Innerviews, music without borders

Iain Ballamy
Sound, Space and Instinct
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2003 Anil Prasad.

Iain Ballamy

To some, music is considered as essential a life element as food. While it’s unlikely one would expire without music, there are those among us who might vociferously argue otherwise. By naming his current outfit Food, British saxophonist and composer Iain Ballamy intimates many related metaphors and analogies that are obvious. The music, however, is anything but.

Veggie, Ballamy’s eighth album as a leader, features him collaborating and improvising with three like-minded Scandinavian musicians: bassist Mats Eilertsen, trumpeter and vocalist Arve Henriksen, and drummer Thomas Strønen. The group is renowned for its prowess in creating unique soundscapes full of free-association live electronics, samples and textures combined with high-caliber musicianship. Its new record adds a unique twist to that mix — literally.

Enter Deathprod, a.k.a. Helge Sten, a Norwegian remixer and producer who also works with Henriksen in the avant-jazz act Supersilent.

“He took the material we recorded for the album without knowing what’s a tune, what’s improvised, what’s the beginning or what’s the end of something,” explained Ballamy. “He used the parts that grabbed him. For a piece called ‘No Food,’ he took some sounds from one of the tracks and made a whole new track just out of that. So, it’s a sort of remix record, but it doesn’t have synth drums or beats added to it. It’s a sonic remix, rather than a beat remix.

“The record starts off very violently, smashy and crunchy. It’s quite a shocking start and then suddenly, from the second track onwards, it drops right down into a beautiful sort of ambient production full of sonicscapes and sounds — but not in a new age crystal gazing kind of way.”

Ballamy prefers the absence of the word “jazz” in any description of Food’s output, favoring more ambitiously vague descriptions such as “adventurous, improvised music.” In its unadulterated form, it’s expertly performed material, delving into propulsive, meditative and folksy spaces. Food’s pieces are often frayed around the edges, but with little free jazz discord. It’s fresh-sounding stuff worthy of investigation by those who feel they’ve heard it all before.

While the new album, released on the Rune Grammofon label, results from an outsider’s interpretation, Food’s previous two records —1999’s self-titled effort and 2001’s GM and Organic Food — represent the group’s own aesthetic. Both discs were issued by Ballamy’s own independent label Feral, a partnership with celebrated visual artist Dave McKean. Lavishly packaged, each release is one-CD boxed set with production standards mirroring the quality of the music within.

Generous in thought and time, Ballamy offered Innerviews a revealing glimpse into his recent projects and inner workings. He also provides intriguing reflections on past and present associations with Django Bates and Bill Bruford.

Tell me about Food’s origins and philosophies.

I met the drummer Thomas Strønen by accident about five years ago, not through a normal means or connection. Somebody in my family said “My friend knows this bloke’s best mate in the military who’s a jazz drummer in Norway and he wants to meet you.” I said “Sure, if he’s in town, tell him to come and meet me.” And this guy showed up and we were drinking tea and said he wanted to play me something. He had a recording of him and some of the other Norwegian guys playing “Muskrat Rambles” — a funny, old trad piece. I was thinking “Are you for real?” It was tongue-in-cheek, but I didn’t realize it at the time. And then they went completely mad in the middle of it — like, complete out-and-out white noise and destruction. It was very funny and I thought “I’ve got to work with this guy.” So, we talked about how we might get something together and suggested Arve Henriksen and Mats Eilertsen because Thomas was studying at Trondheim Musical Conservatory with Mats. So, we got together.

I went to Norway and we shut ourselves in a room and started playing. It didn’t go very well at first to be honest. It was not an instant match because the way I come up with music is much more composed, arranged and intricate. It’s less free and conceptual. With this group, it was a case of “Everybody empty your pockets on the table! Take away your gadgets. Wipe the table clean. Now, make music from nothing!” It took awhile for us to find a way of working together. What I did notice though is my saxophone sound and Arve’s trumpet sound blended very well. That was quite a revelation really. Up until I met these guys, I had never really played largely improvised music. It had always been a bit more composed. It was quite a shock for me. They’re very good at it. It’s more natural to them. In England, people who play free jazz have a kind of quiet cult-like attitude to it. Some of it is quite militant.

The Norwegians have emerged as a pretty serious force in the jazz world in recent times.

Yeah, they definitely are in a bit of a golden age, that’s for sure. It’s got a lot more notice. They’ve always had this musical conservatory in Trondheim which lots of people have come through. They must be doing something right somehow. They’ve always got this phenomenon in Norway where if you’re doing your exams, instead of going straight to university or a job, you can go to a thing called a Folkeskole which is folk school. That means you’re allowed to study the arts for a couple of years. For people who are thinking about becoming musicians, it galvanizes their ambitions to do that and they get to meet other people who they carry on with. When I go to Scandinavia, I want to say to the students “Please understand how lucky you are, because in England, it’s really tough.” In America, it’s even tougher I suppose.

Describe the journey from Balloon Man to Food.

At the time of my first album Balloon Man with Martin Price, Django Bates and Steve Watts, I really believed the way to go was to have a band and try to keep it together for years and years and years. I was interested in trying to stay true to my instincts and developed music with the same people. The problem is, when you’ve taken a band around and done one record, people have a short attention span. They think “We’ve had that band. We’ve had that project.” So, it’s tough to keep a band together for a span of more than two records. Festivals are to blame as well. They want to have encounters and projects and put interesting people together much like Norman Grantz used to do. It’s hard keeping a band together for a long period of time.

After Balloon Man, I wanted to ensure the band got the music recorded for All Men Amen. I didn’t feel I could move on musically until I got that done. I was like a dog with a bone. When I got that done, I wanted to move into a less gentle, less lyrical kind of music. So, I did Acme which was bashy-er and thrashy-er and altogether more electric. It wasn’t supposed to be a fusion-ey thing, but I would probably say it had had slightly more appeal to people into louder, less lyrical or swinging music.

This stuff is really difficult to talk about. For me, it’s more about trying to find excitement and interest to lead me to what other people describe the music as being. After an amount of time, when I started out, I wanted to be a jazz musician and didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. Now, I’ve kind of gone pop — I don’t mean pop music. I mean my head’s gone pop — as in bang. Now, what’s interesting to me is music in the purest sense. I like to talk about music in ways which I would never have been able to in the past.

Tell me about the choice of Food as the band name.

There are massive analogies to be made between music and cooking. When you’re cooking, you’re improvising, unless you’re certain people with a recipe book who do exactly what they’re told. I think it’s much more creative. I’m a self-taught musician. Music and eating are both social activities. You have to be there. You don’t enjoy seeing other people eat. In some ways, I’d rather be playing than watching other people play or listening to music. My favorite thing is to play where music’s concerned.

Why did you name the new record Veggie?

It seemed like a logical step from the Organic and GM Food title. I wanted a reference along the lines of what you get on a menu at a restaurant. It’s a nice take on the whole food thing. All of the titles are veggie titles. It’s a little group.

Are you vegetarian?

Marine life is at risk. [laughs] I don’t eat steaks, burgers or stuff like that. I’m an 89 percent veggie kind of guy. My missus is all veggie.

How did the band end up in remix territory for Veggie?

The new album is on a label called Rune Grammofon, run by a guy called Rune Kristoffersen. It’s part of the ECM worldwide distribution network. It’s also affiliated with a label called Grappa in Norway. Rune is an entrepreneur-ish guy. He’s into releasing electronic-type, remix-oriented, interesting music. Our trumpet player Arve Henriksen has a release on the label. Arve also plays in a band called Supersilent, which has released two records on the label. Helge Sten, one of the guys in Supersilent, is a very good engineer and sound creation artist. We selected and gave him the material for the album Veggie, but in mixable form. We said “Do your thing with it.” On Organic and GM Food, I was effectively the director. On the Veggie CD it was Helge or “Deathprod” as he’s known. He does amazing work. So, I gave up control and handed it over to him.

What gave you the confidence to make such a bold move?

I think it’s sometimes difficult to know where to get off. The raw material I gave Helge was good. I also liked his work. I haven’t heard anything he’s done I didn’t like. That gave me confidence. But the other thing is saying “Do you have to do everything yourself? Is it always the best way to get a good result?” If you’re a control freak guy, you can own every aspect of making a record from beginning to end. It could be argued it’s not always the best way to get the best result. I’m prepared to try different approaches and this is a good one. It was done with consent of the whole band.

How would you characterize the evolution from the first to the third Food album?

The first record was our first gig. It’s a cheeky record, really. It was never meant to be a CD. It was fantastically recorded by a guy called Jaswinder Singh Sidhv. He was doing our sound and made a DAT from the two mics we had. Thomas said to me “You should listen to this recording of the gig. It’s really good. Maybe we can release it.” I had alarm bells ringing, thinking I’d have to have an awkward conversation saying I don’t think it’s good enough. But when I listened to it and by the time we edited it, it came out unreasonably well, considering it was just mixed straight down to a DAT. Again, it was our first gig. I was not using any electronics and Thomas maybe had electric bass with some pedal or something.

Between that and four years working on the second album, Arve started to sing more — a lot more. I’m using sampled electronics. Thomas has a sampler as well. Mats has pedals. It became much more of wanting to get into the same space of Arve Henriksen, instead of me just being dry saxophones.

The link between the second and third album is the second record had 60 percent studio material and 40 percent live material. The second record was recorded on the same tour as the third record, but it was produced by me and Pete Beckmann instead of Helge. Most of the studio tracks on the second album are fairly unadulterated. Tunes like “Arve’s Part” and “Chef’s Special” are acoustic tracks, pure and simple. On Veggie, it’s like somebody else’s fantasy mix. It’s Helge’s sonic world and a beautiful one at that. He’s an amazing musician.

Unlike your previous projects, Food finds you often letting the sax take a back seat to other instruments. 

If I was going to make a criticism, I could say that. But then I look at it in another way. On Organic and GM Food, I wrote half of the material. I produced the record. All of the work of compiling the record was done by me and Pete Beckmann. The running order was my choice. The selection of material, live and in the studio, was mine.

There’s probably even less saxophone on Veggie. I don’t feel the need to play tons of saxophone over everything or take massive egotistical — or ego-testicle, you could say —  saxophone solos. [laughs] I suppose you could take the lack of saxophone as a confidence or a shyness. I don’t think it’s shyness really. I don’t feel the need to play just because I’m there. Sometimes, less is more.

I don’t feel underrepresented. Maybe the amount of sax that is there is right for the music. For instance, the Pepper Street record had a different guy produce it named Mike Bode from Sweden. He said “I don’t want you to play soprano sax on this, just tenor upfront. We want plenty of sax on this.” That seemed like the right thing for it. In contrast, the recent Food releases are more about sound and space than about whether I’m a good, burning, wailing sax player or not.

Do you find any challenges in combining saxophone with electronics?

It’s difficult to mix acoustic and electronic instruments at the best of times. When everyone’s making electronic sounds, it’s hard to play a bare-sounding, natural saxophone on top and get in the mix. When you make music with Food, it’s about texture, space, sound and sonic mix, more than anything else. So, if you’re making a white sauce with flour and cheese, you don’t want lumps in it. You’ve got to make the sauce so it’s nice and smooth. You don’t want acoustic lumps floating in the electronic sauce. [laughs]

Some might say Earthworks offered a pleasing, chunky mix of the two.

It was a different thing. I was never on the electric side of it. I was always the acoustic guy trying to blend with keyboards and drums. It’s a different thing mixing your own sound with electronics than making everything that comes out of your mixer mix with what else is going on. It requires a different approach to making music, which is what you hear on most Food recordings. It’s not just about what you play. It’s about what you don’t play. And when you let someone else carry the action and then you destroy or change it, it’s a bit more instinctual than when you’re just playing an arrangement of a jazz solo. Considering that jazz is supposed to be experimental music, improvised and uninhibited, it’s amazing how stale and formulaic a lot of it has become. We’re trying deliberately not to be like that.

It’s amazing that since our last interview 10 years ago, the formulaic elements of jazz have actually become more deeply entrenched.

I know. [laughs] The positive side is when the B&W thing went to bits, like everything inevitably does, I couldn’t face going around trying to get a record deal. The industry was changing anyway and the idea of going around being a second-or-third-time-around-the-block guy talking to some boy in a suit trying to convince him that it was worth giving me an advance to make a record on his terms was something I couldn’t deal with. I was already working with Dave McKean and in January of ’98, we had a telephone conversation. Forty-five minutes resulted in us deciding to start a record label together. Now, we’re in control. We’ve built a home for ourselves.

Tell me about your working relationship with Dave.

Together, we worked out what physically had to be done because if you sign to a record company to make a record, you usually know nothing about the process. In some ways, because Dave was coming from book publishing and comic novel publishing, he knows that side of things — how it all works.

Our kind of ethos was to create music and beautiful packaging the way we felt it should be done. Dave has done dozens of CDs for dozens of different types of bands. He even did the Michael Nyman Piano cover. But it’s never how he’d exactly do it. People say “Can you change this or do this?” or “It can’t be in this type of packaging.” With our stuff, he can do his work the way he wants it to be and I can make sure the music is the way we feel it should be. The work gets done the way we want it to without someone saying “You have to do this” or “Couldn’t you do that?” or “Can we have a single-oriented track for radio?”

At one stage we thought we might be approached by other people who say “Will you release this or do this, that or the other?” But sure enough, nobody ever actually approached us. We’re not in a position to pay people to put out stuff  and then try to retrieve money to make the next one anyway. That saved us from being in an awkward situation.

How did you and Dave meet?

I met Dave because he made some covers for Bill Bruford’s albums and then I asked him after that to do the Acme cover because I liked his work so much. I stayed in contact since then and did various bits of work for him. Dave does books called comic novels — hardback, collectable books about two inches thick with stories that go between graphic art, cartoons and stories. They’re long things and sometimes include a soundtrack. He did a project called Cage and I did some music for that. He asked me to come and play on it. Dave is quite capable of making good music. He plays the piano and programs a bit. He’s got a very good aural sense, as well as the visual.

We built up a relationship and it just went mad one night when we were on the phone and I was telling him that my record label is going down the pan. He said “Why don’t we start something?” I came back with some ideas and by the end of it, we were quite excited. And now we exist as a label.

What we’ve done so far is if I’ve got the music finished, I’ll give it to Dave and he has that to work with. He loves music a lot more than I do. He’s a CD consumer and is much more excited by music than I am. He gets off more easily. He really responds to music. He works with music in his studio all the time. It obviously feeds in and comes out effectively in his visual work.

Dave actually came down to the studio when we recorded the GM Food CD. He was excited about it at that stage and had the recording to work with in order to finish the visual work. He hung out with us during the day and when he got the finished thing, responded to that.

With Pepper Street, I was working with Mike Bode to produce it and worked with him for about two months before talking about instrumentation and material. We were discussing what kind of a feeling or flavor we were trying to get. Dave was included in that loop. So, we had three people coming at it from their own strong angle while the creative process was going on. Same thing with the Food CD. Dave heard the music and came back with his response to it. It’s unbelievable work.

Indeed, the packages are gorgeous. But they must cost a fortune.

They represent financial suicide. It basically makes it unprofitable to get distribution outside the U.K., unless it’s Internet-based. Having a lovely package doesn’t encourage Tower Records to give you more for it than someone else’s records. So, apart from the odd Pink Floyd record with a flashing light, the stores are used to paying X amount for a CD. If we have a CD of superior quality, we want superior money for it. So, the chances are they won’t order many in. The impact it has is it’s less profitable if you have to go through normal channels.

When we get around to repressing stuff, it might be possible to package them decently and simply, rather than decently and extravagantly. I don’t think at the moment we want to compromise. Compared with the packaging of an average CD, one is kind of a work of art and the other is a kind of plastic thing. They’ll probably become quite collectible one day.

For some reason, many seem intent on keeping art forms separate. It’s encouraging to see people like you and Dave taking a more symbiotic view.

I’ve wondered for a long time why I have to play a gig with Food at a jazz festival or jazz club. What we really want to do is play in an art gallery with someone splattering paint or taking photographs or creating something. Painting is also a lonely business. They say “things are as interesting to watch as watching paint dry,” but there must be other kinds of artists who would like to work together. Let’s try uniting for a bit of cross-pollination.

Tell me about the decision to put Veggie out on Rune Grammofon instead of Feral.

I’ve already put out two Food albums on Feral. If Food has a life of its own on another label, then I can diversify on my own label. It can carry on. Doing this is a way to keep the wheels spinning. It means relinquishing control a little bit, but I’m not that much of a control freak, so I don’t mind. If a record has a chance to be distributed worldwide through the ECM network, it’s going to fall into hands I can’t otherwise reach because I haven’t got worldwide distribution. Rune Grammofon like the record and want to do another one with us.  That means I’m free to do something else with Dave McKean on my own label.

Rune Grammofon has its own identity and style and it’s a very good one. For instance, Veggie’s artwork is very beautiful and it’s an interesting package. It’s a fold-out triptych. It’s very minimalist in some ways, but very high quality. I don’t think we’ve taken a dive in terms of presentation.

How does Dave feel about Food transitioning to Rune Grammofon?

Dave’s cool about it. He’s busy making films at the moment. Feral is just one very small project in his life. He’s cool about the record as far as the musical direction. It’s a very comfortable arrangement. We’ve not come to blows about what the next right thing to do  is. Feral is kind of a platform. It’s a way of documenting what we ideally would like to be doing.

Let’s go through your last four records and have you describe whatever thoughts come to mind, starting with Pepper Street Interludes.

Working with a button accordionist is fantastic. I never realized what an incredibly orchestral instrument it can be in the right hands if it’s mic-ed up right. You hear something that sounds like a whole orchestra. It’s amazing. I discovered by accident that solo tenor sax and accordion work very well together. I got stuck in a band room at a sound check with Stian Carstensen and we were both amazed at how good it sounded. Nobody had actually used that combination as far as we knew. It seemed like something that got overlooked. I think since, that French guy Galliano has done something, but at the time we started doing it, I don’t think there was anyone working as a duo with saxophone and accordion. Also, Stian is madly into Bulgarian folk music. He’s always hanging out in Bulgaria and has a band that plays music with Balkan influences mixed with boogie weirdness. He has an album out on Winter and Winter called Farmers Market.

Also, there’s the saxophone and cello combination. There’s a lot that tenor sax and accordion, and tenor sax and cello have in common. There’s also a singer, Norma Winstone, so you also have saxophone and voice too. Not working with drums or very little drums opens up the sound spectrum quite a lot. There’s a lot of things that can get washed over by drums. There’s a kind of pureness without them which can be nice.

Next up is Signal to Noise.

It’s a story by Neil Gaiman. It was illustrated as a comic novel by Dave McKean and then that piece of work was adapted as a radio play with music, which is what you hear on the CD. We recorded it at Peter Gabriel’s Realworld studios. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. It was broadcast only once and we thought that was a bit of a waste as it’s a compelling story.

It was interesting working with the text while I was doing the music. I had headphones on with the spoken text and the ambient music I was working with. I had the story in front of me and was turning pages and looking at the visual version of it as well. That stuff influenced what you played and the way you played it.

Let’s move on to the first, self-titled Food record.

It’s quite cheeky to put your first gig out as a CD. That’s what I think about that. The second thought is free jazz doesn’t have to be ugly. That goes for the second Food record too. Just because it’s improvised, doesn’t mean it has to be dissonant.

Any other thoughts on Organic and GM Food?

I hope it makes sense as a journey from beginning to end. I’m not really one for listening to whole records from start to finish. I don’t like CDs that are overly long. I think people tend to look at a CD as “It’s costing me $15, but it’s worth it because it’s 79.2 minutes long. That’s good value!” I think you can have too much of a good thing. It’s like what you were referring to. There’s not tons of saxophone all the time. I’ve been reducing a bit. I may not carry on like that. I may make a record with just saxophone all the way — loads of it. [laughs] I may start playing longer solos. But I’ve ended up trying to get things to a length I feel comfortable with. If you’re going to listen to a whole CD, hopefully it won’t be too long. If it’s over quicker than you thought, then time has flown and you’ve enjoyed yourself.

You have a track called "Zawinul" on Organic and GM Food. Tell me about it and what Joe means to you.

I love Joe Zawinul. You can tell Joe was an accordion player in a previous life because of the fingering and phrases he uses, which I absolutely love. I liked him with the Cannonball Adderley group when they were playing bluesy, gospel-ly stuff like “Walk Tall,” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and all that stuff. I loved Weather Report. I didn’t love the first few Zawinul Syndicate records, but I dug the ones after that with Paco Sery and Richard Bona. I actually played in Senegal about six years ago and we opened up for Zawinul Syndicate. They did an incredible gig.

A guy in Food was pissed off at me for calling the track “Zawinul.” He said “That title really sucks. What did you do that for?” But it just reminds one of the feeling of the Zawinul Syndicate — that kind of world music, worldbeat, African kind of thing. I don’t know why. It just does. That’s what I wanted to call it. I didn’t ask him. I just called it that.

The last splash you made in North America was with Earthworks. Not much is known about why you and Django simultaneously left the group in 1992.

The way I see it is Bill was trying to wean himself off his electric drum thing, which was a nightmare for him. It was very complicated, expensive and sometimes troublesome. I think he has a Tony Williams poster on his wall at home from when he was really young. I think he always wanted to let rip and play jazz, and Django and I increasingly didn’t. We never really did anyway. Certainly, by the end, Bill was moving one way and we were moving in another.

Whenever Bill wrote tunes for the band and brought them along, he had loads of good ideas. But we always felt we needed to change or alter things. He could never understand why. I don’t think Bill was getting what he wanted out of his own band and we weren’t getting what we wanted out of it either.

It was a complicated thing. When Bill originally met me, I was playing with Mick Hutton and Django. When we got together, Bill basically joined my band at the time. You could see it that way. If you talk to Bill, he’d probably see it a different way. [laughs] While in Earthworks, Django Bates was still in my band and Django had a band of his own. Logistically, as you can imagine, this caused problems. So, leaving was a way to rationalize things. When we quit Bill’s band, my band also dissolved and I joined up with Django. I suppose I should have more strong thoughts about the fact that I called the band Earthworks and it’s still called that. It was a long time ago. I was only 21 at the time when I joined.

I still want to play with Bill, but not jazz. I want to play with him and some freaks on guitar, bass and trumpet — something more Bruford-ish than jazz-ish. I can’t really speak for Bill. Listening to what he’s done since, I know what makes him tick. I think he’s happy with it like that and it’s probably easier for him than when he was having to put up with us two interfering with what he wanted to do all the time. [laughs]

How do you look back at your experience with the group?

I enjoyed the experience. It was very positive. I learned a lot about the industry and how things work. Bill taught us a lot about the way he saw things. It was slightly difficult in some ways being an unknown guy playing in a band where everybody came to see a rock superstar on drums. I remember once when we played at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, there were about 800 people crammed around Bill’s drumkit. We were all playing away and all they were doing was looking at the drums saying “Oh man! Look at that shit. That’s so cool. That’s so neat.” That wasn’t an easy dynamic.

With Earthworks, I also learned how nice it is to play in Japan and America. When I was with Earthworks, I made quite a lot of friends who are interested in what I do now.  It’s not so easy to get to Japan and America without Bill’s kind of credentials to hang the thing on. It’s difficult for us. We’re independent, little guys now who put out our own records. We get around and play a lot in Europe, but not so much in the States or Canada. 

I have been back to the States since. I made a straight ahead jazz record with Victor Lewis and John Donaldson called Meeting in Brooklyn on the Babel label. Five years ago, I also played on Ian Shaw’s record with Cedar Walton and David Williams called In a New York Minute on Fantasy. I’ve also played a couple of times with Django at the Knitting Factory when he was with JMT.

Django Bates has called you his “creative foil and sparring partner.”

It’s a compliment isn’t it? I’ve been playing with Django for about 20 years. I probably know pretty much most of what he’s done. He’s working on a sax concerto for me to be performed with the National Orchestra of Wales. I saw some of it and it looked like some of the hardest music I’ll ever have stuck in front of me. I’m looking forward to getting the music well in advance and shutting myself away in a padded room for awhile.

Why have so few of Django’s recent commissions been recorded?

It’s a kind of shocking indictment about the state of things over here. I suppose if you look back in the past, you can see plenty of people who were ahead of their time and doing stuff that wasn’t popular or fashionable at the time. Some people don’t get recognized properly until quite some time later, hopefully not too much later. Django does incredible work. It’s not ethereal stuff. It’s actually there on paper if someone wants to sit there and pick their way through it. It’s all there very clearly in scores and compositions. It’s not the only way of making music. It’s the opposite of making music with sound, space and instinct, the way we do in food. Django writes everything down and gives it to people to play. But the music he’s done is incredible.

Django is known as an improviser in a live context though. Perhaps you can elaborate on the contrast you just described.

True, there’s no question that there’s a lot of improvisation with Django. The question is, where does the music come from in the first place? Is the tune a springboard for a solo based on the structure of the tune? If you’re playing a standard, it’s like 16 bars, middle eight and another eight. The solo is based on using the harmonic template and roughly the rhythmic tempo of what is going on. The saxophone plays over a load of choruses and there’s a bass solo, drums and then the tune and then the ending. Yes, that’s improvisation, but it’s not the same as going in a room with nothing and just making music out of thin air using sound and space. That’s different. How does that relate to Django? Things are a lot more structured when I’m improvising with him. There is an agenda. Whereas when I’m improvising with Food, the agenda is there’s no agenda.

Why do you think your musical relationship with Django has endured 20 years?

A long time ago, we recognized that we like a lot of the same things in music — idiosyncrasies, ideas and other people’s recordings. We have a lot of history together, memories and a shared sense of humor. I’ve learned a lot from Django. When I was first starting up — he started before me — I brought along typical jazz standards to play. He said “Why don’t you write your own tunes? These tunes are shit.” [laughs] Jazz standards weren’t his bag. When we met, those were my bag, but he was into writing his own tunes and into Keith Jarrett. The answer was I didn’t know if I could because I never had. I have to thank Django for asking me that question and getting me started on the path of writing my own music.

Describe your approach to band leading.

I think it’s important to have people who get on, otherwise it’s going to be misery. It’s also important to let people do what they do, rather than try to tell them that you want them to play like this or that. If you look at Miles Davis, while he took an enormous amount of credit for a lot of things, his magic was really his knack for putting the right people together and having it amount to very good chemistry. If it wasn’t working, he’d change it. If things were short-lived, it’s because they weren’t quite right. It’s important to have people in the band who understand what you’re trying to do, as well as having the understanding that you want them to do their thing. There’s quite a lot of trust. You don’t want some kind of ego-fest where everyone’s at each other’s throats or have a psycho in the band, which has happened before.

I find it surprising that some still have an idealized view of the jazz musician — one of a freewheeling character surrounded by excess and luxury. Describe the reality of existence for today's jazz musician.

People do have these perceptions. I watched Jerry Maguire with Tom Cruise awhile ago. There’s a big bit where a guy who’s a massive jazz fan into Miles and Coltrane says something about these being two artists expressing their freedom and intergalactic purity. I thought if Tom Cruise had any jazz credentials, he’d have objected to that kind of scene because it was slightly taking the piss out of jazz.

I try to avoid the word jazz wherever possible. I find it an unhelpful thing to say. As soon as you say “jazz,” it just fixes an idea in people’s heads. But if I improvise and play the saxophone, it is hard to wiggle out of the jazz category. But what does it mean to be a jazz musician? It depends on what you’re going for. If you’re part of the retro-ey jazz movement thing, I can’t answer that because I’m not into it. I suppose it’s the current equivalent of what it’s always been: living in the cracks created by business and the wheels of commerce. It’s about trying to find a space to exist in. It’s doing something you love doing and traveling playing music to make people happy.

To be honest, I do alright. I’m married. My wife’s got a good job. I’m not in debt. I have a very free existence. I’ve got a lot of friends and know a lot of musicians and other people around the world. I have the worst phone bill in living history. I still love music and I love my instrument.

Describe your evolution as a musician and composer during the past decade.

I think what I want out of life and music has changed quite a lot. I feel more chilled out about it than I did five or 10 years ago. I feel like I “get it” a bit more — not just music, but actually the way the business is. The world of jazz has changed quite a lot during the last 10 years. It’s changed a hell of a lot in the last 20 years. Hell, since we’ve been talking, it’s clicked two clicks ahead further in some direction. I’m a bit more aware of the fact that it’s evolving and that we have to evolve with it without compromising. It’s no good staying put while the rest of the world shifts around.

You have to find a way to keep moving along. You’ve got to find a way to reinvent yourself. It’s like any relationship. If someone says you’re lucky to have a nice partner you’re getting married to, you agree. But you also need to say that these things need working at. It’s never “right guy meets right girl and it’s taken care of.” It’s the same thing in music. If you want to keep music a joy in your life, you have to work at that — at least I do. I have to protect myself. Shitty music has the wrong effect on me. I have to keep open.

Most importantly, you have to keep loving the instrument and the people you’re making music with. Without trying to sound crass, you could compare music to a guiding light in your life as a player or anybody. It gets you through. If the little light gets dim sometimes, which it can do, as long as it’s always there, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Music will take care of you. I believe that.

Iain Ballamy