by MinnPost, Minneapolis

On touring

It’s not an easy time to be out running around. I feel privileged to be touring and playing music live, which for me is what it’s all about. As [Anthony] Braxton says: ‘play or die’…. There aren’t as many venues as there used to be. In the jazz world, of which I’m debatably a part, some 50 years ago there were clubs in every town, every little town, places where people could play. They didn’t used to have to travel very far. That’s how improvised music grew. That kind of music really needs to be played live.

On his many groups, and why so many

I played with the ROVA saxophone quartet almost exclusively from 1978 to 1986. At that point, there was this obvious need [to do something else]. ROVA is still great, still the strongest thing I do, but it’s a particular set of chops, a particular way of playing—more symphonic, more orchestral. There are just lots of other things to check into.

On Coltrane’s Ascension and Electric Ascension

For the 30th anniversary of Ascension, ROVA did an acoustic version—the exact same arrangement and instruments Coltrane used. Then [in 2003] we did Electric Ascension, which is more worth checking out.

That time, we changed the arrangement and also radically changed the instrumentation. If Coltrane was alive in the 21st century, he would certainly use electronics. We threw the piano out so we wouldn’t be stuck dealing with chord changes. [At the Saalfelden Jazz Festival in Austria earlier this year], Chris Brown played synthesizer. It’s all about sound. You don’t hear any McCoy Tyner-type things going on. We usually play with Nels Cline on electric guitar. He really makes it happen.

[At Saalfelden], we were in the Austrian Alps. This is not a hip city scene, although the audience was obviously from all over Europe. Saalfelden is a ski resort, and they were piping our music into the streets. Electric Ascension is a very extreme piece. It’s not like piping Bill Evans out into the town.

On expanding the Sax & Drumming Core to include piano and trumpet

I started with two drummers [Scott Amendola and Donald Robinson]. Tenor sax and drums is this great device, since the early free jazz—Coltrane and Rashied Ali, Braxton and Max Roach, Archie Shepp and Max Roach, Andrew Cyrille and Braxton. I love the drums, and I thought, what else could happen with drums and one saxophone player? Two drummers would be a trio and I’d have two goals: They would be soloists and it would be a collective trio, not the sax up front.

On the first two CDs [The Neon Truth, 2002, and Up from Under, 2007], I tried to give them things to think about that kept them from being just drummers. If we’re going to do a collective thing, we have to have some unusual concepts to keep people from stepping on each other. We have to have a planned hierarchy and be like-minded. Like a string quartert, where everybody’s got their role. I tried to do that with the drummers, to keep them on their toes and force them into sonic areas they might not get to. Then, at a certain point, it was just over. We did a couple of tours, two great CDs, and didn’t know what else to do.

I had done some collaboration with [pianist Satoko] Fujii and [trumpeter Natsuki] Tamura in big-band situations and I loved their playing. I was thinking I would really like to add a trumpet to Drum Core. But the only way I could add Natsuki, who seemed like the right guy, given his personal vocabulary, was to bring Satoko along, too. [Note: Tamura and Fujii are husband and wife.] Though a pianist was the last thing I wanted.

I asked Satoko if she played synthesizer and she said she messed around with it but didn’t play it. Then I found by accident a CD of the Tamura Quartet where all she played was synthesizer. So I told her, “Now that I know you don’t know how to play synth, that’s exactly what I want you to do.” She insisted on a piano being there. I told her why I didn’t want a piano and we had a discussion about that, but I finally acceded because she’s such a great pianist. I said, “Fine, you’re a genius.” Otherwise it’s like asking Coltrane to play with you but saying he can only play soprano sax.

Since then there are pieces I’ve created expressly for piano. Like “Abstraction Rising” on the new CD [Stone Shift, 2009].

At this point, Satoko has a complete understanding of what I’m looking for, so she’s never going to do something I’m not interested in.

On the importance of playing live

This music only matures and grows when you play it live. I guess if we [Sax & Drumming Core + Fujii and Tamura] had the luxury of all living in the same place and could go into the studio and make recordings all the time, that would work, too. But there’s something about the pressure of “this is real” that takes music somewhere…. When you’re playing 5, 6, 7 concerts in a row for 8–10 days, if you’re playing with the right people, they don’t want to repeat themselves.

On imaginary soundtracks

I have these imaginary soundtrack pieces that are soundtracks for imaginary movies. I dedicate them to a certain filmmaker and try to go into a performance thinking about them—what would be interesting to do. It’s not like I’m making a soundtrack for a real movie. It’s much more referential and abstract. I’m thinking, “If I was listening to this and trying to imagine a movie, what would it be like?” Everyone in the audience can make their own visual image.

On the music of the Sax & Drumming Core

The pieces have a finite length, usually. There’s a form there. And thematic motifs. They change, but they have a similarity to them. Which is one of the things I really like about this band. I’m working basically with four forms, so it’s kind of like having a jazz band.

I’ve got the imaginary soundtracks for imaginary films. That’s a particular kind of form, with a graphic score. Then I’ve got more of a jazz thing, like “Abstraction Rising,” with notated heads and solos. More of a traditional thing. Then I’ve got the Finn series [pieces named for his grandson], which is more of an improvised thing. Then I’ve got pieces from when I first started the group—meditations on blues shouters, pieces with “calls,” simple blues line. Like “Across from Over” [on Stone Shift] and “Up from Under” [Up from Under]. Those pieces are really close together. They’re kind of blues, homages to singers. I wanted to open that up a bit.

On speaking to the audience during performances

Usually I don’t talk. I don’t want the audience to understand the music through my ears. I want them to think “Here it is, and here we go”… It’s like a composer who sees a hive of bees and is inspired to write something and tells the audience “I saw a hive of bees and wrote this piece.” From then on, that piece is dead to me…. One time a guy came up to me and said, “If you started a set by telling people to relax, go with the music, have no expectations, enjoy, and just let it happen, that might really help.”