Saxophone-Percussion Duos: Peter Brotzmann & Han Bennink, John Stevens & Trevor Watts, Joe McPhee & John Heward, Mika Kallio & Mikko Innanen

Ivana Ng By

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Peter Brotzmann & Han Bennink
Bennink/Brotzmann in Amherst 2006
Eremite Records

Spontaneous Music Ensemble
Bare Essentials (1972-3) John Stevens & Trevor Watts
Emanem Records

Joe McPhee & John Heward
Voices: 10 Improvisations
Mode Records

Mika Kallio & Mikko Innanen
Fiascko Records

"I can't deal with the term 'free jazz," Dutch percussionist Han Bennink once said. So how does one deal with four different free jazz CDs? One theme these albums share is that they are all saxophone- percussion duos, a venerable format since Coltrane's Interstellar Space. Another, that they can all function under the umbrella of free improvisation. Still another, that the musicians on each have performed with those on the others.

Both Bennink and German saxophonist Peter Br?tzmann were forerunners of the European free jazz movement in the '60s. In Amherst 2006 captures their inimitable energy and dynamic together. "And He Is In and Of Me" demonstrates the spectrum of their relationship: in the beginning, Br?tzmann plays solo on the b-flat clarinet, his notes squeaky and eager, then breathy and languorous; then, slowly Bennink emerges, his drumming crescendoing and speeding up until both men are fighting to keep abreast of each other. No one can handle Br?tzmann's aggressive playing quite like Bennink, who can match the saxophonist's raucous notes at any pace or volume with his innate sense of rhythm.

The Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) also was seminal in European free jazz—though in more of the quiet vein than the German/Dutch contingent—most notably in Great Britain. Bare Essentials (1972-3) documents the time when the SME consisted only of British saxophonist Trevor Watts and British percussionist/cornetist John Stevens (the SME's one constant in its almost 30-year history). The rapport between these two is more static compared to that of Br?tzmann and Bennink. In "Lowering the Case," Stevens, on cornet, and Watts improvise a duet whose quiet notes and lengthy silences feel incredibly natural yet very surreal. Br?tzmann and Bennink tend to play as if in opposition, but Watts and Stevens are continually aware of each other's paths, which always run parallel and intersect purposefully. The two duos also have similar dynamics: Br?tzmann plays unpredictably with Bennink always on the ball, ready to adapt to his constantly evolving voice; Stevens is constantly trying new things with the versatile Watts adjusting to his playing.

Voices: 10 Improvisations, like Bare Essentials, has a surreal quality. In "Improvisation 1," American saxophonist Joe McPhee, who has performed with Br?tzmann on several occasions since 1998 in quartets and the mighty Chicago Tentet, uses the pocket trumpet to create noises that sound like rain on a rooftop or fingers drumming on wood. McPhee then switches to soprano sax in "Improvisation 2" and Canadian drummer John Heward chimes in on the kalimba. The result is enigmatic and beautifully ethereal. These two songs lend versatility to the rest of the album, which manages to sound atmospheric and worldly.

Finnish saxophonist Mikko Innanen and percussionist Mika Kallio are the youngest duo discussed here (both are in their 30s). It is not surprising, then, that Scratch sounds more youthful and less 'free.' While Br?tzmann, Bennink and SME were leaders in European free music, Innanen and Kallio are still interested in the history of jazz. Innanen, for example, is clearly influenced by Albert Ayler in "251170"; his sax voice is primal and belligerent here, not unlike that of Br?tzmann. By the end of this song, the dynamic between Kallio and Innanen, who has released albums with Bennink, is not unlike that of Bennink and Br?tzmann: competitive, aggressive, like a race.

Free jazz may be far away from the jazz 'tradition' but its roots are still detectable. Even in dealing with these four arguably free jazz CDs, one can find connections and motifs among them. Just as books are hypertextual, so too are these records.

Free jazz may be far away from the jazz tradition but its roots are still detectable. Even in dealing with these four arguably "free jazz" CDs, one can find connections and motifs among them. Just as books are hypertextual, so too are these records.

Tracks and Personnel

Bennink/Brotzmann in Amherst 2006

Tracks: every man is me; I am his brother; no man is my enemy; I am everyman; and he is in and of me; this is my faith; my strength; my deepest hope and my only belief.

Personnel: Peter Brotzmann: alto/tenor-saxophone, b-flat clarinet, tarogato; Han Bennink: drums.

Bare Essentials (1972-3) John Stevens & Trevor Watts

Tracks: Side A: In the Midlands; In the Middle; Three Extracts; For Phil. Side B: Newcastle 62A; Newcastle 72B; Open Flower 1; Open Flower 2; Open Flower 3; Open Flower 4; Open Flower 5; Open Flower 6; Open Flower 7; Opening the Set; Beyond Limitation; Lowering the Case.

Personnel: Trevor Watt: soprano saxophone, voice; John Stevens: percussion, cornet, voice.

Voices: 10 Improvisations

Tracks: Improvisation 1; Improvisation 2; Improvisation 3; Improvisation 4; Improvisation 5; Improvisation 6; Improvisation 7; Improvisation 8; Improvisation 9; Improvisation 10.

Personnel: Joe McPhee: pocket trumpet, soprano saxophone; John Heward: drums, kalimba.


Tracks: Mind Trick; Itch; 251170; Blues for Stanley; Ballad for I; Stalk; Chase; Far West, Part 1; Far West, Part 2; Helantie Hoedown; I Love You (in D Minor); Scratch; Three is a Crowd; Good Company; Bad Company; Lullaby.

Personnel: Mikko Innanen: alto/tenor/soprano/baritone saxophone; bird sounds, wood blocks, horn, ragelis; Mika Kallio: drums, saw, nose flute, bird sounds, wood blocks.


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