Brötzmann Reveals Expansive Range at Chicago Museum Show


Jason Adasiewicz (left), Steve Noble, John Edwards and Peter Brötzmann perform at the Art Institute of Chicago on May 21.

(Photo: Courtesy of John Corbett/Art Institute of Chicago)

Before Peter Brötzmann gained renown as a musician, he was a German art student who played clarinet in a Dixieland band as a way to blow off the steam. In the early 1960s he withdrew from the gallery scene—“It was disgusting, and I hated the people,” he told interviewer John Corbett in 1992. He then directed his creative energy into playing music that articulated a uniquely German response to the longing for aesthetic freedom that impelled American free-jazz and the revulsion against post-World War II circumstances that fueled radicalism of all sorts across Europe.

Early on Brötzmann’s massive, abrasive tone and the international membership of his bands set high standards for musical intensity and inclusiveness, and his ongoing involvement with the visual arts has resonated across the decades.

But it still felt a bit ironic to see him in the plush environment of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fullerton Hall on May 21, even though he was invited by the same man with whom he shared his disgust 24 years ago. Corbett is now a gallery owner, label owner and educator, as well as a DownBeat contributor, and he is responsible for curating the Art Institute’s Extensions Out series, which presented this concert.

Brötzmann, now 75, could have rested on his laurels. Instead he played two sets with relatively new assemblages of musicians, who together expressed the same artistic commitment that has made him a force to be reckoned with for half a century.

Unlike some of his European contemporaries who strove to separate free improvisation from free-jazz, Brötzmann has always asserted his connection to the jazz continuum. But he also has a long-standing practice of associating with musicians such as Bill Laswell, Keiji Haino and his noise-guitarist son Caspar—people guaranteed to push him in directions he would not choose on his own. U.S.-born, Scotland-based pedal steel guitarist Heather Leigh now stands in their number.

Leigh is an autodidact who has been active in underground and improvised music since the late ’90s, playing with saxophonist Paul Flaherty, drummer Chris Corsano, songwriter Jandek and the psychedelic group Charalambides. One need only listen to her solo album Nightingale or Jailbreak—her duo project with Corsano—to recognize her facility as a soloist.

But with Brötzmann she eschewed her typically fuzz-toned leads in order to create swells of sound with a surface as elusive as a heat mirage. Although her instrument often is associated with country music nowadays, her playing sounded more like a one-woman reduction of minimalist composer Rhys Chatham’s pieces for hundred-strong guitar orchestras.

Rather than respond dialogically to Brötzmann’s playing and pauses, Leigh created slow but inexorable melodies that provided him with a wide-open playing field. He played sinewy phrases on a Hungarian taragato and coarse-toned, sorrowful cries with his clarinet that hewed mostly to the more melancholy end of his enormous range.

When he shifted to tenor saxophone, the instrument he favored on his earliest recordings, one could hear what time has given and what time has taken from his playing. He remains capable of ranging from tender, clean-toned lines to harsh, gravelly utterances. But his phrases, which usually last the full length of an exhalation, are shorter, and he took more rests.

The second set showcased a quartet that united two other partnerships Brötzmann has embraced in recent years. He first appeared with the veteran, London-based drummer Steve Noble and bassist John Edwards in 2010, and broke a long-standing dearth of mallet players amongst his accompanists when he first played with Chicago-based vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz at the 2012 Vision Festival.

The Art Institute concert marked the end of the combo’s first U.S. tour, and they went out on an extraordinarily high note. They opened the concert with a whirlwind of energy, lit from within by Adasiewicz’s lightning runs and Brötzmann’s raw, rippling tenor lines. But the saxophonist soon stepped aside to let the chemistry that has evolved between his accompanists shine.

Adasiewicz relied heavily on unconventional techniques, using bows like drumsticks to meet the broad blows of Edwards’ bass without blanketing them with the vibes’ customary overtones. Noble responded in kind, playing the sides of his tom-tom and snare as much as their skins to enter into dense, meter-free expressions of energy.

But Noble didn’t stay in that mode, bringing down the volume and turning up the heat with focused forays on the cymbals and then nailing down stomping grooves that split the difference between filth and funereal tragedy.

Brötzmann dipped in and out of their exchanges, steering the music through passages of lucid ecstasy, mournful tragedy and ribald, bluesy exuberance. With these two sets, he confirmed both his ongoing creative restlessness and his enduring command of the full range of jazz expression.

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