Brötzmann, darkness, the standard

the prolific saxophonist dips into the American songbook

I Surrender Dear (2019) - Peter Brötzmann

Perhaps I’m projecting, but it seems to have the address of a swan song (as any work might when its artist has such a name behind him and chooses only then to make a significant change). With an illustrious career and a staunchly developed idiomatic style, one might know what to expect: an approach to the sax that could rupture a lung; an embrace of the masculine that rises to camp; an instrument that carries a sometimes transcendent, sometimes cute sheet of rage bellowing against politeness. This is the sound he’s given us since 1967, largely unwavering.

This is one of few Brötzmann albums of those I’ve heard (the artist has over 100 so I can’t speak definitively) that is almost bereft of the wildness and irreverence that once characterized his work and that stands as a through-line of his oeuvre to date. Brötzmann, when at his most lyrical often skews atonal, drawing out melodies without clear pitch-centers or modes, picking apart short repetitive chantlike motives. His more recent collaborative albums with lap-steel guitarist Heather Leigh put this style heavily on display, operating between spaces of texture and melody. The tradition of the jazz standard on the other hand, is one concerned greatly with harmony and form, a fixation that the saxophonist abides by here.

These standards, then, are not a disappointment (nor exactly a novel idea; I think of Derek Bailey, Charles Gayle, Anthony Braxton, Sound American, and Bill Orcutt among others, each of whom have picked apart the standard once or twice) but the fulfilment of a necessary what-if. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we never heard Brötzmann’s take on the American Songbook? In recording this album, he’s fulfilled an obligation. He takes them and turns them into serial works, a small collection of minimalist invocations, another steady sheet.

Technique has everything to do with plasticity of the brain, its ability to change, incorporate, adopt, and reform, its habits and tendencies and its willingness to grow. This what-if is the feeding of fodder into the Brötzmann machine after decades of formation. His notes are only his own, they must be, this is the path of the instrumentalist-auteur. Many could play solo saxophone sort of like this, but now we can say that this is how Brötzmann did it, after so many years: The Standard, well-captured with his instrumental voice against silence, pitch silence, darkness. And perhaps it will influence, in his remaining years, a shift in style, a late period, a move towards harmony and traditional forms, a second guess close to the end, a surrendering, a touch of sentimentality, or a look inward rather than pushing. It doesn’t seem totally likely but it’s a thought.

Sometimes, here, when he does finally erupt into his signature overblown squeals,—as he does at the end of “I Surrender Dear”—he blows as if rehearsing the gesture. It is squeezed off and half-executed, over-compressed. He’s doing the dance that made him famous adding a tip of the hat, a wink, and a grin to top it off, all the while subtly reaching for breath. And it doesn’t last long but it serves to hold over, nothing insincere and nothing too subversive.

It’s much more difficult to make a mark when all is silent, when there is no echo and there is no bed, when you’re your own accompanist, when the head of Gillespie’s “Con Alma” so deeply deserves the chords below it. But that’s between Brötzmann and listener, whether or not they know it and will fill the sound out in their aural imagination. That’s the strength of the songbook, or it would be if it still had legs. Those chords, perhaps he heard them but he can’t transmit them. He has an obligation, lingering on that single note, nothing ringing. If he stops it all ends, falls flat.

This, I think, is the sound of the swan song for a lifelong auteur: the emptiness, loneliness—or maybe it’s aloneness—at the end of one’s life, adjacent to the loss of self one has when he reckons that his processes, his selfhood, may not continue much longer and his technique is not a river but a well that may run dry. Perhaps it’s rude to suggest, and I hope he’s doing fine, but in consideration the thought is worth having. I think of Scott Walker spouting off insults against stark studio dryness on “SDSS1416+13B” or Alan Vega howling in the night without an echo on his posthumously released “DTM.” It’s the remnant of the ego (the style, technique, history) around a hollowed core, it’s pulling oneself away from that ego in a vacuum and picking it apart. It’s striking and dark, and what we’ve always wanted from them.

It’s a heavy place to be, I have to imagine. What’s most stunning is the levity this has, as opposed to the recordings of his screaming youth. It swings, sings, dips, and rises. Not a monumental work, an epic or creed, but a casual covering, a sweet at ease. Brötzmann at the standard is so much nicer than one would believe.