Peter Brötzmann (The Interview)
Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer called him “the father of German free jazz”, and there are other terms, like “Teutonic”, “martial” that attempted to characterize his music and personality. Anyhow, coming from the now legendary Wuppertal free circle, multi-reedman Peter Brötzmann became one of the most active jazz musicians on the international jazz scene of the ‘80s adding to his image an entirely new dimension.
Born in 1941 in Remscheid, Brötzmann entered the Wuppertal art school in 1959 to spend four and a half years studying painting and graphic art. Together with bassist Peter Kowald he increased his activities in music, too, soon finding possibilities in Paris to play with people like Steve Lacy, Don Cherry, Kent Carter, Gato Barbieri. In 1968 he toured Europe with Carla Bley and Mike Mantler, and set up his first group for a debut at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival. Since that time he has become a leading force in the European free jazz movement, either with his own groups (including artists like Han Bennink, Fred van Hove, Albert Mangelsdorff, Louis Moholo, Misha Mengelberg), or in other formations, such as the free pioneering Globe Unity Orchestra.
His inimitable energies, unorthodox, highly dynamic saxophone playing and consistent musical attitude earned him an international reputation in the avant-garde circles. In 1986 he joined Sonny Sharrock’s Last Exit, which has become one of the most innovative groups of the decade. Now in his late forties Brötzmann continues to be at the forefront of jazz today.
JAZZ FORUM: I find it quite surprising that last time you were featured in JAZZ FORUM back in 1975. A Iot of important things have happened to you since then. Could you now recall the most impressive ones?
PETER BRÖTZMANN: Actually I don’t remember, but at that time I was still working with Han Bennink and guests Jike Albert Mangelsdorff. I was working a lot in Holland with Bennink and Misha Mengelberg, which was an important influence on me. On the other hand, I also had contacts with English and American friends like Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Steve Lacy, Don Cherry, and others.
JF: This work has been documented on FMP (Free Music Productions) records.
PB: Yes, FMP has been in existence since 1969 and I have mostly recorded for that label. But I made recordings in Holland, too. Of course, we’ve always had money distribution problems, but the label still manages to go on.
JF: In comparison to the early ‘70s do you see any differences itt the possibilities of distribution?
PB: It has always been very bad. If you are a big record company, it goes very easy, but if you are a small one, the possibilities are very limited, The record market now is so full of dif-ferent things that it is much more difficult to sell albums at the moment.
JF: Is there the same need for this improvised free music as it was in the ‘60s?
PB: I guess there is, I don’t sell very much, but if I sell a thousand copies in half a year, it’s quite good. Others don’t sell that much. Anyway, there is an audience and people buy the records, but now we have to look for another distribution system.
JF: A thousand copies in half a year isn’t that much, is it?
PB: It is really a lot. If you look around, the record market is not that big in this field of the music.
JF: It’s hardly enough to make a living out of it.
PB: I make my living out of playing concerts, and I must say I’m working a lot. Record business is not an important factor. Once or twice a year you get money from the royalties that can help sometimes, but it’s really not important.
JF: Wouldn’t you like to reach a wider audience, to get your music to more people?
PB: Of course, I would, but this is the question of distribution. This music is still a special thing. If you have larger audiences, as sometimes it happens, you can sell more records.
JF: This music is even a special thing within the jazz idiom.
PB: We do know it, but I have to do what I do. You always have certain kinds of fashion. At the moment bebop is coming back everywhere, and some pseudo-bebop and other mixtures are dominating the scene. One of the reasons for me to set up the Last Exist band was to reach a larger audience.
JF: We can see a tendency among some of the most devoted and respected musicians, like Jack DeJohnette, to make their music more listenable and more commercial, but still keeping the high standards of performance.
PB: Oh yeah, the fact that some of the American guys are doing it shows just how the market in the States functions. It is so hard to survive just playing your own music. That’s why most of the musicians try to play some funky, popular things. Take Ornette Coleman. What he has been doing in recent years is trying to find younger guys and change the texture of his old quartet music into some new contexts. Electronics, a lot of guitar, bass and drums – that’s the way it goes.
JF: You also have changed a bit.
PB: I hope so. I’m getting older and more experienced. Of course, the sound of Last Exit is different from that of when I’m playing with, let’s say, European people. On the other hand, in that band I do what I just have to do, but the background, the drums and the function of the rhythm is different.
JF: You come from the so-called European free jazz circle which was represented by the collective named Globe Unity Orchestra. I’ve met many critics and even musicians who suspect that this band ended up in a deadlock because it couldn’t develop further.
PB: I left Globe Unity in 1976 because of that reason – that the music not only didn’t develop but even stepped backwards. In the beginning the band had some good years, because there was an understanding between the musicians. But then, after a time, it disappeared and everybody was going to different directions. It just became a group of musicians with nobody being able to organize the music. This feeling, if we come back to the term free jazz of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, this common feeling disappeared after a time. And then the music got a bit boring. If you have no possibilities to work and play enough, like in the last years, nothing can develop. You may look for new members from time to time, but it doesnt solve the basic problem. A general problem with the people coming out of that free jazz movement of that period is that some of them have completely disappeared, some, like Albert Mangelsdorff, have forged a highly personal style, but a lot of them didn’t develop at all. That’s true. And standing still is not good. That was the reason for me to split.
JF: I think the term “free” has become a contradiction because in practice it represented a certain language, and when you create a code, you put restrictions on yourself.
PB: That’s why I started to play with a lot of different people from Anton Fier to Toshinori Kondo. So I don’t feel these restrictions, I don’t feel barriers. I just know good musicians and some bad ones. I don’t care if I play with a traditional Japanese koto player or with guys from the American or English pop scene.
JF: Was it a conscious decision or it just came by the time?
PB: It was not really a decision, it was just getting into contact with these guys in concerts or in bars. And then you decide to work together and if it’s working, you go ahead. Last Exit has been existing for more then two years now and it will go on for a time, and it is a great pleasure for me to play with these musicians.
JF: It’s not typical for Europeans to be members of established American bands.
PB: Well, it’s not very usual that a German sax player pan work in that kind of situation, in this kind of context. They just asked me, they liked me and I like them, so it’s very good to work. I’ve always had good contacts with musicians in the States. Besides me, Peter Kowald is working a lot with American musicians.
JF: This new period of your life has brought not only partners and relationships but also paved the way for experiences in studio work and advanced technology. I think of the projects with Bill Laswell, for instance.
PB: I was getting bored by the intellectual way that the European improvised music is developing. So I started to work with the American drummers Andrew Cyrille and Milford Graves and the Exit people because with them more music comes from the stomach while a lot of the European music comes from the head. That made me orient myself much more open to the American musicians and I feel quite happy with it.
JF: You seem to be uncompromisingly true to yourself, consistently following your own ideas, without taking into conisideration any financial or commercial aspects.
PB: I hope so. That was funny, when we started the Exit band, a lot of people were telling “Oh, what is he doing now – playing with these guys, making money”. We’re not in it for the money, we just like the music we are playing. In whatever we play, there are a lot of elememts from the European free jazz. We also play the blues, we play rock’n’roll things, all kinds of material, and I play my thing, too.
JF: What is it that you especially find attractive in this context? What made you join the band?
PB: You’ve known me long enough to know that I’ve always made my things very straight, with quite some power. I like that, just playing with my body, approaching certain borders to find out how far I can go. I see that I can do it very well with the Exit band.
JF: You have electric guitars and also rock rhythms in the band that opened up new territories for you.
PB: That’s right, in my early years I couldn’t stand the electric bass and the guitar. But I’m still open enough to learn new things, though it was a surprise for me that I began to like it.
JF: Overdubbing, phase-shifting, echo, sound manipulation – aren’t you afraid that this high technology can destroy something, that you can lose the intimacy of the natural sound of the instrument, replaced by artificial noisemachines?
PB: It is possible and for sure it’s right but, on the other hand, if you work very consciously in the studio, you can add some other things and dimensions you can never produce in concerts. We try to do both. For example, we used both natural elements and technical devices on the album which we recorded in Japan.
JF: And how about the public acceptance of your new direction? Don’t you think that those jazz fans who like your previous efforts and appreciate your uncompromising attitude, have difficulties in following you now?
PB: That is possible, but I don’t care, for I’m still able to find another, younger audience which is more important for me. If the so-called old friends don’t understand what I’m doing in the band, I can’t help them.
JF: So it is more important to have a new audience?
PB: Most of the audience of my age is very narrow-minded. They think the music should go forever that way, and I think that is stupid. People after 35 stay at home, watching tv and video, they have all the old friends on video from Coltrane to Miles Davis. The younger audience is much more open, it needs experiences, and this is more interesting for me.
JF: Have you ever been in such a situation where people were hostile to your music and expressed their discontent?
PB: Sure, that can always happen. When Last Exit played its first concert at a festival in Frankfurt, many of the old friends left and came later to me to ask what I was doing. But, on the other hand, there was a new audience, a younger audience that liked it. I never play my music thinking of the audience. I just play the music and if people like it or not, I don’t care so much.
JF: I guess it is not only the question of likes and dislikes. I think you need a special mentality and frame of mind to be able to stand the shocking impulses of this anarchic, dissonant and loud music.
PB: Sure, it’s not a music just to sit by. I know people myself who in concert may like it, but can’t listen to it on record. It’s just a question of taking your time and going more often to concerts to learn new things. It’s a process of learning for the audience, too. Any way, our next album is a bit different. It’s a real studio work, and before we started, we said “Okay, we’d make short pieces”. We tried this, we tried that and we did it and worked on it in the studio. So I think this record is quite nice to listen to at home, for instance. But, I must repeat, it’s a process of learning and listening.
JF: It’s good to know that you and many other avant-garde musicians work with enough pride and self-consciousness to believe in the acceptance of their music and the change of the public attitude. This is the basic condition of the development of every art form.
PB: You have to have it to survive, it’s really necessary. You can imagine, when I started that strange music in the ‘60s, there was nobody there except for some fellow musicians to understand it. Building up the audience was a long process.
JF: Some would say it takes a bit more time for the European free jazz musicians to get to the big festivals like The Hague, Pori, Molde, etc. If there is any avant-garde there at all, it comes from America.
PB: Americans have a completely different view on the so called free music. It has never been free. Maybe the only one is Cecil Taylor. But as to Last Exit, Pori invited us this year, but they couldn’t pay. The band is quite expensive not because of the musicians but because of the very special amplification system. Last year we played in The Hague, Moers, Paris. But you are right, it’s easier to come from the States and play some semi-modern improvised music with American funk rhythms underneath. It’s easier to sell it, of course. All the festivals are so commercialized, and that’s why I don’t like them much. They need certain kinds of music, and it is not even the names of the musicians, as it was in Coltrane’s time, that counts. And there is a big group of musicians that play the same shit over and over. You can change the names and really don’t lose anything. There’s not very much happening in music in the States these days. You don’t find the “old” European free people like Schlippenbach and myself at these big festivals too often. I’m not so much interested in the festivals, any-way. They are too big. Twenty thousand people is nonsense. But you have to do both, you have to play them, because many people are listening to you, and one or two may come later to the smaller concerts. I like much more the intimate situation. It is much better to have 100-150 people listen to our music.
JF: You mean your other stuff, outside of Last Exit.
PB: Yes, I’m still doing both sides of it. I do a lot of solo work, playing with different musicians in duo or trio, we also do small groups, very intimate things. For the Exit band of course, which is very, very loud, you need a big hall.
JF: Recently you have released a solo record titled “14 Love Poems” which, with its lyricísm and emotional content, might be a surprise to some of your old and new friends as well.
PB: As I told you I’ve changed a bit because I’ve learned a lot about myself during the last years. I’m not the wild young man anymore but I got my strength and power to do certain different things. “Love Poems” was just made as a record. I went into the studio for a week, I had it in my head, so I did it. You are right, to some people it may be a surprise. But, you know, I got tired of my image of being a loud, aggressive saxophone player. My whole personality has changed, today I know more than I did fifteen years ago, for I’ve learned a lot through working so much in the music.
JF: Do you sometimes listen to your old recordings?
PB: Very seldom.
JF: And how do you feel then?
PB: Well, something very funny happened, I was in New York, doing a radio show for the university, and this lady played me my very first recording, the trio with Peter Kowald and Sven Johansson. I haven’t heard it since then, so I was very surprised. it sounded right, I liked it.
JF: I just asked it because there are musicians who deny their past, qualifying their first efforts as childish attempts.
PB: Yes, you always have to have in mind what comes next, what you are going to do, but I think it’s not bad to look back from time to time, but not too often, of course. For instance, I prefer Miles Davis’ classic quintet with Coltrane to his recent productions in which I miss something. We can discuss if we like his music today or not, and I must say not really, but he is right in saying that “People expect me to play jazz standards all my life”. He is true to himself finding out ways where he wants to go.
JF: Do you care for what’s going on on the international jazz scene? Are you interested in the new trends of the music?
PB: I don’t listen too much to new music, I mostly listen to the traditional music from Louis Armstrong to Eric Dolphy ín the ‘60s. Of course, I know the new musicians, but mostly from concerts, I see them on stage. Not long ago we organized a festival in New York with a lot of young groups, sax players. I must say it was a music kind of weak in mind and in expression. I played there with Milford Graves who is about my age and we know each other quite well. He was playing really great, better than all the other young drummers. Even with the Exit band, where with the exception of Bill Laswell everybody is of my age, the playing is much stronger than in all those young groups. And I am 47 now.
(Jazz Forum, 1988/6)