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.
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.
What music, specifically saxophone music, were you listening to at that
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.
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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.
What is it particularly about Coltrane that has had such a profound
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.
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.
What kind of things specifically do you work on in terms of practising
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
And collective improvisation? Larger groups like the your Octet for
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.
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.
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
Philip Gibbs (27 September 2000)
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