We thought we could change the world

August 6, 2014

Conversations with Peter Brötzmann by Gérard Rouy
Wolke Verlag Hofheim

Review by Ken Waxman

We thought we could change the world is one of the few instances where a book created from the information originally gathered for inclusion in a film is as compelling as the movie itself. The production in question is “Soldier of the Road”, French director Bernard Josse’s acclaimed 2011 independently produced documentary about 72-year-old German saxophonist and Free Jazz avatar Peter Brötzmann. Besides performances and interviews with other Free Jazz figures, the core of the feature came from four extended interviews Brötzmann did with French journalist/photographer Gérard Rouy, who has been following the saxophonist’s career since the early 1970s.

Since by necessity, only a portion of the Brötzmann-Rouey material could be included in the completed film, this volume was created to preserve the saxophonist’s comments. Over nearly 200 pages, prompted by Rouy’s questions, Brötzmann discusses his personal, visual and musical life and the history of Free Jazz. Anything but flippant, Brötzmann’s well considered comments and road stories are colored by his life and experience as a questing artist who came of age during the ferment of the 1960s. His life-changing experience was an exposure to fine art plus (American) Jazz, he states. Yet his initial performance of unfettered music and his subsequent long career has obviously been colored by the circumstances of him being European, and most critically a German who was brought up in the post-World War II environment.

During the course of the conversations, Brötzmann analyses other players and bands with whom he has interacted; provides background on his various ensembles which have ranged from trios to large bands; and offers cranky insight about the making of some of his best-known sessions, including the seminal Machine Gun LP.

Never one to pull punches – musically or verbally – Brötzmann’s comments about the behavior of various musicians, promoters and the past and future of European, American and international improvised music will probably rightly ruffle some feathers. More profoundly his musings about art in general, the fragility of performance, his self-critical views on performance, plus his conceptions about life own mortality, confirm that the sometimes fanciful, popular portrait of Brötzmann as wild man of the saxophone is anything but complete. Extensive, but not obtrusive, footnotes fill out the cast of characters and events referred to in the text.

As added bonus, We thought we could change the world include 16 pages of color reproductions of the fine art created by the saxophonist, who began his career as a painter and print maker and continues producing visual art to this day. Additionally the volume features an exhaustive discography of Brötzmann’s recorded performance – up to 2013 – plus 40 pages of performance photos from the 1970s to 2009.

Anyone interested in Brötzmann’s career; German (Free) Jazz; Free and Experimental Music in general; as well as the musical, sociological and political currents extant internationally from the late 1940s to today will likely be fascinated by the book.