Henry Threadgill speaks with Marc Medwin about providing better information access to the blind on his latest CD

“I wanted to be sure I wasn’t leaving anybody out. Exclusion is a huge and growing problem in this country.” Henry Threadgill’s voice is as adamant as his musical vision is unique. However, our discussion concerning “Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp” the new disc by his long-standing ensemble Zooid, released on Pi Recordings, was focused, at least superficially, on an extra-musical issue. In a bold move, Threadgill has made all of the album’s written material accessible to those with visual impairments. The information is read aloud, in a separate track at the disc’s conclusion, and the CD is available with identifying Braille label, upon request, when ordering directly from Pi.

As a blind listener and long-time Threadgill fan, I am elated by the decision. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing that the personnel, track list and liner notes are all sitting right in front of me, but as far as I’m concerned, the page is blank. This means having to memorize the information for any given album. Practically speaking, it seems only fair that we who have limited and often problematic access to printed material should be included in this way, but, to my knowledge, Threadgill is among the first to consider our needs important enough to address.

Our conversation revealed that visual impairment, and its attendant concerns, has been an issue of importance for Threadgill since his earliest days in the AACM. “There used to be a blind man who would attend all the concerts,” he reminisces. “He travelled with a cane, and mostly, he’d come alone. Over the years, I often wondered how he thought about the music, what he might imagine while he was listening, but I never had the chance to ask him.” Beyond this direct experience with blindness, Threadgill’s general regard for humanity incorporated an interest in what might be called visual metaphor. “When I graduated from high school, my original plan was to go into music therapy,” he muses. “At that time, I was interested in color, not for its own sake, but as a spiritual device. I wanted to understand how it could be used to help people on a spiritual level.” Such life-long concerns are, obviously and inextricably, linked with the music he composes, rendering his interest in accessibility issues a very natural progression for this constantly questing artist.

The desire to understand and empathize with the handicapped is indicative of Threadgill’s overarching observance of the human condition, especially as manifest in this society. “Those who have disabilities are getting the short end of the stick” he observes with some bitterness. Yet, the difficulties of processing information constitute only a part of what Threadgill sees as the larger problem. “People are distracted in this country.” His voice, which had been fairly reserved, begins to increase in tempo and power. “You can’t go anywhere without running into this. It is very difficult to make eye contact with anyone anymore, because everyone’s looking into his hand—iPod, cell phone, you name it, and they have plugs in their ears at the same time! They don’t hear you when you try to talk to them, and half the time, they don’t even follow the basic travel rules, like walking on the right side of the street here in this country. They are endangering everyone else’s safety just trying to absorb the massive amount of information being transmitted all the time. How is a handicapped person supposed to work through that?”

He is correct, and his observations speak to the depth and breadth of his experience and understanding of the way our society functions. It isn’t just that information is hard to obtain for anyone with reading difficulties. It is that we live in a society where, despite advances stemming from the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the many good people making certain that its policy changes are implemented, the disabled face the increased confusion resulting from information overload. The streets are louder, cell phone ringtones are a huge distraction to those seeking audible cues for travel, and in general, people are less responsive than they were even ten years ago. “Of course,” Threadgill states with certainty, “It’s because here, vision is the primary mode of perception.” He maintains that this is not the norm. “I don’t see this in Europe,” he laments. “Sure, they have the technology, but it hasn’t taken over in the way it has in the States. Here, it’s an addiction, it’s causing problems for everyone, and it needs to be treated like an addiction.”

However, despite the disadvantages associated with visual impairment, Threadgill also recognizes it as a possible boon. For him, blindness, and its attendant ways of survival, constitutes a potential new audience. “The way I see it,” he reasons, “here is a whole group of people that is not distracted in the same way most people are. Just because of the way they live, they have to listen much more carefully than the average person, and my music requires that kind of attention. It’s a spiritual music, addressing spiritual concerns, not a party or dance music, though there are places for all of that.” He begins to laugh. “To be honest, I don’t imagine most of those people I see out my front window, always distracted and looking in their hands, having any interest in spending the time it would take to come to terms with my music.”

Those who appreciate Threadgill’s steps toward accessibility may, in fact, end up being more numerous and more diverse than even he imagines. The beauty of what Threadgill is doing, as with so many products and services designed to aid a specific group of disabled people, lies in its accessibility to everyone. Curb cuts aid wheelchair users, but they also prove indispensible for people moving hand trucks, or people making a delivery. Spoken album credits will certainly benefit those who can’t read the cover, but they may be blind, or dyslexic, or perhaps just using an iPod, having left the cover at home. The information track is, of course, easily programmed out by those uninterested in it, allowing for a win-win situation. There is no reason that, in 2012, access to printed material should be denied to anyone. Henry Threadgill has taken a small but important step toward making this goal a reality.

Jazz Isn't Dead; It's Just Invisible

For those of you who have been following the interviews I’ve been conducting over the past year, I’d like to direct your attention to a very relevant conversation that has been threading its way through the media lately.

In early June, the National Endowment of the Arts released a report concerning the declining health of American participation in the arts. Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout zeroed in on the jazz numbers, igniting a rift amongst the community by penning the controversial article “Can Jazz Be Saved?”.

Anyone concerned with these issues should check out the audio from yesterday’s edition of WNYC’s Soundcheck, where Teachout was debated by Pi Recordings artist Vijay Iyer.

Interview with Tommy Crane

I’d like to convey my gratitude to Patrick Jarenwattananon of NPR for his kind words in featuring my last post on A Blog Supreme/NPR Jazz. Many thanks!

Drummer/composer Thomas A. Crane started his musical career as a French horn player. In high school he was torn between becoming a jazz drummer and pursuing a career in orchestral music. Crane has been touring with various jazz groups since he arrived in New York City from his hometown of St. Louis, Mo. to attend the New School University Jazz Program. At the New School, Crane studied with drummers Billy Hart and Andrew Cyrille, as well as bassist/composer Mark Dresser. He has toured internationally and throughout the United States with the Mingus Big Band, Jeremy Pelt, The Greg Osby Five, David Binney and others. While living in New York, he has performed with Bob Beldon, Joe Lovano, Becca Stevens, David Liebman, Mark Turner, Ben Street, Tony Malaby, Aaron Parks, Logan Richardson, Shirt, and more. He currently appears regularly with Logan Richardson’s Shift, Greg Ruggiero’s quartet, Pete Robbin’s Centric and his own ensemble, Be An Astronaut. In addition, Crane has a solo project entitled doubleberg, and can been seen playing keyboards with the Brooklyn-based band Pocketknife.

RB: Tell us a little bit about your band, Be An Astronaut.

TC: Be An Astronaut is an ensemble comprised of harp, Fender Rhodes, bass, and myself. We have been together now for almost two years, and have actually only performed 4 times. The group was started on kind of a whim. I met Maeve [Gilchrist], the harpist, at a show I played in the East Village a few years ago, and she approached me about playing. I’ve been an obsessive Joanna Newsom fan for years, so I was really excited about playing with harp.

RB: Me too!

TC: That’s right, I remember talking about her music with you when we met a little while back. Anyway, we got together at my apartment and played as a trio—harp, drums and flute. Maeve blew me away. Her approach reminds me of kora, in that she has a very rhythmically driving feel. This is what also drew me toward Joanna’s playing. After we jammed, I immediately had the idea of starting an ensemble with Maeve. From there, I started writing music with the harp in mind. It took about 6 months to assemble the rest of the band. In the back of my mind, I knew that I wanted to make some music with a pianist/composer named David Moore, who I heard at a house party in 2005. His unique style and understanding of space stuck with me. About 6 months after meeting Maeve, I ran into David again, this time playing at Zebulon with an amazing vocalist I knew from Missouri named Krystal Warren. I introduced myself. Oddly enough, I had been offered a gig at the Bowery Poetry Club about a month from when we met. So, I asked David if he would like to try to play through some of this music that I had been writing and consider a gig with Be an Astronaut.

Finding a bass player was an easy choice. David and Maeve had never met, and I hadn’t played with either of them, so I wanted to have a bass player that I had a lot of history with. Chris Tordini was a no brainer. We went to school together in a million different situations. I can’t think of many musicians who are as malleable and open-minded as Chris. And he’s as grounded as they come. That is how it all began….

Oh yes…also, David and Maeve found out that they shared this unspoken bluegrass connection. They both play a great deal of old time bluegrass music. David is an amazing banjo player. What the hell did I know about bluegrass? Well, more than I realized. The banjo might have subconsciously brought us together because my grandfather was also a banjo player. Actually, I own his old banjo and try to play it from time to time.

My music for Be an Astronaut, in its beginning stages, was very loop driven. I was also listening to a lot of music by Dirty Projectors at the time, and they had this unique way of playing contrapuntally that really intrigued me.

RB: I’m listening to “The Getty Address” right now, actually.

TC: Longstreth is a very interesting musician, no question. I was happy to read that he loves Vim Vender. I get so much from his films these days. Anyways, I was getting away from writing through-composed larger ensemble music, and wanted to explore more of a smaller band sound. I really wanted for Be An Astronaut to be a true band. I was also super excited about making music with these incredible musicians who I really had no formal relationship with – with the exception of Chris.

There is nothing more exciting then writing for individual musical personalities. I’ve always been one who did this. Now, I wanted to let go a little bit and fantasize about the total sound of the group in my mind, and try to create canvases in a sense that would allow these terrific musicians to fill in with their own playing. I wanted to give them the space to do this. It was an interesting experiment because I knew what these musicians were capable of bringing to the music. They weren’t as familiar with my music. Being the drummer - the conductor of the ensemble in a sense - it would be easy for me to help direct the music. We’d learn from each other.

RB: In a recent interview with the blog of the VA-based ensemble Glows in the Dark, composer/multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey had this to say when asked to name under-rated musicians:

I’ll go out on a limb with this one…since this is something that has been bothering me for some time. There are so many people I wish to list, but the underrated COMPOSERS who I want to discuss are also percussionists that we all know. Susie Ibarra is my favorite percussionist/composer around right now, and I find that it’s a shame that not many people know that she has a lot to offer as a composer, not to mention the amazing work she is doing. The same should go for Paul Motian, Mark Guiliana, Gerald Cleaver, Andrew Greenwald, Dan Weiss, Billy Martin, Joey Baron, Marcus Gilmore, Milford Graves, Tommy Crane, among others… I personally believe that these drummers who are also composers and/or play other instruments should be recognized for all of how they express themselves, as opposed to only being credited for their sideman work and/or for their drumming abilities. It’s interestingly ironic because what these drummers contribute to the music of their respective bandleaders is so strong and powerful that what they create becomes an essential part of the music itself; they MAKE the composition, as far as I’m concerned.

How does sitting behind the kit influence your compositional outlook?

TC: The funny thing is, and I’m sure you can relate as a composer yourself, I usually think about my contribution to the ensemble last. Drummers are dealing with orchestration and timing/pacing, obviously, on a daily basis, which means our outlook on composition is vastly different than that of other instrumentalists. Hearing a drummer’s compositions for me is like truly getting to know who a drummer really is. Like Tom Cruise revealing himself in “Eyes Wide Shut” after being masked at that absurd house party. A lot of times, it truly is a mystery to me when I hear drummer’s compositions. I love this! We are like the guys in the back of the classroom soaking up all this material and sound, yet we have duct tape over our mouths and fingers for years. Suddenly, one day it occurs to us that “hey, we can come at writing from a different angle”. Every drummer should be writing as much as possible. It clarifies so many things for me about making true music.

RB: …and results in so many enjoyable listening experiences for people like me! Many of my favorite composers are drummers, or at least distribute the groove evenly throughout the ensemble. As Billy Hart likes to say, “the bass drum relates to the bass clef”, etc. How do you approach the orchestration of rhythm?

TC: Indeed. I was just going to take Billy’s words for a moment that “the drummer is the conductor of the ensemble”. Drummers can truly make or break a band. The instruments range is endless in terms of orchestration.

It’s similar to the way I approach drumming in a sense—layers of voices working together, and maybe also counter-acting each other at times. For example, you could think of one sentence dispersed among 3 people at a time. This can create a flow where we all end up being part of the same idea that is constantly shifting around between us.

RB: You mentioned earlier that you wanted Be an Astronaut to sound like a “true band”. Describe the role of collaboration in your music; what does it mean to be a “true band”?

TC: Well, the funny thing is that this is more of dream then a reality at the present time.

“True bands” are few and far between, especially in jazz. For one, we are trained to play and perform in various settings, especially these days, so this creates a lot of musicians who can work in many situations.

There are many micro scenes within the New York music scene. I’m part of a few groups that I can call true bands. Guitarist Greg Ruggiero has a real band that I’ve been part of for years. We still play music the same music we have played for the past 6 years. It is always changing and evolving.

One very important thing is to find musicians that you can be honest and open with, first and foremost. However, while I am a strong advocate of watching a project develop, it is also important to put oneself in uncomfortable musical situations as well. Doing this only clarifies things for me when I get back to the main projects that I’m involved with.

Nevertheless, “true bands” can talk to each other like family. We don’t have to candy coat the way we say things to one another: “Sound great brother,” when you know the music sounded like a moldy closet. There is nothing quite like being part of a community of music like that of New York City these days…

But anyway, getting back…Be An Astronaut is a way for me to breathe musically. For myself, I need the grounding of a project consisting of music that I’m writing, and the balance of collaborating with other musicians’ projects. Projects that are challenging and will constantly put one back in the baby seat, sometimes leaving me feeling like it’s time to do this all over again. It never ends does it?

RB: You tell me! I don’t think I’m ever going to get out of the baby seat…

TC: That is one of the most beautiful things about New York. When I get to drive the van is when I will start to worry.

RB: Well, you are preaching to the choir when it comes to “true bands”; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people echo your sentiments at our last rehearsal: “At X music school we had to read/play so much challenging music, but we never really went into depth with any of it”. More importantly, it’s clear that the audience isn’t buying it either. You touched on the fact that such depth comes in part from working together consistently, but it seems like very few people are actually so. Why do you think that is?

TC: That starts to hurt your soul more then one can imagine after a while. For one, we have to work. We put in as much time as any other field in school, yet when it’s time to hit the streets, very few can survive on music alone. If so, unless you fall into a situation like a working band, one has to freelance.

Another option is to put your all into the two or three projects that you feel most strongly about. This can take years to develop, but I have friends who have stuck with this mentality all the way. It has paid off for them. Saxophonist Travis Laplante, one of the most amazing musicians/artists I’ve met in New York City has kept this mindset for years. I used to question every aspect of his thought process until recently when I heard his band, Little Women. It blew my mind, seriously. He is way ahead of the game.

Now, this is not easy, and on a certain level I can’t relate because playing drums you have many, many options, in a sense. For some, the most fulfilling artistic lifestyle is taking every gig that comes your way; I can’t do it anymore. I don’t feel like it’s fair to the music and the compositions most of the time. Music takes a great deal of time and patience to develop. This is lacking a great deal in music education. “Lets pile on more and more”, says X teacher, never giving the student a chance to look inward. Bands have to go through the process of watching the music grow and change.

RB: Many musicians in jazz and other genres keep day jobs until their bands are working enough, but with jazz it seems like the prospects for touring groups are much slimmer. Can you think of some things that might aid folks like you in feeling more secure with the two-to-three projects model?

TC: Unfortunately, we are kind of missing what was key years ago - learning from the elder musicians. Unfortunately, these opportunities just don’t exist on a large scale. It’s pretty scary in a way. But this is important to talk about. Elder musicians used to take the younger musicians under their wing and guide them. Buy them suits, yell at them about bad relationship decisions, etc…you learned about life as well as music!

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had a taste of this. My first “real gig” was with a pianist named Johnny O’Neal back in St. Louis. He played with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers for years in the 80’s. He took me under his wing when I was in high school. I would go to his house and listen to stories for hours and hours about Art Blakey, and New York in the 80’s. Johnny is a real character and one of the most incredible piano players you’ve ever heard. He played Art Tatum in that movie Ray with Jamie Fox…

RB: You are absolutely right about learning from the older musicians. The lessons that come from apprenticing with the masters are invaluable. However, I feel compelled to point out that, in many cases, the masters were pursuing a one-project model: their own! Therefore, apprenticing with them also served as a crash-course in how to run your own band one day, from the music to the business.

TC: You’re very right about that. They had the market on their side as well though… We are in a different time now. The emphasis on “killer solos” and “chops” has been done. On the other hand, it’s exciting that we are starting to see creative music leaking into the mainstream.

RB: Yes. Nate Chinen recently interviewed the bassist of Grizzly Bear and found himself correct in detecting a Vernel Fournier influence on the band’s new album, and The Mos Def Big Band will be performing at Newport in a few days.

TC: Funny - the Vernel Fournier thing is very clear on that first track.

RB: Yep…that’s the one. As far as what you were saying about older musicians having had “the market on their side”, I would argue that it’s cyclical—the jazz market appears to suffer just as much from the lack of commitment to bands these days. But this is the reason why I was asking the earlier question—do you have any thoughts on what might help us capture the attention of the would-be-interested audience?

TC: I honestly think it is happening slowly. You mentioned Grizzly Bear. Bands like this open the doors and widen the palette for a great deal of listeners. They understand the balance between the art and what sells.

RB: We touched on apprenticeship opportunities earlier, and failed to discuss your experiences in the band of saxophonist/composer Greg Osby. Illuminate that experience for us—how did it add “depth” to your perspective?

TC: Playing with Greg Osby completely changed the way that I approached improvisation and writing—two things that actually go hand-in-hand with one another.

Greg is an amazing bandleader. He says pretty much everything that you need to hear through his playing. I really appreciate this a great deal. It’s easy to become confused as a sideman when a bandleader starts telling you what your doing wrong in his or her eyes, or giving you to many things to think about. When playing with Greg, you work out these kinks in the music through playing. He is unbelievably organic, and gave me a lot of insight into preserving energy as well.

We were on a tour of Spain a few years ago playing everyday for a couple weeks, and one day at the airport I was complaining about how tired I was. Greg said something like, “you better get used to that feeling if this is what you want to do for the rest of your life”, and he proceeded to talk to me about how important it is to preserve energy on the road. i.e. eating right, sleeping when you can, etc.

Another thing about Greg is that he could not stress taking chances enough. He is one of those musicians that constantly keeps you on your toes. He loves making you feel like you’re falling from a building in a dream—the way you completely loose control and just have to accept that you will wake up from this fall.

Greg and I are both from St. Louis, so I became aware of his record Banned In New York when I was about 15. It made zero sense to me at the time, but it blew my mind. “Are they playing tunes? Is this free? What in the world is happening?”, I was thinking. He had created this new world through his music. This idea of someone using their own language to improvise was new to me. I couldn’t trace the music immediately with my ear like I could with most of the music that I was listening to at the time; “This guy sounds just like Art Pepper with a mix of Jamie Oliver”. It isn’t like that with Greg.

RB: In closing, please tell us about a non-musical artist that has influenced you.

TC: Well, some time ago I discovered the filmmaker David Lynch. Watching his movies gave me immediate creative fuel to compose. In a sense he is my muse. I’m fascinated with the world that he creates. You might watch one of his films every day for 11 days and tap into to a completely different set of emotions at every viewing.

I think most of the music I composed early on was after watching Blue Velvet and Eraserhead obsessively. I’m also a huge fan of Angelo Badelmenti’s music. His sounds remind me of my youth in some way…those almost overbearing - and somewhat hilarious at times - 80’s synth sounds. How he can make these sounds so beautiful really floors me. He and Lynch work together like a choir and an orchestra. I was reading an article once where Angelo was talking about Lynch’s love for Shostakovich. At times David will sit with Angelo at the piano and direct Angelo like a conductor while Angelo improvises.

My love for Lynch has inspired me to create a solo project where I go by the name “Doubleberg”. Most of the music is made very half-assedly on my computer, but I occasionally try to perform some of the music in public.

RB: Thanks for taking the time to do this!

Be An Astronaut appears tonight—August 4th, 2009—at the Bowery Poetry Club, and you can also hear Tommy (and myself) with Chrysalis as a part of the Cornelia Street Cafe Guitar Festival on August 18th.

Steve Lehman talks about his new octet record, Travail, Transformation and Flow

Recently, I’ve been hearing a bunch from people asking to know more about the roll that spectral harmony plays in my forthcoming octet record, Travail, Transformation and Flow. And also curious to get a better sense of how the new octet record connects to my most recent quintet record, On Meaning, which came out on Pi in November of 2007. So I thought it might be nice to post some thoughts about the overlap between the quintet record and the octet record on the Pi Blog…

A few people have asked if On Meaning can be thought of as a type of predecessor to the music on Travail, Transformation and Flow, and I think that makes sense in a lot of ways.

The main difference, I think, is how much more fleshed out all the work with spectral harmony is on the octet record. On Travail, 4 of the 8 pieces really call for improvisers to interact with spectral harmony and some of the more important “spectral ideas” around music. And also to do stuff like solo over “spectral chord changes,” improvise with timbre and explore different kinds of wave forms and sonic envelopes as instrumentalists. For On Meaning, the only piece that is explicitly spectral is “Great Plains of Algiers” and part of the reason that that’s such a short piece (2’45”), is because there aren’t any solos. It’s kind of like a minature chamber piece. All of the harmonies on that piece are based off of subharmonic spectra, which is also the case for “Waves,” which appears on the octet record.

In addition to the more fully integrated use of spectral harmony, there’s all the more obvious stuff about how working with 8 voices, as opposed to 5, frees you up to write much richer harmonies, more elaborate counterpoint, and also to imagine a much more diverse collection of setting for solos/improvisations. Also, the idea of using orchestration as an expressive tool can be a little more fully realized in an octet setting. Using different size groups over the course of a piece — starting with just 2 players and gradually using all 8, or ending with an alto/trumpet duo like “Alloy” does on the octet record.

Goes without saying that all of these compositional ideas are informed by the musical legacy of people like Tristan Murail, Anthony Braxton, Jackie McLean, and Andrew Hill, to name a few. Not to mention all of my brilliant colleagues, 7 of whom appear on the forthcoming octet record…!


Interview with Steve Lehman

Saxoponist/composer Steve Lehman’s most recent album, “Travail, Transformation, & Flow,” will be released on Pi Recordings in early June. Steve recently completed a tour of Portugal with Dual Identity, a group that also features Rudresh Mahanthappa, Liberty Ellman, Matt Brewer, and Damion Reid. Other upcoming events include two world premieres- Steve’s “Baltimore/Berlin” (a piece for mixed quintet) by the critically acclaimed new music ensemble ICE, and his new work for percussion quartet will be performed by So Percussion as a part of the Columbia Composers Concert Series.

RB:You’ve been collaborating with a close-knit circle of musicians for some time now, and both your own quintet with Jonathan Finlyason, Chris Dingman, Drew Gress and Tyshawn Sorey and Fieldwork, co-led by Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey, and yourself, have been long-term commitments. How does collaboration influence your music?

SL: Well, it’s probably the most important aspect of my involvement in music. The more I think about it, the social aspect of music making is really what keeps me interested and excited about music. Getting to work with all of the people you mention. Getting to know them as individuals and getting to work with a circle of musicians who really represent the state-of-the-art as composers and performers. This is what keeps me going…I know I shouldn’t need anything, at age 30, to keep me going…but I do! In addition to that, the more time I spend thinking about composition and actually writing new music, the more I realize that in the music I’m most interested in being involved with, the most important compositional step is deciding WHO I’m going to work with. Not what notes I’m going to write or what structures I’m going to design…that’s essential too, of course….but the WHO of it always seems to define everything else.

And I think that’s true in a lot of music, including music that doesn’t call for improvisation….it’s just not talked about as much…and sometimes it’s even intentionally removed from the conversation in a kind of artificial way.

RB: Regardless of who you are working with, your compositions exhibit a balance between specificity and freedom. Can you shed some light on how you develop platforms for you and your collaborators to interact?

SL: Sure. Though, I feel obliged to gently point out that if this phenomenon exists in my music, it’s not regardless of who’s playing the music….in fact is has everything to do with who’s playing the music. Of course it will sound differently, depending on who’s performing. But if you look, for example, at the list of drummers I’ve performed/recorded with in the past 5 years….these are people that are total individuals, yet they’re also people that have a fair amount of overlap in terms of their aesthetic and their musical points of reference….people like Nasheet Waits, Pheeroan akLaff, Eric McPherson, Tyshawn Sorey, Damion Reid, Karl Jannuska, Elliot Kavee, Gerald Cleaver…and on and on.

RB: I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that the people you choose to collaborate with don’t shape your compositional perspective. Rather, I was trying to tease apart specific relationships from your approach to writing. While there may be a lot of overlap between the musicians you perform with, the thing that strikes me is the extent to which they are “total individuals”, and I’m wondering how you go about creating that balance in different situations.

SL: In terms of developing compositional platforms/structures for the people I work with…I think this is the greatest challenge for composer/performers working with models that incorporate improvisation. That is to say, the challenge of composing music that will provide performers with enough agency to make the music come to life and be greater than the sum of its parts, while simultaneously challenging them to play in new ways. And for me, ideally, every aspect of a given composition should be connected to that initiative.

Like a lot of people, I’ve explored a bunch of different strategies for addressing that compositional problem and hope to continue doing so. But it’s hard for me to jump in with a blanket statement about my entire compositional output. Maybe we could talk about a specific composition.

RB: Analog Moment, perhaps?

SL: OK. Well, in “Analog Moment,” which was written in 2005 and then recorded in 2007, I think I was mainly thinking about the implications of setting up a series of overlapping rhythmic grids that would allow improvisers to kind of “grab on” to one or more streams of rhythmic information in negotiating the compositional space of the piece. There’s a kind of fast bell pattern that is constantly morphing and never repeating….and then that sequence of durations is also present at half-speed. Then there are longer blocks of time that work as a different kind of marker which last between 3-5 seconds (a time span often referred to as the “perceptual present”). And then, as a result of these overlapping layers, another aspect of the piece emerges, which is the exploration of musical foreground/background and how those boundaries can be transformed.

I was happy with how that piece ended up emerging in the context of that quintet, because I really felt like every aspect of what everyone was playing was really informed by all those different compositional components.

And in a way, the built in difficulty of internalizing the form and structure of the piece kind of ensures that.

RB: The instrumentation of both that quintet and the new octet is relatively acoustic, with the exception of the microphones and amplified upright bass. What is the reasoning behind this decision?

SL: Well, I’ve certainly done my fair share of of work with electro-acoustic formats at this point….both in live performance and in post production. In the music I write, the instrumentation almost always emerges out of this original question of WHO it is. So, for example, Jonathan Finlayson is on both the quintet and octet recordings, not because he plays trumpet, but because he is Jonathan Finlayson. It’s just that simple. If he played MPC or was a laptop improviser working with Super Colider or Max or Ableton or whatever, I’d find a way to integrate that into my work. Perhaps not with this specific ensemble, but definitely in some kind of way. And that has a lot to do with why I tend to gravitate towards a certain kind of instrumentation when working with acoustic instruments. It would be great to find a harp player, or a viola players, or a cellist who had (1) developed a personal language on his/her instrument, (2) was capable of internalizing demanding compositional forms and rhythmic structures as an improviser and (3) was intimately familiar with the work of people like Andrew Hill, Henry Threadgill, and John Coltrane…..but I just haven’t met that person yet. They may be out there, but I haven’t been fortunate enough to cross paths with them yet. And in the end, the people with these types of backgrounds end up playing a certain collection of instruments…..trumpet, trombone, saxophone, vibraphone, guitar, bass, piano, drum set, etc.

RB: Your most recent work, Travail, Transformation, and Flow, is being publicized as the “first fully realized exploration of spectral harmony in the history of recorded jazz”. Tell us about spectral harmony, and describe how thinking about music from this perspective has augmented your perception of musical organization.

SL: Well, spectral music is hard to talk about succinctly. As a gross simplification, one could perhaps say that spectral music is largely concerned with the project of using timbre and the physical properties of acoustics as models for a variety of compositional techniques. And of course, timbre is something that is often thought of as an isolated parameter or a musical variable in and of itself, but it’s actually composed of a multitude of interacting phenomena. The way our ear is able to know the difference between a clarinet and a trumpet doesn’t simply have to do with the overtones of those given instruments, and the loudness of each individual harmonic…but also with the attack of the sounds of those instruments and what happens to all of those partials over time.

The work on Travail, Transformation, and Flow is basically my most recent attempt to figure out what’s most relevant about this compositional approach for me, and also to think more deeply about the implications of spectral music on improvisation. Composer Tristan Murail is sometimes cited describing spectral music as “an attitude about composition more than a specific collection of compositional techniques.” And I think that’s pretty fitting…..he should know, since he is the “father-figure” of spectral music along with Gerard Grisey. So, for me, the question then becomes “What about that ‘attitude’ could be most relevant to my work with improvisers and my work with various rhythmic devices?” And this is a project I’ve been working on since 2001 and has kind of been accelerated since I started studying with Tristan at Columbia University in 2006.

RB: It was very interesting for me to read this excerpt from a lecture given by Mr. Murail, particularly the part in which he spoke about the interests of his predecessors, Xenakis and Ligeti, and how that relates to the organization in much of music today: “Xenakis thought of sound masses, in which individual lines — i.e., the notes played by the performers — were not necessarily that important. What was important was the structure of the mass of sounds”.

While I am by no means intimate with the principles behind the spectral harmonic approach, I can say that timbre is a variable that many listeners are paying attention to. The first thing that came to mind when I heard the opening seconds of “Echoes” was the shimmering sonorities achieved by the layering of multiple well-chosen samples, as seen in the music of Madlib, Four Tet, RZA and RJD2 (who performed at Oberlin last night). I wasn’t surprised to learn that you cover “Living in the World Today” at the end of the new record. However, I would be interested to know what you perceive the relationship to be between spectral harmony, hip hop, and other forms of “popular music”.

SL: Yes. And certainly a lot of the ideas and aesthetic preoccupation driving spectral music have been in place since, at least, the beginning of the 20th century. And Tristan has always been very quick to point out compositional precedents to some of his ideas in the work of people like Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, Scriabin, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Ligeti, and on and on.

In terms of the connections to experimental hip-hop, I think this intense preoccupation with timbre and the “fusion” of sounds could be viewed as a pretty strong connection between these two very different areas of composition. After that, it goes without saying that the individual techniques, and, of course, the social milieu are going to be very different, for the most part. And as a consequence, the resulting musics sound very different and evidence very different aesthetic affinities.

There’s also the fact that a lot of the early spectral techniques emerged out of composers trying to re-create sounds and techniques from electronic music in an acoustic setting.

RB: Right…I was certainly also interested to note how Mr. Murail’s explorations of feedback loops had played an important role in his development of the spectral approach.

SL: Yes. Though, I think the use of the feedback loop model was specific to one of his early pieces…title is escaping me…and not so much a thread of continuity in his work…but you get the idea…certainly stuff like frequency modulation has been important.

RB: I believe the piece is called Mémoire/Erosion (1976).

SL: Yup! That’s the one.

RB: Tell us, what are some of the implications that the spectral approach has on improvisation?

SL: OK. Well, the simplest example to talk about is the idea of spectral chord changes. On the piece I sent you, Echoes, I basically treat harmonics 8-16 of a given fundamental as a mode to improvise on. So this means I have a scale with some tempered pitches and then some pitched adjusted to the nearest quarter tone…namely harmonics 11, 13, 14 and 7, if I want to use that one. Then I have different techniques for moving from one spectra/harmony to another. That in and of itself was a lot of work. Just getting comfortable with those new scales/modes. And then there’s larger areas and questions connected to the idea of improvising with timbre and/or orchestration. And a lot of that gets explored on the octet album. In some ways, it feels like scratching the surface, but I’ve been really excited by the results thus far.

RB: Well, “Echoes” certainly sounds like you are on to something!

SL: Thanks. That makes me happy to hear.

That’s actually a really challenging piece for us to play, because of the difficulty involved in the rhythmic alignment amongst the 8 players, and the combination of that with the execution of 1/4 tone pitches on the trumpet, trombone, tenor and alto at different times. It was a real gift to be able to record it for Pi with that group of musicians!

RB: I was listening to it yesterday evening while preparing for the interview, when my housemate, who is a Latin American Studies student, dropped in. She was floored by the sound and couldn’t believe that it was being created by acoustic instruments.

SL: Very cool. Yes, a lot of people have pointed out that the piece has a kind of electronic sheen to it. I also have to give enormous credit to Liberty Ellman, who did an exceptional job mixing the album.

That phenomenon is present in a lot of Grisey’s work and of course Murail’s as well. They are such master orchestrators. They seem to be able to achieve almost any sound they want from acoustic instruments. In one class with Tristan, he played us a recording of running water in a river, and then his orchestration of that sound. It was simply astonishing. I don’t think I’ll ever get to that level as an orchestrator, but the information I’ve already gotten from working with him, has been totally invaluable.

RB: I can only imagine….In general, I know a lot of people who would really enjoy “Echoes”, and probably Murails music as well, but who I don’t expect to discover it. From the perspective of a college student, I think that there is a remarkable amount of interest at this point in time among young people in music for musics sake. What are your thoughts about how to reach out to new listeners, and what kinds of tools do you think would help you get your music into their ears?

SL: Such a good question. Certainly, I always try to hold my music up to the standard of music for music’s sake. My hope is that (at least some!) people will hear my music and be able to relate to it without having any knowledge of what compositional techniques it employs, etc. Some of that, ideally comes across in the sounds themselves, anyhow. The sound of the harmony, the amount of work that each player has put into his instrument.

In terms of outreach, it’s a tough question. I don’t know what the answer is, in terms of getting more people interested in my music. What I have seen is that, remarkably, the better I get at defining the specifics of MY music and what keep ME interested and excited about music, the more other people are able to relate to it. But there is of course this on-going concern of the creative music community becoming either (1) increasingly insular, or (2) explicitly marketplace oriented.

The other thing I’ve tried to do is to use my affiliation with Columbia University to share the incredible resource of that institution with other people. I feel very fortunate to be there and to be receiving multi-year support from them. So, whenever I get an opportunity, I try to encourage my friends and colleagues to take advantage of the institution as well, provided it feels relevant to them. Damion Reid has been participating in a wonderful weekly Rhythm Seminar in the composition department….HPrizm from Anti-Pop Consortium was participating in George Lewis’s computer music seminar last semester, and on and on. It’s getting easier for people to access all of this kind of information on their own….but it’s still not as easy as it should be.

RB: One of the things that I’ve heard older musicians mention often that differentiates improvised of today is the relative lack of ability for ensembles to work together. Billy Hart recently noted the fact that he used to perform in ensembles that worked consistently for months at a time, and it really calls into question how musicians today can achieve that kind of rapport with each other without those kinds of opportunities. How have you and your collaborators dealt with this issue?

SL: Yes. It’s a huge issue and really an obstacle. I think you just do the best you can. You just psyche yourself up to get into extended concentrated periods of rehearsal like Fieldwork does…and I’m sure other groups do as well. Or you draw from working together in other contexts. On the other side, there seem to be more and more musicians capable of internalizing massive amounts of information in incredibly short periods of time. Something that used to takes weeks to learn now takes hours. So that tips the balances a bit. But there is no substitute for regular performance with a consistent ensemble. That’s for sure.

RB:Of course, this is yet another extremely broad question, but I feel compelled to ask it anyway: What do you hope to achieve by making and performing music?

SL: Actually, that one seems pretty clear. For me, making music and performing music is simply about connecting with other people, finding out about myself, and trying to find some sense of meaning as a result of my own experiences and my shared experiences with my colleagues and everyone else who feels they can relate to the music I’ve involved with.

RB: Wonderful! Thank you so much for doing this…

SL: My pleasure.

A Conversation with Kassa Overall, Notes

Happy New Year and Administration Change! I’m back with the next interview of the series, featuring the great young drummer/producer Kassa Overall.

Note: my answer to the question posed by Vijay Iyer in the last interview will be up soon (once I have access to the annual Recording Industry in Numbers report).

A Conversation with Kassa Overall:

Since graduating from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 2006, Kassa Overall has been an active member of Geri Allen’s trio while developing a portfolio as a producer and venturing into collaborative explorations of hip-hop and electronic music. He is also currently working with Brooklyn-based musician/multidisciplinary performer/producer Guillermo E. Brown.

RB: Within a couple of years of graduating from college, you just had your first run at the Village Vanguard as a part of Geri Allen’s trio. Tell us a little bit about how that felt.

KO: It was a great experience. Before it took place, there were a lot of emotions flowing through me. It felt almost like a crossroads. I was excited and nervous at the same time. Once it actually happened I was able to focus on just creating good music. It was the first experience of playing a big gig 6 nights in a row with great musicians. By the last set on the last night we were a real unit of players

RB: Tell me about your work with Geri Allen. How did she discover you and when did she ask you to join the band?

KO: Well, she originally heard me through Wallace Roney, who took interest in me and taught me a lot about music. She said she liked my playing and asked me to go to Europe. We did one gig in Harlem and went on tour. Halfway through the tour she asked me to join the band as a permanent member, and that was that.

RB: There is a generation gap between you and Ms. Allen/Mr. Davis/Mr. Darryl Hall (who does the European tours, although I’ve been informed that the young Joe Sanders has been subbing occasionally also). How has your perspective helped and/or hindered your ability to contribute to the group?

KO: I don’t think there is much of a conceptual generation gap and if there is it’s a good one. One of the things that I have as a young drummer is an understanding of an older traditional concept. Most drummers my age came from a different genre and switched to jazz. I grew up on Miles, Trane, Monk, Ornette Coleman, Sun-Ra and Bob Marley. My father is a jazz lover and plays some himself. Most drummers I know grew up playing gospel or hip-hop, or wanted to be rock drummers, which is cool—I am currently working on developing ways to infuse my jazz concept into others styles of music. Back to Geri though…She also likes me because I bring in sounds and concepts from my era. One day she brought in a straight-eigths chart and I played a J Dilla (RIP) shifty swing type beat and she was like “Wait! What was that?” Remember—Geri is from Detroit, which was the home of Motown, and also of J Dilla. I sometimes also play drum and bass grooves. She encourages all of that; we are planning on making some tracks on MPC and Laptops too!

RB: That is great to hear! Speaking of MPC and Laptops, enumerate the projects you are currently a part of outside of Geri’s band.

KO: Well, I recently bought the new MPC 2500, which is a best sampler sequencer on the market, and I also got the new ableton live program. I have been making beats since middle school and I love that as much as anything else. When I went back home to Seattle, I started using it for gigs with Owuor Arunga and the rest of my Seattle cats. We had someone else on drum set and I would make beats live on stage or trigger Obama samples or Bruce Lee interviews…whatever we could come up with. It brought a whole new dimension to the band and it freaked the audience out. It drew all the hip-hop/electronic music lovers in. Once we got their attention, they also realized they liked creative improvised music. Now I am playing the drum set and laptop at the same time, which gives me a whole new avenue for gigs. I am also currently working with Guillermo Brown. Everyone in the band also has a laptop as well. Were going to freak people out.

RB: Talk a little more about Guillermo’s band. How did you get involved with that and what do you guys have in store for us?

KO: I met him through another band member by the name of Will Johnson AKA Gordon Voidwell. I met him at Oberlin. He makes beats and raps and sings. I make bets and rap and sing. Guillermo makes beats and raps and sings. They were looking for a drummer who could incorporate those things into the band. It’s tight because everyone in the band is on that multi-genre tip.

RB: You mentioned that your Seattle based project “drew all the hip-hop/electronic music lovers in”, and it sounds like your work with Guillermo has the potential to do the same. Why do you think those people aren’t “drawn in” anyway? In other words, why do you think it is that more young people (or people in general) aren’t listening to jazz/creative improvised music?

KO: I think on one hand people are just used to the specific sound qualities and harmonies they are used to. As soon as they heard an 808 bass drum or electronic claps people related to those sounds. On another hand, the masses want to dance and have fun and they don’t want to think too much. “Jazz” or Creative Music or whatever you want to call it isn’t necessarily concerned with making you dance. The harmonies are more complex. The beats are not simple loops…especially today. The more stuff you play, the more the audience wants to listen and figure out what’s going on. If you play some simple stuff they can understand they can think less and just move. I think if you incorporate something simple and put something complex on top of that, everyone can get along. Whatever the next big thing is to come out, which I guarantee is coming soon, will be a perfect balance of all of that. If you think about it, we’re still in the hip-hop era. A lot of things have come out since, but nothing has made hip-hop seem like a thing of the past.

RB: Can you think of anybody out there now who you would say is making music where “everyone can get along” effectively?

KO: I think everyone is working towards it. There are groups like Radiohead who get really experimental but are still popular. Then there are other pop acts that use live bands in their shows. They have a simple foundation but you see the drummer wilding out at certain points. As far as the “jazz perspective”, some people are incorporating some other stuff but it seems a little too far out for Joe the Plumber.

RB: Radiohead’s popularity is one of many examples of the fact that a lot of people out there aren’t necessarily listening to music to “move”. There seems to be a huge contingent of listeners to certain varieties of indie rock, underground hip-hop, and electronic/ambient music who want to think about music, and even listen to music “for musics sake”, but very few of them are remotely interested in creative improvised music. Also, I don’t think this is quite so clear cut—its not like you have to either make music that nobody likes or music that everybody (including Joe the Plumber) digs. Besides, it seems like there are a lot of reasons why jazz won’t get there again…

I guess I wonder how creative improvisers can at least reach the people who are interested in listening to “music for music’s sake”…

KO: I think we have to get over ourselves to a certain degree and realize that the masses have a respectable intelligence. As long as we say, “I am a jazz musician and you guys are too stupid to realize how great I am”, we already miss the point. They are smart and they have common sense. There are basic necessities for them musically. Once those are covered, you can be as creative as want on top of that. It’s kind of like life. Everyone wants to live in their dream world and do all sorts of different creative things but you still have to pay the bills. You still have to feed your kids. But you can do that creatively as well.

RB: What do you think those musical necessities might be, given the fact that a lot of popular music doesn’t make people dance, per se?

KO: I think you have to connect to them on a certain emotional level. I think you have to be honest and willing to express that. You could get up on the stage and scream and if people “get it” they will flock to it. Bob Dylan couldn’t sing at all but they understood where he was coming from. They felt like they were going through what he went through.

RB: I hear that.

KO: The thing about “creative music” is that many creative musicians are being honest as well, but are speaking in a language that is musically similar to Noam Chomsky. People are like, “ok…what are you talking about, though? I want to understand, but…”

RB: In the last Pi Blog interview, Vijay Iyer suggested that this disparity may not be entirely the fault of musicians. He noted that:

“Yeah, jazz is becoming the new mime: hating it becomes hip again. Someone from Live Nation was quoted as saying something to that effect too. It’s not a new thing - there was a band 20-odd years ago called “Johnny Hates Jazz.” There’s still a contingent of the “jazz community” who want the music to be a history lesson, which can be alienating for listeners who’ve grown used to music being pure entertainment. Maybe from the other side there’s also a general skepticism/disbelief/fear of the kind of expertise it takes to improvise a bunch of notes in real time (a.k.a. “noodling”). We’re sort of in a national all-time low in expertise right now. It could be tied to an anti-intellectual stance that was brought on by, well, any number of things. But things are of course looking up, since Nov 4.

And sometimes jazz people really don’t know when to stop. I’m not talking about Coltrane. I’m talking about people for whom jazz simply equals heroic/athletic soloing, and the aspiring noodlers who love them. That’s anti-intellectual, too. If the composerly tradition within jazz were more appreciated, then we might not have this problem.

Maybe there are just too many jazz musicians. I might even have to agree with that, myself.”

What is your reaction?

KO: I agree. But that is we are. This is definitely not a Utopian society. We must work from here. We must not deny the world we live in. We are playing for that world. Even if we decide to play music that represents the world we would like to live in. We still have to respect the context. For example, if you are speaking to a baby, you may be teaching him concepts that are extremely intelligent and advanced, but you are going to say it in a way that he relates to. You can’t be mad at the baby for not understanding college terms.

RB: On the note of that analogy, its been demonstrated that “baby-talk” isn’t healthy, either, and that you need to speak with a baby in your own voice (Note: we are certainly not comparing the audience to babies here—in fact, I think Kassa and I both agree that the audience is of a “respectable intelligence”). How can we put across a message that respects the modern context while still being true to the elements that make the music what it is? In a country where almost no popular music is improvised, how can we draw upon the rich tradition of that music that is largely unappreciated/ignored/irrelevant (depending on who you ask) while still reaching people on a level they can relate to?

KO: That might get back to the concept of honesty. Nobody wants to be babied—even babies. I remember that when I was little, I always thought I was a grown man. I think you have to bring the audience up to your level by treating their level of understanding with respect. In the case of music, you don’t need to dumb down the information, just simplify the medium of which it is transferred. Try reading a book by a great intellectual philosopher. Then condense it into a short essay. Then condense it into a short story for kids. The information will be the same but a lot simpler. I really like Buddhist parables for that. I think you can somehow do that musically. It can be simple but based on generations of knowledge and wisdom.

RB: I’m not sure popular music necessarily has to be a lot “simpler”. The Mars Volta makes complex music that combines the seemingly irreconcilable genres of punk and progressive rock. Hella’s intricately woven compositions and Aphex Twin’s drum and bass are full of moving meters and laden with tension and release. Also, Madlib’s narrative production style on records like The Further Adventures of Lord Quas questions the idea of hip-hop as “simply” dance music.

KO: For sure…they are pulling the crowd upward intellectually. J Dilla’s beats, for example, come out of a simple back beat. Kick-Snare-Kick-Snare. But the little millisecond that he pushes the snare back or forward, or where he puts the hi-hats in relation to the kick is extremely advanced. I think a lot of people don’t even realize how advanced it is. I know some older people who say, “I like it, but the drums are off”. Maybe in 10 years people will get it.

RB: I think a lot of them get it now…

KO: Some will never get it. Sadly, it is often a generational thing…

RB: On the other hand, it seems to me that the present “context” might also include extra-musical things, like band image and/or willingness to tour. How do you think jazz should address these issues?

KO: I think some jazz musician’s perspective is that they don’t care. Younger musicians should just think outside of the box. I could see certain jazz groups opening for Radiohead etc… But I really don’t know. Maybe if they just start playing in certain venues people will see the intention. I’m also waiting for a jazz album that has skits in between tracks.

RB: In closing, given all of this, why do you make music, and what are you trying to achieve by pursuing a career in music?

KO: I am still trying to figure that out. I have always played music and sometimes I put it down all together. Sometimes if I feel that I don’t have anything to say or anything worth saying, I don’t play. On the other hand, if I have a feeling, whatever it is, I may work on a track for the whole day. For me its a way to express what I am feeling. I think I tend to think about what I am dealing with inside and who or what I am more than I think about music. The thing about pursuing music professionally is that I don’t want to get tied down to music to the point where I don’t feel like playing and I have to. That’s why I want to be able to express myself in different ways musically. I might go to school for musicology or something so I can express myself in other ways as well. I like cooking too. Maybe one day I’ll be called Chef Boy R Kass. All I know is I have a rehearsal today so I will try to express myself in that medium…

RB: Well good luck with your rehearsal, and thanks for taking the time to do this!

KO: I appreciate it, Rafiq. Maybe I’ll interview you next time!

Vijay Iyer: Interview

!t has been my distinct honor to interview the boundlessly innovative pianist/composer Vijay Iyer for the Pi Recordings Blog over the past week. Mr. Iyer’s most recent recordings, Tragicomic (Sunnyside Records) and Door (from the collaborative trio Fieldwork, Pi Recordings), are racking up rave reviews and positions on best-of 2008 lists as we near the end of the year.

Without further ado…

RB: Your recent release Tragicomic has been receiving much critical acclaim recently, but most of the music on the record is actually a few years old. What projects are you currently working on? What can we expect from you in the near future?

VI: Well, there are two albums that are being mixed right now. One is the first album by the trio Tirtha, a collaboration between myself, guitarist Prasanna, and tabla player Nitin Mitta. The other is basically the next “Vijay Iyer” album, with some newer piano trio music with Marcus Gilmore and Stephan Crump, as well as some new material for a quintet, which consists of that trio plus Prasanna and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire but sort of has more of a rock vibe to it at times. The quintet music was commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival and I was really happy with that group. It’s going to be an ongoing thing, I hope, assuming we get more gigs!

RB: It seems that your recordings consistently feature bands. Comment on the role and importance of consistent personnel (a band) in what you do, in jazz, and in music in general.

VI: Well, I don’t know about music in general! But in my own experience I just want to be surrounded by people I can trust. That takes a while to develop and it’s usually forged in the thick of things, in the course of performance, on tour, or in extensive rehearsal. Now when I say “people I can trust,” it’s not that I want them to do my bidding. It’s more that I want them to be involved in co-constructing the music, so that it really becomes ours instead of “mine.”

I saw Wayne Shorter’s group at Carnegie Hall last week, and I was really impressed by how well they did this. They’ve developed a lot over the years and now it’s really like they’re building something for you in real time. They’re not just playing “over” tunes - they are dealing with the fundamentals, the building blocks of musicI guess that brings us to what you called “music in general”! Anyway, the point is that they built that trust and developed that bond, so that they can move as an ensemble with intelligence, and take action as individuals that has weight and consequence.

RB: I’m sure these personalities greatly influence your thinking and actions as an improviser. Give us a glimpse into your mind during the improvisational process..

VI: Well, I’d hope that the music itself is viewed as an audible trace of the thought process. I think that improvisers strive for a unity of thought and action. Muhal Richard Abrams has an album called “The Visibility of Thought,” which seems relevant here.

It’s said often and it’s mostly true - if you’re “thinking” in words when you’re in that moment then you’re somehow not fully present. I say “mostly true” because the mind is vast and multiple, and really can’t be encapsulated by a statement like that. I’ve had moments in performance where there seemed to be “chatter” (i.e. distracted thought-fixations) that I would think would undermine the musical process, but somehow my “body” (which includes my mind) kept playing anyway. So then who am I? The guy who’s worrying about what person X in the 3rd row is thinking, or the guy who’s ignoring those worries and playing anyway, or the guy who’s watching both of those things happen?

That’s why, I think, you can’t really look “into” someone’s mind. You can just get snapshots of it from various angles. And I think the music itself, and particularly one’s improvised musical gestures, provide one such snapshot.

RB: Your compositions, though often specific and intricately woven, provide a framework for these interactions among members of the ensemble. You’ve also written in a wide variety of contexts, from your main working ensembles to your collaborations with Mike Ladd, as well as compositions for orchestras, string quartets, and (more recently) scores for theatre and film. Describe your approach to composing.

VI: I was just listening to In What Language?, from five years ago, and kind of couldn’t believe how much we did. The rewarding thing about it, which I think gets back to something I said earlier about what you called “bands,” is that other people bring out aspects of you that you can’t always access by yourself, and that can surprise you. I listened to it because I’ve been working with Mike Ladd on a new proposal for our next collaboration, and wanted to refresh my memory about what we’d done.

Anyway, composition in my case is usually about creating a situation for things like that to happen. But even creating the situation means you have to have some insight into what is possible. So maybe that’s what composition is - an inkling of what might happen, followed by its realization.

RB: As we both touched on before, you’ve written music for a variety of different ensembles to be performed in a variety of different settings. How does the situation influence the way you write?

VI: It’s generally a question of creating spaces in which people can take action. So it’s really about the individuals involved - what they have to offer, what their comfort zones are, what their strengths are, and what they are going to teach me, and how I can build around them to empower them to set forth all of that. It’s also about orchestration - exploring the full range of the sound of a given ensemble. Those are related, really, because the individuals are represented in the music by the sounds they make. Then there’s the larger question of what the music is about, and why it exists. Without trying to answer those two questions right now, I will say that they do affect the sound of things.

RB: Hopefully we’ll touch on them later in this interview! While you have departed significantly from this territory in other projects, the instrumentation of your main working ensembles (trio and quartet) has consisted of all acoustic instruments. What factors motivate this decision?

VI: Well they are and they aren’t. The bass and piano are almost always amplified, and I definitely take that into account when creating the music we play. But as for a more direct answer, what I really want is the immediacy and expressiveness of these instruments. Acoustic instruments have a broad range, timbrally and dynamically, and as you know I like to explore their extremes. And it’s not just a matter of turning a knob or hitting a switch. With acoustic instruments you can create variation in the course of a phrase. It’s just more supple in the realm of sound generation, and you have more real-time control. I’m not a luddite and I love playing electric and electronic instruments, but I’ve spent more time at the piano than anywhere else. I’ve certainly hit Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” benchmark. That means that I have particular expertise that is tied to the piano. I have found those subtleties there that I haven’t found yet in other places.

RB: The music certainly imparts a perspective on the realm of possibilities that the (well, somewhat) acoustic trio and quartet instrumentation have to offer. Many listeners who don’t have much exposure to improvised music are shocked! Nevertheless, many of them have wondered what your music would sound like with electric instruments

VI: Well, it would be louder. It’s funny, my group often rehearses on a rhodes at Stephan’s place, but I keep breaking it. It’s as if I want it to do something it doesn’t do. We have performed in more electrified form, and I love it. And I’ve played plenty of other gigs on Rhodes, synths, laptops, live processing, and so on. I guess it’s just that aspects of the “jazz” sound involve that subtlety of touch and timbre and dynamic, and especially that ability to get vanishingly quiet, that I like to preserve.

RB: Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with the band RATATAT:

JustArts: How would you classify yourselves?

Ratatat: The opposite of jazz.

JustArts: Your music does have jazz influences in it. What makes you say it’s the opposite?

Ratatat: I just hate jazz. We both do.

JustArts: What do you hate about jazz?

Ratatat: I hate everything. I like jazz trumpet, [though]. NoodlingI cant keep up with it, and I hate the saxophone.

RB: I have seen an increase in the incidence of this perspective among people my age. While I can’t speak for RATATAT, I also find that many of them have very little exposure to jazz. In fact, a few people who used to share this perspective really enjoyed your music; while we were listening to it, one even commented, “I didn’t know jazz could be like this!”

People seem to be listening to all kinds of music these days, but for some reason, jazz doesn’t seem (to me) to be as well represented. Why do you think that might be?

VI: Yeah, jazz is becoming the new mime: hating it becomes hip again. Someone from Live Nation was quoted as saying something to that effect too. It’s not a new thing - there was a band 20-odd years ago called “Johnny Hates Jazz.”

There’s still a contingent of the “jazz community” who want the music to be a history lesson, which can be alienating for listeners who’ve grown used to music being pure entertainment. Maybe from the other side there’s also a general skepticism/disbelief/fear of the kind of expertise it takes to improvise a bunch of notes in real time (a.k.a. “noodling”). We’re sort of in a national all-time low in expertise right now. It could be tied to an anti-intellectual stance that was brought on by, well, any number of things. But things are of course looking up, since Nov 4.

And sometimes jazz people really don’t know when to stop. I’m not talking about Coltrane. I’m talking about people for whom jazz simply equals heroic/athletic soloing, and the aspiring noodlers who love them. That’s anti-intellectual, too. If the composerly tradition within jazz were more appreciated, then we might not have this problem.

Maybe there are just too many jazz musicians. I might even have to agree with that, myself.

RB: As I said earlier, I find the root of these perspectives among my peers to almost always be in ignorance, and ignorance is certainly not the road to expertise. Nevertheless, many people I’ve spoken with who share this opinion find that the limited amount of jazz they have heard represents that perspective. They equate the music with athleticism, and with egocentrism. While I wish they’d expose themselves to the vast amount of more interesting music within the genre, I can’t help but think that it isn’t their fault. Often, other music seems to sound more communal to them, more about creating something together, and I daresay that repeated exposure to the kind of music you just described would have killed my interest, too.

This brings me to the question of how the many groups labeled as jazz that these people would find interesting could be better matched with their markets

VI: I don’t know about matching artists with markets. I’m more interested in seeing artists do things of consequence in the world, than seeing them be validated by a marketplace. I must say, I don’t listen to much new jazz albums myself. For the most part I seem to stop around 1990. I do hear music live, but I was even wondering recently if I’ve reached the limit of how much new music I can listen to honestly in one lifetime.

RB: If the things that artists do are to be things of consequence, it would help if they could broaden their exposure to people who would be interested.

VI: It’s possible that lots of “great” music doesn’t have much of a market.

RB: Certainly. But is that a good thing?

VI: Most of the “great” music of the western canon has a pitiful market. But it had and continues to have a system of patronage that sustains it.

RB: How are you defining “great” here?

VI: I put it in quotes. It’s not defined - it’s just tossed around!

RB: Right, but it must mean something!

VI: Well, it could just mean that some critical mass of influential people think it’s great. But what do they know?

RB: Another way of asking this question is, what do you mean by “consequence”?

VI: That’s a tough one too, but it seems easier than “great.” Consequential acts would seem to have their own impact, resonances and ripple effects in the world. It seems like a more flexible concept, because it’s not defined necessarily by the sheer number of people who see or hear it, AND it’s not referring specifically to an economic notion of value.

RB: but by some gauge of the impact it has on the people it does reach?

VI: It’s more about influence, perhaps? That can be intangible but you can follow it through generations of artists. Couple of examples:

Steve Coleman, I find, is “underrated” in today’s “market.” He still tours in Europe and basically does what he wants, and is hugely respected, but seems to me to be undervalued in American music. I mean, this guy is a pioneer in so many different ways, but you don’t read about him very often in the jazz magazines, and you can’t very easily find his albums here, and he very rarely plays any of the festivals in North America. He’s barely on the radar here anymore. Most of my students have not heard his music, confuse him with other players, and barely know who he is or what he has done, which to me is a travesty! But, think of all the artists he influenced or impacted directly: just on the current “scene,” Dafnis Prieto, Ravi Coltrane, Ralph Alessi, Roy Hargrove, The Roots, myself of course, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Imani Winds, Ethel, Andy Milne, Josh Roseman, Tyshawn Sorey, Miguel Zenon, Yosvany Terry, David Gilmore, to say nothing of the European acolytes like Aka Moon, Octurn, or colleagues from his own generation like Branford, Smitty, Cassandra Now think of all the people that THOSE people influenced or will influence.

For another example, Rafiq Bilal, who used to run a space in the Bay Area called the Upper Room. Basically, he started his own community center with the intent of creating a positive environment for art and activism. No one knows about him and he never had a “market” exactly, but to quote his son Mohammed, “Many of the our greatest artists got their start and/or were shaped at the Upper Room- Goapele, Martin Luther, Saul Williams, Mohammed Bilal, Kimiko Joy, Will Power, Midnight Voices, Michael Franti, Ledisi, Heiro, Robert Henry Jonhson, Housing Authority, etc. Mind Motion was spinning at the Upper Room years before being on KMEL.” These folks are all west coast legends, some of whom have made it out here and in turn impacted the world in their own ways.

That to me is “consequence.”

RB: Billy Hart was making the same point about Mr. Coleman recently, and I couldn’t agree more with both of you. Nonetheless, are you of the opinion that creative musicians shouldn’t worry about reaching wider audiences? Is it simply the responsibility of those who have been inundated with athletic or watered-down examples of jazz to put down whatever else they might be doing and seek out musicians who are “off the radar”, or is there some compromise point? There are people out there who would be very interested to hear this musicdo we simply forget about them and move on?

VI: Well listen, there’s a huge amount of music out here. I am starting to feel old / show my age by saying that I honestly don’t know how people find music anymore. I mean, I know there are lots of networking sites and whatnot where people can share “playlists” and such, but that starts to put a premium on the sensation of newness and it just becomes a fashion cycle. It was said by someone that art and fashion are the “froth” of culture, the ephemeral part that turns over constantly. Some sociologists found that in conditions like the ones we live in now, popularity is essentially random, among music that suitably satisfies some minimal criteria; popularity aggregates exponentially in a sort of “rich-get-richer” system, where people decide that they like an artist because other people like them, too. When you talk about popularity in a group (as opposed to isolated enthusiasm or appreciation), there is certainly a degree of randomness involved.

And that doesn’t help or appeal to people like my colleagues and myself, who are trying to stay in the game for a long time and make music that lasts. I believe and respect the idea that music is a social enterprise, but it seems like we’re facing a certain tyranny of the crowd here. Music of the sort that I’ve come to like, and that I’ve been trying to make, is actually quite fragile, I think.

In saying this I didn’t mean to refute the idea that people can like my music who don’t normally have access to it, or to deny that this is a problem in general, or to imply that I don’t care about it. I totally agree with you, and I’ve said in the past that all we really need is the opportunity to get in front of people and play for them. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me after a concert, “I don’t (like)/(know anything about)/(understand)/(appreciate) jazz but I love your music.” I also get a lot of jazz fans who will say things like, “I’ve (never heard of you)/(never heard an Indian guy play jazz)/(heard of you but never checked you out before), but I love your music.” Or: “I didn’t understand what you were doing at all but it really spoke to me.” I’m definitely not alone in these experiences, and the issue is not unique to me.

So if you really want an answer to your question of how to connect artists to markets, the answer is simple: tour a lot, do tons of gigs, sell albums at shows. It’s not so easy to do that with jazz in the US, particularly if you need pianos; venues are limited and money can be very light. So then, the answer is simpler still: spend money. But what money? Answer: money from record labels, grants, or (increasingly now) one’s own personal stash.

You seem interested in a larger question - how do we inaugurate a new community of listeners? “College-age serious listeners of music” (c.a.s.l.m.) - how do you reach them with this stuff? I would turn the question back at you, since perhaps you are more poised to have some real insight into this community, and to affect the conditions under which they find music. (Jaded professionals are still stuck in this rut of wondering, for example, do c.a.s.l.m.’s spend money on music? If not, they might be prone to ask, what’s in it for them?)

RB: [editors note: The questions Vijay posed in the last paragraph will be the subject of my next blog entry]

I’m certainly not implying that the music should change

VI: Nor am I. I’m just saying that survival, really, becomes the name of the game. And I’m not saying that to place myself in some underdog position.

RB: I’m more trying to get at the fact that there may be a much broader potential audience for the music as it exists. Furthermore, that audience may provide support that increases the chances of survival for creative musicians.

VI: That may be true; there’s already a broad audience, in fact. Allegedly we played for 30,000 people in Chicago.

RB: Wow! Now thats what I’m talking about

VI: Yeah, it was deep! Anyway, more to the point, I’m able to tour and record from year to year, so someone must be hearing this stuff. I don’t know whether the jazz record business sustains itself very well, but I do think that there’s interest in the music even though it has virtually no coverage, support, or infrastructure in this country. At least Obama’s said he’s going to invite some musicians to the White House!

RB: On a related note, discuss the following statement: “Jazz is America’s classical music”.

VI: I was just talking about this with George Lewis on Thanksgiving. I don’t know if Billy Taylor invented that sentence but it definitely became his meme of choice. What purpose did that serve, you have to wonder? To strive to be treated as a sort of junior version of European classical music? We can do better than that. Jazz is, to say the least, one of the most consequential 20th century cultural phenomena to emerge in America.

RB: From speaking with those I know to hold that view, I gather that they are looking for an equivalent respect

VI: Well, they won’t get it that way. I suppose it worked for a handful of them - Dr. Taylor himself, and Marsalis & co. - all safely ensconced at one institution or another, but it didn’t really help the music itself. It leads you to believe that the utterance is some kind of strategic self-preserving gesture.

But I don’t mean to lay waste to all their efforts. I think it was born of a time where such an idea could feel like a mission, a causea rallying cry, even. It just failed to evolve with the times, and now it’s just uttered reflexively, even admonishingly. And a lot of people who said stuff like that willfully wrote off later developments in the music. Would they say this about, say, Miles Davis circa 1981? Or Cecil Taylor, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago?

RB: The idea of jazz as a “history lesson” seems to be well received by open-armed institutions of higher learning. You consider yourself to be largely self-taught, yet you also mentioned your students. What are your thoughts on jazz education, specifically with regards to how current trends in the area relate to historic ones?

VI: Well, I’ve been an official NYU faculty member in the jazz program for three semesters now. I’ve been on the New School adjunct faculty list for a while, but NYU has a greater impact on my life because I have more extended interactions with the students.

I’ve started to realize that the scene has been changing a lot lately. There aren’t really the opportunities for apprenticeship that one used to have with the likes of Blakey, Betty Carter, and so on, so we’ve lost a certain amount of generational teaching that musicians need. There are almost no chances to put their technical expertise in that more worldly perspective anymore. So I am starting to see that in my own humble way I can offer something more like that.

And I must say, I don’t mean to aggrandize my own level of understanding of the world. But I’ve come at music largely through these other channels, and I’ve spent some quality time on and off the bandstand with elder musicians, innovators of the last three or four decades. So I think I bring something else to the table that in a lot of cases it lacks.

I have to say that when we visited Oberlin earlier this year, I was amazed by the stellar faculty. There I am puttering around onstage at this workshop, and I look out and see your teachers Billy Hart, Gary Bartz, and Marcus Belgrave in the audience! What an amazing situation. So you guys over there are getting a different taste of things than what many of today’s burgeoning musicians are able to get.

RB: It certainly is. You mentioned the lack of apprenticeship opportunities, and it is noteworthy that you have employed many a young musician in bands of your own. Nevertheless, there is also the rock band model: get a group together, write and rehearse music, and drive around the country playing wherever you can until you meet your audience. Sure, its grueling and not financially rewarding, but alas, we (meaning, at least, my peers and I) are young!

VI: Yes, there’s a lot to learn in that. In some ways the Art Ensemble followed a model more like that. They also learned from their elders and their community, in the years prior to that.

RB: which is also extremely important, valuable, and rewarding.

VI: I think they also were complete individuals, every one of them, and really thought differently about music and performance anyway. Because a lot of bands are just reinventing things. I can’t tell a lot of it apart, and it’s not for lack of trying. By “it” I just mean music today. It clusters around genre, but within genres there’s a fair amount of sameness.

RB: Many musicians work very hard to overcome what they perceive to be their weaknesses, but others credit similar traits with the underpinnings of their sound. A frequently cited example is how Miles Davis abandoned trying to sound like Dizzy Gillespie after realizing that he was hearing his ideas in the middle register. I once heard Bill Frisell talk about how he had a similar experience after the first time he heard John McLaughlin. Tell us about a musical weakness and/or a unique musical trait of yours and discuss your interaction with it.

VI: Well I was never a particularly fast player, and so I’ve always been a little shy about my technique. But over the years I’ve developed ways of expressing that are more about sound, texture, density, and space. It’s basically a more composerly approach. That comes from a lineage of pianists who did that - Monk, Duke Ellington, Andrew Hill, Randy Weston, Muhal, and Sun Ra. So I had something established to draw from. They helped me figure out a lot of things. If you’re asking whether I ever had a “negative” influence like that, or heard someone play something on the piano that I just will never be able to do - well, that happens almost every day. Life is humbling, like that.

RB: Well you certainly do an enormous amount with what you can do!

VI: I just get used to failure! Once you try it, it’s really not that bad. But thank you for that.

RB: My pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this!

VI: My pleasureI


I’m sorry for the lack of updates lately, but I am excited to inform you all that I will be posting a series of interviews with some of my favorite musicians and composers (both mentors and peers, and including a few artists from the Pi Recordings roster!) over the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

Wayne Shorter Quartet/Imani Winds, University of Michigan, 9.27.08

A few weeks ago, I managed to catch one of my heroes, Wayne Shorter, in concert at the University of Michigan, performing with his quartet (featuring Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade ) and the Imani Winds.

The concert cemented my belief that Mr. Shorter, who released his first album in 1959, is making some of the most important music of his career. The “arrangements” presented by this group, which draw from Mr. Shorter’s compositions past and present, often sound more intricately composed than any of Mr. Shorter’s previous ensembles, yet are almost entirely improvised. This group improvisation is governed by an alternative set of principles: namely, the members of the band are scholars of both Mr. Shorter’s recorded literature and his compositional language, and Mr. Shorter conducts them (quite literally) to reimagine the music anew, night after night. Indeed, this epitomizes the idea of spontaneous composition in a highly unique and composite way.

Furthermore, the band follows Mr. Shorter’s example by embracing extremely tonal frameworks for their potential to evoke the archetypal (and arguably conditioned) responses we associate them with in western music. Mr. Shorter’s use of the unaltered F-major scale, the sound of which is synonymous in the minds of many with learning to play an instrument, at 6:16 in “Smilin’ Through” from Beyond the Sound Barrier, really drives this point home for me. Miles Davis foreshadows the current state of refinement of these skills in the assessment provided in his autobiography, noting that, “[Wayne] brought in a kind of curiosity about working with musical rules. If they didn’t work, then he broke them, but with a musical sense; he understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your satisfaction and taste.”

And, needless to say, Mr. Shorter, who once frequented John Coltrane’s home for lengthy practice sessions, never fails to remind anybody of the power of a sound.

Following the performance, my friends and I had the honor of meeting Mr. Shorter, his wife Carolina, and the rest of the band (Rob Griffin, the band’s acclaimed sound engineer, was responsible for this opportunity and I’d like to extend my thanks to him again). Barely able to speak, I managed to inform Mr. Shorter that my group would be performing material from the new quartet the following night in Oberlin, and asked for his advice as to interpreting his compositions. He stared at me for a long moment, then suddenly exclaimed, “Cover your eyes, and do like this!”, his ears tilted outwards, one hand covering his eyes and the other pouring his thoughts out onto the keys of the imaginary piano between us.

DTM Questionnaire, Newt Gingrich

Some time ago, Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus crafted a short questionnaire about music, and he published several responses on the band’s blog, which I highly recommend. Here are my answers:

Give us an example or two of an especially good or interesting…

  1. Movie score. Not exactly a score, but the use of sound in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
  2. TV theme. Asheru: The Boondocks.
  3. Melody. Bill Frisell: “Again”, John Coltrane: “Love”.
  4. Harmonic language. The Vijay Iyer Quartet: Reimagining; The John Coltrane Quartet: One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note.
  5. Rhythmic feel. Busta Rhymes: “Do My Thing”; Thelonious Monk: “Body and Soul” from Monk’s Dream.
  6. Hip-hop track. Biggie Smalls: “Warning”; Madlib: The Further Adventures of Lord Quas (listen to the whole record as one track).
  7. Classical piece. Ravel: “Sonatine: 1. Modere”; Feldman: “Two Pianos”.
  8. Smash hit. Lil’ Wayne: “A Milli”.
  9. Jazz album. Ornette Coleman: The Science Fiction Sessions; Wayne Shorter Quartet: Beyond the Sound Barrier.
  10. Non-American folkloric group. Homayun Sakhi, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
  11. Book on music. The Miles Davis Autobiography

Bonus Questions:

A) Name an surprising album (or albums) you loved when you were developing as a musician: something that really informs your sound but that we would never guess in a million years: Modest Mouse: Everywhere And His Nasty Parlour Tricks.

B) Name a practitioner (or a few) who play your instrument that you think is underrated: Liberty Ellman, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ali Farka Toure.

C) Name a rock or pop album that you wish had been a smash commercial hit (but wasn’t, not really): Annuals: Be He Me

D) Name a favorite drummer, and an album to hear why you love that drummer: Elvin Jones: Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (especially on “Again”, “Outlaws”, and “Blues Dream”); Art Blakey: Free For All (especially on “The Core”).

In other news (and in some sense related to my last post), I attended an Oberlin College Convocation Series speech/Q&A session hosted by Newt Gingrich yesterday. A student directed the final question of the evening towards Gingrich’s prior criticism of Barack Obama’s speech in Berlin, asking for better justification. Gingrich responded by stating that Senator Obama had acted with “arrogance”, and noted, “You aren’t the President, you aren’t the heir of John F. Kennedy…you are just a candidate”. The former Speaker of the House went on to declare that he was strongly opposed to the premise of being a “citizen of the world” (Obama prefaced this label of himself by stating that he was a “proud citizen of the United States of America”, a fact which Gingrich conveniently left out of his critique), and also suggested that it was a poor political choice. “Would you sleep better if your commander-in-chief considered himself a citizen of the world”, Gingrich asked us, “or a citizen of America?” “It’s kind of like when Reagan had the theme song ‘Proud to be an American”, he mused, adding, “I don’t think ‘Proud to be a Citizen of the World’ would work very well as a theme song…well, maybe as a rap song”. I’ll leave you to decipher how many levels of ignorance/prejudice are contained therein for yourselves.

Hip-Hop and the Shape of Jazz to Come

“You could find the abstract
listening to hip hop,
My pops used to say
it reminded him of be-bop”

Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, on “Excursions” from The Low End Theory

“The first 78 I had was Charlie Parker with strings playing “Just Friends” and “If I Should Lose You”. Buck Hill gave me that record, and also the 78 that had “Star Eyes” on one side and “Au Privave” on the other. From those two records, I fell in love with jazz I couldn’t stop thinking about it, singing about it; it wasn’t like I took drum lessons or piano lessons, but it just took holdI couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

Billy Hart, from this interview conducted by Ethan Iverson

Listening to music has always me led to encounters with the abstract, but it didn’t become an obsession until I was introduced to hip-hop at age seven. I remember scouring the radio for hours with a blank cassette ready, waiting to capture new singles from emcees like The Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes, and Method Man.

Things aren’t too different these days; I’m still listening to the latest from Lil’ Wayne and Three 6 Mafia (I posit that crunk music is a new minimalism for the 21st century). However, subsequently exploring Indian music, experimental rock, blues, reggae, alternative, and eventually jazz/creative music, western classical, minimalist and drone music has led me to develop an affinity for the diversely-informed stylings of Madlib/Quasimoto, MF DOOM, Dizzee Rascal, Dr. Octagon/Doom, and J Dilla.

My experience is not unique in this regardafter all, the interest of the millennial generation has propelled hip-hop to the commanding heights of music, art, and culture. I have noticed that many of my peers trace having the same extrainstrumental fascination with music described by Mr. Hart above to the day they got their first Biggie record, not their first Bird record. It is clear that Mr. Hart himself recognizes this trend; in his new curriculum on the history (and future) of jazz drumming, he lists producers alongside great percussionists from Afro-Carribean, Brazilian, and Indian traditions as determinants of a modern, integrated approach.

I first fell in love with jazz after listening to the record Monk’s Dream featuring Thelonious Monk and his quartet. Monk’s approach in particular exuded “gangsterism”; the same “handmade” quality (this term is discussed below) of the music I grew up listening to. I later learned that I had in fact been hearing Monk all alonghis instantly identifiable attack shapes the feel of several hip-hop tracks from the 90’s, including “Shame on a N**” from **The Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

This reminds me that my perspective on music is framed by a reverse-chronological lens; the way I hear jazz is inevitably shaped by hip-hop, which is, in turn, informed by jazz. Vijay Iyer once shared with me an observation made by Aaron Stewart (formerly a co-leader of Fieldwork)the idea that each generation of young African-Americans has been forced to invent its own art forms, resulting largely from a lack of resources to teach the existing ones. However, there are clearly some common threads/aesthetics that have remained intact throughout the years, as well as an underlying feeling that some people get from both idioms.

Numerous approaches to synthesizing jazz and hip-hop have been explored over the past ten years. I have heard the jazz-based interpretations of hip-hop, often infused with neo-gospel or world music traditions. To my ears, this approach is frequently guilty of producing a watered-down product lacking the sophistication of either idiom. I find myself more drawn towards hip-hop producers’ interpretations of jazz, and not only because of my temporal position. Through sampling and other direct means of integration, hip-hop allows jazz to exist unfettered within it, resulting in a composite, recontextualized product analogous to Monk’s treatment of standards (Iyer 2005).

Mr. Iyer, who’s work and perspective has immensely influenced/inspired me, explains my use of the term “handmade” more clearly in this interview:

“I grew up with hip-hop just like everyone else, so that’s a big part of who I am Some of that music has almost a punk rock orientation in terms of its handmade qualityand that’s what I strive for in jazz too. Even if something has a lot of formal complexity, I’m trying to have that handmade quality speak through it so you can hear the human being behind it.”

I find myself universally in favor of such an orientation. At a time when technical facility is too often an end in and of itself (again, see Iyer’s eloquent analysis), this hard-won quality seems to epitomize the innovative tradition of jazz more than anything else. And, as I consider myself to be a guitarist and composer grounded in that tradition, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about ways to integrate the highly advanced hip-hop lexicon into my compositional/improvisational language by hand. The music of Iyer’s quartet, as well as that of Ahmad Jamal’s trio, Jimi Hendrix, and Joanna Newsom, provides a great starting point for a study of form and the many ways in which such influences can be honestly and rigorously channeled

Not everyone is upbeat about the impact that hip-hop is having on young jazz musicians, or the fact that it exists in general. Wynton Marsalis dismisses the genre as “ghetto minstrelsy”, claiming that, “Hip-hop attacks itself. It has no merit, rhythmically, musically, lyrically”, and Stanley Crouch declared that “nothing of actual import is going to come out of the world of hip-hop”. Nonetheless, it seems as though hip-hop will continue to shape the aesthetic lens through which the youth view jazz, leading to a reimagined idiom perhaps more in line with the handmade tradition after all.

Best of 2007

I begged and pleaded and insisted that I would post to our blog regularly and here we are a year later and I am now just beginning my seventh post. The Sopranos aired with more frequency.

The idea that I could detail my thoughts, share my insights and give an otherwise under recognized voice new heights was, in retrospect, a little more daunting than I had imagined. Either that or when faced with the responsibility to fill these pages with insights only I was capable of capturing and chronicling I was confronted with the awkward truth that perhaps the issue was not one of needing to record them lest they slip away, but rather they were not there in the abundance that I imagined.

Oh well, I guess that leaves me to just ramble off my year end top 10 list, or as much of it as I can remember. Actually, instead I think I will turn it into my list of things I am enjoying or into right now.

  1. Continuum Books Publishers of an anthology of Wire Magazine articles and more recently Andy Hamilton’s Aesthetics and Music.

  2. Henry Threadgill Other than the obvious fact that I don’t need a year end list to publicize my interest in Henry’s music, at this moment I am listening to a live recording from a concert this year.

  3. Roger Federer Pretty rare to see someone come along and just dominate like this. Just watching him has improved my game.

  4. Tyshawn Sorey We didn’t release Tyshawn’s new recording, but we are happy that someone did. If your only exposure to bands led by drummers is the Foo Fighters I think you need to check this out.

More soon. I think

Where are We?

Just sitting here watching the Stax story on PBS. I think my proximity to music has changed over the years. Not I think, I know it has. I’m curious now not just in things that I enjoy listening to, but things that have or have had a place. I think that that first began in ernest with the AACM. Not just music or releases of a genre, but a change and a movement that had a social effect outside of the realm of music. The intention of the music is almost as important to me now, if not at times more important, than the music itself. Now that can become a slippery slope as I have spent time I could have done more with in retrospect listening to people’s attempts and intentions and I’ve come away from that knowing that I have to enjoy the music as much as I appreciate its intentions and those two directives don’t always marry, but again this Stax show wow.

I can’t help but wonder what influence if any we have. I can’t sit here and honestly say that we have anywhere near as a large an audience as they did and therefore it is difficult to look at their influence and be able to measure ourselves by it or try to stand next to it, but I can look and see how they approached their audience. How they tried to broaden their place. Fascinating and of course inspiring. As I’ve said before I’ve been inspired by many labels, ECM, Tzadik, Blue Note etc. But learning a label’s story when I never knew it always brings up that feeling. The possibility of music and the influence it can have.

You know it doesn’t exist anywhere except in our own perception. Film is pictures loaded with associations. Books are words filled with meaning, but music is just this series of open ended thoughts waiting to be interpreted by a listener. Offering the possibility to interpret and apply one’s own meaning. A meaning that can often be very divorced from the artists intentions I think. Other art forms offer this possibility as well, but none in my opinion in as open ended a manner as music.

Back to Stax. what can we do. I can sit here and very easily see people listening to the new Steve Lehman recording and discovering a direction and feeling, an impulse that they can carry over to other parts of their lives but identify as originating with Steve. I know we have a place in history with what we’ve done thus far, but what is that place? I emailed Chuck Nessa a few weeks ago. Chuck has a place. I don’t know him well enough to ask if it is the place he thought it would be. Maybe it should never be as somehow that would suggest goals that were not lofty enough, goals that never evolved or maybe that is just me being pessimistic.

In the six years now that the label has been around my relationship to it has changed. My relationship with the artists has changed and my motivating force has changed. I knew that all of these things would happen the longer we did this as that is natural I think. The picture seems to be getting bigger as it should. I just wonder if we live in a time where something like a Stax could come along and have the impact now that it had then.

The Future

So this week is jazz festival week in NYC. Fun time to be in the city. JVC and Vision Jazz both happening at the same time.

We have been at Vision every night this week in the balcony selling CDs. Opportunities like this are good if for no other reason than to see who our audience is on a global scale. We have a pretty good sense of our audience locally but festivals always bring an international audience. It’s also a nice opportunity to sell CDs. Anyway.

The Vision festival has been going on now for 12 years. It’s been 12 years since I graduated college. All the changes that I have gone through since then, have the performers, organizers, supporters and audience of the Vision Festival gone through a commiserate amount? I don’t know, but being at the festival has afforded me the opportunity to see some of these people up close. Not for me to say really, but 4 days in and I do come away with the feeling that some kind of growth or evolution is needed. Not in the music and not by the musicians, but by the audience. They should want more. I don’t know what that would translate to, but it just feels like that is what is out there. I sold a Steve Lehman CD to someone and he wrote me the next day to say how much he was enjoying it.

Before he bought it he asked me about our CDs with a particular interest in something untraditional. We met a woman in her 30s who goes out to hear music on a regular basis (a rarity believe me) who was more than familiar with our catalog and artists. None of this is new. The people or my opinion, but it what I am left with right now.

The Knitting Factory used to have a summer festival. Now being the Knit it was diverse, big and brawny, not to sound corny. Shows all over the city, very diverse schedule and ambitious. It drew a very different crowd than what you may typically see. Now maybe I am seeing it with rose colored glasses a decade or so later, I don’t know. Regardless of what it was it was another NYC festival.

I remember when a group of NYC artists took a very strong stance against the Knit and, from my perspective, Mihcael Dorf in particular regarding the festival. Long story, but I think it effected the NYC scene significantly, even to this day.

Re-Connecting Flight

Long time since I wrote anything. Not sure what to write about now, except for an update as to what has been going on since the last post. (These posts where someone says “It’s been a while since I’ve done this blah blah blah” they sort of upset me. Do I really need to read about how you have been remiss in your blogging duties? Doesn’t the time between posts tell me that already?)

Lots has happened since the last post actually. One half of Pi Recordings has now officially moved to Brooklyn. The other half remains far north in Manhattan. We have been talking about expanding for a while anyway. We have recorded our first new release of 2007, Amir ElSaffar. Looking forward to releasing that in the fall. We are getting ready to send out promos of Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Raw Materials and Vijay’s Reimaginning. We will be releasing them overseas. Scheduled to go into the studio with Steve Lehman in June. That is coming up soon. And working on our last two releases for the year. Not finalized yet so I can’t say anything now, but I think people will be excited when they hear what they are. If it all works out.

Pi has a new intern. Welcome Andrew.

I got some ECM CDs delivered to me this week. They continue to be an inspiration.

I was looking forward to posting a new track from one of the submissions that we have received recently, but the post office has not been forwarding our mail from the PO box. Hope to have that resolved soon enough. Oh I also read to day that Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor will be playing in a quartet together in London in July. Another thing I would have liked to hear which moving to Brooklyn has prevented me from. If I were still in Manhattan I would have been able to make it there no problem.

Actually, Brooklyn has been great and has, I think, given me a different focus on the label. All of these smaller independently run businesses around us can’t help but cause one to reflect positively on your own independently run business. (Note to financial institutions out there, if you feel you have money to spend to help broaden your audience or just reinforce your image as a business that cares about the smaller players of the world we have heard that it worked well for HatHut for years and would be willing to give it a go with you.)

Vision festival is coming up and in the first night Marc Ribot and Spiritual Unity are performing as are Fieldwork. Heard Muhal in duo and quartet last week. Looking forward to hearing more of him soon. Alright that’s all of the dirty laundry I have to AIR today.

And One...

Not sure what this title means except that Stephon Marbury just missed his second free throw with .9 left in the game and the result is that the Knicks lost by 1.

On the flip side they are in the playoff race and are starting to play like they can make some noise. The fun now is not just watching the games and watching them play well, but what might be coming down the road. The anticipation of greatness and of how one seizes an opportunity presented to them.

Today we closed on our new home. A co-op in Brooklyn. For the past 19 years I have lived in Manhattan. Now a new beginning, in a new borough and the opportunity/beginning of a new stage in our lives. It felt good to stand in the empty apartment and visualize ourselves there with our furniture. It has a loft and I sat up there looking out over the living room. I like what we can do there.

On an almost weekly basis Pi receives demos from musicians around the world. While preparing for our move I have been trying to slim down what we are going to take with us and one of the areas of the apartment that has been impacted the most has been the boxes of demos. Since we can’t release all of the music sent to us let alone listen to it all, I thought that this blog would be a good place to post MP3s of music sent to us that we enjoy. So our inaugural MP3, in honor of our new home, is by Tanya Kalmanovitch and Myra Melford. Tanya is a member of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground. Enjoy

Happy Holidays

Lots going on this December.

Normally I spend December doing the year end accounting for the artists and the label. It is a nice time to account for what the label has done that year and to reflect etc. Sort of a natural phenomenon given the holiday season and all of the summing up of the year that it brings with it.

This year though is a bit different. As the year end merriment, accounting and reflection takes place there is a new twist to it. We are trying to buy a home in Brooklyn. For the first time in my life I will own the apartment that I live in. I will have room to have an office, store CDs and in general live a more comfortable home life.

I spent years with boxes lining my hallway where I currently live. Papers liter my living room and bedroom. Magazines are strewn about. Stacks of CDs occupy most surfaces currently. I don’t know how much of this will change, but I do know that I will have more space to do it in.

A step like this is big. I can count how many big steps like this I’ve taken in recent memory (I’m not including rights of passage that felt big when they happened but were really just overblown normal occurrences). In the past few years I have started a record label, moved in with my girlfriend, got engaged to my girlfriend and then married to her. During that time I released a number of recordings I am proud of to this day, and lost sleep over all of them for one reason or another. That’s it. I’ve spent the past five years in two life long relationships. My wife and my label. Now I am starting a new one. A home.

I feel the same calm I had when the aforementioned relationships began. It is an excitement that manifests itself in a calm way as I look forward to moving into something new (pun intended). The only thing that differentiates this excitement is that the apartment introduces an opportunity other than more space. The opportunity to fill that space with a child. Now that is something new.

We’ll see. I’ve spent a lot of time recently wondering how I will balance all of the different responsibilities and how they will effect my perception of things. I admire my friends who have children.

I’ve viewed the label as my child for a long time. I wonder if there will be any sibling rivalry.

Last Call

One of the advantages of living in New York is that no matter what your state of mind it is a fairly safe bet that you can blend in if you like. It’s a big city with a lot going on and not much makes the average New Yorker stop and notice.

I mention this now because today I spent some time walking through the Tower Records near Lincoln Center. I spent a lot of time in Tower Records growing up. Early on, mostly a little disoriented from one thing or another and then later on frequently disheartened by one thing or another.

I went to NYU from 1991 to 1995. The Tower Records on Broadway and 4th was packed on a regular basis. I remember vividly that trying to go there on Friday’s early in the evening could sometimes be next to impossible the crowds were so big. I discovered a lot of music there and had a lot of fun doing it. It was, as I’m sure most people’s college experience was, exciting to discover music at a time in my life where my interests seemed to be moving in new directions every day. Standing there, and not that I can remember this precisely now but I’m sure it happened, there was a certain sense of awe at what was on the shelves. I mean there was a lot of music there I was interested in.

After college I worked in an indie music store in New York called Kim’s. I had similar experiences there, but it was a little different. I had seen a little bit more by then and had a better sense of what I thought I wanted to see more of. Tower was more naive. I can still remember hitting a stack of Poison CDs with Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, while on hallucinogens for the first time, and scolding the Poison CDs for being bad CDs.

I think my relationship with Tower changed once I started a record label. Tower was no longer there to educate me with hidden treasures. Instead I knew exactly what I wanted out of Tower. SALES……

Up until August of this year I expected all of our recordings to be in Tower without question. If they weren’t I assumed that it was because of sell through and demanded immediate restocking from my distributor. I often complained to my wife that we needed to be better represented in Tower. As a side note I brought my wife to Tower on our first date. I wanted to pick up an issue of Pulse, Tower’s long defunkt in-store magazine. It featured an interview with Henry Threadgill connected to our first releases. I proudly showed it to my future wife. I felt pretty good that night.

I have to say there was always a part of me that missed my early relationship with Tower. We had grown apart. It was no longer the packed store that people flocked to for musical enlightenment and I no longer went there to spend money but instead to make it. Since working at Kim’s I have pretty consistently shopped at indie stores as I still enjoy the culture very much though I feel that relationship changing as well.

So it was with an incredibly heavy heart that I went through Tower today to see what remains of it. Five days till their doors will close forever. It was crowded. Not as crowded as it was when I was in college, but more crowded than I’ve seen it in a while. Everyone going through what remained on the shelves. Sort of like picking over a corpse. Looking for anything remaining that might have once served a purpose. I didn’t recognize too many of CDs that were left. Weird to me that those artists might have once stood in Tower, perhaps like me, a little awed by it and wanting badly to be a part of it in some way. And now they are all that’s left of it. To have finally had their wishes fulfilled. To be on the top shelf of the record bin or at the end of aisle. And all because in the weeks leading up to this everyone else rushed in to buy whatever they could get their hands on on sale.

Weird how things work out. I couldn’t find anything I wanted so I left.