Interviews that might have happened over a croissant and coffee, or perhaps the full English…
Or in this case, over a pint in the Post Office Vaults, and a subsequent email exchange. Mike Fletcher talks to Peter Bacon.
So, how do you make sure your child becomes a jazz musician? Well, it’s not a question many parents would want to hear the answer to. It’s not the career path that many parents – those who want them to have financial stability, for example – might be wishing for their cherished offspring.
On the other hand, if we’re talking exploring their creativity, bringing pleasure to those around them, to enriching the artistic heritage, to making our world a better place, to a likely future of at least some self-understanding and self-fulfillment – and wanting all these things for our children and the future – then maybe you would like to know.
The answer seems to lie in the breakfast table test.
Mike Fletcher, saxophonist, flautist, composer, band leader and jazz promoter explains:
“A typical school morning in the Fletcher household was as follows. Mike Jr. would scrape himself out of bed and find Mike Sr. in the kitchen listening to some record or other.
“Mike Sr ‘Good morning. Would you like a cup of tea?’
“Mike Jr: ‘Yeah dad, that would be great’
“Mike Sr: ‘Well tell me who the sax player is then.’”
Mike Fletcher – the Jr one that is – was born in Birmingham into a musical family where his own musical journey started very early in life. By the age of 16 he was playing saxophone in his father’s big band and the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra both of which featured him as a jazz soloist. He went on to study jazz at Birmingham Conservatoire and graduated in 2005.
Since then he has lived and worked in the UK, Germany and Spain.
Mike’s work has been featured in jazz festivals including London, Cheltenham, Manchester and Harmonic in the UK as well as in Spain, Germany, Cyprus and Brazil.
Mike runs several ensembles, the main two being a trio and a larger jazz ensemble, both of which feature his original writing and the latter of which was featured in collaboration with Andrew D’Angelo and Dan Weiss at CBSO Centre Birmingham in January 2013.
As a co-leader and sideman Mike’s performance credits include work with Tony Bianco, Paul Dunmall, Hans Koller, Bobby Previte, Mark Sanders and Jeff Williams among many others.
Mike founded the highly successful Jazz @ The Spotted Dog series in 2010, which has gone on to become one of Birmingham’s most successful regular jazz events. Featured artists have included Eric Alexander, George Colligan and Peter King as well as a host of the best of the younger generations of jazz musicians from the UK and beyond.
So that is the short biog all done and dusted. Now back to Mike as he amplifies – and most generously – in answer to the question of how he got started:
MF: “To start off with a nice hackneyed cliché ‘I didn’t find jazz, jazz found me’. What I mean to say is that my father is a jazz saxophonist so when I was growing up it was just a part of life. That said I didn’t pop out of the womb ready to play.
“I had a couple of cassette tapes with various unrelated tracks that I had come across and so inevitably some of those were jazz, (one of which was a track called Opskud by Brian Abrahams’ band District Six. (I’d love to hear it again so there a couple of pints in it for anyone who knows how to get hold of a copy of the album Imgoma Yabantwana.)), but I seem to remember Morning from Peer Gynt and a couple of TV theme tunes being on there too.
“One of the more influential tracks was Glenn Miller’s String Of Pearls, and for a while I listened to this band a fair bit. I didn’t realize at the time but I learned a lot about the standard repertoire from listening to big bands when I was young.
“I wasn’t even drawn to the sax initially. I had piano lessons for a bit when I was six or seven and then cello for a few years. Hearing my dad playing sax around the house and being taken to various jazz gigs obviously had an effect on me so I eventually persuaded him to buy me a saxophone. After that it all happened quite fast and once I discovered Charlie Parker there was no way back!
“The reason I persist is twofold. I have had rigorous grounding in the history of jazz.”
Here is where the breakfast table test anecdote comes in.
“Therefore at least a part of my love of jazz comes from the fact that it’s pretty closely tied in with my upbringing and so, cultural and historical differences aside, this is my music.
“The other part is a bit less clear-cut but I find it a very natural way of playing music, and on a larger scale of living life. As in all music, preparation (that is to say practice, rehearsal, study, etc.) is essential, but jazz requires that the musician prepare more specifically for the unknown. That is to say that the large part of any performance is left relatively undefined so there is much more of a sense of adventure about it.
In non-improvised music you more or less know, barring disasters, what to expect, but with jazz you have to wait and see!”
PB: Who were the players that first attracted you and do they still appeal? Who would you say has most influenced you and who are your current favourites?
MF: “The first player I remember really listening to was Louis Armstrong, especially an album called Satch Plays Fats. So Louis would probably me my greatest influence and he definitely still appeals.
“Whenever the talk of favourite sax players comes up I like to cite Roy Plomley, creator of Desert Island Discs. When the castaway on the programme was asked to choose one book it was assumed that any reader would choose either The Bible or the Complete Works Of Shakespeare so in order to make the selection more interesting you get those two thrown in for free.
“The sax player version of that would be Bird and Coltrane so excluding those two my biggest influence in terms of how I play is Jackie McLean.
“Probably my current favourite is the Spanish sax and flute player Jorge Pardo, who is probably best known to jazz fans through his association with Chick Corea but he is generally regarded as the most individual voice in jazz in Spain. His music is a really organic synthesis of jazz and flamenco. I’d highly recommend seeking out some of his own records if you haven’t already.”
PB: You have been doing quite a bit of collaborational work, or writing and arranging for specific projects recently. Do you enjoy that? Are there difficulties associated with it as well as pleasures and rewards?
MF: “I have been getting a lot more into writing from a compositional standpoint recently. I have always written music but thinking as a horn player, creating jumping off points for improvisation rather than really getting to grips with compositional techniques.
“My most recent project was part of the Reich:Influences series run by THSH, the brief being to write a programme of new music combining influences of Steve Reich and John Coltrane with my own music.
“This was the first time I have had such explicit guidelines to work with and, to be honest, they were a help and a hindrance in equal measure! Normally when I write I’ll have a vague idea of what sort of band I’m writing for but after that I’m pretty much free to do whatever I want, so the discipline of having to conform to certain rules has done me some good.
“I’ve ended up with a lot more music than we played on the gig, most of which I wouldn’t have written if it hadn’t been for the brief. The process itself was quite enlightening too. I found that when I was specifically trying to write with the minimalist/modal thing in mind I was coming up with loads of really great ideas that were completely unrelated to the task in hand. I suppose it’s the same process that leaves me with a spotlessly tidy house every time I’m trying to do my tax return!
“I have also been writing a lot for my jazz ensemble, which is a band that has grown out of the big band I have been running for the last few years. I’m planning on making this the main outlet for my writing for the foreseeable future so watch this space…”
PB: You are not only a musician but also a promoter. How do you see these two roles? Are they easy to combine? Do you feel you have a social responsibility to help promote jazz and other musicians?
MF: “I started the Tuesday night sessions at The Spotted Dog at the end of 2010 when I was getting back into playing after having a few health issues and really just wanted to find somewhere to play on a fairly regular basis without the hassle of chasing after promoters.
“I don’t really consider myself to be a promoter as such, or at least if I am it’s as a promoter of jazz music rather than jazz musicians. I think this is a fairly common route for musicians of a certain way of thinking to take. Obviously Ronnie Scott is the best example of this but there are plenty of guys of my generation in the UK who are doing similar things.
“I don’t feel obligated to ‘the scene’ as such but I am aware that the music we play is becoming increasingly marginalised and I think if it’s to have any future then the musicians themselves will have to play no small part in that. There are a growing number of regional musicians collectives that are all doing similar things (check out Blam!) so I think there are enough people thinking along the same lines to guarantee gigs for the next few years at least!”
PB: This is one I ask all jazz musicians: how the hell do you make a living from jazz music?
MF: “I’m still working that one out myself! From what I can tell the best answer is to be versatile and not too precious about what you do. I know there are people who live off jazz but they’re in a minority so those who don’t have to find a viable alternative.
“Some guys teach so they don’t have to do function gigs and some do function gigs so they don’t have to teach! I tend to play rather than teach but I’ve done both. The ideal is to find something fairly flexible that give you the chance to take the gigs you want to and earn a living in the gaps. I’ve started getting into instrument repair so I’m hoping this is going to provide the key for me.”
PB: What are the three things that would make your life easier as a jazz musician?
MF: “Neighbours who were a bit more tolerant of my practising habits would definitely be help, as would a venue owner who wanted to give me a six-month residency with my band! And people normally ask for world peace too in these situations so why buck the trend. I’m sure if some of the Defence Budget were freed up for the arts we’d all be sitting a bit more comfortably.”
PB: What are the three things wrong with modern jazz music and the business surrounding it?
MF: “I’m not sure if I can give you the three (or at least not the three you are thinking of). - My mind was a blank - Ed – One thing that I’m noticing is that as it gets harder and harder to make money from gigs, that is to say actual revenue from ticket sales, there is a greater reliance on funding.
“As much as I think arts funding can be a positive thing, and I certainly don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me, I’m concerned that the tendency is to try and create a project that appeals to a given funding body rather than one that comes from a more honest place musically.
“Often projects that are conceived in this way don’t have a particularly long shelf life and so don’t allow much in the way of musical and artistic development. I think a consequence of this is that the emphasis is taken away from the way a musician plays and put on the context he is presented in. This encourages audiences to focus on the context rather than the content of the music, which I think is a shame because it causes many very talented and worthy musicians to remain unnoticed in all the hype.”
PB: Tell us your favourite jazz album of all time – and why you like it.
MF: “My favourite of all time is hard to say right now but from the ones I have listened to so far Glass Bead Games by Clifford Jordan features quite high up. I like it because it has a quiet and understated intensity and is such a strong statement of one man’s music. As such I find it very inspiring to the artist in me.
“Besides that, the actual music is wonderful to listen to as well. It’s a mix between hard bop and more forward-looking jazz and features two quartets that at the time of recording were regular working units, and it shows in the music. The track Prayer To The People is a definite desert island disc.”
And if you would like to hear Mike Fletcher tell you more – and all in music – then there will be opportunities around Birmingham and beyond in the future. I predict we’ll be hearing a lot more from him.
He often plays at his regular Tuesday evening haunt, The Spotted Dog in Digbeth. Find out more by adding Jazz @ The Spotted Dog to your facebook pages.
Steve Tromans – January 2013
Q How did you get into jazz, and why the piano?
A Jazz got me in the mid-1980s. I was 13 or 14 when I first heard the names Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. I bought the cassette of Dizzy’s album, Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac, which blew my mind – and still does. Then I checked out Bird playing Ko-Ko and got hooked. Not long after that, I came across Miles’ Bitches Brew and realised there was this whole body of music I knew nothing about but needed to get myself involved in, somehow. The piano found me when I got to music college, but music-making’s always involved something with a keyboard for me. I’ve tried other instruments, but find it hard to make sense of anything outside of that collection of black and white keys – so I guess I found my ideal vehicle of expression, anyhow… I was an accordionist at age seven, then an electronic organist from eight, adding synth in my teens, playing in bands with my mates. I got the chance to travel to Japan when I was 17, and took part in the 1991 Yamaha International Electone Festival (electone is Yamaha’s name for their brand of electronic organ). I came third playing my own composition – the first I ever wrote. That trip and competition was an amazing experience for a young guy to undergo, and it gave my a real passion for performing, and also for travelling.
Q You’ve travelled a fair bit – what do you think those experiences have brought to your music?
A More than anything else, I’ve realised the importance of people. People make differences. Meet the right people, and anything is possible. I travelled to Mongolia in 2006, and lived and worked there for a year. In the first week or so, I met the bassist/guitarist/vocalist Andrew Colwell, who was over there studying xoomii (Mongolian throat-singing, pronounced who-me, with a hard aitch on the who…), and N. Ganbat, a Mongolian drummer. The next thing you know, I’m involved in running a jazz club with Ganbat and Andrew, and playing gigs all over the capital city, Ulaanbaatar; I’m on television playing the piano, teaching jazz to professional musicians, and taking part in a jazz festival at the State Opera Theatre and various other venues. None of that would have been possible had I not met those two guys when and where I did. It’s a realisation that has stayed with me ever since. These days, when putting together a new project, I always consider first the people: Who’s going to be involved? Who might they work best with? Who would I like to work with? Who have I heard playing that has that special ‘something’ that seems to fit, in some indefinable yet compelling way, with my own ways-of-doing in music? People count; people matter. As the old saying goes: When paths cross, lives change. That’s what I had to go abroad to learn, and bring back with me on my return.
Q You’ve just finished a doctoral thesis into the idea that “expert practice” is a form of research. Tell us about it in simple language.
A The doctorate is not quite finished yet – should be submitted by February/March time, all being well. So, what is it all about – in simple language… The irony is that part of the argument for considering expert music-making a research practice is grounded in the idea that language is too simple a medium to represent music practices with any degree of adequacy. In other words – and I’m trying to keep them as clear as possible – making music is a complex set of processes; processes that are temporally-constituted and interrelated in a non-linear manner, and not really kith and kin to the grammatical regularity and spatial linearity of words, sentences, etc. In research terms, if one is interested in enquiring into the nature and experience of time and temporally-grounded processes, then, the hypothesis goes, by utilising a temporally-grounded practice itself, such as music-making in performance, to uncover certain of the more tacit experiential processes at work in our dealings with the world around us, one is in a better position to model, with adequacy, such temporality, rather than relying on spatially-grounded practices such as writing that distort the actual nature of time-based activities and experiences. I’d better leave it there, I think, other than to say the importance of the practice being expert is that it grounds the research undertaken in the disciplinary field of music-making in the second decade of the 21st century – rather than a ‘laboratory’-style doctoral experiment, or something disconnected from the real world of jazz in this new century and millennium.
Q Do you see your music as also attempting to put across big ideas and difficult concepts in ways that people can easily understand? How do you go about that? Does it help to make connections with other artists – like the Beats or Victor Jara, for example?
A In a certain sense, yes. Music is a means of communication that acts on the nervous system immediately – you feel music in your flesh and bones when you experience it in performance, and that is a potentially useful method of getting to the people direct. Of course, music can be (and has been) interpreted in many different ways, by many different folks, so it does help to frame its making with reference to a dedication to an historical figure. The Allen Ginsberg project from 2004-2006 was one such association of my music composition with the work of a famous artist from the past. Incidentally, this year will see the return of my Howl: a musical setting, with a performance featuring some of the original Howl Band members at the jazz night promoted by the drummer, Sam Marchant, at Churchill’s Snooker Club in Birmingham city centre. Look out for that in May – more info nearer the time on my website and, I would expect on thejazzbreakfast as and when…
Q You are going to Chicago soon. Tell us all about that and what you hope to get from it.
A The Chicago project is part of a larger undertaking: to work with a series of improvisers from different fields of music. It’s going to be my post-doctoral research enquiry, if all goes to plan with finding an institution that will support it. The general idea is that, when working with musicians who don’t need to read notated parts in order to make music (improvisers, in other words), what could you provide on a notated part other than purely technical details (what notes to play where and when), given that it is always going to only be just that – a part, of a wider music-making whole. The guys involved in the Chicago project are all experts in the field of jazz and improv: from Birmingham, Chris Mapp on double bass, Miles Levin and Mark Sanders on drums, and, from Chicago, Ken Vandermark and Dave Rempis on tenor saxophones, James Falzone on clarinet, and Josh Berman on cornet. Tony Dudley-Evans from Jazzlines provided the initial contact with Ken and the other Chicago players, and came up with the idea for a Birmingham-Chicago ensemble, so I have to thank him for kick-starting the plans back in 2011. The second and third stages of the post-doctoral project will involve my working with improvising musicians from non-Western and contemporary art musics, and those skilled in baroque performance practice, respectively. Art music that pre-dates the 20th century was filled with improvisatory practices, and the baroque era was a particularly hip time for those who were able to flesh the music out in performance – the jazz musicians of their time, you could say. With regard to the Chicago trip, there are plans to bring some or all the US musicians over to Birmingham and the UK for a series of gigs in 2014, so the project’s got some legs to it – watch this space, as they say…
Q And about all your other current projects.
A As usual, I’ve got a lot of things on the go all at once – it’s my preferred method of doing. My trio of myself, Chris Mapp, and Miles Levin has been in existence since the late-1990s, and continues to be at the heart of things – we’re playing at the Red Lion Jazz Club in the Jewellery Quarter for Birmingham Jazz on 18 January. Come along and check it out – it’s run on a shoestring by a group of enthusiasts who simply want to showcase good quality local jazz – it needs all the support it can get. I’ve another band called the Steve Tromans Quartet Extempo, which features Jim Bashford on drums, Colin Mills on baritone and soprano saxes, and Tom Ford on guitar and various electronics. We were originally a trio, but I decided to add Tom after hearing him play in a few different musical situations. We did a gig at the Ort Cafe in Balsall Heath back in September last year which was a real treat. Deeply groovy stuff – psychedelia meets drum ’n’ bass meets American Minimalism. We’re looking to record an album this year, which has the working title of Icarus Rising. I’ve become attached to the figure of Icarus as a model for artistic endeavour – striving to greater and greater heights regardless of risk and all that. I mean, I know he corked it in the end, but that hardly matters, does it? Like the body of the leopard that was found way up high on Kilimanjaro, miles from its traditional hunting grounds – it was curiosity killed the cat, and that’s no bad thing, in terms of expanding experiences and gathering new knowledge in and of the world. So, Icarus Rising should be on the shelves sometime in the coming months. I’ll send a copy to thejazzbreakfast for review as and when…
Q Do you think the musicians coming out of Birmingham have an identifiable style or sound? And if so, how would you identify it?
A Well, there are two things to say about this. First of all: players are players, no matter where they come from, or wherever they choose to work as musicians. Jazz is not an easy choice – I’m not sure if you choose it, or it chooses you, in honesty. It’s a hard task master but it has its rewards – one of which is having the pleasure of working alongside some of the greatest cats in music. And that brings me to the second point: the one about Birmingham jazz musicians, specifically. It’s an exciting time to be in my home city – there are a large number of younger players who have been attracted to Birmingham on account of the jazz course at the Conservatoire, and the musicians who teach there. This can only be good for the scene, and I’ve had a great time in the months I’ve been back, both getting up in jam sessions, and forming new bands with some of the serious talent around at the moment. I’d advise anyone of my generation to do the same – it’s what Miles Davis used to do, after all, not being content to stay in a comfort zone for the sake of stability (= stagnation). If there’s anything identifiable about the musicians who are honing their craft in this city it’s the sense of warmth on the scene. People are genuinely happy to be part of this wave of jazz-ness that is sweeping the city, and there are lots of gigs to play, check out others’ music-making, and generally hang. The world can often be a lonely place to be, and the welcome of the musicians on the scene in Birmingham today is antidote enough to that. I’m sure players in other cities are welcoming too (and I have certain experience of that in my travels abroad), but the ones I know for definite are those in this city. If anyone’s thinking about moving here, to study or work – or whatever – I couldn’t recommend it more. Now, do I get the keys to the city for saying all that or what..?
Q Who do you listen to when you are not listening to yourself and the musicians you play with?
A I listen to almost anything other than jazz. Not to say I don’t ever listen to jazz, or check out the recordings of my contemporaries, but I prefer to soak up sounds from other fields of music and let that influence my jazz practice. I’m in the lucky position of being able to perform at jazz venues and be considered a jazz musician, so part of my ongoing research project (certainly a part of my doctorate, but also something I’ve been doing for a number of years now) is to introduce aspects of music-making from rock, funk, folk, soul, classical (in the generic, concert-hall sense) and world musics, in my performance practice as a jazz pianist and composer. It’s all about stirring the gene pool – keeping the jazz-pond fresh and well-fed by the tributaries of other pools of thought… You know, Charlie Parker, in interview in Downbeat magazine in 1949, declared that bebop was ‘anti-jazz’ – yet these days Parkeresque ’bop is taught as the bread-and-butter of jazz courses in the university. What was considered jazz in yesteryear is not the same thing as what is considered jazz in the present day, clearly. For me, the only important question is: What can we do that is new in jazz, tonight, or whenever the next gig is? I’m proud to be a jazz musician – it’s the ultimate accolade, and also responsibility. You’re constantly being judged, in the reception of your music-making, and that’s cool – its a disciplinary field, after all, and standards must be maintained… but also challenged, repeatedly and determinedly. We don’t need any more of what I call ‘nostalgia clubs’ in jazz – there are plenty enough around to meet the requirements of those who want to hear something they’ve heard before played exactly the same way every time. If jazz becomes that, across the board, I’ll find another art-form to practise – but I don’t think it will ever come to that, with jazz. I mean, I was witness to Wayne Shorter et al the other month at Town Hall, Birmingham. What I experienced that night gave me all the encouragement I needed to keep on with my plans, and my career-trajectory. If Wayne is still playing like a motherfucker at the age he has reached, and with so much artistry, grace and style – and with a lifetime’s lessons to teach those who have ears for it – then I never need fear playing the way I want to play in every gig I undertake, and every project I decide to embark on. Onwards, upwards; per ardua ad astra – through hardship to the stars. What else are we here for? Count the band off and let’s see how far up there we get this time – it might turn out to be the one, who knows? There’s only one way to find out…
Michael Janisch – October 2012
Michael took some time out of his busy schedule for a quick Q & A at thejazzbreakfast table:
It was actually at Berklee I met my first UK friends, as in the Midwest I don’t even remember meeting anyone from there. So that was cool for sure because we have this image of British people in the states, and then when we meet “one” in real life we get all giddy every time they speak and ask them if they’ve met the Queen and all this other sad stuff.
I didn’t take any of my classes seriously at Berklee except for the ensembles I was in; all I was concerned with was playing, jamming, shedding, and hanging with musicians. I had already completed a degree in History at a “normal” college in the States, so I was fed up with homework and all that. I wanted Berklee to prime me for NYC, and to get a serious ass kicking, and to figure out if music was really something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
All of this and more happened on a daily basis as I flung myself into musical situations that, and when I look back on it, I had no reason being in! But that was the vibe. I remember one of the things all the teachers there said was “make as many friends as possible while you’re at Berklee, cause you’ll be playing with these people for the rest of your life”. Well, I can say I met dozens of fantastic musicians there, and to this day I’m still putting tours, records, collaborations, you name it together with them.
Looking back I wish I would have paid a little more attention in some of the great arranging classes I had, but I was just into playing. A typical day included 10 hours of playing, from jamming, to shedding to gigging, even if it meant skipping class.
Aruan Ortiz and I met when he had just moved over from Spain (where he was based after moving from his homeland of Cuba), and we hit it off from the outset. We played a gig at Bob The Chef’s – a great soul food restaurant not far from Berklee – every Sunday morning starting at 10.30am for about two years with this other Cuban drummer named Francisco Mela. They schooled me on all sorts of Cuban rhythms and culture and that was great, and we hung a lot socially, so the bond was strong, and Aruan and I continue to have a riot to this day.
It’s definitely safe to say that Berklee opened me up to the world, not only musically, but culturally and, again, this was the best aspect for me by far. I hardly can remember any non-ensemble classes.
A It’s a very typical story (but very special for me!) how I came to live in the UK – I met and eventually married an English woman who was from SW London. I was just visiting to start with and had no intention of living here, but one thing led to another and I’m still happily here, personally and musically. I never thought I’d live anywhere but NYC but now I couldn’t imagine even living anywhere else (although one day I will own a house some place very warm with a lot of sun and live there in the winter).
I have a blast living in London and never tire of it (even with its big-city flaws) and am always finding new little spots and historic streets to check out. After all, being a one-time history major in university and then landing in a city like London is a pretty sweet combination.
I always get asked the question who brings what to the table between US and British musicians, and the one thing I always say is that I just look for qualities in musicians that I’m always aspiring to attain myself (being open-minded, willing to always learn, fundamentally sound, being passionate and expressive when they perform, always searching and learning new musical ideas, etc) and I’ve had no problem finding musicians on both sides of the pond to satisfy my musical goals and dreams.
Obviously it’s always a plus when I find musicians from the UK who “get” where I’m coming from as an American who really dived deep into learning as much as I could about the music of jazz as well as the culture/history surrounding its formation from its inception through to today. The UK/US bands are a blast, and it’s something that I’ll continue to do, hopefully, because it’s a reflection of my own life experience with music after all.
One thing though I do get bored with, after eight years living here, are those musicians in the UK who have what I would call “island mentality” and are always on an “anti-other-non-UK-places”, or even “anti-american-jazz” kick (whether outright or implied) or all about their little cliques and this and that, as if no other music outside of the UK exists, or can be learned from, or is relevant, or is great.
First of all there is nothing wrong with being proud of one’s native scene, but in the extreme case I think this attitude stifles creativity and a lot of the time when I hear the music from these folk, it’s flat and I cannot receive an ounce of a vibe from it no matter how hard I try. I tend to steer very clear of those kind of people because it’s anti-creative, and in the States, or more specifically in NYC, the one thing I always saw took place and experienced is that you either could play well or you couldn’t, it didn’t matter where you were from or what country or what kind of jazz you played, so long as you were dealing with the music.
I think as a foreigner here I notice this more than artists who were born here. Having said this, I work across all the different sub-genres within the British jazz community as much as I can and find that a large percentage of the musicians here mainly just want to have a blast, and make a living with their art, and are open to all sorts of new ideas. I’ve also had a great time learning and exploring a lot of native music and sounds from the British Isles and other cultural and ethnic groups that live in London (that I hadn’t hung out with a lot in the States), that I hear inform a lot of jazz in Britain. I’ve dug this a lot, and this has influenced my own music as well.
Q You have established Whirlwind Recordings not only for your own music but to release recordings of many other musicians too. To what extent was that wanting to take the “means of production” into your own hands? How exactly does it work? Do you release music already recorded elsewhere by the musicians, or do you organise it all yourself?
First, it was some close friends that took a chance at coming on board, then some extended friends, and now I am getting dozens of submissions from around the world a month, and am also going out trying to get new artists to sign that I love as well as discovering artists who aren’t yet known, etc.
A I met Greg Osby in a hotel in Cork, Ireland, last year the night before we played our first concert. I had said hi to him after shows in NYC a few times, but this was the first time I really met him. Aruan has done a good amount of touring with Greg in the past and was the link for getting him into the band, and it goes without saying it’s a serious honor to have him on board.
The group was an idea between myself and Aruan and it has been extremely rewarding to hang and perform with Greg, and the other guys as well. We had a blast on and off the stage and so much that Aruan and I have put an enormous amount of energy into making this album a reality as well as organising tours, which, for a group like this, has got to be one of the hardest things (logistically and financially) to make successful I’ve ever taken on as a musician. Just the flights alone are in the thousands each time we hit the road!
Q Are there any other links between Banned In London and Greg’s Banned In New Yorkother than the title?
A Just that they are both live recordings. Again, this was great to be able to pay homage to Greg’s NY record as I used to listen to that a lot (and play along to some of the tracks) back in the day, and then revisited Greg’s entire catalog before I performed with him.
Q Tell me what you find most exciting about the band and what we can expect on your new tour with it?
A From the get go, it’s a no-holds-barred, joyous experience. We come to play, plain and simple, “seat of your pants” vibe the whole way through and anything goes. Sometimes at certain peaks in this band I’ve actually felt “out of body”. Each night is completely different. I love playing with Rudy Royston on drums, he’s one of the baddest cats in the world and can go from the most delicate to the most monstrous within a second. We pick tunes that allow us to stretch and search, and we’re not afraid of grooving very hard or playing completely atmospheric and free. It’s really everything I’ve wanted to do musically packed into one band, and the hang is great too. I’m hoping we pick up right where we left off last year. If we can push the vibe we captured on the live recording, then I’m happy…
Q Finally, how do you – how does a jazz musician – make a decent living in the 21st century – what does it entail?
Wynton Marsalis – June 2010
The trumpeter, band leader and jazz emmisary was just boarding a ferry from Europe with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to take up a residency at the Barbican Centre, followed by a concert at Symphony Hall in Birmingham. Against a background cacophony of klaxons and shipboard safety announcements, this is what he had to tell me.
Q Your residency at the Barbican Centre will involve playing the whole history of big band jazz. How did it all begin and how is it different today?
A In the beginning the question was how do you take the various elements of the music and put them in an orchestral form. Let’s just take a couple of areas.
One was bands who were just playing songs. They would be represented by early dance orchestras… early Duke Ellington… he had a sweet saxophone section that would play with a syrupy type of sound, mainly foxtrots, turkey trots, these type of rhythms.
And then New Orleans music. Called hot beat, and all the music was considered to be hot music, so you had the jump music, improvisation, call and response, you get the high clarinet, the tailgate trombone.
So then you get the predicament of how can we put these elements together.
And then if you take the situation with Paul Whiteman’s band, there’s an element of Latin music, of song and dance…
So visionaries like Don Redman had to figure out how to put all these components together… he and Bill Challis and Fletcher Henderson began to figure out how to combine the hot and the sweet music. So that is kind of what the big bands were doing at that time.
Then they would develop the four piece rhythm section. It’s kind of complicated to summarise.
And today, all those things are available. The big bands already know about the history of the music and the values in the music, so there are many styles of playing big band music today and making a concert from that.
A I could compress the history into but I don’t know if we’ll do that. We’ve got so many pieces here because we’re doing this residency. I generally will pick different songs every night. Even on a normal gig in America we generally bring music that is representative of the range of our history because we like to play it all. We don’t recreate it; we just play it.
Q How close to the gig do you decide what’s going to be played that night?
A Generally it’s right before it. When we eat our dinner before, I’ll ask the cats in the band what they want to play and we’ll talk about what we should play. They generally say ‘we don’t care what we play, we’ll just try to play it regardless of what it is’.
Q How do you manage your own playing? It must be difficult fitting in practising, with all the other things you do. What is it that keeps you searching?
A Well. It’s what I was born to do. I spent so many hours and years practising, writing music, and my seriousness has increased as I have got older. It’s what I’m dedicated to; I don’t have any distractions. I love playing, I love listening to people play, and that’s what I’m about. I’ve been about it since I was 12 years old and I have been fortunate enough to work and play with the greatest musicians in the world, and play around the world. I don’t take it for granted, I love to play for people, and I remain extremely serious about it. It’s just what I like to do.
A You know I never looked at it like a battle. The musicians play what they play because the music is where it is. It’s just a matter of educating people. It’s my field, it’s what I’m trained in, what I grew up in, me and all my musicians. What we’re saying is the body of work – Don Redman, Bill Challis, Gil Evans… the list just goes on and on… they established the art form for what it is. For us it is more a question of educating people and for people who are concerned about our culture, to let them know what treasures are there. If there is a battle it’s to get the music played so that people can enjoy.
Q Education is a vital part of that? Teaching people what to listen for?
A In all countries, in America, it’s a never-ending struggle. We were children, and our parents tried to teach us certain things, and we rejected some of it and we accepted some of it, and as parents we all want the best things for our kids, and we want their lives to be enriched, and the people who are involved in the cultural sector, we’re always trying to get more people into culture. Me, I’m a jazz musician and we’re talking about jazz. But I also love classical music… it can be literature, it can be painting…
So I am on the boards of various organisations that are trying to bring the arts and culture to people. The same things I want for my kids I want for other people’s kids. If you are going to be part of a civilisation that thrives, at a certain point you have got to speak out for the centrality of art. Because it is important in bringing you much closer to who you are, and setting your aspirations, for yourself and for your country, because you know we’ve got a way to go… and it’s a war I wage, and many of us in the arts do, everyday.
Q How do you view the state of jazz today. What excites you most and what gives you most cause for concern?
A What causes me most concern is the “monetisation” of life for young people. As a result of the social networking, etc, the younger generation is more aware now of how large the world is, so there is a concern for fame at any cost. The “I just want to be known, I don’t care what it’s for” kind of attitude. Reality TV has added to that. So many times I meet young musicians who don’t have much interest in music but who have enough interest in it to want to know how can they make some money out of it, how can they be known. And so they are less interested in developing the craft of playing than they are about getting on TV. So that’s one source of concern.
What I like that I see is the increasing number of people who are invested in quality, who due to the social networking systems and vast amounts of information are really able to communicate with people across the globe, people of common interests and people who are trying to learn things. They have access to a lot more information and to each other, so I find, more and more, younger musicians who are serious and looking for information.
So the same thing that creates the problem is something that liberates us from that.
Q Your latest CD combines jazz and Spanish music. Tell me a little about that. Is it the universality of the blues?
A The blues combines many different styles of music… Take New Orleans – it’s a Mediterranean city, it’s the apple of the Caribbean, it’s an American city, it was fathered by the French, it was organised by the Spanish, it’s an African city. The culture came from the slaves, it’s a port city on the Gulf of Mexico and it’s on the Mississippi river…
And the blues is in a major and minor mode, it has a shuffle which combines a three and a four rhythm, like, you know, African music does, it uses mirror notes, quarter-tones, smeared notes like Middle Eastern music, it has a deep cry in the music like Spanish music, it has the pentatonic scale which is in Eastern music, it has the three central, primary harmonies of Western music – the one, four and five – those are the only harmonies of the blues.
It has all these things! You would think I was making this up, but that is technically what the blues has. It has the call and response, so it identifies problems and gives you solutions. It’s the basis of church music, it comes from the the spirituals, from the folk music, from popular music – it’s a music that is deeply secular as well as spiritual. So it accommodates many things. All American music has the blues in there somewhere.
Neil Cowley – March 2010
Neil was doing a bit of child-minding prior to going out on the road to promote his new album. His son was remarkably well-behaved while we chatted on the phone.
Q The new album, Radio Silence, feels like a consolidation – rounding the corners a little?
A That seems to be wide perception. It’s hard to tell being so involved with it. But that describes it fairly well, yes.
Q How do you write – do you develop the material with the band or are you sitting alone in your garret?
A Exactly that, really. I’ve got a “daddy’s shed”, it’s called, or my “swear box” at the end of the garden which I built, and it’s got a piano in it, and I sit in front of the piano with a piece of manuscript paper, and I scratch away at ideas until I have complete ideas – I avoid a computer wherever possible because in previous incarnations I used to write on apple mac programmes and things – but I’ve moved on from that, I’ve scrapped all that, consciously, in order to be able to write in that very analogue way – and when I feel like I’ve got a number of ideas then I put them to the band, play them to the band, and the bass player learns what’s in my left hand and the drummer is just handed a general groove and idea and then we rehearse it from there, so there are lots of lonely times spent on my own in the studio at the end of the garden and then the nervous presentation to the band and then we take it from there…
Q The band sounds extraordinarily tight…
A Becoming more and more the case that we slot in a lot quicker. We’ve been playing a long time now; we know how to press each other’s buttons. Fair to say it worked out a lot quicker this time round. If you look at it compared to other bands that are not constructed the way we are then we are quite quick.
We’re playing acoustic instruments, we’re not too caught up in sounds or anything – you know, we’re not Human League or anything, we’re not running through digital keyboard patches, we’re playing our acoustic instruments, so it’s pure music really.
Q And purely acoustic now?
A Certainly on the piano side, it comes from my brain… it likes to process simple things. I like to be left free to channel straight in on what I’m doing or how I’m performing. Someone famously said each piece of equipment in the studio is one piece of equipment further away from a good idea. And I adhere to that. I like there to be just finger, ivory, hammer, string and then audience. If I clutter it up with anything else I can get really confused. It’s not borne out of any purist sensibility; it’s borne out of how simplistic I have to keep it for myself.
Q Your relationship with the audience is a very direct one – they really get what you do…
A And they also engage with the silliness, the sort of non-verbal banter that goes on between us. I’m directly facing the drummer and there’s a grin here… there are things that happen every night – you’ve almost forgotten you do them, but… the quiet count-in that cracks the drummer up every time… There’s almost a mannerism script that develops.
People always say ‘you seem to be enjoying yourselves’. A lot of bands don’t do that – they almost make a conscious effort not to look like they’re enjoying themselves, but we can’t help showing that we’re just having so much fun. And we’re not frightened of that…
My dad was one half a piano comedy duo and I think it’s in my blood not to take myself too seriously. I’m constantly looking at myself and thinking: ‘what a berk!’
Q Classic piano trio line-up but your tastes in music are clearly extraordinarily eclectic. I’m intrigued as to what might be on your i-pod.
A I take what’s on my i-pod to be unremarkable, it’s just a selection of good music, but it’s true I do have a very wide taste… I can never remember lyrics but there are two or three bands that just make me listen to the lyrics so they’ve got to be pretty special. I like well-constructed pop – Britain makes fantastically good pop and we should be proud of that. But everything can influence me…
Although now we can feel comfortable with enjoying our music, at the age of 18 I was an acne-ridden, Dr Marten-wearing foot-starer, listening to bands like the Cocteau Twins – and they still play a part in my life. I like bands that can convey something simply. A lot of muso musicians do go off into that world where they are obsessed with the best way to execute a certain riff or scale and although I admire that, and there have been times in my life when I have been interested, its’ not the thing that really attracts me to music.
What attracts me to music are the things that really put over feeling – and if it’s glum teenage angst, then it’s glum teenage angst! And if it’s done well I’ll listen to it. I just think music is about entertaining and it’s about pathos and those are the most important things.
Q Along with the humour and bright things, there often seems to be a little danger lurking in the shadows? In the harmony, maybe? One minute the directness of some Status Quo rock chords, and the next thing you know there’s a disconcerting line that could come from Scriabin or something…. So the listener constantly gets thrown off balance.
A What that probably highlights is that I am always dead scared that people are going to get bored, and I do have a pretty low boredom threshold, and I am at great pains when we perform that no-one should be disinterested or bored or disengaged at any point. It’s a conscious, maybe over-conscious effort to keep it interesting. And it’s also maybe the way the music is put together at source. When I initially write the tunes quite often, being alone in a room is in itself quite a melancholy place and I will go to dark places mentally when I’m writing… and feel so far away from the point where I’ll be performing it to an audience.
And the second element is perhaps the patchwork way in which the music is sometimes put together, because of the range of interests, because I am classically trained with a bit of rock here, a bit of jazz, a bit of funk there…
I will sometimes work so hard on an eight-bar passage, by the time I move on to the next part it’s another day and feeling another way, and then I try to marry those two feelings, those two bits of the composition together, so it’s possibly a product of the way it’s written.
Q Can you comment a bit on some of the tracks?
A Yeah, sure. Well…
Hug the Greyhound has the feeling – you pick up greyhound, its back legs are going like the clappers…. You put it down and it’s gone… and then I met a sax player who had the attributes of a greyhound…
Gerald is named after a British Telecom engineer who would play his guitar at the weekend. He was in the first band I was ever in, and he’s one of the most remarkable characters I’ve ever met. If you met him in the street he looks like a mundane, run of the mill kind of guy. 52, he’s a bachelor, he’s always been a bachelor, he’s never really worked out how to engage with women although I think he’d like to. He wears tank tops, he’s got the same haircut he’s had since 1973. The things that come out of his mouth – they’re always remarkable and he’s the most positive person I’ve ever met. And I just thought he deserved some sort of tribute, because he’s one in a million. A lot of the songs I write are about real people – people I come across in the Thames Estuary area
Portal – I did something which I’d been desperate to do since 1980, possibly, when it first came out – have you heard of Cosmos by Carl Sagan? It’s an amazing 12-part TV series – just amazing – and I bought the box set round the end of last year, and it crept in. It was an incredibly educating series and I got so much from it, it completely wowed me and stretched my mind, and I shall watch it all over again sometime soon. It just got me to look up at the skies and look at all this infinitesimal space beyond us and we’re all caught up in this silly little dot of a planet. I’d watched the series as a kid but of course little of it went in. But I learned a lot. I’d always thought I knew what a galaxy was but of course our solar system is just one little dot this vast galaxy…. Utterly mind-expanding things, so it was a little trip I was on for a couple of weeks there…
Tord Gustavsen – October 2009
The Tord Gustavsen Ensemble was in Birmingham near the start of their first tour to promote the new CD, Restored, Returned on the ECM label. He spoke to me in the foyer of the CBSO Centre while the rest of the band were busy with a meticulous soundcheck.
Q You have chosen very carefully the musicians you have worked with (certainly on recordings anyway) and there are not many of them. How did this band come about?
A In one way it’s a new ensemble but all the musical relationships in this band are long-standing. I’ve worked with [saxophonist] Tore Brunborg as a duo for a couple of years at least. And Mats [Eilertsen], the bass player, has been in all of my projects except the trio for eight to ten years, so he really is my bass player of choice, so when I wanted to expand the ensemble that was the natural thing to do to ask him. And also Kristin, the singer, we met 20 years ago while studying and working together during the conservatory years. We had a quartet during those days and also played as a duo. So these are long-standing relationships that I finally have the chance to collect into a project under my name and with my compositions.
Q You’ve played with singers all through your career, haven’t you?
A Yes, the first thing I ever released was a duo of piano and vocals [Aire and Angels with Siri Gjaere] and I had a few years of playing with Silje Nergaard. And two or three other of the really good Norwegian singers, I have been fortunate enough to work with in smaller or larger projects. It’s about interacting with strong melody makers. Also on bass and also on drums. Jarle [Vespestad] is playing the melodies on drums so that’s basically what it’s all about. Both Tore and Kristin on this new album really people who can make so much out of every little motif. If there is a good melodic line it will come out great when they perform it, and I love interacting with it, and I also love putting myself in a position where… you know it’s a challenge. When I play in the trio I get to do all the middle and upper register myself, and I can be inside my own melodic ear all the time. Now I naturally lay back a bit more and play less in those registers. But that’s the kind of restraint on my playing that opens up other fields of freedom, and fields of collectively improvised patterns. I really love doing that with these guys and I love having that happen on these compositions of mine, also.
Q Have you ever used a vocalist on the trio material?
A No, never. The trio was a very purified instrumental thing. We do however play some of the old trio material in this quartet which I love doing. I did some of the tunes also in duo with Tore Brunborg and that works really well I think.
Q Where and when do you compose?
A Sometimes I can sit down and compose something and it happens, but most of the time ideas come to me in odd situations, like in the tour bus or airport, or playing with children, or… and it’s a matter of trying to catch the idea and remember it so I can work on it and see where it might lead next time I have time at a piano by myself. The ideas arrive more often than not in non-concert or non-rehearsal situations, but then the process of getting to know the idea, and getting a feel of whether or not it’s a strong one and whether or not we can actually use it in this context, that’s more a long-term meditation of having it in the back of my head, singing it and humming it and sitting down at the piano with it, and repeating and repeating and repeating it. So contemplation certainly comes into it that way.
The kind of ideas that have gone into this new album, and this is for most of the tunes on the album, they come out of an improvised interlude, musical happening that kept happening during trio concerts. Between the actual tunes I would often improvise an interlude, and I felt there was something here. They often turn out to be an almost simplistic, almost naïve lullaby-like melody, carried out on a bi-tonal (music that has two tonal centres and therefore two sets of harmonies to choose from) musical background. So there was harmonic internal ambiguity with a very lullaby-like melody, and the kind of tension between the basic sensuality of a lullaby and the openness of ambiguous harmony – I wanted to take that kind of musical situation further and see if I could use that as a basis of putting together a set of compositions.
And then the challenge was given to me by the Vossa Jazz Festival in Norway to do a commission of work, and that was really the start of formalising it and putting these ideas together, first as a concert and then as an album.
Q How did the W H Auden poetry come to be included? Have you always read Auden?
A Not really. I was familiar with some of his work from Norwegian translations, but I had never sat down to read a full collection of poems until two years ago when we were on tour in the UK, and we had an off-day in Oxford, where I went strolling round the bookstores looking for inspiration and I found this particular collection of poems [Another Time], and felt an immediate connection to it. They are immediately gratifying on the surface as sensual sound and in the immediate associations evoked by them made me think that these can really be used as song lyrics. But at the same time they are complex poems that you can sit down and read, and re-read for weeks and weeks, and still discover new layers. And, also, the metre in them is not the standard symmetrical song-lyric metre, so writing music for them is not an obvious path to set out on and I like the challenge of that, too. There is something very immediate about them and at the same time something abstract so I really had to work on to get right.
Q What has recording for the ECM label meant to you?
A Well, for the last six or seven years it has meant good distribution – that’s the most fundamental thing. ECM has a network of distributors in most places in the world, which is difficult to get to on an independent scale. They combine the artistic vision of an independent with the distribution of a major label. Obviously in the days of the Internet that aspect might not be as important anymore because digital music is available everywhere, but still the network of dedicated distributors is important, and I am grateful for that. And also Manfred Eicher as a producer has played, especially on the two later albums, a very fruitful and good role in the studio. That has meant a lot also. We could have done it ourselves, but not in exactly the same way and he has some really good ideas, especially in sequence of tracks and of rethinking form in the studio. It’s not like some bands in jazz where when they are playing live they get into a standard way of thinking where you have a lot of overactive and most of the tunes are up-tempo, whether or not you really are into the compulsive up-temponess of jazz, whereas on recordings with Manfred they are able to back off and ease down, and get into the smaller nuances. With us it has been more the other way around. He has been instrumental in challenging us to work with dynamics because we are taking the stillness of things quite far, also in the concert setting and that has become a major pattern.
Q There are some people that expect of jazz that “up” and “exciting” in a conventional sense, mood in jazz and therefore might find it more difficult to get into your music. How would you help them to approach it in order to get the most out of it?
A Well, if you consider it a service, rather than a performance… A concert is a mediation in church, but it is also a matter of grooviness, a matter of artistic virtuosity, but first and foremost it is about trying to narrow in on the point where music really matters, that this is really saying something important, this is bringing me closer to the essence of life, to put it in a clichéd slogan, but you have to move with us in that direction, otherwise you won’t really like it because we are not there to fulfil any showbiz kind of thinking. That’s not what we want to do. With the quartet now, we tend to go a bit higher in dynamics than we did with the trio. We might even have more up-tempo tunes, but it’s always imperative that it evolves from a point of stillness, from a point of waiting until it’s called for, waiting until it feel essential to do it.
Jan Garbarek – September 2009
Actually we weren’t talking over breakfast… we weren’t even in the same city. Jan Garbarek spoke to me on the phone in the middle of a recent afternoon while in England for a spot of media interaction connected to the release of the Jan Garbarek Quartet’s new live album, Dresden.
Q Clearly Manu Katche has brought a different sound to the group, and now new bassist Yuri Daniel has changed its dynamics again. Can you expand on how the group has developed and what the different personnel bring to it?
A They were very unfortunate circumstances that forced Eberhard to leave us. He suffered a small stroke – it was actually during a soundcheck. He cannot play at the moment and it could be some time before he could be back.
This young Brazilian musician was recommended, who lives in Portugal, so he was not so difficult to bring along on the tour. He brings a very fundamental approach to the bass playing. Eberhard was contributing much in the sense of orchestration and atmosphere, but Yuri is a more basic player in that he knows a lot about rhythms, obviously, and about the place for the bass in the rhythms, so that is what we enjoy with his playing.
I have had the pleasure of playing with Manu off and on for the last 25 years and he has been on a few of my albums. This time he as able to do, off and on, touring for the whole year, so I just cherished the opportunity to be playing with him, because he is one of my favourites when it comes to drumming, and he has a wonderful sense of styling the pieces and contributing just the right thing, so it feels just right.
The other drummer that we have with the band is the Indian drummer Trilok Gurtu and he will be playing with us on our current tour and he offers very different things from Manu but also incredibly enjoyable things – so when it comes to drummers I have been in heaven the last few years.
Q And does that change in personnel affect your own playing?
A Somewhat – yes it does. And the important thing for me has been to realise that I have to listen to what they bring that is different and not to what I was used to hearing, and missing that, because that is counter-productive in a way, so I have to realise that something new is going on, and I have to find new ways to solve… come up with the right answers to what they offer. It’s been a good thing – it’s very inspiring.
Q A lot of us came across Milton Nascimento, and his piece Miracle of the Fishes, from Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer album. Is that how you came across it? Or did you know his music before that?
A I don’t recall – it’s rather a long time ago. I know some of his music rather well now so I can’t recall whether it was before or after… but I certainly know that album… Herbie Hancock is on it. And they played the same piece, in a very different way, obviously, but the piece is absolutely magnificent so, yes, they shouldn’t be allowed to keep it for themselves!
Q Just as those who don’t really listen closely to Leonard Cohen’s music might think him rather miserable, rather than often very funny, so the clichéd view of your music is one of Nordic cool, when, as Dresden shows so clearly, nothing could be further from the truth. Are you aware of this? Does it annoy you?
A I don’t understand it because, frankly, the music is quite vivid and quite intense. So I don’t always recognise myself in that “cool” characteristic. But I know of it, of course. It’s very obvious, isn’t it, that when you come from the cold north, that your music must be cold, and icy… it’s the easy way out. If you come from a warm country you play warm music; if you come from a cold country you play cold music…
Q I have heard that you developed your sound in the cruellest of acoustics. Is this true?
A There were a few years when I was living in a suburb, in a condominium, and I had to insulate one small room, and I covered everything – walls, ceiling, floor, doors, windows – with a thick and heavy foam, that was supposed to kill sound, not only in the apartment and for the neighbours, but also inside the room. There was no reflection so the sound was totally dead, and I think that helped me in shaping my sound and the way I attack a sound also. Because, there was nothing for free in there… Any other room I picked up my saxophone in would sound like heaven, really… so it was a great boost for me…. If you are in a big church with a huge reverb space, anything can go, really.
Q So Sonny Rollins’s Williamsburg Bridge and your foam room served the same purpose?
A I think they do, because the sound doesn’t come back to you at all, whether it’s a confined space with walls or a wide-open space… the sound is just what you hear directly from the instrument, without any resonance. So you have to work hard to make the sound come alive.
Q You have written before about the influence of Don Cherry early in your career. What do think he would make of the jazz world today, and how it has developed as a “world music”?
A Oh he was the one that started it all – or at least he was part of it, that movement, that kernel that originated that idea. I remember well that transition from when Don was an avant-garde, free jazz player, and then became a sort of folk, cultural manifestation. His clothes were a mixture from all around the world; he was reading spiritual literature from all parts of the world; he went to Africa to collect instruments; he played with Turkish musicians, and in Scandinavia… he was just the embodiment of the beginning of that whole movement. And it had a tremendous impact on us, young Norwegian musicians. He was a hero.
Q It’s not easy finding a non-ECM recording in your discography. You have been there from the beginning. Do you remember how you first met Manfred Eicher?
A I remember it well. We, myself and some of my Norwegian colleagues, were playing in Northern Italy, in Bologna, and after the concert we were backstage and there were not a lot of people around. Actually we had made a recording before we went down because we heard there were some emerging new labels in central Europe that might be interested in the quite avant-garde stuff that we did.
And I asked one German musician if he knew any of those… and he pointed to a guy with a moustache, a quite striking moustache, who was sitting in a corner… and said talk to him because he is supposedly just about to start a company, and I introduced myself to Manfred Eicher, and he said he was not interested in our tape, but he might consider doing his own recording with us.
And I thought this was a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” situation, so I didn’t expect to hear from him.
Two months later I got a letter from Manfred inviting us to record an album. And he said: “choose a studio and find the technicians that you trust and get some music together and I will come on such and such a date and we will have three days – two for recording, one for mixing (which was the norm in those days) and he came, by train, from Munich – a long trip, 25 hours – and he went back with the master tapes on his lap – 25 hours – holding on to this tape like it was a treasure (and an investment for him of course). And that was our first ECM album and one of the very first ECM did.
Q Clearly your relationship with ECM is not like some musicians’ relationship with their record label. And clearly ECM is not like any other record company. Can you tell us something about what makes the label so different? And how you think Manfred changed the business to a certain extent.
A Well to me it’s all about individuals. It’s a company but it’s a one-man outfit really. It’s Manfred Eicher. He has a finger in everything – and intensely so. It’s his vision, his private, personal vision, that is the foundation of the whole label. It was from the beginning, it still is. He is even intensely preoccupied with the size, the placement and font of the text on the cover, the leaflet inside the cover. He is into every aspect of the album, the presentation of the album. It becomes such a strong business because of that. It’s not someone does this, someone does that, we get a sort of a wishy-washy presentation – no it’s one vision, and that is what also created the whole personality of the label.
Q Would you say it’s a label that does not recognize the labels that other people/the media put on music – jazz or classical or world – and becomes a label in itself.
A It’s true because of Manfred, because if something resonates with him, it resonates with the image of ECM and it could be Art Ensemble of Chicago and free jazz in a certain way or it could be Arvo Pärt, and anything in between and there are certain aspects of these composers, these performers that resonate in Manfred, and that is a basis for a collaboration. That creates the coherence also of the outfit. Even though it’s so spread out really, if you consider the various genres that ECM represents, somehow there is a common denominator, and of course it is Manfred’s own personality.
Q Did you ever think that 40 years on, you’d still be making records with him?
A No, I didn’t, but on the other hand if something works the way ECM has worked for me, there is no reason to think of any change. It was clear from the first moment that we work well together and have a very common history. So many of the jazz musicians of my generation, we have heard the same things, we have shared the same joys in listening, from Miles to Coltrane to Bill Evans, Mingus… and in the classical field we have the same composer heroes, so this common history and common ground was a very good starting point for us.
Q Is it true that ECM does not have lengthy multi-album contracts with its musicians? It is one album at a time?
A Yes and no. Of course there are contracts but there are also oral contracts, understandings, and they mean something in this case. It is not like any huge American corporation where you need a 150-page contract with lots of small writing underneath, and so on. What we say, stays. That is the basis and you expect all obligations to be fulfilled by both sides. And it is.
ECM is not a company that will pay up front $100,000 for one or two or five albums; you make the album, you see how it goes, and you are paid accordingly, and it’s absolutely certain that you get what you are supposed to get from them. It is always honest and clear.
I have heard so many rumours about bigger labels, bigger companies would make big offers of lots of money, but the artists would feel they have been cheated. I have never had this feeling with ECM. It is always dead accurate when it comes to sales figures. We get the money we should.
It is that integrity that is one of the reasons I feel so pleased to be part of that and do my albums for ECM. I feel that it is transparent in every way and that there is trust involved, and meticulous care from Manfred’s side and everybody that works for him expects the same.