Johannes Bauer/Peter Brötzmann

Blue City
Trost TR 155

By Ken Waxman

Of all post-war European trombonists, Johannes Bauer, who died a year ago this month at 62, was the first actually born into free jazz. Growing up in East Germany (GDR) where free music was tolerated more than elsewhere in the Soviet Bloc, except for military and dance gigs, his apprenticeship was in improvised music and continued when he became a Berlin-based professional at 25. Like a paralympian who develops techniques to convert a so-called handicap into championship strategies, Bauer’s non-traditional background and eastern upbringing didn’t stop him from forging links with free jazzers such as Peter Brötzmann, Fred Van Hove, his older (by 11 years) brother Konrad (initially a GDR pop singer) as well as younger experimenters.

Bauer first worked with saxophone avatar Brötzmann in 1981, and continued the partnership on-and-off for the rest of his life. Recorded at a duo gig in Osaka in 1997, Blue City, “found in one of my chaos-boxes by chance” notes the saxophonist, aptly confirms why the affiliation worked. Throughout the six selections Bauer and Brötzmann are like yin and yang, combining disparate reed and brass output into a humanistic whole. Although the reedist’s reputation as a disrupter is confirmed as early as “Name that Thing”, the nearly-29 minute blow out that begins Blue City, neither holds back. Like differing travel guides, the contrast between the two is while Brötzmann uses a combination of glossolalia and snarling explosions to garnish every texture, despite Bauer’s nascent commitment to multiphonics, the trombonist’s playing is chromatic, resolutely pushing each selection to a logical end with graceful puffs and melodic slurs. Like a muzzle on a canine his balanced and rubato playing doesn’t stop the saxophonist’s expression, but focus it appropriately.

With Brötzmann’s wistful clarinet playing backing him up on “Poppy Cock” and elsewhere, the trombonist shows that he’s as capable as the other in constructing a solo out of split tones, growl and irregular rasps. But his obstreperous tendencies are the equivalent to a surgeon’s scalpel compared to the reedist’s battering ram. This coloration and ability to swiftly change sonic directions, is why Bauer was such a valuable partner to Brötzmann and many other musicians. It also confirms why many 2017 free music aggregations remain with an unmendable hole in their group fabric.

Tracks: 1. Name that Thing 2. Blue City 3. Poppy Cock 4. Heard and Seen 5. Hot Mess

Personnel: Johannes Bauer (trombone); Peter Brötzmann (tenor and alto saxophones, Bb clarinet, tarogato)

—For The New York City Jazz Record May 2017