I recently conducted an interview with music critic and author Phil Freeman for All About Jazz. Freeman has some of the sharpest ears out there—and a way with words to hone them. Interested readers shouldn’t hesitate to pick up his latest book, Ugly Beauty, which hit shelves last year. Click on the cover below to read some of my thoughts on the book and our conversation about it.
Radio Interview for Situation Fluxus
On September 30, 2021, I had the honor of being interviewed, along with Stef Gijssels and Paul Acquaro, founder and managing editor, respectively, of The Free Jazz Collective, for Situation Fluxus at WGXC to discuss the art and politics of reviewing music. Special thanks to host Cheryl K. Symister-Masterson for having us on! To access the interview, click the logo below, click “Audio” on the righthand side of the page, then click the show title in the dropdown. The interview starts at around the 8:14 mark.
Being Present: An Interview with Wolfgang Muthspiel
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 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
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.
Zeena Parkins: Interlacing
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.)
In the Comfort Zone: A Conversation with Tabla Virtuoso Zakir Hussain
(Photo credit: Jim McGuire)
As I call up Zakir Hussain on the phone for this interview, I call up also memories of my childhood. I was raised in a small town in Marin County, California, where it so happens the mother of a childhood friend studied traditional Kathak dance with Zakir’s wife, Antonia Minnecola. I distinctly remember those performances, and can’t help but laugh at myself now for being too young then to recognize the greatness to which I grew up in such close proximity. Thirty years and seemingly infinite more of musical exposure later, here I sit transcribing my conversation with the world’s leading virtuoso of the tabla. When I tell him about our distant connection, he says to me, “What a small world this has suddenly become,” and the strange twists of life that completed this circle feel all the more inevitable to me as I offer my first question.
Tyran Grillo: Thinking back on your many projects reminds me of how many so-called “crossovers” you have done. Then again, I’ve always felt that Indian classical music is already hybrid by definition. In light of this, how do you feel that you have evolved as you continue to work with musicians from traditions and cultural backgrounds other than your own?
Zakir Hussain: Indian music, at least when I was growing up in India, was undergoing a great transition. Up until India gained its independence in 1947, most musicians were under the employ of Maharajas, so they rarely performed for lay audiences. Once those princely states were demolished and India became a democracy, court musicians had to fend for themselves. Young musicians back then, Ravi Shankar and my father among them, were trying to figure out how to tailor their art for the stage. At the same time, because of the British influence, Western music was everywhere in India. My generation grew up with symphonies and string quartets, but also the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, even as we were helping to create music for a fledgling Indian film industry, now famous as Bollywood. All those Indian musicians who had studied Western classical instruments were absorbed into the film industry, and we all became integrated into a mutant, hybrid orchestra, performing music that was a hodgepodge of influences.
And so, when I first came to the United States in my late teens and heard the musicians here, it felt like a natural progression. I was also fortunate because my father used to bring me records from his travels, so by then I had heard the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, Charles Lloyd, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. All of this was an extension of where I was in India, and it made for a seamless transition when starting to play with people here. Luckily, by then there was major interest among American musicians — in particular John Coltrane, Mickey Hart and John McLaughlin — to learn Indian music. I was meeting all these people who already understood what I did, and it was easy for them to walk me across the rift into a system I was familiar with. Whatever hesitancy I had in being able to contribute disappeared, because these people knew who I was and where I was coming from.
TG: How would you characterize yourself as a listener?
ZH: Listening is one thing that most drummers do. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Indian music, jazz or classical. Drummers are supposed to know all the standards, all the breaks, so that they can interact at a moment’s notice. Indian tabla players are no different. We need to know the music to be better accompanists. So we are listeners. On tour, I’m constantly listening to the masters. When I was playing with Ravi Shankar, I would listen to his most recent albums, familiarizing myself with his temperament, his musicality and his improvising depth, to see what I could contribute when I got on stage. It was a form of respect, a way of letting him know that I was aware of what he’d done and that I was ready to give whatever he wanted.
TG: On the topic of collaboration, how did you come to work with sitar player Niladri Kumar?
ZH: Niladri Kumar is one of many young masters of Indian music today who I am hoping to promote globally. My reason for this is twofold. First, people should not get caught up in idea that Indian music begins and ends with Ravi Shankar. Even at the time when he became internationally famous, there were other sitar players who were just as great and highly revered in India, but who people outside of India never heard about. Now, I may be considered the tabla player of the day, but I can honestly name at least 15 tabla players who are just as good as, if not better than, I am. But people don’t know that, because they hear a marquee name and say, “Oh, that’s the guy to go see. Forget about the rest.” Nowadays young musicians, even as they are listening to and playing Indian music, have their computers in front of them, able to access any master of any musical tradition, so they grow up with a more universal sensibility of music. It’s amazing to see them treating Indian music as more than a single entity, but rather as part of an ever-growing hard drive through which they access software of all other musical kinds and marry them in ways that at their age I was nowhere near doing. Which brings me to my second reason for wanting to play with them: to get their fresh take on what global music is all about and use my own experience to interact with them, all while learning something more in the process. And, of course, being around younger musicians stokes the fire under me and gets me going more. I used to play with Niladri’s father. And once Niladri came into his own as a musician, I decided to bring him to America, where I hope he will get the attention he deserves for his efforts.
TG: How would you characterize the mass effect of Indian classical music in the 21st century?
ZH: The only way to be able to learn about any music or musicians is through listening. And when you do that, you’re not only listening to their music but also finding out about their cultures and ways of life. I find that young people have developed a deep respect for all art forms, and by extension for those cultures. They also understand that the Third World is anything but, and that its people are anything but clueless as to where they belong. I see immense respect for what India has to offer and its ability to be a great cultural contributor to this world, and all because today’s younger generation has accepted it as such.
TG: Is there any core advice you would give to anyone who wants to start learning the tabla, or any instrument for that matter?
ZH: What I tell people is: try to experience the music a little bit, and if it actually excites you and makes you happy, then it has the potential to turn into a lifelong relationship. And it is a relationship. Every musical instrument has a spirit, and that spirit has to accept you. It’s like in the film Avatar, when the Na’vi bond their hair to a horse or bird. That animal has to accept you as a friend before you can ride it. Only then can you fly the way you imagine yourself to. That’s what music is all about. My own relationship with the tabla is such that we are both friends and lovers. We are together on this journey and every time I grow and find new shades in my musical expression, I find that the tabla is right there saying, “Okay, let’s try this.”
TG: What is your greatest hope or expectation for listeners who come to hear you play?
ZH: I feel comfortable with the audiences of the world, because they know more now than they did 30 years ago. Being able to Google musicians and see them on YouTube means that audiences are no longer arriving without a clue as to what we are all about. It’s almost like meeting friends you have never officially seen before. In that sense, I’m very open and easy with audiences. I don’t have to sit there and talk for 10 minutes about what we are going to do. I believe honestly in the music conveying its own intent. Natural flow is very important to me. I just get on stage and announce what we’re going to play as a matter of routine, and the audiences respond accordingly, and with respect.
(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)
Interview with Yours Truly
Matt Borghi & Michael Teager: Illuminating through Shadow
While feeding your eyes, why not feed your ears:
Guitarist Matt Borghi and saxophonist Michael Teager turn gasses into solids. Their process, however, goes beyond chemistry and physics, drawing as they do from a less definable well that some might call inspiration, others spirit, and still others ether. Separately, they have broadened their cartographies across continents. As a duo, they form their own by tender volcanism.
I spoke via e-mail with the musicians, both of whom were grateful in sharing their time and wisdom to illuminate the drift they have manifested. When I asked them to describe their relationship, Borghi likened it to a “combined meditation,” by which two become one through their non-traditional overlap. Teager, for his part, sees what they’re doing as a “contemplative improvised music,” forged not through a simple meeting of instruments but a more rhizomatic, orchestral sensibility.
While on paper their credits imply rock or jazz lineages, with respect to their instruments Borghi and Teager rest in a world apart. Despite a self-professed love/hate relationship with the guitar, Borghi manages to distill magic from its strings through an array of digital effects, but also, more importantly, an unrestricted approach. “That’s why I like improvisation so much,” he says. “It’s a constant exploration. Sometimes you find gold, sometimes you don’t, but each time you start there’s the possibility of hitting something that’s musically profound.” Teager, having more experience as an improviser, has overcome the challenge of owning his reeds, saying, “As a saxophonist in a stylistic continuum, I’m on my own island when it comes to our music. The name I get most often is Jan Garbarek, and while I do like Garbarek’s playing (particularly with Keith Jarrett), I don’t have a deep knowledge of his catalogue. (He’s my ECM blind spot, partially intentionally.) I try not to listen to other ‘ambient’ saxophonists too much. There are so few of us, and the last thing I want is to subconsciously encroach on another’s territory.”
If anything may be compared, it’s Teager’s likeminded patience for notecraft. To be sure, he has found a beautiful comfort in Borghi’s elastic netting, one in which he more often reacts than dictates in a real-time space that privileges atmospheric over egotistic expression. It’s a dynamic evinced in the 2013 album Convocation. Though an unscripted narrative, it develops from the title reverie to a slow-motion ballad (“Discern Descent”) with inchoate coherence. “Nebula Divide,” on the other hand, operates on a more cosmic scale, changing from monochrome to color and back again along an epic flight path. Such titles, among them also “Constant Apex,” help visualize the music’s ethos in all its asymptotic blush.
For me, the most evocative drop takes shape in “Precipice.” Borghi wrenches an organic pulse from his guitar, like a light signaling a lone wayfarer from far off, while Teager echoes its promise of shelter in a darkening sky. I can’t help, if from the title alone, be reminded of a performance I once experienced of Japanese butoh dancer Min Tanaka, who barely moved a few inches from a wall over the course of an hour, as if standing on a cliff in contemplation of suicide. Though not so morbid, here the feeling is one of suspension, embraced by the grandeur of creation.
If my association suggests anything, it’s that these sounds welcome any interpretations listeners might bring to the table. The same is reflected in the artists of influence lurking in the background. Just as Borghi cites Claude Debussy, Pink Floyd, and Harold Budd as vital touchpoints in his growth, Teager’s range from Dave Liebman and Charles Lloyd to Richard Wagner and Smashing Pumpkins. And while you may not necessarily detect any of these on the surface, an emotional affinity lances them all.
So it is with 2014’s Shades of Bending Light, wherein mixtures born of experimentation yield integral new structures. “Joyce’s Fanfare” begins at dawn, flowing with the tide between binary chords, while Teager builds his wingspan one feather at a time. A similar approach—spreading the seeds and listening to them grow—blossoms through all that follows.
Whether in the desolation of “Daisy Chain” or the rhythmic fantasy of “Weird Minor,” or even the farewell energy of “Blue Sky Fades,” an environmental residue stays behind to remind us of what transpired. The album is, further, an enmeshment of contradictions. Teager lights up layers of gray and mist in “Watch Over” with virtuosic runs, even as Borghi tempers his searching with diffuse endpoints. And in “Nightdrive,” which feels like an orphaned folktale hitchhiking along a runway of solitude, one may feel a bodily connection taking place. Even the album’s title track, which despite being its longest feels like its most ephemeral, is as intimate as it is boundless.
The merging of these polar forces hints at their ultimate unity, as made even clearer in 2014’s Awaken the Electric Air. Played as a late-night (4-5am) radio broadcast for WXPN in Philadelphia, it references some Convocation material with lucidity and openness of heart. Ever the transient traveler, Teager’s saxophone pulls the very horizon like a blanket before slumber, his modal sopranism in “Bed of Ash / Coda” being especially moving.
The album’s live setting gives the now-familiar motif of “Nebula Divide” (paired with “Somnolence”) and, like the title track, feels sacred by sheer virtue of audibility. Lit by heightened awareness, the paths before listeners remain visible even when the final torch is extinguished, as its smoke continues to guide us by the wrists into dimensions beyond.