Just look at a partial section of the list of people that Peter Brötzmann has played with over the course of his career to date: Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Don Cherry, Derek Bailey, Sonny Sharrock, Andrew Cyrille, Keiji Haino, Rashied Ali, John Zorn, Evan Parker…the very best of the very best. To that list can now be added the London-based rhythm engine of John Edwards and Steve Noble. Edwards was the fulcrum of the first two nights of Brötzmann’s three day residency at Cafe Oto, which also saw Tony Marsh, Pat Thomas and Roland Ramanan sharing the stage with the legendary German saxophonist. He must be one of the most in-demand bass players in the world, and he seems to relish the challenge of being dropped in against absolutely anyone, but Edwards’s long-standing partnership with Noble really seems to bring out the best in their respective games. That was to be the case tonight, with even the fiery Brötzmann at times having to stand back and admire the quality of their work.
It wasn’t obvious that that was going to be how it would pan out when Brötzmann opened on tenor, with the first of several torrential solos reducing Noble and Edwards to mere background rumble. The timbre was typically (and gloriously) ragged, with huge reed-gnawing vibrato and excursions way off the top of the instrument’s natural register. But it was when Brötzmann took his first breather that things began to change. Edwards stepped up to take a masterful solo, grabbing huge handfuls of string, and singing along to accompany his playing. When Noble joined him, he displayed the full wealth of his experience (he studied with a Nigerian master drummer, and played in a gamelan ensemble), beating the drums with his hands, scattering cymbals on his kit, and then launching into an astonishing display of African polyrhythms. The two knitted back together instinctively into some call and response phrases and lurching, abstract shapes that recalled Autechre more than jazz. It was a relief that when Brötzmann returned to finish the first half that he did so on clarinet which, even though he played it far louder than anyone else probably can, allowed us to hear the pair behind him. Some bent notes and exotic-sounding scales on that instrument merged with the drones of Edwards’s arco bass-playing to end the first set on a fascinating low-key note.
The second set was very different and allowed Brötzmann to demonstrate why he belongs in the premier league of post-Ayler saxophonists. It began with Noble lazily tapping out patterns on cymbals with the end of his drumsticks, and Edwards swaying with his eyes closed, before Brötzmann kicked the piece into a higher gear, wailing away on clarinet like a flock of panicked geese. The rhythm section locked together in a deep groove, rolling through to a duo section of tight near-funk. Brötzmann heightened the atmosphere further by switching back to some rasping tenor blasts, Noble and Edwards scurrying to keep up, before they dropped out altogether. This left Brötzmann to demonstrate that – as was the case with Ayler – behind all the storm and bluster resides a saxophonist who can really play. He delivered a stunning solo of growling melody and searing emotion, humming along in harmony as he did. The response from the crowd was rapturous, which seemed to humble even this most intimidating of musicians. His brief visit to London may be over, but I suspect he’ll be back before too long – not just because of the deserved ovation he received, but because there can’t be too many pick-up rhythm sections of the calibre of Edwards and Noble around the world.