If, as some critics complain, jazz is in a protracted commercial decline, then the genre’s free jazz sub-niche might as well be obscure to the point of invisibility. But that assumption would cause one to miss the upcoming seminal performance of American trumpet maestro Joe McPhee, 73, and German saxophone legend Peter Brötzmann, 72. Just how earth-shattering of an avant-garde appearance are we talking here? Well, over the course of his 45 years as a celebrated free jazz musician, educator and critic, McPhee has performed in Florida only twice; over Brötzmann’s illustrious career, which includes releasing 500 albums and serving as Europe’s reigning king of abstract jazz, the saxman's never even visited our fair state. The duo’s upcoming nine-stop tour is its first in the United States. Folio Weekly caught up with McPhee and Brötzmann to discuss the differences between European and American audiences, the political and cultural ramifications of jazz music and how young people are evolving the genre.
Folio Weekly: Joe, how long have you known Peter?
Joe McPhee: The first time I met Peter was in 1977, when we were on the same bill at a concert in Paris. In 1997, I was invited to join his group, Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, which I was a member of for 16 years; the band just ended in November. I’ve also played in a quartet with Peter since 2004.
Peter, give us your thoughts on Joe.
Peter Brötzmann: During the long period of the Tentet, a highlight was always when Joe and I took our turn as a duo, or just the two of us played an encore. It’s always a pleasure and a surprise. It’s not easy in our little business to make friends, and the older you get, the more your number of friends shrinks. But even after the Tentet, Joe McPhee is still a partner and a friend.
What can audiences expect from your performance here, one of nine planned for this summer?
J.M.: Peter’s a very strong player, so this duo tour is going to be very demanding. I have no idea what’s going to happen; Peter doesn’t know what instruments I’m going to bring, although I think I know what he’ll bring.
P.B.: I will travel with my usual kit: alto tenor sax, B-flat clarinet and tárogató. Joe is always good for a surprise, but I suppose he will bring his pocket trumpet, alto and/or tenor sax, clarinet and — we’ll see. Joe is a lonely wolf on the “worldwide jazz scene,” which just in the last couple of years seems to have woken up and realized his paths of travel.
Joe, for a large chunk of your career, you performed almost exclusively in Europe. Have American tastes changed?
J.M.: I think so, and largely because of the Internet. It wasn’t until 1996 or ’97 that I played Chicago for the first time.
P.B.: I don’t think anything has changed. The work is still in Europe, although it’s gotten worse everywhere. [Jazz] music still stays on the lowest step of the cultural ladder. That said, the people in the U.S. have always been good to me, so I love to play, drive around and see amazing landscapes, even if there’s little money. Without Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington, I couldn’t do what I love to do. We Europeans should never forget where our roots are — we haven’t invented the blues.
Joe, is “avant-garde” an accurate description for your body of work?
J.M.: I don’t know how anybody can be ahead of his or her time; we play the music that is of our time. Bebop was life, but that’s not my life, so it’s not reflected in the music I play.
Peter, how about the political tag hung on you after the release of your 1968 album Machine Gun?
P.B.: There was a strong political conscience in both parts of our planet [at that time]. In your country, black bodies were still hanging from trees, churches were burning, MLK had been shot, and a useless war was in preparation. Over here, especially in Germany, we young guys were fed up with the dusty Adenauer government that still had old Nazis in the corners. We wanted a new, open society, so everything connected to the old times had to be changed — even destroyed.
Do either of you think you’ve influenced today’s young jazz generation?
J.M.: Curiously enough, I’ve met a lot of young people who have been influenced by my 1970 recording Nation Time, which has become an underground cult classic. I also played with Han Bennink and Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten, whose music comes out of punk rock. Then, there’s [influential figures like] Albert Ayler and Don Cherry. … Young people are putting together all kinds of interesting combos, and I think it’s great.
P.B.: The good thing is, with music, you’re always able to discover new things. It’s a lifelong journey that’s always challenging. Music is continuity.
Neither of you has much experience touring in Florida, right?
P.B.: I’ve never been to Florida, so I’m looking forward to exploring the landscape, meeting people and seeing museums, libraries and bars.
J.M.: I’ve played once in Jacksonville, around 2000, and once in Orlando, but that’s it. And I was actually born in Miami. So I’m looking forward to these dates. They’re going to be dynamite.