Woodcuts came out in early 2010, but Peter Brötzmann is the kind of artist on whose work one can quite easily get burned out, so letting a brand-new release sit for a while isn’t the worst decision an out-jazz fan can make. He’s not just the fire-breathing saxophone terrorist everyone always claims he is—sure, that’s an apt description of his 1968 album Machine Gun, his work with the improvising blues-funk-noise-metal quartet Last Exit from 1986 to 1993, and his recent group Full Blast, among others, but it’s far from everything he does. With Die Like A Dog, for example, his playing can quite frequently become trance-inducing and emotionally resonant, far more subtle than the bullying and hectoring his reputation might suggest is his primary mode. His Chicago Tentet is also remarkably introspective at times.
His stuff can be hard going, though, and there’s a lot of it. He comes from the Euro-improv tradition that favors not only an almost orgiastic partner-switching, but a production rate that would shame the most stereotypical rabbit. So deciding which of the half-dozen CDs he puts out in a given quarter you’re gonna spend your money on can boil down to who he’s playing with. If he’s working with only one other person, and that person is not a drummer, your wallet should stay in your pocket. If, on the other hand, he is duetting with a drummer, the disc is likely to be a safe bet. And indeed, Woodcuts is one of the good ones.
It helps that Brötz’s partner on this live performance, Paal Nilssen-Love, is a minimalist, but very swinging drummer. Very occasionally, he’ll pull out some tricksterish stuff like bowing a cymbal to sound like an upright bass, but for the most part he’s limiting himself to kick, snare and toms, with the hi-hat hissing a bit here and there. The saxophonist needs a drummer who’s gonna provide a powerful, groove-oriented rhythm, whether it’s Ronald Shannon Jackson (Last Exit), Hamid Drake (Die Like A Dog and the duo CD The Dried Rat-Dog), or Nilssen-Love. When he’s working with a more abstraction-oriented partner, like Dutch madman Han Bennink, things can get excessively scattered.
The actual pieces blend into each other somewhat, especially early on; there are several (“Glasgow Kiss,” “Strong and Thin,” “Ye Gods and Little Fishes”) where Brötzmann puts down the tenor saxophone in favor of the bass clarinet, and he picks up the tarogato on the final cut, but the disc’s high points all feature that harsh, buzzing roar he’s known for, the post-Albert Ayler tone that’s made him the favorite saxophonist of headbangers and noise-rockers for decades. His lines aren’t just screeches, though. Yes, he goes all the way out on the 18-minute “Rode Hard and Put Up Wet,” but not for the whole of the piece; for much of it, he’s blowing conventionally melodic lines, working phrases until they yield all their secrets and then moving on. There’s an aspect of late John Coltrane in what he’s doing here, though Woodcuts is very different, less meditative and more athletic, than Interstellar Space, Coltrane’s album of duos with Rashied Ali. And in “Rode Hard…”‘s final minutes, things get downright quiet and ballad-esque, with Brötzmann sounding almost like Archie Shepp blowing a romantic ballad. During “Ye Gods…,” he embarks on an unaccompanied excursion that’s quite beautiful, if scrabbly and hard-bitten. That aforementioned final cut, the four-minute “Knucklin’,” displays absolutely no diminishment of energy from the beginning of the 72-minute performance; these guys have power and stamina, and are going at it—and each other—as hard as they near the finish line as they were when they started. Brötzmann’s phrases may be leaning more toward repetitive, muezzin-call-like wails than squiggly post-bop explorations, but he’s blowing as hard, and as creatively, as he ever has in his life. The disc’s final moments, though, are almost shockingly quiet, with the saxophonist emitting tiny squeals as his partner makes slow bowing sounds. And then…it’s just over. It’s just one component of a vast discography, and consequently hard to recommend above all others, but if you’re a Brötzmann fan, this is a damn good one. Buy it from Amazon.
This is a very strong review, and I generally agree with you. Putting Brotzmann’s playing into intelligible words is not for cowards.