Click here to [close]

Monday, July 3, 2023

Peter Brötzmann Tribute (Day 1 of 3)

Peter Brötzmann. Photo by Peter Gannushkin

 He was the most aggressive, uncompromising, radical, avant-garde jazz musician of European free jazz (even if he did not like the term). And he was so loud that he inspired people to create a verb for his saxophone style ( to brötz, which refers to the relentless way of playing the saxophone with all the power he had). Perhaps the most amazing thing about him was that you never walked out of one of his concerts the same way you walked in. Maybe that's what makes a truly great musician - that they change their listeners, again and again. Peter Brötzmann has always tried not to live up to expectations. That also includes occasional failure. On June 22, this icon of improvised music passed away, and he has left a real void in the musical landscape. The Free Jazz Collective bows to this great musician by reviewing our favorite albums.

 - Martin Schray

Peter Brötzmann Octet - Machine Gun (BRÖ, 1968; Cien Fuegos, 2018)

No one who has heard the beginning of this album will ever forget it. Machine Gun ’s 45-second intro represents one of jazz’s most distinctive listening experiences. In many cases even rough music tends to wear out over the years, becoming nicer and more listenable the more you hear it. With Machine Gun , this guiding principle is suspended, because the music has lost none of its destructive power. Until today it’s against most listening habits, jazz conventions and marketing strategies: Even 55 years after its first release, Machine Gun is an overwhelming, brutal, sometimes hardly endurable record. The horns roar without ceasing, we hear the purest form of energy, the frequencies of the saxophone have mutated into a percussion drill. Played loud, this must have been the sound of the trumpets and trombones that brought down the walls of Jericho. For lovers of traditional jazz, it’s the devil incarnate. And anyone who listens to this album knows why. It’s one of the few records that can still set a room on fire today, possibly only comparable to Jimi Hendrix’s version of “Star Spangled Banner“.

Even though Brötzmann later denied a political dimension of the recording, he did tell Downbeat Magazine on the occasion of the record’s 50th anniversary something else: “There is no contradiction between creation and destruction. I never thought music was a healing force of the universe. (...) We wanted to change things; we needed a new start. In Germany, we all grew up with the same thing: Never again. But in the government, all the same old Nazis were still there. We were angry. We wanted to do something.“ However, the album is not only a musical and political statement. Machine Gun was also a milestone in terms of production. Until today, many think that there was a concert in the “Lila Eule“ in Bremen, the place where the album was recorded. But in fact, the musicians had traveled to use the club as a studio. At that time, uncommercial recording facilities were far from being as available as they are today, and the musicians - by the way, the crème de la crème of European free jazz - used the opportunity to record two days there. The album is one of the beginnings of a wave of self-releases and the formation of independent labels in the field of avant-garde and free jazz in Europe. A landmark - in many ways.

 - Martin Schray

Peter Brötzmann Sextet/Quartet - Nipples (Calig, 1969); More Nipples (Avatistic, 2003)

These albums are touchstones for the lot of us fanatics I imagine. It’s perhaps one of the greatest sessions of freely improvised sound ever put to tape. Powerfully inspired music played with absolute urgency and intensity by a single-serving lineup that only managed to produce this one session (luckily for us). On these albums Brötzmann is joined by fellow legends Evan Parker, Derek Bailey (on the sextet pieces) along with Fred Van Hove, Han Bennink, and the legendary Globe Unity Orchestra co-founder Buschi Niebergall on bass. The music, as you well know, is a fierce and thorny affair. So many assertions and questions, dances, disagreements, misdirection - all in the name of good old catharsis. The band ties itself into stiff knots of tension, periodically wiping the slate clean through the sheer power of their playing, breaking through walls of gridlock into more enlightened spaces. While the quartet tracks can’t quite match the magic of the sextet offerings, they are also delightfully prickly affairs from the Brötz/Van Hove/Bennink trio plus Niebergall. One other element that’s easy to forget in these days of easy living where most any and all music is available instantly is that the original LP used to be rare as hens teeth, being out of print for ~30 years. Thankfully that isn’t the case any longer and we’re all able to have our eardrums regularly exfoliated by these masters. It’s definitely one of Brötzmann’s early career highlights, and while it’s not quite as monumental as Machine Gun what it does deliver is a more nuanced version of his archetype. 

- Nick Metzger

Peter Brötzmann, Fred Van Hove, and Han Bennink plus Mangelsdorff  - Live in Berlin '71 (FMP, 1971, 1991)

An early live recording from FMP with the early Brötzmann trio augmented by the great Albert Mangelsdorff. The concerts from August 28th and 29th, 1971, were originally released across three LPs, Elements (FMP 0030), Couscouss de la Mauresque (FMP 0040), and The End (FMP 0050). The single release, now known as Live In Berlin '71, should rank extremely high on anybody's list of best FMP albums. Relatively early in each players' development, it's nevertheless one of the finest albums of improvised music. Brötzmann sounds super raw and intense, yet there's a very clear sense of what he's trying to do and where he might be going. Over the decades that followed, you can hear these ideas recapitulate in fascinating ways that we've only just begun to process. 

- Lee Rice Epstein

Schwarzwaldfahrt - Peter Brötzmann & Han Bennink (FMP, 1977; Trost, 2022)

 Arguably, one of the most important documents in either artist's careers (and in the history of improvised music). It's been reissued twice, first in an expanded release from Atavistic, and more recently in an updated book, with additional photographs and new text from David Keenan. Schwarzwaldfahrt is both a holy grail and a rosetta stone, a wooly beast and a precious gemstone. It may be the album I've returned to most in my ongoing project of better understanding the music of Brötzmann and Bennink.

- Lee Rice Epstein

Peter Brötzmann, Harry Miller, Louis Moholo- Opened, But Hardly Touched (FMP, 1981; Cien Fuegos 2014)

Brötzmann’s preference for the trio format dates back to his early days, when he recorded his debut in 1967 and to his insane super group with drummer Han Bennink and pianist Fred Van Hove, which ended abruptly due to constant friction between the three (something that might happen when alpha dogs clash into each other, as Brötzmann would put it). The years that followed showed Brötzmann meandering between different groups, but he was not really satisfied until 1979, when he found he found perfect partners in two musicians who changed his way idea of playing by connecting their South African roots with his music . Brötzmann was very happy with Harry Miller (bass) and Louis Mofolo (drums) since he thought that he was musically in a cul de sac and the two offered him a perspective off the beaten tracks. Unfortunately, the trio didn’t last as long as he has wished (because of Miller’s tragic and untimely death). However, the experience of playing especially with Louis Moholo was crucial for him and renewed or better deepened his appreciation of African-American drumming, as he told my friend Ernst Nebhuth after a concert in Dachau. You only need to listen to the first piece, “Eine kleine Nachtmarie“, and you know what he means. Moholo’s percussion sounds as if a heavy rain is coming down on a sheet of corrugated metal, Miller counters it with abstract arco shapes, and Brötzmann’s long, unusually elegant lines show him from a whole new side. The title piece is also a study in patience. The sprawling arcs of tension create a different warmth and depth of interaction not known from Brötzmann’s other trios. Even if the old fire breather shines through here and there, Brötzmann reveals himself as an elegiac melodist, who draws from Albert Ayler as well as from Ben Webster and obviously from the blues. He is technically much more accomplished, his way of playing is more open. There are only two albums by this trio. Opened, But Hardly Touched combines two live recordings from 1980, and not only me would have liked to see where their way might have led them.

-  Martin Schray

Last Exit- Last Exit (Enemy, 1986)

For me Last Exit was an initial spark, it’s the band through which I was ultimately won over to free jazz (and with whom I first came across Peter Brötzmann). In 1986, the project was put together by bassist Bill Laswell, who was one of the hippest producers in the music business at the time (Material, Herbie Hancock, then later Mick Jagger, PIL, Motörhead, etc.). Similar to rock, Last Exit was a free-jazz supergroup that would give the genre an unexpected infusion of blood. Laswell called it “collision music“, he wanted to unleash four musical alpha dogs to let the sparks fly. And on their debut Brötzmann, Laswell, Sonny Sharrock (guitar) and Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums) let them fly. There had never been anything like that before, nor really since. For Brötzmann, the main attraction of the whole thing was that he found something completely new for him here. In the mid-1980s, he realized that total freedom can be restrictive in itself, so he looked for an alternative to traditional free jazz (a bit similar to his collaboration with Oxbox in 2018). Last Exit’s approach was to start from spontaneously created, rough and tough forms - blues (“Catch As Catch Can“ could be a Cream riff before it completely spills out), hard rock, or New York No Funk that dissolves into a collective improvisational mess before the musicians are recaptured and the music gets some structure again (“Pig Freedom“). Even if a lot of the music was improvised, the basis always reminded of the song format. Laswell and Ronald Shannon Jackson provided the almost classical rhythmic framework, pushing Brötzmann and Sharrock mercilessly, who responded with squealing, shrill notes, shrieks and brutal noise. With Last Exit there was no pardon, it was always pure intensity. But what was more, it showed Brötzmann how well his sound fits in such a context. The band existed from 1986 to the early 1990s, Sharrock’s death in 1994 was the reason for the breakup.

- Martin Schray



Anonymous said...

Thx for the reviews! Everything between Machine Gun and Last Exit was a blank spot for me (I also came to him via Last Exit) that I’ve been trying to familiarize myself with as of late. Nice to have a map.

MJG said...

"He was the most aggressive, uncompromising, radical, avant-garde jazz musician of European free jazz"
I'm not sure I'd describe Brotzmann as aggressive at all. As a person, all anecdotal evidence suggests not and my very brief exchange with him he was self-deprecating and gentle. Maybe you mean to characterise his music as aggressive but I'm not even sure taht's true either. It was cathartic and loud but even Machine Gun sounds more like a cri de couer than an act of aggression. Front row at a Hairy Bones gig was too loud, too much musical information to absorb but I never felt attacked by the music or that it was aggressive.