To the unaccustomed ear large-scale free jazz can easily sound like wanton noise. The very nature of free interplay, where close and rapid-fire listening on the part of the participants is a necessity, seems counterintuitive to settings populous with players. Perhaps that's why so much of the music is the province of smaller ensembles. Considering the niche within a niche market that the music has historically had to contend with another factor contributing to the dominance of compact aggregations is obviously financial in nature. Given these strictures it's a wonder there's a lineage to trace it all when it comes to big band free jazz.
Enter Peter Brötzmann, the venerable saxophone sodbuster who?s made a career out of tilling the tracks less traveled in improvised music. His Tentet, at times plus two, continues to soldier on into its fifth year, a veritable lifetime by the attrition-rate standards endemic to similar projects helmed by his peers. With the financial boost of Ken Vandermark's now three-years depleted MacArthur Foundation funding the Tentet found the time and resources to return to the studio and record this tandem testament to the state of their art.
Short Visit to Nowhere rings in as the more compositionally varied of the two. Brötzmann opens up the songbook choices to his band mates, contributing a piece himself and fitting his wizened horns into the framework of vehicles by Williams, Gustafsson and Lonberg-Holm. The opening "Hold That Thought" is a fully articulated armature of free bop replete with harmonically rich theme and sectional solo statements, moving from a somber, incantatory prelude into more riotous blowing. The Old World influences are evident in a rolling almost Klezmeresque bed of rhythms that sounds as if it could've been hatched from the mind of John Zorn. Drake and Zerang weave a forceful interlocking groove, while Kessler and Parker skulk together largely in the background until a three-way colloquy with Lonberg-Holm surfaces seven minutes in. A rare turn from McPhee, on his seldom-uncorked valve-trombone, and a horns-only blowout mid-piece that showcases explosively the extreme reed-power the band can bring to bear, are inflammatory standouts along the ensuing itinerary. Brötzmann waits in the wings until the closing minutes to unleash the snarling beasts hiding in the bell of his tenor.
Gustafsson's curiously titled "Ellington" isn't really Ellingtonian at all on the surface. Instead a mish-mash of breath sounds and little percussion funnels out of the players in a manner that proves slow to coalesce. It's an interesting contrast to the propulsive momentum of the earlier piece and oddly soothing in its use of space, at least in the opening section before the horns start strafing en mass. Lonberg-Holm?s creaking arco harmonics form an ornery sonic center as his partners swirl about him making noises both fluttering and moist in spastic staccato waves. Br?tzmann?s title piece eschews terra firma as well, tracing an analogously murky tract through abstract strata for much of its duration. An opening section of sputtering horns and sliding strings segues into several distortion-flanged flameouts from Lonberg-Holm and regular returns to ominous ensemble polyphony in numerous guises. The cellist's moody "Lightbox" works off the composer's idiosyncratic conduction method of the same name, as various instrument voices are cued in isolation and tandem by an illuminated box and colored slides.
Broken English is cloven conveniently into two monolithic slabs. The first improvisatory obelisk takes shape as a run through Brötzmann's mammoth "Stonewater," a piece previously issued on an eponymous disc also issued by Okka. This more recently minted incarnation differs from its predecessor in several ways, most strikingly in the absence of Toshinori Kondo's eccentric electronics, but Lonberg-Holm's amplified cello succeeds valiantly in shoring up the vacancy with sheets of excoriating noise. Also new and excitingly effective is the Bedouin chant preface by Drake, which weaves with the drummer's oscillating frame drum and Brötzmann's lamenting tarogato in a fabric of trance-inflected tonalities. Parker's log drum eventually joins in shaping a percussive backdrop, before a rude awakening erupts from the horns in a sudden series of strident blasts. Cyling through a string of combinations the piece works essentially as a platform for various soloists with raucous riffing passages spanning the gaps between individual statements.
The title track, while half the length of its companion, lacks little of the intensity or impact. Opening once again with a lone instrument, this time hand drum beats also presumably from the fingers and palms of Drake, the track takes on additional voices incrementally. Indian raga influences find purchase in the drone-like undercurrents of the strings as the horns bide their time for their inevitable exuberant entrance. Once again it's a riotous conflagration of dissonance and volume and the violence reaches levels that skirt the edges of implosion as soloists rise and fall atop the choppy ensemble racket. Given the propulsive force of the improvised sections the guiding theme seems almost inconsequential. The effect is both exhilarating and taxing, but the piece doesn't seem to balance its moments of dynamic tension as well as it otherwise might had the elements of calm and discord been better spaced. Bishop is a standout, ripping and snorting with his slide in grand fashion as his partners cavort around him. Also outstanding is McPhee, this time on trumpet, offering a simple locution that speaks soulfully and serves as a beautifully calming eye to the band's usual hurricane delivery.
Taken separately or together these two generously packed discs add substantially to the Tentet's folio. Big bands may be a rarity in free jazz, but Brötzmann and his crew of stalwarts have proven once again that the format is an intensely fertile once for this type of expression. Luck and resources willing the outfit will be around for years to come and offer up further evidences of their artistry. No doubt Okka will be in attendance to make certain the results are well circulated.