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Paul Rutherford: A Musician's Impulse

Clifford Allen By

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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.


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