Pedro Sousa and his constantly growing library of ideas and aesthetics - an interview with a musician

Andrzej Nowak (

The recordings of the Portuguese jazz trio Rajada appeared at the beginning of this year due to the publishing series Multikulti Project and Spontaneous Music Tribune. During its short life, it has already four and a half star review on the prestigious Freejazz Blog. In the spring time I had a conversation with Pedro Sousa, a saxophonist of  this trio, not only about this release, but also and above all about the path that this still young musician went through, from experimental electronics to freely improvised music.

Hello Pedro. We are talking about the release of Rajada trio debut album in Poland, which you create together with Miguel Mira and Afonso Simoes. Please tell me how this trio came into being, how this music is located in the background of your previous musical experiences.

I had already played multiple times with Miguel Mira before the band, mostly in ad hoc situations and in the studio rehearsing with Motion Trio. While I knew and befriended Afonso already, and knew about his past playing in various ensembles with David Maranha or Rafael Toral and in bands such as Gala Drop and Fish & Sheep. One day I played with Afonso in a double bill series where local Lisbon players used to go on Saturdays, in Rua da Bica. The idea of the double bill was to put two duos playing that had never played before.

After that gig it was simply a cluster of conditions. Miguel Mira and I wanted to play more often together. Afonso desired to play jazz and improv once more. Gabriel (Ferrandini) was already thinking ahead with Volúpias das Cinzas. So it kind of naturally happened as we all felt we wanted to develop a raw trio formation of Saxophone, Bass and Drums.

Please tell me about your beginnings as a musician. Where did you start, where you learned to play, how you came to improvised music, at what moment you felt that this is your method of artistic action.

I started out playing guitar as a teenager. Which is how I met Gabriel Ferrandini actually. We were both into the idea of forming a band and playing music. I was also and still I am a heavy listener of electronic music, so I was also learning how to produce music on the computer. We did a lot of experiments during these years with other musicians, or high school friends actually, who have gone to do other things. This was also the time I first tried out playing a saxophone, as it presented itself as a very mysterious instrument to me at the time.

Since we had a lot of ideas and references in our head we were already experiencing what it is to constantly struggle with your instrument and your physical abilities vs. what you actually want to do in terms of sound. This was very important as these necessities eventually outgrew our desire to play written or structured music in a song format, and we deviated more and more into long compositions as a result of improv and experimental aesthetic ideas.

Eventually with time Gabriel started out playing with RED Trio and Motion Trio. And I, who had played a couple of times with Ernesto Rodrigues VGO (Variable Geometry Orchestra), started my own band with two other friends (Pedro Lopes from EITR and João Gomes) called OTO. It was and experimental and improvised electronic music trio which varied its sets and approach methods a lot. And it was an incredible school to learn more about playing electronic music and to also understand more how to make half structured/half improvised music, etc. It was categorically somewhere between dance music and just really weird stuff. Also during these years I was spending a lot of time and ditching way too much my University classes in favour of playing and rehearsing at Trem Azul, which used to be the Jazz Store which was also Clean Feed's HQ. This was actually my second school, and it opened my mind and ears to a lot of things to come.

But the eventual game changer was actually a John Butcher gig I saw at CCB with Carlos Zíngaro playing viola with electronics and Günter Müller playing ipods. John Butcher's playing just blew me away. I was already into different kinds of Jazz and Improv and seeing saxophones doing things out of the ordinary wasn't something I hadn't seen before. But it struck a chord in me I guess and it kind of tipped me over to finally ditch my electronics in favour of playing an acoustic instrument.

Could you indicate the albums and other musicians who have shaped you in a special way as a musician?

I think it's kind of hard to label things that way because I feel it's all part of the same stream, even the horrible stuff I listened to as a kid. So probably a lot or even the most "important" things might be left out. But the first things that come to mind are all the electronic music that I heard as I was doing my initial discoveries and explorations in music. As a teenager there were the usuals like Pink Floyd and Soft Machine but then I got really into jungle music and idm and finding out stuff in labels like Warp, Ninja Tune and Tzadik, artists like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Venetian snares and μ-ziq come to mind. Mr. Bungle's "Disco Volante" rocked my world at that time as well or bands like The Melvins. Later I really got into hip hop music in general and I really like dirty south music like Three Six Mafia and DJ Screw. Or quirky stuff like Prefuse 73.

I only started listening more seriously to Jazz music later, as I was drawn into it and I started hanging out a lot at "Trem Azul" which, since it was home to the Clean Feed records, also brought me a lot of new crazy music that I didn't even know that I wanted to hear. Which is when I heard bands like Hardcore Chamber Music, or Offonoff or Original Silence's first album, and then most importantly, for me as a musician, artists like John Butcher, Evan Parker or Jean-Luc-Guionnet. The Fish and Townorchestrahouse were some bands that were always looping in my cd-players. This last season what I’ve been listening to the most at home is actually traditional music, mostly Asian. Usually that is how I hear music these days: a lot of one genre and then I like to explore another. 

The world of improvised music met you a few years ago when you recorded an excellent album, Casa Futuro, accompanied by your great friend, Gabriel Ferrandini and Johaness Bertling. Will you continue this trio in the future? 

We played last October with this trio at Out.Fest here in Lisbon. So it's still alive and kicking. We simply have been having a tough break with timings as Johan recently became a father and already has a very packed schedule. But we thoroughly enjoy the music and playing together so it's bound to happen in a very near future (no pun intended) again!!!

Let's talk about the process of improvisation. What do you think is important for it to be successful? What's in your head? Who do you play with and how do you react to each other?

This is an interesting question as it is something that I also question myself with everyday and everytime I'm involved in some sort of creative process. I always consider myself lucky to be able to hold some sort of perspective on it and to try to believe that not only my concepts are not dogmas but they can expand and evolve. Because of Trem Azul, friends, music colleagues and my own research I was exposed not only to a multitude of different types of music and artists but also specific ways to approach and to analyze it. I am obviously a product and the result of my own influences, be it all the different albums and music genres that interest me, from drone music to noise, to hip hop and traditional styles from around the world. Also the fact that for some years I played guitar in improvised electronic and noise bands, or studied sculpture, helped me to have a different perspective on sound in general. So it all comes down to this melting pot of ideas and aesthetics which is an ever expanding library which stays with me as a musician.

So when I think of improvised music these days, it's rare that I think of it specifically as a sort of jazz or post-jazz aesthetic/idioms. Even though that pillar is massive, it's still only a part of the whole structure which is my own language. So while we study and try to improve at our instrument playing every single day in a purely technical sense, we are also conjoining it with our own truth and aesthetic, in a way, trying to rough out the edges and polish this idea as a whole. That has been my main focus as of late: To be able to clearly see better what all these things (studying, playing, thinking, talking and listening) do to me as a creative individual and how they help me define my own language which transverses everything that I do. So while I may have bands for instance, whose aesthetic may seem very different from one to another, my goal is to somehow make sense of all this and connect it.

Also something that I realized which is very important is exactly who you are playing with. As I often think that people reveal themselves a lot in how they play, it's of value when you personally connect to someone. Friendship is important, and obviously not being the end-all-be-all variable in the equation, it matters to me because of the organic nature of this music. I'm still very much in a state in my life where I feel that everything around me has to and will grow. Therefore, to grow and learn with people which are as motivated as you are, and believe in this as you do, is healthy to the music and to the motivational process in general. Of course music arrives out of conflict as well, which erupts from time to time. Everything happens to be valid as long as in the end we take this cooperative process to the best of our abilities. Everything else is just growing pains or good times.

You are strongly connected to Lisbon. Could you tell us about the music scene of this city, especially the one related to improvised music? Places to play, musicians, do anyone support musicians? Will the improvising musician survive in Lisbon?

The improvised scene in Lisbon is an interesting one. It may be a little more disperse these days, if we think about it in a classic sense, as in years before because of Trem Azul (as it was a place that everyone one time or another passed by) or even the old Hot Club (the new one just hasn't connected with this scene). It seemed easier to be exposed to the different niches that are active around here. But the relative small dimension of the city still makes it easy to connect to people and understand how these groups move, work and mix with each other. On one hand you can have Ernesto Rodrigues and his label Creative Sources, which represent the majority of near silence music being done in Lisbon and nearby places. On the other you may have Manuel Mota, David Maranha and Margarida Garcia, which are a force of its own, or Red Trio and Motion Trio, or even some musicians which, coming from a classical jazz scene, try to incorporate improvisation as a major guideline in some of their projects. So there's something for everyone, even though it might be in very small numbers sometimes, the work that these groups do all comprise a whole.

Other venues like Galeria Zé dos Bois and Damas are important in another, maybe, more urban way, as they mix very different genres in their programming, therefore exposing a lot of different people to different types of music, and this in turn creates more groups. For instance some of the musicians that I work and hangout with daily come from the pop scene, or lo-fi aesthetics, or dance music, and for me that's a very interesting thing to happen as we all support each other in a sense, and are exposed to a continuum of different works. Maybe this is where the improvisation scene in Lisbon is heading, this kind of mix of tangents. I'm of the opinion that the city is a bit harsher these days for some creative niches, but they can very well survive and thrive. I see more musicians doing different things and that's a great thing so the idea of potential is all there. There is a lack of venues in the city (and outside) in my opinion though, which coupled with skyrocketing rent prices and a city turned more and more to tourism make it harder to help this number grow. But we have to wait and see what the future brings as there are some great people doing great things around here.

Pedro, last question. What are you currently working on, on which discs will you hear in the coming months? And when will you appear at concerts in Poland or in Eastern Europe at all?

Right now I’m working in a lot of different stuff. I've been preparing and mixing two concerts given with Gabriel Ferrandini, David Maranha, Alex Zhang Hungtai and Júlia Reis (on one of the concerts only), called Rahu and Ketu. I've also been preparing an unreleased EITR album recorded a few years ago. I have recorded and mixed a duo album with David Maranha, which we are trying to put out in the moment. There's also a CAVEIRA album we working on, a band founded by Pedro Gomes years ago here in Lisbon, whose lineup has changed a lot throughout the years. I have a small solo tape to be released sometime soon. Volúpias das Cinzas, Gabriel's trio recording from the residency at ZDB will be out this year as well. There's always a lot of stuff being recorded and worked on at any given moment, which is great!

About playing in Poland or Eastern Europe...Well...It's still quite an untapped territory for me. So I can't really say for sure. Let's see if we can break through with the next batch of releases!

Thanks for conversation, Pedro.