An AAJ Interview with Larry Ochs

AAJ Staff By

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This interview was originally published in January 2000.

"To reveal a new world is the function of creation in all the arts." —Edgard Varese

How different might our planet be if a number of significant events over the past century had NOT happened? What if the Kennedys and Dr. King had NOT been assassinated? What if nuclear weaponry had NOT been invented? What if the stock market had NOT crashed in Oct. 1929?

From a musical perspective, what if John Lennon had never met Paul McCartney? What if electric and electronic instruments had not become economically viable? What if Charlie Parker had not died but had instead lived to become a student of Edgard Varese?

Huh? What? Where did THAT piece of speculation come from?

A little known, but true, piece of jazz history is that Charlie Parker was completely awestruck by the imaginative, idiosyncratic, innovative, and utterly iconoclastic composer, Edgard Varese (and if you don't know who Varese was, take a brief time out here, fire up your search engine or encyclopedia of choice, and do a little bit of reading). According to Parker's widow, Bird followed Varese up and down the streets of Greenwich Village, at a distance, for two years trying to work up the nerve to approach the composer and to speak to him. "Varese is the only man I'd be willing to be a servant to," Parker's widow reported him to have said. Finally, Parker appeared one night at Varese? home on Sullivan Street, and begged the composer to accept him as a pupil. Varese was indeed willing and agreed to take Bird on as an apprentice upon Varese' return from an imminent trip to Europe. Unfortunately, Parker died before Varese returned.

What music might have been unleashed from Parker's unparalleled improvisational spirit under the guidance of Varese? aesthetic for the liberation of sound? New worlds revealed indeed...

Of course, at this point in time, some could suggest that any speculation as to what might have resulted from Parker's tutelage under Varese may have little more than entertainment value. Perhaps so. After all, Parker died 44 years ago, Varèse 34, and both are as enigmatic now as they were when alive. On the other hand, it could be just as easily suggested that a number of musicians performing and composing today are equally infused with both Parker's improvisational ferocity and Varese' adamant refusal to "submit to sounds that have already been heard."

Although he is certainly too modest to compare himself to Varese or Parker, saxophonist/improviser/composer Larry Ochs unquestionably makes music that both of these legendary artists would admire and respect.

Best known as a member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Mr. Ochs has recorded over two dozen albums in the past two decades plus with this ensemble. The material that Rova covers is diverse, challenging, and rewarding to both the band and listener alike, extending from raw, pure improvisation to complex composition (contributed by Mr. Ochs and band mates Steve Adams, Jon Raskin, Bruce Ackley in addition to Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne, John Carter, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jack DeJohnette, Barry Guy, Lindsay Cooper, Fred Frith, Robin Holcomb, Alvin Curran, and Terry Riley).

Although Mr. Ochs is ostensibly the spokesperson for Rova, the interview which follows is primarily intended to shed light on his other projects (although separating Mr. Ochs from Rova is certainly an impossible task).

Thus, to coincide with the North American release of the CD Saturn's Finger (Buzz) by Maybe Monday (Fred Frith—guitar; Miya Masaoka—koto, Larry Ochs—saxophones) and as a preliminary for the February 2000 release of Trumpets (Black Saint) by What We Live (Lisle Ellis—bass; Donald Robinson—drums, Larry Ochs—saxophones with Dave Douglas or Wadada Leo Smith—trumpet), Larry Ochs kindly assented to an interview with All About Jazz. This interview was conducted via e-mail in November-December 1999.

Special thanks to Mr. Glenn M. Ito of EuroJazz Marketing for continued enthusiasm and support of All About Jazz.

Larry Ochs: Below are your questions with some answers. But I want to preface the whole thing with two thoughts:

First: art doesn't start off having meaning; it makes meaning. I think the meaning is after the fact, when you look back on it in the context of its happening. Art that's worth looking at more than once says something more than the sum of its parts, and that isn't really in the control of the artist. And I think some of your questions are asking for answers that assume I knew the answer before I made the art, and that's not the case.

Second: While you and I talk about ideas and theories, I think it's important for Average Joanne and Joe to understand that all the theories and discussion don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. That's a bit of a joke, but the truth is that the music has to create something more than the sum of its parts, if it doesn't move you or disturb you or challenge you or inspire you then the whole thing becomes an exercise. A lot of people want to debate whether x or y or z has "soul" or is "cold and without feeling." That's not exactly what I'm talking about, because what works for me in 1999 might not have worked for me in 1969, not to mention Average Joanne living in Slovenia versus Average Joe living in Chicago. But what is important is for everyone to understand that myself and every other composer or performer is really after the same thing. We just go at it in very different ways. But no one can tell me that Xenakis? or Braxton's music is any less soulful than Al Green's. (And yet, it's totally valid for Average Joe to get nothing out of Xenakis' music.) Point is: no one is trying to create arithmetic when they compose music...whether they work with sieve theories or with inspiration from God.

All About Jazz: In your interview with Will Montgomery you stated that "improvisation is the most important element of my musical activity." In your opinion, what are the biggest myths and misconceptions about improvisation? (i.e., this should be answered from both pro-improv and anti-improv perspectives).

LO: The biggest misunderstanding amongst the general public is that "improvisation" means "anything goes"; "do your thing, whatever it is (...in the jungle, man...)." Do I need to elaborate on this? I don't think so. If you're a fan of jazz then you know that improvisation involves discipline, self-control, experience, and a lot of other things that have nothing to do with "total freedom"—whatever that is. So-called "Free Jazz"—that music that kind of "developed" out of the sixties and what some musicians thought they heard Albert Ayler doing, couldn't have been more proscribed in its "freedom." There's a "sound" to that musical area, and the keepers of the keys to that discipline are as Catholic as you can get about how it should sound. Then there's "non-idiomatic free improvisation:" the handle under which many of the European improvisers and others (notably from New York in late 70's) have been classified (although not by themselves). While these players really have no "sound" as a group, there's still a way of working here that has to be learned and understood and experienced, and critiqued by the player himself (or herself). Bad "free jazz" and bad "non-idiomatic" players are only "bad" because they don't critique themselves; they don't listen; they don't know the history of their own music. There are a lot of them out there, and they don't help any of us to move the music forward or to build an audience for creative music in general. This question goes places that would involve us in a long, long discussion, so I?ll let it go here for now. (For example: why is it that most jazz musicians don't seem interested in any music outside of their own little subset of the jazz world? Why is it that musicians who consider themselves artists don't know anything about artists practicing similar disciplines on other parts of the planet? Why is it that non-idiomatic free players are reviewed in Jazz magazines at all? Why are these magazines called jazz magazines? What the hell is jazz anyway, and who is mak

Improvisation—the use of it in music—is also a way to bring one's daily life experience into music. And the ability to make choices in real time that actually make a difference is what the music is really about: it's an ideal way of practicing participatory democracy. If we could bring the music into the classrooms—not the music classrooms, but the social science classrooms—we could much more quickly give the average kid a way to understand how democracy was supposed to work when it was first imagined. Frankly, I think that one of the reasons free improvisation has such a hard time catching on is because the average citizen is completely uncomfortable with the idea of participatory democracy. And that's why we don't really have it the United States at the moment...

Many composers of 100% notated music imagine that improvisation is a self-indulgence, or something one uses to come up with ideas for the ultimate music—composed music. Improvisers can be self-indulgent, but the self-indulgent improvisers can also be crossed out of the equation. We should look for the good examples, not the bad. Talk about Xenakis, Messiaen, Varese, and you're looking at reasons to love 20th century composed music. So let's not point to the less than great practitioners of improvised music, of traditional jazz, of Indian music when looking at those musics that do use improvisation. Then we can have a discussion about one discipline versus the other—if we want to—Personally, I say: enjoy them all. Each has its own thing to say; they all swing.

AAJ: On Nov. 18-19, you conducted a workshop and solo performance at Cal Arts. What aspects of SOLO improvisation do you find to be a) the most appealing or useful and b) the most difficult or problematic? Why?

LO: I'm not a practitioner of solo music, not now, not ever, so I'll skip this question altogether. (In fact, I ended up playing at CAL ARTs with a student rhythm section). Or I could say to (a) the most appealing thing is to listen to others do it well. And the most useful aspect of it was to understand—as I got into playing—all the possible language extensions that existed on the saxophone. It's also a way to really hear the idea of continuity of thought in music.

AAJ: Do you consider the saxophone to be a physical extension of yourself or is it simply a tool? As follow up, is there a tactile pleasure for you while playing the saxophone? (i.e., in addition to the sonic qualities is there also a distinct satisfaction with regard to how the instrument physically reacts to you or vice versa?)

LO: I'm an artist whose tool of choice is the saxophone.

When I'm in my studio practicing, I can get off on the tactile aspects of the saxophone. But that can only really occur when there's no one else around to listen to or to influence the music, as the physicality of the instrument has nothing to do with making music. (However, in the context of certain pieces I have written for sax quartet, I have employed some of these physical areas particular to saxophone—or to tenor saxophone, or sopranino.)
About Larry Ochs
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