Interview with Ross Lambert: In improvisational music, trial and error empiricism is the important aspect … Video

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Jazz interview with jazz guitarist Ross Lambert. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.com: – When you improvise, you know where you’re going. It’s a matter of taking certain paths and certain directions?

Ross Lambert: – You mean in the moment? It is true that in the rule-less field of free improvisation, I have invented a few ideas and guidelines.  Perhaps they could be called personal rules.  Play as if it is the first time, while also the last, is the most important one.  Be both a young child and someone about to die, within the one body.  Another is, don’t prepare any plan, for what or how you will play, you must find that in the playing, in the moment.  How often you find a technique you’ve not encountered before while performing could be some sort of measure.  That happens most times I play and I find that limiting the materials and the performance environment do not affect it.  Success in improv is really somehow outside of measurement isn’t it, it’s fleeting and unexpected.  How to judge this indefinable thing has always been a major interest, I don’t see it as being relativistic, for example.  I think we can make its likelihood higher through a certain kind of goal-less preparation.  To deconstruct that, I see a bit of ‘space’ in front of me, with its context.  It exists in my mind to a degree, so not a thing I can touch.  So how will I fill it?  Will I use a sculptural approach for example, building up from a wire armature, or carving the block that is silence?  Do I feel emotional about it?  And who am I talking to?  Does a listener feel the same as me?  Is it a crowded or an open thing, is it enclosed or is it empty?  What degree of ‘self-editing’ shall I use, while playing this piece, this section, this second, and why?  What shall I listen to, or not, while paying, what am I focusing on: myself, others, the whole piece, that vehicle in the street outside?  Lots of questions.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from colouring what you’re doing?

RL: – Open form/ experimental/ improvised music is my main interest, and trying to innovate each time, not repeat what I’ve already done, is central.  That includes not copying others.  Re-arranging historical references, post-modern fashion, would also constitute failure so is not a good option either.  But I will potentially use anything that occurs to me in the moment.  Self-editing is probably the main thing here, realising when and what not to play, and knowing when to stop.  And that is dependent on concentration and probably confidence, and sometimes a kind of stamina or strength.  But also the difficult trick of being ‘out-of-body’, watching myself at the same time as doing.

JBN: – What do you love most about your latest album: <Magnit-Iz-Dat>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
RL: – Probably my memory and appreciation of the people who inspired the record.  I wanted it to be transparent and simple, an honest and direct picture of me, so that had to include the various contexts of self-help, self-build and communities of sharing that are important to me.  It is the first thing I’ve done that has been so personally focused, not an easy thing for me.  I loved it being described by one commentator as “at the limits of intimacy and non-commerciality”, which I responded to with “an important new category”.  It is.  I can detect aspects of oral history, documentary realism, the British ‘kitchen sink’ style, and the news and details of the day in it.  These are things that I was thinking about at the time.  I plan to produce something next that is about the area where I grew up in Northern Ireland.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

RL: – My immediate reaction might be to isolate each one of these things and compare various aspects of each.  But… they don’t exist alone in idealised form and practitioners rarely think of them as an opposing pair, outside of their own activity.  That is somehow something that links us all, as humans.  Thinking about what we’re doing and what our neighbours are doing, are things all artists and humans do; me, you, the listeners and readers all.  Everyone has thoughts and everyone reflects on what they are doing, where they are, have been.  Some maybe do more of it than others, but everyone constantly tests out multiple concepts, models and analogies to make sense of their lives and the world.  Maybe your question reduces in the end to the same thing I referred to above as being somehow ‘out-of-body’, watching myself at the same time as doing, feeling while watching myself feeling.  It is quite a thing, to do and to watch at the same time.  Without wishing to be too flowery about it, it doesn’t easily turn on or off, it is more like a state – or a door – that gets entered, uncertainly.  In improvisational music, trial and error empiricism is the important aspect, innovation in the moment of playing that then gets tested in real time, and is not used as a source for later formalisation.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

RL: – I think my audience wants the same as me.  We’re both human, I don’t think there’s a difference in what we want.  I don’t really know what division there might be there, I suppose my feeling would be that any difference might be illusory, a product of history in some way.  Perhaps a consequence of industrial thinking, about markets and marketing as credible and serious ideas.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

RL: – In London’s Conway Hall, a place with a great history of non-conformism, where London’s ‘Freedom of the City’ May Day music festival took place for many years from the early noughties, there is famously a carved plaque over the stage that reads “To thine own self be true”.  During the 1980s, when the improvised music scene was a derided and lonely place, I heard freely-improvised music for the first time in Sheffield.  I was an architectural student and Sheffield was in a post-industrial depression.  I helped the ‘Other Musics’ organisation there organise concerts and made a CD with the band ‘Feetpackets’ before moving to London for work reasons.  A few years after relocating, Eddie Prevost’s London Workshop began.  I knew about it because I was member of the LMC (London Musician’s Collective), that initially sponsored it.  That was 20 years ago last month (Nov ’19), I went to the first workshop one Friday evening in late 1999, and met mostly unknown or younger musicians there, a number of which were better musicians than the well-known gigging players.  I subsequently facilitated the workshop for many years on and off, before taking a break and then recently attending more regularly again.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

RL: – Concentrating on its philosophical, ethical and moral aspects, rather than the mechanical or technical ones might be a start.  I do study some of the industrial jazz canon, occasionally and out of sight. But my own definition of jazz would include all improvisational music, and particularly the most open type. To me it is not an industrial genre, but a living thing, current, and importantly, not taught. I have called what I play jazz since my early days.  I think it connects me to the earliest humans and everyone since, who has contemplated that open space in front of them and thought “How shall I fill that thing, that piece of time?”  “How do WE use that?”  That place of potential.  It’s fascinating, a lifetime’s work, as hard as you want to make it, and it should be a pleasure.  If entry to the genre needed an industrial career pathway with expensive compulsory training, official ratification and awards, I would have little interest I think.

JBN: – How important is it to you to have an original approach? Can you comment on the bridge between being a musician and being a composer?

RL: – I find myself moving towards what feels right, usually without actively making conscious decisions.  But I don’t like repeating myself.  When a friend repeats their now-boring anecdotes it’s not too bad, more like part of an environment that a traveller is briefly passing through, but I feel that when an improvising musician repeats, it is a failing.  I am self-taught and my approach to making music feels the same as it is to other art forms, and drawing in particular.  The same processes, themes, assessments, philosophical considerations mostly apply.  Perhaps in improvisation you leave less behind, and take away just memory.  An attempt at such purity seems important.  If pushed I’d say I find being both creator and performer straightforward, and perhaps that I’m helped in some way by developing outside formal music education.  If only because I’ve talked and played with so many schooled musicians who expressed difficulty in breaking away from the master-obeying conditioning that their training involved, especially if that started at a young age.  Even though they wanted to escape.  So I know from experience that these conservative aspects can be a huge problem, and one I wouldn’t have predicted before encountering them.  But then, guitar players are notoriously conservative too and I wouldn’t have predicted that either when I was younger.  Advantages and disadvantages.

JBN: – Do you have an idea of what it is you’re trying to say or get across? Is it an idea or is it just something that we feel?

RL: – Nothing very original, a view from outside of the industry, but a tailored one. Many things, interlinked, I can try to express it a bit. Like the value of craft and self-discovery and working together, away from institutions. Conserving only what’s worth conserving. My response above about worth, about the nature of the ‘good’, in music and elsewhere. About how we make sense of what’s initially perplexing, random or chaotic. And something overall about how the extreme over-mediation that we increasingly experience eventually makes people seek people, and direct communication, and communication through less. How size, of popularity or generated finance, tends to be a bad way of judging quality. That music shouldn’t be about conditioning through repeated exposure and some kind of contrived credibility.  Or about dividing people up into factions that disagree. And then, that there’s more to life than passive hyper-consumption, with its minimisation of creativity into what you buy. And that while sharing creativity is important and refreshing for everyone, the artificial novelty cycles that some parts of society need, crave, invent, impose are unhealthy for other parts.

My personal history probably has an effect on all this. I grew up in a place and time of war and conflict, with a context of opposition (“if you’re not for us, you’re against us”, said both sides).  Much of it was tacit, but many normal aspects of life seemed to me subject to ideological interpretation. You know that Seamus Heaney poem, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’?  For me it was a place where creativity was ambiguously both derided and respected at the same time.

JBN: – What do you see for your extended future? You know what you have going on? You have life? If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

RL: – I seem to be putting a little more personal energy into both recording and playing live than I used to. For a long time I only played live or recorded when people asked me to. Maybe that’s due to a health scare I had earlier this year removing feelings of invulnerability and immortality.  Changing my relationship with eternity. I’m quite fatalistic about the world but I think, paradoxically perhaps, that the influence of hyper-capitalism and its controllers may be more or less equalled by the new freedoms of clever and humane people to seek and access information.  That is resulting in people who are for example more knowledgeable about the edges of music, and less happy with the centre, and in huge improvements in the role of women in it at all levels.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

RL: – Just listening, as always. Talk radio, birdsong, the sounds of the city and the countryside. I tend to ‘encounter’ music rather than seek it out, via some context or other, perhaps while playing, or passed to me by friends or sometimes by people on social media. I’ve never listened to much recorded music at home, don’t wear headphones while walking or cycling, and I don’t drive. But Roscoe Mitchell springs to mind as someone I’ve seen a few times recently.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

RL: – I’d quite like to hear my grandfather’s fiddle being played on the ship to Philadelphia, before he was born.  It’s a family story.  And I’d quite like to see Laurel and Hardy on the sets of ‘Towed in a Hole’, ‘The Music Box’ and ‘Busy Bodies’ while they were being produced

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may you have a question to me…

RL: – Those were quite hard questions, particularly No.9!  They’re not things I hadn’t thought about before, but it took a while to decide how to respond.  My question for you would be “What do you think industrial marketing does to non-mainstream music?”  I am thinking of the way the words jazz, experimental and avant-garde got attached to musics that are not remotely them, by people whose names I’d like to know but never will.  Who are they, these opportunistic marketing professionals?  Actually, I’ll ask a different question, “What was the first piece of music that you really loved, and why, Simon?”

JBN: – Who are they, these opportunistic marketing professionals? Sample we and our website, from which you did not know how to use …

The first piece of music that I really loved: from London Jazz festival – Dave Holland quartet and from Istanbul jazz festival – Esperanza Spalding, Cecile McLorin Salvant and from Tbilisi jazz festival – Jack DeJohnette quintet … and more …

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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