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Peter Brotzmann

Live: London Purcell Room, 15 November 2008


by Tim Owen

November 25, 2008


This was the one unmissable event of this year's London Jazz Festival.

The Final Terror is the latest vehicle for saxophonist Pete Wareham, better known as the leader of Acoustic Ladyland and mainstay of Polar Bear, whose Seb Rochford is depping tonight for TFT’s regular drummer Leo Taylor, off cutting his jazz chops with Hot Chip. “And how lucky are we?” asks Wareham; and yes, Rochford takes this set in his stride with aplomb, but not much evident enthusiasm. I’d go so far as to say he looked a bit bored, but that might be unfair. Not so the other half of the quartet: Chris Sharkey (guitar) and Ruth Goller (electric bass), who were both focused and - towards the end of the set - evidently having fun, both driving the set forwards and adding much textural detail to the jazz-rock momentum, but never straying far from Wareham’s trademark sax-song.

In mid set, the group broke from their own songbook to tackle a piece commissioned by the SPNM from composer Mat Martin, and it’s worth taking some time here to discuss it. As Martin describes it, ‘Cairn’ is “a study in heterophony and fractal symmetry” or, “basically a set of transparencies which serve as a graphic score when overlaid. Each performer has the same sheets but is instructed to put them together in different orders so that they are each playing the same thing from a different ‘angle’.... The graphics are taken from an earlier score for solo performer, ‘Pebble Music’, and the fact that the pebble graphics are placed above one another leads to the name of this piece.” Each movement of Cairn lasted only a few seconds, in between which the performers were obliged to rearrange their transparencies (ie to re-arrange the ‘pebbles’ in the ‘cairn’). This created a welcome pause for the audience either to express some mild bemusement or to digest what they had just heard. Martin describes Wareham’s music as “much more frantic and chaotic than my own work”. These are not the exact adjectives I’d use, but I know what he means.

Whether this was a ‘good’ performance of ‘Cairn’ I can’t say, but the score compelled the musicians to dig slightly deeper and to mine a broader range of dynamics than required for Wareham’s music. This played to their strengths and diverted the listener from the creping sensation that here is a group of young musicians who are all thoroughly capable and on one level unarguably delivering the goods, and yet…

In other performances the Final Terror has apparently experimented with electronics, so perhaps this wasn’t their most compelling set. I enjoyed it and was engaged throughout, but ultimately it didn’t inspire anything remotely like terror; it was altogether too safe for that. The “scorching salvo of grunge funk and dub” promised by Time Out was sadly not delivered. I was left with the notion that this is a short-term niche project from a new generation of future session musicians, which is dispiriting because there are now precious few jazz musicians of the calibre, or enjoying the requisite level of commercial success, to hire them. If Goller and Sharkey are really lucky they might end up playing with someone like tonight’s main draw, Peter Br?tzmann.

Whatever set Br?tzmann’s trio apart from the accomplished and modish Final Terror, it was something in part intangible, something rooted in hard-won authority trumping precocious ability. Whatever it was, it put the hyperbole inherent in TFT’s name to shame.

Br?tzmann’s trio - for his first visit to the UK in far too long - embraced two comparatively younger Swiss musicians: drummer Michael Wertm?ller and electric bassist Marino Pliakas. Jazzmann readers may be familiar with Wertm?ller from Br?tzmann’s recording ‘Nothung’ (recorded live in 2001), in a trio completed by the mighty acoustic bassist William Parker. Tonight’s set follows roughly the same pattern, albeit with greater textural variety and broader dynamic range.

The trio kicked off in blazing style, with Br?tzmann’s alto borne along on the urgent tide of Wertm?ller’s powerhouse drumming and Pliakas’ relentlessly thrumming undertow. Br?tzmann has described this music as “not really jazz”, and certainly Wertm?ller could be compared as readily with the likes of ex-Slayer, sometime John Zorn cohort James Lombardo as with any of the other powerhouse drummers that Br?tzmann has partnered, be they Rashied Ali or Shannon Jackson. And where William Parker can match Br?tzmann’s sheer physical impact on his instrument, Pliakas’ electric bass ups the anti with its plugged-in impact. Any reed player with lesser lungs would’ve gone under, and indeed in the early stages it seemed that Br?tzmann might struggle to impose himself over the long haul, but he drew deep to break through with the short, declamatory blats and phrases of pure gospel-inflected power that are his stock in trade. No other saxophonist does less to disguise the outer limits of their lung capacity than Br?tzmann; he doesn’t need to. But there’s a lot more to his sound than this implies. As the momentum of the set ebbs somewhat and Br?tzmann switches to clarient, and as Pliakas is obliged by a broken string to narrow his range to a woody, resinous thrumming on the low strings, Br?tzmann worries away at strands of melody and - for all the inherent muscularity - there’s a plangent melancholy underlying aspects of this music.

In a break between pieces, Pliakas tugs at the unyielding broken string, shrugs, lets it drop and seems willing to play on. Br?tzmann catches his eye and wryly shrugs; it’s obviously not essential, this replacement of the string, but the next piece begins as a duo of sax and drums nevertheless. When he’s done with the repairs Pliakas listens in, and then he joins in; the transition is seamless. In the third quarter, the Albert Ayler influence, never far from the surface, sounds out in Br?tzmann’s beautiful, emotionally charged, almost vocal utterances. The potency, however, never flags, and the gig ends as it began in compacted, high-powered intensity.

Br?tzmann returned to graciously thank both his audience and the event’s promoter, for inviting the trio to play, and remarks that he doesn’t often have the opportunity to play in England; well that’s an understatement. For my money, given the rarity of his appearances, this was the one unmissable event of this year’s London Jazz Festival. Let’s hope that he’s invited back more often in future.

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