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Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Peter Brötzmann / Majid Bekkas / Hamid Drake - Catching Ghosts (ACT, 2023)

It feels so wrong and so weird to speak of Brötzmann in the past tense; he was one of those people whose presence in the music scene I always took for granted, thinking he would always be there somehow, but Brötzmann himself never made that same mistake and never took himself for granted: he never stopped growing, exploring and experimenting, even in his old age he kept challenging the listener and, most importantly, himself. 

One can't help but form a mental image of the man who brought us such fiery, loud and disruptive records as Machine Gun but something that's always been overlooked is just how versatile he could be. His playing was not just fire and brimstone, he was also capable of creating delicate, beautiful and fragile pieces of music, something he's demonstrated time and time again on some of his solo recordings and his artistic partnership with Heather Leigh, one of the highlights of the later part of his career.

Catching Ghosts is, I think, the last non-posthumous album of his to have ever been released and it showcases yet another adventure into unknown lands for him to embark in, accompanied by Hamid Drake's expert and always tasteful drumming and Majid Bekkas' soaring vocals and guembri, a beautiful West African instrument whose sound is somewhere in between a double bass and an oud, rhythmic and melodic at the same time, its interplay with the drums the highlight of the album. 
Together the trio tackles songs from the Gnawa musical tradition, turning them into jams for Brötzmann to solo over. He never over-does it and never steals the scene, never forgetting the songs at the core of the improvisation and working in service of them first and foremost. The music is driving, energetic and spiritual and the trio is in constant lockstep, never stumbling or skipping a beat; it's one of those records where you can almost picture the musicians on stage performing while listening to it, making you feel like you're in the audience and giving you the same energy and electricity you would feel had you been there.

Brötzmann's ability to always keep you on your toes, never knowing what he might do next is the thing I'll miss the most about him. He wasn't a free jazz musician, a free improvisation musician or an avant-garde musician, he just played music, in its totality, with no regards for labels or genre tropes but with a deep knowledge and respect for the people who laid the groundwork before him. 

I remember an interview in which he talked about his love for the blues, having listened to it since he was a child, but he wasn't simply enamoured with the 12 bars, rather "the person behind them", their musical voice and identity. We have lost a giant, but his voice has inspired many people and will continue to do so, that's what makes "the greats" the greats, and this album is a great listen and a fitting farewell from a man with uncompromising vision and relentless passion for music as a whole. 

Released on CD by ACT. 


Martin Schray said...

I am a big fan of the music of Peter Brötzmann, William, but I this recording in particular is not my cup of tea. It starts with the label: ACT is the label of Siggi Loch, a proven opponent of free jazz. He was one of the five discussants on the panel I mentioned at the beginning of my obituary, and he made no secret of how much he dislikes the New Thing. In an interview about this recording here, Loch suggested that Brötzmann was virtually purged at the end of his life. Nothing could be more wrong. If you compare this recording to the performance he gave shortly before at Cafe Oto with Jason Adasiewicz, John Edwards and Steve Noble, you know what Brötzmann’s idea of music was to the very end. When something got too slick for him, he always blew it away. You could see that in several performances at the festival celebrating his 80th birthday, for example.

Colin Green said...

Martin, I find your reasoning difficult to follow. Even if everything you say about Siggi Loch is correct, what relevance does that have to the performance on this album? You say it’s not your cup of tea, but don’t say why. Surely you can’t dislike it because of your disagreement with the label owner – grudges shouldn’t affect judgment.

My own view is that it’s enjoyable enough, but not your usual Brötzmann album, and certainly not one of his best. For want of a better term I’d call it World Music, and Brötzmann adjusts accordingly, which you would expect any decent musician to do. Maybe he was just happy to work with Drake again after lockdown had ended or wanted to try something a bit different. At that point in his life, fair enough.

Martin Schray said...

Of course, the album - if you want to pidgeonhole it - is rather to be classified under the term “world music“ And certainly Brötzmann was happy to be able to play with Drake again. However, I find not only Majid Bekkas' almost cloying melodies, but also the rhythmic framework rather stale and conventional. In my opinion, Brötzmann does not find an access to roughen up the music. When Loch, with whom Brötzmann had previously refused to collaborate, said he wanted to release this album, Brötzmann said he had no problem with it. In one of his last interviews he said it was "decent music, well recorded, they do a good promotion, so what the hell. You can be a bit unfaithful, why not. And the album is now really nothing for which I should be ashamed of." Fair enough and of course, he has nothing to be ashamed of, but it's certainly not one of the highlights of his creative work - at least not for me.

Colin Green said...

Martin, I’m not sure that “World Music” (as I said, for want of a better term) pigeonholes the music. The description covers a wide range, and is no more problematic than, say, “classic free jazz”, one of your favourites.

Martin Schray said...

I do use the term "classic free jazz" every now and then, that's true, Colin. And I'm aware of the fact that any pigeonholing is difficult.

William Rossi said...

Hey Martin,
as I think I made clear in my review I decided to review this album because, besides it being his latest and, unfortunately, last, I think it's emblematic of Brötzmann's habit of always trying different things and showcasing the many sides of his music. It's an album I like despite it not being groundbreaking of genre defying, it's just good music from one of the greats.
As for the human drama behind it, I was unaware of and uninterested in it; if Brötzmann was fine with it being released on ACT to me that's confirmation enough that I'm not being disrespectful to his memory.