Agustí Fernández - Passing the flame

Andrzej Nowak (

An interview with pianist, composer and outstanding Catalan improviser, which sums up his artistic achievements during the past year, and also gives an accurate diagnosis of the music scene in Barcelona.

Hello Agusti. Another year passed away, everyone is competing in summaries, creating lists of the best albums. If you let me, I would like to summarize with you the year 2018. Before we go to the albums with your music, I would like to ask you if some recordings last year, some concert particularly interested you or even dropped to your knees?

There are many, so it's not easy to point only one. I love most of what my colleagues are doing in the "Free Improvisation" field, I keep learning from all of them. But to point only one I will say the last one I've purchased: "Barre Phillips - End To End" on ECM. I'm very honoured to play with Barre in the London Jazz Composers Orchestra (last time at Porgy & Bess in Vienna, November 30th) and I think he is a real master of the music. He has been a big influence on me, always. And this CD is a masterpiece, the music so clear and sincere that is almost frightening.

According to my calculations, last year brought eight albums, which are branded, among others, Your name. Let me quote their titles: Antipodal Suites, Agrakal, Louisiana Variations, Venusik, Spontaneous Chamber Music Vol. 2, Like Listening With Your Fingertips, En Vivo En El Festival De Jazz De Buenos Aires and Free Radicals Live at DOM. Did I forget about something? This is probably very interesting, as many as five of them have been published in Poland. It seems to me that in 2017 the proportions were similar. Do Polish publishers love Fernandez's music more than Catalans or other European nations?

Your list contains eight albums. But you are right. I've also participated in a CD which is a compilation of experimental music from Barcelona during the 80's and 90's (Sense Prefix by Laolla Express Records).

I don't know if Polish publishers love my music more than other Europeans, hahaha. But they do love it. Five out of nine is a lot! I think this is always about personal relationships. All of the Polish publishers are very open to my music, and I love what they are publishing. We know one each other personally and we have similar musical tastes. So it's not that strange that we collaborate so often. For me it's a honour and a privilege to be on these labels.

It is so nice to hear such words from you! I suggest that we start discussing this year's albums with the duet you recorded with violinist Sarah Claman – “Antipodal Suites”. For me personally, this is an unusual album, and the next one - after Yasmine Azaiez's recordings - which you recorded with a woman playing a small string instrument. Tell me about this meeting, about this recording. Could you compare them to Yasmine recordings? Finally, do you think string instruments somehow harmonize well with the piano?

Yes, I agree, “Antipodal Suites” is an unusual album.
Some two years ago I went to a concert in a town (Mataró) near where I live. It was a quartet (piano, bass, cello and violin). I knew the other three members of the quartet but not Sarah, she was new to me. But she made a huge impression on me. Later on I heard her some other times with different combinations and every time I've had the same feeling: she is tremendous! Her concentration, her focus on the music, her technique, her listening, her passion on the music she plays,... she is fantastic! So I invited her to my studio to play as a duo. The setting in the studio was ready for a recording, with microphones on place, etc. So I did recorded the session. Not because I wanted to do a recording but just because it was easy to do it, like a document, a sonic photography. After the session we both felt that we had a very good musical understanding so we decided to do another session later on. And that's it. “First Suite” on the record is the music from the first meeting. And “Second Suite” is from the second meeting. Very simple. The first notes you can hear on track one are the first notes we ever played together. No tricks, no preparation, no talking, no bullshit, just playing. Pure improvisation.

I can't compare this recording to the one with Yasmine because, even if they play the same instrument, they have completely different approaches to music and to improvisation. But I like both of them. For me it's always a challenge to play with Yasmine or Sarah.
Piano & violin is a classical pairing. So much classical music has been written for this combination, no wonder. They melt very well. I mean the sound, the volume, the expression. And all the literature around this duet is always there as a background when you play. For me it's a very natural way of playing, I mean, no amps, no P.A., simply acoustic chamber music. I love this combination.

The album that we're talking about has not appeared in Poland, but in Barcelona, in your Sirulita Records. Where did the idea that a musician so active on the stage of improvised music, recording a really large number of albums, also so recognized and appreciated, also acted actively as a publisher?

I'm not a publisher, not at all. I'm just a musician trying to help other musicians that I think deserve more recognition. It's that simple. The musicians appearing on Sirulita Records are the following generation to mine, they are the same age as my son, thirty something. So I feel it's my duty to record and publish what they do. This is what some musicians from the first generation of European improvisers did to me. Musicians like Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Barry Guy. They invited me to play and record with them, and published some of these recording on their labels. So now it's my turn to do the same thing with the younger ones. It's called "transmission". We musicians are like the pearls of a necklace, that's all. It's not about ego; it's about passing the flame.

At the very beginning of this process there is always the enthusiasm for the music, always. I mean, you hear someone, this musician makes an impression on you, you have an emotional reaction, and you want to share this feeling with other people. Like: "Hey, listen to him/her! He/she is great!” It's a very basic impulse.


Let's go to the albums that were released this year in Poland. Two of them are the trios you recorded with your friend Barry Guy. First, the Listen Foundation! released by “Louisiana Varations”, where you were accompanied by Torben Snekkestad, and just when we are conducting this interview, the album “Free Radicals at DOM” is released, where the third is Peter Evans. Both discs are exquisite; they will certainly go to the best albums of this year (at least mine!). I would like you to compare these recordings, talk about the circumstances of their creation, and - or perhaps most of all - refer to them on the background of recordings of the EFG trio, when you were accompanied by Peter Evans and Mats Gustafsson. For me personally, two albums, which the EFG recorded at the turn of the previous and present decade, are an absolute canon of the free improve genre (incidentally, both were published in Poland!).

It's difficult to talk about different recordings. The musicians who play in them are different and the results are completely different. It may sound stupid but this is how I feel about it.
Personally I can say that the trio format is my preferred format, maybe because I have only two ears (just joking). Seriously, when you play in trio you can really listen and interact with your colleagues, all the time. And in doing so you can shape the music at your will. When I say "you" I mean any and all of the three musicians. So the resulting trio music is really about very close listening and interaction.

EFG trio was a very nice instruments and musicians combination. "Kopros Lithos" was recorded in 2009 at Dragon Club in Poznan, and we did a European tour in 2011 for the release of the album. At the end of this tour we did a recording in Vienna and this recording ("A Quietness of Water") was released by Not Two in 2017. What can I say about EFG? I love playing with Mats and Peter but it's no easy to find a date where we are free to play together, we all have very busy schedules. But the music is very, very intense when we meet and play together.

The "Louisiana Variations" trio with Torben and Barry came out from our meeting in the Blue Shroud Band. It was Torben's idea to play as a trio in 2016 when we played in small formations at Alchemia while we were rehearsing "Odes and Meditations" by Barry Guy (you can hear this trio on CD#4 of "Intensegrity" on Not Two). Torben set a tour in Denmark in the summer of 2017 and the concert in Copenhagen was recorded and released in 2018 on Listen Foundation!. The title "Louisiana Variations" came out because we three visited the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark on our free day in this tour. Last summer we did a tour in West Germany and a recording at The Loft in Cologne will be released next year. This trio is completely different from EFG. Different people, different results. We are more focused on sonic exploration and abstract thinking while we are improvising. But we never talk about this, everything is done through listening and playing only.

And the "Free Radicals" trio (with Barry and Peter) is completely another music world. We did a short tour in Spain in January 2016, which was fantastic. And later on we played two concerts in Russia in November 2017. The concert in Moscow was recorded and this is what has been released this month on Listen Foundation! What can I say? Maybe this trio is a combination of the other two: energy playing and abstract thinking. And very fast reactions among us, which means very close listening. Sometimes I'm surprised how tuned we are into one each other, and how fast we three take decisions simultaneously on a fraction of a second and change the direction and form of the music. Amazing music!

And all of these records have been released in Poland, yes.


Let's stay still with your cooperation with Barry Guy. You mentioned the London Jazz Composers Orchestra concert today. Also this fall in Krakow was the premiere of the new Guy’ large ensemble For The End Yet Again, of course with your participation. This concert was in my opinion great, extremely creative, also full of outstanding solo creations. As far as I know, the very idea of the meeting, as well as the concert were prepared quite spontaneously, they were not the effect of the composer's many years of thinking. I am asking you for a comment and personal experience in this meeting.

I can only say that for me it's a privilege and a joy to be a member of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra. I always think of the great pianists who preceded me on the bench (Howard Riley, Irène Schweitzer, Marilyn Crispell) and I feel very fortunate to be the actual one. And the rest of the musicians are also extraordinary, both the British and the Europeans, the older (Barre Phillips) and the younger ones (Julius Gabriel), all of them. For 49 years Barry has written many different pieces for this Orchestra and they reflect many different visions, depending on the moment, the personnel, the venue, etc. but all related to the origin of the Orchestra. I mean: "London", "Jazz" and "Composers". So every concert is different and always challenging. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the birth of the LJCO and we will celebrate it with several concerts, hopefully.

Let's go to the next trio with your participation, which in 2018 left intriguing music. The album "Venusik" is particularly close to me for obvious reasons. It also seems to me that it differs slightly from stylistics, perhaps also the level of intensity, from the recordings we talked about a few moments ago. In my opinion, this is a truly radical recording. I have the impression that during a studio meeting with Ramon Prats and Axel Dörner you did not use the piano keyboard at all. This is a kind of preparation poem. I am very interested in your opinion, also the impressions from this recording session.

I don’t remember if I played on the keyboard or not. I always try to react and fit in the actual sonic reality. So with this recording I did what I thought it was best for the music.

The recording session was very good indeed. It was a session with audience in the studio. I mean, audience always influences the music, somehow. And the small audience was some very close friends and musicians. So it was more like a private concert than a recording session. Everything was very relaxed and familiar. But the focus on the music was fantastic.

I know Axel from more than twenty years. And Ramon from more than ten years. But, even if I knew them very well it was the first time we ever played as a trio. I’m very happy with this recording.


The album “Agrakal" recorded with Zlatko Kaucić and Marco Colonna, seems to be on the opposite pole of the world of improvised music. It seems to me very jazz and relatively ordered. Do you have similar feelings?

I understand what you say but I don’t think in this way about music being jazz or not jazz. It’s always up the musicians to produce the music. So, different musicians produce very different music. And that is because every musician brings his/her own personal history, sensibility, memories, vision, concepts, etc. And when we play together all of these world visions melt and produce an specific output, true to the people but also to the moment and place.

I have played with Marco and Zlatko in duo many times and this was the first time we ever played together as a trio. And I think some kind of mediterranean perfume comes out from our music since we three are very mediterranean people, whatever that means.

You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation about the compilation of Barcelona's experimental music from the 80s of the last century, entitled "Sense Prefix". In the meantime, I had the opportunity to listen to this album. Lots of interesting, avant-garde music, mainly rock based. In this intriguing set, juicy, solo improvisations of your authorship and Agusti Martinez. Tell us about those times in Barcelona. What was the then scene of experimental or improvised music? What was the reception of such music 30-35 years ago?

This is a very difficult question to answer. My memory is not my best friend. What I remember about this era is that there were many, many directions on new music at the same time. There were rock musicians, jazz musicians, jazz-rock musicians, folk musicians, salsa musicians, electronic and avantgarde musicians, and so on. Everything was allowed, it seemed. And many musicians were playing simultaneously in different styles, different bands, no problem. I played rock and salsa, but also electronic music, commercial music, and also composing music for dancers, among many other things.

Franco died in 1975, and we had a new Spanish democratic constitution in 1978. This political frame was the basis for what came afterwards. So the moment was like: "anything goes", no censorship anymore. Sometimes the musicians were not very skilled but they had very interesting approaches to music and improvisation. And Spain was open to Europe and USA for the first time, so you could get imported records and they were very much listened to. So influences came in, and new ideas, not only in music, in art and life as well.

I know the musicians on that list, and I have played with many of them. I was closer to “Koniec” than the rest of the list, but we were all playing in the same places and festivals. We were a generation of explorers, let's say, we knew little but everything seemed allowed.


Of course, the 1980s can not be compared in any way with today. In my opinion – as sympathizer, lover and publisher - Barcelona currently offers a whole lot of excellent, sometimes very revealing music. I concentrate on free improvisation, you certainly embrace a wider range of genres. How do you perceive contemporary music in Barcelona? Do you have a similar opinion, and if so, what do you think where is the source of the quality of music that arises in this city and around it?

In a way, Barcelona has always had a very interesting music scene. Times change and music changes accordingly. In my opinion, and thinking of the improvised local scene, today we have a bunch of very good musicians, very talented and with a very clear and strong personality.

As I've said, in the 80's everything was more exploratory, we were inventing the music on the go because we didn't know about other scenes. And there were many mistakes, of course, or misunderstandings. Freedom was one of the main words we used but the meaning of freedom was very different from one musician or another one.

Today what I see in the improv scene is that there are no stylistic boundaries, or not as strong as in the past. All the local musicians can play together in different combinations, and they do it every week. There are several venues that offer improvised concerts weekly, so you can't get bored. And you can't attend all of them!

And this underground scene is fantastic. Nowadays you have all kind of instruments (not only jazz instruments as it was the case many years ago), aesthetics, approaches, combinations (from solo to big ensembles), etc. It's a vibrant scene and I love what they do.

Barcelona has always been a very creative city, this is not a cliché, it's historically true. Barcelona is an important city for Art, Architecture, Books, Theatre, etc. with many people from abroad coming and bringing new ideas, it has always been like this. So it's not a surprise that contemporary improvised music has grown here as well, art is in the DNA of the city.

One of the reasons I've created Sirulita Records is that I feel that some of the musicians I know and play with, musicians who are tremendous musicians, have very little or no exposure to the media, they practically don't exist for the music scene, journalists, etc, outside the improv circle. And what I'm trying to do is to help them and say: "Hey, listen, this music is fantastic and it's made in this city, just around the corner. The musicians who produce it are not from USA, United Kingdom, Germany or whatever, but they are as great as the foreigners, and they are your neighbours, you can listen to them play live. Please listen to the records, follow and enjoy them."

Thank you Agusti for this conversation.