You may have glimpsed this man’s name over the past few months: Oxford-based pianist Alexander Hawkins is starting to get the attention he deserves. A technically gifted, immensely knowledgeable, and extremely inventive performer in both freely improvised and more jazz-based contexts, he has recently appeared on two albums, ‘Barkingside’, by the group of the same name, which features Alex Ward, and ‘The Convergence Quartet’, which documents a collaboration between two British musicians (himself and bassist Dominic Lash) and American/Canadian guests Taylor Ho Bynum and Harris Eisenstadt.
DG: Perhaps we could start off by talking about how you began in music, your early musical experiences, how you got to where you are today, basically.
AH: I had my first piano lessons at the age of six, I think; there was always music on at home, so I was always around this music. My dad has always been heavily into jazz; he did a PhD, a year of which was at Columbia, so he was in New York in the late 60s, when there was obviously a lot of stuff going on. He also did an undergraduate degree at Birmingham, and he was there in the early 60s, when the Ellington band would come through quite frequently; he also saw Coltrane and Dolphy. So, there was always music on at home – the first musical thing I can remember is the Ellington tune ‘Saturday Night Function.’ The stuff that’s burned in my memory is early Ellington; the first 20 years of Ellington are what I’ve grown up with since the year dot.
He also had a lot of classical music on, so I was also listening to that, though I think as a kid the jazz is easier to relate to, because you can skip round the room to it! When I went to school I was lucky, being in Oxford, which is obviously a big musical town; my first piano teacher was a guy called Roger Allen, who’s a big Wagner scholar. My first lesson was in how to read rhythm, and it involved a totally implausible feat. He had the score to Dei Meistersinger there, open at the Prize song, where Hans Sachs is hitting the anvil while Beckmesser is trying to sing, and I had to clap the anvil part – he was score-reading the thing!
So my formal training was all classical. I’d always had piano lessons, but then, at the age of about 13, I started playing the organ, which became my first study instrument really, and from 13 to 18 I played a lot of organ music. At 18, one day, I just never played the organ again. I’d made a decision: I’d figured out that I really, really liked classical music, and in some cases I loved it, but jazz was the music I really wanted to do. So I thought: if I’m going to play this, I need to know the music inside out, so I can’t play organ, I’m not going to play organ, I’m just going to get my piano stuff back. I was always playing piano, but not very well; I was actually quite obsessive-compulsive about practising the organ, so all my chops were on the organ, and I thought, right I’ve got to start playing the piano properly.
On leaving school at 18, I came to Cambridge: my degree’s actually a law degree – I was at Caius and I did law – and then I stayed at Cambridge for six years because I did a PhD straight after I did my undergrad degree – the PhD was in criminology. Now all this time the Cambridge music scene was really pretty bad for the type of music I was interested in – it’s a big folk town, and obviously there’s a lot of choral music happening, but when it came to straight-ahead jazz and more ‘out’ music, there was not a lot happening at all. So I spent I don’t know how many hours in these garages under Harvey Court where they store old carpets (which is quite a nice smell if you’re going to practise for hours a day!), and they had these upright pianos there. So I would just practise my own stuff; and it was a time where I was quite obsessive-compulsive about practising – I would have patterns and things I would practice, and if I didn’t get them right I would have to go back and do them again three times, and heaven forbid I didn’t get them right those times, because then it was nine! So I spent most of my time in Cambridge actually just doing my own thing – I still played straight-ahead jazz gigs, I had friends in London and Oxford, so I was doing that, but not so much. Towards the end of my PhD I was beginning to play more, and then I suppose it was really when I began to spend more time back in Oxford, after finishing in Cambridge, that I began to meet more people on the improvised music scene and the jazz scene, and play out a bit more, with a bit more intent, as it were.
The Oxford scene is a fantastic one to grow up in: there’s a great collective there, the Oxford Improvisers’ Collective, with some fantastic musicians like Dom Lash, Pat Thomas, and Pete McPhail. Pete and I just made a record last year, which isn’t out yet. He’s kind of been off the scene for a few years now, but when it comes to alto players in this country, there’s Pete and there’s the rest – well, there’s some great players actually, like Trevor Watts, but Pete is really something special. So it was only when I moved back to Oxford that I really started to be able to take things more seriously.
I met Alex Ward at a fairly early stage in playing – we actually did a concert in the West Road Concert Hall [in Cambridge], with Alex and Steve Waterman, bizarrely; I’d done some stuff with Steve Waterman in a big band context, and Steve’s a great player – he’s got that Kenny Wheeler thing down totally, so it was a nice front line. So we did that thing, and I got to know Alex there. He was a very inspiring guy, because, even if you don’t understand the music, he’s such an alarmingly good musician that, whether you like what he’s doing or not, you can’t help but respect it, and, in a very quiet way, he was very influential – he’s very big on doing the music you want to do and the music you believe in and the music you know. I first talked to him about this when he sent me a bio for the gig we did at West Road: it was two pages long and he said, “you’re going to have to edit this, but I always think that it’s better to be verbose than misunderstood.” It was clear from this that he was serious and purposeful. So that really helps you at an early stage, getting into a horribly marginalized music.
DG: Someone with so much experience: how old was he when he was playing with Derek Bailey?
It was certainly in his very early teens. There’s a duo record with Steve Noble called ‘Ya Boo, Reel and Rumble’ on Incus, which suggests that he knew Derek by then – I think he was only 15 when he made that. There’s also a record called ‘Legend of the Blood Yeti’ from when he was perhaps only a year or two older, which has Derek on one side and Thurston Moore on the other, and it’s just frightening what a developed musical conception he has at that age. In this music we all have this romanticized thing about, you know, you’re expressing yourself and your experiences, and then you listen to him and you think – there’s only about 15 years of experience there, even if he was conscious for the first four of them!
So that was the beginnings of stuff. I suppose the fundamental love of the music came from what was on at home, which was early Ellington and Tatum. We had this tape of a radio show on Tatum and it was mind-blowing, frightening as well for a young piano player: nowadays, if I read one of those reviews saying it sounds like there’s six hands playing it, I think ‘oh yeah, it’s probably just some guy with loads of chops’, but then, listening to Tatum at that age, you actually believe how people could misunderstand this for somebody playing with four hands – just incredible.
DG: I guess that brings us on to specific piano-playing influences: obviously there’s Tatum, which would be in the jazz direction, but, in terms of the avant-garde side of things, I guess there would be Cecil Taylor…
AH: I guess. I mean I came at the avant-garde piano players through…the first really out music I remember hearing was Dolphy – Dad had this compilation of Dolphy stuff. I got Dolphy straight away, because I’d listened obsessively to Charlie Parker. There’s a great bootleg of Charlie Parker, which is badly recorded, so you’ve got drums and you’ve got Parker, and, when you can’t hear the piano and you can’t hear the bass, suddenly you realize how free he’s playing. I could play it to someone who knows the music really well, and they might say Jimmy Lyons, they might say Dolphy, they might even say Ornette –the point is that it was so free…So I got Dolphy quite early. And the thing with Dolphy is, something that people haven’t really talked about much is the connection with Tatum – there’s so much harmonically that I think is going on there.
So, Dolphy and then Coltrane, and then, I suppose, Cecil Taylor. Because I was into the early stuff as well, I’ve always been checking out the whole canon – so I was listening to Earl Hines, and if you’re listening to Earl Hines you check out Jaki Byard, and if you check out Jaki Byard you listen to Mingus, and if you listen to Mingus you check out Don Pullen, and right there you’ve got a still criminally underrated player who’s unbelievable in what he’s doing.
DG: He’s mixing the more traditional things with more modern things…almost like a history of jazz piano.
AH: Absolutely, like Jaki Byard – and the thing about it is, it’s not pastiche, he has all these styles down and they’re all happening from ‘within’ him.
So, Don Pullen and Cecil Taylor were the first of the really free piano players I was listening to. I guess you never finish listening to Cecil Taylor – there’s so much of his stuff that I don’t know, and I still love that music. And then – I can’t remember exactly how I got into the AACM musicians – I think Sound, by Roscoe Mitchell, was the first record that I had from those guys, and Muhal Richard Abrams is just an extraordinary player, again, inexplicably underrated. I think the thing with Cecil Taylor is that his is just such a vast conception that you have to be very careful not to get totally eaten up by it. If you’re trying to get your own thing, and Cecil’s the only ‘out’ piano player you’re listening to, then what can you do? You can ape him, in which case you fail, because, first of all, you’re not being original, and second of all, no-one’s got his way round the instrument. So I was listening to Muhal a lot, because he has a very different conception.
Also, staying in Chicago, Sun Ra is a fantastic piano player. I know some people don’t like the solo piano records, but I just don’t understand that. Again, he’s another guy who’s got the whole tradition down, who can play [Take the] A Train and play it totally out, or play stride on it, or just play an old blues.
So that was one end of the listening, the free piano players. Of course, there’s many more that I love – at the moment, Bobby Few – jeez, he’s unbelievable! The stuff he does with Frank Wright, the Centre of the World quartet, obviously the stuff with Steve Lacy and with Noah Howard….And then Marilyn Crispell in the Braxton Quartets is phenomenal – and I think that, especially with the earlier stuff, she’s an example of somebody who’s really got a conception indebted to Cecil Taylor’s, but with her own thing as well. She’s really walking that line – there’s a record called Live in Berlin, from 1984, with Billy Bang, [Peter] Kowald and John Betsch, and there’s a piece dedicated to Braxton, but the biggest influence is really Cecil Taylor. It’s amazing because she’s hewing very closely to that conception but still manages to do her own thing – that’s an extraordinary record.
And one guy who doesn’t get talked about nearly enough, but who really needs to be talked about in the same bracket as Monk and Bud Powell, is Elmo Hope. A wonderful pianist and a great composer, but he gets short-changed because the description will always say ‘Elmo Hope’s style falls somewhere between that of his boyhood friends, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk’ – you can see what it’s saying, but it totally sells him short.
And from Elmo Hope you listen to Herbie Nichols and then to Hassan – there’s a Max Roach trio record with a pianist called Hasaan Ibn Ali, which is his only surviving performance – he had at least one record which was destroyed in the Atlantic Warehouse fire in the 70s, a quartet with Odean Pope. This Max Roach record has Hasaan and Art Davis on bass. If Elmo Hope suffered from being in between Monk and Bud Powell, this is halfway between Monk and Cecil Taylor!
So there’s this amazing heritage of piano players that people just don’t talk about any more – go to a music college in this country and people will be talking about Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock. There are these guys who treat this piano in this certain way – it’s a tradition that I guess has been carried on by certain players in the U.S., like Jason Moran – the percussive thing. But it’s not very fashionable in jazz education now – it’s very much about this post-Bill Evans thing.
DG: Yeah, and a strong classical influence too – I heard Tom Cawley’s Curios supporting Wayne Shorter the other week and it seems to be very much the in-vogue style.
AH: Yeah, it is. Personally, I just don’t go for it. Maybe it’s just the space I’ve been in for the past few years, and it just doesn’t appeal to me –I guess we’d all be very boring if we all liked the same thing. There are some really beautiful players in that style – don’t get me wrong, I love Bill Evans. But if I want to hear someone do Bill Evans, I’m going to listen to Bill Evans. Of course, the dogma follows through the free piano line as well – there’s any number of guys who just unthinkingly clench their fists and they’re Cecil Taylor. But there’s something particularly pernicious about the way the music schools are teaching people prescriptively which notes to play – this whole Lydian chromatic based thing – and it lends itself very well to that post-Bill Evans style. It’s just not something I go for.
Returning to influences – of course, I’ve just been talking about American players so far: in this country there’s Veryan Weston. I spent the day with him a couple of months ago, and it was so inspiring you wouldn’t believe – he was showing me all this stuff. Some of it went in, in a literal sense – I learnt these rhythmic patterns from him – but it’s more about just being around someone with such a conception like that.
But the most important player to me in this country is Pat Thomas – you just don’t hear him play piano in this country, there are just so few instruments, though he plays it a lot in Europe. It’s an overused word, but he’s a real genius – he can do things with standards that are mind-blowing. I have this recording that he taped at a concert in Newcastle, in an improvised music context – him, Ernst Reijseger, Hamid Drake, Gail Brand and Roy Campbell – and it’s just the greatest piano-playing I’ve heard in so long. He’s just a real master, and to be around him in Oxford, and to learn from watching him…I’ve played duo stuff with him as well, and got totally whupped by him, but you learn so much in the process, and he has a way of making you sound good! He’s a real master, and you don’t hear him play piano enough, which is a real shame…
DG: How would you say you negotiate those influences in forming your own style? Obviously you already have your own style already – how do you go about doing that – do you deliberately aim to come up with a new concept?
AH: I don’t think it’s a conscious process, developing your concept. I think in some ways you can’t let it be, if it’s going to be sincere – you just have to play and see what happens. Maybe it’s got something to do with the way I practice – I never transcribe anything, but I’ll sit down and try and figure out the sounds that people are using. I hear some texture that I like in Sun Ra and try and work out some pedaling thing that he’s using – so for five minutes you’re sitting there and thinking ‘I’m going to be Sun Ra, I’m going to sound like Sun Ra here.’ Likewise, with Cecil, there are certain technical things which totally baffle me, until I see him play – I think seeing him is the way to understand how he does what he does. The technical things he does at the piano are intimately linked to how he moves at the keyboard – so I’ll try to find out how he does these ridiculously fast runs, or how he voices something. One of the things with him is that he’s so tonal, in many respects – so you’ll hear this voicing and try and work out what it is.
And what I take from Muhal and Pat [Thomas] is this thing of how the old styles, the styles that you love to listen to, can be relevant to the new style – I suppose with the AACM it’s the explicit ‘ancient to the future’ concept. So I’ll hear this fractured stride that Muhal’s playing, and try to integrate things like that, because, especially with improv or ‘out’ music, we can worry too much about being self-consciously ‘new’, and not worry enough about making nice sounds and playing the music that we love. So it fascinates me how Muhal is dealing with, say, the Chicago tradition of Earl Hines, and how he has this serious Bud Powell thing – his single-line work is straight out of Bud Powell, and this shows you how it can be relevant a non-tonal context.
But in terms of consciously how you formulate those into a style, I don’t think you do it consciously, and on those ill-advised occasions when I have thought in a performance, ‘well, I’m going to do my Monk thing or my Cecil Taylor thing,’ it just hasn’t worked – unless you’re in some zany, hyper-referential context, where everyone’s messing around and you can think ‘right, well now I’m going to play some ragtime.’ That’s different because then you can just get your head down and play really hard and pretend to be James P. Johnson. But unless you’re in that hyper-referential style, it has to be unconscious. I guess that’s one of the mysteries of how you develop a personal style – I don’t know how it happens. Of course part of it is a mechanical thing at the keyboard – you need to be able to execute your ideas, you need to be able to play what you’re hearing. But even that’s a kind of circular thing, as you probably don’t hear too many things you can’t play, although there are obviously exceptions to that: I can hear a million Cecil Taylor licks that I can’t even dream about playing! So, I think it’s an unconscious thing, forging your style, and it’s always developing as well – you’re always trying to learn. You to learn from the different contexts you play: this learning on-the-job kind of thing. During a performance, especially if it’s with people you haven’t played with before, you learn a lot about your style by seeing how it fits in the different relief which other groups set it in.
DG: You still play in a fair amount of different contexts: you’ve got the improv work, which is your main thing, and you’ve got the new Ensemble, which is perhaps more of a jazz kind of thing, and then you’ve got more mainstream jazz work as well.
AH: Sure. This is the music I’m most comfortable with and the music I want to make, so it tends to be that the improv settings I’m in are loosely free jazz settings. I play in this group, Barkingside, with Alex Ward, which really tends towards what we think of as English improv, but most of the settings I’m in are, I guess, leaning towards free jazz. It’s different with the Ensemble because it’s more compositional, but I’m not really approaching things differently to how I approach totally free improv. It can be a more intuitive ride, because my default style fits more comfortably into this, so I can switch off and get into that thing we’ve all had, where you’re playing and you can either have this super-concentrated thing where you’re playing and thinking, ‘yeah, this is something, I’m going at this and this is nice’, or you’ve got that stage one above it where you’re thinking about what you had for breakfast, or what you’re going to do after the gig, and something in the back of your mind’s telling you, ‘yeah, the music’s happening tonight.’ I suppose I’m more likely to get into that space if I’m in a free jazz context, even though I’m not thinking terribly differently to when I play with, say, Alex Ward, or in a setting like that.
Now of course there are different considerations to take into account in this kind of setting I’m in with the Ensemble, which is more to do with following through a horizontal conception, following through an idea which might be totally unrelated to what someone else is doing, because you’ve set them off on a different path and you’re on a parallel path – it’s like windows on the opposite side of the street, that sort of thing. That’s less of an approach, I think, that improv bands take, where it tends to be more knotty and vertical in terms of that kind of engagement.
DG: I suppose we could talk a bit more about some of the specifics of your style. I’ve been listening to some of your solo playing, which hasn’t been officially released – these are just some short solo recordings, and they seem seems very rhythmically based. There are lots of pauses in, shifts of tempo; you’ll be going in one direction, then you’ll stop, seem to check yourself, almost, then move off in another direction – and I wondered if that was a conscious ploy you’d developed to keep yourself on your toes, so that you didn’t settle into familiar patterns.
AH: Yeah, I think a part of it is conscious. I had this batch of tracks that I’d recorded, and I really liked some of them, and others I wasn’t sure about. They were good but, for all improvisers, the solo is a special case – there’s no information which comes other than from you, except insofar as you might use the acoustic, or there might be some extraneous noise in the studio or whatever. So it’s a very difficult thing, and I’m still working at it really.
The pauses – where you’re struggling, not in the small-scale, but where you’re struggling to develop something, that’s when you’re most prone to fall into patterns and familiar things, so with those tracks, if I found myself going into one of those things that I knew as one of my things, as it were, I would stop and turn round. The rhythm thing – the more I play, rhythm is just more and more important to me – I know that some people dealing with the perception of music, and with the perception of human communication in general, argue that rhythm is the fundamental aspect of our communication. I don’t know if that’s true, but I think that, as musicians, we all recognize that rhythm has this fundamental importance which, certainly for me, harmony doesn’t have, and melody needn’t necessarily have. But rhythm is – I mean if I’m listening to somebody play non-rhythmically, or out-of-tempo, I think to myself, ‘ah, they’re playing out-of-tempo’ – in other words, I think of it in relation to what a tempo would be. Now that doesn’t mean playing metrically, it doesn’t mean playing grooves, but it means having some concept of flow – just like with the early free jazz drummers. You listen to Sunny Murray, and it’s intensely rhythmic – you can’t count it – or maybe you can, maybe if you’re a drummer you can count it, and maybe if you’ve got a brain like a supercomputer you can count Milford Graves – but it’s this concept of momentum and flow.
Now, that’s rhythm in a general, fundamental sense, and I also think that groove and metre are very important. I think there are these two conceptions of freedom which are at work with improvisers – one is the ‘freedom from’, which you might associate with old-school British improvising: no chord changes, no time, no soloing – anarchic in the literal sense.
DG: And deliberately trying to find strategies to avoid playing anything – people like Derek Bailey, especially, trying to find ways to play something different in every performance.
AH: Of course. The view which is always posited against that one – well, people argue against what Derek Bailey means by [the concept of ‘non-idiomatic improvisation’] –but, the view which is posited against that is that that in itself is a dogma and a rule –if you say, going in to every performance, ‘I’m not going to play changes, I’m not going to suggest any harmony, I’m not going to play any rhythm, I’m not going to solo, and we’re all equal’ – well that strikes me as slightly limiting. Personally speaking, I find more in the concept that you’re getting from, say, the AACM, which is not the ‘freedom from’ but the ‘freedom to’ – if you want to play totally zany, totally non-metrically, totally atonal, then, great, that’s a choice. Another choice, to extend your freedom, is that you might choose to play referentially, you might play a groove, you might hover round some tonality, or you might quote ‘West End Blues’ – for me personally, I find that that gives more of a range of available expressions. Now I know that’s not true for all players – some of the improv players who haven’t come from jazz, or another music – I don’t know how they would feel about that. Maybe they’d feel it’s not in their arsenal to do these things, so, if we were to say, ‘we might go into some ragtime,’ or, ‘let’s play tonally’, or something, that actually might be inhibiting. But just for me personally, I’m just very conscious of my own bounded rationality when someone says ‘let’s play really free.’
DG: So saying ‘let’s play free’, you feel, would actually limit you.
AH: I feel that it can. There are exceptions…Well, the first thing to say is that there are complete masters who play in a totally free idiom. [Pause] I just called it an idiom! Not that that wasn’t deliberate, I don’t know…There are total masters who can do this – Evan Parker, Derek Bailey. You don’t hear these people and think they’re limited – ‘why aren’t they playing Stella by Starlight?’ – so this is purely a personal thing, but I like material to work with. Maybe it’s just that I don’t trust my own invention enough, maybe I lack that degree of courage. There are some people who do it absolutely fantastically and I never have that sensation [of running out of ideas], say, if I’m playing with Alex Ward, never, because if I begin to flag I steal something from him – it’s like having this huge conveyor belt of ideas and you can just take what you need.
DG: But for solo playing, you would want to have some kind of framework.
AH: Yes, I think so. I don’t even know that I would know what it means to play totally free, solo. Conceptually, if you sat me down and said ‘play me a totally free solo’, I don’t think it would come out. I might end up doing a 5-minute impression of what I might do if I were playing in an improv band, a ‘music-minus-one’ kind of thing, but solo, I find it very difficult to play totally freely, in the sense that free means ‘no nothing’. Now if someone says to me ‘play freely’ and I interpret that as ‘play what you want’, well then I’m happy as Larry and that’s fine. I think part of that is a difference between the British conception and the American jazz conception, and probably the European scene at large – I’m thinking of some of the Dutch players, or the Germans.
DG: You were talking about the different international contexts there, and earlier when we were talking about your influences, you mentioned a lot of American players, a lot of British and continental players as well, but do you feel that coming from Britain it’s given you a particular heritage, or do you feel that with records and so on you can have whatever heritage you want?
AH: Yeah, it’s an interesting one. Part of this goes back to the general version of the more particular question earlier about influences and how you negotiate them into a single style. I think part of it is that, so long as you’re sincere in what you play at any one time, you sort of can’t help it, so I don’t feel self-conscious. I don’t think, ‘educated white boy plays jazz’ – I don’t have this hang-up, it’s not a problem for me, because it’s not relevant. I grew up – the music that I was listening to since I was knee-high to a grasshopper was the Ellington stuff – that is the music that I know and I love. Sure I know this music from records, and in terms of the music I’ve experienced live, it’s a whole mix of things, and I am growing up and working in this British context, mostly. I suppose I could feel an odd-one-out, in that this non-idiomatic free improvisation is the dominant conception when we’re talking about ‘out’ music – but I don’t feel self-conscious about it, and I don’t think it’s an issue. I think we can be too cynical when you read interviews with people talking about jazzers as everyone’s music, or all the music as everyone’s music. Sure, I haven’t grown up in the context of a lot of these musicians who are my heroes, and of course as a result I’m going to have a different take on things, but in terms of the music you love, so much of what you feel about music or art is something in your head and in your imagination – you love what you love, and I don’t feel it’s a problem there.
So I don’t think we have a conscious national slant to what we’re doing with the Ensemble. I guess there must be British sensibilities in what I’m doing – I’m probably more prone to dive inside the piano and make funny noises than an American piano player, I suppose. But I simply don’t think of it in these national terms. I had a bit of this when I started playing. I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to make new music, and the only thing to do is to play utterly anarchic, noisy free jazz’ – this was when I didn’t know about the improv side of things. That was a conscious thing, but then I started to think ‘actually, I’m getting too hung up on making something that’s new (missing the point that noisy free jazz was the best part of 40 years old itself!), and actually I want to make music that sounds nice; I want to make pleasing vibrations, not just be bloody-minded’ – and as soon as I started doing that, then I suppose it just took its own course.
And in terms of how it manifests itself in this group we’ve got tonight: by passport, four of us are British, but we have Javier Carmona on drums, a Spaniard, and Otto [Fischer], who’s half-Nigerian and spends a lot of time in Nigeria and a lot of time in New York. He has the Downtown sound, a Bill–Frisell-inflected thing often, but that’s totally genuine for him – it would be more strange if he were to turn up and play like John Russell or Derek [Bailey], although he’s got that language in the arsenal. And then Orphy [Robinson] came up with that generation of the Jazz Warriors– that is an indigenous music for Britain. Some of the early records – ‘Out of Many One People’ – that’s an incredible record, it’s a great record, and that is a British music, I think. Orphy comes straight from that – he’s playing his own thing. And Dom Lash and Hannah Marshall are best known in the non-idiomatic context.
But again, it’s probably a case of the listeners’ perspective as well: when I first heard Hannah, I thought of Abdul Wadud, and somebody yesterday came up to me and said ‘she’s got that Ernst Reijseger thing completely down.’ Now of course the long and short of it is that she’s playing nothing but Hannah, she’s doing her own thing, but the listener will hear different things depending on where they’re coming from. Likewise, Dom is as happy playing ultra-minimalist stuff – composed pieces by Radu Malfatti, or improvised stuff with Mark Wastell – as he is playing almost a kind of classically-inflected thing with Phil Wachsmann; or if we do standards gigs he can turn on the Wilbur Ware. So I don’t think of him as having a national bias when he’s playing music – I just think that he’s playing music, and our collective music happens to gravitate towards one area.
DG: And of course, as you say, this group’s got a cosmopolitan background in a way, and then you’ve got this American music you’re playing.
AH: Yeah, in terms of the compositions, for a start, it’s just music that I love – I think compositionally they’re just incredibly strong, and they do incredibly interesting things. If you take a slightly unlikely bunch of musicians and give them strong material, something’s going to happen. So we have a few Braxton charts.
Again, it wasn’t a conscious thing to choose music from the American tradition –it’s just material that I thought the band would work well with, and probably slightly more than half of it’s my own material anyway – and that’s British material, I guess, so we cancel each other out! But, you know, Braxton, Sun Ra, I don’t think of these as American composers, I just think of them as musicians offering information that we can work with.
DG: There’s a lot of rhetoric about this music that might emphasize the national side of things, particularly with American music – black classical music, a lot of the free jazz rhetoric of, say, Amiri Baraka, attacking Burton Greene for not playing the music properly because he’s a white man, but once you get beyond that, it just is music, you’re not worried about that.
AH: No, that doesn’t make me feel worried at all. I mean, you look at the groups now – look at the racial make-up of Braxton’s groups, or their gender make-up. And, by the way, it’s so context-specific historically – when you listen to ‘Black Dada Nihilismus’ on the end of the New York Ark Quartet record, it’s powerful stuff, but the thought never crosses your mind that it needs to be explained – and there’s a white guy in the band, Roswell Rudd, anyway. So, amongst musicians, of course there’s the odd thing, and jibes from Miles against various people, and against Burton Greene from Baraka, but you look at the make-up of these bands now…
DG: You think it’s gone beyond…
AH: Yeah, because I think there are so many different angles on this music – of course there’s the fact that essentially it is a black music, but it’s still a music for everyone. Even if you read about say, the organ trio records, records made for a black audience in black clubs, I don’t think the musicians in question would have any kind of problem with you or I enjoying these records. Because the information has come from a certain place doesn’t mean that the information is only for a certain people, and the same goes for the other way. Imagine we’re in a parallel universe: we’re having this discussion in America, and you’re saying to me ‘so what about this white working-class guy from Yorkshire, why are you playing this fractured music?’ – I mean, witness the critiques of Braxton in the 70s and late 60s, for ‘whitening’ his influences. He says he loves Paul Desmond and Warne Marsh and [Lennie] Tristano, and there are certain people on his back.
Of course the racial debate is still massively important in this music, and in this country, there’s still issues with it with musicians, it’s still important. But in terms of what music we can make these days, whereas it might have been contentious us playing Sun Ra thirty years ago, it didn’t cross my mind this time, and I don’t think it would cross anyone’s mind. Now, of course, you thought of it, to ask the question, but, that’s your job in this context.
Now, if we were to cover ‘Black Dada Nihilismus’ and I was to do the Amiri Baraka recitation, then things would be different and there would be this ‘why are you doing that? How do you relate to this music?’ But I think that’s a qualitively different thing to what we’re doing.
DG: And very much of it’s time. Obviously Baraka’s still doing his thing, he’s still recording with William Parker, and also with Billy Harper I think, and obviously there are people who’ve been influenced by Baraka, but there aren’t too many people with his extreme rhetoric.
AH: Yeah, and I’ve never, even from older musicians who have come out of this world – one of William Parker’s first records was ‘Black Beings’, the Frank Lowe record – I had this conversation with William Parker in between sets a few weeks ago, and we talked for half an hour and he was giving me encouragement and inspiration and advice, and the racial question just wasn’t relevant. There was never any question, ‘why don’t you play your own music’, because it’s a global music like others now, and it’s simply not an odd thing for me to be doing, it’s not an odd thing for you and me to love this music now, whereas in the past it might have been contentious.
DG: Although I suspect that with some of the free jazz there may been more white people [than black] in the audience anyway, what with the abstract, intellectual side of it. And then you get someone like Archie Shepp, or like [Albert] Ayler, who changes his style because he wants to reach a black audience.
AH: And to look at this question in depth – of course, the George Lewis AACM book [A Power Stronger than Itself] is going to be massively important in relation to this – we’d then have to think about the Chicagoans moving to Paris, and that so much of the documentation of this music has been on European labels – Black Saint, Soul Note, Hat Art and so forth – and we’d have to think about where these musicians make their livings nowadays – sure they play their club gigs in the states, but essentially they’re making them in the European festivals and so forth. This question of how the worlds relate, we’d have to think about those things as well.
DG: A debate for another day, perhaps.
AH: Yeah, for another interview, or twenty. But I think that this George Lewis book will be really significant. He’s already published some important essays dealing with Afrological and Eurological perspectives– there’s a great essay called ‘Gittin’ to Know Y’all’ about the Baden-Baden free jazz meeting and about these questions. But as you say it’s a huge question.
DG: I suppose if we wrap up with something general – I’ve asked this question in interviews with other people – but what do you think about the state of jazz today, both on the national level, in the UK – the position of jazz and improvised music – and on a global level, do you think it’s better or worse than it has been for a while –what sort of things do you see happening, happening in the future, happening now?
AH: Well, let’s start with the national level. It is still very difficult to work in this country. I teach as well, and I’ve made a living off the back of playing for a while. It can be done, but I simply couldn’t have done it if I wasn’t taking all sorts of work. Now, I pay my rent off gigs and the back of a bit of teaching, and that’s all great, but it’s phenomenally difficult to play with any regularity in this country. A personal gripe, as a piano player, is that the state of things is just parlous in this country – there are no instruments at all, it’s completely ridiculous, particularly when you think, that, a hundred years ago, everywhere had a piano. In London, there’s the Vortex, which is a beautiful instrument, but in terms of regular gigs, it’s difficult to play, because nowhere has an instrument. A keyboard is a completely difficult instrument to a piano, and the piano itself is genuinely an endangered species. So part of it is an opportunity thing – it’s very difficult to work in this country.
There’s obviously always been this jazz mainstream where the music has been very easily marketed because, on the one hand, you can hijack and the escapism of it and the freedom of it, and you can sell an ultimately very conservative music to people, and still let them think they’re having their piece. So there is a lot of mainstream music being made in this country by people who are probably doing fine financially.
Now with musicians my age, or a bit older, there’s this interesting phenomenon that we’ve had over the past few years, with, say the growth of certain collectives, and so on. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s some great players associated with these groups – I’ve done a couple of things with Tom Arthurs, for example, and he’s got some serious stuff, he can really play. Also, Ingrid Laubrock is a fantastic player – there’s a wonderful trio album coming out with Tom Rainey and Liam Noble. I was there when they recorded it; it’s coming out on the Intakt label later in the year and it’s really great. But, otherwise, the collective-based scene seems to me to be incredibly conservative. In some ways, I feel bad about saying this, since I love it when people are making music, and that’s the important thing – but the adulation that certain bands get – let’s take for example this recent ‘punk-jazz’ thing – is beyond me, because I don’t hear the fire in the music, I don’t hear the originality in the music. If I want to listen to that, I listen to the Hal Russell ensemble twenty-five years ago, absolutely blowing the shit out of that kind of music.
The people who are championing this as some new thing, did ‘Machine Gun’ pass them by? Where are they when Steve Noble plays, where are they when [Paul] Hession plays with Alan Wilkinson, why haven’t they freaked about so much of Evan Parker’s music? That music [‘punk jazz’] seems to me to be tied in very much with the image of the music. So much of the product (I use the word deliberately) which is coming out of a lot of these bands seems to come from people who are more interested in the concept of musicians than in the music.
DG: So if you market it as ‘death jazz’ or as ‘punk jazz’, then you can market is as ‘free’, rebellious, ‘jazz with a rock attitude’, that kind of thing.
AH: Yeah, exactly, OK, so it’s great, but they’re not giving Arthur Doyle gigs – well, that’s an extreme example, because that’s maybe not for everyone. But it’s not, I don’t have animosity towards the players, I simply don’t know them, but I don’t understand it. These guys are playing big gigs and doing fine – they’re getting some nice fees for some of these– but I just don’t understand it. Don’t get me wrong, some of these guys are great players, and there are some great bands coming out – there’s this Loop Collective band called Outhouse and they’ve got this lovely thing at the moment with some Wolof drummers from Gambia. It’s very groove-based, there’s some really nice playing, it sounds great and I really like it, but I feel that these guys are an exception, and a lot of that scene I don’t understand.
So that’s that – in terms of the young players in this country that I think stuff is happening with, from a selfish point of view I’d like to think that I’ve stuffed my band with a few of them. Probably no-one’s taught me as much about this music as Dom [Lash], because since I went back to Oxford I’ve almost never played without him on bass – he’s been involved in the music for a bit longer than I have, and I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s going places now – he’s now in Steve Reid’s band, he’s playing with some great guys, and he’s an amazing player. Hannah [Marshall] is a couple of years older than me but she is first call for ‘cello really – she’s done some great stuff with Veryan Weston – just a wonderful, wonderful player. Javier [Carmona], amongst the young drummers on the improv scene – well, he is the young drummer, there are some other people, but he’s phenomenal. It’s totally criminal that Otto [Fischer] is not better known – he has this one record on Incus of his songs, and that’s it for his recorded output – he’s a really fantastic player. Another guy – I love what I’ve heard from Corey Mwamba, a guy from Derby who plays vibes, marimba, and dulcimer, one of Orphy’s protégées.
I mean, it’s still not a very young music in this country. This is a world where Alex Ward is still being talked about as the young thing – he’s been on the scene for God knows how long and you still get ‘young band, featuring Alex Ward’, so that’s a bit odd.
But then, internationally, from my peer group or just above, there’s some young guys in New York doing amazing things. I have the fortune to play in this group, the Convergence Quartet, with Taylor Ho Bynum and Harris Eistenstadt – we’re touring the UK again next April, I hope – one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever done. They’re incredible, incredible players – if you’ve got a regular gig with both Cecil Taylor and Braxton, then you’re going to be incredible, I guess – but these guys are both making amazing music and reconciling jazz traditions with improv or classical traditions – well, not necessarily reconciling, but just forging this new kind of creative music. Peter Evans, another trumpet player, Steve Lehman, again, probably slightly older, and, older again, Craig Taborn is frighteningly good. His playing with Roscoe Mitchell…There’s a quintet album called ‘Turn’ where Taborn is astounding. He’s one of the young-ish piano players; and there’s Vijay Iyer, too –I like a lot of his work – check him out with Wadada Leo Smith’s ‘Golden Quartet’.
It’s difficult to say what kind of a state the creative music scene is in now as opposed to before. As jazz musicians, we’re basically romantic. I love the idea of playing be-bop back in the be-bop era and of being a section musician in a big band – these are golden eras and we love that idea because it’s a gig night, and a ‘when giants walked the earth’ kind of thing. It doesn’t feel like that now, but, you know, I think it would just be crazy to imagine that these guys weren’t struggling for gigs back then.
In terms of where the music’s going, I suppose as young players, we’re ultimately the one’s who are going to have to influence these things, but we need to digest the music of the masters who are still living, as well as those who aren’t. If you’re talking about where the cutting-edge of the music is, it’s Braxton, still: that Ghost-Trance box, the Iridum set, it’s unbelievable and there’s nothing like that on this planet. Cecil Taylor: there’s nobody playing music as powerful and as original and as dynamic as that. Roscoe Mitchell; Leo Smith; Evan Parker; Lol Coxhill: these are the real masters, and part of what makes them so great is that they’re still doing their thing and forging on. In terms of where the music’s going, it’s not something you worry about while these guys are around, and I guess it’s up to the rest of us to interpret it and assimilate the information and make of it what we will. Again, this is probably not going to be one of those things that is conscious – much as we digest our own personal influences in an unconscious way, I think the music will probably evolve however it goes, organically.
DG: Because you can’t have someone absolutely copying Braxton or Cecil Taylor.
AH: Yeah, you can’t, and it’s totally missing the point. I suppose this is one of the things, when people say ‘if you love Tatum so much or you love Monk so much, why don’t you play that music rather than this racket you play now’. Well, you know, if I listen to Charlie Parker, OK, I love the fact that he plays flat five, or sharp nine, or whatever the hell he plays, and if someone says to me play bebop, then I’m maybe thinking of some of these things, but really what I like about Charlie Parker is just the fact that this guy comes from seemingly nowhere (OK, an impression maybe bolstered by the recording ban), but you hear this thing and it’s so free and it’s so vocal. What’s so important about Charlie Parker is the spirit; it’s that he’s an original, and he’s following his own nose; the least Parker-like thing conceivable is to fossilize our music into a repertory music. Thinking about how to interpret the canon, I like how Muhal [Richard Abrams] put it in one of his Delmark album titles: ‘Things to Come From Those Now Gone.’
You have these conversations with guys from music college sometimes – I’ve got to be careful not to put too much of a downer on this, because there’s some nice players coming out of there [music colleges] – but, to stereotype things, you ask, ‘who are the great tenor players’, and there’s this fetishizing of Brecker, who had his own thing in a fusion/ post-Coltrane direction, or maybe someone like Chris Potter, Joshua Redman, or, in another direction, Scott Hamilton. I don’t necessarily dislike listening to these players (although I certainly wouldn’t choose to), but, as somebody who’s listened to this music since I was little, and is totally in love with it, and is obsessed with Ellington, Tatum, Oliver, Bird, and so on, I personally can only get the essential spirit of this music I love from the type of artists I’ve been mentioning – who seem to understand that what’s important is individuality, and not getting your diminished scales down really quick so that you can play super-hip licks and impress your friends. And of course, our duty in turn is to interpret the spirit of their music, and to protect their music from becoming a repertory music – in other words, to keep the whole thing as a living music. Given the time, we can all shred over ‘Giant Steps’, but that’s just missing the point – that’s a cosmetic thing. The spirit of these players is what’s important, and that’s what these guys – Braxton, Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill, Cecil – that’s what they’re doing, I think, and that’s why they’ll continue to be the vanguard of the music, until we don’t notice that the next generation is actually the vanguard of the music. In terms of the direction I think we just have to hope that we know it when we see it.