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Unless I missed it, there was no lecture to be had from Peter Brötzmann at the Velvet Lounge last night. Instead he did two sets: one solo, one group improvisation with Chromatic Mysteries (featuring drummer/avant-maestro Scott Verrastro).

The solo was classic Brötzmann, requiring great intellectual energy to penetrate his harsh, often shrieky tone for the melody and pace (“rhythm” isn’t quite the right word) of his tenor/alto/soprano saxes and clarinet. The clarinet was a particularly intense tune, Brötzmann running his fingers up and down the (much simpler than a saxophone) keyboard, hard—-as if sanding down the burnished wood—-and blowing with such force that he was audibly grunting.

Brötzmann’s ferocity was impressive…but honestly hard to take in a large (nearly 60-minute) dose. Without an accompanying ensemble, however chaotic, it’s hard to stay with his many twists and turns; my mind wandered, and I looked at my watch more times than I care to admit.

So, when Brötzmann called intermission after the solo, I decided to get a recharge —- and headed over to 1905, in 9th Street’s Little Ethiopia corridor. D.C. trumpeter Joe Brotherton was playing his regular Thursday gig with his Cricket Fusion Quartet, featuring bassist Oliver Albertini, James Brown veteran Mousey Thompson, and 19-year-old tenor saxophonist Elijah Balbed —- already one of the scene’s hottest up-and-comers. They were starting Art Blakey‘s “Moanin'” when I came in, then moved back to their usual 100% improvised tunes. The solos from all four were killer, their interaction edgy and dramatic; the audience was rapt and the staff were delighted. “They’re playing some different shit tonight,” I heard the bartender tell one of the waiters. “I like it!”

Thus re-oriented, I ducked back out of 1905 and back to the Velvet Lounge just in time to see one of the most transcendent sets of free group improvisation ever performed in this town. Largely drawn from Verrastro’s large experimental collective Kohoutek, Chromatic Mysteries created an atmosphere of alien psychedelia in which Brötzmann was a natural fit: two additional saxes, guitar that wandered mostly through the lower registers (and had more than a little freaky noise from a console of pedals and electronic equipment), and drums and percussion (marimbas, mostly). The sync between the three saxophonists was uncanny, but the whole ensemble’s ability to listen to and follow each other was astonishing and as rewarding on the surface as in penetrating.

Perhaps this second set would have been just as good had I not gone to 1905, but it was nonetheless a refreshing, stabilizing experience. So a hat tip to Brotherton and his band – it ain’t easy to compete with a monster like Peter Brötzmann. You guys held your own without even trying.