If it comes out of the tradition or the real meaning of the music, if somebody would call me a jazz musician, that make me a little proud.
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 Brotzmann 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 per-fecting 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 nowa-days'
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already. SOOOO... he started me off LP's by Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Monty Alexander, Charlie Byrd, and Dave Brubeck... does it get any better than that? ...No, it doesn't. I was hooked!!
I met and had a master class with the late music giant John Lewis, leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet! This was at CCNY in 1977. I was blessed! It was an incredible class... how could it have been anything else?!?!
The first jazz record I bought was...I bought numerous records from my friend at the record store, as mentioned above. He introduced me to nothing but music giants/legends! I think The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Greatest Hits, was actually the first one.
My advice to new listeners... study first--understand the rudiments--solfeggio, keys, scales, and basic chords. Read a book or take a class that includes the study of chord progressions, especially in jazz. It should ideally be a piano class so you can play multiple notes together. Have a good EAR or else it's not really worth it in my view...to become a musician, a good EAR for music is about as fundamental as breathing! Learn to read chord charts--i.e., lead sheets - wherein you play various voicings of the chords--major, minor, dominant 7th (alterations of these, you can learn over time - the basic chords are most important for starters), plus the melody, on the piano or keyboard. If you have to read the exact notes, then it's not the same as actually internalizing it & getting it all into your head. If you can do this, I think you're ready not only for listening to jazz, but understanding many concepts of it! Of course...anyone can listen to jazz... but I think it's so good to also have a grasp of it.