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Tom Christensen: Outside the Comfort Zone

By Published: July 5, 2005
AAJ: Gualala, the first CD, is, in a simplistic sense, your "oboe album. There's quite a lot of you playing that instrument on that one. Then there's no oboe at all on your second CD, Paths, and on the new one, just the album closer, "Little Elegy. Any reason you're playing it less on your recordings?

TC: I was doing some projects and gigs on English horn—a lot, actually—in the last three or four years. I was working in Europe with this guy named Tim Sund, who lives in Berlin. We have a kind of a chamber music group, with piano, cello and me on woodwinds, and a lot of that stuff was English horn. So was just kind of focusing on English horn; that's why on Paths, there's just English horn. On New York School, it just kind of came out that way. I currently am playing a lot of oboe, and writing stuff for oboe. You're right, Gualala has a lot of oboe on it—more than all the others. But on Paths, well—I actually tried to put a lot of different things on Paths. I hate to admit it, but I think I included some things on that record simply because they weren't on Gualala. I put on a couple of standards.

On the first record, there were no standards, and I don't think there needs to be a standard on jazz records. I think we're way past that at this point—I mean, there's no standards on Bitches Brew. But I come from a jazz background of playing tunes, playing straight-ahead tunes, and I thought, "well, gee, I ought to do some of that so that there's a little bit of everything on this record. And I wanted some saxophone solos that were burning, like: "yeah, this is my saxophone playing record, or whatever. And I think that was stupid; I really shouldn't have thought that way.

So with New York School, I didn't think about anything other than exactly what kind of music I wanted to write for the record and how I liked it. Which, I think, really, is pretty much the only thing you can do, because there's not a tremendous amount of money or popularity to be had from these records. The only thing you can do is do your thing, you know, and not try to cater to anyone. But with Paths, there was a bit of catering, such as it was. There were actually some critics who had said of Gualala, "where's the standards? Where's this? Where's that? And stupidly, I listened [to them]. Not that I hate Paths; I'm very happy with it, but that's why I tried to do a lot of different things on that record.

AAJ: Let's talk about the new album New York School. It's inspired by the so-called New York School of artists like painter Jackson Pollock and especially poet Frank O'Hara—and how their work cross-pollinated, how a poem by one artist might influence the painting of another. Now all of it has inspired you, half a decade later. Care to comment?

TC: I kind of started the ball rolling with the [Richard] Brautigan stuff [brief Brautigan poems are used in improvisational vignettes] on Paths. I was trying to think of ways to try to push my composition in directions that I normally wouldn't go, to get a new vocabulary. And so this idea of using the poetry to try to push me out of my comfort zone. I originally was looking for poets and looking for inspiration, and a guy who I teach with, an English teacher, John Aune, turned me on to Frank O'Hara's book Lunch Poems. Which at first I didn't really care for, but I bought his complete Collected Poems and started to read about him and understand his relationship to [painters] Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns and their relationship with him. I thought, "what an interesting thing.

I know there were some musicans like Morton Feldman and John Cage that were associated with them, but I didn't listen to that stuff too much. I [wasn't] trying to be too true to anyone but my own whim. So I focused on a number of poems and paintings that were inspiring to me to use as a basis, and kind of honed it down to maybe eight or nine works, and then eliminated a few of those. I also read some of the other poets from O'Hara's era and his circle of friends, like Kenneth Koch. So that's where "Sleeping with Women comes from.

AAJ: I'm very partial to that tune. It's in eleven, but it's such an easy groove that it ends up sounding like such an even time signature.

TC: Yeah, that's [bassist] Kermit [Driscoll] and Satoshi playing their butts off! They're great; they just killed that. That tune was really challenging to play on gigs and record, but the times—and there were a lot of times—we got it going, really cookin' along, it really felt great. Including one time: it felt so good we screwed it up massively. Because it felt so good that Walt and I were trying to play the soli on it, and I remember I was just, like, "wow, man, this is so good! Wait, where am I? [Laughing] But those guys are such great players; that's why it sounds good. But the composition—if you read the poem, it's the same rhythm as the first part of the poem.

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