Unabridged Q&A: Peter Brötzmann
Wed Jun 1 2011
Peter Brötzmann visits NYC on Wednesday, June 8, and you should go hear him. The 70-year-old German saxophone titan will perfom and receive well-deserved Lifetime Achievement honors as part of Vision Festival XVI. Brötzmann may be known for more than 40 years of ultra-passionate and monstrously extreme free jazz—read more in a TONY profile, running in this week's issue—but in conversation, he's surprisingly gentle and reflective. He graciously took 90 minutes recently to speak to TONY by phone from his home in Wuppertal. We're proud to present the unedited Q&A here.
Time Out New York: You just had a recent festival in your home city, is that right?
Peter Brötzmann: Festival is a big word for that, but we were on the road for two weeks with the Chicago Tentet. Then we had three days in London, and we had three days in my hometown. We could raise a bit of money because of my 70th birthday.
What is it like for you to play in your home city?
I'm not so sure. I'm not a man for the home place, in a way—usually not. But I must say, this time it turned out to be a very good fest. Usually, you have all the people you've known for a long time, and in the first row are sitting all the old guys with gray beards like me, and that's a bit boring. But this time it was really nice. People came from everywhere: people from Russia, people from Scandinavia, people from the U.S., and of course more-or-less local guys, so it was a good mixture of young and old. We had a good time, and I think the band was working at its best.
Did anybody give you any kind of birthday surprise?
Nah, we don't do this kind of thing. Actually, on the road, after Wuppertal, there was a birthday cake at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam and another very nice birthday cake in Romania, in a town called Oradea. Very nice people, but usually we don't do this birthday nonsense.
So you're not really much for celebration.
Not really. I like to work and I like to travel, but sometimes I must admit it does me good. It was really nice—a little surprise is always good.
You said you weren't much of a hometown person. Do you prefer being on the road?
I think it's both of it. I like to be on the road, and coming home is another good feeling. But if I stay too long at home, I get a bit nervous [Laughs], so I have to be on the road again.
Do you still live very near to where you grew up?
I live in this town, Wuppertal, and my town where I was born, Remscheid, is just about 18 kilometers away. And when I left school in Remscheid, the next art school was here in Wuppertal, and so I went there and for some reason—wife, children—I stayed. And I must say, I'm quite a man of this area. It's a bit hilly; the people are a bit rough if you don't know them too well, but in the end, some good people. And I like the landscapes around here very, very much.
You said you went to art school in Wuppertal. Is the city known for a thriving art community?
My first target was to be a painter, and music was always on the side, but then in the '60s it turned around. It's a medium-size town here, Wuppertal, about 350,000, and it's on the border of the Ruhr area and close to Cologne and Dusseldorf. We always had a very lively arts scene here in town, which at the moment, because the town is bankrupt, is not so lively! [Laughs] They tried to save money everywhere, and of course the culture is the first target. But still, compared to other cities, there are quite nice activities going on here. And you know, you just step on the train, and in a half hour you are in Dusseldorf, with very good museums and theaters, and the same with Cologne. I'm quite in the center here, so that's good.
Obviously you're coming to New York to play in June. Can you talk about your long history of coming here, and working at the Vision Festival in particular?
I think the first time I came to New York was '76 or '74. That was a cultural exchange between the city of Berlin and the city of New York, and I went together with Han Bennink, and Alex Von Schlippenbach was playing solo. We played in some art gallery in Broome Street, which was the center of the gallery business at that time. But I must say, we didn't meet too many musicians and it was a short visit. But then very soon after that, there was Soundscape that Verna Gillis was running, up in the 50s I think. And my trio with Harry Miller and Louis Moholo played there a couple of times. And that was not the first time I met Milford Graves—I had met him a year before here in Europe, in Brussels—but the first time I played with him. And of course, William Parker was my man. Peter Kowald introduced me to William, and the first note I heard from William, I was sure that's the bass player I need and I want.
And so together with William, we played in a lot of different constellations in the U.S. and here in Europe, and the good thing was, parallel to New York, I discovered Chicago. The guys there, they had no money, they had no idea about this kind of music. But I had a couple of fans there, so I mainly played some solo concerts, but then I was a bit tired and I was supposed to play with an East German piano player, Uli Gumpert, but he didn't get out of his country. So I was alone again in Chicago and I was asking around and one of my New York friends said, "There is a guy, Hamid Drake is his name, and he's played with Don Cherry and Pierre Drge"—that is a Danish guitar player I knew—and so I just got him on the phone and we made our first duo concert. The friendship still is going strong.
And there was an idea about a trio, so I got William and Hamid together; they didn't know each other, and then we had quite a period with this trio. And besides that, I played with all kinds of different people, especially drummers, in New York. I started together with Fred Hopkins and Philip Wilson as a trio. And the next time I came back, Philip Wilson was murdered. And yeah, there were a lot of horn players, all kinds of people, but for New York, William was always my man. Then, the few occasions I had the chance to play with Milford were some kind of, let's say, highlights in my little career. And the friendship to my Chicagoan friends grew, and I discovered some younger musicians there with the help of Hamid. So we got a bunch of guys together to form the Chicago Tentet, which still is going on after 12 years. It's a very surprising thing to be at least two or three times on the road with such a big band. In our times, money is always and everywhere the question, and money is not getting better for us. So it's always a fight, but we are used to it.
Since you were talking about working in New York, do you remember the first time you heard New York free jazz, or American free jazz in general?
The first American free jazz I heard in Europe. Long before Albert Ayler had a name, and Byard Lancaster and all these guys from the ESP label, they were much more known in Europe than in your own country. And I think the success Albert Ayler had was growing in your country because he had so much success here in Europe. The difference between the U.S. and Europe is, even if the money in Europe is small, we get paid usually, and if you work in the States, you know what the money is: mostly no money. That is a problem, and so all your guys are trying to come to Europe, to Japan, to where the work and the money is.
And yeah, the first free jazz, it's a question of definition anyway, but when I was a really young man, I heard Eric Dolphy, I heard Sun Ra over here in Europe, besides all the Miles Davis bands, all the Coltrane: with Cannonball Adderly, with Dolphy. And I think we had some quite good information. I met Ornette Coleman the first time in Germany at the radio station in Bremen—that was the time he recorded the Stockholm trio things. I think if you wanted the information, you could hear a lot of music over here. Then you might know I was invited by Carla Bley in '65, I think it was, to play with her European tour that the two of us badly organized. But via Carla, I met Cecil Taylor in Paris the first time, still with Jimmy Lyons, and Andrew Cyrille was the drummer. And since that time, Andrew and I stayed in touch, and later on, we had a duo going on for quite some time, sometimes together with Peter Kowald as a trio.
Yeah, New York... You must imagine, as an innocent man coming the first time to New York, into the music, you try to listen to everything, whatever you can get, if you have the money to get in—that was sometimes a problem [Laughs]. But I tried to listen to all the kinds of music I could get.
I read that you saw Sidney Bechet early on.
Yeah, that actually is true. I saw him twice, here in my hometown. I still was at school in Remscheid, but we took the little train to Wuppertal. Once he was playing with a whole American band that was really fantastic, and two years later, I saw him again with a French band. He was working with mostly Claude Luter. But Bechet was an amazing tsunami to watch. He was a man onstage who just blew the horn, and it was really a storm and at the same time beautiful.
In these years, you could hear a lot of good music. We had all the good, old blues guys here, and I remember once I heard Howlin' Wolf here in my town, and I snuck backstage, and because I was so impressed, I had to say hello to the guy and he shook my hands...or my arms—you remember he had hands like I don't know what. [Laughs] He was a big guy and really impressive. That was my first little life experience with musicians, and later on, I had a chance to spend a lot of time with Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, because Cherry was working quite a bit for the German radio stations. He passed by my place and stayed overnight with the family, and that was really a very important influence, because at that time, nobody really wanted to hear my music, especially not the officials involved in the jazz business. Everybody was either laughing or turning their back to us. So it was very helpful and very important to have people like Steve or Don around. They kicked our ass and pushed us and told us, "Just go ahead—don't care."
When did you first feel, as a European, that there was something distinct happening with the free-jazz movement there that set it apart from the American scene? When did it develop its own character?
You know, I had no music education. As I said before, my target was to be a painter, but that was a good thing, because being a painter and being involved in activities here and galleries and so on, I met other people. I met, for example—and I had a chance to work with him—Nam June Paik, the Korean video artist. And he was, I think I can say now, a very great and a very big influence. And via him, I met the people from the Fluxus movement, and then at the same time Stockhausen opened up his electronic studio in Cologne, and he was running a little small theater with his wife, Mary Bauermeister, in Cologne, so you could see people like John Cage and David Tudor or other people of the so-called serious music, contemporary field.
And that opened my eyes and ears, so I didn't depend on musical forms that jazz music gave you: the 32 bars or the 12-bar blues, or harmonic scales. I didn't care about that. So I could try to find my way of playing independent from that, and I think I always was a step further than my other German or European colleagues in that sense, and of course, it was not a decision from one day to the other; it took some years to find out where to go and how to do it. And the good thing was, our international influences—Holland is just two hours from my place, so I went a lot of times to Amsterdam. I met Misha Mengelberg the first time there, and a couple of years later, Han Bennink and Willem Breuker. And at the same time, whenever we had some money together—and when I say we, it was mostly with Peter Kowald—we went to England and met Derek Bailey, Evan Parker or Johnny Stevens and the South Africans like Dudu Pukwana, Chris McGregor, Mongezi Feza and all those people.
And the good thing was, for Germany at that time—you might know—we had a lot of independent radio stations in all our areas, and at that time, they still had some money and so sometimes I was able to raise some money even for a larger group, like a 10-, sometimes 15-, even 20-piece band, and I could invite everybody from England, from Holland, from Denmark. John Tchicai was at that time living in Denmark, and so it was really a very good community we had together, all over Europe. And that helped to develop the music. Though people like Evan or Willem Breuker, just to take two reed players, developed—I think we all developed a very personal style, and then later on, we went quite different ways.
Overblowing the saxophone, or distorting the "natural" sound of the horn is such a big part of what you do. Do you remember when you first became interested in developing that?
No, I must say I can't remember. But when I was 14 or 15, I was playing in a kind of swing band, and in the swing band was a normal trumpet, saxophone, clarinet—that was me—and trombone, piano, bass, drums. And I had two or three trio numbers, and one of them was "I Got Rhythm," a very simple tune, which was good for me. And we had a good drummer in the band; he was a kind of little Gene Krupa–style guy. [Laughs] He looked like him too; it was very funny. Then I learned that I like very much if it's really steaming, if it's really cooking. And I think in this time—because the horn I was playing was old, fucked-up and maybe it even didn't work really good—I think in that time I did my first screams. And by the way, I always liked the guys like Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and people like that. And I still like to do it. I mean, I know the range is much bigger than that, but if the band is steaming and cooking, I like that very much.
I wanted to ask you about something else that has been really important to your art from the beginning, which is your verbal sense, the naming of the records and compositions: Machine Gun, Balls, Nipples, things like that. You've always had a distinct way of using words.
Yeah, Machine Gun was a nickname Don Cherry gave me. He invited me in '66, I think it was, to join the group in Paris for a weekend. And Gato Barbieri was playing, Karl Berger of course, Aldo Romano on the drums, J.F. Jenny-Clark on the bass. And after that session, he gave me two nicknames: One was Machine Gun, and the other was Living Ball of Fire. And Machine Gun of course was done in '68, which was a very revolutionary time here in Europe and in your country, too. The Vietnam War was on its way, and here in Europe, we had our student things, because we wanted another republic and so on, and years before in your country, of course, we followed very much Malcolm X and Angela Davis, and so on. I saw Angela Davis a couple of times in Berlin. It was a time for change, and naive as we had been in these years, we thought music would be a tool for changing things. And of course we had to learn that that was a kind of illusion. I mean, I still think that you can change things, or at least you can change and open up people's minds with the music, but for a political change, it was not a strong enough tool, I would say.
It seems like those titles, like Balls and Nipples, were making such a different statement than American free jazz, which was very concerned with enlightenment and spiritual consciousness: Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity, Coltrane's Interstellar Space and so on.
Yeah, if you look at those Albert Ayler titles, this always was very far away from my way of thinking. I always was really standing with both feet on the soil, and of course, if you take Balls or Nipples, the sexual side of the music, you have it in rhythm & blues as much as you can. It's very important, and was and still is for me. And I think we at that time were a little bit tired of all these American record titles; they were much too esoteric. We had to fight every day, and I know the guys in your country had to do the same, but the solution for us was not in some kind of other world—it was just here.
And there's also a visual aesthetic that goes along with that, as evidenced on a lot of the record covers you've designed, like Last Exit's Köln with the dead bird on the cover.
Yeah, I mean, that's my way to look at things and to find things. I remember the Last Exit cover. That was just a dead crow I found in the street, so why not use it? That's what you experience day-by-day. And of course, as much as I like, for example, the Blue Note records—they are perfect, very beautiful and well done, and it's very good to have such good design. But I thought we had to do something different, and my way of aesthetics is still a different one.
Yeah, and it's instantly recognizable too—the typefaces and the fonts that you use. It's a clear signature, the same way that your saxophone playing is. You mentioned the sexual side of this music, as it relates to R&B. Do you think of there being a humor aspect of these titles like Nipples and Balls?
Yeah, sometimes, for sure. I mean, I'm not such a humorous guy like some of my, let's say, Dutch comrades. But there is a kind of little, hidden dark humor behind my things. Even in the music, it's not always the screaming, not always the pain, not always the heavy blues. I mean, look at the blues: The blues is very funny sometimes, very pro-life [Ed: i.e., literally, not antiabortion]. I read recently a word from Ken Burns, and he said the blues was always not a description of being in the shit, but it was always a try to get out of the shit, and I think that is very right. And for that you need sometimes some humor too. It's a part of life. It maybe looks different here in Europe than in the States, or the German kind of humor is for sure different from the Dutch one, but you need it to survive. I think it's very useful.
You said it was Ken Burns who said that?
Yeah, I don't like his jazz series too much. But I like the Jack Johnson film, and I like the Civil War thing very much, and I like this remark about the blues.
I wanted to ask you about some of your electric-oriented bands, like the trio you have now with Paal Nilssen-Love and Massimo Pupillo, which seems to point back to Last Exit. Did you ever have an interest in hard rock or heavy metal?
In the early '60s, or in the middle '60s, I played quite a bit with some German rock bands, heavy rock bands, as a guest sometimes, or just in some sessions. And Last Exit was a try to find an in-between, and I think it was quite a fantastic band. And people always like to forget that I was the first who started to play with electronic guys, pioneers of electronics, like an English guy called Hugh Davies, for example. And I played with Michel Waisvisz quite a bit. I always was looking around; I never said no. I tried to find the right people, and if you listen to the stuff Toshinori Kondo is doing, or an electric-bass player like Massimo or Marino Pliakas from the Full Blast band, if I find the right people, I don't care what instrument they play; it just has to work.
As as listener, were you interested in hard rock and heavy metal?
Not really, because after a short while, it always got too boring. I mean, I've seen good single players in the bands, but mostly the rhythmic conceptions of the band were too boring.
Do you remember any of the players that impressed you in that style?
A guy who was really trying something else was Ginger Baker, for example. I played with him a couple of times in different bands. He had a very open mind for things, and that's what I miss in general in the heavy metal or in rock & roll music. So I couldn't mention that I would run to somebody and say, hey, let's do something together.
At the time I was working with Bill Laswell, and he planned to bring me together with Mtrhead, because he was producing them at that time and they did know what I was doing, but it never came to that. I would have tried it, let's say it like that. But for example, I like what Kondo is doing with his electronics and the trumpet, and there are some Norwegians and some Japanese guys. I used to play with Keiji Haino—I really like this guy—and with another Japanese guy, Otomo Yoshihide. And Jim O'Rourke is living in Tokyo now for two years, so when I see him there, we do little things together. So if I find the right people, I'm open for the electric side of it. But I'll say it again: It has to be the right guy.
I was also curious about some of the records you made around the time of Last Exit, like Low Life and Iron Path, where they were more studio records that involved overdubbing and postproduction. Are you interested in that kind of record-making?
No. I like the Low Life thing, and I think we used the dubbing very, very little. But the Iron Path, I think the way Bill produced that record for sure is not my way of working, to prepare a record just in the studio, just to put together parts of music. No, I'm a man of a band, and I have to be together with the guys in the studio, onstage, and then the music is happening or not. But I'm not a man for working in the studio and then think that is the music of the band. I can imagine working on some music for films or TV, and going in the studio and collecting things and making collages out of things. But if it comes to my own shit, I need a band, I need a stage and I need an audience.
I've been going back and listening to a lot of your recordings, and I feel that sometimes your role as a composer or an organizer of large ensembles is overlooked. Listening to records like Machine Gun, Alarm and Fuck De Boere, it seems like you've always been interested in coming up with a scheme for improvising, even if it was a graphic or nontraditional score. Do you feel like you're overlooked as a composer or organizing figure?
No, I never saw me as a kind of composer. A composer has the work fixed already in his head before it gets played. No, if I work for a larger ensemble and I bring a score or I have an idea, I just discuss that with the guys, and for me, a kind of composition, if it's graphic or if it's traditionally made, can be just a little, let's say, kick to get the guys playing and to keep—to have a beginning and to have an end. But what is in between, the musicians have to develop for themselves. I mean "Machine Gun" is a very structured thing, from the beginning to the end. It's really in a way very traditional: It starts with a figure; it goes on with a Charles Ives theme; it comes at the end to some rock & roll figure. And in between, the solo stuff. So it's nothing very avant-garde; it's a very normal kind of piece.
But a good example is the work with the Chicago Tentet. When we started, we started with scores, with written pieces of paper. And I asked everybody who was interested to write things and bring it, and we tried to do it and we tried to rehearse. And we did that for five years, I think, and Vandermark brought very conventionally written scores, very difficult stuff; we needed a lot of time for rehearsal. I came maybe with a little piece of paper and told the guys, "Do this and that," and all sorts of ideas.
But then after five or six years, there was a time when I decided, "Okay, let's throw away all the papers," because I had the feeling that, okay, we are old enough and experienced enough that we'll just try to do it without. And I think it was quite the right decision at the right moment, and the band is really working like hell. It's always risky, because if something goes wrong, the whole shit goes wrong. There's nothing you can repair. But if you have the right concentration, and if you can motivate the guys, then it works fantastic. And in the band, I always was trying to give the guys as much responsibility for the music as I have. I never saw myself as a bandleader. Sometimes you have to say yes or no, but I always try to set things free, to make things possible, to make music possible.
You mentioned that sometimes things go wrong. Can you think of a particular performance where that happened, and how you may have tried to remedy that with the next performance?
Let's take this as an example: At one time, I was working with Laswell and Nicky Skopelitis and Anton Fier, and on the other hand, I still was working with William, with the guys out of the jazz tradition. I had a chance to put these two formats together, and so I formed a band—it was quite exactly 20 years ago—called the März Combo. März is the month of March in German, because it was my 50th-birthday band, and I'm born in March, so we called it the März Combo. On one side, it included William, Toshinoro Kondo, Paul Rutherford, Larry Stabbins and a couple of people like that, Werner Lüdi, the Swiss alto player. And then on the other hand, I had Anton Fier as a drummer, Nicky Skopelitis and my son on guitars, and I tried to bring these two things together, and I made some graphic scores. But it didn't work. We had quite a bit of work together here in Europe, but for some reason, it was very, very seldom that the band was really getting together. And I remember some concerts where I really was so angry and so [Groans]... I could've taken the train home. I don't know; maybe it was the wrong time for trying that, but okay, I can live with that. That just happened and next time you try better.
So you said you weren't so interested in records that were a product of the studio, but what about live ones? You have so many recordings out that are recordings of gigs. Are records in general important to you, the process of recording and releasing music?
Yeah, that's a good question. I'm glad that we took the chance to record Machine Gun, and I'm glad about most of the documents I have with my first trio with Han Bennink and Fred Van Hove, which I think for the history of European improvised music are quite important documents, but I see them still more as documents. I'm still more interested to be on the road than to go into the studio.
I think especially the way records or CDs are produced nowadays, it's relatively easily done, because the technique is so far developed that you don't need much. You need a good engineer, you need some knowledge and you need a little bit of money. But I remember when I produced my first trio record myself with Peter Kowald and Sven-ke Johansson, I had to save money. Nobody had money in these years. I had to pay everything and everybody in advance; otherwise it wouldn't have worked. And it was a procedure which took a lot of nerves, a lot of money, and you really had to get into it. And nowadays, it's relatively easy. And the thing is, because you don't have major record labels anymore, nobody can send you into a studio for some days, and even in the good, old jazz days, the studios were booked for a couple of hours—three, four, five hours, and then you had to do it. That means you had to rehearse earlier, days before somewhere else, and you had to get the guys together, and you had to pay them at least a little bit so that they showed up. It was a different scene.
Now you can travel around with a little equipment, and if you're interested, you can record it yourself. I mean, I'm not into that technical stuff, but I know it's possible. And so I think the live concert is the most important thing, and the record is good to have as a kind of document, and of course, if it was a really fantastic concert, you're happy to have the tape. On the other hand, I get a little bit fed up nowadays. Wherever you go, you have a bunch of guys, and some of them even ask if they are allowed to record it. Most of the time, though, they don't ask, and you don't see the equipment and then you see it the next day on YouTube or somewhere. It's a completely crazy world, and the thing is, you have hundreds of small labels, which is on one side good, but the market is very small and it's so overloaded with 99 percent of shitty music, it's a drag. Sometimes I wish I would have known the guys from Blue Note or from Riverside, that there was a producer who understood the music at least, but since the '60s, the market changed completely for what you can call jazz music.
Well, it seems like you're taking an interesting step with this web shop Catalytic Sound that you started with Ken Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson and Paal Nilssen-Love.
Yeah, we just opened it. We were just tired that distribution is not functioning anymore. You have no real distribution in Europe you can trust. And we have audiences; that is a point. And you can't carry to all the concerts whatever you have produced, and especially if you produce vinyl, it's so heavy to carry around besides the instruments. So we decided we'd try to do a kind of distribution for at least our stuff, so that people worldwide have an address where they can go to and ask if this or that is available. We are just beginning, but at least if you want the Vandermark or the Tentet or the Brötzmann stuff, there is an address where you can get the things. I hope it will work.
I think that selling the downloads is a really good idea.
Yeah, and you know, you never make money selling the numbers we are selling, if it's 2,000 or sometimes 4,000. But the money that comes over is very little, and if you go through another distribution, they take away from that little amount another half or more. So we'll invest a little bit and we'll try to do it ourselves. Even some special small editions that you can get there, and these kind of things. And maybe some books and catalogs, whatever.
You were mentioning people like Vandermark and Gustafsson, who are working on this project with you. I think it's really impressive that throughout your career you've always worked the cutting-edge players. When you started off, it was the people of your generation, but you've been really good about collaborating with younger players like Paal Nilssen-Love. If you look back through all these partnerships, what is that you look for in a collaborator?
I don't know. One of the best experiences of my last years was a short coooperation with Walter Perkins, who died three, four years ago. And it was a very short time together. But as you know, he comes really out of the deepest bebop sources, and it was so nice to work with him. So what I want to say is, I'm looking for not only players, I'm looking for people behind the horn and behind the instrument, and of course I like challenge. I play with Paal Nilssen-Love, who is I think the best you can have here in Europe, or the other drummer in Europe, Michael Wertmüller, who is playing a completely different style, but he is a very energetic man.
But I still love to work with Hamid, and I'm looking forward to working with William again. But I think the young guys, they give you a kind of challenge too, and on the other hand, working with Ken, for example, it's not only the work; after all these years, it's a very good friendship, which is not always happening in our field of business. But especially working with larger ensembles, we don't have to love each other, but we have to work together. And it's a kind of social experience too, not only a music experience. And I think that's what made me in my very young years so interested in jazz music, because I always had the feeling that this was a music where the human factor, the social factor plays a very, very big role.
And that's what I learned from people like Sun Ra or people like Duke Ellington, if you talk about big bands, for example. They worked in different ways, but they kept their guys together and they worked on the same thing for longer periods, and not as a kind of fashionable thing from here to there. I mean, music for me is not a thing for a period. Music, the way I understand it, it's my life. It's trying to get somewhere and I don't know where, but it's coming closer. And getting older, I'm coming closer anyway! [Laughs] So I'm still looking forward what to do.
You were talking about the challenge of playing with the younger musicians, and it made me think about the process of keeping up your physical stamina. In the liner notes to the Machine Gun reissue, you talked about how you guys were sleeping outside in a construction site and having beer for breakfast before the session, and it was obviously a very hard-living period. Are you still able to do that, or do you have to be more health conscious?
No [Laughs], I prefer my comfortable hotel nowadays, which we don't have always. No, life changed a bit, of course, and the body, the bones are not made to run around the world carrying cases if you are 70. But on the other hand, the playing was always a very physical thing for me too; it's still an important thing for me. And to tell you a little secret, if I work, for example, in our saxophone trio with Mats and Ken and we're on the road, I still can show the guys that I'm there and even that I kick their ass from time to time. That's a little private pleasure. [Laughs] And I'm glad that my body still is functioning and hopefully my brain too, so if it keeps on for a little while, I would be happy. And if I can't do it the way I want to do it anymore, then I hope I have some friends who say, "Hey Brötzmann, stay home—we'll send you a cigar and a postcard." But yeah, I think I'll keep going for a while.
Is there anybody that you haven't yet collaborated with that you'd like to work with?
Yeah, you know, I always admired Ornette very much. I mean, I've played with a lot of great American guys. To start with the oldest one, Sam Rivers, and he still is jumping around the world, fantastic. But I never worked with Ornette, and of course playing with him, that would have been one of my little dreams. Another man I've admired since I was busy with the music was Sonny Rollins, and I saw him last year in Norway at a festival, and he played beautifully, especially the solo passages. They were so great. But the next morning, I saw him at the airport; we had to take the same plane to Oslo. And he was in a wheelchair; he didn't look too well. Yeah, I just hope for him that he can make it. But these are the people I still admire. I'm not the youngest anymore and my saxophone colleague Evan Parker is just two years younger, I think, and it's nice that we still can make it, traveling and working, and even trying to be a good example for the younger guys that you have to really invest yourself in what you are doing. I think if you can do that, and if we can still reach our audience, that is really very good.
Definitely. Do you listen to music much, either at home or on headphone while you're on the road?
No, I never do that when I'm traveling. I don't like headphones, and actually sometimes I have the feeling I don't like music. [Laughs] When I'm at home, I always come back to the same old things I've listened to for 40, 50 years, that is Monk, Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and other great saxophone players. Coleman Hawkins still is my favorite, and not to forget Don Byas and Billie Holiday, and the blues, all kinds of blues. That's what I do when I have time at home and a quiet hour, or when I'm in my studio and I have time for painting or doing woodcuts or whatever.
Are you still spending a lot of time regularly on your visual art?
I still do, and I would love to have more time for that, but at the moment, I have quite a nice, big exhibition here in my hometown. And yeah, I'm still busy, if the time allows it. That's the problem; time is a problem.
When you were talking about people like Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, you were saying that you had so many others telling you that what you were doing was wrong. And obviously at this point, there's a real international scene for this kind of music. I was wondering if you could remember a moment when you felt like you had found your way, or you had transcended the criticisms that you encountered early on.
I think I realized that American music, American musicians always were of real importance for me. And when I had the feeling, for example, playing the early concerts in New York, let's say the Soundscape with Milford, or in the same period, the trio with Louis Moholo and Harry Miller, when I had the feeling I got accepted by the New York audience and by most of the New York musicianse. And for example, here in Europe, Frank Wright was really a close... More than a friend. He was a really my brother in a way. When I realized that, that was really very important for me. It was not the big audiences at the Moers or Berlin festivals, but it was those little moments where you had the feeling to be together with some comrades from wherever at the end, and playing, for example, with all the great drummers, with Ronald Shannon Jackson. Sonny Sharrock was an important man for me. When I felt that there is something happening, that was always a great feeling.
In terms of recognition, obviously something that comes to mind is the Bill Clinton mention. Do you remember what you thought when you heard that he had singled you out as one of his favorite saxophonists?
[Laughs] That was nighttime here in Europe and I was at home, and a couple of European and also American friends called me. And I said, "Come on, you are kidding." But then somebody faxed me the article from this university paper, and I mean, he was not the most bad President in your history. And he is playing the saxophone, or trying. And he is smoking cigars, and I do the same. [Laughs]
I mean I wish one of our stupid politicians over here would even know my name. I think for sure you can criticize a lot of American politics, but that people are open for this... For example, I know that Mars Williams with his Liquid Soul band was invited to play when Clinton won the election. And if those kinds of things are possible in your country, that's one little thing I like very much. Because I don't see any of that in Europe, if you look at Madame Merkel or if you look at this little Mussolini Berlusconi or this little Napoleon in fucking France. And if I look around here, I don't have to tell what I think. But I think it's always good if people with such responsibility on their backs have open ears for all kinds of things happening on the side, and maybe it's not a bad thing to have a cup of tea with Mr. Clinton and smoke a cigar [Laughs].