by Douglas Groothuis
I wept a bit when I heard that the German free jazz multi-reed player Peter Brotzmann died a few weeks ago at age eighty-two. I knew his health was declining but that he was battling to perform, nevertheless. He was a monster (in the jazz sense) performer, always recording or on the road. A few weeks ago, he posted that he had had a major physical setback. I emailed him out of concern and assured him of my prayers. He nearly always responded to my emails and we sent gifts back and forth a few times. In fact, I owe him a review of one of the CDs he sent me about a year ago. This titan (an apt, if over-used term) of experimental music had been a major force since the late 1960s, playing in both small and larger ensembles as well as recording several solo saxophone records—something seldom done, given its demands.
Although I never saw him perform live and I never met him, Peter Brotzmann and I interacted for about ten years. When I first heard his explosive and inimitable playing with Last Exit, it nearly frightened me. What eruptions of sonic intensity! I had heard Coltrane at his most raw and visceral, but this was beyond even that. I discerned in Peter’s uncompromising playing a cry of the groaning universe. I wrote him a card to that effect, which I will try to find and post online. I was looking for ways to be more than a fan, a kind of unofficial pastor for this man who evinced no sign of religious faith and who was sometimes profane (and even blasphemous) in his album art and record titles.
Since Peter was a visual artist as well as a musician, I sent him a book of paintings by Georges Rouault, who captured the greatness and misery of humanity as well as any twentieth-century painter. I thought perhaps it would speak to him. About a year ago, Peter sent me an email with an image of a painting that reminded him of Rouault, since he knew my appreciation for the French Catholic artist.
The music of Peter Brotzmann is an acquired taste that most will not acquire. Most of his music was purely improvised, having no set time signatures, keys, harmonies, or melodies. It could be cacophonous, but not always. There was a lyrical and pleading side to his playing of reed instruments, particularly in his late solo album, I Surrender, Dear. Some of his last work with pedal steel player Heather Leigh was less raw and more melodic, moody, and even gentle. Sadly, one of these recordings has sacrilegious cover art, which was drawn by Peter. I emailed him about this, trying to gently challenge him. It was deeply offensive and I was tempted to reject everything he had done because of it. But I did not. Peter did not respond to my challenge, but he did not stop interacting with me about other matters.
When I attach to a musician, when I am captivated by their muse—whether it be Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, or Alan Holdsworth—I usually try to acquire all of their recorded music. This is called being a completist. (One might call it fanaticism; it can get expensive.) With Peter Brotzmann, this has been a challenging task, given his voluminous productivity both as a leader and as a band member. I have a few more recordings to track down, many of which are difficult to unearth and procure. I am tempted to ferret out all of them, given his passing.
These reflections have related little about Peter’s musical history, which is vast and fascinating. He made a deep mark on a certain strain of the musical world. Rather, given his death, I wanted to share my attempt to be a spiritual friend at a distance as well as an appreciator of his avant-garde efforts. When I told a friend of Peter’s death and mentioned that I had no evidence of any Christian faith, she said, “From what I learned as a hospice nurse, you would be amazed at what can happen shortly before someone dies.” That is a heartening thought.