maandag 14 januari 2013


In the spring of 2011 I had the enormous pleasure of doing a long interview with drummer Barry Altschul in New York. He announced the recording of a new cd then. It took a while, but next month the Finnish label TUM is releasing The 3dom Factor by the Barry Altschul trio, his first release as a leader in more than 25 years.
The perfect occasion to publish this interview. Hope you enjoy it.

Legendary drummer Barry Altschul is back on the forefront

‘I want to be a really free drummer’

He was one of the first and foremost free drummers on the scene. He played on legendary records like Dave Holland’s  Conference of the Birds. He was Paul Bley’s drummer of choice for two decades, was a member of Circle (which in hindsight is no less than a supergroup) and made a string of creative and original records under his own name. But then, around 1986, Barry Altschul seemed to disappear from the scene. Now he is back, as a member of Jon Irabagon’s  Foxy-trio and with plans for a new cd, which will be the first under his name in more than 25 years.


‘Make no mistake’, says Altschul on a bench in a very sunny Central Park, New York, at the side of which he has been living for many years in the same apartment. ‘I have never been away from the scene. All these years, musicians came to my house to practice or to just play. I have a drumset in my apartment, of course, but also a bass and a piano, so we can really play there.’

 Altschul is 70 by now, but in his jeansjacket and with his hair in a bun looks much younger and bursts with energy. Otherwise he wouldn’t be playing in the trio of Jon Irabagon, the young saxophonist of Mostly Other People Do The Killing, one of the hippest bands on the present jazz scene. Altschul is featured on Foxy, a very energetic blowing session with the young Peter Brendler on bass and Irabagon on saxophone. The cd is inspired by Sonny Rollins’ record Doxy and contains a cover of that piece. But the recording nevertheless sounds like a whirlwind from beginning till end. ‘It’s very intense’, says Altschul. ‘It was what Jon wanted: all tension, no release. It’s one stream of consciousness heavy blowing session, based on the impetus of Sonny Rollins’ Doxy. We cover the tune on the cd, but you have to listen really careful to recognize it. Jon and I have also been doing some duo concerts and he wants to record with me.’

Still, the drummer doesn’t consider himself to be a patron of young players. ‘But as an older player I have the responsibility to pass on the information that I have learned. And playing with younger people keeps you young and fresh.’

Barry Altschul plans to record under his own name (Update: the Finnish label TUM will release The 3Dom Factor in february 2013), which is big news since his previous cd, That’s Nice on the Soul Note label, dates from 1986, more than a quarter of a century ago. Many will see the new cd as his comeback record. ‘But I’ve never gone away’, replies Altschul. ‘I just was not looking for gigs as a bandleader. My ego is not such that I have to be a bandleader all the time. But now I feel I have to do it. Creativity works in a curve and I have written some music that I really want to record. It will be some kind of an all star band, though I can’t give you any names yet (Update: finally, it appears to be a trio record with Jon Irabagaon on sax and Joe Fonda on bass). But it’s not going to be a total avant-garde record. I feel like I’m able to fuse inside and outside better than I have before.’

 Altschul is widely regarded as an avant-garde drummer. And that upsets him a little bit, since he also worked extensively with mainstream musicians like Art Pepper, Hampton Hawes, Chet Baker, Sonny Criss and Lee Konitz.   Though Altschul has recordings of many of these sessions, none of these ever came out on a record, while his work in the avant-garde world was well documented.

 The first time the jazz public  got aware of Barry Altschul was on recordings with pianist Paul Bley, in the sixties one of the pioneers of free jazz. Altschul has fond memories of how he met Bley. ‘I was a janitor in the studio where Paul Bley was recording with Paul Motian, Gary Peacock, John Gilmore and Don Ellis. I had to clean the studio, but was of course also learning about recording and engineering on the spot. Those days I was playing hardbop with George Cables and Dave Liebman, guys who I grew up with in NY. I started talking to Paul and told him I was a drummer. A few days later I got a phone call from him, asking me to come to a gig for the opening night of a new club, Slugs. That must have been 1964 or ‘65. Paul had never heard me play and we had never rehearsed. When I set up my drums, he asked me: do you want to play some standards or some music that I’m into? I was an arrogant kid from The Bronx, so I said: play whatever you want. Well, Paul played very out, and I responded to that. And I worked with him on and off for the next 20 years. But until then I had no idea of free music.’

Altschul played mainstream and avant-garde alternately. Wasn’t it difficult to make that shift, from playing free to playing hard bop? ‘There was no shift’, says the drummer firmly. ‘It’s all jazz to me. There’s certain techniques you have to use to play avant-garde. But it’s all music. I am an American jazz drummer and like to feel that I’m a complete musician. I consider myself as a free drummer, not an avant-garde drummer. Freedom has nothing to do with the word avant-garde. It’s a matter of choices. The more choices you have, the freer you are. If I have the ability to play something that sounds like Arabic, Indian or African music, why shouldn’t I put it in my music if it’s a good musical choice at the moment? I have the choice to do that. There’s many avant-garde players that I feel don’t have too many choices. They are free in their improvisations, but their freedom is within a cage.’

Altschul was never in a cage. Certainly not in the group Circle, which was very free in its concept. With Chick Corea on piano, Dave Holland on bass and Anthony Braxton on reeds this was kind of a supergroup. ‘But we weren’t that super back then as some may think of us now’, Altschul smiles. The drummer played all kinds of stuff in Circle. ‘From ragtime to no time’, as he is often quoted. ‘That phrase is not mine. It comes from Beaver Harris (drummer with Archie Shepp and leader of his own 360° Degree Music Experience, until his death in 1991). But it describes exactly what I do, even today.’ 

 Still, his work with Circle put even more the avant-garde stamp on him. His string of records under his own name, most of them on the Italian Soul Note label, are also pretty much in an outside vein. ‘But on each record there was also one or two tracks that were really inside’, says Altschul. This certainly is true of That’s nice, dating from 1986, and the most recent Barry Altschul record to date.

The drummer seemed to disappear after that record came out. But he nevertheless stayed very active. ‘I had moved to Paris in 1983 and lived there for ten years’, says Altschul. ‘I played with about everybody there, from Americans Steve Lacy and Alan Silva to the Russian pianist Simon Nabatov. I even had a big band for two years, when I was musical director of the Orchestre Regional de Jazz in Nancy. I didn’t play drums with them, but wrote the music, and even took conducting lessons to be a real big band conductor.’

In 1993 Altschul went back to New York and started teaching as an adjunct-professor at Sara Lawrence College in Bronxville, which he did for ten years. ‘But always, always, always, musicians came to my house to play’, stresses Altschul. ‘And I played countless gigs.’

In 2003 Altschul got a phone call from Adam Lane, fellow New Yorker and bass player. ‘I didn’t even know him at the time. But he wanted a quartet with Paul Smoker on trumpet and John Tchicai on sax. So I said yes.’ It was the incitation for Altschul to go back on the road and play more. ‘I recorded with the FAB-trio, with Joe Fonda and Billy Bang who died recently, sadly enough. And for several years I was involved in a group with Steve Swell, Gebhard Ullmann and Hilliard Greene. I also played a lot with Roswell Rudd.’

And now – finally - he is ready for that new record under his own name. ‘I like where I’m at now. I gained another level and I’m happy with my own playing. I’d like to tour more than I do now. But other than that, I’m OK. I am very fortunate to have the gift of music. I am able to play, so why should I complain?’

 Peter De Backer


maandag 17 oktober 2011

Robin Trower in Breda

Just some assorted candy.
Probably most jazzfans will not like this,
but I can't help loving it.
I'm so proud I filmed and uploaded this all by myself, like a big boy!
Enjoy!!! (and let me know what you think of it)

woensdag 16 maart 2011

Verneri Pohjola - Aurora ****

American jazz journalists seldom show any intrest in European jazz. EST is the only European band that ever got on the cover of Downbeat, which says a lot. However: the European scene has a lot to offer. In Scandinavia alone there seems to be plenty of intresting jazz musicians.
One I got to know thanks to the German Act-label is trumpet player Verneri Pohjola. Upon hearing the first notes, you think: this must be Norway, someone like Nils Petter Molvaer or Arve Henriksen. Wrong! Pohjola is from Finland, and this cd (his debut) was released there in 2009. It was quite a success, and now Act reissues it to give it the international audience it deserves.
 The cd starts very solemnly and slowly. The second piece is more uptempo, very well constructed, clocking in at about 12 minutes, with a bass clarinet and a string quartet adding classical and folky colours, with some heavy drumming, a beautiful piano solo, and so on.
The mood will shift a lot on this cd: Pohjola differs the instrumentation from piece to piece, creating a rich palette of musical colours.
Pohjola must be a fan of Miles Davis, since he tackles Rodrigo's Concerto De Aranjuez, but he does it in an entirely different manner, reworking it as a trumpet/bass duo for the biggest part.
Great playing througout, not only of Pohjola himself. He seems to stem from a musical family. His father, bassist Pekka Pohjola, plays on a couple of tracks on this recording but died soon afterwards. This cd is dedicated to him.

vrijdag 11 maart 2011

Kip Hanrahan - Desire Develops an Edge ****

Even 27 years later I still have deep memories of the excitement I felt when opening the hard cardboard cover of this double LP. The strange black and white photography was very artful and tasty, with a mysterious touch to it. It was upon reading a 4 1/2 star review in Downbeat that I went to the local record shop, and to my enormous surprise found a copy of Desire Develops and Edge (still a mysterious title to me).
Not only the DB-review aroused my intrest. But it fascinated me how one man whose name was 'Kip' (which means chicken in my language) and who was hardly a musician himself  (he only touches some percussion once in a while)  could convince so many interesting musicans from totally different backgrounds - such as Jamaladeen Tacuma, Arto Lindsay, Ricky Ford, John Scofield, Milton Cardona, Jerry Gonzalez, John Stubblefield and hordes of percussionists  - to create his very imaginative music. Hanrahan acts like a film director here: he assembles a cast of musicians who play different scenes of his scenario following his directions.
And it is Steve Swallow and (especially) Jack Bruce who are the stars on the set. Bruce only plays bass sparingly here (the bass chair is mostly filled by Swallow, brilliant as always), but his singing is awesome. Jacks voice has never sounded warmer than on this recording, and for a man with his recorded output, this really means something.
This record focuses on percussion, changing from South American to African flavours. Some pieces are merely rough sketches, while others are really beautifully wrought songs. The closing track Nancy (with Steve Swallow playing bass and piano) is simple and nice, and still sounds very fresh to my ears. It was a pleasure to hear it again after more than two decades. Desire Develops an Edge was the second in a long series of a (mostly) very captivating string of records by one of the most enigmatic figures on the jazz scene.
I admit some pieces on this record tend to be a bit dull, but I still consider this cd as a piece of art by a strong personality. A most welcome reissue.

woensdag 9 maart 2011

Donny McCaslin - Perpetual Motion ****

Ok, this is some kind of electric cd, since there is an electric bassplayer (Tim Lefebvre) and a Fender Rhodes, played on most tracks by Adam Benjamin (who doubles on piano once in a while), and on one track by Uri Caine. But don't be afraid: this is excellent jazz, as you quite rightfully expect from Donny Mc Caslin.
The saxophonist hasn't stopped surprising me since his debut Exile and discovery (1998) on the now defunct Naxos Jazz label. Dave Douglas and Maria Schneider were equally impressed, since they used McCaslin in their groups and on their recordings. I was particularly in awe of his trio cd Recommmended Tools of 2008, which is one of thé most astonishing saxophone trio-cd's of recent years.
This one is very different, because of the (modest) use of electric instruments, be it a Fender Rhodes, with some strong but quite dry basslines by Tim Lefebvre (he never slaps) and some sparingly used electronics added by David Binney (who also plays alto saxophone on one track).
Donny McCaslin is a real powerhouse on his tenorsaxophone,  his virtuosity is really amazing. But it serves the music right (he wrote most of the compositions himself). The music sounds like a 21st century version of jazzrock, in the best meaning of the word. Enjoy it!

maandag 7 maart 2011

Danilo Perez - Providencia ***1/2

What strikes the most on first hearing is that some pieces on this cd are heavily influenced by European classical music. The opening notes on piano could be the start of a Bach piece. And in other pieces, most obviously in the two parts of Bridge of life (starring a woodwind quintet), Perez brings music that has plenty of classical references.
Indeed, Danilo Perez - who you probably know best as the piano player of the Wayne Shorter Quartet - had a classical training when he was very young. But Perez is from Panama. No wonder then, that you hear Latin American sounds on this cd. There's plenty of percussion, for instance. But Perez has an open mind, and his musical world spans more than jazzy, classical or Latin American flavours. The highligts on this cd are his dialogues with Indian American Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose altosaxophone has an astonishingly Indian sound. Galactic Panama is a fantastic track by two musicians with two completely different backgrounds who  provoke each other to bring out the best in themselves. The same is true of The Maze, a duet in two parts.
For those who only know Perez of his work with Wayne Shorter, this cd will be a a pleasant surprise.

zaterdag 5 maart 2011

Vijay Iyer - Tirtha ***

Pianist Vijay Iyer is one of the most fascinating young jazz musicians of recent years. He is the son of Indian immigrants but is a real American, since he was raised in the US from early childhood. In his recorded work, his Indian roots were not really obvious, until now. As Iyer himself stated in his liner notes to previous cd's, he was very much influenced by his tutor Andrew Hill, and by the likes of Alice Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and even Sun Ra. Their musical traces can be heard especially in his solo piano cd of last year, a brilliant one as you hopefully know by now.
But here, on this third outing on the superb German Act-label, Iyer gives an insight in what his Indian parentage means to him. More than in his own pianoplaying, the sound of India is very prominent by his choice of partners on this cd: Prasanna (born in Chennai/Madras) on guitar and Nittin Mitta (of Hyderabad) on tabla.
The tabla is of course an Indian percussion instrument, so the Asian flavour it delivers is inevitable. But Prasanna's electric guitar, with those very eastern sounding bended notes, is even more Indian. It is Iyer who makes this music a crossing between Indian music and jazz. Tirtha hence combines the best of these worlds. This is a strange combination of hardbop and raga. Let's call it world jazzfusion or something.
The result probably isn't as strong as Iyer's Historicity and Solo albums, but it's surely the work of three great artists.