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.)

Two New Releases from Marilyn Crispell

To say that pianist Marilyn Crispell, who turns 74 this month, has charted new territory would be an understatement. It would be just as accurate to say she has redrawn maps of old territory. At her hands, the keyboard leaps like a compass gleeful over its sentience, directing notes with the same force of intention that a seafarer would a ship carrying precious cargo. Whether solo or, as in the two discs presented here, in combination with others, she brings a reverent sense of space honed over decades. 

For ConcertOTO, she planetarily aligns with Eddie Prévost (drums) and Harrison Smith (bass clarinet, saxophones) for a traversal of freely rendered terrain. Recorded live in November of 2012 at London’s Café OTO, the album documents most of what went down on that stage. On the one hand, it’s a study in contrasts. “An Exploratory Introduction” opens with just that, reacting to space as much as defining it. The “Finale” balances it with forthright exposition. At many points between them, however, something powerful happens—a magical kind of coalescence that only musicians who truly listen to one another can achieve. And so, whereas “A Meditative Interlude” is a dreamy combination of pianistic icicles, moonlit bass clarinet and hand-swept drums, its quiet moments are no match for the main concert portions flanking it. In those, one will find a veritable catalog of touchpoints linking chains around the ears. In this respect, Crispell is a master collage artist. Because nothing is planned, passages of exhale make the inhalations that much tenser and wilder with possibility. Prévost is a fabulous player, never losing track of the inner thread even when he severs it while Smith treats time as a physical dimension. Their occasional exchanges in absence of piano are just as visceral. An interesting coincidence that the club’s name is homophonous with the Japanese word for “sound,” as this is a gift articulated in that very medium.

Streams pairs Crispell with Yuma Uesaka (saxophones, clarinets), whose compositions constitute the set in its entirety. If ConcertOTO was about being in the moment, then this meeting of minds is about connecting moments as one would a constellation: each piece is minimally indicative of its title and, over time, seems to take on those characteristics as if by default. If anything connects the two projects, it’s a willingness to move wherever the winds of inspiration blow—this, despite the through-written nature of every melody Uesaka offers on the altar of improvisation. Hence the beautifully contradictory atmosphere at play. The title track and “Torrent” are exactly as they should be. The former feels like water that pools and eddies when blocked by fallen branches; the latter like a cannonball dive. Further dichotomies of description abound in the prophetic tinge of “Meditation,” in which a bass clarinet courts the piano’s deepest growls. Elsewhere, dialogues are pushed to extremes, each infused with equal parts catch and release, before funneling into “Ma / Space,” for which the duo welcomes Chatori Shimizu on the shō (Japanese mouth organ) for an added touch of sunlight through branches.

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

Charlie Rauh: The Silent Current From Within

If Life must be so full of care,
Then call me soon to Thee;
Or give me strength enough to bear
My load of misery.
–Anne Brontë, “If This Be All”

In the soft yet indelible wake of The Bluebell, an acoustic solo album articulated around echoes of the Brontë sisters, guitarist Charlie Rauh reclaims a kindred power in his latest musical web, The Silent Current From Within, now joined by vocalist Ess See, drummer Ken Coomer, and bassist Jonah Kraut. Spinning his radii of inspiration via sister Christina Rauh Fishburne, Canadian poet Anne Carson, and Anne Brontë, whose words take nonverbal form through the capture spiral of these expanded readings, Rauh positions the listener as the anchor point of a pattern that has left its glyphs of fatigue on all of us in these times of social isolation.

The project at hand emerged when Coomer reached out to Rauh for a long-distance collaboration, adding Kraut for good measure as the songs took on new life. Thus were born three pieces around themes found in the work of Fishburne and Carson, each lending its own shade to the protracted dawn that is the album as a whole. The brush of a morning breeze is audibly felt in “A Marked And Mended Sign,” over the course of which the sun raises its eyebrow just high enough to clear a distant mountain range, while “Until The Charm Fades” crafts its light into a pair of hands pulling vegetation from the soil. “As Simple As Water” nourishes that crop with emotional nutrients, opening the sky like a heart primed to receive wisdom unfettered by the acrobatics of dead philosophies. Likewise, in these contexts, Kraut’s bassing and Coomer’s drumming don’t merely add to Rauh’s guitar, but rather draw out fruit from within it.

All of this is framed by the voice of Ess See, who guides an unaccompanied thread of improvisation through the title track and a multitracked choir with Rauh’s fretwork in the concluding “If This Be All.” In the latter, she unleashes cries at once born from and at odds with nature. She seems to question the tragedy of the pandemic even while bowing to its biological sovereignty. Such conflicts are central to the human condition, each standing like an abandoned building through which these songs have passed and left their fragrance, thus bidding the ears to inhale the incense of what came before. 

Temporally speaking, these are vignettes, the longest of which falls shy of the three-minute mark. Spatially speaking, however, these are vast oceans in which vessels of possibility sail in every direction a compass can imagine. The only question that remains: Will we burn our bridges or rebuild them before they fall?

The Silent Current From Within is scheduled for a March 12, 2021 release on Destiny Records.

Archie Shepp/Jason Moran: Let My People Go

Living as we now do in a world that feels orphaned from its ancestral histories, there’s no more appropriate space to cry out for resurrection than the womb-like expanse of traditional Negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” Saxophonist Archie Shepp turns this melody inside out as salvific blood drips along the keys of Jason Moran’s piano. 

Thus, the duo establishes the rhythm of a hymn trapped somewhere between Earth’s crust and the magma churning beneath. If we don’t already feel the words coursing through our ears from the first note, we find them unraveled in Shepp’s own singing voice, of which hints of reed hang in the air like a signature fragrance, as also in Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and another traditional spiritual, “Go Down Moses.” In both Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” and Moran’s “He Cares,” the listener is greeted by truth while John Coltrane’s “Wise One” unfurls a territory limited only by our imagination to map it. Here, voices of the past hit the open air of the future, only to find they need oxygen masks just to inhale. Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” reminds us that only in the darkest hours can our thoughts churn in an ocean free of pollution—water for its own sake, primed for the vessels of our attempts to make sense of it all. 

In light of all this preaching of ebony, ivory and everything in between, it would be unwise to think of the album as a catharsis, for a catharsis implies that we have transcended the bonds that necessitate thoughts of escape. No. We must gaze upon the fetters and chains until they burn after-images into our brains, so that we may never forget what the world would have us deny: many had to die for us to stand here, poised on the cusp of a tide that could just as easily turn in our favor as against it. Though still a long way from home, we strive to see that candlelight in the window telling us: Just one more leg of this journey and the doors of relief will spread their wings to receive you. At least here, we have a feather to hold to our hearts as we press on. 

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

Dezron Douglas/Brandee Younger: Force Majeure

As COVID-19 continues to occupy the foreground of our collective mind, even as its primacy is under threat by the tumult of political schadenfreude, bassist Dezron Douglas and harpist Brandee Younger give us just what we need in this curated selection from their weekly collaborations, live-streamed throughout the pandemic as sonic scripture in a time of foolish doctrines. 

The duo dives into the swirling waters of Alice Coltrane’s “Gospel Trane,” throughout which schools of hopeful fish swim in synergy. This is the language of the here and now, wrung dry of all animosity and rehydrated with love, flipping the dynamic of social distancing to reveal a creative intimacy—fierce and inextinguishable—beneath it all. 

Subsequent repertoire spans the gamut from Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5 and Pharoah Sanders to Kate Bush, Sting and The Carpenters. With so much to chew on, we are reminded of how much beauty we’ve lost access to over the past year, not only in terms of sound but also in terms of national sentiment, dialogue, and, above all, listening. 

In tracks like John Coltrane’s “Equinox” there is an abiding sense of duality, slipping one hand out of our zeitgeist toward the past and another toward the future. Thus, each instrument brings its own histories to the table, hashing out the lingering oppressions of colonial and plantation mentalities until only indistinguishable molecules are left to dissipate in the air. 

Sanders-Leon Thomas’ “The Creator Has A Master Plan” is the heart of this quest, which by the end has only heart left to give. That same blessed hope is outwardly expressed in Joe Raposo’s “Sing.” If God is in the details, then here we are served one heaping plateful after another of them. While like-minded joy overflows its cup in Clifton Davis’ “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Toilet Paper Romance” (an original with which they ended every show), it bends a knee in the shadow of inward turns like Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” by validating the safety of dreams. 

It’s all there in the title, which in everyday usage means an irresistible compulsion yet which in legalese connotes unforeseeable circumstances preventing the fulfillment of a contract. If the latter doesn’t describe the moral loophole of 2020, what does?

(The article originally appeared in the February 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.)

Dreaming of Waking: Moments in Time with Muriel Louveau

Oh, come to me in dreams, my love!
I will not ask a dearer bliss;
Come with the starry beams, my love,
And press mine eyelids with thy kiss.
–Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Disrupted: that is what we are at this moment in history, a time when roads extending from places both dark and bright cross in a divisive tangle of possible avenues. In such a mess, it can be difficult to know which trajectory to follow, which promises hold water, and which means of metaphorical transportation will get us to a place of rest. Music, however, has offered and sustained a viable way of navigation, if only because its territories are more often intangible and therefore primed for the lanterns of interpretation. Wherever we choose to hang those lanterns, we know there will always be shadows hungry for their illumination.

This is what it feels like to wander the nuances of The Waking Dream, the latest album by French singer Muriel Louveau. Based in Paris, Louveau grew up on a farm in Brittany, where she dove into fascinations with literature, singing, and poetry. Having since worked in a variety of mediums, including theatre, modeling, and music, she has treated every stage of development as an opportunity for self-reflection and, more importantly, development of a language uniquely hers. Thus, her vocal work takes on as much in the way of the body as of the soul. Regardless of her chosen outlet, music has always been the blood of symbiosis running through its veins.

Although Louveau’s influences range from Kathleen Ferrier to Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, the flora she cultivates can be found in no other soil. I recently spoke with her via video chat to gain insight into the multifaceted lens through which she views the world and her place within it. To the question of what currently defines her as a singer, she professed her love of poetry. With all the question marks hanging over our future, it’s one place she can find answers—or, at the very least, more productive interrogations. Her latest album is, in fact, inspired by the writings—poetic and otherwise—of Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein was penned in 1816, a “year without summer” beset by famine, global pandemic, and the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.

In addition to quoting Shelley, Louveau weaves extra-linguistic impulses, drawing breath through throat like thread through needle in ambient environments—not necessarily to connect the then and the now, but as an empathetic process. One feels this sense of unease (if not also disease) acutely in the album’s two “Incantations,” wherein water and machinery serve their purposes as the connective tissue of experience. Held in the embrace of a rhythmic chirr, her singing evokes physical contact to relay metaphysical messages (or is it the other way around?). Dancers Mei Yamanaka and Emily Pope have internalized this music to delineate the realm of the self as palimpsest for natural wonder:

“Les Limbes” likewise treats the voice as gravity-laden and the corporeal self as buoyant, turning the vagaries of human experience into a reflection of their own inability to articulate mourning. Hence “Mirroring,” in which the ink of mortality runs dry on the paper of its denial.

“Making this album had a cathartic function for me,” says Louveau. “It was a work of transition, connected to this moment. While the material existed in some form before the pandemic, as I wrote, I took it as an opportunity to dive deeper and explore my fears. Sometimes, artists can have intuition, and in my case it was about feeling tragedies. What pushed me to complete and release this album was the loss of my mother last year. The tsunami of grief that followed prepared me: there was a synchronicity to this loss and external events.”

If fear of pandemic is internal, then this album reflects that inner experience as a mode of living. In “Silent Steps,” for example, Louveau’s breath acts as a cyclic presence, the very foundation of cognizance. Melodies whisper as if to mock us with their unrequited song, a typewriter no longer functioning and thus left to embrace the solitude of quarantine. Even the birdsongs in “What is a poet?” turn the forest into a mirror rather than a doorway, so that we are left regarding our own reflections as reminders of the rivers at our backs.

As Louveau says of the creative process, “I sometimes have these premonitions in dreams and don’t always understand them. It takes time to realize the connection with events taking place in reality.” Said mysteries are the figures that populate and animate our subconscious, where the cricket melodies of “Spirits” sing a lullaby for the self, for the world, for the stars without a voice.

The album’s title is therefore a prescient one, as it illuminates in sound what Shelley in words rendered as “Psyche’s lamp.” In its light, feeling dictates language. It is not a matter of being forced by circumstance but allowing old souls to carry the secret of their age in peace. It is also about taking the absence of light seriously. “If you face the sun,” says Louveau, “it can blind and kill you. There is a geography of the dark.” In much the same way, this music is born within and without words. Both are as ambiguous as they are true. And so, in these sounds one can find a home knowing. “Especially now,” she adds, “I don’t think the birds sing differently, but maybe we hear them differently.” Perhaps, then, we can look at these vignettes as more than ephemeral experiments, but as indelible knee-prints of a world deferring to nature. Because silence is also a form of singing.

The Waking Dream is available on bandcamp here. Be sure to check out her 2008 album Skana, which I review here, as well.

New Book of Interest!

For those who have an interest in the legalities of the popular music industry, look no further than this indispensible book on the Music Modernization Act (MMA), one of the most important pieces of copyright legislation to be passed in the last century. I was honored to serve as editor for this project, which I saw from inception to completion, and know the author, E. Maxwell, to be unparalleled in his passion for making the MMA palatable to lay audiences. In these times of social isolation, when the very concept of live performance has been drastically altered, it’s more imperative than ever to fight for what songwriters are owed in light of all the behind-the-scenes efforts they put into creating music that defines culture and history while marking time like breadcrumbs along a trail.

The book may be ordered directly from Amazon here.