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Eddie Prevost: Looking Back, Looking Forward

John Eyles By

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Drummer and percussionist Eddie Prévost was a founding member of the pioneering free-improvising group AMM, back in 1965, and has remained a member ever since. In the intervening years, AMM saw frequent personnel changes, from the early lineup of Prévost—saxophonist Lou Gare, guitarist Keith Rowe, pianist Cornelius Cardew, and cellist Lawrence Sheaff—through to the current duo of Prévost and pianist John Tilbury. Rowe left AMM in 2004 after a prolonged period of the group being a trio. Rowe gave his reasons for leaving in a 2009 All About Jazz interview. Prévost was sent a transcript of that interview; he returned it unread and has shown no interest in discussing the circumstances of Rowe's departure.



In addition to his work in AMM, Prévost has continued to play extensively in other contexts, including his own trio. Since 1999, he has convened an improvising workshop every Friday near Waterloo station in south London. The workshop welcomes any player who attends. In recent years, musicians from the workshop have performed monthly at Café Oto; Prévost is always in attendance. Musicians such as guitarist Ross Lambert and saxophonist Seymour Wright are long-standing attendees. Prévost also runs Matchless Recordings, which has released many albums by AMM and by workshop members, among others.

All About Jazz: You have now been a member of AMM for 44 years, haven't you?

Eddie Prévost: Probably, yes. It's somewhat terrifying, isn't it really?

AAJ: During that time it has gone through a lot of changes.

EP: It is one of those situations: the more it has changed, the more it has remained the same. Not so many changes—there have been other ensembles that have changed more drastically. Given the length of time it has been going, it has had long periods with very consolidated personnel.

AAJ: It is hard to think of too many others that have kept going for that long.

EP: You're probably right. We're not playing—we never played much anyway, sometimes not for a year. It was never an issue. John [Tilbury] always says that we played just about enough. It never seemed enough to me.

AAJ: But enough for it always to be fresh when you do it again.

EP: Something like that, yes. There is something in that. On the other hand, you often need frequency of activity to get into new material. So it is a double-edged issue, really.

AAJ: Every time is a one-off. You go into it as you are.

EP: That is the philosophy, and hopefully it works. Sometimes clearly it doesn't, but it seems to work more often than not, as far as I can tell. We're maybe not the best judges of that.

AAJ: And you are currently officially a duo: you and John? This is the third time you've been a duo. You and Lou were a duo for a while, then you and Keith for a bit.

EP: That's right. Keith always maintained it was never properly AMM, but I've never really quite understood his logic. But I wouldn't argue with him; if that's the way he sees it, it is how he sees it. That was why it was called AMM III, which I've never understood either. But he was always the one with the graphics, so I let him get on with it.

AAJ: Fair enough. But it was pretty much an unbroken period, wasn't it?

EP: Yes, there have been fractures, and periods when there wasn't much going on. I think people forget that we were pretty well ignored for the best part of the '70s, the latter part of the '70s—no offers of gigs. In the end, Keith said to me, "I might as well live in France and not play as live in Tottenham and not play." And that's hard to argue with, really. So at that time nobody was interested.

AAJ: And then the classic period was when the three of you got together, when John came in 1980?

EP: I think of it that way, yes, with some justification. There was the young, experimental, energetic AMM with Cardew, the romance—he died young, and all that. But by my reckoning, Generative Themes (Matchless, 1983) and Newfoundland (Matchless, 1993) marked a definite laying down of a way of playing to which John contributes enormously. (He occasionally filled in for Cornelius in the early days, if Cornelius was in Germany, or something.) So it has got to be considered our classic period.

AAJ: In July 2009, The Drawing Room in Hackney, a gallery which focuses on drawing, ran a series of events relating to Cornelius Cardew, including a forum discussion and a performance of Cardew's composition "Treatise." In November 2009, the venue displayed Cardew's original graphic score for "Treatise." Please tell us about your involvement in these events.

EP: John and I were involved in the opening day of that. John gave an abbreviated version of Cornelius' biography. I gave a talk, or rather generated a discussion, about improvisation, with special reference to Cornelius' involvement in that, as a jumping off thing. But I'm not involved in the other things, I've always been rather chary of "Treatise" anyway. In the early days, it always took away some of the energy from AMM itself. It is curious that a certain kind of organizer always much preferred to have a piece rather than they would to have straight improvisation. Even though we knew that actually they were going to get something a bit more interesting than some of the "Treatise" performances. It is too slow for my liking; it is not organic enough, in a way. This is not a definitive critique of it, obviously. It always struck me that it took energy away from AMM.

We did a concert in Chicago where we played "Treatise" as the first set and the second set AMM, same instruments. It was different; the way it was different was that "Treatise" was more measured and thought through. I cherish those parts of it, but I'm more interested in the other bits—the more spontaneous bits. The second half— they shouldn't be much different, and the sonic materials weren't much different, but they had a different flavor. That shows the strength of "Treatise" as much as it does of AMM, that it can actually have that effect on your playing. So I respect it in that way.

AAJ: Does it feel more prescriptive about what you do? It has a structure, in that certain things happen at certain times.



EP: It has and it hasn't. You look at it and, if it didn't have the bar lines at the bottom of the page, anyone looking at it would say, "What is the system? Is it just a book of graphics?" There are occasional little notes somewhere tucked away, but it is just a graphic device. It does have an effect on the way you play, without a doubt. But it did take away some of the emphasis from AMM itself, I think, which is just part of the new musical world. I'm glad people are doing it.

AAJ: AMM now—the last couple of times you've played, it hasn't just been the two of you; you've had guests in. John Butcher—is he a floating member at the moment? A floating non-member?

EP: Maybe "member" is the wrong word. He is just somebody we both admire musically and socially. We get on well. He's a joy to play with and to be with. It hasn't been a conscious decision. The Conway Hall [where Freedom of the City was held, in May 2009] was a bit like that. I was obviously a bit nervous about John [Tilbury]'s situation, with his illness. That particular day, he was literally coming back from hospital—I forget which, now. There was a pretty good chance that he wouldn't be able to do it, not because he didn't want to but because he was tired. It just seemed to make sense to have a contingency plan.

John [Butcher] was an obvious person, as he was going to be there anyway. And then I thought it would be nice to introduce somebody whose music I admire and who's from a younger generation; that's why I asked Ute [Kanngiesser, cellist]. I think she acquitted herself very well. And Christian [Wolff] was there as well. It was going to be a strange one anyway. I quite like the material. I might well release it—I haven't got my head around it all. Nice music, well recorded by Sebastian [Lexer].

AAJ: Do you foresee that AMM will be the two of you plus one or more guests?

EP: I think we're getting too old now. We don't have any ideas of foreseeing anything. We've never been particularly proactive; we don't look for gigs. We used to try that years ago, but we were useless at it and gave up. It is too humiliating. It comes, or it doesn't.

AAJ: And if there is someone else on the scene, they might join in?

EP: Maybe, yes. It depends. ... We're quite reserved about that. We're not likely to be too promiscuous in that sense. There aren't that many people we could work with within that sensibility—that's what I meant. Both John and I do other things and we can work on those things in other contexts. That type of relationship does seem to demand a certain sensibility. I wouldn't be happy to risk it with too many people, to be honest. John Butcher, certainly.

AAJ: That works well, very clearly.

EP: Yes. He listens. He hasn't got a great sense of his own ego. He hasn't got to prove anything. He just does it. We kind of know where we are, in that respect. At the same time, he is challenging. And I hope that we manage to do that to him too. Otherwise there'd be no point in doing it.

AAJ: It is now five years since Keith went.

EP: It must be. I'm very bad with dates, but it must be.

AAJ: Any thoughts about those five years since he left?

EP: In what respect?

AAJ: Is AMM significantly changed as a result?

EP: I'm not sure it is, really. It clearly is aware of the absence of a voice that had a very profound effect on the way it worked. But it is interesting because it is slightly more exposed, and that, in a weird way, is an interesting challenge. To put it at its simplest—and this is almost simplistic— there was always the cover of a continuum that Keith provided. Keith obviously provided many things, one of which was this basic elemental thing, this continuum within which you play. Without that, we have to somehow create a sense of the continuum, not necessarily with any audible stuff. So it is kind of a weird one. I'd like to think that we do it by simply holding our nerve and creating a certain kind of presence, so that if nothing is actually seeming to go on, there is. That absence of material has got a tangible presence in itself.

AAJ: So it is about not panicking and feeling that you have got to fill in every space.

EP: Exactly, which would be silly. But it does mean that we are both exposed more, and we both have to be rather more conscious of that. With two of us, if one of us falls asleep, the whole thing's gone. [Laughs.] With three of us, if one fell asleep. it wasn't so bad. [Laughs.]

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