But perseverance does sometimes pay off, and in 1997 Norway’s Jazz Federation crowned him Jazz Musician of the Year. "My prize," says the talkative saxophonist, "was a concert with musicians of my choosing. I had played with (bassist) William Parker in New York while visiting Borah Bergman and Peter Brotzmann had told me to look up (drummer) Hamid Drake whenever I had the chance."
His choices say a lot about his intuition and his courage. Parker anchors both Cecil Taylor and David S. Ware’s groups while continuing to lead his own ferocious quartet. Blake has been Dutch sax screamer Brotzmann’s drummer of choice for years and co-leads the cooperative DKV Trio with fellow Chicagoans Ken Vandermark and Kent Kessler. Getting on stage with these two titans says that Gjerstad likes his work.
The trio’s 1998 disc Remember to Forget was recorded on the subsequent tour and it shows the immediate buzz this heady trio generated. Gjerstad’s tone alternates between the brittle shard glass approach of Eric Dolphy at his most exultant and the warm slippery vibrato of Albert Ayler. At one point during the 38 minute "Remember" he emits a piercing whistle and toys with the pitch for thirty seconds of sheer drama while Parker and Blake storm behind him. What makes this such sweet music making is the intuitive plummet that follows this cold cry: the saxophonist drops to his instrument’s bottom register for a few phrases of the alto’s warmest tone. As if to say: "we knew that was coming," Parker and Drake are there to catch him. As Gjerstad searches the soul of his instrument and Drake and Parker awaken the silence behind him, the three achieve a primal squawl that not only echoes the raging beauty of John Coltrane, but, at times, the raw and ancient glory of the Master Musicians of Jajouka.
As natural and inevitable as this recording sounds, this blessed union of musical souls almost didn’t happen. Though Gjerstad has always welcomed bi-partisan collaborations with the cream of jazz’s European avant garde - playing with Evan Parker, Brotzmann, Borah Bergman and others - the tragic death of his long-standing partner, the British drummer John Stevens, left him cold to future band commitments. Stevens, who died in ‘94, played with everyone from Ornette Coleman to John & Yoko and ignited Gjerstad’s free fuse.
"I was very depressed," Gjerstad remembers. "He’d been my partner for 13 years and we were very good friends. I thought, I don't want a group anymore. He was my drummer." Stevens had also introduced the saxophonist to the cliquish European jazz circle and following his death, fellow musicians were very supportive of Gjerstad. "All of a sudden there were all these opportunities," the saxophonist continues. "Borah (Bergman) invited me to America and there I met all these like minds."
And his current partners. "When we play, we don't decide anything before hand," Gjerstad says in a tone that notes his excitement. "We may know how we’ll start a set with William maybe on shakuhachi and Hamid on hand bells but nothing else is pre-planned." It’s this improvisational daring that’s created free jazz’s devotional following and made heroes of Taylor, Coltrane and Ayler as well as masters of the moment David S. Ware and Charles Gayle.
Like many of jazz’s mavericks, Gjerstad sidesteps industry standards and runs his own small label, Circulasione Totale. At present, the label’s released a dozen discs of Gjerstad’s various musical voices: from the Drake/Parker trio to his big band of young jazz students called Circulasione Totale Orchestra. Over the past fifteen years, Gjerstad’s educational efforts have begun to pay off. Thanks to his apprenticing, Norway now has a blossoming young free jazz scene.
Gjerstad obviously relishes the playful spatial sparring between sound and silence that’s at the musical heart of the free jazz journey. To those listeners who find the music too busy or cerebral, Gjerstad has a request. "Open yourself and just go with it.. My experience is that when we play for younger kids who don't have preconceptions, they dig the music because they can feel its sincerity and energy."
"I remember when I was young and playing in an R&B band in the sixties," he continues. "I heard Albert Ayler and thought ‘WOW! This is great.’ What attitude! And the music was spiritual music on such a different level than ‘Fly Me To The Moon.’ It’s like Jimi Hendrix. If he were alive today, what would he be playing? Certainly not ‘Fly Me To The Moon.’ I try always to keep that in mind."