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Peter Brotzmann

The bearded, fierce-looking German sax and clarinet player Peter Brötzmann has been a luminary of the free jazz world for nearly four decades and has become its godfather, collaborating with younger avant-gardists like Chicago reedist Ken Vandermark and Swedish sax player Mats Gustaffson. Brötzmann's original interest was in painting, but he quickly grew frustrated with the gallery situation in the modern art world and turned his focus to playing swing and bebop semiprofessionally in Germany. A self-taught clarinet player, Brötzmann also began playing the saxophone around the time he met bassist/tuba player Peter Kowald in the early '60s. The pair spent a great deal of time together over the next few years, playing music by Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman and hanging out at Brötzmann's studio listening to modern experimental composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage.

These varied influences would become manifest in the groundbreaking work Brötzmann would undertake in the years to come. After working with Kowald (a collaboration which would eventually give rise to the free jazz collective Globe Unity Orchestra) and American cornet great Don Cherry, Brötzmann teamed with Dutch drummer Han Bennink and Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove to produce a series of furious, tempestuous experimental jazz recordings that would rock Europe. Termed "energy jazz," this was intensely animated, improvisation-driven free jazz characterized by its agitated, hyperactive dialoguing, kinetic, swirling solos, and frantic, uneasy percussion. It definitely wasn't suitable for the squeamish or the hypertensive, but it proved immensely influential material that still retains its mind-boggling power and hallucinatory energy today.

In 1967, Brötzmann issued his debut album, For Adolphe Sax, on his own BRO label, leading a trio that featured bassist Kowald and drummer Sven-Ake Johansson. Atavistic remastered and rereleased the album in the summer of 2002 as part of John Corbett's Unheard Music series. The new release includes a nine-minute bonus track featuring Van Hove.

In 1969, Brötzmann released one of the seminal recordings of this period, Nipples, now re-released on Atavistic as part of Unheard Music. On the title track of that release, the core trio of Brötzmann, Bennink, and Van Hove is augmented by German bassist Buschi Niebergall and two English jazz legends, saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey. Over the course of the eighteen-minute "Nipples," the sextet goes from hysterical scree to wayward brood, visiting a myriad of points on the way. While all the members of the group shine, it's the almost telepathic interplay between Brötzmann and Parker's twin tenor saxophones that is the most striking.

The third Unheard Music Brötzmann release is a pair of furious live concert recordings, never before released. The first is a splendid live version of "Machine Gun" recorded in 1968, several months before the album of the same name (Brötzmann's second and the immediate predecessor to Nipples) was released. It features a sensational nine-piece group with saxophonists Brötzmann, Parker, Willem Breuker, and Gerd Dudek, pianist Van Hove, bassists Kowald and Niebergall, and percussionists Bennink and Johansson. The other track, the frenetic, madcap, and deeply personal "Fuck De Boere," a tribute to South African bassist Jonny Dyani, features ten players, including three tenors and three trombones (and no bass), and again, some truly inspired interplay between Brötzmann and Parker.

Brötzmann would continue working with Bennink and Van Hove into the mid '70s before going on to various other projects, both solo and with groups of varying sizes. Most recently he has recorded with Vandermark, Gustaffson, Joe McPhee, and numerous others as the Peter Brötzmann Tentet. In addition to tenor sax, he has recorded on baritone and bass sax, clarinet, and alto, soprano, and bass clarinet. His corpus is huge. "Sanity," "Nipples," and "Machine Gun" provide a magnificent introduction to one of the last half century's true jazz greats.