An AAJ Interview with Larry Ochs
"To reveal a new world is the function of creation in all the arts." Edgard Varese
How different might our planet be if a number of significant events over the past century had NOT happened? What if the Kennedys and Dr. King had NOT been assassinated? What if nuclear weaponry had NOT been invented? What if the stock market had NOT crashed in Oct. 1929?
From a musical perspective, what if John Lennon had never met Paul McCartney? What if electric and electronic instruments had not become economically viable? What if Charlie Parker had not died but had instead lived to become a student of Edgard Varese?
Huh? What? Where did THAT piece of speculation come from?
A little known, but true, piece of jazz history is that Charlie Parker was completely awestruck by the imaginative, idiosyncratic, innovative, and utterly iconoclastic composer, Edgard Varese (and if you don't know who Varese was, take a brief time out here, fire up your search engine or encyclopedia of choice, and do a little bit of reading). According to Parker's widow, Bird followed Varese up and down the streets of Greenwich Village, at a distance, for two years trying to work up the nerve to approach the composer and to speak to him. "Varese is the only man I'd be willing to be a servant to," Parker's widow reported him to have said. Finally, Parker appeared one night at Varese? home on Sullivan Street, and begged the composer to accept him as a pupil. Varese was indeed willing and agreed to take Bird on as an apprentice upon Varese' return from an imminent trip to Europe. Unfortunately, Parker died before Varese returned.
What music might have been unleashed from Parker's unparalleled improvisational spirit under the guidance of Varese? aesthetic for the liberation of sound? New worlds revealed indeed...
Of course, at this point in time, some could suggest that any speculation as to what might have resulted from Parker's tutelage under Varese may have little more than entertainment value. Perhaps so. After all, Parker died 44 years ago, Varèse 34, and both are as enigmatic now as they were when alive. On the other hand, it could be just as easily suggested that a number of musicians performing and composing today are equally infused with both Parker's improvisational ferocity and Varese' adamant refusal to "submit to sounds that have already been heard."
Although he is certainly too modest to compare himself to Varese or Parker, saxophonist/improviser/composer Larry Ochs unquestionably makes music that both of these legendary artists would admire and respect.
Best known as a member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Mr. Ochs has recorded over two dozen albums in the past two decades plus with this ensemble. The material that Rova covers is diverse, challenging, and rewarding to both the band and listener alike, extending from raw, pure improvisation to complex composition (contributed by Mr. Ochs and band mates Steve Adams, Jon Raskin, Bruce Ackley in addition to Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne, John Carter, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette, Barry Guy, Lindsay Cooper, Fred Frith, Robin Holcomb, Alvin Curran, and Terry Riley).
Although Mr. Ochs is ostensibly the spokesperson for Rova, the interview which follows is primarily intended to shed light on his other projects (although separating Mr. Ochs from Rova is certainly an impossible task).
Thus, to coincide with the North American release of the CD Saturn's Finger (Buzz) by Maybe Monday (Fred Frithguitar; Miya Masaokakoto, Larry Ochssaxophones) and as a preliminary for the February 2000 release of Trumpets (Black Saint) by What We Live (Lisle Ellisbass; Donald Robinsondrums, Larry Ochssaxophones with Dave Douglas or Wadada Leo Smithtrumpet), Larry Ochs kindly assented to an interview with All About Jazz. This interview was conducted via e-mail in November-December 1999.
Special thanks to Mr. Glenn M. Ito of EuroJazz Marketing for continued enthusiasm and support of All About Jazz.
Larry Ochs: Below are your questions with some answers. But I want to preface the whole thing with two thoughts:
First: art doesn't start off having meaning; it makes meaning. I think the meaning is after the fact, when you look back on it in the context of its happening. Art that's worth looking at more than once says something more than the sum of its parts, and that isn't really in the control of the artist. And I think some of your questions are asking for answers that assume I knew the answer before I made the art, and that's not the case.
Second: While you and I talk about ideas and theories, I think it's important for Average Joanne and Joe to understand that all the theories and discussion don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. That's a bit of a joke, but the truth is that the music has to create something more than the sum of its parts, if it doesn't move you or disturb you or challenge you or inspire you then the whole thing becomes an exercise. A lot of people want to debate whether x or y or z has "soul" or is "cold and without feeling." That's not exactly what I'm talking about, because what works for me in 1999 might not have worked for me in 1969, not to mention Average Joanne living in Slovenia versus Average Joe living in Chicago. But what is important is for everyone to understand that myself and every other composer or performer is really after the same thing. We just go at it in very different ways. But no one can tell me that Xenakis? or Braxton's music is any less soulful than Al Green's. (And yet, it's totally valid for Average Joe to get nothing out of Xenakis' music.) Point is: no one is trying to create arithmetic when they compose music...whether they work with sieve theories or with inspiration from God.
All About Jazz: In your interview with Will Montgomery you stated that "improvisation is the most important element of my musical activity." In your opinion, what are the biggest myths and misconceptions about improvisation? (i.e., this should be answered from both pro-improv and anti-improv perspectives).
LO: The biggest misunderstanding amongst the general public is that "improvisation" means "anything goes"; "do your thing, whatever it is (...in the jungle, man...)." Do I need to elaborate on this? I don't think so. If you're a fan of jazz then you know that improvisation involves discipline, self-control, experience, and a lot of other things that have nothing to do with "total freedom"whatever that is. So-called "Free Jazz"that music that kind of "developed" out of the sixties and what some musicians thought they heard Albert Ayler doing, couldn't have been more proscribed in its "freedom." There's a "sound" to that musical area, and the keepers of the keys to that discipline are as Catholic as you can get about how it should sound. Then there's "non-idiomatic free improvisation:" the handle under which many of the European improvisers and others (notably from New York in late 70's) have been classified (although not by themselves). While these players really have no "sound" as a group, there's still a way of working here that has to be learned and understood and experienced, and critiqued by the player himself (or herself). Bad "free jazz" and bad "non-idiomatic" players are only "bad" because they don't critique themselves; they don't listen; they don't know the history of their own music. There are a lot of them out there, and they don't help any of us to move the music forward or to build an audience for creative music in general. This question goes places that would involve us in a long, long discussion, so I?ll let it go here for now. (For example: why is it that most jazz musicians don't seem interested in any music outside of their own little subset of the jazz world? Why is it that musicians who consider themselves artists don't know anything about artists practicing similar disciplines on other parts of the planet? Why is it that non-idiomatic free players are reviewed in Jazz magazines at all? Why are these magazines called jazz magazines? What the hell is jazz anyway, and who is mak
Improvisationthe use of it in musicis also a way to bring one's daily life experience into music. And the ability to make choices in real time that actually make a difference is what the music is really about: it's an ideal way of practicing participatory democracy. If we could bring the music into the classroomsnot the music classrooms, but the social science classroomswe could much more quickly give the average kid a way to understand how democracy was supposed to work when it was first imagined. Frankly, I think that one of the reasons free improvisation has such a hard time catching on is because the average citizen is completely uncomfortable with the idea of participatory democracy. And that's why we don't really have it the United States at the moment...
Many composers of 100% notated music imagine that improvisation is a self-indulgence, or something one uses to come up with ideas for the ultimate musiccomposed music. Improvisers can be self-indulgent, but the self-indulgent improvisers can also be crossed out of the equation. We should look for the good examples, not the bad. Talk about Xenakis, Messiaen, Varese, and you're looking at reasons to love 20th century composed music. So let's not point to the less than great practitioners of improvised music, of traditional jazz, of Indian music when looking at those musics that do use improvisation. Then we can have a discussion about one discipline versus the otherif we want toPersonally, I say: enjoy them all. Each has its own thing to say; they all swing.
AAJ: On Nov. 18-19, you conducted a workshop and solo performance at Cal Arts. What aspects of SOLO improvisation do you find to be a) the most appealing or useful and b) the most difficult or problematic? Why?
LO: I'm not a practitioner of solo music, not now, not ever, so I'll skip this question altogether. (In fact, I ended up playing at CAL ARTs with a student rhythm section). Or I could say to (a) the most appealing thing is to listen to others do it well. And the most useful aspect of it was to understandas I got into playingall the possible language extensions that existed on the saxophone. It's also a way to really hear the idea of continuity of thought in music.
AAJ: Do you consider the saxophone to be a physical extension of yourself or is it simply a tool? As follow up, is there a tactile pleasure for you while playing the saxophone? (i.e., in addition to the sonic qualities is there also a distinct satisfaction with regard to how the instrument physically reacts to you or vice versa?)
LO: I'm an artist whose tool of choice is the saxophone.
When I'm in my studio practicing, I can get off on the tactile aspects of the saxophone. But that can only really occur when there's no one else around to listen to or to influence the music, as the physicality of the instrument has nothing to do with making music. (However, in the context of certain pieces I have written for sax quartet, I have employed some of these physical areas particular to saxophoneor to tenor saxophone, or sopranino.)
AAJ: With regards to the concept of language, as a result of your participation in various and diverse projects over the past 20+ years, do you view yourself as having acquired a number of musical languages or having continually extended and expanded a single musical language? (i.e., are you multi-lingual or in possession of a deep, broad vocabulary?)
LO: I'd say the latter. While listening to musics from all over the world and being influenced by them compositionally and otherwise, as a player I've tried to understand my own strengths and interests and to focus on developing those areas, as opposed to becoming a musician who could plug into any musical situation and make it happen. I never felt there was the time to do that, as I didn't start playing saxophone until I was 21. (I did play other instruments in elementary and high schools). Looking back, I know that my attitude was not a correct one, but I'm also not sorry about where it's led me, and I do wonder what my musical life would be if I'd been amenable to studying all musics from the start. If I'd taken a more standard path, I can't be sure I'd have reached the place I'm at now. But then it's a completely irrelevant matter at this point because here I am.
AAJ: In "Improvisation: It's Nature and Practice in Music" improvising guitarist Derek Bailey includes the following quote from saxophonist/improviser/composer Steve Lacy: "I'm attracted to improvisation because of something I value. That is a freshness, a certain quality, which can only be obtained by improvisation, something you cannot possibly get from writing. It is something to do with the 'ledge.' Always being on the brink of the unknown and being prepared for the leap...If through that leap you find something then it has a value which I don't think can be found in any other way...What I write is to take you to the edge safely so that you can go out there and find this other stuff." I'm sure you've seen this before (although many AAJ readers may have not) and am certain you may apply a similar philosophy to your own work. If so, are you capable of differentiating between your identity as an improviser and that as a composer? Why or why not?
LO: Here are the Webster's definitions: To compose = to form by putting together; to create by mental labor a form for a piece of music. To improvise = to fabricate out of what is conveniently at hand.
I think both of these definitions are problematic. Improvising, for example, is certainly mental labor. It's x parts heart and soul, and at it's most inspired it's 100% free, but the mental labor required to reach the most inspired state of bliss while absolutely un-measurable is also without doubt significant. At the same time, one composes out of what is at hand. You can't compose with something you don't have or don't understand. Sonumber one: I completely agree with Lacy's quote; number two, the separation is only a separation in terms of time allotted to either discipline, The overlap is both conceptual and real.
Also: when I improvise, I'm also composing, I'm looking for a form to emerge from the improvisation. I'm not all that interested in moment-form or process-form.
I also think that the growth potential for improvised music is much higher at this point than is the same for composed music, but that's I think another subject. But in the past few years I've been questioning the value of composition, except as a facile way to get at an area, to focus a group. My feeling is thatat this point in timethere's an extraordinary set of improvisers worldwide who have immersed themselves in the art of improvisation for a several decades, and all the people I'm thinking of have looked at the art from at least a few different angles. And they have worked with composition openly as well. And now, if you work in a small ensemble of these veterans, the more freedom you give them, the more revelatory the music can be.
AAJ: As a follow-up (and hopefully precursor to some questions about composition), Mr. Bailey also relays an anecdote in which Mr. Lacy is approached by composer/improviser Frederic Rzewski and asked to "describe in 15 seconds the difference between composition and improvisation." Since this interview is being conducted via e-mail, I can't practically restrict you to a time limit (or spontaneity). However, in 40 words (or less) could you describe the difference between composition and improvisation ?
LO: (Composition = "Follow me. "Yes, boss"; Improvisation = "Let's make a deal. "Okay but with whose rules?")
Or, perhaps more obliquely: "We wanted to create that piece through improvisation, but we didn't have time to make it work that way, so we composed it."
Or: composition fulfills our desire to know before we go. Improvising is about learning as we go. Most audiences shy away from improvisation because they need to understand what it is they are hearingto be comfortable with what's going to happenbefore it happens. It's more rewarding for the great majority to hear a Beethoven piece for the ninth time. They know if it's "good" then. But some of us enjoy surprise, and we prefer to be in a situation as the music is being created, or in a situation where the possibility of surprise and revelation is possible. But we are in the great minority.
AAJ: (in your answer to differentiating between being a composer and improviser) you state : "when I improvise, I'm also composing, I'm looking for a form to emerge from the improvisation." Are you able to recognize a form as you are improvising or does this recognition occur much later (e.g., when listening to a recording of the improvisation)? In any case, what characteristics might you look for as clues to an emerging form?
LO: Just about anything that becomes or could become a tendency in a piece. That is: what's the piece focusing on. In most traditional musics, we tend to focus on themes and variations, moods that ensue from the themes, etc. In improvisation the palette we're using is actually all the same materials you hear used in traditional music but because the overt story-lines are often missing, it gives us the opportunity to focus in on the other things a little more. This is a very long-winded way of saying that all the characteristics of sound can serve as the "form" or part of the form of the piece. Take timbre which is just the quality of the sound itself. Well, if all the instruments are playing in close range to each other (or playing sounds that have longer than average duration), maybe the piece will become a piece about group timbres. Maybe the timbres will meld into a group sound out of which a few thematic solos will emerge that will make the piece more story-like. Or maybe all the solos will be about timbre too, but will sound "soloistic" because they simply raise in volume above the group sound.
Or maybe in an ensemble of mixed instrumentation, it will become clear that I am directly interacting with, say, the guitarist, while the cellist and the vibes player are doing a separate but related duo at the same time. So I?ll make an effort to play directly with the guitarist while paying attention to the other duo at the same time. (Just an example.) So the form of the piece will involve the interaction between two duos.
You have to try to look for form as you're improvising, if you're interested in that. It's also possible to just be in it for the process as it happens. Improvisation is something that happens in time. It can begin, and then end, with no thought to "the form;" that's an equally valid attitude for improvisers. I guess I prefer looking for forms and then trying to keep any piece there for awhile. But I've heard great concerts where form was not part of the equation.
AAJ: Could you please elaborate on why do you think the growth potential for improvised music is currently much higher than that for composed music?
LO: Okay, I did say it, and I do mean it, but the argument is full of holes; I couldn't really justify the statement. But I am not taking it back either...it's a feeling; it's an expression of optimism in part due to the noticeable development of thinking in the world of improvisation. It's due to my seeing how many "younger" musicians are far more advanced in understanding improvisation outside of traditional forms. And then there's the fact that the un-named discipline we practice which involves improvised music, which Braxton calls "creative music," is very young, and so it follows (I think) that the potential for growth is enormous and evolving all the time.
When I say "improvised music" I'm speaking about the trend in Europe and the United States involving musicians "originally" interested in many different musical disciplines who have become interested in "improvisation" outside of the "standard" (or familiar) music disciplines. So we have rock or art-rock musicians like Frith and Cutler and Cooper, jazz players from all over the planet, Asian improvisers, computer electronic artists, classically trained players who have delved into graphic scores and other new music forms involving chance (for example), all going: wait a minute: we can take the art of improvisation, which is something all these disciplines work with to some degree, as a common ground, and go from there in creating a music without boundaries, each group of players defining its own parameters for the group-sound.
So, although the argument is full of holes, it stands to reason that this new discipline has a huge growth potential because these new combinations should produce highly unexpected resultsin the best moments. But there is a real need for the improvisers to understand what they are doing in a compositional way, I think. The more everyone is working from structures of their own group's understanding, the stronger the discipline gets.
I want to emphasize: I'm not advocating structured improvisation over unstructured or spontaneous (usually called free) improvisation. Both have their place. I just heard a beautiful set the other night of spontaneous improvisation by winds player Frank Gratkowski and percussionist Gino Robair. Completely clear at all times. A real breath of fresh air.
But ultimately the exciting developments in "creative music" or our music will come from a merging of advanced listening abilities with developments in the reaction by improvisers in real time, that combined with an understanding of how compositional form can help to bring music to life and/or to reach and move the listener. Ultimately, it all has to work together. But the element with the most untapped potential is improvisation. There's power in that ability, and if a composer understands how to harness it and use it to send the music "out," thenfor methat composer has a long unexplored road in front of him(her). Thus the feeling for more possibility down that road. I just think that there's less surprise left on the road of through-composition, butlike I saidyou could argue otherwise, and I wouldn't be able to "disprove" it.
I also have long-held political feelings that lead me to trumpet the art of improvisation in that any composition realized by an improvising group is truly accomplished by the entire group's cooperating and working together, rather than strictly following one person's orders. There's more thinking going on by everyone involved. No one can just show up, follow orders mechanically, pick up the check and go home. You've got to be awake; you've got to want to be there. Or the outcome will suffer...
AAJ: The webpage for Maybe Monday quotes Piet Schaap as follows: "the trio enables these strong and instantly recognizable voices to reinvent themselves, finding quite other solutions in each others' company to those they might arrive at in other contexts." In other interviews you've mentioned free improvisation as being the "laboratory for discovery." Earlier in this interview you state that "Improvising is about learning as we go." What is it that you have learned from working with Mr. Frith and Ms. Masaoka that you could not have learned from anyone else? How have these discoveries been carried forward into your current work in "other contexts"Are these discoveries carried forward consciously?
LO: Fred taught me that the most important thing about making it as a groupsomething we spent a lot of time plotting outis that the group must come up with a great name for the band. When I asked him if we should come up with the name now or later, he said: "Not now or later. But Maybe Monday."
Miya taught me that in some groups I can sit out the whole set and the music might sound even better that way.
Now for some indirect answers: What makes the art of improvisation exciting, and what makes the "possibilities" unending is that every practitioner has his/her own take on the process, and every player has his/her own specific sound. I've never spoken to other musicians about this particularly, but I think everyone worth listening to realizes at some point that he/she has "a sound," a characteristic expressiveness, and also a way of approaching making music...If they weren't looking for that sound intentionally, they still eventually recognize it just from being around it all the time. Once the sound is heard and accepted, then it's a matter of honing that sound forevermore. The basic sound will always be there, but the honing of the sound and the many ways of phrasing, which is a big part of one's soundwe work on that forever. And the challenge is: how do I get that to work in Rova, in What We Live, in Maybe Monday, in Invisible? What can I use of it in one context that I really can't in another? What does playing in Maybe Monday free me up to do that I can't do with What We Live, even though they are both trios? What does playing John Lindberg's music free me up to do? SoI don't want to duck the specific questions exactlybut I'd say that the general answer is a lot easier to speak to because, in an odd reversal, I can be more specific about the general answer than I would be if I answered specifically about what I learn playing with Fred or with Miya. And I think the general answer is something other people can imagine more easily. But to be honest, I'm still at the beginning stages of improvising with that trio. Our first concert was in 1997, but because of some busy schedules, etc., we've only found time to perform together six to eight times; thus the process is just beginning (while at the same time being extremely satisfying even now.) But certainly playing along side Fred or Miya, I get a much more intimate idea of how they think as improvisers in the moment of creationmuch more intimate than I think one would get just as a listener offstage is what I mean. And I take in all the information, their sound-choices, marvel at some of it, steal other parts of it, agree with other parts (I already do) and reject others, usually because the specific sounds or method of response isn't relevant to my own instrument or my voice... (Am I making any sense at all here? If not, ask more questions...)
AAJ: Could you please tell us about the upcoming What We Live CD?
LO: Okay: WHAT WE LIVE is essentially an improvising trio of myself on saxophones, Lisle Ellis on bass, and Donald Robinson on drums. The music I think is very distinctivethe group has its own group-sound (which is what I mean by "distinctive")but, as it's also improvised, it allows for the addition of guest artists without rehearsal. What We Live has two CDs out as a trio (on DIW and Black Saint), another (great) CD as an augmented quintet with Dave Douglas and Wadada Leo Smith called Quintet for a Day (New World). Before we recorded as a quintet, the trio invited each of the trumpeters individually to perform with the group as a quartet. The CD being released in early February, called Trumpets, documents the live concerts. Half the CD is two long tracks with Wadada recorded in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at Outpost Productions in March 1998. Three tracks with Dave D come from a date in Vancouver, B.C. in, I think, November 1997, but it might have been '96. We've played several times with Dave as a quartet (and toured as a quartet with Wadada in Europe). We enjoy adding guests and offer it to most concert presenters. And I think we?ll be playing at The Knitting Factory in NYC on February 7, 2000, with several added guests during a week-long tour back East. (I live in Berkeley, CA). This means that the most recent available trio recording is from June 1996 (even though the CD of that recordingNever Wasonly was released in 1999). The group music has really evolved since then, and we hope to get a live trio-tape recorded on our April 2000 tour in Europe.
AAJ: What did you learn from working with Glenn Spearman?
LO: This is easier to speak about than the question above about Fred and Miya, one: because it went on for 6 years (not only with The Double Trio, but also in the context of our duo concerts and many, many duo rehearsals, and in performing in and rehearsing for Figure 8 and for Ascension, which Rova performed and recorded with Glenn for Black Saint in 95 and 96) and two: because it is history now.
Spearman was a true believer in the power and the passion of free jazz in the classic sense of that term. He wrote compositions that, on the face of the writing, seemed to me on first introduction to them in 1991 to be rather simplistic. I was looking forward to the energy of the music and to hooking up the two tenors, but I had no ideanor did Chris Brown, because we've talked about it sincethat there was such depth and complexity to the thematic compositions, that these very basic lines and harmonies opened up wide vistas of musical possibility that, in the end, seemed limitless, and never became boring or seemed anything but wonderful to play on and to be inspired by. So I think the main thing I learned playing with Glenn was that complexity does not in and of itself signify anything at all. Or maybe a better way to put it is that what seems elemental can germinate into the most complex and deeply felt areas of exploration. Certainly, this was re-emphasized for me when we performed Ascension as well, and it didn't get by me that Ascension was one of the earliest pieces of the so-called ?free jazz" genre. A true predecessor to Glenn's own writing and approach to making music. My favorite CD of the Double Trio is still The Fields from Black Saint. But for what I'm talking about here, you could get the Tzadik CD; dig the written material and then realize that those few cells are the basis for a very moving 45 minute piece. It's very cool.
AAJ: The webpage for Invisible states that "the group works with verbally denoted structures and musical frameworks. So all the forms are invisible and the music laid on the forms is improvised." How specific or unspecific are these verbal denotations? How much preparation is involved with these verbal denotations? Are they pre-conceived, spontaneous, negotiated, other? (my intent for these question is to determine why it is important that these forms are not written down) As follow up, are there any plans for a release by Invisible?
LO: It's not "important" that the forms are not written down. It's just a fact (...and it's subject to change as the group evolves...) The group operates with verbal instructions, and some pre-conceived forms or ways of relating that need to be rehearsed to be truly understood. If you've ever tried to play improvised music using a pre-conceived form such as chord changes in jazz, then you know that you need to practice the form in order to be comfortable with it; to get loose and forget it. It's hard to make music if you have to look at the page to follow the changes. The more familiar the changes, the more possible it is for a musician to do something beautiful or exciting "over" them. The ultimate goal is to hear them without thinking so that you can play "music." The same with my verbal instructions. The ultimate goal of these games, etc. is to push the players; to make them look at what they are doing in a fresh way so as to free up "possibility."
It's possible to do a very short rehearsal on these ideas and be out performing, working within the concept, in short order. But the challenge is to do something "more" with them. The challenge is to take your improvisation chops and make music with the other members of the group while working within the structure or limitations set up by the pre-conceived form, but then stretching the form yourself or responding in the moment to other people's interpretation of the form.
AAJ: Who are your musical (or artistic) heroes? Why?
LO: A lot of my influences in this music used to be heroes, but heroes are usually people you don't know at all. Once I become acquainted with someone and know them to some degree as a human being, the aura that might once have been there is usually gone. That doesn't mean I don't love them, but that's a different story. So leaving aside all the living musicians, I'd still point to artists: Orson Welles, Jean-Pierre Melville, Stan Brakhage, Monk (pre-Thelonious Monk Institute), Hendrix, Janis Joplin, many 20th century painters, and just for the hell of it: Jesse Jackson.
AAJ: What musicians that you have never worked with before would you most like to work with?
LO: I can only answer this after saying that I've been fortunate to get a chance to play with so many amazing players; I wish there was time and opportunity to play AGAIN with most of them... I really don't have a burning desire to work with the following, but it might be a lot of fun (and in some cases, I'd want to work with them without getting involved in the head-trips that history has reported them laying on their band-members): The Baobob Orchestra, Bembaya Jazz International, Thelonious Monk, James Brown, Miles Davis in the electric period (which I'm kind of checking out now as part of the Yo Miles Project: next gig on March 4 at Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco); Morton Feldman, Tony Williams; Merce Cunningham (probably with Rova, but I'd let him call the shot); Albert Ayler, and Hendrix... although we'd have to come up with a new form ...together.) I'd like to work with vocalists. That's one thing I've never done that I think would be great: Marta Sebestyen, Sainkho, Diamanda. But it's up to me to think of a reason to ask them to do it, and I haven't found the time yet I guess.
AAJ: Which (if any) recordings have you heard lately that you would like to recommend to the AAJ readers? Why?
Goldberg/Schott/Sarin: What Comes Before (Tzadik)
Ruins Symphonica (Tzadik)
John Zorn Godard/Spillane (Tzadik)
Shibusashirazu Shibusamighi (Chitei Records)
Satoku Fujii Indication (Libra Records)
Art Ensemble of Chicago Bap-tizum (Koch jazz)
Xenakis Works for Piano (Mode)
Feldman Untitled for Cello and Piano (Attaca Babel)
Discotheque 70-73 Guinee (Syllart Productions)
Zorn is my man; he sends me a lot of the CDs he producesand he produces a lot of music for his label. Like three CDs a month. So one and two on the list are two of the best I've heard from Tzadik recently. Number one is a beautiful meditation on sound and silence, the use of space in music. The Ruins CD is not about that; it's intense and really a great composition. I also include the Zorn CD because there are still people out there who either don't know his work or came to it late. This is a reissue of 2 pieces long out of printseminal worksand, needless to say, the production values on this CD are outstanding.
Rova went to Japan for the first time in October. This is going to be hard for some of you to believe, but there's actually a band on the planet that can only be described as "Sun Ra on acid." I know: you thought that that was how you'd describe Sun Ra himself in relation to jazz. Shibusashirazu is one amazing indescribable orchestra. There's no way to describe the energy or the feeling of their live show, but this CD does retain some of the energy on its best tracks. Worth a trip to Japan just to see the band. Safe to say they will never play the USA (band ranges from 23 to 50 artists) 'satoku was someone we met and hung with. She's a fine player and composer and has CDs on Japanese labels as well as on Leo Records and (in fact) Tzadik.
Lester Bowie died the week I was to travel four hours by car to Cal Arts and teach classes run by Wadada Leo Smith. I played live-concert Art Ensemble CDs all the way down there. Baptizum is still the best, recorded in Ann Arbor over 25 years ago. If you haven't heard it, get it.
I'm trying to write pieces for Rova now inspired by and dealing with the musical spaces informed by the piano music of Monk, Xenakis, Feldman and Scelsi. This Xenakis CD with Aki Takahashi on piano is the best piano CD of his music; I just bought it myself. The Feldman piece is great (and also exists on Hat Hut under a different title).
The last CD listed is actually four separate CDs (70, 71, 72, 73) released by Sylliphone as a compilation series of their old recordings. Great dance bands from Guinea.
Finally, if the readers are interested in some goodlistening lists, go to Rova.org and click on Favorite Street. There's a list made by each of us in Rova of favorite recordings. There's a lot to chew on in these lists. (Eventually, there will be lots of other art up there under Favorite Street, but we can't get to everything at once, even though we'd really like to.
AAJ: The Angelica 95 CD includes three brief portions of ROVA performing Fred Frith's "Freedom In Fragments." Are there any plans to record and/or release this work in its entirety? For those readers who are unfamiliar with this work, would you please briefly elaborate on it?
LO: That Angelica CD is a dragmy opinion onlythe sound is lousy. If I could do it again, I wouldn't let them include those fragments. The entire 75 minutes piece is now being edited and mastered for release on Black Saint sometime in 2000. "Freedom In Fragments" is 23 sections of music ranging in length from 11 seconds to about 10 minutes. We commissioned Fred to write the piece in 1994, but, for various reasons, we've never ever performed it in it's entirety, so it was very rewarding recording the piece over the first 8 months of 1999, bit by bit, and thenafter I mixed it and Steve Adams edited itfinally hearing the piece. A lot of surprises. In fact, the final order of the fragments was changed quite a bit after Fred and I heard it back in order for the first time. But I'm at a loss as to how to describe the work, because it goes to so many musical places over the course of the 75 minutes. Let's see: beautiful melodies, interesting rhythmic figures, improvised solos over vamps, lush harmonic passages, wry humor, passionate anthems, up-tempo marches, free jazz blows, California dreaming?it's all there. Frith spent six months with his family on the coast of California near Big Sur. He wrote the piece during that stay, and some of that environment rubbed off on the piece too.
AAJ: Are there any plans to release the soundtrack to Letters Not About Love? For those readers who are unfamiliar with this work, would you please briefly elaborate on it?
LO: This is a one-hour film shot and directed by my sister Jacki Ochs. I could try and describe the film, but maybe the press release information will do a better job. It follows:
Ochs builds visual bridges out of words by combining home movie clips, archival images, and stunning new footage. LETTERS NOT ABOUT LOVE reads like a documentary and flows like rivers of paint on an expressionist canvas. The director combines narrative, travelogue, and memoir in a fusion of image, sound and word that is a total sensual experience. Shot in and around the poets' homes in Northern California and the former Soviet Union, the camera focuses on farmers markets, park benches, beauty contests and demolition derbies; zooms into the food on the table at a typical family dinner and finds a bug sipping nectar off a flower. What Ochs discovers in these ordinary events is precisely what makes them extraordinary.
LETTERS NOT ABOUT LOVE presents a challenging meditation on the meaning of language and culture. The filmmaker initiated the correspondence by giving both poets a list of ordinary words (e.g., "home," "book," "violence," "neighbor") and asking them, in each letter, to reflect on one of the wordsits conventional meaning, as well as what it means to them. As an unfolding examination of their lives, the film becomes a dynamic expression of cultural differences and the art of mutual understanding.
That's really not a bad description of the film. I think it's a beautiful piece, and I was happy to lend music to it. Jacki had ?no? budget for the film; as it was, it took years to raise what she could for it to happen, which is typical of independent film with no commercial potential. So I couldn't go into the studio and create totally new music. So I watched a video of the film a ton of times and imagined parts of pieces already recorded that would work with the images. It came out really well. But because all the music is parts of already released pieces, there will not be an independent release of the movie's music. Those pieces collected together would make a nice compilation of my work, but that's another story.
The movie just showed at Museum of Modern Art in New York. The next known general public showing is May 2 and 3 in San Francisco. But it is available to universities, museums, theaters and perhaps general public.
AAJ: are there any plans to reissue the Metalanguage lps by ROVA?
LO: No. I don't have time to think about it. I'm waiting for a producer to call.
AAJ: As conclusion, what other projects can we expect from Larry Ochs in 2000-2001?
LO: I'm spending a lot of time on the business side right now. Rova has been more than a performing group for some timeover 15 years. And I've been the point man for most of the producing we've done here in the Bay Area. I can't do it anymoreor want outso I have more time for music, especially composing and thinking. But I'd like to see the music events continue, which means we need to find money to pay someone to do all the shit I've been doing for free. More work. We're looking for foundations, art patrons, board members who want to help. That'll be a big part of the first half of 2000.