The Artistic Integrity of Barry Altschul
Born in the Bronx in 1943, Barry first became involved with drums at the age of eleven. After the usual amount of practice, jamming, freelance gigs and lessons (with Charli Persip), Barry happened to meet Paul Bley, and was invited to play. This was 1964, and Barry continued playing with Bley until 1970. During this time he also studied with Sam Ulano and did a variety of re cordings as a Sideman. Altschul’s next major association was with the collective group Circle, which featured Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton and Chick Corea. The group was together two years and was considered very influential. For the next few years, Barry played with the Anthony Braxton Quartet, as well as, the Sam Rivers Trio.
After leaving Rivers, Altschul decided to follow his own path, and became a bandleader; first with a quartet, then with a trio. For the past four years, the trio, called Brahma, has featured the same personnel: Altschul, trombonist Ray Anderson, and bassist Mark Helias. They have managed to work consistently throughout the years, and have released a number of albums under Barry’s name. Their music covers a wide range of influences, from Dixieland to avant-garde, in such a way that it is all blended together to form a cohesive whole, with an emphasis on improvisation.
RM: I’ve heard you express the philosophy that concept must come before technique. Would you elaborate on that?
BA: When people first start playing, it’s because they want to play to a music they hear. So kids pick up some drumsticks, get their little tin-can drumset together, and start playing something with no technique before they start learning anything. Already, there’s some kind of a concept—they hear something that they want to play. Now from that point, yes, I believe that one should learn certain basics of the instrument. There’s a certain common language that one must learn in order to get these things out. But just learning technical aspects of drumming does not make music. I consider myself a musician first, whose instrument is the drums. So when I started practicing years ago, it was like I heard something and tried to play it. I couldn’t, so then I searched for how to play it. By finding out how to play it, you run across whatever technique is needed to play this thing. Usually this technique is one that everybody knows; it’s a standard technique. But if you were to just learn all of the standard techniques, and you don’t have a conception, then you can’t use what you have.
So what I think is, if you hear something to play and can’t play it, then you sit down and practice to develop the technique to play what you hear. The more you learn to hear, the more technique you find to play it. So I feel the concept stimulates the technique to play the music. I don’t feel technique stimulates a concept. I don’t feel that just learning technical aspects of the instrument will help you learn to improvise, or help you learn to swing, or help you do any of that. To me, the technique is the easiest part of the music. It just takes practice—the more you practice, the more technical you become. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that what you play will be musical. I mean, I know some great “drum-pad drummers,” as I call them. But when you put them with a band, they don’t really make music.
RM: So if people naturally start out with some kind of concept, why do so many get sidetracked and become hung up with technique?
BA: That’s a very interesting question. I think it has to do with many, many aspects of one’s life. It depends on their creative goals; what they want to achieve as a musician; what kind of contribution, if any, they want to make, or if they just want to use music as their job to make money. It could be the psychology of the person—what they’re made to feel is important in their environment. In the Western environment, technique is the tool; it’s not the end. It’s just the means to get to a place; it’s not the place you arrive at. So I think many people get caught in the theory that if they become great technicians, they will be great musicians. They do go hand in hand—you do need technique, and nowadays you need more technique than ever before because of all the different things a drummer is called upon to do.
RM: I wonder if a lot of the fault is with teachers who do nothing other than teach techniques.
BA: It is the responsibility of the teacher to stimulate the student into what it’s really like to be a musician, rather than just give that particular side of it. I studied with two teachers. One was strictly to learn to read, and he was great for that—Sam Ulano. I knew what he was going to give me when I went to him, and that’s what I wanted. And that was later; I was in my twenties when I felt I really needed to get into some serious reading studies. When I was seventeen years old, I studied with Charli Persip. I studied with him formally, and other times we just hung out. He really put the idea of playing music into my concept. It wasn’t about technique. I credit him with putting me on the track of using technique to get your ideas out. “Play what you hear, and if you can’t play it, then practice it.” It was great advice.
RM: What are some of the things a teacher can do to help a student learn more than just technique?
BA: Helping another person to play music involves more than technique and reading. It involves things like what to listen to, different approaches to music, how you feel with yourself, what it’s like on a bandstand playing with other people, what the business is like, what the frustrations are like, and all those kinds of things. Through the years I’ve developed an eleven-step form that I deal with when I teach, which gets into all of these areas. Plus, there are a couple of things on the form that leave room for what the student wants to do. There’s always a time in the lesson where I say, “Okay, what are you dealing with in your life, playing with friends or whatever, and what are your problems?” I do that every lesson. I always make it clear to my students that I am just giving them me, and whatever I feel is important for them. But I tell them if I’m not doing something they feel is important, to bring it up. If I know about it, we get into it. If I don’t know about it, then they turn me on. I don’t really teach a concept per sé; then I would just be sitting someone down and teaching them my licks—how I approach these things. Instead, I try to make them find their own approach. They will come in and say, “I heard this and tried to do it, but it just didn’t work.” Then I say, “Well, let me see what you’re doing.” We talk about it and I see where I can help them technically or whatever, and we deal with it like that. But each student is different. I don’t teach the same thing to each student. Each student is on a different level and should be approached individually.
I enjoy teaching. It’s a responsibility that I feel is an important one. I feel a lot is being lost; a lot is being forgotten about; a lot is not being done anymore. I feel that people who know about certain things should keep those things alive. For example, jazz, American improvisational music, is an oral tradition. It was learned by being passed on. There was a lot there; a lot was discovered, a lot is still being discovered, and I believe that people who are involved in that should keep passing it on. Otherwise, it will become a dying thing. What’s being done now with the drums is more geared towards money making. I think a lot of the individuality in drumming is being forgotten. People are thinking, “Steve Gadd is doing this, and he’s doing it very well, and he’s making a lot of money, so that’s what I will do.” With my teaching, I’m into the students finding their own individual ways of playing. That’s what turns me on.
RM: I’ve heard successful musicians talk about the encouragement they received, and how much it helped them. I’ve heard other successful musicians talk of receiving discouragement from others, but they said that helped them too because it made them try harder.
BA: That’s right, and that’s probably why, subconsciously, those things are done—to get you ready for the real world. When I was young, I was actually kicked off the bandstand several times. But it wasn’t discouraging because it was done in such a way where they would say “…and come back when you can play.” It wasn’t like, “Get outta here and never come back.” It was like, “You ain’t makin’ it now, but if you’re serious, go home and practice. When you think you’ve got it together, come back and we’ll see what’s happening.” So you go home and you either give up or you practice. That happened to me a few times. Of course, at the time, it was shattering. But looking back on it, it was great. It was honesty, that’s all. I felt I was ready to play with these people, but I wasn’t.
RM: Do you think there can be such a thing as too much encouragement?
BA: Well, not too much encouragement, no. I feel there can be too much praise from an audience. That might turn someone’s head. I feel praise from your peers is more honest. Also, criticism from your peers is not anything but them trying to help. But with an audience, if they tell you that you were playing great, you know yourself if you were happening or not. You have to be honest with yourself and look at it in perspective.
RM: You are involved in a lot of “free” music. I’m reminded of the saying, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.”
BA: Yeah, I can agree with that. I could also see another approach of starting without any rules and then learning them afterwards.
RM: What was your approach? You talked earlier about the importance of carrying on a tradition.
BA: For me personally, yes, I’ve been very involved in the tradition of the instrument, and my study has included Dixieland, swing, bebop, into freer playing. And every few years I go back into the woodshed and start from the beginning, re-educating myself in all those areas and in whatever other areas I happen to be turned on to that are new for me. So yeah, I believe in learning what the drums have been in music. And then, if you want to expand the role, and you have the talent to do it, you can. You should do it if you have the talent. It’s part of the responsibility of passing on and extending the tradition. I myself feel that I come from the tradition of what’s commonly termed the “jazz drummer.” I’m very steeped in those roots.
RM: Some contend that learning tradition will taint the ability to truly play free.
BA: Yeah, but eventually everybody has to learn the same things about their instrument. Everybody has to know what makes the instrument work, and what the things are that get the sounds, and whatever else. It’s a pretty standardized thing.
RM: I guess for a really pure approach, the person would have to have absolutely no influences, if such a thing is possible.
BA: Probably, but influences are good. I mean, imitation is how we learn. When children are learning how to talk, they imitate their parents until they learn the words and learn how to think for them selves. Then they come out with their own ideas. I think it’s the same thing with music—with improvisational music anyway. There are certain influences, certain things that appeal to you, that you copy until you learn those things. Then you start to make your changes and deal with them in your own way; sometimes to the point of changing them completely. I mean, the innovators in music all got things from their predecessors, and then changed them to the point to where they became innovations. Elvin Jones, for example, was very influenced by Max Roach, and then he changed it to a point that became a new basis for playing. Tony Williams came out of people like Roy Haynes, Alan Dawson and Art Blakey, and then found his own way of doing things that became an other standard. Most of the people who contribute to the role of an instrument, I feel, come out of what went on before them.
RM: How valid is it for an aspiring musician to just focus on one thing? Let’s say he wants to play bebop, so that’s all he listens to.
BA: Well, you might be individual, but you will probably be limited. You will only be individual in this one form of expression. But then, bebop is a wide area of music in itself. If you really do just listen to bebop, you also, through assimilation, listen to all of the things that have influenced bebop. Maybe you don’t know that Max was influenced by Jo Jones or Sid Catlett, but through Max, you get the influence of those other people. When you listen to Dizzy, you get a lot of Latin influence. And then the blues have always been closely related to jazz, so bebop has that in it. I guess if somebody really did just listen to bebop, that could still be pretty positive.
RM: What about people who refuse to acknowledge anything past Coltrane?
BA: Well, in the ’40s and ’50s, Charlie Parker had a very hard time. People were listening to Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins; they didn’t want to hear Charlie Parker. It’s taken thirty or forty years after the fact for it to really be accepted. That seems to be the case with all music that’s pretty much improvised. It’s realized for what it is twenty, thirty, forty years after the fact. I guess that’s human nature to a degree. I mean, it’s been going on forever. Something new or something different has always been frowned upon. It had to prove itself, and that can take many, many years. Prove itself for what, I don’t know. But the fact is, if someone comes up with something new and says, “Here’s an approach—let’s check it out; let’s play it,” it gets pounced upon. It gets put down, the people who are doing it get insulted, and all they are doing is what they are supposed to do: playing their instruments and trying to develop something. Look at technology—it’s been developed to the point where the world could be destroyed in seconds, and yet they are still trying to develop it even more. But nobody pounces on that the way they pounce on artists who put something out that shakes people one way or another. I think that’s totally ridiculous. I think there’s room for everything.
You know, in Europe, there’s the same audience for all types of music. You can have a punk-rock group, or an avant-garde group, or a classical Indian group, or anything, and the same audience will come because the radio stations play all the music. There are very few specialty shows. One tune will be a rock tune, the next tune will be bebop, another tune will be free, then there will be some classical music—you just turn on the radio and hear everything. So there’s not the same prejudice against style. There are likes and dislikes, but all of what’s offered is at least accepted.
RM: In America, everyone and everything has to compete.
BA: Well, there has to be something to make you want to develop, and I guess in the West, competition is where it’s at.
RM: The trouble with that is, a lot of people approach competition by trying to tear down others rather than by building themselves up.
BA: Well, then they’re not truly developing. I think competition stops at a certain level. It stops when one has it together; when one can play. When we were all younger, maybe it was about competi tion because that’s what stimulated each one of us. “I’ve gotta go home and practice so I can do what he’s doing.” It was just to become better at what you were trying to do. Then you reach a certain level and it’s no more, “Who’s best?” We’re all playing—this is the way he’s playing, and this is the way I’m playing, and if you want my style you can call me and if you want his style, call him. We’ve each created an individual style for ourselves. Once you’re on a certain level of playing, it’s not better or worse—it’s different. So let’s enjoy everybody’s style.
RM: I see a problem with listeners more than musicians. They feel that they have to pick their favorite.
BA: Well, a lot of that has to do with the media and how people are made to think a certain way. You are bombarded by a certain kind of music, so that might have something to do with it. Also, the media is geared for what is making money, so that is what you are bombarded with. The people who are into jazz become very dog matic because there is so little of it that that’s all they want to hear.
RM: It seems to be a circle sometimes. The audiences are trained by the media to like certain things, and so the audience demands those things from the musicians.
BA: To me, the audience shouldn’t control what I give them. Sometimes it’s difficult. In certain musics, the audience is coming to you to hear what they heard on the record. So if they are into it, you have to give that to them or you won’t be successful. For me, I want the audience to enjoy the music, and we’re doing whatever we can to make the audience enjoy it. But initially, I hope they enjoy what we, the band, want to give them. There’s a certain responsibility of showing people things, and letting them have a choice. But some musicians don’t really show anything other than what they’re told to show. They might become successful, but as soon as the audience outgrows them, they’re not successful anymore.
RM: Would you say that getting an audience to accept what you’re doing involves communicating with them, rather than just to them?
BA: That’s right. I’ve found that when you’re in communication with an audience, you can pretty much do what you want and they’ll be there with you. When you’re on a stage, you are dealing not only with your own energy, but you also have all of this energy in the audience that’s being fed to you, that you can use. And they recognize when you are using their energy. When they react to something you do, and you feel their reaction, it stimulates you and you give more. It becomes one big energy, and I guess spiritu ally, that’s a place that people talk about getting to. It’s where all is one. You put the music out there, the audience comes up to the music, and you all meet where the music is. It becomes this big mass of energy that the music is actually in control of.
I once played a concert in Italy with Sam Rivers, and there must have been 15,000 people, or something like that. We ended the concert on a very high energy level. We felt we were finished, but the audience wasn’t finished yet. The promoter of the concert came running backstage: “You’ve gotta come back out. They’re starting to rip up the seats!” So we went back up and played something very soft and peaceful. It cooled the audience right down and we left the stage. So the power of the music to change people’s emotions is very strong.
That’s the place where everybody meets. You affect them and, in turn, they affect you. And hopefully, when people walk away, no matter what you put on them, everybody has a good feeling. The musicians come off and say, “Yeah, that felt good,” and the audi ence also walks away saying, “Yeah, that felt good.” Some of it could even be hard to listen to, in the sense that dissonance and arhythmical patterns sometimes make people feel uncomfortable. But if you deal with it in certain ways—tension and release, tension and release—everybody walks away feeling good. And they heard something that they wouldn’t ordinarily have heard, because you didn’t just bombard them with the same thing for an hour.
RM: You need to build bridges, in a sense, to help them get to new places.
BA: Right. You play something where they can lay back and groove. Then you lay something on them where they can still groove, but they also have something to think about. Then you come back to where they don’t have to think; they can just groove. By doing that, they’ll walk away and think about that little thing you made them think about, and not feel bad about it. And a lot of it has to do with how you feel, too. If the band is feeling good and having a good time up there, the audience does pick up on that and they start to have a good time too.
Music is a very powerful force. Technology is now involved with sonic machines for hospitals. The machines send out certain notes that correspond to certain organs in the body and promote healing. In ancient times, in India, they did it with the voice. People sang notes to different parts of the body. Music also affects your moods, and a lot of other things. Most pop music, I think, is geared to a certain level that just deals with the physical. It doesn’t get too involved with the spiritual, emotional or intellectual levels. It’s mostly about physical expression using one or two emotions. I have nothing against that, but there’s a lot more that music can convey besides just a physical expression of sexuality. But most pop music is just dealing on that level, and so it appeals mainly to teenagers who are dealing with their own puberty for the first time. And they buy most of the records.
It’s interesting that jazz seems to last through all the generations, whereas most commercial music just has short periods of success. It makes enormous amounts of money, but has short periods of success. So it’s really not that lasting. I was watching a television quiz show, and one of the questions was, “Who was the only artist to have million-selling records over four decades?” There’s only one person: Frank Sinatra. Now a lot of people may put Sinatra down, but he has sung the music that he wanted in such a way that he’s made the audiences dig it. I think that’s possible in every area of music. In jazz music, Coltrane records are still selling, Miles’ records are selling, Bird records are selling—not in the large numbers, but over a period of years it adds up. Whereas the pop music that was big in the ’50s is gone. Some of it is re-emerging as nostalgia, but that’s only because the industry is searching for something different and can’t find it. Instead of trying to upgrade the listening ability of the people, they’re going backwards to the more simplified, less meaningful music.
RM: What about the idea that each new generation needs to start with something simple?
BA: I think for the listener, whatever you put on them when they’re young will become their basis. When a friend of mine, the late drummer Stu Martin, became a father, he programmed a synthesizer to lull the baby to sleep. Now the kid is ten years old, he plays drums, and is involved in all kinds of music. For his own intellectual level at this point, he’s into The Police. But he also listens to 1957 Miles Davis, and he listen to [Anthony] Braxton, and he listens to electronic music. It’s the environment. So I think that if you put very complex music on the younger generation from the beginning, sure, they’ll start with that. A lot of fifteen and sixteen year-olds were listening to John McLaughlin and the fusion people, and what Chick [Corea] was doing with his commercial music was more complex than a lot of the other music. If you just start putting this music on the radio along with everything else, more people will buy it, more people will be exposed to it, and more people will understand it. But for some reason, the media is afraid to give the people in America what is actually going on creatively. It’s all formulated: if this works, let’s use it until it stops working and then go to the next formula.
RM: Speaking of formulas, this is the age of drum machines and click tracks. These things are used in the interest of having perfect time, but what is the relationship between perfect time and good time?
BA: Perfect time is for machines; good time is for humans. Everybody vibrates at a different speed, everybody’s heartbeat is a little different, the way people approach a beat is different. When you get excited, you sometimes rush. When you’re bored, or your mind wanders, you sometimes drag. Those are the human qualities in the music. Of course, the less you do that the better it is for certain musical ends.
Originally, the click track was for films, because you had to play the music within a certain amount of time within the scene. Then they started using it in disco music because that’s for dancing and it has to be steady. But I don’t think that when you’re playing a concert you want to use a click track. I certainly wouldn’t use a click track to play improvised music. It would take away part of the human element that is so necessary for that music.
As far as the electronic drum thing is concerned, there again, it’s synthetic. The sound is synthetic, the feel is synthetic—it’s just not the same. With a lot of the drum synthesizers, you don’t have to know anything about drums to be able to play them. You just have to know about the synthesizer. Now the synthesizer is a valid instrument, but I wouldn’t call a person who plays the drum synthesizer a drummer. A drummer plays the drums. A synthesizer player plays the synthesizer, whether it’s a keyboard synthesizer or a drum synthesizer or whatever. It’s another instrument. I mean, I totally believe in new instruments. It’s a new time, a new age, there should be some new instruments. But not to take the place of other instruments. A lot of times, they’re using synthesizers just to copy other instruments. Why should I copy another instrument when I can get the real instrument? That’s one of the reasons I use percussion instruments as part of my drumset. I found that some of the textures that synthesizers give off can be brought in with acoustic percussion instruments. So in that sense, I guess electronics have been an influence on me, along with Spike Jones, [laughs]
RM: I would have said Baby Dodds.
BA: Oh, of course, Baby Dodds was . . . well, actually, “trap drumming” meant not only playing the drumset, but also playing the “trappings” which were the percussion instruments, sound effects, and things like that. So sure, it’s a very old tradition.
RM: So you like the idea of new instruments, but for yourself, you choose to play the traditional instruments.
BA: Right. I would, for example, play in a band with someone else playing them. We would play together. But I want to play these drums. I kind of feel that maybe a synthesizer player shouldn’t first be a pianist, or shouldn’t first be a whatever. They should just learn the synthesizer. That’s the instrument. It’s a universe in itself.
RM: So anyway, people are trying to apply things like click tracks to jazz.
BA: Well, that’s a big mistake. If you are relying on the machine, that means you have to listen to the machine and the other musicians are listening to you, who are listening to the machine—it’s so far removed from the moment that for improvisational music, it’s much less spontaneous. You know, sometimes a tune will start off too slow, and the mood of the evening is not that slow. So someone in the band starts to pick up the tempo a little, and everybody agrees, so you all go there. That’s part of the moment of improvisational music—to make it feel the best at that moment, by common agreement of everybody in the band. Also, a machine can’t swing.
RM: In classical music, a piece may have a basic tempo, but within that there will be ritards and accelerandos. Just little things…
BA: But see, a lot of those minor things—those subtle things—are not being used anymore in commercial music. In improvisational music it’s a necessary part. In most pop music, dynamics, for ex ample, are just not happening. It’s about how loud you can play. To play soft is, first, unheard of, and second, people can’t do it. They approach softness with a different intensity than they approach loudness. You can approach both with the same intensity, except it’s a different dynamic level. That’s all. And most pop drummers don’t know how to play with brushes. So a lot of the serious study that’s being going on for years within the evolution of the drums is being disregarded. It should be the opposite way. Everything that has been done should be used, and everyone should still be thinking up new things to use in addition to what’s already available.
RM: Could you explain your concept of playing “implied” time?
BA: By that I mean time that is felt, but is not stated. Technically speaking, it’s like you eliminate bar lines from tunes, but the speed of the tune is still the same. It would be more horizontal, or circular, than linear. For example, picture a clock with a second hand.
If you take away all of the little things that mark each second, it still takes the hand the same amount of time to make a revolution, but in between, it’s more flexible. So it’s about speed and motion rather than about tempo.
RM: That makes me think of chord voicings—you don’t have to play all of the notes to hear the whole chord.
BA: Right, exactly. You imply the time, just like you can imply the fifth of the chord. With all of the sound and motion and energy you’re setting up, the tempo would also be felt. But it’s not actually stated.
RM: Another term I’ve heard you use is “non-time.”
BA: I guess if you want to verbalize it, non-time is like a European classical approach to percussion where you’re dealing with space, sound, color and texture, rather than time signatures and rhythm patterns and so forth. In other words, it’s not used as a cushion for the band; it’s not like everyone is going to lean back on you to keep the time. You’re going to become part of the total sound that’s going on, in a freer, improvisational sense.
RM: That leads into free playing. A lot of people take that to mean that you do what you want, when you want; no rules.
BA: Oh no, that’s absolutely false. Free playing means different things to different people, I suppose. To me, free playing means having the vocabulary on hand to be able to play anything that happens at the time in a band, with complete agreement from everyone else in the band. For example, if you’re improvising in certain area, and all of a sudden the creative energy has been used up, then someone else who has the creative energy at that moment becomes the band leader and changes the direction. In order for that to work, everybody has to agree. And you have to be able to go in that direction spontaneously. It’s like, the more words you know, the more things you can talk about; the more you can express yourself. So the more you know about playing different areas of music, the freer you are.
RM: Someone might interpret that to mean, “The more techniques you know, the freer you are.”
BA: What if you think of something to play that doesn’t have a standard technique? That’s what jazz cats have been doing sincejazz was born. All of a sudden, you want to play something that a flam doesn’t encompass, or a paradiddle doesn’t encompass, or anything else. What is it? Maybe it’s a flubadub. I don’t know, but you play this flubadub, and the only way to play this thing is to use the technique you discovered to play it. So you have added to the standard technique by playing this thing. And if you can use it musically—it works! There is no right and wrong. If it’s musical, it works. So just to sit and practice standardized techniques from drum books will not make you freer. The concept makes you freer, not your technique.
I don’t really feel there is anything all that new. I just think there are different ways of putting things together to make them different or fresh. The thing about technique is, it should become as easy to you as talking. As we’re having this conversation, I’m not really thinking about each word. You ask me a question, and that stimulates something in me and I give you an answer, and my answer stimulates something in you and you give me a reply, and so on. We’re not thinking about each word before we say it. It’s the same thing with playing—you don’t think about what you’re doing when you play. It becomes second nature. You hear something to play and it comes out. Now that’s what practicing technique is really supposed to be about: to develop this second nature, so that whatever you hear is translated into this technical thing to get it out. And that’s where it stops.
RM: So when you’re playing, you don’t listen to yourself; you just listen to what the other musicians are doing and react to it.
BA: Right. If you are thinking about what you are playing, then you are not in exactly the same place as everybody else. You’re not in a group consciousness—you’re in your own consciousness. Therefore, your involvement in the music is not as full as you might think it is. Now you might be cutting the music, but your involvement isn’t there. So if you’re listening to yourself, while you are thinking about what you just played, the other cats in the band are on the next note. So you’re not in the same place with them—you’re a step behind. You have to listen to the other cats in the band, because that’s what a band is all about—a group of people playing music. The music is the sum of all the parts; the parts are the musicians. If you’re not in the same place, it’s like a puzzle with one of the pieces sticking up.
RM: What about planning in advance? You know the bridge is coming up so you plan how you are going to play it.
BA: Well, here again, my main experience is with improvised music. Unless the composer has specified that the bridge should be Latin or something, I don’t really think about what I’m going to do. For improvised music, it could be too planned for that moment.
RM: When playing free—something that doesn’t involve time or a standard song form—what are some of the considerations for structuring your playing?
BA: Melody, motion, color, texture—I feel rhythm is inherent in the instrument, so except for developing a good time sense or flow, one doesn’t have to think rhythmically in free music. You can play melodically, simply by going to certain sounds for certain parts of the melody. So that would give a certain contour to what you’re playing. Also, you can deal with other aspects of life in the music. For example, if you’re playing a piece with no time in it, you can deal with trying to play the sound of waves hitting against the rocks in the ocean. The splash of the water goes in so many different directions, and it’s a wave of sound instead of a linear thing. Or you could deal with the sound of two trucks crashing, with the pieces falling in no real pattern of time. So you could think like that. In certain free music, that’s what happens. A lot of people say that free music is chaotic. Well, chaos is a part of life, and so that’s one element that is in the music. So sometimes there’s chaos, but also there’s beauty, and there’s everything. That’s what improvised music deals with—as much of the emotional scale as is possible for the musicians to project. Whereas commercial music is quite limited to certain emotions that they want to stimulate in people who listen to that music.
RM: Changing the subject entirely, when you hear a drummer, do you care what kind of equipment is being used?
BA: No, not really. I mean, if something sounds great I might say “What kind of cymbal is that?” or something. But no, I don’t care. When I was very young, being brought up in New York, I was very fortunate to have personal relationships with great drummers. And when I was about sixteen years old, Philly Joe Jones said to me, “You should be able to play on anybody’s instrument, without changing anything, play like you, and get your sound.” Good musicians will get whatever they want out of whatever they play. Of course, it will be easier for them to play on the kind of equipment they like, but then again, the challenge of playing on something else might make you do something you never did before. But no, I don’t care what drumset Jack is using, or Billy, or Elvin. I’m interested in Jack and Billy and Elvin—how they play the instrument. The instrument does not play any of us; we play the instrument.
RM: So many people are concerned with equipment.
BA: Maybe they think a better drumset will make them play better. That’s not true. A good drumset will maybe hold up better on the road. If your drums get knocked around a lot you might need heavy-duty hardware so it doesn’t break. Okay, that’s fine. But as far as making you play better, I don’t think the drumset has anything to do with it. All a drumset gives you is an avenue for sound. I don’t think the master drummers go to a particular drumset because it’s a great drum. I mean, there are special drums. I have a couple of snare drums that I feel are very special. But most of the drums that are made with today’s technology are good drumsets. A lot of the cats, for example, will play the drumset where the company gives them the best deal. It’s not making them play better or worse. It’s like, “This is the company that’s giving me the deal; I’ll set up the drums the way I like them, I’ll get the sound I want, and I’ll play ’em.” The cats that are really into the drums will be able to play any drumset. As a matter of fact, sometimes it might be better to start on a terrible, beat-up old drumset so you learn how to get a sound. If you can get a sound out of a beat-up old set of drums, then when you get a good set of drums, you’ll really be able to get a sound.
But then again, in the pop music that’s happening now, people aren’t interested in sound. They’re deadening the sound and making it sound like a piece of paper with no tone to the drum. When they say, “I have a great snare drum,” it’s because it’s loud and cuts through all the electricity. I don’t feel the pop drummers of today are involved in the sound that the instrument can give. Today, you have to learn how to stick newspaper inside the drums, rather than learn how to get tone out of the drums.
RM: Would you ever be willing to play any commercial music?
BA: I’ve done that. I have nothing against the commercial music providing that I can feel an honesty in the people who are performing it. If I don’t feel that honesty, it’s a drag. It’s also a matter of ability; it’s like some people can do a certain thing and some people can do another thing. I did some studio dates for Phil Spector in the early ’60s that were hit records for their time. I did an album with Buddy Guy, which was all blues. So I’ve done various things like that. I enjoy it for the flash; for the difference. But I don’t want to make a career out of it. I don’t even want to do it for long periods of time. I turned down a gig with Jimi Hendrix, and I turned down a gig with LaBelle because they wanted long-term commitments. I would love to make a lot of money, but I’d love to do it playing the music that I feel I play the best, and in which I feel that I can offer some kind of contribution. I don’t want to play music that I know will make money, but will limit my own potential.