Tell me about the month you spent in New York recently.
It was great, but to describe it would take hours. It's the kind of thing that suits me well, I'd do it any time. The fact that I go there and work and don't travel has always been the attraction about New York. I've sometimes stayed for long periods, the longest was I think six months. More often I've stayed for between three and six weeks. I've always found I can pick up work there. But this time I went with the intention of doing this, because it was arranged that I would do this "curating", as they call it, for this place Tonic. It's great, a very good place, and it's in a good condition at the moment. It's only been open a couple of years. Venues like that usually deteriorate after a while, as regards policy they get more focused on some particular music.
I was living half a dozen blocks away, so I could walk to work. For the first time for a long time I was either playing or listening to music pretty much every night of the week, because if I wasn't playing in the concert, I'd arranged it. Usually because I wanted to hear it. And also this business of walking to work - I haven't done that since I worked in dancehalls, in the dim and distant. It used to be a common thing, that youwould live near the dancehall. Now, most of the time, I fly to work. It was great, there were many things about it that were very satisfying.
How did you enjoy playing with Cecil Taylor again? That would have been the first time you've played with him for a long time, wouldn't it?
It's 12 years since we played duo together. I've played since on a couple of occasions with his trio. It was great, it's always exciting playing with Cecil. It was one of those occasions, for all kinds of reasons. The piano was wrong, and they had to take it away and bring another one. We started an hour and a half late, it went on an hour-and-a-half extra. The first set lasted 70-odd minutes. The music was fine - Cecil referred to it as our "contemporary playing." It's quite different to the other stuff, the earlier stuff. Without going into all kinds of detail which usually undersells the music, I can't describe it. But it was a fine experience, and very memorable.
One thing that strikes me about those records you recorded with him in the '80s is that on them he sounds like he does with no one else - you seem to bring out a different side to him, or when he's playing with you he plays in a different way. What do you attribute that to?
I don't know. [laughs] I don't normally hear him with other people. When he was in Berlin [in late '80s when a series of concerts were recorded and later released on FMP, including a duo with Bailey], I didn't hear any of the other concerts. And the only reason I was there was due to Cecil, because I wasn't invited to go.
Did you gatecrash?
No. I was working in a situation where both Cecil and I were playing, in Amsterdam, a few months before that. He asked me if I would come to Berlin and play a duo with him. I said: "It would be a pleasure, of course, and an added pleasure will be if you tell Jost Gebers, and he'll have to ask me." And that's the way it happened. I never heard any of the other concerts in Berlin, but I heard him in this situation in Amsterdam playing with a large group that he'd put together. There were all the usual suspects, European guys. It struck me that the only guy that he struck up a really interesting relationship with was Tristan Honsinger. That was really quite intriguing. Of course Tristan's an American - I'm not suggesting that's got anything to do with it, but one thing about Tristan is that he doesn't give a shit about anything. I think that's what intrigued Cecil. There were spells where everybody stopped and Cecil played solo. Cecil played all the time anyway, but there were points where he played solo. Tristan didn't stop, he just ploughed on, and that was great for Cecil, he really engaged with it. Musically, they seemed to get on fine. The relationship between them seemed to be something special.
How flexible an improviser do you regard yourself to be? For example, when you play with Han Bennink, you sound different to how you do when you play with Cecil or Steve Lacy - how much of yourself do you think you retain when you're playing with various different people?
To me, the way I play is the musical equipment I bring to the event. The way I play is what I'm going to work with. But the music, for me, is brought by the other people. There isn't any point in playing with somebody unless they're going to bring music. I'm sometimes accused of ignoring people I play with, which has always struck me as strange, because I find other people very necessary. I don't, for instance, like playing solo, and I'm not that interested in playing solo - doing it or listening to it, or anything. Although most of the gigs I get are solo. I kind of feel that what I do is not complete unless I'm playing with somebody else. They do more than complete it, they provide the basis for whatever we're doing. It starts with the other people.
Particularly in recent years, I've found that the two most stimulating things in playing are difference and unfamiliarity. The playing I've done over the last five or six years has come about partly through accidents and partly through intention, and it's been poking around looking for other situations outside the improvised music field. The best plays are with other improvisers but to take this tool, this way of playing, into other situations, to see how it works, that's important for me. It's always based in improvisation, because that's the way I work but to make it work with other people, who perhaps don't normally play improvised music, that's very satisfying. And that's been fine. But it's funny, there are only certain places you can do that, and New York's one of them. I like the city anyway, as most people do, and musically it suits me and what I want to do. I don't think I could do the same things in other places.
Last November, for instance, there were four concerts on successive nights. One with five people playing a standard improvised music concert, with duos and trios, that sort of thing. There was Cyro Baptista, John Zorn, Ikue Mori and Jim Staley. The night after, I did a duo concert with Susie Ibarra. Playing with Susie is probably the nearest I get now to a 'regular' playing relationship. And then the following night, I played with Jamaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston, and that was a kind of free-funk. The night after that, I did a concert with Min Xiao-Fen, the Chinese pippa player. Where else could anybody do four concerts in succession like that? Even if you could find the people in London to do it, where are you going to do it? Who's going to put it on? Where's a place where you can try to put it on yourself? And in New York there are two or three place where those things could have happened. That kind of thing can happen there, and it's always happened. And most important, it's got John Zorn. He can make anything happen in that town. Especially in recent years, he's provided a whole range of musics for me to sniff around in. It suits what I do, and it suits me. I wouldn't want to go in and play with each of those people in their style, and try to play like they do, but I can take what I do and try to make it work in their situation. So they're the purpose of the playing.
What I meant was, when you play with people like that, how much do you adapt to them, and how much do they adapt to you?
I thought I'd explained that. I can only adapt so far, because it's of no interest to me to go and play with Min Xiao-Fen, say, and imitate the pippa, use a few of her scales and play with her in a kind of quasi-Chinese way. But it is of interest to me to take what I do and make it work in her situation as far as I can, to see if I can make it work, and to see how successful I can be. She's the essential element - without her, I'm just playing what I always play, and that's of no interest at all to me. Or, very little interest. Except as a research thing. So the other people are vital.
So you're recontextualising what you do?
Yeah, and that's what it's for - to be recontextualised, as you put it.That's the purpose of it. Taking it into a strange, unfamiliar musical situation vitalises it, that's what it's for. And in a sense, that's what it was always for - to play with other people. Coming round over the years to playing the way I do now, from starting out playing conventionally, was in the first place in order to accommodate playing freely with other people. I never thought that playing free was satisfying enough if I used conventional techniques and material. If I was using conventional techniques and material, I would sooner play conventional music. Particularly when I first started playing freely, I didn't want to lose any of the satisfaction I'd derived from playing conventional jazz. So it had to work for me in certain ways. it wasn't just a question of aiming for some emotional oblivion, and passing from this planet into some sort of transcendent state. I wasn't interested in that approach.
You mean like the William Parker/free jazz visionary sort of thing?
I don't automatically link them together. William is a remarkable player and I've played with him in situations which have little or nothing to do with free jazz. And playing free jazz with William is quite special in the same way that playing free jazz with Milford Graves is special. The genuine article. So, I've got nothing against that shit when it's played by the right people, but it's not the main thing for me.
I think the idea of free playing as an ongoing, workaday kind of music is more honest than this notion of free jazz as providing some sort of spiritual elevation and mental takeoff.
There are a lot of strange things about playing that way. You rarely choose the time and place when you play, for instance. This - what did you callit? Elevation and...
Takeoff. They're not very good terms.
They're fine. So, elevation and takeoff has to be between eight and 11 in the evening usually. And at 11, you have to come down, presumably. And when you do that, do you go home and have a cup of cocoa? And it does depend on somebody giving you a gig. Somebody might ring you up and say: "How are you fixed for February 14th for doing a bit of elevating and taking off down at my club? Can you come over to New York and spend three nights elevating and taking off? Start at 8, don't be late." There's a whole mundane side to playing that I think disqualifies it as an art. It's something different. And you have to do it on the basis of that. It includes art but it's more than that. You get comparisons sometimes with painting. But can you imagine a painter who'd be willing to always paint in a public place between eight and 11 at night with a bunch of people peering over their shoulder? They invented the studio, for fuck's sake. The idea was to shut everybody off, and then to be alone with their muse. Playing, you can't be alone with your muse - you've got to share it with whoever's turned up. The whole business of aiming for some sort of emotional catharsis when you play seems to me to be a very limiting thing. Its more complicated than that.
I find the idea that you can achieve some sort of transcendent ecstasy by listening to free jazz a bit naive. I like a lot of that music, but it's been around for such a long time now that it's no longer necessarily a very radical form of music. It has its own tradition just like anything else.
I've got nothing against free jazz the way the early guys played it. It was an exploration. It's much different now to what it used to be 30, 40 years ago. I mean, I quite like active music. I like inactive music as well, but I've got nothing against active music. I don't think there's anything wrong with sweating, if the music gets you to that state. [laughs] But using that as a basis for what you're doing, you're on pretty uninteresting ground. Especially over a longer period. But some people play for that, and if they get satisfaction out of it, fine. My general view of these things is that I don't give two fucks what the others do as long as I can do what I do.
In the past you've expressed antipathy towards jazz - why is that? Is it because you resent the way free jazz and improv are lumped together?
I don't think it's done any good for free improvisation, generally speaking, to be coupled with jazz. But my view of jazz is that it died about 1956. It staggered on in some quite interesting ways into the early '60s, and then it was resurrected in a rather ghoulish manner in the1980s. But this is also a personal thing. It was partly to do with my own dissatisfaction with it and my decision, around the age of 23, that I was never going to be Charlie Christian. Before that, I'd probably entertained delusions about being a great jazz player. I decided at that time that if that's what I wanted I should have started in a different place, at a different time, and maybe in a different race.
Which of the jazz players did you rate? I know that in the past you've mentioned Albert Ayler.
I think he was a fine player, but all the jazz players I've really admired have been conventional players. They had a freedom that was built into the idiom, and once you step outside it, the whole thing falls to pieces... The basis for jazz changed in the '50s. It used to lead popular music, popular music used to borrow from jazz. At some point in the late '50s, I suppose when rock 'n' roll turned up, it was obvious jazz wasn't leading anything. [laughs] That's all a rather lengthy explanation of why I don't hate the stuff, it's just that I'm just not interested in it. And the fact that for one or two free players, it's important to be known as jazz players - while there might be some immediate career advantage in that, because most of the work lies within the jazz world for free players, in Europe, anyway - it's never seemed to be a very productive association. From a free point of view. I think it's much better now, where there's just this mess out there, there's all kinds of shit going down - one area's all based on electronics, another area's based on fringe rock, and so on. I think that's a good background against which a free improviser can work.
You're playing in London this week with Simon Fell, Mark Wastell and Will Gaines, and you played here in February with John Butcher. But apart from that the last time you played in London was November 1998. Why is it that you play here so infrequently?
I've played three times this year in London, and I can't remember another year when I played three times in London since I stopped doing Company Week, six years ago. I thought to play at the Klinker [very small pub back-room venue in north London where gig with Fell, Wastell and Gaines took place] immediately after the gig I'd done before - it was about three or four weeks ago - which was in the Barbican Centre [large and auspicious theatre/classical/cinema/cultural centre, located in the financial district of London], playing before John Zorn, was a nice juxtaposition. In case anyone started getting the wrong idea.
Is the fact that you play here so rarely a money thing?
There isn't any money. [laughs] When I'm here, if I have a spell here of a couple of months, I get very busy in the house. This week, for instance: on Thursday I did a recording, a drum 'n' bass/electronics-type thing; yesterday [Friday] I was talking all day to some guy about some concerts he wants to jack up for me to do with a whole bunch of people; today you're here. Tomorrow nothing's happening as far as I know; Monday I'm doing a recording at the Red Rose [relatively large pub back-room venue in north London], and on Thursday I'm doing this gig. And that's on top of what I think I'm supposed to be doing here, which is mainly to do with practising, a little bit of home recording, and some writing. It actually fills my day - and the longer I'm here the more it fills it, and the more satisfying it is. So I'm quite happy here without going out and playing in some pub for the door. Also, I play here with other people. Every couple of weeks somebody comes round here for a play.
Most of the work I do in London - and it's happened over the last three or four years - is recording. For some reason, I seem to keep recording. I've done four or five recordings in the last three months for other people.
It just struck me as a little odd, in that at this point you're releasing more records than you probably ever have, yet you so rarely play live in the city where you live.
It's not something I look for. There have been some very good venues in London, and at the moment there might still be good venues, in fact, a number of new ones have opened recently. My impression is that possibilities for playing in London fluctuate quite a lot and maybe the present is a good time. Occasionally, we - that is, Karen [Brookman, Bailey's wife] and I, because Karen runs Incus - have done launches for new Incus releases, so we do a couple of nights somewhere. We've done nights at the Red Rose, one or two things at the Vortex ["jazz cafe" in north-east London]. During this month in New York we had a three-day Incus event, six groups over three nights - in fact, one night was a launch for two of the records. But, I've never much liked single gigs. I look for the possibility to play a number of times in the same place. When we put something together the aim is to try and do more than one night. There are a lot of advantages in that musically. But it seems almost impossible to do that now in London.
One of the things I first noticed about London was how few American and European musicians come here. Why do you think that is?
For me to answer that would lead me into rants about the English. It also leads me into a couple of questions I might ask you. You've come to live here. I'm here because I drifted down from the north of England donkey's years ago. You've chosen to live here - why is that?
Mainly because of work prospects - New Zealand has been in a bad economic recession for some time, and there aren't many job opportunities there. And because of my ancestry, I can live here legally as long as I like.
I wondered if you'd come here to start your magazine. Because this is a place for magazines. The London scene, if it has a distinguishing feature above all other scenes, is that it produces magazines. It's always produced magazines. Sometimes there've been three or four magazines floating aroundat a time, and there's always been at least one. There's even a self-proclaimed musicians' organisation that puts most of its energies into producing a magazine. It should be called the London Writers' Collective.They put on this increasingly tepid festival, yearly, I think. I know lots of people in this organisation, who sometimes "serve", as they call it, on the committee, and I ask them about their musical policy - which to me is undetectable - and nobody seems to be able to say what it is. And I don' t think they've got one. I think they've got a magazine policy. Although, I believe, they provide quite a good leafleting service. I wondered if you'd come all the way from New Zealand just to produce your magazine, because there must be something about the ground here that's fertile for magazines.
I think of a musician like [Steve] Beresford, he must spend most of his time writing about other musicians nowadays. It's quite amazing. He's very perceptive about the music and terrifically well-informed about all music so what he's doing is useful, but this magazine business can lead to a kind of parochialism. A writes about B, and C writes about A and B, and B writes about A and C, this kind of thing. There's not necessarily any great advantage in looking out, but looking in is a definite disadvantage.
One example I came across, [laughs] I was reading the sleevenote of the Evan Parker/Paul Lytton record that was put out by Martin Davidson [of Emanem] a few years ago. The sleevenote's by Steve Beresford, and in it, he compares them to Morecambe and Wise [old-school English concert hall-style comedians, at their peak of popularity in the '60s and '70s]. Now, I don't know what percentage of Martin's records sell in England, but I would think that most of them sell elsewhere, and most people in the world wouldn't know who the fuck Morecambe and Wise are. I should actually take this opportunity to correct that comparison, by the way. It's a mistake - Evan and Paul have nothing in common with Morecambe and Wise. I can speak from what I assume is a unique authority, because I must be the only musician who's worked with both duos and I can say with absolute assurance that the only thing they have in common is that one member of each duo has short fat hairy legs.
When did you work with Morecambe and Wise?
A couple of times, mainly in 1965. I was in their pit band. They had a show that ran for four months, twice a night, six nights a week, in Blackpool. I was still playing with Gavin [Bryars] and Tony [Oxley, in Joseph Holbrooke], at the club we ran Saturday lunchtimes. Morecambe and Wise were, and had been for years, enormously popular. The shows were televised, they were held in this big theatre in Blackpool. When it was made public that they were going to do this season, the shows were booked up, for the whole four months, immediately. This was a 2000-seat venue. I was in the band primarily to accompany a singer, I was in the orchestra, but I had nothing to do most of the time. Except practise and laugh at these guys.
Getting back to the LMC, they seem to be a bit like the UN - whenever they do something good, they still manage to annoy another group of people.
I'm inclined to think the LMC and organizations like them such as the BIM in Holland and FMP in Germany rarely do any good. Maybe in the early stages when there's enthusiasm and at least somebody knows the purpose of the thing, but the longer they go on the more bureaucratic they become and, as with all bureaucracies, they become increasingly preoccupied with self-perpetuation. They specialize in anniversaries, as that seems to be the safest way to get funding - 10 years, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35... for whom the bell tolls. For minority radical activities this seems an odd way to go on, institutionalizing their ghetto status... But, maybe that's what they want.
How do you feel about bad reviews? You don't seem to get too many.
I've always had bad reviews. The musician who gets the most bad reviews who I know personally is Pat Metheny. He never gets good fucking reviews, people really don't like him. I've had bad reviews for as long as I can remember. Not consistently, maybe the good ones outweigh the bad ones. The point is, if you believe either of them, you might be in trouble. I always think of the bad ones as a result of corruption.
Can you elaborate?
Well, I always assume that the good reviews are written by intelligent, perceptive, keen-eared, decent likeable fellows who are a credit to their profession, and the bad reviews are written by tone-deaf, ignorant, corrupt, know-nothing motherfuckers who should stick to slicing salami, or whatever they do for a living.
Your only bad review I've seen in the past few years was the one David Keenan wrote in The Wire of your record with John Butcher and Oren Marshall (Trio Playing CD [Incus]).
Oh, Keenan. [laughs] Everybody talked about it, I have to say that for him. He did stir a bit of shit. People were jumping up and down all over the place. I think the general view was that it ill-informed.
Well, I'm a bit biased, because he contributes to this magazine, and I really like his writing. I didn't agree with the review as such, but I do think the fact it ruffled so many feathers shows how insular that scene is.
Yeah. If a bad review actually matters that much, then there's something wrong. You can pay too much attention to these kinds of things. But there's a whole area of free playing which is closed to some jazz critics. What they are looking for isn't there. It's been dumped. And you have to be sorry for some poor bugger like Richard Cook who's had to spend half his life listening to music the point of which obviously passes him by. If he can locate a saxophone and imagine the rest of the players as some sort of rhythm section he can sometimes get a handle on it. Otherwise, the whole enterprise seems to be a mystery to him. He understands what it is. What's to understand? But, he doesn't hear it. He's like somebody with no sense of humour listening to a joke. Paul Burwell, years ago, put it best: he's like somebody trying to order meat in a vegetarian restaurant.
Do you ever plan to reissue the old Incus LPs?
We've reissued some of them, about four or five. But it would now be impossible - I mean, look [gestures to shelves crowded with boxes of CDs], this place is full of boxes anyway. And we've got other boxes elsewhere. At the moment we have 40 CDs in print - let's say we have 50 or so titles currently in print, including videos and a few LPs. If we kept the whole catalogue in print, we just wouldn't have enough room. While aficionados - who might include you - are keen on the idea, nobody asks us for those old records. When Martin Davidson brings them out, there's a little bit of a stir. For instance, he's put out this Iskra, which we gave to him to put out because he wanted to, and we weren't going to.
I must admit, I never thought of actually writing to you and asking about them. I just assumed you wouldn't have any copies.
Well, as I say, if they were all in print we'd have to move out of the house. Storage space, which is the solution, is expensive. We actually have a bit of storage space, and what we have here in this room is nowhere near all the stuff. To have another 50 records on top of this would be hopeless. And it'd be a drag. I have very little interest in the old records, as a matter of fact. That whole retrospective view of things seems to me a bit... un-something.