Name: Mark Sanders
Nationality: British
Occupation: Percussionist, improviser
Current release: Mark Sanders joins Dave Tucker, Pat Thomas, and Thurston Moore for Educated Guess Vol. 2 on 577.

If these thoughts by Mark Sanders piqued your interest, visit his official website.  

Over the course of his career, Mark Sanders has worked with a wide range of artists, including Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, Derek Bailey, Henry Grimes, Okkyung Lee, Jah Wobble, Peter Evans, William Parker, Nate Wooley, Rachel Musson and Nicole Mitchell.

[Read our Wadada Leo Smith interview]
[Read our Rachel Musson interview]

When did you first start getting interested in musical improvisation?

I was 17 when I left home and moved into a house full of musicians, bass player Paul Rogers, he was working with musicians like John Stevens, Mike Osborne, Evan Parker etc, and playing live locally at The Plough in Stockwell.

So he introduced me to jazz / free jazz and free improvised music. Paul encouraged me to start improvising in my own music and introduced me to amazing musicians pianist Peter Nu and percussionist Will Evans.

I also went to council run evening jazz classes run by Brian Tueson who encouraged my interests in free playing, combined with his love of Kenny Wheeler.

Which artists, approaches, albums or performances involving prominent use of improvisation captured your imagination in the beginning?

My father was a jazz fan so we would watch any jazz shown the tv. I remember at a young age watching The Montreux Jazz Festival and a section showing various acts that were also on the festival.

I was struck by a glimpse of Cecil Taylor playing, it hit me like a rock in the head! “What was that!!” then another shot, of a drum kit with added percussion … I wanted to know more … but had no idea how.

At age 13/14 I bought Pink Floyd’s A Nice Pair which is A Saucerful of Secrets and Piper at The Gates of Dawn combined. The music was a revelation of sounds and ideas, and unknown to me until years later, free improvisation. I read later how Syd Barrett was influenced by Keith Rowe, AMM and the revolutionary jazz musicians in the US.

About 1976 I borrowed a copy of Don Cherry’s Brown Rice from the local library, another rock in the head!! The melodies, Billy Higgins’ grooves, and Frank Lowe’s screaming saxophone, I’d not heard anything like it. I played it endlessly.

Focusing on improvisation can be an incisive transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?

The UK in the late 70s and early 80s was a special time. After punk, many young musicians felt free to take up an instrument, join a band and start gigging, the scene in the UK became politically aware.

I joined Oxy and The Morons, a left wing post punk band. We played a lot of benefit concerts for various causes. The speeches I heard at the concerts informed me about real life, politics and the struggles around the world. I was also going to see many free improvisation concerts run by musicians organising their own gigs, festivals and record releases. It was an exciting period, and it's wonderful to see it being carried on by musicians and music lovers.

How would you describe the shift of moving towards an improvisation based practise, both as a listener and a creator?

In my early 20’s I found my listening had shifted away from rock into free jazz and free improvisation, folk music from around the world and classical new music.

I was going to free music gigs every week in London, seeing amazing free jazz and free improv concerts.

My interests in music were influenced by bassist Paul Rogers and percussionist Will Evans, seeing them play with the great musicians like Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and John Stevens. I was rehearsing with pianist Peter Nu, going to jazz classes run by Brian Tueson.

John Stevens was a big influence; his concerts and workshops were always an event, he loved to talk, at the bar or on stage, I learnt a lot just listening to him talk about music and drumming. I remember him giving the audience a hard time for not being large enough. He was a big character, very important on the London Jazz scene.

In the mid 1980s I went to Phil Wachsmann's Improvisation classes / sessions where I met Phil Durrant, we started playing together regularly. Eventually we ran a series of concerts where we played a duo series, invited various guests to do a solo set, then we played a last set in trio. Amongst the guests were Evan Parker and Elton Dean, they both called me up to play with them soon after.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to improvisation? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage?

I would like to think of myself as reflecting the tradition from my personal love of improvisation in all its forms and practices. My influences come from the great players of the innovators from the US and equally from the London scene, I was able to witness on a regular basis, incredible drummers Louis Moholo, Nigel Morris (who helped me enormously) Bryan Spring, Tony Marsh, Roger Turner, Paul Lytton, Eddie Prevost, Brian Abrahams and Will Evans.

[Read our Eddie Prevost interview]

What was your own learning curve / creative development like when it comes to improvisation - what were challenges and breakthroughs?

Wanting to play free improv and free jazz with equal ability and conviction can be very difficult. I feel like every so often I make a breakthrough in my personal approach and move with it.

Trevor Watts put together the quartet with Veryan Weston, John Edwards and me. The first meeting I felt I played way too full on when there was already enough information being played, I wanted to complement it. I felt this was a turning point for me in how to work with fiery, intense music.

At the next concerts I really enjoyed reacting with more broad dynamics and space.

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?

New percussion sounds are very important to me. I play and react melodically which is why I started collecting lots of metal bowls, (not the expensive Tibetan types, but what I could find in junk shops etc) I’ve spent a lot of time and effort looking for new ideas, keep searching … sometimes they work at home but not in concerts, sometimes they get poached, so you move on, hopefully finding your own way.

I have worked with ‘ICE’ playing Zorn’s ‘The Tempest ', and Christian Marclay with ‘Everyday’ both requiring me to play TamTams and concert bass drums, playing these instruments influenced me a great deal.

So when possible I play my TamTam and gongs and horizontal bass drum as part of a regular set up.

Can you talk about a work, event or performance in your career that's particularly dear to you? 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?

Gosh, there’s too many to mention! But maybe playing the Berlin Jazz Festival with Elton Dean’s Group featuring Rowell Rudd, and the FMP Festival with Evan Parker the same week was an early one.

The realisation there was so much more work for me to do to play at that level with such great musicians. How to play with an intense personal percussion style and also play jazz with groove and swing.

That week I also went with Evan to a Globe Unity rehearsal, witnessing Paul Lovens playing time, reading charts, playing free jazz and free improv sounds all at such a high level was very influential.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your collaborations? Do you feel as though you are able to express yourself more fully in solo mode or, conversely, through the interaction with other musicians? Are you “gaining” or “sacrificing” something in a collaboration?

As a person of colour, I have in recent years very much enjoyed collaborating with young and older Black British musicians, including Elaine Mitchener, Neil Charles, Pat Thomas, Shabaka Hutchings, Robert Mitchell, Cleveland Watkiss, Orphy Robinson … all exceptional musicians / composers and improvisers, integrating Jazz / Improv / grooves / Classical New Music directions. I couldn’t be happier and more inspired.

The mix of musicians playing in jazz and free music now, races and genders mixed, making incredible improvised, free jazz and or composed music, it’s very exciting times.

For you personally, how would you describe the relationship between a clear individual vision and cooperative results?

It is important to have a clear individual voice, but that usually only comes with time, hard work and experience. You can be a great young improviser with good playing and listening skills, but the great players have a clear personal direction. You know it’s them when you hear them.

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 out to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?

I am finding that the more skills I gain as a drummer and musician, the freer I feel as an improviser, to play in any given situation.

Nik Bärtsch reduced the art of musicianship to three principles: 1) Listen! 2) Only play the essentials 3) Make the others sound good. What's your take on this and how do these principles pan out in practise?

Miles Davis had it right, if you're thinking of your next idea you’re not listening. Just play to what you hear.

I always say to my students when new to improvising and unsure, be brave, play your first idea. You know the instrument, so your ears will be deciding what to play. If you start thinking too much it will cause problems.

In a live situation, decisions between creatives often work without words. How does this process work – and how does it change your performance compared to a solo performance?

If you have worked together before or know the musicians you are playing with, then the way the music will be approached should be at least somewhat clear. If not, then it’s down to you to play the way you feel at the moment and listen to the responses.

For solo performances, I still feel like it’s a duet, in various ways, with the room’s acoustics, atmosphere, audience or with myself, my conscious and subconscious selves reacting.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? In which way is it different between your solo work and coollaborations?

I like to have a bit of time alone before performing, depending on the music about to be played. I might think about the musicians I’m about to play with and how to approach the situation - how are the acoustics, how was the sound on stage?

For soloing I think again about the sound of the room and the atmosphere, but also maybe how I will start the performance. But any preparation can be ignored as I start.

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

As a percussionist this relationship is all important as the drums can fill an echoing space, such as a church or any large echoing / stone space. I relish the opportunities to play in churches or such, they are something special to deal with. To hear a bass drum envelop the room or metal chime can be invigorating.

The soundcheck can be very important if it is a difficult or interesting room. I always think of a characterful space as an extra member of the group or solo performance.

In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music and improvisation express and reveal about life and death?

I feel improvisation is a part of me as whole. I’m always at my best when improvising in music. I improvise in my teaching quite a lot, sometimes completely change my plans as I read the mood of the students.

It probably is too deep inside me to change in my day to day life. But sometimes I wish I could plan life a bit more, stop driving my partner mad changing things daily.