The indefatigable Peter Brötzmann has been a favored subject of this site since its inception. Many of his albums have been discussed here over the past ten years, and he was the subject of episode 49 of the BA podcast. (A quote from that interview — via a Bandcamp Daily feature — appears in Harald Kisiedu‘s book European Echoes: Jazz Experimentalism in Germany 1950-1975, which is excellent and highly recommended.) Brötzmann is relentlessly prolific, and has, as ever, a fistful of new or recent recordings available this summer: two different duos, a live album by one of his long-running bands, and a trio collaboration. Each of these is discussed below.
Full Blast — Brötzmann’s trio with electric bassist Marino Pliakas and drummer Michael Wertmüller — has been active since 2004, during which time they’ve made eight records, almost all of which were recorded live, though some have involved heavy editing and after-the-fact processing, 2016’s Risc most of all. Farewell Tonic, though, is as raw as it gets. Like their last release, 2018’s Rio, it’s a document of a shit-hot live show, in this case the final performance by anyone at the storied NYC venue Tonic, which closed for good in April 2007. Tonic was a small room, but it played host to a lot of acts that used volume as a compositional tool: I saw Sunn O))) there, and Fushitsusha, and Borbetomagus, and Merzbow, and Khanate, and Blind Idiot God. This disc, which features four effectively untitled tracks in just under 40 minutes, is mixed somewhat crudely; it would be nice if Pliakas’s bass, which is extraordinarily artful while also mustering a wall-cracking roar, was a little more defined, and if the precision of Wertmüller’s drumming was properly showcased. But the collective roar these three create approaches the intensity of hardcore punk, and the album as a whole is exhilarating.
Despite his reputation as a human flamethrower — a relentless sonic terrorist — everyone I’ve ever spoken to who’s played with Brötzmann has rhapsodized about how carefully he listens, and how much he responds to what they’re doing. This is never so apparent as in his duo albums, particularly when his duo partner is not a drummer. On Tongue in a Bell, recorded in Dublin in 2015, he’s working with pianist Paul G. Smyth, and the music has a surprising intimacy. The pianists Brötzmann prefers are clang-and-bang artists like Fred Van Hove or Masahiko Satoh, but Smyth is a more lyrical and even romantic player. The album’s title track is 25 minutes long, and for its first few minutes the two men are racing along in parallel, but then the saxophonist drops out, and the subsequent piano solo is so vibrant and alive, despite the almost prepared sound of the instrument, that when Brötzmann comes back in, he’s playing in an almost Lester Young-esque style, delving deep into classic blues and jazz language like he’d do on his 2019 solo album I Surrender Dear. Eventually, he rises up again, offering fierce screeches at the top of the horn’s range as Smyth dives to the bottom of the keyboard, creating an earthquake beneath his feet. This album has both intensity and shimmering beauty on its side, and demonstrates Brötzmann’s commitment to the sound of surprise, even as he remains resolutely himself.
Cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm has been a mainstay of the Chicago avant-garde and improvised music scenes for decades, and was a member of Brötzmann’s celebrated Chicago Tentet for that group’s entire lifespan. Memories of a Tunicate is their third duo CD, and it’s quite a journey. Lonberg-Holm is not afraid to apply effects pedals to his instrument; indeed, there are moments when the cello sounds more like a theremin, or an electric guitar, or a burst of raw noise from a malfunctioning speaker. In this context, the saxophonist manages to sound like the voice of reason. And as on Tongue in a Bell, the circumstance brings out his romantic, mellow side to a surprising degree. But make no mistake, this is a fierce album that’ll exfoliate your face if played loudly enough, through big enough speakers.
An often-overlooked aspect of Brötzmann’s music is his appreciation for the endless trance grooves of the North African gnawa people. In 1996, he performed in Austria with guimbri player Maleem Mahmoud Gania, who had previously recorded with Pharoah Sanders on the 1994 album The Trance of Seven Colors, produced by Bill Laswell, and drummer Hamid Drake. The show was released as The Wels Concert. Mahmoud died in 2015, but Brötzmann had already begun collaborating with his brother, Maleem Mokhtar Gania; the 5CD box Long Story Short, which documents a 2011 festival the saxophonist assembled, features Mokhtar on two tracks. The first was a quartet with Joe McPhee on trumpet and saxophone, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, and Michael Zerang on drums. The second was a nearly hour-long performance by Brötzmann, Mokhtar, Laswell, and Drake. Now a new live recording from 2019, The Catch of a Ghost, has appeared.
Instrumentally, it’s exciting enough; Drake’s drums are somewhat thin and tuned high, to approximate the clattering percussion of gnawa music, and he shakes bells at certain moments for emphasis. Mokhtar’s guimbri seems higher pitched than his late brother’s, as well, perhaps because he’s accustomed to working with/around Laswell’s deep, liquid bass (the two men made an album together). And Brötzmann is in a questing mood, emitting long rattling cries like a phlegmatic bull and only occasionally erupting into full-on screams. The music rises and falls like ocean waves or ripples in desert sand, seeming to have no beginning or end. And it’s enjoyable enough, while it’s washing over you, but when one listens closely it’s impossible to deny that Mokhtar simply lacks the aggressiveness Mahmoud possessed. His singing is more sedate and even melancholy than his brother’s desperate wailing, and his playing sounds more like big rubber bands bouncing than Mahmoud’s, which sounded like someone hammering loose the bindings that hold the world together. The Catch of a Ghost has its moments, but The Wels Concert is by far the superior performance.