… and then there were two

fred lonberg-holm (left) and peter brotzmann. photo by john corbett.

fred lonberg-holm (left) and peter brotzmann. photo by john corbett.

Near the end of an introductory improvisation on an album curiously titled The Brain of the Dog in Section, Peter Brotzmann and Fred Lonberg-Holm bring their meshing of saxophone and cello to a solemn but thoroughly unstudied halt. It is the sound of a conversation concluded with both parties seemingly content at having had their say.

Of course, in the 14 preceding minutes, the duet turned into something of a shouting match with rugged tenor sax squalls from Brotzmann – who, at age 68, remains an acknowledged forefather of the jazz avant garde – answering strident, almost percussive scrapes on the cello strings and occasional electronic ruptures from Lonberg-Holm, 47. The latter is one of a legion of Chicago-based players that have helped further Brotzmann’s presence among American audiences.

The two have collaborated in ensembles large (Brotzmann’s mammoth Chicago Tentet) and small in venues around the globe over the past decade. But they have gone head-to-head as a duo only twice. The second instance, a November 2007 Chicago session, became The Brain of the Dog

Now the cross-generational improvisers are taking to the road for their first ever duo tour, which stops in Lexington as part of the ongoing Outside the Spotlight Series on Tuesday. It’s a continuance of a long, fruitful artistic alliance, in some ways. But for Lonberg-Holm, it will be a chance to explore music that is anything but familiar.

“Playing with Peter is not your average gig,” the cellist said. “That’s for sure. In some ways, it’s just like working with any other improviser. You try to go into the performance with an open mind, see what happens and try to work with what’s going on. You want to make the music something that is not pre-conceived.

“But Peter has such a big sound, such a strong sound and a really focused way of working with the music that you have to be even more on your toes than you might be normally. I just try to psychologically prepare myself to run the gamut of all the kinds of sounds I can possibly make with the cello when I’m working with Peter.”

For Lonberg-Holm that can mean manipulating the already broad and immediate music he produces on the strings with electronics that augment, amplify and color his playing in some instances while providing sounds of corrosive static and ambient dissonance at others.

You hear such an expansive sound not only in the wilder sections of The Brain of the Dog, but in a string of extraordinary solo cello recordings Lonberg-Holm has released in his homemade Flying Aspidistra series (including a 2009 concert recording Cabin, Cemetery, Forest) as well as with music made with his Valentine Trio and collaborative ventures with the Chicago Tentet, the Vandermark 5 and Fast Citizens. Lonberg has performed in Lexington with all of those ensembles, as well as in a solo setting, for the Outside the Spotlight Series.

“When I play with Peter I definitely benefit from having a lot of experience working with electronics in conjunction with the cello. Unfortunately, with amplified strings, if you’re not careful, you can end up with everything sounding basically the same in a weird way. What you play just sounds pushed. So we work on that.

“I like bringing in the electronic component to Peter’s music as opposed to just a straight acoustic vibe that is amplified. I don’t want normal cello played louder. I try to make it into its own instrument.”

The German-born Brotzmann, in turn, has been playing off such musical invention for over four decades. Initially a visual artist (an exhibition of his woodcut prints and watercolors opened over the weekend in Chicago), Brotzmann grabbed international ears with the 1967 free jazz octet recording, Machine Gun. Brotzmann has been widely viewed as a champion of the European avant garde as well as a masterful composer and improviser on saxophone, tarogato and clarinet ever since.

Brotzmann is also a frequent visitor to Lexington. In fact, a June 2002 concert with Lonberg-Holm and the Chicago Tentet at the Univeristy of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall was the unofficial kickoff to Outside the Spotlight.

“When Peter plays something, he means it,” Lonberg-Holm said. “He’s committed to it. It’s not the idea of something. What he plays is the thing – the object itself. It’s right there and he doesn’t back down.

“In the duo, there is no playing around the edges, no sizing each other up. There will be no teeny little sounds. It’s like, ‘Here I am. This is me.’ And from there, we work through the music. After we throw down our hands, the negotiations get started and we get into some areas that only the two of us can get into.

“I know when I play with someone else we would never get to those places. And I would like to think some of those things don’t happen when Peter plays with other people.” 

The Peter Brotzmann/Fred Lonberg-Holm Duo performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 23 at Gumbo Ya-Ya in Bar Lexington, 367 E. Main. Admission is $5. Call (859) 523-9292.

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