FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Steve Lake


Sixteen years after the event, the music still sounds armed and dangerous. It is both an inspiring and a punishing experience for the listener. Also a useful self-flagellant on hangover mornings, when you need to confront your own lethargy and lack of discipline. Impossible to play MACHINE GUN and remain indifferent to life. It always gets me working.

The best-selling of FMP-albums, MACHINE GUN actually pre-dated the birth of that label and I believe that Brötzmann himself sold it, gig to gig, until a benign apparition named Jost Gebers materialised to give it a context. MACHINE GUN was really the first jazz album you could call "European". Although Globe Unity had recorded before the Brötzmann Octet, the name of Schlippenbach's Orchestra was at that point an ideal rather than any kind of reality: in other words, it was still a German band. In Britain, the SME had begun to define certain aspects of the London scene - its rather self-concious introverted music about to enter its mystical/vegetarian stage. Whatever else may have been on Brötzmann's mind at the time, we can assume that "the imaginary birds said to live in paradise" were not terribly high on the list. Nor were the players he assembled likely to turn macrobiotic on you, nor begin chanting Ommmmm.…. all due respect to Coltrane and Ayler.

These players from five countries - Germany, Holland, Belgium, Sweden and England - were, at this point, all committed to demolishing as many barriers as possible. All had the right stuff, jazzwise, as perhaps only intense young men can. Later, four of the participants "weakened" (my opinion) their music with "humour" (their opinion) but MACHINE GUN was as earnest as a terrorist raid. It was that, really, a raid on established musical values. Unthinkable without such American examples, as Ascension and New York Eye and Ear Control to point the way, MACHINE GUN sounded nothing like them. No spiritual search here, no yearning for a better shake in the next world -the Octet was about power, sheer power in the here and now. Somehow, God didn't seem to hang around the bandstand when Brötzmann picked up a saxophone so the guys had to bully their own miracles out of their horns.

For intensity, I've heard nothing that has quite the impact of the title track's opening moments, the saxophone of Brötzmann, Parker, and Breuker levelled at a common target and firing off round after round. It could be claimed that intensity was all that Brötzmann had in this period. If so, he certainly knew how to use it; his forcefulness pulls Parker and Breuker into his orbit and a sense of tension ensues when the other instruments take over as-we await the awesome re-entry of the saxophones. A little diversion for the two bowed basses - call-and-response stuff, clichéd probably even then - becomes almost unbearably nerve-racking as the horns begin to growl and nudge their way in and we wait for it to take over, that gargantuan bloody noise, that landslide of sound...

The problem was that once you had been trepanned by Brötzmann and his howling commandos (and learned to love the experience) you put yourself above musical shock. Rock's supposed "threats" - for example, such as Heavy Metal or Punk - were just so much fairy cake to MACHINE GUN people. Even the participants had trouble surpassing the energy level they had reached on this record. Brötzmann titled subsequent albums BALLS and NIPPELS in a more petulant attempt to offend, and spend much of the next decade becoming a caricature of himself, all moustache and Dada. Not until he formed his excellent trio with Harry Miller and Louis Moholo at the end of the Seventies did he find a way of being merely the Loud Man. His work from 1979 onwards is, over-all, his best, happily.

MACHINE GUN bears out an old dictum of Sunny Murray's - that free music often gives you an insight into what a musician might become. A player leaps in with his youthful territorial claim and then has to marshal all his resources to defend it. For an outsider this is often the dull part of the process - the refining and crystallizing of technique but necessary, of course, too.

In the contractions that follow the more furious outbursts of MACHINE GUN, you can hear the players scrambling to impress their own voice upon the proceedings. Since there is not much solo space in between the ensembles assaults, they have to grab their chances where they can. And concision is of the essence - in fact, the solos are almost like adverts: "This is what I do. What do you think?"

Twenty-four-years-old Evan Parker - snapped in a rare, between-bears shot on the LP-cover - takes the first solo. It holds up pretty well. You can hear where he is coming from and where he is going. That obsessive Coltrane/Sanders yodelling-in-the-vortex effect modifying itself into Evan's more discursive approach, full of chattering sound clusters and cyclical phrases.

Van Hove begins choosing his notes daringly, defying you to predict the next but, finally, the sheer velocity of the piece compels him to resort to impotent Taylorisms and undefined thrashing. He wouldn't get caught that way today.

Breuker's solo, played at white heat, is still a stunner and prompts the reflection that Willem would probably have been more widely accepted if he had carved a career as a soloist rather than composer.

And Brötzmann himself takes it all out. There's nothing left to say but he says it, screams it anyway, rampaging over a corny big-band riff that finally disappears up the fundamental aperture in another blast of ersatz gunnery.

from: The Wire, March 1985

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