FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004

FMP CD 112

Alan Warner


This CD contains some of the purest, straightest music by a man who's been playing intense, uncompromising improvisations for over 40 years. Peter's played in so many contexts: recently among the windshear and microbursts of his Chicago tentet, in 1996, ducking through astonishing interplay between Hamid Drake's drums and Mahmoud Gania's bass-like guembri or since 93 in the Albert Ayler tribute, Die Like A Dog Quartet, which has long travelled beyond any expected destinations. I even heard, somewhere, that Peter once jammed with Tangerine Dream but l've always been too cautious to ask him about this!

All this indicates a man who is not afraid of where to put his sax and of course, for someone of my generation (born 1964) Peter came to our attention through the atavistic howl and metal meets Coltrane phalanx of Last Exit. It's hard to communicate now, how life-enhancing and hope-inducing Last Exit's appearance was in the mid 1980's, for someone with a belief in the transforming potential of truly great, spontaneous music.

Amid the trash of a cultural desert, for me, Last Exit's often feral, frightening sound, seemed to link back through the deep bass and guitar angularities of Wobble & Keith Levene in the largely improvising London band PiL, to the recent amateur but iconoclastic energy of Punkrock/New Wave and on down through the heavy metal and feedback birth of Hendrix, the structural and formal demolition of Captain Beefhart and to link through to Ornette Coleman's late 50s free jazz.

I caught Last Exit live, in the now-defunct Shaw Theatre in London, sometime in 1986. Before the concert, the audience eyed each other with something like suspicion in the foyer. Off-mike, Peter nodded and Bill Laswell prowled the stage, defiantly, no trace of emotion on their faces. The critic in front of me abandoned his notepad and covered his ears, the music was beyond mere exhilaration, Shannon Jackson busts his bass drum skin: I was with a pretty actress. She was impressed. For once I knew I was in the right place!

In 1993 or 94 Peter played in a closed down theatrical space in Edinburgh. He was duetting with the drummer, Willi Kellers (the two soon made a beautiful album with Manfred Schoof). Willi played stunningly, in his socks, and threw coins at his drums and cymbals; we rushed to grab them then realised they were German and handed them back at the interval!

Poor Peter was trying to enjoy a Guinness when we pestered him. "l bet you guys are electric guitarists," he said. "Much worse", l commiserated, "l'm a novelist."

But something else happened at that gig. Listening to Peter's playing that urged Willi everywhere, something wonderful overcame me. No. Jesus did not enter my heart, but something did. I can't claim I technically understood what was going on, I don't know even what key it was in, if any; I don't know what strange communication was flying between Willi and Peter, I don't know if Peter had reached for his tenor or his clarinet or had his Conn 1923 bass sax with him but in a simple, pure and blinding moment, I thought "This guy really fucking means this. I don't know what he means; I've a rough idea where he's coming from, I don't know where he's going, but whatever, he really means it. "This evidence of total conviction alone, was more than enough for me. You could hear, no, you could taste Peter was an artist, putting uncompromising effort and intuition into what he was doing.

Talking about his playing, Peter said, in a recent interview: "I'm not into all the little intellectual movements. It's not my cup of tea...You have to get a sound out of that pipe, and the saxophone is nothing have to tell a story. You can tell it softly, very loud, you can scream your ass off but you have to be straight and try to tell the truth and that's all."

He has often recorded solo before, twice under the curiously Samuel Beckett-like titles, No Nothing and Nothing To Say. You can tell the story, the truth soft or strong but it isn't proscribed what that story or truth is. That bit is what is up to you. If the music is a story, a narrative from one point to another, it isn't a closed book. Is it even the same story each time?

Listen to Peter here on these solos, each described by their duration; you decide what the stories are; nothing tells you what to think. There's a drawing Picasso did, for the cover of Stravinsky's Ragtime: two musicians, one with violin, one with cello are brought into appearance, drawn by one single, unbroken, miraculously deviating line. Peter's playing here, with its long, often logical journeys, reminds me of that drawing.

Playing solo, there is nothing for Peter to react to other than himself, the freedom is total, but he plays, as always, deadly focussed and concentrated, the emotions and structures guiding him.


A tenor sax elongates, replies to its own echoes in long, jumping themes - the entire piece is an escalation until it dives into a meditative, tolling coda, tremulous.

"The rain went on and on"

Sometimes like Gagaku court music with high register, low register swap-overs, the themes pick at themselves like a shark at its own mutilation - sneaking, a coastal call of brooding meditation.

"There were tears in her eyes"

Peter plays with such delicacy, music climbing over itself to sheering tonal leaps. Reminds me, not of a free player but of where Cecil Taylor came from: Monk's solo on Bags Groove: that same metal-melting intensity, that ability to see the music from above and to reconstruct it.

But it might be different next time.

I was in Tokyo recently, in the Mary Jane jazz bar drinking with Toshinori Kondo, trumpet player of Peter's great Die Like A Dog quartet. Peter and Steve Lacy's autographs were on the wall. We were drinking cold Asahi and listening to the new album Kondo had done with Bill Laswell, over the sound system. Like Peter, Kondo had been playing solo too... but literally out in the deserts. Sometimes a camera crew had been there, but mainly, he'd been on his own, living in a tent, rising at dawn and playing, just to the desert in Israel.

This doesn't seem to bother Peter or Kondo, dedicated as they are to making honest music, but for my spoiled generation, it is easy to become bitter at how the mainstream has denied this music. Peter and Kondo would just laugh, but of course I am reminded of the old Prophets, preaching to the desert like Isaiah:

The wilderness and the solitary places shall be glad for them. And the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly. And sing even with joy and singing.

But the music world is organised for what Kondo calls, without bitterness, "Another singing millionaire". It's cynical and it saps the soul but I guess it was always that way. But this moribund mainstream makes Peter Brötzmann sound all the more powerful and pure!

It's been said there are no celebrations left in art anymore, just man, just the self indulgent, existential screaming face of some Munch painting. But Peter Brötzmann's saxophone playing on this album reminds us of the long heritage behind him, from the 50's through to Machine Gun in 1968 and on to Last Exit, Die Like A Dog and beyond; Brötzmann's work is one of the few, real, genuine and honest celebrations left. No prophet in the desert but this singer really means it.

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