Alexander Hawkins: Retaining The Sense of Discovery
AAJ: In talking there, you have demonstrated a prodigious knowledge both of the jazz canon and the 1970s avant- garde, a very neglected period in some ways. You have featured compositions by Anthony Braxton, [saxophonist] Arthur Blythe, [violinist] Leroy Jenkins, Wadada Leo Smith, [saxophonist] Oliver Lake and Sun Ra in your concerts with your ensemble. What is it about that period that inspires you?
AH: One of the answers to this is really quite unambitious. I love standard tunes, I love Monk's tunes, and I love Bud Powell's tunes, and so on. But they've been done so brilliantly by so many masters that I'm scared of them, in a way. I don't have a problem with playing other people's music. There seems to be a real vogue for only playing your own music because that's the only way to be innovative. But these seams in the '70s are relatively quite unmined, and I think there's a lot further to go with that repertoire than there is with Monk, in terms of people giving hackneyed interpretations. For sure, Braxton wrote some such-brilliant tunes that if people play them as much as they play "Stella By Starlight," there would soon become hackneyed ways to play them. And likewise, another composer, Leroy JenkinsI love his writing. It's so distinctive, and for sure you could develop hackneyed ways around them, but for me it's such a rich seam because there's not this anxiety of influence when I play them. If I play "Stella By Starlight," I'm very conscious of all the people who played it so much better, whereas with this repertoire there's not that baggage.
But then also, for me compositionally, I feel that jazz composition (or perhaps we need to call it creative music to illustrate the point) has evolved to such a point that the head-solos-head format is old news. It's still a great one if you use it as one option among many. But what interests me about that period is that those are some masters who are showing interesting ways with structure. One way to create an interesting language: there's the micro level of the notes you play and in what order but also the macro-level language of what structure you're using, how you're deploying people. And for me those composers show really fascinating ways forward with that material. But also some of them are just great tunes, for example the Sun Ra tunes that I love to play from that timeon the Ensemble record [No Now Is So... (FMR, 2009)] we did "Love From Outer Space," which is basically just a vamp tune on one chordare not structurally innovative but just great tunes. Actually, of the Sun Ra tunes I've been playing recently, I've been playing "Fate In A Pleasant Mood" a lot recently, and it's the same, really, an AABA, very tonal tune. It's got a wonky bridge, but I just love it because it's a great tune. So there is a variety of things that draw me to these composers.
AAJ: You have three main outlets for your energies: the latest version of your Ensemble, Decoy (sometimes with Joe McPhee) and the Convergence Quartet. Could you talk about each of them and what opportunities they give you?
AH: So the Ensemble is my thing as a bandleader. That changes the dynamic immediately because I introduce all the repertoire. One of the problems with improvised musicin the caricature of it as a socialist music where no one's allowed to solo, as that's bourgeoisI don't buy into. For me, the AACM did freedom the right way, as freedom to do something. In the same way, I'm happy to do head-solos-head; soloing is one option I like as well. So as a bandleader giving people material, I don't regard this as some great gesture of hegemony on my part. But for me, with Ellington being, along with Tatum, my other great hero, that's the perfect model. You can impose your compositional voice but still allow the musicians completely free rein to do what they want to do. And after all, putting together the group is the first compositional decision. That is also true, I think, of a free- improvised group. If you were to draw people out of a hat, you could minimize that, but really all free-improvised groups involve compositional decisions.
So my Ensemble is a vehicle for me to explore my compositional ideas. As a bandleader, you are able to steer a group dynamic in an interesting way. The older version of the group was concerned with crowding the same range, the same tessituras of the lower mids, with cello, double bass, guitar, steel pan or marimbacrowding that area with radically different tone colors. Unfortunately, that had to move on just because of geographical relocation. So then I thought, "How am I going to replace it?" What I didn't want to do, because I believe where possible in writing the parts for the player rather than the instrument, was sub people in for the musicians I was losing, so I thought, "Start again." And then I was reflecting, "Now among my peers, a quirky instrumentation is no longer quirky as everyone's doing it, so what I really want is a piano- bass-drums thing, and I want some front-line horns, and I want to do something with a conventional group. So I had piano, bass, drums, guitar and bass clarinet as it was.
We did a gig like that, and I thought it could use one more voice, so I added Dylan Bates on violin. This group, I feel, as opposed to its predecessor, is more concerned with rhythmic devices as well. Whereas the previous one was timbrally aware, this one has players in it who are fantastic rhythm players. I think it emphasizes that a little bit more, but then it's difficult to gauge because my compositions have evolved, so it would be interesting to know how the old group would play the new music and vice versa. So that's the Ensemble, and of course now I'm just playing original compositions with it. On the recent BBC session [Jazz on Three, 24 September 2012], that was all original compositions. Live, we play some [saxophonist] Steve Lacy and some Leroy Jenkins.
The Convergence Quartet is my longest-running concern. That was the first profile band I had together.
AAJ: What an amazing way to start.
AH: Yes, that was fantastic because Dom [Lash] and I were living in Oxford, and we would walk two miles every Monday night for ages with Dom carrying his bassI was walking, he was pushing his bass as wellup a really steep hill to these rehearsals, and we would talk about everything. It was to a free-improvisation playing session that we would walk, and we were saying it would be really fun to play something compositional. At that time, we had both just been to what turned into Quintet (London) 2004 (Leo, 2005) with the Braxton group at the Royal Festival Hall.
AAJ: It was fantastic.
AH: It was unbelievable. And Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet just absolutely blew me away. I'd been listening to Braxton before then as well, but immediately when I heard him, having heard all the early Ellington trumpeters I'd grown up listening to, that was a moment when it all clarified for me. I could totally see how it could all be made to gel into a language. So I said something to Dom as we were thinking of putting something together: "Wouldn't it be really great to play with Taylor?" And a couple of years before, when I was away in Cambridge, [drummer] Harris Eisenstadt had been touring with Macbeth, and [reedman] Vinny Golia had been playing and this guitarist Jeremy Drake, and he had spent a long while in this country and had come to Oxford to do some playing. So Dom knew Harris, and we thought this might be quite a nice conceit to have four composers from different backgrounds, where in the grand Venn diagram of the music we might make, we had some interesting intersections.
I happened to be on holiday in New York a couple of months after that and managed to see the Cecil Taylor Big Band at the Iridium, in which Taylor plays. So I chatted with Taylor, gave him a CD and said it would be really fun if we could hook something up. He was up for it. Dom talked to Harris, and then we made that happen. Now we've done three tours and each time documented the music we've made with different releases. The first one was exciting for me because I was just chuffed to play with those three, and probably they dragged me up by my bootstraps a little bit. I punched above my weight, maybe. And then by the second one, I felt I was beginning to get my stuff together a little bit more, and I felt we made some really interesting music on the thing that became Song/Dance (Clean Feed, 2010). I was really proud of that release, and then this last time round, I think we all felt it on the tour, that we really began to develop a group identity. We were all really, really enthused by the music, and so there's a forthcoming release on the No Business label in 2013. It's only an occasional groupthese US/UK things can only be that wayso that's something that I would really like to keep simmering on for as long as everyone's into it, which we all are.
But I love that because it's very much a collective. We all contribute equal numbers of compositions, so that's a thrill because we all have an input as interpreters. We have a couple of working norms, which is that if we can't decide how to do something, the composer has the final say. But that's a really exciting dynamic to work in because it's different from being a bandleaderyou rehearse the band in a different way. It goes to other compositional areas than we would normally go.
It's an interesting group size as well, because I hadn't thought of it in this way before, but as leaders we work with slightly larger ensembles where you can make a lot more stuff happen. Dom is a slightly different case because, as a bassist, he works in a lot more contexts and slightly less as a bandleader. But it's great if you want lots of concurrent events: if you have a sextet, you can get two people doing that, two people doing something else and so on. A quartet is a really nice number, but you have got to be really careful about getting people doing totally different stuff because it is that much more exposed. But then, by the same token, if you really want to pull everyone together on the same page, it's great from that aspect.
Then Decoy is another collective group which was really initiated by [drummer] Steve Noble and Mark Morris, who runs [record label] Bo'Weavil, because he'd been saying that he would love to do a Hammond record. That's another real weakness of mine, going back to the canon, I absolutely love all those organ records. I mean, Baby Face Willette is my guy. I love Jimmy Smith, Big John Patton, Freddie Roach, all those Blue Note albums and Larry Young and Sun Ra as well. I love this straight-up rare-groove stuff as wellReuben Wilson, Jimmy McGriff. But again, because I could never play it like that, I wanted to play my music on the Hammond. I love the Hammond as well, so we got into that. We've made two records as a trio. In fact, it was just the one session, but the label liked it so much, they said, "How would you feel about doing a CD and an LP of different material?" So we did that and then ... I can't remember how we came to work with Joe McPhee.
AAJ: He was doing a two-night residency at Cafe Oto with different groups.
AH: That's right. So on one night he worked with N.E.W. with Steve Noble, [bassist] John Edwards and [clarinetist/guitarist] Alex Ward, and on the other, we did it on the Hammond. And it was really nice. I think everyone came to play that night. And it turned into a record [Oto (Bo'Weavil Recordings, 2010)] because it was being recorded, and we both loved that, and we actually felt that the quartet was really nice. I mean, Joe is going to improve any group. That's still a going concern. We have this new record coming out. The nice thing about Decoy is that there are no compositions. I mean, it gets very compositional in that Steve and John [Edwards] really like to land on grooves, and they play a lot of explicit time in a free-improvised context, which is fantastic because I love playing on a groove.
One of the amazing things about them as a rhythm section is that you can either do free improv and have no hierarchical relationship, but they also enjoy the role of being a bassist and a drummer. Because that's more freedom, it's another option, because if they can sit on a groove, that's increasing everyone's options, and it's just another exciting dynamic the music can have. A really interesting side note to Decoy is that we had a couple of things in Europe earlier in the year. We did one with Joe, but Joe couldn't do the second, which was a big Sun Ra festival, so we did it with [reedman and leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra] Marshall Allen, which was different again, but unbelievable. Marshall was just incredible. I mean, so inspiring, and to get completely schooled by somebody not quite three times my age was unbelievable: the stamina of the guy and the flow of musical ideas, and just somebody with such a disarming love of making noiseI mean, melodic or not. He took just so much joy in making music; you can't not be into that. That was really interesting and something we would all like to do again.
AAJ: Was that recorded?
AH: Not properly. I think it was probably bootlegged. There's some YouTube footage. It was this curious festival where we did a set at sunset and a set at sunrise. It was a Sun Ra festival. Basically, there were four nights. Four bands played at sunrise and sunset. And when the bands weren't playing, they would DJ as many of the complete works of Sun Ra as they could possibly find on vinyl, which was a lot, and basically music only stopped when people passed out, whether through tiredness or whatever. The clip on YouTube starts rather bizarrely because it was the morning one, and there was this incredible dawn chorus. The birds were unbelievable. So we were just playing along, all wearing our overcoats because even though it was in summer it was still a bit chilly. The music just began, beautifully but slowly, and I think that is the only bit that exists in an accessible state, which is a shame, as later on in the set it got into some fantastic places. So we would love to make that happen again. It was fun because the baggage of playing organ with Marshall Allen is big [laughs]. But it was fun.