Tag: free jazz

Susie Ibarra: Hybrid Culture

Susie Ibarra performing on a drum kit

A week before I finally had a chance to have an extended conversation with multi-genre composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra, she performed at Roulette–her first concert with a group in front of a live audience since the pandemic shut everything down around the world. To say it has been a challenging 16 months for everyone is a tremendous understatement, but for Ibarra–whose artistry has been so deeply shaped by collaborations with other musicians–it could have proven stifling. And yet, this strange period has been remarkably productive for her.

Thus far this year, she has released two albums. First, Talking Gong, a spellbinding New Music USA-funded debut album of her new poly-stylistic trio with Claire Chase and Alex Peh. Then Walking on Water, a deeply moving homage to the victims of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsumani created in collaboration with visual artist Makoto Fujimura which uses the sounds of water as a central musical element. Both of these albums were recorded in studios over the course of last summer as COVID-19 cases were raging; musicians were tested before each session, remained masked whenever they could, and maintained physical distances. Susie Ibarra was also able to continue another strand of her output, her remarkable series of solo percussion explorations. An extraordinary performance she gave in a surreally empty hall at William Paterson College back in February is thankfully still available to stream. And a few months before that, in December 2020, she launched the Composers Now Impact series of composer presentations with a fascinating audio-video stream about her music.

Obviously we talked about these unprecedented times in which we are still living; it’s pretty much impossible not to talk about it. But we also talked about a wide range of other topics during the hour we spent together over Zoom. The very first time I ever heard Susie Ibarra, she was part of the legendary David S. Ware Quartet alongside Matt Shipp and William Parker. So I was eager to find out more about how she found herself in her 20s as part of this legendary free jazz quartet as an equal partner in what many aficionados consider to be some of the most enduring music of the late 1990s. I was also curious to learn more about her stint playing with the New Jersey indie rock band Yo La Tengo and the collaborative improvisatory trio Mephista she performed in with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and laptop artist Ikue Mori.

An undercurrent that runs throughout Susie Ibarra’s career trajectory is that many of the activities she was engaging in–performing in genres such as free jazz, particularly as a drummer–were unusual for a woman back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Her memories about that era were particularly illuminating:

“Having been a young musician, I definitely went through it, like with the naivete of all of a sudden having to wake up to that–wow, oh, the world is like this. Because I was raised by a very strong mother. She was a doctor and grew up in World War II in Manila. She’s very bright. She skipped three grades. She graduated from med school when she was 22. It was never like: ‘Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman.’ I didn’t come from that culture. So I was really lucky. Really lucky. Because in that particular style, whatever genre of jazz it is, it’s very socially difficult to a point where you think: Well, I can be empathetic and supportive to issues that are going on, but I also know that what my life path is is different than other people who are born into their life paths. So I also can’t just take on giant, heavy stones on my back that are not going to serve a purpose or be useful for anything. So initially, I think I just loved so much a lot of this music and playing, and I was also raised in a certain way. I didn’t see it that way. But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it. And then it’s the question of: do I want to accept that, or do I want to not accept that.”

Another thing that has given her tremendous strength and perseverance has been her immersion into her Philippine heritage. As she would later learn when she began to spend time absorbing the myriad musical practices in the Philippines, percussion instruments were traditionally played by women. So the way that cultures have gendered certain musical instruments is by no means universal. However, being born in California, raised in Houston, and coming of age as an artist in New York City, no single cultural force has exclusively shaped her approach to making music.

“I grew up with a hybrid culture, so it’s what I know,” she explains. “I don’t know anything otherwise. … I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Susie Ibarra: Hybrid Culture
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Susie Ibarra
June 18, 2021—Noon EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

A Lot of Energy—Remembering Cecil Taylor (1929-2018)

I met Cecil Taylor in 1958 through Ted Curson, the trumpet player from Philadelphia. It was at a rehearsal in Brooklyn that I was doing with another pianist, one of my colleagues from high school, Leslie Brathwaite. Ted and a saxophone player named Harold Owsley were walking by this place where I was rehearsing and they heard me and Lesley, so they came in to see what was going on. They stayed for a while and after we finished up, Ted said to me that he was going to go to Manhattan for a rehearsal with this pianist named Cecil Taylor. “You’ve never heard anyone play piano like him,” he told me. “So if you want to come, I’ll introduce you.”

So I went with him to the Hartnett School of Music, and he introduced me to Cecil. After the rehearsal Ted had to leave, but before that he asked Cecil if I could play with him and Cecil said, “Yeah, sure.” After Ted left, Cecil and I stayed there together. But then the school closed, so I told Cecil that there was a place up in Harlem called Place Pigalle where I’d go sometimes to do jam sessions. There was a piano there and I knew the bartender, so I thought we could go up there and continue playing. So we took the subway and went uptown to Amsterdam Avenue and 152 Street, and I asked the bartender if we could play and he said okay. So we sat down and started playing again. But I didn’t start playing with Cecil on a professional level until 1965 and, by that time, I had a full palette of music I had been playing with other people.

That happened again at the Hartnett School of Music. I was there studying harmony and theory, and I was also playing in the big band there. One day, while I was playing with the big band, Cecil was rehearsing in another room. At one point, he came over to me and asked me to come to his rehearsal room after I finished with the band.  Sonny Murray was supposed to be at that rehearsal because they had a job at Brandeis University, but Sonny didn’t show up. So Cecil asked me if I would want to take the job and I said sure. Jimmy Lyons was in the room and so was Albert Ayler, but Albert didn’t make that job. There was a bass player who went with us whose name I can’t remember right now. But that’s how I started playing with Cecil. From that first job at Brandeis until 1976, I played every single job with him for 11 years straight except for one in the earlier years that Milford Graves did with him in Pittsburgh.

Throughout the years we were together, Cecil never told me what to play.

We would rehearse for hours and then Jimmy and I would pack up, Cecil would still be there at the piano practicing. Sometimes I’d think, “Gee, this guy’s really got a lot of energy.” That was very impressive to me. He was very dedicated. But throughout the years we were together, Cecil never told me what to play. He never said, “Do this. Do that. Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” Both of us came out of the tradition. I never met Charlie Parker, but I met Max Roach when I was 11 years old. I started in the drum and bugle corps in Brooklyn, and people like Willie Jones and Lennie McBrowne would come down and help the kids and would say there are other ways of playing drums other than playing marches. So I started playing the trap set and as a result, in high school, I wanted to get into playing jazz.  That’s where I met Eric Gale, the guitar player, and Leslie Brathwaite and we started playing as a trio. You have to begin somewhere, so we learned Cole Porter tunes and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie tunes.

Cecil didn’t always play the way he did. He was doing stuff with Bill Barron and Ted Curson and Dennis Charles. Cecil loved Duke Ellington. Sometimes, if you listen to the stuff that Cecil played later on, you can hear some Duke Ellington in it. He also liked the drummer Sonny Greer, who worked with Ellington. Eventually Cecil decided that he wanted to do the kinds of things you hear on Unit Structures, which he had already started doing before that when he played with Sonny Murray at Café Montmartre in Denmark.  But our direction always came from what had preceded us, because if what preceded us was not what it was, we would not have had those shoulders to stand on. So when we got together to play and he was playing how he played, I had to decide how to play in relation to what he was doing. I could have thought about playing metrical time, but it didn’t work for what he was doing so I had to decide to do something else.

Music has so many different components to it—you bring all that to the table and then you think about what the concept is and you have to deliver it with an emotional connection so that most human beings relate to it with some kind of emotion. It could be, “This stuff is great; I love it!” or “I can’t stand it.” But it gets to people for that reason. I don’t think anybody sits there and tries to analyze what they’re hearing on a scientific level. They like it, or they don’t like it.

Cecil Taylor at the piano during Open Plan: Cecil Taylor on April 14 2016 at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph © Paula Court. courtesy The Whitney Museum

Cecil Taylor at the piano during Open Plan: Cecil Taylor on April 14 2016 at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph © Paula Court. courtesy Whitney Museum.

After we played at Brandeis and Bennington College, Blue Note wanted Cecil to record for them, although I don’t think he ever said, “Let’s rehearse because I’ve got a Blue Note date.”  For Unit Structures, he assembled some more musicians to add other voices, like Eddie Gale Stevens Jr. and Ken McIntyre, and we had two bass players—Henry Grimes and Alan Silva.  Cecil’s expectation was that the musicians would play the music the way he gave out notes. Most jazz has a prescription. Somebody writes a composition and they would like the people who they hire to bring their signatures to the composition. With the prescription of the composition, improvisation takes place and how the musicians improvise on what is given denotes their signatures. It’s really a two process thing: people write the compositions and then they get the musicians to interpret it. There’s another way that compositions are made, sometimes it’s just with free improvisation, so then the composition comes after the fact.  We rehearsed a lot for Unit Structures, but if I had to write out all those rhythms that I played, I don’t think I could do that.  It’s just a feeling.

Blue Note wanted Cecil to record for them, although I don’t think he ever said, “Let’s rehearse because I’ve got a Blue Note date.”

When people listen to recordings, I don’t know how they react because I’m not there. So many writers wrote about it and what some of the writers wrote about it was good and it wound up in the Smithsonian Collection, so it had to have impressed some people! After that, when we recorded Conquistador, also for Blue Note, Bill Dixon played with us. But a lot of people didn’t particular care for the music that we were making. That’s the way it always goes. Not everybody is going to love everything you do and you can’t expect that. A lot of times in the earlier years, Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, and I—and maybe one or two other people on occasion, like Alan Silva—would make maybe only three jobs a year, so it was not really that heavy in terms of quantity of work. More often than not, when a record comes out, it takes a while to circulate and perhaps as it circulates around the world, people begin to be impressed by it, so then we began to get calls. Eventually, as time went on, we began to work more.

The first time I ever went to Europe was with Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, and Alan Silva. It was right after those Blue Note dates. I think it was Alan Silva’s first time in Europe also, but not Cecil’s. It was a lot of fun. The first job we had was in Germany. We did a concert in Stuttgart, which was recorded back stage. And we did an interview for a magazine called Jazz Podium. I remember the woman who was the editor, Gudrun Endress, chaperoned us for a couple of days and then we went to Paris. We were invited over there by a group of young French aficionados; none of them were musicians, but they really appreciated what we were doing so they wanted us to come over to Paris and play the music.

A few years later, we were in St. Paul de Vence at the Maeght Foundation, which has a lot of paintings by Miró and Bacon and sculptures by Calder and Modigliani. It was Sam Rivers, Jimmy Lyons, myself, and Cecil. Alan had left the group some time before that. I don’t recall us doing very much more after that with a bass player. Obviously he felt that he didn’t need one. We played a great concert there, and we all got lithographs from Miró—who lived on the grounds there—because he was so impressed with what we did.  After the rehearsals for that, we’d go into Nice and go to the discotheques and have a party and dance to whatever was popular, like James Brown. Cecil loved to dance.

Toward the end of the time I played with him, we went to Japan. It was just Jimmy, Cecil, and myself. We played what we played. We played duets. We played trios. This is my own feeling, but you can make music with anybody. You don’t have to have a set formula like trumpet, saxophone, bass, piano. That’s okay, but you don’t have to have that. As you play, the music becomes so substantial that you don’t even miss the other voice until it gets there and then it adds to the mix. Music comes from the inside out, not from the outside in.

Later that year we played at Town Hall, and Sirone played bass at that concert with us. After that, we kind of separated. Jimmy stayed, but I started to do other stuff. Maybe if I would have stayed, Cecil would have preferred that. I don’t know. I just felt that it was time for me to do something else. But I still played with him a couple of times afterwards. It wasn’t like after that there was nothing else. I played with him at a place called Fat Tuesday’s in Manhattan, and we did something again up at Symphony Space a couple of years after that. The last thing that I did with him was a concert in Berlin. It was after the wall came down. I played timpani some on that and Cecil was also playing timpani. I remember as I was playing drums, he just got up and started playing timpani. Cecil was different.

Having worked with Cecil, I felt like I could make music with anybody on the planet and I do.

Having worked with Cecil, I felt like I could make music with anybody on the planet and I do.  I’ve gone to Japan and played with Japanese musicians, I’ve gone to Africa and played with Africans, and I’ve gone to Israel and played with Israelis…Italy, Russia. But I had a lot of opportunities I never would have had if I wasn’t with Cecil.

Andrew Cyrille with his hands on his cheeks in front of a drum set at his solo performance during Open Plan: Cecil Taylor, April 16 2016 at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph © Paula Court, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Andrew Cyrille at his solo performance during Open Plan: Cecil Taylor on April 16 2016 at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph © Paula Court, courtesy Whitney Museum.

As time went on and Cecil had gotten older, he had severe arthritis so it was difficult for him to walk. But on occasion, as he was getting older, he would come and listen to the groups I had been working in with Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, and Geri Allen.

A couple of years ago, they did a big thing for him at the Whitney Museum of Art. They had a whole floor that was dedicated to him. I didn’t even know about the comprehensiveness of the things he had done and the people he had been involved with. But during that week, they asked me to play a solo, so I played a solo and he came. He was right in the front row, and he enjoyed it. And then I did a trio with Enrico Rava and William Parker, and he stayed for that. That’s the last time I saw him dressed and socializing in public.

When I next saw him, he was at a rehabilitation center on York Avenue around 76th Street. We had a good time just reminiscing about the past and what was going on now. He was still Cecil, even though from time to time, he wouldn’t remember things. Then he had to go back to the hospital; he was in a lot of pain. But when I saw him in the funeral parlor, he was laid out like a prince.

Milford Graves: Sounding the Universe

It is difficult to place Milford Graves into a category. He is lauded as a master drummer of the 1960s avant-garde jazz scene, credited with inventing the martial arts form yara, and is established as both an herbalist and acupuncturist in New York City. Additionally, Graves is a passionate researcher of human biology and brings that knowledge to all of his work.

Milford Graves’s music career began with improvisation. As a young kid, he taught himself to play by experimenting with the sounds he could make on a drum set in the foyer of his home in Jamaica, Queens. His professional career began around 1961 with the McKinley-Graves Band, a funky Latin jazz ensemble he co-led in the neighborhood.  The following year, he led the Milford Graves Latino Quintet with pianist Chick Corea, bassist Lyle Atkinson, conga artist Bill Fitch, and saxophonist Pete Yellen. His career accelerated to place him in the New York Art Quartet, which led him to create two independently released records with pianist Don Pullen. By his mid-twenties, Graves was recognized by artists such as Philly Jo Jones, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach as a drummer with an innovative approach to the instrument, as well as a unique voice in the music scene. His residency at Slugs in 1967 with Albert Ayler is still discussed among musicians today, as is his performance with Ayler at John Coltrane’s funeral.  Graves went on to teach at Bennington College for 39 years and is recognized as professor emeritus by the institution.

Yet, to understand his music one must also inquire into the full scope of his creative pursuits.  Within athletic communities he is known for bringing his ambidextrous drumming into the martial arts through the creation of yara, an improvised martial art that focuses on flexibility and dexterity.  Graves taught yara at his studio in Queens from 1971 to 2000. Similarly, numerous people have visited Graves over the years for his acupuncture practice and to study herbalism. During my first lesson with Graves, he used software that he engineered to record my heartbeat and play back a melody that was derived from my EKG.

When I was first introduced to Milford Graves’s work, I defaulted to the mode of thinking I was accustomed to—that of genre. Even as I was searching for a concept of universal music, I couldn’t help but perceive Graves’s polymathic interests within the stilted categories of martial arts, herbalism, and avant-garde jazz. As I spent more and more time with the artist, I became increasingly unsatisfied with my understanding of his work. Graves employs the scientific method and a vast understanding of biology within his music. He draws connections between analog and digital motions—continuous motions vs. striking different points—in both the martial arts and drumming. He publishes essays, creates works of sculpture, and has recently played drums in a live experiment for non-embryonic stem cells. Yet, this is merely a list of actions taken, and I have long felt that each one is an expression of something much more profound. As I prepared for my recent conversation with Graves, I identified three fundamentals that permeate his work: energy, freedom, and healing.

Miford Graves and Aakash Mittal

Miford Graves and Aakash Mittal


At its core, Milford Graves’s work sculpts energy. This became evident to me during a previous visit to his house when he was doing some healing work on one of his martial arts students. Graves had recorded the electrical signal from an injured muscle and was feeding the signal back to the damaged tissue with the aid of an acupuncture needle and some wire. The goal was to aid the healing process by using electrical stimulation and specific harmonic frequencies to regenerate the damaged tissue. While this was taking place, we were simultaneously listening to a sonificiation of the damaged tissue’s signal using software Graves had coded. He explained to me that the sound of the speaker, the image of the waveform, and the electricity in the needle were all different expressions of the same signal. This was a revelatory moment for me with regard to understanding Graves’s work. Each of the disciplines he utilizes functions as an expression of energy. That energy can manifest kinetically through the martial arts or sonically on the drum set. The kinetic motion of yara can be applied with sticks in hand to a cymbal, creating a sonification of the martial arts form itself. Similarly the vibration of the drums can be translated into soundless motion. Graves utilizes this approach among his various interests. In his essay “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions,” which was published in John Zorn’s anthology Arcana V, Graves concludes with a statement about the importance of consuming watercress and parsley in order to “transmit high quality solar energy into the biological system.” In his work, Graves applies the relationship of eating food to creating electricity within the body, a process that also pumps the heart and sounds the drum. Whether he is tending his garden, practicing acupuncture, or playing improvised music, Milford Graves approaches each activity as a harmonic of the same fundamental.


Milford Graves’s drumming is often associated with the “free-jazz” movement of the 1960s. On the surface, this is often described as a freedom from the previous era’s harmonic structure and traditional forms. When I further explored that musical community, it became evident that the word freedom was used in a much larger context. Among the freedoms that emerge are freedom of thought, freedom of the spirit, and freedom of sound. Albums such as John Coltrane’s Intersteller Space and Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity traversed the boundaries of music and entered the realm of trance experience and conceptual journey. Within this context, Milford Graves offered a unique perspective on freedom. Through his understanding of the fundamentals of energy, Graves’s music incorporates a freedom of motion that stretches beyond traditional audience/performer dynamics. In the New York jazz scene today, a story circulates about the time Milford Graves picked up John Zorn mid-solo and carried him around the stage while Zorn continued improvising. Through the improvised use of his voice and storytelling, Graves’s performances come across as a joyous ritual that loosens up the listener and offers the first step down the path of freedom. The experience of Graves’s multidisciplinary work suggests a freedom from the limiting nature of our mind, which is compelled to categorize and shape the world around us. As Graves re-harmonizes those shapes and brings us back to the fundamental, I believe we are given a glimpse of what true freedom means.


Artists frequently talk about the healing power of music, but it rarely goes beyond simple conversation. Milford Graves has taken it upon himself to do the research behind it. As I learn more about Graves’s work, I find that his use of energy and freedom is often purposed for healing. His understanding of a listener’s automatic sub-vocalization and the effect the vibrating tympanic membrane (part of the ear drum) can have on other organs informs his improvisations. This results in musical performances that could be perceived as a sonic massage as well as a concert. In this way, Graves is successfully bridging scientific, artistic, and spiritual methodologies in order to free people from societal constraints and remind them of the energy that already exists within. This leads us to what I find to be one of the most challenging aspects of understanding his work. Rather than contributing a body of compositions to an archive or entertaining audiences with his virtuosity, Graves is primarily interested in collaborating with biology itself. This results in a music that mutates, adapts, and transforms in the same manner that our heartbeat fluctuates in reaction to our bloodstream or our various organs create a polyrhythm of life processes.  Janina Wellmann writes in her book The Form of Becoming that “[t]he tension of organic life finds temporary resolutions in rhythm, but always, in its onward aspiration, points forward into the future.” Graves’s work draws from the rhythms of movement, energy, and sound to support transformation and propel the journey forward.

The pathway outside Milford Graves's home.

Creative Spaces

I walk up toward Milford Graves’s house on a chilly and grey day in January. Among a row of ordinary houses and barren twisted trees sits a single house decorated with a mosaic of colored stones and glass that ascends the walls and accentuates the windows. In a recent public interview with Graves, the writer John Corbett referred to this house as a secular “temple.” The house is a work of art in and of itself. From a distance the designs appear to be geometric, but on a closer inspection each mosaic is filled with frenetic momentum and the unique shape of each piece hints of arrhythmia. The golden ratio—expressed as a nautilus shell—is painted next to the front door. It is a meeting place for creative people from various disciplines and walks of life brought together by Milford Graves. I know from my previous visits that I need to approach our conversation as an improviser rather than as an interviewer. Before entering the house, I meditate on the one question I want to approach within our talk: how does Milford Graves utilize music, the martial arts, and biology to sculpt energy, gain freedom, and create healing in the world? Then I open the door and walk inside.

January 11, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Milford Graves in conversation with Aakash Mittal
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
With performance footage courtesy Jake Meginsky and Neil Young
Transcription by Julia Lu

Aakash Mittal:  I was watching a trailer for the new documentary about your work, I believe it’s called Milford Graves Full Mantis, and there are some clips in there of you doing yara. I think one might even have been in the yard over here.

Milford Graves:  Yeah, one was in the yard, and the other one was in the back before it was changed.

AM:  You had this motion going on.  I can’t even describe it.  It was fluid, but in your control.

MG:  Oh, no.  That was in Japan when some Japanese musicians were doing a form of martial arts they call shintaido.  They wanted to see what yara was, so we went out in this little area there. I said, “This would be a great area, with the bamboo background.” And I did my motion, because it was on a little slope there. That’s when I went down and disappeared.  The ground wasn’t even, so your balance had to be right because it was uneven.

AM:  That’s really cool.  What it reminded me of was the last time we talked, you were talking about the yawning reflex and the relaxed state, and creating from a place you call the parasympathetic nervous system—how you have to have that relaxed yawn feeling and the sound that comes with it, and you’re thinking about that in your sound. When I saw that video clip, it felt like you were moving in that same way.

MG:  Well, it had something to do with the physiological process. However, that was 1977 and I was just happy to be in Japan and to be around the element I was around—and the people. It was such a great feeling when people from the Far East would come and then martial artists—Chinese, Japanese, and Korean martial artists. Here I am in the Far East putting on a little demonstration.  I have to be very relaxed. People had a much more linear and stiff style of motion.  Shintaido was much more relaxed, but people were doing aikido, so I said, “You gotta be relaxed.”  I just didn’t have the stress factor.  I felt like being in New York.  You look at other martial artists watching you, and you see their facial expressions: “What is that stuff? That’s not tradition.”  I looked out there, and I saw some serious-looking people watching me and some smiles, and that was it.  That was my physiological system: just to relax.

AM:  So were they into it?  What was their reaction?  You said that they were smiling?  Did you get any feedback?

MG:  Well, I was invited as a special guest for them, to demonstrate improvisation and to play with Japanese musicians.  So students were watching the kind of movement I was doing because of the rhythm.  They had to connect that with the music, because of the way I would play. So I think their interest was: “If he’s not playing his drums, what kind of motion will he be doing in martial arts?”  And they were able to ride with it.  They took the ride with me.  And I think that’s why they were smiling.  It was like, this is how you do it—not so much martial arts but ARTS.  There was an art to it.  You take the military aspect out, the fighting aspect out, and just see an artist doing it without trying to be correct from an intellectual or science perspective.

AM:  You’re able to distill out just the creative art form: the movement.

MG:  Right.  The fundamental.  If you want to deal with the harmonics on the fundamental, then you can take that and become a ballroom dancer, a concert stage dancer, or you can become someone who wants to deal with the fighting aspect of it.  But that’s just the harmonics.  I was dealing with the fundamental.  Now how do you want to shape the fundamental or the harmonics you were dealing with from the fundamental?  The fundamental is to get your body just to relax so you can focus.  Then I said okay, I can take from this fundamental, I can use it in really different ways.

AM:  So the harmonics are the form that the fundamental shapes itself into.

MG:  Right.

AM:  That seems like another connection between the way you’re thinking about martial arts in a universal manner, as well as music and all the other activities that you’re a part of.

MG:  Yes.

AM:  You’re not even thinking about them idiomatically.  You’re dealing with it in terms of what is the fundamental, what are the harmonic shapes, whatever the practice is.

MG:  Right.  That’s it.  You have a harmonic, but you may not be able to do all the other shapes, because you don’t understand the fundamental.

AM:  Sorry, that’s just mind blowing already.  How do you understand what the fundamental is of what you were doing physically there?  Maybe it’s not even about the physical; maybe it’s about something else.

“Resistance is the thing that makes you feel like you’re struggling to do what you do.”

MG:  First of all, you’re not feeling any resistance.  Resistance is the thing that makes you feel like you’re struggling to do what you do.  That’s the most basic thing.  It’s like at the point when you’re tired.  You’re just real tired, and you’re in a standing position. We’ve all experienced this.  You may sit down in a chair and say, “Ahh.”  But then you move—“ahh, eeh, ahh”—and say, “You know what, I have to get into bed.”  And when you get into that bed, “AAH.”  This is it.  Just before the point where you’re asleep, if something falls off the table, or somebody knocks on your door hard, or you hear somebody screaming outside, you can jump up real fast and be alert.  But if you were sound asleep, someone would say to you, “Didn’t you hear that person outside? They were in danger.  They were screaming.”  You don’t want to get to that point in your relaxation.  So when I’ve got that feeling I’m in my bed but I can still respond, that’s when I know it’s happening.  I get to that point where I’m standing up like that, I’m in a vertical position, and I want to get to almost horizontal. I almost get there, but I’m just dangling.  I feel so good.  But raargh!—[I can] just shoot on out, right from there.

AM:  And do you get into that same relaxed state when you’re playing drums?

MG:  Yes.  That’s when you can achieve the full energy that I deal with.

AM:  You were saying that when you were in Japan doing that particular demonstration, they were wanting to see how an artist would translate it. They knew you as a musician, and they wanted to see how it translated into what you did physically in martial arts.

MG:  Yeah, because they knew I did that.

AM:  So how has the martial arts practice influenced your drum playing?

MG:  A few years ago I had a very abstract answer.  I said, “Well just do it, and you will find out.”  It was very abstract.  You know, that’s the way you clean up when you can’t really precisely say.  Well, the kind of martial arts that I wanted to develop was based on my experience as a teenager and in my early stages of growing up in the area here, South Jamaica, and then moving into the housing projects when I was eight or nine-years old.  Before I did that, we had little kid wrestling, because I grew up around a family that was called a very tough family—large people, close to 20 people in the family.  And they had a military life. At least one was a sergeant in the Army, so he came home and the house was like a military barracks, so it was rough and tough.  Then when I got to the housing project, we had these body punching arts. We played basketball, but then when the basketball game was over, everybody said, “Sham battle!”  Everybody started getting up there punching each other in the arms and chest. The face was off limits, but when somebody was getting frustrated because they couldn’t punch you in the chest, they would sneak and punch you right in the jaw and almost a real fight would take place.  But you participated in these things because if you didn’t, you should have stayed off the playground. Maybe four guys would grab you and stretch you out and punch you all in the arms and muscles and stuff like that.  So basketball was tough and rough.  It wasn’t like the rules you played by when you played in high school or college ball when you’ve got a referee.  You know, you got hacked.  If you drove through, if you did a drive to the basket, all this fancy stuff, all these turns and angle movements they’d be doing, it was rough to do that because they’d knock you down and really try to hurt you.  And they’d say, “Don’t come here driving like that again. We’re not going to let you look good.”

I remember a whole lot of experiences.  One of the things that I got out of that was I’m not afraid to get up there and sham battle.  There were guys around us who physically were intimidating.  They had the muscles and always kept certain kinds of facial expressions.  And they had that kind of voice, like the bully guys.  When you’re sitting in the basketball court at the housing project, you may have 15 or 20 guys out there.  And they would come over and say, “Come on, let’s sham box.”  And you were hesitant, but then you say to yourself, “Well, it’s not a real fight.  So this guy’s not going to hurt me.”  And I found that some guys that I thought were real tough guys, they weren’t tough guys.  They just psychologically gave you that impression. So it gave me confidence.  When you don’t participate and you just look at images, it could be intimidating.  You have to participate in the event to see what it’s about.

So when I did the martial arts, I said, “This is going to be just beyond a fighting situation.  I’m going to set this up. I want to set up a system where people truly become their so-called warrior within.”  You get to the point where you really intimidate people. I used to get people to come in and some of my students said they trusted me.  They said, “I don’t think you would hurt me.”  And even with that said, I would scare people.  I would take them down. I’d do a takedown, a wrestling technique: I’d get on top of them and put my chest across their face.  They said, “Professor, I can’t breathe; you’re smothering me.” But they were more intimidated by the fact of the potential than that they thought they wouldn’t be able to breathe.

I watched the mixed martial arts UFC.  I just like to see how people react to any kind of danger.  And you see these tough guys come up, and they get in bad positions sometimes.  They get in these chokehold positions, and somebody said, “Wow, they tapped out real fast because they potentially panicked.”

This is beyond fighting, in a sense. How do you react when that crisis comes?  How do you react when pain comes to your body from an illness?  Do you run out to the doctor right away?  Or do you go internally and try to control that pain?  I see people go out to meditate. They think if you do these chants, you can meditate the pain away.  Yeah, that’s easily said, but put a person in a pain position, and then tell them to try to chant and meditate, and see if it works.  So, it’s non-functional.  I try to make it more functional.  Put a person in that position, and I can tell by the pressure, they can breathe.  But they’re seeing potentially, “Wow, I may not be able to breathe.”  Then I’ll let them relax a little and then I’ll let them come back.  The second time they’re not so quick to say that; they try to see how to get out of this.

So I’ve used that as a situation, for you to be attacked by a foreign agent in a sense.  And a foreign agent could be from pathology.  It could be bacteria.  It could be a virus.  So when you get this thing, you don’t panic.  You say, “Okay, well, I think I can handle this.  I can deal with this.”  Then you can release what you have inside.

But to do these different kind of so-called art forms, to be able to increase your thought process or neuroplasticity, you have to put yourself in the position whereas you’re not intellectualizing on it.  So that’s what I did with the arts—martial arts.  It wasn’t just to go out there to say, “Well, I can fight.  I can hurt somebody.  I can protect myself.”  It was beyond that.  I wanted you to have a confrontation with something that was real.  Instead of you being a one-cell organism or a piece of DNA—we’re talking bacteria, funguses, viruses—think of yourself as a multi-cellular piece of bacteria or virus. When you see that person in front of you, or that competition you’re going to have in a sparring session, you have to look at each other.  If you touch the body, it’s like therapeutic massage or active massage.  So when you get on the floor, you don’t say, “Oh, that’s my enemy.”

“I wanted you to have a confrontation with something that was real.”

When you see somebody, sometimes it’s somebody you may know, sometimes, somebody you may not know.  A lot of times you say, “Are you feeling okay?”  And the person says, “Well, I’m not feeling too good today.”  I say, “Yes, I noticed that.  You just don’t look like you.  Is there something bothering you?  Are you sick?  Are you going through any emotional stress?”  What do you do when somebody’s like that?  You give them some advice.  Maybe you need a great medicinal soup.  Take some herbs, you know. Or you need some rest. Or if they’re stressed out from some kind of other factors, [you tell them] don’t let that bug you.  That happened to me before.  This is how I mostly calm myself down.  So the martial arts come, and we’re supposed to look at each other and we’re supposed to say, “You know what, I think you need a massage treatment.”  When we test the body, or we grab the body, and hit certain points and grab certain points, you’re not doing a destructive touch.  I’m trying to massage them back in again. And when it’s over, both people will look at each other and say, “Thank God. I feel great. I feel good.”

If you’re out there in the street, you don’t have to destroy anybody.  You’re a healing martial artist, a constructive martial artist, not a destructive martial artist.  The softer forms like tai chi, some people don’t think it’s a fighting form. By the way, you just don’t do tai chi.  You may put some aikido in there.  You have to mix it, the different martial arts styles. You can’t get just locked into one style, because all of them have some value.  If in a confrontation, if somebody is in the street and grabs you, the philosophy I have is that I may stop that person, grab him up, touch certain points and then melt him right down, sedate him.  If you use acupuncture when you’re doing acupuncture massage for a tonification or sedation, you’ve got to know when to tonify somebody, you’ve got to know when to sedate somebody.  In this case, it’s not so much tonifying somebody, because if somebody’s aggressive, they don’t need to be tonified.  They need to be sedated.  So there are ways just to sedate, but if you don’t understand the healing aspect or the constructive aspect, then you’re not going to know how to sedate somebody in a real confrontation.  You just don’t want to be somebody who learns a martial art to go out and be a bully and hurt somebody.  I think that’s wrong.

Various bottles herbs in tinctures that Milford Graves keeps in his home.

AM:  You’ve talked about before how with music, it’s just changing the pressure in the air, and that affects the tympanic membrane.  I’m curious if the way you’re thinking about massaging physically also happens sonically, or if you’re thinking about that at all in terms of the way the sound might massage either the mind or, through the energy, maybe even the body.

GM:  Okay, we need to backtrack to answer that question with the martial arts and the playing. Two things were said to me by the Japanese.  One was a photographer.  He was a great photographer, I thought; everybody thought he was great.  He used to follow me around Japan.  This was about 1981, but he [first] saw me four years earlier in ’77.  I came back to do this solo and he came over to me and said, “Wow. Before you were very good, but now, you’re much better.”  I said, “I would hope so.  I hope I’m developing after four years.”  And then he made this statement, “You’re so fluid—relaxed and so fluid.”

The second guy who said it to me was one of the [most] respected Japanese internal martial artists who was an official representative for internal martial arts, Chinese martial arts.  He came to the performance, that same one in 1981.  He came back stage, and he said, “You do every punch there is to do in Chinese martial arts.”  He looked at my flow and he thought it was from martial arts.  And I said, “Okay, so what I used to do was instead of doing—again—a nonfunctional tai chi, just getting up in the air and doing certain kinds of movements, I would get down to my drum set and I’d go—ting-raww—frapt!—I would keep that whole flow and go around.  If I was doing a sword technique, I would practice my sword stuff and with the strokes like—thwap!—like this here.  There I would exchange a stick, so if I’m hitting down here—pop!—and hitting the cymbal—shhhap!—the strokes like this here.  I was directing the energy in a very precise, meaningful way, so they helped each other out.  I would hit the sound and just get it, make it go like—rat-a-tat-a-rot-a-toko!

So that’s how I was interchanging them.  I was using the form, because with both things, I’m using body motion.  The photographer enjoyed me from imagining just the flow, and said, “Oh wow, the way he’s flowing.”  [The other guy] saw that and he thought of martial arts.  One of the guys I met from the aikido family over there wanted me to play talking drum and do some drumming stuff for his aikido class.  They wanted to be able to do the movements of the drummers.  They realized it was a rhythm thing that was missing, you know.  I was doing it in a very empty way; that was just timing.  It was putting me on a timer, so that’s how I locked all that in.

One of Milford Graves's drums on a shelf in a bookcase underneath two rows of books which is next to a Japanese scroll.

AM:  Ah, so he saw the martial arts in your drumming. When you’re playing drums, do you think of it as the word I learned when I was doing karate—the kata, which is like the pre-composed form that you have to work through? You’re improvising, so maybe you don’t think about it that way.

GM:  Well, you don’t fight with kata, you don’t use a kata.  That’s not a fighting form.  As an artist, a performing artist, a stage artist, some people think the performance starts when you come out on stage.  So if you’re a dancer, it’s the first steps you do.  If you’re an instrumentalist, it’s the first sound that comes out of your instrument.  But the performance starts, it could be a day before, two days before, three days before.  When you come on that stage, it starts before you even make one motion.  When you’re coming out there, you have to be generating as soon as you walk out on that stage.  The worst thing I see is people come out and start distributing their music charts to people on stage.  The audience is watching that!  Even if you fix your horn, if you’re touching your horn, you have to do it in a way that has theater and drama to it.

The way I interpret kata is I would go from a so-called hard style to a soft style.  I would come and I would do hard karate.  I’d come out—Eeuuooahh!—to show I had that look.  And I see people like, “Whoah!”  They flinch out, because it looks like I’m going to rip you out; I’m going to go through you.  I say [sings phrase].  Bah.  And so kata is like an eagle posture.  A kata is to get your attention.  It’s not fighting or a block.  You’re only doing that to set somebody up.  They see that door or they see this fist; that’s what kata is.  Look at me! It’s almost like hypnotizing them.  And you do just the opposite.  It’s not hard or hard, it’s hard-soft, soft-hard.  You may look just like you’re very soft then—bam!—you come out like this here.  You see?  So tai chi you may be like this here, but inside you’re ready to explode.  If you see a nuclear bomb or you stand next to a nuclear bomb, it looks like it can’t do anything.  But if you set the trigger mechanism off, my gracious, look at the damage.  I say, do you know internally what’s in that nuclear bomb and the damage you can do?  That’s tai chi.  The real internal arts.  You’re ready to explode.  And sometimes you look like you’re going to explode. That’s the whole process that goes on inside.  Everything is moving very quick.

AM:  So the performance begins with the energy inside of you.

GM:  Right.

AM:  Days before the performance.

GM:  Right.  Right.  Get ready.

Various computer monitors in Milford Graves's studio.

AM:  How do you cultivate that energy?  I know that’s something you think about, because you’ve written about it in an essay in terms of food. What you’re consuming matters. You’re also talking about a lot of heavier stuff there, in terms of energy and relationships.

GM: I find myself talking to more people about this now.  I tell people, “Why are you doing what you do?” when people come and they want to do this.  They want to elevate to this level, that level, and then all they have to do is say one thing to me, “I’ve got to see how I can make some money off of this.”  Then I say, “You’re not going to do it then. You don’t really have a divine, deep commitment.”

“People are trusting musicians to do the same thing the cook’s doing.”

Some things you do may not make a lot of money because you’ve got to be dedicated towards doing it.  You’ve got to know why you’re doing it.  You’ve got to know the importance of what you’re doing.  As far as music and being a musician, I tell people, “Why do you play music?  What’s your purpose?  If you’re going to play music and just use it as a mechanism to be able to pay your rent and all of that, I have no problem with that.  Only time I have a problem is when you tell me you want to reach this so-called cosmic or celestial higher level.  You know what I mean?  You want to get people to be able to visualize and transform in this kind of state and that kind of state?”  I say, “You’re not going to do it like that, because you’re going to fail to realize your importance.”

You go to a restaurant. I don’t think people realize when they walk through that door in a restaurant: you’re not cooking your own food.  Someone else is cooking that food. You’re trusting that person in that kitchen to be correct. You don’t know exactly what they’re doing.  If you’re a chef, cook, whatever, you’ve got to say, “Wait a minute, these people are coming here and I’m making food for them to be able to put inside of their bodies to allow them to maintain their life processes that require certain nutrients.  I’ve got to be responsible here.  These people are trusting me.”

As a musician, what do you think you’re doing? Are you trying to win a critics’ poll or get a Grammy? I think people are trusting us, trusting the musicians to do the same thing the cook’s doing.  They want their vibratory system to be fed.  They’re coming in there, you know what I mean?  You got your food, that’s why you see the combinations of restaurants having a band in there sometimes.  And it’s got to be a band that doesn’t cause you to regurgitate your food, or get a spasm in your esophagus because it’s too crazy.  So they want more soft, cooled-out music.  They have nice relaxing music with people eating.  That combination’s always been there—that mouth and that ear have always worked as a combinational thing there.  So you’ve got to get that ear vibrating. We’re vibrators.  You know?  You’re not a saxophone player; you’re not a drummer.  We are there to make that ear drum vibrate, to convert [the sound] into electrical energy.  The brain gets it. Ah, okay, now we’re cool.  We can do our job, man.  And we can energize the whole body.

Once you realize that, then you’re going to say, “I have an obligation.  I have a responsibility.  People are trusting me.”  You do a concert, you see people coming into the hall sitting around, they’re coming in to say, “Turn me on.  Feed me.  I’m here.”  If you come over there to trip on yourself, you’re this person without knowing that you have a responsibility to keep the folks vibrating.  If they vibrate, then maybe the whole planet will all vibrate.  Any culture that wipes out the arts is in trouble, and I think we’re seeing that right here with young kids in school and how they’re taking the arts out.  We’re wiping the whole vibratory system out.

In one area in Graves's studio there is a diagram of hands, a photo of fingers, and an anatomical model of a human body.

AM:  I appreciate how you talk about arts education in medical terms, how it is essential. One of the problems in our culture is we are taught to view the arts as a form of entertainment. Some people are taught to appreciate it on a deeper level, but you’re talking about it not just as spiritual, but as a physical and medical need.

MG:  Well, what we were talking about is the entertainment part.  We’re working on the superficial part of the body.  We’re basically working on a lot of the motor system.  So we get all the motor and muscles and everything moving, but we forget about the cellular level.  The cellular level also has to be fed, but then you’re taking away from the entertainment aspect.  We just do one side; we don’t do the full situation.  If you’re talking about so-called creative arts, abstract arts, you’re not talking on a cellular level.  You know, it’s not going to be as defined; whereas, you see, in the entertainment perspective, if you try to take the art and put it on graphs, and try to put mathematics to it, you’re not going to get the true benefit. I’ve been dealing with people, how do you put numbers to it?

“We are there to make that ear drum vibrate.”

You’ve got to the get to the point where you trust each other.  As a musician, you’ve got to trust each other to get on the stage and get this tremendous feeling happening.  When it’s over, someone will say, “Well, what note did you play?”  I don’t know what note I played.  I just play and don’t worry about it.

Some people just don’t trust that they can do it.  It’s extremely difficult to improvise, to be spontaneous and improvise, make changes in a very small amount of time and space and then come back and make another change in a small space of time and don’t repeat what you do.  After 15 or 20 minutes, you have made it through all of these different changes and so on, but what’s amazing is how when you walk out your door in the morning, you may spend an hour or two traveling.  Think about this.  You’re going to make all kinds of adjustments.  You’re capable of doing it.  But you’re told you can’t do it.  It’s like a little child. The parent takes care of the child.  You don’t know how to cross the street yet.  Then after a certain time, you’re supposed to mature in a way that you’re able to see if you’re walking 20 blocks, that you’re ready to make any changes that can take place.  But when it comes to certain things, like something specific in music, you’re taught that you have study this and you have to study that; you can’t do this.

I remember up in Bennington, when I talked to some of the classical musicians who were teachers there, they would say, “I wish I could improvise.”  And I’m saying, “Wow, they can’t improvise?”  I’m trying to figure this out.  It really hit me.  It made me realize: they’ve been taught piano lessons or violin lessons since they were like three, four, five-years old and they were always taught that you have to follow these kind of rules.  You have to do it this way and that way.  That’s horrible.

AM:  To back up a little bit, it sounds like one of the things you said earlier—that part of your music is about resonating on the cellular level. It sounds like your entire vision and goal of what you’re creating artistically through music and through martial arts isn’t even necessarily in the same category or place as goals that musicians typically have.  Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I was just curious about what you’re saying in terms of your goal of vibrating people on the cellular level, or on a level even more microscopic.

MG:  Well, I’ll tell you what.  When I was coming down the stairs, I was thinking about the two of you down here, and I said, “Something’s happening right now.”  People have been contacting me now, and all of a sudden, it’s like an onslaught.  One promoter told me I’m going to do this festival. We got into a conversation and I said, “It was nice of you to think about me. People had almost erased me out of history. They’re making these historical statements and I’m not even mentioned.” So the person said, “Well, people are ready for you now.”

I was told back in the last century, in the late ‘60s, that my concept of music was in the next century.  And of course, I didn’t want to hear that.  And then 2000 came, and I was trying to find that person to say I think you were right!  Things are starting to develop.  Sometimes it’s not for you to say what you want to do or who you are.  Maybe we all have instructions.  Some higher power that we may not realize. I just feel like I’m carrying out orders from another kind of power. No one ever told me to do this or do that.  It just felt that what I’m doing now is developing it to another level, and the reason I’m developing it to another level is because of people.  I’m not sitting outside wanting to be an oddball.  People talk to me about coming in. They say I want to study with you because of this or because of that.  I’m just naturally doing this.  I want to work on it now because I know I can do that.  People think you’re doing something great, but the feedback is not great.  I was looking at it passing the wrong way.  I can’t fault the people.  I guess they’re just not ready for it yet.  That’s what people were telling me.  They’re not ready.  So I said, “Have some patience.” All you have to do is talk to people my age that I grew up with and they’ll always say, “Milford was always eccentric. This guy was always unorthodox.”  I never thought about it.  I guess I was.  I would always challenge the situation.  If something came up, I said, “Let’s think of another way to do this here.”  So I think I found my mission.  What some people have told me, either directly or indirectly, is they may not understand what I’m doing, but they say, “I respect you because you didn’t deviate.  You’re still doing what you do.  Other people just went for the money.”

“I’m not sitting outside wanting to be an oddball. People talk to me about coming in.”

A long time ago I used to listen to some of the older musicians saying, “Wow, I wish I would have not been playing commercial.  I wish I would have done this, and I wish would have done that.”  In the late ‘60s, Papa Jo Jones told me something, and it really hit me hard. First of all, we were at this political meeting and I didn’t expect to see Papa Jo Jones there.  Then he started talking to me. He said, “We want to do some of that avant-garde playing, too.”  Gee whiz, Papa Jo Jones knows me!  I didn’t think Papa Jo knew me. Then he started talking about Count Basie and all of these things and he said, “They want to make money.”  Then I said, “Okay, Papa, I’ve got to leave.” And Papa just said, “Where are you going?”  I said, “I’m going over here to Seventh Avenue.  I got to get the train to Brooklyn.”  And he said, “I’m going that way, young man.”

And I went that way. He wouldn’t even allow me to buy a token.  He bought a token. I’m impressed with this.  He’s Papa Jo the legend and he’s treating me like royalty.  When those old bebop guys were talking about the so-called free jazz players, they didn’t really dislike us.  They were just saying, “Wow, that’s what we wanted to do. But these young guys coming up now can do it and get away with it.  We couldn’t back in the ‘40s.”  I always wonder what these guys would sound like if they would have kept developing their skill level.  You never know what that person could have been.

So I said to myself, “I’m going to keep developing myself because I want to see what I would develop into.”  Right now there are certain things I can do on the instrument that I couldn’t do then.  I used to think about it.  “Wow, that’d be great if you could play with this hand doing this and this doing that and all this here stuff.”  Now it’s coming so easy, because I stayed with it.  My conviction was: what would the arts be like if artists were allowed to develop ourselves? What would the planet be like now?  How would the people be vibrating?  The educational system in this country is the worst.   We don’t have the innovation.  Creativity’s needed again.  We’ve got to rise to another occasion.  When you wipe out the arts, which is stimulating the vibratory system, it’s going to cause a real slowdown.  That’s what I see now, the feedback I’m getting, like when people come over to me and say certain things when I do performances.  I stayed in there to try to see them the way a human would vibrate inside.  It’s not just Milford Graves—that brings in the ego thing.  Other people say, “Well, that’s his thing.  That’s not my thing.”  I always say, “This is our thing!”  I’m trying to bypass it and I’m trying to follow certain rules, and that’s when the physiological process comes in.  There’s a publication now, I won’t knock the publication, but it’s The Jazz of Physics.  For me, it should be jazz, but if you want to use any kind of science name, it should be physiology not the jazz of physics—that’s a machine, that’s outside of the body.  You know what I mean?  You don’t reduce the human body to a mechanical device.

AM:  At the last interview we did, we talked somewhat more idiomatically about all the different things that you are interested in and how they connect.  And I’ve been thinking about it ever since then.  What struck me was that the one thread through all of your interests is energy—and not just managing energy, but sculpting energy or creating with energy.  I was wondering if you’d speak about that a little bit because it seems like when you’re dealing with acupuncture, you talk about energy.  When you’re dealing with martial arts, you talk about kinetic energy.  When you’re talking about music, you’re talking about sonic, vibratory energy.  Maybe these are also, like you called it, harmonics of another fundamental that’s even lower than all of those disciplines.

MG:  Well, if you’re just going to translate energy to “the ability to do work,” that’s one thing. Like on a construction site, you have workers there and you’re telling the workers, “Come on, you’ve got to get this pipe lined up.”  “But I feel out of it.  I just don’t have energy. I cannot pick up this other section of this pipe to connect it.”  I always say that whenever you see humans doing something on the outside, it’s probably just a reflection of what’s going on inside.  So how do you connect these different pathways in the body with a certain kind of energy?  Now certain pathways call for a major work ethic.  It has to be a work ethic. To be able to create that ability to deal with energy, there’s got to be a whole lot of different mechanisms involved in there.  So you’ve got to have a lot of vibratory things going on.  Vibratory motion.  You’ve got to activate the inactive areas, different parts of the body.

“You don’t even know what light is, if you can’t see.”

I just had a conversation about body healing and morphologic fields.  It may be impossible to deal with the so-called morphologic fields, in a sense that you can create a new liver or can create a new heart.  Some people say, “That’s impossible.”  I don’t think it’s impossible. Instead you should just say, “Well, I don’t know how to do it,” because you don’t know how to do it.  Why would you say it’s impossible to do if you can create this energy? I mean, they demonstrated it in the physical world. Einstein had something going on!  But you have to interpret. The energy is one thing, but how are you going to interpret the mass?  How you are going to interpret what light is?  You don’t even know what light is, if you can’t see.  So it’s a visionary thing.  Right?  As soon as you turn off these lights, it’s dark.  You may know from being in that environment where everything is.  You can walk around and grab a seat here, but if that’s your first time, when those lights go out, you don’t know where the heck anything is.  So light really is about your ability to visualize.  So you have to turn the whole mechanism that’s dealing with light; you have to look inside.

The whole morphological aspect of what’s going on is so you get a way of seeing nature’s design, the patterns that nature has.  What you’ve got to say is there’s a possibility that we can connect this with this and connect that with that.  This is something I’ve been talking about for the longest time.  It’s very interesting that a person can have a certain kind of mythology. A female is capable of nurturing a baby, once that sperm and that egg come together; it’s amazing.  People just take stuff for granted.  That little small ovum can mix with a waggling little tadpole-looking type of thing and make a human being.  Unbelievable.  But it’s coming from inside of us.  Everybody thinks it’s the reproductive organs, but there are other factors in the brain that are controlling that.  You’ve got the pituitary gland and all these other organisms that are connected.  They still don’t know a lot about the brain, the whole circuitry.  On a global perspective, if you can stop killing each other, fighting each other and can come together and work together as human folks and work on the planet, then the planet will help out the whole solar system, help out all other galaxies, all the universes. Once you all know how to do that, the ruler will give you the key to how to deal with morphogenic fields and how to reproduce another kidney.  You don’t need a kidney transplant or a liver transplant.  We will be able to reproduce another one, but it takes a tremendous amount of work to energize that person. It’s almost like a person that’s just worn out and has nothing they can lift.  All of a sudden—Boom!—they’ve become really alert again.  There are many ways to do it, when you’re going to stimulate.  You can use acupuncture. You can use plant foods. You can use visual things.  But the key is you get the body active and moving.  It has to be a holistic, total involvement of the body.  You’re not going to have one little thing working and not the other thing working; it’s a collaborative aspect that has to take place in the body.  Everybody has got to be working towards this.  What I mean by energy is to get all of these different areas of the body activated.  And then once the complementary thing’s going on, that’s the only way a morphogenic field can happen. Your heart, when it acts from a pumping perspective, to pump blood out, is sending nutrients throughout the whole body.  So everything’s got to be coordinated for your body to work as a whole.  One little organ can be disrupted, and then you have a problem.

A globe of the earth as well as globes of other planets and satellites in our solar system sits in front of a shelf filled with cassettes of Milford Graves's performances.

AM:  Another thing I wanted to ask you about is that I’ve never heard you identify as a composer specifically. But from my perspective, I feel you could be equally thought of as a composer, but you’re using biological processes as your form.  And not even as a form where you take the superficial sound and notate it, but you’re actually trying to compose biologically. You’re composing with energy. You’ve created so much that involves improvisation, structure, form, and things that evolve along continuums. To my mind you combine the martial arts, acupuncture, herbology, and sound into—I don’t know what you would call it—a composition of the universe itself.

MG:  Well, if we’re talking about the paper composer, I think that’s a class structure.  Sometimes you do things and then people can be enlightened about what you’re doing, or it can hurt. Sometimes you’ve got to say, “What is it really about that I’m doing?”

I remember an experience I had with Jimmy Giuffre around 1965.  There was a book out called Where’s the Time? by a journalist, Martin Williams; he may be still around. He wrote this book about the different rehearsal bands that Jimmy Giuffre put together.  Joe Chambers was doing some of the rehearsals, and I did about three rehearsals with him. I wanted to take the challenge, because Jimmy Giuffre had this reputation.  So I went up to his house, and he had these charts. I knew he was doing some Ornette Coleman stuff, but when I looked at the chart, I said, “Jimmy, this is a little different.”  He was trying to write the melody down for the drums.  This was not a standard way you would notate for the drummer—try and hit the side of the shell, the edge of the rim.  He was trying to get all these different pitches out.  And just for the basic melody of the head, we followed the instructions.  But I told Jimmy, “Look, I will play the rhythm.  I’ll do my best with the sounds.”  I should have been able to read that the way I wanted to, because I’m the new kid on the block and I’m going to be controversial.  After that, he’d probably go around and say Milford Graves doesn’t know how to read music and want to fire me. That wouldn’t have bothered me.  But then I thought I did bad.  So I took the chart home. I told my wife, “I’m going to my room and look at this guy’s music.”  I spent less than a half an hour [there].   I remember leaving the room.  My wife says, “You’re finished?”  “I’m finished.  I see where he’s coming from now.”  I sketched out what he wanted, so when I came back the next day I played it. Don Friedman was on piano and Barre Phillips was on bass. It was a quartet.  After it was over, Don Friedman said, “Wow, how’d you get that so fast?”  I thought I was doing bad.  He said it took us a little while to get all this stuff together.  And I felt real good after that. It wasn’t so bad after all.  But then what happened was, they had an improvisational section. Jimmy Giuffre walked in. I wanted to go up there and see the challenge, man.  When he came to improvising those sections, I improvised off of the head.  So Jimmy said, “Wow.”  He listened to the recording we did there and he said, “Could you rewrite the head for me, rewrite the drum parts?  Because the way you improvise, that’s how I want the drums to be played.” So he didn’t want to write it like that, but he didn’t want no regular dang-dang-ga-dang.  So when I was playing, I heard something and I said, “This is what I would be hearing.”  But then after that there, I saw him at a concert and he said, “So when are you coming back?”  I said, “You know, I don’t know.”  He said, “Well, I want to see if you can read my charts now.  I got some other stuff.”  It was like a competitive thing.  So I just said that’s it.  No more gigs.  I don’t need to go there no more.  But I was listening to what he wanted to hear from the drum perspective.  All the tonal changes, I can do that with all that stuff.  You don’t have to be hitting it all over.  You can stay on the membrane and play the melody out like I do now.  You can play that stuff right from there.

So that was just one experience I had. I had a few more of the same. “Wow, that’s a composer? So what are these guys about?”  It’s almost like an ego trip.  I know some composer may say, “What is this Graves talking about? This guy don’t know what the heck he’s talking about.  Who does he think he is?” I would say just think about what you’re doing.  You sit down, you may spend days or months, and you are telling your story, and then you finish your story, in a musical way, and then you want to give me a piece of your music that’s talking about what you feel, what you want to express, and you’re saying, play me.  I’m bothered with that, like what [someone else] feels doesn’t [matter]. Or when somebody gives you a composition, you add something in. I had that experience, too.  They say, “Well, that’s not written.  That shouldn’t be in there.” What do you mean?  Your music caused me to feel that, and I thought it was cool to put that in.  So if we’re driving in an automobile, and we have to get some place in an emergency—let’s suppose we’re transporting somebody to the hospital or something—and you make a left turn.  I say, “No, to get to the hospital, you have to make a right turn.”  “Well no, that’s the way we do it.  It’s a left turn.  You’re not listening to me.”  That’s the same thing as music composition. You may do something and I don’t think that’s the way.  You’re not even screwing up, man.  If you do it this way, that adds onto it.

“A composer to me—that’s a responsible situation.  A composer to me is just like a teacher.”

I’ve [also] had that experience with a conductor.  They said that I made the track on this particular recording.  They said the way you was playing, that made the thing.  If I would have done it the other way, it was too dry.  But that person wanted to act like they have control.  They wrote all the music and they conducted. So I said, “You’re not giving me respect.”  When I hire a band, I respect you.  A composer to me—that’s a responsible situation.  A composer to me is just like a teacher.  If you’re in a classroom with students, they’re expecting you to teach them.  And if you’re teaching a subject, and they can’t understand that subject, you don’t go and say, “Oh, you’re stupid.  I’m going to fail you.”  You’re supposed to talk to that person and say, “What kind of difficulties are you having?”  And if they say, “I don’t like history.” Well, say, “Let’s talk about history.  Could you tell me something that happened five years ago?  Is there anything you remember five years ago that you don’t like?”  “Oh, I remember something five years ago. I will never forget that.”  “But that’s history.  It’s important that you don’t forget that.  So you don’t repeat that mistake you made.”

Books, tools, and musical diagrams share space in Milford Graves's studio

Or if it’s a math problem—I’m going to tell you something real fast. In the 1970s, I went up to IS 201.  A friend of mine was an assistant principal at that time.  He wanted me to do three workshops in the summer for these kids up in Harlem.  So I went up, and I had a pocket full of change.  I took the hand drums, congas, and all of that.  I’m going to teach these kids these rhythms, but I don’t know if these kids know about eighth notes, quarter notes, and all that technical talk.  So I said, “We’re going to play a rhythm, but we’re going to pulse beats first.  I’m going to hit the drum four times.  One-two-three-four.  Every time you hit the drum, think of a quarter, a quarter, a quarter, and a quarter.”  I had four quarters out.  Then I said, “How many quarters make a dollar?”  They knew that.  They may be failing in school, but they know how to count that money.  “Oh, that’s one dollar.”  So I had a one dollar bill.  I said, “So that’s a one dollar bill. What’s a one dollar bill, compared to counting four twenty-five cent coins?”  I just boom and don’t hit the drum no more times.  But I quietly say, “Count four.  ONE-two-three-four.  That’s a dollar.  So how do you write a dollar?”  They write what they call a whole note in music.  “That’s all, you got a dollar.  You got a little circle like this here.”

Then I took the quarters and said, “Now, we’re going to play each pulse beat twice as fast.  We’re going to count eight.  We got that whole dollar, now we’ve got to make sure that we’re going to divide this one dollar bill eight times.” I had some dimes and some pennies.  So I took out the dimes and said, “How many dimes and pennies makes twenty-five cents?”  Take out a dime.  Take out the five pennies.  “Alright?”  Anyway, I lined them all up and I took two of the students and said, “Look, we’re going to share this twenty-five cents.  You get a dime and you get a dime, but how are we going to share these five pennies between the two of you?  If I give you two pennies, I give you three pennies.  You may get upset, because he got one more penny than you.”  And they’re looking and I said, “I tell you what, anybody got any scissors here?  Let’s cut this other penny in half.”  And they laughed because they know no scissors can cut that penny.  But if I do that, you’re going to get half of a penny.  So you’ve got a dime, then another penny is eleven, another’s twelve; you got twelve and a half.  And we added all that up and in an hour’s time, guess what, I had those kids doing fractions.  It blew them away.  It blew the parents away. I said. “Yeah, you all can do fractions, but you can’t do non-functional fractions.  Don’t mean nothing if you just write numbers!”

That’s a teacher.  That’s a conductor.  If you come to me as a musician, then I may say, “Here, you play.”  You’ve got more? I say, “I think we’ve got something.”  Then I’ll get down and participate with you.  Then I’ll say, “We’re going to try this; we’re going to try that.”  I’ll lay out something to see how you’re going to respond to it.  You didn’t respond.  I left something open for you.  There was no conversation taking place.  It could be for many reasons.  But I’m going to try to get inside you and inspire you to want to play and make stuff come out of you that you really didn’t have.  That’s the conductor, or composer. And if you don’t need help, I don’t have to tell you what to do.  But if you need some help, maybe I’ll give you some suggestions.  But to out and out come out and not think about what someone can do because you wrote all this music? Then you hear this person in another kind of setting and say, “Wow. I didn’t know you could play like that.”  Yeah, you didn’t allow me to play like that, because you already dictated what you wanted.

That’s why I’m devoted to improvisational, spontaneous music.  And I think that’s what we need on the planet right now.  I think people have to get deeper inside themselves. We all have the potential to be smart and intelligent, and we’ve got to bring it out of people. To resolve some of these major problems we have on the planet, we have to have more people working.

“When it really comes time for a major crisis, everybody has to participate.”

I was just telling somebody yesterday that when there’s peace, then they tell people,  “Oh, we don’t need you.  We have all these regulations; we don’t need your help.”  But when 9/11 came, and what did they do?  They asked for the public’s help because the military, the police, and everybody realized that they couldn’t watch everything.  If anything looks suspicious, just call this number and let us know.  So you’re really saying that when it really comes time for a major crisis, everybody has to participate.  If you want to find out the cures for cancer and all this stuff here, you have to start from an early stage in elementary school exposing these kids to oncology, neurology, all these things, in the classroom.  Make little toys, little games, so everybody can participate. You talk about trial and error. Somebody out of that is going to come up, it could be a five-year old kid, and say, “Well, what if you did this and did that?”  Somebody will say, “Wow, we never thought of that.”  That’s why I’m saying: we have to bring out the innovative and creative potential of what we as humans have, and you’re not going to do it by constantly putting a harness on somebody and saying you’re not allowed to express yourself or do what you do.

The elaborately ornamented exterior of Milford Graves's home.

Remembering Connie Crothers (1941-2016)

I always had a deep feeling as I still do to be one with the very minute I’m in.

While doing research during my first stay in New York in 1995, feminist blues record producer Rosetta Reitz handed me an LP Perception and told me to check out Connie Crothers.  I had compiled texts about women jazz instrumentalists and perused decades’ worth of jazz magazines in order to create an annotated bibliography for the Jazz Institute in Darmstadt.  Still, I had never heard of her. (An interview in the Village Voice existed, which she later gave me, but she had not been featured in any jazz magazine).

Connie agreed to my request to interview her for my dissertation, and I went to hear the Connie Crothers Quartet—which included Richard Tabnik, Sean Smith, and Roger Mancuso—at Cleopatra’s Needle.  Deeply moved by the tight band, their fast, swinging, effortless unison lines and seamless move between composition and improvisation, I felt this was a true new musical discovery and wondered why this band was not touring the jazz festival circuit all over the country. The band played original compositions by Connie and standards.  Several of her pieces are based on changes of standards,  with a bebop feel, yet with her own expression.

Connie invited me to her apartment on 9th Street near Astor Place and we talked for hours.  I learned how as a child prodigy she was trained at the piano to perform classical music and that she set out to study composition. Then she recalled her radical move to New York upon listening to Lennie Tristano’s Requiem, a bluesy tune and homage to Charlie Parker.  Connie had dropped her studies in Berkeley, traveled to the East Coast, and formally studied with Tristano for six years.   She immersed herself, studying countless hours every day, rethinking everything from the fingering of scales to how to hold the hands, how to approach a jazz tune or approach open form. It took her several years of profound study before she would perform in public.

I never improvised, though, that is a story also.  When I decided that I wanted to be a jazz musician, I knew that it was about improvising. I could really play by then, I was a good player, I was a very highly trained player, and I could play big works. I could sit at the piano and a lot of music could come out of the piano, and all that was wonderful, I appreciated it, but this was my moment of truth: I sat down at my piano with the desire to improvise, and I sat there for, oh, twenty minutes, a half hour. I could not improvise one note. And in that moment, I became angry. I realized that as much as I had given, and as much as people had given to me to learn, that this dimensional thing had been left out, and I was totally blocked. I was facing a wall, and I felt like I had been so deeply deprived of something that was so important. Not that anybody did that to me. It’s in the classical music culture—it wasn’t always like that, those great composers could improvise! It’s a deep story.  So, the thing that I credit myself with in retrospect is that in that moment I did not fake it.  I knew I couldn’t improvise, and I didn’t. I faced it.  It was rough. (…) I faced the enormity head on right away.  I took it in that I could not do it.

In her last decade Connie Crothers had become a profoundly admired and sought-after improviser.

To me, this statement was a powerful testament to her seriousness as an improviser.  She recalled how she eventually began to perform solo, and to experience rejection from the audience. She also offered reasons why her band would not perform more frequently.  She was adamant that it had to do with the divide in the jazz world—jazz tunes versus free jazz/free improvisation—and with the fact that she was a woman leader and would be hired less often because of it. (She explained that in the 1960s there was virtually no literature on women´s rights and highlighted that Lennie Tristano was ahead of his time: “Long before he was hip, I would say that Lennie was a feminist.” She felt that he took her seriously on a deeper level than she had experienced with her previous teachers, and that she was struck by the difference.)  Neither fitting the expectations of a jazz audience or of a downtown free improvising one, the band had by that time somewhat accepted that performances would be few; however, they rehearsed every week at Connie’s.  Fortunately, in her last decade she had become a profoundly admired and sought-after improviser.

Connie Crothers at the piano.

After our interview, I was determined to take lessons from her eventually.  Some years later, I was able to do so and came to her loft in Williamsburg.  I had not been living in New York for long at that point and was still developing my own playing, improving my standard chops  and free improvising.  Though I had taken various workshops as a student in Germany, Connie showed me a new level of profound dedication to studying and a range of new conceptual ideas, many of which she’d credit to Lennie Tristano: to connect with the melody of a tune through singing, to improve touch on the piano, to work on sound, to breathe, to play scales and melodies with new fingerings, to learn a huge variety of voicings, and, most importantly, to feel the music on a deeper level, to feel the energy of the piano.  She was puzzled by how most characterizations of Lennie Tristano would be about his technique rather than his way of teaching a deep feeling of the music.  (Tristano, well known for his dedication to teaching, would give lessons and students would be around waiting for their turn, as lessons could last for drastically different lengths of time, depending on what the student brought and needed.)

Connie showed me a new level of profound dedication to studying and a range of new conceptual ideas.

Connie had her own unique, personal way of teaching.  While she often mentioned how Lennie would see a particular approach and made it clear how much she had learned from him, which ideas were developed by him, why she would recommend a particular thought at this moment, she would always go with everyone’s personal needs, wishes, and ideas. She saw me as an individual and made me feel special to her.  By many accounts, she had this very outstanding ability to make the musicians, students, and friends around her feel special.  Many of us developed a personal relationship far beyond a standard student-teacher rapport.  A lesson would often begin with a conversation about anything from musical to personal to political to philosophical.  Two chairs were set, just a bit away from the piano.  She’d sit on the one closer to the piano, the student would be closer to the stereo. I’d often put a CD into it with the track I’d be singing for her.

Lennie Tristano thought that his discovery of asking students to sing with the great recorded solos was his most important discovery of his teaching life. As he explained it to me, he thought that before he knew about this, he could teach theory to his gifted students and they could be very accomplished, but he could not teach true spontaneous improvisation. Singing with records does this. When you sing with one of the great early innovators—after you’ve done it enough—you will internalize what the feeling is of spontaneous improvisation. You will also discover and release an energy that can only be found there. It is dimensional. It can’t be described verbally and it can’t be reached by practicing some kind of musical procedure. I recommend singing with the great innovators of the early decades of jazz. They were all spontaneously improvising their great solos, and this was their context. Spontaneous improvisation was the jazz world norm then, as well as the requirement to express individuality.

(excerpted from a Connie Crothers workshop handout)

After singing, I’d go to the piano and she’d listen and make suggestions.  More and more, a friendship outside of the lesson developed.  She remembered conversations. She’d recommend something and occasionally push me. Most vividly, I remember my anxiety about performing solo.  I did not feel ready.  Connie curated a concert series at The Stone and invited me to perform solo.  She knew I had three quite active duos at the time and was very comfortable in those and in larger groups. She said:  “I want YOU to perform. I want to hear you play, not with a duo, by yourself.”  She talked about how wonderful an energy I’d feel from the audience, which would inspire me. I followed through and played a solo set with my compositions spread through an improvised set.  No other teacher had done such a thing for me.  She’d come to my gigs.  When nobody else would make the effort to come to a gig at a small venue that was hard to reach, Connie would get on the subway and be there.

In the earlier years I knew her, she was very dedicated to her quartet and to other close associates. After Tristano died in 1978, many of his students kept in contact and there is a network of mutual support and respect that is still intact today. Of all his students, Connie was probably the most active in continuing Tristano’s legacy. New Artists Records provided an outlet for like-minded musicians. Her first release on New Artists was an album of piano and percussion duos with Max Roach entitled entitled Swish (NA1001), which they recorded in 1982. Max thought highly of Connie and they had planned to release a second one. Sessions on Haywood Road, also recorded in 1982, unfortunately remains unreleased. Although they did not get to perform publicly, Connie and Max remained very close, particularly during the last years of his life.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the quartet stayed together, but performances were sparse. Connie taught a large circle of students and stayed immersed in music; however, she craved being out there and performing more frequently.  Around ten years ago, Jemeel Moondoc hired her, which introduced her to a new audience.  From then on, she’d be more and more embraced by the communities around Arts for Art, the Vision Festival, Roulette, and The Stone.  In just a few years she played and recorded with many outstanding musicians.  She brought trumpeter Roy Campbell into her quartet. Band of Fire can be heard on New Artists Records, a collective label she co-founded.  She was very affected by Roy’s passing and doubled her efforts to play, perform, teach, support others.  The New Artists Records catalogue has been expanding dramatically in the past few years. She was very dedicated to the label, which fortunately will continue under the auspices of pianist Virg Dzurinko. There have been many more interviews with her. She had been a frequent guest at radio stations, Adam Melville wrote a term paper about her teaching (Rutgers University), and Chris Becker interviewed her for his book Freedom of Expression: Interviews With Women In Jazz (Beckeresque Press, 2015).

In 2013, I moved away from New York to Kassel, Germany.  Our friendship grew to another level.  We saw each other during every stay of mine in New York, went to concerts together, heard each other’s gigs, performed a piano duo at the Firehouse Space in Williamsburg. In February of 2015, she came to Kassel for a solo concert at the Theater im Fridericianum and a workshop at the Institute of Music at Universität Kassel.  She stayed with my kids and I for those days and we treasured those memories—singing “A Sailboat in the Moonlight” with a record of Billie Holiday as a duo at the workshop; Connie sang Lester Young’s part and I sang Billie’s. Or, on the beautiful, sunny morning of her concert, walking through the Bergpark, covered with snow.  She walked and hopped around with such ease, everything about her was full of life.  I still cannot imagine that she is no longer walking and hopping around like this. This was supposed to be the beginning of much more to come!  She played a piece at night inspired by the waterfalls and birds and my children.

Fortunately, I had seen her more often that usual in these past months. As hard as it was to see her so weak, feeling the energy of the New York music community toward her was tremendous.  I am grateful to have been a part of a wonderful circle of friends who supported her.  Grateful to have seen her well and less well over the past months, to have been with her on her last day, hospitalized, breathing hard. To spend time with other close friends of hers at the hospital.  Some I know well, some I hardly knew at all, it did not seem to matter—we all felt connected through Connie, and Connie was surrounded by love at any moment.

She died later during that night. Strangely enough, she remains very present—many friends shared thoughts on social media, WKCR did a memorial broadcast almost immediately, WBAI did a memorial broadcast, The New York Times ran an obituary.  I began writing these words on my flight, in this surreal situation between different worlds, in a strange moment of time.  Listening to the WBAI radio broadcast I hear her voice talking about familiar subjects.  I sit at the piano and feel her presence. On September 17, during a larger cultural event in the city of Kassel, my musical contribution will be dedicated to her.

Ursel Schlicht and Connie Crothers

Ursel Schlicht and Connie Crothers

(Ed Note: Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Connie Crothers herein derive from Ursel Schlicht’s extensive interviews with her, many of which have been published in Schlicht’s book, “It’s Gotta Be Music First”: Zur Bedeutung, Rezeption und Arbeitssituation von Jazzmusikerinnen (On the Impact, Perception and Working Situation of Women Jazz Musicians), Karben: Coda, 2000. A complete list of Crothers’s recordings is available on Crothers’s website.—FJO)

Muhal Richard Abrams: Think All, Focus One

Muhal Richard Abrams sitting in front of the New Music USA mural (created by the staff at New Music USA in 2015)

Muhal Richard Abrams

A conversation at New Music USA
January 15, 2016—2:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Although very early on in our conversation Muhal Richard Abrams adamantly denied ever being anyone’s teacher, I learned more during the hour I spent talking to him than I had in most of my music classes. And yet, I feel like it’s almost impossible to adequately communicate what it is exactly that I learned. At the risk of sounding like a Zen koan, that is precisely what I learned.

Let me attempt to explain. To Abrams, there are no boundaries. Any label we put on something—fixed composition vs. spontaneous improvisation, group vs. individual, even old music vs. new music—is artificial and limits possibilities. From his vantage point, all dualities are contained within each other. All improvisations are compositions and all compositions begin as improvisations. A solo performance can inhabit multiple personalities and an orchestra can be the embodiment of a pluralistic individualism. As for old and new, “None of it’s real because the situation that is characterized as old often times is revisited and found to be useful for some future purpose. And something new can be visited and found that is reminiscent of something that’s old.”

Though an iconic figure in the history of jazz, the 85-year-old composer/pianist also eschews the word jazz since it only describes certain aspects of his music.

“The word jazz can be confusing,” Abrams points out. “But if we say music, it could be anywhere. It’s just music. The next question, what type of music? Okay. No type of music. Just sound.”

And indeed over the past seven decades, Abrams has created music that some listeners might categorize as blues, Latin, classical, and all kinds of jazz from swing to bop to free. He’s even experimented with electronic music.

“That came about because sound can be produced in any way that you feel that you’d like to produce sound,” Abrams explains. “It’s just electronic sound. … But sound, that’s the thing, because before music can be called music, it has to be harnessed and structured from sound. Music is a by-product of sound. Sound is the thing. Sound.”

While the music he has created is extremely individualistic, it is also the by-product of his humility and deep sense of community. I titled this feature “Think All, Focus One,” which is the name of one of his most fascinating explorations involving electronics, the closing track of an album released 21 years ago on the Black Saint label. It’s as succinct and definitive a summation I can conceive of for a creator whose life’s work embraces and reconciles such a broad range of aesthetics.

This Spotify playlist containing over seven hours of music by Muhal Richard Abrams merely scratches the surface of his immerse and highly varied discography.


Frank J. Oteri: There’s a beautiful quote by you at the end of your liner notes for a record that came out in 1987 called Colors in Thirty-Third which I think sums up your belief system about music: “May the past, present, and future be ever before us as one.”

Muhal Richard Abrams: Well, I think I was trying to be in any time. I was thinking infinitely, if that’s possible. And I believe it is. Whatever I said could be in any time because it applied to what I feel is your essence, your inner focus.

The CD cover for Colors in Thirty Third (Black Saint, 1987)

Black Saint released Muhal Richard Abrams’s Colors in Thirty-Third in 1987

FJO: So many people describe music as either being “old music” or “new music.” But sometimes the lines can be very blurry. For example, in jazz, changes in style happened very rapidly; the transition from swing to bop and then cool and free all happened in a relatively brief period of time. Your music incorporates elements from all of these styles. For you, it’s all part of the language. And your music tells us that we can do it all.

MRA: Well, it’s partly human language. We can’t separate ourselves from other human beings because we are expressing ideas and all human beings express ideas. I may express it through a musical continuum and a poet may it express through literary continuums, but it’s basically the same thing because when we confront the whole idea of movement or rhythm, all these different sections or areas have rhythm in common, you know. And human beings have rhythm and breathing in common.

So, in reference to people saying this is old or this is new, if it’s old for you, then it’s old for you. If it’s new for you, it’s new for you. But those are just terms that are useful to describe the particular mood that that person or those people are feeling. None of it’s real because the situation that is characterized as old often times is revisited and found to be useful for some future purpose. And something new can be visited and found that is reminiscent of something that’s old. Take women’s fashion or men’s fashion. We see it every day. You know what I mean? And we certainly see it in music. Why is it that Beethoven and Bach are current and present today and valid today? Why is Duke Ellington still extremely important? When we view him as an individual creator, there’s a lot to learn. We’re observing an individual’s output, and I think the fact that we are all individuals for some reason or other is the basis of real education.

FJO: When you started to answer my previous question you said that you express things in music that other people express in poetry. Before we began taping our conversation we were talking about visual art, which is another avenue for personal expression. What caused music to be the thing that you expressed yourself in throughout your life? How did you come to music?

MRA: I expressed myself in the visual arts first, though certainly not long enough in terms of a practice. I was attracted to all of it at the same time. But I applied myself to the visual arts and then music took over. That’s it. It just took over.

FJO: Was there any kind of crystallizing moment of hearing something?

MRA: I think I started remembering something. I think that’s what it was. In the visual arts also, I was remembering something because it didn’t seem like I had to learn it. It certainly required practice, of course. Everything requires practice because if you don’t practice, then you’re kidding yourself, in terms of developing and receiving really great ideas. I started remembering things and my musical memory started to dominate. It’s the best way I can explain it. It just started to dominate, so I just put the bulk of the practice in music.

FJO: Was there a lot of music in your household when you were growing up?

Cover for Eddie Harris's 1970 Atlantic album Instant Death

One of the most unusual entries in the Muhal Richard Abrams discography is his appearance as a sideman for Eddie Harris’s funky 1972 Atlantic album Instant Death.

MRA: I grew up in Chicago, and there was music all around. It was a blues center. I listened to all kinds of that. I grew up around Muddy Waters and all those guys. And there were a lot of great jazz musicians. And a lot of those great jazz musicians played classical music. So I was impressed with all of it. Then I got a chance to listen to regular so-called classical music. I was enjoying and appreciating that, and having the desire to learn how to compose all sorts of music because my training was like a street improviser. I learned to play standard tunes and what not like that. But I always held two situations at the same time: making up things and being with things that were made already. It all was happening at the same time.

FJO: One of the things that I find so fascinating about your development is that playing the piano and composing music are both things that you pretty much did without a teacher.

MRA: Oh yeah.

FJO: This is pretty extraordinary. Of course, there have been others who have done that, but there aren’t too many of them, especially not many who have taken it to the level that you have. But what’s ironic about that is that you have been an important mentor to so many other people, both your contemporaries and musicians from younger generations, yet you yourself had no such mentor.

MRA: I can certainly identify some people that I associated with that were older than I was around Chicago. I certainly learned a lot from them. But I don’t claim to be a teacher. I never have claimed to be a teacher. If someone claims that they’ve learned something from being close or around me or associated with me, that’s fine. Those kinds of things happen through association, but mentor or teacher? If people want to apply those terms, fine. But I don’t think of myself in that way. I love sharing and collaborating with people, young or old. There’s something to learn from each person’s individualism, and if I’m associating with you, then your individualism can tell me something that I don’t know anything about. And my individualism can possibly do the same for you, because we all, as individuals, have something that no one else has. As I tried to state earlier, I think that’s the basis of the real human education.

FJO: Well, one of the things that’s so transformative about small group improvisatory music—call it jazz or whatever you want to call it—in its history in America is that it is such a human music because it is about people spontaneously creating together and reacting to each other. So you can hear someone’s individuality, and it leads you down a certain path, and then they hear what you did, and it leads them down a certain path, and it’s this wonderful, fluid conversation between individuals.

MRA: We have used the word jazz, but any type of description of music, especially the word jazz, can be confusing because, like we spoke of earlier, some people say they like the old or that this is new and the word jazz has stuck with a lot of people as a certain type of activity, so it can’t describe anything past that for those people. But if we say music, it could be anywhere. It’s just music. The next question, what type of music? Okay. No type of music. Just sound. You know, because that’s what it is. Sound. Before it’s even organized into any kind of continuum that we would call music, it’s just sound. As we speak here, I certainly feel that every serious practiced output that has come about since the beginning of time, is good—and valid. A style name limits the scope or the focus and that turns out to be unfair to quite a number of people.

FJO: Jazz has certain associations for people and so does classical. It was interesting to hear you say “so-called classical.”

Cover for the 1981 album Duet featuring Muhal Richard Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers.

In 1981, Muhal Richard Abrams joined forces with Amina Claudine Myers for an album of duets for two pianos that explores a wide range of musical styles.

MRA: It’s the same. You’re putting a restriction on a vast area of activity. And, by the way, you alluded to the fact that one could learn from the other. Classical music is the same thing. It’s written composition, of course, but the great composers did a lot of improvising, too. All of them. When you play their music, you can tell. It’s not just mechanical. Rachmaninoff sat down and played ideas at pianos. I’m sure he did that. Then he said, “Well, I’ll make this a piece.” Certainly Chopin must have done that. But they were well-trained musicians, so they knew how to handle the material of harmony, rhythm, and melody, because you hear all those things. It’s just too human in its feeling and its activity to be strictly mechanical. As a composer, if you give me a score pad I could just sit right now—I don’t need to have a piano or anything—and I can just write; I don’t have to know what it sounds like. I know how to structure it. That’s one way. If I sit down at the piano and start playing and say, “Yeah, I like this. I’ll write this down.” That’ll sound a little different. So I’m sure in their case, they improvised a lot of things. But it’s quite different from a person that has had the experience of improvising as a focus; theirs was compositional as a focus.

FJO: So to take an improvisation and turn it into a composition, the lines can often be very fluid and very blurry, as they ought to be. And I think they always were, as you’ve said. But what are things that make something that was spontaneously conceptualized in the moment into something that could theoretically be something that you’d want to repeat and do the same way other times, again and again? What gives it that essence of compositionality? How does it go from being an improvisation to being a composition?

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Afrisong.

Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1975 album Afrisong is a collection of seven of his solo piano improvisations.

MRA: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think what I’ll say is probably pretty similar in each case. Some things you want to keep for several reasons, but one of the main reasons is that you learned something from doing this. You were enlightened by it. So you want to keep it because it might have constituted an area where you solved something that you might have been having questions about. Let me try this. Let me see what this is like. Oh, I think I’ll write it down. Sure.

FJO: So when did that first start happening for you?

MRA: It always happened.

FJO: But you said that when you first started making music, you were improvising.

MRA: But I was doing that too, though.

FJO: So you were writing stuff down? How did you come to learn music notation?

MRA: Well, I came to a point where I wanted to be more technically enlightened about composing, so I started to study on my own. I remember they had these harmony books. They’re teaching people harmony out of a book. I’ll just go buy the books, and I’ll read the books. And so I just see what it is. I didn’t need the teacher. No disrespect to the teachers, it’s just my kind of feeling. I’ve always had a kind of feeling that I could teach myself if I could find the information somewhere because I had the patience to spend the time to try and learn it no matter how difficult the learning curve.

FJO: But there’s also another kind of learning that happens from working relationships. For many musicians, working as a sideman in someone’s group has been an analogous experience to being that person’s student. And there were all these great musicians you played with when they came to Chicago—like Max Roach and Dexter Gordon. This had to have been a learning process for you.

MRA: Oh yeah, on the stage—listen, that was it! You didn’t go up on the stage unless you could really complement the scene.

FJO: So how did those opportunities come about? How did Max Roach learn about you?

MRA: Mostly through Joe Segal, the person who had a venue called the Jazz Showcase. He had it at different clubs and things, but he really started with having jam sessions at Roosevelt University, so we would all participate in jam sessions. Then he started to bring in national and international entertainment and would hire us as sidemen for the people that were coming. That’s how that came about.

FJO: You attended Roosevelt briefly.

MRA: Very briefly. I was searching for a learning path. However, I found that I didn’t really need that either.

FJO: Well, there’s a quote from you I came across where you said you wanted to go there to learn about the music, but what they were telling you about the music wasn’t the same as what you were experiencing.

MRA: It was very basic, and I was performing more advanced type things than they were. But let me be fair to them. You know, if teachers are going to teach, they start with the basics. I don’t blame them for not having different information than I had from actual playing in the street. But, like I said, what I did decide is that the same literature that they had there to teach me, I could just get the literature and teach myself. That way, the pace by which I would learn the literature could be a pace that I would set. It would take me six months to learn that a triad has a positive and a negative, but you could learn that in two days.

FJO: I wish there was some recorded documentation of your performances with Max Roach.

MRA: No, we didn’t record. I performed with him, and it was great. That was some education. That was like a Ph.D.

FJO: And Dexter Gordon?

MRA: Same. And Sonny Stitt.

FJO: I’m also intrigued that you worked with a really great singer who’s not as well remembered now as she should be—Ruth Brown.

MRA: Yeah. Believe it. And Percy Mayfield. You remember Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love”?

FJO: What do you feel you got from working with Ruth Brown?

MRA: Her feeling was so great. It was a challenge to present the right complement every night. Just basic things. But my experience in Chicago around blues and different forms like that came in handy. I was ready to do it.

FJO: One thing that I hear, and I was wondering if you will agree with me or not, is I find your piano playing so melodically rich; the melodies just soar. It almost sounds like singing at times. Some pianists are really rhythmic, or percussive, or really big on harmonies, but I feel that your pianism is a very melodically flowing pianism.

MRA: Yeah, I guess it is. I don’t know. I feel a lot of worlds all at the same time and respect for a lot of worlds, even the percussive world sometimes. I do that, too. Actually, I think what it is for me is I’m composing. I think it’s basically that. I’m composing. And for me, there are two ways of composing: writing it on a paper and improvising. So when I’m playing the piano, it’s improvised composing or composed improvising. The memory of what you’ve been and what you are and whatever you will be comes out.

FJO: None of what you did with Max Roach, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Percy Mayfield, and Ruth Brown got recorded. But you did record with a group called Modern Jazz Two + Three.

MRA: Oh yeah. It was the first recording I ever made.

FJO: I’ve been trying to track down that record for a very long time, but somebody posted one of the tracks on YouTube—a composition of yours called “Temporarily Out of Order.”

MRA: George Coleman reminded me of that piece a couple years back. He used to play it. He sang it. I’m surprised that he remembered it.

The cover for the 1957 album Daddy-O Presents MJT+3

The first recording on which Muhal Richard Abrams appears is the 1957 Argo album Daddy-O Presents MJT+3. It was briefly re-issued on CD in Japan in 2002.

FJO: It’s got a great melody and some interesting chord progressions, but what strikes me about it is how different it is from what you started doing very soon afterwards with the Experimental Band. I don’t know the whole album, but judging from that one track, wonderful though it is, it is not experimental music. So what led you to go from straight-ahead type playing to wanting to really be open to the full range?

MRA: I was always that way. It’s just that I came to a point where I needed to express the more open type approach. You know, you evolve. So I came to that point and, because I was seeing it all the time through writing original pieces, I just decided to open it up. There were a couple of musicians around Chicago who agreed with that. And we just started opening things up.

FJO: But what’s interesting about what happened in Chicago with you and the other musicians there is that it was very different than similar developments with free music in New York and Los Angeles at the time. While you were opening things up, as you say, you remained mindful about earlier history and also about contemporaneous popular music. It was never experimental for the sake of being experimental. It was really about just having this open view, as we’ve been saying before, of being mindful of the past, the present, and the future all at the same time rather just making music for the future and forgetting about the past.

MRA: Well, I don’t even think that’s possible. People could fancy themselves doing what you just said, but I think basically people were trying to be composer-improvisers and the main generator was the individualism of each person. That is very important because I believe that individualism resulted in a scene with quite a few very strong individuals, like those that came out of the AACM. They were very strong individuals because they were encouraged and presented with a situation that asked them to present their individualism in concert. So there was a constant challenge to meet those challenges.

Cover for the 1985 Muhal Richard Abrams Black Saint album View from Within

On Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1985 Black Saint album View from Within, styles range from straight-ahead hard bop to free jazz, Latin, Chicago blues, and even contemporary classical music.

FJO: Since the past, present, and future are all a continuum, I’m going to jump decades ahead and then we’ll jump back. In the ‘80s you released a record with a very interesting title—View from Within. There’s an incredibly wide range of music on there. One track is Latin music. Another one is a full-on Chicago blues.

MRA: That’s right.

FJO: There’s also material on there that sounds like classical music, as well as stuff that sounds like straight-ahead jazz. But what’s interesting is that you describe all this as a view from within as opposed to the view from outside.

MRA: I’ve kept a better balance by respecting other things. Somehow it balances me to do that. Learning from another individual’s information—that’s extremely important.

FJO: Now in terms of balancing, to bring it back to the 1960s, your second LP—Young at Heart/Wise in Time—is like two completely different records. You reminded me of it when you were saying that sometimes you also get all rhythmic and percussive. There are sections on the ensemble side, Young at Heart, that are throbbing and really intense, especially in the interplay between you and the percussionist, Thurman Barker. But the other side, Wise in Time, is a beautiful, lush, at times almost Rachmaninoff-esque piano solo.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Young at Heart / Wise in Time (Delmark, 1969)

Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1969 Delmark album Young at Heart / Wise in Time is ideally suited to the LP format since it consists of two very different side-long tracks: a composition for ensemble and a sprawling solo piano improvisation.

MRA: Well, listening to people like Art Tatum, and also Rachmaninoff, it was sitting down getting a feeling of how the piano sounds as a complement to all these people. That’s all it was: Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Art Tatum, Monk. Just sitting down and being musical in that way, to explore how the piano can sound. I think that’s probably what happened in that instance.

FJO: It’s a perfect listening experience on an LP because you have the two sides, whereas on a CD or an online stream you don’t get that same sense of duality.

MRA: It was limited, but yet not.

FJO: Now, in terms of the composition-improvisation divide, how much was worked out in advance and how much was completely spontaneous.

MRA: The piano solos were improvised. Period.

FJO: Completely improvised?

MRA: Yes, that’s what I’m saying—just sitting down and respecting the fact that it’s important to make an effort to be musical and to explore, as best you can, how the piano can sound. So that’s a compliment to Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Chopin, Monk, Duke, and also one of my first influences on piano, King Fleming. I just mentioned him because he needs to be mentioned. He was the first pianist I heard who was a jazz pianist and was classically trained. The way he played the piano, he was aware of the piano sounding in a combination of manners—jazz and classical, all at the same time. He listened to a lot of people who were like that: Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum. But I think King Fleming’s influence as to how a pianist should sound hit me first and early, because he was the first pianist that I’d gotten close to who could play like that. And he had a large band, and the arranger who orchestrated for that was a trumpet player, Will Jackson. I need to mention him, too. I learned a great deal from both of these gentlemen. I learned performing in a jazz band from King Fleming and writing for a jazz band from Will Jackson. They’re both deceased now, but I think that other people should know about them.

FJO: Curiously, on your first recording date as a leader, in addition to playing piano, you also played clarinet.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's first album as a leader, Levels and Degrees of Light (Delmark, 1967)

On Muhal Richard Abrams’s recording debut as a leader, the 1967 Delmark album Levels and Degrees of Light he plays clarinet in addition to playing piano.

MRA: Well, I just feel musical with anything that I would apply myself to. I wanted to play the clarinet, so I just picked up clarinet and respected the fact—I practiced clarinet. I certainly didn’t stay with it as long as I could have, but I stayed with it long enough to do what I needed to do in terms of when I did perform with it.

FJO: And I imagine that it gave you other ideas that you might not have gotten on the piano, because of the different physical relationship it requires, producing sound with your breath.

MRA: It’s a different feeling because it’s a different mechanical manipulation. Sure.

FJO: This multi-instrumentalism is a hallmark of AACM members. In terms of the beginnings of the AACM, you were its founder as well as its first president. You were the person who brought these people together. But notions of hierarchy seem antithetical to you, as well as to aesthetics of the AACM overall; so how did that work?

MRA: There was no hierarchy. We all agreed to agree; sometimes we agreed not to agree. But we certainly agreed to contribute to each other’s efforts to express one’s individualism. And that was the basis of it.

FJO: So how did that whole thing come about?

MRA: Well, I had organized a band called Experimental Band, which was a precursor of the AACM. I needed a place to try out some of the newly learned things that I was educating myself about in terms of music through my studies. I needed a place to express those things. They were more open things. They weren’t things that you’d play in jazz clubs. So I organized what I called the Experimental Band. The musicians could come and experiment with composition and improvisation. We were of like minds. And so from there we came to a point where I collaborated with three other musicians to create a formal association based on the same idea. That’s how the AACM came about.

FJO: It began from a group, but it’s not a performing group per se. It’s sort of a composer collective, but it operates in a different way than most composer collectives. It came from this idea of not playing in clubs and finding alternative venues for this kind of music, but it’s not a venue in and of itself.

MRA: We presented our own concerts. We also created the venue for producing the music or, rather, for presenting the music. We created a venue through just renting a space and presenting the concerts. In other words, it was a total effort. We weren’t looking for a place to perform the music. We created a place to perform the music. And so it was all one.

FJO: There are two things that could be strong motivators for doing this. One is what you had said about making music that wouldn’t work in a club. Or maybe it was music that the club wouldn’t want necessarily because it didn’t fit with the definition of music the people at the club were interested in presenting or that they felt the audience expected from that club. But there’s also another motivator which is about creating a space for the kind of listening that is most appropriate for this music. To really be able to focus on it requires a different kind of space than a club.

MRA: Well, no. Not really. Let me say this. It could have been played in clubs. In fact, we did. We were in residence every Monday night at a club. We played the way we played, and the place stayed packed with people who wanted to hear what we were doing. So it could be played in clubs. It was just that it wasn’t regular gig music. People come to hear standard things. But certainly we played in several clubs and the night we played was the night that people would come to hear what we would do. So it could be played anywhere. In Chicago, it was like that. It could be played anywhere in the city.

FJO: The reason I wanted to talk about it now is because the world 50 years ago is quite different from the world today in terms of venues. Nowadays, people who doing the most experimental kinds of things want to go back and play in clubs and suddenly clubs have become an even more tolerant space; whereas a half century ago there were more limits on what you could do. I think the notion of what is possible in a club now is very different.

MRA: Certainly you go to clubs here in New York now and you might hear anything because it’s wide open to individualism. I think that is the real factor that brought this type of situation to the fore, because individualism is not something that’s strange. You know what I mean? People today expect to hear an individual doing an individual type of presentation.

FJO: I’m also curious about this in terms of recording and how most people experience music. We didn’t really talk about listeners so much in this, like the ideal listening experience for somebody hearing what you or what other people associated with the AACM do. I don’t expect you to speak for the others, but to speak for yourself. What is an ideal listener in terms of focus on the music? Should the person be paying full attention? Could the music just be in the background? So many people nowadays walk around wearing headphones and listening to music as they’re going through their daily routines. Is that an okay way to experience this music versus being completely focused on it and having it speak to you— and have only it, ideally, speak to you?

Cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's 1995 New World CD One Line, Two Views

Another provocatively titled Muhal Richard Abrams recording is the 1995 New World album One Line, Two Views which once again demonstrates Abrams’s penchant for reconciling seemingly opposing aesthetics.

MRA: Well, let me ask a question. How many different ways can a person decide to concentrate? I think that question asks many other questions. If a person is concentrating and seriously listening, it could be through earphones walking down the street. I wouldn’t even attempt to try to say what would be the ideal situation or where a person should listen to music. I think they make that choice. But the fact that there are people who seriously want to listen to certain kinds of music—well, they’ll do it anywhere, even through earphones. You know what I mean? They’ll do it anywhere, if that is convenient for them, and they’ll just do it whenever they find a convenient time to do it. I think that’s the answer, because people are listening to all sorts of things and I think a lot of them are quite eclectic, too. I mean, they’re listening to all kinds of stuff.

FJO: Well, if they listen to you, they’ll be hearing everything.

MRA: [laughs] I don’t know about that.

FJO: To bring it back to those early AACM years, you were such an important voice in the Chicago music scene, and yet in the mid-1970s you moved to New York City and have been here ever since. What made you uproot yourself?

MRA: What can I say? It was just time to move. Chicago is a great place, but New York is a different kind of place. The intensity and the challenge is quite constant. I guess it was just time for me to do that. You’re swimming in a pond and sometimes you go where it feeds into the ocean.

FJO: You came to the ocean, but a lot of the things that you did here were similar to what you had done there. In New York City, you were a major force in developing the loft concert scene. So to some extent you brought a Chicago idea to New York.

Cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album 1-OQA+19

The somewhat cryptically titled 1-OQA+19, Muhal Richard Abrahms’s first album as a leader recorded in New York City (in November and December of 1977) and featuring four other AACM alumni (Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Steve McCall, and Leonard Jones), is definitely a continuation of the ensemble music he was involved with in Chicago.

MRA: Well, I don’t know about that, but I didn’t intend to function in any other way except for the way I was functioning. I have to include other people, of course, but we all came to do what we do: presenting concerts, same as we’d been doing in Chicago. Now we’re in the ocean; we do it according to this space.

FJO: It was such a vital time for this music, but now, 40 years later, a lot of that scene has disappeared or has changed very fundamentally. Back then Roulette was a loft. It was Jim Staley’s apartment. Now it’s an official, street-level concert venue. It’s amazing that we finally have such a venue that’s dedicated to new, exploratory music. That’s wonderful. But I also think we might have lost some of the personal, home-grown, DIY quality that we once had when so many of these concerts were taking place in people’s own homes. With the way the real estate market has played out, the way demographics have changed, we probably can no longer have such a scene in quite the way that we had it back then.

MRA: You hit it on the head when you said real estate market. There’s a reason for that. The real estate requirement for higher rents caused people to just give it up in terms of maintaining those venues. It happened to quite a few, without naming them, as I’m sure you know. But with Roulette, his [Jim’s] perseverance in terms of what he wanted to do paid off, which is great.

FJO: But what’s interesting is now he’s got this great space, but it’s not a loft anymore. It’s something else. It’s a fabulous something else, but it’s a different listening modality. It doesn’t have the same intimacy. It can’t.

CD cover for the 2005 Pi release Streaming featuring Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis

The 2005 duo album Streaming, released on Pi, is a truly collaborative effort between two old friends and musical co-conspirators, Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis.

MRA: Well—and I’m sure you know this—you have to upgrade. You’re asking people for money, so you have to put it on a level where you can use that kind of money you’re asking for, if you’re fortunate enough to make those kind of contacts. But I think the music itself or the idea of the music and the presentation of the music hasn’t changed. At Roulette, they present a great variety of musical approaches. If anything, he expanded, but I suppose it has to be what it is in terms of physical structure in order to accomplish what it is that they want to do. If you do something for ten years, you say, “I want to do it again for the next ten years; however, I want to levitate and do it like this.” Things just have to grow. There’s a nostalgic feeling in reference to vinyl records and CDs, there’s a nostalgic feeling for the lofts and whatnot like that, but I think that the musical content in the lofts is still at play. It’s just not in the lofts.

FJO: So, for you, where are the ideal places where you would like to either play music or have your music played by others to be heard?

MRA: Oh, I don’t have any except for the AACM concerts. We’re still producing those concerts. But Roulette is a good place for having things done that are not AACM-type presentations. And Tom Buckner’s series does quite a few good things. I mean, I like seeing some things on his series that otherwise maybe wouldn’t be on an AACM series, some compositional things. I’ve done some things on his series. There are a few venues in Brooklyn. I don’t function in Brooklyn, so I’m not in touch with those other venues, except for Roulette. But they have other venues around that seem to be pretty consistent in presenting written and improvised music.

FJO: To bring it back to your music again, my all-time favorite piece of yours is The Hearinga Suite. I feel it has a foot in both of the worlds we’ve been talking about: that of composed improvisation and improvised composing—so-called classical music and so-called jazz. It’s a fluid interplay that is both at once—informed by both, yet neither. It’s its own thing. So I wanted to talk to you a bit about it and how it came into being. Do you feel it represented a turning point in your music because of its scale, both in terms of its length and the number of players involved in it?

MRA: No, I was always like that. I mean, it’s just happening. It’s a project that I did at that time, but in terms of the musical ingredients, they were always there. The idiom, the compositional makeup of the piece, that’s just me in that.

FJO: What does the word Hearinga mean?

MRA: It’s an expression, like a song—Hearinga—like a name or something. It has nothing to do with the music, but it’s an expression that is used to speak in reference to the music.

FJO: I thought it was about hearing, because it’s “hearing”-a. I thought you gave it the title as a way to focus listeners on hearing this multiplicity.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's The Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989)

The Hearinga Suite, arguably Muhal Richard Abrams’s most ambitious work, was released by Black Saint in 1989.

MRA: That’s great, because certainly I intended for the title to provoke thought and wonder. But the intention was to bring a thought from the listener that would require the listener to deal with the listener’s self. You see what I’m talking about? It’s hard to explain, but I mean—it’s like I’m thinking and I’m looking at the table. I’m thinking about the table, and all of a sudden I’m seeing shapes within myself and getting questions and answers about something that I might not have been thinking about at all.

FJO: The individual movements go in so many different directions like, for example, “Conversations with the Three of Me.”

MRA: Oh yeah, that’s the piano thing.

FJO: I love that title, but there are so many more than just three of you.

MRA: Well, hey, right. But that’s rather metaphysical and also quite mundane at the same time. I used three improvised approaches.

FJO: So what are they?

MRA: There are three different moods, but they’re not moods that are separate. They’re played like a sonata. You play this slow, you play this a little fast, and then you play this fast. But it’s not exactly that type of thing because everything is improvised on the spot. The name came after the performance. All names come after the performances.

FJO: You also use a synthesizer on it.

MRA: That’s one of the moods.

FJO: Certainly there are things that can be done on synthesizers that are impossible to do on a piano or with other instruments. Even by the mid-1980s when you made this music, electronic music was largely a new sound world. So what brought you to use synthesizers, and do you feel that changed your language in any way, musically?

MRA: Well, let’s think of it this way: we’re actually talking about sound. We’re talking about music, but we’re talking about sound. So that came about because sound can be produced in any way that you feel that you’d like to produce sound. And that’s it. It’s just electronic sound. That’s the difference. There’s electronic sound, then the two piano sounds—three moods. Three of me, you know, a conversation with the three, so there’s an electronic part, and then there’s two different moods for the piano. So that’s the conversation, you know what I mean? But sound, that’s the thing, because before music can be called music, it has to be harnessed and structured from sound. Music is a by-product of sound. Sound is the thing. Sound.

FJO: You went even deeper into exploring electronic timbres in the ‘90s with “Think All, Focus One.” That’s probably my favorite of your electronic improvisations. It’s from another extraordinary album with a really great title: Think All, Focus One.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Think All, Focus One (Black Saint, 1995)

In addition to six compositions for septet, Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1995 Black Saint album Think All, Focus One contains a fascinating synthesizer improvisation.

MRA: Well again, here I have a provocative statement which has nothing to do with describing the music. It’s a statement that is intended to provoke, but not for control or anything. It’s just meant to provoke. It’s a feeling that comes together in that statement. You know what I mean? Think all, focus one. And I know what I get from it, but I don’t know what you might get from it.

FJO: Well what I think I got from it is that there’s all sound out there available to you, and you should be mindful of all of it: all styles, all possibilities of what you’re doing on any instrument, the whole breadth, the whole line between complete spontaneous improvisation to fully worked-out composition, as well as the rhythms and the melodies of all cultures. But despite thinking of all of that, you must be an individual.

MRA: That’s very good. That’s a nice compliment to the title, I must say.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's 2001 Mutable CD, The Visibility of Thought

In 2001, Mutable released a disc devoted to Muhal Richard Abrams’s notated compositions called The Visibility of Thought which includes performances by baritone Thomas Buckner, pianist Joseph Kubera, and the string quartet ETHEL.

FJO: Now when you write music for other people to play—like, say, the music you’ve composed for groups like the Kronos Quartet or ETHEL who performed a piece of yours for baritone and string quartet with Thomas Buckner, or the orchestra pieces you’ve written that have been performed by the American Composers Orchestra or the Janacek Philharmonic—these are situations where the musicians are working from written musical scores and they are performing this music without you. I imagine there is no improvisation in any of this music.

MRA: No. It’s written.

FJO: How does it feel to be apart from the music and for it to be fixed in that way?

MRA: Well, I’m improvising all the time, and I’m composing all the time. It’s the same thing. It’s the application that’s different. I am applying the approach to this orchestra with a written presentation, but it’s the same process. The difference is in the sense that I can make a certain kind of a texture with fifty strings. Four French horns can make a certain kind of texture. So I’m dealing with respect for the orchestra. That’s a component. I have elected to respect this instrument called the orchestra. And the possibilities of sound that can be gotten from treating it in a certain compositional manner.

FJO: But when you do something for an ensemble of improvising musicians, they bring their own individualism to the table.

MRA: I insist on it.

CD cover for the 2015 ECM CD Made in Chicago

Though released under the name of percussionist Jack De Johnette, this extraordinary live recording from a 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival concert in Millennial Park (which was released on ECM in January 2015) is truly a group effort by all the members of the quintet which also includes Henry Threadgill, Larry Gray, Roscoe Mitchell, and Muhal Richard Abrams.

FJO: And you’ve performed as a sideman with others and you bring your individualism to them.

MRA: That’s right.

FJO: But when you’re writing a piece for orchestra, the whole idea is that it’s all on the page. They’re following the notes, and then they’re following the conductor’s interpretation of those notes. There’s a lot less room for self-expression.

MRA: Well, but there’s room for self-expressions, plural. You follow what I mean? People who are adept at playing classical music, I mean really great orchestra people, interpret musical symbols in a manner that can conjure up all sorts of pictures and panoramic images in terms of what you feel and what you hear when you hear a piece played by a really good orchestra. The way they interpret what you put down, that’s another element. You’re getting a plural of individualism, a pluralistic individualism, as a result of all these people playing together and playing with each other. There’s something that happens with them. There are certain people that couldn’t play with them because they wouldn’t be able to transfer that, they maintain the orchestra feeling for whatever is going on. It’s very important to them. In those great orchestras, it’s very important what happens among them. And that’s the other element. See? So you’re getting this plural individualist situation that goes on with them. It’s hard to explain because I think that the whole situation of individualism is transferable in terms of what a situation might be in terms of numbers of people.

FJO: So would you be okay with them taking a lot of liberties with something you’ve written down? How much can they change it and have it still be your piece? How much give and take is there in that process?

MRA: But the orchestra doesn’t change. The conductor might want to—

FJO: Speed it up?

Cover for the 2010 Mutable CD Spectrum

The 2010 Mutable CD Spectrum features a performance of Muhal Richard Abrams’s orchestral composition Mergertone, a work commissioned by the Ostrava Days festival and premiered there in 2007 by the Janáček Philharmonic conducted by Petr Kotik.

MRA: Yeah, he might, but he doesn’t really change it, because if something sounds one way going at a slow tempo and you speed it up, then it’s a different mood. You discuss that with the conductor. And any changes, certainly a good conductor will consult with you before he make them; he’ll ask and make suggestions. And if you say, “No, leave it,” he’ll just leave it like that. So there’s always that collaboration. I mean, it’s a rare moment when a conductor will go off on his own, because he’s endeavored to interpret what the composer has written.

FJO: The structure is so large, so it requires a different way of working. There’s so little rehearsal time, so even if you wanted there to be room for improvisation in that context, there wouldn’t be enough time to make that work. Plus a lot of these musicians don’t have experience with improvisation and feel uncomfortable with it. But would you want to create such a piece?

MRA: No. To ask people who don’t improvise to suddenly improvise, it’s been my experience, you don’t get a great result. And it’s not the fault of the people. They’re great musicians and great on their instruments, but you’re asking them to do something that they don’t do! That doesn’t work out too good. You have to approach that situation differently. If you want improvisation, then you bring improvisation with you, so they don’t have to deal with it. And mix it.

FJO: The last thing I wanted to talk about with you is that on all your recordings, going back decades, there’s always a line stating how to obtain scores of this music. I wonder how many people have contacted you for scores and if they have then gone on to perform that and what those performances have been like.

MRA: Oh, I can’t speak to that. I don’t quite know what they do with it. They can do what they want with it. I don’t ask that they do anything when they get it. But usually they’ve listened to a recording and they try to stay as a close or true to what they heard. You know what I mean? Some people may change it, but what can you do? I don’t have any requirement beyond what I ask of myself.

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.

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: Taylor Ho Bynum—Navigation

[Ed. Note: Last week at New Music USA, we hosted Caio Higginson from the Welsh Music Information Centre, Tŷ Cerdd, as part of the staff exchange program of the International Association of Music Information Centres. During the week, I arranged for Caio to visit a variety of music organizations in the city as well as to hear live performances of American music every night in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera to (le) poisson rouge, the Jazz Standard, and the Church of St. Luke in the Fields. Caio also worked with each of our departments here, learning about what we do and how we do it. As part of a way to understand what we do at NewMusicBox, I put a pile of new CD releases in front of him and told him he could write about one of them for us if he was so moved. After an afternoon listening bonanza, Navigation by the Taylor Ho Bynum’s 7-tette, inspired these thoughts from him.—FJO]
Taylor Ho Bynum 7-tette: Navigation
(firehouse 12 FH-12-04-01-019)
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet; Jim Hobbs: alto saxophone;
Bill Lowe: bass trombone, tuba; Mary Halvorson: electric guitar;
Ken Filiano: acoustic bass; Tomas Fujiwara and Chad Taylor: drums, vibraphone

Navigation, Taylor Ho Bynum’s recent CD release, seems particularly relevant to my own experience of visiting New York this week. I can bare no claim to navigating the airplane over the Atlantic, of course, but to me at least, this improvisatory multi-sectioned work reflects the adventure of experiencing a specific city for the first time.

Bynum has laid this work out in six movements—ISH, WUK, ZADE, TRIST, MANCH, and KID—each with some predetermined elements planned, but from there the music relies on the independence of the performers as it weaves from one scenario to another. These movements can be played in any order, simultaneously, and even multiple times within a single performance, as they are in the two realizations featured on this Firehouse 12 2-CD release. Diagrams printed on the digipack outline the specific paths taken.

In the first track, MANCH, Tim Hobbs’s alto saxophone and Bill Lowe’s tuba spar with one another before Mary Halvorson’s electric guitar and Tomas Fujiwara’s snare drum and cymbals kick in; it reminded me of my arrival to this city—e.g. depending heavily on maps at first and gradually feeling more confident of where I was going. This sets the stage for the second track, MANCH-ISH, which, after the heaviness of the proceeding interplay between the musicians, sounds relatively tranquil. It begins with an electric guitar solo that made me think of the sounds of dial-up internet connections from the 1990s. As a backdrop, bell-like percussion sounds kick in occasionally; although it might not have been the musicians’ intent, to me it felt like the subway rumbling underneath me from time to time! But there is a constant gradual build-up to a flurry of passion from Lowe’s saxophone and then Bynum’s cornet. The MANCH movement reappears on the last track of the second disc. In that performance there is a calm sense of confidence, with the saxophone taking the lead accompanied by the cornet while in the background the guitar lays back and strums away as if just observing the world go by.

The ZADE and WUK movements are each performed twice on the first CD. In the first performance of ZADE-WUK, the vibraphone (played by Fujiwara) is very prominent in deciding the path that the sax and cornet then follow. The subtlety of the vibraphone and bass (played by Ken Filiano) contrasts very effectively with the harsh and brash interferences, particularly from the guitar and tuba. The second performance, which opens with a bleak bowed bass solo, eventually builds to an ensemble interplay that has an almost traditional jazz feel to it, but not for long. In this performance, however, the navigation of the journey seems clearer and more confident due to its familiar landmarks.

There is an additional performance of ZADE on its own on the second CD. Here is a barren and sobering version of the movement with low and hanging sounds from the bass countered by both low and screeching expressions by the cornet which create a weird sense of uneasiness. About midway through, the saxophone enters and the tensions that had been building up to that point finally evaporate.

Throughout the piece, Bynum doesn’t allow the listener to dwell too long in any moment, choosing to steer back and forth from the traditional to newer waters. In my view, of the six movements it is TRIST and MANCH that reflect the traditional and fond essence of travelling and the confidence in your navigation that allows for a pleasurable journey.

In the first performance of TRIST there’s almost a sense of a strong, cold wind blowing across the landscape, but shelter is provided in the form of the guitar and warmth from the bass and drums. These foundations allow the performance of the wind instruments to thrive in a carnival-like atmosphere, yet at the end we are still made aware of the raging storm. But in the second performance of TRIST, there is no lingering threat from Mother Nature; this is reflected in a colorful cornet solo. It is the wind instruments rather than the guitar that take the initiative at the beginning of this performance. Those festive sax and cornet elements are more subdued in this performance, allowing the guitar to take center stage midway through the track.
The KID-WUK movement begins with the guitar and cornet playing in tandem, both shadowing the other. Suddenly the bass trombone appears (played by Lowe) which gradually builds a sense of tension. The cornet plays over it, responding differently throughout the movement, sometimes challenging the tension and sometimes embracing it.

From the beginning, this album challenged ideas that I’ve had about jazz and made me realize that there is a lot that I have to learn. I’ve listened to it many times during the last five days, and though it is a cliché to say it, every time it evokes a different emotion in me. This is actually the intention of Taylor Ho Bynum. In addition to having recorded two versions of most movements, he states in the CD’s program notes that he “wants to ask listeners to consider the composition as a set of possibilities rather than a fixed document.” And it is just that.

Wadada Leo Smith: Decoding Ankhrasmation

At the Affinia Gardens Hotel, New York, NY
December 14, 2011—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Wadada Leo Smith has been celebrating his 70th birthday throughout the entire 2011-2012 concert season by performing all over the world. Though his actual birthday fell on December 18, which he ushered in with a two-night stint at Brooklyn’s new music venue Roulette appearing on stage with all four of his current working bands, the momentum has not let up thus far in 2012. Last month he appeared in Buffalo and Minneapolis after just returning from a tour through Italy, France, Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland. Later this month, Cuneiform Records will issue his massive composition Ten Freedom Summers on a 4-CD set and he will perform generous portions of the five-hour work in Quebec.

What is perhaps even more extraordinary than how active he has been this past year is how seemingly different all of his various projects sound. While the Silver Orchestra is a highly experimental large ensemble, Organic fuses funk and electronics. Mbira is a trio that harnesses a variety of world music traditions. The Golden Quartet (sometimes a Sextet), his longest standing group, has gone through a variety of incarnations. Though its music is perhaps the most closely related to the jazz idiom, it is also very difficult to pigeon-hole. What unifies all of these projects is what also makes them so different from each other—Smith’s commitment to every musician having an individual sound.

Wadada Leo Smith has codified this approach through something he calls Ankhrasmation; it’s an approach to conveying ideas to another musician that leaves a great deal of room for personal interpretation. As Smith puts it:

Ankhrasmation is a musical language as opposed to a musical notation system. […] The first part, Ankh, comes from the Egyptian cross. Ras comes from the Ethiopian head, meaning the leader. And Mas comes from mother. […] It could be referenced scientifically, according to nature or biology, or it can be referenced according to fantasy, imagination. So when all these components are connected, that guarantees the possibility of success; you can definitely, in a critical way, decide what’s not making it. […] The score itself becomes obsolete the moment the object has been rendered.

All of Smith’s current projects revolve around these ensembles which he is very much a part of, but he has also created compositions for contemporary classical ensembles. For him, this is just another manifestation of the same basic approach.

The same music I write for the contemporary classical performers, any one of my ensembles or myself can play. I don’t change up the kind of language that I’m using for this group or that group. I have music for gamelan. I have music for koto ensembles. I have music for gagaku. I have all kinds of music, but I use the specific language that I have to experiment with instruments and people, sometime extracted from their history, sometime using their history as well. Most things that artists do will find this course. Art is here for a specific reason. It wants to engage us to think deeper about ourselves and our connection to our environment.

The compositional aesthetic for all of this music is inherently social and collective in its approach, but Smith’s very first recording project as a leader, which he did exactly forty years ago, was an album on which he did everything completely by himself—he played every instrument and even was responsible for the album design.

I did absolutely everything including the silk-screening of the cover. The original one was written by hand, and it had a red cover over the name of what it would have been before, because I changed the name. And I placed every one of those stickers on there. […] It sounds like it’s overdubbed, because my percussive system had a metallic keyboard with stuff all hanging around. And it had a sleigh of things hanging that I could use my foot to manipulate. So I could play the trumpet, and then play it and strike one of the overheads, and it sounds like there’s two or three people playing.

Even when he is playing completely by himself, he wants to embrace a whole world of music. The aspirations that informed and guided that very first recording are still being played out in Wadada Leo Smith’s largest scale projects. Also at the core of everything he has done there seems to be an educational component, not just in the strictly intellectual or pedagogical sense (although he has served on the faculty of CalArts since 1993 and has been a mentor to generations of musicians) but in a deeper spiritual and metaphysical sense as well. Wadada Leo Smith’s urges all for us to find our own voice through our own creative expression and he believes that through our finding our own voice the world will ultimately be a better place.

I do believe that there’s a world coming where the cultural base is of the Americas—North, United States, Central, South, and all the auxiliary islands and lands around. […] Imagine this, as John Lennon said, what is going to happen when those other cultures take the same level as has happened here in the United States? You’re going to see a fantastic sphere of music culture that no one on this planet, even today, could ever think would be. It would be more fantastic than any artist ever before, and it’s waiting for us to connect, you know. We have not connected for a lot of reasons, but I can say this, the beginning of creative music in America at the turn of the last century began to make that base and eventually it’s going to open up. It’s got to open up because we can’t stand still.

Frank J. Oteri: This season you have had an extremely extensive concert tour in celebration of your 70th birthday, but it’s also the 40th anniversary of the first album of your own music, Creative Music 1.

Wadada Leo Smith: That’s right. I never thought of it. I’ve been going forward, so I haven’t thought about when that was done, but it was done in December forty years ago.

FJO: 1971.

WLS: Wow. That’s great.

FJO: It’s interesting to compare that record to this ongoing celebration. Creative Music 1 was the ultimate do-it-yourself project. You played every instrument on there, you produced it yourself, you did the program notes, and you even created your own label for it. At the time you did that, most people assumed that to make a recording you needed to have a producer and a record company, in addition to side men. Nowadays so many people do everything themselves so it’s no big deal; in 1971, it was a huge deal. But that’s very different from your recent concerts which have involved 50 people.

WLS: It is. It is. On that particular first record of mine, Creative Music I, I did absolutely everything including the silk-screening of the cover. The original one was written by hand, and it had a red cover over the name of what it would have been before, because I changed the name. And I placed every one of those stickers on there. The truth is that there was one done just before that, like about a month and a half to two months before that, but I picked the wrong studio and obviously the wrong engineer, and everything was distorted. So I had to wait until I got it out of my system before I did it again. And I did it again. So the version we’re hearing now is the second version. That other version is just unlistenable.

FJO: Even nowadays with all our technological engineering feats?

WLS: I think I may have thrown it away it was so bad. I couldn’t hear it. Everything was distorted. The engineer was laughing the whole time because he had never seen anybody play stuff like I was playing. So he didn’t know what to do with it.

FJO: I’m curious about what your procedure was in the studio in terms of playing in real time versus multi-tracking.

WLS: In this particular case, absolutely everything was done in real time. I think on my ECM solo Kulture Jazz I do some overdubbing, but the overdubbing is very unique. I play one part. I don’t listen to another part, I play the second part, I don’t listen to the first and second, I play the third part. And I have a kind of a feeling for how length comes out. And so I kind of ease it in in the same zone, or end just a little bit over. I let it hang. I let it stay. What I’m looking for is art, and art is something that doesn’t have requirements as such. It’s a different kind of approach to how you see life, and one guy’s response to that life. And so if it hangs over a little bit longer, it’s fine. You know, that means it will just be two trumpets or two flugelhorns or something.

FJO: Now what’s so interesting about that being done with no overdubs is that if someone were to listen to it without knowing everything was done in real time, it would be easy to assume that the music was being made by a group of people.

WLS: Well, it sounds like it’s overdubbed, because my percussive system had a metallic keyboard with stuff all hanging around. And it had a sleigh of things hanging that I could use my foot to manipulate. So I could play the trumpet, and then play it and strike one of the overheads, and it sounds like there’s two or three people playing.

FJO: That album is such an interesting point of departure to talk about your music overall because in your life you seem to have done three kinds of music making: music that you create for and by yourself; music that you do with other people; and finally music that you write for other people in which you’re not necessarily part of the performance, whether it’s a piece for the Kronos Quartet or Da Capo Chamber Players. I was listening yesterday to this really, really cool bass clarinet and piano piece that you wrote for Marty Walker and Vicki Ray, the Betty Shabazz piece. It got me wondering though about these different modalities or working alone, working with other people, and then making pieces for others that doesn’t include you at all. That clarinet-piano piece could be playing right now while we are here in this room. You don’t need to be there for it to happen; it exists in this other realm. Yet there’s a consistency of approach to all the music you’ve done.

Wadada Leo Smith. Image courtesy of the artist.

Wadada Leo Smith. Image courtesy of the artist.

WLS: There is. Basically my experiment is with instruments and people. The same music I write for the contemporary classical performers, any one of my ensembles or myself can play. I don’t change up the kind of language that I’m using for this group or that group. I have music for gamelan. I have music for koto ensembles. I have music for gagaku. I have all kinds of music, but I use the specific language that I have to experiment with instruments and people, sometime extracted from their history, sometime using their history as well. Most things that artists do will find this course. Art is here for a specific reason. It wants to engage us to think deeper about ourselves and our connection to our environment.

For example, Robert Johnson, Son House, and all those great guitar players, every one of them had a different way that they tuned their guitars for their special sound. When they played together, you would hear the uniqueness of each one of them. If they were in the same group, you would hear each one distinctly. That’s language. And that language is what art is all about. It’s that uniqueness, that concern with how you see or project yourself, and what that environment has that you must either encounter, engage, or somehow make peace with.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you talking about the great bluesmen. You grew up in Mississippi, the home of the blues.

WLS: Yes, I did.

FJO: So that was probably the first music you heard.

WLS: It was the first music. That and church music. Blues is such a fantastic music. I talk to people all the time, either in my classes or in lectures, or in conversation. I’ll say, “Let me tell you something about Blues.” And they say, “What?” And I say, “First of all, it’s not a harmonic progression, even though modern guys in the North made it like that. It’s not that. It’s really an interchange between the first and the fifth chord: the one and the five. That’s all it does.” And later in life, you know, studying analysis of most of Western music, and that includes Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, all of them, that music moves in fifths. No matter what the decoration was, they had a relationship of one-five, or five-one. Now, the blues found that intuitively.

This interchange allows the artist the chance to hear and think and breathe at the same time while they’re making this line, which has always only two parts to it. The third part is always improvised. We know in modern times, people make the third line. But in the older days, they would sing the first line, which usually repeated itself, like “I woke up this morning and everything was a mess.” They say the same line again. “Everything was a mess.” The third line now has to solve that riddle of why there was a mess or what you’re going to do about it. And those singers, they used to do that. The guitar players and singers used to figure these songs out. They could make them up daily if they wanted to. Blues is spontaneous, it alternates between two chords, one and the five, and it’s the freest form of music in America. That’s why it was brought into jazz and all the other music, like rock and roll which came out later, because it’s the freest form of music. And it can absorb all influences without stuttering.

FJO: When you got to Chicago, you were playing blues with Little Milton. But when you were still in Mississippi, were you already involved with playing blues?

WLS: Oh, yeah. That’s all I played. Yeah. Yeah, I grew up playing blues. My first ensemble when I was 13 years old had two guitars, a bass guitar, a lead guitar who was the vocalist, drums, and a trumpet player—me. And we played blues. From the age of 13, until I graduated out of high school and left town, that’s all the music I played. I heard other music only on television and radio. When I got a little bit older, like 14, somewhere around there, I ordered a batch of LPs, five of them I believe. I ordered Miles Davis Kind of Blue. I ordered Duke Ellington, the Newport Jazz one where Paul Gonsalves plays a hundred thousand chords or something. I ordered Count Basie. I ordered Billie Holliday, and Michel Legrand, the French composer.

FJO: That’s quite an auspicious way to start a record collection!

WLS: Those five records became the hallmark of my introduction into jazz. Michel Legrand, I didn’t know who he was. Never heard of him, O.K. But he had Art Farmer, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, he had a bunch of creative musicians on that recording. So I got to hear these artists in different settings, where it had an element of classical music in it. But they were there soloing and playing.

"Yo Miles!" poster. Image courtesy of Wadada Leo Smith.

“Yo Miles!” poster. Image courtesy of Wadada Leo Smith.

FJO: It’s fascinating that Miles was such an early influence for you because I think you’ve absorbed Miles’s sound and have kind of carried it on and extended it in a way that I don’t think any other musician has done. And your absorption of Miles is from all the parts of this career. You’ve embraced it all and you’ve taken it to another level. But many other musicians have said, “Oh, well I like the early Miles, and then he went fusion, and I don’t like that.” And then the folks who are into fusion might say, “Well, the fusion stuff was the great stuff, but the early stuff is less interesting.”

WLS: I’ve heard that often. How can I say it nicely? It’s a junk argument that has no basis whatsoever. Would you take a person’s head only, or his hands, or his fingers, or his toes, or just a heart? You have to take the complete person. And an artist shows you stuff that you may not supposedly like, but once you hear it, it doesn’t matter whether you like it because memory is second to the heart beat. If you heard it, your inner consciousness has stored it. Whether you allow it to happen normally or whether you allow it to happen through intrusion, it’s going to influence you. The great master artist Miles Davis did a lot for music. He played most of his own music throughout his career. He understood the way in which the social system here worked. He was courageous in the sense that he wasn’t afraid to change and go in multiple directions. In fact, he did it all his life. Duke Ellington did the same thing. Most of these great artists changed all their life. But Miles Davis was most recognizable because frankly, his profile was a little bit bigger. Most people won’t take that, but it’s true.

Regarding my relationship to Miles Davis, let’s say it this way. When I approached the first Miles Davis project that I got involved in, Henry Kaiser would send me copies of his music to listen to. I would listen to it, maybe the theme of it, and drop it because what I was interested in doing was seeing how I could relate to his music by using the same principles that I use in my music. That makes it work, and that allows you to be able to expand it and go way beyond it.

For example, my sound is as powerful and great as Miles Davis. I don’t say that out of arrogance; I say that out of deep respect. The articulation that I use is quite different than his. His articulation had a lot of tonguing in it; mine doesn’t. It has where I chopped the wind by the tongue inside the mouth which is very different. Most people don’t know that. They think that it’s the same thing, but it’s not. The air column is stopped inside.

The other thing is that notion of creativity, not being afraid to explore your instrument, to allow the instrument to sound the way it will sound by itself no matter what you do to it. An instrument has a quality that, if you allow it to share it with you, to be a part of what you’re doing, it will give you a sound that no one else has. It will give you articulation and shapes or musical phrases and structures that no one has, and it will introduce this extra sonic aspect. It’s all inside the instrument, but most people fight hard to keep it from coming out. Before multiphonics got famous, everybody tried to avoid them. Multiphonics is easy, it’s when your lip gets tired and the little inner part gets relaxed a little bit and it buzzes or vibrates a little bit different. It cuts out some of the overtones and stuff, so it allows these multiphonics to pop in. While Booker Little was talking about being able to do that, he never quite affected it, and other guys was talking about doing it. The guys that made it most available, the three guys on the Plugged Nickel date that Miles Davis did. He used multiphonics on there. Lester Bowie used multiphonics on there. Wadada Leo Smith used multiphonics. And as a result, everybody that plays the trumpet now has investigated how to make multiphonics.

FJO: Now Booker Little probably would have gotten there had he not died at the age of 23.

WLS: He would have gotten there. I mean like come on, the guy was fantastic. But the thing is his intent was there, and therefore he did it. You see, he was aware that it was possible, and therefore he did it.

FJO: This goes back to this point about the dichotomy of playing music with people and writing music for others to play. We talked about contemporary classical players. I want to get into this whole question of words. Like “contemporary,” “classical,” “jazz.” I think those words are all traps.

WLS: They are all traps. Yeah.

FJO: But one of the mindset traps that even goes beyond the words is that players coming out of jazz or creative music, improvised-based music, whatever we want to call it, are taking instruments and using those instruments to shape their own sound.

WLS: Right.

FJO: But what Western classical music performance training is about is playing a certain way on an instrument in order to convey the music that another composer has written, maybe two weeks ago but more likely 200 years ago, and producing what is considered to be the best possible tone on that instrument according to a specific tradition of performance practice. This can become a problem even with composers in the contemporary classical world who want to do something new with a particular instrument. Players don’t want to sound bad, and there are specific ways that an instrument is supposed to sound. When you were describing multiphonics, you made me think of all the classical players who might say, “I won’t do that because I don’t want people to think I’m making a bad sound; my reputation is about sounding a certain way.”

WLS: No, the creative musician coming out of that tradition, they all have to have a signature. And the sound is the biggest thing that they have because everything you play, your sound goes through it. Lester Bowie, Ted Daniels, Don Cherry, and Miles Davis—every one of them I guarantee you had four or five Cs, and four or five Ds, or four or five Es. They could shade each of those attacks so that the sound that they play is still a C or a D, but different. That’s because at some point, you have to make the sound be different than it was before. Now, I recognize in, let’s say, contemporary classical music that they have a different sound, too. Only the soloists are allowed to have their own individual sound. Not the ones sitting in the orchestra. They can’t be too individualized, because the conductor is going to say, well, that chord is out of tune, or can you shape that note up. But the soloist can have an individual sound. They can make their individual F-sharp a little bit different. Because who’s going to stop them? Nobody. The conductor’s not going to go up and say, “Stop that.” He’s going to take it because usually the soloist has just as much clout as the conductor.

FJO: There have been some famous stories of soloists butting heads with conductors in bad ways, like the one where Leonard Bernstein was conducting a performance of a Brahms Piano Concerto with Glenn Gould as the soloist and they couldn’t agree on the interpretation.

WLS: Gould knows how to interpret what he wants.

FJO: But to bring it back to your music, you say you write the same music no matter who you’re working with. If someone’s training is totally different, and someone’s coming out of a whole different tradition, even if you’re writing the same music, it could wind up sounding quite different.

WLS: It’s gonna be different, but I’ll always put a little bit of something in it that will make it sound like it’s a part of me. For example, you noticed on Marty Walker’s bass clarinet, I had him do multiphonics. And those multiphonics are nasty. He would do them much cleaner than he did them on my record, but I asked him loosen them up. I told him not to play just to get the correct relationship between the fundamental pitch and the overtone pitches, but to make it so that it has a little bit more noise in it. Then, when it comes to phrasing and structure and stuff that, I talk the player down to where I want him. And I do it very easy. I don’t say, “That’s wrong.” I say, “Can you hold this note a little bit longer? Can you make the phrase feel a little bit more heroic, or a little bit more laid back, or a little bit more like you want to improvise it?” And eventually, that’ll seep right into them, because I’m not demanding that they do it. I say, “Can you do that?” I learned that from Duke Ellington, not from him personally, but from reading and hearing about him. In the studio, he would tell a soloist, “We’re going to do another take, because I know you feel like doing it better.” You make it easy and not confrontational. Just be gentle, be soft, and let them figure it out for a while, and they’ll make it. There have been people that have not figured it out and won’t allow you to figure it out for yourself. And what you do is you just avoid that person.

FJO: Now the amazing thing in your referencing Duke Ellington is that he didn’t write for instruments so much as he wrote for people. He didn’t just write for trumpet, he wrote for Cootie Williams. That’s a very different way of looking at arranging and orchestration.

WLS: Exactly. I write for people, too. I write for the instrument and for people; I’ve blended it, so to speak. When I say I write for instruments, when I write for the pipa, for example, I don’t use references from the guitar or from the piano; I know what that instrument is. I understand its history, and I write it for Wadada. And that makes it come out a little bit different.

FJO: Now, I want to get into some of the technical aspects of the writing of music. You have a term to describe what you do, and I hope I’m not going to say it the wrong—

WLS: —No, you won’t say it wrong—

FJO: —Ankhrasmation.

WLS: That’s exactly right. The first part, Ankh, comes from the Egyptian cross. Ras comes from the Ethiopian head, meaning the leader. And Mas comes from mother.

FJO: It would be great if you could explain how it works a bit.

WLS: That’s easy. At least it’s easy to talk about it because it’s one of my favorite subjects. Ankhrasmation is a musical language as opposed to a musical notation system. In the early years of it, we talked about it as being a notation system. But since 1967, it has moved into a language, meaning it’s a musical language as opposed to being a graphic language. There’s a difference between the two. In my Ankhrasmation, there are lots of commands. There’s a rule of thumb for success or failure for any portion of it. There are elements that have to be referenced, like when there’s color involved. The colors have to be referenced on various levels. For example, it could be referenced scientifically, according to nature or biology, or it can be referenced according to fantasy, imagination. So when all these components are connected, that guarantees the possibility of success; you can definitely, in a critical way, decide what’s not making it.

Score sample from compositions that can be heard on "Luminous Axis" (Tzadik)

Score sample from a composition that can be heard on “Luminous Axis” (Tzadik)

Now, it has various levels. It has what I call velocity units that deal with all kinds of motion. There are eight of them. There’s a set of four that’s on the left sphere and a set of four on the right sphere. The left sphere is generally slow, and the right sphere is generally fast, and each velocity unit of the four on each side, they all have the same relationship to each other. It’s either a relationship of one and one, or one and two, or one and three, or one and four in terms of ratio. And the density level as it goes from one to four increases or decreases. For example, if it’s the slow ones, the density level decreases. In other words, number four would have the maximum level of space within it. And if it’s on the fast level, the density level increases, so number four would have the absolute maximum of reduced space—there’d be no space, virtually. And that just deals with the idea of things that move. Then there are the rhythm units—six sets. Actually there are seven, but I haven’t used number seven yet because I just started working on it in the last couple of years, and I have to figure out a little bit more the components of how I think about using it. But it’s there. Each set starts with a long and a short, and each set progressionally is long-short, but it gets shorter as it moves from set number one to set number six. But each set relationship ends up exchangeable with each other set. The long-short relationship or the slow-fast relationship is constantly parallel throughout this language, and the reason is because when I compose or construct a piece of music, I don’t want the artist trying to remember how long the last long was and how long the last short was. Every time they come up on an Ankhrasmation figure, they don’t have to worry about trying to figure anything out about how long or how short or how fast or how slow it was. It’s that their relationship is always going to be from any two; it always will be long or short, or short or long.

FJO: Now, is this something a player who has never worked for you, could figure out? Could a player get a manuscript of this stuff, without any additional explanation about it from you, and be able to come up with something that you could say is your music?

WLS: Let me say it this way. It’s most difficult without me, but it’s not impossible. I have a ten-page document that talks about some of this stuff, and I deliberately make it short, because I don’t want it long winded, and I don’t want people trying to figure out too much about it. I want them to be able to integrate that bit of information I give them into their perception, so there’s always a little bit of them in it as well. So that’s why I say it’s not impossible. It’s possible to have stuff upside down; that is, you’re not sure this is long and that is short. But if you functioned on a level in which the command asks for, you’re gonna get some results. The results don’t have to be absolutely the right order, but if the proportions are right it turns out to be right. Let me give you one statement about this Ankhrasmation that I discovered very early and it was a bit of shock at first. On the first early pieces, after having people come to my house and play them or I go to some place and play with them and get back home and put the tape on—at that time it was tapes—and get a glass of Kool Aid or water or tea, cross my legs, open the score, push the button, sit back to follow it and—No. Impossible. Impossible. You can find traces here and there. You can point that it’s here and now it’s there. If it’s three or four people, it’s impossible to tell. So the score itself becomes obsolete the moment the object has been rendered. I was shocked at first. But then if I take the same score, and redo it with the same ensemble or a different ensemble, it’s completely different. So, I don’t mind this score evaporating for each of the music objects that it creates because it’s going to create a new music object that’s completely different. The only requirement is that the artists that are performing it maintain a high level of sincerity. That’s all it requires.

FJO: This is a parallel approach, but almost for the exact opposite reasons, to John Cage’s creation of indeterminate scores. The idea was also for it to be different every time, but his goal in those scores was to create music where the way it was written would not only get rid of his ego in the process, but also get rid of the egos of the performers. The music would happen and ultimately be separate and apart from something that he or anyone else could control. But what you’re doing is creating a music that allows the people who are coming into it to have a piece of the control as well.

WLS: Exactly. But when Frederick Rzewski or David Tudor played a Cage piece, I think they added their personalities to it. I think Cage was a philosopher, and he understood the realms of what that meant. He had to accept the fact that those two guys playing the same set of piano pieces, because of the score, are going to be different, but also because of their different personalities, it’s going to be different. I think he understood it. I think that it was a philosophical notion about these guys getting rid of their egos. But you can’t lose that. What you can do is control it, you see. I think he managed to control it with that particular pronouncement. Guys would not go too far outside of themselves to do it. And he controlled it like that. But in any piece of my music, whether Ankhrasmation or something that I’ve written for just a trumpet, or something I just play on the trumpet, I’m looking to do a number of things. I’m looking to be creative and open. I’m looking to see what the trumpet or the instruments would do inside that room, see if they make that space in there lighter or heavier, or somewhere in between. It can do that, but the condition has to be right. In other words, the artist in that room has to have a dominance of focus that outweighs the one or two people who are not focusing perfectly. You would get that, that little lightness in the room. You get that little feeling of it. You get that little buzz in your body that tells you something is true.

FJO: There is definitely a remarkable through-line in your ideas about music which goes all the way back, again, to your first album, Creative Music 1, from forty years ago. In your jacket notes for the original LP you wrote about wanting to create a better balance between the realm of composed music and the realm of improvised music. You perceived a cultural dominance of Western classical music; musical traditions from the other parts of the world—Africa and Asia—were not accorded the same status. And definitely in your own music, which responds to all the world’s traditions, you’ve attempted to rectify the disparity. Yet it’s interesting to hear that for you, even with music that is created in the moment, as opposed to something that’s fixed in advance, there is a compositional process going on beforehand, and that you create a score from which other people are playing. This actually connects your music to the lineage of Western classical music.

WLS: It does. You have to look at this way. The first truly authentic notion about improvisation occurred right here in the United States at the beginning of the last century, and it was flooded out throughout the world. People say, “Yeah, what about India?” Yes, they were improvising, but they all were improvising based off a tradition. They all improvised based off how their teacher taught them to improvise. If their teacher taught them to make certain kinds of turns, they do those certain kind of turns in improvisation. In the Western world, you can have a guy from India, a guy from Jamaica, a woman from Texas, and a woman from Florida, and you have Wadada in the same ensemble—all of them coming from different backgrounds, maybe different religions, different standards of life, and they would have no problem at all making music. But you couldn’t do that in an Indian ensemble. You couldn’t do that in a Japanese ensemble. You would have to adopt a tradition before you do it. In other words, this creative music that began in America brought in this humanism towards the creative arts. Now it has not been solved, because right now in every school in the world, my school included, Western [classical] music is the only dominant force and the only one that’s worthy of having any kind of decision made that would effect it. It still happens, O.K., and it’s going to continue to happen because I’m not the dean of the school, you know. Or, Anthony Braxton’s not the dean of the school, or Muhal Richard Abrams is not the president of the college.

But I do believe that there’s a world coming where the cultural base is of the Americas—North, United States, Central, South, and all the auxiliary islands and lands around. It’s the largest cultural sphere on the planet, larger than any of them. It also has the most diverse of musical forms and cultural attributes. It also has the largest basis of insect life and animal life. Imagine this, as John Lennon said, what is going to happen when those other cultures take the same level as has happened here in the United States? You’re going to see a fantastic sphere of music culture that no one on this planet, even today, could ever think would be. It would be more fantastic than any artist ever before, and it’s waiting for us to connect, you know. We have not connected for a lot of reasons, but I can say this, the beginning of creative music in America at the turn of the last century began to make that base and eventually it’s going to open up. It’s got to open up because we can’t stand still. As Bob Marley would say, you can go around them or you can go under them. It’s not going to last. This thing is going to bust out. And you’re going to see probably the same thing happening with other spheres. You’re going to find out that the culture of Africa and Europe is actually one culture. People just don’t know that because of the political differences between those two parts of the world. There’s a guy by the name of [Cheikh Anta] Diop who suggests that Europe and Africa were one cultural sphere.

FJO: Well I’d go even further. I’d say that at the beginning of the 21st century, we’re all related to each other in the entire world.

WLS: Exactly.

FJO: And this definitely ties in with the music you’re making. I’m thinking now of your group Mbira. This is music that’s inspired by the Shona people of Zimbabwe, but the way you choose to express it is by including the pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument which in your group is played by great Chinese virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen. She has been based in the U.S. for many years, but she’s coming out of a tradition that is very far away from Harare, and yet—

WLS: Right. They are connected because all of us have the same origins. The difference is only through migration. Whatever the scientific basis of all the information that we have, we do know one thing: we’re much closer in perception of language than anybody ever thought a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago. We’re much closer in cultural ideas than anybody ever thought we’d be. Technology is a world event. It’s inherited by the next generation that has the best economy.

FJO: When you talked about embracing traditions, I thought it was interesting to hear you compare an ensemble from India, which is coming out of a specific tradition, with assembling five people in the United States from Texas, Florida—

WLS: —And India.

FJO: And India, yes. They can be from anywhere and, as you say, have different backgrounds and practice different religions. Now religion has played a key role in your own life. You’ve practiced several different faiths over the course of your life and have created music in response to that. You were involved with Rastafarianism, and as a result you embraced Jamaican musical traditions.

Wadada Leo Smith

Wadada Leo Smith. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

WLS: My Divine Love was a Christian expression. When I made Divine Love, the guys in the studio didn’t quite put it together, but eventually they did, that I’m talking about the love of God. That’s what divine love means. That was an expression out of my Christian zone. There’s also something on ECM that’s looking at the whole mystical tradition coming out of the desert sages and the early Christian mystics. It’s all coming out of them. And the Rastafarian zone, that’s also connected with the Christian view.

And now Islam. I searched for Islam a long time. Even when I was looking at Rastafarianism, I was looking at Islam. I was always fascinated with what I was reading. So I started to actually study it, not with somebody else, but with me, sitting down in my little music room. I started doing the prayers, even though I didn’t know how to do the prayers. I just read that you stand up, you bow down, you do this, do that. I imitated those gestures and one night after I got up and did those prayers, I decided that morning that I had to go take the Shahada, which is the confession of faith. I drove from my home, which was in Green Valley, California, all the way to L.A. which was quite a long ride, a couple of hours. They were having a class. Now the lady asked me my name. And I said, “My name is Ishmael.” And the reason I said Ishmael was because I was reading about Ishmael the night before I came. If she asked me on another day, I probably would have said Leo. But I said Ishmael, so she pinned a badge on me saying Ishmael. So I go to class and after class, we do the Shahada. But in class, they were reading the same story narrative from the Koran that I had read the night before. They were reading the story of Ishmael!

I’m going to jump forward, but I’m going to close it up. I went to Mecca in 2002, and on my way out of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, I heard a sound of myself saying, look up. See which door you going out of. And guess what, I looked up and it was the door of Ishmael. So, how can you say it, the ship sailed in the right direction. I was looking for Islam all along. I went through many other different systems. I even went through a lot of different kind of things, you know, even Zen Buddhism. And I’m still looking, but the ship moved into the dock.

FJO: And yet it seems like you haven’t rejected any of them.

WLS: I have rejected nothing! No, because all of it gave me knowledge. The journey, here and there, gave me information and it all helped to purify me, meaning that it made me feel an awareness about the spiritual dimension that may in fact be larger than the religious dimension.

FJO: Somehow I think the fact that you maintain four different active musical groups is related to your ability to embrace so many different things at once. And they’re all very different from each other. It’s all very clearly you, but they’re very different kinds of ensembles. First there’s the Golden Quartet, which of course has changed over the years also based on who else was performing in the group with you—Anthony Davis, or Vijay Iyer, Jack DeJohnette or Pheeroan AkLaff. So perhaps for me to call that one group might perhaps be somewhat misleading.

Wadada Leo Smith with Malachi Favors

Wadada Leo Smith with Malachi Favors. Image courtesy of Wadada Leo Smith.

WLS: No, because it has been. I decided to change the Golden Quartet after Malachi [Favors] passed. Jack and I talked and he suggested some people. I looked through a lot of different players. I played CDs, I listened, I sat back and imagined. Then I heard Vijay’s stuff. He had given me CDs every time I’d meet him. I listened to all the CDs he had given me. I went through all these other CDs, but I kept going back to Vijay. And the reason I went back to Vijay was this—the way in which he played a chord, any chord. With Anthony Davis, the way that he played a chord, I thought I could never find anybody that played a chord that I would like. But he did. His chord was different than Anthony’s, but it was one that I could assimilate and play through. Over the years, there’s also been Angelica [Sanchez]. I’m still searching—not for a replacement, but—for the right notion about how you play a chord. Somehow that’s what I use to judge my piano players as to what I can do with them. In Golden Quartet, the piano player is absolutely the most essential part because it connects all the lines. All the lines stem from that piano. And not from the piano part, but from how the piano moves horizontally.

Now, Mbira with Pheeroan AkLaff, Min Xiao-Fen, and myself, that group has such a fantastic open sound. All the resonance you can hear because of the strings, stuff like that.

Silver Orchestra has a different kind of a notion. It’s seeks to utilize at the largest level the notion of instruments being unaltered in their performance. Now what do I mean? I mean, non-transposition; I don’t transpose the instruments unless I want a melody or horizontal line or melodic line that needs to be transposed. Otherwise, no instrument in that ensemble is going to be artificially transposed to C. Because that’s what happens when you transpose instruments: every instrument—the F, the B-flat, the E-flat, the D—is transformed from their original intent into this context of C. And my theory is that when you do that, only the C spectrum with overtones and undertones, and character comes out. Whereas if you allow the C, and the F, and the B-flat, and the E-flat, and the D, and the F-sharp instruments to sound simultaneously together, all six of those sounding areas are activating overtones and undertones, and the resonance is great. My Silver Orchestra has maximum 12 players in it. And I can tell you this, I’ve tested many people, they cannot tell you how many instruments are there. They think it’s more. It’s only 12. That’s because I didn’t transpose them. I believe that instrument makers were not dumb people; they were smart. If they made E-flats and As, and B-flats and so forth instruments, why not use them?

FJO: So when you’re saying non-transposed, what you’re essentially saying is they’re playing in their own keys, so what results is a kind of polytonality.

WLS: Yeah. But a rich polytonality, because again your skills of orchestration come in, you see. And that can tell you how rich or how unrich it’s going to be.

FJO: The final group—which we haven’t talked about yet, although we alluded to it when we were talking about Miles—is Organic. I was listening to Spiritual Dimensions last night, and I kept thinking that this music is taking Bitches Brew to the next level and going beyond even that. But I find it curious that a group that has all these electric instruments—something that we might think of as being not organic, not natural—is the one you call organic.

WLS: Right. What I really mean by organic is I’m talking about what it produces. It produces a real, vibrant, sonic reality that’s nourishing and vitalizing. That’s really what I mean by it. And each of the players in there has been really, deeply picked to give this notion, because I tried different numbers of players, and this latest version—which has existed for the last three years or so now—is the right version. Originally, Organic had two keyboard players in it. Very fine musicians, but not the sound that I really wanted to hear. I thought I wanted to hear that sound, but after two performances, or three performances, I realized that’s not the sound I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear these guitars, this cello, these double basses, two basses, and on the second record, the piano. I’m thinking now to get maybe one more instrument, like another bass, and have two electric basses.

FJO: You’ve got a laptop in there, too.

WLS: We’ve got laptop, horns, we got a lot of stuff on there because that project was to be an extended view of what I thought about an ensemble that everybody was calling electric and funky. But I wanted to show them that it was not just that. It was something that has this huge volcanic, lava kind of sound that you can’t really place in those categories.

FJO: But at the end of the day, it really is still pretty funky.

WLS: It is. But it’s supposed to be.

FJO: And, I think, there’s something instantly appealing about this music that makes it an excellent entry point for people who might not immediately understand some of your other music. We talked about how the world is going to come together. What are the commonalities? You’ve done a lot of stuff that has taken people to other sonic realms in your music over the years; there’s some pretty far out places that that music goes, going all the way back to your very first album. In a group like Organic, you’re also doing things that are really far out, but because it’s got this groove, you can take them there more easily than if it were just hard core experimentation.

WLS: Exactly. That’s exactly true. Like Bob Marley said, “Hit me with music, and I fear no pain.” That’s what’s happening here. All the same qualities that exist in that other music of mine, it’s all there. But you make it so that they don’t feel no pain. It’s easy. It’s easier for them absorb it. And that absorption makes it also a little bit easier for me. I can get more work, I can have people come Friday and Saturday. “That guy has returned to the earth.” I could have people speculating as well, “What is he going to do next?” It’s fascinating to be an artist in these times, and I imagine any other time as well; it’s the most exciting thing that I could ever think about doing. Ever.