Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet: Bridging the Future with the Past

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

Sign in to view read count
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.

PB: I don't want to give the wrong impression but maybe what annoys Paul is that a lot of younger people today already start thinking about the result, then produce it, which is the way that maybe rock music is being produced. But I don't think it has a place in our music.

MG: This is completely true. It's really a slow process to get closer and closer to the result.

PB: It's a lifelong search and process of trying.

MG: Sometimes you can acquire the feeling of what Peter is talking about and maybe it's even good. But for me, it's not just about the process. That would be stupid because it would be to say that I am not interested in form and I'm really interested in form when it comes to improvisation.

JM: I'm interested in form too and I'm looking at this because this is the way I try and see things. This is a form and look what's going on in there (looking at an awkward oblong water glass.) You can move it around and it can definitely form something to work towards and I like that kind of fluidity.

PB:Yes, but that's that dialectic thing of what we call in the German language, "form und inhalt." That means the form and the content, which has to come together and that is what all art is about in a way. It's very simple.

Paal Nilssen-Love joins the discussion.

LP: With improvisation, you create something that is very much alive and then it's gone. Do you ever feel a sense of loss after performing a piece?

MG: For me, it's a process that is never done and it's never going to be finished. When it is done, there becomes a new starting point but the music is never done.

KV: There are times when I feel like I have failed at getting to the music and if something in my mind isn't successful, then I would say that I do feel a sense of loss. I feel like the opportunity is gone, or there was a chance to do something and I failed. As Mats was saying, after a concert is over, I don't feel a loss - ever! The only loss I feel is when the music fails and that chance won't ever happen again.

I definitely feel as if a struggle is involved and I think that everyone that I work with has a very strong sense of self-awareness and with that, a self-expectation about realizing something that is worthwhile. We can succeed or fail to varying degrees from night to night and for me personally, that can be painful. It's very much a reality in the process of either a live performance or in a recording situation.

There is a risk of failure involved anytime that we play and I think that that is a central part of the process, because if the sense of taking a chance and risk gets removed, then the music becomes very much dead. It's like an ongoing process of pushing yourself to a point of where you may fail because of the need to find out what Joe said earlier, of what can't I do or what can I do? That's a very intense process.

PB: It has to be.

MG: If you are not willing to take a risk, the music will be empty and flat and then you might as well get rid of the music.

KV: It has become clearer and clearer to me that there is no separation between who you are as a person and what you play as a musician. And the way that you care about the way you live and the way you deal with the music are not separable. That means that it can be painful. Just like being alive can be painful. You just cannot separate those things. And I think that some of the most remarkable music or art that I have experienced is an intense expression of all kinds of things simultaneously; because it's an expression of these people, in that time, in that moment, in a real and true way.

If you go back and listen to some of the older records with people like Thelonious Monk, they always sound new because there is so much in that music and I think that's what we are striving to do. We want to make music that is true, that is an expression of us now, along with the things that we deal with, and that can be painful but it can also be joyful.

PB: As a kid, I was interested in boxing and I can compare that to going on stage. You have to accept the fight and you have to accept that there is a chance that you can lose, but you have to give all that you can in this special moment to win. You have to concentrate and get whatever you can but on some nights, it may not work and that can be painful but without that actual experience, you don't have a chance to win the next time. And that's the thing.

KV: We recently played in Montreal with Sonore, which has always been a fantastic city to play in. The audience and the people that present the music there are really special. But for whatever reason, that night was a really hard night. There were a lot of things stacked against us and it was pretty rough. However, by the next day, we were already talking about wanting the next gig and what we could do better. And like Peter says, if you are in it 100% all the way, it's part of the thing you take on, that yeah, you are going to fail at times. And it's horrible when it happens (laughs) but it's very important because it illuminates so many things.

So I find those personal struggles within the context of the group fascinating because there are so many different things happening simultaneously from an individual and collective standpoint and how it can impact the success of the group and the music. There are so many variables and it's an amazing process. You can prepare as much as you want as individuals or as a group, but when you go on stage, you throw the dice and don't know what it's going to be. That's riveting and whether the people that come to the performance know the music or not, it doesn't really matter because nothing else is quite the same artistically and it's an intense human experience. It's an unusual and special art form because of that and it can be realized by anybody that is watching and listening.

JM: I don't know how you guys feel about this but no matter how confident I might feel; if I start to analyze things while improvising, I'm in trouble. Because if I think something is not going to work, it will not work no matter what I do. It becomes an up hill struggle all of the time. It's like the centipede that tries to think of which foot comes next and then it cannot move. But if I can just realize that I don't have much control over what is going on even though I'm doing the best I can, then that's it! At the end, somebody else can analyze it.

Paal Nilssen-Love: It's a feeling and should feel as if the music is playing you.

JM: I don't give it that much credit.

(All laugh!)

PNL: You try not to become too mental about the music and give it the distance it needs. It's a very special feeling.

JM: I don't think that we could approach it any other way than like there is no tomorrow. We have to do that at the highest level we can and it's unconceivable to do it any other way.

PB: Yeah, I'm with you.

PNL: You give it 100% and don't want to wake up the next day thinking that you could have done it better.

LP: How important is humility to the creative process?

KV: When you care about the people you work, you are constantly confronted with what you can and cannot do. You become aware of what your limits are and what you need to do to break through those limits and that's a humbling experience and if it's not, then you are not really being true to yourself. It's like confronting yourself in the mirror and you have to try and assess that on some level.

LP: Do you ever get a sense that your music may not be for the people of this time period?

JM: No, I don't even think about such a thing. This is our time period and all the rest of it is a bunch of bullshit. I mean, it's not music for the future or the past. This is the time we have.

LP: But is the music too "now?" Sometimes people can more easily understand something after they have had time to assess it in the same sense that history is more readily understood when it's looked back upon.

KV: Well, it definitely seems that mainstream society eventually catches up with what people are expressing that is happening today in real time. But I also agree with what Joe says 100%. The music is about right now but it usually ends up being a cliche and considered avant-garde because people are so living in the past. They are not thinking and only dealing with those things that they are told about. Thelonious Monk wasn't even accepted until the end of his life.

PB: Our music is vibrant and doesn't belong to the media cake but that doesn't mean that we don't have our own importance and our own audiences. We just have to work to find them but people have to work at finding us too. It's a process. I mean, do we want to be a part of that media cake? I doubt it. I don't want it anymore. I want to be left alone to work on my music and I'm able to find my audience and I think that what comes later is not so interesting. But we are always able to find people to work with and even when we only see each other a couple of times a year, we try to make the best out of the situation and that's a wonderful thing.

My painter friends always say, "Oh man, why did you move to this terrible music? Look at us, we are doing big exhibitions in New York and we make money." I know some of them quite well and they are fucking millionaires or professors and I sometimes get a bit jealous.

(All laugh!)

But just for two seconds. I then see what I have and that's really the best thing that you can have. It's working together and creating something together. That's a great feeling and if that works, you can be happy. It's a very good thing.

LP: The late author Edward Said, said that music just might be the final resistance to the acculturation and the commodification of everything.

MG: That applies to all art but perhaps music is more obvious. But of course, it's all about what we have been talking about. It's about sharing and searching and about all the active processes.

KV: I think that one of the problems with the kind of music we play is that it's very hard to commodify. We now live in a capitalist society which is almost everywhere on the planet today. There is an obsession with ownership of material things, but music is ephemeral. Even a recording is just an example of one thing and is not the ultimate expression; it's not the original. And with the kind of music we play, I think it's true that part of the struggle that we have in gaining more acceptance for the work we are doing is that it cannot be defined.

And from what I understand, Ornette Coleman is frustrated over the fact that he has been called a genius, yet he is not paid the commissions of someone like Elliott Carter and that's a valid complaint. If you are going to talk about financial compensation, the kind of work that we do isn't truly defined. So it's kind of a catch 22. How do we explain what we do? In new music circles, they say we just improvise; we just make it up.

JM: It's like throw away music; it's not important. But they should be paying us by the note.

KV: (laughs) That's the thing because many will write off what we do even though they use the developments of people that are making this music. A couple of days ago, I was talking about Paul Rutherford with Peter and Peter wastalking about how Vinko Globokar took many of the techniques that Rutherford developed in improvised music and Globokar is now this well known composer. Some of his work is even fantastic but Rutherford isn't getting a check for the royalties from that work.

So many of the people that are responsible for new innovations are not given the credit deserved. I'm mean yeah, you can credit us but it's this thing that's ephemeral in a world where that's not valued. Not to sound pretentious, but we are artists on stage making a statement that won't be that way ever again and how are you going to commodify that?

We are in a world where so much importance is placed on instant gratification. It's the realization that I have the best car, the best television set or I have the most famous painting or blah, blah, blah. And as improvising musicians, we are doing something that is completely counter to that because it won't be the same ever again if we are doing it right. And the closest thing anyone could have is a recording. But if you talk to any of the musicians working on this music, they'll tell you that they don't even remember some of the recordings that they have made because they are already onto the next thing.

So we are in an unusual place in the world because we are doing something that ideally is a life long pursuit that goes on and on and on; it's always changing so we are always bucking against these people who want to commodify us and categorize us. People decided ten years ago even what kind of music I play and they don't know anything about what I do because I don't. And I have also seen it in the short amount of time I have worked with Peter. Almost after every concert someone comes up to him and talks about Machine Gun but how long ago wasthat and what is he doing now?

For all of us, it's about what's right now. And it's difficult because any artist is really doing the same type of thing. A painting isn't the result, it's a step in the process and that's why there isn't only one painting. So I think what Mats is saying is completely true. We are artists like any artists in trying to do the work. It's just that the work that we do doesn't have a specific place in our society because it's about live music which is already an endangered species. The general population isn't interested in the idea of live music. They are more than happy to go to a concert and have people lip sync. They just don't give a shit. So we are really strange. We play acoustic instruments, the old fashioned way and get up and play something different every night. Where is our place?

So we have to find it. Because after that is said, I think there is a place for us in society just by the nature of what we are doing. People are starving to have that experience and they don't even know it, so part of the problem is for us in finding those people. All societies hear music of some kind and that's a part of our tradition too. It's not just the jazz tradition or the improvised music tradition; I see myself as part of the tradition; the idea of journeyman musicians playing music in society in bringing ideas through music to different places. I see a large connection to that. It's not just Coleman Hawkins, it's from all different kinds of societies.

MG: It's way, way more important now than ever because of that media cake that Peter was talking about. It's really more important than ever to have live music the way we do it.

JM: I don't know if you noticed but at the end of last night's performance, people could not move from their seats; they were stuck. They didn't know what to do and they couldn't get out of the theater and that was amazing. That's what happens and why we are very dangerous. We are dangerous politically because we are the first people that Karl Rove is going to go after and try and shut down because ideas are terribly dangerous and threaten these conservative assholes. Max Roach once said, "It doesn't matter what people feel, they can love the music or hate it but they cannot be indifferent to it." You have to feel something and that's what we need to do, we have to have that kind of platform; have more opportunities to play. I mean, recording really doesn't interest me much. Once it's done, I have a hard time listening to anything I have done in the past.

PB: I hear you. Once it's done, I'm ready to move on.

LP: This reminds of a conversation I had with Wadada Leo Smith, which had to do with the civil rights movement of the 60s.' It was believed that the political powers that be feared free improvisational music because it elevated the consciousness of the individual.

JM: Well, I'm labeled as a 60s free jazz musician and get stuck being placed into that period. But my music was very political and it was intended to scare the shit out of people and to get people energized and to do things to whatever extent that it could be done. And though I probably don't package it in the same way, it's still the same thing. I need to do that and that's my intention.

KV: It's like what Max Roach said, if we are doing it right, you cannot be indifferent to it because we are projecting our commitment and it becomes a confrontation of what the music means right now. And this process that the audience and band face from different sides is an incredible experience. We are in a catastrophic time in the United States, if not globally, and just to have music and the poetry in the air can be overwhelming for people and it can be beautiful in the truest sense. And people never get that. It's a rare thing and I think that the fact that we even can get to those things in the work that we do from time to time, it's crucial that it's there.

MG: The scary thing is that people are not even aware that they need it. They don't know how to get it and they don't know that they need to get it.

KV: You cannot even begin to describe the level of idiocy connected to this festival. That's a book in itself. Somehow some people made it to the concert, despite every effort to keep them from getting there. And I know that some of those people have heard the Tentet before and they were excited that ok, they are going to hear the band but I don't think any of those people were prepared for what they were going to be faced with and how it was going to happen; on all of those different kinds of levels. It's like they were overwhelmed. Oh my God...It wakes them up out of their stupor that they may be in whether they know it or not. There were people who thought they knew the band but didn't know, and that's the way it should be.

PNL: People come wanting to hear what they heard the band play last time and not caring about what the band is doing today.

LP: Paal, you said earlier that people in all of the arts are doing forward thinking work but sometimes you are out there all alone? How do you validate what you are doing?

PNL: When one is always true to oneself, then it's ok. You have your own understanding in the way you want things to go and as long as you carry it 100%, then it should be ok.

MG: Yeah, you cannot do much more.

KV: If I meet someone at a concert and they are happy about being there and about the music, I can recognize myself in them. You know what I mean?

I also value what my peers think. It means a lot to me. If I didn't feel as if I had a feeling of respect coming from those people that I respect, then I would know that I am doing something wrong or that I'm lying to myself about what it is that I am working on. And I think that fundamentally, you have to have that sense and if you abandon that even for a minute, then you are really going down to something that is going to lead to a dark place. There are people who have done amazing and incredible work and then for whatever reasons, they make choices to leave their work and then they don't seem to ever find it again. It's a delicate thing; the respect for the music and the people that you work with and once you let go of that for the sake of making more money or for the sake of being more famous, it slips away from you. Unfortunately, there are a lot of examples of that happening.

LP: I recently had a conversation with one person who was from Germany and the other person from Switzerland. The discussion centered around tolerance and the differences between various cultures and all of you come from different cultures. Do you find that tolerance differs amongst various cultures and does it affect how people view the events happening in the world today?

PB: I can say that the audiences and the people that I meet here (in the U.S.) are great. The people are curious, interested and young. So for me, it's always a pleasure to be here. But ofcourse, I see the other side too. When I first began coming to the states, I spent a lot of time in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

I was on the road with a bassist from South Africa and the other was Louis Moholo-Moholo who are both Black. And there were these guys at a bar who shouted, "Close the door nigger." And that was another world but I still think that this world exists and being on the road with William Parker and Hamid Drake quite a bit, we discuss my experiences in this country with two black guys and sometimes it can give you a funny feeling. I recently spent time with Anthony Braxton and we discussed the African American and the white situation and he said, "segregation is going stronger than ever." And from my outside view; in the end, nothing has changed. It's still, "Fuck these guys and fuck those guys." I mean, it's a mess we are in and it's not only an American mess; it's really a global mess.

MG: It's so disgusting.

PB: Yes, and of course, it looks different in different countries. And it's quite a global thing, hich has to do with the growing pre-capitalism situation that the world is in.

JM: It's economics.

MG: Its media controlled and we don't even know what is actually happening, we can only guess. It's crazy.

LP: Globalization seems to leave very little, if any room for creativity and independent thought.

MG: It becomes meaningless.

PNL: Yeah, the stronger the art part is, the stronger you're going to be to fight it.

KV: Things unfortunately go in cycles and we are in this period now in which this situation in Iraq, it doesn't seem unlike some of the things that were going on during the late 60s.

Post a comment



Shop Amazon


All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, shelter in place and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary effort that will help musicians now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the bottom right video ad). Thank you.

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.