Although Larry Ochs is probably best known for his work with the Rova Saxophone Quartet during the past three decades, in recent years the avant-garde musician has released two outstanding albums — The Neon Truth and last year's Up From Under — as the Sax & Drumming Core, with seasoned drummers Scott Amendola and Donald Robinson. Last year, Ochs expanded the lineup to include keyboardist Satako Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. The Core's latest effort, Stone Shift, is slated for release next year. We caught up with Ochs at his home in Berkeley and asked him about the inspiration for the group.
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Westword: You've said that this music is a meditation on, and a 21st-century distillation of, the songs and sounds of American and Eastern European blues shouters, and of traditional chant singers from Asia and Africa. Can you elaborate on that?
Larry Ochs: Well, I'm not way aboveground anyway, but the people who know about me, know about me through Rova Saxophone Quartet and generally probably think of me as an avant-garde musician — whatever that means. But this band — well, it's not a "but," because the element is still there — is still my band. I really have a very strong interest in roots music of that kind. I'm very interested or moved by the music of singers from all over the world, who are basically thought of as folk singers, who work in these idioms where they are often accompanied by just one drummer.
Like in Korea — there's a music called ponsori music that is a long-story form, where the singer tells this very long story. It's very formal, but in a way, she's improvising or he's improvising and is usually accompanied by one hand drummer, and that's it. In Africa, you hear it all the time. Sometimes it's a lead singer with a singer or two background singers, or a lead singer with a couple of small percussion instruments behind them. But it's really kind of like the roots of all the music, and when you think about blues, it goes back to unaccompanied singers singing in the fields or wherever, and to me, that's kind of like the bottom line.
When the Sax & Drumming Core started, it was just me and the two drummers. It was really a concept group. I really got it together with Scott and Don. They both live here, and, you know, the saxophone and the drums is kind of iconic, this great combination. You've got these great duo records of Braxton and Max Roach, and John Coltrane with Rashied Ali, and Archie Shepp with Roach. So I wanted to do something like that, but I didn't want to do just one drummer, because there was no place for me to take it. I heard a recording with a saxophone and two drummers and I thought, "That's interesting. I think there's a lot more that I could do with that."