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.
Michael Brenneisis a drummer, composer, and improvisor based in Madison, Wisconsin. A volunteer blogger for BlueStem Jazz, he wants everyone to know that he’s a musician, not a journalist.