Harriet Tubman

Rescheduled:  Harriet Tubman Cafe Coda — Friday, June 24, 2022 — 8pm

Harriet Tubman North Street Cabaret — Friday, March 20, 2020 — 8pm

  • Brandon Ross -- Guitar
  • Melvin Gibbs -- Bass
  • J.T. Lewis -- Drums


By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 02/29/2020


Their music defies categorization, but these days--and in any era, really--the best music does. These are creators whose roots extend into the fertile ‘80s, ‘90s, and beyond, and to artists who were, and are, creating music that becomes the foundation for others to build on. Melvin Gibbs with Ronald Shannon Jackson, J.T. Lewis with Don Pullen and Henry Threadgill, and Brandon Ross with Muhal Richard Abrams and Henry Threadgill; enough said. A show like this comes around only once in a great while. And to have it in our backyard? You know the value of that. The gatekeepers may say they’re too rock for jazz, and too jazz for rock. But we know better. 


MB: Can you guys talk a little bit about the difficulty or struggle, maybe, working in a band that defies category?

J.T. Lewis: That’s an interesting question. Well, for us it’s not a struggle, maybe, you know, I mean coming from the drummer’s standpoint. Because we respect each other's approach, and we don't really challenge each other's approach. We let the music become what it is. We’ve tried to, like, break down what each other is doing--I’m just talking from the drummer’s perspective. I would talk to Melvin about what he was attempting to do. And he would give me a perspective that I wasn't even thinking about, it in terms of, like, time signatures, and how he would approach the music. And I just let it go at that, ‘cause if I tried to figure out too much, there's a certain magic that is not going to happen, you know.

Brandon Ross: I mean, Michael, I took your question to mean more in terms of employment. [Laughs]

MB: Well that's kind of how I intended it, but J.T. was getting more into something I wanted to ask, maybe the next question about the writing process. But first if you could talk about, you know, from the audience perspective what the difficulty might be.

Brandon Ross: Yeah, I mean, I would say that--based on my experience with talking with various people, and talking with our booking agent, and different promoters--that, I think it's a conundrum for people in this period. Because, you know, for us it seems very logical: what we do. It's a logical expression, or extension, of the music that we were influenced by, and mentored by. And yet, that period of expression which involves dynamic energy, creativity, not trying to sound like someone or something else, you know, being musically yourself and pursuing your own voice, your own individual creative voice--those values seem to have been pushed to the margin these days. When we go out and play somewhere it's invariably people go “wow! you know we don't - what do you guys call this music? We don’t hear this much, it’s really great. We don't hear this much” and that's kind-of in terms of marketing, it's a tremendous challenge. Everyone says this to us all the time, you know, cause if you put us in the jazz category it's so misleading because it's so broad. And if you put us in the rock category then we get into other kinds of issues as well, that go along with who gets to play what kind of music in our society. And then what that’s supposed to sound like, you know, and etcetera, etcetera. So maybe that's - maybe the struggle is a waiting game, you know.

J.T. Lewis: Well, you know, I’ve played with Lou Reed and Don Pullen. So what do I do with that experience? What do I do with that musical experience, where it - where is the pallet for that kind of range of, you know, music, you know. And I never really thought about - I don't think it's my responsibility to worry about what it is. I'm just doing what I was taught by the mentors in any genre, and now I'm, like, all dressed up with nowhere to go. I have all of this information. What do I do with it? Well, like, I express it the way I was taught, you know. I mean, sometimes I'm thinking about Lou or I'm thinking about Marianne Faithfull as much as I'm thinking about John Coltrane, and Henry Threadgill. You know what I mean?

Brandon Ross: J.T., do you think there's been a struggle for you involved in Tubman?

J.T. Lewis: Well, not in Tubman, because we created this environment. But in my career, yes. You know within - in other musical situations, yeah. I ran into like hardcore, what we know quote-unquote, you know, jazz guys, actually getting upset that I was downtown on the Lower East Side with the rock guys. And I would get the same thing from the rock guys who would, like, make these cliché jokes about the jazz guys. And I was in the middle, like, wait a minute this is all music I love - I love you guys, but I love you guys Uptown too, you know. And so the way we process what art is--is to me the struggle, you know. I don't want to think about what I - what it’s called. I mean I'm just me. But I understand what Brandon is saying on the business level. It has to be packaged, and boxed in a certain way. But I don't find that to be my job to worry about. I don’t, you know.

MB: I mean it sounds like it's such an organic thing for you and Harriet Tubman. That, you know, the problem lies outside.

J.T. Lewis: If it's a problem. But, for instance, like, people say to us you know every night “what is it?” I ask the same damn question! “What is it?” I mean, I don't have an answer! I'm just there. So we’re experiencing this whole journey together, you know, the audience and us. We look at each other sometimes…

Brandon Ross: I was going to say, Michael, just to address your question in a pointed way, at that issue, it's a real issue, and it is a struggle and it is a challenge. Because anytime people have asked me, just in general, what kind of music do I play? they're looking for - they’re looking for a tag, they're looking for a label they're looking for someone way…

J.T. Lewis: A frame of reference.

Brandon Ross: ...to wrap their head around it, what it is. And the thing that comes to mind is: when I think about Ornette Coleman, you think Harmolodics. And there’s only one person associated with that--that's Ornette Coleman. And you may not know what Harmolodics is, but if it takes you to Ornette Coleman, and you hear what he did with sound and music, then you know what that is--you know what Harmolodics is. And I've been looking for something like that that would work for Harriet Tubman.

J.T. Lewis: Something like what?

Brandon Ross: The way Harmolodics worked for Ornette, it's uniquely associated with him and there's no confusion or mistake about what that sound is, or where it comes from. So that if people said “Oh Harriett Tubman, what kind of music is it?” and we had a phrase, or term accurately describing what our processes is, and the outcome of that, that would be a wonderful thing to develop. Like Butch Morris, for example, who is a friend of ours, and mentor and colleague--who did Conduction: invented Conduction, which is copyrighted by him, actually, and totally associated with him. And people understand what that is now, as that's developed since his death--book has been published explaining his system--so if you say Conduction you're saying Lawrence Douglas “Butch” Morris. 

J.T. Lewis: Right. There’s a Klingon and Romulan word for undescribeable, but I can’t pronounce it because it has like 40 letters. But there's like an undescribable - it is, like, “okay, well we can't describe this.” We might be in that - might be a place where there's no word for what we do, actually. It might be something new, who knows?

MB: Right, it’s the limitation of our language to capture this.

MB: J.T. you alluded to this a little initially, but what is your writing process like in Harriet Tubman? Do you guys write individually, or do you write collectively?

J.T. Lewis: Well, I mean, you know, the guys bring pieces - Brandon has some beautiful pieces that we perform, and Melvin does too. But as a band we - it writes us. We just, you know - we commiserate in my house, and we play for hours. And we just listen to what we do. Then we use the process - see, this is the interesting part, going back to what you and Brandon were talking about, like “what is jazz” and what is, you know, like, where do we fit? But I can tell you this, from playing with these gentlemen for 20 plus years - even longer than that - there’s no number to how long we’ve all played together. But the information that we've accumulated from the jazz process of improvising, and the masters that we’ve all studied under, and played with, we use that tool. Now I'm not saying it's jazz, but the tool is like a hammer and a saw on the wall. You pull it down, and you use those tools to interpret what you are trying to - what you are trying to say. This is where it gets lost in the - in the ether of - of terminologies. But it comes down to understanding what these--our mentors--were trying to teach us. The tools that I've learned from Don Pullen and Henry Threadgill - I'm not necessarily saying that I'm playing what they play, but what I’ve learned from them is taking me closer to who I am as a musician. And they showed me how to express that. This is - this is difficult, what we're talking about. We're in this ground that is you know like - I don't know what I do - which is like really a revelation, because that means everyday is a new day. I'm still learning, but I know that I can rely on these tools that I learned from the masters to help me get to where I want to go. That sounds like an ethereal kind of explanation but that's the best - you know.

Brandon Ross: You know, Michael, for me jazz - the term jazz, for me, was not about a stylistic destination, but a way of doing things, a process. 

J.T. Lewis: Exactly.

Brandon Ross: A way of doing things. A way of going about doing something, and to that end back in 2002 we took a trip down the Mississippi, down to the Delta. We actually got a Rockefeller Foundation Grant to go down and do some investigation. And the investigation was about process, because we thought, well, the way we're working, we're dealing with a kind of a broader spectrum of musical information than you would find typically in rock and roll, but our approach to putting things together was, in a way, closer to the way a rock band might function. And in terms of the collective writing process that we use there is - there was a logic, there was a sensibility that - that consistently shows up. And the great thing is we allow that. Like, nobody in our band ever tells anybody else what to play. And that's an interesting thing, because I think you have an intention as a creator, and there's things you might like, but also there's a beautiful thing in, like, just suspending that and saying “okay, well how do I work with what this person’s put out.” So, in terms of our writing process, I think that's reflected there, and what that is - what makes it jazz to me - if it is jazz, and in terms of that definition of a way of doing something - our way of doing something is that thing that people have called jazz, and if you look back at it historically that process is consistent. And I think it's more a process that connects African-American cultural expressions across - across decades, across the tenure of Africans being here.

J.T. Lewis: First generations. 

Brandon Ross: And I think that's - that's more what we're about. That's more what our thing is than, let's say, whether we're jazz, or rock, or blues, or this or that. And those are all marketing things anyway. Those were all terms that we use for commerce, and not the creative process, as J.T. keeps pointing out.

MB: That's a great explanation, I appreciate that. You guys have worked individually and collectively with so many icons of the music. I won't read them off now but I'll probably put the list in the article, because it's just tremendous. And two people that have been so important to me, and so formative to me: Melvin with Ronald Shannon Jackson, and you Brandon and J.T. with Henry Threadgill, and so many others. I mean those are just two super important, you know, parts of the music for me personally. Can you talk about, you know, any experiences either with those people in particular, or other, you know, luminaries of the music and, you know, what the experience is like of contributing to their artistic statement, and collaborating with artists of that stature.

J.T. Lewis: Yeah, I mean just - the thing for me is that these guys are teachers, and they teach and - and if you're open to their teaching, it takes you to a place, as an artist, that without their teaching you - you wouldn't even consider going there. You know, the beautiful part about these - these people that you're talking about is that they're listeners--they listen. I was playing in a rock band when Don Pullen first heard me, but he knew I could play. I can't even explain how he knew, ‘cause I was playing in this hardcore rock band, you know. He just looked at me - he just knew I could play. And I was - the timing of it in my career, you know, arc - and I can probably with confidence say that a lot of - all of us go through that--artists--like "where am I going? what is this about?" and that's the stage in my life where a mentor came to me and said "you're okay, you're doing okay." And for him to give it to me - he hired me in his band and I learned on the, you know, I learned on the job how to express - but there was the trust from these mentors, and the same from Henry Threadgill. 

Henry Threadgill for me was the first human to trust my musicianship, to not question that I knew - I mean sometimes you need that from a mentor you know. Henry made me feel like he trusted me like "yeah we're going - there's some things we need to work out, but whatever you're going to do I know it's going to just be you." And that flower that he put in me - it grew to this confidence that I have in myself to express whatever I want to do. To this day as a drummer, like, I know what I'm doing. I needed somebody else to tell me that I knew what I was doing, you know - how this business works, you know.

Brandon Ross: There's a feature that I wanted to add to what J.T. is saying about that particularly as it relates to Henry, as I have extensive training with him, so to speak--and on-going--but these people, for me, like the Chicago people were important. I just wound up interacting with a lot of them when I first got to New York. I immediately hooked up with Leroy Jenkins, and that led me to Oliver Lake, and then that led me to Butch Morris and that led me to Henry. But Henry - the thing about these guys, as J.T. said, that they are teachers, but they're not teaching you from something that - they're teaching you from a concept--a personal musical concept--that they've developed. It's not like from anything you could download on YouTube any given day of the week. They're giving you something in a particular context where you need to contribute as your creative self and not as, you know, Joe Pass or...

J.T. Lewis: Like “who are you? who are you?”

Brandon Ross: ... or Max Roach, or any number of other people. It's like - look as Henry said to me once, "look man the only way you could be, you know, Albert Ayler is if you lived his life, and that's not possible. I don't have anybody here around me to try to be somebody else."

J.T. Lewis: “Who are you?” 

Brandon Ross: "I have you here to be - to be you, so - so bring what you have." And they tap you, so to speak, because they see something, or hear something, about you that they think they can use in what they're trying to do. And I know that's especially true of Threadgill. And then you get into the sound world. When I first started working with Henry, I quite literally reacted to his sound world with trepidation. 

J.T. Lewis: Me Too!

Brandon Ross: I remember rehearsing in his band, Very Very Circus, was when I first started working with them back in ‘89. And we had this rehearsal with this tune called Exacto, and we're playing this piece of music, and I got home that night and I dreamt about the song, but in this relentless, obsessive way as if it was from, like, an Edgar Allan Poe novel, or something. Just like this thing keeps going in my head, and I thought "I don't know if I should be playing this music." I mean, like, sincerely Michael, I really questioned whether being around that musical vibration was, like, the right thing. And then I remember it was a breakthrough. Like, I broke through something. And what I broke through were the biases and the boundaries in my own musical schema.

J.T. Lewis: Exactly!

Brandon Ross: And that freed me, and also ruined me for the rest of the world. I mean that so honestly because I play music in an entirely different way as a result, and the guitar, because of what Henry asked me to do. The stuff he asked me to do had very little to do with guitar per se, so you’re negotiating and navigating things that you wouldn't necessarily encounter. And then I was in a band with two guitar players, and he said "okay, well look, I don't want 12 pieces, right, two six strings of sonic information at any given time, so anything you guys play has to be open voiced. Two or three notes maximum." Right. 

J.T. Lewis: Find something, that's the challenge!

Brandon Ross: Yeah, so how do I add that now in the midst of what this is? And in any other context they would not necessarily tell you that. They just want to know how well you practiced all your - your cadences and standards, and all of that. And that's fine, but this was another kind of world. So in terms of your question, addressing with Henry, it's - when you go to - I can tell you for a fact - and even the guys now in Zooid, who've been in it now for 20 plus years - if you work with Henry Threadgill for more than a tour...

J.T. Lewis: That's it.

Brandon Ross: ...you will come out a different and better kind of musician as a result of it. And I would say the same was true - I mean Melvin can speak about Shannon, but Shannon's coming again from Ornette's school, and created his own thing out of that. You know, the Harmolodic world and what he was writing and those values. So you get all this - these three different points of convergence, right, if you took...

J.T. Lewis: But there's only two or three lines of where that shit comes from. So we know that, like, what Brandon's saying is there's the line, you know, of education of that music that goes back to the, you know - there's only a few lines through it - I mean there's Miles, you know, but there's the other lines of - of these theories that connect to, you know, improvisation and composition - I didn't know how to write until after I got--write as a drummer--until I got into Don Pullen's band. He used to say to me "J, you're writing - I can hear what you're - what you're trying to do, you know, melodically" and I didn't know any of that, you know. And I think Henry heard that too. Just let me just be a drummer and, you know, let that be what it is. And it's funny how the two worlds - like coming from a pop and R&B world with producers quote-unquote, "well, I need you to sound like this." So you're sitting in the studio waiting for some affirmation. So that when I switched camps, so to speak, I was waiting for confirmation and you don't get it. Like, silence was the best compliment - you are - you're playing yourself, you know what I mean. It's different, you know. And I was coming through these schools, waiting for some confirmation and that's - wait a minute they're waiting for me to just be myself. And when nothing is said, that means you were doing something, as opposed to, like, waiting for some kind of thing from above.

Brandon Ross: I remember that rehearsal J.T. when we were with Henry. And we were playing a piece of music, I think it was "And This" or something from the Make a Move record.

J.T. Lewis: I don't remember.

Brandon Ross: You will when I tell you this. And we're playing and Henry stopped the band and he goes "J.T., everybody in here can count"

J.T. Lewis: I remember that!

Brandon Ross: "I didn't hire you to play time - play music."

J.T. Lewis: Play some music - that's it exactly - yeah!

Brandon Ross: Play music, and that's when J.T. was like “Oh, whoa.” Like somebody took the chain off. And J.T. was just like a stallion ready to go, man. I mean there’s - if you - do you have the record Where's Your Cup by Henry. Okay, so if you listen to J.T. Lewis on that record, I don’t need to say anything more.

J.T. Lewis: I was like a caged animal set free! But, you know, with discipline--creative discipline. But to be trusted to me was like - and still is today - to be trusted as opposed to not, to be directed, but to be - you know Henry; his teaching skills were, you know, they’re par excellence, you know. He knew how to get the best out of each of us, you know. One day he - and this goes back to what Brandon was saying - he wrote this piece - you might know the title, I don't remember Brandon. But it started with drums - it was a written drum - it was a four staff drum part. I was - I said “Henry, I can't read this.” [Laughs]

Brandon Ross: But he said “Yes you can.”

J.T. Lewis: I was going to say! He said “you can do this.” 

Brandon Ross: He’d put music on the stand in front of you, and you’d go “Wow, I haven’t really…” And he’d say “Oh, you can do this. You can do that.”

J.T. Lewis: “I can’t do this.” That’s the first thing I used to say! And he would always say “No, you can do this” you know. And that is where all of this stuff comes from. Don used to say that to me too, Don Pullen.

Brandon Ross: Yeah, that was it. I still remember that. Everybody’d be looking at these parts and be like - stuff’d be like - you’d look at Henry and he’d say “Ah, you can do that, you can do that.” 

J.T. Lewis: You’d be in a cold sweat!

Brandon Ross: And you know what, by the end of that thing you would do that. By the end of that you could do that.

J.T. Lewis: And do more!

Brandon Ross: All those - the Chicago guys that I interacted with were like that: Muhal Richard Abrams; Wadada Leo Smith; Leroy Jenkins; Henry. And it taught me something very, very important about that. Because you get a different outcome - you get a different result when you have people who are dealing with that way of receiving music, you know, looking at something. They’re not putting you in a box. And it just - it's like, you know, come to it with what you have. Yeah, you can do this. So, long answer but…

MB: That’s a beautiful, beautiful, great answer. My next short question, I guess, is a selfish question on my part because - Brandon you list Tony Williams on your bio - as having worked with Tony Williams - and he, of course, is, like, one of my absolute icons.

J.T. Lewis: Me too!

MB: In fact, I moved across the country to study with Tony Williams’ teacher back in the day. So do you have any stories about working with Tony Williams

J.T. Lewis: Tony’s teacher Alan Dawson?

MB: Alan Dawson, yeah, yeah.

Brandon Ross: It’s a short story - it involves Melvin too. There was a period after - right after I did the record with Cassandra Wilson the - her first one for Blue Note, Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, and it was produced by Craig Street. And Craig Street--who at that point had Bruce Lundvall’s rapt attention as a producer--and Tony wanted to do another Lifetime record, and talked to Craig Street about talking to Tony about Producing it. So what Craig did was put together a band that included me on guitar, and the recently deceased great Ronny Drayton on guitar…

J.T. Lewis: Yeah, Ronny Drayton!

Brandon Ross: ...and Melvin on bass and Chocolate Genius Marc Anthony Thompson on vocals and Tony. And so we rehearsed with Tony for about 10 days in New York City to prepare for doing a new record and... 

J.T. Lewis: Are there any recordings of this?

MB: I was gonna ask the same question!

Brandon Ross: Mark does, I think. Yeah, we gotta get in touch with Mark. And so we spent ten days rehearsing in Montana Studios on the West Side of Manhattan. And I was actually - the way the room worked out I ended up standing right next to Tony while we were playing, so I remember we’d go through songs, and his tech was there - he’d change the cymbals, like, continually, like, as he started hearing the sound of what was going on with everybody. And he’d adjust his cymbal sound, and he would talk about it in terms of color, and he would say something like - he’d say “Yeah, no, this - this is more of a yellow.” and he’d pull some... 

J.T. Lewis: Wow!

Brandon Ross: ...and it’d be like “That shit wasn't yellow enough” and how it changed the whole thing of what was going on. That was a master class for me.

J.T. Lewis: Amazing! 

Brandon Ross: I was just like right there next to him. So what happened was that he had to go out to California to do some stuff, and Melvin would have some detail about the story.

J.T. Lewis: What year was this Brandon?

Brandon Ross: This would have been ‘93 or ‘94. And he basically didn't make it back. And Melvin says there was some discussion about, maybe, going another route. He knows people want you to do things. I mean when you mess with labels you’re basically dealing with a form of a kind-of Mafia, that has no regard for--or little regard for--creativity. And, you know, what's really happening. But that was an incredible experience, and a great band. And, you know, and when you go forward through time and history…

J.T. Lewis: Well, wait a minute, run down the personnel in that band. It was you, Melvin, Ronny Drayton.

Brandon Ross: Ronny, and Marc Anthony Thompson on vocals.

J.T. Lewis: No keyboard.

Brandon Ross: No. And Tony. Two guitars, bass, drums, and voice.

MB: Brandon and J.T. it's been a real privilege to talk to you. And I would like to acknowledge the privilege that we have in having Harriet Tubman perform in our little town coming up.

Brandon Ross: Oh, we’re looking forward to it.

MB: It's going to be a great experience, I really - North Street Cabaret is a real intimate setting, so to have you guys in a setting like that, I think, is going to be really fantastic. And I'm very hopeful - the capacity there is 99 so I really hope we get, like, 98 people in there.

J.T. Lewis: [Laughs] 

Brandon Ross: We’re going to be working on that too, starting Monday. We're looking forward to it, you know. It's great ‘cause it's a part of the South Arts Initiative called Jazz Road Tours. And it's made it possible for us to get there, you know, to get out there. So it's a cool thing. We’re doing 6 dates over, probably, an 8 week period, just the way they play out. And, yeah, Madison is stop number two.

J.T. Lewis: We'll be there!


And, by the way, here’s the combined list of the artist’s the members of Harriet Tubman have played with during their careers:

Henry Threadgill, Cassandra WiIlson, Jewel, Arrested Development, Oliver Lake's Jump Up, Lawrence 'Butch' Morris Ensemble, Arto Lindsay, Muhal Richard Abrams, Archie Shepp, Leroy Jenkins, Lizz Wright, Kip Hanrahan, Don Byron, Me'Shell N'degeocello, Tony Williams, The Lounge Lizards, Rollins Band, dead prez, Punk-Funk All-Stars, DJ Logic, Power Tools, Defunkt, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, Caetano Veloso, Marisa Monte, Eye and I, Living Colour, Dave Sanborn, Stanley Jordan, Sting, Lou Reed, Herbie Hancock, Don Pullen, Lou Reed, Tina Turner, Vanessa Williams, Whitney Houston, Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, David Murray, Kip Hanrahan, Bill Laswell,Marc Ribot, Marianne Faithfull, Howard Johnson's Gravity.


MindStorm James Madison Memorial High School — Friday and Saturday, March 6 and 7, 2020 — 8pm

  • Thomas Ferella -- Concept and Audio
  • Aaron Granat -- Visuals

By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 03/01/2020

Thomas Ferella, who, along with Dave Stone, makes up the BlueStem Jazz leadership, has collected an extensive archive of video, that he’s shot over the last 15 years. Inspired by the work of another video & sound artist, he has assembled a collective of artist-musicians to realize a unique experiential performance--and they’re doing it right here in Madison.

Leveraging the talents of his long-running experimental ensemble, and of Aaron Granat, who lectures in film and communication at the UW-Madison, he calls this MindStorm.


MB: I want to begin with, maybe, some nuts-and-bolts stuff because film is kind-of out of my area of expertise, so maybe Aaron you can help me out. This is happening at the Madison Memorial High School Planetarium. It’s a hemispherical projection screen, right? So there must be a number of different projectors that you use for this?

Aaron Granat: I think they have two built-in projectors--on each side of the screen--and then they have software that will seamlessly merge the two projections together into one cohesive image. 

MB: So what do you work on as the film artist for this?

Aaron Granat: Well, Tom has provided me with a massive archive of material that he's recorded over the last, what, 15 years on his travels in this local community. And he has a really refined aesthetic point of view, and often times he’ll find a really beautiful angle and then just set the camera up and leave it running for 10 minutes at a time. And then he provided me with all that, and then I bring it into my software and I manipulate the footage in ways that will facilitate sort-of blending them together as I sort-of activate them in a live setting. So I'll - I'll do an initial sort-of round of transforming the images and then I import them into a DJ performance software called Resolume Avenue, and that allows me to trigger them in real time and also layer them in real-time and play with their temporality and lots of other parameters so that I can create sort-of an improvised way of performing visuals, in harmony with the musical component 

MB: So it's probably less abstract for this particular performance, more image-based. Is that how you might put it?

Aaron Granat: I would say that it's pretty darn abstract. When I bring images into Premiere Pro, which is my editing software, I am basically trying to, like, break the image into like - it's almost no longer having a recognizable form, but just, like, into pure abstract colors and shapes and lines and then by the time that - that these images are layered and composited together it - there's almost no connection to their source material at all. I mean, you can still tell, but it's, like, one image might be connected to rippling water or something like that. They all sort-of have a connection to their organic natural essence, but in terms of actually, like, seeing a legible or intelligible image that's - that's not really what's happening.

MB: Wow. So it's not “Laser Floyd.” That was a joke.

Thomas Ferella: [Laughs] It is not!

Aaron Granat: [Laughs] I wish, yeah we need to work up to that we're aspiring…

Thomas Ferella: The hell we are.

MB: So, Tom your role in this is the music. Is that right?

Thomas Ferella: Definitely that, but the idea is sort-of my thing. But to be honest I ripped - sort ripped the idea off of Kelon Phil Cohran, and what he did at the Adler Planetarium in 1993. That’s sort-of the genesis of the project, and fortunate that Jeff Holt, who runs the Madison - the planetarium over at Memorial High School, was open to the idea. And so the genesis of this thing was me, and luckily I had this footage and the band, that I play in, in mind. And Jeff Holt just had a really open mind about the whole project.

MB: So you're collaborating with other musicians to put the music together?

Thomas Ferella: Yes I’ve been playing in this group, and nurturing this group along, for about 25 years. We used to have a studio which - the building got knocked down, so for the last couple years we've been playing in different spots. And it's really just a personal thing for us. Occasionally we step out and will do projects, but the site for our project--the surroundings--are very important to our performance.

MB: Who is involved in this?

Thomas Ferella: Ed Ahrens is on saxophone and guitar, Kevin Schaefer, who's sort-of my co-leader in this band, is on electronics, synthesizers, percussion. There's Phil Redman, who's our newest addition, on bass and electronics. Nick Orlowski on electronics and guitar, and Steve Tyska is on trumpet and violin.

Aaron Granat: And then Tom also plays as well, he’s just as active as the other musicians.

Thomas Ferella: Yes, I play trumpet, percussion, and field recordings.

MB: Nice.

Aaron Granat: And voice. He also vocalizes a lot. 

Thomas Ferella: Yes. There’s going to be things said.

MB: Are you as good as Kahil? [Laughs]

Thomas Ferella: Man that guy is out there, right?

MB: He’s great.

Thomas Ferella: I mean, what an inspiration! So, no, I am not as good as Kahill [Laughs].

MB: So you guys will be performing live at the planetarium?

Thomas Ferella: That's correct. So it'll be the six of us performing live and - with Aaron being essentially another musician - but bringing his personal improvisational live performance to the band in a visual sense.

MB: Right, I was going to ask, you know, are you guys working off of each other in some improvisational way? Or is the music driving the film, or is the film driving the music, you know, what's the relationship?

Aaron Granat: I would say that there's no real leader necessarily it's - we’re feeding off of each other constantly. And - I guess the visuals might provide the initial framework, and then sort-of within that - when I notice certain harmonies or correspondences happening I try to strengthen them, or accentuate them in my rhythmic approach to the speed at which the images are unfolding. And any sort of patterns that I notice, that are linking up really productively, I’ll try and make those as apparent as possible, within my means of control.

Thomas Ferella: So this is - Michael, to jump in - the whole thing is not scripted. It is literally walking a tightrope with what everybody's doing, you know, musically and video. We, of course, have references which are basically our instruments and, in Aaron's case, it's video footage and his software. But for the most part it’s just going to take off from there. And as we do this performance - they will not be the same - as we repeat the performance. So it's an improvisational tightrope.

MB: You know we think of different kinds of improvisation, like some European improvisors that we know about who, you know, they in many ways reject sort-of time and tonality, and things like that. And then we have American improvisors and others who work from a, maybe a different language. What's your relationship to that sort-of dichotomy?

Thomas Ferella: I think we're more along - I mean I think Anthony Braxton probably sums it up best for us in terms of keeping the music looking forward, and having that willingness to - to go out there on a limb and just push the artform forward, in the sense that we're creating in real-time so whatever sort-of emotional state you bring that day is what you're going to reflect in your music.

MB: And Aaron on the film side, is there a similar kind-of thing going on? I'm not very familiar with improvisational film but can you give us sort-of a point of reference for this?

Aaron Granat: Yeah, I would say that I come from a tradition that is best represented by the avant-garde practices happening in America, starting in, like, the early sixties, and leading up to the current period. If I had to compare it to anyone it would probably be Stan Brakhage who's the Colorado-based filmmaker, and is known as kind-of the father of abstract expressionist forms of filmmaking, in which he was no longer interested in dealing with, like, denotative material or representational images and - and would use his equipment to try and accentuate the abstract qualities as much as possible. But the new aspect of this is the ability to - to actually generate these forms in a live setting because - and I don't really know exactly - I don't have a strong sense of where my practice fits within the overarching landscape of video jockey-ing today. I don't see a lot of other things similar to what we're doing. I basically see it as stemming from, like, a handful of visionary avant-garde filmmakers that I grew up watching. And now I use that as a basis of reference for the techniques that I deploy in a live setting.

Thomas Ferella: In our limited research, Michael, we're not finding anybody doing anything like this. So I think we all come to this with certain, you know, histories and talents, and voices, but when you combine the improvisational music with improvisational film in a planetarium setting, I think we're on the edge of something here.

MB: So that sounds like a really good reason for the audience to show up and appreciate and enjoy this work that you're doing. Any other thoughts that you want to relate to the audience to, you know, help them decide to show up?

Thomas Ferella: Well, if they want their minds blown I think..[Laughs]. I mean if they want to see something fresh, and new, and interesting in an unusual setting--I think this is the place for them to be.

MB: And here it is on the west side of Madison, conveniently located within just a couple of miles of downtown.

Aaron Granat: This isn't your typical weekend fare. Like, this is a special opportunity. And I would just say, like, if it sounds cerebral, then the actual experience is going to be just, like, very psychedelic. And they can sit back and just, like, let the - all of this sensual stimuli just wash over them. And you don't have to come to it with, like, an advanced theoretical perspective or historical appreciation for the avant-garde.

Thomas Ferella: And it’s a testament to the musicians we’re working with, and Aaron, and Jeff Holt who runs the planetarium. It's a testament to these folks’ willingness to sort-of breakdown boundaries between art forms. And willingness to open their doors to something that's new, and potentially risky. So, I mean, I give a lot of credit to the guys I work with in my band--who will walk this tightrope with me--and to Aaron, and especially to Jeff who's allowing us into this - into his space to perform something that is a completely untraditional planetarium-type of performance.

MB: So it sounds like there are many, many, levels to this collaboration for the audience to appreciate, and benefit from.

Thomas Ferella: We’re really excited to see the interest, and we would love to perform this in other settings. In fact we’ve got something coming up with dancers and this project, which I think will be really interesting also, so I don't think you've heard the end of us.


Ken Vandermark and Paul Lytton

Ken Vandermark and Paul LyttonNorth Street Cabaret — Wednesday, March 11, 2020 — 8pm

  • Ken Vandermark -- Saxophone
  • Paul Lytton -- Drums

By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 02/25/2020

Throughout his prolific career, Ken Vandermark has led or collaborated in ensembles of every size--from large groups like his Territory Band, to duo settings like the one he will present in Madison. It’s in these duo settings, I would argue, that we see one of the most distilled forms of improvisation--just two musicians and their instruments, processing, relating, transforming, and creating--instantaneously.

Paul Lytton is a European improvisor of the first order, having performed over his 50 + year career with such luminaries as Evan Parker, and Roscoe Mitchell. He is a drumming “school” in and unto himself.

I think it’s also quite likely that Ken Vandermark has had an impact on the way the MacArthur Foundation awards its music fellowships, or “Genius Grants” as they are known. As the youngest recipient at that time in 1999, it's quite possible that his successes smoothed the way for subsequent young recipients including Regina Carter, Miguel Zenón, Vijay Iyer, and most recently, Mary Halvorson.


MB: Can you talk about your 20-plus year connection with Paul Lytton?

Ken Vandermark: Yeah, Paul Lytton, he was one of the first musicians from the English school of improvisors that I ever worked with. Yeah, and very early--like you said it’s been more than 20 years now. He came to Chicago in the mid ‘90s, I think, for the first time that I can remember anyway. And we did some work at a College radio station; some playing organized by John Corbett. And recorded that, and then pretty soon after that I went to Belgium, where he lives now, and did a concert with him. And those two things were put together for the first recording we did, which is now more than 20 years old. So it goes back pretty far. But - Laul’s one of the most important improvisors that’s played the music without any script, you know. He really challenges the idea of what real improvisation is about, in terms of, like, starting from scratch--almost at each performance, you know, really wiping the slate clean, so to speak, and seeing what the music's going to be on each occasion.

MB:  you also play in other duo settings with drummers like Paal Nilssen-Love or Tim Daisy. How is this duo different from some of your others?

Ken Vandermark: Well, like I said it’s the - he is very extreme in terms of the challenge. When I first played with him a big reason was the excitement--he’s a fantastic person--that was a big reason--but from the musical standpoint, was getting to work with a member of the creative community that really challenged the idea of what improvised music could be--by eliminating conventions with melody, conventions with time that had been, let’s say, more established on the American scene, going into the mid-1960s. And at that point--also in Chicago with the AACM--the pulse that would go with a lot of jazz, let’s say, and more improvised versions of that, which were known as, like, free jazz, usually was implied. I mean, Cecil Taylor broke those things down fairly early, but the English school really eliminated the forward motion that was connected to Cecil Taylor's music. And it became, let’s say, more abstracted. And working with him from the beginning has been a challenge to my Americanism as a player. There's a lot of things that I do just because of the way I hear music, ‘cause of my own, yeah, background as a player and the things I’m surrounded by here. 

And early on when I was playing with him and Kent Kessler, bassist based in Chicago--we did a tour--[Paul] would go into like a pulsed time, which really surprised me because I associate his playing with getting rid of that. So the percussion parts were very abstracted and, yeah, obtuse in a way. And he said “that’s because you’re implying a beat” and I thought I was playing completely without that, getting rid of it. And I really had to think about the nature of time--like how you express a phrase. And the way I was phrasing things, he was hearing, yeah, like, a suggestion of where a pulse would fall, as opposed to, like, things being off a grid. And so when I work with him, even now, I’m really confronted with what are my own conventions; things that I’m not even aware that I’m doing. He tends to push against those and challenge them in really important ways. And so when I work with him, I leave those occasions with a lot to consider; If I want to get free from my own, yeah, my own clichés so to speak.

So he’s very - I mean playing with Paal Nilssen-Love, Tim Daisy, Hamid Drake, all these other incredible drummers, they all have their own personalities and creative character. And they’re all different, which is why I love working with drummers. How much in particular they really - I love time, I love the idea of - of what Rhythm can be and how you stretch it and move it around. All the people I work with, especially drummers, like, they challenge those things, and open them up in different ways. But Paul is definitely one of the most exciting improvisors I've ever been able to play with. It's really like jumping into an unknown sort-of territory each time, even with the background that we have. 

MB: That's really so interesting. It’s fascinating, really. There’s so much to consider in that. I understand that you're originally from Rhode Island, and that you ended up at McGill in Montreal for a while, and then Chicago. Were formative things going on during that period? Were you playing? And how did you end up in Chicago?

Ken Vandermark: Oh yeah, definitely, there was a lot of formative stuff. I mean, I mainly grew up outside of Boston, and I was in that area in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a very, very fertile time for jazz and improvised music. There was Paul’s Mall, and Jazz Workshop. And people like Art Blakey, and Sonny Rollins, Phil Woods, and, you know, Johnny Griffin, all kinds of people were coming through there. So there was, like, a lot of mainstream stuff happening. But then there were always places where Boston-based groups like The Fringe and Joe Morris were playing much more adventurous music, outside of, like, you know, mainstream chords-based-type material. And then there were people coming in from out of town like: Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell; Jemeel Moondoc; William Parker. Like, that was coming in from New York, so there was a lot of interesting stuff to be around and encounter as a listener. 

And I started playing music in the third grade. I started as a trumpet player. Then when I was 16 I switched to tenor because I was a - I was a really terrible trumpet player. And I wanted to play music, so I made a kind-of jump to the tenor, and that worked out much better for me. And I went to McGill University to study film and communications, and just to get out of where I was from, basically. Kind of, yeah, try something different. I moved back to Boston in 1986 and I was working on my own music at that point. I had a lot of bands and associates of my age, like, in their twenties, playing original material. And then I made the decision to move to Chicago in ‘89 after visiting a few times, and I had friends from university who lived here who were musicians. And there was just a lot more going on. And if you went to the Arts page there were, you know, five times more clubs with music, I mean, than in Boston. And Chicago’s a much bigger city and it has, like, a very fertile music scene. 

I mean going back to the beginning of the twentieth century there’s been so much music here, and it’s true today with all kinds of genres, you know, not just jazz and improvised music, but I mean with - you know, there’s the classical scene, there’s the new music scene, there’s the rock scene, there’s so many cultural groups based in Chicago. There’s all kinds of music from around the world happening. So it’s a super vibrant scene to be a part of--to be immersed in. So coming to Chicago made sense to me after visiting a few times, and it's been my home since the late ‘80s.

MB: And then in 1999 you were awarded the MacArthur fellow. How did that change your life and/or work?

Ken Vandermark: It definitely changed things dramatically from--obviously the economic standpoint. It was the first time I had resources, in a financial way, to do projects that would just never, ever, ever, have occurred - and I can - primary among those were putting the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet on tour in the United States a couple of times: one with a flying tour; one in a tour bus. An international group - we never would have - that never could have happened. I mean there's just no way that thing could have occurred. There was the Territory Band which I had for about the whole time the MacArthur ran. And when the money ran out, that band continued. But bringing in musicians--half the band was from Europe, half the band was based primarily in the United States, mostly in Chicago--and exploring writing for a larger ensemble on a regular basis, like, that was huge. And that wouldn’t have occurred without the money. But a lot of the things that happened continued; they started before the MacArthur and then they continued, obviously, over the last, you know, 20 years since the MacArthur finished. I mean another 20 - almost 20 years since the MacArthur concluded. And that was really important. It was like two very key things. The finances enabled things to occur that were set in motion already, and that forward momentum continued when the MacArthur funds were gone. And that was very helpful; I learned a ton in that period. And it kind of maintained and developed things that, like I said, began before the money happened, and the finances and support happened. 

But another important thing occurred when I got the MacArthur, was the foundation said you know “we want you to understand that this is the first time…” -  ‘cause at that point I was the youngest person to get it for music, and all the people that had received it for improvised music and jazz beforehand were people that - they changed the paradigm for the music, you know, people like Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor you know musicians of that stature. And I clearly, at the age I was, was not anywhere - I mean I was not in that category. And they made it very clear that this was an experiment to see what would happen to someone’s work when it was given to them at the beginning of their career as opposed to celebrating what all they contributed towards the later part of their career. And that was really good to know, and to be able to say to people when they were like “well, why did you get it? because you don't deserve it.” And fundamentally the argument could be made very clearly that I didn't deserve it based on the way it had been awarded previously; the fellowship for music. And that was kind-of good psychologically for me to understand, hey, this is to -  what am I going to do with this? They kind of threw the - you know it’s like “here’s a challenge.” Given these resources that no one - very rarely, rarely, ever gain, what are you going to do with these things? And I wanted to prove that - that it was a worthwhile choice and I did something for the music, about the music, with those funds and, you know, so there was merit to the decision to pick me. 

MB: Was there kind-of a reckoning with the foundation at the end? And if so, how did that turn out? 

Ken Vandermark: Well, you know, I think it's changed since I got the fellowship. I mean it was extremely secretive, like, I had no idea - and that’s probably still true, but I mean, I had no idea I was up for it. Like, it’s not like a grant where you apply. The way it used to be--and I haven't really followed the procedure now, but I'm guessing it's probably the same--if someone would nominate these participants who aren't even aware that they're in the running for it. And during the course of a year the people on the panel look at the work that’s happened by the nominees that were secretly nominated, and try to decide who is still in the running as that year progresses. And in the end I was still there, I was still in the process. And they contacted me, actually, while I was on tour, and let me know I won the prize. And I had no - I mean, I didn't even believe it, you know, ‘cause it was like, okay, you know, I didn't know I was up for it in the first place and then the whole circumstances about - about being told; like, I didn’t really believe it until, in a sense, the first - when things were announced publicly in the paper. ‘Cause the thought was like “that can’t be possible.” 

So that whole process was super secretive. And then they were very, very, hands off. They were like “you can do anything you want with this.” It can go towards projects that involve your work. It can be - like, you can buy a car, you can do whatever you want with it. And I think they just watched what I did with it and left me alone, and just sent quarterly payments, you know, while the fellowship ran for five years. And at the end there wasn't, like, a report that I needed to make. The work was there, the evidence of what I had done was there. And they really - I mean, they get in touch a couple times a year just to, kind-of, let me know what they’re doing. And, you know, sometimes they ask me to have input on nominees that they’re thinking about, and stuff like that in the music world. But in general it’s extremely hands off, which is part of what’s amazing about it--because it’s really about the work, you know. They admire the work that these people have done. They give them money to do more of that work, or help them continue the work because - maybe it goes towards them getting, you know, a place to live so they don’t have to stress about that, you know, things like that 

MB: I guess my last question is - I’m curious about - so when you work, say, with musicians that you haven't necessarily worked a lot with, or who are of differing backgrounds and things like that - and you have your compositions or your charts, let's say. How do you convey your instructions to improvisors? I know you've posted a few things on Instagram and social media, but I’m just curious about how you escape sort-of the tendency of, like, the contemporary classical world where everything is notated down to every expression, can you talk about that?

Ken Vandermark:  Yeah, well one of the first things is that almost always I’m writing for musicians that I know. Like I’ve heard their work or I’ve collaborated with them before, and I have a sense of, let’s say, their creative personality, the kinds of things they like to go to as a player and then that allows me to kind of consider what music I would compose for them, or I might try to get them to do differently, that they wouldn't do if it were, let’s say, completely improvising. I kind of knock the music in different directions so to speak. So a big part of it--the compositional process--is actually the personel; not the instrumentation but the people involved. So that's huge. And then the second part is writing the material. I mean, that's a really good question in a sense because I'm interested in lots of different kinds of music. And writing for improvisors is a very different thing than, as you mention, like writing new music scores where almost everything--or as much as possible--is really notated. And there is expression involved, and interpretation involved, but it's more limited, the parameters are more narrow. 

When writing for an improvisor, the implication is that at least half of the material is going to be realized by the improvisor themselves. So going back to, like, writers for this music that I admire really at the highest level, let’s say Duke Ellington. I mean, if you think of Duke Ellington’s music you think of those compositions, but you also cannot ignore the impact of Johnny Hodges, or Harry Carney, or, you know, any of the other musicians in the band who contributed as players or as an improvisor, and that’s fascinating to me; this combination of working that way. So, for example, in a band I have now, based in Chicago, called Marker, the drummer Phil Sudderberg is very different than Tim Daisy, who I’ve been playing with for years and years. And so when I'm thinking about that music I’m thinking, now, about the kinds of things that Phil does and gearing the music, in a rhythmic sense, towards things that Phil might want to do, and then maybe try things that Phil wouldn't expect to do, and kind of generate some tension that way, hopefully in a nice way but - you know a creative kind of tension going on. The same thing with the players--the people in the band--there's two guitars and they're very, very, very, different kinds of players. If they were both, let say -  had a similar approach to the instrument: the same kind of technical tools; the same kind of vocabulary; it would be extremely boring to write for two guitars. But because it’s Steve Marquette and Andrew Clinkman, I’m writing for them not just the instrument. The instrument actually is secondary to the person playing it, in my case. So those factors, let’s say, are really key. The personality of the player, and then this dynamic between writing for them and what they're going to bring to the thing, not just interpreting the notated material but adding to it through their improvised sensibility.