“ The ear always seems to be going a lot further and faster than what your body can do in terms of technique. ”
Last year AllAboutJazz-New York had the chance to sit down with groundbreaking bassist Barre Phillips and discuss his myriad accomplishments in improvised music. This year, Vision Festival attendees will have the rare opportunity to see him in action.
All About Jazz: You grew up in San Francisco and had a background in classical music. Why switch to jazz and move to New York as you did in the early '60s?
Barre Phillips: I was counseled as a kid not to be a musician. Not because I didn't have the talent or the love of it but it's a rotten profession. So I was a good boy and was preparing an academic career up until the age of 25 when I just flipped and couldn't lead this dual existence any more, simplifying the story since we're just doing a one-day interview (laughs). So at 25 I stopped being an academic person and become full time music, come hell or high water... I must say that I prefer the lifestyle of the jazz musician to the lifestyle of the classical musician. If I had done a proper music school and done the training which would have been to become a classical musician, maybe I would have gone that way and lord knows with the maybes and with the and ifs, what things could be. I never saw inside what life in a full time professional orchestra was like until playing with [Leonard] Bernstein in 1964 and I was nearly 30 years old. And why to come to New York?...for the New Music, the new stuff that was going on that interested me. Already in classical music from the age of 16 I was much more interested in Bart'k and Stravinsky than in older music.
AAJ: After early work with Don Ellis, Attila Zoller, Bernstein and others, your 1968 solo record, Journal Violone (Opus One), seems to come out of nowhere.
BP: It did come out of nowhere... The story of that record is very strange. That record is an accident with Max Schubel, a New York composer who doesn't live in New York anymore who I did some work with when I was still in New York. I was staying in London and he said 'I want to come to London and I want to record this piece, can you find me the musicians?' It was for double bass, cello, flute - composed music. So I got it together, I found the musicians, I found a studio. He came to London and we did a little bit of rehearsing, went to the studio and made this record, a contemporary music record, cutting the piece all up'that's a story into itself. That's a very interesting record. And he told me, after we got done with that, 'I'm staying in London for a while and I'm going to start working at Columbia in the new electro-acoustic studios there to make taped music and I would love to use sounds from you as a sound source. Would you be willing to record me a bunch of the stuff that you play?' I said sure because I had been looking on the bass for things - influenced by being on the contemporary music scene somewhat here in the city and having done some stuff and working with a couple different composers - what can we play on the bass, what is possible to play on the bass? And starting just to look for different things you could play on the bass, open experimentation...so I said sure. Went in this church and played for a long time, all this different stuff and he said 'that's incredible'. He had his own little record company, Opus One. Max proposed to me that we edit and issue it and it took me a few months of listening to it and thinking about the daringness to do that, cause I hadn't recorded much, it wasn't like there was a whole load of records out there already - Barre Phillips playing. So I said if you really think we should do it let's do it.
AAJ: What was the reaction to it?
BP: Well, I don't know what the press said if there was any. But the musicians around said this was great, wonderful, love it. But I have no idea what younger musicians would have thought [or] traditional jazz musicians would have thought, but the guys that were around, which at the time was on the English scene, and somewhat the Americans in Paris at the time, they really liked it.
AAJ: Did you start to think this was a viable 'genre'?