Anything Is Possible
In the fall of 1969, Larry Ochs was bouncing between majors at the University of Pennsylvania, while working as a college radio DJ at 88.5 FM/WXPN. “I was a rock guy back then, I liked Jimi Hendrix,” he says. “The station had an incredible jazz collection but at the time I didn’t know much about jazz.”
One afternoon, word spread that a ‘pretty far out band’ was playing in a decommissioned church not far from WXPN’s studio. As Ochs recalls, most of the staff was going to the show, so he went too.
What he encountered there was none other than the Sun Ra Arkestra. The ceiling was so low, he remembers, that the performers couldn’t stand all the way up without bumping their heads.
“All that power was happening in this tiny church basement,” he says. “Being there, witnessing that performance really changed my life. I didn’t get what the hell was going on, but I sure wanted to go back. There were dancers running through the crowd because there was no room for them on stage,” he adds. “The whole experience made the world move under my feet.”
Witnessing Sun Ra in his prime—circa such classic albums as Atlantis and Outer Spaceways Incorporated—crafting a wild, in-the-moment soundtrack for plumbing the furthest reaches of the cosmos challenged Ochs to perceive music differently. It inspired him to engage music on a deeper, higher level that still resonates with him more than fifty years later.
On Thursday, March 5th, Ochs will lead his group the Fictive Five through a performance at Barking Legs Theater, channeling a lifetime immersed in structured and improvisational music. He leads the group using hand signals to guide the music through compositions he’s written specifically for these players, but every performance is different.
“I am trying to excite and stimulate independent thinkers and music lovers that want to be surprised rather than soothed,” Ochs says.
These days, Ochs is best known as co-founder of Rova Saxophone Quartet, a Bay Area outfit that explores the collision of collective improvisation within the framework of composed musical arrangements.
In conversation, he recalls other incidents that altered his relationship with music: spending time trying to unravel the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s musical forms, and feeling inspired to pick up a saxophone after hearing the uncompromising musical freedom, and the undeniable hooks in Albert Ayler’s 1969 album Love Cry.
As to the name, the Fictive Five is a play on The New York Contemporary Five, an early free jazz ensemble and 1963 album led by tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp. Still, that fateful encounter with Sun Ra left a deep impression.
“I swear, before then, it had never occurred to me to do anything with my horn other than just learn to play the parts that were put in front of me,” Ochs says, recalling he’d played a trumpet off-and-on since grade school.
The Barking Legs show is one of three stops the group is playing in the Southeast—Athens, GA, Orlando, FL, and Chattanooga. Each one features a stripped-down version of the group that’s dubbed the Fictive Five (Less One Live), featuring drummer Harris Eisenstadt, trumpet player Nate Wooley, and bass player Ken Filiano.
Ochs plays tenor and sopranino saxophones, and the group’s second bass player, Pascal Niggenkemper, who lives in Paris, is sitting these shows out. Flying all the way to the States to play just three shows wasn’t practical.
The group is supporting its latest CD, 2019’s Anything Is Possible (Clean Feed), a live, five-song set that’s rich with atmosphere. Songs such as the 19-minute “The Other Dreams” and “And the Door Blows Open (for Cecil Taylor)” are both subtle and massive in scope, building upon rolling, fugue-like bouts of percussion, horn flourishes, and stark white space between every honk, wail, and sputter. Each number feels as though it could launch into a full-on free jazz explosion, but the group maintains powerful restraint with every note and every nuance.
Other songs such as “Immediate Human Response (for Spike Lee)” and “With Liberties and Latitude for All (for Warren Sonbert)” feature dedications to other influences who’ve left a mark on Ochs’s approach to creativity.
“I like to dedicate to a filmmaker I really admire,” Ochs says. “The thought is that I’m inviting that dedicatee to listen to the piece and imagine the film they could create for that music, instead of the other way around,” he adds. “In fact I am also inviting listeners to close their eyes and imagine, hear, and create their own imagery to accompany the piece. Forget reality for an hour and see where else you might be able to go.”
The music is captivating, cinematic, and with an open mind the possibilities contained within are as infinite as the cosmos.