Christy Doran: New Bag, New Tricks
“ I don't think art should have borders or containment...there's still a lot to be discovered, explored and evolved. ”
With drummer/percussionist Fredy Studer, saxophonist/flautist Urs Leimgruber and double bassist Bobby Burri, Doran created Swiss free-jazz history in the band OM, recording five albums, four of which were on the Japo/ECM label, in a 10-year period from 1972-1982. He has also taught jazz guitar in the Lucerne Music School, in Switzerland, for over 40 years, though this hasn't stopped him from pursuing a busy recording and touring schedule with a diverse range of musicians. In a long and varied career, Doran has collaborated with free-jazz luminaries such as pianist Carla Bley, drummers Marilyn Mazur and Han Bennink, trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich.
Doran has put his own musical stamp on everything from the music of Jimi Hendrix to the writings of Samuel Beckett, and from jazz-rock to Chinese folk music. At 63, he could be forgiven for taking his foot off the pedal, but this most exciting of jazz electric guitarists is, by his reckoning, probably busier now than he's ever been and has more collaborations on the go than you could shake a stick at.
Doran has just released Mesmerized (Double Moon, 2013), his eighth CD with New Bag a typically firey jazz-rock effort. Then there's No. 9 (Leo Records, 2012), the quietly sublime duo collaboration with Chinese pipa player Yang Jing. With the debut CD of Doran's quartet Bunter Hund due out in January 2014, Doran is enjoying a creatively prolific period.
And, as the Bray Jazz Festival audience attested most audibly, he's also in absolutely cracking form. Doran clearly enjoyed playing in the old country. "It just feels great to be back," he says, and you know he means it; Doran wrote a tune called "Bray Head" on his album Harsh Romantics (Synton Records, 1984) and has clearly always carried a piece of this part of Ireland in his heart.
Doran's formative childhood years in Ireland were spent absorbing the music that was around him. "My father was a well-known ballad singer in county Wicklow, and my Swiss mother played the accordion," says Doran. "They used to play every Saturday night at St. Kilians Hall in Greystones. When my father wasn't singing, he'd play the drums. They used to rehearse in my bedroom, so I got a good dose of Irish songs and jigs right from the start." With the timing of a good storyteller, Doran adds, "Well, if I'd known then that I'd be playing the Bray Jazz Festival, I bloody well could have stayed in Ireland."
New Bag is Doran's longest ongoing project and clearly one that he has strong personal attachment to. Doran founded New Bag in 1997 with singer Bruno Amstad, drummer Fabian Kuratli and electric bassist Wolfgang Zwaiauer. On the tail of its debut CD, Confusing the Spirits (Cue Records, 1999), the quartet toured North and South America, India, Vietnam and Europe. Already by the time of the second CD, Black Box (Double Moon Records, 2000), Doran's interest in Asian music was more overt, with the collaboration of Indian mridangam master Muthuswamy Balasubramoniam.
Doran had taken a six-month sabbatical from the university in Lucerne and traveled to India, where he stayed in Balasubramoniam's home town of Cochin in Southern India. With typical modesty, Doran refutes the notion that he is a student of Indian music. "I haven't learned Indian music," he says. "I think this would be a lifetime enterprise." Nevertheless, the Indian influence is felt in New Bag's music today, especially with the recent addition of konnakol-trained Swiss vocalist Sarah Buechi to New Bag's ranks. "I've loved Indian music for a long time," says Doran. "I love the groove, the spirit and the time the musicians take to climb from zero to the climax."
New Bag became a quintet when Doran brought keyboard player Hans- Peter Pfammatter into the lineup, and two more CDs followed. Unfortunately, the band suffered a major upheaval when Kuratli took ill and died, at the age of 38. "It was a tragedy," says Doran. "It took some time before we were able to continue with another drummer."
Eventually, Dominik Burkhalter filled the vacant drum chair, and extensive European tours followed the release of The Competence of the Irregular (Between the Lines, 2008). Doran's New Bag was popular in Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Austria, but there was a price to pay for the band's success. "The band members had gained quite wide recognition," explains Doran, "and they were increasingly invited to play in other bands and on other projects. I often had to turn down festival invitations because someone in the band had another gig somewhere."
There was a bit of soul searching when bassist Zwaiuer asked for a two-year sabbatical. Doran believes the band's music was perhaps too heavy for Zwaiuer, though he adds, "Maybe he was missing Fabian [Kuratli]." At the end of the two-year period, Zwaiuer was still unsure of where he was heading musically, relates Doran, and the guitarist and bandleader began thinking of a replacement. "Funny enough, Wolfgang [Zwaiuer] himself came up with the idea of including a Minimoog player. Most of us had played with Vincent Membrez in other projects, and we all liked his musical approach. Having Vincent in the band gave us a new sound."
With Membrez, New Bag recorded "Take the Floor and Lift the Roof" (Double Moon Records, 2011), but it wasn't long before the lineup underwent another reshuffle, right at the time Doran was booking a tour of Canada. "Singer Bruno Amstad quit," says Doran. "He'd been offered a four-month gig in a musical, so because of that and also because he didn't believe in the band anymore, he quit after 12 years. The exit of Amstad came as an unexpected shock to Doran, and there was also the added headache of fulfilling gigs already lined up. "I had to cancel the Canadian tour, which was not funny," recalls Doran.
Then another old problem reared its head again. "Keyboard player Hans-Peter Pfammatter was so busy with his own and other projects that we had to play the last few concerts of the tour without him, as a quartet." Doran's frustration at the time at the band's comings and goings is palpable. "It was like looking after fleas," he laughs. It crossed his mind that maybe the band had run its natural course. "Of course, the idea of ending New Bag was in the air," admits Doran, "but as I had put so much effort into this band project, and also because I think that my compositions are just as important as the musicians involved in creating the band sound, I decided to continue."
There was another change in the drum chair, with Lionel Friedli replacing Burkhalter. Friedli had occasionally subbed for Kuratli in the past, had played with Doran in Acoustic Strings alongside bassist Heiri Kaenzig and violinist Dominique Pifarély and had also played in a duo with Membrez. The missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle turned up in the shape of Dublin-based Swiss singer Sara Buechi, a former student at Doran's university in Lucerne. "Sara had impressed me greatly when she was the jazz school," says Doran. "She had attended New Bag workshops, where I'd given her recordings of Pakistani singers to listen to. She spent two years in India studying Indian classical music, so we have similar tastes."
Buechi has slotted in very naturally to the singer's position occupied for so long by Amstad. "I think there are similarities between them, notably that they're not just jazz or pop singers but are also inspired by ethnic music," says Doran. "Both have extreme singing abilities and tremendous range. Sara has also studied with [saxophonists] Steve Coleman and Dave Liebman, but most of all she brings a lyrical aspect to New Bag's music, which I think is very important."
The latest incarnation of New Bag hasn't been together for long. "Sara came from Dublin to Lucerne for a three-day rehearsal before we went into the studio. After four days of recording, we played directly the next day at the Chiasso Jazz, Culture & Music Festival in the south of Switzerland. We played another three concerts in Switzerland and then the one in Bray." The band is tight but has a free-wheeling, raw edge that is tremendously exciting. Doran, too, is excited by the possibilities. "I think it's a great band," he enthuses. "There's still a lot to be explored and discovered. There's a lot of evolving still. We've just started."
And started with a bang; Mesmerized is a thrilling ride from start to finish, and Buechi contributes much to the recording's success. "I wrote the music and named the pieces; then Sara, inspired by the titles, wrote lyrics to the music," Doran explains. "Mostly, my compositions begin with small motifs, tiny mosaic stones, which finally fit together like a puzzle. While rehearsing with the band, we finally find the musical form. This is not something I work out aloneit's a band process.
"Some of the tunes even change their form in the studio while recording. I do write parts for the different instruments, but I leave it to the musicians if they want to play them or if they prefer to invent something themselveswhich often fits better."
The thread that seems to run through Doran's work is the fusion of influences; on Mesmerized, jazz, rock, progressive rock and Indian music all converge. "This is true," says Doran. "I think one is always a child of their time." There's a hint of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, an element of late 1960s/early 1970s jazz-rock and King Crimson, too. Fans of psychedelic art-rock band MoeTar should also find plenty to get the juices flowing. Doran's incendiary guitar playing is like a hybrid between that of guitarists John McLaughlin and Jimi Hendrix, two influences that he readily acknowledges.
"John McLaughlin in [drummer] Tony Williams' Lifetime Visions Orchestra and in the Miles Davis Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) period was a great influence," says Doran. "I think you can hear that in my playing. I love Miles. I was watching the Isle of Wight concert  not so long agowhat a time that was when such a crowd could listen to music of such a high standard."
Like many of his era, Doran grew up on a diet of pop and rock. "My first friends in Switzerland were Italian," recalls Doran. "This one friend played accordion, and we used to play at Italian partiesdance music, tango and waltzes. I used to add a Shadows tune or something by the Beatles or The Rolling Stones, who were just getting famous at that time. Later I got into Jimi Hendrix and had a trio playing Hendrix and Cream tunes."
Doran clearly remembers the first time he heard Hendrix. "I was rehearsing with a band. We took a break and started to watch a music program that was on TV every Saturday. It was Jimi Hendrix playing the Marquee club in London. We were flabbergastedjust completely blown away. We got the LP Are You Experienced? (Track Records, 1967) straight away, and we must have listened to it a thousand times. Two or three years later, I saw him playing in a stadium in Zurich. I think he was a genius. It seems impossible that he was so musically mature at his age. When Hendrix died, I couldn't hear anybody like him, and I switched over to jazz. I started listening to George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and all the other jazz guitar greats."
Doran left school at 16, determined to play rock music, but Doran's parents, musicians themselves, proposed that he study at the classical conservatory in Lucerne. At that time, Doran admits, he had no real interest in studying classical music. "To please my parents I attended a one-year commercial education school, but I only just passed. Half the time I didn't go to school and would go off into the woods to try and write a tune."
A summer course given by German guitarist Volker Kriegel proved to be an experience that would help shape the direction Doran would take thereafter. "After that, I made up my mind to study at the Swiss Jazz School Bern, the first jazz school in Switzerland," says Doran. "Unfortunately, there was no guitar teacher at that time, just a trumpet player from Argentina who also played guitar as a second instrument."
Doran got a gig on Swiss TV with free-jazz pianist Irene Schweizer and other well known Swiss jazz musicians and was spotted by the head of the jazz school. "He asked me if I would teach at the school, and in my ignorance I accepted. I learned a great deal just by myself." At the same time, Doran studied classical guitar at the conservatory of Lucerne and Bern for three years.
Doran taught for seven years in Bern and in 1972 co-founded the jazz school in Lucerne, where he teaches to this day. In that same year, Doran co-founded the late-period John Coltrane/Bitches Brew-influenced OM, though as Doran explains there were other veins running through the band's music. "The first Weather Report albums, Weather Report (Columbia, 1971) and I Sing the Body Electric (Columbia, 1972), with [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter, percussionist Airto Moreira and the two European musicians Joe Zawinul and Miroslav Vitous and Brazilian percussionist Dom Um Romao, were a great inspiration for us," says Doran. "Also, the album by Vitouš called Infinite Search (Embryo, 1969), which had John McLaughlin, [saxophonist] Joe Henderson, [pianist] Herbie Hancock and [drummer] Jack DeJohnette, was also listened to very frequently."
Mainly through Urs Leimgruber, the members of OM listened to saxophonists John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. "That brought the element of free jazz into the band," explains Doran. Though none of the members of OM could have imagined it when the band started out, their fourth album would be a collaboration with former Weather Report percussionist Dom Um Romao, who brought the sounds of the Brazilian rainforest and berimbau to the session. "George Gruntz, who used to manage Berlin Jazzfest, and who unfortunately died just a few months ago, made the contact, and Dom Um agreed," says Doran.
The Brazilian also toured with the band. "It was a lot of fun," recalls Doran. "Dom Um was also a good showman and could reach the audience very easily. With Dom Um, OM really got accepted internationally. I later played duo and trio concerts with him."
OM is a band that Doran remains proud of. "OM was a real band, coming out of the cellar clubs of Lucerne, growing and learning together. It was a collective. We were young and somehow naïve, but there was plenty of individuality. I've never had such an intense band feeling since those days, and I am glad to have experienced those ten years. Those ten years were my musical schooling."
In 2007, 25 years after OM disbanded, the director of a museum in the band's hometown of Lucerne invited the four band members to reunite to open an exhibition about the youth movement of the 1960s and 1970s, in which OM was documented in photographs. "We liked the idea; we thought it would be fun," recalls Doran. "All four of us had been working on our own projects for the last 25 years, and we were a bit worried what we'd sound like, but the concert went well. In the first half of the concert, we played the old tunes, though of course as musicians we had all improved, and in the second half of the concert we just improvised."
The success of the concert and the fun the four musicians had playing together once again was sufficient that they didn't have to think twice before accepting further offers to play festivals in Zurich, Willisau and Schaffhausen. The four members took the next step of recording again, its sixth CD, Willisau (Intakt Records, 2010), effectively relaunching the band. "We've started working together again," says Doran, "but just free improvisation."
Another Doran band that has grabbed fewer headlines was the short- lived Red Twist & Tuned Arrow, with Fredy Studer again teaming up with Doran and guitarist Stephan Wittver. The band only ran from 1985 to 1987, recording one CD, Red Twist & Tuned Arrow (ECM, 1986). For Doran, it was an important association. "Red Twist & Tuned Arrow boosted my compositional abilities and my improvising. Stephan Wittver was a classically trained guitarist with a lot of experience on the free-improvisation scene. It was a completely unique band and very successful."
In more recent times, Doran has worked with Irish bassist Ronan Guilfoyle, putting music to the words of Irish writer/playwright/poet Samuel Beckett. "[Drummer] Steve Argüelles introduced me to Ronan Guilfoyle in the 1990s, and we played some concerts as a trio in Ireland, Switzerland and Germany. Then Steve moved to Paris and got into the drum-and-bass/dub scene, and we lost contact," relates Doran. "Later on, Ronan came up with the idea of composing music with lyrics, and I started checking out Swiss poets like [Friedrich] Durrenmatt.
"Then with Samuel Beckett's centenary, the Kilkenny Arts Festival and the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival jointly commissioned a Beckett program with Swiss singer Isa Wyss and Irish drummer Sean Carpio ," says Doran. We would have liked to record the program, but there were problems with the Beckett estate. I don't think art should have borders or containment."
The Beckett project, though regrettably unrecorded, is indicative of Doran's openness to new musical possibilities. Doran also works in an improvisational ensemble of classical musicians with viola player Walter Fahndich. "He has his own vision of what improvisation entails," says Doran. "For two years, we've played together at least once a month." Though Doran isn't a classical musician, he has a healthy interest in classical composers. "I especially like Luigi Nono, the Italian composer from Venice," says Doran. "I have been to Venice a few times as Artist in Residence and have visited the Luigi Nono Archive, managed by Nono's wife, Nuria, the daughter of Schoenbergwho I had the pleasure to meet there. It was great to be able to listen to his works and have the original music sheet to look at."
One of Doran's more striking collaborations has been with Chinese pipa player Yang Jing, with whom Doran realized a beautiful duo recording with the simple title of No. 9 (Leo Records, 2012). Jing, a soloist in the Chinese National Orchestra for the past decade, married and has lived in Lucerne since 2007. "Lucerne is a small city, so sooner or later we had to meet," says Doran. On the 10th anniversary of the jazz club Jazzkatine, Doran played with New Bag and subsequently in a duo with Jing for the first time. "The sparks flew, and we decided to continue," he recalls of that first musical encounter.
Certainly, the haunting track "Salu Abend" could almost be from guitarist Ry Cooder's Paris Texas (Warner Bros., 1985). "I guess there's a link coming from the pentatonic scales which are close to the Blues," says Doran. "'Salu Abend' is an improvised tune. 'Moving East' is an older tune of mine. I wrote it, as I recall, when I was a soloist with Reto Weber's Percussion Orchestra in Hanoi, Vietnam. We played with the Phon Lam Orchestra, and the musicians said my composition 'Moving East' sounded like a tune from Northern Vietnam."
The one non-original on No. 9 is Joe Zawinul's "In a Silent Way." "To me, it always seemed clear that I was interested in playing atmospheric music with Yang Jing," says Doran. "Here is where we totally meet. The idea of playing 'In a Silent Way' with her came from the fact that this summer OM will be playing at a festival in Switzerland called Alpentöne Festival, which means the sounds of the Alps. Of course, the music has to be in some way Alpine, so we'll be playing a one-hour suite called 'In a Silent Mood,' based on Joe Zawinul's 'In a Silent Way.' Having already worked on this piece made it very easy for me to play a special version with Jing."
In concert, Doran and Jang Ying also play Chinese folk tunes and Hendrix's "Little Wing." With Ying aiming to study a Masters Degree in Western composition in the autumn and Doran learning more about the subtleties of Chinese music with each passing gig, theirs is a collaboration that promises to bear more fruit in the future. "The music," acknowledges Doran, "is still evolving."
For now, the majority of Doran's energies are centered on New Bag. When Doran talks about the band's music, he talks of the "thrills," "ecstasy" and "intoxication" of playing together. "Nowadays, a lot of musicians are working with the parameter of reduction," says Doran. "It reminds me of jazz in the 1950s, the cool-jazz era. Of course, I see the positive side of reduction, but sometimes, for example, ambient music seems to me boring and simplein the end just easy-listening music. So although I am very concerned about the lyrical aspect in our music, I like to have the freedom to take off." He explains, "It's like a good game of football. It's all very well if there are a lot of technically skilled players on the field, but some have to be able to score."
How Doran finds the time or energy to play in other bands, like Kaamaan advanced song concept of singer Katia Mairin a duo with drummer Marc Halbheer or with his brother Dave Doran in XL Target is anybody's guess. There are two more CDs in the pipeline: one with the mostly acoustic quartet Bunter Hund and another Hendrix tribute with Studer, Tacuma and singer Erika Stucky.
Doran is also at something of a loss to explain his busy agenda. "Albert Mangelsdorff, the German trombone player who I played with together in 'Percussion Orchestra' once told me that it isn't true that one has less to do as you get olderon the contrary, that there would be more and more to do," says Doran. "It seems he was right. I have never worked so much as at the moment with all the various projects. Music-wise, I have so many interests." He laughs, "I will have to learn to say no!"
As he takes on more projects than before, it's also no coincidence that Doran is also involved in more specifically improvisation-based projects than before. "Funny enough, this genre has less and less following," he says, "but many creative musicians are working in this field." Doran has been toiling away productively in this field for over 40 years and has no inclination towards less challenging music. "Generally, I think it's safe to say that I'll always be looking for new musical ground and new approaches to be found."
Christy Doran's New Bag, Mesmerized (Double Moon, 2013)
Yang Jing/Christy Doran, No.9 (Leo Records, 2012)
Ray Anderson/Han Benninck/Christy Doran, ABD (hatOLOGY, 2011)
Christy Doran's New Bag, Take the Floor and Hit the Roof (Double Moon, 2011)
OM, Willisau (Intakt Records, 2010)
Christy Doran's New Bag, The Competence of the Irregular (Between the Lines, 2008)
Christy Doran's New Bag, Now's the Time (Between the Lines, 2006)
Christy Doran's New Bag, Perspectives (Between the Lines, 2004)
Christy Doran's New Bag, Heaven is Back in the Streets (Double Moon Records, 2002)
Christy Doran's New Bag, Black Box (Double Moon, 2001)
Christy Doran's New Bag, Confusing the Spirits (Cue, 1999)
Christy Doran/Boris Salchak Shaman (M.E.L.T., 1998)
Christy Doran, What a Band (hat ART, 1992)
Christy Doran, Christy Doran's Phoenix (hat ART, 1990)
Christy Doran/Fredy Studer/Stephan Wittver, Red Twist & Tuned Arrow (ECM, 1987)
Christy Doran, The Returning Dream of the Leaving Ship (Synton, 1986)
Christy Doran, Harsh Romantics (Synton Records, 1984)
OM, Cerberus (Japo/ECM, 1980)
OM, OM with Dom Um Romao (Japo/ECM, 1978)
OM, Rautinahaha (Japo/ECM, 1977)
OM, Kirikuki (Japo/ECM, 1976)
OM, Montreux Live and More (Indian Records, 1974)
Page 1: Francesca Pleffer
Page 2: Courtesy of Christy Doran
Page 3: Courtesy of Yugong Yishan
Page 5: Maurizio Zorzi