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Peter Brötzmann - A Night in Sana’a

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Artist: Peter Brötzmann

Album: A Night in Sana’a

Label: ARM

Review date: Dec. 8, 2009


Peter Brotzmann - "Jumpin' and Rollin'" (A Night in Sana’Äôa)


Peter Brötzmann’s prolific productivity is subject of frequent note. So is the argument that his indomitable output contributes to a numbing similarity amongst his recordings. Poking a few holes in that second assertion is the fact that he’s routinely sought out Non-Western players as collaborators over the years: guembri-master Mahmoud Gania on the excellent Wells Concert for Okkadisk and koto-improviser Michiyo Yagi on Head On for Idiolect being just two memorable encounters. Still, that column of his discographical ledger does remain comparatively slight. A Night in Sana’a adds to it one of his most ambitious to date. The disc takes the ol’ road dog outside his comfort context and places him in productive contact with classically-trained Arabic musicians for an initially incongruous association that ends up gleaning some of the best from both.

The back-story on the project nearly matches the aural results in terms of intrigue. Late in 2004, Brötzmann joined drummer Michael Zerang on a flight to Yemen, having been hipped to the country’s music by producer Uli Armbruster. Ensuing rehearsals were apparently fraught with frustration due to clashes in culture and method. The local musicians harbored suspicions that the Westerners would abscond with the recordings and not share in the profits. Brötzmann met their entreaty for tune transcription in comedically blunt fashion: “I don’t write down notes.” Technology saved the day, with each party recording sketches of their parts so the other could play by ear (there’s a terrific shot in the gatefold interior of Brötz sitting outside a café, bent cheroot balanced between lips and ear goggles clamped around bullet head.).

The music recorded in concert at the city’s German House days later betrays little evidence of those preparatory hurdles. Brötzmann abstains for most of the opening piece, leaving Zerang to submerge himself in the layered interplay of their colleagues. Khalid Barkosch and Abdul-Aziz Mokrid on cello and violin, respectively, bring an orchestral richness to the music while Achmed Al-Khalidy, Ali Saleh and Yasir Al-Absi comprise the traditional instrument contingent on kanun, ney and darbuka. When Brötzmann does enter in the final minutes on roaring tenor, his vibrato-heavy scalar phrases sound right at home. Shortly into the next piece, Al-Absi goes buck wild on darbuka, his fast-percolating, conga-like patterns tapping a deep groove in tandem with Zerang’s trap kit. Brötzmann’s clarinet skates across, bringing to mind the minor-tinged, microtonal musings of Turkish legend Şükrü Tunar.

Tentativeness is traceable in places throughout the program and there are moments where Brötzmann seems to hold his more hoary impulses in check. In the spots where he does fully open the spigot, he has a tendency to overwhelm all but the percussionists. Overall, though, it’s startling how well he jibes with the swirling Arabic structures and scales around him, and how his new colleagues adapt to his own themes. The latter is especially true during an epic interpretation of "Master of a Small House" (referred to here as "Song for Fred") where Saleh sounds almost Andean in his lilting delivery of the melancholy motif. The set feels like an egalitarian effort rather than just a novel context.

Sana’a is a good 2,500 miles away from Tunisia as the crow flies. That distance doesn’t diminish the corollary between the title of this unprecedented conclave of Western ‘free jazz’ and Yemeni musicians and Dizzy Gillespie’s famous tune, at least in terms of spirit and adventurous musicality.

By Derek Taylor

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