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Peter Brötzmann Trio
Empty Bottle, Chicago
January 12, 2005

On a bizarre January night—for Chicago, anyway—of thunder and torrential rain, European free-jazz pioneer Peter Brötzmann returned to the Empty Bottle to produce some extremely heavy weather of his own. Brötzmann's in town this week to play in several different venues in a variety of musical settings, and here he was teamed with drummer/percussionist Hamid Drake and bassist Kent Kessler. Both musicians have played with Brötzmann many times (their 1999 release Live at the Empty Bottle is a classic) and the trio's return to this packed venue did not disappoint; they played two riveting sets of completely improvised music.
The trio was alert, intense, and loud. Brötzmann played with an intensity and force that belied his sixty-one years. The first one-hour set consisted of two "songs"; Brötzmann played tenor on the first and clarinet on the second. The tenor piece was harsh, surging and bombastic, but had moments of startling tenderness, such as its haunting interlude of the leader's unaccompanied microtonal tenor sighing—in this context, call it a blues—with Kessler's arco bass and Drake's cymbals joining in gradually and gorgeously. Of course, this was followed by howling, spastic clusters of tenor rage over Drake's handplayed but muscular drumming; Brötzmann's "pretty" playing hasn't an iota of sentimentality and it never overstays its welcome.
The clarinet feature began with a half-toned, flutter-tongued clarinet intro and included a fantastic a cappella, scalar bass solo from Kessler and explosive, polyrhythmic playing from Drake—certainly, no drummer has played as well with Brötzmann since his collaborations with Han Bennink. The two seem to understand each other perfectly and it's fascinating to watch one suggest an idea as to where the improvisation should go and the other acquiesce or resist. Either way, the suggestion is always heard and understood; it's just that sometimes the other man has another notion. This piece—and the first set—culminated in pure, glowing squalling noise, Brötzmann wailing in his instrument's upper register over a free cacophany of churning bass and drums that felt almost religious. In any case, it was a strong reminder of the fact that this genre was known as "energy" music. Under the noise and polyphony, though, the piece had a melancholy, almost Old-World feeling—deep down, anyway.
A familiar figure appeared during the set break: local hero Ken Vandermark, setting his bass clarinet and baritone sax on stands. Hooray! Vandermark never got a chance to play his bass clarinet, but no one seemed upset: the second set was one long improvisation where Vandermark (on baritone) and Brötzmann (on gloriously contrasting alto) played with violent muscle and intensity, Brötzmann more than keeping up with the younger man. Again, this hour-long piece went through a variety of "movements", but it's the individual moments that stick in the memory: Kessler's mad, unaccompanied bowed solo, all knuckles and flailing arms; Brötzmann's long, somber lines over a repeated, circular-breath motif from Vandermark, the two producing a sense of ominous, sweet fragility; Drake's two alternating drum parts near the end that, once understood by the other three, produced a platform for all to unite to utterly devastating effect—this was some set. When the piece came to a close, Vandermark, Drake and Kessler turned to the leader to see if he was, indeed, exhausted. He was, and so was the audience.

Outside, the thunder continued; inside the club, it had exhausted itself.

Photo Credit
Ziga Koritnik


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