Clip: Peter Brotzmann's sax is a titanic weapon
Peter Brotzmann's sax is a titanic weapon
By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
Published April 6, 2007
Ten years ago, one of the most volcanic bands in jazz threatened to
weaken the beams holding up the Empty Bottle on North Western Avenue.
Led by the protean German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, the Chicago
Tentet tore through an evening's worth of combustive improvisations,
reaffirming this city's position as a nexus for new ideas in music.
Certainly Brotzmann hardly could have been presented in a much more
exciting context than this, his hyper-muscular, often hysterical solos
set against bristling counterpoint from Chicago innovators such as
saxophonist Ken Vandermark, bassist Kent Kessler, trombonist Jeb
Bishop, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and percussionists Hamid Drake and
Add to the mix Joe McPhee on valve trombone and Mats Gustafsson on
reeds, and you had an all-star list of creative improvisers, if ever
there were one. The performance ranked among the year's most
Brotzmann has appeared in Chicago regularly since then, but when he
returns to the Empty Bottle on Thursday, he'll be leading a less
sizable, yet no less intriguing band. For although Brotzmann always
has relished working in large ensembles -- the bigger, the better, he
often says -- he more typically has flourished in a trio setting.
This time, he'll share the stage with bassist Marino Pliakas and
drummer Michael Wertmueller, in his first Empty Bottle show in nearly
two years. Though an opportunity to hear Brotzmann is worth grabbing,
the chance to catch him in a less familiar context is not to be
Regardless of the musical setting, Brotzmann long has held an exalted
position among European free improvisers, since the mid-1960s building
on the post-bebop, "free jazz" breakthroughs of American models such
as Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and, of
course, late-period John Coltrane. Listen closely to Brotzmann, and
you're hearing practically a summation of major developments in
avant-garde jazz of the past four decades.
Yet there's much more to this music than just high decibels and higher
energy. At times, his music-making can be majestic, as it was when he
fronted the Chicago Tentet Plus One at the Empty Bottle in May, 1999;
or dramatically mercurial, as his Chicago Tentet Plus Two show proved
at the Old Town School of Folk Music in July, 2000. On that occasion,
the music-making changed course quickly and unpredictably, shifting
from massive reed choirs to austere percussion solos, from sublimely
lyrical bass duets to pointillistic saxophone statements from
One of the most beguiling Brotzmann performances of the past decade,
however, occurred when he shared the stage with a Chicago saxophonist
of comparable stature, Fred Anderson, again at the Empty Bottle, in
April, 2001. To hear Brotzmann's acidic, penetrating tone answered by
Anderson's low, rumbling, crushed-velvet utterances was to understand
anew the distinctiveness of Chicago's experimental scene.
Yet not all of Brotzmann's local appearances have been comparably
successful. A duet show he played with drummer Nasheet Waits at the
Chicago Cultural Center in October, 2005, reminded listeners that it
cannot be easy to share a stage with him. Try as he might, Waits
barely could be heard above Brotzmann's eruptions.
For those who want to brush up on Brotzmann's work via CD, his copious
discography includes several essentials, including:
"For Adolphe Sax" (Atavistic), which marks Brotzmann's recording
debut, leading a trio with longtime collaborator Peter Kowald on bass
and Sven-Ake Johansson on drums.
"Machine Gun" (FMP), its title not only a reference to the nickname
that Don Cherry gave Brotzmann but, also, an apt description of the
ferocious, explosive nature of Brotzmann's ensemble work of the late
"Alarm" (Atavistic) an aptly named featuring a large ensemble, the
Peter Brotzmann Group, with reedist Willem Breuker, pianist Alexander
Schlippenbach and drummer Louis Moholo, among others.
"From Valley to Valley" (Eremite), in which the Die Like a Dog Quartet
features Brotzmann going head-to-head with trumpeter Roy Campbell.
"Stone/Water" (OkkaDisk), a seminal recording of Brotzmann and the
aforementioned Chicago Tentet.
A mighty sound
When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave.
Price: $10-$12; 773-276-3600