AMN Interviews: Andrew Raffo Dewar

AndrewWebAndrew Raffo Dewar is a composer, improviser, woodwind instrumentalist and ethnomusicologist, currently holding the position of Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts in New College and the School of Music at the University of Alabama.

He has performed or recorded with Matt Bauder, Anthony Braxton, Taylor Ho Bynum, Eugene Chadbourne, Bill Dixon, Milo Fine, Jessica Pavone, Gino Robair, John Shiurba, Aaron Siegel, Alan Silva, Matthew Welch, Davey Williams, Jack Wright, and many others.

The latest release of his Interactions Quartet is being released by Rastascan Records on July 15th.

Your compositions have a sense of space that sounds carefully planned out. Is this indeed intentional on your part?

Very much so. I think negative space is essential to understanding and placing objects, musical or otherwise, in relation to one another. It can lend a clarity and definition to the objects you want to highlight, or, alternatively, you can use the objects to frame “empty” spaces. For me, my interest in the structural use of space as integral to a music’s form is also related to my understanding of the Japanese concept of “ma,” or “spaces between” that give shape to a whole. While I am by no means an expert on Japanese culture, “ma” is a concept I identify with — as I interpret it, it is the idea that so-called “empty” spaces are charged with meaning, not only in their relation to the objects they surround, but as objects themselves. It’s like that black and white op art piece many of us have seen, where you can see either a vase, or two faces looking at one another, depending upon what you read as negative space, foreground, and background. There are infinite ways to hear form in music, and how you interpret spaces between sounds is one of them. The trick as a composer and performer is making those spaces meaningful and crucial to the music’s energy and form — in music, I think of artists like Watazumido, Morton Feldman, Thelonious Monk, Salvatore Sciarrino, Roscoe Mitchell, Steve Lacy, and many others as role models for this approach.

How does your holding an academic position impact your writing and touring? Are you tied up with your work, or does it provide you the freedom to pursue your goals?

This is a complicated question, entangled with all kinds of issues, the most potent of which for me is not my holding a job as an academic, but the socially constructed and enforced hierarchies of artistic “importance” and “relevance” tied to geography and market forces that I think undermine and limit aesthetic discoveries. The short answer, though, is both yes and no. While I am not out touring as much as many of my friends and colleagues who are full-time musicians, nor do I have quite as much time to devote to composing and playing as them because of my “day job,” I can say that 100% of the music I compose and perform is exactly the music I want to be doing (though of course not everything is successful). The freedom to make only the music you want is a luxury many do not have, but it is very important to me, and one of the main reasons I decided to pursue this path. Another issue this question raises is that there is actually very little paid touring work these days for people working outside or between established genres and idioms (and even within more “marketable” genres the pickings are slim). To put it bluntly, I have yet to turn down a paying gig to perform my music because my teaching job got in the way — there are simply too few paid performing opportunities to support the huge number of talented artists active today — it’s a pretty serious and complicated problem. By removing myself from some of these more market-driven issues, I have found, if not “freedom,” at least something approaching a reasonably healthy balance of economic necessity and artistic exploration.

Some of your music seems informed by Anthony Braxton. Can you describe your relationship with him and his music?

Braxton has been one of my primary mentors, and I’ve performed and recorded professionally with him since 2005, so his inspiration has, obviously, been profound. One of the main reasons I decided to go to graduate school in 2002 was to study with Braxton and the other incredible faculty at Wesleyan University, where I took advantage of the full tuition waiver and teaching assistantship I received to complete an MA and PhD. Braxton’s work, which I’ve been listening to and learning from for just over 20 years, has been most influential to me through its breadth of curiosity. What do I mean by “breadth of curiosity”? His work is kaleidoscopic in its reach — from string quartets, to marches, to pieces for 100 tubas, four orchestras, seven trumpets, or one saxophone — and it mostly exists outside and/or between traditional genre boundaries, while still being deeply informed by them, and yet all of that wide-ranging music (once you become familiar with his musical language) sounds like Braxton’s music. So, I would say that Braxton’s most powerful influence has been to challenge me to explore that paradox of creating a musical world that is simultaneously so broad and exploratory as to be uncategorizable by traditional measures, and yet still singular and identifiable as my own. As one of my other mentors, the great Steve Lacy, succinctly said, “follow the music wherever it leads you.”

Do you compose with the intent that anyone will perform your pieces, or are they primarily for your own use?

It entirely depends on the piece. I have music that I only perform with musicians I am familiar with, which are usually more open-ended in form, and I have other works written specifically so any musician could perform them — which are most often through-composed. I have recently become a bit more adventurous and/or reckless with score-making for the unknown performer, though. For example, in the summer of 2013 I made a series of six found-object graphic and tactile scores titled “Material Music” at the Elsewhere Museum in Greensboro, NC, which are wide open to interpretation. Anyone (including dancers) can use them as scores to guide a performance — or they can be appreciated simply as visual works. The premiere performance actually transformed the assembled audience into the orchestra. We had a group discussion about how they would interpret and perform the score, and I then conducted them through their specified interpretation, and that was the piece! Info on “Material Music” here: http://www.goelsewhere.org/material-music/ ..and NPR-affiliate WFDD did a nice radio piece on these works, too: http://wfdd.org/post/meet-artist-composer-saxophonist-educator-andrew-raffo-dewar

What about your early history? How did you become involved in music?

I’m originally from Argentina, but we left a couple weeks before the 1976 military coup. My earliest vivid musical memory is hammering away on my grandmother’s upright piano at age 5 or 6. I lied to her and told her I was playing a song they taught us in school — but in hindsight I realized I was improvising. That’s my first memory of feeling a powerful connection to music-making, and in some ways I think that’s the embryonic place I still try to return to when performing. I studied and played trombone in the public school band in Minnesota from 4th through 9th grades, largely because my father was a talented trombonist as a young man so we had one in the house. During that time, I simultaneously picked up the guitar to play and tour in rock bands, sang in school choir, performed in plays and musical theatre productions, etc. before I bought a lovely, overlooked and very underpriced Buffet C12 clarinet for $180 in a pawn shop in Minneapolis and proceeded to fall head over heels for woodwinds. After moving to New Orleans for a period in the mid-1990s, I swapped the clarinet for the soprano saxophone, which is the instrument I’ve played more or less exclusively since. My broader, global musical education includes studying Indonesian music off and on since 1995 (primarily the flute and vocal music of West Sumatra, and Central Javanese gamelan), performing with an Ethiopian Oromo immigrant group in Minneapolis in the early 2000s, and most recently, beginner-level study of a few styles of Ghanaian music during a two-month trip there in the summer of 2011 assisting with my wife’s research.

How did you end up gravitating toward the avant-garde / creative music?

There have been a number of “watershed” moments that led me to this music, but here are three vignettes:

I took part in a high school exchange program in Russia during the winter of 1991-92, and heard an incredible and raucous saxophone and drum free jazz duo (the saxophonist also doubled on piano) accompanying an experimental ballet performance near Novosibirsk, Siberia, where I was studying, and that music was so powerful and moving to me that I couldn’t get it out of my head (still, to this day). I wish I knew who those musicians were, because I would love to thank them!

During my first year of undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota, probably early 1994, some of my musician friends and I (a couple of whom now perform in the successful experimental rock band Deerhoof) came across the work of Minneapolis-based master multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine (who has become one of my important mentors and collaborators). The inspiration I received from his music, and his incredibly committed work ethic encouraged me to dive deeply into more exploratory music.

Hearing the Sun Ra Arkestra around 1994-95 in Minneapolis, shortly after Mr. Ra’s planetary departure. The band was processing onto the stage, and the great Marshall Allen came right up to me and played an otherworldly solo, inches away, looking directly into my eyes, with the same incredible energy and focus he demonstrates to this day. It was simultaneously overwhelming and hugely inspiring, and at that moment I knew without a doubt I wanted to dedicate myself to this music.

brd068Any releases or performances coming up in 2014 that you’d like to talk about?

My new “Interactions Quartet” CD of my compositions is being released by Rastascan Records on July 15th, featuring the great Gino Robair (percussion, analog electronics), John Shiurba (guitar), and Kyle Bruckmann (oboe, english horn, analog electronics). I have another forthcoming album with this quartet, a 45rpm LP featuring my composition “Strata (2011)” that should be released by Porter Records in late 2014 or early 2015. I am also recording an hour-long piece with this quartet in the Bay Area this fall; “Ekphrasis Suite (2013),” a 2012 Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Foundation “New Jazz Works” commission. There is a wonderful improvised trio session with myself and two great composer / performers, Anne LeBaron (harp), and Andrea Centazzo (percussion, electronics) that will hopefully see the light of day this year, and another trio recording with Steve Swell (trombone) and Garrison Fewell (guitar) being mixed right now that is a follow-up to our 2013 CD “Estuaries” on the Italian dEN Records label. Finally, I have three duo recording projects currently in process; one with experimental poet Hank Lazer to be published in 2014 by Torre de Letras in Cuba as a book of Lazer’s poems with a CD of our duos, one side of a 2-LP set of duos with German electronicist Phillip Schulze, who I’ve been working with since 2004, and a third duo project with virtuoso guitarist Davey Williams, who I’ve been working with since I arrived in Alabama in 2008.

AMN Interviews: Rich Halley

rich6medRich Halley is an Oregon-based tenor saxophonist and composer. He has released 16 recordings as a leader, 6 since 2010, including this year’s Wisdom of Rocks. His recent collaborators include Michael Vlatkovich, Clyde Reed, his son, Carson Halley.

Rich sat down with us to answer a few questions, and provided not only his history and perspective on creative jazz, but a nice slice of jazz history itself.

1) Tell us about your history and development as a musician.

I grew up listening to the rhythm and blues, country & western, and rock & roll that I heard on the radio in Portland, Oregon. I began playing the clarinet in the school band at age 11 and started playing tenor saxophone when I was 15. Soon afterwards I began to listen to jazz, and immediately became intensely interested in the music.

Early on I listened a lot to Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, among others. By the time I was 16, I was playing in jazz groups and trying to learn the basics of bebop. Sometimes we would play in a “free” context; to me that was always a very natural thing to do. While I was still in high school I began to listen to people like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. I always felt that Ornette’s music was very straightforward. It swung, it had a lot of feeling, and the soloists told a story. To me, those are the basics of jazz. Also, the music had a folk-like quality. Ayler’s music had that folk-like quality even more so.

After graduating high school, I moved to Cairo, Egypt with my family. In Cairo I was in a band that played many styles of music, a sort of international mix. I enjoyed living in Egypt and the multi-national scene there. After that I moved to Chicago and that period is covered in the next question.

In 1969, I lived in Berkeley, CA for a few months. Saxophonist Bert Wilson lived next door. There were regular sessions at Bert’s house and I played at many of those. Musicians in the area would come by and hang out. Sonny Simmons would come by, and Smiley Winters used to be there a lot. Bert was always playing, listening, or talking about music. He was an important force for modern music on the West Coast.

Back in Portland I alternated periods of musical activity with time out in the mountains working, hiking and climbing. I continued to play in jazz groups, including a trio with bassist David Friesen and drummer Ron Steen. I also played in rock and rhythm and blues bands.

In 1973, 1 went back to college to study biology at Portland State University. After I graduated, my wife Betty and I were married and we moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I attended the University of New Mexico and did field research on rattlesnakes. While I was in New Mexico I played in a funk band. After completing my Master’s degree in biology, we moved to San Francisco where I played mostly in Latin bands. It was at this time that I began writing music seriously, although I wasn’t performing it in public.

After a year in San Francisco we returned to Portland, in the fall of 1976. From that time until 1981, I supported myself as a musician in Portland, playing in jazz groups and Latin bands. In 1981 I began working as a programmer for the local Blue Cross plan. I supported my family by working in IT for the next twenty-eight years.

In 1977, drummer Dave Storrs and I formed Multnomah Rhythm Ensemble. Dave played drums and tuba, I played saxophones, flutes and percussion, and Steve Willis was on bass, cello, clarinet, and a lap steel guitar that he played with a butter knife while it was turned up to distortion level. We played a concert as a quartet with Julius Hemphill and continued to play in that trio format for a couple of years. Then the band changed to a septet with three horns and four rhythm including Ghanaian master drummer Obo Addy. We would do things with images, masks and costumes, talking and movement as well as music. Sometimes we made our own instruments. I was writing music regularly for these groups. My first album, “Multnomah Rhythms”, was recorded around that time. Since then I’ve been playing and recording with my own groups.

During the 80’s and 90’s I led a band called The Lizard Brothers, a sextet with three or four horns. We released five recordings on Avocet and Nine Winds and performed on the West Coast and in Canada. The Lizard Brothers was definitely a vehicle for writing and featured multi-sectioned charts combined with open improvisation. The group was large enough to allow me to experiment with a lot of different approaches to composition and arranging. At various times the band included reed player Vinny Golia, trombonist Michael Vlatkovich and trumpeter Rob Blakeslee.

In 1991-92 I played in a cooperative band called Jack’s Headlights that included Rob Blakeslee, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Aaron Alexander. Michael Bisio and Aaron Alexander lived in Seattle at the time but are now in New York. In 1994 I worked with my sister-in-law Barbara Newell to start the Penofin Jazz Festival in Northern California. Barbara runs a small company that manufactures Penofin wood finishes. It’s a small private festival that takes place out in the country in an historic barn. We have presented many leading creative jazz artists over the last twenty-one years.

In 2001, I formed a trio with bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Dave Storrs. The three of us had been playing in a quartet with Rob Blakeslee. This trio was more oriented toward free improvisation and had a nice open group feeling. From 2001 to 2005 we released three recordings on Louie Records plus a quartet recording with cornetist Bobby Bradford in 2003. We were only able to play with Bobby occasionally but it was great when we were able to do it.

Beginning in 1999 I also led the Outside Music Ensemble, a four horn/two percussion sextet that performed in purely acoustic outdoor settings. For 13 consecutive years the OME performed annual hike-in concerts on top of the butte in Powell Butte Nature Park east of Portland. This was an event where I was able to combine music with my interest in the outdoors.

2) You spent some time in Chicago in the late 60’s. Were you involved with or influenced by the AACM artists?

In 1966, I moved to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago. At that time the AACM was very active and many of the musicians lived in the neighborhood around the university. What I liked most about the AACM was that they were committed to working together and they were not afraid to do something different and find their own way. There were sessions on the UC campus every Friday night where as many as ten or fifteen groups would play, including people like Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Leroy Jenkins, etc. Plus other great players who didn’t ever get to New York, like bassist Charles Clark. Of all the saxophonists I heard there, I especially liked Fred Anderson. I played at some of those sessions and at one point Joseph Jarman organized a big band of students and other young players. We played charts from the original AACM experimental band.

I worked in a rhythm & blues band in Chicago that included Jeff Carp, Paul Asbell and Jordan Sandke. Soon after I left Chicago they recorded with Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Jordan’s brother, Randy, was in a band with Michael Brecker and I got to know both of them. Chicago had all kinds of great blues players and I came to really love that music. At the time, people like Otis Rush (who I used to sit in with), Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Albert King, B.B. King and many others, were always playing around the city. Eddie Shaw was Otis Rush’s tenor player at that time and when I had to solo after him it was always an education.

I studied for about six months with saxophonist Joe Daley. He helped me learn more about playing chord changes and showed me some things about improvisation. I used to hear Anthony Braxton practicing when I would walk by his apartment; he was very dedicated and always practicing. When I saw him on the street we would sometimes talk about music. I remember that I once told him I was getting in a couple hours’ practice every day. He said, “Two hours? You know it takes more than that.” And he was right. Later on I practiced four or five hours a day.

3) You have a love for the outdoors. Do you find inspiration for your music in nature?

I love doing all kinds of outdoor activities. I’ve spent lots of time studying animals and plants, hiking, fishing, hunting, climbing mountains and scuba diving. There is something about connection with nature that opens up perceptions and provides grounding for human experience. Since childhood I have been interested in animals, plants and the wilderness. These things have been a major interest and presence in my life and so they influence my music, but not necessarily on a conscious level. I think the way you live comes out in your art, regardless of intention. And so when I write music, references and relationships to the outdoors often come up. But often it’s not something I plan.

4) Your last several albums have featured the quartet of yourself, Michael Vlatkovich, Clyde Reed, and Carson Halley. How did this group come together and do you see it being your working band in the near future?

The Rich Halley 4 sort of evolved out of the Rich Halley Trio with Clyde Reed and Dave Storrs. After several years Dave decided he wanted to do other projects. Clyde and I wanted to continue playing and possibly expand what we had been doing. Carson and I had played a lot of duo gigs together and he was also in the Outside Music Ensemble so Clyde and I started playing with him. We played quite a few gigs as a trio. I had played with Michael in various groups since the 90’s and I knew he would be a great addition. A second horn creates all sorts of possibilities for harmony, counterpoint and sonic variety but of course it has to be the right person and Michael was that person.

The RH4 is definitely a working group; we play pretty regularly in spite of the fact that Michael lives in LA, Clyde lives in Vancouver B.C. and Carson and I live in Portland. I really appreciate Michael’s and Clyde’s dedication to our music and their willingness to travel to our gigs. The group is ongoing and our music continues to evolve.

5) What is it like working with your son Carson?

Well, it’s wonderful to be able to play with my son and be able share in the creative process. But he didn’t come into the band because he was my son; Carson was definitely the right drummer for the group. He’s added a lot, partly because he brings the musical sensibilities of his generation to the band which adds to the depth of the music. Carson sort of took over a set of drums I had for rehearsals when he was 13. He started playing in rock bands and then later began to play jazz. When he went to Pitzer College he was very lucky because Bobby Bradford directed the jazz band and Bobby really taught Carson a lot about the music. Then Carson began playing gigs with me as well as in other bands and things progressed from there. I never expected him to be in my band or groomed him to be a musician but he was always around the music so I guess it was just a natural process.

6) You were involved in the founding of Portland’s Creative Music Guild. How did that come about?

In 1991 Rob Blakeslee and I founded Portland’s Creative Music Guild. There weren’t a lot of performing opportunities for freer music in Portland so the Guild was an attempt to address that. The idea was to present concerts by regional musicians as well as by groups travelling through the area. The Creative Music Guild is still active and has presented hundreds of concerts over the years. The Rich Halley 4 played at the CMG’s Improvisation Summit of Portland last month. It was a three day event that included film and dance as well as music and featured a large group led by Tim Berne.

7) When listening to your music, it seems as if the line between composition and improvisation is very lightly drawn. How do you combine these two disciplines?

In a small group where the music is 90% improvised everything depends on the players involved and the chemistry they create. The RH4 has great group chemistry. Because very little is pre-planned we often take big risks when we play and everyone is willing to do what it takes to make the music work as an integrated whole. Clyde is great at connecting things and also launching the band in new directions while we are improvising. He has a beautiful sound and plays with a lot of feeling. Carson plays deep grooves and is very attentive to sound and nuance. He has a good sense of when to play and when to step back and he really internalizes the compositions. And of course Michael is a great soloist and is really interactive in his playing. He’s also a wonderful composer and he improvises like a composer.

I think what really makes the band work is the fact that everyone interacts in a very compositional way. I refer to this as compositional group improvisation. Each person is hearing what we have played as a whole and adds new musical statements based on that context. You have to create the right balance of tension and release. This helps us build each piece as a complete and coherent musical statement. One of the things that make the band interesting is that even though we do free improvisation we are also strongly rooted in tradition and we use a very broad continuum of the historical language in jazz when we play. We don’t just use one subset of the language. In our music we often combine very traditional elements, say a bluesy shuffle for example, with completely free improvisation based on sounds and energy flow. This is a natural and authentic thing for us. And the band plays with feeling; it’s not some intellectual exercise. If you don’t play with feeling you might as well hang it up because music is really about feeling.

I write all the music for the band, although we also often play totally free with no written composition to work from. When we are working from a composition, after the written material is played, whatever happens next is improvised spontaneously. There are generally no guideposts as to where the music will go. The trajectory of the music is based on group improvisation but of course that improvisation is influenced by and is in the context of the feel and structure of the written material that precedes or follows it. In this way we try to make the improvisation seamless with the written material. And the structures that we improvise are more dramatic than if they were worked out because of the elements of surprise and discovery.

8) What do you have coming up this year in terms of tours and releases?

The Rich Halley 4 just recorded a new CD in May and I expect that will be released in 2015. We did a Midwest tour this spring which went very well. I’m hoping we can get to the East Coast in 2015. And we’ll be doing the Penofin Jazz Festival in May 2015. Beyond that, I don’t know. The world is always changing and hopefully there will be some interesting opportunities.

AMN Interviews: Vijay Anderson

ViJay-1.Peter-VarshavkyVijay Anderson is a San Francisco area drummer and composer who has been playing and recording with various creative and jazz musicians for about 20 years.

His latest recording, Touch and Go Live at Novara Jazz Festival is available at here and here. His previous recording, Hard Boiled Wonderland is available at Nottwo Records.

AMN reviewed Touch and Go Live at Novara Jazz Festival here.

Did you grow up with music? How did you end up as a student at Mills?


I grew up in Southern California. I started playing drums in 4th grade. I played in school bands and jammed with friends. When I was 13 I was in a band that did 60’s rock songs; Ginger Baker was my favorite drummer. I later became interested in jazz music, joined my high school Jazz band, started going to concerts. Among those I saw were: Eddie Harris, Charles McPherson, Elvin Jones, Joe Henderson, and Pharoah Sanders. In 1996 I started playing with a L.A. saxophone player named Lynn Johnston, who introduced a whole new world of music to me. We played music by Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, as well as Ellington and various odd standards, and other cover tunes. This experience was a huge influence on my musical life. Over a decade later, I decided to go back to school, after years of performing as a creative/working musician.

I went to Mills, primarily to study with Roscoe Mitchell and William Winant. Luckily I got a scholarship, which made it possible.

How did the Mills experience influence your career?

I wanted to broaden my perspective and get better as a musician. I definitely have more confidence as a composer now. I wrote a lot of music at mills, which slowly evolved in to what you hear on the Touch and Go record.

Do you consider yourself a primarily a free-jazz drummer, a composer, both, something else entirely, or does it really matter?


I am a musician who plays the drums, and writes music. Most wouldn’t call Touch and Go at Novara Free Jazz. There are however projects which rely heavily on improvisation where this term would be apt. I love playing original music by my peers, playing Monk tunes, old standards, improvising, and folk tunes. I enjoy playing and am inspired by almost everything: rock, funk, blues, odd times, odd textures, african and cuban rhythms, and of course bebop, modern jazz, and old swing music. I am not saying I have mastered these forms, but I do like being able to utilize any of these ingredients when I see fit. The masters of “Jazz” drumming will always inspire my approach to percussion, people like: Denis Charles, Max Roach, Eddie Blackwell, Rashied Ali, Sunny Murray, Philip Wilson, Frank Butler, Gerry Hemingway, Baby Dodds, I could go on. As a working/creative musician I usually try to incorporate whatever is necessary to the particular situation at hand.

When discussing regional creative music scenes, New York, Chicago, DC, and London often pop up. But it seems as if the San Francisco area just keeps cranking out great music. What is the scene there like, and how has it evolved?

I have been living in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1996. There has always been a strong underground jazz/experimental music scene. Musicians such as Glenn Spearman, Hal Stein, Eddie Marshall, Bishop Norman Williams, Vince Wallace, Ed Kelly and Donald Bailey set a high a bar out here. I feel very fortunate to have been able witness most of those musicians and that aspect of the bay area’s history. Drummers like Donald Robinson, Spirit, Vince Lateano, and Willie Winant are still here, and perform often. Groups like the Rova saxophone quartet, who have been at it for 35 years, as well as SF Sound, are consistently creating singular music. Francis Wong, Hafez Modirzadeh, John Schott, Positive Knowledge with Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas are just a few of the outstanding players making noise outside the mainstream. The influence of Mills is hard to ignore. With teachers like Fred Frith and Roscoe Mitchell (among others) there, it makes the bay area a desirable destination for creative musicians of all stripes.

Reliable venues playing restless forward leaning music are: Center For New Music, Duende, the Sound Room, The Luggage Store, Simm Series at the Musicians Union Hall, the Berkeley Arts Festival, The Active Music Series at the Uptown, Studio Grand, The Monday Makeout at the Makeout Room. If you come to the Bay Area check out bayimproviser.com, a great source for improvised music and its offshoots.

Two of your most recent releases, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and Live at the Novara Jazz Festival, are both sextets in which you do most of the writing, and feature three members in common. How are these groups and compositions similar or different?

The Live at the Novara Jazz Festival record features composed material with freedom of expression (improvisation) in specific areas, whereas the Hard-Boiled Wonderland record is solely improvised. In both groups, I was incredibly fortunate to have incomparable players. The Hardboiled Wonderland Record features Sheldon Brown and Ben Goldberg on reeds, Smith Dobson V on vibraphone, Ava Mendoza and John Finkbeiner on guitars, and myself on drums. This was the first time these 6 musicians played together. I’d been involved in a trio with Ben Goldberg, and Sheldon Brown, and a trio with Ava Mendoza and John Finkbeiner. I decided to combine the two groups, add Smith on vibraphone and record it. There were no rehearsals. It was purely improvised.

The “Live at Novara Jazz Festival” recording, features the Touch and Go Sextet, which consists of Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Sheldon Brown on saxophones/ clarinets, Darren Johnston on trumpet, Aaron Bennett on saxophones, and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass. I wrote/arranged this music with the intention of featuring the personalities of each musician. I was interested in counterpoint and harmonic movement, and how to incorporate improvisation in to this context. I am a huge fan of Henry Threadgill, Ray Anderson, Charles Mingus, John Carter, Duke Ellington, and Julius Hemphill. Playing in Adam Lane’s Sextets and Graham Connah’s various groups was also a significant influence on this music.

Is Hard-Boiled Wonderland based in any way on the novel of a similar title by Haruki Murakami?

Yes, I was reading that book while mixing this record. The group was two different trios combined to make a sextet. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End Of the World is two seemingly separate stories or perspectives which are revealed to be related in the end. It made sense to me. The music reminded me of the book in some enigmatic way.

If you had more time to dedicate to music, would it go toward your own compositions or to playing live with more people and absorbing different styles?

Yes. I enjoy composing music but being involved in other projects where I can focus on my drumming is rewarding and challenging in a totally different way. I’m up for almost any kind of improvisation.

Any upcoming release or recording plans for the rest of 2014?

The trio I mentioned early with Ben Goldberg and Sheldon Brown is called Goldberg, Brown, and Anderson. We improvise, but we’ve played with each other so much that it sounds almost composed. Sometimes. We have been discussing doing a studio recording sometime this year. I also would like to record a project with Aaron Bennett, John Finkbeiner, and Robert Overbury. This is a cover band the plays music by Thelonious Monk, Roscoe Mitchell, Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington and standards.

Other projects I am involved with which I hope will record are:

A few Adam Lane groups, including the return of his trio with Vinny Golia, and his project with pianist Connie Crothers, Virg Dzurinko and Daniel Carter. Marco Eneidi’s Shattered Trio, Jon Raskin’s Trio, both with Lisa Mezzacappa on bass, and most recently Sheldon Brown’s 10 piece Ensemble which is making its world premiere at the S.F. Jazz Festival on June 15, 2014.

AMN Interviews: Daniel Rosenboom

Daniel Rosenboom 12-29-2012Daniel Rosenboom is a trumpeter who has released a number of compelling albums in the last few years, and is also trying to grow the Los Angeles creative music by curating live shows and launching his new label, Orenda Records.

In addition to this interview, we recently reviewed Daniel’s latest album, Fire Keeper.

How did you get to where you are? Tell us about your history.

I was born into an environment of artistic experimentalism. My father, David Rosenboom, is a pioneering avant-garde composer, and my mother, Jacqueline Humbert, is a wonderful avant-garde vocalist and a central member of the late Robert Ashley’s opera company. From the very beginning, I was continuously surrounded by music, art, and people that pushed the boundaries of aesthetic and embraced a spirit of adventure when it came to creativity.

As far back as I can remember, I was drawn to music. I started studying classical piano when I was 4 years old and picked up the trumpet when I was 9. My very first trumpet teacher, Wadada Leo Smith, helped me find a personal sound on the instrument, but at the time I was too young to really appreciate the gravity of his teaching. Nevertheless, I fell in love with the trumpet, but I remained mostly interested in classical music.

All the way through college, I was enamored with classical music, and especially contemporary classical music. Something about the marriage of that sense of experimentalism and adventure with the precision and craft of classical techniques really inspired me – and still does! However, by the time I was finishing my undergraduate studies at the Eastman School of Music, I was searching for something more individual, more personal, for my own career.

I returned to California to study simultaneously at UCLA and the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and began experimenting with my own musical voice. Studying, and ultimately playing with Vinny Golia really opened my eyes to the world of improvised music in a way I hadn’t really experienced before. I dove deep in that direction, and it’s carried me through ever since.

At the same time, I started playing in various bands that incorporated lots of elements of rock, blues, jazz, and especially Balkan music. I joined the hardcore Balkan jazz-rock band PLOTZ!, which is still one of my favorite musical projects, and fell totally in love with odd dance rhythms and Balkan modes. Between this group, and many other genre-bending projects I started to synthesize, albeit unconsciously, an aesthetic that, to me, is truly genre-less.

I like to make music that is a natural amalgamation of all the various things I enjoy – music that takes the range of modern sonic influence and naturally coalesces into something original.

On your most recent release, Fire Keeper, there are clearly jazz and classical influences. However, upon first listen, the name that jumped out at me was Frank Zappa. How heavily did Zappa influence this recording?

Frank Zappa is absolutely one of my all time heroes. Both musically and intellectually, he represents everything I aspire to. Well, almost everything! But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that his music directly influenced this recording. Let me explain…

My love for Zappa’s music has gone to level where it’s essentially internalized. It’s just a part of the way I hear music in my mind. So, when I go to write anything, there’s Zappa somewhere in the stew. But there’s also Beethoven, and Led Zepplin, and James Brown. There’s Stravinsky, and Chopin, and Bach, and Palestrina, alongside Nirvana, Meshuggah, Snoop Dogg, and all the other music that I love.

I rarely sit down to write something and imagine combining two distinct influences or aesthetics for the sake of combining them. I can only write what I hear, an what I hear is some kind of swirling cloud of influences and information that comes out as something personal. And influences or combinations of style are incidental. There are certain consistencies for sure, but that has more to do with the kind of rhythmic styles I like, the kind intervallic or modal relationships I like, or the kinds of sonic textures I like.

So, yes, Zappa is a huge influence – but not necessarily a direct one.

How did you put together the band for your quintet?

This band is made up of musicians and friends that I’ve known for almost a decade. We’ve all played together in a variety of other contexts, though never together in this configuration. Gavin Templeton and I play almost constantly together in all sorts of different groups. We’re a trumpet/alto pair for sure, and have an intuitive understanding of each other’s playing that goes very deep. Alexander Noice and I have played together in various contexts since 2005, and with Gavin as well in Vinny Golia’s Sextet and our improv-rock group, DR. MiNT. Kai Kurosawa and I used to have a trio that played regularly and have done many other projects together. Dan Schnelle and I have played in a larger ensemble called the Industrial Jazz Group since 2005 and have toured a lot with that group.

This group initially came together as an experiment, but quickly proved to be a potent mix of characters! Sonically, I love the combination of Alexander’s guitar and electronics sensibility with Kai Kurosawa’s bear trax (two-handed tap guitar) and electronics prowess. They’re a powerful and super unique combination that provides three layers of guitar-ish texture, but with the ability to span an enormous range of soundscapes. Kai’s sound often almost sounds more like a keyboard than a guitar though, and provides an almost rolling quality to the bass, which I really love. Dan Schnelle is a fiery drummer with a totally refined jazz sensibility. What I love to hear is how his jazz chops inform his approach to more rock styles. It’s a really unique sound and it provides an almost fleet quality to grooves that might otherwise be too heavy or bashing. But he can totally bash when necessary! Alexander Noice is, simply put, one of the most creative, inventive, and downright badass guitar players on the planet, and we’ve done so much together that he’s total go-to choice for me. This modified power trio rhythm section provides an awesome bed of sound for the horns to ride on, but can also interplay in both linear and textural ways that are unique to this group. Gavin Templeton and I are nothing less than a team. Our sounds compliment each other beautifully, his improvisation is absolutely riveting, and he’s one of my best friends. Again, a no brainer!

With a group like this, I feel like I can write anything and they’ll eat it up! It’s a very liberating feeling as a composer and bandleader to have a group that will dive headfirst into some really challenging material, internalize it, and really make it their own.

Putting together a group always comes down to the way people vibe together though. There are some unlikely combinations in this mix, but it works beautifully, and pushes us all to grow together. And for that, I’m incredibly grateful!

Tell us about the Los Angeles creative music scene. What is going on in the area and how are musicians getting the word out?

I feel like there is an incredibly vibrant energy in the Los Angeles creative music scene right now. There’s a huge range of really compelling work going on, and there’s actually a real audience for it. The jazz scene is actually growing quickly, and a lot of reputable artists are moving here because they appreciate the energy. I’m seeing more and more young people in the audiences at jazz and contemporary classical concerts, and the underground electronic scene is exploding! There has always been a strong indie rock scene here, but there are more and more truly different and creative bands coming out all the time. It’s literally like a dartboard – pick a genre and you can hit some incredibly creative and compelling work happening!

One thing that has always been difficult for the independent artists in Los Angeles is getting our work seen by the larger global audience. Too often people look to New York as the artistic Mecca for America, and while it is great, it’s not the only place to find great work. The online world of blogs and music showcasing has helped artists get the word out, but it’s still a big challenge.

In the beginning of 2013, I co-founded an arts collective called Creative Underground Los Angeles, with the hopes of creating a platform to showcase really creative interdisciplinary work to the larger world. We’re still in our early stages of development, but I think we can help bring some of the amazing work that’s happening here on the ground floor to a greater public. Because it’s here and it needs to be seen!

downloadYou recently started Orenda Records. Is the label a vehicle for releasing your own recordings, or do you plan on releasing the works of others as well?

My hope for Orenda Records is that it will be a home for all sorts of creative music and artists. I’m inspired by labels like Tzadik, ECM, and Nine Winds, and would like to provide a new generation of creative musicians, especially from Los Angeles, a place to showcase their work. We already have 11 artists slated to release albums this year, and they are all some of the most creative artists Los Angeles has to offer, including Cathlene Pineda, Gavin Templeton Trio, Walsh Set Trio (clarinetist Brian Walsh), Falsetto Teeth (Alexander Noice’s band), Jon Armstrong Jazz Orchestra, Jonathan Rowden Group, Gurrisonic (drummer/composer Jose Gurria-Cardenas), Matthew Yeakley, Michael Mull Octet, and more!

What are your plans for the label going forward?

Our main aim is to showcase truly creative and inspired music that is made with passion and love and that embraces what I like to call “the ritual of listening.” What I mean by that is we want to present music that is about taking the listener on a journey and providing them with a potentially transformative experience. We want to present music that grips the soul and takes you somewhere new.

Lofty terms aside, this actually directly affects our entire business model. We want to reach people who embrace the ritual of listening – who enjoy taking the record off the shelf, admiring the artwork, putting the record on and actually listening deeply. Sure, there’s always a place for background music, but that’s not our goal here. On a business level this amounts to presenting our releases in beautifully packaged limited editions, keeping inventory low and quality high. We want to reach the audience that cares about owning the physical product, and create collector’s edition products that are truly worth owning. We’ll be pressing vinyl very soon and hoping to reach that community of collectors as well.

Essentially, we are making music for people who really seek the transformative experience through listening. And we are shaping our business entirely around that philosophy.

Any other upcoming performances or releases to tell us about?

Well, the biggest performances on the horizon are appearances with the Fire Keeper quintet at the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Angel City Jazz Festival. We’re very excited to be performing at these prestigious events, and are hoping to springboard from those to more festivals around the world.

In terms of Orenda releases, we’ve got a lot coming down the pipeline. We just released the Jonathan Rowden Group’s debut, Becoming, will be releasing Falsetto Teeth’s Boiling High Idol on June 3rd, Jon Armstrong Jazz Orchestra’s Farewell on July 5th, Gavin Templeton Trio’s Some Spinning Some At Rest on August 1st, and finalizing release dates for several other in the works. And it’s looking very probably that I’ll be releasing a double disc (or possibly box set) of my own work from live performances several different “special projects.” So, you could definitely say that 2014 has been and will continue to be filled with excitement and music!

AMN Interviews: Carl Testa

carlaboutCarl Testa is a composer and instrumentalist originally from Chicago, who now lives in New Haven, Connecticut and performs in New Haven and New York City. Carl has studied with Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier, and has performed with Anthony Braxton, Aaron Siegel, Anne Rhodes, Andrew Raffo Dewar, Mwata Bowden, Avreeyal Ra, Ernest Dawkins, and many others.

Tell us about your history with music. How did it all start and what led you down the strange path to adventurous sounds?

I grew up in Chicago, IL. My mother played guitar when she young, my dad played keyboard and electric bass. My sisters both played instruments (flute and guitar). I didn’t really become interested in music until 8th grade or so. At that point I had found my dad’s electric bass in the attic and started to mess around with that. In high school I took up the upright bass and became more involved in jazz and improvised music. The turning point for me was seeing a performance by Mwata Bowden’s Jazz X-Tet at the University of Chicago. That music was so new and exciting, yet familiar in some ways. I promptly decided that I had to learn more about that music. That led to conversations with Mwata and seeing numerous performances by Mwata Bowden, Tatsu Aoki, Fred Anderson, Douglas Ewart, Ernest Dawkins, Steve Berry, Nicole Mitchell, and David Boykin. I eventually enrolled in the AACM School of Music during my final year of high school and became deeply involved with music. It was at Mwata Bowden’s suggestion that I look into Wesleyan University to study with Anthony Braxton. It just so happened that my dad had gone to Wesleyan and was already pushing me in that direction.

You’re both a composer and an improvising instrumentalist. When you write or play, do you find that there’s a great deal of mutual influence between these two sides of your work, or do they generally stay within their own domains?

There has always been a lot of mutual influence between improvisation and composition for me. In a way, my identity has struggled with trying to figure out whether I am a composer or improviser or both. I don’t tend to write for other musicians where I’m not involved in the performance. At this stage, I much prefer to be involved in performances of my music (so more the composer/improviser) as opposed to writing pieces and sending them off to be performed. I feel the need to be actively involved in the execution of music whether that is in the organizing of performances, composition, or performance. A composition can come out of an improvisation, or an improvisation can come out of a conceptually organized composition that provides a context for it. For the most part I suppose I think about unknown elements and most of my compositions and improvisations have these unknown elements. It is those elements that I feel help me get to the next piece or the next performance.

Among your recent projects is a collaboration with dancer Rachel Bernsen. How do approach the integration of the music with the movement? Do you rely on composition and arrangement, improvisation, or some combination of the two?

Rachel Bernsen is a choreographer and dancer. My wife Anne Rhodes and I have worked with Rachel for five years now on a few different projects. For each project, Rachel has a different approach to creating movement and music that work together. For one of her pieces User, Rachel, Anne, and I improvised over and over with no set idea. We gradually began to focus on a set of ideas that gradually morphed into the piece. Once Rachel felt like the music and the movement had enough of the material she wanted, she began to structure that material into a piece that was fixed in structure but had improvised elements. Rachel worked on a piece called Waver with me a few years ago. This piece incorporated electronic music and computer-controlled lighting as an accompaniment to the dancer. I tried to think of this piece as having all of the elements interacting as if the dance was music and the lighting was music. I designed the music and lighting to complement each other, not by mimicking or syncing up with each other but by offering contrasting elements that create a whole when considered in context. I wanted the dance to work the same way, so I gave Rachel a set of concepts to improvise upon for the different sections of the piece. I had some general ideas of where to be and when and what kind of states I wanted her to evoke, but for the most part the choreography was Rachel interpreting my musical language into a movement-based language and at the same time interacting with the electronic sound and lighting backdrop.

Your most recent solo release, Iris, is a set of pieces for double bass and interactive electronics. How does playing with real-time electronic manipulation change your relationship to the bass—or doesn’t it?

The music on Iris was developed over a period of two years or so. It started with experiments in granular synthesis that date back to my piece Pull from 2007. The idea for the music was that I wanted to create an electronic framework that I could use to input (record) sound into and then generate lots of music from that sound within a live performance. The music is generative in a sense because I don’t know exactly how the electronics are going to process the sound, so it purposefully creates some unknown elements within the composition. This is a strange place to put yourself as a composer and improviser because you are aware of the compositional framework but not necessarily how it is going to play out in performance. So the relationship with the instrument does change because it starts to feel like you are playing two instruments. The choices I make on the bass effect the electronics and the choices I make with the electronics effect what I do with the bass. Depending on what the electronics are doing at any particular moment changes the role I should take on at that moment. If the electronics are processing textural sounds, then I can either blend in, or contrast with it by playing a melodic line. If the electronics are playing a melodic line, then I can step back and function in a traditional bass role. I really think of it as playing within a freely improvising ensemble with a catch. I can interact with the electronics in the same way I would with an ensemble. The catch is that there is this feedback loop where what I play directly effects the electronic sound. So it is similar to an ensemble but obviously a different context.

A two part question here. What inspired you to organize the Uncertainty music series in New Haven? And how do you find New Haven as a place in which to pursue adventurous music and related arts?

The Uncertainty Music Series is inspired by musician-run spaces for experimental music and the AACM in particular. When I lived in Chicago, I would organize shows for my groups at various venues. The Candlestick Maker (Michael Zerang’s performance space) was one of them that was open to me as a young guy that knew nothing about anything. The AACM’s example of organizing your own performances was also very important to me. So when I moved to New Haven, I was looking for opportunities to perform and possibly set up some kind of regular performance. Bob Gorry’s New Haven Improvisers’ Collective held their workshops at Never Ending Books (a donation-run bookstore and community center). I asked Bob to ask the owner of Never Ending Books (Roger) about starting a monthly series there. Roger agreed to an initial run of 3 shows in early 2007 and then agreed to do a monthly series starting in September of that year. Initially it was just a chance for me to have a performance of original music every month, but it soon became more open to the larger community and started to serve as a way to connect the creative musicians in New Haven to the larger community in the region.

I find New Haven to be a great place to pursue my music. I think as with any place you live, there are certainly pros and cons. The music community is very supportive overall and New Haven is strategically placed as far as being in close proximity to large Metropolitan centers like New York, Boston, and Philly. The fact is though, that New Haven is still pretty small (pop. 120,000) so the number of people interested in niche music is limited in the immediate area. Nevertheless, I feel that through the support of the community that is here, the Uncertainty Series has been able to sustain a small, but dedicated group of listeners. I still feel that a lot can be done to generate more interest in experimental, improvised, and electronic music in the area. The Uncertainty Series will have it’s 7th anniversary this September and move into it’s 8th year. As we approach the 10 year mark I need to either have the series end gracefully or morph into a new venture. We will have to see what happens.

Your wife, Anne Rhodes, is also an accomplished experimental musician. Do the two of you collaborate often, or mostly work independently?

We do collaborate often, most notably with Anthony Braxton and his Tri-Centric Foundation. We also have a long-standing duo project called Bruxism that does performances occasionally. We have also collaborated on a short theatre piece called Spectra that I wrote in 2011 that features her in the sole role. I do think it is important to have independant projects because we spend so much time together that musically it is also good to have individual outlets for creative work. I am grateful that I have her to bounce ideas off of and to get her feedback on vocal writing. She has worked a lot with composers on new pieces and she understands what works for vocalists and what doesn’t work. So when writing new pieces that involve voice I always run the music by her. And most the time I am also lucky enough that she agrees to sing my pieces ! :)

What have you got coming up in terms of releases, performances, and other things?

My wife just gave birth to our son Florian Nicholas Testa, so we both have taken a break from performances. But I do have some performances and new projects coming up soon. The first is this Thursday, May 1st in Cambridge, MA as part of the WMBR Ampersand Series. I will be playing the music from IRIS opening for the The Outnumbered featuring Charlie Kohlhase, Jason Robinson, Josh Rosen, Bruno Råberg, and Curt Newton.

This summer I will be performing on a number of shows with bassist Mario Pavone and his new Street Songs project. That album will be released on May 6th and we will be playing a bunch of shows to support it. It has been wonderful working with Mario and Dave Ballou. I just try and soak up every opportunity and learn as much as I can.

I also have a duo project with the guitarist Christopher Riggs that has been in the works for a while. We play as a duo with guitar and bass and guitar and various electronics. Chris lives in Chicago so we don’t get the chance to work on this project very often. But I am hopeful that we will find some time this Summer or this Fall to come together and record a release.

AMN Interviews: Ross Hammond

528990_440195956015126_112459292_nRoss Hammond is a Sacramento-based guitarist who has been making a name for himself in that area, as well as around the country. His most recent release was Cathedrals (AMN review), which he is soon to follow up with Humanity Suite, due out on May 6th. Ross recently answered a few of our questions.

How did you get to where you are? Tell us about your history.

I started playing guitar in junior high school. It was mostly the acoustic/Mel Bay method then. I wasn’t really into it until I got an electric guitar in high school and started a band with a couple of friends. I was hooked after that. The bands I played in were terrible, but it was always fun. I continued playing music through college, got a job in an acoustic guitar store (The 5th String in Sacramento) and met up then with great guitar teachers like John Green, Greg Townsend and Jim Beeler. I was really into Hendrix, Sly Stone, Freddie King and Curtis Mayfield then, and was playing a lot of blues and soul music. Jim turned me onto Wes Montgomery and I remember taking a stack of his Wes LPs home and going to my neighbor’s house to copy all of them. I wore out the Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery record, specifically. That was really my introduction to jazz.

After that I was checking out a lot of soul jazz and more groove-based improv music. I got hip to San Francisco’s Broun Fellinis, TJ Kirk and the Original Heads around that time (maybe 1997), and thought there was a world of music worth exploring. Around the same time I discovered Pharaoh Sanders’ Black Unity at Tower Records in Sacramento. I bought it on a whim and that album totally blew me away. It was such a great mix of power and soul and groove and utter cacophony. I knew after that what I wanted to do. From then on I hooked up with saxophonist Tony Passarell in Sacramento and also played in an original jazz band in college called the Chili Palmer Project (with NY drummer Sameer Gupta). I was totally in over my head in that group but tried my best to hold on.

That was pretty much the story until I decided to just go out on my own and start making records under my own name. It bummed me out when bands would split up and names would change, personnel would change, etc. I figured if I wanted to go after any particular thing I should just do it myself. I recorded my first trio record called Gauche with Sameer and Gerry Pineda in 2003. I put it out myself, and it’s really been a climb ever since then. Sacramento is really close to the Bay Area, and both have really great creative music scenes. I have been lucky enough to be able to play with a lot of great West Coast musicians in those scenes and have been really nurtured artistically because of it. Since then I’ve just tried to travel a lot and play with different musicians in new areas (Seattle, LA, NY, Boston, etc) and try to spread my circle a little more with each passing year.

Free-jazz influences are present in your music, but you also incorporate so much more. What other styles do you find yourself using from time to time?

There’s definitely free-jazz there. I’m drawn to the saxophone, honestly. I love Pharaoh, Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, David S. Ware, Oliver Lake, etc. One of the common threads in all of those players is a strong blues root, which I can identify with. I played blues and funk and soul long before I attempted jazz, and that is something that will always be there. Not necessarily playing 12 bar progressions, or playing particular scales, etc. I mean blues in the sense of the modality and the expressiveness that’s found in the music. I’m not a huge stickler in terms of ultra-intelligent jazz theory, or really any kind of jazz academic. While I can read and write music and be somewhat literate, I never wanted that to get in the way of the reason I started playing music in the first place. To me, it didn’t matter how pretty the notes and compositions were if there was nothing to say.

Other than jazz and blues, I listen to a lot of folk music. I love Gillian Welch, Pete Seeger, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and others in that ilk. I feel like that definitely comes through in the music because of the sing-songy nature of the melodies I tend to write. African guitar music like Boubacar Traore, Ali and Vieux Farka Toure, etc. is another area that I’ve jumped into. That music is a nice mashup of blues and folk songs and rhythm, and of course it’s impossible to really play it and sound authentic. But I do try to incorporate some of those ideas too.

IMG_0897Humanity Suite is coming out in May, and overlaps stylistically in some ways with Cathedrals, but also seems to be more open-ended. Is that due to the fact that it is a live recording and thus more conducive to improv, or was it originally intended to be that way?

Yes, Humanity Suite was the result of a commission I received from the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. I was asked to play a concert in conjuncture with the opening of artist Kara Walker’s exhibit. I thought it would be great to write music specifically for the event that was inspired by the artwork, so that’s how Humanity Suite came to be. I wrote it as a long-form composition, with a lot of room for improvisation amongst the band members. I wanted us to take our time with the music and to really let the different themes develop over the course of the set. I’m pretty happy with how it came out.

For significant parts of Humanity Suite you let the horns do the talking, and your guitar takes something of a back seat. Some guitarists, perhaps stereotypically, consider themselves to be perpetual frontmen – is your approach more holistic?

This project was definitely more holistic. I was more interested in the work of the group as a unit than making an in-your-face guitar record. This record has solo moments for each musician, but I tried to write the music with the idea of group improvisation over top of various themes, and to do smaller groups within the sextet (i.e., a double sax section, a section for drums and guitar, etc.). There is a lot of improvisation and loose-compositions throughout the record, but we all get after it in our solo sections too. With a group of 4 soloists (two of whom played multiple instruments) and a good rhythm section I thought it would be cool to do a more non-traditional “head, solo, solo, head” record. Improv counterpoint is a way to think of it, I guess.

Vinny Golia plays a major role in your recent releases. What is your relationship with him like?

Well, Vinny is the bomb. Honestly, there’s no one like him. He plays his horns like a wild animal who hasn’t eaten for 2 weeks (and that’s a good thing). I’ve always respected Vinny’s aesthetic and his role in creating a haven for West Coast improvisers through his Nine Winds label. Vinny has no fear and no limits. I’m very fortunate to be able to play with him.

If you have a free afternoon just to listen to music, what would you put on? Is anyone contemporary blowing you away these days?

Lately I’ve been checking out a lot of music for the 12 string guitar. I’m really into James Blackshaw and Robbie Basho at the moment. Basho, in particular has a beautiful looseness in his playing that recalls jazz improvisation to me. He’ll set a theme and then he’ll vary the music enough to make it a beautiful mystery once inside the tune. Aside from that I’ve been listening to a lot of Albert Ayler, Fela, David S. Ware, Nicole Mitchell, Iron and Wine, Takemitsu, Public Enemy and some old thrash metal. It’s always different at our house. As far as contemporary players I really like Eric Hofbauer, Darius Jones, Ken Filiano, Mary Halverson, Ava Mendoza, Jeff Parker and a host of others. There’s lots of great music out there….

You recently started a family. How hard is it to balance the life of a touring musician and a father?

Most of the touring I do is short distances, around the West Coast. When I’m out of town I’m usually back within a day or two. On a longer trip, say to the East Coast, I’ll be gone no more than a week. I generally don’t tour enough to put a strain on my home life. I work here in Sacramento as a musician full time, and also run a music school and arts space called “Gold Lion Arts” so it’s probably a better model for me to tour every few months and to build a solid foundation here for when I’m home. Also, when I’m gone I always bring my daughter a souvenir.

In the larger picture though, I think the survival and continuation of this music requires players to build their own scenes in their hometowns. Not everyone (or maybe not anyone) can move to New York or San Francisco and make a living as a gigging musician. So, if that’s the case and you really love the music and want to keep it as a focal point of your life then it’s necessary to build and cultivate a scene yourself. This is what I’ve been involved in here in Sacramento for the last 10 years. We’ve harvested a great community here with festivals, regular gigs and a lot of collaborations. I’m happy to keep making music with my friends here and also watch my daughter grow up.

Aside from the upcoming release of Humanity Suite, what else have you got coming up in 2014?

I’d like to make a duo record with Vinny for reeds and acoustic guitar. That’s on my list if we can make it work. Also, drummer Alex Jenkins and I are working on a new duo project that pairs percussion with acoustic 12 string. We’ll be doing a few road trips later this year with that project. I’m in a new, very fun quartet with Kerry Kashiwagi, Dax Compise and Clifford Childers called ‘CRKD Quartet,’ and we have quite a few gigs lined up over the next few months.

Aside from happenings in Sacramento, I’ll be on tour to the East Coast in April. I’ll be in Philadelphia with Calvin Weston and Max Johnson, and in NY over a series of dates with Johnson, Catherine Sikora, Stephen Haynes, Andrew Drury, Ken Filiano, Daryl Shawn, JD Parran and Billy Mintz. There are a few plans to go to Seattle this summer to play with saxophonist Neil Welch. Then I’ll be back to the East Coast again this Fall.

AMN Interviews: Rent Romus

Rent Romus has been a name in creative music for over 20 years.  Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Rent can be heard as a key member of Lords of the Outland and various other ensembles. He also runs Edgetone Records.

How did you initially get into creative music?

English: Rent Romus performing at the San Fran...
Rent Romus

When I was 2 my family moved from most northern part of Upper Michigan to the San Francisco Bay Area, and like most it seems I started on the piano at the age of 5 or 6. My mother came from a large Finnish American family where it was expected that everyone play an instrument. As a child I remember many times sitting at the piano at home after going through my lesson just making up songs hours after which no one seemed to mind I was diverting from the “plan”.

At the age of around 10 or 11, I took up my mother’s instrument the alto saxophone. It was one of those old Bundy models, the ones you could drag along the floor behind you and still play it. This was about the same time a horrid state law known as California proposition 13 came into being which gutted the public school system in the south bay area and found its music and art programs dismantled just so people could avoid paying their fair share of property taxes. Lucky for me there was one music teacher left in the district who for reasons unknown felt the need to teach music in something like 6 elementary/middle schools. He must have had to work sixty hours a week on a teacher’s salary just to keep up with us kids. I’ll always remember him for that even though I can’t remember his name it’s been so long. I would say his dedication to keep music in the schools kept me playing and eventually became good enough even though I was only 13 to play in the High School marching band.

At this point I was hooked, obsessed with marching music, formations, I would day dream while in class about the marching band. I would listen to modern marching bands on tape at home at night while my peers were listening to 80’s rock and pop. A few years later I discovered the public library and LP records where I’d find Woody Herman next to Sun Ra and Arthur Blythe. I still have boxes of cassette tapes stored in my home from those days. While school music education was being gutted, Stanford University began to offer their Jazz Workshops. I attended the same years Stan Getz was there as well as Dizzy Gillespie and other local luminaries. One such local player was Bruce Forman who was put in charge of my combo. Many know Bruce as a formal bebop player, but for some reason that first Summer I attended, Bruce decided our combo was going to play nothing but free jazz and original compositions. I look back at that week and can say that was the beginning of the end for me when it came to jazz education. Everywhere else I turned the concept of free improvisation was shunned by the straightjacket of process. To this day I’ll never know what possessed Bruce to spend a whole week playing free improvisation with us kids. Since then I’ve never been able to just play within the confines of the chord progression, or stick to a patterned rule set in any genre. I’ve spent the last thirty three years locked in on letting the music burst fourth into what form come as it may be it with an understanding that all music is built from the premise of exploration and rule breaking even if it’s within a specific genre.

Eventually after working in the jazz scene in San Francisco I fell upon the Luggage Store Gallery where I now curate new and experimental music performances. Later that same time I met composer, guitarist and practitioner of sonic mayhem Ernesto Diaz-Infante. I note Ernesto in particular because he opened the final door that helped plunge me into the San Francisco wild and vibrant underground community giving me the opportunity to play with people I could never had imagined existed before then.

Lords of the Outland, Tri-Cornered Tent Show, The Abstractions, Bloom Project…these are all groups you’ve led or participated in. But I see your name on many other recordings. What are some of the additional efforts you’ve been involved in?

Before Lords of Outland I ran Jazz On the Line and released 3 albums the third featuring Chico Freeman. After that the Lords of Outland was born formally in the spring of 1994. This year 2014 I’ll be marking twenty years of this ever changing collective that have featured a wide range of players including the late great John Tchicai, multi-reedist Vinny Golia. I also sit in with a collective known as Key West from time to time as well as various groupings that pop up in the scene. I also resurrected the PKD Vortex Project I started in 1998 of music inspired by the ranting of author Phil K. Dick as well as a new group called The Ruminations with a similar no holds narrative The Abstractions had during its tenure. Speaking of resurrection, a band that plays roughly every ten years plays this year known as Guinea Pig with Sacramento saxophonist Tony Passarell. I’m also writing two Suites this year one based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories and the other inspired by the pantheon of Finnish Rune Poetry and it’s Gods and Heroes.

In addition to the various ensembles and projects I play music in I also run Outsound Presents with other like minded musician curators. I started the organization as the SIMM Series in 2000 in SF which currently presents 20 shows a year at the Musicians Union Hall. We also curate 80 shows at the Luggage Store New Music Series and a full week long festival at the end of July known as the Outsound New Music Summit where we’re in our 13th year. I have always had this passion for performance presentation since I was about 16 years old.

You seem equally comfortable with free-jazz blowouts, string quartets, and other arrangements. How do you go about putting together these diverse groups?

The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most creative centers in the country for new and experimental and explorations in music. My work as a curator keeps me informed in finding new artists or groups to work with. This is partially due to the open ended attitude of the music community meaning compartmentalization is not the hard rule here. Also, feeder programs from Mills College and other schools keeps new people coming on a regular basis, so finding a noise artist willing to play with a classically trained cellist to play with a street wise jazz drummer to present a set of free improvisations is no harder then a few emails or attending a few shows over the period of a week.

What kind of roles do composition and improvisation take in your works? Do some projects focus more on one or the other?

Compositionally I work in terms of thematic story arcs. I started out writing before I even knew how by coming up with the melodic context first then throwing chords out to see where they may fall. However, working with free improvisers who are willing to play thematically has also opened the door to creating graphic scores, instructional text based, or image based compositions. For instance Bloom Project with pianist Thollem McDonas is a combination of free improvised as well as graphic, and instructional compositions. Lords of Outland is a cross section of all of the above. One recording You Can Sleep When your Dead was all photo collage. Improvisation plays a heavy role across all areas even in notational composition. Even now when I write a structure note for note I still expect the performers to change the piece on the fly, and I ensure that by changing it on them in live performance, which many of my fellow musicians have come to expect from me.

When I listen to your playing, I probably could guess at your influences, but no obvious ones come to mind. Who are your sax heroes?

Early on Stan Getz whom I had the privilege to meet, learn, and one time play with in my early teens, Arthur Blythe and Chico Freeman later on as well as Thomas Chapin long ago who’s work lead me to Rashaann Roland Kirk, as well as Oliver Lake, with great love and admiration the work of Albert Ayler. Also Alicia Mangan, John Tchicai, Vinny Golia, Jim Pepper, Kevin Robinson, Josh Allen, Jack Wright. This is the short list, the influences never end as new and interesting ideas and musicians are always popping up.

If my understanding is correct, you started Edgetone Records as a way to release your own material, and later decided to release recordings by others. How did this change come about?

I guess one could say I have this need to see the under appreciated hard working practitioners of music and exploration get support. I started Edgetone Records because the “system” at the time some 25 years ago would have none of me, and I guess that was a blessing since the “music industry” is lacking of interest for local communities across the board. I’m so glad to see more and smaller musician run entities filling up the gaping holes left by an unwilling and uncaring business model slowly drifting away under its own weight. Also, vanity labels only go so far and are only as strong as it’s catalog. Distribution either digitally or hard copy is a more likely scenario if the catalog is a cross section of recording artists.

What is it like running a niche label in 2014? Are the economics depressing or can one still make a viable go at it without artistic compromise?

The word “viable” can mean a great many things from my perspective. Edgetone Records for me personally is a labor of artistic survival, love, and dedication. If you mean financially viable like it pays all my bills, well then I guess it’s a complete and wonderful failure. Edgetone turns 25 in less than 2 years from now with over 140 releases supporting over 65 artists and growing rapidly. For the most part expenses are paid, which I guess I can celebrate, but the real achievement is it’s a testament to the dedication and hard work that musicians do to make their work alive in the world. Edgetone is more of a conduit for recording artists who would otherwise put their own music out without a label. There are advantages in numbers, our digital distribution is strong at the moment, and various avenues of e-commerce are used to sell the music to the public. If economics was part of the equation for starting a label without artistic compromise there would be no label. Money is not a good measure of success in any situation, it should be a pleasant an after thought.

AMN Interviews: Matthew Shipp

mjfest2_danaudainMatthew Shipp is a jazz pianist and composer, who has been very active for over twenty years, appearing on dozens of albums as a leader, sideman or producer. Initially known for free jazz, he has since explored contemporary classical and electronica. Shipp was a long-time member of saxophonist David S. Ware‘s quartet. He has recorded or performed with many musicians, including William Parker, DJ Spooky, Joe Morris, Daniel Carter, Roscoe Mitchell, and Mat Maneri.

Your music is just not amenable to labels, such as free jazz or avant-garde, but people need some sort of reference point from which to describe what you do. Do you use any particular terms when describing your own music, or is all this terminology in music too restrictive?

I am into the Duke Ellington idea that there are two types of music – good and bad – but labels are necessary so people can talk about what you do. If there is a label I kind of like for what I do it might be cosmic musician. I look at someone like Coltrane as a musician who constructed a whole body of work with a cosmic theme to it. I like to think of myself in that way also and see each CD as the construction of a different energy system or cosmos of sorts, so I guess cosmic musician is the label of all labels I like the best. Each CD of sort is a globe or a sphere generated from the singularity that is the concept of that particular CD – so the big bang of that particular CD generates that CD’s space and time.

Do you think it is reasonable for people to use these terms to refer to your music if the the goal is to indicate that you go beyond the mainstream?

I don’t know if the goal is to go beyond the mainstream. The goal, if there is a goal, is to construct that particular sound object – a CD or a concert. I am naive enough to think if I like it, the mainstream will like it – I still hold out hope. I abhor genre type of cliches, so I guess in that way I am trying to go beyond the mainstream. But to me at least my DNA is that of a jazz musician. So, I am naive enough to think everyone else can experience my work that way.

Your run-ins with Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch are becoming the stuff of legend, but can you describe your main ideological differences between yourself and those gentlemen?

I really have no problem with Wynton He is not making “pronouncements” these days, and I assume he has matured and grown up over the years and most likely has a better perspective of things. That is an assumption on my part. Crouch on the other hand is a horses ass. I know him and have dealt with him and I think he is a truly evil person. There are no ideological differences with him for he has no ideas. He is a pure opportunist in my opinion. To have an ideological disagreement presupposes someone has some principals of some sort. To me, Stanley is completely empty of ideas, principals or a soul.

Can you describe your relationship with David S. Ware and how it evolved over time?

David S. Ware was not only a band leader of a band I was in, but also a close personal friend who I shared a lot of traits with, though we are very different beings. First of all, we really understood each other on a very deep level. Seems like our lives where geared such that it was destiny that we come together in the way we did. We both had simialr religious backgrounds in that we grew up christian, but gravitated to eastern religions early on. And we both had the same approach of taking our religious backgrounds and modulating that to a quest with the music, ala what I said about coltrane being a cosmic musician. David and I even had the same taste in so called straight ahead jazz. We liked the same Rollins, Bud Powell, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk CDs, etc., etc. We both had the same love of fighting sports, pro wrestling, UFC, though he was not as big of a boxing fan as I am, but he knew what was going on. Anyway, all that is to say we where kindred souls who shared a lot. We had such an instinctive understanding of each other that it scared me sometimes. That was there from the first time we got together. In fact after the first time we played he looked at me and said we have know each other in other lives.

It is easy for a listener to ignore the titles of tracks when listening to instrumental music. But with your releases, are they missing out on part of your message?

The titles of my CDs do tell a story. Each cd is a cosmic, sci-fi myth of sorts – a cosmos – a universe until itself. Maybe the storyteller behind the myths are some weird mad scientist, or maybe an alien of sort. I have always been influenced by the movie with David Bowie, the Man Who Fell to Earth. But yeah, the titles point to a sci-fi type of mystic constructivist point of view that is in tune with the myth that the music is trying to portray.

What have you been listening to recently, and does it relate to your own music?

I have not been listening to that much music lately, but things I have put in the CD player recently are: John Butcher. Monk’s Straight No Chaser, Gamelan music, pigmy music, Glenn Gould playing some Bach, English Suites… Everything you hear and take in relates to you in some way – in ways that you might not be able to delineate in language.

You continue to be very active – what are your release and performance plans for 2014?

In 2014, my trio CD Root of Things that just came out, another duo with Darius Jones, two Ivo Perelman CD – one is a trio with me, Ivo, and William Parker, another is a quartet with my trio plus Ivo, and a couple other projects as a member of the Jeff Cosgrove Group and a guest with the Core Trio.

AMN Interviews: Brian Drye

P7136087Since leaving his native Rhode Island, Brian Drye become a scene-maker in Brooklyn, as a frequent sideman and bandleader for Bizingas and co-leader of The Four Bags. In 2008, Brian created Ibeam Brooklyn, as a teaching, performance and rehearsal space for professional musicians and students located in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn. The place has been the germination spot for many projects, large and small, from ECM to Clean Feed and Sunnyside that you’ve seen cross your desk in the past 5 years.

Starting a musical venue takes perseverance and guts. Tell us what led to you launching the Ibeam Brooklyn.

Originally I opened it as a teaching space but due to a lack of spaces to play in the city, we started having some informal concerts at the space. Once we graduated to a concert grand piano, the whole game changed and suddenly we could be taken seriously as a potential venue.

The Ibeam is at the center of the New York creative music ecosystem, both geographically and musically. What is it like to be a keystone of such a scene? Do you feel like you are taking part in something special?

The musicians make Ibeam what it is and the location is convenient to where so many jazz musicians live. The size of Ibeam makes it an ideal performance space for a music which doesn’t always have a large audience. Ibeam supports the musicians playing there because there is no pressure to bring a certain # of guests or sell a certain # of tickets. There is great comraderie among the musicians who are members at Ibeam and perform there regularly. The musicians who perform and rehearse there make it special and I feel lucky to be a part of it.

How is the overall health of the venue? What kind of general turnout do you get?

It really depends on the artist, how much it’s promoted and who else is playing. It could be as many as 50 or as few as 5. Even a concert with 5 guests is something special and intimate. I think that my favorite audience is about 20-25. The place is quite full but it’s not so much pressure as large audiences.

Is running the venue the complete focus of your life, or do you get a chance to take a breath from time to time?

Aside from running Ibeam, I teach privately, work as a Teaching Artist for Carnegie Hall and perform as a professional Trombonist and Pianist. I spend most of my time composing and performing with my original groups such as Bizingas and The Four Bags.

Aside from live shows, what other functions is the Ibeam used for?

Ibeam has a membership which gives people access to the space for rehearsals. Occasionally I rent it to non-members and it’s sometimes used for live recordings.

The Ibeam hosts quite a number of shows that are jazz centered and leaning toward the avant side. Are your own efforts with Bizingas also in that same camp?

Bizingas is definitely similar to most of the groups that perform at Ibeam. It’s sometimes difficult to say exactly what type of music beyond Jazz and Avant that Ibeam hosts, since everything is so varied.

In addition to upcoming shows, what events are coming to the Ibeam that we should know about? Any big plans for the future?

At the moment I am focusing on presenting residencies. which are 3 days long and feature one artist for all three nights. They currently happen once or twice a month. I think that the residency model is strong and has always been a vital element to musicians development. It’s something that’s been missing from the venues that present Jazz and creative music for a long time. In the future I would like to find funding to make more residencies happen on a bigger level. So that musicians can present their work over several nights and develop their work in the way that’s only possible from playing many nights in a row

AMN Interviews: Ben Goldberg

Ben Goldberg
Ben Goldberg

Clarinetist Ben Goldberg has been active for over 30 years, founding the New Klezmer Trio, and playing with the proverbial who’s who of modern creative jazz.

My understanding is that you started your musical career playing jazz and klezmer. How did you make a transition to the more avant-garde material that you’re known for today?

Well, I was raised as a real old-fashioned Modernist. In English class I would always skip to the back of the poetry textbook to check out the Cummings and Eliot (they were as far as textbooks got back then). In Jr. High when we got the Smithsonian Classic Jazz collection at home I knew my real work was to understand how the first 11 sides led up to Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. My idea of the avant garde was that it grew out of traditional knowledge. One thing that fascinated me about Steve Lacy was that he was steeped in early jazz and Monk. So I saw my task as learning everything I could about music to prepare for inventing something new.

The New Klezmer Trio was a precursor, in a way, for John Zorn’s Masada and other groups that are recording in that tradition. Would you call yourself an influence on Mr. Zorn, the other way around, or a little of both?

John was an important model for me, as he was for so many, in the intensity of his belief in, and commitment to, creating something new and staying with it! As to the other part of your question, we will have to ask Mr. Zorn.

Are you familiar with the work of Ivo Papasov? If so, how would you compare yourself to him?

That guy can really play the clarinet!

Is the New Klezmer Trio defunct at this point?

Well, I’m no longer using that name but the project of Jewish – based music played by a trio of clarinet, bass, and drums is alive for me. I’ve been touring with Kenny and Greg Cohen (and we released Speech Communication in 2009), and on Thursday this week Greg and Ben Perowsky and I will play at the Stone. This kind of improvisational klezmer music is where I first found musical freedom, and that feeling of spaciousness and open-ended possibility is very important to me.

Your musical direction continues to evolve. What led you to the approaches taken on Unfold Ordinary Mind and Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues?

Well, music is always evolving and I never know where it will take me next. And I am always happy to find out.

It is well documented that Steve Lacy was a major influence on you in your early career. Is that still the case now?

The things I learned, and continue to learn, from Mr. Lacy and his music are at the heart of everything I do. I had one meeting with him that changed my life. Last week I played a piece from Hocus Pocus in a solo clarinet concert in San Francisco, and in June the pianist Michael Coleman and I will attempt an entire set of this material in a tribute concert that Larry Ochs organized.

I was pleased when you joined up with Tin Hat Trio, as they were always one of those great uncategorizable groups. Any plans to continue recording or touring with them?

It’s a little sporadic at the moment. But I am still very happy with the record we made of songs based on E E Cummings poems, The Rain Is A Handsome Animal.

In a lot of ways, New York is the center of avant-jazz these days. Does this result in any pros or cons for you, a west coast guy?

Steve Lacy once told me “your own living room can become the jazz center of the universe.” Of course, sometimes it’s a good idea to step out of your living room and spend some time in New York! Which I have been doing a lot more of recently.

Clarinet is a popular instrument with kids in grade school, but seems to get eclipsed by other instruments (e.g., sax, guitar…) as the kids grow up. Any words of encouragement to young people playing the instrument?

Stop while you can! Actually, stop IF you can — the sister- and brotherhood of clarinetists seems to consist of those of us who couldn’t stop no matter what. That’s why it’s so full of interesting and mysterious cats.

What do you have coming up in 2014?

We made a wonderful recording of my song-cycle Orphic Machine that will be released this year. Also two trio records, a lovely one with Scott Amendola and the guitarist John Dieterich from Deerhoof, and a cool and very weird record of Thelonious Monk songs with Adam Levy and Smith Dobson will come out, along with the first record by my group Ben Goldberg School. Also some touring by my duo with Myra Melford, the trio with Greg and Kenny, and with Unfold Ordinary Mind. Hey — you can hear all those groups at the Stone this week!