Peter Brötzmann

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It’s true: After a three-month hiatus, the Burning Ambulance podcast is back, with an interview with legendary saxophonist Peter Brötzmann!

Brötzmann first emerged onto the global scene in the late ’60s — he released his first album, For Adolphe Sax, named for the inventor of the saxophone, in 1967. A year later, he made Machine Gun, which is a landmark record not just in free jazz but in jazz history, period. A lot of critics have said that the music on Machine Gun was more extreme than anything that had come before, mostly because Brötzmann and the other two saxophonists, Willem Breuker and Evan Parker, seemed to be going even farther on their horns than John Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders or Albert Ayler had gone, but when you pay close attention to it you’ll hear that there are actually riffs — really big, honking, fist-pumping riffs, especially at the end. And Brötzmann has said many times that the music was inspired by Lionel Hampton’s big band, which had four saxophonists up front blowing in unison.

I’ve been a fan of Brötzmann’s for a long time, and I’ve seen him live twice. The first time was in January 1997, at the Cooler in the Meatpacking District in Manhattan, with Thomas Borgman on saxophone, William Parker on bass, and Rashid Bakr on drums, a show that was released on CD under the name The Cooler Suite. The other time was at Tonic, with a version of his quartet Die Like A Dog. On record, that band usually featured Toshinori Kondo on trumpet, William Parker on bass, and Hamid Drake on drums, but at this gig Kondo wasn’t there for whatever reason, and Roy Campbell subbed in. I was also a big fan of Last Exit, a group formed by Bill Laswell that included Brötzmann, Sonny Sharrock on guitar, and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums. Their music was a combination of free jazz, metal, and funk, totally improvised in the moment, and some of it is amazing. It used to be hard to find their CDs, but now you can get almost all of their albums on Laswell’s Bandcamp page.

This interview was recorded back in early October, and a lot of it’s about his new solo album I Surrender Dear, and about his connections to jazz history. He really loves old school players like Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins, and he absolutely loves the blues, so we talk a lot about that. I think you’ll really get a sense of him as a music fan — he talks about all the bands he saw growing up in Germany in the ’50s and ’60s. We talk about what he looks for in collaborations, and how he chooses projects, too, ’cause he gets more invitations than he accepts. We also talk about his visual art, which is just as important as the music — he had originally planned to be a visual artist, with music as a side thing, but it didn’t work out that way. Still, he’s designed almost all of his own album covers for the last 50 years, and he’s got an instantly recognizable visual style, very blocky and heavy like a printmaker. It’s a perfect complement to his sound on the horn. And at the very end of our conversation, I ask him about Ginger Baker, who had died just a few days before we spoke. The two of them played together for three gigs in 1987 in a band that included Sonny Sharrock and Nicky Skopelitis on guitars, and Jan Kazda on bass, under the name No Material. So that’s where this conversation ends. I hope you enjoy the interview, and thanks for listening.

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Music heard in this episode:

Peter Brötzmann, “I Surrender Dear” (I Surrender Dear)