Interview by Dan Warburton Paris, November 6th 2011
Swiss tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler has been based in Paris since the mid-1990s, forging links with the city's improvised music community, firstly with percussionist Christophe Marguet and guitarist Hasse Poulsen in 49° Nord, then as part of Frederick Galiay's Chamaeleo Vulgaris collective, with, amongst others, guitarist Jean-Sébastien Mariage, with whom he has also performed frequently as a duo. Together, they also constitute two fifths of Hubbub, an improvising quintet with pianist Frédéric Blondy, saxophonist Jean-Luc Guionnet and percussionist Edward Perraud. Together for over a decade now, Hubbub have released four albums, three of them on Eddie Prévost's Matchless imprint.
Equally at home discussing the music as he is playing it, in 2003 Denzler and Guionnet embarked on an ambitious series of interviews with improvisers, Expéditions, extracts of which were published in Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum (2006, edited by Brian Marley and Mark Wastell, Sound 323) under the title "Out In The Field". Building more bridges between Paris, London and Berlin, Trio Sowari, with Phil Durrant (laptop) and Burkhard Beins (percussion), was convened in 2004, and their two albums to date, Three Dances (2005) and Shortcut (2008) have appeared on the bijou French improv label Potlatch, which also released Denzler's debut solo album, Tenor, at the end of last year. Our conversation took place in Denzler's Montparnasse apartment.
I was doing my homework and listening to some of your earlier albums – Y? (Leo, 1999, with Benoît Delbecq, Hélène Labarrière and Norbert Pfammatter), Ouverture Facile (Leo, 1999, with Chamaeleo Vulgaris), Tentacles (Av-Art, recorded in 2000, released 2003, with 49° Nord) – and wondered if you did the same from time to time.
It's quite rare that I do that, because I have the impression that I don't need to listen to them in order to remember them. I listened to them so much when I was putting them together in the first place. There are some recordings, recent ones as well as old ones, that I don't like any more, or like less. It's not a question of style or genre. Maybe I don't like my music enough.
What kind of music did you grow up with, and how did you get into free jazz and improvisation?
Aha, I was expecting that question. If there is anything important in all that for me today, it's having discovered, at a particular time, something different from the European classical music I grew up with and studied as a child. Popular music in all its forms. Before I discovered jazz, I played in rock groups. I sang and played guitar, and even played flute and oboe – but they were a bit difficult to amplify.. it was kind of dangerous for my health! Black American music came later. I got into that via the blues. The big shock for me was B.B. King, and a John Lee Hooker concert I went to, which really pushed me in another direction from traditional European classical music. At the time it was more blues and jazz. I didn't feel any great separation between different styles of music. It was more a way of making music that interested me. I still feel the same way.
I'm very fond of that Sam Rivers quote, "I listened to everybody I could hear to make sure I didn't sound like them." I can still hear Lacy and Steve Coleman in Jean-Luc Guionnet's more "free jazz" playing, but I've always had a hard time trying to figure out who your particular saxophone heroes were.
There were several, in fact. It's hard to answer the question, actually, because I suddenly found myself in a kind of immense territory. When I got into that music I really listened to nothing else for years, every day. It all arrived at once, and I sort of proceeded in reverse chronological order: from contemporary blues to Miles Davis, Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society, James Blood Ulmer, Ornette Coleman's Prime Time and what we call free funk. I discovered one musician and set about finding out who he'd played with before, and so on. For example I discovered Ornette's group with Jamaladeen Tacuma and then, while looking for discs of that band I found his quartet with Don Cherry. Through that I discovered Charlie Haden, who at the time was recording with Egberto Gismonti on ECM, and that led to Jan Garbarek, whose sound reminded me of Coltrane, and so on. The chronology was pretty screwed up. I exchanged lots of discs with musician friends who had enormous record collections and we spent entire days just listening and playing. There were some records, or particular tracks, that I played over and again – and still do today. The one I remember very well was on Albert Ayler's Free Jazz [usually known as My Name Is Albert Ayler, Debut, 1964 - DW], with the Danish musicians. They play straight and he plays Ayler (laughs) – and there's a version of "Summertime" that I must have listened to a thousand times, which totally blew me away.
Being in German-speaking Switzerland, were you fed a steady diet of FMP style improv?
No, it was more the Swiss musicians of the period – Hans Koch, Fredy Studer, Urs Leimgruber, Werner Lüdi, Pierre Favre and Irène Schweizer all played quite often in Zürich at the time. The first time I heard the Irène Schweizer / Pierre Favre duo I was absolutely fascinated by the way they made music. I'd never heard anything like it before. They also invited plenty of German, English and American musicians. I suppose that music was more in the free jazz vein, from Ayler to Coleman to Pharoah Sanders.
When was your own debut as a saxophonist playing this kind of music?
Mid 1980s, I think. But I used play all styles of "jazz" at the same time – I carried on playing the blues, and we put various free funk groups together. There was more or less a regular line-up, but we all played in each other's groups.
You've been in Paris for over 15 years, but do you still consider yourself Swiss as a musician?
That's the second question I was waiting for! I don't really care, to be honest, I don't think about it much. But if you want to take a historical approach, yes, when I started making music like this in Switzerland, there were certain things that marked me there from a cultural, organisational and functional point of view – which in Suisse Allemande is closer to the German than the French way of thinking. But over and above that, I'm not really interested in drawing boundary lines. I play with musicians from all over.
The first musicians I met here in Paris were Benoît Delbecq, Christophe Marguet, Hasse Poulsen and then, soon after Fred Blondy, Jean-Sébastien Mariage, Fred Galiay and Gilbert Roggi. You can see that already stylistically I was going in all directions. I was interested in everything. The most important place for me when I moved here was Les Instants Chavirés [in Montreuil]. At the time I was still making plenty of frequent trips back and forth to Switzerland, and in Zürich there were plenty of concerts of European free jazz and free improvisation (if you want to make the distinction between them), but after a while I felt the local scene was running out of steam a bit. Whereas at the Instants I found more to listen to and saw many people who I'd only heard on disc. I used to go there a lot.
I suppose like me you're busily reading Burkhard Beins' [in fact Beins is one of four editors, with Andrea Neumann, Gisela Nauck and Christian Kesten – DW] book Echtzeitmusik, on the scene in Berlin. I've never had the impression there was a scene in Paris, other than a few places where people can actually get together and play.
I was discussing this the other day with [Potlatch label manager] Jacques Oger, who was saying the same thing. In fact, the scenes are not the same – put that down to differences between German and French culture, which function in different ways – but it doesn't particularly bother me. I understand that musicians want to belong to a certain community, geographically and socially – and the music we're talking about essentially originates in communities like that – but as far as I'm concerned the Parisian scene is just the people who happen to be in Paris at a particular time. All the musicians I've met, talked to, had dinner with, seen in concert and played with here form part of a Parisian scene. It's neither homogeneous nor lasting, but it's lively.
For me, Hubbub is a Parisian group, even in the music. It couldn't have come from anywhere else other than here, from these musicians who met here at that particular time. Maybe the Parisian scene isn't as strong as the Berlin scene in terms of discs, recorded output, and it's certainly less significant for music historians, but then again I wonder whether music history is as important as all that. To me, music is more important than music history. If I listened to all the discs mentioned in Echtzeitmusik, would I be able to find more that interests me than if I listened to all the records produced by the musicians working here? They're certainly different scenes, but one thing I like about this chaotic Parisian scene is that you encounter people of very different orientations and have to constantly question your way of working. There's no sense of being aesthetically comfortable in Paris.
Hubbub: L to R - Frédéric Blondy, Jean-Luc Guionnet, Jean-Sébastien Mariage, Denzler, Edward Perraud
When did Hubbub first convene?
Our first rehearsal was in 1999. I think everybody has a different version of what happened that day in Hubbub history, but for what it's worth mine is this – we knew each other by pairs, as it were: I played in a duo with Fred a little, and I already had a duo with Jean-Sé, Jean-Luc played with Fred, and also had a longstanding duo, Calx, with Edward, and so on.. So one day we decided to all get together. The way I remember it was, we rehearsed for about an hour in a rehearsal studio, and afterwards we all sat around and nobody said a word. We were all pretty unhappy, as it turned out (laughs) – we all thought what we'd done was rubbish, that the quintet idea didn't work. I think it was Fred who suggested we try a second time, and from then on things worked out better.
Where was this rehearsal?
At Avant Scène studios, in Montreuil.
No bloody wonder you were depressed – that's about the most depressing place I know (laughs).
Eventually it started coming together, but we didn't have any clear idea of where we were going, and no idea that it would end up lasting as long as it did. But pretty soon we thought we'd better come up with a name for the group, and I think it was Edward who suggested Hubbub. It seemed quite appropriate at the time. Shortly after that we recorded the first album, but even then we weren't overenthusiastic about everything we recorded. I think the group really came together after the first disc.
Was there always a lot of discussion in Hubbub, before and after concerts, about the music and how you each saw it evolving? In my review of your last album, I compared you to AMM, in the sense that there's a real group sound that's uniquely Hubbub. I was wondering whether that just happened, or was it discussed in advance – like, we'll do this but not that.
With Hubbub we rehearsed and recorded together before we ever played in public. I think there was a realisation that with five people things wouldn't be easy. After all, the majority of encounters in improvised music are duos and trios, maybe quartets. I think there was a certain apprehension about playing as a quintet. So from the very first rehearsal we started discussing what we were doing, and more importantly what we didn't want to do. There's always been an open exchange of views within the group, even if we try to avoid upsetting each other – when you tell a musician you don't like what he's doing, it can hurt.
From that first Hubbub album onwards, your own playing moved more towards what used to be called "reductionism".. or maybe we should call it "the mature Denzler style" (laughs) – was that a conscious decision on your part, a desire to turn your back on your earlier music, Radu Malfatti-style?
No, I seriously believe I don't think like that. I don't think in terms of style, but in terms of culture, environment. I understand what you're saying, from your position outside the music, as a music historian, if you like – like in 1998 he played like this but in 2005 he played like this – but I've always felt what I play like depends on who the people I'm playing with are. As I said before, I feel I'm in a vast territory and there are many areas which I want to explore. What does my music have to do with that of composers in the 19th century who lived and worked in the same place? Not a lot. I often feel much closer to someone who lived 2000 years ago, or who lives 2000 miles away.
And yet, around the turn of the century, many musicians began playing in a particular way – reductionist, lowercase, onkyo, minimal, call it what you will. Why was that, do you think? Was it due to developments in technology, computer networking, email, downloading?
Yes, these days we're permeable, open to the influence of what's happening in music all over the world. That probably started about that time. Suddenly I had access to recordings from Berlin, London, Tokyo, Boston, and in the space of a few months I discovered – via discs and concerts, like the Phosphor residency at the Instants Chavirés in 2002 – things that really moved me. I felt close to that. I'm certainly not a pioneer of that kind of music, but I felt drawn to it very quickly, and soon met people who were involved in that scene, like Phil Durrant.
When was that?
I think the first time I saw him was at Musique Action in Vandoeuvre in 2000, when he was still playing violin. I don't remember who he was playing with. We talked a little, and I was very impressed by his music, and by how he was on stage, his personality. Trio Sowari came together later – I remember Phil saw Hubbub at Densités in 2003, and stopped off in Paris a couple of times after that. We rehearsed together, at Avant Scène – he was on laptop, no more violin – and we were quite happy with the result. It was Phil who suggested a trio with Burkhard [Beins], who I'd already met in Berlin (we'd also rehearsed as a duo), and I immediately felt it was a good idea. We played our first concerts together as a trio at the end of 2004, three in a row and then recorded the first album right afterwards, in the same week. The disc came out in 2005.
Trio Sowari: L to R - Phil Durrant, Burkhard Beins, Denzler
In his piece in Echtzeitmusik Burkhard mentions how the three of you came up with your "27 Questions For A Start" while touring in 2007. The questions you came up with were circulated on the internet and also published in Revue et Corrigée. Have you been able to find answers to them yourself?
Well, I'm still trying to find out! I think the idea of formulating questions came about because with both Hubbub and Trio Sowari we've recorded a lot. There are quite a few tapes to listen to, and listening to recordings with hindsight becomes a kind of working process, trying to understand what works and what doesn't. And why. It's difficult to put into words, but the most precise way I can describe it is.. at some point in the music there's something that draws me into a sound space where I start thinking with the musicians. I start following the collective musical thought that is forming. I really visualise it, like a kind of space, where people are living and working, and I can follow and understand what they're doing. That's the way I feel about all music, whatever the style. It seems to me there are two ways to listen to music: either you stay outside it, which allows you to describe it, analyse it, love or hate it, or you're grabbed [happé] by this sound space and begin to think with it.
Don't you think that as our decisions as to what works and what don't boil down to traditional aesthetic questions of balance, proportion, elegance?
Sure, but some music grabs you – for whatever reason, good or bad, maybe something quite unrelated to music – and when it does, you don't ask such questions. You're inside it. Whereas in composed music when you listen with that écoute extérieure, there's always something else to refer to – the score, or the concept or whatever it is. In improvisation if you don't get inside what the music is doing, there's not much left. So improvisation makes demands [exigences] on performers: there has to be something sufficiently "magical" for at least one person in the room to get inside. And there's no tried and trusted recipe for achieving that.
When I listen to Taku Unami, for example, whatever he does, no matter how absurd it seems, I always have the impression that he's completely into what he's doing: he has that exigence énorme – he's walking on a tightrope, and if he makes the slightest mistake he's going to die. That's the impression I have – maybe he doesn't think that way – sometimes I'm extremely tense when I listen to his music. And fascinated. There's a sort of mental force in his way of making music specific to the moment he's on stage. It's a question of discipline, a mental state. Hyper-concentration.
L to R - Jean-Luc Guionnet, Seijiro Murayama, Denzler, Taku Unami
When you play yourself are you inside, "in the moment" as they used to say, or not?
I have the impression I try to do everything at once, i.e. be in a state of hyper-concentration, permanent listening, but at the same time with a kind of exterior vision of the form that is taking shape. I'm both inside and outside the music. That's the feeling I have. Sometimes it doesn't work – I'm either inside or outside – and sometimes that works too.
That reminds me of the first gig I played with Frédéric Blondy and Martine Altenburger in 1999. Afterwards Thierry Madiot came up to me and said: "Fred and Martine were improvising, but you were composing!" (laughs)
There are as many ways of looking at it as there are musicians, which is what Jean-Luc and I found out when we started interviewing. Some musicians say, "I'm only in the moment, I can't remember what's just happened and it's impossible to imagine what's going to happen" and others say "it's impossible not to think about what's happened and what's going to happen, or not to want something to happen." That's why I say I do both at the same time. But I don't know, it's very difficult to analyse what you're doing yourself.
You mentioned the Expéditions project with Jean-Luc Guionnet there. How did that come about?
Because we had endless discussions ourselves about the music, the idea of improvisation, etc., while we were working together in Hubbub and in the saxophone quartet with Stéphane Rives and Marc Baron. We saw each other a lot. And we were each arguing our corner, saying "well so-and-so does this or thinks that", trying to prove our points, our hypotheses, until eventually we said, "well why don't we ask him if that's what he really does or really thinks.
It was quite a while ago – we started back in 2003 – and the range of questions was vast. Like, what do you think about when you play? How do you listen? Why do you make this music? How did you get into it in the first place? What was amusing was that some people said exactly what we expected they'd say, and other people's replies completely threw us. There are so many different points of view on improvisation, on playing, on listening, on the question of form, on all these subjects. You end up with a kind of global view of improvisation and improvisers. We took several extracts from the interviews we'd made and they appeared in [co-editor] Mark Wastell's book [Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum] along with some charts we drew up to try and visualise the procedure. Some also came out in Revue et Corrigée [#88, June 2011]. The project is still going on: we do one or two new interviews each year. We must have about 50 of them by now. Our goal is to transcribe them all and publish representative extracts in a book or something, one day. Though I can't imagine when we're going to get round to doing it.
How did Hubbub end up on Matchless? It seems you've been adopted as honorary Englishmen, with appearances at Freedom of the City and the like..
I was looking round for labels to send the second album to, and someone – I can't remember who – said it would appeal to Eddie [Prévost], as there was some AMM in there. We'd already had that reaction, as it turned out – people often mentioned AMM when they talked about Hubbub, though we weren't conscious of that link (which I don't refute at all: I'm very honoured when Hubbub is mentioned in the same breath as AMM!) – so I sent the disc to Eddie, because it seemed like a good idea. He put it out in 2003 and invited us to play at Freedom Of The City, where we met many great local musicians: Seymour Wright, Sebastian Lexer, Ross Lambert, John Lely, Jamie Coleman, and Mattin. So when [the third disc] Hoib was ready – which wasn't long after the second one – we thought immediately of Matchless. And Eddie has been very supportive of us all since then.
I've always found it amusing that Hubbub, which I consider to be a quintessentially French – Parisian, even, as you say – group has released three of its four studio albums on an English label, while Phosphor, which is Berlin echtzeitmusik's supergroup has released both its albums on Potlatch, a French label! Didn't [Potlatch label manager] Jacques Oger express an interest in Hubbub back then?
I didn't know Jacques very well at the time, I think. But as I said earlier, nationality doesn't mean much to me. And I've released enough stuff on Potlatch since, which is great as I really appreciate Jacques' work.
Including, most recently the solo album, Tenor. Your first.
Yes, but I've been recording myself playing solo for a while, actually. Until now I've always thought that releasing albums was something of a necessity – I listened and said, wow that's good, we should release that – but in all honesty that wasn't the case with the solo album. I just wanted a document of a moment of my way of playing solo. It was recorded a year and a half ago in a little rehearsal studio in the XVème arrondissement here in Paris. I recorded about four hours' worth of music, all in one day, from 10 to 6pm.
Playing solo is more complicated, which is why I haven't done much of it. It's much more difficult to have that hyper-concentration I mentioned when you're alone. Because there's nobody else and too much you. Listening to it it's like looking at yourself in a mirror. It's clear that I can't not plan ahead when playing solo – so effectively, in that first piece, I knew what I was going to do before I started, in the sense that I mapped out a territory in which I didn't know what was going to happen. Giving yourself constraints is not incompatible with the kind of listening you need to play improvised music. As long as there's that special listening, you can introduce rules and plan things in advance – I don't see it as a difference between composition and improvisation as such, but rather a difference between the two kinds of listening we discussed earlier. Great classical performers can reach the same state of hyper-concentration, and you feel they're inventing the piece there and then.
I know that you have a huge archive of unreleased Hubbub recordings. How do you go about choosing what to release? Is it a unanimous decision on the part of all five of you, or do have a kind of qualified majority voting system like the Council of Europe?
(Laughs) For [the double album] Whobub, we all agreed on what should go on the first disc, which was live. For the second disc, which is a studio recording from Poitiers, we proceeded by elimination: we each listened to the sessions and crossed out the pieces we didn't like and ended up releasing the two pieces which were on everyone's list. But it's a long process. We've recorded almost every concert, and there's ten times as much music from the Hoib sessions as what actually appeared on the album. Five times as much for the last disc. We listen to it individually, together, remix it, edit it.. it's a big operation.
What's the latest news with Hubbub?
We tend to meet up for concerts and recordings. That's not a problem. It's as if Hubbub is a separate person. It's happened a number of times that we've been waiting for a train or something all together and we say, wait a minute someone's missing – but in fact we're all there. I suspect the missing person is Hubbub!
And the saxophone quartet, with Jean-Luc, Marc Baron and Stéphane Rives?
Well, that's over, because Marc's given up the saxophone, and announced his resignation from the group! So the quartet doesn't exist any more. Not that it was very easy anyway getting together with Stéphane [Rives] living in Beirut.
L to R - Stéphane Rives, Jean-Luc Guionnet, Marc Baron, Denzler
Marc, like Loïc Blairon, seems to be more into the conceptual side of it. What's your take on that? What do you make of Mattin's recent work with Jean-Luc, for example?
To be honest, I don't really know Mattin's work, other than the few things we've done together. I've rarely seen or heard him outside of that. But, yes, we've reached a point in the scene when people are looking for something else, even people who've been making this music since 1996. And I think that's fine, because at some stage in any culture things become settled, with all kinds of codes, rules, and unwritten laws, and what we set out to achieve – that intensity, that exigence I mentioned before – is no longer there. You do exactly the same thing as you did last time, but you're not living the same experience. So it's important that there are people around like Mattin to give the anthill a good kick from time to time.
Photography by Philippe de Jonckheere, Philippe Lenglet, Joaquim Mendes and Jean-Michel Monin. See also other interviews of related interest with Thomas Ankersmit, John Butcher, Mattin and Mark Wastell.