Peter Brotzmann: Schwarzwaldfahrt, Alarm and Pica Pica

Clifford Allen By

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Peter Brötzmann/Han Bennink

Peter Brötzmann

Peter Brötzmann/Albert Mangelsdorff/Günter "Baby" Sömmer
Pica Pica

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, European jazz had gone through both its birthing period and its creative flowering as musicians and composers made their marks and defined their aesthetics. Reedman Peter Brötzmann was among the first on the German scene to engage free improvisation; his trio with bassist Peter Kowald and itinerant Swedish drummer Sven-Åke Johanssen cut what was one of the crucial documents of the time in 1967, For Adolphe Sax (reissued on Atavistic). Surely Albert Ayler's trio with Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray was a valid surface comparison, but the folksy blues motifs that characterized Ayler's work were replaced by stark fragmentation and a rhythm section that moved from free-time bustle to defining shards of action. The West-German jazz vanguard came into fruition on records like Gunter Hampel's Heartplants (Saba), Manfred Schoof's Voices and Albert Mangelsdorff's Tension (both CBS), but the image of Brötzmann's vicious, high-energy free jazz, much of which made even the ESP and BYG catalogs sound "tame, was what defined the German approach for years to come.

Granted, to define Brötzmann's art only through lung-busting bass saxophone antics is to miss the nuances that make up his playing and methods. Co-leader of a long-running trio with Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove and Dutch percussionist/reedman Han Bennink, the paint-peeling skronk was tempered with a notion of Dadaist theatricality and political ramifications that may have equaled Schwitters and Satie. During the '70s Brötzmann was a sometime member of Holland's Instant Composers' Pool and participated in English guitarist Derek Bailey's Company (not to mention countryman, pianist Alex von Schlippenbach's Globe Unity), and cut his free-blues chops sitting in regularly with Frank Wright's quartet. Certainly, while volume and sheer density reflect aspects of his approach, he's honed a profound lyricism through engaging East European and North African folk textures, as heard on clarinets and taragot. This background is fitting when revisiting three recently-reissued FMP slabs from the turn of the '80s, resulting from a wide array of improvisational contexts and experiences that have helped to define Brötzmann as an artist.

The Brötzmann-Bennink duo, indeed Still Quite Popular After All Those Years (BRO/Eremite, 2004), formed ostensibly in 1968 with the drummer's inclusion on the watershed Machine Gun and resulted in two late '70s FMPs and the scarce Japanese Atsugi Concert (GUA-Bunge). Schwarzwaldfahrt (loosely translated as "A Walk through the Black Forest ) is the stranger and more notorious of the lot, culled from numerous field recordings made in 1977 near Donaueschingen, with the pair playing branches, stones and brooks in addition to clarinets, saxophones and cymbals. Certainly there's the sheer joy of making music unencumbered outside — the opening clarinet duet takes delight in making woody squawks in the vastest concert hall imaginable. There's also the power of recording what could be akin to the first human music — the rush of air as Bennink swings about branches in a clearing. And there's Bennink drumming on a log as Brötzmann in full wide-vibrato mode walks away from the mike and then gradually returns, all within the framework of an orchestra of fauna and flora. Audio-collage it might be, but the fact that one can visualize and share in the experience of making it, is what makes Schwarzwaldfahrt such a unique document in the history of creative music.

In the early '80s, Brötzmann began employing the South African rhythm team of bassist Harry Miller and drummer Louis Moholo, anchors of the Brotherhood of Breath and lynchpins of the UK's kwela-jazz scene who provided a pliant circulation system for the saxophonist's flights. On Alarm, the trio is augmented by pianist Alex von Schlippenbach, reedmen Willem Breuker and Frank Wright, trombonists Alan Tomlinson and Johannes Bauer and trumpeter Toshinori Kondo for a pan-continental meeting of minds. Like many such aggregations, it was sponsored by NDR and recorded for German radio broadcast. Apparently the concert itself was ironically cut short by a bomb scare, though the insert suggests other pieces performed at a different gig — mouth-watering for discographers and leading one to wonder if more tapes exist.

Most of the disc is made up of the title piece, its glissandi drawn from evacuation design scores. Like "Machine Gun, the basis for the soundmasses of "Alarm" is militaristic response without the call; the former had Vietnam and the Left Bank as catalysts, the latter Reagan and nuclear proliferation. Yet in all its nervous overtones, the theme is almost regal in its display, though frantic and chaotic rejoinders arch out in Schlippenbach's player-piano sound-blocks (mostly in dialogue with a callus-shredding Miller) and Wright's pulpit-pounding runs. The music even has its representational moments, Kondo's distorted chatter mimicking the distant, irrelevant and unintelligible calls of an emergency intercom. Of course, despite the size of the ensemble, there is ample room for individual soloists to stretch unaccompanied — Kondo and Bauer get a significant amount of solo chortle time, and the trio of saxophonists assembles a contrapuntal ditty after Tomlinson's muscular solo (and in which the rest of the band soon takes part). Indeed, Alarm is quite colorfully stitched-together considering the minimal and dire auspices of its theme. A rejoicing in spite of (or maybe because of) the storm comes in the form of a brief rendition of Wright's R&B groover "Jerry (see ESP 1023, Frank Wright Trio), with Wright preaching in full-vocal mode.

Old-guard trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, who had a history in Dixieland bands as well as Germany's nascent modern-jazz scene of the early '60s, was one of the few members of the German jazz establishment to embrace free playing (Rolf Kuhn is the other prime example). A principal exponent of brass multiphonics, his cooler approach fit well with Brötzmann's "hot methods when they recorded together in 1971 (Elements- Couscouss de la Mauresque-The End, on FMP) with Bennink and Van Hove. Just over a decade later, Pica, Pica finds Albert and Brötzmann in a trio with East Berlin percussion wizard Gunter "Baby Sommer for three group improvisations.

Far from the unfettered mania that characterizes the Elements set, there's a cool undertone in Mangelsdorff's hummed comping and easy swing, an inwardly-directed auto-conversation that both stands in opposition to and reels in the leader's molten tenor, wails punctuated by tense, hushed dialogue. Sommer is relentless with a delicate insistence that finds sparse grooves and draws them tighter in a web of cross-ryhthms, a canvas that supports as much as it yields a platform. This is particularly in effect on his "Wie du Mir, So Ich Dir Noch Lange Nicht, on which muted cymbals provide a framework for his delicate architecture, an individualist hybrid of Sven-Åke Johansson and Andrew Cyrille. Brötzmann always had an ear for drummers, and it's a shame that (for obvious reasons) he wasn't able to use Sommer more often. Of course, this ear stretches across countries, traditions, political lines and generations, embracing the possibility in the process.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Disc One: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3; No. 4; No. 5; No. 6; No. 7; No. 8; No. 9; No. 10 Disc Two: No. 11; No. 12; No. 13; No. 14; No. 15; No. 16; No. 17; No. 18; No. 19; No. 20.

Personnel: Peter Brötzmann: clarinets, alto saxophone, birdcalls, voice, sand, land, water, air; Han Bennink: clarinets, soprano saxophone, birdcalls, voice, cymbals, sticks, wood, sand, water, land, air.


Tracks: Alarm Part One; Alarm Part Two; Jerry.

Personnel: Peter Brötzmann: tenor saxophone; Frank Wright: tenor saxophone, voice; Willem Breuker: alto saxophone; Toshinori Kondo: trumpet; Alan Tomlinson: trombone; Johannes Bauer: trombone; Alexander von Schlippenbach: piano; Harry Miller: bass; Louis Moholo: drums.

Pica Pica

Tracks: Instant Tears; Wie du Mir, So ich Dir Noch Lange Nicht; Pica, Pica.

Personnel: Peter Brötzmann: tenor, alto and bass saxophones, tarogato; Albert Mangelsdorff: trombone; Gunter Sommer: drums, trumpet.


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