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