AMN Interviews: Eivind Opsvik – Part II: The Artist Beyond

EIVIND OPSVIK     OVERSEAS

Interview with Monique Avakian

Read Part I of this interview

Part II: More

The Artist Beyond

opsvik 2
Jacob Sacks, Tony Malaby, Brandon Seabrook, Kenny Wollesen, Eivind Opsvik.  Fresh off a European tour to Italy, France, and Slovenia (photo by Tiziano Ghidorsi)

Interaction with the natural world seems to be a big part of your being – can you speak of nature’s role in your life and work? You seem to be an oarsman of some kind…

Growing up in Norway, it is such a sparsely populated country with a lot of open nature that even without really trying it will somehow affect you. I can’t claim to be a big outdoorsy type, but I do enjoy nature, like everybody else. In my family, we have a wooden rowboat modeled after the old Viking rowboats. There’s something very calming about rowing this “historic” wooden boat, even when sometimes motorboats zip past. I think where one grows up definitely affects one’s creativity and artistic output.

Machines also play a big role in your creative life – you have a lot of interesting equipment, both new and old. Can you reveal for us your relationship with a few of these contraptions and what a particular machine or two might bring to your creative trajectory as a musician, and also as the head of Loyal Label Records and Greenwood Underground Music Studio?

To me having an instrument collection and various recording equipment is like having more colors available as a painter, especially for my duo, Opsvik & Jennings.

We record all instruments ourselves and are always looking for the right instrument / sound for any particular tune. [This kind of palette is also relevant] for the, ‘ A Thousand Ancestors’ box set. Even though it was centered around the bass, I still experimented with lots of different ways of recording the bass and overdubbing and also orchestrated the tracks with subtle use of other instruments.

Other and Current Projects

Your composition Twelve Days (Overseas I) was picked up and expanded upon in another context with Paul Motian, Mat Maneri and Jacob Sacks— a CD entitled, Two Miles A Day. How did this come about and what was it like for you to hear that song evolve?

That song I came up with on the bass right around the recording of the first Overseas album. That little song always was special to me so when it came time to do the ‘Two Miles A Day’ album a few years later. Jacob Sacks and I agreed on bringing in five tunes each, and I soon realized ‘Twelve Days’ would sound beautiful in this context, so I added a third harmony part to fill it out a bit, and brought it in to the recording. Motian, Maneri and Sacks knocked it out of the park. I’m very happy with that version and proud of that record as a whole.

Sound Cloud Taste: Twelve Days

https://soundcloud.com/loyallabel/sets/jacob-sacks-eivind-opsvik-mat

I know you have an exciting project upcoming with photographer, Michelle Arcila

Yes, this is the project I’ve been working on for the past few years, and it is finally ready for release on December 2nd this year. The idea for the project goes pretty far back: I got asked to contribute to this Norwegian art and music festival at the now defunct Monkey Town in Williamsburg in 2008. That was a place that was really laid out for having visuals (big screens on all four walls for projections, etc.).

So, photographer Michelle Arcila (who is also my wife), and I decided to put something together. We’d always been mutually inspired by each other’s work, so doing something together was very natural. After that first show, we continued brewing on the idea, and we did some more shows with solo bass and photo projections, so we decided we wanted to release it in physical form. Quite a few years later, “A Thousand Ancestors” is finally here. The project is a limited edition box set (numbered edition of 500), designed by Espen Friberg. The set contains a ten-track vinyl LP (plus a CD and download card), ten photographic prints, each of which correspond to a track on the record, and a poster. “A Thousand Ancestors” is released by Brooklyn based record label, Loyal Label.

I first started recording the music in my basement studio in 2011. The starting point and framework [came from] my solo double bass performances, which, as I mentioned, sometimes had projections of Michelle’s photographs. But when it came time to record this music, I intentionally did not put any limits on myself. I decided to orchestrate the bass-centric pieces with subtle overdubbing and other studio techniques. [I also used] light touches of other instruments, like lap steel guitar, a 1950’s Hammond Solovox organ and some percussion and drum machine. The process sometimes included having specific photo prints with me in the studio, and sometimes I just let the general theme and mood of the project serve as a guideline and inspiration.

In this day and age where less and less value is put on a physical product (CDs in particular) and on music, it became a very gratifying experience to work on something that really takes the album experience to a different space entirely. I also like how it crosses and blends art genres (or maybe erases genres) and kind of exists in a space of it’s own. We are currently working on fine-tuning the live presentation of it.

Video Taste, A Thousand Ancestors:

A Strange Gratitude (from A Thousand Ancestors)

http://youtu.be/Yu3N8u-hxD0?list=UUBCEmRDAKAp9zooWX8hUzMA

Sound Cloud Taste, A Thousand Ancestors:

https://soundcloud.com/loyallabel/eivind-opsvik-arise

Are there other current projects you’d like to share with us?

I am happy to say that Opsvik & Jennings, my instrumental odd pop collaboration with guitarist/ tunesmith Aaron Jennings is still going on. We are currently in the middle of releasing a new 10-track album called: Lune. One song is being released digitally on the first of every month. The first song was released on July 1st so there are still a few more to come. Check out opsvikandjennings.com to stream and download, where you can name your own price. This project is also recorded and produced by me in my basement studio–a fun process where anything is worth trying out.

Sound Cloud Taste, Opsvik & Jennings:

https://soundcloud.com/loyallabel/opsvik-jennings-io

The Artist – History and Future

What do hope for at age 88?

I hope to still be sharp enough to be able to read some of the books I can’t seem to find the time to read now.

Are there other artists in your family, and, if so, how have they impacted your life’s work?

My father, Peter Opsvik, is a furniture designer, artist and musician and one of the most creative people I know. Obviously, he is a huge inspiration. And my wife, Michelle, is an amazing photographer and artist. She also has a very good sense when it comes to music and is my best and hardest critic.

Who are the people who have influenced your creative development the most and in what ways?

Like earlier mentioned, my father. Also, a very good friend and unique bassist in Norway, Bjørnar Andresen, who is a contemporary with Jan Garbarek and Jon Christensen on the Oslo scene. I got to know him well in the late 90’s. I learned so much about music and life just from hanging out with him–such a spirit. He sadly passed away ten years ago. Latley, my wife and daughter inspire and influence me. And I still learn a lot from my peers.

 

Upcoming Shows:

check @LoyalLabelNY

Overseas at the 2015 NYC Winter Jazz Festival – venue, date, time tba

A Thousand Ancestors

Event: December 13th

New Revolution Arts

7 Stanhope Street, Bushwick

Opsvik @ Nublu Jazz Fest, December, 2015 – tba

Selection of other fine writings about Eivind:

http://musicians.allaboutjazz.com/eivindopsvik

http://jazztimes.com/articles/14098-eivind-opsvik

http://www.mic.no/mic.nsf/doc/art2007111514185142499427

http://www.mic.no/nmi.nsf/doc/art2006051212110965760585

AMN Interviews: Eivind Opsvik – Part I: Overseas

EIVIND OPSVIK OVERSEAS

                                                        An Interview with Monique Avakian

Part I: THE OVERSEAS SERIES

            * beginnings

            * relationships

            * music

Part II: MORE

            * the artist beyond

            * current and other projects

            * the artist — history and future

 

 

 

Part I: THE OVERSEAS SERIES

 

Youth Hopeth All Things, Believeth All Things (live at La Poisson Rouge)

http://youtu.be/o4_oQUJdrYo

 

OVERSEAS: Katmania Duskmann (live at Nublu)

http://youtu.be/hepnRBydRiU?list=UUBCEmRDAKAp9zooWX8hUzMA

 

Beginnings….

 

opsvik 1Did you know that the Overseas series would continue when you released the first CD in 2003? What was going on in your life at that time, and when did you first start working on the songs?

            I did not know then that the Overseas name would be the name of the band or the series of records. It was early 2002 when I first decided I was ready. I wanted to make a record of my own, and I had been in NYC for about four years, finding my way and playing with a lot of different musicians. I had definitely found a group of musician friends I felt I was on the same page with. I had also been writing more music, so I started to work out the direction, the instrumentation, who plays on what tunes, etc., etc.

            The first record kind of had two different bands on it, one that was made with my buddies from the Manhattan School of Music (like Loren Stillman, Jeff Davis, etc.) and another band where I sought out some musicians I really dug, but didn’t really know that well, like Gerald Cleaver, Tony Malaby and Craig Taborn.  Jacob Sacks and Dan Weiss were also on those sessions.  The songs were mostly from the last few years leading up to this, plus a few older things that I reworked. 

            As far as the name, “Overseas,” it was the name of one of the songs. I also liked it as an album name. I really like the word, as it describes a place, but not a specific place…and, it is always another place than where one is at the moment. The term fits my reality: when in Norway, NYC becomes “overseas,” and then this goes other way around when I am in NYC.

            When I started doing shows after the first record came out, I also started to call the band, “Overseas.” When I was about to release the second record, I had trouble finding an album name I liked, so I decided to build on the brand name, (ha-ha), and just call it: “Overseas II.” I think in this age with such an unbelievable amount of music and information, it can sometimes be smart to keep it simple and build on something.

At this point, as you compose for the next in the series (Overseas V), do you go back and listen to the entire set and purposefully gather various musical ideas, sounds or concepts in order to connect motifs, concepts or themes? If so, can you give a specific example of this?

            No, I don’t really do that. I believe that connection and continuity come naturally since it’s all coming from my head. And by the time I’m done with a record, it is something I put behind me in some ways. Then it’s time to look for new ideas and inspiration, and in a way start fresh.

When you examine the parts in terms of the whole, are you ever surprised by what you discover? Do you ever come across sounds or musical thoughts that perhaps function as foreshadowing in some way?

            Yes, there are definitely elements in the compositions or orchestrations or whatever that I evolve and mature. I would say the first two records are coming out of similar concepts, while on Overseas III, and also Overseas IV, there is more of an abrupt change. You can tell it’s from the same aesthetic, but, for example, on the third record, I was kind of done with “jazz solos” and wanted to do more of a concept record where it was more about the mood and timbre of the music–a lot of more ambient and static stuff, but with color…. I was at the time deep into Brian Eno, Morton Feldman and stuff like that, but also into more basic rock stuff, like Neil Young and Pink Floyd.

Does it get easier or more difficult to avoid the traps of cliché and predictability as you continue on with this series? Overseas IV is quite fresh and surprising in many ways….

            Hmm, I can’t say I’ve met the wall yet, but I also allow my self time between records. I’m not stressing anything and can go and brood about it for a long time, and then one day I feel like I have it ready in my mind. For Overseas V I ‘m still not quite sure what direction to take. I have a few different options floating around in my head. We’ll see. I have been focusing on some other record projects recently…but #5 will definitely come one day, be it in two years or ten. I also want to play more with the band live and do some more touring–get the music out there. I feel like our last record still can be heard and enjoyed by more people. As I release on a label without much publicity, touring helps with that.

Relationships…

You have a lot of long term relationships living inside of this music. Jacob Sacks and Tony Malaby have been with you on each album, and you’ve been playing for years with Dan Weiss on Overseas and in other contexts (*) as well. How do these relationships impact your compositional and improvisational processes for Overseas?

            Jacob and I met in my second year at the Manhattan School of Music. We clicked musically right away, and we have kind of come up together. Jacob is an amazing musician on all levels: I’ve learned a lot playing and hanging out with him. The same goes for Tony Malaby–we’re all on the same page when it come to improvising. We love the unexpected and have an aversion for the formulaic and “perfect.” And I also know that they’re always playing for the music. It’s not about getting to play long solos on top of a rhythm section, it’s about the collective creation of sound and music. When it comes to composing, I have their sounds and approaches in my head. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. The same goes for Kenny Wollesen and Brandon Seabrook, such distinct and unique players: I know that they will bring the music to life.

Kenny Wollesen has brought in several of his constructed percussion inventions for the project — can you talk about how his Marching Machine and Spinning Contraption came about for Overseas IV?

            Kenny has been making his own instruments for a good while now–really creative and unique sounding inventions. The Marching Machine was Kenny’s idea to bring in. It was on this tune called, “Youth Hopeth All Things, Believeth All Things.” I had written on the drum chart: “play like a hundred timber men chopping wood,” so Kenny said his Marching Machine would be the perfect sound for that, and it was! As far as the spinning contraption, he calls it, The Angelic Grinder. I think I just told him to bring in a bunch of stuff to the recording session, and we decided to use it for the track, “Silkweavers’ Song.” It has a great ethereal and mysterious sound.

How do you collaborate with Jacob Sacks on the choice of instrumentation? What goes into the choice of a celeste, harpsichord, Farfisa organ, piano, Wurlitzer or Fender Rhodes for a particular song or album?

            It’s become a thing now — so much so that people ask, “What keyboard is the next record going to feature?” I admit it, I have a thing for keyboards, especially old, weird ones, and I have a growing collection in my studio. 

            It has kind of just worked out so that a specific keyboard has been the sound for each album. The first one had Hammond Organ and Fender Rhodes, the second one, a celeste. Overseas III had the Farfisa Organ (which I had bought just a couple of months before the recording session). And, for #4, I rented a harpsichord. 

            I have to give Jacob credit for turning me onto the idea of the harpsichord. He had been talking about it for a few years–that it would be cool to record on that instrument. I was brewing on it for a while and then started to realize how a lot of the material I was writing was perfect for it. The harpsichord definitely dictated much of the direction for the last album, much more so than any of the other keys, which in some ways worked more as coloring.  

            The harpsichord also fit right in with other things that had inspired me for Overseas IV, like the Marie Antoinette movie by Sofia Coppola. I loved the way the visuals and the music came together in that. I had also been [getting deeper] into 18th century European history, so it all created a nice framework and mood for the album and the music: a concept album of sorts. 

            For the next record I might go back to having Jacob play only piano, ha-ha.

And what’s it like working with Tony Malaby?

            Tony is amazing. He’s one of those musicians who always gives one hundred percent and is emotionally involved in the music, no matter if he’s just warming up or playing a small club gig or a big festival.

How does the recent addition of Brandon Seabrook affect the trajectory and scope of the project? How did this alliance come about?

            It happened very naturally.  Malaby was out on the road a lot, and we were playing Nublu in the East Village frequently…this was in 2009 – 2010. I couldn’t really picture any other saxophonists, so I asked Brandon, and it was amazing. He’s so free with the music, and I never know what to expect, which I love. It took a while before I had both Tony and Brandon on a gig, but that was fireworks, too. Now we can do a full band or a four-man version with either Malaby or Seabrook–it’s all swell! Brandon is my favorite guitar player now, no question, and I’m really happy he’s in the band—he’s a busy man.

Overseas and the Music…

You have a lot of in-the-pocket, embedded, overt and subliminal funk in Overseas: Quickstep (Overseas I), Tilt of Timber (Overseas II), Michelle Marie and Youth Hopeth (Overseas IV). How do funk and jazz connect for you?

            I’m not sure I would call it funk, but that being said, I love real funk, the old stuff. But I think lately some of the rhythmic inspiration has come from bands like Joy Division, Fugazi, the B-52’s…New Wave stuff. For the early records, I was deep into Miles’ late 60’s /70’s so-called “electric period.”

The Overseas series also has a hard rock sensibility, even before the addition of Brandon Seabrook. Yet, I would never use a term like “fusion” to describe your music. Can you elaborate on the rock facet in Overseas?

            Again, I guess it’s how I hear my music. I was never able to write a good “jazz” tune anyway, so I just went with what I was hearing. I’ve never really been a huge fan of the direction a lot of contemporary jazz composing has taken. I find a lot of it boring and unimaginative: formulaic.  There are, of course, exceptions but…I guess my point is: that’s not where my head is when I compose. I know some people call jazz, “creative music.”  I think that’s an insult to all other music–all music is creative, and I have to say, lately I find so much more creativity in other genres. But it’s all just good or bad music, I guess.

What is the relationship between jazz and classical music on Overseas?

            I love a lot of classical and contemporary-classical music. I studied classical bass for four years at the music academy in Norway, (the Norwegian State Academy of Music), and I got really into it then. I was never that good or comfortable playing the music, though — too many rules and no freedom, but I have so much respect and admiration for composers like Richard Strauss, Olivier Messiaen, Gustav Mahler, Alban Berg, Ligeti… and many more. But I’ve never really studied their compositional techniques in depth, I just let myself be inspired by the impact [that music has] on me. 

            I have a soft spot for orchestral music. There is nothing like the sound of a great symphony orchestra, or string section! Love that sound. I have a dream of writing for Overseas and strings–I really want to make it happen, but for that to happen I need to do some serious studying and focusing — it’s a whole different animal [and one] that I have a lot of respect for.

You also have a high degree of sound-play on these Overseas albums. Redford (Overseas I) carries sounds suggestive of the pop and crack of vinyl and on Jacob Plays Celeste (Overseas II) we hear the typewriter in accompaniment. And, of course, there’s Kenny Wollesen’s inventive sound work. Additionally, both you and Tony Malaby bring out the “non-note/beyond notes” from your respective instruments. How do you come up with these sound-based ideas? Are you engaged in a willful juxtaposition of opposites or is it more loose and organic?

            It’s mostly improvisational: whatever we hear at that particular point in time. To me, it’s all just sound. I don’t really differentiate between, let’s say, a beautifully played C# and the sound of the bow hairs hissing against the strings, for example. Whatever makes musical sense at that point in time–and I believe that goes for the whole band–without it being a topic of conversation. We all have experience with multiple directions: like, for example, noise improv, electronic music and contemporary classical, so it’s all part of our palette. To take this sound thing one step further–I think this is probably why I’ve always been so involved in the whole process: orchestration, producing, recording, mixing, mastering…to me the sound, the mix, the ambiance of a track can make it or break it. It is really fascinating to me, and I love that there are no rules: only one’s imagination and aesthetic sense lead the way.

Your work conjures such a high degree of imagery and narrative for me — I can’t help but think of film and film scores. I also notice a lot of movie references in your song titles and you mentioned the influence of the film, Marie Antoinette. Would you elaborate some more on how film inspires your music? And, are you actively involved with film-score composition at this point? Is Overseas, in essence, the basis for a film?

            I’m glad to hear that you get visual impulses from the music. A lot of people say that. It’s not something I’m conscious about when making this music, but I guess my thing just has that quality about it. I do like movies (who doesn’t) and can often be very touched by good film scoring–the same goes for cinematography. I haven’t actively pursued film scoring, but would be down to try should the opportunity present itself. I hear it can be a very long, drawn-out and particularly (at times) frustrating work, though.

I notice you had a lot of inventive promotional ideas with Overseas IV: you had a download card to pass on to a friend, a really cool poster insert and a crisp vinyl short as an insert. This was all very engaging. What inspired these treasure~chest elements?

            Just the realization that in this day and age the CD has become a disposable object of very low value. I put a lot of emphasis on packaging and design–I’ve always been interested in Graphic Design and art, so adding a poster to the CD and little things like that just adds to the experience and “value” somehow, at least to me…. Vinyl is more of a collector object, and it’s fun to do. For Overseas IV, I made a 7” (single) with two songs, but also [inserted] a download card for the complete album.

Based on the pattern of release dates so far (2003, 2005, 2008, 2012), can we expect 2017 to be the year of Overseas V? Any plans of playing the entire series of five albums in one or two long performances?

            No plans as of now to play all the records in a live setting like that, but it’s a cool idea, if the right occasion presents itself.  Yes, maybe 2017 is a realistic goal for the next one.

If the Eivind of the first Overseas met the Eivind of today, what would each recognize in the other and what might you make for dinner?

            [Both of us] would recognize a deep love of music of all kinds, an aversion to doing things the same way as everybody else, and for dinner I would maybe set off a day and make some real Mexican food. (I never tried—I believe it’s hard).

 

——————————

(*) Note: Eivind Opsvik plays with David Binney, Jacob Sacks and Dan Weiss every other Tuesday at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, 10:15pm

http://www.55bar.com

http://www.davidbinney.com

Other Links:

http://eivindopsvik.com

http://www.loyallabel.com/index.html

http://tonymalaby.net

http://www.jacobsacks.com

http://www.seabrookpowerplant.com/wp/bio/

http://www.wollesonic.com/?p=FILM&ms=m4&l=en&

—————————–

 Part II — coming next!

AMN Interviews: Darius Jones

Darius_Jones_by_Peter_Gannushkin-1Darius Jones is a saxophonist and composer who defies genres and labels. His music incorporates jazz, soul, classical, avant-garde, and several other categories in a seamless fashion. His new album, The Oversoul Manual came out last week, and features The Elizabeth-Caroline Unit performing a purely a capella work.  Recently, he answered a few questions from AMN.

Five years ago, your name wasn’t popping up very often. Now, you’re all over the map. To what do you attribute your rise in notoriety?

I’d like to know what map you’re referring to. From my perspective, I’m just doing what I’ve always done, which is to work hard, be honest, and not compromise my artistic integrity. Notoriety is not my objective, but I appreciate that people are listening to the music and can only hope that continues.

Your latest album, The Oversoul Manual, is a departure from your jazz trio and quartet work. As an a cappella recording, on the surface it seems like a giant leap. How did the album come about, and why the emphasis of vocals?

I grew up in the church, and I was surrounded by vocalists from a very early age. I was a choir director and a vocal coach at one point in my life. So, for me, this is not a departure or a leap or anything. Vocal music and vocalizing has been a component of all of my music from the beginning. The Oversoul Manual came about through wanting to focus on the voice and ideas that I had for the instrument itself. I feel that the voice is one of the most fascinating instruments that we have. So in many ways The Oversoul Manual is my way of drawing attention to this thing I love. Plus give four vocalists, Amirtha Kidambi, Sarah Martin, Jean Carla Rodea, and Kristin Slipp an opportunity to develop their craft in a focused and open environment. This is the reason I originally created the Elizabeth-Caroline Unit 13 years ago.

How does The Oversoul Manual fit into your other recordings in the Man’ish Boy series?

The Oversoul Manual is the start of a new chapter in the Man’ish Boy series. From the mythological perspective of the series, it is the origin story of the character Man’ish Boy. The first three albums reflected more on the beginning of my life leading up until now. This new chapter is a reflection of my life in the present. The voice is something I am presently very focused on in my instrumental and compositional work. Also it was at the core of my ideas in the first three albums. The voice is where I was born.

The album was the focus of your Carnegie Hall debut on October 3rd. How did that show go? Did it meet your expectations?

The Carnegie Hall performance was other-worldly. The Elizabeth-Caroline Unit gave a performance that was powerful and humbling. They left everything on the stage. I feel so grateful to all those who were there to see it and hear it and witness my composition brought to life. I’m not sure my expectations could have been met in any greater fashion. All that I truly hope for is that this was just the beginning, and The Oversoul Manual has the opportunity to be performed again and again.

Isn’t there a mythology behind your music? Is it something of a Sun Ra thing?

I wouldn’t say what I’m doing is completely like a “Sun Ra thing.” I would say it is very much an African American thing. Sun Ra is a major influence on me. I connect with his idea of being disconnected from this world and this time. I feel that when we talk about the mythology of outer space and alienation, it speaks to the African American experience because what has happened and is happening can make you feel that you do not belong here. What inspired me to want to create a mythology of my own is the idea that there is power in a story, and we all have a story. My mythology straddles the line between reality and myth in that there are elements to the Man’ish Boy epic that are connected to my own life experience. Man’ish Boy is me.

Your saxophone phrasing is rather unique. Who are your influences and how did your personal style evolve?

My saxophone playing is very much influenced by my desire to vocalize through the instrument. Over the years I have worked to strip away the saxophonistic elements of my sound to get closer and closer to a pure vocal quality. When I think about the control, virtuosity, and power of a vocalist like Leontyne Price, or the timbral, imaginative phrasing and soulfulness of Betty Carter, I am awakened to the reality that saxophonistic linguistics is not enough to truly express all that I desire in a musical moment.

You music just cannot be pigeonholed…jazz, classical, soul…are you intentionally eclectic or did it evolve naturally?

I love good music and I want to create good music. For me, there is no style. There is no genre. There is no One Way. This is just a love thing, and the more organic the process, the better. It doesn’t matter what you want to call it, I just want to feel it in my soul.

What do you have coming up in the way of releases and performances?

In addition to The Oversoul Manual, I also have a record out right now on Aum Fidelity with Matthew Shipp entitled The Darkseid Recital. We are playing at UMass, Amherst on October 23rd. I just finished recording an album with my quartet and French vocalist, Emilie Lesbros, which will come out next year. We’ll be performing in France this November. Later this month, I’ll be heading to the West Coast with Eric Revis Quartet, and at the end of November I’ll be back in France with Nasheet Waits Quartet.

AMN Interviews: Keir Neuringer

tumblr_m9j3f7gYuS1rf6q6mo1_500Keir Neuringer has an intensely physical approach to saxophone improvisation, and plays analogue electronics and Farfisa organ as well. Although he was trained as a composer and jazz saxophonist in the US, he spent two years on a Fulbright research grant in Krakow. He then moved to The Hague, where he spent eight years, curating performative audiovisual art and earning a masters degree from the experimental ArtScience Institute. He currently lives in Philadelphia and continues to travel widely to present his work.

How did you get started in music?

“Musician” has been part of my identity since I was a child. Though they were not musicians themselves, my parents inspired my creativity. Listening to a lot of recorded music was part of the culture at home and whenever we were in the car. I was given violin lessons at age 3, started making up my own music on the piano at six years old, and began learning saxophone in public elementary school. There was a drum set in our house a few years later, and my parents gave me space and time to compose, experiment, and make a lot of noise. I was one of three friends in a tight-knit social circle during high school whose parents basically turned the basements of our houses over to us for rehearsal space. And the band director at my high school, Carl Strommen, was immensely supportive, encouraging me to take private lessons, to improvise, to write down my compositional ideas, to study music after high school. I wasn’t precocious, and I was never forced to practice any instrument. But I was raised with the privileges of access to instruments, lessons, and practice space, by people who thought highly of music and musicians. I’m deeply fortunate for all that!

Compare U.S. and European scenes for creative jazz – what are the pros and cons of each?

A generalization that I was able to make when I lived in Europe, from 1999 to 2008, was that there seemed to be higher quality gigs there, as I experienced it: better venues, better promotion, more eager and informed audiences, better remuneration for artists. I’m not sure that’s accurate anymore, for a number of reasons. I think the gap has narrowed between the US and Europe, not because things have improved here in the US, but because they have deteriorated in Europe. I’m thinking of what “austerity” means not only for artists, but for the socio-political culture’s attitude toward creative and life-affirming endeavors in general.

Whether we’re talking about cities in the US “rust belt” or in Poland or Holland (the countries where I lived), wherever there is a passive lack of support for (or an active antipathy towards) creative music, there are artists experimenting with great determination against heavy odds. One thing that always bothered me in Europe was that every so often I would encounter a lavishly funded project that had no audience and made no attempt to connect. I reject the idea that funded artists must “go after” the largest possible public and make work with the greatest mass appeal. On the other hand I dislike the idea of the artist living apart, coming up with ideas without any relevance to society, without any relationship to their neighbors.

How is the Philadelphia scene in particular? Are there enough opportunities for you to record and play?

I have been in Philadelphia for just over two years and I love it here. That doesn’t mean things are always great, but that I care about situations and want them to improve. Philly is a city with a deep and living history. We have the good fortune to still be able to go out several times a year to see Marshall Allen perform! Among some great local shows, in the last few months Ars Nova Workshop brought Ingrid Laubrock’s group to the Philadelphia Art Alliance, Fire Museum Presents brought Amir ElSaffar and Omar Dewachi playing Iraqi maqams in the garden of a tiny tea shop, and Girls Rock Philly and Bowerbird brought Techne (Bonnie Jones and Suzanne Thorpe) to present the results of an electronic instrument building workshop they led with young girls at The Rotunda.

And I’m still discovering new things about the scenes here, for better and for worse. With Philly, as at the national and international level, I am concerned about power and privilege with respect to who curates, who performs, who is welcomed as audience. How are women, people of color, and queer-identified people represented in creative music scenes? Do individual venues and festivals display singularity or conformity? Again, these are questions I ask about Philly, but also about anywhere else. There are certainly “enough opportunities” for me to play and record and curate as much as I want (within the extremely limited opportunities this culture allows for the avant garde). But I’m a white man. I’m not interested in being a member of a secret society. Who owns the clubs? Who books the shows? Who gets booked? Who feels safe and welcome at shows? Who runs the labels? Who decides on grant funding? If I could honestly answer each of these questions with a diversity of identities, I would be able to say that the scene is “good”. That goes for anywhere.

What led to your solo sax record, Ceremonies out of the Air?

The title comes from a passage in Cormac McCarthy‘s book The Road, about a parent and child navigating a post-apocalyptic landscape as the parent nears death: “Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”

I have performed solo improvisations since 1999 and I had been invited by a label to release a recording documenting my solo saxophone work as far back as 2001, but I didn’t feel ready then. In early 2013 my mother died after a long illness – she had lung cancer. I was her primary caretaker during her transition and the experience impacted me deeply. I recorded Ceremonies several months later, as a memorial to her, for a small invited audience. Ed Ricart, who runs New Atlantis Records, was interested in a solo record from me, and for this album I wanted a situation in which I could have complete artistic control of all facets of production, which he was able to offer. After I selected the music from the recording session (we used 79 minutes of the 120 that I performed), I sent it to Erin Rice, an artist and friend in Brooklyn who lost her mother a few weeks before my mother died, and supported me through my mother’s final weeks. Her artwork, with the image of my mother as a young woman peering off into the abyss of her painting, is integral to the record. The liner note is the eulogy I delivered at my mother’s funeral. And the track titles also refer to the overall concept, in some cases more obliquely. I have a strong preference for work that is conceptually sound.

How did you develop your the techniques that you employ on Ceremonies out of the Air?

There are techniques that I use that come from my conventional studies of the instrument, in both the so-called classical and jazz domains. But after I completed those studies I spent many years attempting to forget them, or at least forge a personal understanding of and voice on the instrument. I got interested in circular breathing when I first heard Rahsaan Roland Kirk‘s “Old Rugged Cross” as a university student in the mid 90s, and hearing and meeting Evan Parker a few years later inspired me to work seriously on the technique. Over the years I developed other techniques through the influences of other groundbreaking saxophonists – Roscoe Mitchell, Pharaoh Sanders, Khadri Gopalnath, for example – as well as Joel Ryan, Marek Choloniewski, and Michel Waisvisz – mentors of mine who pioneered electronically transformed sound. All along, I have been inspired by my peers – composers and improvisers in Krakow and The Hague, especially – who were developing their approaches alongside me. Among the most influential of these have been Rafal Mazur, the bassist and philosopher in Krakow, and Takuro Mizuta Lippit, the turntablist and theorist now living in Hong Kong, though I could name many other comrades whose collaborations fostered my technical development!

Who are some of the people you’d like to perform or record with in the future?

Oh man! I don’t want to dodge this question, but it’s difficult to answer without feeling like a kid in a candy store. I’ll say this: I had the opportunity this past spring to lead a band that performed William Parker’s music, with him, the drummer Muhammad Ali, and a few of Philly’s elder greats: Odean Pope, Dave Burrell, Marshall Allen, and Bobby Zankel. That experience did something to my playing and thinking that I’m still reeling from. So I’m certainly interested in connecting to elders such as these when the circumstances permit. There is also a long list of my contemporaries – some who I know and have played with, some who I’ve never met – that I want to get together with. Lately I’ve been wondering what it would sound like to get them all together in one room…

What are your musical plans for the next few months?

I have a few performances this fall. The bassist Shayna Dulberger and the drummer Julius Masri are joining me for two concerts in Philadelphia, on October 16 (at First Banana) and November 8 (at House Gallery 1816), and we’re planning to go into the studio later this fall. I’m also performing a solo at Downtown Music Gallery in NYC on October 19. Other than that, I’m writing – I honestly haven’t felt such a flood of inspiration to compose notated music for several years. There are a few different projects I’m working on – one for saxophone and strings, one for a small group, and one for a large ensemble of improvising musicians. These are all things that will get heard, in performances and recordings, over the next two years. Meanwhile, I’m planning to get back on the road in the spring – I have tentative plans for Europe, Mexico, and the US West Coast. I’ll be sure to let you know where I’ll be when plans solidify!

AMN Interviews: Rodrigo Amado

Bio_01Rodrigo Amado is a Portuguese saxophonist who composes and plays free jazz and improv. In a country that is has become known for these types of music, and he is one of the movement’s leaders. In 2014, he has released three albums so far. Below he answers a few questions from AMN.

You came to music in an interesting way – taking up the sax after a car accident. What led you to do so?

I was always, since I can remember, pretty much fascinated about music. My family wasn’t directly related to music in any way, but music was always present in a lot of different occasions. My parents had frequently friends over at the house, and there were occasions when it was full of people, many of them musicians, with everybody playing music and dancing. That’s when I first held a saxophone in my hands.

When the revolution took place (April 25th, 1974) I was 10 years old. These were very vibrant and creative times. By that time my room was already filled with LPs, and a few years later, when I started doing Inter-rails (one ticket to go anywhere around Europe – I’ve done three, always traveling alone), all I cared was to do crate digging and carry as many records with me as possible.

At 17, when this accident happened (not a car one – I went through a glass door, suffering a complete cut of the sciatic nerve), I was immobilized for a long period and my mother asked me what I wanted to help me spend the time. I answered immediately: a saxophone. That’s when I started listening to jazz. I was already fascinated with the instrument, probably because I was listening a lot to Roxy Music, David Bowie or Van Der Graaf Generator, among many other rock bands that used saxophone.

Portugal in general, and Lisbon specifically, has experienced a very rich jazz scene over the last 15 years or so. Can you discuss how it started and how it has evolved?

The big turning point for the jazz scene was the appearance of Clean Feed, in 2001. Before that, there was mostly mainstream jazz that very rarely got an international exposure. The few exceptions were players like Carlos Zíngaro, Zé Eduardo, Carlos Barretto, or projects like Telectu. When we started the label (I left in 2006), the contact with international musicians, mostly north-Americans, got really intense. Since then, the scene kept evolving very strongly, with a lot of international collaborations, great new players and a lot of projects being recorded and released. Several new labels were founded – Creative Sources, Tone of a Pitch, Sintoma, Porta-jazz – and the opportunities to record and release got bigger.

However, this recent economic crisis has affected deeply most of the musicians, being more and more difficult to find (paid) work. Other factor that slows things down is the ever existing gap between the mainstream and avant-jazz communities. Ignorance and insecurities fuel a sense of intolerance between both sides.

You seem to have a deep relationship with the Clean Feed label – what is your history with them?

In 2001, Pedro and Carlos Costa invited me to join Trem Azul (the distribution company) and help them start a new label. They had already recorded and produced what would be the first album for the label – The Implicate Order “Live at Seixal” (a live recording where I also play) – and were looking for someone who had experience in marketing, design, management…and music, of course. I had just finished 3 years as general manager for one of the biggest music megastores in Lisbon, and had decided to focus on music and my own projects, trying to make a living out of that. Besides, we were already good friends, so the project made perfect sense to me. I came up with the name Clean Feed, meaning “to feed a pure signal into something”. That’s what we wanted to do, release unadulterated music. Our first office was a tiny space in a degraded shopping mall, but we grew very fast. Those were 5 years of constant challenge, adventure, lots of work and lots of fun. And we felt we were building something. Clean Feed also gave me the first opportunities to release my own music and to play with foreign musicians that we’re much better and experienced. This really changed my life.

In 2006, by the time I released “Spiritualized”, I was spending more and more time with my own music and photography. Both Pedro and I had the biggest share of the label (the same), but Pedro was much more focused than I on the label’s issues, so things got a little unbalanced. That’s when I left. A few months later, I started my own personal label, European Echoes, to give me independence, freedom and control over my own releases. “Teatro”, “Surface”, “The Abstract Truth” and “Motion Trio” were self released on that label. More recently, I started working with great international labels like Not Two, Ayler Records or No Business, and felt the time was right to return to Clean Feed with a new album. Pedro agreed, and that gave way to the “Wire Quartet” release.

On the last 3 or 4 years, the Clean Feed store (now closed) was also a very important spot for the avant-jazz community. We rehearsed there, meet, listen to music, etc. I would say it was decisive for the evolution of our music and the overall scene. Now we’re reorganizing everything.

Your U.S. based collaborators include some of the best and brightest from New York, Chicago, and other places. How have you met some of these individuals, and how do you choose whom to play with?

First there was this great strike of luck, by getting the chance to hang and play with such amazing players like Steve Swell, Ken Filiano, Lou Grassi or Dennis Gonzalez. For me it was a whole different planet. I had never dreamed of playing with musicians of that level. But, for some reason, although I was a much weaker player, these guys kept supporting me and literally giving me their music. I suppose they felt my devotion for the music and probably some strength in the improvisation concepts I was working with. They were my mentors (in an informal way) and my direct inspiration. For me, a turning point was “The Space Between”, the trio I did with Filiano and Zíngaro. Suddenly I was recording with this amazing double-bassist and with the Portuguese musician I respected most. It was like a dream come true. The music showed me the strength of instinct, of trusting our own emotions and communicating them, through music.

Those following years I had the opportunity to play with Bobby Bradford, Joe Giardullo, Steve Adams, Herb Robertson, Paul Dunmall, Vinny Golia or Adam Lane, all of them much stronger musicians than I was. That was the most incredible way to learn and grow. There were occasions when I felt, after one of those gigs or recording sessions, that my playing had changed deeply. And those changes stayed with me and incorporated my playing. Over the years I started feeling more comfortable and confident, just enough to extend invitations to players like Paal Nilssen-Love, Kent Kessler, Taylor Ho Bynum, John Hébert, Gerald Cleaver, or more recently, Jeb Bishop, Peter Evans, Joe McPhee or Chris Corsano. These were all choices I did based on their music, and how I imagined it would fit within my own musical universe. Most of the times I had never met them before, and this made the musical encounters that more intense. It’s amazing for me to think that I never had a disappointment and sometimes, like on “Searching for Adam”, the music sounded almost exactly like I had imagined. I would say it’s a very intuitive process, with a lot that remains unexplained, even for me.

Two of your recent releases with Peter Evans, The Freedom Principle and Live in Lisbon, could be called hardcore improvisation – there is little effort made to capture a sense of normalcy in the rhythmic sense. Is this a goal you actively strive for, or a style that has naturally evolved?

This hardcore “feeling” that you are talking about comes from the fact that these recordings register the meeting of Motion Trio with one of the most unconventional improvisers in activity. We were aware of this and the kind of risk it represented, but we weren’t really prepared for what it followed. The concert at Teatro Maria Matos – we had just met Peter the day before – was like an open field battle. Every musical movement of ours was matched by a contrasting or antagonist movement from Peter. He never did what would be expected, or “normal”, from him. And kept a huge amount of pressure on the music. Of course, as an improv unit, we wouldn’t let go either. There were 5 or 6 different levels of communication going on at the same time. Gabriel and Miguel would take turns following Peter or me, or each one of them was following one of us, in very short fragments. Peter would come up with these split-second emulations of what one of us was doing, confusing what was coming from where. Huge turns in the music were always happening and surprising everyone. So, we were all improvising on a thin wire, in front of a huge audience, trying to transform this confrontation into consistent music. I would say – and Miguel and Gabriel say it too – it was the most intense and transforming musical meeting ever, for us. And it was something that happened naturally, not planned at all. Just the result of the meeting of four individual musical personalities, at a specific context and time.

Some of your work exhibits what could be called incidental noises or sound effects, all made by traditional jazz instruments. Are these qualities spur of the moment improv, or are they planned to some extent?

All my own projects are totally improvised and I never even talk to any of the musicians about what to play, in any way. So, no planning whatsoever. Just total and pure improv, and a deep sense of collective exploration.

What do you have coming up in terms of releases and live performances?

My next release will be the quartet with Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler and Chris Corsano. It will come out on Not Two, late this year. I’m also working on two other recordings; a Motion Trio + 2 with Steve Swell (trombone) and Rodrigo Pinheiro (piano) as guests; and the first album of Hurricane, a trio I share with DJ Ride (turntable, electronics) and Gabriel Ferrandini. A couple weeks ago, me and Chris Corsano recorded a duo that I’m now starting to listen. It sounds good! Planning to go back to Brazil for a second tour, return to the US with Humanization Quartet, for what will be our third East Coast tour, and spin more intensely on the European Festival circuit with Motion Trio.

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.