Eddie Prevost: Out On The Free
“ People who look for models for different and possibly more fulfilling ways of living, seek cultural manifestations of this desire. Some improvised musics offer possible artistic manifestations which mirror these desires. ”
Drummer and percussionist Eddie Prévost has spent a career devoted to the outer reaches of the music. In the forty-odd years he's been musically active he has been a key member of the free improvisation group AMM as well as a band leader in his own right, leading units dedicated to mining a musical seam closer to free jazz than free improvisation as such.
For part of that time he has also run Matchless Recording & Publishing, a company perhaps unsurprisingly dedicated to documenting the music he and others have performed, and publishing the writings of those he has worked with, not the least of them being the English composer Cornelius Cardew, himself a charter member of AMM.
All About Jazz: Would it be true to say that when tenor saxophonist Lou Gare answered your small ad in Melody Maker back in 1963 it marked the beginning of some kind of journey?
Eddie Prévost : It was, of course, not that either of us knew it at the time.
AAJ: What variety of music was the Eddie Prévost Quintet, that Gare joined, playing at that time?
EP: Actually it was the Dave Ware/Eddie Prévost Quintet (Dave Ware being an early trumpet playing friend). Lou joined and reinforced what I would call a hard-bop band. This was music influenced mainly by the 1950/60s jazz of the east coast US modern jazz menespecially Monk, Coltrane, Blakey etc.
AAJ: Did you at some point experience a kind of conversion to the potential of free improvisation as a means for musical expression, or was it the end result of what might be called a more evolutionary process?
EP: This is a complicated question. In brief, during the mid-1960s, we (proto-AMMLou Gare, [guitarist] Keith Rowe and myself) were all young men trying to make our way in a new music. We listened to everything. Considered all the new developments. We attached ourselves to various lines depending upon our general sensibilities. The freedom of Ornette Coleman's groups probably assisted the move towards a more open form. This then allowed us to develop forms which were potentially uniquely ours. I think that there was a concern that the emulative approach was a creative cul-de-sac. The project demanded that we make a new music which reflected our own times and aspirations and was not a copy of some other creative proposal.
AAJ: Do you regard free improvisation as one of a limited number of musical forms that are more fulfilling than others? If this is so is it your experience that the demands of its discipline are more spiritually rewarding than others?
EP: I think that free improvisation potentially fulfills a function in music making that is not available to a musician in any other form. Most musics that are informal use improvisation as a way of extending the music. This is done either by decoration or by developing music from pre-set themes with specific chord structures. The kind of free improvisation that I am speaking ofand here I am referring to my experience of AMM music which may be different in approach to other kinds of free improvisationThe AMM approach (certainly in its initial phase) was experimental. By this I mean that the search for sounds was in the process of making the music. Any meaning that became attached to sounds came out of the experience of the sounds rather than a desired meaning (or musical effect) being the guide to what sounds should be made.
Whether or not the experience of this music can be described as spiritual is a mute point. If, by spiritual, you mean approaching some sense of god, then our answer would be no. Not least because most of us were/are rationalists and atheists. If, however, you mean did the making of the music and the experience of doing and hearing it promote some sense of heightened physical awareness, then the answer may be yes. In this regard it may be said that the musicians and audiences have had (at times) some kind of transcendent experience. If this is a religious experience then I can only echo Iris Murdoch's desire to wrest the idea of spirituality away from religion. And, place it squarely within the realms of creative human sensation.
AAJ: In terms of sheer longevity AMM has to be one of the longest lasting ensembles in the world of free improvisation. How has the audience for the music evolved over the four decades of the group's existence, and how dependent do you think that evolution has been upon changing attitudes?
EP: This is a question to which I can have no definitive answer. I can only suggest that when AMM music first began to emerge, a few people realized what we were trying to do. For the most part a general public would not have recognized it as music at all. [I have press cuttings to prove both positions!]. Even more recently some have suggested that AMM music is like a secret code that is only available to the few. [AMM Pianist] John Tilbury countered this suggestion by observing that if AMM music is some kind of code, then an increasing amount of people have cracked the code.
The truth may be that the audience and the musicians are all looking for the same kinds of things. Within the range of experiences that I believe we can situate this common search, I think that a sense of self-invention is primary. This is a description of the kind of freedom that I think most reflective people want. And, I think that this can be extended to possible social-invention. In other words, people who look for models for different and possibly more fulfilling ways of living, seek cultural manifestations of this desire. Some improvised musics offer possible artistic manifestations which mirror these desires.
AAJ: Do you think there's now a kind of sub-audience for AMM's music in particular or, in your experience, do those who support the idea of free improvisation as a valid means of musical expression not make that kind of distinction?
EP: I would hope that audiences seek to growspiritually and culturallythrough their reflections upon the world. Listening to music can be an avenue for this process. Thus it is quite possible to know and feel a sense of positive humanity emerging from many kinds of music. (It is, of course, also possible to sense and even nurture what, in my opinion, might be negative and even evil manifestations of human activity.) Listening to Bach and Beethoven, Mingus and Monk, or even the Dead Kennedys tell us something about the human condition. Of course much music is anodyne. Its purpose is to help us to forget. But the great music, I contend, helps us to remember what it is to be alive. Being alive may have subtle nuances attached to its own time and place. It is beholden on us all to work all this out.
AAJ: Am I right in thinking that AMM has been a small group at every stage of its life ranging from duo to sextet or septet? If this is so, has that been intrinsic to the success of AMM's music? Would it have been the case that greater numbers of musicians might not have been able to sustain the rarefied level of communication that could be argued to be one of the group's hallmarks?
EP: I think that it is the experience of most improvisers; that large ensembles are very difficult vehicles in which to maintain freedom of thought and opportunity of expression for all those concerned. There have been many experiments which have sought to explore this situation, ranging from various kinds of conduction to even my own attempts at creating loose structures (i.e. Spirals and Silver Pyramid). Most of these attempts (including my own) have in my opinion failed because of the inherent difficulty of maintaining a musical (or any other kind of) relationship within a large ensemble. Directionor some external authorityis thought to be needed to make any sense of such initiatives. And, in the short term this may be true. But if the essential nature of your work is to do with communication and making music appropriate to the moment, then following some instructions is not going to allow this to develop.
AAJ: On a similar theme, at the time when AMM consisted of just yourself and Lou Gare back in the 1970s, there were very few precedents for tenor sax /drums duosindeed only John Coltrane's duo with Rashied Ali as documented on Interstellar Space (Impulse!, 1967) springs to mind. Were you both conscious of this, or was the situation merely the product of expediency?
EP: I have certainly never owned Interstellar Space. I am not even sure I have ever heard it all the way through. My education is lacking. But by the time AMM had gained momentum, such concerns seemed without consequence. Lou and I simply made AMM musicbut on drums and saxophone. There really is not much connection with the Coltrane/Ali music except that, in some superficial sense, both manifestations may at times seem to inhabit similar sonic territory.
AAJ: This question is something of an exercise in nostalgia. According to producer Joe Boyd, in his book White Bicycles. Making Music In The 1960s (Serpent's Tail, 2006), you played the UFO club in London, England on January 27, 1967 on the same bill as Pink Floyd. Do you hanker after days such as those when the attitude towards musical experimentation, and indeed towards the far more rudimentary matter of billing, seemed as if it was a whole lot more flexible and inclusive?
EP: I suppose that in London during the mid 1960s no one knew what was possible. Or, what was impossible. Pink Floyd was just another band trying to make it. AMM was an improvising band making strange noises. There did not seem to be any problem about cohabiting on the same bill. The audience was as alternative as the music. Only later, when the market took a hold of rock music, did all this change. An early sign of this was when AMM played at London's Roundhouse on the same bill as The Cream and Geno Washington's Ram-Jam Band (among others). The promoter refused to pay AMM because he said we had only been tuning up. It took the persistence of our friend and sometime manager/helper Victor Schonfield to finally get the agreed fee out of them! Most things can be flexible and inclusive just as long as you're not involved in some competitive market place.
AAJ: Finally, and as an antidote to nostalgia, what are you working on and whom are you working with at the moment? Is it a matter of devoting yourself exclusively to free improvisation at this point in time?
EP: This particular autumn period is hectic for me. I am working on things all of which make demands of various attributes that I cherish in the world of improvised music.
I have been working with John Tilbury, my partner in AMM, at a festival in Lodi, Italy, where I also collaborated with twenty-two Italian improvising musicians.
Later, AMM collaborated very successfully with three much younger musicians from Austria and Germany. Kai Fagaschinski , Klaus Filip and Burkhard Stagl at a festival in Berlin.
I flew to Canada for various concerts and workshop in Halifax, Toronto and Guelph in October, and in November I take up the drumming mantle and perform with saxophonist Alan Wilkinson in Finland.
And later this year I shall be performing with John Butcher in three concerts in Israel.
But the thread holding all these things together is the continuing workshop that I convene most weeksfor getting on ten years now (less than usual this autumn because of the schedule).. And there is the music arising from the workshopamong others, the ensemble 9! (which sometimes involves fourteen people) and the "total jazz experiments with saxophonist Seymour Wright and guitarist Ross Lambert. Not to mention my attempts to make fresh connections with musicians who have more of a conventional jazz orientation, like Mornington Lockett and Chris Biscoe. It seems to be a time to make up for time lost perhaps. Alongside this I am endeavoring to help John Tilbury realize his great work of biographyCornelius Cardew A Life Unfinished, which I am publishing under our imprint, Copula.
Eddie Prévost/Alan Wilkinson, So Are We, So Are We (Matchless, 2006)
Allan Wilkinson/Eddie Prévost/Joe Williamson, Along Came Joe (Matchless, 2006)
AMM, Norwich:. AMM at UEA (Matchless, 2005)
Lou Gare, No Strings Attached (Matchless, 2005)
Jim O'Rourke/Eddie Prévost , Third Straight Day Made Public (Complacency, 1993)
AMM, Generative Themes (Matchless, 1983)
AMM, To Hear And Back Again (Matchless, 1975)
AMM, At The Roundhouse (Anomalous Records, 1972)
AMM, Ammusic (ReR Megacorp, 1966)
Courtesy of BBC Radio 3