The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
We Thought We Could Change The World

Peter Brötzmann with Gérard Rouy
(Wolke; Hofheim, Germany)

Peter Brötzmann, 1975                                                                                               ©2014 Gérard Rouy

Getting older

What happens to a musician as he gets older?

Getting older, the direction is still the same but maybe some small things change. Things change when you have to deal with all the experiences of having been on the road for what’s now fifty years, you learn a lot. The way I try to get the instrument to sound is much more important to me, I’m much more able to control those things and I’m getting closer to my idea of how the horns should sound. I’m lucky in that, over the years, I’ve found the instruments I really love, I love the silver Conn clarinet I found some years ago in Buffalo, I’m very happy with the King saxophones I’m playing, I’m very lucky that I found the new alto made by my Japanese friend Ishimori in Tokyo. Then, to have these beautiful horns, to find out just what qualities a particular instrument has or what I can do with it, is quite a process to deal with and takes quite a lot of learning. I’m still a pretty unconventional saxophone player but my early influences or the people I liked when I was younger were Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, Don Byas, not that I tried sounding like them but their message is much clearer to me now than it was back then. Which means try to find your own sound and way of phrasing, I do that much more consciously now than I did back then.

Are you now more interested in melody than before?

My interest in melody might be just a sign of getting older, but I always liked it. When I am walking through the woods alone, I whistle the old tunes I grew up with. If you listen closely to my early recordings, there’s not only noise, not only sounds, there’s my own way of playing melody. Of course it’s not so obvious, but I think even on the first Adolphe Sax record [1], on close listening, you can find the same ways of playing melody that I’m using today. I like to sit upstairs at my piano and fumble around, from time to time, and discover a melody, some small movements. It takes time but sometimes something starts to sound. For example, when Kowald died or Fred Hopkins died or old Werner Lüdi died, I sat there, things develop like that. And I use a certain kind of material, maybe I’ll use a little Monk tune or maybe a kind of swing tune will show up. Of course, you have to be able to hear it, but it’s there. My younger American colleagues only knew me as a brutal saxophone player and I surprised Vandermark for example when I played melodically. When he heard me playing tunes, in the sound check or before the sound check, he always tried to persuade me to record the stuff. Which I might just do when I get really old, maybe one day I could imagine I might like the idea. For me, after all these years, I don’t see such a gap between what the guys who I grew up with, like Charlie Parker or Don Byas or Eddie Lockjaw Davis, were doing and what I’m doing. To me, there’s not such a difference. It may just be a question of quality and I don’t want to compare myself to those great musicians, but I think that what we are doing these days is still quite in the jazz tradition of playing the saxophone.

Could you imagine recording a standards album, like Derek Bailey [2]?

I love that recording of Derek’s, which is quite consistent with his way of life. In a way it’s the same for all of us in the end. If there is a time, I won’t push it, if there is a right moment to make such a recording, I could imagine doing it maybe just with bass and drums. Playing with all those American guys and now, drummers like Nasheet Waits put me in a different context. He comes from a very traditional way of playing the drums, he started with Max Roach, his father Freddie Waits was a great bebop drummer, playing with him puts me, of course, in a different context. So sometimes playing tunes or melodic things with them is easy to do. For a short time, I had the honor of playing with Carl Perkins, a guy who played with all the bebop guys like Frank Strozier or Lou Donaldson, for years with Carmen McRae and that gave me another view of the things I’m doing. He did the same things he did with the bebop guys and it worked. You know, one of the reasons I was always interested in the American way of playing was not that I wanted to copy something or play like anybody in particular; it was just a different feel. There was a time in Europe when a lot of musicians, and especially the English guys, said: “Fuck the Americans, we’re doing our own stuff” [3]. I always said, no man, I like that way of playing” [4]. I don’t know why but I always liked the American way of playing songs, of playing the blues. When we come to the blues, which is for me the source of all kinds of music, it’s not just the twelve bars, it’s the way you handle the horn, the way you express your feelings, your way of looking at the world. I think in every music all over the world you find a kind of blues, it just sounds different, it might be organized differently but it’s not the form, it’s how it’s expressed. I remember the time I played with Mahmud Gania, the well-known guembri player, he comes from Mali but he lives in Morocco, his family was taken to Morocco by the Arabs, as kind of slaves. He didn’t change his way of playing North-African music with me, this music has a lot of blues, it’s just a question of definition.

Where do you get your inspiration?

That of course is a question I quite often get asked and I never know what to say. I could say, yes, I had a nice walk in the park, in the garden today, that gave me some pleasure and I’m ready to put that feeling into my work tonight, blabla. But that would be a little bit too simple. No, inspiration is somewhere deep inside, I can’t explain it, maybe one simple explanation might be that it’s the blues that each person has inside.

How do you like the word “Kaputtspiel” [5]?

I am of course the world champion of that. People have been telling me that since I started playing and I always found it’s a silly phrase. It’s just people telling me that they don’t listen. I’ve been doing just the opposite since I started making whatever strange sounds I make or playing in those strange bands or those strange compositions, whatever I’ve done. No, it’s exactly the opposite, it’s about building things. One thing should be obvious to anyone who is in touch with the arts or connected to the arts, breaking things down and destroying things is a natural way of building up a new form, a new thing, of finding something, taking things apart in the arts is always the first step to rebuilding. So this “Kaputtspiel” is just another dumb ignorant word.

For you, is improvisation, a pleasure, a risk, or both?

It ought be a pleasure and most of the time, I have to, say it is. I’ve been lucky to have been with the right people. But improvisation can really become quite boring and silly when you are on stage with people who don’t listen or with people who think that they can do just what they want. The first thing you have to learn when you play this music, when you’re on stage, is respect for each other, that means you have to listen, to be aware of what is going on, you have to take a back seat sometimes. I know it may sound strange when I start saying these kinds of things because sometimes I’m quite forward on stage and I push myself or others into action. I don’t see this as a contradiction, which brings me to the second part of the question, the risk. From my point of view, the music has a beginning and it must have an end, but in between these two points whatever else is happening, you have to keep the tension up. Sometimes if you have the feeling the music is coming down to nothing, which means it has no meaning, nobody needs that, you have to push yourself sometimes, you have to push the others, you have to take that risk that the whole thing could break down. The other side is that risk can develop into something if you have the right combination of guys and I’m happy to say that most of the time that was the case and then taking risks was just a pleasure. I mean, working with Bennink for example for so many years, on stage with him was always just such a risk, I could have killed him, and sometimes it was far cry from any kind of pleasure. Another way of taking risks is to go on stage with ten or eleven people with no score, with no discussion, no ideas, just you. That kind of risk is only possible if there’s a trust between everybody who is involved, then the music takes care of itself. So, both things, pleasure and risk, are in a way two sides of the same coin.

What about your friends and enemies, among your fellow musicians and in the audience?

Let’s start with enemies. I have a lot of enemies, in German there is a sentence, “Viel Feind, viel Ehr,” that means that when you have a lot of enemies, it’s quite a good sign, and I like that. I think if you do what I’m doing, of course you make enemies. I have actually nothing against people who don’t like what I’m doing, who even think what I’m doing is completely wrong. I can understand it, it’s not a problem as long as they don’t want to cut my throat, I wouldn’t call them enemies. I think the worst enemies you can have are the ignorant and stupid people who talk about what you are doing and don’t even try to get any kind of information. Just talking some nonsense, out of ignorance, there were some bad things, some intrigues, even amongst the musicians closer to me. I hate it and I can’t deal with those things. But I’m always open to discussing what I’m doing or what I have done or what it’s about. I don’t mind actually, I’d rather prefer to have somebody who comes to me and says, Brötzmann what you’re doing is complete crap, nonsense. Then I can say, yes you could be right. I really hate the other ones who pat you on the shoulder and then say bad things about you or your work behind your back. Friends, that’s an interesting question. In the field of music, with all the good people I have worked with, it’s hard to define friends. Bennink for me is a friend, not because we played together so much, not because he is such a great drummer, he is just the crazy person he is, but I know that if I’m in the shit for whatever reason, I could go and talk to him. There are some other people I don’t want to name, but very few. And the older you get, the word friend becomes even more narrowly defined, the friends get less and less. It’s very strange with all these good guys I’ve been working with or I have worked with, there aren’t that many I could call a friend, maybe my definition is too limited. But in a way that’s been my experience over the years, which doesn’t have anything to do with, let’s say, the quality of the music, or the people, it’s a fine line. And the audience, they’re what you need for the work and I never agreed with Bennink, for example, when he said in the old days and he might still say the same, I don’t give a shit about the audience. I could never agree, no I don’t, I always take whoever is paying ten or twenty euros, five Marks, ten bucks, to come and listen to what I’m doing, seriously. You play music to get that feeling on stage, you need somebody who listens to it, why else would you do it? You have a little message; you have something to say to the person opposite. That’s why the audience is my partner in a way, of course most of the time it remains anonymous, but I think I take each person in the audience seriously; music without an audience is just nonsense.



1. For Adolphe Sax, recorded in 1967 with Peter Kowald and Sven-Åke Johansson.

2. Ballads, solo guitar in 2002, Tzadik. Derek Bailey (Jazz Magazine 2004): “Ballads is an idea of John Zorn, he wanted a solo record for Tzadik and I said, OK I’ll do a ballads album. It came out of a Christmas party in New York where I played a couple of melodies on a new guitar I just got. In the studio I started with seven or eight improvisations at the end of which I added a ballad, but it was not satisfactory, it was a way to dodge the issue. I had noticed that playing a ballad had an effect on my way of improvising. So I decided to play freely and to play ballads, I am rather happy with the result. Sometimes people ask me to come and play ballads, like last summer. I told the lady who called me that I would love to come and play, but I wouldn’t play ballads. She said, I have to talk to the committee about that. Then she called me back and said, we decided that you can play whatever you want! Sometimes during a concert, somebody in the audience shouts, play Laura!”.

3. Han Bennink (Jazz Magazine 1971): “I play a European music. Five or six years before, we could hear musicians in Europe that were repeating what the Blacks were saying, that we’re stealing their music and the result was quite sad. Nowadays, and I’m happy about that, I have nothing to do with Americans anymore. They have a musical background that only belongs to them, I place myself on another level”.

4. Evan Parker 1994: “This European movement was not a separate thing, we all knew about the developments in America in the early 1960s. Brötzmann certainly knew about Albert Ayler, Han and Misha played with Tchicai... To me it’s a natural response to what for us at that time was the developing aspect of modern jazz, so the idea of a separate European identity is more a function of cultural politic than a cultural reality. In a certain sense, the European approach to free improvisation was based on more the New York groups. Speaking for myself, especially Coltrane and Dolphy to begin with, then Cecil Taylor, the New York Art Quartet, Milford Graves, [Steve] Lacy... Lacy was an important connecting element, Tchicai and Lacy switched from one scene to the other, they brought something to Europe but when they arrived, they were quite surprised by what was happening. Then there was Musica Elettronica Viva with Americans based in Europe, Rzewski, Teitelbaum, Curran and others, Steve mixing with those guys in Rome. Then the interactions between all the Americans based in Europe with Europeans, the AACM people coming to Paris, then later on the meeting of Braxton, Dave Holland and Kenny Wheeler, and George Lewis, Braxton and Lacy with Company, then Cecil Taylor in Berlin, like a combination of the meeting between that West European thing and the original founding figures of the whole approach. Now there are two or three generations after that, then you have the whole thing with Japanese, Korean, Australian musicians, now it’s absolutely a global phenomenon, it never was a pure European thing anyway. What was the starting point? When Ornette Coleman came to New York? When Tristano, Konitz and Marsh did Intuition? When Giuffre recorded with Bley and Swallow?”.

5. “Kaputtspiel” or “play-it-to-pieces”. Peter Kowald used this term to refer to European (and particularly German) free jazz during the mid- to late 1960s. “The main objective, he tells Dirk Fröse (quoted by Ekkehard Jost in ‘Europas Jazz 1960–1980’, Fischer), was to really and thoroughly tear apart the old values, this meaning to omit any harmony and melody, and the result wasn’t boring only because it was played with such high intensity... This ‘Kaputtspiel’ made everything ‘playable’.” Later on, Kowald regretted using the term because the critics and journalists seized upon it as a definitive discursive term.

© 2014 Peter Brötzmann and Gérard Rouy

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