Theo Travis: From Prog to Jazz and Back Again

Bruce Lindsay By

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"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.

Theo Travis / Soft Machine Legacy"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."

Theo Travis / Soft Machine Legacy Soft Machine Legacy (l:r): John Etheridge, Theo Travis, John Marshall, Hugh Hopper

Sadly, Hugh Hopper died earlier this year. Travis is as yet uncertain about what this means for the future of SML.

"We've got a big tour this autumn and there's talk of some gigs early next year. If Roy Babbington (currently deputising for Hopper) is happy to do it then it may well carry on. Of course, there have been various line-ups, but with Etheridge, John Marshall, Hugh and me it had a definite imprint and the album we made, Steam (MoonJune Records, 2007), we were all very happy with. I hope it will continue but we'll see how it goes after this tour."

Theo Travis' vast range of work stretches across many styles and genres of jazz and prog, as well as into ambient, avant-garde and new age. To hear Travis play, it is obvious that this talented musician has the ability to cross this vast spectrum of music. But is there a "master plan" to this?

"I do love a lot of music," says Travis, "I listen to a lot of music and although I'm a professional musician I am also a music fan. Some people, when [playing music] becomes their job they become very interested in how to play their instrument but they don't talk about music they love to listen to. Whereas still, if I've got a gig hours and hours away, I'll happily listen to four hours of music on the way there and on the way back. A lot of the music I go out of my way to do is stuff that I love and I'm lucky I don't seem to do that much I'm not keen on."

It becomes clear that many of Travis' collaborations arise through happenstance rather than a deliberate plan. For example, "Gong happened through a series of coincidences that led to me being asked to do a tour in 1999," Travis said. "That was probably the first time I toured with a big rock band. It was a lot of fun. A lot of the collaborations are down to me enjoying and wanting to be involved in that sort of music—they're not all profitable [laughs].

"Cipher started off purely as an experimental thing. We [Travis and bassist Dave Sturt] both played in a band called No Time Toulouse and got very interested in a minimal approach. We were both very influenced by Brian Eno records. We spent ages just messing around on sounds then we made the first album and then we got an offer to do music for a silent film and it worked. You could use strange, dark, experimental music but if it fitted with an image people could relate to it and there was a place you could play it.

"So that was definitely a labour of love which we never thought would do anything, but it led to other things. People like it and having that experience you can take it elsewhere. It's funny how things lead to other things. If you really love music and are involved in it, then you do stuff which can lead to other stuff. If you just say 'I want (payment) for that' you end up ... on a different path, I suppose."

Another link in Travis' music is that between his work in Cipher and his work with Robert Fripp. Travis sees these links as extending even further, into two more collaborations.

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