Peter Brötzmann/William Parker/Hamid Drake

July 7, 2003

Never Too Late But Always Too Early
Eremite MTE 037/038

Frode Gjerstad Trio with Peter Brötzmann
Sharp Knives Cut Deeper
Splasc (h) CDH 850

More than 35 years after he roared onto the international Free Jazz scene, German reedist Peter Brötzmann’s playing still seems as ferocious as ever. This is a good thing. For unlike some of his contemporaries who have settled into a sort of middle-aged timidness, the tenor saxophonist still improvises with the same intensity and commitment at 60 as he did when he was 25.

Those who now hear a newly toned down Brötzmann are also a bit deluded. For the saxman’s playing has never been out-and-out raunchy and, as these two — actually three, one is a two-CD set — sessions demonstrate, his creations, are as solid or as subtle as he wants them to be.

Furthermore, Brötzmann, whose very first trio — with the late German bassist Peter Kowald and Swedish drummer Sven-Åke Johansson — was an international affair, has continued to maintain his non-German connections. Case in Point, NEVER TOO LATE is a record of his American trio with bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake, while SHARP KNIVES adds Brötzmann to the working trio of alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad of Norway, filled out by fellow Norwegians bassist Øyvind Stroresund and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love.

Dedicated to Kowald, who first explored the then new music when they were both teenagers in their hometown of Wuppertal, the tracks on NEVER TOO LATE are alternately as stormy as the music the initial trio first made, and as sombre as a threnody should be. Kowald died of heart failure in September 2002 between the recording and release of this live set.

Encompassing three tracks, the title tune begins with mournful clarinet tones from Brötzmann and restrained arco work from Parker. Unsurprisingly the reedist keeps the growled melancholy theme going for several minutes, only occasionally heading into higher, screech mode as the bassman produces thick and solid chords and Drake appears to be doing little more than merely touching the drums. Although an instant composition, the band probably decided to use it as a memorial since the subsequent solo by Parker, who also had a longtime association with Kowald, is rooted in the creation of simultaneous tones, overtones and undertones that the German bassist would have appreciated.

By the second track, Brötzmann on tenor, is keening like a traditional Muslim widow, sluicing out slipsliding shrills and overblowing tones. Drake has turned to harder rock-style drum beating, as the saxman seems to relinquish his control and turn to multiphonics — if it’s possible to quadruple-tongue, he’s doing it. Finally, as the rhythm section gradually slows down then speeds up its accompaniment, the beat settles and the saxman’s irregular vibrato gets so frenzied that it almost seems as if he’s about to levitate. Ghost notes, false fingering, flutter tonguing combine as entire passages are taken in sopranissimo pitch. Soon the entire audience is screaming as Brötzmann honks out elongated tones to the climax.

“Half-hearted beast” seems almost anti-climatic in retrospect, with an re-energized reedman screeching a cappella as if he playing a hunting horn leading a charge at the foxes. Meanwhile, Drake’s free, but rhythmically powerful, rim shots complement Parker’s unvarying tone. Construction is almost pure soulful R&B, if you can accept that description of a German avant gardist’s work.

The first CD is pretty powerful as well, with Brötzmann’s renal cry announcing his presence almost from the beginning. Taking up the first four tracks of that disc, “Never Run but Go” finds the saxman rolling forward like a tank battalion, using his slightly nasal tone and split tones to push obstacles away. Not that the bassist and drummer are obstacles. Parker’s pizzicato pulse holds the beat to the road, while Drake uses cow bell, snare and ride cymbal to roll and slide out his All-American commentary on the blitzkrieg. Throughout the Chicago-based percussionist subtly alters the tempo underneath Brötzmann’s explosions.

Listen closely as well, and you’ll hear Parker quote from “Boogie Stop Shuffle” at one point. This is appropriate, since the New York-based bassist seems to have inherited its composer, Charles Mingus’ mantle not only as a first-class bassist, but also as an organizer and bandleader.

Although the emphasis here is on the reedist’s collection of nephritic cries and intestinal tones plus Drake’s roughs and drags, nothing seems to faze the bassist. By the end of the mini-suite, using his bow, he’s managed to get the others to halve the tempo to such an extent that the piece becomes almost quiet and reverent. Then again Brötzmann squealing in tongues is as close to “Taps” as Free Jazzers can play.

If that piece is quiet than “The Heart and the Bones” almost sounds like restrained BritImprov. After introducing the theme with abrasive steel wool-like string tones, Parker stands aside for muted squeals from Brötz and hand drumming from Drake. Soon the beat turns hypnotic as the bassist begins revealing the distinctive string sounds of the Donso Ngoni or Malian hunter’s harp. The coda relates a lot more to his pinpointed strums than the reedist’s squeals.

Recorded eight months later, SHARP KNIVES is a reunion of sort for Brötzmann and the veteran alto saxist, who recorded as a duo CD in 1998. Here, as a matter of fact, they start out this disc unaccompanied, with Gjerstad playing short nervous cadenzas on clarinet, while Brötz pushes out dark-colored continuum on bass clarinet. The German continues to go south with his sound as Gjerstad moves higher until all hell breaks loose with the entry of Stroresund and Nilssen-Love, pumped as if they have to run the four-minute mile.

Like Parker on the other disc, Stroresund holds the pulse, while Nilssen-Love, who has recorded with everyone from saxists Mats Gustaffson to Ken Vandermark, relies on press rolls to keep things on an even keel. Meanwhile the two woodwind players are getting louder, biting down on their reeds and vocalizing notes in the aviary range.

Pressure cooker pulses continue to appear for the remainder of the session, with Brötz’s taragto at times adding a bit of Eastern European color to the proceedings. For his part Gjerstad often clambers up the scale, spearing high pitched notes and operating in dog whistle territory. Together, the mixture of claxon calls and growling multiphonics from the two saxists often produces something that could be the soundtrack for feeding time at a zoo filled with particularly bad-tempered carnivores.

Everything reaches a climax in the final — and longest — track, when chalumeau clarinet tones matched with bowed bass lines are superseded by irregular drum beats and reed expositions that vary from whines to Bronx cheers. As the drummer channels Sunny Murray on rat-tat-tat snares and echoing cymbals, Brötzmann lacerates the melody, double and triple tonguing as if he was pulling notes straight from the very marrow of the saxophone. Gjerstad responds at higher intensity and higher pitch to such an extent that the dense notes and tones are packed tighter than the passengers in a Tokyo subway. With each woodwind note seemingly bent, simultaneous rattling drum and bowing bass push the tempo faster until the tune finally ends.

What’s left behind from the sax-created ostinato however is the promise that either of these veteran saxmen could have continued to blow all night.

As Kowald’s death at 58 proved, no one lives for ever. But on the evidence of these CDs, veterans like Brötzmann — and come to think of it Gjerstad — appear to have plenty of spunk left in them for many years to come.

— Ken Waxman

Personnel: Never: Peter Brötzmann (tenor saxophone, taragato, clarinet); William Parker (bass, donso ngoni); Hamid Drake (drums)

Track Listing: Never: Disc 1: 1. Never Run but Go I 2. Never Run but Go II 3. Never Run but Go III 4. Never Run but Go IV 4 5. The Heart and the Bones Disc 2: 1. Never Too Late But Always Too Early I 2. Never Too Late But Always Too Early II 3. Never Too Late But Always Too Early III 4. Half-hearted beast

Track Listing: Sharp: 1. Sharp Knives Cut Deeper Part 1 2. Sharp Knives Cut Deeper Part 2 3. Sharp Knives Cut Deeper Part 3 4. Sharp Knives Cut Deeper Part 4

Personnel: Sharp: Frode Gjerstad (alto saxophone, clarinet); Peter Brötzmann (tenor saxophone, taragato, bass clarinet); Øyvind Stroresund (bass); Paal Nilssen-Love (drums)