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


Steve Lake


".with shrieking and squeaking
in fifty different sharps and flats"
- Robert Browning

And so it came to pass that the colossus of Wuppertal celebrated his half-century with fanfares from the town council and a bit of official cash splashed around. "Das Projekt", said an official letter from Wuppertal's department of culture "ist mehr als ein Geburtstagsgeschenk für Peter Brötzmann, es ist auch ein kulturelles Geschenk für unsere Stadt."

Perhaps in the tribute there is a measure of surprise that peter is still with us after so many years of doing what he does. Leaving aside the legendary lifestyle - which is, after all, none of our business - if you've heard, say Balls or Nipples or Ein halber Hund kann nicht pinkeln, or seen Brötzmann in concert, his square head glowing bright red underneath the grey-blond crew cut and Bismarck moustaches, you'll have wondered how it is that he hasn't spontaneously combusted before now or blown himself inside - out with the gargantuan force of his playing.

"I can't listen to it. I want set everything ablaze or hack it all to pieces after I've listened to Brötzmann for a while" guitarist Attila Zoller once said. "It is music which literally charges you with hate". Pausing to note that this statement is the funnier coming from an Attila (from a long tradition of hacking things to bits?), I have to say that Brötzmann in full flood has more often charged me with glee. There is, still, something liberating in the sheer size of the sound, and I've laughed out loud often enough when his solos have set the walls to rattling.

Yet for all its stubbornness that gigantic sound of his has been effectively employed in a wide variety of contexts. I treasure a ragged tape from Rome 1966 where a pre-Machine Gun Brötzmann is hollering over the zen-riddle structures of Carla Bley's early music. (After that tour, Carla renounced Free Jazz and named the Beatles her favourite group). Since then Peter's worked with Nam Jun Paik, Mauricio Kagel, Tangerine Dream, Krzysztof Penderecki, B Shops For The Poor, Ginger Baker, Michael Nyman, Anton Fier, Don Cherry, and Last Exit as the entire FMP role-call of abstract expressionists, Wilden, sonic scientists and jazz cats in fixed or semi-ad-hoc groupings from duo (with Bennink, Kellers, Harth) to big band (Globe Unity, London Jazz Composer's Orchestra, Cecil Taylor European Orchestra).

Quite a range. Yet nobody in his right mind would argue that Brötzmann is the most versatile player on the planet. In some of the contexts just listed he's modified his playing in a gentlemanly attempt to be amenable but more often he's been presented, exhibited, as a phenomenon to be reckoned with or improvised around. A sort of whirlwind, centre-stage. Cecil Taylor talks about wanting to become a force of nature - I'm not sure if Brötzmann has much choice in the matter. He puts the mouthpiece under his moustache and - hey presto ! - Thunder and Lightning. To call it limiting or limited is to miss the point. You don't go to de Kooning or Pollock for woodcuts, watercolour or decorated snuff boxes. You go to them because their particular intensities can't be gotten anyplace else. Similarly, Brötzmann is not the man for bebop revivalism or chamber jazz or bossa nova (it might work as satire), but occupies - Wie das Leben so spielt - certain areas inaccessible with a berklee diploma.

With the formation in 1988 of Last Exit Brötzmann, improbably got to solo on old Jimmy Reed tunes. I asked him, not very seriously, about his right to play the blues. He said: "Oh I feel very comfortable with that shit. I'm not an American and of course I'm not a black guy but I think I have my own experience of the blues."

That set me thinking about the "technical limitations" of the old blues players and how little thwarted they were by them. For example: There can be few pieces of music more "out" than Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell playing "Yellow Jam Blues" with a near-total disregard for intonation, tempo, changes and each other. They achieve a widly emotional performance - but of what, exactly? According to Ry Cooder, who worked with them, they thought they were playing jazz. Thereby hangs a tale. What did Albert Ayler think he was playing?

The link between Brötzmann's cry and Ayler's hasn't been enough discussed. Brötzmann was playing this way so early that the question of "influence" is no a cut- and-dried matter. Ayler was out there first, but not by much, one might as well say that when ideas find their time they also find their progenitors. Still, the strength of Aylers's work has been a permanent inspiration. Brötzmann rarely talks on stage but at a Munich concert with his guitarist son Caspar in November 1990, he dedicated the evening's music to Albert, twenty years dead and not dead at all.

Ayler spoke of Louis Armstong's Music as "a rejoicing" and loved Sidney Bechet: "Bechet represented the true spirit, the full force of life, that many musicians today don't have". Here's the common ground. For Brötzmann (and for collaborators such as Han Bennink and Ginger Baker) the meaning of jazz is embedded in its earliest expression. Peter laments the fact that "people nowadays know nothing about Kid Ory or even Sidney Bechet. And they're important. In their time, they just played without thinking wether they were "modern "or whatever. "Music that struggles to be modern often cuts itself off from its own sources and withers. But Sidney Bechet did say: "You just can't keep the music unless you move with it. There's this mood about the music, a kind of need to be moving."

So it changes, but at its own pace, the latest solo record is a little different to Fourteen Love Poems and the one with the airplane of the front. And it's not quite as loud as Machine Gun or Noise of Trouble. But then you wouldn't expect a man - or even a thunder-god - to shout at himself continually. There are reflective passages, some tinged with sadness there are allusions to the masters, and there is exuberance, foot-stomping and chest-thumping. The record demonstrates, if you didn't already know it, that Brötzmann is Brötzmann whether he plays two horns at once or deconstructs a sax down to its mouthpiece. This is what makes him a great saxophonist. He has a voice.

Here's Sidney Bechet again: "All that happens to you makes a feeling out of your life and you play that feeling. But there's more than that. There's the feeling inside the music, too. And the final thing, it's the way those two feelings come together. You know, when you learn something, there's not much else you can do unless you know how to get hold of something inside you that isn't learned".

Brötzmann knows how to reach that something. It might be all he knows. But it's more than enough.

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