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A Fireside Chat with Thurston Moore

By Published: November 29, 2003

Thurston Moore: Improvised music as a genre, I was somewhat unaware of in the Eighties. I started playing music around '76,'77 in New York, when I moved there as a teenager, playing in punk rock bands. I moved there specifically to do that. I was eighteen and I was responding to underground music that was in New York, Television, Patti Smith, The Ramones, and stuff like that. Moving there and getting involved in that community, there is different facets of music that were interlinked with the punk rock scene, specifically the poetry scene that Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, and Richard Hell, certainly had a connection with, which sort of was connected to people like Allen Ginsberg. So it was much more of an exploded scene. There was a lot of different music going on. There was a lot of indigenous kind of ethnic music on the street and there was a lot of avant-garde jazz music that you would see peripherally as a teenager then. It wasn't until I met Kim (Gordon), my wife, who plays in Sonic Youth, and she grew up listening to jazz with her friends on the West Coast, John Coltrane, etc. I became interested in it through her. I started really listening to classic Sixties jazz, to Coltrane and Mingus and to Ornette, and became very immersed in it, especially the New York school of it, and reading Leroi Jones' writings on it. Black Music, I believe the book was. That really opened up my ears to people like Frank Lowe and Rashied Ali and Milford Graves and some of the more expanded playing ideas. The idea of improvisation in jazz was elemental. I never really thought about it. As far as the way I was approaching music myself, the idea of creating compositions with us getting together and playing free and making composition from ideas that were coming out of this free playing, I never thought it as belonging to any school of improvisation. I found out about a club called the Saint and this was a little club on the Lower East Side that was curated and run by John Zorn. I knew about John Zorn because he was around town and he was part of the scene of slightly older guys who still had facial hair, which in punk rock, you didn't have facial hair. You cut your hair. But these guys weren't punk rockers. They still had beards and stuff. I remember going to the Saint because it was a hangout of some sort and there were these musicians who were playing unorthodox music, really, their instruments were unorthodox and the way they were set up was not very typical either. They were playing music that seemed to come out of the language of jazz, as far as it being improvised music, but it was something wholly other. It was completely free improvisation. It was somewhat interesting to me, but I didn't pay attention to it. I didn't get a handle on it and I wasn't really that interested because the energy was so sublime. I was a little too young to hear it as anything of any importance to me. At some point, I discovered, just by the fact that there was a record store in Manhattan that sold only jazz records and it was an extension of this record store on St. Mark's Place called Sounds and they opened up a store on 9th Street, which was where they shuffled all their jazz stock and sold it really cheap. I started going there because I was looking just for some more records that were akin to Coltrane and Mingus. Within all these records were a lot of European records by people on independent labels such as Peter Brötzmann, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and these were people I knew were sort of part of what was being presented at the Saint. I became curious about it and I picked up a couple of them because they were cheap enough. Nobody bought these records at all. There was no hip cache to them like there is now at all. It was pre-CD too. Especially Derek Bailey, they really made me curious in a way as to who these people were because their music was so open ended and all about these communications that they were dealing with each other and I didn't know how to look at it historically. One thing that really helped was a book that came out by John Litweiler called The Freedom Principle. He also wrote the Ornette Coleman bio. Litweiler's book really showed the historical correlation between the European improvisers and American avant-garde jazz, Art Ensemble, Anthony Braxton, and the loft jazz that was going on in New York, primarily free jazz players, Milford Graves and what Archie Shepp was doing and the radical composition that Bill Dixon was doing. There was some commentary in there, especially by Brötzmann, where he said that one point at a young age, American jazz was very important to their development as far as players and their language, but at some point, they really broke away from it and developed and created their own identity outside of the genre of jazz as free improvisers, a whole other musical genre, to the point of it being this interesting geographic thing such as the ICP, people in Holland, the Instant Composers Pool. Their whole idea is spontaneous improvisation being played with the idea that you are creating spontaneous compositions, that they are compositions and it is not just jamming or free blowing. You actually have a sense of composing on the moment and also Derek Bailey saying things like how he didn't understand why everybody didn't respond to this music because it is more true to the actual nature of life, which is organized, yet completely improvised. I thought those were fascinating insights to what they were doing. It really opened it up. It wasn't until I saw Derek come to town and play a duo with Paul Motian and I saw the level of years and years of sophistication that was going into what he was doing and how pure and how simple it was and how affecting it was and that really sort of blew my mind. I started really getting involved. This is all sort of late Eighties. I just really got involved with tracking it. The whole thing about independent, underground punk rock music that I was involved with had to do with a whole do it yourself esthetic, outside of and below the radar of the mainstream with a network of people who were creating their own labels and distribution, which we were very proud of. Then I saw that this had been going on at an even more grassroots level with the global free improvisation scene, artists creating their own labels and who were buying these records? Maybe a few academics and radicals like John Zorn, but it wasn't a big music at all. It was catering to each other musically. To me, they were creating documents to communicate with each other, these records, which they would all sort of send to each other to hear. According to Evan Parker, they would listen to records on ESP, which was a small label out of New York that concentrated on avant-garde jazz playing and there was a lot of extended and experimental reed playing and all kinds of instrumental playing on those records that was pretty far out. He said that what they were really interested in were those moments that were at the beginnings and ends of songs, where the players were really sort of creating these little sounds, these spiky sounds. He said that that was what he and Derek really concentrated on and they wanted to create a whole music out of that, that kind of tension and release. They pretty much got to that territory on the first couple of sessions and everything is an extension of that to this day of a lot of what they're doing. It is kind of a wild musical world they have created.

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