FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Steve Lake


Five years have passed, in the blink of an eye, since Peter Brötzmann launched his Die Like A Dog quartet to pay tribute to the short and turbulent life of his near-contemporary Albert Ayler, a synchronistic saxophone innovator and fellow timbral virtuoso ("It's not about notes, it's about sounds"). The first recorded document of the group (FMP CD 64) and early shows incoporated splinters of Ayler themes as well as classics of the older jazz, emphasising, in "St James Infirmary", the hypnotic, unearthly vibrato that links Bechet and Ayler – underlining thereby Albert's contention that jazz had lost the plot along the way from the collective improvising of New Orleans to the Birth of the Free. The interim had been filled with too much of the grandstanding soloing of bebop. And that, said Albert, with the acute perception of the unsophisticated, was "too simple".

Five years, measured in Aylerian terms, would mark the distance between and beyond "Prophecy" and "New Grass", all the highs and lows of an insane "career" that nudged Albert ever closer to that dog's death in the East River. "Die Like A Dog", though, has to be a misnomer for the life-affirming music of Brötzmann's quartet. Divorced from the original reference, the name brings instead the dreary legacy of post-punk and late-Goth to mind (cast of thousands including Dead Boys, Dead Kennedys, Dead Can Dance, Southern Death Cult, Suicidal Tendencies, not to mention Caspar B.'s Massaker). In terms of the way this music moves, Dive Like A Kingfisher, Swim Like A Seal, Soar Like An Eagle, Roar Like A Lion or Stand Still Like A Hummingbird would surely all be more to the point.

But I suppose there is another possible reading. Hamid Drake cites Sufism as one of the most significant influences on his thinking. A central Sufic maxim is "die before you die". In this formulation, I'm told, reality is approached by – amongst other means – putting the torch to the ego, to the false self motivated by conditioning, greed and the need for approval and applause. In that sense, jazz can use all the "death" it can get. Full speed, then, to the bonfire of the vanities!

A quick survey of other philosophical affiliations might be in order. Kondo, a most curious fellow whose every appearance seems a Zen manifestation – he pops up suddenly, like an oriental rabbit out of a hat – is, according to this month's jazz press, on conversational terms with the Dalai Lama. He's also a long term student of T'ai Chi and knows when to hit. William Parker's been quoted, in David Such's book Avant-Garde Jazz Musicians, with the following remark: "For free music to succeed it must grow into free spiritual music. There is a music which is not based on technique but on being a messenger of the Lord. We are not the creators, we are the vehicles through which the Creator sends vibrations." Peter Brötzmann strikes you as an unlikely leader of a troupe of neo-mystics? Makes you think – but not for too long! – about Blake's famous contention that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

Anyway, here is a group that includes members inspired, in wildly differing degree, by the Smirnoff bottle and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, by the profane and the spiritual, by old and new jazz and the music of the whole wide world. It is a group that Peter leads by not seeking to dominate it. The quasi-theatrical elements of furious bluster, of sword-clanging swagger, that were taken to the final extreme in the delirious/hilarious romance that was Last Exit (the horsemen of the apocalypse play the blues) have been reined in. This quartet makes music together rather than in mutual competition, music that has an extraordinarily unforced character, for all the technical complexities involved. Organic, we might have called it, in another time. It has a hypermodern sonic component in Kondo's black box of tricks but its emotional persuasiveness makes this music of human feelings, of human scale.

Roles are not much discussed, each member can claim all the "freedom" he needs inside the group, but there is also a lot of giving, of generosity, a lot of complementing and enhancing of each other's contributions. A couple of years ago, apparently in a bad mood, Misha Mengelberg weighed into Peter's music in an Option article: "I hated it, this formless energy school. For me it was a nightmare. I thought if we have the freedom to get rid of all these stupid little tunes, we shouldn't replace them with something similarly stupid. It should somehow come out of that monomaniac war-making idea that it became." Passing over the fact that a formless music is a practical impossibility – even "Machine Gun" had form, however rudimentary – the criticism can't apply at all to the present group. There is a great deal of finesse in the interaction, much light and shade, understanding of sound projection and how to make the small gesture as potent as the large one. The transparent recording quality helps to make this clear.

All four musicians play beautifully. The Brötzmann clarinet, in particular, has never sounded better. Peter's extensive use of the instrument in recent work with Borah Bergman may have contributed to the sensitivity of the performance on these Berlin tapes. The conclusion of Part Two here could be fairly termed "exquisite", not an adjective overemployed in Brötzmann reviews. The delicacy of the playing and the depth of feeling conveyed are exceptional. Ditto for the opening section of Volume 2 (in preparation).

Hamid seems to have decided that his other group with Peter, the trio featuring Moroccan Gnawa guembri player Mahmoud Gania, is now a more appropriate context for his exemplary hand-drumming, and stays mostly with the kit for the quartet these days. But like Ed Blackwell before him, he understands how to adapt elements of technique from diverse drum cultures and apply them to improvisation in an entirely natural and convincing manner. He's not "fusing" anything but rather continually uncovering, in his restless explorations, points of congruence with a dozen traditions. At the same time, he and William maintain an exhilarating, driving dialogue throughout. I don't know where else in "jazz" one could look today for bass and drums interaction more alive and alert than that of Parker and Drake in tandem.

Anybody who plays electric trumpet is fated to be compared with Miles, and Toshinori Kondo courted comparison with his IMA pop band of a decade ago, set up like a coy Nipponese response to the "Agharta" group. But what he is playing with Brötzmann now is way beyond all that, and superbly inventive. Kondo's use of electronics and digital reverberation can bring much-needed space into this pulsating improvisation, washing into the group sound in great waves of cooling balm. But don't bank on it, or he'll turn around and scald you with shrieking blasts of white noise. When he so chooses, Kondo weaves his lines more closely, more tightly, with Peter's, too, than any other horn player of the last thirty years has done; lightning-quick reflexes zone in on the stream-of-consciousness saxophone to find speeding harmonies amid the swirling multiphonics...

(To be continued)

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