Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Chris Biscoe. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Chris Biscoe: – I was born in London and grew up around London and the south of England. My mother was a self-taught pianist and singer who played and sang old popular songs and light classical pieces at home. I started to become interested in playing music around the age of 13, but didn’t know what music I wanted to play. I was listening to the pop music of this time (around 1960 – just before the Beatles) on radio and not hearing anything which really grabbed me. I liked some classical music, especially Debussy piano music, but thought it was too late for me to develop the technique for this music. At this time you could occasionally hear tracks by Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson or Benny Goodman and I decided to seek out the short jazz record programmes which were then on BBC radio. For about a month it sounded like complete chaos, then the rhythms and melodic lines started to take shape. It was a little like the way I remember learning to read, where for what seemed like ages I made no progress, then suddenly words and sentences started to emerge from the mush of random letters. Quite soon I was very keen to try playing this music, and particularly to improvise my own melodies.
JBN.S: – What interested you in picking up the saxophon?
CHB: – I was more interested in playing jazz, than in the sound of any particular instrument, although I had heard and liked Lester Young, Sidney Bechet and Benny Goodman. At this time there was no piano at home, so I was looking for a suitable instrument to play. I heard a comment on radio that saxophone is an easy instrument to play (50 years later I’m not convinced this is true) and decided to get one. About a year later, having spent some time playing around with a descant recorder I got a second hand Grafton Acrylic alto sax on credit and started teaching myself to play.
JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the saxophon you are today? What made you choose the saxophon?
CHB: – I’ve never had a formal lesson. Around age 22 I went to a few group saxophone classes run by Don Rendell.
JBN.S: – What about the Your sound did that influence at all? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
CHB: – The first Charlie Parker disc I got featured studio recordings made for Norman Granz and some of these, KC Blues, Chi Chi, She Rote have great sound and are a lasting influence. I don’t listen to them very often now, but my concept of the sound (which may be different to the reality) is something I carry with me. Later I got the Charlie Parker Omnibook and used to play these and other solos below the recorded tempos so as to concentrate on the sound. Among other altoists I had a mid-50s Sonny Criss record of Cole Porter songs where he had a particularly vibrant sound, and Cannonball Adderley has the mix of brightness and warmth I love. I’m not a big user of long note playing for sound development. It may be good for meditation, but I suspect some people doing the exercise aren’t truly listening to the quality of the notes they produce. As far as maintaining and developing sound I favour playing simple ballads slowly and with no ornamentation. This way I’m constantly listening to the intervals and intonation. This is a purely personal approach. I wouldn’t dare advocate it instead of playing long notes. There’s a Steve Lacy long note exercise I have adapted for my own use which is particularly valuable for strengthening a weak note. His description is on page 61 of Findings, published by CMAP, France. I’ve just looked at it and realised that I have put my own, much simplified interpretation on it. In my version I play the weak note, alternating with the notes a semitone above and below to even the response between the notes. Steve Lacy’s version is much more meditative. I recommend Findings as a fascinating source of ideas. I haven’t even got as far as scratching the surface of it.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
CHB: – I don’t have any specific practice routines for rhythm. The most creative pracice for me is when I take a simple piece of music and improvise on it quite slowly, trying to use the simplest harmonies to avoid cliches which often come with familiar extensions and substitutions – such as the altered scale. Play this for ten or 20 minutes. Come back to it the next day and see if it’s possible to push into further abstraction while retaining all the simplest elements of the structure. As with most things, this seems to involve going backwards as much as forwards. Then again, I might play an up-tempo standard and try to push it past my normal technical limits. You’ve only asked about sound and rhythm. Articulation is particularly fascinating to me. I’ve always listened a lot to tenor players, especially Sonny Rollins, whose different ways of attacking the note is a joy as well as an inspiration.
JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?
CHB: – The simplest piece of advice I can give is: work with people you respect.
JBN.S: – Аnd finally jazz can be a business today and someday?
CHB: – Jazz is always a business – and a surprisingly successful one in some areas. I’ll answer by mentioning something that is vital to the grass roots of jazz in Britain – and probably in many other countries. Volunteers, people with a lifelong interest in jazz and in hearing it played in the towns and cities where they live, have kept jazz and improvised music alive , sometimes for 30 or 40 years, and usually without pay. I hope there is a new generation coming along.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are from half-a-century ago?
CHB: – A lot of young players are drawing from a mixture of traditions. I guess this is a way forward. The main thing, whether playing music old or new, is to keep it fresh.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
CHB: – I’m not sure how to answer this, but I believe that the spirit of the music we choose to play is the part of it that communicates most strongly, and which sustains both musicians and audiences.
JBN.S: – What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
CHB: – I trust creative musicians to keep developing and adding to the traditions of a century of music making. It seems unlikely we’ll see again the seismic changes that occured in the 1920s, 1940s or 1960s: what once seemed to happen in a year or five may take a generation.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
CHB: – I don’t think in those terms. As a writer I’m heading towards simplification. Recent recorded projects have looked at great musicians of the past (Eric Dolphy – Gone in the Air; Charles Mingus – Profiles of Mingus; Gerry Mulligan/Paul Desmond – Then and Now on which I play baritone sax). I have a CD with Pete Hurt and Liam Noble ready for release featuring our compositions. The band is called the Wobbly Rail 5, which is part reference to early Cecil Taylor, part to traditional and revivalist jazz. I’m working with percussionist Roger Turner and would like to document some of our improvising. So a little bit of pushing frontiers in several directions, rather than a massive assault in one direction.
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between the blues/jazz and the genres of local folk music and traditional forms?
CHB: – I think any musician who looks at the folk music of their native country can find inspiration there.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
CHB: – I’m not listening to much new recorded music, but do catch quite a lot of live performance. Interesting new performers I’ve heard include the new Haydn Prosser band with two German and one Swiss musician playing a composed but very open music, the Eva Klesse Quartet and Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom at the Munster Jazz Festival. Went to see John Butcher recently, who was stunning. Apart from them I keep up with the music of old friends like Pete Hurt, Mike Westbrook, Kate Williams and Henry Lowther. As far as recordings go, I keep returning to Sonny Rollins, Bessie Smith and other great innovators.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan