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An Interview With Wadada Leo Smith About "The Great Lakes"

by Samuel Weinberg

On the heels of his massively impressive opus—the 4 CD box, Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012)—trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith has just released another suite, The Great Lakes Suites (TUM). Although The Great Lakes Suites is not as large in scope (it spans 6 movements, over 2 CDs) it is, in many respects, no less impressive. Joined by long standing collaborators, saxophonist & flutist Henry Threadgill , drummer Jack DeJohnette (drums), and bassist John Lindberg, Smith was able to capture his far-reaching, and widely researched thoughts on The Great Lakes. 

This is a striking document in a number of respects, not the least of which is…

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An Interview With Wadada Leo Smith About...
by Samuel Weinberg On the heels of his massively impressive opus—the 4 CD box, Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012)—trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith has just released another suite, The Great Lakes Suites (TUM). Although The Great Lakes Suites is not as large in scope (it spans 6 movements, over 2 CDs) it is, in many respects, no less impressive. Joined by long standing collaborators, saxophonist & flutist Henry Threadgill , drummer Jack DeJohnette (drums), and bassist John Lindberg, Smith was able to capture his far-reaching, and widely researched thoughts on The Great Lakes.  This is a striking document in a number of respects, not the least of which is that many of these movements seem—as a friend of mine remarked when I played him the record—like “classics”; like pieces that everyone should know, or somehow already have. Smith remarks upon this phenomenon in our interview below, saying “[this organic work] is older than it looks and younger than it could possibly be!” It was a true delight to speak with Smith, who was generous with his time and responses.  I began wondering something while reading the liner notes for this record: it talked about how you were on a plane from Austria, having just performed with Muhal Richard Abrams. You then began to think about The Great Lakes. Did this fascination with The Great Lakes have any deeper roots before that, maybe even from childhood, if that’s applicable? Well, from childhood, everyone has to know the names of The Great Lakes in school and things like that. But my fascination came when I was living in Chicago, beginning in 1967 through 1970—Lake Michigan was right there and we would engage in walking by the side of it. Sometimes, my friends of greater economic wealth would take me out on a boat, to go check out the space outside of the city. So that was the beginning of my love affair with these lakes. But I grew up in Mississippi, and I lived 28 miles from the Mississippi River growing up. So the whole thing with water in the Delta is that there aren’t a lot of rivers, but there are a lot of lakes, and so my notion of water has those sorts of definitions to it.  So when did you realize that you wanted to translate these thoughts you were having about water into music, and into this suite?  Well, on that airplane that you mentioned, I began to work. Once I get an idea, I like to begin to work on it immediately. And so on this plane, I took out some plain white paper and began jotting down some musical notes. I had just played with Henry Threadgill in Muhal’s orchestra and we had always been fascinated with one another, in terms of being musical partners. So I started with that piece “Lake Michigan” and “Lake Michigan” contains all of the compositional ideas, and the philosophical and psychological notions about The Great Lakes and this suite: it’s the longest piece, it’s got far more dynamical configurations than the others, and the structure of it is absolutely supreme . And I say that because when I listen to it, I’m fascinated by the amount of nuance of structure that emerges. But meanwhile, I’m on this plane, and I’m thinking about all of these things, and I begin to write my configurations without pitches, and not even trying to think about pitches at all. That flight from Austria to California is 13 hours, so I had about four or 5 hours where I just sank into myself and was able to feel the rapture of what these Great Lakes represent and the more I laid out a few figures, the more it occurred to me that these lakes could be the bread basket of the world. If you look, starting with Lake St. Clair, going all the way across, there are a lot of major lakes going through that zone between the Northern part of the US and Canada. There is no other place on the globe like it! If you spread the globe out, as they have done on these maps, and you take a look at it, one has to be completely fascinated and astonished by how many fresh water zones are in that area. And then when you look at the supreme lake, Lake Superior, if it flooded, it would cover North, Central, and South America in about 12 or 13 inches of water. How fascinating is that? So when you put that in your vision, and you realize that if you step out on the top of Canada and look at this water spread for two continents, you realize how amazing it is. So those kind of reflections went into making this a piece. Like I said, “Lake Michigan” was the first one that I began making notes on, and then I switched to “Lake Superior” and starting writing stuff…so whenever I’m going along, and whenever inspiration would bust upon me, I would move to the next piece and put notes down. So eventually, I’ve got these notes accumulating, and then I decided one day, that I would start with the first one and then go down through the rest and work. Working on them was a beautiful dream, because I did my research, and the iPad makes that so easy because you can type in any sort of field of research you want to, and find multiple pieces of information: scientific, biological, ecological, the whole gamut. Usually, when I wasn’t out traveling, at the end of my day, I would sit on the side of the bed, with my iPad, and spend an hour or an hour and a half just flipping through information about The Great Lakes. I don’t feel as though I can musically betray what I want to without doing the proper research. By that, I mean : I don’t see the Lakes suites as being programatic music, because it isn’t. What I see it being is psychological music, that I intended, and that through my emotional experience with that intent, I think conveyed. I feel as those, through music, I can psychologically touch at those pure forces and meanings behind these bodies of water. For example, the notion of flatness, the notion of eruption, etc.  I actually saw a documentary about Lake Michigan, which is one of the reasons why I decided to begin with it. In this documentary, they show these huge stones can erupt in a second. Huge ships would sink as a consequence, because they used to have a lot of commercial traffic coming out of those lakes, coming out of Chicago and these others. A big storm would wipe out these huge ships—it’s a graveyard for large ships! And this a lake I’m talking about, not an ocean! From time to time, I still research Lake Michigan because I can’t get enough of it, it’s just so fascinating!   Can we talk a bit about flatness? I believe at one point in the essay you wrote to accompany the record, that you described the lakes and the pieces as “restrained yet explosive”. You can feel that in pretty much all of the pieces, in the contrasts between the textural improvisations and the really explosive, visceral melodies, particularly on “Lake Huron”.  Well, think about it like this: there are around 19 pages in the score, and about 25 pages  in my notes. There is a lot of music there. So when you think about how you’re going to make this psychological move, which would pervade all the pieces, that was the way that I thought I would represent how I was feeling. Each work would be a suite and a suite gives you the opportunity of transferring information, but also the possibility of expressing something different about the same idea, or point of view. So you can look at this idea of flatness symbolically, as the score is kind of flat; you could look at it as the flatness of a lake, because if it doesn’t have any interruptions, the top of these lakes look very calm, but depending on the marine life and other things going on below, it’s a different story! I wanted to simultaneously capture the idea of flatness and explosiveness. To do that, one would have to think both about the flatness but also take into consideration everything that goes on beneath that flatness. When the storm comes up, that’s a whole different kind of reality, because this energy completely destroys that flatness! And when it’s all over, it comes back down just like nothing happened. It’s amazing, because nature can reveal things to us in such a flash, then in the next moment, it’s over!  That notion is pervasive throughout all of the pieces, even though you have different ways of expressing it? Yes, because if you lay something down on the ground, and you get down and you have a nice look at it, you’ll see a whole other way of looking, especially if it’s grass where you see a whole bunch of different contours and textures that you hadn’t before. You also have an image of the whole from your different perspectives. Music is the same way: if you allow this reflection to become organic—that is, if a person can connect with the music, and the music has the quality to connect with them—then they can explore various angels from them. Also programming-wise, one can begin to program things in a different way: “Lake Superior” coming up, and maybe “Lake Eerie” coming up in a different context. And as time goes on, you’re allowed to have a different understanding of your work, and the sequencing and the patterns of it. Right, and you had written some of the music from Ten Freedom Summers 30 years before it was released! Yup, 30 years! And some of those pieces I had written without instrumentation, which added a whole different quality to it. Some of those pieces were re-conditioned in terms of orchestrations and things like that, but once the whole thing was put together, and the context of 38 years top to bottom of completeness, you end up with an organic work, which is older than it looks and younger than it could possibly be! It only becomes alive when it’s played.  Well let’s talk about the band on The Great Lakes. When talking about Threadgill, maybe you can speak a bit about some early days of the AACM, when you were first getting to know him. Jack DeJohnette was in Chicago, too?  Jack was in Chicago, but when I met him, he had already moved away and was already playing with Miles Davis, so I didn’t experience his presence until Miles Davis was playing in Chicago, and Jack came over and started hanging with Muhal. Muhal had called me earlier that morning and asked if I wanted to come over because Jack was going to come over and maybe we would play a little bit. And of course I was already in the car on the way! So Jack comes over, and there’s nobody else there besides Muhal, me and Jack and so we talked a bit and then we started playing. I believe that Jack taped it, because at that time people were using tapes. It was a really fantastic session, because it wasn’t that any of us played a theme or anything like that, we just played and it was fantastic. I discovered then, and for the first time in my life, that this guy was the kind of drummer that I wanted to play with. I could play naturally, intuitively, and it would mesh with anything. It was just perfect. And that trio of Muhal, Jack, and I is something that has never been explored, would’ve and could’ve been a fantastic idea, anytime, any place, in any century. I would love to do it in this century.  Threadgill, when I first met him, I thought was a very shy man. He wore a scarf wrapped around his head, so I wasn’t sure whether he was into some special stuff or not [laughs]. He struck me as an extraordinary personality, but when he turned around smiled, it was like light busting out of a sun, which I thought was pretty cool. I introduced myself to him, and we talked, but later on in that time, we decided to put a group together—it was a very different group, which never recorded and which involved many different aspects of theater and dance within the context of the performance. So it wasn’t just a concert/performance band. We went to Europe together at one point, and this was in the early 1970s. He, Leonard Jones and I shared a place and we kind of worked sporadically from there. Musically speaking, we had done a recording session with Muhal before we went to Europe, where Threadgill and I were the lead horns. I had a good experience of his musicality and also his personality. He was one of the few guys in Chicago where we would go and hang out, have a cognac or something, during my days of decadence. Those days are gone so long that I don’t even know what these things smell like!  I met John Lindberg when he was 18 or 19, something like that. He was astonishing then as a young player, and also someone who struck me as being very serious. We’ve grown to be close friends from that moment on! We started playing duets after that, in all sorts of situations, we started communicating with one another. He’s one of the greatest bass players that I’ve ever come across. Once Malachi died, there was no question in my mind of who was to become the next bass player of the Golden Quartet.   The best description of any of these artists that I work with come in the form of these poems that I wrote for everybody to accompany the record. I tried to capture all of these people exactly, and what it is that they project when they make their music. I struggled for a long time to find the best way to describe Threadgill’s playing. He’s non-prose in his playing—he’s very poetic—so I came up with this term “saxophone sonata”, because that’s the pureness of how I hear, see, feel him when I’m making music with him.  Right, you also described him as using “sonic crystals”. What I find so amazing about his playing, and yours too, is that both of you can say so much in just 2 bars. He has an incredible sense of space and improvisational patience. With his own bands he creates these universes, and he doesn’t have to play at all for you to feel him there.  Yeah, that’s right, he doesn’t play much in his own bands. It’s amazing!  And it’s the same as you described DeJohnette as producing, “majestic rhythmic fields”. So I was wondering how you were thinking about space, when writing these suites, and with these musicians in mind.  Well I didn’t have to consider any of that, and the reason for that was because I wrote the music specifically for these players, and I had them and their sounds in mind. So I told you there were 19 pages of music right? John, Henry and I rehearsed for an hour and a half only and all we did was check out if the notes were correct on the instruments, and that we could comprehend the forms. Jack didn’t rehearse. An hour and a half! From there, we went out, had some food and talked a long time. In the studio we looked at that music, tried to figure out if there were going to be any complications on cues or anything like that, and then we decided to just do a take. All that music was made in one take, and only “Lake St. Clair” was done with two takes and there was some technical reason for that. When I say one-take, I mean that I have a high-productivity, low-risk method of recording. And I get the maximum amount from the artists because of this. I record section-by-section. And then, in that same section, the engineer puts them together so that we can listen to them. We spent four and a half hours making 90 minutes of music—had lunch and a photo session, all in that four hours! People don’t believe me when I tell them that, but it’s true! With Ten Freedom Summers, Golden Quartet recorded 13 pieces, between 9 o’clock in the morning to 1 at night. And the last piece that was recorded was “Rosa Parks” and that piece is a gem! I don’t understand how they did it. How did they manage to get such a magnificent performance after working so many hours straight? 
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You're Invited to Tim Berne's 60th Birthday...
(Tim Berne, Protestant minister; photo Ben Gerstein) by Samuel Weinberg Since this blog’s inception, I have made no secret about my adoration for the music of Tim Berne. In the past year, I have interviewed Berne twice (first & second), and have written about a number of his gigs, and those of his close collaborators. It should then come as no surprise that I’m beyond excited to speak a bit about his forthcoming week at The Stone, which runs from October 7th through the 12th, and is ostensibly a celebration of his 60th birthday. Throughout this week, Berne will present his working band, Snakeoil (pianist Matt Mitchell, clarinetist Oscar Noriega, drummer Ches Smith with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira) for three nights—6 sets, between the 7th and the 9th—as well as some burgeoning projects: both sets on Friday will showcase Ice Station Zebra (with Matt Mitchell, David Torn, Tyshawn Sorey and Ches Smith), and on Saturday & Sunday, Berne will play the first sets with Decay (Ryan Ferreira, Michael Formanek, Ches Smith) & the second with Cornered (Snakeoil plus Ryan Ferreira and Michael Formanek).  When the idea about writing this piece first came to me, I thought that I would enumerate some reasons why one should attend Berne’s week at The Stone, and those reasons are many and varied. But given my lack of adequate journalese, or linguistic facility, I began to think that it’s perhaps more proper to state simply that Tim Berne’s music has truly and deeply changed me and that spending as much time with his music as I have, has really challenged my thoughts about the nature of both composition and improvisation. While there’s a pervasive sentiment from journalists and others I’ve spoken with that Berne’s music is “complex” —spoken of either pejoratively or glowingly— this should not give one reason to either be averse to his music, nor to blindly praise it. All I can say to the reader is this: spend some time with his records and inhabit the universe that his wholly unique compositions create. And do yourself the favor of making it out to at least one set this week to experience this music yourself if you haven’t already. I will leave a few representative samples of these groups below: (particularly the vamp in the last 2 minutes of this one!)
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Catch Taylor Ho Bynum on his Acoustic...
(photo by Peter Gannushkin) by Samuel Weinberg There never seems to be a dull moment on the calendar of cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum. He makes numerous records with the diverse projects he’s involved in; serves as the director of the Tri-Centric Foundation (an organization built in service of iconoclast Anthony Braxton’s work); and has recently embarked upon his second Acoustic Bicycle Tour—a truly grassroots endeavor—in which Bynum, cornet on his back, bikes hundreds of miles to play various gigs, often in venues which are slightly off-the-beaten path. Having already successfully completed an ABT through New England four years ago, Bynum is at it again, this time with the ambitious itinerary of biking down the length of the West Coast: beginning in Canada, ending in Mexico, and playing with some of the West Coast’s finest improvisers along the way. I had the great pleasure of chatting with Bynum about this endeavor, and three of his most recent releases: Navigation (Firehouse 12), Through Foundation, and Continuum (Relative Pitch).  Along with some great embedded videos, I’ve also attached the remainder of his ABT dates at the bottom of this interview.  ——- Do you want to talk a little bit about this new duo record with Tomas? You guys have made a bunch of records together and have known each other for years, but you recorded this one in your basement so maybe you could talk about those circumstances. Yeah, Tomas and I met when I was 17 and he was 15, because we went to neighboring high schools. We met through a mutual friend and started playing together, and then we reconnected when I went to The New School for one semester in college, while he was there for his whole time in school, so we reconnected there. At that point we really reconnected and kept a band together all through college. Then we played all through our twenties and thirties, but it was slightly suspended while he was touring with STOMP. But even then, when he was in town, we would get together and do some gigs. So this has been a relationship that has been happening for over twenty years. So about 10 , we started actively working as a duo—he’s in a couple of my groups, we were in a couple of collective things together, but we sort of wanted to break it down and have it be a core ensemble. There’s kind of a nice tradition of drum/trumpet or drum/cornet duos: the Don Cherry & Ed Blackwell stuff, Philip Wilson and Lester Bowie…I think there’s that tradition in place because there’s a nice connectivity between those two instruments –the physicality of both of them and the primal nature of both of them. They’re both so immediately related to ritualistic musics from all over the world that involve something you bang on and something you blow through [laughs]! So it’s always been a particular part of our repertoire that we’ve kept up. We had done two duo records and we wanted to make a third one and we sort of made the choice that, rather than shopping it around to a label or making it in a studio, that we would really celebrate the personal nature of this project and the history behind it, and we decided to just do it ourselves, from top to bottom. So rather than doing it in a recording studio, Tomas came over to my house, stayed with me for three days, and my friend Nick Lloyd set up a portable recording setup in my basement, and we just recorded there! We would spend a couple of hours recording, then go out on the porch for a while and drink some iced-tea, have a sandwich, then go back down and record for a few more hours. So we really wanted to play up the relaxed, communal and social nature of this project and trying to get that to come across in the vibrations of the music. And similarly, once we finished the record, we decided that rather than shopping it around, that we would release it as a very personal and limited release, where we only did a small vinyl run. It was a friend of Tomas’ who did the design—a really beautiful painting and she also printed some colored vinyl which matched the color of the painting. So this was all as a way to celebrate twenty years of playing together. So how many vinyl were pressed? 249 [laughs]. That’s a 250 vinyl order, and one of them must have gotten broken in the order or something! It’s kind of an odd number but I like it. Of course, we’re also making it available digitally. I mean, it’s great because I’ve been doing more and more stuff on vinyl and it just sounds good, it feels good, I think the audio is better. It’s an experiential thing, too. Exactly, it’s an experiential thing and it puts the material object to the moment, and I think that there’s something about that that makes you listen to it in a different way, because it’s not wholly ephemeral or digital. Well it’s funny because I remember when I was a student, and I was studying with Braxton, he told me that I had to go check out some Albert and Donald Ayler. So I thought, “Well, Professor Braxton told me to check this out, so I better do it”. So this is back in the days of record stores, in Middletown, CT where there weren’t any good record stores, so I had to really search and find this Ayler stuff. So I finally found this Albert Ayler record, which cost $15, and I hated it [laughs]. This is utterly terrifying! I had checked out Ornette and other things of that era, but Ayler totally terrified me. So I put it away for a while. But it was sitting there, and I had had to travel to Boston to get it and I had paid 15 bucks for it, so I listened to it again and again, and I finally realized that it was changing my life. I think that having been forced to go out, really search for this record and having to pay money for it, and then having a physical object staring at me from my shelf, made it give it the couple of extra listens that I needed to get into it. Like, I’ll tell a student to check out someone and they’ll come back the next week and say, “I watched five minutes on YouTube and it wasn’t really my thing”, and they’re done with it from that point on. So that’s a totally different thing. And there’s something to this notion of having to struggle through something that, once you get it, you’ll give more of a chance to. So we figure that we’ll make an expensive piece of vinyl so that people will hate our music for a little while before they dig it [laughs]! So to segue a little: you pressed Navigation on vinyl too, right? Yeah, I got even weirder with Navigation: it’s a four album set, but it’s one piece of music, but it’s a very modular and shifting piece of music. What I really wanted to represent was the process of the composition, and not just one finished product of the composition, if that makes sense. So I wanted the listener to have the same experience as the musicians who made the music; where we’re making different choices with the music and that it doesn’t come across the same way any time. It seemed antithetical to the concept of the composition to present one singular, fixed version of it. So it was very important to me to present it in multiple versions and with multiple recordings. We did two live sets with the sextet—both at Firehouse 12—and then one day in the studio version where we did it as a septet, adding the great Chad Taylor as a guest. I ended up really liking them all, and so the idea was to put them all out, but then I really wanted to play with form, and make people think about it in a different manifestation each time. So rather than do a 4-CD set, or 4-LP set, I decided to do two of the sets on CD only and two of the sets on LP only, but if you buy either of the sets, you get the other free, as a digital download. It confuses people a lot that the LPs and the CDs are actually different material. With the same cover! Right. And you can’t get the CD stuff of LP or the LP stuff on CD, but you can get it all digitally. So I tried to confuse and isolate my small niche audience as much as I possibly could. It’s all part of my grand strategy to minimize sales. But I kind of like the idea of it, because I want everyone to think about all four of the albums as a set, but really differentiate between the sextet and septet, the live and the studio, etc. But the listener is really entering into the same space as the musicians, because we have a fixed set of materials that we’re playing with, yet how we’re interpreting them, and what choices we’re making in the moment, are totally different from performance to performance. And really the whole point of that composition is leaving much of it up to the musicians to figure out what tune we’re going to play, or what arrangement we’re going to take. I’ve given the macro-structure, and the core-materials to be utilized, but the whole purpose is to leave it up to the musicians to what path we would take. I thought it was the closest way for the audience to experience what we the musicians were feeling when performing the composition. The LP and CD look similar, but once you listen, you notice all of the many differences. Can you talk about what the score looks like for Navigation? Or what the macro-structure is? Yeah, the piece is based around 6 movements which are interlinked in this sort of web, where each piece has two potential entry-doors from other compositions, and two potential exit doors to two other compositions. So it’s kind of a choose your own adventure book: you get into a piece and you can go over here, or go over there! The idea is that each composition has two musicians that are responsible for cueing it in, and each musician has two pieces which they responsible for. So it’s a web or possibility and responsibility which creates this constantly changing map or agenda for us to follow. So that’s the macro-structure, and if you look at the cover art, those are the interlinked boxes converging. Within the movements, these pieces have their own identity—some are graphic scores, some are more traditionally scored, some are somewhere in-between. I said to them that the primary way we can think about it is that, for example, the alto saxophone would be playing the melody, and the cornet and and trombone would be in the background, while the rhythm section would be playing the changes. But we could come to it sometime, and the bass could play the melody solo, and the drums could play the backgrounds, for example. Or we could just take the bridge or two-measure cycles and just repeat them. We have these primary identities of the composition, but now that we’ve performed the piece many many times, we can really refract it, abstract it and fit it into what the moment calls for. So it’s very much never been the same. I have to say that it’s been very gratifying for me, because I love all of the musicians in that band—they’re some of my favorite people in the world and they’re people I’ve played with for 10, 15, 20 years across the board. How much fun they’ve had with it, and the sorts of amazing and extraordinary choices that they’ve made in the moment, makes me endlessly happy. That was really the concept of the piece. I tend to write in sort of extended suites most of the time, and the last thing that I had written with this sextet, was this piece “Apparent Distance”, which I still love and am proud of, but it’s really a fixed roadmap. It was getting to the point where I realized that these musicians were just eating this up and it wasn’t giving them the challenge that they needed, and that I wasn’t giving them as much material as I wish I could’ve. I wanted to give someone like Jim Hobbs more latitude than going from section A to section B. If he was taking it to Z, I wanted to let him do that, and to structure a composition where we could really respond to the music, while still maintaing a larger structure, because composition remains really important.I didn’t want it to be a free-improvising ensemble and I wanted us to have material to prod and to play with, but I wanted it to have the flexibility and possibility to go beyond a fixed system.   It’s fascinating because it really strikes me that it’s a near perfect hybrid between composed and freely-improvised music, in a certain sense. And clearly that’s something that has stemmed out of my work with Braxton because he does that on such a brilliant and high level. But I wanted to make sure that I did it with music that sounds very different than Anthony’s. One of the credits that I give to Anthony is that he doesn’t want clones: he provides ideas which, those of us who work with him, can manifest in different ways. (stopped around 19) Maybe we can switch gears a bit and talk about Firehouse 12 Records. You had a hand in starting that, right? Are you still involved with the operations of it? I’m not necessarily involved directly with the day to day operations of it anymore, now I’m more like a floating consultant [laughs]. Carl Testa is now the operations and manager and Nick Lloyd is sort of the chief producer and mastermind behind the whole of Firehouse 12. This is kind of an amazing story: the space that became Firehouse 12 was one of these abandoned buildings that the city was taking open bids on. I think that the call-for-proposals request wanted it to be a multi-use space which could help revitalize the neighborhood. So Nick came up with this plan which was a bar, a concert space, a recording studio. The city accepted it and he built up the space over a couple of years and it really has revitalized that neighborhood and has been a cultural hub for New Haven, and really for the larger region. It’s an extraordinary recording studio, and he’s an incredible engineer, so the sound of the records are always fantastic. Then he has a concert series up there which has been great. The original format that he had was that there was the recording studio, the concert series, the bar and it just so happened that I had recorded an album there which I had been shopping around, and I wasn’t particularly happy with any of the offers that I was receiving, so I was thinking of releasing it myself. I was telling Nick this, and he told me that he was thinking of starting a record label, too, so we were like, “Hey! Let’s work together on this”. And so that’s how the label started. This was back in 2005 or 6. And our first release was, of course, this 9 CD/1 DVD box set of Anthony Braxton’s 12+1tet Live at Iridium. And so we decided to start the label off completely insanely! But I have to say that it’s been one of our most consistent sellers; it’s been the top back-catalogue seller for us, actually. But that became the model for us: sort of trying mix projects of elder statesmen with mid-career artists and emerging artists, all the while keeping a consistent aesthetic. Nick’s wife, Megan Craig, is a fantastic visual artist, so she’s done all of the design for all of the records. It goes back to what we’re saying about making an LP—we wanted the label to have a consistent presence and aesthetic and to have weight as an object. The Braxton Iridium set or the Bill Dixon Tapestries set, these are guys who are my heroes, and who have done so much important work, but all-too-often, their releases really fly under the radar because of these fly-by-night labels, or people bootlegging older material or whatever the case may be. But we wanted to be able to present these things with critical essays and documentaries and to put it in context with the music. So it’s been really rewarding. In the past few years, especially once we brought Carl on as operations manager, I’ve really pulled back from my work there. I still record for the label, I still help out with certain releases, but I’m not as actively engaged in it. It got to a certain point where I was working with Firehouse 12, I was working with the Festival of New Trumpet Music, I was working with the Tri-Centric Foundation and I just got so overextended that I kept thinking to myself, “What is this piece of metal? Do I even play it?!” So I kind of made a conscious choice a couple years ago to pull back from Firehouse 12, and I got more deeply involved in the Tri-Centric Foundation, which is my main day job, such as it is. Braxton has a few things coming out on Firehouse 12, right? Yeah! We’re going to be doing this larger group called Echo Echo Mirror House and that’ll be amazing. This is a seven piece band, in which every member also has an iPod constantly on shuffle, going through Anthony’s entire recorded discography. It’s just this completely insane and immersive wall of sound. That’s one of the things that I love about Braxton—he’s this dude, who’s 30 years older than me, who has changed the face of music six times over, and he’s still coming up with crazy new shit. And presenting us as his sidemen with that musical context is amazing, because improvising in that context is unlike improvising in any other context I’ve ever played in, and that is so exciting. To still have him offering us these sorts of challenges, as his musicians, is so inspiring and it’s why we all stay with him—to be continually challenged to try something different, and try something other than what we’re comfortable with, and to do more than what we thought we were capable of. And Anthony always wants to do different things, for instance we just made a record that will come out next with Nels Cline and Greg Saunier from Deerhoof. It was just one of those things: we met Nels and Greg at this festival and everyone hit it off and Anthony immediately knew that we had to record this, and we recorded 4 hours worth of music. So let’s talk about the bike tour. You’ve done one before? Yeah, in 2010 I did a bike tour in New England, and did at least one concert in every state in New England. I did about a two week trip around Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, etc. That one was completely grassroots and it was incredibly rewarding and was a transformative experience. So I decided that I wanted to expand and refine the idea, and I was wondering whether I should go cross-country or down the West Coast, and when I looked I realized that there aren’t many gigs from Chicago to Denver [laughs]! So there were a couple of really long, discouraging stretches so I decided to nix that. So I was just thinking about that the West Coast has turned out perfectly with a lot of people going to teach at UC schools and that there are really vibrant scenes in Vancouver and Los Angeles. I figured that there are a lot of musicians that I’d like to play with out there, not to mention it’s really bike friendly and beautiful. It seemed like a good option.Originally, I think I was planning on going from Vancouver to San Diego, but then I was talking to my sister and she encouraged me to finish in Mexico, since I started in Canada. I’m going to play a sunrise concert on the US side of the border, and then a sunset concert on the Mexican side of the border and that’ll be my final day. I was able to get this incredible grant from Creative Capitol which really made this trip possible in a lot of ways. Since I had some funding, I could really put some time in to plan a good itinerary and find some good gigs. The mistake I made with the New England tour was that I played a gig every night, which was insane, because I would bike 120 miles, and then play with a pickup quartet in Maine, and be totally exhausted! It also kind of robbed some of the spontaneity from the trip. So this time, there will be longer stretches without gigs. In that time, I’ll certainly be playing, but I want to hangout in a state park and just play or hang out by the beach and just play, but not having advertised gigs. But then also spending a couple of days immersing myself in San Francisco or Los Angeles playing with a bunch of local musicians there. I think that that is a positive development from the New England. Do you travel with your pocket cornet? I did the New England one with my pocket cornet, but this one I’m traveling with my real cornet. The pocket is fun, but at a certain point it’s a little limited. The full-sized is a little heavier, but I think worth it to bring my regular horn. Can we talk about the Book of Three record, Continuum? This is you with Gerald Cleaver and John Hebert? I mean, those guys are just such amazing musicians. It’s kind of my most just playing records, if you know what I mean. This is our second record, we did one in 2010. And this trio record was kind of an accident: it was originally going to be a quartet record, but through a series of tragically comic mishaps, he never made it, after we had rehearsed a bunch with a this saxophonist who will remain unnamed! So that saxophonist never made the session, so John, Gerald and I just decided to do another trio record! It was totally accidental, but it was one of those things that was just really happening. It was completely spontaneous. We were all really relaxed and it was just a great hang. It truly was just a chance to play. With so many of the other projects I do, I’m either the leader or am contributing compositions, but this project is really just a nice way to connect with an absolutely killing bass player and drummer, and make music in the tradition, which I think is why we ended up with Continuum as the title, and one of the reasons that we played a Bobby Bradford tune, because he’s one of my heros as a cornet player, as a composer, and so I was just connecting with making music in the tradition, whatever that tradition is!  The remaining dates on THB’s Acoustic Bicycle Tour: 09/03/2014 SEATTLE, WA Quartet with Cuong Vu (trumpet), Carmen Rothwell (bass), and Dylan van der Schyff (drums). The Royal Room, 5000 Rainier Ave S, Seattle, WA. 09/07/2014 PORTLAND, OR The Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, 12-piece ensemble led by Douglas Detrick (trumpet). Central Hotel, 8608 N Lombard St, Portland, OR. Co-sponsored by the Creative Music Guild. 09/12/2014 ARCATA, CA Duo with Gregg Moore (tuba), Arcata, CA. House concert, rsvp required. 09/16/2014 BERKELEY, CA OrcheSperry, 14-piece ensemble led by Phillip Greenlief (tenor saxophone). Berkeley Arts, 2133 University Ave, Berkeley, CA. Including Ela Polak (violin), Shanna Sordahl (cello), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), John Shiurba (guitar), Pete Fitzpatrick (guitar), Rachel Condry (clarinet), Cory Wright (bass clarinet), Jon Raskin (baritone saxophone), Clifford Childers (trombone), Gino Robair (percussion), and Tim Perkis (electronics). Also featuring the Goggle Saxophone Quartet (Chris Jonas, Randy McKean, Cory Wright, Dan Plonsey). 09/17/2014 OAKLAND, CA Quartet with James Fei (saxophone), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), and Jordan Glenn (drums), performing the ‘70s quartet music of Anthony Braxton. Duende, 468 19th St, Oakland, CA. 09/19/2014 SAN FRANCISCO, CA Duos with Myra Melford (piano). Center for New Music, 55 Taylor St, San Francisco, CA. 09/20/2014 PALO ALTO, CA 1pm afternoon duo with Ben Goldberg (clarinet). Lytton Plaza, corner of University Avenue and Emerson Street, Palo Alto, CA. 09/27/2014 LOS ANGELES, CA Anthony Braxton Trio, with Braxton (saxophones, electronics) and Kyoko Kitamura (voice). Angel City Jazz Festival, Zipper Hall, 200 South Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA. 09/28/2014 LOS ANGELES, CA 7-tette with Nicole Mitchell (flute), Michael Dessen (trombone), Jeff Gauthier (violin), Jeff Parker (guitar), Mark Dresser (bass), and Alex Cline (drums). Angel City Jazz Festival, Barnsdall Art Park Gallery Theater, 4800 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 09/29/2014 MISSION VIEJO, CA Duo with Mark Dresser (bass). Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Pkwy, Mission Viejo, CA. 09/30/2014 SAN DIEGO, CA Sunset solo at Border Field State Park, San Diego, CA. 10/01/2014 TIJUANA, MEXICO Sunrise solo, Playas de Tijuana, Mexico.
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