An AllAboutJazz.com Interview
"To reveal a new world is the function of creation in all the arts." — Edgard Varèse
How different might our planet be if a number of significant events over the past century had NOT happened? What if the Kennedys and Dr. King had NOT been assassinated? What if nuclear weaponry had NOT been invented? What if the stock market had NOT crashed in Oct. 1929?
From a musical perspective, what if John Lennon had never met Paul McCartney? What if electric and electronic instruments had not become economically viable? What if Charlie Parker had not died but had instead lived to become a student of Edgard Varèse?
Huh? What? Where did THAT piece of speculation come from?
A little known, but true, piece of jazz history is that Charlie Parker was completely awestruck by the imaginative, idiosyncratic, innovative, and utterly iconoclastic composer, Edgard Varèse (and if you don't know who Varèse was, take a brief time out here, fire up your search engine or encyclopedia of choice, and do a little bit of reading). According to Parker's widow, Bird followed Varèse up and down the streets of Greenwich Village, at a distance, for two years trying to work up the nerve to approach the composer and to speak to him. "Varèse is the only man I'd be willing to be a servant to," Parker's widow reported him to have said. Finally, Parker appeared one night at Varèse' home on Sullivan Street, and begged the composer to accept him as a pupil. Varèse was indeed willing and agreed to take Bird on as an apprentice upon Varèse' return from an imminent trip to Europe. Unfortunately, Parker died before Varèse returned.
What music might have been unleashed from Parker's unparalleled improvisational spirit under the guidance of Varèse' aesthetic for the liberation of sound? New worlds revealed indeed...
Of course, at this point in time, some could suggest that any speculation as to what might have resulted from Parker's tutelage under Varèse may have little more than entertainment value. Perhaps so. After all, Parker died 44 years ago, Varèse 34, and both are as enigmatic now as they were when alive. On the other hand, it could be just as easily suggested that a number of musicians performing and composing today are equally infused with both Parker's improvisational ferocity and Varèse' adamant refusal to "submit to sounds that have already been heard."
Although he is certainly too modest to compare himself to Varèse or Parker, saxophonist/improviser/composer Larry Ochs unquestionably makes music that both of these legendary artists would admire and respect.
Best known as a member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Mr. Ochs has recorded over two dozen albums in the past two decades plus with this ensemble. The material that Rova covers is diverse, challenging, and rewarding to both the band and listener alike, extending from raw, pure improvisation to complex composition (contributed by Mr. Ochs and band mates Steve Adams, Jon Raskin, Bruce Ackley in addition to Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne, John Carter, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette, Barry Guy, Lindsay Cooper, Fred Frith, Robin Holcomb, Alvin Curran, and Terry Riley).
Although Mr. Ochs is ostensibly the spokesperson for Rova, the interview which follows is primarily intended to shed light on his other projects (although separating Mr. Ochs from Rova is certainly an impossible task).
Thus, to coincide with the North American release of the cd SATURN'S FINGER (Buzz) by Maybe Monday (Fred Frith - guitar; Miya Masaoka - koto, Larry Ochs - saxophones) and as a preliminary for the February 2000 release of TRUMPETS (Black Saint) by What We Live (Lisle Ellis - bass; Donald Robinson - drums, Larry Ochs - saxophones with Dave Douglas or Wadada Leo Smith - trumpet), Larry Ochs kindly assented to an interview with All About Jazz. This interview was conducted via e-mail in November-December 1999.
Special thanks to Mr. Glenn M. Ito of EuroJazz Marketing for continued enthusiasm and support of All About Jazz.
Please note that the final answer in the interview includes extensive information about upcoming live performances by Maybe Monday, What We Live, the Glenn Spearman Double Trio, Rova, and much more.
LARRY OCHS: Below are your questions with some answers. But I want to preface the whole thing with two thoughts:
First: art doesn't start off having meaning; it makes meaning. I think the meaning is after the fact, when you look back on it in the context of its happening. Art that's worth looking at more than once says something more than the sum of its parts, and that isn't really in the control of the artist. And I think some of your questions are asking for answers that assume I knew the answer before I made the art, and that's not the case.
Second: While you and I talk about ideas and theories, I think it's important for Average Joanne and Joe to understand that all the theories and discussion don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. That's a bit of a joke, but the truth is that the music has to create something more than the sum of its parts, if it doesn't move you or disturb you or challenge you or inspire you then the whole thing becomes an exercise. A lot of people want to debate whether x or y or z has "soul" or is "cold and without feeling." That's not exactly what I'm talking about, because what works for me in 1999 might not have worked for me in 1969, not to mention Average Joanne living in Slovenia versus Average Joe living in Chicago. But what is important is for everyone to understand that myself and every other composer or performer is really after the same thing. We just go at it in very different ways. But no one can tell me that Xenakis' or Braxton's music is any less soulful than Al Green's. (And yet, it's totally valid for Average Joe to get nothing out of Xenakis' music.) Point is: no one is trying to create arithmetic when they compose music...whether they work with sieve theories or with inspiration from God.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ: In your interview with Will Montgomery you stated that "improvisation is the most important element of my musical activity." In your opinion, what are the biggest myths and misconceptions about improvisation? (i.e., this should be answered from both pro-improv and anti-improv perspectives).
LO: The biggest misunderstanding amongst the general public is that "improvisation" means "anything goes"; "do your thing, whatever it is (...in the jungle, man...)". Do I need to elaborate on this? I don't think so. If you're a fan of jazz then you know that improvisation involves discipline, self-control, experience, and a lot of other things that have nothing to do with "total freedom" - whatever that is. So-called "Free Jazz" - that music that kind of "developed" out of the sixties and what some musicians thought they heard Albert Ayler doing, couldn't have been more proscribed in its "freedom". There's a "sound" to that musical area, and the keepers of the keys to that discipline are as Catholic as you can get about how it should sound. Then there's "non-idiomatic free improvisation:" the handle under which many of the European improvisers and others (notably from New York in late 70's) have been classified (although not by themselves). While these players really have no "sound" as a group, there's still a way of working here that has to be learned and understood and experienced, and critiqued by the player himself (or herself). Bad "free jazz" and bad "non-idiomatic" players are only "bad" because they don't critique themselves; they don't listen; they don't know the history of their own music. There are a lot of them out there, and they don't help any of us to move the music forward or to build an audience for creative music in general. This question goes places that would involve us in a long, long discussion, so I'll let it go here for now. (For example: why is it that most jazz musicians don't seem interested in any music outside of their own little subset of the jazz world? Why is it that musicians who consider themselves artists don't know anything about artists practicing similar disciplines on other parts of the planet? Why is it that non-idiomatic free players are reviewed in Jazz magazines at all? Why are these magazines called jazz magazines? What the hell is jazz anyway, and who is mak
Improvisation - the use of it in music - is also a way to bring one's daily life experience into music. And the ability to make choices in real time that actually make a difference is what the music is really about: it's an ideal way of practicing participatory democracy. If we could bring the music into the classrooms - not the music classrooms, but the social science classrooms - we could much more quickly give the average kid a way to understand how democracy was supposed to work when it was first imagined. Frankly, I think that one of the reasons free improvisation has such a hard time catching on is because the average citizen is completely uncomfortable with the idea of participatory democracy. And that's why we don't really have it the United States at t he moment...
Many composers of 100% notated music imagine that improvisation is a self-indulgence, or something one uses to come up with ideas for the ultimate music - composed music. Improvisers can be self-indulgent, but the self-indulgent improvisers can also be crossed out of the equation. We should look for the good examples, not the bad. Talk about Xenakis, Messiaen, Varèse, and you're looking at reasons to love 20th century composed music. So let's not point to the less than great practitioners of improvised music, of traditional jazz, of Indian music when looking at those musics that do use improvisation. Then we can have a discussion about one discipline versus the other - if we want to - Personally, I say: enjoy them all. Each has its own thing to say; they all swing.
AAJ: On Nov. 18-19, you conducted a workshop and solo performance at Cal Arts. What aspects of SOLO improvisation do you find to be a) the most appealing or useful and b) the most difficult or problematic? Why?
LO: I'm not a practitioner of solo music, not now, not ever, so I'll skip this question altogether. (In fact, I ended up playing at CAL ARTs with a student rhythm section). Or I could say to (a) the most appealing thing is to listen to others do it well. And the most useful aspect of it was to understand - as I got into playing - all the possible language extensions that existed on the saxophone. It's also a way to really hear the idea of continuity of thought in music.
AAJ: Do you consider the saxophone to be a physical extension of yourself or is it simply a tool? As follow up, is there a tactile pleasure for you while playing the saxophone? (i.e., in addition to the sonic qualities is there also a distinct satisfaction with regard to how the instrument physically reacts to you or vice versa?)
LO: I'm an artist whose tool of choice is the saxophone.
When I'm in my studio practicing, I can get off on the tactile aspects of the saxophone. But that can only really occur when there's no one else around to listen to or to influence the music, as the physicality of the instrument has nothing to do with making music. (However, in the context of certain pieces I have written for sax quartet, I have employed some of these physical areas particular to saxophone - or to tenor saxophone, or sopranino.)
AAJ: With regards to the concept of language, as a result of your participation in various and diverse projects over the past 20+ years, do you view yourself as having acquired a number of musical languages or having continually extended and expanded a single musical language? (i.e., are you multi-lingual or in possession of a deep, broad vocabulary?)
LO: I'd say the latter. While listening to musics from all over the world and being influenced by them compositionally and otherwise, as a player I've tried to understand my own strengths and interests and to focus on developing those areas, as opposed to becoming a musician who could plug into any musical situation and make it happen. I never felt there was the time to do that, as I didn't start playing saxophone until I was 21. (I did play other instruments in elementary and high schools). Looking back, I know that my attitude was not a correct one, but I'm also not sorry about where it's led me, and I do wonder what my musical life would be if I'd been amenable to studying all musics from the start. If I'd taken a more standard path, I can't be sure I'd have reached the place I'm at now. But then it's a completely irrelevant matter at this point because here I am.
AAJ: In "Improvisation: It's Nature and Practice in Music" improvising guitarist Derek Bailey includes the following quote from saxophonist/improviser/composer Steve Lacy: "I'm attracted to improvisation because of something I value. That is a freshness, a certain quality, which can only be obtained by improvisation, something you cannot possibly get from writing. It is something to do with the 'ledge'. Always being on the brink of the unknown and being prepared for the leap...If through that leap you find something then it has a value which I don't think can be found in any other way...What I write is to take you to the edge safely so that you can go out there and find this other stuff." I'm sure you've seen this before (although many AAJ readers may have not) and am certain you may apply a similar philosophy to your own work. If so, are you capable of differentiating between your identity as an improviser and that as a composer? Why or why not?
LO: Here are the Webster's definitions: To compose = to form by putting together; to create by mental labor a form for a piece of music. To improvise = to fabricate out of what is conveniently at hand.
I think both of these definitions are problematic. Improvising, for example, is certainly mental labor. It's x parts heart and soul, and at it's most inspired it's 100% free, but the mental labor required to reach the most inspired state of bliss while absolutely un-measurable is also without doubt significant. At the same time, one composes out of what is at hand. You can't compose with something you don't have or don't understand. So - number one: I completely agree with Lacy's quote; number two, the separation is only a separation in terms of time allotted to either discipline, The overlap is both conceptual and real.
Also: when I improvise, I'm also composing, I'm looking for a form to emerge from the improvisation. I'm not all that interested in moment-form or process-form.
I also think that the growth potential for improvised music is much higher at this point than is the same for composed music, but that's I think another subject. But in the past few years I've been questioning the value of composition, except as a facile way to get at an area, to focus a group. My feeling is that - at this point in time - there's an extraordinary set of improvisers worldwide who have immersed themselves in the art of improvisation for a several decades, and all the people I'm thinking of have looked at the art from at least a few different angles. And they have worked with composition openly as well. And now, if you work in a small ensemble of these veterans, the more freedom you give them, the more revelatory the music can be.
AAJ: As a follow-up (and hopefully precursor to some questions about composition), Mr. Bailey also relays an anecdote in which Mr. Lacy is approached by composer/improviser Frederic Rzewski and asked to "describe in 15 seconds the difference between composition and improvisation." Since this interview is being conducted via e-mail, I can't practically restrict you to a time limit (or spontaneity). However, in 40 words (or less) could you describe the difference between composition and improvisation ?
LO: (Composition = "Follow me. 'Yes, boss'"; Improvisation = "Let's make a deal. 'Okay but with whose rules?'")
Or, perhaps more obliquely: "We wanted to create that piece through improvisation, but we didn't have time to make it work that way, so we composed it."
Or: composition fulfills our desire to know before we go. Improvising is about learning as we go. Most audiences shy away from improvisation because they need to understand what it is they are hearing - to be comfortable with what's going to happen - before it happens. It's more rewarding for the great majority to hear a Beethoven piece for the ninth time. They know if it's "good" then. But some of us enjoy surprise, and we prefer to be in a situation as the music is being created, or in a situation where the possibility of surprise and revelation is possible. But we are in the great minority.
AAJ: (in your answer to differentiating between being a composer and improviser) you state : "when I improvise, I'm also composing, I'm looking for a form to emerge from the improvisation." Are you able to recognize a form as you are improvising or does this recognition occur much later (e.g., when listening to a recording of the improvisation)? In any case, what characteristics might you look for as clues to an emerging form?
LO: Just about anything that becomes or could become a tendency in a piece. That is: what's the piece focusing on. In most traditional musics, we tend to focus on themes and variations, moods that ensue from the themes, etc. In improvisation the palette we're using is actually all the same materials you hear used in traditional music but because the overt story-lines are often missing, it gives us the opportunity to focus in on the other things a little more. This is a very long-winded way of saying that all the characteristics of sound can serve as the "form" or part of the form of the piece. Take timbre which is just the quality of the sound itself. Well, if all the instruments are playing in close range to each other (or playing sounds that have longer than average duration), maybe the piece will become a piece about group timbres. Maybe the timbres will meld into a group sound out of which a few thematic solos will emerge that will make the piece more story-like. Or maybe all the solos will be about timbre too, but will sound "soloistic" because they simply raise in volume above the group sound.
Or maybe in an ensemble of mixed instrumentation, it will become clear that I am directly interacting with, say, the guitarist, while the cellist and the vibes player are doing a separate but related duo at the same time. So I'll make an effort to play directly with the guitarist while paying attention to the other duo at the same time. (Just an example.) So the form of the piece will involve the interaction between two duos.
You have to try to look for form as you're improvising, if you're interested in that. It's also possible to just be in it for the process as it happens. Improvisation is something that happens in time. It can begin, and then end, with no thought to "the form;" that's an equally valid attitude for improvisers. I guess I prefer looking for forms and then trying to keep any piece there for awhile. But I've heard great concerts where form was not part of the equation.
AAJ: Could you please elaborate on why do you think the growth potential for improvised music is currently much higher than that for composed music?
LO: Okay, I did say it, and I do mean it, but the argument is full of holes; I couldn't really justify the statement. But I am not taking it back either...it's a feeling; it's an expression of optimism in part due to the noticeable development of thinking in the world of improvisation. It's due to my seeing how many "younger" musicians are far more advanced in understanding improvisation outside of traditional forms. And then there's the fact that the un-named discipline we practice which involves improvised music, which Braxton calls "creative music", is very young, and so it follows (I think) that the potential for growth is enormous and evolving all the time.
When I say "improvised music" I'm speaking about the trend in Europe and the United States involving musicians "originally" interested in many different musical disciplines who have become interested in "improvisation" outside of the "standard" (or familiar) music disciplines. So we have rock or art-rock musicians like Frith and Cutler and Cooper, jazz players from all over the planet, Asian improvisers, computer electronic artists, classically trained players who have delved into graphic scores and other new music forms involving chance (for example), all going: wait a minute: we can take the art of improvisation, which is something all these disciplines work with to some degree, as a common ground, and go from there in creating a music without boundaries, each group of players defining its own parameters for the group-sound.
As published on the Web Site: www.Allaboutjazz.com