Tom Christensen: Outside the Comfort Zone

Paul Olson By

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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.

AAJ: Yeah, and you guys are articulating the syllables of that phrase that's the poem's title [sings badly]: "Slee-ping with wo-men.

TC: The title of the song, "Asleep and Sleeping with Them, is just a line from the poem because I didn't want to call the song "Sleeping with Women and sound like—a pig, or something. In the poem that phrase, "sleeping with women, comes up like a riff—just like that figure you heard in the piece. But the actual saxophone parts in the beginning are exactly the same rhythm as the words in the poem. And then the melody of the tune: the first half of that melody is also exactly the rhythm of the poem. The first line of the melody matches "everything south of Naples. It's kind of technical, but that's an example of me trying to push myself outside of my comfort zone for composition.

AAJ: Speaking of your bassist and drummer, Kermit Driscoll and Satoshi Takeishi: I really like the way they accompany the soloists on "Guardians. It's subtle, but there's a certain independence. They don't obsessively follow the soloists, but they certainly aren't ignoring you either.

TC: Yeah! I know. I have to say, a lot of that's Kermit's thing. Kermit plays that way. He has this way of playing a dialogue with you and pushing you here and there, and doing it all with the utmost of taste and discretion. But he doesn't at all obsessively follow you. And Satoshi literally can do anything. If Kermit's doing that, Satoshi will do it too. And if Kermit decides not to do it—or if we're playing with Ben Allison or someone who does more following of the soloists, Satoshi would do that too, and do it so well.

AAJ: He's got good antennae.

TC: He's got great antennae. But yeah, Kermit did that a lot, and I thought it was great. He was really his own man. Kermit's a great kind of unsung hero.

AAJ: It seems that way.

TC: I guess he did a lot of stuff in the eighties with Bill Frisell, but he's around New York a lot and does all different kinds of work—and he's a great, great musician and a great person, too. Great spirit.

AAJ: We've talked a great deal about your other instruments, but I really like the two-tenor numbers on your albums. Getting back to "Guardians —which I think is one of your best ones—feel free to disagree, but in some way it reminds me of "Just to Play on Paths, even though that one seems like a pretty intentional Ornette hommage. There's something about the two songs that seems of a piece.

TC: Hmmm. That thought never crossed my mind, actually. Yeah, the solo sections, there's a certain similarity there because, you know, my solo is more of an intellectual kind of dissection of the melody in both, and then there's a kind of an interlude, and a calming-down thing. And Walt and Charlie both take it in a whole 'nother direction. Yeah, there is a similarity in the solo sections, I think, and then in the melodies, there's that kind of a note-y thing happening at the beginning and so forth.

AAJ: Your English horn—another great trademark of yours—is particularly nice on "Your Strange Son. I like the whole tune, though. It's got a slightly disquieting kind of uneasy beauty that does somewhat resemble the O'Hara poem ["To My Dead Father ] that influenced the song.

TC: That was an easy kind of thing to write; in fact, it was the first thing I wrote. I don't know that this is true, actually, but I was thinking that as a gay man and a poet in the fifties, [O'Hara] probably—I don't know what his relationship with his father was, but there's every chance that it wasn't completely easy. And the way he wrote that poem just made me think that maybe he was expressing how he could see his father's face in his own, and how he might not have known his father as deeply as he might have wished.

Whether that had to do with his lifestyle or his career choice, or his—whatever, I don't know. But it didn't even matter that much to me; it just got me thinking along those lines: do we really know our parents, and also that that amazing deep love that a parent has for his child and a child for his parent is really complicated. I thought about the maybe bittersweet aspect of that, and so tried to portray that in the song and to write a pretty melody that had the qualities, exactly, that you describe. A disquieting kind of beauty.

AAJ: Now we definitely have to discuss "Oranges from the new album, which is the multipart piece. It's interesting in many ways. All the musicians are featured at some point, and in all sorts of different configurations, but there's also a kind of zen austerity to the whole thing as well. Tell me how this piece was created.

TC: Well, it was hard. First of all, have you read [O'Hara's poem] "Oranges?

AAJ: I have not yet read that one, no.

TC: Good luck. It's crazy. It's a great poem, but it's really a complicated poem with a lot of literary allusions and strange, bizarre imagery. I knew it was one of his major works. I said, "I have to tackle this and figure out how to do it. I mean, "In Memory of My Feelings is a long poem and a complicated one also, but I chose to go at that from another angle—kind of the way Jasper Johns went at it, which is just to try to portray a vibe of the whole thing.

But "Oranges, I thought, well, I'm going to see if I can get into this. And it's challenging because I'm by no means an expert on poetry or art. So I took the poem to my English teacher buddy, who sat down with it and scratched his head, made a couple of notes on it. ... He said, "you know, you should read this poem just like you listen to a piece of music: just read it and whatever it means to you and however it hits you, that's one thing that Frank O'Hara wanted to get across. He certainly isn't writing only for people with doctorates in English lit. So I did that and I tried to take the essence of each piece [like Christensen's song, O'Hara's poem is divided into twelve sections, or "pastorals ]—what it meant to me and what it seemed to portray.

And when I sat down with him again ... we talked about it and figured out a little essence of each of the sections. There's twelve sections, and so I wrote a row, a twelve-tone row, and I used it on each of the twelve sections. And each section is based on some crazy permutation of a twelve-tone row—although I completely disregarded the general rules of twelve-tone composition in many cases.

AAJ: You're allowed.

TC: Yeah, I mean, whatever. It's not a school assignment [laughing]. So I took it apart; some were based on a retrograde, some were based on imposing two retrograde inversions that were a tritone apart, some were based on only half of the row. So I basically picked kind of a style for each one and then I tried to tailor them to make a twelve-movement piece.

AAJ: That sounds like that would be the hardest part.

TC: It was; it was hard to find ways to join them all together. So, for instance, there's one that has a bunch of Asian themes in it—that's the wood flute one— so I looked into some Korean music that has this really great sparse kind of thing going on. So I took some of that, and did other things to portray violence or scary monsters [laughing] or lust—whatever. There were all kinds of different moods.

So the poem itself has, to me anyway, this kind of wandering quality through it and it's not a poem about exactly one thing, as far as I can tell. In fact, Grace Hartigan painted twelve paintings called "Oranges 1 , " Oranges 2, "Oranges 3, and so on, and each one of those seemed to me to be a capturing of one element. She did the same thing, in other words, painting-wise, that I did musically.

AAJ: I haven't seen those; I'm going to have to look those paintings up

TC: They're hard to find, actually. She's not exactly the most well-known painter in the world, but she was one of the people around that time painting a lot, and a good friend of Frank O'Hara's. So that's where "Oranges come from. But I really spent a lot of time trying to make that work. It was very hard.

AAJ: It does seem hard, and of all the songs on New York School, it seems like the one where it would be hardest to declare, "this is good and I think it's finished.

TC: Absolutely. At some point, I had to say that, and we played it; I thought, well, we'll just play it on the gigs, and we did a little tour and a bunch of concerts, and I would ask the guys after each gig, "did that suck?

AAJ: [Laughing] It's that kind of song where you're not quite sure!

TC: Yeah, I don't know, and I still actually don't really have an answer for it. That was actually the one for me that was the most difficult thing to put together and to do that way. But, you know, when you challenge yourself sometimes, you get your butt kicked a little bit.

AAJ: Sometimes, yeah. Did you record it straight through?

TC: No. I know we recorded the first five [parts] together. Wherever there's a little break we kind of stopped for a second so that we could get a real intense blast on each thing. But most of the stuff on the record, we actually recorded straight through or with very few things; you know, the head might have been a little better on one and we used it. We did do a bit of overdubbing on "Sleeping. We fixed a couple little things, but most of all, we'd played it a lot. Of all the records, I think this one has the most cohesive rhythm section feel and groove.

One tune that I really like on the CD is "Further Digressions. It's based on both the poem [Frank O'Hara's "Further Digressions on Number One and the painting [Jackson Pollock's "Number One ]; the poem is about Frank O'Hara's kind of joy that he feels on seeing this Pollock painting which is hanging in MOMA in New York. And there's actually two paintings: there's one called "Number One, there's another one called "One Number Thirty-One.

When I was writing the music, I had to go out to Queens, because MOMA was shut down; the New York branch was closed for renovations. The actual painting Frank O'Hara refers to in his poem was in Berlin, so I looked at the other one. They're very similar, and again, I didn't feel it was important to be absolutely literal. So I went to see this painting called "Number One that's in MOMA, and there was no one out there in Queens, so I was able to sit for a very long time in front of this painting and try to get at the structure—something that I hadn't necessarily done with Pollock before.

Even though I had really enjoyed his stuff, I hadn't looked at those drip paintings and looked for an underlying structure. But in fact, with this one, there really was. It was basically lines and dots in four basic colors. And I was surprised at how absolutely organized it really was.

So I tried to make a piece, then, using that structure of dots and lines, which is where the dots come from in the rhythm section part and the lines come [from] in the horn part— which is kind of a reversal of a traditional rhythm section/horn thing. Then I tried to write some sections, especially the section at the end, to represent the sort of freewheeling, improvisatory, joyous qualities you feel from watching Pollock paint like that—or looking at the painting.

AAJ: Is this band configuration on the new CD your existing and working ensemble?

Walt Weiskopf, Tom Christensen, Kermit Driscoll, Satoshi Takeishi

TC: Yeah, such as it is. At this point—after about eight, nine years with this band, now with this configuration, and three CDs—right now I'm kind of focussing on a different project, which is this thing in Germany with a pianist, cello, and me playing oboe, English horn, alto flute and bass clarinet. Which is a real legit-y kind of thing.

AAJ: Is it improvisational?

TC: Yeah, but there's a lot of written music. The pianist's a great writer. Tim Sund is the pianist and the group is called Americana. We're actually in the process of finding a new cellist, but we rehearsed with Tomas Ulrich a couple of times here in New York, and he's great, and we're planning on doing some recording and a tour next year. But we have one CD out that we did—with Ben Allison, actually, on bass and a percussionist—called Americana [Nabel Records, 2003]. I'm really trying to write for that group and do that kind of stuff. I don't have any gigs right now for this band [Tom Christensen Ensemble], although we'll probably do some gigs in New York this year. I mean, I love the group, so I want to keep writing and keep doing stuff with it; it's so much fun.

AAJ: In addition to this Americana project, you're still a busy sideman. I've heard you on everything from those Joe Lovano records [Viva Caruso, Celebrating Sinatra] to the recent John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble's A Blessing, where you do a particularly fine soprano solo on the title track. With all the sidework you've done, who have you enjoyed supporting the most?

TC: I love John's stuff. I think he writes great stuff. But the Lovano records, to just sit there and hear him play—he's so great.

AAJ: Yeah, he freaks me out.

TC: Beautiful. So just to be in the same room with him while he's playing and listen to him play on the takes and to see his process of how he makes a record, on both of those [albums], for me was great. I made a couple records with Don Sebesky and his band, which were fun and challenging. I'm doing a lot of stuff now with the guys from Playscape Records. We did a record called Spirits, which was the music of [the late saxophonist/flautist/composer] Thomas Chapin, that came out on Playscape. It's under [guitarist] Michael Musillami's name, the guy who runs the label. Satoshi [Takeishi] played on it, also [pianist] Peter Madsen, [bassist] Cameron Brown, [trombonist] Art Baron, [drummer] Mike Sarin. [Interviewer's note: I've since obtained this 2004 CD and it's terrific.] And we did some gigs.

I also just recorded some stuff with Michael's trio as a guest artist and we're going to be doing stuff in the fall around New York. That record will be coming out as well; Dave Ballou played trumpet on it. I love working with those guys, and Playscape is a really great label right now that's kind of a new way of looking at record labels in that we have kind of a relationship where I'll get gigs for Michael and bring him down, and we'll play at some clubs under my name or under his name, and we'll do different projects with and for each other—to kind of help each other out and move the whole idea forward together. So the label is more like a—

AAJ: A collective of sorts.

TC: A collective. But Michael is the guy who owns the label and makes the decisions and runs it—he and [bassist] Mario Pavone. But we've done a lot of stuff; we've done some stuff we call the Playscape All-Stars, for lack of a better name, with [drummer] George Schuller, Mario Pavone, and Michael. And we've played a bunch of gigs. I see it as ... my thing to help the label out too by booking gigs and doing things; in that sense it is a collective. It's not just, "hey, Michael, sell my records.

AAJ: And it's not Michael's job to exploit you, either.

TC: No, that's the furthest thing from this situation. Michael's a friend, a great person. It's about moving music that we believe in forward. We know it's not this gigantic business where everybody's making a fortune. We're trying to do something we really believe in and do it the right way, with respect for each other and the people that we deal with.

AAJ: Absolutely. It's what it should all be about. Fortunately, if people really wanted to exploit artists and get rich, why on earth would they be selling jazz recordings?

TC: [Laughing] I know! They'd have to be really dumb!

AAJ: So, my final question is: you play all these horns really well. But I still go back to your tenor playing, and one thing I love about it is that you don't sound like anyone else. Do you consider yourself a tenor player first and foremost?

TC: Yes. It's my main instrument and the one I've been playing the longest. My conception on the other instruments comes from the saxophone and what I try to do in improvising on flute, or oboe, or English horn is try to weed out those saxophonistic influences—and find influences that have to do with the instruments themselves. So, yeah, my head comes from saxophone. I played saxophone, exclusively really, from when I was ten to when I was twenty-five. So yeah, I'm a saxophonist. No doubt about that.


Tom Christensen, Gualala (Naxos, 2000)
Tom Christensen, Paths (Playscape, 2002)
Tom Christensen, New York School (Playscape, 2005)

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