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Cleaving the Air

On Friday night, at Sweeney Concert Hall, at Smith College, the Trio of Peter Brötzmann on reeds and saxophones, William Parker on bass, stringed instruments and flutes, and Hamid Drake on trap set and frame drum, cut through the architectural formality of the hall and broadcast acoustically alive sets of highly focused improvisation.

Music is an abstraction until it is heard. The derivation of music can stem from many sources, particular to the individual musician, particular to the way in which a group of musicians interact when playing, and particular to the form in which the music comes, either in composition or improvisation. How many times this group has impressed me with its energy, constancy, and drive. This time, however, the music came through in a way that demonstrated that I was hearing differently and the musicians were stretching, yet again, more limits in their art. Each member of this trio has great influence on the other in how the music moves organically, and unpredictably. It never breaks apart; it only becomes more and more unified as it progresses. It peaked and exploded just before intermission. And was quieter and at a lower tempo after the break.

In a split second, just like that, Brötzmann opened, playing trills on his alto saxophone. He proceeded to tongue a bit, causing his signature flutter. Then Drake and Parker began in the same stark fashion. Drake positioned himself with a squareness in his approach to the drums; he choked his sticks tightly to make the strikes to the snare and tom controlled and subject to a quickly changeable pace. Parker plucked ostinatos, deep in tone, unabashedly regular in rhythm, regular in accents. From those points of departure, the musicians continued two sets of music in which dreams could be visualized, entrancement could take over.

Brötzmann played in sound lines like they could have been drawn on paper; each variation of line carried a different agitation of straightness; not many curves existed in his music except when he decided to move into a melody, which he did several times at this concert. His tunes varied from ballad-like to mournful to straightforwardly sexy. His agitated lines were endlessly repetitive and moved with ease from high to low out of his predominant mid-range tremolos . He played the alto, the taragato, and the tenor. Brötzmann seems to favor the taragato possibly because of its evocative tone. His sound, no matter what he plays, is outrageously directed, thoroughly impenetrable and methodically measured and intense, as in tension. His stops and starts are inimitable. His notes nourish their unconcrete nature by pushing away, wrapping around and coming back to each other. Brötzmann's playing is so strong and seemingly unstoppable that he could only play with players of equal valiancy to discover how the next sound will arrive. Otherwise, his musical personality would overwhelm that of his fellow musicians.

Parker is master of instruments beyond beyond. Each time I have seen him, he has with him yet another kind of exotic instrument which he can choose to play---this time he had not only his bass with two bows, but also a shakuhachi, a higher pitched flute, and a lute-type instrument whose resonance was as full as that of the upright bass. Placed in the middle of the stage, Parker provided the groundwork for the flanking explorers. He and the bass are one; they established the heavy constant rhythm from which Drake and Brötzmann could fly. It was as if Parker was the vortex of the tornado that spun off the stage. He plucked, he bowed, he plucked and played his flutes simultaneously. When he plucked, his pizzicatos varied from single-fingered picking to multi-fingered strumming to pushing the strings forward with quick strokes. All in all, when he plucks those strings, his fingers are moving so fast that the responding strings create a tone that is continuous and indivisible and behave with nearly a Doppler effect. Add to that his bowing ability (with one or two bows carefully placed above or below the string bridge) which contributes a glorious roundness and shape to the Trio’s entire sound, and you have one helluva bass player.

Well, then....Drake, well. Talk about constant movement, attention to atmosphere, and timbre....Drake is so amazingly confident and relaxed that the music he produces is not unlike Parker’s in its consistency, appropriateness to the whole, and utmost presence. He is indisputably responsible for the coherence of the rhythmic line, although he can branch off into an array of incomparable percussive events that roll forth uninhibited and totally from within his heart. He adjusts his implements from wooden drumsticks, to mallets, to bound reeds, to non-metal brushes to fingertips according to the nature of what other two players are doing. No doubt Parker and Brötzmann are doing the same thing in relation to Drake. Drake leads, he falls into the background, opens hiatuses, divides time. He circles and stirs & audaciously rips around the drumset, striking the hi-hats up and down and up and down; he plays duos with the cymbal and snare, with the snare and tom, and all along the bass drum is vibrating in response to the foot pedal. One method of playing that I have not experienced coming from Drake was a complete synchronization of the sound of the bass drum with an atypical stroke of the snare such that this repetition caught the music being played by Parker and Brötzmann and coalesced it into one inimitable sonoral event. Drake knows the call of the spirit.

The music that emanates from Brötzmann, Parker and Drake is the improvised music equivalent to the compositions of Bartok. From the gradually thickening overture that can blossom into the hugeness of the three musicians together striving for a solidified climax to the gentle resolution, signaled by Drake’s soft tap of the frame drum or Parker’s delicate single note pluck from the string of the upright bass, and Brötzmann’s standing with his head down, eyes shut, awaiting the silence of closure, the group can carve out for the listener a memory of stamina and bravura and grace, which characteristics leave a message pertaining to this Trio’s unadulterated dedication to how the music flows.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Peter Brötzmann, Hamid Drake, William Parker
  • Concert Date: 3/5/2004
  • Subtitle: The Peter Brötzmann Trio
  • Venue: Sweeney Concert Hall, Sage Hall, Smith College
  • City State Country: Northampton, MA
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