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)
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.
Recorded at two live performances on August 28 and 29, 1971 with exactly half as many personnel as Machine Gun, these albums feature Brötzmann on tenor saxophone, Van Hove on piano, Bennink on drums and about a dozen other percussive devices, and Albert Mangelsdorff on trombone. The first three were a steadily working group who’d already made the albums Nipples (with Parker, guitarist Derek Bailey and Niebergall guesting) and Balls in 1969 and 1970, and were making a name for themselves at European festivals. Their music had all the raw energy anyone could ask for, but it could simmer down into a beautifully moody introspection at a moment’s notice, too, or (depending on Bennink’s mood) devolve into a Dadaist clatter like someone attempting to disassemble a kinetic sculpture in a windstorm.
The first album in the set, Elements, begins at a sort of medium level of intensity. Brötzmann isn’t blowing anywhere near as furiously as he can on “Florence Nightingale,” choosing instead to squeak chew at length on a few notes; Van Hove is playing in a free but conventionally beautiful manner, not unlike some of the ballad pieces on Cecil Taylor‘s Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come, from a decade earlier; and Mangelsdorff’s trombone moos and croons like whalesong. Only Bennink seems interested in driving things forward—he’s battering the toms without mercy. The music becomes more savage as it goes along, but then at the midpoint of the piece the horns drop away and it’s a duet for piano and drums, Bennink soloing wildly as Van Hove gets more and more stark and rigorous until finally he’s all alone. The group continues to subdivide in this manner—Brötzmann and Mangelsdorff duet in a breathy, farty fashion as Bennink blows into…something…behind them, and there are more full-quartet passages, as well as unexpected instruments, like what might be an accordion. This single piece demonstrates just about everything the group will do, every trick they’ll pull, over the course of seven tracks in two hours. (Elements and Couscouss de la Mauresque each feature one performance on each side; The End offers two shorter pieces, “Antwarrepe” and “Albert’s,” on its first side, and the longest piece of the entire trilogy, the 23-minute title track, on the other.)
The great thing about this trilogy/set is how naturally everything flows. “Machine Gun” (the piece) can feel a little choppy at times, shifting suddenly from the blaring of all three horns to a solo spot for one dude. On Live in Berlin ’71, each subdividing of the group, each solo excursion, feels smooth and logical, as though the player(s) in question had nodded to the others as if to say “Gimme a minute here, I’ve got an idea,” and received assent in response. There’s all the ferocity any free jazz diehard could ask for, but it never goes on so long that it becomes schtick, and it’s always countered by passages that are genuinely beautiful in the most conventional, you-could-play-this-for-your-mom sense. Even without Mangelsdorff, Brötzmann, Van Hove and Bennink were a remarkably empathetic and attuned team, and when he joined them (and these records document their second and third times playing together, ever), everyone’s game was raised. If Machine Gun is destined to forever be Peter Brötzmann‘s “if you hear only one” album, Live in Berlin ’71 deserves to be his “now here’s your next stop” set.
Live in Berlin ’71 isn’t on Spotify, and is currently out of print on CD. But you can get it from Destination: Out’s FMP download store. Stream it below, and click to purchase once you’re convinced.