The legendary European saxophonist has been at the forefront of the ECM label’s output since 1970. Neil McKim asks him about his latest live album
ECM is celebrating its 40th birthday. How have you found working with the label and its founder Manfred Eicher?
I admire the achievement of Manfred Eicher. He’s been a great contributor to music in general over the last 40 years. He’s a fantastic producer with a remarkable memory and knowledge about music. ECM is unique because Manfred is unique – he is involved in every production and every aspect of it. His choices are crucial to the image of the company and what it does.
The live album Dresden has taken a while to be released. Why is that?
I took time to release this album because it wasn’t meant as an album at all! When we have a concert programme we have played well for a while we usually have it documented by our technicians, by recording a version. We decided it was time to do that in the fall of 2007. I didn’t think about it for a while [after]. Then I mentioned this to Eicher and he was interested: he said this could be an album if mixed properly. We had four or five concerts and could have made a medley but I decided to stay with one and just present the whole concert, everything that was played, every breath, every note. This is it – take it or leave it.
The track ‘Nu Bein’ has a distinctly
African influence. Where does the
name come from?
It’s based on a Nubian/African rhythm. The name is an attempt to be clever and funny. I had seen somewhere ‘New Being’, in slang for Nubian – spelt that way – and I just called it
You use a Norwegian folk instrument, the seljefløyte. What is that?
The seljefløyte is just an overtone flute really. Fathers used to make them for their children in the springtime when new straight [willow tree] branches were full of sap and easy to manipulate. Luckily you cannot play any wrong notes on this flute, as it’s a harmonic series, which makes it easy in a way. But you have to find a way to utilise it. Because the proper seljefløyte will dry up in 24 hours – you have to keep it in water, which is rather inconvenient when you are touring – the one I use is made of PVC.
Your first ECM disc was Afric Pepperbird and you’ve got a bird-themed track on this disc. Bird-inspired tracks regularly occur in your work…
I seem to have a recurring theme when I make my pieces over the years – I call it bird playing or bird song. I’ve called it [the track] ‘Fugl’, which means bird. I seem to always come back to that type of tune, with arpeggios and floating melody on top – bird playing on the saxophone. I don’t know why but there always seems to be one piece that ends up like that.
There’s a tune on the album called ‘The Reluctant Saxophonist’.
Who is that?
Well who might that be, I mean I don’t know (he laughs). Sometimes I feel reluctant and sometimes other saxophone players would feel that way too. Could be me sometimes?
What was it that got you listening to jazz in the first place?
Well that’s easy. I wasn’t actively interested in music in any form. It was just there. When I was 14 I happened to hear on the radio something which caught my attention and interest and I found out that it was John Coltrane. I didn’t know that was jazz at the time but I found out that Coltrane was playing a tenor saxophone and I wanted to do the same thing.
Interview by Neil McKim
Audio clip: Nu Bein