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Gregg Simpson: Avant-Garde from Vancouver

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The [Al Neil] trio had a very special chemistry and we would go from playing bop classics...to standards...to apocalyptic sound collages, noise music or John Cage-influenced minimalist improvisations.
Gregg Simpson>I came across Gregg Simpson's website while surfing the web for free jazz in Canada. It's amazing how the avant-garde scene in Canada is seldom talked about. Prior to getting acquainted with Gregg Simpson, the thought of free jazz in the 60s and 70s brought to mind New York, Paris, Berlin. Now it also makes me think of Vancouver. <br /><br /> Drummer Gregg Simpson was one of the pioneers of the avant-garde in Canada along with pianists Paul Plimley and Al Neil, saxophonist Bruce Freedman and trombonist Ralph Eppel. Simpson was part of the highly innovative and unconventional Al Neil Trio, the New Orchestra Quintet, and his own groups, the Sunship Ensemble and Lunar Adventures. <br /><br /> Listening to Simpson's recordings, especially the Al Neil Trio and the Sunship Ensemble, is like listening to a piece of history. They have that historical 70s feel, they take you back in time to a point where musicians were shedding the staid and conventional in music and developing new sounds. In these recordings one can almost see the emergence of a new era in music in Canada. <br /><br /> Gregg Simpson tells us more about his music, fellow musicians and his career as an accomplished painter. <P><a name=TOP></a> <strong>Chapter Index</strong><br /><br /><P><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#1>Background</a> <BR><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#2>The Vancouver Scene</a> <BR><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#3>The Al Neil Trio</a> <BR><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#4><em>Retrospective 1965-1968</em></a> <BR><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#5>Al Neil Today / Other Groups</a> <BR><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#6>Other Musicians on the Vancouver Scene</a> <BR><a href = /php/article.php?id=22604#7>Painting</a> <P><br /><br /> <P> <a name=1></a><strong>Background</strong> <P> <strong>All About Jazz</strong>: Tell me about how you became a musician, what kind of an environment did you grow up in? <br /><br /> <strong>Gregg Simpson</strong>: I came from an artistic family. My father, Douglas Simpson, was an architect who pioneered Modernism in Canada during the 1940s and '50s He sang and apparently played violin, although I never heard him do that. He had a great voice, but my mother, Ferne Cairns, was the professional singer in the family. She trained in voice and sang in university before the War. Later, after moving to Vancouver, she sang with a famous European conductor, Nicholas Goldschmidt, who just died in his mid-nineties. She sang with John Avison conducting the CBC Broadcasting Orchestra. She sang the Queen of the Night in <em>The Magic Flute</em>. She was a colatura soprano. <br /><br /> My earliest memories, if you don't count the pre-natal vibrations I would have been subject to, were of her singing Bach, and other classical repertoire. She also sang duets with my father at home and they loved Cole Porter, Gershwin and all the musicals. We have recently been digitizing the few existing radio recordings she made. So, I got my ear from my mother who did have perfect pitch. I could pick out melodies on the piano at a very early age. At age six I started classical piano lessons which I managed to continue until about age 10 or so. I quit because all you want to do at that age is play outside. <br /><br /> At about age thirteen I started getting interested in the drums which my brother played a bit along with flute and bass. We had little jam sessions and I took drum lessons from the famous Jim Blackley's Drum Village, who also turned out such talented students as Terry Clarke, most well remembered for his stint with the fabulous John Handy Quintet in 1965. <br /><br /> My drum lessons finished after three or four years. Then I began to play with musicians like Frank Foster, P.J. Perry, Flip Nunez, Jack Wilson, etc as well as my own group, the New Dimension Jazz Trio. This was in 1964-65. Then came two visits by Philly Joe Jones who borrowed my drums one trip and I got to play with him. His playing was a kind of mind blowing, hard bop on steroids. He was my greatest influence until the free jazz period, although I also liked Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Roy Haynes, Elvin [Jones], Tony [Williams] and all the other greats. The influence of these players has always been closest to my heart. The loss of the latter two recently has been hard for me. I also met Elvin in the mid-seventies. Unbelievable player! class= Return to Index...



The Vancouver Scene

AAJ: Tell me about the Vancouver avant-garde scene that you were a part of from the late 60s through 70s, and also how you got involved in it.

GS: I started playing jazz gigs about 1964. I had already been to the Banff Summer School of the Arts and played with Frank Foster, who had just left Count Basie. In Vancouver we had a series of big name jazz acts such as Miles Davis (with George Coleman and Frank Strozier), Cannonball Adderley (with Yusef Lateef and Joe Zawinul), Charles Mingus, Stan Getz, Harold Land with Hampton Hawes, and many others.

I was well grounded in hard bop when Philly Joe Jones arrived and I got to sit in with him as he played piano and there I was trying to play my Philly Joe licks to the man himself. It was a great training ground.

In 1964 we formed the New Dimension Jazz Trio with marimba, bass and drums. It was a strange instrumentation, but we played pretty interesting things and got out into the club scene and met a lot of players. I did a gig with P.J. Perry and Don Thompson, who are the two biggest names now in the Canadian bebop jazz. The changes in jazz to free form were happening right at that time and through Down Beat Magazine and buying LPs we soon learned of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Coltrane's new developments and then Albert Ayler.

It was at this time, 1965, when I joined the Al Neil Trio with my friend, the late Richard Anstey on bass. Al had been the formative bebop pianist in Vancouver and helped start The Cellar, which was a club where everyone from Art Pepper to Charles Mingus played. Ornette did his first out-of-town gig there.

Al was always interested in art and modern literature. He was doing sculptural assemblages and writing cut-up novels in the William Burroughs tradition. In 1958 he recorded what was probably the best jazz and poetry album with Kenneth Patchen on Folkways Records, which is still available.

Al was branching out from bebop and was tired of all the horn players who just wanted him to "play the changes. His major influences had been Bud Powell and Elmo Hope. But his playing was more tumultuous and emotionally charged than most beboppers. It drew on influences like Harry Partch and John Cage, but Al had never actually heard a Cecil Taylor record and his playing was totally different than Cecil's.

I was very influenced by records like Coltrane's Meditations (Impulse!, 1965) and Albert Ayler's Spirits Rejoice (ESP, 1965). My playing was a combination of influences from Elvin Jones, Philly Joe [Jones] and then Sunny Murray. I liked Sunny's orchestral approach to the drums. I was also just getting into the music of Claude Debussy at that time and, although his music was much softer than the jazz I listened to, the influence of the timbres and colors of pieces like the Nocturnes and Images Pour Orchestra was profound.

Gregg Simpson We stopped playing bebop standards by 1967 and the Al Neil Trio went on another year and then became a duo when Richard Anstey left to start his own group. We used a lot of pre-recorded tapes, collage readings, toy instruments and percussion. Gradually we got further into a kind of "art music, with only a few references back to our jazz roots. We played all our concerts at Universities and public art galleries, not clubs. Our music was written about in Coda Magazine. We also ran a multimedia studio with dancers and experimental projections—even before there were light shows. This was the Sound Gallery and it operated out of a little store which I had rented partly as my painting studio. The whole story of this era including our gig opening for Janice Joplin and the Grateful Dead at the Trips Festival can be read at my website.

By 1971 I had stopped playing with Al and it seemed we went our separate ways except in 1972 we formed the Al Neil Jazz Probe which played all that year and did concerts and recordings. It included Richard Anstey, now on soprano saxophone, and alto sax/flautist Annie Seigel from New York who had once been married to Charles Brackeen, the tenor player. Then there was a break while I formed some other bands such as Sunship Ensemble (1974-75), Vancouver Sound Ensemble (1976), and finally the New Orchestra Quintet (1977-80).

In 1973 I was in Paris with a big art exhibition and met Glenn Spearmann. In 1990 we met here in Vancouver and recorded a long piece at the Du Maurier International Jazz Festival. class="f-right"> Return to Index...



The Al Neil Trio

AAJ: Could you tell me more about the Al Neil trio? In terms of their approach to music, musical content and what set it apart as a highly innovative group at that time in Canada?

GS: Our first musical session was an eye opener. Al was pretty well into his cups the night he hauled out his little electric Wurlitzer piano with its fragile reeds, half of which he managed to break while slipping from the piano stool to the floor at least three times. The score for the music he was about to play me consisted of chopped up music paper collaged together with fragments from all kinds of popular magazines.

Al was playing a kind of tortured, mystical yet intensely lyrical music I could only describe as a cross between Bud Powell, Edgar Varese and Debussy. But Al came up with this lyrical, yet cataclysmic, style on his own. Although an authentic hard bop musician, Al Neil worked in so many other influences from pioneer Dadaists like Kurt Schwitters, painters like Bradley Tomlin and Mark Tobey to the cut-up writings of William S. Burroughs, works on alchemy and mysticism and the fevered visions of the French surrealist, Antonin Artaud. Obviously a multimedia kind of jazz was bound to occur from this collaboration.

For the first two rehearsals the Al Neil Trio was actually a quartet with the presence of alto saxophonist Bob Buckley, who later went on to fame and fortune with the rock band Spring and then as a producer. But it was as a trio with Al on piano, Richard Anstey on bass and myself on drums was what emerged and by late fall we were rehearsing regularly at the little store front which eventually opened as the Sound Gallery.

Gregg Simpson The first recording session at the studio, as it was still referred to, was on December 15th, 1965 and the Al Neil Trio played several improvised pieces for a small audience. The music was nothing short of extraordinary, combing snippets of melodies like "Summertime, which appeared through waves of arpeggios, polychromatic chord clusters, whirling dervish modal lines and atonal passages. We were still playing jazz we all thought. Anstey and I were both very recently influenced by the work of the John Coltrane Quartet and of Charles Mingus who we had seen live together at the Blue Horn as the Flat Five Club had been renamed. Al liked to perplex other musicians when they asked what all this stuff was and he would say, "I like to think I'm still playing jazz!

The famous bassist/ pianist Don Thompson, now a Canadian jazz icon who had played bebop with Al, asked him, "Al, how do you get those guys to play that way?"

This was no easy thing to explain. The trio had a unique empathy for improvisation not unlike a group like the Bill Evans Trio. Although much more frenzied, it did have some of the interwoven, independent melodic lines of the Evans group. But that was when something like a tune or song form was involved. What was unique to this group was the way it could move into non-verbal chanting, collaged textures utilizing toy instruments, tapes, records or radios and still keep the feel of a jazz trio. Noise music mixed with political protest was employed on pieces like "State of the Union, where a radio speech by then [American] President [Lyndon B.] Johnson on Vietnam was smothered in clattering textures and insane shrieking, all recorded in a totally darkened Sound Gallery. It was a long way from bebop.

During the winter of 1965-66, I had hit on the name Sound Gallery for the little store front space I had rented as a painting studio and for the trio rehearsals. Advertising was a large piece of construction paper hung in the window with stenciled letters advertising: Al Neil and his Royal Canadians represented by some collages. Admission was by donation as we had been told we could avoid hassles with the authorities that way. The next concert the group called itself Al Neil and the Royal Rascals, and around that time we started to invite others into the evening concerts.

At the 1966 PNE Trips Festival the Al Neil Trio opened for Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company and other acts including the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Daily Flash, poet Michael McClure and others. This was before these groups achieved any national prominence and were basically still underground [San Francisco] Bay-area groups.

AAJ: How was the Al Neil trio formed? How did you guys meet up and decide to play together?

GS: As I mentioned, Richard and I had been playing with marimba player Don French in the New Dimension Jazz Trio in early 1965. He brought along his friend, Bob Buckley to play alto, although he was better known as a keyboard player.

I had met Al separately, as I described. But Richard had already been playing with Al in a quartet with Dale Hillary on alto and drummer Jim Chivers, another product of the Jim Blackley Drum Village. The late Dale Hillary had been the alto player on the 1958 LP Neil made with Beat poet Kenneth Patchen. Hillary had also toured with Philly Joe Jones' group to Cuba among other places. This quartet was amazing the night I heard them at the Flat Five and stretched out a tune for a whole set.

Gregg Simpson The first two rehearsals were at Bob Buckley's family mansion in a very upscale part of Vancouver. We played the kind of extended hard bop that I had already heard Al playing. The quartet didn't last, but the trio emerged as an entity which immediately sprang to life. Al was around 42 at the time and Richard and I were both 18.

Al was already a veteran of boogie woogie and early bop. He was also an army veteran, was in D-Day and participated in the liberation of Paris. He played his piano stylings often during the liberation. After returning home, Al helped set up the legendary club, the Cellar. There he was house pianist often playing with big names like Art Pepper, Carl Fontana, Conte Candoli and others. Mingus, Ornette, Wes Montgomery and Harold Land were frequent visitors.

The trio had a very special chemistry and we would go from playing bop classics like "Birk's Work, "Airegin, "Celia, or "Round Midnight to standards like "Old Black Magic or "What is this Thing Called Love to apocalyptic sound collages, noise music or John Cage-influenced minimalist improvisations. One celebrated piece was "Zen Glass, where we smashed glass bottles into a tub, later adding taped sounds of breaking glass together with Al playing his out of tune zither, the strings inside the piano, etc. Even if we were reaching into the territory of Varese or Cage, we still felt we were playing like a jazz trio, as I mentioned, not unlike Bill Evans, but with some very different elements thrown in.

Early on I started experimenting tape loops using two tape recorders which I would operate while playing drums, toy instruments and a battery of radios, records and other sound collage sources. Al started doing cut-up readings over these sound collages and a whole new idiom was born. I had often heard Al at parties doing these extremely funny cut-up readings from 4-5 books at once.

So lyricism, hard bop, and a strong dada element were all present in varying amounts. Al's politics always showed through in his send ups of US presidents and local cops who harassed him, like the "Snedenko Collage on Retrospective 1965-1968 (Blue Minor, 2001). class="f-right"> Return to Index...

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