Rodrigo Amado is a Portuguese saxophonist who composes and plays free jazz and improv. In a country that is has become known for these types of music, and he is one of the movement’s leaders. In 2014, he has released three albums so far. Below he answers a few questions from AMN.
You came to music in an interesting way – taking up the sax after a car accident. What led you to do so?
I was always, since I can remember, pretty much fascinated about music. My family wasn’t directly related to music in any way, but music was always present in a lot of different occasions. My parents had frequently friends over at the house, and there were occasions when it was full of people, many of them musicians, with everybody playing music and dancing. That’s when I first held a saxophone in my hands.
When the revolution took place (April 25th, 1974) I was 10 years old. These were very vibrant and creative times. By that time my room was already filled with LPs, and a few years later, when I started doing Inter-rails (one ticket to go anywhere around Europe – I’ve done three, always traveling alone), all I cared was to do crate digging and carry as many records with me as possible.
At 17, when this accident happened (not a car one – I went through a glass door, suffering a complete cut of the sciatic nerve), I was immobilized for a long period and my mother asked me what I wanted to help me spend the time. I answered immediately: a saxophone. That’s when I started listening to jazz. I was already fascinated with the instrument, probably because I was listening a lot to Roxy Music, David Bowie or Van Der Graaf Generator, among many other rock bands that used saxophone.
Portugal in general, and Lisbon specifically, has experienced a very rich jazz scene over the last 15 years or so. Can you discuss how it started and how it has evolved?
The big turning point for the jazz scene was the appearance of Clean Feed, in 2001. Before that, there was mostly mainstream jazz that very rarely got an international exposure. The few exceptions were players like Carlos Zíngaro, Zé Eduardo, Carlos Barretto, or projects like Telectu. When we started the label (I left in 2006), the contact with international musicians, mostly north-Americans, got really intense. Since then, the scene kept evolving very strongly, with a lot of international collaborations, great new players and a lot of projects being recorded and released. Several new labels were founded – Creative Sources, Tone of a Pitch, Sintoma, Porta-jazz – and the opportunities to record and release got bigger.
However, this recent economic crisis has affected deeply most of the musicians, being more and more difficult to find (paid) work. Other factor that slows things down is the ever existing gap between the mainstream and avant-jazz communities. Ignorance and insecurities fuel a sense of intolerance between both sides.
You seem to have a deep relationship with the Clean Feed label – what is your history with them?
In 2001, Pedro and Carlos Costa invited me to join Trem Azul (the distribution company) and help them start a new label. They had already recorded and produced what would be the first album for the label – The Implicate Order “Live at Seixal” (a live recording where I also play) – and were looking for someone who had experience in marketing, design, management…and music, of course. I had just finished 3 years as general manager for one of the biggest music megastores in Lisbon, and had decided to focus on music and my own projects, trying to make a living out of that. Besides, we were already good friends, so the project made perfect sense to me. I came up with the name Clean Feed, meaning “to feed a pure signal into something”. That’s what we wanted to do, release unadulterated music. Our first office was a tiny space in a degraded shopping mall, but we grew very fast. Those were 5 years of constant challenge, adventure, lots of work and lots of fun. And we felt we were building something. Clean Feed also gave me the first opportunities to release my own music and to play with foreign musicians that we’re much better and experienced. This really changed my life.
In 2006, by the time I released “Spiritualized”, I was spending more and more time with my own music and photography. Both Pedro and I had the biggest share of the label (the same), but Pedro was much more focused than I on the label’s issues, so things got a little unbalanced. That’s when I left. A few months later, I started my own personal label, European Echoes, to give me independence, freedom and control over my own releases. “Teatro”, “Surface”, “The Abstract Truth” and “Motion Trio” were self released on that label. More recently, I started working with great international labels like Not Two, Ayler Records or No Business, and felt the time was right to return to Clean Feed with a new album. Pedro agreed, and that gave way to the “Wire Quartet” release.
On the last 3 or 4 years, the Clean Feed store (now closed) was also a very important spot for the avant-jazz community. We rehearsed there, meet, listen to music, etc. I would say it was decisive for the evolution of our music and the overall scene. Now we’re reorganizing everything.
Your U.S. based collaborators include some of the best and brightest from New York, Chicago, and other places. How have you met some of these individuals, and how do you choose whom to play with?
First there was this great strike of luck, by getting the chance to hang and play with such amazing players like Steve Swell, Ken Filiano, Lou Grassi or Dennis Gonzalez. For me it was a whole different planet. I had never dreamed of playing with musicians of that level. But, for some reason, although I was a much weaker player, these guys kept supporting me and literally giving me their music. I suppose they felt my devotion for the music and probably some strength in the improvisation concepts I was working with. They were my mentors (in an informal way) and my direct inspiration. For me, a turning point was “The Space Between”, the trio I did with Filiano and Zíngaro. Suddenly I was recording with this amazing double-bassist and with the Portuguese musician I respected most. It was like a dream come true. The music showed me the strength of instinct, of trusting our own emotions and communicating them, through music.
Those following years I had the opportunity to play with Bobby Bradford, Joe Giardullo, Steve Adams, Herb Robertson, Paul Dunmall, Vinny Golia or Adam Lane, all of them much stronger musicians than I was. That was the most incredible way to learn and grow. There were occasions when I felt, after one of those gigs or recording sessions, that my playing had changed deeply. And those changes stayed with me and incorporated my playing. Over the years I started feeling more comfortable and confident, just enough to extend invitations to players like Paal Nilssen-Love, Kent Kessler, Taylor Ho Bynum, John Hébert, Gerald Cleaver, or more recently, Jeb Bishop, Peter Evans, Joe McPhee or Chris Corsano. These were all choices I did based on their music, and how I imagined it would fit within my own musical universe. Most of the times I had never met them before, and this made the musical encounters that more intense. It’s amazing for me to think that I never had a disappointment and sometimes, like on “Searching for Adam”, the music sounded almost exactly like I had imagined. I would say it’s a very intuitive process, with a lot that remains unexplained, even for me.
Two of your recent releases with Peter Evans, The Freedom Principle and Live in Lisbon, could be called hardcore improvisation – there is little effort made to capture a sense of normalcy in the rhythmic sense. Is this a goal you actively strive for, or a style that has naturally evolved?
This hardcore “feeling” that you are talking about comes from the fact that these recordings register the meeting of Motion Trio with one of the most unconventional improvisers in activity. We were aware of this and the kind of risk it represented, but we weren’t really prepared for what it followed. The concert at Teatro Maria Matos – we had just met Peter the day before – was like an open field battle. Every musical movement of ours was matched by a contrasting or antagonist movement from Peter. He never did what would be expected, or “normal”, from him. And kept a huge amount of pressure on the music. Of course, as an improv unit, we wouldn’t let go either. There were 5 or 6 different levels of communication going on at the same time. Gabriel and Miguel would take turns following Peter or me, or each one of them was following one of us, in very short fragments. Peter would come up with these split-second emulations of what one of us was doing, confusing what was coming from where. Huge turns in the music were always happening and surprising everyone. So, we were all improvising on a thin wire, in front of a huge audience, trying to transform this confrontation into consistent music. I would say – and Miguel and Gabriel say it too – it was the most intense and transforming musical meeting ever, for us. And it was something that happened naturally, not planned at all. Just the result of the meeting of four individual musical personalities, at a specific context and time.
Some of your work exhibits what could be called incidental noises or sound effects, all made by traditional jazz instruments. Are these qualities spur of the moment improv, or are they planned to some extent?
All my own projects are totally improvised and I never even talk to any of the musicians about what to play, in any way. So, no planning whatsoever. Just total and pure improv, and a deep sense of collective exploration.
What do you have coming up in terms of releases and live performances?
My next release will be the quartet with Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler and Chris Corsano. It will come out on Not Two, late this year. I’m also working on two other recordings; a Motion Trio + 2 with Steve Swell (trombone) and Rodrigo Pinheiro (piano) as guests; and the first album of Hurricane, a trio I share with DJ Ride (turntable, electronics) and Gabriel Ferrandini. A couple weeks ago, me and Chris Corsano recorded a duo that I’m now starting to listen. It sounds good! Planning to go back to Brazil for a second tour, return to the US with Humanization Quartet, for what will be our third East Coast tour, and spin more intensely on the European Festival circuit with Motion Trio.