Courtesy of Fred Gjerstad




I am fastly becoming a fan of Frode Gjerstad. I don't see how anyone wouldn't be when Gjerstad, a Norway native, has made friends with the likes of Hamid Drake, William Parker, Bobby Bradford (all Americans), as well as European juggernaut, Peter Brotzmann (all of whom have played on record with Gjerstad). Nice resume, for a gentleman of the saxophone. I present to you, Mr. Frode Gjerstad, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

FRODE GJERSTAD: In early '66, I think, I saw a TV program where a person was playing sax and violin in a way that I had never seen or heard before. Later, I found out it must have been Ornette Coleman. It was a Swedish program so it was probably recorded at the time of the famous Golden Circle recordings on Blue Note. His conviction and intensity was amazing and far above anything I had heard up until then. And it hit me right away as a music based on emotions more than academic research - a very personal language. I felt this was so much stronger than the kind of jazz I had been listening to, which at that point, was not too much: Mulligan and Chet Baker, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, etc. It was not until much later that I discovered who Ornette really was and what his music was like. In fact, I did not even remember his name from the TV program. But when I saw a picture of Ornette, Izenson and Moffet, I remembered their faces!

FJ: Why saxophone?

FRODE GJERSTAD: My first instrument was the cornet. When I was around eleven, I started in the marching band. Every school in Norway has a band like that and when I started they gave me a cornet. It was so old and worn out. It was almost impossible to get a sound out of it. But after cleaning it, I discovered there was a sound in the horn. I played cornet and trumpet in a brassband until I hooked up with a local blues band. They had a sax player and we were the horn section. It was great, a new life started. But after a few months, the sax player quit and the other guys told me that I either had to quit because they could not live with a trumpet on it's own or I had to get a saxophone...which is what I did! And I never looked back.

FJ: Lately, you have been playing with a great many musicians stateside.

FRODE GJERSTAD: I have mostly played with European musicians, but over the last few years, I have had the opportunity to play with some American musicians as well, which has been great. Mainly because they are very good musicians. I do not think about where they come from so much. It is more the fact that I have been very lucky to have met them at the right time. I met Borah Bergman in '94. After John Stevens died, he was very helpful and invited me to the States to practice with him. I did it and had a great time. Then we did a tour of Norway as a trio with Evan Parker. Not too long after the tour, I went over to New York again. I had come to New York to practice and to edit a tape with Borah Bergman. As it turned out, he did not like the tape and I was really desperate to find something meaningful to do while I was there. When Mark Hennen invited me to a jam at his loft. I did not know who was coming, but it turned out that both Rashid Bakr and William Parker came as well as Sabir Mateen who plays very nice tenor sax. After the jam was over I went straight over to Rashid and William and asked if we could do a recording. They agreed and said I had to find a studio. I had met a sound guy, who at that time worked for the Knitting Factory, James McLean. I went straight over to the Knitting Factory and the first man I met was James. I explained the situation and he agreed to do it - Saturday at 11 in the morning. I was going home that day and knew I did not have too much time to record, but said yes. When I arrived on that morning at the Knitting Factory, no one was there except the fire brigade! I thought this is it. Forget it. But it was a false alarm. By 12:30, we had set up and was ready to start recording. At 3 o´clock, I had to leave to catch my plane. At that time, we had about 65 minutes of recorded music. I think I cut off a couple of things, but basically, I kept it all and it ended up as the Cadence CD, Seeing New York from the Ear. That title was a way for my to describe the stess of the recording situation. I wanted really badly to have a tape with me home. And the way to survive during the recording session was to use my ears as much as I could. This was a sink or swim situation, which I would like to thank John Stevens for showing me how to swim. He always talked about these situations which you have to be prepared for. Early in 1997, I received a grant and was voted Jazz Musician of the Year in Norway. I felt that was a nice way to say the music is finally being accepted here as well. As part of this thing, I got to play a very successfull tour of Scandinavia with William Parker and Hamid Drake. Remember to Forget was a live recording from that tour, released in '98 and Ultima, another live recording from the same tour was released on Cadence last year. We also did a very successful tour of North America last year. I love playing with Hamid and William, but I have to realize that they both are very busy and it is impossible to keep a trio like that together. So hopefully, there will be situations in the future for us to meet. But I am now concentrating on my new trio as my working unit with two young Norwegian musicians: Paal Nilssen-Love on drums and Øyvind Storesund on bass.

FJ: Having worked with musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, what have you found are the differences between the two regions?

FRODE GJERSTAD: First of all, they speak a different language and of course, they have a different cultural background. Other than that, they are like most human beings some are nice some are not. But I also think that their jazz background generally is stronger. They are very proud of it and they should be. I find they are also more competitive, which can be good, but it can also get in the way for making some nice music.

FJ: It seems Europeans are the innovators these days.

FRODE GJERSTAD: Today, there are so many movements going on at the same time that I find it totally impossible to judge who is leading the way. There are so many excellent musicians around the whole world and we only manage to hear a little minority. Who knows? Maybe there is a flute player in the Andes who is the most important voice, but because we have a system which says that the person who sells most records is the most important person, we fail to appreciate a lot of good music.

FJ: You collaborated extensively with the late John Stevens.

FRODE GJERSTAD: In the fall of 1981, I had a gig with a friend, pianist Eivin One Pedersen. For some reason, we did not have drummer. So I said to myself, "Why not try just for once to play with a real drummer." And I thought about John Stevens, whom I had met briefly in London two years earlier while visiting there. I called him up and he came over. We played one open rehearsal and a concert and that was it! I felt so free and got so much energy from playing with John. It was difficult to come down after the gig was over. He was staying at our house while he was here and we talked and drank some wine through the night. Lots of questions and funny answers. I was not used to his humour and many times I thought he was in a subtle way telling me this was no good. But then he suggested we should get Johnny Dyani, his favorite bass player, to play bass with us as a quartet! We did our first tour with Johnny as Detail in March '82 and we played the Molde festival that summer. Later that year, our pianist quit. It was at the end of a tour, the day before we had planned to do our first recording. When we started playing in the studio, I felt so much freer without the piano. It was a relief being a trio! The first things we did as a trio came out as Backwards and Forwards on the Impetus label and we got 4 stars in Down Beat, which I thought was quite good for a debut. Later on, Impetus also released the last concert as a trio with Dyani on the double LP, Ness. That was a concert performance from Oslo. A few months before Johnny died in '86, we did a tour of Britain with Bobby Bradford. We also extended the trio on several occasions with ad hoc combinations including Paul Rutherford, trombone, Barry Guy, bass, Dudu Pukwana, alto sax, Evan Parker, tenor sax, Harry Beckett, trumpet, etc. So through John, I met a lot of very fine musicians. He also gave me insight into his rhythmic world and generally, we became very close friends. When Dyani died, John's first choice for a new bassist was Kent Carter. They had played together in some early version of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and with Steve Lacy and loved each other's playing a lot. With Kent on bass, we played with Billy Bang and again a couple of tours with Bobby Bradford who also loves Kent's playing. After Kent came on board, I became a little frustrated because he followed me all the time when we played. I must confess, I felt a bit locked in at first because Dyani never bothered to follow me that closely. He did what he did and I did what I did. We played with each other through the drumming of John Stevens. With Kent, it did not work that way and it took me a while to get used to his way of playing. He is a strong individual player with a very solid grounding in music theory. He knows what he is doing. Many times I felt very embarrassed about me own playing. I felt it was not solid enough. I think that the music we played in Detail was too much jazz for the improv people and too free for the jazz people. So we fell between two chairs, but we felt very good about it. I still feel that this is a good music to play. When John died in '94, I lost a very good friend and adviser. We made seven records with Detail. At the time of his death, I decided not to have a group anymore, only projects. Of cause, that has all changed! Looking back, he was a great inspiration and motivator with so much knowledge which he was always willing to share. I guess the years with John was one long workshop.

FJ: Having played the cornet in a prior life, how stimulating has it been to work with local hero, Bobby Bradford?

FRODE GJERSTAD: First of all, I love Bobby's sound and I love him as a human being. He is such a gentleman and there is never a problem with Bob! He was the first US musician I played with and because he is so sweet, I guess I thought every American is a bit like that. He is such a sweet person that never gives you any kind of trouble and he is always trying to make me sound good! He is a person with lots of knowledge and experience, always ready to share it with you. The first time we recorded together, during our tour in England in '86, he wanted us to do a duo track. I was so nervous to do it, but finally he talked me into it. When the session was over, he asked me if I thought the tape was good enough or if I wanted to record one more. A real gentleman. When we play together, we sometimes play at the same time and he picks up my little things and builds upon them turning them into nice compositions. I know when I play with Bobby, we are going into a certain territory. He draws you into his music and I don`t mind being there. I am trying to get him over here next year to do a tour with my trio. I think his sound would color our group very nicely.

FJ: How vital have the government grants been to your work?

FRODE GJERSTAD: This has made it possible for me to travel and to meet other people. Where I live, no one was interested in this music when I started playing it. So for me to develop as a player, travelling has been very important and without money, I could not have done it.

FJ: How did you utilize the funding?

FRODE GJERSTAD: Mostly, I have spent the money on travels and also on some recordings and to bring over musicians from abroad like Billy Bang, Bradford, Hamid Drake and William Parker. For me personally, the economic help I have received has been very important. It was never a question of big money, but when I got 1000 dollars, I could actually do something I had been dreaming of.

FJ: Should the American government take a more active role in promoting art in the US?

FRODE GJERSTAD: I am sure lots of people would be very happy if there was a way to get help covering the travel expenses when you are touring. So, yes! The only thing is that most European countries are cutting down on all cultural subsidies and are moving closer to the economic system you have.

FJ: How challenging has it been to run the Circulasione Totale Orchestra?

FRODE GJERSTAD: I have had a bigger group since 1985, the Circulasione Totale Orchestra, mostly playing more electric music, like the Prime Time world of Ornette Coleman's. We have been quite successful with younger audiences and in 1989, I presented an edition which was three horns, three basses, three drummers, accordion, guitar, a rapper and a scratcher (DJ). We did live hip-hop music with a rapper who was into doing freestyle. For me, that was just like free music. It worked out very well. Unfortunately, I turned down an offer from the Norwegian state radio to make a live recording. I thought it was going to be a disaster because the rehearsals were terrible, but it turned out fine. Maybe I lost my golden opportunity. At that time, live bands with rappers and DJs were not very common. That band was invented to present my compositions as well as being a place for me to play with local musicians on a more regular basis. The music had a rocksound with polyrhythms, so it has been relatively easy tofind younger people with an interest in experimenting. It was a place for me to try out various compositions. In a way, an ongoing workshop. After ten years with this group and constantly changing personnel, I decided to end it. In 1998, I changed my mind again (!) and put together a new Circulasione Totale Orchestra for a recording which came out as a CD on Cadence Jazz Records. For the first time, I used acoustic basses and we were able to improvise the whole album, although I did some conducting and on the spot arrangements during the recording session. Ideally, I would like to do more work with my C.T. Orchestra, but we are at least seven people and financially, that is a disaster! So instead of not playing, I have made the band smaller - a trio! We have practiced a lot and I think we can reach some new territory by working steady together. We use my compositions when we practice, but when we play, we play free, most of the time. Sometime, we touch the compositions. They are always there to be used spontaneously and is also a way to sculpture the sound of the group. The drummer and bassist are young with lots of positive energy. They also play in the CTO. That way I feel in touch with the bigger group and we can bring in more people if there is a chance now and then still maintaining and improving the sound. The trio has just made it's international debut at the Seattle Improvised Festival and at the du Maurier Jazz Festival in Vancouver in June this year. A new CD has just been released by Cadence which is a tribute to John Stevens: The Blessing Light and we are doing an American tour in October ending at the Seattle Jazz Festival.

FJ: With technology moving so fast, where do you think improvised music is headed?

FRODE GJERSTAD: At the moment, it looks like computers and electronic instruments are finding their place within this music alongside the more traditional instruments. I don't think the drums or any other traditional instrument will be replaced by the drum machine or synthesizer. But I think we will see more and more groups specializing in one thing like miming the original Ornette Coleman Quartet or playing really soft, soft, soft! I used to think that there eventually had to be a meeting between improvised music and contemporary composed music. I am not so sure anymore. At least where I live, there is not very much contact between those two groups at the moment. But I guess it only takes a couple of successful colaboations to change that. But there are some interesting things going on with the electronic musicians and with the home studio revolution, I am sure there will be many interesting things happening in the future. It's so easy to produce a CD these days that anyone with some ideas can do it and you can put your masterwork on the internet created in your little closet somewhere. People from around the world will play with each other over the net. I am sure there will be interesting music growing out of that and a lot of boring music as well.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and is an uncle f**ka (**=ua). Email Him.