Photography: Cover photo by Gabriela Bhaskar. All other photos were courtesy of Nabil Ayers.
For Alan Braufman, there is no doubt that the fire still burns, such is the evident proof of talent that the saxophonist and composer recently gave us in The Fire Still Burns, his new LP released in the middle of a pandemic. Despite the adverse circumstances of the release, the album had worldwide repercussions, with numerous and constants acclaims coming from different parts of the globe. Nobody was indifferent: after all, Braufman emerged from a 45-year hiatus as a jazz record author, only interrupted by a brief exploration in the 1980s through distinct and exotic landscapes.
The Fire Still Burns emerged as the successor to Valley of Search, which is a valuable document from the New York loft jazz era, appealing on any collector’s shelf, but which, due to its rarity, until its reissue in 2018, was only available to those who were willing to loosen their purse strings. Fortunately, Nabil Ayers changed that paradigm, putting Valley of Search back in circulation, a fact that, in a way, pushed Braufman to join Cooper-Moore, James Brandon-Lewis, Ken Filiano, Andrew Bury and Michael Wimberly to do this new record where there are still reminiscences of the experimental and exploratory topologies of the loft era. But if the dynamic is the same as in other times, the brilliance is different, with the saxophonist transcending his previous work, presenting an album full of interesting compositions, fantastic performances, and a production with luxury finishes.
We had the opportunity to speak with Alan Braufman in an interview by Zoom: we, in Portugal, Braufman, in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. The geographical distance did not take us away from the richness of his invaluable stories. Thus, with sympathy and pleasantness, the musician answered us questions about his life, explaining how his interest in music came about and how he developed his friendship with Cooper-Moore and James Brandon-Lewis. He also reported on his idiosyncratic experiences in the 501 Canal Street loft and detailed the history of his albums. There was also time to contextualise the musician as a political being and to get to know some of his non-musical interests.
How are you doing?
I am doing very well, despite of all that’s happening in the world, I’m doing okay [laughs].
Are you still living in Salt Lake City?
Yeah. Right here in Salt Lake City. In the pandemic, I’m stuck here now. I usually spend a lot of time in New York as well, but there’s no opportunity to play in New York right now, so I will just stay here until this passes over.
The Fire Still Burns was released in the middle of a pandemic. How do you think that that has affected the promotion of the record, as well as people’s view about it?
First of all, the pandemic has certainly affected the possibility, right now, of going out and touring and gigging and supporting the record. Hopefully these opportunities will, at some point, arise again. As far as releasing in the middle of the pandemic… I don’t know! We just decided to release it. We had it recorded and we decided to put it out and see what happens. People are still listening to music, people are still buying records, hopefully! Maybe even more so now during the pandemic that there’s not much else to do so… [laughs]
Are there still plans to do a tour in the future to present The Fire Still Burns?
Let’s say I wouldn’t go so far as to call it plans as much as hopes. We have to see what happens with everything and how soon things come back but… yeah! There’s certainly the wishing that that will happen. We would love to come Portugal… sometime [laugh].
That would be lovely! What is the impact that the pandemic has been having on your personal life and on your approach to composition and playing?
Well, it’s an interesting question. Certainly, it has impacted my personal life as far as… you know, as a musician, whether you are out at the club playing or you are out seeing your friends playing, there’s a whole scene that it’s not really happening right now. It’s funny… personally, when this started, back in March, I was practising a lot, I was feeling inspired and getting ready for the album to be released in a few months, and, actually, I still don’t know if I’ve got COVID myself, I’ve suspected I did. I got one of the more mild cases, but still it kind of took me out of circulation: I didn’t feel like playing for a month and everything, because I was so low on energy. Then, it came back and I was fine after about a month, but… it was just hard getting by it: I haven’t played in a month, and pandemic is happening so there’s no gigs. It’s very hard to get inspiration to just get back to practice, but… you gotta do that and, eventually, once you do that, it feels good. That just threw me into a little bit of a loop there, but I’m back… full force [laughs].
Going back to your childhood… how did you develop your interest in music?
That came from a very early age because my mother… my father too, but mainly my mother, they were very much into jazz, and it was just playing in my house all the time while I was growing up. So, you know, when I was 8 years old, 9 years old, that was the music I listened to. It was a surprise to me that it wasn’t the music everybody listened to actually [laughs]. So, you know… Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Coltrane, Miles Davis were always on in the house. Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald to keep going on a long, long list. My Mom had very good taste in music…
I can see that [laugh]…
[laugh] So that started my interest in it. Then, when I was eight, I started playing clarinet. I got pretty good at it at an early age, for whatever reason. My interests when I was a kid were baseball and music. Eventually, music took precedence over baseball. But… yeah! I had a saxophone at 13 and at 15 had a flute. I remember I had gone out and bought – I was… I suppose [it was] 1964, I was 13 -, I went out and saved my money from doing odd jobs and everything and I bought myself Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure with a great horn section: Kenny Dorham, Eric Dolphy and Joe Henderson. I remember listening to that and saying – “This is what I want to do”. At that point, I was probably about 13 or 14, when that realization came to me. I didn’t know how I’d do it, but that’s sort of what I wanted to do.
Then you actually studied music at Berklee, am I right?
Yeah, Berklee College of Music, in Boston.
Exactly… You and Cooper-Moore became friends and started working together in Boston, at around 1969, when you were studying music there. How did your friendship start? What was the common ground that you both shared that led you to work together?
Well… I guess I met Cooper-Moore in 1970. David Ware was in Berklee at the same time, and, you know, we’re friends. David said he was playing at a club that is called the Western Frank, in Cambridge, with Cooper-Moore. I believe Marc Edwards was on drums at that gig, who would later play with Apogee. David Ware [would later play] in Cooper-More’s band. I just came to the gig, brought my horn, and they were nice enough to let me sit in. Cooper-Moore was having weekly sessions over this house way out in Mattapan, which is kind of out in the suburbs, away like a train and two buses. But, anyway, so we would just go there… I think it was on Fridays – every Friday -, and some amazing music was played there, at an early stage, not necessarily by me, but by them [laughs]. That sort of set the relationship in motion. In 1973, I was done in Boston, and David was done in Boston – Cooper-Moore wasn’t going to school, he was just up there -, it was time for us to move to New York. So we did. For me, it was moving back. And for David too, because David is from New Jersey, just across the river. Cooper-Moore found 501 Canal Street up for rent, that was the address: 501 Canal over on the west side by the Holland Tunnel. This was before TriBeCa was even named. So… it was just a desolate area with nothing there, which was perfect for us [laughs]. So we all moved down together into that building.
How was the atmosphere in the loft? How was your daily life in those days?
Well… it was great! Because, you know, we were young and had a lot of energy and a lot was happening. It was an exciting time to come back to New York to make music. It would be much more challenging to do that today [laugh]. But, anyway, it was not an easy living… there was no central heating in the place, so you’d have to heat a room with just an electric heater, which could be a fire hazard if you left it on too long. We’d go to sleep at night in the wintertime, and you would get two weeks just over the freezing level. I mean, over zero – that’s Centigrade -, this is like zero Fahrenheit [laughs]. But, anyway, if you’d turn the electric heaters off at night, go to sleep, if you had a glass of water or a bottle of water or something, it would freeze overnight. On the way to keep it from freezing, we would put it in the refrigerator and the refrigerator was warmer than our house [laughs]. But it had a lot of really interesting idiosyncrasies. For whatever reason, there was a phone booth on the first floor – I don’t know if it was there before. And on the first floor was the store front. We had our own concerts there every weekend and there was a phone booth there. A friend of ours figured out that you could make a call anywhere in the world and that, as long as you kept putting money in – coins in –, at the end, if he touched these two wires together, all your money would come back [laughs].
Oh… that was handy!
Yeah… So we were just living off the grid. Even though with the electric thing – with the space heaters -, the electric company didn’t have us on the grid, so they never even sent us bills. It was nice just to be invisible over there for us.
Do you think that being off the grid had an impact on why loft era music was so improvisation-based and exploration-driven? Jazz has always been associated with improvisation, but the loft jazz scene, in particular, seems to have had an extra experimental dimension that other jazz movements did not have. Why is that?
I don’t think that our living condition as affected the music as much as our music got us to that living condition [laughs]. We kind of sought out that. We had a place unheard of in New York City, where you have five floors in the building, and it was ridiculously affordable. David and I, we shared the second floor. This was for the first three years. It was mainly a music building for those three years, from 73 to 76. After that, a bunch of the musicians moved out and other non-musicians moved in, but from 73 to 76 it was the years that the concerts were happening. We actually recorded my first album there, Valley of Search. Bob Cummins – who ran India Navigation company, the label that put it out -, he just brought us recording equipment over to the loft and we just played it like recording us as a concert, but yeah… it was just an exciting time to be in New York and an exciting time to be playing all that music.
What was the driving force for the creation of Valley of Search? Was it just the fact that you were playing so regularly?
Yeah, that’s the thing about that album. We were playing regularly, on the weekends, concerts at the 501 Canal. Although that wasn’t the exact band that we would do [for the album]. I wish we could have Cecil McBee every week, but we couldn’t. Cecil asked me to play on his album, Mutima, his first album as a leader. So I figured, well, if he’s asked me to play in his album, I can ask him to play on mine. And he said yes… but, basically, we were playing that music every week as a band, in one form or another, so we didn’t have to rehearse for that album. We just treated it like we’re going to do a concert, one of the weekend concerts. We didn’t do it as a live date because there was no audience there, but we treated it like that. We just played through the first side, then the second side… and, in that album, as well as in The Fire Still Burns – the new one -, I was always attracted to the idea of the tunes, instead of stopping, would flow one to the other, and I was influenced to do that. Basically, when I first heard Don Cherry’s albums, Complete Communion and Symphony For Improvisers, you know, it was so beautiful how, instead of a tune ending and then there’s a low, and then you start another one, it would just flow and the music wouldn’t stop and would evolve. We were doing that at our live concerts, so that’s, of course, why we recorded it, and we kept a similar thing happening with The Fire Still Burns.
Incidentally, I found it very interesting that, in the liner notes of The Fire Still Burns, Don Cherry is mentioned as a major influence, not only on a musical level, but also on a spiritual dimension. Don Cherry was also an important personality in the development of the European free jazz scene, having a huge impact, for example, on Peter Brotzmann’s development as a musician. What was so special about Don Cherry’s spirit for him to have such a powerful influence on those around him?
His music just spoke to me at an early age, I guess. Complete Communion came out in 1966 – I was 15 -, and that’s an album my Mom brought home and I listened to it. First of all, the first thing that struck me: I had never heard a saxophone sound like Gato Barbieri, and that was beautiful… Then just the inclusiveness of the music, his influences from all over the world, you know, because Don was a world traveller, and he’s all those influences. There’s such a complexity in that album of little details, but executed perfectly. That’s what’s a working band, you know… again, not necessarily that incarnation: his band in Europe was Karl Berger, and a different drummer, because Ed Blackwell wasn’t playing too much in Europe with them, but the cohesiveness of that group was amazing. And then again, there’s the way that it was written as a suite, so well thought up. It wasn’t like: we’re going to do this tune, and that tune… the order of the tunes was so important that this tune followed that tune and flowed into the next one. One of the great albums of all time, in my opinion. Same with Symphony For Improvisers, the next one [released] on Blue Note, I believe. I actually saw that band of Symphony For Improvisers. That year, in 1966, Don’s first date [after] coming back from Europe was at the Town Hall and I went to see it as a 15 years old. I just went alone. There was about, literally, probably 20/25 people in the audience. It seats, you know, a 1000 – I don’t know how many people -, but nobody was there… but in the audience was Ornette, and Alber Ayler was there [laugh]. So I’m just looking around, a 15 years old kid, and the band was Gato Barbieri and Pharaoh Sanders… and it had Ed Blackwell, and Rashied Ali was playing drums. Henry Grimes was on bass and Karl Berger [on piano] – it was a big band, you know, it was beautiful! That was special.
That must have been very special… Were you aware that Valley of Search was an out of print rarity that was considered an important document of the loft era improvised music scene?
No, I was not aware at all [laughs]. It’s out of print, I’m not getting any money from it [laughs]. Then people pointed out that they’ve been selling the original copies… I think one went last year for over 400 bucks or something. So I was kind of very surprised about that. I also was surprised when the reissue came out, in 2018, that there was as much interest in it as it was. I was very happy, surprised!
How did the idea to reissue that album come about?
Well, that’s all… Nabil Ayers – he’s my nephew and he’s in music business. He works for 4AD Records. Anyway, he has his own label and one day he called me up he’s always been close and he said: “Hey, how about, on my label, we just reissue The Valley of Search?” And I said: “Well… sure, go at it!” [laughs]. Then, he said: “Let’s put on some concerts in New York to mark the reissue.” . And we did! Again, to my surprise, there were two sold out shows and that kind of got the ball rolling for The Fire Still Burns being recorded.
Thirteen years after Valley of Search was released, you recorded Lost in Asia, in 1988…
Lost in Asia, yeah! That’s interesting. That’s under a different name.
Yes, and it has a completely different aesthetic in comparison to its predecessor. It sounds very different to what Valley of Search sounded like, with punchy drums and electronic synthesizers. What is the story behind this record? What were your musical influences at the time?
Ok… my musical influences at the time… I kinda got into a lot of English bands. I liked it. Not necessarily English, but some of them, like Kraftwerk – which were German. I did a short tour with Psychedelic Furs, in 1982. Gary Windo, a friend of mine who was touring with them – we were the saxophone session in Carla Bley’s band for a bunch of years – he was touring with them and he couldn’t make a few dates, so I did. There’s a lot of stuff happening there that’s kind of interesting, of different styles of music, not only jazz. I recorded that album, produced it myself and did the thing about: instead of having a label, I was shopping, just trying to get a label. I would call up, after a few weeks of sending a follow through, and I would always get receptionists: “This is Alan Braufman”. “Alan who?”. “Alan Braufman”. I don’t speak too clearly, you might hear that [laughs]. Anyway, I got so tired of spelling my name five times that I said – “The next one I send out I’m going to send out as Alan Michael, which is my middle name.” I sent it to Passport Records and they said – “Oh yeah, sure!”. They liked it, they signed it and they released it. I decided – “Well I could tell them no, it’s Alan Braufman, but maybe this is omen, I’ll just do that.”. There were no complications with that until the reissue of Valley of Search, which of course had to get reissued as Alan Braufman, because that’s who did that. But the Lost in Asia is quite different in style than the Valley of Search and The Fire Still Burns, so it sort of like… maybe documents a little what I was hearing at that time. I like the album. Well, it’s not what I do. It’s what I did then, I liked it, so I still stand behind it.
And your last creation was The Fire Still Burns… having Valley of Search as the reference, it took you 45 years to come up with this new album. Both records had different creative processes, but they share some similarities in terms of dynamics and aesthetics. What were your main activities during this hiatus?
I guess just trying to live life… I really got into some non-musical things: Aikido, a Japanese martial art, I got very much into it. Then eventually got into running and ran a bunch of marathons and ultra-marathons – things I like to do! Looking back, I would have been better served to have tunnel vision with music and not get sidetracked by any of these other things, but it is what it is and I don’t regret it. I lived out the last seven years in Salt Lake City, Utah, and it’s not like I stopped playing or anything – I never did that! In fact, since I came out here I had more time to play, I had more time to practice. I was almost like off the scene. There’s a small, but vibrant jazz scene here with some good musicians, so I got to play with them and work on other aspects of the music, which I think strengthened my playing which made The Fire Still Burns, ultimately, do better than I would think [laughs]. When you say it took 45 years to come up with a new album, that’s not really true. It was 45 years distance between those two albums, but all the tunes for The Fire Still Burns were written like, pretty much – with exception of one that was written a couple years earlier -, all the tunes were brand new, [written] within a few months of recording the album
Out of curiosity, what was the longest marathon you’ve run?
My longest one was… well, I’d say 35 miles, but I ran off course and made it 37 [laughs]. I got some injuries, I was going to do the 50s and the 100 miles, but 35 miles and 50 Km seem to be where I settled. All on trails, mountain trails, out here in Utah, that’s great. Best of what Utah has to offer.
How did you meet James Brandon-Lewis? He has also just released Molecular, which, in my opinion, is one of the best records of 2020.
Yeah, absolutely! Anything James does… he’s a beautiful player. I met James in 2016. Cooper-Moore invited me to play at the Vision Festival for this band. James was just hanging around in the backstage and there’s one band room where everybody was playing. We got talking and we kind of hit it off and decided to stay in touch and hopefully play together at some point. So these two years, whenever I happened to be in New York, we’d got together and got to be pretty good friends. When the opportunity to do the concerts supporting the reissue of Valley of Search, I thought – “What band? Who do I want to play in the band?”. Valley of Search has only one horn, just myself, so I did not need another horn player, but I love James playing. I love him! So I said – “Let’s add another horn to this!” -, and it worked out very well. When the time came to do The Fire Still Burns, I decided that that combination of people, with Andrew Drury, Ken Filiano on bass, and, of course, Cooper-Moore and James Brandon-Lewis, would be just right. I said – “Let’s just keep that together. That will be the band for the new album.”
You have mentioned in a past interview that you’ve never listened to The Fire Still Burns in its entirety since it was released. Does that still hold true?
Did I say that? No, I don’t know… Oh! Since it has been released! Yes, technically that is true. I was thinking – “Of course I’ve listened to it because we had to mix it and everything”. But, yeah, since it’s been released, no, I haven’t felt any need to go back and listen to it. You know, if you record an album and you think about it so much, then you record it, and then you go mix it. You’ve heard it plenty by that point: all the weak points that you hope people don’t notice, and all the strong points that you hope people do. I generally don’t go back and listen to the stuff that I do too much. I’ve kind of heard it [already].
The Fire Still Burns explores very rich and interesting sonic landscapes because tracks like “Home” and “The Fire Still Burns” have a more evident structure and beauty, whereas tracks such as “No Floor No Ceiling” and “Creation” are much more abstract and exploratory, almost as if you are defying the listener to step out of his/her comfort zone. Was this an intentional dynamics that you wanted to impose on the record, or was it just a natural expression of your musicality?
I think both, actually, because – this is not necessarily a good quality to have -, but I can get bored very easily. The music that I want to listen to goes to a lot of different places, it doesn’t linger too long. That’s another thing that I maybe I got from Complete Communion because these tunes are actually short. And then they evolve and go some place else, and some place else. It’s like a journey, instead of just here and then it stops. I wanted to keep that in there. I thought a lot about the order because, for me, the freedom and intensity of “No Floor No Ceiling” flowed right into the more, I guess, listenable – traditionally listeneable – tune like “Home”. To me, “Home” works better coming from “No Floor No Ceiling”, from the chaos into the form. I wanted to make it a journey. I figured I get bored easily. If I’m not getting bored, maybe other people won’t either [laughs].
And you’ve achieved that brilliantly!
Oh, thank you!
Do you have any plans or expectations to release more records in the future?
Yes, I certainly would hope to. We’ll have to see where this whole thing takes the music world, with the pandemic and everything, but… absolutely! I’m constantly coming up with ideas, and chances are, let’s say, an album, a year from now, is possible. If I were to record those ideas, they wouldn’t probably be recorded because new stuff would be written by then. But let’s see… I would love to have that opportunity. Let’s see where this is all going.
As the US presidential election approaches, may I ask if your music is influenced by politics at any level?
Yeah, absolutely! Not in a specific way. I think music just expresses who you are and that’s part of me also, as well as, you know, spiritual pursuits – I don’t say religious, necessarily, but spiritual. I won’t say that there’s a particular tune that expresses political unrest or dissatisfaction with what’s happening or anything. It’s all in there! You know, that’s me! That is what I like about music: you don’t have to say it in words, you don’t have to be specific; it’s more general expression of who you are and that’s certainly part of who I am. So, yes, I’m aware of what’s happening in politics and that definitely affects the music, but not in a specific way that I can say I wrote this melody because of that. It’s more the general feeling. Jazz is beautiful… it is such a good avenue to express both love and anger, you know?