No Time to Waste: Conversations with Bassists Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer

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For the inaugural Cornell Concert Series performance of 2017, Grammy-winning bassists Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer took to the stage at Bailey Hall on February 3. Although both musicians helm their respective vessels in nominally different streams, together they have created something as fresh as their foundations are solid. Where McBride is something of a musical chameleon, rooted in the backyard of the blues yet stretching his branches over into every willing neighbor’s property, Meyer has turned his classical wheelhouse into a kaleidoscope of interpretive possibilities. I had the opportunity to speak with both bassists — first to Mr. McBride on the phone, followed by Mr. Meyer via e-mail — as an overture to what promises to be an engaging night from this rare combination of instruments.

Tyran Grillo: One of my all-time favorites from your discography is Live at Tonic. I’m curious to know your personal feelings regarding that performance, because for me it’s such a solid compendium of who you are as an artist and of the different streams you bring together in your performance.

Christian McBride: That record was recorded in 2005, and by that point [saxophonist] Ron Blake, [keyboardist] Geoffrey Keezer and [drummer] Terreon Gully had been in my working group for six years. Consistency was always a struggle in terms of gigs and recordings, mostly because at that time I was touring also with Pat Metheny’s trio, which made it hard to get any momentum going. But I really loved that band. I considered it a hybrid. Everyone gets involved in false sentiments of genre, and everybody in that band listened to all sorts of music. Yes, our hearts and skills were in jazz, but the way we played it had been informed by pop, soul, classical, avant-garde, electronic, you name it. You can’t possibly be a professional creative musician and not be touched by various styles of music. Even those who make a conscious decision to do one thing—which is fine because you should do what moves you — like more kinds of music than one would give them credit for. You might not guess you could have an in-depth conversation with Wynton Marsalis about Earth, Wind & Fire, but you could.

TG: One thing I like about that recording is the third disc, which is nothing but jams. What does the jam mean to you?

CM: One of my current responsibilities is being the artistic advisor for jazz programming at NJPAC [New Jersey Performing Arts Center] in Newark, where I’m hoping to create something called “The American Jam,” for which my goal is to get musicians spanning all kinds of so-called genres up on stage to jam for an hour. Get a group of musicians from jazz, rock, country and gospel together, and there’s all one thing we know collectively, and that’s the blues. I’m hoping to make this thing happen at some point, because music seems to be the one fail-safe way to bring different cultures together. When you see the polarization and intense disagreements between parties, music is that one thing that keeps us on the same page and allows us to have a conversation. Music exposes the lies and propagandas that bombard us on a daily basis and brings out our honesty and rawest passions. In that respect, music is a truth serum.

TG: I’ve always enjoyed your arco playing. Were you inspired by anyone else’s use of the bow or was it just an extension of your training on the instrument that you decided to incorporate later on?

CM: I started using the bow out of necessity. One of my first steady gigs while attending Julliard was at a club called Augie’s. Every night, the third set would turn into a jam session. There was always a long line of saxophonists, trumpeters, guitarists, pianists, and drummers and maybe two bassists, who would usually go home. So there I was, playing the same song on stage for 40 minutes. One night we were playing an old [Rodgers and Hart] standard called “Lover.” The bandleader was Jesse Davis, who liked to play it way up-tempo. My muscles were already cramping up and my callouses getting soft, and there was Jesse looking at me for a bass solo. I couldn’t even feel my hands at this point. I took it as a challenge, but playing it pizzicato would’ve been too fast, so I pulled out my bow. Not only did it work, but Jesse seemed rather impressed, so I kept it in the playbook. That gig solidified my commitment to always using the bow, even in jazz settings.

TG: Can you talk about your relationship with Edgar Meyer and how you two came to play together?

CM: The first time I heard Edgar was in the early 1990s, shortly after I met the great Ray Brown, who was one of my greatest mentors and like a second father to me. Ray asked if I knew of Edgar Meyer, so he showed me this video he did with Edgar and fellow bassist Victor Wooten. From that point on, I became a huge fan of Edgar and started following his career, in awe of his creativity and skill. Jump to 2000, and speaking of Victor Wooten again, I went to Victor’s bass camp in Tennessee, where Edgar was a surprise guest. It was so great just meet the guy and hang with him, and we ended up jamming together. As all artists do, we shared the obligatory “Hey, we should work together one day” line, but as much as I admired him, I knew that if I wanted to do some duets with him, I had to be at the top of my game. It’s like, if you’re going to fight Floyd Mayweather, you’d better get training. In 2007, we decided to do a duet concert at the Aspen Music Festival. It was so wonderful that we decided to figure out how to keep it going, and finally started going on tour last year. Standing on stage next to Edgar is, on the one hand, depressing. I wish I could do what he does. But it’s also inspiring, because it makes me believe in what I cando and do it well.

McBride’s obvious respect for Meyer is echoed by the latter’s own for the former. True to form, and in artful contrast with McBride’s penchant for storytelling, Meyer speaks concisely and with rigor, although each of these respective tendencies is the yin to the other’s yang.

TG: Having performed with other bassists such as Victor Wooten, what distinguishes your work with Christian McBride, and how has it enriched your own playing?

Edgar Meyer: Most of what I did with Victor was to perform on a television program with him and Ray Brown around 25 years ago, which was of course a wonderful experience. Playing with another bass player is rare for me. I prefer to collaborate with complementary instruments. However, playing with Christian is an experience too rewarding to pass up. He is my favorite bass player and I enjoy hearing him up close and feeling what his flow and reactions are like. I can listen to the replay of a show and directly compare how we do things and try to imitate the things that I cannot do as well as he does. He also makes everyone with him better, so why wouldn’tyou want to play with him? Never turn down a breath mint.

TG: As one who crosses boundaries, working with a variety of musicians, do you see any need for identifying with particular genres, or is music more of a holistic experience for you?

EM: I do not have a clear answer to that question. I think the reality is complex. Studying a particular branch of music in depth should hopefully broaden horizons, not narrow them. A simplistic answer is that one should accurately observe what makes different music similar and what makes it different. I personally lean toward developing a unified voice that can be credible across a fairly wide stylistic range instead of multiple voices for different situations. It is helpful to try to figure underlying principles in different kinds of music instead of following rules of tradition.

TG: What is something you know now as an artist that you didn’t, say, 20 years ago?

EM: That we are here for a brief time. There is no time to waste.

Seeing how smoothly these two masters converse when they’re not even in the same room, one can only imagine how well their voices will mesh when they delight their audience this Friday.

Click here to read my review of the concert.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun by clicking here.)

In the Comfort Zone: A Conversation with Tabla Virtuoso Zakir Hussain

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(Photo credit: Jim McGuire)

As I call up Zakir Hussain on the phone for this interview, I call up also memories of my childhood. I was raised in a small town in Marin County, California, where it so happens the mother of a childhood friend studied traditional Kathak dance with Zakir’s wife, Antonia Minnecola. I distinctly remember those performances, and can’t help but laugh at myself now for being too young then to recognize the greatness to which I grew up in such close proximity. Thirty years and seemingly infinite more of musical exposure later, here I sit transcribing my conversation with the world’s leading virtuoso of the tabla. When I tell him about our distant connection, he says to me, “What a small world this has suddenly become,” and the strange twists of life that completed this circle feel all the more inevitable to me as I offer my first question.

Tyran Grillo: Thinking back on your many projects reminds me of how many so-called “crossovers” you have done. Then again, I’ve always felt that Indian classical music is already hybrid by definition. In light of this, how do you feel that you have evolved as you continue to work with musicians from traditions and cultural backgrounds other than your own?

Zakir Hussain: Indian music, at least when I was growing up in India, was undergoing a great transition. Up until India gained its independence in 1947, most musicians were under the employ of Maharajas, so they rarely performed for lay audiences. Once those princely states were demolished and India became a democracy, court musicians had to fend for themselves. Young musicians back then, Ravi Shankar and my father among them, were trying to figure out how to tailor their art for the stage. At the same time, because of the British influence, Western music was everywhere in India. My generation grew up with symphonies and string quartets, but also the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, even as we were helping to create music for a fledgling Indian film industry, now famous as Bollywood. All those Indian musicians who had studied Western classical instruments were absorbed into the film industry, and we all became integrated into a mutant, hybrid orchestra, performing music that was a hodgepodge of influences.

And so, when I first came to the United States in my late teens and heard the musicians here, it felt like a natural progression. I was also fortunate because my father used to bring me records from his travels, so by then I had heard the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, Charles Lloyd, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. All of this was an extension of where I was in India, and it made for a seamless transition when starting to play with people here. Luckily, by then there was major interest among American musicians — in particular John Coltrane, Mickey Hart and John McLaughlin — to learn Indian music. I was meeting all these people who already understood what I did, and it was easy for them to walk me across the rift into a system I was familiar with. Whatever hesitancy I had in being able to contribute disappeared, because these people knew who I was and where I was coming from.

TG: How would you characterize yourself as a listener?

ZH: Listening is one thing that most drummers do. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Indian music, jazz or classical. Drummers are supposed to know all the standards, all the breaks, so that they can interact at a moment’s notice. Indian tabla players are no different. We need to know the music to be better accompanists. So we are listeners. On tour, I’m constantly listening to the masters. When I was playing with Ravi Shankar, I would listen to his most recent albums, familiarizing myself with his temperament, his musicality and his improvising depth, to see what I could contribute when I got on stage. It was a form of respect, a way of letting him know that I was aware of what he’d done and that I was ready to give whatever he wanted.

TG: On the topic of collaboration, how did you come to work with sitar player Niladri Kumar?

ZH: Niladri Kumar is one of many young masters of Indian music today who I am hoping to promote globally. My reason for this is twofold. First, people should not get caught up in idea that Indian music begins and ends with Ravi Shankar. Even at the time when he became internationally famous, there were other sitar players who were just as great and highly revered in India, but who people outside of India never heard about. Now, I may be considered the tabla player of the day, but I can honestly name at least 15 tabla players who are just as good as, if not better than, I am. But people don’t know that, because they hear a marquee name and say, “Oh, that’s the guy to go see. Forget about the rest.” Nowadays young musicians, even as they are listening to and playing Indian music, have their computers in front of them, able to access any master of any musical tradition, so they grow up with a more universal sensibility of music. It’s amazing to see them treating Indian music as more than a single entity, but rather as part of an ever-growing hard drive through which they access software of all other musical kinds and marry them in ways that at their age I was nowhere near doing. Which brings me to my second reason for wanting to play with them: to get their fresh take on what global music is all about and use my own experience to interact with them, all while learning something more in the process. And, of course, being around younger musicians stokes the fire under me and gets me going more. I used to play with Niladri’s father. And once Niladri came into his own as a musician, I decided to bring him to America, where I hope he will get the attention he deserves for his efforts.

TG: How would you characterize the mass effect of Indian classical music in the 21st century?

ZH: The only way to be able to learn about any music or musicians is through listening. And when you do that, you’re not only listening to their music but also finding out about their cultures and ways of life. I find that young people have developed a deep respect for all art forms, and by extension for those cultures. They also understand that the Third World is anything but, and that its people are anything but clueless as to where they belong. I see immense respect for what India has to offer and its ability to be a great cultural contributor to this world, and all because today’s younger generation has accepted it as such.

TG: Is there any core advice you would give to anyone who wants to start learning the tabla, or any instrument for that matter?

ZH: What I tell people is: try to experience the music a little bit, and if it actually excites you and makes you happy, then it has the potential to turn into a lifelong relationship. And it is a relationship. Every musical instrument has a spirit, and that spirit has to accept you. It’s like in the film Avatar, when the Na’vi bond their hair to a horse or bird. That animal has to accept you as a friend before you can ride it. Only then can you fly the way you imagine yourself to. That’s what music is all about. My own relationship with the tabla is such that we are both friends and lovers. We are together on this journey and every time I grow and find new shades in my musical expression, I find that the tabla is right there saying, “Okay, let’s try this.”

TG: What is your greatest hope or expectation for listeners who come to hear you play?

ZH: I feel comfortable with the audiences of the world, because they know more now than they did 30 years ago. Being able to Google musicians and see them on YouTube means that audiences are no longer arriving without a clue as to what we are all about. It’s almost like meeting friends you have never officially seen before. In that sense, I’m very open and easy with audiences. I don’t have to sit there and talk for 10 minutes about what we are going to do. I believe honestly in the music conveying its own intent. Natural flow is very important to me. I just get on stage and announce what we’re going to play as a matter of routine, and the audiences respond accordingly, and with respect.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Matt Borghi & Michael Teager: Illuminating through Shadow

While feeding your eyes, why not feed your ears:

Guitarist Matt Borghi and saxophonist Michael Teager turn gasses into solids. Their process, however, goes beyond chemistry and physics, drawing as they do from a less definable well that some might call inspiration, others spirit, and still others ether. Separately, they have broadened their cartographies across continents. As a duo, they form their own by tender volcanism.

I spoke via e-mail with the musicians, both of whom were grateful in sharing their time and wisdom to illuminate the drift they have manifested. When I asked them to describe their relationship, Borghi likened it to a “combined meditation,” by which two become one through their non-traditional overlap. Teager, for his part, sees what they’re doing as a “contemplative improvised music,” forged not through a simple meeting of instruments but a more rhizomatic, orchestral sensibility.

While on paper their credits imply rock or jazz lineages, with respect to their instruments Borghi and Teager rest in a world apart. Despite a self-professed love/hate relationship with the guitar, Borghi manages to distill magic from its strings through an array of digital effects, but also, more importantly, an unrestricted approach. “That’s why I like improvisation so much,” he says. “It’s a constant exploration. Sometimes you find gold, sometimes you don’t, but each time you start there’s the possibility of hitting something that’s musically profound.” Teager, having more experience as an improviser, has overcome the challenge of owning his reeds, saying, “As a saxophonist in a stylistic continuum, I’m on my own island when it comes to our music. The name I get most often is Jan Garbarek, and while I do like Garbarek’s playing (particularly with Keith Jarrett), I don’t have a deep knowledge of his catalogue. (He’s my ECM blind spot, partially intentionally.) I try not to listen to other ‘ambient’ saxophonists too much. There are so few of us, and the last thing I want is to subconsciously encroach on another’s territory.”

If anything may be compared, it’s Teager’s likeminded patience for notecraft. To be sure, he has found a beautiful comfort in Borghi’s elastic netting, one in which he more often reacts than dictates in a real-time space that privileges atmospheric over egotistic expression. It’s a dynamic evinced in the 2013 album Convocation. Though an unscripted narrative, it develops from the title reverie to a slow-motion ballad (“Discern Descent”) with inchoate coherence. “Nebula Divide,” on the other hand, operates on a more cosmic scale, changing from monochrome to color and back again along an epic flight path. Such titles, among them also “Constant Apex,” help visualize the music’s ethos in all its asymptotic blush.

Convocation

For me, the most evocative drop takes shape in “Precipice.” Borghi wrenches an organic pulse from his guitar, like a light signaling a lone wayfarer from far off, while Teager echoes its promise of shelter in a darkening sky. I can’t help, if from the title alone, be reminded of a performance I once experienced of Japanese butoh dancer Min Tanaka, who barely moved a few inches from a wall over the course of an hour, as if standing on a cliff in contemplation of suicide. Though not so morbid, here the feeling is one of suspension, embraced by the grandeur of creation.

If my association suggests anything, it’s that these sounds welcome any interpretations listeners might bring to the table. The same is reflected in the artists of influence lurking in the background. Just as Borghi cites Claude Debussy, Pink Floyd, and Harold Budd as vital touchpoints in his growth, Teager’s range from Dave Liebman and Charles Lloyd to Richard Wagner and Smashing Pumpkins. And while you may not necessarily detect any of these on the surface, an emotional affinity lances them all.

So it is with 2014’s Shades of Bending Light, wherein mixtures born of experimentation yield integral new structures. “Joyce’s Fanfare” begins at dawn, flowing with the tide between binary chords, while Teager builds his wingspan one feather at a time. A similar approach—spreading the seeds and listening to them grow—blossoms through all that follows.

Shades of Bending Light

Whether in the desolation of “Daisy Chain” or the rhythmic fantasy of “Weird Minor,” or even the farewell energy of “Blue Sky Fades,” an environmental residue stays behind to remind us of what transpired. The album is, further, an enmeshment of contradictions. Teager lights up layers of gray and mist in “Watch Over” with virtuosic runs, even as Borghi tempers his searching with diffuse endpoints. And in “Nightdrive,” which feels like an orphaned folktale hitchhiking along a runway of solitude, one may feel a bodily connection taking place. Even the album’s title track, which despite being its longest feels like its most ephemeral, is as intimate as it is boundless.

The merging of these polar forces hints at their ultimate unity, as made even clearer in 2014’s Awaken the Electric Air. Played as a late-night (4-5am) radio broadcast for WXPN in Philadelphia, it references some Convocation material with lucidity and openness of heart. Ever the transient traveler, Teager’s saxophone pulls the very horizon like a blanket before slumber, his modal sopranism in “Bed of Ash / Coda” being especially moving.

Awaken the Electric Air

The album’s live setting gives the now-familiar motif of “Nebula Divide” (paired with “Somnolence”) and, like the title track, feels sacred by sheer virtue of audibility. Lit by heightened awareness, the paths before listeners remain visible even when the final torch is extinguished, as its smoke continues to guide us by the wrists into dimensions beyond.

Ramòn Giger: Karma Shadub

Karma Shadub Poster

My first encounter with the music of Paul Giger was on his ECM debut, Chartres. Guided only by the album’s cover, which at first seemed an ancient petroglyph before I knew it to be the map of the eponymous cathedral’s labyrinth, my teenage brain swam with visions of some worldly phantom trekking with his violin across oceans and continents, drawing out music from the living rock. It was only when ECM released a follow-up solo album, Schattenwelt, that I knew Giger to be flesh and blood, as the booklet revealed a photo of him at last. And yet, cloaked in the shadows of his music, it was easy to nourish my young impressions of what and who he was. How rare it is, then, that we get to see the hearts behind the skins of those we think we know through their art. Paul’s son Ramòn enables just such a glimpse in his 2013 documentary, Karma Shadub.

On surface, the film walks us through a mounting of its title piece (which first appeared on Alpstein) at Switzerland’s Abbey of Saint Gall. But this veneer bends the light to reveal a motive of emotional healing and conversation, becoming as it does a catalyst for sometimes-painful excavations of childhood, abandonment, and creation. This is not a film about music, but about where music comes from and how its progenitors live and act on either side of their art.

Karma Shadub was written for Ramòn around the time he was born as a celebration of life. In the context of that same child’s documentary statement all these years later, it serves as a looking glass into an uncertain past. The performance itself involves dancers, who under the choreographic direction of Marco Santi realize the corporeality of Paul’s music. The dancers also sing, mirroring the dialogic searching of the son, whose wondering and wandering of what might have been bleeds into the yet to be. Ramòn himself experiences a range of emotions when hearing the piece now: a binary star of pain and passion.

“When he asked me to make a film about this performance and the piece he had written for me,” says the filmmaker early on, “that was the moment I realized that I no longer know who he is.”

Ramòn, who calls Paul by his first name, seeks a relationship with this distant man—one who, much like the artist I’d imagined, takes pride in solitude. Ever his father’s son, Ramòn has taken on an artistic worldview. Yet where his father paints in sound, as director Ramòn does so in light. Before this he made made two documentaries as cameraman, the first being the portrait of a young autistic man and his relationship with the social worker who has become something of a father figure. A sign of things to come.

As both creator and a subject of the present film, Ramòn must confront a unique sort of exhaustion. Accustomed to teasing out the inner lives of his subjects, he was less prepared than he realized to do the same for himself. “I felt somewhat cruel, always demanding and taking from other lives, using them as the foundation of my work,” he humbly admits to me in an interview. “It’s different from music, where you have to dig inside yourself to create something.”

And dig Paul certainly did throughout Ramòn’s formative years, during which the father was often away for private excavations, though not without sending tapes from his travels. One of these, recorded at Chartres and including violin and ambient sounds of the garden, depicts a father reaching for proximity in defiance of physical separation. A beautiful sentiment, to be sure, but one that sits complexly with its recipient. As a leitmotif of the film, the tape is at once an expression of paternal love and obfuscation of its lucidity. The process seems emblematic of Paul: speaking volumes by not being there, and leaving just as much open to interpretation when present. It’s a dynamic mirrored in Ramòn’s attempts to elicit information from his father about the unknowns of his upbringing, which tend to reveal themselves more through silence than obvious articulation.

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Where Ramòn wants this to be an honest and personal project, Paul fears being used for something that he cannot stand up to. In their constant state of negotiation, the two manage to tap out a fairly reflective surface from unrefined metal as they forge an alloy of their own. Just as the violin is at once a part of Paul and its own entity, so too does Ramòn resound through their interactions. The son feels he is not being understood by his father—left out, so to speak, of the latter’s creative equation—even as he becomes more aware than ever about his own character by way of not being acknowledged. None of which is to suggest that the film is a challenge or accusation. It raises uncertainties out of genuine hope for their resolution.

Because his conversations with Paul are touch and go, Ramòn turns to his biological mother for solace (Paul is remarried). Despite the separation, she recalls those early years with a certain fondness, and the smile that holds her face indicates the steadfastness of a mature heart that has no time to dwell on ifs. But her son, like the viewer, is still grappling with images versus realities.

Of both, the camera offers plenty by directing strict aesthetic attention to surroundings. Indeed, the film is not only about people, but also about places. Ramòn recalls a rural, almost utopian, upbringing, as confirmed by a visit to his childhood home. Such snippets of nature add to the feeling that both father and son have walked their own paths and are now seeking intersections.

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Camerawork and editing are significant enough to warrant symbolic interpretation. We get many shots, for instance, of Paul’s back, as if Ramòn were always trying to catch up to the man he follows. This yields another parallel, when Paul says, characterizing his struggles with the violin, “Where you try to undertake something real, that’s where life is happening.”

In this film, life is happening everywhere. In the music, both on and off the screen. In the solace of cathedral’s, both literal and metaphorical. And in the gift of seeing a world-class artist as a human being, knowing he is subject to the same complications as the rest of us.

Karma Shadub is available to watch on Vimeo demand here. Read on below for the rest of my interview with the director.

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Tyran Grillo: One of the greatest values of watching Karma Shadub was how it made me think of myself as a parent. It was a reminder to treat my son’s childhood with even greater importance.

Ramòn Giger: People have experienced this film in very personal ways. Despite being just a very small story between me and my father, the feedback I’ve gotten has been massively varied. Some perceive it as you do, while others feel offended by it, but it always connects to the personal experiences of viewers in one way or another.

TG: The first scene, featuring you and a reticent Paul at the kitchen table, sticks out in my mind. The tension is real and relatable.

RG: He was very scared at first. Just as you had an experience of Paul’s music before you had a picture, his profession and what he does feed off a strong, mystical image. I now understand what he was afraid of. Having dedicated his entire life to achieving a perfect sound on this little instrument, he felt threatened by the mistakes I might expose.

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TG: What was it like watching the film together?

RG: We watched a rough cut at some point. He also attended a few premieres with me. It was quite an emotional re-confrontation, which wasn’t easy for us.

TG: Have things changed in any significant way since the film?

RG: The changes weren’t as I expected them to be. I had more expectations of revealing secrets or having this total opening of my father toward me. After 50 hours of just talking about things in front of a camera, I realized in the end that I was the one creating distance in the relationship. I needed to act but not expect him to do something about it.

TG: You still have those cassette tapes he made for you. Do you remember how you felt at the time when you received them?

RG: I know that I loved them, and that I listened to them a lot. I can’t really tell how I felt back then; only as I perceive them today. I feel a lot of effort from his side, a need of being close to me and trying to give me a piece of himself while being away, but also a strangeness in how he talks to me. I also have the feeling that he doesn’t really take me seriously. So I guess, just as with the music, it’s different things at the same time. Being a father myself now, I’m more relaxed about it, because I know it’s okay to make mistakes and not be perfect about everything. My experience with Paul was not that he was away, but that he couldn’t admit that not everything was perfect, which used to confuse me as a child. I’ve grown up believing it’s important to make mistakes as a parent.

TG: Do you feel more empathy for Paul, now that you are a father yourself?

RG: It was my decision to leave this point open in the film, but in life we certainly got to a point where we feel much closer to each other than before.

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Ramòn concludes our interview by telling me that Paul is someone who “lives fully in this world,” but we can also see the world living fully in him—which is to say, as an internal storm of contradictions. And maybe that’s all human beings, even at their best, can be.

Karma Shadub is available to either rent or download on Vimeo here.

Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile: Continuum (ECM 2464)

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Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile
Continuum

NIK BÄRTSCH’S MOBILE
Nik Bärtsch
piano
Sha bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
Kaspar Rast drums, percussion
Nicolas Stocker drums, tuned percussion
EXTENDED
Etienne Abelin violin
Ola Sendecki violin
David Schnee viola
Solme Hong cello
Ambrosius Huber cello
Recorded March 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 22, 2016

Swiss pianist and bandleader Nik Bärtsch makes no distinction between the old and the new, thriving instead on constant transformation. Freed of evocative titles, he writes in so-called “modules,” each of which combines through-composed and improvised material. This approach has yielded a series of albums for ECM under the name Ronin, but on Continuum he debuts his parallel ensemble, Mobile. Drummer Kaspar Rast and mononymous clarinetist Sha are familiar standbys, while percussionist Nicolas Stocker and a string section are the new recruits. Those familiar with Ronin will recognize certain tics in Mobile’s larger body. I ask Bärtsch to elaborate on their differences.

NB

“Mobile is acoustic and Ronin amplified, resulting in different consequences concerning power, pressure, volume, and listening behavior (for musicians and audience alike). We recorded Continuum in close proximity with each other while the Ronin sessions had us in different rooms. Mobile is also a music ritual group and often plays long concerts of several hours or even days. In Mobile we include rhythmic strategies of contemporary classical music, for example in ‘Modul 5.’ The band’s name refers to a ‘perpetuum mobile,’ while Ronin is a ‘groove generator.’ Mobile creates groove equilibriums and orchestral maneuvers while Ronin attacks with a paradoxical mix of empty meditative roughness and strong rhythmic energy: Zen-funk.”

The ritual foundations of said “Modul 5” reveal the virtuosity of their execution with patience. The same holds true for “Modul 60,” in which strings interlock with their surroundings like stairways in an Escher lithograph.

On Continuum, Bärtsch has taken his craft one step closer to an ideal that, while perhaps unreachable, is more audible than ever. Beyond my own idiosyncratic impressions, however, the music of Mobile is rooted in the presence of its musicians, as anyone who has seen them live can attest. Movement would seem to be central to “Modul 29_14” in particular, a force of suggestion made by its pairing with martial arts in a promotional video:

The binary relationship between Rast and Stocker in this piece unpacks bits of code into full-blown programs. High notes in the glockenspiel, doubling those of the keyboard, activate those programs in one artful sequence after another. Bärtsch, for his part, is careful to keep his own perceptions grounded the physical body. “A musical pattern, rhythm, or resonating structure is a sensual movement,” he says. “Sometimes, when I am practicing intensively, I dream of becoming such a musical being: a pure resonating energy of movement. We are all dancers in the universe.”

And is this dancing indicative of the project’s classical leanings?

“The music might seem more ‘classical,’ since we give the impression of a chamber ensemble. In principle we work the same way as with Ronin: I compose a piece, which in the context of the group develops its own instrumentation and dynamics. But in one respect your reception is probably correct: there is less obvious improvisation than in Ronin, although ‘Modul 12’ is completely improvised, if on the basis of a modular, coherent structure.”

That latter module is remarkable for Rast’s brushwork, by which he smooths out a layer of gravel over Sha’s tunneling contrabass clarinet.

Mobile

While most comfortable on the live stage, in this instance Mobile is uniquely bound to studio parameters. This does not, clarifies Bärtsch, equate to a reduction. “An album is a different genre altogether,” he notes. “It has and creates its own rules. But the group profits from the long-playing rituals, which leave us open to the situation of the recording: a new space-time continuum to be explored and created.”

To my ears, “Modul 18” is a well-rounded example of this brand of creationism. Its elements—metal, wood, air—come to life in a vibrational field of bowed strings against a repeating bass drum, Stocker shining like a constellation in its darker sky. Throughout “Modul 4,” too, the two drummers act as one as a high overlay of notes from Bärtsch foreshadows closure. Listening to such older modules, I can’t help but wonder how they’ve changed. Are they seeds for cultivation or do they become unique entities with every iteration?

“The modular way of composing allows a piece to evolve, while also retaining compositional coherence. The triangle of composition, improvisation, and interpretation should be connected and alive. Usually a pattern, piece, or musical strategy has more potential than you first recognize. You have to explore it for years through playing and observation. I see this as a natural, spiraling development forward into roots.”

Such is the modus operandi of “Modul 44,” in which Rast’s skins serve as palimpsests for musical poetry. The subtlety of his drumming is unexpected from such a robust figure. As in the gradual progressions of “Modul 8_11,” his interaction with the others results in so many orbits that the after-images of their playing form one glowing sphere. Despite the utter precision required to pull off this effect, a free-flowing, interdimensional quality prevails. If any message stays behind, it is Bärtsch’s own: “Trust your ears. They are the most sensitive antennas for the resonating inner and outer world.”

The Gurdjieff Ensemble: Komitas (ECM 2451)

Komitas

The Gurdjieff Ensemble
Komitas

The Gurdjieff Ensemble
Emmanuel Hovhannisyan duduk, pku, zurna
Armen Ayvazyan kamancha
Avag Margaryan pogh, zurna
Aram Nikoghosyan oud
Davit Avagyan tar
Mesrop Khalatyan dap, dhol
Vladimir Papikyan santur, voice
Meri Vardanyan kanon
Norayr Gapoyan duduk, bass duduk
Eduard Harutyunyan tmbuk, cymbal, kshots, burvar, bell
Levon Eskenian director
Recorded February 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: October 2, 2015

Since forming the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble in 2008, musician and director Levon Eskenian has moved beyond delineations of the group’s namesake, even while staying truer than ever to the roots such an association implies. His ECM debut, Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff, drew from a well that had already been dug into the label’s landscape by Keith Jarrett and Vassilis Tsabropoulos/Anja Lechner, and deepened by Lechner’s subsequent duo with François Couturier. It was only natural, then, that Eskenian should turn his attention to that spiritual progenitor of Armenian classical music: Soghomon Soghomonian (1869-1935), a.k.a. Komitas.

Having appeared on Kim Kashkashian’s Hayren and Savina Yannatou’s Songs of Thessaloniki, among others, the music of Komitas has been something of a leitmotif in the ECM catalog, where its expressions of folk sentiment feel right at home, and nowhere so fully as on this first disc dedicated to him alone. As with Gurdjieff, Eskenian and his ensemble have gone as far back to into this music’s past as is conceivable, arranging it for the very instruments whose sounds first inspired Komitas to put pen to paper. Eskenian has, in essence, “re-composed” them as physical environments around on which listeners can walk to absorb every detail.

Gurdjieff Ensemble
(Photo credit: Andranik Sahakyan)

Eskenian, for his part, provides—in both the music and liner notes—a loving account of Komitas, whose approach to diverse interests imbued his writing with metaphysical levels of beauty. Even when composing for western instruments, he would often notate with traditional instruments in mind, and so Eskenian’s instinct is in keeping with the origin story at hand. Komitas and Gurdjieff share one degree of separation by way of the latter’s student, Thomas de Hartmann, but even more in terms of philosophy, lifestyle, and artistic engagement. I asked Eskenian whether these connections had anything to do with how he put this album together.

“Gurdjieff sent de Hartmann to Yerevan, where he immersed himself in, held concerts of, and gave lectures on the music of Komitas. Later on, de Hartmann would found the Komitas Society with the goal of collecting and printing the composer’s music. There are some pieces in which Gurdjieff and Komitas used the same folk tunes. Both of them were truth-seekers. Like Gurdjieff, Komitas would also talk about vibrations. He consulted ancient manuscripts and believed in the healing powers of music, the effects of modes and how each string of the knar [a traditional harp], for example, had on a different part of the body. He taught movements rooted in ancient ritual dances of pre-Christian temples, and often referred to himself as a teacher of dancing. In all cases, I consider the music of Komitas to be an essential key for a better understanding of the music of Gurdjieff and of the many other classical composers who have based their compositions on folk motifs.”

Eskenian’s gentle and respectful assertions of the significance of this music further explain why the album seemed to take form of its own volition. Eskenian elaborates on the genesis of the project, which began with a suggestion on the part of producer Manfred Eicher to center a follow-up to his Gurdjieff debut around Armenian folk and sacred music:

“For many years I’d thought about the Komitas dances, to have them performed on traditional Armenian and ancient instruments. I knew the pieces long before my encounter with the music of Gurdjieff and they had always served as a reference for me, but arranging the piano scores for authentic traditional Armenian instruments was in fact a bold labor which required additional research along anthropological, historical, and ethnomusicological lines in order to have a certain level of objectivity that wouldn’t ruin his work. Manfred left me free to decide the program. During the recording session he was actively involved in creating a comfortable atmosphere in which the musicians might better hear their inner sound, and with the assistance of engineer Markus Heiland recorded these instruments in their full timbrous colors. During the mixing session, Manfred paid strict attention to the sequence of pieces, and to the ‘silent’ pauses between them. The album cover was also of his choosing, a beautiful photo and one of the first of biblical Ararat Mountain ever taken at the beginning of the 20th century.”

In his own briefer liner note for the album, Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian—onetime director of the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan—expands on the cultural iconicity of Komitas, whose piano pieces he goes so far as to describe as “documentary works,” preserving as they do the spirit of his Armenian heritage. The “Yot Par” (Seven dances) represent one such set of piano pieces, recalibrated here to suit the spectral qualities of Eskenian’s peerless ensemble. These dances are centered around the capital of Yerevan, the contentious city of Shushi, the village of Karin, and the Turkish provincial capital of Mush. Whether the binary star of bowed kamancha and hammered santur in “Manushaki,” the duduk and tar in “Yerangui,” or the pogh flute and tmbuk drum duet that is “Het u Araj,” each dance flows in measured contrast to surrounding tunes and highlights a different instrumental color. That same pogh flute, in tandem with oud, embodies perhaps the deepest entanglement of ancient impulse and contemporary realization in “Karno Shoror,” which is about as close to experiencing history as this music gets. Even “Masho Shoror,” another piano work newly fashioned, is rife with textures that feel much older than we can articulate by any other means. The present rendition cross-hatches the double-reed zurna with the santur’s metallic lines. At just under 12 minutes, it is an album in and of itself, gathering as it does many influences in a single hearth of understanding.

“I often think about this piece,” says Eskenian, “which was a series of mystical pagan dances accompanying pilgrimage to St. Karapet Monastery in Mush. The monastery was one of the main pilgrimage sites for Armenians and served as their temple even before Christianity. After the Armenian genocide inflicted by the Ottoman empire, when most Armenians were killed, this marvelous monastery was destroyed much like ancient monuments in the Middle East have been in recent years. It was a great loss, to be sure, but I reflect on the fact that we have these sounds and traditions encoded into the piano music, now brought back to their inspirational sources. Through this process, we are reconstructing something of what has been lost. I am grateful to be able to share this with the world: a piece of the past reaching out to us from unrecoverable times.”

Eskenian

Many of the program’s standalone songs are likewise rooted in nature, by which traces of what came before our current generation continue to thrive, changed but also essential. In the plough songs of the northern Lori region, such as “Lorva Gutanerg,” we almost don’t need to know that Komitas gathered such melodies himself and separated them like chaff from the wheat so that posterity might be nourished by their bread. The medieval influences are clearest in these examples, as in the fortune-telling motivations of “Mani Asem, Tsaghik Asem” (Praises to the flower) and, more so, the strains of “Hov Arek” (Dear mountains, send me a breeze), a high point in the album’s topography that accentuates the talents of santur player Vladimir Papikyan, whose virtuosity unites sentiment and form. Moving through lullabies and other pieces for children, as well as love songs, the ensemble touches on Komitas’s religious affinities in songs like “Havun” (The fowl of the air), in which two duduks express Christ’s Resurrection in metaphor. On the subject of ascendant beings, the pogh solo “Havik” (A radiant bird) evokes its eponym with purposeful flight. Breathy and full of charcoal in its palette, it recalls the sensory world of a Japanese brush painting, trees barely visible as splashes of ink in the background.

Despite any mystical characterizations one might draw around Komitas, it’s clear from this recording that the heart of his music runs on a fundamental energy. It’s the same energy that allows us to listen and to love, to seek out those things which connect us beyond concerns of the flesh. So much so, that no matter what form it takes, the music of Komitas occupies an immediately relatable realm of understanding. In this vein, listeners can look forward to an album of his complete piano music as performed by Lusine Grigoryan, who has worked diligently to reproduce every effect as indicated in the original scores. Where Eskenian has taken those cues to heart by transferring them the very instruments that inspired them, Grigoryan has accepted the challenge of expanding the piano’s vocabulary to suit the ambitious needs of these timeless melodies. The reconstruction has just begun.

(Click here to read the rest of my interview with Levon Eskenian for RootsWorld online magazine, alongside another review of the album by Erik Keilholtz.)

Anat Fort Trio w/Gianluigi Trovesi: Birdwatching (ECM 2382)

Birdwatching

Anat Fort Trio
Gianluigi Trovesi
Birdwatching

Anat Fort piano
Gary Wang bass
Roland Schneider drums
Gianluigi Trovesi alto clarinet
Recorded November 2013, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 8, 2016

On Birdwatching, Anat Fort’s third album for ECM, the Israeli pianist and composer proves once again that music is a journey without repetition. I trace this axiom back to her label debut, 2007’s A Long Story, from which “Something ’Bout Camels” carried over into the 2010 follow-up, And If. This time around, another tune from that same record—“Not The Perfect Storm”—makes a reappearance, now re-cloaked by the melodic overlay of Italian reedman Gianluigi Trovesi, who joins her trio with bassist Gary Wang and drummer Roland Schneider for her farthest-reaching record to date. The rumbling pianism of that latter track speaks at once to Fort’s illustrative prowess and willingness to sidestep its clichés. Indeed, beyond the thunder implied in the lower register of her keyboard, the broad wingspan of Trovesi’s alto clarinet speaks of clearer skies. The forces at work are greater than the sum of their parts, which over the course of six and a half minutes emit more light than they absorb.

Moved by this collaboration, I opened a recent interview with Fort by asking about Trovesi’s involvement—a partnership perhaps as inevitable as it was unexpected.

“Unlike with Paul Motian, I was never intimidated by working with Gianluigi. I really loved his work, which I’d known through ECM, and fate brought us together on stage for a jazz festival in Novara, Italy in 2013. A few months later, he joined my trio in Israel. He’s such a gentle and beautiful human being, so there was never any conflict. The only thing that gets in the way is the language barrier, but at any rate we communicate through the music.”

Case in point: “Earth Talks,” which finds them conversing as a duo. Like Fort herself, Trovesi seems to attract entire planetary systems into orbit than be gravitationally pulled into others. His chromatic inflections are the blood flow of her ebony and ivory veins, which pulse with solitude even as they drink in joyful praises. Trovesi walks over, never through, Fort’s articulate themes, so as not to disturb their archaeological integrity. Even when he joins the full trio, as in “Jumpin’ In” or “Murmuration,” his sinewy topography feels like grass in love with the soil. In other words: an affirmation of roots.

Neither does the trio engage with blatant exhibitionism, but finds unity—and utility—in the negative spaces that frame each intimate spectacle. Such alignment to the inner workings of faith gives the quartet all the oil it needs to burn through the collectively improvised “Inner Voices.” Though delicate and exploratory, it never breaks its stare. Such disparate elements reach deepest convergence in two variations of “Song Of The Phoenix,” in which the trio clears a path for Trovesi’s transformation from roaming to mourning. His rougher bending of pitch enhances the emotional gravity at hand. Wang and Schneider reveal themselves to be so much more than a rhythm section, but a listening organ attuned to every gradation. Which is not to say their individual talents are not forthcoming. In the trio-only “It’s Your Song,” Schneider’s drumming is remarkably fluent, moving with the insouciance of an Olympic ice-skater, while Wang’s kinetic solo lends the scene some much-needed heat.

It’s impossible for me to experience such gestures without reading biographical impulses behind each tune. The beauty of this record, as with all of them, is that Fort allows more than enough space for individual interpretation:

“I think that’s how I usually treat my music, or how my music treats me, I should say. It’s a very personal thing. I could even call it a private universe, which of course I’m trying to share by playing and putting out there. This recording is different for having so many short pieces, which wasn’t something we planned to do. But as [producer] Manfred [Eicher] and I started mixing it together, we did more editing than I’ve ever done. It clearly needed to be a story of vignettes. That was a surprise for me, and something that the music initiated, and which we answered collaboratively. As I say in the promo video, the music will convey its own story if you let it.”

Listening to what the music was saying led to Fort to add two improvised piano solos: “First Rays” and “Sun.” Added at the last minute, these became the first and last tracks of the final mix. Within this frame, the album is better able to balance color and monochrome.

On that note of production, Birdwatching marks the first time Fort has worked with Stefano Amerio at the Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI studio in Lugano, Switzerland, thus completing her unintended tour of ECM’s heavyweight engineers, rounded out by Jan Erik Kongshaug in Oslo (And If) and James Farber in New York (A Long Story).

“Each of these experiences has been great,” Fort admits, “and Stefano has a great ear. It was very special to record at the RSI studio, because you record live, setting up on a stage in a very small auditorium without headphones or dividers. It’s really unique to do it that way, and he knows how to record so that it feels live but also clean enough to be crafted.”

One can hear this especially in “Meditation For A New Year,” which boasts some of Fort’s most soulful playing on record, but keeps its expansiveness within reason in search of a major chord. Like “Milarepa,” of which only the first of three parts appears on this album, it indicates a new phase of self-expression, a turning of the ear toward the self to know what may become of love.

Interview with Levon Eskenian, director of the Gurdjieff Ensemble

As part of a recent feature on the new ECM album by the Gurdjieff Ensemble, featuring the music of Komitas, for RootsWorld online magazine, I had the fortune of interviewing the ensemble’s director, Levon Eskenian. The article also includes a review of the album by Erik Keilholtz. My own review of the album, soon to appear on this site, will feature others parts of that same interview not included for being more specifically related to ECM. In the meantime, click the cover below to read on.

Komitas