a column by
Stuart Broomer

Peter Brötzmann, FIMAV 2011                                                                                  Martin Morisette©2011

Peter Brötzmann turned 70 this year. It’s usually a major personal landmark, but this is also a moment for reflection on Brötzmann’s role in the European chapter of the free jazz movement that he played such a signal role in launching, and to his importance to the current state of free jazz in general.

Rather than slowing him down, Brötzmann’s 70th anniversary seems to be giving him increased opportunities to demonstrate the awesome intensity that he has maintained since his 1968 octet recording Machine Gun, a work that still bristles with a singular ferocity. He‘s touring almost constantly this year. So far there have been tours with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm in January, with the Chicago Tentet in April, and in the trio Full Blast with electric bassist Marino Pliakas and drummer Michael Wertmüller in Canada in June. There was a commemorative concert at NYC’s Vision Festival in June and a series of appearances at the Kongsberg Festival in Norway in July that included a duo appearance with Evan Parker, while the Hairy Bones Quartet with trumpeter Toshinori Kondo reunited at Lisbon’s Jazz em Agosto. Brötzmann is spanning August and September with a two-week tour of China with a host of different players, then, on September 18th, as part of a Full Blast concert at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste, he will receive the German Jazz Prize, the Albert Mangelsdorff Award, for 2011.

In May the Festival International Musique Actuelle in Victoriaville, Quebec, marked Brötzmann’s 70th with two concerts, and a remarkable documentary of Brötzmann’s career called Soldier of the Road, by Bernard Josse – as fine a portrait of a jazz musician as I’ve seen – has been receiving its first screenings. 

The word “jazz” appears in the preceding and some might question why I’m not using the more geographically specific and culturally open umbrella of European free improvisation. Brötzmann could certainly pass under that term, but his identification with jazz is so strong and so traditional – and his particular moral focus and intensity so central to the well-being of jazz – that to deny him the term and to deny jazz his inclusion would be to impoverish both the historical idea of jazz and its current health.

At this year’s FIMAV Brötzmann turned in titanic performances, whether playing in a power trio with electric bassist Massimo Pupillo and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (essentially Hairy Bones without Kondo) or in an intense solo oration the next day. He treats his horns as the shortest possible conduit between self and world and that sense of a primal energy and commitment to the direct relationship marks the work of his most direct heirs as well, his frequent collaborators Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark, also present at this year’s FIMAV. Brötzmann plays with much of the same energy that animated For Adolph Sax (Brö) 44 years ago, though back then the extended concluding tenor solo might not have evolved into a paraphrase of Coleman Hawkins’ rendering of “I Surrender Dear,” and, had an encore followed, it might not have been a loving rendition of Monk’s “‘Round Midnight.” However much the performance belonged to free jazz and energy music, by its conclusion, Brötzmann was giving the performance to the breadth of jazz in all its traditional forms.

That same sense of jazz and occasion colored Brötzmann’s third FIMAV performance, a press conference largely given over to a long, sustained statement of his concerns for the current state of a music that he can unabashedly call Free Jazz, that molten form that he carries in direct inheritance from Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra. What was perhaps most meaningful was the concern with the continuity and progression of a language. His talk followed a circular course from the present to the past and back again, through memory and observation, sorrow and hope, a thread continuous with the living tissue that one catches in the immediacy of his music. His remarks ranged from the state of current arts funding in a host of European countries and the impact on the music, the dangers of the current scene for the future of the music and ultimately the long tradition of communities in the music that have made it possible for the music to survive.

Discussing the current state of performance opportunities, he repeatedly emphasized the concept of “basic work,” a principle at once economic and philosophical: by it he meant clubs – not festivals – the everyday performances that have largely disappeared for musicians. He talked about the internet “which some people imagine is the world” and how it differs from the way musicians once spent their apprenticeship: “There is no basic work – only big events. The most important point in the development of jazz music is basic work. The things you learn as a musician, you learn on the road: respect, social development.  Now it’s very difficult to do that.” Commenting on the current mode of jazz education, he reflected, “Young musicians now learn and do the same things – it’s so boring. The schools even teach them how to get space in the market, but there’s no space to develop. Jazz was always a music of personalities, not styles. Now the young are pushed into something as soon as they leave these funny music high schools.”

Reflecting back on his career, Brötzmann could recall the relative health of the European jazz club scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Germany was a really good country for work. There were clubs from North to South. You could be on the road twice a year with good support from radio stations.” He remarked that competition among German states extended to competition among radio stations – so that even conservative stations in Cologne and Munich recorded radical music.

From Brötzmann’s informed perspective, national politics and economies increasingly skew opportunities for performance. Just as the lack of clubs interferes with the development of young musicians, the complex economics of festivals dictate who gets to perform, as they increasingly depend on national subsidies, not from the home countries of the festivals but the subsidies that permit musicians to travel. It was refreshing to hear a musician happy to discuss bluntly and openly the programming politics of some festivals: “Are the musicians supported by their governments? There are Norwegian musicians touring who can’t hold their instruments – Dutch, Norwegian, sometimes English and French. The policy contradicts the balance of quality.” It’s a reality that audiences might take into consideration. What does it mean exactly when the supposed sounds of anarchy and liberation are merely side effects of a state trade mission?

Above all Brötzmann spoke as a bandleader, emphasizing that, “The reality for free musicians today is still one of struggle,” and “it’s very difficult to establish a group for a longer period of time.” He spoke of maintaining the Chicago Tentet for 12 years, but lamented, “Half of the band have second jobs outside of music to survive. But there really is an audience for this kind of music. The Tentet just played three nights in Cafe Oto in London and it was packed every night, 250 people a night.”

It’s that kind of response that makes Brötzmann – who is, after all, the leader of one of America’s most active and significant big bands – guardedly optimistic. At the conclusion of the talk, he turned to the specific tradition of the big band for inspiration: “As artists, musicians travelling around the planet, we have to look in longer terms. I was always fascinated by a kind of community behind the music, like Sun Ra – how did he survive all those years? Or Duke Ellington – he supported all those guys, all those years, because he cared about them.”

* * * *

“The inspiration is somewhere...somewhere deep inside, unexplainable for me...I don’t know. Maybe it’s... it’s the blues everybody has inside himself.” – Peter Brötzmann, Soldier of the Road

The feature-length documentary Soldier of the Road has screened in Paris and at the Meteo Festival in Mulhouse, France and has just become available on DVD. Films of the major figures of free jazz are relatively scarce, even in the age of omnipresent video cameras, so it makes this film all that much more of an event. It’s essentially a collaboration between documentary filmmaker Bernard Josse, responsible for images, editing and direction, and Gérard Rouy, who has provided a wealth of still images from Brötzmann’s career as well as interviewing Brötzmann and several long-term associates: Han Bennink, Mats Gustafsson, Evan Parker, Fred Van Hove and Ken Vandermark. There’s a fine balancing of skills, with excellent recent concert footage of the Chicago Tentet and Full Blast complementing the hard-edged clarity of Rouy’s usually black-and-white photography documenting ensembles ranging from the Globe Unity Orchestra to the electricity-driven Last Exit. 

Brötzmann is a frank and engaging subject, filmed in reflective moments looking at early graphics in his studio, clipping trees in a greenhouse, walking in a nearby park and resting in a hotel room on the road. What makes it so compelling is his ability to speak directly about his most formative memories, born March 6, 1941, as a child of the Third Reich. His narrative begins in absolute social reality, as he recalls his mother’s instruction to give a piece of bread to a Russian soldier held captive in a Polish village. He’s able to make a direct relationship between that world and the music he took to with such intensity - “That’s why I came to the music, too, because it came from another world, because I didn’t want to have anything to do with my past and the world behind me.” It’s a potent backdrop to Brötzmann’s declarations about his music that “Free meant something more than just an aesthetic,” and that he views the music “more and more as a kind of social movement.” You get a sense of how much of the jazz tradition has fuelled his music, whether he’s reflecting on his early experiences playing clarinet with a student Dixieland band, listening to a vintage Sidney Bechet record, or playing with musicians at the roots of free jazz like Sonny Sharrock and John Tchicai.

Soldier of the Road is itself a remarkable composition, the bucolic park and gleaming high-speed trains of contemporary Europe contrasting sharply with Brötzmann’s memories and the raw galvanizing power of his music, whether it’s deeply reflective or charging toward apocalypse. As Evan Parker declares of him admiringly, “He’s just a force of nature...directed through the saxophone.”

What gives Soldier of the Road its special quality is the sheer visual acuity of so many of the participants. Brötzmann originally trained as a visual artist and he has continued to paint throughout his career, including the stark expressionist images of his LP and CD covers and posters. Rouy is both one of the most talented and the most committed of jazz photographers. Bernard Josse is a particularly skilful director – some of the live footage is as good as any jazz concert footage you’ll see – and there are moments in his editing that are particularly telling, cutting from an image of Brötzmann walking away over a hill and co-ordinating it perfectly with the abstracted shapes of one of Brötzmann’s landscape-derived paintings. Han Bennink, an accomplished visual artist himself, talks about Brötzmann the painter as well as the man and the musician, recalling the two of them collecting bird feathers for art works. Bennink’s talk about the early days – there are still photos the two took while recording in the Black Forest in 1978 as well as Rouy’s photos of them in a trio with Fred Van Hove – opens onto vistas of the free, intense expression that’s at the core of Brötzmann’s being, the central fact of Soldier of the Road and one that’s both insistent and compelling.

Upcoming screenings include the Music Unlimited Festival in Wels, Austria, in November, where Brötzmann will be acting as curator. The DVD – with an additional hour of concert and interview footage with Brötzmann, Van Hove, Bennink, Parker, Jost Gebers and Michael Wertmüller – can now be purchased at www.soldieroftheroad.com where further information about the film is also available.

Stuart Broomer©2011

Ogun Records

> back to contents