Peter Brötzmann

June 7, 2002

Short Visit To Nowhere
Okka Disk OD 12043

Peter Brötzmann Tentet Plus Two
Broken English
Okka Disk OD 12044

Three years after it was first organized and a year after it first toured, Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet (Plus Two in this case) displays, in these 2000 recordings, that it has become an exemplary example of how to adopt free improv to large aggregations.

With a mixed cast of seven Chicagoans, three members from New York state, a Swede and Brötzmann, a German, it has all the firepower of a traditional big band with its eight horns. Plus, the three-man string section and two percussionists ensure that not only is its bottom covered — so to speak — but that the strings can alternately meld with the horns or shore up the rhythm section. Also, while the German reedman wrote two of the compositions, he’s democratic enough to make room for one piece each by Chicago multi-woodwind player Ken Vandermark, Swedish reedist Mats Gustafsson and Chicago cellist/violinist Fred Lonberg-Holm.

The brass section is made up of New York trumpeter/flugelhornist Roy Campbell, Chicago trombonist Jeb Bishop and Poughkeepsie, N.Y.’s Joe McPhee, who put his saxes aside to concentrate on trumpet and valve trombone. Vandermark’s closest associate Kent Kessler and Manhattanite William Parker, who has a long history with Brötzmann, combine on basses; while Michael Zerang on drums and Hamid Drake on drums, frame drum and voice –both from Chicago — handle the percussion chores.

Experienced with many large European aggregations, most notably the pan-European Globe Unity Orchestra, Brötzmann appears to know how much freedom to give his posse of star soloists and when to rein them in. On both discs, for instance, you hear a lot more than you would in a conventional jazz big band where star soloists taking their turn at the mike while the remainder riff anonymously. Sure, there’s plenty of solo space available — how could it be otherwise with the shortest tune more than 13 minutes and the longest almost 43 (!) — but there are also definite group passages.

Take “Stonewater” on Broken English, which expanded by another six minutes since it was first recorded in concert at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle in 1999. Intense, stratosphere blats from the massed horns serve as connective leitmotifs once the piece gets going. New is a six-minute intro that finds Drake chanting and playing hand drum. Then, after some tarogato puffs from Brötz, all hell breaks loose in such a way that it must have brought back fond memories of the in-your-face opening of the tenor man’s 1968 MACHINE GUN. As the succeeding soloists take centrestage, er… studio, the saxes provide their avant version of a Count Basie horn section, chugging away in the background.

As this piece — and the others on the two CDs — unrolls, however, the major criticism of the session is evident as well. With no identification of soloists, one can only make educated guesses as to who plays what. Before Kessler and Parker combine for some saw-toothed buzzing, the guttural sax tongue slapping you hear probably comes from Gustafsson, while the pastoral clarinet portion is likely Vandermark’s work. After a quasi-Dixieland interlude heavy on liquid clarinet lines and pointed trumpet, not to mention Gustafsson using his baritone to make like bass sax blaster Adrian Rollini, the speedy yet gravelly ‘bone lines probably come from McPhee’s valve.

Eras and styles blend as well. For example, when the walking basses and bomb dropping bass drum section make up one pulse, the massed sax section functions as stalwart, bar-walking R&B honkers. Finally one — Brötz (?) — breaks free from the pack for an extended a cappella stop time solo that goes from screaming altissimo split tones to gut-wrenching overblowing. Eventually scraped arco strings give way to a toboggan ride of brass slides and slurs, and the tune culminates in a Mingusian crescendo.

Or take Lonberg-Holm’s “Lightbox”. Beginning with a muted trumpet — probably played by Campbell — McPhee and Bishop soon come on like an up-to-date Jay & Kai, romping through slide and valve positions until pizzicato strings give way to the massed cacophony of many reeds. After that there’s a sax face off, with one exploring every extended aviary technique to build to a crescendo, while the other — apparently Gustafsson — produces a funk thump that could fit in the bands of James Brown or Ray Charles. Pseudo-human cries, courtesy of the reeds, and arcing orchestral brass sum up the tune, which after several false endings stops on a dime — or maybe a Euro.

Strangely enough, Williams’ “Hold That Thought” on the same CD sounds more like a revved up Ellington band than the Gustafsson piece named for the Duke that follows it. Of course, with what is likely Vandermark’s Klezmer-like clarinet passages, it would be an Ellington who was as familiar with (old) Odessa as New Orleans and know Bialystok as well as Baltimore. There’s also a Latin influence, with sections where the horns seem to play “La Cucuracha”. Campbell’s notes sail on top of the charts the way trumpeter Cat Anderson’s did with Ellington, while Bishop’s double-time plunger work, calls forth answering chords from the band like Tricky Sam Nanton’s did from the Duke’s Jungle band. Call this mainstream with avant-flourishes

Mention should also be made of the arrangement for “Short Visit To Nowhere”, one CD’s more-than-25-minute title track. Although there are a good number of scratches from the strings, bleats from the saxes and smears from the brass, there’s still room for what sounds like an electric guitar working out of a Jimi Hendrix bag, which is probably Lonberg-Holm on fiddle. The German saxophonist’s writing allow different sections of the group to be emphasized at different times. For instance, stroked buzzes coalesce into the creation of avant string trio, modulating up and down the stops at one point; and a modern reed battle between what’s probably Williams’ squalling alto and Brötz or Vandermark’s unhurried clarinet lines erupt at another point.

One could go on and on. While it’s frightening to think how good the Brötzmann band of any size must sound now, with two more years together, it’s easy to praise both of these CDs. Although available singly, they’re actually one of a piece, the way the cover photo on each can be joined to make one consistent image.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Short: 1. Hold That Thought 2. Ellington 3. Short Visit To Nowhere 4. Lightbox

Track Listing: Broken: 1. Stonewater 2. Broken English

Personnel on both discs: Roy Campbell (trumpet, flugelhorn); Joe McPhee (trumpet, valve trombone); Jeb Bishop(trombone); Peter Brötzmann (tenor saxophone, clarinet, tarogato); Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone, clarinet); Mars Williams (alto and tenor saxophone); Mats Gustafsson (tenor and baritone saxophones); Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello, violin); Kent Kesler (bass); William Parker (bass, log drum); Michael Zerang (drums); Hamid Drake (drums, frame-drum, voice)