Neither sonic terrorist nor the Holy Ghost, Brotzmann is simply sax dazzler

By Eric Benson

Albert Ayler, the dynamic and short-lived tenor saxophonist, famously embodied his part in what he considered the “Holy Trinity” of free jazz tenors: He was the Holy Ghost, Pharaoh Sanders was the Son, and the much-worshipped John Coltrane was the Father. Ayler died in 1970, too early to realize that another titanic figure of free jazz tenor saxophone had already emerged on the other side of the Atlantic. Ever since the self-released 1968 masterpiece Machine Gun, the great German free jazz innovator Peter Brötzmann has been among the most important figures in the music industry. It took many years for the avant-garde jazz scene to fully recognize the genius in their midst. Originally labeled a “sonic terrorist” (or merely an Ayler imitator), Brötzmann now is heralded as a patriarch who continues to influence the course of free music.

Some of the most outstanding work of Brötzmann’s career has come in the last 15 years in collaborations with a number of Chicago-based musicians. These collaborations reached their high-water mark with Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, a group that created some of the most daring groove-based free jazz since Coltrane’s later works. The Chicago Tentet has not toured since 2002, but Brötzmann continues to collaborate with its members on a number of smaller projects. His appearances in Chicago are highlights of the musical year: The great visiting dignitary comes to town, slays several packed houses, and departs, leaving his fans eagerly awaiting his return.

At the Empty Bottle on Wednesday night, percussionist Hamid Drake and bassist Kent Kessler joined Brötzmann for a ravishing set of improvised music that highlighted the range and virtuosity of all three performers. The set began, and was punctuated throughout, with one of Brötzmann’s ferocious tenor assaults, combining grace and growl as he pushed the music to a barely sustainable level of intensity. For a less able group of musicians, these moments, with Brötzmann blasting away note after note on his horn, could have easily turned into cacophony; but the trio’s music remained remarkably lucid.

As in every good jazz ensemble, the members of the Peter Brötzmann Trio are deeply attuned to one another. Their sensitivity as listeners was especially apparent in the quieter moments of the evening. The act of listening seemed almost audible in the delicate interplay between the three musicians, weaving Drake’s smooth mallet strokes, Kessler’s earthy bowing and Brötzmann’s rich melodic lines into an unblemished sonic tapestry. This interconnectedness contributed tremendously to the music’s success.

The joyful crispness of the group’s playing, however, was not solely a consequence of being tightly woven. There have been many free jazz groups consisting of immaculate listeners that have failed to forge a powerful connection with the audience. In these groups, each member listens closely to one another, but collectively they lose touch with the soul of the music; following each other to the stars—or off a cliff—to the realm of musical incomprehensibility.

This fate has never been a concern for the three musicians in the Peter Brötzmann Trio. Their music is experimental, daring, and moored to a pulsing, earthy core that keeps the audience (and, I suspect, the players) completely engaged during the most demanding and abstract moments. Drake, crashing hard on the downbeats and imbuing the music with tremendous dynamism, brought a driving rhythmic energy to the performance that let the audience revel in even Brötzmann’s most outré moments. Drake’s playing was marvelous on its own terms s well—especially in an extended duet with Kessler in which Drake brought to mind the best of the great Tony Williams.

Kessler’s performance was a master’s class on bass technique. He plucked, he strummed, he bowed, and, at one point, he got so involved with his instrument that he seemed to be dancing with it across the floor. Like Drake, Kessler kept the music in a groove, employing a soulful walking bass that was indebted as much to funk as to traditional jazz. Unfortunately, when Brötzmann and Drake were blasting and crashing away in the loudest moments of the set, it was very difficult to hear Kessler. This may be a result of poor acoustics or inadequate audio engineering, or perhaps it is simply impossible to amplify a bassist enough to be heard over Brötzmann when he is at full blast. It was, however, a small imperfection in what was otherwise a flawless set. Thankfully, throughout most of the evening Kessler was quite audible. He is an exciting player who gets tremendous effect out of his wide array of techniques, and serves, like many great bassists before him, as the connective tissue of the group.

I have heard Peter Brötzmann three previous times, and although each performance was engaging and interesting, his set on Wednesday night was stunning. The environment was perfect, the musicians were comfortable, and the stars were properly aligned, allowing Brötzmann, Drake, and Kessler to deliver the rarest of treats: a flawless set of improvised music that ranked among the most enjoyable shows I’ve witnessed in some time. Music like this makes me proud to live in a city with players like Drake and Kessler—and makes me long for the day when we will be lucky enough to once again host Brötzmann, the patriarch of free jazz.