Atavistic, re-releasing prime cuts of free jazz in their Unheard Music series, follows up Peter Brötzmann’s bomb threat-inducing Alarm from 1981, with the next year’s Pica Pica, a more intimate trio affair that still shakes the rafters. Brötzmann, a German sax player baptized as “Machine Gun” (also the name of his legendary 1968 album) by trumpeter Don Cherry, is a bellowing force of nature fond of twisting, squawking runs to blow out your speakers. Coming of age as part of the Fluxus movement while still in art school, he was drawn away from painting toward jazz with the European tours of Miles, Coltrane, Mingus, and most importantly, Albert Ayler. He formed his own label in 1969, FMP (Free Music Production), where he put out most of his work, and which is where “Pica Pica” was originally released.
The trio is rounded out by Albert Mangelsdorff on trombone and Gunter “Baby” Sommer on drums. Mangelsdorff was the face of German jazz, a remarkably versatile musician who transitioned from the “cool jazz” of Lee Konitz to the impassioned free music of Alexander Von Schlippenbach with remarkable ease. (He died one year ago to the day of this re-release.) Sommer kicks off “Instant Tears” with a crash, whereupon Brötzmann begins complex lines that shred the high register to pieces. Mangelsdorff offers contrast with staccato fills, sometimes offering the semblance of a lilting melody. The tune is a study in contrasting approaches—the ecstatic blowing of Brötzmann versus the smooth restraint of Mangelsdorff. It’s an uneven affair to start, with Brötzmann drowning out his bandmate, but eventually a detente is achieved. The moments when these two finally harmonize are genuinely elevating—it sounds like a conversation between peers.
Having reached an understanding, the second piece, the Sommer original “Wie Du Mir, So Ich Dir Noch Lange Nicht,” soars from the start with an epic drum solo. It slowly builds from shimmering cymbal plashes, on to a hi-hat groove, and finally to a polyrhythmic free-for-all utilizing the whole kit. The horns enter nearly four minutes in, and tentatively at that. Then Sommers sets them off with a propulsive ostinato. Brötzmann takes the hint—and goes nuts, holding high notes until they dissolve into white noise, and often urging sounds that could have come out of a theremin. At the 12-minute mark the drums drop out, things get serious, and the horns engage in some low register navel gazing. It doesn’t last long, as Sommer needles them back into action, and they swirl with riotous energy until the stop time close.
Hard to top, so the group doesn’t try on their closer “Pica Pica.” They go for humor instead, and the tune is a modestly sized pleasure. The horns start off by repeating a jaunty melody, as the fans clap along. Never to be considered a crowd-pleaser, Brötzmann starts breaking the melody down, and trades some abstract riffs with Mangelsdorfff. Sommer breaks in with whirling energy to urge them on, maintaining a furious tempo. The melody comes back in varied shards, returning fully at the close for some unexpected, and welcome, symmetry.