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Assif Tsahar: Dissonance is Consonance


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Israeli saxophonist Assif Tsahar is preparing for his return to New York, where has resided for the last fifteen years. Tsahar spent the last year touring in Europe and Israel with his musical partner Cooper-Moore, celebrating the release of their second collaboration as a duo, Tells Untold, and recording a new disc together.

In his first interview for All About Jazz, Tsahar tells about his experience as a free-minded and independent musician, always searching for new avenues to express himself as an artist. He also speaks about his collaborations with key figures of the free jazz and improvised music scenes, such as Peter Kowald, William Parker and, of course, Cooper-Moore. The interview was conducted in Tel Aviv.


The Beginning

Finding Freedom within Yourself

The Experience of Playing Free

Coming to New York: The Lesson of William Parker

Finding Partners

The Hopscotch Label

Playing with Cooper-Moore

The Beginning

Assif Tsahar: My brother played guitar and stopped and I had a guitar hanging above my bed, so I just started playing it. I was fourteen at that time. I guess that at that time I was posing myself as Led Zeppelin, but I never got into the rock side. In some point my brother suggested his teacher, Aviv Livnat, and he got me into jazz and jazz guitar players such as Joe Pass, so I went to a the record store and just got addicted and deeper into it.

I was looking for music wherever I could find it, taping off the radio. I remember recording Coltrane's "Chasin' the Trane of the Voice of Peace broadcasts. Someone made me a tape of Charlie Parker, the first one who blew me away. He was just speaking, the rhythms, the lines were imitating the voice, the way we talk with notes. I taped Ornette Coleman's "European Echoes (his only piece in 3/4) froim the radio. For me it was just like Bird. It wasn't avant-garde, and I was amazed by the child-like melody something so simple and with such deep feeling.

I had a tape of Eric Dolphy's "The Prophet, with Booker Little, with that half step dissonance in the middle of the melody, and it was so beautiful, wrong and right at the same time. A friend of mine, pianist Daniel Sarid, who left Israel for two years in Chicago, wrote me that he saw Cecil Taylor and that he never saw anything like it, and I said OK, who is Cecil Taylor? And when Daniel came back, we just started playing together and making our own explorations.

All About Jazz: Did anyone guide you at that time, like suggesting listening to Albert Ayler or Coltrane?

Assif Tsahar: No. All by ourselves. The only person was the Israeli folk accordion player Peter Touval, who had a serious knowledge of music, and he talked to us about music. He is the first one who said to us, you are musicians and you should not go to the army, you have to start thinking differently. He opened our minds. You have a path to follow, but you have to be devoted. It is serious business, just as fighting for your country.

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Finding Freedom within Yourself

AAJ: What drew you into free jazz and improvised music?

AT: My first interaction with music was just playing. I just wanted to play. It was not the conception of this or that. It was just what I liked. I liked the way I expressed myself in music. I was lucky in a way that I did not have a teacher who broke my spirit. Later I understood this is more avant-garde and people react to it differently, but this is what moved me.

For me a dissonance is a consonance, it is not so different, it's a broader field of emotion. And just having something that is consonance all the time, is like you have no friction, nothing that moves you. I'm looking for music that moves me from deep inside. It's not about being avant-garde, breaking laws. It's about being yourself.

Charlie Parker was free, Billy Holliday was free. It's more about of state of mind of being free. They were free within their own language, and than comes a generation afterwards and want to be 'that' and once you just want to be 'that' you lose the freedom aspect of what 'that' is. People who just hear the spirit of what is in the music, they don't want to be 'that,' just the spirit, which is being free, being themselves. Coltrane is great, but he looked to be himself, to be open, to explore himself, his way. So if you want to be Coltrane, it's not about playing Coltrane's notes, it's about being, open and exploring.

The tradition changes, and today we are in a place there are no more rules to break, so you can't talk about more avant-garde, more dissonance. It's not relevant. What relevant is the spirit of search within the music, finding your own language, not imitating. Screaming is just screaming if you're not looking for yourself.

If you're really looking to be yourself you won't be able to be someone else. If you going to express yourself and your full range of emotions and live it through the music, that's what it is about, that's the beauty, not the style any more. If you look for it yourself it may take a little bit longer, but you'll find is much more interesting. Each one of us is an original.

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The Experience of Playing Free

AT: It's more a total commitment to music, in both physical and intellectual sense. Reggie Workman told me once something very nice: "You should not let the music get to you; you should let the music go through you." It's not a trance, not like going crazy. It's always about control and pushing the limits of control. Always looking for the edge where you are not in control and not being satisfied about being in control, but looking what's going to happen in a place where I'm falling, how do I recover, how do I don't fall but I am falling. By this falling experience you're flying, you're on the edge, you stretch your limits, you're taking it one step further, and than I see what's happening, and I try to keep lifting it up, keep lifting it up. It's levitation, you're flying.

It's also breaking the psychological laws of gravitation, because we are always gravitating towards our own psychology, our own patterns of thought, our own patters of preconceived ideas. We try to break through them, what is ingrained in us, which is the mundane, and get beyond the mundane. This pushing of the limits has a lot of energy in it, and a lot of focus. That is when the music is really beautiful. The things that will happen when things are falling into place, it's just wow, it happening it happened through me, with us, you just let the magic happen.

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Coming to New York: The Lesson of William Parker

AT: I came to New York at the end of 1989. I was twenty years old. It was bad times in some senses and good time in other senses. There was not much work or much awareness. I have a great friend, poet Steve Dalachinsky, who organized my first concert, I played solo, and afterwards Rob Brown and Whit Dickey played duet, and I was so excited that I fell off the stage. I would bust go to hear and see everybody. With William Parker, I just came to see him play every week, and after the break one week, he just said, come sit in, with his In Order To Survive.

AAJ: Did Parker hear you playing before?

AT: No. He saw an interesting kid, so let's see if he can play something or not. He was really gracious. Than he asked me to join his orchestra. There are not enough good things that I can say about William. I learned from him about being a musician, a human being, being an artist. That it does not end in music. His total commitment to music, which is so inspiring and relentless, and the way he always support young musicians. He is very beautiful and very special. It's really how the things should be. We just need ten more William Parker's in the scene for things to be good.

AAJ: Did Parker try to direct you as a musician?

AT: No. He would never in his orchestra tell you should do this or that. I learned from him how to bring the best out of musicians and just let them be themselves. He would just bring people together and create the right frame of spirit, so the music would be as high as possible. He would let the people find themselves in his music, not look for him. That's the beauty of his music. He is always creative, always looking for something new, always himself, so original in his way of being.

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Finding Partners

AT: At that time I was playing a lot with Susie Ibarra, my wife at that time. She introduced me to gamelan music, we listened a lot to music from all around the world., real traditional music, moving in organic way, that is not formulated into the package of world music.

AAJ: Did you choose playing in duo—mainly with drummers—and trio formats out of necessity?

AT: I love drummers. If I have another instrument to play with me it would be a drummer. There's something so natural about that setting, but it's also good to break it. At first when I created my groups I fell into that. I was very lucky. I had the chance to play with the greatest drummers—Rashied Ali, Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, Hamid Drake, Susie Ibarrra, Paul Lovens, Tatsuya Nakatani, and Jim Black—and Cooper-Moore, who taught me so much about rhythm.

Rashied and Sunny and Andrew have their own energy. It's really complete and surround. Hamid is so powerful, it's a joy. Susie has her own way, so musical and tonal. Tatsuya is like a sonic drummer. Jim is so innovative, so powerful and unique in everything he does. He plays so smart.

Playing with creative musicians who bring so much it's so easy. The music creates itself. This music has its own flow, it's effortless. Those people are about continuation. Rashied and Sunny are part of the path, they been brought up by whoever into the music, and now they are the path and bringing other people to the path through. It's very inspiring to me, to see how these older masters support young musicians like me, giving me an idea what I would like to do. I would like to be like that, keep moving forward. Every time that I come to Ali's studio he is practicing, it's not a process that stops, and that is what so inspiring about them. By them playing with me is just saying this the way you should go.

Peter Kowald, Assif Tsahar, Hamid Drake

AAJ: Can you speak about your experience playing with Peter Kowald?

AT: For four years we played all around. We even toured in Israel with Hamid Drake. He is just like William Parker, so beautiful, his relation to the music, and how he was with the music. His life and his life within the music was one. The way he related to me as if there was no differentiation letting me feel that I'm right there with him. I saw him play with twelve years old girl who just started and he played with her with no pretence, just to make music, and it sounded so beautiful. There was no ego there. It's always about the music.

With him it's so deep the cultural place of the music and how it's important to our culture and to the society. It doesn't matter how he struggled and how he was running from place to place, he always tried to bring people together because this music is about bringing people together. When they come together with music and spirit, it is a special and different way of coming together. His death really touched me. You saw that part of it was just exhaustion, from the world around him, and running relentlessly with his bass on his back. I feel blessed for the time I was around him.

Me and Cooper-Moore just played in his studio in Wuppertal. The next day my friend Manisha from India, and we didn't talked with each other for six months, emailed me that she dreamed of Kowald and me playing together. This is deep. The beautiful thing is that the people there, all artists, made his place into an art center, just because what he gave them, and they wanted to continue his way, you go there see that and you understand how powerful and special he was. So Cooper-Moore wrote a beautiful song, 'St. Peter' (Chewing on a Chicken Bone).

AAJ: Do you feel that there is more support for jazz in terms of audiences and funding In Europe?

AT: If not for Europe this music, the greatest culture heritage of the Americas of the 20th Century, would not exist. Culture in the US would not exist. Because the artist wouldn't be able to survive It's not about the audience. It's about the money.

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The Hopscotch Label

AT: Being independent is part of the history of this music, and I learned it from William Parker. The first record we did together with the Orchestra, William put it on his own label, and we each payed a little money, and we put this CD together. This is what Mingus and Sun Ra had. Sun Ra label presented the most amazing documentation in jazz. I love the albums that he painted the covers and you can buy them in his shows. I saw that Tim Berne follows the same way, and I asked him where he does these recycled covers, and followed my own way of design, because I hate those plastic boxes.

I like that you get something and you know who the person is. My own art is my own autobiography, my own story, and if I put my own words, maybe it's not the smartest words, but they are my own words, and it's another window to the person. Music is about being our own self in the total sense. Being a musician does not end in playing your instrument. It's a whole self, a way of being, how do we relate to the society, and in that sense having my own label is part of it. The fact that I'm able to put my friends' CDs out on Hopscotch and show that this is my community is another plus.

AAJ: Is it commercially viable to run an independent label?

AT: Totally is. Especially if you sell your CD's on the road, in my performances. If I wasn't going on the road I wouldn't say that. But than probably I'd put more work on the label, and selling, working with the distributors, the stores, advertise it, which I don't do any. I have no time for that. Maybe it's a little more hassle, more things to do, but I'm happy. Every musician who would do that I think would feel that way, knowing this is his CD. It's more personal, like it is your own baby.

AAJ: What are the next projects on Hopscotch?

AT: I've been in Israel longer in the last year, and I'm trying to organize a series of recordings with Israeli musicians—I recorded pianist Daniel Sarid with Chad Taylor, Rob Brown, and Joshua Abrams in New York and the Tel Aviv Art Ensemble, and I would like to record Ariel Shiboleth, great soprano saxophonist, and Harold Rubin. I try to organize the money for that. There is a beautiful recording of Agusti Fernandez and Kowald, a duet with Steve Dalachinsky and Matthew Shipp.

There is a project with Tatsuya Nakatani, myself and a string quartet. We recorded already, but I'm not happy with some of the tracks and I want to redo them this summer. And the next project with Cooper-Moore, which will be different. It's like a trilogy. We put out our first two CDs. The last one was like a story in which we explored different aspects of our music. That story was more mythological. The next story maybe will be galactic.

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Playing with Cooper-Moore

AT: It's a great lesson playing with him. First time we played together was in William Parker's In Order To Survive. Than he invited me to play with him in the Improvisers Collective, more to give me a music lesson on stage, but it was a good lesson. He played in Susie's band and we became good friends, and we started working together. His music is so wide. His focus is on the whole spectrum, wide language, besides playing all the instruments. His philosophy of using simple objects and found objects, showing that music can be done out of anything and the instruments can be picked out from anything. We are developing our language and he helps me express sides of my music that I Haven't expressed before. I played guitar back home, and he brings stuff out of me that I haven't touched for many years.

The music can go in any direction, any minute, but you have to be ready for it, right on it. This is where we push the music to all the time. It forces me to de every thing different because every thing he does is different, and whole role of the instrument changes, and that's what I'm looking for now.

Today some labels don't touch the recording, such as CIMP and many more, and through Cooper-Moore I'm getting more into the idea that the recording is one world and the live show is another world. You can play with the sound, you can mutilate it, compress it, reverb it. It's very sad to say but in today's world, me included, I listen to music in the car. Most of us don't sit down on a couch with a wonderful stereo with isolated floating booths. We listen through crappy stereos, whatever we can get, and you have the music so you can hear it. And you have to work on the recording, you can't make it all natural, so the bass won't be lost back there.

With Cooper-Moore we are not working in the jazz world—let's get together and record for two hours and that's it. We lay one track and we talk about it, erase it, put more reverb on it, play it backwards and forwards, and we overdub these things, and it might take us a month, two months we eat a little. This is a process. The music grows differently. Maybe it's not the Blue Note sound, but all the Blue Notes sounded the same. You knew what you got. With Hopscotch every recording sound different, you don't know what coffee I took in the morning, what I'm in the mood to do. I'm always trying different things, ideas, in different fashions.

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Visit Assif Tsahar on the web.

Selected Discography:

Cooper-Moore/Assif Tsahar, Tells Untold (Hopscotch, 2005)

Assif Tsahar conducts the New York Underground Orchestra, Fragments (Hopscotch, 2005)

Cooper-Moore/Assif Tsahar, America (Hopscotch, 2003)

Assif Tsahar/Tatsuya Nakatani, Come Sunday (Hopscotch, 2003)

Assif Tsahar/Mat Maneri/Jim Black, Jam (Hopscotch, 2003)

Assif Tsahar/Peter Kowald/Sunny Murray, MA (Hopscotch, 2003)

The New York Underground Symphony conducted by Assif Tsahar, The Labyrinth (Hopscotch, 2002)

Hamid Drake/Assif Tsahar, Soul Bodies, Vol. 1 (Ayler, 2002)

Assif Tsahar & The Zooanthropic Orchestra, Embracing the Void (Hopscotch, 2002)

Assif Tsahar, Ayn le Any (Hopscotch, 2002)

Hugh Ragin/Hamid Drake/Peter Kowald/Assif Tsahar, Open Systems (Marge Records, 2001)

Rashied Ali/Peter Kowald/Assif Tsahar, Deals, Ideas & Ideals (Hopscotch, 2000)

Assif Tsahar's Brass Reeds Ensemble, The Hollow World (Hopscotch, 1999)

Susie Ibarra/Assif Tsahar, Home Cookin' (Hopscotch, 1998)

Assif Tsahar Trio with William Parker & Susie Ibarra, Ein Sof (Silkheart, 1998)

Various Artists incl. Assif Tsahar Trio plus special guest John Tchicai, Vision Festival 1997 Compiled (AUM Fidelity, 1997)

Assif Tsahar Trio with William Parker & Susie Ibarra, Shekhina (Eremite, 1996)

Click here for all Assif Tsahar reviews at All About Jazz.

Photo Credits

Assif Tsahar by Oron Zachar, 6/11/05

Assif Tsahar by Claudio Casanova

Peter Kowald, Assif Tsahar and Hamid Drake by Vanita & Joe Monk

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