Early in 1997, slipped in with the latest edition of the Medium newsletter – the official information service for Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri and Mick Karn, was a simple A5 flyer. ‘LIVE at the London Astoria 2, Saturday 12 April 1997,’ it declared, ‘a one-off event with special guests.’
I had to be there. The Astoria was in the heartland of my mid-’80s university “beat”, just along Charing Cross Road from Foyles the bookshop, where so many volumes for my English literature studies had been pondered and purchased. It was a stone’s throw from the Virgin Megastore on the corner of Oxford Street which I would regularly visit on the look-out for rarities or a new copy of Bamboo magazine.
The venue was a ballroom in the basement of the Astoria theatre. It’s long gone now, having been demolished to make way for the infrastructure of London’s Crossrail project. That night we queued round the block awaiting entry. It was an odd feeling. With today’s internet it’s easy to find people who share similar interests and connect with them through the ether. Back then it was quite a solitary experience being a fan of the ex-members of Japan (at least, it was for me), yet here I was in the company of people whose anticipation was as high as mine for the evening ahead.
It was a great night, a sell-out. I was struck by how much more muscular the music was live, personal highlights being ‘Beginning to Melt’, ‘Big Wheels in Shanty Town’, and a truly euphoric rendition of ‘Life Without Buildings’. Having just missed out on seeing Japan live, this was a small taste of redemption for having foolishly passed up a ticket for the Sons of Pioneers tour. Every member of the standing-only crowd sang Sylvian’s single line of lyrics, safe in the knowledge that this would most likely be the one and only chance they’d get.
The “special guests” on stage that night were Steven Wilson on guitar – of No-Man and Porcupine Tree fame – Natacha Atlas on lead vocals, Suzanne Barbieri on backing vocals, and Theo Travis on saxophone and flute. Selected cuts from the performance would later be released as Playing in a Room with People, which has been issued on several different hues of vinyl in the last year.
So how did Theo Travis come to be involved? ‘That is an interesting story,’ he told me. ‘I heard two versions of the reason I got the call. I had recorded a session in a studio in Brixton where Mick Karn had been recording. When JBK were looking for a sax player, the recording engineer apparently recommended me. One version of the story was that I was top of the list – so got the call.
‘But the other version was that Mick saw the name Theo – which is a Greek name and thought, “great – I will get another Greek person in the band!” (he was a Greek Cypriot). I have no Greek blood, however. My parents just liked the name! Anyway, Mick called me up and asked me if I would do the Astoria gig, a month in Japan and the Dutch 2 Meter session. I was delighted to be asked and said yes, and that is how I joined that band.’
Was the music of Japan and the subsequent solo projects something that he had followed over the years? ‘I had been aware of Japan, and also some of Mick’s solo work. I saw Mick’s band, which was actually JBK with David Torn, at the Jazz Café in Camden, London in early 1994 and enjoyed it. Mick had a reputation as a really interesting and pioneering crossover musician with a very distinct style.’
For Theo, this was much more than a casual hiring as a sideman, it strengthened his resolve that music would be his primary calling. ‘The JBK experience of 1997 was an important step in my music career for a couple of reasons. First of all, I had been working part-time in a day job until I got the call to work with JBK, and that was the catalyst to me leaving and becoming a full-time musician. I have to say that some of the senior partners in the place I worked expressed their jealousy that I was leaving to become a full-time musician and they said how exciting that sounded and wished me all the very best.
‘Secondly, working with Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri and Mick Karn taught me about what music “is” or can be. I will explain what I mean…
‘Prior to working with them, I had played mainly instrumental jazz, including running my own group the Theo Travis Quartet, and I had also played gigs with various singers. The instrumental music I had played generally involved a theme/tune, then improvised solos and then a repetition of the theme. That is often how jazz works. With JBK, their music often involved melodic fragments that would be linked, so there might not be a “theme” as such, but a “section”, maybe a riff, few notes, sometimes maybe just a particular sound or rhythm.
‘There might be improvised sections within pieces too, but generally not long extended solos. There was often no “formula” or traditional structure or pattern to a piece. I felt this opened things up and expanded possibilities. After the JBK tour one of the first things I did was put together the Marshall Travis Wood improvising trio with drummer John Marshall and guitarist Mark Wood. We recorded an album, Bodywork, and toured the UK.
‘This was a completely free improvising trio so in that respect very different from JBK music, but what I had learnt was that the music could be open and whatever musical interest there was in any piece or at any moment was OK if the music was good enough. It was OK not to follow traditional song or piece templates and structures. The music was the music and if it was interesting, musical and engaging then that was enough. Of course Marshall Travis Wood, being a free improvising trio, was doing something very different from JBK, which was more fixed and rehearsed, but the freedom of structure and musical imagination had similarities – in my mind anyway!’
Working up close with Steve, Richard and Mick, what was it about their approach to their instruments and their connection in a live situation that really struck you? ‘I love what those guys do, and because they largely played together and not with others during their formative years, they had a unique way of playing and of playing together. They definitely played with a special chemistry. Each musician is very special – Steve has a very individual style that is original, in some ways simplistic but fantastically rhythmical and very poetic. Mick had a sound that was instantly recognisable and played with a great sound, rhythmic feel and approach. Richard has his own palette of sounds and again plays in his own way. The way Mick and Steve played as a rhythm section was unique, beautiful and super cool.’
Participating in the Astoria gig and the subsequent appearances in Japan and The Netherlands projected Theo into a new universe of musicians, the fruits of those connections being heard on many recordings in the ensuing years. He appeared on numerous albums alongside members of that live band, such as Indigo Falls, PulseXPulse, Masami Tsuchiya’s Forest People, JBK’s _ism, Porcupine Tree’s Stupid Dream, No-Man’s Returning Jesus, Anja Garbarek’s Smiling & Waving…
‘JBK _ism was the first album of theirs I appeared on and that was very exciting. I was also very pleased when the Playing in a Room with People came out as it documented that band with Steven Wilson and those gigs of 1997. All the others you mention were great to do and came about from that original connection in 1997. The Porcupine Tree albums and the Anja Garbarek album came about through meeting Steven Wilson in the JBK band.’
The connection continued beyond the Medium label’s period of existence and on into Steve Jansen’s involvement with Sylvian’s samadhisound. In 2005, Theo was part of a line-up with Steve, Bill Nelson and others who came together on stage to mark what was billed as master-pianist Harold Budd’s ‘Farewell concert’. Harold reproduced the calm tranquillity of pieces from his recently released samadhisound album Avalon Sutra that night at the Brighton Dome. I had been in the US on business and dashed from the airport to drop off my things at home, then down to Brighton to see the concert, fighting jet lag the whole day. I’m eternally grateful that I did attend. It was desperately sad to hear the news of Harold’s recent passing. This was the only time I would see him play.
Theo then appeared both on Nine Horses’ Snow Borne Sorrow (see ‘The Banality of Evil‘) and Steve’s debut solo disc, Slope. These albums were developed in parallel, with some tracks even switching from one to the other – such as the Nine Horses title track, which started out as a composition for Steve’s own project but was adopted for the group record. I was interested whether there was cross-over between Theo’s sessions for these two albums? ‘All the music I recorded for Slope was done in a completely separate recording session with Steve. Different studio, different day. Steve took quite an experimental approach so lots of different things were tried. It is a great album and was a pleasure to be a part of.’
It was a welcome surprise when David Sylvian announced his intention to take to the road in 2007, following the release of the Nine Horses album and with Slope dropping through our letterboxes even as the shows were being performed. ‘This tour is in part a means of putting earlier chapters of my working life behind me. Of embracing the work that was done and, with a sense of finality, cutting the ties that bind me to it as a body, an entity,’ said Sylvian in the official announcement. ‘In the future if I return to this material it will likely be in the context of a new body of work with which it shares a connection. In this sense there’ll be a greater clarity regarding the content of future performances (should there be any). But we are by no means focusing exclusively on the past as we shall be exploring more recently recorded compositions, in particular those from the Nine Horses releases. The World Is Everything will be an intimate show, in some ways an echo of the Slow Fire performances of a decade ago only on this occasion I shall be supported by a trio of musicians, a line up which will include Steve Jansen on drums and samplers, and bassist Keith Lowe.’
Lowe had appeared with Sylvian for the Everything and Nothing tour at the start of the new millennium, and like Theo was involved in the Nine Horses sessions. The third musician from the originally announced trio line up, unnamed in the initial publicity, was to be Takuma Watanabe on grand piano. Sylvian’s reference to a parallel with the Slow Fire tour rings true when listening to the arrangements of the material. More reserved than the Everything and Nothing shows, Sylvian’s guitar was often at the forefront, supplemented by some sublime acoustic piano touches and Lowe’s upright electric bass. Jansen’s subtle and melodic playing structured arrangements that left plenty of space for the music to breathe. He played both electronic and traditional kit, the dynamic generated by the latter being a highlight of the performance.
At the very last minute, however, it was decided that another element was required to complete the sound. Theo Travis picks up the story: ‘Originally there was not going to be a woodwind player on the tour. I had been in touch with Steve Jansen as I had wanted to go to the London concert at the Royal Festival Hall and had asked about a guest ticket. About a week before the tour started, I got a call from Steve asking what I was doing that Friday and could I get to Stockholm in Sweden! Basically, David had decided it might be a good idea to have a soloist in the band in addition to the others. Although I was busy as I had a couple of gigs that weekend, I made some calls and arranged to get out of them, so I found a substitute sax player and band leader for those gigs so I could play on the David Sylvian tour. I was not going to let that get away!
‘Also, I did not know the music that was going to be played on the tour and had missed the rehearsal period! Steve Jansen e-mailed me mp3s of the songs in the set list and I listened to them and worked out what I should play. Many of them did not actually have a sax or flute on, so it was a case of working out keys and lead lines that I might play, what fitted and where to play, with some specific guidance from Steve.
‘The only rehearsal I had with the band was the forty minute sound-check just before the first gig at the China Theatre in Stockholm. It was a bit nerve racking, but David seemed OK with what I did and did not give me any notes about what to play or not play. I think he might have been quite nervous about the gig himself.’
Certain of the songs required computer-generated sounds, including the Nine Horses tracks. ‘Steve Jansen not only played drums on the tour but had a laptop and keyboard and was also playing and triggering live much of the electronica that appears on the album. The music was not exactly like on the albums and so it was fresh and evolving.
‘The music was so great – really special. I absolutely loved it. My experience was that David was quite undemanding and laid back as a band leader. It is a shame there was never a live album from those gigs.’
This was the first time since Sylvian’s debut In Praise of Shamans tour that he incorporated wind instruments as part of the musical palette. Then it was Mark Isham picking up the brass parts that he, Kenny Wheeler and Jon Hassell had played on disc. Woodwind was one of the signature sounds of Snow Borne Sorrow, so it was an appropriate choice which suited both the earlier and more recent material.
No doubt because of the last-minute arrangements, the line-up changed through the duration of the tour. Theo featured through the early gigs, including The Royal Festival Hall where he had expected to be on the guest list rather than the stage! There were occasions when the originally intended trio line-up played – such as in Glasgow. And for some later gigs, Hayden Chisholm took up the reins. His playing had also adorned Nine Horses, having been brought to the project through a long-standing connection with Burnt Friedman.
Theo’s first night in Stockholm might have been a case of being thrown in at the deep end with only a soundcheck for a rehearsal, but for the second date – in Oslo – there was reinforcement from one of a group of Norwegian musicians becoming increasingly connected to Sylvian’s world. The sublime musical prowess of Arve Henriksen supplemented the band for that one show.
‘Ride’ was for me a great example of this live band’s work. We had become familiar with the song from its long-overdue release as part of the Everything and Nothing compilation album, the original Secrets of the Beehive recordings having been embellished and finalised over a decade later. Presented here in a simpler arrangement, Theo’s flute playing calls to mind Lawrence Feldman’s contribution to ‘I Surrender’. We can trace him picking up some phrases from the original arrangement – including the brass and the strings – as well as bringing some exuberant improvised flourishes of his own. Takuma does justice to the restraint of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s original acoustic piano part. It shows how the woodwind injected free expression into the interpretation of the songs on this tour, allowing the arrangements to keep evolving.
One of my favourite recordings from Theo Travis’ solo catalogue is his 2003 album Slow Life. The pieces are all recorded on solo alto flute, with looping techniques allowing a phrase to be repeated and then accompanied by another melodic line. It’s not over-laden with effects, so the result is that the pure sound of the instrument and the player’s gentle touch are showcased. ‘Sleep’ is a piece of true ethereal beauty. ‘When I tried my alto flute with some kind of looping processing pedals, I fell in love with the sound, and then it became very much part of my armoury…Sometimes when people get involved in foot pedals and using programmes to process their sound, they change the flute sound…what I was interested in was putting it through a looping system so that instead of playing one alto flute, I could be playing ten alto flutes. Instead of having one melodic line that stops when I breathe, I could have a tapestry of alto flutes, so build chords and build textures.’ (Theo Travis, 2010)
‘Ride – live’
Music and lyrics by David Sylvian.
Played live on The World is Everything tour, 2007
lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing
Photographer credits for the tour band images are unknown, the work and copyright of the photographers is gratefully acknowledged. Full sources for this article can be found here.
Download links: ‘Sleep’ (bandcamp)
Physical media links: Slow Life (bandcamp)
Coloured vinyl re-issues of Playing in a Room with People are available at burning shed here.
‘It was a seminal moment in my musical life, touring with that band [JBK], through the connections that were made, through the things that we did…it was very important to me. It was a short adventure, but a big adventure.’ Theo Travis, 2019