Courtesy of Urs Leimgruber


Leo Records


The demands of ingenuity are cumbrous. I know women who have a rather arduous time in deciding what they will wear daily and I know I am just as dysfunctional when it comes to meal choices. So imagining what it is for an improviser, in a constant state of motion, with nothing to propel that creativity, but your own will, alas, that is a task too complex for a simpleton like myself. But Urs Leimgruber, uber-saxophonist has been doing so for years. Like fellow Euro reedists, Evan Parker, Hans Koch, John Butcher, Michel Doneda, Wolfgang Fuchs, Frank Gratkowski, Luc Houtkamp, and Peter Brötzmann, Leimgruber has been inventing and forwarding improvised music into a new era. I caught up with Leimgruber on a recent stop during a North American tour with Barre Phillips and the following is what we both had to say, as always, unedited and in our own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

URS LEIMGRUBER: The first time I heard some sounds, I tried to move my body and I tried to improvise with my body when I was a very little child, three years old. That was the first time I realized what sound was about by moving my inner body. When I was six I went to a concert with my daddy and saw a band playing and after, I was pretty sure that I wanted to start with music and play an instrument. I wanted to play the saxophone. There was saxophone in the band that I was seeing the concert. I thought this instrument was too expensive to get and impossible to get because it was a big tenor, golden tenor and next to the tenor player, there was a clarinet player and I thought this was maybe a more easy to get because it was in the Fifties and in Europe at that time, the saxophone was not yet so popular and I was sure it was coming from the United States, which is actually not right because the saxophone is a French instrument, but became popular in jazz and jazz comes from here. Then I thought, maybe I should start with clarinet.

FJ: Is what you play jazz?

URS LEIMGRUBER: Yeah, there are some roots. Of course, some very important roots in our music and it is all about improvisation and jazz discovered improvisation. Not the first time because improvisation was already involved in music since music exists, but in the last century, jazz has brought improvisation back to music. From there, our music has roots, but the form of the music does not have that much to do with jazz. It is like contemporary music.

FJ: You also had a lengthy association with Christy Doran, Bobbi Burri, and Fredy Study in Om.

URS LEIMGRUBER: All the members of this group were living in the same town in Switzerland, in Lucern and then we all met before and played before together and we were kids, very young. I got an offer to do music for a theater play and I asked these other musicians to do it and we did it. After this gig, we just stayed together and we stayed together for about ten years. Ten years is a long time and actually, Fredy, the drummer had some other projects going on and then we talked about, first we were a little shocked, and even tried to continue with another drummer, but we quickly realized that it was a good idea to stop it. It was not musical reasons. The music was still going on and doing other new steps. I think we stopped at a very good moment that everybody continued with their own projects and all these guys from this group are still going on today. I think we are all sure it was a good idea to stop and not go on forever.

FJ: What is the musical climate in Europe?

URS LEIMGRUBER: It is not completely different, but for sure, there is a bigger public. There is more public for this kind of music, but it has also harder times today than years before. But we have quite strong infrastructure of education, of performing places and cultural centers which present improvised music. There is even more and more contemporary field of music and written music are collaborating with improvisers and the other way around too. I think it is quite a good scene going on.

FJ: You are on tour with Jacques Demierre and Barre Phillips, whom you recorded Wing Vane with.

URS LEIMGRUBER: Yeah, we have been playing together since about three years, a little more than three years. Wing Vane is the first record we did. We also did recordings for radio, but this is the first record we did. Barre is an incredible musician with a lot of experiences. To play with him and also with Jacques is like communicating in a big ear, in a very strong listening situation. That is why we also play completely acoustic. That is musical work that is really unbelievable and rare. I think this is a big quality of this trio.

FJ: The trio uses its share of space and silence. That goes in the face of conventional saxophone playing, e.g. Albert Ayler or John Coltrane.

URS LEIMGRUBER: I don't because intensity is not only to do with loud and play loud. Intensity has also to do with to be intense and you have to be intense during silence or playing silence or playing soft. In the completely beginning, playing this way of playing, of course, I had some problems even before this trio. But then, I started to develop other techniques and tried to find ways of how I could play my horn to be in the right balance without being not intense. I think it is a question of practice and experience and as soon as you find out how you can do it, then it works.

FJ: Do you prefer playing electric or acoustic?

URS LEIMGRUBER: I prefer playing acoustic. There is no question. It became absolutely clear the last few years and more and more, becomes more and more important. I also integrate and work with people that use electronics. I am also in electro-acoustic projects, but always as an acoustic instrument.

FJ: And you recorded with voice, Lauren Newton and Joëlle Léandre. Improvising with a vocalist is a challenge.

URS LEIMGRUBER: There is a big difference. The horn, for me, I was always vocal orientated. When you play with somebody who uses words as an instrument, then there is also, this is quite important, you also have to develop your own balance to the voice because the voice has something very fragile and with voice, you are provoked to think about your own voice and then you have to do your work. You have to check a thousand things to be together with the voice. It is actually hard work.

FJ: You also have a Potlatch release with Michel Doneda and Keith Rowe, The difference between a fish.

URS LEIMGRUBER: Yes, we fit as one instrument. I would not like to play with another saxophone player who would like to show how good he is or how fast he can play. This is not interesting, especially when you work with the same instrument. It is important that the other one is making you sound good and you do the same. That means it becomes one instrument and then it makes sense. Especially this recording with Michel, when you don't see the group playing, it is really hard to hear these two horns separately. It is like one instrument and that is actually the idea. Otherwise I wouldn't like to do it.

FJ: And the future?

URS LEIMGRUBER: There is a recording coming out with project I have done for a few years with a saxophone quartet and it is classical, modern classical quartet, but they are also able to improvise. There is a project together with Gunter Müller. He is doing electronics and he made a remix of music which exists already together with this quartet and he brings it in a new composition I was writing. This project was already presented and recorded. This is a new record which comes out in the fall. I am not so doing a lot of recordings. I am more concentrated on the few recordings. I like to tour. I like to work with musicians. If somebody wants to record, I am ready, especially if the concert is recorded live and the concert was good. But to go in the situation to record, there must be a big reason for me to record, more like document a particular time or situation. If there is no musical reason for it, then I don't want to do it. I think in improvised music, the real time situation is very important. That doesn't mean you have to record all the time, except it is recorded by chance by radio or someone. I don't want to plan it because it is a philosophical question and I don't want to plan it.

Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and is Wang Chunging tonight. Comments? Email Him