Roger Smith
Interview by email with Théo Jarrier
Summer 2003

 

At the Freedom Of The City Festival, 2002. Photograph by Gordon Humphrey

 

Where did the desire to play guitar come from?

Father pianist - jazz, classical and church. 78 record collection. Ellington, W[illie] the L[ion] Smith, Waller, Tatum, Basie. Toy guitar then R[ock]'n'Roll (radio and people around) and [Charlie] Christian, R[ein]har[d]t, [Freddie] Green etc., blues guitar, folk-US styles, classical [Julian]Bream, Seg[ovia], shortwave and longwave radio (French stations): Arabic, Persian, Indian, African stringed instruments esp[ecially] Horn of Af[rica]; early stuff on French Ocora label; could play quietly at night and neurotic mother. Easy to work out simple harmony yet "orchestral" instrument. Social instrument - groups - pop, ska, traditional jazz, soul, r&b, "challenge" of modern jazz and improvisation. Timbre like voices - infinite variation. Fingers like dance. Spanish [guitar] can approximate most other guitar sounds and other instruments. Desire continues because solo playing suits my character and circumstances and percussive element in particular may help me to get back into satisfactory group playing which hasn't occurred since John [Stevens] died. Sorry e-mails irregular and short; only allowed one hour a day in library and no Internet shop available.. have a lot of other business to sort out. Solitary communion anytime anywhere i.e. a very portable instrument so could learn a lot from big variety of people e.g. grammar school at age 11 jazz society 16 year old played Eddie Lang to very modern jazz Spanish guitar lending me O[rnette] Coleman, C[harles] Mingus J[ackie] Maclean LPs. School friends trying to work things out from big blues collections; had impromptu lesson from Rev. Gary Davis at Cambridge Folk Festival (as many did); [seeing Bert] Jansch, [John] Renbourne, Davey Graham at very close quarters in small clubs, jazz guitarists in similar settings mainly in London - hitch-hike from Nottingham at weekends. Continued fascination with tuning nylon strings. Very imperfect things and quality control varies immensely e.g. French Savarez interesting, ostensibly 'soft' but not really and vast differences up neck so the tuning has to be individual for each string and changes radically during its life. The timbre "beats" decay of played notes, harmonics, various attacks and mixtures of chords tonal and non-tonal keeps (and has consistently kept) me on the guitar for hours a day. Hedonism, I'm afraid.

How did you come to play the Spanish guitar?

Always problems with electrics in small and relatively isolated Derbyshire town. Ska, soul, blues and jazz playing were possible in Nottingham and Derby but equipment and transport was always too expensive to do the job properly. [There was a] good Spanish repairer in Ilkeston who would do hours of work to get action right and had great love for the instrument and taught me a lot of practical stuff. [It's] quiet enough to play at night and portable - would play in garden sheds and parks etc. when people objected. Portable instrument allowed odd emotional dialogue to develop very early; specific technique grew from this and became "heuristic"; able to move in at different levels of attachment/detachment; sometimes totally immersed, sometimes mind (rarely emotion) elsewhere. Very strict serialism allied to very loose ear created "addiction" and only in recent years has real freedom been attained. Unfashionable to say it but [the] guitar has been a kind of crutch through recent severe retina problems, divorce and death of parents. From this perspective and after the death of John Stevens there seems to be something missing in the London scene. The guitar takes on more and more relevance. The tactile nature of a traditional instrument, physical malleability is all that matters. Have two beautiful pianos and don't get satisfaction any more (after a lifetime of almost grovelling deference). Technique on the guitar is everything.

Did your studies with Derek Bailey define the interest you have for improvised music?

Interest in improvised music was before [my] studies with Derek. "Improvised Music" had a very specific meaning when used in reference to D[erek] B[ailey], J[ohn] Stevens etc. so [I] shall exclude "jazz" etc. as "improvised" which is a bit silly really but never mind. Had come across a lot well before early seventies; Derek lived just down the road in Islington so he was an obvious choice of teacher. I was lucky. Shortly after he would support himself from I.M. Loved I.M. very early and tried to play it in very undisciplined manner. I went to the Little Theatre Club (early SME and many more; festivals and venues around Europe and USA). DB brought the discipline into it - and much more. Saw I.M. as part of a general "arty" Brotzmanny "zeitgeist". Not any more, hasten to add. Musicianship much closer to artisanship in my opinion - again a strand that may be a part of the DB influence. However, it seems to be a music of the "time" and yet an embodiment of terrible loneliness. Not answering your question any more but this kind of stuff was in mind before DB.

Can you tell us about your meeting with John Stevens?

John ran a "workshop" (ghastly name) in Ealing near to where he lived. It was an afternoon in a College of Further Education. Trevor Watts attended regularly and there was an assortment of very fine young musicians, a number of whom became successful in other areas of music. I eventually got invited to gigs and for a while the "core" SME was John, Trevor and me. John also ran an evening "workshop" in the East End of London and musicians from both and loads of others played in different groupings at The Little Theatre Club in the West End. A typical Ealing session would begin with John testing out an idea or "piece" ("Search and Reflect" etc. - book reissue by Martin Davidson imminent) and end with improvising with loads of very informal banter along the way. I got to play with a wide variety of players and really got my "chops" playing at different venues around London and eventually elsewhere. Invaluable. I attended the Little Theatre Club as part of the audience for a long time and really got to know the early improvisers. There was a huge variety of players (of extremely variable quality in my opinion). Developed a critical faculty which has helped me a lot; my tastes broadened massively and was often quite stunned by some of the great playing. (Pity there's nothing like it today.) John invited me to play and I soon realised the work I had to do on my own playing (and "lifestyle" etc.) On one occasion nobody turned up to play except me.. and a coach party of jazz fans from the North East. That was my first solo. I could do a much better job today.

How did you become a part of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble?

I think John (and Trevor [Watts] at that time) liked the quietness of the Spanish guitar. John liked the busy-ness and detail. There seemed to be a mutual Webernesqueness to it all. This never really got recorded properly. Have to admit a mutual liking for drink and substances and a devil-may-care attitude allied to a sharp perception of contemporaries' musical careers being shaped. I was rather callow and John liked to help. In general I endorsed his opinions about other musicians and musics (e.g. I loved Philly Jo Jones). (I retain strong pro-John prejudices, miss him terribly and the mutually-held opinions about the harshness of this London set-up leave me somewhat bitter about John's demise - something of course he would condemn outright. I try.)

For you, does British improvisation have a specific identity?

Less pronounced nowadays but yes, it is distinguishable, I think. I think it's very "advanced". There are some fabulous players and [there's] huge variety. Sadly it is feudal. Like education and most social institutions in this country it produces very convincing spin and only superficial democracy (e.g. in recent weeks I've been unable to find a space to work with a visiting American and a poet I worked with recently). It is a hugely intolerant society that "strengthens the backs that aren't broken," as someone once said. It's unnecessary, an absurdity and the music reflects this parlous situation. Integrity still seems to exist in this backwater! Sorry I can't be more specific about this. At the moment things are difficult for dedicated instrumentalists. [The] London Musicians Collective gives no help any more and their priorities lie elsewhere. It's hellishly difficult playing other types of music but the problems faced in improvisation are insurmountable. I'm sure the pendulum will swing back but at the moment a rather old fashioned style is being played stubbornly. I think it's recognisably British - even London.

Which musicians have influenced you in terms of technique, aesthetics and musical conception?

Hard one, because so diverse. You already know some important names. Techniques - right hand thumb over neck ([I'm a] left-handed guitarist) is my own technique development but noted in other stringed instruments subsequently. Probably trying to play melodies and biggest chords possible on the guitar as on piano - so that would be my father. Aesthetics -perverse and obstinate deliberate anti "fashion network" aesthetic would be my old school friend John who gave me a good kicking reinforcement when I played with him this summer. I think this is a feature of true British improvised music incidentally (re previous question). It's perhaps an aesthetic that no longer exists. Musical conception, musicians' influences - nobody too much, I hope.. but I've listened to a lot even recently and it brings back so many "conceptions" that have influenced me, perhaps. I hardly believe in a mind of my own e.g. Vietnamese French Ocora stuff I'd totally forgotten. My father again; in my childhood and recently, struggling to play complicated pieces by ear; got tragic and funny when he was deaf, 90 and dying. Just too many for something this size.
All three points are covered by the fanatic (and ever ongoing) interest in late serialism. Very large intervals are a feature [of this] (and of the best be-bop?) and the 'thumb over the top' is essential. All the intervals using the whole neck, every aspect of percussion, rhythm and timbre can be related to improvisation. Derek B[ailey] wrote some nice serial pieces ([which have been] recorded), which I learned and have forgotten. Persichetti['s] theory originally, but this was very "kid's stuff".. More interested in drummers' rhythm exercises (David Soloman helped a lot - he was one of John's students for a bit) than [in] developing a rhythmic serialism; I keep trying mind you. So this aesthetic of including "everything" that very much tries to put all outside influences into a perspective governed by a subjective "technique" is perhaps a pathetic way to describe all this shit. Must get a drink. Do loads of them particularly with left hand fingers.. feel they're very important and to accommodate all that in a "serial" approach to rhythm in improvisation is too much for one life.

What interests you in improvising?

Hope you aren't instantly deleting all this stuff or dead or anything but the answer to this could be long and excruciatingly boring or short and too clever. Sorry. I really do "improvise" in the old fashioned sense for hours a day. It holds my interest and with the Spanish guitar is, in my opinion "all encompassing". I really can't conceive of doing much else musically.

What do you think of the guitar nowadays?

Like it more than the piano, which was number one for decades. Have bought a beautiful Tackemini recently.. the general standard of [the] instrument seems to have improved; it's difficult to judge because I'm left-handed and can't play them but the expensive Spanish guitars in the specialist shops seem to sound better and better. Maybe my ears are picking up different frequencies as I grow older. I love the guitar in other music and a good Spanish can mimic these sounds easily when played in improvisation style. As I mentioned previously I think it's a much healthier activity than plugging in. I'm having to get the playing into my fingers ("touch" playing) as much as possible for pressing medical reasons but this limitation of my natural style has thrown up fantastic new possibilities of playing quietly; thinking and moving at breakneck [speed] - and the amplification of this sound has great possibilities. Have a very old amp, which is fine with a band. The recent purchase has pick-up attached. Really quietens it down beautifully when not switched on.

Playing solo is something you cherish - your discography features many solo improvisations. Why is that?

By necessity. John [Stevens is] impossible to replace. He could understand the reason for humping stuff around London for no money, did so and because of a superhuman stubbornness paid the price. Don't listen to ANYONE on John. My part of London is dangerous. Awful getting back at night. My eyes demand a quiet form of playing. People can't accommodate [that]. Places to really play have disappeared. There is a uniform rituality and sad absence of "purpose". Repulsive hierarchies as young people in particular fall by the way when trying to play. Bit like the 'trad' jazz scene, really conditioned to the scene players (and often shit musicians) and liggers who get every bit of oxygen. Nevertheless it's a million times better to play with people and I find lots of little areas to do this. Love solo improvisation each day, however, and can slowly introduce new techniques, ideas and music in a relaxed, "organic" way.

How was the recording of "Green Wood" made?

Recorded in kitchen in London flat using DAT recorder loaned by Ian Vickers over a few days in the early hours. I was "up against it" with terrible impending personal tragedies and severe social and domestic problems. It really marks the end of trying to do too much for too long. I did my best and am very grateful to Martin Davidson for the help.

Although it is completely improvised, I have the impression of hearing a narrative structure within your playing, making its way throughout the piece. Do you have a guiding line when you improvise solo?

None at all, but maybe at times the player's/listener's ear seeks / imagines / creates / needs? / automatically produces some form of narrative structure however abstruse / abstract. I use "narrative" a lot but not with improvised music. [The] time has long gone when there was massive conscious effort to [get] rid [of it].

Playing a Spanish guitar, how conscious are you of the influence of flamenco, if you are at all?

Just another (wonderful) kind of music. Listened a lot. As you know it's a lifetime's study in itself. I've studied the books to find useful things in the strumming hand. Low action and buzzes are fine. But my left-hand exercises come from plectrum ones (long first fingernail is a brilliant Spanish guitar plectrum), Stevens / Oxley drum exercises, Country and Western and folk and masses of my own stuff. Don't bother too much with all of this nowadays however.

What are your future projects?

Personal take on difficult bebop lines with trumpet, trombone, bass and piano; arrangements for soul singer; Ethiopian pentatonic ambasells connected to serialism which to me relates to a great and mysterious rhythmical core light years from WOMAD world music rubbish; Turkish impro with hand drummer; arrangements for Montego Bay Women's choir.. All locally related to North London except some "standard" arrangements for a pianist in Nottingham. Most importantly attempt to move all my music into fingers; to stop over-physicality and protect [my] eyes. Play with Louis Moholo when he returns from South Africa and make a trio or quartet and provide money otherwise stick with the solo improvising every day. Have got some good electrics and bass guitars which make a bit of money sometimes but dangerous for these very long fingernails. Not much fun typing with them either so shall sign off.



Interview 2003 by Théo Jarrier, Editor. Thanks to Martin Davidson and Gordon Humphrey. See other interviews of related interest with John Butcher , Radu Malfatti and Rhodri Davies