December 6, 2016
By Ken Waxman
Borah Bergman, who would have turned 90 December 13, but who died in 2012, once said he viewed art as a “fight”. But the pugnacious pianist would have viewed this trio session as a cordial skirmish rather than an all-out battle. Certainly this encounter with German reedist Peter Brötzmann and Norwegian alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad might ironically be defined as friendly fire. None of the participants hold back, yet the take-away is alliance not annihilation.
Like a boxer who trains in private for years before he displays his skill, Bergman didn’t record until he was almost 50. At that point the New Yorker’s unique ambidextrous style – he could play anything with his left hand as his right – was fully formed. He recorded prolifically until his death, lining up sparing partners in Europe as well as the U.S. Representing the light (Gjerstad) and the heavy (Brötzmann) weight classes of Euroimprov, these reedists were frequent Bergman challengers. Left is particularly noteworthy since it preserves the pianist’s earliest recordings with either man.
The equivalent of observing pugilists who already attained their ideal fighting weight, the session’s year makes little difference however. Once Brötzmann’s phlegmatic, stomach-clenching tone is heard, followed Tonto-like by Bergman’s galloping chording and Gjerstad interjecting measured coloration, identification is assured. So closely matched are the three that any keyboard sounding or reed scream is instantaneously answered by an equally weighed response. Bergman’s exposition may join Cecil Taylor-like dynamism with the speed of player-piano rolls, but his rhythmic intensity also takes on boogie-woogie-like echoes. The saxophonists’ acerbity never masks tonal sympathy either, so that some sequences blend melodically as if played by a chamber music trio. Throughout, especially on the concluding “Left Out”, Bergman showcases distinctive steeplechase jumping-like pacing, splashing tremolos and, at points, introduces near-swing.
Bookended by more extended tunes, “Left Us” is the key track. It delineates the logical strength of Gjerstad’s peppy tasteful lines. While less upfront than the others, Gjerstad’s logical reflections exert enough pressure to cement the pianist’s hurricane-like note showers and Brötzmann’s raging screams into triple-gaited ambulatory motion. Left leaves us with a proper tribute to a pianist, with the proviso that his best sonic fights took place against equally matched improvisers.
Tracks: Left Hand; Left Us; Left Out
Personnel: Frode Gjerstad (alto saxophone); Peter Brötzmann (tenor saxophone, clarinet, tarogato) and Borah Bergman (piano)
—For The New York City Jazz Record December 2016