I went to London for a couple of days last week in search of much-needed r and r. Already had a ticket for the Peter Brötzmann gig at the Cafe Oto and was looking forward to hearing him again. Arrived somewhat exhausted and had to have a rest before I went out in search of Dalston and the venue – by which time the rain was lashing down. An unpropitious start... I arrived a little too early and was reduced to huddling in a door outside the club where I met a young guy who had driven down from Manchester for the gig – a big Brötzmann fan who also truly dug Albert Ayler so we struck up a conversation, occasionally peering into the Oto where the band were having a quick run through and the staff laying out the room for the evening. By the time the doors opened there was a sizable bedraggled mob outside... Brötz remarked, rather wrily, at the end of his London Jazz Festival gig in 2008 (review here) that he didn't get invited to London very often. Looking at the horde who turned up on a foul night, hopefully this will change in the future. I managed to get in fairly quickly and grab my position for the night – a table against the wall facing the bandstand with easy access to the bar and the toilets, old hand that I am... This was my first time at the Oto and it's a good room, a blocky L shape with the bar in the L. Nothing fancy and who needs it – I had a seat, very quickly a drink to warm me up and was ready for the shindig as the place got more and more crowded.
Herr Brötzmann came out to play a solo set first off – starting on alto then moving onto what I assume was the taragato. Straight away, what struck me was the throaty power he generated up close. I've seen him in concert at the crap South Bank in a larger space (as mentioned above) but here you are never far from the bandstand. The conversation outside had generated the reminder of Milford Graves talking about Albert A, that he could blow the house down with his formidable sound and Peter Brötzmann reminded me here of his lineage. (The late Ayler's vibrato could have matched Joshua's trumpet section at the battle of Jericho in the shaking-down-the-walls scenario, one suspects). The lungpower, no doubt built up from playing tenor all these years, added to a lot of lower range playing made the alto sound more like his once-main horn at times, although he played all over its range and balanced the deeper moments with plenty of screeching through the registers to rip out some high flying squalls. Yet it wasn't all granularity – he has a melodic, quieter side that contrasts with the sturm und drang he is noted for. Fast tough-blown scrabbles were balanced by long, yearning notes, giving a folk-ish sound, a touch of Eastern Europe perhaps, opening up some different spaces. More so on the taragato which is an instrument that originated in Hungary. He also engaged in some interesting distortions on this horn, doing a curious rubbing/strangling motion across the top keys while his other hand fingered more conventionally lower down that produced some interesting sonics. Whether it is the years taking their toll – although he looks remarkably sturdy and a level of fitness is a prerequisite for playing wind instruments – or just a musical tactic, his lines are choppier than I remember, the melodies breaking quicker, statement and comment more delineated by this into shorter units.
The second set was freejazz blowout time – with a rhythm team of Tony Marsh and John on bass, what else? Edwards and his drum partner set a fierce pace, from the off, the bass thrummed, pummelled and slapped to provide a massive sound. Joined by Roland Ramanan on trumpet, Brötzmann commenced on tenor before switching his horns around, alto, taragato, clarinet. Wild and heady stuff, everyone looked as if they were enjoying themselves, the heat of the moment at one point bearing down on Edward's bass – he broke a string early in, but kept on going. A man who plays as much bass as he does, losing a string hardly counted, annoying though it must have been. Maybe Brotzman sends out a vibe – I remember the same thing happened at the Purcell Room when his electric bass player, Marino Pliakas, snapped a string! Unusual occurrence on either instrument, I would have thought... Ramanan was an exemplary partner, stabbing and probing, commenting on the sax action and unleashing occasional forays of longer lines when the spaces emerged for his solos. By and large staying within the usual range on his horn. There was a sense of good-natured rivalry, the locals taking no prisoners, but Brötzmann is still a world class player, capable of riding any storm and replying in kind - and more. Yet although the overall vibe was wild and abandoned, there were occasional moments of calm where he brought out his more lyrical side – these brief episodes pointed up all the more by the surrounding fire.
My first visit to Oto – and I left wondering why it had taken me so long... accident, really. But I enjoyed both the music and the venue, impressed by a London audience who, on a crowded, standing room only night, listened throughout with rapt attention. Who says that free jazz can't communicate? They loved it all and applauded heartily. I'm already booked in for Matthew Shipp and the Arkestra... can't wait.