Innerviews, music without borders

Theo Travis
Constant Evolution
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2011 Anil Prasad.

The phrase “carpe diem” resonates deeply for Theo Travis. The British saxophonist, flautist and composer has benefited from many remarkable encounters and collaborations that have helped his career progress from strength to strength. When those opportunities have emerged, including performing and recording with Soft Machine Legacy, Gong and Robert Fripp, Travis has leapt in and transformed them into long-term relationships via his virtuoso prowess and determination to push the creative envelope.

Whether working with those performers, his other avant all-star partners such as Steven Wilson, Bill Nelson, Harold Budd, Tim Motzer, and Jah Wobble, or on his own solo work, Travis’ diversity and flexibility enables him to seamlessly shapeshift across genres, styles and contexts. He’s equally at home in the realms of progressive rock, ambient, fusion, and straightahead jazz, and is known for combining multiple approaches within a single piece.

Travis' latest release, All I Know: An Anthology, distills his last 20 years of recordings into a carefully thought-out two-disc set. Disc one, subtitled “Night,” looks at the quieter, flickering side of Travis’ discography, while disc two, known as “Day,” focuses on the best of his more kinetic work. All I Know combines tracks from Travis’ deep solo back catalog with music drawn from his broad palette of collaborative output, including pieces with Soft Machine Legacy, trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, bassist Steve Lawson, his all-improv trio Marshall Travis Wood, and Cipher, his long-standing duo project with bassist Dave Sturt.

What narrative or story do you feel All I Know tells about your career to date?

This album tells much of the story of where I have been musically from before my first solo album which was released back in 1993, through all the Theo Travis CDs, my jazz groups and touring bands over the last 20 years, and my recent work which has often been outside the jazz scene. I think the CD sums up the first few chapters and leads up to the present day. It is basically the music I have written and band sound I have worked on since I first formed an instrumental jazz quartet back in the late 1980s.

In the last ten years, I have branched out a lot and expanded the musical contexts I have played in—particularly the progressive side of things in contexts such as The Tangent and Soft Machine Legacy, as well as the ambient experimental stuff with Robert Fripp, Cipher and others. However, the roots of what I do are as an improvising sax and flute player with a jazz background. Now that I am involved in a lot of progressive and ambient projects and do less with my jazz quartet, I was keen to release a compilation that presented the best of that music. It announces that a certain point has been reached and a new phase has been entered.

What were the criteria you used to choose what made it on the compilation?

I was keen to have one CD of all the slow, melodic tracks. They have been popular over the years and some had quite a bit of radio play. My albums are usually very diverse, so there will be ballads, swinging tracks and then full-on fast blow-outs. I wanted to have an album that had the ballads and maintained a mood. I tried to pick what I felt were the strongest slow tracks for that part of the release. For disc two, I wanted the heavy stuff—the fast and the furious. Again, I went for the tracks that felt the best—those I considered had achieved what I set out to achieve.

Describe some of the thoughts that went through your mind as you trawled through your earliest recordings.

You cannot but help relive some of the times when the music was created. It is a bit like looking through old photo albums. The first track “Shore Thing” was the first track of mine I ever heard on the radio and that was a huge thrill. We used to perform it on most gigs and it always got a good response. “2 am” I played with some mates even before I first put together my first band and it brings back that time. Recording with Palle Mikkelborg for the Heart of the Sun CD was wonderful. He is a beautiful man and superb musician. There are things on my earliest recordings I am still proud of and I think hold up, and they tend to be the tracks I have selected for the release. Of course there are others that make me cringe a bit, or I simply don’t want to hear, so they were not surprisingly left off. Every track on the anthology has its own story.

What does the compilation reveal about your evolution as a saxophonist?

I hope that my saxophone playing has improved over the years, both technically and emotionally. I think some of the later recordings feel more natural and have a better feel in the actual playing. For years I stopped playing the flute and only really started to work at it again before the Earth to Ether CD in 2004. So I could not have played “Things Change” even a couple of years previously to when it was done. Also my soprano sax has taken on a much bigger role as time has passed. My use of effects, looping and sound processing has developed a great deal over the years and hopefully now is just a natural extension of my playing and part of what I do, rather than a separate thing bolted on to my playing as an afterthought. That process of integration has been an important evolution for me.

Tell me about the genesis of your collaborations with Robert Fripp.

I have loved the music of King Crimson and Robert Fripp since being a teenager. It was only in about 2005 when I realized I was sort of in a similar orbit that I considered approaching him about doing something together. He toured in 2005 and 2006 supporting Porcupine Tree, and Steven Wilson is a friend of mine. Furthermore, both Robert and I recorded for David Sylvian for the Nine Horses CD Snow Borne Sorrow in late 2004. We were actually in the studio on the same day, but at different times. So I felt I could at least write to him about possibly doing something together. Through a mutual friend, I emailed Robert and he responded that he was aware of some of my playing but that he would like to come and see me play live. Robert came to a Soft Machine Legacy gig at the Pizza Express in Soho, London, in early 2007 which is when I first met him and after that he offered to contribute some soundscapes to my next solo album Double Talk. I visited the DGM studio while he recorded these, and after they were done, I suggested we record some free-form duet improvisations. These were remarkably successful and became the pieces on our first collaborative album Thread. A year later, a suitable opportunity for a live performance came up, and that led to our 2009 tour which was very successful and hugely enjoyable. Three of the four concerts on that tour have now been officially released, including the amazing concert chronicled on our most recent album, Live at Coventry Cathedral. That has led us to where we are today. In 2010, we did 17 concerts together, every one of which was special for me.

Describe the chemistry you two share and how it informs the work you create.

I know Robert Fripp is Robert Fripp, and I am just me, but it does feel very relaxed, natural and equal on stage. There is a great amount of musical trust and rapport that goes on. The music we play is largely improvised. Often there is the barest of plans for what we are about to play—sometimes none at all. Yet if one of us stops, the other plays, and vice-versa, and the musical communication between us feels nearly always in focus.

What have you learned about the art of performance from Fripp?

Robert takes performance very seriously. There is a sense of gravitas when he performs onstage. Every aspect of it is considered and its importance deeply felt. He is deeply affected by the behavior of the audience, for example if someone is trying to take a photo or record the concert. Every concert is recorded in multitrack too. I am less like that in that I still consider performing fun. It is what I like to do. Maybe I am too keen just to get up and play. Even though he does not generally chat to the audience while on stage, there is an intense engagement with the audience and a strong connection between the audience and the performance. I have learned how the performers can communicate with an audience without speaking at all.

When you perform with Fripp, the venue plays a critical role in the creation and delivery of your sound. What’s your perspective on how the performance space affects your concerts?

We mainly perform in sacred spaces, like churches and cathedrals. Apart from the suitable acoustics, the audience treats the performance very differently from if they were in a club. In a church, people tend to be more somber, more respectful, and are situated in an atmosphere of spirituality. Robert seems very attuned to the feel of a room and the audience. These spaces I think help the performance and the music a great deal. We have played in other spaces, including The Blue Note in Milan, a great gig in a rock club in Barcelona, and the Spiegeltent at Bath Festival Fringe. This changes the sound of what we do and our approach. Sometimes it works, other times less so. But that is the nature of improvised music which is open to the context in which it is made.

Describe your Ambitronics approach and how it intersects with Fripp’s soundscapes during your work together.

The technical side is ever-evolving and currently comprises a system of looping pedals and sound processing effects, including echo pedals, octavers and wah-wahs. The essential elements are the looping pedals, but more importantly how they are used. The looping pedals enable me, as a flute player, to not just play a single line, but to make a tapestry of lines which makes harmonies. The melodic line is not just the voice in the song, but the paint brush that creates as big a picture as is desired and my imagination can conjure up. Furthermore, the way the layers of lines are built is to create certain harmonic textures that can be either specific or harmonically ambiguous, or even chameleon-like, depending on what bass notes are placed under them. I like to create certain harmonic canvases and then with the octave pedal, I can make a flute sound an octave or two octaves lower, and play bass lines. The resulting sound is a bit like the sound of the low notes from a large church organ and is very effective. The actual technology and pedals used changes often but the process and idea remains consistent.

Robert’s soundscapes inhabit a similar world, but he does completely different things, and layers his sound in quite a different way. At the end of the day, it is all driven by our ears and hopefully the technology does not get in the way of the music. Rather, it helps enhance what our imagination creates.

What do you consider some of your other duo project highlights to date?

I love the duo with Robert, and I also do a lot in my group Cipher, which is a duo with the wonderful bass player and producer Dave Sturt. I have also recorded and played with the excellent looping bassist Steve Lawson. Other duos I have explored are with Hugh Hopper, with various jazz pianists and with the vibraphone player Roger Beaujolais. I have done some jazz standards gigs with the double bass player Olly Blanchflower too, which were fun. I was only yesterday listening to that wonderful duo album with Hank Jones and Charlie Haden called Steal Away which made me think that it would be great to find the right pianist to collaborate with on a project.

In general, what are the qualities you seek in duo partners?

I have to like them as human beings and as musicians. I have to enjoy the sound they make and the way they respond musically to what I do. I prefer if they are easygoing, down to earth and not egotistical. No need for that. Once or twice I have improvised in a duo setting and while the other musician was superb, I have simply not been that keen on their instrument or sound, so have not actively pursued the project.

Describe the journey that led to you joining Soft Machine Legacy.

In some ways, much of my musical life led to that. I started learning classical music, then fell in love with rock, prog rock and all that great music from 1968 to 1975, then became a professional jazz musician, then got back into rock—joining Gong and playing with Jansen Barbieri Karn and Steven Wilson. All those elements, particularly the involvement with jazz and rock, led me to playing with John Etheridge and John Marshall on the London jazz scene, and later Hugh Hopper. I feel the two Johns are musically kindred spirits inhabiting that world between jazz and rock.

What actually happened was two days before a gig in February 2006, I got a call from Hugh saying “What you doing on Wednesday?” “Err… nothing” I replied. “Well, we’ve got a gig and Elton Dean is still in a coma. Wondered if you could do it. Are you free tomorrow for a run through?” he said. “Umm, yes okay“ I said. So we spent an afternoon running the charts and then the gig was the next day at The Stables, Milton Keynes, just north of London. Elton did not get better and in fact sadly died soon after. I was subsequently asked to join the band and have been a member ever since.

Reflect on what it’s like for you to work within Elton Dean's sonic space.

I wasn’t hugely aware of Elton’s playing before I joined the band. I had heard and liked Soft Machine’s Fifth and particularly Elton’s playing on it, and was aware of Elton as a free player on the London improv scene, but hadn’t heard that much of his other recorded work with Soft Machine or other bands. This meant that I approached the gig like any other—I played the music to the best of my ability and tried to play it from the heart and as if I really meant it. So I never tried to play the music how Elton had done it—it is just not how I approach things. I play as me and if it works, it works, and if not I will probably get fired. I also played flute, tenor sax and used live looping—none of which Elton did, so immediately there is going to be a difference in sound. The others liked what I did, so here I am.

What does it mean to you to be part of the Soft Machine story?

It means a lot to me. Soft Machine is an absolutely classic English band that has made some timeless music. It has encompassed psychedelia, jazz, rock, English pop songs, sonic experimentation, ‘60s music, and jazz-fusion. For all those reasons, I am proud to be a part of it. The Soft Machine Legacy continues the spirit of Soft Machine—most importantly its musically ambitious free spirit and its bringing in of whatever the members have to put on the table to make the best music within its powers.

Tell me about how the group chose material for Soft Machine Legacy’s new Live Adventures album, and what you feel the disc represents as a composite snapshot in time.

The band is a truly democratic one. We recorded several gigs on the tour and we all went through the recordings seeing what we liked and thought were the best tracks. We then got together and listened through to the chosen tracks to see what comments we all had. That narrowed down the choice further as we pointed out things that may have been missed. We were keen that the selected material reflected the diversity of what we do—so some early Soft Machine tunes, some by John Etheridge, some by me, some by Karl Jenkins from the later Soft Machine period, and some open improvisations. Then the album needed to sound balanced and flow from a beginning to a middle to an end. The album really does represent where we are now and what we currently play live. I was happy with how Andrew Tulloch mixed it and got a great sound and I am also pleased the album has been received well and got a lot of really positive reviews.

Gong’s last album 2032 was a fresh and inventive take on the group’s sound. Discuss your involvement in the creative element of the disc.

With that album, the writing was all completed before I got involved. My contribution was purely in Steve Hillage’s studio adding saxophone and flute solos to tracks that were already almost finished. There were some specific written lines and some free-ish solos.

Talk about the change in dynamics in the band with the return of Steve Hillage.

The band was less chaotic, less of a co-operative, and much better organized and managed. Steve was responsible for all of that. Steve has a very different character to Daevid Allen, but there is lots of mutual respect and admiration between them, so having both in the band seemed to work well.

Daevid Allen refers to you as “The rumpled Englishman meeting the vicar in a brothel.” How would you describe him?

I would say he is “the real thing.” A crazy poet, with a deep love of music. A creative catalyst who inspires everyone around him. A wild card that often does not really know what he is doing, but makes beautiful-sounding things. The oldest teenager I have ever met, who completely redefines the meaning of age 70. A guitarist who comes up with some great solos but in the manner of an aircraft taking off and not knowing if it is going to land safely. A warm, huggable guy with a big heart and a wild twinkle in his eye. Daevid is Daevid. Most definitely one of a kind.

You’ve contributed to several Steven Wilson-related projects. Describe his concept for integrating saxophone into his work and your collaborative process.

Steven has integrated saxophone into his various projects in many, many different ways. He has used saxophone for “normal”-type solos such as “Don’t Hate Me,” but has often experimented with some sort of sound processing to make the sax sound a little different. He has done things like put it through distortion on “Nailbomber” and wah-wah on “Ambulance Chasing,” transposed it down two octaves and slowed it down radically on “Drugged” from the first Bass Communion album, made tracks out of multiphonics, alternative fingerings and strange sounds that a sax can generate, for instance on “Quantico” from the Invisible Soundtracks CD, and probably lots of other ways that I can’t remember. It is always a pleasure recording for Steven. Apart from the fact that he makes me sound good, as his studio skills are incredible, he is very imaginative, tries all sorts of different approaches, and is always relaxed and positive. I consider him a friend and also just enjoy hanging out with him.

In general, what characteristics of the naked saxophone make it ideal as a starting ground for ambient exploration?

The saxophone has a rich timbre made up of many different harmonics as well as the fundamental note. This means that when the sound is processed there are all sorts of other sounds that appear, some of which can be quite surprising. There is also the breathiness of the sound and the human-ness of expression from a saxophone. These all make it a great instrument for ambient exploration. Alternatively, sometimes when there are rich ambient textures, a simple soprano saxophone melody can be very effective and poignant as an instrumental voice that can “sing” over the top of the sound palette.

Describe your personal compositional process for me.

There are various techniques I use when composing. Many of the pieces on the recent anthology CD were composed in a similar way: starting on the piano and steadily working on the various sections of a piece until it works and feels balanced as a whole with particular attention given to the melody. I will work carefully with the melodies, harmonies and structure, often changing one note here or there until it just feels right. I will think about a tune for weeks or even months, singing it in my head when I am walking around, until it feels right. I do like strong melodies, often ones that are hummable. I do not have an advanced piano technique so there tend not to be very complicated piano parts. However, when I wrote “Things Change” for the Earth to Ether CD, I wanted to have a repeated piano figure and a tune that worked over the top, and then for it to move into different keys and sections. As the timing of that piece is very difficult to play, I wrote that one on the computer, as I could try out things I could not possibly play in real time on the piano.

As someone who freely improvises quite a lot of the time, sometimes the compositional process is a spontaneous one. On the anthology CD again, the pieces “Lovely” and “Sand Dance” were made up on the spot by the respective groups, and I think you would be hard pressed to know that. A lot of the melodic lines with Travis & Fripp are spontaneous too.

The compositional process for some of the ambient music I make, for instance with Cipher, can involve a lot of time spent on the sounds used, whether samples, textures, loops, or layers. Cipher pieces can be rather like sculptures or paintings—slowly put together, chiseled away, changed, added to, a new sound here or there to change the flavor of a whole piece. It tends to involve less use of “schooled” changing harmony and more use of drones and attention given to the layers of electro-acoustic sound.

What are the greatest challenges you face in your career?

I think the music is relatively easy and fun, and I have lots of ideas and play with lots of groups and musicians, but being a musician, in terms of earning a living, having a family, juggling a love of music and having a life, now that is really hard! I am still working on that one.

What successful strategies have you adopted to maintain financial viability as a musician in these tough times?

Difficult one. I am not sure I am qualified to answer that question as it is a constant struggle. I would say that you need to be flexible, need to play in lots of different bands and scenes and use different improvising contexts as opportunities to broaden your playing as well as keep working. Different people will be happy with different things and routes, including teaching, touring, living modestly, function bands, writing, busking, production and recording, shows, workshops, etcetera. I do a mixture of several of those and play with lots of different bands. You need to keep positive and keep creative too.

Charlie Parker once said “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn.” How does this statement apply to your own output?

I can understand that very much. For me, making music is about expressing yourself and that is the sort of music I make: from the heart, from the soul, from one’s own life experience. I think it defines the difference between the musician as craftsman and the musician as artist. Sometimes, however, being a professional musician can mean doing a job and delivering what is required for the music in question. That can be fine too.

How do pioneers such as Parker and Lester Young inform your approach on the instrument?

I love the playing of both Young and Parker, but personally I feel the Young influence via the more overt Stan Getz influence. Getz of course came from Young, and maybe it is because he came later, and was working in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and until he died that the music he made seems more relevant to me—or maybe I just prefer his records. Getz has been a huge influence on my approach to saxophone playing. Parker invented bebop with Dizzy Gillespie and I still play that music to this day. It is such an important part of what jazz is. You cannot be a jazz musician and not know and play some Parker heads, play solos over the chord changes to “I Got Rhythm” like Parker did and study how he improvised over chord changes generally, and feel that bebop influence. He was one of the greatest innovators in jazz saxophone.

Describe how 2011 is unfolding for you.

There are lots of interesting projects and recordings ahead. First I need to finish recording and mixing the next Travis & Fripp album, which is planned to be a CD and 5.1 surround sound DVD-A, as well as possibly a vinyl release. That will hopefully be ready by the autumn. In May, there is a European tour for Soft Machine Legacy. That band is going well. My group Cipher was recently in the studio and we recorded our soundtrack to the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That needs to be mixed and finished, and we have some ideas for other projects too.

I have some solo gigs in the U.K. and Belgium—just me and lots of looping and sound processing. That is always a challenge. Then I need to write some more compositions for my wonderful Double Talk band that has not been doing so much recently as I have been busy with other things. I love that band and wish we could do more. Then I have various jazz gigs around the U.K. and need to promote the new anthology CD.

In the spring, there is hopefully something brewing with the guitarist Bill Nelson, and later in the year Steven Wilson’s next solo album will be released which I am on quite a lot of. That will be exciting. There should be a new CD with The Tangent recorded soon, and a new DVD with them has already been recorded and filmed which I believe is coming out in the spring as well. Finally, I have just heard that a collaborative album with John Foxx has been finished and there are plans for that to be released internationally. So, there are lots of different things to keep me busy.

Theo Travis