Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet
February 12, 2009
How many larger instrumental ensembles endure for over ten years with the core of the line-up unchanged? In the economic climate of the last decade, not many. All the more remarkable, then, that the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet, which draws its membership from two continents, is now thriving in its eleventh year. Embarking on their latest European tour, the band descended on Amsterdam's Bimhuis, where they held court to a packed house on a cold Friday evening.
Brotzmann's interactions with the fertile Chicago arts community blossomed into a three disc extravaganza in 1997 with The Chicago Octet/Tentet (Okka). Of course. Brotzmann has been no stranger to large ensembles over his career, having erupted onto the scene with his legendary debut octet Machine Gun (FMP, 1968). Longevity first beckoned when reedman Ken Vandermark selflessly pledged some of his 1999 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant to finance a North American tour for the Tentet, unlikely to have been realized in any other way. Since then the band has become a fixture on the festival circuit, appearing at all the major events on both sides of the Atlantic.
Forming the spine alongside the leader are the five ever-present Chicago stalwarts, Vandermark on reeds, Jeb Bishop on trombone, Fred Lonberg Holm on cello and electronics, Michael Zerang on drums and Kent Kessler on bass. Multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee has also been a longstanding member, and here featured his pocket trumpet, flugelhorn, tenor saxophone and clarinet. In addition, the newest incumbents, from a revolving cast of other players, are Johannes Bauer on trombone and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. Two further constituents were notable by their absence: the Swedish contingent of Mats Gustafsson and Per-Ake Holmlander were reported lost somewhere en route from Vancouver. Brought in to cover their absence was Bauer's older trombonist brother Conrad, for his first time with the Tentet.
Although the group was originally a showcase for the members' compositions, ever since a May 2005 North American tour Brotzmann has encouraged the Tentet to forgo charts, instead drawing upon their collective and joint experience to maximize spontaneity. Over two completely improvised sets, totaling 110 minutes, the band explored almost every possible combination within their reach, as well as the inevitable gut-wrenching full band blowouts. Only the string players used amps, so the horns were free to roam the stage, facilitating both impromptu groupings and supporting chorales from the rear of the stage. Topnotch acoustics in the Bimhuis allowed appreciation of the Tentet's full dynamic range, from roaring collective to plaintive squeaks, with clarity.
Brotzmann's rasping alto saxophone led off the ensemble, with the horns lined up across the stage, and the strings and drums behind, until they were firing on all cylinders, though dipping in and out of the ensemble narrative, and giving each other room. A forceful trombone salvo from Conrad Bauer was abetted by Bishop, before Vandermark held sway with some skronking tenor. There was always something good happening or about to happen and it was hard to know where to look or listen in the ebb and flow of the continuous first set. One highlight was Vandermark's skirling clarinet excursion over a shuffling rhythm, with Zerang calmly drifting around his kit, joined first by McPhee on his clarinet, and then by Brotzmann on tarogato, crossing the stage for an squalling a cappella woodwind colloquy.
Though fully improvised, Brotzmann nonetheless shaped proceedings on occasion, whether by cooling the ardent collective with sustained tarogato tones, or layering his impassioned tenor atop the garrulous ensemble. Indicative of the listening going on was the way in which they communally navigated the ensembles with a practiced ease, making space for everyone to take centre stage, before uncovering unforced transitions into the next stretch of the journey.
The quality of interaction in the second set was if anything even more notable than the first. At one point Conrad Bauer chuntered forcefully over Kessler's arco counterpoint and Zerang's timbral inventiveness, before Bishop and Johannes Bauer converged to fashion a unique trombone triumvirate, swaying inward around the older man's burbling multiphonics. Later a solo of measured bent bass notes drew a louche commentary from Brotzmann's alto, backed by the tandem drums, with Zerang casually funky and Nilssen-Love more concentratedly polyrhythmic, with Lonberg-Holm's scratching and scraping topping a compelling interlude.