Eugene Chadbourne: Beauty Out of Chaos

Kurt Gottschalk By

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Beautiful melodies and harmonies come about as the result of chance procedures just as often as chaos does.
EugeneOver more than thirty years of a seemingly endless variety of recordings and playing situations, Eugene Chadbourne has made himself into about as eclectic a performer as you could ask for. In addition to his own composing and improvising, he's devoted entire albums to the music of such artists as Albert Ayler, J.S. Bach, Jimi Hendrix and Phil Ochs, and has worked with Derek Baily, Han Bennink, Frank Lowe, and John Zorn, to name but a few. His devotion to many other musicians and many different genres has led to some brilliantly unpredictable hybrids. If it's still possible to be shocked by what he's up to, his duo with saxophonist Oliver Lake this month may be yet another surprise by the ever inventive Dr. Chadbourne.

All About Jazz: I was surprised when you told me about your duo with Oliver Lake this month, but you guys have played together before. When was that, and how did it come about?

Eugene Chadbourne: When I first started playing professionally I was around Oliver Lake a fair bit. He was playing with Leo Smith's band at that point as well as doing a lot of other stuff. I brought them all into the arts center in Calgary and arranged a solo gig for Oliver. I recorded his tune "Rocket! on my second solo record and it was the first time anyone recorded one of his pieces other than himself. I saw him play in a lot of contexts in NYC and at one point he had me play as a guest with Jump Up at the Public Theater.

I have basically always been really impressed by everything the guy is up to. Recently I brought him together with various young players in an international group, the kind of gig where ideally you are getting together to enjoy playing jazz, in this case Eric Dolphy and Oliver Lake tunes. I was really blown away by how much energy and spirit he brought to this endeavor, from the first solo he played in the rehearsal he was just completely on the case.

AAJ: You cover a lot of ground. Besides being a great improviser, your work at times references country, movie soundtracks, decades of rock—including heavy metal—and jazz. Sometimes it's clearly meant to complement the person you're playing with, as when you work with people who have played with Frank Zappa or Gil Scott-Heron. How do you see the function of referencing, or even covering, other people's work in your music?

EC: Well, obviously I do it, I don't see it in any way other than just part of the job I do.

AAJ: Do you have divisions in your head about when you're playing jazz or rock or country and when you're just playing Chadbourne?

EC: Not exactly divisions. Stylistically there are different ways of playing; then again they can cross over. Many original tunes of mine are set in styles based partially at least on other people.

AAJ: You've recorded a lot of material by musicians very much in the jazz tradition. I'd like to ask you to reflect on some of them, how you chose to do their material and what they mean to you.

The obvious starting point, I think, is Albert Ayler. You recorded a full album of his compositions, with Joe Williamson and Uli Jenessen [Ayler Undead (Grob 2001)], and in the notes reference a critic who said you do for Ayler what Steve Lacy did for Monk. Pretty high praise! How did that project come about?

The producer suggested it, based on my background with Ayler. The recording process wound up more like Shockabilly [Chadbourne's wild and wooly '80s group with Kramer and David Licht], I had to redo the electric guitar parts because the PA guy took me out of the mix, I was playing so loud!

AAJ: Your history of playing Monk goes back at least to 1984, when Shockabilly played on the Hal Wilner tribute record That's the Way I Feel. Monk's sinewy themes seem so suited to piano—what is it like to translate them to guitar or banjo?

EC: I played Monk from the moment I played jazz, well before Shockabilly. In fact the Wilner thing you mention was a bit dicey because he wanted me to play Monk on it yet that was not at all the type of music Shockabilly played, there was not a single jazz cover in our set lists. Kramer had no feel for jazz or Monk whatsoever. Personally I think that track is horrifying.

It is true what you say about the piano, it is similar to Charlie Parker's music being suited to the saxophone. It is really difficult finding ways to play Monk on other instruments, yet in the end it will work, look at the beautiful solo sax versions by Steve Lacy.

AAJ: Total Tuesday, originally released on Ponk and now available through your own Chadula, remains one of my favorite records of yours. The group, Hellington Country, included Paul Lovens and Alex Ward, who should be well-known to anyone following Euro improv. You created the compositions by cutting up sheet music of pieces by Duke Ellington and Hank Williams and taping them together in different arrangements. That could be taken as a hard copy realization of the way you approach music. Can you talk a little about that band, and about making a Duke Frankenstein?

EC: Actually, Kurt—Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster. And the monster was not put together randomly, at least not in most versions of the story. The random aspect is important because despite the implied chaos, beautiful melodies and harmonies come about as the result of chance procedures just as often as chaos does.

AAJ: You've also recorded songs by Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Charles Mingus, and it seems you've intentionally chosen their political songs, like "Volunteered Slavery and "Fables of Faubus. You've done a lot of protest music, your own and other peoples'. Any comment on Mingus and Kirk and their place in history?


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