Jon Christensen is probably one of the few European jazz drummers who has made a name for himself in the U.S. In Norway, of course, he is the father of a whole generation of drummers, easily recognized by the way they all have their heads turned to one side, so that one ear is facing the audience. The reason behind this common trait is that Jon is deaf in one ear.
In this interview, which took place in Oslo, Jon talks about his influences, his approach to music, playing with Jan Garbarek, Bud Powell and Keith Jarrett, and his relationship with bass players, such as Miroslav Vitous, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Arild Andersen, and Palle Danielson.
CS: Let’s start with the beginning.
JC: Okay. I was born in Oslo, Norway in 1943. I played piano in my first band. My cousin was also in the group. I was 15 at the time, and we played mostly ballrooms and dances around Oslo.
CS: What attracted you to the drums?
JC: I guess it came from watching the Seventeenth of May [Norwegian Independence Day] Parade, where the drums made the whole sound picture a little hipper. Plus, I had been listening to some records that I liked the drum sound on. Also, my cousin was a better piano player than I was. The music we played was mostly boogie-woogie and blues inspired, since that was what we were mostly listening to at the time. As this band developed, I started to meet more established musicians, and I started playing in more “real” groups. I really enjoyed it a lot. I also got to play in a big band every Sunday, which was completely new to me. I had to kick the band, and play figures.
CS: Did you read music at this point?
JC: Not really. I mostly memorized the music. This wasn’t really hard, since most of the tunes were standard arrangements that I used to hear on the radio all the time. Through this big band, I met a lot of musicians my own age, and we decided that we wanted to start a band. This was around the time when they had started the Norwegian Championship in Jazz, and we decided to enter. We rehearsed and rehearsed, playing mostly Art Blakey tunes, and won the 1960 contest in the “Modern Jazz” category. I also won second place in the soloist category, because I was playing kind of modern, and trading fours and eights with the band.
CS: Who did you listen to at this point?
JC: I listened a lot to the old cats, like Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Jo Jones, and all those guys. Later, I started listening more to Max Roach and Art Blakey, who were really big at that time. Since we won, we were allowed to play at the more prestigious clubs in Oslo, so things were starting to happen. Then, during these years, I met Jan Garbarek for the first time in one of the new “in” clubs in Oslo. He was even younger than me—he was born in 1947— but we were jamming a little bit together. He also won the contest in 1962, I believe. After a while, we decided we should start working together, and we have actually stuck together more or less ever since 1963 or 1964. In the beginning, we had a minimum of rehearsals before each gig, because we didn’t have a place to rehearse. So we ended up playing standards. Later, we became interested in more modern music, and Jan started to write his own music as well.
CS: Did you have much free-lance work at this point?
JC: Sure. I ended up getting a lot of the rhythm section work. So from ’62 on, I worked with quite a few American musicians at the main club in Oslo. During those years, it was very common for American soloists to tour Europe alone, playing with local rhythm sections. The first gig I did of that kind was with Bud Powell. I remember being very nervous, and checking out tons of his records before the gig, in order to see where he was coming from. Later, I worked with Dexter Gordon, Don Ellis, Ben Webster, Stan Getz and Kenny Dorham, just to mention a few. Needless to say, this was a great learning experience for me. Playing with all these great musicians was an enormous challenge.
CS: How were they to work with?
JC: I got feedback, both positive and negative, of course. They would tell me what they wanted, and let me know if they thought I was playing too much or too little. However, I found most of them to be very nice. They understood that we weren’t too experienced up here in the cold North.
I think that, in terms of developing musically, this is the best schooling you can get. One should play as much as possible with the best players. This was before jazz education, as we know it today, so this was how I learned to play.
CS: Did you ever take any lessons or practice?
JC: Not really. I never had a place to practice, and I was playing all the time. Of course, I have sat down for a few minutes once in a while, but I’ve never actually practiced according to a schedule. Also, I never used books, methods, or anything like that. Mostly, I would sit down because it was fun to check out some rhythms, or a lick here or there. The closest I ever got to a lesson must have been with Jack DeJohnette, after having played professionally for about 15 years. We have become personal friends, and he has shown me different ways of holding the sticks and so forth.
CS: Did you give technical questions, such as grip, any thought before that?
JC: Well, I have basically held the sticks the same way since I first started playing, so I guess I didn’t. I just always tried to make it function as well as possible for myself, with a minimum of effort. Since I have never really practiced, I have had to fit my way of playing to whatever technique I possessed.
CS: You once told me that you only recently started to wish you had better technique.
JC: That’s right. Sometimes I think that it would have been interesting to check out things like rudiments, but I have developed own style over the years, so I don’t really miss it. It would probably have been interesting to have figured out a little more about how things function, but I never think about anything like that when I play. You know how you get new ideas while you play, and sometimes you are not able to play them right away? Well, maybe if I had practiced more, I would have been able to play those ideas right away. But it never really worries me very much. I have always checked out new trends and so forth. If I saw a drummer who had the cymbals high or low, I would go home and check that out.
CS: Did you see a lot of American drummers live during these early years?
JC: No, not really. I saw them mostly at concerts, which used to be the event of the year. Later, I started to get gigs at the two major Norwegian jazz festivals, Kongsberg and Molde, and there I got to hear a lot of good music, and meet a lot of people.
I remember going around the clock during the first years in Molde. We would start out in the morning with rehearsals for the concerts at night, often with three to four different bands on the same day, backing people such as Dexter. At night, I would play the concert. The curtain would go down and the next band would be on stage. I would still be playing. The music would vary from a blues singer to tearing up paper and dropping fish in the piano, [laughs] It was all the free-bag stuff that we were experimenting with at that time [’64 to ’65]. Later at night, I would be playing on the jam sessions, and then, finally, on the night sessions up in the mountains of Molde. So I ended up playing a lot during those festivals. But of course, I was young and had lots of energy, so I never really became tired of playing. Also, when I came home from these festivals, I had ideas and impressions that would stick for months.
CS: How did you hook up with George Russell?
JC: In ’65, Jan Garbarek and I had our first gig with our own group in Molde. George was there with his sextet. I remember playing one of the clubs in the festival. I was playing the way I usually do, with my head bent over and with my eyes closed. Suddenly, the whole role of the keyboard player changed. It turned out that George had sat down at the piano. It was an enormous kick when he started doing all his hip Lydian stuff. After the gig, George expressed excitement over finding young musicians who were doing something new, and before he left, he promised to call us if he needed people. Even though both Jan and I were flattered, we didn’t expect anything to come out of it. However, six months later, George called from Stockholm, where he was living at the time, and asked if we would be able to come over to join a big band and a sextet that he was putting together. I had just finished high school, and my one-year army service, so I accepted his offer. Jan, however, was still only a sophomore in high school, so he was not able to go. I had a ball, playing all those big band arrangements that later became classics, using 12-feet long sheets of music, where everything was written out. [laughs] I must admit that it was very hard, especially because it was not your regular big band arrangement, so I could not fake those standard kicks. George used a lot of cross-rhythms and kicks where I expected them least.
CS: How did you cope with the reading, not being a very proficient reader?
JC: Well, I had to learn the most important passages, and since all of these tunes were available on records, I had been listening and listening to these recordings before I left for Stockholm. Because of this preparation, I was able to hear the melodies in my head, and knowing most of the melodies from memory was helpful. As a matter of fact, seeing the music in front of me at the same time was, at that time, a distraction. So my compromise was to play partly from memory and partly from glancing over at the music once in a while. In the beginning, I used to count bars, but as I gained more routine, I had no problem feeling 8-, 16-, or even 32-bar phrases. So now I hardly ever count bars, but think in phrases instead.
After a short break from Russell, which I believe was in ’67, I went back to Sweden to back Monica Zetterlund, working for the first time with Steve Kuhn and Palle Danielson. Then in ’69, we formed the quartet with Jan Garbarek on reeds, Terje Rypdal on guitar, Arild Andersen on bass, and myself. The music was very far out. We worked quite a few festivals around Europe. Manfred Eicher had heard us at a festival in Italy, and he had expressed interest in us. He was about to start a new record company, called ECM—for Ensemble of Contemporary Music—and was looking for new, talented young faces. So we recorded our first record on ECM in 1970, called Afric Pepperbird. Jan played every reed instrument you can think of, including contrabass saxophone, and the rest of us played all kinds of different, strange instruments. So this was the beginning of our affiliation with Manfred and ECM. Since then, I’ve played all kinds of different variations—with Jan’s group, with Terje’s groups, and later with different combinations of European and American musicians. Altogether, I have probably recorded between 25 and 30 LPs for ECM.
CS: How do you feel about Til Vigdis, your first record with Garbarek, recorded in 1967?
JC: Well, I guess that’s how we sounded then. Naturally, I would play differently now, but it’s too late to do anything about that, and it sounds youthful and enthusiastic. You just have to take it for what it is.
CS: What records besides Solstice (ECM), which I know is one of your favorites, do you feel came out most to your satisfaction?
JC: Yes, Solstice is one of the better ones. Also, some of the records we recorded with Keith Jarrett were a lot of fun, and some good music came out of that. It’s hard to say. I think most of the records have some nice things here and there.
CS: In working with Garbarek, were there ever any restrictions imposed on you?
JC: No, not really. It was basically all up to me. That has actually been true in all the bands I’ve been working with. I was never assigned a certain role or told to play a certain pattern. It was always on me to come up with whatever the situation called for. Maybe this is true because most of the bands I’ve been working with have functioned as a creative unit, rather than as a bandleader with musicians. And it seems to be a difference in the European and American approach of working with a group; we seem to have a more collective approach as opposed to hiring musicians and all that.
CS: European musicians have also been accused of not being able to swing, and a lot of the ECM recordings have been criticized for a lack of swing and groove. Miroslav Vitous has said that you are one of the few European drummers who know how to swing.
JC: I don’t know. I think that that somehow has to do with background. In the beginning, we were very influenced by American music and American musicians. Later on, we started to find our own things that are becoming more and more present in our playing. When you find your own style of playing and expression, you become less and less dominated by the American influence. Speaking about “swing,” it’s hard to define. Take the Miles Davis record Milestones as an example. It’s great music, and it swings like crazy. The tunes are all in 4/4 time, and the bass player plays walking most of the time. If you compare that record to a record that is looser in its concept and form—maybe without walking bass or even completely without bass—then it is often easy to claim that this doesn’t swing, or to claim that this is not jazz in the purest sense of the word. But then again, in recent years, there have been so many different types of styles and music available that you can synthesize and mix in, and thus it is harder to label what is jazz and what is not. These days, you’ll find elements of folk music, classical music, rock, punk, reggae, and you name it. It’s all music.
CS: What you are saying is definitely confirmed by your record collection, which is impressively diverse.
JC: Yes. I have always enjoyed listening to a wide range of music. In a way, listening to music is sort of my way of practicing. I listen to all types of music, because there are always new ideas to be found.
CS: Has contemporary music, such as the music of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Ives, been an important influence for you?
JC: Absolutely. I would also mention others such as Debussy, Ravel, and Bartok.
CS: How do you approach the music?
JC: I first listen to new music as a whole, and then, after a while, if I find certain parts that I like—maybe something the violins are doing or whatever—that is the material that I will try to translate into the way I play. I have worked quite a bit this way. By working, I mean, of course, listening to the music several times and really familiarizing myself with it.
CS: Do you feel that your phrasing has been influenced by horn players, such as Miles, Coltrane, or Garbarek?
JC: Yes, of course. I always try to think lines the same way a horn player does. But by the same token, the reason I am there as a drummer is because I am supposed to keep some kind of time or pulse going. So that is always the primary goal. But I am always listening to what the other players are doing, always trying to follow up their ideas, or trying to feed them new ideas.
CS: You have recorded as a sideman for both Terje Rypdal and Jan Garbarek. Did you feel that your role and function as a drummer changed in the two settings?
JC: Terje’s approach to music is probably more classically oriented, which is based mostly on improvisations and where the form comes out of the improvisation, rather than out of the composition. Because of Terje’s orientation towards classical music, we sometimes had problems playing his music with only three or four players, since he probably, deep inside, hears big symphonies when he writes the music.
CS: Garbarek once told me that his compositional approach always was very simple, since this gave more freedom to the improviser.
JC: Some of Jan’s tunes are only a few notes on top of a free rhythmic pattern, or on top of a bass line or something like that. I also think that listening to artists such as Miles and Coltrane made us realize how much could be done with improvisation. We would go through phases where our music would be very inspired by Miles or by the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
CS: You once told me that Underwear (ECM), your trio record with Arild Andersen and Bobo Stenson, was your reaction to Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, with Miroslav Vitous, Chick Corea, and Roy Haynes.
JC: Yeah, that’s probably true. When I heard that record, it was the first time I had ever heard Miroslav, and that was a tremendous kick for me. To hear the bass being played that way was completely new and fresh, at least for us up here in Nor- way. I think that record must represent some of the best playing those artists have ever done.
CS: I know that Garbarek was very influenced by Coltrane. What did Elvin mean to you?
JC: You mean, did I fit the role of Elvin? [laughs] Well, we all listened a lot to Coltrane’s quartet, and I did a lot of listening to Elvin, but he represented a style of drumming that I soon realized I would not be able to copy. First of all, it is always very obvious when somebody tries to sound like Elvin, and I have seen so many trashy examples of how bad that can sound. So I soon realized that I could not base my playing on that particular style, in order to achieve the intensity in the music that we were looking for. With Jan, we tried not to go all out in the beginning of a tune, just in order to make it swing. You know, if it does not swing right away, it’s very easy to play louder, because that gives the impression that something is happening or that it’s starting to groove, even though that is not the case.
We were looking for a way to build musically by building up around the soloist, and then playing louder because the music called for it. Then, of course, when we reached the climax, it would often be very loud. I would be playing with the back of my sticks on the edge of the cymbal, and that was loud. But that was typical, because I had only heard Elvin and Tony on records. Then when I heard Elvin live, he never played as loud as I had imagined. Neither did ‘Trane—his tone was not as big as people thought. So I remember being a little disappointed the first time I heard the quartet in 1965. Those guys burned like crazy all the time, but they did it differently than we had expected. Elvin would even play brushes, and you could hear all the finesse he had. Naturally, when those guys started to reach the climax, it was loud, but not quite as we had expected. When I had seen pictures of Elvin on records and stuff, it always looked as if he were going 60 miles per hour, always with a big grin, and always soaking wet. [laughs] It always looked as if he were playing loud. But then when I saw him live, after only having played brushes on a ballad for a few minutes, he would be completely soaking wet again. He looked like he had been playing loud for a week already.
CS: When was the first time you heard Tony Williams play?
JC: I guess it was on some record he had done with Sam Rivers before he joined Miles. I hadn’t really noticed him until the first records with Miles. Tony’s way of playing was completely new and fresh, and was very appealing to me. I found that the most exciting period for Tony was on the records he did with Miles and Wayne Shorter—Miles Smiles, ESP, Miles In The Sky, and all those. Even though it was very tight, Tony would play around the beat, omitting 1’s and so forth. I think that Tony gave rhythm sections and drummers all over the world a new sense of freedom. Later, his work with Lifetime was also tremendous. The way he incorporated the entire drumset was new—syncopating with the hi-hat and sometimes omitting cymbals completely. So I gave a lot of thought to these things. This was also a turning point in my career where I had gained a certain amount of routine, and where I felt that I was about to seek out my own style.
CS: Someone who heard you in Molde in those early years told me that you sounded a lot like Philly Joe.
JC: I guess there was a lot of his influence in my playing. As a matter of fact, there still is even today! I still think he sounds hip and fresh. You know, even these days, when I do more bebop-oriented gigs, it is very easy to take out the Philly Joe file and try to play with that particular feel. Milestones is one of those records I keep listening to.
CS: What makes a drummer interesting to you? What do you look for?
JC: Having watched a lot of drummers over the years, you can tell that some of them play very correctly and that they are schooled drummers. But in some instances, that seems to have resulted in a stiff and not very interesting feel, at least in my opinion. I have always been more influenced by drummers with a more naive, spontaneous way of playing. You might even call it an amateurish way of hitting the drums, as opposed to all the drummers who play correctly. If you look at Jack DeJohnette, who definitely knows his rudiments inside out, he has been able to incorporate all that knowledge—you might even say camouflage it so that his playing still sounds fresh. With some other players, it is too obvious that they are playing things they already know—things they have been practicing. Maybe it is because a lot of drummers have been practicing all those rudiments on the snare drum, as opposed to spreading them around the drums, in which case they will sound completely different.
CS: How closely have you worked with different bass players, and what kinds of things were you concerned about?
JC: Arild Andersen is probably the bass player that I’ve worked the most and the closest with. We grew up together, and we have played in numerous bands together, and talked a lot about the relationship between bass and drums in all the different situations we encountered together. Later, the exact same thing happened with Palle Danielson—talking things over, finding out how we should work things out. One particular issue, for instance, would be what kind of role the bass drum should take on relative to the upright bass, since the two instruments overlap in range. Palle was very sensitive to this issue, and felt that, by tuning the bass drum the way I did, it got in the way of the bass and cluttered up the sound. So consequently, I had to muffle the bass drum or tune it differently. When you listen to records, it is always easy to hear if the drummer is sensitive to this particular issue. This issue can also apply to the toms.
CS: Did you find a big difference between European and American bass players?
JC: Yes, absolutely. The whole American way of playing is based more on walking, like all the old masters. So they have always had better bass players over there, but then, on the other hand, some of the best bass players to emerge on the American scene in later years have been European—Dave Holland, Miroslav, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, and George Mraz, for example.
CS: So good drummers are a function of good bass players.
JC: Yes. And when, say, Art Blakey and Elvin come to Europe with new bands, they often bring young, unknown musicians who cost less money than the big name musicians. You can tell right away that the band doesn’t sound that good, often because the bass player is not able to match the drummer. In general, quite frankly, I have been a little disappointed over many of the American bands that have been in Europe lately. You have been looking forward to hearing Mr. So-And-So, and when you hear him, the sidemen are often not very hot, and not up to the standard of his latest album or whatever.
CS: What about playing on top of or behind the beat, or shall we say, rhythmic intonation? How did you approach that when you worked with, say, Miroslav Vitous?
JC: If you look at one tune at a time, you might have a certain character in the tune that can be emphasized even more if both Miroslav and I play behind the beat, giving more weight to the tune, and giving the impression that the tempo is slower than what is actually the case. If one of us plays right on the beat, the feeling will be less heavy. If we play on opposite sides of the beat, the distance between us will actually become too wide, and it will sound as if one of us is either dragging or speeding up. So if you approach tunes in terms of character, it is important, especially for faster tunes, that we are consistent in where we place ourselves on the beat, and then effects, such as a crescendo, can be stressed even more if either the bass player or the drummer plays more on top. This might also give a slight feeling of rush, but it is minimal and only adds to the intensity increase intended by the crescendo. But let me at the same time stress how important it is to talk with a bassist about these things, and not to use these effects before they have been agreed on, because if the bass and drums are not together, it is going to sound bad. And I mean bad as in bad weather.
CS: What do you do if it does not lock in with the bassist.
JC: Well, if it’s on the gig, it might be hard to talk about it right there on the stage. Then it is important, as always, to make the most of the given situation. If I am more experienced, I try to adjust to the bassist’s beat, rather than expecting the bassist to adjust to whatever I would feel is the right beat.
CS: Do you feel that you are still evolving as a player?
JC: I would hope so. [laughs] Otherwise, it would become boring! Naturally, all musicians go through phases when they are less inspired and are not developing that much creativity, but hopefully they are still at a level good enough to satisfy the audience and whoever they are playing with. Whenever I feel that I’m in one of those periods, I try to listen to as much new music as possible, in order to get new impulses and ideas. These ideas might not manifest themselves right away, but they might pop up later. Meeting new musicians is another inspiration for me that gives me lots of impulses.
CS: Talking about new musicians, you did some recordings for BBC in Scotland not long ago. What was that all about?
JC: Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen was hired by BBC to be the contractor for six jazz programs featuring six different artists, but using the same rhythm section, which consisted of Philip Catherine, guitar, Gordon Beck, piano, Niels-Henning, bass, and myself. The soloists were Larry Coryell, Toots Thielemans, Phil Woods, Freddy Hubbard, Archie Shepp, and Mike Brecker. We recorded two programs per day, so we would rehearse, record, have lunch, then rehearse, and record, thereby doing two different soloists per day.
CS: How are you able to maintain your own style, yet adjust to so many different styles and settings?
JC: In a situation like that, a lot of adjustments are called for—a lot more than if I’m just playing with a band, in which case, I just play the way I play. Playing with Toots, for instance, calls for a sparser role for the drummer. So then you adjust. I had played with several of these guys earlier, and that also helped. Plus, I had listened to their albums for years, and I knew where they were coming from and what I had to do in order to make things work. I had fun. Also, besides Miroslav, Niels-Henning is probably one of the best bassists in the world today, if you ask me. He has chosen to play a style that I’m not playing so much right now, but still, playing with someone with that much support, inspiration, and authority makes the whole question of style quite irrelevant. He could play Dixieland, and I wouldn’t care. That’s how good he is.
CS: Often when I hear you on records, I think you lack some of the fire and groove that you have when I hear you live. Do you approach the music differently in the studio than you would playing live?
JC: Yes, I would say so. First of all, in the studio, I play less, simpler, and softer. In the studio, the tunes automatically become shorter and, at least for me, playing with headphones where I hear everything and everyone crystal clear takes something away from the music. We have tried to recreate that live feeling in the studio, but rarely have we succeeded. Listening to it afterwards, it usually sounds contrived and forced. On a lot of the records I’m on, the music was intended to be more floating and less moving around. On other records, all that was wanted was a pulse. If I listen to some of the ECM records I have made, there are certain things I would have done differently, but you have to remember that most of these recordings have been made with bands that were put together for that particular date, and then maybe later on, the actual band was formed. Consequently, all the tunes were new, and I didn’t have the ability to play around and juggle with a tune the same way I could after a few months on the road.
CS: How well did you know the tunes when you recorded Belonging with Keith Jarrett?
JC: I didn’t know the tunes at all. We only went through the tunes once, and on with the red light and off we went! Most of the tunes are first takes, and that whole record was recorded in three hours—definitely a good day for all of us. Then again, if we had been on the road for a year, that date would have sounded completely different.
CS: With Nude Ants, it was different.
JC: Yeah, that was after we had worked together for a while, so that material is what came out of playing numerous concerts together. Plus, it was recorded during a week at the Village Vanguard. So, we had the chance to pick whatever was best musically, which is quite different from the studio, where you record one tune at a time and then accept or reject that tune before you go on to the next one. A second take will be different from the first take, and on the tenth take or whatever, you are using something you liked from the third take, and suddenly you are about to compose another tune. Even though a second or tenth take might be closer to perfection, I often find the first take to have the freshest character and to be more spontaneous. Then other times, you record knowing that overdubs will be made later on. You have to keep that in mind, and this often leads to simpler playing too.
CS: How long was this tour with Keith Jarret, from which Nude Ants was a result?
JC: Altogether it was nine weeks. First, we were in Japan for six weeks, playing big concerts every night. Keith felt it would be nice to do something in the U.S., this resulted in a three weeks’ extension, doing mostly clubs—something that Keith hadn’t done for a long time.
CS: How were the performances structured? Were they different every night?
JC: In the beginning of the tour, we would agree on a set order before we went on stage, but the way things developed, we ended up just going on stage, and whoever felt like starting would start. Then during the course of the evening, Jan or Keith would play a couple of notes, or I would set up a certain groove that would signal that we were going into a particular tune. These were not worked out signals, but rather ways of communicating which direction you wanted to go in. Usually, we would play the entire concert in one stretch, with no break between the tunes.
CS: Would you conceive an overall form of the whole performance in addition to the form of each individual tune?
JC: Well, I guess so. It takes on a form after a while whether you like it or not. If you start a rhythmic pattern and someone plays a pattern on top of that, you have a form and all you have to do is keep working on that form.
CS: How did you deal with the pressure of having to create something new every night?
JC: Well, if you play with good musicians, the music will only be good or better, even though some nights will be more successful than others. But I think this is part of what makes this kind of music exciting—the chance that you might play something that you have never played before. If you play in a band where all the tunes are rehearsed and where the set order is always known in advance, you will know more or less what is going to happen every night. But having that creative input from all the musicians often results in totally new things emerging, even though sometimes it is evident that an idea is going to be less successful than others. In that case, you finish it a little earlier and go on to the next idea. It might not be evident to the audience, but you, the performer, always know when something is not happening.
CS: What are your current projects?
JC: For the first time in almost 20 years, I’m able to spend less time on the road and more time with my family. I have my own group with Arild Andersen on bass, and some dynamite young Norwegians: Tore Brunborg on reeds, Nils Fetter Molvaer on trumpet, and Jon Balke on piano. I play some percussion with friends around town, and I worked at the National Theatre in Oslo, for six months as a drummer, and for the first time also as a composer. I receive a work grant from the Norwegian Government, which enables me to be fairly independent financially.
CS: You once told me that you used to have all the studio gigs in Oslo, and that, if you wanted to, you could have remained the top call and made very good money that way.
JC: Yeah, we had a couple of periods in Norway where there was very little jazz work available, right after the Beatles in 1965. Jazz musicians were really struggling, and a lot of cats ended up going into different professions. So I jumped on the studio scene, which in Oslo is centered around working in the government-run TV station. I would be playing all day, backing stupid singers and all kinds of corny music, such as polkas, fox-trots, and all that kind of thing. Except for the times when some good artist came along, it was not very rewarding for me, and I did it mostly to make a living. So when jazz became more popular again, and I started to get more work—partly through ECM, which booked tours for us—I stopped doing studio work in the commercial sense of the word, and made money instead playing the music that I wanted to play.
CS: So you actually made a financial sacrifice in order to play the music that you believed in?
JC: Absolutely. Even today it’s hard. It’s very expensive to go on the road, so tours are something we do mostly so that people will not forget us and will keep buying our records. Naturally, the cats working the studios make more money, but that’s a choice you have to make, and I have never regretted my choice.