Saturday, July 15, 2006

Peter Brötzmann Octet...Machine Gun...

I welcome myself back into blogdom... to re-commence operations - as vaguely promised before the interregnum of moving house and lack of broadband communications – with another long seminal track from the Sixties avant garde – 'Machine Gun' by the Peter Brötzmann Octet. A statement of collective aesthetic intent in the journey towards establishing a genuinely European form of improvised music. Under, of course, the inescapable heavy shadows of the American masters as typified by Evan Parker: John Coltrane, Peter Brötzmann: Albert Ayler, for example – which provides maybe another level of tension. Among the many extant in the quasi-revolutionary year of 1968 ('We shall fight we shall win London Paris Rome Berlin' - for the more sentimental of the old left still hanging on out there living the dead dreams... headline from one of Tariq Ali's comics of the time, if I remember correctly...). Not to deny the power and insistence of apocalyptic visions in the air after the brief mid-sixties liberations cranked up to other more violent levels – the crushing of the Prague Spring, riots and insurrection in France, Vietnam coming back to haunt America and kill LBJ's attempts to out-Roosevelt Roosevelt with his Great Society visions in its escalations – maybe it is too easy to cast back for memories with jaundiced eyes and ears that saw it all go down inevitably into the usual welter of confusion, compromise and sellout. Too much of a temptation to sneer at past youthful visions - to counterbalance the inanities of the Sixties Heritage Industry. Yet: there was fire in the air – music especially had burst wide open across the genres, reflecting and feeding the wider cultural push for experiment and new freedoms. The wild liberatory call to arms of 'Machine Gun' still sounds loud and strong. It has similarities of form to the great sprawling tracks of its predecessors – 'Ascension' by Coltrane's assembled and Ornette Coleman's 'Free Jazz.' Collective improvisations that part to allow individual solos to rise through the swirling soundscapes, fragmentary themes as loose binding. The two drum lineup of Madcap Benninck and the less well known Johannson (who was an early free jazz pioneer) provide a boiling rhythmic undercurrent that is the match of the two American sessions. As is the playing of the saxophonists... Overall, there is no idiomatic unease here, such as could be found between Freddie Hubbard, say, who played on Ornette and Coltrane's sessions and his leaders. (Not that I am putting his playing down: Hubbard was game, after all, for the challenges... as was Scott La Faro on 'Free Jazz,' who similarly was equipped with great technique but came adrift at times in the new and choppier waters he was asked to negotiate). A point that develops this a little further: one interesting difference – and there are many - between these recordings is the role of the piano – none used on Ornette's session, Tyner as usual sounding a little disenfranchised at times on the Coltrane, pulled along in the wake of the improvisational storm wind rather than rowing alongside. Here, Fred Van Hove bounces in and out of the ensembles and solos, making his presence felt through jagged chromaticisms way beyond the floating modal strategies of Tyner, for example. Under the sign of Cecil Taylor, perhaps, his piano is fully integrated – into the ongoing maelstrom.

Other thoughts: This is free jazz recorded at a pivot point in European history – the fateful year of 1968. Under the distant clouds of the concentration camps in the West and the still-present gulags in the East ruled by the iron hand of the USSR. Germany: partitioned and living uneasily with its recent Nazi past and especially in the prosperous West, the unsettled radical present (that would go down into the middle class nihilism and murders of Bader-Meinhof soon enough). Yearning for change. There is violence here and a deep desire for some kind of liberation and transcendence unsanctioned by the untrustworthy and dangerous past – yet seeking different trajectories to its American predecessors – the inner spiritual questing of Coltrane and the utopian, essentially humanistic Coleman. An existentially anguished yet perhaps emblematically hopeful ensemble who provide an optimistic reverberation from the Second World War that was still fresh in the memory - the sons of the conquerors, conquered, neutral and liberators (Parker, the sole UK musician present) united to produce a landmark recording that still cuts and burns... Like its American antecedents, it has worn well...

Peter Brötzmann Octet
(Peter Brötzmann : tenor and baritone saxophones; Willem Breuker: tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; Evan Parker: tenor saxophone; Fred Van Hove: piano; Peter Kowald, Buschi Niebergall: bass; Han Benninck, Sven-Åke Johansson,drums).

Machine Gun (Take 2)



St Anthony said...

Hello Rod, welcome back to the glorious kingdom of blogness.
I think I've said it before, but that Peter Brotzmann, he's a bit of a nutcase. Perhaps the first European musician to go head to head with the legacy of the likes of Taylor or Ayler and walk away with his head held high.
This is probably his first great statement of intent - a great big ball of noise, with horns and a double rhythm section ( and piano) blasting away. A young Evan Parker in there, like all the musicians, bringing about a radical European take on free jazz and improv, a music formed from something other than the blues and Africa. What a noise ... heavy metal? the headbangers should listen to this first.

It's funny you mention the old '60s heritage industry; there seems to be a plethora of nostalgic programmes on TV at the moment intent on banging home a particular vision of that decade. I always say to Molly, I never think of the '60s as the decade of the Beatles and the hippies, I think of it as much for John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and James Brown, B.S. Johnson and J.G. Ballard, the Velvets and the still alive and kicking Beats.
And, for a predominately instrumental music, it's interesting how many improv musicians intended their work to be explicitly revolutionary - from the likes of Brotzmann and Archie Shepp (also wanting his horn to be a machine gun) to the more humanistic likes of Ornette - before things collapsed in the colder and more cynical '70s, it's wonderful how many people took it as a given that the world could be changed. The days before, to borrow Hunter S.'s metaphor, the wave crashed and receeded.

Rod... said...

... Yes, I had in mind Hunter Thompson's passage in Fear and Loathing where he talks about being ablke to see the high watermark of the sixties and how everything was ebbing away from that point - or something - the book is buried at the bottom of a pile in the corner and it would be dicing with death to get the bugger out at the moment until I get some shelves up... would love to do a film about the reality of the sixties that goes to the heart of what it was all about without all the sentimental clap trap (where's my kaftan?)

Molly Bloom said...

Great to have you back. We've missed you. Great writing as always.

Ford MF said...

Sweet. One of my favorite eurojazz albums of all time.