Name: John Dikeman
Occupation: Saxophonist, improviser
Nationality: American
Current release: John Dikeman teams up with Pat Thomas, John Edwards, and Steve Noble for the album Volume 1, slated for release April 1st, 2022 via 577. He also recently contributed to Genevieve Murphy's I Don't Want To Be An Individual All On My Own, alongside Andy Moor.

[Read our Genevieve Murphy interview]
[Read our Andy Moor interview]

Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?  

I am someone that very much appreciates my instrument as a physical entity. There are probably plenty of musicians who don’t care too much and just see the instrument as a necessity for communicating the ideas they wish to express. For me, I’m a bit of a gear head. At the moment I own each saxophone from soprano to bass but my main instrument is the tenor. I play a Conn transitional which was built in 1935. I’ve owned around 10 different tenors over the years, this one is quite similar to my very first tenor in fact.

I felt from an early age, that sound is the single most important factor in one’s individual musicianship. Some of my first major influences: Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, had such strong and unique personal sounds that I had the feeling they could express their essence in just one note. The phrasing, lines, dynamics, harmonic content, rhythm, ability to improvise and interact - that all went on from there. But their sound in-and-of-itself reflected their musical DNA and was enough to express absolute artistic truths. I had a similar feeling discovering the work of Mark Rothko. This sense that all of life could be expressed through a texture without needing a greater context. That is to say, staring at one section of a Rothko up close could be a transcendent experience.

To bring it back to gear ... If sound is the priority, gear does play a role. At least for me. My tenor is one I feel completely connected with and I know how to make it vibrate and how to get the sound to evolve beyond just a note from a horn. I’ve also experimented a great deal with mouthpieces and reeds. The key to a big sound, not loud, though they can be related, but a full sound saturated with information, is air, and you need a set up that can take that air. Most of the players whose tones resonated with me played very big tips openings and I do the same.

I play a custom mouthpiece by a maker from New Orleans, Benjamin Allen. It’s a 12* tip opening with a very large chamber and almost no baffle. If you don’t know about saxophone gear it’s not important, but it’s basically a big hole that doesn’t help you much at all. A lot of modern mouthpieces are made to help you project and shape you sound, this is kind of a blank slate.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?

This is a difficult one. I think both processes can be beautiful, and for everyone it’s obviously different ... I’m primarily interested in music as a form of expression and transcendence. I suppose it could be called a form of abstract expressionism in the sense that I am not trying to express any particular emotions or ideas. Just pure energy.

Personally it probably has a lot to do with expressing the limitations of the ego and the external world in general, as well as confronting the idea of death, nothingness and the unknown, but people take from it whatever they take. For me, it’s more of a personal ritual I express through sound. And the most natural way for me to express that is through improvisation. However, I am by no means an improvisational purist. My primary goal isn’t improvisation in and of itself. I’m not doing everything in my power to play something completely different at every moment. But I use a general improvisational approach in the majority of my music.

All that being said, I’m also very interested in the nuances of musical structure and theory. There are so many elements to music, and so many ways to organize them to delve into various territories. Some of those lend themselves well to improvisation, but plenty of musical worlds can be explored best through composition. And it’s a giant spectrum. Even reading a fully notated score as rigorously as possible requires an incredible amount of personal decision making and exercise of will.

Composing for others is also fascinating as it allows you to direct other egos towards musical goals you have in mind. That’s certainly a fertile ground for exploration.

Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?

I am drawn back to the instrument itself once again. A constant source of inspiration for musical material stems from the inconsistencies of the instrument. That plus my body and the environment create immense stimulus for music making. In certain spaces, different sounds will come out of the instrument, different overtones.

Each environment creates new possibilities. Just the combination of my breath, the horn, and a space is more than enough to keep me stimulated. Now once we add other musicians, we have an infinite world of possibilities.

Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a  group compare to a solo situation?

Those rules are wonderful, but those are the kinds of rules you might set for one ensemble. Perhaps with a specific goal in mind. There are countless other “rules” too. And many rules negate each other.

Personally, I think we can explore many more possibilities than limiting ourselves to those rules, even if we chose to accept them from time to time. In my opinion, all relationships can be explored. There is nothing wrong with one musician completely drowning out everyone else from time to time. Or from playing something completely contrary to the rest of the group. It’s about exploring different kinds of relationships.

It’s funny how codified things are in almost all improvisational circles. Even most of the “pure improvisers” I’ve known, when you got down to the essence of their ideas, had a fairly dogmatic approach to how that should be achieved. Again, I think all options can work. Explore a small view or a very open one. But don’t kid yourself that you’re more free than you are.

I had a solo tour a while back where I was intentionally trying to take a more improvisational approach. I have many friends who have hit the road for a period, solo, in order to craft or fine tune a solo set. Often with the goal of recording it at the end. This is exactly what I was trying to avoid. I wanted to find ways to force myself to play differently every night. If something “worked” I would do my best to avoid that on the next performances. This is contrary to how I usually work. But again, I think all approaches are worth exploring. Incidentally, I think I failed miserably! I should try it again sometime.

On another note, Ava Mendoza just turned me on to this article about Masayuki Takayanagi. His ground rules for improvising, according to his drummer, Yoshisaburo Toyozumi, were "Play fortissimo [i.e., really fucking loud], never repeat the same phrase and don't listen to what anyone else is doing." Whoa. He created fucking amazing music with this, diametrically opposed concept.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

I have no idea how to get there. I’ve certainly had performances where I felt like I was in that state. But getting there, for me anyway, there is no formula. I’ve reached it through the best of times and the worst … Also, there is not a direct relationship between how I feel during a performance and how the audience feels. I really think it’s an unknown and you have to submit to that unknown.

In a basic sense, the more comfortable I feel with my instrument, the more comfortable I am on stage. Which is not to say I’m more creative ...

Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting?

My favourite situation is when I’m thinking as little as possible. Or when intuition is stronger than analysis. Again, it’s a spectrum. A musician is never truly not thinking. But sometimes you don’t have to try …

It does depend very much on the ensemble and my perceived role in that ensemble. In a larger group with specific acoustic parameters I will find myself consciously thinking far more. It all depends ...

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?

One of my favourite things in life is filling a space with sound. You have the sense that the world is vibrating with you. And, you hope, that’s how all those present in that space, feel as well.

How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?

I hate performing in the studio. I’ve certainly done it a number of times. For more composed material it’s much better, and makes more sense to me. But to record totally improvised music ...  I just hate it! Music is a social endeavour for me. As narcissistic as my approach may seem, the assumption is that by being totally honest to myself, the audience will most be able to receive the music. Then I feed off the energy they give back.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

I’m going to go way back for this one.

When I was 14 I attended a music camp. Because of my age I had to play in the junior jazz band but for the final concert of the senior big band I was invited as a guest soloist. For me this was the biggest musical event of my life so far … I went up and I don’t know if it was my reed or if I literally choked, but I went to play and nothing came out. The horn just wouldn’t speak. I looked down at it, looked up at the audience and shrugged and walked off stage and down to a practice room where I cried for a good half hour till someone found me.

Now, up to that point I had been a nervous kid in general, that would often crack under pressure. Sports were completely impossible for me. I’d just get scared and screw up. Music was the first thing where I was able to get over that hump and this was the first real instance where something like that happened to me while making music. Until then I was always able to perform even if I was terrified. But that time I totally failed, no question. However, I loved music enough, it didn’t stop me, or even slow me down. It wasn’t even a consideration, music felt so natural, I was clearly going to continue no matter what.

It’s extremely important to learn how to fail. Not how to rationalize your failures as something else, but to be able to accept and admit your weaknesses and learn to work with them. I’m still terrified much of the time when I perform, but I’ve learned to live with that, and even utilize it as a tool for creativity.

In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

Music can only help you manifest the ideas you already have. But that’s a beautiful thing. It helps you live your emotions and ideas.