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An Interview with Norwegian Saxophonist Frode Gjerstad

Frode Gjerstad hails from Norway and has created a body of work that is solidly free improvised music but which also shows influences from such different genres as rock, rap, and classical. Ultima, his most recent release on Cadence Jazz Records, features Gjerstad in the company of bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake. He has also recently completed a tour of the United States and Canada where he played with Parker and Drake.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: How did you get started with the saxophone and then with playing jazz?

FRODE GJERSTAD: I grew up in a little place called Stavanger on the west coast of Norway. There were only about 50,000 people living there then and the cultural life was mostly the theater and the orchestra plus the occasional concert. If you wanted to get into something, you really had to search for it.

When I was about 9, in 1957, my father bought my sister and me a second hand gramophone with lots of 78's and 2 EPs from The Benny Goodman Story. I immediately got attracted to the sound and what I felt was the freedom of the way these musicians played their music. Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, Harry James and Lionel Hampton became names of a music which was very different to the music I normally came in contact with. I guess Louis Armstrong was the only other name I knew at that point.

Gradually, I became more aware when listening to the radio. And I found out there was a jazz program every Wednesday at 17:00. My father came home at 17:20, so many times I had to turn off the radio because he was tired, or at least I had to turn it down quite a bit!

I got to know Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and a few other names and I kept listening to the radio on a more or less regular basis. One name I do remember, is Eric Dolphy, because of his incredible flute playing. He sounded like a bird to me and I was very, very impressed how he could make those sounds fit in with the music he was playing.

I started playing cornet in the school band when I was around 10, but I could not understand why the jazz music felt so free while the marches felt very restricted. When I was practicing, I tried to play like Harry James, but was informed by our instructor, this was not the way to play proper music.

Rock music, Elvis etc., never really touched me. I felt it was inferior to the sound of jazz.

Around '64, I got into the British thing with the Beatles for a very short time. I moved very quickly to the Stones, the Animals etc. and then into the blues: Howlin' Wolf, Bo Didley, Muddy Waters etc. I built myself an electric guitar and even played a bit of that music with friends.

Early in '66, I saw a TV program where a person was playing sax and violin with an intensity I had never ever experienced before. It was Ornette Coleman. Probably at the time of the Golden Circle recordings. His conviction and intensity was amazing and far above anything I had heard up until then. Later that year I started picking up Down Beat. The first issue I got was with Albert Ayler on the cover. His interview left me with many question marks. I did not know who he was or what he talked about, but there was something there that made me want to listen to the man. I read everything I could get my hands on about jazz. And spent all my money on LPs from Leadbelly to Monk.

I started listening to the Voice of America: Willis Connover played lots of straight jazz, but every now and then there was something interesting.

Around that time, I started playing trumpet with an R&B band. I was really into Milestones: Miles Davis, Cannonball and John Coltrane. But when "In a silent Way" came out, I got the blues band that I was playing with, to move into those sounds. We played dances for young people and one tune lasted for a whole set, being totally improvised. In our case, that meant playing for an hour on one chord or on blues-changes.

Early in '68 I got to hear Conquistador by Cecil Taylor. I immediately loved Jimmy Lyons as well as the trumpet of Bill Dixon.

A little later that year, I read a review in Down Beat of Albert Ayler's Live in Greenwich Village and for some mysterious reason, I found the LP in the shop within a week! That was it. I was totally blown out. How could he allow himself to play like that? I really wanted to get a tenor sax to get that sound and intensity.

The sax player in our blues band had to quit and the other guys told me to either quit or to get myself a saxophone, which I did.

Up until '68 there was only American musicians. I had been reading the Melody Maker on and off for a while, when I noticed a name which popped up every now and then: John Stevens. I read an interview with him and he immediately struck me as a man who had lots of opinions and creative ideas. A little later, Bobby Bradford was interviewed, and he was playing with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. He also seamed to me to be a special man for some reason.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: At what point, did you decide that you wanted to be a professional musician and what were some of your early influences?

FRODE GJERSTAD: I am teaching social science three days a week to pay my bills. So, I am not a pro, but very few people are able to make a living playing this music.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: Tell me a little bit about the group Detail? How did it come about and what are some of your favorite memories from that period?

FRODE GJERSTAD: That fall in '81, I had a gig with a pianist, but no 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 in London two years earlier while visiting the city with some students of mine.

I called him up, he came over, and we played one open rehearsal and a gig. And that was that. 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 suggested we should get Johnny Dyani, his favorite bass player, to play bass with us. We did our first tour with Johnny as Detail in March of '82 and we played the Molde Festival that summer.

Later that year, our pianist quit and we continued as a trio up until Johnny died in '86. Before his death, we did a tour of Britain with Bobby Bradford. And 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. It was not however, until '93, I think, I was allowed to play with his Spontaneous Music Ensemble, a very special unit. And one of my earliest favorites in free music.

After Dyani died, we got Kent Carter on bass. He lived in France. Had played with Steve Lacy for a long time. Before that with Paul Bley etc. and was a very accepted jazz musician with a liking for freer music. During the later years, we played with Billy Bang and again with Bobby Bradford who loves Kent's playing a lot.

My best moment with Detail was playing at the Plough (which is a pub in London) in '86. Bradord was with us and it was the last gig of a tour and the place was completely packed. And it was very damp: my jeans were wet after we ended the gig.... We had a good audience and we played very well that night. It was the last gig with Dyani. And the last time I saw him. A nice goodbye.

Another good one was when a friend came to see me and he brought a Down Beat magazine with a review of our first LP, Backwards and Forwards. They had given us 4 stars!

JAZZREVIEW.COM: After Detail, you've had the opportunity to play with a host of great musicians. Are there any players that stand out in particular? Are their any specific musicians that you particularly want to play with but so far have not been able to?

FRODE GJERSTAD: I think meeting and playing with Hamid Drake and William Parker has been the best thing for me to happen. This trio is for me the present day "Detail". A more mature version of that group. All the experience I got from playing with Stevens, Dyani and Carter is now being recycled. And I have developed my playing quite a bit over the last few years so my expression is much stronger.

I used to love Don Cherry a lot and they have both played with him. And William and Hamid also bring in a certain "world music" aspect so the music becomes more varied and maybe a bit more accessible.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: You've recently wrapped up a tour of the United States with Hamid Drake and William Parker. My understanding is that this was your first tour of the U.S.

FRODE GJERSTAD: Yes, it was my first tour in the U.S. I have played in New York a few times, but never outside the Apple. So, this tour has been great. We have had standing ovations and very good crowds everywhere. Which was a surprise for me. I am not used to it... And I have sold lots of CDs which is also new to me, but very nice indeed!

It seams to me American and Canadian listeners are more aware than Europeans that our music is a part of the jazz tradition. In Europe I have often seen that the music I play is considered to be too much jazz for the impro-people and too free for the jazzers. During the tour, our music was very well received so maybe our product fits in with the U.S. audiences better so than the European?

JAZZREVIEW.COM: Can you say a little bit about how this trio came about and also some of your impressions from the tour?

FRODE GJERSTAD: 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 successful 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 just released on Cadence.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: Also, how much planning did you do with Drake and Parker? I am curious as to how much planning you did before each show as to who would solo when and for how long or as to what type of moods that you were aiming for?

FRODE GJERSTAD: We never have talked about any of this. We usually start bang on in order to become warmed up. And from then on, it seams like the music takes care of itself. So it is pretty open and will of course vary a bit from night to night. But the same elements seams to appear more or less every night, but maybe in a different order or different place than yesterday. So the sound in the room could be very critical. One kind of sound lends itself to ballads. Another room is good for loud sounds etc. And if we have to use mics, that will also come out in the music.

These little things may play quite an important role. Like in Vancouver, they had a room with a carpet which means a dry sound. That was very hard work because I did not get a response from the room. When you have to work hard like that, sometimes the music is very good. And vice versa. Like when we played in San Diego, we played in an art gallery. The sound in the room was very good and we could hear each other very well. We had a good balance and the room gave us a good sound which moved the music into a certain direction.

In terms of soloing, I do not consider solo the correct word for our kind of music. I do not even look at it as a "solo". I look at it as two people, one person or three people playing. We do not have solos in our music. Only a varied amount of people taking part in the music at a given time.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: More generally, how far do you think that free music can go? What do you see for this genre in the future?

FRODE GJERSTAD: I think we will see, just like in any music, people will come and go. Certain groups and/or individuals will color the music by bringing in new elements or by using the elements in a different way. No music is static. Younger musicians are being attracted to the music.

The fact that more and more of the commercial music is created in such a way that all spontaneity is lost and the end product is very often extremely boring and slick, will maybe lead to more interest in this music because it is the opposite.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Frode Gjerstad
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