Music Minus Road Maps

It might come across as highly experimental and without form, but Rachel Musson’s improvisations on the sax are the result of intense study and musical flexibility. Preferring the tenor in the sax family, Rachel is partial to her first instrument: a 1918 Conn with a sound that she claims is unrivaled by modern instruments.

When did you start playing sax?

I started when I was either 14 or 15. Prior to the saxophone I played the flute.  

What appealed to you about the instrument?

I wish I could answer differently, but I think it was because I fancied a boy who was playing it in wind band at school. Plus, I grew up in the eighties, and the saxophone was everywhere in pop music at the time. It’s strange – I didn’t really ever listen to pop, but it filtered through. 

Do you play all the saxes?

No – I’m mostly a tenor player, sometimes play soprano, and have an alto that I get out from time to time. I’d like to explore the lower saxophones, but I’ve just not got ’round to it yet. 

What is the single most useful tip or advice you received about improv?

The altoist Geoff Simkins was a huge influence on me early on, and he always placed a lot of importance on authenticity and integrity. 

What exactly is an “improv project”?

It tends to be a group of musicians who play together reasonably regularly – that’s all! In improvised music, we start from scratch each time, and work without charts or plans. It’s not uncommon to play in ensembles that are experiencing that formation for the first time. A ‘project’ is usually a group of people who particularly click, and by playing together more regularly they tend to develop a group language through familiarity.  

Who are the personnel in Skein and what do they play?

Skein’s a very old band now. We recorded one album – Flight Line (under label F-Ire), and on that album it was Alcyona Mick (piano), Will Collier (bass), Josh Morrison (drums), and Javier Carmona (drums). 

Do you feel improv is related to your body awareness as a yoga teacher and devotee of Eastern wellness practices?

It’s hard to separate out elements of one’s life. Everything is related to everything else.

I got into yoga and meditation at a time when I was putting my life together again after a difficult few years. I had also given up playing saxophone, and at the same time I was getting back into playing and reworking who I was musically and how I wanted to play.

I see all of these as intertwined. There’s a bit of research I remember seeing about how improvising activates similar parts of the brain to meditation.

There’s definitely a sense of being fully in the moment when improvising, particularly in free improvising. Yoga asana is a bit like practicing scales every day, I suppose! 

What is your most remarkable story as a music teacher for kids with special needs?

My whole experience as a special needs teacher was quite remarkable, really! There were lots of instances of using music with children who had extremely limited verbal communication, and music would open up a whole new possibility of communication for them.

I also have very fond memories of working with a boy who was an autistic musical savant. He could pick up anything played to him and replicate it on the piano, particularly in terms of harmony. Harmony seemed to motivate him more than melody. He also really enjoyed changing key for humorous effect; especially when accompanying the choir. He loved to suddenly switch semitones and derail the whole thing, including in performances. You could never trust him, and he always made me laugh!

Some of your playing sounds experimental- very abstract; a percussive use of the instrument. How did this come about?

I think it’s a mixture of just exploring and ‘borrowing’ things from other players. Within the improv field there’s a very wide range in terms of how the instrument is used. I think I’m far more conventional than many. 

How long did it take to master that growl? To pop the octaves?

I’m not entirely sure! But there was a period of about a year where I really explored everything; tried stuff out and just went with what stuck and let go of things that didn’t feel natural.

If I didn’t stop myself I’d probably growl all the time! I try to stop but it just kind of happens.  

Did you originally play more traditionally: straight-ahead, Great American Songbook, etc.? 

Yes – definitely. I’ve always wanted to approach it in my own way, though. I’ve always been a bit resistant to approaching standard playing with a ‘conventional jazz language’ (whatever that means).

I definitely feel I’m not done with standards. I’ve been feeling an urge to return recently. 

What musicians inspire you?

Hmmm! The people I get to play with in London inspire me tremendously. The danger with this kind of question is you always end up leaving people out.

Last week I went to see the Pat Thomas residency at Cafe Oto. Pat is massively inspiring, and I’ve had the good fortune to play with him a few times.

Also, other people I play with, who keep on playing this music despite all the challenges, such as Alex Ward, Mark Sanders, Olie Brice, Hannah Marshall and Julie Kjaer. And amazing musicians on the scene such as the tireless John Russell, Alan Wilkinson, Corey Mwamba, and Cath Roberts and Dee Byrne.

There’s loads of inspiration from all over. I tend to get into something for a while and then it shifts. And of course, British saxophone players who have been playing this music for years and still sound amazing and evolving, such as Evan Parker, John Butcher and Paul Dunmall. In the past, major influences have been John Coltrane and Lee Konitz. I do eclectic! 

Where do you go in your head when you play?

I try as much as I can – in fact this is a bit of a theme for my life in general – to stay in the present moment.

I have the odd paranoid moment where I get absorbed in a flurry of language, but my preference is to stay absorbed in the music. I also think I have a very visceral relation to music. On a good day, I’m more ‘in my body’ than ‘in my head’ – perhaps this relates to your question on yoga.

Do you write/arrange all your music or do you perform covers?

At the moment, I mostly play improvised music, so this means we play without any compositions or arrangements. I have written – notably for Skein – and would like to return to writing at some point soon.

How would you characterize your style?

I think definitely something to do with eclecticism, and a bridging of the free improv and free jazz worlds. I used to think my eclecticism was a weakness; that I didn’t have a definable characteristic, but it’s essentially who I am.  

How do you keep an audience engaged?

I’m not sure I do! It’s definitely something I need to work on. In London, there’s a tendency for improv musicians to shuffle on stage, play for 45 minutes, and then shuffle off. I’m definitely no exception. I take great inspiration from watching Matana Roberts perform. She really talks to the audience, draws them in.  

What is the most interesting feedback you received after a performance?

Well… there was once this guy who left some kind of Facebook comment that said myself and another sax player sounded like syncopated farts. I didn’t like this so much.

And once I had a review (Jack Chuter) that said I sounded like a car engine refusing to start. I quite liked this one, and I think it was meant as a compliment!

Favorite venue in London and why?

I’d have to say it’s a toss-up between Cafe Oto and The Vortex (in alphabetical order!). They’re either side of Dalston High Road, and both put on some amazing music. I should also mention Eduard at I’Klectik. He’s put his heart and soul into creating a venue for music and art in Lambeth.  

Place you have always wanted to perform?

As a late-teenager I always had an ambition to play at the Vortex, and now I’m very happy to say I’ve played there lots.

I’d love to play in New York generally, and Chicago. I’d also one day like to play in the Bimhuis [Netherlands] under my own name. 

Your favorite among your CDs and why?

One of my most-oft played for a while was by the Clusone 3 (Han Bennink, Michael Moore, Ernst Reijseger). I bought a secondhand demo version of the double CD release with a Bill Frisell record, and the Clusone 3 was the other CD. I had no clue who they were at the time, but was immediately captivated. I still think Michael is outstanding.  

Where in the US have you played?

Unfortunately, I’ve not played there in public, although I recorded with New York residents Federico Ughi and Adam Lane. I think there’s a record due out very soon on 577 Records [NYC].  

Have you observed any appreciable difference in the audiences from country to country? 

It’s hard to say, but I think the best reception I’ve ever had was in Brighton, which is a bit like another country in terms of the UK!

It’s always a luxury to play in Norway. It feels like there’s so much support for music and the arts there, and it kind of feels like anything is possible. 

Talk about the song “Bibimbap.”

It’s called Bibimbap because that’s what the band and the sound engineer ate before the live performance was recorded.

The recording was Mark Sanders’ idea, so I ran a few titles past him and he liked Bibimbap because it sounded like a drum technique! 

What was it like working with vibraphonist Corey Mwamba?

Corey’s amazing. He’s an incredible musician and a hugely generous spirit. He has the energy of about five people, which can make touring with him a little exhausting for a mere mortal like me. When we went on tour we played eight nights in a row, and each one felt as fresh as the previous one. He always improvises. He’s a truly special member of the UK music scene. 

Which artist would you most love to perform a duet with?

Argh! Many! Out of people I’ve not played duo with, I’m talking about doing something with Roger Turner, who I’ve played with but not in a duo form. People I’ve never played with – I don’t know – there are loads, but right now Eugene Chadbourne springs to mind.

CDs in the works?

The trio I’m in with Julie Kjaer and Hannah Marshall have had something in the pipeline for far too long. We keep sitting on it; you’ve reminded me to push it on again. I’ve also done a duo recording with bassist Olie Brice which is looking for a label.

A year and a half ago I recorded with Federico Ughi and Adam Lane. That’s surely due out soon.

I really want to record something with Corey Mwamba. 

Future projects?

I’m considering putting a slightly more structured thing together with sketchy compositions. Something that’s very improvised but with a little bit of imposed structure. We’ll see…

Other comments?

No other comments! Thanks for listening!




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