Peter Brotzmann Trio
For Adolphe Sax
Williams / Muller / Smith / Christmann
White Earth Streak
In their perilous quest to prove that white men invented free jazz, the wildly creamy Atavistic record label continues the John Corbett-curated (not the actor who plays Sex and the City=EDs Aidan, apologies to all of those middle-aged women out there accidentally reading an experimental jazz record review, don’t you know this is music for teenage boys?) Unheard Music Series with two new slabs of pristine vision and intensity.
First and foremost, as a man of his immense stature always ranks, let’s look at Peter Brotzmann’s For Adolphe Sax, released initially and inaugurally on the Bro label in 1967, reissued again on the FMP label, and then resurrected with religiosity at the touch of Corbett’s wax-frosted fingertips. The release documents Brotzmann’s first official recording, and it’s in trio form, prior to the colossal ensembles he eventually became known for.
There’s little to say about Brotzmann’s music itself, it’s certainly got more strength and emotion than any record review would be able to do justice. It’s a direct visceral experience, concerned explicitly in the physical nature of sound. The wails and squeaks, the torment that rings out of the bell of his saxophone is clearly excruciating and exhausting to coax out. What’s so absolutely heartbreaking and breathtaking about this music, though, is that all of those feelings can resonant so powerfully in the listener. It feels almost like that by listening, you’re able to help balance this burden of torrential emotion. There’s no question of form, and while you can consider the cultural frame of reference, the goals and aims of this music feel transcendent and direct. Maybe Brotzmann would disagree. It’s not fair for me to say those sorts of things, not knowing Brotzmann, not knowing whatever pain or joy led to the creation of this music, not knowing how listeners out there respond to this music. To be honest with you, I played it for a 16 year-old kid I was babysitting and he said it sounded like Brotzmann was “killing ducks.”
A lot of people have that kind of reaction. It’s a given fact that enthusiasts and the musicians themselves have had to bear the brunt of derogatory comments towards the sounds that they love. So be it. Anyone who empathizes with energy, anyone with an already raw nerve, will be able to listen to this music with a jaw dropped.
The other reissue, involving the quartet of Gunter Christmann, Torsten Muller, Davey Williams, and LaDonna Smith (a woman who negates my silly misogynistic statements above twice over) feels equally miraculous. Recorded 14 years after For Adolphe Sax, White Earth Streak displays how powerful the Free Improvisation vernacular is. The album is a truly insightful chapter in the improvised music culture of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Beginning in the early 1970s, this music co-existed with the sounds being created in Germany at the time. It might be fair to say that Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith were not even aware of Brotzmann’s work when they started collaborating, the former coming from a rock/blues background and the latter coming from an academic position. Yet, the sounds created are at times somewhat similar, based in the energy more than the form of sound, aiming for a grand sense of freedom in music.
It’s a bit more colorful than the Brotzmann recordings, as a quartet including trombone, double bass, guitar, banjo, viola, violin, and voice at various points is more capable of. White Earth Streak is also more carefully paced, with moments of respite and player interaction. Each track is filled with unique tone color and lyricism in playing, clearly the work of players who know how to listen and respond to each other, though most of the album has a repetitively jerky rhythmic sense. The tracks are also shorter, which certainly gives the release a slight advantage, allowing the listener to focus each passage more carefully. Overall, White Earth Streak is a collection of offbeat sounds, squiggles and disruptions that follow a very personal logic. It’s very separate from the Brotzmann recording in that sense, where Brotzmann is clearly out for blood, the Smith/Williams/Muller/Christmann ensemble are searching for something a little less direct.
The collection is also augmented with a Hal Rammel comic book, accentuating the truly surreal nature of the recordings and adding a bit of orientation to the proceedings, as several of the closing tracks were done in response to the drawings. Recorded several years later, the final two tracks also serve as something of an epilogue, exhibiting some growth in the ensemble=EDs playing.
Maybe we can deduce from this that the birth of free improvisation was a global and cultural necessity, not a fluke by an onslaught of maverick experimentalists as much as a reaction to stale jazz, an overwrought academic avant-garde classical tradition, and mindless hippie meandering, or maybe it was a reaction to something else. I’m definitely not educated enough to tell. It’s just that there is so much strength in these recordings, so much purity in the playing, each note defines the music, a music that approaches history from a different angle, before it became a simple, recycled idiom.