Woodwind multi-instrumentalist Peter Brötzmann has never been one to shy away from extremes in a career that has spanned nearly forty years and nearly a hundred albums. He has been one of the strongest proponents to emerge from the Albert Ayler school of musical thought. While he's capable of extracting an incredible array of sounds from his instrumentsoften difficult to identify for all his extended techniqueshe has also adhered to some semblance of organization, even within what might appear to be some of the most chaotic music possible.
Brötzmann isn't so much concerned with form as he is shape. There's little in the way of harmonic or rhythmic handles to hold onto when listening to a Brötzmann recording; yet there always seems to be some kind of sense underlying the proceedings. Sometimes it's something as simple as contrastperiods of aggressive free play interspersed with more spacious periods of respite. Noisy collective improvisations are alternated with smaller subsets of whatever sized ensemble he's working with. And sometimes, emerging out of nowhere, brief periods of discernable rhythm or melody can be found.
His now eight year-old Chicago Tentet has been something of a revolving door unit, with artists like bassist William Parker, trumpeter Roy Campbell, and drummer Hamid Drake finding their way in and out of the collective. The personnel may change, providing shades of complexion to differentiate one version of the Tentet from another, but the underlying philosophy isn't particularly different. The voices may change but the premise remains the same.
Signs, half of a two-disc release from Okka Disk that also includes Images, focuses on a 2002/2003 version of the Tentet with notables including woodwind multi-instrumentalist Ken Vandermark, trumpeter Joe McPhee, saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, and drummers Michael Zerang and Hamid Drake. The three extended compositionsone each from Brötzmann, Gustafsson, and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holmall share a common sense of organized chaos. Organized, because in the way that instruments seem to coalesce, disappear and reappear, there is clearly some form of structure, even though it avoids more traditional concepts of form; chaos, because in some of the collective improvisations, there seems to be little sense.
And yet, as outrageous as things get, as extreme as some of the players become when evoking strange and unusual sounds from their instruments, confluence does emerge. A steadyalbeit temporarypulse here, a simple melodywhere two or more of the instruments pull together for brief moments of discordant but clearly-intentioned harmonythere.
While this recording is clearly not for any but the most adventurous of musical spirit, the good news is that the current version of the Tentet will be on tour in May, giving listeners the opportunity to actually see how the group navigates in real time. Meanwhile, there are plenty of hints on Signsan album that, for all of its apparent disarray, truly is free improvisation with a purpose.
Personnel: Joe McPhee (trumpet), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Ken Vandermark (tenor and baritone sax, b-flat clarinet), Mats Gustafsson (tenor and baritone sax), Mars Williams (alto, tenor and sopranino sax), Peter Brötzmann (alto and tenor sax, a clarinet, tarogato), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Kent Kessler (bass), Michael Zerang (drums), Hamid Drake (drums)