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Moments before the birth of a new recording

Mikus Solovejs

A conversation with Liudas Mockūnas and Arvydas Kazlaukas in a swamp amphitheater

In September of 2020, a Latvian record label «Jersika Records» recorded a new album in a very unusual setup. Liudas Mockūnas and Arvydas Kazlauskas, with listeners in attendance, had recorded a new vinyl «Purvs» in Jelgava districts Drabiņi swamp amphitheater «Saulgrieži». Mikus Solovejs managed to chat with the musicians before their performance.

Because of the place and the musicians, this performance is going to be special. Can you give me some backstory of what this evening is going to bring us?

Arvydas: Last July, on a day much colder than now, Mareks Ameriks from «Jersika Records» called me and proposed this idea. He said: «What do you think, maybe you want to make a record in a swamp? And then release an album?» And he thought it would be nice to have Liudas Mockūnas as a partner. He observed the swamp and concluded it would be good for low-frequency sound; Liudas immediately came to his mind, a great bass saxophone player. He had an idea of me joining him on baritone primarily, maybe trying other things, so he proposed to make a record here, which I accepted immediately. So did Liudas, I think.

Both of you are prominent saxophone players in free jazz and avant-garde, so can I ask you the definition of free jazz — what is free jazz to both of you? Because there are many stereotypes about free jazz — is it just noise, or is it music for special people, or a noise statement?

Liudas: First of all, when I hear the term «free jazz», the first thing that comes to me is the music tradition from the US, Chicago base, New York-based black American musicians. And in Europe, we have a little different tradition; I would call it improvised music coming from the UK, London-based composers, orchestras, Barry Guy, and all the people around him. I relate myself more to that than free jazz. On the one hand, I didn’t grow up in the US, and when we talk about the social aspect of that, it is very natural for Americans to play jazz. We are different, and we grew up in a different society, we have a different background, so we have our own perspective, our perspective to this genre in general, which is called jazz or improvised music. So talking about free jazz — it has a certain code in the term — it’s free, it’s free music, music of free people, freedom to declare your ideas, etc. This music is not new, and during the years, it became sort of a stereotype, it’s got its own cliches. Free jazz is music that is based on rhythm; first of all, it has this jazzy pulse, swing, that’s the first thing that comes to mind when I hear this term. In Europe, it’s a little bit different. It’s based more on the academic or classical music tradition. Each country has its own.

The sound and its source are very important to the jazz tradition. When we listen to Albert Ayler or John Coltrane, the sound is aggressive, there’s maybe some fear, trembling, in Peter Brötzmann, we hear anger. What is the source of sound in your music?

Arvydas: I wouldn’t call what we do free jazz, it’s more improvised music. And for me, in terms of sound, I try to feel free and not limit myself to playing with only an aggressive sound. I try to explore these kinds of possibilities, there’s the spectrum from being antagonistic to gentle, there is a lot to explore.

There is always some statement — social, political, personal, do you have one? Which kind of statement do you have? Because when I hear your music, it’s the music of sound, it’s not literal as literature, you can’t easily understand what you are talking about. But when I listen, I feel there is a statement. What kind of statement is that?

Liudas: First, I would like to comment on the sound. It’s a very interesting area. As a musician, I was not specifically interested in that thing called sound. Having a good sound is one thing, having your voice is another. And then the sound lately dor me and color, when I’m playing I think of it from a painter’s perspective, what colors do I put on the canvas, how much of this color should be there, which color dominates. You can’t call me an impressionistic musician, but I have colors on my mind very much. Lately, for the last 5-6 years, I’ve been searching for new sounds and accepting all kinds of sounds, like hitting my saxophone or clarinet with something, accidental sounds, sounds that my instrument provokes me to make. That’s a very interesting area, I’m building my vocabulary on it, that’s why I experiment with water, with drums, I’m playing into different kinds of drums.

Talking about this idea — the sound of water, the saxophone, and the ambient noise, and how you search for sounds and colors. It’s like the idea of Scriabin — he’s sowing sounds and colors together. Do you see colors too?

Liudas: No, not really, not in an obvious way!

But Scriabin did! For example, do was blue or red, or purple, or some other color.

Liudas: it becomes very clear when you’re working with students when teaching free improvisation. Sometimes students play too much. Imagine a canvas, a painting, how much of your view is there? Probably half of it. Some people are making just some dots in there, so there has to be a balance when you’re playing in the band. There has to be a balance of colors. Usually, it’s very different from the idea of playing jazz, usually, when musicians play a bebop tune, there is the idea of sound, which is his voice, and often there’s no dynamics. Maybe there is a buildup, but it doesn’t have this much color, classical musicians could make more color of it. And I’m honestly missing a lot of color in jazz music. Improvised music can be very different. If we are talking traditionally — jazz music is lacking dynamics and colors.

Still, talking about colors in music, maybe there’s some Lithuanian tradition because Čiurlionis was a painter and a musician? In Latvia, we have this image of Lithuania in jazz as prominently a very strong movement in free jazz and avant-garde. In Latvia, we have more of a bebop, bop tradition because of the link with America in the 70s and 80s. But Lithuanian jazz — Ganelin, Chekasin, Tarasov — the legendary Ganelin trio — can you tell me why it is free jazz and avant-garde for Lithuania? Or maybe it’s just a stereotype?

Liudas: No, it’s not just a stereotype. There’s a lot of truth in it. You partly answered the question, it’s because of these three non-Lithuanians who came to live in Vilnius. Ganelin actually grew up in Vilnius, but Chekasin and Tarasov came to Lithuania in the 70s. So they formed this trio and played together. A lot came from Ganelin, a classically trained composer, he was connecting it all together. They learned to play jazz by listening to a lot of Ellington, Coltrane, Miles Davis quintet. These musicians were living behind the curtain, but how much was happening in the 60s in America and also in Europe? British avant-garde musicians were coming up. And I think they heard a lot of that stuff also, Ganelin and Chekasin, and that’s how that original music was formed there. Especially Chekasin, he was a very active teacher, he taught people like Vyšniauskas, an interesting musician, Vytautas Labutis, me, and Arvydas. Most of us were pupils of Chekasin. I have heard Ganelin trio only once in the 80s, I haven’t understood a thing, actually. Then in the ‘80s, starting from there, festivals like the «Vilnius Jazz Festival», «Jazz Forum» came, these festivals had a huge input in spreading improvised music, and that continued for 20 years. I was educated this way because I was attending these festivals since 1987. This festival came together with the «Rock Forum», a very interesting rock festival where such artists as Bjork, «Sugarcubes» performed. «Sonic Youth» performed there in 1986 or 1987.

«Sonic Youth» in 1987? In Lithuania?

Liudas: Yes. «Sugarcubes», «Sonic Youth», a bunch of Russian rock musicians like Viktor Tsoi. You can imagine this pot. Another thing was that it was political, especially coming from musicians like Vyšniauskas, it was a form of freedom for them. Jonas Milašius is a very interesting musician, a noise guitar player. And then, in the 90s, when Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia became free, there was no interest from the audience to this music. The protest was gone, nothing to protest against. So I think that the 90s were weird times for experimental music.

And now?

Liudas: Now it’s back.

And it’s back with a statement.

Liudas: I think that young musicians bring their own statement, which has nothing to do with the Ganelin Trio. They know who this band was historical because they have their own voice. You know, I’m not naive, I’ve been observing these periods when the new generation comes and protests against what has been there before them, it’s natural.

And what about your first steps in music? Can you remember the first moment when you recognized the power of sound? Did this happen in Panevėžys, where you are from?

Liudas: Yes, but I grew up in Vilnius.

In the 80s, yes. Tell me about your first impression of music, the first steps — music school, teachers.

Arvydas: It was so long ago. A good question. Have to go really back. My father advised me to go to music school, I agreed, and it turned out well. I studied mostly classical music, but I also studied jazz music. We had this student band in the music school, which Chekasin supervised, a very strong experience, I think that’s where my passion to play out of boundaries comes from. This kind of freedom in a bigger project, it’s very inspiring, how you can see how these things work and such pedagogs.

You have some tapes?

Arvydas: I have to say thank you to my classical saxophone teacher, he showed me the recordings, not of free jazz, but the mainstream records of Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, Charlie Parker, I used to play his transcriptions, go through the «Omnibook», trying to go through tradition.

Liudas: My father is a musician. He played saxophone and clarinet. So it was natural that I heard this music from a very early age, like Charlie Parker, Coltrane music, Ellington, Ornette Coleman. Of course, I didn’t like it, I didn’t dig it. My listening journey started with fusion or pop music, then from fusion to Miles Davis stuff.

The 70s, right?

Liudas: Yes, everything after «Bitches Brew», «Weather Report». Then I started listening to Miles Davis quintet, especially with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock. Back to the roots, where music was at in the 80s. A big thing for me, when I was a kid, an important album, which was not a jazz record actually, but through this record, I started to feel this need to play saxophone, especially soprano saxophone, it was «Bring on the Night» by Sting. This is basically the only Sting’s album I like, I still listen to it. I even transcribed it by ear.

Another thing is that I am a student of Chekasin. I started music with him, but then I studied classical clarinet for ten years. So at the academy, I was back to study with him. He had this pupils band, which was very important we were a part of, earlier than Arvydas, but we were traveling in Europe and also playing with professional musicians. So it was like a community, kids playing with grownups, we mix, he would include all of us in his huge projects, it was a social life — going to camps during summer, tours to Austria, Switzerland. It was unbelievable to us, kids from the soviets going there in 1987.

Chekasin never tried to dig deep into your life, but he very naturally showed us what it is to be a musician and what is the joy of playing music, which is the most important thing for a pedagog to be able to do. And at the same time to be able to go your own way. He never spelled the words, but it was his message. And it still is. He still teaches. You can imagine it was a big thing that these three musicians lived in Vilnius for a decade.

What do you think of Ornette Coleman in the context of free jazz? Do you like him?

Liudas: Absolutely.

He’s a pioneer. And Coltrane in the context of free and avant-garde? Which records? One or two?

Liudas: I would say «Coast to Coast». It’s a hidden record, I think this record has the energy of a heavy metal band. It’s a traditional quartet.

Is it the golden quartet with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones? Before «Sun ship». Was «Sun ship» playing with some metal sound?

Liudas: Yes, they played really well on that. I was fortunate to stay at a friend of mine, Frank Gratkowski, for a week and, every night, we would get drunk and listen to a bunch of recordings, and we would agree that «that is a recording musician should listen to».

Albert Ayler?

Liudas: Yes. Miles Davis and his quintet. Eric Dolphy, «Out to Lunch».

John Zorn? It’s contemporary, but maybe?

Liudas: Yes, «Naked City». I was into that music 20 years ago. And if we’re touching that area, I should mention downtown New York music — Tim Burton, maybe not himself but his bands, musicians like Marc Ducret, I have played with him. Jim Black. At some point, I was very inspired by them, like 20 years ago as well. Also, I would say that the «Vilnius Jazz Festival» — I heard so many things there, so many great musicians, some concerts really made a change in me. I was studying mainstream jazz in the 90s, I wanted to play fast bebop, but there was this concert of Oliver Lake, Cindy Blackman was playing on the drums, Mark Dresser on bass. And Sonny Simmons quartet, that changed something in me. Also, there was Charles Lloyds quintet, a very impressive concert. I also heard Steve Lacy and Peter Brötzmann there, but I didn’t understand a thing back then. Steve Lacy is playing solo — I would love to hear it now.

And what about the Norwegian scene? Jan Garbarek and the followers? Contemporary and different from free and avantgarde, but anyway…

Liudas: Garbarek from the 70s, then up to Keith Jarret European quartet. Nowadays there are fantastic improvisers coming from Norway, like guys from «The Thing».
Arvydas: Jan Garbarek, for me, was also an influence, as a musician with his own kind of sound. My favorite saxophone player is my friend, who’s not really a jazz musician, but not really a pure classical saxophone player — Rolf-Erik Nystrom, he was in Riga for a couple of times, and we collaborated on different student projects.

Last question. If I gave you the opportunity to travel in time and space, which concert of which musician, dead or alive, would you like to see for 5 minutes?

Arvydas: I won’t be too original, but it will be either Parker or Brecker.

Liudas: There is one musician I played a bit, I really felt like he was a soulmate, but then we didn’t have the chance to play together again, it was Andrew Hill. It happened that I did a tour with him for one week, and then we played and talked more, but then he passed away. It was extremely interesting, he was a living legend back then, he played with Parker, Dolphy, I felt something real was going on in my life. I would like to experience that again.

His outstanding «Point of Departure» in the middle of the 60s was his most noticeable recording, and you played with him.

Liudas: Yes, there was a recording with him and his octet, but that never happened again!

Thank you for this conversation.