John Etheridge interview: “We never got paid for Soft Machine. God knows what happened to the money”

John Etheridge

AJ Dehany caught up with Soft Machine’s John Etheridge and spoke to him about his formative fretboard influences and approaches to guitar playing, as well as penetrating the complex chronology and politics of the ongoing Softs saga

“Around 1969 I lost interest in what you’d call rock music,” says guitarist John Etheridge. “I’d got bored with jazz, because it was all safe. I’d heard Clapton, Hendrix, Peter Green, Jeff Beck. When you’ve had that intensity it’s kind of hard to engage, but when John McLaughlin’s album Extrapolation came along, and then Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way, it was like, ‘Wow! This is jazz with bollocks!’”

The guitarist is about to set out on a 10-date UK tour with Soft Machine, the legendary jazz-rock group formed in Canterbury in 1966 with Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen and Mike Ratledge. The current line-up includes three 1970s-era members, with Etheridge on guitar, Roy Babbington on bass, and John Marshall on drums, with Theo Travis replacing the late Elton Dean on reeds. We meet by Hampstead Heath, where he’s just been swimming. At nearly 70, he’s vigorous, voluble and totally affable. Everyone we pass seems to know him. As he talks, it turns out he knows everyone too. In his career he’s worked with countless talents and some huge names, including John Williams and Stéphane Grappelli. He jammed with Hendrix and Clapton during the blues boom in the 1960s, but struck out in a jazz direction that led to him joining Soft Machine in 1975.

His story is rich in characters and passion from the start. What made him take up the guitar in 1961 at age 13 was Hank Marvin and the Shadows with their red Stratocasters. It was a “flashbulb moment”. Another was seeing Eric Clapton in Golders Green Refectory in 1965. “I couldn’t believe it!” he says. “That was the real thing, absolutely devastating. I was quite an experienced player by then, but nobody had made the guitar sing for me before that. The guitar sang for the first time, actually sang.” By way of contrast he adds: “For us, the state-of-the-art guitar solo in 1964 was Dave Davies’ on ‘You Really Got Me’. It’s like Chuck Berry on amphetamines.”

It fits with Etheridge’s wider conception of what the guitar can do emotionally, what it can make us feel. “This is what Clapton did. He made the guitar sing, and people loved his playing. Every season there’s a Clapton imitation. At the moment it’s Joe Bonamassa doing his take on Eric circa 1966.” I tell Etheridge that my friends and I call Bonamassa ‘the Blues Dentist’. “He is! He’s a property tycoon! Can you imagine Eric doing that? I come from an era when I can still recall how absolutely authentic these people were to their core. That’s why they suffered. If you give it all like they did it’s bad for you. It’s great for the public, it’s bad for you. So Hendrix died, they all died, and Clapton essentially did – he lived on, but the real Clapton died in 1969, and that’s the truth. Full marks to him for carrying on and having a good career.”

The point is this: “We were all so young. All we wanted to do was play. We didn't care about money. I didn't take any interest in money until the late 1970s, when I had a family. We never got paid for Soft Machine. God knows what happened to the money. All I was thinking about was playing. Do you think Eric Clapton gave a shit about money when he was 20? These people were totally into what they were doing. This is a very important difference. Musicians now are much more balanced people, because they have to be. After Thatcher they had to be, but you can hear the effect on the music. Hendrix, Clapton, the intensity of their playing was extraordinary. Nobody plays like that now.”

Etheridge’s accounts of the 1960 would fill volumes. “It was crazy, it was a crazy period and a great period, inspiring but crazy, and destructive.”

I enjoyed a description I’d read of Soft Machine’s “deep roots in the musical revolution of the 1960s”, which was followed by an extended tree metaphor about limbs branching off. The Soft Machine family tree is particularly complicated. You can count at least 24 different incarnations, though it has been reasonably stable for over a decade now as Soft Machine Legacy. In 2015, the band reverted to the name Soft Machine. I ask John Etheridge about the philosophical and legal implications of that change.

“Because of the way the law goes, if you're directors of a firm that packs up you still technically own the name. When we reformed in 2004 there was talk about calling it Soft Machine. A lot of people abroad just called us Soft Machine, and people were saying, ‘Look! Just drop the ‘Legacy’, call it Soft Machine, ’cos people think it’s a tribute band’. That was the problem. We would go to a gig and not many people would show up, because they thought it was a tribute band. Last year we toured as Soft Machine and it went so much better. But I do still have this funny feeling about calling it Soft Machine.”

I ask him about a comment from Hugh Hopper, the long-standing bass player until 2008, who said, “We [Soft Machine] weren't consciously playing jazz rock. It was more a case of not wanting to sound like other bands; we certainly didn't want a guitarist.” Etheridge laughs: “That’s very interesting! It was a thing about Soft Machine, that there was no guitar, which was why I took no interest in them whatsoever, which stood me in good stead because there were loads of people going, ‘This isn't proper Soft Machine’. I didn't feel it personally at all. I was honoured to be in the band. They didn't have a guitarist for ages and, when they did, it was a bit like, ‘oh god, why have they got a guitar?’”

When the Soft Machine job came up in 1975, the album Bundles had already been recorded with Allan Holdsworth on guitar, who recommended Etheridge to the group (“which was incredible for me, an incredible break”). There was a ‘Year Zero’ feeling that Etheridge sardonically compares to the Soviet-era politburo, when Stalin dies and Khrushchev takes over. “When I joined, everybody from the earlier period was dissed: ‘They couldn't play, they're no good, their compositions were no good’, and without thinking I took that on board, because I respected the people I was playing with. They were very sniffy about the old days. The people who joined didn't have respect for the people from the past. It was only years later, when I listened to the old stuff, that I realised how good it was.

He explains his qualms: “I remember some friends of mine had Soft Machine’s Third at university and I listened to it and thought that as there’s no guitar player, I'm not interested. But now, when I hear it, I realise how good it was. Robert Wyatt was a very creative force. If they’d followed his direction with the vocals and things it would have made Soft Machine into a superstar band. Soft Machine could have been Pink Floyd. But they went into the jazz instrumental direction. As soon as you ditch vocals you're not finished, but your place in the pantheon is lowered.”

Before the dreaded guitar entered the Soft Machine mix with Allan Holdsworth in the mid-1970s, the band was briefly dominated by the compositionally-led keyboard player and composer Karl Jenkins, who was very much a ‘leader’. “When I listen to the albums I think they're good, but he was the opposite of a free improviser,” explains Etheridge. “He was a very controlling influence, extremely non-improvisational in essence. Jenkins was essentially not a jazz musician. He'd admit that. Marshall is, and I am by temperament, and Roy Babbington as well, and Hugh Hopper. But Hugh and Jenkins had this implicit hatred of each other.”

This returns to a key point. “In the 1960s and 1970s the other side of the intensity with which people played was the intensity with which they hated and loved. I don’t know what young people are like now, but it was a difficult environment.” I ask Etheridge if this might have been what Hugh Hopper really meant when he cited Jenkins’ “third-rate musical involvement”, and Etheridge’s own comments about the band in the late 1970s “not achieving its potential”. “No!” he protests. “Initially I levelled blame at the band’s appalling management arrangements: a certain amount of internecine strife, people pulling in different directions. When I look back now, I realise that the Wyatt direction would have probably borne more fruit. It wouldn't have involved me, obviously. So, thank god it never happened, or I’d never have been in the Soft Machine!”

Following Allan Holdsworth’s parts on 1975’s Bundles was hard work, but rewarding. Etheridge explains: “When I later joined Stéphane Grappelli people would say, ‘god, you're following Django Reinhardt!’ and I’d say, ‘No, I'm not: Stéphane Grappelli has played with 150 mediocre guitarists since Django died, so I don't feel intimidated at all!’ Whereas following Allan as the Soft Machine guitarist was demanding. I did feel that I was one of the few people who could cope. I was quite proud of that.”

Etheridge goes on to explain why the band went on hiatus: “We did some great touring, then that finished and the 1980s came along. Hugh Hopper was driving a cab. People went into running pubs and things because the 1980s killed everything. I loathed that decade. It was an appalling time for me and my generation. I had all sorts of awful things going on in my life, but through Stéphane Grappelli’s band I slipped into the jazz scene, in which I was low-level active throughout the 1980s. I did okay, but people like Hugh had to pack up.”

He offers a glimpse of what could have happened: “It was only come 1993-94 that a lot of bands started reforming and there was suddenly an interest. Soft Machine should have done something then, but because of the chaotic nature of the general thing it didn't. Coliseum reformed about 1995, Caravan reformed in the same year – suddenly there was an interest, which there hadn't been throughout the 1980s. I did okay in the 1980s, but I didn't do anything particularly constructive.”

Etheridge tells me that this time around, and for the first time in its history, Soft Machine is a true democracy. With the group’s focus on improvisation, does that make the creative process easier? “Absolutely!” he enthuses. ‘You can’t do free improvisation unless it’s a democracy. You can’t! Imagine a dinner party where you've got four people and if one person holds forth the whole time it’s boring for everybody else. Or if one person doesn't speak at all it’s embarrassing. A good free is like a successful social interaction. Whether it’s of interest to the audience is something else. I never thought it was much of a spectator sport. Free improv is a participant sport, but it’s very satisfying.”

The most recent full-time member of the Soft Machine set-up, Theo Travis, gives the group a vital impetus. What I really like off albums like 2007’s Steam are the intensely-layered textures, with Travis and Etheridge’s free use of effects over disciplined rhythm playing. Etheridge agrees: “It’s quite communal in that sense. It’s got a good balance, which is the democratic thing. We’ve got our compositions, which tend to be fairly well-structured, with ordinary songs and solos, and then tunes that just start from somewhere and go anywhere else. I like doing that myself when playing solo, but I never quite have the nerve!”

It’s a surprising admission of humility for a man who throughout his career has always struck out on his own creative path, pursuing what felt right to him. “I love doing it! There are elements of me that are uncompromising, but I never had jazz bitterness. I accept that if I want to play like I want to play that it isn’t going to have universal appeal. It’s for a very limited, but obsessive, audience.” Etheridge remains unrepentant: “The very fortunate people in life, like Hendrix and Clapton, were playing to the max of what they could do and it also appealed to people. Everybody else goes into singing: Clapton, George Benson, Richard Thompson… They write songs and sing them and then you can go anywhere. But I was a guitar player who was hooked up on jazz, so there was no way! Considering all that, I’ve done okay. Once you’ve got the jazz disease you're on the way to penury and financial embarrassment. I’ve worked out that no guitarist who plays long lines has ever made any money. The highest paid guitarist in the universe per note is Pink Floyd’s Dave, don't you think?”

He may have a point. From as early as the 1960s, many Soft Machine tracks have been based around riffs or very tight one-note basslines, rather than chord progressions as such.

“One chord. Yep. Very little harmonic movement in the solo. But I'm happy with that. What you can do, if there’s no keyboard, is invent your own harmonies over the one-note bass, play a lot of chromatic stuff which implies harmonies that aren't there. That’s very liberating. In the 1980s, I spent a lot of time studying what they call playing outside, which is what John Schofield and people were doing.” Etheridge contrasts this to the playing of Stéphane Grappelli, who was “completely dependent on the harmony to generate ideas” and to ‘the Blues Dentist’: “If you took Joe Bonamassa, he’s a clever musician, but he'd probably find playing over changes difficult. It’s a thing that jazz musicians do. To me, it doesn't matter. I went through this jazz snobbery period in the 1980s where, if the changes weren't complicated, it was like cheating. But who gives a fuck? People don’t care.”

Confirming both his humility and his jazz sensibility he concludes: “The important thing is that you and the audience get to a space. If you're just trying to tickle the audience cynically then you're a cabaret act. If you're just getting off on playing and the audience are unmoved then you're a wanker. But if both of you go to some place together, like I experienced with Eric Clapton in 1965, that’s a real interaction.”

Introducing: Quincy Jones’ Qwest TV

Quincy Jones and TV producer Reza Ackbaraly

Quincy Jones is many things – a 27-time Grammy award winner, TV and movie producer, actor, record company head honcho, magazine founder, and arranger and music producer of the biggest selling album of all time, Thriller. But at his core Jones is essentially a jazz musician. His passion for the music remains as fresh as the night his 14-year-old fingertips flew across the trumpet keys alongside Ray Charles during a late-night bebop session at a jiving jazz club in downtown 1940s Seattle.

Seventy years later, at the age of 84 and not content to hang up his musical boots, the music maestro has created Qwest TV – the world’s first subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) platform dedicated to jazz and jazz-inspired music. And he’s determined to take the music to the masses.

“I always wanted to make sure that people in the U.S. and across the world could have access to high quality content: both jazz and jazz-inspired,” says Jones. The idea for Qwest TV had been in gestation since 2014. Jones met French TV producer Reza Ackbaraly – also music programmer for France’s prestigious jazz festival, Jazz à Vienne – who was working for European-based music channel Mezzo TV. They instantly connected over the common desire to elevate the profile of jazz and to expand its appeal to a wider audience.

True, in some quarters, jazz has suffered unfairly under the myopic misconception that it is the preserve of lofty musical elitists. Though it’s seen some sparkling moments in the spotlight, it’s then left the stage to recharge its mojo. Qwest’s mission, therefore, is “to bring exciting music from around the world back to jazz and music lovers who have yet to discover it,” says Ackbaraly. “Its influence is everywhere; in pop, in electro, in hip-hop,” he adds. “With Qwest, jazz is going to be at the source of everything we do – but we also want to highlight its influence on diverse forms of music, the connections between the different genres and how its narrative is evolving with the technological age.”

Jones concurs, and feels that such is the shape-shifting nature of the art form, jazz’s wide-ranging influences can capture anyone with a willing ear. “I always have to refer back to the breakthrough in the 50s and early 60s when Herbie did ‘Watermelon Man’ and Miles did Bitches Brew,” he says. “It really was a turning point, and I believe we are going to continue to have turning points as people discover how jazz can connect in ways that other genres haven’t been able to.”

His forecast is, quite possibly, already starting to ferment. Hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly featured the groove-tight talents of Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington – both of whom have idiom-bending albums under their belts. And an influx of nu-school jazz titans such as soul-jazz balladeer Gregory Porter, neo jazz-fusioneer Esperanza Spalding and experimental organ grinder Cory Henry are wowing a new generation of devotees.

Announced at this year’s Montreux Jazz Festival, Qwest TV will debut in October 2017. Subscribers will gain access to exclusive hand-picked content by industry professionals, such as concerts, documentaries, interviews and archival footage in HD or 4K for £6 per month. Supported by a stellar cast of artists, producers and venues, Qwest has already secured international rights to over 400 titles and plans to acquire a further 600 within its first three years.

Qwest, says Ackbaraly, will also be producing its own content. His expertise in running the New Jazz & World Music department of Mezzo TV stands the channel in good stead to produce high-tech, cutting-edge material, which will focus on new and exciting developments within the global pantheon of jazz.

With a roll-call of top-shelf talent cued-up for its launch, viewers can expect to stream unique performances from a dizzying array of retro and contemporary artists. From Billie Holiday to Esperanza Spalding, Sun Ra to Kamasi Washington, Bill Evans to Flying Lotus, and Ravi Shankar’s flying sitar solos to the traditions of Cuban Santeria, Jones and Ackbaraly’s Franco-American project is doubtless going to cruise the musical universe in a fashion that BBC 6 Music’s Gilles Peterson coined: “joining the dots.”

I ask Jones whether he can see foresee any specific styles of jazz re-emerging. “I read somewhere that most creativity is a combination of two unrelated elements that you put together and make them work. A lot of creativity is based on that, especially in music,” he says. “It’s not about a specific style of jazz re-emerging, it’s more so about the fact that everything is built upon what came before. So I would say it’s going to be an amalgamation of the different forms of jazz in general.”

Jones’ unswerving affection and respect for African, Brazilian and Cuban music is well documented. These countries’ rich musical traditions have consistently acted as a creative spur to his music. They have informed and underscored some of his most striking work. Their influence is there in the playful Brazilian waltz of ‘Soul Bossa Nova’. It’s there in the thrusting Cuban brass that flavours ‘Ai no Corrida’. It’s there in the ecstatic African-style chants adorning Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna be Startin’ Somethin’’.

“I absolutely love how it’s all intertwined. Cuban music’s roots come from Yoruba and Brazilian music’s roots come from Angola. There is so much history in these places and they never stop growing,” he says. “The voices from South Africa mixed with the polyrhythmic percussions from West Africa were what came out of slavery – and it has lasted. It has stood the test of time and has been there for us in the darkest and brightest of days.”

Browsing Qwest’s press release, it comes as no surprise, then, to see that – as well as straight-ahead jazz – the channel’s inaugural roster is positively brimming with content that passes the sonorous torch across the globe: Paco de Lucia (Spain); Oumou Sangaré (Mali); Milton Nascimento (Brazil); Manu Dibango (Cameroon) are just a snapshot of what’s to come.

Another of Qwest’s objectives reaches into the world of education. Ackbaraly says they have plans to collaborate with 250 universities worldwide, including esteemed institutions such as Berklee, NYU and Paris’ Sorbonne.

Quincy Jones and TV producer Reza Ackbaraly

Photo: Quincy Jones with French TV producer Reza Ackbaraly (via YouTube)

Visiting UCLA last year, he had been puzzled to find the music library which holds exceptional resources for jazz on CD and DVD – once teeming with students – now hardly in use. “Students now go to YouTube to do their research,” he says. “Firstly, the quality is terrible. Secondly, it’s not curated.” His concern stems not from the library’s inactivity – times and trends change – but because it has not been replaced by anything resembling an equivalent.

He says his friend Danilo Perez, a lecturer at Berklee School of Music, stands in an amphitheatre in front of 500 students showing YouTube videos of Bud Powell trying to emphasise Powell’s piano technique. “It’s crazy,” he chuckles, “you have the adverts constantly popping up everywhere which disturb the performance.”

So for Qwest, what will this entail? Their response is to offer music schools and universities an annual subscription. This will provide students with free access to their extensive, curated catalogue – an unparalleled resource as a research facility, and a high-calibre content provider for students to exploit in their presentations and performances.

Jones’ unbridled zeal for the music and his belief in its positive and unifying force is irrepressible. “I have witnessed first-hand the power of jazz – and all of its off-spring from the blues and R&B to pop, rock and hip-hop, to tear down walls and bring the world together,” he commented. “I believe that a hundred years from now, when people look back at the 20th century, they will view Bird, Miles and Dizzy as our Mozarts, Bachs, Chopins and Tchaikovskys. It’s my hope that Qwest TV will serve to carry forth and build on the great legacy that is jazz for many generations to come."

Branded by BBC Radio 3’s Kevin Le Gendre as “the Netflix of jazz”, Qwest TV is undoubtedly set to become one of the most inspirational developments in music media in decades. Jones and Ackbaraly are akin to two time-travelling jazz messengers with the keys to the archives and the future of jazz-inspired music tucked in their back pockets, and for music lovers the world over, their exciting new venture is about to unlock the technicolour vaults – “from bebop to laptop.”

– Interview by Gareth Jones

To find out more about Qwest TV, please visit their website: qwest.tv

Life-changing jazz albums: 'Charlie Parker with Strings'

Keyboard-player Lonnie Liston Smith talks about the album that changed his life, Charlie Parker With Strings, by Charlie Parker. Interview by Brian Glasser

I know the one straight away – it was ‘Just Friends’, Charlie Parker With Strings. I was in high school, about 15. I grew up in a musical home, so we were always surrounded by music. We’d be sitting on the stairs on the front porch, singing – that was just natural for us. My father was in the Harmonising Four, they bin’ all over the world and went to different festivals every year. They’d have their own one in Virginia, the Dixie Hummingbirds would have theirs in Philly, and so on. I’d be running about backstage as a kid, and there’d be the Blind Boys, Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers. Bobby Womack was singing gospel then. But when I heard Bird, I said ‘What is that?’ They said, ‘that’s Charlie Parker, Bird. He’s playing jazz – you know, improvisation.’

 

‘He was so free and warm – he was flying around the whole universe, just playing’

 

I was at a friend’s house. His dad had a nice jazz collection. They were playing it there one day, and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness!’ It was just unbelievable. I didn’t buy it – way back then, it was mainly radio. We had a piano in the house, but I wasn’t taking lessons. I could play the basic things, but when I heard that, I thought ‘I gotta learn about improvisation!’ That was the thing – playing different all the way through, changing the tune and so on. Bird was amazing because he could do that, but at the same time it was beautiful. A lot of people do improvisation and they can’t make it beautiful. He was so free and warm – he was flying around the whole universe, just playing.

So I just started to figure out things on my own. [Evidently sitting at piano, he plays down the phone: C major – A major – G major – F major chords.] Those are the chords for doo-wop and lots of R&B. All the songs were basically that – ‘Stand By Me’ and so on. I thought, ‘I can play this, but I’m tired of playing it!’ So I’d start playing: [plays expanded harmonies on the same chords and changes rhythm]. You’d keep on expanding. You try to figure out different sounds. That’s when I started listening to everybody – all the pianists, Art Tatum, Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson. Another great thing was when the jazz shows would pass through town – I heard the Count Basie Band when he played ‘April in Paris’, which I loved.

I never saw Bird play, but I worked with Max Roach and Miles Davis. My thing was, after [high] school I wanted to go to New York and try to meet and work with all the masters; and I did that. When I worked with Max, I’m quiet and laid back and he used to say ‘Man, Charlie Parker would have had a field day with you!’. Charlie was a genius but he had another side too!

I didn’t have no lessons – that’s the thing. Now you talk to kids, they go to jazz school; or they listen to records and write every note down. We were just experimenting. Then you start working, which brings you on – the first band I played in was the Metronome All-Stars, we’d be playing dances and everything. But I guess my thing was always to try to come up with a different sound, to figure out different things. Sometimes you’d be playing and something would just happen, and you’d think ‘Oh, my goodness’. That’s what you’d always be looking for – when that magic happens.

I worked with everybody – Pharoah and Gato and Rahsaan. The producer Bob Thiele said, ‘You’re getting known everywhere, it’s time for you to do your record.’ A few months later the record came out – Astral Travelling – and I was still with Miles. Bob said ‘You gotta support your record’; and I said, ‘Man, I’m not leaving Miles. I just did the record so I could say I’d done my own record.’ I told Miles: ‘They want me to support the record and I don’t want to do it’; and he just laughed and said, ‘You shouldn’t did [sic] the record!’

The art of music is fantastic, but the business – oh man, it’s bad. The whole thing for me has been love of the music. You start in church, then you get to studying all kinds of things, philosophies and religions and you say, ‘Wow – everyone’s saying the same things, so why are we fighting?’ That’s why I wrote ‘Expansions’. But people still doin’ crazy things …!

The album

Charlie Parker with StringsCharlie Parker

Charlie Parker With Strings

Mercury (1950)

PERSONNEL :: Charlie Parker (as), with orchestra.

TRACKS :: ‘Just Friends’, ‘Everything Happens To Me’, ‘April In Paris’, ‘Summertime’, ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ and ‘If I Should Lose You’.

 

 

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Life-changing jazz albums: 'Sunday at the Village Vanguard' by the Bill Evans Trio


Bassist Miroslav Vitous talks about the album that changed his life, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, by the Bill Evans Trio. Interview by Brian Glasser

The one album for me goes back to when I was quite young. I was 14 or 15 when I heard it, very near the beginning of playing jazz. It would have been soon after it was released in America. I heard it through Willis Conover [disc jockey on the Voice of America Jazz Hour radio programme that was broadcast across Europe and other parts of the world from the mid-1950s] – thanks to him all of us in the East parts of Europe were introduced to jazz. Actually, we in a Communist country heard more of the music than Americans at the time! When I came to the Berklee school of music [on a scholarship in 1966], I asked my fellow students, ‘Do you know this album, do you know that album?’; and they didn’t. I realised that they came from various cities in the US where they used to buy records that they would find in the local shop, but wouldn’t have had access to everything that I had on the radio. We had the whole spectrum thanks to Willis Conover. It made a lot of players what they were and still are today.

The programme always used to be at midnight. I had a little Grundig tape recorder so I taped it. It was a little strange because the authorities used to jam the radio station so you would get kind of spooky noises – you could hear raaoow raaoow raaoow in the background, even when you’d found a little signal to hear the music.

 

‘Scott LaFaro was the biggest inspiration for me, the biggest icon in my life once I’d heard this – his talent was phenomenal’

 

But anyway: the album is Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Bill Evans. Two things grabbed me about it. Firstly, the bass playing, of course. Scott LaFaro was the biggest inspiration for me, the biggest icon in my life once I’d heard this – his talent was phenomenal. In the early days of jazz the bass took over from the tuba, of course. But at first people could not play the bass well – it took a while for the instrument to catch up.

But, just as important, it was the communication the group had – they had a conversation. And not the conversation you have in a normal jazz group, where you play the changes and have what I call a side-conversation via a distant point – these were the first ones who were actually holding a serious conversation. Not even Miles Davis at that time was doing that. They were really the first ones – thanks to LaFaro. He could be a voice next to Evans, and be an equal voice. Duke Ellington with Jimmy Blanton did that a little bit, but Blanton didn’t have the technique to execute it. After that, there was Miles Davis with the quintet with Tony Williams. It went in the same direction: change the changes, and if you get lost, let it happen, let it go. In Herbie Hancock’s biography, he said, ‘We couldn’t wait to get lost’! As soon as that happened, all this music could start to happen – once they were not locked in by the lines and the structure of the tune.

This leads to another thing to say about jazz – that it’s not as free as people think, because it has all those limits. Because you also have the roles: the bass role, the piano playing the harmony and so on, then the solo instruments go off on top of that. That was the model for jazz. But the Bill Evans Trio was having a direct conversation. Then Miles did that, and we continued it with Weather Report. The bass was not playing bass – the bass was like another equal instrument. That was the main reason why the sound was so new in Weather Report – the bass was playing like another saxophone or horn. So the other instruments had to answer: Zawinul had to answer me, I had to answer Shorter and so on. That’s possible because a bass has rhythm and harmony, so it can lead a band. All of a sudden we had this new music coming out – direct improvisation and direct communication. I don’t want to take all the credit for that, of course; but I do think the main reason for the sound being different was that the bass player did not play the bass role.

So for me it started with that trio, their attitude as much as the technique of LaFaro. Of course, when I first heard it, I tried to play like him – but I was such a bad copy, I played like Miroslav Vitous…!

The album

Bill EvansBill Evans Trio

Sunday at the Village Vanguard

Riverside (1961)

PERSONNEL :: Bill Evans (p), Scott LaFaro (b) and Paul Motian (d).

TRACKS :: ‘Gloria’s Step’, ‘My Man’s Gone Now’, ‘Solar’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘All Of You’ and ‘Jade Visions’.

 

 

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Life-changing jazz albums: 'Spiritual Unity' by the Albert Ayler Trio

Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings talks about the album that changed his life, Spiritual Unity, by the Albert Ayler Trio. Interview by Brian Glasser

It was really easy for me to decide: Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity. I got the copy I own at Ray’s Jazz shop, but I heard it first at Guildhall – I went to the Barbican library and took out the CD. I saw the cover and liked it – a man merging into a saxophone. Although I’d heard of Ayler before then, I hadn’t checked him out.

So I sat down and listened to it – and I didn’t understand anything! But it was kind of interesting. This would have been in 2005 – I was about 19 or 20. At that time, I was listening to ‘normal’ jazz – Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, standard stuff. Modern-wise, everyone was into Mark Turner, Joe Lovano, Chris Cheek. Then all of a sudden there’s this guy just blowing the saxophone really hard. And it wasn’t about the harmony, or the specific notes, it was just sort of a texture. My brain couldn’t compute it. Before, I’d been listening for what I could take from something – what I could transcribe and use for my own solos. But this was untranscribable – it seemed like there was nothing to steal from it. It sounded like he was crying through the saxophone. You can hear vocalisation in Sidney Bechet and the older guys, but this was the first time I’d heard someone follow through on that and not try to mesh it with something more conventional.

Even at the start, there was something I liked in it. I can’t really put into words what it was; but something made me not want to turn it off. It might be that I liked the melodies, though there weren’t many of them. A piece might start off bluesy, then he’d just go off. And I really liked Sunny Murray’s drumming. I’d not heard any drumming like that – he was moving with the saxophonist, but in terms of intensity rather than rhythm. I could also hear the interaction was very deep – they’re all listening to each other, they’re not trying to follow each other in an orthodox way. I liked to concentrate on Gary Peacock and imagine I was him – soloing, but listening to everyone else.

 

‘Whatever Ayler does, it’s about the emotional intent behind it’

 

Back then I thought, ‘I’m just going to have to learn to listen to this music – in fascination and enjoyment’. The more I listened, the more I realised that it’s in what Anthony Braxton calls ‘an emotional zone’ – whatever Ayler does, it’s about the emotional intent behind it. I wanted to see whether I could get into that space where you’re free to do that. It’s all about the big picture – more like painting.

It made me listen more carefully to the other – ‘normal’ – stuff too. It’s easy to just learn the harmonics matrix and subconsciously you’re not listening properly any more. Everyone always says, ‘Listen [to your fellow musicians]’, but in the course of learning jazz – especially then, I think – you get preoccupied with trying to solve the equation. It’s very seldom you actually really listen. As a sax player, you play your stuff, try to make a good sound, try to get all the substitutions and the chord changes right – but you don’t let all that go and respond to what you’re hearing. Charlie Parker said, ‘You practice and practice; and when you get on stage, you forget it all’.

A couple of times in jam sessions, say playing ‘Giant Steps’ – at a reasonable tempo! – I tried to just listen to the bass-line and stay on every note he played and play things that sounded good on that, just as an experiment. And it worked! So from then, I tried to play stuff that I thought actually worked over what was happening, as opposed to listening and then playing stuff that I knew would work because it was ‘correct’. The conventional approach can get your mind in a tight place, where you have to prove what you’ve learned, otherwise you haven’t worked hard enough or whatever – even though you might not be fully committed to what’s happening. This other approach is all about integrity of intent. It makes everything simpler in a way, although it’s really hard! I only think I’m getting close to achieving it now.

With the classical music I was studying, I enjoyed the challenge of learning a piece and playing it without any mistakes. I like that split, that there was nothing connecting it to my jazz playing. Maybe by doing that training it made me not worry about playing free – because I knew I could play what people would term ‘properly’.

 

The album

Spiritual UnityAlbert Ayler Trio

Spiritual Unity

ESP-Disk' (1964)

Albert Ayler (ts), Gary Peacock (b) and Sunny Murray (perc).

Tracks: ‘Ghosts: First Variation’, ‘The Wizard’, ‘Spirits’, ‘Ghosts: Second Variation’.

 

 

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

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