Originally recorded in 1981 and released in 1983 on FMP—still at the height of the Cold War—Alarm consists of what might be called a Brötzmann little big band interpreting a reaction to a nuclear emergency. The title track is a 37-minute tour de force, with the nine-piece ensemble (Brötzmann, Frank Wright and Willem Breuker on saxophones, Hannes Bauer and Alan Tomlinson on trombones, Toshinori Kondo on trumpet, Alexander von Schlippenbach on piano, Harry Miller on bass and Louis Moholo on drums) setting a sort of clarion call for nuclear disarmament. Saxophonist Brötzmann’s basic composition of a series of waves and straight tones allows the band to hurtle right out of the gate, with the brass howling in unison. After the initial “warning,” the group attacks with urgency, exploring shades of fear, paranoia, violence and confusion, always returning back to the sirenlike alarm.
Admittedly, Wright’s amateurish but impassioned approach (of course informed by Ayler) takes the forefront here, but the interaction between these musicians is at such a sophisticated and sympathetic level that it never seems like a free-for-all blowout. Particularly impressive are Bauer and Tomlinson’s trombone work and Schlippenbach’s probing piano. Surprisingly, there are moments where it sounds as if a Dixieland band just got off a spaceship and landed in the middle of a war. Like the best free jazz, “Alarm” runs the gamut of emotions, accurately reflecting life during an uncertain and precarious era. The album—and performance—closes with Wright’s “Jerry Sacem,” a short joyful piece with celebratory vocals and more New Orleans-style Dixieland meets 1940s R&B with the ever-present cacophony of the ’60s revolution.
Alarm matches the best of Brötzmann’s visceral, excessive-yet-exhilarating work (1968’s Machine Gun and 1969’s Nipples) but is also a heady concept that succeeds.