an interview with Alex Coke, 9/13/01

Alex Coke is the saxophone/flute player with the John Jordan Trio and was one of two saxophonists in Arson, a red-hot group that Chris Duarte and John Jordan played in back in 1989. Briefly known as Justus, Arson was a 5-piece, fueled by Chris Duarte's soaring guitar and the twin saxophones of John Mills and Alex Coke. Chris played some of his most inspired work in Arson and it was a significant influence on his development. Try to imagine the album "Only One" with two saxophone players added and you'll be in the ballpark! Arson lasted only a year, 1989, but during that time won the Best Jazz Band category in the Austin Chronicle Readers Poll. Arson definitely influenced the current energy of the John Jordan Trio, simple sketches of songs filled out with the brilliant improv playing of very talented musicians. Roadtripping to Nebraska to catch The John Jordan Trio, I was just as eager to talk to Alex Coke about his days in Arson...

 

Are you originally from Texas?

Yes, Dallas and Austin.

Had you always been a big fan of jazz? Did you set out to become a jazz musician?

Oh yeah. Always a big fan. Very big. Roland Kirk, Coltrane, Gary Burton. And I liked English blues, too. John Mayall, old Fleetwood Mac. In high school I realized I didn't know very much musically, not even my minor scales, and felt I really had to get out of town. I needed to go someplace and learn. I knew a lot of people in Austin and had to get out of town or I felt I would really sink into the sidewalk. It was very easy in Austin to just get by, a lotta' people to party with. I needed to really learn a lot more about music, so I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder and studied flute. My first year I kind of sat in the very back of the flute section. It was a band, a symphonic orchestra, and there were 35 girls, all of whom had been playing flute since they were 6, all classically trained, and then me and this other guy, sort of a scruffy-looking guy named Mike Sweeney. He was totally into Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, very modern jazz. He was looking at a transcription of Charlie Parker and from that day on we kind of sat in the back and talked about other kinds of music. After college I went back to Austin.

How did you join Justus? Were you friends with Chris Duarte or John Jordan?

A friend of John's. I first met John back in '77 when he first came to Austin, at some freelance jazz gigs. We used to play together at a little place called The Hole In The Wall. Piano, bass, drums and sax usually, sometimes with Paul Patterman on guitar. And we'd always see each other at other gigs and things like that.

Were you in other bands at that point?

About ten! You'd get like one night a week with one and then a weekend with another and it would just rotate. I first saw Chris with John at the Continental Club and the Black Cat Lounge. I had a jazz gig down on 6th Street and would walk over during the break to check them out. One night I went with my horn and sat in with them for a little while. They invited me up, I was delighted! So I sat in a few times after that before they actually asked me to be in the group full-time. In the beginning it was tunes that we all knew, a lot of jazz tunes. As it got further we would rehearse more. We would try to get together at least once a week. I think we had a standing rehearsal day, usually at Chris Massey's house. Later we rehearsed at Jeff Hodge's house. Arson was really kind of an amazing thing. I was always surprised at the intensity of it!

Did you write any music for Justus or Arson?

We did a tune of mine called "The Green Acres Jump", and I brought other tunes to the gigs, like Elvin Jones' "EJ's Blues" and a tune called "Basking Beauty", and a few other things. We would stretch those tunes so far! It was very exciting to play with those guys. Chris was just amazing!

Even though Arson lasted only a year, you still won "Best Jazz Band" in the Austin Chronicle's Readers Poll.

That was a surprise. There was a fair amount of jazz in Austin at the time, but a lot of it was "restaurant jazz". The players often never get to show their stuff. And there we were, really playing hard! We were just playing our hearts out. It was very inspiring to be playing with another horn player and with Chris. It was very inspiring music. We never did any blues tunes, well maybe one or two, but you would never call us a blues band. You could go up and down 6th Street and hear a million blues bands. It's a great credit to those guys that they took us off our leash and let us play. I got the feeling that everybody was just really hungry for the music. Arson was a pretty steady gig and it really helped to be playing at least once a week. We were playing all-out, and the way we played so openly, there wasn't a lotta' call for that. Even now, in the worldwide picture, there's not a lotta' call for that. Without a rigid structure we all learned a lot, too. All of us learned a lot. There was a certain "purity" and a certain "humaness" that both John and Chris have, and it comes out in the music. And with Chris, his intensity, we just fed off one another. We were finding our way and trying a lot of different stuff. It was a big wall of sound, but it worked. We learned little tricks about how to focus energy while playing at a high-energy level, playing with dynamics. Even though Arson was a loud band, we didn't always play loud. Sometimes the rhythm would just break out. Dynamically that band had a lot goin' for it, in a very musical way. There weren't many discussions on how to do stuff, like where you drop out when you play this. There were little musical cues that we used, and we all listened very intently.

Coming from a jazz background, had you ever played any Hendrix before Arson? I know Arson was famous for closing their shows with some incredible Hendrix jams.

Oh, yeah! I actually got to see Jimi Hendrix play with Soft Machine at Farley Auditorium in Dallas. It was amazing. It's funny because a lot of people went there thinking he was gonna' burn his guitar and were surprised when he didn't, but he did play behind his back! I just thought it was odd that you'd go to see someone burn a guitar. I had been playing some songs, like "Voodoo Chile", back in high school. We played stuff from "Electric Ladyland", but not like him, that's for sure!

Speaking of great guitarists, did you ever sit in with Stevie Ray Vaughan?

No, regretfully, but we used to see him all the time. It was never a big deal for me, he was always just Jimmie Vaughan's little brother! We played at a little place called After Hours, my band, Alex Coke & Friends, and he had the Wednesday night slot and we had the Thursday night slot. I really regret not playing with him. Going out and sitting in with Stevie was just not a high priority back then, he was just a local kid like many others. The opportunities certainly were there, we had every opportunity in the world, and they would've been very open to having us come in and play with them, but we were such jazz snobs! Growing up, we'd been listening to Charlie Parker, and in our minds we thought they could never do something like that. At that point, when you're young, you sure can be stupid - and we were stupid! We were jazz guys and I guess our paths were never meant to cross. But we were also extremely busy at that time, too. Back in those days we were working all the time. There were stretches where we would have gigs 30 days in a row, little places where you'd always get something, $10, $15 - but with the rent at only $45, hey, we were living like kings! And we were doing exactly what we wanted to do, learning our craft, learning tunes.

Have you ever worked with Chris Duarte in anything other than Justus and Arson?

Sometimes at jam sessions, but that was it. I was very busy at the time with a band of mine called The Worthy Constituents and was working on a lot of other projects, such as a brass band that did all gospel tunes called Spirit Jubilee.

After Arson, when did you move to Europe?

I left for Europe in 1992 and joined up with the Willem Breuker Kollektief in Denmark. It was a great opportunity to get to play with Willem. They happened to be touring in Texas and needed a saxophone player. I knew the wife of the bass player and had played with him before in Texas. I played seven gigs in seven days and then got the invite.

Did you record any albums with them?

I probably recorded about ten. We traveled all over Europe, China, and the United States. We went to Bosnia, that was a thrill. I played with them for 9 years. If you look up Willem's discography, it's organized by decade. It's almost a complete history of European free-jazz.

What brought you back to the states?

My wife and kids. It's difficult as a parent to know what's going on in their society. We were always learning, but you know, over here, like Easter, you know what to do. You have an Easter egg hunt or dye eggs and you can explain that to your kids, like when I was growing up. But over there, they have different traditions and we were in the dark as far as customs go. And I wanted to spend more time with my family, too.

Do you write much music now?

I do, sort of. I'm the kind of writer that is more utilitarian. I tend to write for a specific piece of a song, to add to it, often a musical idea that I want to work on. I'm working on a piece for a string quartet. It's something I've never done. It's different than writing for big bands.

I really like your musical gizmos, such as birdcalls and kalimbas, that you're using in the John Jordan Trio. Have you used those things in other bands?

Occasionally, but not often. It just never seemed to fit in quite as it does with John. It's hard to just stand there, after you finish a solo, when everyone else is playing! Even though I'm a soloist by nature, it's the rhythm section that usually makes a great solo. In this band, and in Arson, the solo was like having your little say in what was going on. One of my major concepts is to try to always listen to, and get ideas from, the rhythm section. Or you can play against the rhythm section. If you key off the rhythm section that's one thing, but if you play against it, that's another. Even when I'm soloing, if the rhythm section changes, it changes the whole character of what I'm doing. I thought that's what we did in Arson. We all fed off each other's ideas. That really was one of the main beauties of it, and everybody was so passionate about it. It was great to be a part of it. I like playing with a guitar player, too. The harmonies are more open, not always so busy as with a piano player. I've liked guitar players my whole life.

Have you brought any songs into the John Jordan Trio?

Yeah. I have a tune called "Heritage" and one called "Pool Hall In Bangkok", and a couple of others. One is called "The 13th Floor" by David Newman. Playing with John is similar to playing in Arson.

What do you see happening with the John Jordan Trio? It's such a wonderful concept.

It's very open-ended right now. We hope to record some stuff. I guess it depends on if clubs are open to having us play. I just came off an 8-year road gig and I know John just came off a 10-year road gig, and we've got kids. That's a major issue with me right now. It's one of the main reasons I moved back to the United States, to be with my family. But, on the other hand, you don't often get an opportunity to play this kind of music, to find the right kind of people that are interested in doing things, finding the right outlook, and outlet, to do it...I hope it all comes together for sure! Just knowing that people are interested makes me want to go out and play. We'll just have to wait and see what happens.

 

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