Peter Brötzmann & Fred Lonberg-Holm, Vienna Blue Tomato, 21 January 2011

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.

Concerts of 2010

Here’s some kind of list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2010, with links to the reviews I wrote at the time. In no particular order…

1. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
2. The Swell Season, Museumsquartier, Vienna
3. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love/Lasse Marhaug, Blue Tomato, Vienna
4. Swans, Arena, Vienna
5. Naked Lunch, Arena, Vienna
6. Suzanne Vega, Konzerthaus, Vienna
7. Peter Hammill, Posthof, Linz
8. Heaven And, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf
9. Oliver Welter, Radiokulturhaus, Vienna
10. The Thing XL, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf

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 4, Nickelsdorf, 18 July 2010

On the fourth and final day of the festival, I arrived just in time to catch the tail end of Evan Parker and Sten Sandell‘s duo concert in the church around the corner from the main festival venue, the Jazzgalerie. There was, of course, standing room only – not, I would imagine, a situation in which the church finds itself most Sundays. The music sounded, well, heavenly, with Parker’s achingly beautiful sax lines arcing gracefully above the imposing swell of the organ.

Opting to skip the following solo performance by Joe McPhee (also in the church), I went instead for a walk along the back road behind the Jazzgalerie, where a number of sound installations had been placed in and around an old farmers’ shed. I was rather taken with Kathrin Stumreich’s Faden #2, which consisted of a bicycle with a long spool of thread and a contact microphone attached. As the bike was ridden, the thread played out – creating a visual record of the journey to go along with the noise produced by the microphone.  And no, I didn’t have a go on it. Even better was Klaus Filip’s Photophon, which required the visitor to don a pair of headphones and walk among an array of lights dangling at head height from the ceiling of the shed. As each light swung in the air it transmitted sounds to the headphones, sounds which varied according to the position of the visitor and the extent of the swinging.

All good fun, of course, but the festival really got down to business later in the day when Peter Brötzmann took the stage to play in his semi-regular quartet line-up with Toshinori Kondo on trumpet, Massimo Pupillo (of Zu) on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. I had only seen Brötzmann play with this unit once before, but that occasion last year was certainly the best Brötzmann show I’ve ever seen. If this appearance didn’t quite reach those heights, it was only because the Jazzgalerie’s courtyard in daylight couldn’t rival the brutalist architecture of the Fluc Wanne as an appropriate setting for the monstrous slabs of sound proposed by this quartet.

Since the demise of Last Exit, this group – which officially goes by the name Hairy Bones, although I can scarcely bring myself to use this ridiculous moniker – has surely been Brötzmann’s hardest and most far-out configuration. On Sunday night the saxophonist was consistently matched for sonic extremity by Kondo, who subjected his trumpet to all manner of wild treatments and distortions. The resulting tornado of sound was anchored down by the phenomenal power of the rhythm section. Pupillo’s bass was dark and thunderous, while Nilssen-Love astonished as much as ever with the furious inventiveness of his drumming. Sitting with his head at an angle as if listening intently through the storm to learn where the music would go next, the Norwegian extended his claim to be the world’s finest Improv drummer.

Things got taken down a notch or two, as they needed to, with the quintet featuring Evan Parker and Roscoe Mitchell on reeds, Joëlle Léandre on double bass, Tony Hymas on piano and Hugh Ragin on trumpet. This was a comparatively restrained, even polite conversation, with the liquid fluency of the saxes layered amongst Hymas’ elegant pianistics and Léandre’s darting arco and pizzicato work. Parker seemed to have overestimated the warmth of the summer’s evening and showed up in a T-shirt; with the chill necessitating a blanket draped around his shoulders, he seemed reluctant to make too many dramatic statements. Except for a sustained passage of circular breathing, Mitchell too was somewhat reserved. None of which is intended to detract in any way from the exquisite pace and movement of this music, which embraced silence as a sixth and vital element.

And so to the finale of this most enjoyable festival – a barnstorming performance by Austro-Deutsch-Australian aggregation Heaven And. Despite the presence of a bassist and not one but two drummers, Heaven And remains very much a vehicle for the incendiary playing of Viennese guitarist Martin Siewert, who switched between a regular electric guitar and some kind of tabletop deal with insouciant ease. If the group’s name holds out the promise of something vast and transcendent just around the corner, it’s a promise that was fulfilled by this hugely convincing performance, which meshed Crimsonesque vectors of sound with the fiery interplay of drummers Tony Buck and Steve Heather. It didn’t sound a whole lot like jazz, that’s for sure, but by this stage in the game it hardly mattered. Bravely and confidently lighting out for the territory where noise, rock and Improv meet, Heaven And brought Konfrontationen 2010 to an irresistible and staggering conclusion.

(Review of day 2 here.)

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.)

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

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.