Ken Vandermark (2009)
FMP: ONE VIEW FROM THE OUTSIDE
“The things [he] and I said to one another during those years will never be said again,
and even if they were no one would understand them anymore.
It was like being roped together on a mountain.”
I was introduced to the world of Jost Gebers' FMP label in typical fashion, through Peter Brötzmann's now classic album, Machine Gun (FMP 0090, FMP CD 24). It was 1986, the year I returned to Boston after studying Film and Communications at McGill University in Montreal, where my focus on academia was quickly reduced in favor of my interest in music. During those school years my listening was driven by the work of Joe McPhee, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, and Cecil Taylor. Soon after I arrived in Boston I met the musicologist, presenter, writer (and now gallery director), John Corbett, at a Jazz concert taking place at the Willow in Somerville. Since we both had a rabid interest in new kinds of music we immediately hit it off. One random afternoon I visited his apartment to do some playing and to listen to his records. The first thing he put on the stereo was the title track from Machine Gun - I had never heard anything that sounded vaguely like that before. I was too ill informed to understand that part of the intensity of the saxophone sound was due to actual distortion taking place on the recording tape (Peter Brötzmann, Willem Breuker, and Evan Parker had put the needle well into the red), and I spent weeks trying to figure out how to imitate “that sound” on my tenor while practicing.
John moved to Chicago not long after that and, until I moved there myself in the fall of 1989, we lost track of each other. My access to the Improvised Music coming from Europe and represented by labels like FMP was gone. During the mid to late 80's there were many great record stores in the Boston area but, either through a lack of availability or interest, it was nearly impossible to find albums from independent European labels. In addition, I didn't really know which musicians to start looking for aside from Brötzmann (who I had been lucky enough to see perform with Peter Kowald and Andrew Cyrille while I was still in Montreal), and there was little available information concerning the contemporary European scenes and what records to buy (this was way before the internet helped solve that problem), so my ability to look further into the music that took place overseas was severely handicapped.
All of this quickly changed after I arrived to Chicago. In a desperate attempt to find like-minded individuals and musicians after I moved to town (it was a very big city and I was essentially starting from scratch despite having worked for a few years in Boston), I looked John up in the phone book and then tracked him down. Soon we were meeting at concerts and talking about the music again. Using these opportunities I'd often ask him which European players and albums he could recommend. It turned out that the list was long. Many of the artists he suggested were represented on FMP and, thanks to the re-issues that were starting to stream into the cd market, I was finally able to purchase my own copy of Machine Gun (with extra tracks!), as well as a slew of other albums by artists I had never heard. One of the key documents for my development as a player in this period was, Duets:Dithyrambisch (FMP CD 19/20), released by FMP in 1990. That album was like a textbook of extended sax techniques for me, and I listened to it incessantly during the mid 90's, trying to figure out how Evan Parker, Hans Koch, Louis Sclavis, and Wolfgang Fuchs were creating those sounds and textures on their horns. It was because of that double CD that I decided I would need to learn how to circular breathe - the tool was too essential for what they were doing on their instruments, and what I wanted to accomplish on mine.
In November of 1995 a group of artists associated with the label came to town for three days of concerts as part of the “FMP Visits Chicago” festival, which John Corbett helped to organize. For the first time I met, among others, Peter Brötzmann, Peter Kowald, Paul Lovens, Evan Parker, Barre Phillips, Irène Schweizer, and Philipp Wachsmann. On the evening that they arrived the NRG Ensemble had a gig at the now defunct Bop Shop. I had the misfortune of contracting a bad case of food poisoning the day before, and had the absolute nightmare experience of performing before a number of my musical heroes while needing to sit down between solos so I didn't throw up on stage. Afterwards Peter Brötzmann came up to Mars Williams and myself, hugged us and said, “Yeah! I can hear me in your playing!” After nearly a decade of our listening intensely to his music, he was right. But it didn't make the statement any less exciting for us to hear.
The next night there was a special dinner held for people who would be participating on the festival, both the musicians from Europe and Chicago. (Getting the chance to play a short duet with Paul Lovens on the last day of events, at Goodspeed Recital Hall, was a highlight for me - even after five days of not being able to hold down anything but water, and despite the fact that I had accidentally left a box of reeds in my saxophone when we started to play... To help prepare for that encounter I listened to Elf Bagatellen (FMP CD 27/1994), by the Schlippenbach Trio, over and over again.). There were also a number of music students from the University of Chicago who were included on the final day of activities that were present at dinner, and at the end of the meal one of them walked up to Peter to ask him about Machine Gun, with a copy of the LP in his hands.
“Hey P.B.!” (this student decided that it was necessary to call everyone in the room by their initials, Evan Parker was “E.P.” and Paul Lovens was “P.L.”)
You could tell by the look on Peter's face that he already knew what was coming.
“Man, P.B., you've got to tell me EVERYTHING about the recording of this album! I NEED TO KNOW what you guys ate for lunch that day, what the studio looked like, what kinds of mics you used to get that sax sound, how many takes you did of each piece...”
Before the litany of necessary facts got any further Peter cut the guy off - “Excuse me young man, but how old are you?”
“Um, you know, in my mid 20's. Well about 21.”
“That's what I thought. Well let me tell you. I recorded Machine Gun before you were born. And I remember NOTHING about the making of that record.”
This was my introduction to what is a permanent link between Peter and MachineGun for many listeners. Despite decades of incredible work, collaborations with a huge array of international artists, and now playing better than he has at anytime in his life (don't take my word for it, you can easily verify it by going to hear him play with any group during one of his numerous current tours), many people think that Machine Gun defines Peter and his art. Though it is an incredible document and, without question, historically important, that album is only one significant statement. Peter has had a career filled with them. The same can be said for the FMP label itself.
For me, one thing that sets Machine Gun ( and also The Living Music [FMP 0100 / 1969]) apart, as well as the Free Music Production label as a whole, is that they are signifiers for a greater collaboration. These documents help represent what appears to be a Zeitgeist in music that took place in Europe at the end of the 1960's and early 70's. If you look at the lineups that were put together for those two early albums, you have the following list of musicians - Han Bennink, Willem Breuker, Peter Brötzmann, Sven-Åke Johansson, Peter Kowald, Buschi Niebergall, Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Manfred Schoof, and Fred Van Hove - quite a cross section of defining figures in the new Jazz and Improvised Music that took place in Europe (from Germany, England, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Belgium), artists that broke away from American models and defined their own terms and aesthetics.
In many ways, I find a parallel to another important period in art history, when the “ New York School” of painters and composers found ways to pull apart the dominance of Europe's legacy in those fields. I have been fortunate enough to talk to a number of the European improvisers who were directly involved in their breakaway, and the terms they use to discuss the struggle and sacrifice (both artistic and economic) necessary to accomplish a new music, are nearly identical to statements made by artists and composers living in New York during the 1940's and 50's. In both situations, the artists knew what they were up against. Though they often had complete respect and reverence for what came before them, they knew that to contribute on the same level as the previous innovators, it would be necessary to come up with their own points of view and sets of expression.
The collaborative nature of this process, indicated on albums like Machine Gun and The Living Music, continued for years and was represented by many albums issued by FMP. Perhaps the highlight of this series of recordings is the landmark, For Example: 1969-1978, which contains three LPs of solos, small groups and orchestras, and an astounding book of archived photos, texts, and documents. The personnel included on this set is truly a historic presentation of Europe's Improvised Music scene at that time - Soloists: Steve Lacy, Paul Rutherford, Hans Reichel, Tristan Honsinger, Fred Van Hove, Derek Bailey, Albert Mangelsdorff, Johnny Dyani; Groups: Schlippenbach Trio, Brötzmann/Van Hove/Bennink + Mangelsdorff, Frank Wright Unit, Schweizer-Carl Quartet; Orchestras: Willem Breuker Orchestra, Globe Unity Orchestra, Vinko Globokar Brass Group, ICP Tentet. I have only been able to look at this collection twice. Once at Harald Hult's record shop in Stockholm, and once while pursuing an extraordinary record collection in Berlin. It is the only purchase that I have ever attempted to make on eBay. I asked Peter Brötzmann if he thought this box set would ever be re-released with the book included. His response was that, though all the materials are still together, the cost and logistics would make it doubtful or impossible. It looks like one of the great documents of Improvised Music from that time period will remain available only as collector's item.
The quote at the beginning of this text comes from Georges Braque, who is discussing his experience with Pablo Picasso, when they developed the ideas for Cubism. For me, this statement could also be made regarding the connection between Jost Gebers and Peter Brötzmann. As an outsider to the time and situation it would seem that Jost and Peter built FMP together; Jost selecting artists, running the business, engineering sessions, and Peter providing artwork, seminal recordings, and A&R work for the label. But, aside from them, no one really knows what they faced together and what was discussed in their efforts to find ways to document the new music. You can see this when they meet, there is a different sense of camaraderie in the room when they're together, even when nothing is being said. When you consider everything that went into defining Free Music Production as a label, from the musicians represented, to the recordings selected, to the artwork, there is no doubt that they felt that something was truly at stake. As Peter said in front of an audience in Krakow during a Sonore concert in December of 2008, “Music is about continuity.” Under the direction of Jost Gebers, FMP represented the highest level of this kind of continuity and extended it for decades.
Top quote from
Picasso: A Biography, (W.W. Norton & Company: 1976), by Patrick O'Brian, pg. 162.
from: Book of the Special Edition FMP in Retrospect
The copyrights remain with the aforesaid sources and/or with the authors.