GUEST POST: Barry Altschul
Interviewed by Harris Eisenstadt, Pt. 3

We at D:O are incredibly pleased to present this guest post from Harris Eisenstadt. Harris interviewed Barry Altschul over two marathon sessions, on the occasion of his 70th birthday (which was in fact 6 January) and in advance of his new trio record, coming out in February from TUM. This is the third of three parts. Part one is here. Part two is here

Oh, and in case you were wondering about where Eisenstadt fits into all this: he is a drummer and composer of growing renown, with two projects coming up later this year. One features his September Trio, with Ellery Eskelin and Angelica Sanchez (due in May from Clean Feed) –

The other is a new quartet, Golden State, with Nicole Mitchell, Sara Schoenbeck, and Mark Dresser (Songlines, fall 2013) –

Our sincere thanks to Harris for pulling together this tremendous three-part post!


Interview – Part III (November 9, 2012)

Harris Eisenstadt: Can we talk about Vietnam? You went to the cat (at the draft office) and you were like “you don’t want me to go,” right?

Barry Altschul: This was before Vietnam. I’m older. I’m not a baby boomer. I was born in the beginning of 1943. So when I was drafted it was 1960 or 61. At that time you could still get out. You could still get a 4F (laughs) if you were creative.

Instead of the military band or whatever.

A few years later as long as you could shoot you were going. So yeah, I didn’t go. Neither did a whole bunch of people from my generation. And the truth at that time is just like the political truth of today. Now if you can’t depend on the white male to put you in office than you might as well not deal with that demographic because its old-fashioned and nobody’s into it anymore. If you don’t deal with white people being a minority, now you have to deal with the blacks, the Asians, the Latinos, the Native Americans. They’re here, like it or not. At the same time back in the day with the ignorance about being hip, they thought you were crazy, so when you said you took drugs or you were very sexually active or you locked yourself in a room and practiced and banged a drum for 10 hours a day; I didn’t explain that I was practicing. I just said it that way. And of course my cousin who’s a shrink told me a couple mannerisms to project every now and then, and they gave me a deferment. They did ask me. It wasn’t like I was arrogant or messed up. They said if I ever want to try again they could put me in therapy so I said, “No thank you, I’m actually starting a career it seems.” You know I was already 18.

What if you had gone into the service?

I would have either tried to get in to the band or what would have happened to me happened to all those cats: Billy Bang, Frank Lowe, Michael Carvin, Butch Morris, they got sent to Vietnam. All that shit is from Vietnam. They even admitted it; Billy Bang got cancer from Agent Orange. So what would have happened? I would either have been dead or crippled or fucked up mentally.

You think you would have got into the band?

Oh sure, I mean if they needed someone, if there was an opportunity. And they would have gotten my reading skills together more than they were at the time. I was in rehearsal big bands as a kid, so yeah I would have, I certainly would have. I did put that down on the application. I asked for a shrink, which they have to send you to immediately before a physical. And that was a draft then, it wasn’t volunteer.

To switch gears, I wanted to ask about Paul Bley and his use of electronics and how you interacted with them…

Well, first I got a bunch of contact mics.

Paul Bley
Paul Bley & Scorpio
Milestone : 1973

Paul Bley, keyboards; Dave Holland, bass; Barry Altschul, drums. 

 Had you seen a bunch of other percussionists do that?

Not really, no. He had the moog synth so we were experimenting. The thing I got from Europe, and it wasn’t from Tony (Oxley).  I wasn’t influenced a lick by Tony…

You’ve mentioned Mani Neuimeier (of Krautrock band Guru Guru).

He’s the one… he’s the only one.

Mani Neuimeier with Guru Guru, Der LSD Marsch (1970 rehearsal)

Not (John) Stevens?

No, the only cat who influenced me from that point of view was Mani and that was only because of the way he used a couple instruments; blowing into air hoses to change the pitch and stuff, but otherwise no. I stopped being influenced after Elvin Jones. Including contemporary classical percussion.

When did you first hear Elvin?

When he was with J. J. Johnson. At Birdland, on records, opposite him in Montreal once when he was with J. J.

In the 50s?


You talk about Paul Motian as being an extension of Elvin right?

Well, for me when I heard Paul, I could compare it to like Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz. There was Elvin, than there was Paul.

As in concurrent?

No, actually I felt Paul was able to leave time and make more sense whereas I never really heard Elvin leave time. I heard him superimpose time.

Did you hear his trio with Cecil and Dewey?

No, how is it?

Amazing! But even like on those later Coltrane records….

Yeah, I feel like he kind of superimposed time. I actually took Paul’s place in the Bley band so I was kind of listening, but I didn’t listen to Paul as an influence how to play or how to approach Paul Bley’s music. I just heard it as something different. They played “Oleo” that had no time but it was still “Oleo.” And then I sat in once with them and they called “Oleo” and I tried to play time through it and it just didn’t work.

Did Louis Moholo influence you?

No, no no. As a matter of fact, Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille and me from the New York scene, then there was Steve McCall, also Oliver Johnson out on the West coast. We were the first line cats.

What about Muhammad Ali?

Well, and Rashied (Ali), of course. Muhammad had much less of a career. But Rashied, definitely. We were the first line cats and that’s who everyone listened to for the free shit.

Han Bennink?

When I met Han Bennink he was playing with Wes Montgomery. I borrowed his drumset for the Bley album Blood. That’s his Gretsch set. He was a bebopper at the time. We were playing free first. Period.

Misha Mengelberg?

Misha was inside still, just like Schlippenbach, Wolfgang Dauner. I played with all those cats. We were the first line. We broke the time barrier, let’s say. So anybody who was playing free sounded like us first.

Does that mean Motian was first? Does it matter?

Who was the first to play “free” free? Sunny Murray, probably.

It’s interesting to contextualize it with the Europeans. It’s a chicken and egg question, really. Doesn’t matter, I guess.

Me listening to Moholo, I didn’t listen to him as a free drummer. It was like show me that kwela shit. And of course his approach to playing free had a lot of that in it, just like his approach to playing time. Another great drummer like that is Baby Sommer who I’ve known since the 1960s. Before they knew who to listen to for free music they weren’t playing free: Eje Thelin too, one of the first great free trombonists from Sweden. A motherfucker.

So with Paul, you mentioned the contact mics with the electronics.

Whatever it was, because of Mani (Neuimaier) and doing all this electronic stuff, I heard how I can get a lot of those sounds acoustically and felt first of all much more in tune with acoustic then having to learn all these electronics and at the time it was so bulky carrying around all that equipment. So I put contact mics and plugged them into the moog and diff patch-chords and that kind of stuff, then I said fuck that and started to collect percussion instruments.

Were there many performances with the trio with Paul with using electronics? A lot of tours where he used them heavily?


And did you work with electronics with anybody else?

Not like that. In dance companies and stuff. There were a couple things with Elliot Sharp, a couple other things, but not really, no.

What about your influences as part of the first generation of American free drummers. Did you take in new music influences as far as sound sources? Did John Cage and Lou Harrison do much for you?

No, not at all. (Anthony) Braxton would come up to me and say, “you should use more little instruments.” He didn’t say “like this or like that.” At one point John Cage came up to me and said “wow, what you guys did in three minutes it takes me nine months to write.”

It’s a thing, man. I was watching this beautiful little Boosey Hawkes Elliot Carter video they made a couple years ago and there’s pictures in his studio with beautiful scores.

Yeah man, Cage and those guys, they couldn’t do it. We talked about it. He couldn’t improvise like that. He had to sit down and figure each thing out, and improvising wasn’t part of the thing for him. And the same thing with all of them; Stockhausen improvised a little more. His son, ok, but still, then who? All these lush composers, Penderzcki…

Did you meet Takemitsu?

I don’t think so… man, have you looked at the liner notes that (Bill) Shoemaker wrote for my new record? (He hands them to me.) Man, this cat looks at my career like I never did: as a composer.

Like we were talking about last time.

Yeah, but I never considered myself that, you know, though I’ve always fantasized. When I was a kid I used to sit at the piano with orchestrations and symphonies going through my head, but I never really started writing.

Switching gears again, I wanted to ask about the beginning of the Creative Music Studio. This probably overlaps with Ornette?

Well, Ornette had Artist House and Creative Music Studio up in Woodstock. What about it?

What was your involvement?

As a teacher.

Did you go up with Circle?

No, I went up there as me, for a couple days at a time here and there.

Did you live upstate that time? Or at anytime?

I spent a lot of time just before the Woodstock festival. I was up there with people I knew. I used to stay at their house. I’ve been going up to the mountains ever since I was born.

How did it come around that you and Hendrix hooked up?

The Aboriginal Music Society, Juma Sultan. It was an African percussion ensemble plus guests, like Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers, Earl Cross (a trumpet player). Juma Sultan was a bass player and conga player. He’s the only one who went with Jimi. Jimi wanted the whole group to go and nobody wanted to.

What was your interaction like?

Jimi was great, but I didn’t get it. I was behind the time. I mean, I loved him as a blues player. At that time we actually encouraged him, it was the AMS that got him into feedback but before that it was like, you know, an upside down guitar player to me and I didn’t get it. I was a very idealistic jazz head. And he wasn’t jazz to me so that was that. Jimi and Chick asked me the same week to join their band. At first it wasn’t the direction that bothered me, because I know a lot of shit that Jimi liked was the African and Latin stuff I was playing with the conga players. That part was cool, but I called Paul Bley and I told him the situation and he said “you’ve been studying to be a jazz musician your whole life” and he hung up the phone.

Were you still working with Paul?

Yes, but he started using other cats I started talking other gigs. I told him. He hung up, and I went with Chick.

So when Chick called were you like, “I gotta get back to you.”

Chick called to get together with Dave at his apartment. They called me because of how I played with Bley.

You know, session culture is so ubiquitous, but it’s so hard to judge what it felt like. Why does one session turn into a really important group and another does not?

Chemistry I guess. I don’t remember.  Look, since we’re talking about this, there ‘s a new category… I told you that they archived a lot of my stuff at Columbia, right? I want to show you something. There’s a new category; it’s called session-ology. It’s like people you played with but there’s no record of it. Or stuff that was done in the house that is not…

Officially released.

So I wanted to figure this out, and it’s not complete. (Barry shows me a densely packed binder with columns of names written under each instrument.) These are the people I’ve played with in my lifetime. And I haven’t put anything in for the last ten years, maybe more. All right, I sat in with all these pianists, all these trumpet players, all these trombone players, saxophone players, singers, tenor saxophone, soprano, reed players, alto players. Now do you think I remember how each felt? I can tell you how Major Holley felt, like you’re on a cushion being propelled along. Here’s all the bass players, tuba players, bass players you never heard of.

(Barry flips to pages of guitar players.)

There’s Buddy Guy.

I recorded with him. Hold that Plane or something, I think it’s called. Anyways these are all the people. There’s a lot of people, but the thing with Chick and Dave, of course it felt great. We became a band. Improvising open was very easy. Everything felt compositional. The improvisations just naturally felt compositional. We did work on the drum sound together, so everything could be clear and heard and the drum stuff wouldn’t ring into someone else’s sound. And Chick being the drummer that he is, we talked a lot about that.

You guys ever play as a trio after Circle started?

Yeah, (the record) A.R.C.

Chick Corea
ECM : 1971

Chick Corea, piano; Dave Holland, bass; Barry Altschul, drums.

It’s so interesting when you have a tight knit thing and you add to it.

Actually I felt it was little too early for that. I would have liked another year with the trio and then have Braxton come in. Then it would have been far out. I would have liked to explore the trio a little bit more, but it was fine.

What about the reception to the trio versus Circle from the perspective of the audience? Agents? Critics?

Night and day. The trio was fine and the quartet got a lot of static. A lot.

And did that matter… how did it matter?

It mattered in a lot of ways and eventually the group broke up. There were times when club owners were willing to pay us not to play. There were a number of times we went to the Musicians Union to make sure we were going to get our money.

Because it was too far out?

Yeah. It was too far out because of Braxton. Because without the saxophone they would have accepted the trio playing the same shit but the three of us were coming from a jazz swing place where Braxton was tying to get away from it. He originally came from that, but by that time he was so far away from it and wanting to go further… eventually one of the reasons I felt the band [ended] was because he told me I was starting to swing too much… when I left Braxton’s band. But you know some of his lines, his in-time bebop lines, they’re motherfuckers. We once did a sound check that was fabulous, man, for the Newport Jazz Festival at Lincoln Center. We did a sound check in the afternoon, me, Dave Holland, Muhal, George Lewis and Braxton. Great band, man.

Almost your record, You Can’t Name Your Own Tune, except Braxton.

This was Braxton’s gig. We played those Braxton bebop lines for the afternoon sound check. We had Sonny Rollins and Freddie Hubbard coming out of the dressing rooms, listening in the wings and we smoked ‘em. This is Braxton, within the context of the Newport Jazz Festival. You know, but at night he comes out and gives me 50 pages of written music to sight read and the same to everybody in the band. I was the worst sight-reader out of all of them, but still, that was the performance. He sabotaged his own gig, man.

From his perspective he brings his own music, though.

It was the Newport Jazz Fest, man. He had the material, he had the talent, he had the band, he had everything he could have wanted and still play his music, his compositions, nothing that was so outlandish that he felt he was prostituting himself or anything like that. Shit, it was music that we played on the gigs, but instead of doing that he went the other way. Maybe he didn’t want to be known as a jazz person and that was one of the ways to do it. But it also reflected on us, too. We were all looking on each other, “What the fuck is this shit?” It was a surprise to everybody. Nobody knew about this. Everybody was up and happy but man the end of gig we were depressed (laughs). It was terrible. That kind of thing needed a month of rehearsal.

That was when… 76? The quartet was working and he added Muhal?


Anthony Braxton
Quartet (Dortmund) 1976
hat ART : 1991

Anthony Braxton, reeds; George Lewis, trombone; Dave Holland, bass; Barry Altschul, drums.

Yeah, we were working for a long time, with Kenny Wheeler first, this was a couple years later. Muhal was like the fifth member every now and then. There are some tapes with Muhal but with T-bird, not with me, Thurman Barker.

His time feel is so unique.

He’s a great percussionist… plays good vibes.

On that sessionography list, by the way, I take it John McLaughlin is there?

Yeah we played in England, and every now and then when I was in Europe when he recorded with Stu Martin and Karl Berger. Me and Stu were switching.

The record Where Fortune Smiles.

Yeah right, Stu was the drummer and sometimes I’d sub for him or he’d sub for me.

You said you lived in Germany a bit?

Yeah, Berlin mainly. But then also there was a bunch of cats from the East; Baby Sommer was the oldest. (Peter) Kowald was from Wuppertal, the Bauer brothers (Connie and Johannes), and the guitar player – motherfucker, plays like a table type of guitar type, can’t remember his name, Ernest Beyer, the saxophone player, one of the older free guys.

How about Gerd Dudek?

He’s from Cologne. We’re old friends.

What about that period of playing the mallets? Did you play mallets in the 60s too?

I played piano so I played mallets. I used to carry around that 2.5 octave marimba. I used to carry a lot of percussion and that was part of it; also a balafon. There must be some tapes in Europe floating around. I hadn’t recorded with them – well actually Circle offshoot records, one from Japan and one from Germany, Circulus; 3 or 4 albums. All before the yellow albums, I think I played bass marimba on one of them, so there’s a couple, not much.


Blue Note : 1978 (rec. 1970)

Chick Corea, piano; Anthony Braxton, reeds; Dave Holland, bass; Barry Altshcul, drums.

Where did you start playing marimba with others? With Bley?

No, I don’t think I played mallets with Paul. I never looked at it like mallets. It was just part of the thing.  I can play some mallets… I’m a great free improviser, but reading and playing changes is something else. I have great tapes with me and Phillip Wilson and Peter Warren; Phillip on drums, Peter bass and me on marimbas. Really hip, really nice. A lot of it could be called bebop style but not on changes, just phrasing-wise and time-wise, and then free and open.

Any vibraphone playing?

I didn’t have a set. Sometimes I played on Karl Berger’s. Look, however anybody analyzes my shit and looks at my shit all I consider myself is a jazz drummer. I really do. I don’t like the term “jazz” but it does describe American improvised music. It connotes a certain thing, and this what I am. I don’t consider myself some new music person or a contemporary classical or textural improviser, none of that. If I get textural that’s what I hear at the moment as a jazz player. Not, “Oh, I come out of Varese. “

You mentioned in an interview something about younger cats who are sounding not like themselves… what about younger cats who sound like themselves… who are they?

I don’t know who all the younger cats are. I don’t know too many really. I mean you know, a young cat to me who sounds like himself is Dave Douglas, so…

How about younger drummers?

I like Marcus (Gilmore), Ari Hoeing, E.J. Strickland. I also like Nasheet (Waits). Tyshawn (Sorey), (Gerald) Cleaver.

In what contexts do you usually hear other players… out on the road?

Yeah, or sometimes a record or something, too. I’d rather see someone live.

Do you have private students these days?

No, I should get back into it, though. I mean, I have them on the road, but not at home. I just did a tour of universities where I had a lot of private students. I like that. I’d start early in the morning until we left town. That’s part of passing it on; it’s what you do.

Switching gears again, did you hear Monk with Blackwell, that trio with Wilbur Ware?

No, I heard Monk with Frankie Dunlop, with Roy Haynes, with Ben Riley, with Philly Joe, with Tootie – Monk’s son (T.S. Monk), not Tootie Heath – and with Blakey.

With Monk in the early 70s … you didn’t see him out on the road… as in Monk’s last few years?

I saw Monk here in New York. I actually hung out with him a little bit. I was friends with Elmo Hope and he lived in the same building as Monk’s brother or cousin so Monk was there a lot. Frankie Butler used to come into town a lot; he was playing with Elmo Hope and Tina Brooks.

Did you hang much with Mingus?

Not much. I was real friendly with Dannie, and a bunch of guys in Mingus’ bands. Mingus knew me from Bley ‘cause Bley used to play with him, and with Jaki Byard.  One of my first gigs was with Tony Scott’s band with Jaki and Richard Davis. It was in New York just around when I went with Bley.

Can you talk about some stuff coming up?

I’m going to Argentina, then out with Jon Irabagon and Helias a couple of times, then with Jon and Joe Fonda a couple of times, then the trio record with Irabagon and Fonda comes out in February, then working with a French group in France, Francois Micheli plays bass and Jean-Luc Fillon plays woodwinds, then Roulette January 8 – my 70th birthday concert. It will be two trios and a little jam session with other musicians who are there, a birthday thing that will be used as a record release party the first set, and then after that we’ll see what happens.

Category Barry Altschul, guest posts, Harris Eisenstadt