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Tom Christensen: Outside the Comfort Zone

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With 'New York School,' I didn
Reedsman Tom Christensen's third and newest CD, New York School, may be the best jazz album of the year, but he hasn't appeared out of nowhere; his years of sidework—for example, with the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra—and his two previous albums under his own name have steadily impressed people in the jazz world, converting them to his multi-instrumental virtuosity (he plays tenor and soprano sax, oboe, English horn and various flutes and clarinets, all well) and his unique and austere compositional skills. I spoke with Christensen on a Monday morning at home in New York.

All About Jazz: Your three albums have varying personnel, but there's an absolute consistency of structure that to me, demonstrates that this was something you very much intended as the way you wanted to present your music. You've got Satoshi Takeishi on his own individual percussion (as opposed to a traditional drum kit), a bass player, and yourself and another player of various reeds, whether it's Charlie Pillow on Gualala [Naxos Jazz, 2000] and Paths [Playscape Recordings, 2002] or Walt Weiskopf on your new New York School. Tell me how you arrived at this particular kind of quartet configuration.

Tom Christensen: I knew I wanted to use Satoshi because I had played some duo stuff with him and he's brilliant. He's just a great, great player and so sensitive to everything. We used to play sessions and he would play anything that was in the room and it would sound good. He wouldn't have to have any special setup. I was really, really impressed with his playing and his great personality. So when I started this project, I knew I wanted to use Satoshi.

As far as the other woodwind player: I had had this conversation with [friend and mentor Dave] Liebman. I had brought in a bunch of tunes to him and I was going to ask him to produce my first record. I brought in all these tunes and they were all on saxophone—and the first thing he said was, "why aren't you playing the oboe? ... I didn't have a good answer. He said, "you need to do something that differentiates you from all these other guys, all the other tenor players. As it turns out, he didn't produce my first record; I wanted to do that. But I completely revamped my thinking then. I said, "you know what? That's true. Charlie [Pillow] is a really good friend of mine who I've known for over twenty years. I knew he also played the oboe and did some improvising, so I thought I'd put the two of us together, and Satoshi, and the right bassist—it could be some interesting stuff.

Plus it was a great discipline to try to write without a chordal instrument. Basically, I would write a three-line score and then give it to Satoshi and let him do what he does. It was a really good discipline and great to try to make music with that really sparse [configuration] and find different ways to add color to it—to add something that gives it some tonal center when all you're hearing is three lines, or just one or two lines. So that's where the idea for the group came from.

AAJ: I'm also very interested in the thinking behind kind of horn choices you make for each song. For example, "New Pedal Tune on Gualala has your soprano and Pillow's sopranino; "Dude, from Paths—one of my favorites of yours—has your English horn and Pillow's alto flute; and "In Memory of My Feelings, from New York School, which begins and ends with you and Walt Weiskopf on bass clarinets, very dreamlike, and has the two of you in the middle on soprano, eventually in a sort of call and response. Are these intuitive choices of instrumentation of were they consciously decided upon at the point of composition?

TC: One thing I really tried to do with all three records was write appropriately for the instrument. Because I figured if I was going to pick up the oboe or the English horn and try to play a jazz tune, "A Night in Tunisia or something, on it— people would listen to it and go, "well, that's interesting, but I really wish he was playing soprano. It's like, why? What's the point of forcing the oboe into this loud environment where you have to articulate really heavy? And also, everyone knows these tunes, and this style. This is my opinion; I could be completely wrong, but I really felt like, "well, what I should do since I can write, and since I know the oboe really well, is I should write something that makes the oboe sound good, and makes it sound appropriate.

So I really tried to, first of all, find things for the double reeds that would give some air around them in a legit-y kind of way. And Satoshi's percussion is great for that; that sparse environment with no piano is good for that. Then I tried to write the tunes so that they really sound good on oboe and English horn and develop them with the idea that this [song] is going to be on this instrument. So that as I'm writing the tune, I'm thinking about that instrument.

And in some cases, the tune really changed. "Dude used to be a totally different tune. It has, actually, a bunch of different incarnations. That final version on the record is one, but I played that tune on saxophone with a quartet before. On "In Memory of My Feelings, I wanted to give this murky, gauzy kind of dreamy thing, and I thought two bass clarinets would be appropriate for it. The "New Pedal Tune thing—I wrote that with those two horns in mind, but it was just a nod to Liebman and [Steve] Grossman, you know, that whole vibe. Which I tried to get away from on subsequent CDs, because I didn't want anything to be too derivative.

But some of the tunes on New York School, like "Further Digressions —I originally thought about having that on oboe. As I wrote it I realized it wasn't really going to work on oboe, and so I switched it over to saxophone and bass clarinet. Originally it was going to be oboe and clarinet. So it's kind of an organic process. As I'm writing the tune, it can change. The overall concept is to try to write for each instrument as appropriately and as idiomatically as possible.

AAJ: Gualala, the first CD, is, in a simplistic sense, your "oboe album. There's quite a lot of you playing that instrument on that one. Then there's no oboe at all on your second CD, Paths, and on the new one, just the album closer, "Little Elegy. Any reason you're playing it less on your recordings?

TC: I was doing some projects and gigs on English horn—a lot, actually—in the last three or four years. I was working in Europe with this guy named Tim Sund, who lives in Berlin. We have a kind of a chamber music group, with piano, cello and me on woodwinds, and a lot of that stuff was English horn. So was just kind of focusing on English horn; that's why on Paths, there's just English horn. On New York School, it just kind of came out that way. I currently am playing a lot of oboe, and writing stuff for oboe. You're right, Gualala has a lot of oboe on it—more than all the others. But on Paths, well—I actually tried to put a lot of different things on Paths. I hate to admit it, but I think I included some things on that record simply because they weren't on Gualala. I put on a couple of standards.

On the first record, there were no standards, and I don't think there needs to be a standard on jazz records. I think we're way past that at this point—I mean, there's no standards on Bitches Brew. But I come from a jazz background of playing tunes, playing straight-ahead tunes, and I thought, "well, gee, I ought to do some of that so that there's a little bit of everything on this record. And I wanted some saxophone solos that were burning, like: "yeah, this is my saxophone playing record, or whatever. And I think that was stupid; I really shouldn't have thought that way.

So with New York School, I didn't think about anything other than exactly what kind of music I wanted to write for the record and how I liked it. Which, I think, really, is pretty much the only thing you can do, because there's not a tremendous amount of money or popularity to be had from these records. The only thing you can do is do your thing, you know, and not try to cater to anyone. But with Paths, there was a bit of catering, such as it was. There were actually some critics who had said of Gualala, "where's the standards? Where's this? Where's that? And stupidly, I listened [to them]. Not that I hate Paths; I'm very happy with it, but that's why I tried to do a lot of different things on that record.

AAJ: Let's talk about the new album New York School. It's inspired by the so-called New York School of artists like painter Jackson Pollock and especially poet Frank O'Hara—and how their work cross-pollinated, how a poem by one artist might influence the painting of another. Now all of it has inspired you, half a decade later. Care to comment?

TC: I kind of started the ball rolling with the [Richard] Brautigan stuff [brief Brautigan poems are used in improvisational vignettes] on Paths. I was trying to think of ways to try to push my composition in directions that I normally wouldn't go, to get a new vocabulary. And so this idea of using the poetry to try to push me out of my comfort zone. I originally was looking for poets and looking for inspiration, and a guy who I teach with, an English teacher, John Aune, turned me on to Frank O'Hara's book Lunch Poems. Which at first I didn't really care for, but I bought his complete Collected Poems and started to read about him and understand his relationship to [painters] Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns and their relationship with him. I thought, "what an interesting thing.

I know there were some musicans like Morton Feldman and John Cage that were associated with them, but I didn't listen to that stuff too much. I [wasn't] trying to be too true to anyone but my own whim. So I focused on a number of poems and paintings that were inspiring to me to use as a basis, and kind of honed it down to maybe eight or nine works, and then eliminated a few of those. I also read some of the other poets from O'Hara's era and his circle of friends, like Kenneth Koch. So that's where "Sleeping with Women comes from.

AAJ: I'm very partial to that tune. It's in eleven, but it's such an easy groove that it ends up sounding like such an even time signature.

TC: Yeah, that's [bassist] Kermit [Driscoll] and Satoshi playing their butts off! They're great; they just killed that. That tune was really challenging to play on gigs and record, but the times—and there were a lot of times—we got it going, really cookin' along, it really felt great. Including one time: it felt so good we screwed it up massively. Because it felt so good that Walt and I were trying to play the soli on it, and I remember I was just, like, "wow, man, this is so good! Wait, where am I? [Laughing] But those guys are such great players; that's why it sounds good. But the composition—if you read the poem, it's the same rhythm as the first part of the poem.

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