This year’s edition of the Vision Festival celebrates the high-flying art of Peter Brötzmann. The 70-year-old German saxophonist is known for the fierce power, textural extremis, and overwhelming passion that pours from his horn. From his early work in the late ’60s (the rad Machine Gun continues to turn many a head) to his recent Hairy Bones, the attack of his ensembles has been relentless. Uproar and polyphony mingle in his expressionistic aesthetic, and their combination has guided one of the most physical approaches to improvisation that jazz has ever heard (see the cracked rib quote below).
At the Vision Fest, on Wednesday, June 8, Brötzmann works in a number of settings. A quartet with his esteemed colleague and contemporary Joe McPhee, a duo with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz (“I do have a softer side,” he told me 25 years ago), and a quintet with Ken Vandermark and Mars Williams. (Vandermark has a great interview with Brötzmann here). He also receives the Lifetime of Achievement award and fulfills on a wish that he mentioned to me two and a half decades ago: “I want to play more with William Parker.” It was back then, at the famed Sound Unity Festival (Vision precursor) that the pair solidified their artistic relationship.
Brötzmann was one of the first musicians I ever interviewed. His FMP encounter with Andrew Cyrille, now available thanks to Destination Out, is a fave of mine. We chatted as he was making a swoop through New England and New York in a duo setting with drummer Han Bennink. It was 1985. The saxophonist was 45. His work was becoming better known in the United States, and he had just completed his first European tour with Last Exit (whose initial moniker was allegedly going to be The Sex Beatles). He explained himself very well back then. Here are several highlights, and perhaps a few of them seem wry given all we’ve learned about his work in the interim years. Have fun.
1. I think that people think I’m too serious.
2. We were just starting to get over the borders of the old jazz music. We had to break all the rules. It’s always nice when you find people far away from you trying to do things similar to what you’re doing, and for me, early on, working with artist from other countries was a great exchange for the music. Of course there was no money around for the gigs, but if we could get some travel money, we’d try to get ourselves together. We had the first important meeting of all the European guys, about 24 people, and we worked like idiots in the studio. At that time we all thought the same way, but personal styles were beginning to develop. We were young and we had to find out for ourselves. Nowadays if I listen to Willem Breuker or Evan Parker, I can hear how they’ve grown; it’s very personal. There was a time when I wasn’t so interested in playing with them, but now it’s a different situation. I could definitely get into playing with them.
3. Where is the border between composition and improvisation? I think if you’re a good musician, and I hope some of us are, the border is not there anymore. Because if you have feelings, and you’re able to listen to what others do, and if you create a kind of form – and it can be an open form – then you’ve got something. You really don’t know what you’re going to do in the middle, but it happens and it comes to an end and you have a feeling, “Okay, that’s it.” Opened, But Hardly Touched is a very free improvisation – I mean, we just started playing.
4. 14 Love Poems was very important for me. It turned out to be a special point in my career. There are always records that show how you’ve changed. That’s one of them. Playing solo is quite a challenge. If it’s working, it’s a nice feeling. On the other hand, I don’t want to do it all the time, because jazz for me is all about playing with someone, playing together. Jazz is an exchange of ideas. That’s what makes it interesting. Of course, [all my ideas] go back to Machine Gun. I don’t listen to my records, I just spin the test pressing and it’s over. But someone played me the early stuff recently and I was surprised how much I liked it.
5. I never had a teacher. I learned the stuff myself and from my comrades. My technique is not as developed as, say, Evan Parker’s, but music for me is being able to tell stories. To tell the stories you have in your head and your body, you have to have a personal technique. If you come to place where the technique you have is not enough, you’ve got to look for more, so you can express the shit you want to play. If you look at the field of art you’ll find a lot of fantastic guys who didn’t have a lot of academic technique, but had a lot to say. Marcel Duchamp for example. He wasn’t such a great painter, but he was an important inventor. He made things. Each person has to tell their own story.
6. We had this gig last summer, we were rehearsing like idiots, learning many tunes. We wound up playing our asses off at the show, a very long and intense concert. Five minutes before it was over I felt this sharp pain in my side. We finished, got drunk, and I didn’t think about it anymore. But the next morning I couldn’t move. Went to the doctor and he said my rib was broken. I’d hurt myself earlier, and after all this heavy playing, it finally snapped.
7. I grew up in a bourgeois house, and I learned to hear mostly European (German) classical music. and at that time I couldn’t hear it anymore. I’d heard too much. Around 11 or 12 I started listening to jazz music like Kid Ory and Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and King Oliver. Not records – I was poor at that time, so we listened to Voice of America in the early years. That was my first information about jazz. Later, I opened up a jazz record club in my school. I played the clarinet in school, because it was free. I tried to do some Dixieland swinging; at that time in Europe was a Dixieland revival. At 15 I was also busy with printing and painting and graphics, and I had a feeling that was a big interest of mine. Later, when I was working for Naim June Paik in the ’60s, we felt that it was right time to change the music. Peter Kowald and I thought, “Fucking yes, the music has to open up, become more radical. We felt it, we said it.
8. Yes, yes, I knew that Han and I had something unique. I know a lot of his tricks, but he often surprises me. He had a gig for the Dutch radio, and he invited George Lewis and me and his Dutch friends. He installed a fishing pole in the ceiling and had a weight at the end, and on the floor in a circle were all sorts of sound instruments that he used throughout the years. The pole moved slowly during our playing, hitting the things on the floor. The sound changing all the time. These kind of things are fantastic. Han and Willem and I had a trio for a short time. Tough trio. Then I worked with Fred Van Hove and Han. Quite a group, and the money was there. We split because Freddie was in to some more quiet things. Now Han and I are working regularly again. Fantastic. Schwarzwaldfahrt was made during 14 days in the black forest in a van. If we saw a nice spot where the acoustics were right, we’d pull over. It was winter, it was fucking cold, but we enjoyed it. We’d talked about making music in nature, and how fun it would be. We played the river. A festival helped pay us for all that.
9. Whatever people think, I’m a jazz musician. And what is jazz without blues? Okay, saying that might sound funny because I’m a European guy. It might sound funny to American people, but I think you can have the blues in very different ways, and I don’t think that as a European you can’t have the blues. My god, no. You have them often enough. Listen to Bartok and those guys. They aren’t playing the blues, but they have their own way to express things. My thing comes from being German. You won’t find a guy in France playing like me. They’re good players, fantastic really. But they’re so fucking French. Everyone is a victim of their own environment.
10. The body is important part of my music. I like to go as far as possible with the music, my body, and my thinking – if action with all three fit together, that’s a good night for me. Sometimes when you give your all you think you might fall down. The brain is affected. I recently met a doctor, a guy who knows about the physical reactions of athletes. He heard me playing one night. He said, “I don’t know how you can do it; you put out more air than you take in. Something must happen in your brain.”