Published Apr 30, 2009Coat Cooke is one of the linchpins of jazz-based improvising activity on the West Coast. Not only is he a fine, adventurous saxophonist and composer, but he leads the relentlessly innovative NOW Orchestra which has gathered Vancouver's creative musicians together for over three decades. April saw the Orchestra release its first album in four years, Animal Tales, on the recently formed NOW Orchestra label. The label has four other new records out by Ion Zoo, Bruce Freedman's African Groove Band, Jeff Younger's Sandbox, and Viviane Houle & Stefan Smulovitz.
Exclaim! spoke to Cooke over the phone from Vancouver.
So - your own record label is pushing five discs at once, and you're busier than ever. You've had a long career but surely this is a high point?
It's very exciting. It's come out of a couple of different things. I took over as artistic director about five years ago now and realized we didn't have a succession plan for when the founding generation leaves. We had to figure out how to set up a structure and think about the legacy of this organization. I started presenting younger players at a venue [the Cellar] where I had a Monday night residence for three and a half years, and encouraging younger players and more established players to play together. And we recorded every week. It's so hard for a younger player to get their music out there, so I thought of self-producing if I could get the sweetest prices on printing and pressing. Hopefully this is an opportunity for younger players and established players to self-produce. There's a lot in common with indie rock - it's DIY. It's always been DIY, ever since I first got involved 30 years ago.
Tell me about the record label.
I put out my trio record about five years ago on Cellar Live. It's kind of a more mainstream label, but the owners of the label really took an interest in my trio even though it didn't really fit the mould - that's how I started presenting at the Cellar as well. Our first five releases are being done in a more traditional way, pressing some CDs, sending them out to reviewers and venues, trying to get gigs. But in the future, we're looking at new audiences and that means younger audiences, and they're downloading.
Let's turn back the clock to the formation of the Orchestra, can you run down a brief history of how it got to where it is today?
The New Orchestra Workshop society , referred to casually as NOW, was started in 1977 with a core of about a half dozen people, among whom were Paul Plimley, Greg Simpson, Lisle Ellis, Paul Cram, Ralph Eppel and Don Druick, who's now a playwright in Montreal. The organization kind of came out of the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock that several of them had experienced at that time; Plimley and Ellis were very strongly affected by exposure to Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton teaching there. They set up in a loft, it happened for a few years, then people moved away. Then in the mid-'80s, we re-founded the organization, started producing small concert series and we did that for a few years. In 1987, I was really interested to write for a large ensemble so I started the NOW Orchestra as a vehicle to write for a large ensembles. So I went to a bunch of players and said, if I can get these composers to write, would you rehearse for free? Then I went to the composers and said, look at this interesting instrumentation would you be willing to write for this interesting group and have your work played? So I played both sides and made sure I didn't have to write all the material. We did a big concert with [pianist] Marilyn Crispell, but I got burnt out on administration and the second incarnation started happening in '92. Eventually it ended up in a more formalized group, and we did a project with [bassist] Barry Guy and things coalesced around our first CD. And we've had a more or less stable group for the last ten years. From 1992 [guitarist] Ron Samworth and I were co-artistic directors of organization and the band and then five years ago, Ron resigned. Over the last year, I've been exploring new areas and using different players.
How has the organization fostered community in Vancouver?
When we started NOW 30 years ago, or the Orchestra 20 years ago, the pool of players was much smaller. The city has grown, there are more players and they're coming from different backgrounds - look at JP Carter (Inhabitants), Stephen Lyons (Fond Of Tigers), Rachael Wadham, or Darren Williams. I can go down a list of late 20/early 30somethings who are coming out of rock and noise with all kinds of different ideas about improvisation than what I was coming out of, which was basically African American improvisation, like Cecil [Taylor], Braxton, [Archie] Shepp and that whole stream. But it's totally different now and for the organization and the band to stay vital but respect the legacy of what has been done before, it has to respond to the needs of the young players. I wouldn't say that there's any one way to describe it [how the society/orchestra has built community], it's as complex as any scene. But there have been very direct efforts by us to seek out co producers in different scenes. We're really thinking about education and outreach to the next generation of kids, our next audiences and players.
What are the challenges in that?
We have to watch our money, our marketing and our way of talking about ourselves. We found that in talking to a lot of younger players, a lot of the language we have used is just fuddy duddy to them. We don't talk about it in language they can relate to, so they turn off. But we have so many young people come and listen to us and say "this is killer!" and its helped us to rethink the language to talk about it. It's incumbent on us to take the responsibility to change the whole picture, even though a lot of us just want to play! It can only be thought of as political when you're trying to change the whole stage of how we're presenting and putting our work out there.