Saxophonist returns to Outside the Spotlight for series' 10th anniversary

Contributing Music WriterDecember 6, 2012 

Frode Gjerstad plays Monday for the 10th anniversary of the Outside the Spotlight series.



    Frode Gjerstad Trio

    When: 8 p.m. Dec. 10

    Where: Mecca Dance Studio, 948 Manchester St.

    Admission: $5 at the door

All it takes is one word to send Frode Gjerstad into a fit of laughter.

Well, there are probably several that would do the trick. But when discussing the free jazz and improvisational music he has taken around the globe over the past three decades, one particular six-letter word elicits a hearty chuckle from the Norwegian saxophonist: career.

"Career? I don't have a career," Gjerstad, 64, said by phone from his home in the coastal Norwegian city of Stavanger. "I'm doing this for fun. I'm doing this for the love of the music."

Some may argue that the enjoyment Gjerstad has derived from the free-form jazz adventures he has piloted amounts to a career. From an extended period of collaboration with British drummer John Stevens throughout the '80s and early '90s to work with such pioneering avant-garde sax stylists as Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker to an industrious trio he has led since 1998, Gjerstad has been something of an international jazz ambassador. Such a role has been underscored of late with a summer tour that took his trio to Australia and New Zealand for the first time. There are plans for the group to stage concerts in Brazil, Argentina and Chile next year.

But the term career, one supposes, also carries with it the connotation of commerce, the expectation that one's work will be rewarded with a level of respectable financial compensation. That gets a rise out of Gjerstad, too.

Sure, he may travel to all corners of the world to share his music. But audiences for jazz that largely dispenses with conventional structure and melody tend to be modest. Luckily for Gjerstad, they are also extremely devout.

"There are pockets of people who are interested in this music," the saxophonist remarked. "And these pockets are all over the world. They're not big, but they make touring possible. Like this tour we're planning to do of South America in March. That will be totally new territory for us. It will be interesting to see what they say there about the way that we play. And, of course, we will meet other people there we will play with, too. So meeting other people, meeting other audiences, ... it's really just a way of developing yourself and developing your ears.

"But I must say my favorite audiences are in America because people there seem to be so enthusiastic. I think it's really fun for them to hear us."

Among the American contingencies that champion Gjerstad's music is Lexington's Outside the Spotlight Series. Gjerstad's performance on Monday at the Mecca Dance Studio on Manchester Street will be a 10th anniversary celebration of the concert series.

The saxophonist has played in Lexington only once previously: when OTS hit the five-year mark. But Gjerstad's drummer, Paal Nilssen-Love, has been an OTS mainstay over the years. He has played here with Brotzmann, Ken Vandermark (in the Free Music Ensemble) and as part of the Norwegian trio The Thing, among others.

"I've been playing with Paal since he was 15," Gjerstad said. "He has been in many of my bands. His strength is that he is always listening. He is listening a lot and he is a very powerful player. I love that. He can make me play a certain way that I can't play with other people. He opens up new avenues and brings in all the experience that he gets from playing with Brotzmann and Vandermark and all these people. Plus, he is a very nice person to be with. He's my favorite drummer — no question about it."

Rounding out the trio is bassist Jon Rune Strom, a player nearly 40 years younger than Gjerstad. But the saxophonist said Strom's youthful drive and enthusiasm is an integral element in the band's improvisational spirit.

"He brings some things to the table that I didn't think of," Gjerstad said of Strom. "He will tell me about his ideas and how he looks at the world and all of these things. I never understood this so-called generation gap. I don't understand it, because we're just human beings.

"I've had bands with lots of young musicians. When Paal first played with me, I had this eight-piece band that contained young rock musicians. They were 17, 18, and 19 years old. I just find it interesting to play with these guys. They inspire me. They give me ideas so I can try out new things. So a lot of young musicians coming from Stavanger have been through my bands."

But the jazz elders of Stavanger weren't always as understanding of Gjerstad when he went in search of his own artistic voice.

"There was a jazz community there as I grew up, but they would not accept me. I wonder why. So I talked to a piano player there, asking him if he could show me some chords or give me a general idea what this jazz music is all about. And he said, 'I had to find out myself; so do you have to.'

"So I thought if I ever understand it, if I ever get into this music, I'm not going to have a closed hand, because nothing comes out of a closed hand. You have to share your ideas with other people. You have to share them with the world."

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at

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