June 12, 2024


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Interview with Thomas Agergaard: Jazz represents freedom: Video, New CD cover

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Thomas Agergaard. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Thomas Agergaard: I grew up in Ordrup, a suburb of Copenhagen. My parents were both artists, and music was always playing in our home. They listened to Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, The Band, The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Hendrix.  My mother also loved classical music, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, etc. I loved sitting and drawing while listening to music, looking at LP covers and dreaming my way into the world of music. There were several musicians in my immediate family, and they introduced me to jazz artists like Rollins, Ben Webster, and Stan Getz.

My life took a dramatic change when my father died at 48, when I was 11. I had a guitar and a plastic flute, both of which I really loved, and after my father died I started playing these instruments much more. An uncle of mine got me a real flute, and it was absolutely amazing. I still remember the smell of a new silver flute and the music store where we bought it. My mother, an independent artist, suddenly found herself alone with 3 children. Her psychological state began to deteriorate; she developed a psychosis and things went downhill into full on schizophrenia. More and more, music became the focal point in my life.

At age 14 I started taking lessons with Aske Bentzon, who was such a sensitive, ambitious, and talented musician. His guidance meant a lot to me. I’d started playing jazz, I had The Real Book, and I played in the orchestra at a friend’s school. The teacher there found me another music teacher, Jan zum Vohrde, a saxophonist and flautist. I was 15 years old at the time. 

Jan zum Vohrde told me I should get my hands on two records: Milestones by Miles Davis and Ralph Towner’s Solstice. When I heard Milestones for the first time it was mind-blowing, and the same goes for Solstice. At that point, jazz really changed my life. I started reading books like Mezzerov’s Really the Blues, and I bought a ton of records at a second hand shop, and new ones when I could afford them. 

I had a pianist friend back then who was plugged into the theater world. With his contacts we were able to get in to the jazz club Montmartre on Nørregade in Copenhagen, and we’d go there as often as three times a week. I heard all the big names who played there on a regular basis: Dexter Gordon, Bill Evans, Pharao Sanders, Art Blakey, Don Pullen, George Adams, Bill Frisell, Jan Garbarek, Palle Mikkelborg, Michel Petrucciani, Tony Williams, Brecker etc. We also went to the big concerts: Weather Report, Frank Zappa, George Duke, Chick Corea, among many others.

JBN: How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

TA: When I was 16, my uncle (Peter Bastian) tried to convince me to go to the conservatory. But I had been behind the scenes at the Royal Theater, and it seemed to me that many of the classical musicians were very hard drinkers. That environment made me nervous. For me, Jazz seemed like a more pure and honest form of music for the individual musician.  When I refused to apply for the conservatory, my uncle Peter Bastian said; Well Thomas, then you must at least take a yoga course. And I did. The yoga course (fourteen days in Sweden) gave me permission to take an instrument with me, on the condition that I only practiced out in the woods. Meditation and practicing in nature have been crucial to me as a musician ever since. 

JBN: What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability, especially pertaining to rhythm?

TA: The saxophone was invented to meet the demand for a brass instrument with the same overtones as strings. It was meant to have the same tonal possibilities in outdoor settings, and the musicians had to be able to march with it. In terms of sound, I think you can learn a lot from listening to the strings: the rawness of the resin against the string is both beautiful and raw at the same time. The saxophone has a similar quality.

When I lived in Copenhagen I would practice in an apartment, and I tried to become part of the sound of the house. My goal was, in a way, to become invisible within the overall soundscape. I think that uniting in a common sound is a special thing, and playing with someone and suddenly feeling that the individual sounds have become a common sound within which you can’t even hear yourself, because you are just a part of bigger sound – for me this is a wonderful and important part of making music together.  

I always practice sound, harmonics, pianissimo, forte, vibrato, crescendo – all the different dynamic forms of expression are of great importance when I develop my approach to my sound and my approach to music.

Rhythm is the other aspect of music. It may be that we all have within us some kind of basic tempo which we must find. This tempo is like a foundation upon which we can rest, and from which we can venture forth. I have a lot of practice improvising over simple forms, and I find peace in resting within the flow that I myself create. I’ve also played on records – Pakistani and Indian music, but also various forms of experimental music, and Techno and Rap music.  Rhythm is an infinite universe which we’ll never finish exploring. 

JBN: How do you prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

TA: I’m not sure whether one could or should prevent outside influences from affecting one’s creative “now.” But I strongly believe that we exist on sort of frequency, and if we are creating something on that frequency, we can be disturbed and lose touch with the thing we had been totally absorbed by before. We can lose access to that frequency, and that’s not a good thing. At these times it’s essential to have confidence in our creations – if we constantly discard our work then we won’t have a sense of our evolution over time as artists. Of course, there will always be something better out there. We will find ourselves in different flows, and we can’t help but be affected by this. 

You can see this phenomenon within the changing fashions and trends in the music world. Just look back to the ‘80s, when thousands of saxophonists were trying to sound like Brecker and Garbarek. Now those are the only two people trying to sound like that. And in the ‘90s Joe Lovano had his breakthrough with his wonderful playing, and suddenly you could hear his techniques being emulated by a slew of saxophonists. The moral is that we need to hold on to who we are, and have confidence in ourselves. 

JBN: How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

TA: I always try to exist in the present. I have no expectations, I just want to be in the music, and I try to become part of the collective creative process that jazz is. It is beautiful form of music, where honesty towards one’s authentic self is of the utmost importance. 

I don’t think that we should try to go against the flow of creativity in the present moment. Rather, we should have the confidence to go with the flow. We never know where the music will go. We just have to navigate as best we can and hold on to ourselves, and not let ourselves fall into the trap of clever, rehearsed lines. Instead, we should trust what we hear and feel during the creative process.

JBN: What do you love most about your new album 2021: Thomas Agergaard, Lars Jansson, Lennart Ginman, Anders Kjellberg – Ask Yourself, how it was formed and what you are working on today. And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

TA: I don’t know if you’re aware of that the album Green Cities was recorded in 1995. It’s quite a long time ago. But I couldn’t get it released back then. I didn’t do much besides sending Green Cities to a number a record companies, and they all said no. 

I’d formed an ensemble called Ok Nok… Kongo a few years before. It was quite a success, with super nice reviews in magazines such as DownBeat. Ask Yourself was also recorded with Ok Nok… Kongo, and was released on storyville. (It’s actually named after a number by Neneh Cherry.) John Tchicai often played with Ok Nok… Kongo, and he had played a lot with Don Cherry.

As for the musicians in the quartet: I composed music for a series of boxing matches – a Live event. Lars Jansson, Anders Kjellberg and Lennart Ginman played as a rhythm section, they had a natural and very organic beat together, and solid foundations in both the American and the Scandinavian approach to jazz.

Green Cities was recorded in one day in a classic jazz recording style, with a few takes per track at most, and often a single take. I like our sound together, and that it’s a classic jazz release from that time.

I’m currently working on two forthcoming releases: Cascades, a duo with pianist Artur Tuznik, and a quartet release we call Old Worlds. Many of the pieces on that release were created in the same way as Bitches Brew: joint improvisations subsequently stitched together into final compositions. Both albums are pretty much finished. 

The quartet was formed by me and the guitarist Bjarne Roupé. We call the quartet Gondwana, named after a supercontinent. This is also a reference to the Miles Davis album Agartha, which has a track titled Gondwana.

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

TA: Tough question. I’m not sure I know, but I’ll try to answer as best I can. Developing one’s total language and being free in different tones requires, to my mind, an intellectually strong creative process. Understanding the tone’s building blocks (it’s intervals, scales, structures, and inherent tensions) is something I think we develop over time. Even the greatest composers and musicians of all time develop their music increasingly complex and nuanced expressions. 

But intuition often senses things that the intellect may have difficulty fulling grasping. Therefore, it’s important to trust our intuition, and to be brave enough to relinquish control and venture into uncertainty, as uncertainty is the future and certainty belongs only to the past. Music flourishes when we collectively dare to throw ourselves into uncertainty. If we do this, then we will see what our journey out into the open, creative community has yielded. 

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

TA: Playing a simple tune in a beautiful and honest way is also art. If we are to survive as musicians, we must learn to play for all kinds of people, from every corner of society.  Daring to play all kinds of music leads only to deeper experiences. 

Good musicians can play a simple melody beautifully and strongly and often convey complex and experimental music to a very wide group of people. After all, it’s about giving people what they didn’t know they wanted. Art Blakey once told Wayne Shorter just before they went on stage: “Tell them a story!”  We must never forget that. We must tell stories with our music.

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

TA: I was very insecure as a young music student. Once, I was in a Bebop group where we played Charlie Parker compositions. The group was rhythmically pretty stiff and I didnt feel it worked for me. At our final concert, which I thought had been really off, an older drummer came up and said: “Thomas, you’ve got a heavenly touch!”  Being seen there at that point in my life was very important to me.

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

TA: Jazz represents freedom, and all young people seek freedom and a place where they can express their true selves. This is so important when communicating about the art of jazz.

The rest of us must also remember that Jazz will always fragment into many different styles. The act of creating music together democratically means that the music will develop in new directions all the time. But the basic structure of jazz is also important to convey: rhythm, improvising over harmonic sequences, time, etc.

JBN: John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

TA: Parker, Dizzi, Miles and Coltrane are the pillars of a fantastic musical form. We’re still indebted to their genius, and that it was black Americans who developed this amazing form of music is probably a natural consequence of centuries of oppression. Classical music is tightly hierarchically structured, and that’s probably how it has to be in order to play the great works of so many composers. On the other hand, Jazz has a level structure, where each individual musician is seen for who they are. It is very beautiful. 

But one must not forget that music is a fiercely competitive art form. Competition may be inherent in us humans, a constant longing for progress and momentum. We are spiritual beings, we have a spirit, and spirituality and music have always walked hand in hand. The greatest composers of all time have all written great spiritual music. Bach was also a fantastic improviser. The black Americans brought an entire continent of a highly developed musical forms with them from Africa, it was united with Western music, and jazz was born. 

This is beautiful, and it’s a model for the way forward for the world: only when all cultures accept each other and their respective strong traditions are united will there be peace in this world… if that’s at all possible.

JBN: If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

TA: I would say that music must enter into the education process much earlier, from infancy, and must continue until we are in a nursing home.

Music can be something special, and it brings peace and tranquility to even deeply traumatized people. It can awaken people from dementia and create light in the darkness when all hope seems gone.

We must continue to learn from music – there is still so much we have not fully understood … even those of us who work with music on a daily basis.

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

TA: Myself – as I am at a point where I have several releases coming out soon. 

But fortunately there are so many fantastic musicians out there. I follow a lot of them on Instagram and FB, where they often post really wonderful sequences. For the past six months I’ve been really into Craig Taborn who I think is a great pianist and artist. And there are a lot of incredibly amazing drummers. It’s hard to name names, but locally I enjoy playing with Peter Bruun (among others Django Bates trio), Lisbeth Diers and Michala Østergaard-Nielsen, Marilyn Mazur, and of course musicians like Brian Blade, and Nasheet Waits who I played with along with Andrew Hill back in 2002.

JBN: What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

TA: That we must be brave enough to embrace uncertainty, because it leads us down new paths. That we must be true to our authentic selves. We are all unique beings, each with our own sound and qualities which we must stand by and develop. When we see ourselves on video or hear our voices for the first time, most people think “Oh my god!” But this is actually the moment where we need to prick up our ears and say: “Ok, there I am, now I know what I have to work with and develop.”

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

TA: I think the world is better now than it was decades ago. We are moving forward.

But I would have liked to experience the Sacre de Printemps, Coltrane and Parker, and Miles Davis quintet with Wayne Shorter. Wayne Shorter has probably been my greatest source of inspiration up through the ages. Thanks to Wayne! I owe him a lot.

JBN: I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

TA: You must be an open minded and spiritually curious person, how did you discover jazz and its strong honest spirituality?

JBN: – Jazz is my life, and spirituality start!!!

JBN: So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

TA: First of all, thank you again for the journey through these questions, which are important ones in my view.  I have tried to answer as best I can. I’m also just traveling through the universe like a member of the alien species that we are. I try to be true to the music I love so much, and that has probably saved me and shaped me into who I am. Most answers create new questions, I will carry them with me and try to find answers to them in the future.

Thank you for your attention! Thomas Agergaard

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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