Saxophonist John O'Gallagher and Modern Jazz Composition
“ For me, visually, the sense of space, color, line and density, the architecture of music and painting are really very close together. ”
Following his well-received debut album Axiom with the equally intricate, experimental, and explorative Arabesque release Abacus , alto saxophonist and composer John O’Gallagher is rapidly establishing himself as not only a deft soloist, but also a formidable composer striving to expand the boundaries of jazz form.
It was my distinct pleasure to speak with Mr. O’Gallagher about his new release, his compositional approach, and his upcoming plans.
All About Jazz: I want to start off with Abacus. This is your second release to date, correct?
John O’Gallagher: This is my second record, right. My first one for Arabesque.
AAJ: It’s a somewhat different sound from Axiom. A little cleaner, crisper, a little bit of a lighter touch.
JO: The instrumentation is different and with this group [so] I was exploring other things. For me, when I write music I take into account who I’m writing for. It’s the old thing, you know, Duke Ellington always wrote the music in his head which was custom for the band.
AAJ: That’s become a jazz approach that really distinguishes it from other styles of composition.
JO: That’s right. So that’s probably why this record is different. These are different musicians and I was hearing different things for this group.
AAJ: Both albums have a very distinctive compositional style though. That’s what really interested me. Even though the instrumentation is different, and the resulting sound is different, there’s this underlying similarity to the compositions.
JO: I’m glad to hear that because that’s what I strive for. I think that as a composer you want to try and have a discernable writing style. If you think about all the great composers, each of them does. It’s a hard thing to work on, but I think eventually, as you keep writing and working on the sounds and things that interest you in music, that like with playing, you’ll find your voice. At least hopefully you will.
AAJ: I want to dig into the compositions a little because they’re very intriguing...What struck me is that on first listen the sound is very dense, somewhat discordant, and sometimes quite frenetic, so that it can sound almost free. But when you listen again, there’s a lot of structure there that provides a very solid bass. I was wondering how you approach that underlying structure.
JO: Number one, I’m very interested in having every piece say something, having a continuity within it, an underlying logic or meaning in it. But the pieces are really vehicles for improvising. What I try to do when I’m composing...is set up things that give food for thought, that create structures that people can branch out on. Each piece is slightly different, but they all have that same thread of serving the improvisation, of trying to come up with something that is slightly different from your normal, standard jazz form.
AAJ: That’s what I’m driving at. The forms. Just judging from the song titles alone, there’s something different going on here. Your employing a different set of imagery. Very mechanistic and scientific.
JO: The music is definitely inspired by a lot of different things. Some of it can be inspired by works of art, some of it might be inspired by things in science or mathematics that I might be reading or studying. As an artist, you try to find those common links and ground between arts and, well, all the different things that interest you. Like the title track. With that piece I was exploring a couple things that had to do with symmetry and a 15 and 1/2 beat cycle that could be broken up in various different ways... I was exploring adding and subtracting in different ways.
AAJ: There seems to be a consistent interest in mathematics, or a sense of mathematical balance and structure. Looking at the very next track, “Song.” Somewhat unusual for a jazz musician to take on a Schoenberg piece.
JO: I’d have to say I’m very influenced by modern classical music. I love that piece. When I first heard that piece—it’s a very small excerpt from “Serenade for Octet”—and when I heard it for the first time I was like ‘Oh my gosh’ this is the vocabulary of modern jazz. This is it. So I took a short segment from that piece and worked it into the composition we played. It seemed a natural fit musically, emotionally, structurally. Everything about it. I think that these days it’s become more common that classical—its always influenced jazz—but you see many artists out there very influenced by it.
AAJ: It’s very interesting what’s been happening. That’s something else I wanted to touch on here. Looking at your approach and comparing it to some other things happening out there on the scene. Many artists are trying to modernize, or maybe popularize, jazz by covering current pop tunes, or letting hip-hop in, using electronics, or even going back in some ways to simpler song structures. But you’re taking it in another direction.
JO: There are a lot of things that have yet to be explored and to be incorporated into jazz improvisation and composition that haven’t really been thoroughly looked at. Those kinds of things are what really interest me. I think that my peers today, many of them are doing similar things. Maybe not musically similar, but their explorations into music are on similar pathways...world music, everything feeds into it. I love Gamelan music and these things, but stylistically I’m still within a jazz framework. I think that within that framework three’s a lot you can do as far as a soloist.
AAJ: That’s what I find very impressive...the willingness to stay within the experimental frame when there’s industry pressure and consumer pressure to—I don’t want to use any names here—let’s look for the next cross-over hit, or let’s cover Billy Holiday again. Instead of, let’s find something new to explore which may not come with all the standard wrapping.
JO: I always look to the jazz masters as the best prototype. You look at Ornette, you look at Monk, these guys were so concerned with just exploring music and developing there own thing without worrying about what it meant so much. That’s what it is to be an artist. I think the whole exploration aspect of what we do is hugely important. I may be someplace completely different in a few years, but it’s a journey. Every time you write a piece of music or sit down and think about something and practice, hopefully you’re able to unlock some key to the musical universe that you didn’t know before. It’s a very exciting thing when you make these little self-discoveries of things that lay within a piece of music you’ve been working on. It opens up new doors and you just walk through those doors and keep looking. Who knows where it’s going to take you?
AAJ: Do you ever worry about audience access? Is there ever a point that it becomes too much a personal journey?
JO: At a certain point you could become self-indulgent in a way. I think that just depends on the person. I think I know myself pretty well and the best thing you can do is always question your motivations. To balance yourself. So often as human beings we do things by habit or rote. As long as you are aware of that and try to be objective without being maybe emotionally attached to them, that way you can have a little more clarity. For myself, I’ve never worried about commercial interest. I play music because I love it and it is endlessly fascinating to me.
AAJ: Is that what kept you going as you were building your career, during the skimpy times every jazz musician has to face?
JO: The thing is, its very common, your going to become discouraged at different times. Artistically, in yourself just as far as not being able to express things you hear in your head, or trying to find what it is that you are hearing, or you can become discouraged in the market place because there are no gigs. A lot of things work against you as a musician
So its gonna happen. But you have to have a healthy attitude about it. People who are in it for the long haul, there’s an underlying motivation that’s unstoppable. That’s what you are born to do. That’s what you are meant to do. You do it whether you made fifty cents or fifty million. In pop music a lot of times that’s not so apparent. These people are not in it for the long haul always.
AAJ: Outside of music, what draws your attention. If you’re opening up the newspaper in the morning, what’s the first section you look at?
JO: I always read the headlines first, of course, but the things that interest me, I love the visual arts. I’m always interested in reading biographies about visual artists or going to galleries. In a way, I see my music as trying to express a visual character.
AAJ: Is there a particular style you look to?
JO: I have a soft spot for the Abstract Expressionists like Pollock and De Kooning, Franz Kline, those guys. I love all art, but mostly modern art. Basically I love the American modern artists from let’s say 1930 through ‘59, ‘60-‘61. The Pop art stuff, I’m not totally convinced with all of that.
For me, visually, the sense of space, color, line and density, the architecture of music and painting are really very close together. That’s something that I continue to explore because I can see that it can be more and more refined. There definitely are parallels in painting and playing. When I improvise and compose [I’m} influenced by a visual sense of trying to create objects and color.
AAJ: That gives another way to verbalize the sensation of listening to your work, especially Abacus. There’s a real solidity to it. A real sensation that there’s something right there that you can look at from different angles.
JO: Right, right, exactly. Several of the pieces that have multiple layers on which the musicians can move up or down to create a sense of time and space. That gives the music a morphic sense, that its constantly evolving like a life-form. That’s what I was going for. That’s what interests me, and the guys on the record—I can’t say enough about how great they were.
AAJ: We haven’t touched on that enough, you’re approach as a bandleader. Are you a single take kinda guy? If you could take us through that, its always interesting to hear how someone moves from the compositional phase to bringing an album together in a studio.
JO: The inception of the group was myself Johannes [Weidenmueller] and Jeff [Hirshfield]. We’d been playing as a trio and on several gigs like that. A few of the pieces had been written as trio compositions. I wanted to expand the group and add guitar and piano. That’s when some of the other compositions came into being.
We rehearsed quite a bit, going back to the trio thing. So that gave a really solid sense to the essence of the rhythm section. Then we did rehearse quite a bit with the rest of the quintet. I’m basically a whatever-feels-good kinda guy. First take, second take, whatever makes the best performance. If that happens on the first take, that’s fine. When we recorded this record—If I remember right—we didn’t do a whole lot of takes. We maybe did three takes on one tune, maybe a couple of takes on the other tunes. That was about it.
AAJ: So not a lot of post-production editing.
JO: Not really. I think there was one place we edited. The essence of the music is really live group. I wanted that to be what the record was about, as opposed to a production, studio entity. I wanted it to be something you could go out and see, something you could experience live. For me, being an improviser, the action and reaction that you get with live musicians is something that you can’t duplicate in a studio setting when you try to mix things, move them around. So really, in essence it’s just a live record.
AAJ: It’s an impressive feat to create these pieces that sound to intricately and exactly placed, live.
JO: That was the challenge, and that’s a tribute to the amazing musicianship of Jeff, Johannes, Ben [Monder] and Russ [Lossing]. They’re some of the best in New York. They make those things sound easy when they’re incredibly difficult. Its pretty mind blowing how great they are.
AAJ: You have a tour coming up, so everyone should be looking out for you to visit their city soon, right?
JO: That’s right. I’m working on getting to as many as I can.
AAJ: Any other projects in the works?
JO: There are a few things. There’s a collaborative group, we did a trio recording that will probably be coming out in the spring or summer. Masa Kamaguchi on bass and Jay Rosen on Drums. Basically, it’s a recording of some free pieces and reevaluations of standards. That’ll be out on CIMP. I’m heading to Canada, and I’ll be in Maine doing a concert for the Maine Jazz Camp which we’ve taught at before.
AAJ: That’s a great program.
JO: We’re doing a little benefit there. I think it’s the 20th anniversary and they’re having a lot of former faculty come up to do a concert. My main focus right now, though, is putting together our European tour and than the American tour.
AAJ: Sounds like things are really cookin’.
JO: Well, its always tough out there though, let me tell ya brother.
AAJ: Let me congratulate you again, its really a great album. I’m a huge fan of Arabesque, I think they bring in a lot of innovative people. Good luck with everything and thank you for taking time out to talk with us.
JO: It was a pleasure speaking with you.
Visit John O'Gallagher on the web at www.johnogallagher.com .