The Runners-Up is a monthly column, wherein we will analyze an album that isn’t the consensus first choice or most canonical title by a given artist, but is one worthy of more attention than it’s received to date. The album we’ll look at this month is…
Peter Brötzmann/Han Bennink/Fred Van Hove plus Albert Mangelsdorff
Live in Berlin ’71 (FMP)
by Phil Freeman
When you see the name Peter Brötzmann, you generally see one of two two-word phrases after it: “Chicago Tentet” or “Machine Gun.” The 1968 album of that title isn’t the German saxophonist’s first album—that would be the titanic trio date For Adolphe Sax, from one year earlier—but it’s easily his best-known work, and indeed one of the most namechecked albums in all of jazz and improvised music. A single listen will drive home exactly why it’s discussed in tones of flushed exhilaration.
The front line is Brötzmann on tenor and baritone saxes; Willem Breuker on tenor sax and bass clarinet; and Evan Parker on tenor sax. The “rhythm section” (ha ha) is Fred Van Hove on piano; Peter Kowald and Buschi Niebergall on basses; and Han Bennink and Sven-Ake Johansson on drums. They clatter and roar, crash and throb, shriek and blare, but there’s a core of unity and discipline at work, too—this isn’t the everybody-play-everything-at-once school of European improv; it’s the ultimate hard blues, a squad of horn players (and a sympathetically destructive double rhythm team behind them) who sound like they’ve just leapt onto the bar not to walk its length riffing, but to have a better angle from which to strafe the helpless patrons. Machine Gun was recorded 45 years ago next month, and/but it still leaves new players coughing and staring at the floor in embarrassment, wondering how they’ll ever top it.
But I’m not here to sing the praises of Machine Gun. There’s been enough hyperbole spilled over it already. I’m here to tell you about a trilogy of albums released three years later that are every bit as brilliant, and possibly even more worth your time: Couscouss de la Mauresque, Elements and The End, collectively reissued as Live in Berlin ’71.