|Avram Fefer : The OFN Interview
One Final Note’s Jay Collins recently sat down with reedist Avram Fefer at the conclusion of his second tour with legendary pianist Bobby Few and on the brink of the release of four records:Kindred Sprits and Heavenly Places (Boxholder) and Connections and Painting Breath, Stoking Fire (CIMP). Initially an unlikely candidate for a career in music, Fefer traces a personal history that includes an awakening as a Pre-Med student at Harvard, his subsequent move to Paris, and the path to his present journeys. During this candid discussion, Fefer also touches on his deepening musical connection with Few, sessions with bassist Michael Bisio, his various collaborations and work as a leader, his “instrumental ADD”, as well as broader-ranging subjects concerning the difficulty of composing, respect for musical elders, and the power of music.
You are currently in the midst of a spike in activity—you currently just finished a tour with Bobby Few and have four new releases. What’s the reason for this?
Procrastination. It takes me a long time to get something done. One thing I’d say about myself is that I am not a huge believer in the “the minute you can play” school... that the public needs to hear it right away.
Which is funny. Doesn’t that go against the prevalent mentality?
Some people think you should just get up on stage and play as soon as you can. I actually feel very differently. Part of it is my own weakness. I’d say that I don’t err on that side of overconfidence to say that I was ready to hit with the big boys when I was eighteen years old. But I actually believe that it is respect. It’s a form of respect to the stage, which I consider a pulpit that we are given. For me, in particular, I came out of academics. I was pre-Med and I was approaching life on a whole other tip because it was a world where I excelled all of the time. I played music all of my life. Once I decided to become a professional and living in Paris [in the 1990s], I started to play with a lot of great people. I took that very seriously in a sense that I didn’t necessarily want to be heard or have people eat the cake when it is not cooked all of the way through.
For example, in 1991, I did a quartet recording in Paris that in a lot of ways, was meant to be my first record as a leader. I also had a cello trio and an electric group. There were all of these things that, looking back, for me, were strong group personalities that in a lot of ways I wish I documented. What happened then was that I had a repertoire of tunes that I loved playing and I played them through that whole decade, whether I was in Paris, New York, Barcelona, or wherever. I came here [New York], I guess, overconfident that everything would fall into my lap as I felt very established, coming from Paris. I think, actually, I am starting to realize that because of the exoticness of my name for Americans, there were a lot of complete misunderstandings of who I was. A lot of people didn’t understand that I was this ex-pat American, coming home to hang with my homeboys and to play music. Because there was a huge influx of Israeli and French musicians at that time, a lot of people lumped me into that school. It’s funny, a lot of cats say, “Oh man, I thought you were from here or from there.” Politics and stylistic tendencies being what they are, I also didn’t fall into the Balkan/Klezmer trend...
Right, “Hey Avram, are you a Downtown cat?”
Yeah. I live next door to those guys... Anthony Coleman, John Zorn, Marc Ribot, and everybody else down here but that wasn’t really my take. I am coming out of a Mingusonian kind of vibe. Anyway, when I got here, I had this repertoire that I was developing and at a certain point I had this trio with [drummer] Igal Foni and [bassist] Eric Revis. We had a two-year residency at the Knitting Factory in the late 1990s, when it used to be a jazz club. I promised myself that I would force myself to do a record by the end of the decade, so the procrastination thing is such that I ended up recording with two weeks to spare [laughs]. The cool side of that is that even though it is a Cadence release, I have a couple of friends that had invested in booking the top studio in NYC. I feel really good about the product.
Well, Calling All Spirits did well—at least critically.
That’s funny because I was up recording again at Bob Rusch’s at CIMP recently [Rossie, New York]. I asked him, “Do you understand how much more of a mark I left with that record than the CIMP things?” The point was that the CIMP records were more one-off projects, whereas Calling All Spirits was a culmination of something. Not to mention the fact that we all know how hard it is to have bands these days. We documented something that was very natural.
The “working group” concept—not a whole lot of those.
Yeah, Calling All Spirits was the culmination of three cats that felt a certain way about the music and developed something. I’ll admit that I wasn’t feeling that confident as a composer yet. I straddled that line of covering material that I respect versus my own. So we did half and half. I honestly feel like, in a lot of ways, that I just made my second record recently in a sense of my relationship with Bobby Few being that, again, you can record and document as an ongoing relationship rather than these things that I’ve done at CIMP, where I had one or two other gigs or a festival appearance.
Like the Bisio Quartet record?
That is a whole new thing. I spent time in Seattle, so I’ve known Michael Bisio a long time. It started out as him being an older player who I aspired to play with to him being a resource to where I go back and visit my folks; I knew that I would have a bunch of gigs, knowing that there was a cat that I could play with there.
So back to your procrastination...
I don’t want to diss other people’s approaches, but people with 17 releases in three years... it is classic...
Yes, overexposure, but it’s deeper than that. How many people in the East Village call themselves artists but when you come back in ten years, what are they actually doing? Everybody thinks that they are a musician. It’s not that I am trying to diss these people; it’s out of respect of what it actually takes to do this stuff and the people that came before you and what they went through. It’s not about living off of your folks’ money and showing up and jumping on stage with people before you are ready.
None of your Paris groups were documented, right?
Not my own bands, but I was in this Acid Jazz group that was on Virgin Records and we had this top selling jazz record in France.
Was that Beigels Daisy Toasts?
Yeah. Horrible name but the band featured me, basically. It leaned on me for much of the soloing and even some compositional and arranging stuff. At the same time, I didn’t have to run the band and deal with the legal stuff.
And that’s not easy to track down in this country if one wanted to hear it?
As far as I know, those are the kinds of thing that go out of print, even on Virgin Records. I have the stuff and I actually do a rap on one of those [laughs]. I had another band in Paris called Avram’s Acid Bass and that was so far ahead of this jam band scene curve. It was an eight-piece band and our specialty was what I call the swirl. I just wanted to create this effect of sound swirling around the stage and it was kind of a Prime Time meets Bitches Brew concept.
That sounds fantastic.
It was an interesting political/music business thing—I was on Virgin with one band and I tried to push my thing with another band, but the band on Virgin had much better connections to the right people. Unfortunately, Avram’s Acid Bass was never documented. When I was here in New York, I had this band called Squelch, which was an electric Drum ‘n Bass/Jungle thing [imitates rhythm]. That band was way ahead of a lot of this jammy stuff.
Like the stuff on Ropeadope?
It was a very “personality challenged” band; there was a lot of stuff going on. This was from 1997-1998 and we were ahead of the curve.
What about the Tone Poets?
The Tone Poets were between those two. It was the music that I made when I first got here and I just saw two members of that band last week. It included [guitarist] Dave Fiuczynski, [bassist] Reggie Workman, [drummer] Marlon Browden, and a piano player from New Zealand named Jonathan Crayford. It was a short-lived thing, unfortunately. One of the first things that happened when I moved to New York was that I got hit by a police car.
It was in my first year in New York; I was subbing in the David Murray Band. I was in the Knitting Factory Festival and I got hit by a car. My mouth got torn up.
There goes your embouchure.
My embouchure but also, head-wise. New York takes all of your resources, so it took me a long time; it was a couple years before I was a go-getter again.
You mean confidence-wise?
Yeah. In New York, you need the “yeah, well fuck you” thing. I had the more artist vibe thing going on.
Well, you grew up in San Francisco, right?
Well, not really, my shit is complicated. I was born near San Francisco but we only lived there for two-and-a-half years. We lived in Stockholm, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C. My dad was studying cancer research and he was just bopping around. I came a little early. They hadn’t planned to have that extra package while he was doing all of that, but I think it really had a huge effect on me. I’ve always loved traveling and different cultures.
It seems like there have been a lot of folks, producers especially, that have been helpful for your career—Bob Rusch at Cadence, for example?
Yeah, Bob is one of my favorite people. This last trip was great. Bobby [Few] and I just came back from there and we recorded with Newman Baker and Hill Greene. It’s almost Blue Notey in style. It’s pretty straight ahead, modal and stuff. It was utopian hanging out up there and Bobby and I have a similar enjoyment of nature, walking, animals, etc.
What about Boxholder and Lou Kannenstine?
In many ways, I felt like my recent work with Bobby is my second record. Few and Far Between doesn’t count. I owe a huge amount to Lou. Few And Far Between was recorded at Tonic and it hadn’t been intended at all as a record and let alone barely a gig. We had only played as a trio in my living room, twice, and then did the gig. I was very ambivalent about the sound quality—I don’t like my sax sound on it and further, there’s no preconceived approach to it. I loved that it was documented and put me, Bobby, and Wilber on the map together and that meant a lot.
Tell me about your tour with Bobby Few—this isn’t your first trip with him?
Well, we can’t trace exactly how the duo started. I had gigs in Europe and I would play with various people, often with the Lacy guys—Jean-Jacques Avenel, John Betsch—and at some point, I think 1998 or 1999, I called Bobby to do a duo. We then did Few and Far Between and unfortunately, Wilber passed. I booked a duo tour for Bobby and me in 2002. We did a one-week thing; we went through Cleveland, his home town, Chicago, all of these places. For somebody like me, who has lived on both coasts but never even set foot in the middle of the country, it was a real experience. I didn’t know what flat was before [laughs]. The funny thing is that you would be in the middle of farmland and it was hard to find actual food. You couldn’t find anything that wasn’t wrapped in plastic. I remember hunting for a piece of fruit and people would say, “Oh, well, there’s Hostess pies back there.” And I would say, “No, an actual piece of fruit.” It was as if they didn’t know what I was talking about [laughs].
But overall, it was a good trip?
It was incredible and we had this weird sense of this almost “invisible hand thing” that guided us through this whole trip. No matter how tough things got, somehow everything worked out. Musically it was great. Personally it was almost like a recognition of a connection that we didn’t know that we had. It was like meeting somebody you were supposed to meet. It was incredible but I’ve got to be honest: it almost drove me insane to try to book it myself. During those two months, I didn’t touch my horn once. I was on the verge of tears every day.
And then you did it again!
I’m so bright. Last summer, Bobby and I were invited to do the Free Music Festival in Belgium with Fred van Hove. I decided to save some bread and try to document our straight-ahead material in the studio. I told Bobby, “Man, we’ve got this great thing and I’ll set up these other gigs and we’ll do the straight-ahead stuff in the studio and then we’ll do the Free Music Festival.” That’s what we did and low and behold, in addition to the studio, someone had recorded the festival.
Kindred Spirits, right?
Well, part of the festival is on Heavenly Places, but Kindred Spirits was recorded in a studio right outside Paris. At the end of the session, I felt we had a little time left. I knew that if we stayed in that melodic/lyrical mood all day, we probably had some excess energy that we had to get out before we slept that night [laughs]. So, then we just blew for awhile...
Yes, that was “Happy Hour” from the Heavenly Places CD. You can even hear, by listening to it, that I had my eye on recording it. The piece goes 20 minutes and after seven or eight minutes, you can hear Bobby do what could be an ending and I’m like, “Well, let’s use the studio time” [laughs]. There is a sense that at will, we can create these tapestries.
You do Monk, Mingus, Ellington...
To give you the real scoop on it, I was in love with these two records by Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan called Trouble in Mind and Goin’ Home.
Exactly. These are two of my all-time favorite albums. I wanted to make a record that would feature two people and be beautiful without drawing attention to either player and without being impressive in any way. I just wanted something that you would listen to that would put a spell on you, rather than drawing attention to the sax player or the piano player. Rather than the attention being on us, it was on how much we loved these tunes. To me, Bobby is the classic extension of Monk in his quirkiness in that he doesn’t even have to try to do it.
Kindred Spirits has a playfulness and a joy and for sure, it has that “ugly beauty” in there.
Absolutely. In particular, my tune “Heavenly Places” really evolved.
The interesting thing is that you have two versions—one was recorded in the studio and the other was recorded at the festival in Belgium. They present different sides of the duo.
One was limited to a showcase for the melody and the piano and the other I take what is almost an overly long solo. But, the solo was based on playing in a 95-degree room in front of an audience in Belgium and taking people to where they wanted to go.
With the spirit of Oliver and Wilber?
Over and over, it was as if I could hear the bass and drums with us. To be honest, it never occurred to me, when I wrote it, that they would be the completion of an imaginary rhythm section. I was thinking of them as friends, I’m not sure whether they played together or anything, but suddenly it became real to me. While we were in Europe, we got a call from a violinist Tom Chiu. He said that he wanted to put something together here at Merkin Hall at Lincoln Center. Bobby said, “I want my boy Avram on the gig” and then we agreed to do that and then it worked out with Kindred Sprits and Heavenly Places, which only existed in tape form. To be honest, I thought that Kindred Sprits was going to get some sort of major label attention. I thought that we were going to get a major release out of that. To me, I hadn’t heard anybody recently in the straight-ahead world doing something more profound.
Would this be fitting for a label like that—the avant guys doing straight-ahead [laughs]?
It’s funny, but all of my first gigs are straight ahead—same with Bobby. Anybody that knows Bobby knows that his whole thing was classical, church, Booker Ervin, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. You don’t get much more straight ahead than the hard bop they were doing. My own feeling is that when I walk in and hear improvised music, the first thing that I hear is whether somebody knows what the fuck they are doing. What I mean by that is harmony, melody, and rhythm.
As opposed to jumping up there and blowing?
Yeah, therapy. I don’t need to hear somebody’s therapy. The idea that it is surprising to people is a testament to a lack of research and lack of understanding of people’s backgrounds. When we got back, I sent out all of these tapes. One thing I realize is that it is way easier to go through the trouble of sending stuff out or booking a tour when you feel like it is for somebody that you believe in like Bobby. One of the main inspirations of the whole thing was how many of these great people are going to pass away and then we honor them. What can I do to honor someone while he is around and can actually enjoy it? That allowed me to bite the bullet and be a salesman in a way that I couldn’t if I was pushing the Avram Fefer Trio or the Avram Fefer Quartet. It was something I believed in and I am already feeling a buzz of helping establish him back over here.
Is Bobby thinking about moving back over here?
No, but he has some stuff lined up for October now based on what we did. When I sent this stuff out, the interesting thing was that everyone said the same thing: “we don’t have the money” or “the economy is bad”. Then Lou from Boxholder was so enthusiastic and said, “I can’t pick one of them, I’d like to release both of them”. He wanted to do a double CD. I was so flattered. But then I thought about it, you know, I hated to turn him down and I said, “Lou, I think that you are unusual in your appreciation of both sides of the music and I think, from my understanding of the fickle jazz public, these people hate these people and these people hate these people and I think if we put them out together, nobody is going to buy it for $20. The free guys don’t want the straight shit and the straight guys don’t want the free shit. I said, so, I’d rather have two separate releases and see if they can bounce off each other. It was going to cost Lou a little more money but he went for it and he was very supportive and it really meant a lot to me. After this tour I can say that it worked. Timing really worked out.
Let’s talk about Mike Bisio.
These things are growing situations for me. I don’t like vacations—I don’t like to be somewhere where I am not playing that night. I get frustrated. My folks live in Seattle, as I said, and I figured I’d set up these little things with Bisio out there. We did some stuff with this drummer, Greg Campbell, and we did some duos, trios, etc. One of the earliest records that I loved was an old Silkheart record of Michael Bisio’s [In Seattle] from 1987. Over the last several years, I went out there, we did some stuff and it was fun. Michael was a guy that was comfortable playing out or in and one of those times, I said, “Bob likes both of us, we should figure out a way to do this thing.” I think at the time, I didn’t know that Few and I were going to have records coming out. I was thinking of it as being an intimate duo thing. At the same time, I have instrumental ADD—I love jumping around my instruments. One of the things that happened was that the minute I got a check from Lou, I went out and bought an alto flute, which turned out to be the hardest instrument I’ve ever played.
Which you used on “Painting Breath, Stoking Fire”.
I start the record with it.
Yeah, which I refer to as the pygmy shit. Bisio and I decided that we were going to do this thing in January. We were originally supposed to be a duo and then Mike talked to me about wanting to do a quartet thing and to be honest, I really wanted to hook up with another type of instrument. A French horn, a trumpet, maybe Roy Campbell or Mark Taylor or somebody. We were discussing the stuff but I didn’t know that behind the scenes, there was some drama going on about a trio record that Bisio was supposed to do with Jay [Rosen] and some other sax player, Steve Gauci. I had never met Steve. Steve had come to my gigs and introduced himself but I didn’t know his playing all.
Doesn’t sound like it from the results.
Yeah, I love that record now. Despite all sorts of back and forth things going on, it all happened. Instead of writing all of these pieces of music, I said to myself, why not put together a whole suite? Then I can put together the whole voyage. I jotted down a bunch of things and then tore it apart and started freaking out and then went through my trash and got it back out. Part of the problem is that Michael sent me his material for the quartet date and I was intimidated. So that’s when I wrote the duo material. The funny thing is that there was a question of whether to do the quartet or duo thing first. I decided that we should do the quartet thing first so that people would be relaxed during the duo instead of waiting to play. It ended up that in that one improv, during the very first night of the quartet, that it was almost like we were trying out ideas for the duo record and we kind of got into this pygmy thing below the bridge...
You were playing the alto flute, right?
Yeah, I had the alto flute and he had a thumb piano type vibe going so we were in that mode. It was as if we were testing the opening piece of the duo record but within the context of this record and that is when the bass...
What was it like when it happened?
As much as Bob [Rusch] seems like a tough guy sometimes, he is a very sensitive guy. It was as if it was written, because it was a long improv and it literally happened as if we were going into it. We were getting quieter and quieter and fading and it was just the two of us and then... It was part explosion, part flat tire. All of us, when it happened, it was like total nothing. Nobody said anything, nobody looked at anyone, we all just held in whatever we felt and walked out of the room. Nobody wanted to contemplate it. It was like, “Let’s be quiet and wait before we start freaking out.” So we all just went from the living room (the Spirit Room) into the kitchen, sat around their big wood table and were quiet. It was exactly like if your friend gets hit by a car, he’s taken to the emergency room and you just shut up until you hear from the doctor.
It was Dr. Susan Rusch! You could hear a pin drop and then ultimately, it worked out. The miracle isn’t that it worked out, the miracle is that Mike attacked his bass for the whole rest of the session without regard for what had happened and that’s what I was so happy about.
Well, you had a whole other day—the duo was the next day?
Yeah. Actually the heartbreaking thing was that we had just started improvising and had such a good vibe right away. We probably could have knocked out that whole record that first evening but because of the breakdown, it was just too late and we were all operating on about an hour’s sleep. So then we got up the next day, finished the quartet record in the morning and the duo in the afternoon. We did two complete run-throughs of the duo and that was it. Bob luckily let me kind of pick which parts of the two versions I used on the record. It was a little tricky. It was as manipulative as you can be in the CIMP situation.
It was interesting to see the “BC Reverie” from Shades of the Muse back.
It’s a line that I’ve always loved. To be honest, because it is in D flat minor, there aren’t many bass players that can play it. Bisio made it sound so cool—I said that we’ve got to do that unison and then we can trade off, pass it back and forth in these little moments of improvising. I wanted something that progressed from folkloric and spacious. We are both on the same page. In a similar vein, Bisio wrote the “History of a Mystery”—that is basically about the little man that they found in Africa. So it was this idea of evolution.
To shift gears, you said that you were Pre-Med at Harvard. What initially inspired you to pursue music?
I started on clarinet when I was little. I started in a standard public school concert band and I was one of these guys that was always first or second chair but then if there was someone that was really a natural, then they would be first and I would be second. I heard a blues in Junior High, I guess, and started playing saxophone. I was a goody-goody kid. I was a super square kid. So when I went to Harvard, I was 3,000 miles from home. I was a little immature kid who was barely shaving. I wore some stupid Rolling Stones T-shirt with the tongue hanging out that said sax symbol on it [laughs]. I remember freshman year, I had never drank or smoked and these guys would invite me to their dorm room, turn off the lights and play their expensive stereos. They would do bong hits and I would play along to Grover Washington records. They would all sit there tripping out while I played for them for free and then I went upstairs to bed. That’s how naïve I was. It was as if I was serving as the house entertainment. Another thing was that I was in a black R&B group that hipped me to Sly & the Family Stone and others and I was the only Caucasian in the band. In the context of Harvard, it was like another world. I was an honorary member of the Black Students Association through that band. I was a Psych major, I was a lazy student. During that time I really fell in love with Sonny Rollins, although my obsession with Stanley Turrentine was from High School. I had bought eight Turrentine CTI records and my dorm room was loaded with posters. Stanley Turrentine and Grover Washington Jr. were my guys.
What? Really? I wouldn’t have guessed that. CTI?
If you want to hear a bit of my Stanley influence, listen to the slow blues of “Chazz” on Few and Far Between. My family had been in the inner cities and we had been poor. Later, we lived in the boring suburbs of Seattle—Bellevue—long before Microsoft came in. It was a horrible suburb. CTI for me, relative to the Herb Albert and Tijuana Brass that my parents listened to, was my thing.
I listened to Giant Steps once in high school and it scared the shit out of me and I said, “I’ll never listen to that again.” It was too scary—his tone and approach freaked me out. I was really into Sonny Rollins in college. I was blowing off classes by that time and I was staying in. Then I got this girlfriend who one of these power people who is so amazing in terms of beauty and intelligence. It was classic Harvard, where there aren’t many beautiful women [laughs]. Everybody I knew was after this girl and I wasn’t. I could tell that was trouble, but of course, the way women are, she would throw rocks at my window and she comes after me. As a result of this and other things, I gained a sense of identity and confidence. I found an interesting group of people to hang with during the second half of college—we’d go out to the Cape [Cod] and do all sorts of things.
And this was during the Reagan years?
Exactly. By the end of college, I realized that I might be good at this stuff [academics], but I did not enjoy it at all. I told myself, “I can’t stand this—I want to pursue my dream.” I boiled down psychology to: if you don’t try to live your dream, you’re going to be fucked up. I decided in those days that it would be impossible to be a musician, but I had to prove that to myself. I knew it was impossible to pursue this, but I had to know for sure. I did a semester at Berklee and a couple of years at the New England Conservatory under the auspices of a Masters program, even though I wasn’t really going to classes anymore at that time. I was trying to trick my parents and the student loan people into giving me money so that I could stay home and practice. I was practicing six, eight hours a day, my lips were bleeding. I was obsessed and surrounded by Josh Roseman, Dave Fiuczynski, John Medeski, all of these incredible players. Even though we were the same age and in the same scene, these were guys that knew that they wanted to be musicians from very early on. For the first time in my entire life, I felt like I wasn’t the best at something and that I was playing catch-up. Everyone went from Boston to New York and I decided to go to Paris. I was an artsy-fartsy guy and I was not into the macho jazz trip. I was about cinema, poetry, and literature.
You previously stated that you have instrumental ADD—why is that? It does seem to work within the context of the Bisio Quartet record with Steve Gauci on tenor.
...And that was something that I wanted to say from that session was that Mike calls me and says, “I don’t think I am going to use Roy [Campbell], I think I am going to use a tenor player.” I said, OK, whatever, but I was kind of bummed because I don’t like to play with other sax players unless I know their thing. When I came back from being in Spain, I had it in my head to do a pretty, wispy thing and then Mike is giving me this “take no prisoners” two tenor session vibe. So the funny thing was that I thought, “I’ll have my tenor there, but I’ll let the other guy do it. I’ll just play everything else” [laughs]. On that session, it was more about trying to find balance. In the last few years, I picked up a bass clarinet and I had a flute for a number of years. I’d only started playing bass clarinet recently. Then I did a concert and this 88-year old woman said, “My son has this clarinet in the closet—would you be interested in checking it out?” I went to her apartment in the Upper East Side. I go up the elevator and at her apartment, she pulls out this beautiful Buffet clarinet that was sitting in the closet for 50 years. She gave it to me, I played it and it sounded so beautiful.
Interesting, given the fact that that was the instrument that started it all.
Clarinet wasn’t my first choice as a kid. My mom made me play it. I wanted to be cool and play trumpet. I didn’t want to be a “girly girl” playing clarinet.
That’s why I played the drums.
[laughs] Yeah, it’s hard enough meeting women. The clarinet has been captivating me in recent years and as for the ADD thing in general, I don’t know what to say. It implies like I am one of these “great professional guys” that must get so much work with all of these people that “call him to double on this and double on that”. For me, it is the opposite. Because people don’t know how to label me, it has prevented me from getting a lot of work. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I don’t know that you play tenor. I thought you played alto. Man, I would have called you, I love your playing.” My impression is that people are distrustful of that in New York. In the free fazz world, it is almost like a political thing. As in, if you can also play changes, how sincere can you be if you can play free?
You talked about before when you were referencing the poles—the avant-garde guys and the straight guys won’t listen to the avant. It’s an oversimplification, of course.
Yeah. I go further out than that—I love playing reggae. I’ve played in ska bands. I do a lot of African work. I don’t listen to straight-ahead jazz much anymore, as I listen to African music or more creative stuff. I have a love of these voices, so each instrument offers an opportunity to express something. I don’t think that I sound the same on all instruments and I think that it lets out different sides of myself.
On Painting Breath, Stoking Fire, one of the things that is so compelling is your solo piece “Love (Keepin’ On)”. It is so personal. Do you enjoy playing solo?
Absolutely. People have asked me, so tell us about your deepest musical experience, but I often talk about sitting on a mountain with a girlfriend, playing as the sun goes down. Or being brought to tears playing alone in Tel Aviv. One of the things I say, and I don’t mean to sound arrogant or conceited, maybe in the old days or for some cats, music is the only place where they feel comfortable or the only way that they can make money or get respect. I actually came at this from the other way around. Any other life choice I made, I was so much more suited for. For me, there was only one reason to do this—it was like a calling that a priest might have. In other words, “OK, I am going to submit to this and God help me.” All I am saying is that it is a form of prayer of song and rejoice. When Bobby and I were driving around, I told him that I always got so much out of music that I felt so lucky and the idea now that people are getting so much from me, it’s just crazy and beyond anything that I could imagine. It is like a natural occurrence, it is like rain. Bobby hugged me and said, “Welcome to the club.” It’s really only been the last couple of years that I have felt musically worthy of that because I have so much respect of the people that came before. The solo thing is tied into my feeling about music in general. It’s funny, in all my years in New York, I’ve never had a disciplined practice session in my room—I’ve always had to go outside to practice by the river. It is the only place I seem to be able to focus. I go out and blow long tones, scales, arpeggios, and exercises for hours. When I am at home, I jump from instrument to instrument or on my piano.
As for your compositional approach—what is your process?
Composing scares the shit out of me and is absolutely the part of my life that intimidates me the most. In one way, composing feels like embracing death. Composing is saying, “I am going to kill this and hold on to it.” There’s something very scary about it. My big breakthroughs in composition came in Paris writing for Avram’s Acid Bass. When I was in Paris, I committed to doing a gig but I didn’t have a band or any material. I have a cassette walkman and I keep it on my piano or next to my bed and I sing into it or play into it and then I’ll go back and listen to the stuff. I never do it, but every once in awhile I do [laughs]. I have approximately 20 90-minute cassettes of material and I’ve used maybe ten minutes of all of that. I came up with a bunch of tunes at that time for this funk band in a week that became our repertoire. It also became the repertoire for the Tone Poets when I came here. Composing is very humbling. I am almost embarrassed by the power of it. Good compositions come out almost whole and I know that I am just taking them out of the universe where they were. It is like sculptures—when they talk about releasing a form from a stone. You know, you get the stone out of the way so that the form can come out.
Do you have any particular favorites?
One of the pieces that I am most proud of is “Heavenly Places”. I am just blown away by it. I say that with all humility. I hear it separate from myself completely, as a piece that came from somewhere. I have a couple of Arabic-influenced things. I do a lot of ostinato stuff as a cheap way to groove. The song “Kingdom Come” is a song that has been in my head since my “lost” period after Harvard. I never played it, but I sang it in my head. It was my gospel piece and two years ago, I was on Fire Island with a girlfriend and I wrote the words to it. Then, Bobby and I played it at a gig and started singing it to each other over phone messages during the past year [Fefer sings messages]. We’ve never improvised over it—we blow this crazy improv at people and then we finish it with this cognac. It’s not about dogmatic religion or all this other shit that’s dividing everybody. It is something that we all know and we don’t need to say what it is. Simplicity is part of the message with that. Like any other writer, I do fear that every piece either sounds the same or sounds like I have stolen it because I have listened to so much music.
Why do you feel that way?
I set aside an hour every single night, before I go to bed, for the last fifteen years. I put on headphones, no matter where I am. I put on something that I haven’t heard before and I listen. For a working musician, it is almost like, “Are you an audience member or are you a player?” My point is that I listen to so much stuff over the years that you can’t hold me responsible if I’ve stolen something because I have no idea [laughs]. I am a very structured person—when I say every night, I mean every night. I don’t say it lightly because it has cost me many battles with girlfriends [laughs].
Now you have this momentum, your procrastination is at bay, what are your plans for the short term?
I am very happy to have four records just come out within days of each other and to know that we have a quartet record coming out this September. Bobby is coming out in October to do some Lacy stuff that I’ll probably be a part of. Maybe we’ll book another tour if I can put myself through that again. One of the things that came out of this tour was that as much as I loved playing with Bobby, in the process of closing my eyes and contemplating that, it put me in a position that the learning curve was on me. I learned so much and was starting to hear so much from what he is doing that I really miss him. I feel frustrated that I was really about to enter a new thing and I felt like three or four more nights and we would have been on another planet. I am sure that this will be a continuing opportunity as our relationship develops. That’s one thing that I’d like to do. I’ve been working with Burnt Sugar here in town. I am still doing my African things and I’d like to go to Morocco. It’s a strange feeling because I am on the other side of something that I wasn’t on before. It doesn’t have to do with my recordings, but rather, my relationship to music. I am just trying to keep opening myself up to the stuff that’s coming to me and I just feel very lucky to be a part of it.
What about teaching?
Teaching has also been a huge part of my life and growth as a musician for the last 20 years. I’ve worked with autistic kids, down syndrome kids and most of my students are my age and older. I’m very politically and philosophically driven in the sense that I am constantly in a big picture kind of world and trying to find context for things. One of the things that we are all aware of is the moment that we are in. As we talked about before, all of this stuff started under Reagan and the final chapter of the planet. I hate to be too dark, but my sense is that I feel like it is too late. We’ve been given a tremendous gift and we blew it. My travels tell me that we blew it. We can dick around and say that we are going to save the East Village of New York or stop global warming but my sense of a good use of my energy is that my music affects so much more change and healing for myself and everybody around me. I want to try to further dedicate myself to that transformation – of taking all of my intellectual and emotional sensitivity and channel all of that into my composition and the way I support other musicians. I joke with my father, who is in cancer research, that I heal more people than he has.
I’m sure he appreciates that [laughs].
He does. He had the moral high-ground on me for years—why do you practice so much, etc.—but I fell in love with something that is good for everyone. That’s not too specific. On a specific level, I do need to figure out my next project. I have a band called Free Spirit with Daniel Moreno, Matt Pavolka, and Bonga Gaston and we do a West African/Moroccan thing and I am probably going to do something with cello.
You did that in Paris, right?
Yes, and I did stuff with Tomas Ulrich here. Actually, I was trying to find out about Abdul Wadud. I don’t think he’s doing very well. I’ll probably step back and have some wild electronic thing. I am definitely not clear on it but I guess I am in a comfortable, happy, powerful feeling right now. It’s nice to have records out there doing your work for you.
So, if someone wants to check you out, where do they go?
I direct people to my website so you get context. I’ve got a lot of group work going on, with Adam Lane, the Brooklyn Sax Quartet, among others. Look for me practicing out at the river in the afternoons! I had decided to leave New York after the election. The sad truth is that no place is very good right now on any level—politically or economically. The one thing about New York is that I love so many people here. Doing this quartet [to be released on CIMP in the fall] is a perfect example of New York. Newman Baker and I have lived around the corner from each other for years and we’ve never done a single gig together and I called him out of the blue. I saw him at the Vision Festival and it was so nice to say “we did it”.
Do you have any parting words, anything that we didn’t touch on that you’d like to add?
Well, life is a journey. I’m into growth. I’m thinking about trees a lot. I’m thinking that I am always in awe of the concept that you are only seeing part of it and that there’s an equal and reciprocal depth, shape and strength underground. Then you have a trunk that is so solid and all of this crazy stuff with the branches and leaves. The idea of looking one way and surviving a storm, looking another way and surviving a heat wave. That you are bending but not breaking, that you manage to manifest beauty in every situation. I am doing as much as I can to be open and understand the humble role that I am in and at the same time, that I have as much responsibility as anybody else. The one thing that has been very important to me is tradition and my needing to connect with the elders, whether that be Sunny Murray, Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, or Bobby. Those things are really important and I could never do anything else. Often, when I play next to another sax player, he plays circles around me and makes me realize that the only thing that I can do better than anyone is Avram Fefer. Whatever that is, I am trying to let it reveal itself to me and to help it manifest outwards.