Distilled Agression

Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink in interstellar space

When saxophonist John Coltrane went into the studio in February 1967 to record his final full album—“Interstellar Space,” a duet with drummer Rashied Ali—he scarcely could have realized its significance. Dying five months later, this was in essence the final statement he left behind, his career cut short at 40. Since then, almost any avant-garde saxophonist or drummer worth their salt has done an album in the same vein, a rite of passage akin to the solo piano album or “With Strings” disc. But these sax-drum duos are almost never working groups, much like “Interstellar Space” was a one-off project.

An exception to that rule is the long-standing duo of German reed player Peter Brötzmann and Dutch drummer Han Bennink. The two first convened on Brötzmann’s seminal 1968 album “Machine Gun” and have collaborated in various forms since the ’70s. It was during that time that they recorded their own sax-drum duet “Schwarzwaldfahrt.” Then a live concert was documented and released in 1980. Last year, a third installment was newly minted, playfully entitled “Still quite popular after all those years.” That album renewed the pair’s interest in playing in duo format and they embarked on a small East Coast tour this month.

The Vision Club at Clemente Soto Velez hosted the show October 6 to a capacity crowd, seated in the sweltering confines of a puppet theater available for the Friday performance. Both musicians have avid followers, made all the more fervent by the fact the duo had not performed as such in New York since 1975. As two major proponents of the European free improvisation movement, which began in the ‘60s, Brötzmann and Bennink were usually the most aggressive players of whatever group they were in. Here then was a chance to see that aggression distilled. Unlike “Interstellar Space”—where Coltrane was really dragging Ali along with him—but like its heirs, this is a fully equitable and cooperative duo.

After only a brief introduction, they began without fanfare, pelting the audience with tortured yelps and primal thumping. Bennink was frantic but never at the expense of an explosive rhythm while Brötzmann’s pealing and slurring alto saxophone acted as a drone, coasting like a dislodged muffler on a bumpy road. Across the opening 20-minute improvisation, much of the dynamic stayed hot and the tonality discordant, crowd-pleasing in its way. But it was the brief forays into more measured rhythms and longer-toned melodic statements on saxophone that were the most compelling, if only for their contrast.

As a reprieve from the opening salvo, the second piece—all were spontaneously composed in the fashion the two have explored for decades—was couched in an ethnic feel, Brötzmann switching to a vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding soprano sax. The music was more multihued and with Bennink roiling beneath, the eight minutes became a trip to a chaotic bazaar. Throughout Brötzmann maintained a red-faced intensity while Bennink exhibited a personality suited to a hyper grade-schooler, making faces or hitting one drumstick while the other was lodged in his teeth. The disparity between the absurd and the severe only served to heighten the intensity of the sounds.

The last two pieces were also brief—the duo was reserving its energy for two more sets to follow—and moved back to the brutal attack of the first, but with almost bluesy sentiments thrown in, Brötzmann returning to the alto. Though ostensibly a dialogue, that did not preclude musicals arguments, interruptions, and tangents. Certainly what was not in evidence was any pretension or any nostalgia, despite the format’s long pedigree. This was music very much of the moment, born in interstellar space but having moved far far past it.

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