By David DacksExclaim! caught saxophone colossus Peter Brotzmann in a reflective mood talking about his magnum opus, the just-reissued Machine Gun, recorded in 1968. The album sees a multinational octet come together to make furious noise sculptures that draw deeply from jazz and non-jazz sources. He related the political and musical climate of Germany in the late ’60s as background to this recording, and compares today’s situation to the revolutionary times of yesteryear.
Let’s turn back the clock to talking about Machine Gun, which was a major, major sensation when it was first released (in 1968). Now Atavistic has reissued it — what do you think of the remaster? It was a pretty tricky recording from what I understand. Yeah, I’m surprised. I think they did a pretty good job. I can hear things that I couldn’t hear in earlier times, so I think it sounds alright.
I think so too. It gives it a bit more room. If you have read the notes in the booklet, it was really a very tricky recording session and we can be lucky that we got anything on tape. After all, it’s good to have.
The band on the album contains many different nationalities, East and West Germans, British, Dutchmen. Were you all feeling a certain revolutionary spirit about what you were doing? Yes, more or less. Of course, maybe I better speak just for the Germans. But for people like Peter Kowald (East German bassist), Buschi Niebergall (West German bassist) and myself, we were born in the war, or like Peter, right after. We grew up after war times and we had to live with what our fathers and grandfathers had done. There was a lot of anger, rage in our feelings — we thought, "Never again. No war anymore.” And then we saw the first Nazis in the first government and we saw the old Nazis in the law system and of course we grew up with kind of, maybe not guilt, but shame that still makes the image of our generation in a way. We Germans for sure had a very special reason to fight against whatever the old men around us could tell us. We really wanted to change the world to a better place, which of course was very naïve. But we had the feeling we had to do it. More or less, maybe a little less, our Dutch, Belgian and English comrades thought a little bit in the same direction. You must understand, the ’60s were a time when young people were very much aware of political changes, political possibilities, we had the Cold War, we had seen the Korean War, we had ’Nam, we had Kennedy killed, and in ’68 we had Martin Luther King killed and especially here in Germany we had to deal with the RAF (Red Army Faction) and the Baader Meinhof people. Twenty-four hours a day everything you did was connected with some political meaning. Talking about the music, which is the main part for us, do you know in Europe we had all the great American music coming over? The big bands like Basie or Ellington; we knew more about the John Coltrane Quartet in the beginning than you did over there in the States — because the band was much more present over here. Or Miles Davis with all kinds of different bands, I heard as a young man. And Horace Silver, Art Blakey. And then the ’60s, it was the time of hard bop. As much as I love the music, for us it was kind of stagnation. We had to get rid of that very formalistic way of painting. Playing tunes, playing changes, playing harmonies and so forth.
So this was a conscious break with American conventions? Our information besides the big names like Miles and Coltrane or Eric Dolphy, I had the pleasure to meet one night in my hometown. We didn’t know very much about Albert Ayler, Byard Lancaster – all those cats. The information came very slowly. One might have found an ESP Record [New York-based free jazz label featuring many Albert Ayler classics] somewhere, or brought from a visit from the states. But that already was a time where we tried to develop very independently, or let’s talk about me, I tried to develop my way of playing saxophone and I didn’t know too much about the new music going on in the U.S. at that time. It came very slowly, maybe with Mingus and Eric Dolphy at that time and the Ornette Coleman thing. I was aware that, even Ornette Coleman, as much as I like that man but he was very simple American music. There was a theme, there was improvisation, then there was a theme again. And that was not enough change for us Europeans. I always was very much – I grew up with jazz, I love the music very much, and when people ask me what kind of music I play I say, "I play jazz music,” but my for example, my English friends and colleagues, they at that time they didn’t want to know too much about American music. But my first big impressions besides Sidney Bechet [clarinet star of early jazz[ and Coleman Hawkins is when I met Steve Lacy [soprano sax innovator who reportedly taught Coltrane[ and [ex-Ornette Coleman trumpeter] Don Cherry and very early Cecil Taylor in Paris or then a bit later I had a chance to work with Carla Bley, a person I admire very much and so on, so my connection to American music was always very strong.