Saturday, January 31, 2015

Garrison Fewell 13 Questions

Photo Melody Mclaren

Guitarist Garrison Fewell has established himself as a distinctive voice throughout his 30-year career. His diverse discography as a leader for labels such as Soul Note, Koch, Accurate, Splasc(H) and Boxholder counts multiple titles ranked on best of the year lists in publications like Coda, Guitar Player, Musica Jazz, the Boston Music Awards and his hometown Philadelphia Inquirer. Prominent sidemen on his recordings include saxophonist John Tchicai, pianists Fred Hersch, Jim McNeely and George Cables, bassists Cecil McBee and Steve LaSpina, and drummers Billy Hart and Matt Wilson.

Photo Luciano Rossetti @ Phocus

Garrison has performed throughout the world in many unusual places. A mideast tour in 1973 took him through Israel, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He lived in Herat, worked as a disc jockey in Kabul and performed with a variety of Afghan musicians which added an exotic edge to Garrison’s music.

with John Tchicai

Garrison has appeared with his own ensembles at NYC’s Blue Note and Birdland Jazz Clubs, toured in the US, South America, Africa, Caribbean, Canada and Europe, playing at festivals such as Montreux, North Sea, Umbria, Clusone, Veneto Jazz, Copenhagen, Krakow, Budapest, Quebec, Cape Verde, Africa, and Asuncion, Paraguay. He has performed with John Tchicai, Billy Harper, Khan Jamal, Roy Campbell, Steve Swell, Cecil Bridgewater, Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, Jay Clayton, Zbigniew Namyslowski, Herbie Hancock, Fred Hersch, Cameron Brown, Billy Hart, Tal Farlow, Larry Coryell, Benny Golson, Hal Galper, George Cables, Cecil McBee, Buster Williams, Miroslav Vitous, Steve LaSpina, Harvie Swartz, Michael Formanek, Tim Hagans, Jimmy Owens, Dusko Goykovich, Peter King, Steve Grossman, and Slide Hampton.

 Ascension Unending at the Vision Festival 2011

Garrison’s current performing groups include the following:

Steve Swell’s Serious Trio featuring Steve Swell, trombone, Andrew Raffo Dewar, soprano sax, Garrison Fewell, guitar. The trio has two East Coast tours plus a recording session to be released, playing The Vortex Improvised Series and The Outpost in Boston, and IBeam in Brooklyn, Downtown Music Gallery and University of the Streets in Manhattan, NY. We play improvised music, creating sound palettes in somewhat imaginative, abstract and minimalist style. If we had to find our corner of the improv universe, there might also be found John Cage, Derek Bailey, Milton Babbitt, Morton Feldman, Anthony Braxton …

Garrison Fewell / Eric Hofbauer / Roy Campbell Jr. / John Tchicai / Miki Matsuki / Dmitry Ishenko / Kelly Roberge /  Steve Swell

Garrison Fewell – Eric Hofbauer Guitar Duo Our recording, The Lady of Khartoum is a musical prayer for peaceful resolution in Darfur. This music, and most of our work together, features improvised guitar and percussion, exotic bells, nomadic Afghan jewelry, prepared guitar, Afican sticks, and other common household or office objects. 

John Tchicai / Charlie Kohlhase / Garrison Fewell Trio The CD, Good Night Songs is a live 2-CD set on the Boxholder label. A future release, Tribal Ghost – the John Tchicai Quintet is a live recording at Birdland Jazz Club with Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart on drums.


The Variable Density Sound Orchestra Launched in January 2008, the first self-titled recording features Roy Campbell Jr. on trumpet, flugelhorn and flute, Achille Succi, bass clarinet and alto, Eric Hofbauer, guitar and percussion, John Voigt, bass, Miki Matsuki, drums, and Garrison Fewell guitar, prepared guitar, percussion and fisherman’s bow. Two tracks add Alex Fewell on percussion. The latest edition of the group has become a nonet by adding trombonist Steve Swell, bassist Dmitry Ishenko, and tenor sax, Kelly Roberge.

John Tchicai’s Six Points While playing several dates in NYC, we recorded this new collective quintet featuring John Tchicai on tenor and bass clarinet, Alex Weiss on alto, Rosi Hertlein, violin and vocal, Garrison Fewell on guitar, percussion and bow, bassist Dmitry Ishenko and drummer Ches Smith. The Quintet’s (Five Points) recording “One Long Minute” is available on the Italian “Nu Bop” label.

Garrison Fewell & Friends 2013-11-29 Church of the Advent

What do you remember about your first guitar?

I imagined myself playing piano at a very young age and could hear the music quite clearly in my head. I begged my parents for a piano but my father couldn't afford one. When I was around 10 years old, he bought me a guitar. It was a simple nylon string Spanish classical guitar. He said he wanted to play guitar when he was young but his parents didn't like the idea because music wasn't considered a stable way of making a living (some things haven't changed). And that's how I became a guitarist.

A few years later I bought a nice Elger steel string acoustic. That's the guitar I remember most because I bought it with money I saved from doing odd jobs, and I played my first gigs on it.

What do you recall about your guitar learning process?

I didn't read music when I started playing so I learned by ear, listening to records and going to concerts. I heard many of the great acoustic blues and folk players at club in my neighborhood called The Main Point where theye didn't serve alcohol so underage kids like me were allowed in. I took some lessons from a guy in Philadelphia who taught me how to play Delta Blues like Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell and Reverend Gary Davis. I bought all their records, transcribed a bunch of tunes and got a repertoire together so I could start doing solo gigs. I also wrote my own compositions and played in a guitar duo where I learned a lot just by improvising. My father was into both classical music and jazz. He took me to hear operas at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, and he had all of Benny Goodman's recordings on '78s. That's where I first heard Charlie Christian.

Charlie Kohlhase, Garrison Fewell, John Tchicai. Good Night Songs Trio Tour

At 14, I was playing coffee houses and churches, later at Vietnam war protests called “moratoriums.” I was a dedicated conscientious objector and took part in every anti-war demonstration. During the 1971 May Day Demonstration in Washington, I was arrested along with 13,000 other protesters and spent a week in jail. Fed up with the war, I left the U.S. in 1972 and went to live on a Kibbutz in Israel where I ran into a friend from high school who played harmonica and we put together a duo. I carried my Elger in a plastic gig bag through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we played everywhere we went. I still have that guitar, though it has a few burn marks from some Afghan hash that fell out of the pipe when we were playing in Herat, and in Istanbul I spilled a glass of Turkish Raki on it which took some of the finish off, but it still sounds great.

I received my army draft notice while living in Herat—my number was 14 and they were sending me to Vietnam so there was no way I was going back to the States. I stayed in Afghanistan, working as a disc jockey in Kabul. That's where I first heard Coltrane's “A Love Supreme.” I played with Afghan musicians, jamming all night to some very spiritual, trance-like grooves, and they taught me to play dootar, a two-stringed instrument played with a metal finger pick. My Afghan friends had a fun time trying to figure out what to do with my guitar, so they de-tuned the bottom four strings to make a drone, like on a rhabab or sitar, and played melodies on the top two strings. I remember feeling that there was no music on earth more deeply satisfying than Afghan music. After that I went to live in London for a while where I got more into more electric music.

When I returned to the U.S. in 1973, I went to Berklee College of Music. For my audition I played “Stag O' Lee” by Mississippi John Hurt, and they told me “You'll have to learn jazz, because we don't play 'chicken pickin' music here!”


I studied jazz improvisation and harmony at Berklee, and played classical guitar too, but my real learning still came from listening to records. I took an advanced ear training course with saxophonist Bob Hores that focused entirely on the music of Lester Young by first singing, then transcribing his solos. I heard right away that Lester was different than other players, which was something I could relate to, and that difference made all the difference for me. His soulful version of “These Foolish Things” changed me forever. Listening to Charlie Christian on one of those records with Lester, I began to understand the possibilities of jazz guitar.

Outside of Berklee I took lessons from Lenny Breau who blew my mind with his amazing virtuosity, and in the early '80's I went back to Philly to “study” with Pat Martino, only it wasn't like “studying” in the academic sense of the word. I learned more from observing how Pat organized music and his philosophical views on life. He showed me how to compose music from numerical sequences, and guitar voicings by using the I-Ching to explore various string combinations. We hung out for hours at a time, drinking cognac and listening to Indian music while he sometimes read poetry. Pat was into modern classical composers too and gave me recordings of his own orchestral music. It was another step in my understanding of music as a way of life.

What's the main difference between your last and your first recording, in terms of experience?

My first and last recordings are two very different worlds that reflect my personal and musical evolution. . . or revolution.

The first commercial CD I released was “A Blue Deeper than the Blue,” a live recording of standards and original compositions featuring Fred Hersch, Cecil McBee and Matt Wilson. It won the Boston Music Award for Best Jazz Record of 1993. During the concert, I remember Cecil playing a killer bass solo on Frank Foster's “Simone” and thinking to myself, “Now what am I gonna play to follow that?!” It inspired me to delve deeper into more modern sounds and the universe of infinite possibilities.

Photo Dave Kaufman

I listened a lot to Sun Ra—records like Angels and Demons and Jazz in Silhouette. Guitarist Derek Bailey was a strong influence and I ended up buying all the Incus Records I could find. I was into Cecil Taylor and loved Jimmy Lyons playing. Once I saw some of Cecil's scores—no written notes or rhythms, just letter names in vertical columns with some different colors. That made me realize what an awesome player Lyons was and so I tried to get some of his sound on the guitar. I was also into Steve Lacy, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Bill Dixon and the Art Ensemble.

Saxophonist Charles Tyler held a strong attraction for me, and his playing on vibist Khan Jamal's “Dark Warrior” led me to get in touch with Khan who lived in my home town, Philadelphia. I used to go up to his house in Germantown to play, not far from Marshall Allen's place, home to the Sun Ra Arkestra. At the change of the century, I formed a trio with Khan and Cameron Brown on bass, and in 2003 I recorded Big Chief Dreaming for Soul Note Records with saxophonist John Tchicai. We started playing a lot in Europe and the U.S., and that was the end of my career recording mainstream music. I didn't reject straight-ahead jazz—I'm as much into Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk as Sun Ra, and I hear them all as being connected to the same spiritual source—it was my own inner revolution that caused a change in the music I play.

Photo Luciano Rossetti @ Phocus

My latest recording is the third CD of my ensemble, the Variable Density Sound Orchestra, featuring John Tchicai, Roy Campbell Jr., Steve Swell, Dmitry Ishenko and Reggie Nicholson. My idea for the VDSO is to create a balance between composed and freely improvised music with flexibility of personnel and size of the ensemble. I haven't abandoned lyricism or rhythm, but I prefer playing freely improvised music and using prepared guitar techniques. Still, when I find a groove, I go with it!

Which work of your own are you most surprised by?

I'm not sure if I would use the word “surprise” when it comes to improvised music, but how can I describe the beautiful and unexpected things that happen when meeting musicians for the first time and playing a concert or recording with no pre-planned agenda or compositions? It's similar to the way we have deep conversations with people we have never met, and feel like we've known them for years. That's why I love improvising. Is it surprising? It's surely inspiring.

I would say that The Lady of Khartoum, a duo I recorded with guitarist Eric Hofbauer, has some surprises in it. Although we were good friends and would hang out drinking micro brews and bourbon while talking about music, we never actually played together, when one day a telemarketer called me trying to sell studio time at $25 an hour. I put four hours on my credit card, called Eric and said, “Let's go improvise—no written music.” We set up in a small room and played live with a pair of stereo mics in front of us. I used all sorts of prepared guitar techniques; alligator clips, paper clips, metal box slides and oriental sticks, and hung Afghan jewelry and Indian or African bells from the headstock of my guitar. The title track sounds like it comes from my days in Herat, playing in a hypnotic state only without the hashish. The surprise is that it's freely improvised music that also has rhythm and melody.

I host a series of house concerts where people come who don't know about improvised music. They sometimes takes bets with each other on how much is composed versus improvised, and are surprised when I tell them a concert was completely improvised. A lot of folks have been turned on to creative music this way, and now they're into it. It's very rewarding to perform for an audience without putting a label on what you play, be it jazz, free, ethnic, minimalism or noise.

What work of your own are you most proud of and why?

In 2013 I recorded a live duo with pianist Dave Burrell, titled “New Earth.” What I love about it is, well, Dave! He's the sweetest, most beautiful human being and wonderful pianist-composer-improviser. It was our first time performing together, but you wouldn't know that from the way we played. Inspired by our conversation on improvisation and the spirit of creative music in our dialogue for my book, “Outside Music, Inside Voices,” we simply played from the heart. It was effortless. One piece is a 22 minute graphic score I composed called “The Universe” that uses visual representations of quantum physics equations and astronomy. On our improvisation of “New Earth” I mostly play guitar with a violin bow or a stick. We also played Dave's composition “Blackmail Tango,” a very lyrical, romantic piece from his project, “The American Civil War 1861-1865.” Playing music this way gives me hope and confidence in the unlimited potential of human beings and the endless possibilities of both physical and metaphysical realms of inspiration.

Where are your secret roots?

The greatest influence on my life and music was encountering Buddhism for the first time in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan and my deja-vu experience of having lived there in a past lifetime when Buddhism flourished along the Silk Road. My subsequent practice of Nichiren Buddhism and chanting Nam myoho renge kyo every day allows me to align my life with the rhythm of the universe, to relinquish my attachment to my smaller ego and to recognize beauty and inspiration in all things, people and life. Living and playing in Afghanistan had a dramatic influence on my music, something I feel and hear even more now, 43 years later.

with Kenny Burrell

I believe the essence of music comes from beyond thought, and while it requires discipline, technique and dedicated effort to play an instrument, sound ascends from the fundamental depths of life—what Buddhism calls “the true nature of all phenomena.” When musicians draw upon this great collective stream of consciousness, music becomes a powerful healing force of nature. I have personally experienced this many times as having cancer has heightened my sensitivity to the healing power of improvised music. It may not happen in every performance, and I don't consciously try to make it happen—it happens of its own accord when the spirits are called forth with a humble heart. Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre expressed something similar in the title of one of his compositions, “Humility in the Light of the Creator.

Ascension Unending at the Vision Festival 2011

Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Land made me aware of alternate musical pathways, and Herman Hesse's novel “Journey to the East” inspired my own journey eastward to Afghanistan and Pakistan, while the “Magic Theater” in “Steppenwolf” gave me insight into appreciating the source of music and its inherent beauty, no matter that it sometimes arrives to our ears through the distortion of a chaotic or somewhat “imperfect” daily life. Paul Bowles' stories in “The Spider's House” were cause for my discovery and journey to Morocco. As a child, my father read me poetry by Edgar Allen Poe; “The Monkey's Paw” and “The Raven” – light stuff like that! It made me appreciate the darker side of life and music, just as the billion year old light from ancient stars can only be seen at night.

My jazz “roots” are Lester Young, Ben Webster and Bill Evans. On guitar, it's Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, Lenny Breau and Jimmy Raney. Jim Hall was a mentor and friend who generously supported and encouraged my music and guitar method books, for which I am ever grateful. In jazz composition, Horace Silver, Benny Golson, Bobby Hutcherson and Steve Lacy were early influences. I was in the front row of every concert Mal Waldron played at the 1369 club in Cambridge, and his hour-long sets without a break between tunes stimulated my love of extended modalities.

For improvised and creative music, my influences are Sun Ra, Derek Bailey, Charles Tyler, John Tchicai, Johnny Dyani, Joe McPhee, Cecil Taylor, Alex Von Schlippenbach . . the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Globe Unity Orchestra, Art Ensemble: the list is long! And it doesn't matter that others don't hear this in my music, I know that without their gifts of sound, my life would be very different. Ten years playing and making seven recordings with John Tchicai had a profound impact on my music. Our friendship encouraged me to further develop and trust my own instincts, ever seeking to expand my consciousness. Meeting Roy Campbell Jr. and playing/recording for many years together is one of my fondest memories. I recognize his precious gifts every day. Both John and Roy's recent passing left an irreplaceable space in my heart, but I know we will meet again in the next life.

What is the difference for you between playing alone or in a group? What do you prefer?

I have played a lot of solo guitar, but I prefer playing and improvising with others. With the right musicians, a universe of unexpected and transcendent sounds is possible. I love meeting people for the first time and improvising, no matter what country they are from or what musical background they have. I love contrasts.

Garrison Fewell, guitar / Eric Hofbauer, guitar / Boris Savoldelli, vocal / Esther Viola, oboe / Tom Plsek, trombone / John Voigt, bass / Curt Newton, drums. Creative House Concert Series. April 2012

What is some valuable advice that someone has given to you in the past?

Always be yourself and play from the heart. Trust your first instinct, don't hesitate, and jump in right away—one who hesitates, misses the moment. Always be present in the music, and when improvising, prepare for the unexpected. Instead of trying to “play the music,” listen to where the music wants to go, and then the music will play you. Call upon the spirits, and they will invariably appear.

What quality do you empathize with most in another musician?

I most empathize with sensitive listening skills and someone who plays beyond the limits of one's ego. Another quality is a good sense of humor in the music. Something I love the most while improvising, is when a sound unity occurs—the individual sounds meld into each other and we can't tell who is playing what notes.

Which was the first and the last record you bought with your own money?

First: Mississippi Hurt – Today! (1966). Last: Alexander Von Schlippenbach,” Three Nails Left” on FMP Records with Evan Parker, Peter Kowald and Paul Lovens. I was very happy to find an original copy of this hard-to-find LP.

Why and how do you use personal [extended, special, strange, prepared] techniques on guitar?

For many years I played music where perfect intonation was an essential quality, but improvised music isn't limited to a 12-tone equal tempered chromatic scale.
In ethnic music of diverse cultures, there is a universe of sound between the notes C and C#. Listen to Indian Carnatic classical vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi, or Bismillah Khan playing the shenai, or Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, and you will hear what I mean. African Pygmy music is another good example of microtonal music. When I played with Khan Jamal he used an African Balafon and the wooden sound boards that were carved by hand didn't correspond to a Western classical definition of “perfect pitch.” I looked for ways to vary the intonation of my guitar by bending strings and intervals in different directions or using prepared guitar and alternate techniques.

I go to flea markets, antique stores, hardware stores, and junk shops wherever I travel. That's where I find most of the materials I use to add other dimensions of sound to the guitar. I play with a violin bow, a metal box or glass slide, various carved sticks, mallets, spoons, screws and bolts, paperclips, alligator clips and assorted objects. Everything contains sound, I just look for a way to bring it out. My wife frequently looks at me like I'm crazy when I buy something strange and she asks me “What are you going to do with that?!” And I just say, “That's the mystery I'm going to uncover.”

Playing extended, alternate and prepared guitar techniques offers more possibilities in music. A good example is the trio I play with trombonist Steve Swell and soprano saxophonist Andrew Raffo Dewar. We rarely use notated music and prefer a wide spectrum of “sound” over the limits of singular tonalities.

What gear did you use in your last works?

On the “Tribal Ghost “ LP with John Tchicai, Charlie Kohlhase, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart (No Business Records, 2013) I played a 1947 Gibson L5 through a 1968 Fender Pro Reverb amp. Same thing for the Variable Density Sound Orchestra CD, “Evolving Strategies with John Tchicai, Roy Campbell, Steve Swell and Reggie Nicholson (Not Two, 2014). More recently I play a Benedetto Bambino guitar—it's a chambered hollow body axe without F-holes and has a nice dark tone, almost like my '47 L5 but with more electronic variables.The Bambino is small and light, very easy to travel with because it fits in the overhead compartment of any airplane. Guitarists know what a hassle it is to travel with an axe because airlines love to give us a hard time about carrying it onboard while they allow businessmen (the “cats in suits”) to carry on huge bags. It's total discrimination against artists playing music! I also use a Benedetto Bravo Elite, a really beautiful acoustic hollow body guitar with one pickup. When I play it with a violin bow, even the overtones have overtones!

For amps, I mostly use a 1968 Fender Deluxe with one 12” speaker, and for the past 27 years I keep a '70's Polytone Mini Brute amp in Europe which I use when I'm on tour. I also play DVMark guitar amps.

What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?

I most enjoy making music that connects people to a deeper, more profound aspect of themselves, a higher level of sensitivity or awareness. I hope to play music that leaves people inspired by new possibilities, a different way of thinking, and a feeling of peace. I call these sounds “peace tones,” and I work together with the audience to realign the vibrations of a room, and beyond.

I try to avoid the well-trodden path, opting for exploration and discovery. Early explorers of new continents, even when they had maps, those indications often proved to be inaccurate or misleading. They had to rely on courage and instinct while exploring the unknown, they had to redraw the maps and rethink the possibilities. Discovering new cultures is like discovering new sounds. New experiences connect you to your own roots and tradition as well as enabling you to drop attachments to outmoded ways of thinking that have held you back or prevented you from making progress in your life.

Photo Elio Buonocore

Creative music has the potential for this kind of effect on the listener as well as performer. It can cause a re-evaluation of long held beliefs, a new way of looking at structures and observations of natural as well as supernatural worlds. Improvisation is a pathway to discover these new possibilities of thinking and living. Explorers have always dealt with uncertainty and improbabilities, on both land and in space. Our ability to improvise solutions to new problems determines whether our explorations will end in success or failure, and even failure can be a cause for success.

In my music, I embrace the unknown, I seek new sounds and delight in their discovery. Things such as new rooms, new sonics, new musicians, new challenges, lead to the creation of new music: the sound of my bow is different tonight, the stick bounces in different ways across the strings, the overtones are completely different, causing me to adjust my hand position, listen more deeply, to cast off previous strategies and strive to hear what the music is asking of me. These are the exciting motivations I have for working with new music. This is what improvisation is about.

Photo Luciano Rossetti @ Phocus

I am currently working on a series of duets and trios with new musicians that I find very exciting, as each person I play with offers more opportunity for new sounds.

This is a good time for me and for improvising. There are several recordings I completed in the last year and am trying to release. I just finished a new trio with Steve Swell and Andrew Raffo Dewar—our second CD. I recorded a live duo with pianist Dave Burrell titled “New Earth,” and a trio recording with drummer Luther Gray and trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr. (just a month before his passing). I have a duet recording with Luther Gray that needs to be mixed. I did a duet with Italian saxophonist Alessio Alberghini titled “Inverso,” in November I recorded an improvised duet with saxophonist Gianni Mimmo, and I have a duet with electric guitarist Brian Abbott. There's a beautiful unissued duet recording with saxophonist John Tchicai that needs to find a label, and I produced a live recording at Zebulon in Brooklyn of Tchicai's last working sextet, “Ascension Unending” with Alex Weiss, Rosi Hertlein, Dmitry Ishenko and Ches Smith.

I am also a writer and author. I just published a new book, “Outside Music, Inside Voices: Dialogues on Improvisation and the Spirit of Creative Music” (Saturn University Press). My intention is to reveal the spiritual aspect of improvised and creative music which is often overlooked or denied by critics. I conducted 25 dialogues with composer-improvisers such as Milford Graves, Matthew Shipp, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Grimes, William Parker, Marilynn Crispell, Irene Schweizer, Nicole Mitchell, Myra Melford, Dave Burrell, Baikida Carroll, Oliver Lake, Roy Campbell, John Tchicai, Han Bennink, Steve Swell, Henry Threadgill and others. It has now been translated in to Italian and French and will be released in 2015. The Engligh version is currently available through my website.

Selected Discography

As a Leader

A Blue Deeper than the Blue - Accurate Records 1993
Personnel: Garrison Fewell (gtr), Fred Hersch (p), Cecil McBee (b), Matt Wilson (dr)

Are You Afraid of the Dark? – Accurate Records 1995
Personnel: Garrison Fewell (gtr), Laszlo Gardony (p), Cecil McBee (b), Matt Wilson (dr)

Reflection of a Clear Moon – Accurate Records 1997
Personnel: Garrison Fewell (gtr),Laszlo Gardony (p)

Birdland Sessions - Koch Jazz 2000
Personnel: Garrison Fewell (gtr), Jim McNeely (p), Steve LaSpina (b), and Jeff Williams (dr)

City of Dreams - Splasc(H) Records 2001
Personnel: Garrison Fewell (gtr), Tino Tracanna (sop. and ten. sax), George Cables (p), Steve LaSpina (b), and Jeff Williams (dr)

Red Door Number 11 - Splasc(H) Records 2003
Personnel: Garrison Fewell (gtr), George Cables (p), Attilio Zanchi (b), and Gianni Cazzola (dr)


The Variable Density Sound Orchestra - Creative Nation Music 2009
Personnel: Garrison Fewell (gtr, perc., bow), Roy Campbell (tpt, flugelhorn, flute), Achille Succi (alto, bs. clar.), Eric Hofbauer (gtr, perc.), John Voigt, Miki Matsuki (dr), Alex Fewell (perc).

The Variable Density Sound OrchestraSound Particle 47 (CNM 016)
Personnel: Garrison Fewell (gtr, perc., bow), Steve Swell (trombone), Roy Campbell (tpt, flugelhorn, flute), Achille Succi (alto, bs. clar.), Kelly Roberge (ten.), Eric Hofbauer (gtr, perc.), John Voigt (bs), Dmitry Ishenko (bs), Miki Matsuki (dr), Alex Fewell (perc.)

The Variable Density Sound Orchestra - Evolving Strategies (Not Two, 2014)
Garrison Fewell on guitar, John Tchicai on tenor and flute, Roy Campbell Jr on trumpet, pocket trumpet and flugelhorn, Steve Swell on trombone, Dmitry Ishenko on bass and Reggie Nicholson on drums.

As a Co-Leader

Big Chief Dreaming - Soul Note 2005
Personnel: John Tchicai (ten + bs clar), Garrison Fewell (gtr), Tracanna (ten and sop), Paolino Dalla Porta (bs), Massimo Manzi (dr)

Good Night Songs – Boxholder 2006
Personnel: John Tchicai (ten, bs clar, vcl), Charlie Kohlhase (ten, sop, bari sax), Garrison Fewell (gtr, chopsticks, percus, slide)

The Lady of Khartoum – Creative Nation Music 2008
Personnel: Garrison Fewell (guitar, slide, sticks, bells, percussion) Eric Hofbauer (guitar, metal box, sticks, percussion)

John Tchicai’s Five Points - Nu Bop Records, 2009
Personnel: John Tchicai (ten, bs clar, vcl), Alex Weiss (ten, alto, bari sax), Garrison Fewell (gtr, chopsticks, percussion, slide), Dmitry Ishenko (bass), Ches Smith (dr, percussion, tibetan gongs)

Estuaries - dEN Records 014 (Italy), 2013
Personnel: Steve Swell (trombone), Andrew Raffo Dewar (sop. sax), Garrison Fewell (gtr, prepared gtr, slide, percussion, bowed gtr)


Tribal Ghost – No Business Records (Lithuania), 2013

Personnel: John Tchicai (ten., bs cl.), Garrison Fewell (gtr, perc.), Charlie Kohlhase (alt., ten,. bari sax), Cecil McBee (b), Billy Hart (d)

Outside Music, Inside Voices: Dialogues on Improvisation and the Spirit of Creative Music is published on Saturn University Press. It’s a series of 25 dialogues with composer-improvisers involved in creative music, with the goal of acquiring a broader, more diverse understanding of the value and positive contribution that improvisation makes to the advancement of culture and society.

Photo Luciano Rossetti @ Phocus

John Coxon 13 Questions

Photo Fabio Lugaro

John Coxon is a London based british musician, and record producer most often associated with

Spring Heel Jack, with Ashley Wales. Formed in 1993 in London, England, Spring Heel Jack began their career exploring drum and bass and jungle, but have since branched out into free improvisation and jazz, collaborating with many musicians from Europe and the United States. The cinematic Disappeared (2000) marked a transition for Wales and Coxon, and featured the British saxophonist John Surman, whose appearance was a harbinger of later changes. Masses (2001), the first of several albums for the cross-genre Blue Series of Thirsty Ear, was an even more radical departure. Collaborators included Evan Parker, John Tchicai and Tim Berne, William Parker, Roy Campbell, Kenny Wheeler and Wadada Leo Smith, Paul Rutherford,  Mat ManeriHan Bennink, Matthew Shipp, and Jason Pierce.

Spring Heel Jack, with Ashley Wales.

Spiritualized with Jason Pierce. Spiritualized are an English space rock band formed in 1990 in Rugby, Warwickshire by Jason Pierce (who often goes by the alias J. Spaceman) after the demise of his previous band Spacemen 3.

with Wadada Leo Smith  Photo John Sharpe

About Group, with Charles Hayward, Pat Thomas and Alexis Taylor. About Group was formed to make a record of improvised music for the Treader label in 2009, having never played together as a whole before the day it took them to make their first album. They have since recorded two lps for Domino records based around the songs of Alexis Taylor. They are quite different from the Treader release.

with John Edwardsm Wadada Leo Smith, Mark Sanders and John Russell. Photo Andy Newcombe

Primarily a guitar player, he is interested in improvised music, playing with the already mentioned Evan Parker, John Tchicai, Han Bennink, Alex Ward, Paul Lytton, Wadada Leo Smith, Mark Sanders, Eddie Prévost,  John Russell, Steve Noble, Alan Wilkinson...

He has his own record label Treader, mainly dealing with improvised material
Recent art related collaborations include; The End with Henrik Hakansson @ the modern, and
institute in glasgow and Disarm with Pedro Reyes @ the lisson gallery

Pedro Reyes: DISARM - London 26 March 2013. Performance produced by John Coxon.
Musicians: Eben Bull, Rupert Clervaux, John Coxon, Beatrice Dillon, Charles Hayward, Tom Lamb, Ashley Wales

What do you remember about your first guitar?

i was determined to get an electric guitar when i was 13 but i had no money and my parents wouldn't help me. luckily i went to live with my grandmother for a while and she bought me one from a local pawnshop called duncanson’s in edinburgh. it cost £9.00 and was a woolworths quality SG shaped copy with one pickup. it wasn't bad really but we all dreamed of owning a hondo les paul or a bit later [1979] a gordon smith gs 1 which had just come out]. i played it through my mum’s cheap music centre-plugged into the headphone jack with the cassette deck in record and paused.
there was absolutely no way i could afford an amp-although my friends brother had a selmer treble’n’bass which i used at band practices-we all used it at the same time.

What do you recall about your playing learning process?

i recall that i was very disorganised and reluctant to practice. i wish i’d practised more when i was younger

Photo Andy Newcombe

Can you describe a sound experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a musician?

my mother singing and playing the piano when i was very young

Which was the first and the last record you bought with your own money?

The first record was Dixie chicken by Little Feat. a bit of an odd start but it had been recommended by a boy at school who i looked up to. i found a second hand copy for £1.50 i think. i was 11 or 12 and this was pre-punk so we really had nothing that we could call our own at that stage-just trying to find something we could connect with.i didn't really like it-it was too american; i had no connection with the words or the southern u.s. sound although i did quite enjoy Lowell George’s slide guitar.

the most recent records i bought today from discogs: Now is early by Nicolette on Shut up and dance records, really for the track A single ring. at the same time i bought Kyzysztof Penderecki Dies irae/polymorphia/de natura sonorous on polskie Nagrania Muza. i have this record -Ashley Wales gave me a copy- but it was damaged by a flood in the autumn and this is to replace it.

What do you expect from music?

I dont think i expect anything from music -it’s not a thing or a being in that sense to me- it is something that i do. i’m only really happy when i’m either making it or have an ongoing project of some sort… and i feel depressed if i’m not in this process in some way.
you don't give something to ‘music’ and expect something in return.

Which work of your own are you most surprised by, and why?

The sweetness of the water Spring Heel Jack with Wadada Leo Smith, Evan Parker, Mark Sanders, John Edwards. this recording is my favourite of all of those i made with Ashley Wales
it seems to me that it represents most completely our ideas. the improvisatory mastery of the musicians we worked with here seems completely at one with the ideas we presented them with. it also marks the start of my personal involvement with pure improvisation. the duo with Mark Sanders was a revelation to me at the time.

What's the relevance of technique in music, in your opinion?

technique is critically important in music of course, but the greatest musicians -Evan Parker and Wadada Leo Smith [who both play on ‘the sweetness of the water’] for example never let the their technique override the music.
for some reason this seems to me to be particularly important with the electric guitar -i’m amazed by the harmonic technique of Joe Pass, the extraordinary telecaster mastery of Danny Gatton, the speed and accuracy of John Mclaughlin, but i never listen to them [well only John Mcgaughlin with Miles Davis which i love] -i don't like too many notes on the guitar. John Lee Hooker’s technique is more important to me than being able to play a million notes a second. i was talking to my friend about this and he said watching and listening to some of these players is like going to a freakshow.
i suppose what i’m saying is that technique whilst important, is no substitute for content. it’s a bit like recording: there’s no benefit to recording something technically well if the music is dull

Photo Andy Newcombe

having said that,the greatest compositional technician -J.S. Bach is limitlessly fascinating to me,
also the saxophone seems to suit a much faster articulation- maybe because of Charlie Parker and all who followed him…
perhaps that widdly widdly guitar style has too many bad associations with gruesome progressive rock or hair metal.

What quality do you admire most in an musician?

commitment an open attitude to music. Alex Ward is a good example.

What’s the difference between a good instrument and a bad one?

almost anything can be used as an instrument. great music can be made with very simple instruments.there is a great pleasure to be had in playing a really fine instrument but a lot of awful music is made on well made instruments. i have a 1940s Epiphone blackstone which i marvel at every time i pick it up-made with great craftsmanship and it has a great tone.but i also have a 1950s Silvertone Sears catalogue guitar which i love playing-it’s virtually made of cardboard.
accurate intonation is very important in a fretted instrument

What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?

i really dont know how to answer this. i love and collect records and have thousands of them. they’re as much part of me as my guitar playing is. i hate the idea of living all parts of my life through the computer. most of my younger friends never buy cds or even records -it’s just not part of their lives in the same way. it was very hard to find really good music in the mid 70s -you just couldn't buy it in scotland- i spent years wondering what ‘can’ sounded like.

Pat Thomas - Piano,Keyboard, John Coxon - Guitars, Mark Sanders - Drums

 Define the sound you're still looking for

i’m not -sounds appear during exploratory playing- i don’t preconceive them and then work out how to make them.

How would you define order?

i dont know what you mean -music has been defined as ordered sound but aleatoric and chance elements are part of a lot of music that I'm interested in.

Photo Andy Newcombe

What are your motivations for playing music?

it’s partly habit -i’ve always done it, and i’m a person of habit. also it’s my job and i want to do my job as well as i can- i think i’m lucky to have been able to keep making music on my own terms for a long time and that i should make the most of it.

What's your best musical experience?

all of the time i have spent making music with Ashley Wales. playing with Mark Sanders. playing with Jason Pierce. playing with Evan Parker. playing with Han Bennink. playing with Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith. playing with The founder effect group……many others!

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, John Coxon, John Edwards, Mark Sanders @ Cafe Oto 24.7.10

Dream about your perfect instrument

i have a National Trojan guitar from the 1930s that i bought in a little shop in new orleans. i used this for the ‘acoustic trio’ recording with Ashley Wales and Eddie Prevost [amongst many other recordings]. i remember Eddie saying ‘the perfect instrument’ because it has both a membrane and strings. i always wanted to be a drummer really!

What is your relationship with other disciplines such as painting, literature, dance, theater ...?

i have collaborated with several artists.most recently with pedro reyes in his ‘disarm’ project [lisson gallery, london 2013] and with henrik hakansson in his The end project [the modern institute ,glasgow 2011,sydney biennale,2014] i’m very interested in this kind of cross disciplinary work.

Where are your roots? What are your secret influences? 

my roots are classical from my mother, punk from my peers at school, electronic dance music and the so called avant garde from Ashley Wales, rock’n’roll from Jason Pierce and free music from Evan Parker et al…..all over the place.

with Wadada Leo Smith and John Russell. Photo Andy Newcombe

What would you enjoy most in an music work?

it depends where i am and what i’m istening to.

Henrik Håkansson, THE END, 2011 and 2014, (film still), 35mm film, 12:40 mins.

Which living or dead artist would you like to collaborate with?

Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Peter Broetzman…..all saxophonists!
there are many more but those three come to mind
i never used to like the saxophone -i loved the sound of the trumpet when i was a kid.

Henrik Håkansson, THE END, 2011 and 2014, (film still), 35mm film, 12:40 mins. Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow. This version was created for the 19th Biennale of Sydney - See more at:
Henrik Håkansson, THE END, 2011 and 2014, (film still), 35mm film, 12:40 mins. Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow. This version was created for the 19th Biennale of Sydney - See more at:

What instruments and tools do you use?

i have quite a lot of guitars that i have collected over the years but usually i play guild starfire 2 with either a 1972 fender pro reverb or 1966 fender princeton reverb.
i use a colour sound wah, a RAT distortion pedal, a boss tremolo.
for rocknroll gigs i usually play a 1966 gibson firebird with either the pro reverb or a 1964 AC30
the dates are important because most of the reissues are shit.

i also have an amazing amp made for me by my friend HS Levi.its a class A british type amp which i use with a 1x12” cab.its the best sounding amp i've ever had.
i also have a roland MKS 80 synth which i love -i dont often use it,but it can be heard on some treader recordings. i also use a novation synth and a CDJ-400 for sampling in some lineups.

Photo Andy Newcombe

What do you like the most about being a musician?

the mystery of music.

What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?

working on the next 3 treader releases. perhaps i’ll do more acoustic playing and recording - my ears are getting tired of loud electric guitar.

Treader Label

Evan Parker with Birds: The celebrated saxophonist duets with Northern European birdsong. A tribute to the late Steve Lacy.

Energetic fussing from trio of Evan Parker [tenor saxophone] Mark Sanders [drums] and John Coxon [Roland MKS 80] interspersed with double grand piano and percussion interludes by John Coxon and Ashley Wales. Inspired by the Sun Ra album Nuits de la Fondation Maeght.


Mark Sanders, Swallow Chase: First solo recording by one of the world's great improvisors. Recorded from the drummer's perspective, a beautiful virtuoso performance in 9 parts.

Acoustic trio with john coxon [acoustic guitars] ashley wales[found percussion etc.] and AMMs eddie prevost.a slowly evolving and spacious piece originating from reading eddie's book 'minute particulars'

The great afro danish saxophonist who played with albert ayler, recorded with john coltrane, archie shepp and don cherry duets with orchestral strings and beautiful soundscapes. Recorded during a rare visit to london in 2005.


The first solo recording by j spaceman of spacemen 3/spiritualized fame. A strange and lovely work


A long planned collaboration between John Coxon and Wadada Leo Smith finally comes to fruition with this odd, fresh sounding recording. Coxon on harmonica, electric guitar and 12 string acoustic with master trumpeter Smith in a duo with Gagaku and Blues undertows. Recorded by Zorn collaborator Jamie Saft in his Brooklyn studio.


Legendary Dutch drummer Han Bennink recorded this electric session with John Coxon [Electric Guitar] and Ashley Wales [Electronics] during his visit to the U.K. at their invitation last year. Loud, fierce and darkly mysterious, the velocity and extraordinary momentum of Bennink is forcefully counterpointed by Wales' imaginitive soundscapes and Coxon's irascible guitar.


Evan Parker appears again on the Treader imprint. This time in the company of U.S Free Jazz luminary Matthew Shipp. The Famous Abbey Road Studio 2 was the location for this meeting and the vivid sound does great justice to the first duo recording of these two giants of improvised music.


Spaceman and Shipp return to Treader with a collaboration first outed for Patti Smith's Meltdown festival. This is their studio corollary to that concert. Magic golden voice drone followed by celestial ecstacy.


Extraordinary clarinetist Alex Ward in his first solo recording. In the tradition of 'For Alto' and 'Monoceros': one musician and one instrument.


Exclusively tailored in places, planes, hotel rooms and at home. 15 bespoke songs and instrumentals by Alexis Taylor.


Treader arranged a concert at St Giles-in-the-Fields church in the West End of London on 15th February 2008. Ashley Wales recorded the event and this CD is the result. A peerless lineup with a dramatic reverberant sound.


John Coxon's prepared compositions combined with Wadada's uncompromising musical philosophies were the springboard for these unique, complex group improvisations. The brilliance of Pat Thomas [electronics and piano] and Mark Sanders[drums] complete this quartet.


A new group for 2009 incorporating revered This Heat drummer Charles Hayward, Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor, Pat Thomas and John Coxon. Charles' relentlessly inventive drumming provides the solid centre for these four bold improvisations.





Recorded live in 2007 at the WIM free music festival,here we have Spring Heel Jack’s penultimate live concert. This beautifully recorded set featuring the great Pat Thomas,Alex Ward and Paul Lytton captures the vivid and multilayered musical imaginations of this quintet brilliantly.An essential record.


John Tilbury solo using two pianos-one prepared,the other not, the former being the famous old piano which once belonged to to Myra Hess. Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith solo accompanied by the spectral sound of sympathetic strings from John Tilbury’s prepared piano,followed by a long and utterly absorbing duo from these two masterful musicians.


Following in the august footsteps of Berg,Webern,Messiaen and Ligeti,Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer assembled this wonderful international octet for the Donaueschingen Festival in 2012.Their live improvisation with Phil Minton,Ute Wassermann,Lori Freedman,John Butcher,Rhodri Davies and Paul lovens was then used as material for the beautiful studio work Hmyz,recorded on the following day.

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