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Barry Altschul: Another Time, Another Place

By Published: February 19, 2008

AAJ: For Stu (Soul Note, 1979), right?

BA: Yes, For Stu, but my first record was an all-star date, You Can't Name Your Own Tune (Muse, 1977), and that was with Muhal Richard Abrams on piano, Sam, Dave Holland and [trombonist] George Lewis.

AAJ: There's mention in the liner notes of an unreleased leader session that you made in the late '60s, at least Cuscuna mentions it, but I wasn't sure what that refers to.

BA: No, no, dates were starting to be offered for me in the late '60s but nothing came about until ten years later. Yes, I remember that from the notes and what Cuscuna was referring to—he was finally on the way to the record date! People started offering me dates but nobody came through.

Anthony Davis left to form a band with [flutist] James Newton, and Rick Rozie, who was the bassist at the Time, left for the New Haven Symphony. Ray was left and Mark Helias came in on bass. Mark and Ray had already been playing in a trio format with Gerry Hemingway, and we started to do some playing and I said, "This is complete—we don't need anybody else." We went to Europe and the first gig we played was the Moers Jazz Festival, and when we walked off stage there was an agent there who wanted to take us on, so we worked for five years as the Brahma trio.

AAJ: Another example of Europe offering opportunities that America lacked.

BA: Yeah, really, and she was a great agent.

AAJ: Could you talk a bit about the formation and dissolution of Circle?

BA: I was with Paul Bley and Chick and Dave were with Miles, and when Miles started to get into the Bitches Brew style of playing, they didn't want to get into that particularly. They wanted to play acoustically, and freer. So they called me to form a trio, which I did. That trio lasted about a year-and-a- half, and that was great. Then one day, somehow Chick and Anthony met. We had a gig as a trio at the Village Vanguard, and Anthony came down to the club and Chick invited him to play. That was the first time Circle got together. Chick asked Dave and I how we felt about Anthony joining the band, and that's how it became Circle.

AAJ: It's interesting to me that Chick would've felt that the electronic palette Miles was into wasn't the right thing, because not only would he embrace it later, but what he was getting into by playing inside the piano and augmenting the instrumentation wasn't that far a reach coloristically.

BA: At the time, Chick was into macrobiotics and feeling very pure about things, and he wanted it to be so in the music also. It was more the pure instrumentation and getting into what was happening organically. Afterwards, he wanted to be more commercially-minded as far as making a name and more money (not necessarily coming off an artistic thing), and he embraced other things. Then he got involved in certain philosophies [Scientology], and I don't think that was the reason he started to play different music, but it did make him realize more of what he wanted deep down inside. I guess that's how I could put it.

align=center>Barry Altschul

Barry Altschul, 1976

AAJ: Was there any correlation between Paul Bley's increased use of electronics and your leaving that group for a time?

BA: No, no, as a matter of fact it's because of the Paul Bley experience of electronics! [laughs] At the time it was a big Moog synthesizer, and everything had to be patched and it took hours and hours and hours! To perform with that on the road was really a bitch, I have to say.

Now, where I went with that was, "I could get that sound by using a flexatone," so part of the percussion I chose to use was what I felt had electronic-like sounds. Shaking a piece of metal or these kinds of things, you know. One time I was on the road with twenty cases of instruments.

AAJ: It's interesting how a lot of European electronic music—and the influence goes both ways—is about finding ways to produce sounds beyond the palette of traditional instruments, yet traditional instruments were finding ways to expand their reach as well.

BA: Yeah, there was this improvising group called Musica Elettronica Viva with, among others, Frederic Rzewski and Ursula Oppens, these great pianists. There was Robert Ashley, the great composer [from Sonic Arts Union], all these cats—that was also a peripheral crowd and I met all of these people through working with Braxton. That was another part of the community, and all of these ideas were being exchanged—it was a real creative period. People were mixing electronics in and finding new sounds, eliminating bar lines from composition and dealing with non-metered music, all kinds of stuff.

AAJ: I'd like to get back to your own composing. When did you first get interested in that?

BA: I actually didn't start writing until Circle, when I became encouraged to write by Chick and Braxton and Dave—"You should write, too." The first writing that I actually considered decent was for the You Can't Name Your Own Tune (Muse, 1977) album.

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