Toward the end of his fine short essay for Laminal, AMM's 30th anniversary set, Jim O'Rourke asks in relation to the experience of simultaneously hearing the record and viewing the accompanying photograph of AMM's The Crypt - 12th June 1968, "where was the saxophone?' Here, almost forty years later,it is. Solo, exposed, unfettered, no strings attached. The same Charing Cross Road bought Selmer Balanced Action tenor as on that record and in that picture, but not doing the same thing. Now, here it is, a long way from where it was, or might have been, then, and has been carried, blown, viewed qua saxophone, and not (for a time with AMM played bugle-like with bottom-end pads and keys removed) since. Fecund, heavy with ideas and the weight of everywhere and everything it's been in between.
The sound is unique, I think of it as extremely English. It has perhaps lost some of its original Midlands schwa to a slightly softer longer Devon burr but remains, instantly recognizable. Influenced by initial experiences of seeing the Brit-be-bop
fluency of Tubby Hayes and later, following a move south in the early sixties from the Midlands, the confidence, control and swagger of Sonny Rollins at Ronnie Scott's. A clear trace of both men's playing — their assurance, dynamism and fluidity — is still clearly audible. Rollins' voice especially at the extremes of the tenor's range, but other oft suspected influences, Lester Young, Warne Marsh and even Dewey Redman are perhaps just that, critically heard as such, though were never there in the first place. Lou's sound is unique; simply, no one else sounds like him on the tenor saxophone.
As Hayes'delivery is whirlwindised and Rollins' sound so often described as knotty, grainy and gnarled — adjectives of the wooden — Gare's sound could be described in terms similarly natural, timeless and organic. I think of it as honeyed. Hard or runny, flowing, forming, running in and out of patterns and shapes, melting and hardening, transparent or opaque, as old as ever. Bearing, too, scents, flavours and traces of songs remembered and visited like flowers.
After arriving in the capital Lou became part of a great Great British reed section along with alto saxophonist Mike Osborne and John Surman on baritone, in a Mike Westbrook band which also employed Lawrence Sheaff and Keith Rowe. By 1965, he was a founding member along with them and Eddie Prévost, of AMM, the initial overlap between these two pools of players making a large purple patch of surprise on a red and blue (hot and cool) Venn. In the 1970s, as well as playing in a duo AMM incarnation with Prévost, he was active too performing and composing with the Scratch Orchestra. Since the late seventies he has continued playing in groups with Prévost, drummer Fred Burwood and pianist Sam Richards, re-joined AMM briefly and toured with Prévost and Rowe as the Masters of Disorientation in 1990, but performed seldom and made all too few musical trips away from the South West of England where he has lived since 1977.
In one of the handful of pieces of writing on Lou over the years, a 1988 interview with him on a rare trip to London.Barry Witherden suggests that "the neglect, the lack of gigs, is the price that it seems has to be paid by any musician who dares to be different, let alone unique." This music is unique; no one else plays like this. In Scratch Music of 1972, Lou's paraphrase of a poem — originally written about a harp — by the ninth century Chinese satirist Bai Juyi appears:
I lay my saxophone on the curved table
why should I trouble to play,
it is such hard work, and there
aren't any breezes about today.
I think many of the ideas apparent and inherent in the re-phrasing of this poem are, though thirty years old, of much relevance to Lou's playing on the five solo pieces here.
A vital physical connection with nature, with the elements and with wind is essential to this music. That Lou has a history of playing outdoors should come as no surprise, nor the fact that recording these sessions en plein air at the studio on Dartmoor was considered. Lou told me that in his youth he would play the saxophone amongst bushes beside a river; other boys would throw stones at him, he added, after a pause. On the occasions of more recent open air plays no one has taken any notice. As the wind blows gusts and breezes with endless degrees of frequency and intensity, causing from anything to nothing to happen in everything between an instant and an age; quivering a twig, soughing a leaved bough, pruning, over its life, a tree, uprooting a trunk; I would argue Lou blows the saxophone. In the original Tang poem rephrased above the harp is played, having been placed on the table, by the wind. When I first asked Lou some questions about the music here and where it comes from he told me he keeps his mental processes to himself, "(or even from myself)." As I listen and think about his playing here I am struck that he plays the part of a conduit for ideas, memories and forces to act through and follows, through an immense but unobtrusive breathing and instrumental technique to allow it, this flow.
Without cease traces, quotes, paraphrases and retellings run through this music dictating, shaping and propelling its form and ideas. The appearance and development of melodies, motifs and often standards which are then worked, stretched, worried at, broken down, put back together and played with before being let drift away, is, Lou suggests, influenced more by Indian music than the jazz tradition. Two examples here are 'Loose Blues', a re-working, or perhaps, more accurately re-manifestation of an old tune of his, Lou's 'Loose Blues' and 'Good morning Mr. Rollins' which appears to acknowledge an unplanned musical meeting with a sound and through it the idea of an old musical acquaintance, as if, unexpectedly bumping into someone on the way to do something else.
The more obvious connection between the original poem's playing of a passive harp and the use of strings on the first two tracks, the imagined link which set me thinking of the poem above in the first place, is not an intended one on Lou's part. Having decided to stay inside the studio he brought something of the outside in; the first two pieces here recorded on the first day were performed with a tuned viola and dulcimer in the room which Lou, used to playing in his studio surrounded by the wooden string instruments he has made there, brought to the studio to enliven the dead studio space. These five solos are all of the music from those two sessions.
Finally I sense a calm, a resignation, almost even a reluctance coupled with a deep humility behind this music. Lou made these recordings at Prévost;s invitation following a solo performance in London at horn_bill.* Had he not been invited to make them they may well never have happened at all. I am very happy they did. For now, finally, we can hear this music. There are endless ways to improvise; there are endless ways to play the saxophone and endless things to play on it. What Lou has done over the last forty or fifty years without many knowing or noticing is create, or perhaps a more appropriate verb would be find, a form of open saxophone music which needs no special conditions and has no restrictions. He stands and plays, endless, mellifluous.
Seymour Wright September 2005
Laminal, AMM, Matchless Records, CD 30, 1995.
Scratch Music, Cornelius Cardew Ed., MIT, 1972.
Barry Witherden, The Wire Magazine, No.55,Sept. 1988.
* horn-bill was a concert organised by ONGAKU - enjoy sound â€” staged at 291 Gallery,, London on February 9th 2005.
A recording of this concert was subsequently been released on Matchless Recordings MRCD 63 (double). It features solos by John Butcher, Nathaniel Catchpole, Kai Fagaschinski, Evan Parker and Seymour Wright as well as Lou Gare.