Rich Halley is an Oregon-based tenor saxophonist and composer. He has released 16 recordings as a leader, 6 since 2010, including this year’s Wisdom of Rocks. His recent collaborators include Michael Vlatkovich, Clyde Reed, his son, Carson Halley.
Rich sat down with us to answer a few questions, and provided not only his history and perspective on creative jazz, but a nice slice of jazz history itself.
1) Tell us about your history and development as a musician.
I grew up listening to the rhythm and blues, country & western, and rock & roll that I heard on the radio in Portland, Oregon. I began playing the clarinet in the school band at age 11 and started playing tenor saxophone when I was 15. Soon afterwards I began to listen to jazz, and immediately became intensely interested in the music.
Early on I listened a lot to Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, among others. By the time I was 16, I was playing in jazz groups and trying to learn the basics of bebop. Sometimes we would play in a “free” context; to me that was always a very natural thing to do. While I was still in high school I began to listen to people like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. I always felt that Ornette’s music was very straightforward. It swung, it had a lot of feeling, and the soloists told a story. To me, those are the basics of jazz. Also, the music had a folk-like quality. Ayler’s music had that folk-like quality even more so.
After graduating high school, I moved to Cairo, Egypt with my family. In Cairo I was in a band that played many styles of music, a sort of international mix. I enjoyed living in Egypt and the multi-national scene there. After that I moved to Chicago and that period is covered in the next question.
In 1969, I lived in Berkeley, CA for a few months. Saxophonist Bert Wilson lived next door. There were regular sessions at Bert’s house and I played at many of those. Musicians in the area would come by and hang out. Sonny Simmons would come by, and Smiley Winters used to be there a lot. Bert was always playing, listening, or talking about music. He was an important force for modern music on the West Coast.
Back in Portland I alternated periods of musical activity with time out in the mountains working, hiking and climbing. I continued to play in jazz groups, including a trio with bassist David Friesen and drummer Ron Steen. I also played in rock and rhythm and blues bands.
In 1973, 1 went back to college to study biology at Portland State University. After I graduated, my wife Betty and I were married and we moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I attended the University of New Mexico and did field research on rattlesnakes. While I was in New Mexico I played in a funk band. After completing my Master’s degree in biology, we moved to San Francisco where I played mostly in Latin bands. It was at this time that I began writing music seriously, although I wasn’t performing it in public.
After a year in San Francisco we returned to Portland, in the fall of 1976. From that time until 1981, I supported myself as a musician in Portland, playing in jazz groups and Latin bands. In 1981 I began working as a programmer for the local Blue Cross plan. I supported my family by working in IT for the next twenty-eight years.
In 1977, drummer Dave Storrs and I formed Multnomah Rhythm Ensemble. Dave played drums and tuba, I played saxophones, flutes and percussion, and Steve Willis was on bass, cello, clarinet, and a lap steel guitar that he played with a butter knife while it was turned up to distortion level. We played a concert as a quartet with Julius Hemphill and continued to play in that trio format for a couple of years. Then the band changed to a septet with three horns and four rhythm including Ghanaian master drummer Obo Addy. We would do things with images, masks and costumes, talking and movement as well as music. Sometimes we made our own instruments. I was writing music regularly for these groups. My first album, “Multnomah Rhythms”, was recorded around that time. Since then I’ve been playing and recording with my own groups.
During the 80’s and 90’s I led a band called The Lizard Brothers, a sextet with three or four horns. We released five recordings on Avocet and Nine Winds and performed on the West Coast and in Canada. The Lizard Brothers was definitely a vehicle for writing and featured multi-sectioned charts combined with open improvisation. The group was large enough to allow me to experiment with a lot of different approaches to composition and arranging. At various times the band included reed player Vinny Golia, trombonist Michael Vlatkovich and trumpeter Rob Blakeslee.
In 1991-92 I played in a cooperative band called Jack’s Headlights that included Rob Blakeslee, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Aaron Alexander. Michael Bisio and Aaron Alexander lived in Seattle at the time but are now in New York. In 1994 I worked with my sister-in-law Barbara Newell to start the Penofin Jazz Festival in Northern California. Barbara runs a small company that manufactures Penofin wood finishes. It’s a small private festival that takes place out in the country in an historic barn. We have presented many leading creative jazz artists over the last twenty-one years.
In 2001, I formed a trio with bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Dave Storrs. The three of us had been playing in a quartet with Rob Blakeslee. This trio was more oriented toward free improvisation and had a nice open group feeling. From 2001 to 2005 we released three recordings on Louie Records plus a quartet recording with cornetist Bobby Bradford in 2003. We were only able to play with Bobby occasionally but it was great when we were able to do it.
Beginning in 1999 I also led the Outside Music Ensemble, a four horn/two percussion sextet that performed in purely acoustic outdoor settings. For 13 consecutive years the OME performed annual hike-in concerts on top of the butte in Powell Butte Nature Park east of Portland. This was an event where I was able to combine music with my interest in the outdoors.
2) You spent some time in Chicago in the late 60’s. Were you involved with or influenced by the AACM artists?
In 1966, I moved to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago. At that time the AACM was very active and many of the musicians lived in the neighborhood around the university. What I liked most about the AACM was that they were committed to working together and they were not afraid to do something different and find their own way. There were sessions on the UC campus every Friday night where as many as ten or fifteen groups would play, including people like Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Leroy Jenkins, etc. Plus other great players who didn’t ever get to New York, like bassist Charles Clark. Of all the saxophonists I heard there, I especially liked Fred Anderson. I played at some of those sessions and at one point Joseph Jarman organized a big band of students and other young players. We played charts from the original AACM experimental band.
I worked in a rhythm & blues band in Chicago that included Jeff Carp, Paul Asbell and Jordan Sandke. Soon after I left Chicago they recorded with Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Jordan’s brother, Randy, was in a band with Michael Brecker and I got to know both of them. Chicago had all kinds of great blues players and I came to really love that music. At the time, people like Otis Rush (who I used to sit in with), Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Albert King, B.B. King and many others, were always playing around the city. Eddie Shaw was Otis Rush’s tenor player at that time and when I had to solo after him it was always an education.
I studied for about six months with saxophonist Joe Daley. He helped me learn more about playing chord changes and showed me some things about improvisation. I used to hear Anthony Braxton practicing when I would walk by his apartment; he was very dedicated and always practicing. When I saw him on the street we would sometimes talk about music. I remember that I once told him I was getting in a couple hours’ practice every day. He said, “Two hours? You know it takes more than that.” And he was right. Later on I practiced four or five hours a day.
3) You have a love for the outdoors. Do you find inspiration for your music in nature?
I love doing all kinds of outdoor activities. I’ve spent lots of time studying animals and plants, hiking, fishing, hunting, climbing mountains and scuba diving. There is something about connection with nature that opens up perceptions and provides grounding for human experience. Since childhood I have been interested in animals, plants and the wilderness. These things have been a major interest and presence in my life and so they influence my music, but not necessarily on a conscious level. I think the way you live comes out in your art, regardless of intention. And so when I write music, references and relationships to the outdoors often come up. But often it’s not something I plan.
4) Your last several albums have featured the quartet of yourself, Michael Vlatkovich, Clyde Reed, and Carson Halley. How did this group come together and do you see it being your working band in the near future?
The Rich Halley 4 sort of evolved out of the Rich Halley Trio with Clyde Reed and Dave Storrs. After several years Dave decided he wanted to do other projects. Clyde and I wanted to continue playing and possibly expand what we had been doing. Carson and I had played a lot of duo gigs together and he was also in the Outside Music Ensemble so Clyde and I started playing with him. We played quite a few gigs as a trio. I had played with Michael in various groups since the 90’s and I knew he would be a great addition. A second horn creates all sorts of possibilities for harmony, counterpoint and sonic variety but of course it has to be the right person and Michael was that person.
The RH4 is definitely a working group; we play pretty regularly in spite of the fact that Michael lives in LA, Clyde lives in Vancouver B.C. and Carson and I live in Portland. I really appreciate Michael’s and Clyde’s dedication to our music and their willingness to travel to our gigs. The group is ongoing and our music continues to evolve.
5) What is it like working with your son Carson?
Well, it’s wonderful to be able to play with my son and be able share in the creative process. But he didn’t come into the band because he was my son; Carson was definitely the right drummer for the group. He’s added a lot, partly because he brings the musical sensibilities of his generation to the band which adds to the depth of the music. Carson sort of took over a set of drums I had for rehearsals when he was 13. He started playing in rock bands and then later began to play jazz. When he went to Pitzer College he was very lucky because Bobby Bradford directed the jazz band and Bobby really taught Carson a lot about the music. Then Carson began playing gigs with me as well as in other bands and things progressed from there. I never expected him to be in my band or groomed him to be a musician but he was always around the music so I guess it was just a natural process.
6) You were involved in the founding of Portland’s Creative Music Guild. How did that come about?
In 1991 Rob Blakeslee and I founded Portland’s Creative Music Guild. There weren’t a lot of performing opportunities for freer music in Portland so the Guild was an attempt to address that. The idea was to present concerts by regional musicians as well as by groups travelling through the area. The Creative Music Guild is still active and has presented hundreds of concerts over the years. The Rich Halley 4 played at the CMG’s Improvisation Summit of Portland last month. It was a three day event that included film and dance as well as music and featured a large group led by Tim Berne.
7) When listening to your music, it seems as if the line between composition and improvisation is very lightly drawn. How do you combine these two disciplines?
In a small group where the music is 90% improvised everything depends on the players involved and the chemistry they create. The RH4 has great group chemistry. Because very little is pre-planned we often take big risks when we play and everyone is willing to do what it takes to make the music work as an integrated whole. Clyde is great at connecting things and also launching the band in new directions while we are improvising. He has a beautiful sound and plays with a lot of feeling. Carson plays deep grooves and is very attentive to sound and nuance. He has a good sense of when to play and when to step back and he really internalizes the compositions. And of course Michael is a great soloist and is really interactive in his playing. He’s also a wonderful composer and he improvises like a composer.
I think what really makes the band work is the fact that everyone interacts in a very compositional way. I refer to this as compositional group improvisation. Each person is hearing what we have played as a whole and adds new musical statements based on that context. You have to create the right balance of tension and release. This helps us build each piece as a complete and coherent musical statement. One of the things that make the band interesting is that even though we do free improvisation we are also strongly rooted in tradition and we use a very broad continuum of the historical language in jazz when we play. We don’t just use one subset of the language. In our music we often combine very traditional elements, say a bluesy shuffle for example, with completely free improvisation based on sounds and energy flow. This is a natural and authentic thing for us. And the band plays with feeling; it’s not some intellectual exercise. If you don’t play with feeling you might as well hang it up because music is really about feeling.
I write all the music for the band, although we also often play totally free with no written composition to work from. When we are working from a composition, after the written material is played, whatever happens next is improvised spontaneously. There are generally no guideposts as to where the music will go. The trajectory of the music is based on group improvisation but of course that improvisation is influenced by and is in the context of the feel and structure of the written material that precedes or follows it. In this way we try to make the improvisation seamless with the written material. And the structures that we improvise are more dramatic than if they were worked out because of the elements of surprise and discovery.
8) What do you have coming up this year in terms of tours and releases?
The Rich Halley 4 just recorded a new CD in May and I expect that will be released in 2015. We did a Midwest tour this spring which went very well. I’m hoping we can get to the East Coast in 2015. And we’ll be doing the Penofin Jazz Festival in May 2015. Beyond that, I don’t know. The world is always changing and hopefully there will be some interesting opportunities.