Frode Gjerstad interviewed by Vittorio LoConte
You have a label of your own and you record also for Cadence and CIMP. Do you see some difference in the way music is produced? How do you judge your co-operation with Cadence?
In the beginning, when we had Detail, we did most of our stuff on Impetus. John Stevens lived nearby Paul Acott Stephens and met him sometimes in the shops. When we had recorded our first tapes, John spoke to Paul and made an agreement. We did 2 LPs and a double LP for them plus a duo CD of John and I. Now they will re-release our first LP Backwards and Forwards on CD with a bonus track from -85. They were the first people to show an interest in our work. And I appreciate that. But being a small label is not the easiest thing. Also, they made their main income as a distributor and sometimes we felt they did not do as much for the records as we had hoped they would. But I don't blame them. The competition is heavy and you have to be on your toes all the time. I had sent Bob Rusch of Cadence several tapes and I always got a preprinted paper back where he had crossed out something like "we like the tape but we do not feel it fits in" or something similar. Anyway, I continued to send him tapes and the main reason was that our records basically got good reviews in Cadence.
At one point, I had a tape that I wanted to put out myself because nobody else wanted to do so. It was the tape with Rashid Bakr and William Parker. I was proud of that tape and wanted it out. I sent the master to a guy in London who had done a CD for me before. But this time he ran off with the money and master! Bad news.
I contacted Rusch and asked him if there were any place that could press CDs for little money. Then he simply said, "Let me have a listen, I might do it. It ended up that he did both Seeing New York from the ear as well as Last Detail at the same time.
His ability to act fast is something I like very much. When I have finished a tape, I cannot wait for it to be released. I want to see it and I want to hear it! After that, he has done several tapes for me. But he also has turned down some. Which I feel is OK. Because you do not always have an objective view of your own work.
I also got to record for his baby, the CIMP label. The idea there is to present the music the way it was played. They do this, only using two great microphones, without any compression or editing of the tapes. This is their concept of how a record should be recorded. And they have, of course, the right to do so. My personal view is, that they could improve the CDs if they for example had edited some of the beginnings. But that's me. I like to do it that way. But I respect their way 100%. The actual recordings take place in their living room. Which is nice and cosy. And Rusch's wife make the most fantastic meals. It's a family thing.
They all put a lot of energy into this business and I hope they will survive and make enough money to live the life the enjoy. Because they put out lots of music which otherwise would never have come out. And by doing so, they help lots of musicians to get some exposure. My relationship with Rusch has been very good for me because his CDs do get around to different magazines as well as shops all over the place. He makes the CDs available.
In addition to that, I have also produced some records on my own label, Circulasione Totale. I started with cassettes and moved to CDs in -91 I think when I released In time was with Dyani, Stevens, Bradford and I. It was basically done because Enja wanted to release it. Then one day I received a letter saying, "We are sorry, but we do not want to release the tapes because you just had another CD out on Impetus." When I received the tapes I just did it on my own. We got 4 stars in Down Beat which was good and justified the release.
The CDs I have done, are projects where I might get some kind of support from either a sponsor or from some kind of official help. Ideally, I do not want to release any CDs on my own. It's too much work involved. I would rather let someone else do it. Remember, I also record many of my tapes myself and mix them in my little studio. It's too much when you have to do the whole lot. But I am sure I will continue releasing some stuff from time to time. On a very irregular basis. I also try to use my daughter, Camilla, to do the art work of my CDs to get some kind of visual identity. She is not a pro, but she is enjoying what she is doing. And she has made some nice drawings for me.
We are going to talk about your latest projects: Last year you did some duo-concerts with Peter Brötzmann and then released a duo CD on Cadence, Invisible touch. How was this experience with him? His way of playing, among the other reeds, alto sax as well, is quite different than yours.
We had already played together with Borah Bergman as a trio at the Molde festival in -96. I found out through the Internet that he was going to Denmark and Sweden to play with various people. So I called him up and asked him if it was possible to extend the tour a little bit. He agreed and we did the Kongsberg Festival, a TV thing and a few gigs ending up in Stavanger where we recorded our concert at Cafe Sting.
It was a very nice little tour. The weather was nice, we were both in a good mood and we did some nice playing. We did another trip this year. I hope to continue this duo from time to time because it represents a different challenge. You do not have any drums to lean on. You have to be your own motor! And the sounds we produce together are sometimes amazing. When we start a piece and we hit the same note - that is scary. That's why I called the CD Invisible touch.
Playing with Brötzmann has opened up some of these territories that were closed for me for many years for one reason or another, but they were things I used to do in the early years. It is very refreshing , standing next to him, listening to his energy and sound. We choose different paths in our individual musical projects lots of the time. So it is very nice every now and then having the opportunity to play with Peter. I have great respect for what he is doing. He has inspired me quite a bit, but I have no intensions trying to play like him. We have different experiences. To me, he is one of the few real artists today. And he is terribly overlooked by lots of people, unfortunately.
A new experience for you was the recordings of a solo record (ISM)for your own label. How did you come to it?
I did it right after this tour with Brötzmann was over. It was something I had wanted to do for a while. But this time I wanted to focus on some different sounds. Not the high energy stuff. But more of the softer side. I guess after playing with Brötzmann, I felt a need to go into another space.
Also your duo with percussionist Steve Hubback - Demystify - looks like being something new, compared to your older music.
In some ways this is a follow-up of the solo CD I did last year. I am visiting some of the same territories, but this time with Steve. I met Steve in Copenhagen some years ago. Last year he called me up and said he was going to Stavanger with a friend to visit some people and asked me if I wanted to play. Since then, he has visited a few times and we finally recorded a bit. Steve is also an inventor and maker of very nice percussion instruments. His playing is very different to any other drummer I have played with. He is going for a more eastern sound leaving me with much more space than I am used to. It took me quite a while to get used to his playing. I think we are going to continue this duo as well because it represents another little corner of the music and is definitely a huge challenge for me.
You have played with many drummers, like John Stevens, Hamid Drake, Louis Moholo, Rashid Bakr, Steve Hubback. How does their drumming influence your music?
What I like about a drummer is the power, the energy. I like to be pulled into the rhythms and the sounds that are found within the drums and cymbals and get lost!. They all do this on a different level, suggesting a musical situation that you start working in. I guess, for me , the drummer is the most important musician in a band. With a good drummer, you can sound quite good, even if you are an average player. But with an average drummer, a good band sounds average. So yes, they influence my music and the way I play very much. For me. a good drummer is someone who allows me the freedom to do what I feel like doing without interfering. By that I mean, not setting up rules. Just let the music flow in a natural way, with lots of energy.
There should be a quartet CD with Louis Moholo coming out soon in London on a new label; it was due to come out last year, I think?
That is what we hope for. Yes, it was supposed to come out last year, but things do happen...This year, we'll give it another try. I had Louis and bassist Nick Stephens come over to Stavanger from London and Hasse Poulsen, guitar, from Copenhagen, for the MaiJazz festival here in 1996. We did the festival plus some other gigs. It was nice and we decided to do a recording which we did in that fall in London. I also played some gigs with Louis and William Parker where Louis was subbing for Hamid Drake. We did some very nice playing with Louis. And I hope to be able to play with him again.
The German magazine Jazz podium compared the music of "Last detail" with Ornette Coleman's trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett. It was long ago that Ornette played at the Golden Circle. Were you at that time aware of the importance of this music for you? How much did that influence you?
At that time the Swedish press wrote quite a lot about his gigs in Stockolm. I remember I saw a TV program where a guy was playing sax and violin in a way that I had never seen or heard before. It must have been Ornette Coleman, surely. I suppose it was recorded at the time of the famous Golden Circle recordings on Blue Note.
It hit me right away as a music based on emotions more than academic research. A very personal language. I felt this was so much stronger than the kind of jazz I had been listening to. Which at that point, was not too much: Mulligan and Chet Baker, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins. etc. It was not until much later that I discovered who Ornette really was and what his music was like. In fact, I did not even remember his name from the TV program. But when I saw a picture of Ornette, Izenson and Moffet, I remembered their faces! I do not know if a video of those concerts is available, it would not be a bad idea for the Swedish TV to broadcast them again.
What was the story behind Detail? For sure you have been many times asked about it , but we think this group is part of the history of improvised music and we bother you once again..
Not at all, otherwise this music and the musicians behind it will be forgotten. In the fall of 1981 I played in duo with pianist Eivin One Pedersen , without a drummer. I already knew about John Stevens. And I had met him briefly in London two years before, so I had the idea of calling him up and he came over. The rehearsals and a concert were good , so that we decided to play on together. He was staying at our house while he was here, and we talked and drank some wine through the night. Lots of questions and funny answers. I was not used to his humour and many times I thought he was in a subtle way telling me this was no good. We needed now a bass player and he suggested Johnny Mbizo Dyani.
In the summer of 1982 we played at the Molde festival, after having toured Norway as Detail in March . Our pianist decided to quit the group. It was at the end of a tour, the day before we had planned to do our first recording. When we started playing in the studio, I felt so much freer without the piano. It was a releaf being a trio! The first things we did as a trio came out as "Backwards and Forwards" on the Impetus label. And we got 4 stars in Down Beat! Which I thought was quite good for a debut.... Later on, Impetus also released the last consert as a trio, with Dyani, on the double LP "Ness". That was a concert performance from Oslo. A few months before Johnny died in -86, we did a tour of Britain with Bobby Bradford. On several occasions we played with other musicians, Dudu Pukwana, Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford, Barry Guy, Harry Beckett, etc. I can say I learnt a lot through John , not only musically.
John Stevens had another important group besides Detail, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Did you play in that group with him?
In '93 I played with SME, it was only one gig and it was with Roger Smith on acoustic guitar and Nigel Coombes on violin. The day before, we did a trio with John, Roger and I. Very often when I came to England to play with John, it was like this: one gig with one line up. The next with another set of people. I found that very interesting and challenging.
Detail continued with Kent Carter on bass; did he bring another feeling in the music you developed?
With Kent on bass we played with Billy Bang and again a couple of tours with Bobby Bradford who also loves Kent's playing. After Kent came on board I became a little frustrated because he followed me all the time when we played. I must confess, I felt a bit locked in at first because Dyani never bothered to follow me that closely. He did what he did and I did what I did. We played with each other through the drumming of John Stevens. With Kent, it did not work that way and it took me awhile to get used to his way of playing. He is a strong individual player with a very solid grounding in music theory. He knows what he is doing. Many times I felt very embarrassed about my own playing. I felt it was not solid enough. It was an important experience for me, each great player you meet and communicate with brings you a step further.
After this great experience with Detail you eventually received attention by critics in your country.
It was only in 1997, after so many years of music and recordings, that I received a grant and was voted Jazz Musician of the Year in my country. It has certainly taken some time...
We go back to your new trio, the music goes on...
I wanted to play with William Parker because I had played with him before and knew he was a great guy to be with. And both Brötzmann and Borah Bergman had several times said I should try to play with Hamid Drake. So that's what I did. The CD "Remember to Forget " for my own label was a live recording from the tour I made after been voted "Musician of the year". And Ultima, another live recording from the same tour, was released on Cadence in October 99.
In January next year you are again in tour with William Parker and Hamid Drake. Did promoters find interest in this proposal? Was it easy to sell it?
I have finally got myself together to book this tour. I must admit I do find it very hard to do the bookings for a band. The negotiations for the money. All the practicallities: I can do it, but sometimes I feel like an idiot because my body refuses to pick up the phone. For me, this is the hardest part. For this particular tour, I have had luck and many places have booked us. They know Hamid and William and I am a bit of an unknown quantity...
Could we call this new trio a kind of new Detail?
For me this trio is the present day "Detail". I am a much stronger player now in this trio. Maybe it's a better trio. That does not mean I am putting down John, Kent or Johnny. Quite the opposite. They allowed me the freedom to investigate into this music and supported every move I made. I will get into territories that before were quite unthinkable but now seem to be a natural thing for me to do. But the basic thing we did in Detail is still with us in the new trio: playing with rhythms, turning them around, crossing over them and just letting them go. It's fun. It's energy and passion.
You had already met Bobby Bradford with Detail, later on you have recorded with him in USA together with other musicians. How was it to play with him again?
It was great to be with Bobby Bradford again. He is such a sweet person that never gives you any kind of trouble. And he is always trying to make me sound good! He is a person with lots of knowledge and experience, always ready to share it with you. The first time we recorded together, during our tour in England in 86 he wanted us to do a duo-track. I was so nervous to do it, but finally he coaxed me into it. When the session was over, he asked me if I thought the tape was good enough or if I wanted to record one more. A real gentleman. When we play together, we sometimes play at the same time, and he picks up my things and builds upon them turning them into nice compositions. I know when I play with Bobby, we are going into a certain territory. He draws you into his music. And I don`t mind being there. Lately we also recorded a quartet for CIMP
Bobby and Borah are very different musicians with different backgrounds. How did you get that musically to work ?
It was my idea to pair Bradford and Bergman. When they met, they treated each other with great respect. It was very nice. The three of us had a little rehearsal up at Borah's apartment the day before the recording took place.
Borah generally goes for very expressive players. Which also Bobby can be. But when we recorded Ikosa mura, I felt Bobby got Borah into some musical places where he very rarely goes. Which was nice. And of course Pheeroan who had never played with any of us before, also gave the session a nice touch of the unexpected.
After we did the CIMP recording, Bobby went back to Los Angeles and I did the trio with Rashid Bakr and Wilber Morris at the Knitting Factory. Again, the music changed dramatically because we had Rashid playing the drums. It is extremely nice to take part in such rapid shifts of musicians as I did in New York over that week. They all bring their own identity to the music. And it also brings out other sides of your music.
Rashid Bakr looks to be an important precence in your music.
I like playing with Rashid. Also, he is a nice person to be with. When I first met him, at Mark Hennens loft in 96, he was there as part of a group of people jamming. I had come to New York to practice and to edit a tape with Borah Bergman. As it turned out, he did not like the tape and I was really desperate to find something meaningful to do while I was there. When Mark invited me to the jam, I did not know who was coming, but it turned out that both Rashid and William Parker came as well as Sabeer Mateen who plays very nice tenor sax.
After the jam was over I went straight over to Rashid and William and asked if we could do a recording. They agreed and said I had to find a studio. I had met a sound guy who at that time worked for the Knitting Factory, James McLean. I went straight over to the Knitting Factory and the first man I met was James. I explained the situation and he agreed to do it - Saturday at 11 in the morning. I was going home that day and knew I did not have too much time to record, but said yes.
When I arrived on that morning at the Knitting Factory, no-one was there except the firebrigade! I thought this is it. Forget it. But it was a false alarm. By 12:30 we had set up and were ready to start recording. At 3 o‚clock I had to leave to catch my plane. At that time we had about 65 minutes of recorded music. I think I cut off a couple of things, but basically, I kept it all and it ended up as the Cadence CD "Seeing New York from the ear". That title was a way for me to describe the stess of the recording situation.
I wanted really badly to have a tape with me at home. And the way to "survive" during the recording session was to use my ears as much as I could. This was a sink or swim situation. Which I would like to thank John Stevens for showing me how to "swim". He always talked about these situations which you have to be prepared for.
Detail was an international group; you played at times with Bobby Bradford, you from Norway, John from London; Johnny Dyani from South Africa and Bobby Bradford from Los Angeles. With your new trio you have two players from the USA. How do you feel playing with people from different places?
I like that. Everybody brings their own background to the musicmaking. A different scale or a different sound inspires you to bring out new things from within yourself. I think your cultural background is important.
Interviewed by Vittorio LoConte.