Café Oto, London
19 February 2012
For a start it’s packed. And I mean packed. There must be 200 or more people squeezed in, standing behind pillars here, sitting on the floor there, and that’s unparalleled for improv gig like this. And there are youngsters! Without beards! There are even women here, not something to be taken lightly in a scene that had traditionally tended towards the heavily male. In short, the joint is jumping, and, whether ever single person here has been drawn by full awareness Brötzmann’s awesome back catalogue or heavyweight reputation or not, that feels like a good thing. In an age when The Market™ can crush everything non-commercial in its path like a steamroller condemning a hedgehog to two dimensions, the fact that two hours of intense, un-radio friendly, non-unit shifting music can attract a young, attentive audience fills one with hope that a massively important musical form is not totally moribund, but can live on lo unto the generations. Credit for that has to go to the owners of Oto who have done such a great job of putting the venue well and truly onto the map, and to performers like Brötzmann who haven’t hung up their horns, but turn out to ‘pass it on’.At the risk of sounding disrespectful to the fallen, to paraphrase Laurence Binyon’s Ode to Remembrance, “Brötzmann shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary him, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember him.” Over three-score years and ten he may have on the clock, but damn, this man can still play the axe like a bastard. Joined by Paal Nilssen-Love on drums and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello (and at times guitar), Brötzmann makes it apparent in no uncertain terms that his saxophone, like the title of his seminal 1968 recording, is still a machine gun. The first half, comprising two improvisations, is a colossal rampage through the improv jungle – Brötzmann’s sax going from 0 to 60 and back faster than Jenson Button’s McLaren MP4-26, Nilssen-Love’s hands moving so fast across his kit that they look like a hummingbird’s wings, and Lonberg-Holm, buried under his woolly hat, scrapping and hacking away at the cello like a man possessed. Brötzmann’s palate too seems immense, from passages where his lone sax notes hang spookily over almost Sonic Youth-style drumming with beaters, to an ‘everything set to kill’ assault in which all instruments are playing at their limits, the dynamic of the music seems utterly fluid, shifting first this way, then that, and inflected with styles that go far beyond merely the ‘trad free jazz’, a point that is fully brought home when Lonberg-Holm shifts to electric guitar, and brings something of the Keith Rowe into the mix. A mood of reverence, awe and enjoyment ripples through the room, surging along with the music, and, at one point, I kid you not, dancing breaks out. Dancing! At a Peter Brötzmann gig! The groover in question is wearing a huge knitted jumper with a daisy on it and is patently seven sheets to the wind, but she’s fucking dancing! Since my first improv gigs in Manchester’s then-vibrant late 1980s scene I’ve seen everyone from AMM to John Zorn (did you see what I did there?), but I’ve never seen anyone dancing. Amazing. After a short break the band are back, joined by venerable pianist Pat Thomas, whose jittering, plinking notes add another tonal layer to the already rich mixture. The four-piece play four improvisations, which ebb and flow like currents in a fast-flowing river: loud and quiet, in-yer-face and gossamer, beguiling and brutal. Brötzmann cut down new reeds faster and more often than any saxophonist I’ve ever seen, and hearing him play, it’s no wonder why. By the time that the band take their final bow and drift off towards the bar, the audience are agog, aglow and aghast. That was some set. The Meister himself is slowly packing up his kit, so, swallowing my English reserve, I buttonhole him for a quick chat, in German. Despite being quite loquacious in interview, in person he’s a man of few words, but smiles twice, once when I describe show as ausgezeichnet, and twice when I tell him to come back and play again soon.
In the current age, when the TV, the cinema, the radio and every other media outlet seem to be drowning in a torrent of lowest common denominator shit, the devil spawn of Peter Bazalgette and his verminous ilk, a night of challenging, uncompromising music, performed in a genuinely intimate and community-minded venue, packed to the gunnels with a friendly, responsive and up for it audience, this feels like something really special. Such flowerings may not happen every day, Peter Brötzmann can lead the charge anytime he wants, and that’s just fine with me.