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Peter Brotzmann: Vision Festival 16, June 8, 2011

Warren Allen By

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Peter Brötzmann Quartet
Abrons Art Center Main Stage
New York, NY
June 8, 2011

On a hot June night in downtown NYC, the Vision Festival welcomed German tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann to the main stage of the Abrons Art Center. Famously nicknamed "Machine Gun" early on in his career by Don Cherry, for his unrelenting sound, and then cutting a legendary free jazz blasterpiece of the same name (FMP 1968), Brötzmann has been a fearless explorer of the outermost reaches of jazz and beyond, pushing beyond even the haunting chaos of Albert Ayler. Even at 70 years of age, his soul scorching saxophone is unmistakable, and unmellowed in its aggression.

As the centerpiece of its festival, VisionFest took the opportunity to pay tribute to Brötzmann by featuring his distinctive voice within three completely different groups. The downstairs auditorium, which was open every other night for a variety of art, films and music acts, was closed and all attention was drawn to the main stage. Even as the first act started up a long line stretched down Grand Street for last minute tickets, with some being turned away as the show was declared sold out.

Brötzmann's opening set featured a fearsome quartet of Joe McPhee, on tenor sax and pocket trumpet, alongside Eric Revis and William Parker, two master bassists of the avant-garde. McPhee started out on pocket trumpet, producing wide whirls of sound from the miniature brass, before he switched to tenor. This led to a frightening matchup with Brötzmann, as they simultaneously blasted multiphonics in unison from the low range of their horns up to the very highest squeals.

The first impression about Brötzmann's playing is, of course, its raw force. The line of his jaw juts out as he bites the saxophone reed mercilessly, drawing piercing shrieks from the horn. His tone throughout the horn is huge and strong, and his playing features far more vocal effects and multiphonics than ordinary notes. Suggestions of melody, the blues, and the honking and grinding R&B saxophone predecessors of the avant-garde flit in and out of his improvisations at different times—but there's a lot more industrial grind and grit in there. At the same time, there's something primal and unreasoning in his music, like a scream from sharp, unoiled gears. It's at once cathartic and intimidating—a raw sound that has no equal in modern music.

After a minute of Brötzmann and McPhee wailing at supersonic octave, they dropped to a softer mutual growl, as if about to lose steam, while a jolt of arco bass from Revis rang out like electric guitar. As the quartet slowed to the end of their first tune, the audience let out a heavy exhalation, with many still filing in and searching out seats, before breaking out in applause. The next tune (of sorts) opened with solo Brötzmann at a soft, wide vibrato—not so uncontrolled as Ayler's but still probing and eerie.

Then the basses engaged in a powerful extended duet conversation, resonant and intricate, while Brötzmann reloaded his tenor with a new reed and picked up his silver clarinet. As the basses ended their exchange, McPhee added some soft mournful pocket trumpet, before switching to clarinet himself, and engaging Brötzmann. The two unleashed amazing screams at incredibly high pitches. Parker pulled out percussive effects from the head of his bass, working with Revis to weave a deep and encompassing cushion beneath the two wailing horns. McPhee seemed more eager to linger longingly over the pained notes, while Brötzmann moved wore out pitches with frenetic energy.

As the set came to an end, the work of "MusicWitness" artist Jeff Schlanger spoke volumes about the tone of the night. Schlanger had the best seat in the house throughout VisionFest, seated at the edge of the stage with a wide stretch of paper to draw his impressions of the performances live, as his previous works were projected behind the musicians. It was somewhat telling that his illustrations, in the wake of the quartet set, featured fiery swirls of reds and yellows spiraling out of an abstracted saxophone form.


Peter Brötzmann Duet with Jason Adasiewicz

Abrons Art Center Main Stage

New York, NY

June 8, 2011

Fifteen minutes later, Brötzmann returned to the stage alongside vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz. By now even Brötzmann was feeling the heat in the auditorium, forcing him to take off his jacket and lay it to one side. Adasiewicz, a young player from the Chicago avant scene, quickly showed himself to be a master at wringing out fresh sounds from the typical mellow vibes. Gripping his sticks with a hand at either end, he shook them against the vibes to make a clanging, bell-like sound. The sound filled the hall, like chimes from some ancient temple.

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