German free-jazz saxophonist Peter Brotzmann is no stranger to Chicago. He plays several gigs a year here, regularly packing the Empty Bottle, and much of his recent music has been released on the local label Okka Disk. But on his latest trip he reveals a side of his artistic output that’s been largely invisible for more than three decades. Before he ever picked up a horn Brotzmann was determined to be a visual artist, and this week some of his earliest work will be presented at a gallery show, “The Inexplicable Flyswatter: Works on Paper 1959-1964.”
Brotzmann began art school in his hometown of Wuppertal in the late 50s, and he was heavily involved in the Fluxus movement in the early 60s; for several years he worked with Korean-born artist Nam June Paik. But by the mid-60s art had taken a backseat to music. “It was a question of time, and I’m not Superman,” he says. This decision would have a huge impact on jazz history–his earliest recordings ushered in a new tradition, as he and a handful of others combined the searing yet soulful approach of Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp with the harsh, cerebral tendencies of the European avant-garde. He never stopped producing visual art–in fact, he designed the block lettering used on the majority of his albums and posters. But he did stop showing it, limiting himself to occasional exhibits in Germany before fading from the gallery scene altogether in the mid-80s.
Last October the Ystads Konstmuseum in Sweden presented a major exhibit of Brotzmann’s artwork spanning nearly four decades; it was organized by Thomas Milroth, a Swedish curator and art historian as well as the owner of the boutique label Olof Bright, and by fellow reedist Mats Gustafsson. But the work on display in Chicago wasn’t a part of the retrospective. Last summer Brotzmann’s ex-wife, Krista, happened upon a forgotten cache of his paintings, collages, and lithographs in her home. About half of this collection is made up of his “Flyswatter” studies–rectangular patches partially intersected by a thinner line that’s identifiable as a handle; there are also some abstractions he calls landscapes. The painting style suggests parallels to Brotzmann’s musical technique–he favors brush strokes as broad and burly as his tenor sax honks (though some of his vivid colors seem unlikely choices from a man whose music is most assuredly dark).
By coincidence, Chicagoan John Corbett, a friend of the saxophonist since presenting him in concert at Brown University in the 80s, was visiting shortly after the discovery. Corbett, who’s reissued some of the German’s most important early work on his Unheard Music Series label, had wanted for years to mount a show of Brotzmann’s art in the U.S., but the costs of shipping large works on canvas and wood were prohibitive. There was no such problem transporting this lightweight collection–Brotzmann created this work during lean times, and some of the paintings are on typing paper with binder holes. After seeing the Swedish retrospective, Corbett made the arrangements for a show here.
Over the past ten years Chicago has become Brotzmann’s home away from home. He first began working with drummer Hamid Drake in the early 90s; by 1997 he had assembled the Brotzmann Chicago Tentet with a core of local musicians, including Ken Vandermark, Kent Kessler, Michael Zerang, Jeb Bishop, Fred Lonberg-Holm, and Mars Williams. “I found a situation…[where] everybody wants to be a part of a whole, wants to work together,” he says of the Chicago avant-jazz scene. “To me it’s the essence of playing music. That is my understanding of jazz music, which has always had a great social aspect.”
Brotzmann kicks off his latest visit on Tuesday, when he duets with drummer Robert Barry at the Empty Bottle; the following night he plays there with drummer Nasheet Waits. On Thursday he’ll be at the Gene Siskel Film Center for the screening of several films he appears in–three 60s experimental shorts by the German filmmaker Manfred Montwe and Music Is My Language, a 1991 documentary made to commemorate the saxophonist’s 50th birthday. “The Inexplicable Flyswatter,” which includes nearly 60 works, opens on Friday, March 7, at the 1926 Exhibition Studies Space, 1926 N. Halsted (773-665-4802), with a reception from 6 to 9 PM and a short solo performance by Brotzmann. The 48-page exhibition catalog, assembled by Corbett and manufactured by Unheard Music Series, includes 48 full-color reproductions, 12 previously unpublished photos, and a CD-ROM that includes the three Montwe films and two previously unreleased performances by Brotzmann and bassist Peter Kowald from 1965–the earliest work by either musician to be released commercially. More Nipples, a CD of previously unreleased music from the 1969 sessions that produced Brotzmann’s classic sextet recording Nipples with Evan Parker and Derek Bailey, doesn’t come out till April, but will also be available at the performances.
www.posteverything.com. The bonus CD won’t be sold separately.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.