Best New Jazz: April 2022

Free Music Production, aka FMP, was one of the most important labels in the history of jazz and avant-garde music. Formed in Germany, its origins begin (sort of) with the New Artists Guild, an informal artists’ collective started in 1966 by saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, trombonist Manfred Schoof and others. In 1968, Brötzmann and bassist Jost Gebers put together the first Total Music Meeting, intended as counterprogramming to the annual Berliner Jazztage, which had itself been founded a few years earlier. In 1969, they adopted the FMP name and began work in earnest. From 1972 to 1976, FMP was a collective run by Brötzmann, von Schlippenbach, Gebers, and bassist Peter Kowald and drummer Detlef Schönenberg. In 1976, the collective era ended and Gebers took over operation of the label and the Total Music Meetings. Over the next four decades, FMP released over 200 albums and around 150 CDs.

As he was a founding member of the collective, Peter Brötzmann released a staggering amount of music via FMP, including reissuing the legendary Machine Gun (which had originally come out on his own BRÖ label in 1968), a string of records by his trio with pianist Fred Van Hove and drummer Han Bennink (Balls, FMP 130, and Live In Berlin ’71 are all essential); his trio with South African bassist and drummer Harry Miller and Louis Moholo; his Die Like A Dog quartet with trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, bassist William Parker, and drummer Hamid Drake; several solo albums; and much, much more. Von Schlippenbach released many solo, duo and trio albums as well, while also leading the Globe Unity Orchestra, a free jazz big band that could have anywhere from 12 to 20 members.

FMP wasn’t just an outlet for German artists, though. Gebers invited musicians from all over the world to the Total Music Meeting, and the label released albums by or featuring Sam Rivers, Noah Howard, Charles Gayle, Wadada Leo Smith, Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, and most notably Cecil Taylor. In 1988, FMP brought Taylor to Berlin for a month-long residency and ultimately recorded a dozen CDs’ worth of material ranging from solo recitals to duos with a string of drummers to large ensemble works, including one by a workshop ensemble the pianist assembled, rehearsed and conducted. It didn’t end there, either. Taylor continued to travel to Germany year after year, and throughout the ’90s and even into the early 2000s, FMP was his primary label, documenting his Feel Trio with William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley and many other one-off groups. (One of my favorites is the quartet heard on 2000’s Incarnation — electric guitarist Franky Douglas, cellist Tristan Honsinger, and drummer Andrew Cyrille.)

FMP closed its doors in 2010, but many of its titles (and some previously unreleased music) are available on Bandcamp, and others have been licensed for reissue on CD and LP. And now, an in-depth guide to the label has been published. Markus Müller’s FMP: The Living Music isn’t a straightforward history; it’s a 400-page compendium of album covers, concert posters, photos from decades of performances and recording sessions (all taken by Gebers’ wife Dagmar, who was as crucial to shaping the label’s identity as any of its artists), and much more. Those are accompanied by a series of essays dealing with various aspects of the FMP story, including a piece on Cecil Taylor, one on FMP’s work with female artists (who often felt shut out of the avant-garde/free music community in the ’70s and ’80s), one on working with artists from East Germany while the country was still divided, and one on the actual production of the records.

The book is big, and heavy, and beautiful to look at, granting its subject the respect and focus it deserves. I emailed Müller a few questions about the project; his thoughts are below.

What inspired this book, and what in your background and history as a writer made you the person to tackle it?

MÜLLER: This is a lifetime commitment, as I realize now, in retrospect.

I began listening to and writing about and writing for FMP in the mid-1980s. Back then I was a young contributor to a then rather new German jazz-magazine called Jazzthetik. My main musical interest then was Art Blakey’s Free For All and Horace Silver’s Doin’ The Thing. Considering I come from Status Quo, Black Sabbath, and Kiss ALIVE! on the one hand and John Lee Hooker, Hound Dog Taylor, and Muddy Waters on the other, hard bop seemed a logical “further, faster, higher” step in the evolution. Mahavishnu Orchestra left a mark and then came Machine Gun by Brötzmann. Machine Gun was the end of the line for me, back then. Being an art historian and historian, I projected it to be in a category with Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square, Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning, John Cage’s “4’33’’” and Andy Warhol’s The Philosophy Of Andy Warhol. I am not saying that this is a reasonable lineage or grouping in any cut-out bin or history book, I am just saying that I was attracted to energy, high energy, conceptual energy, energy that can comes in different forms, but is always on the level. Then I started to go to Berlin, listening to the FMP outings and lost in love with the logic of being able to see musicians multiple times in one setting; the FMP Workshop idea immediately won me over. Mind you, I have never really experienced the realness of a NYC Village Vanguard assignment with two or three concerts per evening, six days a week. In 1991 I heard the Schlippenbach Trio in Berlin, and one consequence was that I wanted to hear them as often as possible, and I did. I listened to and wrote a lot about all things FMP. And then I met and interviewed Paul Lovens, Peter Kowald, Radu Malfatti, Werner Lüdi, Peter Brötzmann (rather late), Hans Reichel, Jost Gebers, etc. My Paul Lovens interview in Jazzthetik in November 1991 covered 16 pages of the magazine — that was pretty crazy on the one hand but also made it clear that I had a genuine interest in that kind of music.

In 2001 I stopped writing about music simply because I was working on documenta11, an exhibition of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany, that was demanding and rewarding, too demanding to continue wearing more than one hat.

In the late 2000s, I had started to write about music again and was invited by Jost Gebers to contribute to the In Retrospect FMP Special Edition. I was not able to meet any deadline and dropped out of that box. About a year after that epic failure, I decided to write an FMP book, beginning to interview people in 2011. Well, I did not really know how to do a book, but I could not stop talking about it, until Okwui Enwezor, with whom I had curated an exhibition on ECM at Haus der Kunst in Munich, asked me to stop talking about a book that would never materialize, but do an exhibition on FMP at Haus der Kunst instead and produce a catalog accompanying said exhibition that would then be known as the book.

Working on the exhibition meant spending a lot of time with Jost Gebers, having generous and unlimited access to his archive, gathering and digitizing negatives and documents, etc. In parallel, I started structuring the exhibition and the catalog that was aligned to that structure. I had ideas for about six writers from all over the world that were supposed to submit essays covering topics for each of the chapters of the catalog/exhibition. As it was clear that due to the immense work on the exhibition, we would only be able to publish the catalog concurrent with the later opening of the Berlin version of the show, the catalog was put on semi-hold. Only Diedrich Diedrichsen delivered promptly, and before the opening in Munich 2017; that is just how he rolls. Now after the Munich chapter, Okwui Enwezor was forced to leave the Haus and his successor denied any commitment ever made, even though the financing was secured through funding from the German Federal Cultural Foundation. In other words, that catalog was on longer on semi-hold and could not be produced for Berlin in 2018. I had to start, stop, restart, stop, restart communication with the prospective contributors, and when the book started rolling again it was the beginning of 2020. With COVID, it was clear that nobody was waiting to put extra effort in an essay for a book that had been roller-coastering through everybody’s email inboxes since 2015 and had never made it out of the cocoon. In the beginning of 2021, I decided to write everything myself and use material from the past and conversations I had in preparation of the exhibition. And of course Diedrich’s text; he had to rewrite it more than once, Cecil Taylor was still alive when he first finished his piece.

The book is a collection of themed essays rather than a straight history — did you have that approach in mind from the beginning? How did that influence your approach to the writing and research?

MÜLLER: I was a hunter and gatherer for the exhibition and while doing that I realized that I had to focus on specific things or never get out of an avalanche of material. The book is based on my decisions on what to put into focus for the exhibition. There is a lot of FMP history that is not in the book, a lot of stories that are left out of this publication. It was a horrible but necessary decision to cut things out of both the exhibition and the book.

The relationship between Cecil Taylor and FMP went far beyond the 1988 residency — they worked together well into the 1990s. Did you ever get to talk to Taylor about that, and what did Jost Gebers or any of your other interview subjects have to say about working with him?

MÜLLER: I did get to talk to Taylor, and I tried to interview him for the book repeatedly; he lived very close to Okwui Enwezor in Fort Greene, so I even tried surprise visits. Cecil Taylor did not strike me as a man who wanted to talk about things like his past work with FMP, so it was always friendly, humbling and inspiring. But he gave me no answers and no blurbs and I respect that. I think by circumstantial evidence it is fair to say that FMP changed Taylor’s life just as much as he turned the tables for FMP. I think Jost Gebers and FMP delivered and Cecil Taylor delivered as well. The 1988 concerts were one things, the Cecil Taylor In Berlin ’88 Special Edition box was something else. There is nothing that can compare to that release, and as Adam Shatz put it in the New York Review Of Books: “Taylor, who considered his music a ‘celebration of life,’ never sounded more joyous than in the music he made in Berlin.” I think for Gebers Cecil Taylor was some kind of Everest (just imagine, Gebers had planned on bringing Lennie Tristano to FMP and he would have come, alas his death forfeited that historical opportunity) and he believed in the potential and he had the good luck that Berlin was Europe’s cultural capital in 1988 and Nele Hertling supported his ideas under that umbrella. If you look at the images showing Taylor poetry-dancing in socks with the elite of the European improvisors on the grass next to the Kongresshalle in preparation for their gig in 1988, you can see that nobody but Cecil Taylor could have made these men (yes, only men) do such things. Everybody has stories. The late Werner Lüdi shared his “Zürich-Taylor-Debacle” very openly when I interviewed him in 1993, so it was not all peaches.

But the most important thing is that Taylor knew that Gebers and his cohorts had delivered, and that is why he wanted to come back, why he came back to Berlin in 1989 and stayed on a DAAD stipend and from there on the Taylor FMP years began. The relationship to Oxley is another piece of evidence. Taylor played longer with Oxley than he had played with Jimmy Lyons, that alone seems unreal, totally unreal, but that started in Berlin 1988.

It’s fascinating, when looking through the galleries of album covers, how instantly recognizable Peter Brötzmann’s designs are, and how some of the other artists (Peter Kowald on …Break The Shells, for example) seem to be imitating his work sometimes. Do you think FMP has a consistent aesthetic identity? 

MÜLLER: No, I think decidedly not. Gebers, Brötzmann, and Hans Reichel were all what one would call graphic designers today and Brötzmann has the most distinct style. And as he liked to do the job, he did a lot also for things outside his own line of production. I think the identity is the heterogeneity. Everybody could realize his or her ideas and sometimes that was also a matter of discourse or fight between those responsible. Kowald was very much into homages: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Shusaku Arakawa, A.R. Penck, he paid tribute to them in his designs.

I was intrigued by the section on the production of the releases — I have listened to Charles Gayle’s Touchin’ On Trane dozens of times and I would never have suspected it to have been subject to the heavy editing Gebers describes. Does Jost Gebers have a “sound” as a producer, in your mind?

MÜLLER: Again, no, I do not think so, and then yet again, yes. At first it was about trying to sound as good as possible and learning by doing (and money available). Beginning in the 1980s and with the recordings in the studio though, Gebers has developed a very distinct style, very precise, very open, very direct. But Reichel, Lovens and others were very adamant to have their say in production sound values, and their recordings simply show that; they sound like they wanted them to sound. FMP was a cooperative, not a top-down thing.

Now that the bottom seems to be falling out of the music industry, even as jazz and the avant-garde are having a cultural “moment,” is there room for an FMP-like project to rise again, or was it a unique combination of people and circumstances, impossible to repeat?

MÜLLER: I think things are impossible to repeat, period. The scene in Berlin feels very different, much younger, much more international, much more diverse, much more women. Much more venues, vibes that are much more open and relaxed, less machismo. And as self-releasing music is way easier than in 1968 etc., we also seem to have a lot more recorded music out there. Having said that I am simply not sure if this or the next generation, the next torchbearers will simply want to do things like FMP did them. The hustle, the constant search for funds, the scarcity of public funds, the sacrifices that Jost and Dagmar Gebers made, that is something that one cannot plan out, one has to endure that and pull through. But who knows, maybe somebody out there might be doing it right now and we do not know it yet.

And now, new albums!

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