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Brötzmann Clarinet Project - Berlin Djungle

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Artist: Brötzmann Clarinet Project

Album: Berlin Djungle

Label: Atavistic

Review date: Nov. 18, 2004

This 1984 reissue is notable for its ridiculous lineup – Peter Brötzmann’s 11-piece band includes Toshinori Kondo on trumpet; J.D. Parran, Louis Sclavis and John Zorn (yes, that’s right) and others on clarinet; and a rhythm section of William Parker and Tony Oxley. It’s often hard to tell who is who, especially since there are six clarinetists here (most of whom are better known as performers on other instruments) and much of the album is as aggressive and full-sounding as we’ve come to expect from Brötzmann.

The most important turning points on Berlin Djungle always seem to happen when the excellent Oxley starts or stops playing. Oxley plays with such density and propulsion here that he seems to lead other players into the chaos like a father teaching his son how to swim by tossing him into the water. Once everyone’s splashing around, the results are as wild as almost anything in free improv at the time, even with clarinets rather than saxophones.

When Oxley stops, the texture thins considerably, and the musicians take solos or play in small groups for a while before the next storm begins. Formally, then, Berlin Djungle is somewhat similar to John Coltrane’s Ascension. These quieter sections on Berlin Djungle aren’t very unified from one to the next, though, because they’re each made of very different materials. For example, clarinetists begin the disc, playing highly ornamented melodic lines that sound like they might be influenced by traditional instruments such as the Chinese sona or the Indian shenai. The rest of the musicians soon enter and free improv squealing commences, but soon they back away and there’s another clarinet solo, now in a more traditional free-jazz style.

I don’t intend to criticize this album for such unevenness, really; it sounds like the musicians hoisted a few before recording and just played their guts out without worrying much about formal perfection, and there’s certainly a time and place for that. But your enjoyment of Berlin Djungle is likely to correlate to the degree to which you crave the sort of uninhibited blowing that occupies about half the record.

Beyond that, the album doesn’t stand up terribly well next to many other releases of European free improv on the Unheard Music Series. It lacks the white-hot focus of Brötzmann’s 1969 album Nipples with Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and Han Bennink; it doesn’t have the massive forces of the Globe Unity Orchestra’s Globe Unity ‘67 & ‘70; and it doesn’t feature the razor-sharp interplay and timbral idiosyncrasies of Alex Von Schlippenbach’s brilliant Hunting the Snake. That’s not to say there’s no reason to recommend Berlin Djungle, just that those other albums are all ridiculously good and the Unheard Music Series has set unreasonably high standards for itself. Berlin Djungle is fine, and it gets bonus points in the curiosity-value department for featuring Brötzmann and Zorn together, but it’s not a great starting point for the uninitiated.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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