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Saxophonist John O'Gallagher and Modern Jazz Composition

By Published: April 14, 2004
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 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.

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