Theo Travis: From Prog to Jazz and Back Again
Travis and Fripp released their first CD together, Thread (Panegyric Recordings) in 2008 and the collaboration continues. Talk of this partnership sparks Travis into a fascinating discussion of the links between jazz and prog, and of how the seeds of prog can be seen in at least one classic jazz recording.
"As a teenager I got into prog but as a working player, I very much got into jazz and the prog happened 10 years later, I suppose," he said. "It's built through connections because I genuinely like a lot of the music and the people I play with really feel for the music and hopefully that works and leads to other things. I think a lot of jazz players both now and in the late '60s can be a bit snooty about rock and prog, whereas I have genuine love and respect for a lot of rock albums so for me being involved in that sort of music is a real treat.
"I was talking to Bill Bruford the other day ... he started in prog with Yes and Crimson and was very keen to move into the jazz world and I've sort of done the opposite ... I crossed from the jazz world into prog and right in the middle I did a gig with Bill funnily enough. We've had these interesting opposite trajectories.
"I think there's a lot of connections between progressive rock, rock generally and jazz. In terms of having a music that involves composition, improvisation, a bit of an edge, sometimes long-form writing. Take John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964). If you said there's an album in four sections with a bit of a concept and its long with lots of improvisation then some written bits sounds like prog to me. There are strong connections in terms of approach to music."
Travis composes and plays in a variety of styles, but is there a common approach to composition which he tends to take across these styles? Does he usually leave space for improvisation, for example?
"Yes, nearly always," he said. "I can't think of a piece where I've written it from beginning to end without space for improvisation. There's always large spaces for improv and often the pieces will be written as launch pads for improvisation. Sometimes, the main part of a piece is improvisation. "For example, on the recent album, Double Talk (33 Jazz, 2007) I was very keen to have some free-form band improvs mixed in with progressive, bluesy, jazz. There's a piece called 'Relegation of Pluto' in which all that's written is a four-bar theme at the beginning and the end and everything else is completely whatever happens when we launch into it.
"There is this launch pad approach which I like but which you can only do with musicians you trust, who are comfortable being that brave and just jumping in with two feet not knowing what's going to happen. A lot of jazz musicians like their structures ... a basis on which to do improvisation rather than having to create the whole canvas from scratch. A crucial factor for me is choosing the right people, who can think the same way and come up with good ideas and enjoy working with that amount of freedom."
Working as a leader, a musician has the power to choose who to play with and how they will play. However, Travis also works within well-established groups with a long history: most notably Gongzilla, a band that has existed in numerous line-ups since the late 1960s, and Soft Machine Legacy, a band which carries on from Soft Machine itself and in which Travis replaced original Soft Machine saxophonist Elton Dean. Working within such settings requires different skills, which Travis is willing and able to articulate.
"With Soft Machine Legacy, Elton Dean was very ill ... when [bassist] Hugh Hopper rang me up," Travis said. "It was very much a case of joining a band with its own approach, although in fact it's a very co-operative band with plenty of group improvisation. With Gong, which 'belongs' to one or two people ... you are playing as 'the saxophonist' in the band which is a different role and you have less control over the music. On my first Gong album, 10 years ago, I did do a lot of the writing but on the new album I wasn't involved in the writing at all. I was almost like a session man. Very much in the studio. I was told what to play and on the gigs I play the saxophone parts. But that's alright if it's a band I like and music I like. It's very important to appreciate the role you have in a band.
"I find that being a leader a lot of the time I appreciate not having to do all that organizing and phone calls and talking between numbers ... Sometimes it's nice to just go and play."
Strikingly, with Soft Machine Legacy, Gong, and The Tangent, Travis has not simply replaced "a saxophonist" but has replaced three well-known, distinctive and almost legendary players: Soft Machine's Elton Dean, Gong's Didier Malherbe and The Tangent's David Jackson, previously of Van Der Graaf Generator. Travis is pragmatic about his success in these bands.