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Interviews

Peter Brotzmann

By Published: May 6, 2003

Maybe in '66 or '68 we had the idea of changing the world a little bit with the music or the arts, but that is a thing of impossibility. What you can do is convince a person from time to time to think differently about things.

By Clifford Allen

Peter Brotzmann has exemplified European improvised music for over 40 years and particpated in countless international collaborations. Br'tzmann's career began in art, experience he would take into his music and record label FMP. His playing, brash and aggressive, continues to destroy speakers worldwide. He recently sat down with Masters Degree candidate in Art History Clifford Allen during the opening of Br'tzmann's work on paper show The Inexplicable Flyswatter at the Art Institute of Chicago. We thank Peter Br'tzmann and Clifford Allen for allowing us to publish exerpts from their interview.

All About Jazz: I'd like to know whether you've ever engaged theories of process specifically in your work, or is there any philosophical grounding with respect to your music?

Peter Brotzmann: No, actually there was never a time I was thinking about why and how or whatever, getting into music just because I like to play, getting into it as an amateur and playing this Dixieland swing stuff. Of course, there came a time where I took it more and more serious[ly] but mostly from the playing side. The instrument, to play with the guys, with the drums and the bass, that was just the fun of it. I think that still is the main important thing for me. I never was a guy who saw this kind of music as a kind of intellectual game or challenge. I like to play, I like the horns [and] I like the way they sound; of course that's one of the main points to work with others, that's why I like it. Of course, there are guys in our business, developing musicians or theoretical, thinking guys developing certain why and why-not and how this works and how that works. Sure, that is a possibility, but that has never been my thing.

AAJ: How do you view your solo saxophone playing in relation to your work in groups? Derek Bailey has set up a number of ideas regarding both, and one he views as true improvising and the other is maybe perfecting your language but not necessarily improvising. I was wondering how you feel they are different, or do you feel they are pretty much the same?

PB: No, they are very different. Any solo performance is a different thing, and especially if you record a solo album. I think you have to have certain ideas, even if during the recording you forget about the ideas, but if there is time for you to record a solo thing, it's always a special moment, and always a special challenge too. So I think the challenge part is very important, if you play solo concerts for an audience. It's hard work to catch the attention of an audience for, let's say, an hour solo. It's not so easy. It's hard physically and it's hard for the mind and for the brain. It's really a challenge. And that is one point. You mentioned language-wise, and that is really always the point if you discover for yourself a couple of new things, a couple of new 'words' or ways of 'talking'. So, for me it is always very different from playing in a group. But, from time to time it's necessary just to know where you are. Sometimes you see for yourself, "Oh my God, that was a wrong moment." that happens. So the solo is a very delicate thing.

AAJ: Would you still consider solo playing 'improvisation'?

PB: I think being busy so long with the instruments, with the language, the borders between improvisation and playing tunes, pieces, or fixed material, they are fluent. So things come in your mind, or the instrument gives you something to work on, and I think in that case you can't say 'improvised' because the material is in your brain and you use it in many ways. You have quite a wide range of certain materials and you put it together and it works, or sometimes you start a certain thing you want to play and you see it doesn't work. In this context, it's a wrong night and you forget about it and do completely the opposite.

AAJ: Would you say that you'd rather play in a group setting, or is there no preference for you personally?

PB: For sure, I have a preference for the group playing. That is the main thing; I think this music is made to play with a group, with each other, with a bunch of guys. And the solo, for me at least, will always stay an exception.

AAJ: So what kind of group settings do you prefer? Is there a certain size you'd rather work with, or certain instrumentation?

PB: Yeah, of course, when I was a kid and started to get interested in the music but didn't play an instrument, I thought always that the drums would be a good thing to play. And for some reason, there was this clarinet at school [that] I could try, and I stayed with it. But drums always was - and is - the most important counterpart, in a way. Maybe a bass to be added; in a way, that is the most practical thing. You have to travel, you know, it's an economical thing too. And of course, I like to work, for example, with the Chicago Tentet; I mean, I always had larger ensembles together if the money was there. And in earlier times in Germany that was more often possible because the radio stations often had money, which is gone nowadays'

AAJ: It seemed like the Globe Unity [Orchestra] was able to maintain a high level of activity.

PB: That was really a good time to find out what is possible with a large ensemble. Yeah, we had Globe Unity from twelve to nineteen, twenty people sometimes. That was a great time, but for that, of course you need money, and that is nowadays very hard to find. We were lucky that Ken [Vandermark] was able to put in some of his MacArthur [grant] money for the Tentet tours we did here in this country. Until now, we were lucky to play some bigger festivals over in Europe. We have coming up this year four or five festivals, which is nice, but the near future, for next year and the year after, we will see. I just was sitting yesterday together with Ken and we talked about what we can do. We have to find sponsors, some private money, some foundation or whatever, but that's hard. In Germany, it's hard to get people from the foundations interested in this kind of music. They give a lot of money to the visual arts, they give a lot of money to the symphony orchestras and all that classical business, but our kind of music still moves on the lowest level, in a way. It's difficult, but we work on it and we don't give up'

AAJ: So would you rather work with a regular group, or do you like to vary it as far as personnel? Which is more fruitful for you?

PB: It always depends a little bit on what time we are living in. I think all of us three - [pianist] Fred van Hove, [drummer] Han Bennink, and myself - ten years of playing with the trio was for all of us very important, to develop the music and set up the record label and do all the things around that. And then, there was a time that I was involved in trying this and that, whatever. Now, I'm very glad I've known William Parker for 20 years and I know Hamid [Drake] now for 13 years. Even if all the guys are busy with other groups and other things, but to get together a couple of times a year is what I like. There are not so many people; you have quite a bunch here in Chicago, but in other cities here and in Europe, it doesn't look like that. You always have to look hard, you have to be like "this could be a guy," and there are not so many.

AAJ: How do you view the recorded medium in relation to improvisation? Do you feel that it's important, or would you rather not look back to your previously recorded material?

PB: When we started to set up the record business, that was in the mid '60s, we thought it was good enough to have a kind of information to reach people you usually don't, and to develop things...I think even nowadays I have to look back, because Atavistic is setting up all this old stuff, and to be confronted with what you did 30 years ago, it's good. Because you can look at it with a lot of distance and you can quite clearly see what you did at the time, and what kind of nonsense it is, of course' (laughing) or even how good it was. And so I have nothing against it.

AAJ: Do you think that records go against the nature of the music at all, the spontaneity of it? Some people have completely negative feelings on that.

PB: I don't think it goes against the nature of the music, and especially if you work like most American musicians work; they have certain pieces and compositions or whatever. To have that on a CD or on vinyl, I think that's good. Sometimes with improvised music, of course, it's a kind of contradiction. I know that, but on the other hand, if you follow Misha Mengelberg's explanation for it, he found a perfect word for what we did the last three days. It's a kind of 'instant composition', so why not have it? But sometimes it's nice to have a stage, to have the guys there, to have an audience. You play, and that was it. No recording, no nothing. I mean, we had recently two months ago, a kind of memorial night for Peter Kowald, and we invited a lot of guys, his friends from New York and everywhere, a lot of Europeans, and we played from 8 in the evening until 4 in the morning.

AAJ: Uninterrupted?

PB: Nearly uninterrupted; it was good discipline, it went on and it was great. So, we had to decide: do we record that or not? It would have been difficult, it would have cost money. The musicians came for nothing, and so that was my decision: no recording. Even the guys with small recording equipment in the place had to get out. We had a very good night, and we had 600 people in the audience, and these people got the music, and we got it, and that was it. But there's no document. I think that was the right decision, you know, and sometimes I'm embarrassed by all the recording. I mean, everything is recorded and if I think back when we started, it was so difficult! It was so difficult to have an engineer, find a guy who had the right machines, find the right room; it was expensive too. You had to save a lot of money just to start. Nowadays, everything is so easy. You put the mic in front of your nose.

AAJ: So how has your approach to the music changed over the past 30 years?

PB: Of course it would be stupid to say it's the same like it was forty years ago, of course not. I learned a lot; when you are young and developing the music in those quite-heavy years in Europe, in Germany, you have a different approach to things than you have nowadays. For me the funny thing is that it has changed a lot, but the rules are still the same. Of course I'm much more in control of what I'm doing and I can set up things much more functionally; on the other hand, the music for me was never a kind of intellectual or personal expression. It always had to do with the times and the way the world develops and the way our society develops, and if you look at the situation now, and look back at the time of the Vietnam War, the situation in Europe at the time' It seems to be a kind of Sisyphus-work, you always have to start again. Human beings are f*cking stupid, and all the time the same mistakes and no respect. Going to stupid wars, nobody needs that kind of nonsense, and so I think the music is still a part of setting 'signs'. Maybe in '66 or '68 we had the idea of changing the world a little bit with the music or the arts, but that is a thing of impossibility. What you can do is convince a person from time to time to think differently about things. I think it's the small steps you have to take, and to make, and that's finally something. It's more than other people do, so whatever we do and try to do, I think it's very necessary that we do it, and it's good to see that especially the group in Chicago [Br'tzmann Tentet], they really are trying hard not to give up. That's finally a good perspective for me.

AAJ: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician or not?

PB: That's a good question, and of course one that's not easy to answer. This came up before, I remember it very well. I was sitting with Cecil [Taylor] in one of those Berlin nights very long and we discussed [it] and he explained to me why he hates to be called a 'jazz' musician. And of course, there's no definition actually' So if you're using this music in selling sausages or selling beer, or in German-TV crime series, or some kind of pseudo-jazz based music, then don't call me a jazz musician. But if jazz means [being] dedicated to the instruments, to your comrades you're working with, to the people who invented this kind of music, to the history, or just to a man like Coleman Hawkins who played so great on this horn, then I would be proud to be called a jazz musician. But, if it has to do with Lincoln Center and this [Ken] Burns guy, and Michael Dorff and all that crap, I don't want to have to do something with that. But, if it comes out of the tradition or the real meaning of the music, if somebody would call me a jazz musician, that would make me a little proud'


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