30 November 2017, Common Room, Hastings
I stood at Common Room’s bar and spoke with Peter Brötzmann after what must have been a draining performance for the 76-year-old saxophonist, and not just because of his age. There’s a ferocious, urgent intensity to his music that begs the question of how he can summon up a catharsis-to-order, night after night on tour, not to mention over the course of a career marked be restless experimentation and ceaseless collaboration reaching back to the late 1960s.
Unlikely as it seems to me right now, this is already the second time I’ve stood at a bar and spoken with this German ‘free jazz’ legend. The first was in 1985 at Downstage in Wellington when I was 19. So excited was I then by the hurricane-like power and atonal audacity of the set he’d just played with bassist Peter Kowald, that I felt compelled to approach him and congratulate him on the “aggressiveness” of his music.
“No. I don’t think so. It is not aggressive!”, he barked back with indignation. I couldn’t understand how I’d managed to get it so wrong. I told myself that it was a good lesson in not assuming the obvious about art. I went out the next day and bought Brötzmann’s 1968 album Machine Gun. It sounded very aggressive.
So, anyway, last Thursday night I felt compelled to remind him of our exchange 32 years previous. And he nodded thoughtfully, not remembering me at all. And, of course now I understand, that to describe any creative act by an undoubtedly politically-conscious German artist as an aggressive act is to touch on acute sensitivities. “In those days we felt the burden of German history very heavily,” he said. And certainly, he was a part of a revolution in German music, along with rock bands like Neu!, Faust, and Can that needed to reboot things from first principles, to “rip it up and start again” in order to avoid the influence of Germany’s established, and so at best ignorant, at worst complicit, cultural constructions.
Brötzmann’s collaborator for this tour, American-born Heather Leigh, plays pedal steel guitar; but if that’s putting you in mind of Ry Cooder, think again. She plays the instrument as far removed from its customary sound as Brötzmann’s sax is from Kenny G’s. She generates arrhythmic waves of rising and falling tones with insistent and anxious pressure, a dark country through which Brötzmann’s desperate and agonised sax scrabbles and bellows. Both artists exploit texture and conflict over melody and harmony as a means to access listeners’ imaginations. Of course this isn’t easy for listeners.
Launching straight into the set without a single word of introduction, feels like an assault, or maybe a burning away of something. Some audience members just couldn’t do it and fled to the garden bar. When I saw Brötzmann in ’85, about a third of the audience left. But for those with the nerve, an incredibly moving, personal and unforgettable aural experience unfolds in one single uninterrupted 40-minute take.
Credit to Common Room for consistently taking on challenging performances like this – it’s uncommon. And check out Heather Leigh’s stunning 2014 album I Abused Animal to hear her haunting singing.