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Tom Christensen: Outside the Comfort Zone

By Published: July 5, 2005
AAJ: Is this band configuration on the new CD your existing and working ensemble?

Walt Weiskopf, Tom Christensen, Kermit Driscoll, Satoshi Takeishi

TC: Yeah, such as it is. At this point—after about eight, nine years with this band, now with this configuration, and three CDs—right now I'm kind of focussing on a different project, which is this thing in Germany with a pianist, cello, and me playing oboe, English horn, alto flute and bass clarinet. Which is a real legit-y kind of thing.

AAJ: Is it improvisational?

TC: Yeah, but there's a lot of written music. The pianist's a great writer. Tim Sund is the pianist and the group is called Americana. We're actually in the process of finding a new cellist, but we rehearsed with Tomas Ulrich a couple of times here in New York, and he's great, and we're planning on doing some recording and a tour next year. But we have one CD out that we did—with Ben Allison, actually, on bass and a percussionist—called Americana [Nabel Records, 2003]. I'm really trying to write for that group and do that kind of stuff. I don't have any gigs right now for this band [Tom Christensen Ensemble], although we'll probably do some gigs in New York this year. I mean, I love the group, so I want to keep writing and keep doing stuff with it; it's so much fun.

AAJ: In addition to this Americana project, you're still a busy sideman. I've heard you on everything from those Joe Lovano records [Viva Caruso, Celebrating Sinatra] to the recent John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble's A Blessing, where you do a particularly fine soprano solo on the title track. With all the sidework you've done, who have you enjoyed supporting the most?

TC: I love John's stuff. I think he writes great stuff. But the Lovano records, to just sit there and hear him play—he's so great.

AAJ: Yeah, he freaks me out.

TC: Beautiful. So just to be in the same room with him while he's playing and listen to him play on the takes and to see his process of how he makes a record, on both of those [albums], for me was great. I made a couple records with Don Sebesky and his band, which were fun and challenging. I'm doing a lot of stuff now with the guys from Playscape Records. We did a record called Spirits, which was the music of [the late saxophonist/flautist/composer] Thomas Chapin, that came out on Playscape. It's under [guitarist] Michael Musillami's name, the guy who runs the label. Satoshi [Takeishi] played on it, also [pianist] Peter Madsen, [bassist] Cameron Brown, [trombonist] Art Baron, [drummer] Mike Sarin. [Interviewer's note: I've since obtained this 2004 CD and it's terrific.] And we did some gigs.

I also just recorded some stuff with Michael's trio as a guest artist and we're going to be doing stuff in the fall around New York. That record will be coming out as well; Dave Ballou played trumpet on it. I love working with those guys, and Playscape is a really great label right now that's kind of a new way of looking at record labels in that we have kind of a relationship where I'll get gigs for Michael and bring him down, and we'll play at some clubs under my name or under his name, and we'll do different projects with and for each other—to kind of help each other out and move the whole idea forward together. So the label is more like a—

AAJ: A collective of sorts.

TC: A collective. But Michael is the guy who owns the label and makes the decisions and runs it—he and [bassist] Mario Pavone. But we've done a lot of stuff; we've done some stuff we call the Playscape All-Stars, for lack of a better name, with [drummer] George Schuller, Mario Pavone, and Michael. And we've played a bunch of gigs. I see it as ... my thing to help the label out too by booking gigs and doing things; in that sense it is a collective. It's not just, "hey, Michael, sell my records.

AAJ: And it's not Michael's job to exploit you, either.

TC: No, that's the furthest thing from this situation. Michael's a friend, a great person. It's about moving music that we believe in forward. We know it's not this gigantic business where everybody's making a fortune. We're trying to do something we really believe in and do it the right way, with respect for each other and the people that we deal with.

AAJ: Absolutely. It's what it should all be about. Fortunately, if people really wanted to exploit artists and get rich, why on earth would they be selling jazz recordings?

TC: [Laughing] I know! They'd have to be really dumb!

AAJ: So, my final question is: you play all these horns really well. But I still go back to your tenor playing, and one thing I love about it is that you don't sound like anyone else. Do you consider yourself a tenor player first and foremost?

TC: Yes. It's my main instrument and the one I've been playing the longest. My conception on the other instruments comes from the saxophone and what I try to do in improvising on flute, or oboe, or English horn is try to weed out those saxophonistic influences—and find influences that have to do with the instruments themselves. So, yeah, my head comes from saxophone. I played saxophone, exclusively really, from when I was ten to when I was twenty-five. So yeah, I'm a saxophonist. No doubt about that.


Tom Christensen, Gualala (Naxos, 2000)
Tom Christensen, Paths (Playscape, 2002)
Tom Christensen, New York School (Playscape, 2005)

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