Barry Altschul is a drummer almost certainly best known for his work with Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Sam Rivers in the early ’70s (as part of the group Circle and on Holland’s album Conference of the Birds). He’s also the drummer on saxophonist Jon Irabagon‘s astonishing CD Foxy, from this year. Hank Shteamer, who wrote a profile of Irabagon for Burning Ambulance #3 (coming soon!), conducted this interview with Altschul on October 26, 2010.
HS: Jon Irabagon is a player who’s worked with both long-form improvisation, like on I Don’t Hear Nothin’ but the Blues, and with more inside, hardbop types of jazz, like on The Observer. He and I talked about this idea that if you play on either of those sides, you get pigeonholed, and it’s hard to do both.
BA: That’s true.
HS: Do you feel like you relate to that idea?
BA: Yes. [Laughs] Yes, I do. I feel that I’ve been pigeonholed.
HS: Can you elaborate on that?
BA: Well, a lot of my recording career has been what we’ll call the avant-garde. Yet a lot of my professional career has been fairly equal between playing with avant-garde people and playing with inside people, but my reputation is pretty much avant-garde. I remember once going out with Art Pepper, and we were on the road and one of the newspapers said, “The surprise of the evening was the avant-gardist Barry Altschul swinging.…” And so yeah, I feel I’m pigeonholed.
HS: There was an interview posted online with Anthony Braxton where he was talking about the record he made with Woody Shaw, and he was talking about how appreciative he was that Woody Shaw chose to record with him, because Braxton said that in the ’70s, when the AACM guys came to New York, “the bebop guys hated us.” Did you feel that there was this schism between the two movements?
BA: Yes. In a lot of ways, yes. I remember one time, playing at Slug’s with Paul Bley. I’m not going to mention names, but one of the more established trumpet players almost got physically violent [when he heard] the music that was being played. He was very upset that we could do that to music.
HS: So did you feel like almost everybody that was associated with this freer style of playing was shutting themselves out?
BA: No, no, not really. I think what it was, was that the more inside musicians felt that the players that were playing more out had to establish themselves first. They felt, I think, that you had to prove yourself that you can play a certain way before you took the liberties of extending.
HS: Do you personally agree with that?
BA: Do I personally agree with that? It depends on from what point of view I’m looking at it. I consider myself a jazz musician, and then I also consider myself being able to play free, so how I combine the two into one concept, I suppose, would be that to me, playing free is a matter of choices. The more choices you have, the freer you are. So I feel myself, as a free musician, I want to have the choice to be able to play any style at any time within the context of the music, so in a certain way, I feel that, yeah, to be truly free, you need the choices. And ones that create their own style or their own sound or their own concept, those people do what they do very well, but to me—and this is just to me—aren’t truly free. They’re locked into their own concepts.
HS: I understand what you’re saying.
BA: Okay, good. [Laughs] Because I’m not entirely sure!
HS: It makes sense to me. Did you ever feel any sense of regret or frustration about this idea that you had been painted into a corner?
BA: I feel frustration about it because I think that it has affected my work—not my playing but my ability to get gigs. I think a lot of people when they think of me, think of me a certain way and feel that they can’t think of me another way.
HS: Has there ever been a specific instance where you might’ve been trying for a particular gig and you felt like you were looked over because of that?
BA: Not really, no, but I do know that certain musicians who are close friends of mine have told me that other people have asked them about my abilities. “Can he play time more than three bars in a row?” Or, “Can he really swing?” There have been some of those questions asked to friends of mine who came back to me and told me that.
HS: Over the years, you’ve obviously worked with so many musicians, many of whom have worked on both sides of this divide, if you want to call it that. Can you think of anyone who has been able to excel on both sides and be accepted in both communities?
BA: Sam Rivers, for one; Dave Holland, for another, off the top of my head. At a point, I suppose Chick [Corea] as well, because of Circle at one point and then his other output. But Archie Shepp, now, I think—I think Archie going back and learning all the tunes and so on has given him a very original approach to playing all kinds of styles. I think Roswell Rudd [is] another one. Ray Anderson. Yeah, there’s a few. I mean, there’s a lot more, but they’re just not coming to my head, so I don’t want to keep it specifically to them. But yes I do.
And now more and more. I think the younger generation, Jon [Irabagon]’s age group, not just here, all over the world, are using the whole vocabulary of jazz as what they play; they’re not just picking out a particular style. I’ve been playing with some people in Buenos Aires who play all the styles very well, from Dixieland—from, as Beaver Harris used to say, ragtime to no time, and I think that it becoming more of an accepted way of playing.
HS: Who are the musicians from Buenos Aires?
BA: There’s a saxophone player by the name of Rodrigo Dominguez; there’s a pianist by the name of Ernesto Jodos; Jeronimo Carmona. There’s this young trumpet player Sergio Wagner…
HS: I think it’s interesting because you mention people like Chick Corea, or even someone like John Coltrane, and it seems to be very accepted in jazz, this idea that you’re progressing from either playing very inside and traditional to playing experimental and avant-garde, or vice versa, where you’re starting off—like Chick Corea did—playing experimentally and then you’re moving toward the more conventional…
BA: Well, actually Chick started playing more inside and his experimental [phase] was a period that he started to get into with Miles, but before that, he was playing with straight-ahead jazz people.
HS: I think what I was trying to get at, though, was this idea that, like you said, people have these periods, where they move from one to the other but not at the same time. And what I think is really interesting about Jon Irabagon is that he’s really committed to doing all this stuff at once and not aligning himself with any of the schools. Do you know what I’m saying?
BA: Yeah, I do. I think that’s very admirable. It might affect his work somewhere along the line, but from a creative point of view, I think that’s great.
HS: Just to get a little more particular into that project, the trio that you have with Jon Irabagon, what is playing in that setting like for you? Just playing in such an extended way, and with a player like Jon? What is the trio like for you?
BA: Well, actually, I’m kind of used to playing this way. Playing in trios has been something I’ve done for years over my career, and playing extended forms has also been part of my career. I found it very easy to play with the trio. I did have a comment about the Foxy record…I felt that there was not enough release, as far as tension and release was concerned in the Foxy record—it was all pretty intense. And playing-wise, it was all quite easy for me—that wasn’t really a problem. But when I listened to it, I felt, “You know, there could be some release here.” And then when we played the gig for the CD party, we did that. We started to play all of our original tunes and add to the repertoire of what was on the Foxy record and it worked out great—I thought it was great. So I think this trio has potential.
HS: I was at that show, actually. I thought it was really great.
BA: Okay, so we agree! [Laughs]
HS: You’ve obviously worked in similar situations with Sam Rivers. Is there anything that Jon is bringing to the table that is new or surprising to you?
BA: That’s an interesting question. “New”… I don’t know about “new,” because I don’t know if anything really is new, or if it’s just different ways of putting things together. But what surprises me is first, his willingness to play that way, and to try to do it all, and to try to make his conceptual style an all-encompassing one—that’s refreshing. But like I say, there’s another young saxophone player whose name is Jake Saslow, who was working in my group, who’s very interested in experimenting and adding to his own musical vocabulary and playing more open music, yet he’s now got the gig with Michael Bublé, the singer, and he’s another one of those guys who can play inside and outside, and it seems like there’s a whole young group of guys who do that—that’s just what they do. Vijay Iyer, Marcus Gilmore—the drummer. These are the real young ones. Then you get cats like Nasheet Waits. In other words, I think that more-open music has become part of the continuum.
HS: In an interesting way, it’s not so much “Can the players execute?” or “Are they able to play both inside and outside?,” because I think that’s almost not the problem so much as just how they’re perceived. Because you mention Jake Saslow playing with Michael Bublé and I think often something like that can lead to a player being labeled that, and then it would be hard for them to be taken as seriously in the hard-core experimental context.
BA: Right. Yeah, and you know, there still is a split. I mean there’s a whole circuit, let’s say, of alternative music, festivals and clubs and so on, where people who just play that music play and whether they can actually play a bebop gig or not, I don’t know, but what they do play is very good, very interesting and emotionally moving.… But I do find that there is a split with certain people that don’t—Well, it works both ways; the put-downs work both ways. There are some people that are just playing out that put down people who are just playing in, and there’s people who are just playing in that put down people who are just playing out. I don’t think attitudes have changed that much to those people who are extreme like that. But in the overall musical context, I’m finding that more inside people are using outside vocabulary in their music, as well as more outside people, as far as the tension and release is concerned, are playing more melodic and more swinging.
HS: It’s interesting because that split you’re referring to does have a lot to do with venues and performance opportunities, because in New York, you could play at the Stone and it’s a very avant-garde-oriented type of thing, and then obviously there are venues like Jazz at Lincoln Center or Birdland or something that specialize in tourists coming to hear straight-ahead jazz. It seems like the audiences are still split. Do you feel that way?
BA: Yes, actually. I don’t know if audiences are really split, as opposed to the musicians themselves making it easier for the audience to deal with both styles. I think that tension and release is important, and I know with some of the more avant-garde groups I’ve been playing with recently, like the Steve Swell-Gebhard Ullmann band or the FAB trio with Billy Bang and Joe Fonda and myself, the audiences are there, they’re happening when we give them that tension and release. They’re more open to the tension once they’ve felt the release. [Laughs]
HS: So, kind of accenting each style by playing the other style.
BA: Yeah, just putting it into the concept. Because even for the players, for me, it’s difficult to listen to all avant-garde without the release. And I’m not talking about the release necessarily being something that’s harmonically and melodically accepted and swinging, but there’s a release there, and audiences, once they can feel that, they start listening in a different way…Art Blakey once said to me, “If you ever notice, classical orchestras, when they come onstage, people in the audience are already paying attention, even while they’re tuning up.” And he says, “Well, that’s ’cause they wear tuxedos!” [Laughs] And you know, so all of a sudden, a bunch of tuxedos come onstage and you start looking at them, and in that, you’re paying more attention. And so I think it’s the same thing audio-wise: If you give them some release, they’ll listen to the tension more astutely.
HS: Yeah, it’s interesting, because as I’m sure you’ve heard, Marion Brown passed away last week—
BA: Yes, I did.
HS: And I’ve been going back and listening to some of his records, and people have pointed out—and I think it’s true—that he really embraced the beautiful aspects of so-called free jazz along with the more wild and aggressive ones. I think that’s why his music was so listenable, because he did give you the tension and the release.
BA: Yes, I agree.
HS: One more thing I was going to ask you about Jon was, one thing that’s so fascinating about his playing is he has this love or obsession with repetition, going into one phrase and sticking on it for minutes and minutes and minutes. Do you remember what it was like the first time you were playing with him and heard him do that? How did you respond to it?
BA: Musically, I hope! [Laughs] I mean, after a while, the repetition, if the band didn’t do too much with, it might have gotten a little boring, but usually, it didn’t. Usually, what that does for me conceptually is that that repetitive phrase might become a base for something for me to play around, you understand what I mean? But while I’m playing, I’m not thinking about any of that kind of stuff; I’m just reacting to the music. I mean, I’m not having those kind of thoughts or impressions. Unless it’s bothersome, and then I say, “Well, maybe we should get out of this.” Or it not, if we’re just groovin’, having a good time, that’s all it is—I’m not really thinking about, “Oh, this is a repetitive phrase, and it’s going on for so long.”
HS: Yeah, I think that kind thing is really effective in building tension, which you were talking about. It really does build tension, and as Jon said to me, he likes to do things like that because he wants to see what the rhythm section will do.
BA: Right, I understand that, and that’s actually just what I was saying. I kind of feel that when he’s playing a repetitive phrase, there’s things I can do around that phrase that I wouldn’t ordinarily be doing if I was just accompanying that phrase.
HS: Yeah, it’s like if the bass player were playing a vamp, but in this case, it’s the saxophone player playing it.
BA: Right, exactly—something like that. So [the saxophone] becomes almost like a percussion instrument or something, playing a repetitive rhythm that all of a sudden I can play around, because that rhythm’s being kept.