Paul Rutherford: A Musician's Impulse


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The only alternative is to do it yourself--but you
Paul RutherfordAn architect of free improvisation on the trombone, Englishman Paul Rutherford was, along with German Albert Mangelsdorff, one of the first to fully develop the potential of multiphonics on the instrument. Renowned as a soloist, his work with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, drummer Tony Oxley, and his own Iskra ensembles was a catalyst of what has been termed "non-idiomatic improvisation, though bebop facility and Dixieland tailgate permeate his dexterous and vocal approach. Recently his work has included live electronics, though for this year's Vision Festival, he appears in a trio with bass and percussion. Rutherford spoke with All About Jazz on May 18, 2006, from his home in London.

Paul Rutherford: I always had music as a child. I was born in 1940 in London and there was always music in the house, mostly classical music you know. I was lucky; my brothers and sister were very interested in jazz and blues and all sorts of stuff. I was the brat of the family, and eventually the only way I thought I could continue playing was to join the Royal Air Force music service, and that's where I met [drummer] John Stevens and [altoist] Trevor Watts, and also Chris Pyne, who was a wonderful British jazz trombonist.

All About Jazz: Right, he has a brother [Mike Pyne] who is a jazz pianist.

PR: He did, but unfortunately both of them are dead now.

AAJ: Were you playing in groups before the RAF?

PR: Yeah, yeah, they were all sort of small Dixieland bands, basically.

AAJ: Were you very aware of bebop or mainstream jazz at that point?

PR: Well, I came into that through my brother Dave. He liked Charlie Parker and that sort of stuff. We knew about that music—it was known because we had some great musicians over here in the '50s, like [tenormen] Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes. I loved J.J. Johnson and a lot of bebop trombone players and I tried to play like J.J., but of course J.J. is so exceptional [that he couldn't be copied] that I just got into my own thing. I started to discover ways of playing trombone that were different, and went from there.

AAJ: I assume John Stevens and Trevor Watts were at that time very encouraging of forging your own path.

PR: Oh yeah, yeah. I mean there's a general misconception that people like Derek Bailey and Evan Parker formed the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and they didn't— they came later. The SME was founded by John, Trevor, and myself.

AAJ: Yes, I have that Challenge record (Eyemark, 1966; reissued on Emanem).

PR: Yeah, yeah. I'm not denigrating Derek—I have the utmost respect for him— but people jump to immediate conclusions, you know.

AAJ: I often think that it's because the Incus and Emanem catalogs were more available than the early SME LPs—they were very rare and it wasn't until recently that they were available again.

PR: Martin Davidson [of Emanem] is responsible for bringing out whole loads of stuff that's never been released before. Martin's an absolute diamond in the music—he's great, he's fantastic.

AAJ: So could you talk about the early years of the SME—the development stylistically of your approach as well as that of the group as a whole?

PR: I was in and out of the SME. John founded the Little Theatre Club on St. Martin's Lane, and that became the equivalent of Minton's for this music. He could be a bit ruthless, so sometimes I played with the group there and sometimes I didn't. Sometimes he'd say "well, we're not using you today or whatever.

AAJ: He had something else in mind, but didn't always put it tactfully.

PR: I don't know what it was. He was ideologically improvising, shall we say. He could be quite cutthroat. Don't get me wrong—I love the guy, but he certainly had a lot of personality [chuckles]. At that time I was also playing with [pianist-arranger] Mike Westbrook, and some of the people in the improvising community thought I'd gone away from free playing. I just wanted to play music—I enjoyed playing with Mike Westbrook and had great times with him, and I just wanted to get on with playing.

AAJ: Without attaching any sort of name or ideology to what that was.

PR: Yeah, yeah. If I didn't like the music, I wouldn't play it—simple as that. All the music I was involved with I enjoyed. Music was basically the goal.

AAJ: It sounds to me like there were divisions in the community, which you don't necessarily think about when somebody like yourself or [reedman] John Surman is crossing all these boundaries between more straight-ahead ensembles and more free contexts, and in Surman's case, a rock situation. So you would think that these lines would not be in place between these communities so much, but it seems there was a fair amount of that.

PR: Yes, there was. I didn't blame anyone—I think John got in some pretty awful [musical] situations, and some of the other guys did some strange things, but that's up to them. I never did anything I felt ideologically that I didn't want to do.

AAJ: As you were forming that ideology, what sorts of things were entering your mind?

PR: I think you know my political leanings—I'm a Communist—I don't have the idea that the music doesn't relate to my politics.

If I'm going to try something, I'm not going to black anything out, and we'll go from there and see where it goes. Simple as that, really. You can't dismiss everything—say "I refuse to do that —and for me it was "I'll try that and see how I get on. I've played with serious rock bands, like Soft Machine and The Detroit Spinners, a rhythm and blues band. They needed a brass section, and I really enjoyed it—it was hard reading, but it didn't stop me thinking about why I wanted to play. If I can get involved in any sort of good music, that's all right for me.

AAJ: Could you talk a bit more about the Little Theatre Club?

PR: I worked there from the beginning, though John has this sort of pick-and- choose way of doing things. It was a great club and a tiny little place—it was like a little garret at the end of this block in St. Martin's. A lot of musicians from Europe and America gravitated towards the place; we had Steve Lacy, Kent Carter, and Peter Kowald [come up].

AAJ: Kowald was the bridge between the English musicians and the German musicians pretty early on, then.

PR: That's right. It was a really good catalyst for the musicians, and it was a great little club. It was brilliant.

AAJ: Would it be fair to say it was exclusively free improvisation that was performed there, or were there people from outside that circle who were allowed to play there?

PR: Well, it was basically improvised music, though originally in the SME we did have tunes and charts, which are illustrated on Challenge.

AAJ: Right, sort of minor-key head arrangements.

PR: Yeah, but it basically developed into total free improvisation. Kenny Wheeler came to the club with Art Ellefson, a Canadian tenor player.

AAJ: Did they come over from Canada together, or was it just by chance that they were both Canadian?

PR: They came together, I think. Ken has always had a seriously open mind, and he's a genius as far as I'm concerned.

AAJ: Right, from playing with Johnny Dankworth to you and Tony Oxley—that's quite a stretch. [PR laughs]

PR: Eventually Evan, Derek and all the guys came to the club. I introduced Barry Guy to the music, too, and he came by.

AAJ: Right, because he'd come to it from playing in symphony orchestras up to that point.

PR: Well, right, and I had too—I was studying classical music at the music college in London. In fact, the bassists in the orchestra in that college were Chris Laurence, Barry Guy and another guy whose name I can't recall right now. These were fantastic years in the music, and though I never went to Minton's, I can imagine what it would be like from playing in the Little Theatre.

AAJ: As far as the jazz public in London, did you get much of an idea of how they were responding to the music? Was it gaining a foothold fairly rapidly?

PR: The thing was that it used to be self-sustaining in the '60s, and there was music everywhere—it was a great time. Ronnie Scott gave us The Old Place on Gerard Street. We never had any problems with the older guys—Ronnie, Tubby, Phil Seamen— they were really sweet guys. There was music all over the place, lots of jazz clubs, and Ronnie Scott and Pete King used to open the club on Saturday nights until five or six in the morning for the younger guys to play. People like Mike Westbrook, Chris McGregor, and we played there. It was fantastic—and it was through Pete King, bless'im, and Ronnie. Eventually we got the Musicians' Cooperative together which was me, Barry, Derek, [pianist] Howard Riley, Evan Parker, Tony Oxley, and Paul Lytton, and they let us use the club for nothing on Sunday night! They put on staff and they were probably losing money, and they didn't take a penny off of us.

AAJ: They obviously believed in what you were doing. As for a radical musical shift, I correlate that with the formation of Iskra 1903 [with Rutherford, Bailey and Guy]. Could you discuss how your approach might have started to change, and how this radical mode of musical thinking started to take shape?

PR: For me? I don't know, as I've always been radical and I can remember one specific time when I started to play the trombone, I practiced in front of the mirror and watched myself play. I started to investigate the possibility of singing—double-stopping— and it developed from there. I found it to be so unbelievably flexible, and another trombonist might think it was a cumbersome instrument. If you know how to flick the slide, you can play unbelievably fast. I've always been interested in that flexibility, which has led me to be more involved in improvisation. I still love playing music in an orchestra, but really my love is just to get on stage and flick the bugle, you know.

AAJ: It becomes so much more physical; it's so much more a bodily act to play in such a way. That dovetails with some of the things I noticed and began to feel with the music you did with Derek and Barry, and with Tony Oxley, the sheer physicality of it. You can visualize the playing, that it's like a very gestural statement.

PR: That's interesting. I've never thought of it that way, but I'll take it as a complement. The music is physical; there's no doubt about that because you're not relying on musical formalities.

I remember one case many years ago in Berlin at the FMP festival, and every year they had a special situation for trombone or saxophone soloists or whatever, and there were five or six trombone players from all over the place. One of the guys who played was involved in contemporary music, [Vinko Globokar] and he had to do a solo one night, another night it was me, and I think another night was Gunter Christmann. Anyway, Vinko came up and said "what are you going to play for your solo? I said "I don't know. I'm just going to go out and play. He said "don't you have an idea what you're going to start with? I said "no, and I don't want any idea. I'm going to improvise, and I'm going to go on to play improvised music.

This is what actually angers me a little bit about some improvisers is that they go through this little routine of licks, and I don't want that. I want to go out not knowing what will happen, just getting onto the platform and playing. It will happen anyway.

AAJ: It's interesting, because solo improvisation is so different from group improvisation, and some people have even postulated that solo playing is not improvisation because it doesn't involve responding to another human being. But the way you put it seems to be quite different—a bare open mind and going out there to act with an instrument with as much preconception wiped away as possible. It's quite counter to what people talk about in terms of playing solo, even in "free music.

PR: Yeah, and I just don't understand these people who go out there and parade licks. I mean, Christ Almighty, it's not new. Beethoven and all the giants of composing used to leave cadences in piano concertos open, and they expected a pianist or a violinist to take something out of what they've heard and do a cadenza. They found that although they were great players they couldn't improvise, and they had to write these cadenzas out, which is a real cop-out. It means that the actual musical talent on the instrument is straight out of a book, and though I've got nothing against that.

AAJ: Books are books and instruments are instruments.

PR: Yeah, and being a complete musician means that one should always do one's best to play the instrument excellently. They should not be dictated by studies; they should be able to play with the books taken away. I'm amazed at the number of musicians who studied piano when they were kids (and I didn't do that), but they still don't know where the hell they are when they're playing. In symphonies, where the trombone player was playing first trombone to me, he got completely lost and I was following the cues and I knew where I was. I didn't even know the bloody symphonies, but I knew just from listening, watching the cues and counting.

Paul Rutherford

The fact is that, if you're a musician, you respond to music and you're inside music. You can react to and create music. You don't need any stimulant, you just do it.

AAJ: But people who do it for a profession are not always inside it as much as they're doing it for a job. You mentioned earlier your intense political leanings. How does the music inspire you politically, and how is it defined politically for you?

PR: Quite seriously, as far as I'm concerned, improvisation and any of the avant- garde work is politically progressive. I'm thinking in terms of the Soviet Union. For example, there were fantastic artists like Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitsky, all of these great artists who were fundamental to the creation of a new society. It wasn't taken on board by the Communist party, though there were certain people within the movement who said "we should be getting people away from decadence, but it doesn't mean sweeping away the great art of the past.

It does mean that if you create a new society and a new mentality among the people, the people have got to be involved in the creation of that new society. They should be given the chance to see the new artistic opportunities. They might not understand it immediately, but artists can be the greatest gift that any new socialist society can have. We've got stuff over here now, this new art that I find quite decadent—I don't know if you've heard of Damien Hirst, but I don't find any point in it.

AAJ: You're talking about the appropriationist art, installations of consumer detritus.

PR: Consumerism has got nothing to do with art, as far as I'm concerned. But the Soviets didn't understand what these great artists had and what they could seriously contribute to the construction of the new society.

AAJ: I was researching artists' books online, and I came to a collection of Soviet avant-garde book jackets from the early 20th century by Malevich and Lissitsky and others, and they talked about how the government said "no more of these geometric abstract forms on the covers of our books or pamphlets. I'd say it was in the '30s up to about 1940, and they had this chronology of constructivist forms and fonts up till that point. I figured that was probably a certain paradigm shift within the party to direct artistic energy somewhere else.

PR: As far as I can remember, there was a guy in Leningrad, Sergei Kirov, who led the Leningrad Communist Party, and he did support the modern movement. Maybe that's why he was gotten rid of. I think there was a terrible mistake and a great waste of fantastic talent, all those great painters and some great musicians as well—some of the early Shostakovich was stunning, for example.

AAJ: How does all this figure into the climate in the UK when you were getting interested in free music?

PR: To be honest, Britain has never been too interested in any kind of modern art. There was an old British conductor, Thomas Bencham, and he said about the English that "the English love music, they just hate the noise it makes. That sums it up about the British; they've got no idea about music, art or anything like that.

AAJ: Not that different from the United States.

PR: Probably not, but at least I've gotten more interest in my music now in the United States and Canada than I ever got before at home. I've had one paid gig this year in my own country.

AAJ: That's quite telling.

PR: I get a little bit fed up with people, including a lot of Brits, who are considered fairly vanguard and play in improvised circles. They're not improvising; they're going out on stage and get in their routines, you know. As I said earlier, when I get onstage I improvise. These people are working all over the place; they're younger than me, I've been doing it since 1962-63, and it's only now that I'm starting to play in America. These Brits and Germans are playing in America and in Europe; I saw the program for the Moers Festival and it's the same old faces. I just get so depressed about it—Christ, I know how good I am, but it doesn't do me any good money-wise.

I'm in the worst economic situation now that I've been in my life. There are things you take for granted—sometimes I go out for an Indian meal, and I know it sounds silly, but I can't even think about that now. Inviting a lady out for a drink or a meal is totally out of the question—I can't afford it. Simple as that. I'm on pension now—I'm 66 years old—and I'm having trouble with the pension. I'm seriously, seriously depressed and I'm just looking forward to getting to the States.

AAJ: As far as the climate changing for improvised music in the UK, when did that start to happen? Was it a certain point or has it been a long time coming?

PR: The whole rot in this country began with Margaret Thatcher, and with her buddy Ronnie Reagan dead, I wish she'd follow suit. But the damage is done, and this asshole we've got now, Tony Blair (I call him Tony B-Liar)...

AAJ: I didn't feel particularly politically-inclined until Bush made his way into the White House—I don't say "elected, as he's never really been elected. For me it's been a galvanizing force; not that I wasn't thinking, but I was more willing to accept things. Now, I can't accept any of it. It's kind of ironic to me that you're looking forward to working here and that it's better work, because it's so far from what I'd expect to be the case.

PR: I've been to the States about ten or twelve times with other bands or projects. I first came to the States with Charlie Watts' big band. Since 2002, when I was invited to the Empty Bottle Festival in Chicago with Torsten Muller, that started to get me gigs over there. I noticed quite a serious change of opinion, and it really interested me. Over here, we often say "the Yanks are doing this, but I differentiate between Americans and Yanks. As far as I'm concerned, the Americans say "I'm American and proud of it but what this government is doing is shit, and so many Americans have said this. America is a beautiful country and it's got great people, but its government is creating a primal hatred for American people—all American people.

I don't feel like that; I still say "fucking Yanks and all that, but that isn't about American people. That's about attitude, and it's always about the government. I get a great kick out of meeting decent American people and talking to them. I've always found Americans to be very polite, probably more so than my fellow countrymen.

AAJ: I met a drummer in Austin who opened for one of your gigs in Portland a few years back, Chris Cogburn, and he's studied John Stevens' music a lot. He's actually one of my closest friends since I've moved to Texas, and there are some people locally who are working on music that I never thought I'd hear in Texas. There is a coterie of people who are into "playing —they say "non-idiomatic improvisation, though I've never really liked that term myself—it's often considered sort of a European impulse, but these are definitely American people playing it with as much verve and vitality as has been done over on the other side of the pond. It's interesting to think about separating it from a geographical impulse to something a lot broader, which I would think would have something to do with you and your compatriots coming over and working in the States.

PR: I like to think that some of the better British improvisers have had an influence. I've noticed an incredible interest in British musicians in America, and it's been quite viable because in this country there's practically no interest at all. For example, with the Freedom of the City Festival at the beginning of May, the magazines here have no information about it at all. There's no information about the Vision Festival in New York in June, where we're playing, and it depresses me because in this country, if you go into bars or clubs, all you see is football and junk music.

AAJ: Similar to the States.

PR: Yeah, I know, and there's not an alternative to getting away from this noise. I don't want to sit at home all day on my own—I want to go and meet people.

AAJ: As far as a do-it-yourself aesthetic, which has certainly permeated the British improvisers' community, certainly I think attracts a lot of younger people. People put on their own gigs and make their own records, a sort of "punk ideology that nobody else is going to do it—you have to do it yourself as best you can. That cavalier way of doing things may have abated in the community—but maybe the lack of community is the problem [in the UK].

PR: The only alternative is to do it yourself—but you're not going to earn any money. If you want the music to survive, you just have to do it, and do it through sheer necessity. You're not being precious about it at all, but you shouldn't be under that kind of pressure that you play for the love of it, either. You still have to pay rent and eat.

AAJ: There must be a balance, somehow.

PR: Yeah, yeah.

AAJ: I don't know how much the UK is set up in terms of government allocation—in France, Sunny Murray was talking about how things are set up so that he can at least live while he plays—but I don't know where England is on the socialized medicine continuum.

PR: There are no state benefits to doing this music. In fact, one example is that the British Council was responsible for giving money to British musicians going to Germany for the FMP festival. I phoned the woman organizing the festival, and she said "we do have some problems with the British Council, who weren't allocating for the musicians because of the bloody football teams! Christ Almighty, what does the football team need money for? It's a multi-billion dollar game!

AAJ: Their games took all the money that had been allotted? Wow.

PR: That's the sort of stuff we have in this country. In the past, the British Council was very helpful, but that has all changed. Thatcher and B-Liar policies are the cause, and he's a Thatcher-ite anyway.

AAJ: As far as your gigs elsewhere in Europe, what do those entail?

PR: I've got two gigs in July in Norway and Austria, and something in October- November with Globe Unity. Apart from that, nothing.

AAJ: That group you're playing with at the Vision Festival is with [bassist] Torsten [Muller] and Dylan van der Schyff?

PR: Dylan is a Canadian drummer, and he's really excellent. He's one of those guys that plays and you can feel him, but he's not one you can always hear. I don't quite know how he does it—he's inside the music, but you don't necessarily hear him constantly. Torsten has been playing seriously good recently; a couple of times in the past I thought he wasn't trying all that much, but the last two gigs he's really been playing seriously well.

AAJ: It's interesting to think of you playing with a drummer, because a lot of your characteristic ensembles—especially the various Iskra groupings—the drummer has been absent for the most part. Could you discuss that a bit?

PR: Yeah, I think the reason was that your perception of sound could be much more fluid without the drummer. I think that was proven in Iskra 1903; that isn't to say I was totally against drummers, but that was a format I seriously liked. In 1903, all three instruments were very flexible—bass and guitar were strings, and trombone had the slide. That versatility impressed me about those instruments.

AAJ: Each could be played with impulses that almost mimic what you might hear from a percussionist—increases and decreases in density.

PR: Yeah, yeah.

AAJ: It's interesting too that, around the same time, what John Stevens and Tony Oxley were doing, which were very different from each other, but they certainly were very far from the traditional free jazz style of playing. They were almost not playing percussion as you normally think of it—what Oxley was doing on Ichnos and some of the later records, scraping and bowing and creating all these sounds electronically [with contact mikes]. Drummers had to rethink their instruments to be in line with what these other instruments could do.

PR: Tony's a fantastic drummer, one of the great drummers for sure. John was interesting because he experimented with little drums, like toy drums, and he did some extraordinary things.

AAJ: He did some things with rhythm that made them feel non-percussive, in a way.

PR: Yeah—he used to play the trumpet, not very well, but I think the thing is with him is that he had a seriously impulsive attitude. I've got an impulsive thing about music, too—I know when I'm going to play, but I don't want to know what I'm going to play.

AAJ: You have this allotment of time and you just work with it. Whatever transpires is what it is.

PR: The strange thing is that I can't stand listening to myself, especially straight after. If we do a recording, I want to get away and revisit it later, another day or two. I just have to get away from it and settle down.

AAJ: If it's impulsive, then you're still in that impulse. You can't revisit it while you're still in it.

PR: Yeah, I can always hear my own faults almost immediately. I say to people I've played with "am I playing out of tune? I said this to [trumpeter] Henry Lowther, and he said "no, you don't. To me, I always sound as if I'm out of tune, and I can't get away from it. At least people as good as Henry say I'm not, and he should know. He's a fantastic musician.

AAJ: He probably recognizes the context in which the sounds are produced. When you set up your own context, then "in tune becomes quite relative. As far as what you've got on the table, with the trio that's playing the Vision and Globe Unity as well, do you have any other projects you'd like to discuss?

PR: I'd like to do some more electronic stuff, as I've done with Iskra3. I'd like to do something that combines this with Barry and [violinist] Phil Wachsmann into a quintet, though I don't know if that's possible. I'd also like to get my big band recorded, Iskrastra. It's a great orchestra, and we've had two broadcasts. It's all my written music, which I call comprovisation, and I write them but don't designate specific solos. I've conducted some of the pieces I've written, though it's overwhelming to have the opportunity to play this music. If I get a chance to re-do some of it, I'll concentrate on it maybe a bit more. It's fantastic music.

Paul Rutherford

AAJ: The other word I've heard bandied about is conduction. How similar is this to what you're doing?

PR: I don't actually do conduction. A good example of that would be the London Improvisers' Orchestra, but I don't do that in Iskrastra. I may in the future.

AAJ: How do the processes differ?

PR: In comprovisation, I write the music and it's up to the musicians whether they play or don't play the written material. If they don't play the written parts, they just go. Conduction would have a conductor doing this. It's seriously good music, and I would like to get more of it out. We've had four gigs since 1987 and two of those were the same day, one in Bath and one at the Queen Elisabeth's Hall in London.

I have a story about this one. [Tenor man] Paul Dunmall and [bassist] Paul Rogers drove separately [from the rest of the band] from Bath to London and they broke down. Apparently they saw us going by and they were waving at us, but nobody saw them [chuckles]! But it was good music, and I take full responsibility for any faults.

Selected Discography

Rutherford/Jarvis/Casserley, Iskra3 (PSI, 2004)
Paul Rutherford, Trombolenium (Emanem, 1986-1995)
Paul Rutherford, Neuph (Sweet Folk and Country/Emanem, 1977)
Paul Rutherford, The Gentle Harm of the Bourgeoisie (Emanem, 1974)
Paul Rutherford & Iskra 1912, Sequences 72-73 (Emanem, 1972-1974)
Iskra, Chapter One (Emanem, 1972-1974)
Tony Oxley, Ichnos (RCA-Victor, 1971)
Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Challenge (Eyemark/Emanem, 1966)

Related Articles: Paul Rutherford: Neuph & Iskra3 (Multiple CD Review, 2005)

Photo Credit: Chris Cogburn

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