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An AAJ Interview with Larry Ochs

AAJ Staff By

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AAJ: The webpage for Maybe Monday quotes Piet Schaap as follows: "the trio enables these strong and instantly recognizable voices to reinvent themselves, finding quite other solutions in each others' company to those they might arrive at in other contexts." In other interviews you've mentioned free improvisation as being the "laboratory for discovery." Earlier in this interview you state that "Improvising is about learning as we go." What is it that you have learned from working with Mr. Frith and Ms. Masaoka that you could not have learned from anyone else? How have these discoveries been carried forward into your current work in "other contexts"—Are these discoveries carried forward consciously?

LO: Fred taught me that the most important thing about making it as a group—something we spent a lot of time plotting out—is that the group must come up with a great name for the band. When I asked him if we should come up with the name now or later, he said: "Not now or later. But Maybe Monday."

Miya taught me that in some groups I can sit out the whole set and the music might sound even better that way.

Now for some indirect answers: What makes the art of improvisation exciting, and what makes the "possibilities" unending is that every practitioner has his/her own take on the process, and every player has his/her own specific sound. I've never spoken to other musicians about this particularly, but I think everyone worth listening to realizes at some point that he/she has "a sound," a characteristic expressiveness, and also a way of approaching making music...If they weren't looking for that sound intentionally, they still eventually recognize it just from being around it all the time. Once the sound is heard and accepted, then it's a matter of honing that sound forevermore. The basic sound will always be there, but the honing of the sound and the many ways of phrasing, which is a big part of one's sound—we work on that forever. And the challenge is: how do I get that to work in Rova, in What We Live, in Maybe Monday, in Invisible? What can I use of it in one context that I really can't in another? What does playing in Maybe Monday free me up to do that I can't do with What We Live, even though they are both trios? What does playing John Lindberg's music free me up to do? So—I don't want to duck the specific questions exactly—but I'd say that the general answer is a lot easier to speak to because, in an odd reversal, I can be more specific about the general answer than I would be if I answered specifically about what I learn playing with Fred or with Miya. And I think the general answer is something other people can imagine more easily. But to be honest, I'm still at the beginning stages of improvising with that trio. Our first concert was in 1997, but because of some busy schedules, etc., we've only found time to perform together six to eight times; thus the process is just beginning (while at the same time being extremely satisfying even now.) But certainly playing along side Fred or Miya, I get a much more intimate idea of how they think as improvisers in the moment of creation—much more intimate than I think one would get just as a listener offstage is what I mean. And I take in all the information, their sound-choices, marvel at some of it, steal other parts of it, agree with other parts (I already do) and reject others, usually because the specific sounds or method of response isn't relevant to my own instrument or my voice... (Am I making any sense at all here? If not, ask more questions...)

AAJ: Could you please tell us about the upcoming What We Live CD?

LO: Okay: WHAT WE LIVE is essentially an improvising trio of myself on saxophones, Lisle Ellis on bass, and Donald Robinson on drums. The music I think is very distinctive—the group has its own group-sound (which is what I mean by "distinctive")—but, as it's also improvised, it allows for the addition of guest artists without rehearsal. What We Live has two CDs out as a trio (on DIW and Black Saint), another (great) CD as an augmented quintet with Dave Douglas and Wadada Leo Smith called Quintet for a Day (New World). Before we recorded as a quintet, the trio invited each of the trumpeters individually to perform with the group as a quartet. The CD being released in early February, called Trumpets, documents the live concerts. Half the CD is two long tracks with Wadada recorded in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at Outpost Productions in March 1998. Three tracks with Dave D come from a date in Vancouver, B.C. in, I think, November 1997, but it might have been '96. We've played several times with Dave as a quartet (and toured as a quartet with Wadada in Europe). We enjoy adding guests and offer it to most concert presenters. And I think we?ll be playing at The Knitting Factory in NYC on February 7, 2000, with several added guests during a week-long tour back East. (I live in Berkeley, CA). This means that the most recent available trio recording is from June 1996 (even though the CD of that recording—Never Was—only was released in 1999). The group music has really evolved since then, and we hope to get a live trio-tape recorded on our April 2000 tour in Europe.

AAJ: What did you learn from working with Glenn Spearman?

LO: This is easier to speak about than the question above about Fred and Miya, one: because it went on for 6 years (not only with The Double Trio, but also in the context of our duo concerts and many, many duo rehearsals, and in performing in and rehearsing for Figure 8 and for Ascension, which Rova performed and recorded with Glenn for Black Saint in 95 and 96) and two: because it is history now.

Spearman was a true believer in the power and the passion of free jazz in the classic sense of that term. He wrote compositions that, on the face of the writing, seemed to me on first introduction to them in 1991 to be rather simplistic. I was looking forward to the energy of the music and to hooking up the two tenors, but I had no idea—nor did Chris Brown, because we've talked about it since—that there was such depth and complexity to the thematic compositions, that these very basic lines and harmonies opened up wide vistas of musical possibility that, in the end, seemed limitless, and never became boring or seemed anything but wonderful to play on and to be inspired by. So I think the main thing I learned playing with Glenn was that complexity does not in and of itself signify anything at all. Or maybe a better way to put it is that what seems elemental can germinate into the most complex and deeply felt areas of exploration. Certainly, this was re-emphasized for me when we performed Ascension as well, and it didn't get by me that Ascension was one of the earliest pieces of the so-called ?free jazz" genre. A true predecessor to Glenn's own writing and approach to making music. My favorite CD of the Double Trio is still The Fields from Black Saint. But for what I'm talking about here, you could get the Tzadik CD; dig the written material and then realize that those few cells are the basis for a very moving 45 minute piece. It's very cool.

AAJ: The webpage for Invisible states that "the group works with verbally denoted structures and musical frameworks. So all the forms are invisible and the music laid on the forms is improvised." How specific or unspecific are these verbal denotations? How much preparation is involved with these verbal denotations? Are they pre-conceived, spontaneous, negotiated, other? (my intent for these question is to determine why it is important that these forms are not written down) As follow up, are there any plans for a release by Invisible?

LO: It's not "important" that the forms are not written down. It's just a fact (...and it's subject to change as the group evolves...) The group operates with verbal instructions, and some pre-conceived forms or ways of relating that need to be rehearsed to be truly understood. If you've ever tried to play improvised music using a pre-conceived form such as chord changes in jazz, then you know that you need to practice the form in order to be comfortable with it; to get loose and forget it. It's hard to make music if you have to look at the page to follow the changes. The more familiar the changes, the more possible it is for a musician to do something beautiful or exciting "over" them. The ultimate goal is to hear them without thinking so that you can play "music." The same with my verbal instructions. The ultimate goal of these games, etc. is to push the players; to make them look at what they are doing in a fresh way so as to free up "possibility."

It's possible to do a very short rehearsal on these ideas and be out performing, working within the concept, in short order. But the challenge is to do something "more" with them. The challenge is to take your improvisation chops and make music with the other members of the group while working within the structure or limitations set up by the pre-conceived form, but then stretching the form yourself or responding in the moment to other people's interpretation of the form.

AAJ: Who are your musical (or artistic) heroes? Why?

LO: A lot of my influences in this music used to be heroes, but heroes are usually people you don't know at all. Once I become acquainted with someone and know them to some degree as a human being, the aura that might once have been there is usually gone. That doesn't mean I don't love them, but that's a different story. So leaving aside all the living musicians, I'd still point to artists: Orson Welles, Jean-Pierre Melville, Stan Brakhage, Monk (pre-Thelonious Monk Institute), Hendrix, Janis Joplin, many 20th century painters, and just for the hell of it: Jesse Jackson.

AAJ: What musicians that you have never worked with before would you most like to work with?

LO: I can only answer this after saying that I've been fortunate to get a chance to play with so many amazing players; I wish there was time and opportunity to play AGAIN with most of them... I really don't have a burning desire to work with the following, but it might be a lot of fun (and in some cases, I'd want to work with them without getting involved in the head-trips that history has reported them laying on their band-members): The Baobob Orchestra, Bembaya Jazz International, Thelonious Monk, James Brown, Miles Davis in the electric period (which I'm kind of checking out now as part of the Yo Miles Project: next gig on March 4 at Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco); Morton Feldman, Tony Williams; Merce Cunningham (probably with Rova, but I'd let him call the shot); Albert Ayler, and Hendrix... although we'd have to come up with a new form ...together.) I'd like to work with vocalists. That's one thing I've never done that I think would be great: Marta Sebestyen, Sainkho, Diamanda. But it's up to me to think of a reason to ask them to do it, and I haven't found the time yet I guess.
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