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GO TONIGHT!! Jesse Stacken's Quartet at Korzo

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by Samuel Weinberg

For the past few years, pianist and composer Jesse Stacken has been setting routines for himself, such as recording improvisations daily and weekly for a year, writing a composition every week for a year and posting the recording and the score on the internet, and he is now almost finished with the latest of these, which he calls The Messiaen Project. A few weeks ago, I read a post which was being circulated and shared by a number of people, in which Stacken articulately expressed many difficulties of what it’s like playing creative music in New York City today, amongst other things. Suffice it to say,…

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GO TONIGHT!! Jesse Stacken's Quartet at Korzo
by Samuel Weinberg For the past few years, pianist and composer Jesse Stacken has been setting routines for himself, such as recording improvisations daily and weekly for a year, writing a composition every week for a year and posting the recording and the score on the internet, and he is now almost finished with the latest of these, which he calls The Messiaen Project. A few weeks ago, I read a post which was being circulated and shared by a number of people, in which Stacken articulately expressed many difficulties of what it’s like playing creative music in New York City today, amongst other things. Suffice it to say, I found this blog post to be pretty touching and thoughtful, so I reached out to Jesse to talk to him about it and some of his past projects. He was gracious enough to agree and we had a lengthy conversation by phone about these sorts of things. (You can read Jesse’s initial blog post which inspired this chat here!) In these projects that he’s constructed for himself, Stacken has made himself rather vulnerable, and is always  candid about his various musical struggles in the written portions of his blogs. It’s a decidedly special thing. But while he’s not doing these sorts of incredibly personal projects, Stacken also leads bands and tonight at Korzo, as part of the Konceptions Music Series, Stacken is brining his great quartet of Tony Malaby, Sean Conly and Tom Rainey to play. You should surely check him out!  You can read our conversation below! ———- Let’s start by situating the Messiaen project with the things that came before it: the weekly/daily improvisation projects, the weekly compositions project, etc. How did those projects begin? Sure, well that whole thing started basically, because I had just gotten a Zoom recorder, and this was, I guess, 2010. I don’t know, one day I just put it on and played an improvisation and I did it a couple of days later, and listened to those and then suddenly had this idea of making this a daily routine. Because I’m good with routines, I like them in my day. I get up and I do some yoga and stretching, and I have this whole routine that I like to go through every day. So I thought that I could maybe make this part of the routine and listen to these recordings and learn from them. But then I began thinking to myself, ‘If I do this, how am I going to stay on track? How can I start going and not stop doing it?’. I decided that sharing it on the internet, on my website, would ensure that I would really do it every day. Then I began doing it everyday. I usually would record a week or so of improvisations and then listen to them as I posted them. I wasn’t doing the upload part of it every day, which was actually the hardest part of it. But, you know, it was great. It was fun. That year I was doing some traveling, and so that’s now a bit of a travelogue—now I look back and I see where I was, and I remember the situations and what I had to do to get this done. Once, for instance, I had to find a piano store in Dublin just to get a recording done.   It must be nice to have those as reminiscences to go back to. Yeah. And people change, you know, and you remember how things were back then, and how things were going. I had started a zen meditation practice, so it kind of fit with that, a little bit. It was part of it, in a way. So anyway, I didn’t really set out to do it for a year or anything, but when I got to a year mark, I knew that I wanted to commit to something, but I didn’t know if I wanted to commit to a whole year of daily improvisations again, because it was challenging to do it every day. And around that time, I had had some really great experiences improvising with friends for extended periods; like playing for an hour, or even more, and really getting into a different headspace. So I decided to do another year, but do one improvisation every week, and have to make it an hour or longer, and really trying to deal with that challenge and even try to get into that headspace myself. So I did that and that was challenging. I don’t think I ever got to that space. It’s hard by yourself. And also, the timing of it became an issue. I would have to keep in mind when I started, and not try to look at the clock. Well that would certainly take you out of that headspace.  Yeah exactly. But it was a good experience, nonetheless. I learned a lot about dealing with distractions in my mind. It’s hard to sit there for an hour and not start daydreaming, at least for me. And I kind of wonder a little bit about the state of mind; maybe sometimes those daydream states are okay if I’m improvising by myself, and perhaps those moments are some of the best moments. Maybe it’s just a way of getting things out and letting it flow. So then after a year of that, it kind of made sense for me to write a composition every week. I set out to do that and that was a lot of fun. And it was challenging in some ways, in that I had to write one every week. Usually the composing of it wasn’t so bad, but the hard part was learning to play them, well enough to record them. Usually I do a lot of teaching, and with rehearsals, and everything else, so I spent Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday working on it, Thursday finishing it up and then I was putting it on Sibelius to make the score look nice, and then that left Friday and Saturday to learn the tunes.  And some of those tunes were really hard! Yeah, some of them are, some of them aren’t. But that was a challenge with that project. I wanted that weekly composition project, at least when it started, to be kind of like an etudes project. That is, I wanted each piece to start with a certain aspect to explore. And I think part of it was that I feared that I wouldn’t be inspired some weeks; that I would sit down and just be blank and not be able to come up with anything. So I thought that I should have some ideas or some concepts that I could start with. So that’s what I started with, but it ended up becoming a bit contrived or forced. I started having to force myself to put these etude elements back in there, when they didn’t really need it; things were really flowing and I didn’t have a hard time finding ideas. Sometimes I would be writing a piece, and it wouldn’t really have any of these etude ideas, and then I’d have to go back and fit one in there. It seemed to me that that wasn’t necessary. If things were flowing, I decided I would just write it. So I kind of dropped the etude idea of it and then started to write pieces freely from there. I did that and definitely learned a lot from it. It was a lot about trusting myself and trusting my inner voice. Since there were 52 in that year; I know Hermeto Pascoal wrote a piece every day for a year! I’m pretty sensitive to the opinion of my peers, which you know, is not something that I’m crazy to admit, but it’s something that I learned from that project. After writing a bunch of things that I thought were cool, or that I thought other people would like, I then wanted to write some things that I thought were just simple and beautiful and major, or kind of a pop-like tune. But I had all of these thoughts about whether it was hip or not. And of course it’s all bullshit and I shouldn’t listen to those thoughts, but they’re there, so the big takeaway from the weekly composition project was just being able to trust myself and working towards that, and not worrying about what others think. And also to be honest, because honesty in music is really the most important thing, or one of the most important things, and people hear that. If you’re being sincere, I don’t have to worry about who thinks it’s cool. So during that time I had done a session with Robin Verheyen, the saxophone player, and he was into Messiaen and he looked at one of my pieces and said, “This kind of has Messiaen’s third mode in it”. And I was pretty surprised, and I had known a little bit about Messiaen, and had his book The Technique of My Musical Language, and I didn’t really read it, because it’s kind of an intense read at first. But I had listened to a lot of his music and loved it. I had learned one of his piano pieces, which took me about a year to learn, and then I began to think that I could spend the rest of my life learning these piano pieces! So I cracked open this book, and I checked it out a little more—and this was about half-way through the weekly composition project—but I wrote one of the pieces around one of the Messiaen modes and it felt so fresh, the sounds, harmonies and relationships were just amazing. And so I wrote a piece like that, I actually wrote a couple, and then I began to think that I could do that for a whole year, using these techniques. So I kind of tucked away the Messiaen modes, in the case that I decided to use them later on and not want to use them all up. That’s just what I did! So basically applying one, two, or three of Messiaen’s techniques per composition. I started out reading that book cover to cover and then started writing pieces.  So the year is almost done.  Yeah, I have about 5 more weeks left. I’m sure you’ll write some reflective things, but if you want to say anything about what you’ve gotten from it so far, now that you’re almost at the end, I’d be interested to hear.  Yeah, I’m still thinking about it. It’s funny, I wrote a lot about it in that post you read, really about being myself and trusting whatever wants to come out and to let it come out. And it’s kind of funny that it took the Messiaen techniques to teach me how to get something major-y that I liked, like I did that week. I had been trying to get something like that piece out of the Messiaen scales, and there are only about 3 or 4 pieces out of the whole project, where something happened in my life, where I was in a more reflective mood, or felt like writing something that was kind of happy, pretty and beautiful. But then I would sit down and find that it would be really difficult to succeed at it. You can get a lot of interesting chords out of Messiaen’s modes, but the chords don’t relate to each other in the way that they do in typical western harmony. And this whole year, believe it or not, I’ve been on this huge Willie Nelson kick; I found some of his first records, and I just think that some of his songs are just so amazing, and they’re like all of these very traditionally oriented harmony; 1-4-5 harmonies and things like that. They would have these different phrasings that were just great. So there’s been so many times where I’ve just wanted to write something like that, which has been hard to do. So since that one week—which was a real outpouring in that post—musically, it was kind of a breakthrough because I kind of found a way to combine a couple of modes to get the major thing happening, and I also didn’t feel self-conscious about putting it out there, because I had just been working so hard to get to that point.  The writing of words in this project has been much more than the others. I didn’t write a description of every piece in the weekly composition project, but for this one it feels like, at the very least, I feel that it’s necessary to explain what techniques I used and usually I’ll try to explain why I titled it that way and things like that. But that week, I just had all of these dark thoughts, just one after another and I was hearing and seeing all of these things and it was really just caught up with me and I had to let it out. And then I really had to live with it because a lot of people read it, and then a lot of people were commenting and talking to me about it. Landon Knoblock wrote a response that he felt like, for him, playing for himself is not enough. He believes in making it accessible and I don’t disagree, but to me, it’s a different part of the process.  For me, the process of composing and performance starts with me and I have to be open to it, with it and present, whether I’m at home or in front of an audience. I have to be there with myself. And then, another part of the process is presenting the music, and presenting it in a way that people can understand. That’s what I think Landon was talking about and what he’s good at. I’ve been talking about these sorts of things with other friends, too. Most of the music that I’m involved with and that’s going on in my scene is not really easy-listening music, it’s pretty challenging. So we need to make it fun and there needs to be an element of reaching-out to the audience, if anyone is going to get something out of it, especially non-musicians. It needs to be presented very clearly and in a forward way. So you play a bit with Patrick Breiner a good bit and he does a lot of things like that, especially in his solo work.  Yeah, he’s who I was talking about. I’ve been talking to him a lot because we’ve started a duo project together and there’s also a quintet that we have called How to Make A Mountain. So we’ve been talking a lot about making those things presentable and not being like, “Hey, does anyone know what time it is? Should we play another?”. We’re really trying to bring it.  So Patrick told me that that band has been playing every week since September? Yeah, those guys come over once a week. Not everyone can come over every time, but we mostly have four or five of us there. It’s been very interesting. It was a real learning process. For me, it was inspired by the group that Patrick is in called VAX with Devin Gray and Liz Kosack. I heard one of their shows at a house concert that Devin put on, and it really blew my mind. They did this through-structured set, with a lot improvisation, they had this plan of what to do, and these moments that happened. It was super entertaining, there was a lot of comedy, movement, entertainment, masks! Parts of it were really annoying, part of it that was funny, some spoken word stuff. For me, I thought that this was the answer, you know? So that was really inspiring for me. At the same time, I was having these feelings that it doesn’t seem right that we’re always hiring musicians, doing one rehearsal and paying people out of pocket if nobody comes, which happens a lot in this city, and a lot of great music happens that way, but I was just questioning it at that time. Then this came along, and I realized that this was exactly what was needed: people who have spent time together, people who aren’t paying each other out-of-pocket, and are rather just getting together to do it. So I was inspired by that, and started thinking about trying to do a couple of things like that. I talked to Patrick about it and we’ve started a couple of things: we started a duo and we get together and play duo every week and we started How To Make A Mountain. I had an idea that I wanted it to be a wild, kind of punkish-jazz band…kind of like The Thing, a Scandinavian trio. We started by trying to write some pieces together, but it was just not really working—it was too hard, and we didn’t really know each other yet, musically. And because people had to miss some rehearsals, we just started playing and improvising. Pretty slowly it got to be really fun and things started to really open up. The first improvisations were kind of us trying to figure out how to fit in and dealing with how to make five people, playing free, sound good together. It wasn’t that great at the beginning, and it wasn’t unified. But slowly things started happening and we started telling stories, between takes, where we began relating personally. And then the music started coming together in these improvisations. Now it’s getting better and better; it’s really open. “Open” sounds cliche, because everybody who plays in a freely improvised ensemble talks about it being open, but I mean being really open to things outside the box; being open to everything; using instruments in different ways; using our voices; all sorts of things. So that’s been really fun. Now I think we can be in a position to write some things together, where we have some starting base and some sort of frame of reference. We know each other now a bit more.  (Breiner/Stacken duo)  So let’s talk about the quartet that’s playing at Korzo, with Tony Malaby, Tom Rainey, and Sean Conly. Sure. That goes back to the weekly composition project. A lot of the tunes I wrote at that time seem to work really well in bands. They all started as solo piano pieces, but some of them were essentially lead-sheets—very simple chords and harmony. So I started playing them with people in sessions, and it was always very fun. I decided that I wanted to play with Tony, I wanted to play with Tom, and I wanted to play with Sean, so I booked them for a gig. We did a quick rehearsal and played some of those tunes. And this is kind of like what I was talking about before, about this sort of other kind of way of doing things in New York City. The cool thing about this, though, is that these songs are very simple and most have short forms and many of them we just play off of the forms. So it’s cool because you get to hear these guys playing really simple, easy music and just having fun, and not having to stress to play things that are too complex. I see a lot of guys playing music where they’ve got charts that stretch five pages long. While that stuff is amazing, I feel that this is a nice contrast to that. They get to just screw around. And they’re great at it! Actually the day after the Korzo gig, we’re going into Systems Two to record that music and it’s going to be on Fresh Sound New Talent.   And you’re splitting a bill with Tony that night. Right, he’s amazing. And he’s a really important guy in the scene. You know, he acts like a mentor to a lot of younger musicians.  What’s some recorded music you’ve been listening to lately? [laughs] I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve just discovered this Willie Nelson record called Red Headed Stranger, it’s a concept album from 1975 and I just am obsessed with it right now. I can’t stop listening to it! It’s just great man. It’s just what music is to me. There’s nothing but emotion in it; there isn’t flashy technique, there isn’t complexity for the sake of complexity. I think part of the reason I like it so much, and part of the reason that I love country music so much, is that it’s such a contrast to the rest of my musical life.  I think it’s also a nice contrast to living in New York City. I remember I first heard Hank Williams when I was at MSM, because they had a collection of his CDs at the library. At that time, they had a collection of his music that I just thought was really great. I listened to a lot of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and then I started finding these old Willie Nelson records which are all really cool. It’s funny because I haven’t found anything new and then this weekend I found that record Red Headed Stranger. His songs are so great! And there’s always an extra chord or beat snuck in there that you wouldn’t expect. 
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Jack Wright Interview!
by Samuel Weinberg This week, in conjunction with the release of the new duo record As if Anything Could Be The Same (Relative Pitch), we are featuring a week of all-things Jack Wright on the Search and Restore blog. Not only do we have an interview with Wright himself, but we’ve enlisted a legion of his past and present collaborators to speak a bit about their experience playing with Wright.  Jack Wright is a remarkably prolific practitioner of free-improvisation, and in the forty+ years  of his playing career, he has scoured the United States and Europe looking for venues and collaborators, often finding them in obscure, overlooked towns, playing for whomever decided to show up. As Joe Morris aptly put it in a piece that I will post later this week, “Jack Wright is like Pete Seeger to many younger musicians” and indeed, seems to be the Pete Seeger of the avant-garde, in a larger sense. I recently saw my first Jack Wright concert, which was the first show of a recent duo tour with drummer Andrew Drury and it was a truly revelatory moment for me. The sounds that Wright produced on the saxophone were unlike those I had ever heard before; his absorption in the improvisation was evident.  It was my great pleasure to correspond with Wright, which produced the interview, below! I’ve also included a track from As if Anything Could Be The Same— which is a duo record with his son, bassist Ben Wright—to stream, below! ———————- This record is one of the few that you’ve recorded with Ben, maybe the only one aside from Tenterhooks. What was behind the decision to make a record with him? We’ve been recording as a duo for almost twenty years without it being a project intended to be offered to others, so this was only an instance and nothing new. I’ve wanted to be satisfied in a way that I couldn’t hold it back, in a sense was already released and out of my hands, and not a calculation of “good enough.” This was what came out of our sessions in Jan. 2013. It resisted my efforts to think it could be better, which had been the case earlier, and has the only kind of perfection that is suitable for free playing. It is in the rare category of being both accessible to audiences I have never had and fully pleasurable to me after many listenings. This category balances the other one of mine, which is more challenging to listeners, including to myself, and satisfies the need for playing on thin ice. We recorded without an ultimate aim for it, then a producer of Relative Pitch Records asked for something and I sent him these tracks, which I felt were appropriate for the label. Do you find that the relationship that you have with Ben, as a father, makes improvising with him different than others, aside from the natural differences that he has from other bass players? When you approach playing as the job you do as a musician it’s with the goal of creating good music, a positive effect that results in audience and critical response, what’s thought of as artistic success. You don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that, so there are restrictions, including the choice of partners. But when you play for the experience (ultimately of beauty) you operate and choose partners differently, then deal with the playing situation regardless of where it’s going. I am very selective who I spend my time playing with, on the basis of what I have experienced with them and my expectation of what might come. I am easily bored, intolerant, a junkie for new experience. When Ben and I play we treat each other strictly as “experiential” musicians, so if we had not been family-related the music itself would be the same. It’s more like brothers playing together, which I also feel with other close partners, like Andrew Drury, Ron Stabinsky, Evan Lipson, and Ben Bennett. Playing with this approach, especially over time, you develop a close bond apart from personal dynamics, a trust. This is an entrainment on an unconscious level, where there is an instinctual connection, an intimate knowledge of the other that is behavioral rather than literal. Without selective musical judgment I wouldn’t have been playing with Ben all these years. Yet there’s also the fact that we have loved each other and wanted to get together, and playing became part of that long ago. Some aspects of our lives are unavoidably forced on us, or at least we are forced to choose for or against what is thrown across our path. I once asked Ben where he learned to improvise so well and he said, “Well, I grew up hearing you play all the time [in his teenage years].” He was free to be repulsed and run away from it; he chose instead to stay. The fact that I’ve not been, and have no prospects of being a successful musician has meant that his own love of music has not been muddied by a career goal, as mine has been at times. I’m rather struck and fascinated by the way that you conceive and operate as a textural saxophonist and not as an exhibitionist, or prominent soloist who ostentatiously displays saxophone virtuosity. I was wondering if you could talk about that in a general sense and perhaps more particularly in how you interact with Ben in that way. It’s interesting that you contrast “textural” with “virtuosic,” even though one can be a virtuoso when it comes to texture—if I were a critic I might describe myself as that. “Virtuoso” has acquired negative connotations, but it really means that someone is technically proficient, without any value judgment. If you turn towards a certain area of technique, whether circular breathing, tonguing, chord progression, or texture, you will develop proficient over time. I think by texture you mean sound outside the most common, even normative sound of the instrument, since all sound has one kind of texture or another (timbre). I began to focus on sound while playing with Berlin reductionists in the early 00’s, as a move away from scalar note-playing, moving fast from one pitch to another, creating intricate, difficult patterns. Reductionism interrupted that with long tones, quiet, and even silence at times. I was attracted to doing the reverse of what I had been doing—the most radical shifts we can make follow through on the simple question, why not? I didn’t so much feel an exhaustion, as you put it, with the technical limits I had been pressing against, but rather needed more options, more vocabulary, more freedom than playing out of an internal drive. I wanted to experience playing free of “the need to play,” to explore a wider range of feeling, beauty that wasn’t tagged as mine. Also I was aware that what I’d been doing was not speaking to the contemporary situation but was rightly perceived as past-oriented. The world had changed; what I’d done in the late 70s as an extension of 60s free jazz had suffered a break. By the late 90s it was subject to categorization as nostalgic and backward-looking, what I would call retro-free jazz. It was increasingly acceptable and formulaic, appealed to an audience that believed authenticity lay in mirroring the heroic past, and was the basis for building a career. This I could have done but it would have bored me, and my interest was rather to open new paths into the world. For me reductionism was a way to to acquire new tools by denying the use of what I already knew. Ultimately I had to reject it as an aesthetic—too orderly and pre-structured, oriented to high art purity and evoking a reverential response. I soon began putting more physical energy into my playing again, using the tools I’d learned. My line is now more broken and unpredictable than before, my volume level variable and not stuck at “high,” I have escaped to some extent the lead role forced on the saxophonist, and my sensibility is harder to decipher and categorize. At the same time my playing counters the trend of erstwhile reductionists (mostly Europeans), who have gone towards composition and pre-set form rather than open-ended improvisation. I play often with electronicists (sometimes quite loud) and junk percussionists, responding in kind to their off-the-wall sounds. If I had more flexible jazz-based partners I would probably introduce more conventional notes along with sound. However, even free jazz is still rigid in its taboo on sound exploration, which would jeopardize the legitimacy and recognition that jazz offers its players today. If jazz were still an exploratory music I might be considered part of that history. As it is, I and my partners happily inhabit a no-man’s land, when it comes to genre classifications. In playing with Ben over the years I imagine he picked up some of my sound orientation and broken line; in turn, his energy helped push me back to all-out playing once again. There’s a synergy here over time, mutual influence. Where family comes in is that we see each other regularly, as I said above, and playing has often meant touring, a long family visit. I’d rather call this traveling with music, exploring geography, urban and non-urban audiences, with added-on partners, and each situation yielding unexpected circumstances and effects. (Ben Wright, bass; Ron Stabinsky, keyboard; John McClellan, drums) How does that textural mentality apply to solo playing, a format you’ve performed extensively in? First of all, texture, or unorthodox sound, is only one aspect. I see free playing as utilizing every possible direction, including conventional notes at times, indistinguishable from normal music except that they are used as one option among many, almost ironically, since they refer to musical conventions. I don’t play solo on tour very often, mostly in circumstances where I find myself without a desired partner. In the avant music world the solo is supposed to establish the artistic level and uniqueness of the player, which I find meaningless for the actuality of playing. However, I’ve recently come to value the recording studio (my home) as a chance to discover what I would do deprived of pressure or encouragement to please others, and also free of influence from partners. In this situation I often avoid the sound orientation, partly because I tend to move straight from practice to recording. If practice is exploratory self-teaching and not rehearsal or warm-up time then it’s already a kind of solo playing. It’s possible to experience every moment of practice as music at the same time as body movement. In practice I use multiphonics to push the embouchure out of normative alignment and expand beyond the convention of “one fingering, one sound.” But I still devote time to conventionally tuned pitches, although in an order where the interval is difficult to detect, big leaps and random pitches. This relates to my general approach. Instead of going “out,” which is how jazz improvisation operates, I see myself in practice rooted in the outside, and just treating that playing as music without trying to shape it as such. I take the position that anything I play is music, so I’m not striving to make it, or do the best I can. That’s the essence of what Friedrich Schiller called “the play drive” two centuries ago, that has continually undermined every official definition of music. In this spirit I record, and find myself using more pitches, rarely conventionally tuned with each other, combined with subtle differentiations of sound, from the dull sound of “false fingerings” to the harsh multiphonics, contrasted with the normal ones. This kind of playing often goes unnoticed in the mix of a group, but here it can come to life. Also, most partners play continuously, without gaps or “dropouts,” or the predictable “solo space” in jazz, so precision timing (which I discovered in reductionism) is more effective when playing solo. Although this particular record is on Relative Pitch records, can you talk about Spring Garden and what having your own label has allowed you to do for presenting your music? Very few of those who perform and record their music get to have their work distributed to anonymous consumers. At least 99% of us are obscure and unknown to what could be called a public, anonymous peasants to the aristocrats. To make our music available at all requires the self-production of the post-sixties entrepreneurial musician. This has led today to the deluge of free offerings, challenging the music business and the hierarchy of players. For me DIY production began in 1982, with Spring Garden Music. I took the advice of my peers, who thought that just one record was enough to establish oneself as “serious” about pursuing music, which was all I needed. My LP cost me a quarter of my annual income, so I didn’t expect to do it more than every ten years. Like most of us I put out cassettes, mostly traded. With CDs, costs began to go down, and by the turn of the millenium I needed to do more to legitimate myself in order to get gigs. I also began to find new partners taking me in new directions, so I began to produce more. People started ordering from me online and I used each contact as an opportunity for a conversation, and to find out if they knew a place to play where they lived, anywhere in the US. So the label began to serve several purposes. Spring Garden Music is non-commercial, meaning I don’t expect to cover costs, as almost all non-musician American labels hope to do. They are cautious, only dealing in musicians whose names have consistently brought some calculable return on the investment. This maintains the general conservatism of art music production in our time, the distinction between the few, encouraged to churn out repeats of what they or others have been doing for decades, and the many that no public would ever encounter. The many have no stake in self-replication, free to go any direction—whether they do so or not is another question. I’ve read that your first foray into free improvisation was inspired by many of the political events going on around you. How has that changed? Has the current political climate somehow influenced your music in a different way, if at all? This is not altogether false but misleading. For a brief period, ’69-74 or so, I was a political organizer on the community level in Philadelphia, also involved in keeping Movement organizations throughout North America in contact with each other. I dropped out of academic study and teaching to help build a non-party political movement, one that would take history in a revolutionary direction. I witnessed the decline of activism and went through a major personal transformation, for I no longer had any place in the world, no work I considered meaningful. To be able to play music was not inspired by revolutionary expectations so much as their collapse. Music was something valid to do in the world that the world could not stop me from doing. But to be self-sustaining it couldn’t hinge on the career, the American dream, or anything extraneous to the actual playing of music of my own aesthetic direction. The last half of the 70s was misery for me, but in it I seem to have forged an independent spirit, sloughing off the inessential, such that I have not fitted the operative models of artist musician available today. Do you have any other projects and tours that are forthcoming that you’d like to speak of? There is a CD with percussionist Ben Bennett, “Tangle,” coming out in May 2014 on Public Eyesore, a solo cd in the works (maybe called “thin ice”), and tours in various stages of preparation, which can be accessed on my schedule page: www.springgardenmusic.com/schedule.html. I spend far more time reading and writing than playing music, and have been at work on a book on free playing. This has required extensive historical research and writing, and I would not want to project when that will be completed, but it will. My occasional essays are here: http://jackiswright.wordpress.com/  Do you find yourself listening to music often? If so, what’s some recorded music that you’ve been listening to lately? I listen to everything for pleasure, which is often perverse, that is, unsatisfying and puzzling. I’m especially interested in musics that I’ve dismissed, recently 70s minimalism and disco, which I encountered in my studies for the book. I might walk past a club with live jazz and am enthralled for two minutes, almost tearful, then disgusted and feeling betrayed. I seem to need music that is worthless, on the low end of some scale, including my own. If music has made its way up the music world hierarchy to approval I have to find my own reason for liking it. A music I loved through the sixties, such as traditional classical, is now a struggle to listen to. I don’t have any favorites, just things that make me prick up my ears, usually temporary. I’m an old-fashioned anti-consumer (a fifties motif) so I get music exclusively by copying, usually out of collections wherever I spend the night on tour, and what I come across on the internet. I haven’t wanted a piece of music so badly that I’d pay full price for it. In the early 80s I did a radio show of non-western music in order to be able to go through their library. I felt I knew the kind of thing the West was capable of and needed something to contrast with it, music from people who didn’t even think of music as a category, who didn’t “value” and evaluate music. Music is not “the background for my life,” as seems to be current. I gave my first record to a guy who rejected it by saying, “You can’t do anything else when you’re listening to it.” I took that as a compliment.
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Travis Laplante Residence at I-Beam
(photo by Peter Gannushkin, Downtown Music Gallery) by Samuel Weinberg Saxophonist Travis Laplante will be in residence this Thursday through Saturday at I-Beam, Brooklyn. LaPlante is a wholly unique voice on the saxophone, and someone who explores the saxophone’s overtone and multiphonic possibilities to facilitate his spiritual yearnings. When one watches LaPlante play—and I’ve embedded some YouTube videos which substantiate this—it is clear that he is really striving for something beyond; not only beyond the idiomatic possibilities of the saxophone, but surely also beyond things of this world. Laplante has evidenced this Ayleresque penchant of his in many settings, but perhaps most notably in his many solo saxophone performances and his work with the ever exciting group, Little Women. But, for his residence at I-Beam, Laplante is playing with three groups which show him in different contexts from those two aforementioned. I caught up with Laplante over email to speak about those projects and you can read our interview, below. (I-Beam Brooklyn is 168 7th St, Brooklyn NY; Travis LaPlante plays Thursday through Saturday, sets at 8:30) You’re going to be in residence at I-Beam for three nights, and every night you’ll be bringing a new group. Can you talk about the trio on the first night with Mat Maneri and Gerald Cleaver? What draws you to these guys? How did the idea to form a trio with them come to you? Mat Maneri is one of the few living improvisers who consistently brings me to tears when I hear him play.  His playing has shattered me for many years and it doesn’t lose its edge over time. There is a deep, deepmystery to his playing.  He’s one of the few improvisers that’s not afraidto go into the darkness.  So many people are afraid of the truth and close themselves off from certain places within themselves musically, as they aren’t comfortable with looking in those certain places, let alone showing them to other people. Especially as westerners, we seem to have the idea that we all need to be comfortable all the time.  This is also true for most musicians when improvising.  It’s not natural.  We want to maintain our composure because it would be quite unfashionable if someone found out that we actually have problems.  There is a lot that is not going well right now, and it’s absurd that it’s being pushed under the rug in the realm of improvisation. I’m not saying that there’s no music that is real or that music should be darker in general, but I do find that “jazz and improvised” music is sounding quite safe and comfortable these days, like it’s in denial of what’s happening around it on many levels. The end result often sounds lost and confused to me.  Mat is someone who doesn’t have a problem bearing all, and I am always chilled to the core and melted at the same time by his music.Gerald Cleaver is able to transform time and space in a very interestingway when he plays. For instance, sometimes I won’t actually feel whathe’s playing until days later.  I don’t mean this in the sense that Idon’t understand what he’s doing at the time and then I do at a latertime; it’s not that at all.  It’s more like he’s planting a seed at theconcert that then blossoms in the future. It’s like things aren’t whatthey appear to be when he’s playing, and the transmission he’s givingisn’t necessarily operating in real time. I know this sounds a bitabstract, but it’s actually very real to me.  Gerald works outside of the confines of what “sounds good” and doesn’t seem to be concerned with proving anything as a drummer, which I highly, highly respect. Sometimes I’ve played with him and at the end of the concert it’s still unclear to some people in the audience if he’s actually proficient on the drums.  This is a sign of a true improviser. Not too many people are able to leave their artist ego enough to simply improvise and dissolve into the sounds.  Of course the next night you can go hear him completely kill the drums in a more structured jazz setting. I remember having a conversation with him after an improvised concert that I felt like I let my mind get in the way of the true music coming through. It was really great talking to him about it because he really couldn’t relate to me.  He said that essentially he just looks inside himself when he improvises and that’s it. Simple. Just look… The idea for the trio formed when they were both free on the same night, and I felt like we didn’t need to add anyone else.  It’s a deep backstory!  The second next night you’ll be playing with a band “AncestralInstrument” which is with some great improvisers who have a long history with each other: Trevor Dunn, Mary Halvorson and Ches Smith. What’s your history with these guys? Are you a fan of the Trio Convulsant? Actually “Ancestral Instrument” is the name of the recording of Trevor,Ches and I that’s being released in April on NNA tapes, a greatCassette/Vinyl label based in Burlington, Vermont.  This is the releaseconcert.  We invited Mary as a special guest.I’ve known Trevor for maybe 11 years now and he’s become one of my closest friends. It’s actually kind of odd how much time we’ve spent together and how we haven’t had the chance to play music together all that much. It’s quite interesting though how I feel like our musical connection has deepened over the years through friendship and not actually playing music together. It’s not like we’ve actively tried to not play together.  We’ve both been busy with different things.  We both know each other so well and that most definitely translates to connecting in the sonic world. It’s like I’ve rehearsed with him for years and our rehearsals just happen to not include playing our instruments.  I have a similar relationship with Ches. We’ve spent quite a bit of time in a car together, drinking coffee, etc. and it makes playing easy because there is a relationship that has been established and we have been communicating and interacting with each other a lot with the english language, body language, and eye contact.   I know this may sound new age-y or whatever but spending time making eye contact with someone will accelerate the musical connection without a doubt. The eyes are a direct gateway to the heart, and the heart connection is the most important connection for making music together. Admittedly I’ve only heard Trio Convulsant once many years ago when they were opening for the Melvins.  I really liked it. The final night of the residency you’ll be playing in a quartet with Randy Peterson, Mat Maneri and Michael Formanek. I’ve seen video of this band play at I-Beam. It sounded great! What do you like about playing with this quartet? Well I actually don’t “like” playing with these guys at all. The thoughtof playing with them right now is making me tremble.  I find myselfincredibly arrogant to have the nerve to add any sounds to what Mat and Randy have cultivated with each other over the years, but the attraction to exist inside of something with these guys hasn’t gone away after many years. It’s like wanting to play with fire, and even though I keep getting burned, I want to play again, and each time my hands become more able to withstand the heat.  I keep coming back to it even though it scares the hell out of me.  What I mean by this is that when playing with those guys it often feels torturous, like I’m being forced into places within myself that I’m not forced to face with any other musicians, as if the carpet is pulled out from underneath me immediately.  It feels like I’m deaf, dumb, and blind.  I often have the feeling that my saxophone is physically broken when I’m playing with them.  I mean this in a good way…Like I can’t actually play anything that would be “under my fingers” because it’s so obviously insincere.  It’s actually quite a punishing setting.   Michael Formanek is one of the greatest improvisers of thistime.  He will go anywhere and never lose his integrity.  It’s amazing tosee how he’s able to work with primal instincts while instilling genius atthe same time. Can you say a bit about I-Beam and its role in the community? I-Beam is a place that serves a very important purpose in the BrooklynImprovised music community.  It’s getting more and more difficult to findvenues in NYC where one doesn’t have to jump through a million hoops just to set up a simple concert.  It’s actually absurd. I-Beam provides anenvironment that hosts simple concerts, which is wonderful.  People come, sit, and listen. The musicians play. That’s it.  Imagine that.  Nobartenders being bent out of shape that people aren’t drinking enough, no one at the door taking a tally of how many people attended, no sound person putting the “Mayan flute” preset reverb on the saxophone thinking it sounds amazing, no club owner telling us that our set time has been cut and we have twenty minutes to play because there’s a rave starting in a half an hour, no people trying to talk over the set in a “whisper” voice which is actually as loud as their normal voice, none of that. Brian Drye has done a great job making the most of the space, providing a pleasant space for folks to rehearse during the day and providing a space for many concerts at night.  It’s also getting difficult to find venues that have a nice piano and back line, which Ibeam has, and they maintain the space and the equipment nicely. What’s next for Little Women, post-Lung? We’re beginning to work on the next recording.  I don’t want to say anymore than that. Do you have any recording plans with any of these groups, your solo saxophone work, or Battle Trance in the future? Yes,   I’m incredibly excited about Battle Trance’s first recording,entitled “Palace of Wind” that will be released August 26th on NewAmsterdam Records (with NNA pressing vinyl).  It’s an album-lengthcomposition that I wrote.  That band is my most active project, and I’mputting most of my musical energy into that.  I literally woke up onemorning just over a year ago and knew that I had to start a band with Matt Nelson, Jeremy Viner, and Patrick Breiner.  It was very clear that the band had to be with those specific individuals, even though I didn’treally know them!  It’s miraculous how incredible it’s been working withthem and that we’ve all been able to devote massive amounts of time torehearsals and deepening our sound together. We’ll be hitting the roadquite a bit this fall to support our release: out to the mid-west inSeptember and then hitting the West Coast in November."Ancestral Instrument", the recording featuring Trevor Dunn, Ches Smith, and myself will be out on NNA tapes this month.I have a solo saxophone record “Invisible Arrow” that’s in the can andwill most likely be released in late 2014.   What’s some recorded music you’ve been listening to recently? I’ve been listening to Mahler’s symphonies, Shona ritual music, R. Kelly,John Cage’s “string quartet in four parts”, Farida Khanum,Gorguts‘“Colored Sands”, and a lot of Buddhist Chants. What do you look forward to this Spring and summer? I’m greatly looking forward to my marriage ceremony and celebration. My Fiance and I also recently opened our healing practice in Brooklyn and we’re both looking forward to serving the community with Qigong,Acupuncture, and Chinese Herbs. <a href=”http://travislaplante.bandcamp.com/album/heart-protector” data-mce-href=”http://travislaplante.bandcamp.com/album/heart-protector”>Heart Protector by Travis Laplante</a>
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