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!