Thursday, June 27, 2013

Ivo Perelman: The Indisputable Truth of Process (An Interview)

Tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman (b. 12 January 1961, São Paulo) is one of the busiest improvisers on the modern creative music scene. He has recorded dozens of albums as a leader, often with collaborators such as Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Joe Morris, Gerald Cleaver, Dominic Duval and Daniel Levin. In addition to his work as a musician, Perelman is also a painter working in an abstract vein and whose influences lie chiefly in the postwar New York school. It might seem anachronistic to cite Jackson Pollock's poured and drizzled canvases or the music of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler as being formative and continually relevant in 2013, but Perelman's opus certainly speaks to timelessness and longevity. In preparation of an article published in the Spring 2013 issue of Burning Ambulance, I talked with Ivo over a period of several days in mid-January 2013. Here are the epic results of those conversations.

I. Meeting Ivo

I'd like to get an idea of your beginnings. How did you get interested in music?

I started with the guitar at six or seven; I didn’t know how to play it at all. My cousins were sitting there and I gave them a mini-show, and it felt natural. I had this memory in my recollection. My mom was a pianist and graduated from the conservatory; she taut and gave some recitals. My father loved music, my grandfather was a violin-lover and music was around. We listened to Brahms, Chopin, Bach, Brazilian pop music. When I started on the guitar I played Villa-Lobos and a wide variety of stuff. I took a break and then restarted it again at about twelve; I managed to get pretty proficient and played recitals, on TV and so forth. I played local television programs because I was a prodigy on the guitar. I never liked the atmosphere – it was too serious and strict, and I feared those performances because it was so heavy. It was beautiful music, but can you picture me sitting down in that scene? Memorizing this stuff? Back then I didn’t know what I would become, but the classical guitar wasn’t my thing. I quit, but with a sense of sadness because I love that music and the classical guitar is beautiful. All the preludes and etudes, cello transcriptions – I loved that.

After I gave up classical guitar I was pretty lost; I played mandolin and I played clarinet, played cello in an orchestra, upright bass, and I couldn’t just find one type of music I could settle on. I knew it wasn’t nylon-string guitar. I played in rock bands, but that was too harsh. Then I played Brazilian music on the mandolin, which was too romantic. When I started on the saxophone around fifteen or sixteen, that was it – that was the sound I was listening for. Putting on Wayne Shorter’s Schizophrenia [Blue Note, 1967] with James Spaulding, I loved it. I had an alto but it took me a couple years to get my hands on a tenor, and that settled it. I knew – that’s what I’d been looking for.

Why the saxophone and not the clarinet?

I was hanging out with a friend who liked Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz and played a bit, and I thought it looked cool. I had the clarinet and that was nice, but it didn’t have the ‘balls’ that a saxophone has (sorry, clarinet players!). I was listening to Woody Herman and Buddy De Franco, Paul Horn, these people – I was really into jazz back then.

Jazz as a separate thing from what you do now?

Well, yes, in a way – Fifties and Sixties jazz, Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz, I loved that.

Was it hard or easy to get recordings in Brazil then?

No, not easy at all – imported LPs were very expensive. I would borrow recordings from friends, but it was ridiculously overpriced to buy them. I would play easy carnival gigs, once a year for three days and making a bit of money. I was semi-professional by the time I turned twenty, playing Dixieland gigs on the clarinet as well, and I began to think about studying the music seriously. That’s how I came to study at Berklee in Boston.

Why Berklee in particular? Were you wanting to come to the US in general, or did it matter?

We heard that Berklee was the place to go back in those days, and I had a friend who was going there and I got excited. We got on the plane together.  He was studying viola and switched to saxophone while at Berklee, and he went back to Brazil and started a contemporary music department at the Universidad de Campinas, which is prestigious and he’s the head of the music department there. He finished Berklee and went on to a PhD. On the other hand, I couldn’t finish the first two semesters – discipline is something I cherish today, but back then I was rebellious and wanted to make it my own way. What did I know? I was twenty.

What about the cello?

I was into it for a while; I played in this orchestra, and I was improvising as I learned. This was back in Brazil – you learn as you play, as a group and it sounded horrible at first, but in a few months we sounded pretty good. I was improvising hand positions; the maestro would get crazy and upset, and threaten to kick me out. I was invited to either change my approach or get the hell out, because I was influencing the other guys – we all looked at each other while we played, and I was going all over the place, and I was checking out the positions. That’s a no-no when you’re first learning; you’ve got to stick to one position. Pretty much everyone was going crazy, and I was the rotten egg. I knew I wasn’t that. It took me a while to get serious about the saxophone.

That didn’t happen till you got out to California, right?

Yeah, exactly – after I left Berklee, I went to Montreal for a year and played Brazilian gigs, and I was practicing but I wasn’t completely into it. I studied arranging in California and graduated from the Dick Grove School of Music, and then after not playing much but writing all this music for twenty or thirty people, I said I’d never write again – I knew what an orchestra was, I knew what the concept was, and that was it. I had to do it in order to give it up. Then I really tried to just play the horn after that, all day long for a few years, practicing constantly. For money I played Mitzvahs, weddings, parties, and I didn’t really like that either – I decided that I was going to have to go back to Brazil, learn the flute and play in a studio band or something.

I took a flute lesson with Marty Krystall, the saxophone player, and he and I started talking. Recording became a possibility – he said he thought I had an interesting thing going, and I said “for who?” He said “I have a label – me and [bassist] Buell Neidlinger.” So I was lucky for hanging out with the right guys, and they encouraged me. They thought I could pull this off. He called Peter Erskine and John Patitucci because they were buddies, they hung out in the studios.

Did you play gigs with Marty and Buell?

Yeah, here and there, mostly in jam sessions. I did a gig with [drummer] Vinnie Colauita through them. I figured what the hell­, I’ll see what happens. The CD [Ivo, K2B2/ITM, 1989] did well and caught the attention of some sectors of improvised music. I thought I should check out New York because I wasn’t going back to Brazil.

Cadence reviewed the first CD, right?

It did, and it got a lot of exposure for a first-time record, because I was combining Brazilian tunes and rhythms with free improv – it sounded different.

Did you already know people like [bassist] William Parker and [pianist] Matt Shipp?

Not at all.

How did you meet the crew that you began playing with? Was it difficult?

I started going to the Knitting Factory on Houston, and little by little I met people. The first one I got hooked up with was [bassist] Fred Hopkins; Fred was beautiful, and he was available. He had a big sound, free spirit and a great guy. We started gigging and then I got connected with [drummer] Andrew Cyrille, and eventually I met Matt Shipp – I lived on the Lower East Side, close to his apartment. One thing slowly led to another; I met the crowd of improvisers and here I am.

Do you distinguish between jazz and this music? Do you perceive them as distinct?

No, it’s the foundation. I always liked jazz and always tried to sound like those people, even when I was studying with Charlie Shoemake in Los Angeles. He’s a great teacher and a great guy, but his methodology wasn’t working for me. A lot of great players went through him, but for me it wasn’t right. I would take the solo home, learn it verbatim, and play a few selected phrases – I did that for a couple of years, and it was kind of like suffering. It’s like you want to be an actor so you memorize these monologues, and you never feel like you’re in the right shoes. I always had the sense of ‘what the hell am I trying to accomplish here?’ I always felt best when I was just playing what came to me, but I didn’t put one and one together back then – that what I thought was dessert could be the main course. I thought ‘oh, play like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter, learn the phrases and then you’re entitled to have a little fun.’ There are people who do that as their main thing.

When I took cello lessons, my teacher encouraged me to improvise because she knew I wanted to do that. Of course, I learned Bach suites and things like that, but since I wanted to experiment, she would show me tricks to get the sounds that I was looking for. That was good.

That’s great – I memorized Benny Goodman solos, and of course I sounded terrible, I couldn’t play the horn that well. The teacher was so nasty – don’t you ever do this again! You’ll never have a lesson again! – I got so discouraged. The more you know, the more you’ll move ahead. I didn’t know you studied the cello.

Yeah, I did. I have an affinity for string instruments as you do. It was interesting to hear it in practice the other day with you, [cellist] Daniel Levin and [violinist] Jason Kao Hwang.

It felt great playing with them – I don’t know if the recording came out, but it felt really good. I love playing with them and it was my first time playing with [drummer] Jean-Pablo Caretti, and he sounded great. It was very cozy.

Had you played with Jason much before?

Sure, I played with him in [bassist] Dominic Duval’s string quartet and we played a gig in Canada at Victoriaville. I did a couple other things with him, too, about ten or fifteen years ago. Daniel is like a volcano with ears – usually you don’t have those things together. He plays the most beautiful instrument on earth – how can you not be seduced?

II. The Sound and the Spirit

I was trying to parse some of the things you’d said earlier about your harmonic language and how that’s developed while listening to you perform, and of course that stuff is all there but it may not be front and center to an initiated individual. I can’t tell all the things you’re doing on the saxophone and how they relate to a specific harmonic language.

You mean, what do I do at home to prepare for the performance that is about to transpire? The time for research and validation of sound is over for me – that was in my formative years. I studied the piano with Dick Grove, and believe it or not graduated with basic piano. Experimenting and hearing the shape of minor thirds against seconds, and when I studied arranging, how unison trumpets or polychords and major triads sound against bass pedals, and studying Gil Evans’ charts, those formative years were heavy. I went through serious discipline and that is now over. What is not over is my muscular relationship to the saxophone – there is enough there for me to last until I am gone. When you coordinate your particular maturity level and how you see life with your muscular apparatus, something new will emerge. I see life like this, and I hear music at this point and I have the physical, energetic totality of my being is different from a year ago. It is at a unique point and it will never come back – this is what I’m investigating. The way I am as a human being right now and how I can maximize that.

You were also talking about the specifics of harmonic series.

Ah, yes, that is muscular. I started studying the trumpet music of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, where they had a concept of “clear playing” on trumpets without valves. They could play whole scale diatonic music on the upper partials of the harmonic series. You had to be very disciplined and studied because you were playing music from the seventh harmonic on upward to the thirty-second. That’s a very narrow range, where you have to have a very developed embouchure and a great ear. I started to study this music on the saxophone and I realized that the intricate relationships between the unstable harmonics of this harmonic series – the seventh, eleventh, thirteenth and fourteenth as unstable as they are, they are also the most interesting. I started to practice with my hand on the bell of the horn, pretending that I am deaf. A lower harmonic will vibrate big, and I started to approach practice from a different angle – it’s been a hell of a ride. I’ve been developing my playing and I really can hear it as well as play it. I would go for it hoping it would work, and now it works great. I am opening windows I didn’t know were there.

When did that shift take place in your own development?

I started that six or seven years ago. It took me a long time – this is a long-term study and it doesn’t yield results overnight. I didn’t know that of course; if I’d known how long the process was going to be I might not have started it.

Once you’re in it you can’t turn back.

Exactly. I am so happy with how it developed, very naturally from one thing to the next. Studying sixteenth-century trumpet music is very difficult. It requires a lot of patience and chops – you’re at the very high end of the series on the saxophone. Many times my lips bled and my ears didn’t like it – at the beginning it’s too harsh and piercing. I had problems with my hearing for a while, and I used to practice with the bell turned towards me so I could feel the vibrations better. That was messing up my hearing, so I had to fix that. It’s been a long process.

Was there a particular time in your life where you realized you had to do something different, or was this just a natural progression?

There was a turning point. Back in 1996, I was practicing too much and I developed tendonitis. I had to find ways to practice the saxophone that didn’t involve much fingering, so I figured out ways to produce sounds like long tones, harmonics and tonguing, breath, and those were things I neglected before. Any saxophonist is easily seduced by the idea of playing lines; who wants to spend three hours practicing sound production, pianissimo to forte? It’s a bore. It was back then, but I had no choice. For some years that was all I could do, so eventually I developed a taste for it. I am completely healed now, but now the majority of my practice – I enjoy going from pianissimo to a crescendo, and I practice as if my life depended on it as though I was the opening French horn player, as if the notes would crack if I don’t take care of them. It’s totally unnecessary – I don’t have to do it. Maybe it showed in the string trio, this control.

Yeah, it did and also this corresponds with how I feel that your music is more relaxed now than it felt ten or fifteen years ago. I definitely notice that on your more recent recordings – it seems more patient. Not that there isn’t discipline to playing the other music, and I think this also happens as you age, you become a more patient person hopefully, and your exploration of sounds will be different as a result. That rigorous practice might have helped you to become a more patient improviser.

I think it’s a two-way street. One thing influenced the other, and I’m thankful that God put that challenge on my path. It was meant to be, and all those elements are the sheer fabric of the music. You have to deal with them sooner or later in your musical life.

It’s funny because people have often opined that free music is a situation that’s pretty simple – there aren’t a lot of choices if you don’t have tunes, and it shows that each musician is involved in specific practices.

No music practice is one thing – it’s how you approach it. If you want to become a virtuoso kazoo player playing children’s songs, you can do that through intricate daily practice. Free music is a lot of responsibility, and if you are a responsible musician, you want to know a little bit of a lot of things. I was reading [trumpeter] Lester Bowie’s interview in DownBeat from 1974 [January 31, 1974], and he said he wants to play a little bit of everything – he doesn’t want to specialize. If you have a varied menu and you’re playing improvised music, you’ll be better off. Everything is hard – it’s hard to play a Bach cello concerto the way it’s supposed to be.

I think it’s interesting, too, you’re right hat there is so much available in this music, but I also feel in your playing that there are specific areas in your music that you’ve blocked out and said “this is what I’m working on.”

Yes, I certainly did. It just happens – I don’t know if it’s an unconscious thing, but that is true. If sometime I was into arranging and composing and didn’t play the saxophone for a year, that’s what it was. Then there was a time that I imitated Sonny Rollins, and another time for exploring the molecular aspects of the saxophone. That – that is the Pandora’s Box where the mystery lies. Manipulating the sound, sound production is king when you are playing an instrument – how you get the sound from the horn or guitar, if you want to play creative music this is everything. The physicality of how to extract the sounds, you know.

Also the people you play with are with you in that search – Shipp, Parker, Duval – you’re all different in your overarching search, but it seems you have parallel interests.

And I have learned a hell of a lot from them. I remember William saying something to the effect that “you should cherish your mistakes because that’s where you learn from.” Matt and his pedal use, how he lets sounds collide and create frequencies – he is a scientist.

That specifically seems like a shared affinity, molecular work on the saxophone and his on the piano. William has talked about the transcendent aspects of the music and how certain tones could elevate the body into the stratosphere. He was on a heavy spiritual trip there, and I thought it was interesting to think about – separating the molecules in the body.

I totally agree with him – in learning the harmonic series and relating that to man’s music history you see how the timeline coincides with harmonic thinking. As you go up in the series you see from medieval music to simple harmonies and tonal music, you keep going up and we will keep developing our ears as species. We will end up hearing like dogs, I have no doubt – there are sounds in the upper echelon of the harmonic series that you can’t hear or don’t perceive, but we will given enough time and thanks to certain artists, we as a population will start hearing. People hear minor sevenths and tritones that once sounded like a car crash – people called it the devil’s tone. Descriptive and narrative music used the tritone to depict the devil. Today there is nothing without it – it’s like white bread.

In terms of the tritone and developing our ears, can you speak to where we are now, and developing harmonic sense as you’ve encountered it?

I think we are at around the late thirties – thirty-second, thirty-third, thirty-fourth in the harmonic series. Everything has been explored and we’ve been exposed to everything. It’s going to require a major shift in civilization and a higher spiritual refinement of some sort because those sounds are very thin and require a different hearing apparatus. We will have to surpass the technological era that we live in or develop new chops. We don’t know if we’ll be reborn from the ashes and keep the memories of previous cultures – that’s when there’ll be a new curve.

You don’t think we’ll forget these things?

No, we carry in our genes the memory, the biological and cultural memory of previous times. How else can you explain someone being born today and – it’s not because they go to Berklee that they can hear Charlie Parker, right? You were born knowing it without realizing that knowledge. We are a product of our ancestors. I think it’s there already and we’ll just recapture it and move on from there.

Is playing always in your case a spiritual connection?

Yeah, it’s that one time I feel connected to a higher motion. It’s like there’s two parallel worlds for me, one that I am playing and one where I’m doing everything else. Thank God I see that way because it validates my life, you know? It makes it bearable – otherwise there’s so much BS. It’s my prayer and meditation, when I cease existing as flesh. At a minimum level when I am working towards certain goals, that’s already spiritual because the moment I put my hand on the horn and it starts vibrating, I turn into a different being – it’s impossible for me to play the saxophone without reverence and respect, without changing my mundane status. Every time I play is sacred and it’s as spiritual as it gets – that’s why I don’t teach, because you grab the horn and show someone things that are your own, and that’s why I don’t like to learn music before a recording or memorize music before a session.

Dominic Duval, Rosi Hertlein, Ivo Perelman

III. The Art of the Improviser

When you got involved with painting, what was the impetus to dive into that?

It happened somewhat prosaically; I had a CD cover in my hands and I wasn’t happy with it – a painting of some sort – and I thought, ‘you know what, I’m going to try something.’ I’d never painted before, but I thought ‘if it’s not any better than that, at least it’s mine.’ And then I bought some paint, some colors, brushes, canvas, took it into the bathroom in my apartment (because I was afraid I would make a big mess – and I did, I ruined the bathroom), but it was a revelation. I didn’t leave that bathroom for a month. I was painting 24/7. It was orgasmic. I was using acrylic, and I was like a kid again – anything was permissible, anything was possible. Seeing things taking shape – it was like being a child. I didn’t have anybody to answer to; whatever I did was what I wanted. For years I was painting all the time, and I got some lucky breaks and had some exhibits, and I started selling some paintings.

You’ve had a lengthy exhibition history, I see.

I did – I still sell them and I have galleries that represent me. The only reason I don’t do more of it now is that I need a separate studio space. From time to time I’ve rented studios in order to deliver on an exhibit, or do smaller-scale pieces in my apartment, but now I need a full-time studio and I’m looking for a place.

I’ve been impressed by the paintings of yours that I’ve seen. The work is strong.

Thank you; I was into Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, all the cats. I was reading about them and going to all the museums I could in order to educate myself. I had conversations with painter friends – all in a process of self-education.

With painting, it’s interesting to hear about someone being able to jump into it without any baggage. There’s so much historically in abstract painting that’s available, and knowing about that but still being able to jump in freely is quite remarkable. People don’t usually do that successfully – you  just went for it.

I listened to my inner child; I didn’t give a damn about where I was going, approval or how successful I would be. It was me, playing and I had a hell of a time. People looked at it and said it was great stuff. I was drawing from my experiences making music, though – concepts such as texture, space, time, density, scarcity and all of that. One art mirrors all art. If you find a way to decode the particular aspects of one art into another, you can do anything. If you have the apparatus, you are home free.

I’ve noticed a lot of visual artists are not that connected to music, especially improvised music. Most visual artists who are good or important don’t have a musical attunement.

Visual artists are different from musicians – they think differently and have different personalities. I’ve been able to observe both because I’m a hybrid of sorts. There’s a clique, a different behavior – they are more introverted, maybe less into food than musicians, they’re more verbally inclined, more agile with words.

Visual artists have often had to really describe their work in a lucid way because they have to quickly sell themselves. That wasn't formerly the case but it’s happened moreso in the last thirty or forty years.

Well, also, you finish your painting and you have a lifetime to look and think. Music – you can only think when you’re listening. There’s a finite time – it starts and ends. A painting only ceases existing when you turn away from it; music is more dramatic, you have to turn it off yourself.

I used to get frustrated when I was in art history classes by the lack of interest in music; I love both art and music, and I think of them relationally. I would get annoyed by people’s disinterest or people having no curiosity beyond pop music, and yet they’re very into this weird abstract art. I always thought that was odd – people have their own personal tastes, but there’s a tendency to invalidate challenging music by the visual art world. A lot of multimedia presentations that include music, they’ll pick the worst possible music to include.

I think it’s easier to digest information visually than aurally. There is a gap between the development of the visual arts and the aural arts, mainly when talking about public acceptance and understanding. Nobody is scared of a red mark on a canvas and they sell for millions, but nobody buys our music. Who’s listening to it?

I always want it to be like that baseball movie, Field of Dreams, where if you put the stuff out there, people will find it.

I think so – what is it that we’re doing that is so alien? It’s all about the human experience.

I think of music socially – you’re engaging the work as you would another person, whether it’s by sound or by sight. It needs to be engaged with on a humanistic level.

Historically maybe music had a more popular dance component; you experience it with your body or your brain. The visual world has never had that separation – you feel what you want when you look at a painting, and nobody dictates that. Music’s like – oh, it’s dance? Jazz, especially free jazz, is body music and you perceive it with your cells. You can listen to it analytically if you want, there’s nothing wrong with it either.

I tend to just groove to stuff, even if it’s out.

I do too; I think my brain does a disservice to my existence most of the time. I listen to music with open Chakras; if I like it, my brain will follow that as well.

That’s been one of my problems in dealing with modern composition – my brain enjoys it, but there’s a feeling in my body that I don’t get. I appreciate what about Stockhausen and Webern is interesting, but at the same time my body requires expression that I don’t pick up on in the way that I’d like to.

Another social hang-up that detracts from jazz’ exposure is the so-called seriousness of music. Concert music necessarily is more important than jazz music – that’s still part of the structure we have right now.

Right – neither concert music nor popular music want anything to do with improvisation. It’s stuck in this weird middle area. You can get improvised music that panders to one or the other, and that also feels dishonest.

I think all music is improvised music; it’s slowed down and made available to people that want to access it, but ultimately all music will be improvised as we evolve as a species. Improvisation mirrors our brain – it’s constantly conversing with itself. Why slow things down? It’s just for the economic aspects of music. Ultimately all music will be improvised or spontaneously composed as you wish – I’m sure of that, maybe in five hundred or a thousand years from now.

Music, for me – I find it interesting that, in terms of meaning, what is the crux of that in this work? Artists and public often seem like they have to have meaning to what they do. For example, I was looking at some textile work the other day and it was very interesting until the artist started talking about the personal stories behind the work, or the psychological excavation if you will. I feel it’s less common in this music to ascribe meaning to the work, but it still happens that people feel like it has to be ‘about’ something. Why can’t things be themselves?

What’s the meaning of the universe? The universe exists without you giving it any meaning or not. It’s fine to intellectualize, but I leave it alone.

Yet you still have a strong connection to the poetic language, which definitely freighted with some sort of meaning. You have titles that are allusive, quite often – I guess one has to give the work some name, you can’t always untitle everything. You have a connection to language that is notable.

I have a facility with language and I’m prone to verbalizing. I like to write and I write for my own enjoyment and self-expression. When it comes to naming things, it’s a fun exercise, but music exists as an independent entity.

It’s something that I am chewing on a lot lately, and it seems like a good time to bring it up because you’re involved in at least two disciplines – visual art and music – so the idea of meaning tries to weave its way through this work in a curious way. I’m trying to figure it out.

I was actually thinking about the same thing the other day – I was reading Joe Morris’ book [Perpetual Frontier, Riti Publishing, 2012]. I have yet to meet a musician of that caliber who can write like that. It’s a one of a kind book. He had to develop that line of thought and did a beautiful job. So if I had to put my creative process into words, would I do a good job? I don’t think so. Joe has answers, lots of answers. I don’t have nearly as much – I don’t know what takes place and if I did, I would be nervous about trying to recreate that every time. Whatever is going to happen will happen – it might be a great session and it might not be. There are so many variables involved – the reeds that don’t work, ligatures and mouthpieces. Any saxophonist will tell you horror stories. You try to underplay these factors because otherwise they’d be maddening – you have to play an hour of fresh, new creative music and everything could go wrong.

If you thought of every variable you couldn’t leave the house.

Let alone go into a recording and make a statement. Joe Morris has found an answer for many of these questions and I thank him for that. I wish I could explain or understand what I do; by reading his book it’s actually opened some windows of perception. I now realize I have a methodology that is unconscious and it’s quite scattered, but it’s there.

One would think you’d have to in order to do what you’ve done.

I can’t be too savvy and understanding about that; if I know what I am doing, then I’ll keep going back and obsessing about it, and that’s already enough of a problem.

I feel like with Joe – and I’ve only recently been able to see him work. I had to hope someone was playing that I wanted to see when I was visiting the East Coast. So after hearing his records for many years… I think I saw him once in a trio at the Vision Festival, years ago. When he works, even though he’s very technically adept, there is that childlike aspect. It’s like seeing someone play music for the first time even though they’ve played a lot. It’s an impulse to capture oneself anew each time, and that’s important in this music.

I’m sure Joe has a brainy approach to describing this music, but he delves into the act of creation with a blank mind. Just by listening to him, I’m sure that he has both and he is privileged. He can stand back and critically analyze, but he can play as if he didn’t know anything and be totally spontaneous.

In this music, you can pick out who is able to do that and who isn’t. The ones who can’t do that – and in itself it’s not a bad thing – the ability to continually approach a situation anew is very special thing.

Those moments I look for when I’m playing the saxophone, something I never bumped into before, a group of notes put together in a way I hadn’t noticed – I hate when I fall into a particular pattern. I shy away from this at all times. That’s why I’m so excited about the studies I’m doing, because they allow me to get into the fabric of the sound where there is no distinction. There is a continuum of amazement and discovery at all times. There are no rules or habits – it’s all organic expression of my bloodflow, minutely driven by my conscious mind. I can forget my rational being; the key to my music is the harmonic series and I’m very excited about that.

Even though I know you hate planning, is there a way that you map things out so that in your improvisational mind, you know what’s coming?

Yeah, well first there’s the mechanical part of manipulating the partials in the harmonic series with success. So that’s just sitting down and practicing lip exercises, attack, tonguing and long tones throughout the harmonic series of each note. That’s very important. It’s Herculean, lifetime work. It’s insane to do this, and I only do it because I don’t know how to get more fun out of life – if I did I wouldn’t be doing this! There is that part, and then there are specific notes that are highly unstable – those fascinate me. Why are they unstable? What do you get if you master them? You ultimately can train your muscles to adapt those notes and make them tempered. It’s a copout.

Because the instability is what makes them interesting, but in order to find your way around them you have to tame them, and by taming them they aren’t doing what you want anymore. It’s almost like a physics problem.

It is a physics problem. That’s why I say that the harmonic series and how you approach it encompasses a lot of issues that man – through science and art – is interested in. That’s why I’m excited by these unstable partials in the harmonic series, namely the minor seventh, the eleventh, the thirteenth, and the fourteenth. Those are very unstable notes, and in the relationship between the notes you can anchor on solid partials and pass through the unstable ones, or vice versa. There are a lot of variables, and you have to practice two hours a day – I devote two hours, with no copouts. There’s no other way. At least at this stage in my development; I’ve been doing this for a few years now.

So in a group concept, do you necessarily, say with Matt and Joe – do you discuss this in terms of what you’re working on and how things will fit together, or is that totally unspoken?

With these musicians, the message is in the music. Everything that needs to be said is said in the music itself. They hear it.

Matt and Joe are on the same page – Matt is interested in similar things, I would think.

Matt does this by using the pedals; he lets the harmonics collide and shock one another in midair, creating an orgy of sounds. He’s such a brilliant dude, and he’s picking up on what I’m doing, leading me on or replicating what I do. If Matt could perform exercises as such, he would – with the piano you’re stuck to the tempered notes. The most you can do is brilliantly help them with your pedals, and that’s what he does. Matt is also very meticulous and a methodical musician; lately we’re talking about my studies as a side conversation, not as a game plan. He was telling me that he has been studying the Bach chorales very seriously, and he just finished that so he’s very excited.

Jason Kao Hwang, Daniel Levin, J-P Carletti, Ivo Perelman

IV. Organizing the Palette

As far as your practice and work are concerned, the solo saxophone repertory isn’t in the cards for you. It’s interesting to hear you talk about this stuff, but at the end of the day your music will always remain group music if I’m not mistaken.

Interesting – I have one CD out called Blue Monk Variations, which took place when I was waiting for [tubaist] Marcus Rojas to make a session, and he was late so I started to warm up on “Blue Monk” and the engineer had the machine on. I thought it was good stuff and Bob Rusch released it on Cadence [1996] – I never meant to make a solo CD. In my case, music is not a monologue. It’s the result of at least two minds; I might change that, but up until now that has been the case.

It’s interesting too because painting is obviously – well it’s a dialogue between you and the canvas, but it represents itself as a solo act.

Let me think about that for a second.

What you’re given is a physical object separate from you and the materials.

Well, I get in touch with my alter ego in painting, so I’m dialoguing with myself. I don’t get that from music. I feel that’s a straight conversation to the other – painting necessitates an introspective process, and I delve into my alter ego. I am dialoguing and that is what takes place.

When you’re working on your practice you don’t feel that way?

That is different from creation – I am an extremely anal, methodical and meticulous musician. I lay down my practice to the minute things; it’s not the artist or the creative act. I go to the gym, for example, because I enjoy it immensely, because of the results, but I don’t practice creativity daily anymore. I used to do that a lot, but it’s been many years and I don’t feel the same need. I just want to practice the mental and muscular apparatus and take those to the utmost limits that I possibly can. I want to keep that creativity fresh and untouched, I want to protect and preserve it – I can’t waste it. Some oriental practices will not allow you to have orgasms; you will practice sex without orgasm so that when you do have one, it means a lot. This is the case – I changed ten or fifteen years ago from a little bit of practice and a lot of orgasmic playing. My walls must have heard the most amazing sounds. But it’s up in the air, gone – not anymore.

When I listen to solo saxophone music – and I enjoy that very much – the players you feel are in some sort of dialogue as a soloist, even though there are no other musicians present. It’s interesting because solo practice is a complex thing, and there are musicians who do it as well as those who don’t. How solo playing differs from practice, for example.

There is a fine line between them – how to be truthful, how not to be boring or repetitive, how to keep it fresh. I don’t feel that I have what it takes; when I was warming up, I was playing for someone and it wasn’t strictly ‘solo.’ There are wonderful musicians who can perform solo – Evan Parker, for instance, his solo work is outstanding. I’ve heard soprano stuff that blew my mind, and he certainly has it down.

With him I’ve felt my skull plates moving around just because of the tones he gets, I feel like I’m being physically reshaped.

Yeah, he hypnotizes himself so that there is a sort of dialogue between his rational mind and his hypnotized mind. He gets lost in the process and establishes a binary approach, I think. You can tell by how he uses circular breathing.

That makes sense. That’s a great way to put it. Have you ever felt that way at all, when playing?

Yes, but I need the dialogue or the sharing that takes place. I’m a lonely person; I like to be alone, but I like to be social when it’s called for. I enjoy solitude and I think the moment that I’m able to share the deepest parts of my soul through this language is with other musicians, an ecstatic moment that I look for. If I play solo all the time, I am detracting from the big, shared experience. It would diminish the emotional impact.

Were you – in terms of how you dealt with people – has this approach always been the case, to be alone and to share at the same time?

Yes, I was very much into my schoolwork growing up, spending many hours alone. Also having the need to play in bands and going back to reclusiveness at the end of the day. Preparing for cathartic moments when it matters. I think a lot of artists are like that.

I definitely need my alone time as well; I find it difficult in the city.

I am able to spend many hours alone in my apartment every day, practicing and meditating, whatever I need to do.

In Texas I found it easier to detach, but also being here anew requires a lot of stimulation. I can relate to the play of an internal/external dichotomy.

You mentioned the other day wanting to speak more about the recording situation and the viability of CDs today.

Yes, well it exposes the work to a lot of people; people like you write about it, and it does matter, the impact the work has on other people. I would be lying if I said I don’t care what people think or write. Ultimately I don’t care in a way, because I do what I have to do. But if I really cared in that sense I wouldn’t be doing what I do, because it’s not very logical – it doesn’t sell many CDs or give me many performing opportunities.

How many does Leo print of each CD?

I’m not sure; I think it’s a thousand but sometimes it might be 500, depending on the fluctuations of the market. CDs don’t sell like they used to.

I’m curious how you got involved with Leo specifically, because that label is tireless in documenting your work.

That was back in the 1990s; I got in touch with Leo Feigin and he said well, I usually have a friendship with the artists – I like to have dinner with them and develop a relationship. I got to meet him and understand where he’s coming from, and that made sense – he has a small label, he doesn’t have any employees and he does it all. It’s an intimate approach, so I went to his place a few times, met his family and we’ve developed a nice rapport. He’s really behind me and that’s a blessing.

Otherwise – you’ve put stuff out on Clean Feed and a few other labels here and there, but not with any great continuity.

Right, yeah. I think with Leo, he’s thinking about developing an artist-label relationship and stuff like that.

Had you thought much about putting music out yourself in a significant way? No label is indefinite, especially a small label.

I did in the early ‘90s, I came up with Ibeji and released two CDs that incorporated Brazilian rhythms with a drummer named José Nazario. We played some wonderful stuff with Brazilian rhythms, but I am a lousy businessman and the label had a very short lifespan. I was not on the phone doing the necessary steps and I definitely lacked serious business skills.

You’re probably better at that now, I would think.

Yes, but I wouldn’t want to devote much time to business now; if anything I would go paint.

And working with galleries has probably helped you somewhat in that regard. How do galleries and labels differ?

In the end, it’s about a product and its salability, so in the end they are the same in that regard. My product is hard to sell – it gets attention from certain sectors of a specialized press and some kind of acclaim, but that doesn’t have dollar value. But in particular artistic values, they are different – CDs have an instantaneous salability, the curve is high at the beginning and then drops off to a very small amount, unless the artist dies or becomes famous and popular all of a sudden. Paintings are the opposite – you start very small and gradually achieve your peak, and the tendency is to be more worthy as the years go by. Jazz musicians need exposure and need to be playing – a dead jazz musician is worthless for the label unless we’re talking about a legend like John Coltrane. The personalities involved are very different; label owners tend to have certain personalities, coming from the music world as musicians or producers or hardcore fans, and I would say label owners are more eclectic and broad-minded. In the end as far as business is concerned, they are the same. It’s very hard to get the attention of either. If you are up-and-coming, the competition is wild and it’s a nightmare.

There are so many musicians out there, I can’t even imagine how tough it is. As a writer I find it nearly impossible to give people the attention they deserve.

V. Glancing Backwards (and Forwards)

So how do you think of yourself in terms of legacy?

I used to listen to John Coltrane all the time – I was obsessed with him. Looking back, I understand that I needed a hero, not necessarily that I wanted to sound like him and more than that, I feel that it was his spiritual message that was getting to me. He had a vision that was so clear and focused, nothing would stop that man, and back then I thought it was the lexicon of his language – I was transcribing his solos and trying to understand the nuts and bolts. Today I understand that it wasn’t really about that, it was the way he carried his message, the vitality in all of that. After him, I thought perhaps anybody could be an influence, so I started listening to everybody as a method – Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins, Harold Land, Hank Mobley, all the great saxophonists of the ‘50s. Coltrane was an iconic figure, and that was still very strong. I ended up not playing like anyone, so what’s all that about a first love? I could never emulate any of them – I was actually very bad at doing that; a lot of musicians are wonderful in incorporating a style and learning the phrases, get to the gig and just play them, and I am very bad at that. I can’t be anybody but me at the moment and I don’t think I would say anything truthful to me if I was playing solos verbatim. I’m not criticizing people who do that – there are wonderful musicians, much better than me, who do that. It’s just like, if you do that then you might not bump into new territory and if you don’t find new territory, that’s all you have. It’s not good or bad, innovative or not, it’s just different things, apples and oranges.

As far as a lineage of saxophonists, though, you must be conscious of where you fit.

Yes, I am, but before I get to that, the one thing that matters is the sound of the saxophone. That’s the only constant in those variables. The sound is influenced by the way you think, if you emulate or not, if you’re playing from scratch, but a good saxophone sound is a good saxophone sound – period. That’s important, so if I was a teacher I would tell my students that sound is everything. That’s what remains in the listener’s mind forever – it’s not the actual phrases, how you connect them – it’s the sound. I love Johnny Hodges’ sound – it’s one of the most beautiful saxophone sounds ever. It’s so powerful, so pure, and so expressive! And Ben Webster, who’s like another Johnny Hodges but on the tenor, those guys are my favorites. With all of the factors in balance, sound aspects – clearly I like to investigate the in betweens of notes and the cosmic chaos that is in there, like Albert Ayler. The funny thing is, it took me a long while to understand Ayler – in fact at first I didn’t like him at all. When I was wearing my ‘Coltrane hat,’ I thought ‘man, all this noise – I don’t get it!’ I listened to him and cataloged that I’d heard him and felt that I could move on, but today I simply am in awe of him and to think he was doing this all by himself in the Sixties – that’s what I call a genius, a real artist.

And he’s someone whose music can be followed in different threads all over the world. I’m very interested in him as a catalyst for a lot of things in terms of group music, developing a certain approach that he had with Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray, and how that music was so spare and so spacious in many ways. Often people think of Ayler as being aggressive and thick, and he was to a point, but there’s so much fragility as well.

His trios back then are like Dixieland, New Orleans music – everybody is improvising together. So today he’s someone I listen to and savor like I was going to savor a fine wine, that’s him. Too much is not good for me – there’s so much in him that I don’t want to make that my everyday listening.

I can relate.

There’s a lot – it’s like what I was saying about Clarice Lispector, there’s a lot in one paragraph and I can’t digest a whole book at once, I can’t listen to him at a stretch.

You can’t be expected to – there are certain musicians I have such reverence for (Bill Dixon is another one) and it’s a special occasion when I bring out those recordings. There’s a consciousness there that one can be aware of the music without listening to it all the time.

Talking about saxophone sounds, he had a unique sound and he got into the molecules of the metal of the saxophone. I don’t know what he did – I’d love to have had a conversation with Albert, boy I wish he was alive today! Sharing things – we’d probably find things in common because I’m trying to get into the soul of the metal, get past the buttons and the keys and get into the core. He was doing this elegantly, beautifully, effortlessly, and to think that he did it after mastering the traditional style.

Little Bird.

Yes, exactly! So I have a lot of respect for him. Back in the Eighties I didn’t get it, however. And you ask me where I situate myself? Somewhere along Ayler, but as much as I tried to incorporate others, I’ve failed miserably [laughs].

You almost can’t incorporate that in a way – it’s so individual.

Yes, but some people will spend a lifetime trying. How can you play like Sonny Rollins, who has such a personal way of delivery? It’s like saying ‘I want to be this man and marry his wife.’

But then you have to take all the stuff you don’t have to see with that other person…

It’s interesting that you talk about the molecular aspects to Albert Ayler’s sound, because I find it curious that one can be both deeply spiritual and the work is also so technically fascinating and places a certain value on facts and very concrete, evidential aspects of the saxophone. Those facts are used to transcendent aims – I have a philosophy that I call Transcendental Materialism, wherein a highly concentrated interaction with concrete facts of reality can actually bring you to a transcendent state. It’s a heightened interaction with the ‘real’ can bring one to another plane of being. Hyper-awareness is spiritual, and that applies to Ayler and Coltrane and Frankenthaler and Richard Serra – these people are dealing with a micro-level of concreteness and that is transportative.

I think technical mastery fuels the spiritual path. It’s a dichotomic thing, but the more you hear the more you get there. I remember my teacher, Phil Soto, he was very advanced and he never taught me anything about basics (which would actually have been nice) – he didn’t want to waste any time. He told me about the elliptical feeling of rhythm and how it falls that way naturally, and things about the sound of the horn being in the bell – if you project mentally, the sound will come out of the bell and the whole horn will vibrate. When I am practicing, as I said, sometimes I pretend I am deaf, which is very hard to do. A few months ago a ball of wax blocked my ear and I lost a tiny percent of my hearing, just for a month until I went and got it flushed out. For a month I had a glimpse at the horror of not being able to hear, after hearing all my life. So that got me thinking – what if I pretend I can’t hear, what response will I get when I am touching the horn? I try to do that – sure enough, the low notes vibrate differently and that’s been my latest practice. It’s very calming and it’s a sound-shower, I bathe myself in sounds and I really connect with the vibration.

It’s like how animals and small children love to be swaddled or wrapped in garments – you feel encased.

So ultimately I’m trying to relate how sound – energy – travels to the body, the molecular body of the saxophone, and translate that to my hand. It’s all about that. When I’m playing I feel a wave, a primal scream taking over, and what are my technical means? The metal is between me, my spirit and the audience. Sheer metal – I’m trying to connect with that. It’s not about jazz lines, though that is all fine and dandy and it does show one’s respect for the legacy. But it’s not about that anymore.

It’s about physicality and transference.

Exactly. How can I polish and clean my pathways to deliver my message? There were a great mass of people at the Stone the other night for the quartet, and they were very much “there.” We can tell when the audience is present and you give it back to them, you know. There were moments that I felt one with them – the public, the majority of them, were like open vessels, so we become one in this cycle. It’s very nice.

It’s hard to imagine people not being with you, in that sense.

They either leave the room or not.

Who would go out to experience this music and not be engaged?

Even the ones that reject it, right?

Yes, you’re still engaging it in that sense.

Funny thing, a friend of mine who is very into this music brought a friend, a visual artist and an older lady, to the Stone and when I sat with her and talked after my gig, she didn’t realize that I was the guy playing the saxophone and she just trashed my set. It was very interesting – “how can one play like that? There’s no rhythm, there’s no melody!’ She was wondering if the saxophonist had ever heard Ella Fitzgerald, and then she trashed the second set with Stephen Haynes as well – both sets were the worst things she’d ever heard – and I just told her ‘you know, I think you’re right – this is the worst ever and I don’t know how those guys can play like that.’ My friend was so embarrassed, but of course I took it in a positive way – it did something to her. It didn’t go through her – she got the message, but her rational mind and upbringing didn’t let her handle it. She was probably the most affected human being that night – it was a completely successful transference of energy in an unorthodox way.

Paul Bley said somewhat tongue-in-cheek that he didn’t care if it was a good review or a bad review, as long as people were writing about him.

Sometimes all the intellectual baggage that critics have can get in the way. That lady’s response was genuine, and in a way I loved it. The music that we played got to her in the most spectacular way, she just didn’t realize it.

I often say that the things that last longest for me in terms of taste are those I don’t understand at first or that frustrate me palpably – that almost kind of make me angry or that I reject. Those are long-lasting relationships. I remember the work well because I reacted to it, and not necessarily that I liked it. Someone like Arthur Doyle, I remember when I first heard his music I thought it was garbage – but I kept listening, something brought me back, and I really enjoy his music now. The painter Cy Twombly is another.

Twombly was doing stuff nobody even thought about – he was very much a parallel with Albert Ayler. Today any first-year college art student will try that, but he was it.

Just dealing with raw canvas space and narrative in these interesting ways, use of language as something to be a primal unearthing and then removing that language – it’s genius. When I first saw his work I didn’t get it at all, but I kept coming back because he was unique and powerful. There’s the Cy Twombly space in Houston that is so incredible. As you say, distaste is a valid response and with some people that may turn into really being interested in something.

Matthew Shipp and Ivo Perelman

VI. Off the Canvas

In contemporary music, I would say there is a fair amount of work that’s being made which unfortunately doesn’t move me one way or another – it’s problematic, the lack of being affected by or within culture, and that’s pervasive.

Well, that’s a modern-day disease. The computer – who’s going to care about the processes of art? Young people today are born with access to things like texting, and there will be a time gap needed that will allow that to be settled in our values. Right now we are stuck. It’s overwhelming.

It’s funny, you mentioned before having a chip in your brain that you could call on to have aesthetic pleasure, whether it’s music or something else. It’s possible – I certainly will always like the physical relationship with documents, whether art, music, or books. A significant sector of society doesn’t value that at all.

I always remember that I read somewhere that “if it’s art, it’s not for all.” That’s a painful realization.

Can we talk a bit more about your painting process – I need to see more of your work soon, but in terms of nuts and bolts, what you use media-wise and what you’re trying to do in that sense?

Well, because of the fact that I was not formally trained and didn’t devote much intellectual time to art, I took a plunge and what came out was a transference of attitude from my music to the visual world. So you would say because of that my paintings are my music decoded. I feel when I am about to paint it’s the same as when I’m about to play. It’s the same person, process and method – different outcome and tools, of course. The interesting thing is that people react differently – people are more benign about visual stimuli. Outrageous paintings do nothing to shock people – visually it’s all been said to people. That’s not at all the case with music.

Right, people can deal with Cy Twombly or Donald Judd, but they can’t handle the work of Albert Ayler or Iannis Xenakis.

It’s a pity that that happens, but it couldn’t be different because the eye absorbs the world differently and it’s less intense, I think. Seeing is less intense than hearing, biologically speaking. Sound waves penetrate deeply into the body; they’re shorter and vibrate faster, penetrating more than long wavelengths of light. Light doesn’t penetrate the body as easily.

Couldn’t the brain equalize those waves and find a way to balance them? That must be how synesthesia works, right? The brain balances two very different waves so it reacts the same to both?

I think visual stimuli have an immediate rapport with cultural – sheer cognitive understanding – and sound takes us back to more ancient, primal and survivalist impulses, and it’s more basic. Sound reminds us of thunderstorms or soothing waterfalls or what we heard in our mom’s wombs.

One thing with abstract expressionism – and I don’t like that term – it’s true that, as you say sound gets back to primal experience, someone like Pollock or Clyfford Still were going to precognitive states in their work. That’s one reason why abstraction is both frightening and relatable on different levels. People may not want to go back that far in their minds, but then again it’s something we can relate to immediately. Some people may prefer to call those memories up and others may not. When I first engaged visual abstraction it was something I immediately liked, as much as certain artists might be tough.

Are you working solely in acrylic, then?

I’ve tried acrylic or gesso, which behaves like acrylic. I tried oils and I couldn’t take the chemicals. It was too aggressive for me. Acrylic is wonderful – it’s flexible, dries immediately and provides instant gratification.

Do you use unprimed cotton? With Frankenthaler, she was an early proponent of that.

Yes. I like paper a lot, too. Gesso on paper is lately my favorite.

How do you deal with problems of scale in painting versus scale in music? How do you think about that? I think orchestrally, with a small group in this music you can get a huge sound and you can deal with proportion in interesting ways. Do those ideas translate? Like if you see a small Barnett Newman drawing, you can still get the vastness he’s known for. It seems like sounds are massed in similar ways.

Hmm. Yes, I see the comparison makes sense – a large orchestra could be related to a bigger painting, but I think the space available in the brain is different. The eye element… I think we relate to the world with our eyes in terms of scale naturally. You need to know if you’re grabbing a small rock or a huge rock. A small sound and a huge sound does not hinder your pragmatic survival. I think because of that, I don’t respond differently if it’s a small group or a large group – it would be the same bodily reaction, I would have to figure out where I fit in this scenario, because there’s a lot more happening. The canvas might be filled with colors and I may have to add a little thing here or there to balance it, not to crowd it.

I was thinking differently in terms of perceived size versus actual size – your experience of something’s mass and weight and imprint on your perceptual field and how it is literally shaped are two different things. I’m equating it in terms of a Newman that is small but feels large, or how Charles Mingus might make a quartet feel like an orchestra, or Butch Morris would make an orchestra feel very small – how you deal with a Richard Serra sculpture, you feel those on a very individual level even though they are thirty feet tall.

I get what you’re saying now, yes.

And as both a musician and a painter, you’re dealing with problems of scale and scale relationships – they’re different but both fields operate on scale and how one can play with those ideas in interesting ways. I think you might have some insight into how those are structured in different media.

I respond to that issue on an instinctive level – I have an automatic modus operandi, I am put in front of that problem according to my vision and I don’t have to have any preconception. I respond on the spot, and I learned a lot about this when I did the trios with Matt Shipp and [drummers] Gerald Cleaver or Whit Dickey. We didn’t have a bass player, but the music sounds as if there were five present – I learned that it’s how effectively you put forth your message and how strong and well-nurtured is your rhythmic foot. Your statements, if they have drive, then a duet can sound like a symphony. So it’s true what they say that harmony is just an impression that the human ear cannot hear more than two lines at the same time. They say harmony – four, five, six, you’re not hearing each individual voice. So I think this is true, and by the same token some small paintings that don’t have much in them and are maybe sort of minimalist, they just grab you and you are taken. It may be more expressive than a huge Franz Kline.

Ultimately in art it is all about relativism – that is the key mechanism. I learned that the Eskimos have hundreds of words for white. We go there and it’s all “white,” but for them it’s different, it’s their whole experience.

Yeah, language development is interesting in that regard – we were talking about how reading Lispector in Portuguese or Maurice Merleau-Ponty in French versus the translations, English doesn’t have an effective subjunctive case. So French philosophy and Latin writers are going to be impossible to truly comprehend in English because of the subtle variation. How a painter sees white, how an Eskimo sees white – it’s entirely based on experience.

Right now, everything or at least a lot of things have been said in art. People are born into overexposure and saturation; from now on is it just regurgitation? How can you accommodate more into an oversaturated situation? Maybe that is the problem – the only problem we’re dealing with is the end of the possibilities for art. Frankly, the end of the human species is when their art is dead. That might be what nobody is talking about.

There will not be these polarizing figures like Coltrane or Pollock – that’s what I was getting at earlier with regards to how many artists seem to occupy a middle ground, and there’s a frequent lack of engagement with extremes. Maybe it’s really a lack of polarization – there’s a lot of activity going on but there aren’t these poles for people to gravitate to.

Maybe we’ll regress to the point that the new generations will go back, undo and subtract previous formats and we’ll come full circle again.

I was looking at the work of a young artist who is quite good, and she does land art and site/non-site conceptual photography. It’s nice stuff and she’s good, but my mind goes automatically to Robert Smithson and people like that. It’s not the same thing, but people were doing comparable work forty years ago. If you’re engaged with land art, you’ve got to fill some huge shoes. Painting is probably very similar. You have people like Pollock and Newman who came before you, but you still have to paint, right?

The issue of how to keep historical and personal veracity in terms of recreating previous formats—that will set apart the boys from the men. One thing is to have an outside need to imitate, and another is to genuinely come up with something that ends up being something like what they did. There’s a huge difference there, and unfortunately these two categories fall into the same niche before the critics’ eyes. Not all of them can see who are the parrots and who are genuinely interesting. A human being today was a human being a thousand years ago. We had the same pancreas, the same brain, the same needs to have sex, shelter, and be warm. The need to be with others – the basic human values are there, so why not recreate some of the artistic elements of previous generations?

I guess it’s an issue where there is a fixed number of possibilities and inevitably someone will come up with something similar as a result.

There is one thing – there’s who I am in the actuality of playing, and when I take the horn out of my mouth there’s another entity there. Of course they cross over, and what I think won’t change what takes place when I’m playing. Whatever I think of Ayler or culture isn’t going to change the personality of my music. I don’t exist when I’m playing – it’s not me, the music is an entity that exists by itself and has a life of its own. The artist and the creation are independent.

I’m glad you say this because my mind works in a completely different way, and as I get to know an artist’s ideas that it unlocks certain ways of dealing with the work.

You might be deceived, you might be – my music is not necessarily tied to who I am as a person, it might be the opposite to compensate for some personality flaws. It’s a complex game going – I gave up manipulating or trying to master the music. People ask me why I practice every day – it’s just intellectually stimulating, because I can’t be playing with a quartet in my apartment. I have to find something fun to do or I’ll go crazy.

Even though practice doesn’t necessarily define how the work is going to manifest, it must inform it, right?

There is a muscular component that is not to be taken lightly. That’s the ultimate reality. By that token if I’m dead I won’t be able to play either. The substantial part of the music doesn’t come from the muscles – it comes from the brain and the heart. Stephen Haynes was telling me the other night that “the trumpet – you practice warming up and it doesn’t mean when you are actually are on the gig it’s going to work.” You did everything right but when it comes down to playing it doesn’t come out – it’s not your fault, that’s just how it is. So I have to detach myself from being a musician – I’m only a musician when I’m playing; all other times I am just a person trying to perfect something I created and not go crazy.

In lieu of writing about the music and not talking to an individual, there is some sort of relationship that I have to put together whether or not you believe in the compatibility of these two things.

Yes, it’s your task.

I have to manipulate it and make the intersections larger or more obvious.

I like to think that my music is bigger than life – it’s everything I can’t be or that humanity is not. That’s the noble ideal we are first driven by. I don’t know any musician that when first starting out was not trying to achieve that. The act of trying to create is already divine – you’re trying to play God. You’re trying to create something new out of nothing. That’s a lofty goal, so how can it be me? I am a finite flash that will decay and rot in a few years.

At the same time, and I’m sorry to keep belaboring it but that’s how I learn, as I trace the evolution of your music and my listening, there is a parallel evolution between the work and your person. They can’t be on paths that diverge too much – one or the other would be affected otherwise, no?

I might be saying this because I am trying to protect my ego. How can the artist be dissociated from the creation? I like to think they are different entities so I can put it in God’s hands and I don’t have to worry about the reed or the leaking saxophone or my lack of homework. Maybe this kind of intense, obsessive search for perfection, even if that for me is how to get into the molecular fabric of the saxophone, will eventually determine how intense the music ends up being. I am daily intensely and methodically trying to achieve perfection, and when it comes to delivering the message it carries that same intensity.

What about as you age – inevitably there are things you will be able to do less well, and the body may not be able to accomplish those feats. Naturally the music that comes out of your horn will change somewhat. Will the concerns change with what you’re physically able to do with an instrument? It’s true that your condition is not necessarily your biography but that seems like a point at which your corporeal life and the work intersect in a way.

I don’t think that interferes with the artistic content and its evolution. If you can’t do this – fine, you’ll take another route but it’s still faithful to your development and maturity. I think that’s an optimistic way of looking at it – if you lose all your teeth, what can you do as a saxophonist?

Play the piano, I guess. You’d have to find something else.

VII. Banding Together

We talked a little bit about string music and how that developed through your harmonic studies and your realization that a drummer was not necessary to actualize your musical interests. You played the cello so I assume this proclivity is pretty natural.

Well, my first instrument was guitar and I played cello in São Paulo in a youth orchestra. I was already an older guy; I was sixteen or seventeen. It was a group experience – you know this Japanese method to teach kids strings? It wasn’t Suzuki but it was like that, developed by a conductor, and pretty soon the group had started from zero and was playing. I was already having problems with the conductor because I was improvising – that was a big no-no when you’re playing orchestral music. I realized I couldn’t improvise on the written notes because he’d throw me out, so I started improvising on the fingerboard positions and he was a little more patient in that regard, but pretty soon he practically kicked me out. So I decided I would be a soloist, but then I wasn’t very successful because when you are seventeen it’s going to take you so many years to develop basic sonority and techniques. I just didn’t have the patience back then.

You think of solo cello performers and the classic renditions, they’re always those who have played for a long time.

It is a very difficult instrument. I remained with that string spirit or affinity – I was going to be a good cellist because I understood its soul and it had that beautiful range that I love (incidentally the same as the tenor saxophone), and it has a lot of pathos. To this day I listen to the Bach suites and it’s sheer nirvana. I have the vibrato of a cello in my playing sometimes, how to sustain a note, how to do the legato phrasing that comes from the strings. That was all I wanted to do at the time. But I had to choose whether to keep playing the cello or the saxophone, because ten years ago I developed tendonitis and the cello made it worse because it’s hard on the hands. It’s a real physical effort to put down the strings – it’s not a light touch. It had to be the saxophone alone. So when I’m playing among strings I feel like I’m a string player. I don’t think like a saxophonist in this setting.

It seems like something you return to quite a bit – it’s a big chunk of your discography that is string-related.

And I’ll keep returning—it’s just a gorgeous universe of sound.

How do you conceive the string music that you’ve worked on? How do you treat that work in relation to other ensembles? You say that you think of yourself differently in that setting – do you think of the other musicians in that light, versus say the quartet with Matt Shipp?

Oh yes, it’s a different scenario altogether. The notes will mingle with the strings in a different way, meeting midair differently. There is a slight time lag from the when the string player hits a note and when the instrument responds. It’s not instantaneous – that already affects the music a lot. I tend to think in two ways – either I am one of them and I’m trying to get into counterpoint, imitate their timbre somewhat and make it a coherent unit or I can be a saxophonist and have a horn soloist accompanied by strings. There are variations in between, in and out, on and off.

As compared (in the latter sense) to, say, Bird with strings or Stan Getz with strings.

Well, those were like string pianos playing harmonies. The role of strings in contemporary, improvised music grew immensely from the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Mingus did stuff with a cellist in his third-stream jazz workshop.

I have had the privilege of playing with great cellists – Daniel Levin, Tomas Ulrich, Ernst Reijsiger, Jeremy Harman of the Sirius Quartet, and sometimes bassists play cello-like.

Barry Guy, for instance, with his five-string bass.

Well he has so much facility he can trick you into thinking he has an oversized cello.

As far as your groups, I’m of the mindset that when you’re assembling an ensemble the players matter as much or more as what’s being played, but since we’ve talked about the separation of personality and music a bit, could you talk about the nuts and bolts of how groups differ?

It’s a give and take. It has to do with the kind of instrument and what kind of space it occupies – piano as opposed to tuba – and the personalities of the musicians because a powerful shakuhachi player might occupy more space than an electric guitarist or a pianist.

That goes back to scale in music.

Yes, I think about – drummers usually are the most determining factor. They will lay down the pillars of the music. Drummers are vital in this music I’m trying to do. I’m very easily affected by drums. I almost always am listening to what they’re doing, either being enhanced or in counterpoint trying to converse. Drums are the most important element and it has to be the right drummer – I’ve been very lucky because I’ve recorded with players like Gerald, Whit, Rashied Ali, and I was privileged to record with Peter Erskine. It’s not really improvisational music, but he’s such a wonderful player and has a great approach. I still remember my first CD – he laid down such multilayered rhythms that anything I did would fit into any pocket at any time. He would validate any rhythmic entrance I would have.

Rashied Ali might have been similar in that regard.

That’s the same concept taken to a limit – he would make a dog barking sound great! Any sound phenomena would be validated and enhanced by his playing. He was a force of nature. I can deal with a misplaced bassist but – the way I hear music, every instrument has a rhythmic entrance in the grid, and it all piles up. The result is what will stimulate me to do something. Any musical attack is very important. Pianists and bass players can hide the rhythmic nature of their instrument through harmonic moves or long notes, but drums by their nature, anything you do will be a rhythmic entrance.

Even someone like Paul Lytton or Eddie Prévost?

They can go against the nature of the instrument successfully, but a drum is a drum is a drum is a drum! It’s very important for me to have that element work to its most effective way or else it can be the number one thing that can go wrong. If the drummer is not stimulating you, it can just destroy the best intentions in a band.

We talked about counterpoint, but does confrontation or non-listening come into play as a musical device?

Not in the bands I play with; I trust their judgment so I know this won’t happen in the first place. Those are non-musical dilemmas I don’t have.

I recently was posed the question that, well, “does one always have to be listening in this music?” Is it required at every step or can the act of non-listening be applied?

I never experienced that. We are all idiomatically compatible and I know who I’m calling. I trust them completely; if they’re doing something I don’t agree with – well, they are welcome to bring something in and I’ll take it into account and see what happens. One thing we haven’t stressed is the format and how the choice of instruments affects the outcome of the music. It is dramatic because of the sheer nature of the music. A gig with Daniel Levin and Jason Hwang will be completely different than one with Matt Shipp and Joe Morris.

Even comparing a record with Shipp versus one with Marilyn Crispell.

Yes, yes. In addition to the duos with Matt that are coming out I have some with Marilyn that I may put out. I’m trying to decide whether to put them out in proximity.

I would think that there would be automatic comparisons at first, whether or not they’re accurate.

It’s a good instigating procedure to have this situation because it puts a clearer focus on each of them and what the results can be when you change components.

When you did the series of trios with Joe and Gerald or Matt and Mike Bisio, they were all the same number of people but the fixed triangulation allowed for some flexing within that geometry.

I like being versatile and different. We musicians don’t have the blessing that actors do; they can be completely different from play to play or from film to film depending on the role they’re playing. We’re always the musicians playing the same notes.

You are always the Jack Nicholson.

Exactly! One good thing is that you really develop that skill, but it could be boring and one way to avoid that is to change formats and make more varied environments.

When you have a sizable discography, from the listener’s perspective, that might be how one maintains interest and engages the body of work of an individual. It makes me wonder how – if you only worked with pianists, bassists and drummers, how you’d keep doing that.

Many musicians do. I appreciate that non-continuous way of working in cycles – I saturate myself with a method and then I think that for a while it might be better to work with another group. Then I can come back to what I was doing; you keep growing, but in pockets.

You haven’t worked with too many other saxophonists, though.

Once, with French clarinetist and soprano saxophonist, Louis Sclavis [The Ventriloquist, Leo, 2002]. It worked great because of his ability and skill. Recently I worked with Joe McPhee in a duet. It was a challenge because Joe is such a personality, musically speaking. I didn’t want to interfere with him and vice versa, but I’m very happy with the results.

He’s a player who can be very deep in terms of listening, he can be powerful like a freight train, and he can be obstinate and strange. He’s definitely idiosyncratic in some ways. You don’t know what you’ll get but it will always be fascinating.

It was quite an experience to hang out with him and observe his relaxed approach.

For you, is that a situation where it’s difficult in general?

I do enjoy it but it’s extra work. I’m aware of the fact that timbrally the instruments have the same nature and you’re going against physics – two elements occupying the same space at the same time. It is disturbing and exhilarating at the same time, so I like to do it very occasionally.

I guess not too many brass players either.

That is even more difficult. The sheer nature of the instrument, the attack and shape is very powerful. I hear tenor saxophone and brass playing great, strong unison lines, but I still need to be able to develop that concept of playing in tandem.

Would a large orchestra be appealing again?

It would be, but it is not something you bump into often. It would be a blast to improvise with a sympathetic orchestra. That would be like – wow!


Thanks to Ivo Perelman and to Phil Freeman of Burning Ambulance. More information about Ivo's music and artwork can be found here. Photos courtesy Peter Gannushkin.