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Peter Brotzmann Sextet and Quartet: Nipples

This is a general phenomenon, historically confirmed that the most influential political, intellectual and artistic ideas and trends of any period, whether as a positive confirmation or as a theoretical and ideological rejection of them, will dominate the period. But that influence, depending on the consciousness and ideological character of those influenced, will be expressed in very diverse ways.

There are also a host of other contesting influences at all times, which might lead the art to dilution, superficiality, marginalization of important aspects of the original source and overemphasis of peripheral aspects of the source. It’s the difference between innovation, popularization, watering down or outright pimpery. They obsess with, perhaps, the initial explosiveness inherent in the form’s emergence. That form is the incredible dynamism of the ’60s free music outburst usually identified with ‘Trane, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp, and given particular identity by Albert Ayler and, to some extent, by Frank Wright.

Peter Brotzmann is absorbed by this initial free form, fixing it as a complete aesthetic construct, thereby minimizing its deeper philosophical and creative use and musical innovation. He apotheosizes the blunt power and raw timbre of the original, but strips the paradigm of its compositional and profound improvisational expressiveness.

What Brotzmann seems oblivious to is that the explosion was an introduction to new ways into the music, an entrance into newer forms of a total expression. By emphasizing only one aspect of the new, Brotzmann transforms the music into a kind of still life and reduces it to a style without profound creative substance.

In fact, if we judge as well by titles like this CD, Nipples, or the name of one of Brotzmann’s touring ensembles, Die Like a Dog, we can believe that the emotional presence of the music not only disconnects “style” from substance, but replaces it with a one-sided, flat snapshot of the form as path. But he is unable to conceive of where that path leads.

In cuts like “Spirits Awake,” “Witches and Devils,” “The Truth Is Marching In” and “Ghosts,” Ayler narrates a world of struggle against diverse negative forces: material, psychological, emotional. As Albert conceives it, he is raising good, destroying evil. Brotzmann seems to think that that only the “destruction” is important; he makes symbolic hyperbole without understanding that this music reflected is a living being, an opening not a closing, a beginning not an end. When the emotional content of this music is missing, as it is here, and from a depressing number of other players of “the new music,” it becomes formalist and academic; it drains the music of real life

It reminds me of a Swiss saxophonist I did a gig with several years ago who, when I laid out the Monk, Duke and ‘Trane pieces I wanted his group to play with my poetry, told me, “I don’t play tunes.” Such self-aggrandizing elitism can only produce a predictably empty art.

Originally Published