This interview was carried out by, and is included in EFIP courtesy of, Lazaro Vega <email@example.com>, jazz director at Blue Lake Public Radio, Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, Twin Lake, Michigan.
Paul Lytton: No, not yet. I think someone suggested that we play together it must have been two or three years ago. When Ken came over, well I'm not quite sure how long Hal Russell's been coming over, but one of the early NGR tours some people in Munich who are sort of mutual acquaintances put us in contact. Then there was a suggestion that we try maybe playing a trio with Mars Williams. We tried and tried but it's never actually happened.But you're really familiar with his music?
Umm, some of it, yeah. Maybe not (laughs) as much as I suppose I should be. You know I haven't listened so much to his earlier stuff, I've heard more of his more recent stuff. Though we've chatted and I know a little bit of his background and I've got an idea of where he's coming from.
One of the things I've noticed about Vandermark's music, that you could also say about Evan Parker's music, is that it's saxophone-centric. He makes music that, as he says, is for the saxophone in terms of what sounds you can produce, speed of execution, dynamic level. I'm wondering, you've worked with one of the most adventuresome and highly improvisational saxophone players in Europe with Evan Parker, and I'm wondering how as a percussionist you find your way into that music?
In Evan's music?Yes, or in any saxophone players music.
Well, my goodness me. Well, I come basically out of a jazz background, and my earlier experiences were: I came to jazz through dance bands because that seemed to be the way into it in the early '60s. I was playing dance band music, the really conventional kind of stuff at the time. Which was very narrow in a sense. A lot of the groups were run by saxophone players. So I suppose my first encounters with saxophone players were playing these kind of foxtrot/waltzes for a living.That wouldn't be Ted Heath would it?
(Laughing) Naw, no, no, no, no. I was too young for Ted Heath. Actually I did a lot of London rehearsal bands, these big bands. And I got also quite a big band experience as well. I learned to read.
Through the jazz thing, I mean the main spearhead of jazz has been through saxophone players somehow. Although my early experiences apart from in groups with the saxophone were with guitarists as well. So I split. The main soloist was either a saxophone player or a guitar player in my case.
I listened to a lot of saxophone players and I suppose that, yeah, it's the main jazz instrument somehow.Did you come through a change in music through the influence of Sonny Murray, or, what was it that brought you to the place where you like to play more open?
My goodness, you're asking me some really, some questions I've got to turn my head back somehow.
I leapt. I got involved more with the European, well, the English drumming scene in a sense, and left the American thing a little bit behind.Would that be John Stevens?
Well, I'm afraid, no. John never had a direct influence on my playing. What happened was, if I remember rightly, somehow I was having internal battles with myself about whether I wanted to carry on sort of playing time or pulse kind of music. I felt there was some kind of conflict going on. And I was looking around to see what was available. Someone suggested, someone who's big band I was in at the time suggested that I meet the English drummer Tony Oxley, because he felt that he could sort out the kind of crises I was going through. Tony had been there before kind-of-thing.
He arranged for me to meet him. We got, at the time, to where we were quite friendly and Tony introduced me, basically, to the Free scene because although he was the house drummer at Ronnie Scott's - does that mean anything to you? - right, the club. Tony was house drummer. But he was also involved with Derek Bailey, and had, I think it was a quintet which involved Evan. Through Tony I met those two guys, and through various circumstances then started playing with Evan.
So I was more involved in, well, the European thing at that point. Somehow it seemed an answer to the kind of crises I was suffering with the "time music." And being sort of English, European, my history of jazz was really my record player. I'd heard quite a lot of people, Americans coming over and doing European tours and what have you. The scene in London at the time was, well, trying to find it's own identity I guess. Then I got lifted out of this time thing into a completely different scene.As a percussionist when you change from playing swing rhythms and playing time for a soloist, laying down a nice rhythmic bed for them to improvise on, and moving into the Free scene, it seems to me the parameters shift from necessarily overt rhythm to more like texture, contour, color and dynamics as being the primary organizing forces in the music. Could you respond to that for people who aren't familiar with the type of drumming that you play?
Well, it does depend on who I'm playing with at the time. For example, playing in a group that's saxophone orientated, it's also depending on where the saxophone is coming from. Say this pulse kind of jazz background music, somehow or other every musician, or most people even, have got some kind of inner pulse. It's hard to describe where that comes from.Probably your heartbeat.
Something like that, maybe. Although it's interesting that different musicians seem to have different speeds. I don't know, my internal musical speed seems to be faster than my heartbeat, it seems to be quite a high rate. Some other people seem to play slower.
So in the cases, humm, when I play in trio with Evan and Barry Guy, we've all got a kind of similar inner pulse. The thing just moves along on it's own internal momentum somehow. But in other contexts, for example, I'm not thinking in terms of pulse at all. In those areas I'm thinking more in terms of sounds. So the drums to me are no longer any kind of rhythmical instrument, they're just sound sources. So I tend to use the drums in certain other contexts more as tables to rest things on, or as vibrating surfaces and more of a noise source, I guess.(That's what I'm getting at: what organizes the sound? What holds the improvised performance the once you've done away with traditional song forms, harmonies, and rhythms?
Playing with Evan over the years we've gone through various incarnations. In the very early 70's we did a lot of exploration in acoustics, if you like. One of the parameters that was very important was the venue we were playing at. Apart from the larger places which have their own kind of music. Some of these larger halls define the music in a certain way where certain sounds don't work at all. But in smaller places, or in very resonant places, one can use the acoustics to help manipulate sounds. The music then tends to be a bit more different in those kind of circumstances.
I think acoustics certainly are very interesting to me. It's not as if we just play a standard set irrespective of where we are playing. Also, I think, for example in a church it's very interesting to hear the kind of set one plays in that environment and compare that with, say, playing in a festival where basically you can't do very much other than trying to get some kind of music across to the audience. And that sort of limits some of the things you can do.In Grand Rapids you'll be playing in a room that seats about 100 people, but it's open to a large bookstore.
All right.Are you going to be bringing with you a drum set?
No, it's not really practical. I'm going to bring a box of my - junk, I call it. Stuff that I usually use: small cymbals, bits of metal and wood that I rap on the drums. And some normal kinds of cymbals. But it's impractical, it costs too much money to bring a kit over. I'm going to have to borrow something, which always is intriguing, because you don't always know what you're going to get.You make your own drums, don't you?
Well, I have done many, many years ago. What I tended to do, one of the things that happened in the beginging was one moved away from using standard drum kits. The standard Free playing kit then was a collection of stuff that you picked up here and there. Bits of - in Japan, Chinese drums; also European drums, American drums. Just made a kind of do-it-yourself kit. Some people still use these kinds of kits. But, in the early days, one carted an incredible amount of stuff around. As you get older you find, first of all, that you can't carry it, and secondly maybe half of it is not really necessary. You can get as many sounds out of less material. So, it's become less. I use a variety of stuff now, it depends on what sort of gig I'm doing.When I saw Han Bennink at the Chicago Jazz Festival many years ago, he took a big armful of re-bar, you know, those metal poles they use to reinforce concrete walls, he took a bunch of those and threw them on the stage. Then he took a broom and was sweeping them. That created quite a racket. I'm wondering, would you go to that extreme in performance, is that like something you would investigate away from the drum set?
Well, I suppose I had a very small phase of kind of performance art in the way of Han, sort of very early on. But I tend to, well, most of the stuff I use is somehow recognizable to the audience, I think. That's the object.
One of the things I would have liked to brought over but I can't is my amplified section of stuff. Which is just impossible because it's too heavy to ship the stuff around. That's sort of a frame with bits of wire and what-have-you stretched across it and amplified using pick ups and what have you. And I can modify the sounds. You hear what a wire sounds like. Most of the time you wouldn't hear that sort of thing. There are all these small sounds made louder and they're quite interesting in a musical context.Do you use a standard mallet to strike that?
No, bowed, plucked, scratched.Could you encapsulate some of your current musical activity? I mean, how busy are you? How are things going?
(Laughs) You've caught me at, by my standards, a relatively busy time. It's very variable. A week ago I was on tour with Evan's Electro-Acoustical Ensemble. I don't know if you know anything about that. But that's basically the trio with Barry and Evan plus some electronic musicians who actually use our acoustic sounds and modify them electronically. So I did five or six concerts and we recorded our second CD for ECM of that group.
A couple of weeks before that I was in Berlin playing in Barry Guy's Big Band, and another big band called The King Übü Orchestra which is an international band of improvisers, basically. Barry's band is large, I think it's a seventeen piece band, and which is for playing Barry's composed pieces, generally speaking, with a lot of improvisation. But this other band was a purely improvising group with nine people. Which is quite a challenge to get some kind of a cohesive music together out of just standing up there and doing what we do.I think that's really wonderful when it happens
There's really magic happening when something coalesces out of that.
Sure. But, amongst this particular group of musicians there are quite a few different opinions of what improvisation is. So the first set was quite hard. We got it together for the second concert, but the first was so minimal that it stretched most people's ears in the audience. It was very strange I'd have to say.A lot of space?
Space? Very, very quiet sounds. A lot of tentativeness on the part of the musicians. The trouble with these large ensembles is, owing to the economic situation certainly in Europe, it's very difficult to do a lot of gigs with such a large group. I mean, it's hard enough with a small group. But a large group like that makes it very rare that we can work.
The next gigs I have, then, are in the States.Are you playing with anyone other than Ken Vandermark when you come into Chicago?
I am, but I'm afraid I'm not sure. There's certainly a trio set with Mars. We're finally going to do this. I think there's going to be some duo set with Hamid Drake which I'm looking forward to. And some of the other guys who I don't think I've met....There may be a gig with a cello player.How long has it been since you've been over to the United States?
I was there in August last year playing with Evan and Alex Von Shlippenbach. We played at the Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, and we also did a trio set in Chicago at this club called The Empty Bottle. We also did a quartet set with Connie Bauer in there. So it hasn't been so long actually.
Yeah, I really enjoy it there. I think the audience is so much more appreciative and interested presumably because we're rare. It's the same when people come over here from your side. Somehow one always seems treated in a special way.
To me the Chicago scene, being one of the few scenes in the States that I know a little bit of, it feels fantastic. There seems to be so much happening there. It's very strange. When I left London around 1975, between the end of the 1960's and 1975 there was an incredible amount of stuff going on there.
Then I sort of lost a little bit of contact with it. Then coming in contact with the European scene. In Germany there wasn't so many centres of activity. Now, Berlin, because of the wall and what have you, that seems to be quite a strong centre.
But in terms of just places to play and interested people, Chicago certainly feels like one of the best places I've been to in years. I don't know, it seems strange somehow. Yeah yeah. For some reason I associate intense concentrations of activity of this kind of music, anyway, in Europe. But it seems the worm has turned.And consider too that a lot of this style of music came out of the AACM, and perhaps there's more of an historical appreciation of the AACM now that it's over 30 years old. For 20 years or more it was happening in Europe. But maybe it has. Maybe people in America have gotten over their amnesia.
It seems to go in cycles; it seems to go from country to country. Certainly the way it spread through Europe. The main countries were Holland, Germany and Britan. Then slowly it fanned itself out and you had activity taking place in different countries. Suddenly one country would come to prominence and then fade out a little bit. I don't know exactly where the main music in Europe happens now. There are these different scenes, but the music is established now. It's been around for 35 odd years. The European thing, anyway. So it's not really new in a sense.No, but in terms of musical development it's still really new. Jazz itself is new because it's only one hundred years old.
It's a blink of an eye. But, I know what you mean, though, in terms of people's every day life it's not new.
It seems to have plateaued out a little bit in terms of getting larger audiences. It's very difficult to get a big audience unless you're going to put on a special event. But for a regular club gig, it's very hard to get people now to come out for the music.
It felt different in America. But, as I say, we're maybe a bit exotic over there. So it's a special case.People are aware of the developments that have been going on in Europe for a long time and have been envious of that. I think there's an audience here that has always thought, well, if I could only hear that kind of music, because what we're getting over here is 50 years old in terms of it's stylistic reference point. It's like people haven't been dealing with what happened after Sun Ra. Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and the AACM because there's this whole generation of musicians in Europe who dealt with those musical issues and their possibilities that people over here forgot about or just dumped because they didn't see them being commercially viable. People here might realize that the Europeans didn't really find the bottom line to be the primary reason for making music, they wanted to do it for artistic reasons. I think that's what it is, people know, are aware the research and development has been going on and they want to hear where you've taken it. Maybe that's it.
One thing that seems slightly odd to me is that, the propaganda is like, anything that's over 10 years old in the states is "old." That's why I feel a little bit weird, because now we're thirty-five years old. What does that make us? Prehistoric. And yet, when I was in Atlanta I met, how can I put it? Mature people, even older than me, who were absolutely thrilled to bits and knew everything about the European scene. It blew me away. I was quite shocked in a way because of the details. They knew all about our music. For that generation - those people must have been well into their sixties - that's hard to find people in the audience of that generation who are that interested in our music. Certainly in jazz and what have you on the American scene, but not in the European scene. That's certainly an exception. But there were quite a few people. It was amazing.