Joe McPhee / Peter Brötzmann / Kent Kessler / Michael Zerang

August 12, 2010

The Damage Is Done: The Whole Session

Not Two MW 823-2

Mellow is not the first word you associate with German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. And on the evidence of this live, fire-breathing two-CD set, the sedate blandness that many associate with getting older don’t seems to affected Brötzmann as he hones in on his 70th birthday.

Listening to the energy and inventiveness displayed by the players on this six-track set recorded in a Krakow, the Steve Lacy adage that “Free Jazz keeps you young” is proven one again. Besides the Wuppertal-based saxophonist, who expresses himself fortissimo and often staccatissimo on alto and tenor saxophone, tarogato and Bb clarinet, are the mercurial styling of Upstate New York’s Joe McPhee, who divides his talents between pocket trumpet and alto saxophone – and who is now also in his 70th year. Chicago’s bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Michael Zerang who are either side of the half-century mark almost struggle to keep up. Like one of John Coltrane’s marathon live recordings, these two sets from the Alchemia club capture every note played on that night. Courtesy of Brötzmann, the output is scarcely minimalist. Yet the commitment and skills of the four are as evident as the final notes fade as they are in the first notes of the mammoth – 30½-minute – first and title track.

Chameleon-like in these circumstances, McPhee is able to invest both his brass and reed work with identifiable textures that don’t suggest one another – even if he’s playing both on the same tune. On “With Charon” for instance, his barking, squeezed brass timbres coupled with Brötzmann’s full-bore honking tenor saxophone, suggest that this could be an undiscovered track by the Ayler brothers. Instructively, though, Kessler’s upfront and percussive bass pacing and the way Zerang works his way around the kit confirms that the 21st Century has arrived. Until the concluding interlude of moderato and allegro lines from both horns which only announce completion with spiking spits from the trumpeter and pinched ratcheting from the saxophone, Zerang and Brötzmann play cat-and-mouse for most of preceding 15 minutes. With the saxman squealing, shrieking and slurring with a pitch-sliding and a floor-shaking vibrato, the percussionist uses sticks and mallets to plink and pop his drum tops, spank and strokes his cymbals and unleash a few press rolls before reaching a broken-octave concordance with Brötzmann.

These ruffs, pats and cymbal snaps are also on show on “A Temporary Trip”, where they moderato Brötzmann’s woody tarogato tones that eventually spike from contralto pumps to wire-thin pierces. Meantime McPhee’s seconding saxophone trills and Kessler’s sul tasto string rubs fill in any spaces left untouched by Brötzmann. Even when McPhee’s moderates his reed tone, the other reedist’s timbres remain super-fast and staccato, as do the bassist’s circular spicatto thumps. Shuffle-bowing in a final variant, Kessler’s strings provide the prelude to the finale of double altissimo squeaks, which fade into woody resonation.

Boiling acceleration characterizes the title track with each musician braying, honking, thumping and banging, using the most extreme parts of his instrument’s range. Even so, as would be expected, the improvising of Brötzmann stands out. Reaching a peak of spluttering fervor he comes across like a Holy Roller in full flight, mixing glossolalia with inflating diaphragm trills; his contrapuntal vibrations moving upwards, while remaining constantly presto and staccato. With McPhee’s trumpet triplets matching his ascent and Zerang laying into his cymbals with mallets, only Kessler’s adagio stroking prevents the piece from blasting off – and all that takes place only during the improvisation’s first 10 minutes. From then on whenever the German saxophonist’s concentrated yowls and ratcheting split tones threaten to explode into inchoate formlessness, it’s either Kessler’s sul ponticello string swabbing or McPhee’s moderated alto saxophone lines which create the harmonic rapprochement. Eventually tongue slaps and slurs from both reedists turn tonic, with the remaining over-blowing sounding more like melody decorations than lunatic excursions.

Nevertheless the question remains: what do Brötzmann and company mean by titling that track – and the session – “The Damage Is Done”? Do they mean physical damages to eardrums or to the psyche are the result of the music? Do they means that bourgeois complacency is still constantly being attacked by the music? Or is it that once the openness of Free Jazz playing which Brötzmann and McPhee have been promulgating for 40-odd years has been expressed, going back to conventional music – Jazz or otherwise – is unnecessary and impossible?

These discs may suggest other answers, as well as providing an exceptional listening experience for the brain, heart and gut.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD 1: 1. The Damage is Done 2. Alchemia Souls CD 2: 3. A Temporary Trip 4. With Charon 5. On the Acheron 6. Into the Hades

Personnel: Joe McPhee (trumpet and alto saxophone); Peter Brötzmann (alto and tenor saxophones, tarogato and Bb clarinet); Kent Kessler (bass) and Michael Zerang (drums)