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.

Steven Bernstein’s Sex Mob, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 27 April 2009

A highly smile-inducing evening at Porgy & Bess, courtesy of the previously unknown to me Steven Bernstein and his band of fine musicians. These guys played with boundless verve and enthusiasm, balancing infectious melodies with well-chosen blasts of dissonance that prevented the whole thing from lapsing into jazz formularity. The usual large and appreciative P&B audience kept the group running at full tilt, but in truth no such encouragement was needed, since Bernstein proved himself to be a consummate bandleader who urged – and received – great bubbling cauldrons of sound from his bandmates.

At the heart was Bernstein’s mastery of the slide trumpet, an instrument looking (and sounding, for that matter) like a cross between a normal trumpet and a trombone. Nimbly avoiding both the braying honk of the former and the queasy lurch of the latter, the slide trumpet led Sex Mob in all kinds of crazy directions. Following close behind came Briggan Krauss’s saxophone, casting fiery post-Ayler skronk into the spaces left by the agile rhythm section of Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen. With Bernstein conducting through spirited flurries of motion and gesture, the stage was a hotbed of delirious, pulsating energy.

Evan Parker/Alex von Schlippenbach/Paul Lovens, Porgy & Bess, Vienna, 3 December 2008

Evan Parker was the first free jazz/improv saxophonist I ever heard, and the one who made me fall in love with this kind of music. Before I had heard Ayler, Braxton or Brötzmann, Parker was the one who showed me that the saxophone could be a source of great passion and intensity. Live, his serpentine solos and jaw-dropping circular breathing technique burned themselves into me in a way that very few rock performers had ever done.

It’s been a long time since I saw Parker live – there was a stimulating collaborative show with Zoviet France, a phenomenal trio gig at the old Vortex in Stoke Newington, and a concert in Brighton with Spring Heel Jack – so it was great for me to see him for the first time in Vienna, this time as part of his long-standing trio with pianist Alex von Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens. Their improvisational instincts honed by many years of playing together, the trio proceeded to play two long and engrossing sets. Schlippenbach was an agile and eloquent pianist, Lovens an enthralling presence on the drums. Parker was the star for me, but at the end of the day this concert, like all the best group-based improvisation, was an extended conversation between these three gifted musicians.

Okkervil River, Porgy & Bess, Vienna, 22 November 2008

Okkervil River’s concert at Porgy & Bess on Saturday night is a very strong contender for my show of the year. With just a few weeks to go before 2008 wraps up, its pole position is unlikely to be overtaken. This was a night of sheer blinding inspiration, with song after song ramming home extraordinary amounts of rhythmic flair and melodic inventiveness. In Will Sheff the group has a frontman like none I have ever seen: searingly honest, passionate and quite transported in his breathtaking urge to communicate through live performance.

The epic “A Girl In Port,” from Okkervil’s 2007 album The Stage Names, is probably the best song I’ve heard all year, and repeated listens have convinced me of its greatness. So when the group launched into it as the very first song of this concert, I knew at once that it was going to be a highly memorable evening. And so it proved, as the concert unfolded into a shatteringly effective piece of communal music theatre. Whether welded to his acoustic guitar, clinging to the microphone stand, leaning precipitously over the stage or sharing a moment of closeness with the immaculate band behind him, Sheff does nothing less than redefine the limits of what it is possible for a musician to do onstage. His smile is winning, his voice emotive, his communion with the audience uniquely close and thrilling. After “A Girl In Port,” the other song that has had a deep impact on me this year is “Black,” from 2005’s Black Sheep Boy. I was praying they would play it, but dared not hope; when they launched into this surging rollercoaster of a song, I felt… well, there are really no words.

With their cover version of Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz,” chosen and rehearsed (so Sheff told us) specifically for this concert, Okkervil River displayed a sense of place and a generosity of spirit that contrasted markedly with Cohen’s own performance of the same song here in Vienna a few months ago. Sheff said the group always enjoy playing here because of the response they receive from the audiences. Maybe he says that every night, although somehow I doubt it. In any event, for them to play that song here felt like a precious gift from the group to the audience. The old groaner, on the other hand, made no specific introduction to the song when he played it in Vienna, as if refusing to acknowledge that there was something beautiful and special about hearing the song played by its author in the magnificent surroundings of the Konzerthaus. This dogged refusal to deviate one iota from his prepared script on those two evenings was profoundly depressing.

And I’m really not in the habit of doing this kind of thing, but on Saturday I couldn’t resist: I reached out and shook Sheff’s hand as he left the stage, then stretched over and retrieved not one but two of his discarded guitar picks (Jim Dunlop 0.6mm, if you’re interested). Whether they’ll enable any of the magic of this concert to transfer to my own hopeless attempts to play the guitar remains to be seen. In any event, this was an evening of transformative joy and elation such as I have rarely if ever experienced in a concert hall.

Photos by David Murobi here.

Michael Gira, Porgy & Bess, Vienna, 21 November 2008

There seems to be an occasional series of concert reviews on this blog — see Leonard Cohen, Whitehouse and Einstürzende Neubauten — that mostly consist of Epiphanies-style reminiscences of my first awareness of the artist in question. This, though, is the one I’ve been waiting to write — how I fell in love with Swans, the most important group of my life.

I recall the time very well. I was at Sussex University in 1987, casting around for new music to love. I had outgrown the obsessions with Gary Numan and Pink Floyd that marked my teenage years, had taken quite happily to the subdued acoustic muse of Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega, but was undoubtedly in need of something more acute. Every week I would scour the pages of the NME — still then my main source of music news, although not for much longer — in search of wisdom and enlightenment. One week I read a review of Swans’ Children of God that was to change my life, although I didn’t know it at the time. I can’t remember who penned it, but this is how it concluded: “And it’s ugly, and it’s difficult, and it’s long and sometimes wearying, and peculiarly beautiful, and utterly essential.” Well, that was it for me. I had never heard a note of this music, had no great history of liking this kind of thing, but when I saw that Swans (not The Swans, as I quickly learned) were playing in Brighton soon, I bought a ticket straight away. I got the album the day after the concert, and I was hooked for life.

Over the next few years, I saw Swans live a few more times (at the Zap Club on the seafront, and in London at the Town & Country Club and the now defunct Kilburn National Ballroom), and bought each new record as it came out, enthralled by the beauty and power inherent in this music. The real turning point, however, came when I wrote a fan letter to the address printed on the cover of 1991’s White Light From The Mouth of Infinity. I expected to hear back, if at all, from some kind of management flunkey; what I certainly didn’t expect was to receive a long and detailed reply from singer and keyboard player Jarboe herself. This kindness and generosity continued over many years in her correspondence with me; in those pre-email days it was a genuine thrill when a letter postmarked Atlanta dropped through my letterbox.

The apex of my association with Swans came in 1997 when Michael Gira asked me to be the merchandise seller on their farewell tour of Europe. As one might imagine, this was an offer I mulled over for perhaps 1.5 seconds before accepting. It was the experience of a lifetime, with 30-odd concerts over six weeks in such widespread countries as France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria (yes, the Szene Wien), Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Slovenia, with the last ever Swans concert taking place in my then home town of London on 15 March 1997, in the rather dingy surroundings of the now defunct LA2. Out there somewhere, there’s a recording of that night in which Gira makes a between-songs announcement thanking me for my work on the tour. I don’t have a copy myself, so please get in touch if you do. Rather mind-bogglingly, those words were the last he ever spoke (as opposed to sang) from the stage as a member of Swans.

I have a tour-bus load of memories of those six weeks, the good, the bad and the ugly, but if it’s all the same to you I’m going to keep them to myself (with the exception of this rather facetious letter which I wrote to The Wire last year). I will say that it was by some measure the hardest work I’ve ever done; this was not a matter of a few T-shirts. There were shirts, books, CDs, records, tapes, badges, stickers and wooden boxes, all of which had to be loaded in and out, sold and accounted for in any number of currencies (no euros then!). I’m well aware, though, that I was slumming it compared to the Herculean nightly efforts of the band and the rest of the road crew. And if anyone reading this bought anything from the merch table on Swans’ last European tour, I hope you were happy with what you bought.

Fast forward eleven years and I’m at Porgy & Bess for a solo concert by Michael Gira. This form represents a distillation and finessing of everything I ever loved about Swans: the brimming rage, the barely controlled power and the passionate intensity. The lyrics, as ever, are extraordinary: visionary, convulsive flashes of elemental forces, drenched in deep colours hewn from the strings and wood of Gira’s guitar. And when he plays my favourite Swans song, the overwhelmingly bleak and nihilistic “God Damn The Sun,” as the encore, I think… well, at the very least, I’m in the right place tonight.

Peter Brötzmann, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 23 March 2008

Yes, I know that heading does a disservice to the other three fine musicians (for the record, they were Ken Vandermark on reeds, Marino Pliakas on bass and Michael Wertmüller on drums) who shared the Porgy & Bess stage with Brötzmann on Sunday night. But no matter how hard I try, I always end up thinking of Brötzmann’s collaborators as sidemen – the result, no doubt, of the sheer intensity of his playing.

Having said that, it was hard to ignore the contributions of the other three to this concert. Vandermark is a more recognisably post-Ayler saxophonist than Brötzmann is; his playing really swings, and acts as a perfect counterweight to the German’s unbridled ferocity. Pliakas was a mesmerising electric bassist, creating endlessly kaleidoscopic patterns of rhythm and making clever, sparing use of effects. And Wertmüller was a sheer wonder, playing with formidable power and attack. At times, this band sounded more like an avant rock outfit (descendants of Last Exit, perhaps) than anything from the world of jazz.

As for Brötzmann himself, well, the man continues to stun me every time I hear him play. He can be playful, as when he engages in a skittering, stop-start duet with Vandermark. He can be lyrical, as when he stands alone at the side of the stage and delivers a heartbreakingly tender solo. But above all, he is an unstoppable force of nature, kicking up a firestorm with every blast from his mighty lungs.

Ether column, January 2007

Many creative artists thrive on collaboration – the refusal, through seeking out a shifting cast of associates, to allow musical habits and attitudes to ossify. Porgy & Bess showcases no fewer than three such aggregations this month. British composer and musician Fred Frith sets the ball rolling, appearing with the Arte Quartet in a performance of his composition Still/Urban. Best known as a startlingly innovative improvising guitarist, Frith first came to prominence as a founder member of the experimental rock group Henry Cow. The Cow were active between 1968 and 1978, in that time producing several albums of complex, politically engaged music. Later, Frith moved to New York and became associated with a loose network of musicians centred around the saxophonist and composer John Zorn. In more recent years he has turned his hand to music for dance, film and theatre, in between holding down a day job as a professor of music in California. Still/Urban is an intriguing prospect, a piece for four saxophones and electric guitar.

Later in the month, Porgy’s has the privilege of playing host to Sunny Murray, a true original of free jazz. Now in his 70th year, Murray was one of the first percussionists to use the drums as a lead instrument rather than merely as a timekeeping device. After playing with Cecil Taylor’s group in 1962, Murray became part of the Albert Ayler trio, adding his barrage of irregular stickwork to seminal recordings like Spiritual Unity and New York Eye & Ear Control. For this Vienna appearance, Murray is joined by a large Austrian group consisting of reeds, trumpet, violin, piano, bass and saxophone – a lineup, propelled by Murray’s incendiary drumming, that should be loud enough to shake any remaining post-Christmas cobwebs away.

Bringing the spirit of the ad hoc musical grouping decisively into the 21st century, Japanese avantists Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M land in Vienna as part of the annual Jeunesse festival – an admirable initiative that focuses on attracting young people to live concerts, although all ages are welcome. The two collaborated initially in Ground Zero, a fearsomely heavy noise-rock aggregation, before playing formative roles in the development of onkyo – a movement that began in Japan in the late 1990s, privileging small and often quiet musical gestures and making liberal use of electronics and silence. Playing here with drummer Martin Brandlmayer (of Vienna post-rock trio Radian) and trumpeter Axel Dörner, Otomo coaxes all manner of sounds from his guitar and from a turntable with no records on it, while Sachiko M uses laptops and other devices to create music from sine waves. Of such strange gestures are radical and necessary unorthodoxies forged.

Ether column, December 2006

Undoubtedly the highlight of this month’s concerts is a rare visit to Vienna by the British saxophonist Evan Parker, playing at Porgy & Bess as part of the Alexander von Schlippenbach Trio. Parker is a saxophonist like no other. Along with figures like Peter Brötzmann and the late Derek Bailey, he is one of the leading lights of European free improvisation – a movement that began in the mid-60s, taking the language of free jazz (as heard in the work of musicians such as Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman), divesting it of its rhythmic origins and extending it into the realm of pure abstraction. No two concerts of free improv are ever alike – the performers are guided by the dynamics between them on the night, rarely lapsing into the easy formularity of melody, rhythm and harmony. The results can be challenging to the untrained ear, but can also be truly spectacular. Nowhere is this more so than in the playing of Parker, whose soloing on tenor and soprano sax is possessed of a unique, serpentine beauty. Parker is a virtuoso exponent of circular breathing, a fiendishly difficult technique that enables him to play long, continuous solos without ever pausing for breath. He issues torrents of dense, fluttering notes that hang in the air like a challenge. Happy in many different contexts, from stripped-down solo to large-scale electro-acoustic ensemble, Parker’s trio with Alex von Schlippenbach (piano) and Paul Lovens (drums) is one of his most enduring musical associations.

Later this month, Slovenian industrialists Laibach invade the inhospitable surroundings of Planet Music for your average evening of eastern European totalitarianism. As founding members of the Neue Slowenische Kunst art collective, Laibach have been making a nuisance of themselves since the early 80s with their stirring blend of neoclassical and martial music. Like other groups associated with the NSK, Laibach like to privilege the collective over the individual, issuing statements and manifestos and framing their concerts as quasi-political rallies.

Laibach’s use of uniforms and totalitarian aesthetics, allied to the Wagnerian overtones of the music, have led to frequent accusations of political extremism – charges that the band dismiss, pointing to the humorous impulse at work in their militaristic interpretations of cheesy pop songs such as “One Vision” and “The Final Countdown”. Laibach adopt the trappings and symbols of state power, exaggerating them to the point of parody and thereby offering satirical comment on them. While certainly open to misinterpretation, the ambivalence of their methods can be read as an invitation for listeners to examine their own beliefs and prejudices. Their new album, Volk, is a collection of songs inspired by national anthems, further embedding Laibach’s bold interrogation of the iconography of nationalism. And you can dance to it as well. Political music was never this much fun.

Anthony Braxton, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 15 February 2007

Had one of the most inspiring evenings of live music of my entire life last night – a performance by Anthony Braxton and his group at Porgy & Bess. Superlatives fail me on this occasion. We were seated right in front of the stage, just a few feet away from Braxton. The sextet played two hour-long sets (the passing of the hour being noted by an hourglass) of music filled with daunting complexity and joyous freedom. Braxton communicated with the rest of the group in fascinating ways, telling them (I’m guessing) which numbered sections to play by holding his fingers up, and writing numbers and symbols on a small whiteboard which he held up for them to see. The group – double bass, percussion, violin, tuba and trumpet – were utterly responsive and intuitive. And when Braxton reached for his saxes and unleashed one of his fearsome solos, you simply never wanted it to end.