Tag: blurring genres

Third Coast Percussion: The Collaborative Process

David Skidmore, Peter Martin, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors (Photo by Saverio Truglia)

In the first couple of weeks following the global lock down, we hadn’t completely figured out how we were going to produce the extensive NewMusicBox Cover conversations that we launch on the first day of every month—we were too busy finishing up work on our talk with Nathalie Joachim which we were lucky enough to record just a week before all this began. But we knew that these in-depth conversations about new music were something we had to keep going somehow, especially since the next one was slated for May 1, the 21st anniversary of the launch of this publication online. What to do? So much of what has made these conversations so exciting is the intimacy, empathy, and camaraderie that emerges from an in-person encounter, often in the homes of the people with whom we are talking. But we’re also well aware that this method of recording these talks also comes with limitations. There are tons of exciting people making fascinating music all over this country whom we have wanted to feature on these pages, but we’ve usually been limited to folks who either live in the greater New York Tri-State area, are a possible day trip along the Northeastern Corridor in either direction, or have come to NYC for a performance (and those talks are obviously not at home and so run the risk of feeling less personal).

I’ve long been a fan of Third Coast Percussion which marks its 15th anniversary this year and I’ve been eager to talk with their four members for quite some time about their collaborations with Augusta Read Thomas, David T. Little, Donnacha Dennehy, Philip Glass, and more recently Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) and JLin, as well as their own compositions. (I’m particularly enamored with TCP member David Skidmore’s immersive Common Patterns in Uncommon Time.) However, TCP is based in Chicago and is constantly touring around the country, so the dots never connected.

Then very soon after concerts started getting cancelled all over the country and we all began sheltering in place, TCP started presenting live stream concerts on their YouTube channel which were really motivational, particularly their second one on March 28 which—in addition to featuring the amazing pieces written for them by Glass, Hynes, and JLin, plus an awesome original by TCP’s Peter Martin—was a fundraiser for the New Music Solidary Fund which New Music USA administers. So I just had to figure out a way to make them the May 2020 NewMusicBox Cover somehow! Thanks to the Zoom platform and the fact that each of these four guys—Dave, Peter, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors—was tech savvy enough to record themselves separately with microphones and camcorders, we were able to record a substantive conversation online from five different locations that looks and feels almost like we were all together… almost.

We talked about a very wide range of topics. They started off by sharing stories about how TCP introduces audiences to percussion instruments and how they each came to devote their lives to making music. Then we engaged in a heady series of dos and don’ts for writing and performing percussion music. After that, we spent a long time exploring some details of the staggering range of music they have nurtured from an extraordinarily wide range of creators including in-depth commentary about some of their own original compositions. Finally, we had a heart to heart about what they all have been doing to cope in these unprecedented and uncertain times that everyone has been thrust into. I hope you find what they each had to say as poignant and inspirational as I have.

[Ed. note: To accommodate a broad range of experiential modalities, we’ve included audio links for the entire conversation as well as a complete text transcription. Click on “Read the Full Transcript” and you will also be rewarded with a few video clips from the talk and well as several performances! To facilitate access, both the audio and the text have been divided into four discrete sections, each of which is self-contained, in order to make the experience somewhat more manageable since the total discussion ran a little over 100 minutes. We encourage you to bookmark this page in your browser and return to it multiple times rather than going through all of it in one go, unless you’re extremely intrepid! – FJO]

Mister, Make Me a…Song?

Photo of a songwriter's workspace. A digital keyboard synthesizer on a tripod positioned by a window perpendicular to a desk; on the desk is a notebook, laptop, headphones, and glass of water.

Photo by Luke Redmond (This image is in the Creative Commons and is available on Flickr.)

At my day job in music publishing, I spend a lot of time on the phone with the staff at film companies, television stations, and musical organizations who need to know if we license this or that song. Over the course of our conversations, I often discover that what they are calling a song is actually a whole song cycle, a movement from a symphony, half a string quartet, or even an entire opera. Compositions entered into databases have “song codes” regardless of their content. iTunes’s various “upgrades” have managed to jumble every excerpt of every opera, oratorio, musical, symphony, concerto, or other multi-track work in my collection; its overly general classification of “songs” has transformed my once-pleasant listening experience into a chore as I hunt for newly mislabeled tracks in albums needlessly broken into multiple iterations. Since rock ‘n’ roll zoomed to the top of the charts and the sun set on the Golden Age of musical theater, songs written for the stage have not been the currency of mainstream musical engagement. Yet “song” has become the default term for just about any piece of music under the sun. Is the word still meaningful to creators of new musical theater? How does it inform our writing as we formulate the structure and content of our larger pieces? How do we think about songs within and outside their original context? Are there additional considerations that are not even artistic in nature?

In most operas, there are clear distinctions between recitative and aria. The recitative usually contains a fair amount of exposition, and the aria that follows is a reflection on or reaction to that information. Often this requires only a few lines of text and is also a chance to feature some vocal pyrotechnics. Song form in musical theater is a descendant of, among many things, the operatic aria. Though contemporary musicals sometimes employ recitative (sung over chords as in the old style, or spoken in rhythm over an ostinato), in the usual book musical format the dialogue functions as recitative would in an opera, so less recitative is necessary. As musicals evolved over the 20th century, songs became more heavily integrated into the story and carried more responsibility to move it forward. It was no longer satisfactory to step out of the action just to say “I love you” in 32 clever, internally rhymed measures. Music also appears in “sequences,” longer sung scenes or portions of scenes which may involve many characters (example: “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen” from A Chorus Line). Sequences were happening in the days of Gilbert and Sullivan and continue into the work of Michael John LaChiusa and his peers. We generally don’t include those under the “song” umbrella since they can take vastly different shapes in their respective shows. Since songs—and musical moments overall—comprise more of the true core of their parent sources now, it can be more difficult to extract them from their natural habitat and fully understand them. Sure, someone can technically sing “Epiphany” from Sweeney Todd on its own, but if we’ve seen the hour or so of backstory unfold first, it is much easier to appreciate.

One of my favorite musicals, William Finn’s revelatory In Trousers, breaks most of the rules. It is almost completely sung through. The score is divided into 29 numbers, but each segues immediately into the next. Many begin with brief intros without really paving the way for anything the characters will express next. Few adhere to an A-A-B-A, verse-chorus, or other standard song form. Some are abstract, bordering on stream of consciousness. Non sequiturs and nonsense syllables pop out of the lyrics. Many end abruptly with no resolution or catharsis. One song, “The Rape of Miss Goldberg,” is divided into eight scenes, each of which is announced. Since the main character, Marvin, jumps back and forth from adult life to adolescence on a very messy and fraught path to self-discovery that forever changes his relationships to everyone in his life, it makes sense that Finn subverts the usual hallmarks of musical theater songwriting. The parts add up to a greater whole, though he may present it more elliptically than most. Finn’s author note in the script says, “[A] lot of the material was about my learning to write the kind of show songs I want to write.” Should he still call them songs? He could plausibly call them something else, but if we want musical theater to continue to grow as an art form, then our perception of what constitutes a musical theater song needs to adapt accordingly.

In graduate school, our department head told our class that a well-written musical theater song serves as a writing team’s calling card. It represents the authors’ collective personality, talent, and worldview all in a neat little three-minute package. It whets listeners’ appetites for more songs and, if you’re lucky, for your entire musical; therefore, there’s potentially an awful lot riding on every single song one presents in public. (No pressure, though!) Out in the real world, I have indeed found it productive to prepare individual songs for concerts. Ideally it opens up dialogue for future collaborations with new artists and yields subsequent performances. But carrying the professorial advice one step further, a song within a larger theatrical work is no longer just a segment of something greater; it must also be its own biosphere ready to be picked up for Famous Broadway Singer X’s next album or concert tour. This runs counter to the idea that a successfully functioning theater song is inextricably woven into its original context. Yet in our current economically dire and overly saturated climate, if we want our voices to be heard and our careers to flourish, our songs must do everything at once. In my own work, I’ve noticed that standalone songs have an unfortunate tendency to pull my attention away from finishing full-length pieces. It is much easier to focus on placing songs in a bunch of concerts than it is to endure the years-long agony of seeing a musical or opera to completion. One way of getting people acquainted with my work is obviously more expedient than the other, but it may be detrimental in the long term as the bigger unfinished projects continue to loom. Say I do pique people’s interest with the songs—what more will I have to offer after that?

I have no background in pop songwriting, but I once had an opportunity to submit a song to Celine Dion’s A&R team, so I tried it. During a public review of the finalists’ (of which I was not one) work, a panelist advised, “No one’s looking for track #9 for the album anymore. Every song has to be track #1.” I worry that this model applies to musical theater songs now, too. Is the pendulum swinging back the other way? Are we returning to a time when our songs must function as pop songs in order to survive, even though the genre has come so very far since the days when musical theater composers dominated the airwaves? Only a handful of songs from In Trousers work well in isolation and none of them would be #1s, but musical theater is much better off for their existence. For all the day-to-day aggravation it entails, I still hope we can continue to confuse iTunes and not placate it.

The Freedom Of A Bird In Flight – Ornette Coleman (1930-2015)

Jamaaladeen Tacuma playing an electric bass and Ornette Coleman playing alto saxophone in an apartment.

Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Ornette Coleman rehearsing in 2010. Photo by Sound Evidence

Without question, the total Ornette Coleman experience for me has been nothing short of mystical, mesmerizing, educational, and sensitive. Everyone that has crossed his path has their own story, and here’s mine.

I grew up in Philadelphia in an area called North Philly. There you had the birth of some of the most famous musical artist to contribute to the world’s music scene. John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Archie Shepp, and so many more that it would take this entire space to mention. My first professional music experience was with an organist named Charles Earland who, in the late ‘70s, switched from playing bass on his organ to hiring me as an electric bass guitarist. I had just graduated from high school and received a music scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music. Going to Berklee and sitting in those classes did not sit well with me, as I wished to become an on-the-road, touring jazz musician, performing at global jazz festivals, playing club dates, and performing with all of the creative musicians who were making musical statements. (Boy, I was a dreamer.) Be careful what you wish for, as I soon witnessed a chain of events that would change musical history and the small role I played in it. After a one-year stint with Charles Earland, I was called into the backstage room at a small club in Newark, New Jersey, called The Key Club and told by Charles that I was fired from the gig. I asked him the reason, and he said that my timing was off. That seemed strange to me. I always kept the groove and when I would solo, the audience would go wild. But I guess some band leaders just will not stand for that kind of sideman attention from the audience.

At any rate, I was devastated. I left New York and headed back to Philadelphia without a gig and without my scholarship to Berklee. But, as destiny would have it, exactly one week later I received a telephone call from guitarist Reggie Lucas and percussionist James Mtume, two gentlemen who knew me as a youngster in Philadelphia and who had kept their eyes on me from early on. These guys were Philadelphians themselves and had already been out there on the road playing with Miles Davis and his electric band. When I arrived in Philly they told me that the saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman was planning a European tour and was looking for an electric bass player to join in. I didn’t know much about Ornette but, as destiny would have it, I had just been looking at a Downbeat article about Ornette featuring a photo of him playing saxophone and violin. It clicked; this was the same guy. I immediately said that I was interested in going back to New York for an audition for Ornette.

The day I arrived in New York, I went over to his famous Prince Street Loft in Soho where he resided and rehearsed his band. There was an elevator from the first floor that opened up directly into his loft space. I walked in and was greeted by works of visual art situated all over the room that would rival the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a matter of fact, the first art piece that I laid my eyes on was the famous mirrored colored mask painting that was used on the cover of Dancing In Your Head. There was so much more, I couldn’t take it all in.

Immediately Ornette came out of one of the rooms and greeted me. I noticed that he was not a huge man, he was shorter than me and he spoke in a very quiet voice, almost a whisper. Bern Nix was there, and I remember seeing the legendary drummer/composer Ronald Shannon Jackson there. Denardo Coleman was there, walking around, and we introduced ourselves to each other. We took our seats and my audition began. There was a music stand in front of me, and Ornette handed me sheet music. My music reading at that time was not as good as it turned out to be by the time I left Prime Time. I noticed that it was just notes written in the bass with no chord progressions. Ornette proceeded to count this tune off in a very strange way that I was not used to. In retrospect he did that only for me because, as I found out, he never counts any tunes off. He relied only on the melody to dictate the beginning and ending of any composition.

So we started. I struggled to play this finger buster melody, and we stopped. In my mind I knew that I did not nail this melody as it should have been played, but something clicked with Ornette and, with that sly look that he sometimes had, he said to me, “I want you to come to Europe with me.” Right there on the spot I, Jamaaladeen Tacuma (then Rudy McDaniel), had become part of a musical adventure that for me would change the way that the bass guitar was performed and how it was listened to. I stayed at the loft and we worked for a few more weeks on the material until we were ready. It was really prime time. Ornette needed another guitar player, and I suggested a guitar player from Philly named Charlie Ellerbe. That completed the initial Prime Time band lineup with Bern Nix and Ellerbe on guitars, Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums, myself on bass guitar, and Ornette Coleman on alto sax, trumpet, and violin.

We rehearsed a series of compositions that Ornette had been writing to ultimately fit inside of the Paris premier of Skies of America. I was told beforehand that we were only going to Europe for a two-week tour, but again—as destiny would have it—we stayed in Europe for six months. We stayed at Ornette’s favorite Paris hotel, Hotel Le Prince on Rue Monsieur Le Prince, where he had known the owner for years, an older lady he simply called Madame. Isn’t it such a coincidence that the word Prince showed up in so many facets of Ornette’s life, his New York address, his Paris address, as well as the name of the Paris hotel? There in Paris, the beginnings of Prime Time and the education we all received under Ornette’s direction was absolutely priceless.

Ornette Coleman playing saxophone and Jamaaladeen Tacuma playing bass on stage in performance.

Ornette Coleman and Jamaaladeen Tacuma in performance. Date unknown.

We rehearsed, rehearsed, and toured throughout Europe using our Paris hotel as our base of operation. In those long rehearsals, we were introduced to the concept and theory of harmolodics and its function, application, and overall approach to the music that we played. Ornette’s early musical statements were met with such question and controversy. He never coined the phrase or said that what he was aiming for and what we were doing was “Free Jazz.” The term that was most endearing to him was “compositional improvising.” In harmolodics—unlike Western music where the melody, harmony, rhythm, and arrangement are neatly tucked in their place—all components are moving in the same direction simultaneously. The melody, or the composition, is the most important factor because from the melody one could extract their own musical ideas that could and should bring about the emotion that the listener reacts to. In compositional improvising, the musical idea is more important than the notes.

Sometimes the instrument and the notes could get in the way. As he stated in the beginning of my recording, For The Love of Ornette, “Fellas, fellas, forget the note and get to the idea.” What Ornette stressed was that each individual set up their own musical ideas with their own bridges attached. If you found the place that would enhance the other band member’s ideas, that could be a good thing. Also, on the flip side, one could also find that musical idea that could erase the others. The idea of being tied down to a riff was not acceptable. When this was applied and working, it was clear that the result was “pure music” and, to take it a step further, “pure sound.” Jazz, rock, classical, and other man-made genres are steps away from pure musical and sound expression. The music business as we know it today dictates the limitations, and this is what Ornette drove home to me and my fellow band mates.

Ornette Coleman wearing sunglasses and playing tenor saxophone and Jamaaladeen Tacuma smiling.

A promotional photo of Ornette Coleman and Jamaaladeen Tacuma from around the time of the release of Tacuma’s 1983 Gramavision album Show Stopper.

This freed us, this freed me of looking at my instrument as just that. An instrument. The instrument didn’t rule me, I ruled it. It was just a vehicle and a means to express our musical ideas. Being able to concentrate on musical ideas allowed me to capture any music style and also leave it whenever I wanted to. This was a blessing and we owe that to Ornette Coleman. As the band Prime Time, we recorded several records with Ornette and for my first solo album recording, Show Stopper on Gramavision records, Ornette was gracious enough to write an original composition entitled “Tacuma Song,” a solo piece that allowed me to exemplify the bass guitar in a completely harmolodic way, with the melody or composition being the basis for the improvisation. Since my first solo recording and leaving Prime Time, I have traveled the world, made many recordings, and in 2010, after long discussions and planning, I was able to reciprocate the wonderful gift that Ornette gave me in “Tacuma Song.” I organized a recording session where I wanted Ornette to do absolutely what he does best and that is to improvise in a beautiful compositional way. I was blessed with his appearance and returned the gift with an homage recording entitled For The Love of Ornette on my Jam All Productions artist-run label.

Ornette has meant more to me as a human being and musically than words can really express, and there is one more small gem of a story that would allow you once again to peek into the spirit of Ornette. There was one moment in my life as a young man when I was venturing on a spiritual path and decided that I did not want to play music anymore. Ornette heard of this and came to Philadelphia from New York, met with my mother, and pleaded with her to convince me to return to music again. I did and I thank God and I thank Ornette Coleman.

It’s clear that Ornette’s impact was not only rooted in preparing individuals to think outside of the box, but also to take very natural ways of doing something and bring them to the forefront. We often talked about certain places in the world where people did not know anything about Western concepts of playing. The idea of playing notes E to A or C to B. They don’t know anything about that in remote villages and they still create incredible music that brings about healing. Ornette’s idea and concept was to also bring certain emotions to the music and to have those emotions be felt by others. He wanted to make you cry. He wanted to make you dance. He wanted to make you think or just sit down in silence. So I think his legacy will exemplify that not only was he a good human being and a kind and soft-spoken gentleman, but musically he will continue to bring about a change in how folks think about music, how they will approach it, and how they will perform it. With the blessing of God, my thanks to Ornette Coleman for taking me in, allowing me to think as a human being, and to play music with the freedom of a bird in flight.

Black and white photo of Ornette Coleman and Jamaaladeen Tacuma rehearsing.

Another rehearsal photo from 2010: Ornette Coleman (left) and Jamaaladeen Tacuma (right). Photo by Sound Evidence.

Fay Victor: Opening Other Doors

A conversation in Fay Victor’s Brooklyn apartment
March 31, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

The word jazz has been used to describe music that has now been made for more than a century. (The origins of the word have been heavily debated, but its use to describe a musical genre can be traced back to almost exactly 100 years ago.) Given such a long period of time, an extremely wide range of music has existed under that moniker, to the point that defining what jazz is can be extremely difficult to do. Of course, defining anything limits it, and since one of the core qualities of jazz is that it has always been about personal expression, trying to limit it is antithetical to what it is. Still, some musical creators find the word itself to be limiting, like Fay Victor, an extraordinary vocalist, composer, lyricist, and bandleader who began her career as a straight-ahead jazz singer but who now makes extremely difficult to define music that embraces blues, psychedelic rock, Caribbean popular forms, experimentalism, even elements of classical music, and—well—jazz.

Victor’s catholic approach to music-making came from growing up in New York City, as well as spending a lot of time in Trinidad during her childhood.

“My earliest memories of music are probably hearing calypso and reggae and also Indian music,” she explained when we spoke to her at her apartment in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. “That was a big part, and also African-American music, urban contemporary music, especially of that period—people coming out of the Motown era and the Philly sound and also Aretha Franklin. And also around my house we listened to a bit of classical music, mainly Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky I didn’t really get into, but Beethoven I kind of dug. My mother listened to that a bit. And my mother also liked groups like the Commodores and I was a big fan of Earth, Wind, and Fire. Then I got into things like funk. So that was what I was growing up listening to. As it turned out, one of my closest friends as a child, her father was a serious jazz fan. He listened to a very famous radio station in the city at that time. I’d go over to their house, and I’d kind of hear sounds that I liked and that were appealing. But I didn’t know what I was really listening to. When I thought I was listening to jazz, it was things like Bob James or Earl Klugh. That’s what I thought was jazz, usually things I never admit.”

But once she became serious about music, Victor got very serious about jazz, deeply immersing herself in the music of Miles Davis and Betty Carter (who was her primary role model), and one of her formative experiences was performing with pianist Bertha Hope, widow of the legendary Elmo Hope.

“It was amazing being with her because she’s jazz history,” Victor remembered. “I learned a lot about the whole continuum of the music.”

But then Victor moved to the Netherlands and soon became involved in a much broader range of musical activities which included stints with blues bands and collaborations with members of the ICP and other pioneers of the Dutch free improv scene. Although she still acknowledges a relatively straight-ahead 1998 jazz vocal recording she made after arriving there (the deeply personal In My Own Room), the defining turning point for her was the 2004 album Lazy Old Sun on which she performs both standards and jazz instrumentals to which she added her own lyrics, plus songs by The Doors and The Kinks as well as originals she created with her husband, bassist Jochem van Dijk.

She opined, “I think by the time I got to Lazy Old Sun, I wasn’t really considering myself a jazz musician anymore, or a jazz singer; let me say that.”

Since moving back to New York City, her omnivorous musical tastes have led her to a fluid synthesis of a broad range of musical traditions in the open form music creates for her own Fay Victor Ensemble. She has also continued to turn angular jazz instrumentals into totally convincing songs, most notably Herbie Nichols SUNG, her concert presentation of material by the iconic, idiosyncratic, post-hard bop pianist which she has just returned from performing in various European cities. She also sang in Anthony Braxton’s opera Trillium E and will be featured in a new Darius Jones piece next February. Victor’s extreme broadmindedness extends into her teaching of other vocalists, a process in which she says that she uses jazz as a portal, not as an end game:

I think the whole process of trying to be a creative person is just an unpeeling of layers. You do it throughout a lifetime and I think if you’re honest, you’re trying to get deeper and get a deeper understanding of what you’re trying to say. … If I want to now, I’d do a primal scream in a performance, I feel comfortable enough to do that. Five years ago, that probably would have scared me. Even if I really wanted to, I might have held back. Now I don’t hold back.


Frank J. Oteri: I’ve been following you musically probably now for about a decade or so and have heard you perform in a very wide range of styles. But it’s always important to acknowledge how people identify themselves and why they identify themselves the way they do. On your website, you describe yourself as a “Brooklyn-based vocalist, composer, and educator.” Even though the word jazz is everywhere throughout your website and in your bio, it’s not in that little phrase.

Fay Victor: I stopped identifying myself as a jazz vocalist quite some time ago. When I started out, I was a purist. I really wanted to be specifically a jazz vocalist. I wanted to follow in the sort of continuum of the great jazz vocalists. And I felt that I might be able to do so with enough work and time put in. Then, at a certain point for me, things started to change and open up. I started to experience other musics that I found really compelling, so I wanted to investigate those musics. I also began to improvise as a vocalist. Around the same time I started to reconnect with music from my youth, which was not jazz. I came to jazz very, very late. So I started to realize that perhaps jazz might be a limiting phrase for what I was doing and beginning to do. Certainly with the original music that I write with my husband, I think jazz is just one component of that. It’s interesting that you say around my website the word jazz is everywhere. As much as I feel like I do a lot of different things, I do feel out of the tradition of jazz, but yet not a jazz vocalist. How confusing is that for an answer?

FJO: I’m going to make it even more confusing. Why is the word jazz limiting? What does the word jazz mean to you? What are your associations?

FV: My association is sort of a swing feel and improvisation within accepted structural boundaries, and the idea of personal expression which is what attracted me to jazz in the first place. It was a place to figure out your own voice. That was the point of becoming a jazz musician, so you could do that. Even though the materials all have a similar structure, the idea was you would sound like yourself. And people should be able to recognize you after hearing you for 30 seconds or something. That was something I found really desirable, as something to work towards and attain.

FJO: To further pick apart that phrase “vocalist, composer, and educator,” you put vocalist first. I imagine before you even thought about creating your own material, you were singing.

FV: Well, yes and no actually, because as I child I wrote a lot. I wrote much more than I sang. I sang more for fun and was sort of separated from it. When I sang what I wrote, it was more because it was kind of necessary to explain it to other people and to share it with other people. So in a way as a child, I saw myself as a songwriter first. But later on when I came back to music in my early adulthood, I saw myself as a singer first. But it took a couple years to actually call myself that.

FJO: So was there a time when you were creating music that you weren’t singing? Were you playing an instrument other than your own voice?

FV: No, but when I was writing as a kid, I was writing a little bit with guitar and also from my ear. I put together for fun a little band to kind of develop some ideas with. I’m talking about like pre-teen years, and then I kind of gave it up and actually went into dance for a while. And also I was athletic. So I ran track and played basketball and did a lot of other different things. Then, later on, I came back to music.

FJO: And you said growing up that jazz wasn’t really what you were listening to.

FV: No.

FJO: So what were you exposed to? What was the first music you were excited by and why?

FV: Well, my people are from the Caribbean, from Trinidad and Tobago, and I guess my earliest memories of music are probably hearing calypso and reggae and also Indian music, because there’s a pretty sizeable Indian population in Trinidad. I wasn’t born in Trinidad, but I spent a lot of time there as a child. So that was a big part, and also African-American music, urban contemporary music, especially of that period—people coming out of the Motown era and the Philly sound and also Aretha Franklin. And also around my house we listened to a bit of classical music, mainly Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky I didn’t really get into, but Beethoven I kind of dug. My mother listened to that a bit. And my mother also liked groups like the Commodores and I was a big fan of Earth, Wind, and Fire. Then I got into things like funk. So that was what I was growing up listening to. As it turned out, one of my closest friends as a child, her father was a serious jazz fan. He listened to a very famous radio station in the city at that time. I’d go over to their house, and I’d kind of hear sounds that I liked and that were appealing. But I didn’t know what I was really listening to. When I thought I was listening to jazz, it was things like Bob James or Earl Klugh. That’s what I thought was jazz, usually things I never admit.

FJO: You just did.

FV: I know. It’s documented for posterity.

FJO: Well, in one of the interviews I read with you, you talked about hearing Miles Davis for the first time, but it was his ‘80s stuff, not his ‘50s stuff with Coltrane or Bill Evans.

FV: Exactly.

FJO: But on the earliest album of yours that I know, you do a vocal version of one of the pieces from Kind of Blue.

FV: Right. Yes.

FJO: So Miles Davis was a formative influence on you.

FV: He was, and in that period when I was sort of really a jazz singer and going after it in that way, Miles Davis became really important as a way to phrase because, again, the way I understood the tradition was I had to find my own voice. I had to honor the masters and honor the leaders of this music, but at a certain point, I had to figure out what I wanted to say. There are all these people to listen to, but Miles gave me an opening on what could be vocally done in an interesting way with standards at that point. So he was a pretty strong influence at that point.

FJO: What I find so interesting is that in hearing jazz for the first time, there seems to be this dichotomy. There are people who lead groups, whatever instrument they’re playing, and they do covers of standards and do their own material, and they’re the leaders. Then you’ll have singers who work with a group, but they’re rarely given that same level of leadership. There’s usually some arranger, and they’re doing other people’s material. They almost never do their own material. Somebody like Abbey Lincoln was such a force because at some point, she turned around and said, “I’m not doing these misogynistic songbook songs anymore. I’m going to create my own material. I’m a composer. I’m the leader of this group.”

FV: Right.

FJO: As a singer, as a female singer, that was a really big statement to make.

FV: Absolutely. That’s so true about Abbey Lincoln. I’m a huge fan and she’s an influence from a band-leading standpoint. But actually for me, the person who’s really an influence is Betty Carter, because for as much as I love Abbey’s singing, it’s a much more subtle improvising with the form—more with the words and her story telling is just magnificent. But Betty was trying to be a musician and to improvise like a horn player would. So that was actually more compelling and more interesting. I also began to hear from other people that perhaps I had the dexterity to go that way. Also, the way she led her band. I saw Betty live a few times. The way she handled her band, to make them create in the moment what she wanted to do deeply influenced me. So when I got to have a band, I really made it a point that it wouldn’t be just the way singers have groups: the so-and-so trio, the so-and-so quartet. If you hear a lot of records, across the parameters, they are pretty much the same. The roles of the musicians are the same, regardless of arrangement. I wanted to develop a band in the sense of Betty Carter where I wanted it to have its own sonic universe, whatever that would become. So that became something interesting to work towards.

FJO: Did you get to meet Betty Carter and interact with her?

FV: No, I was too afraid, and at that moment I didn’t think I was strong enough vocally. I didn’t really think I was. I was not denigrating myself; I was just being real. Today, or even five years ago, I would have felt much more comfortable to approach her. At that time, I was actually petrified to approach her. But I got so much from seeing her [perform] that that’s okay. I got to see in real time how she handled things and that really informed a lot of what I do now. So I don’t regret trying. And when she died, I wasn’t even living here anymore.

FJO: That was during the years you were in Amsterdam.

FV: Yeah.

FJO: Another singer from that era who really seems like the last survivor from that time of legendary jazz icons is Sheila Jordan.

FV: Yes.

FJO: Is she somebody who had an impact on you?

FV: Absolutely. And it’s great with Sheila. She’s still strong, and she’s still out there. And she has a great following of people that really make sure she’s okay, and that she’s looked after. I mean, there’s nothing wrong. I don’t want to give that impression, but you know, she is 85.

FJO: 86 actually!

FV: See, you know better than I do. But it’s great that she’s still vibrant and vital.

FJO: One thing that made me think of Sheila Jordan is that on that first album of yours, your rendition of “All of You” is just you and the bass. She pioneered doing voice and double bass duets; it’s a very wonderful sound.

FV: Oh, it’s a glorious thing; I love it. Once she heard me do a duet with another bassist. We were improvising. It was a bassist from the U.K. And afterwards she kind of mentioned that she was one of the pioneers, in a very sweet way. She was just really happy to see over the years how different people have taken the idea and run with it. And then she went on to tell us that we gave her a musical orgasm. I had forgotten she said that, and then I had a concert with that bassist about a year or two later, and we were hanging out for dinner beforehand and he goes, “Do you remember what she said to us?” I said, “I’m not exactly sure anymore.” And then he repeated what she said. I said, “Oh yeah, I remember now.”

FJO: To go back to that first album from 1998, it’s pretty much all standards. There are a few outliers like that Miles Davis composition. It had words, but most people know it as an instrumental. Overall it’s pretty much a straight ahead jazz record. And yet even within that framework, you achieved a great variety. I mentioned “All of You” just featuring bass, but throughout the album you were experimenting with different combinations of instruments. Everything wasn’t the same. You were saying before that most of the time singers have a group and it’s this formula. But even back then, even that early on, you were fractalizing the group to get different sounds out of different instruments and different places. In some places, the drums are way more prominent.

FV: Thank you for pointing that out, because at that point that’s all I knew how to do, move that around and experiment with that. They are all pretty much conscious decisions, so thank you for noticing that. And I like that record because I had made a record before, but it wasn’t really my record. I made a record in Austria that I don’t really talk about it. Somebody offered it to me. I picked the repertoire, but it was a band that was put together. What I love about In My Own Room is that I feel like I really produced this in my own way, with whatever limited knowledge I feel I had or not at that time. So it was really my own project in that way.

FJO: But now you’re going to have me looking around for that Austrian record.

FV: [laughs]

FJO: In terms of stuff I wish I had, are there any secret, stashed away recordings of when you were doing duos with Bertha Hope?

FV: No, I wish. We played in Japan together. We had so much fun. I was just starting out. It was my first sort of real gig as a vocalist. It was actually the gig I decided to become a singer. I said, “Okay, I know I want to do this now.” It was amazing being with her, because she’s jazz history, and we really got along. She saw that I had a talent and had something to say even then. I learned a lot about the whole continuum of the music. I was beginning to get into Monk a lot, knowing how close her husband was to Monk not just as musicians, but also as friends. Then, the strange paradox of Thelonious Monk, Jr., recommending that I take Bertha out with me! I wish I had some sort of documentation of that. I have some old cassettes from that time; if I ever find something, I will let you know.

FJO: Not just me. I think there’d be a million jazz fans out there who would want a recording of that.

FV: Really?! Okay.

FJO: In terms of recordings that are out in the world, I’d like to talk with you about Lazy Old Sun. There’s definitely a sonic shift between In My Own Room and Lazy Old Sun, but Lazy Old Sun is still a jazz vocal album, even though you’ve really expanded the notion of what material you could do. There’s a Doors song on there and melodies by Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean that you put words to. And the title track is a Kinks song. I really love what you did with that—just you and the electric guitar. Once again, it’s really spare, and it also challenges the notion of what the songbook is. So I thought it would be interesting to talk about what the songbook means to you. What draws you to certain material? What works and what doesn’t? Can anything be done by a jazz vocalist? Since you now shy away from the term “jazz,” at what point does it cease to be jazz?

FV: I think by the time I got to Lazy Old Sun, I wasn’t really considering myself a jazz musician anymore, or a jazz singer; let me say that. While I was living in the Netherlands I started working with some blues bands, which was an amazing experience. I realized how ignorant I actually was. I also I realized in going even further how ignorant a lot of jazz musicians are about the blues. I don’t have to tell you, it’s an incredible art form. But for a lot of jazz musicians, blues is just a blues scale and what you can do with that. You have blues in the repertoire and you know what the tune’s based on, but not everyone delves deep. So I had this situation where I was asked to be a blues singer in groups. It wasn’t racial; let’s be up front about that. I don’t think it had anything to do with that. It was more that somebody saw some talent and I tried it and I really liked it, but I realized that with blues the expression has to be real. The more complex the music is, the more one can hide behind the complexity of the music.

Blues forced me to really get serious. So I started listening a lot and that started opening up a lot of other doors. My husband is Dutch and when we got together, we started exchanging a lot of music. I started lending him all this stuff that I liked and so he let me hear stuff, and we’d have these intense listening sessions. Out of those sessions, I learned about people like Robert Johnson because I didn’t know who that was. I’m a jazz musician and I don’t know who Robert Johnson is! You know what I mean? This was not good. So I really took some time and just listened and delved in. One of the nice things about the Netherlands is they have really good libraries where you could rent a lot of CDs. You can just spend a euro and take them out. So if you can’t afford to buy a bunch of CDs, just go to the library and you’re allowed to take out ten at a time of all sorts of recordings. So that’s what I would do, from classical music all to way to blues, whatever we didn’t have, and just immerse myself and try to really understand it. That really opened me up. I also started to realize that a lot of music I grew up listening to was based on this music, or coming out of this sort of space.

And at that very same time, I started to listen to much more improvised music—I mean the Dutch musical scene, people like Misha Mengelberg and the ICP and the Willem Breuker Kollektief. I was there, so I started hanging with some of the musicians I was beginning to work with, like Walter Wierbos on Lazy Old Sun, who has been in ICP for going on 30 years. It was all happening at the same time. So I kind of felt like why should I limit myself to the American songbook; a lot of those songs don’t really make sense to me. More importantly, I started to want to write again. I wanted to sing my own words and tell my own stories and that became a really interesting thing to dig into. But there’s a record before that, Darker than Blood; I don’t know if you know about that record.

FJO: I don’t. More stuff for me to track down.

FV: It’s out of print, but I will get a copy to you. Darker than Blue is actually the very first record that my husband and I have originals on. We have three originals on that one, and we have Herbie Nichols’s “House Party Starting.”

FJO: So the Herbie Nichols fascination began all the way back then.

FV: Yeah. It’s a looong time with Herbie. But I started to want to write and then really put a band together à la Betty Carter—find musicians, rehearse on a regular basis, develop material. Then I used my brain a little bit. Because I was in the Netherlands where it’s a subsidized music scene, I figured out that if I could get myself into the scenes and get that kind of work, I could hire really good musicians. And also that would give them an impetus to stay with me. Those are very hard gigs to get as a singer. But if you get them as a singer, what I discovered is that audiences really like that, so audiences will come out. So that gave me some leverage, and so I started to use that and I started to get a lot more gigs in the subsidized scene. That’s how I was able to keep everything going for a few years until I moved back here.

FJO: Now finding those psychedelic rock songs, the Doors and the Kinks. How did that stuff wind up in your songbook?

FV: Well, in that period of listening to blues, I listened to a lot of the Doors. I’ve been a fan of the Doors actually since I was kid—“Break on Through.” But then I got much deeper into the Doors. I remember we were listening one night, I forget the album that it’s on now, but I heard “People Are Strange” and I didn’t like the song as a song, because it was kind of Vaudevillian, you know. But the lyrics, I was like, “That’s it. It’s true; it’s no bullshit.” So I came up with doing a bit of a bolero idea under it, just so the words can kind of be more stretched out to make them a little more aggressive.

FJO: It’s interesting that you say that you don’t think of Lazy Old Sun as a jazz record, because that Doors song in particular you really turned into jazz for me.

FV: Oh, okay.

FJO: That’s what it sounds like. It’s very different than how the Doors performed it on Strange Day; you turned it into a jazz standard. Whereas, oddly enough, your version of a song that actually is a bona fide jazz standard, David Raksin’s “Laura,” sounds less standard to me.

FV: Oh, that’s very cool! I see what you mean. I still do “People Are Strange,” but now it’s more deconstructed sometimes. I mean, every now and again, I’ll do it with that sort of feel, but now it’s a lot more open, just an open form where the words are more improvised than anything else. The words are what really got me and I love Jim Morrison. I just think it was a great band—the music, the instrumentation, the sound. I love talking to people about the Doors because there are some people that really hate them. And then I’ve always liked the Kinks as well. I’ve always been into great songwriters, and to me Ray Davies is a genius songwriter. There are a lot of songs of his I could have done, but the reason I like “Lazy Old Sun” is because of those arpeggios and how it modulates. And he’s from that similar part of the world. It seemed to be the perfect representative of that space. That’s also why we did it that way, trying to be plaintive.

FJO: In terms of creating your own material, you’ve done a lot stuff where you’ve put words to other instrumental stuff, not just the Herbie Nichols material, but also Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean. Those are things you made your own by putting your own words to it. But you also create a lot of completely original material with your husband. When the two of you work on something, do you do the words and he does the music, or do you both do both? I’m curious about that process.

FV: When we first started writing together, I did the words and he did the music. Over years, it’s merged. It’s really changed. So now, depending on the piece we want to write, we have a process that we generally write from the words anyway—the actual music. What we decide we’re going to write and how it’s going unfold will determine who will do the actual musical composition—sometimes it’s him, sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s a combination. Usually he puts it into Finale, but the actual working out of that is really open. I love that about the way we write because it really comes down to what we’re trying to say. I really like that way of thinking about things, because I think it communicates our intention much better in the end.

FJO: But, to get back to your online moniker, you describe yourself as a composer but not as a lyricist, even though words are clearly so important to you.

FV: They really are. And sometimes I say lyricist, but then I think, God, that sounds so pretentious to say vocalist, composer, lyricist. I do feel like I’m a composer, but at the same time I think that when people see that on a page, they pay more attention to that than perhaps if they saw lyricist. Maybe that’s sort of the subliminal or subconscious reason.

FJO: Well, perhaps the other thing is that a lot of people have erected an artificial dichotomy between composers and songwriters. Song folks who are songwriters are intimidated by the word composer, which I find ironic given the fact that if they have written both the words and music to a song they are more than just the composer. They are two things—they are the lyricist and the composer.

FV: I think you’re the first person to ever put it that way. The word composer seems to have this sort of exaltation to it. It has a lot of value. There aren’t a lot of good lyricists. It’s hard to write lyrics that people get. And I think that it’s not respected enough, to be honest. I think people feel it’s easy. Like people think being a poet is easy. You’re just writing some words on a paper, and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s much more difficult to actually sit down and write music. I’ll be honest, I have sat down and written lyrics in ten minutes. But I’ve also had lyrics which have taken almost a year to really get right.

I was in the Washington Women’s Jazz Festival earlier this month, and they asked me to submit a piece for the performance. We were all performing original music, and I decided I’d love to do that. I was literally walking from the supermarket and it wasn’t a whole piece, but the heart of the piece just came to me walking home. So I just came home and wrote out the outline of it. The other stuff I wrote afterwards, after the fact, took a lot longer. I do think there is this idea that maybe I bought into by saying composer rather than lyricist. And that is unfortunate.

FJO: Or songwriter.

FV: Or songwriter.

FJO: Although, a songwriter writes in one form, song, but a song is just one of many different things a composer might write. And when people hear the word composer, I think they associate it more with the creation of larger form works, things with some kind of through-line. Perhaps my favorite of all of your projects thus far is The FreeSong Suite, which I really hear as a large scale work. It is comprised of individual songs but they’re all connected and, when put together, form a larger cohesive whole.

FV: Wow, thank you.

FJO: And interestingly, that seems to be true of everything you’ve done since then, both recordings and live concerts—everything sounds connected and part of one, larger whole.

FV: Yeah. That group, the Fay Victor Ensemble, is actually ten years old this year. The whole idea of the free songs started with Misha Mengelberg and Walter Wierbos, our bassist in the Netherlands, doing this open-ended project where they’re coming in and out of forms. You’re still dealing with form, but just making it much more liquid. It was so freeing, but it’s tricky because everybody has to have a sense harmonically of what works well after the other and no one knows where things are beginning and ending. It’s like a film where you have these moments where things are kind of random and then there’s this moment of clarity and then things go back. For that record, we really recorded in real time. There are only very tiny edits, but everything [we recorded] is [a suite of] four songs. It was really scary to record that way because if there was one major mistake, we had to do a whole sequence all over again.

FJO: You described in your notes for it that the group is fighting with each other, which I thought was an interesting way of putting it. In jazz and other kinds of improvisatory music, when a group of musicians create music together, it isn’t about following a score on a page and playing it exactly as written. It’s about making it your own. It’s about the group dynamic, where one person is bouncing ideas off of another. But even though your husband is the record producer and so he’s in the studio, he’s actually not on stage with you guys. He’s not playing the music. So in terms of the auteurship of that in the jazz sense of it, he has to let it go. But you’re in the middle of it, so you’re fighting with these players that you bring on, so it’s yours, but it’s also theirs.

FV: Yeah. Absolutely.

FJO: So I’m interested about that dynamic. How much happens spontaneously in the moment, whether it’s in a recording studio, live on a stage, in a gig, how much you can plan for, and how much you really want it to be a spontaneous, in-the-moment thing?

FV: Well, like I mentioned, every piece is declared by what we want to say. So I’m going to pick a piece, I guess “Bob and Weave.” It’s a really clear structure. A lot of times within the structure, we have these points of departure where the form opens up. Let’s say somebody gets a solo, though I’ve moved away from that. Every now and again one musician will, but it’s more of an ensemble improvisation. We know we’re moving towards somewhere else. And in the case of “Bob and Weave” it’s going into “Night Ties.” Ken Filiano picks it up, so we set some cuing, just so we’re clear what’s going to happen. But when that actually happens can be varied. In other words, if we come to the end of “Bob and Weave,” Ken is supposed to pick up the bass line. But that ending can be whenever Ken feels it, and then we move on. I’m not going to look at him and say, “Okay, now you’ve got to.” We try to be as organic as possible, but everybody knows where we’re going. We have this destination.

On Absinthe and Vermouth, we have this piece “Paper Cup.” I’m on a mission going to “Paper Cup.” The idea was to play with having something really sort of punky and a little snotty and then have it lead to a very quiet open space, but have a big improvisation in between. So the fun of that was trying to have an improvisation that felt real coming out of the first piece, but also that felt real going into the second, wherever we ended up. That’s the idea.

FJO: Well it’s interesting to hear you use the word punky. One of the things that I’m hearing on your more recent projects, like Absinthe and Vermouth, but also already on Cartwheels Through The Cosmos, is a clear rock element that’s sort of psychedelic, and even like progressive rock, almost akin to Captain Beefheart.

FV: He’s a big influence.

FJO: I can totally hear that. But still, at least to my ears, you’re somehow honing it through a jazz sensibility. In fact, the way you just described Ken Filiano waiting to feel something totally sounds like what a jazz group would do, which is quite different from what a rock group would usually do.

FV: That’s true. I guess at the end of the day, I wouldn’t call Anders a jazz musician, but certainly Ken is. Ken is coming out of that space, and I am, too. So that will always pretty much inform everything. But if mainstream jazz players were to hear Absinthe and Vermouth, I cannot imagine they would think that that was a jazz record. I think they would think it was a combination, like they would think avant-garde—I don’t think it’s that avant-garde, but that’s the thing. Or maybe if they listen to “The Sign at the Door,” they would think it’s even coming out of new music, but not jazz.

That’s why it gets complicated. So I just don’t really label myself. It’s a multi-genre approach which is totally what I have on my bio just so it’s open. Sometimes I wonder if that’s smart, but it is really the way I feel. Actually I have in the back of my mind that I want to develop a Caribbean project. It’s part of me. So if I want to delve into that zone, why not. I think a lot of times we feel we’re just strictly in this thing: okay, I’m a jazz musician, or I’m an opera singer, or I don’t know, I’m a Haitian whatever. I don’t know if it’s good to limit yourself that way.

If your perception changes, or if you open up, I think you should go with that. I really feel that the music guiding me is a lot more important than me guiding the music. If I feel compelled to dig into something, then that’s where I need to go and not worry about if it falls into certain boundaries that are comfortable for other people.

FJO: Well one thing I found interesting is that even though you’re mostly self-taught, at some point you sought out coaching from an opera singer, which is really bizarre because you weren’t doing opera at that point and you’ve never really done opera, as far as I know.

FV: I have done one opera actually; I’ve done an Anthony Braxton opera.

FJO: But that’s a very different kind of opera.

FV: Absolutely.

FJO: That wasn’t bel canto or verismo. But you sought out that training just to expand your horizons musically. It wasn’t necessarily to sing that music, but to open your ears to another way of thinking about sound, which I thought was really exciting.

FV: It was also technical. I was starting to run into problems trying to execute some improvisational ideas I was having. I was really developing my ear. I was working on theory. I was studying piano. I was trying to sing certain things that I was beginning to hear, but I couldn’t sing them well—strange intervals. I couldn’t sing them, or it was very uncomfortable. So I said, “There has to be a better way.” And I found this opera teacher, Onno van Dijk. Because of that, I feel my instrument is a lot more open, plus the experience of listening. He was a very interesting teacher. We listened a bit to opera, but he was also into yoga poses. He would also go to witness throat operations. He was really deep. He really wanted to understand things from the inside out, and that was really his emphasis. Now that I teach, a lot of the way I teach is from him, because he was really about everybody figuring out their own sound and what’s the best and healthiest way to do that. Since I didn’t want to become an opera singer, he helped me to figure out my own sound without using a big wide sound but a more focused sound, because I’m singing with a mic and I want to be able to use much more nuance. Around this same time, I started listening to lots of people like Cathy Berberian, whom I’m a huge fan of. To me she is a very organic-sounding classical vocalist. She’s incredible. She makes everything sound rooted.

FJO: In that one opera you were a part of, Anthony Braxton’s Trillium E, I instantly recognized your voice when you come in. You cannot miss it. You were so you.

FV: Wow. Well, I think that’s what Anthony wanted, and I love him for that. I think it’s changed now. I wasn’t here when it went on last year, but what I have heard—and I know a bit from the vocalists—is that now it’s much more classical, really much more opera singers. But with Trillium E, he made the choice then to let people have different sounds. And I thought that really worked. I thought that was a very interesting approach, and pretty gutsy. His lines are much more rhythmic. I don’t know if someone with a lot of vibrato would really execute the words and rhythmic forms and shapes that he was doing. He really writes for much more straighter sounding tones.

FJO: Participating in that project with him was something of a detour for you, since you pretty much do only your own stuff at this point.

FV: Yes.

FJO: You’re not someone else’s side person, you don’t do other people’s material at this point. I wonder what would make you decide to lend your voice to someone else’s projects.

FV: Well, I did a record that just came out. It’s with a Dutch musician by the name of Ab Baars. He’s an incredible musician, and he has a trio that was together for 20 years. In celebration, he put a tour together, and he invited me and a French horn player Vincent Chancey. This was in 2011; it was a 15-concert tour and we made a record at the end. He wrote vocal compositions for the first time, and it was a great experience to play those pieces. I really enjoyed that project, because he’s an improviser as well. He’s also a member of ICP, so I know exactly the musical place he’s coming from. So I would be open to that. If it’s something that I really think I can be me with, then I’m very open to that. For example, I don’t know the details, but I’m going to be featured in a big piece by Darius Jones next February. He has a residency at The Stone. I know Darius’s work and we also happen to be good friends. I really admire him and where he’s going, and I know he’s going to allow me to be me. I hope that doesn’t sound too egotistical.

FJO: No, I completely get what you’re saying. It’s actually makes a perfect segue to talking about Herbie Nichols SUNG and how you found your own voice within Herbie Nichols’s music. Herbie Nichols was forgotten for many years but he’s been rediscovered. He’s a parallel figure in some ways to Thelonious Monk and to Elmo Hope, who has yet to be fully rediscovered. These three guys were doing things that were pre-free jazz post-bop already in the bop era. Herbie Nichols never got to record with a quintet, which was his dream. He only got to record with a trio. The Jazz Composers Collective did this whole Herbie Nichols Project and made some of his music really come to life. Nichols also never recorded with a singer, but I know that Sheila Jordan sang with him at one point even though none of what they did was ever recorded. So your singing music by Herbie Nichols is really kind of the first time for that music to sing.

FV: Yeah. Sheila told me, believe it or not, that she was pretty impressed that I was singing that. He was her rehearsal pianist. She said she was scared of those tunes. I can imagine if I were around at that time, I would have been scared, too. I was scared of those tunes, but since then, there have been all these people that have created [their own paths] this music. And I had Mischa Mengelberg to talk to about it. I don’t know if I could have just done it if I had nothing. What happened with Herbie was a really organic experience. Again, my husband and I were together maybe just a couple of years, and he had some CDs. I was looking through them one day and I found this compilation. I pulled it out and I saw the name and saw the face and said I don’t know this person, so I just put it on. A lot of it sounded very strange, even though I was a fan of Monk at the time, but the one song that just hit me in the face was “House Party Starting.” It just blew my mind. I listened and listened and listened and I decided I’m going to be able to sing this one day. I knew that I couldn’t sing it. I couldn’t. There was no way. But I knew I would. I felt that I’m going to work on that. For Darker Than Blue, which came after In My Own Room, I was literally sitting down figuring out what songs I wanted to do on a Saturday afternoon, and I just wrote down all the lyrics. It just came, all the lyrics to “House Party Starting.” And it so happened that the guitarist in my band, we had never talked about it before, I kind of mentioned that I was thinking of doing that and he said, “That’s my favorite song; I know it by heart.” So that’s why I did it with guitar; I don’t do it with piano. We do it in a very kind of aggressive way, but that started the journey with Herbie. And I started listening to more and started hanging out with Misha a little more because when I finally tracked him down to find out what he thought of the project, his words were, “It reminded me of nothing” which, coming from him, is a very nice compliment.

I knew I wanted to do a Monk project. And someone suggested I do it with Misha and I was petrified. I’m like “What?” But I went to Misha and I had a meeting, and he said he would absolutely. He had the confidence that something could be interesting with that. So then we started working a little bit over the years. I have recordings with him from the Bimhuis, but we never actually got to make a proper recording, even though I’ve toured with ICP. And now he’s not in the best shape.

FJO: Talk about somebody who connects the dots between both sides of the Atlantic. He’s the pianist on Eric Dolphy’s Last Date. The first time I ever heard Misha Mengelberg was on that record.

FV: Oh man. Oh my.

FJO: And now you’re returning to Europe; you’re going to be there for a month. It’s something of a homecoming. And you’re doing Herbie Nichols stuff.

FV: Yeah, I’m doing four concerts of Herbie Nichols SUNG. One in Amsterdam, two in Germany—in Cologne and Berlin—and one in a really nice venue called De Singer, outside of Antwerp in Belgium. I have a great German pianist by the name of Achim Kaufmann who’s been a Nichols specialist for the last 20, 25 years and Tobias Delius who’s also in the ICP. They both live in Berlin. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

FJO: In terms of making this material your own, it’s certainly very contemporary. He wrote all this stuff in the 1950s, but one of your lyrics is about Dick Cheney.

FV: Yes! Ode to Dick Cheney—“Sunday Stroll.” I have to say Herbie helps a lot. Whenever I write lyrics to somebody else’s material, I try to listen because it’s just so interpretive. There’s something very haughty about the melody of “Sunday Stroll” to me. It’s like a pace a pompous person might carry. So Cheney came to mind. But it’s difficult to write lyrics, because the melodies are so convoluted and inverted and angular. They might be A-A-B-A forms, but depending on the song, an A can be 15 bars and the B 10. My favorite song of his is “Spinning Song.” That was complicated to write for, but I figured out something.

FJO: You mentioned teaching in passing, but I wanted to get back to that especially since teacher is the third noun you use to describe yourself. You described a little bit what you impart coming from this opera singer, but I’m curious about the process of what you do with students.

FV: I believe now I’m a very good teacher for someone who is interested in figuring out their own voice. I’ve run a few workshops in the city, two on a weekly basis, and I do workshops out on the road. I really always try to create a space where people feel comfortable to create—not comfortable in terms of it being easy, but comfortable in that it’s open, that if something comes out the space will accommodate it and not lash out at them. Sometimes you’re going to sing or do something that sounds horrible, but just be more accepting of it instead of beating yourself up. It’s actually mostly adults. We can really lash out at ourselves when we make an obvious mistake in front of other people.

I try to also use jazz as a portal, not as an end game. So if somebody wants to bring in different material that really feels representative of themselves, I encourage that. If it’s a private student, then we’re working on very specific things for their instrument. I’m also really good at helping classical vocalists sing jazz, talking about the placement change and all of that so that the phrasing and articulation is more what we would associate with jazz or non-classical musical expression.

I really love teaching. I get a lot of energy out of it and I get a lot of energy back from my students when I see how they become more themselves and become more comfortable in their own expression. It makes me happy that that they come to that for themselves. What they don’t like so much about me is I don’t sing a lot for them. Like when I’m teaching rubato, I sing very little. I don’t want that to be an influence. Maybe I’ll sing at the very end. I just find it great that I help people figure out what they want to say in a way that doesn’t scare them and that they can go into deeper places for themselves and not be afraid of what might come out.

FJO: How do you feel what you’ve done with them has turned back into your own creative work?

FV: It makes me less afraid, too. I think the whole process of trying to be a creative person is just an unpeeling of layers. You do it throughout a lifetime and I think if you’re honest, you’re trying to get deeper and get a deeper understanding of what you’re trying to say. At least I am. I’m trying to understand more and more of what I really want to say. It’s a continual process. And if I see my students also going through the same thing, at their own pace, it also makes me feel like I have to do it more and it makes me feel at ease to dig even deeper, to express things that maybe five years ago I would have felt, “No way. I can’t do that.” You know, if I want to now, I’d do a primal scream in a performance, I feel comfortable enough to do that. Five years ago, that probably would have scared me. Even if I really wanted to, I might have held back. Now I don’t hold back.


We Won’t Be In Love Much Longer: Online Premiere

Marion Walker – “We Won’t Be in Love Much Longer” (Official Music Video) from Marion Walker on Vimeo.

As the notion of genre is becoming increasingly difficult to define in today’s musical landscape, artists are actively embracing this ambiguity not only as a happy byproduct of our endless channels through which ideas are shared, but as an artistic advantage.

When New Music USA launched the inaugural round of our project grants in November 2013, we had high hopes for the breadth of art we might see resulting from a process designed to better meet the conventional and unconventional needs of creators. We have not been disappointed. One of many awardees who perfectly embodies this artistic freedom is the Reno/Seattle-based choreographer/filmmaker/composer/performer duo Marion Walker (Jessie Marion Smith & Kyle Walker Akins).

We Won’t Be In Love Much Longer is their most recent [of many] collaborative endeavors that challenges the boundaries of dance, live performance, film, and music video. Today, we are delighted to host the online premiere of their culminated efforts.

Their project is unique in our body of supported work; it deliberately exists as an independent entity, but the film’s longevity is contingent on its presentation to live audiences in a communal, musical setting. To get a better idea of their motivation surrounding the creation and multi-faceted presentation of what they call “dance cinema,” I interviewed Jessie and Kyle about their refreshing approach to this budding conglomerate of styles.

Emily Bookwalter: As two seemingly jack-of-all trades artists, you two work together in myriad manifestations. As a result, your work is delightfully difficult to define in terms of any historically conventional genre or style. How would you choose to describe stylistic trends in your collaborative work thus far?

Marion Walker: The best way for us to talk about style is to talk about process. We are obsessed with “inventing accidents.” We are willing to try a million different combinations before we sit down and edit ourselves. The style that we’ve developed is out of a maintained practice that, to be honest, isn’t a choice for the two of us. Any and all of our conversations return, as predictable as high tide, to our process and our practice. That is truly the style we’ve developed. We often remind ourselves of the rules attributed to John Cage. THE ONLY RULE IS WORK!

Artistically, our lineage stems from collectives living in times of worldwide cultural turmoil. Artists such as Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings of the Zurich DADA collective, John Cage, Joseph Beuys, the Fluxus Movement, and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable are the wellsprings on which we are drunk. We are also letting the current, dire state of our times filter in through our work. While we may not be overtly political, it is ever present in our abstracted forms.

The song “We Won’t Be in Love Much Longer,” is a way for us to examine the dejected experience without dwelling in it. While the archetype of ‘love’ can trigger an array of responses in an audience, the idea is ultimately about our inability to stay together in a timeless context. It’s an effort to dismantle our ineptitude at reaching permanent solutions.

Musically, we come from sources/bands like The Velvet Underground. We are literally living and breathing with other artists in a warehouse congested with creativity called The Warehome in Reno, NV. This rich artistic community allows us the flexibility to exist in the grey area where we love to work. And, this penumbra operates as our own gateway through mediums. Even within the new music community, we are an oddman outfit, being more rock’n’roll centered in our pursuits. Our inclusion within this organization just speaks to the reach that creativity, at its core, can have and the importance of cross contamination between artistic discoveries.

As songwriters, we may experience our own particular version of synesthesia. We often start by sitting down with a color or feeling. As we get into the process of crafting the song, it inevitably takes interesting twists and turns. Rather than staying constrained by an initial idea of style, or a common songwriting structure, we follow the direction of the song as it reveals itself. Kyle likes to call this “ serving the song. ” We do this with all of our creations. We connect with any genre, medium, or method we can that helps us to fulfill the pieces we are making to their utmost potential.

EB: Were there any new stylistic discoveries in the making of this film?

MW: When we set out to make “We Won’t Be in Love Much Longer,” we had no crew. This was an interesting challenge. (Especially for Jessie, who as a choreographer is particularly intent on designing camera action to exemplify movement.) When we were both in front of the camera that meant no one was behind the camera. So, we started playing with the camera and light to develop a visual styling that was engaging with a still frame. This was an exciting discovery for us. The two of us are very used to working as a self-contained unit. (Except for the rhythm section that we play with as a band. We have to give a shout out to Donald John McGreevy Jr. and Paul David Heyn, who played on the recorded song for the video. And, Donovan Jordan Williams and Clark Carvil Demeritt, who we are currently playing with.) Working without a cinematographer to shoot “We Won’t Be in Love Much Longer” pushed us into different ways of thinking about making the video, forced us to call on our other perspectives, and design a new lens through which to look at the work. We ultimately constructed the video with thousands of still photographs. With no true video images present, the scenes of the video are isolated incidents within time.

In “We Won’t Be in Love Much Longer,” we applied a specific logic to both our visual and musical technique. As sound can only exist within one moment, the pleasure of music exists on a temporal plane. When making this video, we also followed that rule. Because we have an agreement on syntax, music exists. With the memory of the note/word just previous to this moment, and the expectation of the next note/word to arrive, we have language, we have music.

EB: This work in particular is part of your larger efforts in what you have described as “dance cinema.” Could you educate me a little more about what that is and what dance cinema means to you?

MW: We have been calling this video a dance film, a music video, and an art flick. So clearly our definition of dance cinema is pretty broad. For us, there isn’t a hard line between the realms of dance cinema and music videos. As video editors, we lean towards high paced cuts that keep things constantly engaging. We create arcs with our edits that are often very driven by the music. These choices might be thought of as falling more into the music video category, where a dance film might be more driven by choices dictated by the choreography.

The form of music videos is pretty wild (there aren’t too many rules that have to be followed). Some may think that the “high art” context of dance cinema makes it more constrained. We think it can be just as wide open of a form. We taught an all-ages, all-levels workshop on making dance films awhile back and it was really fun to expand the participants’ ideas about this. A lot of them were concerned with the idea that you have to be a highly trained dancer to make a dance film. We talked about how dance cinema can also mean things like choreographing the camera action over a still object or choreographing an object rather than a body.

EB: Presenting a video work that could very much be a final product in and of itself no doubt poses some challenges for live performance. What are some of the ways that you’ve chosen to introduce this work to larger audiences?

MW: We had a live event last month to premiere the video to Reno audiences. We set up the evening with the intention of re-contextualizing dance cinema within a music setting so we held the event at a local music venue/bar. Marion Walker played live music. And, because the bar was too small to house a proper projection screen, we got our hands on the biggest flat screen TV we could find and held it over our heads while the video played. It was a great party!

We also had a little personal viewing station with headphones in the back corner of the bar. A real highlight of the night was walking by that station and seeing people fully engrossed in the video despite all the commotion around them. We saw many people return to the TV multiple times throughout the night and even drag friends over to watch it!

Having the video hosted here, on NewMusicBox, and getting to share it with the internet world at large is another great way for us to get the video out to new audiences. We are also planning to screen it at dance cinema festivals in the future. We want to frame “We Won’t Be in Love Much Longer” in as many different settings as we can and get it out there in all different sorts of fashions.

EB: Do you two take on many artistic projects as individuals, or does the majority of your work take place as a team?

MW: More often than not we are holed up working on Marion Walker projects together but we do take breaks to focus on other projects individually. Jessie has her own dance company, Dead Bird Movement, as well as choreographing for Seattle art/theater group Saint Genet, and dancing with Seattle choreographer Dayna Hanson. Kyle has his own visual art practice, working predominantly with felt, as well as recording for and playing in a few other bands.

EB: Do components of this work exist independently? I.e. is the dance an entity that can be performed live? Is the music an independent entity that happens to be within a film with dance? Or does this work have to exist as a cohesive whole?

MW: The dance was made specifically for the video so, for now, that is its only existence. The song was actually composed first and we made an extended version of it for the video. That extended version has since come into regular rotation in our live music shows. It is also featured on a 12” vinyl LP compilation of Reno bands called “Guide to Permanent Oblivion Vol. III” that will be coming out on the “Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!” record label in early April.

EB: What other projects do you have on your horizon?

MW: We are currently in the thick of recording/mixing a tape EP that is coming out on Casino Trash Records this March called Serious Picnic. We also have a split 7″ vinyl EP with fellow Reno band Plastic Caves coming out in mid-May. We will be heading out on a six week US tour this summer to promote all these releases! See you on the road!

The 2015 CMA/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming and Other New Music at CMA

Logo for CMA listing their embrace of classical jazz contemporary world and early music

Underneath the logo for Chamber Music America on the organization’s website is a list of the genres of music they embrace–classical, jazz, contemporary, world, and early music. 21st century music is evolving into an amalgam of all of these things, and much more.

Three ensembles and five presenters were honored for their commitment to new music with 2015 CMA/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming during the 37th national conference of Chamber Music America, which took place at the Westin New York at Times Square from January 15-18, 2015. The eight award recipients were selected by an independent panel of musicians and presenters based on the amount of works composed during the past 25 years that have appeared on their programs during the 2013-2014 concert season as well as for innovations in engaging audiences with new music. Separate awards are given for ensembles and presenters devoted to contemporary music and jazz as well as groups which incorporate new music into a mixed repertory. Presenters are further categorized into large and small based on their annual budgets and the number of concerts they present during the year. This year there was no award given in the “Small Jazz Presenter” category.

The eight awardees were:
Either/Or (New York, NY)—Ensemble, Contemporary
Sean Smith Ensemble (New York, NY)—Ensemble, Jazz
PUBLIQuartet (Brooklyn, NY)—Ensemble, Mixed Repertory
Switchboard Music (San Francisco, CA)—Small Presenter, Contemporary
Music at Noon, The Logan Series (Erie, PA)—Small Presenter, Mixed Repertory
Miller Theatre at Columbia University in the City of New York (New York, NY)—Large Presenter, Contemporary
Festival of New Trumpet Music [FONT Music] (New York, NY)—Large Presenter, Jazz
Yellow Barn (Putney, VT)—Large Presenter, Mixed Repertory

A booklet distributed to conference attendees during the award ceremony listed all eligible repertoire presented by the eight honorees. While any work composed during the past 25 years that the honorees featured was eligible for inclusion (which means works dating as far back as 1989), it was particularly gratifying to see that the majority of the repertoire was created in the 21st century and for four of the eight awardees—FONT Music, PUBLIQuartet, Switchboard Music, and Music at Noon (whose oldest piece was Steve Reich’s 2009 Mallet Quartet!)—it was exclusively so.

The Adventurous Programming Awards Ceremony was one of several new music-related highlights during the CMA conference. Another was the concert, “New Music from CMA,” an annual conference component that is devoted to performances of new repertoire that was directly commissioned through CMA’s grantmaking programs. Works in the Classical Commissioning Program are supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music and the Chamber Music America Endowment, while New Jazz Works supported by the Doris Duke Foundation.

This year attendees braved a half-mile trek from the conference hotel to the DiMenna Center in extremely inclement weather, but it was well worth it. Nico Muhly’s Fast Dances for two harps was lovingly performed by Duo Scorpio. It was followed by a hefty excerpt from The Subliminal and the Sublime, an ethereal work by Chris Dingham played by his sextet Waking Dreams which, in addition to Dingham on vibraphone, featured Loren Stillman on alto sax, Ryan Ferreira on electric guitar, Fabian Almazan on piano, Linda Oh on bass, and Justin Brown on drums. What was supposed to follow that was a performance of Daniel Strong Godfrey’s To Mourn, To Dance by the Cassatt String Quartet, but unfortunately due to the severity of travel on roads in the New York City-Metropolitan area, one of the members of the quartet was unable to get to the venue. While this was extremely disappointing, the all-star Marty Ehrlich Ensemble—Ehrlich on clarinet and saxophone, Ron Horton on trumpet, Ray Anderson on trombone, Jerome Harris on electric guitar, Bradley Jones on bass, and Eric McPherson on drums—lifted up the doldrums with a rousing performance of Ehrlich’s Rundowns and Turnbacks, a politically-charged multi-movement magnum opus lasting some 20 minutes that he had recorded with a much larger group on his 2013 New World recording, A Trumpet in the Morning.

But ultimately the concert was just the tip of a new music iceberg. During the conference there were a total of 18 showcases (basically a half-hour mini-concert), each devoted to a different ensemble that was either categorized as “classical” or “jazz” and the majority of these groups focused on the music of our time. What was particularly interesting was that despite the nominal segregation, many of the groups were clearly indebted to both classical and jazz traditions, freely traversing between performance practices to create 21st century music. Some groups blurred additional lines as well. Don Byron’s New Gospel Quintet (Byron on clarinet and sax, plus vocalist Carla Cook, bassist Brad Davis, drummer Pheeroan akLaff, and the extraordinary Nat Adderley Jr. on piano) found common ground between sacred and secular, making classic gospel hymns by the legendary father of the genre, Thomas A. Dorsey, totally swing. (Although it must be pointed out that doing so is not completely without precedent. Before Dorsey completely devoted himself to devotional music, he was a highly successful jazz and blues composer/pianist known primarily as “Georgia Tom” and in the earlier part of his career he felt equally comfortable creating music for both partying and worshipping.)

Byron playing saxophone and facing singer Carla Cook holding a microphone

Don Byron and Carla Cook trade phrases at each other during the showcase of Byron’s New Gospel Quintet.

Meng Su and Yameng Wang—who call themselves the Beijing Guitar Duo even though they are both from Tsingtao (where, as they pointed out, the beer is made) and are currently based in Baltimore—made an extremely compelling case for Manuel Barrueco’s transcription for two guitars of Eight Memories in Watercolor, the opus 1 of Tan Dun (who was actually in the audience for this performance). The plucked sonorities of the guitars are perhaps even more effectively able to evoke the sound world of the folk music of Tan Dun’s native Hunan province which inspired what was originally a solo piano composition. In their performance on four saxophones of “Ori’s Fearful Symmetry” from Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin’s pan world music-inflected Vjola Suite, a work originally written for strings, the Asylum Quartet were extremely comfortable with (and sounded requisitely-informed ethnomusicologically for) every nuance the score required of them.

Though they’ve premiered pieces by composers on both sides of this ever-so-seeming arbitrary contemporary classical-jazz divide (e.g. Richard Einhorn and Uri Caine), the Sirius Quartet—a quartet of the string variety—devoted their showcase to their own compositions which were largely platforms for their own daredevil virtuosity and their ability to effortlessly traverse idioms as diverse as Chinese traditional music and Nuevo Tango. Another string quartet—Megan Gould and Tomoko Omura on violins, Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld on cello—were half of a larger group called Rhizome led by the aforementioned pianist Fabian Almazan. But in addition to performing Almazen’s own mixed-genre compositions (which also featured guest vocalist Sara Serpa), they also performed what can best be described as a “cover” of the Adagio from Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 10. Rather than just performing the music as it had been written (although they were all reading from scores), their performance was a surreal re-imagining in which the original 1964 Soviet-era music serves as a backdrop for on-the-spot musings created more than half-a-century later involving additional counterpoint and rhythmic underpinnings from piano, double-bass, and drums.

Perhaps most surprising of all, however, was the showcase by Andy Milne’s group Dapp Theory, a quintet consisting of Milne on piano, Aaron Kruziki on various reeds, Chris Tordini on bass, Kenny Grohowski on drums, and John Moon performing what the program listed as “percussive poetry” and what Milne introduced as “vocal poetics.” The majority of American listeners would identify what Moon was doing as rap, something that some more traditionally-minded chamber music practitioners might consider a cognitive dissonance during a Chamber Music America event. But the interaction between Moon and the four instrumentalists was formidable and undeniably chamber music, a testimony to how rapping can be enriched by direct collaboration with live musicians—something that other hip-hop creators, if only they had been in attendance at the conference, might have been extremely inspired by.

Milne plays piano and Kruziki plays saxophone as John Moon raps into a microphone

Milne (far left on piano), Kruziki (in center holding a saxophone), Tordini (barely visible in back on bass), and Grohowski (not pictured) offer some counterbalance to the “vocal poetics” of John Moon (in front of Tordini on the right) as audience members listen in wonder during Dapp Theory’s showcase.

All in all, the awards, the commissions’ concert and all of those showcases provided a real immersive new music experience throughout the weekend—one in which definitions were constantly being expanded and which celebrated diversity and inclusivity. The impetus to re-imagine what chamber music composition and performance could be also informed many of the discussions people were having during the rest of the Chamber Music America conference.[1] It also was a backdrop for an extremely provocative statement made by flutist Zara Lawler during a fascinating panel called “Sharing the Stage—Reach Across Disciplines to Better Reach Audiences”:

People think Britney Spears’s music is her music even though she didn’t write it. The assumption of classical music is that we are just the vessel for something greater than us … It’s not a fair assumption for most audiences that music comes from the composers.

 The five members of a CMA panel balance their nametags on their heads

A brief moment of levity before an extremely serious panel “Sharing the Stage—Reach Across Disciplines to Better Reach Audiences” which featured, pictured left to right: bass trombonist and “hybrid artist” C. Neil Parsons (moderator), NY Neo-Futurists co-artistic director Joey Rizzolo, flutist Zara Lawler, singer Elizabeth Halliday (from Rhymes with Opera), and choreographer Xan Burley.

As music continues to evolve in the 21st century, the lines between composers, interpreters, and even the audience will perhaps grow even more porous and inclusive. And hopefully in future years, an even greater variety of people creating music today will have a role in these discussions and performances. Of all the ensembles featured in the commissions’ concert and the showcases, only 4 included vocalists even though the majority of people who perform music sing. This is not to imply that instrumental music shouldn’t merit a great deal of attention during these convenings, simply to point out that there is a ton of other non-instrumental chamber music repertoire and a ton of people who create and interpret it who merit inclusion here as well. Although women were widely represented in the performance and administrative spheres (as participants in showcases and recipients of adventurous programming awards), only 3 out of the 73 pieces of music scheduled for performance during the conference were actually composed by women (a mere 4.1%)—Polina Nazaykinskaya’s saxophone quartet Pavana Pour Quatre performed by Asylum and pieces by Tonia Ko and Caroline Shaw for the cello/percussion duo New Morse Code [2]. New music—a great of majority of which is for smaller forces—is being created by people of all ages, geographic locations, economic milieus, faiths, genders, and orientations. Showing the broadest possible range of this form of artistic expression is the best way to ensure that chamber music remains the viable force that it is and should always be.

1. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the entire conference since I was in Minneapolis for the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute and could not fly back until Saturday morning, so the above report only reflects what I was able to personally experience.

2. This information is from the ensemble showcase program since sadly I missed New Morse Code’s performances as they occurred before I returned from Minneapolis.

Charlie Haden (1937-2014)—One of the Greatest

[Ed. Note: It was extremely shocking to receive an email with the sad news of Charlie Haden’s passing from Tina Pelikan at ECM late in the afternoon on Friday, July 11, 2014. As per our tradition at NewMusicBox, rather than rushing in with breaking news that soon became widely available elsewhere, we waited and then asked someone close to reflect on the life and music of the artist we had lost. Carla Bley seemed the natural choice. Haden had been making headlines as a sideman since the late 1950s, first with Paul Bley, Art Pepper, and Hampton Hawes, and then most notably as the bassist in the Ornette Coleman Quartet. (He ultimately appeared on 15 of Coleman’s albums.) But Haden did not emerge as a leader until his Liberation Music Orchestra made its debut in 1969, releasing a genre-defying album that merged politically charged anthems with a free jazz sensibility. Aside from Haden’s own firm bass playing, which grounded the adventurous music of leaders he had worked with over the course of the previous decade, what held the music of the Liberation Music Orchestra together and made it all work were the arrangements by Carla Bley, who was also the group’s pianist. Bley served as the arranger as well as conductor for the LMO’s subsequent recordings in 1982, 1990, and 2005. As Bley relates, they were actually working on a new recording before Haden became ill; her brief but poignant words are a testimony to a musical creator who transcended language and style.—FJO]

It is perhaps fitting that on both the first album released by the Liberation Music Orchestra

It is perhaps fitting that on both the first album released by the Liberation Music Orchestra, the eponymous 1969 Impulse LP, and their final recording, Not In Our Name, released in 2005, that Charlie Haden and Carla Bley are pictured on opposite sides, holding up the LMO banner.

Death sucks, not for the person who dies—it’s mostly a rational solution—but for the people who live on with the absence of a favorite living, breathing creature. That moment that separates life and death is unsettling to contemplate. The day after Charlie died, I read a piece in the July 13 New York Times Op-Ed section called “The Afterlife” by Ted Gup. There was a beautifully written paragraph that I was moved to send to Charlie’s wife, Ruth. I knew what she had been through during the last few years as his health got worse and worse, and what she must be experiencing now. Gup wrote about “how death plays out over time—not the biological episode that collapses it all into a nanosecond of being and not being, but the slower arc of our leaving, the long goodbye—sorting through the mail, paying the bills, stumbling upon notes. It is like the decommissioning of a great battleship. There is the official notice and ceremony, and then the long and agonizing process that follows—the disposition of so much tonnage. Eulogies are never the last word.”

There is a creepy scrawled note on my desk with “call Charlie” crossed off.

For the past few years, we had been talking about making another Liberation Music Orchestra album. This one would be about the environment, an issue that Charlie was deeply into. I had already finished three arrangements and we had played them at a couple of festival concerts in Europe during the summer of 2012. Manfred Eicher was interested in producing the album for ECM. The plot was to record it during the orchestra’s next European tour, but Charlie’s health had him so grounded that the next tour never happened. I had to stop working on the project because I had other commitments. We got to play the new pieces once more at a festival in California that celebrated the entire Haden family. That miraculously joyful occasion, during June of 2013, was the last time we saw each other, but we kept in touch by telephone until two days before he passed away.

On Saturday I turned on the radio and heard Charlie’s voice. He was talking to Terry Gross during the replaying of a Fresh Air interview from the ‘80s. The conversation was almost embarrassingly about things that had nothing to do with his importance as one of the greatest and certainly most recognizable jazz bass players that ever lived.

Charlie Haden and Carla Bley

Charlie Haden and Carla Bley. Photo by Roberto Masotti, courtesy ECM.

Sounds Heard: Adam Berenson—Lumen

Adam Berenson: Lumen
(Dream Play Records 88295 05724)
Adam Berenson – composer, piano, prepared piano, synthesizer, percussion, and live electronics; Scott Barnum, doublebass and occasional percussion; Eric Hofbauer, guitar and percussion; Bill Marconi, percussion; Bob Moses, drums; Yukako Funahashi and Annete Chan, violins; Ilana Schroeder, viola; Sigurgeir Agnarsson, cello; plus JACK Quartet: John Pickford Richards, viola; Ari Streisfeld, violin; Christopher Otto, violin; and
Kevin McFarland, cello
Buy now:

In what seems like a deliberate play on the channel surfing of this day and age, Lumen, an extremely expansive two-CD set culled from twenty years of recordings of music by Philadelphia-area composer/pianist Adam Berenson, constantly changes moods and styles. From track to track, it veers between performances by a jazz combo (where Berenson is joined by Scott Barnum on bass and either Bob Moses or Bill Marconi on percussion), string quartet compositions, solo piano improvisations (which upon occasion wander inside the piano), and sonic experiments involving percussion and electronics. Within this premeditated serendipity, however, a subliminal through-line emerges. The more you listen, the less aware you are of whether the music was composed a priori or improvised on the spot.

In a cover letter from Berenson that accompanied the disc when it was sent to me back in March, Berenson claimed that in his “improvised ensemble work” and his “composed string quartets … the musical thinking is the same, the psyche is the same, and the process of making the music is very similar; all of the pieces are chamber music. … The concept behind the set is that in the modern world everything is everything.”

While concluding each disc with a string quartet composition could imply that his fixed music is somehow a crystallization of his improvised material, Berenson subverts that interpretation by ending the first disc with his String Quartet No. 3 and the second with String Quartet No. 1. To further mix things up, four of the tracks are parts of a work entitled “jnana”—parts 10, 13, and 8 appear on the first disc while part 18 is on the second. Aside from teasing listeners curious about at least fourteen additional parts to this piece that were not included, the listening path that Berenson has chosen for his listeners ultimately guarantees that the journey is not a chronological one. After having taken Berenson’s journey several times, here’s an attempt at a travelogue. But first, take a listen to one of the tracks.

Adam Berenson: “jnana (Part 8)”. Adam Berenson – piano, synthesizer, live electronics, and composition;
Scott Barnum – doublebass, prepared doublebass, and live electronics; Bill Marconi – percussion and live electronics.
Featured on Lumen, ℗ and © 1998-2014 by Adam Berenson / Dream Play Records and streamed with permission

The first disc opens with “Transpersonal,” a percussion duo with Marconi which sounds somewhat incantatory given its various gong twacks. This is immediately followed by the first installment of “jnana” (part ten) which combines what sounds like a mildly prepared piano with an array of electronics that hint at the sonority of the mellotron as well as magnetic tape speed manipulations. Are folks still using reel-to-reels like this? Cool. Some mysterious percussion and an occasional arco bass chime in on occasion to add to the sonic mayhem. “Late 20th century Stomp” is the first of the tracks to directly evoke the sound world of jazz, specifically that of one of its most ubiquitous combos—the piano, bass, and drums trio—in exploratory music that would feel at home on one of the original ESP-Disk’ releases. It’s all over in only 38 seconds, but the trio continues on in the equally adventurous “Emotional Idiot,” which features some skewed walking bass lines and frenetic drumming. However, although “Prose Surrealism” also features a jazz combo, here they begin to stray into very different sonic territory whose source is the other, equally inspirational end of the ‘60s jazz spectrum; the music they’re now playing would not sound out of place subbing for the Bill Evans trio at the Village Vanguard.

Things return to a more decidedly free jazz state on “Very Soon Mankind Will No Longer Be a Useless Passion (Broadway Melody Of 1996).” And all things are possible in the next section of “jnana” (part 13) which revels in an array of electronic experiments. “Rilke,” on the other hand, is a gorgeous, almost Scriabin-esque solo piano fantasia which segues abruptly into “Ricercar (for Sven Nykvist),” an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s cinematograther, returning us to jazz while “…was near the black plague…” is something of a bitonal rag. “A Little Boy Opened a Window” introduces some prepared piano sonorities in combination with percussion; at one point, Berenson ekes out a tune reminiscent of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” For “…Searching… Everywhere” the trio returns for what is perhaps the most laid back music they have played thus far. “Dithyramb” continues the jazz trajectory, only now the musicians are playing in a way that hints at Cecil Taylor’s early combos.

This is followed with another dose of “jnana” experimentation. (It’s part 8, for those keeping score.) But about a minute and half in, there’s a brief pause and the texture suddenly completely transforms. It’s suddenly all acoustic. An almost hymn-like piano melody is accompanied by arco bass and occasional percussion punctuation. You might think you’re in a new track; you’re not. After only about a minute, more unusual sounds return, some seemingly electronically generated although at this point the ear has been pulled in so many directions that it’s hard to tell! The experimentation of “jnana” continues on “Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek,” in which Barnum and Berenson are joined by Eric Hofbauer on guitar and all three share percussion duties; acoustic and electronically modified sonorities seamlessly blur, although now there are also hints of grooves from time to time. Then comes the live performance by the JACK Quartet of a roughly 16-minute single movement composition for string quartet, his String Quartet No. 3, which involves tons of extended techniques—snap pizzicatos, col legno, etc. As a result of all the improvised and electronic music that proceeds it, this notated acoustic chamber music composition often sounds like it’s neither.
“I,” which opens the second disc, begins with a riff on the synthesizer which is quickly joined in duet with acoustic piano, contrasting the abilities of these two very different keyboards—Berenson’s fingers race across the keys of the piano while his synthesizer lines are mostly slower and take advantage of the ability to change the ADSR envelop as well as to bend notes. “Respectable People” brings us back to the jazz trio for what is mostly a straight-ahead performance. “Stars 1” is another piano solo, a quiet chain of block chords, but for “The Adytum,” Berenson’s aphoristic piano lines are enhanced by eerie electronic clusters. On “Tickled to Death,” bass and drums punctuate a captivating series of jagged scalar runs on the piano, and more experimentation ensues on the final installment of “jnana”—part 18. (I really do want to hear the missing parts. Note to self: acquire Berenson’s 2010 CD Jnana.)

“Ingrid Thulin” is a slightly blues-tinged tribute, for trio, to the celebrated Swedish actress who appeared in many Ingmar Bergman films (there’s Bergman again), after which “through this stillness,” which pits piano against bowed cymbals, has a Feldmanesque quality. But perhaps the most introspective track in the entire collection is “Yasujiro Ozu,” which combines oblique piano chords with muted percussion taps that almost sound like footsteps. For its five minutes, time seems completely suspended, which is perhaps appropriate given the track’s namesake, the seminal Japanese director whose often static films are completely immersive. In “Spooky action at a distance,” Berenson wanders back inside the piano, rubbing strings with the flesh of his fingers à la Henry Cowell’s “The Banshee.”

The remainder of the disc is devoted to a 1997 studio recording of Berenson’s first String Quartet, a five-movement composition whose twelve-minute first movement is glacially slow; it is followed by faster music that seems like it’s about to go somewhere, but never does. (This is actually a compliment.) The third movement returns us to the slowness which now feels even more somber, perhaps as a result of being misled about going somewhere else in the previous movement and winding up back here instead. The fourth movement at times has a similar quality to the early chamber music of Arthur Berger, which has been very appropriately described as a kind of diatonic Webern. It turned out not to be a path Berger or anyone else wound up taking, so it’s nice to hear it being explored again. But where Berenson ultimately takes us to, in the quartet’s final movement which is also the final track on the disc, is slow, somber music once more. It’s been quite a ride.

Trying to Put On Those 2002 Glasses

Unfortunately, you won’t receive “2002” glasses for donating in honor of NewMusicBox @ 15. You will receive a shout-out on social media and the undying thanks of all those who care about new American music!

Given the enormity of the events of the preceding year, 2002 seemed somewhat calm—at least by comparison—although it was a time of great tension. The start of that strangely bipolar and palindromic year—the only one most of us will ever live through besides 1991, since the next one won’t be until 2112—set the tone for the entire year.  If memory serves, it was the first time that folks wanting to witness the descent of the Times Square ball on New Year’s Eve were essentially locked in once they got there (a security measure on the heels of 9/11), but it didn’t stop the folks who did from wearing those dorky palindromic glasses.
Of course, that year of not-so-quiet desperation had its own horrors. One of the more disturbing events from early in that new year was the abduction and beheading of the Wall Street Journal’s South Asia Bureau Chief Daniel Pearl, who would be memorialized four years later by composer Steve Reich in his Daniel Variations. In March, the United States invaded Afghanistan. We are still there. We would not invade Iraq until the following year, but headlines throughout 2002 were dominated by various ultimatums to Iraq’s then-leader Saddam Hussein—the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” and its acronym, WMD, was named the Word(s) of the Year by the American Dialect Society.

While that designation proved prescient—twelve years later, we still use that phrase and variants of it—of course, no WMDs were ever found in Iraq. Perhaps another 2002 proclamation by the American Dialect Society, that the verb “to google” was the most useful word of that year, was even more on the mark. From today’s vantage point, where hindsight gives you better vision than those 2002 glasses ever could, it’s difficult to imagine that folks used other search engines once upon a time, despite this month marking the fifth anniversary of Microsoft’s Bing. Another thing it’s becoming more and more difficult to remember was the act of constantly changing money when traveling from country to country in Europe—a nuisance that effectively came to an end that year when the Euro became the only official currency throughout most of Western Europe.

Michael P. Hammond

Michael P. Hammond
(Photo courtesy of Rice University)

As for musical memories of 2002, those are more complex. Opinions swung back and forth throughout the year on the ethics of sampling. While many viewed it as a struggle between individual creators wanting to mine new aesthetic territory and a goliath-like corporate music industry trying to maintain control and maximize profits, James Newton’s suit against the Beastie Boys proved that things were not quite so clearly delineated. Another hot topic for us was whether or not there’s a relationship between gender and music. (It remained a point of contention a decade later, and is still an issue today). Amidst all these debates where folks were forced to taking sides, at least one American composer actually ran for political office (though he lost). But one of the stranger and sadder events of the year was composer Michael P. Hammond’s sudden death just one week after reporting to work as the new Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts.

But what piece of music most appropriately captures the zeitgeist of those precarious twelve months? Daniel Variations was not composed until 2006, but another work by Reich, his apocalyptic Three Tales (created in collaboration with his wife, video artist Beryl Korot) immediately stands out in my mind, although it sort of has an unfair advantage.  There’s usually a chronological disconnect between when a musical composition is completed and when audiences finally get to hear it. (Perhaps the most extreme case being Lewis Spratlan’s 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning Life is a Dream Act Two, a work completed in 1978 but which did not received its premiere until 1999, thus making it eligible for the Pulitzer.) Reich, however, then still having the recourse of his own ensemble (they have not played together since 2009), was able to eschew even the usual lag time. He completed the music for Three Tales early in 2002, the work premiered in Europe that May, and I attended its American premiere in October. I remember feeling somewhat manipulated by it at the time and disconnected from its message which seemed to reek of technophobia, but 12 years later many of the fears Reich was responding to have become our less-than-ideal reality.
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But there are many other pieces of music from that year that I now treasure that I didn’t learn about until later given the typical hiatus between composition and performance—like John Luther Adams’s solo percussion tour-de-force The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies, Kenji Bunch’s energetic Boiling Point, Beth Custer’s wacky Vinculum Symphony, Arthur Levering’s unpredictable Tesserae, Harold Meltzer’s surreal Virginal, Alvin Singleton’s curious Argoru VIII for solo snare drum, or Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s mysterious Rituals.

Of course, music that doesn’t rely on notation as its primary means of conveyance doesn’t have the same chronological disconnect, though there were other kinds of disconnects throughout music that year. Within the jazz community, 2002 is largely remembered as being the height of the “Jazz Wars” that erupted in response to the final episode of Ken Burns’s documentary that had aired on public television the previous year. On the one side were the defenders of so-called “jazz traditions” and on the other, folks who embraced jazz’s embrace of electric instruments, extended compositional forms, and total free improvisation. But, like most binaries, this schism did not reflect the reality of the music. A listen back to some of the music that was actually released that year offers further proof that, despite the posturing, music-making during those twelve months was a far cry from either/or.  Dave Douglas’s post-bop infused The Infinite and Anthony Braxton’s live recording of 8 Standards were both a far cry from the avant-garde with which both were normally associated, while Terri Lyne Carrington’s Jazz Is a Spirit sometimes veers pretty far away from her “young lion” roots. I doubt that even Stanley Crouch would consider Wynton Marsalis’s 105-minute All Rise (in which his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is joined by the L.A. Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen) to be purely a by-product of the swing tradition. Patricia Barber’s Verse showed that a jazz vocal album could feature lyrics that were as heady and sophisticated as Bob Dylan’s and still swing. Even then 18-year-old Aaron Parks’s Shadows ventured away from the straight-ahead jazz he had been playing and included a Radiohead cover.

My favorite indie rock album that year (insofar as I’m distrustful of ever singling out just one thing) was probably Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The album had actually been recorded and mastered a year earlier, for Reprise Records, but was rejected and later thankfully picked up by, of all labels, Nonesuch Records, which was mostly known at the time for releasing recordings by the Kronos Quartet, John Adams, Philip Glass, etc. In some other strange genre-bending coups, the Grammy for Album of the Year—instead of going to a pop album as per always—went to the traditional bluegrass film soundtrack for the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the Oscar for best film soundtrack was awarded to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon composed by Tan Dun.  My favorite of the awards that year, though, was probably the Pulitzer that went to then 88-year-old Henry Brant for his spatial orchestral work Ice Field, the oldest composer ever to be so honored but also one of the most outsider pieces ever awarded. (It has still not been commercially recorded.) Rumor has it that Brant was unaware of this award before winning it!

Despite the vividness of that particular memory, much of 2002 is pretty blurry to me at this point, strangely more so than my memories of the three previous years. For some reason, it feels further away. Maybe that’s in part because of the 18 people who have been profiled on NewMusicBox who are no longer with us (an extremely small number considering the more than 200 that we’ve interviewed during these 15 years), we have now lost 6 from 2002: the iconic vocalist Abbey Lincoln, choreographer Merce Cunningham, musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock, acoustic engineer Russell Johnson, composer/theorist George Perle, and Leo Ornstein (1893-2002), whose lifetime extended across three centuries—so his passing definitely marked the end of an era. (We also lost Henry Brant, whom I spoke to for NewMusicBox in October of that year though our conversation was not published until January 2003, and William Duckworth, who served as guest editor that October, interviewing Jaron Lanier for us.)

FJO in May 2002

Well, maybe I should’ve worn those glasses….

But the music and other great accomplishments of all of these people continue to affect me on a daily basis, so despite my feelings of wistfulness and sadness as I wrote this, there are a lot of great things to remember. And then there are those glasses….

What Would Grammys Look Like in a Genre-Less World?

Understandably, a lot of attention among music-minded people this week has been focused on the 2014 Grammy Awards. It’s a blue chip event that is always nationally-televised during prime time and this year it attracted over 28 million viewers. But these awards are something of an anomaly in a society where there ceases to be less and less of a normative American culture and where the mainstream media continues to have less and less of an impact on how people get their information. The Grammy way of compartmentalizing music into a dazzling array of ever more meaningless-seeming genre categories often feels forced. And, though lip service (if not actual airtime) is given to a whole host of musical traditions from Tejano to bluegrass to opera, Album of the Year and Record of the Year (for a single) are still the most important awards and are inevitably given to commercial popular music, making all the other awards somehow feel like consolation prizes.

In 2011, there was quite a kerfuffle among “beliebers” when jazz bassist, vocalist, and composer Esperanza Spalding beat out Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy, since jazz was not supposed to get such a mainstream endorsement. It actually made me very hopeful. An award like Best New Artist (aside from perniciously promulgating the specious concept of a “best”) at least does not attempt to segregate music according to marketers’ notions of who the potential audience for it will be, so theoretically it could be won by someone making any possible kind of music. The award this year, of course, went to the duo of rapper Macklemore and DJ Ryan Lewis. Their “Same Love,” a persuasive rebuttal of the all too frequent homophobia and misogyny in hip hop lyrics, ultimately did not snag the “Best Song” award, though as everyone who has interacted with news media this week already knows, their performance of it during the Grammy ceremony while Queen Latifah officiated weddings of 33 couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, stole the show.

But all of this made me wonder: how might the Grammy Awards operate if they jettisoned the whole concept of genre distinctions? The fear, which is justifiable given the history of these awards, is that if the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences were to eliminate all of these various niche specificities, the only music that would receive their kudos, and ultimately all the publicity that comes along with that, would be “pop songs” since they are allegedly the most “popular.” But we all know that popularity is coded language for “commercial viability,” something that is difficult to fairly access since—in our society—how something gets propelled into the public consciousness to the point of being able to be a “hit” is largely the result of well-coordinated and well-financed promotional efforts.

Loads of people used to complain about how Tower Records’ classical music department was hermetically sealed off from the rest of the store, something which further fostered the notion that only initiates were welcome there. But at least that extremely well-stocked department was in a store that contained all other kinds of music. Compare that to the paucity of selections offered in stores that don’t have separate departments. This is not just an issue limited to “classical” music. As for the Grammys, back in 2011, the Recording Academy downsized its awards from 109 to 78 categories and music that was formerly called attention to further receded into oblivion. I, for one, miss the polkas!

After those 31 awards were eliminated, Bobby Sanabria, whose funny and poignant anecdotes livened up one of the plenary panels I attended at the 2014 Chamber Music America, led a crusade to have NARAS reinstate the Latin Jazz Grammy and he succeeded. Paquito D’Rivera, a remarkable musician who can navigate his way both compositionally and interpretively through any musical tradition, fetched this year’s honors. So that’s a victory, but it’s somehow bittersweet in that it puts a limit around how people who watched the awards will identify him. I was delighted that Maria Schneider, a previous winner in the jazz category, was the recipient of the award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition and that Cyndi Lauper—who had previously been nominated for Best Female Rock Vocal, Best Traditional Blues, and Best Dance Recording and won Best New Artist back in 1985—won this year for Best Musical Theatre Album. And yet, there’s another best composition award called “Best Instrumental Composition” (usually reserved for non-classical recordings despite the fact that most of the winners of the Best Classical Contemporary Composition category have been non-vocal). The 2014 winner for this category was Pensamientos for Solo Alto Saxophone and Chamber Orchestra by the late Clare Fischer (1928-2012), among the favorite composition students of H. Owen Reed (whom we paid tribute to on NewMusicBox earlier this week). Though Fischer was “classically trained” and Pensamientos was composed for and performed by “classical” musicians, Fischer also worked with Prince and Celine Dion which I suppose made his composition qualify for this “non-classical” honor.

Many of the most creative minded people in American music cannot be pigeon-holed. By awarding their achievements on the basis of such specification, we are ultimately doing a disservice to their achievements.