Being Present: An Interview with Wolfgang Muthspiel

Photo credit: Laura Pleifer

Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel is one of a handful of guitarists whose influence is as robust as his humility. Muthspiel began his musical training in classical violin, shifting to guitar in his teens. And yet, while he is now firmly entrenched in jazz-defined spaces, he has never let go of his love for chamber music and the intimate sensibilities required of one to self-express in that genre. Despite the temptation to draw lines of influence between his style and that of others—particularly Mick Goodrick, under whom he studied while at the New England Conservatory before moving on to Berklee—his profile is distinctly silhouetted. After spearheading Material Records in 2000, he began focusing on a series of small-group projects, including the MGT trio with fellow pickers Ralph Towner and Slava Grigoryan. MGT later recorded for ECM, starting an ongoing relationship with the German label for Muthspiel, which has since produced such masterstrokes as Driftwood, his trio album with Larry Grenadier and Brian Blade, and a handful of leader dates, including 2016’s Rising Grace. In the following interview, we dive a little deeper into Muthspiel’s background, interests and aspirations. 

Tyran Grillo: Everyone is a work in progress, of course, but if you were to characterize yourself as a musician and as a human being at this point in time, what would you say? 

Wolfgang Muthspiel: To define oneself is tricky, but I would say that I have two main playing fields in my life: the music and my small family. To strike the right balance seems to be the key and it is not always easy. But I am grateful to love what I am doing. 

TG: In terms of striking that balance between music and family, what have been some of the greatest lessons you have learned along the way? 

WM: I guess the lesson is: I want to be really present with music when that is going on and I want to be really present with family when that is going on. It is better to have longer stretches of each without trying to compensate all the time between the two. 

TG: You have performed and recorded with some amazing musicians throughout your career. Can you talk about the most gratifying of those experiences? 

WM: I learned so much with many great musicians who played with me over the years and lessons are everywhere all the time if one stays open. Musicians who have made a huge impact on me are Gary Burton, my first big sideman gig, and Paul Motian, who embodied so much of the essence and freedom of jazz. He was a modernist with a huge link to the tradition. As such, he offered me a priceless learning experience. But many contemporary jazz musicians that I play with have also been huge inspirations, like Ambrose Akinmusire, Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier, Brian Blade and Scott Colley, to name a few.

TG: Was there a “eureka” moment at which you realized that music was going to be your life? 

WM: I grew up with classical music but my siblings and I always improvised with each other as kids, long before we knew anything about jazz. When we later found out that improvisation is at the heart of jazz, we were hooked. Coming from a classical tradition and coming to jazz relatively late at age 14 brought its own blessings and challenges. 

TG: Can you expand on some of those blessings and/or challenges? 

WM: One of the blessings was being able to learn so much about harmony, intonation, practicing, discipline, tone and technique as a young child. One of the challenges was having to do a lot of extra homework later on about time, tradition, jazz language and repertoire. 

TG: Who were some of your greatest teachers, musically or otherwise, and how does their dedication continue to inspire you? 

WM: My main guy was Mick Goodrick, who was direct, honest and encouraging. I spent two years with him as a student and then we played a lot of duo gigs. He was the perfect teacher for me, the one I was looking for. He is a scientist of the guitar and a philosopher about music. As a kid I had many great teachers, starting with my violin teacher at the age of six. I was very lucky in that regard. 

TG: Can you talk a little bit about your artistic directorships and residencies? 

WM: I am the Artistic Director of an immersion year at JazzCampus Basel in Switzerland called “Focusyear”. There we invite up to eight players from all over the world to come to Basel for a full year. They are coached regularly by some great artists who come for a week at a time. They record an album, play concerts and get a full scholarship. This year’s coaches are Jeff Ballard, Chris Cheek, Kris Davis, Sullivan Fortner, Larry Grenadier, Guillermo Klein, Ingrid Laubrock, Lionel Loueke, Linda May Han Oh, Aaron Parks, Elena Pinderhughes, Tineke Postma, Jorge Rossy, Becca Stevens, Cuong Vu, Miguel Zenón and myself. I am fortunate to get to invite all these interesting artists and witness the growth of the ensemble throughout the year. As each teacher brings his or her own universe, it is a truly inspiring job. 

TG: How would you characterize your composing? 

WM: I love composing. For me, it is an act of finding rather than constructing. I love to go on the hunt for a song. It is part of my daily music-making when I am at home. I usually work with concrete people in mind, who I write for. I imagine them in the room with me. 

TG: Have you composed for film? 

WM: I have scored for a 1931 silent film by F.W. Murnau called Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. The score is for cello, trumpet and guitars and we have performed it live in front of big screens in a few concert halls. There is also the music I made with my [trombonist] brother, Christian, for a film about our father, Kurt Muthspiel [1931-2001], which is called Super 8 Music. It is made from Super 8 home movies and provides a lasting statement about our family. 

TG: What is your role as teacher? 

WM: I try to encourage the music that is inside my students. I also ask them to get their shit together. I encourage them to go for what they burn for rather than learn everything a little bit. 

TG: Can you talk about what it is has been like to work with Manfred Eicher? 

WM: I got introduced through Ralph Towner, who brought our trio with Slava Grigoryan to ECM. We did the album Travel Guide together and I got to know Manfred. This is when our relationship started. It is a privilege to work with Manfred, who is completely dedicated to the art of recording. His ears and intuition for the flow of music have a big impact. 

TG: At this moment, who are some of your most inspiring musicians, artists, writers, etc.? 

WM: I owe so much to artists. Be they writers, visual artists, actors, directors or musicians, they make this world rich and deep. They transcend the pragmatic materialistic superficiality and remind us of our souls. It is almost impossible to make a list, but here is a small excerpt. Writers: Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Tobias Wolff, Thomas Mann and Toni Morrison. Painters: Cy Twombly, Agnes Martin and Henri Matisse. Musicians/composers: Witold Lutosławski, Olivier Messiaen, Django Bates and Duke Ellington, but also old masters, including Bach, Mozart and Schubert. Musicians/songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Prince and The Beatles. Jazz musicians: Keith Jarrett and his bands, Miles Davis and his bands, Wayne Shorter and his bands, Billie Holiday, Ornette Coleman and Pat Metheny. Also: Paco de Lucía, Glenn Gould…the list goes on. 

TG: What is one of the most meaningful musical experiences you have had? 

WM: Once in a while, the music plays itself and when that happens, it is blissful and encouraging. It is a zone one wants to be in all the time. These moments become shining lights and reminders that this freedom exists. 

TG: And what is your most profound experience as a listener? 

WM: A reoccurring miracle is that we can enter the world of music as listeners so fully and truly live in it. This is a completely different world than our earthly world. I believe that many listeners have this experience. When the piece is over, we return to our physical existence. Where were we before? And every time I enter certain pieces, I have the same experience— in some cases, the same experience as 40 years ago. 

TG: Is there anything in particular you have yet to do musically that you hope to accomplish someday? 

WM: I would love to play at the Village Vanguard because it is soaked in vibrations of great music. 

TG: On a similar note, is there anyone you wish to work with that you haven’t already? 

WM: I am open for new adventures and don’t have a list of people I want to work with. But, in my fantasy, I would have loved to play with Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis. 

TG: Do you think being a musician today means anything different than a few centuries ago? 

WM: I feel that a few centuries ago, you had to be of a certain class, race and gender to even be considered. In that way, it is more open now. At the same time, we also live in a time of shorter attention spans and so much information that a good musician can be overlooked or undervalued easily. 

TG: What is the most meaningful comment someone has ever made about your music? 

WM: Whenever I realize that there are people out there who live with my music, I am incredibly motivated to give them the best I can give. To have listeners is so valuable. However, I believe that it is healthy not to listen too much to comments about your own music and just keep going with it. 

TG: If you could travel back in time and meet yourself when you were just starting out as a professional musician, what would you say to yourself? 

WM: I would say: “Go for it and have fun.”

An Interview with Billy Drummond

Billy Drummond 2015 © Roberto Cifarelli

Billy Drummond took an interest in the drums as soon as he could pick up a pair of sticks. He seems predestined to have made a humble home for himself in the pantheon of the instrument, playing on over 350 recordings alongside such pillars as Horace Silver, Bobby Hutcherson and Sonny Rollins, among many others. His 1995 leader date, Dubai, was named a New York Times #1 Jazz Album of the Year. Before and since then, Drummond has contributed to projects too numerous to mention in full, including his “Freedom of Ideas” quartet, which is preparing to step into the studio. This will mark his first leader record in more than two decades, heralding a welcome return to the helm for this much sought-after musician. Most recently, he was invited by Gábor Bolla to join the Hungarian saxophonist’s own quartet under the auspices of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, where a 10-day stint culminated in two days of recording. In this interview, we check in with Drummond to get his thoughts on the past, present and future. 

Tyran Grillo: Did you ever have a “eureka” moment with the drums? 

Billy Drummond: As soon as I discovered the drums, before I’d ever played with anybody, I knew that was what I wanted to do. It might seem fairytale-ish to people, but the only person I know that knew me before the drums is my older sister, Sheila, and I was just a toddler. That being said, I don’t remember my life prior to playing the drums. 

TG: Does that mean you took to the drums naturally or did you struggle like everyone else? 

BD: It may sound like a cliché, but you could say the drums chose me, or mutual love at first sight, I don’t know! Every instrument has its idiosyncrasies that have to be dealt with; that’s the nature of the beast. Brass musicians, for example, have to deal with their embouchure, which is a constant struggle no matter who you are. It’s a choice and depends on what you’re trying to achieve and bring to fruition. So, of course, I had struggles and still do. You’ve got prodigies like Buddy Rich. Then there’s Tony Williams, who played at a level that was quite remarkable at such a young age. But he also had an incredible work ethic and dedicated himself to emulating the drummers he loved and studied as much as he could about playing the instrument. There were a lot less options and distractions, especially during that time [the mid ’50s] to keep one from pursuing such passions once they were decided on. You could focus on one thing all day. By the time he was 18, he had become one of the very greats he aspired to be. And he wasn’t the only one. Think about others like Clifford Brown, who started later in life and developed rapidly. The challenges were there then and are still present today. It’s hard work and most musicians have to stay up on the instrument. At least I do. If I take a break, I’m reminded of it the next time I sit down and play. I tell all my students: practice now while you still can before all the obligations and commitments of life start piling up. 

TG: I imagine that COVID-19, though, was an unprecedented type of struggle for everybody. 

BD: The rug was pulled out from under us overnight, so our livelihood suffered greatly because of that. Fortunately, for me, I teach at two major institutions for music [Juilliard and NYU], so during the school year, that kept the wolves a little farther from my door in that regard. Teaching helps subsidize my performing career and vice versa. I was able to keep my head above water, but a lot of things just vanished. I had tours, residencies, record dates and numerous gigs. When you have those things on your calendar, you plan accordingly and all of it went up in smoke. But here I am. Things are slowly coming back, but it remains to be seen what’s going to happen with different variations on the theme, so to speak, of the virus. I got on a plane for the first time in July, went to Europe, did a festival, a bunch of gigs and a recording. It felt like the way I used to feel as a working musician from day to day. The travel part of it is not for the faint of heart. It was never really that luxurious, to say the least, but as musicians, that’s what we have to do. We can’t just play in our own back yards and expect to survive. For most of us who rely on performance, you have to get on an airplane for it to be at least somewhat lucrative. 

TG: Would you say this speaks to the adaptability of those who make music? 

BD: You have to go into every situation with an open mind and coalesce with everyone involved. The end result is making the music come to life. You’re presenting the music. It’s not about me as a drummer, showcasing my drumming. I can’t do that anyway! But there are those who can wow you and still be incredible contributors, like Tony Williams. Some are more overt than others. I’ve flocked around drummers for other reasons, like Billy Higgins, Al Foster and many others I could name who amaze but not overtly so. It’s all about musical conception, how the mind works in the moment. It gets beyond the rat-a-tat-tat physicality of all that. Why are they doing it and how did they come up with it? What are they listening to and for and how are they contributing to the big picture? They all have these audacious concepts and they bring them to fruition. And all that just by hitting stuff with two wooden sticks! It’s a question of how one does it completely differently while achieving musical greatness with a distinctive sound and style. 

TG: Going back to the topic of practice, how do you keep yourself sharp? Do you have a set schedule or just work it in when you can? 

BD: As you mature and are confronted with more of life’s responsibilities, it becomes more difficult to adhere to a schedule. That’s because you’ve got other stuff to do all the time. If you’re planning on practicing, things can interfere. When I do, I practice the same things I’ve always practiced, such as the things we drummers know as “rudiments.” Basically, these are combinations of doubles and singles in certain patterns. I also practice “time” because that’s what you’re doing 99.9% percent when playing with people. I play along with recordings, work on things I’d like to be able to do and all that. You have to stay up on these basic things to be able to bring whatever creativity that’s in your mind to fruition. You need to have a reasonable amount of facility to put your opinions out there. If you don’t, those ideas never come out. That’s what’s so remarkable about the thinking process of great drummers. We only hear the end result, but you can bet they worked on the nuts and bolts to move us with the music. 

TG: Who embodies that philosophy for you? 

BD: Pretty much anyone who played with Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, Nancy Wilson, Art Blakey, Jackie McLean and all the others I grew up listening to. Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb, Philly Joe Jones…the list goes on. It’s all good stuff that I still find today to be the top of the heap in that genre of music. But you’ve also got to realize that, back then, you never saw these guys on television for obvious reasons. The star drummer in the public eye in those days was Buddy Rich, so I was enamored with him because he was billed as the world’s greatest and was more of an entertainer and a personality than some of the others I mentioned might have been perceived to be. So there he was, playing the drums and doing it really, really well. This being the early ’60s, I was attracted to what was on television. It was a natural thing. You had Batman, the Green Hornet and Buddy Rich. 

TG: Who were your more immediate mentors? 

BD: I would have to point to my parents and my father in particular because, being a former drummer himself, he’s the one who turned me on to jazz and the drums. As I look back on it now, he also had an incredible record collection. I was hearing all that music I mentioned as a youngster. I didn’t even know what it was, but at that age, you absorb whatever’s going on around the house. When I gravitated toward the drums, the two connected like that. Both of my parents were very supportive and encouraging of my endeavors. I was very fortunate in that regard. 

TG: How have you changed the most since then? 

BD: For one thing, I hope that I’ve improved as a musician who plays the drums and, with that, I hope that coincides with my improvements as a human being. Sometimes, I wish that I could go back and do things a little differently both on the personal and musical sides. For example, I think about being able to play with certain people I played with 30 years ago, only with the mindset I have now. When you’re in your 20s, you have a whole different thing going on when you arrive in New York. There’s nothing wrong with that; that’s the way life is. As we grow older, we hopefully have a better understanding of things pertaining to life. I’m trying to understand by looking at things from a different perspective. You tend to do that when there’s a lot less ahead of you than there is behind you. Now it’s like, “I’ve got to get this next stuff as close to right as possible because I’ve got no time to waste.” 

TG: How does being a better person make you a better musician and vice versa? 

BD: You’re a human being first and foremost. You’re faced and blessed with all the things that humans have to deal with. When you’re a musician, especially one who has devoted your whole life to music, it becomes so intertwined with your vocation as such. As someone who has surrendered his whole life to music, music and everyday life are intertwined. You wake up in the morning and a large part of your thought process is about music: playing, rehearsing, writing, listening, all of those things. I don’t think people who do certain other things for their livelihood necessarily think that way. But we creative people think about it 24/7 and that could be a problem because there are other things we have to think about, too. Society isn’t set up for creative people because we don’t fit into that same foundation. 

TG: How does this relate to your life as a composer? 

BD: I’m working at it. One thing I could look back on and regret is that I didn’t take the piano seriously when I had the opportunity to so now here I am at this age, struggling, just to put two notes together that sound listenable! I’ve had access to a piano for a large part of my adult life and childhood as well, but I don’t consider myself a composer. I’ve written some tunes. Horace Silver, Carla Bley, Andrew Hill and many, many others I’ve had the pleasure of working with: thoseare composers. 

TG: Have you changed at all as a listener? 

BD: I’ve always been a listener of recordings. No one plays in a vacuum. Listening is one of the things I consider that I do well. I can’t play anything if I don’t listen to what’s going on around me. I like to instigate and react to an action. The drummer is the de facto leader in some ways, controlling the tempo and volume, all of which can impede on or contribute to the proceedings. It’s also the loudest instrument on the bandstand, at least in an acoustic setting. But beyond that, the drummers that I admire and am influenced by are great musicians and listeners and that’s why they’re great drummers. I could name hundreds. 

TG: What is the best compliment you ever got? 

BD: Compliments said to me by people whose opinion I have a great deal of respect for. Beyond that, I’d say the greatest compliment is having people hire me to play with them. They could’ve had anybody, many of whom are pictured up on my own wall of drummers I admire. To be hired from that pool and the many other fantastic drummers out there? There’s no greater compliment. That’s enough to be grateful for and I certainly am.

(Billy Drummond can be seen and heard on his website here. This interview originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

The Tone Poetry of Charles Lloyd

(Photo credit: Dorothy Darr)

To regard a line of improvisation in the key of Charles Lloyd is to walk a spiral from the peaceful depths of one’s soul to the chaotic terrains beyond it. The tenor saxophone with which he is most commonly associated is a scepter that sounds, in his words, “a clarion call to truth and love.” A tender warrior committed to restoration, he sees no lines of demarcation in his music:

“That wouldn’t be right for the tradition I serve. You must have your elixir, and the elixir is in sound and tone. When you’re at the feet of the Universe, she will always bless and take care of us. It’s not politicians we need but sages. Many have their hand out for something, but I try to let my heart be filled so I want for nothing. I live in awe, drunk with the music.”

Hence the moniker of his latest collective The Marvels—featuring Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums—of whom Lloyd is at once leader and faithful servant, a vessel for languages without script. Lloyd debuted The Marvels on the 2016 album I Long To See You with special guests Norah Jones and Willie Nelson, and reconvened the band for 2018’s Vanished Gardens which featured Lucinda Williams on half the album. For his latest Blue Note release Tone Poem, Lloyd presents The Marvels without guest vocalists for the first time on a nourishing nine-course meal of spiritual food. Lloyd recalls the genesis of the group:

“I used to play at this club in Memphis, where a country band was always finishing up as we came in. Their pedal steel guitar player, Al Vescovo, fell in love with my playing, and I with his. He and I became friends, which wasn’t easy on account of the color lines. But the warmth of our friendship was pure. I eventually left for California, and we never saw each other again. Years later, I started performing with Bill Frisell—a seeker whose music, like mine, dances on many shores. On the road, between concerts, I was always reminiscing with him about this young musician from my teens. One night, he invited a pedal steel guitar player to sit in on a concert we played at UCLA’s Royce Hall. That turned out to be Greg Leisz. Hearing him brought full circle a childhood feeling of that instrument and its sonority. Thus, The Marvels were born, because what had happened was a marvel.”

Indeed, the fluid way in which Frisell and Leisz finish each other’s sentences speaks of a mastery that eschews boundaries in deference to flow. The same holds true of Lloyd’s rhythm section, which finds coherence in the absence of rules. If Harland is the heartbeat, Rogers fortifies the blood in its arteries. But how is that sound achieved?

“Don Was and the folks at Blue Note believe in me. The songs we create are my children. They come back home with me. There’s an old saying: What you’re looking for is looking for you. As the character of sound flows, the world drops away, allowing you to make a contribution. This is my offering, my inspiration and consolation. Music has always brought me that. It heals me; I hope I can heal others. Even in the wide cast of artists I’ve played with over this long life, I still have beginner’s mind. Only now, I have the benefit of experience to go along with it.”

If one were to see this album as a ship, then the album closer “Prayer” might be its dotted path across a map of time. Although the parchment on which it is marked is frayed at the edges, it has enough empty space left on it for voyages of reconciliation yet to come. The arco bass and pedal steel guitar herein constitute a longitude and latitude, while drums played by hand glow like a compass in the night. Lloyd and his crew sail forth on a raft culled from bits of nature, each ragged and sun-scorched on its own yet, in unity with others, stronger than the waves. In the midst of the vast waters of this quest stands a chain of islands that includes the album’s original title track, “Tone Poem,” which from rhythmless materials builds a gently grooving structure. Next, it swings from sonic rafters of Thelonious Monk (“Monk’s Mood”)—last heard in duo with Frisell on Vanished Gardens—and on to the shimmering beaches of Bola de Nieve (“Ay Amor”) and Gabor Szabo (“Lady Gabor”). The latter tune offers a taste of Eastern airs and harks to Lloyd’s legendary performance at Montreux in 1967. Out of the primordial soup of that past, it hits the ground running as a fully formed creature—scintillating and agile. Such is the wonder of Lloyd’s playing: he is a traveler weary of the world yet unwilling to let it pass without a song in which to wrap it. He understands the vision of life as having fallen like a teardrop from a cosmic eye in need of being wiped away. And with his horn, he does just that. This music is so comfortable that it feels like a second skin.

“When I think back on my life and how long I’ve been here. Most of my heroes left long before the age I’ve attained. I am always paying homage in a dream state of bringing a better world, a universe that heals and touches. The model of the world as it exists is very primitive to me. Man’s inhumanity to man continues to cause great pain and destruction.  And yet, the fierceness of exploration stays fresh with me. I’m not here for roses. I’m still blessed and interested. The world continues to make history about generals…but my generals—Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Bird, and Trane—are lovers of the heart.”

This is especially apparent in two Ornette Coleman tunes (“Peace” and “Ramblin’”), neither of which were a part of Lloyd’s repertoire, yet which felt organically suited to the band. In both, the listener will find spirit-making sounds, all powered by the solar panel of Lloyd’s saxophone and released in melodic energy. The sense of forward motion here is phenomenally astute and something that, in these times of social distancing, crackles with a level of intimacy the pandemic has all but snuffed out.

“Some of the notes and cries you hear now on my instrument, I didn’t have as a young man. They articulate something. Then, I have these ensembles serving a higher goal. Sensitives are abundant on the planet; they just aren’t given credit for it. To be drunk while also being non-toxic and non-harmful to the world is a contribution worth making, a song worth singing.”

It’s also why poetry lingers even in the absence of words. In Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” it sings wordlessly and with a deep simplicity that needed to be explored in this context. And in the temperance of Lloyd’s own “Dismal Swamp,” it turns an individual truth into a universal one.

“I’m an archeologist and astronomer, trying to make a breakthrough. I have this dream that I’m going to melt into the music and I’ll become what it is. It’s such a beautiful gift that I’ve been given of being able to continue to explore. I pick up the instrument and I play and I can’t put it down. It takes me. I go out in nature and come home with these quantum mechanics in my heart.”

Music, because it is connecting to and opening up a spiritual purpose, brings about eternal effects, whereas everything we do in the flesh has a finite existence. But we’re so busy screaming at each other that we’ve forgotten how to sing. This is why Lloyd’s music has so much vitality: it is a gift in song form. It is a refuge.

“We speak the same heart. The heart of all hearts, we’re aligned with that. And the soul of all souls will bring us home. To be at Oneness. There are many windows into this house. You must be sincere and you must have a desire for truth, and somewhere you must have inspirations along the way, someone to guide you who knows the path. It’s incumbent upon all of us to sing that song of the infinite.”

A “dreamer of worlds” is how Lloyd describes himself. In that capacity, he offers inspiration and consolation to the named and unnamed alike. And now, with this sacred book, bound and stitched as an incantation of light, we can dream those worlds together as our own.

Tone Poem is available directly from Blue Note Records by clicking on the album cover below.

Interview with Composer Matthew Bennett

Throughout the pandemic, I had the honor of conducting a slow-motion conversation via email with composer Matthew Bennett, former director of the Sound + Sensory Design Program at Microsoft. He might just be the most well-known composer you’ve never heard of (yet whose sounds are heard millions of times every day around the world). The interview is now available at Sequenza 21. Click the photo below to read on.

(Photo credit: Brian Smale)

Zeena Parkins: Interlacing

(Photo credit: Claire Paul)

It’s tempting to draw a connection between ancient meanings and modern practice. In the case of LACE, an ongoing project from harpist Zeena Parkins, such connections become more tangible than any etymology ever could be. The word “lace” is derived from the Latin laqueum, meaning “a noose, a snare,” but any negative connotations of such parlance turn to a cloud of dust that Parkins draws, particle by particle, into light. LACE began with an invitation in 2008 from the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio as part of its “Music Mondays” series. “There was an impending deadline,” she recalls, “and most of my compositions at the time would have taken months to learn. I had collected fabrics over the years and I just grabbed some graphic-looking pieces of lace and made conditions for improvisers to read each piece as a score. It worked.”

Since then, she has created an action card-based game piece, recently recorded by percussionist William Winant, a project for her band Green Dome—with Ryan Sawyer (percussion) and Ryan Ross Smith (piano and electronics)—based on transforming the lace knitting patterns from the Shetland Islands into scores and a fourth movement, entitled “Stitchomythia,” performed on an anamorphic carpet designed by Nadia Lauro. If anything, Parkins does not tie snares but unravels them in hopes they might reach the soil of the ear and grow without forsaking their precise comfort.

Such impulses have been a running thread of her ethos since 1993’s Nightmare Alley. Across the terrain of that formative album, a near-catharsis unfolds, as if the very zeitgeist from which it arose were crying in search of change. Parkins cites it as an important turning point in her career. “I felt a need to do a solo record, lay my gauntlet down and take a place. It’s not like I had a manifesto, but I was really at the beginning of a process of determination to do something that I hadn’t heard exactly the way I was doing it. My mission was to do something with the harp that was unfamiliar to me.” To be sure, it was just as unfamiliar to the audience who came to hear her play at New Langton Arts, curated by visual artist Nayland Blake in San Francisco in the summer of 1991. “I hadn’t done that many solo shows and they didn’t have an acoustic harp available, so I played with my electric harp. The gallery had rake seating fanning out from the center—and it was packed. I was in a state of shock. Inspired and excited, I just improvised. That’s when Table of the Elements approached me and asked if I would be the first artist on the label. It was a special way to start.”

Besides introducing listeners to a voice that needed hearing, Nightmare Alley revealed the harp’s multifaceted potential. Though the credits list “electric and acoustic harps” as its material resources, the album was a revelation of immaterial forces that betrayed next to nothing of their origins: “I’m very connected to the harp,” notes Parkins, “but not in a way meant to convey technical virtuosity.” Trained in the rigors of classical piano yet aware that it wasn’t the path she wanted to follow, she encountered the harp while attending Cass Technical High School in Detroit. “They took pity on us pianists for being isolated in our practice rooms, so they assigned us orchestral instruments to get us out there performing. The school had many orchestras and I was willing to give it a try. Walking into a back room without windows and seeing eight concert harps was the most unexpected situation I could ever have imagined myself in. I totally fell in love with the instrument; it made total sense to me physically. When I realized that I was really going to seriously be involved with harp, I trained privately knowing I wasn’t ever going to play it live in a classical setting.” Out of that training emerged a musician who understood the corporeal math needed to bring forth a sound that translated her inner equations into a language that we on the outside could understand.

It wasn’t long before her interest in developing that language opened a portal into the harp’s very soul, pulling from that formless void a second heartbeat in electric form. The earliest version of her electric harp was built by late cellist and Skeleton Crew bandmate Tom Cora and visual artist Julian Jackson in 1985. The following year, it was remade by luthier Ken Parker as a freestanding instrument allowing her to play standing up. Next, sound artist and clandestine instrument builder Douglas Henderson added, among other things, new pickup placements and an ebony strip along the whammy bar side, which Parkins praises for a certain physicality, noting that it “profoundly changed the instrument, creating a fingerboard-like environment for me to develop different kinds of playing techniques.”

At the same time, there is a deeply metaphysical aspect to her work that has continued to evolve from one setting to the next. For Parkins, however, it’s less of a dichotomy than a spectrum: “The physical can become metaphysical because gesture and materiality are so important. It’s about presence, which is very much a part of how I am as a performer. Not just the body, but also one’s intention and absence of intention, desire, expectations, failures—all these things help.” A case in point is her latest album, Glass Triangle (released in February 2021 on Relative Pitch Records), for which she joins Mette Rasmussen (alto saxophone) and, again, Sawyer. Despite having played together only once at The Stone Series at Happylucky no.1 in Brooklyn, the trio made the studio its crucible. What ensued in the freely improvised session was reverse alchemy—not turning lead into gold but breaking down the latter into its constituent parts, each no longer precious alone yet all the more authentic for having been liberated. Thus, what begins as a fragmentary coalition gathers around the campfire of an intimately connected excursion. Sounding at times like an electric guitar, at others like a voice dying in its attempts to communicate from behind the wall of noise erected by recent politics, the harp hoists a protest sign for a generation woefully uncertain of the future, as if some gargantuan lie were morphing into truth. In this space, magic is outed as a restless muse that would sooner destroy its adherents than enable a miracle. Between dips into sustained beauty, one encounters the profundity of “The crystal chain letters,” a track that references Bruno Taut, whose legendary correspondences with kindred architects imagined a future in which urban planning welcomed rather than dictated human behavior. The letters were also, more importantly, a honeycomb around World War I, the traumatic effects of which begged not for utopia but for an ability to use the rubble of the past as material for mosaics of the future. This sensibility is broken and rubbed into the skin of Glass Triangle as if it were a necessary armor for the road ahead.

In light of this historical awareness, Parkins reflects on her beginnings as an artist as follows. “I was myopic then in thinking about the future, just living in the moment. Growing up with an immigrant father and a first-generation mother, I was encouraged to be practical, to be good in school, to do music on the side but focus on a career. But I just wanted to be in the world of music, to be surrounded by a community of musicians, to hear things I’d never heard before. I wanted every experience.” Under the current circumstances, one would be remiss to ignore this motivation. The need for community seems to have grown in proportion to the world’s tendency to fall down the rabbit hole of isolation. Such concerns were already on Parkins’ mind before the pandemic, when questions of safety and practicality prevented her from touring with the electric harp. The mindset of quarantine rekindled her relationship with the instrument. With the help of her partner, filmmaker Jeff Preiss, she began shooting solo performances as a means of reaching out. As she sees it: “You put a recorder up and instantly it’s more than just you in the room.”

Seeking other channels through which to foster a sense of community, including a virtual book group, has allowed connections that might not normally have crystallized to take root and flourish: “This situation we’ve been enduring is like a combination of patience and faith, but also the understanding that there need to be points of correction, a sense of urgency for transformation. It gives us a new way to look at our world with brutality and honesty, knowing that we are faced with a different kind of time.” What a sonic blessing, then, that we can wield the lanterns of her creations to show the way. As justice shines like a constellation above a horizon that only seems to recede the more we approach it, we need all the light we can get.

(This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Still Listening: A Conversation with Bassist/Poet Larry Roland

(Photo credit: Peter Gannushkin)

Larry Roland is a poet of the bass and the pen with nearly four decades of professional experience across a variety of fields. After graduating from Boston University in 1973 with a BS in Education, he taught health and P.E. in the local public school system. He later earned a Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Massachusetts. All the while, he was refining his poetic voice, drawing on everyday life around him to reflect on both individual and collective pasts and continues to do so in his current home of New York City. Along the way, he found kindred solace in the upright bass, alongside which he cut his teeth as part of the house band at Wally’s in Boston’s South End. After touring and recording with trumpeter Raphe Malik and founding the Urge 4Tet with pianist Donal Fox, he released his first album of solo bass and spoken word, As Time Flows On, in 2001. Next for him was the Bassline Motion project with dancer/choreographer Adrienne Hawkins, plus an acclaimed record with the Charles Gayle Trio, Streets, in 2011. Since 2012, he has been involved in We Free StRINGS, a free jazz ensemble intent on dismantling the ethos of Western musical paradigms. Most recently, he put out a book of poetry, ..Just Sayin’!!, in 2019 and in 2020 was featured on the album We Were Here by The Jazz & Poetry Choir Collective, of which he is a former founding member. 

Tyran Grillo: Can you tell me a little about those early days at Wally’s? 

Larry Roland: That was my school, man. We played bebop—no ballads—every night from 9 pm to 2 am. We had Roy Hargrove, Antonio Hart, Tommy Campbell, Billy Kilson…you name it. And there I was, somehow ending up as the bass player. 

TG: On your solo album, As Time Flows On, you’ve got this track called “The Journey,” which resonates deeply during this time of pandemic. In it, you talk about the “realization of being bound” and a “serious trek for truth.” Regardless of what you’re playing, does that spirit animate everything you do? 

LR: You see, that’s the bottom line. It’s the spirit. In almost everything you see going on today, the spirit has been manipulated. It’s missing. There’s so much fear in the world that people start craving these parameters created by someone who has a title or what have you. I say no, man, I’m just writing this stuff up. When people started asking me to participate in these “soirees” back in college, it was very interesting to me. I was able to check out the whole class thing. I would show up with my writings folded up in a brown paper bag stuck in my belt and people would say, “Oh, you’re here!” I’d read something and people would be floored, but to me, I was just talking about life. I wasn’t there to be a token entertainer, but to educate. And then I’d be kicking it in my dorm—I was an athlete, you see, a ball player at Boston University—and would share something there, too. They thought it was deep. Being taken seriously off the court by guys I rubbed shoulders with on it was important. It put a smile on my face, because academically I was struggling. 

TG: How did you channel that energy at such a formative time into a professional life, as it were? 

LR: People always tell me, you should be out there, man. I say, listen, I’m just satisfied being above the ground and having a few things to say. As far as getting caught up in the race, I’m not really sure on my feet like that. I didn’t go to school to learn how to play bass or write. I went to very poor public schools. And that’s fine with me. I try to keep it as raw as possible without really having to answer to anyone. If it resonates and touches someone, that’s a blessing for me, because I’m just a conduit. 

TG: Where and how does the music fit into all of this? 

LR: I grew up in a household filled with Bird, Trane, Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins, Yusef Lateef and Stravinsky. During that time, we still had a little record store on the corner where you could find all sorts of music. Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, I was inundated with all of that. Plus, my dad knew a lot of musicians. He and Roy Haynes were tight. So much so that my mom would get tired of seeing Roy’s drums in the living room. “Put dem drums back in the hall!” she’d say. Around Christmastime, we would get these postcards from creative people all over the world. Every time I looked at them, I couldn’t help but think, now that’s freedom. Whenever people ask me about the most significant thing growing up that really helped shape my perception into who I am today, I always say it was the music. My dad knew these people: painters, musicians, intellectuals. They would meet in my house and break down stuff in ways I never experienced on the outside. They were all focused more on the qualitative than the quantitative. Some of the deepest stuff I heard was in my living room. 

TG: In listening to your spoken word especially, I get this palpable sense that you’re looking at history with clear and open eyes. Whereas the world may cut and re-paste it into a different narrative, you’re trying to get to the heart of it, in the same way a genealogist may draw up a family tree. How do you see yourself making a contribution? 

LR: It all comes back to the spirit. People sometimes tell me, man, I’ve never seen anyone procrastinate as much as you; you should be doing this, that and the other. But I am doing it. You just don’t see it. I’m always creating in my mind. I’m just not about trying to be up front with it and gain all the attention. This brother, Hasan Abdul-Karim, I play with sometimes—in his 80s and still blowing tenor—is really into astrology, so he offered to do my chart one time. He said, “I wish I had your stars. You don’t even have to do anything. You’re linked to the universe. That’s special. That’s power. Spiritual power.” So I walked with that. I try to stay what I call “naturonic.” I try to move with nature. These days, I have a little mouse in my pantry. Most people would see him as a nuisance, but he’s trying to live the same way we’re trying to live. He’s not trying to bring attention to himself. He respects my space and I respect his. The odds are against him. Maybe he’s got a crevice behind the wall and maybe even a family he’s bringing crumbs to. Maintaining that connection to the little things is how I’ve been able to move ahead and navigate the terrain. Just be as still as you can and your surroundings will speak to you.

TG: You could say there’s a difference between those who move for the mere sake of it because they don’t know how to be still and those who have to be still and let the world blossom around them. You can’t be attentive to the spirit, or any spirit, if you’re always on the go, because you’re either too busy talking down to everyone or shutting them out. We need time for cultivation. 

LR: I’m doing a piece right now on technology and I keep coming back to this image of Toto pulling back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. That’s exactly what I see going on. The mask is coming down and there’s desperation out there. We have to be careful with our minds, because the proverbial THEY understand the power of hypnotism based on repetition. Sometimes I hear the classics on the radio and am reminded of how the jazz greats did so much with so little. I’m blessed to have grown up in that time. Not just around jazz, but Black music in general. Gospel, R&B and don’t get me started on James Brown, now he packed the party. As soon as he came on, it was hands up. And if you didn’t have anybody, you just danced with the wall. But you were still telling a story. 

TG: How did this upcoming live-stream concert come about? 

LR: One Breath Rising asked me and I said yes, simple as that. Since then, I’ve been going through the pieces in my mind, letting them grow. The fact that it takes place on Valentine’s Day reminds me of a performance I did for the Provincetown Playhouse at the invitation of Regina Ress, who teaches storytelling at NYU. In that piece, I said I was “looking for an analog love in a digital world.” That notion got me thinking about sound. We’re living in a world of ones and zeros, kicked off with an electrical connection, but I’m used to striking something, producing vibration. 

In that performance, for which I both spoke and played, I told the story of my bass, which was built in Germany in the 1840s. It was found in a bombed-out building in Berlin and no one knows how it got here. I had a chance to try it out at the luthier’s shop when I was getting my plywood model fixed. That night, I couldn’t sleep, all I could hear was that sound. I was in love. I ended up trading my bass for the German one and it’s still my go-to instrument. I told a more detailed version of that story to an audience once and at the end these two old couples approached me and introduced themselves as German concentration camp survivors. They felt such an affinity for my bass, down to the serial number imprinted on the scroll. As I was giving them a closer look, one of the wives was patting and rubbing the bass like it was a real individual, which it is. I got really emotional. They saw a lot of people in that story and told me to keep playing. That’s when I realized the gift ran both ways. You pull in things that so many others take for granted, and you magnify them. This is who we are. 

TG: Speaking of sound, I can’t help but feel like you’re reciting poetry when you’re playing bass and playing bass when you’re reciting poetry. 

LR: I’ll walk with that, too. I live an improvisational lifestyle. Whatever I don’t do today, I’ll do the next time. 

TG: Finally, I’d like to go back to the beginning of your relationship with the bass. 

LR: I didn’t pick the bass up until I was 30. When I did, I already knew how I wanted it to sound and where I would go with it. Back then, I was getting poetry gigs in Boston when I ran into a bassist by the name of John Jamyll Jones. We were having a Black History Month program and I wanted him to accompany me while I read. The performance was even shown on PBS under the name Say Brother. After that I joined his band, Worlds, reciting poetry and playing a little percussion. They had two bassists, one of whom pursued other paths in life and sold me his bass. At first, I just had it in the living room, but then I would put on John Coltrane’s Ascension and start playing along with it. I felt like part of the band. Jamyll showed me the rudiments: how to hold the instrument and plant my feet properly. Then I got some books on fingering and such. I practiced every night. I just wanted to play. I never met my teachers: Jimmy Garrison, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers and Palle Danielsson. Then, a guy from Berklee who’d heard me play called me about joining him at Wally’s. He needed someone fast, so I took the risk and developed from there. Aside from studying a bit with Cecil McBee, I was largely self-taught. It was always about the music. It saved my life. I was a listener before I was a player and I’m still listening.

(This article originall appeared in the February 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

In the Same Breath: An Interview with Ethan Iverson

The career of musical polymath Ethan Iverson has taken the pianist—and his pen—around the world and then some, in both the geographic and creative senses. Since striking oil in collaboration with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King as The Bad Plus, Iverson has simultaneously broadened his palette and focused his sound throughout a range of far-thinking endeavors. Among those is his landmark Bud Powell in the 21st Century, a big band project recorded December 2018 at the Umbria Jazz Festival and released at the end of this month on Sunnyside Records. You can continue to track his various trajectories in his web archive, DO THE M@TH.

(Photos: Giancarlo Belfiore)

Tyran Grillo: Who is Ethan Iverson now that he wasn’t 15 years ago? 

Ethan Iverson: I always had a plan to keep studying. When The Bad Plus had our surprise breakout success in 2003, I didn’t feel like it was automatically the endpoint. Playing with that band was incredible, but all along I was also thinking about other ways to make a contribution. 

One of the reasons I started writing about the music was to let Bad Plus fans know about this great tradition. When you’re the new flavor, it can be seductive to feel like you’ve got it all figured out, but everybody stands on the shoulders of those who preceded them. 

TG: When you speak of tradition, do you see that as a monolithic term or is it always evolving? 

EI: Someone once said that it’s important for an artist to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts in the mind at the same time. On the one hand, yes, tradition, but on the other hand you have to be in the moment; there’s always the present day, or even looking to build a better future. Both things are true. At the very least, it doesn’t seem to work to say, “I only deal with the tradition.” Neither does it work to say, “I am only new.” Nobody I admire says that only one of those viewpoints is correct. 

TG: How does your thinking in that regard connect to Bud Powell? 

EI: He’s someone that I keep on learning from. In fact, this project happened two years ago, but just this morning I was practicing and thinking about Bud Powell. He’s an inexhaustible source of inspiration. 

There’s room to find inspiration from almost anything. One of my mentors is the choreographer Mark Morris. He goes out all the time to see varied shows. He is always listening to and talking about different forms of music. Despite being schooled in high, conceptual art, you might just as easily find him watching and enjoying the most banal TV show imaginable. He is inflamed by all of it creatively, from high to low. And that, I think, is a pretty good model. 

TG: How did the Powell project come about? 

EI: It was a commission by the Umbria Jazz Festival, marrying an American quintet with an Italian big band. I was delighted when Carlos Pagnotta and Enzo Capua at Umbria first approached me. Manuele Morbidini, who directed the big band, prepared the musicians so well before I got there that I actually cut a rehearsal. The band was ready. When it came time to look for a label, Sunnyside founder François Zalacain is a bit of an old-school bebopper and really liked the project. 

TG: How does the sound you achieved at Umbria differ from what you’ve done before? 

EI: Post-Bad Plus, I’ve been doing quite a bit of larger-canvas pieces. I wrote a piano concerto for the American Composers Orchestra. I curated a celebration of Thelonious Monk for his centennial at Duke University. For Mark Morris, I did Pepperland, an evening-length piece connected to The Beatles. There’s been quite a lot of formal composition in the last five years, but Bud Powell in the 21st Century is the first of these projects that’s coming out commercially for everyone to hear. 

Speaking of tradition versus being in the present day, when I think of the tribute projects I admire, there’s quite a bit of original composition. Ornette Coleman, even when playing standards, always started with an original melody. So, there’s original composition in this project—the very first track is completely original—but there’s also Powell’s music, which in and of itself is very difficult. 

TG: Can you unpack “difficult” for us a little? 

EI: With Powell, it’s hard to get all the details exactly right, because they’re quite specific, fast and complicated. I swore to myself that we would get those details right—such that if Bud was there, even if he didn’t like the whole thing, at least he couldn’t look at me and say, “You didn’t even play my melodies right, man.” 

TG: How would you describe your relationship to Powell’s music? 

EI: I like knowing the text. When The Bad Plus played The Rite of Spring, I played it just like Stravinsky wrote it. If I play Tadd Dameron with [drummer Albert] “Tootie” Heath, I learn Dameron’s original voicings. At one point I transcribed Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” for The Bad Plus. My brain gets really excited by the details. I like to sit there and ask myself what really happened here. I can dive in, think about those details, transcribe and appreciate the subtleties. 

There’s also this other side of creativity. I’m confident everything I do has a personal sound, that it sounds like me and part of that sound is wild and woolly. The fantastical or surreal comes in pretty naturally with Bud. At the end of the day, Bud Powell was an avant garde musician. Had the project been dedicated to the music of Dizzy Gillespie or Benny Golson, it might have been harder to find a way in to do something personal. But there’s a surreal glint in Bud Powell’s eye, so that’s a fit for me as well. 

TG: What sorts of extra-musical inspirational forces do you find creep into your music? 

EI: When I interface with literature, movies, or television, it helps me see that parameters of genre are freeing, not constricting. I like genres. Some people don’t believe in them and want to live their life “genre-free.” I have little interest in that perspective. I’m more like, “What is the genre?” If we know what genre it is, then we can fill the container with the right kind of material. In this project, Bud Powell is within the genre of bebop. I take bebop very seriously as a genre. I do things to it that are not pure bebop, but at the same time, I’m aware of the difference. 

Everything “new” is a combination of previous things. What matters is how well you know each element you’re combining. If you’re writing a supernatural detective story, you need to ask yourself how well you know the supernatural genre and how well you know the detective genre. People often know one side more than the other. That’s always been an issue in the arts, but here in the postmodern age of the 21st Century, everything’s a click away. It’s all one big mashup. The question is how well you can control all the aspects you’re dialing in to the final product. 

Sometimes, a college music student will say, “I don’t want to be labeled. Don’t even call it jazz; it’s all beyond category.” I get it, but at the same time, any single phrase you can play on an instrument has a heritage, so what lineage are you in? And if you know your lineage, you can accept it or work against it. 

TG: Does this influence your selection of musicians as well? 

EI: I chose the musicians for this project for specific reasons. There’s a core quintet of Americans, plus the Italian big band. The result is sort of a concerto grosso. My friend Ben Street plays bass. Ben really believes in jazz and plays with so much personality. There aren’t too many bass players you can hear on a record and immediately identify, but Ben is one of those. 

Drummer Lewis Nash was suggested by Umbria. I’d heard and admired Lewis my whole life but hadn’t played with him before. For a big band you need a drummer who lays down the law. You can’t necessarily go in with a really idiosyncratic force like Paul Motian or Elvin Jones for a big band. Lewis is a consecrated bebop master who’s played with the Who’s Who, so he was a perfect choice. 

I’d admired [trumpeter] Ingrid Jensen for years in the context of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, so she was always in the back of my mind as someone I’d choose if I ever did a big band project. She’s got connections musically to Kenny Wheeler, who wrote some of the more durable modern big band music. As for tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, I heard about him from Ben when in need of a sub for Mark Turner in the Billy Hart Quartet. Dayna is fast and very creative. Both Dayna and Ingrid get a few expansive solos in this project, but they also have solos in which they need to tell a story in just a chorus or two, like the original Powell session with Sonny Rollins, Fats Navarro, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes. 

It was hard for all of us. We all left with a new appreciation for that genre of pure bebop, where everybody says their piece in three minutes. It was a joy to work within those confines.

TG: What surprised you the most when you first got together and played? 

EI: I knew Lewis was great, but he struck me as very generous in his playing. He’s a natural accompanist. I’m not so used to that. I’m used to these people who push me around—and I want to be pushed around. But Lewis was like a beautiful jazz couch that you could just sit on and relax. As for Ingrid and Dayna, I knew they were virtuosos, but hearing them play these high-level, burning jazz solos confirmed that I’d gotten the right people. It wasn’t a surprise, exactly, but sometimes you put things together in your mind and it doesn’t always come out that way in reality. But they showed up, they kicked ass and it was great. 

TG: What’s next for you? 

EI: I expect to play quite a bit more solo piano eventually; that’s been coming along. A current commission is six formal sonatas for six virtuosos, which is going great. More formal composition is certainly in my future. The Billy Hart Quartet continues and we’re live-streaming at Dizzy’s Club to celebrate his 80th birthday. There’s also a wonderful singer named Marcy Harriell who I had a New Year’s Eve gig with last year doing music of Burt Bacharach and it was a huge success. Fortunately, there’s plenty to do. I’m blessed with a pretty sizable list of geniuses who are somehow willing to work with me. 

TG: What would you most like to see happen in jazz that hasn’t happened already—or, for that matter, hasn’t happened for a long time and should be revived? 

EI: Composition is important. Instrumental virtuosity is important. The blues is really important. Afro-Cuban rhythm is important. Romantic harmony is important. Telling a story is important. When we hear the great jazz records of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, it’s all in a pretty perfect balance. After John Coltrane passed away, we’ve had 50 years of great music, but it’s seldom been the whole package. I believe in inclusivity. There are so many elements of music and if you can get a passing grade in many of them, you can keep moving it forward. When I talk about Burt Bacharach in the same breath as Bud Powell, I don’t see them that differently in the sense that both are the very highest level composers within their respective genres.

(This interview originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)