It’s always the same: before, during and after just about any gig at Cafe Oto, I find myself wanting to salute the place and its organisers for the way they bring together the best and the brilliant in modern music, sometimes in unexpected and exciting ways. I honestly doubt that any venue in London, maybe even the UK, could put on so many outstanding shows.
And regular Oto-goers such as myself have, over the last year or two, been gifted with numerous appearances by the godfather of European free jazz himself, Peter Brötzmann. Since his Machine Gun album erupted into the world in 1968, few saxophonists can claim to hold his aura, especially to those who worship at the altar of raucous, noisy improvisation. And yet, whenever I see a review of his work, be it live or on record, there is always a hint of surprise in the writer’s praise that Brötzmann is able to display as much subtlety as he does vehemence. So let’s get this straight: you don’t get to be a musician of Brötzmann’s caliber and reputation on sheer assault alone. Peter Brötzmann is a first class musician, and all you have to do is glimpse him in the flesh to witness this for yourself. As I did on this particular, spectacular February evening.
On this occasion, the septuagenarian (that in itself is astounding) was joined by renowned Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and American cellist/bassist Fred Lonberg-Holm, for a night, split over two sets, that initially seemed to be anchored in the free improv cannon. Indeed, the opening was fierce and typically disjointed, with Brötzmann’s soulful sax motif was offset by Lonberg-Holm’s excoriating cello drones. Before long, Nilssen-Love kicked in with a hefty avalanche of muscular tom pounding. But this only served to pitch the piece into intense jazz territory, as a tornado of sax and drums collided and swirled into the air. Navel-gazing improv this was not, in fact I swear the spirit of Machine Gun was alive and kicking. There was even time for a heavy, Ginger Baker-esque drum solo. This was free jazz at its most primordially physical.
However, perhaps understandably given his choice of instrument, Fred Lonberg-Holm was often drowned out by his two compadres. He resorted to a lot of fiddling with effects pedals, and grateful head-bopping to their grooves, but more often than not his contributions were reduced to an intense, but at times inaudible, drone backing. Even when he switched to electric bass guitar, his notes were quickly drowned out by the shit-storm kicked up by the European pair by his side. In fact, for all my admiration for Brötzmann (seriously, I got a thrill just from hearing him warm up), the first set was dominated by Nilssen-Love. The Norwegian played with his gaze fixed to one side, away from his companions, yet his sensitivity to their every note was palpable. I have a list of drummers I love that could stretch out a mile, and Paal Nilssen-Love would surely be near the top. Fierce but elegant: the perfect drummer.
But if the first set was good (and Lonberg-Holm had a fantastic cello solo at the end of the second piece), what came after the interval was nothing short of amazing. The trio was joined by pianist Pat Thomas, and what followed simply leaped for the stars and came close to touching them. Thomas’ insistent, elegant tinklings of the ivories gave room for the other three to relax and expand, whilst anchoring proceedings definitively in free jazz. Lonberg-Holm underscored the melodies with loping, plucked bass notes, Nilssen-Love jumped from subtle gong play to barnstorming rhythmic thunder, and Brötzmann showed the full range of his blowing, wrenching high squeals and deep rumbles from his saxes. Perhaps the highlight was an extended duet between Brötzmann and Pat Thomas, which lingered over the cool jazz of, say, Bill Evans, before pitching back into full-blown sturm-und-drang, leading Lonberg-Holm and Nilssen-Love into a grand-slam free-jazz/funk finale. Each musician had his chance to shine -this was musical democracy at its best- but above all everything came together as one thunderous, unrelenting whole. When the quartet came back on for a brief “encore”, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to take much more bliss.
When all is said and done, this was just one of many examples of free jazz/improv between a bunch of gifted musicians. Such collaborations are a dime a dozen. But when you’re there, in the thick of it, witnessing the heady magic, it truly is something else. Again, thanks need to go to Cafe Oto for continuing to fly that flag.