the reassuring words “seated area available” on posters for the gig. And talking of seating, Trost are insisting that next month’s gig by The Thing at the Blue Tomato is a standing-only affair, another piece of iconoclasm that I personally could do without.

Anyway, Full Blast played that night with their customary gusto, the limitless throb of Pliakas’ bass and the vast tectonic rumble of Wertmüller’s drums successfully navigating the treacherous currents of Brötzmann’s overdriven blowing. Peter’s cry sounds increasingly like a call to arms, the urge to raise consciousness in the listener more pressing and desperate than ever, the revolutionary fervour that gripped Machine Gun undimmed by the passing of the years.

If No Home’s gig never quite reached the ecstatic heights that Full Blast’s had done, that was more down to differences in approach than to any lack of energy and commitment. Unlike his father, Caspar Brötzmann is no improvisor – every note and riff feels carefully considered and worked upon. What Caspar’s playing lacked in spontaneity, however, it made up for in doom-laden heaviness, as these labyrinthine constructions in sound swamped the room with bludgeoning force. Stalking the guitarist’s every move, Pliakas and Wertmüller anchored the set with brazen, attack-dog ferocity.

Having paid the price of early arrival by being made to endure several hopeless support bands in recent months, it was a total pleasure to see Primordial Undermind opening for No Home at the Chelsea on the final date of a Europe-wide jaunt. Forever operating in a state of creative flux, the Undermind have undergone a line-up change or two since I last saw them, and now feature Christoph Weikinger on guitar and Michael Prehofer on drums alongside core members Eric and Vanessa Arn on vox/guitar and devices respectively. On this particular evening the move to a twin-guitar attack paid repeated dividends, since this PU is appreciably heavier than previous incarnations of the group. Weikinger’s mighty riffs splintered mile-wide holes in sonic space, into which Eric Arn soared with repeated mantric soloing. On an unshakeable quest to burst the listener’s head open from the inside, Primordial Undermind’s all-out psych rock remains as forceful and compelling as ever.

Concerts of 2012

Here’s some kind of list of the most memorable concerts I attended this year. (By the way, you won’t find a list of albums of the year here. I hardly ever listen to recorded music any more; increasingly, music to me means live music.)

It’s been an excellent year for my kind of music in Vienna, and shows by The Walkabouts, Tindersticks, Shearwater, The Cherry Thing and Bruce Springsteen might all have made the top ten on a different day. I was also gutted to miss, for one reason or another (work, illness, domestic commitments) many shows which I was looking forward to, including those by Brötzmann/Lonberg-Holm/Nilssen-Love, Death in June, Broken Heart Collector, Bulbul/Tumido, The Thing, Kern & Quehenberger, Sonore, Nadja, Josephine Foster, Double Tandem, Kurzmann/Zerang/Gustafsson, Glen Hansard and A Silver Mt Zion, not to mention the entire Konfrontationen festival.

A few of the concerts listed here have links to the reviews I wrote at the time, but most of them do not. This is partly because I haven’t had time to write those reviews, but mostly because it’s getting harder and harder to keep this blog going, to the point where I’m considering giving it up altogether. Very few people read these pages, and of those who do, only a few bother to leave comments. Those people, and they know who they are, have my eternal gratitude; but it’s rather disheartening not to be making more of an impression on the wider world.

In chronological order, then:

1. Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, Barbican Centre, London
2. Codeine, Szene Wien, Vienna
3. Peter Brötzmann’s Full Blast, Chelsea, Vienna
4. Anthony Braxton, Jazzatelier, Ulrichsberg
5. Peter Hammill, Porgy & Bess, Vienna
6. The Thing, Blue Tomato, Vienna
7. Marilyn Crispell/Eddie Prévost/Harrison Smith, Blue Tomato, Vienna
8. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Arena, Vienna
10. Swans, Arena, Vienna

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.

Continue reading

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.)