Last night at The Chapel, (((folkYEAH!))) presented a visit from German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who has been a leading figure in European jazz since the Sixties. For this two-set evening his only partner was local drummer Donald Robinson. Brötzmann was one of the “early adopters” of the free jazz movement and was most likely one of its leading pioneers in Europe. There is thus every reason to believe that, while Brötzmann and Robinson may have worked out a few a priori “ground rules,” the performance itself was one of uninhibited spontaneity.
Over the course of the first set, Brötzmann worked his way through three instruments, beginning on tenor saxophone, moving to soprano saxophone, and concluding on clarinet. On each of these instruments his preferred rhetoric involved the unleashing of wild bursts of energy. Not only was there no sense of any dominating tonality, the very pitches themselves were packed with ambiguity. This resulted from not only rapid finger-work that often impeded the resolution of individual notes but also breath-controlled glissando patterns that reduced even the chromatic scale to irrelevance. For those with a sense of history, this was a fond recollection of the days when Pharoah Sanders would team up with John Coltrane and engage in frighteningly uninhibited free-blowing exchanges.
Brötzmann’s exchanges with Robinson were just as uninhibited and frequently just as scary. Brötzmann’s phrases tended to be short and clipped, often homing in on the most diminutive of motifs then subjected to repetition with minor variations and embellishments. However, each time one of those phrases burst forth, Robinson was there with a reply. Frequently, he showed a preference for his array of multiple cymbals, each with a different pitch. This made his percussion work serve a bit like a continuo, providing a more sustained foundation of reverberations above which Brötzmann could take as much liberty as he wished with the brevity of his bursts of sound.
These days it is difficult to encounter free improvisation that can be imaginative, provocative, and engaging, all in a single well-wrought package. It often seems as if the emerging generation is more interested in the shock value of intense dynamics pushing the sounds beyond their having identifiable qualities. The pioneers of half a century ago appreciated the value of their roots but could always be adventurous enough to grow away from those roots without collapsing from unbalanced weight, so to speak. Brötzmann’s voice recalls some of the best of those pioneers from 50 years ago; and, for those who could “dig it,” both the logic of his invention and the rhetoric of his delivery were irresistible.