So I walk in about 30 minutes before the gig was to go down. No problem, I think. Except for the fact that I walk in hearing the two men featured in tonight’s performance warming up and setting levels for the taping of the show. As there was no green room at the venue, all they could do was warm up the chops behind a heavy felt curtain.
Brötzmann worked his way through all of his horns. He was on the tenor when I started recognizing licks. One in particular sticks in my mind — Brötzmann worked with a five note riff that is Sonny Rollins’ “Blessing in Disguise” from the East Broadway Rundown album on Impulse! An interesting confirmation of his admiration for Rollins in that. My ears perked up right away. He played it pretty straight to start, and made that heavy-ass burr in his tone do all of the work. I knew I was to be in for a treat this night.
Waits spent some time tuning the head on the floor tom on the night’s aqua colored drum kit. Both men left the stage and one chap remained, gaffe taping a cord to a mic stand. It was Michael Ehlers, the man behind the fabulous record label Eremite Records. I talked with him for a moment, and he said that they were taping all of the performances of the tour. This night was the last night, and each was to venture to their next journey-point, as this short-lived duo had come to a conclusion.
After a few short announcements from the event coordinator they took the stage. She made the observation that it was interesting to have Brötzmann again playing at an art school, as he started his journey at an art school in the 60’s. Brötzmann plays with the same fire you hear on those first recordings from the 60’s — he started on what was to be the first of four pieces of the evening on alto sax. They came out with guns blazing.
Having not seen the man play a horn in person, I was intrigued to see how he works the sounds out of the axes. The whole of his upper body seemed to be involved, not just the muscles in what must be an Olympic strongman-level embouchure. Part of his vibrato comes from shaking his head most vigorously from side-to-side, all while maintaining a consistency of tone. This is not a gentle motion; I was alarmed to see it in person, at first. The melodic lines he creates must take an immense amount of thought. (It was difficult enough for me to keep up, to comprehend it all, and I was merely listening.)
As with many horn players, Brötzmann’s language is shaped in large part by what his body is capable of doing. His enormous lung capacity allows him to create phrases and lines with the volume and intensity that would fall to pieces in the hands of others. Not that hard and loud is the only language – we would find out later in the performance that he can summon the same level of expressiveness at pianissimo and quieter!
The second piece on bass clarinet started out very quietly and solo. Soon the notes were surging forth at great volume, especially considering it was a clarinet. This piece was more dynamic than the previous. He made great use of multiphonics as introduced by vocalizing through the horn. Huge descending wails filled the room, joined soon by Waits’ percussion. Waits was much more than someone that is able to “keep up” with Brötzmann. The dynamism of Waits’ approach, and his ability to absorb the entirety of the conversation while organically adding to it made this more of an event than I would have ever hoped.
You will not be snapping a finger to these rhythms, but there was more than just an implication of rhythm. I would compare it to another player Brötzmann has worked with in recent years, Hamid Drake. Drake can swing as well as Waits, but the gear they engage in when in situations like this has that implicit groove. In the third piece, with Brötzmann on tenor, this was more apparent as Waits started playing in this mode, but it morphed into a more explicit rhythm, quite nearly a ferocious swing. It was present for a few moments, and drifted away again.
Waits left the stage, and Brötzmann picked up the tenor. He launched into a truly frightening blast of scorched earth saxophonics that I was nowhere near prepared for. The sound his tenor makes when recorded on tape is at least somewhat misrepresentative. In person, that snarling, robust, and wooly tone is larger than life. The intensity would lead the listener to believe that the reed is teetering on the edge of being blown into 100 splinters. He uses natural reeds, unlike one of his great influences Albert Ayler. Ayler, too, had that gravity of tone, but used plastic reeds. Brötzmann’s reeds only fared so well. At a couple of points when he laid out to give the drummer some, he produced a folding pocket knife of considerable size to whittle on them. This was new to me.
Waits joined Brötzmann on stage and was to reach his apex of the evening. He pulled more creativity and turned more inventive phrases out on a limited kit than any lesser could muster on a kit twice its size. The fourth and final piece featured a metal Bb clarinet. There would be no tarogato played tonight. This clarinet was again featured alone in the piece’s introduction. Brötzmann once again showed the audience of about 125 people his abilities beyond that of being merely another fire breather. His fleet and facility on the clarinet were best demonstrated in the pianissimo and quieter passages.
These were no schoolboy exercises performed under the guise of improvisation. These were witty and soulful thoughts poured forth on the last evening of a tour featuring an established legend, and quite possibly, another in the making.