Clarinet, saxophone, tarogato
Multi-reedman Peter Brötzmann has been called “The Loudest, The Heaviest Free Jazz Player of them All.” It is a moniker he has earned. His trademark sound, often a blast that assaults the listener, is so ragged and rough as to appear almost withouttechnique. John Litweiler wrote of it in The Freedom Principle, “Brötzmann’s own tenor sound is always distorted into multi-phonics and screaming overtones… his medium is screaming energy music with a deliberately manic edge.” Such is the raw power of his blowing that, according to John Corbett’s liner notes for the CD The Dried Rat-Dog, Brötzmann once broke a rib playing the saxophone. A prolific performer, Brδtzmann has played in a wide variety of settings: from solo and duets to the large Global Unity Orchestra and almost everything in between. He plays a variety of saxophones and clarinets, as well as other more exotic reed instruments, including the tarogato, a double-reed instrument he came to favor. His performances have spanned the globe, from Europe to Asia to North America, although in the latter half of the 1990s the jazz scene in Chicago has been particularly congenial to his playing. He has appeared on some 100 records over the first 35 years of his career. As he approached his sixtieth birthday, he showed no sign of letting up; to the contrary, his vital, impassioned playing energized band mates half his age.
Brötzmann grew up in Remscheid, West Germany. His father kept the radio tuned to stations that played German and Russian classical music, but Brötzmann cultivated a taste for jazz as a teenager and would sneak downstairs after the family was in bed to listen to Willis Conover’s midnight jazz broadcasts on American Armed Forces Radio. Becoming a jazz player was the farthest thing from his mind at that point. “My goal was always to be a professional artist,” he told Coda, and after he finished high school, Brötzmann moved to the city of Wuppertal and entered the art academy.
He obtained his first instrument, a clarinet at 14 or 15. He taught himself the fingerings and practiced along with recordings by Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet and other early jazz masters. With their lessons under his belt, he started playing in local Dixieland and swing bands. The idea of Brötzmann the powerhouse playing mannered music like Dixieland jazz seems a bit incongruent. But at the end of the 1990s, Brötzmann’s sax heroes, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, were still masters of tone, control and invention. And Brötzmann was himself surprised, many years later, when he listened to a tape of himself playing in one of his early swing bands and realized that his early style was as raw as his mature one.
Eventually he bought a tenor sax and started playing hard-bop and other modern jazz styles. Around 1962, he
Born March 6, 1941 in Remscheid, Germany; married; children: one daughter, one son Caspar. Education: attended the Art Academy, Wuppertal, Germany.
Taught himself clarinet as a teenager; played in local Dixieland and swing bands in Wuppertal ; obtained a saxophone and began playing bop and other modern jazz forms; played regularly with bassist Peter Kowald, 1962; played with cutting edge musicians like Don Cherry, Steve Lacy, and Carla Bley, mid-1960s; began playing with trio Kowald and Sven-Ake Johansson, 1965; participated in founding of Globe Unity Orchestra; released two self-financed, self-produced albums, For Adolphe Saxe and Machine Gun, 1967-68; founded Free Music Productions collective with Jost Gebers and Kowald, 1969; formed influential trio with Hans Bennink and Fred Van Hove, 1970-75; performed in Last Exit with Sonny Sharrock, Bill Laswell and Ronald Shannon Jackson, 1986-1988, played regularly with percussionist Hamid Drake, 1992-99.
Addresses: Home —Wuppertal, Germany; Record company —Free Music Production, Postfach 100 227, D-10562, Berlin, Germany; telephone: (49 30) 394 17 56; Okkadisk, PO Box 146472, Chicago, IL 60614.
hooked up with a young tuba player, Peter Kowald. Not long after that, Kowald switched to string bass and the two Peters started playing together regularly at Wupper-tal’s Jazz Club/Ader Street, a nightly gig that lasted nearly ten years. Their music was fueled by the music they were listening to, all the revolutionary post-bop developments in jazz: Miles Davis, Omette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and Don Cherry. Wuppertal had a thriving cultural scene in the early 1960s. Most good American jazz musicians passed through town, and Brotzmann and Kowald played with most of them. Carla Bley invited them to join her band on a European tour; Steve Lacy and Don Cherry would stay with Brötzmann when they were in town. By 1964, Brötzmann and Kowald were playing free jazz. With Sven-Ake Johannsson, they formed an influential trio that helped establish it as a genre in Germany. That trio was instrumental in the development of the first Globe Unity Orchestra.
Brötzmann was also involved with the Fluxus group of artists like Nairn June Paik, Yoko Ono, and Wolf Vostell. He had his first art exhibit in Wuppertal in the early-1960s. But neither art nor music was paying very well at the time and Brotzmann had a wife and two children to support. “I did whatever it took,” he told Coda’s Steven A. Loewy, “whether working in the local brewery, or helping in my father-in-law’s blacksmith shop, or doing advertising work, or assisting my professor.” He was still concentrating on his work as a visual artist when he won his first widespread recognition as a musician at the 1966 German Jazz Festival in Frankfurt.
Two years later, he cut an album that Loewy called “the most important recording of Brötzmann’s career: Machine Gun. Taking its title from Don Cherry’s nickname for Brotzmann, the record was financed by Brotzmann and released on his own BRÖ label. For Machine Gun, Brotzmann assembled an octet of Europe’s leading improvisers, including Kowald on bass, Hans Benninkon drums, and Fred Van Hove on piano. Machine Gun was made in May of 1968, during a pivotal moment in European politics when cities across the continent were rocked by student uprisings. The sense of a revolution being born—in music as well as politics—was what turned Brotzmann once and for all to music. He believed deeply that the radical music he was creating could help foster change in the political and social realms, too. In the spring of 1999, he admitted that that belief about the power of music was an illusion. Nonetheless, that first Brotzmann record still retained its gut-wrenching power thirty years after it was made. It is the best-selling album on the FMP label and has been released twice as an album and once as a CD.
Following the success of Machine Gun Brotzmann, Kowald, and Jost Gebers formed Free Music Productions (FMP) in 1969. In the spirit of the times, FMP was formed as a democratic collective for recording and distributing the radical music being created. Eventually, as the group grew, collective decision-making became increasingly difficult and all authority was placed in Gebers’s hands where it remained in mid-1999. Another lasting result of Machine Gun: the core of its band, Brotzmann, Van Hove and Bennink, went on to form an influential trio that performed and recorded through much of the 1970s.
The 1980s were a fertile period for Peter Brotzmann, a time of prolific recording in a variety of settings. Alarm, recorded in 1981, saw him return to the large group format after a decade of small combo and solo recording, this time with a nine-piece band. In the mid-1980s he formed the group Last Exit with New York downtown musicians Sonny Sharrock on guitar, Bill Laswell on bass, and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums. Some purists considered Last Exit a sell-out to pop-rock commercialism, but Brötzmann defended the band in Coda: “At the time we formed Last Exit, the free music scene was almost dead—nothing was happening. Last Exit was an exciting concept, with great musicianship…. But no one became rich from Last Exit.” The group released five recordings between 1986 until 1988. It only ended when Sonny Sharrock died.
If anything, the pace of Brötzmann’s activities seemed to increase in the 1990s. He recorded Last Homewith his son Caspar—a stunning, unclassifiable guitarist—in 1990 and Machine Kaput with the German trio Ruf der Heimat in 1995. He performed regularly with Chicago percussionist Hamid Drake—as a duo on The Dried Rat Dog, in atrio with Mahmoud Gania on The Wels Concert, as part of the Die Like a Dog Quartet, and with the 1998 Octet/Tentet gatherings. As evidenced by his work with the Octet/Tentet and Drake, Brötzmann found the Chicago free jazz scene and its players particularly genial, and he visited the city about twice a year in the latter half of the 1990s. Nonetheless, he maintained a furious pace of work and collaboration with artists including Haruhiko Gotsu, Tetsu Yahauchi and Shoji Hano in Japan, the Thomas Borgmann Trio, Kees Hazevoet, Borah Berg-mann, and Anthony Braxton.
In the 1990s, critics claimed Brötzmann had lost his old fire, that “The Loudest, The Heaviest Free Jazz Player of them AH” was mellowing out. The new prejudice judgement irritated him as much as the old one. “The problem with a lot of jazz critics,” Brotzmann told Kurt Goergen in 1998, “is that these fools don’t know how to listen properly. I’ve always included quiet and lyrical passages in my music. It’s just that these critics— certainly, those in the old days too—can’t or won’t listen properly. They’re only noticing them now. Before they only wanted to hear the screaming Brotzmann because it fit the times better.” Still he confessed to Loewy in early 1999 that he might be changing a little with age. “Getting older has made me quieter, in some ways. The older you get the more personal your playing becomes. I would like to come to a point—like Coleman Hawkins—where I play a few notes, and those notes are as honest and serious as possible.”
For Adolphe Sax, FMP 0080, 1967.
Machine Gun, FMP CD24, 1968.
Brotzmann, Van Hove, Bennink, FMP 0130, 1973.
Ein Halber Hund Kann Nicht Pinkeln, FMP 0420, 1977.
Alarm, FMP 1030, 1981.
Last Exit, Enemy 101, 1986.
Cassette recordings ’87, Celluloid CELD 6140, 1987.
Low Life, Celluloid CELL 5016, 1987.
Last Home, Pathological, PATH04, 1990.
The Mârz combo, FMP CD47, 1992.
Die like a dog; fragments of music, life and death of Albert Ayler, FMP CD64, 1993.
The dried rat-dog, Okka disk OD12004, 1994.
The Wels concert, Okka disk OD12013, 1996
Stalker songs, CIMP 160, 1997.
The Chicago Octet/Tentet, Okka disk OD12022, 1997.
Litweiler, John, The Freedom Principle, William Morrow & Co, 1984.
Coda, March/April 1999.
Down Beat, April 1983; July 1984; January 1987 August 1987; August 1998.
“Peter Brötzmann,” European Free Jazz Pages, http://www.shef.ac.uk/misc/rec/ps/efi/index.html
—Gerald E. Brennan
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