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The Peter Brotzmann Octet: Machine Gun (FMP CD 24)

First time I heard this mongrel, my jaw damn-near hit the floor. Used, as I was, to U.S. free jazz squall, this was something else! The formative U.S. masters in that sphere, pretty-much w/out exception, had their full musical bases in the various interweavings of jazz, and their hopes in some kinda spiritual/political transcendence/resolution... But, these reference-points weren’t taken for granted by Brotzmann & co...

Sure, their musical bases mostly came from jazz...but, it was the timbral extremes that were the most crucial thing from that source - melodic/harmonic/rhythmic influences, although important, hardly played the same normative role - whilst their hopes (at least to judge by this beast) were for for some kinda apocalypse....and, the result? Well...if recent innovative Western group musics mainly have their bases - as I suspect - in some kinda unholy alliance between James Brown & the Velvet Underground (and, please note, I said “mainly”) then, for anyone looking to make the Velvets-type move into timbral extremity re the wind (rather than string) instruments, this is, perhaps, the veritable killing floor... But, to my mind, there’s more than that going on.

Recorded in1968, with - as per Ornette’s example - a doubled lineup it, from the start, takes no prisoners. In fact, if I was to imagine playing the opening of “Machine Gun” after any earlier piece, it wouldn’t be a “jazz” track at’d be the final (and most anarchic) cut off the Velvet Underground’s first which would most clearly provide the very best of juxtapositions.

“Reviewing” an overwhelming barrage like this is, to my mind, rather beside the point... The structural components here are neither primarily melodic (as in most small-group archaic musics), nor harmonic (as in the “hiart” western tradition, and its truly variegated offspring)... Instead, as in the most archaic large group musics we know of - the truly-collective ritual musics still surviving - the “structure” is essentially a dramatic rather than a “purely” musical one...and, that “drama” is more of an incohate struggle, rather than any forgone conclusion...

It is in this, I think, rather than - more simply - the timbral dimension, that makes this album the key parallel to the Velvet’s work in rock’n’roll... For both, at their extremes, rediscover the crucial collective-point of ancient archaic musics - that drive toward extremity which, miraculously, produces strongly emergent form. That the Velvets were mainly happy to build on same, whilst Brotzmann & co were (mostly) more interested in undermining it is an interesting point. Yet, nevertheless, these two groups clearly entertained both we can easily hear. In contrast, we can also hear that their free-jazz models were, seemingly, trapped between an excessively individualistic model derived from be bop, and the overly collectivist approaches they had derived from disciplined small-group African musics. And so...just, maybe, it took the “ignorant” to break through these spells?

John Henry Calvinist