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Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet + 1: London, England, November 9-10, 2012

John Sharpe By

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Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet + 1
Café Oto
London
November 9-10, 2012

Reprising a legendary three-day residency at Dalston's Café Oto in April 2011, saxophonist Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet roared into town for two nights as part of the London Jazz Festival, the penultimate dates in a nine-day European tour. Incredibly, given the inclement economic climate and the busy schedules of a star-studded roster bursting with leaders in their own right, this band has hit the road relentlessly, several times each year, since its inception in 1997. That depth of shared experience, alongside the possibility absorbing lessons learned over a prolonged period has made the Tentet one of the preeminent large ensembles in free jazz and beyond.

What that means is that, even though 11 strong, the group displays the same fluidity, fleetness of foot, capacity for instant composition and preternatural ability to seamlessly shift between radically different moods, as a much smaller group. Add to that the instrumental prowess and improvisational nous of the individuals and you have a package made in heaven, and one difficult to pass by if they are in the neighborhood. The Café Oto crowd certainly thought so. With the additional publicity which comes from being part of a high-profile event, it was no surprise that both nights were sold out well before the weekend.

Unlike previous performances, which featured subsets of the whole, the full Tentet + 1 took to the bandstand both nights, creating nonstop spontaneous combustion in four 50- minute sets. For those not present, the double CD Walk, Love, Sleep (Smalltown Superjazzz, 2012), recorded during the Spring 2011 tour gives the best indication of the group's current state.

As the musicians crammed into the small Oto stage area, the front row of the audience was at risk of being prodded by trombone slides, although by the second night a little rationalization had permitted a more expansive performance space and left the band a little less hemmed in. At times, as faces lit golden by the perfunctory Oto spotlight loomed from out of the gloom, the spectacle evoked a Rembrandt painting, perhaps a hipper version of the Night Watch.

An air of quiet intensity and focus hovered about the band before the Friday concert, perhaps the result of a long journey from the previous gig in Lithuania, and it translated into one of the more reflective performances by the 11-piece collaborative venture. Several unaccompanied solos materialized during the first set, Ken Vandermark's intense overblown tenor saxophone, garlanded with split tones, being just the start. Matters proceeded by way of ad hoc permutations of instruments coming together, to which others joined to comment, aver, or dispute until they eventually engulfed the starting gambit. Such alchemy demanded supreme listening skills and trust to not only avoid concocting a mess, but to conjure something coherent which, like Scheherazade, told a bewitching catalogue of separate but interwoven stories.

It was notable just how well the transitions were managed. As soon as one person or subset finished, another was ready to pick up the baton, either maintaining the momentum or switching the trajectory to somewhere completely unpredictable. In one striking passage, trombonist Jeb Bishop pontificated a small hours feel in tandem with bassist Kent Kessler's purposeful pizzicato and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love's tonal cadences, while Joe McPhee's clarinet and Vandermark's tenor added mellow counterpoint. Brötzmann put his alto saxophone to his lips but then thought better of it, until the interlude came to a natural conclusion, at which point he took over with vigor emitting a paint-stripping shriek, ably abetted by Fred Lonberg-Holm's electronics and cello. At just the right moment, Nilssen-Love tumbled in once more (drawing an approving glance from saxophonist Mats Gustafsson) to reunite what has become known as the Ada Trio (following their inaugural appearance at Café Ada in the German's hometown of Wuppertal) for one of the evening's highlight.

As always, Brötzmann led by example. In one magnificent passage he layered his vibrato-laden alto saxophone ululations over Gustafsson's majestic baritone elegy to scalp-pricking effect, while the first set ended with another coruscating Brötzmann tenor solo which built to a climax and then sidestepped the expected blowout by gently subsiding to silence.

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