Legendary saxophonist Peter Brötzmann turns 80 tomorrow, March 6. I’ve been listening to him for at least 25 of those years. I can’t remember the first album of his I heard, but it was probably Last Exit‘s The Noise of Trouble (Live in Tokyo). It’s not their best work, but it was what I could find. The first time I saw him live was January 21, 1997 at the long-defunct NYC venue the Cooler, a concrete basement in the meat-packing district. He performed with fellow saxophonist Thomas Borgmann, bassist William Parker, and drummer Rashid Bakr (aka Charles Downs). Their set — roughly 50 minutes of music, divided into two long tracks — was released as The Cooler Suite in 2003. There was no stage; they stood on the floor and wailed, and the sound bounced off the unforgiving walls in what felt in the moment like a searing, rattling, sustained scream. Listening to the CD years later, a much more nuanced and thoughtful performance was revealed. Parker and Bakr were laying down a thick, energetic groove, the drummer eschewing time in favor of a tense, shivering pulse as the bassist bounced loud and hard, his strings booming and bonging like cables struck with a hammer. The two saxophonists took turns soloing, only occasionally harmonizing at the points where one man was passing the baton to the other like relay racers. Brötzmann’s playing was more based in long, hoarse cries than Borgmann’s; the latter man opted for fast flurries of notes that got grittier as he came to the end of a phrase. But they were both clearly steeped in the blues and forged in the flames of 1960s free jazz.
Brötzmann’s music has been misunderstood for almost his entire career. He’s described as a tyrannosaurus, a flame thrower, a blast furnace, an unfettered fire-breather, and his music is sold as if it’s a nonstop explosion. In truth, though, he’s often an intensely lyrical player, one with a deep sense of what his bandmates are doing and a love of true artistic communication. In 2018, I spoke to bassist Marino Pliakas and drummer Michael Wertmüller of Brötzmann’s long-running trio Full Blast about working with him. The bassist said, “Peter’s always got big ears and is very much hearing and interacting. If his co-players are not able to oppose something, then he just plays, of course. But with Michael and myself, it’s almost a jazzy approach, depending on each other and listening and firing at each other and stopping together and hearing crossfades. In my opinion, he’s a very good listener.”
A year later, I interviewed the man himself, when he released I Surrender Dear, a solo album of jazz standards and blues tunes. At that time, he was quite eager to discuss his love of classic jazz, saying, “If I’m playing at home, for example, I usually play standards and things like that, just to practice and get the sound right…When I’m walking around or in a new city and strolling through the streets, I’m always whistling, and it always comes [back] to some of these old songs.” (Our full conversation became episode 49 of the BA podcast; we talked about the music he heard growing up in Germany in the ’50s, about his visual art, about how he chooses his collaborators, and much more.)
The second and final time I saw Brötzmann live was at Tonic, another NYC venue long gone now, sometime in the early to mid-2000s. He was performing with his quartet Die Like A Dog, with the late Toshinori Kondo on electronically manipulated trumpet, Parker on bass, and Hamid Drake on drums. Again, it felt like a solid wall of sound in the moment, though I remember distinctly that it had the feel of trance music as well; Brötzmann loves to let Parker and Drake set up a groove and ride it for what can seem like hours, or like time has stopped entirely. I’m sure that if there was a recording to refer back to, subtleties would emerge. They always do. Every time I listen to a Brötzmann recording, I’m confronted with something I hadn’t noticed before, either the way he carefully alters a phrase he seems to be just repeating, or the way he adjusts to a small shift in the rhythm, or the way he makes room for other players to be heard.
As I said in 2013, when discussing Live in Berlin ’71, a two-CD set by Brötzmann, Han Bennink, Fred Van Hove and Albert Mangelsdorff, even the saxophonist’s legendary 1968 album Machine Gun, long revered as a free jazz landmark, is much more disciplined and structured than it’s given credit for being. I called it “the ultimate hard blues, a squad of horn players (and a sympathetically destructive double rhythm team behind them) who sound like they’ve just leapt onto the bar not to walk its length riffing, but to have a better angle from which to strafe the helpless patrons.” When I reviewed a reissue of it for The Wire in 2018, I said, “The opening title piece is part artillery barrage (there’s a staccato horn fanfare to begin and end things, and unison screams provide punctuation) and part big band workout, but the solos are surprisingly meditative. Van Hove and the bassists get much more space than one might anticipate and make the most of it.” I’d really like to hear a more conventional big band tackle it, just so its structure would be clear to even careless listeners once and for all.
At this point, Brötzmann’s discography may have reached unmanageable size, from a listener’s perspective. There are so many one-off recordings with different partners, long-running ensembles (Full Blast, Die Like A Dog, the Chicago Tentet), archival releases going back to the early ’70s…it can seem impossible to get a grip on it all. One could take a chronological approach, charting it as a lifelong journey through sound, but it might be better to figure out what context one wants to hear him in, and explore that way. So for Brötzmann in full-on assault mode, try anything by Full Blast or Hairy Bones, or anytime he’s paired with drummer Paal Nilssen-Love; to hear him reacting to abstract walls of drone, check out his work with pedal steel guitarist Heather Leigh; to hear him play the blues, try Songlines with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Rashied Ali, or I Surrender Dear. Or you could dive into the Long Story Short compilation, a 5CD box documenting 18 different performances from the 2011 Unlimited Festival in Krakow, Poland. Curated by Brötzmann himself, it featured him in all sorts of contexts, from the saxophone trio Sonore (with Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark) to the Chicago Tentet to encounters with Japanese free players Masahiko Satoh and Takeo Moriyama, and also included performances by Keiji Haino, Satoh solo, his son Caspar Brötzmann‘s band Massaker, and much more. It’s a document of what he does and what he likes, and as such may be one of his most personal releases.
80 is a very respectable age, and Peter Brötzmann has been living the life of a traveling musician for well over 50 of those years. In the mid ’80s, he broke a rib playing the saxophone. These days, he suffers from a lung ailment commonly found in glassblowers, and has consequently slowed down his activities somewhat. So if we don’t hear much more from him in the future…it’s understandable. But at this point he’s a (still) living legend, thoroughly deserving of celebration. So here’s to Peter Brötzmann. Long may he blow.
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