Alexander Hawkins: Retaining The Sense of Discovery
AAJ: Your composition notes for the Ensemble's session broadcast on BBC Jazz On Three were illuminating and reveal a huge range of inspiration and reference points from across the jazz tradition from Duke Ellington to Henry Threadgill, as you've already mentioned. Do you see it as a single continuum?
AH: Not in the sense that we could draw them as points on a line, but we could draw them as points on a web or a curve. So yes, but only in the sense that it is a continuum of creative music, in the sense of the tradition being innovation rather than sounding like the last guy. From where I come, because I learnt jazz chronologically, when you listen to Threadgill with the Sextet, you do hear Ellington, and I hear the very early stuff in [Threadgill's 1990s band] Very Very Circus. But then, for example, if I had come to Threadgill's music as a funk fan who was listening to the guys who went on to form the Jazz Warriors and did the tour with Threadgill, from that direction, maybe I wouldn't hear that particular jazz part of the continuum so explicitly. The pool of influence is so broad that it depends on your vantage point as to whether you see it as a continuum.
AAJ: Many of the people you have talked about are predominantly African-American, so where does the European free jazz and free improvisation fit into it all?
AH: On that day when I never practiced the organ again and thought, "Right, I'm going to concentrate on jazz," that was very adjacent to me starting at University. Cambridge has a fantastic music scene but for certain types of things. At that time, it was virtually barren as far as jazz went. So basically, my time was spent practicing and listening and because I did things chronologically ... I went from Tatum to Powell to Cecil, and for me I was very focused at that time, and it was the American musicians I was listening to, mostly. And then when I came out of Cambridge and was looking for like-minded people to play with ... I did one thing at Cambridge, actually with Alex Ward who I met for the first time, and we got talking about his history with Derek Bailey, so there was a way in there ... but when I went back to Oxford and started going to these regular playing sessions with Dominic Lash, with [saxophonist] Pete McPhail from the London Jazz Composers Orchestra amongst other things, who was able to introduce me to [bassist] Barry Guy's music, and with [pianist] Pat Thomas as well, that's when I started checking out the British scene in a more concerted way.
Interestingly, when I was looking for people to play what I was thinking, in my mind was jazz at that time; the free improvisers seemed to be the natural choice because those were the ideas I was hearing. It struck me that the jazz that my peers who had been through music college were playingand of course this is generalizingI wasn't hearing it as jazz. It was repertory music. So for me, the people who were playing the music which held the thrill that I had grown up listening to in jazz were these free improvisers. So I began to play more with these people. Of course, there are certain exceptions to this. So I was listening to the South Africans before this time and [saxophonist] Lol Coxhill and realize that there was this master amongst our ranks. He was there on a level with all these people I'd been listening to, Roscoe Mitchell, Braxton. I knew Lol existed, but I just hadn't gotten round to it. There's just so much music. I'd played with him before I had really checked out in detail his records. So I suppose that's how I became familiar with that scene.
Just in terms of my listening and my own proclivities, obviously there is so much cross-fertilization now. We are having this conversation now. We might bump into each other later at the [saxophonist Peter] Brötzmann Tentet. Is that a European band or an American band? It doesn't matter anymore, either. It's difficult to tell, but if I were to look at my record collection it would largely be American-based music. That's just an aesthetic preference on my part. I love the music from all over, but what I've spent the most time with happens to have been the American music. Because I got into the European scene thinking it was jazz and not realizing there was this whole debate about whether it was jazz or not, because in my mind it sounded like it was, then I've never found it necessary to negotiate this dichotomy. It was only later when I realized that people wasted lots of time debating whether it was jazz or not.
AAJ: It has become an increasingly sterile debate because the cross-fertilization is such that you can no longer pull it apart.
AH: Definitely. When I listen to those [saxophonist] Steve Lacy recordings on Saravah [record label] in the 1970s with [guitarist] Derek Bailey on, he's definitely playing jazz. When Derek's playing ballads, people might pretend that's ironic, but I don't hear it like that. He's playing tunes he came up playing. He's maybe not playing the changes, but he's playing on the melody. But then, what does Sonny Rollins do when he plays "Body and Soul"? He plays on the melody, he doesn't play on the changes. It might fit the changes, but he's playing melody. So I didn't have a problem in my mind, hearing it this way.