Courtesy of Fred Gjerstad
CHAT WITH FRODE 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
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
How challenging has it been to run the Circulasione Totale Orchestra?
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.
With technology moving so fast, where do you think improvised music is
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).