Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Raging against the machine: Another look at Peter Brötzmann's Machine Gun

"…an abstraction painted with a flame-thrower…"—John Corbett

"mindblasting… a smashing clanging wonderland of noise"—Thurston Moore

"The first day went over with rehearsing…, trying to find a way to get the music on tape. After all this trouble, it was a good thing to find some bars, the day/night ended with some tasty beer. Finally I had stashed all the comrades in some friends['] beds or on some ma[t]tresses, Buschi and I were left over, as usual. After some more beers we had to find a place to sleep a couple of hours, next to the club there was a building site under construction. We entered, slept a bit on some cardboard, had a beer for breakfast, went to the club, waiting for the comrades, ready to go."—Peter Brötzmann

The quotes above refer to the album Machine Gun, by the Peter Brötzmann Octet. Machine Gun is one of those agreed-upon landmarks: widely proclaimed as seminal, five stars and a crown in The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, etc. Not to mention the street cred, evidenced by the Thurston Moore quote above. It's a bogeyman of a record—purportedly the most extreme free jazz there is. I remember seeing a copy in a friend's room in college and asking about it; the response I got was a pair of raised eyebrows, i.e., "Shit, man, I don't know what to tell you about that one." The Thurston Moore quote says it all: Machine Gun is a NOISE record, in the foretelling-of–No Fun Fest sense.

I've been listening to Machine Gun over the past few days, and—just like I always am when I pull out this incredible record—I've been newly struck by the fact that this "wonderland of noise" really isn't that at all. What it is, is a very early, very great example of midsize-ensemble free-jazz composition and arrangement. This recording has a thousand times more purpose and direction than anyone seems to want to admit, least of all Brötzmann, who has been perfectly happy to feed the mythology with his tales of sleeping on cardboard and beer for breakfast.

Machine Gun is not simply a document of eight men—most prominently, the stampeding reed section of Brötzmann, Evan Parker and Willem Breuker—blowing their brains out. There is a lot of that to be found on the record, and what of it there is, is majorly amplified in terms of its cacophony by the insanely in-the-red engineering. (The album was, after all, recorded in a concrete-block basement jazz club—though not in front of a live audience—in Bremen.) But what makes the "mindblasting" improv sections on Machine Gun so effective is how they're contrasted with a number of very different textures. Make no mistake: The three pieces that make up the original record, which sound beautiful on the Atavistic reissue The Complete Machine Gun Sessions, are meticulously MAPPED. There are free-jazz blowouts (Dave Burrell's "Echo" comes to mind) and then there are free-jazz compositions; the pieces on Machine Gun are the latter. (Note, for starters, Brötzmann's account of a full day of rehearsal.)

Take the title track. The signature opening section—the head, as it were—that staggered, jagged, broken-glass reed shudder, with the two drummers and the two bassists scraping up a racket underneath, only lasts about 45 seconds. Then Evan Parker begins to solo, with comparatively delicate accompaniment underneath—just one of the basses (I'm pretty sure) and the tamer of the two drummers, Sven-Åke Johansson. The fundamental principle that makes this record a compositional masterpiece in addition to a cacophonous one is already here: You blast with the full ensemble, and then you peel away layers. You plot out an arc. "Machine Gun" is like Coltrane's "Ascension" in a way, but it's a much more engaging piece of music because it's not simply BLAST-solo-BLAST-solo, etc. During Parker's solo (man, that serrated tenor sound—so beautiful and so fully formed, even in 1968), the full ensemble comes in at times to goad him, to blast him out. They're RIFFING in the classic big-band sense, that great old trick where the band will take up a momentum-maintaining theme behind the soloist. Unlike in "Ascension," the players don't politely wait till Parker is done—they rudely interrupt him. It's fantastically effective.

Fred Van Hove's piano solo begins around the 4:00 mark, and you hear something very different going on here. Again the band settles down; this time, it's Johansson and both basses swirling around busily but sensitively underneath. And right around 5:02, the riffing begins again, but this time it's different: not a full-band BLAST as before, but a quick, repeated swooping figure from only the horns. This is the kind of arrangement I love—each soloist is treated to a customized background context. Han Bennink enters eventually, clanging away on what sounds like a trash-can lid and upping the chaos. The swooping figure returns, and eventually the piece escalates into mania, but it quickly dies down. The two bassists play a tense duet at around 8:00, and then around 10:00, the band enters with a slurry, boozy roar, escalating in pitch and tempo, as though a dial were being turned up. Then Breuker solos on bass clarinet starting around 10:52, and note that he gets still another background context; I can't tell if the basses are playing, but the drummer is Bennink, not Johansson, and unlike in Parker's solo, Van Hove is on board. Eventually everyone drops out but Breuker, and after a brief unaccompanied section, he duets with Bennink for a few tense seconds.

Then, at 12:22, comes a new theme, a strident, national-anthem-sounding motif, that grapples with white noise and then exhausts itself, collapsing in a boozy heap (roughly 13:20). Then it's time for Brötzmann to solo and he gets the wildest accompaniment, centering around Van Hove and Bennink (his trusty triomates then and for years after). Intruding on his freak-out is the classic, college-football-halftime rave-up (around 15:00). Pure, shrieking noise again triumphs and the saxes fan out in the staggered, swarm-of-bee-stings formation of the piece's opening. Several unison jabs end the piece.

If it's not clear yet, what I'm trying to say is that "Machine Gun" is absolutely, positively not a mindless, aggro blowout. What it is, is a SUITE, packed with EVENTS, with contrast. "Ascension" sounds like a crude scribble in comparison. Any reader of this blog knows that I love it when jazz compositions don't tip their hand at the outset, where you are rewarded for listening through to the end of a piece (and not just with another iteration of the head). "Machine Gun" is like that—there's always something new around the corner. When you get to the fight-song rave-up at 15:00, you brighten up: "Ah, here's some new info." It's not a fussy piece of music; everyone colors outside the lines and the transitions are imprecise. But there is a roadmap. We're not dealing with, like, slash-and-burn Japanese noise here, in other words; we're dealing with big-band-style arrangement, scaled down for an eight-piece ensemble and pitted AGAINST pure abstraction. "Against" is the key. Without the contrast, this would be a boring piece, merely extreme and not exciting or built to last.

You don't hear much mention of the other pieces on the record, but they're great. And just like Brötzmann's title track, they have a lot to offer compositionally. Van Hove's "Responsible" quickly enters blowout mode, but not before a more-or-less swinging intro featuring the two bassists (one of whom is basically walking) and two drummers. Brötzmann gets out front with a brilliant chest-thumping solo on baritone, pretty much the blueprint for Mats Gustafsson's entire career. The background orchestration is looser here; Van Hove is noticeably absent, but the other horns seem to throw in commentary as they wish rather than in any sort of predetermined or conducted riff pattern. At around 3:00, there's a fascinating textural shift and we're into classic Euro free-improv mode, with small sounds prevailing: Van Hove's harplike inside-the-piano tinkering (I think that's what he's doing), Bennink's bongo drums, etc. Parker solos here, again bringing the staccato ruckus.

And then what's this? Around 4:50, the bassist on the left starts up a tense eighth-note pulse, around which Van Hove, Johansson and the bassist on the right quickly orient themselves, setting up a pensive mood. One of the saxes (I think it's Breuker) enters with this very deep ballad-like theme, a slow, swaying, elegiac sort of thing. And then around 6:00, the drummers and one bassist fire up a groovy, Latin-ish groove. See? Again, so many EVENTS here. This is through-composed music. It's wonderful and absolutely nothing like the more crudely sketched American free jazz of the time. Machine Gun is free jazz as, say, Mingus might do it, had he been so inclined. Momentum is always a concern, the skillful deployment of first this element then this one, successive textures unfolding. "Mindblasting," yes, but also thoughtful as hell.

At 6:41, what's this?!? It's another theme, a pleasant, almost mambo-like dance that instantly brings you right into a Vegas-y frame of mind. All of a sudden this band of marauding, sleeping-on-cardboard, beer-for-breakfast, spirit-of-’68 Euro-free-jazz renegades has morphed into a Rat Pack cocktail orchestra. Considering the overall picture of Machine Gun (a picture that includes 40 years of hyperbole re: this record's ULTIMATE EXTREMITY), this intrusion of chilled-out tunefulness is more shocking than any noise outburst could ever be.

Breuker's "Music for Han Bennink I"—the "I" (as in the Roman numeral) appears in the title on the LP-jacket reproduction found in the reissue but not in the new liner notes—is another riot of THEMES. This is the most meticulous piece on the record, yet it's every bit as exciting as "Machine Gun." The opening theme, consisting of a bar of seven followed by a bar of six, is total proto-jazz-punk. Listen to this alongside Little Women and you'll see what I mean. After a few seconds, the band drops out and lets Johansson groove alone for a bit. Then they reassemble, play the theme again and peter out. At the :58 mark, a spastic bridge of sorts: a quick riff, then a hit; then the quick riff again, then two hits. It's an almost proggish device (Dazzling Killmen use a very similar figure midway through "Dig That Hole", and given the avant-jazz inclinations of their rhythm section, it wouldn't shock me if the reference was an intentional one) yet delivered here in total punk, aggro manner.

Next, the horns stumble around as if in a daze and then the band lays out again, this time for a Bennink solo, which starts calm and works itself up into a righteous froth. Then at 2:55, the turbo-polka opening theme returns briefly, setting the stage for a bellowing Brötzmann solo. Note that the drummers lay out at the beginning; it's just bass and piano. Johansson enters first, setting the stage for Bennink's grand entry, a flurry of proto-blast-beat mania, at 4:19. Again there's this skillful organization, this question of who exactly will play underneath whose solo, who will enter when, etc. (Some of this organization may very well be spontaneous, but it's still a kind of arrangement/plotting.) Bennink sets off a riot in the ensemble, but it's short-lived. Right around 5:08, the texture morphs drastically into a soft, exceedingly gentle three-horn meditation. The spastic bridge is back at 5:46, followed by an opening-theme statement that's quickly blown to bits. Some genuinely fearsome improv, probably the most intense on the whole record ensues. The opening theme keeps threatening to return, but no, this is a total meltdown—the kind of thing you think you're going to hear for 40 minutes straight when you read up on Machine Gun lore.

Right around 7:12, one of the saxes cues a new theme (the fourth motif of this piece, by my count), a marching-type figure that makes a bid for the spotlight but has to grapple with not only the marauding ensemble but the opening theme, which keeps reemerging in shadow form. Chaos reigns in this section, but it's a chaos born of competing orders. An unaccompanied Van Hove solo starts around 8:13: deranged, flailing, making its way into runaway-player-piano territory before receding into ominous silence. I love it.

Thus ends the piece and the original record (the Complete edition includes alternate takes of both "Machine Gun" and "Responsible," as well as a live version of the former). I think it's clear what I'm trying to say: Machine Gun is the most thoughtful kind of barrage. Brötzmann wants noise, but he also wants a PLAN. And moreover, he wants the plans of his collaborators, as evidenced by his inclusion of pieces by Breuker and Van Hove. This entire scheme—large-ensemble blow-your-brains-out improv meets big-band smarts—of course came to full flower in Brötzmann's Chicago Octet/Tentet/Tentet+1/Tentet+2/etc., founded in the late ’90s. (You can hear the concept developing on "Fuck de Boere," from ’70, and "Alarm," from ’81.) I've lately been really digging the Tentet's inaugural release, a self-titled three-CD set on Okka Disk, which is packed full of varying compositional strategies.

What am I saying, overall? Sometimes it's good to fight the received knowledge re: a CLASSIC, and get back to it and see what's actually there. Brötzmann himself may have done much to perpetuate the image of Machine Gun, and his body of work as a whole, as a sort of macho-meltdown sort of thing, but there's way more to it than that. The fact is that he is a brilliant composer/conceptualist/bandleader/arranger, over and above his status as a leather-lunged saxophone beast. This combination of meticulousness and total abandon is why Machine Gun endures.

1 comment:

Clifford Allen said...

Totally agree with you, Hank. I remember the first time I heard this record, expecting out-of-control racket and getting something much more nuanced, it was a surprise. Been a hardcore Brotzmann fan ever since for that reason. Thanks for the article.