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

FMP CD 125

Steve Lake


A Bouquet from a Hardcore Troubadour

Would the keys be tossed down this time? Or just the vase of water again?
"Fourteen Love Poems", the title of Peter Brötzmann's 1984 solo album sketched an irresistible cartoon in the mind: of the gale-force saxman beneath a balcony. The original hardcore troubadour, glowing red from his exertions in the moonlight, serenading some Juliet or Heidi with mighty gusts. How much passion can you stand, madam? (Splash!)

Two decades ago, it was popularly assumed that the title had to be a self-ironic joke. Yet, improbable as it may still seem to some, the author of earlier noisy epics such as "Balls", "Nipples" and "Machine Gun" had drawn inspiration for this project from the love poems of Kenneth Patchen. (The fire-breathers of Wuppertal were secretly a sensitive clique; the late Peter Kowald at one point subsidised his meagre free jazz earnings by translating poetry...when no-one was looking). And the music on this disc can spring new insights if heard with Patchen's poems in mind. "The sea is awash with roses/O they blow upon the land": the image resonates with the album's more hushed and muted moments, as well as its thorny ones. Yes, some of the hotly-debated "reflective passages" in the Brötzmann discography are to be found herein. "Reflective passages" makes me think of Alfred Perlès's statement, "I never meditate because I never premeditate", easily adapted as an improviser's motto. Anyway: the reflective, the meditative, or, Lord help us, the poetic, are aspects of Brötzmann's work more likely to surface in his solo playing, when the odds against disharmony and belligerence are more favourable. Alone, too, he hollers less relentlessly.

In the period when these tapes were made, European free improvising - having severed the umbilical cord that once bound it to "jazz" - was often perceived as a primarily intellectual or quasi-scientific activity. Some players saw themselves as lab workers, metaphorically white-coated, rigorously exploring the physics of sound. Few spoke about the emotions conveyed by the music - to do so would be sentimental, uncritical. Albums, especially solo albums, were frequently catalogues or "documents" (a favourite term) of idiosyncratic performance practice, demonstrations of "extended technique". In a fastidiously technical era, Brötzmann was singing a strikingly different song. Never a sonic scientist, he was a painter who played with a thick, painterly line and smudges and blotches of sound. "Technique", in Brötzmann's world, has precious little connection to accepted definitions of virtuosity, but in these love poems and elsewhere he's employed the most differentiated texture and sound colour to tell a story. Intuitively, creatively, like the great folk artist that he is, he mixes his colours in his own way. Kenneth Patchen, who was also a painter of sorts, as well as a poet, novelist and social critic, once said (in a letter to Henry Miller), "The more articulate an artist becomes the less he will know about himself to say." Not much danger of this fate befalling Brötzmann, always the last man to analyze his own work, as many an interviewer has learned to his dismay. He plays it, and the music makes its own argument (or not), and basta! See you later, in the pub. Or, these days, the coffee shop.

So, to recap: in 1984, we see Brötzmann in the process of distancing himself from the "sound for sound's sake" people - and also from the overtly theatrical or Dadaistic ship of fools who sailed on a contemporaneous wave of improvised music. As delightful as the work with Bennink, for instance, had often been, the reedman had come to feel that the comedy schtick was losing its effectiveness with each re-launching. A gag, even an arty one, can become exhausted. Though there are aspects of Brötzmann's work, in any era, that make me want to laugh - more often with him than at him - the more contrivedly madcap elements are curtailed here. It may be - let the music historians decide - that Brötzmann has been driven back on his own resources whenever he's outgrown a given context and that, in the solo albums (there are five so far on FMP), he is feeling and groping his way forward through his horns.

Or not necessarily "forward" at all. Sideways and backwards are also directions, and of course "progress" in the arts is a debatable concept. An almost reluctant musical revolutionary, an avant-garde Père Terrible with an old-fashioned heart, Peter has always loved the pre-free jazz traditions, and yearned to sing, on his horns, "like Billie Holiday". That's not as preposterous as it may sound to the uninitiated. The fundamental soul-tearing sadness of Billie's voice finds an oblique correspondence in Brötzmann's take on Ornette's "Lonely Woman". One of the more touching versions of a much-covered tune, it establishes a tone for the album as a whole. The subtext seems to concern the transcending of pain - but perhaps I'm extrapolating too freely from Patchen's biography, and Billie's. I recall, later in the 80s, members of Last Exit falling off their bar-stools when Peter said "I have my own experience of the blues", but that, approximately, is what we're hearing here. For sure, Brötzmann's blasts of sound sometimes simply celebrate the pleasure of ripping silence to shreds. More often, it seems that the half-melodies that can remind you of Ayler dirges or Anatolian mountain music, and the squawks and honks and squiggly lines, propelled by great lungfuls of air, add up to something: a revelation of feeling. There's an ache in Brötzmann's sound that often conveys a wild, wounded beauty - whether we want to call it poetry or howling at the moon.

Producer Jost Gebers, who has monitored the saxophonist's development more microscopically than the rest of us, has long maintained that "14 Love Poems" was a breakthrough album, and still regards it as the zenith of Peter's solo achievement. Such was the flood of spontaneous ideas that it was distressing to be forced, by the limits of LP playing time, to omit some of the material. The CD reissue restores the entire session, allows the listener to experience all of Brötzmann's love meditations, uncensored. Clearly, any of the ten "out-takes" appended here could as easily have been chosen for the original album. Brötzmann being Brötzmann, the energy doesn't flag. Stamina and endurance and commitment, not irrelevant in matters of love, are also essential to the art of the improviser.

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