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Barry Altschul: Another Time, Another Place

By Published: February 19, 2008

AAJ: And yet it was a situation where you were combining what you had been playing along with your sister, on drum pads, and what you had been playing with the bop guys.

BA: Plus the street, because Bley was also very into Latin music. The thing was that Bley's experiences with Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, with all of these people, where he went musically was a result of all those influences and experiences. I think what he heard was that I could conceptually deal with what was happening while still dealing with the jazz continuum. It was mainly instinctual, because I hadn't listened to free music or contemporary classical at that point. When I went to Europe with Bley was the first time I heard some of these other approaches, and actually some of these European percussionists influenced me (as well as early Duke Ellington and Papa Jo), especially in augmenting my drum set.

AAJ: Could you elaborate on the Bley Trio's maturation and how your approach may have changed?

BA: There was one guy in particular who was playing with Irene Schweizer, a guy named Mani Neumeier. Mani was putting tubes in his drums, blowing them and changing the pitch, and he had all these kinds of bells and so on. It made a lot of sense to me, especially as I related it to the trappings. In the trap drum set the trappings were actually percussion instruments on the side that the Vaudevillian guys and the guys from silent movies would play—temple blocks for horses' hooves, you know. The guy from Duke Ellington's band of the '30s, Sonny Greer, if you see early pictures of the orchestra, you see the drums set up with chimes, gongs, kettles, tympani—and I related to that as well as to Papa Jo Jones who had a record called The Drums (Columbia, 1973) where he's not just playing but also talking, using cowbells and wood blocks. I was really able to relate to that, and bringing that tradition was part of jazz, no matter what it sounded like to me, it was an extension.

AAJ: Exactly, using what you have to go forward. Did you get much of an impression of whether there was greater acceptance of the music you were playing in Europe at the time?

BA: Absolutely. There was no acceptance of that music in the United States, and the musicians had to create their own environments to play in. The first loft scene was the Jazz Composer's Guild, who had a loft over the Village Vanguard [subsidized by painter/filmmaker Michael Snow], and they had performances on the weekends in the '60s. From there, the October Revolution happened and every place in Manhattan— "Don't tell us, let us play here"—just to get the music out.

AAJ: Even if, as in the Cellar Cafe, it had to be by candlelight.

BA: Right, and that was the first wave. The second wave happened in the '70s with Studio Rivbea, the Ladies' Fort, Environ, Studio We and a couple of other lofts. All of a sudden, some European agents and bookers started to invite us to play in Europe [in the '60s] and they called it "Loft Jazz." We went to Europe having to explain that a loft was a place, not a style. But anyway, there was a big thing in Europe—the Chicago cats and a lot of Americans from all over the country playing this music went to Europe, and some stayed for a while. At least you could work.

Barry Altschul

So I started going there with Paul Bley, and we were playing very out music. First we had Steve Swallow on bass, then Kent Carter came in and Mark Levinson, and intermittently Gary Peacock. Later he moved to Japan to study Japanese macrobiotic medicine, and he played sporadically with [pianist] Masabumi Kikuchi. Paul and I went on tour in '76 or so, and we persuaded Gary to do a tour of Japan and it resulted in him coming back to play.

AAJ: The group was rather well-recorded during that time in Europe; it seems like alongside the Lacy band, the Bley Trio was one of the most recorded American bands over there.

BA: Well, I don't know about "most recorded" but we did record quite a bit. I mean, in Europe and especially with Lacy and Bley, they both had come from a more inside place in the music. They had a history in the music, and then they took their shit out, which was appealing to the Europeans because of the lineage that was kept.

But then the Europeans rebelled against America musically because they wanted to get their own style of free music. They didn't want to admit to or deal with American music for a while.

AAJ: Until it eventually came back around.

BA: Well, they had to, really, because they didn't have an improvising tradition—the Germans and Dutch didn't have it, whereas like the Italian players who were playing out at the time were very inside. Franco D'Andrea, Enrico Rava, Giorgio Gaslini, Bruno Tommasso, Giorgio Buratti—it's interesting, I guess I hadn't thought about it before.

AAJ: It seems like from very early on, you favored the trio format. Whether that was conscious I don't know, but it's something that I associate with your name. Could you elaborate on that?

BA: I don't know how that happened. I started playing with piano trios, and a piano trio to me is like a big band—there's so much you can do with it. I worked with Bley's trio, with Hampton Hawes (that was never recorded) and I worked with Chick Corea. Those are the three trios. Sam Rivers and Dave Holland, well, Sam just wanted to be the horn though there were some gigs where he had [tubaist] Joe Daley or [guitarist] Ted Dunbar. He expanded it a bit [into an orchestra], but he really liked that format. Braxton was a quartet pretty much, and Brahma (when I started to form my own bands), that trio at first was a quartet with [pianist] Anthony Davis and [trombonist] Ray Anderson.

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