KW Interview for Hot House Magazine – November, 2016
- You’ve played and studied music from around the world, what are the intersection points between jazz and music you play from other cultures?
I think if there are musicians that are open, curious, good listeners and generous spirits there is always a starting point or an entrance to make music together and I feel pretty lucky to have met and played with musicians with those qualities. I have found that musicians are usually more than willing to share, teach and involve others in order to communicate together. In terms of points of intersection, for example with north indian music – the classical tradition (raga) is mostly improvised, so those musicians are well equipped to create spontaneously (as jazz musicians do). Not really having harmony as an element in the music, the elements of rhythm and melody are very deep and sophisticated and there is so much richness there to appreciate and learn from. The rhythmic element is so deep that it’s a bit intimidating – even the idea of the lines leading to ‘1’ as opposed to lines starting from ‘1’ (which is a bit more western). I remember speaking to a friend and great percussionist/oud player from Morocco, Brahim Fribgane, who described coming here and not really understanding everyone counting off and starting tunes or grooves on ‘1’ … his musical experience had been that the rhythm has no beginning or end point, it was more cyclical in nature. These concepts and perceptual differences or shifts are fascinating to me. What’s really cool is the transformations that occur from people working together from different traditions and cultures.
Ornette used to say that ‘Style was the death of music’ and I think he was interested in playing and collaborating with anyone, regardless of culture or tradition.
- How did you figure out what to do when you were playing Ornette’s symphonic music?
Ornette used to always tell us to ‘play yourself’ so that was always the bottom line. But with the version of Skies of America that he had arranged for Prime Time, there were sections when Prime Time played alone, other sections where individual musicians were soloing over orchestral chords, and sections where the Orchestra and Prime Time were playing together. Ornette had written some Prime Time material into the score (some of these pieces were ones that we were already playing in concerts like Dancing in Your Head, Spelling the Alphabet, etc., and others were pieces we hadn’t been). Themes and motives were moving around the orchestra and I think I treated it as another voice to interact or relate to – of course with so many musicians, you have to play a bit less than with a smaller group.
I remember one of the orchestra members, standing up during the rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic, when we performed in NY with Kurt Masur – he asked Ornette sort of shyly and respectfully to clarify one of the notes in his music, ‘I’m not sure if this is a B or a D in bar 56′ Ornette responded that he could choose either note, whichever he liked better. The musician explained that he was only trying to play the music Ornette intended and just wasn’t sure what was written. Ornette said’ ‘if you have a better note, than you should play that’. With increasing frustration, the orchestra member explained that he wanted to play his music correctly and Ornette told him that he would really like to hear what he wanted to play in that section.’ This went on for a while with the orchestra member getting red-faced and a bit upset that he wasn’t getting the answer that he wanted (which was a specific note to play). Finally, he said that he didn’t understand what Ornette wanted him to do and Ornette responded, ‘Just because you don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean it’s not true.’
- Tell us a few brief highlights of your 12 years playing with Ornette.
Wow, there were so many. Certainly a highlight was the opportunity to rehearse and talk about music in depth with Ornette for such an extended period of time. He was such a gentle, philosophical and generous spirit – he could, and would, discuss a musical concept for hours, looking at an idea from many different perspectives. He had this wonderful, perceptive and incisive mind that worked in a somewhat non-linear fashion. Being a more analytical, somewhat anal and structured person myself, interacting with Ornette always challenged all my preconceptions and established approaches to music (and other subjects). He challenged me to be myself and to really be an improviser. Early on in the band, he said to me, ‘You’re playing road maps. I don’t want you to play what you know, I want you to play what you don’t know.’
- You’re also on my favorite Donald Fagen recording, ‘Morph the Cat’. What do you remember about that session?
That was an incredible experience. I was a Donald Fagen (and Steely Dan) fan and got a call from him, I had been recommended by the great trumpet player, Marvin Stamm. He wanted me to come in and play some guitar solos for the record and gave me some music to look at. This wasn’t something that was in my normal sphere or experience to be honest, and I remember calling a friend, Jerome Harris, to ask what I should do (should I bring my low-tech gear or use the studio equipment? what should I wear? as I’m not really a studio session master – a little rough around the edges.). Jerome wisely advised me to get my sound and be myself. Donald was totally cool and immediately made me feel comfortable, telling me, after I set up, that he loved my sound and also seemed familiar with my career. I was overdubbing over the tracks (which seemed pretty complete) and it was just the two of us (with an engineer) for about 5-6 hours in the studio. Donald blew me away with his breadth of musical knowledge and he was particularly conversant with jazz, which doesn’t surprise me, talking about particular recordings, solos, obscure references, etc.
The tune he had given me to check out had a long form with some very involved harmonic movement, which I had checked out and shedded on before the session. We did a number of passes on that one and then he asked me to play on another tune, ‘Security Joan’, which he played for me. I also recorded a number of takes of that solo (he assured me that he liked to work that way, piecing things together ‘Frankenstein-style’). I had heard rumors of studio floors being littered with guitarists’ tracks so I was pretty excited and honored that the solo made it on the record. Interestingly, it wasn’t the song that I had shedded on, but the one he showed me in the studio. In retrospect, maybe I was being more spontaneous on the second tune. The song I ended up on, ‘Security Joan,’ is about guy falling for an airport security agent while going through check-in … with a chorus, ‘You won’t find my name on a list, honey, you know I ain’t no terrorist’. I told him that it was an interesting post 9-11 love song, that only he could write. He responded, ‘Yeah, that’s me, love among the ruins.’
- You’ve performed all over the world. Do you have a favorite country or city to play in?
I love traveling and feel very lucky that music has afforded me that opportunity. It’s hard to choose and I think I’ll quote Ornette here. He was giving a press conference at a festival somewhere in Europe and one of the journalists asked him how he found the audiences there. Ornette replied, ‘There are only two kinds of audiences – the ones standing up and the ones that are already in the ground.’
- Can jazz be taught? Talk a bit about your experience as a jazz educator.
Yes, I think so, although I think the paradigm can change a bit. In many academic institutions the primary focus is the bebop language. While I feel that it’s very important to learn this as a strategy for learning harmony, negotiating changes and a particular stylistic approach to jazz, I also feel that in 2016 we can incorporate other methods of teaching improvisation, learning harmony, and dealing with rhythm that might lead to a more expansive approach. I also feel strongly that in studying music, there are some important (extra-musical) elements explored, for example: aesthetics and appreciating beauty, learning how to practice (and grow, in any field), working together, and listening skills (we really need this right now). I enjoy teaching and the creative interchange that occurs when dealing with students. It challenges me to look at things from different perspectives and to think and express myself clearly. I feel the challenge (and mission) is to encourage individuality and creativity, while also building up particular basic skills and getting some information across.
- What recordings have you been listening to lately? What’s the last truly great piece of music you listened to?
I think Maria Schneider’s ‘the Thompson Fields’ is an exquisite piece of music. The writing and the playing on that album are incredible (it’s also a group that has some history together, which is really evident) … sublime.
Wolf Valley by Norwegian pianist Eyolf Dale is a wonderful record that’s been on heavy rotation around here – was turned on to it by an old friend and vibraphonist/composer, Rob Waring, who plays on the record. It’s an octet and Eyolf’s tunes, arrangements and orchestrations are beautiful and compelling.
- If you were starting out now would you change anything?
Less coverage of Donald Trump worldwide (make that no coverage).
- What do you struggle with in your creative life?
Getting time or space to compose is difficult – it’s a little like pulling teeth for me to compose, although I usually like it when it’s over. To find that quality of ‘quiet mind’ is sort of essential to sitting down and composing effectively (people who know me wouldn’t characterize me as someone who was quiet in any capacity). I am involved in a number of different types of musical projects, all of which are very challenging to me – and although I enjoy variety, I have my work cut out for me in the woodshed (always feel a bit over my head … which I guess is good, keeps me on my toes).
- If there’s an afterlife, one piece of music you heard here that you’ll remember there.
I was just told a joke by a great saxophonist, Anders Lonne Gronseth, which went something to the effect of hell being a place where you heard your favorite piece played over and over, indefinitely.
- A favorite musician or two playing or composing today?
That’s a tough one as there are so many that I enjoy. Peter Apfelbaum comes to mind as a musician that I always love to listen to, music just flows out of that guy. His band, the Hieroglyphics Orchestra has been a favorite of mine and his new group, Sparkler is very cool.
- What are a few pieces of music that made you the person or musician you are today?
Jim Hall’s playing (all of it, but to name a couple: Sonny Rollin’s ‘the Bridge’, Jim Hall’s ‘Live’ and ‘It’s Nice to Be With You’) was a big influence on me in approaching music and the guitar. He was always so musical, lyrical and horn-like as a player and was such a consummate ensemble player – you could feel him listening when you saw him play – and not just to the rest of the band, but to himself – in a way that made his playing so organic, motivic, logical and beautiful. Also his use of space and color was so wonderful.
I think Jan Garbarek’s records ‘Paths and Prints’ and ‘Wayfarer’ were very influential with their simplicity and sonic beauty, space and breadth.
- You’re having a dinner party and can invite 3 musicians. Who would they be?
I guess I can be a little guitar nerdy here and say it would be really cool to invite Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall and Jimi Hendrix to dinner. Not sure what I’d serve, but it would be a cool hang. Those guys were probably the most important guitarists for me as a developing musician.