Gregg Simpson: Avant-Garde from Vancouver
AAJ: Could you tell me more about the Al Neil trio? In terms of their approach to music, musical content and what set it apart as a highly innovative group at that time in Canada?
GS: Our first musical session was an eye opener. Al was pretty well into his cups the night he hauled out his little electric Wurlitzer piano with its fragile reeds, half of which he managed to break while slipping from the piano stool to the floor at least three times. The score for the music he was about to play me consisted of chopped up music paper collaged together with fragments from all kinds of popular magazines.
Al was playing a kind of tortured, mystical yet intensely lyrical music I could only describe as a cross between Bud Powell, Edgar Varese and Debussy. But Al came up with this lyrical, yet cataclysmic, style on his own. Although an authentic hard bop musician, Al Neil worked in so many other influences from pioneer Dadaists like Kurt Schwitters, painters like Bradley Tomlin and Mark Tobey to the cut-up writings of William S. Burroughs, works on alchemy and mysticism and the fevered visions of the French surrealist, Antonin Artaud. Obviously a multimedia kind of jazz was bound to occur from this collaboration.
For the first two rehearsals the Al Neil Trio was actually a quartet with the presence of alto saxophonist Bob Buckley, who later went on to fame and fortune with the rock band Spring and then as a producer. But it was as a trio with Al on piano, Richard Anstey on bass and myself on drums was what emerged and by late fall we were rehearsing regularly at the little store front which eventually opened as the Sound Gallery.
The first recording session at the studio, as it was still referred to, was on December 15th, 1965 and the Al Neil Trio played several improvised pieces for a small audience. The music was nothing short of extraordinary, combing snippets of melodies like "Summertime, which appeared through waves of arpeggios, polychromatic chord clusters, whirling dervish modal lines and atonal passages. We were still playing jazz we all thought. Anstey and I were both very recently influenced by the work of the John Coltrane Quartet and of Charles Mingus who we had seen live together at the Blue Horn as the Flat Five Club had been renamed. Al liked to perplex other musicians when they asked what all this stuff was and he would say, "I like to think I'm still playing jazz!
The famous bassist/ pianist Don Thompson, now a Canadian jazz icon who had played bebop with Al, asked him, "Al, how do you get those guys to play that way?"
This was no easy thing to explain. The trio had a unique empathy for improvisation not unlike a group like the Bill Evans Trio. Although much more frenzied, it did have some of the interwoven, independent melodic lines of the Evans group. But that was when something like a tune or song form was involved. What was unique to this group was the way it could move into non-verbal chanting, collaged textures utilizing toy instruments, tapes, records or radios and still keep the feel of a jazz trio. Noise music mixed with political protest was employed on pieces like "State of the Union, where a radio speech by then [American] President [Lyndon B.] Johnson on Vietnam was smothered in clattering textures and insane shrieking, all recorded in a totally darkened Sound Gallery. It was a long way from bebop.
During the winter of 1965-66, I had hit on the name Sound Gallery for the little store front space I had rented as a painting studio and for the trio rehearsals. Advertising was a large piece of construction paper hung in the window with stenciled letters advertising: Al Neil and his Royal Canadians represented by some collages. Admission was by donation as we had been told we could avoid hassles with the authorities that way. The next concert the group called itself Al Neil and the Royal Rascals, and around that time we started to invite others into the evening concerts.
At the 1966 PNE Trips Festival the Al Neil Trio opened for Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company and other acts including the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Daily Flash, poet Michael McClure and others. This was before these groups achieved any national prominence and were basically still underground [San Francisco] Bay-area groups.
AAJ: How was the Al Neil trio formed? How did you guys meet up and decide to play together?
GS: As I mentioned, Richard and I had been playing with marimba player Don French in the New Dimension Jazz Trio in early 1965. He brought along his friend, Bob Buckley to play alto, although he was better known as a keyboard player.
I had met Al separately, as I described. But Richard had already been playing with Al in a quartet with Dale Hillary on alto and drummer Jim Chivers, another product of the Jim Blackley Drum Village. The late Dale Hillary had been the alto player on the 1958 LP Neil made with Beat poet Kenneth Patchen. Hillary had also toured with Philly Joe Jones' group to Cuba among other places. This quartet was amazing the night I heard them at the Flat Five and stretched out a tune for a whole set.
The first two rehearsals were at Bob Buckley's family mansion in a very upscale part of Vancouver. We played the kind of extended hard bop that I had already heard Al playing. The quartet didn't last, but the trio emerged as an entity which immediately sprang to life. Al was around 42 at the time and Richard and I were both 18.
Al was already a veteran of boogie woogie and early bop. He was also an army veteran, was in D-Day and participated in the liberation of Paris. He played his piano stylings often during the liberation. After returning home, Al helped set up the legendary club, the Cellar. There he was house pianist often playing with big names like Art Pepper, Carl Fontana, Conte Candoli and others. Mingus, Ornette, Wes Montgomery and Harold Land were frequent visitors.
The trio had a very special chemistry and we would go from playing bop classics like "Birk's Work, "Airegin, "Celia, or "Round Midnight to standards like "Old Black Magic or "What is this Thing Called Love to apocalyptic sound collages, noise music or John Cage-influenced minimalist improvisations. One celebrated piece was "Zen Glass, where we smashed glass bottles into a tub, later adding taped sounds of breaking glass together with Al playing his out of tune zither, the strings inside the piano, etc. Even if we were reaching into the territory of Varese or Cage, we still felt we were playing like a jazz trio, as I mentioned, not unlike Bill Evans, but with some very different elements thrown in.
Early on I started experimenting tape loops using two tape recorders which I would operate while playing drums, toy instruments and a battery of radios, records and other sound collage sources. Al started doing cut-up readings over these sound collages and a whole new idiom was born. I had often heard Al at parties doing these extremely funny cut-up readings from 4-5 books at once.
So lyricism, hard bop, and a strong dada element were all present in varying amounts. Al's politics always showed through in his send ups of US presidents and local cops who harassed him, like the "Snedenko Collage on Retrospective 1965-1968 (Blue Minor, 2001).