Going Deep into the Outside — Saxist Larry Ochs makes a rare visit to Santa Barbara
lt takes a committed soul and avid musical crusader to keep the fires going with an experimental music series, which by nature is never a project about love of the music monetary gain. Santa Barbara has benefitted greatly from the presence of intrepid saxist-bassist Colter Frazier's monthly "Santa Barbara New Music Series" at Muddy Waters, which, alas, it coming to an end with the March show.
In a sense, the series goes out on a high note for next Thursday's penultimate show, when the worldrenowned saxist Larry Ochs comes to town. The Bay Area-based and world-traversing Mr. Ochs' primary musical vehicle, and claim to fame in the avant-garde end of the jazz world, is the venerable and innately venturesome Rova Saxophone Quartet, which has played in Santa Barbara but many years back.
Rova aside, Mr. Ochs has been involved in a dizzying and still-evolving array ofprojects, including work with the Kronos Quartet and an ongoing "Electric Ascension" project, in tribute to John Coltrane's classic late-career album. When Mr. Ochs plays Muddy Waters, though, it will be in the fiery yet intimate Format of a sax-drum duet, with longtime collaborator Don Robinson. lt promises to be a memorable evening "out," as in "outside" music, with purpose and musicality in tow. We caught up with Mr. Ochs on Super Bowl Sunday, stung a bit by his team's loss, but as high on his musical mission as ever.
News-Press: Can you give me some background on this duo with Don Robinson? What is your history with him, and what is the musical g ist of what you do together?
Larry Ochs: The backg rou nd we have together as players goes back to about 1992 or '93, in terms of first recording together in Glenn Spearman Double Trio. We also live 15 minutes
apart in the East Bay, so we've done a lot of "practicing" together, but the formal duo started only in 2011. Before that I really didn't want to do it. Too many great horn-drum duos out there. 1 thought I could add a fresh wrinkle to the discussion by including a second drummer, which is what we did from 2000 to about 2009: "Larry Ochs Sax and Drumming Core" with Robinson and Scott Amendola. That was very successful. Finally in 2011, the duo made sense.
NP: Is the idea of working with assorted and changing improvisational settings something you find important, in the large scheme of your musical work?
LO: I would say the answer is "yes," as with most musicians in improvised music. The mental stimulation is always needed, getting pushed by other great players helps me find my way.
But I am really more a believer in ongoing bands. 1 guess that's obvious as Rova is 35 years old on Feb. 4. I just feel that if the ideas behind the music are still interesting, that a
working band can d ig deeper with each reconvening. You know when you can't take it any further, but most of the time bands stop playing together because there just isn't enough
work. Jazz and improvised music know no bounds as to depth of possibility - usually.
But I find that one-off shows are really too easy. Three good improvisers can make something happen for 40 minutes every time. So that initial level is really fun, but it's more rewarding as you dig deeper, and challenge each other.
NP: 1 was at the Guelph Jazz Festival in Canada last fall, and was very impressed with your Coltrane "Electric Ascension" project. What is the status of that project? Is it something that
LO: 1 could talk about "Electric Ascension" for a couple of hours. There are so many pluses to that project. So many interesting angles to reflect on. But briefly, "EA" is, in fact, a working band, even though Rova has organized that band for only 11 shows in 10 years. Secondly, every show has a very strong and unique personality; the band is always a little bit different, but the rooms we play in very much seem to affect the outcome as weil. For example, the Guelph performance hall was spacious and acoustically very warm, helpful. Plus the crew there was super good; great sound system So the Guelph show was the most soulful version ever. Third, I am always in awe of the composition's power, the way it dominates the proceedings while being, incredibly, only one sheet of paper with just a few lines of music.
NP: Rova Sax Quartet has really become an important aspect of "avant garde" culture in America, in my humble opinion. Did you imagine in the beginning that it was have
longevity, and breadth of expressive possibilities?
LO: Thanks for the comment. I was too naöve or too young at that time to be thinking about longevity. Rova in 1979, after one year of playing primarily tiny gigs, mostly in San Francisco, was flown directly to the important "Moers Jazz Festival" in Germany, after they listened to a cassette demo during the '78 festival - a cassette demo, duped from another cassette recorded in concert, if you can imag ine that - and the story goes that Anthony Braxton wandered through the office as they were listening and said "Who is that!?"
His classic enthusiasm got Rova invited for the following year's festival, moving from a crowd of 18 in a bar to a crowd of 5,000 outdoors in Germany with Cecil Taylor playing right
after us. Our concert was absolutely rocking and the audience flipped out. So at that moment I thought: "We have got it made. In two years we'II be playing for huge crowds everywhere. Man, how is it that all these jazz musicians don't have their (stuff) together?"
I've been paying for that hubristic thought ever since. God is laughing atme every day. But we have continued because we always thought that the breadth of possibilities were
limitless, as long as we were up for collaborating as weil as continuing the core sax quartet. We in fact need much more time than we have now. But that's the artists' permanent fate.
NP: This monthly Santa Barbara New Music Series you're playing in has been going for a few years now, thanks to the commitment of Colter Frazier, although your show will be the penultimate show in the series. Have you found that there are pockets of interest and energy in more adventurous, experimental musical circles in America, despite the relatively minute attention paid to interesting culture on the "left end" of the spectrum in this country?
LO: We could not do what we do without those pockets you are mentioning. And they are everywhere, but not at the same time. A crew of devotees will pop up here for awhile, then lose their energy, only to be replaced by another person or crew of people. But this is a bigcity area.
Out in the 'burbs or in less-populated states, the same thing happens on a more spread out basis. Scenes pop up and last as long as the local organizer has gas in the tank. Then the
scene dies for awhile and springs up in another small town/city somewhere eise in the state.
But there's always someone ready to carry the ball. You just have to stay alert to it. Art inspires, and we count on that in a very practical way. The thing is that there used to be
more money around. More grants, or it went further. I think if you're a young musician coming up now, there are way fewer opportunities to break out an get your career going.
Rova's trip to Moers would simply not happen in 2013 (but that's true for more than just economic reasons.)
There are an amazing amount of excellent players in SF Bay Area right now who are going to have to find another way to keep their art alive. But yeah, the musicians need people like Colter. And if you're on this scene, you almost have to take a turn making things happen forthe scene as weil as you rself.
NP: Does this feel like a creatively healthy period for you?
LO: Yep. I just wish the cultural environment was little more supportive in real economic ways. I thought by now it would be easier to just get to the art. That the music would generate enough income to hire assistants to do the business. That has definitely not happened. But on balance I really should not be complaining, I feel very lucky, really.