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Paul Rutherford In Memoriam (1940-2007)

By Published: September 9, 2007
The passing of Paul reminds us of the fragility of living life as a pioneer in an uncertain musical world. Our work together in Iskra 1903 represented the buoyant days of intense experimentation in the small ensemble, but Paul was also busy working with several large groups - Westbrook, Globe Unity, London Jazz Composers Orchestra and later the Charlie Watts Big Band. Appearances of these groups, by their very nature, were infrequent, and as concerts became harder to arrange, so did Paul's work tail off. The paucity of playing depressed him - he was happiest on the stage, not off it.

Paul really got me into the serious business of improvisation by suggesting to John Stevens that I be invited to play with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. It was a generous gesture which turned out to be life-changing. The Little Theatre Club in London's West End became the melting pot for meetings of like-minded musicians to set up liaisons that would be important for the history of improvised music. Paul was at the heart of these activities.

Living in the same part of South East London meant that we were regular buddies and those heady days stand out in my memory. His personal life was always topsy-turvy, so these were aspects to our friendship that were beyond music and it was hard at times to get a grip on the turmoil.

Leaving South East London for distant pastures meant that our meetings became infrequent - the London Jazz Composers Orchestra providing the platform where we could catch up on things. The odd telephone conversation over the years revealed a person that felt desperate to work, but work was hard to realize.

My last meeting with Paul was on the occasion of my 60th birthday party in South East London. That night in April he was in ebullient form but fragile. Recently we spoke again about a project in September and a concert next year with a revived LJCO. He was happy at the prospect - so was I - but the call revealed that my September project with him would have been only his second concert this year, a frighteningly small number of outings for such an amazing player. I often wondered about the state of his 'chops' with so little playing, but miraculously he never failed to deliver. Evan Parker reported that his playing in the Globe Unity earlier this year was as strong as ever.

In recent years Emanem has released several CDs of Paul's playing, and I know he was very happy that his art was available to fans of improvised music. We were also in discussion about releasing some of his music written for the LJCO, but time has defeated us.

We will remember Paul for his great musicianship, his exquisite humour and gentle demeanor. A very special person indeed, but a casualty of an indifferent musical world.

- BARRY GUY, bassist

Piano and brass do absolutely not go together, Connie Bauer once said, but I always liked very much to work with brass, especially trombones. Maybe because my father was a trombonist and as a child I got used to the instrument. Paul Rutherford was one of the finest for me, a warrior of the first and the last hour, not an easy guy but a lot of humour and such a great musician! Numerous ad-hoc ensembles we did together, he was a member of my BLEK quartet (piano + 3 brass) and 't Nonet.

A terrible loss, we will never forget him. Bye, mate.

- FRED VAN HOVE, pianist

I first played with Paul in the late '70s. He was of course already an icon of the free music scene and one of the pioneers of free music in Europe and on meeting him for the first time he came across as a genuine unassuming person. He was a tremendous trombone player with an embouchure of granite. He was very encouraging to all musicians. He will truly be missed because there is no one like him. I will always have in my mind his laughing face and I thank the times I hung out with him and the music we made together. He was a communist through and through but I say may god bless you and peace be with you.

- PAUL DUNMALL, multi-instrumentalist

I got to know Paul a little in '97 because Elton Dean had the good sense to put us together in his Newsense band (where he was my trombone brother and Annie Whitehead was our trombone sister). Before that I was just an admirer of his playing from his recordings. But in '97 I was his houseguest at his request...he introduced me to that great little movie, Brassed Off, plus he took me to THE Greenwich Time Zone, plus he arranged for us to do a performance at the Vortex Club in Stokey before I came back here.

When he reappeared last fall for the Vision Festival we put in some time blowing at W-KCR thanks to Ben Young and I was certain we would collaborate/document/maybe do some gigs. But the silence has been pretty deafening...

You can read in International Trombone from years ago where I call him "the classiest living exponent of the instrument, the Sir Lawrence Olivier of the T-bone in fact. ...It's gonna be true for all time. A piece of my heart goes with him.

- ROSWELL RUDD, trombonist

Well, in my case it was Paul, John Stevens & myself who shared all those formative years for all of us and we bounced ideas off each other right from the start. We three met in the Royal Air Force School of Music in Uxbridge in London in 1958. In the following weeks we all realized we had the same interest in music - jazz. So we started to get together and rehearse and try and play various things. After the Music School we all made sure that we were sent to the same band, and that was in Germany, in Cologne where we spent the next three years together and getting together in the band room to practice our own ways of playing jazz. Experimentation always attracted us in our different ways.

When we got out of the Air Force in '63, Paul and I continued to experiment together round his parents' house in Blackheath, London, and John was getting work in Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club. We were attracted by free jazz and things led on from that. John heard us playing at a later date and said he wanted to get involved again and that was the beginning of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1965. Paul was an intelligent man in many respects and was clever enough also to realize his limitations and strengths as a player, and work more to his strengths. I wouldn't call him a "natural trombonist in the conventional sense of the word. He'd never play tailgate, if you know what I mean, but he used his musical frailties to his advantage and by that created a unique style. Most musicians don't have that courage, they either give up, or want to develop something that already has been done. So at least you knew the sound and style of Paul immediately. It could be no one else, and partly that's what it's all about.

- TREVOR WATTS, saxophonist

I met Paul for the first time last year at the Vision Festival. I think I will always be grateful to the folks at the Vision Festival for bringing Paul over here. It was my first time hearing him live and to meet him for the first time. We got to talk and trade stories for a good half-hour or so. I was very impressed that he knew who I was and was looking to meet me and was willing to spend some time talking. He was truly open and honest and was really enjoying his stay in New York. I have few heroes but anyone who had the courage to pick up a trombone, do a solo concert, record it, release it and have it become the classic it deserves to be, will always be a hero to me. To get up and say "this is it, this is me and how I "hear the world and who maintained the courage of his political stance for so many years is a truly heroic individual. His The Gentle Harm of the Bourgeoisie will always remain for me a goal, setting the bar very high for the rest of us to strive for on both musical and personal levels.

- STEVE SWELL, trombonist

One of my earliest memories of Paul in a non- playing situation was around 1973/74 at a Musicians' Co-op social event where he asked me to help him prepare his contribution to the food. I was to chop onions while he put some boiled potatoes into a bowl. Then adding the onions he covered the lot in salad cream. With a glint in his eye and a wry smile he said, There you are. Kartofelsalat. Just like in Germany. Fortunately for us his musical skills far outweighed his culinary ones but were equally direct. His considerable technical armory was never used for elaborately empty displays but were always of consequence to the musical situation. Demonstrating a rich humour and far reaching imagination, at its best Paul's capacity for invention could seem endless; his playing effortless.

He was also a self-deprecating and generous-natured man who loved the company of his fellow musicians. In my last conversation with him he said he was very much looking forward to playing together again. Sadly that was not to be.

- JOHN RUSSELL, guitarist

There were many good times with Paul. Usually on the road. The distance between South East London and West London was too much for casual socializing. We joked about him needing a passport to come across the river. There was a never ending discussion: Marx versus Bakunin that was never at risk of being resolved. One of his pet names for me was "the property owning anarchist . Strangely, given its provenance there was a quote from the Italian Futurists, perhaps Russolo, "Fist and cane fighting in defense of our futuristic music that always made him laugh.

- EVAN PARKER, saxophonist

I'll miss the good times that I've had with Paul. His playing was always excellent and he was a good friend. We all have to 'clock out' at some point, but I wish that Paul had been in good health and could have stayed with us longer. Cheers Paul!

- LOL COXHILL, saxophonist

I knew Paul from the time I moved to London in 1966. When I was working six nights a week at Ronnie Scott's in 1967, we'd put Rutherford on one Sunday night a month and play the music we liked. He was obviously one of the most important trombone players, if not the most important, at the time I worked with him most regularly (1969-1980).

- TONY OXLEY, drummer

Paul, one of the greatest musicians I've ever worked with, was also one of the funniest. With Paul, the seriousness and the jokes were just sides of the same coin. The musician who could move you to tears with the beauty of his playing one minute was the clown who could reduce you to helpless laughter the next. A truly Brechtian juxtaposition of High Art and Low Comedy. This duality, this interleaving of opposites was always present in his playing. He had the ability to play within the structure of the material, while yet taking it somewhere else altogether. And however far things went, Paul could always take them further out.

I'm grateful to have known Paul and worked with him through such an exciting and creative period. It was a time of hope, when all seemed possible. Latterly when idealism gave way to pragmatism we were all in trouble. Some of Paul's contemporaries found ways of adjusting to the changing scene. The path that Paul had chosen didn't include a contingency plan.

These are cruel times for the creative artist, and with ever diminishing opportunities a sense of hopelessness can easily take over. There was no turning back for Paul, nothing to fall back on. He risked everything to be free. And his life, cut off too short as it was, was yet a triumph of the creative spirit. Paul Rutherford changed music and changed lives for ever. I know he changed and enriched mine.

- MIKE WESTBROOK, composer

I first saw Paul Rutherford late in 1966 performing with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble at the Little Theatre Club, but I have to admit that I wasn't ready for the music. One memory from that gig was the trombone player wearing an evening suit and bow tie. I assume he must have had another job earlier that evening, because that certainly was not the SME band uniform. I am pleased to say that was the only time I saw Paul in an evening suit.

It took me another 4 or 5 years before I was ready for the London free improvisation scene and two of the things that particularly impressed me were Paul's trio Iskra 1903 with Derek Bailey and Barry Guy and his solo trombone sets. I had never heard a trombone sound like that - the results were often melodic in the conventional sense, but there were these speech-like high notes and gaping intervals that made his lines so unique. There was also his use of voice to create multi-phonics - more than one note at a time - and an incredible range of timbres. Alas, most of this sensational music was just gone in the air, and few people were aware of it.

I often get asked to list my favorite records from those I've issued. I dislike rating things in this way, and I don't want to offend the artists that don't make the list. However, some time ago I came to the conclusion that my proudest achievement was to record some of Paul's solos in 1974 and issue them as an album that he wittily called The Gentle Harm of the Bourgeoisie. People in various parts of the world who initially heard this album were astounded, and it became very influential - not only among trombonists. But although he influenced many, no one sounded anything like him.

I have received lots of correspondence from various contacts around the world, and the words that most frequently describe their experience of Paul are "gentle and "kind . So let us remember the good qualities and the good times that he had, and, above all, let us remember the magnificent music he created. Paul, alas, is no more - we have lost a very dear comrade - but the memories and music live on.

- MARTIN DAVIDSON, Emanem Records


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