7 Questions for… Keith Jafrate

My introduction to Keith Jafrate’s music came through Shaun Blezard. First via the Orfeo 5 disc, “a year on the ice”, a hauntingly lovely sax’n’electronics duo disc; then, through the second Some Some Unicorn album, “Unicornucopia”. In the answers below (the lengthiest response to 7 Questions by far) you’ll find a deep thoughtfulness and consideration that, to my ears at least, is strongly present in Keith’s playing. Enjoy…

 

1. What was your first musical instrument, and what did it mean to you?
Several answers to this, several beginnings. My first instrument was my voice and a cardboard copy of John Lennon’s guitar I made (the neck kept rigid by a piece of skinny batten my dad gave me, and lots of Sellotape). I include the cardboard guitar as an instrument because it gave me a way to perform songs from Please Please Me and With The Beatles over and over in our front room, where the radiogram was kept. It definitely wasn’t an air guitar, and somehow had more integrity than a broom handle or a tennis racket. I also made a copy of Paul McCartney’s bass, though I can’t remember if I used it left-handed or not. The bass version gave me a way to learn different interpretations, Paul’s songs having a different character to John’s. As I think about it now, I think I preferred the cardboard bass, something about its colour and neat figure-of-8 shape (easier to make out of cardboard), and of course a lot of McCartney’s songs were more sentimental than Lennon’s, and appealed more to the 9-year-old me. These cardboard instruments lasted me over a year, and though I had no idea at the time I think they let me learn rhythm and timing, and to some extent a sense of dynamics, in that I could make my impressions of The Beatles physical, I had a way to copy them. I loved and still love The Beatles. There’s a kind of yearning in their ballads that I could understand.

The next first instrument was never mine, though I tried to play it. It was somehow put in my way, as if I were sleepwalking and found a piano. My soprano voice got me into school choirs, and I impressed the music teacher enough for him to insist to my parents that I had piano lessons. Private lessons, for money, at his house, which smelt of coffee and had a shiny baby grand in the front window. He was an irascible Polish exile, impatient but not unkind. We had no piano at home (this was before the era of cheap electric keyboards) so I would get to school early to practise the dull exercises he gave me on an old upright in a store room. I never even got to the stage of using both hands at once, and after a term it all sort of faded away, you might say my contract was not renewed, though nothing was ever said. It seems he didn’t consider me the right material, and didn’t in any way attempt to inspire or explain or convey any excitement, or connect me in any way with any piano music I might listen to. This was the kind of half-waking experience that was a major part of my education, the expectation of my grammar school’s posh teachers that I would somehow understand, would know why I was asked to perform these baffling tasks, would have a context for the unexplained processes they subjected me to. Singing was anybody’s, but music was their idea, so I dismissed it, played football, chased girls, convinced I was not in any way a musician. Not in a particularly resentful or disappointed way, simply accepting the fog around me, accepting and ignoring the foreign language of people who had no idea who I was or where I came from.

It strikes me that a secret weapon in all this, a real first instrument, was the record player, which let me create soundworlds for the pictures and stories floating in my imagination. When I started taking drugs, this power increased dramatically, the era when the radiogram was superseded by my very own first stereo system for my very own use, and Hendrix was alive.

Fast forward. I’m 28 and about to have my first book of poetry published. I’m living in York and going out with a woman who sings in a women’s big band, a mixture of ages and abilities playing jazz and swing. I listen to her copy of Thelonious In Action, left behind by a previous partner, over and over again. I love Johnny Griffin. She is friends with the entire sax section. ‘Do you want to have a go?’ they ask. They let me play an alto, a beautiful King alto. I can play Autumn Leaves. The alto’s owner goes on holiday, and lends me the horn for a whole month. How trusting and how lovely. At the end of the month there’s no going back. I apply for and get a writer’s bursary from Yorkshire Arts Association, 250 quid, with which I pay off my overdraft and buy a tenor I find, lying in pieces in a case with a vivid orange velvet lining, in a second-hand shop, for 60 quid. It costs more to get it mended than it cost to buy, and never plays properly at the bottom. No matter, I play along with Johnny Griffin, in my damp bedsit near the hospital, dreaming into sound.

What did it mean to me? It’s easier to see now what it meant, years later. At the time I think it let me into a very particular and lovely place, a particular mode of being. I’ve played big stages, indoors and out, but when I was learning to play I fell in love with, and still love, those little, often unsuitable spaces where live music actually happens, the clubs and pubs and occasional restaurants where the message is as real as at any famous hole. Odd for a poet to say this I know, but by learning to play that saxophone I learned a new way to communicate, I was given a new language that could not be secret or hidden, that was naked and could not be afraid, but could be the most intimate language, say the most intimate things, in public, in a room, within touching distance of people, entirely present and exposed. The shock, at least to me, was that I seemed to have something to say that I had never known about. I stumbled toward the idea of witness.

2. What was the first, and most recent music you bought?
The first music I ever bought was the single Fire Brigade by The Move. At the time I liked its sort of bonkers intensity and slightly silly lyrics. I listened to it again on YouTube before I wrote this, and I still like it for the same reasons.

The most recent music I bought was Craig Taborn’s Daylight Ghosts, a quartet with Chris Speed on tenor sax and Bb clarinet, Chris Lightcap on electric and double bass and Dave King on drums and electronic percussion, The more I listen to this the more I find. It’s dense, frequently quiet, contrapuntal, with Chris Speed’s soft-toned, plangent tenor stalking the background as much as the foreground. On first listening it disappointed me, it has a concentrated, very un-ECM mix, a sense of space limited rather than created. I think Craig Taborn can do no wrong, so I was disappointed to be disappointed. But I came to realise I was listening for another kind of music: bright tunes followed by virtuoso blowing. But Daylight Ghosts is more about an ensemble lost in composition as if in a forest, staying within earshot of each other but trying different paths, calling across distance, coming close to whisper to one another, singing, forging ahead together. No one really solos in that one-in-front-the-rest-behind kind of way, and the shapes of the compositions hold the band close, so that little by little a whole sound emerges, a single message that all four create together. Chris Speed’s unconventional style is a big part of the music’s density, because he doesn’t play over the others in the manner of many saxophonists, he simply picks a path among their lines, quavering, drifting, stopping and restarting, phrasing a slow narrative within the logic of each piece. In fact the material most resembles ‘jazz’ when he isn’t playing. There are also some fine, energetic and precise unison lines in the melodies, which have a hypnotic, slightly Balkan sort of circular repetitive thing going.

So the music lacks that overarching horn line found in so many bands, and feels held within the sonic limitations and textures of the piano. I find this approach grips my attention, compelling me to listen to the whole band’s sound interweaving and flexing. It’s not that you can’t listen to other music this way, it’s that this quartet improvise so subtly together that you forget to listen for any solo. It’s almost classical in concept, though not in content.

By the final track it all makes sense, the narrative leads to that moment of crossing which is music’s intention and its use, that moment of transcendence which must be preceded by a process of difficulty and searching in order to have any sense or value. Crossing into what though? I guess I’d call it a thrilled presence, a moment of seeing. Or a beginning.

3. What’s the balance of preparation vs. improvisation for the average live set or recording?
I struggle to see a difference between composition and improvisation. To me, they are stages in the life of a single process, and can’t be separated. I’ve no great interest in music which is wholly one or the other, or for that matter any kind of music which defines itself by what it excludes. This doesn’t mean I don’t play improvised music, it means I don’t rule anything out when I do. I try to keep the balance in my imagination, in the choices I make, rather than in any practical, external structure or rejection of structure. If I talk, I can’t reject the entire language I have learnt since I learnt to talk and expect to create much connection, but this doesn’t mean I can’t say anything new. Structure is unavoidable but it can also be liberating. And I know more than one language too.

When I practice I concentrate mostly on playing time, because I think this can help give me the precision I need to wander anywhere, away from time or between time signatures. So I rarely prepare for a specific occasion, more for all occasions, by staying in touch with the saxophone’s fluidity. I do practice in more abstract ways, concentrating for the most part on how to create and sustain noise, and in many ways this part of my practice is the most technical. But I play time as a kind of self-hypnosis, to find forms without thinking or pre-meditation.

I try to stay in the process of making all the time, and try to imagine practising not as preparation but as performance itself, in the manner of a craft that requires no audience, maybe like being a painter. Or, for me more significantly, like being a shaman. When I play I play, it is not preparation but the act itself, and I am trying always to enter an inspired state where the message plays me, not the other way round. Of course, this has to be practised too.

Another part of this is about how I play with other musicians. More and more I’m interested by making structures that others have to complete, taking a melody to a gig and saying: I’ll be playing this, you have to make the rest of it. So that I ask my comrades to improvise towards a completed form, but a form which can always evolve if we play it again. This can get really interesting when I take the same piece to play with different bands, the way the material changes character but remains something my composed part can still cohere with. So I guess my preparation consists of finding melody to spark and hide within improvisation. This very rarely involves a keyboard or any creative noodling on the sax, as for the most part I look into my surroundings for material. I live on a hill and can see a long way from my practice room, and at the bottom is a main road, about a quarter of a mile down. So I’ve written some pieces based on letters I can read on the trucks that pass, mostly company names, using only those letters which are the names of notes, in the order they occur (including H as the German name for Bb). Going up the valley makes an upward scale, going down the valley makes a downward scale. I’ve made a piece by overlaying a musical stave on photos of a wavering line of pylons I can see from the window, and finding a melody where the tips hit the lines of the stave. I’ve found melodies by trying to follow the flightpaths of jackdaws and pigeons, who come very close to the attic window where I play. On a more personal note, I recently used my mum’s old Co-op Dividend number as a way of determining a melody, though I’m not sure if it has worked yet. I guess these methods are attempts to prepare and to derange preparation at the same time, by trying to route what I do via chance procedures, or by attending to non-musical ideas of structure. It’s about trying to experience the ‘preparation’ and the ‘improvisation’ as one consciousness, no less.

4. What is the oddest/least conventional sound you’ve incorporated into your music so far?
When Shaun Blezard and I were working on new Orfeo 5 material a while back we recorded a whole album’s worth of improvisations over a recording I made of a squeaky metal gate on Nine Barrow Down, on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, high up, with views for miles. It’s a binaural recording, made by letting the gate close very carefully and slowly on a sunny day in August, occasionally letting it bang shut for percussive effect. The result is a weird, gargling, rasping cry, followed by flat metallic beats that echo in the frame of the gate, and that have a completely different acoustic to the space around them. It makes the dogs bark on a nearby farm, and part way through you can hear the whistle from Swanage Steam Railway on the valley floor. Up close, between the sounds of the gate, you can hear the sizzle of flies and wind through the gorse. Then a high lark joins in, and occasionally you can hear the sighing of distant cars. It creates a huge, ghostly space that Shaun and I move out into, me with saxophones (sometimes multi-tracked) and Shaun by live-sampling and processing the recording, as well as adding other samples of his own. I called the whole thing Nine Barrow Down: an audio guide. It’s ghostly and psychedelic at the same time, with volcanic descent-into-the-underworld sections, and with this strange pastoral/industrial cry at its heart. It has never been released, though a section has been up on Soundcloud somewhere, but I can’t remember where.

We recorded it on an Alesis Adat tape machine, the type that used SVHS video cassettes, over a tape of a rehearsal by Orfeo 5’s first line-up made in 2002, and by a miracle our final piece fades out before the original recording ends, creating a lovely, entirely fortuitous cross-fade into a bass solo by Dave Kane over an organ loop made by Duncan Chapman. It’s a beautiful and somehow fitting end.

5. Name one person with whom you feel you have a telepathic playing relationship, and why.
I’m lucky in that I feel I have some kind of rapport with all the musicians I’m playing with, but if I have to single out one from this splendour I would say the tenor sax player and flautist Simon Prince. I’ve known Simon for years, and we had mutual musician friends in Huddersfield, where I lived when I met him, but we never played together. Orfeo 5 started a tour there in 2010, and Simon was on the same bill as us, playing in a duo with Robin Bowles. We were mightily impressed with each other, and Simon suggested we try some tenor duets. Simon is a very mobile, physically idiosyncratic performer, and it’s easy to see when he is playing that he is entirely absorbed and given over to whatever message is coming through. I was captivated by his playing. I love watching him, and I love playing with him in Wolfscarers, the band that came out of our jams together in Oldham Music Centre, and which was kind of fostered by the excellent Noise Upstairs, the monthly improv night in Manchester, where we did our first gig.

 

Our relationship works I think because we are alike in many ways and entirely different in others. We are both working class men, politically to the left of the Labour party, who have a wide variety of musical experience between us. We’re not purist or snobby about any mode or style of music, and we believe music can be conscious of and address wider issues in society. But this doesn’t mean cheerleading: a musician is part of the world like any other human and should play what s/he has experienced and is aware of, not merely notes. I think we are both old enough to have felt jaded at various times, and unimpressed by music we have seen and heard which has no heart or commitment. And we both like football.

But we differ in very important ways as players. Simon has a huge tenor sound, and is the only flautist I’ve come across who would need amplification only in a stadium. To me he always seems confident and assertive, beginning everything with a strongly defined sense of form. He is an educated musician, a teacher with excellent reading skills. I’d say I lack any of these qualities: I can be a quiet, hesitant player, and I suffer massive doubt about my playing; I’m self-taught and have had to invent my own ways of composing, as I can’t read or write notation at all. Perhaps it’s a case of opposites attracting then.

Playing together puts us into dialogue, a series of conversations that are never disputes but which may become heated, where our differences and similarities are all equally useful. This was forced on us by our choosing to play as a duo of two saxophones. Our fabulous licks and lightning agility etc., etc., were entirely useless if we wanted to create a sound that was made of both of us, that developed themes and forms from listening, in the present, to each other. This conversation is luck, a gift, that we met at a point in our different lives when we were ready to listen powerfully, if that makes sense, to listen voraciously to each other for information that could help us to be our musical selves, to be different but in co-operation, to make a sort of two-headed saxophone monster where we neither led nor followed.

Of course if doesn’t always work, but the fact that it has worked gives us the appetite, and the confidence, to keep researching. Simon might say something completely different though!

6. Where do you stand on the streaming/downloading/file-sharing/musicians-not-getting-paid-for-their-musicdebate?
First off, my response is a bit theoretical, because I don’t know a single musician who will only play for money. But as I see it, to be an artist of any kind is a vocation, and if you are doing it for money you may be in the wrong game. Second, while I am, of course, in favour of earning a decent living from music, I think it should be obvious to all of us that the edges and fringes of music, or of any medium, where change and experimentation can most easily take place, are the least likely to offer financial rewards, in that they offer the least familiar, least established modes of expression.

I earnt a living as a writer and musician for around 20 years, up to 2008, because I operated for the most part in the subsidised arts sector. Over those 20 years, the answer in that context that became most popular to the question of how to create a rewarding structure for what you made was marketing. Getting funds for marketing was itself a competitive process, and there were certain economies of scale that, for example, Opera North might take advantage of which were unavailable to my trio. Those who had money (and staff) for marketing obviously did better than those without, and in turn received more funds on the basis of their success, and so on (in effect a mirror of the relationship between major and independent labels). I passed many bleak afternoons at Arts Council meetings, listening to their irresistible logic, like Toad listening to Badger in the library.

So I earnt a living, but the compromises and distortions I had to put myself through to get it made the getting too difficult, and in the end it all collapsed, my psyche and the funding together, at roughly the same time. The artists’ co-op I was part of could no longer pretend to represent their values, and anyway we had outlived our usefulness to them. I guess there are those who still aspire to this life, to be part of an establishment where, to quote an Arts Council England policy document, “All funded organisations will need to demonstrate how they help us to achieve the goals.” But how does improvisation lend itself to a list of aims and objectives? Actually, I think it can, but this would mean the aims and objectives might get infected by ideas of liberation and independence.

It’s an odd story, or so it seems to me. I was tremendously proud to earn my living solely by being an artist, yet having been through it I would now suggest that, for some of us, it may be the worst thing we could do, leading us into uncomfortable, sometimes destructive relationships. Now, I still earn some money from music, but most of what little I earn comes from working from time to time as a builder’s labourer, and I am as proud of that as I was of my status as an artist. I am proud that I am at the very bottom of any imaginable pecking order, yet my heart is whole, and I am still learning. Freedom is poverty if life is work.

But this is also an old story, and things have moved on: many of us know the subsidised world is a fantasy island with entry requirements that get more absurd with every passing year, and won’t bother attempting to besiege it. What are the alternatives? To me, internet ‘success’ is as much a fantasy, and is monotonously similar to success in general, that is to say commercial, mainstream, compromised, vacuous. Who are the improv internet sensations? I may have missed them, though I know there are good networks which the internet facilitates, but actual money gained by most musicians through such networks doesn’t seem to amount to much more than covering the cost of making a CD. I’m sure there are exceptions, but not everyone can be an exception, and I’d say the digital world does not have a different economic culture to any other: while it gave us new ways to create music, it did not create new forms of exchange for it, only new mechanisms for established forms, and is unlikely to supply us with a living.

Do you or I aspire to a living from music? Few of us would prevent it happening! But while we wait for that great day we need to have some way of sustaining ourselves, and that may not be money. This is where an awkward tangle happens I think: how do we get heard if not through processes with actual financial costs, even if these are not costs to us personally? I can run away from money as fast as I like, the promoters mostly won’t. Or, as we all do, I can play for nothing, and take on any costs from this myself. Money will get in there whether I like it or not, and money does sometimes stop me playing, because I can’t afford to travel to a gig, or can’t afford to stay over if I do.

So the answer must be to be successful. What a tyranny. Even now musicians are crowding Facebook with news of their greatness. I can subscribe to as many feeds and mailing lists of these greats as there are stars in the sky. To have no human relationship with them other than as a passive receptor of their self-interest. Can I admire the music of vain people? Would you? I believe Jim Morrison had his self-important moments, and I manage to love his music. But Jim seems for the most part to have done music rather than marketing. The medium is the message.

Without a message, an intention, music is just overheard noise. Yes, some kind of message can even survive success and wealth. But isn’t the message as valuable without wealth and success? Didn’t it start everything off? I seem to remember Archie Shepp describing jazz as folk music, which I think is a way of emphasising how it can connect with people, that it speaks from and to a community (and that it should). What I think is this: there should be no separation between musician and listener, no definition of ‘musician’ that in any way excludes anyone from music. So to look at yourself, or anyone else, from the frame of a ‘profession’ or ‘career’ may well distort your relationship with music, in that it defines a border, an exclusion of those without money or employment.

To complain that free downloading of music, legal or illegal, is unfair to musicians is like complaining that you weren’t killed instantly when a monster ate the world. That system wasn’t made for the benefit of musicians, and I don’t think we are compelled to be part of it. To motivate your music with the self-importance of the ‘successful’ would kill its goodness. Bollocks to all that. Musicians need to play and we need an audience, but we should aspire to give our best regardless of money, to make the human connection sing. This is a political act, and must happen: none of us can wait to be paid before we do it.

7. If money and time were no object, what would your next project be?
I’d do a series of 12 site-specific performances, ritualistic and magical investigations of belonging and flight, each taking a month to devise on-site, featuring dancers/performers and actors, spoken word, back projection and, of course, a live band, including local artists with a core of regulars, performing indoors and outdoors, in a series of concerts beginning in Orkney and finishing in Vancouver via Cornwall and New York City. Then a world tour.

Orfeo 5’s new disc, “in the green castle”, will be out from Discus this summer. While you wait, listen to Keith’s playing on these discs:

(Title image © Persephone Jafrate)