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Force of nature 

All saxophonists agree on one thing: "My instrument is heartless to the core," they'll admit with a smirk.

Yet, God knows why, some crazy cats actually try to make a living by playing the thing, the most unforgiving of musical axes. Originally inspired by the splendor of Coleman Hawkins' once-in-a-lifetime tenor solo on "Body and Soul" in 1939, generations of hapless improvisers have adopted Adolphe Sax's cantankerous invention as their own. Dumb move.

Like the bat is to baseball, the sax is to jazz. It gets the ball rolling. And prying a meaningful blues out of Adolphe's folly is more difficult than tracking the kamikaze spin of a split-fingered fastball.

The impossible physics of the instrument spell doom for clumsy tongues and stupid fingers. Start with the reed--a slither of pulp prone to fluctuate uncannily according to the whims of humidity. Then there's the mechanical nightmare of saxophone keys. Pulled back and forth by creaking metal springs, they only reluctantly respond to the caress of sweaty digits. And sometimes they don't at all.

Behind the latched door of a lonely hotel room or--when the stars align--on some shadowy stage, the best players somehow get past all the crap and discover the meaningful notes buried deep within the saxophone. Peter Brotzmann is one of those guys.

Brotzmann has been wrestling the slippery snake of an instrument since the late '50s. He has always played hard, blowing with expansive breaths that cut like a mad March wind. Flimsy reeds and squeaky keys don't faze him. On a good night, Brotzmann behaves less like a musician--and more like a force of nature. This ageless pioneer of so-called free jazz will bring his gargantuan sound and a gorgeous band to Duke University's Griffith Film Theater on April 19 at 8 p.m. The concert is co-sponsored by WXDU Radio and the Alliance for Improvised Music (AIM).

The lucky audience will indulge in a restless, highly interactive program full of sonic surprises. Brotzmann's combo has a name and an attitude rolled into one: Die Like a Dog. The all-star lineup frames the crystalline tone of trumpeter Roy Campbell, the rattle-and-hum drums of Hamid Drake, and the virtuoso bass of William Parker. DLD's new disc on the Eremite imprint, From Valley to Valley, foreshadows what the local faithful will hear on Wednesday. When Brotzmann discussed the success of Die Like a Dog with writer Jon Morgan, he ruefully understated his case. "I think I can say that we've never ... played a shitty concert," he joked.

Brotzmann was born in 1941 in Remschied, Germany. Although as a teen he showed promise in visual art, he later shifted his focus to music. Originally a self-taught clarinetist influenced by jaunty Dixieland tunes, he soon picked up the saxophone and studied the progression of jazz American-style--from swing to bebop and beyond. Brotzmann was attracted to the innovations of renegade jazz composers like Charles Mingus, as well as the experimentalism of John Cage.

By the late '60s, Brotzmann had emerged as one of Europe's most distinctive improvisers. Often gigging alongside bassist Peter Kowald, who recently performed in Carrboro, Brotzmann developed monster tone and mercurial technique on a variety of saxophones. He traveled across the continent with a myriad of bands, including the groundbreaking Globe Unity Orchestra. And when no one else seemed to be listening, he defiantly DIY'ed, starting up record labels like BRO and FMP to distribute exuberantly edgy LPs. One Brotzmann record, Machine Gun (FMP, 1968), is now considered a high-water mark of unflinching improv.

In an interview in Coda, the Canadian jazz journal, Brotzmann reflected on the '60s. "We were revolutionaries of sorts--at least we thought we were. It was a special time in Europe: the Vietnam War and the campus radicals," he continued. "Our fathers left us with so many unanswered questions after World War II. We wanted to destroy everything our fathers stood for. We wanted to change the world."

And maybe the world has changed. A Triangle appearance by Brotzmann, who still resides in Germany, would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. But today, thanks to the folks at AIM and other enterprising grassroots outfits, North Carolina has become a regular tour-stop on the New Music circuit.

A sound not meant for the faint of heart, Brotzmann's brazen signature will push area ears to the limit. Be there, fellow travelers, and buckle up for a wild and woolly ride.

Of course, not all music is a matter of life and death. A pair of shiny new disks illustrates how two young saxophonists have succeeded squarely in-the-tradition.

Fields & Strings (Paras) by California-based session saxophonist Brandon Fields contains pretty notes that prance over charts borrowed from the encyclopedia of American popular song. Arranged by Jorge Calandrelli, the 40-piece orchestra wings with light-footed grace, reprising Burt Bacharach ("The Look of Love"), George Gershwin ("Summertime") and several finger-snapping tunes from the repertoire of modern jazz. Fields' take on Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower," which blends melancholy mood with a graceful, catlike stroll, would sound just right purring out of the radio.

And, by all means, give the drummer some. Propelled by the deft touch of percussion maestro Peter Erskine, the entirety of Fields & Strings swings lightly yet surely. This is one of those rare records that is undeniably jazz-y, yet even confirmed jazz-haters will dig in spite of themselves.

While Fields likes to sweeten the standards, 34-year-old Mark Turner takes the same familiar repertoire and stirs in pungent flavors. An eclectic's brew, Ballad Session (Warner Bros.) recalls the dark beauty of historic jazz sessions like John Coltrane's Ballads, that reedy masterpiece. Reminiscent of 'Trane's stark abstractions, Turner's moody solos suggest as many questions as answers. He paints Wayne Shorter's lovely "Nefertiti" with eerie midtones and Hoagy Carmichael's mournful "Skylark" in deep blues.

There's an unerring sense of melancholy in Turner's tenor that is oddly compelling. Tumbling out of the horn in fits and starts, the notes don't always come easy. "Should I turn left here," he seems to wonder, "or right?" The musician must decide in a split-second which way to go. It is this precise moment that Turner--or any improvising saxophonist worth a salt--lives for. EndBlock

More by Joe Vanderford

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