Peter Brotzman, Saxophone Colossus

May 3, 2014
3 mins read

peterbrotzmann_scThe first time German saxophone colossus Peter Brotzmann toured New Zealand in 1986, Gary Steel experienced multiple epiphanies. This is the account he wrote for the Evening Post.



Peter Brotzmann and Peter Kowald, Downstage Theatre, Sunday

AS WEST GERMANS Peter Brotzmann and Peter Kowald nag the hell out of their various saxophones and a double bass, it becomes evident we’re getting a crash course in musical terrorism.
Brotzmann – severe and stolid in Bohemian beard and busy moustache – pampers, strokes and howls into his horns; Kowald – shaven-haired and draped over his instrument like a dead puppet – pulls, preens and attacks the strings of his battered beast.
pbstartseiteThis music attacks, is ferocious. German expressionist jazz, it is rigidly stated, dark and full of jagged, leaping shadows. Nothing is atmosphere, nothing is pointless, and nothing is wallpaper. It is disciplined, intense, studied and spontaneous.
We hear nothing familiar in the three entirely improvised pieces.
Occasionally, things let up; a little light contrasts the darkness. And humour, too. Brotzmann’s blowing can get baby soft; that sax can even be the dummy in the mouth of the baby. And just like a baby, Brotzmann’s inclined to get aggravated – for no apparent reason – and fly off on a temper and jump up and down on stage and BLOW. This can be funny and scary. Believe me.
As with any abstract art, it’s up to the audience to identify how well – and how honestly – the artist is expressing himself away from the safety of the paint-by-numbers brigade. It helps that Brotzmann and Kowald obviously know their chosen instruments inside out; these objects are intimate friends and mortal enemies. When frustration sets in at the mechanics of having to work this curl of metal, Brotzmann will take off his mouth-piece and screech into that for 10 minutes. The saxist slopes off, looking for a drink. Kowald plays on, oblivious, pulsing veins bulging on his forehead.
Kowald, more than his co-adventurer, often seems to be in search of some elusive lost chord, floundering helplessly up and down those fat strings. This happens increasingly towards the end of the set, when the energy subsides and we wonder if Sunday nights were meant for such stressful events.
2267100193_fd5e464b29_oDivine inspiration cannot manifest itself in the player 100 percent of the time, and the joy of free music is that when it does happen – which itself might occur only briefly – it’s an illuminating, first-hand experience.
Free music is the search for that special emotion, and a new way of expressing it. It is not defined just by chord progressions and a series of notes; that’s manipulation, like a second-rate landscape on a suburban wall. This is nota mirror, it’s a hammer, and the creative lava goes directly from its source, still hot, to the receptacle, the listener.
Euro free jazz is a rarefied thing; somehow, it retains much of the fierce emotion of the American sounds that gave birth to it. But in the transition it has become a renegade chamber music, a recital. In Europe, this music is often performed in a festival context, with a performance art aspect.
Tonight, I long for someone to get onstage and scream and laugh at the silent audience, who may as well have been watching television. Our reticence deprived this event of a certain spark. GARY STEEL
• The Peters Brotzmann and Kowald are back in the Capital on Thursday for a musicians’ workshop at Wellington Polytechnic. For more information, contact the Goethe Institute.

Notes: I was thinking about how I’d love to be at Saturday night’s Peter Brotzmann show in Auckland, his first appearance here since way back in 1986 and knowing that it would be foolhardy to try, with a major flu boiling away in my system and one blocked ear to boot! Then I came across this review of that earlier show, and it made me gnash my teeth in disappointment – nearly 30 years on, unless Brotzmann does a Leonard Cohen on us, it’s unlikely that he’ll be returning here again. My review probably doesn’t quite convey the series of small epiphanies I experienced that night. I was familiar with jazz music’s more adventurous explorations, but nothing prepared me for the savagery of Brotzmann’s attack. And it was my first exposure to his particular artistry: back then, I hadn’t even heard the overwhelming intensity of his 1967 Machine Gun album, which made most rock music sound very pale indeed, and seeing/hearing him in a live context did something that recordings of improvised music seldom do: it gave me tingles. Lastly, if you’ve bothered to read my obscure footnote, whether or not you’re going/went/didn’t quite get to the show, it’s worth reading this recent Graham Reied interview with Brotzmann, where he mentions the terrible audiences last time he was here. He’s right. I’m glad we’ve got a bit more boisterous since the ‘80s.



Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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