Peter Brotzmann and Han Bennink
Live at The Big Top, New Orleans, LA April 28, 2008
Live music can be such a gamble - supposedly breathing the same germs as the musicians is the means to getting that artists soul directly in your veins, but let's be honest - they are a crapshoot, and the horse you are betting on is likely drug-addled, generally unreliable, broke and deluded by a fog of ego. Factor in "veteran jazz performer" and the odds are tenfold in the house's favor. The perception is you can't swing a dead cat in New Orleans without hitting a brilliant jazz performer, but truth of the matter is, there are a lot of swinging dead cats haunting its jazz halls. The performances are tight and practiced, sure, but a really inspiring show is hard to come by. Thankfully, saxophonist/clarinetist Peter Brötzmann and drummer Han Bennink, titans of the 70's European free jazz scene blew into the city just as Jazzfest was starting to consume the place and reminded us what a concert really can do.
Brötzmann is synonymous with "powerhouse" in jazz circles - he blows a horn like he is trying to inflate it into some form of grotesque brass balloon. His work with Bill Laswell, Sonny Sharrock and Roland Shannon Jackson as Last Exit set the bar impossibly high for any jazz-rock fusion that might follow, but his most renown moment was Machine Gun, an atomic blast detonated nearly forty years ago today whose reverberations are still being felt. The recently issues The Complete Machine Gun Sessions by Atavistic is a godsend, with its detailed liner notes explaining how drummer Han Bennink was sequestered in a makeshift tent during the recording of this feral octet in a small nightclub. The sound on this record can only be described as unchained. Go get it.
So the opportunity to see Brötzmann and Bennink play as a duo forty years later in the intimate confines of The Big Top is an unbelievable privilege of living off the main road - a show like this in New York or London would likely be packed to the gills with the worst kinds of people.
The two can still bring it. Bennink is in posession of horror vacui, a fear of empty spaces, for while he's at the kit, every atom is lined up as part of his sonic universe. At points he started slapping his brushes against the air over the kit, and I don't know whether one actually heard it or it was just deftly implied, but you sensed that swoosh one normally associates with Bruce Lee movies. He's a playful performer, doing things like hiking his 6o-something-year old leg up on the kit and using his foot as a mute on the snare, or punctuating a quiet moment with pistol shot from his sticks. A couple times during the night, he reached behind him and slammed out a tone cluster on the stage piano. The real achievement, though, was when he got on a roll, pounding a groove so hard that it shook the painting on the walls around the room, effectively finding the harmonic frequency of the building. It's a wonder it didn't collapse.
Bennink's playfulness, though, is in service to the song at all times. Even during the final encore, when he was exploring the percussive qualities of a wooden stool on the floor in front of the stage, he let it tip over and drop, and that simple gesture was simple and poetic, powerful and precise. I get the feeling Han Bennink could kick an ice chest down a flight of stairs and it would sound brilliant.
While Bennink filled the stage with a dense orb of flutters and hits, Brötzmann tore through it with the blasts from his horn. It's a crass analogy, but the best I can make for his playing was when the crew of the Battleship Yamato would fire up the wave motion gun on the Japanese cartoon series Star Blazers, (just click and wait... you'll see) laying waste to all in the path of its monstrous rush of energy. Brötzmann's playing has taken on more melodic textures since Machine Gun, but lost none of its power. It was like he was throttling the horn, shaking the spirits out of it.
His more nuanced side came out when he picked up the clarinet, rendering his scream more as a jungle cry against Bennink's dense tribal patter. Imagine a Les Baxter song running for dear life from a charging rhino and you get the feeling. The beautiful thing about their interplay is that you didn't get the feeling that they were playing songs, nor were they dicking around with instruments hoping for a few seconds where the teeth of the gears to line up. These were two men of very distinctive and daunting styles, ones with whom I imagine it would be very hard to compete. (At one point during the show, I thought maybe the addition of a bass player would be nice, but quickly shelved that thought. I mean, what would he or she do here? A guy playing car alarms might have a better chance cutting in on this.) Instead of competing, the streams combined to form a stronger one and the horn and the drum became inseparable. The sound and moment became inseparable, and suddenly the thought of listening to anything else seemed ridiculous. That, my friends, is what a great concert can do.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com