Alex Mercado Trio + Todd Clouser’s Cinema: Music for Unmade Film— Garver 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.
by Michael Brenneis - RattleTickBuzz.com
Tony Barba Quartet + Maitri — Garver Feed Mill Patio — Friday, August 14, 2020 — 7pm
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.
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!
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.
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 — Garver Feed Mill Patio — Friday, August 7, 2020 — 7pm
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.
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!
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.
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.
Harriet Tubman — North Street Cabaret — Friday, March 20, 2020 — 8pm
Interview date: 02/29/2020
MB: Can you guys talk a little bit about the difficulty or struggle, maybe, working in a band that defies category?
J.T. Lewis: That’s an interesting question. Well, for us it’s not a struggle, maybe, you know, I mean coming from the drummer’s standpoint. Because we respect each other's approach, and we don't really challenge each other's approach. We let the music become what it is. We’ve tried to, like, break down what each other is doing--I’m just talking from the drummer’s perspective. I would talk to Melvin about what he was attempting to do. And he would give me a perspective that I wasn't even thinking about, it in terms of, like, time signatures, and how he would approach the music. And I just let it go at that, ‘cause if I tried to figure out too much, there's a certain magic that is not going to happen, you know.
Brandon Ross: I mean, Michael, I took your question to mean more in terms of employment. [Laughs]
MB: Well that's kind of how I intended it, but J.T. was getting more into something I wanted to ask, maybe the next question about the writing process. But first if you could talk about, you know, from the audience perspective what the difficulty might be.
Brandon Ross: Yeah, I mean, I would say that--based on my experience with talking with various people, and talking with our booking agent, and different promoters--that, I think it's a conundrum for people in this period. Because, you know, for us it seems very logical: what we do. It's a logical expression, or extension, of the music that we were influenced by, and mentored by. And yet, that period of expression which involves dynamic energy, creativity, not trying to sound like someone or something else, you know, being musically yourself and pursuing your own voice, your own individual creative voice--those values seem to have been pushed to the margin these days. When we go out and play somewhere it's invariably people go “wow! you know we don't - what do you guys call this music? We don’t hear this much, it’s really great. We don't hear this much” and that's kind-of in terms of marketing, it's a tremendous challenge. Everyone says this to us all the time, you know, cause if you put us in the jazz category it's so misleading because it's so broad. And if you put us in the rock category then we get into other kinds of issues as well, that go along with who gets to play what kind of music in our society. And then what that’s supposed to sound like, you know, and etcetera, etcetera. So maybe that's - maybe the struggle is a waiting game, you know.
J.T. Lewis: Well, you know, I’ve played with Lou Reed and Don Pullen. So what do I do with that experience? What do I do with that musical experience, where it - where is the pallet for that kind of range of, you know, music, you know. And I never really thought about - I don't think it's my responsibility to worry about what it is. I'm just doing what I was taught by the mentors in any genre, and now I'm, like, all dressed up with nowhere to go. I have all of this information. What do I do with it? Well, like, I express it the way I was taught, you know. I mean, sometimes I'm thinking about Lou or I'm thinking about Marianne Faithfull as much as I'm thinking about John Coltrane, and Henry Threadgill. You know what I mean?
Brandon Ross: J.T., do you think there's been a struggle for you involved in Tubman?
J.T. Lewis: Well, not in Tubman, because we created this environment. But in my career, yes. You know within - in other musical situations, yeah. I ran into like hardcore, what we know quote-unquote, you know, jazz guys, actually getting upset that I was downtown on the Lower East Side with the rock guys. And I would get the same thing from the rock guys who would, like, make these cliché jokes about the jazz guys. And I was in the middle, like, wait a minute this is all music I love - I love you guys, but I love you guys Uptown too, you know. And so the way we process what art is--is to me the struggle, you know. I don't want to think about what I - what it’s called. I mean I'm just me. But I understand what Brandon is saying on the business level. It has to be packaged, and boxed in a certain way. But I don't find that to be my job to worry about. I don’t, you know.
MB: I mean it sounds like it's such an organic thing for you and Harriet Tubman. That, you know, the problem lies outside.
J.T. Lewis: If it's a problem. But, for instance, like, people say to us you know every night “what is it?” I ask the same damn question! “What is it?” I mean, I don't have an answer! I'm just there. So we’re experiencing this whole journey together, you know, the audience and us. We look at each other sometimes…
Brandon Ross: I was going to say, Michael, just to address your question in a pointed way, at that issue, it's a real issue, and it is a struggle and it is a challenge. Because anytime people have asked me, just in general, what kind of music do I play? they're looking for - they’re looking for a tag, they're looking for a label they're looking for someone way…
J.T. Lewis: A frame of reference.
Brandon Ross: ...to wrap their head around it, what it is. And the thing that comes to mind is: when I think about Ornette Coleman, you think Harmolodics. And there’s only one person associated with that--that's Ornette Coleman. And you may not know what Harmolodics is, but if it takes you to Ornette Coleman, and you hear what he did with sound and music, then you know what that is--you know what Harmolodics is. And I've been looking for something like that that would work for Harriet Tubman.
J.T. Lewis: Something like what?
Brandon Ross: The way Harmolodics worked for Ornette, it's uniquely associated with him and there's no confusion or mistake about what that sound is, or where it comes from. So that if people said “Oh Harriett Tubman, what kind of music is it?” and we had a phrase, or term accurately describing what our processes is, and the outcome of that, that would be a wonderful thing to develop. Like Butch Morris, for example, who is a friend of ours, and mentor and colleague--who did Conduction: invented Conduction, which is copyrighted by him, actually, and totally associated with him. And people understand what that is now, as that's developed since his death--book has been published explaining his system--so if you say Conduction you're saying Lawrence Douglas “Butch” Morris.
J.T. Lewis: Right. There’s a Klingon and Romulan word for undescribeable, but I can’t pronounce it because it has like 40 letters. But there's like an undescribable - it is, like, “okay, well we can't describe this.” We might be in that - might be a place where there's no word for what we do, actually. It might be something new, who knows?
MB: Right, it’s the limitation of our language to capture this.
MB: J.T. you alluded to this a little initially, but what is your writing process like in Harriet Tubman? Do you guys write individually, or do you write collectively?
J.T. Lewis: Well, I mean, you know, the guys bring pieces - Brandon has some beautiful pieces that we perform, and Melvin does too. But as a band we - it writes us. We just, you know - we commiserate in my house, and we play for hours. And we just listen to what we do. Then we use the process - see, this is the interesting part, going back to what you and Brandon were talking about, like “what is jazz” and what is, you know, like, where do we fit? But I can tell you this, from playing with these gentlemen for 20 plus years - even longer than that - there’s no number to how long we’ve all played together. But the information that we've accumulated from the jazz process of improvising, and the masters that we’ve all studied under, and played with, we use that tool. Now I'm not saying it's jazz, but the tool is like a hammer and a saw on the wall. You pull it down, and you use those tools to interpret what you are trying to - what you are trying to say. This is where it gets lost in the - in the ether of - of terminologies. But it comes down to understanding what these--our mentors--were trying to teach us. The tools that I've learned from Don Pullen and Henry Threadgill - I'm not necessarily saying that I'm playing what they play, but what I’ve learned from them is taking me closer to who I am as a musician. And they showed me how to express that. This is - this is difficult, what we're talking about. We're in this ground that is you know like - I don't know what I do - which is like really a revelation, because that means everyday is a new day. I'm still learning, but I know that I can rely on these tools that I learned from the masters to help me get to where I want to go. That sounds like an ethereal kind of explanation but that's the best - you know.
Brandon Ross: You know, Michael, for me jazz - the term jazz, for me, was not about a stylistic destination, but a way of doing things, a process.
J.T. Lewis: Exactly.
Brandon Ross: A way of doing things. A way of going about doing something, and to that end back in 2002 we took a trip down the Mississippi, down to the Delta. We actually got a Rockefeller Foundation Grant to go down and do some investigation. And the investigation was about process, because we thought, well, the way we're working, we're dealing with a kind of a broader spectrum of musical information than you would find typically in rock and roll, but our approach to putting things together was, in a way, closer to the way a rock band might function. And in terms of the collective writing process that we use there is - there was a logic, there was a sensibility that - that consistently shows up. And the great thing is we allow that. Like, nobody in our band ever tells anybody else what to play. And that's an interesting thing, because I think you have an intention as a creator, and there's things you might like, but also there's a beautiful thing in, like, just suspending that and saying “okay, well how do I work with what this person’s put out.” So, in terms of our writing process, I think that's reflected there, and what that is - what makes it jazz to me - if it is jazz, and in terms of that definition of a way of doing something - our way of doing something is that thing that people have called jazz, and if you look back at it historically that process is consistent. And I think it's more a process that connects African-American cultural expressions across - across decades, across the tenure of Africans being here.
J.T. Lewis: First generations.
Brandon Ross: And I think that's - that's more what we're about. That's more what our thing is than, let's say, whether we're jazz, or rock, or blues, or this or that. And those are all marketing things anyway. Those were all terms that we use for commerce, and not the creative process, as J.T. keeps pointing out.
MB: That's a great explanation, I appreciate that. You guys have worked individually and collectively with so many icons of the music. I won't read them off now but I'll probably put the list in the article, because it's just tremendous. And two people that have been so important to me, and so formative to me: Melvin with Ronald Shannon Jackson, and you Brandon and J.T. with Henry Threadgill, and so many others. I mean those are just two super important, you know, parts of the music for me personally. Can you talk about, you know, any experiences either with those people in particular, or other, you know, luminaries of the music and, you know, what the experience is like of contributing to their artistic statement, and collaborating with artists of that stature.
J.T. Lewis: Yeah, I mean just - the thing for me is that these guys are teachers, and they teach and - and if you're open to their teaching, it takes you to a place, as an artist, that without their teaching you - you wouldn't even consider going there. You know, the beautiful part about these - these people that you're talking about is that they're listeners--they listen. I was playing in a rock band when Don Pullen first heard me, but he knew I could play. I can't even explain how he knew, ‘cause I was playing in this hardcore rock band, you know. He just looked at me - he just knew I could play. And I was - the timing of it in my career, you know, arc - and I can probably with confidence say that a lot of - all of us go through that--artists--like "where am I going? what is this about?" and that's the stage in my life where a mentor came to me and said "you're okay, you're doing okay." And for him to give it to me - he hired me in his band and I learned on the, you know, I learned on the job how to express - but there was the trust from these mentors, and the same from Henry Threadgill.
Henry Threadgill for me was the first human to trust my musicianship, to not question that I knew - I mean sometimes you need that from a mentor you know. Henry made me feel like he trusted me like "yeah we're going - there's some things we need to work out, but whatever you're going to do I know it's going to just be you." And that flower that he put in me - it grew to this confidence that I have in myself to express whatever I want to do. To this day as a drummer, like, I know what I'm doing. I needed somebody else to tell me that I knew what I was doing, you know - how this business works, you know.
Brandon Ross: There's a feature that I wanted to add to what J.T. is saying about that particularly as it relates to Henry, as I have extensive training with him, so to speak--and on-going--but these people, for me, like the Chicago people were important. I just wound up interacting with a lot of them when I first got to New York. I immediately hooked up with Leroy Jenkins, and that led me to Oliver Lake, and then that led me to Butch Morris and that led me to Henry. But Henry - the thing about these guys, as J.T. said, that they are teachers, but they're not teaching you from something that - they're teaching you from a concept--a personal musical concept--that they've developed. It's not like from anything you could download on YouTube any given day of the week. They're giving you something in a particular context where you need to contribute as your creative self and not as, you know, Joe Pass or...
J.T. Lewis: Like “who are you? who are you?”
Brandon Ross: ... or Max Roach, or any number of other people. It's like - look as Henry said to me once, "look man the only way you could be, you know, Albert Ayler is if you lived his life, and that's not possible. I don't have anybody here around me to try to be somebody else."
J.T. Lewis: “Who are you?”
Brandon Ross: "I have you here to be - to be you, so - so bring what you have." And they tap you, so to speak, because they see something, or hear something, about you that they think they can use in what they're trying to do. And I know that's especially true of Threadgill. And then you get into the sound world. When I first started working with Henry, I quite literally reacted to his sound world with trepidation.
J.T. Lewis: Me Too!
Brandon Ross: I remember rehearsing in his band, Very Very Circus, was when I first started working with them back in ‘89. And we had this rehearsal with this tune called Exacto, and we're playing this piece of music, and I got home that night and I dreamt about the song, but in this relentless, obsessive way as if it was from, like, an Edgar Allan Poe novel, or something. Just like this thing keeps going in my head, and I thought "I don't know if I should be playing this music." I mean, like, sincerely Michael, I really questioned whether being around that musical vibration was, like, the right thing. And then I remember it was a breakthrough. Like, I broke through something. And what I broke through were the biases and the boundaries in my own musical schema.
J.T. Lewis: Exactly!
Brandon Ross: And that freed me, and also ruined me for the rest of the world. I mean that so honestly because I play music in an entirely different way as a result, and the guitar, because of what Henry asked me to do. The stuff he asked me to do had very little to do with guitar per se, so you’re negotiating and navigating things that you wouldn't necessarily encounter. And then I was in a band with two guitar players, and he said "okay, well look, I don't want 12 pieces, right, two six strings of sonic information at any given time, so anything you guys play has to be open voiced. Two or three notes maximum." Right.
J.T. Lewis: Find something, that's the challenge!
Brandon Ross: Yeah, so how do I add that now in the midst of what this is? And in any other context they would not necessarily tell you that. They just want to know how well you practiced all your - your cadences and standards, and all of that. And that's fine, but this was another kind of world. So in terms of your question, addressing with Henry, it's - when you go to - I can tell you for a fact - and even the guys now in Zooid, who've been in it now for 20 plus years - if you work with Henry Threadgill for more than a tour...
J.T. Lewis: That's it.
Brandon Ross: ...you will come out a different and better kind of musician as a result of it. And I would say the same was true - I mean Melvin can speak about Shannon, but Shannon's coming again from Ornette's school, and created his own thing out of that. You know, the Harmolodic world and what he was writing and those values. So you get all this - these three different points of convergence, right, if you took...
J.T. Lewis: But there's only two or three lines of where that shit comes from. So we know that, like, what Brandon's saying is there's the line, you know, of education of that music that goes back to the, you know - there's only a few lines through it - I mean there's Miles, you know, but there's the other lines of - of these theories that connect to, you know, improvisation and composition - I didn't know how to write until after I got--write as a drummer--until I got into Don Pullen's band. He used to say to me "J, you're writing - I can hear what you're - what you're trying to do, you know, melodically" and I didn't know any of that, you know. And I think Henry heard that too. Just let me just be a drummer and, you know, let that be what it is. And it's funny how the two worlds - like coming from a pop and R&B world with producers quote-unquote, "well, I need you to sound like this." So you're sitting in the studio waiting for some affirmation. So that when I switched camps, so to speak, I was waiting for confirmation and you don't get it. Like, silence was the best compliment - you are - you're playing yourself, you know what I mean. It's different, you know. And I was coming through these schools, waiting for some confirmation and that's - wait a minute they're waiting for me to just be myself. And when nothing is said, that means you were doing something, as opposed to, like, waiting for some kind of thing from above.
Brandon Ross: I remember that rehearsal J.T. when we were with Henry. And we were playing a piece of music, I think it was "And This" or something from the Make a Move record.
J.T. Lewis: I don't remember.
Brandon Ross: You will when I tell you this. And we're playing and Henry stopped the band and he goes "J.T., everybody in here can count"
J.T. Lewis: I remember that!
Brandon Ross: "I didn't hire you to play time - play music."
J.T. Lewis: Play some music - that's it exactly - yeah!
Brandon Ross: Play music, and that's when J.T. was like “Oh, whoa.” Like somebody took the chain off. And J.T. was just like a stallion ready to go, man. I mean there’s - if you - do you have the record Where's Your Cup by Henry. Okay, so if you listen to J.T. Lewis on that record, I don’t need to say anything more.
J.T. Lewis: I was like a caged animal set free! But, you know, with discipline--creative discipline. But to be trusted to me was like - and still is today - to be trusted as opposed to not, to be directed, but to be - you know Henry; his teaching skills were, you know, they’re par excellence, you know. He knew how to get the best out of each of us, you know. One day he - and this goes back to what Brandon was saying - he wrote this piece - you might know the title, I don't remember Brandon. But it started with drums - it was a written drum - it was a four staff drum part. I was - I said “Henry, I can't read this.” [Laughs]
Brandon Ross: But he said “Yes you can.”
J.T. Lewis: I was going to say! He said “you can do this.”
Brandon Ross: He’d put music on the stand in front of you, and you’d go “Wow, I haven’t really…” And he’d say “Oh, you can do this. You can do that.”
J.T. Lewis: “I can’t do this.” That’s the first thing I used to say! And he would always say “No, you can do this” you know. And that is where all of this stuff comes from. Don used to say that to me too, Don Pullen.
Brandon Ross: Yeah, that was it. I still remember that. Everybody’d be looking at these parts and be like - stuff’d be like - you’d look at Henry and he’d say “Ah, you can do that, you can do that.”
J.T. Lewis: You’d be in a cold sweat!
Brandon Ross: And you know what, by the end of that thing you would do that. By the end of that you could do that.
J.T. Lewis: And do more!
Brandon Ross: All those - the Chicago guys that I interacted with were like that: Muhal Richard Abrams; Wadada Leo Smith; Leroy Jenkins; Henry. And it taught me something very, very important about that. Because you get a different outcome - you get a different result when you have people who are dealing with that way of receiving music, you know, looking at something. They’re not putting you in a box. And it just - it's like, you know, come to it with what you have. Yeah, you can do this. So, long answer but…
MB: That’s a beautiful, beautiful, great answer. My next short question, I guess, is a selfish question on my part because - Brandon you list Tony Williams on your bio - as having worked with Tony Williams - and he, of course, is, like, one of my absolute icons.
J.T. Lewis: Me too!
MB: In fact, I moved across the country to study with Tony Williams’ teacher back in the day. So do you have any stories about working with Tony Williams
J.T. Lewis: Tony’s teacher Alan Dawson?
MB: Alan Dawson, yeah, yeah.
Brandon Ross: It’s a short story - it involves Melvin too. There was a period after - right after I did the record with Cassandra Wilson the - her first one for Blue Note, Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, and it was produced by Craig Street. And Craig Street--who at that point had Bruce Lundvall’s rapt attention as a producer--and Tony wanted to do another Lifetime record, and talked to Craig Street about talking to Tony about Producing it. So what Craig did was put together a band that included me on guitar, and the recently deceased great Ronny Drayton on guitar…
J.T. Lewis: Yeah, Ronny Drayton!
Brandon Ross: ...and Melvin on bass and Chocolate Genius Marc Anthony Thompson on vocals and Tony. And so we rehearsed with Tony for about 10 days in New York City to prepare for doing a new record and...
J.T. Lewis: Are there any recordings of this?
MB: I was gonna ask the same question!
Brandon Ross: Mark does, I think. Yeah, we gotta get in touch with Mark. And so we spent ten days rehearsing in Montana Studios on the West Side of Manhattan. And I was actually - the way the room worked out I ended up standing right next to Tony while we were playing, so I remember we’d go through songs, and his tech was there - he’d change the cymbals, like, continually, like, as he started hearing the sound of what was going on with everybody. And he’d adjust his cymbal sound, and he would talk about it in terms of color, and he would say something like - he’d say “Yeah, no, this - this is more of a yellow.” and he’d pull some...
J.T. Lewis: Wow!
Brandon Ross: ...and it’d be like “That shit wasn't yellow enough” and how it changed the whole thing of what was going on. That was a master class for me.
J.T. Lewis: Amazing!
Brandon Ross: I was just like right there next to him. So what happened was that he had to go out to California to do some stuff, and Melvin would have some detail about the story.
J.T. Lewis: What year was this Brandon?
Brandon Ross: This would have been ‘93 or ‘94. And he basically didn't make it back. And Melvin says there was some discussion about, maybe, going another route. He knows people want you to do things. I mean when you mess with labels you’re basically dealing with a form of a kind-of Mafia, that has no regard for--or little regard for--creativity. And, you know, what's really happening. But that was an incredible experience, and a great band. And, you know, and when you go forward through time and history…
J.T. Lewis: Well, wait a minute, run down the personnel in that band. It was you, Melvin, Ronny Drayton.
Brandon Ross: Ronny, and Marc Anthony Thompson on vocals.
J.T. Lewis: No keyboard.
Brandon Ross: No. And Tony. Two guitars, bass, drums, and voice.
MB: Brandon and J.T. it's been a real privilege to talk to you. And I would like to acknowledge the privilege that we have in having Harriet Tubman perform in our little town coming up.
Brandon Ross: Oh, we’re looking forward to it.
MB: It's going to be a great experience, I really - North Street Cabaret is a real intimate setting, so to have you guys in a setting like that, I think, is going to be really fantastic. And I'm very hopeful - the capacity there is 99 so I really hope we get, like, 98 people in there.
J.T. Lewis: [Laughs]
Brandon Ross: We’re going to be working on that too, starting Monday. We're looking forward to it, you know. It's great ‘cause it's a part of the South Arts Initiative called Jazz Road Tours. And it's made it possible for us to get there, you know, to get out there. So it's a cool thing. We’re doing 6 dates over, probably, an 8 week period, just the way they play out. And, yeah, Madison is stop number two.
J.T. Lewis: We'll be there!
And, by the way, here’s the combined list of the artist’s the members of Harriet Tubman have played with during their careers:
Henry Threadgill, Cassandra WiIlson, Jewel, Arrested Development, Oliver Lake's Jump Up, Lawrence 'Butch' Morris Ensemble, Arto Lindsay, Muhal Richard Abrams, Archie Shepp, Leroy Jenkins, Lizz Wright, Kip Hanrahan, Don Byron, Me'Shell N'degeocello, Tony Williams, The Lounge Lizards, Rollins Band, dead prez, Punk-Funk All-Stars, DJ Logic, Power Tools, Defunkt, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, Caetano Veloso, Marisa Monte, Eye and I, Living Colour, Dave Sanborn, Stanley Jordan, Sting, Lou Reed, Herbie Hancock, Don Pullen, Lou Reed, Tina Turner, Vanessa Williams, Whitney Houston, Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, David Murray, Kip Hanrahan, Bill Laswell,Marc Ribot, Marianne Faithfull, Howard Johnson's Gravity.
MindStorm — James Madison Memorial High School — Friday and Saturday, March 6 and 7, 2020 — 8pm
Interview date: 03/01/2020
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.
Aaron Granat: And voice. He also vocalizes a lot.
Thomas Ferella: Yes. There’s going to be things said.
MB: Are you as good as Kahil? [Laughs]
Thomas Ferella: Man that guy is out there, right?
MB: He’s great.
Thomas Ferella: I mean, what an inspiration! So, no, I am not as good as Kahill [Laughs].
MB: So you guys will be performing live at the planetarium?
Thomas Ferella: That's correct. So it'll be the six of us performing live and - with Aaron being essentially another musician - but bringing his personal improvisational live performance to the band in a visual sense.
MB: Right, I was going to ask, you know, are you guys working off of each other in some improvisational way? Or is the music driving the film, or is the film driving the music, you know, what's the relationship?
Aaron Granat: I would say that there's no real leader necessarily it's - we’re feeding off of each other constantly. And - I guess the visuals might provide the initial framework, and then sort-of within that - when I notice certain harmonies or correspondences happening I try to strengthen them, or accentuate them in my rhythmic approach to the speed at which the images are unfolding. And any sort of patterns that I notice, that are linking up really productively, I’ll try and make those as apparent as possible, within my means of control.
Thomas Ferella: So this is - Michael, to jump in - the whole thing is not scripted. It is literally walking a tightrope with what everybody's doing, you know, musically and video. We, of course, have references which are basically our instruments and, in Aaron's case, it's video footage and his software. But for the most part it’s just going to take off from there. And as we do this performance - they will not be the same - as we repeat the performance. So it's an improvisational tightrope.
MB: You know we think of different kinds of improvisation, like some European improvisors that we know about who, you know, they in many ways reject sort-of time and tonality, and things like that. And then we have American improvisors and others who work from a, maybe a different language. What's your relationship to that sort-of dichotomy?
Thomas Ferella: I think we're more along - I mean I think Anthony Braxton probably sums it up best for us in terms of keeping the music looking forward, and having that willingness to - to go out there on a limb and just push the artform forward, in the sense that we're creating in real-time so whatever sort-of emotional state you bring that day is what you're going to reflect in your music.
MB: And Aaron on the film side, is there a similar kind-of thing going on? I'm not very familiar with improvisational film but can you give us sort-of a point of reference for this?
Aaron Granat: Yeah, I would say that I come from a tradition that is best represented by the avant-garde practices happening in America, starting in, like, the early sixties, and leading up to the current period. If I had to compare it to anyone it would probably be Stan Brakhage who's the Colorado-based filmmaker, and is known as kind-of the father of abstract expressionist forms of filmmaking, in which he was no longer interested in dealing with, like, denotative material or representational images and - and would use his equipment to try and accentuate the abstract qualities as much as possible. But the new aspect of this is the ability to - to actually generate these forms in a live setting because - and I don't really know exactly - I don't have a strong sense of where my practice fits within the overarching landscape of video jockey-ing today. I don't see a lot of other things similar to what we're doing. I basically see it as stemming from, like, a handful of visionary avant-garde filmmakers that I grew up watching. And now I use that as a basis of reference for the techniques that I deploy in a live setting.
Thomas Ferella: In our limited research, Michael, we're not finding anybody doing anything like this. So I think we all come to this with certain, you know, histories and talents, and voices, but when you combine the improvisational music with improvisational film in a planetarium setting, I think we're on the edge of something here.
MB: So that sounds like a really good reason for the audience to show up and appreciate and enjoy this work that you're doing. Any other thoughts that you want to relate to the audience to, you know, help them decide to show up?
Thomas Ferella: Well, if they want their minds blown I think..[Laughs]. I mean if they want to see something fresh, and new, and interesting in an unusual setting--I think this is the place for them to be.
MB: And here it is on the west side of Madison, conveniently located within just a couple of miles of downtown.
Aaron Granat: This isn't your typical weekend fare. Like, this is a special opportunity. And I would just say, like, if it sounds cerebral, then the actual experience is going to be just, like, very psychedelic. And they can sit back and just, like, let the - all of this sensual stimuli just wash over them. And you don't have to come to it with, like, an advanced theoretical perspective or historical appreciation for the avant-garde.
Thomas Ferella: And it’s a testament to the musicians we’re working with, and Aaron, and Jeff Holt who runs the planetarium. It's a testament to these folks’ willingness to sort-of breakdown boundaries between art forms. And willingness to open their doors to something that's new, and potentially risky. So, I mean, I give a lot of credit to the guys I work with in my band--who will walk this tightrope with me--and to Aaron, and especially to Jeff who's allowing us into this - into his space to perform something that is a completely untraditional planetarium-type of performance.
MB: So it sounds like there are many, many, levels to this collaboration for the audience to appreciate, and benefit from.
Thomas Ferella: We’re really excited to see the interest, and we would love to perform this in other settings. In fact we’ve got something coming up with dancers and this project, which I think will be really interesting also, so I don't think you've heard the end of us.
Ken Vandermark and Paul Lytton— North Street Cabaret — Wednesday, March 11, 2020 — 8pm
Interview date: 02/25/2020
MB: Can you talk about your 20-plus year connection with Paul Lytton?
Ken Vandermark: Yeah, Paul Lytton, he was one of the first musicians from the English school of improvisors that I ever worked with. Yeah, and very early--like you said it’s been more than 20 years now. He came to Chicago in the mid ‘90s, I think, for the first time that I can remember anyway. And we did some work at a College radio station; some playing organized by John Corbett. And recorded that, and then pretty soon after that I went to Belgium, where he lives now, and did a concert with him. And those two things were put together for the first recording we did, which is now more than 20 years old. So it goes back pretty far. But - Laul’s one of the most important improvisors that’s played the music without any script, you know. He really challenges the idea of what real improvisation is about, in terms of, like, starting from scratch--almost at each performance, you know, really wiping the slate clean, so to speak, and seeing what the music's going to be on each occasion.
MB: you also play in other duo settings with drummers like Paal Nilssen-Love or Tim Daisy. How is this duo different from some of your others?
Ken Vandermark: Well, like I said it’s the - he is very extreme in terms of the challenge. When I first played with him a big reason was the excitement--he’s a fantastic person--that was a big reason--but from the musical standpoint, was getting to work with a member of the creative community that really challenged the idea of what improvised music could be--by eliminating conventions with melody, conventions with time that had been, let’s say, more established on the American scene, going into the mid-1960s. And at that point--also in Chicago with the AACM--the pulse that would go with a lot of jazz, let’s say, and more improvised versions of that, which were known as, like, free jazz, usually was implied. I mean, Cecil Taylor broke those things down fairly early, but the English school really eliminated the forward motion that was connected to Cecil Taylor's music. And it became, let’s say, more abstracted. And working with him from the beginning has been a challenge to my Americanism as a player. There's a lot of things that I do just because of the way I hear music, ‘cause of my own, yeah, background as a player and the things I’m surrounded by here.
And early on when I was playing with him and Kent Kessler, bassist based in Chicago--we did a tour--[Paul] would go into like a pulsed time, which really surprised me because I associate his playing with getting rid of that. So the percussion parts were very abstracted and, yeah, obtuse in a way. And he said “that’s because you’re implying a beat” and I thought I was playing completely without that, getting rid of it. And I really had to think about the nature of time--like how you express a phrase. And the way I was phrasing things, he was hearing, yeah, like, a suggestion of where a pulse would fall, as opposed to, like, things being off a grid. And so when I work with him, even now, I’m really confronted with what are my own conventions; things that I’m not even aware that I’m doing. He tends to push against those and challenge them in really important ways. And so when I work with him, I leave those occasions with a lot to consider; If I want to get free from my own, yeah, my own clichés so to speak.
So he’s very - I mean playing with Paal Nilssen-Love, Tim Daisy, Hamid Drake, all these other incredible drummers, they all have their own personalities and creative character. And they’re all different, which is why I love working with drummers. How much in particular they really - I love time, I love the idea of - of what Rhythm can be and how you stretch it and move it around. All the people I work with, especially drummers, like, they challenge those things, and open them up in different ways. But Paul is definitely one of the most exciting improvisors I've ever been able to play with. It's really like jumping into an unknown sort-of territory each time, even with the background that we have.
MB: That's really so interesting. It’s fascinating, really. There’s so much to consider in that. I understand that you're originally from Rhode Island, and that you ended up at McGill in Montreal for a while, and then Chicago. Were formative things going on during that period? Were you playing? And how did you end up in Chicago?
Ken Vandermark: Oh yeah, definitely, there was a lot of formative stuff. I mean, I mainly grew up outside of Boston, and I was in that area in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a very, very fertile time for jazz and improvised music. There was Paul’s Mall, and Jazz Workshop. And people like Art Blakey, and Sonny Rollins, Phil Woods, and, you know, Johnny Griffin, all kinds of people were coming through there. So there was, like, a lot of mainstream stuff happening. But then there were always places where Boston-based groups like The Fringe and Joe Morris were playing much more adventurous music, outside of, like, you know, mainstream chords-based-type material. And then there were people coming in from out of town like: Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell; Jemeel Moondoc; William Parker. Like, that was coming in from New York, so there was a lot of interesting stuff to be around and encounter as a listener.
And I started playing music in the third grade. I started as a trumpet player. Then when I was 16 I switched to tenor because I was a - I was a really terrible trumpet player. And I wanted to play music, so I made a kind-of jump to the tenor, and that worked out much better for me. And I went to McGill University to study film and communications, and just to get out of where I was from, basically. Kind of, yeah, try something different. I moved back to Boston in 1986 and I was working on my own music at that point. I had a lot of bands and associates of my age, like, in their twenties, playing original material. And then I made the decision to move to Chicago in ‘89 after visiting a few times, and I had friends from university who lived here who were musicians. And there was just a lot more going on. And if you went to the Arts page there were, you know, five times more clubs with music, I mean, than in Boston. And Chicago’s a much bigger city and it has, like, a very fertile music scene.
I mean going back to the beginning of the twentieth century there’s been so much music here, and it’s true today with all kinds of genres, you know, not just jazz and improvised music, but I mean with - you know, there’s the classical scene, there’s the new music scene, there’s the rock scene, there’s so many cultural groups based in Chicago. There’s all kinds of music from around the world happening. So it’s a super vibrant scene to be a part of--to be immersed in. So coming to Chicago made sense to me after visiting a few times, and it's been my home since the late ‘80s.
MB: And then in 1999 you were awarded the MacArthur fellow. How did that change your life and/or work?
Ken Vandermark: It definitely changed things dramatically from--obviously the economic standpoint. It was the first time I had resources, in a financial way, to do projects that would just never, ever, ever, have occurred - and I can - primary among those were putting the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet on tour in the United States a couple of times: one with a flying tour; one in a tour bus. An international group - we never would have - that never could have happened. I mean there's just no way that thing could have occurred. There was the Territory Band which I had for about the whole time the MacArthur ran. And when the money ran out, that band continued. But bringing in musicians--half the band was from Europe, half the band was based primarily in the United States, mostly in Chicago--and exploring writing for a larger ensemble on a regular basis, like, that was huge. And that wouldn’t have occurred without the money. But a lot of the things that happened continued; they started before the MacArthur and then they continued, obviously, over the last, you know, 20 years since the MacArthur finished. I mean another 20 - almost 20 years since the MacArthur concluded. And that was really important. It was like two very key things. The finances enabled things to occur that were set in motion already, and that forward momentum continued when the MacArthur funds were gone. And that was very helpful; I learned a ton in that period. And it kind of maintained and developed things that, like I said, began before the money happened, and the finances and support happened.
But another important thing occurred when I got the MacArthur, was the foundation said you know “we want you to understand that this is the first time…” - ‘cause at that point I was the youngest person to get it for music, and all the people that had received it for improvised music and jazz beforehand were people that - they changed the paradigm for the music, you know, people like Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor you know musicians of that stature. And I clearly, at the age I was, was not anywhere - I mean I was not in that category. And they made it very clear that this was an experiment to see what would happen to someone’s work when it was given to them at the beginning of their career as opposed to celebrating what all they contributed towards the later part of their career. And that was really good to know, and to be able to say to people when they were like “well, why did you get it? because you don't deserve it.” And fundamentally the argument could be made very clearly that I didn't deserve it based on the way it had been awarded previously; the fellowship for music. And that was kind-of good psychologically for me to understand, hey, this is to - what am I going to do with this? They kind of threw the - you know it’s like “here’s a challenge.” Given these resources that no one - very rarely, rarely, ever gain, what are you going to do with these things? And I wanted to prove that - that it was a worthwhile choice and I did something for the music, about the music, with those funds and, you know, so there was merit to the decision to pick me.
MB: Was there kind-of a reckoning with the foundation at the end? And if so, how did that turn out?
Ken Vandermark: Well, you know, I think it's changed since I got the fellowship. I mean it was extremely secretive, like, I had no idea - and that’s probably still true, but I mean, I had no idea I was up for it. Like, it’s not like a grant where you apply. The way it used to be--and I haven't really followed the procedure now, but I'm guessing it's probably the same--if someone would nominate these participants who aren't even aware that they're in the running for it. And during the course of a year the people on the panel look at the work that’s happened by the nominees that were secretly nominated, and try to decide who is still in the running as that year progresses. And in the end I was still there, I was still in the process. And they contacted me, actually, while I was on tour, and let me know I won the prize. And I had no - I mean, I didn't even believe it, you know, ‘cause it was like, okay, you know, I didn't know I was up for it in the first place and then the whole circumstances about - about being told; like, I didn’t really believe it until, in a sense, the first - when things were announced publicly in the paper. ‘Cause the thought was like “that can’t be possible.”
So that whole process was super secretive. And then they were very, very, hands off. They were like “you can do anything you want with this.” It can go towards projects that involve your work. It can be - like, you can buy a car, you can do whatever you want with it. And I think they just watched what I did with it and left me alone, and just sent quarterly payments, you know, while the fellowship ran for five years. And at the end there wasn't, like, a report that I needed to make. The work was there, the evidence of what I had done was there. And they really - I mean, they get in touch a couple times a year just to, kind-of, let me know what they’re doing. And, you know, sometimes they ask me to have input on nominees that they’re thinking about, and stuff like that in the music world. But in general it’s extremely hands off, which is part of what’s amazing about it--because it’s really about the work, you know. They admire the work that these people have done. They give them money to do more of that work, or help them continue the work because - maybe it goes towards them getting, you know, a place to live so they don’t have to stress about that, you know, things like that
MB: I guess my last question is - I’m curious about - so when you work, say, with musicians that you haven't necessarily worked a lot with, or who are of differing backgrounds and things like that - and you have your compositions or your charts, let's say. How do you convey your instructions to improvisors? I know you've posted a few things on Instagram and social media, but I’m just curious about how you escape sort-of the tendency of, like, the contemporary classical world where everything is notated down to every expression, can you talk about that?
Ken Vandermark: Yeah, well one of the first things is that almost always I’m writing for musicians that I know. Like I’ve heard their work or I’ve collaborated with them before, and I have a sense of, let’s say, their creative personality, the kinds of things they like to go to as a player and then that allows me to kind of consider what music I would compose for them, or I might try to get them to do differently, that they wouldn't do if it were, let’s say, completely improvising. I kind of knock the music in different directions so to speak. So a big part of it--the compositional process--is actually the personel; not the instrumentation but the people involved. So that's huge. And then the second part is writing the material. I mean, that's a really good question in a sense because I'm interested in lots of different kinds of music. And writing for improvisors is a very different thing than, as you mention, like writing new music scores where almost everything--or as much as possible--is really notated. And there is expression involved, and interpretation involved, but it's more limited, the parameters are more narrow.
When writing for an improvisor, the implication is that at least half of the material is going to be realized by the improvisor themselves. So going back to, like, writers for this music that I admire really at the highest level, let’s say Duke Ellington. I mean, if you think of Duke Ellington’s music you think of those compositions, but you also cannot ignore the impact of Johnny Hodges, or Harry Carney, or, you know, any of the other musicians in the band who contributed as players or as an improvisor, and that’s fascinating to me; this combination of working that way. So, for example, in a band I have now, based in Chicago, called Marker, the drummer Phil Sudderberg is very different than Tim Daisy, who I’ve been playing with for years and years. And so when I'm thinking about that music I’m thinking, now, about the kinds of things that Phil does and gearing the music, in a rhythmic sense, towards things that Phil might want to do, and then maybe try things that Phil wouldn't expect to do, and kind of generate some tension that way, hopefully in a nice way but - you know a creative kind of tension going on. The same thing with the players--the people in the band--there's two guitars and they're very, very, very, different kinds of players. If they were both, let say - had a similar approach to the instrument: the same kind of technical tools; the same kind of vocabulary; it would be extremely boring to write for two guitars. But because it’s Steve Marquette and Andrew Clinkman, I’m writing for them not just the instrument. The instrument actually is secondary to the person playing it, in my case. So those factors, let’s say, are really key. The personality of the player, and then this dynamic between writing for them and what they're going to bring to the thing, not just interpreting the notated material but adding to it through their improvised sensibility.
KUZU— Cafe Coda — Saturday, March. 14, 2020 — 8pm
Interview date: 02/16/2020
MB: Where are you originally from, are you from Chicago originally?
Dave Rempis: I’m from just outside of Boston originally, actually.
MB: and what brought you to Chicago?
Dave Rempis: I came out here to go to Northwestern University in 1993, so yeah, I was in Boston ‘till the time I was 18 and then living in Chicago ever since.
MB: And your first entry onto the scene in Chicago; was it the Vandermark 5?
Dave Rempis: Yeah, I mean my first big entry. I was working in some other bands before that, like, when I was in college. And, you know, my first entry into the scene was kind-of like - I played in a - basically a jam band in college and we played at a local jazz club called The Bop Shop on--I think a monthly gig on Thursday nights--and started playing there. And, I mean I knew a lot of the people who were playing there already from having gone to see them. But that was kind-of my first real gig in the city on a regular basis, basically
MB: What was your playing like back in those days, has it changed much since then?
Dave Rempis: [Laughing] Man, that’s a good question. I’d probably have to go back and listen to some recordings to refresh my memory [Laughs]. Although I will say, you know, sometimes when you do that it is interesting what the similarities are in some ways. Your fingers are your fingers and they gravitate toward certain things, so I think some of those licks are still in there.
MB: You think your ears have changed somewhat over time?
Dave Rempis: Oh yeah, you know, my ears have definitely - my ears and my perspective and everything else has definitely changed significantly since that time. And, you know, I mean fuck it’s been what twenty - twenty-some years. I’ve done a lot more listening since then as well. So yeah, my ears are definitely different than what they were then.
MB: The band itself KUZU that you’re bringing to Madison: What is the origin of that band, who are Tashi and Tyler and where are they from?
Dave Rempis: Sure, so Tashi Dorji is a guitarist who is from Bhutan originally. And he moved to the United States to go to university in Asheville, like, I think around the late 90s or 2000. And he's been in Asheville ever since, working kind-of in the noise scene a lot. I mean he does a lot of solo stuff, he's been doing duos with like Mette Rasmussen and Thom Nguyen with their band Manas. And he's like opening up for like, you know, huge bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor and stuff like that. And we kind-of knew of each other for a while. And then I did a solo tour in 2017, where the whole point was to not just play a solo set everywhere I went, which was something I was working on, but also to work with, you know, local improvisers in all the different cities I went to. And so in Asheville it definitely made sense to do something with him just ‘cause, you know, we were kind-of like minded improvisers. So that was the first time we actually played together.
And then with Tyler, I met him about 5 years ago on a double bill in Lafayette, Indiana, at this great little dive bar called The Spot Tavern that's been doing concerts for quite a while now. And I had never heard of him before and - I mean I loved his set. He was playing a duo with a bass player and we just kind-of hit it off personally right away. And he started coming up to Chicago to work with different people like Mars Williams and a few other folks in town. So we would occasionally do things. And then Tashi and Tyler have a duo that’s been working for, like, about four years now. And when I heard that band--I heard their records--and I saw them live in Chicago--and that duo just, like, totally blew my mind. So, you know, that kind-of all happened in 2017 and it was like “okay we all need to play together,” basically. So we scheduled something for the fall of 2018, which is when we made our first record and did our first concert, basically.
MB: Does the name itself have any significance?
Dave Rempis: Man, it’s kind-of funny. So kuzu means hello in Tashi's native language, it's basically a greeting. It turns out it also means lamb in Turkish which is great because I'm Greek and I love lamb! And there’s also a radio station, as it turns out, in Texas called KUZU that plays a lot of, like, progressive experimental stuff. So it kind-of fit on a bunch of different levels.
MB: Are you getting a lot of airplay down there?
Dave Rempis: It think we are, actually [Laughs].
MB: That’s awesome. So is this a completely improvised group or do you play any compositions?
Dave Rempis: It’s completely improvised. You know, I would say that any band that’s completely improvised - I mean at least for me - I have a lot of different groups that are completely improvised bands, and I feel like what distinguishes one from the next is what that particular band sort of gravitates towards or what - like, what its strengths are or what its sound is. So this band for me, like, it really has kind-of a sound, and that certainly evolves over time, but it feels very cohesive and, you know, compositional in that sense.
MB: It seems like - I do this too - there are a lot of groups these days who are, you know, not in that typical quartet construction; where you’ve kind-of removed an element that would normally be found. Do you think this is, like, an intentional disruption or just - does it happen for another reason?
Dave Rempis: You mean just in terms of the lineup or the instrumentation?
MB: Yeah, like you guys don’t have a bass player, you know, that kind-of thing.
Dave Rempis: Right, I feel like the biggest thing to me in the music, as far as putting bands together, is really just the personalities of the people involved. I almost feel like the instrument choices are, like, secondary. I mean, I think you can make really beautiful music with any combination of instruments. And what kind-of - what kind-of stands out more to me is really the interaction between the people involved, if that makes sense. So, it so happens that, you know, this lineup is a little bit off from, say, what a typical jazz lineup would be. But I do think it is more based on the personalities than necessarily the instrumentation, if that makes sense.
That said, not having a bass player certainly like - it definitely changes things and in a very interesting way. I mean, there's - there's a certain amount of grounding that's missing in that low end area. But then Tashi like - his guitar sound - like, he does a lot of stuff that is very kind-of low-end-y. He can really create, like, this sort of low end rumble. Or he can be very soloistic, or, you know, like he - he really has this wide range of things that he's able to do that can play the role of several different instruments whether that be, say, guitar or piano or something in a jazz-setting that might be more cordial. Or, you know, bass. Something that's, like, just outlining things more or holding down things rhythmically in a different kind of way.
MB: I think even from the drums, having the low bass drum sound can even root things in a way, do you feel that too?
Dave Rempis: Oh yeah, definitely. And I think Tyler’s somebody who's very conscious of his - you know, his tuning and his sound - and, like, the frequency ranges and how that's all contributing to, you know - to fill out the sound of the ensemble.
MB: Can you talk a little bit about your approach to playing the saxophone, maybe? Can you share anything that you’re working on from a technical perspective, or interpretive, or artistic perspective?
Dave Rempis: Yeah, sure. I don't know, it's such a - it's such a common instrument there’re so many different ways to play it for one thing. And there's so many - there's so many just insane masters of the instrument--living and not living. in some ways it's, like, a daunting thing where I feel like you just have to, like, almost push all that outside of your head, to be able to actually be focusing in on what you're doing, you know. For me - I mean, I feel like, you know, the big touchstones are things that aren't that unpredictable all the - all the great saxophone players from Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins, and Sidney Bechet, up through Evan Parker and Peter Brotzmann. And, you know, I mean there's - I feel like all that incredible span of people all contributed different parts to the overall language of the instrument. Outside of that, I mean I've always been really interested in - like, I grew up in a Greek family and grew up around Greek music and, I mean, that's really what kind-of inspired me in the first place to pick up a woodwind instrument—was sort of being around that music as a kid and being really inspired by it. And so, you know, the tonalities, timbres, and modes of, you know, Greece and Turkey in the Middle East have always had a pretty big impact on me. I also studied anthropology and ethnomusicology in college. I was really lucky to be able to go to Africa to Ghana for a year to study there. And so I feel like a lot of those different things of various folk music traditions from around the world, but particularly Greece in the Middle East, and in West Africa, really helped inspire some of the things that I do on the instrument, basically.
MB: You have your own record label Aerophonic records, and it seems to have a really impressive design consistency among the various releases.
Dave Rempis: Yeah, thanks.
MB: Obviously that’s a conscious thing. Can you talk about that a little bit and also, like, do you have distribution, you know, and is there a model that you sort of followed in developing your own label?
Dave Rempis: Yeah, Yeah. So the reason I did it in the first place was basically because - I was working with various labels at the time and they're all great and everyone who runs them are, like, truly fantastic people who are totally dedicated to the music. And, you know, some of them gave me the opportunity to put out my first record, and they're fantastic. But in terms of what I was working on, there was just way more stuff that I wanted to get out there than I could really find labels to do, you know. I mean, if I was working with other people's labels I could probably put out a couple records a year. With Aerophonic, since that started in 2013, I’m now on my twenty-fifth record, 26 and 27 will be out in the spring. So, basically, within seven years I've been able to average about four records a year. So, you know, I'm able to get just more stuff out there, basically, which is really great. So that was kind-of, I’d say, the first impetus for starting a label.
At this point, I mean, it's still artist-run. It's just me; I don't have any staff or anything. And I’m working on, you know, the manufacturing, the mastering, the mixing. I don’t do the graphic design. I'm very lucky to have a friend who's a professional graphic designer who has been with the label since the beginning [Jonathan Crawford]. We really workshopped, or discussed the idea of what the look of the label would be. I mean, I've always liked recognizable labels--whether it be, like, Black Saint or Hat Art or whatever it might be--that, like, when you see that record you know it's from that label, which is great. Now, that said, I don't always like the templates they use necessarily. And so part of our discussion was the idea of coming up with something that was, like, a bit more flexible in terms color, in terms of palette, in terms of the look of it. [But] that they would still be, like, recognizable that it was from this label, basically.
So that was kind-of the inspiration behind the design concept. And I'm really lucky that I'm still working with the same graphic designer since the beginning. And that he - you know, we're both on the same page. We work together really efficiently. So that’s all really great, and in terms of getting stuff out there; yeah, I mean, it’s really just me, and it's really just - the distribution I have is basically mailing stuff to people who order directly online. I sell to about eight or nine retailers around the world. There’s, you know, like, about, at this point, three in the states, three or four in Europe, one in Japan, and one in Australia. So, you know, pretty much everything is direct. There’s - unfortunately not that many brick-and-mortar stores out there anymore. And many of them that are out there are selling, like, you know, used stuff as opposed to new stuff. So, you know, it's basically me hitting all those folks up, making sure they know about the new releases, mailing everything from home, and then carrying stuff around in my suitcase on tour, basically. I mean - and I feel like that's one of the things that actually kind-of keeps the label running, as opposed to lot of other labels that have folded, is that, you know, because I'm one of the artists on the label, like, you know, sales that I do myself, or on tour, like, help continue the label. Whereas for other labels, who are just giving product to, you know, artists as--essentially--their payment, they're not getting any of the proceeds from that. So it makes it really kind-of difficult to just sustain a label when that's the case. Because, I mean, I can say for me, myself, like, a third to half of my sales are basically at concerts, you know.
MB: Would you be selling the same kind of volume on a different label as you would running your own label?
Dave Rempis: I don't think so, no. I mean, I feel like it depends on the label. I mean, there are a few labels out there now there are really putting some effort into, you know, promoting stuff and - and getting stuff out there, and working with their artists to get, you know, concerts and higher profile playing opportunities. But I’d say the majority of labels in this, you know, music are generally smaller run labels that are basically doing the manufacturing and putting it up for sale. But they're generally not doing that much promotional work. So, you know, I feel like having that kind of control over all of that just makes sense for me as an artist that’s already communicating with my fans. It just kind-of makes it like a one-stop-shop to find out anything about, like, what I'm doing, where I'm playing, what my recordings are. So all of that kind-of gets out there to the people who actually care about it.
And, really, one of the most rewarding things about the label has been the fact that I actually communicate directly with people who've been buying my music for years who I didn't know before, you know. I mean, a guy, you know, in Germany who's bought every recording of mine since 2000, or whatever, you know, now is buying everything directly from me. We chat. I see him at concerts when I'm over there, you know. You really build up a really nice rapport with people, which is great. I mean, it just feels like a much more personal connection, which is - you know, it's really how this music runs. I mean, you know, we're talking about sales in the hundreds, not like records that are selling 20,000 copies and so - you know, it's kind-of a boutique world of stuff. And I feel like cultivating those types of personal relationships with folks is really important.
MB: Last time we spoke which, I was trying to remember - and I’m ashamed to say that it could have been as long as 10 years ago.
Dave Rempis: Oh wow, okay, yeah, yeah.
MB: You were here with Frank Rosaly doing a duo show.
Dave Rempis: Oh that’s right! yeah, totally.
MB: We may have spoken in the interim, But I just can’t remember [Laughing].
Dave Rempis: Right. I was actually trying to remember too. ‘Cause I mean I remember chatting with you but I couldn’t remember when the last time it was.
MB: Anyway, in one of our conversations you mentioned that you were supplementing as a bartender when you’re not on the road. Is that still the case?
Dave Rempis: No, I kind-of went from that - I mean I worked as a bartender for a large concert promoter in Chicago called Jam Productions that owned several concert venues, like, large concert venues, you know like 1000 to 3000 people sized venues. And I went from there to working for Pitchfork Music Festival. The first year I did that I ran their concessions operation, and from there I went on to, basically, be business manager of the festival for 12 years. And I left that in 2016, and then started working for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival here in Chicago as operations manager, which is a smaller gig than the Pitchfork gig, you know--much more part-time basically--but, kind-of way more aligned with what I'm interested in personally. And, you know, I've also been working with Elastic Arts here in Chicago for many years. And, I mean, that's strictly a volunteer thing, but, like, curating a jazz series - a weekly series since 2002 over there, and working as board president for, like, the last five years. So, you know, those are the kind of things that fill up my time when I’m not focused on, you know, my own playing--music stuff.
MB: Dave it’s great to talk to you, thanks so much for taking the time
Dave Rempis: Yeah absolutely, thank you. I'm excited to be in Madison, I mean, Cafe Coda is run by a couple of friends who - who I've known through their involvement with the Elastic Arts here in Chicago for many years. So I was really excited to see that, you know, BlueStem Jazz has turned into a not-for-profit now. I'm really excited about playing at Cafe Coda. I mean just the momentum that seems to be happening in Madison, in terms of this music right now, is so great. ‘cause it's - you know it’s not a far drive from Chicago, and there was a long period of time where there wasn't really a place to - for me to play there. And now I feel like, man, it just seems to have exploded in the last 3-4 years to the point where there's so many great things happening there and I’m very excited to be a part of it.
Reverso — Audio for the Arts — Wednesday, March 4, 2020 — 8pm
Ryan Keberle - Trombone
Frank Woeste - Piano (Fabian Almazan - Piano on 03/04)
Vincent Courtois - Cello
Interview data: 02/12/2020
MB: Could you give me just a brief bio of each of the guys in Reverso?
Ryan: I'll give you a little background on the group and then the bio. Which is - the group performing in Madison is a slight variation on the original - so the original group was formed, I want to say, around five years ago. A pianist based in Paris named Frank Woeste, he and I met on a recording session with Dave Douglas. Dave was doing a recording for subscribers on his record label--on which I record with my other group Catharsis--and for which Dave and Frank also did a record, so we were on the same session. And Frank and I met and got to talking, and I was checking out his music of the time--really loved his compositional style and just kind-of his approach to music making--and I think he felt kind-of similarly about my stuff, so we started talking and wound up applying for this grant called the French American Exchange Grant, and we got it. It's a pretty - it was a pretty hefty award. So I went to Paris, we recorded in Frank’s Studio--he has like a really beautiful state-of-the-art recording studio in his house. He is really hooked up.
We used a portion of the money to hire Jeff Ballard, who was living in Paris at the time, and we recorded this album called Sweet Ravel. And it was all original music inspired by a piece that Revell wrote called Le Tombeau de Couperin. And it was just kind-of a real meeting-of-the-minds. Frank and I both have a long history with classical music, in kind-of another musical life. And those experiences influenced, you know, our current approach working in a more traditional jazz setting--I think both compositionally and in terms of how we approach our instruments. So there was that. And I think we also have a lot of similar tastes, just in terms of current jazz trends, he and I are both huge Brad Mehldau fans, and I think it was a lot of shared interests, so it just worked really well. I mean, those kinds of grant projects often times come and go, but this one stuck, and we did a ton of touring both in Europe and here in the US, and got to talking last year--we had a few free days in Paris in the midst of a tour--and decided to do another record. So we did a second record and this time we did it just as a trio without drums, for a number of reasons.
It was partly just logistics, you know, it was getting to be a little bit expensive to have four people if we didn’t feel it was absolutely necessary given the amount of touring we were doing. And also we were finding - we were having a lot of success - especially here in the US - targeting chamber music and classical music venues who are, often times, looking for more crossover groups and looking to connect with different audience tastes and backgrounds, so we wanted to explore that. And the one thing we found with these classical music series was every time they saw the drum set on the rider they would kind-of freak out a little bit, you know, it's like “we see the connections, but there's a drum set for god’s sake, how can this be classical music!” You know, so we thought we’d kinda just continue to pursue that road. And without the drums this new record that we’re releasing--this Friday actually [Feb., 14, 2020]--is, I think - I mean from my perspective, aesthetically speaking, a classical music album. I mean it’s trombone, cello, and piano, it sounds like some kind-of piano trio hybrid instrumentation, but of course it's all original music by Frank and I. It's heavily improvised, still all the same kind-of - it’s still the same music he and I always make. I don't think I personally feel like I've changed anything in terms of my approach, it just happens to kind-of have this kind-of classical sound, especially without the drums, and also without the bass. From the beginning without that bass it kind-of changed things up a bit in terms of our instrumental roles.
So that record’s coming out--we’re super proud of it. We kind-of continue down that - Reverso the whole name of the band - the concept of the band is this idea of looking at the kind-of reverse influences that the jazz and classical world have on each other - both in terms of, historically speaking, with the way that Ellington was being influenced by Ravel and then was similarly influencing, you know, Stravinsky and other - other European, Western European composers and many examples of that. And I think still to this day there's a lot of shared influences there, and I think even more so now you have a lot of musicians who were - who are actively performing in both classical or new music worlds and jazz worlds. So the group is kind-of looking to - to highlight those trends and to use those trends in our music making. So this album, kind-of following that trajectory, is all music influenced by this group of composers in early 20th century Paris called Les Six. And that included a few that a lot of jazz musicians know like Darius Milhaud, who was Dave Brubeck's composition teacher, who settled in the Bay area later in his life. And to Francis Poulenc, and then some lesser known composers including the sole female member of the group named Germaine Tailleferre. And actually all the compositions I wrote--that I contributed for this album--were influenced by her and her music.
So we have a new album out it's now just a trio, same cellist as was on the first record, his name is Vincent Courtois and he is, in Europe, considered to be one of the foremost, if not the foremost improvising cellist in the jazz world. He has his own projects that tour around Europe regularly and play major jazz festivals; ECM recording artist and what not. This actually will be his first appearance with us here in the US, we just finally got him a work visa, so that's super exciting. I'm excited to have US audiences hear him play because he is a force of nature on the instrument; just an incredible virtuosic cellist. But also with the kind-of improvisational creative streak that, you know, you're great jazz musicians tend to have, so that's really exciting. And then I mentioned that the iteration is a little bit different in Madison. For a few of our our tour dates were going to be joined by another phenomenal pianist based in New York named Fabian Almazan, and I'm sure you and your - your readers or audience members probably know of, he’ll be filling in for Frank. Frank is the music director for a major jazz star in Europe named Ibrahim Maalouf. And something came up he just couldn't turn down, so he's missing a few dates. But yeah we're super fortunate that Fabian could join us. He's one of my favorite pianists of our generation for sure--incredible music--has his own label called Biophilia--really just doing amazing things in every way. He's best known for, these days, for his work with the Terence Blanchard Ensemble - has been playing with him for 10 years, but does a lot of really interesting things, incredible pianist. And so that's - that's going to be fun. We’ve never actually performed a gig where Frank and I weren’t both on the gig, since we’re co-leaders and kind-of co-creators, so I'm excited, actually. We’re doing a number of gigs with Fabian--the Madison gig won’t be the first. It’s certainly going to go in different directions but it'll sure be equally kind-of enjoyable. So that's basically the group in a nutshell--the history and a little bit on the three musicians that will be there in Madison.
MB: Is Vincent also based in France?
Ryan: He is. He is a born-and-bred Parisian. He is about the most Parisian of people I've ever met in the best of ways, is classic, classic Parisian Frenchman. And actually he doesn't play in the US that often but he released an album with - he’s got a really cool group that’s cello and two tenor saxophones and they released another album this past - I want to say late spring, early summer, and did a pretty significant tour on the west coast. So he has been here recently but certainly not that often - that was the first time he’s been here in quite some time so - and of course the work visa’s like the major obstacle for all these guys. We were able to get one for Frank a couple years ago. But that’s, you know, an incredibly tedious and expensive process to do. But we got it and I'm looking forward not only to this tour with Vincent but hopefully to some more before the three-year visa expires down the road.
MB: Can you talk a little bit about - especially when you're improvising - the difference in the vocabularies maybe that exist sort-of between the jazz idiom and the 20th century classical idiom? Do you combine those vocabularies intentionally or - do you feel there is a distinction or is there a sort of a seamlessness between the two?
Ryan: That’s a great question. It’s something I’ve certainly thought about over the years improvising within these more classically kind-of set pieces. But I will say, for me, my approach to improvisation, I think, works well for the setting here, where - where I certainly wouldn't want to bring in a traditional jazz vocabulary, you know, quoting the bebop language or Kurt Rosenwinkel language. I mean it would feel out of place, just aesthetically speaking, it would definitely feel out of place. For me, you know, one of the big things that I've always kind-of thought about when I'm improvising, and certainly something I do with my students - I'm a - I'm an active teacher and professor at a university here in New York, and been teaching improvising--or trying to teach improvisation--for a really long time, basically my whole adult life. My father is a jazz educator as well, so it kind-of runs deep. And it's - it's obviously an incredibly challenging thing to teach. It's a relatively new kind-of subject and concept, and everyone is still trying to figure it out. But one of the things I, oftentimes, have my students do--especially those students without a significant jazz background--is get them to improvise using the languages that they are familiar with. Whether it's a guitarist using the language of Van Halen or, you know, a trombonist using the language of, like, Rousseau etudes, whatever it might be. Getting people to realize that the act of improvisation isn't just about the language because, of course, that is, in many ways, the most overwhelming part of becoming a jazz musician is to master that language and become fluent in it.
But the act of improvisation is a separate creative process all together. And so for me - and I really - and I think this might also stem from the kind-of ridiculous amount of time I spent playing in big bands over the years as well, or playing other people's music, is I'm always trying to channel the musical setting and musical character of the piece at that moment, when I'm taking solo. So with that approach, for me personally, I don't find there to be too many issues improvising in this more classical setting, as opposed to a jazz setting. I do have to, from time to time, kind-of catch myself if I'm about to jump into some, like, bebop lick or something, you know, but over the years that's become less and less frequent I think. But yeah, I mean it's an interesting thing to think about. I would be curious to hear Frank’s answer, it’s something I’ll have to ask him when we're on the road - it's - it's definitely something, you know, that I’ve thought about because it isn’t totally seamless and certainly for someone who is used to speaking a more traditional jazz language, I think they might find it difficult, on some level, to blow over some of these - these improvising sections that we've created in Reverso.
MB: I could see that definitely being, I don't know, not problematic, but certainly difficult for inexperienced improvisers.
Ryan: Yeah, or just someone who - it could be someone who’s super experienced, but just with one particular genre, you know, and that definitely is a significant segment of our jazz world. And nothing wrong with that at all, but for me personally, and I - I see this as a trend maybe throughout our generation and especially New York where there are so many different experiences being brought to the table. You know, everyone is trying to expand the vocabulary, even if it's not a conscious effort, I think. Really the great improvisers of our day are people who have almost transcended genre with their vocabulary, whether it's through some kind-of rhythmic genius, or through some kind-of just utterly unique harmonic approach. It - you know, many of the people who we kind-of hold up in - in high regard these days as improvisers, I'm thinking like Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch, Miguel Zenon, Joe Lovano, they all kind-of have such unique languages that they really do kind-of transcend genre. They're able to function in almost any setting, you know.
MB: In two of my ensembles I feature the trombone prominently and, in fact, my son is a trombone player. But for those who don’t have so much trombone in their lives, tell us what are the intrinsic properties of the trombone either that, you know, you were attracted to as an artist or how - how it captures the music that you're trying to play.
Ryan: Well, I think the trombone is one of those instruments that brings out a love-hate relationship in its practitioners because the trombone is inherently cumbersome and really not built for the modern jazz language in terms of the higher-faster-louder kind-of approach that - that you oftentimes hear. Or even - I mean it’s really not anything new, even the bebop language itself is predicated on a very small subdivision--16th note-based lines--lots of notes, fast notes, very virtuosic playing. It’s just not easy to do that on trombone. It is definitely one of the most difficult instruments to translate a modern jazz vernacular to. But with that being said, I mean, that's kind-of been the story of the jazz trombone over the last 60 years is: every generation, people just keep getting closer and closer, and of our generation people are doing things on the trombone that, you know, even maybe, say, some trumpet player, or saxophone player might not be able to do. I mean they're - there are true virtuosos out there who have completely broken down those walls, but it's certainly not the norm.
On the flip side there are things the trombone can do that - that really very few other instruments can do, because of the slide and how that allows us to create these glissandos, from one note to the next, that really only string instruments and the human voice are capable of. And for me, I mean, I am a real student of the history of our music and, you know, the first great improviser, Louis Armstrong, was really just playing on the trumpet what he sang. And I think you can trace back, really the majority of our language, to instrumentalists just, basically, trying to be as expressive as what their vocal counterparts were able to do. And, you know, when you're playing piano that is really difficult to do, like a piano is such a - such a rigid, codified instrument. When trying to mimic a vocalist, like, forget about it. but the trombone - we're really fortunate we’re able to - it’s a very expressive instrument. And for me, I've always been torn between those two worlds of trying to become more virtuosic in my language just because, I think generally speaking the jazz language has become more virtuosic, but also I've - I really love that expressive quality, and I love the history of our instrument, and the players throughout history who have embraced the more expressive side of our instrument. So, you know, I think for me I as - as a younger person that oftentimes did create this kind-of love-hate relationship, and lots of frustrating moments in the practice room.
But I would say, over the last few years, I kind-of just - whether I've come to grips, or maybe I’ve just kind-of gotten to a point where the technical demands are not quite so frustrating for me, I'm not sure what it is, but I feel like I've found a balance between those two worlds. And I think that maybe, more than any other musical setting, Reverso allows me to express that, because, really, when you think about chamber music--classical chamber music--it is some of the most expressive music making you'll find especially - well I was going to say especial as an ensemble - but also individually. But, you know, there's this idea of a - where even tempo isn’t necessarily - isn't even necessarily set in stone. Where even tempo, with a chamber music that kind-of breathes and plays together, can bend all the rules and can really create their own, you know, ensemble expression within a - within a piece of music. And so we try to do that in Reverso. And I think in my own soloing I, kind-of, channel that as well--just a very expressive, very dramatic style of playing. And I think the trombone and cello both are perfectly suited for that type of music making.
MB: Yeah, they do seem, to me, to have timbral consistencies, or something, between those instruments.
Ryan: Big time. Big time. I tell most people I’m doing interviews with for the project that one of my favorite things to do as a composer is just write unison lines for the cello and trombone, because there’s really nothing better than just hearing those two instruments play the same melody the same rhythm because - it's crazy. Usually, you know, when you take orchestration classes you’re taught to try to find resonant intervals and when you're trying to create a sound larger than the individual parts you want to think a lot about register and resonance. But with the trombone and cello it’s, like, you can't go wrong. They can literally play the same note, and in any register, and the whole room just starts to buzz with resonance. It's really - it's incredible, it's super fun. So the listeners will definitely hear a lot of that. But the coolest thing about Reverso is, without the bass, and now especially without the drums, all three of our roles are completely interchangeable. I'll be playing - and I think just the roles themselves are maybe blurred because of the classical influence - but I'll be playing what is effectively a baseline at one moment, Vincent might be carrying the melody on the cello and the next thing you know, you know, Frank is playing some kind-of like ostinato pattern kind-of filling in for the drums. Meanwhile, I'm up in the upper register playing a melody, and Vincent's holding down the bass. Like, it can go anywhere so it's - it's been really fun to explore. I feel like we really just scratched the surface.
MB: Actually, yeah, that does seem conceptually very interesting. I mean lots of groups that you see these days will sort-of be eliminating parts of the traditional, say, quartet or whatever, and I always wonder if it's sort-of an intentional disruption, or is it in search of a certain sound or expression. I guess we’ll find out, really!
Ryan: [Laughs] Yeah, I mean, I think, well certainly - in the case of our group part of it was logistics. Part of it is - I think, oftentimes - maybe more than anything, is oftentimes personnel. And it’s like you get the right personnel, nowadays with master jazz musicians, it really doesn't matter what instruments are onstage, you know, it's like “great music will be made” and it's fun to kind-of - almost in an experiment like setting - just kind-of see what happens. And we've been really, really happy with the results, even without the drums. I mean there are certain songs from our previous record that we just won't play anymore because we don't have the drums. That is what it is, but there are other songs that we continue to play, in that we're discovering new directions and new possibilities without there being a drummer in the band.
MB: It’s almost like you get the right voices in the right place at the right time--you can't go wrong.
Ryan: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I love that because that’s really more of an arranging, or orchestrational, you know, approach and that's really one of my - my loves beyond composition and trombone playing. I love - I love the art of arranging. You know, having played so many big band gigs with Maria Schneider, and playing the music of Gil Evans and Duke Ellington--those are really my formative experiences--and still to this day are some highlights of my musical career. And there's something about playing perfectly orchestrated, or perfectly arranged-constructed music that for me I - I just - I really - I really get a lot out of that.
MB: So from Spokane in eastern Washington, to Manhattan School of Music--and now I guess 20 years in New York City--how did you navigate this? Did you have champions along the way or - I mean granted talent, of course - or was it champions along the way, or was it grit and force of will?
Ryan: [Laughs] I think everyone who has lasted in New York for 20 years, regardless of the profession, definitely has a certain amount of force of will, because it is not an easy place to live - to live your life, that's for sure. But no, I was really, really lucky over the years. I think in terms of the musical story, one of the things that really allowed me to last - it's really just about longevity in New York - it takes - I tell my students it takes at least ten years to really be established, and be doing the things that you set out to do. But ten years living in a - in a city where, you know, rents are well over $2,000 a month now for a one-bedroom apartment, like, that's just hard to do. So you just got to figure out a way to survive and last long enough. And so, for me, I think it was all about versatility, not only on the trombone and playing orchestra gigs one night, and playing a Broadway show the next, and subbing on SNL the next day, and then doing a tour to Colombia with a Latin band the next week. I mean, truly playing almost every kind of music you can possibly think about, it all exists in New York.
But also, I'm a piano player and a violin player--as a younger person I was a very active violin player--and the gig that really got me through those hardest years, financially speaking, you know, right out of school - very little work - was playing piano and singing at a Catholic Church in lower Manhattan. It was a full-time gig, you know. I was down there every Sunday morning at 6:30 a.m. and would play three english masses and a spanish mass--I didn’t speak Spanish at all, you know. In fact, I wasn’t even catholic. I had to learn the whole liturgy, I mean, it was a serious crash course. But that really paid my bills for, like, seven or eight years. And it allowed me to survive and last and just continue to develop that network that would eventually lead to more opportunities in the jazz world. So, I think, the versatility was key for me, but I also had enormous fortune to meet some incredible mentors along the way.
And the first was David Berger; incredible Duke Ellington scholar and great composer, arranger and he has had a big band for most of his adult life I - probably 50 years now, off and on. And when I joined the band people like Jerry Dodgion, the original alto saxophonist with Thad Jones / Mel Lewis orchestra, was in the band. I mean that was where I was learning how to play this music, way more than any kind of university setting. Bob Millikan on lead trumpet, Jimmy - the drummer was the guy that played with Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra - Jimmy, I’m having a mind fart right now I’ll think of it in a second [Jimmy Madison]. But the best: Denis Irwin on bass.
I sat right next to Denis Irwin for over ten years on a regular basis, just swinging, you know, and man talk about an education. So, you know, that was a huge, huge break. I mean, it wasn't paying the bills, but meeting people and just getting the real education: the language from the source is an experience I wouldn't trade for anything. Other mentors and kind-of Champions: another big one for me was Lenny Pickett in the SNL band I - very, very early on, had the opportunity to sub for Steve Turre and got to know Lenny. And since then I've been the regular sub in that band for like 15 years now, and Lenny has been one of the few people in my life who will really give me honest, harsh criticism and feedback if I asked for it, you know. He's just a real straight-shooter and has been a real mentor over the years and inspiration. And then, certainly, last but not least, the great Maria Schneider. And that was kind-of my first, like, big gig--regular gig--and that was almost 14 years ago now. And really, ever since then she's been, not to make her sound old, but almost like some kind-of motherly figure to me. I mean, really, you know, my parents live in eastern Washington, I see them like once a year, you know. Maria is just, on every level, both personally, certainly on a musical level, as a band leader as a composer, as an arranger, I really owe maybe more to her than anyone on every level. She is just an incredible inspiration for me and someone I still count as an inspiration, a mentor, and very good friend these days. So yeah, I mean it's like, really, just without those people, I definitely wouldn't be here talking to you now.
MB: You mentioned that you’re a professor, where do you teach?
Ryan: Yeah, I’m a part of the CUNY university system, and there are well over 20, four-year and two-year schools under that umbrella, some really great schools. The university I teach at is called Hunter College and it's a four-year public university on the upper east side, and one of the strongest liberal arts kind-of academic universities within the CUNY system, so we get a lot of very bright kids--very motivated kids. Most of our kids are first- or maybe second-generation of their families to ever go to college. Many of them are first- or second-generation immigrants to this country. So needless to say, incredibly hard workers. Many of them are paying their own ways through college. So it's a very different environment than my college experience, which was at conservatories, and, you know, a lot of the kids just, like, had no idea how good they had it--definitely a little bit - little bit spoiled and entitled. So to work with kids like this at Hunter, is just - it's really almost easy, in a way, because there’re very few issues you have to deal with. Everyone wants to be there, everyone wants to learn. It's been a great place, and I've been there a long time. I started as a part-time adjunct teacher and I've been full-time for, I guess, eight or nine years now. I've been - this is my 16th year at Hunter.
And we’ve built a little jazz program, and it's small but it's mighty. We have some really - really strong small groups and some great faculty. Of course, being a New York we always have some really great private teachers and part-time educators for some of our other jazz related classes. So it's been a great place for me and especially, like I said, I come from a music education family, even my grandparents were music educators, so it's always kind-of run in the family and something that I think I have an affinity for. And it's been a good place for me to kind-of develop, as I mentioned, this jazz pedagogy because I feel like there's so much more to learn in terms of best practices when it comes to teaching jazz--especially when it comes to teaching improvisation and the language. So it's been a really - has been a really great place for me to kind-of workshop that. And a lot of the touring that I do both with reverso and also my other project Catharsis is supplemented by workshops. Wherever we are, we’ll do workshops at local universities, so between those two - those kind-of two parts of my life, I definitely spend a lot of time thinking about, you know, how we're going to carry this music on to the next generation in the most authentic form possible.
MB: Do you have any workshops scheduled in the Madison area?
Ryan: Unfortunately we don’t. I would have loved to, it just didn't work out. I don't have many contacts--personal contacts--I certainly reached out to all the local educators, just nothing came of it. We've done things in Wisconsin. I don't think I mentioned but both sides of my family are from Wausau, Wisconsin. My mom's parents were music educators. My grandpa was the local band director, my grandma was the local choir director. So deep, deep roots in Wisconsin. I’m there all the time, like, at least a couple times a year. Big Packer family - go to a Packer game at least once a year. So I have done a lot of stuff in Wisconsin over the years. We did a residency with my group Catharsis at UW Stevens Point a couple years ago, and yeah we've definitely done things in the Wisconsin area but unfortunately nothing this time in the Madison area.
MB: We’ll have to keep that on the radar maybe for the next time you come through.
Ryan: Yeah, I would love to, always down.
Friends & Neighbors — Audio for the Arts — Friday, Feb. 28, 2020 — 8pm
Sponsored by SONS OF NORWAY
Interview data: 02/14/2020
MB: Am I reaching you in Os today?
Tollef: That's correct.
MB: And Os is, say, 200 kilometers from Trondheim.
Tollef: Yeah, roughly, like a little bit less, and it's two and a half hours from Trondheim.
MB: And it’s about 400km to Oslo.
MB: So do you find yourself traveling all the time to play?
Tollef: I would say that sort-of is the correct thing to say, and I think that's the case for most Norweigen musicians, wherever they live in a way. It's a small country with large distances. Also the population is only 5 million. So it’s a natural consequence of that; people have to travel to play and collaborate with others.
MB: Norway has a fairly robust transit system. Are you able to use transit, or do you have to drive yourself?
Tollef: No I rarely use a car, It’s either the train, or plane, or bus.
MB: So when you're playing domestically in Norway, you find the places have drums and pianos and so on?
Tollef: Yeah I think the infrastructure -- the last at least, the last 20 years -- has sort-of become to a certain standard, or, if not, also you know people in the big cities so if the venue doesn’t have any equipment it’s easy to borrow. But usually the jazz clubs have okay drums, in most cases okay piano.
MB: And when you come to the states how do you travel?
Tollef: We travel by car. We've been checking out many options, but time and time again we come back to the rental car option.
MB: There’s almost no other way to do it.
Tollef: Yeah, yeah. We played in Chicago once, I think the first time we were there, and we were going to Detroit. I remember checking all the train options. Yeah, car was not half the price, but almost.
MB: Plus the time involved. The transit system in the US, especially train, is circuitous.
Tollef: Yeah, it seems like it's based a lot on the layout of the cities and infrastructure. And it’s based upon people having to drive, maybe, I don’t know, how it looks to a tourist or a musician that’s sort-of the impression. Of course the big cities have good public transportation. That’s not always the case in Norway either but I would say the traveling in between cities here is very easy.
MB: In the US, certainly, even at a high-level, most folks in this field are supplementing. They're playing and doing other types of work, or teaching. Is it similar for you?
Tollef: Yeah, I think it’s - maybe the percentage part of the income that comes from playing is a little bit higher, but most people - most jazz musicians I know -- maybe at least half of them maybe less, maybe more -- have either a main job or a complimentary job. Most of times it seems to me like it's teaching. For me last night, this night, I worked the night shift in a home for kids with disabilities. So I went to bed 7 a.m. this morning. So that's my side gig at the moment. It would be like 20% or something.
MB: Well, at least the schedule is consistent with music.
Tollef: Yeah, but I think it’s - for me - or I could also teach once a week instead, but it’s a bit more flexible to put yourself available for a night shift in this case and to work something different. And also it's a nice balance to do something else, maybe. It feels like a good balance you - you are always hungry for the music stuff when you get to do that. And I also do a lot of other - I have a couple of like, what do you call it, in a couple of boards - Union stuff. And maybe I have like one month's income of different administrative things related to culture. So I have a lot of different stuff going on, but I don’t know, maybe sixty, seventy percent playing of the income. Probably hundred and fifty percent of the time [Laughing].
MB: [Laughs, knowingly]
Tollef: So that’s fairly similar to all other places in the world, I think. So we don’t have to work a lot, but it’s passion and lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle, I would say. But if you asked a random Norweigen jazz musician “what is your - do you have a sidegig?” - most people would say yes. The big names, of course, doesn’t have that. But I would say it's more common than uncommon. So there are possible ways to - music is subsidized in some ways. The venues have some sort-of public support, in many cases, and the fees are maybe a little bit higher. But you also have to think about that the cost of living is also higher, so it feels like it's quite similar to many other countries just like, yeah, that’s my impression. I know also it's - it's a well functioning system in many ways. We have a lot of good festivals and promoters. And a very robust jazz organization; it’s called the Norweigen Jazzforum. And that works politically towards politicians to make them see the point of supporting culture. So I would say the organized cultural life in Norway is quite good. It’s a strong musician’s union that also supports freelance musicians as much as those playing in the symphony orchestra.
MB: I know some Europeans get tour support or grants from their governments to do tours in the states. Does Norway do a similar thing?
Tollef: Yeah, for instance this tour would not be possible if we didn't have any form of travel support. So, it’s sort-of a gamble. You have to book the gigs before you know - often you have to book the gigs before you know the financial situation in terms of support. So it’s always a gamble. That said, I think it's also getting harder. For me, the impression is it's harder to get support to do stuff outside of Norway, for some reason. Or if you're playing with Norwegians in Norway it feels a little bit easier than if you play with a multinational group outside of Norway. I think that has to do with the - it's a lot of cuts been coming to the foreign ministry part.
It's not the cultural budget, it's a different budget -- and we have a right-wing government at the moment, for six years now. Yeah, it's been a lot of cuts but we have the musician’s union and jazz organisations - it’s been quite sort-of strong, and trying to prevent and reverse those cuts. Part of the music export support goes through the foreign ministry budget, not all of it but parts of it. And that is sort-of easier to sort-of “Ah! We don’t need this” So it’s easier to sort-of keep the politicians focus on the cultural budget because they know what they’re talking about. It’s quite clear in a way. But culture spans across many parts of the government, like education, foreign ministry, and partly health care. And then we have a separate culture budget. It’s sort-of complicated, but sort-of not complicated.
MB: It’s always complicated.
Tollef: But I find if I travel in the states with only musicians, it’s hard to get anything at the moment.
MB: In terms of this band, and yourself too, what influences are the most important?
Tollef: I mean the name states some influence in a way. There is an Ornette Coleman reference, but I would say the way we think about it is much more than that. It comes from a quite clearly free jazz aesthetical reference, in many ways. But we love so much different styles of music within the band so it's hard to pinpoint one thing. It's some of what you call free jazz and contemporary music. It's a lot of stuff, but I think that the band’s sound acoustic - traditional playing acoustic instruments the way we [do] is sort-of a clear free jazz school reference in that matter, I would say more than a contemporary way of interacting with each other. but I don’t try to sort-of label the playing that way but I guess it’s sort-of free jazz, you could also say avant-garde, modern, yeah whatever.
MB: Right, there seems to be as much time based playing as not.
Tollef: Yeah, and we don't - we don't have any like, not rules but - a song can be beautiful with harmonies and the next thing you can be like an eclectic free impro stretch. It's not that dogmatic. We are open to a lot of things - the possibilities of this band can stretch to, like, an ultimately broad spectrum of music. And we don't talk so much about it, it's just like it - it comes natural. “Hey, this song didn’t work so well” so we take this one instead. So I think it's a lot of unspoken common knowledge and references, maybe that’s a good way of putting it.
MB: Friends and Neighbors formed about 11 years ago in Trondheim.
Tollef: Yeah, late 2008 and we were a quartet first and then the piano player joined in 2010, I think.
MB: And for most of that time has the lineup been consistent throughout?
Tollef: Yeah we had a couple of subs for a couple of tours, but yeah it’s been the same lineup, yeah.
MB: So do you feel like you’ve evolved together in this group?
Tollef: Yeah, that’s the interesting - we’ve sort-of grown up musically together. Three of us, André on saxophone and Jon Rune on bass, and me, we met already - it’s sort-of - In Norway it’s often common that you do something called “folk high school” the year before - it's like a pre-university year. So we met already there, so we’ve been in class for five years. And we’ve sort-of watched each other grow in many different ways and take many turns through many different parts of the jazz tradition. It’s sort-of interesting to look back in at the path we sort-of crossed. We go a little bit back and forth and we’ve grown together, and we are so similar but also so different. So I would say there is a strong social thing sort-of binding the group together. We really appreciate each other's artistic differences, I would say that’s one of the strong sides in the band’s point of view.
MB: This next question is probably poorly formed but I'm just kind of curious about sort-of being a Norwegian group and being influenced by American jazz, a music that originated in the African-American community in the U.S. Do you feel there's a geographic isolation to overcome or is that not a thing?
Tollef: I'm not sure if we think about it that much. It's - for us the music - I mean - the African-American jazz tradition - it's the music we love, like, that's our passion. But we live in Europe and we have our own social structures and way of - not living, but just the way people - the way the society works makes you a different person, and we have our own music to listen and things that influence us to go in a different direction, hopefully. There is strong folk music tradition in Norway. Jazz became known at first, like big-time, in the 70s with ECM so that sort-of had a great impact on the jazz scene in Norway -- Garbarek and Keith Jarrett. That’s not the only thing but that’s apparently a big sort-of pin point historical mark, in a way. I think that - I think for me Denmark and Sweden has a different - a little bit different view and take on the history because there were much more American - it seems to me like there was much more musicians living there partly, playing in Copenhagen, Dexter Gordon in Copenhagen, Stan Getz travelled a lot to Stockholm. Count Basie recorded with the Swedish radio big band. So I think they had a much bigger and earlier exposure to the mainstream form of jazz. So maybe that sort-of allowed the whole ECM thing to happen in the way that it did. I'm not sure but that’s sort-of things we can think about.
I think, also, the jazz education and how it's been formed - school’s are quite liberal and it is historically oriented. All the jazz conservatories are focused on individual artistic expression and you have to develop that sort-of at the same time as learning history. It’s a high focus on individual artistic search in a way. It’s hard to sort-of answer the question. It's not like you think that music is made in a different part of the world in a different time. I don't think about it like that, for me jazz music is just - that's just where my heart belongs in a way. So like when I discovered - there were some doors that opened to me when I discovered Coltrane, and Archie Shepp, Ornette, Don Cherry, John Carter, Bobby Bradford. That's like - it was some things that - it was some bricks that fell into place, like, “ok this makes sense” that way of communicating in a band resonates to me - it makes - it makes sense in my head. So I would rather describe it that way, that I discovered something and I clicked to it.
And I think music is able to be universal in that matter. But of course we have our - if we sit around the table and discuss music and politics, of course, we sometimes touch into the historical parts that - things that we can’t relate to - understanding completely, of course, in the African-American perspective. Civil rights movements - there are stuff that we can try to understand that we can't understand it and feel it in the same way. But I don't think that sort-of limits the ability to love one form of music.
MB: Right, and you have your own lived experience as a Scandinavian that we may not understand, so that enriches the music too, I would think.
Tollef: Yeah, but it's not so clearly linked into the music we play now. It's not like “ok, we were occupied by Germany during the war” and that affects my jazz music, it’s not - [laughs] - we don't have those kind of direct - [laughs] . So it’s in a different way. In Scandinavian societies now it’s very common - yeah, things that happened only 45 to 50, 60, 70 years ago too. So it's a lot of similarities in some ways but, yeah, every parts of the world have their own issues and conflicts, good sides and bad sides, that sort-of makes arts and artists to act in one way or another, but it's more unconscious and way of doing - it’s more subtle. It's not like ”now I'm going to write a tune about the Cold War” [Laughs]. Because I live one hour away from the flight from the Russian border, it’s not like, yeah, I guess you see what I get.
MB: Tollef it’s been a real pleasure talking with you, thank you for taking the time.
Tollef: Thank you for calling.
MB: We’re looking forward to the show coming up in Madison.
Tollef: We do too. It’s our second time with this group - I think most of us have been, yeah, around with different projects. I played with Mars Williams and Paal Nissen-Love played there with some of the other members of the group. And I think maybe Cortex, maybe with Thomas Johansson on trumpet maybe passed through, I’m not sure.
The trumpeter and saxophone player André and Thomas come from a town in Norway called Skien, and there is a guy from that town living in Sturgeon Bay, so that’s why we go there. There is a connection! Ok we go to Sturgeon Bay and we come from Chicago, we have to stop in Madison. When I first went there with Mars Williams - it’s a great town to visit - it’s a great town to play in - it’s a good vibe. I don’t know how to describe it, it’s just a very nice place to stay.
Kahil El’Zabar Ethnic Heritage Ensemble — Cafe Coda — Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020 — 8pm
Interview date: 02/05/2020
MB: Sometimes you play with a bass player or a cello player, how does the music differ when you have a quartet versus a trio?
KEZ: Well, you have four people versus three, which is obvious, but it is the chordal instrument that is usually not a part of the ensemble. The ensemble historically has been three people but sometimes I will add that fourth chordal instrument and so it changes the approach a little bit, but the music has its own, I think at this point, genre, you know. I’ve developed a way to approach the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble which focuses on percussion as actually the tonic instrument. The clave that’s been developed for how we approach various elements of this, so-called jazz idiom are unique to the instrumentation and unique to the concept and approach.
MB: You use your voice quite a bit in this group, do you think of that as an independent voice within the group or is it integrated into your playing, your identity, within the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble?
KEZ: It is integrated into the sensibilities of what we do -- it’s interesting you ask that Michael, a lot of times when we’re either doing like clinics or workshops or talking to younger musicians they say “well what’s all the voice stuff and the sound?” so when I then take them to YouTube and show them Art Tatum, show them Art Blakey, show them...who, I’m trying to think of…
MB: Elvin Jones.
KEZ: Charles Mingus, Elvin Jones. But even non-drummers. When you’re listening to uh...what’s the… Bud Powell!
MB: Right, Bud Powell.
KEZ: That’s who I was trying to think of. So that’s always been part of the tradition.
MB: Do you live in Chicago currently? And I guess I ask that because you know as someone who could probably live anywhere in the world is there something that keeps you rooted in Chicago as opposed to say Paris or Madrid or someplace in Europe?
KEZ: Yeah, Yeah, good question. You know my roots are there so I always maintain a residence there. I’ve been an artist in residence in Bordeaux for 16, 17 years so I’m back and forth there. And I have a place in Paris, so Chicago is home but I have other homes as well.
MB: I guess, dwelling on Chicago a little bit, In terms of the lineage of the AACM, you know I sort of think of, obviously, Muhal Richard Abrams as first generation AACM: Roscoe Mitchell, Steve McCall. Do you feel like you’re kind of second-generation AACM, is it sort of a continuum? Or are you maybe independent from that lineage?
KEZ: I’m connected to it, you know. I started working with Muhal when I was 17, like 1969. You know I see myself first connected to the Chicago lineage because many of the characteristics of the AACM were part of what Lil Harden was doing even before she became Mrs. Armstrong, and the sharing that was going on with Baby Dodds, Johnny Dodds, Pops, and everybody at that time, they were very collective, they were very communicative, very supportive. You find the same elements in the Sun Ra Arkestra in the 50s. They’re there and you see the continuum of that in the AACM. And when you’re in Chicago versus New York people always get the feeling that there’s this camaraderie, and more community based kind of exchange with musicians, whereas in New York it’s -- incredible incredible musicians -- but it’s more almost like gun-for-hire. Whereas in Chicago it’s about the community exchange with the music being an integral part of that. And I’m definitely a part of that legacy, and have tried to pass it on to younger generations.
MB: Definitely interesting to think about it in those terms, geographically even. Chicago has such a strong community, a musical community, it’s tremendous, I think. Are you someone who seeks inspiration externally, and if so, what’s currently inspiring you in terms of music, or other things in life for that matter?
KEZ: Yeah, I mean it’s all kinds of stuff, really great question. One of the, or two of the artists that really inspire me right now are the dance duo of Les Twins from France, I find them to be some of the most significant improvisors. And another artist that inspires me a lot is the visual artist, not the musician, but the visual artist Nick Cave, and the optimism that I see in his work graphically and what he communicates and the impact that I see. You know I’ve gone to exhibits of his in New York, Massachusetts, Chicago, and what he says in his art is something that you know I’ve tried to say for years in my work, that besides the critical pessimisms that are part of society that artists are able to describe, we need to be the outlet of optimism and how we find that inspiration and improvisation is the key to finding new discoveries in old approaches.
MB: Thank you, yeah, that’s great. Was there ever another path for you in life, or was this your path from the beginning?
KEZ: You know I was all-city in 1968-69 and in 1969 I was all-state, one of the top 20 basketball players in the state, and it’s so funny, years ago when my sons were small, they’re all adults now, but when they were small Quinn Buckner from the Boston Celtics, and Llyod Walton who played for Milwaukee Bucks, you know they said “Hey Graveyard” and my boys went “why do they call you that dad?” “‘cause I was deadly son.” and they asked them, they said “was my father good?” and they told them, you know that “He won all the tournaments he played against us. And we went on to be pros.” So for a couple of weeks my boys weren’t speaking to me and I was like “what’s wrong with you guys?” I’m cooking dinner and, you know, playing with them and they’re not responding, and they said “We could’ve had Mercedes and big houses!” Ha! And I think it was a good lesson for them because they’ve -- my sons have gone on to their own paths -- and I told them at that time “you have to choose you, and you have to know what you believe is going to make you happy in spite of what might be the material or the social or the fame attraction, and know inside yourself what you want to do, and I’ve felt very lucky ‘cause at a very young age I decided and committed myself to something that has given me a lot of fulfillment in life.
MB: So from there would you care to talk about the economics of this life, and maybe the struggle or, or maybe it’s not a struggle?
KEZ: Yeah, you know I’ve been pretty stable in my career, but it has a lot to do with parents and how they share with you the ability to discover your earning opportunities in unique ways, and you know my parents were entrepreneurs, and they knew how to plan a calendar and they knew how to set goals and go through the tactile process of reaching those goals, so you know. And they educated me well, so you know, I hold a PhD and besides the stuff that people know me for historically with the AACM or playing with Pharoh Sanders or Lester Bowie or Archie Shepp or whatever, you know I also did the arrangements for Julie Taymor for Lion King, and you know scored music for movies like Mo’ Money, Love Jones, and for 24 years was a professor. So those kinds of things gave me stable income to take care of my children and the freedom to do this music which is my heart. The music of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, the Ritual Trio, or duos with David Murray, or you know the things I've historically done and what I believe is my life’s work. My parents taught me to have the practical application of entrepreneurship so that it allowed me the freedom of my lifestyle choices.
MB: That’s very cool. So at the age of 66, right? Do you see yourself slowing down or are you just getting started?
KEZ: I’m seeing myself learn how to use age as a growth pattern with time. And that time is not relative necessarily to speed, or the past, present, or the future, but much more about the frequency engagement. And a lot of older musicians find themselves comparing to youth, which will never happen again. I think our society is too attracted to a moment rather than the journey and I, at this age, have to be about the journey and what those graces come from age. So I accept where I am and learn to use time in a relevant way that I can express something meaningful now.