Festival Report

Krakow Jazz Autumn
By Ken Waxman

Krakow’s Kazimierz district, which includes Poland’s oldest standing synagogue building, and architecture dating mostly from the 18th century, was early on a centre of intellectual ferment, and more recently known for its large concentration of bars and restaurants. But it’s likely that rarely has the area witnessed such an open display of power and emotion as took place during German reedist Peter Brötzmann’s four-day residency November 5 to 8 at the basement Alchemia Club during Krakow Jazz Autumn.

Billed as Brötzmann’s special project, one performance also took place in the soft seated auditorium of the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology, situated on the banks of the Vistula River, which snakes throughout the city. But like comparing the action of a sporting event viewed from the bleachers or beside home plate, proximity didn’t enlarge or diminish the sonic experience. Unlike the somewhat cramped Alchemia stage, the raised Manggha stager gave the players more leg – and more importantly – elbow room, but the quality of the sounds remained the same.

At 74, and following 50 plus years of recording and on the road, whenever Brötzmann rears back and ejaculates a sound, his tone is individualistic and instantaneously identifiable whether on tenor or soprano saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet or tarogato. Over the course of four nights in both locations, he worked in a variety of settings from duos to a sextet, facing each situation uniquely, whether the improvisation called for restrained and chesty balladic tones or reed thrusts so raw they suggested molten lead being poured over a besieged fortress’ turrets. Despite his gruff exterior, Brötzmann is one of the most congenial of players. His associates confirmed the breath of his career and ranged from representatives of Free Jazz’s beginnings such as American trumpeter/saxophonist Joe McPhee, Swedish drummer Peeter Uuskyla and American bassist William Parker; to mid-career players including British drummer Steve Noble, American drummer Hamid Drake; and even younger associates such as Swedish tubiast Per-Åke Holmlander, Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and Texan turned Glaswegian, pedal steel guitarist Heather Leigh, All had previously worked with Brötzmann; only a few with one another. But despite the stage at points sometimes looking like the arrivals and departures gates of a busy international airport, almost every set coalesced like astutely timed flight transfers.

Leigh, with whom he had played only a few times previously was a new challenge. Using effects pedals to add a synthesizer-like ostinato to her 12-string lap top, Leigh’s fretless narratives seemed to be the place where Stockhausen and Speedy West met. As her reverberations coalesced into stinging Hendrix-style guitar flanges or pulsating bass guitar-like bounces, cunning Brötzmann turned from repetitive renal lowing on clarinet to a warm bagpipe-like sound that nestled passionately among her tremolo tones. Joined by Noble during another set, subtle cymbal coloring added the third ingredient, resulting in comfortingly head swaying swing finale.

McPhee,76, and Brötzmann know pre-Free Jazz well, so, especially when backed by Parker’s rigorous bricklayer-strength pacing, on saxophones they mixed the raunch of swing and blues with unprecedented timbral exploration. One second a flurry of yelps, sucks and cries were upfront; the next the two explored a bel canto-styled ballad with exquisite finesse. McPhee’s shivering pocket trumpet tones were also particularly effective when matched with Brötzmann’s guttural bass clarinet blurts and opposed by Leigh’s bouncy country-style blues lines on the final night’s collaboration. Also featuring Noble and Uuskyla smashing out complex cross rhythms, the barely restrained power which has been suggested by Brötzman’s playing throughout the four days, finally asserted itself. Cutting through the instrumental cacophony, his hunter’s horn-like thrusts implanted a brittle logic onto the proceeding. The set climaxed expressing excitement and relief in equal measure. “Dear friends,” said the spent saxophonist, “that’s all we know”.

As untrue as that statement may have been, and despite that particular improvisation being an appropriate finale for the concert series, there were plenty of other memorable sounds expressed during preceding days. Bluntly stating “I love drums”, Brötzmann made it a point to grapple with many. Particularly exciting were those occasions where he locked horns (sic) with two at once. Unexpectedly available after his 12-piece Large Unit presented a blisteringly animated concert locally the night previously, Nilssen-Love joined with Noble and the reedist on day one. Spewing vulgar tones through his tenor saxophone and bass clarinet as if the instrumental had Tourette syndrome, Brötzmann abetted the velocity of the Swede’s percussive strategies while Noble used unattached cymbals plinks, miniature gong cracks and wood block thwacks for subtle coloration. A similar strategy worked as well two days later when Noble and Uuskyla partnered Brötzmann and Leigh. Cathedral organ-like drones generated by Leigh’s pedals created the atmospheric backdrop Noble smacked a back-beat pulse, while Uuskyla dramatically worked through a collection of pop, rattles and chipmunk-like scurries on drum tops. Nimbly, Brötzmann’s clarinet output leaped from abstract whorls and swirls to the raw power reflected in echoing split tones.

Crucially though, the best indication of the saxman’s home handyman-like skill in jerry-building a memorable set out of unexpected materials came mid-way through the first evening. With the Large Unit’s Holmlander on hand that night only, and Drake, passing through Krakow en route from one European gig to another available that evening, Brötzmann on bass clarinet and soprano saxophone germinated an ad-hoc trio that neatly defined relaxed interaction. Not that any power dynamics were missing: the tubaist made sure of that as he bellowed sibilant gutbucket tones throughout. Meanwhile Drake, who automatically adds a basic swing sensibility to every situation, was as laid back in his accompaniment as if playing a club in Chicago while Brötzmann’s flexible bass clarinet interpretations suggested a hitherto unexplored link between Eric Dolphy and Artie Shaw.

This four-day stint in Krakow more than demonstrated Brötzmann’s continued vitality as an authoritative, inventive soloist and as an organizer who can blend any number of musicians, familiar with each other`s work or not, into viable units. Just as importantly it confirmed the ongoing appeal of Krakow Jazz Autumn as a place to experience the best from top-flight Polish and international players.

—For The New York City Jazz Record December 2015