What’s always struck me as the most fallacious aspect of the Stanley Crouch position, this jazz formalism, is that if you let a wanker like me tell it, jazz began as a post-modern statement. It was never modern, it was never meant to be taught in no school. It was about taking disparate elements of wildly different musics, decontextualizing and breaking them down to their constituent parts, synthesizing them, reconciling them, and building something new and beautiful and energizing and harrowing out of them.
If jazz was about ripping it up and starting again from the beginning, how can it ever be neatly codified? Someone like Peter Brötzmann recognizes the fallacy. He thrives off it. Here he is, this large German who looks vaguely like if Charles Bukowski had taken waaay better care of himself, playing with a sheer brute force like he has so many ideas that need to be aired and only through some miraculous triumph of the will can he force them all out in rapid and jarring succession such that he might burst a capillary at any second.
And to the Crouchs and Marsalises of the world, it just sounds like a lot of trashy noise. Sound and fury signifying blasphemy. But nevermind the fact that jazz was a type of blasphemy to begin with; this is not some brash neophyte making empty runs of cynical bleats up and down his horn. At once, he’s blowing a tuba’s bassline in Armstrong’s Hot Five at 500 rpm, next he’s mimicking Ayler’s primative, haunting lyricism. A melodically gut-bucket blues riff is suddenly pierced with a shriek to curdle the blood; first just one in the midst of the blues. Then, as the intensity builds, the screams outman the wails and your ears bleed without the benefit of amplification.
In this man’s horn, attached to his lips, connected to his head, filtering for human contact his soul, is the sum total of a long life’s worth of absorbing and dealing with music. When he picks up the soprano and looks to be expertly fellating the thing, it’s not some gimmick parlor trick. He just so happens to know that’s the only way the particular fluttering, shimmering sheet of sound he wants is gonna come out the thing. Hell, you start to get the feeling that when the phlegm builds up just so much and he gurgles into the mouthpiece just a lil that it too was part of the plan. (The knowing wink, the sly grin lets you know dude is just getting on in years. But he’s ok with it. Owns it.)
Then the kids from the Chromatic Mysteries/kohoutek collectives, the DC underground improv scene all stars, get up. The guitar player and Scott Verrastro provide a rythm section for a band playing out of time: The guitar delayed and effect-pedalled into oblivion such that he can play a minimal, tribal bassline against what sounds like a deep organ vamp from a 30-minute late 60s electric Miles mind bender against runs of virtuosity that sound like Charlie Christian pitch-shifted and run through a black hole. Verrastro starts with his signature found object patter and cymbal scrapes which give way to a tweaking Elvin Jones impression which coalesces into a late-Unwound Sara Lund gallop.
Overtop, the two saxes try to work off the bits of languid melody and melancholy stasis in Brotzmann’s solo turn. But he’s having none of it, determined to turn this into a free jazz jam session. A cutting contest by any other name. He brings the hellfire, and the other two have no choice but to respond. And they hold their own. All three now, building off each other and the drums’ propulsion, daring each other to higher and higher flights of violent, delirious fancy.
That’s the beauty of this music. Like Bird creating the bop after afterhours, when the bills were paid (or marginally staved off) with swing and r&b, on the bandstand with nameless troubadours and Monkian genius alike; these cats, part of a local, deeply underground and idiosyncratic scene can share the stage on any given night in a rickety dive bar with an iconoclast. And give him a run for his money.
Brötzmann’s quiet, lyrical passages in the solo hit also served to remind me that out from under the wall of distortion, the Velvet Lounge is a very rickety joint indeed. Like a pirate ship straining against the wind and the rain and the surf. My shoes stuck to the floor, Kim’s voice came up from a punky bubble between sets. Fagen crooned downstairs. Cops were everywhere last night.
A lot of the classic Brötzmann cuts from the 60s and 70s are currently available on eMusic. They’ll peel your paint and scrape your brain but you’ll thank him in the morning.