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Larry Ochs Sax & Drumming Core: Just go with the flow

“The first time you heard music on the radio as a kid,” Larry Ochs says, “you didn’t understand it. You liked it or you didn’t.”

In other words, you don’t have to understand what you’re hearing to enjoy it. And if you stick with the same-old same-old, how will you know if you like something new?

Everyone at the Whole Music Club this Thursday evening, Oct. 8, will be in the same boat, hearing music no one has ever heard before, when Ochs launches the 2009-2010 Northrop Music Season with a performance by his Sax & Drumming Core.

S&DC is one of many groups Ochs either leads or participates in, and with whom he has made some 30 CDs. The group began as a trio, with Ochs on saxophones (sopranino and tenor) and both Scott Amendola and Donald Robinson on drums. During a 2007 European tour, it grew by two, adding Satoko Fujii on piano and Natsuki Tamura on trumpet.

The quintet recently released its first CD, “Stone Shift” (2009), recorded live in Venice, Italy. We’ll hear music from “Stone Shift” on Thursday, though it may not sound much like the CD. With Ochs and his group, each performance is one of a kind.

MinnPost spoke with Ochs by phone (he lives in California) late last week. It was a freewheeling, wide-ranging conversation that left me kind of breathless — like his music.

MinnPost: The music you play is often called “free jazz.” Is that what you call it?

Larry Ochs: I don’t mind “free jazz,” but I’d rather think of this as improvised music. To me, that includes jazz, free jazz, Indian music — anything that uses improvisation. Ultimately it can include rock music, too. The blues has a big influence on what I do, but when I say the blues, I don’t just mean the blues from Chicago or Detroit. I think of chanteuses in Africa who are singing with the kora or hand drummers, Eastern European singers with a single string instrument or a string band. … I think of Korean singers, and the blues from Asia.

When I say I play improvised music, that doesn’t preclude composition and the idea that you might think about something before you pick up your instrument. [Note: Och’s pieces are composed; if you go, you’ll see that each player is reading from a score.]

MP: How would you explain improvised music to someone who doesn’t know much about it, or might be put off or intimidated by it?

LO: We were just saying what a global term that is. For me, improvised music is any music that involves a certain amount of open playing, or free playing, within the context of a piece.

If you just sit with it and let it happen to you, it’s fantastic music. For me, the great thing about improvised music is that the form of a piece will remain the same, but the content changes every time. As a listener, if you follow a group around, you’re going to start recognizing pieces, but they’re always going to be fresh. The listener is participating almost as much as the performer.

Improvised music can sometimes help or inspire a person to solve a problem of his own. I’ve had people come up to me after concerts and say, “Thank you. I’ve been trying to figure something out, and all of a sudden, in the middle of the gig, bang. It was really obvious.” [Note: Don’t laugh. It’s happened to me. Free/improvised music tends to free the brain.]

MP: What advice would you give to someone coming to a free jazz/improvised music event for the first time?

LO: I would say that nine out of 10 people, if they come in and don’t have any expectations, but just go with the flow of what’s going on, will have no problem enjoying it.

First, it’s not like listening on the stereo. You can see what everyone is doing. These two drummers [Amendola and Robinson] are the best out there. Fujii is a genius, Tamura is a great player. These are four really great musicians. Seeing them live makes it that much easier.

People are going to hear a lot of familiar things. Unless they only listen to one narrow band of music and that’s all they like and all they really want to hear, they aren’t going to have any problems.

MP: On your new CD, “Stone Shift,” there’s a tune called “Finn Veers for Venus.” On “The Neon Truth” (2002), there’s one called “Finn Crosses Mars.” And “Up from Under” (2007) has “Finn Passes Pluto.” Who’s Finn?

LO (laughs): He’s my grandson. This is the Finn series. There’s a new [not yet recorded] piece called “Finn Follows Jupiter.”

MP: What do you expect to happen at your performance this Thursday in Minnesota?

 LO: I am sure that if people come, they’re going to be glad they did. Unless something has changed in the interim while we’ve all been running around doing other things, the whole is much greater than the parts.

Larry Ochs Sax & Drumming Core, Thursday, October 8, 7:00 and 9:15 p.m., The Whole Music Club ($34-$10). Limited seats. Tickets online or call the Northrop Ticket Office at 612-623-2345, Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

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