2011 was a landmark year for Peter Brötzmann. It was the year of his 70th birthday, his hometown Wuppertal provided a three-day festival for his Chicago Tentet (as well as Café Oto in London), he was awarded the Albert-Mangelsdorff-prize (one of the most important jazz prizes in Germany), two documentaries were made and Wels “Music Unlimited” asked him to curate their 25th festival. It was sold out weeks in advance, when does this ever happen to a free jazz event? All these things are possible because people have begun to appreciate his life’s work, his authenticity, his consequence in spite of the fact that Brötzmann is difficult man. He says about himself that he is full of contradictions. So if you decide to invite him to curate such an important festival you have to know about his achievements and his philosophy because if you authorize someone like him you’ll have to accept his concept.
Somehow it was an obvious decision to make him curate the 25th anniversary festival because he is one of the last men standing who belong to the first generation of European improvisers (like Evan Parker, Tony Oxley, Alex von Schlippenbach, Fred Van Hove, Han Bennink etc.). Also, he is a border crosser in many ways, he has always been an innovator trying to re-invent himself constantly in new constellations. The worst thing that could happen to him is that he bores himself because his music is fulfilling the audience’s expectations. So people were very excited what line up he was going to choose and indeed it was spectacular and unexpected but also coherent as to Brötzmann conditions. In order to understand his choice and his way to create music you have to understand the man (which is difficult enough) and his idea of innovation.
Brötzmann considers himself a (free) jazz musician, someone deeply rooted in the tradition of Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke, Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins, but he looks out for new experiences and new collaborations with musicians who come from different backgrounds like rock, new classical music, even world music. “Unlike many of his fellow European improvisers, he has always been an internationalist and his lifelong pursuit of new “cities, histories and landscapes” has not only informed him politically and philosophically, it has also impacted on the very DNA of his music”, David Keenan wrote in a long article in The Wire. In Wels this became very obvious when you have a look at the line up which includes people like Bill Laswell and Keiji Haino, Okkyung Lee and Maâllem Mokhtar Gania, for example. The fact that he is aware of the jazz tradition as an important influence for his music makes him deal with US Afro-American jazz constantly, although being a European and knowing and accepting his Prussian background as a part of his music, too. The same is true for his musical exchange with Asia (which was the most and maybe most surprising and important issue of the festival).
Additionally, Brötzmann likes to work with young musicians (and he also likes to have young people in the audience). His Chicago Tentet proves this, but also his collaborations with people like Jason Adasievicz (vib) or Eric Revis (b).
But most of all his music is the result of his socio-political surroundings, it reflects reality and its conditions. Music is a constant hassle with what’s going on around you and Brötzmann does not like what he sees, that’s why his music cannot be entertaining. It is rooted in the discussion about Germany’s Nazi heritage, the repressive structures in post-war Germany, society’s handling of the holocaust or socialist atrocities - and this approach makes his art (he is also an artist who usually designs the covers of his album – like the one here as well) sensitive for non-musical influences.
The most obvious political issue in Wels was The Chicago Tentet’s Fukushima project, which features the Tentet +1 (Joe McPhee has become a regular member over the years) and several Japanese musicians like Otomo Yoshihide, Toshinori Kondo, Michiyo Yagi and Akira Sakata. Each set lasted for thirty minutes, all in all a two-hour tour de force of music. The box only contains the tentet’s part with koto player Yagi (the whole concert is available on DVD) but this excerpt already shows how the band tries to reflect the whole nuclear disaster in their music, the agony of the people, the rage about the failure of the politicians and the CEOs, the powerlessness of mankind in the face of the forces of nature. Brötzmann’s aim apparently was to make the music a collective experience for both his musicians and his audience despite different backgrounds giving especially Yagi a lot of space.
Chicago Tentet + Michiyo Yagi (Fukushima Project):
Brötzmann, who has always had an inclination for communist ideas, has developed a philosophy which is based around key principles he has distilled in almost 50 years on the road – freedom, equality, respect, struggling and dialectics. In his excellent essay “Each is the Work of All” Christoph J. Bauer explains what this means in the Brötzmann universe: ”When the musicians play and work together natural, cultural and social differences, which make up their identity, are to be annihilated in a dialectic unit in which everyone has the same rights to raise his or her individual voice.” This dialectic unit is the basis for the result of an equal collaboration in a Marxian sense, without equality Brötzmann’s groups cannot work even if it seems that he has a superior position. In Wels the best example for this idiom was Brötzmann’s quartet with Bill Laswell (b) (a man who has worked with people as different as Mick Jagger, The Ramones, Pharoah Sanders, Motörhead or George Clinton), legendary Gnawa musician Maâllem Mokhtar Gania (voice, guembri) and Chicagoan free jazz legend Hamid Drake (dr), a performance that made the audience literally freak out. Starting with Brötzmann and Laswell the band builds up layer after layer until Drake, Laswell and Gania agree on a hypnotic world music groove – something you would expect Brötzmann to refuse blatantly. But then there is the unexpected: He joins the band in their rhythm, out of the blue there is a perfect unit, within seconds an identity was created from the most different backgrounds combining Drake’s dance groove, Laswell’s bass being drowned in fuzzbox rock sounds, Gania’s sufi trance and Brötzmann’s free jazz roars. Although it is a 51-minute- track you wish it would never stop.
Although Brötzmann is aware of being part of jazz history, he and most of the European improvisers also wanted to emancipate themselves from hierarchical structures in traditional American and European music, which for them had political meaning. So free jazz was an act of liberation from repressive structures and from socio-political restrictions.
However, freedom was one thing that had to be achieved, but if it had led to anarchy it would have been pointless. So the traditional confrontation between freedom and necessity has to be abolished in a dialectic way which is why another key term has to be added to Brötzmann’s philosophy: responsibility. The collaborations work because the musicians feel in charge for the success of a composition and therefore they act responsibly. This is especially possible for improvisers because they act like an association “in which the free development of the individual is the condition for the free development of all”, as Marx said. But this also means that all the players have to cut back their own capriciousness once and again for the sake of the result, in this case the collective improvisation. This requires a very close listening to the others so that you can react to musical actions in the fastest possible way, it also includes taking a break. Thus, you pay respect listening to the others and while expecting this from all the other participants it guarantees everyone a certain space for his or her artistic expression. This goes not only for Brötzmann’s ensembles but for all the groups and solos in this box and a good example of this notion is the female string trio consisting of Michiyo Yagi (koto), Okkyung Lee (cello) and Xu Fengxia (guzheng) who advance very delicately into their performance and particularly Yagi and Xu hold their fire before they eventually let it burn.
When Brötzmann was asked to curate the festival he decided to put the focus on what he was doing at that moment and to bring it into a context what he has done in the late 1960s and early 70s. That’s why he wanted to highlight his long-time connections with Asian musicians like Takeo Moriyama and Akira Sakata (who were members of the legendary Yamashita Trio), something which was only made possible by cultural subsidies (and they are hard to get these days). His trio with Masahiko Satoh (p) and Moriyama (dr) (ironically called "The Heavyweights") is the essence of what the three understand of respect, it is a truly humanitarian approach to music. The track starts with Satoh playing icy single notes counteracting Brötzmann’s typical furor while Moriyama seems to have a look at the interaction before he makes a statement, but then he throws his hat in the ring, first almost hesitating but then absolutely self-confident, even in the duet with Satoh playing almost Cecil Tayloresque patterns (while Brötzmann shows his ability to listen).
DKV Trio + Gustafsson, PNL, Pupillo
So Brötzmann and all the ensembles gathered here are the personifications of the relevance of improvised music in a globalized world because they stand for constant expansion and the musical globalization we have here is positively counteracting a musical leveling inherent in music industry (something you can see in pop music, for example). All the musicians of this festival (and on this CD box) fight for this definition of freedom, equality, solidarity, respect, responsibility and struggling, which means so much more in this kind of music compared to others.
Unfortunately, Wels Unlimited 2011 was also a sort of requiem. In the meantime John Tchicai has died and the Chicago Tentet is history. Brötzmann decided to stop it because it has become too difficult to keep such a group running (in an economic way) and because he said he realized that they were playing to fulfill some kind of expectation – something Brötzmann really hates.
However, this box is a great legacy.
List of groups:
CD 1: Sonore (Brötzmann/Vandermark/Gustafsson)
Chicago Tentet with John Tchicai
Michiyo Yagi/Okkyung Lee/Xu Fengxia
Peter Brötzmann/Masahiko Satoh/ Takeo Moriyama
CD 2: Joe McPhee/Maâllem Mokhtar Gania/Fred Lonberg-Holm/Michael Zerang
Peter Brötzmann/Michiyo Yagi/Tamaya Honda
Peter Brötzmann/ Jason Adasiewicz/Sabu Toyozumi
Dieb 13/Mats Gustafsson/Martin Siewert
CD 3: Keiji Haino
Peter Brötzmann/Bill Laswell/ Maâllem Mokhtar Gania/Hamid Drake
CD 4: Jeb Bishop/Joe McPhee/Mars Williams/Jason Adasiewicz/Kent Kessler/Tamaya Honda
Hairy Bones (Brötzmann/Kondo/Pupillo/Nilssen-Love)
Chicago Tentet + Michiyo Yagi
CD 5: Peter Brötzmann/Eric Revis/ Nasheet Waits
DKV Trio + Mats Gustafsson/Massimo Pupillo/Paal Nilssen-Love; Full Blast
Caspar Brötzmann Massaker
This review is largely based on Christoph J. Bauer’s very intelligent essay “Each is the Work of All” published in his interview book “Brötzmann: Gespräche” (Posth Verlag, Berlin, 2012), a highly recommendable and enjoyable book. If you understand German and you like Brötzmann, I think it is a must have.
The review also contains some aspects from David Keenan’s article in The Wire (#345) and Markus Müller’s excellent liner notes.
In addition, the DVD of the Fukushima Project is also great.
Both the CD box and the DVD can be purchased from the label: http://www.trost.at/
The CD is also available via instantjazz.com