Iain Ballamy

UK saxophonist Iain Ballamy is a key ingredient in the improvised jazz ensemble Food, which has just released its sixth album as a debut on ECM

Saxophonist Iain Ballamy

Where did the name Food come from?
In 1998 I met drummer Thomas Strønen through a mutual friend who suggested we meet up. He was just out of Trondheim Conservatoire and visiting London so I invited him over for tea that was much needed as he was mugged in Oxford Street on the way to my place. I realised straight away he had a mischievous streak when he played me a recording which was not at all what I was expecting – a little band he was part of playing the trad jazz classic ‘Muskrat Ramble’. It started in dead earnest and then rapidly degenerated in such a brilliant way that I knew we’d get on famously. Thomas said: ‘Let’s start a band and call it Food for Quartet’. I thought just plain ‘Food’ was better and so that became our name and later a source for many ideas. For creative analogies, making connections between food, cooking song titles and improvisation is a pretty boundless and all encompassing subject that provides plenty of scope for the imagination.

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The core of Food is now a duo. How did the Quiet Inlet album come about?
We used to be four but now we are two. Arve Henriksen played trumpet and Mats Eilertsen was our bassist. When it became logistically hard to keep a quartet together, we decided to open things up by starting again to create a band where we’re always there but would be able to invite a wish list of great players to join us. This record came about through collaboration with like-minded souls such as guitarist Christian Fennesz and trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer.

How much of the album is improvised?
All of it. It’s unrepeatable. Once upon a time we had some tunes but now we’ve evolved to play purely improvised music using sound and space and texture combining electronics and acoustic instruments. It’s a slightly different way of operating than free jazz or electronica but it’s shares some common elements as well as having a lyrical and folky feel at times. The music is often minimal, relying on sound and textural space to carry it rather than the tunes, chords and grooves that form a typical basis for making music.

The album features material from two live concerts in Norway…
We record all our concerts. The material was chosen as highlights from two live performances at the Molde Jazz Festival and a club gig in Oslo. Form is important to us. While the music is improvised, there has to be a strong sense of form for it to sound coherent. We chose carefully from these concert recordings, editing, compiling and mixing then gave the tracks to Manfred Eicher [founder of ECM]. He heard it on a Friday afternoon and rang on Saturday morning saying: ‘You realise this is for ECM – I hope you’re not thinking of offering it to anybody else are you?’ which I thought was a great reaction!
What kind of crowd do you get at your concerts?
The people who come to our concerts reflect the musical openness that flourishes beyond these shores, especially in Norway where many people seem to be more musically open-minded. You actually even get women at the gigs – not just hairy blokes! The idea of jazz puts so many preconceptions in people’s heads that somehow they almost want to put it in a box or give it a tick before they’ve even heard it. People interested in the area of music that we inhabit are perhaps looking for something different – something that’s interesting and contemporary.
What got you interested in jazz in the first place?
I had piano lessons as a lad and my dad played jazz piano. He can’t read a note but knows thousands of tunes. I grew up with Oscar Peterson, Roland Kirk and Dudley Moore records in the house. Dad also recorded a lot of stuff off the TV on a reel-to-reel recorder. I came across the saxophone when I was almost 14 when I got stuck in a room with a very cool fellow my father was playing with. Those three hours changed my life – it was like someone switched on a light and it’s been on since 1978!

Interview by Neil McKim

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Food’s disc Quiet Inlet is available now on ECM 273 4919