Ron Samworth: “The Trick Is Not to Lose the Sense of Yourself”

©Laurence Svirchev 2024 (Note This essay, mildly edited, was originally published in the year 2000 in the bulletin of the Jazz Journalists Association).                                                                                                             

In the silence of  the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, the Talking Pictures concert had already started even though the stage was empty. The concert audiences at the “Cultch” were always extraordinarily polite, as if in mediation mode for the upcoming music. Tonite we could hear the musicians talking and joking behind the black curtain. Then the lights came up and Ron Samworth, Peggy Lee, Dylan van der Schyff and Bill Clark shuffled on-stage. They noodled around a bit, adjusted their instruments, tested the floor with their feet, settled into their chairs. 

Trumpeter Bill Clark bent over and poured water for each of the musicians. He takes a long drink and says, “Ah, vodka.” This gets a chuckle from the crowd but the bigger laugh comes after Samworth says, “Most of the music you’ll hear is new for the band. We played Victoria  (BC) last night and they got the world premier so you guys will get the…” Before he can complete the thought Dylan van der Schyff  interjects “…the rehearsed versions!” 

The audience has no age limits. A statistician from Demographics Canada would only get a log normal age distribution here in the “Cultch.” The youngest in the audience is just a few months old and the oldest is in his eighties. They make not a peep, not even the babies. It’s the vibe of a church no longer sanctified, but the spirits still inhabit this wood building. You see, Talking Pictures has a following in Vancouver, they are a bit of a cult-band.

The evening is typically eclectic, opening with a Kurt Weill/Langston Hughes piece, “Lonely House.” At one point, Samworth starts bowing across the guitar strings, his left hand low on the fret-board. Cellist Lee is doing the same and van der Schyff is bowing on a metal bar held taut across the top of the snare drum. All these weird arco sounds leave trumpeter Clark the lonely one in the house, so he makes some noise kicking a mute around the floor.

They play Sonny Rollins’ “John S”, then a composition with a  march rhythm, a very fast melody statement, open improvisation with lots of feedback and a reprise of the melody, no title announced. In the second set, Samworth opens with the George Harrison composition “Blue Jay Way” but nobody has lost their way.

Until this point Samworth has not taken a solo. This is not unusual, he regards himself primarily as an ensemble player. When he does solo he projects fervor. You can also see the facial muscles tightening and his eyes staring with concentration into an unseen void. If he gets to prajna, the hard face transforms into a glowing translucence. On “Blue Jay Way,” he does solo, loud and rockish, he gets to a sought zone. Later, in an interview, he said, “I love the Beatles. They had great, well, crafted tunes that always connected with me as a kid. “Blue Jay Way” is an obscure tune with a really unusual feeling. It’s stoned, with a strange, fluid time. To capture that feeling musically gets me raging psychedelically.”

The reference to the Beatles might seem a strange one, but more than one improvising musician got a start listening to a pop band that had chops. (Think of Lisle Ellis: he wanted to be a bass player after he saw the unusual configuration Paul McCartney’s electric bass, kids get inspired in a way that adults don’t). By high school Samworth had started listening to contemporary music, the electric fusion of Miles Davis and John McLaughlin. Like any other kid getting to know music (and himself), he took corner store lessons, read the method books, and learned the tunes, chord changes, and melodies. Eventually he was able to start doing a bit of teaching himself, and that was when he first ran into someone who has been a friend and co-player going on 20 years, Coat Cooke. Saxophonist and composer Cooke recognized Samworth’s openness to new sounds and brought him to his first major band, Lunar Adventures.

Samworth was also listening to musicians like George Lewis and other idiomatic expressionists; these experiences bent his thinking to music-making as a form of artistic expression. He says, “George Lewis was from another world. I had heard him only on albums until twenty years later we played together. Me and my buddies were experimenting with music and just growing up. And when the doors of perception opened up, there was George Lewis standing on the other side, along with other musicians like Coltrane, Bartok, the more searching kind of jazz musicians from the 60’s. We weren’t thinking analytically, it was almost ritual music, we were just inspired by the sound and the feeling of what he was doing with Sam Rivers. I was 17 and impressed by his great virtuosity. We were tripping in those days, you know? Before I knew the jazz tradition, I was checking out some far out things.” 

Like many others, he got a jump-start into artistry by going to the sessions at the Banff School in Alberta. He studied with Dave Holland, Muhal Richard Abrams, George Russell, John Abercrombie and the African drum master Abraham Adzinya.  He also met young musicians he still plays with, like Brad Shepik and Benoît Delbecq. Bill Emes was another musician he became friends with, but Emes’ death ended that chapter. Samworth says that Banff “was my graduate school; I had profound influences there and those influences called me to search for my musical identity.”

Samworth was fortunate to be in Vancover when there was a jazz club scene. It took him through the Classical Joint, the Three Greenhorns, the grunt gallery, and two versions of the Glass Slipper. He took lessons from Jim Kilburn, the guitarist who ran the Cellar and played in the house band with pianist, painter, and raconteur Al Neil.  If Banff was his graduate school, then the Classical Joint was his finishing school. He says, “The Classical Joint down in Gastown was the center of a jazz scene. It had been around for about 20 years when closed around 1989. It was a great training ground, a great meeting place for musicians of all generations, the Al Wolds and Dick Smiths, some real boppers. The mythical drummer Al Wiertz got banned from the Joint for playing too loud!”

The Joint was dark and candle-lit. The wax-smeared tables sat on risers and characters who were not listening to the music played chess or squinched their eyes trying to read paper-back poetry. People in the know were always slipping into the back room, coming back out quite high. Samworth says, “At first, of course, I used to just hang out there, getting ‘dark coffees’ [booze-spiked coffee] and acting very boho with the women.

“I had a good three and half years playing there.  The first time I played the Joint was with Lunar Adventures (Clyde Reed, Coat Cooke, Gregg Simpson). And the first time I played with drummer Claude Ranger was at the Classical Joint; that was a night with Rob Frayne and Scott White. Claude asked us to play and we almost fell over. ‘This guy has the thunder, and Claude wanted us to play with him? That’s the great thing about this art form, that you can make the connections with heroes if the energy is right!”

The experience of working regularly in a club like the Classical Joint has left a lasting impression on Samworth. He is a promoter of artist-run cooperatives that give musicians a place to work-out ideas without the commercial distractions of tinkling glasses, bartender chatter, and patrons trying to talk over the music. Along with vocalist Kate Hammett-Vaughan, he curated a series at the grunt, a small art gallery around the corner from the Hot Jazz Club on Main Street.

He says, “The grunt gallery series grew out of the need for a place to do research and development. When I have a  notion, I want to play and follow my whims. The grunt was the kind of place where if you have an idea, you could ask the players to come down, and just do it. There was zero overhead and all it took was a time commitment. That commitment extended into seven years of Wednesdays, mostly Kate and myself with a little bit of help from some volunteers. Even if there were only a few people, they were all great listeners. You got to have a few beers with the people in the community. The grunt was where [painter and guitarist] Thomas Anfield and I first did the Post Cecil Taylor Garage Music Orchestra. Thomas would paint symbols and the musicians would respond with sound. It could only have been started at the grunt gallery, but the idea took off and we played quite a few gigs.” 

Samworth was also one of the key organizers who got the first Glass Slipper off the ground. It was a low-ceilinged basement with a rank smell that the music and repeated washes gradually sluiced away. It soon expanded from a rehearsal space with an occasional night of improvised or jazz  into a seven nights a week club. Internal differences within the New Orchestra Workshop (NOW) caused the Glass Slipper to be taken over by percussionist Roger Baird, but the club continued to exist and eventually move to a superior location in a former church. An arsonist burned the Slipper to the ground in January 1997, but not before eight years of music had given work to countless musicians from Vancouver and around the world.

Perhaps Samworth’s best successes at the Slipper were two concerts of the music of Kurt Weill. On each occasion there was a line-up outside of people clamoring to get in. Samworth has always had a fond place in his music for the darker side of life, and while he does not talk an overtly political language he is totally conscious of the forces of repression and artistic responses to it. The Three Penny Opera was Weill and Bertold Brecht’s updating of a 1728 work called the Beggar’s Opera. Samworth’s reworking was called On the Weill Side.

He first thought of the project in 1995 while sitting in a New York City movie house. The film was the 1931 production of the Three Penny Opera starring singer Lotte Lenya. During the film he dreamed the idea of a review of Weill’s music for his new group Talking Pictures. Samworth moves slowly and deliberately on his projects. He researches, writes, and rehearses intensely before presenting to an audience. On The Weill Side took six months of work before it played publicly, and by that time a male and two female vocalists had been added to the band roster. In one of the songs, “Whiskey Bar” the original decadent lyrics were twisted by the male vocalist to say, “Oh show me the way to the next little boy, oh don’t ask why.” The concert-length tapestry of music, words, and sarcasm originating from the troubled political and Boho social world leading to pre-war fascist Germany was suitably bent out of shape to reflect similar feelings many have in our own war-torn and information-warped times.

The Weill Side project was the public beginning of Talking Pictures and foreshadowed his two compact discs on the Red Toucan label, Ciao Bella (1995) and The Mirror with a Memory (1997). “I formed Talking Pictures as being specific to people I like to play with: their musical personalities rather than by instruments.” 

Of course instrumentation does make a difference because, as Samworth notes, “The timbre of this group is unusual. The question is how not to relegate the instruments to traditional roles, how to free them up. But the fact is, instruments do have traditional roles: drums do keep time, the trumpet does cut through, and a guitar does have chords. I work with shapes, densities, pulses, and colors.”

Both CDs are organized as a series of compositions that segue from one to another, forming suites of music. The transitions from one long composition to another are usually short improvisations by the quartet. The original compositions by band members integrate the dissonances and noise of new music with jazz, making them tantalizing adventures that open doors to the labyrinths of improvisation, deep groove swing, and surreal playfulness.

The title tune of Ciao Bella is a romantically mysterious piece, danceably a throwback to a smoky Berlin cabaret or a dock-side tango bar in Buenos Aires. It was originally used as the overture to On Weill Side. Samworth’s composition The Real Professionals (dedicated to a chauvinist snob who told Samworth that the “real professionals work in New York City”) is a feature for percussionist van der Schyff. After a written fanfare motif and a group improvisation, van der Schyff lays down a quiet pattern on the rims of the drums. The rest of the band then joins in with a cycle of eight notes with a two beat rest. On cue the pattern drops an eight-note out of each cycle until nothing is left. Meanwhile, the drummer transits from the hard sound of sticks-on-rims to a softer African-style hand-drumming. The effect is oddly unsettling, like walking a tight-rope: just when a groove is accepted as a swinging thing, the rhythm shifts to an unpredicted place and the mind must seek another aural balance.

Bill Clark’s “Ligeti Western” is a series of vignettes, a tribute to Ennio Morricone, the Italian cowboy pasta film composer. The Ligeti part of the title refers to the Hungarian contemporary composer who influenced Morricone. The debt to the European new music composers is also reflected in humorously  incongruent references like “Shiny Stockhausen.” Taken together, the two CDs are cinematic in imagery, chthonic in concept, and confirm Ron Samworth as leading-edge composer.

A side of Samworth that does not often get seen by the new music/jazz community is his and Coat Cooke’s improvisory work with EDAM (Experimental Dance and Music). EDAM’s dance form is contact improvisation and Samworth’s artistic consciousness has undergone significant development in the process of working with the visual and physical ebb and flow of dance that is not often present in music.

In any improvising collaboration with dancers the temptation for the musician is to play continually. Improvising dancers have similar concerns as improvising musicians: they must contend with their own internal sense of movement and at the same time interact with the other dancers. Yet music can be an over-riding psycho-acoustical force that bends a dancers will: the dancer’s danger zone lies in the central nervous system becoming a slave of the music. Samworth has had to learn when to stop playing, leaving the dancers free of all sound save their artistic instinct, respiratory, and circulatory systems. He has equally had to learn how to close down his visual connection with the dancers in order to play independently of their movement. Those are the moments the controlled heaving of dancers’ respiratory systems become the heard rhythm of the airwaves.

Samworth also finds that dancers will discuss an upcoming work at length whereas musicians might only speak briefly about the improvisation they are about to concoct. Samworth says, “One EDAM score grew out of a discussion on focus. Sometimes you can be in focus, even if your back is turned to the dancers. Sometimes your focus is not sharp, you are looking at the dancers but you go into a soft focus. Sometimes you hold a form, but you don’t have to shift your form just because someone else shifts. We have practiced starting inside and after an interval moving outside, from inner focus to outer focus. It meant blowing and exploring out in space fairly loud and gradually shifting focus to what individual dancers were doing and then shifting to interactive mode in sync with what others were doing. Finally I  integrated myself in to the whole space of all the dancers.”

The sense of  ‘being in, being out’ is particularly noticeable when Samworth is on stage. He solos rarely, but when he does solo it is forcibly, as noted in the review of the Talking Pictures that opened this essay. In a sense, he is a reticent musician for sometimes he does not sonically project into the audience. His band-mates certainly hear him, for the looks of appreciation on their faces are evident. That makes him a musicians’ musician, for he successfully plays all kinds of music, never making himself obtrusive in the process. As part of an interview, I made the comment, “You seem to consistently contribute to the musicality of the performance, yet somehow we in the audience don’t hear enough of you. You seem to more feeding the music than projecting it.”

Samworth’s response to the idea was prolonged: “I love that, it is part of my concept. In defense of the guy you don’t hear enough of, I’d say, if you took me out of those groups they would be totally different groups. I think I’m really good at (especially when we had Lunar Adventures) initiating and creating textures. Of those guys, I was the young one who had different influences and my role in that group was to bring a different take into the band. My aesthetic is really geared towards group playing. Once you’re in a group its important to think about the overall sound of what you’re trying to get across.

“I don’t think I’m a particularly egotistical player. I don’t mind getting out there and taking a solo, but I really want to play for the music. I get off way more by having a satisfactory group experience than laying it down and playing a hot solo. Celebrating the role of the virtuoso, I think, is a 19th century convention, obsolete in some ways. I’m more interested in hearing virtuoso group playing. It’s the difference between hearing Iztak Perlman and the Arditti String Quartet.”

When one thinks of Samworth’s group playing, his role in NOW cannot be avoided. Samworth was eminently responsible for the return to and maintenance on the scene of this remarkable institution. NOW’s low-profile work in Vancouver to is sponsor series of workshops bringing the concepts of improvisation to the community-at-large. Its high-profile work has been to commission well-known improvisers and composers and bring them to Vancouver to perform their works. The parade includes Wadada Leo Smith, Vinny Golia, George Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams, Barry Guy, and René Lussier. The Lussier session produced perhaps Victo’s best-selling CD,  Le Tour du Bloc as well as three public presentations of the music. Much of NOW’s earlier recordings were featured on Golia’s Nine Winds label. The phenomenally complex composition by Barry Guy, Study-Witchgong Game II/10, was issued on the Maya Homburger/Barry Guy label, Maya Recordings. His most recent effort with NOW was to contribute a 23-minute composition called the “Yellow Sound,” conceptually inspired by the 1912 essay by the painter Kandinsky on the relationship between color and sound.

To be consummate requires more than musical skill: Samworth and Cooke put all the logistics writing together. Samworth says, “Improvisation is a business. I have to spend time writing grants, making connections, lining up the dates. You know this idea of the ‘genius-as-the-guy-who-can’t-tie his shoes’ is a complete myth.” 

I asked Samworth to comment on how he negotiates, in his own mind, the paths of making music in different contexts and of how he integrates his music into group playing. His response was: “This is a challenge. Part of how I try to figure out my musical identity is to negotiate all these  different stylistic things. There are some gigs where you have to cop a style, like an R&B gig.  But  the jazz and improvised realm, and improvising with dancers can be pretty radical. If they are all things I enjoy, then I am going to weave a common thread through them. It has taken some time to find my identity and bring them into new situations.

“When I was younger, of course I went through identifying who I was by digging at the time. Gradually I felt the need to pull the influences together and listen to my own musical personality. Your own body has a rhythm and you have to tune into that. When you are emulating another player, you might be running contrary to your own natural sense of phasing, placement of sound, tuning, or whatever.  What really resonates with me? To know that is a life’s work because you are always under the spell of influences. If something really connects with you, you are bound to let it have an impression on you, let it leave its mark. I started as a guitarist and became an artist. The trick is not to lose the sense of yourself.”


Note from Laurence Svirchev: This essay, mildly edited, was originally published in the year 2000 in the bulletin of the Jazz Journalists Association. 

Ron Samworth Discography (1991-1999)

Lunar Adventures. Alive in Seattle. Nine Winds CD, 1991;

New Orchestra Workshop with Lunar Adventures. The Future Is Now. Nine Winds CD, 1990;

New Orchestra Workshop with Lunar Adventures. NOW You Hear It. Nine Winds CD, 1991;

Barry Guy and the NOW Orchestra. Study-Witch Gong Game II/10. Maya Recordings, 1994;

René Lussier and NOW Orchestra. Le Tour du Bloc. les Disques Victo, 1995.

Talking Pictures. Ciao Bella. Red Toucan Records, 1995.

Talking Pictures. The Mirror With A Memory. Red Toucan Records, 1996.

NOW Orchestra. WOWOW. Spool, 1999.

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