“I want to fight, cuz I want to die…”

Those tortured wails, those blistered soaring roars. I remember the first time I heard Peter Brotzmann – FMP’s Machine Gun procured in a frothy excitement at a Chicago emporium now sadly gone like so many other shops of shiny discs and black Frisbees. Shit. There’s few areas of my music listening life that I can honestly say changed me — for the better? Fuck knows – Machine Gun was one more of them in a honorable line that included Minor Threat’s Out of Step, Moderat Likvidation’s Kuknacke, and Iggy and The Stooges Raw Power, for better or worse. I suppose I felt free jazz had been a rather inscrutable area of music before that time I sat down with ol’ Brotzy’s salvo of post modern fuck music, having heard and enjoyed to an extent Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and some of the Art Ensemble stuff (all of which if not fully understood then, more so now). I could appreciate the off kilter, circuitous lines of Coleman, the feral animal talk of Dolphy’s horn, but I couldn’t fully incorporate the aesthetics they created into my life yet, unlike the manic, brutal intensity of the punk I grew up on. But Machine gun, Jesus Christ man, it exploded out of my speakers, crushing all life in that first majestic pulverizing unified front of horn blasts. It still reverberates in my skull. And while I don’t want to drift too far into hyperbole, Machine gun is one of those albums that once you hear it it cannot be forgotten, you’ve changed manggg, you ain’t the same. Cuz here was all the power, intensity, nihilism and atavistic power of hardcore spit out 20 years earlier with no amplification, just spit, breath and reed; just string, snare and splintered cymbal. I was still firmly in the hold of punk, still am I suppose (hell, I’m listening to Void right now), even as my tastes filter to more rarefied, artsy-effluent realms. Here was a vision of a world I could understand at 18, could relate to as viscerally as my beaten Black Flag or Econochrist records. It was hip. They were angry or so it seemed. They had beards. They were artists. They created an insane, improbable and most importantly authentic music that frightened the squares. At least that’s what I thought at the time. Obviously with age comes a more nuanced and probably boring interpretation. I didn’t care what it meant to jazz or European jazz/imrov/whatever, or how it stood with in the cannon of jazz/improv/avant garde. It opened my ears, it changed how I heard other music. Instead of judging all heavy/crazy/intense music by the yardstick of thrash or crust or hadcore I measured it by a bunch of post-war German, English and Dutch cats that didn’t care about it any of it, this whole stinking mess. And frankly, dude, there’s more to life than just mohawks and bullet belts. Brotzmann was more than just a part of that record. He was that record, the mover and shaker, the arch provocateur, setting each consecutive solo into a further exploration of extremity. Of rage and choking meaningless.

I got to see Brotzmann play with Hamid Drake the other night in my new home of Madison at a place called the Project Lodge, a tiny gallery shoe-horned between a bakery and a key smith. I stood drinking warming beer that I jimmied open like a poor man’s McGuyver with a key ring from my pocket and tried not to break any of the art that hung on the walls. I was packed into the sweating space with 70 or so others, the people you know but don’t, the people you feel you share kinship with despite any outward appearance, simply for the fact that you and they are there, sipping on each other’s scent… If there’s one thing I find as a commonality of all improv/free jazz shows is the old fogy pretentious types who get there early, hog all the seats and dig the grooves with their ear horns while the young hipsters file in late and strain to see over their bald heads. It doesn’t matter if it’s London or Chicago or New York, it’s always been the same strange combination of demographic, whether one group out numbers the other depends on who’s playing; for some reason Brotzmann is hip with the kids, maybe it’s the beard (I can’t say the same with E. Parker though). There were women there though this time. They had to muscle their way up past the tall record clerks to see, but they were there.

Over the years I’ve seen Brotzmann play a few times, in various permutations, some good and some bad. I bought more of his records, none having the same intensity as Machine Gun. How could they? Is it even fair to compare someone to their earlier work, some 30 years old at this point? And in general it was more of the same. There are no real revelations here. Drake was a powerhouse. I’m not sure I really even was paying attention to what Brotzmann was doing for the first ten minutes. Unlike many of the fee drummers around, Drake is firmly rooted in time when he plays, it may not be readily apparent at all times, but he’s grounded, elongating time, speeding it up, inventive and powerful. It’s a truly wonderful thing to see him play, to watch as the sweat pours down his face while massaging a brimming, shimmering crash from his cymbals or pounding out forceful, blurring visions on the snare. I’m not sure his groove based drumming is particularly apt accompaniment for Brotz’s dadaist over blowing, but they seemed to enjoy each other, as ever it’s hard to hear Brotz really ever letting Drake lead, but that’s not a surprise. We all know what to expect from Brotz at this point; a gruff, fractured lyricism has entered his playing since the early days to go along with his bouts of over blowing and split tones. He’s always channeled a faux-Ayler attention to splintered melodies, but I prefer it placed incongruently alongside the fire breathing maelstrom for short times; when he gets into the long spates of world weary samurai blues it often seems unsure to me, as though he doesn’t fully know where he’s going, but knows it’s a part of the persona. He stumbles, he breaks when playing, it can be both seen as some profound existential rumination on playing all the wrong notes at the right times, or simply just fucking up. I can take either approach depending on my mood. This time I enjoyed it, but throughout the set I kept questioning the music. I kept questioning why he chose the notes he did, the over blowing, the slip back into mild European blues man tooting. It’s as though with Brotzmann’s age he has become sort of elder statesman of free jazz, some kind of sage figure for the free jazz elite to elevate on message boards or in music shops about his primal “outness” or the elemental power of the “master.”

Sure, no doubt he’s played countless concerts, collaborated with countless amazing musicians, traveled to countless cities like some world weary avant-Johnny Cash. And no doubt, I would sit at his feet like some starry-eyed nose-picker to hear him wax poetic about playing with Buschi Niebergal or drinking dark Bavarian beer all night with Han Bennink. But I don’t buy it so much anymore. A lot of the choices he made playing with Drake were anything but free in my mind, just endless repetitions of the same. There were moments of true clarity where I did feel emotion similar to that I got from his early material, that ferocious intensity that spurned me on so much when I was younger. I remember thinking that the last time I saw him in Chicago at the Hideout, a good performance with Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark, that it was probably the last time I needed to see him, that it was a law of diminishing returns for me at that point. And I was reminded of that watching him play with Drake. The crowd was rapturous which was expected. So often I find with free jazz now, there’s a feeling that as long as the expectations are met — reed bite screaming at the expected moment, check; half bluesy, atonal melody, check; endlessly wide-vibrato coos, check – the crowd acts like Jesus just tapped them on the fucking shoulder. God, is this kicking below the belt? I’m not a victim to the idea that art should be some teleological expansion of the new at all times. And I don’t expect all things to meet the criteria of what I consider “authenticity,” but there was something missing, some spark. But some things I think are meant for a time in your life. I’m glad I went. If for nothing else to see Drake for first time.

Brotzmann’s playing is entertaining when you decide not to critically analyze it too much, to just let him play over any thought in your head, to blast out the cobwebs as you sip a beer. In that way it’s a lot like all the shitty punk shows I used to go to, but in an art gallery. Zing. But it is a cathartic music after all. I don’t know why I feel differently about say, Albert Ayler, who’s music could be accused of the same thing, endless catharsis embroiled in endless repetition of form… but it sounds more tangible, as though the stakes are higher, that it’s not simply art for art’s sake. But I never got to see Ayler, so it may be a spurious comparison. Is a better comparison Charles Gayle? Alan Wilkinson?

Machine Gun still stands. It still breathes and creates an authentic palpable feeling and simply for that I will always respect Brotzmann. And I’ll probably see him again some time, because despite the fact of the underwhelming nature of most of the performances I’ve seen from him, there are moments of that clarity, that authenticity, that burns away all the bullshit in your life. Just for a minute. And you can’t really judge a thing like that.

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