Chad McCullough

Chad McCullough

Chad McCulloughGarver Feed Mill Patio — Friday, July 23, 2021 — 7PM

By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 06/11/2021

Trumpeter / Composer Chad McCullough brings his quartet to the Garver Patio on July 23 for a COVID-postponed release show for his new record "Forward." Chicago Jazz Magazine highlights Chad for his lyricism as a player, his imaginative writing, and for leading a "synergistic quartet of some of Chicago's most idiosyncratic musicians."

 


Mars Williams

Mars Williams

Mars WilliamsGarver Feed Mill Patio — Friday, July 9, 2021 — 7PM

By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 06/11/2021

A cornerstone of the Chicago improvised music scene, Mars Williams is one of those rare musicians who successfully approaches music as a continuum, rather than a series of discrete genres. His spectrum extends from well-known 80’s band The Waitresses to Chicago’s Liquid Soul to the Peter Brötzmann Tentet. Savvy listeners may recognize Mars as the saxophonist with the Psychedelic Furs beginning with their 1984 release "Mirror Moves."


ARP of the Covenant

ARP of the Covenant

ARP of the Covenant — Garver Feed Mill Patio — Friday, July 2, 2021 — 7pm

By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 06/10/2021

This pun-loving band came together in 2003 on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor as fresh-faced graduate students in the department of music. Although they've never quite breached the threshold of wider recognition during their nearly twenty year run, ARP continues to perform and record their organically improvisational, uniquely hybridized, analog slash digital electro-acoustic music.

 


The Dirk Quinn Band

The Dirk Quinn Band

The Dirk Quinn Band — Garver Feed Mill Patio — Wednesday, June 9, 2021 — 7pm

By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 05/24/2021

The Dirk Quinn Band is a hard-travelling jam band from the Philadelphia area. The group will be performing on the Garver Patio on Wednesday June 9th. The band is on the vanguard of groups heading out on tour as venues across the country begin to re-open. Our conversation ranges from the music to the business side of things, but we leave unanswered the SAT question you'll never see: The Jeff Beck Group is to the Mahavishnu Orchestra as the Dirk Quinn Band is to ... fill in the blank.

 


MaxBessesen

Max Bessesen

Max Bessesen Quintet Garver Feed Mill Patio — Friday, May 21, 2021 — 7pm

By Michael Brenneis

Posted: 05/19/2021   

 

Max Bessesen brings his Chicago/Milwaukee based quintet to the Garver Feed Mill Patio to make up for a date postponed from April of 2020. The band will be playing from Max's debut recording as a leader "Trouble," released during the pandemic. He'll also pull from a soon-to-be-recorded album, consisting of covers drawn from the jazz of the 70s and 80s.

 


ClauserMercado

Alex Mercado & Todd Clouser

Alex Mercado Trio  + Todd Clouser’s Cinema: Music for Unmade FilmGarver Feed Mill Patio — Friday, May 14, 2021 — 7pm

By Michael Brenneis

Posted: 05/10/2021   Interviews: 05/07/2021

 

Alex Mercado, considered by many to be one of Mexico’s finest jazz pianists, brings his U.S. based trio to play music from his newly released album “Exilio.” Todd Clouser’s Cinema: Music for Unmade Film charts a subtle, ambient path through a melancholic Americana.

 


Tony Barba + Maitri

Tony Barba Quartet + Maitri

Tony Barba Quartet + Maitri Garver Feed Mill Patio — Friday, August 14, 2020 — 7pm

 

  • Tony Barba -- Tenor Saxophone
  • Paul Dietrich -- Trumpet
  • Nick Moran -- Bass
  • Devin Drobka -- Drums

 

  • Caroline Davis -- Voice, Flute, Alto Saxophone
  • Ben Hoffmann -- Keyboards, Electronics

 

By Michael Brenneis

Posted: 08/13/2020   Interviews: 08/10/2020

 

Once again responsible people will gather at a social distance on the Garver Patio to experience some great music--some of which is only available to us now due to pandemic circumstances. The Tony Barba Quartet--this Tony Barba Quartet, he leads many variations--brings us original music written for the two-horns, bass, and drums configuration. This quartet includes the unusual pairing of Nick Moran and Devin Drobka--careful listeners rejoice! The band Maitri (Carline Davis, and Ben Hoffmann) finds itself sheltering in place in our fair (hmmm) state, in close enough proximity to Madison to make the trek to Garver. What are they about? See below for a discussion in great detail.

 

Tony Barba:

MB: This group is slightly different than on your latest record, Blood Moon. Which bag of tricks do you think you’ll be dipping into on Friday?

Tony Barba: This group is a quartet co-lead by Paul Dietrich and myself, and will feature all originals from our repertoire. The quartet features Nick Moran on bass, and Devin Drobka on drums, and will be the second appearance of this group after a one off we played maybe a year and a half ago, or so, at the North Street Cabaret.

MB: Would you like to talk about any of your other projects, and what you’ve been up to since March when gigging essentially ceased?

Tony Barba: Most of the other projects I’ve been working with are largely inactive, due to obvious reasons. The Afro-Peruvian Latin jazz group Golpe Tierra has a live-streaming concert coming up at the end of the month, and the Blood Moon quartet will be live-streaming a show at the end of September for yet another date partnered with the Madison Jazz Consortium. Personally, I haven’t been working on much music beyond keeping my private teaching studio intact, and the occasional remote recording sessions that I am getting called to do. Of course there is also some online jamming I’ve been doing with you as well ;) [MB: shameless plug for our “Outside In” series!] Just trying to stay sane...lots of gardening, reading and exploring as many of the local outdoor spaces and state parks with my wife and son before the cold weather comes back to us! 

 

Maitri:

Caroline Davis: Nice to be in sunny and fresh Wisconsin. The weather is a lot nicer than New York, I have to say.

MB: So are you staying in Wisconsin?

Caroline Davis: We are. My partner Ben, who's the other part of Maitri--his family is from Manitowoc and that's, like, really why we're here.

MB:  So that's cool. I was wondering about--you know, obviously there aren’t really gigs happening, so I guess it’s our good fortune that you’re nearby.

Caroline Davis: Yeah, you know there's a chance that this gig could very well be rained out.

MB:  Yeah I haven't looked at the weather that specifically, but yeah, hopefully not. But we’ll see.

Caroline Davis: We mostly came--we drove from New York to spend time with Ben's family. 

MB: Can you talk about the musical path that you and Ben are on with Maitri? Do you see it as part of a stylistic departure from some of your other work, either individually or collectively, or is it more part of the continuum?

Caroline Davis:  Yeah, so I started this band in 2009-ish in Chicago with a cast of characters who I know--who you probably know well, Matt Ulery, Charles Rumback and Rob Clearfield. And some of the performances we did--we included this MC named Neak there who I’ve worked with on many of his own projects. And we came out with this album in 2013, January. And we kind-of came--I came back and we played a release show there. But in the meantime me and Ben had been sort-of talking about joining forces, and rekindling that band vision in New York. And so we started writing music together, and forming songs that became the last album that we put out which was called Afterglow. And so now this vision has sort-of--now--at the time we were playing with a couple jazz musicians--Jay Sawyer and Sam Weber--and now we've even taken another turn toward just playing duo. And we're working on the next album that we have coming out--hopefully toward the end of this year or beginning of next year. 

And this record is more just about our sound; me and Ben’s sound together. Yes, I'm very highly influenced by jazz and improvised music, but this band has been more of my way of getting into the world of songwriting, and the world of R&B--which is a very huge part of my life, when I was living in Atlanta from ‘87 to ‘93. And that sound has always been inside of my playing and my expression but--personally it feels like a--you know, the same path that I've always been sort-of going on. But I see how some people might see it as sort-of a departure for me. Ben can talk about his own...

Ben Hoffmann: Yeah, I think it's definitely a continuum for both of us as far as where we both come from stylistically. But I know Caroline does--speaking from experience, I know she does try to, I don't know if distance is the right word, but it's a separate thing from some of her saxophone projects. Because I think the music is different; it’s not really Jazz when it comes down to it. And it's really more like a songwriting outlet. And obviously it's very influenced by lots of things, but we try not to let those influences or those--any genres or labels really shape the music. We kind-of just try to write music from our hearts and then--it kind-of comes out in these weird ways. And we kind-of just try to embrace it and go for it. So I think a lot of the stuff that we do isn't really as intentional in the way of “we want to make a song that sounds like this.” I think we just write something and we're really just trying to write the music that we like, you know.

Caroline Davis: Oh yeah. And in terms of typifying it or coming up with a genre label for it, has been something that we don't necessarily like to do--not that you're asking us to do that [laughs]--but some people have asked us to do that in the past. And as a musician yourself, you probably know how difficult it is to categorize your own music. And that's one thing that we've been trying to shy away from. And--but yeah, these influences that we’ve sort-of both come up with as musicians in our own lives surely shape the music that we’re making in Maitri. But yeah, we tend to not see it as a traditionally jazz group, you know.

Ben Hoffmann: Or traditionally any genre.

Caroline Davis: Or traditionally any genre, yeah. Yeah, I guess if you could use the moniker, you know, “songwriting outlet” that would be a good one. 

Ben Hoffmann: And we usually--we’ve usually dubbed it as “Experimental R&B.” But yeah, we've had many shows in the past where people just come up afterwards and they're like “What do you call this?”

MB: Yeah, yeah, and then you should ask “well, why do you need to know?”

Caroline Davis:  Right, yeah. Usually my next question is “Do you like it?,” you know. They’re usually saying “Yeah.” The desire to categorize things is so strong in humans.

MB: It is, and not always for the better, in my experience.

Caroline Davis: Right, yeah.

MB: So the new record is going to be a duo record?

Caroline Davis:  Primarily. We have one song on there that's just going to be us. And Ben has been doing a fantastic job of using these drum machines--one which was used famously by Prince, the LinnDrum. And then also the Teenage Engineering--the Teenage Engineering drum machine called the Pocket Operator, which we’ve used in the past. And recently--even more recently, the OP-Z. Last Monday and Tuesday, a week ago, we recorded our next record which is going to be with this drummer named David Frazier Jr., from New York. So he will be on the next record with us, and Ben is playing bass with his left hand.

Ben Hoffmann: And just to kind-of comment on that as well: In the past we kind-of just played, usually, the live instruments with the full band. At a certain point, I think--it was, maybe, certain situations where we couldn't bring the whole band, and we had to figure out a way to--‘cause a lot of our music is very rhythm based and beat heavy, so we had to figure out a way--we started using these drum machines. And then we kind-of started really getting into it, and embracing it, and moving away from the live sound a little bit to where it was all drum machines when we play duo, and do some of these tours. And so now we're kind-of fusing the two things together. 

So this record--before we went into the studio there was months and months of pre-production and all the--pretty much every song had some drum machine elements on it, but we're adding in the live as well. So kind-of bringing those two worlds together.

MB:  Nice. Yeah, I'm a huge fan of the Sly and the Family Stone album Fresh, where they’re using the Rhythm King drum machine and, like, multitracking it--getting some very cool combinations happening. And then the live drumming on top of that. 

Ben Hoffmann: Yeah, I love that stuff as well as, like, the Shuggie Otis [album] Inspiration Information. which I feel like--I think he was using a drum machine built into his organ, like a Lowrey organ, or something--very similar stylistically.

MB: So Caroline, in addition to being a musician and composer, you're also a scholar, having earned your PhD from Northwestern in 2010. Can you talk a little bit--I know you have at least one album, that I’m aware of, where you've done some research in particular areas and that has influenced the sound of, and compositions on the record. Can you talk a little bit about how your research influences your writing and playing? And if there's anything you're currently working on in that direction?

Caroline Davis: Yeah so I'm--I'm one of those people who will, sort-of, use my connection to academia by downloading, you know, articles from various publications in the academic world, and sort-of going headstrong into the topic that I'm interested in. And this last album--separate from Maitri--that was called Alula, I was interested more in the structure on the birdwing called the alula structure and how it works. And I was trying to--I really, you know, kind-of read the articles and tried to come up with structures to put into the music. They could be specific, or it could just be metaphorical. So it could be all levels of distinction when it comes to writing the music itself. For that record maybe one of the pieces is based more on the math of the structure for particular species of bird. But most of the other songs on that record were, more like, dedicated to the metaphorical meaning of, like, flight, and takeoff, and landing. So this project, Maitri, I've been--as many people in the world right now--we've both been going pretty strongly into the world of social justice. And we've been trying to research and look into what's going on now, and how we can connect it to voices from the past in terms of civil liberties and civil justice, right. And so that is primarily what I've been focusing on recently. And that coming in the form of reading books and articles, and watching old movies. And we have a song that Ben wrote that's going to be on the next album that is trying to connect Reagan's presidency to our current administration. We have a song that was written in honor of the Pulse Massacre that happened two years ago in the nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We have a piece that's about the sun in a metaphorical sense, like the idea of global warming and the idea of how that might interact with civil rights. What else do we have, Ben, that you might want to comment on?

Ben Hoffmann: We wrote a new song too in quarantine, inspired by..

Caroline Davis: Ahmaud.

Ben Hoffmann: ...Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting and kind-of more directly related to the current day. But Caroline’s also working on another project inspired by some of her grandmother’s poetry.

Caroline Davis:  Yeah, I'm working on another project. It’s kind-of on the side at the moment because we can’t play with people. But this one is with strings. It’s with a string quartet and I--fortunately had one gig before the quarantine hit with the strings, and then one gig with the vocalist. And the idea is to pair them together, so there will be a vocalist, and also more of a kind-of spoken word vocalist who’s more into textural kind-of sound, as well as string quartet and my quintet, which was the band featured on the other record before Alula, which is called Heart Tonic. And that record will be featuring my grandmother's poetry. She wasn’t a very famous poet, she was just special to me. But she did publish a couple books. And then I'm also adding my own commentary. Most of the poems I'm using from her are--have to do with the war that she had to live through in England, and other kind-of more serious matters of civil liberties. I'm trying to connect it to the current state of what we're going through. 

MB: That's awesome. I am also very interested in how we can connect the arts to, you know, the things that are happening to everyday people, you know, everyday--and social justice and things like that. So it's really wonderful to talk to artists who are doing that work. I think it's great, and so important.

Caroline Davis: Yeah, it is. I was doing an interview some months back in the quarantine, and I was talking to someone about--someone asked me, you know, how does your work connect to--you know, it was more on my jazz side of the work--and they were asking how my work connects to civil rights and social justice and I was like, “I don't really have that many things that I’ve put out,” you know, I have some solo work that I've included but it's not in record form. There’s not a lot of videos out there of me doing this kind-of work and so it was, like, kind-of a moment where I was thinking, you know “now is the time!” And also, like, I need to call myself out on that a little bit more and be a little bit more active in the role that I play, and formally what I'm putting out there, so that it's more clear, you know, where I'm standing.

MB:  Right, yeah that is very important. I mean, we really need to center equity in everything that we do. When we get back to hosting jazz series and things like that, making sure that, you know, what we present reflects the community. I mean, also it's important to understand, I think, that art doesn't have to, necessarily, hit people in such a direct way. People can appreciate art and it can benefit them, you know, in ways that aren't so literal. I know a lot of your work is like that too. It's been great talking to you guys, I really hope the show doesn't get rained out and it’s great to have you back in Madison.

Caroline Davis:  Yeah, we’re excited...

Ben Hoffmann: Really excited, yeah.

Caroline Davis:  ... to play, I mean it’ll be my first time sort-of, like, playing in front of people in, like, five months. I've done a handful of livestream things, but it's not--it's not really the same. So I'm looking forward to it.

-fin-

Some notes about the venue: The Garver Feed Mill Patio is a large outside area. Attendees will be seated by Garver staff, at reserved tables spaced at least six feet apart. Reservations are to be made online, in advance, and food and drink orders can be placed via an app. There are no menus to handle; minimal server interaction. Masks are required for use of the indoor restrooms. Because the patio is considered a restaurant with distanced tables, guests are not required to wear masks. (MB: I hope attendees will consider wearing masks when not eating or drinking.) Garver is encouraging guests to stay seated as much as possible, and not move about the venue except to use the restrooms.


Lesser Lakes Trio + Svanoe/Townsend/Zielinski Trio

Lesser Lakes Trio + Svanoe/Townsend/Zielinski Trio Garver Feed Mill Patio — Friday, August 7, 2020 — 7pm

  • Jamie Breiwick -- Trumpet
  • John Christensen -- Bass
  • Devin Drobka -- Drums
  • Anders Svanoe -- Saxophone
  • Bradley Townsend -- Bass
  • Nick Zielinski -- Drums

 

By Michael Brenneis

Interviews: 07-08/2020   Posted: 08/02/2020

 

Well, It’s been a while, hasn’t it? The concept of a “Showbiz Roundup” has understandably fallen by the wayside. There have been a couple of updates not related to BlueStem, but I wasn’t sure there would be much call for the Roundup for a long while. The hunger for this music is still here, however, and hungry promoters like BlueStem are looking for ways to showcase this music in as risk-reduced a way as possible. It goes without saying that the musicians are hungry, even in the best of times. So here we are, there are shows happening!

The folks at BlueStem saw their schedule--which was building real momentum--evaporate before their eyes, and it was a real loss for the listening community of southern Wisconsin. They were drawing bigger and bigger names: musicians with deep history in the creation of this music; rising stars; international artists. In the scheme of things it may not seem so important, but the arts are vital in the fight for equality and equity. And the jazz and improvised music presented by BlueStem, and others, continues to act counter to the culture that permits systemic racism and wide-spread injustice. 

The two trios coming to Garver, while similar in instrumentation (horn-bass-drums), are substantially different in many ways. The seven-year-old Lesser Lakes Trio draws members from a swath of southern Wisconsin, plays members compositions incorporating varying amounts of improvisation, and, arguably, leans more jazz. The Svanoe/Townsend/Zielinski Trio, much newer on the scene (as a unit--they’re all long-time Madison scenesters, Zielinski being the exception), plays free music composed on the spot, and mixes a bit more rock with their jazz.

I caught up with Jamie and Anders via email.

Lesser Lakes Trio

MB: What is the vibe of the Lesser Lakes Trio? Do you feel this band has an overarching artistic statement? How is it different from some of the other groups you lead or co-lead? Have you been able to rehearse, and if so, how?

Jamie Breiwick: Devin Drobka (drums), John Christensen (bass) and I (trumpet) started the Lesser Lakes Trio in 2013. The initial reference for the group was the band Triveni (Avishai Cohen, Omer Avital & Nasheet Waits). At the time, the trumpet/bass/drum trio was a bit unconventional and it seemed like an interesting and underrepresented format to explore.

Certainly a huge inspiration for the band would be the various bands and recordings of the great Ornette Coleman and all the musicians in that particular orbit - but we are certainly not limited to Ornette's sphere of influence. From the beginning of the band, though, we have made it a point to perform mainly original compositions, written by all three members. In our self composed band description, we call ourselves "sonic storytellers." Each member offers a unique

compositional and improvisational voice, however all of our music has an overarching thread of "telling a story" (both in melodic delivery and improvisational content.) In seven years, we have only rehearsed one or two times, I think. I could be wrong, maybe it's more, but not much more. Generally, we share charts and/or reference recordings with each other via email and try to memorize the music individually before we perform it. Logistically, living in three different cities (Madison, Milwaukee, and Racine) makes it tough for regular rehearsals. It seems to work though, as we have about 3-4 albums worth of original music in the LLT "book."

MB: What is the balance between improvisation and composition? Is there a lead composer, or do members contribute equally? How do you select repertoire?

Jamie Breiwick: As far as the compositional balance, it differs wildly from tune to tune. Some pieces have little to no improv, performed like a pop tune, some are very "free and open" harmonically and rhythmically, and others yet follow a more conventional "head-solo-head" format. I would say there isn't a set "formula" for LLT music. All three members contribute equally and we try and wear our wildly diverse sets of influences on our sleeves.

MB: Many musicians are really in a financial bind during the pandemic. How have you kept it together? Are you teaching online or anything like that?

Jamie Breiwick: For me personally (I cannot speak for John or Devin) I am fortunate to have a full-time middle/high school teaching job and a busy side business as a graphic designer. While I am certainly missing the outlet of performing music as a creative and financial endeavour, I have been able to keep busy and not take too big a monetary hit. Oddly enough, I have had a few gigs start to trickle in including at Cafe Coda (live stream), a private gig, another live stream gig in Milwaukee later in August, and this wonderful concert at Garver - though the performance calendar is much emptier than usual. It seems like people, clubs, venues, organizations are starting to figure out creative ways to present live music again.

[MB: The small private school where Jamie teaches will be opening with in-person classes this Fall, albeit with strict precautions in place.]

MB: It's hard to know what's safe to do these days. Do you have any health and safety concerns about performing in proximity to a live audience? Have we seen this group in unmasked live-streams recently? Are you guys getting tested? Any concerns about playing in proximity to Devin and John?

Jamie Breiwick: I think if people stay appropriately distanced and wear masks I am confident we can safely perform in front of a live audience. It being an outdoor event helps as well. We recently performed a live streamed concert at Cafe Coda. We did not have a live audience other than Hanah and the couple technical crew that were present, but we stayed distanced and wore masks (I obviously didn't while playing). It felt great to play again despite there not being an in-person crowd! I am looking forward to the Garver event and playing in front of a safely distanced and masked live audience!

Svanoe/Townsend/Zielinski Trio

MB: You formed this trio to play an Improv jam session series at the ArtLit Lab, which has been shelved during the pandemic. Are there still plans for it to happen at some point? Can you talk about the idea behind doing this, and who the target audience is? Have you been able to rehearse, and if so, how?

Anders Svanoe: Yes, this is the house band for the all improvisation jam session that happens on the second sunday of the month. We [were] scheduled to start up in the fall, but still not sure.  It was going to start at the start of the summer but got shelved. My guess is it will start up again next year. 

The jam is a feeder into the new music series that is the last sunday of the month. [The purpose is to] get to know new people. The target audience is free/experimental heads. This band rehearsed every other week last fall for a couple of months [and] did an acoustic moose recording/concert in January.

MB: Is this a totally free improv group, or are you playing any compositions? If so, whose--and what are they like?

Anders Svanoe: Totally free. We all contribute simple strategies and then play it.  We’ve got maybe a half dozen ideas and go. It's, of course, very free and open sonically, but I think Nick brings a rock element to the group, and there is for sure some of that steady beat kinda shit.

MB: Many musicians are really in a financial bind during the pandemic. How have you kept it together? Are you teaching online or anything like that?

Anders Svanoe: Yeah, I started teaching online in April, or end of March?  Lost a bunch of work-no gigs-lost some students. Right now [I’m] just trying to live on the cheap and make it through. I'm working on [State of the Baritone] volume 5. Volume 5 is a latin jazz record. We are recording remotely in our homes, and have done half of the record now. It’s Frank [Martinez] on drums, Arno [Gonzalez] on congas, John [Mesolorus] on bass and Louka [Patenaude] on guitar.  Been practicing a lot and updated my Sonny Red and my own website so i’m staying very busy.  More time with the family and shit so that’s good too.

MB: It's hard to know what's safe to do these days. Do you have any health and safety concerns about performing in proximity to a live audience? Or in proximity to Brad and Nick? Are you guys getting tested?

Anders Svanoe: I don't have too much concern outside if there aren’t tons of people and we are socially distanced with masks. It’s a fine line between staying safe and not going insane. This will be the first gig I've done since march. As a horn player it’s a bigger concern with the breathing and expelling air. I’ll have some kind of mask set up I’ll play through or a bandana.  I've been tested and negativo.

-fin-

Some notes about the venue: The Garver Feed Mill Patio is a large outside area. Attendees will be seated by Garver staff, at reserved tables spaced at least six feet apart. Reservations are to be made online, in advance, and food and drink orders can be placed via an app. There are no menus to handle; minimal server interaction. Masks are required for use of the indoor restrooms. Because the patio is considered a restaurant with distanced tables, guests are not required to wear masks. (MB: I hope attendees will consider wearing masks when not eating or drinking.) Garver is encouraging guests to stay seated as much as possible, and not move about the venue except to use the restrooms.


Harriet Tubman

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!

-fin-

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

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.

-fin-