Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Louie Belogenis talks 'Interstellar Space'
One of the greatest pleasures of working on my new Interstellar Space piece was getting the chance to speak with — and delve further into the work of — saxophonist Louie Belogenis. I was modestly familiar with Louie's output before this, specifically Flow Trio's 2009 debut, Rejuvenation, and his excellent 2011 trio disc Tiresias, with Sunny Murray and bassist Michael Bisio. (I still need to catch up on that very intriguing 2015 Blue Buddha record, with Dave Douglas, Bill Laswell and Tyshawn Sorey.)
The entry point for this interview was Rings of Saturn, Louie's magnificent 1999 duo disc with Rashied Ali, but as you'll read, there was so much more to talk about. This man is a serious disciple of Coltrane who also clearly understands the importance of blazing his own trail through the music. I'd like to sincerely thank him for his time and his insight.
Louie Belogenis on Interstellar Space — 2/2/17
It's almost become a rite of passage for specifically tenor saxophonists and drummers to record in that idiom and see how they can contribute to that genre. And from that it's branched out, like Rashied made that record with Leroy Jenkins; that's an amazing record. So you have people in general now recording with drummers in a duet setting, much in the same way that Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton created a whole genre of solo concerts, solo recitals. You have a recital idiom now, duetting between a drummer and a tenor saxophonist or now it's open to any instrument you can think of. It's interesting because you can contextualize it as Interstellar Space is the grandfather of all of this progeny, and what people are adding, subtracting, contributing, the directions that they're going in, is fascinating, and probably, if you're tracing that lineage, it's probably into the hundreds or thousands of records right now. Everyone's just so interested in it.
Can you take me back to when that record came into your life?
I had it immediately. It was 1974. I don't know exactly when it came out, but I had it that year. ABC/Impulse was releasing posthumously Coltrane records like Meditations, Transition, and Interstellar Space was part of that. I got it, and it blew my mind. It was astounding and confounding at the same time for me to listen to that.
So you were fully up on everything that had come out during Coltrane's lifetime?
No, I actually kind of started in reverse, and made my way backwards through his music but just jazz music in general. I was very attracted at that time by Braxton and Lacy and Air and Threadgill, Roscoe, the Art Ensemble, Cecil. I was into that music very specifically. As well as more fringe [artists]: John Zorn at that time, who wasn't the John Zorn that he is now, playing with Eugene Chadbourne and Polly Bradfield. I don't think Phillip Johnston had started the Microscopic Septet yet, but I was already going to concerts by people like Joel Forrester and Phillip, Dave Sewelson, Wayne Horvitz, the whole Santa Cruz scene that moved here. Robin Holcomb was part of that, of course.
So, like any young person, I was kind of just in the scene. I was just listening; my ears were wide open. You hear a record like that, and there's no way to chase it forward because it's happening right now, so you trace it backwards. What was the record he put out before this? And who did he play with? Lead back to Miles Davis, the record with Duke Ellington, the ballads record. I wasn't up on it; it made me want to investigate further and kind of backwards in time.
At that time it was just current, and it was as fresh as anything that Art Ensemble was doing or Air was doing or Arthur Blythe, Sam Rivers had Studio Rivbea at the time. It was almost like you heard that yesterday [laughs]. It wasn't dated at all; it blew everybody's mind.
Right, even seven years after it was made and after Coltrane died.
Exactly, yes, because no one had ever heard it. It didn't come out during his lifetime, so when it came out in '74, that was its initial release.
Do you remember that the record caused a stir in your circle? Was it kind of like an event when it came out?
I think it's safe to say that yes, in the musicians I've already mentioned and friends that I can contextualize, it was a record that everybody had on. And I'm in a musical milieu, so everybody was listening to it, studying it. It was like when when Motion, Lee Konitz's record with Elvin and Sonny Dallas came out, I can recall everybody's house you went to, they were listening to Motion. This was a similar kind of record. Whether you liked it or not, and most people I knew liked it, you were awed by it. It was a majestic statement, but whether you liked it or not, it was something that you knew was important.
Once you were able to go back and get more of a full view of Coltrane's work, how did the record strike you then?
It's an extension. Coltrane is a pilgrim; he's always on a path. It's so well-known that he practiced incessantly, as many hours in a day, as many breaths as he could take, he was with his saxophone; he was with music. And it's clear, if you do go back or if you study the music, that it's a path. It makes really logical sense. He was very instrumental in creating a very personal language for himself based on his virtuosity and his intense practice program. And this is an extension of that. So it wasn't shocking and surprising in that sense; it was shocking and surprisingly in the sense of "How is this humanly possible that someone could play this way?" I would imagine like when violinists heard Heifetz for the first time... There was that element of shock, but when you listen to Coltrane's recorded output, you just see it; it's a step-by-step progress or evolution... Just growth, exploration and evolution.
I didn't hear it as some wild statement. I think people appropriated it that way maybe, but Coltrane was not a wildman. He was on the path, and his path was music, practicing the saxophone — total dedication to his art and his craft and at the highest level imaginable.
You mentioned some of these astounding things you heard on the record. Are there moments or techniques or facets of what he's doing on that record that you could elaborate on?
Yeah, sure... First off, just the level of execution, right? [Laughs] If you like it or not, you can't but help notice: Listen to this man's level of execution. Not only the speed that he's playing with but the very complex ideas. He's working with scales that are unusual; he's working with chords that are unusual; he's working with intervals that are unusual. And he's executing them as if somebody else is playing a C major scale [laughs]. It's just so virtuosic and so intuitive and so natural and so flowing. And again, these are not easy things that this man is doing, and in many ways, they're intervals and scales, the usage of which he's kind of pioneering. He was good friends with Yusef Lateef who wrote that book Repository of Scales [and Melodic Patterns]. He had hundreds of scales: Persian scales, Indian scales.
And that's another thing: Coltrane was listening to Ravi Shankar and even in correspondence with Ravi Shankar. He named his son Ravi. He was so into the modal aspect of it. So his execution of these very technical things: wider intervals, fourths, sixths. Overblowing on the saxophone and yet creating, like, stacked harmonics. The saxophone's a single-note instrument... He could play a note but he could have the fourth and the fifth above that note be sounding through a use of what's called false fingerings and overblowing. It would be like a violinist pressing with a certain amount of pressure so they get harmonic overtones on the string. It's like the Pythagorean Theorem. Coltrane could overblow through a system of his breath control and his fingerings to create, like I said, he'll get the fundamental tonic note, but he'll get notes extended above that and sometimes he was getting three notes. He would create a chord on a single-note instrument. Of course Mr. Evan Parker has gone further and perfected that to a certain extent, but no one was doing that when Coltrane was... He started it early; you can go back and hear some of it on Giant Steps and those "Impressions" solos that are live in Europe, so many of them have amazing aspects of that. But on Interstellar Space, specifically, it's just phenomenal...
So the control not only of his standard technique, but the control of extended technique, the ability to execute it at speeds that most people couldn't even play conventional things at was really astounding...
But this is something that I think you should bring out: At the same time, inside of that, there's a beautiful peacefulness and silence and space in Interstellar Space too, which I think attracts many listeners as well. They don't see it as some tumultuous cacophony. He starts so many of the pieces with his sleigh bells — that's not Rashied playing the bells; that's Coltrane playing the bells — and he ends four of the six pieces with the bells. So it's kind of starting from this place of openness and "What are we gonna fill it with? What are we gonna create here, Rashied? What are we gonna do now?" And he's just shaking those bells, and the inspiration comes to him, and out of that, he creates this music. But as he's creating it, no matter where he goes with it, it's coming from that core of silence, of peacefulness, of wonder, of beauty, of really taking a chance and not knowing where it's going to lead to, but having the confidence and the courage to go there.
Yeah, I think that contrast is absolutely at the heart of that album.
Yeah, and I think that's something that a lot of people miss when they speak about his music, because that just runs throughout that, and I would say that Joe Lovano has something like that. Joe has just such a beautiful core. That beauty, that aesthetic of peacefulness. He's not aggressive; he's not competitive. No matter how hard he might play, and he's a strong man and can play forcefully, it's coming from this beautiful center. Sonny Rollins: a beautiful center of devotion and dedication. Coltrane had that too, and then when you add to that this ecstatic element, it becomes overwhelming. And Coltrane of course had roots in the church. You add that ecstatic nature of the church tradition, the blues tradition, and it's overwhelming.
But the interesting thing is what you were saying, this contrast. It's just not the overblowing and the three- or four-note chording and the lightning execution; there really is a core of peace there. There's a core that's just open and it's vibrant and it's peaceful. It's gentle. There's a gentleness to this man's playing, and you can hear that on "Naima" and his ballads records and "Wise One." So many of his records. No matter how furious he's playing, it's coming from a centered man, a man who's at peace.
I'm not a saxophone player, but there are these things he does throughout that record, almost these cyclical up-and-down patterns [imitates sound]. What would you call that, or how would you describe it?
Those are real quick arpeggios and glissandi. That's part of his technical thing. He's executing at speeds that would rival any classical virtuoso you could think of. That's what he is; he's a virtuoso. This is real technique, executed at the limits of human possibility, but those things specifically that you're asking about, those are arpeggios and glissandi, where he's executing strings of C, E, G, B flat; D, F, A, G. He's just going through it; he could cycle it in any way. He could do it by thirds; he could do it by fourths; he could do it by seconds. By that I mean, on the scale steps, he could arpeggiate in C, then he could arpeggiate in D, then he could arpeggiate in E, and he's just running cycles, as you said, through various systems. Sometimes he's using a fourth, from C to F; sometimes he's using a third, from C to E. So he takes different intervals and he explores them, and he explored unusual intervals that don't necessarily go with the way that most people heard Western harmony. So he's exploring fourths; he's exploring major thirds — that's what the "Coltrane changes" are all about. They don't necessarily lead to the harmonic progressions like ii-V-I that most people are familiar with, so even right there, he's creating sounds that are different than most people are used to hearing, and they're also more difficult to execute. They're not what an instrumentalist would call "under your fingers." They're just not the way your hands fall. Just like when a pianist is playing tenths. That's just not the way your hand goes...
So fast-forwarding a bit, what was it like having this kind of reverence for this period of Coltrane and then moving on to playing with Rashied?
[Laughs] I still marvel at that... Well, first off, Rashied, I don't know if you knew him, or knew anything about him, but he also was a master, especially at the time I met him. He was totally confident, but not egotistical about his place. So that gave him a real security, a real grounding and a real generosity for younger players like me. He was welcoming; he was encouraging; he was of course inspiring. And the opportunity then to play with him... Like you hear "I went to Miles Davis University" or "I went to the Church of John Coltrane." For me, being with Rashied, if you speak about in lineage, here was this man who connected me to this wonderful tradition of the music that he was a part of, and all of the people that he had played with. So all of a sudden, I'm not listening to this music on my stereo; I'm actually playing with a man who has direct connections to many of the people whose names I mentioned. Not just Coltrane; Rashied has played with them all. That includes Albert Ayler; that includes Sonny Rollins. So many of the great saxophonists: Dewey Redman, Sonny Simmons, Sonny Fortune. You just go through the list, and they played with Rashied; Rashied's play with them; he's been in their bands; they've been in his bands. So it was a direct connection, and then when you add to that just how encouraging he was, how supportive he was, how he let me find my own way into the music. He didn't impose: "You gotta play it this way." He let me find my voice, and he didn't expect my voice to be that of John Coltrane; he wasn't looking for that.
How did you meet?
I met him, actually... I did meet him kind of on the scene. I was playing in a band that William Hooker led in the late '80s and we were opening for Rashied, and Rashied heard me play with William in that context, and I knew he was gonna hear me that night; that was enough for me. But he was so gracious, he came up to me and complimented me on my playing [laughs]. It's like, "What?! This is ridiculous." A couple of years after that, I was invited to a session that he was also part of, and ... we were playing together, and again, before I could go up to him and tell him what an honor it was to play with him, I was packing up my horns, and he came over to me and again, was just so gracious and encouraging. And I said, "Well, could I have your phone number — maybe we could get together and play sometime." And he gave it to me, and I said, "Well, you know, if you give me this, I'm gonna call you!" And he said, "That's why I'm giving it to you." That was in the earlier '90s. And he had that club Ali's Alley. It wasn't running then, but that was where he lived and he had the basement where he could rehearse and play, and I would just go over there, and we would play and because we were continuing to hit it off, we decided to put a band together, and that band became Prima Materia.
So that was going for a long time, playing Coltrane repertoire before you two recorded the duo album?
Yes, exactly right. We actually were quite a band that worked quite a bit. We had many records out, and the Knitting Factory had us on their touring schedule, and we were touring Europe and recording for quite a few years. And then at the end of that, we made that duo record.
You spoke of this illustrious tenor/drums tradition. What was it like adding to that and actually getting the chance to be a part of it?
I'll tell you how it happened. Rashied had been hit by a cab. He was riding his bicycle, and the cab driver hit him and knocked him off his bike. He broke is ankle, and there was a settlement from the lawsuit. Rashied got some money, and he decided to put it into that studio that I already mentioned. He decided to make it a recording studio: make it soundproof and put nice equipment in it and stuff like that. Rashied was following that tradition. He was just always practicing, and I was this guy who was always coming over to his house and playing with him, whether we were touring or not, recording or not, we just had this weekly thing for years, where I was over there playing with him. So he was building the studio, and I was there coming over a real lot, and it got to the point where it wasn't quite finished yet but it was getting close, and he wanted to see how it was sounding. So it wasn't like we were deciding that we should make a duo record together. He just set up the microphones, and he had a third person there who was kind of acting as engineer. He just wanted to hear: how did his drums sound, how does the room sound, how does the saxophone sound, are these good mics, where should we place them. That kind of thing. It wasn't like starting, like, "Hey, we're doing a duo." So we did that, we set it up, and we listened to it back, and again, Rashied was just like, "Wow, this is nice!" We didn't use those initial tapes. Those were just practice, or a trial of the studio.
It wasn't like a thing that I could ask Rashied, "Let's do a duo record." Again, his generosity of spirit... We just kept on doing that more as a way of exploring the possibilities of the studio and then it came to a point where he said, "Well, let's do a duo record." And that's when what we were doing kicked in a little bit more seriously to me, and I thought, like you said, to be part of this lineage was overwhelming and at the same time very inspiring, and I think a lot of people who were drawn to this music have a kind of obsessive-compulsive aspect to practicing. I'm a practicer; that's my path too. I'm playing all the time, practicing. And for me it was a very encouraging, very inspiring project to enter into with Rashied.
Around the same time Nels Cline and Gregg Bendian put out a direct cover of Interstellar Space, but the one you did with Rashied was a bit more subtle because it only has one piece that's directly from that record.
Right, and that was of course deliberate on our part. And I love that Nels Cline record, by the way. But I do agree with what you're saying. And at that point, Rashied and I, our playing together had really just blossomed into a great friendship, a real lot of trust. And as I said at the beginning of the conversation, Rashied was very encouraging of my own path. He was attracted to my playing, he told me later, because I wasn't trying to be like a slavish Coltrane devotee, just using the language that you and I have already spoke about that Coltrane pioneered. He heard that obviously I was familiar with it, that I had listened to it, but I was reaching for something else, and he heard that as my language, and he was encouraging of that.
And I was bringing in other elements from some of the other influences that I had: modern classical music. Listening to my other peers were doing at the time. I wasn't just coming from, you know, the classic Miles quintet of '55 and '56. I was up on Xenakis; I was up on Kagel; I was listening to Boulez. I was running around the city with John Zorn. I was bringing in influences that were outside of what someone might think of as traditional jazz vocabulary, or even the extensions that Coltrane was adding to that vocabulary. And Rashied wasn't threatened by that; he was like, "Wow, this is great! More language."
And so we didn't try, and there was no point for Rashied to try to recreate Interstellar Space, because he told me no one was ever gonna play it better than Coltrane. So there was no point in us going there. But part of the homage, so to speak, the inspiration was in playing "Saturn." That was just something that we put in there, and something that I worked very hard on.
Yeah, and it's interesting how Nels Cline's interpretation brought in this whole world of rock and noise and psychedelia, and that's their contemporary spin on this thing, and that tradition is still moving forward.
Yes, that's where we started the conversation, where I said this lineage now has been created: Nels adds the psychedelia; Mary Halvorson is gonna add something else now, you know what I mean? People are now coming from very diverse backgrounds. It isn't just just Frank Lowe and Rashied, or Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink, you know what I mean? People who are outside of these traditions, who are coming from completely different places and have other things to add to it... But yet the lineage is so open and embracing of all these things that you can still contextualize it, like I said, with Interstellar Space as the grandfather of all this, and this is its proud progeny. It's a big and happy family [laughs].
And it's a very welcoming tradition, as opposed to the more closed: "You aint' playin' the changes, man!" And people trying to exclude you because your ii-V-I's aren't happening. So this is a welcoming tradition. Like you said, how are you experimenting? What are you adding to it? What are you bringing into it? And it's almost like that, not how do you adhere to it, but how do you further it, is almost the parameters by which you're judged. And that's kind of a nice thing for any tradition to have in it. What innovation are you bringing? That's how a tradition stays alive.