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.]

AAJ: In your last book Minute Particulars (Copula, 2004), when talking about Duos for Doris (Erstwhile, 2003), you talk about your situation in AMM being between Keith and John. That was a unique position, which has now gone, hasn't it?

EP: Curiously, it has presented us with new musical challenges, really. We wouldn't be human if we didn't think, "Is this going to work?" But once we did a couple of concerts and we recorded Norwich (Matchless, 2005), I knew that it was there. People say to me that Norwich is one of the best AMM records so far. I can't argue with that. I wouldn't say that was the case. I don't listen to them. I get so fed up with them by that time. As usual, we haven't tried to make a whole industry of it. There are still a few years between releases. There has never been a rush to make stuff available. We have been doing other things. John has been focusing on his Feldman, which is good and is coming to fruition now. And the book. [Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981): A Life Unfinished (Copula, 2008)]

AAJ: Yes, that must have taken ages.

EP: That did take a lot of energy. It was a couple of years out of our lives. More than that for John, but at the end, the last bit, it was a couple of years. I can't believe it took so long. We thought, "When are we ever going to finish it?"

AAJ: He actually did the writing, but did that come out of conversations and memories?

EP: The writing took John 20 years or more. But towards the end, it was putting all of that together in book form. To explain to anybody what the process is—they say it doesn't seem too difficult! [Laughs.] Chasing up references, looking stuff up; suddenly a query comes up and you might spend days hunting around, and what have you achieved? Nothing. Apart from the practical side of getting it into shape and getting it proofread. We're still finding a few odds and ends in it now. Three hundred thousand words—that has been a distraction, to some extent. It is a relief that it is over. So we can get on with other things. It is enough to be getting on with; it is good.

AAJ: Is there anything else to be said about AMM?

EP: There still isn't a full stop at the end of it, so no.

AAJ: Nor will there ever be, will there?

EP: I suppose not, in a weird way. Who knows? You can segue into the workshop because, in a sense, at least from my perspective, the philosophy which underpins AMM is reflected in my contribution to the workshop.

AAJ: How long has it been running now? Nearly 10 years?

EP: 10 years in November [2009].

AAJ: Does it feel like that long?

EP: Some days! No, I don't really mean that. Getting there is often a problem—just the travelling on a Friday night, when you get stuck in traffic. Once I get there, it is fine. A great bunch of people. It has been a challenge and a great joy. Certainly, we're friends.

AAJ: There is a real club feel to it.

EP: There is something about it, yes. From a very personal, musical point of view, there has not been much room in AMM for certain aspects of my own playing. It was never appropriate. It was with Lou because that was different anyway. Within the context of AMM, it wasn't. I couldn't really make that work as well. I had to have two personas, in a sense. I don't mind. It's quite good. I don't have a problem with that intellectually or from a creative point of view. They are still informed by the same sort of spirit and aesthetic, but they inevitably will come out in a different sort of way. The drumming element, if I deal with that: whereas AMM was always interested in finding and using a whole range of different inspirations and materials, in the early days it shied away from jazz for very obvious reasons; it was one of the things we were trying to escape from.

Jazz musicians were probably a mite too emulative for their own good. They try to be better than, because you've got to be better than to be accepted, because they are already doing it pretty well without you. That was what we were about. But of late, in the last few years, there is a way of reworking that material, the jazz material, not in the obvious way of quotations and fleeting references, but working that material in an experimental way. Which, I hope, SUM [the trio of Prévost plus workshop alumni guitarist Ross Lambert and saxophonist Seymour Wright] has tried to do. The SUM recording [Invenio Ergo (Matchless, 2010)] helps give an idea of what I'm going on about. That is a departure for Seymour, really. He is probably thought of as the most radical saxophonist anyone has ever seen, and there he is playing experimental jazz.

It was not done because we think we are going to make new careers out of it; it was done because there is just a wealth of material that we actually could use in the same way as we use the other sonic material that is at our disposal. It'll be interesting to see what the response is to that. There is great playing in that. It is the challenge itself. Ross' guitar playing is wonderful; it has opened up a new side of his work that I wasn't aware of. So maybe with AMM not being the focus so much, it has pushed me into these other things.

AAJ: You talk about the two personas. Is that you reacting differently to the two situations, or do you go in thinking it is a different type of thing? What is the cause and the effect?

EP: That is a good question. I'm not even sure I know. Which is maybe a good thing, so I'll resist that easy option.

AAJ: But by outcome you can recognize that they are two different things.

EP: I'm still looking to explore the instrument. That is still part of my aesthetic aspiration. I'm still searching where I'm unsure what's going on. I'm looking. That's the contrast. It has never been a question of working out something beforehand, albeit in an informal way, and then delivering it with a few embellishments. You carry a lot of baggage with you. We are all encultured. That is an inevitable position to be in; we are who we are because of what we've been, and so on. You can't leave that behind, but on the other hand, you don't want to be lumbered with it. You don't want to parody yourself. Hopefully in that position, we're still saying, "This is a fresh point. Let's know what we're doing." It is a fairly conscious application of that approach. How far we succeed, I don't know. At the same time, you've still got to let it be free enough to breathe and work its own magic, to be spontaneous enough. You don't want to know what's going to happen; it's no fun then.

AAJ: What about the choice of what you play? Sometimes you play a full kit, other times not. What determines that?

From left: John Butcher, Eddie Prévost

EP: Well, I wouldn't play a kit with John Tilbury. I could do it, perhaps, but I'm very unlikely to do that. I might have done it more often a few years ago when he was in a more robust frame of mind. We've got too much history of that for it to be a problem.

AAJ: Is the workshop self-perpetuating now?

EP: Last year [2008] we had the month off, we had August off. And since that September, numbers have been significantly higher. Before then, it was a good nine to a dozen; there might occasionally be a few less than nine, or occasionally stray into more than a dozen. Now we are into between 16 and 20. Nineteen, last week.

AAJ: Someone coming into it for the first time—what would they experience?

EP: How would I know what they would experience? It's such a familiar situation. I am conscious how difficult it might be for someone who is totally unfamiliar with us as people, so it could be a daunting experience. But it is a sympathetic enough environment. It is quite a focused evening. There is no mucking around. Most people there are not playing most of the time. It says an awful lot about people's commitment to it that they know they are going to spend most of their time listening to someone else. I find it encouraging. I know this may sound odd, but I wish there was more time for everybody to play. But given the numbers, it has become impossible.

AAJ: How is it structured? You can't have 20 people all playing at once.

EP: Once in a blue moon, it happens. It happened last week. It is extremely rare and only for a short period of time. It was probably the case that all 19 of us were playing together last week for about a minute. What normally happens, at any of my workshops here or abroad, is that we are sat in a circle—this happens every week at workshop. As the opening sequence there is a series of duets, moving duets, so that everybody plays with the people on either side of them. And it shifts, so when somebody stops, then the person on the other side of the person they were playing with comes in.

After that, when we had fewer people, there used to be time to do other things, but sometimes we hardly get any time left after the opening sequence. It is all a bit silly. I say to people, "What do we do? You know, if you take a long time doing the opening sequence, there'll be no time for anything else."

I'm not an authority figure; I just say it as I see it. If they want it, they can have it; I don't mind one way or the other. I'm happy to sit there, not playing myself most of the time. They seem to want to do that. So it has remained. It is quite within their power to do it practically by playing shorter, or by saying we don't want to do this. As they haven't done either of those things, I can only assume it is what they want to do and to keep on doing it. Having said that, I'd be very sad if they did decide not to do it.

The opening sequence now can last for an hour and a half. If you sit for an hour- and-a-half and know that, of it, you are only going to be participating for 10 minutes or a quarter of an hour, you realize that you are listening, looking and learning. So it has that effect. And people seem to be respectful enough of everybody else to do that. Given the general culture, it is something quite enough. Nobody wants to be up and doing it, putting another record on or whatever. It is not as though they are all old geezers in their dotage like me, falling asleep. They are young enough to be my children, most of them.

AAJ: Presumably there is a core who have been going more or less since the start or for a very long time?

EP: Seymour and Ross are probably the longest-serving ones. It has always been ebbing and flowing. The workshop itself is an uncertainty; you never know who is going to be there. I guess it has never been the same, never exactly the same again, never an exact repeat of a grouping. I'm sure of that. Always someone missing or some new person turned up, and the dynamic alters as a result. That has always made it a bit interesting. People turn up who we haven't seen for years, which is lovely, or somebody new turns up—no idea where they came from or how they found out about it. But Ross and Seymour are probably the two long-serving people. There might well be someone back in again after a while who hasn't been in for a year or so. It happens.

It is predominantly a male-dominated thing. We have some women come, which is great. I wish we could get them all to come on the same night. There are generally only two, occasionally one on her own, occasionally three or four.

AAJ: Then there are the monthly performances at Café Oto. Does the group decide who is part of those? Is there a team captain who decides, or does that role rotate?

EP: It rotates. We take it from the register, in reverse alphabetical order. So whoever is next on that list is responsible for organizing the programming of the next event. They can choose whoever they like; the only proviso is that nobody is left out and they don't repeat someone who played last month.

AAJ: Everybody gets a crack of the whip.

EP: Exactly. That is the only thing I encourage. I don't insist. It is their focus; they do it; they don't even ask me to play. [Laughs.] That must say something; I'm not sure what, really. So they do it, and then we have a team of people. Paul Abbott usually does the design and organizes the printing. There is a team of people to try and make it happen. We are starting a monthly forum in October [2009] because it is one of the things that is absent from the workshop. It used to be more common in the early days when there were fewer people; we had time to talk about things. Now there is not enough time to talk—the occasional flicker, but there are too many people who spend too much time not playing. So we are going to try having one evening a month where we just discuss. Anyone who comes to the workshop can come to that. It might not go anywhere, but that is the design. We'll try it for a few months. If people want to do it and it has some positive effect, then we'll continue with it, like the workshop itself.

AAJ: What do you think the effect will be? Do you think there will be more preplanning of things?

EP: I hope not preplanning. I hope it will be an articulation of what goes on in the workshop and thereafter. I think if we—I mean "we" in the largest possible sense—as an artistic community don't articulate our thoughts then somebody else will do it for us. I think theory should come out of the arts—no original thinking here. Maybe we'll find out that it's all a waste of time. I know there is a lot of them who are quite articulate; I'm quite keen to follow that lot up. I don't want to anticipate too much, but I'd like to think there will be some subsequent attempts to articulate certain features of the music in a written narrative form. We need it. Even for our own clarification, it might be useful beyond our own fellowship, so to speak.

AAJ: Some of the notes that you write for the Café Oto session are like a declaration of intent, of the underlying philosophy of it.

EP: I did one thing for that, and Paul has extracted bits and pieces for that. You can't say, "This is the best thing since sliced bread." On the other hand, somebody who has come to it completely fresh needs some information about what we are doing. It is not a question of philosophizing or over-theorizing, just a straightforward explanation of roughly what we are up to—always due for modification, clarification, redefinition as time goes on. It seems to help.

AAJ: It also makes interesting reading.

EP: I think there is a younger cadre of people that will take that investigation on and articulate it more appropriately for their generation. Personally, that is what I would want to see. I think there is a fair chance of that happening. There are already one or two indications of that happening without the forum being a focus for it. It won't do any harm, I don't think. If we run out of things to say, we'll go down the pub.

AAJ: Daichi Yoshikawa, a workshop regular, uses electronic noises. Over the 10 years the workshop has been running, has there been a shift towards that, in terms of what people are turning up with and are playing?

EP: I suppose in the early days, it was: "Not another bloody electric guitarist," serried ranks of electric guitarists. It has gone through cycles, really. There was a predominance of electric guitars, then there was an occasion we had loads of saxophones. We've had four bass clarinets on one evening; that is pretty unusual. That only happened once, I think. It was quite remarkable. I remember one night, we had three oboes. Three! One is a rarity. Two of them did know each other, so came together. It was great having them there. There's less of the electrical; it is evening out.

AAJ: Have you had gangs of laptopists?

EP: They've receded again; there are not so many of them. It is more hands-on electronics now—using some digital material and other materials to create sound—amplifying them and then treating them either via computer or electronically. There is still a whole range of conventional instruments, not normally used in the conventional way. [Laughs.] They have evolved over hundreds of years, some of them, and they are great for what they do—they produce sound even if you don't do quite what the makers intended! There has been a shift. It is quite evenly balanced, at the moment. I used to get worried at the predominance of electric guitars, but it's a good balance now—usually three or four people using electronics, maybe one or two using amplified instruments, and then a whole range of conventional instruments—a good mix from a sound point of view.

Selected Discography

SUM, Invenio Ergo (Matchless, 2009)
Alexander von Schlippenbach/Eddie Prévost, Blackheath (Matchless, 2008)
Eddie Prévost/Seymour Wright, Gamut (Matchless, 2008)
AMM, Trinity (Matchless, 2008)
Eddie Prévost/Alan Wilkinson/Joe Williamson, Along Came Joe (Matchless, 2006)
Alan Wilkinson/Eddie Prévost, So Are We, So Are We (Matchless, 2006)
Eddie Prévost, Entelechy (Matchless, 2006)
John Butcher/Eddie Prévost, Interworks (Matchless, 2005)
AMM, Norwich (Matchless, 2005)
AMM/MEV, Apogee (Matchless, 2005)
John Tilbury/Eddie Prévost, Discrete Moments (Matchless, 2004)
Evan Parker/Eddie Prévost, Imponderable Evidence (Matchless, 2004)
Eddie Prévost Trio, The Blackbird's Whistle (Matchless, 2004)
Conditions, A Bright Nowhere (Matchless, 2003)
9!, None(-t) (Matchless, 2003)
Christian Woolf, Early Piano Music (Matchless, 2002)
Eddie Prévost, Material Consequences (Matchless, 2002)
AMM, Fine (Matchless, 2001)
AMM, Tunes Without Measure or End (Matchless, 2001)
Eddie Prévost Trio, The Virtue in If (Matchless, 2001)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Eyal Hareuveni

Page 2: Courtesy of BBC Radio 3

Page 4: Theo Eshetu

Page 5: Courtesy of Jazz e Arredores


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