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Peter Brotzmann at the London Jazz Festival 2008

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Peter Brotzmann
London Jazz Festival 2008
Purcell Room
London, England

November 15, 2008



Peter Brotzmann must have one of the most undeviatingly linear careers in modern jazz. A full 40 years after his landmark Machine Gun album and fast approaching 70 years of age, the German multi- reedist is still best known for a take on improv rarely matched in its unremitting ferocity.

Certainly, tonight's set had its moments of brutalist, berserker onslaught—particularly compared to support act The Final Terror, a largely disappointing side project from Acoustic Ladyland leader Pete Wareham. The quartet's failure to live up to its name is all the more apparent in contrast to the headline act, whose drummer—utter commitment borne out by the hopelessly sweat-sodden state of his shirt—twice loses a stick and whose electric bassist breaks a string within minutes.

Yet while Brotzmann reviews can all too often descend into an exercise in conjuring ever more elaborate synonyms for loud and angry, the truth is that among the strongest moments tonight—as in much of his canon—are the lulls. More than merely the troughs that enable the peaks, they are in their way as intense as his most uncompromising skronk-outs, though the pain they channel is a dull, wretched anguish rather than a primal fury. Saying so may not fit with the standard Brotzmann orthodoxy, but the closing notes of tonight's encore are almost tender.

Like kung fu and tai chi, these apparent antipodes are in fact two sides of the same coin, Brotzmann often following a single stream-of-consciousness impulse from hot-to-cool stream and back again. More remarkable than how fast and furious he can play is that, even given the weight of soloing responsibility in this bare trio format, he never once loses his way. Instead, time and time again, he stops well before he loses momentum, typically pausing a moment before selecting another instrument from tonight's arsenal of four.

The leader's momentary silence is usually a cue either for the piece to end or for a drum solo from Michael Wertmueller, an impressive technician who nonetheless remains a deeply physical performer. Hence the state of his shirt. Bassist Marino Pliakas is less satisfactory, his decapitated bass sadly signaling a rather outmoded fusion mindset. Thankfully, however, he contents himself for much of the set with a kind of fast- strummed, rippling near-drone, more textural than harmonic.

Truth be told, I've seen Brotzmann in better company. But the man himself—recently described as the big bad wolf of jazz, albeit a wolf with a wonderfully Germanic walrus moustache—largely transcends the setting and is truly a wonder to behold. As part of the encore, he comes to the front of the stage to announce that he doesn't play on these shores as much as he might want to, and he hopes that situation might change. Amen to that, Brotz.

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