Peter Brötzmann is an impressive figure in more ways than one. To begin with, there is his status as a legend. From his 1968 debut Machine Gun
to the present day, the German saxophonist has long stood for creativity and challenging conventions. Since then he has played with many of the great avant-garde masters such as Evan Parker, Cecil Taylor, and Ken Vandermark.
Brötzmann also has an impressive physical presence. A man of not inconsiderable girth and with his beard and tasteful dressing, Brotzmann carries himself in a manner that projects true intellectualism, importance, and above all else purpose. I saw Brötzmann perform this past April with Roy Campbell, Hamid Drake, and William Parker. It was a tremendous show where all four took turns shaping the music but the intermission after the first performance was a quite different affair. Members of the audience felt free to converse with the other three musicians but not Brötzmann. He appeared to be in deep contemplation about the music and as if he had not quite returned to the point of being able to carry on a conversation after an all consuming and exhilarating performance. In all actuality, there are myriads of coincidental items that probably better explain his presence that night. But his demeanor did reinforce the image seen on many record and CD sleeves of an individual so intense that he can't shift gears in the middle of the race. He has to finish before he can change.
Finally there is the music. Brötzmann specializes in intense, oftentimes angry music. Brutal, uncompromising, and full of rage, it is fierce and far from fun. The music has beauty because it is real not because it is beautiful in any traditional sense.
That is certainly true for Shadows. Electric guitarist Keiji Haino and drummer Shoji Hano, two of Japan's most acclaimed improvisers, join Brötzmann for 56 and a half minutes of hair-raising music. More than once I wanted a melodic respite after a particularly intense passage. I wanted something pleasant that would say that it was all going to turn out OK in the end and that there was no more reason to look for a place to hide. It wouldn't come. There would be not shelter from the storm. The trio just kept pouring it on. It made Shadows difficult to get through but also something worth doing and which was accompanied by a sense of accomplishment.
The music has little structure and includes every letter of the word free. No matter how much you love this type of music, any honest listener of this recordingalthough not necessarily the people who saw it performed livewill have to ask if there is any connection between what the three players are doing? What were they trying to say? Does this slash and burn music have a purpose and if so, is it a positive purpose? After the first few spins, this music seemed like the perfect soundtrack for marching through the streets of Seattle, D.C., Philly, or Prague. With time, however, that began to change for me. Surely this was not the music of the Rodney King beatingthere seemed to be justifications for this soundbut might this be the soundtrack for the what happened nearly nine years ago at the intersection of Florence and Normandy? Why can't they make their sounds easier to understand? What are they trying to create? A document that no two people understand the same way? Another goddamn religious text?
The emotions brought out by Shadows are, for better or worse, likely to stand out more than the fine musicianship on display. Still the technical aspects of the playing deserve comment. Brötzmann is in fine form blurting intense quantities of sound into the air. His playing has just enough humor and snippets of melody to fend reasonable charges that he is only creating noise and not sound. Haino comes in with notes that range from grating to soothing. Towards the end of the first track, he drones perfectly with Brötzmann while at the same time playing notes above that sound which allow listeners to hear both the build up and an unfilmed horror movie's climatic screams. By the time "Part 1" of the "Shadows" trilogy has ended, Haino is the almost the entire show with only brief, and somewhat buried, sounds, from Brötzmann and Hano. It makes for a quite spooking segment. By the time "Part Two" arrives, Hano goes straight to what sound like guitar doodles. The guitarist uses his axe to cove sonic spectrums yet no moments are no enjoyable that when he screams with his electronically altered voice. Hano sounds at first like a tortured Muppet but with time his inflections cover the gamut from rudeness, anguish, and even delight.
Amidst the craziness and often unbridled energy of Brotzmann, and Haino, Hano plays in a relatively reserved manner that in the end works perfectly with the other players. The drummer is content is plays each drum repeatedly with little variation or lightly caress his cymbals is it supports what either of the other two players are doing. When he does solo, Hano delivers a rather conventional and light treatment for his kit that would work with a wide variety of jazz contexts. Time keeping isn't his assignment here and so it would be a mistake to ignore the expressive qualities of his playing. Hano doesn't stand out but listeners who take the time to study his work here will be rewarded.
Brötzmann, Haino, and Hanothe "counter Axis trio"recorded Shadows live in concert last year on March 31 in Schlachthof, Austria. That was less than two months after the xenophobic, and arguably fascist, Joerg Haider came to power in that country. It would be ridiculous to say at this point in time that far rightists like Haider would tremble with fear if they heard this music. At the same time, it would not be strange if this music finds its way into the stereos of and gives strength to at least a few of the street fighters around the world who literally and figuratively shout "never again" to the Haiders of the world. Shadows certainly should be heard by them and anyone else opposed to either the music of predictability or the politics of destruction.