I believe Lou to have been one of the most original saxophonists of our time, - one of those legendary figures little known to the general public, but a major Influence on all those who knew and worked with him.
He was in my band in the early 60s in a sax section with Mike Osborne and John Surman. He then spent many years on the Improvised Music scene, as a founder member of AMM, often in partnership with the drummer Eddie Prévost. This revolutionary group achieved international recognition and made a number of albums.
Eventually Lou settled in the West Country, still playing, but in relative obscurity. This is where we got together again, ten years ago, when Lou joined the big band that became The Uncommon Orchestra. As a free improviser with strong jazz roots, his playing in the context of a large ensemble was a revelation. Lou took part in many projects and performances with the band until couple of years ago when health problems began to limit his activities.
Lou was greatly loved and respected. At Lou's funeral on October 17th in his village church in Cheriton Bishop, North of Dartmoor, his wife Penny, family and friends were joined by musicians from London and the South West. The service ended with his unaccompanied tenor saxophone in one of those limitless streams of invention, audacity and lyricism that only Lou could produce.
A master, and a great loss.
1939 - 2017
1939 - 2017
Recorded by: Matthew North
The Uncommon Tenor
Lou Gare held his tenor saxophone aslant, like Lester Young, whose light-fingered articulation and disdain for the obvious he shared. Gare was born in Rugby but it was in Plymouth in the early 1960s that he first played with the band of the young Mike Westbrook, alongside the even younger John Surman. In London in 1965 he became a founder member, with Eddie Prévost, Cornelius Cardew and Keith Rowe, of AMM, one of the seminal groups of the first generation of British free improvisers. Lou was on their debut album, AMMMusic, recorded at Sound Techniques in Chelsea and released by Elektra Records in 1966. Six years later, with the group reduced to a Gare-Prévost duo, they performed at Harvey Matusow’s International Carnival of Experimental Sound event in London, their set released initially in part on an Incus EP as AMM at the Roundhouse and then in full on a Matchless CD under the same title.
In the 1970s Gare moved to Devon, where he worked as a teacher of Aikido, a modern Japanese martial art. There he played with the pianist Sam Richards in the band Synchronicity; he was also reunited with Westbrook, joining the latter’s locally based Uncommon Orchestra. This piece of film is from their performance at the Barnfield Theatre in Exeter in December 2014. Gare is featured throughout a 12-minute piece called “D.T.T.M.”, adapted from a section of Westbrook’s suite On Duke’s Birthday and dedicated to the trombonist Danilo Terenzi and the drummer Tony Marsh. It’s a quietly phenomenal performance, devoid of rhetoric but bursting with invention, the soloist’s thoughts unfurling at his own pace and expressed with a lovely laconic warmth. I don’t think I’ve heard a more subtly dramatic example of a tenorist working with a big band since Wayne Shorter emerged from the swirling mists of Gil Evans’ “The Barbara Song” in 1964. Perhaps inspired by the example of Sonny Rollins, Gare was also a wonderful unaccompanied improviser, as he demonstrated on a Matchless album titled No Strings Attached in 2005 and in this clip from 2013. When he died on October 6, aged 78, British jazz lost a voice of quiet but resolute originality.
Richard Williams The Blue Moment
Alto saxophonist Seymour Wright pays homage to the lessons learned from the man who helped set the pace of what was to come:
Lou Gare, the great British saxophonist and founding member of AMM died in October. He was a fantastic, profoundly generous, humble and vitally creative person. He was also a masterful tenor saxophonist, his understanding of the power and potential of sound, and vibration - 氣 - to move and transform the world was total.
It may be a paradox to observe in so deliberately an egalitarian group-music, but somehow, in terms of the AMM (historical) reception, Lou seems its least publicly recognised member. His equally radical presence is often missed. This is a mistake. His involvement in the creation of AMM’s remarkable synthesis was crucial, equal and integral. But it is perhaps understandable, because his particular input to the first phase of AMM music - at live plays, usually in the dark, or documented on records that have been so globally influential such as AMMusic (1966) and The Crypt (1968) - is often so thoroughly mysterious, and beyond the orthodoxy of how things saxophonic are supposed to be, that it can’t be heard in the ways one might expect. It involved, and requires of us, a different kind of imagination. For a time, he alternated saxophone and violin, or used just the bow to vibrate sound from other stuff in order to produce uninterrupted lines of sound. Or, played the saxophone in strange ways, like a ram’s horn, ‘bugle-like’ with bits missing, or with appendages, like a small bell tied to its crook. Or, played in contexts of such extreme volume that he was perhaps the only person who could hear - or feel - the saxophone through its vibrations in his head and hands.
We can see something of this in these images from a Langtry Road Studio AMM ‘play’ in 1968. His saxophone, used earlier on, lies behind him in its open case as he bows a tin can atop one of the two metal discs used by various members of the group:
Lou co-founded the seminal British improvising group AMM in London in 1965. He was involved, from its pre-history along with its two other core members drummer Eddie Prévost and electric guitarist Keith Rowe, throughout the group’s first phase, during which they were joined by composer, pianist and cellist Cornelius Cardew, and up to its complex, fragmentary hiatus in the 1970s. He was integral to the unprecedented, radical and emancipatory art/practice that the group, and those close to it, developed in weekly ‘plays’ and came to call ‘AMM music’. They set in motion some mighty and extreme vibrations and pushed out boundaries that (still), in complex ways, pulse through and contain the development of much of the art and music of now.
In both photos, left to right: Prévost on drums, Gare with tenor and Cardew playing radio and the surface of a framed painting, during a 1967 AMM play at the ICA Dover Street, London. Photograph by Serena Wadham.
At Langtry Road Studio, West London, during an AMM play in 1968. Photograph by Frazer Pearce.
By the early 1970s he had returned fully to the tenor - using circular breathing to develop endless, uninterrupted open lines on the saxophone. His origins were in jazz, he had left the new jazz context of Mike Westbrook’s first London band to found AMM. And like any true ‘jazz’ saxophonist - and he was that, a great jazz saxophonist - his tone and instrumental logic are instantly recognisable, and original. He was a rethinker of the instrument. His sound is golden, soft, constant, breathy, burnished, honeyed - a tenor breathed into to keep it glowing. A sound (with its mysterious debt to Lester Young and Sonny Rollins) well captured I think, in these two images (respectively):
Photographed early 1970s by Frazer Pearce
And the idea that, or potential for, colours and sounds to transpose, for want of a better word, in this way is one of the things that I personally learnt from listening to, conversations with, and twice playing music with Lou. What (to me) he did in a unique and brilliant way - and a way that has been particularly influential and inspiring in my (creative) life - was to make spaces for ideas to contain each other and mingle, and for things to grow into new, organic and natural, possibilities. He had a unique ability to fold ideas together, to patiently draw connections between things that seemed of incompatibly different proportions, or tempers, or times, or dimensions. Seriously and playfully, and ever-mysteriously, he juxtaposed, wove together and connected objects and emotions and memories and songs and processes and imagined things in the creative present to make - in the patient space required for learning, at a point just beyond the initial edge of friction - new meanings, new feelings and new things. In this sense I think what he did is deeply germane to 21st century ways.
The 1960s photos above show him doing this as part of AMM. There are many other examples that I have been told about. Like his use of songs in contexts of early AMM disorientation and abstraction - during one particularly harsh moment he is remembered as playing “Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries” (the lyrics go: “life is just a bowl of cherries; don't take it serious; it's too mysterious”). And there are examples in the small amount of writing that he published, like this composition for saxophone from Scratch Music (1972), re-imagining a 9th century Chinese poem (originally about a harp) by Bai Juyi:
Or, like this, his diagram of Roles in the old AMM Music published in Microphone magazine, in the same year:
These multi-texts or transpositions speak for themselves. They offer as many layers of depth, and openings, as you want to dig for, or prise out. In my opinion, the clearest example of all is the small, but absolutely remarkable, body of solo tenor recordings that Lou has left. The earliest I know is an (unpublished) 1983 cassette recording of him playing beside the River Exe. He once told me that some of his first attempts at saxophone playing were outdoors, in Rugby his hometown - other teenagers would throw stones at him. He continued to play. Only much later did the opportunity to record more solo music come. There are two recordings from 2005 - one live Hornbill, one studio No Strings Attached - both released on Prévost’s Matchless records (the only label to have consistently supported Lou’s work). And there are also two short films by Stan Willis on YouTube. For the studio recording Lou had wanted to record outside, on the moor in Devon. In the end the natural elements were deemed too intrusive, and the recording took place in the studio. He compensated, for part of the session, by bringing violins in - an instrument that Lou repaired for much of his life - to fill the room, ‘playing’ them, at a distance. All of these solos offer flowing lines of thought, reflection, memory and invention, an alternative solo saxophone music.
I first met Lou at a concert in a small, carpeted, upstairs room in Derby in 1989 or 1990 I think. At that time I was obsessed with AMM’s Crypt 2-LP- box and what weirdness the saxophone (with which I was just starting to experiment) might be capable of. Lou moved around the room, in contrast to the sensile drum kit of Prévost and table-top guitar of Rowe, the other two members of the trio that night. He worked flows, gusts and trickles of apparently normal, beautiful and vocal saxophone sound around and into the extended electronic-acoustic world of Rowe’s radio and guitar and Prévost’s bowed, rubbed and struck drums and cymbals. I didn’t understand what Lou did that night - at that time I could not work out how it fit. It was too mysterious, for me. Paradoxically, I wanted something more orthodox in its weirdness. But I spent the next few decades thinking about it, and trying to understand his work. Now I realise that that night, seriously and playfully, and ever mysteriously, he was juxtaposing, weaving together, leaning on, teasing and worrying at, and connecting objects and emotions and memories and songs and processes and imaginaries to make, with others, new meanings, new feelings and new things. It remains a definitive experience in my slowly learning to think about how things can be. The conversations we had since that first meeting always seemed to come back to nature - wind, stones, water, plants, birds, reeds - and saxophones, and certain saxophonists. The interviews I recorded with Lou all ended up being en plein air - our voices, and gusts of wind, soughing boughs, ambiguous rumbles, church bells, distant blowings shut of doors and the singing of birds. At times these sounds seemed to intrude, obscure and claim back meanings being made in conversation. On reflection, our conversations were part of the world. But that’s what we were talking about (what I was learning about) - the endless power of sounds and vibrations in combination. The senses in which music, space, people, ideas, world and time are not discrete taxonomies but part of an endless, open flux. It seems to me that Lou discovered and showed a way to be within this world of sound, and the powers and potentials of ideas and sound to balance, care, guide, and transform. And, to allow us to discover and be who we want to be.
By Seymour Wright - The Wire
As a tribute to the great and inspirational saxophonist Lou Gare, Westbrook Records has released on CD a selection of his improvisations, recorded live with the Uncommon Orchestra.
Listen to samples and buy the album here
MANJE Chris McGregor Arranged by Mike Westbrook THE UNCOMMON ORCHESTRA
We teamed up as a duo, sax and piano. We played together every fortnight, and emerged very slowly into public performances. Our music was entirely unpremeditated improvisation. We were both well aware of the view that there could never really be such a thing as entirely “free” improvisation, but for Lou especially this was a hair-splitting theoretical discussion that affected his playing not one whit. He had little interest in academic debate. What we played certainly felt free, but with the freedom came a tremendous requirement for discipline in listening and playing. Lou was always insistent on giving space to whoever you were playing with. In an improvisation class I once saw him go to an over-active pianist and shut the keyboard lid.
I was immensely sad to learn of the passing of Lou Gare, saxophonist and improviser, founder member of AMM, good friend and one time musical partner of mine. Although I saw and heard Lou with AMM when I was a student, I actually met him around 1990 when I was writing my book “Sonic Harvest”. I wanted to include mention of free improvisers, AMM in particular, and was told that Lou had moved to Exeter, not far from me. I fixed to interview him, and still cherish the memory of that summer afternoon when we sat in the ample garden of his terraced house in Rivermead Road, drinking tea and batting off rather desultory flies. I got to know his wife Penny and regarded them as a really lovely pair, into music, meditation and all sorts of things that crossed over with some of my own interests.
The great moment in that interview was when Lou said that improvising was not a matter of playing what you want. Rather, it was what the music wants that counts, but that if you play what the music wants you discover that this is what you want after all. For me this was wonderful stuff, a description of how egolessness actually works, exactly chiming with what I felt but had never expressed so succinctly.
We were joined by guitarist David Stanley for a few years as “Synchronicity”. Our finest hour was at a festival in Brno, in the Czech Republic, where we were joined by singer Sarah Frances and about two dozen young local dancers who improvised with us in a disused factory that would never get past Health and Safety in the UK. Lou played magnificently, although the truth is that I never heard him play anything less than well.
When Lou and Penny moved to near Okehampton in mid-Devon distance and health made it harder to keep up regular contact and it is now my deepest regret that I never saw him in his last few years. We had tried, on a couple of occasions, to make an album. We failed to get any of the likely labels onside and I have the recordings, still unheard by the outside world. But one thing Lou and I had in common was that we were both terrible entrepreneurs with absolutely no flair for (or genuine interest in) the business end of being a musician.
For Lou, in some ways, this explained his status as an unsung hero. All the saxophone players I know were in awe of his extraordinarily rich tone as well as the huge variety of sounds he could coax out of the instrument. When in his stride his musical lines were stream of consciousness musicality every moment of which was an inspiration to play alongside. He should have been touring to gigs and festivals, making albums (he only made one on his own), playing at home and abroad and widely regarded as a master of his art and craft.
One of my high spots is when I played piano with Lou with Eddie Prevost on drums for the Totnes Jazz Collective. What we played was more free jazz than free improvisation. But Lou was an impressive jazz musician with an amazing sense of timing and melodic and harmonic possibility. He played a solo spot for my wedding to Lona Kozik, stringing together a set of well-known standard love songs with musical surprises round every corner so you didn’t know what tune he was playing until he dropped hints in the shape of distinctive phrases, often in a different key to the one he started in.
In his last years Lou played with Mike Westbrook’s big band, thus completing a circle started as long ago as the 1960s in his pre-AMM days. As a jazz improviser there was no one like him. As a free improviser he was unique. To say I’ll miss him is an understatement.
Sam Richards - The Wire
Film by Matthew North