Last Set: Live at the 1369 Jazz Club
Boxholder BXH 042

Berlin Djungle
Atavistic Unheard Music Series UMS/ALP 246CD

Getting an understanding of the situation for committed free improvisers in Europe as opposed to the United States in the mid-1980s is pretty obvious when listening to these two live CDs, recorded about two months apart, both of which happen to have William Parker in the bass chair.

In early November 1984, German reedist Peter Brötzmann put together an international, all-star, 11-piece “Clarinet Project” for a special concert in a Berlin theatre as part of that city’s Jazzfest. Beside himself the clarinetists were Tony Coe from England, Louis Sclavis from France, East German Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky and J. D. Parran and John Zorn from the U.S. But that’s not all. The ensemble also included Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, East German Johannes Bauer and Briton Alan Tomlinson on trombones, with British drummer Tony Oxley supplying the bottom along with Parker. By all accounts the one lengthy piece was welcomed by the audience.

Across the ocean in Boston, hometown boy trumpeter Raphe Malik was doing a series of local club dates with a trio filled out by Parker and drummer Syd Smart. This CD, recorded at Cambridge’s 1369 Jazz Club, is particularly notable, since the trio was joined by pioneering New Thing tenor saxophonist Frank Wright in his only Boston-area gig. A long-time expatriate and Paris resident, Wright died in 1990. Here too the audience is enthusiastic, but you get the feeling that for most Bostonians — heck, Americans — this performance could be dismissed as just another club date by players too stubborn to adopt the fashionable fusion or neo-con styles of the time.

Unsurprisingly — for pertinent pure improv is about a lot more than in-the-moment fashion and audience accessibility — both performances feature considerable musical values that recommend them.

Take LAST SET for instance. Undeterred by the fact that this was just another club date, Malik, Wright, Parker and Smart give their all. Maybe they didn’t know how to improvise any other way. Wright especially is so caught in the moment that when he’s not forcing out emotional reed riffs he vocalizes quasi-verbal exhortations during the others’ solos.

This mostly tales place on “Companions #2”, the almost 30-minute centrepiece of the disc. Performed hell-bent-for-leather, it shows that neither front-line partner had lost any efficacy from his so-called 1960s (Wright) or 1970s (Malik) prominence.

From the beginning, Wright slurs and slides and growls and overblows, putting R&B-flavored mid-range vibrated snorts and deeper-pitched honks into his solo. As he mutates variations of the blaring theme, he masticates sounds from the lowest section of his horn’s bow up to the cork attached to his mouthpiece. Malik’s broken octave accompaniment converges with rapid, spiky triplets and sprightly hide-and-seek timbres.

As the trumpeter solos, Wright, caught up in the moment, begins a weird sort of Free Jazz style vocalizing filled with mumbled asides, Bronx cheers and lip trumpet action. Behind him Parker’s speedy arco line reaches a sul ponticello crescendo, while Smart, who labors as a public school teacher as well as playing as a valued local musician, uses his bass drum and sock cymbal to resonate heavy nerve beats and drum paradiddles.

One climax is reached as Malik spews machine-gun style triplets that are soon joined by Wright’s irregularly voiced tenor. As the saxman’s mid-tempo variations on the theme turn to variations on variations — featuring only a few R&B snorts — Malik come up with a separate, but complementary theme of sweet, high-pitched grace notes and some bugle-call intimations. Swaying spiccato from the bassist slow the tune down for the finale with splattered triplets from Malik serving as the coda.

Featuring heraldic trumpeting from Malik, double-tongued fanfares and the odd satisfied grunt from Wright, “Sad C”, the first track, is more of the same. However, “Chaser” the final number is an exercise in freebop, which judging from its title, may be a contrafact, with a new head superimposed upon the existing set of changes from Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser”.

Wright’s influences are blusier than bop, however, and his slurred pitch and wide vibrato encourages Malik to sound plunger-focused theme variations as Parker walks and Smart plays a shuffle. Ever heard finger-popping Free Jazz? Here is it in volume. Soon the reedist is snorting raucous riffs over and over again as Malik shrills rubato broken chords in tandem with him. Pedal point chortles and bubbling colored air confirm that the band is still in free territory, but the audience reacts as if it was in attendance at a James Brown performance.

With three times the brass capability and six times the reed power, Brötzmann and company’s polyphony has much more volume but about the same amount of energy as Malik’s quartet on its single almost 50-minute piece. Strangely for a clarinet showcase, the CD begins with a Scottish bagpipe-type air from Brötzmann’s tarogoto that’s quickly joined by the wavering pitch of the other reeds, including Sclavis’ wiggling bass clarinet.

Using tongue slaps for emphasis, the theme’s first development leaves the rhythm section to cleave to the bottom as the horns increase the volume while spurting squeaks and trills. One quarter of the way through, the brass finally asserts itself, with elephant-like trumpeting plus hippo-like snorts and snores from the trombone. Cutting through the responding reed pitches are oddball, vocalized static and whistles, probably courtesy of Zorn’s clarinet mouthpieces. Playing entire passages in ear-splitting altissimo, he alternates harsh raspberries, duck-like quacks and plush toy squeaky timbres. Oxley’s anvil-like bass drum blows and clip-clop cymbal tempos keep things on an even keel until a parlando trombone solo, possibly from Bauer, rouses the audience’s applause.

As Parker’s strums and Oxley’s rhythmic power reins in the jagged peaks and valleys of the horn lines, one sibilant romantic tone supersedes the others. Probably from the clarinet of Coe, whose experience encompasses studio and commercial big band work as well as freer episodes, it provides a moderating influence on the contrapuntal discord around him that starts to resemble ornithological mealtime. With the muted ‘bones supplying rubato counterpoint, the reeds form quivering accordion-like harmonies leading to a finale of sky-high honks and twitters.

The bassist’s screechy sul ponticello lines and the drummer’s irregular patterning on cow bell, wood block and ride cymbal seem merely an afterthought or solo reward for yeoman accompaniment service. Recapitulating the beginning, Brötzmann reintroduces the tarogato and attempts, on pure lung power, to go one-on-one with Oxley. Percussion strength barely triumphs, but only because a posse of other reeds joins in for a postlude of polytonal split tones.

A singular experience BERLIN DJUNGLE produces some memorable textures and must be admired for Bötzmann’s decision to broaden his compositional range. Yet LAST SET also proves that plenty of good music was also being produced far from the spotlight, and which — like this session — has only been preserved by happenstance.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Berlin: 1. What A Day First Part 2. What A Day Second Part

Personnel: Berlin: Toshinori Kondo (trumpet); Johannes Bauer and Alan Tomlinson (trombones); Peter Brötzmann (clarinet, tenor saxophone and tarogato); Tony Coe, Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, J. D. Parran (clarinets); Louis Sclavis (clarinet and bass clarinet); John Zorn (clarinet and mouthpieces); William Parker (bass); Tony Oxley (drums)

Track Listing: Last 1. Sad C 2. Companions #2 3. Chaser

Personnel: Last: Raphe Malik (trumpet); Frank Wright (tenor saxophone and voice); William Parker (bass); Syd Smart (drums)