Peter Brötzmann: The Complete Machine Gun Sessions
“ It’s hard to say whether Machine Gun makes one want to take to the streets, but it does inspire a yell--and more than a few grins. ”
The Complete Machine Gun Sessions
Almost forty years have passed since the 1968 recording of German reedman Peter Brötzmann's Machine Gun at the Lila Eule in Bremen. The session, now regarded as one of the cornerstone records of European free improvisation, was a combination of several ensembles active on the western European landscape in the late 1960s, as communication and collaboration between small creative-music scenes was starting to develop.
The date features two of Brötzmann's groups from the timethe trio that recorded Morning Glory aka For Adolphe Sax (BRO, 1967, reissued on FMP in 1972), with bassist Peter Kowald and drummer Sven-Åke Johansson, and the quartet that recorded half of Nipples (Calig, 1969), with pianist Fred Van Hove, drummer Han Bennink and bassist Buschi Niebergall.
Also along for the ride are British saxophonist Evan Parker, who contributed to the Nipples date, and Dutch reedman Willem Breuker, whose New Acoustic Swing Duo (Instant Composers Pool, 1968) with Bennink had been waxed barely a year earlier as the first ICP recording. The entire ensemble save Bennink had also been present at the Baden-Baden Free Jazz Meeting 1967, organized by Sudwestfunk (Southwest German radio) prompting collaboration with trumpeter Don Cherry, whose nickname for Brötzmann gave this recording its title.
Machine Gun was initially pressed in an edition of 300 for the saxophonist's tiny BRO imprint with a hand-silkscreened cover. It was reissued in 1972 on the fledgling FMP label, and re-pressed on vinyl several times before a recent FMP CD issue added alternate takes of two of the pieces. This latest Atavistic version combines all extant session material (resequenced as per the original LP) and a stunning live recording of the title piece, previously available on Fuck De Boere (Atavistic, 1968/2001) and originally the International Holy Hill Jazz Meeting 1968 (CB Records, 1968). This live take predates the studio versions by about two months, and adds tenor man Gerd Dudek to the front line for a nonet performance. Also added is a cover image taken from a 1967 collage by Brötzmann; titled Schiesscheibe, it adds to the reedman's legacy as a visual artist, something which is less acknowledged than it should be (he trained as a painter and was among the European abstract vanguard of the 1960s, following in the heels of Arte Povera and COBRA).
"Machine Gun beginning with sharp staccato blasts from tenor saxophones, drum kits and percussively-slapped bassesis meant to be played loud. The character created by the dense assault of the piece's first few moments yields to a surprisingly supple improvisation from Parker, a tenor voice carrying on the Coltrane/Rollins school and very reminiscent of Archie Shepp. He dives and swoops in and out of the distant chords of van Hove and loose canvas of basses and percussion, occasional exhortations from the front line driving him to an ever more frantic execution.
Far from the "Gymnopedies" that are his usual persuasion, van Hove prods with broken fragments, Niebergall and Kowald sawing and pummeling their instruments in a gestural display. Breuker and Bennink get into a frantic, walloping bass clarinet and percussion duo, clearly encapsulating their New Acoustic Swing Duo performances from the time. The leader is the last to solo, pushing his tenor completely into the red as the full weight of the rhythm-quintet is behind his screams and brays.
Breuker seems to be the one who heralds the infamous R&B breakdown that appears three minutes before the piece's end, part marching-band troop rally and part homage to the bar-walking legacy of Adolphe Sax. It's always been kind of a shame that they didn't carry this humorous grit towards its conclusion, for the staccato "theme is what ends up closing the tune out. Still, as massive as this music is, there's another side to the proceedingsor perhaps a left cheek at least.
Van Hove's "Responsible starts the second side of the disc, a dedication to the late drummer Jan van der Ven, who worked in groups with the pianist and Dutch altoist Kris Wanders, whose substance abuse carried him to an early demise. Initially a taut and nasty free improvisation for piano strings, tabla, bass thwack and baritone skronk (as both drummers go at it, Bennink's yells capture the exuberance of the moment), it's the kwela theme at the tune's end that makes "Responsible interesting.
The additional take has the leader on tenor contributing truly wasted single-note honking, a lung-busting blast reverberating from the concrete walls of the Lila Eule. Visits by the expatriate South African band the Blue Notes and an influx of Surinamese musicians to the nearby Amsterdam scene probably combined to give the Belgian pianist's composition this African flair, but it's a shame the framework wasn't carried out to a fuller extent.
Breuker's "Music For Han Bennink closes out the original sessions, and is the only track not marked by an additional take. It's manic as hell, and entirely demanding of a dynamic saxophone section to carry out its madcap riffage. Johansson has ample opportunity to get into his crazed Schlingerland echo bag, basically drowning out Bennink's nerve beats. After Brötzmann's tenor solo, there's an odd bit of delicate pastoralism before the boat-rock returns with Breuker's yawping tenor. Van Hove gets in a bit of unaccompanied piano preparation, a bit more dissociated than Schlippenbach or Schweizer, maddeningly maintaining the tempo as he closes out the piece.
Though Machine Gun (the original sleeve is pictured left) is certainly a dyed-in-the-wool classic, the two years of music surrounding it are equally worth considering. Breuker was active in the Instant Composers' Pool starting in 1967, and had already recorded the large-scale work "Litany For The 14th Of June 1966 on Relax Records. Kowald was in the Swiss trio of drummer Pierre Favre and pianist Iréne Schweizer; they recorded Santana (PIP, 1968) later reissued on FMP. Parker at the time also worked with Pierre Favre's group, recording for Wergo in 1968, and shortly thereafter joined Tony Oxley's unit. Niebergall and Johansson were working in trumpeter Manfred Schoof's group, which also included Gerd Dudek and Alexander von Schlippenbach. Johansson had augmented and then replaced drummer Jaki Liebezeit (later of Can).
There was a lot of music being made under the banner of "European free improvisation, most of it equally arresting and just as heavy as Machine Gun. But the fact that Brötzmann's ensemble is an international swath of players on the European free music scene is what makes it especially unique. Sadly, most of the connections it draws are beset by scant recorded availability.
It's uncertain if Machine Gun and its brethren are the soundtrack for Vietnam, the Left Bank revolt or the washing away of Germany's Great War legacy. The session isn't exactly "dated, even as Brötzmann and company have clearly evolved as musicians and composers since that time. In fact, it's a blueprint for bands like Mats Gustafsson's The Thing (hear them do "Ride the Sky ) and has fueled recent combinations of Ayler-esque fervor with punk-rock energy.
Certainly the natural reverb provided by Lila Eule contributed to its legacy as a stamp of presence for European improvisers (though I prefer the live recording as it separates the drummers), so dense is its aestheticnot to mention that the title is often misconstrued as a veritable riot if not an assertion of purpose. It's hard to say whether Machine Gun makes one want to take to the streets, but it does inspire a yelland more than a few grins.
Tracks: Machine Gun; Responsible (for Jan van der Ven); Music for Han Bennink I; Machine Gun (second take); Responsible (for Jan van der Ven) (first take); Machine Gun (live).
Personnel: Peter Brötzmann: tenor and baritone saxophones; Evan Parker: tenor saxophone; Willem Breuker: tenor and alto saxophones, bass clarinet; Fred Van Hove: piano; Buschi Niebergall: bass; Peter Kowald; bass; Han Bennink: drums, tabla, voice; Sven-Åke Johansson: drums; Gerd Dudek: tenor saxophone (6).