HotHouse, April 23-24

World’s oldest music cliche: music is a universal language outside of time, regardless of context. According to this line of reasoning, music chimes its way directly to some deep, inaccessible psychophysiological zone unfettered by the regional shackles of spoken or written language.

Nowhere is this logic more consistently maintained than in discussions of free jazz. One of the most influential underground labels to record free jazz in the 60s was named ESP, which stood for “Esperanto,” the supposed global language touted by a now-wizened utopian movement. In the late 80s, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman (widely credited with christening the free-jazz movement) named a record In All Languages. In the pages of this very newspaper, on April 15, Neil Tesser explained that free jazz “operates on . . . a primal level” by “using elements that predate sophisticated harmonic schemes and exacting rhythms” in order to “forge and shape emotions at a substratum rarely reached by art.” Certain music, it seems, bypasses normal circuits of sonic signification. Tesser’s point: whether you’re moved by it or run screaming from it, free jazz touches a prelinguistic nerve. It’s universal.

At times I too have been seduced by this unabashedly romantic fantasy. But if you think about it, it’s a bit problematic. To say that jazz emanates from some place outside civilized, “sophisticated” musical conventions and therefore to associate it with primal expression and emotions (rather than intellect) implicitly denigrates the music whether that’s what the utterer intends or not. In fact these comments are characteristic of both early racist dismissals of jazz and their “opposite,” exoticist embraces. David Meltzer describes this way of thinking in his brilliantly disquieting collection of essays and snippets of essays Reading Jazz: “Jazz as a route of sensational tourism, going ‘native,’ allowing the inner savage to escape into a world of dark strangers exuding carefree primitivism, a space to let one’s ‘hair down,’ be uncivilized, revel in nightclub wonderlands of prelapsarian and essential being.”

Free jazz has been around for more than three decades. Just like bebop, country, and polka, it is a well-established musical idiom with common techniques, standard forms, and individual stylists. Conventional free jazz dispenses with consistent harmony and foot-tapping rhythms in favor of more organic models of group interaction–overblown saxophones or sharp piano clusters ride high over a dust swirl of intense drums and deep, harmonically shifting bass throbs. We often speak of it as avant-garde, but this is really a label of convenience. (For that matter, the only thing it’s “free” of is a score.) Most of its discoveries have been incremental, not monumental; evolutionary, not revolutionary.

If there’s one thing that gives free jazz widespread impact, if not always appeal, it’s its energy. But as with symphonic music, speed metal, and hardcore, that moment of sometimes violent visceral shock goes only so far. What genuinely carries the music is its implicit acknowledgment of certain musical codes–a language, if you will–which good free-jazz musicians manipulate and at times renovate and renegotiate. How can a “primal” music do this without a sophisticated understanding of the system? When free jazz has a sense of danger, of threat, it’s because where many other styles of music rest firmly on these codes, free music seeks to fold up the safety net of convention.

Over two nights at HotHouse the Peter Brotzmann Trio partook of both conventional free blowing and more harrowing aural cutthroat games. German saxist Brotzmann is heir to the crown of American Albert Ayler as the most single-mindedly hard-, mean-, sharp-blowing energy saxophonist. Saturday night, with percussionist Gregg Bendian and bassist William Parker, he played a nearly model free-jazz gig: starting at absolute Mount Kilimanjaro intensity, two sets dipped and rose with the jagged topography of peaks and valleys, Brotzmann switching between tenor (his main ax), E-flat clarinet, alto sax, and tarogato (a wooden instrument about the size and shape of a soprano sax with a nasal, double-reedish sound). Bendian is an unlikely free-jazz drummer–always busy, fidgeting and bustling, he uses square strokes, tidy rolls, and a symmetrical sensibility more at home in fusion than free: “exacting rhythms,” in short. But his zeal and indefatigable energy give the music a barrelhouse forward propulsion, particularly in conjunction with Parker’s matte bass ostinatos (which are never exactly symmetrical but always deeply palpable and slightly funky). Parker offered a riveting solo in the first set, wildly separating strings with thumb and finger as if parting slats in a window blind.

If Saturday night was an elegant demonstration of the language of free jazz and each of these players’ personal dialects, Sunday was less formally satisfying but more existentially challenging. Maybe it was the fact that Brotzmann had been in the studio for five hours recording duets with drummer Hamid Drake that afternoon, forcing him to dig deep into himself to find new material that night. Maybe it was the fact that the trio’s set was preceded by drum encounters between Bendian and two Chicago percussionists, Steve Hunt and Paul Wertico, so Bendian had to look hard for fresh percussive ideas too. Maybe after a week of nightly concerts the trio had reached an internal crisis, a boiling point. Maybe it was the full moon.

Whatever, the audience was treated to music in the throes of birth, musicians challenging themselves to play way beyond what they already know. Brotzmann especially seemed off on his own, at times swimming upstream, against the music’s basic flow. He cut off the other players midstatement and made brash, aggressive interjections that changed a developing organic swell into trio blurts with silence in between. Elsewhere he stretched delicate, long tarogato tones over a scalding rhythm section. Tempting as it might be to see this as primal, prehistoric music, Brotzmann’s ragged Sunday-evening provocations were music as contemporary as can be. That’s how free jazz grows, how it stays out of the jazz museum–by keeping abreast of its own current events, avoiding the stale and lifeless. This doesn’t always work, but when it does, free jazz becomes much more than the inarticulate speech of the soul–it’s a sophisticated, intelligent music that hits as hard at the head as at the heart.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Laurence M. Svirchev.