Saturday, June 03, 2006
Peter Brotzmann... Balls...
Peter Brotzmann recorded the album 'Balls' with the Belgian pianist Fred van Hove and the Dutch drummer Han Bennink in 1970. Long regarded as a seminal document of the European improvisational schools – it blazes with a ferocity that these players had brought to 'Machine Gun' in 1968. Yet this is often a slow burn rather than a conflagration - there is also plenty of space to let the music breathe here. 'Machine Gun' fires from the hip all the way through (sort of a pun, but unintended...), a relentless saxophone led stream of fire fuelled by armageddon-like drums from beginning to end that batters against the edges of the recording in a sometimes desperate claustrophobia. 'Balls' is just as aggressive in titles – macho stuff... But the stripped-down to a trio line up gives periods of rest and relative restraint. Opening on a few piano ripples and odd rustles (Bennink?) the drums send out sporadic rolls, fast cymbal riffs, in a mix that has plenty of depth – as if Bennink is stretched out across the studio with his percussion. Brotzmann arrives with brusque, hoarsely pleading saxophone, a muted gruffness, however, compared to some of his more over-the-top splenetic blow-outs. His lines start to lengthen, the piano prompting, the drums continuing their multi-pulsing rhythms – Bennink is a busy drummer. But occasionally the piano and drums drop out to leave Brotzmann solo – joined about 6 minutes in by some other blown instrument (sounds like an abused trombone or low register trumpet even) with barely audible stuttering piano fragments. A brief pause, some rattles across woodblocks and cymbals and drums as Van Hove gets inside his piano to produce clipped 'Cageian' notes and abrupt phrases. What sounds like a steel drum enters in counterpoint. Cymbals and drum kit back as Brotzmann returns – now the temperature starts to build – fast three way improvising, piano essaying rapid dissonant runs and banged chords leading to a multi-octave glissando that echoes across the space the others leave as they drop out, the piano briefly surging to then be re-joined by Bennink in a splendidly noisy duet section that abruptly ends – slow piano, scattered percussion, odd vocal grunts (shades of the old Lennie Hastings doing his 'Oojah Oojah' routine for the older listener's remembrance...). Isolated drum strokes that slowly accelerate – then stop suddenly.
At the top of the seventies, many European free improvisers had been attempting to build their own paths away from the American shadow. Probably the finest of these was Evan Parker – you can hear 'jazz' still in the back of his style – and his always-acknowledged debt to John Coltrane, yet he was a true pioneer in technique and conception. He played alongside Brotzmann on 'Machine Gun,' recorded in the heady days of 1968 and which was a revolutionary call to arms and a benchmark for future group improvising. Coming off 'Free Jazz' and 'Ascension,' it has to be said – there are detractors of Brotzmann who allege he just ripped off Ayler and company. I think 'Machine Gun' is important for the fact that given its antecedents, it still carved a new space for European musicians to flow into. There is not the blues and gospel at the back of this fire power but a genuine move towards a new and specifically European aesthetic (alongside the work of Derke Bailey and others in the UK - and elsewhere). I may not place Brotzmann quite as high as Parker. But comparisons are cheap - and personal. He is a genuine innovator, with a great knowledge of jazz history and an awareness of where his own position needs to be, I figure. His love of earlier forms of jazz is interestingly counterbalanced by his being an art student and his involement with Fluxus - a direction that channels in another important facet of the European improvising equation – the line coming out of John Cage. Coupled to the other European avant garde tradition - the Dada lineage – demonstrated more by Bennink (and many of his Dutch comrades), perhaps – there is a seriousness to Brotzmann that is a direct contrast to the madcap Dutch drummer (and anyone who has even seen Bennink will know what I am talking about). Fred Van Hove, the Antwerp-born pianist, holds the ground between these two elemental forces, balancing and colouring, using the Cageian prepared piano techniques to good effect on this track. The drummer and pianist were, of course, part of the rhythm section (if that rather old-fashioned concept still applied) on 'Machine Gun' and the three played together for several years. Compared to 'Machine Gun', 'Balls', despite its title, is – more considered, in a way, allowed more space because of the smaller unit. A genuine three-way performance – Brotzmann lays back to allow the others through – this is not tenor backed by piano and drums but equals in the area they proceed to define. Between the ferocity of 'Machine Gun' and the shaggy lyricism that surfaces in places on 'Balls' – you can delineate the wide range of Brotzmann's best work and find paradigms for his future career – luckily still ongoing.
As a taster for the Club Sporadic festival review which I have not quite finished, due to exhaustion and other factors... here is a recording - Barkis-like rough and ready, of the complete Plexus trio set: Rod Warner, David Teledu and Murray Ward. A long track...
(Brotzmann: tenor saxophone; Fred Van Hove: piano; Han Bennink: drums, percussion, horns, shells).
Rod Warner/David Teledu/Murray Ward: Live from the Club Sporadic, May 27, 2006
(Rod Warner: laptop; Murray Ward: guitar, effects; David Teledu: guitar, effects).