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Barre Phillips


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The ear always seems to be going a lot further and faster than what your body can do in terms of technique.
Last year AllAboutJazz-New York had the chance to sit down with groundbreaking bassist Barre Phillips and discuss his myriad accomplishments in improvised music. This year, Vision Festival attendees will have the rare opportunity to see him in action.

All About Jazz: You grew up in San Francisco and had a background in classical music. Why switch to jazz and move to New York as you did in the early '60s?

Barre Phillips: I was counseled as a kid not to be a musician. Not because I didn't have the talent or the love of it but it's a rotten profession. So I was a good boy and was preparing an academic career up until the age of 25 when I just flipped and couldn't lead this dual existence any more, simplifying the story since we're just doing a one-day interview (laughs). So at 25 I stopped being an academic person and become full time music, come hell or high water... I must say that I prefer the lifestyle of the jazz musician to the lifestyle of the classical musician. If I had done a proper music school and done the training which would have been to become a classical musician, maybe I would have gone that way and lord knows with the maybes and with the and ifs, what things could be. I never saw inside what life in a full time professional orchestra was like until playing with [Leonard] Bernstein in 1964 and I was nearly 30 years old. And why to come to New York?...for the New Music, the new stuff that was going on that interested me. Already in classical music from the age of 16 I was much more interested in Bart'k and Stravinsky than in older music.

AAJ: After early work with Don Ellis, Attila Zoller, Bernstein and others, your 1968 solo record, Journal Violone (Opus One), seems to come out of nowhere.

BP: It did come out of nowhere... The story of that record is very strange. That record is an accident with Max Schubel, a New York composer who doesn't live in New York anymore who I did some work with when I was still in New York. I was staying in London and he said 'I want to come to London and I want to record this piece, can you find me the musicians?' It was for double bass, cello, flute - composed music. So I got it together, I found the musicians, I found a studio. He came to London and we did a little bit of rehearsing, went to the studio and made this record, a contemporary music record, cutting the piece all up'that's a story into itself. That's a very interesting record. And he told me, after we got done with that, 'I'm staying in London for a while and I'm going to start working at Columbia in the new electro-acoustic studios there to make taped music and I would love to use sounds from you as a sound source. Would you be willing to record me a bunch of the stuff that you play?' I said sure because I had been looking on the bass for things - influenced by being on the contemporary music scene somewhat here in the city and having done some stuff and working with a couple different composers - what can we play on the bass, what is possible to play on the bass? And starting just to look for different things you could play on the bass, open experimentation...so I said sure. Went in this church and played for a long time, all this different stuff and he said 'that's incredible'. He had his own little record company, Opus One. Max proposed to me that we edit and issue it and it took me a few months of listening to it and thinking about the daringness to do that, cause I hadn't recorded much, it wasn't like there was a whole load of records out there already - Barre Phillips playing. So I said if you really think we should do it let's do it.

AAJ: What was the reaction to it?

BP: Well, I don't know what the press said if there was any. But the musicians around said this was great, wonderful, love it. But I have no idea what younger musicians would have thought [or] traditional jazz musicians would have thought, but the guys that were around, which at the time was on the English scene, and somewhat the Americans in Paris at the time, they really liked it.

AAJ: Did you start to think this was a viable 'genre'?

BP: Again it was the outside world that pushed me to do that. I was going to stay a few months in London and come back here but sh*t happens. And the stuff that was proposed to me to stay over there and do was music for a French theatre piece and it was a real project, something like six weeks rehearsal time and a tour around France playing solo which had come out of a project where a guy, the theatre director, had heard me playing a quartet with Marion Brown and other musicians and asked me if I would do this thing solo and I said yes and that gave me this long, something like three months of playing solo and his direction for the piece were play as much and whenever you want to. So it was like this door opening - now you've got time to do this solo playing. It's like when we put the solo record out with Max Schubel and I said if you really think this thing should be done artistically and so on then okay. Who's going to decide? Being at the time at the beginning of personal expression in music. I had no way to say this is good this is no good. Started a whole process of how do you deal with what you're doing? So these windows are opening to things. Now I do this theatre piece and that was what it was for me. It was an incredible experience to be able to work three months solo with a guy that the more far out it was the more he liked it so just go every direction, go for it, unamplified, completely acoustic. Towards the end of that run, he said 'I want to produce a tour for you playing solo, would you accept that?' and that was really a number to say yes, I was much too petrified to go out and play solo concerts of my own music so I prepared a two-halves concert, prepared music, written music, I played a Charles Wittenberg piece, a piece by my brother who is a composer...I played that, I played some Bach suites. A couple of modern pieces and one bread and butter piece and the second half I improvised or at the time I was already starting to write tunes on the bass. Now all of this is happening in '68, '69, '70, just boom, rammed into a little more than 18 months from the recording, the theatre piece, the solo tour. Then people started asking me to do a solo performance or 'We'd like to invite you to this festival, what can you propose?' well there's this and this and'I could play a solo. I had never been to the point...where I said now I have a solo show, you know American-style 'show' and I'm going to exploit that in terms of going out and doing tours, consciously doing more recordings. It's been more like an update, it's been every eight or nine years when there has been enough music going under the bridge that it feels right. ...So to start thinking about all this stuff, what does this all mean, why you and who are you and what am I and in the middle of all that what does it actually mean? I knew right away it was not about the product but about process and it got me very much involved in terms of the last 20 years of somehow defending improvised music in terms of a process rather than a product music 'cause I got to a point where I could choose, through the work with ECM for example, I could have chosen to become a product guy, I don't know if I would have made it or not but I could have chosen to be a product guy and trying to get my product go in a certain direction, musical direction that Manfred Eicher and ECM love, produces very well and I bet they can sell it too (laughs).

AAJ: Did it help that solo bass didn't have a history?

BP: Absolutely. The historical part is because it is not an electronic instrument. The double bass instrument was a tradition from all the different ways it's been played up to today and you have to have some sort of respect for that tradition and deal with that kind of history but in terms of its solo-ness, it's a very small tradition and pretty much all borrowed, coming from classical music where you find guys playing cello suites because there aren't any Bach bass suites...and the technology of the instrument being such prior to the late '50s, strings and bows and so on being such to make a very ungracious solo instrument, in terms of it being much too difficult to play'it's got these big old fat gut strings and everything... I see my job today as I saw going back 30, 35 years ago, that's just to be able to read the signs that are there, of what's going on today as well as possible to the best that you can.

AAJ: Do your bass duos function as a meeting of two approaches to the same idea?

BP: I can't think of any of the bass duo records, not that's there masses of them, where there wasn't already a musical and personal affinity between the two of us going back to the first duo record with Dave Holland ( Music from Two Basses , ECM, 1971). Mutual respect and having fun together, none of those of the duo records was it a business arrangement - 'I've got this idea, you guys come to the studio, don't know each other but...' - a record date. I mean the original was proposed by Manfred Eicher, it wasn't mine or Dave's idea to record in duo. He came to us and said 'I would like to do this' at a time when were both together playing in another project. We looked at each other and said, 'Hmm, oh that sounds scrumptious, wow, two basses, alright!'

AAJ: Is your playing different solo than in a group?

BP: It's a matter of playing by ear rather than with a game plan or some kind of intellectual approach from a point of view of ideas, intellectual ideas. In playing improvised music it's a matter of what the ear is telling me to play and that my job, my discipline in that, is to be able to play what I'm hearing in my head. A good example in recent years is with [Paul] Bley and Evan Parker. I really hear as a bassist, I really hear that stuff as a bassist, I hear what they're doing, or if it's a duo moment, in the old polyphonic contrapuntal way so I recognize it in myself. I had a lot of years in improvisation to work on that playing with John Surman who improvised 99% of the time with notes using intervals playing polyphonically, two-voice counterpoint. Which I love to do and he loved to do and we did quite well together...to get into that kind of playing was wonderful, to develop, to get your ear chops together, to get the correspondence of what you're hearing and what's coming out of your instrument, is it the same thing? That's about the best you can hope, that you can play what you're hearing, that's to me the highest part of the art. After that to be able to evaluate it, is it worth something or not, that you can do listening back to it years later... The ear always seems to be going a lot further and faster than what your body can do in terms of technique.

In terms of playing solo I do exactly the same thing. I start listening to what I'm playing about five minutes before I'm supposed to go on. I start listening to what's going on in the room so when I walk out I'm already hearing what's going on rather than say 'I'll start with #6' or something (laughs) or make a program. And I have had enough positive public acceptance with this process to allow me to go on, to continue to work in this way.

Recommended Listening:

  • Attila Zoller - The Horizon Beyond (Emarcy-ACT, 1965)
  • Dave Holland/Barre Phillips - Music from Two Basses (ECM, 1971)
  • The Dawn Sessions (Dawn-Sequel, 1970-71)
  • Gunter Hampel All-Stars - Jubilation (Birth, 1983)
  • Paul Bley/Evan Parker/Barre Phillips - Sankt Gerold (ECM, 2001)
  • Joe/Mat Maneri Ensemble - Going to Church (AUM Fidelity, 2002)

Photo Credit
Jacky Lepage


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