British musician Theo Travis has one of the most varied performing and recording histories to be found among contemporary jazz musicians. A talented saxophonist, flautist and composer, Travis has performed solo, in duos and quartets, in straight ahead jazz combos and in electronic, improvisational groups.
He has performed live soundtracks in cinemas, duos with guitarist Robert Fripp in English churches, jazz standards in clubs and progressive rock at major European festivals. Travis, in both his playing and his love of music, spans the occasionally over-large divide between jazz and progressive rock, bringing the genres together and investing each with the best of the other.
Despite his extensive back catalog, however, Theo Travis is not as well-known to jazz or prog fans as he should be. This may be due in part to his unassuming nature and a refreshing lack of ego, or to his determination to play what he enjoys rather than just playing for the money or the exposure. Whatever the reason, the lack of fame is not mirrored by a lack of work: Travis is constantly involved with musical projects, groups and collaborations with an at times bewildering array of players. He's a busy man, as he readily admits.
Travis has been playing jazz since his mid-teens, but he began playing music some years earlier.
"I started flute aged 7 or 8," he said. "I was brought up in a family where everybody learned an instrument so I picked the flute and went through the grades.
"I also got very into listening to pop and rock, a lot of progressive rock actually. When I was 15 or 16 I hooked up with some friends at school and played bass and a little bit of flute in a rock band, called Fundamental Furniture. The keyboard player introduced me to jazz improvisation and we'd have jam sessions in rehearsals. I was living in Birmingham [in the centre of England] at the time and I went to the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra to see what would be involved in joining.
"I was just playing flute and they said, 'Oh, do you play sax as well?,' because most flute players double on sax. I didn't, and couldn't see the connection but as luck would have it my sister was learning the sax at the time. So I borrowed her saxophone and she didn't see much of it for the next two years. I went on a few jazz summer schools to get into the theory and found a teacher in Birmingham who had been in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Then, I did a classical music degree [at Manchester University from 1983 to 1986] and put a band together, Blue September, with some of the top Manchester jazz musicians and toured the Northern jazz clubs."
Travis makes the process appear simple, but his description hides the effort that he put in to advance his education. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he didn't go straight from school to university.
"No, I had a year off, doing lots of practice ... getting more into jazz," he said. "At school in my teens I was very into Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Traffic. There was a very good record library in Birmingham Central Library, all vinyl in those days. You could pick up half a dozen albums and go into a listening booth, put the needle down and all these worlds would open up. You could find stuff, listen to it, take it away, maybe tape some [laughs] then come back and listen to more stuff.
"So a lot of the breadth of my listening knowledge is thanks to Birmingham Library. The booths were something special: I would go there on the bus after school and immerse myself in great music."
Travis' exploration of progressive rock in the listening booths was taking place during 1981 and 1982, a time when prog was no longer a popular genre of music among British youth. He recognizes that his taste was not shared by many of his friends.
"I was totally out of step," he confesses, although he was not alone in his love of prog. "There was a little group of us that was into [prog] but with jazz I was totally out of step with everyone else. But there was music of the time that I was also into and, funnily enough, it seems to be coming round again. Early 80s song-based stuff: Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, The Cure, The Au Pairs, that sort of stuff."
The impact of prog and jazz on Travis' own playing is clear in much of his work. He seems to move seamlessly across the two genres. He happily acknowledges this, especially the effect of leading prog rockers King Crimson.
"The whole Crimson thing is a strong influence on me, generally," he said. "I love the music and sometimes music you love comes out in your writing, and I'm quite aware that the music and writing style of King Crimson is not that far below the surface, sometimes quite near the surface, of things I've written. It's a connection that makes it quite curious that I'm working with [King Crimson guitarist Robert] Fripp now."
Travis and Fripp released their first CD together, Thread (Panegyric Recordings) in 2008 and the collaboration continues. Talk of this partnership sparks Travis into a fascinating discussion of the links between jazz and prog, and of how the seeds of prog can be seen in at least one classic jazz recording.
"As a teenager I got into prog but as a working player, I very much got into jazz and the prog happened 10 years later, I suppose," he said. "It's built through connections because I genuinely like a lot of the music and the people I play with really feel for the music and hopefully that works and leads to other things. I think a lot of jazz players both now and in the late '60s can be a bit snooty about rock and prog, whereas I have genuine love and respect for a lot of rock albums so for me being involved in that sort of music is a real treat.
"I was talking to Bill Bruford the other day ... he started in prog with Yes and Crimson and was very keen to move into the jazz world and I've sort of done the opposite ... I crossed from the jazz world into prog and right in the middle I did a gig with Bill funnily enough. We've had these interesting opposite trajectories.
"I think there's a lot of connections between progressive rock, rock generally and jazz. In terms of having a music that involves composition, improvisation, a bit of an edge, sometimes long-form writing. Take John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964). If you said there's an album in four sections with a bit of a concept and its long with lots of improvisation then some written bits sounds like prog to me. There are strong connections in terms of approach to music."
Travis composes and plays in a variety of styles, but is there a common approach to composition which he tends to take across these styles? Does he usually leave space for improvisation, for example?
"Yes, nearly always," he said. "I can't think of a piece where I've written it from beginning to end without space for improvisation. There's always large spaces for improv and often the pieces will be written as launch pads for improvisation. Sometimes, the main part of a piece is improvisation. "For example, on the recent album, Double Talk (33 Jazz, 2007) I was very keen to have some free-form band improvs mixed in with progressive, bluesy, jazz. There's a piece called 'Relegation of Pluto' in which all that's written is a four-bar theme at the beginning and the end and everything else is completely whatever happens when we launch into it.
"There is this launch pad approach which I like but which you can only do with musicians you trust, who are comfortable being that brave and just jumping in with two feet not knowing what's going to happen. A lot of jazz musicians like their structures ... a basis on which to do improvisation rather than having to create the whole canvas from scratch. A crucial factor for me is choosing the right people, who can think the same way and come up with good ideas and enjoy working with that amount of freedom."
Working as a leader, a musician has the power to choose who to play with and how they will play. However, Travis also works within well-established groups with a long history: most notably Gongzilla, a band that has existed in numerous line-ups since the late 1960s, and Soft Machine Legacy, a band which carries on from Soft Machine itself and in which Travis replaced original Soft Machine saxophonist Elton Dean. Working within such settings requires different skills, which Travis is willing and able to articulate.
"With Soft Machine Legacy, Elton Dean was very ill ... when [bassist] Hugh Hopper rang me up," Travis said. "It was very much a case of joining a band with its own approach, although in fact it's a very co-operative band with plenty of group improvisation. With Gong, which 'belongs' to one or two people ... you are playing as 'the saxophonist' in the band which is a different role and you have less control over the music. On my first Gong album, 10 years ago, I did do a lot of the writing but on the new album I wasn't involved in the writing at all. I was almost like a session man. Very much in the studio. I was told what to play and on the gigs I play the saxophone parts. But that's alright if it's a band I like and music I like. It's very important to appreciate the role you have in a band.
"I find that being a leader a lot of the time I appreciate not having to do all that organizing and phone calls and talking between numbers ... Sometimes it's nice to just go and play."
Strikingly, with Soft Machine Legacy, Gong, and The Tangent, Travis has not simply replaced "a saxophonist" but has replaced three well-known, distinctive and almost legendary players: Soft Machine's Elton Dean, Gong's Didier Malherbe and The Tangent's David Jackson, previously of Van Der Graaf Generator. Travis is pragmatic about his success in these bands.
"The music feels natural to me and I'm enjoying it," he said. "I'm not imitating what they did. People wouldn't want me to do that and it wouldn't work for me to do that. I come along with whatever I have and if it works, I guess I get the gig [laughs}. In SML, I'd already played with Hugh Hopper quite a bit and John Etheridge loads and John Marshall quite a lot so it was a very comfortable fit. The awkward thing there was that I joined the band when Elton Dean was very ill and on the next run of gigs at the Pizza Express in Soho, he died the night before the first gig. On one hand, people were saying 'Well done' but on the other hand they were sad because Elton had died so it was a slightly strange situation."
Soft Machine Legacy (l:r): John Etheridge, Theo Travis, John Marshall, Hugh Hopper