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The Brotzmann Tentet Reawakens Musical Truths

On Thursday night, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Peter Brotzmann’s orchestra, this time, the Tentet + 1, penetrated the Middle East Club with sounds that are memorable and inimitable.

Brotzmann has redefined the idea of jazz orchestra, which we know I suppose from Ellington’s orchestra at its best. Brotzmann has brought it into the 21st century. All the members are consummate performers and masters of their instruments. It seems unbelievable that so many wonderful musicians could be assembled in one place. It is like the vanguard dream come true. The musicians are led by the energy of their leader; they are bound by the silent strength of his motivation to coalesce powerful sound into one concentrated performance arena.

The Tentet + 1 was Peter Brotzmann, Mats Gustafsen, Mars Williams, Ken Vandermark, all on reeds; Joe McPhee, Jeb Bishop, Roy Campbell on brass; Kent Kessler, bass, Fred Lonberg-holm, cello; and Hamid Drake, Michael Zurang, drums. The group played two sets. The first set lasted an amazing hour and a half. It consisted of a piece by drummer Michael Zurang and one by Peter, himself; the second had pieces by Mars Williams, Ken Vandermark and Roy Campbell.

The music. Zurang’s piece was unexpectedly tribal in rhythm content. The orchestra came across as what one could call a "normal" orchestra, speaking through themes. The four saxes took off at one point breaking the tension of the strictness of composition with a wild looseness which was quickly grounded by Brotzmann who reintroduced the piece’s thematic content. Jeb launched his trombone in an exercise of unparalleled slide work; the condensation of the air circulating through the horn dripped from the bell. Then all the instruments came in and Peter soloed with remarkable intensity; the drums intercepted the intensity; the bass and cello penetrated the music from the left side of the stage. The room was bouncing. There was a great fire that emanated from Brotzmann; he hit a peak that was higher than a peak, then a split tone and then he came back down. The strain in his face was remarkable; Peter’s eyes opened and signaled the saxes to corral a reentrance from the entire orchestra. The theme came through again; Peter improvised over the the rest of the orchestra. The first piece ended.

Brotzmann’s piece began with Drake singing and playing the deff. (It is an understatement to describe Drake as playing the deff: it becomes an extension of him.) Zurang rolled his hands on the dumbek; he faced the right of the stage; I could see only the back of his head. The aura was mideastern. Peter stroked the top section of his taragato as if he were "devalving" the horn. The heavy rhythm that the percussion had planted switched. The taragato took over; a repeated musical line supplied structure for the notes; the rhythm of the drums never let up even though there were slight shifts in tempo. The rest of the orchestra entered. The drums increased their pace; the horns blasted all together. The piece became an interweaving of each musician soloing, and the rest of the orchestra punctuating the solos with circuitous yet meaningful improvisations.

The variety of improvisation from each player made the piece adventurous in between the seemingly directionless orchestral meanderings. The textures created were multi-leveled. McPhee, Bishop and Campbell manipulated air through their instruments, each one a a time. The tones balanced each other with depth and peaks; with craziness and distinct tunes. All the horns followed the solos with striking force and then stepped out. Saxophone and cello blended to make a unique combination of scratchiness that tended toward identifying the two instruments as one. Each instrument came back in the foray one by one; the orchestra hummed; then the totality became a scream to resolve itself. The rhythm section shifted the rhythm towards a resolution. The horns came in again. Then everything broke apart again. Vandermark soloed on clarinet pushing for wanderlust. The bass and cello introduced a sweetness whose rarity was welcome. Bent string pitches and a sax scream braked the music to a complete stop. A brief silence preceded another unisonic horn surge. Another orchestral groove was found. The saxophones became the background surface on which the brass could become the primary elements of the music. Vandermark introduced a multiplicity of notes; Peter interceded and a duet emanated. The drums and strings kept the pulse. Peter took his tenor to an incredibly high pitch; he broke the intensity down moving the music circularly but forward. The reverberations that occurred opened his eyes. The horns all played in a group and formed the line into a tune; Hamid struck his cymbal; the bass and the cello bowed into silence. The piece was complete.

The second set featured works by Mars Williams and Ken Vandermark. Roy Campbell’s piece was the encore. The intensity never went away. Vandermark and Campbell conducted with their right arms signaling switches in instrumentation. It was a joy to listen and watch. I was so overwhelmed by the first set that I just wanted to absorb everything the second one had to offer. All of this music formed a means for me to feel my inner being; I wanted to disappear inside of it. I was awe struck by the presence of so much incredible musical talent. This music touched me beyond what I expected. It made me realize that I was not dead inside. Thank God.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Peter Brotzmann Tentet
  • Venue: Middle East Club
  • City State Country: Cambridge, Massachusetts
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