Not really. My mum liked Fats Waller and played a bit of piano, and my dad liked to sing in the church choir especially. My mum played me things like 'The Viper Drag' and 'Alligator Crawl'.
You grew up in London, did you?
No, I grew up in Bristol to the age of nine, and then out by Heathrow Airport from nine onwards. It's not really London, it's the western wastelands - gravel pits. The reason they built the airport in the first place was because there was nothing there.
How did you come to take up saxophone?
I was encouraged to listen to jazz by a guy in the year above me at school. He was already having saxophone lessons, so he knew that there weren't insurmountable problems. You buy a saxophone and you go to the teacher. Very easy. So he'd already done all that, and he knew where you went to buy one, and where you went for lessons. So I just did what he'd done - went to the same shop that he'd gone to in Tottenham Court Road. I bought a real ancient alto - Adolphe Sax, it was called (but it wasn't the original Adolphe Sax)! I went for lessons about ten minutes walk from here in Whitton with a man called Jimmy Knott who was a fantastic man - a communist, vegetarian, politically active, pacifist - all kinds of things that I hadn't even read about in my house. So he wasn't just teaching me the saxophone, there was a lot more going on. He was teaching me all kinds of attitudes I suppose - questioning.
This was when you were a teenager.
Yes. I started having lessons when I was fourteen, and went for about four years. And then I went to university and couldn't go for lessons any more. Otherwise, I would have carried on just for the sheer pleasure of the man's company. He was a wonderful man. He had a very eclectic approach to it. It wasn't specifically a jazz approach that he was teaching. He knew about that and he could teach you that but he also wanted you to be aware of classical music. So he transcribed bits of Tchaikowsky or bits of Paul Desmond. It was all like a musical problem.
How did you start to perform in public?
The first group I was in never gave a concert. I had a school friend, Peter Smiles, who started on clarinet then switched to baritone. We went for lessons together some of the time. He was much better than I was. We tried to play like the Mulligan and Desmond record and stuff from the various Mulligan Quartets with Chet Baker, Bob Brookmeyer and Art Farmer. He died in a road accident when he was sixteen. I still think of him.
After that I got to play with some of the slightly older friends who had got me listening to jazz in the first place. We started a jazz club in the old tennis club in Staines [west of London], and used to play warm-up sets for the professional bands we invited. I find it hard to remember quite what style we played.
Then I went to university and first was in a group under the pianist's name, and then in a group with a different pianist under my name. My first experience of the more difficult side of the business! We were in the inter-university band competition and all that. Then one summer vacation I stayed in Birmingham and had a regular gig with Howard Riley in a Saturday afternoon drinking club Then it slowly segued into the meeting with John Stevens and all that followed.
So how did you get into free improvisation?
In a very strange way, I suppose. I was playing like, or doing my very best to play like John Coltrane, and copying those records from the very early sixties. Then a friend of a friend whose name was Gavin Owen asked me to do some music for a film, that was based on part of the story of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, because he was recommended by the other friend, David Chaston. They were both students at the Royal College of Art. And so the job was to play music of the future because it was set in two thousand and something. Quite why I thought that music of the future would be freely improvised… Perhaps I thought that the only way for me practically to achieve a sense of mysterious futuristic quality was to simply play intuitively and go where the spirit led. I so much enjoyed the activity that from then on I thought I'd look out for other people who were interested in playing that way, and see if, instead of it being a kind of imagination of the future, it would be what you did now. Since if you can imagine it now and do it now, why is it futuristic?
Were other people involved in that recording?
Yes. The bass player who is unfortunately dead now - he died very young - was called Walter Hafendon. He finally became a PhD in minerals engineering, and went to live in a remote spot in Canada extracting some kind of metal from some kind of rock, which is what he was good at in addition to being a very good bass player. Once he got the doctorate, he went looking for a job. He was a very driven character in that way. He was able to keep up his studies and play at the same time.
It was just the two of you?
Just the two of us as I remember.
This was in London?
No, we made the recordings in Birmingham. And then - this is quite a well worn story now in a way - I have told it in several different contexts, or different bits of it in different contexts - not only did it introduce me to the activity, but strangely enough (in the complicated way the world works) it also introduced me to the key person that I needed to meet, because that film was then shown at the diploma show at the end of the course, for Gavin Owen's graduation. At that show everybody meets everybody - the students invite their friends and people they have collaborated with. At the same time, Geoff Rigden, the painter, was also coming to the end of his studies there, and somehow he knew John Stevens. So John was there to see Geoff Rigden's show and see what else was happening. A good friend of Gavin Owen's was Alfreda Benge, who has been living with Robert Wyatt for a good long while now. At that time she was a film maker too. Now she is a painter - it's all very complicated. So she knew John Stevens, and she knew the music that I had done for Gavin's film, because she was in the film department, so she had seen him put the thing together. She told John that he might find the music for this film interesting. And then John came over, and we were introduced and we started to talk about enthusiasms.
At that point it was still pretty rare to meet anybody who was enthusiastic in a musicianly way, if I can put it like that, about current developments in the front end of modern jazz. There was a feeling this has gone too far. That was the general feeling from what you could call the modern jazz establishment, not just in America but also here in a way. John was a pretty rare exception to that, so it was nice to talk to someone about Milford Graves and Sunny Murray, Edward Blackwell and Billy Higgins and their relative stylistic distinctive markings and this and that - blah blah blah - the way you do. John was always good at blah blah blah - excellent in fact - and he was also always very welcoming to new faces, which is also pretty rare in the scene. He said he was starting a club in the next few weeks, and that was the very beginning of the Little Theatre Club [in 1966]. Then I went down to sit in at the Little Theatre Club. John's original idea was that he could hook me up with a nice rhythm section of Chris Cambridge [bass] and Laurie Allen [drums] - a ready made group for me. It was fantastic and helpful, which I think he continued to be all the way through - he had huge amounts of energy for everything, anything connected with music, playing, other musicians.
Did that group happen?
It certainly played once or twice, but at the same time it was almost like John was using that to audition me. Then we started playing together. Trevor [Watts] went away for a summer holiday, quite a long one, so he needed someone to play every week or every night - I can't remember which it was. I suddenly jumped in to the deep end really, and we started by playing tunes and stuff and ended by playing free. I don't know how that happened, but it did. Then there were all those convoluted comings and goings with various versions of what you could call the second phase of SME [Spontaneous Music Ensemble]. That was a very, very fortunate set of coincidences connected with that film.
What do you actually mean by the second phase of the SME?
If you think of the first phase as represented reasonably well by the record CHALLENGE, and then the second phase I suppose would start, on record at least, with KARYOBIN. But now we have to say it starts with SUMMER 1967 - your investigations.
But I think there was a period before that where the music was constantly changing, and the personnel was somewhat fluid as well. I get the impression it was working as a grouping rather than a group, often there would be sub-groups playing.
I remember coming back from Germany - I'd been away for the first time with [Peter] Brötzmann - I'd been away for ten days, and John sat me down very seriously and brought me up to date with what had been going on in those ten days. And there was quite some question as whether he could let me go away for such long periods. How could I possibly stay in touch with the music? "We have done this, we have done this and we have done this, and I have been working with XYZ." Very intense. Very good.
How did you get involved with Brötzmann?
We went to Berlin with SME. A woman came to London - Nele Hertling - she later became, or perhaps she already was, the director of the Academie der Kunst in Berlin. I suppose it was that famous swinging London, and so they needed a programme that reflected that, and they chose SME to play in a kind of 'This is London Now' kind of presentation. I think that's where I met Brötzmann. If it isn't, it's where I met Jost Gebers certainly, and Jost spoke to me of Brötzmann.
Technically the first time I played with him was at the Baden Baden SudWestFunk [SWF] meeting, where I was very lucky, by the skin of my teeth really, because John Tchicai decided to take a holiday and not to work over the Christmas. At that point there was the determination to go wherever necessary whenever necessary in order to play. So Kowald had come to London in that period that you had documented [SUMMER 1967], and when he went home he said: "I'll try and set some things up". Then he said to me: "Come, I can't say for sure, but if there's a space in the car, it looks like there might be a possibility for you - I'm really working on it". At that time he was living in Antwerp. So when we got to Antwerp that night Kowald said: "Yes, it's on. Come down to Baden Baden with us and meet everybody." That was also very important, meeting Brötzmann and a lot of people - Don Cherry, Albert Mangelsdorf, Jeanne Lee, Marion Brown. Also Barre Phillips, who had already been in London. The history of my relationships with all these people - each one is a slightly different story, and different dates - to unravel it all and get it in the right sequence is quite complicated. Quite difficult.
In the early months of 1968, you were on two records, namely KARYOBIN and MACHINE GUN, which seem to represent the extremes of what was happening in free improvisation at the time. How did you relate to these?
In a way that was a baptism of fire to what I take to be one of the fundamental problems, which is to adapt your voice to the requirements of the group, but without losing a sense of identity and control over what you are doing and coherence in the whole thing. To have attempted it in two such diverse contexts so early on probably was a very useful experience. Later, I did think that it was a bit schizophrenic. For me there was then a kind of conscious effort to try and beef up the general approach to atomistic playing so that it would not lose its way in those more robust contexts with Mr Bennink and Mr Brötzmann. You had to do something to be heard. Apart from the stylistic niceties, there was the sheer physical problem of playing at a much louder level. There were one or two technical problems to be solved, and one or two aesthetic problems to be solved.
Did you find playing with the SME restrictive at all? It sort of comes across that you are being restrained, shall we say.
Are you sure that's not with the benefit of hindsight, looking at what came later?
I didn't feel particularly restrained. I felt a lot of what John was talking about, or the kind of method, such as there was one, was based on several quite simple rules, which is that if you can't hear somebody else you are playing too loud, and if what you are doing does not, at regular intervals, make reference to what you are hearing other people do, you might as well not be playing in the group. I mean I've put it in my own language, but those were maybe the two most important lessons that John wanted people to learn when they played with SME. And so there was what you can call a compositional aesthetic which required musicians to work with those two kind of rules or ideals in mind.
There were other equivalent kind of implicit rules going on in the Brötzmann group, and then later on in the [Alex] Schlippenbach group, and ICP. Each one of these of these contexts was a kind of - not hermetic - but rather inward looking approaches. Of course, if you're there as an individual you have to bring something to it, but you also have to understand what you have come into. So that was the challenge. I'm not really sure I ever solved the ICP challenge, in a way, I'm not sure many people have at the deepest levels, because it is so much tied up with the dynamics of Mengelberg/Bennink, that in a way everything else is a kind of icing on the cake. The real cake is Mengelberg/Bennink - one slice of each.
You went on to play in a couple of other groups shortly after this period - Tony Oxley's and the Music Improvisation Company. Do you have any comments on those? Oxley was in a sense somewhere in between John Stevens and Brötzmann.
Yes. In one sense that, and in one sense somewhere in between Mark I SME and Mark II SME. You could look at it that way too. It's hard to characterise exactly what Tony was about as a bandleader in that period. He certainly chose good people, and organised things in his own particular way, and created a band with a flavour that was distinct from anything else that was going on at that time. Maybe, because he was also playing at Ronnie [Scott]'s, he couldn't follow the thing quite as rigorously as it would have required to have those bands work more often and tour. We didn't really do very much with Tony's groups. We did occasional gigs out of town, and I think we did play in Berlin once. There were a few things like that, but it had more the flavour of an occasional ensemble, which is I suppose more common today. Back then, we were always thinking about regular groups.
How did the Musical Improvisation Company come about?
That came out of some rehearsals - I think that it started with some rehearsals between Derek [Bailey] and me just as a duo. Maybe at the same time, Derek might have been having duo rehearsals with Jamie [Muir] - I'm not sure about that. We certainly did some rehearsing with the three of us, but I can't remember the first public performances. There was a kind of proto-Music Improvisation Company where Gavin Bryars played. He just got back from his period in America where he studied with Cage and all of that, and was somehow trying to reconcile the idea of improvisation and chance operations - a very difficult one. So we did a few concerts which were partly about free improvisation and partly about these Cage and Cage-follower style chance operation things.
I think Hugh Davies might have been involved also at some stage in one of those concerts where we were playing chance operations stuff - I don't remember. But somehow it settled down to be first a quartet with Hugh, and then Hugh recommended Christine Jeffrey, or said it might be very interesting to see what would happen if we asked this woman with an extraordinary voice to join in. And that really was quite settled for a while, but again that band didn't get much work. We went to Berlin once, and did a few gigs out of town.
We had one famous tour of art colleges, where I got an Arts Council grant, which in some ways was a precursor to the thinking behind the Contemporary Music Network. That started because a character called Keith Winter, who knew me through Howard Riley, was very keen that I should get some money from the Arts Council. In those days I was still very heatedly representing improvisation as something distinct from composition. Now I realise what I really meant was notation, but in those days I might have confused the two things. So I said: "I'm not involved in notational stuff, so I don't see how I can meet the criteria." So he said: "You tell me how money would be useful to you, or how your situation could be improved, and let me think of a way that it can be assisted by us - that's our job." It's amazing to think of an arts bureaucrat saying that kind of thing to you - these days it just would not happen. "Fill in the forms and we'll let you know" would be the approach these days.
So I told Keith Winter that I would very much like to do more gigs with my current main enthusiasm, which was Music Improvisation Company. This was a collective group, but in a way was co-led by Derek and me. It was pretty close to being a collective group. I can't remember how Hugh came into it, for example. Maybe it was Jamie's idea. And then Christine was Hugh's idea. So I said: "We'd just like to work more. The problem is that none of these places can afford to pay us what we feel we should get paid." He said: "Okay, that's easy, leave it with me and I'll come up with a scheme." He called back very quickly and said: "Look I'll give you this much money and you can subsidise concerts. You find some concerts and add this money to what they can afford to pay you and turn it into a tour."
And that is how we did a tour of arts schools, because we felt at that time there was an affinity with students - that was our best chance of finding an audience - people that were used to the idea of abstraction in broader terms, and happy with modernity in art and experimentation and all of that. And I think it was true. All kinds of good things came out of that.
And in fact, half of the money I kept back and wanted to use to start a record label. I was moving towards that and Derek and Tony said they were also interested. Tony said: "Don't put your own money into it, I've got a guy with plenty of money!" This was Michael Walters. He met him in Ronnie's after hours, and been talking about the same idea. In the end, I didn't put my own money into it - Michael put the money up for the first record, and we started Incus like that.
That was the only way of getting your music published, was it?
Well, not really. The actual business side of KARYOBIN was very peculiar as you know - that is a whole other story in itself. There was no real money being made, but there were records coming out. Tony had a few records with CBS, and Island had done the KARYOBIN thing, and there was every possibility that other things would have continued to be offered in that kind of vein, but no sense of self-determination or control over our affairs. The sense that this is happening because we want it to happen, rather than this is happening because somebody is kind enough to allow it to happen, which is a different feeling.
I'm not sure that I, or certain other people, know what you were referring to by the KARYOBIN story.
It's hard for me to be sure what kind of arrangement John Stevens had with Eddie Kramer. Eddie Kramer was at that point working in a well known London studio, and was busy with his Jimi Hendrix projects, but at the same time was very open to all these other fringe activities. It's very easy now to see that there were people aware that there was something going on in London. There was a whole mood of anything is possible, a lot of which passed me by completely, because I was so involved in the specifics of what we were involved with - I didn't see the bigger picture at all really. I couldn't see any connection with Jimi Hendrix or Soft Machine or Pink Floyd or happenings or psychedelia or any of that. I didn't connect that particularly. But there were people that did, and I suppose Eddie Kramer was one of them.
It was a typical John Stevens arrangement in the sense that it was very effective in getting the key thing done, namely to make a record and have it issued, but left in its wake a whole mess of complications about who owns what and who paid for what and who got paid for what, and at this point nobody knows the real story any more, because everybody knows a part of it. I know a part of it, only a part of it. At the stage when we made the record, there were two inputs into this - one was Steve Winwood who knew of me from Birmingham, and was doing very well at Island, jumping out of the Spencer Davis group and becoming a star in his own right, and was listened to by Chris Blackwell. And he said: "Yeah, give this guy a record." At the same time, John had asked Eddie whether he knew anybody at Island? So it was like we both had input into how can we make this happen.
Then we both had input into what we should make happen - should we just do it as a duo or shall we make it something special beyond that in our terms. I remember quite clearly the conversation. It was almost like the luxury of window shopping, you know where you say, "What about so-and-so and so-and-so", and so forth? So we had a conversation like that where we arrived at the decision that we would really like to invite Kenny [Wheeler], Derek and Dave Holland. That was like a kind of dream team, out of the people that had been involved in the various sub-groupings up to that point, and different people with different histories. And of course you could say well, again with the benefit of hindsight, well it is a bit odd that for example Paul Rutherford was not involved, or Trevor Watts. But there were specific reasons why not at that time, partly because of little fallings out, arguments, animosities, mutual disappointments and all the usual stuff. So that's how it arrived at that list of names, and the session I think was very successful, but in a way it was a band that as far as I know only played in that form for the record. I'm not sure there was ever a gig with that specific line up. That in a way is testament to John - the madness of John's method - method in his madness, because it worked like a band that had been playing for a long time together - it sounds like it.
Then there was the famous Yoko Ono ringing the doorbell, coming to listen to her tapes with Ornette [Coleman] in another part of the studio. Something was wrong with the wiring, and the doorbell made a buzz on the tapes, which we removed using the Cedar de-clicker for the CD version. And Yoko listened, and she liked the stuff, and that's partly how the collaborations with her came about. We did a few things - I think it was just John, Derek, me, Yoko - a couple of gigs at the old Arts Lab in Drury Lane. Heady times, they were.
To go on forward again a couple of years, how and where did you meet Paul Lytton?
Paul Lytton I met in Birmingham. He was playing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. We had one of our rare SME gigs outside of London as a duo - I don't know how this gig came about, but that is what we did - we did a few things like that. We also did a broadcast opposite the Tubby Hayes Big Band! It seems very unlikely now. Paul came over and had a little chat and looked at John's kit, which was pretty unusual I suppose - it was all very miniaturised and skeletal - not as skeletal as it was to become in the final phase of SME when it was almost not there any more. In fact, I think there was one famous occasion when it was not there - maybe the very last gig - that is so beautifully John Stevens. Was that planned or divine assistance?
Actually, it turned out he could not get a lift.
I know, but that's just the mundane explanation. The fact is that it was aesthetically necessary in a way for the drum set to dematerialise just before the drummer. He couldn't have arranged it better if it had been scripted by his big hero Samuel Becket.
Paul Lytton was studying with Tony Oxley, but quite how we decided we would play together, I can't remember to be honest. Very strange. But I know we started about 1969 to do that. I guess there was a phase of a lot of playing in the afternoons in different people's places, trying out different things. That was one we tried out, and we both enjoyed it, and we carried on working at it. We played every week for almost a year before we did a gig.
Because he is such a generous person in his dealings with me - he can accommodate my demands somehow, or my vagaries or lack of clarity, or my over-clarity. I'm always too much in one direction. Mind you, by the same token, he's worse than me in some ways in that regard. He's also an extremist, but a mild mannered extremist. And I'm sort of outspoken and argumentative, but in the end not quite as adventurous as he is. So when we have come back inside - in our own terms, if not in anybody else's - it usually has been my idea to say: "Wait a minute - this is too weird now - we've got to…" And he says: "Okay, okay."
He seems to be happiest with the weirdest shit possible - that's where he seems to really love it. But he can play the normal drums as well if that's what somebody wants. He plays great normal drum set as you know, so at some point I though this is criminal that no one will ever hear him play the drum set again - he carried on practising it even when he wasn't taking the drum set out to gigs, which I understand. Practise and playing especially when you want to play free - the connection between the two activities becomes very hard to figure. He never lost his chops in that sense, so that at a certain point I just thought this is crazy. We're lugging all that stuff around - it's so difficult, and in a lot of the contexts it's too weird for the people. If they see the familiar drum set, it will give them some sense that they haven't landed on a foreign planet. And that in a way was a key to our survival through the eighties, that we were able to go back and play in jazz club type places or the fringier jazz clubs or fringier jazz festivals. I don't know - It is all coming round again anyway - you can't escape from your essential nature - you can only move within certain limits. And now the taste for weird is coming around again any way - for very weird as opposed to just half weird.
Were there any particular reasons for the other instruments and also the use of cassettes in that duo?
I think we were just trying to do things that nobody had done, and trying to surprise one another. We used a system of taping everything on a machine that was about the same size as that [portable DAT recorder] but of a much lower fidelity. You remember the little Sonys that recorded in stereo - the first ones that did fantastic things, but with automatic gain control. So you got a very bizarre sense of dynamic range - absolutely the opposite of what we were doing. We used to listen back after gigs and after rehearsals - very often in the car - and we would find moments that we thought, "Ah, listen to that five seconds", and wind it back and play it and study it, interiorise it. "Wouldn't it be great if those kind of things happened more often?" A strange kind of self-absorption really - just like looking in the mirror, thinking wouldn't it be great if my nose was this shape or something. A strange way to do it, but it worked, it helped, and this way we could talk about things or we could make clear to one another things that would be impossible to put into words. You just say: "Look I'm talking about those five seconds. That - right - okay!" Or he could do the same thing to me: "Listen, listen, listen to this. We've never done that before."
I don't know where the idea then came to use the little cassette machine [in performance]. I liked the sense of things moving, so we had the cassette machine on a rope sometimes, swinging back from left to right, or spinning - twist up the rope and let the let the cassette machine play back while it was spinning. We were very interested in the Doppler effect and all of those kind of things, you know - what happens when you swing this and wave this and oscillate this and so on. It was research I suppose.
And all of that stuff has come round again of course now, because now there is the technology you can do all those things with. There are people, whose musical life is transformation processes and spatial transformations and time sequencing and harmonising. All the things that we were approximating in the crudest kind of way given the limitations of the technology, and budgets as well in our case, and practicality. We were not institution based - we didn't have a studio where we could set stuff up. So everything had to be very portable, and had to be assembled and disassembled in time to do a gig. I'm happy that it's coming round again, but in this new form working with this newer generation of electronic people and new technology - digital technology for the most part - DSP (digital signal processing), computers, all of that. I suppose in a way we were just hinting at or groping for what was to come. The first time round we went as far as we could within the limits of those budgets, those technical restraints and practical restraints, then went back to do some more detailed work on the things that we really could control, which were the specifics of our own instruments. And now it has come round again, it's okay we can do more stuff with electronics and transformations and layerings and all of those things, but we can do it now with really high quality sound.
But isn't there a difference between what you were doing then and what you are doing now in that what you were doing then, even if it was technologically crude shall we say, you were in control of, whereas now other people are controlling the final product as it were?
I think that on paper that is a more substantial point than in reality. If I turn on a cassette of something we did last week, put the tape recorder on a rope and spin it, how much in control of the result am I? Perhaps in theory I should know what's on the tape, and I should know how many times I have twisted the rope, but I didn't. The truth is we were very much involved in testing the limits of what does it mean to initiate something - what are the longest elements you can use in an improvisation and still be improvising? All of those kind of ideas were the opposite of the atomistic thinking in a way. So using a piece of tape, or using a record player or whatever it was, is the kind of opposite of an atomistic SME style of collective working.
It was very conscious in a way both in the duo with Paul and in Music Improvisation Company. I saw one of the jobs or the areas we could do useful research would be to find out was there a middle ground somewhere between SME and AMM. Because AMM worked very much with layering stuff, and not too much with point to point interaction. SME worked very much with kind of pointillistic interaction, but not that was no layering. And somewhere in the middle was another way where both of those things could happen at the same time.
Of course, if you ask people to come in and operate in a way that is dependent on you feeding them material which they then feedback to you transformed, you can characterise that as being a formally different procedure from one instrument and one instrumentalist listening and feeding stuff to another one. But the truth is that they are both involved in rapid kind of feedback loops - it isn't just one feeds and the other eats, then the other one feeds and the other eats - you're both eating and feeding at the same time, and it is the same with the machines - that's the whole point. Of course, you're not very far away from the artificial intelligence debate, because the real distinction is that these silicon chips don't "know" what the numbers they are processing signify. But it may very well be that sometimes our "chips" don't know what the numbers we are processing signify either.
When you're playing, particularly improvising, how conscious are you? That's probably the wrong expression, but is it somewhat like a trance state? Are some things fairly mechanical?
This is the central mystery to me, really. I'm still not clear how it works, but I have taken to talking about left brain / right brain states of dominance. Once more that a certain number of events per second are being generated by the group or by individuals, how those streams of events interact to form a sense of a whole - you know a group music as opposed to just some people doing something at the same time - is very mysterious. I really don't know how it works. All I know is that it does work, and that there's a huge difference between people just doing some stuff at the same time and what happens when I improvise with people that are experienced at free improvisation, whether it's with Paul Lytton and Barry Guy, or whether it's this new combination that I've been very happy working with - John Russell, John Edwards and Mark Sanders.
I need to play differently in each of the two groups, but I feel totally that I can do whatever I want. Now that's very strange, because the results are partly determined by what the collective need of that specific constellation of personalities suggests. But at the same time I have the feeling that I'm equally free in both situations. But there obviously are constraints, but they're not constraints that register at a conscious level. There must be a process which means I phrase this way, or chose notes this way, or choose dynamics or attacks or whatever it is. Some of that language will overlap, and a certain phase or type of phrase might crop up in both contexts. A lot of it will overlap, but there are crucial stylistic differences between the two, which are the essence of what makes that group that and that group that. That interests me very much. I feel that I have a pragmatic grasp of what is required in order to bring about or to be an effective participant in each of those situations. But there is no theory to explain it. I'm very happy that there isn't. Perhaps, there could be, but it would look very pretentious written down. I may already have overstepped the mark of what can look reasonable in print - I hope not.
To go back to where we were before, you were talking about Paul Lytton going back to his conventional drum set. Did this coincide with Barry Guy being added to the group?
No, we'd done a few things before that. In fact on the record called TRACKS, Paul is still playing the old kit - the more elaborate kit with the frame. Also HOOK, DRIFT & SHUFFLE with George Lewis is frame and not the conventional kit. We started to play as a trio about 1980, I think, although, of course, we knew Barry in other contexts and other groups, and we had played with LJCO [London Jazz Composers' Orchestra], and we knew Barry from all the other things that he'd been up to.
I think the idea of making a trio came after we'd done the INCISION record, the duo record in Berlin for Jost Gebers. That came about in a series of quite anguished moments in Berlin where there was squabbling inside the LJCO - different factions of people angry with one another. It was very important for me to show Barry that, even if I might appear to be taking a line that was sometimes creating problems inside the band, it was not because of any lack of respect for him as a musician - the opposite. In fact, the best way to make that clear would be to make a duo record. Jost had asked me to do some recording while I was there with the orchestra, maybe a solo thing or something. I said I'd like to do a duo with Barry. So once we'd done that it was very obvious we could put the two things together. The fact that Paul had been playing regular drum set inside the LJCO probably helped us all deal with that transition.
The specifics of going back to the regular set involved a gig in Brighton. At this point Paul had been living in Belgium for a long time, so there was the whole question about how to come over, how to carry a drum set. On this occasion it turned out that I'd first thought he couldn't do the gig. Then he could do the gig but he wouldn't have a drum set with him, because he was in England for other reasons. I'd been in the process of asking Tony Marsh to do the gig, then Tony had problems, and I'd had to look for a replacement for Tony, and lo-and-behold Paul was in the country anyway, so it's just a question of finding him a drum set. We borrowed Steve Noble's drums, I think, and it worked so easily and it was so straightforward and it was so clear that it was good for the place we were in, that it kind of breathed some new life into the situation for us.
That's carried on for a bit now. But, in a way, we're blurring the edges of that with the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, because now Paul has gone back to the other style of drum set which is more appropriate for that. So it's really staying aware of all our options, and using the appropriate options in the appropriate contexts. That's all it is - it's not that we ever forgot the other kit or the other sound, or the sound of the frame or any of that - it's just that we stopped using it for a bit.
You were talking about the LJCO. Do have any problems playing composed music in the LJCO or other settings?
I look at it like - if we all did the same thing and had the same approach, this would rapidly deteriorate into the most boring scene imaginable. The most important thing is that there are diversities of approach, and the best way of ensuring that is to support other peoples ideas as fully as you can, and hope that they will do the same thing for your ideas. That's the way the community, such as it is, has continued to be a community, because you know when Barry comes and plays with me he does his best to work within the scheme that I put forward, and when I go to work for him I do the best to make sense of the scheme that he puts forward.
Obviously large group improvisation is one of the hardest things to do - there's just not enough chances to rehearse total free large group improvisation. This is a shame. And if any one person goes to the trouble of organising work for a large group on a regular basis then of course they are going to have particular things that they want to look into, namely in Barry's case the things that he writes and brings - that is the main stuff that we work on. But we are also working on the open elements - the space for improvising - which have always been an important factor in Barry's composition. So there is always plenty to engage me.
There is a criticism made of free improvisation that it goes from being slow and quiet to fast and loud then back to slow and quiet again and so on.
The other group, of course, you have also been involved for a long time is the Schlippenbach Trio. How did that come about?
I'd done a gig with Brötzmann, and Alex had played opposite with his group. Alex said it would be nice to do some playing some time. I can't remember if the first gigs I did with Alex were Globe Unity gigs or trio gigs - I think they were Globe Unity gigs. I was free when he was looking for someone to replace Michel Pilz. I think that was in 1970, and we've stuck together through thick and thin since then. We've been at one another's throats metaphorically and literally at times. Usually it's one guy gets angry with one other guy and the third guy pacifies the situation - but we've done all the combinations. This is what I like - it's still a subject of passion.
How often has that band performed in practice?
We've done tours every year since 1970. In the very early period we worked nearly every month - I was backwards and forwards on that boat all through the year. In those days there were no cheap flights, so we got to know those cross-channel ferries very well. When I say we, I'm not talking about the royal 'we', I remember memorable trips with Rutherford and different people that were on the same schedule.
At various times it was a quartet.
With [Peter] Kowald, yes, and Alan Silva, and was supposed to be with Paul Rogers, but then we had that famous accident, and for some reason that never got followed up on. Perhaps it will at some stage - it should be, I think - it would be very nice. Paul is playing great - he always did of course - but he is playing especially well at the moment, and I think would be very suitable. It's a difficult gig for a bass player. We recently did two or three concerts with Reggie Workman that worked very well. He found a space for himself immediately. This is the problem, you know, when groups tighten up as trios, sometimes for a fourth person to come in is really difficult. They have to know exactly how to make their own space. Of course with a bass in that situation it is going to be easier than with some other instruments, but nevertheless it's not an easy job, and Reggie Workman was great, but then you would expect that.
Both that trio and the group with Barry and Paul to some extent seem to operate as a free jazz group in that there are times when you stop playing and it becomes a bass solo or a piano solo. In a lot of free improvisation groups, everyone plays all the time.
I think there's more to it. Also, it's closer to a free jazz aesthetic for more reasons than just that, but that certainly is conscious, intended, maybe even ritualised. It's part of the method. Because the saxophone does have a very dominant kind of voice, I think there are only two ways to go. Either you give the space… You could say that the paradigm would be given by the disintegration of the Coltrane quartet. If you listen to live tapes where McCoy Tyner just stops playing, the dialogue between drums and saxophone becomes so intense that it's full in itself, it doesn't need anything else, and maybe Jimmy Garrison is simply exhausted - those tempos after a certain point are too demanding. The only instrument that can keep up with the saxophone, if you want to work on that energy level, is the drums. So you end up with saxophone and drums, which is what Coltrane did of course. The other way is to step back from the highest levels of intensity that are possible, and just deal with those simple ways of making sure that every one gets heard and everybody gets to work through the stuff they want to work through.
That's back to the SME as it were. I've seen fairly recent gigs where you have played like that. One example being the duo with John Russell.
Yes. In another contexts I will play throughout in a completely collective way, because that other approach is not so appropriate. But there are also kind of hybrid forms where you can say well if we've only got one piece to play or we're just going to play one set, maybe it's more appropriate that it's collective. If we're playing the Vortex [a London jazz club] with that band, it might be more appropriate if I stop simply because it's that kind of place and people are more used to that. Maybe we can bring people in to a way of listening to the total collective stuff by breaking it up into bite sized portions. It's not exactly missionary work, but there's always a sense of being aware of how much does the audience know, and that is usually to do with the place - different places attract slightly different audiences.
Do you have any feelings about playing in regular groups rather than in ad hoc groups?
Regular groups come about because ad hoc groups like the experience. What does this say about ad hoc groups that only play once? Why do they only play once? Didn't they like it?
What about your solo playing? Do you see this as a completely separate activity to these various groups that you play in?
I used to more than I do now. A lot of that material, maybe ten years ago, I would've thought it rude to play in a group context. But now I can hear it sometimes - quite often - and it seems useful, and gives another colour or scope to the total music that any one group has to offer. It has to be done more or less sparingly depending on the specifics of the occasion. I can slip in stuff. Ten years ago I would have been happy to have been able to do it in a solo context. I'm using stuff now that is more developed and more complex than I could do back then, and also using it in group situations. But then, you are dealing with the more layering approach rather than the pointillistic, atomistic. You need an awareness from the other people that by doing that you're not ignoring them, or you're not treating them as a kind of accompaniment. It's important that there be a kind of level of trust inside the group - that people know that your intentions are good, and you are not simply trying to dominate proceedings by playing continuously or playing in a very complex continuous way.
Your solo music started off like you were playing in other contexts, but it seems to have become more about the continuous complex aspect.
Yes. It is now. It's feeding off itself, like all of these things do. It looks at itself and is disappearing into its own mouth. I have a sense of sometimes banging my head up against the wall, but every so often a brick drops out and I can see some light the other side or even push a hand through. You think that you've come to a kind of limit, and then you have a day where something happens and you realise that's not a limit at all - it's simply that you've worked out how to control this or that.
It's clear to me that if you can imagine something, you can find a technical way to do it, but if you can't imagine it, whether or not there is a technical solution never occurs to you because there's no need to. So it's very necessary to listen closely to what happens when you try to do things, because usually at the fringes of what you're producing is something that you're not really in control of - that there is a central thing that you are fully in control of, and then a kind of halo of suggested other possibilities which have to come with the central thing that you're in control of, whether it's a wisp of breath escaping from the side of the embouchure, or an overtone that you could push harder, or some key noise which you can't escape. There's always something there, and if you're listening at the fringes of the sound as well as at the centre of the sound, then you can be led to other things and other possibilities.
It's a strange way to proceed - I hope there's some sense of progress. What I'm scared about is, because, many of these things are added, it's like a process of adding something to what's already there, especially if it's added in the overtones, and people are maybe first of all drawn to the loudest thing which is happening lower down, and maybe the same thing happens often. But that's a vehicle for the stuff that doesn't happen very often, and which isn't completely in control. I had the experience of listening to a sitar player and had the sense that there were two concerts happening - one was in the normal register of the sitar and the other was in the overtones, and he was completely aware of both of these things and was playing two concerts at the same time. I try to work with that a little bit. Also I have deep memories of going to the Daphni wine festival in Greece in the early sixties and hearing Greek clarinet playing and lyra. The way the overtones work in Greek clarinet is fantastic.
I know I could give more varied concerts quite easily, but I'm not interested in that. I want to work on this stuff. It's to do with layering stuff that I don't know on top of stuff that I do know. A lot of the time now, that is what it's about. So there's an element of it you can say, "I swear I've heard him play that a hundred or a thousand times before." But the truth is: yes and no is the real answer. Yes, you have in the sense that well I've got those same four fingers on that hand and the same four fingers and thumb on that hand, and the key works the same, and if I want this level of layering to take place I have got to have certain things happening with all of that down there and something in the overtones. So there aren't that many possibilities. If I need all of the fingers to be at work most of the time, and the overtones to come out on top of that, then certain things have to sound like they've happened before. They have happened before, but that's not the point really. It's connected with that idea about what are the longest elements and still be free and all of that. Okay, how much are these things really repeated, or are they just familiar? I find the whole thing too absorbing, and lose the sense of my responsibility to the audience, which has perhaps never been a strong point of this music.
I think there's a problem for the audience, which is also there say in a Cecil Taylor solo performance, in that you get an enormous amount of detail over a long period. How do you see the importance of detail versus the overall?
I think the overall comes about as a sense of a sequence of details that have been taken through a logical or somehow narrative sequence and have come to an end. So the details would be like words in a book, and there has to be some sense of a story. You might say that in FINNEGAN'S WAKE it's sometimes hard to say what the story is, because there's too much absorption in the words as individual entities, and maybe it's the same kind of criticism. There should be some kind of narrative, but it may sometimes get a little bogged down in the detail of the words.
You normally practice four hours a day, do you?
Four hours can have gone by in the twinkling of an eye. It might not always be that long, and some days not at all if you are travelling. Also, I might only do about half an hour or so in the morning if I know I've got a gig that night. It varies enormously - other days I might do six hours.
Do you find the soprano more rewarding than the tenor?
I practice it more. I don't know if that's because it suits this room better, I like the sound of it in the room more, or I like the instrument more, or I like the sound of the soprano solo more. I think I do. The tenor, I don't practice so much - I should do.
In both you solo and your group playing, do you think in terms of the whole performance while you are playing, or are you just following your nose as it were?
There is a sense of overall shape. I mean this is why the endings are endings. They're not contrived in that way. Musicians know. Something that I need to have pretty much down with people that I play with, is that people know when a piece has finished. I hate it if they don't. A fundamental requirement really is that sense of ending, and if there's a sense of ending - working back in a kind of reverse logic - it must because there's a sense of form. It's not exhaustion after all. There's a sense of something being completed.
Then of course it gets quite complicated by the circumstantial requirements of performance - you are more or less required to play certain units of time. A set is forty-five minutes; a set could be an hour; a concert performance might require that you play half an hour; another concert situation might require that you play twenty minutes. It's not just good enough to occupy the twenty minutes, or to occupy the thirty minutes. You also have to shape the whole so that the sense of completion arrives at the right time as well. And this is also possible in my experience. In fact that's also a kind of requirement - it's a slightly higher level requirement from players.
I'm not sure to what extent I can manage it at every time frame, but a combination of very varied concert situations, club situations, and then the recording situation does mean that you start to develop a fairly keen sense of duration. It's like this is a clock that is buried somewhere, but is activated at the right time when the sense of winding down or conclusion has to be arrived at. It doesn't have to be winding down, but somehow there has to a sense of working towards that sense of completion. That's a regular occurrence, and in fact sometimes with the trio with Barry and Paul we have to avoid too many slick endings, because if we want to we can finish on a sixpence kind of thing - "boom" - and the audience -"huh". But if you do too many of those in one night then you start to feel a bit like a stripper or something - it is a little bit cheap, unless it happens not just to show that you can do it, but it happens because it is necessary.
Apart from the two trios, what other projects are you involved in now or in the near future?
Many projects. Working with Lawrence Casserley on some stuff with his DSP system. He has the IRCAM workstation and a big mixing desk and system, with which he triggers various parts of the software with one of those drum-pad things. The Electro-Acoustic thing which is ongoing at the moment - the record is supposed to come out in about two weeks [now out as TOWARDS THE MARGINS on ECM]. I would like at some point to include Lawrence into the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. I have been talking with Richard Barrett about doing something together. I'm also talking with Joel Ryan who works at STEIM. There are many, many things happening at the moment.
I'm very happy with the quartet with John Russell, John Edwards and Mark Sanders. We just did some quartet stuff for Noël Akchoté - we being Paul Rogers, Mark Sanders and me. This is Noël Akchoté's group, and he wants to carry on with that - that seems to be working very well. Still carrying on with Alex - we've got a tour coming up towards the end of the year. We'd like to do some concerts with the trio plus Marilyn Crispell, if anybody wants it. It seems to be hard at the moment anyway in general to find things. The more you want something to happen, the harder it seems to be to make it happen. Money is tight all round Europe at the moment - Germany is struggling with this monetary convergence criteria, and France the same problem. All a little bit difficult to actually find things, especially at the right level where you would like to pay everybody properly.
That's why in a way there's a sense of entrenchment into the London scene, and the recording scene, where we feel - again this is not the royal 'we', I think I am speaking for other people in the community too - that at least they cannot take this away from us. The way the cultural funding in general works for this music is still hopelessly inadequate for the needs of the community. But there is a sense of, "Okay, the London scene is ours, we control it, we know the places and we know the audience." Also we know how to record. The CD thing seems to work. I know you said that things were slowing down a little bit - it was not as easy as it was when you first started again, but there's a sense that the economics of that are somehow manageable.
It's a strange time in a way, because I've many projects, but a lot of them really depend on fairly high profile promotion, just in the sense of travel budgets, hotels, all of that would make them expensive things. There's a hell of a lot of competition for that kind of work. The freer end has never been very good at the competitive professionalism stuff, partly because we have a healthy cynicism about all of that anyway.
The last few years you seem to be doing a lot of recording.
For those reasons, especially to have a feeling of being in control.
Are you likely to start your own label again?
I'm thinking about it all the time. In a way, it's very attractive. I don't know how much longer I can resist the temptation. I'd like to do it. As you know, there is no feeling like it. I'm actually a fan of the CD. I know some people don't like the size of it or the sound of it or the packaging or any of that, but I like them. I think they're very nice. Even the jewel-box doesn't offend me particularly. Perhaps it's a little thicker than it needs to be.
Who was talking about this? It was you, wasn't it, talking about pressings and being ashamed with the old LP format? Well Nimbus was a great moment in history for all the small independents. Suddenly you could get decent pressings again. But that horrible period before Nimbus - ah, the embarrassments of lying to yourself about 'perhaps this is good enough', because what was the alternative? You couldn't get it any better. You'd already spent as much time and energy as you could getting it as good as it was, and it was still hopeless, so it did start to become like masochism in a way. Thank God for the CD I say.
But then again, you see, 'there's nowt so queer as folk', because Noël Akchoté is pressing LPs in the Czech Republic. I haven't had a chance to play them yet. Maybe they're good, but I really can't see it, especially when the master tapes are digital. Some of this nostalgia strikes me as very weird, especially the nostalgia for the LP.
A lot of people say that the current standard of digital sound leaves a lot to be desired. Do you have problems with it at all?
You can hear there is something wrong with the top end, because of the problems with the brick-wall filter at the top of the frequency range that is being sampled. I haven't heard the relatively new double sampling rate recorders or 24-bit stuff. My problems with what happens at the top end are relatively small compared with the problems I have with surface noise, ticks and pops. And yet some people talk about the dark velvety silences from vinyl! I've heard all the top record-players - some pretty exotic things costing a hell of a lot of money - and you still hear ticks and pops and surface noise unless you're deaf. I don't want that additional information. I'd rather there was some slight distortion of the information I want, rather than a lot of additional information that I don't want. That's the end of it, there's no going back for me.
And this whole thing of trying to present the CD as a kind of elitist format, and the LP as every man's - to get decent sound from an LP you need a system ten times more expensive then the same sound from a CD player! It's hopelessly expensive. I mean, I can understand people liking it as a hobby, but not if you want to listen to a lot of music as music. I look forward to the next generation, DVD - it will be very nice, just clean up the top end a little bit and it will be good enough for me. Alex already says there's something wrong with CDs - they sound better than music really sounds!
Some people say that the early 1970s was a golden age for free improvisation. Do you think there's anything in that? It sort of implies that everything else has been anti-climatic.
I've a sense of forward movement continuously throughout the whole period in a way. At one level, perhaps at the level of words - to go back to that analogy - I think we're finding new words all the time, and maybe combining them to tell the same story, but with that enriched language. I don't know what the story of music is. It's like: suspend rational thought and move into a universe of abstract symbols where meanings are difficult to ascribe. But a sense of journey is nonetheless achievable - a sense of narrative. For me the golden age is always in the same moment that the music is played - it's now. I'm trying to think what might be the historical factors that would make someone think that way - what would they be thinking of in particular that happened then, and either happens in the same way now or does not happen now.
I guess it was when the music reached its first maturity. I was trying to put some thoughts down recently about the comparison with jazz, in that in jazz there were several steps which sort of involved changes of rules. Somehow there isn't a similar thing happening in free improvisation, which does not necessarily mean that it's stagnant. What rules there were seemed to be set up at the beginning and have continued.
What about the rule that there are no rules? >From the very outset people were very interested to attack this conundrum. "So you mean it's free, but there's a rule that there are no rules. How free is that?" That kind of questioning, which I think is quite interesting. So people are always looking to test what the truth of this is. "So why can't I use some elements of this but some elements of that?" Of course you can. You can do whatever you want. That's the great thing about music. It's not like football or something, where you get knocked out of the league if you try something that doesn't score goals. You carry on. You can carry on failing brilliantly, especially in the tiny scene here. In the smaller grass roots scene, it's obvious that people do it for its own sake. There must be some personal rewards, regardless of whether there is anything communicated. There must be achievement of a kind to hold this thing together. I mean, I know there is - you know there is - but it's not something that you can sell to people easily.
It's a very difficult proposition also for the listener. You have to be attracted by the noise it makes, as people have said in other contexts about the English. ("They do not understand music but they love the noise it makes!" to quote Thomas Beecham.) Maybe that's why there's such a flourishing underground scene for free music here, because it's pitched perfectly for people who do not understand music but who love the sound it makes. Unfortunately it sounds so abrasive sometimes, otherwise we would be onto a mass market breakthrough.
I think there are phases in free music, and it's continuing to develop. Certain things are coming to a kind of maturation right now I'd say - a kind of general awareness of a method. You could say that the SME method was once only understood by core members of SME. Now you could say that this is an approach of the whole scene here. (Let's confine ourselves to the London scene. It's the one I feel most at ease generalising about.) It's almost that membership of that part of the scene requires that you understand immediately what approach is being taken. Which tradition are we in? There's now a large community of musicians that know instinctively what language we're in, what tradition we're in here.
I'd say quite clearly that the quartet with Russell, Edwards and Sanders is in an SME mode really. It's a kind of extended, fairly robust sort of SME mode for instrumentation reasons, but it's continuing that language in a way that I hope is fresh and different from any other version of that language. That in itself is a kind of nineties development, maybe - I don't know. Maybe it happened in the eighties that there were bands playing that way, but which did not have any specific connection with the SME as such.
Is that group coming out on FMP?
Yes, it will be called LONDON AIRLIFT, and I think it sounds good.
I have noticed with some of the younger German musicians - one tends to think of the German scene more in terms of free jazz, more extrovert…
That's not true. There's a whole bunch of them that are totally what one could call post-SME players, and that explains the whole set of affinities between John Russell and Stefan Keune to name a recent one, or John Butcher and George Gräwe. George Gräwe has also worked with Mark Sanders. There's a whole set of connections there which have got nothing to do with the old stereotypes of national styles.
Are you finding there is a continual stream of new musicians?
Absolutely! Fantastic! I mean look at that guy Tom Chant - he's a young saxophone player that Eddie [Prevost] is doing some trio stuff with - John Edwards, Eddie and Tom Chant. He's Michael Chant's son - the composer from the old Scratch Orchestra scene. He obviously had a kind of liberal upbringing. People always mutter on about where are all the players in their young twenties, kind of thing. But I think that they are there - it's just taken them a lot longer to break through, to get a chance to play.
But also, let's face it, things have moved on and they come to the scene now from a whole different set of influences. The post-Henry Cow / Recommended Records / Chris Cutler aesthetic has been a very important magnet for people that have come in. The free scene in the biggest sense includes people who don't come from that specific jazz orientation any more, and sometimes they find the whole connection with jazz mysterious. They don't see that at all. I think they find it all a bit quaint or hard to see why we bother. I'm finding it difficult to know why we bother at this point, because the retrenchment in the jazz scene towards what Steve Lacy calls 'rebop' is, well, the story is complete now. They have rewritten history - jazz is a classical music, closed form, and the story is complete now. All we can do is look at variations within that. This whole other attitude fits much better, in some ways with people who are coming out of electronic music backgrounds or art rock backgrounds - noise rock. All those other kind of aesthetics seem to fit the attitudes in some ways much better than an attitude that says jazz is a theme and variations form and here's how it is done. "Buy my study methods in one thousand parts complete with play-along CDs."
Do you find you have any problems working with young people from these other backgrounds rather than a jazz background?
No. It's completely about specifics of the individual. I don't know what John Edwards' background is at all, but I can't imagine that he thinks of himself as a jazz bass player. I've no problems working with him at all. I was bowled over the night I first heard him. I knew of him, of course, through B Shops for the Poor and seeing him around on the scene, but the night I heard him at Alan Tomlinson's club at the Priory Arms where we played solo-solo-solo and then combinations - Alan, myself and John Edwards - I thought: "Where has this guy come from? He's making the most enormous sound from an acoustic double bass, the language is very original, but at the same time he knows how to listen and relate." Whether it's got anything to do with jazz, I really do not know.
What this word means is constantly being redefined by different sort of political forces that are fighting over the ownership of the right to control the definition. It's a very strange word to start with. I am not getting into a fight about whether I have got any rights at all to have a say in the definition of the word jazz - it's such a waste of energy. What people can't stop me saying is that I was inspired to play the way I play, and with the people that I play, by certain people that are indisputably seen as part of the jazz tradition. But they are kind of mavericks I suppose for the most part. It would be peculiar to get into a fight about 'yes this is jazz' when I know that it's towards the margins (as the new record is called). Wherever you say the centre is, we are on the margin of it. Whatever the core definition of the activity is, there is always an attitude that drifts towards 'can you do this and still be that?' It must be a question of temperament to want to be in a place that is not too easy to define, and where you aren't as clearly bound by the rules of being at the centre of something.
The defining is clearly done by the establishment who says that there is classical music, there is jazz and there is rock and nothing else? So this area of music has to be tagged on to one of those.
How do you put it? 'File under improvised music.'
I think tha'is how it should be. There's a whole body of it that should be recognised as such, but it gets marginalised.
But apparently the whole commercial music business is now struggling with the problems of stylistic fragmentation and sub-cultures within. There's no longer a uniform market for commercial music for young people. They're all so into tribalisms of one kind or another, tribal loyalties and tribal musics in effect. That I find interesting, that the whole thing has kind of imploded. Maybe we're on the verge of a very liberating epoch.
I know that some of the early free improvisation was influenced by traditional musics from various parts of the world.
Yes, to some extent. That is made very specific with KARYOBIN, because the Karyobin are the legendary birds said to live in paradise. They are the subject of a piece in Gagaku.
Strangely that is one piece that does not sound like Gagaku. There were other things from that period that did.
Yes, less successful in my view because there was a hidden agenda. John [Stevens] didn't always reveal his sources. He would just describe what he wanted to happen, and he would actually be describing a piece of Gagaku, but in such a way that people would have to re-invent it. It's quite clever really. Because we were that tight at that point, I knew some of the secrets, so I knew what was going on. I do the same sort of thing myself in a way.
My current enthusiasm is shakers and rattles in East African music - they produce the most amazing sounds. Then you can be a victim - when you are known to have an interest in those kind of things, sometimes people can assume an influence that is quite specific and they've invented it for themselves. In general I take a lot of inspiration from other traditions of music that have not been touched by global music management systems. So they're not what is currently called World Music, which to me is like the opposite, and is not interesting at all, and is just packaged exoticisms.
But again, it's like the relationship between practice and improvisation. Quite how one thing filters into one other… There is a connection. Every player knows that practice is important - quite how you make that connection between listening to something, liking it and being influenced by it, and then how it gets into a so-called free improvisation is hard to… The more obvious it is, the less successful it is, obviously. But the more subliminal it is, the harder it is to detect, so you are on a kind of scale there from black to white there, which is very hard to say. I would hope there is never a point where someone could say "Ah well, he's now trying to imitate this or that", because in my own mind I'm not trying to do that. But I'm sometimes trying to incorporate an idea in a general form that I've taken from something else.
Do you think in terms of tempo?
I think in terms of density more than tempo - speed and rates of events. But there are moments you could count, and where it would be helpful to be counting - not counting but to be thinking metrically, even if you are the only one that is doing it at that time. Sometimes it can help. And a lot of the solo music has a kind of pulse, and countable metric aspects if you want to get into that. That's interesting - how you generate notions of fast and slow without a recourse to metric structuring? But it happens - you can say this piece is fast, or this piece is slow. It's like working back from the fact that you can generate a sense of inevitable ending must mean that there is a sense of form. Maybe the fact that you can sense the difference between fast and slow must mean that there are elements of tempo involved as well. But I think then, as soon as you open that box, you raise the question which is very interesting about multiple senses of speed. Then you start thinking about layering speeds, and again its the atomistic versus the laminal.
Is there anything else you want to say?
The whole question about golden age, and the sense that while perhaps it has all been done now, and the rest is just the tidying up of details - I'm really not sure about that. I hope it's not true because that's like a kind of end of history scenario but written for the music. First of all there is the bigger battle, if you like, which is more people becoming familiar with how to listen to this music. This does require us to continue to represent it and continue to give people an opportunity to familiarise themselves with it. I think the audience is growing slowly but steadily all the time. That does not mean that meanwhile we have to wait for the audience to catch up, but the fact that some elements of what we are doing are only refinements of things we have been doing for twenty-five years - I don't think that matters so much at all.
In fact, this is quite a shocking thing to say, but I was in a record shop in Tokyo in the jazz department, and at a very low level they were playing something - I think they saw me come in so they put one of my records on. For more than a few seconds, I thought it was TOPOGRAPHY OF THE LUNGS which is twenty-seven years old, with Derek Bailey and Han Bennink, but it was actually THE REDWOOD SESSION WITH Barry Guy and Paul Lytton. There's about a twenty-five year difference between the two things. Now, what does that say? It says that some of the general procedures have been operating along the same lines for quite a long time, but the specifics are of course completely different. But when you turn the volume down to an almost subliminal level, your first reaction is that you pick up on the generalities and you need more information to get to specific identification.
The generalities of approach continue to be what they were about twenty-five years ago in some contexts, in some kinds of groupings, but the specific details are always evolving. It's like the point I was making about the basic patterns being a vehicle for the freer material in the overtones in solo playing. The basic pattern is there, but it's like a vehicle for elaboration and investigation of more and more detailed levels of control and investigation, or loss of control or whatever. The good thing about that is the generality - the almost traditional aspects of those generalities that you could make about free music - set up some kind of known context for the listener, and it's like an armature for the elaborations that are hung on it.
In a way, it's a return to a kind of analogue of theme and variations, it you want to look at it like that. It's a rather perverse way of describing it perhaps, but there is something like that going on - the theme is always the same theme, and the variations are those details. The theme is the freedom, the absence of any of the normal fixed points of reference - that's the theme. The variations are the things that become fixed in the particular situation regardless.
That in turn relates to the slightly vexed subject of recordings of free improvisation and their function. I think it does help people to hear things repeatedly, because then they hear the relation of the detail, the particulars to the generality of the proposition. There is such a huge body now of recorded examples of people improvising freely together - if all people were interested in was the generality then they would only need five or six such records. But we've people that are totally familiar with the general proposition of free improvisation - what they are interested in is the specifics, the detail. And there's even a recent CD (by John Corbett) of improvisation called THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL. The detail continues to reflect refinements of instrumental technique, and technological developments, and will continue to do that.
I know that for myself, I'll die before I have penetrated the mysteries of the soprano saxophone. I could worship it as an object - I could stand it in a shrine in the corner - I'm totally mystified by what it can do. The only limits, as the great Sigurd Rascher said, are in the imagination of the player not the instrument. It's just a question of allowing the instrument to teach you - show you what it can do - it can do everything.