John Law Interview, Cadence Magazine

Taken and transcribed by Ludwig Van Trikt

John at work.

Cadence: It has become a common cliché. A musician starts out studying classical music then switches to jazz. What was the impetus for your own conversion?

John Law: Short answer: sex and drugs and rock and roll! Long answer: I'd always keenly felt the conflicts between interpretation (I'd studied the piano and classical music from the age of four and creation (l'd been composing since the age of about seven) and between older music (which I played) and new music (which I composed). When I discovered jazz at the age of 23 I immediately was not only drawn to it emotionally but also instinctively realized I could do everything I wanted to do: namely play and write, play in older styles (harmonic) and newer.

I think, looking at it now, I have retained a lot of the feelings I associated with live classical music experiences: I was brought up to feel that the concert hall experience was somehow a religious one and that with this gathering together of people to celebrate music one hoped to become a better person and rise above the humdrum in life. I just feel that with Jazz and improvised music I have added a deeper, maybe more voodoo, trance-like religious experience. Thus I think that, despite moving to jazz, music has remained, for me, still a sacred art form. I think this is an important factor for me and ties in with your use of the word “conversion”. I think my parents (particularly my mother, who taught me piano -- she was herself a concert pianist) were most concerned at first that I had taken up some sort of “secular” way of making music (functional, for dance halls, for example), but as soon as they realized it was still art music (i.e. essentially sacred, I would say) they were happy.

Further, I'd like to add that, whereas lots of jazz musicians claim to have originally “studied classical music”, while in no way wishing to dismiss this claim, I have often found that they didn't study it quite the way I did: namely, I went to two music colleges and I was really being geared for a life as a concert pianist. My mother was an Austrian concert pianist and her friends and colleagues numbered, among others, Paul Badura-Skoda and Alfred Brendel (the latter was one of her closest friends, and I know him personally quite well). I used to go to classical concerts regularly, as a little kid, and I often was taken back stage to meet various eminent classical virtuosos.

So you see it was quite a “conversion”, in my case. In fact we had no jazz records in the house at all. Though I do remember my father, who though himself a writer, was an excellent amateur classical musician, derived a game to play with me whereby he would describe a scene or a feeling and I had to improvise some piano music to that. He felt, I found out later, that my classical training was possibly too rigorous and might be stifling me. Needless to say my mother did not approve! For people who are unfamiliar with the discipline of a classical pianist's training and how early this training starts, it's rather like trying to become a famous ballet dancer, or a gymnast, or indeed any sports person. It's an extremely demanding lifestyle and it starts very early indeed.

CAD: How did you connect with Louis Moholo?

J.L.: I haven't played with Louis for about six or seven years. I was first drawn to him from listening to his special mix of jazz and freedom. I think it's fair to say that my playing during that period of about four years we played together was uneven. I was still trying to find my feet, stylistically. I tried, and we tried, lots of different things together: freely improvised music, jazz ballads (Ellington and Monk especially, though he loved crooning numbers such as When I Fall in Love -- he's quite a sentimental guy in that way!), Beatles tunes, some tunes by the Blue Notes and his South African colleagues and from his own band. Viva La Black. Almost no authentic African music, which I discovered later, funnily enough.

I remember some very good concerts and some not so good. There were a couple that were quite outstanding (Maastricht remains top of my list, I think). But I think I was quite confused during a lot of that time (l probably still am!).

CAD: When you say you were confused during this period are you being tongue and cheek or do you mean that artistically you went through some uncertainty?

J.L.: The latter.

CAD: I sense that you reached a point where you became disillusioned with the extremes of the Avant Garde?

J.L.: I wouldn't put it like that. I feel I still play extreme music. The thing was I wanted to write as well as improvise; I had, after all, been composing since I was about seven. I wanted to play diatonic harmony as well as more Avant Garde sounds. I wanted to play very, very quiet as well as very loud. I wanted to play in time and in grooves as well as without.

There's another way to look at it. I got a bit older. It's natural to then reach back and at least want to include some of the influences of your past and your upbringing, even if you don't return to those areas completely. The reasons why I left the classical music scene are as relevant now as when I did leave. I have no desire to become a classical piano virtuoso and to play that repertoire in classical concert halls. But, getting a bit older, I began to miss some of that music. It was, after all, what I grew up with as a tiny child.,

Here's another reason, also linked to change in lifestyle and to growing older: in 1996 I was expecting the birth of my first child. That made me change, too, and in practical ways as well. I would ask myself what this child would make of me sitting down to play to her and launching into a four-hour assault with fists and forearms on the piano. It's hardly the recipe for a lullaby is it?

Another issue: You know I play the piano, Well, the piano is not made to sound the way it is played in a lot of free contexts. It just sounds the wrong instrument for those requirements. Wrong in terms of volume, wrong in terms of its limited scale system. I remember very well asking a drummer I used to play with, Mark Sanders, before a gig, whether he could play a bit quieter behind me when it was just the piano. “No”, he said, looking me directly in the eye, “you play louder”. I think I knew then that that scene was not for me.

Time playing was also something I desperately wanted to do and to do well. I just wasn't learning how to do that with the players I was playing with back then. Time is like a goddess to which you have to sacrifice daily in order to appease her. lf you don't, you never learn to play with good time and groove. And, of course, if you do prostrate yourself before her you can easily become her slave and then that's all you can do. Many times I've tried to play more openly with good time players and they can't do it. They just can't seem to break free of the time thing going on in their head and heart. I wanted to play with musicians like that for a while. At the moment I'm thinking I might move a little away from that area into more open areas again. I've learnt to play with a lot better groove and feel and in more time. The true jazzers can't be fooled; they know I'll never be one of them. But I think I've learnt at least a little about what they're good at.

Going back to your question, you must realize that none of what I was doing was that radical, really. When you consider that many, many years before I was playing freely improvised music, the composer Nam June Paik wrote a piece which dictates that the 'performer' crawl inside the vagina of a live whale. Now that's extreme(!), for the poor whale too!

Here's another reason I tried a different approach: craft. This may seem a very unimportant reason to most improvisers and, yes, I do know all the arguments against technique and craft and I actually support a lot of their premises. Nevertheless, you must realize that I was brought up to treat music also as a craft. not just an art. I've worked bloody hard at it. And it did bother me a lot sometimes that I would be playing at concerts, and I mean sometimes very large ones like a London Musicians Collective Festival or something similar, and there would be a bewildering range of different musicians playing. And I now mean different in technical ability. And there's no other scene where some of these guys could have ended up. I mean they'd have been rumbled right at the beginning. And most of these were in the free jazz category (as opposed to free improvisers) where it was possible to find, next to a master instrumentalist such as Barry Guy or an Evan Parker, someone who really and truly could not play a major scale on their instrument! And though I realize that they possibly didn't need to know that for what they were attempting (though I could make a case for the opposite if I wished to), nevertheless one might suppose that, if they had spent time with their instrument and with music in general and with the specifics of the musical language of the culture they found they were born into, one might suppose, one might even be forgiven for assuming that somewhere along the way, sometime somewhere they would have come across this cornerstone of Western music.

I've given you here a number of different reasons for the change in approach. I leave it up to you to make sense of them all. But remember there's a bigger picture. I've already indicated that I'm moving a little bit into freer areas again.

CAD: The standard jazz repertory still holds fascination for you.

J.L.: Fascination's too strong a word! I'm interested in being at least a little conversant in the general jazz language and that shared language involves standards, blues and that sort of thing.

I also think there was a turning point in my appreciation of this jazz language when I encountered the first two volumes of Jarrett's Standards trio, plus the subsequent Standards Live (ECM Records). For the first time (excepting perhaps some of the Paul Bley standard recordings) I was listening to jazz which seemed to me totally elevated to art music, where everything had a oneness about it, where the beginnings and the endings were as important as what came in between: no endless tweedling at the end on the major chord with the fourth sharpened, with arpeggios in the piano that seemed to go on for as long as what has preceded that!; where the improvisation was the same character as the tune from which it emerged. Of course, there are other examples, for instance the Bill Evans Vanguard sessions (Prestige) . But, I think the emotional range and the artistic level of those three Jarrett recordings convinced me that there was a way to impose these art music criteria on what appeared, outwardly, very hackneyed vehicles for just “playing on the changes”. It just seemed to me, as someone brought up on classical music, that here at last was a way to play the standard repertoire that made sense to me. I'm not sure how well my playing of standards measures up to all this!

CAD: You bring an eclectic brew of influences to your artistry: medieval music, Monk, duos with Sting's Jason Rebello.

J.L.: In the late '80s I first started listening seriously to what is called either World music or ethnic music. Then in the early '90s I discovered Early Music. The one led to the other because I remember listening one day to something I thought was near Eastern Folk music and found it to be l4th century Italian! That was played by the Dufay Collective. who thus started for me my interest in early music. At that time I was looking for some simplicity in harmony as well as melodic line, turning away from both the density/complexity of Avant Garde classical music and jazz as well as the richness of jazz harmonies. I was really inspired by what I then uncovered for myself in this area of early music. I studied a lot of it, from medieval music from the l3th/l4th centuries and Machaut through people like Ockeghem and Dunstable to the Renaissance of Josquin. I incorporated a couple of harmonic devices. particularly the so-called “Burgundy Cadence”. You can hear this a lot, particularly in the four CD set based on Gregorian Chant (which material is, of course, much, much earlier); I played through this music for myself to try and rediscover a simplicity of line. By the time of the fourth CD, Thanatos, I felt I had exhausted that particular influence.

My very first experiences with Jazz were with the playing of Monk, actually his trio recording of Ellington compositions (Riverside Records). Since then I've regularly dipped into his music. I'm not a 'Monk pianist,' I'm not a Monk specialist, but I always found it refreshing, as a composer, to play his tunes. This material is so strong rhythmically, motivically -- it always gave me so much more inspiration for improvising on than a simple set of chord changes. On the other hand that means it's not so good if you just want a frame to fill with all your own ideas; the tunes tend to make you play in certain areas.

The two piano duo with Jason Rebello, which is currently on hold because of Jason's busy touring commitment to Sting, was partly an attempt to play classical music a bit again; we played a piece by Bach as well as Ravel's Bolero but have never, yet, got round to playing some of the other material I always had in mind for this duo: Stravinsky, Bartok, even Wagner (my two piano arrangement of the Meistersinger Prelude). And the other element was I was still trying to learn jazz from proper jazz players. Jason has such a lovely touch and groove at the piano I very much wanted to learn from that and feel part of that and the only way I could conceive of that was by starting this two piano project.

CAD: Please explain the concepts behind the Chants record set based on medieval plainchant.

J.L.: I got into Early Music in the '90's. Partly I was attracted to it because I was looking for some harmonic simplicity and partly I was interested in the origin of our musical language. And, of course, also liked it! Plainchant interested me primarily because I was looking for a simpler linear shape in melody.

The first recording, Talitha Cumi, was based on the "Dies Irea" theme from the Requiem mass, which is not actually plainchant (these were formally written down, if not composed in about the eighth century -- the “Dies Irae” is a later composition from about the 13th century) which, of course, was familiar to me from many l9th century classical quotations: Liszt. Berlioz, Rachmaninoff and others. After that I decided -- as I was still interested in this music and also as I discovered a few harmonic devices from early music which I then attempted to incorporate into my own harmonic palette, so to speak -- because of this I felt I had more to say on the subject and thus followed with two more CDs (FMR). I added one more, on my own label, for personal reasons as it was dedicated to someone close to me who passed away and I felt a solo version of the old plainchant for the first part of the Requiem mass, which I happened to have on DAT, was a fitting tribute.

This period of my output is now finished, though I am still very interested in early music, particularly Renaissance vocal music like Josquin and Ockeghem. Incidentally, I think I should add that I was brought up a Catholic, and often attended sung masses. In particular, I remember we would go on special feast days to a Benedictine monastery, where I was very taken by both the plainchant liturgy as well as Renaissance music sung there. I think this influenced me a lot in this later stage of my improvised and compositional work.

CAD: Is there a significant difference between the European and American jazz aesthetic?

J.L.: I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer this one. It's more of a musicologist's question. I would have thought that the main difference between European and American jazz styles and approaches is that Europe has a much higher population and is much more diverse in types of people. Thus, French jazz sounds very different to Italian jazz or Russian jazz or Scandinavian jazz or Dutch jazz, and so on.

It used to be the case that in technical terms American jazz musicians, especially rhythm sections, were very far ahead of European ones, where it was possible, in other words, to state that European musicians were attempting the same language and the same techniques as their American counterparts. l'm not sure that even this is the case any more.

And of course it's not been just one-way traffic, i.e. it's not just been Europeans learning from Americans. It's also been going the other way too, from American musicians choosing to live in Europe or finding their success and their audience here, to jazz musicians from the U.S being influenced by European musical traditions as well as innovations. And the more trade and traffic there is between people, the smaller the world seems to become and, of course, these distinctions between people and cultures start to blur. This may or not be a good thing. It can lead to blandness. But I tend to be more optimistic and hope it can lead to expressing more universal feelings, rather than reflecting locational or temporal stylistic characteristics.

CAD: A number of European artist have expressed their lack of interest in mainstream American Jazz.

J.L.: Like most things in life I'm sure there's good and bad in what you call mainstream American Jazz. Some of the problems arise in education. Formal educational strategies usually involve a stultifying process whereby certain principles in any art form are defined in a way that is always simplistic; it doesn't allow for the many deviations from the 'rules' and, therefore, when students do follow these 'rules' it's no great surprise that the results are often quite stilted and unnatural. All of which doesn't necessarily completely invalidate their rules, which, as convenient constructs do have a role to play in describing what often goes on and why it works well. But looking at a living art form solely in this way tends to suck the life out of it.

Then, of course, there's the principle that, like a living language, no art form stays the same. It always requires fresh imput, like fresh water in a river. Without that it stagnates. Education tends toward the opposite: the writing and teaching of large, wordy tutors and the like mitigate against any attempts to regularly change and update them. It's sort of obvious. if even only commercially or logistically. I know a bit about (it) as I have to do quite a bit of teaching myself!

CAD: Is your trans-Atlantic quartet Abacus still active?

J.L.: No. I met Gerry Hemingway at a festival in Austria (Nickelsdorf) in l998 where I was appearing with Extremely Quartet (myself, Paul Dunmall, Barry Guy, Louis Moholo). I'd been following his music, both with Braxton earlier and later with his own groups, and was very interested in his take on the two problems of freedom versus composition and Avant Garde versus tradition. As I was working a lot at that time with the alto and soprano saxophonist Jon Lloyd -- who was greatly influenced by Braxton -- it was an interesting idea to add to a quartet with Jon the drummer from some of Braxton's most important quartets.

The result was a short, six date UK tour in 2000 and the recording for Hat Hut called Abacus. And even though this CD was fantastically well received by critics and even won two awards from the leading French magazine, Jazzman, I failed to get work for it at European festivals.

CAD: The career trajectory for many jazz artists is to record a standards date followed by a ballads project; perhaps big band sessions or work with strings. Do you have any plans with any of the aforementioned?

J.L.: This “career trajectory” doesn't really apply to me. I'm not even really a 'jazz artist'. I am doing a Monk and standards CD, but that just happened. And I do have a large ensemble project including strings which may end up recorded, but that also was just something I wanted to do. I don't plan anything as organized as a career!

CAD: You've said you see a similarity between Bach and Cecil Taylor.

J.L.: This related to something I said many years ago. I am no longer interested in Cecil Taylor's music and find it quite boring. I am particularly uninterested in all those free musicians who emphasized continually how long he played or how loud. While appreciating that these are qualities that are easy to measure, they don't have much artistic significance, in themselves, for me.

At that time all I meant was that, amid all the excess of notes, I appreciated how he would come back to the two areas of intervals like 2nds/9ths and octaves. This device he used over and over again. I found this reminded me of a pared down sound world of Baroque music (without continuous harmonic filling out); maybe more the strength of Handel than the subtlety of Bach.

CAD: You don't view yourself as a Jazz artist?

J.L.: Not much. Obviously that's the section you'll find my CDs in the shop, if you find them at all. But I wish there were a section for something between Jazz and classical.

CAD: You seem to have a deep cynicism towards the Avant Garde. ls there anyone in that genre that you do like?

J.L.: Oh dear; I seem to have created quite a negative impression! In order for there to be at least some clarity we have to first of all make sure we're using certain terms the same way. For example, relating to your about “the Avant Garde” and which you then refer to as a “genre”, I'm not sure I quite understand how you define these terms. From my own small experience of playing music/communicating with musicians and reading articles and interviews in magazines and books, I would say that the label Avant Garde has various, more or less precise meanings. And because it is such a widely, used and not very precise phrase, I personally tend to not think of it as a “genre” at all. More a 'scene' which has many different styles or camps within it and it's all very relative. Some promoters/punters think I sound Avant Garde when I play standards. They mean I don't sound like a 1930's or 1940's pianist, I think! Some people use the term quite simply as something derogatory! A term of abuse! Other people -- I have come across this in critical writings -- seem to use the phrase simply when there's no recognizable melody; or when the participants don't use the Western (diatonic) harmonic language. It has to sound 'dissonant'. Which, of course, isn't very modern at all as that approach has been with us in Western music for at least 80 or 90 years.

Still others seem to have a very narrow meaning whereby it means the music must be very, very loud and chaotic. Some think it must mean 'exploratory'; I suppose that means the musicians don't quite know what they're doing or how it will all sound in the end. And finally there are a lot of people who define Avant Garde (rather sadly and with some resignation, I find) as a style of music they cannot and will never understand, and thus like.

I have opened out and told you some my personal feelings and innermost thoughts which all went towards my turning my back, to a certain extent, on certain styles of the music I was associated with in the early '90's. I'm sorry that all my attempts to explain how my perspectives changed somewhat merely resulted in you thinking I have a deep cynicism about various movements in music which, as you rightly point out, l have been quite a part of. And then questioning whether there's anyone in that scene I do like! Firstly, the fact that I no longer play with masters like Evan Parker or Barry Guy does not mean I don't like their music. Quite the contrary! In fact my life has been touched forever by the sound of Barry, in particular, and I wish there were some way to find common ground to play again some day. It's just that I personally am not working in that area at the moment. And I have to point out that neither they nor anyone else in the so-called “free” scene ever asks me to play with them; I always felt that they never found my playing good enough. I did try, though!

However if you look at the areas I am still involved with, you will see that I have a new Anglo French quartet which is very open and certainly doesn't play standards; I still work whenever I can with my close friend Jon Lloyd -- who is officially an Avant Garde composer!; I worked recently with Paul Dunmall (does he consider himself Avant Garde? I don't know.); I have an ongoing working relationship with the German drummer Klaus Kugel, who works with, among others, Steve Swell and Ken Vandermark and we played a totally free festival in Vilnius with the free improvising Lithuanian soprano player Petras Vysniauskas. In fact I have a plan to some day play in a quartet again with Louis Moholo, Evan and Barry, if they'd play with me! But I'm not sure when.

Musicians I do like? I like everyone, really. Despite what I said about Cecil Taylor. I like everyone who plays with authority and conviction. I just don't like everything at every moment of the day. I can't listen to my own music, for example, before about midday! In the morning before breakfast it has to be Baroque or, even better, Renaissance music! But every music has some place somewhere. I think I just had to say that about Cecil Taylor for the following reasons: when I was involved with free playing I grew very irritated at the predominate role given to his particular approach. I myself adopted it to a certain extent -- I thought you had to! -- and at the way one wasn't allowed to criticize him. (Evan Parker hated it if I said anything negative about him!) For a start I can't stand sacred cows; I think everything is there to be questioned/criticized, even made fun of. I found the same thing in the straighter scene with Bill Evans; I loved the Vanguard Trio concept but, often, the Bill Evans' recordings. I was disappointed with the way he played lots of scales and arpeggios and thus found his style often quite academic: but I soon discovered I wasn't allowed to hold this opinion!

And the other thing about Cecil Taylor's music is that, rather like the imprecise definitions I gave you for the term Avant Garde, Taylor's influence came to be detected, by critics, merely at the sounding of any interval like a minor 2nd or a major 7th.

Critics would say about a CD of mine: “obviously influenced by Cecil Taylor” when it wasn't at all! All they really meant, if they had been asked to explain that more, was that I had played one or two clusters or intervals of a 2nd! This became very, very irritating!

Do I like anyone? Of course I do! So from Avant Garde I like Braxton, Marilyn Crispell, Ligeti, Messiaen, Tan Dun, Gorecki, Paul Bley, and the whole world of music! And at the moment I'm particularly studying Shostakovich and Bartok, but does that count as Avant Garde?

I hope this has explained matters more fully.

July 14, 2004 Frome, England