Artist Feature

Frode Gjerstad
By Ken Waxman

After more than three decades on the cutting edge of free music, Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, 68, is more modest than he should be. “I realized very early that I couldn’t make a living playing the music I was interested in,” relates the Stavanger-based musician. “So I got an education and became a teacher while still playing.” Merely describing himself as a teacher downplays that Gjerstad taught economics, social science and sound design at university and college. Plus, before Gjerstad made the transition to full-time playing about 10 years ago, he worked steadily with some of the music’s heaviest hitters including drummer John Stevens, pianist Borah Bergman and cornetist Bobby Bradford. “I’m happy that I didn’t become a full time musician at an early age. With kids and a wife I stayed at home and could concentrate on the music I like. I’m not a big spender plus my wife has always been very helpful. She owns a kindergarten and I help her with that. She has been my biggest supporter all these years.”

Another reason for the saxophonist’s reticence was practical. Alone among musicians of his generation his emphasis was on free jazz, rather than more conventional genres. “My first exposure to jazz was when my father bought a second hand gramophone with lots of records, including two Benny Goodman EPs. I asked my father what it was. He called it jazz. I said ‘what’s jazz?’ He said that they have jam sessions where they play what they like. I thought jazz was free because I never heard of arrangements and chords. I just thought the musicians were extremely talented. Then when I was 16 I saw Ornette on TV. I was shocked because I was trying to play guitar in a Beatles/Stones-band. Right after that I started listening to Voice of America.” Soon he was playing saxophone as well. “I bought Coleman records along with Albert Ayler’s stuff which just blew my mind,” Gjerstad continues. “My first record with Rollins was East Broadway Rundown and I loved his sound. I’m self-taught. I tried to get a piano player to teach me a few things but he refused, said he had to struggle to find out and that’s what I did.”

That wasn’t what others did however. “People around Stavanger didn’t like my playing,” he remembers. “There were fights a few times. I was very much looked down at by most of the local musicians.” By 1975 however, he and a few friends, including pianist Eivin One Pedersen, organized a popular jazz-fusion band. But the group kept losing its bassists and drummers to rock bands, while Pedersen moved to Oslo. “I was drawn to more daring music,” explains Gjerstad. “But no one wanted to do it. I felt very much alone and was very close to giving it all up.”

Thankfully, Gjerstad and Pedersen decided to play with what the saxophonist calls “a real drummer”. That was Stevens, who Gjerstad, had met at a London concert. “I called him. He said he wanted to go to Norway because he loved Edward Munch. We played and it was so easy. He said he wanted to continue, but wanted a bass. When I said: ‘who would that be?’ He said: ‘the best: Johnny Dyani.’ A few months later, the four of us played a tour of Norway. It was the most exciting thing I had ever been involved in.” Pedersen quit the band soon afterwards, but as Detail the trio toured until Stevens’ death. “I met a lot of people through John. When we played in London, he put together groups with different people so I met and played with Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Nick Stephens, etc. Here, I had only one choice: import people or forget about it. Then a flight to Oslo cost about the same as flying to London so it was easy to get people here who were into the free playing.”

Through Stevens, who had recorded with the cornetist, Gjerstad met Bradford, with whom he’s now been playing for 30 years. “I called him up in LA in 1984, but it took two years to get the money together to buy his ticket to London. I found some support to cover his ticket, my ticket, Johnny [Dyani]’s ticket from Stockholm, plus money to rent a van. I had to drive and I’d never driven on the left side of the road before,” Gjerstad recalls. “Bobby struck me as a real gentleman: always asking if I was happy with the way the music developed. When we played and I was on my way to get lost, he steered the music in a nice way. We played about eight gigs as a quartet in and around London.”

In Time Was, a recording of that quartet, led to the launch of the saxophonist’s own Circulasione Totale label and later his Circulasione Totale Orchestra. “I always thought that if I ever become good enough to play with real musicians, I’ll start a band for younger guys and tell them what I’ve found out,” he reveals. Although most CTO members began as and continued as rock players, the sound was different. “By letting them play the way they felt comfortable, I could set up funny rhythms and melodies across the sections and set up situations that didn’t sound like the usual jazz-rock band, but something else.” Adding free-style rappers the CTO was the surprise hit of the 1989 Molde Festival, but around 2011 the group disbanded.

Today Gjerstad sticks to small groups. Surprised to be voted Norwegian Jazz Musician of the Year in 1997, the prize enabled him to organize a “dream band” with William Parker and Hamid Drake. “I thought it was too bad if they came to Norway just for one gig, so I managed to set up 10,” he recollects. “I was still teaching and I had to travel very early in the morning to get back to my school and then get a plane and go to the next gig. But it was fine because the music was so nice.” Today Gjerstad does two major tours a year with his European trio of drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Jon Rune Storm. This month’s NYC gigs though feature his five-year-old American combination with percussionist Kevin Norton and guitarist David Watson. “Kevin is great on drums and I love his vibraphone which gives the group a different sound, so I play in a very different way”. In October Gjerstad’s back in the US with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Strøm. “It’s interesting to play with new people because you have to be on your toes and be prepared for everything,” he affirms. Meanwhile he’s compiling a retrospective box set for release including unheard sessions from Detail’s beginnings

Gjerstad, who has two children and four grandchildren, has attained a life-career balance. “If you’re going to play this music and survive, you have to travel, which makes it impossible to have a family. For me to have a family was more important than playing all the time,” he states. “If you play and travel, you become tired and that’s not good for the music. Every time I play though, it’s a special occasion and I love it. I don´t want to give the listeners a feeling of tiredness. I would like them to smile.”

Recommended Listening:

• Detail – Backwards and forwards/Forwards and backwards (Impetus 1982/1985)

• Detail – Last Detail - Live at the Cafe Sting (Cadence Jazz Records 1994/1995)

• Frode Gjerstad Trio – Remember to Forget (Circulasione Totale 1997)

• Bobby Bradford/Frode Gjerstad/Ingebrigt Håker Flaten/Paal Nilssen-Love – Kampen (No Business Records 2010)

• Circulasione Totale Orchestra – Bandwith (Rune Grammofon 2009)

• Gjerstad, Strøm, Nilssen-Love/Swell – At Constellation (CirculasioneTotale 2015)

—For The New York City Jazz Record August 2016