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Chris Kelsey : The OFN Interview

©2004 Photo by Rozanne Levine

Chris Kelsey enjoys the rare status of being involved with the world of jazz and improvised music from both sides of the fence.  Since moving to New York City in 1986, Kelsey has forged a formidable voice on soprano saxophone, recording a handful of sessions for CIMP and his own Saxofonis Music label and performing with some of the city’s most respected improvisers.  As a jazz critic, Kelsey’s work has graced pages both glossy and virtual; his tell-it-like-it-is reviews have been a mainstay of JazzTimes and All Music Guide for several years running.  His latest release Renewal (CIMP) finds him returning to life as a musician after a self-imposed two-year break.  In an email interview dating between November 2004 and January 2005, Kelsey offers an inside perspective on both facets of his musical life, from the limb-like virtues of the soprano sax to the ways in which his writing career has affected his musical one.

Your new CD, Renewal, is aptly titled because it marks your return to recording after a two-year hiatus.  What were some of the issues that made you decide to take so much time off?

Oh, man, how much time do you have? I had a lot going on, both positive and negative, and I just felt I needed to step back. The birth of my second child in 2001 had a lot to do with it. There are only so many hours in the day, and you have to set priorities. Of course, my family was and will always be priority number one. I also felt pretty burned out, to be frank.

Burned out in what sense?  In trying to balance your musical activities with your family priorities, or something more specific to the music?

Balancing the music with the family was one aspect, but truly the real issue was that I’d lost sight of the reason I made music in the first place. It had nothing to do with a personal aesthetic crisis, or doubts about my creative direction. I had let externals poison my attitude—worry about not being successful enough, or getting enough attention from the press and my peers, or getting what I felt was my due, which was really a crazy way to live. I put a quote from the Tao Te Ching in the liners to this album, about essentially letting the work be its own reward. It’s a simple enough concept, and I had paid lip service to it for years, but I had not lived it because I did not understand it deep in my heart. I worried about being famous, or being far enough along in my career at any given point. It’s something I think I had in common with many if not most jazz musicians, and it’s a terribly self-destructive—not to mention selfish and stupid—way to go about things.

About the time I put down the horn I was at a low ebb, the slough of despond, convinced that it was never going to happen for me. The fact was, it had already happened for me, and I was just too blind to see it. When it came right down to it, I played because I had to, because I had this thing inside me that I had to express, and that having the means to do that was an unbelievably wonderful thing. Once I realized that the act of creation was the end in itself, I became free. Getting recognition, making records or money, playing with the most famous cats—all that stuff is secondary to the real issue, which is just putting the horn in my mouth and lettin’ all the stuff out, and enjoying it for what it is.

I quit playing saxophone almost entirely for two years. During that time I gained perspective on things. I realized that I had let all that crap really mess me up. It had caused me to act badly toward people, to alienate people who supported my work and who actually had my best interests in mind. Once I let go of all that negativity, I quite literally felt like a different person. I started practicing again, and my chops came back stronger than ever, probably because what I was playing was purer and more inspired than it had been before. It was tough to go through, but I’m glad it happened, because I came out of it a much better person. Certainly I feel better than ever. The title Renewal was Bob Rusch’s idea, but I jumped on it, because it described what had happened and how I now feel.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but you didn’t completely give up on creating music during that time—rather, you were experimenting with electronic sound production?

Yeah, I got interested in computer music. I had this little Casio MIDI wind controller I’d had since the late 80s. I’d used it with a synth module when I bought it, but the sounds of those 80s digital synths were so cheesy, I didn’t find it very interesting. Then, years later—around the same time I put down my horn—I discovered computer sound generating and processing programs and got involved with that. Mostly for my own amusement, although I did post some stuff on my website and sent some stuff out to friends. For a time I thought it was my future as a musician, before I started playing my horn again.

When you did pick up the saxophone again you also chose to work with tenor and alto, which seems like an important move for someone who has committed himself so exclusively to the soprano.  What role did the other horns play in your process of “renewal”?

Picking up the tenor and alto was an important step in coming back, in that it helped me make a fresh start, I suppose. I had played alto from the time I was 10 or so until the late 80s, when I decided to focus on the soprano exclusively. And I played tenor and bari off-and-on in college and for a few years after, so it’s not as if I was totally unfamiliar with the horns. But for years I didn’t even own an alto or tenor.

Much of my experience with alto and tenor was as a big band player. Actually, a rekindling of my interest in big bands also played a role in my playing again. I got interested in Stan Kenton, of all people. He was really huge 40 years ago, but there was a critical backlash against him that continues to this day, which I had kinda bought into without really giving his music a chance. On a whim I bought some of his CDs, and discovered that there was some really substantive music there, blaring brass and occasional lapses in taste notwithstanding. City of Glass blew me away, as did that album from the 60s with “Malaguena”, I forget the record’s name.

Anyway, I got the urge to buy a tenor, with the idea of maybe playing fourth tenor in rehearsal big band or something; the idea of being a cog in something really big appealed to me. My dad—who is a bebop tenor player, by the way—had always encouraged me to play tenor, but I’d always felt uncomfortable playing it. I hadn’t been playing soprano at all, so when I got hold of a tenor, it didn’t seem that weird. In fact, I really started digging it. I practiced it long and hard for several months—just tenor, not soprano. Then I thought, “Why not alto, too?” So I bought an alto on eBay and started practicing THAT, also—but still no soprano.

This went on for a few months, then one day I got out the soprano... and it was like, forget it. It was like I’d lost my right arm, then forgot I’d ever had a right arm. All of a sudden it was back, and it was like, “Oh,THERE you are! Where’ve you been?” For a while I continued to practice the three horns equally, but before long the soprano pushed the others aside, for the most part. I’m still working on the alto and tenor, but they serve mostly as medicine balls, getting me ready for the soprano. I’ve still not recorded on tenor or alto. That might change, I’m not sure. Never did get around to finding a big band to play in [laughs].

That’s hilarious about Kenton—I remember hearing a piece of his in a jazz appreciation class I took in my first year of college with some completely over-the-top Maynard Ferguson trumpet solo and figured the book was closed on my interest in that strain of jazz [laughs].  I’ll have to go back and check some of his stuff out; maybe my older, wiser ears will find a way around the party line like yours did.  Getting back to your new CD, your musical association with Steve Swell dates back to the mid-90s even though he hasn’t been a fixed member in any of your ongoing ensembles—what made you decide to work with Steve on your first post-hiatus recording?

Jay, Francois, and I had been playing as a trio for over a year, and it was going great. But when it came time to record, I wanted to hear my tunes with another horn player. I needed someone I knew who could read down my compositions, which are not exactly easy to play. The list of guys who can read who are also strong improvisers is rather short. I knew Steve could cut the gig. I had a history with him, and I really like the sound of the soprano and trombone together, so it made sense that I use him.

I suppose that comparisons to the Steve Lacy-Roswell Rudd School Days band are inevitable; did that have any influence one way or another on your choice to use that instrumentation?

None whatsoever. Believe it or not, to this day I’ve never heard a recording of that band that I can remember... which is probably a terrible thing for a jazz critic—not to mention a soprano player—to admit. I do have one or two of those LPs Rudd and Lacy did for Bonandrini in the 80s, but really, my conceptual model was more Bird & Diz, with the tight unison lines and stuff. The lines turned out to be not so tight. More like Don Cherry and Ornette, or Ornette and Dewey Redman, which is cool, too.

Really, the choice of trombone was less a case of, “Well, I need a trombone player for this particular sound I have in my head”, and more like, “What horn player do I know who can cut my tunes and also push me as an improviser?” I like the sound of soprano and trombone, but the most important consideration was to find a suitable horn player.  The particular instrument wasn’t all that important, so long as it was pitched in a lower register. It could have just as easily been some guy on bass ophicleide, but I don’t know any bass ophicleidists. I needed someone who could read flyspecks and also improvise with the kind of fire that I want. Steve reads well for a free jazz guy, and he’s a terrific improviser. So there you go.

The Steve Lacy comparisons always come, which in a way mystifies me, because while I absolutely love Lacy, think he’s one of the all-time greats, I don’t think I sound anything even remotely like him... although it’s entirely possible that I’m missing it because I’m too close to it. While I never copped any of his licks, his rhythmic approach to playing time and his general intervallic approach were things I paid a lot of attention to. By the time I heard Lacy—after I moved to New York in 1986—I’d been listening to Bird, Trane, and Dolphy for a long while, as well as some other, less likely saxophonists: Grover Washington, Jr., for instance, whose “Mr. Magic” off of his Live at the Bijou album still kills me. Indie jazz records didn’t make it to Oklahoma back then, so when I was younger I missed out on hearing a lot of great contemporary players like Lacy. Getting the chance to hear guys like Lacy, and David Murray, and all the World Sax Quartet guys after I moved to the city definitely helped me refine my concept.

I’m glad you mentioned Charlie Parker—one of the pieces on Renewal is called “Charlie Parker’s Last Will and Testament”, and it’s not the first time you’ve alluded to Bird in your song titles.  Is that just a reflection of your musical admiration for him, or is there something more to it?

That’s a good question. It’s not something I’ve necessarily thought about; I mean, my song titles come as almost as directly from my subconscious as my improvisations, so it’s not that I’m making a conscious statement or anything. But I suppose there is something more to it, if I think about it.

Without a doubt I admire Bird more than any jazz musician, although Coltrane is up there, too. My dad was the first to hip me to Charlie Parker. He gave me a set of Bird’s Dial recordings on LP when I was 18 or so, and I wore it out. Back in the 70s and 80s, Bird was considered THE guy by most people—the most important jazz musician, period. You have to remember, this was before the critical and musical reactionaries had gotten hold of the discourse, before Ellington had been elevated to sainthood. Improvisation was widely considered jazz’s most important element. I mean, the big band writers and arrangers were fine, and Ellington was great, but the great soloists defined jazz, and the greatest soloist was Charlie Parker, Armstrong notwithstanding.

I still believe that improv is the most important aspect of jazz—before composition, before anything. And Bird was the music’s pivotal figure, the guy upon whom the whole art/entertainment thing turned upon. After Bird, the music took off as fine art. He was jazz’s first avant-gardist, in the sense that we now use the term. A guy pushing the limits of the music with little or no concern for popular acceptance. Sure, he wanted to make a living, but he was constitutionally incapable of compromising himself as an artist to do so. I suppose, in addition to his music, that’s what moves me most about Bird. It’s something that I relate strongly to. Of course, he was a sociopath, and while I’m not that far gone, I’m not exactly the world’s easiest guy to get along with...

Of course, musically Bird had the most impact on me of anyone. Aside from his harmonic innovations, he essentially invented the rhythmic language of everything that came after bop. A lot of the free-est free jazz you hear today has a strong element of Bird running through it, especially from a rhythmic perspective. Certainly my stuff does.

I think that these days, there are almost two very separate schools of thought where composition and improvisation are concerned; there’ll always be an inextricable link between the two, but it seems like more of a polarity—in terms of what particular artists focus on in their work, or emphasize from project to project—has emerged in the last 20-25 years. Charlie Parker’s improvisational genius (well, and psychological disposition... [laughs]) holds a strong influence over your work, yet your compositions are complex enough to require a certain class of player to run them down—how important it is to you to achieve that kind of balance?

I’d like not to have that kind of polarity in my work, actually, although it’s undeniably been an issue in the past. The most important thing to me is attaining the essence of who I am as a musician, every performance, every project. Worrying about getting the right musician for the right project is, for me, a distraction that gets in the way of the natural creative flow. Time and again I return to the trio format—usually bass, drums, and sax—because it seems to best fit the way I think and feel about jazz. I might add a pianist or a guitarist, but my next project probably won’t have a second horn.

The quartet records have been fun; I’ve always loved playing with other horn players. But therein lies a conflict. Earlier I said I wanted Renewal to be kind of a free jazz Bird and Diz thing, with extremely tight, unison heads. It turned out more like Ornette and Don Cherry, which is its own wonderful thing, of course. It works, but I’ve got to be honest; I love that “other half of my heartbeat”, tight unison sound. I can’t help myself. If I want my melodies played exactly the way I hear and feel them, the best way is to just do it myself. It’s not the fault of Steve or the other horn players I’ve used, by any means. They can’t get inside my head (nor would they want to [laughs]).

For one thing, a tune takes on a life of its own. It may get written on the page one way, but in the course of rehearsing and playing it with a band, I’ll hear it and play it differently than I’ve notated it. Sure, I can go back and change the notation to conform to the way I’ve come to hear it. But lots of times the way I hear it defies any kind of strict notation. Rhythm sections are different. The rhythm can go from being loose to tight to anything and everything in between. I give bass players and drummers nearly total freedom. The solution seems always to be the sax-bass-drums format—and of course, having a bass player and drummer with whom you are absolutely comfortable, as I am with Jay and Francois. With a rhythm section, the secret for me is to find people whose concept melds with my own, then stepping back and letting them do their thing.

I didn’t mean to imply that that kind of polarity existed in your work; I was thinking of people like Anthony Braxton, who is notoriously composition-centric, and their relationship to folks like Daniel Carter, for example, who reject any notion of pre-composed material whatsoever (though I understand Carter has eased his stance on that in recent years). Even though neither approach can be entirely free from the trappings of the other, they’re both more polarized than the give-and-take between composition and improvisation that you get in bop and the first wave of free jazz, which could very well be fallout from Ellington’s elevation to sainthood by the critical establishment that you mentioned earlier.

Yeah, I guess I’ve pretty much adopted the bop/early-free jazz template. It just works for me, for the way I improvise. I like to play totally free, don’t get me wrong, but I definitely like having material to work from, to use as an organizing element. The formal concept of theme and variations has been around for hundreds of years. It’s particularly well-suited to jazz, obviously. I am an improviser who composes, rather than the other way around. I write material to use as a basis for improvisation, not to stand on its own as a finished product. I value improvisation above all else. If the compositional element didn’t, in my opinion, serve to further the cause of the improvised, I’d dispense with it. There’s been a lot of great jazz that’s more composed than improvised. But that’s not my bag, either as a player, or, ultimately, as a listener.

Michael Attias, Chris Kelsey, Mark Whitecage
©2004 Photo by Rozanne Levine

But your answer brings up something else I wanted to ask you about; I know that you’ve been working on your first solo recording over the past month or so.  Have you found yourself doing anything different in composing for a situation where you don’t have to be concerned with how another player is going to interpret the piece?

Ironically, the solo album has just has one of my own tunes; most of the rest are bop standards. Most of the time, however, I don’t worry about composing to fit the player. I didn’t mean to leave that impression. I write to satisfy myself, then try to find the right musicians to make it work. I’m no Ellington; I don’t write to the specific personality of my players. Maybe that’s a better way to go about things, but I can’t make myself do it. Maybe I’m too stubborn, I don’t know. I pretty much write everything with a conventional small-group jazz instrumentation in mind, I suppose.

Ah, see how presumptuous I am [laughs]?  Can you reveal a couple of the standards you’re recording?

I mainly did tunes associated with my favorite saxophonists: “Afro Blue” with Coltrane (although it was written by Mongo Santamaria); Dexter Gordon’s “Fried Bananas”, and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”, to name three. I should hasten to add that this is not a tribute album in any way shape or form. I generally hate those things—find them false and self-serving most of the time. I just wanted to do some things that were really an intrinsic part of my development, stuff I played and sometimes struggled with when I was a kid. I’ve never been what you’d call a bebop or straight-ahead player per se, but it was part of my background, and I think I bring something personal to those tunes and that style. It’s an important part of who I am, and something I wanted to document.

You’re also working on a standards-oriented project with Jay Rosen and Francois Grillot—will you be exploring some of those same tunes in a trio setting?

Well, in a way that project turned into the solo thing, but I’m sure that our next recording will include some covers. I’ve started writing a new set of tunes to do with Jay and Francois, which we should start rehearsing soon. I’d really like to incorporate the standards thing as seamlessly as possible into our regular thing. I really admire the Jarrett/DeJohnette/Peacock trio, the degree of utter spontaneity they introduce into the process of playing standards. I’d like to do a similar thing, although our concept is much free-er than theirs. Ideally, we’d play standards like they were originals and originals like they were standards. I think that’s a realistic goal to work toward. Many years ago I had my doubts about the effectiveness of free jazz guys doing bop or standard tunes, but I’ve come to think, if you know how both bags work, it’s totally feasible—even natural—to combine them.

Since we’re talking about upcoming projects, you’ve also been working with pianist Borah Bergman—how did that come about?

Borah’s kind of famous around New York for seeking out new guys to play with. Someone recommended me to him about seven or eight years ago. He called me out of the blue and we got together. We’ve played together in informal situations many times since then, but until recently had never actually played a gig together. About a month and half ago we finally did a gig—a quartet with Francois and the alto saxophonist Blaise Siwula. Borah loves playing with saxophonists, obviously: He’s recorded with Roscoe Mitchell, Braxton, Brötzmann, Thomas Chapin, among others. He’s always been really very enthusiastic about my playing. He’s offered many times to do a record with me, it’s just a matter of finding someone to put it out. He’s been in Russia for several weeks, but when he gets back I hope we can get things rolling.

Sounds like you've got plenty going on.  Has there been any noticeable difference in the number of opportunities available to you since coming back from your hiatus?

Maybe. I’m not sure. I think it’s mostly part of a natural progression: The longer you’re around, the more people you meet, the more people become familiar with your work, the more stuff you end up doing. I don’t think the number of opportunities has changed so much as my willingness and ability to embrace them. More than anything I’m lucky that Bob Rusch was understanding enough to give me another chance after I’d done everything I could to alienate him.

Now that’s provocative... [laughs].  I know you alluded to some situations like that earlier, but do you feel comfortable going into a little more detail on that one?

I’d rather not get into details. It had to do mostly with hubris on my part, coupled with extreme insecurity. Again, it involved stupid stuff, like getting all the credit I felt was due me, which is so ridiculous that I'm embarrassed to even talk about it. I didn’t appreciate the support Bob had given me; I let my ego get in the way too many times. I won’t even try to defend myself, my behavior was so childish. I can only say that I hope I’ve grown since then. There’s a huge degree of self-indulgence involved with playing a non-commercial music like jazz. The fact that I’m even able to play this music, much less have someone like Bob document it, is a rare gift—something that I’ll never again take for granted.

Fair enough.  There’s one last aspect of your career that I wanted to get into, and that’s your double-duty, so to speak, as a jazz critic.  How did you first get involved with writing about music?

I started writing primarily because I was dissatisfied with the quality and quantity of free jazz coverage I was seeing in the early 90s. Living in New York City, you’d think that there’d be a lot of attention paid to new music, but there wasn’t, really... still isn’t, unfortunately. There were a few people doing it, but not many. Among those few that were covering it, I thought that, being a player, I had a unique perspective.

Yeah, absolutely.  I know that a lot of players really wish that writers who criticize their work had more experience on the musical side of things.  But has that ever put you in a position where you’ve been accused of having a conflict of interest, or made you feel like you needed to choose one (writing or music) over the other?

I’ve never been accused of a conflict of interest to my face, and I don’t suspect I ever will, since I’m pretty much an equal opportunity basher [laughs]. I have a critical—almost a pedagogical—mindset.  I can’t help it. I feel, but I also analyze. That’s just the way I am. Indeed, most musicians I’ve known are the same way. Most of us are critical of each other to some extent, but very few of us have our opinions published so that thousands of people can read them on a regular basis. I do, and I can’t say that it’s exactly done wonders for my career as a player.

I can’t say for certain that my writing has been detrimental to my reputation as a player, although I suspect it has. I can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that it hasn’t helped. Thousands of people read me in JazzTimes, or things I’ve written for All Music Guide, for example, but I seriously doubt that many of them know or care that I’m also a player. Geez, I’ve written probably hundreds of things for the All Music Guide, yet they didn’t even include me as a player in the most recent volume. I’m on the website, but not in the book. It’s frustrating, for sure.

As for choosing one or the other, it’s no contest. One thing I learned during my layoff is that playing is as important to me as breathing. I don’t feel that way about writing. Writing for me is an intellectual exercise. I enjoy it, but it’s not hardwired into my DNA like playing is. That said, I don’t want to stop writing. It makes me think, helps me to better know and refine my personal aesthetic, which enhances my playing, I think.

Could you elaborate on that last comment?  It makes sense that being a player would give you a deeper perspective in writing about music, but how does writing about music enhance your playing?

It makes me more aware of the musical and philosophical values that matter most to me. The non-critical manner of listening to music is to let it flow over you, to lose yourself in it and let it move you as it will. Then you can say, “I like it”, or “I didn’t like it”, or whatever. But when you’re a critic, you can’t—or at least shouldn’t—do that. You have to give a reason. When I listen critically to other people, I recognize virtues and failings that might apply to my own music. I’m able to incorporate or reject ideas or techniques.

More importantly, it also helps me to question (and then reject, if appropriate) received wisdom as to what is good or not. For example, a certain player can have an exalted critical reputation. I might instinctively disagree with the consensus opinion, but without spending the time really examining exactly what it is I don’t like about this person’s playing, I could begin to feel that I’m wrong and everyone else is right. And since that particular player exhibits qualities or values that are in conflict with mine, it would logically follow that my music (which embodies contrary values) is without worth.

As a critic, however, I’m forced to give substance to my instinctive reactions. I’m explaining to myself why I feel the way I do. It’s a way of asking: “Self, are you just being difficult or is there really a reason why you think Mr. Critically Acclaimed is a lousy free jazz piano player?” So I analyze. I pinpoint what I perceive as problems: He never takes his foot off the sustain pedal, he always comps on the beat, and he hasn’t developed a convincing manner of playing time. Well, I value rhythmic ingenuity; too much pedal obscures it, and is usually a way to camouflage one’s lack of it. Wooden comping is another aspect of rhythmic weakness, as is an inability to play four beats of straight-eighths against a steady pulse.

So what have I learned? First, critically examining this pianist has made me more cognizant of my own set of musical values. Second, it’s caused me to look at my own music in a similarly critical fashion. Does it live up to the standard to which I hold others? If it doesn’t, then it gives me something to work on. If it does—and I must say, this is usually the case—then I can say, “Ok, I’m not full of crap. What I value most might not be what the majority of critics value, but it’s part and parcel of a consistent, coherent personal vision.” And that’s ultimately the most important thing, being true to myself.