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Larry Ochs

Berkeley, CA   

Larry Ochs works on and breathes music. He composes. He plays saxophone. He looks for adventurous ideas to take on and for other artists – musicians and friends in other art mediums – to take them on with him.

Ochs is primarily found in the worlds of “avant-garde” or “improvised music.” That means that he composes music for “structured improvisation” in general, and in particular for musicians steeped in the art of improvisation, an art form that has really only come into its own in Western music in the past 50 years, primarily thanks to the development of jazz as influenced by the blues and then by Western art music, as well as to the increased exposure of Western musicians to the classic and folk musics of Asia and Africa and Eastern Europe. But any artists in the visual arts or other performance-based arts that have an interest in taking chances are welcomed in. Thus, for example, he has worked recently with Shinichi Iova Koga and his dance group inkBoat; he is at the begining  of a relationship with  We Players, a very cool theater company in the Bay Area, and is into ongoing work with Korean performance artist and vocalist Dohee Lee.

Rova Saxophone Quartet:  Since 1978, Ochs’s professional activities have been primarily centered around the Rova Saxophone Quartet, (www.rova.org) which has made over thirty-five European tours plus numerous concerts throughout the U.S. and Canada, as well as recording over 30 CDs/LPs as a quartet and/or in collaboration with other artists. Ochs has created roughly two dozen compositions for saxophone quartet as well as other pieces for Rova in larger ensembles, many of which are recorded, and some of which were commissioned by Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Foundation and Meet the Composer. He has been acting executive director of Rova:Arts since 1988. A recent concert video and  accompanying documentary on the making of “Electric Ascension” recorded at 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival was released by the Paris label ROGUE ART in January 2016. Samples of the two films: CLICK HERE

As CEO of Rova:Arts, he books tours for Rova and produces shows in the Bay Area. Unusual shows in extraordinary environments include: the Rova-produced and annual event New Music on the Mountain, taking place at the top of Mt. Tamalpais overlooking San Francisco Bay;  concerts in Grace Cathedral (San Francisco), the 16th century Minoriten Monastery (Wels, Austria) and the 12th century Plasy Monastery (Czech Republic).

In addition Ochs currently composes for and leads The Fictive Five  with Nate Wooley, Harris Eisenstadt and the incredible bass duo of Ken Filiano and Pascal Niggenkemper; first release on Tzadik (2015 – music sample here); Larry Ochs Sax & Drumming Core with Scott Amendola, Don Robinson, Satoko Fujii, and Natsuki Tamura (“Stone Shift”- 2009 CD; next CD out in 2016); Kihnoua with vocalist Dohee Lee, Scott Amendola and special guests (“The Sybil’s Whisper”- 2012 CD – music samples here). He is performing in and composing for more “collective” bands such as: East-West Collective – with Didier Petit, Sylvain Kassap, Miya Masaoka, Xu Fengxia (“Humeurs” – 2014 CD – music samples); Ochs-Robinson Duo with drummer Don Robinson; Jones Jones – with Mark Dresser and Vladimir Tarasov (“We All Feel the Same Way”- 2010 CD- music samples); Maybe Monday – with Miya Masaoka and Fred Frith (Unsquare -2008 CD);  Shelton-Ochs Quartet with Aram Shelton, Kjell Nordeson and Mark Dresser;  Trio Dave Rempis- Darren Johnston- Larry Ochs (“Spectral“- 2014 CD – sample track). Recent concerts with Gerald Cleaver and Nels Cline as a trio have yet to be documented. Details on tours and recordings, and several interviews at www.ochs.cc.

One final (and perhaps major) indulgence  – for those of you with some time for a good story. At the top of this “personal profile” we mention the search for adventure through music. One thing that that search can lead to is unexpected encounters with various parts of the general public not normally involved in the arts, or with our region of the arts. Here’s a reflection on one such encounter in Spain, its ramifications, and well, it’s just a good story that few have seen, since it was published in 2012 in French only, in the French avant music and arts magazine Les Allumés du Jazz. And reading it now, I feel like it says something meaningful about our art and how it works in the world that might tell you more more about Ochs than a list of credits and awards etc.

>>Editor Jean Rochard: “What would be the moral of your Siguenza Jazz Festival adventure, for what happened and the various consequences (the Marsalis episode etc.) ?

>> Ochs’ response:

Many morals:

1) leave the press and paparazzi to the fashionista. Stay focused on the art.

2) never underestimate the power of the media to stir things up

3) never overestimate the power of  media to make one little bit of real positive difference

4) There are many versions of the truth, and so rather than putting people down, it’s probably better to make room for everyone’s version, and just move on with your life.

 I think the only way to get at all of this is to relate the story from my perspective; my version of the truth. I think many of you reading this story will learn about the facts behind the fiction and the fiction behind the facts. There are no “great truths” to be learned, but …well… back to this philosophy later….

The concert in Siguenza, Spain was part of a jazz festival there called FESTIVAL INTERNACIONAL JAZZ SIGÜENZA; it took place on December Dec. 6-9, 2009. My show there was last, and that concert was the eighth concert in 9 days for my band Larry Ochs Sax and Drumming Core.  Of those 9 concerts only once were there two in a row in the same country: Germany, Poland, Austria, Austria, France, Belgium, France, Spain… and then you add on the fact that we started in California, flying to Germany the night before concert 1. Folks: for an American coming to Europe, that’s “the jazz life 2009.”… if you’re lucky….(If you’re unlucky, you stay home.)

The Sax & Drumming Core is my band. I chose the musicians; I conceived of the musical universe we inhabit*; I write the music. Of all my bands, this is probably the one that is closest to being a jazz band: sax, piano, trumpet, drums…okay: 2 drummers; okay: no bass player…hmmm…well: I said “closest to being a jazz band.” We also play pieces over time that, while not encased in the familiar “jazz form,” are at least encased in familiar forms for the band. The Sax + Drumming Core “book” in fact consists of three or four forms that are carried through from piece to piece. So the forms became familiar while the musical content changes; as with the traditional jazz form…. But there are people who would not consider this music to be jazz. And I do not wish to argue the point. Nevertheless, the “jazz influences” are obvious, as far as I’m concerned. On the Rogue Art CD released in 2009 for example, there is no doubt about the overt blues influence in “Across from Over.”

My tendency in concert is to talk very little about the music to the audience. I believe in the mystery. I believe in the intelligence of the average listener who chooses to attend a concert I am performing in. And what I mean by this is that music is open to many interpretations, to feelings and emotions that are particular for each listener. Some might make you laugh, but make me cry. Some might make you want to dance but influence another to close his eyes and dream. So I would rather not tell a story about the music or explain my ‘meaning’ of the music in advance of an audience’s first listening. I think it’s more important or beneficial or even polite for the listener to be free to go where she wants to go inside the music as it happens. Hearing improvised music is a joint adventure for both the musicians and the audience. My compositions ideally act as frameworks to spring-board the musicians to make the sound in ways I would never have imagined. So: ideally I prefer that the listener be allowed to hear things in the music that I would not have thought of, and this then sometimes creates a mood or an environment within which they can solve their own personal problems, or have a revelation, or an original thought of their own. *And while I am the creator of the universe within which Sax & Drumming Core operates, in no way am I aware of all the “musical possibilities” in that universe once the band starts playing / researching / co-habiting.

I say all this as a long prelude to the fact that, at Siguenza, I went against this tendency. Before the concert started, I told the audience that the first piece was a long “sound-scape.” I had created the sound-scape, called “Stone Shift” (also on the Rogue Art CD) thinking about the movies of Akira Kurosawa.” I told them that the piece was part of a series of pieces I was working on that were dedicated to different film-makers, the premise being that I would create 15 to 30 minute pieces that I could imagine the film-maker THEN making a movie to fit the music… A reversal of the usual pattern… So if everyone in the audience thought of this as a film score, then they could close their eyes during the performance and make their own movie to the music…”

For me this is something you do when you are giving the introductory class to “listening to improvised music.” It is very square. But the main promoter for the festival, the curator, is a friend. He lives in Barcelona and is hired to curate the festival in this quaint old town. And he had really been worried to hire “Sax & Drumming Core.” He thought it too radical for this audience. So I decided early in the tour to start with “Stone Shift” but to give this little rap, as an aid.

The piece actually starts with the drummers playing a rhythmic line I took straight from a Kurosawa film, from a procession of marching armies in one of his great pre-war scenes, I think in Kagemusha, but that recollection may be wrong.…. My work “Stone Shift” is a pretty abstract 20 minute piece, but once you know I was thinking about Kurosawa and film, it is really very easy to listen to…. And : after the piece ended, there was sustained applause.

The festival takes place in a 15th century church (in a classic “ancient village” surrounded by high stone walls). It is about 90 minutes drive from Madrid airport, but is very remote in feeling. Outside the walls – we walked around them the next day – you can see far away the red and yellow clay that spreads far and wide; a big audience filled the church and the resonance of the church made the applause very loud; warm feelings.

The rest of the concert was more “jazz .” Some of my pieces do have rhythms that run through the piece, or have written “heads” that we then solo over the rhythm section with.

But there’s no bass. So maybe “what happened” was a result of that? I do not know. We received a standing ovation at the end; we played an encore. Then while we were packing up, and after 90% of the audience had cleared out, then and only then did I see a large number of people with microphones holding them in the face of one man and asking questions. So it was only after the concert ended that I had a clue that “the incident” had taken place. I asked drummer Don Robinson what was up; he had been out smoking and is fluent in Spanish. He told me that the man being interviewed was in fact the Mayor of Siguenza, who had attended the concert. And that someone had gone to the police and complained about the music; complaining that it was not jazz and that he, the listener, had been defrauded. Worse yet, this complainant had a serious medical situation; a nervous disorder for which his doctor had specifically prescribed that he listen only to traditional jazz, nothing avant garde! (What kind of doctor is this?? Why wasn’t the doctor at this concert?) Anyway: the complainant demanded his money back, apparently before the first twenty-minute piece was even over, and when the promoter said “no” to that demand, Mr. Complainant went directly to the Civil Guardia.

In San Francisco or Paris, we can be pretty sure that the police would take a report, cough politely, and tell the guy to go home. But in the small town of Siguenza, “John Wayne” having nothing better to do but spit tobacco in the spittoon, our local Civil Guardia, fully holstered and costumed down to the knee-high boots, sauntered over to the concert site and stood with arms folded in the back until the piece that he had walked in on had ended. With his gun still in his visible holster – was he wearing a hat? I didn’t see any of this – the Guardia approached the mayor, seated in the audience, and told him that the music was in fact NOT jazz, and so he would have to file a report to that effect, just in case the complainant took this to court.

After the concert and for the entire next day, which we had scheduled as a day off to walk around in this unusual city and see some sites (and to sleep late), we joked about running into either the little dude or Big Dude (Guardia) and should we be wearing our side-arms in holsters for the shoot-out in the streets of Siguenza? Really, it was straight out of a bad comic book as far as we were concerned.

The following day all the others flew home to San Francisco and Tokyo. I flew to Milano where I was picked up by pianist Alberto Braida and deposited in an empty apartment to rest for 24 hours before doing 2 concerts with him and drummer Fabrizio Spera. The apartment had no wifi. So I was isolated, which at the time was just fine with me. I needed to relax and wind down a little from the tour and all its responsibilities… Take some notes on the performances for the future.

So two nights after I left Siguenza I was sitting in the theater in Milano waiting for our trio show to start, and I decided to look at my email. Yo – there were about 100 emails more than usual, and as I scanned the list I saw an email from someone representing The Guardian in London.

The email from the Guardian representative simply said: “I saw about your story on the 6 pm evening news on Madrid television last night. Is this really true? Did the Civil Guardia really come to your show and declare that the music was illegal?”

That email came to me on my first day in Milano. That was – let’s say – Day 3, the same day I flew there from Spain. The Milan concert was taking place on Day 5 in Milano. Well, you understand, the Guardian stringer in Madrid couldn’t wait for me to reply; it might cost him some money, after all. Only fair in this neo-conservative economic reality….. Well, I mean, he could have waited, but only for a few hours, and I mean, you know: we all answer our emails within 3 hours, right? It’s always on and we are always responding…right?

So when I saw his email that night, Day 5, it was too late; just below that email was the actual article the same guy wrote BEFORE I even knew about him, sent to me by a musician who had read it after it went viral on the internet (attached below). And in that article, the writer quoted me as saying “This is a story I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren.” Oh yeah: now that is a quote I can assuredly say that I would never, ever make…

(I immediately shot off an email to the reporter, but – for some reason (!!) – I never did hear from him.)

The next week or so = totally bizarre. I was interviewed twice by BBC news, and once live for Canadian Broadcasting’s “As It Happens,” their main early evening radio news program. And while the adrenalin rush was sort of fun, it was more than anything absurd, and sad. Like I said, the “incident” absolutely did not affect the gig. The music was happening at the concert; the audience was into it! And then Madrid’s local television stations reported “the incident” on their prime time main news programs – with our band shown playing on the two major networks behind the reporters for two whole minutes. That’s a lot of time on mainstream television…. But there is an irony here: You dig? They watched us but the music was not heard. The talking reporter was all that was heard…. In the news articles, the music was not discussed. In the interviews for major media that I did after the incident, no one who talked to me had ever heard of me, of the band, or listened to the music, and maybe not to any improvised music ever…. And the one person who asked to hear it couldn’t find it online. Yeah, I didn’t have a website of my own that streamed my music for free at the time… at least not of that band… sigh… not so good on the business side… But I will say that the CBC interview was a lot of fun.

Meaningless fun? Let’s talk about that again later….

Then, just as “my 15 minutes of fame” was ending, just as the emails were winding down, about seven days before Christmas I think, and just as I was thinking “Okay: I need to take a long couple of saunas and really get a chill on, go hibernate for a week before crazy Christmas hits, right then Wynton jumped in and the whole thing got ugly. I really have nothing more to say about it at this point. Except there is no doubt that either he or his neo-con publicists were looking to exploit the situation for some of his own publicity. I guess he was having a slow month. So his publicists let it out that Marsalis was looking for the name of the complainant in Siguenza so Marsalis could reward him with a complete set of all his recordings. Now the complainant had been studiously avoiding revealing his name… But when the “Lady Gaga” of jazz came calling … you know what he did: the complainant came forward. Whether he ever got his CD stash, I could not say.

I did at that point see a lot of emails from many, many more places and people, and my next trip to New York – months later – included more than a few moments when musicians I did not know came up to me in bars or restaurants and gave me words of praise for the stand I took. The thing of it was, I just did what anyone would have done.

It’s a tough deal. You have to love making music and being an artist to want to tour at this time in the history of western culture. There’s very little “help” which means “money” – or perhaps “virtual money” if you count government support – something we really do not have coming from the USA government now or ever, at least not for touring. Nevertheless, this November/December 2009 tour was what we call “a good one.” Pretty well-paid, nice honest organizers, very appreciative audiences, and most importantly a great band going after it every night, no matter how tired or, in the case of one member, no matter how sick leading up to the concert. But still, at the end of the tour, Scott Amendola was in fact very sick, exhausted, and it took him about a month to recover. So – just to say it – this is a tough business. We are essentially athletes out here; we have to stay in condition for decades so that when the tours take place, we can excel on the bandstand with very little sleep from night to night.

There are rewards though. First of all the world of free improvisers and creative musicians is full of interesting and sincerely driven artists. What I mean by “sincerely driven artists” is that the low wages mean that only committed artists, only musicians who really want to add something positive to the planet last “out here’ for more than five years. So while some players really get me excited, inspire me, etc… while most do not really “get me where I live,” I respect ALL of them for their intentions, for just being there trying to make a difference. Because we are all always on the go for both artistic and survival (economic) reasons, the chances we get to cross-pollinate ideas are few. But the sense that all these people are out there dealing is a cause for strength. So much evil, so much nonsense surrounds us, but inside that environmental pollution, inside that “noise” that “they” use to keep us from noticing what they’re really doing to 99% of us, there are so many people looking for the real; and now I mean both artists and the people who want to hear/see the art…. We are a small but invincible minority. But I think, like cockroaches, our effects will be felt long after those stirring up the general muck are long gone.

Which gets me back to the meaninglessness of the events. I did end up doing two very excellent email interviews in December with one Spanish and one Portugese journalist, both of whom are way into improvised music, and pretty smart politically. But the energy that was involved and all the craziness around the initial events were just noise. We got a chance to air out some thoughts, but in the end, the world rolls on. Better to keep focused on the long-term, keep on composing and making art you have some control of rather than joining in the general din….

So let’s close with the positive: In summers Siguenza has an annual town parade, a Mardi Gras of its own that is an old tradition, I am told. The local populace and others from the countryside around it come to town to celebrate, bringing multi-costumed “shows,” many seen in a parade, on what we call “floats” in English: mobile platforms that roll along in the parade with a play or dance or song sung – of short duration – that repeats over and over as the parade runs its course… Our incident took place in December 2009. In the summer 2010 parade, there was a float that re-enacted our incident; yes: the kids dressed up as our band, the police (more kids) came on the float, BUT THE MUSIC CONTINUED…WE WON! People cheered….!!! And it’s not on You Tube; another victory…. And the music will always continue… and on a more serious note (sort of serious), after the Madrid television stations broadcast this story of a jazz band being declared unfit to perform, the mayor of Siguenza was so embarrassed by the incident that he called an emergency session of the town council and declared their ever-lasting support for a jazz festival that even in 2009 had almost been cancelled by that same council for the usual reason = “lack of funding.” So in the end, at least temporarily, we won. We may lose battles more often than not, but in the end we will win the war.