A Tribute to Albert Ayler:
Warren Smith, William Parker, Joe McPhee, Roy Campbell Genviève Beauzée©2009
Gaëtan Bolloch: What is the sense of your gathering for a tribute for Albert Ayler tonight?
Joe McPhee: For me personally, I’m playing the saxophone now, I started to play music when I was 8 years old because my father was a trumpet player so from the time to the time I was 28, I only played the trumpet and in the meantime, I heard Albert Ayler’s music and the very first thing that I heard, that grabbed me, was the sound that was completely different from what I’d heard, there was an intensity, there was a spirituality, there was something very special about it that made me want to play the saxophone, so this tenor that you’ll see me play today, it’s all because of Albert Ayler. There are other people, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and a number of other people who, also, are very important in my life but it was Albert’s sound that made we want to play that.
Roy Campbell: That’s how I felt about his brother playing trumpet, Donald Ayler. When I first heard Donald Ayler, I’d never heard nobody playing trumpet like that and it just electrified me and excited me and then, I always thought that Albert’s music and his brother’s music was like a circle, was the beginning and the end at the same time so any point you hit, it’s still a circle. And in different periods of music, they were playing music like March themes and New Orleans and traditional themes, you know, almost like national anthems with March music but in the same time, when they soloed, they were playing in a vibrational level that was completely different. You know, they came from a circle, so they were playing the beginning and the end at the same time. You know, their music is still contemporary now.
William Parker: You see a lot of people think that the idea is, if there’s someone they like on a particular instrument, to sound like that person who you like. And you may do that at first, but it’s your duty as a musician and as a human being to find your own sound… The greatest tribute you can pay to somebody is to be inspired by them to be yourself. And Albert Ayler was an extension of Sidney Bechet but he was also a world music musician. And that means that if you listen to Albert Ayler’s saxophone playing, like say on a record called “My Name Is Albert Ayler” then you listen to the Chinese double reed called the sona you say “oh OK, that’s the connection”. There’s a vibration on those double-reeds, quadruple reeds, even though Albert was playing on a single reed. And there’s also a connection with electricity. And that’s two things you’re dealing with: lightning and thunder. When we speak of the thunder drummers, you hear wire and crash. And then lightning (makes lightning sounds). That was the sum of his contribution, outside the fact that Ayler was willing to say (starts singing): Heart love, heart love, we got heart love, heart… full of tenderness, brings about togetherness; Heart that is kind and true brings eternal love to you. Heart love, Heart love, heart love, heart love… (stops singing; everyone laughs)
Warren Smith: Anyway, I’m very lucky in my life because I was born into a family of musicians. My mother played the harp, so every morning I woke up listening to harp music. Debussy, Ravel, you know. She would say: “OK boys, time to get up” and me and my brother would get up and feel, you know… My father played the saxophone and so that was my first instrument. But then, I was what they a wise-ass. You know, I thought I knew more than I knew, at a very early age, so I decided to switch to the drums. And the challenge of my life began trying to make the drums maybe sound like the saxophone or, to make music, because drums is like (drums on the table) and the idea is to make it sound like (makes other sounds on the table) in many ways. So my whole life has been trying to imitate this and - listen to the saxophone - I don’t hear so much saxophone as I hear Joe McPhee’s voice or Sonny Rollins’s voice, and Albert Ayler’s voice was a song that Nat King Cole could sing and that I could identify with. I could hear the vibrato, the way he played and I could hear the strength and the energy he spoke about with the electricity and this inspired me to get involved and learn more about him. Then Roy came up with this idea and I seized the chance to express myself this way so, that’s why we’re here.
Nader Beizaei: When you’re playing on your instruments, do you consider yourself as a musician only, or something beyond, something else?
Smith: Maybe something beyond because I feel it is more important to be a human being and to express my emotions through the instrument rather than just being a drummer or whatever it is, you know. And I feel like I have to express myself, sometimes politically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes just through rage, through happiness or whatever the emotion may be so it’s way beyond. You know, I use the music as a tool, I use the instrument as a tool, but I look at the people in the audience, the beauty of the place itself or the impression of the place and this might affect the way I play.
Parker: Well, if you define musician as someone who is a magician, a prophet, a humanist, an activist, a seer, a seeker, a poet, then I’m a musician. If you define a musician like someone who just makes music, then I’m more than that. And that’s how I look at myself. My real talent lies in tapping into the mysteries of life. That’s really what I study and where I come from, my planet.
McPhee: Someone once said to me as a description of a musician: “What’s the derivative of it? Making magic with the muses.” And I thought “Yeah, that’s sounds interesting to me.” Which encompasses just what we consider to be music but as William was speaking about, the arts, poetry and visual art, all these things come into play. And then something else happened, especially on this tour. We see each other occasionally, we don’t always play together because these three gentlemen live in New York and I live in New York State but not in New York City, maybe 150 km away. I come to New York because it is necessary to touch all of that field of vibration and to meet people but something extraordinary happened on this tour. We engaged in conversation on many levels, we learned a great deal on each other, we also learned a great deal about the world, history on our own backgrounds, our families and how we came to be, how we got to this place in time. And it’s been more than just three weeks on the road but an extraordinary journey that personally I feel that I’ve grown extraordinarily from having this opportunity to meet these guys and this is the kind of thing I think that has to happen in general in the world, we’re not separate, these are not distinctions without a difference, we are very different in many respects and I just feel tremendously honored to have the opportunity to play with these guys, to talk to them, to touch them (laughs)
Campbell: I’ll tell you a story. I remember one time when I was doing one of my early gigs, I was on the subway going to the gig and I asked myself this question, I said: “How do I know how much air pressure it is to make a note, and I have my eyes closed, and I’m not watching my fingers, and this music comes out?”. And I said there’s something beyond, myself I’m just a transmitter, and I’m a vehicle that’s in touch with all the spirits, and beings, and also to the ancestors. I don’t consider myself just as a musician, but as a transmitter. And when we’re making music we feel the audience, and we’re in touch with the audience. And if I don’t make people happy, or make them feel they’re elevated after the music, as transpired, then I’m not doing my job right.
Florent Wattelier: In music are you more interested in the irrational, like emotional, part of the music, ore more the political aspect, like a political or social weapon.
Campbell: That all come into place, emotions, spirit; politics is life. To me music is life. I mean I see music when I see children playing, or see the trees blown, or the ocean, or the flowers, or the trees… That’s all music.
Smith: What Roy said about being a conduit… I’m a little bit older than all these gentlemen, and I’ve been listening to music all my life so I use all these influences but when I play I don’t think about or imitate all these influences, I try to open myself up so whatever comes from the inspiration will come through me and somehow be directed by what I’ve heard and what I’ve been influenced by, and when it comes out the combination of that will perhaps make you feel something.
Nader Beizaei: You’re often classified as “Free Jazz” musicians, or labeled as such. What do you think about this label in particular? And how do you consider freedom? What part does it play in your life or in your music?
Smith: I really would like to address that, because I’ve had the experience of a conservatory education. I played in symphony orchestras. I played 30 Broadway shows in my lifetime, West Side Story and things like that. And I’ve done the strictness of studio music, you know when you have to be on time, you have to wear a certain tie and you have to rehearse. And autocratic conductors: “You never have to fart on stage!” It’s very very strict and it’s constipating, you know what I mean? And you make money like this but I feel the people who only do that are like the mercenaries who go overseas and fight, no matter what it is but for the money. And to me that is not really music. Music has to have a heart and soul, and when I can release myself and play with people like this where we just allow everything to influence us, we hear everybody’s opinion and we take everything into consideration; this to me makes the heart of the music happen. And I prefer to do that
Parker: It just seems to me that people outside forces who don’t want to fly want to name all the birds and categorize them and they want to study them, and then take a bird, kill it and dissect it. But in the end, they can’t fly. So what you call someone is not important, it’s usually inaccurate and has nothing to do with what they do. It’s more important to love somebody, okay, than trying to figure out what they’re doing. So that’s all I’m concerned about; this thing of free jazz or free music or whatever, that’s totally irrelevant, it has nothing to do with anything as far as I’m concerned. It can be defined, we can talk about that too, but for right now, I don’t think that’s really important in 2008 to still hang on to… Because we don’t even know what jazz is, we’re talking about things that have no real definition and in the meantime, people out to work, going through many emotional crisis, many things are happening in the world so we really shouldn’t be worried about in out of these categories of music, we should be focusing a little bit on a higher level of things.
McPhee: In a very practical sense I’ve come to realize that this life that we’re involved in has more to do; when I say more, in addition to the fact that it’s music and art, it’s also a business, and we have to be as creative in an artistic sense than in a business sense. Sometimes, we’re a little lax in these areas. For example, Free Jazz: I don’t like those kinds of categories, it’s something someone worked up and wants to lay on me. And I’ve decided at one point that if I’m going to a record shop, and they have an area for Jazz, and area for classical music, an area for Rock, but they don’t have an area for me, so I’ve created an area for me. So I said: “You wanna go to the Jazz section, you might find something of me in here but only that much because there’s so many Jazz people or whoever they can decide as Jazz, so I made a concept, I borrowed a concept from a man named Edward the Doctor, Edward De Bono, who has, if you’re interested in this, you can look into it about lateral thinking, and I talked about that, what this concept is, and how you get from one point to another in the process… You’re driving, say, on a highway and you know this is what your destination is, but there’s a hole in the road here. So you can no longer go this way you have to maybe go this way, and that way, but you’re the wrong way, and maybe you go this way before you get to here. In that process, you’re on another trip, you discover things, and these things you didn’t intend to find are purely accidental and they enhance your life because you’ve discovered something and still you get to where you are. So I said: “Okay his concept his concept was PO, which is a language indicator to show that provocation is taking place, it’s a symbol. So when you say PO music, PO is a language indicator: said music, this is provocational, this is not necessarily what it means, seems to be. It’s not be-bop, because I’m not a be-bop player, it’s not avant-garde, because I don’t know what the hell that means. You know, I can’t be ahead of my time, behind my time, I can only be in my own time. It’s the only place where I can have things happen. So I create this word called PO Music and if you want to find my music, go to the PO music section.
Parker: Because ultimately, everybody defines their music. They’ve got a vocabulary, they’ve got a language that comes out of that vocabulary and if they choose to, they will define what they do as elaborate as they want or as small or unelaborated as they want, according to what they think. They’re musicians that just don’t want to talk about anything. That take doesn’t mean they’re not articulate, it just means that they don’t want to talk about their music. And that’s the wonderful thing about the music, it’s that if you look at the world of flowers and insects and plants, they’re all different, they all have a different world, they’re all connected, all come from the same place but they’re all different. And that’s musicians: they’re all different. You have 25 drummers and they’re all different. They hear differently, and one doesn’t, there’s no right way, like “what he hears is right and what he hears is wrong”, because it’s like saying “he’s wrong”, when he was a human being and your music is you. Everybody hears differently, everybody approaches it differently, that’s the great thing about it; where else can you do that?
Smith: I come from Chicago, and Chicago is the heart of blues from the immigration of people of the Mississippi Delta up the river to… and many of them settled. And all my life, I’ve been listening to the blues, I was studying this kind of music, Jazz, Swing, Be-bop and then I studied classical music. And then I went to the point where I really didn’t have a respect for the blues, because they say in our country that familiarity breeds contempt. And this music I was listening to all my life. So at one point I went to a classical music camp called “Tanglewood”, of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. One day, I turned on the radio, and the blues came on, and it grabbed me, and I said “Oh I got to go back”, because I missed it, and it gave me a very strong respect that I didn’t have before, I didn’t realize how much… So now whatever I play, I play Jazz, I play classical music, I play outside, but the blues is always going to make itself evident, somewhere in what I play, because this is part of me. So you can’t lose who you are, you can’t lose what you know
Gaëtan Bolloch: What is silence in a musical composition?
Smith: Silence means that you take time to listen to somebody else’s opinion. Even if it’s only the birds, the children chattering or you know… You’ll never see me with earphones walking down the street because the sounds of humanity are more important to me. Even the wind blowing… Sometimes this might inspire a song so I only listen to music at home, when I’m away from home, I try to leave myself open to everything else that can influence me. And to me silence is a part of that.
Parker: Well, for me, silence is another sound. It’s just category of sound, and I think, in my design for a music school, part of the course would be a silence, where you listen to silence for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, but that would be part of having a music school where everybody listens to silence because listening to silence helps you play in real time. See, a lot of musicians don’t play in real time, they play in programmed time, and they play something they know and they’re not really listening in the moment. You really have to listen everyday to silence and develop that idea to really listen in the moment, because when we say we’re improvising, it’s questionable. We’re improvising but to be able to play in the moment, it’s very difficult; you have to really train yourself to do that.
McPhee: There’s a writer and a musician by the name of Ned Rorem who wrote a book called “Knowing when to stop”. There are a lot of people who don’t get and think they have to fill every bit of space with something, they don’t know that it’s something very important, when you don’t have anything to say, to just shut up. You don’t have to fill up all that space. So one of the most important aspect of this music or any other music is knowing when to stop. You just don’t go on and on infinitum. Silence, I think, is an important bit of structural material, it’s as important as any other sound that happens. It builds tension and release and this kind of things which are part of what we do and are part of life.
Smith: I have a friend who evolved into a holistic healer and while he was studying, one of his teachers told him he prescribed as a matter of his own healing that he go on a “talk fast” of 24 hours. He told me about this and what it means is that for 24 hours you are not talking, you have to listen to our own thoughts, confront all the things that you have without responding and you can really learn something about yourself by doing that, and you can only do that through silence. So it may be a part of the human process.
Gemma Parker: I would be interested in what your influences would be, outside of the musical sphere. When you talk about your own voice and discovering who you are do you have influences that are outside music?
Smith: Yeah, I taught school for 38 years then retired. And when I first went to college, I enrolled as an architecture student. And these two things, the architecture and the design and form of it, definitely influence what I do. And teaching, which gave me the possibility to listen to my students and to watch them grow, and I have 5 children and I watch them grow, and I have grandchildren and I watch them grow. All of these things outside the music, sometimes it has nothing to do with the music, but it influences the way I approach it.
Parker: You don’t know when something will influence you. You get to a point where you just begin to see as an expression that people step on flowers and they don’t realize they’re stepping on flowers. If you develop your perceptions, you begin to see flowers everywhere. Like Warren, if I may say, he’s always seeing flowers. You know, he’s noticing the architecture of the building, he’s noticing someone’s face, noticing the way that faucet is dripping, he’s noticing the when train comes in and (makes brakes noise). It’s like the saxophone player Kidd Jordan, he improvises off of sound. If you go to his school, they’re mowing the lawn and behind the lawnmower there’s Kidd Jordan playing his saxophone. You become aware of everything… You never know what will happen tomorrow, who you’ll meet on the street, what you’ll read. It’s your job to be open to everything because you don’t want to let one opportunity pass that can help you be inspired and to be fresh and to be on point. So you have to be open to everything, as many things as you can possibly take in, you take in. As much music, art going to the pool hole, whatever, going to the swimming pool, going to the basketball court, going to the barbershop, going to the liquor store, going to the grocery store. Anything where the people and things around can inspire you. Inspiration does not live in one place; the whole world is a temple. The whole world is a universe.
McPhee: And this is a real commitment, because it can be very easy to give lift service to this kind of thing. And you can say “I’m very open and I believe this” but I’ve found out there’s an awful lot of people who don’t believe in anything, they just say they do. And when comes to shove, it’s not there. This is a real, real commitment. You’ve got to go beyond just the idea into living it. Some people talk about freedom, but they have no idea, they don’t understand that freedom is not a finished thing, a product that’s there, it’s a work in progress, moving toward something, constantly, like gravity when a space shuttle is going around the earth: it’s actually falling towards it but it never gets there, but it’s always falling towards it. We’re always in a process of becoming whoever we are, whatever we are, at some point in time. You know, we’re moving on to who knows what, I don’t know, I feel like the more I think I know, the less I know.
Smith: Some people call it the transition, because your spirit recycles itself into another being eventually: it might be a dog it might be a fly, it might be a flower. When I go, my spirit will still be here.
Victoria Reynal: You mentioned before musicians as being birds. Are we born with wings? Or can we grow them if we’re not born with them?
Parker: I believe that we’re all born with wings. You know we’re born with wings and we’re born with great spirits, and there’s something called education that… If we’re not educated in a proper way, then our wings are clipped and we can’t fly, we’re told we can’t fly, we’re told we can’t do anything, we’re told our imagination is limited, “Put that imagination back in the box”, you can’t think this way. So I think the actual and true meaning of education is trying to maintain what’s already there and to enhance that spirit and to exercise those wings, and to teach us how to fly, not necessarily clip our wings. A good teacher does that, that’s the idea of a teacher, to help us how to fly.
Smith: Everybody has that possibility. William never thinks about William. William is always thinking about how can I help this guy, how can I make this one feel better, here’s somebody that’s in desperate need, and William will go into his pocket. I never worry about William per se, because he’s never worried about himself. And he’s always happy because his concern is never about “what’s happening to me”. And he doesn’t feel this pain at all; it never hits on his faith, because he helps somebody else. And I think the more you give, the more the Creator gives you to get. I have some friends who are very wealthy and can’t afford to give you a nickel without expecting something from you. And I have other friends who have absolutely nothing and give everything they have, trusting that somebody will return to them, and it always does. So, go ahead and fly.
McPhee: I think children… Watch children, because before they got to school and everything, they are in such an extraordinary and wonderful world, they have marvelous imaginations and I think that we really have to look to them, to the future, because they are going to teach us to fly without these wings; I mean, when I was a little kid - remember when we started I told you I was crazy – I believed that one day I would be able to fly straight up without wings, and then I saw a man fly across the English Channel with these wings on his back and a jet engine, he jumped out of an airplane. Did you see this? He was from Switzerland and he made this thing, and he jumped out of a plane, and he flew from France to England with his thing, and he was flying around like a rocket man, and it’s fantastic. One day I would like to levitate, maybe tonight, it’s possible. We’re going to work on this; we’re really working on this. But children, man, they are our greatest hope. They have, before they’re educated, and it’s taken away from them, they have a lot of answers for us.
21 November 2008; La Dynamo, Pantin. The quartet’s concert has been released on Marge as Tribute to Albert Ayler.
Nader Beizaei, Gaëtan Bolloch, Gemma Parker, Victoria Reynal, Florent Wattelier + Alexandre Pierrepont © 2009)