January 11, 2013
By Ken Waxman
A complete pianist in every sense of the word who blends exquisite technique with innovative inspiration, Agustí Fernández is arguably Spain’s most accomplished contemporary improviser. This month he’s playing four nights in different configurations at the Stone, a rare series of American dates. “I like all kind of combinations, from duo to big ensembles because each one presents different challenges for a player,” he explains. “Listening, language, instruments, techniques, sound, volume, interplay, etc. will be different in every setting.”
In fact Fernández, 58, who lives in a small town just outside of Barcelona, welcomes all sorts of musical situations. A regular member of The Barry Guy New Orchestra (BGNO), Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble (EAE) and numerous smaller European combos, in NYC he’ll work with guitarist Joe Morris, trumpeter Nate Wooley, multi-reedist Ken Vandermark, bassist Pascal Niggenkemper and other players, some for the first time, some renewing associations. “It's always very inspiring to meet or listen to your colleagues in non-usual combinations,” he adds. I’ve learned something from every musician I’ve ever played with.” The Stone connection came through Morris, who is curating a series at the venue and with whom Fernández, has recorded in the past, in duo, and in a trio with Wooley. “I feel very close to Joe as a musician,” says the pianist.
Born in Palma de Mallorca, Fernández began playing when he was four years old – “I have no memories of not playing the piano,” he muses – studied classical music at the local conservatory, and in 1987 won first prize at the Second Biennale of Young Creators Artists of the Mediterranean, in Thessaloniki, Greece. After that he could have pursued a career in so-called classical music, but had already fallen under the twin influences of pianist Cecil Taylor and composer Iannis Xenakis. Of Xenakis, with whom Fernández studied, he recalls: “I was impressed by the intensity of the music, the lack of romanticism. To me it was more like a natural phenomenon, like the weather let’s say, happening through sounds; a punch in the stomach.” As for Taylor, “I was impressed by his piano improvisations. I had never heard anything like him before. From both Xenakis and Taylor I learned about the decisions you have to make in order to play your own music and not someone else’s. This means mainly learning what not to play, what to leave out”.
Adding that “you don’t learn the most important things at the conservatory, you learn them on stage, or during a rehearsal,” in his formative years the pianist was already been involved with as many musical projects as possible. Starting with teenage rock bands – “I had one foot in classical and another one in rock; Bach and Soft Machine,” he recalls – at 18 he spent a year playing cocktail music in hotels and night clubs. Later he created music for local theatre and dance companies, composed electronic music, co-founded the IBA (Improvisadors de Barcelona) orchestra and taught at ESMUC, the Catalan college of music. “I’ve always been active in many different aspects of music, classical, commercial, avant-garde, rock, jazz, contemporary, film music, music for dance, etc. sometimes with different gigs or recording sessions in the same week. But for the past 10 to 12 years 99% of what I do is improv-related,” he reports.
Among those projects, besides the BGNO and EAE, are the Aurora Trio with drummer Ramon López and bassist Guy; EFG, a trio with trumpeter Peter Evans and saxophonist Mats Gustafsson; and Trio Local with saxophonist Liba Villavecchia and the late sampler player Joan Saura; plus many solo concerts. “I prefer to work in long-term groups because with them you can go deeper in your quest and refine your common artistic approach,” Fernández reveals. His interest in electro-acoustic environments remains as well, which will result in an upcoming CD with electronics manipulator Joel Ryan. Additionally Catalan composer Hèctor Parra is writing a one-hour solo piano piece to feature Fernández, to be premiered in November 2013.
While he concedes that his playing reflects his background he disagrees with those who insist on the demarcation between European and North-American improvisers. “As an improviser, my roots are in what is called the first generation of European improvisers: Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Peter Kowald, Alex von Schlipenbach, Fred van Hove, etc. These are the musicians who invented the music we play nowadays: my tradition. Of course, jazz has been and still is, a big influence, in the sense that I listen to a lot of jazz, old and new. But it’s not the only source, and not the main one. Besides improvisation, I listen to contemporary music, electronic music, ethnic music, popular music, anything. There is something in every music that may influence the way I play, even if unconsciously. The African pygmies or [alto saxophonist] Christine Sehnaoui, there’s no difference for me, it’s just great music.
“I also don’t think there is a significant difference between American and European improv,” he adds. “When I’m playing with Joe Morris or Peter Evans, let’s say, it’s not much different than when I'm playing with Mats Gustafsson or Barry Guy. The music may be completely different, but not because they’re Americans or Europeans, but because they’re different people from different backgrounds, generations, countries and lives.”
Similarly he dismisses the idea of his being a particular Spanish or Catalan style of improvisation. “Only nuances or hues and the way in which I approach the musical fact may relate to that. But I really don't think of my playing as Spanish, or European. It’s just something that I am.”
Agustí Fernández – 1 is not 1 (Nova Era 1998)
Agustí Fernández & Derek Bailey – Barcelona (Hopscotch 2002)
Barry Guy New Orchestra – Oort /Entropy (Intakt 2005)
Agustí Fernández, Barry Guy & Ramón López – Aurora (Maya Recordings 2006)
Joe Morris & Agustí Fernández – Ambrosia (RITI 2011)
Evan Parker Electroacoustic Ensemble – Hasselt (psi 2012)
Agustí Fernández - Pianoactivity – One (Sirulita 2012)
—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2013