How Much Brötzmann Can You Take?

Saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love are coming to the Bay Area, and you can’t stop them. But you can go see them:

Brotzmann & Nilssen-Love. Photo by Ziga Koritnik.
Brotzmann & Nilssen-Love. Photo by Ziga Koritnik. Lifted from the Center for New Music.

Each venue promises a cozy, intimate setting for getting your eardrums blasted out. Brötzmann can certainly play quietly and sensitively, but it’s the biggest sounds that are his signature. This is a guy who told The Wire his overexpansive playing has expanded his lungs to the point of damage. Raise your hand if you didn’t realize that was even possible.

The condition doesn’t affect Brötzmann’s playing, however. So, as late as 2011 at the Musique Actuelle Festival in Victoriaville, he was able to do things like this:

Trio Roma (Victo, 2012).That’s Brötzmann and Nilssen-Love in trio with Massimo Pupillo playing an electric bass set on “kill.” They’ve obviously decided they’ll all amp it up, so to speak, to match Pupillo’s “11” setting. They do have pauses and quiet patches, but it’s a mostly sweaty and sprinting workout that makes up one of the two CDs in Solo + Trio Roma (Victo, 2012). It qualifies as a Sound of 4 experience.

That excerpt comes from only about 1 minute into a 70-minute track, by the way.

Regarding those quiet patches, here’s a segment where Pupillo sits out, and Brötzmann gets to display some delicate gruffness.

Concentric (Clean Feed, 2006)How about Nilssen-Love, who’s less familiar to most listeners? Here he is with a different saxophonist: John Butcher, whose aesthetic often tends toward the introspective — airy sounds and high-tone, slow-motion squeals. Concentric (Clean Feed, 2006) is a much different setting from Trio Roma, with Nilssen-Love going for a more sculpted sound even during the busier segments.

Sticks and Stones (Sofa, 2001)Nilssen-Love also has a solo album where he favors subtlety over bombast. Sticks & Stones (Sofa, 2001) isn’t exactly quiet — maybe “close-miked” is a better term? He solos on a rich array of percussion, making small noises that are amplified straight into your ear, as if you’re in a warm, small room with your head hovering right above the drums. He’s chosen his drums and implements so that the taps and bounces produce rich, almost liquid sounds, and you can savor every nuance, like sips of wine.

Sticks & Stones admittedly gets a little repetitious, but any one of the fairly short tracks is a treat, packed with delicious sounds and fast, rattling drumstick work.

Of course, these two gentlemen will spontaneously decide which colors to flash at these upcoming concerts. I would guess you’ll hear a little bit of all of it. Just come prepared for some big sounds.

(Each album-cover image links to eMusic, where you can sample more of the music. There is no commercial arrangement here; eMusic has no idea that I do this.)

Sharp Attack on Strings

Elliott SharpCut With Occam’s Razor (zOaR, 2013)

Jack Quartet performing "Boreal" at New College of Florida.
Jack Quartet performing “Boreal” at New College of Florida,

As part of Elliott Sharp‘s residency at The Stone in early October, JACK Quartet performed two of his compositions — two companion pieces similiar in strategy, both dynamic and exciting. One of them, “The Boreal,” also happens to lead off Sharp’s latest CD of classical works.

I caught the concert (and a couple others to be mentioned later) during my latest visit to New York.

“The Boreal” was written in 2009, and “Tranzience,” its followup, is a new composition that got its premiere at this show. Both involve alternatives to the string bow — springs, metal bars, ball-bearing chains — mixed with traditional bowing in slashing, cathartic passages.

As with most modern pieces, there were passages of near silence as well. The JACK Quartet impressively stayed precise and focused against The Stone’s Indian-summer heat and the Avenue C street noise.

Both pieces featured stretches of one-note rhythms, played hard and fast, and lots of tapping, plucking, and scraping the strings — which was no surprise, considering how percussive Sharp’s music can be. His guitar work often involves lots of hammer-ons, and some of his homemade instruments are along the lines of the slab, a horizontal bass played with mallets. I like that stuff. My introduction to Sharp’s music was the super-percussive piece, “Larynx,” whose sections are punctuated by solos from four different drummers.

E#'s photo of the concert. (Oh sure, he gets to take pictures.) Source: the zoarmusic Tumblr; click to go there.
E#’s photo of the concert. (Oh sure, he gets to take pictures.) Source: the zOaRmusic Tumblr; click to go there.

“The Boreal” opens with short metal springs scraping rhythms against the strings, small sounds forcefully pressed into being. It produced some great sounds (more about that below), but the springs weren’t particularly nimble. The players were limited to simple rhythms, sometimes accidentally hitting little nursery-rhymey patterns. Later, the piece sent JACK through some traditional bowing but in not-so-traditional motifs: twisty passages at breakneck speed, providing some of the most exciting moments.

“Tranzience” was very much a companion to “The Boreal,” rather than a sequel. The sheet music was on long, vertical pieces of paper, for a striking and artsy visual difference, but that atmosphere and attitude continued from “The Boreal’s” foundation. So did the extended-technique implements — customized metal dowels this time. In addition to tapping the springs, these were used in a guitar-slide manner, curving a tone into a glissando by moving up or down the neck. I found myself wondering how  notated those parts are; does Sharp dictate where the pitch should start and end?

“Tranzience” started with viola and cello hammering out background notes percussively (this really reminded me of Sharp’s slab) with crazed, scattered notes from the violins. This peaked ferociously as the quartet stopped on a dime — one of many pauses during the two pieces that made for particularly exciting moments.

“Tranzience” had the more exciting coda of the two, with the four players slashed frenetically through near-unison melodies near the end.

I enjoyed hearing the two pieces side-by-side, but they’re very similar; it was an awful lot of the same colors spread across 45 minutes. But that didn’t occur to me until near the ending, maybe because I spent most of the concert not knowing what to expect. I don’t think I’d want to hear them together again — but the same can’t be said for other audiences who haven’t experienced them.

(Elliott Sharp’s zOaRmusic Tumblr, which I discovered after writing this entry, has more details about this show.)


From my copy of Cut With Occam's Razor.
Like most zOaR releases, Cut With Occam’s Razor is a limited edition.

“The Boreal” opens Cut With Occam’s Razor slowly — as I suppose it must have in concert — but quickly picks up the pace, first with springs-grinding rhythms and then with one-note unison stabbing patterns. One of the best moments comes midway through the 15-minute piece, when the players form a counterpoint with the metal springs that builds up to a big, buzzy sound with shifting tones.

The next piece, “Oligosono,” gives us a solo piano executing Sharp’s percussive attack. This track was my first exposure to that combination, with Jennifer Lin often two-handedly pounding away at a dissonant chord or even dryly hammering on one note. It produces a nice effect in those low, low registers, where the resonating metal of the strings creates its own coppery overtone.

Add to that some splashes of higher notes and quasi-prepared piano in the form of Lin holding a string down (adding a dull thud to that hammering vocabulary), and you’ve got yourself a piece. “Oligosono” is often repetitious, but it’s full of engaging patter, as in this segment.

The piece culminates in a more colorful type of piano percussion, stacking tones one after the other for an almost flowery effect.

(Sharp writes more about “Oligosono” here.)

“Occam’s Razor” is a string octet commissioned for Sharp’s 60th-birthday marathon at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn. It was recorded in 2011 by the JACK and Sirius string quartets.

It’s a series of shimmering sound blasts that slowly rise and fall in intensity, while keeping all eight instruments involved for a density of sound. Long tones criss-cross in a Grand Central Station bustle, where there’s so much motion going on (passengers flitting across the huge causeway) yet so little change (the crowd as a whole, like a river, remaining in one place while continually moving).

As the pace slows, the long tones of individual players become evident again, and we’re in familiar E# territory, with percussive strikes replaced by long bowing motions. Same idea, different perspective.

After about 15 minutes, “Occam’s Razor” boils down to a quick but satisfying ending — not a fadeout, but more a collective expression of, “Yeah, that’s all we had to say.” I think I favor “The Boreal” or “Tranzience,” but “Occam’s Razor,” while more difficult to take in, is still a really good piece.

Braxton’s No. 255

Earlier this year, I saw Phillip Greenlief conducting Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 255, at the In the Flow Festival in Sacramento.

A music fan named Charles has done dedicated work filming music concerts in that area. He got No. 255 on tape, and also recorded part of a rehearsal, for a feel of what it’s like preparing this kind of work.

I’ll embed both videos here. You don’t get to see these kinds of works live very often, so it’s nice to have a visual document to refer back to.

The World As Drumkit

Han Bennik Trio — Parken (ILK, 2009)
Daniele D’Agaro, Bruno Marini, Han Bennik — The Tempest (Artesuono, 2008)

Source: eMusic; click to go thereI sometimes wonder if other musicians think Han Bennik‘s clowning around dilutes the seriousness of the music — or, more properly, the substance of it. Maybe the audience is watching him too gleefully to really hear what he’s playing. But I think the avant-garde world needs messengers like him, players who can cross audience boundaries. And I enjoy a good musical clown act. I think he’s terrific, albeit exhausting.

On record, his presence is still manic but more subtle. You just don’t get to see him, say, run backstage and invisibly pound on a piano back there. (That happened during one Mills College concert. It was pretty funny.) Parken is a good example, and like many Dutch jazz albums, it presents a good blend of the jazz tradition with well constructed improvisation.

“Music for Camping,” though freeform, is rooted in swingy piano and clarinet. And “Lady of the Lavender Mist” is a lovely ballad with some light clarinet melody. Bennik is content to linger in the background on brushes while the clarinet takes its slow riverboat ride through the piece.

“Fleimsche March” is more overtly “out.” The piano sputters out high notes like a paint sprayer gone mad. Joaquim Badenhorst’s clarinet offers squashed curls of sound, a warped non-Euclidean melody. And Bennik just goes nuts behind it all, of course. “Reedeater” is a slower piece that rambles nicely until it builds into a dark improv jam. Then there’s the two-minute seizure titled “Myckewelk.”

“Isfahan” is more what you’d expect, in terms of abstract improvising. It’s a slowly creeping piece, pushed along by the crackling bursts of Bennik’s drum work. Badenhorst lurks on clarinet, and Simon Toldam keeps the piano quiet for a time, before taking the lead with some nicely jazzy runs.

The final track, “Parken,” is a lovely slow song that features a (Dutch?) female vocalist. I don’t know who; that’s the handicap of using eMusic.

Source: eMusic (click to go there)Speaking of eMusic — imagine my surprise at surfing around there and finding what I thought was an ECM release with Han Bennik on it. Turns out it’s on the Artesuono label, and — surprise again — it’s not the darkly moody, introspective material I’d expected after seeing that album cover. No, it’s an old-school organ-jazz trio, doing a hopping set of tunes based (apparently) on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

And while they do break the mold in several places, the old-school segments go hardcore old-school. The lead horn is Daniele D’Agaro’s clarinet, which is certainly different, but the album opens with swingy organ splashing from Bruno Marini on “An Evening at Prospero’s,” turning the grand wizard into more of a jazz-club-owning hep cat. That’s followed with the less traditional “Caliban,” which crackles with post-bop energy and spattering clarinet lines, a free-jazz good time.

“Goodbye” and “So” are slower, warmer numbers. You can totally picture the ’50s album cover with the sweater girl listening to her hi-fi.  “Ariel in Clarinetville” gets into a more free-form kind of improvising, but when the chord-heavy organ solo starts up, watch out! You’re plunged way back into ’50s TV territory.

As for Bennik, he’s content to slip into a sideman’s outfit and do his part to swing along, maybe with a little extra activity bubbling beneath the surface. Even his drum solo on “Claribel, the Queen of Tunis” fits right in the pocket. Another solo, on “Caliban,” is full of quietude and subtlety — it’s delicious stuff, playful but not audacious.

It’s true that you often can judge a CD by its cover. Marketing people and artists do a great job conveying the mood of the music. But every now and then, as on The Tempest, you get a pleasant surprise.