"...a master of navigating musical extremes: chaos and subtle nuances, obtrusive noise and beautiful melodies, layered textures and open space--all through the scope of a singular musical vision. 'Free' is not just a musical approach for Mr. Doneda, it is the philosophy by which he lives and embraces life."
- Sam Newsome, Soprano Sax Talk
French soprano saxophonist Michel Doneda is probably one the most idiosyncratic figures in free jazz--if you can even call him a free jazz player. What he does is beyond free jazz as a style--sound art is probably more accurate. He has turned the flutter tongue and air sounds into high art. Michel Doneda has gotten to what most only aspire--one's essential self.
On Sunday, December 20 at 8:30 pm at The Cornelia Street Cafe, Doneda, Nakatani, Dave Liebman and myself will convene for a first time gathering that Liebman has appropriately called The Soprano Colossus.
All of my forays with Liebman at The Cornelia Street Cafe have been nothing short of improvisatory, sonic marathons where everybody comes out on the other side a better person, more enlightened, and a little less afraid of the unknown. And I'm sure Sunday's meeting will be no less cathartic.
Below is a repost of an interview I did with Michel that I posted originally Saturday, May 5, 2012. Fascinating words by an equally fascinating artist.
Your musical concept seems to extend beyond you just being an improviser. You’re also a performance artist, where the visual component is just as important as the aural. Do feel this is true?
Since early in my career, I have played and collaborated with artists from other disciplines. First it was actors and poets; then I began collaborating with dancers, painters and filmmakers. It is suffice to say that those experiences are fully integrated into my life and career as an improviser. I’ve also found that playing outdoors in an open space is just as important as playing indoors in enclosed spaces.
Do you feel that being self-taught has enabled you to develop an approach that’s more personal than if you had served an apprenticeship under someone?
Yes, my approach is very personal. Fortunately, I never needed to try and find myself. And even though I’m self-taught, I do not absolutely reject music education. I regard it as a precious treasure in our society. However, for personal reasons it was not for me. It goes without saying that others often revealed themselves as teachers to me, even though I did not realize it at the time. As a result, there are some things I lack. For example, I would have liked to of spent more time studying and playing contemporary music, especially the Giorgio Netti pieces for soprano sax. But I'm constantly learning and moving forward, even though on the horizon I do not always see the finish line. Let me just add that no matter how personal one's approach is, you should always look to play and communicate with others. And this requires reflection, musical exchanges, and personal and interpersonal confrontations.
Have you always played free/improvised music, for lack of a better term? For some players, it’s more of a gradual progression.
I still remember the first sound that I played on the soprano in April of 1968. It was the discovery of this sound that made me want to continue exploring the instrument. There were attempts to play more conventional music. But I never really had the desire and strength to pursue it. Admittedly, each style requires a lifetime.
Are there any recordings of Michel Doneda playing standards?
I have not made any recordings playing jazz standards, but I have recorded two projects playing traditional music. The first was on the Nato record label, a collective album called Flight Sidney. I recorded a theme of Sydney Bechet’s called "Egyptian Fantasy" with drummer Elvin Jones. I had never played that song before and I never played it again.
The second was a record called General Gramophone, which I co-lead with saxophonist Daunik Lazro. We played melodies from India, Eastern Europe, a Lee Konitz tune, and a choro piece. All of this happened back in the late 80s and still remains a rarity for me in my career. However, I do continue to play and study choros (a style of Brazilian popular music from the 1940s), but this only for my pleasure.
Having recorded close to 50 CDs, do you ever worry about repetition? If not, how do you keep it fresh?
My improvisations and recordings are collective processes. By collective process I mean: the decision (making up my mind to do something), the process (the act of doing it), and the organization (the logistics of doing). Even my solo recordings have never been only me making my own decisions.
And I don't talk about the music. I hope this is clear. I just always record music that I want to record. And I’ve never had any producer.
Why did you decided to make the soprano your main instrument? Or as some musicians say, maybe it chose you?
I cannot say why I chose the soprano. There may be reasons--perhaps some unconscious influences. But so far I do not know. However, I do know that the soprano saxophone resonates a particular feeling in my body that I like—both tension and calmness. These are two qualities I cannot separate. I don’t know if this is reason enough to pursue a lifetime of learning. But I do feel that the demand of the soprano is perfect for me.
You have a pretty vast vocabulary of extended techniques. Do you, or did you at one time, spend several hours a day exploring new sonic possibilities on the instrument? And where do you get your inspiration for new sounds?
I spend time with the soprano everyday--as a discipline and for pleasure. My musical inspiration comes from the instrument itself. My musical language results from the dialogue between the instrument and myself. This is why I have no a preconceived notions about "my" music as such. My perception can change with my understanding of the instrument.
And I do not like the term “ extended techniques” because it standardizes an approach that is very personal. In fact, the instrument processes both cerebral and organic musical terrains. And I’m constantly going back and forth between these two poles. Of course, there are technical things to master, but one’s state of mind also grows with this research.
I should also mention this excellent book on “multiphonics” written by Marcus Weiss and Giorgio Netti: Techniques of Saxophone Playing.
Most of the music I’ve heard you play is often sound based and textural. Do you find yourself ever having to balance working on more conventional things like playing chord changes, scales, and line oriented ideas, along with you sonic approach?
I do so much with improvisational music that I find that I have to be fully dedicated to that style of playing. Let me also add that I am fortunate to have many musical partners who inspire me as well as keep me satisfied musically. What I do takes a lot of practice, time and effort. You might say that I have made a commitment to dedicate my life to being a contemporary improviser.
I am not talking only about musical things, but also the organization of my professional life—which means looking for concerts as well as organizing them. Everyday I have to spend time for these kinds of things. It is always a struggle to play this music.
Who are some of your influences on the soprano?
I listen to Sidney Bechet, Bhob Rainey, Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill, Alesandro Bosetti, Marcus Weis, and many others. All these wonderful artists have influenced me throughout my career, and it’s been a pleasure to listen to as well as play with many of them. And let me give you the name of a Japanese shakuhachi player, Watatsumi Do, whose musical expression touches me deeply.
Myself, being someone who has a pretty straight ahead past, I know that most straight ahead players care a lot about pleasing the audience and presenting a well-balanced, varied performance. However, free players, tend to only care about creating an experience for the listener—whether good or bad. Do you agree? If so, do find this to be more liberating or a hindrance?
I see improvisation as a listening experience--an experience that takes place at a certain moment, at a particular place, with a specific group of listeners. For me, all these components are equally important. I'm not trying to control what happens. I just try to make sure to be focused and present so I can make the best of my opportunities. Again, discipline and pleasure.
Even in a free context, do you ever put limits on yourself just to inspire different kinds of ideas?
I am under no mental suggestions before playing. I am prepared to be in attendance at whatever is there in that moment. This way there is always potential, limits, accidents, and most of all, discoveries!
Please join us for what I'm sure to be a memorable experience.
The Soprano Colossus
Michel Doneda, soprano sax
Dave Liebman, soprano sax
Sam Newsome, soprano sax
Tatsuya Nakatani, percussion
Cornelia Street Cafe
29 Cornelia Street
New York, NY
Sunday, December 20, 2015 at 8:30 PM