Ed Pettersen: Dispatch from the COVID Front

In 2019, I kept running into Ed Pettersen at Big Ears. We had some interesting conversations during which I learned that we both lived in Nashville and that he was something of a musical polymath. He recently sent me an email describing the effect that Covid has had on his musical plans. I thought that many GM readers could relate and that it would be a good time to officially introduce Pettersen to the Guitar Moderne community.

Pettersen is recognized as a free improvisational musician, a solo acoustic performer, a songwriter with contributions to Grammy nominated albums, an experienced audio engineer and audiophile, and a respected producer. Two of his productions are the 2007 production of the 3-CD, 50-song compilation Song of America, a history of the United States as represented by popular song covered by a variety of notable artists, and the 2011 Happening: A Movement in 12 Acts, a free jazz operetta with a crew of stellar vocalists that follows the story of the 99% as represented by the Occupy movement (ESP Disc).

A love of classic soul music won Pettersen a song on Bettye LaVette’s 2008 Grammy nominated record and a follow up track on Candi Staton’s 2009 release Who’s Hunting Now?  In recent years he has journeyed back and forth to Norway and London; forming several groups including The Black Country and the Mad King Edmund Band. More recently, Pettersen’s reconnection with free improvisation was sparked by a year in London, participating in Eddie Prévost’s workshop, co-founding The London Experimental Ensemble, and recording with Eddie Prévost, Martin Küchen, Ståle Liavik Solberg, Henry Kaiser, and others.

Here is Ed’s email:

“March was supposed to be a great month. I was returning to my beloved London and my mates in the London Experimental Ensemble. We had a new record scheduled to be released on Gearbox Records (which never happened due to forces beyond our control) and we were about to record a new free improv album live at Iklectik on March 19th, scoring painter Gina Southgate as she created a new work. At the same time my friend Henry Kaiser had flown over to record what turned out to be three records; one with Binker Golding, Eddie Prévost, NO Moore and Olie Brice; one with Ray Russell; and one with John Russell (no relation to Ray). The record with John Russell was an important one as John had been diagnosed a week earlier with cancer but remained eager to make music. I was excited to be included in all three sessions as a co-producer and sounding board and the energy and creativity on each session was at an all-time high. All was going swimmingly with mini cross collaborations evolving as the artists started contributing to one another’s recordings. Then I got the call.

Henry and I had to leave immediately to return to the US. A travel ban was to take effect within 48 hours and if I didn’t make it on the next flight BAD THINGS WOULD HAPPEN (according to my wife). I was devastated but of course I understood. The first thing I did was cancel the London Experimental Ensemble show for the 19th. It was a tough decision—it was becoming apparent that clubs around London were getting nervous but members of the group were divided as to how risky it was at that time, and some were for forging ahead. I could have packed up and wished the group well on the gig but I chose to put my thumb on the scale towards cancellation. I’m not sure everyone completely understood at the time but it made sense to me and I hoped we could reschedule sometime in the Fall.

I left on the 19th with a hard drive of material from the three Kaiser sessions knowing I had work to do and hoping that it would not be too long before I could return. The day after I landed back in the U.S I found out that our bandmate and dear friend, Carole Chant (a/k/a Carole Finer), had died of COVID-19. I was devastated. We all were.

Carole was one of the members of our group pushing hardest to continue, she just thought she only had a bad cold. She was still determined to play the gig at Iklectik. Carole played an integral role in the London improv scene for years, playing in The Scratch Orchestra with Cardew, and in recent years contributing her voluminous knowledge to a radio show on Resonance FM that shone a light on old and new talent alike. Yet Carole would think nothing of still hoofing all over London for simple band meetings which were not mandatory by any means. When we performed and recorded, she always sat immediately to my left. I had come to rely on her smiling presence and delightful sounds to inspire me. She was a gem and a curious bright light in the improv world the likes of which I can’t imagine encountering again. She cannot be replaced.

Back in Nashville, I dove right in to setting up the material Henry and I had recorded to take my mind off of things. This kept Henry and me busy across the country for the next two months and was a welcome respite from the news and our psyches. We started right in on the John Russell sessions as John wanted to hold the finished product in his hand before his condition got more serious (thankfully he’s still with us as of this writing and keeping us all amused on social media). As soon as Henry and I approved the master, Damon Smith and Balance Point Acoustics jumped right in to press CD’s and get the release out immediately with the title The Dukes of Bedford.  Recording and releasing a record so fast reminded us of the old days when record labels would take the wave of excitement of what’s new right to market. It was a beautiful process.

We completed the Ray Russell and Prévost /Golding/Kaisier/Moore/Brice records, and put them aside until we could find an appropriate home for them, tickled that we could complete them at such a long distance from each other. All three sessions had been a joy to work on from recording to final masters. With those projects successfully concluded, and the US elections in the offing, I pivoted to an intense burst of work on You Are Not Alone a record I had started with the Mad King Edmund Band in September 2019. As an artist, songwriter, and producer with a foot in several genres I always have budding projects in play, and my fully equipped Pro Tools home studio made it easy to focus on remote collaborations. Since the Mad King Edmund Band is myself and two talented musician friends in Norway, each with access to recording tools, the pandemic actually helped us focus on completing You Are Not Alone.  I had already penned “Burning” and “Keep Your Distance” (ironically) in 2019 but the lyrics for the remaining songs we needed started flowing, inspired by current events.

Our first album in 2016 had merged free improv, storytelling, and melodic underpinnings to showcase some of the most bent stories of a curious life in Best True Stories. I hadn’t been sure that the Mad King Edmund Band would find another set of stories to tell, but Donald Trump and his merry band of idiots took care of that. In one of those truth is stranger than fiction moments the album melded political commentary with the celebration of the absurd with songs such as “Zaichik” (Russian familiar for male bunny and a conversation between Putin and Trump) and “The Emperor”. It took several months of sending tracks back and forth to layer the different instrumentation and finish the album, but finish we did, releasing it in digitally on Safe and Sound Recordings in August 2020. That was a PITA to do frankly but very satisfying ultimately.

I also chose to use the pandemic to focus on our tiny free improv label Split Rock Records and release some recordings we had in the can, notably the London Experimental Ensemble recording , Orbit, originally slated for Gearbox, which we released as a download to benefit the Iklectik Art Lab. That was followed by more digital albums to benefit Iklectik including The Interloper with Massimo Magee and Child Ballads Bonus Tracks with the LEE, plus a lot of free downloads of improvs I recorded at home for our dear Bandcamp followers. Vigeland, my solo guitar recording at the mausoleum outside Oslo (The venue where Stian Westerhus recorded The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers), was our only physical release of the summer. Unfortunately, it and Plumes of Ash in Moonlight with Eddie Prévost and Ståle Liavik Solberg (Feb 2020) were probably a little neglected on the promotion front as digital releases came so easily. That has definitely been a benefit of the pandemic, becoming more comfortable with releasing digital only albums.  I have always had a passion for film and in the spirit of pandemic collaboration the next mini-project was creating soundtracks for two brilliant little films that friends let me use, Collected Abstractions and Transparency respectively.

And just this week (October 4th) we released my duo with the superb Scott Amendola Velour Works Well on Neptune, also on Bandcamp. This last we somehow created long distance between California and Nashville with no overdubs and as free as humanly possible during the current conditions. Scott and I still have never laid eyes on each other!

I still have one more series of recordings to ready for release. Tony Hardie-Bick, myself and the fabulous Keisuke Matsui had created three albums worth of material before the lockdown, a series we dubbed The Relativity Drones; one with Elo Masing on violin, one with Ng Chor Guan on Theremin, and one by ourselves as a trio.  Each one will be a digital release in the coming months followed by a very limited box set with original art in February.  Fortunately, the CD tins were printed pre-pandemic so we just need to organize some artwork. Running a label kind of sucks though to be honest. Proud as I am of  all these recordings it’s very time consuming to try to get the music to everyone that really cares about it. The music comes easily, the social media and getting your message through to folks can be a bit of a slog. It also obviously takes away your time from playing and creating but this is the world we live in for independent artists  Honestly, I’ve worked harder during this pandemic than ever before (do we have a choice?) and I was already a workaholic so that’s saying something.

All in all, I’d rate my pandemic experience as a fine balancing act. In many ways I was fortunate that it arrived just at a time when I had a number of completed studio recordings to shepherd through to release. It also led me to embrace the freedom of digital releases more fully and yes, work on my social media.  I’ve been able to spend a bit of time on “Dear Anthony-Letters to My Nephew About the Music Biz” and the other “Dr. Big Ed Guitar Pedal Shrink” some fun things I do on YouTube. Every once in a while, I give away a free guitar pedal to the audience from my collection. I have too many anyway. Speaking of pedals, some ideas I had floated to some innovative manufacturers finally took root and if all goes well some new pedal collaborations will hit the market next year, and hopefully even provide a little bit of extra income. For now, I consider ourselves very lucky that my wife is still fully employed.  On the other hand, not being able to play with the LEE when we were really building something is really bumming me out.  Playing free improv with other talented musicians has given me a great deal of joy these last few years and I do miss the live interaction. My pandemic hasn’t been a terrible place to be at all these last six months, but I do expect the next six to be more challenging. It’s getting old, right?

So where do we go from here?  Hell, if I know. I was really hoping we could get back to normal by Spring 2021 and playing for you live again and seeing people, museums and art again, but alas it looks like that may not happen.I really feel for the clubs. As bad as it has been for musicians (I get those same robo-calls looking for donations we all get and when I tell them I’m a musician who hasn’t made any money since March they all go “Whoa, okay, thanks for your time” so there’s that) the clubs that support improvised music are among the most dedicated folks I’ve met in the music business and really believe in it or why else would they do it?  They are truly our lifeblood and if they fold so does the whole house of cards. Live performance is our backbone and I really saw this music growing by leaps and bounds the last few years. It was very inspiring with a lot of fresh, young voices coming into the fold too. This could make it all come to a complete stop permanently if we can’t get some support to keep the arts alive. I imagine even sympathetic landlords only have so much understanding.  We need to fight the good fight harder than ever, never let up and rebuild what we have.

I look forward to being in the same room again with people I care about and getting to know them all over again.”




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