The New York City Jazz Record Interview

With Pierre Favre
By Ken Waxman

During a career of more than 55 years, Swiss drummer Pierre Favre, who turns 75 in June, has been a constantly innovating musician. One of the first Swiss players to embrace free music in the late ’60s, since that time he’s explored a variety of musical concepts from giving solo percussion concerts to composing notated works and collaborating with folkloric-influenced improvisers. Making a rare New York apperance this month, Favre plays three times in diffemt configurations during the two weeks Intakt Records curates The Stone.

The New York City Jazz Record: As a musician based in Europe, is it correct to suppose you don’t often play in New York or North America?

Pierre Favre: Yes, you’re right. I played in the United States most recently in 2000 with percussionist Fredy Studer. The first time was in 1968. I did a two-months drum clinic tour for Ludwig & Paiste with one in New York. All the great drummers like Sunny Murray, Tony Williams, Grady Tate, Andrew Cyrille, were there and I was so impressed because they were all very nice to me. I was even more impressed when Papa Jo Jones gave me a magical lesson at the end of the clinic The second time was when Percussion Profiles, including Jack De Johnette, David Friedman, Dom Um Romao, Fredy Studer, George Gruntz and me played the 1980 Monterey Jazz Festival; and the third time was a 1985 tour, including New York, with vocalist Tamia.

TNYCJR: You’re a self-taught drummer. Where is Le Locle, Switzerland where you grew up? And why were you attracted to the drums?

PF: Le Locle a small town in the mountains of the French part of Switzerland. The first drummer I heard was Max Roach on the the Jazz at Massey Hall LP. It was rare at the time, but a friends of mine had the record and he played it over and over for me. Immediately I fell in love with the drums and spent all my time playing everything I heard and also listening to radio and records. Fortunately I had a good memory and could memorize almost anything very easily. I only had two LPs, both with Big Sid Catlett, who was my biggest influence, He was like a sorcerer, He was precise and fluent when he played time and when he played the melody his unexpected rim shots shaped it and made it swing. At that 1968 New York clinic I was taking to Tony Williams and he told me: ‘Big Sid Catlett was my biggest influence too’. Later on I liked Kenny Clarke and Philly Joe Jones, and of course Elvin Jones, Pete La Rocca, Billy Higgins ... Besides I was always trying things out. I could play simple rhythms for hours, just trying to swing.

By then I was living in Neuchâtel with my parents and I regularly jumped out of the window to go to the bars and try to sit in with dance bands coming through town. Finally, in 1955, one bandleader came to talk to my parents and they let me go to work full time in his dance band. At 17 I wasn’t allowed to play in bars yet, but that bandeader told my parents he’d watch out for me. In 1957 I auditioned for the radio orchestra in Basel. I couldn’t read a note but they liked me. I got the job, but I had to promise to learn how to read music.

In 1960 I left the orchestra and went to Paris for one year and then to Rome where I worked with the American Jazz Ensemble led by clarinettist Bill Smith and pianist Johnny Eaton. In 1961 I went back to Switzerland to work with my own trio. In 1962 I went to Munich playing in the TV orchestra, freelancing in the sudios and appearing frequently with people like Benny Bailey, Don Menza and Booker Ervin. In 1966 I came back to the Paiste & Sohn factory in Nottwil Switzerland as adviser to the Paiste brothers Robert and Toomas. My job was testing of cymbals and organizing drum clinics all around the world. It was a hard but very rewarding job, and I could finally devote myself to playing the way I wanted to. I stayed there until 1971when I moved to Zürich, where I still live.

TNYCJR: Hadn’t you already met pianist Irène Schweizer by that time? Wasn’t she also employed at Paiste & Sohn, supposedly as your ‘secretary’?

PF: I met Irène Schweizer in Zürich during a concert. She told me she was looking for a job,and I asked her to work for me as I needed a secretary. At first we would play together occasionally after work and after some time we were playing together every day.

TNYCJR: You were also one of the first European drummers to turn from American-influenced modern jazz to European-centered free jazz. How did this evolution occur? What change in musical thinking did that involve and what was the audience reaction to it?

PF: This is a quite complex story. Since I began to play I was following the path of American Jazz. This was OK, but I guess that I had enough of the idea people had which was: ‘you’re a pretty good drummer and musician, but any American showing up will be able to play you off the wall’ – and it’s still that way for many people in Europe. But the ‘60s was a period of change and we young people needed a deep breath. For me personally the free jazz idea allowed me to let everything out, who I am, where I come from, etc. It oppened new horizons, my musical breathing. I lived silence which I had not noticed before, dynamics, phrasing and a different sense of time. And all this could be experienced in front of an audience that gave you the chance to feel what is musically true and what isn’t.

TNYCJR: You and Schweizer recorded Santana, one of the early European free-jazz discs, with German bassist Peter Kowald. How did you get involved with him, and later other experimental players?

PF: Irène and I were playing a lot throughout Europe and so we met other musicians

looking for the same type of sounds. At first our bass player was Jiri (George) Mraz. Jiri wanted to emigrate to the US, so Peter took his place. Santana was our own production. We had only one-and-half-hours in the studio so we had to get it out. Through Kowald’s influence we became more loud and busy. I played mostly loud and very busy. But I enjoyed it, it felt like a young dog that you take out to let it run.

TNYCJR: Since then you’ve recorded solo percussion discs and ones with all-percussion ensembles. How do percussion performances differ from those in which you work with other instrumentalists?

PF: I actually started to play solo concerts during the time with Irène and Peter. I was including more cymbals and sounds in my drum set, but the day I brought a gong I figured that it was better for me to just play my drums. Then, boom, I thought: ‘OK, I’ll try all that stuff alone’. A few years later [1984] came Singing Drums for ECM [with Studer, Paul Motian and Nana Vasconcelos playing a variety of percussion instruments]. It was a challenge to compose a whole program for such great musicians. In a solo concert you carry the whole evening on your shoulders, the space belongs to you. When you play with more musicians you share that space, In a way you take a step back, you just play what has to be played. As a drummer you’re there to give pulse, dynamics, fire and color to the band.

TNYCJR: You also at one time played a very extensive kit. Do you still use that many rhythm makers or a conventional set up?

PF: Yes, there were times where I tried to play full melodies on the drums and I came on stage with all kinds of instruments, chromatic tuned gongs, a set of two octaves of tuned small drums ... so many things. Just a few days ago I was remixing my first solo albums and I was surprised how many sounds I could produce then. Since then my set has become simplified. It’s more concentrated; enough for what I have to say.

TNYCJR: Over the years you’ve been involved with musicians in other areas besides what we call jazz. How that involvement came about, why did it happened and what were the challenges and rewards?

PF: I’ve been so lucky that musicians have asked me to play with them at all times. Being curious to learn, I could hardly refuse. This is especially true for the classical music side. I was asked to play John Cage, Maurizio Kagel, Ernst Krenek, Arvo Pärt and others and I never turned down any of these propositions. It’s the same with the folkloric players, I met pipa player Yang Jing in Beijing, she wanted to learn how to improvise, so she came to Switzerland and we improvised. I also played many concerts with the great mridangam player from Madras T.V. Gopalkrishnan. I met bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi through the ECM record Once Upon A Time-Far Away In The South [1985], with [bassist] Charlie Haden and [trumpeter] Palle Mikkelborg. Dino and I also gave a magic concert in duo at the 2001 Willisau Jazz Festival. French vocalist Tamia and I spent many years togther playing, writing, rehearsing. With [Czech violinist/vocalist] Iva Bittova it was only a week but beautiful. I’ve always loved the voice, probably because it’s so near to the drums and also because I have a melodic nature. I always try to find some music where it’s hidden. But during all these years I also played jazz, worked with Albert Mangelsdorf and toured with Jimmy Giuffre, John Surman, John Tchicai and many more. I must add something very important. After having flown over all these different musical countries since 1966 I come back to jazz as what it is, great music, and with great respect and admiration for giants like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus, the great drummers, and so many others. You see, the jazz water tastes completely different to me now.

TNYCJR: Your Web page lists the compositions you’ve written since 1984. Is this a new development?

PF: Yes it’s certainly a new development for me. After all the improvising years I felt that it was time to drop the mask. I mean I don’t hide myself behind improvisation, but to write down something that should be played exactly needed courage. Usually drummers are rather scared to come up with written material. But composing regularly makes me more inventive on the drums and a better improviser.

TNYCJR: Your most recent Intakt CD, Le Voyage, involves a 10-piece ensemble, whereas most of your other work is with duos or trios. Are larger bands organized because of specific music you want to play or hear? Do you prefer to play in smaller groups?

PF: Some years ago I wrote the music for the group Window Steps, with bassist Steve Swallow, cellist David Darling, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and soprano saxophonist Roberto Ottaviano for ECM, and later Fleuve also for ECM with saxophonist/clarinetist Frank Kroll, tubaist Michel Godard, harpist Hélène Breschand, guitarist Philipp Schaufelberger, bassist Baenz Oester and electric bassist Wolfgang Zwiauer. These groups which toured, allowed me to hear music I hear but can’t play on the drums. Playing in duo is, of course, very interesting because it’s a dialogue, you listen and answer to one single voice. It’s perfect if you want to know somebody better. And don’t forget that bigger groups need much more work and more money.

TNYCJR: Today it appears that you mostly work with younger Swiss musicians. Is this strategy planned? How do you feel about younger generations of Swiss improvisers? What do they bring to the situation and how do you react musically?

PF: Yes in general it’s a planned strategy. I like to rehearse or, of course, improvise, and it’s difficult to get musicians to come to Switzerland, to rehearse for a few days; they usually come just for the job. But Switzerland is a small country and Swiss musicians can come to my house regularly. Younger players are very enthusiastic. In general they’re hard workers and are very skilled. We improvise, I write the music and they love to rehearse. I show them how to phrase dynamics, how to build a solo. I don’t ignore suggestions coming from any of them, but I work out with them how to make something out of their ideas. Of course talents are talents, the younger players are themselves; they’re not more or not less than the older musicians. The other point is that many of my older friends don’t play anymore – some have gone away.

TNYCJR: Any notable recordings and/or performances scheduled for 2012?

PF: Intakt will be releasing my first three solo albumss from 1971, 1972 and 1986 as a triple-CD set. The label will probably also release a CD of a concert with John Tchicai, Don Cherry, Irène Schweizer and Leon Francioli from the 1981 Willisau Jazz Festival. I’ll also tour with my new quartet The Drummers: Valeria Zangger, Chris Jaeger, Markus Lauterburg.

—For New York City Jazz Record March 2012