Theo Travis: From Prog to Jazz and Back Again
British musician Theo Travis has one of the most varied performing and recording histories to be found among contemporary jazz musicians. A talented saxophonist, flautist and composer, Travis has performed solo, in duos and quartets, in straight ahead jazz combos and in electronic, improvisational groups.
He has performed live soundtracks in cinemas, duos with guitarist Robert Fripp in English churches, jazz standards in clubs and progressive rock at major European festivals. Travis, in both his playing and his love of music, spans the occasionally over-large divide between jazz and progressive rock, bringing the genres together and investing each with the best of the other.
Despite his extensive back catalog, however, Theo Travis is not as well-known to jazz or prog fans as he should be. This may be due in part to his unassuming nature and a refreshing lack of ego, or to his determination to play what he enjoys rather than just playing for the money or the exposure. Whatever the reason, the lack of fame is not mirrored by a lack of work: Travis is constantly involved with musical projects, groups and collaborations with an at times bewildering array of players. He's a busy man, as he readily admits.
Travis has been playing jazz since his mid-teens, but he began playing music some years earlier.
"I started flute aged 7 or 8," he said. "I was brought up in a family where everybody learned an instrument so I picked the flute and went through the grades.
"I also got very into listening to pop and rock, a lot of progressive rock actually. When I was 15 or 16 I hooked up with some friends at school and played bass and a little bit of flute in a rock band, called Fundamental Furniture. The keyboard player introduced me to jazz improvisation and we'd have jam sessions in rehearsals. I was living in Birmingham [in the centre of England] at the time and I went to the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra to see what would be involved in joining.
"I was just playing flute and they said, 'Oh, do you play sax as well?,' because most flute players double on sax. I didn't, and couldn't see the connection but as luck would have it my sister was learning the sax at the time. So I borrowed her saxophone and she didn't see much of it for the next two years. I went on a few jazz summer schools to get into the theory and found a teacher in Birmingham who had been in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Then, I did a classical music degree [at Manchester University from 1983 to 1986] and put a band together, Blue September, with some of the top Manchester jazz musicians and toured the Northern jazz clubs."
Travis makes the process appear simple, but his description hides the effort that he put in to advance his education. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he didn't go straight from school to university.
"No, I had a year off, doing lots of practice ... getting more into jazz," he said. "At school in my teens I was very into Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Traffic. There was a very good record library in Birmingham Central Library, all vinyl in those days. You could pick up half a dozen albums and go into a listening booth, put the needle down and all these worlds would open up. You could find stuff, listen to it, take it away, maybe tape some [laughs] then come back and listen to more stuff.
Travis' exploration of progressive rock in the listening booths was taking place during 1981 and 1982, a time when prog was no longer a popular genre of music among British youth. He recognizes that his taste was not shared by many of his friends.
"I was totally out of step," he confesses, although he was not alone in his love of prog. "There was a little group of us that was into [prog] but with jazz I was totally out of step with everyone else. But there was music of the time that I was also into and, funnily enough, it seems to be coming round again. Early 80s song-based stuff: Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, The Cure, The Au Pairs, that sort of stuff."
The impact of prog and jazz on Travis' own playing is clear in much of his work. He seems to move seamlessly across the two genres. He happily acknowledges this, especially the effect of leading prog rockers King Crimson.
"The whole Crimson thing is a strong influence on me, generally," he said. "I love the music and sometimes music you love comes out in your writing, and I'm quite aware that the music and writing style of King Crimson is not that far below the surface, sometimes quite near the surface, of things I've written. It's a connection that makes it quite curious that I'm working with [King Crimson guitarist Robert] Fripp now."