Two saxophonists, two very different approaches. Brotzman’s triumphant performance as part of the BNT trio was played to a packed out audience who were keen to see and respect a great player in a renowned venue across two days, whilst Kuchen played solo to ten people in a basement one afternoon.
The trio arrangement set up the Brotzman performances to explore the tensions between styles of playing. Steve Noble and Keith Tippet’s drums and piano accompanied Brotzman, but the sense was often that they were in fact a duo who were being joined and, at times, interrupted by a soloist rather than being led necessarily. The structure for both nights was a development from loud cacophony, followed by percussive serialism, being turned into a blues which then built up again into cacophony to start over. The accompaniment filled out the top and bottom range whilst Brotzman cut through in the middle, until the piece was suddenly undermined by the saxophone stopping and Tippet preparing his piano to sound like a tinny harpsichord. The music would then become more brittle, focussing on high end cymbal and piano washes and snare stabs, which would eventually decelerate, ready for Brotzman’s blues to pick up again. The sections were totally distinct, encouraging the impression that something was not really working for the group, and they were trying to explore their ideas despite each other. But, amidst the disjuncture, there were moments of such precision that there was no doubt everyone knew exactly what they were doing all along.
The most moving parts of the Brotzman shows were also at times the most conventional. The loudness and intensity of some of the performance coupled with a sweltering venue to give an almost masochistic pleasure, with moments of calm and spacious jazz coming through like a reward. Where elsewhere in the performances, it was their technical ability and endurance that was impressive, here the players showed how affective their playing could be.
While the BNT trio could explore what happened between each player, Kuchen’s solo gig could only explore what happened between himself and his instrument. This was in a very extended sense, as he also made use of various mutes, recordings, a mixer and portable speakers. Seemingly, the speakers were placed inside the horn of his saxophone so that he could modulate the sounds they produced with the sounds he was producing, like a primitive talk-box. His performance focused on breathy saxophone whispers and drones being put up against different pitched buzz and static. Placing the speakers inside his saxophone was an excellent theatrical decision as much as it was a technical one, as it made it hard to distinguish what was being created by the saxophone, what was a recording, and what was being created by the two sound sources together. At one point, a low-end rumble sounded like it could have been an arpeggiating synthesizer rather than the saxophone, with Kuchen’s rythmic intake of breath the hi-hats to join it.
Whilst Brotzman’s playing was certainly powerful and the work of a master, it was Kuchen’s which was the most engaging. His pensive approach had the quality more of a demonstration rather than a performance, with pauses to re-adjust equipment for which he was unapologetic. Whilst Kuchen took a moment to correct the equalization on the mixer or empty his saxophone of spit, the audience could take a moment to reflect on what they had heard and what they thought he was doing. In the sweltering Brotzman performance, there was no such opportunity for the audience, even though Brotzman himself regularly took breaks from playing to listen to the others. In the end, Brotzman, Noble and Tippett left you in awe of what they could do, but Kuchen left you in awe of what the saxophone could do.