Paul Dunmall interview
by Philip Gibbs

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PG: Well Paul could you tell us a few biographical details?
PD: Born in Welling, London, 6th May 1953. My father was a very good, swinging, semi-pro drummer and as a child I used to play the drums a bit, then started to play the clarinet at age 12. About a year later he took me to a gig where the tenor player in the band gave me his sax to hold, and I remember thinking 'wow, what an incredible thing that is'. When I was 14 I got my first alto – it was a Hawks Alto – and I had to get myself a paper round to pay for it. Soon after this whilst still at school, I had an opportunity to join Element of Truth, a soul band playing Otis Redding etc., but they really wanted a tenor player so I finally traded the alto for a tenor.

PG: Any formal musical education?
PD: Blackheath Conservatoire of Music, Saturday mornings, classical music – clarinet, with Alfred Randall – great old boy! And Gerald Bodmer. Also whilst working at Bill Lewington's (London saxophone shop) after I left school, I had some lessons from Kathy Stobart.

PG: What music, specifically saxophone music, were you listening to at that time?
PD: I think the first guy who really turned me on was Junior Walker and King Curtis. Plus, I was doing lots of soul gigs at that time, Flamingo Club, Whisky-A-Go-Go etc. and I met a lot of great sax players, older guys playing in Bluebeat/Soul bands, with Georgie Fame or whatever, and of course I was so enthusiastic I would pick up everything I could from these guys – fantastic experience.

PG: So how long were you working at Bill Lewington's?
PD: A couple of years, and it was great because not only did I learn a lot about repairing various saxophones but I also got to hear some of the big-name players trying out horns, people like Ben Webster, Stan Getz, all the top guys of the day used to come in for repairs or whatever. Then one day I saw an advertisement in Melody Maker: 'Saxophone player wanted to join pro band' so I applied for it, and got the gig. The group was called Marsupilami, a sort of heavy, hippy, strange band, who were just making their second album for Transatlantic. So at the age of 17 I left Lewington's and moved to a farmhouse in Langford, Somerset, where we all lived and played music … wonderful. And it was at this time I first toured Europe – France, Holland and Germany – playing on the progressive rock scene, and playing opposite bands like Colosseum. By now of course I was listening to lots of different types of music, but in particular to the saxophone, and of course jazz.

PG: You had obviously heard some of the greats before that?
PD: Oh yes, Charlie Parker, but I couldn't deal with that at all – it was so phenomenal I thought it was from another planet – I just couldn't grasp it then. But the lead singer in the band was really into all the jazz. heavyweights, and he was the first person to play me John Coltrane, the Meditations album. I had a big argument with the guy and told him this was bollocks. About a month after that, BANG! I heard Afro-Blue and I was spellbound. That was it. That was a big moment. Then, Albert Ayler and Wayne Shorter, etc.

PG: Did you do any jazz/improv playing around this time?
PD: I did some free playing with the drummer, messing around, experimenting really. And I saw some free playing in Holland, the Frank Wright Trio which absolutely blew me away. I was very busy practising at this time, learning my craft … not much in the way of theory, more instinct and ear. Free playing definitely held the biggest attraction for me then, rather than the straight jazz thing. It was later on that I really studied that. I really loved the energy of free music, for me it was similar to Hendrix and the rock scene at that time. Energy! .... listen to Albert Ayler or Pharaoh Sanders – wow, that's the saxophone – powerful!

PG: About a year later the band folded, what happened next?
PD: I returned to London, worked for a while at Rotosound String Manufacturers. Still doing odd gigs here and there, but it was at this time that I experienced what you might describe as a spiritual awakening, or a moment of expanded consciousness … the peace that passeth all understanding. I had already been deeply interested in spiritual matters, Indian philosophy, etc., for some time, and this experience definitely strengthened my convictions about all that. I then considered taking a trip to India with a friend of mine, but instead discovered the Divine Light movement in London, attended many meetings, began daily meditation and became a fully initiated member. The movement had its own music ashram full of fantastic musicians so I joined in immediately. The next thing I know we're off to the States on tour! So now I was living this great life of spiritual practice and intense music-making every day, a fantastic opportunity to learn from great horn players from all over the world, playing individually, and in this great horn section seven days a week. Eventually we ended up living in a Hollywood hotel in California, and we actually used to have band rehearsals at a place on Hollywood Boulevard. This is where Alice Coltrane got to hear the band, and decided she would like to use the brass and saxophone section for a recording. So the next thing I find myself being conducted by Alice Coltrane. We had some rehearsals, and then went into the studio, she even played some organ I remember.

PG: What kind of music was the band playing at that time?
PD: Oh, original compositions and arrangements, kind of jazz/soul/rock-based modal things with a few solos now and then. Devotional music mainly. We had some very distinguished visitors come to check the band out, Quincy Jones, Ray Brown, Stevie Wonder's management, rumours that we were going to play in Las Vegas, etc., but it didn't happen. Then the Divine Light Mission started to go weird, money problems etc. The band continued for a while, trimmed down considerably, and we started to play more jazz stuff, as a result, I started to apply myself much more to theory, chord changes and harmony. Eventually the Mission dispersed completely, so I found myself playing various gigs with rock bands and then a Mexican band, and that's when I had my first radio broadcast. Now firmly back in the real world, a trombone friend of mine asked me if I would like to join Johnny Guitar Watson's band; he was short of a tenor player, and about to record Ain't that a Bitch. Then I was on the road with him for a year 1975/'76, during which time I practised my ass off, really getting my technique together, listening to everyone and seeing loads of gigs – Roland Kirk, Elvin, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, et al.

PG: So a year later you came back to England?
PD: Yes, came back to the Midlands and started to play some folk things with Polly Bolton, Dando Shaft. Then I did some jazz playing in London with bassist Daniel Manners, playing his original material, and through that gig I met Nigel Morris and Tony Moore and we formed a trio, based in Oxford. This was my first real chance to play free music and it was really fantastic. I then moved to Bristol, where I met Tim Richards and formed Spirit Level. It was about this time that I heard the album Spirits Rejoice by Louis Moholo, which was definitely a turning point, a phenomenal album. This was also the first time I had ever heard Keith Tippett play, and I thought he was amazing. I also met people like Barry Guy, Paul Rogers, Alan Skidmore, Tony Oxley around this time, and who were all influential, especially Tony Levin. In fact, it was only then that I really began to know about, and appreciate the European free music scene. So, for a while, I was doing both the free thing with the trio, and Spirit Level, until about '88. Since when I have pretty much played in free improv settings almost exclusively.

PG: As regards your own playing was there anyone then who particularly inspired or influenced you?
PD: No, not really, I was happy following my own path, though of course Coltrane has continued to be an inspiration throughout.

PG: What is it particularly about Coltrane that has had such a profound affect?
PD: First and foremost he was quite simply a superb saxophone player. Superb technique, his tone is fantastic, the lines he plays are wonderful, just total control, someone who really knows the instrument. And then there's the emotional impact, a great spirit playing through that horn … overwhelming. Also the range … in his lifetime he covered an enormous amount, phenomenal changes of direction, always pushing the music.

PG: So where do you see the music going next?
PD: I don't really know. I definitely feel that I'm an extension of the jazz tradition, but there are lots of people getting involved with free music who aren't from that tradition at all – which is great – although I do like to hear someone who can really play there instrument. For instance, I really like the Dutch player Toby Delius, and also Simon Picard – they play fantastic.

PG: What kind of things specifically do you work on in terms of practising the horn?
PD: Well, I work on various areas of the horn – low register or whatever. I like to see what can happen in a particular area. I also really like playing the blues, that gives me a sense of structure, and I want to get a sense of structure when I'm freely improvising. Obviously I concentrate on technique, maybe explore multiphonics a bit, but really I want to get a good sound, I want to get more concise. But performance is really where the work gets done. I'm not looking to break new ground, I just want to have my own voice and have a great sound, like Dexter Gordon – but used in a free improvisational context. I feel that there are a lot of free players who don't have a great sound, like perhaps most of the more traditional players do, and that's a real drag, it detracts from the music. Freedom in the music making is great but this shouldn't exclude a certain amount of discipline from the instrumentalist.

PG: Then what exactly do you mean by freedom?
PD: Well, obviously freedom from musical form – harmonically, rhythmically, etc. But most of all, the freshness you get when you start to play and don't know what's coming next. Of course, sometimes it just doesn't work at all, but sometimes it does, and when it does, well, to me, there is no way of reaching that point in any other kind of music. And when you get there it's a fantastic feeling, a feeling of tapping into something magical.

PG: Is there any thought process involved?
PD: I try not to think if I can help it, more an attitude of 'anything can happen' – I love that. It's a bit like meditation, the idea is to quieten the mind, almost as if something is taking over, tuning into an energy where a second can last forever. Of course, there is also the chaos of it, when you're not listening to what's going on. But if you are listening, and the playing is happening, you can get to that magical point, and for me this can only happen when I'm freely improvising. That's what I am after in music.

PG: How does this connect in terms of spirituality for you?
PD: Well, we're now entering dodgy ground, but for me improvising is a means of approaching, or connecting with the beyond, a way of expressing and manifesting the divine energy and you just know when you hit it, though most of the time it's a struggle. It's like being able to tap into a kind of eternal lake, just for a moment, and then being cut off again. And I just want to keep going back to drink from that lake, or better still, jump in and stay there! And for me this is the responsibility you have to the audience – to manifest this higher consciousness through music – to whoever is there.

PG: So before you begin to play, any thoughts concerning what you think the audience might want to hear? Or do you play for yourself first?
PD: You play for yourself. You can even play by yourself and still reach that place in complete isolation, but then you miss the joy of communicating it, giving at the deepest level, the most profound level – that's what an artist must do. And of course it comes full circle, an audience that's really into what you're doing will definitely send an energy back to you, the artist, and that makes you play better. There's an exchange of energy, no question.

PG: What about in the recording situation where there's no audience?
PD: The vibe comes off the musicians you're playing with, and knowing that you are able to capture the music and then give it to someone. So you have this collective responsibility to make it happen and you make a vibe happen in that way.

PG: Paul, you touched on the fact that the very nature of this kind of music making produces a result that is not always of the highest artistic quality. How do you reconcile that with regard to the paying customer?
PD: The truth is that everyone has a different take on the music. For example, I may be playing a piece of improv to one person who's followed my playing for twenty years, and at the same time someone else may be listening for the first time. Each will probably have very different views on it and will be affected differently by it. So, in one sense, you can't judge your own performance objectively, but only in so far as I know what my aims are and what my previous experiences have revealed to me. So if the audience get the same feeling as I get then great, but if they don't get it at all then so be it. You can't just walk into this music, and the first time you hear it you may have a real problem with it … like I did with Coltrane's Meditations album! I listen to that now and it's phenomenal, so what's happened? The music is the same, same recording, so my perspective on the music must have changed.

PG: What are your thoughts on the use of electronics in free music?
PD: I think it's great. I have dabbled a little, and would like to do more in the future, but I love the acoustic sound so much and I think it allows for a more human connection with the instrument – less obstacles I suppose. And I actually think that the world needs that right now, perhaps to balance things, more of the human touch. Acoustic instruments will never die, people will always want that intimacy, will always want to hear a person meet the challenge of a piece of wood or brass and gain mastery over it.

PG: How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition?
PD: I think it can work, but you have to have someone who really knows about both disciplines, which is very rare. Most improvisers, in my view, are not particularly good at composing, including me. I think, why bother having the 'bit of composition', you may as well steam straight into the improvisation. There are fantastic composers who can really make it happen, and who send a shiver down your spine. I am presently working with Brian Irvine who is a wonderful composer, and he allows me to freely improvise over the composition, and to my mind it works great.

PG: And collective improvisation? Larger groups like the your Octet for example?
PD: It always comes down to who you are playing with, how good they are at their craft, and that includes listening. I think it can be more difficult generally, though there can be some very sublime moments. The duo and trio things that I do are of a very different nature, but I love that as well – very intimate. Ultimately it's about communication.

PG: You have recently started your own label, the first release being Solo Bagpipes which has been described as 'the most important free music album in recent years' – tell us how that came about.
PD: I had been playing the pipes for some time, mainly with Paul Rogers in the duo. Then I worked a lot with them at home on my own, and it occurred to me that this could really work as a solo thing. So I booked some time in a studio, tried some things at first with electronics, which was fine, but then I thought the acoustic sound was great as well – so I recorded it like that, and with the exception of one out-take, that's exactly what you hear on the CD. I recorded it very quickly, and thought it worked really well. I was very pleased with the result. I hope to do another one at some point [Solo Bagpipes II – it's now out and even better and a third is promised!]. Of course, it was impossible to find any company willing to put the bagpipe album out, so I finally decided to start my own label and release it in a limited edition myself.

PG: This brings me to the question of the 'business' of music-making, your thoughts on that?
PD: Well, after talking about all the joys of music, you now mention the dreaded 'b' word, because in the end music involves business. If you want to go and play to people, play them your music and if you haven't taken care of the business aspect, you can't make it happen. Unless you play for nothing, and even then you wouldn't get a gig in some places! It's awful, you 're dealing with publicity, various people in power, all the bullshit, and that's what can make your music change. I remember doing a Coltrane music gig, and the promoter told me that if I did more of that kind of thing – Coltrane Quartet stuff – I could get loads of work. I thought bollocks to that. You know, it's very depressing engaging with the music business, I read these magazines and feel less and less a part of the jazz world. I seem to be going further and further underground, which is fine, because I'm still playing the music that I want to play. But as far as earning a living! I seem to be working less these days … maybe next year, who knows … Business – horror!!!

Philip Gibbs (27 September 2000)

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