Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet: Bridging the Future with the Past

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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We do it for the moment, and the moment leads us to tomorrow. Once it's done, I'm ready to move on. —Peter Brotzmann
There may not be a more creative group of artists anywhere within the boundaries of any art form than those within the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet. These are individuals that comprehensively understand their responsibility to art and it is only through this level of integrity and creativity that art can, and will continue to move forward. Thus, it is completely mystifying and disheartening that this group of brilliant artists from Germany, Sweden, Norway, Chicago and New York remain relatively unknown outside of avant-garde circles. They have created their own dimensions of sound, their own sonority of power and intensity, with shapes of silence that collide and separate at varying levels of speed and measurements of time. They have not introduced a new language as much as they invent new universes within fields of time and space through intellect, passion and importantly, attitude.

I attended my first performance of the Tentet in Chicago in 2005 and not for a moment did I expect to be moved on so many emotional and intellectual levels. But I wasn't the only one. Not one member of the audience moved when the performance had ended.

The following morning, with the intensity of the previous night's performance still in the air, five of the performers (Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, Joe McPhee, Paal Nilssen-Love and Mats Gustafsson) of the Tentet came together for a round table discussion to talk music, creativity and the many facets influencing society and culture today. But what made this occasion and discussion unique, is that for the most part, all five of these creative artists impersonate diversity originating from different cultures. Like their music, the discussion was driven and intense, and reflected the compassion that each of these fascinating individuals brings to their lives and their music, each and every moment.

Lloyd Peterson: A group of musicians from Chicago came together in the mid 1960's and formed the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Are there parallels in what all of you are trying to do but on an international level?

Peter Brotzmann: That's a question for you (Ken). I'm too old for that.

Ken Vandermark: The members of the AACM came from a different period and community along with a different set of politics, but I do feel a kinship with their self determination in organizing situations where they could perform within the context of what they chose for themselves. And my understanding is that the AACM was very, very organized and while I am trying to connect with the musicians and find a way for the music to work, they were very devoted to the community in a way that was exceptional. Part of my own personal interest is in trying to work in situations that are not just devoted to jazz, but it's also about being active in the process of trying to find the audience that is interested in the kind of music that we are doing.

PB: I first met the guys in the AACM about 1969 at a festival in Frankfurt, Germany and from the very beginning; their primary objective was in getting work. They built up a community thatwas able to take care of all social aspects of life and as Europeans; we didn't have to worry about that. And I don't think the white middle class American had to but I'm sure that the Black guy, besides getting work; had to worry about making life a little bit more comfortable and a bit more secure for all of the members of the community. That was my impression from the very beginning and it has always come back to getting work. If there is work, then all of the other questions can be resolved.

LP: I sense a very strong passionate commitment and a certain attitude towards the music from all of you when you perform. I also sense a bond. Musicians talk about playing as if there is no tomorrow but you guys play like your life depends on it. Is this ever discussed?

Mats Gustafsson: We don't ever discuss it. (laughs)

PB: We do it for the moment, and the moment leads us to tomorrow. You have to do it with respect for yourself and for the guys you are working with but you also need to develop your ideas. I'm always trying to be realistic but without a vision for the future, it's useless to look beyond last night's concert.

MG: The commitment for the music has to be 100%, otherwise you might as well stay home. Even in rehearsals, people are playing their brains out. It's not something that is discussed; it's just the way it is and could not be any other way.

PB: When I was younger, I remember visiting the rehearsals of professional musicians and it seemed to be cool for them to play with only half a commitment. It was completely different. And I think for all of us sitting here, if you touch the horn, you play it with all you have. It doesn't matter whether it's a rehearsal or a performance and that's the only way for us.

MG: For me, it's so upsetting to hear contemporary jazz on recordings and hear the musicians play with only half a commitment. It doesn't even seem as if they are trying to do music.

LP: For some, the commitment seems to be towards the entertainment aspect of the music rather than a commitment towards the music as an art form.

MG: Yes, there is a huge difference.

KV: I think the connection that we all have in the Peter Brotzmann Tentet and with other people that we choose to work with in different forms of expression, is in the curiosity that we all have with this process. It's a search to find things with sound, and you cannot work with someone that is going to do that half way. And it's not as if we talk about it or that it's similar to walking onto a football field and saying, let's get out there and play! It's just an understood thing. It's understood that we respect each other and part of the reason is because everyone is about the music, working together, and finding out where it's going to take us. And even with the performance last night, "Be Music, Night," it was there from the first rehearsal all the way to the concert. It was always evolving. And I have to say that I was quite impressed with Mike Pearson because he improvised his approach to the text while interacting with the group. Every time he read the poems, it was different. I was quite surprised by that because I thought he would have a set way of reading the material and we would work around that. I think that the project was exceptional, but I don't think that the approach to the project was exceptional because that is the way we always work, all of the time.

We are talking about doing this performance again because there are so many ways that we can approach the same piece. And that flexibility and interest is the commonality between all of the different things that we do both individually and in different kinds of groups. There are just so many different possibilities to utilize the different tools that we have to constantly reinvent the thing and that commitment is just understood. It is not talked about, it is shown. It's the physical expression of being there on stage and knowing that the person next to you is with you 100%.

Joe McPhee: For me, I feel very limited in what I can do because contrary to what people think, I'm not a saxophonist. I mean, I play the saxophone and there are saxophonists who I highly respect who have studied the instrument and know it inside and out but I have never had a saxophone lesson in my life. I play it because I really don't have a choice about things. I don't know what my limits are and I don't know what I cannot do. It's a possibility that leads to other things like playing with these three great saxophone players.

PB: Joe, perhaps you need more coffee.

(All laugh!)

JM: I had a chance to be in an environment, which makes all of these things just outside of my reach more possible. And this whole thing about free jazz, I don't know what that means. Freedom is a work in progress and what we are doing is a work in progress. It's constantly evolving and I don't know what the next thing is going to be. I just know that I have been looking forward to the next note we are going to play since the last note we played last night.

LP: What is the most critical aspect of improvisation? Is it the statement itself or is it how you arrived at the statement to begin with?

KV: I did a tour in October of 2004 with Paul Lytton and Phil Wachsmann, and Lytton talked very specifically about his frustration with results. He felt that some of the musicians he has worked with have become more concerned with the end result as opposed to the process. He seems very much concerned with the performance and how it is connected to really looking for what might happen, and perhaps not caring quite as much as other musicians about having something musically successful.

PB: I think that after all of these years, I try to avoid the term free jazz, which I have hated from the very beginning. But I also have nothing against the result after a period of work, but that was not the process early on. I learned that it's good to have something in mind, and if you get there, it can be quite a nice feeling and then you can think about the next night or the next note. For Lytton, it might be one way of looking at it but even if it gets you the freedom you want, you need to see what is happening and look at the process because the process is the thing. But I think it also limits your way of working, thinking and feeling. I'm sure I would have talked about it differently twenty years ago but my feeling after all of these years of playing is that the result is not such a bad thing.

KV: I could be wrong but I think part of what Lytton was talking about was voicing his frustration over certain people having a defined thing that they do and then they stop the searching process. And I would say that from my point of view, the work that you have done Peter is evolving all of the time and looking for results is like seeing something that hasn't been done or moving to another place. And I think that part of what Paul is talking about is the frustration of people abandoning the search and maybe having an idea in mind and moving towards it; and just saying that this is the thing that I do.
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