Peter Brotzmann: Vision Festival 16, June 8, 2011

Warren Allen By

Sign in to view read count
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.

Brötzmann came in on alto, and his tone cut like a razor into the cushion of sound. He moved at high speeds, with patterns that might have been bluesy in other contexts, as Adasiewicz switched to a more traditional grip to spin out ethereal patterns. He then turned to bowing the vibes' edge to make ringing, crystalline backdrops behind the saxophone. There was a lot of variety in the effects he could get, from chugging machine-like grooves to intricate, exotica-tinged lines.

The two had an easy, intriguing chemistry in their improvisation. There seemed to be interesting structures at times that enabled one to serve as a foundation for the other's solos. Adasiewicz started by laying out an intricate repeating line to form the hypnotic palette, then adding subtle evolutions and changes as Brötzmann entered, with a mantra-like cry.

Their third number opened with an unbelievable peal of sound, a long, high peacock cry from Brötzmann's clarinet. At times, the saxophonist played like he wanted to strangle his instrument, shaking out strange and ethereal tones on clarinet. This led to a slow ruminative pattern from Adasiewicz that, in concert with Brötzmann's Eastern-tinged tarogato, somehow called to mind sacred music from the Himalayas, before the tenor returned. This was some of the best interaction of the night, with Brötzmann unleashing an astonishing storm of reed-bitten screams in reaction to the hypnotic undulations of the vibraphone.

The duet form seemed to give the saxophonist a kind of wide open palette that he relished. It was the first time the two musicians had played together, and in some ways, it provided a slight (but necessary) relief from the intensity of the first set and the sonic hurricane to come. Adasiewicz provided both a responsive and ever-changing soundscape for Brötzmann to blow over. At the same time, the atmosphere in this set was somewhat more ruminative and introspective.

Pulverize the Sound Abrons Art Center Main Stage

New York, NY

June 8, 2011

The lone non-Brötzmann act of the night was the electric improvisational punk-metal band Pulverize the Sound, featuring trumpeter Peter Evans, electric bassist The Hub, and drummer Mike Pride. A noisy collaboration featuring forward looking songs written by all three artists, the band featured intricate rhythms and dizzying blasts of unusual sounds. The volume alone dwarfed even Brötzmann and Co., as the heavily amplified instruments flooded the hall.

Peter Evans

Evans, for one, does the same near-illegal things to trumpet that Brötzmann does to sax. With a seemingly endless supply of fearsome vocalizations and extended techniques, his playing pulls the instrument far beyond its jazz and classical roots. His performance at the Abrons featured deep metal rocker growls, skipping electric blasts, and, perhaps most impressive, a titanic display of circular breathing.

This last took place over the final song of the night. For the entire ten minute-plus tune, Evans played a continuous note—rising in pitch, but uninterrupted by a single normal breath. As he played, Pride and Dahl interrupted at apparently predetermined intervals, playing unison rhythmic lines together without warning. The result was a very cool jump-cut effect mixing warbling bass effects with hardcore drums, on top of that dark, almost forgotten sustained drone. Powerful, exhausting, and impressive, they set the tone appropriately for the end of the night.

Peter Brötzmann Quintet

Abrons Art Center Main Stage

New York, NY

June 8, 2011

Between sets, the organizers spoke about Brötzmann's career and achievements. As the audience applauded they called for the saxophonist to come out and say a few words. Somewhat bemused, Brötzmann came to the stage, and held up both hands. "Okay, guys," he said, surprisingly soft-spoken. "That's good enough." He thanked the many musicians who had come to play with him that night and the audience, noting that when it came to embracing creative music, "you're the most important part."

Then it was time for music again, with Brötzmann back with his tenor alongside the formidable forces of Chicago saxophonists Ken Vandermark and Mars Williams. Two other longtime Brötzmann conspirators, Kent Kessler and Paal Nilssen-Love, rounded out the band, on bass and drums respectively.

The band opened up with Vandermark on clarinet, Williams on alto, and Brötzmann on tenor. The three unleashed a swell of unrelenting sound, with each dominating his own distinctive register. Williams took over as a soloist, spitting out lightning runs, before Vandermark joined him. Then Brötzmann also stepped in, with a titanic accenting scream that carried some kind of meaning.

Vandermark played solo tenor, with the other four gone silent (and Brötzmann reloading his tenor with yet another reed round). He seemed to talk in tongues, punctuating the slur of syllables with burning squeals. Just a few minutes in, Nilssen-Love was drenched in sweat. Williams picked up his tenor, and a moment later all three saxophonists were speaking on the same horn. There was a syncopated logic to it, however—this was not the tenor battle that one might expect. Together they seemed like three engines within the same machine, cranking out syncopated noise together.

From left: Ken Vandermark, Mars WIlliams, Peter Brötzmann

Then Brötzmann took over, and showed the rapport that he has developed with Kessler and Nilssen-Love. Playing free of strict time, but they instead seemed to build their own music through dialogue, texture, and sheer force of will. Nilssen-Love was particularly impressive throughout the set, a perpetual blur moving all over to accent and engage. He was also drenched with sweat a few minutes into the performance.

But from this opening salvo on, not all was fire and brimstone. A solo from Vandermark accented the tender touches of R&B lurking within his style. And there were remarkable displays of how tender dynamics can heighten the disruptive effect of the avant-garde as much as a well-placed scream. After one dense wall of sound for instance, where it was impossible to tell who was doing what, everyone suddenly went quiet but Williams on soprano and Kessler, who themselves dropped to a remarkable softness with gentle repeated figures that then crescendoed to a remarkable brilliance. And even Brötzmann uncorked his own gentle solo, after a furious exchange of bass and drums, with the air whistling out of his horn like wind over a dried-out plain.

It was when all three players were on tenors, though, that incredible things really seemed to happen. At one point, each of them was playing the same multiphonic, amplifying the tortured notes that the horn was just not meant to play to a swell of sound. Then they each branched off into their own thing, before finding their way back to pianissimo volume and launching into something like a ballad, with Brötzmann sounding frightfully close to Coleman Hawkins for a few truly bizarre moments, when reality really seemed to be coming undone.

Of course, the real fun was when all three saxophones just cut loose. Their screams and sighs seem ready to bust their instruments apart, and they truly seem to love playing this music together. Even better, the energy they got from one another clearly fueled them on, spurring new ideas and new joyous chaos. And what they poured into it all was truly astonishing. When Brötzmann closed the night by leaping up and landing on a downbeat after more than three hours of playing, the sound of those driven saxophones seemed to linger on in the wake of the applause. This was great music, challenging and important, and the Vision Festival paid fitting tribute by giving it the chance to be heard. More New York institutions should follow suit.

Photo Credit
Dave Kaufman

Post a comment



View events near New York City
Jazz Near New York City
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Get App | More...

Shop Amazon


Interview with Steve Sandberg Trio at Soapbox Gallery
Interview with Tessa Souter Trio at Soapbox Gallery
Interview with Nicole Glover Trio at Smalls Jazz Club
Interview with Peter Zak Quartet at Smalls Jazz Club

Popular Articles

All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded albums and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, limited reopenings and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary step that will help musicians and venues now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the sticky footer ad). Thank you!

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.