Gregg Simpson: Avant-Garde from Vancouver
“ The [Al Neil] trio had a very special chemistry and we would go from playing bop classics...to standards...to apocalyptic sound collages, noise music or John Cage-influenced minimalist improvisations. ”
I was very influenced by records like Coltrane's Meditations (Impulse!, 1965) and Albert Ayler's Spirits Rejoice (ESP, 1965). My playing was a combination of influences from Elvin Jones, Philly Joe [Jones] and then Sunny Murray. I liked Sunny's orchestral approach to the drums. I was also just getting into the music of Claude Debussy at that time and, although his music was much softer than the jazz I listened to, the influence of the timbres and colors of pieces like the Nocturnes and Images Pour Orchestra was profound.
We stopped playing bebop standards by 1967 and the Al Neil Trio went on another year and then became a duo when Richard Anstey left to start his own group. We used a lot of pre-recorded tapes, collage readings, toy instruments and percussion. Gradually we got further into a kind of "art music, with only a few references back to our jazz roots. We played all our concerts at Universities and public art galleries, not clubs. Our music was written about in Coda Magazine. We also ran a multimedia studio with dancers and experimental projectionseven before there were light shows. This was the Sound Gallery and it operated out of a little store which I had rented partly as my painting studio. The whole story of this era including our gig opening for Janice Joplin and the Grateful Dead at the Trips Festival can be read at my website.
By 1971 I had stopped playing with Al and it seemed we went our separate ways except in 1972 we formed the Al Neil Jazz Probe which played all that year and did concerts and recordings. It included Richard Anstey, now on soprano saxophone, and alto sax/flautist Annie Seigel from New York who had once been married to Charles Brackeen, the tenor player. Then there was a break while I formed some other bands such as Sunship Ensemble (1974-75), Vancouver Sound Ensemble (1976), and finally the New Orchestra Quintet (1977-80).
In 1973 I was in Paris with a big art exhibition and met Glenn Spearmann. In 1990 we met here in Vancouver and recorded a long piece at the Du Maurier International Jazz Festival.
AAJ: Could you tell me more about the Al Neil trio? In terms of their approach to music, musical content and what set it apart as a highly innovative group at that time in Canada?
GS: Our first musical session was an eye opener. Al was pretty well into his cups the night he hauled out his little electric Wurlitzer piano with its fragile reeds, half of which he managed to break while slipping from the piano stool to the floor at least three times. The score for the music he was about to play me consisted of chopped up music paper collaged together with fragments from all kinds of popular magazines.
Al was playing a kind of tortured, mystical yet intensely lyrical music I could only describe as a cross between Bud Powell, Edgar Varese and Debussy. But Al came up with this lyrical, yet cataclysmic, style on his own. Although an authentic hard bop musician, Al Neil worked in so many other influences from pioneer Dadaists like Kurt Schwitters, painters like Bradley Tomlin and Mark Tobey to the cut-up writings of William S. Burroughs, works on alchemy and mysticism and the fevered visions of the French surrealist, Antonin Artaud. Obviously a multimedia kind of jazz was bound to occur from this collaboration.
For the first two rehearsals the Al Neil Trio was actually a quartet with the presence of alto saxophonist Bob Buckley, who later went on to fame and fortune with the rock band Spring and then as a producer. But it was as a trio with Al on piano, Richard Anstey on bass and myself on drums was what emerged and by late fall we were rehearsing regularly at the little store front which eventually opened as the Sound Gallery.
The first recording session at the studio, as it was still referred to, was on December 15th, 1965 and the Al Neil Trio played several improvised pieces for a small audience. The music was nothing short of extraordinary, combing snippets of melodies like "Summertime, which appeared through waves of arpeggios, polychromatic chord clusters, whirling dervish modal lines and atonal passages. We were still playing jazz we all thought. Anstey and I were both very recently influenced by the work of the John Coltrane Quartet and of Charles Mingus who we had seen live together at the Blue Horn as the Flat Five Club had been renamed. Al liked to perplex other musicians when they asked what all this stuff was and he would say, "I like to think I'm still playing jazz!
The famous bassist/ pianist Don Thompson, now a Canadian jazz icon who had played bebop with Al, asked him, "Al, how do you get those guys to play that way?"
This was no easy thing to explain. The trio had a unique empathy for improvisation not unlike a group like the Bill Evans Trio. Although much more frenzied, it did have some of the interwoven, independent melodic lines of the Evans group. But that was when something like a tune or song form was involved. What was unique to this group was the way it could move into non-verbal chanting, collaged textures utilizing toy instruments, tapes, records or radios and still keep the feel of a jazz trio. Noise music mixed with political protest was employed on pieces like "State of the Union, where a radio speech by then [American] President [Lyndon B.] Johnson on Vietnam was smothered in clattering textures and insane shrieking, all recorded in a totally darkened Sound Gallery. It was a long way from bebop.
During the winter of 1965-66, I had hit on the name Sound Gallery for the little store front space I had rented as a painting studio and for the trio rehearsals. Advertising was a large piece of construction paper hung in the window with stenciled letters advertising: Al Neil and his Royal Canadians represented by some collages. Admission was by donation as we had been told we could avoid hassles with the authorities that way. The next concert the group called itself Al Neil and the Royal Rascals, and around that time we started to invite others into the evening concerts.
At the 1966 PNE Trips Festival the Al Neil Trio opened for Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company and other acts including the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Daily Flash, poet Michael McClure and others. This was before these groups achieved any national prominence and were basically still underground [San Francisco] Bay-area groups.
AAJ: How was the Al Neil trio formed? How did you guys meet up and decide to play together?
GS: As I mentioned, Richard and I had been playing with marimba player Don French in the New Dimension Jazz Trio in early 1965. He brought along his friend, Bob Buckley to play alto, although he was better known as a keyboard player.
I had met Al separately, as I described. But Richard had already been playing with Al in a quartet with Dale Hillary on alto and drummer Jim Chivers, another product of the Jim Blackley Drum Village. The late Dale Hillary had been the alto player on the 1958 LP Neil made with Beat poet Kenneth Patchen. Hillary had also toured with Philly Joe Jones' group to Cuba among other places. This quartet was amazing the night I heard them at the Flat Five and stretched out a tune for a whole set.
The first two rehearsals were at Bob Buckley's family mansion in a very upscale part of Vancouver. We played the kind of extended hard bop that I had already heard Al playing. The quartet didn't last, but the trio emerged as an entity which immediately sprang to life. Al was around 42 at the time and Richard and I were both 18.
Al was already a veteran of boogie woogie and early bop. He was also an army veteran, was in D-Day and participated in the liberation of Paris. He played his piano stylings often during the liberation. After returning home, Al helped set up the legendary club, the Cellar. There he was house pianist often playing with big names like Art Pepper, Carl Fontana, Conte Candoli and others. Mingus, Ornette, Wes Montgomery and Harold Land were frequent visitors.
The trio had a very special chemistry and we would go from playing bop classics like "Birk's Work, "Airegin, "Celia, or "Round Midnight to standards like "Old Black Magic or "What is this Thing Called Love to apocalyptic sound collages, noise music or John Cage-influenced minimalist improvisations. One celebrated piece was "Zen Glass, where we smashed glass bottles into a tub, later adding taped sounds of breaking glass together with Al playing his out of tune zither, the strings inside the piano, etc. Even if we were reaching into the territory of Varese or Cage, we still felt we were playing like a jazz trio, as I mentioned, not unlike Bill Evans, but with some very different elements thrown in.
Early on I started experimenting tape loops using two tape recorders which I would operate while playing drums, toy instruments and a battery of radios, records and other sound collage sources. Al started doing cut-up readings over these sound collages and a whole new idiom was born. I had often heard Al at parties doing these extremely funny cut-up readings from 4-5 books at once.
So lyricism, hard bop, and a strong dada element were all present in varying amounts. Al's politics always showed through in his send ups of US presidents and local cops who harassed him, like the "Snedenko Collage on Retrospective 1965-1968 (Blue Minor, 2001).
AAJ: Retrospective is a very significant documentation of that music. Could you comment on Retrospective?
GS: The Al Neil Trio's double CD, Retrospective 1965-68, came out in 2001 on Blue Minor Records, from Vienna. The label was started by the late Richard Anstey, who passed away of a heart attack very unexpectedly in 2004 which was a great shock to me and all his friends and family. He also put his own music such as Aromatic Journeys (One2One Music, 1999) and 2000 Years in the Footsteps of Jesus (Blue Minor, 2000)the latter produced for Millennium pilgrims in Israel, where Anstey was living, although he was himself not Jewish. He is however buried in a cemetery in Tel Aviv, due to the immense amount of goodwill he built up while living there from 1985 to 1999.
AAJ: What happened to the trio?
GS: After about three years the trio split up with Richard Anstey forming his own group and Al and I continued as a duo until his wife Marguerite joined us on violin and vocals and made it a trio again. I continued until 1970 and we toured to Toronto and across the Prairies, playing in Edmonton and Regina. Then in 1972, Richard and I again joined Al and Annie Siegel (flute and alto sax) to form the Al Neil Jazz Probe, which played a few concerts in Vancouver and Victoria, some of which were recorded.
AAJ: Where's Al Neil today?
GS: Al is retired now at about age 81. Until recently he was both playing and exhibiting his art, but now confines his playing to solo piano musings in his home in Vancouver. I just completed an archive of eleven recordings of Al's work from 1968 on. Hopefully these will be released in some form one day.
AAJ: There were other groups that you were part of, namely the NOW Orchestra, Lunar Adventures, Sunship Ensemble, and maybe others. I'd like to know about those groups.
GS: The next ensemble which I joined with Anstey (on soprano sax now) and Neil was the Jazz Probe, which lasted less than a year but played some very strong jazz. We also had Annie Seigel in the group, fresh from New York. She played flute and alto sax and gave the group a completely different edge. It was a kind of free jazz with fusion elements. Most of the pieces were totally improvised and we did a number of concerts at art galleries and other venues.
The next group which again featured Anstey and myself was the Sunship Ensemble, a CD of which was released in 2004. The group was formed out of the 1971 New Atlantis House Band, a trio with me, Anstey and guitarist Al Sharpe. This was the nucleus of Sunship, which also included Bruce Freedman (tenor), Ross Barrett (flute, tenor sax and keyboards) and Clyde Reed, bass. This group
The Sunship Ensemble, which formed in 1974, was a group in tune with its times. The incorporation of world music, drawn from many cultures, was evident in many celebrated jazz groups of the early 1970s. The group incorporated even more extended free form improvisations than the many other groups of the time who played Afro-Latin tinged fusion. Although international in outlook, the group also reflected was a regionally-based music, which grew out of the west coast, rainforest environment.
Then in 1976 I started playing with pianist Paul Plimley, again with Bruce Freedman on tenor sax and John Giordano on bass. This was the Vancouver Sound Ensemble and it was lucky enough to be the house band in the jazz room of a large club named Oil Can Harry's. We played between engagements of people like Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Mingus, Pharoah Sanders and many other big name bands. The music was very much in the Cecil Taylor tradition, but also displayed other sides of the spectrum with swinging blues and sift ballads on occasion.
Out of that group was formed the New Orchestra Quintet with the addition of Lisle Ellis, bass, Paul Cram, reeds and Ralph Eppel, brass. Beginning in 1977 we also formed the New Orchestra Workshop Society, which included the C.O.R.D. Orchestra, [Community Orchestra Research and Development] who collaborated with vibraphonist, Dr. Karl Hans Berger of the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York, in several workshops and concerts.
Other ensembles formed under the NOW banner were Sessione Milano, with flutist,Don Druick, the NOW String Quartet and Trio Non Troppo in addition to staging many concerts, festivals. The New Orchestra Quintet released an LP, Up Til Now in 1979 which featured many sides of this group from totally hard driving bop-influenced pieces to conceptual works and raucous free improvisation. The group was a mainstay of Vancouver's jazz scene for a number of years and launched several generations of improvisers in the city. A four-CD box set of the band's best work is set for release in 2006.
After 1980 NOW split into several smaller groups, including A-Group [Cram, Eppel, Simpson and guitarist Bob Bell] followed by E.S.B. [Eppel, Simpson, Bell] which toured Canada and released an LP, Music for the Living which covered a huge range of electric fusion, world music and free jazz.
In 1981 Paul Cram released his LP Blue Tales in Time (Onari, 1981) with the same personnel as the New Orchestra Quintet, but minus Ralph Eppel. Following that quartet, the Paul Cram Trio [Cram, Ellis, Simpson] took off on a cross-country tour that would last two years and saw us playing in literally hundreds of venues from concert halls to cafes. The music of the trio was all original compositions by the three members. Ellis had replaced the string bass with a Fender bass and this provided a basis for our approach which varied between rock fusion influences and what has been called funky free bop. We had been very impressed by Ornette Coleman's Prime Time which had recently played in Vancouver
Following that trio I helped form the quartet Lunar Adventures with saxophonist Coat Cooke, who currently leads the NOW Orchestra. Along with guitarist Ron Samworth and bassist Clyde Reed, this group again played only original works by Cook and myself. We played a very free wheeling kind of free bop with many of my compositions displaying a distinctly Celtic sound, due to my own research into my Scottish heritage (which it turns out also has a lot to do with the French, the name Simpson being part of the Fraser Clan, itself a derivative of Frazier, from Normandy).
Lunar Adventures achieved a bit of celebrity locally opening for Ornette Coleman's Prime Time Band and also Michael Brecker. The group made it to New York and played a few nights at the Knitting Factory and released a CD, Alive in Seattle (Nine Winds, 1990) and appeared on two NOW compilation CDs.
During the 1990s, I was in a bebop trio with Henry Boudin, an ex-Montreal tenor player, who once toured with Dizzy Gillespie. I also led my own world music inspired group, Tribal Dynamics, which also featured Francois Houle on soprano sax, Bruce Freedman also on soprano, Daniel Kane on tenor sax, two brass players: Ralph Eppel and Brad Muirhead plus bassist Clyde Reed. The music of this group is featured on my latest CD, Harmolodic Highlanders (New Orchestra, 2005).
AAJ: Who were the other musicians or groups that you were or weren't involved with, that complemented the Vancouver scene?
GS: The Vancouver scene, although seemingly best known for free improvisation has also produced a number of mainstream jazz stars such as [bassist/pianist/vibraphonist] Don Thompson, [drummer] Terry Clarke, [saxophonist] P.J. Perry, [pianist] Renee Rosnes, [trumpeter/keyboardist] Brad Turner and many others. Some of these players have dabbled at the edge of free jazz but remain committed to playing in more traditional genres. I have really played with a select group of musicians over the years in Vancouver sometimes forming three of four bands with each of them from decade to decade.
I have also been lucky to have played gigs or sessions in the last number of years with such players as [pianist] Marilyn Crispell, [saxophonist] John Tchcai, the late [saxophonist] Glenn Spearman, [woodwind multi-instrumentalist] Peter Brötzmann, [trombonist] Günter Christman, [woodwind multi-instrumentalist] Vinny Golia and [pianist/vibraphonist] Karl Berger to name a few. Recently I have been reunited with Paul Plimley and Clyde Reed in a tribute concert to Al Neil and am planning a new collaboration with trombonist Ralph Eppel in whose quintet I played for a number of years, releasing a double CD, Gravity Boots (N.O.W., 2004).
Then there was the Vancouver Art Trio. VAT was committed to total energy playing, and was more outside and energetic than almost any band I have ever been in. Bruce Freedman on tenor and Clyde Reed, bass. That's the group I played with in Victoriaville. It's a group you should have a CD of, but there are only cassettes so far. Wish I had more to say on current activities. Although I helped get the free jazz scene here going from the '60s on, it's amazing how soon the promoters forget you here. For more info on the Vancouver scene, you could check www.vancouverjazz.com
AAJ: Victoriaville was all I knew of the Canadian free jazz scene. Anyway, let's talk about your musical activities in the present. Are you making any new recordings?
GS: As I mentioned, I have been doing some trio work again with Paul Plimley and Clyde Reed. In November, we did a wonderful concert and multimedia show with poetry, an electronic music guy, and computerized visuals to honor the legacy of Al Neil. It was a great event.
Then I am forming another small group with trombonist Ralph Eppel. He helped run the club we had, called the Glass Slipper, which unfortunately burned down in 1997. That left few places to do this music here. I don't play the festival any more as apparently I am no longer part of the inner circle here in Vancouver which is very factional and given to nepotism.
AAJ: You're also a visual artist of certain acclaim. Tell us about that aspect of your art.
GS: The same is true in the visual art field. The cultural commissars in this city only promote sterile, academic photo-conceptualism which people are beginning to tire of everywhere. I am a painter and there is a direct relation with my music there.
The best thing will be for you to see the television documentary made on me, A New Arcadia, The Art of Gregg Simpson. We are currently putting it on my website courtesy of Google Video. It will be up very soon. You must see it as it explains a lot about the evolution of my work and its relation to my music. It has references to Al Neil, Intermedia, my roots in the West Coast scene and also how Europe, particularly France and Italy, have accepted my art. There is a section of the film dealing with the Parisian writers and historians who were in the Surrealist movement who have published me in art history books, etc.
Of course there's very little money available in either free jazz or surrealism, so mainly I make a living renting work to movie and television set decorators. Vancouver is the second largest movie making centre in North America. I hope to record something new in the near future, but in the meantime we are putting out, subject to financing from the Canada Council, a four-CD box set of the New Orchestra Quintet.
Lunar Adventures/ Paul Cram Trio/ Tribal Dynamics, Harmolodic Highlanders, The Celtic Jazz of Gregg Simpson (New Orchestra Records, 2005)
New Orchestra Quintet, Up Til Now (New Orchestra Records, 2005)
Ralph Eppel, Gravity Boots (N.O.W. Records, 2004)
Sunship Jazz Ensemble, Sunship Jazz Ensemble 1974-1975 (Blue Minor Records, 2004)
Al Neil Trio, Retrospective: 1965-68 (Blue Minor Records, 2001)
Gregg Simpson, Drum Fire: Solo & Duets (Condition West, 2001)
NOW Anthology, Now You Hear It (Nine Winds, 1992)
Lunar Adventures, Alive in Seattle (Nine Winds, 1991)
NOW Anthology , The Future Is N.O.W. (Nine Winds, 1989)
Paul Plimley Trio, Swinging Planets (New Orchestra Records, 1989) (Cassette)
Gregg Simpson, Mirage Dance (Condition West, 1988 ) (Cassette)
Paul Cram Ensemble,Jazz in the Zebra Zone (Cargo Culture, 1984) (Cassette)
Paul Cram, Blue Tales in Time (Onari,1982)
Eppel/Simpson/Bell, Music for the Living (ISM Records, 1981)
New Orchestra Quintet, Up Til Now (New Orchestra Records, 1979)
Al Neil Trio, Retrospective: 1965-68 (Lodestone Records, 1976)
Sunship Ensemble & Electric Ninja, Pacific Rim (C.B.C Records, 1975)
Walter Zuber Armstrong, Hitana (World Artists, 1975) (vinyl)
Courtesy of Gregg Simpson
Gregg Simpson hosts a weekly internet radio show, The Gregg Simpson Jazz Hour, on Tuesdays at 10AM and 5PM Pacific Time.