Theo Travis: From Prog to Jazz and Back Again
British musician Theo Travis has one of the most varied performing and recording histories to be found among contemporary jazz musicians. A talented saxophonist, flautist and composer, Travis has performed solo, in duos and quartets, in straight ahead jazz combos and in electronic, improvisational groups.
He has performed live soundtracks in cinemas, duos with guitarist Robert Fripp in English churches, jazz standards in clubs and progressive rock at major European festivals. Travis, in both his playing and his love of music, spans the occasionally over-large divide between jazz and progressive rock, bringing the genres together and investing each with the best of the other.
Despite his extensive back catalog, however, Theo Travis is not as well-known to jazz or prog fans as he should be. This may be due in part to his unassuming nature and a refreshing lack of ego, or to his determination to play what he enjoys rather than just playing for the money or the exposure. Whatever the reason, the lack of fame is not mirrored by a lack of work: Travis is constantly involved with musical projects, groups and collaborations with an at times bewildering array of players. He's a busy man, as he readily admits.
Travis has been playing jazz since his mid-teens, but he began playing music some years earlier.
"I started flute aged 7 or 8," he said. "I was brought up in a family where everybody learned an instrument so I picked the flute and went through the grades.
"I also got very into listening to pop and rock, a lot of progressive rock actually. When I was 15 or 16 I hooked up with some friends at school and played bass and a little bit of flute in a rock band, called Fundamental Furniture. The keyboard player introduced me to jazz improvisation and we'd have jam sessions in rehearsals. I was living in Birmingham [in the centre of England] at the time and I went to the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra to see what would be involved in joining.
"I was just playing flute and they said, 'Oh, do you play sax as well?,' because most flute players double on sax. I didn't, and couldn't see the connection but as luck would have it my sister was learning the sax at the time. So I borrowed her saxophone and she didn't see much of it for the next two years. I went on a few jazz summer schools to get into the theory and found a teacher in Birmingham who had been in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Then, I did a classical music degree [at Manchester University from 1983 to 1986] and put a band together, Blue September, with some of the top Manchester jazz musicians and toured the Northern jazz clubs."
Travis makes the process appear simple, but his description hides the effort that he put in to advance his education. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he didn't go straight from school to university.
"No, I had a year off, doing lots of practice ... getting more into jazz," he said. "At school in my teens I was very into Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Traffic. There was a very good record library in Birmingham Central Library, all vinyl in those days. You could pick up half a dozen albums and go into a listening booth, put the needle down and all these worlds would open up. You could find stuff, listen to it, take it away, maybe tape some [laughs] then come back and listen to more stuff.
Travis' exploration of progressive rock in the listening booths was taking place during 1981 and 1982, a time when prog was no longer a popular genre of music among British youth. He recognizes that his taste was not shared by many of his friends.
"I was totally out of step," he confesses, although he was not alone in his love of prog. "There was a little group of us that was into [prog] but with jazz I was totally out of step with everyone else. But there was music of the time that I was also into and, funnily enough, it seems to be coming round again. Early 80s song-based stuff: Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, The Cure, The Au Pairs, that sort of stuff."
The impact of prog and jazz on Travis' own playing is clear in much of his work. He seems to move seamlessly across the two genres. He happily acknowledges this, especially the effect of leading prog rockers King Crimson.
"The whole Crimson thing is a strong influence on me, generally," he said. "I love the music and sometimes music you love comes out in your writing, and I'm quite aware that the music and writing style of King Crimson is not that far below the surface, sometimes quite near the surface, of things I've written. It's a connection that makes it quite curious that I'm working with [King Crimson guitarist Robert] Fripp now."
Travis and Fripp released their first CD together, Thread (Panegyric Recordings) in 2008 and the collaboration continues. Talk of this partnership sparks Travis into a fascinating discussion of the links between jazz and prog, and of how the seeds of prog can be seen in at least one classic jazz recording.
"As a teenager I got into prog but as a working player, I very much got into jazz and the prog happened 10 years later, I suppose," he said. "It's built through connections because I genuinely like a lot of the music and the people I play with really feel for the music and hopefully that works and leads to other things. I think a lot of jazz players both now and in the late '60s can be a bit snooty about rock and prog, whereas I have genuine love and respect for a lot of rock albums so for me being involved in that sort of music is a real treat.
"I was talking to Bill Bruford the other day ... he started in prog with Yes and Crimson and was very keen to move into the jazz world and I've sort of done the opposite ... I crossed from the jazz world into prog and right in the middle I did a gig with Bill funnily enough. We've had these interesting opposite trajectories.
"I think there's a lot of connections between progressive rock, rock generally and jazz. In terms of having a music that involves composition, improvisation, a bit of an edge, sometimes long-form writing. Take John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964). If you said there's an album in four sections with a bit of a concept and its long with lots of improvisation then some written bits sounds like prog to me. There are strong connections in terms of approach to music."
Travis composes and plays in a variety of styles, but is there a common approach to composition which he tends to take across these styles? Does he usually leave space for improvisation, for example?
"Yes, nearly always," he said. "I can't think of a piece where I've written it from beginning to end without space for improvisation. There's always large spaces for improv and often the pieces will be written as launch pads for improvisation. Sometimes, the main part of a piece is improvisation. "For example, on the recent album, Double Talk (33 Jazz, 2007) I was very keen to have some free-form band improvs mixed in with progressive, bluesy, jazz. There's a piece called 'Relegation of Pluto' in which all that's written is a four-bar theme at the beginning and the end and everything else is completely whatever happens when we launch into it.
"There is this launch pad approach which I like but which you can only do with musicians you trust, who are comfortable being that brave and just jumping in with two feet not knowing what's going to happen. A lot of jazz musicians like their structures ... a basis on which to do improvisation rather than having to create the whole canvas from scratch. A crucial factor for me is choosing the right people, who can think the same way and come up with good ideas and enjoy working with that amount of freedom."
Working as a leader, a musician has the power to choose who to play with and how they will play. However, Travis also works within well-established groups with a long history: most notably Gong, a band that has existed in numerous line-ups since the late 1960s, and Soft Machine Legacy, a band which carries on from Soft Machine itself and in which Travis replaced original Soft Machine saxophonist Elton Dean. Working within such settings requires different skills, which Travis is willing and able to articulate.
"With Soft Machine Legacy, Elton Dean was very ill ... when [bassist] Hugh Hopper rang me up," Travis said. "It was very much a case of joining a band with its own approach, although in fact it's a very co-operative band with plenty of group improvisation. With Gong, which 'belongs' to one or two people ... you are playing as 'the saxophonist' in the band which is a different role and you have less control over the music. On my first Gong album, 10 years ago, I did do a lot of the writing but on the new album I wasn't involved in the writing at all. I was almost like a session man. Very much in the studio. I was told what to play and on the gigs I play the saxophone parts. But that's alright if it's a band I like and music I like. It's very important to appreciate the role you have in a band.
"I find that being a leader a lot of the time I appreciate not having to do all that organizing and phone calls and talking between numbers ... Sometimes it's nice to just go and play."
Strikingly, with Soft Machine Legacy, Gong, and The Tangent, Travis has not simply replaced "a saxophonist" but has replaced three well-known, distinctive and almost legendary players: Soft Machine's Elton Dean, Gong's Didier Malherbe and The Tangent's David Jackson, previously of Van Der Graaf Generator. Travis is pragmatic about his success in these bands.
"The music feels natural to me and I'm enjoying it," he said. "I'm not imitating what they did. People wouldn't want me to do that and it wouldn't work for me to do that. I come along with whatever I have and if it works, I guess I get the gig [laughs}. In SML, I'd already played with Hugh Hopper quite a bit and John Etheridge loads and John Marshall quite a lot so it was a very comfortable fit. The awkward thing there was that I joined the band when Elton Dean was very ill and on the next run of gigs at the Pizza Express in Soho, he died the night before the first gig. On one hand, people were saying 'Well done' but on the other hand they were sad because Elton had died so it was a slightly strange situation."
Soft Machine Legacy (l:r): John Etheridge, Theo Travis, John Marshall, Hugh Hopper
Sadly, Hugh Hopper died earlier this year. Travis is as yet uncertain about what this means for the future of SML.
"We've got a big tour this autumn and there's talk of some gigs early next year. If Roy Babbington (currently deputising for Hopper) is happy to do it then it may well carry on. Of course, there have been various line-ups, but with Etheridge, John Marshall, Hugh and me it had a definite imprint and the album we made, Steam (MoonJune Records, 2007), we were all very happy with. I hope it will continue but we'll see how it goes after this tour."
Theo Travis' vast range of work stretches across many styles and genres of jazz and prog, as well as into ambient, avant-garde and new age. To hear Travis play, it is obvious that this talented musician has the ability to cross this vast spectrum of music. But is there a "master plan" to this?
"I do love a lot of music," says Travis, "I listen to a lot of music and although I'm a professional musician I am also a music fan. Some people, when [playing music] becomes their job they become very interested in how to play their instrument but they don't talk about music they love to listen to. Whereas still, if I've got a gig hours and hours away, I'll happily listen to four hours of music on the way there and on the way back. A lot of the music I go out of my way to do is stuff that I love and I'm lucky I don't seem to do that much I'm not keen on."
It becomes clear that many of Travis' collaborations arise through happenstance rather than a deliberate plan. For example, "Gong happened through a series of coincidences that led to me being asked to do a tour in 1999," Travis said. "That was probably the first time I toured with a big rock band. It was a lot of fun. A lot of the collaborations are down to me enjoying and wanting to be involved in that sort of musicthey're not all profitable [laughs].
"Cipher started off purely as an experimental thing. We [Travis and bassist Dave Sturt] both played in a band called No Time Toulouse and got very interested in a minimal approach. We were both very influenced by Brian Eno records. We spent ages just messing around on sounds then we made the first album and then we got an offer to do music for a silent film and it worked. You could use strange, dark, experimental music but if it fitted with an image people could relate to it and there was a place you could play it.
"So that was definitely a labour of love which we never thought would do anything, but it led to other things. People like it and having that experience you can take it elsewhere. It's funny how things lead to other things. If you really love music and are involved in it, then you do stuff which can lead to other stuff. If you just say 'I want (payment) for that' you end up ... on a different path, I suppose."
Another link in Travis' music is that between his work in Cipher and his work with Robert Fripp. Travis sees these links as extending even further, into two more collaborations.
"Around the same time that Cipher was beginning I met Steven Wilson [founder and lead guitarist of progressive rock band Porcupine Tree]," he said. "He'd started a new project called Bass Communion, which I played in, taking acoustic sounds, minimal sounds, a very minimal textural thing. Then there was Steve Lawson, who's very much into solo, bass guitar, looping technology. Again, a different approach ... but again pretty dark, minor key, approach and that again is similar to the Travis and Fripp approach. These areas may be slightly minority and niche but they're related and through doing one you can understand the music so you can do another and if you like it and you get a result things can lead on to others who are comfortable in that sound world. It's a bit out of the normal, particularly for a saxophone, flute type of player [laughs]."
On a number of his albums Travis refers to his system of "Ambitronics," a reference to "Frippertronics," developed by Travis' collaborator Robert Fripp in the 1970s. But is such a comparison be misplaced? Not entirely, according to Travis.
"It's influenced by [Frippertronics] certainly," he said. "Essentially, it's using a series of foot pedals whereby as a single line player I can create a broad and long texture, largely ambient in nature with floating, moving, harmonies. Normally, with flute or sax you play a single line and it's gone as soon as you breathe, whereas this way I can create almost infinite lines to build up thick harmonies. Using looping technology you play a line and press a pedal and add another layer and another, building up musical canvases.
"The other thing [Ambitronics] incorporates is the harmonic thinking. If you are playing single lines that come back on themselves, you can use a pedal that brings the instrument down an octave or two, adding bass line or notes, which changes the harmony. Doing that you have to be very aware of the rhythm and harmony of what you are doing to make it work.
"It's an approach that has built up through a love of the sound of the alto flute when you layer it up. More specifically, it started when I went to John Etheridge's house and tried a set of pedals with the alto flute, loved it immediately, went out and bought a set and about two weeks later made Slow Life (Ether Sounds Records, 2003)."
So Slow Life is the birth of ambitronics?
"Very much so ... I invented my record label just to put it out, because I really felt strongly about it," Travis said. "When I initially approached Robert Fripp that was the album I sent to him: because of that album he was interested in doing something."
Unusually, Travis' ambitronics have also inspired a novel: Jonathan Coe's "The Rain Before It Falls."
"I actually get credited at the beginning of the book because he told me that he was listening to [Slow Life] while he was writing the book," he said. "There's a whole chapter about a person who does a flute loops performance and he credits me as being the inspiration for that section. So the album's done more than just the smallish number of sales. It's established a sound that I like and it's triggered some other things."
The immediate future for Theo Travis is something he sums up succinctly: "It's busy," he laughs.
"Travis and Fripp is very active: one of the concerts was released as a live download album and we're just mixing the concert we did in Coventry Cathedral, for release in 2010," he said. "I just played on the new Tangent CD which will probably come out at the end of 2009 and there's talk of performances related to that. There'll be another Cipher tour and a Double Talk tour early next year and hopefully some more Travis and Fripp dates in Europe and possibly Japan. I've just contributed to a project by Francis Dunnery [singer, guitarist and writer with 1980s band It Bites]. He's really matured in his songwriting and producing. I just played on his album on Tuesday."
The Cipher work with silent films has been one of Travis' more unusual projects: more of this is also planned for the near future.
"We did a tour with a new score to The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and next year is the 90th anniversary of the film's release so we're planning on dates in January, February or March," Travis said. "The plan is to do an album of the whole soundtrack that will match the DVD of the film: press 'Go' on the DVD and 'Go' on the CD and you have the complete show. The only reason we might not do that is because we might be too busy [laughs].
"Dave [Sturt] has been depping on the Gong tour as [Gong bassist] Mike Howlett has taken up a teaching post in Australia. The whole of Cipher has been in Gong. But we will certainly do more Cipher live dates, in cinemas. We've done quite a few tours now where we set up at the front of the cinema, watch the film as it's shown and play. The music entirely comes from us: we watch the film, large areas of our music will be improvised and certain themes and sounds will be prepared for certain scenes in the film. We like doing this, a modern take on making music for movies with live instruments and loops and two computers. The music is very atmospheric so people don't respond to it as if it's weird experimental electro-acoustics. They just go 'Oh, I like that.' On a good performance people's biggest compliment is 'That was so good I didn't know you were there.' Obviously, if you did that on a jazz gig..."
Theo Travis is a wise man: a talented and versatile musician, a music fan, realistic enough to understand the vagaries of music as a business and enthusiastic enough about music as an artform to be willing to take chances and to play for pleasure. He's also a very busy man, and he'll hopefully continue to be one for many years to come.
Travis & Fripp, Thread (Panegyric Records, 2008)
No Man, Schoolyard Ghosts (Snapper, 2008)
Soft Machine Legacy, Steam (MoonJune Records, 2007)
The Tangent, Going Off On One (Inside Out, 2007)
Theo Travis, Double Talk (33 Records, 2007)
Bass Communion, Ghosts On Magnetic Tape (Tonefloat, 2006)
Theo Travis, Slow Life (Ether Sounds Records, 2003)
Cipher, One Who Whispers (Gliss Records, 2002)
Travis/Beaujolais Quartet, Berlin Vibe (Symbol Records, 2001)
Theo Travis, Heart Of The Sun (33 Records, 2001)
Gong, Zero To Infinity (Snapper Music, 2000)
Theo Travis Quartet, Passion DanceLive At Ronnie Scott's (Ronnie Scott's Jazz House, 1999)
Page 3, Soft Machine Legacy: Sean Kelly
Page 4: Anders Husa
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Theo Travis