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Peter Brötzmann, the heart — and lungs — of European free jazz, dead at 82

Peter Brötzmann, photographer in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2010.
Marek Lazarski
Peter Brötzmann, photographer in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2010.

Peter Brötzmann, a German saxophonist whose brash, tempestuous outpourings set an imposing standard for free improvisation, and helped define the terms for a postwar European avant-garde, died at his home in Wuppertal, Germany, on Thursday. He was 82.

His death was confirmed in statements from TROST Records and FMP-Publishing, which both released his music.

Brötzmann's sound could be gruff and garrulous, or knifelike and squalling, always with a ferocious commitment to the moment at hand. Few figures in free jazz ever sustained a voice so unsparingly intense, over so long a tenure. "His medium is screaming energy music with a deliberately manic edge," wrote the American critic John Litweiler in his book The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958. That pronouncement was made nearly 40 years ago; remarkably, Brötzmann only kept expanding that legacy, keeping a working pace as prodigious as his style.

He began his recording career in 1967 with a steely provocation: For Adolphe Sax, named after the inventor of the saxophone, and featuring a trio with German bassist Peter Kowald and Swedish drummer Sven-Åke Johansson. Brötzmann self-released that album on his own label, Brö, signaling rugged independence from the start.

His second album on the label had a seismic impact; he called it Machine Gun, and its release in 1968, coupled with the hair-raising bluster of the playing, resonated with worldwide protest against the Vietnam War. "In general, the '60s were quite violent times," Brötzmann explained in a 2018 conversation with the Red Bull Music Academy, alluding not only to Vietnam but also political violence and assassinations in the United States and beyond.

"On the other hand, our generation of the after-war guys, we wanted one thing: we wanted to get rid of old remains of Nazi stuff," he added. "We didn't get any answers from our parents. They didn't want to talk about it. So we had to find answers for our questions somewhere else."

Brötzmann was literally born into wartime, on March 6, 1941, in the western German town of Remscheid. He started out not as a musician but rather a visual artist: he studied painting, and fell in with the radical, anti-establishment Fluxus movement.

He was musically inspired by American jazz artists who passed through — not only the New Orleans saxophone pioneer Sidney Bechet, but also vanguardists like multi-reedist Eric Dolphy. Brötzmann later recalled that he found his own freedom of musical expression after traveling to Amsterdam, where he met free-thinking Dutch musicians like drummer Han Bennink and pianist Misha Mengelberg. For a time, he was a member of their Instant Composers Pool, which typically worked as a 10-piece orchestra.

For a taste of Brötzmann in full fury, you could do worse than this concert clip from 1974 in Warsaw, Poland, featuring Alexander von Schlippenbach on piano, Peter Kowald on bass and Paul Lovens on drums.

While his main instruments were tenor and alto saxophones, Brötzmann also played soprano and baritone, along with various clarinets and the tárogató, a reed instrument heard in Hungarian folk music. And he collaborated not only with multiple generations of European improvisers but also with many Americans — notably in the experimental scene in Chicago, where he had a devoted disciple and champion in the multi-reedist Ken Vandermark.

Brötzmann also recorded with titans like pianist Cecil Taylor, drummer Andrew Cyrille and guitarist Sonny Sharrock; a 1987 duo summit with Sharrock saw release roughly a decade ago, under a typically unprintable title. (The two also worked together in Last Exit, alongside bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson.) For more than a decade, Brötzmann led an international free-jazz supergroup called the Die Like a Dog Quartet, featuring Toshinori Kondo on trumpet, William Parker on bass, and Hamid Drake on drums.

In recent years, Brötzmann had struggled openly with health issues, occasionally fighting through them onstage. Critic Peter Margasak, who formed a relationship with his music in Chicago and now lives in Berlin, recalls a few of these recent performances in an homage on his Substack newsletter, Nowhere Street. One such performance was at Jazzfest Berlin last fall, with Drake on percussion and Majid Bekkas on Moroccan guembri; it has been released on the ACT Music label as Catching Ghosts. "It was profoundly moving," Margasak writes, "and Brötzmann had summoned some divine power, pushing the music over the top into something remarkable."

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