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Friday, June 23, 2023

Peter Brötzmann (1941 - 2023)

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

There are many anecdotes from Peter Brötzmann’s life. How groundbreaking he was is shown by an event that’s hardly imaginable from today’s perspective. On a Friday afternoon in 1967, seven gentlemen were sitting around a table in a TV studio of the WDR (Germany's largest public broadcasting corporation) discussing free jazz. The witness for the prosecution was Klaus Doldinger (the saxophonist who later composed the film music for “The Boat“) with his band, the defendant was Brötzmann, one of the apologists of this new thing. Both protagonists - Brötzmann played with Peter Kowald on bass and Aldo Romano on drums - had to answer to the panel of critics. At one point Brötzmann was asked if he could play jazz standards. He could, Brötzmann said, but he didn’t want to. His statement was incredibly cool and left the others almost speechless. This revolutionary attitude shaped his entire musical life; he simply didn’t care what others think.

This episode also showed the enigmatic aura he was always surrounded with, a dark, sullen iridescence that is difficult to put into words. On the one hand, his charismatic appearance made him an icon during his lifetime. On the other hand, Brötzmann met such veneration with skeptical, almost contemptuous equanimity. At a gig in Pforzheim, when the organizer was announcing him and reminded him of the blissful times in the jazz club there in the 1960s, he simply snapped, “Oh, why don’t you just stop it!“ and began to play.

A main reason for the development of his musical style might have been the fact that he was an autodidact. At 16, he played the clarinet in a Dixieland band in his hometown of Remscheid. He switched to the tenor saxophone when the group began to explore swing and bebop later on. In 1959 he moved to nearby Wuppertal to study painting and commercial art. There he met Fluxus artist Nam June Paik, who was highly influential for his artistic philosophy. “I realized that in jazz, too, we had to break through the well-rehearsed conventions and clichés if we wanted to proceed“, he told journalist Bert Noglik in an interview. In Wuppertal he met the bassist Peter Kowald, a soul mate as far as music was concerned. Together with him and with drummer Sven-Åke Johansson he formed his first trio, which recorded For Adolphe Sax (BRÖ, 1967), a big bang for freely improvised music in what was then West Germany. There was neither a tonal center nor any periodic rhythm, compositional approaches were dispensed with. A shock for many listeners to this day.

Surprisingly, however, there was a certain success, which resulted in invitations to the Jazzfest in Frankfurt, for example. Yet, there was also an enormous uproar, although the trio was only allowed to play for 15 minutes. The good thing was that the gig led to a relationship with German concert impresario Fritz Rau, who supported the Machine Gun Octet in 1968, whose recording at the Lila Eule in Bremen has become one of the most important free jazz albums of all time. Brötzmann’s trio with drummer Han Bennink and pianist Fred Van Hove emerged from that octet, a first super group of European free jazz (although Brötzmann never liked that term). The band lasted until 1975 (as to recordings).

The following years saw a meandering Brötzmann, with no steady band until he decided to try something new again: He crossed another border and turned to rock. Last Exit, a band consisting of him, Sonny Sharrock (guitar), Bill Laswell (bass) and Ronald Shannon Jackson), was a fascinating bastard of improvised music and free rock, unheard at their time. What was more, he eventually gained the respect of the U.S. scene, which had long regarded the European free jazz musicians with suspicion. In the 1990s, he played frequently with what was arguably the world’s best rhythm section at that time: William Parker (bass) and Hamid Drake (drums). Augmented by Brötzmann’s friend Toshinori Kondo on trumpet, Die Like A Dog was born, a quartet echoing the ideas of Albert Ayler’s music.

Finally (and with the help of Ken Vandermark), Brötzmann experienced the ultimate push to become the great elder statesman of free jazz when he docked on the Chicago scene - a match made in heaven. His European-American tentet (which was sometimes even expanded) lasted almost 15 years. It was an incredible achievement to keep a large formation like this together for such a long time. He ended it almost out of the blue. In a letter he wrote: “In 2011 with the weekends in London and Wuppertal we have reached the peak of what is possible in improvisation and communication with an immense input from all of us. For my taste it is better to stop on the peak and look around than gliding down in the mediocre fields of 'nothing more to say' bands.“ Typical Brötzmann.

In terms of health, his last years were often a rollercoaster ride. He suffered from what is sometimes called “glassblower’s disease“. The increased pressure on the lungs had damaged the respiratory tract in the long run and especially the exhalation became difficult. It was a miracle that Brötzmann was still able to play for so long, even if one could see his efforts.

It’s almost impossible to give a limited selection of recommendations from over 600 albums Peter Brötzmann has played on. The aforementioned For Adolphe Sax is certainly a milestone (but perhaps music-wise not among his best recordings). But Machine Gun (BRÖ, 1968), his octet release, has changed European music and is a must have. Then there’s his sextet/quartet album Nipples (Calig, 1969) with Buschi Niebergall (bass), Han Bennink (drums) and Fred van Hove plus Evan Parker (sax) and Derek Bailey (guitar), another early gem of European free jazz. His trio with Bennink and Van Hove is legendary and all the releases are just outstanding, if I had to pick one it would be their farewell album Tschüss (FMP, 1975). Possibly Brötzmann’s favourite formation was the sax-drum duo. A classic is Schwarzwaldfahrt (FMP, 1977) with Han Bennink, when they played out in the open and included nature sounds and a whole range of instruments for their music. Another one is The Dried Rat-Dog (Okka Disk, 1995) with Hamid Drake, maybe their answer to John Coltrane’s and Rashied Ali’s Interstellar Space. From his recordings with large formations Alarm (FMP, 1983), an international nonet with explosive power, is worthwhile. The best album of the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet might be 3 Nights in Oslo (Smalltown Superjazz, 2010) but all the twelve albums they recorded are sheer killers. Another tentet recording, The März Combo (FMP, 1992), is a personal favorite. It was the band he assembled to celebrate his 50th birthday. Although he wasn’t really satisfied with the result later on, it’s a great album of incredible power. The Die Like A Dog quartet is the living proof that free jazz can swing. They recorded seven albums, you can’t go wrong with their debut Fragments Of Music, Life And Times Of Albert Ayler (FMP, 1994). Last Exit’s first self-titled album (Enemy, 1986) is a great access for listeners who are not familiar with free jazz. Finally, Peter Brötzmann also set standards as to playing solo. His Münster Bern (Tubus Records, 2015) release sums up a lot of his music, it’s a late magnum opus.

An excerpt from an interview with the German journalist Karl Lippegaus possibly puts Peter Brötzmann’s credo in a nutshell: “The bands that I put together or that come about in this way don't just exist because they are all such great musicians, but because we have something to do with each other, because we correspond in this or that way. (...) It’s about life, about survival, that sounds terribly pathetic now, but I really mean it, I’m dead serious. It’s also not something you can do once in a while at some stage of your life - whether it lasts four weeks or four years. It’s a lifelong journey to figure out: how far can you go, where can you go, where are you at this moment.“

There’s no musician I’ve seen live as often as Peter Brötzmann, of no musician I own so many albums. His music changed my way of listening. The fact that he passed away means that something’s definitely missing in this world, it’s a bit as if Easter had gone for good. However, his music is eternal and it will comfort us. Today and forever.

Watch Peter Brötzmann play solo in Warsaw in 2017: 


JP said...

rip. seeing Die Like A Dog in the 90s was transformative. to me, a heart wrenching, ferocious & pleading gospel cry audible within the maelstrom a pure punk sonic provocation. standing on the street smoking afterward, aloof and totally unapproachable, he buzzed with fascinating antihero radiation. learned to hear & feel a lot more in this world by after encountering his overwhelming art

Anonymous said...

Such a great tribute to such a great artist. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

that is very sad news indeed, what a remarkable person he was. i have been listening a lot to his recent output lately, especially the recordings with heather leigh, which show a rather underappreciated side of him, and his work with keiji haino.

jazzrita said...

memories stay. successors continue their journey.

Ernst Grgo Nebhuth said...

Thank you Martin for your obituary.
I would like to add a trio which was seminal for Peter's development.
Brötzmann / Miller / Moholo with only two albums "The Nearer The Bone, The Sweeter The Meat" and "Opened But Hardly Touched".
Before a concert 2005 in Dachau he told me that this trio didn't last as long as he has wished for but the experience of playing especially with Louis Moholo was crucial for him and renewed or better deepened his appreciation of afro-american drumming.

My first LP was "For Adolphe Sax" - maybe not his best as you write above but somehow I doubt that "the best" is what counts. Certainly most of us appreciate a good / better / the best recording (or whatever). But in my eyes / ears that's only superficial. What makes Peter so special is the way he was living (playing). "Talking to much about those faculties tends to bring clichees to the fore": another snippet from our talk in Dachau.
In Peter Brötzmann we had the embodiment of just that: !

Sammy said...

I remember seeing him recently and he told me he would keep playing as long as his lungs let him and that he had up and down days. I never seriously thought Peter would not be here. He was a presence, whether grumpy, polite, rude, charming, sending things from Wuppertal including vinyl and books. A few minute chat on the 'phone turned into hours as we discussed things like how jazz has changed, his early life, which was really moving, and some other things. It will take a while to realize he is not here and I think a lot will miss him. this column will miss reviewing his music, I know.

Anonymous said...

peter wasn´t only a remarkable, uncompromising musician but also a highly talented
graphic artist, a total and totally original artist.
there are barely any successors on the musical horizon.

joe.po said...

... I am so sad that one of my most important musicians in FreeJazz had to go ... I hope he'll meet Fred (von Hove) and Peter (Kowald) and many others up on cloud 7 and the "party" goes on, even if all is more relaxed ... if not, no worries, here on earth and in the hearts of the "free lovers" he lives on, at least with me ... his work will never be forgotten // Thank you Martin for the nice obituary of a trailblazer .. RIP Peter!

Anonymous said...

As someone else said here, he was just someone who you always thought would be around. My favorite memory was picking him up for a gig from the airport in Oakland, and he got in the car, fired up a stogie, and then asked "Mind if I smoke...?" Ha! A true trailblazer in not only his music, and most specifically the jazz world, but in the history of music as a whole.

Taylor McDowell said...

Wonderful eulogy, Martin. I really appreciate all of the anecdotes in the comments too. It's no surprise that Peter's art and person touched so many here. I never had the opportunity to see him perform, but his imprint on my life is still there. He was the one artist that almost single-handedly turned me onto free music. I've never turned back since. Thank you, Peter. I think I'll turn on some Die Like a Dog and play it loud.

Peter Waters said...

RIP Brötz, I saw his last gig in Cafe Oto where it was clear that he was unwell. Yet the music was, as always, first rate. Speaking to him after the gig, he was his usual kind and humble self. This music has lost one of its all-time greats. Brötz can never be replaced or surpassed.

duxextra said...

A fine tribute, and i echo the comments. I only had one encounter when i was able to bring him and Heather to Sydney and they played a couple of gigs in my living room. They were, as ever, astonishing, and for some reason we got on very well. He's generously kept in touch ever since, and i last heard from him only a few weeks back. He changed the way i listen to music too, after first hearing Machine Gun in the 1980s. He was iconic for me then, and it was so pleasing to discover that he was also wonderful in person. RIP Peter, you made things better, and thanks also to Heather because i think she really helped him to keep playing and gave us a little bit more...

matt w said...

Like everyone else, I felt like Brötz would always be here. I was lucky enough to see him several times and helped bring the Chicago Tentet to Pittsburgh circa Signs/Images. In my mind's eye I envision them standing backlit with flaming lights behind them though there was no such fancy lighting effects, it was just the overwhelming waves of sound.

Somehow "rest" and "peace" don't seem like the right words for him but I hope his end and afterlife are as he would want them.

As well as the records people have named, two of my later favorites are No One Ever Works Alone by Sonore (with Gustafsson and Vandermark) and The Damage Is Done with McPhee, Kessler, and Zerang; titanic, tragic music.