Peter Brötzmann/Fred Hopkins/Rashied Ali

August 16, 2016

Trost TR 138

Dead and Useless
Omlott Records MLR 003 LP

Now that he’s midway through his eighth decade and having recorded a catalogue of – at best estimates – 200 discs, the parameters of German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s adept dexterity is more discernible. Like the Hollywood actor typecast in tough guys roles until a scholarly examination of his work demonstrated his flexibility, the saxophonist’s persona has usually been viewed through a single lens as a blood vessel-bursting hard blower. That much is true, but just as actors like Billy Bob Thornton and Jeff Goldblum have shown they can excel in comedies as well as dramas, so too does Brötzmann have a more measured and almost whimsical way of performing. That aspect has become clearer during the past decade or so. But as these earlier recorded – but recently releases – discs confirm, the reedist was no more limited to fortissimo overblowing than Clint Eastwood was only able to portray to a laconic cowpoke.

Ironically enough although the title Brötzmann’s duo from 2006 with Swedish drummer Peeter Uuskyla, mentions death, it’s his American partners on Songlines, bassist Fred Hopkins (1947-1999) and drummer Rashied Ali (1933-2009), who are now deceased. That CD is also not mistitled. Just as some have difficulty accepting Stephen Sondheim’s work as genuine musicals because they lack a comedic element, so the saxophonist’s definition of songlines is at variance with how others hear so-called songs.

What’s immediately apparent though is that Songlines is one of the reedist’s albums that substantially fits the definition of so-called Modern Jazz. It’s hard to see how that could be otherwise. Besides being one-third of the lauded Air trio, Hopkins played with many Free Jazzers during his time in Chicago and New York from David Murray to Kahil El’Zabar. Ali, of course was John Coltrane’s final drum partner, who also worked with many other exploratory players from Frank Lowe to William Parker,

If anything though, Songlines is like one of the many mass-produced detective novels that follow all the hard-boiled conventions whether warranted or not. In that sense the album may be too close to conventional Jazz. Everyone appears to solo on every track. Hopkins thumps and walks his strings through most of the performances, while Ali maintains the kind of rhythmic pulse affiliated with 1970s New York Free Jazz rather than 1990s Berlin-recorded Free Music. Shifting among alto and tenor saxophones and tarogato, from the beginning Brötzmann’s variations include timbres that are as often guttural reflux as skyscraper-like shrilling; all the time holding firm to the melody. Bending into the beat, Hopkins’ double and triple-stops are expressed with the grace of a lutenist plus the power of a kettle drummer. As the bassist’s bent notes double back to bolster the saxophonist’s story telling, Ali’s expressive rolls and rattles dig out percussion theme variations, as the narrative passes from one to another.

Another misnomer, the mid-point “Man in a Vacuum” is anything but that at least in describing any of the players. Instead the exposition is expressively moderato and connective, no matter how many renal-styled extrusions issue from Brötzmann’s horn(s). At nearly 25½ minutes, the title tune is like a mirror with multiple reflections. The big picture displays the overview of strained jagged and expanded textures from each group member; the smaller inset projects the mellow undercurrent reflected in the trio’s art. As the bassist slows down the pace with thickened rasgueado, Ali seconds him with finger pops on drum heads. Meanwhile Brötzmann’s reed cries narrow from plaintive to wispy, slurring in such a manner that emotionalism as well as stamina is apparent. By the finale straight-ahead has been redefined uniquely and appropriately.

Recorded 15 years later, Dead and Useless is an extension of the saxophonist’s on-going dialogue with Uuskyla, who is a little more than a decade younger, has worked with players such as saxophonist Biggi Vinkeloe and electric bassist Peter Friis Nielsen and first recorded with the saxophonist in 1999. A Jackson Pollack-like drip painting, compared to the Wassily Kandinsky-like sound portraits which maintain figurative associations on the other disc, Brötzmann’s improvisations here include faint echoes of half-remembered American Songbook melodies. These floating associations never come fully into focus, but as Uuskyla exhibits his skill by calibrating and recalibrating the beat at varied pitches and tempos, the saxophonist is never off track. With both players functioning like high-performance sports cars in a race along mountainous road, the thrill comes in experiencing how these evenly matched high-precision machines – or instruments – operate.

Standing back for solos during “Side B”, which is almost the same length as “Side A”, individual idiosyncrasies become more pronounced. Here it’s the drummer who moderates the interaction with sand-dance-like slides. Not only is he able to set up a call-and-response among his kit’s components; but it’s also evident that he’s translating some of the saxophonist’s more comely phrasing into percussion language. Before an extended pause that moves the two into the track’s climatic final section, a Brötzmann shift from mellow Ben Webster-like tone spinning to grittier, shattering stridency doesn’t upset the drummer’s binding texture either. Sling-shot-like catapulting, cathedral-echoing bell ringing and some lug loosening and tightening give notice from Uuskyla that any reed distortion can be echoed and amplified. Finally the two tones correlate in clattering resolve, with a bass drum whack signaling the end. Sonic inspiration and cohesion was part of Brötzmann’s game plan in his fifties and sixties as these discs demonstrate. With the right partner(s) the resolve continues to this day.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Dead: 1. Side A 2. Side B

Personnel: Dead: Peter Brötzmann (tenor saxophone) and Peeter Uuskyla (drums)

Track Listing: Songlines: 1, No Messages 2. Old Man Kangaroo 3. Man in a Vacuum 4. It is Solved by walking 5. Songlines 6.Two birds in a Feather

Personnel: Songlines: Peter Brötzmann (alto and tenor saxophones, tarogato); Fred Hopkins (bass) and Rashied Ali (drums)