Monday, February 4, 2013

Peter Brötzmann Octet: Machine Gun

As an expression of pure energy music in what is generally called "free jazz," there is nothing quite like the bracing blasts of Machine Gun, the landmark May 1968 recording by the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and seven colleagues.

To those who enjoy so-called "free jazz," emanating, perhaps, with the 1960 Ornette Coleman album of that name and the post-1961 work of Cecil Taylor and the 1965 Ascension recording by John Coltrane and just about anything put out by the powerful Albert Ayler between 1964 and 1967, this album seems to have something of a lineage.  Yet, it has its own distinctiveness, coming during the politically and socially-charged world of Europe in that first half of 1968 by musicians who were jettisoning the more imitative work of most European jazz musicians to that point.

The title Machine Gun was bestowed on Brötzmann by the American trumpeter Don Cherry, who worked with Coleman on those essential early Contemporary and Atlantic recordings in the late 1950s and early 1960s and then went off to Europe, where he made memorable recordings with Ayler and on his own.  Cherry found an apt metaphor for Brötzmann's particularly rough and brutal sound, one clearly informed by Ayler's style of playing, but with its own determined intensity and sound.  Brötzmann had a few hundred copies of the vinyl LP pressed for sale at shows and, some four years later, Gost Jebers released the record with his new and highly-influential Free Music Production label.

Joining with the leader in the horn section was Willem Breuker, who became far better known later for music that was in a very different place than his early free work, and Englishman Evan Parker.  A glorious noise it was that this trio made with melody virtually absent, starting with staccato blasts that sound much like what Ayler and Coltrane (especially in his opening movement on Meditations from 1966) were doing, before launching into sheer blasts of noise including the relentless pounding from Han Bennink and Sven-Ake Johansson.  There is a relatively mellow section featuring bowing from the two bassists Peter Kowald and Buschi Niebergall and it's a wonder that pianist Fred Van Hove could even find a way to play amidst much of the cacophony, but his playing does leaven the frenetic activity to a significant extent.  Finally, towards the end there is a strange R & B like section that the horns play that completely changes the nature of the tune, which concludes with the staccato riff that opened the piece.

For those who just can't get enough of the 15-minute version (and second take) of this magnum opus, the album includes the third take that spans over 17-minutes.  Those entranced, as this blogger was, by the feast of pure noise found in these versions can also seek out the sole recorded live version, which, coming from a March 1968 festival date, predates the studio work, and which was released with the mesmerizing "Fuck de Boere" [a crude politicized statement about the horrors of South African apartheid] in 1970.

With the two takes of Van Hove's "Responsible," there is a greater variety of dynamics, including samba-like rhythms, Carribean-inflected melodies, quiet free interludes and the like that are a nice change of pace from the unyielding intensity of the title tune and a reminder that free jazz players are often perfectly capable of melody and more reflective sounds.

Then, there is Breuker's "Music for Han Bennink," which has a crazy short intro head arrangement before allowing the drummers a little interlude and then back to the wild "melody" which then subsides before launching into another barrage that seems a variation on that opening head.  Bennink follows with a solo that shows his great talent (a much later duet with the great Cecil Taylor in the landmark 1988 series of recordings that pianist did in Germany will be featured here at some point) for a wide variety of dynamics on his apparently basic kit.  After some more thrashing, there is a very mellow and melodic section about half way through lasting a few seconds before more screeching and screaming and general mayhem resumes.  Van Hove gets a chance to end the piece with a solo, sounding a little like Taylor, but without quite the density and the percussiveness of the latter, and it is a memorable performance, only briefly accompanied by some percussion effects.

Machine Gun is probably only slightly less jarring now than it was 45 years ago.  While Brötzmann has continued to be very active and committed to exploring variations of the noisy, atonal pallette of sounds found on this recording, especially in the sublime quartet Last Exit, which will soon be featured here, he has also pursued some less abrasive, rapid and pounding styles of music that still feature his truly iconoclastic sound and determined disinterest in studio recording.

This recording will, however, be his signature—a determined and purposeful clarion call to a turbulent Europe that, in 1968, was consumed with war, riots and other examples of disorder and change.  Anyone interested in "free jazz" and its manifestations in Europe really ought to start with this seminal and bracing record.

Peter Brötzmann Octet:  Machine Gun (Free Music Production, 1968)

1.  Machine Gun (Second Take)  14:57
2.  Machine Gun (Third Take)  17:13
3.  Responsible (For Jan Van de Ven)  (First Take)  10:00
4.  Responsible (For Jan Van de Ven) (Second Take)  8:12
5.  Music for Han Bennink 1  11:22

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