German free-jazz great Peter Brötzmann opens up | Bleader

German free-jazz great Peter Brötzmann opens up

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Chicagoan John Corbett, gallerist, music critic, and occasional Reader contributor, has been working on a biography on the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann for several years now, and I eagerly await its completion. Corbett knows both Brötzmann's music and the free-jazz icon's history inside and out, and he's one of few writers able to properly and meaningfully situate Brötzmann's work within a global context. Knowing that his biography is in the works, I was a little surprised to get a copy of a new book called Peter Brötzmann: We Thought We Could Change the World (Wolke Verlag), a stunning collection of his conversations with the respected French jazz critic Gerard Rouy. The interviews featured in the volume were conducted by Rouy between November 2008 and August 2009 for the Bernard Josse documentary Soldier of the Road. In his introduction Rouy writes that after seeing the final result, which he enjoyed, "I immediately felt frustrated about the fantastic amount of information that Brötzmann gave us about the history of this music that [could not] be used in that 90 minutes long film."

I'm glad Rouy felt this way, because this work is invaluable. The 192-page book includes a slew of great photographs spanning the saxophonist's career as well as a dozen pages of his visual art, but the majority revolves around consistently candid, thoughtful conversation—well edited, readable, and remarkably gripping. Brötzmann can be a taciturn interview, especially when the dialogue isn't face-to-face, but here he opens up. There are even extensive sections on his youth where he discusses the aftereffects of the war and the Nazi era; he also talks about his family and his work as a painter. The conversations double as a good history of the development of European free jazz, although the saxophonist never speaks for anyone other than himself. I ripped through the book in a single afternoon—it was hard to put it down. I can open it up to just about any page and find something fascinating, whether it's Brötzmann discussing his love of horns—talking about an instrument shop he stumbled across in Saint Louis or discovering an old clarinet in Buffalo—or discussing the drummers he's worked with throughout his career.

Brötzmann doesn't pull punches. When discussing the Dutch drummer Han Bennink—one of his oldest collaborators and closest friends—he doesn't shy away from criticizing the percussionist, yet at the same time he displays a refreshing self-awareness of his own foibles and shortcomings. When he talks about his decision to quit drinking, there's no sentimentality, no touchy-feely philosophizing, and no self-righteous bullshit.

I can tell you, it's not easy to go through this life sober all the time, it's much easier to be a little drunk or stoned or whatever, just so you can forget all the daily shit you have to deal with. But on the other hand, for the music, you can see things much more clearly; I think the music I play nowadays is much more to the point than it was in my last years with alcohol.

He also expounds on the sorry state of culture today, lamenting how mainstream media has pushed anything marginal—in the sense of popularity—further and further to the fringe. Yet every time he sounds particularly pessimistic (usually with good reason), he acknowledges his own good fortune: how he's been able to build a career doing what he loves to do, see the world, find artistic partners, and maintain some close friends. There's something old-fashioned about him—he prefers handmade things and face-to-face interactions, and his blue-collar ethic extends to working in bands (I laughed out loud when I read "Then you have those 'projects,' I hate that word, my God"). Even if one isn't familiar with the saxophonist's music or doesn't care for it stylistically, his thoughts are inspiring—a sanguine manifestation of a truly creative, uncompromising mind.


Today's playlist:

Kiki Gyan, 24 Hours in a Disco 1978-82 (Soundway)
Stephan Mathieu, Coda (For WK) (12K)
Freddie Hubbard, First Light (CTI/Sony Music)
Hal McKusick, Now's the Time (1957-58) (Decca)
Denman Maroney, Fluxations (New World)

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