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Saturday, June 15, 2013


Peter Brötzmann, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Paal Nilssen-Love & Pat Thomas - ADA Pat Thomas OTO (PNL, 2013) ****

Peter Brötzmann, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Paal Nilssen-Love & Steve Noble - ADA Steve Noble OTO (PNL, 2013) ****

Peter Brötzmann has been a more frequent visitor to London in recent years, primarily to Dalston’s Café OTO (he can be seen there during a residency in April 2011 with the Chicago Tentet in “Brötzmann - Ein Film von René Jeuckens, Thomas Mau und Grischa Windus”, reviewed here). Café OTO chose a recording from Brötzmann’s initial residency in 2010, with John Edwards (bass) and Steve Noble (drums), as the first release on its own label: the outstanding … The Worse the Better”, Brötzmann now tours regularly with that trio, and as a duo with Noble.

Like a number of his recent ensembles, the ADA trio is drawn from members of the Chicago Tentet (now sadly, disbanded) and consists of Brötzmann, with Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello and electronics) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums) and is named after its first recording, from Wuppertal’s Café ADA. In February 2012, they undertook a European tour, and at Café OTO, Pat Thomas (piano) and Steve Noble were guests on the first and second nights respectively. (The trio played alone before being joined by Thomas; I don’t know if they adopted this format with Noble.) 

Brötzmann and Nilssen-Love have been playing together since 1998, in various combinations, but the sonic texture of the ADA trio is to a large extent marked by Lonberg-Holm’s cello: impasto chords and searing lines, often heavily modified with effects and pedals providing a brittle, electronic glaze, which gives the trio a coruscating edge. Lonberg-Holm sometimes picks up an electric guitar, though it’s often difficult to tell when exactly, as the sound and phrasing of his cello frequently resemble guitarists such as Thurston Moore, rich in fragmented overtones, and can sound like a Harrier Jump Jet - taking off and landing. On both these tales of two cafes however, the guests are doing far more than just sitting in, and their contributions in each alter the dynamics of the ADA trio.

There has not been much recorded evidence of the piano in Brötzmann’s music since his great trios from the 1970s, with drummer Han Bennink and pianists Fred Van Hove or Misha Mengelberg. There’s “Hyperion” from 1992, with Marilyn Crispell and Hamid Drake; “Exhilaration” with Borah Bergman and Andrew Cyrille, recorded at the Knitting Factory in 1996/97; and more recently “Yatagarasu” with drummer Takeo Moriyama and veteran pianist Masahiko Satoh – the “Heavyweights” trio – an impassioned, but delicate weave between piano, reeds and drums. Brötzmann’s playing has developed since those early trios – it has become more focussed, and melodic – and I have the impression that he relishes the challenge of playing with pianists, and the new areas this opens up.

Pat Thomas is a well known member of the British improvisation scene, who uses electronic keyboards and samplers, but here plays piano alone, as he had done in a quartet meeting with Brötzmann during his first visit to OTO in January 2010, and also on a subsequent trio date with Brötzmann and Nilssen-Love in April this year, which included solos and duos. The full range of his pianism can be heard on his recent “Al-Khwarizmi Variations” (Fataka, 2013). He is not helped on this date by a piano that sounds in a poor state of health.

The quartet plays four untitled pieces, each of around ten minutes, and on the whole, it’s high-octane stuff. In the first piece, Thomas dives in, with Brötzmann’s familiar call to arms. Although the clusters and percussive runs in alternating registers inevitably draw a comparison with Cecil Taylor – as with pretty much every other free jazz pianist, such is the magnitude of Taylor’s innovations and pervasiveness of his influence – the wide-spaced chords and tremolo bass notes also bring to mind McCoy Tyner. Thomas is his own man however, and he is able to both expand, and disassemble melodic phrases simultaneously, as he and Brötzmann maintain a tight dialogue.

There are also moments of contrast and repose: there’s a furious pizzicato from Lonberg-Holm accompanied by breathless brush-work from Nilssen-Love; and the second piece ends with Brötzmann and Thomas exchanging melodic ideas, with a languid tenor tone and phrasing from Brötzmann that recalls Ben Webster, as Thomas comps behind him. In the third piece, after Lonberg-Holm’s slithering introduction, that suggests, but fixes on nothing particular, Brötzmann unfolds one of those long lines that seems to allude to a standards tune, before Thomas plays chiming chords in a clockwork rhythm. There’s a soft interlude from Nilssen-Love, with washes of cymbals, after which Lonberg-Holm’s cello, drenched in distortion, increases the tension, with Brötzmann’s furious saxophone adding sparks to the fire.

The fourth piece opens – and closes – with Brötzmann playing, in a rich vibrato, a variant of the plaintive five note motif first heard on “Master of a Small House” on 2002’s “Tales out of Time”, the first outing of what has since become known as the “Damage is Done” quartet. This lament sounds like a homage to both Coleman Hawkins and Ornette Coleman – whose “Lonely Woman”, which it resembles, Brötzmann has played solo – and is a melody used regularly in his recent music (it makes a moving appearance towards the end of “Icy Spears” on “Yatagarasu”) and which clearly has a special resonance for him. There are many sides to Brötzmann’s music, and along with passion, delight and anger, there’s no mistaking a deep-rooted sorrow. All these things can be found in those jazz masters who inspire him, a tradition to which he rightly regards himself as belonging – and extends.

Like Pat Thomas, Steve Noble is an established fixture on the British scene, though as with most of his compatriots, he spends a lot of his time playing abroad. His collaborations are many and various, and with John Edwards he provides a rhythm section of breathtaking flexibility (much the same can be said of the pairing of Edwards’ and his other regular partner, the drummer Mark Sanders). Simply compare Edwards and Noble’s playing with Brötzmann, and their work on Sophie Agnel’s new release: “Meteo”.

Noble and Nilssen-Love are both drummers with seemingly endless resources, but each has his own particular style: Nilssen-Love builds up complex polyrhythms, whereas Noble’s drumming is starker, full of quicksilver changes and responses (and I appreciate this might be doing both drummers a disservice). In any event, this date is probably not the occasion to make comparisons, since although they can be distinguished – Noble can be heard on the left channel, Nilssen-Love on the right – what they’re doing is building up and extending rhythms and textures to produce a cascade that is the sum of their respective parts. On occasions, what we have is Brötzmann and Lonberg-Holm in the one corner, and a wave of percussion in the other; sometimes Lonberg-Holm supports the barrage with low regular throbs; sometimes he’s pitted against it. The result is two unnamed pieces, the first lasting almost forty minutes - epic in its emotional span – and a short coda of some five minutes.

As on the previous night, it’s not all sound and fury however. After the initial tremors have subsided, there’s a crisp interplay between Lonberg-Holm and Noble, which picks up speed once Nilssen-Love rejoins. At about the thirteen and a half minute mark, at the height of a crescendo, Brötzmann introduces the achingly beautiful “Master of a Small House” melody – searing and elegiac – which pushes the quartet further and deeper. This is followed by a percussion duet, with Lonberg-Holm pizzicato, which rapidly gets out of hand. There’s a call to order from Brötzmann’s measured lines, and his soft voices prevails, moving into a duet with cello, which explores eastern phrasing and modes.
Brötzmann’s craft can be heard in his knowing when to add something complimentary, or nudge the music is a new direction, and when to put his foot on the accelerator. This he does in the final section after Lonberg-Holm introduces a rock-like riff on the guitar over a chopping rhythm, opened up as the polyrhythms multiply and Brötzmann’s tenor becomes ever more passionate, and ascends to a visceral intensity which I can only describe as terrifying. Brötzmann is not out to give himself, or the audience, an easy ride.

After this catharsis, the short second piece comes as something of a counterweight: a slow-moving and dreamy, middle-eastern sounding dialogue between cello and tárogató, underpinned by complimentary patterns on the drums.  As the music builds to something stronger, it is cut off, with a ringing bell. 
Having reached his threescore years and ten, one might have expected Peter Brötzmann to relax a little, and rest on his much-deserved laurels. Not a bit of it – humble, devoid of spurious sentimentality, but with a passionate and very clear view of what he expects from his music and his collaborators, there is strength, labour and sorrow in his music-making, rarely found elsewhere, for which we – and the musicians lucky enough to work with him – should be grateful. 

The Brötzmann/Edwards/Noble trio, joined by Jason Adasiewicz – the vibraphonist with whom Brötzmann is having such a fruitful association – have a two-day residency at OTO on 11/12 August.

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