Category Archives: Muhal Richard Abrams

For George Lewis’ 64th Birthday, A Lengthy Interview from 2009, A DownBeat Feature from 2009, and WKCR Interviews from 2006, 1995 and 1994

Today is the 64th birthday of George Lewis, who has deeply impacted the course of jazz and experimental music over the past 45 years in multiple spheres of activity, for reasons described in the introduction to the extended interview we did together in Perugia in 2009, which initially appeared on the no-longer-active http://www.jazz.com website. I’ve been fortunate to have several opportunities to write about George over the years, most recently this spring for Jazz Timesand in a piece in which I talked to him and Muhal Richard Abrams about the CD Streaming. That article appears below the http://www.jazz.com interview, as do verbatim interviews conducted in 2006, 1995 (he was in the studio on that occasion with Wadada Leo Smith) and 1994, respectively, on WKCR. (Here’s a vignette for the NPR show Studio 360 that we did together in 2002 on the subject of Voyager, the interactive real-time improvising software that he developed during the 1980s and 1990s.)

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The WWW.JAZZ.COM Piece:

Standing in the wings of the Perugia’s Morlacchi Theater shortly after lunch on July 14th, as George Lewis rehearsed the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble for the first of their six concerts over three nights at this summer edition of Umbria Jazz, Marija Sepac, who has observed musicians closely over her eleven years as a quasi-chaperone for the festival’s various performers, marveled at the singular nature of this particular cohort.

“They are very precise—more than 20 people, and they work as one,” she said.

“Concentration. Many hours of hard work. Everybody in an excellent mood all the time. I got a feeling that the people in the orchestra are honored to play with George Lewis, but that they really like him. I can feel the connection which goes beyond respect and professionalism. It was beautiful staying with them yesterday. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen such a thing. It’s amazing!”

At this moment, Lewis was systematically checking that each sound in the orchestra—the GBME instrumentation comprises five reeds and winds, including the entire saxophone family, various clarinets and flutes, and didgiridoo; three trumpets; two trombones; cello; violin; piano; three vocalists; two basses, trapset; congas; and Lewis’ own electronics—was properly accounted for in the mix. After this was done, there was an hour to rehearse—or, better put, run through—the repertoire he had prepared for the five o’clock concert.

Sparse preparation or no, an inspired performance ensued. Lewis set the tone with a rambunctious opening trombone salvo, then put down his horn to conduct his five pieces, swaying, dancing, cuing, and, when appropriate, leaving the stage to allow the musicians to figure out their next step on their own. Over the next five concerts, which transpired at 5 p.m. and midnight over a three-night span, GBME members Ernest Dawkins, Nicole Mitchell, Douglas Ewart, Mwata Bowden, Renee Baker, Tomeka Reid, and Saalik Ziyad presented compositions that took full advantage of the possibilities presented by the 21-member unit, which executed each chart with the world-class technique, high collective intelligence, and an open attitude that has been characteristic of musicians involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians since it convened in 1965.

Himself an AACM member since 1971, and now entering his sixth year as Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, where he also chairs the Center for Jazz Studies, Lewis chronicled the organization’s history in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music [University of Chicago Press], published in the spring of 2008. It’s a landmark work. The bedrock of the text is an exhaustively researched linear narrative history, constructed on over 90 interviews from which Lewis traces keen portraits of numerous members; AACM archival records; encyclopedic citations from contemporaneous literature, both from American and European sources; and vividly recounted personal experience. Furthermore, Lewis contextualizes the musical production of AACM members—a short list of “first-wavers” includes such late 20th century innovators as Muhal Richard Abrams, who stamped his character on the principles by which the AACM would operate; the founding members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, and Don Moye); Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgill, Amina Claudine Myers, and John Stubblefield—within both the broader spectrum of experimental activity and the critical theory that surrounded it, expressing complex concepts with rigorous clarity and elegant prose.

A native of Chicago’s South Side who earned a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy from Yale, Lewis established himself as one of the major voices on the trombone tree during the ‘70s, for his seemingly unlimited technique and singular tone, setting new standards on his instrument with bandleaders as diverse as Braxton, Count Basie, and Gil Evans. As the ‘70s progressed, Lewis turned his attention to interactive computer music, eventually imagining and creating Voyager, a software program that improvises either in real time with a musician partner or on its own initiative. In a sense, he breathed anima into the computer, enabling it to function as an autonomous, social entity.

Over the course of two interviews last summer, here welded together into a single “conversation,” Lewis discussed these subjects.

 

What’s been your previous relationship with the Great Black Music Ensemble?

The genesis of my working with them was that somehow the Sons D’Hiver people (which is a kind of French play on words, “winter sounds” but it sounds like “diverse sounds” somehow to my untrained ear in the French language) managed to get the entire Great Black Music Ensemble to come to Paris in 2008 and do concerts there. So they asked me to sort of collaborate with that (because I’m not really a member of it), actually to make pieces. So I was also able to bring in some people, like the violinist Mary Oliver, who lives in Amsterdam; the bass player, Leonard Jones, who lives near Düsseldorf-he was also in Perugia; and my spouse, Miya Masaoka, the kotoist and sound artist. So I made kind of a triple concerto format surrounding them, and I made three pieces for the first half of the concert. We’re playing all of those three pieces here, plus a new piece that I wrote for them, because it’s stable enough so that I know who is going to play, and I know who can do what and who likes to do what—not what they can do, but the comfort zone. That’s what you want to do with any group of musicians.

Actually, more and more, I am inclined to just write music, and not worry about what people can and can’t do. We always hear about the Duke Ellington model, that a lot of that work apparently was improvised, although the scholarship on that is kind of spotty—it’s more like anecdotes and stories. I don’t know if anybody’s ever really sat down and said, “Look, how did you guys do it?” Part of the problem always with the interview process is that people are kind of performing, and the people who are interested in anecdotes and so on don’t really get into process that much. I would have been fascinated to find out how they improvised these parts, but there’s nothing written on what they did and how they did it. You wouldn’t be able to get that unless you bring in somebody who had the interest in documenting that part of the process, and also the outlet for being able to publish it or put it out there, and then the constituency of people who really want to read it. Because I imagine that a lot of times the musicians say, “do you really want to know this?” Or “Are you really qualified to receive this knowledge, or somehow equipped…” Not “qualified.” I guess that’s more of an insider’s viewpoint. We want to get beyond the everyday, mundane stuff; we want to get to the deep parts of this. A lot of people feel they don’t want to do that with people they don’t feel can really understand it. It’s a funny way of thinking about things.

But in any event, when I work with the group, I concentrate on the written music, and I write a lot of stuff for them. For the first concert, I wrote a lot. I’m not a “conduction” sort of person. I don’t like to improvise conducting. It’s too centralized for my work, and I’m not good at it anyway. I want people to make it up on their own, and I kind of like the idea of large ensemble improvisation without some center person pointing to people and making them do things. They should think it up on their own. But that takes a lot of time to develop, a kind of personal transformation, and a method of sorts, and we didn’t really have enough time here to develop that to the degree I’d like.

We’ll get another chance in August in Chicago. They’re having a tribute to Fred Anderson, this wonderful musician, a mentor of mine, while he’s alive (which is great—he’s 80 years old), and I’m writing a piece for the Great Black Music Ensemble surrounding his work. It emanates from Paul Steinbeck, my Ph.D student who’s going to be a post-doc at the University of Chicago this fall. He published a book of transcriptions of Fred’s solos. I took one of these solos, and I’m sort of orchestrating it. But not like Super Sax. It’s more like counterpoint. The idea is that everybody has a piece of Fred’s solo, and the solo kind of proceeds on its own logic. Looking at it on paper, being able to listen to it over and over, and reflecting on it, and so on, you realize that Fred’s solos do have an inner logic, and it’s not really that capricious. It’s pretty well-organized and very stable, and hangs together. So tearing that up and imposing your own order on it—it’s a clash, a dissonance you can feel. You’re sort of stepping on very important stuff. So I try to avoid that. I want to find ways to support from below what’s going on, and the solo just emanates. That’s the approach for that. But you can do that, once again, because the [GBME] personnel is stable. You get to see how three voices might interpret Fred’s music, or how a group of trumpet players might interpret it, and so on.

Can you elaborate on the pieces of yours that they played during the week?

There’s “Chicken Skin II,” which I actually wrote in 2003, for a group in Munich, the International Composers and Improvisers Ensemble, or ICI-Ensemble, which also has pretty stable personnel. They were great at playing the written music. Nicole Mitchell and Leonard were there, too, and Mary Oliver, so they played as a part of the group.

My feeling now is that I like to go and work with professional artists to realize things, but I also want to bring some people that I know well. It’s not so much that I want to have my people there to make sure that the solos are going to be good. A lot of people can play today; it’s not a question of that. But I like the idea of diverse experiences that come from the cultural exchange in the group. That’s very important to me.
There’s also “Fractals,” which is based on Brownian motion—1/F², statistical stuff. It’s not real 1/F². It’s not algorithmically made. I just made an impression. It would have taken more time to make an algorithm than just write it out of your head.

Then “Angry Bird,” which is a reorchestration of a small section of my orchestral piece from 2004, “Virtual Concerto,” for the American Composers Orchestra. The original piece had a solo piano part played by a Yamaha Disklavier with software that we made to play piano and listen to the orchestra, and be interactive. Basically, the orchestra played the written music, and the computer basically improvised its part the whole time, except for some little parts where, for a certain section of the music, a certain algorithm would come in. There’s a sort of violin part that got orchestrated. The nice thing is that GBME has this super violinist, Renee Baker, and a super cellist, Tomeka Reid, who both have the classical training, so that they can really play that part, that way. Then everybody kind of plays it. Then, “Shuffle,” which is a shuffle, I guess, an interpretation of that.

The big problem in working with any kind of ensemble of this kind nowadays, especially in jazz, is the social and infrastructural area. It was unusual to have a scene like that week at Umbria Jazz where all we did was rehearse, think about the music, and figure things out. You see that more often in non-jazz scenes that I’m a part of. The Morlacchi Theater is fantastic. It was built in 1780 and has a great sound. So we did have more time to do things than we did in Paris.

So I write these pieces down for ensembles with that milieu in mind. I don’t think that much about writing difficult stuff. The idea is that even if people don’t necessarily play all the right notes, it will sound good anyway. It’s sort of diverse enough so that wrong performance will still sound right, so people can feel good about what they do, and they’re not obsessing over minuscule passages and all that, and I don’t worry people about, “oh, this is a quintuplet you’re not doing”—if it ends up being a sextuplet or a bulltuplet, it will still work. So that’s ok. It’s deliberately noisy, with a lot of room for that.

The last thing, which we are going to rehearse for, which I really want to do and get on tape, because it’s new, is called “Triangle,” and it’s inspired by something I heard a while ago. A young percussionist in a New York based contemporary ensemble called Wet Ink whose name is Ian Antonio, who also does noise improvisation, performed an Alvin Lucier piece called “Triangle,” alone, amplified slightly and subtly processed. The piece was 20 minutes, and all he did was DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING for the entire 20 minutes. After the first five minutes my arms started to fall off sympathetically just watching Ian doing this.

When I was creating my gloss on Alvin’s piece, I thought, “Well, this will be a great start.” I didn’t think I wanted to have Turk Burton playing triangle for 20 minutes, though. I just wanted to give the impression. Then I didn’t know whether people would really do that, or maybe they would get bored doing it. But Turk has fantastic rhythm, so he’s playing the triangle in a super great way, and I don’t really have to conduct. People hear the triangle, and they’re on rhythm. Then there’s all this stuff surrounding it. It’s a pretty ambitious piece, so we didn’t have time to prepare it all.

You said yesterday that you’d never seen me do this kind of extended composition and conducting. Not many people in the U.S. have. It’s not like I do these things all the time. But when I do them, I tend to do them somewhere other than where I live, in another country. say. I don’t think I’ve ever really done it in Chicago except for bringing the NOW Orchestra from Vancouver to the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2001 or 2002.

You’re playing in the concerts devoted to the music of the other members. So you’re functioning not just as a composer and conductor of your own music, but as a member of the ensemble, which is very much in line with AACM principles.

Yes. The curious thing about that is they’ve been rehearsing this music, but I have to get the parts and rehearse, and then play catchup. I’m also trying to document all the concerts. So I kind of have this split brain, where I’m sitting next to the hard disk recorder, on which I did all these sub-mixes and stuff, both recording and then also playing the music. But I’ve been doing this sort of divided attention thing for a long time. I documented the AACM concerts as far back as ‘71 on my high-test cassette recorder, the first sort of so-called hi-fi cassette stereo things. I’ve got all those tapes, and this is in that kind of tradition. Setting up mikes and stuff. I can do that.

They let us say what we wanted to say about presenting the group, and I preferred it as the AACM Great Black Ensemble With George Lewis instead of Featuring George Lewis. Otherwise, you’re expected to do a lot of stuff, and I’m tired of meeting expectations. I just want to do what I want on stage. You’re supposed to play an improvised trombone solo on every piece or something, and I’m not going through that—and so I don’t. So the strategy for the first piece, the first evening of my music, was to play an improvised solo at the beginning, and then that was it. I didn’t have to play any more. I had a lot to do. The music doesn’t stand or fall on whether I play the trombone or not, just like my book doesn’t stand or fall on that. The book is the book, and if it’s any good, it’s supposed to be good because of the scholarship, and not because of some insider knowledge. So basically, you want the stuff to stand by itself.

Also, the AACM is a collective, and so it’s supposed to be a collective enterprise, and there’s no reason for me to hog the entire thing. I began to realize that it would be very boring for me to be the only composer for six concerts, not because I don’t have six concerts worth of music, but because all those other composers would just be sitting there, and that’s not a good thing to do. When you’ve got all that diversity, you want it to come out.

Could you apply some of the methodologies that you apply to the history of the AACM in A Power Stronger Than Itself to the Great Black Music Ensemble? For example, you explore ethnography, personal history, analyzing the individuals who comprised the AACM by class, by family background, and so forth. Who comprises this ensemble? Are they primarily members of the second and third wave of the AACM, with a few fourth wave people? Break it down.

I don’t remember what I said in the book about waves. If I did adopt that terminology wholesale, I was still a little murky about it. If I’m part of a second wave, then I would say Nicole would be a representative of a third wave, and then people like like Saalik Ziyad and Tomeka Reid would be representative of a fourth wave. Basically, every 7 to 10 years a new wave kind of comes about. For example, Mwata Bowden and I would be second-wave people. It’s partly generational, but the wave thing doesn’t necessarily correspond with the age of the people involved. Someone like Taalib-Din Ziyad is more of a third wave person, but he’s older than me, I think, or close in age, and his son Saalik is in the group—they’re both super singers. It’s very complex.

The book is mainly about people up to the third wave. There’s not a lot to be said about the fourth wave, because I didn’t have a chance to interview all those people. It changes a lot when you get to the fourth wave, because there’s less international visibility, which has always been one of the AACM lifebloods from the beginning. It’s not an organization that stands or falls on, let’s say, the standard hinterland-to-New York model of the jazz experience. Early on, people sort of flew over New York to Paris.

The book’s approach is to place personal experience and personal background in dialogue with what was said by scholars and historians, sociologists and historians in particular, about the experience of black people. The Great Migration, the urban sociology that came out in the ‘40s through the ‘60s about conditions in Chicago—that’s all critical to the experience of these people. So when Malachi Favors, for example, talks about how he remembers rats in the street all the time–well, that’s something that comes up in a lot of the sociological literature. Chicago has had this ongoing problem with rats in the street. If you remember, they would always post things in the alley about to watch out because they were using Warfarin to kill rats. Then Malachi talks about fires all the time, and that’s another big thing. There were thousands of fires, and a lot of them apparently were set deliberately by landlords. People got killed. That comes out in a lot of the urban sociology literature. But the other thing about that is, people didn’t know why there were so many fires. They just knew there were fires.

So what I wanted to do was to give back to these people, to kind of say, “Well, here’s why these problems came up.” They weren’t necessarily equipped to know why. For example, Oliver Lake blaming the demise of Black Artists Group on himself when, in fact, the foundation that was supposedly supporting them was planning their demise under the table. How could they know that? That only came up twenty years later through archival research with people like George Lipsitz and Ben Looker. So the approach isn’t just the ethnography itself. The idea is that somehow the stories dovetail with what’s said in a more dispassionate way, which ends up, first of all, validating the experience of the musician on another level, and showing how those experiences become emblematic of the period.

One of the overarching continuities of your analysis of the AACM is that the organization and its cultural production represents a cohort comprised primarily of working-class origin, many of them first-generation Chicagoans (although some not)—that it’s the expression of their agency. Is it your sense that the AACM still reflects a similar set of circumstances, or if the background of the membership has evolved in line with the evolution of African-American life over the years?

This is a very brief answer, by necessity. I don’t really know. African-American people, even the people who have the so-called “middle class” background, which is an increasingly growing group… In other words, maybe they were born into the working class, but a lot of them have been to college now. That wasn’t really so true of the earliest generation. A lot of them have master;s degrees or whatever, and a lot of them are searching for higher education in different ways. Things that weren’t available so much to people in the earlier generation.

I have the working-class background but I also have the Ivy League background and basically a prep school background, so that’s a strange combination. You go back into the so-called ghetto at night after coming from the University of Chicago Lab School during the day. That kind of bifurcation is part of the experience of a lot of African-American people, going back quite a long time.

So I am going to say that my initial impression is that it’s still primarily a working-class group, even for those who have managed, at this point, to develop another kind of living for themselves. Another thing about the Chicago AACM is that a lot of people do music, but they also have other jobs. They’re not necessarily on the road all the time. They have families. They’re people who have managed to combine two careers successfully. It’s always been like that. They don’t necessarily try to actively cultivate the aspiration of being like a working musician in that sense. The idea of experimentalism being supported by other kinds of work in order to supplement it, in the old days, was considered like, “Oh, you have a day job; that’s terrible; fuck that”—to be a real full-time musician, that’s great, authentic. That aspiration isn’t a big part of the thinking of a lot of people. I think this example shows it’s not as important as people think it is. It’s probably a little self-serving, in a way. A little too romantic. The idea is if you’re doing the music, you’re doing the music. That’s it. Who really cares whatever you have on the side?

It also occurred to me that you yourself, over the course of your career as a musician, which is 38 years…

I’ve always had jobs. First of all, I didn’t think of music as a full-time career all the time. I always had jobs. In New York, I had a job. For two years, I was the Music Curator at the Kitchen. That was a paying job. It was that kind of day job that musicians dream of, where you can go on the road. In Paris, I did concerts and stuff, but I also had a job. I had a commission from IRCAM, the French computer music institute, and I could have income there. Also in Holland. The time when I really had a full time itinerant position as a musician, which was in New York from about ‘87 to ‘88, I had a pretty hard time doing that. Then I started getting into academic life. So it’s not the same experience as people who have a full-time occupation. That hasn’t been a big part of my career.

You moved to New York in 1977, I believe.

Around there. There was a transition period of ‘76 and ‘77.

So in ‘76, you play with the Count Basie Orchestra for two months. Then you join Anthony Braxton, you’re on the road with him for a year—he was pretty visible, working a fair amount.

He did a lot of gigs.

You’re on recordings in 1978 and 1979 with Sam Rivers. It seems to me that during the latter half of the ‘70s, you’re a full-time musician, and that’s when you established your tonal personality very strongly.

I’m counting back from ‘82. In 1980, I started at the Kitchen. So maybe for three years from 1977 to 1980, I don’t know if I had any part-time jobs.

And a lot of activity was packed into those three years. There’s a body of documented improvised trombone playing that people still refer to when they think of your tonal personality.

I’m just basically saying that I come from the working-class background, but I’ve been very lucky, because a lot of musicians had extreme privation during those years. I really didn’t. I have to say that I was incredibly lucky to have that.

You have quite a bit of experience with orchestral music in the jazz and creative music traditions. I’m wondering if you could position the Great Black Music Ensemble within the full spectrum of such units you’ve worked with. Also, if you don’t find it too anecdotal, could you relate some of the experiences you had in big bands in the ‘70s that influenced your thinking of music as a full-time career.

Let me go first to the part about situating this group. I’ll start with the AACM. Now, the AACM has always had a tradition of supporting research in composition. In fact, from my perspective, the AACM began as a composers’ collective. In my time, at the AACM School, mainly you got lectures in composition from people like Muhal or Wallace MacMillan, or whoever showed up. They didn’t teach instruments. No one was talking about improvisation and stuff like that. Then you were always encouraged to compose your own work and present it; that was kind of a requirement. You were always encouraged to compose, and if you said you didn’t want to compose any more, people would complain. In that regard, the AACM membership itself would play your music, provide opportunities for you to explore large-form compositions, because there was no other way to do it. People weren’t receiving commissions from anybody to do anything like that. As far as I can see in Chicago, no one was calling up Douglas Ewart on the classical side to produce anything, and I’ve been on various panels where the classical ensembles are reviewed by funding organizations, and I’ve had a chance to kind of complain that these organizations never interface with the black community, and they should be called to account for that. It would be obvious that these experimental contemporary music ensembles should logically interface with the AACM. That’s one way of situating it.

For example, let’s imagine the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble in conjunction with various hybrid kinds of structures, which is the way the AACM was going. The book cites the first press release of the AACM, which Muhal and Ken Chaney wrote, which said that their mission was essential to the advancement of new music. I don’t think they were necessarily talking about the next Count Basie. I think they were trying to figure out a way to situate themselves in the broader tradition of musical experimentalism. That was really clear. I don’t want to narrow that focus.

So when you look at the various AACM big bands, as they called it, there was always this thing called the AACM Big Band, which was their way of interfacing with the big band tradition. Its precursor before that was the Experimental Band, and before that there were people like Muhal and Marshall Thompson and Eddie Harris who got together and created a rehearsal band, just to try out some ideas. The whole big band experience had kind of ossified, and a lot of people couldn’t get work going on the road—there was no longer that kind of work. As Eddie said—wasn’t that in an interview he did with you, Ted?–you didn’t learn certain things about how to perform or compose. There was no real infrastructure for that. So people had to make it themselves and create it.

Now, I think that there was a deliberate decision taken by people like Mwata Bowden—in particular, Mwata, I think—to recast that in a different way. In other words, they decided to change the name of what they were doing to the Great Black Music Ensemble. That was an important step also not in breaking with tradition, but establishing a new discourse surrounding their relationship to the AACM. Very important. They didn’t have to be the AACM Big Band any more. It wasn’t like, “Oh, here’s the next edition of the AACM Big Band.” What I realized, sitting in the band for those three nights, was that I played in all the AACM big bands, or a lot of them, for many years—the ones with Muhal, the ones with Roscoe Mitchell, Leroy Jenkins, and Henry Threadgill, and all these people who people think about from the first generation. I was kind of their student, in a way. But there was nothing like this. They didn’t have four singers or five singers. They didn’t really have cellists and violinists. With all respect to these great people, I don’t want to say that this is ‘better,’ but it’s a fundamentally different kind of animal, and it’s really, in a way, the most diverse set of possibilities that I have seen in any AACM ensemble. Things happen in this ensemble that never happened before in the AACM Big Band. Plus, they have women, a lot of women, not just a few, like we did back then.

And they’re not just singers.

And they’re not necessarily singers. They’re great players. Some of them sing and some of them don’t. With that in mind, GBME has a fundamentally different and very particular identity that they’ve established through regular rehearsal and through modification of a discourse which ends up causing everyone to reflect on how we are doing OUR thing and not necessarily just doing the AACM’s thing. That’s one thing. I was pretty impressed with that. The things that happened during those three nights couldn’t have happened in the same way with those earlier people. The earlier people should be proud of that. I certainly found myself being very proud of it.

Now, the next part of your question, asking me to situate this in the context of other experiences that I’ve had in various kinds of big bands…that’s hard to do. A lot of people who did experimental improvisation ensembles like Globe Unity Orchestra weren’t necessarily thinking about themselves as reacting to traditional big band music. They were just trying to create something different based on a broader interpretation of how you combine improvisation with composed stuff. Certainly, the standard big band model that we know and in which people have created wonderful music was based on that, in some way. The band was playing music, then you took your solo, and so on. But they didn’t have that much collective improvisation. They didn’t have everyone in the band writing a piece. For example, in Count Basie, we were playing pieces by Eric Dixon and so on, but it wasn’t a big feature. Thad Jones wrote most of the music for his orchestra, fantastic, classic pieces, like “A Child Is Born.” But it wasn’t that everyone in the band was encouraged to write music. Duke Ellington, the same thing—Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrote the music. I don’t seem to remember Duke Ellington’s Orchestra playing standards, so-called, too often. That makes sense. It was his band, and it was his music, and why not?

In this ensemble, anyone can contribute. That’s like the AACM thing. As Joseph Jarman said, the difference between the AACM and Sun Ra is that in Sun Ra’s band it was Sun Ra who could say and do, and in the AACM everybody could say and do. That’s a huge difference. It’s actually a very different political model, too. You can think about it in terms of notions of radical democracy, egalitarianism, different models of ethical conduct that comes out of music. It’s not a negative example, but it’s more of a difference in orientation.

I was talking about the Globe Unity Orchestra. Basically, Alex Schlippenbach would do a lot of the writing, if there was writing, but a lot of the time there was no writing, and people would just improvise the entire gig. It was great. You had all these people who, really, that was their metier, and they specialized in it, and they knew what do in that environment. I’m not sure this band does that in the same way. I would like to see that happen at some point, where we could say, “OK, let’s improvise the entire concert with no music.” But that takes a particular kind of orientation to personal training, which might take time to develop. Maybe a retreat somewhere, a funded retreat of the sort that people coming from the jazz-identified area don’t really get, where you’ll have an ensemble come together… Composers get this. I’m going to Rome for two months in 2010, at the American Academy, composing music. I’m not going to spend my time in Rome going around and playing in bands and presenting stuff. I want to sit in Rome and compose, and talk with people, and learn about what’s happening there. But that’s the idea. Imagine if you had an ensemble for a week to play together and work this out. We did that with a smaller group in Portugal. In August in Lisbon we’re presenting the electro-acoustic project called Sequel, which we recorded in 2004—eight improvisors working with both acoustic and electronic instruments.

One of the festival chaperones told me that she had never, in eleven years, of shepherding bands around in Umbria and Orvieto, encountered a group of musicians as disciplined, organized, and good-humored as this group.

I do know where that sense of discipline and order comes from. I had never thought of this until J.D. Parran mentioned it, that the AACM people always were very organized and disciplined—he used that word, too. I never thought of us as particularly disciplined, but in fact, I had to ask people for their dietary requirements. My thing was, “Just give me some good Italian food,” but all these people were very specific about their requirements—“I’m a vegan” or this or that.

I don’t want to say this in the wrong way, but I think the reality of the jazz industry (I think I want to use that term) is that a lot of the bands that are brought to a place like this, they don’t come out of the collective experience, but out of the experience where someone gets a gig and they are hired by this or that person. They’re always on a bit of an edge, because they’re competing with a lot of other people who could also have been hired, but in fact they weren’t, so if they don’t do the right thing or play the music in the right away or don’t have the right attitude, they could get fired. I mean, nobody can get fired from the AACM. You can’t even resign voluntarily! Once you’re in, you’re in, and even if you say you’re out, you’re still in. So people don’t feel they can get fired. What are you going to do? Are you going to fire yourself? It’s a collective. Who’s going to fire you?

Isn’t what you’re describing a sort of collective characterological trait that’s been passed down from the beginning through Muhal Richard Abrams, and then various other members who had experience in the military? Lester Bowie and Joseph Jarman both talked about their military experiences as crucial to what they did when they got to Europe, to their ability to survive and be self-sufficient.

You could say that.

I’m wondering if that attitude might run continuously throughout the AACM experience.

Maybe it could be. But I don’t know how many people of the younger generation had military experience. I mean, I didn’t, and then it’s whole different thing with these younger people. Volunteer army. Who wants to volunteer? People don’t want to do it. So maybe some people did. But there’s also a different kind of experience. Ernest Dawkins and Ameen Muhammad had the experience of being disciplined within the East Side Disciples, a gang! That’s a really different thing.

But you’re disciplined because this is your thing, and you’re encouraged to take personal responsibility for the outcome of the decision, whereas if you’re playing in a regular band that tours, you don’t have much personal responsibility other than to show up and do the music and do what you’re told. I don’t care whose band it is. Here you have to take on responsibility for playing your music and other people’s music. You’re contributing to the collective experience because it could be your turn next time to play the music of someone else, your colleagues. So it’s a stronger sense of collegiality than the standard kind of working-for-hire situation. We’re clearly not doing that, even though we are being “hired.’ But we’re working for ourselves as much as anyone else. We weren’t formed in response to some industry mandate, or “I’ll form a band and try to sell it.” It’s more that we form a band because we want to do this music. So we have full responsibility for it, and nobody tells us what to play. If we get hired for something, they hire us because we’re us.

I think that’s one thing that’s very important about discipline and collegiality and congeniality. It adds to the atmosphere. I remember working in bands where you were subject to one person’s way of looking at the world. There are people who like to have those kinds of groups, but I don’t. I’m more of a composer type. My band is kind of virtual. It’s on the paper.

Your mention of the Globe Unity Orchestra makes me reflect that this residency in Italy is part of a long timeline of AACM-Europe interactions, that the AACM bypassed New York and went directly to Paris at the end of the ‘60s. Indeed, you yourself had a great deal of personal experience in Europe during your formative years. I was thinking of questions of mutual influence: How you see the AACM having affected European notions of experimentalism and, conversely, ways in which European notions of experimentalism, the European avant-garde, impacted the AACM, whether in the early years or later on.

This ensemble is very interesting to me for several reasons. Early on in the history of the AACM, among the first generation of people, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, for example, studied with Richard Wang. Richard Wang was teaching them serialism and stuff like that, and they were looking at those models and trying to figure out “What’s my relationship to this?” So when a guy like Joachim Berendt says, “Well, European musicians have a closer relationship to Stockhausen than the Americans,” he seemed to be thinking about the fact of their being Europeans, but in fact music crosses those kinds of lines. Lots of U.S. musicians have studied European contemporary music as closely as anyone else. Certainly, Muhal and Roscoe and those guys knew about this. I mean, I heard about Elliott Carter from Muhal. He had the score of the First String Quartet sitting in his house. In fact, that was my introduction to scores, Stravinsky and all that. He had the scores sitting there. Phil Cohran, too. They all knew that.

But by the time you get to, let’s say, Ernest Dawkins, he says, “Well, we weren’t really so much into Stockhausen; we were trying to look at more sort of ‘black’ models.” I’m trying to put words into his mouth, unfairly perhaps. But he basically said that. It reinforces the idea that there are several models of experimentalism. Why not have an experimentalism that comes out of the black experience and doesn’t necessarily assume that any routes of experimentalism run through Europe? So you started to see that this version of the AACM doesn’t owe very much to those models of experimentalism in improvisation that arose at that time. I don’t see a lot of influence or even contact there. Now, Nicole has had more experience in that way than some of us do. Or Leonard Jones, who moved to Germany, who is much older, of course.

Now, I have had those kinds of experiences, and I find there’s a productive interchange, because I can bring to the table aspects of that experience that others did not have. This generation of people is young enough to think about, let’s say, going to composition school and studying composition in a graduate composition program, like the one I teach in at Columbia University.

As I point out in the book, the traditional route for African-American musicians was that we studied music education. You get something to fall back on, a teaching credential, and all that. That means that all of the composition programs in the U.S. mainly comprise white male composers and mainly white—and a few Asian—composing students. So I was talking with some of the younger AACM members, who were saying, “I’m going back to school.” So I told them, “Why not go to composing school?” They hadn’t thought about it. “Well, what’s going to keep you from doing it?” Then there was all this stuff about how they might have to write fugues to get admitted. People don’t do that any more! [LAUGHS]

The funny thing about jazz studies programs is that they’re probably the only programs in the world that actually require someone to learn both jazz and European music, so you have to be, like they say about anything black, “twice as good.” And they’re usually very well equipped. But the problem is that, in many cases, the model of twentieth century European music they learn is a little outdated—Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky. So as someone who’s a little older and is involved in this kind of program, my advice for people of that generation is that they can always do their jazz and other things without having to reinforce it by taking it in jazz school. Just go into a regular composition program, and learn all you can there. If you don’t know enough right at the beginning, you might have a little extra work to do.

So I have this thing now for my younger AACM colleagues that I call “modernism boot camp.” [LAUGHS] It’s really just an email.exchange. There’s still the autodidact tradition in the AACM. People are teaching themselves to compose, teaching themselves to teach—all kinds of things. But when you teach yourself, let’s say, orchestration or composition, the reality is that you are generally learning from books and recordings that are 20 or 30 years out of date. If you want to hear what’s happening now, you’ve got to go into one of these programs, and learn it from there. Since I’m in one of the programs, I can say, “well, here’s what people are doing.” Matthias Spahlinger, Olga Neuwirth–they haven’t heard about it. There’s no book published in English that you can read about people like this. You can’t get the scores unless you know where to look.

So I just sort of present the people they should listen to; sure, Stockhausen is on the list. You say, “Well, here’s the people who come out of this; here’s the generation, another generation, and I’m going to take you up to about 1985, and after you listen to these, let’s say, one hundred people and look at the scores, then you’re good until about ‘85.” Now, that’s still twenty years out of date. But it puts you in a space where you can go into a composition program and you’re not left behind, because you know who’s doing what. Then you’ve also got your jazz experience. So you know what spectral music is, or things like that. Then you’re in a position to do what, let’s say, Steve Lehman is doing in the Columbia program, which is combining spectralism with parallel ideas coming out of Steve Coleman and Jackie McLean to make this super hybrid. It’s amazing work. Tristan Murail, one of the founders of this area of music-making, loves it. It’s taking his ideas into areas he never thought were possible.

The second part of my question was your speculations on the AACM’s impact upon European musical production, experimental or otherwise.

The second and third generations of European and Asian improvisers were more influenced by the AACM than the first. They had a chance to listen to recordings and concerts, and they also are trying to do composed music more than the first generation. They are trying to combine improvisation and composition. So you get something like the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, which is great. There’s the Instabile Orchestra here in Italy. They all know about the example of people like Roscoe and Braxton in particular, who have spent more time here than the others. I wouldn’t say the experience is overweening. I would just say that the AACM thing has become part of the reference mix. People who are looking to do these kinds of hybrid things can’t consider themselves informed about the possibilities without having looked at the Braxton model at least, or the Threadgill model and then other models of how to do it.

The Art Ensemble coined the “Great Black Music” component of GBME, and the question of who that term does and does not include has been part of the ongoing discourse around the AACM. In the book, you talk about creolization as an overriding strategy that you follow. GBME is entirely comprised of people of African descent. I’m wondering to what extent the AACM today reflects strategies of creolization, or if it denotes an entirely black experience. As it’s an organization situated on Chicago’s South Side, it makes me consider the journey taken by President Obama, himself a biracial person, who formed his mature sensibility by intersecting with the many worlds that exist on that same terrain.

Well, in the US, everybody is already creolized. We hope that Obama is thinking about the AACM,

Well, Jeremiah Wright certainly knows about it. Reading your account on Vandy Harris’ memorial, I was thinking about that.

I went there. I had never heard Jeremiah Wright before that. I was stunned. He went off on this Iraq thing, relating it to a Biblical text about hubris.

He also did a recording with Wynton Marsalis. He gives the sermon on The Majesty of the Blues.

First of all, Ingrid Monson said an interesting thing—the ethnomusicologist from Harvard whom I work with quite a bit, most recently on a seminar on postcolonialism in music. She said that African-American culture is majoritarian in jazz culture. That is to say, African-American spiritual, cultural, and psychological values are majoritarian, even in all-white bands or all-European bands. So they adopt jazz models. You see people here, they’re using black slang routinely. That means that African-American ways of thinking…there’s a creolization present even in an Italian jazz ensemble. You hear it all the time. You heard it at Perugia with that marching band, Funk Off.

The second thing is that the people in the Great Black Ensemble, although it comes out of a black milieu, don’t seem averse to having Mary Oliver play, or having Miya Masaoka play. So there’s a lot of creolization there, if you want to identify that with black-white mixing, which isn’t really what the concept is about.

What I think will happen eventually is the creolization of individual ethnic provenance, which is something that the AACM is not necessarily that into on an organizational level. Although one day it could. I think it might. This is probably the moment, as Joseph said, when the third generation, or the fourth, could really entertain that notion. But it’s very difficult to do that in the context of the history of American race relations. Because there may be a majoritarianism of black culture, but there is also a sense that whiteness is still the ruling ideology of the country in terms of the distribution of infrastructure, and that tends to produce a kind of divisiveness that many organizations can’t support. Now, that may still be true, and it may not be true. A lot of people are reluctant to risk the integrity and the tradition to find out.

So anyone who does that has to be someone of whatever non-African-American provenance who understands that reality of race. It can’t be some naive, “we are the world” color-blindness strategy. That’s not going to work. It has to be someone who understands politically the complexities. That’s possible in Chicago, I think, as well as anywhere else. You need people on both sides of the aisle who understand when to account for politics and when to leave politics out. I’m talking about racial politics. You see racial politics coming into the organization not through the people, but through unconscious pressures that are being placed on them… For example, the pressures of identity politics that caused [vibraphonist] Gordon Emanuel to be put out. The organization couldn’t withstand that, which was too bad. Gordon took it quite personally. Why wouldn’t he? It was too big for him to understand. It was too big for a lot of the people who are in it to understand.

Hopefully with this book, which was written as much for the AACM as for anybody else, people will look at this example and say, “Well, how can we do better? How can we construct a multicultural, multiracial AACM?” Maybe the possibility would be that the first person is someone who is not of U.S. origin, but is an African person, an Asian person or a Brazilian person, or something like that. There are all kinds of possibilities. Then you get out of the black-white dichotomies which people get stuck with all the time routinely, without even thinking about it. Even a question like this. We are constantly being asked to evaluate things in terms of white and black because of the historical struggle that takes place. You cannot just blank that out. So even in my early scholarly articles, I tried… Like the Afrological-Eurological thing that I wrote about, which people in the scholarly world have taken up and are sort of waving around. I’m a little wary of it now. It’s uncomfortable. But it does reflect a certain historical reality. So to do better, you still have to be aware of that historical reality, and to overcome that using a revised discourse is as important as anything else.

There are not that many collectives in Europe, as far as I can tell. I also don’t see even a lot of multiracial ensembles over here, even though Europe is becoming—even Italy is becoming—increasingly multi-racial. Look on the streets–it’s incredible. You never used to see these kinds of people. I think that’s we’ll see that increasingly as a part of the new reality of Europe as well.

You mentioned writing A Power Stronger than Itself for the AACM as much as anything else. What were some of the other reasons why you wrote the book? It took ten years of your life. A lot of labor was involved, a lot of detective work, and you had many other contemporaneous duties.

Why I wrote the book really has everything to do with why I got involved in academic scholarship. I was teaching at UC-San Diego, where we were trying to teach improvisation, and, at the time, being from the performance world and not the academic world, I had a few very inchoate ideas about how to teach that. At a certain point, I was brought up short by one of my faculty colleagues. I think I write about that in the book, actually. Basically, he said, “Where’s the bibliography? How are you going to teach it if you don’t have a bibliography?” Then I thought, “Actually, he’s right.” So where is the bibliography? This was in the mid ‘90s, and the new work in jazz studies was just coming out. But even that work didn’t seem to touch upon the experience and implications of what improvisation was—what it produced, what kinds of contexts it made, how it altered our thinking, how improvisation became imbued in our everyday life experiences, and how improvisation relates to an understanding of humanity, political situations, everyday interaction, and so on. It just seemed as though that literature was not really as present.

I think the first article I got published was an attempt to come to grips with a lot of that stuff. It was sort of long, too long, and still it got published in Black Music Research Journal in ‘96. It’s that article on the Afrological-Eurological thing that I just mentioned. The issue is much more complicated than I was making it out to be. It’s nice to know that you can grow and change, and revisit a lot of the ideas you had.

We also had a couple of smart graduate students at UCSD, Dana Reason and Jason Robinson, who organized a conference on improvisation. We were trolling for people who were confronting improvisation in the scholarship, and confronting it in a different way than, let’s say, the way that early ethnomusicological studies addressed improvisation. We weren’t so interested in finding practices and forms, and finding order and vindication of improvisation as an art form. We could see that improvisation was, in fact, an everyday critical practice, and we didn’t see a lot of people talking about improvisation as a critical practice. We mainly saw them interested in looking at alternate classical traditions—Persian improvisation or Indian improvisation—and concerned to find out what forms were being used, the rhythms, the compositions, and once you identified those forms, your work was done.

It just seemed to me that your work hadn’t even started! We were having these cross-cultural discussions with people at UCSD, and we would ask them questions that were burning in the Western classical music community. We would ask these Indian improvisers questions like, “Do you think about global form?” “What?!” We’d get no response at all. [LAUGHS] So we were at a cross-cultural space in thinking about improvisation, and there was a very important musical community that had no interest in these things that are burning in the Western contemporary music community, where it’s generally said that if you don’t have the aspect of global form your music is basically worthless, or not of any intellectual interest. But this is obviously not the case.

So you had to ask yourself how are these people getting along without thinking about these things, and why don’t they think about them? Why is it so unimportant to them if it’s so important to everybody else? Because we are being sold, as improvisers, a whole bill of goods about how formless the practice is, or how it didn’t produce this or didn’t produce that, and a lot of moral posturing purely based on the writings of John Cage or people like that, which was already distorting a lot of what those people did, but somehow enlisting his words towards finding improvisation lacking.

So there were enough reasons there to write anything. If you really wanted to start writing, get started. Since then, we’ve been able to find a global community of people attacking this problem from many different standpoints. I’d say the book comes out of that more than anything else.

Beyond that, the AACM is a very important organization. It seemed that it needed to be given its due in terms of its achievements and influence and impact, and also that it needed to be contextualized historically along with other movements. But there was not enough material available to do that. So the book’s purpose also was to provide some of that material so that future scholars can come in and perhaps elaborate on things that the book only touched upon, or that didn’t get talked about at all. Maybe some people would be interested in musical analysis, which I hardly spent any time with. So many things could be done on the AACM that, as large as the book is, it’s more like an amuse bouche, in a way.

So there were a lot of reasons why it was important to me to get this work done. On the other hand, it took a long time just because I was learning a lot about, first of all, how to write a book. Then secondly, the AACM was developing while I was writing. It was kind of a moving target. It wasn’t a dead chicken or anything. It kept moving. It’s hard to pin down, but at an arbitrary point it had to be pinned down.

The book itself was probably a moving target while you were writing it. Is the final product somewhat in line with what you envisioned when you embarked upon it in the mid ‘90s?

This is the reason why I have such trouble writing. A lot of people complain that the work is always late. It’s because I can’t work like, “Oh, here’s Chapter 1, which is going to be about this, and Chapter 2 is going to be about that.” First of all, I tried to assemble and read what’s been written about the AACM in several languages. Then there was this ambitious project to interview just about everybody. I got pretty far—I didn’t interview absolutely everybody, but I interviewed more than 90 people. I wasn’t even able to use all the interviews. In the middle of that, I found a communitarian aspect. In other words, people were excited to be interviewed. They were excited that a book was going to come out. They were also afraid that it wouldn’t come out. A lot of it was sort of like the idea of Obama getting elected, and then hoping he doesn’t get assassinated or something. People are used to these projects not coming to fruition. So I got a lot of moral support. No one said they didn’t want to be interviewed. Everybody was into it, even people who I didn’t really know well, like Phil Cohran. So that was OK. I met new people through doing it.

So I sort of started in the way I generally start, which is to collect everything I could collect, and then plow through it and read it all, then throw it up on the wall and see what sticks. Then, at a certain point, it’s got to take shape in the form of chapters. Of course, some things get left out—for example, a whole section on the Harlem Renaissance. The reason is because I was the only person who was interested in it. At a certain point, it was like hardly anyone in the community of the AACM referenced the Harlem Renaissance. There was no reason for me to put a chapter in there and say, “somehow I feel this has relevance to the AACM.” Well, of course it does. Anything has relevance to the AACM. I put in stuff about the Society for Private Music Performance in Vienna. But at a certain point, if I did a whole chapter on it, it would have been a little out of place. So basically, I had to save a lot of material.

I first worked on it during a six-week residency in Umbria, Civitella Ranieri. When I came out of there, I already had 400 pages of writing. Plus, I had to transcribe all those tapes. I was in a castle, and there was a field with sunflowers, looking out on all this beautiful weather every day, and I’m basically sitting in a room, sitting in a virtual meeting in Chicago, on the South Side, listening to these tapes of people arguing about this and that, and being obtuse and being brilliant, and occasionally just not being able to help myself and sort of barging in, and then realizing that no one is listening to me! I’m listening to the thing, and this is stuff that is already thirty years old. But it was so present! People I didn’t know. People I knew.

What you’re referring to is the meeting at which the principles of the AACM were formed, which you describe in detail in one of the chapters.

Not just that meeting, but a bunch of them. I had a lot of meeting tapes, but only referenced a few. But yes, in general, it was that early period of the first couple of years of the AACM’s formation, when they were taping all the meetings in which I recognized voices of various people I knew. They had a rule that you had to say your name anyway, so even if I didn’t know the people, I could identify who spoke. A great idea. And people stuck to it.

In our conversation on WKCR in 2008, you wanted to be very clear that a lot of the boilerplate narratives of jazz historiography don’t work with the AACM.

That’s true.

The book explores multiple narratives, in addition to the broader, linear narrative—how the AACM was formed, its antecedents, its different stages, the people who comprised it. I’d like to throw out a few of the narratives that seem important, a few that you mentioned yourself, and see what you have to say about them now. One is that A Power Stronger than Itself is a narrative of an organization that expressed the agency of a group of working-class African-Americans. Another is the notion that the AACM also expressed the agency of people who had been impacted by migration, both the in-migration from the South, but also their own out-migration from Chicago once the AACM was established. Can you offer some statement on how those narratives became clear to you?

Of course, the book reflects my own experience, even though I am just one person. But I think the key image that brings all of those strands together is mobility. And the extent to which people fight for mobility. They fight against being stereotyped—all these things that tend to place you in fixed contexts, tend to root you to some spot and not let you leave. I wrote about Farah Griffin’s book on the migration. She references Foucault, who has an idea about about agency and power expressed through being able to move. At some point, these southern-based people were able to get out. As I discuss in the book, a lot of people were unhappy to see this super-exploited labor force leave the South, and even went to various agencies of the government to say, “Can’t you make some laws to keep these people here?”

That’s one kind of mobility. Then you’ve got another kind, where people start to say, before even the term comes up: “We don’t want to be stuck in one place. We want to do any kind of music that strikes our fancy. And not only any kind of music. We want to get involved in the visual arts, we want to get involved in theater. We want to do everything connected with art-making.” Performance art. People like Jarman or Muhal or whomever. That’s another kind of mobility.

I saw the AACM fundamentally as a sort of successful struggle to achieve mobility. One saw also how this mobility was very hard-won. There is a discourse of immobility which you have to combat. I love that interview that’s on the web that I think Fred Anderson and other people had copies of on tape, where Charlie Parker is being interviewed who are asking him the same question over and over again, hoping to get a different answer. The answer that they want is that his music is a logical outgrowth of the work of European classical music. At a certain point, he comes out with one of these Charlie Parker type licks. His spontaneity is incredible. He says, “Not a bit of it was inspired or adapted from Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel, Debussy, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, et cetera.” That’s an incredible lick. That’s like the great alto break. For me, that says it all. Encapsulated classical music history. First of all, proving right away, in a sense, that he knew that tradition well enough to be able to do that. Then secondly, the idea that not only was he connected with that, but he had his own music. I felt that this kind of mobility—the freedom of reference—was important to bring out in the book.

The problem with this kind of mobility is that you cross-cut a lot of communities, but it’s hard to find a home base. It’s hard to find the people who will support you no matter what. You’re in this world for a while, in that world for a while, but it’s not as though there is one place where you can count on a certain kind of support. That’s why the AACM was important, because it did provide a group of people who would really support you no matter what. Even though they were critical, certainly, but the critique was offered with the idea that you were part of a community that DESERVED this kind of critique, who were invested in you by making this kind of critique. So wherever you went and whatever you explored, you would have this kind of home base, and it’s a home base that’s totally in your mind, which is where the most powerful stuff generally is.

Charlie Parker’s remark on the source of his music prompts me to double back to my question about the mutual relationship between the AACM and Europe. In our 2006 conversation, you stated that you saw the AACM and the European experimental music organizations as parallel streams. Both were interested in John Coltrane, in post-Webern music (Stockhausen, Xenakis), in collective practice, in developing certain sorts of social networks. Then you said: “Both the European improvisers and the AACM have a peculiar relationship to European classical music. That is, the AACM people, people like Braxton, like Muhal, like Roscoe, are actually working inside of those traditions as well. You don’t really find that in the European improvisers, who are working against that tradition, with the large exception of Alex Schlippenbach—but even there, they have an oppositional stance, which is partly political, to this thing which is actually very close to them, this hegemony of European classical music.”

I thought that was a pretty great riff. We could call it the great trombone break! ]

I suppose, except that it didn’t come out of my horn.

You said there was no reason for the AACM people to oppose European classical music, because for them, European classical music was the thing they were being kept out of. So for them, engagement with it was actually overcoming strictures of race.

Not just the AACM either. That’s an ongoing trope in American history and black American music history, the idea that somehow you’ve been kept out of something, and so to gain that knowledge becomes the object. Not necessarily to become part of the community. That’s more complicated. But certainly, to be in touch with that knowledge and be in dialogue with it becomes important.

Another narrative strand in the book is the notion of overcoming strictures of race in a very specific way.

Well, there is a reason why the book was subtitled, The AACM and American Experimental Music. American experimental music, historiographically, is white. That means that we are looking at a large number of scholars, journalists, producers, who have been instrumental in constructing this whiteness-based discourse network that, if you come into it and you’re not white, you have an issue with. Somehow, that network, which is implicitly race-imbued, had to be changed, extended, destroyed, transformed. Race doesn’t come up as a factor until you test the limits. Then, when you test the limits, you are often accused of injecting race into it, when, in fact, the racial consensus is already present. But to make it explicit seems to be the fate of artists of color. The problem there is that the process in itself is anti-dynamic. Somehow, you have to be the one who brings race to every situation. The artist-of-color has to be the person that represents. Or you have to somehow be on the lookout for situations that the others aren’t really thinking about. That becomes a drain on your energy as a creative person. You can also recycle it and use it creatively. But it does become a bit of an annoyance when maybe you’d rather be thinking about something else at that time, but you don’t have the liberty to do so. We’re not in the post-racial place yet. I don’t see that.

You could say that there are strictures of race, but the same strictures can also be used to enable. I always look not to eliminate race, which is impossible, but to atomize and multiply the racial dynamic. “Well, let’s get a lot of races in there. Let’s not just have one or two.” You know, the usual back-and-forth between black and white that’s defined a lot of historiography in the history of the United States. Let’s not have that. Let’s see if we can mix it up.

Let’s see if we can create previously paradoxical constructions, like “black experimentalism,” which was Ronald Radano’s construction. Very important. One of the more important things in his book on Anthony Braxton was how he managed to identify that. My contribution to that discourse was to expand it beyond the individual, which is to say, rather than regard Anthony Braxton as being THE pivotal figure, to see a whole community of people standing around him. He has antecedents. Not just distant antecedents like Duke Ellington, but immediate antecedents in the community who taught him and who prepared the ground for him. Anthony Braxton was not the only person in 1968 listening to Stockhausen on the South Side of Chicago. He was not the only person who knew who John Cage was. Joseph Jarman played with John Cage in 1965 when Braxton was in the Army. What are you going to do with that? At a certain point, we have to bring these things out. We have to ask ourselves: What does that mean? How does that contribute to the narrative of experimentalism? Is it just some background curio that we’ve identified, or is there a larger, deeper implication?

I just wrote a long piece on the black Fluxus musician, Ben Patterson, for a catalogue on a show he’s having next year at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston. In a way, just by being Ben Patterson, he brings race to Fluxus. Now, at the risk of being a bit uncharitable, I would say that his Fluxus colleagues handled that somewhat poorly. Certainly, individuals in the private transcript probably have a different reality, but the public transcript doesn’t handle it very well at all. It’s part and parcel with the way the experimental music community and the scholarly community that writes on experimental music approaches race, where no one thought to ask, “what does it really mean to have a black person in Fluxus?” If you say it means nothing, that’s ridiculous. The guy himself wrote that he wanted to be the first Afro-American to play in a symphony orchestra, but he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t get a gig, so he went to Canada and actually got gigs, straight out of college, playing double bass in symphony orchestras. Then he gets over to Germany and suddenly meets up with Mary Bauermeister and all these people, and suddenly his world is changed around—and he even steps to the front and starts making very important, lasting contributions. His colleagues (on this, I’m going to give them full credit) recognize his achievements. There’s no narrative that you can find coming from the Fluxus colleagues that doesn’t mention Ben Patterson. He is not erased from that at all. He is a central figure. But, when we get to the writing on the Fluxus movement by the scholars and historians, he starts to recede more and more and more.

So I found myself thinking, when I was writing this article: “Is this the first time anybody has written a scholarly article on Ben Patterson?” He’s born in 1934. Is this the first time? It seems kind of odd. Not to say that one has to be as famous as Nam June Paik or something, but still, it just seemed off.

Now, Ben Patterson has little or no connection with the jazz world that one can see from the public record. He grew up listening to opera and so on. But he does have a connection with African-American music. After Fluxus, he was with the Symphony of the New World as general manager. I think he worked with Dance Theater of Harlem. He also did many things connected with African-American composers. So he’s not disconnected from that world, and he’s not disconnected from models of race. But often, when commentators try to examine his work in terms of race, they betray their own naivete about the current state of theorizing on race. That’s another problem with the scholarship, that because they spend so much time ignoring race, they don’t know who’s doing good work—people like Achille Mbembe and Cheryl Harris.

Anyway, there’s a lot to say about race. But my real issue is to try to take my place among the scholars. When you write these scholarly articles, they send them out anonymously, and they get reviewed, the reviews come back and you read them, and they ask you to incorporate what they said into your visions. One person said, “Well, this would be a good article just because of the person who’s writing it.” I said, “No, that’s not enough; it can’t be that.” It has to be good regardless of the person. I have to bring my experience into the book, but its authority can’t be derived from those outside factors—that somehow we read this book because, and only because of this individual who is posing as an authority, and he was there, and so we have to take his claim seriously. That’s the problem with a lot of writing these days.

You do make it clear in the text, however, that it would not have been written had the project not been undertaken by someone who, as you put it before, was somehow an insider, with whom people hadn’t played or who people didn’t know.

But that happens in any ethnographic enterprise. If people don’t trust you, you’ll get a different response. That’s why the ethnographers, the ethnomusicologists, the anthropologists live with people for a long time. They have to earn the people’s trust, people have to know they’re not going to be betrayed, and so on. Even with me, there were those questions, and in a way, it’s more acute because of being an insider.

One of the things that I discovered about so-called ‘authority’ is they’re often wrong. Or people who said they were there at a certain point, who weren’t actually there, or gave completely bogus interpretations of what they found there. At a certain point, it’s not whether you were there that’s important. Also, I wasn’t there for a lot of it. I was an insider for my generation, but not for the ones before and not for the ones after. So for those people, I am coming in as an ethnographer or an historian, trying to interpret. So I have to uphold some kinds of standards, and also I have to bring some analytic muscle to the table. Otherwise, you know, it’s a great book by somebody who was there. I want people to say, “I don’t care if George Lewis was this guy or not; he’s wrong about this-and-this-and-this, and here’s why.” That’s real dialogue at that point, instead of someone you can’t question because they played with Bird and knew what Bird was doing, despite the fact they’d forgotten a lot of what Bird was doing. Someone who didn’t forget, who read and talked to a lot of people might be in a better position to talk about what Bird was doing.

Was a process of self-discovery involved in writing the book?

My joke about the book is it’s just like Alex Haley trying to look for Kunta Kinte. Yeah, sure, you discover a lot about yourself. There are things you took for granted that turned out to be rooted in some specific historical moment. The whole facing-the-East thing. If you ask someone, “Why do we face the East?”—“I don’t know, we just do it.” Now, people who care to know have some understanding of when that practice arose and why it did.

That’s one simple example. But to go a little deeper: What I found out about the people who did this work enabled me to go a lot deeper into my own creative work. I felt better about it afterwards. Some people say, “Born too soon,” “born too late,” all the great stuff has already been done, all the innovation already happened. I no longer feel that way. I discovered that way, a bunch of people were doing great work even after Muhal and those people. People like Nicole Mitchell are doing great work right now. So there isn’t this sense, which I often heard when discussing the book, of “What is the AACM doing now?” or next trend to come out of the AACM. I’m not a trend-spotter. My response is, “Well, what’s Napoleon doing now?” Well, nothing. He’s dead. But people are still writing about him. The ideas have an impact—the way in which all that activity changed France and stretched all around the world. The way Haiti was affected. It means that his work still has an impact. If the AACM stopped functioning tomorrow, the achievements remain. But in fact it hasn’t stopped functioning.

A lot of things happened while I was writing this book that had a lot of impact. The MacArthur award. That was sort of huge, because besides being an encouragement to write the book (that’s how I took it; you don’t know why you get these things), I also took it as a validation for what I was doing. Somehow, there was an increased sense of freedom connected with it, and the sense that I should try to be more focused, and gradually to weed out the things that weren’t at the center of my interests. That’s very painful, because certain people you performed with, you may not perform with in the future. Or, people believe you’re just like them, and you’re really not like them at all, or you share some small point of commonality but it’s not enough for you—it’s enough for them. The fear that generates in people. I’ve had to experience that as I was doing this.

Another ongoing trope of A Power Stronger Than Itself is the notion of hybridity, which you embody in the intertwining narratives and diverse strategies deployed in constructing the different chapters, not least the conclusion, in which you set up an imaginary dialogue amongst the various AACM members. Were you writing towards that denouement?

I don’t remember how that came about. I do remember it being the chapter I had the most ethical problems with. In the book I wrote about those ethical problems with the idea of taking the voices from people who hadn’t talked to each other, probably from the same community, but arbitrarily so, and some of them people who were no longer alive, and bringing them into juxtaposition. It’s the idea that somehow you’re already orchestrating these into the narrative by weaving together quotations without giving everything they said. When I wrote the chapter, I read what I said to a couple of people and said, “Is this something you can really do in a book of this kind?”—which finally is a work of scholarship. If it’s a different kind of work, if it’s fiction or whatever, you can do it. But with this, it was like writing fiction at the end of the book. It was a little scary. So I’m still not sure how I came to the idea this should be done.

The function of that chapter is to reconnect the AACM with the future, which will be connected with a dialogue confronting issues that still aren’t resolved. The book does not end with everything tied up in a bow. It ends with more questions. With places to go. With some vistas that are not a modernist quest for perfectionism, but a kind of postmodern uncertainty with a multiplicity of voices that ends up being a heterophony. But I can’t remember how it came to be. Somehow it just seemed the thing to do.

For me, writing words gives you the same feeling as writing music. I’m sitting there, writing this thing, working the way I work, which is I have a bunch of stuff on the floor around me, either conceptually or in reality, and I pick this one up and see. No, that’s not going to fit. Oh, this one over here… I used to make fun of Michel Portal in my mind (in fact, everybody did), because you’d go to rehearsals with Michel, and he’d bring in this huge bag of music. Michel is a genius musically, so he can pick a piece of music—I don’t care what clef it’s in, anything—and pick up his clarinet and play some of it. He’ll pick it up, play two or three notes, and say, “Non. Pas ça.” Put it back in the box. “What are we going to play?” I think it was his way of assembling something that worked for him. My way of writing is kind of like that. It gets very intense, very emotional, especially when you start to see how the story (which is what I’m calling this piece of scholarship) is working. I guess this is the same feeling I get from composing. From composing more than playing, I think.

How much time do you get these days to devote to composition, and how much of your compositional work these days is what David Behrman dubbed interspecies, that is, between software-electronics and humans?

I was talking to somebody who said, “You aren’t really like a bandleader type person.” I said, “Well, that’s right; I’m not a bandleader type person.” I mean, I’ll lead the band if no one else is around. But I’ve come to the stage now (and this is probably the turbulence I was talking about earlier) where I don’t want to sit in the band either. I find the most comfortable place for me is in the audience, listening to my composition getting played. That’s been true for a number of years. I don’t often get to do that. It’s like with the book. It’s done. It’s out there. I can’t come to your house and read it to you. So I’m more like the composer type.

Now, in the field I’ve had at least a major role in for years, the jazz field, that’s not a regular thing. Jazz is about improvisers. Which is why I’ve been fortunate that I no longer have to put all my eggs into any one basket. That was another thing, that the MacArthur grant, in my case, sort of rewarded mobility and multiplicity. When they were talking about what I did, they couldn’t say “this person is a physicist” or “this person is a composer.” They had to say these multiple things, and it became very diffuse, and no one could figure it out. Which is great for me, because this means I get to intervene in all kinds of fields.

Look, for example, at Blood on the Fields by Wynton Marsalis: First of all, there’s a lot of talk about Wynton Marsalis being this conservative, or whatever, who recreates this and that. Well, what is Blood on The Fields recreating? He may be referencing a lot of stuff. That’s different. But what I’d like to concentrate on is that, on the one hand, the composition is for the standard jazz ensemble, and operates in a way that you can’t really play the music unless you’ve trained in various traditional notions of jazz playing, but, on the other hand, it calls for a type of jazz player who is in extremely short supply, despite all the talk. Most of that music is unplayable by most people who play jazz. It’s too hard. Listen to it sometime. It took massive numbers of rehearsals.

See, if you have a piece for classical ensemble, you can write as many septuplets and superduperuplets as you like, and some graduate student will sit up there and read the stew out of it. You can’t do that in a jazz band. It won’t get played. Can’t do it. So there’s a limit on the kinds of complexity you can write.

What Marsalis was doing was pushing that envelope in the jazz arena. In order to push the envelope successfully, they had to create an ensemble that could do it. So that had to be done by the media corporations that support Lincoln Center’s jazz program. They had already done it for classical music. They have done it since the ‘50s. I mean, Leonard Bernstein’s crew didn’t have any problem playing hard music. I’d like to be able to write without regard to who is going to play this; I write what I want, then we bring it to people, and whatever they get out of it, they get. Because somebody is going to come along one day and really be able to do the written part.

Now, as to the playing part… See, that’s the key to the Marsalis thing, is you get people who actually are high-level interpreters of the written stuff but are also high-level players in a number of jazz idioms. That’s a new kind of musician. The paradox is that you started to see that new kind of musician first in the AACM. A Braxton type. Creative Orchestra Music is as difficult as Blood on the Fields. Some parts are more difficult. The music is of a totally different order in terms of what’s possible. The people who were trained in standard jazz were the ones who had the roughest time with the music. As I discuss in the book, that was a landmark recording for a number of reasons.

At the session were all these people from diverse worlds. There was the studio world with Seldon Powell, a great alto saxophonist, and Jon Faddis playing piccolo trumpet, and then there were people like Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum and Garrett List, and then Braxton’s quartet colleagues—Barry Altschul, Dave Holland—and an AACM group—Muhal Richard Abrams, Leo Smith. There was always this thing in the jazz world about inside and outside, free and not-free, and the story was that the so-called “free” players, whatever that means, couldn’t play regular music, whatever “regular music” means. So there was all this difficult written music, and the thing was that the people who were the not-free jazzers were having a hard time with it because it had stuff in it like quintuplets, or wider intervals, stuff that you normally don’t encounter in jazz bands. But AACM people had been writing that kind of stuff for years, and had taught themselves to play it. So in the end, it was a reversal of the expected situation, because the people who were the so-called experienced readers were the ones who were falling behind a little bit. But in the end, everybody caught up, and what you hear is this incredible thing.

With Braxton’s quartet, it got to the stage where we really didn’t have to rehearse the music. Braxton would write music every day. If we were on tour, he would go in a hotel room, he would write this music every day, and you knew not to call him or knock on his door while he was doing this. At a certain point, he would emerge with a few pieces of paper, and then we would look at them and sing them, and then go on the stage and play them—and that would be it.

After a while, you began to understand the system, and, at least when I was doing it, you didn’t have to know heavy mathematics, or look at diagrams. All the stuff that I think people asked about basically was written fairly prosaically on regular note paper, and you just had to read it. Then once you knew how Anthony thought and what his ideas were… It was amazing to me that he could do this. But then I learned how to do it, too. You could just go in and read the music, and sort of sing it, and then pretty soon you’re on stage playing it, and that would be it. It would work out.

Anthony and I did a curious duo at Donaueschingen that was subsequently issued by Hat Art; Anthony always wanted to confront people with the consequences of genre transgression. Donaueschingen has a very curious history with jazz, which is that it was introduced in the early ‘50s. Then they brought in the Modern Jazz Quartet, which was performing in the same year as the premiere of Stravinsky’s Agon. People just went nuts over the Modern Jazz Quartet and didn’t think so much of Stravinsky. So basically, the headline in the newspaper was “King Jazz Defeats King Twelve Tone.” That was it. Jazz was banned for the next ten years from Donaueschingen. They asked the director about it it… This is stuff you don’t really get to unless you read in arcane German archives and stuff. They asked the director, Heinrich Strobel, what was the reason for banning jazz. He said, “We didn’t want the things we love to overshadow things we were really interested in.” [LAUGHS] Which is pretty direct. So on this Donaueschingen duo, Anthony wanted to play “Donna Lee,” because Donaueschingen is known one of those places which disdains jazz, and the so-called “new music” people get the bulk of the infrastructure and so on—he wanted make that point about genre transgression.

Now, I think the same year we finally got a gig at the Newport Jazz Festival. This is great! So everyone’s going, “Well, we’re going to play our normal repertoire.” Then a day or two before the concert, Anthony comes in with this 50-page, completely notated composition and says, “Here’s what we’re going to play.” There was no “Donna Lee” on that concert. So once again, people were expecting X and they get Y. That’s sort of the AACM idea, which is basically we’re playing music, and people who love music should be receptive, and not only receptive on one channel, but all channels.

You can’t create a new kind of music without individual transformations. Individuals have to change. They have to transform, they have to develop, they have to reinvent themselves, they have to do the self-fashioning, as they call it in the scholarly literature—or perform a spiritual exercise. So this was the real innovation of that, but the curious thing is that the AACM was the logical precursor of that kind of innovation. What you have now, even in the classical world, are individually brilliant performers who can do this kind of code-switching. The more of those kinds of code-switchers you get, it will change what’s possible, and you will see new kinds of music based on this kind of code-switching. You already see it. But the code-switching has to go a lot further, which means that even the people in a group like Marsalis’ have to do even more kinds of music, not just the jazz music and not just classical music before 1950, and not just Western music. There’s a huge responsibility there for people who perform or compose.

So that’s how I look at what I’m trying to do nowadays. On the one hand, I don’t want people to be put off by the music and find it impossible to play. I want them to be able to find themselves in the music. A case in point is this Fred Anderson piece I wrote for the Great Black Music Ensemble that I mentioned before. Again, the commission was to write an arrangement of some piece by Fred Anderson, and I decided to orchestrate some of Fred’s improvisations. It’s not like Super-Sax, though that was cool—not that kind of homophony. I wanted more of a contrapuntal thing. It was like when Zita Carno transcribed “Giant Steps” and Coltrane looked at it and said, “I can’t play this.” I looked at Fred’s solo and said, “well, I could practice this for 20 years; I’m not going to get it. So I could give that to somebody else, but they’re not going to get it. But how do I use the transcription?” So I hit on breaking it up into little pieces. You can play five notes of it. If he’s playing… [SINGS FAST QUINTUPLET], and you have one person who goes, [DUPLET], and another person goes, [DUPLET], [ONE NOTE], [TRIPLET]. So they play their little five-note fragment, and it ends up sounding kind of wild, but in the end, you can trace the whole sweep of Fred’s music. It was pretty faithful to Fred’s timing. I stretched out very few parts—a couple of repetitions. But basically, it’s what was on the record, except that it’s orchestrated for all of these horns and violins and cellos and stuff.

I would love to do that also in the contemporary classical arena, because these musicians are trained differently, they have a different bodily sound—in other words, their bodies are trained differently. They reproduce that history. So it would be great for me to conceptually migrate what Fred did to that arena. And it would probably be very easy to take this piece and reconceive it for orchestra. Those are the kinds of things that are exciting me.

Are you doing much less work now with software-generated improvising-composing? Are there new iterations of Voyager?

I think that work has hit a plateau for a while, while I work on something else. I’m not quite sure why. That work got pretty far. I feel comfortable with it. In a way, it’s like settled technology. It was like The Spirit of St. Louis was one thing, and now we have these things taking place fifty times a day. So for me, to have a little piano sitting on my laptop, that I can pull it out, hook it up, and play for about thirty minutes, and create a concert with it, or to let it go and play a concert by itself—to me, that’s settled technology.

Right now, I can see what will be required for the next mile of doing that. Better instrumental recognition. There are computers that can listen to music and tell you what the genre is. You turn the radio to a station and they listen and say, “Well, that’s X, Y and Z.” Or sometimes they get stuck. They report several genres. That’s very cool, too.

But I don’t necessarily want to get stuck now in creating new technologies. I already created a new technology. I’d like to try to bring those ideas that came out of the technology to other spheres of the compositional and listening experience. That’s why I’m not working on it as much.

Can you describe in a relatively synoptic way the gestation and evolution of Voyager?

I’ve been doing computer music since 1979, and the goal has always been the same (although the techniques became more advanced and certainly the computers are better), which is to create situations where software-driven musical systems are in improvised interaction with human improvisers. It’s a cousin of the piece called “Rainbow Family” that I made at IRCAM in 1984. That was a networked piece. That is to say, there were three microcomputers, all controlling three of the earliest generation of MIDI synthesizers; that is, the Yamaha DX-7. There were four improvisers—Joelle Leandre, the bassist; Derek Bailey, the guitarist; Douglas Ewart, who played bass clarinet; and Steve Lacy, who played soprano saxophone. I think we did three evenings of performances of free improvised music with computers in the large space at IRCAM. The beginnings of Voyager were there.

The next stage of Voyager was really is where it almost became something you could call Voyager. In 1985, I went to STEIM, the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music, in Amsterdam. Around ‘87, the idea was to extend the networking idea. This time, instead of having three computers, we had ten, and each one controlled sort of eight voices. The idea was always to have an orchestral conception. So this was sort of a virtual orchestra of 80 voices that was done at the International Computer Music Conference in 1987. I would call that piece a spectacular failure, because the computers we were using were underpowered. But the architecture that was put on each computer is the same basic architecture that is used for Voyager now. Computers went through a period of very rapid developmental change, and got to the stage where they could execute the ideas I had in my head.

Were the ideas related specifically to the technology of computing, or was it a transduction of your own musical ideas as they had previously developed?

I think you always do any kind of music or composing from your own view of music and the world. The idea of it being non-hierarchical is extremely important. That is to say that the computers aren’t controlled by the musicians. The process of analyzing and making decisions about the music are shared between the people and the computers. That’s been my take right from the beginning.

When was the last major iteration of Voyager constructed?

I’d say around ‘94 or ‘95, the technology began to be kind of settled for me. That is to say, I concentrated less on creating new versions and more on performing with the existing versions, and then creating performances and trying to work with different collaborators. Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, and Miya Masaoka are three of the interesting collaborators that stand out

Who can’t play with Voyager?

That’s kind of a murky thing. My notion of improvisation is that a good improviser is manifests an awareness of the situation, and can transform that awareness into many possible different directions in which he or she might go. I tend to make those adjustments, and I would think that anyone thinking along those lines could have a good experience in playing with Voyager. Although, at the same time, Voyager has a pretty strongly typed aesthetic [LAUGHS], and some people might not agree with that, and those people might have a hard time.

How does Voyager embody a strongly typed aesthetic?

There is the question of multidominance, which means that a lot of things are happening at the same time, that different elements in this total sound are vying for the foreground—in fact, the notion of foreground and background starts to disappear. These many different foregrounds that are vying for attention are not necessarily in any kind of arithmetic correlation rhythmically. They could be very diverse, and the groupings can change all the time. There is a lot of information—rapid changes in timbre, multiple meters, multiple keys, multiple tonalities. People might have a hard time locking in on what they would like to approach.

But the major thing that might cause dislocation for people who collaborate with me in making the performances usually comes when they assume that they should be in charge of the experience—that is to say, that they should play something and the computer should do what they say. I think those people will always be disappointed in working with me. Because I treat the computer—at least mine—the same as I treat anybody else. I don’t want to be in charge and I don’t want anyone else to be in charge. I’d like to see things be negotiated. And the process of negotiating through sound is fundamental to my way of looking at improvisation. By a strongly typed aesthetic, I mean an aesthetic of negotiation and sonic signalling, and an absence of hierarchy. That’s especially in the computer environment because of the way computers have been sold to us, as something that at last we control; even if we have no control over any other aspect of our lives, at least we can control this computer as the sort of new slave or whatever. I just don’t think that way, at least in terms of the software that I make for musical purposes.

What is the level of your intervention with the program in preparing for any specific encounter?

Well, since it became kind of settled, I don’t intervene. I just set it up and start it, and when the piece is over, I turn it off. In one of John Corbett’s books, Extended Play, Jon Rose talked about his Voyager experience, and he said something that helped me learn something fundamental. Jon said something to the effect that I was interested in the process, but not in the sound. That’s sort of an extreme version of Process versus Result. Of course, as an improviser, I’m interested in both the process and the result. Now, Jon’s notion of sound seemed to be mostly related to the standard sort of post-Cage morphologies—timbre, loudness, pitch, silence, and so on. My notion of sound comes more from the Charlie Parker remark that music is your thoughts, your wisdom—if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. That notion of sound is more related to assumptions of personality and agency. In other words, what musician-improvisers call ‘getting your own sound.’ So sound becomes very personal. I think Jon was identifying that with process. But that has to be carefully constructed, and finally that construction is a sort of a meta-aesthetic in which you think about Voyager, or any computer system, as the articulation of sound that has a background in community and history and personal experience.

I’m interested in how that notion applies to what the computer actually produces. Does the computer take into account past decisions? Does the computer itself have a personal history, an emotional history as a context for the sound it generates?

You know, it’s very interesting. I built something that allowed the system to recover things that have been done before and reintroduce them into the space. That was fantastically unsuccessful. You don’t want to aestheticize form. You don’t want to aestheticize experience. What you’d like to do is have the software embody the nature of experience, to the extent you’re able to do that. The reason why the whole business of reintroducing things into the space was so unsuccessful is mainly because when you reintroduce them into the space, you’re taking something that you stole from the past and reintroducing it at a different point in history, and often it just doesn’t fit. It’s sort of like beginning beboppers who have practiced some lick at home for a year, and then bring it to the gig and never get a chance to play it. If they’re smart, they never get a chance to play it, because the situation is so totally different, and if they’re not so smart, they play it anyway even though it doesn’t fit. I decided not to do it that way, and to go with a greater immediacy in the system’s responses to things, so that it contextualizes the immediate situation in deciding on its response. Also, as the immediate situation changes, it’s constantly adapting. So there is an embedded sense of history there, but it’s not a sort of arbitrary parsing of an historical moment.

So no licks are contained in the computer’s vocabulary. Or that’s not a good way of putting it…

Oh, that’s fine. Because actually, in fact, I used to compose licks when I first started. I thought that was the way you did it. I’d been reading all these books from so-called scientists on what they thought jazz playing was, and they said it was just a bunch of licks thrown together. I said, “Well, that doesn’t sound right, but let me try it anyway.” So I tried it, and I realized that I can make an algorithm that does this. I don’t have to make up pre-stored licks. I just hated it when I heard Lick #42 coming out of the machine.

The thing is that, even though you construct the algorithms that produce these things, the algorithms themselves are like meta-licks anyway. So basically, after a certain while, every so often I would hear the Philip Glass moment, or what I used to call the Keith Jarrett moment, or the blues moment. But these moments aren’t programmed into the machine in any way. They’re just the outcome of the process that at some point will produce these things.

What are the first principles by which the computer’s vocabulary and syntax are constructed? What are the parameters?

Basically, Voyager is quite Cartesian, just like the trombone is. With trombone, you have the X-axis (that’s your slide going out and in) and the Y-axis (that’s the lips playing pitches up and down). So you can plot a so-called fingering chart of the trombone as basically an XY coordinate system. That’s basically the same way Voyager works. Let’s say the X-axis are a set of 64 individual voices, or positions, as you would call them—Position 1, Position 2, Position 3, up to Position 64. There are 64 voices. Or there are as many voices as you can get together, but nominally for me, it’s 64. Then the Y-axis has the sets of things that it can do in terms of playing music. Those usually tend to be very simple things, like the duration of a so-called note, and that would have two parts; basically, the duration of onsets from one note to the next, and then the duration of whatever silence happens between one note and the next. And then there is the question of what scale each voice is going to use, and there are a couple of hundred of those, and these are microtonal. Then there’s a question of what transposition that scale is going to be using. That is also microtonal, so in the first voice you have a C-major scale, and in the second voice you have a C-major transposed up 10 or 5 cents, and so on. So you have a possibility of doing a lot of pretty complicated things along those lines. There’s also the question of things like the melody algorithm. Those are very simple things, step-wise things or skips or various… They are sort of like waveform generators, so that the melodies get mapped onto waveforms.

That’s the output side. Then there’s the input side, where you have to look for those elements, or things like them, in the MIDI stream. This stream of MIDI comes in from a pitch detection machine, and the software finds out whether what it’s detecting really is a pitch, and then, if it is satisfied that it is, it will write that down, and then do things like record how many simultaneous pitches are sounding at the same time, whether the pitch is on, whether it was used. It has to keep a record of the last few pitches. Then it has to decide how short or how long the silence was between the pitches. From those processes, it generates a lot of rhythmic information. Then it has to take in a lot of information regarding whether the person is active or hardly playing at all.

These are the kind of things you have to know at a minimum in order to have a system that plays with you. What gets built up is a representation of what’s going on outside at any given time, and the system uses that representation to compose a response.

One other important element is that the response can be of three basic kinds. First, it tries to follow pretty carefully what you’re doing. So if you’re playing high notes, it will play high notes, and so on. Second, it will try to sort of oppose what you do. So if you’re playing fast, it will play slow, or something like that—a contrasting mode. The third mode—which is kind of the critical one, it turns out—is that it completely ignores you, and that it just does what it wants. In fact, that turns out to be the critical moment, because that’s where difference is asserted. In other words, that’s where we find out that the computer really is asserting “a personality,” when it’s very clear that it’s not paying attention or that it’s deliberately ignoring you. It paid attention to you in the past, so why is it ignoring you now? Well, that’s where the psychological transmission of a notion of difference comes through.

There’s a fourth mode, too. When you’re not playing, it just makes the music up by itself, based on those parameters we were just talking about. So you don’t have to really be there. That’s very good, because it means I don’t have to play all the time. It also means that the computer doesn’t have to play all the time. The problem with computer pieces is that the computer is always the star and the people always have to worship the computer, and what it does, and you have to worry about whether it’s working or not working. In a group setting, that’s quite off-putting for the other musicians. I got tired of that, and I wanted to make things equal, so that you could say, “Well, I feel like playing now,” and if I don’t feel like playing now, the computer will just take it for a while. Or maybe it won’t feel like playing, and I have to take it. In a group that’s practicing self-orchestration, this means that many different ensembles can form, with and without the computer. These kinds of exchanges are fundamental to the experience, and to the composition.

Could we talk about your early interest in electronic music, how the notion of improvising software first gestated for you?

In high school, we had a cool librarian who brought us his electronic music records. I didn’t understand them. University of Illinois, Scott Wyatt, and people like that. I didn’t know what they were doing. But still, it had impact. Muhal, of course, really likes technology, so he had an idea that we should investigate it. There was a guy at Governors State University, Richard McCreary, who came out of University of Iowa, that whole scene that produced a lot of interesting new music people—but he was an African-American guy, which is a little different right away. He was very knowledgeable, and he had built an electronic music studio. That was what you did in those days. You got your Ph.D or DMA, and then you were fruitful and multiplied, so you would establish your electronic music studio wherever you could. That was your thing. You’d get a gig and convince them to spend a carload of money. So he got a gig at Governors State, and they bought a huge ARP 2500 system. We were going there twice a week, and learning on that stuff—learning about remote control and so on.

A lot of what we learned came from recordings. I remember in one class, I think Muhal brought in a Morton Subotnick record, probably The Wild Bull, which was fascinating. There was a great record store in Chicago called Rose Records, on Wabash Avenue, and somebody there was buying… I bought Phil Glass, Music With Changing Parts, Steve Reich, the stuff that David Behrman produced for Columbia—for example, the Nancarrow thing that David produced for them. This was all pulling it out of the hat. I had no idea who these people are. First of all, there’s no book about them. I didn’t learn about who they were until I got to New York between ‘75 and ‘77.

But around ‘77, I went out to Mills College. I just found a really cool picture of Jacques Bekaert, the Belgian journalist-composer who brought me out there, and Frederic Rzewski. Somehow, we were all sitting there. Blue Gene Tyranny was at Mills, Maggi Payne was still there, John Bischoff was there, David was there… I think I was staying in David’s house. David was working with these young people on software stuff. So they had hooked up a network of little microcomputers that they were using. Of course, California was already great. So I was sitting there in California, listening to this weird electronic music being generated in real time by these four computers, and I was thinking “this sounds like Quadrisect,” which was a group we had with Mwata Bowden and Douglas Ewart and James Johnson, this improvisational wind quartet. But a computer’s doing it. This sounds like something I could probably do.

So in a way, the model was to get these computers to sound like what Quadrisect was doing. From my standpoint, this was my proof of concept, seeing Jim Horton, who has passed away; Rich Gold, who has gone as well; and David and John—they had these four KIM-1 computers hooked up, and were doing stuff that was making music automatically. It really jump-started my whole interest in computer music. After that, I had to get a computer. That was it–got to get me one of these! But getting a computer then, of course, was not like getting a computer now. There were no real books. You had to teach yourself. It was like you had to have a community around you who was thinking about these things. You just could not go off in a room and do it. Autodidacticism. You had to be part of a community. They were all autodidacts, too. They didn’t go to computer music school. There was no computer music school to do this kind of live stuff. They just got a computer and started.

I hesitate to call David a father figure. But I’ll say he was the most avuncular person out there, and you could call him if you had any kind of problem in hardware or software. If he didn’t have the answer, which he usually did, he’d have something reassuring to say. When I got my Keyboard Input Module, it came with these enormous books. They were made for engineers. Artists were trying to figure these things out, and I didn’t really have a technical background—and really, none of us did. So we kind of taught ourselves. You couldn’t go to the store and buy a book. There was no Barnes & Noble and there was no Windows and there was no Macintosh, and there was no MS-DOS, in fact, and you could not go out and buy a book that said how to use Word 5, because there was no Word 5—or not even Word 1. So we were reading these books, and I read the book the first time, and I didn’t understand anything. I was despairing. How am I going to make music with this thing if I can’t even turn it on; I don’t even understand how it works. I called David. He says, “Well, I had to read the book 8 times.” I thought, well, here’s a guy who went to Columbia, he went to Harvard, and he had to read the book eight times. Well, let me try to read it again and see if I understand anything. Things like that really help you, when there are people around like Ron Kuivila or Paul DeMarinis or Frankie Mann. There was this community of people who were doing things.

The recent recordings Streaming [Pi], which is your improvising trio with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell, and also Transatlantic Visions with Joelle Leandre [Rogue Art], remind us that before you were an electronic music composer or an educator, you were making your name as a trombonist, and imprinted your tonal personality on the world through that medium. Even you yourself cite in A Power Stronger Than Itself a critic’s remark after he heard one of your recordings that no one is going to be able to think about the trombone the same way.

OK. I didn’t want to put that in there, but it had to be…

Well, it is what it is. It happened. You made the recordings with Braxton that are still unique in the annals. But then also you played in Count Basie’s trombone section, and you played in the ‘80s with Gil Evans and in the ‘80s and ‘90s with Steve Lacy, and you recorded with Sam Rivers, and you played with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band, and played with all the AACM groups and many other situations, not to mention the encounters with the various European free improvisers. Now, it seems to me that in the last number of years you’ve at least publicly pooh-poohed the trombone and your instrumentalism. How does the trombone relate to your notion of yourself as a musician nowadays?

A lot of that I do just to destabilize comfortable assumptions. You know, Number 6: “I am not a number, I am a person.” When I set up the Great Black Music Ensemble concerts for six evenings of compositions, people said I should take two of the evenings because I’d set up the gig. Then people kept saying, “Well, are you going to play on our pieces?” I’d sort of taken it for granted that I would play on the pieces, and I’d contribute in any way that I could. But I didn’t know what I was going to do with anybody’s piece. So people would say, “Well, you take a solo here,” and it would be interesting because I’m sitting, thinking, “I haven’t done this kind of thing for a long time, like take a solo on somebody’s thing.” I felt good about it, but it seemed a little distanced from where I’ve been headed over the past few years.

The trombone, when it started, functioned for me like the computer did later, and like the computer is doing right now more generally, which is that it’s a point of translation. It’s a meeting point. It’s a place where people can exchange narratives. It’s a site for new work to happen. It takes you places and you meet people who you don’t ordinarily get in touch with. It’s a tool of communication across genres, across languages—all these things that the trombone was doing.

Now I feel that’s kind of substantially achieved for me. So what is the future of the trombone, at least in my work? I’m not really sure. For people who think of it as kind of the centerpiece of my work, I think if that were true twenty years ago, it certainly isn’t true now. I find myself working harder on a lot of other things, and also I don’t find the need to do anything other than what’s right in the center of my interests. After Perugia and after China, I went to Lisbon, and we did our electro-acoustic octet there. In many ways, I had the trombone there as a kind of symbol. It’s a symbol of maybe my past, or maybe it’s a symbol of a certain historical moment that occurred that I can still tap into when I went. But it is an electro-acoustic octet, and I spend most of my time in it doing live sampling or mixing found sounds.

This particular piece was done at an outdoor arena, where I think only the jazz people play. Certainly, I think part of the reason why nobody else plays there is because they’re in the flight path, and every ten minutes a big jet comes overhead, and that means 7 to 10 crossings in a 70-minute performance. For most music that’s played there, that’s a distraction, or at least a minor one. But not for us, because I got to Lisbon a couple of days early, and I sat in the theater and recorded jets for hours, then I went into my little laptop and modified the jets, added more bass, changed it around a bit, and then played them back on the gig. Whenever they had their jets, I had my jets—and my jets could actually be louder than theirs. We incorporated the jets into the performance in a way that I’ve never been able to do before. I felt really great about that.The trombone was sort of there, and the trombone can kind of sound like a jet, too.

In this group almost everyone, plays some kind of acoustic instrument. Miya plays the koto. Guillermo Brown plays the drums. Ulrich Mueller plays electric guitar, which kind of counts, then Siegfried Roessert plays the bass, and then you’ve got a couple of others—Mutamassik is in there, and she’s playing a turntable, which is kind of acoustic, then on electronics we’ve got Kaffe Matthews, who used to play… Kaffe, in a way, is kind of our role model. In classical music before 1980, there was the trope of the former jazz musician. A lot of people from that generation, Harold Budd, La Monte Young, or for that matter, Terry Riley or Steve Reich… Minimalism was full of former jazz musicians. In a way, they have different attitudes towards it, but for them, it’s clearly a part of their past.

Now, Anthony Braxton could also be considered a former jazz musician, but you won’t see that trope applied to him. But it’s very easy…

Now, Braxton has recorded numerous in-the-tradition sorts of albums. They’re out there. So ‘former jazz musician’ wouldn’t apply quite so…

Well, that’s the jazz one-drop rule talking, Ted. He’ll probably continue to do that—why not? It’s sort of interesting. I haven’t done it… Anyway, all you have to do is just do your work. But I can talk about myself. Am I a former jazz musician? I’m not really sure. A former jazz musician who runs the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. Does that work? Is that a contradiction in terms? Is that a dangerous problem for New York music? I have no idea. But I think there are some people who really hate the idea of that and would like to see me leave. I get these interviews where people say, “Your music is difficult” and all that kind of thing. I say, “No, actually lots of people like it, and for them my music isn’t difficult.”

Most people didn’t play with Count Basie or Thad Jones or Gil Evans or Steve Lacy.

That’s what I mean by “former,” because all those people you mentioned, first of all, are dead, and I’m not playing with them any more, and I’m not playing with their successors. So at a certain stage, that is something that was part of a venerable and storied past, which is very important in the same way that La Monte never tires of discussing his high school experience with Eric Dolphy—but it was in high school.

Yours wasn’t a high school experience. Yours was on a level that actually changed the way people conceptualized the trombone.

Well, that’s great.

You know that’s true.

Whether it’s true or not, what do you do next? What’s your encore? Do you continue to do that? Do you continue to try again? Perhaps you say, “Maybe I’ll do something else now.” There are so many people in this creative world… I think Vinko Globokar still plays the trombone. But a lot of people gave it up, and that’s ok, too.

Would you be willing to talk about the approach you developed as a trombonist?

Florid. A lot of notes and a lot of sound and a lot of chaos, and it’s saxophonic. It’s like what I heard Johnny Griffin do or John Coltrane do, or people like that—those very florid saxophone players. That’s the music I studied and tried to emulate as a means of developing. That turned out to be pretty good, because if you can partially succeed, you learn a lot about how to get around and do things. In a way, Anthony Braxton’s music was a kind of music I had been kind of preparing for anyway because of these other studies. You listen to these records of trombone players, and at the fastest tempos they’re always playing in half-time. I didn’t want to be that person. [LAUGHS] So I was drawn more to the Curtis Fullers and Frank Rosolinos, those kind of florid people. J.J. Johnson was doing it too, but it reminded me of Hindemith’s Trombone Concerto. I didn’t hear that personally. I never really heard it. Now, there are people who have, like Steve Turre. Not for me. No.

Then the thing was, there were so many other people outside of jazz playing trombone in the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘60s even, with Stuart Dempster and Globokar being prime movers of that. So listening to that, you just develop other viewpoints.

But in terms of the improvisational style, the problem with it was that being florid and playing a lot of notes only works in certain musical situations, and if you want to do something else, you have to stop doing it. If you want to work more with sounds, if you want to work with delicacy, or if you want to work with certain kinds of extremes of range, or if you want to really improvise as distinct from developing a personal style, then you have to really question everything about what you were doing. At the point you start to question yourself and really start doing these things, all of a sudden, there is your past that you have to confront, and either you have to play with new people… I could see why people who have bands get rid of people who play in the bands, because then that forces them into new areas. So you have to confront new ways of making music that are the complete opposite of how you thought about playing. The kind of florid, Coltrane-influenced thing just didn’t work with John Oswald or Zorn or with Roscoe Mitchell and Leo Smith. It just doesn’t work. You can’t do it. It’s too many notes, or something. After a while, the desire just faded.

In a conversation we had in 2006, you said that you tended “to listen to not the cool sounds that are being made or the extended techniques on the instruments but the kinds of meta-narratives that are being exchanged through the improvisations.” “What are they really talking about?” you said. It’s always seemed to me that you find ways to creative narrative strategies within any situation in which you find yourself. If it’s free improvising with Evan Parker or Derek Bailey, or with Joelle Leandre on Transatlantic Visions, there’s a form to the solo that transcends the techniques. You once stated that in an encounter between equals, you have to bring something of where you come from. Would this imply that there’s something fundamental about that notion of storytelling and narrative to your core sense of self as a musician?

No. You see, this is where more of that turbulence comes in. I’m tired of storytelling.

Your interest was so strong in the early ‘90s, when you did recordings like Changing With the Times [New World Countercurrents] and Endless Shout [Tzadik].

Yes, because that was the thing. I wanted to do that, and that was important. Creating a kind of radio play, a mystery theater that people could listen to late at night before they went to sleep. Like rap. There were poets and actors, verbal monologues. But now, the idea of people telling stories with instruments has become kind of a cliche in music. Then the other thing is, there’s so much non-linearity in the world. Linear narratives often don’t touch people in the same way, because they’re not experiencing it in their daily lives. Then there are the ones that want the linear narrative in order to make them feel good in a changing world. Like their head is under the blanket or something. Then there are the people who really want the linear narrative as a marker of what it means to be African-American. Those people probably haven’t read Mumbo-Jumbo, or Leon Forrest, or Nathaniel Mackey—these kinds of people. Or even Toni Morrison’s Jazz. You realize that storytelling can be a hindrance. Then you have to figure out: Do we really need call-and-response now? Maybe we don’t. So in this electro-acoustic octet, we have certain ground rules I made up. One is, you don’t have to take every utterance as a call that needs response. Just don’t respond. Let it sit there and let it develop itself. Don’t chime in. Let’s see where it goes.

One musician told me that when he started playing with Roscoe Mitchell, he was directed quite explicitly to form his own ideas, and not play Roscoe’s ideas back to him.

I’m sure I can just guess what he had to respond to. He probably started out where Roscoe did something and he did something kind of like that, and Roscoe got angry, because that kind of simplistic imitation reduces the mobility of the music. Yeah, that’s a part of it. But then, I’ve played with Roscoe a lot, and you figure that out. But for another viewpoint on that, it’s more, in my case, that not doing anything is also an idea. Just don’t make a sound. Just listen. That’s one idea, is to let your sound hang in the air. So what you get by doing that methodologically is, in a larger group, you don’t get everyone playing at once. So suddenly, it opens up the space for stuff that Phil Jackson talks about in the Sacred Hoops book, where he talks about the triangle offense, you have to pass the ball around, one person can’t dominate, all those kinds of things. What he’s describing is an improvised encounter that results in a basketball game.

Of course, Phil Jackson requires a superstar to make it work.

Well, that’s the thing. You also have to have a superstar in order to win. But you always have to have that in sports. But then the thing is, the superstar also has to pay attention to the system, and they don’t win if they don’t. That’s what the superstars learn. So the thing is that if you are inclined to be a superstar in the music area, maybe it’s better if you don’t. In the electro-acoustic band, if someone plays some lick, some material, it just sits there for a long time. It might just be there by itself. Then suddenly, all of a sudden, everybody detects, hey, there’s a change. You’re playing double-dutch, and the rope is going, you’re trying to get in, and you’re just moving with the music, moving with the rope, but you’re not actually doing anything. At a certain point, you feel, “Aha, here’s my moment and I can jump in.” It’s a bit like that. So if everyone is doing that, they’re sensitive to the opportunity, not to play, but to let someone else play… You pass the ball. When that happens, then you get all this multiplicity. What that also means is it completely runs counter to the sort of florid Coltrane moment. I’d guess that someone like Coltrane or Parker couldn’t play in a group like this, or they’d have to radically change what they did. Which I’m sure they could do, because the investigative mind is there to hear what’s going on. There’s nothing I love more than these records where Coltrane is playing a million notes for like 30 minutes. I used to go nuts. I could listen to that stuff for hours, even days on end—still do. But I’ll never do it again. It’s not going to happen. Because we don’t live that now.

Well, Coltrane also is trapped in time for us. He didn’t have a chance to grow older and develop.

Well, that’s also true. But we do have these people who are keepers of the flame. I guess I could be that person. But then you lose the possibility of… I listened to a Radu Malfetti-Taku Sugimoto duo on this Improvised Music From Japan CD, and a lot of times almost nothing is happening. I understood how for a person like Radu, who came out of the free jazz thing, that was super-liberation. So I just want to feel that free to renounce that part of it. That’s not to say, “Well, that’s all BS, what I did back there,” but more to say, “Well, you can’t keep doing it in the current environment.” That may mean that the trombone, like any composer…you don’t use the same instrument in every situation. Just because you happen to play it doesn’t change that methodological reality.

In Richard Teitelbaum’s piece Golem, you were given the job generating the Golem’s…

He said I was the Rabbi. It was my job to bring the Golem to life.

And I saw you do almost literally do that in a concert at the Jewish Museum.

Oh, that was a good concert. We even upstaged Menachem Zur, who is an excellent composer.

You’ve also developed a software language that brings inanimate circuits to life, so to speak. You once responded to something I was saying, “that sounds suspiciously like language,” and I said, “Is music language?” and you said, “I don’t think so.” Is music analogous to language in any way?

I sure hope not. Ingrid Monson wrote a great book, Saying Something. She took the music-and-language premise and worked with it in a way that implies that music isn’t a language any more. In other words, we’re not looking for a one-to-one correspondence. It’s a much more sophisticated view of language, which leads to a more sophisticated view of how communication takes place. We are pleased to say that any time communication takes place, it takes place on the basis of language. But that’s not really what happens. Communication takes place all the time without language. In a way, that’s the joy of music. It’s a non-linguistic medium, at the very least. When I hear people talk about their musical language, even somebody cool, like Messaien, I think, “ok, this is great to have your musical language, but I wonder…maybe early humans sounded more interesting than most people’s musical languages.” I have no idea, no way of knowing that. But how did those people communicate their desires, their goals, their needs, without this highly developed thing that we like to think of as language? How did that happen?

We’re faced with that situation every day as improvisers, and to the extent we have a fixed language, we can pretty much say fixed things. We have a set of things we can say and no more, because it’s not really that extensible. The music-language analogy breaks down at so many points, that once you get rid of it, you’re much freer to think about sound, the ways in which sound can signify and how many contexts it can signify in, that spoken language or written language really cannot match. This is the reason why we have such problems describing music. We don’t have problems describing things that are in the same medium. Someone says, “Well, what does Obama talk about?” You can tell him. You use one language. You can tell him in a different language. You can tell him in French. You can tell him in German. It doesn’t matter. They’re all variants of the same thing. But you can’t really tell them in music in the same way.

Now, some people would take issue with you, and say, “Of course you can,” and maybe somebody will talk about drum language in Africa or whatever they’re talking about. But I’m still going to hold to the idea that music is a fundamentally different animal, and the reason why we have it around and why it’s important is because it needs to be a fundamentally different animal. But on the other hand, you have opera, which is fantastic. So what do you about that? It’s just too complicated to get into.

As the final question, or perhaps the beginning of the final question, this notion of discarding your vocabularies, continually shedding your skin, the rebirth trope that you’ve referenced several times, reimagining who you are… Why is it important to do that? Is it actually, in truth, possible to do that?

Well, I think it’s possible. I think I’ve managed to kind of do it. The problem is the goalposts keep moving. You have to keep doing it, and once you set yourself on that path, you can’t stop. If you don’t keep doing it, then you’ll feel poorly, because you’ve set yourself up now, and you say, “Well, I’ve stopped now. All that stuff about reinventing yourself, we don’t do that any more. I’m happy with where we are now.” That could be a conscious response to new conditions.

I don’t know when I started to first think about improvisation as depending for its impact upon circumstance, as somebody who really is trying at every moment to be open and let himself or herself become transformed by conditions and situations, where you are learning, preparing yourself to encounter the world and other people, and trying to cultivate a sense that you are going to be, if not ready, at least willing to engage fundamental difference. That has to be something that you kind of cultivate.

Now, I’m talking about fundamental difference. I am not talking about someday going around the world and playing with somebody from this tradition or that tradition and the other tradition. That’s not quite fundamental, because you’ve got SOME tradition to deal with. Fundamental change can happen within traditions, or within socio-musical aggregates. Fundamental difference can occur through two individuals who are both invested there. So what you would have to do in those cases is to find in yourself the motivation to do it. Tony Robbins was in San Diego the whole time I was there, and he’s probably still there. I think he talks about some of these ideas about you have to transform yourself, and it all depends on you, and it’s your ideas that count, your view of yourself, and so on, that really matters. I’m not a follower, but that’s just one example.

A very American world-view.

To that extent, yes, it’s very American, and I can’t say I disagree with it; there’s some tangent there that I feel I can tap into. But I have mainly found in my own work that the biggest impediment to change was my fear of maybe what other people would think. It’s all chimerical, but I still have this ridiculous fear about it. It came out in Perugia. It was like, ‘Ok, I’m going to get up here in front of all these people, I’m going to be conducting, and that’s all I’m going to do, and they’re just going to see my ass. I’m not going to be playing anything on the trombone. Maybe I should just play a little bit at the beginning, so I can get it out of the way” Now, you’re not really being true to what you think at that moment. You’re getting stuck in some imagined view of yourself, some imagined community that you have been with in the past. It’s not irrational to think this way, because people come up and tell you this. “I wish you’d play the trombone more” or “stop all that computer shit”—all these kinds of things. When I was in my thirties and forties, I would be very influenced by these things. But now I’m 57, and I’m just inclined to politely not pay attention to that.

So we’re still talking about the trombone. It was a great thing, and the nice thing about… Well, I’ll put it another way. Actually, it’s a deep-seated fear that I wouldn’t have anything to fall back on. They try to tell you, “Music is great, but you should get a degree in something, so you have something to fall back on.” Well, for me, the trombone is something I can always fall back on. But if I do that, that sort of cheapens it. I don’t want the book to stand or fall on how well I play the trombone. That has nothing to do with it. If the book is only good because the guy plays the trombone, that’s not any good. Or the computer music is only good because the guy plays the trombone. What does that have to do with anything? Is the computer music any good or isn’t it? Did the person spend the time? Did they do the work? Are they familiar with the tenets of things? Is it working? The answer to that is, “Well, the guy plays a mean trombone.” That’s not an answer. Or the thing that happens where your computer crashes and they say, “Well, you could always play the trombone.” I say, “Well, no, not any more.” “Why not?” “Well, I didn’t bring it, for one thing.” In other words, you just say to yourself that you’re going to stand or fall with what you’re doing now, and you’re going to have enough confidence and faith in yourself, and you’re going to do your best to enter this new medium without any convenient exits.

So if I might borrow your nomenclature, the trombone is one component of a multidominant personality that might be less dominant at one moment, and might be more dominant at another? Is that a possible metaphor, that the multidominance that you encoded into the computer is functioning within you?

Yes, you can say that, sure. Maybe they’re not competing. They should nominally coexist, and that one comes out according to need. If you just stick to that, then maybe you avoid a lot of problems that would come out for some other reason—fear, ego, or whatever.

*-*-*-*-

DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

George Lewis’ light-filled office on the campus of Columbia University, where he is the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, contains a metal desk, a file cabinet, bookshelves, and a wood classroom table at which he and Muhal Richard Abrams were awaiting Downbeat’s arrival.

On the table lay an open copy of Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. “When you say ‘the beginning,’ I question that,” Abrams responded to Lewis’ paraphrase of Sublette’s assertion that Puerto Rican musicians were prominent in the early years of jazz. “Now, I don’t question people’s participation.”

“I think that’s all he’s saying,” said Lewis. “Just participation.”

“Well, he needs some other language then,” Abrams responded.

It was noted that Cubans flowed into New Orleans in the 1860s and 1870s, participated in Crescent City brass bands and orchestras, and played a vital role in the development of jazz sensibility.

“I disagree with the claim that Jazz started in New Orleans,” Abrams said. “New Orleans people think so. But it was in Mississippi and Alabama, too—that whole area. And who can account for what happened in Sedalia, Missouri? Or  what happened all along the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and New Jersey, what Eubie Blake did and that crew of people before him, who we never heard of?”

It turned out that Abrams, a stride piano devotee whose answering machine greets callers with James P. Johnson’s piano music, had met Blake around 1974 in Chicago, when the rag master, then 91, was on tour with composer William Bolcom.

“Bolcom really didn’t have a feeling for what Eubie was doing, though he could play the notes, but it was cool, because he loved Eubie,” Abrams said. “I told him that I had been transcribing some of his music. He stared at me, then asked someone, ‘Did he really do that?’ and she told him that I had. I was shooting pictures, and the next time he noticed me, he thought I was a photographer. We talked a bit. He had boundless energy. You’d call his name from the other side of the room, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, what do you want?!’—he’d be right there.”

Abrams’ own boundless energy comes through on Streaming (Pi), a heady recital by Abrams, Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, who were, respectively, 74,52 and 63 at the time of the recording. Documenting the first meeting of these protagonists since a heady 90-minute concert at the Venice Biennale in late 2003, Streaming embodies the accomplishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as fully as any recording in the canon.

Each man is a multi-instrumentalist proficient at deploying an array of extended techniques by which to extract a staggering array of sounds. They’ve codified and orchestrated these multiple voices, scored them into compositions spanning a global template of forms, and performed them on numerous concerts over the decades.

For this occasion, though, they chose to explore—and spontaneously chart—what Lewis calls “the open space” rather than work with a preexisting roadmap. Abrams played piano, percussion, bell, taxihorn and bamboo flute; from his arsenal of reeds and woodwinds, Mitchell brought a soprano and alto saxophone, as well as a generous selection of calibrated-to-the-sinewave percussion instruments; Lewis played trombone and laptop, generating samples and electronic sounds with Ableton Live, a loop-based digital audio sequencer designed for live performance.

Through three trios, one Mitchell–Lewis duet and one Abrams–Lewis duet, the old friends eschew collage and pastiche, shaping their idiosyncratic vocabularies, syntaxes and postulations into erudite, polylingual conversation.

“I’m trying to develop a language that will work in many situations,” said Mitchell over the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “Muhal and George are doing the same thing.”

“We’re organizing sound, and everything it takes to organize sound into what we call music—the structure, the melodious and harmonic component—in the same moment, through participating in a mutually respectful manner,” Abrams explained. “We produce what we are.”

Lewis contrasted the operative aesthetic on Streaming to that at play in his numerous meetings with first-generation European improvisers Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. “Derek and Evan wanted to open up their notion of improvisation to include the freshness of the immediate encounter—that is, someone with whom you’ve never performed,” Lewis said. “I became interested in that, and we built up a history of a lot of immediate encounters. Now I need to do what I can to renew and deepen already existing relationships. This project takes our existing collaborations in a new direction while also deepening the relationship.”

[BREAK]

Abrams and Mitchell first shared recorded space on the 1973 Art Ensemble of Chicago classic Fanfare For The Warriors (Atlantic), 12 years after Mitchell—just out of the Army and a student at Wilson Junior College—began participating in a workshop orchestra called the Experimental Band led by Abrams and Eddie Harris at a South Side Lounge called the C&C. Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis first worked together in 1971, initially documenting their exalted simpatico on Mitchell’s Quartet, a 1975 Sackville date with guitarist Spencer Barefield,  and subsequently on Lewis’ Shadowgraph (Black Saint, 1977), Mitchell’s Nonaah  (Nessa, 1978), and Abrams’ Spihumonesty (Black Saint, 1980).

“That was the first recording I was on with anybody,” said Lewis of Quartet.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” Abrams asked.

“It seems like we’re going too far back there,” said Lewis, whose exhaustively researched history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) comes out in spring 2007.

“It’s important to accept how we view the basis of this,” Abrams said. “George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

“You know that alternate take on the Coltrane record of “Giant Steps,” where Coltrane says, ‘The cats be makin’ the changes, but they don’t be tellin’ no story,’ and then somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell any lies’?,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to do that. What I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration, the sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multiperspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Lewis returned to Quartet. “That first recording is part of the collective memory, and not just us, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about it for a moment,” he said. “I felt completely new to what we were doing. But everyone else seemed to feel they were new, too. For instance, Roscoe’s piece ‘Cards’ is a set of graphic symbols which we were reassembling on the fly. You were free to actuate your part whenever you felt the need to, in accordance with your own analysis of the situation. There was that sense of experimentalism, working with the unforeseen as a natural component, not working with received wisdoms or ideas that are already set up. I’d never seen anything like Roscoe’s card piece, and after doing music of various kinds with a great diversity of experimental composers, I still haven’t seen anything like it. Everybody was able to contribute and have their contributions accepted. The attitude that produces a recording such as this new one is that same sense that we are not in a space of hierarchy, of overweening authority by some individual.”

“It had to become equal,” Abrams said. “That happened because we all consented to perform Roscoe’s piece in the way that he preferred we approach it.”

“In the AACM there were diverse aesthetics, but there was a lot more agreement on the ethics, which is a larger point,” Lewis stated. “To get to how that basic ethics evolved and was maintained over the years is a pretty intense question. Having tried to write this history and make sense of it all, I have to say that Muhal’s sense of openness was critical. He had to fight hard to keep people focused on the idea of openness. A larger world out there is saying, ‘Well, what’s all this free thinking?’ Somebody has to provide an example. Jodie Christian said, ‘I went along with it because Muhal said it was good.’ Muhal had a lot of respect and people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”

[BREAK]

In an article entitled “Experimental Music In Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,” Lewis noted the attraction of AACM composers to “collage and interpenetration strategies that blended, opposed, or ironically juxtaposed” the disciplines of composition and improvisation, “simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions.” Such a stance towards composition, Lewis continued, quoting theorist Kobena Mercer, “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”

With the AACM, Abrams spawned an infrastructure within which nascent composer-improvisers like Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Lewis could assimilate and process such information in a critical manner, and provided them manpower with which to workshop and develop their ideas. The polymath attitudes towards musical expression that they represent in their maturity stem in great part from the inspiration of watching Abrams follow his own autodidactic predispositions.

“I was always curious, and I always felt I needed to make my own way,” said Abrams, a self-educated composer who studied Schillinger between sets on ‘50s Chicago gigs. “Get the information, but do it my way. I am sure this ultimately led to the Experimental Band, and the attraction of the Experimental Band led to the AACM. I could speak of the process in terms of historical tangibles, but I believe that things happen because they’re supposed to. The little routes that are taken to get there are like a bus process in a computer program, which takes the information where it’s directed.”

Was openness to new information always prominent within Abrams’ mindset? “Yes,” he said. “Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that in order to learn, I had to concede that my ideas are housed in my personal universe, and that another individual’s ideas are housed in theirs. To learn about this infinite setup of universes, I had to listen and be willing to learn from others.”

“Listening is dangerous,” Lewis added. “The problem is to channel it into fruitful paths. You encounter ideas you’re not prepared for, that you may not understand, to which you may respond negatively. You have to respond to input. You’re not free at that moment; you can’t just say whatever you like. You have to connect with other people, somehow become part of them, have a sense of acceptance about it. For me, acceptance is the hardest part of listening.

“In improvisation, the superficial aspects—instruments, notes, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, durations—are carriers for the much deeper signals with which we as musicians have learned to exchange meanings which are broader, but also much more direct than these elements. One meaning is this notion of a non-hierarchical ethics.”

“Any idea you encounter gives you an idea about yourself—or I think it should,” Abrams said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discriminate as to what stays and what goes, and proceed in your own manner, which I’ve always tried to do. It’s good to study something, but making a copy to lean on is another question.”

[BREAK]

“On this new record, I’m trying to hear what Muhal and Roscoe would like to do, how they see the situation, and whether they’re not doing anything or doing something,” Lewis said. “My primary approach is an instant hermeneutics, an interpretation of what is coming through the sound at that moment. This allows me to tell a lot about them. All of the history we’ve been talking about comes through the sound. As musicians, we learn to interpret these sounds, but we also learn to interpret them as human beings. If people could fall back on the fundamental primordial aspects of their own human nature, it would be a lot easier for them to understand and to hear this music. When Muhal plays piano, I know its sound like I know the sound of my dad’s or mom’s voice. I know what Roscoe’s instruments sound like. That hits me before anything. That history is undeniable. It got built up over years and decades. At the same time, I don’t know what that voice is going to say. I feel comfortable with that. It’s almost as if a door opens up, once you forget all the theories and start to concentrate on just what the sound is telling you.”

“I agree,” Abrams said. “The world of sound is an abstract idea. The word ‘musician’ depicts one who allows himself to be trained to organize sound and produce it in the form that we call music. But before it appears, it’s sound without preferenced organization. What does sound want? What does music want? Someone comes along hearing sound differently from anyone we’ve ever heard, and we wonder what causes that. What causes Ornette Coleman to sustain a note, change his position in the sound world and make you believe it changed? It’s the way he hears sound, which is special to him. What makes Cecil Taylor get the textures he gets out of the piano or the AACM people do what they do?”

This seemed a touch abstract. Was location, for instance, at all a launching point for the way Coleman (Texas), Taylor (New York) and the AACM people (Chicago) hear and organize sound?

“No, it’s separate; but yet, yes,” Abrams responded elliptically. “We have many possibilities, and each individual has different points in their time cycles that cause us to hear sound in the particular ways that we do.”

“It’s interesting to consider personal history situations and their impact upon particular directions of music,” Lewis said. “There’s a collective direction, but there’s also that individual space. We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. Well, from my standpoint, as a descendent of slaves, I don’t want to be that disconnected with that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”

Lewis began to parse Abrams’ comment about organizing sound. “You have to organize the sound that’s coming in, not just the sound that’s going out,” he said. “In fact, organizing the sound that’s coming in is more important, because what we’re organizing is not just how it’s going to fit technically, but more importantly, what it means, the organizing perspectives on the sounds, what the sound is really saying to us. That can also change—something we remember later in the piece can bring up a consequence we hadn’t considered when the sound came up. So call-and-response is a problem. I want to have call without response. The idea that we’re not stuck in that kind of motion, but are free to challenge even that so-called fundamental wisdom with a fundamental investigation-exploration, and find what we find. You may find situations where call-and-response is an inappropriate methodology, and prepare to take the consequences.”

“I consider each day different; each person is different every day,” Mitchell remarked over the phone, illuminating this issue. “Today I might touch on a sound timbre, tomorrow a rhythmic situation. I hear something and think, ‘Percussion with this,’ start with the idea, and move to what I need to do. It’s instant theme-and-variation. But there are so many levels of improvisation. You don’t want to follow or copy someone. One thing you can do, if you hear something you want to extend, is not use it until another time. Then you avoid the heaviness that happens when someone follows in an improvisation, and maintain your individualism. I tend to fare better if I keep refreshing my mind and go with that flow.”

[BREAK]

“I didn’t teach them how to be themselves, and I didn’t create a situation that caused them to be themselves,” Abrams said of his distinguished progeny. “I helped inspire other people to be themselves from my example: ‘I am going to be myself, and you have the opportunity to be yourself.’

Still, there remains the question of how Abrams, the autodidact, came to pass along his own non-didactic ethos of informed individuality. “There were two older musicians in particular from whom I learned quite a bit—Walter ‘King’ Fleming and William Jackson,” he said. “In  mainstream music, they taught me and allowed me to pursue my ideas, mistakes and all, and it caused me to grow and to eliminate the mistakes. Their kindness and benevolence infused me with that feeling. They brought out what I had. I passed on that continuum when I got to the Experimental Band or AACM situations. All of us created the atmosphere that was created. I realize that some of the musicians feel that this wasn’t the case, that it was me—and that’s OK. I was the first observer. I saw them when they didn’t see themselves. They did it.”

“This is not something you get for free,” Lewis said. “The dynamic does not appear without resistance. At a certain point you get the inspiration, you start to become yourself, and other people say, ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Then you realize that people are still doing it in the face of potential consequences, and that’s the real inspiration.” DB

*-*-*-

George Lewis & Leo Smith (WKCR, 9-12-95):

[MUSIC: G. Lewis/B. Mixon, “View From Skates in Berkeley” (1994)]

TP: Our guests are George Lewis and Leo Smith, who will be participating in the AACM 30th Anniversary Series concert, next installment, Saturday, September 16th, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture at 2 West 64th Street. The concert starts at 8 p.m. The music of George Lewis and Leo Smith will be performed by the S.E.M. Ensemble, Petr Kotik, Conductor, with guest artists Quincy Troupe, poet; William Brown, voice; Warren Smith, percussion; J.D. Parran, reeds.

[FUNDRAISING SPIEL]

It’s an honor to have Leo Smith and George Lewis in the same room together. They are both very important figures in the development of improvised music. In Leo’s case, the recorded history begins in the mid-1960’s, and in George’s case in the 1970’s. You both were members of the AACM, and joined it through very different paths, I would imagine. In Leo’s case, you came from Mississippi to Chicago and found the AACM. Was that more or less the trajectory for you?

SMITH: Well, I left Mississippi and ended up in Chicago, but it took a couple of years; I went from there to the Army and places like that.

TP: Tell us about some of the specifics of that journey. You come from a Blues background.

SMITH: Well, yes. Essentially in Mississippi, the art of Blues music is practiced with voice and instrument. When I began to play the trumpet, my first exposure to music was dealing with Blues. I would say in that beginning of learning the Blues as such, it was also the beginning of the trumpet for me, meaning that I learned how to play music while playing Blues on the trumpet — if people understand what that means. It’s not that I went there as a musician. I learned how to become a musician while I was playing the Blues. So it’s kind of unique.

TP: What type of situations were you playing in after you began to reach your maturity as a musician?

SMITH: Well, just…

TP: Name some names, too.

SMITH: I don’t like names, basically.

TP: No? Okay.

SMITH: No. Basically, it’s a question of remembering names and things like that.

But I started out in the AACM in ’67, and I consider that to be the beginning of my mature moments of playing music. And all of those guys are renowned now, like George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins — all of them.

TP: And Leo Smith as well.

SMITH: Yeah. We all grew up in an environment and in a time when expectations were held very high for us, and we went out and achieved them. Meaning that we looked at the musical scene and we looked at the environment which we lived in, and we figured out some of the things that would give us a bridge across an environment that had a lot of problems in it, you see. And one of them was being able to be creative without the luxury of funds and money to do whatever your dream was, but the creativeness where you would have to design systems and stuff like that that didn’t cost you a dime, you see. So that’s a challenge and a fulfillment that everyone is proud of today.

TP: What were the circumstances that brought you to the AACM?

SMITH: I was in the Army, about to get out, and of course, I was kind of despised by the people that I played amongst. There was one fellow there that knew another fellow that was despised in the Army amongst the guys he played about — and his name happened to be Anthony Braxton. So he gave me a telephone number and said, “Well, I think you guys would get along great!” And he was right. Anthony is, I would say, one of my most favorite partners in performing duet music. Somehow we complemented each other. And we went through a lot of different kinds of things in Chicago that some people may have gone through, but we didn’t know about them, and we kind of felt like we went through them alone, but they were like very sharp and pointed things.

TP: Now, you and he linked up in a performing group. Because out of the larger body of the AACM, there were a number of smaller performance situations wherein all of the musicians would contribute ideas, and there was a real flow, I guess.

SMITH: Uh-huh.

TP: I guess Leroy Jenkins was the third member of that, and Three Compositions of New Jazz emanated from that situation.

SMITH: Right.

TP: Talk about some of the ideas that you were working with explicitly at that time in their gestative period, as it were.

SMITH: Well, we wanted to look at music that would give us a chance to express exactly who we were. And once you make that particular commitment, you have to find out how you’re going to do this. So we decided that we would write for instruments and write for ensembles. And in this particular juncture of writing for instruments and ensembles, we didn’t have to accept the history that was given to us before, and we didn’t even have to expect some kind of present history or future history. We were able to contemplate the real essence of creative music. We were able to come in with projects, for example, like… “Silence” is a piece that has silence in it, and it came after John Cage’s “Silence,” but the philosophical connection of silence in this case was to materialize music within the space, and whatever was heard in the environment, whereas in the Cage piece there was absolutely no music in the space, and the gestures were the moments of the environment, you see. So creating a piece that seemed that it would look like and feel like a piece that came out of Cage’s tradition, in fact, we didn’t have that problem, because as I say, we are not bound by what came in the past or this particular ensemble’s history — you know, like a Classical ensemble has a history that’s specifically European. We didn’t have to worry about that. If you have an ensemble that’s essentially Asian, let’s say it has instruments for India, Korea and Pakistan, you don’t have to worry about the history of that. Because you function as a creative artist, you function in a zone where you can choose and pick anything that makes a music object.

TP: At the time you got to Chicago in 1967, George Lewis was 14 years old, I guess, and a student at the University of Chicago Lab School. You’d picked up the trombone at that time. Were you aware of the AACM? Did you know about Leo Smith when you were a teenager in Hyde Park?

LEWIS: Not really. No, no. Am I supposed to admit that? [LAUGHS]

SMITH: Well, if you admit that, that’s true! See, the beauty is, you may not have known me, but in fact you knew me all your life. Because now that you meet me, you realize that you were never a stranger to me.

LEWIS: Yeah, I guess that was the feeling when I first came to the AACM, that boy, these are people doing the same thing I’m doing…

SMITH: Exactly.

LEWIS: …or something I thought I was doing or something like that. Yeah. I mean, I did get to hear Fred Anderson at that time, and I remember being very frightened going to an Art Ensemble concert and having Joseph playing these marimbas right up in my face. I thought he was going to drop one of these mallets, and then I’d lose my sight forever. A very intense situation, all these people painted up. I said, “God, who are these people, man?” I guess I didn’t connect it with my future life, but now I can’t imagine life without, you know, Leo and Muhal and Joseph and Braxton. I can’t imagine it.

TP: Well, most of the members of the AACM were raised in Chicago, but really they came from all over the country…,

SMITH: That’s right.

TP: …from Arkansas, Mississipi, even New York City and New Jersey out to the AACM. A connecting thread for just about everyone is Muhal Richard Abrams…,

SMITH: That’s right.

TP: …now living in New York. Leo, what was your first encounter with Muhal like? If you can just describe a little of the circumstances, the environment, the scene.

SMITH: Oh, it was dramatic. It was dramatic!

LEWIS: [LAUGHS]

TP: Please be more specific than that.

SMITH: Well, I had met Roscoe and Lester Bowie at Joseph’s concert on the North Side. They said, “Come to the AACM,” and Roscoe said, “Bring your horn.” So I went to the AACM that Monday night, and I brought my horn, but I left it in the car. I went in, I sat down, and they were rehearsing. I had been introduced to Muhal earlier that evening. So they were rehearsing some piece, and Muhal jumped up and he… Well, what was actually happening, whoever was playing trumpets, they wasn’t quite making it. Lester Bowie was there, too, actually. So the guy said, “Hey, man, where’s your horn. Go get your horn.” And it was an order. I just jumped up and ran out to the car and got my horn, and took it out, ran back in, sat in the seat, and he kicked it off. I didn’t even look at it; I just kind of played what I thought I saw — and it came out right. And he said, “That’s the way to play it.” So I’ve been playing with them since. That’s how I met Muhal.

TP: George, how about your first encounter?

LEWIS: I think it was kind of a random encounter. I was passing by where they were rehearsing, at Child’s City. Now, this was much later, of course. This was maybe ’71 or something. I saw all these people, some of them were wearing dashikis and all that, and I said, “Hmm.” They had horns. I said, “Well, let’s go down there and see who these people are, man.” [LAUGHS] I said, “Well, who are you guys?” They said, “Well, we’re musicians.” I remember saying a funny thing. I said, “Well, I’m a musician, too,” which was not really true. I mean, I played an instrument; that’s not the same thing. And they said, “Okay, bring your horn to the next rehearsal.” That was it.

SMITH: Mmm-hmm. That’s the generous thing. Like, whenever someone did indicate that they wanted to play, they were always open to see if you could play.

LEWIS: Right.

SMITH: And if you could play, then you were set, because they were going to do everything in their way to help.

TP: Kulture Jazz is the most recent release by Leo Smith, and it extends a concept that you… Well, your first manifestation was in 1971…?

SMITH: Released in 1971, yes.

TP: Your first solo recording. Now, of course, with digitization and the technological means available, we can hear eight different voices of Leo Smith — trumpet, flugelhorn, koto, mbira, harmonica, bamboo notched flute, percussion and vocal, sometimes performed singularly and in multiple combinations in Kulture Jazz, recorded in 1993. The first track we’ll hear is “Song of Humanity,” which I believe is a song you’ve recorded a few times before.

SMITH: A very old song. Well, it’s actually my first composition, to be truthful, that survived a booklet of 16 that started out. I started out with 16, and ended up with that particular piece as the one that survived.

TP: This has been performed by many of your groups, including…

SMITH: Every one of them.

TP: …the first edition of New Dalta Akhri, I believe.

SMITH: This is the first solo version I’ve ever done. But it’s my oldest composition.

[MUSIC: Leo Smith, “Song of Humanity,” “Albert Ayler In A Spiritual Light” (1993)]

TP: Several issues came up while the music was on, and Leo made some very interesting comments about the relationship of melody to solo, and about Miles Davis, the way he improvised, what made him so special as well. Are those things we can get back to on the on-air segment? I’m assuming you assimilated his music pretty thoroughly, Leo, as a young musician.

SMITH: Yeah, I had to look at Miles Davis, because you know, like, how do you face a mountain when you live in the delsert…the desert, you know?

TP: Well, you almost said when you live in the Delta, and actually that’s somewhat apropos, because Miles Davis came up at the top of the Delta, really, in East St. Louis.

SMITH: Well, that’s right! That’s exactly right.

TP: In the entrepot for the Delta, the shipping… Anyway, go ahead.

LEWIS: Go for it, Ted.

SMITH: Anyway, all I was saying is that when you look at the way Miles Davis made music, and particularly when you look at melody, he was gifted in a way where he could make the melody move along as if it was actually notated, but incorporate phrases or structure within that melody that would simply be natural within the curve, and you would not know… It would be seamless, in other words. You wouldn’t know exactly where the melody was coming, or where these extra phrases was being moved in. And that’s a type of free melodicism or free melody where everything depends upon a single note. Because a single note has so many other relationships above and below it, it becomes a wide area to just fuse these kinds of elements. So melody without time that’s implicitly held together through time, but yet free and still open.

TP: It sounds like an idea also of pitch values or timbral values having infinite application…,

SMITH: It’s the very same thing.

TP: …which is certainly the principle of the Blues.

SMITH: Yes, it’s exactly the same thing. And the psychological implication is also there.

TP: What is the psychological implication?

SMITH: Well, for example, the Blues itself is something that’s culturally hooked up, you see, and it expresses a particular psychic…well, how you relate and make your decisions in life. And a jazzman that’s gifted or an improviser that’s gifted with this connection with the Blues, their process of making musical decisions is based off of that kind of psychological feeling.

TP: So again, we’re talking about the Blues more as a style of life or a way of thinking about making music rather than…

SMITH: It’s a philosophy. It’s a philosophy, you see. All those guys are actually philosophers — living philosophers.

TP: George Lewis, do you have any interpolations here?

LEWIS: About the Blues?

TP: Yes.

LEWIS: Well, I don’t know. Leo, I think he said it, man. I don’t know what I have to add to it. I could always add something.

TP: Yes, I know.

LEWIS: [LAUGHS]

SMITH: Go on, George!

LEWIS: I just was waiting for Wadada to say the next thing he’s going to say!

SMITH: No, go ahead. Because that’s the Blues, too. You know, you just go on as you’re saying.

LEWIS: I guess one of the things… Actually, lately I have had to sort of confront the Blues in a more direct way, and I find that the more I confront it, the more I see that the Blues can be a part of all kinds of media and all kinds of experiences. I had to confront the Blues element in Voyager, the computer piece, and I had to sort of confront that in a very…and look at that in a light to say… You know, this stuff that Olly Wilson was talking about, about characteristics of African or Afro-American music being things like multiple meter, and there’s lots of contrasting timbres and all of that. I’m thinking, “Hey, this is Voyager. Boy!” So I finally had to look at this fake European orchestra on there as kind of, like, signifying on the orchestra rather than appropriating it. So we start to get into the Blues from that standpoint.

So once I found it there, I began to see, well, I have all these… I can sort of confront the Blues in many different types of doing music. For instance, in the concert on Saturday, both your piece and mine confront the Blues in different ways.

SMITH: Exactly.

LEWIS: You know, it’s not just the easy lick, you know, you just put in a little lick and a flatted fifth or a third or whatever, and you say, “Okay, that’s it, we’ve got it now.”

SMITH: No. It connects with the inner structure and the inner function of the relationship of the piece. So it becomes really a dynamic within the piece, moreso than something that somebody is looking to hear.

LEWIS: Yes. So in that way, it could reflect the people who are the Blues. I mean, we are that, you know.

SMITH: Right.

TP: Leo comes from the Delta, and George comes from I guess the northern outpost, as it’s often been described, of Mississippi, the South Side of Chicago.

LEWIS: Yes.

TP: Was that a major part of your experience coming up, the Blues scene on the South Side of Chicago?

LEWIS: Well, no, because my parents didn’t allow me to go those kinds of places. [LAUGHS] I mean, they had enough of a time letting me go to the AACM concert! So, no, it wasn’t a major part of it. But at home we listened quite a bit. But we listened more to religious music. I’m not saying that my parents were like religious fanatics or anything. But you could rely on hearing Clay Evans every Sunday without fail. You know that song, “It Is No Secret What God Can Do”?

SMITH: Right. I heard him, too.

LEWIS: Every Sunday that was required listening.

TP: Well, although Leo Smith and George Lewis were occupying the same physical space, although of different ages, you first met in New Haven, where Leo moved in the early 1970’s, and where George was situated as an undergraduate at Yale. So actually, George, you first encountered Leo in New Haven.

LEWIS: Yes. I encountered him there. I encountered the music in Chicago.

TP: You said there was a funny story.

LEWIS: I don’t remember the funny story. Do you remember the funny story?

SMITH: Well, it wasn’t funny. It’s just that I was standing up on the street, and George was going, and he said, “Hey, are you Leo Smith?” And I said, “Yeah. How are you doing?” We talked for a few minutes, and he said, “Well, I know the AACM,” and blah-blah-blah, and then he gave me his room number, and I think in the next couple of days I came by.

LEWIS: Yeah!

SMITH: That was it. Because basically, I couldn’t visit nobody in town. There was nobody to talk to except Marion Brown. And when George came to town, I went by George’s and hung out there, and turned him over and he turned me over. Then I’d go by and hang out with Anthony Davis. And after that, that was it.

TP: I’d say that was quite an interesting group of young musicians to be working with.

SMITH: Oh, it was. We had a good time in there.

LEWIS: Well, if you look at New Haven at that time, like if you read Willie Ruff’s book (what was it called?), A Call To Assembly… If you were around New Haven in that period, in ’72, ’71, just for a few years, an incredible number of people were around. You were living there, I think Oliver Lake was around, Marion Brown was around, (?) Johnson(?) was around, I mean just in the neighborhood. And there were all these students. Alvin Singleton was a student, Robert Dick was a student, Anthony Davis was a student, Mark Helias was a student, Gerry Hemingway was from the town — he wasn’t a student, but he was from there. And then they had people visiting.

SMITH: Dwight Andrews.

LEWIS: Oh, that’s right. Dwight, and Pheeroan was in there. Then they had people…this Duke Ellington fellowship. So Duke came, and Willie the Lion Smith came, and Max came, and Mingus came, Diz and William Warfield, Slam Stewart, Tony Williams, all these people. I just remember the list was so long. And I don’t imagine there’s… You know, those things tend to have a half-life, and I’m not sure it’s the same now as it was then. But you look at a guy like Willie Ruff, and you have to say that he helped put that together in an incredible way and used the power of the institution to do something which really affected a lot of people’s lives. I mean, certainly mine.

SMITH: Yeah, that was a powerful moment.

TP: George, you said that you were very much, however, aware of Leo. You’d encountered the music in Chicago, you said before I interrupted you…,

LEWIS: Yes.

TP: …and you were intimate with the recording, Three Compositions of New Jazz. You were just describing how intimate you were with that very vividly!

LEWIS: I listened to it the way Beavis and Butthead listen to their videos. [LAUGHS]

TP: What was it that struck you so much about that recording at that time.

LEWIS: God, it’s really hard to say. I don’t know. Don Moye gave it to me. He said, “Well, this is for you, man. This is your kind of thing.” And he was right. It was!

SMITH: [LAUGHS]

LEWIS: I don’t know what it was. I mean, if you look at those pieces, you see incredible things. It’s like one of those records that keeps giving back to you. But in terms of some specific situation, the only thing I could say was, well, it was just a reality that I hadn’t been exposed to, and I guess getting it full force like that caused me to think about other kinds of things. I guess that’s all you can really say about it.

TP: I guess the implications of those three compositions are still resonating in the work of Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins. [ETC.]

George Lewis has developed a computer program that improvises according to certain parameters. Any time I talk to various musicians about this, or to many of them about George, they sort of just say, “man, it’s unbelievable, it’s on a level I can’t…” I was saying sort of offhandedly to George that perhaps at the end of the concert Saturday we could perhaps get an improvised duo between Leo Smith and the computer, and George said, “Well, it’s not as simple as that; you really have to do some work with it.” Can you talk about the type of parameters that go into preparing the Voyager program for a specific musical encounter.

LEWIS: Well, you know, you don’t really prepare it for a specific musical encounter. What you really do is, you’re making a piece that can go in a lot of different directions. But of course, it’s not infinite. You’re going to encounter situations, and all musicians encounter situations where they don’t function quite as well as in other situations. Some people are more versatile than others, of course, but no… It’s just one of those things where even if they can do it, they might feel more comfortable doing something else.

So what I began to find was that… I think actually it was John Oswald who sort of made me think about this a little bit, that basically, Voyager makes a different kind of music from what John is doing — or was doing at that time. So basically, I would have to make a another kind of a piece, like a different piece, in order to have it work well and be coherent with him. So I began to find that, in fact… And this is a funny thing, because some people who are maybe… Well, I don’t know what their familiarity is with computers. But there is a school of thought that believes that you’re sort of making the computer to sort of play like you. And all I can say is that I’ve found that certain people actually sound better with my computer than I do. So I don’t really know if that theory holds any water.

But basically, if you want to boil it down, we’re talking very simple signals: high and low (pitch, that is), soft and loud, fast and slow, dense and sparse. Those are the big four. Everything else is a variation of that. So it’s looking at all of those things, and then it makes its own judgment on what it sees out there, and then tries to respond with something basically similar to what that is. So when that similarity of response comes, at least you get the feeling that the machine is paying attention to you. See, the thing is that there are areas, of course… There are many areas of music, and those are just the very simplest ones. At a certain point, you might find that it wouldn’t respond in a certain way, that for whatever reason the machine is not going to respond, and you don’t get any information in that area.

So what I’ve found was you really had to sort of look at the situation of Voyager, look at it as an environment, and then pick people who would fit into that environment. And that’s really what it is. Because finally, it’s kind of a piece, and you want the piece to go well, so you look for people to fit into that environment. And if they don’t fit in Voyager, well, I’m still programming, so maybe another piece will work.

TP: George mentioned specifically that Roscoe Mitchell is a musician who seems to work better with Voyager than George…

LEWIS: That’s what I think, anyway!

TP: And the results of a collaboration between George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell singly and in tandem with Voyager, and then finally in an acoustic duet, are available on a 1993 release on Avan, under the title Voyager. There are eight duos with Voyager, and then “Homecoming,” an acoustic duo. We’ll hear “Voyager 8,” which is Roscoe Mitchell and Voyager, and then Roscoe and George in “Homecoming,” concluding this CD.

[MUSIC: Roscoe-Voyager, “Voyager #8”, Roscoe-George, “Homecoming” (1993)]

TP: It’s a unique occasion to get George Lewis and Leo Smith in the studio singly, and having them together is almost more than I can handle!

LEWIS: [LAUGHS]

TP: No, not really. [ETC.] We’ve spoken to George and Leo about Chicago and New Haven, where they lived, and I got to talk with George about the here-and-now with the Voyager program. But I haven’t spoken much with Leo about current events, except for playing selections from Kulture Jazz, his new release on ECM, which seems to be a very summational presentation, extending ideas from different situations you’ve been involved with over the last twenty-five years really.

SMITH: Mmm-hmm.

TP: Talk a little bit about your conception of this release, and your use of the overdubbing and multi-tracking possibilities and potentials.

SMITH: Well, for example, “Louis Armstrong Counter-Pointing”. It was my intention to make a piece in the studio. I knew it would sort of represent somebody that was important to me, but when I got in the studio and started warming up, I knew it would be Louis Armstrong. So what I did, I made the first line, because it’s a trio, and then I immediately recorded the second line. Then I listened to the first and second line, and made the third line. In other words, like, I didn’t listen to see what they were, basically. I only listened and responded to them. So essentially the counterpointing is that one line is made and the other line is supplied to it, but it’s a spontaneous kind of counterpoint.

TP: Did you improvise a lot in the studio in making Kulture Jazz?

SMITH: That piece is one of those pieces that’s a studio piece. I made it in the studio. What I’m trying to say is, it’s a kind of improvisation that you have information on what has been played before because you played it, but you’re not actually using that in order to play the next line. You’re only using that next line to come in contact with it and respond in some kind of play and display, and connect and disunity, which would give the concept of counterpoint — in this case, and not in the classical sense.

TP: Several of the titles have very explicit references to improvising musicians, like Louis Armstrong, Albert Ayler, Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane. A few words about each of those musicians in relation to your conception of music.

SMITH: Well, for me, I feel it’s important when you make a piece of music or a music object or something that you really care about, to give it lots of special care. And one of them is poetry. And one of the extensions of poetry is through suggestions. When I make my piece, “Love Supreme,” and I dedicate it to John Coltrane, I’m dedicating it to someone that serves as a spiritual guide, so to speak. So the connection of the piece and the dedication is all one thing. It’s a kind of poetry that lets me understand my deepest self.

Like Billie Holiday, for example. I like a lot of singers. But her voice and the way that she looked at making a sound with the voice clearly distinguishes her on the outside as somebody very different. And not just different because she’s creative, but her difference is actually made in the way she shaped the volume and the weight and the release of a tone. So if I make the piece, and I say that she is the Queen or she is the Empress or something like that, I’m referring to the dynamic in which she makes her entrance or her mark in creation as a creative artist. And also as a mother. Also as someone I deeply respect. When I think about being original, and when I think about singing, and thinking about singing, I think about those people like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. I don’t know of anyone else that excites me such with voice, except Jeanne Lee.

TP: As a young musician, Leo, were you listening to all of these artists? Were these people you were assimilating?

SMITH: No. I saw my first Jazz master, I must have been… I was twenty-something in Italy. Of course, it was Miles Davis and a few guys. I never grew up around Jazz artists or creative artists or classic artists. I kind of grew up around Rhythm-and-Blues people, and always wondered what Jazz artists sounded like. And sometimes guys would tell me, “Well, you sound like you play Jazz,” and I said, “Wow, I want to know what in the hell is that.”

The first time I heard Jazz, though, I think I was graduating from high school, and we had had this band that played a few numbers that night where the trumpet player actually made a solo. After that, I walked up to the guy and said, “Look, is that Jazz?” He said, “It’s Jazz.” I said, “Wow, that’s what I want to do.”

LEWIS: [LAUGHS] Wow.

SMITH: And he wasn’t a great Jazz player. He was improvising. That’s the dynamic that struck me. Not what he was playing, but the fact that he was making up his music right then, and he didn’t have to plan it. That seemed like to me a complete weight could never be upon my shoulders, because I wanted to make music that you didn’t have to carry around, but you just released straight out with your naturalness.

TP: I recollect an interview where you said you began playing trumpet in I guess school marching ensembles…

SMITH: Yes.

TP: …and you got your conception of the sound of the trumpet from projecting your trumpet sound into a wide-open space.

SMITH: Exactly. Exactly. I still like to play the horn outside. Because you see, when you blow a trumpet, or any wind instrument, your projection is not well… I don’t know if you know Dizzy Gillespie’s description of that, but you have to be tightening the bottom…

TP: I think I’ve heard a more descriptive…

SMITH: Yes, exactly. Well, if your diaphragm is not properly done and your weight of balance is not properly centered in your gut, and you blow that trumpet or whatever wind instrument, once it reaches the end of your bell, it rolls right off like a drop of spit…,

LEWIS: [LAUGHS]

SMITH: …you see. So the wise guy centers in, gets set, and blows that sound, and makes it go all the way through the horn, you see. And if it goes all the way through, it’s going to come out of the horn. And once it comes out, because of the horn being filled and the thrust is not just coming from your lips or the cavity in your mouth, but coming from your diaphragm all the way through. The point of contact is not just the horn. It goes all the way out the horn, and the projection will come into the space. And the way to do that, you have to practice outside. You have to blow the horn outside.

TP: As a young player playing with Rhythm-and-Blues people, what type of situations would you be playing in? Who were the people you were playing for?

SMITH: Two guitars, a drummer, and me. And one of the guitar players sings, and none of them knew which key they were playing in, and none of them cared. In fact, it wasn’t even important. We played Blues in the tradition of Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James and Muddy Waters. If somebody said, “Play some of B.B. King…” Any kind of Blues, these guys had the ability to articulate and make it come across. But no arrangement at all. My part, just like their part, had to be made up as we went along, because all that was known was the song, the verse of the song. So I had to make up riffs. I started out at 13. I had to make up riffs and make solos in this kind of music of two guitars and a drum and one of them singing, with no keys, or no specific tonality — but definitely making a register within the spectrum of sound.

TP: Describe some of the types of places you’d be playing in.

SMITH: Well, we’d call them honky-tonks, or juke joints, or bottom houses. They had a lot of names for them. But essentially they were large rooms that had a band standing in the back, that could hold three or four people, and the dance floor was really big. We would start at like 9 o’clock and go until the next morning almost. So a really big space, people dancing, and generally they were gambling in the joint — and of course, if there’s gambling, there’s probably other things that go along with that. There were fights, and there were confrontations. It was grim. I learned how to live, you know.

TP: Learned how to live young.

SMITH: Yeah. But also I learned how to live, because… You see, I was in high school then. I played three nights a week, sometimes four. I would go to school every day. If we drove 150 miles from the performance or the gig, I would still go to school. So I was learning how to do what I had to do, and live at the same time, and hold up my responsibility in my family. I didn’t have to go to the cotton field — because that’s what we had to do if you didn’t have no talent. So I got out of there when I was 13; I didn’t have to do that no more. So I learned how to live with that music.

[MUSIC: Leo Smith: “Louis Armstrong Counter-Pointing,” “The Kemet Omega (For Billie Holiday)” (1993)]

TP: We’ve had a lot of conversation with Leo and George about various aspects of the past. But in the here-and-now it’s a fresh concert with new music, again, this Saturday at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. I’ll ask each of you to briefly describe the music you’re presenting this week.

SMITH: Well, the big piece is called “Black Church: A First World Gathering In The Spirits” — something close to that. It’s a work with voice, where voice and three different types of ensembles are somewhat coming together. There’s a string quartet in high voice, there’s a trombone, trumpet and percussion trio, and there is the music in the speakers, which is four pianos. All I can say is that it’s a piece for multiple ensembles. It’s non-metrical; therefore, we could consider it to be graphic in construction, but very detailed. It’s dramatic in content and also in gesture. It’s not an opera or a pseudo opera; it’s just music with a dramatic connection hooked up with these different kinds of sounding ensembles coming in, into the space. It’s a new piece. It was done over the summer. I spent the last six weeks deeply into it. It’s a considerable amount of music, a lot of music.

TP: George Lewis?

LEWIS: Well, you know, this is sort of amazing. I look at this, and I think, “Well, the AACM, thirty years old?” It’s sort of astonishing, the record of the organization and what’s been accomplished, the people who have really maintained the spirit of it with such tremendous tenacity. I mean, people look at it as being, well, the AACM is like… People are very protective of it, in a certain way; the idea of it — the idea of it and the organization of it. So that when I start to see the variety of events that have come out of this… I mean, we’ve got the recent Experimental Band performance in Chicago, where a lot of the membership came together to perform; the upcoming AACM thirtieth anniversary event, which is going to take place in Chicago, where membership will all gather there; and various other events that have taken place.

So I mean, I am looking at this in that light, although the piece is not… Well, it’s not an anniversary type of celebration. Well, I’ll put it this way. Quincy Troupe and I, since I have been out in San Diego…we’re teaching at the same school out there, the University of California in San Diego. He is in Literature and I am in Music, and we sort of hooked up right away, and have started making these pieces, one of which maybe people heard earlier on Changing Of The Times, which is based on one of his recent poems, “The View From Skates in Berkeley.” This piece, the piece I wrote for this concert, is based on Quincy’s piece, “Collage”.

Quincy lately has been putting together some pretty complex pieces which are very varied, and the range of imagery is much greater than maybe even stuff he’s been doing before — I mean, the complexity. So in a way, the challenge for me was to try to reflect some of that complexity in the music. I mean, there are rapid changes in orchestration and mood that you’ll see in the poetry that’s got to be reflected in the music. So it ended up being quite a tussle to get these things out there.

And it is for me very much an experimental situation, I mean on a personal level, in that I sort of became interested through Quincy in the interface of poetry and music, but particularly in the interface of poetry with ensemble music of varying sizes, of bigger than a bread-box. That is to say that we quickly got tired of the poet-and-trombone thing. I mean, I got bored with that almost immediately. And so, we started to figure out how we could get some sort of orchestral conception into the poetry. Because the thing is, the poetry is coming from an orchestral conception, and so we really started to find out that we need the forces to match. I don’t see any contradiction in having, you know, Quincy Troupe and Orchestra or whatever. I mean, that seems like something I’d be interested in. So that’s really the spirit in which this piece was composed, to try to bring the musical forces up to the level of the imagery that we find in the poetry.

TP: I believe you mentioned that the Voyager program will be involved as one of the musical components?

LEWIS: It’s not, no. This is an acoustic piece. I am playing Voyager on the concert as well, as a separate piece. But this piece is acoustic.

TP: Is it performed by the Ensemble, or are you performing on trombone?

LEWIS: I sit and watch. Quincy does it, and Petr Kotik conducts it, which is a wonderful thing, because I’ve known Petr for a really long time and have always been a great admirer of his work as a composer, and lately as a conductor. I just have to say that he has really provided an atmosphere in which the pieces can be done well, and the S.E.M. Ensemble is a tremendous group, and people seem very fearless. Petr has such a wide range of musical experiences that his suggestions about how to change things around, how to make this part work better, not just orchestrational things, but also interactional things and improvisational things. I mean, usually conductors, in my experience, might not be able to enter that area with the authority that Peter has done. So I’m really pretty excited about the whole experience.

Also, I am performing in Leo’s piece, which is very hard. [LAUGHS] I finally get to perform with William Brown, who is super, a tenor. And J.D. Parran is performing in my piece. So overall, it’s just a great experience for me, and it’s one that the AACM here in New York, with Muhal Richard Abrams and Leroy Jenkins, who have been the primary coordinators of the event, for which I think them, too. I’m sure we both do…

SMITH: Yeah, we do.

LEWIS: …for all the work they’ve put into this whole event, and to make it come off. It’s not an easy thing getting sort of a chamber ensemble piece going. It takes a lot of work, there are a lot of pitfalls — and it’s kind of expensive! The people who coordinated the work, the Helen W. Buckner Trust, the National Endowment… It’s been a considerable undertaking. But I am sort of happy to be here. I don’t come here that much, and I have never gotten to come here and play any of this kind of music, so it’s kind of exciting for me.

TP: Before I let you go, you both mentioned the Experimental Band, from, from which emerged the AACM Big Band in Chicago, which met weekly and often more than that from 1971 and on through the Seventies. Leo, what were your early experiences like? Was the AACM Big Band the focal point of your first contact with the AACM?

SMITH: Yeah, it was a focal point. You see, one of the things that made it unique was that whoever was in the AACM was also in the Orchestra, and whoever was in the Orchestra also had the possibility, if they desired, to write for it. So essentially, when I went there, I accepted the AACM Orchestra as a residence orchestra, and I began to write music immediately. In fact, it was the greatest moment of experiment for me, because I learned a lot about instruments, and the weight of instruments, both vertically and horizontally, form, I learned how to rehearse people. A lot of different things I learned in the AACM, because that orchestra met every Saturday, and there was no restriction on who could write music.

TP: Or I guess the way that you would write…

SMITH: And the way.

TP: …because you could learn almost by the seat of your pants.

SMITH: One restriction. You had to write your own music.

LEWIS: Ha-ha!

SMITH: You couldn’t bring no arrangement in and no… You had to write an original piece of music. That was the only restriction. And thank God for that.

TP: George Lewis, talk about your early interactions with the AACM Big Band.

LEWIS: I hate to say it, but I find myself repeating ten years later the exact same experience that Leo Smith had. You know, Muhal let everyone write music, and he encouraged people to do it, and I started writing music.

SMITH: Right.

LEWIS: And those were my first experiences hearing large ensemble pieces. Like Leo said, you learned how to rehearse, how to make the parts, how to negotiate with the players about how it had to be played — all those sorts of things. Practical information. It just added to the diversity. And I believe that Muhal is still interested in having this sort of open situation with regard to people writing music for an experimental band that he might make today. So it’s the atmosphere of nurturance that really made a difference, I think, for both of us.

TP: Well, I think with Leo Smith and George Lewis, we have two people born ten or twelve years apart, raised in very different…

SMITH: We’re ten years apart. Ten or eleven, somewhere in there.

TP: …raised in very different circumstances, and nurtured to the point where they are now, as we’ve heard just a very meager sample of over the past two hours, through an extraordinary institution in Chicago called the AACM. And particularly, both were influenced by the vision of Muhal Richard Abrams, which has remained constant for more than three decades within this particular institution. And I think that hearing what they say and the way their music manifests is a testament to the strength of that institution. I’d like to thank both George Lewis and Leo Smith for joining me in tandem. It’s been a fascinating interaction.

SMITH: I wanted to say thanks a million for offering the space and the time and letting us speak about the things that we think about. You know, I don’t come to New York often. I live in California, and I love living in California. So whenever I do come, I’ll look you up, Ted.

TP: When I first heard George Lewis, it was around 1974, and I was attending the University of Chicago, and I was going to hear the Fred Anderson group on campus.

LEWIS: Oh, yes.

TP: I heard this trombone player… I had some familiarity with Jazz, and I knew everything by Sonny Rollins… I went in and I heard this trombone player playing the most extraordinary things I had ever heard. I just couldn’t believe it. And it was George Lewis. I got to know him a little bit then. And although he’s gone into so many different directions, my initial impression of you as flying over the trombone and doing all of this stuff has always remained with me. So I was very excited when earlier this summer, the four-trombone group Slide Ride assembled at the Knitting Factory for a night, one night only, to be followed by one night in Burlington, Vermont, and that’s it — and a record. The group is Ray Anderson (and as has been repeated ad nauseam, he and George Lewis were in high school and junior high school together, playing trombone), Craig Harris and Gary Valente. We get to hear George in the acoustic, ipmrovatorial milieu, just playing no-holds-barred trombone. Has the Slide Ride group been an enjoyable experience for you?

LEWIS: Well, Ted, before I answer that, I’d just like everyone to know what Ted had to do to listen to this Fred Anderson group. For one thing, we started playing at twelve o’clock at night and we ended at 6 a.m., and often Ted was the only person in the audience. [LOUD LAUGH]

TP: Well, this is what’s known as a tall tale, or perhaps a fictional extrapolation or something. Actually, I think this one was in the daytime, George.

LEWIS: I don’t know, man. You remember those sets I’m talking about, right? Those midnight sets.

TP: No, I couldn’t get to the North Side. This was on the University of Chicago campus. I didn’t have a car…

LEWIS: I guess I have to strike that, then. I tried to make you a legendary figure, Ted, but you’ll just have to settle for mortality!

TP: I think I prefer that. But let’s get back to some more sober ruminations on Slide Ride.

LEWIS: Well, you know, Slide Ride turned out to be an amazing situation. I guess I’ve been in trombone quartets that haven’t been quite as interesting as Slide Ride, and I think maybe the reasons why they weren’t quite as interesting usually could be put down to various kinds of competitiveness, or ego, or simply lack of community — in other words, they were ad hoc situations. Whereas you have to say… I think that interacting with Gary and Craig and Ray as a group, and realizing that we all come from a similar musical community, we were all around New York at about the same time playing trombone, we all played in the same groups, we often played together… And to see that history… And I think Craig of us is probably the most aware of that history, and has done the most to sort of realize that history in terms of the group, in a certain way. But everybody makes their contribution.

So what I started to find was that around about the concerts that you’ve mentioned, the one at the Knitting Factory and the one in Vermont, the music started to reach this level which I didn’t expect. It was kind of a wonderful thing. It started to get to the point where you transcended this thing of just having trombone players doing things. I guess when Robin Eubanks was here earlier, he started talking about the trombone and what people think about it, and I have to say it’s… I mean, I care about what happens to the trombone, but maybe a lot of people don’t. Robin does. But I guess what I started to see in that group, it really wasn’t about… It just became people playing music, and expressing themselves, and being creative, and using their creativity in the moment, as Leo was saying about Miles Davis. So that became pretty amazing for me.

On the other hand, I read the German liner notes, and there’s a whole section on how I hate to travel. [LAUGHS] Which is true. [LAUGHS] Well, like you said, I’m happy to be here, but I also like being at home and all that. So anyway, I like this… Well, I love this band. I think it’s fabulous.

[MUSIC: Slide Ride, “Sweeps”, “Unison” (1994)]

 

*-*-*-*-

George Lewis (WKCR, 4-30-94):

TP: We’ve been listening to two selections from a recent release on the New World Counter Currents series by George Lewis…

GL: Is this the Counter-Currents series? I don’t think so. I was rejected for the Counter-Currents series. Can we put that on the air? They said it wasn’t jazzy enough to be on the Counter-Currents series. So this got on whatever the regular series is. It got on that instead!

TP: At any rate, it is on New World Records, and indeed, the title of the CD is Changing With The Times, and there are six, as the liner note says, “conversation pieces for which George Lewis has assembled a diverse collection of musicians, poets and story-tellers into an organic narrative mode to signify in style and content on his personal odyssey through the contradictions and ambiguities of being black in a non-contradictory social universe — America.”

Much of the music, George, was written many years ago, but hadn’t been previously recorded. Talk a bit about the ideas in assembling the pieces and the personalities who comprise this CD.

GL: Well, this record comes, in a way, from when I changed periods and went to California and became a music professor.

TP: When was that exactly?

GL: In ’91, the University of California at San Diego. Quincy Troupe, whose poetry you heard first, is a professor there in Literature, as is Jerry Rothenberg, who we just heard. So it seemed at a certain point like a collaboration would be a good idea. Mary Oliver was a Ph.D student at the time, the violinist. Peter Gonzalez was an undergraduate percussionist. So it was recorded at the studio there.

So there was all this talent floating around, you know, this university, and I kind of find it fascinating. Also, when I brought my father out, it occurred to me that this would be the moment to maybe do something that we had talked about doing for a long time, which was to take aspects of his narrative, the story of his life, and make something of it in terms of music.

So that’s sort of the field in which this takes place.

When you talk about the music and the text, I guess I don’t look at it as text with music, since we did try to integrate them. On the other hand, there is an aspect of arrangement about this, in that the pieces… The piece we just heard, the piece for two pianos and trombone, was written in 1980 for Ursula Oppens and Frederic Rzsewski and I to play. We played it a few times, and then it kind of sat around until I decided that it needed something extra, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then Jerry Rothenberg showed me these Dadagrams, and that seemed to fit very well.

Then for the middle section we were looking for something, and then he came up with this poem called “The Chicago Poem” — this is the slow section. The thing about that is that I looked at the first few lines, when he starts talking about Amsterdam, Paris and Chicago — and that kind of sums me up in a nutshell, sums up the last fifteen years of my life. I said, “We’ll do this one.” [LAUGHS]

Then later it turns out that… The whole record has a kind of theme about it. The themes are history and remembrance, camaraderie, brotherhood, these sorts of issues. Personal friendships and the elaborations of them, how they develop and change and grow. Family. That’s what “The Chicago Poem” talks about, and that’s what Quincy’s poem is also talking about, and that’s what Changing of The Times discusses.

So that the odyssey of being Black is only one of the situations. But the odyssey of being Black, though, of course, can include all of those other things — and it does!

TP: To be specific about the pieces, the first selection heard at the top of the program was Quincy Troupe’s poem, “The View From Skates In Berkeley,” and the second, which is a three-part composition, is called “Chicago Dadagram.”

You performed a text-music with interactive imagery a few years ago at the Kitchen, though I can’t recollect whether these pieces were included or not. Have you been performing these in concert situations?

GL: Well, actually what got performed was a piece called “The Empty Chair.” That was in 1989.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to use the technologies that I have developed, and to expand and recontextualize them. That’s been the focus. I’ve found that I wanted to have the pieces talk about something. I just didn’t want them to be formalist abstractions, and I didn’t necessarily want to appropriate gestures from contemporary music, or Rap, or Rock-and-Roll, or anything in a stylistic way. I wanted to integrate them with things that I felt comfortable with personally.

“The Empty Chair” was an experiment in sort of multi-perspectival interactive theater, really. Bernard Mixon, an actor and singer who performs Changing of The Times, played the lead role. He was a prisoner in this piece, but no one was quite clear as to why he was a prisoner, so there was a Kafkaesque aspect. But then, finally, we know, despite his own denial and the denials he describes of others as to why it’s happened.

So since maybe many people didn’t that see that piece, all I can say is that there were two kinds of computer-generated video, and that these videos were interactive with the music in real time. One was animation, and that was done by Don Ritter with his own personal Omega system. The other one was done by Ray Edgar, and that was a transformation-based video, live cameras, mixing and adding various kinds of synthesized imagery to it. And these were responding to the music and to the speech that Bernard was doing. Douglas Ewart was playing also.

We were sitting in the back, operating the computers, but really, there isn’t much to operate. You just turn them on and let them go, because they are listening anyway. So you don’t have to really direct them. I guess when we get around to playing a little computer music, we can talk about that more. But the idea is that basically is that the computer… If you have a large enough collection of details about your representation of music, you can trust that, because it represents your ideas of music that you were hearing in another form. So I don’t have any problems with letting the things run, if they’re making a contribution. I mean, if they’re making a contribution that’s mutable, according to what’s going on at the moment. If they’re just running like a tape, I guess I’m not too excited by that. It doesn’t fit in my music. I’m improvising and I want to hear things move and change, and I want to hear the results of my action in the environment that we’re creating. The tapes and sequences just don’t do that.

So following in the footsteps of people like David Behrman in particular, I’ve wanted to have these things go on. And I’ve been fairly extreme about it, maybe very extreme about it, to the point where there isn’t anything that’s sequenced in advance or anything.

So in sum, what it comes down to is that Changing with the Times is an attempt to refine those ideas about Theater and to sort of have a radio-play. My dream was (and of course, I think it will never happen) that it will get played on NPR at two o’clock in the morning, and someone will say, “Ooh, how nice, what a nice voice,” and they sort of drift off to sleep listening to this bedtime story, this ironic bedtime story of my father, who is talking about his grandfather, and the good old days which weren’t really all that good, and it seeps into people’s consciousnesses, sort of like the old-time shows, like The Shadow, but talking about something personal.

The thing about The Shadow or any of those old-time radio things was that you could decide what the Shadow was. I mean, back in those days, The Shadow could be anything you wanted it to be. You could make up the imagery yourself. And that’s the sort of thing I wanted to happen here. But I think because of what’s being talked about, that might be more difficult. The radio plays that I hear tend to be a bit Gothic.

TP: Let’s talk about the details of the performance. George Lewis plays, of course, on trombone; Douglas Ewart, woodwinds, saxophone and percussion; Mary Oliver, violin and viola; Peter Gonzales, percussion; Jeannie Cheatham, piano and organ; and Bernard Mixon, singing and speaking voice. The narrative is by George Lewis’s father.

Was this written specifically for the purposes of this performance, or was this something he’d written that you wanted to recontextualize?

GL: He wrote it because he is retired from the Post Office. He worked there for far too long. And when he retired, he had to have something to do. The class was a writing class, because having never, I think, really gone to school, or at least not very much… I mean, in the text he keeps talking about all the times he dropped out, which leads me to suspect he never really got to go in the first place. So the idea was that he wrote this thing in order to pass this class. And the person teaching the class was smart enough to first give them a copy of The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, basically a slave narrative, and making that context for them, making the connection within their own situations, and of course, implying that you could be writing your own slave narrative right here and now, in the Twentieth Century. So that’s what they did. They sort of wrote their own slave narratives.

And his was sort of ironic and sort of funny, and minimized things that were really terrible. It sort of expressed to me something that we don’t get to… You know, there are things that used to go on in that way, like the Federal Writers Project. But I wanted to have that be not a piece of documentation, but an art piece more than a documentation of something that went on. Who knows how much of it is even true? — as Paul Carter Harrison points out in the liner notes. I mean, it doesn’t really matter. There is an aspect of the Trickster or the Toaster about it.

So that was the basic focus of that.

TP: Is your father a native Chicagoan?

GL: Yeah, he is. He’s a native. But the story is mostly about North Carolina, which is where he was brought up. So he was part of the Grand Migration, you see. It’s important to state that; it’s a theme in the piece. It’s documented in Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land, in the writings of St. Clair Drake, and there’s lots of other documentation on these successive waves of African-Americans coming up from the South to what they thought was really a better life. And really, what it amounted to was like another country. Like, it was internal immigration, really, in the same sense as what we have now. It was just “El Norte,” just another version of that.

So there are lots of stories like this. In fact, I think this is really one of the main stories for me in the Twenty-First Century; one of the main themes in Art will be this notion of location. It is now, and I think it’s going to grow and deepen in intensity, because so many people are displaced now. And even people who have lived in a certain place all their lives are starting to feel displaced because of their situation. The dislocation is enormous. I feel as though I’d like to explore the implication of that, so that’s one part of it.

[MUSIC: “Changing With The Times”]

GL: This piece really takes a bleak look at a lot of the music that my father held dear. In other words, it’s not an attempt to imitate or recreate these things. It’s an attempt to integrate other things in with it. You notice at a certain point we’re hearing microtonal things that really don’t fit in with the traditional framework of the Blues, although with the expanded notion of African creativity that the AACM, let’s say, was into — but certainly I didn’t see any contradiction there. But I didn’t really feel the need to do anything in terms of trying to make this…well, to make it anything other than… It’s not supposed to be a period piece, really.

But I did have to put his words in the context of the music he was listening to at the time, and the music he grew up with. And it’s done in the spirit of love, really.

Jeannie Cheatham I think is the real star of this thing, if can think of someone who really underpins everything about this record. She plays in every conceivable style. There are things she didn’t play on there. She can play Classical music, contemporary music, she’s playing the Blues and the Boogie; she wrote this Boogie-Woogie tune we’re playing at one point. She’s playing this strange organ in this sort of quasi-fight scene. So she’s really tremendous on this thing.

But it’s meant to be ironic. We didn’t have a drum set as such, or a bass player. You know, we could have had a bass player going BOOM-BOOM-BOOM, and had it be very much more like to peak(?). But that really wasn’t the point of it. In order to look at this period, to look at the issues, we needed to take a little distance from it, and come in at not the expected angle.

TP: Is this all music that’s part of your early musical experience?

GL: Oh yes, very much so. Yes. But you know, the thing is that you have to continually reevaluate these things. I find that now I look back on it as something that I learned because it was just there in the community, not something you really studied. It was just sort of there in the community. But now, having to study it a little bit in order to make the record, and having to sort of understand it and try and take it in a different context, you sort of start to see connections you didn’t see before. I’m not sure I can express what those connections are.

TP: Let me ask you another question related to your earlier years in the music? Was your father influential in your taking up music, or being a trombonist? Or what were those factors?

GL: Oh yeah, yeah. You know, this happens a lot, I’ve found out. You talk to any number of musicians, composers, artists whose parents told them to do something, to take up the arts or to take up an instrument — and it’s always for the same reasons. It’s always for popularity. They are so concerned about their kids being popular. Do they get along with the other kids? I guess one of those old sociologists like David Riesman can have a field day with this.

Anyway, his take on it was, “Yes, you’ll make some friends and you should take up an instrument.” And I said, “Well, fine, but what instrument do I take up?” He said, “Well, anything but the trumpet, because the trumpet ruins your lips,” and he had these pictures of Louis Armstrong to prove that the trumpet ruins your lips. I said, “Okay, we’ll just go to the store and we’ll see” — because they were having kind of a fair; you could go and look at these things. So I looked, and I don’t really remember, but all I remember was, “I think we should take this one.” That was the trombone. I mean, it was bigger than the others, and it looked pretty good, and I said, “Let’s have this one.”

I mean, I love those romantic tales about someone who always wanted to be a trombone player, and who had listened to it since they were a kid, and they really saw somebody play, and they knew that’s what they wanted to do…

TP: Or the school band director said, “You have to play trombone because I’m losing mine, and you have to come in play this,” and that’s why they played it…

GL: Right. It’s usually much more a question of need. None of this exciting, terribly romantic, “Oh, I just had to do it; it was my destiny — I saw my destiny before me.” It wasn’t like that.

TP: But apparently you felt an affinity for it.

GL: I suppose so. But I remember also throwing it against the wall in disgust at not being able to play the damn thing. I mean, it’s not so easy. One of my tasks at school was to try to figure out how we can get trombonists to learn how to play a little faster. Because by the time the trombonists sound pretty good, the electric guitarists have gone on to fame and fortune, and really some of them have probably even like killed themselves by this time. But it’s very much a much faster learning curve on some of the instruments than on others — and the trombone is one of the slower ones.

TP: Who were some of the influences that got you involved in Jazz and improvising on the trombone? Were you listening to other trombone players? Were you adapting the instrument to musical ideas that you were hearing elsewhere? How did that all come about?

GL: Hmm, what was that all about…? Oh, I remember. Okay, it was “The Pink Panther.” We were playing “The Pink Panther” in the concert band.

TP: Where?

GL: The Lab School at the University of Chicago. We were playing “The Pink Panther.” I thought I recognized it. They had this thing that you were supposed to play, this sort of written solo on it, and I decided I didn’t want to play that, that I could just play something, because it wasn’t…it just didn’t sound… I didn’t like it, for whatever reason, and being 11 years old, I thought I had the right to say what I thought. [LAUGHS] So instead of playing the thing that was written out, I played this other thing. And the director stopped the band and said, “Well, what was that?” I said, “Well, I thought I would improvise something there.” It was weird. No one said, “Hey, look, here’s how you do it” or whatever. They just said, “Do it again the next time.” So that was it. I got to improvise my “Pink Panther” solo.

So maybe that was it for me, and then later learning things in the school jazz bands and all that. Because they didn’t really have a school jazz band, so if you wanted to play anything that sounded like Jazz, you had to do it on “The Pink Panther.”

TP: There was an educator at the Lab School named Frank Tirro, I believe.

GL: But I wasn’t in that band then. The 11-year-olds weren’t in that. That was a high school thing! So when I got to the high school… They should have these things right at the beginning. Like, Kidd Jordan has five-year-olds playing Jazz compositions down in New Orleans, so it’s certainly possible to do this at any age.

But later, certainly Frank Tirro was a major influence in that way, and Dean Hay also — who were both teaching there at that time. Frank has the book now, an expanded version of his Jazz book. And Dean is playing trombone again. He went into computers for a while, which I found ironically interesting, but I think he’s back to playing now.

In terms of, like, adapting the materials, the music that was around the house, there was an old Lester Young record — I remember trying to understand and play with that. There were a few Johnny Griffin records and there were a few Miles Davis records. And then I started buying all these Coltrane records. I’d say that in terms of my own investigations on a personal basis… Also, there was a wonderful librarian, Mr. Poole, who had Charlie Parker records, and there were also records of the electronic music going on at the University of Illinois. So I’d say those things were probably the most influential on me in terms of trying to learn how to play anything, in this sort of non-formal way. Because after a while, I just stopped taking lessons. It just seemed like, well, anyone who would get up there and play “The Pink Panther,” you know, in the wrong way wasn’t likely to be sitting in there and taking lessons for such a long time. So I stopped doing it. So it was always more of a personal investigation. I’m kind of used to it now.

TP: You’ve developed an incredibly broad vocabulary of ways of expressing yourself on the trombone. So it began through those investigations.

GL: I’d say it began there, but basically the AACM was the key to a kind of mental and personal expansion and development. It’s the reason for… A current view of improvisation that we were talking about earlier, I guess… My view of improvisation is basically that personality development is an important part of it. And one of the ways is, of course, that you have to have information, and you have to have a framework also for presenting that information, and for understanding it, and for making sense of it. I didn’t really have that when I met Muhal, and Mitchell, and Jarman, and Douglas Ewart, and people like that — and I think they helped me get it, helped me understand things about life, and made you listen to things.

We were talking the other day; it was very funny… You see, I used to have this thing for Twinkies. At a certain point I remember bringing the Twinkies into the AACM meeting, and they said, “You can’t come in here with those Twinkies.” [LAUGHS] They were serious! I had to throw the Twinkies away. So little things like that.

See, that’s what I mean by sort of just personality development. They were concerned about just not about what you were playing, but also about what you were eating, what you were thinking, what you were reading, what you were listening to — the whole business. So that was a critical passage. Then at a certain point, that prepares you for other things, certainly for listening to other things that are out there. I mean, the European improvisers or the Downtown improvisers or the people writing, as Anthony calls it, Notated Music, or the Downtown composers…

I have to look at my work as kind of an interdisciplinary work, finally, so it’s got to be hard to stick it in one category or another. But I think certain people know where it doesn’t fit, and I guess Cross-Currents is one of those places where it doesn’t fit… But not to worry, because it’s here and we’re listening to it!

[MUSIC: Jeannie’s Boogie from “Changing With the Times”]

TP: …Bernard Mixon’s brilliant interpretation of the text of George Lewis’ father, and orchestrated or… I’m not sure what words to use in the 1990’s about arranging sounds and music around a work of text.

GL: It’s nice to actually think about what you just said. It’s hard to put a title on it like an arrangement or… Everything has changed in terms of the arrangement of music and text. For example, at the moment I’m working on a series of sort of computer-orchestral accompaniments for Quincy Troupe. I would like to sort of make a record with him, but I sort of want to put him in the midst of this interactive improvising ensemble, partly cinematic, using sampled sounds, sort of virtual poetry — in other words, putting him in a field where he can walk around, where as he walks, the text is being spoken, and maybe he’s just thinking about it. So we’re sort of working this out step by step.

But one thing seems clear. I think that I like the idea of the original things we did, where he would read and I would play the trombone. But that never seemed to be quite enough for me. So the piece we heard earlier was sort of a first stab in the direction of what I want to do. For example, the text is constantly being shadowed by Bernard, and also there is a very strict arrangements, there are different parts in the poem, so that at a certain point certain key words are mirrored in what the musicians are asked to do in terms of how to direct their improvisations. So then also changes in the orchestration mirror important sections in the text. So basically there is this kind of idea of making an integrative work out of it.

I guess that’s because I just didn’t feel that I could sort of do…you know, provide the kinds of colors. Let’s say, for example, somebody like J.D. Parran playing with Quincy or Hamiett Bluiett; I didn’t feel able to do those things. I’m actually much better at composing it and then having it run as an environment, and then if I want to play, I can sort of play. Then sometimes the best thing is just solo trombone, but usually it isn’t. And if you have all these other resources, the virtual orchestras that have been developed on instruments, sampled sounds, infra-red controllers that allow him to accompany himself, why not use those things and sort of give a…?

You see, the thing is about music today, you have to compete with all these other assaults and appeals (I’ll call them appeals maybe) to your senses. [LAUGHS] So somehow you have to sort of go with that, in that people take this kind of multi-sensual, multi-perspectival viewpoint for granted. That’s how you grew up. Those of us who are old enough remember how strange MTV looked when it first came on, you know, and in a lot of senses maybe how hokey at the beginning, and then borrowing some of the techniques from video artists and then making their own techniques — these super-fast montages and these sort of booming basses and all this stuff.

I’m not saying you have to do those things, just to take that. But you do have to provide a richer environment. So that’s what I felt was the point of these things. Also with the piece with Jerry Rothenberg, the Chicago Dadagram pieces, it’s to somehow have the text and the music integrated, but actually to compose pieces around it. So not the traditional settings of poetry that you might find, say, in contemporary music. I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted to take a different approach. And maybe I am not the person who is going to write an aria and put words to it and have someone sing it. I just don’t hear that being a part of what I do. I’m not comfortable with it.

So this seemed like a better approach to me, to have someone reading or speaking, or, in the case of “Changing With the Times,” acting. He becomes my father, in a way. I give Bernard the tapes, I give him the script, we talk about it, we talk about the interpretation. It’s more collaborative than directorial on my part. He’s coming out of his own experience as much as he’s coming out of mine. So that leaves us to… I feel more of a cultural integration of the elements. He’s so subtle about it that you tend to forget. It was similar to watching Danny Glover reading Langston Hughes. At first I thought, “Well, what’s going on? He’s just reading.” But that was the point! Somehow the way he read and the subtlety, it just sort of overwhelms you after a while. And I think that this is the kind of sensitivity that Bernard brings to it.

TP: We’ll move on in the next segment of our discussion to…again, it’s hard to find the proper word, but I guess one might say George Lewis’s work, theoretical work…

GL: Ha-ha-ha! What?!?!

TP: …in computer interaction and improvising…

GL: Theory. It’s just not theoretical, man. You know, it’s just music. I mean, I don’t want to call it theoretical just because it’s a computer in it. But you know what I mean. I’m uncomfortable with it because it’s just another kind of sensual environment for things to happen. And the computer is a part of that, but that’s because the technological and cultural base is there.

TP: Assimilating the technological base, however, is of a different order. It’s not something that just happened, but you’ve been dealing with computers in terms of rethinking music, and now, with current technology, being able to sample and orchestrate and modify other musical stimuli. This has been an ongoing thing for you for maybe twenty years.

GL: Maybe a little less, but a fair amount of time, yeah.

TP: Were the implications of what you could do with computers clear to you, let’s say, fifteen years ago? Or when did it become clear to you what you might be able to do?

GL: Hmm, I think we’re talking about future possibilities. When will it become clear? [LAUGHS]

Actually, certain things have gotten a little clearer from the beginning. But if we heard some of it, it might be easier.

TP: Shall we play it, and then discuss you and the computer?

GL: Yes. You’re playing a piece with me on it, or playing a piece with Roscoe on it?

TP: I guess what you wanted us to do was play two pieces with Roscoe. We should make clear to the audience what we’re talking about. Another recent release by George Lewis, almost parallel to and in tandem with Changing Of The Times has been issued on Avan-014, George Lewis, Voyager. Why don’t you describe the premise of this particular project.

GL: Well, you could call it an interactive virtual orchestra. This is what I’ve been trying to make for years, interactive players, computer players that can function in the environment that improvising musicians deal with. When I say “improvising musicians,” I’m not talking about all improvising musicians. There’s a certain subset of people that are working in kind of a freely improvised field. And even within that field, it’s not a universal situation. Certain people respond differently.

So the piece is sort of the culmination, or these pieces are sort of the culmination of a lot of work that I’ve done in this area over the years. It was hard to get earlier examples recorded. John Zorn produced these Avan records, and I give him a lot of credit for getting this project going and for giving me the freedom to carry it out, and to David Wessel also at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies for helping me to produce it and record it, and having helped along the way in so many ways, shepherding me through the IRCOM experience in Paris and all of that.

So essentially what you hear is a duo between a person playing his instrument and a computer which is playing its instrument, which is a synthesizer, or a sample player, in this case. It has all these things it sort of knows how to do. It has a representation of what it plays, and it has a representation of what it thinks is going on out there in the world, what it thinks that the person is playing. So what it sort of does is, it uses that person’s playing to guide its own composition and its own performance. But its performance isn’t fixed in any way, and so you sort of have to communicate with it. You can set up events. You can set up situations. If you play in a particular way, the chances are that it will find a way to do that. That, of course, is something that is partly technological, but it’s also partly personal, in that you have to compose the way you want the orchestra to sound, its essential sound, and then you provide enough hooks so that the performer can then sort of voyage around or explore that environment to see what they can do together. So it’s very much like, or it is actually, a kind of improvised music, and a lot of the same things are happening that happen in improvised music.

Another thing that I find interesting about it for myself is that it’s not…its cultural base… When you say about “things becoming clear,” it became clear to me after a while what the cultural base of the music was. For example, the multiplicity of rhythms that go on, the sort of overt kind of emotionality that you can bring to bear on it, I didn’t to be characteristic of a lot of the European music that I was exposed to in the computer field at IRCAM. So that the possibilities of an Afrocentric computer music came to be kind of interesting, because of course, there are many kinds of theories, and some of those theories… And I don’t to associate computer with theory. I like to associate it with a kind of emotional transduction. Because all of music involves theory. In order to play the trombone you have to have a theory as well. Or if you don’t… It will be better if you do. That’s my feeling. If you sort of have some idea, some meta-idea of what you want…when you stick your arm out and spit, what’s going to happen, you’ll be in a good shape! [LAUGHS]
The thing is that you can think about this as… Well, maybe it’s better if we hear it, and then we can talk about it afterwards.

TP: The pieces we’ll hear are the two with Roscoe Mitchell.

GL: #2 and #8. Those are the ones. Those are the good ones. Mine are okay. His are really good.

[MUSIC: Roscoe Mitchell/G. Lewis, “#2 and #8]

TP: ‘Voyager 5,” one of eight duos between George Lewis and the computer, Roscoe Mitchell and the computer, or George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell and the computer in different configurations. Also the final track is an improvised duet between George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell. George Lewis is our guest on this program, and we’re focusing primarily on his recent music. We’ll subsequently hear another duo with Roscoe Mitchell, which you said showed Roscoe sort of investigating the possibilities of what he could do, and then on the next one he kind of figures it out and finds his solutions to the challenge of improvising with the computer that you programmed and your improvising program.

GL: What I find fascinating about improvisation is that these are things that you can hear. It’s something that comes out from sound rather than… It’s not something that you can write on a piece of paper: “Well, I want you to explore this area.” People just do it. That’s just what they do. And improvisation is a part of that exploration. You can’t chart that out. And if you try, it’s not exploration any more.

What I found fascinating about Roscoe’s approach was the extent to which he uses these exoskeleton type methods, the degree to which he takes things that are internal, and makes them external, so that you can see a lot more of what’s underneath. He also shows, in a way, sort of the range of the computer’s own possibilities through the exploration of what it can do. He’s trying different things musically, he’s looking for the response, then he works with it to create these composite ideas. He’s really quick to pick up on things that it does, and it seems to be fairly quick at picking up on things that he does.

And in totally different ways. You see, the thing is that I don’t think it’s necessary that they… This is kind of like an interspecies small talk; that’s what David Behrman used to call one of his pieces. And it really is that. I mean, it’s two different kind of beings in the same space, communicating, in their particular fashions. They are putting out things in their particular way and receiving things in their particular ways. It isn’t necessary to equate them, or to make one into the other, or to do all the other things that people associate in these fearful ways with anthropomorphization of the computer. We don’t need to do that. All we have to do is put it in space, give it the tools.

TP: Following up on that last comment: Is the computer in any way an alter-ego for you? Because you, after all, created the parameters by which it improvises.

GL: Well, the computer does represent my theory of music. But what I tend to think is interesting is that people can realize their own ideas also in the environment, which is not really… It’s my theory of music, but it’s not my theory of my music. So there’s a real difference in that, you see. So I can play, and it’s rather different. If we play #3 on this same thing, you see, it’s a very different attitude. We can play that maybe.

TP: Well, why don’t we. #3 from Voyager.

GL: Yeah. This is a little different attitude. I think it takes a solo.

[MUSIC: “Voyager #3’]

TP: Before we begin our next segment of discussion, I’ll read program notes written by George Lewis for this CD: “What the work is about is what improvisation is about — interaction and behavior as carriers for meaning. On this view, notes, timbres, melodies, durations and the like are not ends in themselves. Embedded in them is a more complex, indirect, powerful signal that we must train ourselves to detect.” And indeed, in programming the computer to improvise on the highest level with musicians who have devoted a life to thinking about improvised music and have tremendous experience, you really had to organize, I guess, and come to grips with what your ideas of what improvising is about and the parameters of improvisation.

GL: Yeah. Well, that last paragraph is kind of a roundabout way of saying what Albert Ayler was quoted as saying: “It’s not about notes; it’s about feeling.” Or to put it another way, the Charlie Parker thing, which is, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn,” which I now say, if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your computer either.” So that’s really what it comes down to.

I find that this music comes out of what I have learned from the AACM, what I have learned about the AACM, what I have learned from people like Misha Mengelberg and Derek Bailey, what I have learned from many different types of improvisers. So basically, it’s more a distillation of what I have learned about these things, rather than some grand organizational scheme. Although finally with computers, if you don’t organize things, they crash. So on that level there’s organization. But at another level, I find myself…

This computer program I wouldn’t call a model of structured integrity. Different levels at which the creation is being made have to communicate with each other, and there has to be kind of an openness of channel. Like, you heard this sort of long solo that the computer does. Well, how it does it…what the long solo is based on, basically, is if I’m not playing, after a certain point it says, “Well, no one is playing; I guess I have a solo.” Then it starts to make all these random judgments about what goes on. But when I say “random,” I mean that it’s sort of random, but in order to make a note, you have about 40 or 50 random decisions to make. So that in the end, it’s random but in this room.

Let’s say the first decision is… Well, I tried to tell someone this once. To decide what instrument to use is a pretty complex process. The first decision that’s made is how many instruments… Like, when it’s time to bring in a new group of people to play some piece of music, the first decision is how many instruments are going to play, then the next decision is how many different kinds of instruments are going to play. That’s based on how jagged the rhythm is. The number of instruments is based on how loud things are. In other words, if someone is playing very softly, I don’t want to bring in 16 or 17 instruments crashing down on their head. So that’s another decision. Then you get into that, and then it gets into, “Well, what’s going to be the timbre of these instruments?” Is the timbre going to be mixed or is it going to be a homogeneous timbre? So that’s three decisions already.

So if each one of those decisions is made on the basis of random numbers… But you see, the accumulation of detail itself tends to focus that information. In other words, I could just say for each one of these decisions, “Well, just do whatever you feel like doing, and have any range you want, any number of instruments you want” — and that tends to be very boring. But if you can direct things into groups, if you can direct things into fields, if you can define an area for a certain period of time, if you can do those things, then finally the randomness of process recedes into the background, and it recedes so far into the background that you don’t really know where the randomness is.

So when people start to tell me about randomness versus non-randomness, I say, “Well, how random do you think you are? Maybe something you did today was based on a hormone that didn’t quite make it to the level it made it to yesterday or something — and what’s that based on? We can get teleological about it or you can get biochemical about it, or you can do whatever you want to do.

The connotativeness behind randomness I always relate to the innate need of people to feel that they have control over some aspect of their lives. And I think that’s important to realize that we’re in a kind of an interdependent universe here, and I’m not sure how much control that we have over our lives. I’m sure that control is not total. That’s pretty obvious. We seem to be faced with forces moving around us all. So I’m not sure what the answer is. The Voyager is not providing an answer to the question of how humans make music. It’s a piece of music that operates within certain constraints, and expresses a certain viewpoint about how music could be made, not how it should be made — which is an infinite question, really. That’s what it’s all about.

TP: We also get to a question about some of the antecedents or narrative structures of improvising, which I know are important to you, and which you’ve elaborated maybe a little more directly or explicitly in Changing With The Times. Do you have any feelings on that that you’d care to discuss?

GL: Well, there is a kind of a narrative going on. The subject of the narrative is partly Music itself, but then the other subject, or one of the other subjects… The process that’s going on…I don’t know if I used this word, but it’s emotional transduction. Transduction is a process by which one quantity is translated into another. A simple example would be an electrical impulse is fed to a speaker. That’s one. Electrical impulses, voltages then result in the speaker kind of moving. That moves air. We hear sound.

So in the same way, if I say that notes and tones and timbres and all that are carriers for meaning, and that meaning is embedded in these notes, then if there is a process by which we can sort of multiply that while retaining a certain essence of it, then what we’re going to get as the output is going to also, I feel, retain some aspect of every part or every dimension of that sound. In other words, the emotionality, I think, will be retained.

So I don’t think the computer itself has to generate emotional things or generate narratives as such. It’s more a process still at this point of transduction. But the transduction depends on detail. In other words, you can’t play a bunch of stuff in, and then what you get out is this one kind of output. There has to be a sort of an idea of the complexity of music there. I don’t want to go into all the details. But it certainly relates to things like duration, things like pitch, things like contours, things like tendencies, things like stabilities that have to be sort of gauged and mapped and responded to. In addition to the simple thing of, “What am I doing right at this moment?” there is a question of history involved in making these things work.

Also, you should be able to play very different things, and then it should be able to respond in a very different way. Like, if we played Piece #8, I think that’s one where that’s sort of shown. It’s a very different piece from the rest, from the others we played.

[MUSIC: R. Mitchell/Computer “Voyager Duo #8”]

TP: Roscoe Mitchell is a musical personality with whom George Lewis has been associated for just about two decades now.

GL: Oh, yeah.

TP: Were you aware of him as a young musician coming up in Chicago, in your teens, in the lab school? Were you aware of the AACM at that time?

GL: No. Muhal came to the school once.

You know, there’s something that… These things are kind of… This question of personalities is kind of important as well. You know, Roscoe… I mean, I’ve listened to a lot of computer music, because I’m sort of in the field and have been for a long time, and I feel I have made my tiny mark on the field. The thing is that I don’t get to hear many pieces of computer music where people can, you know, get wild [LAUGHS] like Roscoe is doing on this piece. It’s usually much more mannered. And I am finding that… The reason I guess Roscoe’s contribution is so important on this record is because it does show that we don’t have to throw our emotions away when we enter into these areas. We don’t have to become the stereotype of the computer as cold, unfeeling, whatever. We don’t have to do that. And we can sort of get much more dynamic about it.

I have this problem also, in a way, with my work with the improvisers at the university where I’m teaching now. There is something… It seems there’s a penalty for personal expression, which would seem to be something like, “What? A penalty?” — but there is. I mean, in the real world there really is a penalty for personal expression. It’s in these tiny enclaves we put ourselves in where we can pretend. But really, this complex system of music also embodies systems of values. So that someone who could really…

Often I get the feeling that my biggest job in working with the improvising students is to get them to overcome…I’m not sure what it is — their upbringing at home maybe, or the constraints placed upon them by cultures they grew up in, or perhaps the academic environment, which seems that maybe their perception is that it might not accept them so readily were they to sort of expose themselves in the way that Roscoe or I might do, and that it would be better if they just were very safe.

And then there is that question of location. Now, Roscoe is located firmly in a tradition and a culture, and can trace himself back as an improviser to Buddy Bolden, okay, and then from there even back as far as he wants to go. Okay? So that’s not really true of at least some of my graduate student improvisers, who come from a different tradition, the one that has attempted to stamp out improvisation without success. So their tradition in that area becomes a little difficult. So it does affect their personality, and then that affects the playing. As one person, one professor if you will, I don’t have the power by myself to make that environment one that’s comfortable enough so that people can really feel they can break some of these shackles off.

But that’s just one of the issues that this sort of piece brings up. That’s why I really regard it as a very high expression of what I want to do with the computer music.

TP: I’d like to continue to address the question of location in terms of the development of your own aesthetic, as someone who came up in Chicago, attended Yale University where there was a very interesting scene of talented and venturesome young musicians who you were able to work with, and coming back to Chicago in the early Seventies when things were still full flower in the AACM.

GL: Well, the Yale business. You can get lucky, you know? You can be at a certain place at a certain time. When I look at something like the AACM, I realize that this is a group of people that one can count on — at least I’ve been able to count on. I see people who have based their music and have sort of based themselves on friends and colleagues who have turned out to denounce them in later years. I see a lot of examples of people denouncing each other going, right now, in this teapot tempest of Jazz.

One of the lessons I remember from Yale was, I remember denouncing someone in the paper. The person was a dead Phenomenologist. I thought it would be safe to denounce this person. The professor’s comment was that you shouldn’t go so far in criticizing your colleagues. And I had never thought of this person as a colleague. So it’s very important, that definitional stance.

So that was an important lesson that came out of Yale, but it also was an important lesson that came out of the AACM, where there are all these colleagues. And I got the feeling that these people would never desert me, and that they would support me, and I would support them, and that would be an ongoing thing, and that sticking together as a group, we could stick to our guns and do whatever we needed to do, and we wouldn’t have to be necessarily subject to, you know, the fashions that the commercial people put up or whatever they’re going to do.

I think that’s maybe the most important lesson among the many important lessons that came from the AACM. Just the other day in New Orleans, playing with Muhal and Fred Anderson and Ajaramu and Malachi Favors, and seeing these people who had been so influential on me and had shown me so many things, and there we were still playing together twenty years later, and there hadn’t been any of this dissension. I mean, there have been conversations, certainly, and there have been differences of opinion. And then having talked to someone for whom the people that he thought were his friends ended up denouncing him in public, I started to think, well… God, I just couldn’t imagine that happening. I just couldn’t imagine that I would denounce Muhal or something. It would seem absurd. It just wouldn’t happen. [LAUGHS]

I think there is an important awareness there which maybe I’m not finding so much of, or there is something that maybe people aren’t seeing right now.

In terms of Yale, that’s just luck. I mean, it seemed that at a certain place, that institution, an academic, Ivy League conservative institution, during my short time there, during this four or five year period, there were an awful lot of interesting people running around — musically. I’m not sure that’s so much the case. It’s not a continuous thing. Things go up and they go down. But at this time, you could meet Charles Mingus; he would come… Willie Ruff did it all. He started this… He and a geology professor, John Rogers, started this thing called the Duke Ellington Scholarship or Fellowship. So they brought Dizzy, they brought Tony Williams, they brought Mingus, they brought Willie The Lion Smith, they brought people from all these genres, and you got to play with them and talk with them and stuff. Then there were people going to the school. I think Robert Dick was a year ahead of me, Anthony Davis was in my year, Gerry Hemingway’s family is from around New Haven, Mark Helias was going there I think, Jane Bloom was going to school there, Leo Smith was living there, Bennie Maupin and Oliver Lake were living there — so there was that whole influence, too.

So just real lucky, man! That’s all I can say! I mean, there was all that going on at the same time. I was just extraordinarily lucky. You couldn’t create that. Just like you couldn’t, like, write that situation where at the end of the last piece the computer started suddenly playing this ascending blues line. I mean, that wasn’t something I set down and said, “Now you will play the Blues and it will have these characteristics.” It’s just the working out of the processes, based on need and availability and environment.

TP: I first encountered George Lewis I guess around 1974 in Chicago, I think it was that year, and you were playing with the Fred Anderson Sextet on the campus there, and I heard a virtuosic trombone… I didn’t know that much about the music. But I heard somebody playing explosive lines on the trombone like I’d never heard before, playing faster than just about anyone I’d ever heard — and I’ve been impressed ever since. It’s always a wonderful occasion for me to hear you in duo or trio, or just playing the trombone. So in this next set we’ll hear George in a number of duets, I’m not sure how many, beginning with the final one on Voyager on Avan, George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell. I take it that this conceptually was the plan of the record, was the eight duos and then the two of you for one of what I guess must be many interactions over the years.

GL: Well, we knew that whatever happened in the duo piece, it would be called “Homecoming.” We played several takes, and Roscoe seemed to have a very firm grasp of what he wanted to do, and it was sort of up to me to respond to that. So in a way, I become the computer, which is sort of…! So if you’re talking about alter-egos, there is something there, because I tend to try to blend with what people want, try to sort of seek out what they need and deal with it, and try to enhance it, and to make sound good — as I am told Thelonious Monk used to say that your job was to make the other musicians sound good.

Also noteworthy, in a way, is that we did have to present, I felt, a person-person interaction in order to close the circle, to balance things off, not so much for the purpose of comparison, but for purposes of elucidation, for bringing certain things to the fore that couldn’t be brought out if we just had computers playing. It could be brought out in general, but we couldn’t do them on this record. People could compare the computer things with other duo pieces they might have heard, or maybe other orchestra pieces they might have heard.

The real goal of this work, and I think I’m pretty close to doing this now, is to have a really…the virtual… I realized all the way what was going on was a kind of virtual orchestra. The Virtuality situation is becoming very possible and very powerful. I have a new piece now for virtual percussion where there are no instruments on the stage at all, and people just are waving their arms and doing mime, and they are making music that way.

TP: The computer senses the motion and then processes that information?
GL: Yeah, that’s pretty much what happens. So that’s sort of like people can talk to each other with their hands, and music can be a byproduct. I have a series of pieces like that. Often we don’t get to see these pieces in New York, I notice. But I get to do them in a lot of other places, so that’s okay. I just need an outlet. I’m not particular about where it is.

But the goal of this Voyager project is to have large virtual orchestra. Right now we’re hearing kind of a chamber orchestra with pretensions to being a large orchestra. But what I’m really interested in doing is a couple of hundred voices, because this will really sort of bring problems of large-scale form in an improvised, virtual context to the fore. So this is a problem which I don’t think… Well, I don’t know who’s dealing with it. I can’t think of anyone. It’s interesting to me. Maybe it’s not interesting to anyone else. But I find it fascinating to think that… And I could never… I keep saying this (and this probably too radical an assertion, but I’m going to say it anyway) that really (and I remember offending someone terribly) that people who are really offended about the aspect of virtual instruments, which is: While visual people and people who are doing all kinds of interactive things are interested in interactivity, musicians are still clinging to this idea of the Real, which is like way back in the last century, or the Sixteenth Century or something — very Platonic.

I am very interested in the Platonic even. But I am very interested in having a virtual orchestra that is mutable and that responds to the playing of individuals, and that talks within itself, a lot more than I am interested in writing a piece for some Philharmonic band or something. That would seem like a much less intellectually challenging situation at this point than working on self-organizing large-scale structures. It would just be much more fascinating.

The other aspect is that I don’t think that the current level of social development of the Western orchestra can handle self-organization. It’s just not made for it. It’s really made for top-down control. If I wanted to think about a model of orchestral music-making that’s not based on that, it seems that the Gamelan orchestra, the Javanese gamelan would be the most interesting example, and that would be one that I sort of take as more of a model of how to proceed. Not in terms of making Gamelan-type sounds, but in terms of how information gets passed within the orchestra and between the players. It’s a heterarchical rather than hierarchical situation. So that’s how improvising works. And certainly, an improvising orchestra would have to be a heterarchically based group.

So that’s the ultimate goal of this work. And at some point we’ll start to hear these rather large, like, 200-instrument pieces — and it won’t be possible to play them in Roulette. You can’t cram 200 instruments in two little speakers somewhere. You need an orchestral-type space, or the Great Outdoors, or somewhere large enough. Because there are questions of scale involved. Already, scale is an issue with Voyager, because Voyager is really too large to be played in small spaces now, whereas pieces that I wrote years ago with one or two or three voices were more like chamber pieces. This is getting a little too big. It’s small in the amount of equipment, but it’s big in scale.

So you’re always faced with this issue. And there are so many issues that underlie this that don’t relate directly to, you know, the Man against the Machine business — you know, the cliche business. Once you get past that, you can really think about some interesting problems.

[MUSIC: Lewis/Mitchell, “Voyager”;

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Filed under AACM, Chicago, DownBeat, George Lewis, Jazz.com, Muhal Richard Abrams, Trombone, Wadada Leo Smith, WKCR

For Eddie Harris’ 80th Birth Anniversary, a 1994 WKCR Interview

In 1994, I had an opportunity to host the sui generis saxophonist Eddie Harris (October 20, 1934-November 5, 1996), who was performing in town, on my afternoon program on WKCR. Among other things, he spoke at length about his early years in Chicago. The transcript, posted below, has been available on the internet for more than a decade on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

Eddie Harris
June 29, 1994, WKCR-FM New York

[Music: “Freedom Jazz Dance” (1964)]

Q: “Freedom Jazz Dance”  became famous after Miles Davis reworked it for his own uses and recorded it. How did Miles get hold of the tune?

EH: Ron Carter came over to him. He came by and offered Ron more money while I was working at the Five Spot for a month. And I said, “Ron, you should take it. It’s more money.” And he took the tune over there, because we were playing it at the Five-Spot, and the rest is history. Miles recorded it, and all of a sudden I was hip. [Chuckles]

Q: So it was a working band that recorded your first Atlantic dates.

EH: Yes.

Q: You go and Cedar Walton go back to an Army band from the 1950s.

EH: Yes. Cedar and I were outside of Stuttgart, at Vahingen(?), and we had a Jazz band out of the orchestra that had formed. It was quite a jazz band. Leo Wright was head of the jazz band, people like Lanny Morgan, Don Menza was in the band . . . It was a very good band.

Q: Was this a band that was set up for the recording, or had you been working?

EH: No. These days it’s very seldom that you get quintets, quartets, sextets, octets as working bands. You generally get duos or trios as working bands. That’s where the business has gone. So I came in and recorded with this trio, and they had been working together. That made it easier for me.

Q: Were your originals composed for the date?

EH: I wrote two tunes for the date. Other than that, there’s a situation going on in Japan where they have some kind of deals with standard tunes in which they want you to play standard tunes. So I don’t mind. As long as they raise the ante financially, I’ll play all the standards they want.

[Music: There Was A Time: Echoes of Harlem, “Lover Come Back To Me”]

Q: I’d like to talk to you about your background in Chicago, Illinois, where you spent a good chunk of your life and developed as a musician. Your beginnings in the music are what? On piano? Saxophone?

EH: I started on piano first. Then I was singing.

Q: Where? In the church? Home?

EH: Yeah, in the church. The church. I mean, they used to stand me up on a table, because I could sing right in tune, in time, and I was only like five years old. But when I was four, my cousin was teaching me piano. She played for the church.

Q: What church was it?

EH: Shiloh Baptist Church. Later on, I was singing at Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

Q: Which I think was the largest church on the South Side . . .

EH: Well, they were very large churches. And my mother was a big wig there at that church, until she died; and she lived until 1991, and she was 91 when she passed on.

Q: Were your parents born in Chicago or did they come there?

EH: My mother was from down south in New Orleans, and my father was from Cuba.

Q: And when did they come to Chicago?

EH: I don’t know. They met in Chicago. I imagine they came in the teens, or maybe . . . I think they came in like 1913. He worked in the stockyards, and my mother worked in the laundry. And they weren’t particular about me playing music. Of course, my father didn’t really care. He died when I was a young guy.

Q: So your mother raised you.

EH: Yeah, my mother. I really took care of my mother and three aunts.

Q: How did the music develop for you? You obviously had an immediate facility for it.

EH: Well, really, Ted, I wanted to play sports. I was quite a sports advocate.

Q: All sports?

EH: All sports. And I could really play — football, basketball, baseball. To be honestly frank with you, because I was taught at such a young age, as I got older I didn’t particularly care for a lot of the people that played music. Because a lot of musicians were, like, too timid: “Oh, I hurt my hands, I can’t do this . . . ” I ran with the gangs, and used to even box at Nichols’ Gym, and I didn’t think about my hands or my embouchure or mouth. Musicians, I couldn’t really take ’em. I didn’t dig it.

Q: When did you start finding people you could relate to on a musical level?

EH: Well, after I got up in the teens. When you get in the teens, you start meeting guys, like the late Charles Stepney . . . There became a group of us. Muhal Richard Abrams, Raphael Garrett, James Slaughter, Walter Perkins, Bill Lee. There was a small group of us who were on the same wavelength in trying things. And that was interesting to me, to try things, not just sit down and play an Ellis Larkins run or a Duke Ellington run — which could easily be done, because we’d deal with music all day. But these guys, we all wanted to try some different things. You see, most guys didn’t want to try different things. They just wanted to sound like whoever was happening at the time. Now, as young guys, we were listening to the guys that were coming off the JATP, the Jazz At the Philharmonic, which was Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and that group of guys, who was a little older than we were, that was playing some strange type music!

Q: So when did music become a thing that you were doing all day? Because you can’t be playing sports all day and be playing music all day?

EH: Why not?

Q: Well, maybe you can.

EH: [Laughs] When I say playing sports all day . . . What do you do as a young guy? In those days you had clubs on every corner. I mean, you could play somewhere in the evenings. So then you could rehearse, and when you’re not playing with guys, you can play ball. See, it’s not like it is today, where most young guys are trying to lobby for a recording. Well, all we wanted to do was play! Heh-heh. That was a vast difference.

Q: When you were coming up in Chicago, there was also a community of older musicians on a world-class level. Who were some of the people who really impressed you and that you modeled yourself after?

EH: Well, I was quite a pool shooter. I would go into different cities on a bus, go in and collect up some money until they’d get hip to me. And I found, from going over to Detroit, down to St. Louis, over to Cleveland, that Chicago (you don’t realize it when you’re coming up in an environment) had more individualism than anywhere else. Anywhere else. See, in other cities you had great musicians, but the group of guys, they generally played in one vernacular. Whatever that city held, it was like that group of guys produced that type of music.

In Chicago, you could go from one club, and you could hear a Gene Ammons, you had Budd Johnson, and you had Tom Archia, Dick Davis — just dealing with saxophone. Then you had all sorts of piano players that were really. . .really different. You’d go to one club, and the guy sounds like he totally comes from somewhere else. He didn’t sound like a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.

You can imagine a guy coming up from Birmingham, like Sun Ra, playing there. People said, “Hey, they got Monk in New York.” We said, “Yeah, but wait until you come to Chicago and hear Sun Ra!” You know what I mean? Chicago had everybody coming . . . They said, “There’s a guy who can really play drums, man, Max Roach, man — he’s bad!” “Yeah. Wait til you hear Ike Day.” “This guy can play all kind of bass man, this guy is terrific playing bass, Raymond Brown.” And I said, “Wait til you hear Wilbur Ware.” See, we had guys like that in Chicago. Like you’re finally hearing Von Freeman, which was outside years ago. And people said, “John Coltrane.” We said, “Well, you should hear Von Freeman.” That’s the way I thought coming up.

Q: What do you think it is about Chicago that produced that type of individualism? Is it just an accident that all these people were there, or is it something about the culture of the city?

EH: I think it’s the latter. Because people came up primarily from the middle south; that’s Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana. The train came, and Chicago was the train center, so they’d get off there. You had the stockyards and people could get work, primarily the African-American people of that time.

And the people in general were just regular people. In other words, that’s why it was considered the blues capital. They were regular people there. In other words, when you were playing on the stand, guys would just come up and tell you: “Hey, man, I really liked that. I didn’t know what that was, but it’s all right.” If you’re playing something else, a guy says, “Hey, I don’t like that, man. Why don’t you stop playing that.”

See, they were just straight out. They weren’t like the West Coast or the East Coast. On the East Coast they said, “Let me analyze what this guy is doing.” The guy maybe had just been playing two years, but they’re trying to analyze something — the guy’s trying to put something over on them. The West Coast is just write it out, have it all organized. In the Midwest they said, “Hey, man, I spent my money. Come on, play something for me. That’s nice, you experimented now . . . ” It’s like I’d play with no neck on the horn. “Okay, enough of that. Let me feel something.” And will go upside your head if you didn’t!

So therefore, guys that come out of this particular area were more rounded out musicians. Because you would experiment, then you would stop and learn a song in its entirety, knowing the correct melody or the lyrics. Because other than that, you might wind up getting beat up or have to fight some people.

Q: In Chicago at that time almost every major cross-street had several different clubs, and some, like 63rd Street, were almost wall-to-wall with clubs.

EH: Well, this was true in other cities. It was true in Philly, it was true in Detroit. But the only thing I can be repetitive on, Ted, is to say they had different sounding groups in different venues. That was the shocking part about it. And when you come up in that environment, you don’t realize it until you go elsewhere. You’d walk out of one club, and you just heard the blues, jumpin’ up and down, then go down the street, there’s a swinging jazz group, then go down the street to the next club and say, “What is that?” It’s just like you went to another space or another time. Which I didn’t see in other cities.

Q: You also experienced the very intense teaching methods of Walter Dyett at DuSable High School. Can you say a few words about him, and the DuSable situation?

EH: Well, it was a time in which it was segregated times, and therefore African-Americans primarily only were able to go to, like, five schools. And you could imagine that many people in one area . . . Before they had (what is it called?) the high rises or these lower-income homes, they had kitchenettes. That’s a big apartment with one family in the front, one family in the middle apartment, and another family in the rear apartment. So you were like crammed.

Dyett was an instructor at DuSable High School. He had been a captain in the service. And he had to be rough. Because the guys who came to that school were extremely rough. In other words, say you hit that part wrong. Some guys would just tell you, “So what? Go on and play the music.” And he didn’t tolerate that. He would either go upside your head, have you bring your parents up to school. I remember one time I fell asleep. He kicked the chair out from under me, and I got up off the floor with my clarinet all sprawled everywhere! It was really strange.

John Gilmore was in class with me, Pat Patrick — the whole Sun Ra band, as a matter of fact. He had moved into the neighborhood when he came from Birmingham, and he took us out of Dyett’s band, because we could just read tremendously. Because Dyett taught us like that.

Q: Dyett also had bands that would allow his students to work out in the community, too, didn’t he?

EH: Well, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton — I got a chance to hear all these guys. They’d come by because they just couldn’t believe the Booster Band was that hip. That was the jazz band. And when you miss a note, you’re out the band. He’d pop his fingers: “You’re out the band. Bring your mother up to school.” And a guy in the back would take out his instrument, he’d come and sit down, and he was just as good if not better. I mean, it was that kind of competition you came up under, which really helped you. And he taught you other things about self-discipline, like do not have on polkadot socks when you have on a black suit. Heh-heh. Little things like that. Being on time, knowing the music, looking at the music to first see if it’s the correct tune you’re playing, then see what key signature it is. Understand where your repeats are. Little things that you should know in music.

[Music: E. Harris: “K.C. Blues,” “Salute to Bird,” “Hey Wado!”]

Q: The first thing Eddie Harris said to me on the phone when we were arranging this was that you had been a professional musician in Chicago for 14 years, I think you said, before “Exodus” was recorded and you were “discovered.” One of these liner notes says that your first actual gig was subbing piano with the Gene Ammons band.

EH: Yeah, that was my first what you’d call paying job!

Q: Do you remember what the club was?

EH: Well, it wasn’t a club. I played at the Pershing Ballroom. The next time I played it was another place, Baker’s Casino. I didn’t play clubs more or less with him. They had a lot of ballrooms around there, the Trianon, the Aragon on the North Side, and like that. I subbed for a guy named James Craig, who later became a policeman.

Q: He’s on the very early Gene Ammons recordings, if I recollect properly.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: The Pershing Ballroom was part of a hotel on 64th and Cottage that was a real center of musical life on the South Side.

EH: I played there a long time opposite Ahmad Jamal. I played there Monday and Tuesday nights, and opposite him on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Q: As a pianist or saxophonist?

EH: Well, I really wanted to play the saxophone, but I had Charles Stepney working with me, and Walter Perkins and Bill Lee. Then Bill Lee left to go downtown, and Walter Perkins hired a guy from Evanston to play with us — you know him as Bob Cranshaw. So when we worked there, I played piano and Stepney played the vibes, then he doubled to go to piano and I would go to saxophone.

Q: I’d like to ask you about a few of the people that you mentioned, and some that you didn’t. You talked about Sun Ra being active in Chicago He got there in the late 1940s, and did dual duty as an arranger for the Club De Lisa, which included the Fletcher Henderson band, and having his own band of young musicians out of DuSable High School, who as you mentioned, were strong readers, and doing his own music.

EH: Right.

Q: What did his music sound like in 1950 or ’51 . . .

EH: Heh-heh . . .

Q: What was your reaction to playing those type of charts?

EH: I didn’t have any adverse reaction to it, due to the fact that I played in the orchestras; I played classical music. The big thing was looking at the way he wrote them. It was like orchestra music. You had scales, arpeggios, flamadas and like that. He would write a note and make a zig-zag line to another note, and within that time frame you played what you wanted to play. Which is modern writing today, but I wasn’t too hip to that, you know. I would have liked to stay along with him and played a lot longer, but I couldn’t go along with his teachings that he had after rehearsals and after playing, when he said, “I’ve been here before.” Because he was talking about “space is the place” and going on with that. I liked his music. I liked to experiment. But I couldn’t go along with the teaching. So not being with him, that’s when I more or less started playing with another group of guys, who I named earlier, where we did our thing.

Q: You mentioned drummer Ike Day, who was maybe recorded once, and the sound of the recording isn’t so great. A few words about his sound. Because he made an impression on everybody who heard him.

EH: Well, what can you say about an Ike Day? Who can I say that’s playing like he did? He was a combination like Max with his hands, or Philly Joe with his type of swinging. He was just a fantastic drummer. It was just unbelievable what this guy could do with just two sticks, playing on tables, on chairs.

Q: Someone told me they heard him do a solo with his toes.

EH: Well, I never witnessed that. [Laughs] But you can imagine a group of guys playing together like Dorel Anderson and Wilbur Ware, and then you’d have a guy like Ike Day sit in and play the drums. Dorel played drums . . . I mean, it was just extremely talented guys in that immediate area of Chicago, which was primarily the South Side. And I couldn’t understand why they weren’t recorded more, because it was right there. I mean, even though they had little mishaps of drugs and like that, but so did a lot of other people that were recorded!

Q: A lot of people also came through Chicago from other places. For example, Sonny Rollins a couple of times set up shop in Chicago, so to speak.

EH: Sonny Rollins worked there at a day job. In fact, they hired him, “they” meaning Max Roach-Clifford Brown. Clifford had brought me to the band to play at the Beehive, and he felt I was quite a player, that I could read the parts, I could play . . . But Max felt my tone was kind of funny.

Q: In some interviews you’ve talked about your tone. And I think in the interview for the liner notes of Artists Choice [Rhino] you said that you ran into Don Ellis in the Army, and he said that your tone was too light or something. Talk a bit about how you formulated a saxophone style.

EH: Well, the whole point of guys who were more or less envious and guys who were trying to bag on me, trying to bring down my arrogance and egotisticalness . . . Because you have to have this in order to play. You don’t have to be dogmatic about it, but you have to believe in yourself. And they’d say, “Oh man . . . ” This is prejudice times, now; this is the late ’40s or the early ’50s . . . the late ’40s primarily . . . “Oh, man, you sound like Stan Getz,” and that’s supposed to have been a putdown. I even had caucasian guys telling me that, because I played in caucasian bands. And they didn’t realize that really Getz was playing like Lester Young before he lost his teeth. Because if you listen to his old sound, “Taxi War Dance,” Prez and Hershel Evans, he played like that, with a lighter sound. As a matter of fact, any saxophone player that’s trying to play fast or trying to play skips or high notes, he or she becomes a lighter player, because you cannot play heavy and play rapido. But that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, they put me down. “Oh, man, you sound like Getz.” So I had to live with that. Then finally, I started challenging the guys back because I just got fed up with it. “Oh man, but you know, you did sound like . . . ” See, they wasn’t listening to what I’m playing. People are just hung up in sounds. That’s even today, a person’s sound. They say, “Oh yeah, he sounds like Trane.” But what is he playing? Yeah, but as long as I get that sound, I’m automatically in. But not in as far as I’m concerned. But so many people just go by the sound.

See, I was trying to play higher notes, I was trying to play skips like that. But I was using that timbre of sound, which was really the Lester Young school as opposed to the Chu Berry or the Coleman Hawkins way, and to use that and make articulate playing, utilization of tonguing at least every other note, which I get a brass effect. And quiet as it’s kept, only one guy ever told me, he said, “I see, you’re trying to play like a trumpet on saxophone.” That was the late Pepper Adams, who was playing on a big band. He said, “Man, you’re the first cat that really peeped that I was trying to do that. Now, you see, I can play five C’s now, and you see I can hit high notes, and I do a lot of phrasing — I hit things like Miles and Clifford and them on the saxophone.

Q: And subsequently, of course, you used different mouthpieces, trumpet mouthpieces on the saxophone, or saxophone mouthpieces on the trumpet . . .

EH: Well, I was doing that to get different sounds. I was always trying different sounds. The only reason why I more or less put that on the back- burner was electric came out; then I started dealing with electric.

Q: Your relationship with Muhal Richard Abrams goes back to high school. In 1960 or 1961, you and Muhal organized a workshop band that got together briefly, then subsequently you parted ways. This band was the core of what became the AACM. What events, as you recollect it, inspired its formation?

EH: It was a thing that trying to play around Chicago, you figured there are guys that never played first chair, there are guys that never played on a big band, and there are other guys that never had an opportunity to write for a large number of people, and there are people that wanted to sing, and sing in front of a band — “so let’s form a workshop.” There were three of us. There was the late Johnny Hines, a trumpeter from the West Side of Chicago, and Muhal Richard Abrams and myself. And we just got this together at the C&C, which was a lounge, a large lounge. And the musicians . . . It was surprising that so many musicians came! I mean, it was just amazing. I think we must have had about 100 musicians.

But then you have this class set of the musicians who were more or less our age or older, who were astute musicians, then you had the younger musicians — and the astute musicians were like, “Oh, I don’t want to play with these guys, they’re just learning.” So a guy like myself, I’ll take a few charts and pass it out to the guys, and put guys in precarious positions. Like a guy I know that can play a good first, I’ll give him a third part. Now he’s got to play lower. [Laughs] Then you stomp off kind of rapid, and the guys would be missing notes, and then make the younger kids say, “Damn, they can miss notes, too!” And the guys would be all uptight who can really play. Then that deflates their ego some. Then we can get on with the workshop.

Lo and behold, it was going pretty good. But I had to travel, because I had this hit record, “Exodus.” But I don’t know what happened; when I came back there were divisions. Johnny Hines tried to take the musicians more our age; he wanted to go into the Regal Theatre so he could have a band to really accompany all the stars that come in there. Muhal had taken the younger musicians and let them learn in reading on scales and playing with each other. So that’s how that came about. And Muhal eventually got together with the Association . . .

Q: They chartered in 1965 and set up that whole . . . .

EH: Yes, they set it up. But that’s how that came about.

Q: Let’s hear an extended piece, I guess collectively worked out by the band from maybe around 1970 or ’71. This comes from Excursions, a double LP issued on Atlantic in 1973. The track is “Turbulence,” featuring Eddie Harris on electric saxophone and reed trumpet; Ronald Muldrow on guitorgan . . . ?

EH: That’s right, guitorgan. That was a guitar with pickups under the fret- board to make it sound like an organ.

Q: Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. Rufus Reid, who was living in Chicago in that period, around the cusp of 1970, on bass, and Billy James on drums.

EH: That was a working band.

Q: And you played all over, in many different situations.

EH: All over these United States.

[Music: “Turbulence”; E. Harris/E. Marsalis, “Deacceleration”]

Q: How did this duo album you made with Ellis Marsalis come about?

EH: Ellis and I have played together numerous times down in New Orleans where he lives, so I come down there and I play with him. On other occasions I’ve come down and played with different groups. And this guy I played with several times named Dave Torkanowsky, he had studied with Ellis, and he really enjoyed playing with me. He had an opportunity to produce a record, and he said he thought it would be great if Ellis and I would do a duo. He called me up and had me fly down to Dallas, and we did it on the spur of the moment — no rehearsals, nothing.

Q: Let’s talk about the scene in Chicago as it developed in the 1960s.

EH: There were a lot of guys playing good music around there in the ’60s. There was Gene Shaw who played trumpet, who passed later on. Then of course, there was the guy who had a group called the Pharaohs, which you’d know later on as the Phoenix Horns.

Q: I’m under the impression, though, that the club scene kind of declined and there were a lot fewer opportunities to work around Chicago then — although maybe you didn’t directly experience that.

EH: Well, the club scene was beginning to decline because television was on the rise, and as more television, people were staying at home looking at more of the wrestling matches and roller derby.

Q: You mentioned in an interview that you spent a good amount of time in New York and were working a lot, but you chose to come back to Chicago.

EH: I came here, and immediately, coming up out of the subway . . . After I checked into the hotel, I went and rode on the subway up to Harlem, and I walked up, and I’m looking at the tall buildings of Harlem, because I thought maybe they might be a little smaller in Harlem, because it was residential — that’s what I thought my first time here, in the ’50s. And what happened? I ran into the trumpet man. “Dag,” he says, “you’re lost. Oh man! What are you doing here?! Hey, man, come and play with my band.” I said, “Really? “Yeah,” he said. “If you’re in town here, you can come and play with me.” That was . . . I’m getting bad on names, man. Because see, you’re going back in time on me. He wrote this tune, [Sings the first few bars of “Blue Bossa”].

Q: Oh, that’s K.D. you’re talking about.

EH: Yeah, Kenny Dorham. And I went and played with him, and I walked around town here, and all the guys would hire me, because I played piano, I could play trombone, read, you know. And I can play clarinet, the oboe, bassoon. My flute playing is sad. It’s still sad, because I don’t think that is a double. Of course, I have several flutes at home, and I can make it through an amateur part, but I don’t care to play it. But I worked nine nights a week. I worked afternoons playing piano for some people tap-dancing, and I could play in pit bands. But I never had any money! I was living with Cedar Walton and Sam Fletcher, the vocalist, and I said, “Hey, man, I’m going back to Chicago.” They said, “Man, you’re crazy. Guys don’t come here and work like you.”

I just went back to Chicago. And what happened? That’s how I made “Exodus”. I was scheduled to go back to Europe and play, because Quincy Jones was going to hire me to take a guy’s place named Oliver Nelson, and he had me to play with him when I was over in Europe with his band. He said, “Man, I’m happy to run into you. You can go back to Europe with me.” I said, “Okay.”

I stopped by to see my mother, and she asked me what was I doing, and she said, “I’m going back over to Europe with a guy named Quincy Jones.” She started crying. She just made a big issue out of this. I said, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” She said, “I understood you was going to make a record.” I said, “Oh yeah, I can do that when I come back.” She said, “It’s a shame. I’m ashamed to tell people that you play music. Because everybody’s made a record but you.” I said, “I don’t care nothin’ about that. I’m working. I’m playing.” She said, “Well, you ought to make this one record, because VeeJay asked you to make a record.”

But they’d asked me to record on piano, because they wanted me to sound like the guy down the street at Cadet Records which I used to show chords to.

Q: Not Ahmad Jamal!

EH: No, Ramsey Lewis. [Laughs] Yeah, Ahmad was down there. Of course, he’s an outstanding piano player. But this guy had the Gentlemen of Jazz, this Ramsey Lewis, and that was selling. So they wanted me to do that down the street at Vee-Jay. And I wasn’t particular about that, so I didn’t care nothing about making a record. But my mother said, “Oh, please make this one record, then you can go to Europe, Asia, anywhere.” I said, “But won’t nobody want me then if I stay here and make the record.”

So I went down to Chess, and I talked with them, and they said, “Well, we don’t want you to play the saxophone; you’re too weird.” And I told him where to go. Well, there was a guy named Sid McCoy, and a guy named Abner, who ran the company . . . It was actually Vivian and Jimmy’s company, V-J, and Abner was the president, and Sid McCoy was the a&r, artists and repertoire guy. Abner, who had gone down there to college with me, said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll let you play several numbers on saxophone.” I said, “Okay, that’s fair enough.” I told Quincy that. He said, “One record?! Oh, man.” And to this day, when he thinks about it, he says, “One record” — because that one record turned out to be “Exodus.” Isn’t that amazing? A million-seller.

[Music: “Love For Sale” (1965); “Harlem Nocturne” (1990); “God Bless The Child” (1959)]

Q: Eddie Harris said they used that version of “God Bless The Child” for a TV story of Lady Day’s life.

EH: Yes, yes. It was great. Billie Holiday was very instrumental in trying to get me to understand that I could not only swing, that I played melodically. I was playing at the Pershing Lounge opposite Ahmad Jamal, and played the off-nights. She had a club underneath, which at first she called Birdland, then the people in New York here wouldn’t allow her to call it Birdland, so she changed it to Budland.

She came down one time, when we were rehearsing during the afternoon . . . She came down to all these rehearsals, any time she could, and she directed the rehearsals. “Hey, don’t do that?” “Why don’t you leave me alone?” And she said, “You can really phrase. Your timing . . . ” — and she used a lot of four-letter words that I won’t use over the radio!

But the point is that she encouraged me . . . Because I’m basically a quiet guy, standing back, and all the guys, it seemed like they were hipper than me playing the horn because of the fact they played the Charlie Parker licks, the Sonny Rollins licks . . . well, whoever, you can play the Rabbit [Johnny Hodges] licks . . . And here I could read all these things and play, but when I go to play, I played more phrasing melodically. Of course, you had Gene Ammons around there who played melodically, but he wasn’t tackling the type of tunes we were tackling. We were trying to play like these other guys, but then trying to solo differently than the other guys. In other words, you play a Charlie Parker line, but if you take off on your solo you didn’t try to be Bud, or the bass player didn’t try to be Mingus, and the drummer wasn’t trying to be Max.

So she was telling me I should continue phrasing the way I was. I’ll tell you something, Ted. I’m saying this primarily for younger musicians out there, or people who might have kids that play. Sometimes you can do something that comes very easy to you, and you don’t think very much of it due to the fact that it comes easy to you. As a kid I could always play, and the house would swing, pat their feet. I mean, I didn’t need a rhythm section. I really didn’t. I could just hit a groove, and people would automatically…

But most of my colleagues couldn’t. So I was trying to play like them, playing off-meter, double-time, like that. And she was trying to explain to me, “Just play what you play, and people will just go berserk.” But I wasn’t looking at that, because you have your peers. The majority of the guys double up, run over the instrument, look like they can play faster than you. But they really couldn’t when we stomped off something fast. I could play fast, but I play in meter.

Q: When you play something like that, it almost has the quality of singing, and you said you were singing at a very, very young age.

EH: Oh, yes. But you don’t realize what you have, because you’re just swamped up by others. Because see, most musicians do not and cannot play in meter. And I didn’t realize this until later years. And I mean “in meter,” just have a guy play by himself, and he’s not playing one note, [sings one note sequence], but just trying to play — and you’ll see how his time fluctuates. In other words, a lot of people swing when they’re with swinging people, but are they swinging themselves on the instrument? In other words, you hear a guy phrasing, you can imagine if you were at the control room where you can douse the board and take the rhythm section out and hear this guy play. I mean, it’s nice. He’s making the changes, he’s making the modulations. But why did you stop patting your foot? Because he has no more support from the rhythm. Because he’s not carrying the rhythm himself — or herself nowadays.

This next piece is currently the way I’m playing, trio piano in Europe. I’ve just come back from 36 one-nighters, and playing piano with the bassist, who is Ray Peterson, and the drummer, Norman Fearington.

Q: This is the current working band?

EH: It’s the working band, yes. Ray Peterson is playing with Les and me down there. Of course, Norman had to go to Europe, so we have Ben Riley in place of Norman.

[Music: “Ambidextrous,” “Airegin” (solo sax)]

Q: We’ve heard you establish yourself as a player very much out of the esthetic of the period you came from, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and that end of it, as a rabid experimentalist, dealing with every type of imaginable sound, and always within a very functional situation. It’s amazing that you’re able to play with the reed trumpet or the clarinet with no neck in front of some very tough audiences and make it come off. And we’ve heard the high standard of virtuosic saxophone playing, some great piano playing, and some singing. We haven’t heard “Why Are You So Overweight,” but I guess we could do that, too.

EH: If you ever get a chance one of these days, try listening to “Oleo” on Excursions, and you will hear me play the saxophone with the trombone mouthpiece, which makes it sound like a valve trombone.

Q: I’ll do that. But just a word about your piano playing, which we’ve touched on. We’ve heard two examples now, one where you play “Our Love Is Here To Stay” in a very expansive, Tatumesque, Nat Cole type of style.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: On the last you were playing a Chicago left-hand boogie-woogie . . . Piano was your first instrument, I take it.

EH: Yes.

Q: A few words about your relationship with the piano.

EH: Well, I was taught by my cousin when I was a very young age, at four, and then I came up playing in the church, and I played and studied piano at Roosevelt College, where I had an awful time.

Q: Why was that?

EH: Because they wanted me to go to Piano 104, not beginning piano. I was taught in a church, and I was slow reading, and I had incorrect fingering — and I wanted to just learn the piano when I was going to college there. They said, “No, you’re not going to take this credit, because you play too well.” And they put me in a class with people running over piano, reading things — [sings fast, dense passage]. They was gone! And I stayed in there for quite a while, because I could listen to people play and I could sit down and play it. That doesn’t mean I could read it that fast, but I was telling them I wanted to learn it. I had an awful time trying to convince people that I was really trying to learn piano in the correct way. But no, they said, “You play too well.” So consequently, I didn’t go take private lessons . . . I didn’t care about the piano anyway. I just was doing that while I was in college. And lo and behold, I’ve made more money playing piano, working, than I have saxophone. It’s amazing.

Q: A lot of your early gigs were piano gigs.

EH: Yeah. Even recently, out in California, I started a club, and I played solo piano, then it wound up a duo and a trio — and now it’s one of the top jazz places.

Q: What club is that?

EH: That’s Bel Age. It’s a hotel, the Brasserie. One time I was here in New York, and I stopped on 23rd Street in a restaurant to get something to eat, and they had a piano there. I said, “Hey, can I play some while I’m waiting for the food?” The guy said, “Yeah, if you can play, man. Don’t be messing with the piano if you can’t play.” I said, “I can play.” I sat down there and played. And this guy offered me a gig! He says, “Oh, man, I like your feeling, the way you played, you know tunes . . . ” I said, “I wish this was where I lived. I live in Los Angeles.” He said, “Really? Well, come on up here and live!”

It’s strange. People like my piano playing. I wish they would like my saxophone playing like that. I don’t know what it is. The piano playing, maybe it’s because I can groove, I get across to the average John and Jane Doe. The saxophone, I don’t know what it is. I’ve never had that happen.

Q: The saxophone seems to me almost a laboratory for you, like you’re always looking for some new effect or new way to get something over so as maybe not to get bored… 

EH: Maybe that’s it. Because at the piano, I just don’t care. I just play, I make a run, when I run out of fingers I cross my hand over and I hit it with the back of my hand!


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Filed under Chicago, Eddie Harris, Interview, Muhal Richard Abrams, WKCR

For the 84th Birthday of Muhal Richard Abrams, Two DownBeat Articles (2006, 2010), one Jazziz Article (2011), and a Profile for All About Jazz (2007)

Best of birthdays to maestro Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 84 today, and is doubtless following his daily regimen of practicing and writing music.  I’ve had the honor of writing three feature pieces about Muhal in recent years. The first in the sequence posted below was written in response to his election to DownBeat‘s Hall of Fame in 2010. The second features a dialogue between Muhal and Prof. George Lewis in 2006, in response to Streaming (Roscoe Mitchell’s voice is also heard, but as the piece focused on the in-person back-and-forth, it was complicated to incorporate his voice sufficiently). The third piece is a Jazziz feature from 2011, which includes extensive testimony not only from Prof. Lewis but also recent MacArthur grant designee Steve Coleman.

For further insights on Muhal, this link contains a dozen of Jason Moran’s favorites.

* * *

 Muhal Richard Abrams (Hall of Fame Article for DownBeat):

“Interesting,” Muhal Richard Abrams said over the phone upon receiving the news of his election to Downbeat’s Hall of Fame. After a pause, he said it again.

Arrangements were made to speak the following day, and, in conversation at the midtown Manhattan highrise where he has lived since 1977, Abrams explained his laconic response to the honor, bestowed on the heels of his selection as an 2010 NEA Jazz Master.

“Well, why me?” he said. “There are so many worthy people. The only claim I make is that I am a pianist-composer.” He added: “I’m honored that people would want to honor me, and I have no objection, because people have a right to make the decisions they arrive at.”

It was noted that Abrams had communicated precisely the latter dictum forty-five years ago at a series of meetings on Chicago’s South Side at which the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts by which the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) continues to operate were debated and established.

“Oh, in terms of individuals being free to be individuals, of course,” Abrams said. “It is a basic principle of human respect.”

Informed of Abrams’ reaction, George Lewis, the Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, who painstakingly traced the contents of these gatherings in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), hollered a deep laugh. “‘Why me?’ Are you kidding?” Assured of the quote’s accuracy, Lewis, an AACM member since 1971, settled down. “That’s Muhal for you,” he said. “He’s not an ego guy. Originally, the book was supposed to be about him. He said, ‘I think it should be about the entire AACM.’”

Lewis then opined on his mentor’s “Why me?” query. “Muhal transcends genres, categories, and the little dustups that often happen in the jazz world,” he said. “He’s his own person.  He spent his life reaching out to many musical constituencies. So it makes a lot of sense to have him represent a new way of thinking about the whole idea of jazz. Muhal’s major lesson was that you’d better find your own path, and then, once you do, learn to be part of a group of people that exchange knowledge amongst each other. He provides support for an autodidact way of doing things.”

“I don’t characterize myself as a teacher,” Abrams remarked. “It’s my contention that one teaches oneself. Of course, you pick up information from people whose paths you cross. But I’m mainly self-taught—I found it more satisfying to do it that way.’

It is one of Abrams’ signal accomplishments to have been the prime mover in spawning a collaborative infrastructure within which such AACM-trained composer-instrumentalists as Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith, Amina Claudine Myers, and himself could conceptualize and develop ideas. Another is his own singular corpus, as documented on some thirty recordings that present a world in which blues forms, postbop themes with jagged intervals, and experimental pieces in which improvising ensembles address text, sound, and space, coexist in the same breath with through-scored symphonic works, solo piano music, string, saxophone, and brass quartets, and electronic music. His arsenal also includes formidable pianistic skills, heard recently on “Dramaturns,” an improvised, transidiomatic duo with Lewis on Streaming [Pi]—it’s one of five performances on which Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, grouped in duo and trio configurations, draw upon an enormous lexicon of sounds while navigating the open spaces from various angles.

“It’s a vintage collaboration,” Abrams said of the project. “Our collaborations date back to Chicago, and the respect that transpires between us on the stage, the respect for the improvised space that we use, is special. Of course, they’re virtuoso musicians, but I’m talking about silence and activity, when to play and when not to play, just from instinct and feeling and respect.”

Asked about influences, Abrams said, “I find different ways of doing things by coming out of the total music picture.” His short list includes pianists James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, and Herbie Nichols, who “individualized the performance of mainstream music and their own original music”; Vladimir Horowitz and Chopin’s piano music; the scores of Hale Smith, William Grant Still, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Scriabin, as well as Duke Ellington, Gerald Wilson, and Thad Jones. “So many great masters,” he said. “Some influenced me less with their music than the consistency and level of truth from practice that’s in their stuff.”

The influence of Abrams’ musical production radiates consequentially outside the AACM circle. Vijay Iyer  recalled drawing inspiration from Abrams’ small group albums Colors in 33rd and 1-OQA+19, both on Black Saint.

“Muhal was pushing the envelope in every direction, and that openness inspired me,” Iyer said. “The approach was in keeping with the language of jazz, but also didn’t limit itself in any way; the sense was that any available method of putting sound together should be at your disposal in any context.”

“I think my generation clearly heard the effect that the AACM and Muhal had on Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who played with Muhal,” Jason Moran added. “We took some of that energy into the late ‘90s, and it continues on to today. He defines that free thinking that most jazz musicians say they want to have.”

Both Lewis and Moran cite the methodologies of Joseph Schillinger—whose textbooks Abrams pored over on set breaks on late ‘50s gigs in Chicago—as a key component of Abrams’ pedagogy. “It helped me break the mold of sitting at a piano and thinking what sounds pleasing to my ear, and instead be able to compose away from the instrument—to almost create a different version of yourself,” Moran said.

“Schillinger analyzed music as raw material, and learning the possibilities gave you an analytical basis to create anything you want,” Abrams said. “It’s basic and brilliant. But I don’t want to be accused of being driven by what I learned from Schillinger. I am the sum product of the study of a lot of things.”

This was manifest at the January 2010 NEA Jazz Masters concert at Rose Theater, when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, encountering an Abrams opus for the first time, offered a well-wrought performance of “2000 Plus The Twelfth Step,” originally composed for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. As the 15-minute work unfolded, one thought less of the predispositional differences between Abrams and Wynton Marsalis, and instead pondered Abrams’ 1977 remark: “A lot of people will pick up on the [AACM’s] example and do very well with it…who those people will be a couple of years from now, who knows?” Indeed, it seems eminently reasonable to discern affinities both in the scope of their compositional interests and their mutual insistence on constructing an institutional superstructure strong enough to withstand the vagaries of the music marketplace.

“It’s two different setups, but both very valid,” Abrams said, when asked to comment. “There’s no real underwriting for the music of the streets. Never was. It’s very important for an entity to maintain a structure in which work can be expressed to the public, whatever approach or style they use.”

For the AACM, he continued, “the organizational structure was necessary to the extent that we were involved in the business of music. But it did not supersede or overshadow the central idea, which was to allow the individuals within the group a forum to express their own particular worlds. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was equal. As time has shown, every individual from that first wave of people came out as a distinct personality in their own right.

“If you want a house with ten thousand rooms, you don’t complain because nobody has a house with ten thousand rooms to give you. You build it yourself, and do it with proper respect for the rest of humanity. You’re busy working at what you say you are about—doing it for yourself. When you take a different way, people often get the impression that you are against something else. That certainly wasn’t true in our case—we never threw anything away.

“I just go as far as the eye can see in all directions. There’s no finish to this stuff.”

[—30—]

* * *

DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

George Lewis’ light-filled office on the campus of Columbia University, where he is the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, contains a metal desk, a file cabinet, bookshelves, and a wood classroom table at which he and Muhal Richard Abrams were awaiting Downbeat’s arrival.

On the table lay an open copy of Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. “When you say ‘the beginning,’ I question that,” Abrams responded to Lewis’ paraphrase of Sublette’s assertion that Puerto Rican musicians were prominent in the early years of jazz. “Now, I don’t question people’s participation.”

“I think that’s all he’s saying,” said Lewis. “Just participation.”

“Well, he needs some other language then,” Abrams responded.

It was noted that Cubans flowed into New Orleans in the 1860s and 1870s, participated in Crescent City brass bands and orchestras, and played a vital role in the development of jazz sensibility.

“I disagree with the claim that Jazz started in New Orleans,” Abrams said. “New Orleans people think so. But it was in Mississippi and Alabama, too—that whole area. And who can account for what happened in Sedalia, Missouri? Or  what happened all along the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and New Jersey, what Eubie Blake did and that crew of people before him, who we never heard of?”

It turned out that Abrams, a stride piano devotee whose answering machine greets callers with James P. Johnson’s piano music, had met Blake around 1974 in Chicago, when the rag master, then 91, was on tour with composer William Bolcom.

“Bolcom really didn’t have a feeling for what Eubie was doing, though he could play the notes, but it was cool, because he loved Eubie,” Abrams said. “I told him that I had been transcribing some of his music. He stared at me, then asked someone, ‘Did he really do that?’ and she told him that I had. I was shooting pictures, and the next time he noticed me, he thought I was a photographer. We talked a bit. He had boundless energy. You’d call his name from the other side of the room, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, what do you want?!’—he’d be right there.”

Abrams’ own boundless energy comes through on Streaming (Pi), a heady recital by Abrams, Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, who were, respectively, 74,52 and 63 at the time of the recording. Documenting the first meeting of these protagonists since a heady 90-minute concert at the Venice Biennale in late 2003, Streaming embodies the accomplishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as fully as any recording in the canon.

Each man is a multi-instrumentalist proficient at deploying an array of extended techniques by which to extract a staggering array of sounds. They’ve codified and orchestrated these multiple voices, scored them into compositions spanning a global template of forms, and performed them on numerous concerts over the decades.

For this occasion, though, they chose to explore—and spontaneously chart—what Lewis calls “the open space” rather than work with a preexisting roadmap. Abrams played piano, percussion, bell, taxihorn and bamboo flute; from his arsenal of reeds and woodwinds, Mitchell brought a soprano and alto saxophone, as well as a generous selection of calibrated-to-the-sinewave percussion instruments; Lewis played trombone and laptop, generating samples and electronic sounds with Ableton Live, a loop-based digital audio sequencer designed for live performance.

Through three trios, one Mitchell–Lewis duet and one Abrams–Lewis duet, the old friends eschew collage and pastiche, shaping their idiosyncratic vocabularies, syntaxes and postulations into erudite, polylingual conversation.

“I’m trying to develop a language that will work in many situations,” said Mitchell over the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “Muhal and George are doing the same thing.”

“We’re organizing sound, and everything it takes to organize sound into what we call music—the structure, the melodious and harmonic component—in the same moment, through participating in a mutually respectful manner,” Abrams explained. “We produce what we are.”

Lewis contrasted the operative aesthetic on Streaming to that at play in his numerous meetings with first-generation European improvisers Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. “Derek and Evan wanted to open up their notion of improvisation to include the freshness of the immediate encounter—that is, someone with whom you’ve never performed,” Lewis said. “I became interested in that, and we built up a history of a lot of immediate encounters. Now I need to do what I can to renew and deepen already existing relationships. This project takes our existing collaborations in a new direction while also deepening the relationship.”

[BREAK]

Abrams and Mitchell first shared recorded space on the 1973 Art Ensemble of Chicago classic Fanfare For The Warriors (Atlantic), 12 years after Mitchell—just out of the Army and a student at Wilson Junior College—began participating in a workshop orchestra called the Experimental Band led by Abrams and Eddie Harris at a South Side Lounge called the C&C. Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis first worked together in 1971, initially documenting their exalted simpatico on Mitchell’s Quartet, a 1975 Sackville date with guitarist Spencer Barefield,  and subsequently on Lewis’ Shadowgraph (Black Saint, 1977), Mitchell’s Nonaah  (Nessa, 1978), and Abrams’ Spihumonesty (Black Saint, 1980).

“That was the first recording I was on with anybody,” said Lewis of Quartet.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” Abrams asked.

“It seems like we’re going too far back there,” said Lewis, whose exhaustively researched history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) comes out in spring 2007.

“It’s important to accept how we view the basis of this,” Abrams said. “George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

“You know that alternate take on the Coltrane record of “Giant Steps,” where Coltrane says, ‘The cats be makin’ the changes, but they don’t be tellin’ no story,’ and then somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell any lies’?,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to do that. What I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration, the sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multiperspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Lewis returned to Quartet. “That first recording is part of the collective memory, and not just us, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about it for a moment,” he said. “I felt completely new to what we were doing. But everyone else seemed to feel they were new, too. For instance, Roscoe’s piece ‘Cards’ is a set of graphic symbols which we were reassembling on the fly. You were free to actuate your part whenever you felt the need to, in accordance with your own analysis of the situation. There was that sense of experimentalism, working with the unforeseen as a natural component, not working with received wisdoms or ideas that are already set up. I’d never seen anything like Roscoe’s card piece, and after doing music of various kinds with a great diversity of experimental composers, I still haven’t seen anything like it. Everybody was able to contribute and have their contributions accepted. The attitude that produces a recording such as this new one is that same sense that we are not in a space of hierarchy, of overweening authority by some individual.”

“It had to become equal,” Abrams said. “That happened because we all consented to perform Roscoe’s piece in the way that he preferred we approach it.”

“In the AACM there were diverse aesthetics, but there was a lot more agreement on the ethics, which is a larger point,” Lewis stated. “To get to how that basic ethics evolved and was maintained over the years is a pretty intense question. Having tried to write this history and make sense of it all, I have to say that Muhal’s sense of openness was critical. He had to fight hard to keep people focused on the idea of openness. A larger world out there is saying, ‘Well, what’s all this free thinking?’ Somebody has to provide an example. Jodie Christian said, ‘I went along with it because Muhal said it was good.’ Muhal had a lot of respect and people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”

[BREAK]

In an article entitled “Experimental Music In Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,” Lewis noted the attraction of AACM composers to “collage and interpenetration strategies that blended, opposed, or ironically juxtaposed” the disciplines of composition and improvisation, “simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions.” Such a stance towards composition, Lewis continued, quoting theorist Kobena Mercer, “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”

With the AACM, Abrams spawned an infrastructure within which nascent composer-improvisers like Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Lewis could assimilate and process such information in a critical manner, and provided them manpower with which to workshop and develop their ideas. The polymath attitudes towards musical expression that they represent in their maturity stem in great part from the inspiration of watching Abrams follow his own autodidactic predispositions.

“I was always curious, and I always felt I needed to make my own way,” said Abrams, a self-educated composer who studied Schillinger between sets on ‘50s Chicago gigs. “Get the information, but do it my way. I am sure this ultimately led to the Experimental Band, and the attraction of the Experimental Band led to the AACM. I could speak of the process in terms of historical tangibles, but I believe that things happen because they’re supposed to. The little routes that are taken to get there are like a bus process in a computer program, which takes the information where it’s directed.”

Was openness to new information always prominent within Abrams’ mindset? “Yes,” he said. “Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that in order to learn, I had to concede that my ideas are housed in my personal universe, and that another individual’s ideas are housed in theirs. To learn about this infinite setup of universes, I had to listen and be willing to learn from others.”

“Listening is dangerous,” Lewis added. “The problem is to channel it into fruitful paths. You encounter ideas you’re not prepared for, that you may not understand, to which you may respond negatively. You have to respond to input. You’re not free at that moment; you can’t just say whatever you like. You have to connect with other people, somehow become part of them, have a sense of acceptance about it. For me, acceptance is the hardest part of listening.

“In improvisation, the superficial aspects—instruments, notes, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, durations—are carriers for the much deeper signals with which we as musicians have learned to exchange meanings which are broader, but also much more direct than these elements. One meaning is this notion of a non-hierarchical ethics.”

“Any idea you encounter gives you an idea about yourself—or I think it should,” Abrams said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discriminate as to what stays and what goes, and proceed in your own manner, which I’ve always tried to do. It’s good to study something, but making a copy to lean on is another question.”

[BREAK]

“On this new record, I’m trying to hear what Muhal and Roscoe would like to do, how they see the situation, and whether they’re not doing anything or doing something,” Lewis said. “My primary approach is an instant hermeneutics, an interpretation of what is coming through the sound at that moment. This allows me to tell a lot about them. All of the history we’ve been talking about comes through the sound. As musicians, we learn to interpret these sounds, but we also learn to interpret them as human beings. If people could fall back on the fundamental primordial aspects of their own human nature, it would be a lot easier for them to understand and to hear this music. When Muhal plays piano, I know its sound like I know the sound of my dad’s or mom’s voice. I know what Roscoe’s instruments sound like. That hits me before anything. That history is undeniable. It got built up over years and decades. At the same time, I don’t know what that voice is going to say. I feel comfortable with that. It’s almost as if a door opens up, once you forget all the theories and start to concentrate on just what the sound is telling you.”

“I agree,” Abrams said. “The world of sound is an abstract idea. The word ‘musician’ depicts one who allows himself to be trained to organize sound and produce it in the form that we call music. But before it appears, it’s sound without preferenced organization. What does sound want? What does music want? Someone comes along hearing sound differently from anyone we’ve ever heard, and we wonder what causes that. What causes Ornette Coleman to sustain a note, change his position in the sound world and make you believe it changed? It’s the way he hears sound, which is special to him. What makes Cecil Taylor get the textures he gets out of the piano or the AACM people do what they do?”

This seemed a touch abstract. Was location, for instance, at all a launching point for the way Coleman (Texas), Taylor (New York) and the AACM people (Chicago) hear and organize sound?

“No, it’s separate; but yet, yes,” Abrams responded elliptically. “We have many possibilities, and each individual has different points in their time cycles that cause us to hear sound in the particular ways that we do.”

“It’s interesting to consider personal history situations and their impact upon particular directions of music,” Lewis said. “There’s a collective direction, but there’s also that individual space. We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. Well, from my standpoint, as a descendent of slaves, I don’t want to be that disconnected with that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”

Lewis began to parse Abrams’ comment about organizing sound. “You have to organize the sound that’s coming in, not just the sound that’s going out,” he said. “In fact, organizing the sound that’s coming in is more important, because what we’re organizing is not just how it’s going to fit technically, but more importantly, what it means, the organizing perspectives on the sounds, what the sound is really saying to us. That can also change—something we remember later in the piece can bring up a consequence we hadn’t considered when the sound came up. So call-and-response is a problem. I want to have call without response. The idea that we’re not stuck in that kind of motion, but are free to challenge even that so-called fundamental wisdom with a fundamental investigation-exploration, and find what we find. You may find situations where call-and-response is an inappropriate methodology, and prepare to take the consequences.”

“I consider each day different; each person is different every day,” Mitchell remarked over the phone, illuminating this issue. “Today I might touch on a sound timbre, tomorrow a rhythmic situation. I hear something and think, ‘Percussion with this,’ start with the idea, and move to what I need to do. It’s instant theme-and-variation. But there are so many levels of improvisation. You don’t want to follow or copy someone. One thing you can do, if you hear something you want to extend, is not use it until another time. Then you avoid the heaviness that happens when someone follows in an improvisation, and maintain your individualism. I tend to fare better if I keep refreshing my mind and go with that flow.”

[BREAK]

“I didn’t teach them how to be themselves, and I didn’t create a situation that caused them to be themselves,” Abrams said of his distinguished progeny. “I helped inspire other people to be themselves from my example: ‘I am going to be myself, and you have the opportunity to be yourself.’

Still, there remains the question of how Abrams, the autodidact, came to pass along his own non-didactic ethos of informed individuality. “There were two older musicians in particular from whom I learned quite a bit—Walter ‘King’ Fleming and William Jackson,” he said. “In  mainstream music, they taught me and allowed me to pursue my ideas, mistakes and all, and it caused me to grow and to eliminate the mistakes. Their kindness and benevolence infused me with that feeling. They brought out what I had. I passed on that continuum when I got to the Experimental Band or AACM situations. All of us created the atmosphere that was created. I realize that some of the musicians feel that this wasn’t the case, that it was me—and that’s OK. I was the first observer. I saw them when they didn’t see themselves. They did it.”

“This is not something you get for free,” Lewis said. “The dynamic does not appear without resistance. At a certain point you get the inspiration, you start to become yourself, and other people say, ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Then you realize that people are still doing it in the face of potential consequences, and that’s the real inspiration.” DB

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams in Jazziz (2010):

At noon on a warm June day, pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 81 in December, escorted me  up the stairwell of his midtown highrise to a second floor roof garden for a chat about core principles. “The fact and idea of individualism is important to talk about,” the 2010 NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame awardee said. “I also want to talk about life and sound.”

Having stated the ground rules, Abrams settled in under a shady pergola. He preferred not to discuss the particulars of his new recording, SoundDance [Pi], a double CD that documents an  improvised encounter from 2009 with the late Chicago tenorist Fred Anderson, and one from 2010 with trombonist-electronicist George Lewis. Instead, Abrams went straight to metaphysics.

“Individualism is a basic constant among humans—and animals, too,” he said. “Each person approaches a situation quite differently, which lets other individuals know it can be said or done that way. I’m not talking about a process of copying anyone. It’s the fact that we learn from each other because of our individualism.”

He warmed to the topic. “To seek one’s individualism seems to be limitless. There’s so much one can pursue.” He called the names of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, William Grant Still, Beethoven, Chopin, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. “Their pursuit of individualism—not their IDEAS—inspired me greatly to pursue my own.”

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, his home until 1977, Abrams, a sports-oriented youngster who knew a thing or two about the street, was 16 when he decided to drop out of DuSable High School and enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University. After a while, he decided to study on his own. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things,” he told me a few years ago. “I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

As the ‘50s progressed, Abrams trained himself to fluency with Joseph Schillinger’s mathematically-based compositional formulas and analyzed Rosicrucian arcana; some years later, he assimilated several programming languages. The fruits of his determination to follow his own muse are by now well-known. For one thing, there’s his uncategorizable corpus, perhaps half of it publicly documented on some thirty recordings. Ensembles ranging from quartet to big band interpret elemental blues themes, hard-hitting postbop structures with winding melodies, textural soundscapes, and experimental collage pieces that address text, silence, and space; tabula rasa improvisations share pride of place with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and electronica.

Of equal consequence is Abrams’ primary role in embedding his principles within the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that coalesced in 1965. Within the AACM setup, he mentored, among others, such singular composer-instrumentalist-improvisers as Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph  Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, and Lewis during their formative years. He focused his pedagogy on creating an infrastructure that offered to each individual an opportunity to critically analyze ideas from a global array of sources and refract them into original music, performed by ensembles comprised of AACM personnel in AACM-promoted concerts.

“During the week, we’d all show up at Muhal’s place,” Mitchell told me in a 1995 WKCR interview. “We studied music, art, poetry, whatever. It was a school. Muhal would be bothered with us for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.”

Abrams’ partners on SoundDance are more than passingly familiar with these principles, which manifest in different ways. An AACM member from 1965 until his death in 2010, Anderson customarily recorded trios and quartets in which he blew long, clarion lines over fast, rumbling grooves. In the first moments of their conversation, Abrams is sensitive to the outcat tenorist’s tentative, softly stated postulations as he attempts to orient himself to the wide open space. He presents ideas, listens as Anderson utters his own, [and] negotiates common ground via subtle sonic cues until, at a certain point, as if to offer a mnemonic signifier, he plays a hammering rhythmic figure, eliciting Anderson’s confident trademark roar, which remains operative for the duration.

The latter duo—which Abrams opens with variations on a four-note figure that begins in high treble range and concludes in the deep bass register, Lewis riposting with electronic tones—is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite. Now the Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, and himself a paradigm-shifter both in reshaping the sonic possibilities of the trombone and in creating software that improvises in real time, Lewis—then 19—met Abrams in Chicago in 1971. Thirty-nine years later, he and his mentor transition from one concept to the next—the range spans stride piano to post-Stockhausen—without a blink, as though two 18th century  philosophes were conducting a 45-minute colloquy on the sum total of human knowledge.

I asked whether Abrams’ shared background with Anderson and Lewis in any way inflected the music.

“No,” he responded bluntly. “The sound of that document had to do with what we did in that moment only. There is no shared background that comes to the stage when you’re performing. It’s the individual’s background. Each individual brings his or her path in to collaborate with the other individual’s path, and makes the choice as to how they contribute to the improvised space. That’s it. There’s nothing to reach for in the past or any place else.

“I listen to all kinds of music all the time. I practice all kinds of music, every day. I practice here”—he pointed to his head—“and here”—he unfurled his long, tapered fingers, each vertically imprinted from fifty-five years of incessant practice. “I write all kinds of music. So when I go to improvise, it’s just a continuum of how I feel in general through listening to all these things. I’m endeavoring to be continuously musical in the pursuit of organizing sound until I stop the improvisation.”

Lewis noted that Abrams’ ability to execute any idea he wants at any time, and to react to anything that anybody can throw at him, poses certain singular challenges. “In most cases, I feel that when people make the sound, their inner lives become an open book,” he said. “You read the mind through sound, or sonic gesture. I’ve never been able to do that with Muhal. Somehow, there’s a certain opacity. I’m not a big believer in pure spontaneity, but with maybe with Muhal you have to think differently about that. With him, you really shouldn’t rely on previous encounters, or make assumptions about what should happen, or about style, or method, or technique, or sound—not least because I think that Muhal is very good at detecting people who do that, and the banana peels will start coming thick and fast. You have to find your way moment by moment through an infinity of possibilities, before a path suddenly appears that you have to follow. If that path doesn’t happen to be the one you preferred, you have to make do. A lot of what goes on in improvisation, musical or otherwise, is a process of making-do, trying to work with and take a stance to the conditions you find, which are whatever sounds the other person is generating at that moment—pitch, timbre, a sense of the rhythm, the rate of change. It’s very prosaic.”

However prosaic the process of creative gestation, these instantiations of Abrams’ musical imagination are never dry or wooden. For one thing, even at 80, he accesses his immense database of sonic information with pentium quickness in the heat of battle. There’s his mastery of the universal laws of rhythm, which “he hears and then allows his harmonic style to infiltrate,” as Jason Moran wrote for http://www.jazz.com two years ago in a piece citing a dozen favorite Abrams tracks. He pulls his voice from the piano with an arsenal of attacks that span whisper to thunderstorm, infusing highbrow concepts with a blues sensibility developed in early career as a Chicago first-caller.

“Chicago was a blues town, so we all could play the blues real well,” Abrams says. “Playing the blues and playing jazz used to be one and the same; later, people separated the music into some that can sell and some that can’t. To say jazz is a deep part of who I am is fine. But not to say, ‘Well, he can play changes, so he’s all right. Not as a reference for the young people today who are doing all kinds of things, but don’t know anything about the mix I’ve been playing—they’d be confronted with something that might obstruct their approach.”

Abrams probably wasn’t referring to present-day movers-and-shakers like Moran, Vijay Iyer, and Steve Coleman, who regard him as a deep influence figure on their respective paths. In a long conversation about Abrams’ qualities, Coleman, himself a Chicagoan, noted Abrams’ penchant for rotating between the “inside” and “outside” factions of the South Side music community.

“Muhal played with cats like Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman, who you couldn’t get up on stage with if you didn’t know a certain amount of information from the tradition,” he says. “It impressed me that he had a wide-open concept that included cats from strong blues and R&B backgrounds who didn’t go through that tradition, some guys who initially couldn’t play anything. He didn’t impose those strictures on anyone. Muhal was like, if you’re sincere, and you have a burning desire, then we’re open to your coming in and experimenting. It wasn’t some shit like, ‘We want you to come in here and be a joke.’ But all these different backgrounds were able to come together and try to develop a common thing on which they could communicate. That involved a tolerance that I found interesting.

“Muhal has a Yoda quality, a sage kind of thing. You’re struck right away that this is an incredibly wise cat, whose breadth of knowledge goes way back. But he doesn’t lord it over you or come on egotistical or try to sell you something. I think people’s respect for him comes from that standpoint. Muhal can discourse with you about anything you want to talk about—esoteric stuff, whatever. Talk about walking down a street with somebody, and he can tell you how this relates to music.  He told me stories about being in Washington Park when he was a little kid, listening to elders debate all this metaphysical stuff; they’d pass the stick, and whoever had the stick would talk. Muhal grappled with these things early in his career, and thought deeply about them. He sees them all as connected. I can see why the AACM concept came up with him, because his playing has an unusually broad palette.”

Both Lewis and Coleman are clear that Abrams’ primary legacy will be situated not so much in the specifics of his musical production as the example he sets by it. “There are different kinds of ethos embedded in what people do,” Lewis says. “For some, it’s amazement at what they’re doing, how intricate and virtuosic it is. I don’t come away from a Muhal performance thinking about any of that. I come away thinking, ‘Boy, this certainly gives me a lot of work to do.’ Just when I thought I’d figured it out, there’s another facet of the puzzle which Muhal has brought out without pretending to solve the puzzle. It’s the confrontation with the puzzle which he encourages and exemplifies in his work—the puzzle of creativity, the puzzle of creation.”

That Abrams himself anticipates his ninth decade with a similar spirit can be inferred from his response to a hypothetical proposition that he play a ten-day retrospective of his oeuvre. “I probably wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I’m not interested in repetition. It’s not that I don’t like it. I use repetition, but in different ways. I’m interested in creating a new event that’s just right for the occasion that comes up. When I say ‘right for the occasion,’ I mean designing something that’s special for how I want to be musical at the time. That’s my focus.”
[–30–]

Five Muhal Richard Abrams Recordings:

Muhal Richard Abrams’ discography is so remarkably consistent that it’s complex to pick just five. On July 9, 2011, these seem like the ones to emphasize.

Sight Song (Black Saint, 1975): In duo with bassist Malachi Favors of Art Ensemble of Chicago fame, Abrams offers idiomatic, swinging meditations on ‘50s South Side associates Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin, before  proceeding to push the envelope every which way.

Lifea Blinec (Arista, 1978) A two-woodwind (Joseph Jarman and Douglas Ewart), two-piano (Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers), and drums (Thurman Barker) session that addresses the leader’s preoccupations with a cohesion and precision that anticipates such ‘80s signposts as Colors In Thirty-Third and View From Within.
Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989): Hard to choose amongst Abrams’ big band recordings, which also include the Black Saint dates Blues Forever, Rejoicing With the Light, and Blu Blu Blu. At this moment I’m impressed with the unitary, narrative quality of this impeccably executed, seven-piece suite, which has a 21st century Ellington feel.

One Line Two Views (New World, 1995): On this masterwork, which opens with a soundscape and concludes with a blues figure, Abrams fully exploits the tonal and rhythmic possibilities of a tentet that includes violin (Mark Feldman), accordion (Tony Cedras), harp (Anne LeBaron), and an array of woodwinds and percussion.

Vision Towards Essence (Pi, 2008): A transcendent hour-long improvisation on which Abrams evokes the inner self. He traverses a 360-degree dynamic range, conjuring a stream of thematic ideas that don’t repeat.

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams article in All About Jazz (2007):

 

At a certain point in the mid-‘60s—the exact date escapes him—pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago, visited New York for the first time, on a gig with saxophonist Eddie Harris at Harlem’s Club Barron.

“New York suited my energy,” Abrams recalled recently. “Of course. But I was already in that sort of energy. I had no doubt that I could be in New York. No doubt at all.”

Doubt seems to be a concept foreign to Abrams, 76, who moved to New York permanently in 1975. In 1983, he established the New York chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, commonly known as the AACM, which launches its 24th concert season on May 11 with a recital featuring Abrams’ quartet (Aaron Stewart, saxophone; Brad Jones, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums) and a duo by Abrams with guitarist Brandon Ross at the Community of New York at 40 East 35th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.

The institutional pre-history of the AACM began in 1961, when Abrams and Harris joined a West Side trumpeter named Johnny Hines to organize an orchestra where local musicians could workshop their charts. By Harris’ recollection, over one hundred musicians of various ages and skill levels attended. Although it disbanded within a few months, Abrams decided to begin another orchestra, which he called the Experimental Band. He recruited younger musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, who were interested, as Abrams puts it, “in more original approaches to composing and performing music.” Over the next few years, musicians such as Malachi Favors, Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Kalaparusha entered the mix to participate in the adventure. A certain momentum developed with the Experimental Band as the nucleus, and in 1965, Abrams, fellow pianist Jodie Christian, trumpeter Phil Cohran, and drummer Steve McCall convened a meeting towards the purpose of forming a new musicians organization devoted to the production of original music with a collective spirit. Thus, the AACM was launched.

Under the AACM’s auspices, Abrams mentored composer-instrumentalist-improvisers like Mitchell, Jarman, Braxton, Smith, Henry Threadgill and George Lewis in their nascent years. He also spawned an infrastructure within which each individual had autonomy to assimilate and process an enormous body of music from a broad spectrum of sources in a critical manner, and gave them manpower with whom to workshop and develop their ideas while evolving their respective voices.

The AACM first hit New York in May 1970, when cultural activist Kunle Mwanga produced a concert at the Washington Square Methodist Church with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, who had relocated from Chicago three months earlier, their AACM mates Abrams, Smith and McCall, and bassist Richard Davis, also a South Sider. At the time, Abrams had recorded two albums of his own music—Levels and Degrees of Light and Young At Heart, Wise In Time—on the Chicago-based Delmark label. Added to the mix by 1975 were Things To Come From Those Now Gone (Delmark), and Afrisong [Trio], the latter a lyric solo piano date. Once settled in New York, however, Abrams would record prolifically for the next two decades, with 16 albums on Black Saint, in addition to two dates for Novus, two for New World Countercurrents, and one for UMO. You can’t pigeonhole his interests—in Abrams’ singular universe, elemental blues themes and warp speed postbop structures with challenging intervals coexist comfortably with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and speech-sound collage structures.

Abrams resists the idea that location factors into the content that emerges from his creative process. “What affected my output is the opportunity to record,” he says. “In Chicago, if an opportunity presented itself, I created something for the occasion. When I got here, there was no difference. I am always composing and practicing for myself. Actually, it’s more like studying than composing; I research and seek and analyze music—or sound, rather, because sound precedes music itself—and things come up. When a recording or something else comes along, I put some of those things together, and it becomes a recording. Of course, in New York, I’m hearing more around me, but it doesn’t make me process things any differently. I’m still dealing with my individualism.”

The notion of following one’s own muse at whatever cost was embedded in South Side culture during the years after World War Two, when African-Americans were migrating en masse from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to Chicago for factory, railroad and stockyard jobs. As Harris told me on a WKCR interview in 1994: “In Chicago, you could hear Gene Ammons in one club, Budd Johnson in another, or Tom Archia or Dick Davis—just speaking of the saxophone. Then there were all sorts of piano players that were really…different.  You’d go to one club, and the guy didn’t sound a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.”

“You were expected to do whatever it is that you felt you wanted to do, and nobody said a word,” Abrams says of the ethos of the South Side’s world-class musician pool. “The jam sessions were like that. We played bebop and kept up with the geniuses like Bird. and them. But I was never that interested in copying something and then using it for myself. I was interested in copying it in order to analyze it. Then I would decide how I would use or do that same thing. Chicago was full of musicians who distinguished themselves as individuals.”

As an example he cites pianist John Young, best known outside Chicago for his work with tenorist Von Freeman, and a prominent stylist since the 1940s. “When you listen to John, you hear remnants of Fatha Hines,” Abrams notes, leaving unsaid Hines’ presence in Chicago from 1926 until the late ‘40s. “He was very influenced by Fatha Hines, but John  had his own way. We were impressed with the individualism from him, Ahmad Jamal, Von Freeman, Chris Anderson,  Johnny Griffin, Ike Day and Sun Ra and the Orchestra. People wonder how an AACM could develop in a city like that. It’s because you could do individual things, and nobody bothered you.”

Abrams himself is a self-taught pianist and composer. “I used to play sports, but for some reason, whenever I’d hear musicians perform, I had to stop to listen,” he recalls. “It fascinated me, and one day I decided that I wanted to be a musician. So I took off and started to seek out information about how to play the piano.”

Although Abrams attended DuSable High School, where the legendarily stern band director Walter Dyett held sway, he preferred sports to participating in school-sponsored music programs. But by 1946, he decided to enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University in the Loop. “I didn’t get too much out of that, because it wasn’t what I was hearing in the street,” he says. “I decided to study on my own. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things. I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself how to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. I listened to Tatum, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell and many others, and concentrated on Duke and Fletcher Henderson for composition. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

Abrams documents all his New York performances. Still, the decade between 1996 and last year’s issue of Streaming [Pi], a compelling triologue between Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, shows only one, self-released, issue under Abrams’ name. As of this writing, no releases were scheduled for 2007.

“That’s okay,” Abrams says. “I think things that are supposed to reach the public, eventually will. I understand that people want to be able to hear whatever is happening at any given time. However, the recording industry has ways that it does things, and sometimes this may not be consistent with what the musician wants to do. Business has a right to be whatever it is, and the artist has a right to be whatever the artist wants to be. I also think the fact that musicians can do these things themselves today because of technology causes output to come out a little bit slower. But the quality is pretty much equal, often higher, than it used to be, because the musician can spend more time preparing the output. It’s important for people to hear what I do, but the first point of importance is my being healthy enough to do it. I don’t worry about whether it gets distributed right away.

“I always felt that you need to be about the work you need to do, and that’s to find out about yourself. That’s pretty much a full-time job. You pay close attention to others, but the work that you have to do for yourself is the most difficult. I seem to move forward every time I reflect on the fact that I don’t know enough. If you feel you have something, it’s very important to get that out and develop it. Health is first. But your individualism I think is a close second.”

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Filed under AACM, Article, DownBeat, Jazziz, Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman

For The 66th Birthday of Drum Master Thurman Barker, a WKCR Interview from 1985

When I started my 23-year run on WKCR in the fall of 1985, I made it my business to try to document the personal histories of many of the AACM musicians I had admired during the ’70s, when I lived in Chicago, and continued to follow after returning to New York City in 1979. One of them was drum-percussion master Thurman Barker, who turns 66 today. It’s been on the internet for 14 years on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

* * *

Thurman Barker
November 18, 1985 – WKCR-FM New York

copyright © 1985, 1999 Ted Panken

Q: Thurman is a product of Chicago, Illinois, and a founding member from a very young age of the AACM. It’s there really that the sources of his music are to be found. So I’d like to now start to talk about your early years in the music in Chicago, when you were coming up, even before you became a member of the AACM — how you picked up on the drums and began in music.

TB: Well, I first used to take tap dancing. That was my first exposure to a form of art, you know, was tap dancing. I really got into it. Of course, I’m in grade school now, and I’m taking these tap dancing lessons about three days a week. But during my eighth year in grade school, we used to have these concerts on Fridays. They called them assemblies, you know, the drama department would put on a show or something. This particular afternoon, it was a drummer, and he came up with a full drum set, and it was just him by himself. His name was Roy Robinson, and he left a very big impression on me at that point.

So when I started high school, I started taking private lessons. I studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, under James Dutton, who was head of the percussion department there. I feel I got a very good training, because for the first two years I really didn’t see a drum set. I worked out of these workbooks for harmony and learning the basic notation of music and things like this, and just working on rudiments on the snare drum. So I really didn’t see a drum set until later on.

Q: Were you also working with musicians your age, doing gigs?

TB: Well, sure. But at this time you’ve got to remember, the first couple of years I wasn’t really playing any gigs. But I was very active on the session scene in Chicago. Monday nights were the big nights for sessions. Club De Lisa, which was a very famous night-spot in Chicago, the Coral Club on the South Side, the C.C. Lounge at 66th and Cottage Grove — a lot of these places had sessions every Monday. In any other city, probably it would work the same. You would go down, you’d meet people, you’d get up and you’d play. So I was very active, and I made sure that I got there. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of working; I just wanted to play. Fortunately, the activity was there for it to happen. I got to New York in the fall of 1979. I don’t know if that kind of activity is still going on in Chicago. But at that time it was like a training ground for me.

Q: Let’s narrow down the years we’re speaking of right now.

TB: Oh, it was ’62, ’63, in that period. You had a lot of jazz clubs that were still very big at that time, which the most famous one, where Miles Davis recorded, was the Plugged Nickel . . .

Q: Which was on the North Side.

TB: Which was on the North Side. So I got very active on the session scene. Later on I started jobbing around with people. People would meet you at a session, and they would give you a Saturday night, a party to play or a wedding. One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I started working with this saxophone player by the name of John Epps. He was a big local guy in Chicago that did a lot of parties. And that was my first steady employment, I would say, from music, was with this saxophone player. We used to work at a North Side Club in Chicago; I can’t think of the name. I was still young now. I was still in high school, you see, really my sophomore year.

Q: Who were some of the musicians in Chicago who you admired at that time?

TB: Well, Eddie Harris was a big idol of mine. Because my drum teacher used to work with Eddie Harris. His name was Harold Jones, and he was the drummer with Eddie Harris at the time. And Don Patterson, the organist, was around a lot. Of course, Von Freeman was very active. But I didn’t know Von; I knew his brother, George Freeman, who was a guitarist. So during those years I was pretty much working few jobs with George, and I didn’t get to meet Von until later on.

Anyway, so I had my first employment with John Epps, and we had this four- night gig on the North Side. I made $7 a night. And that was a big deal for me. In high school . . .

Q: This was pre-OPEC.

TB: So I had this gig, and my parents, of course, were into it, because they used to have to take me there, and go back home, and three or four hours later come back and pick me up . . . So it was a reassurance, of course, for my parents that I was getting active. Of course, for them they weren’t really concerned about the money I was making, but just the fact that I was getting active at something that they had taken some money to give me music lessons, and they were beginning to see it pay off. One thing led to the other, you know.

Q: You mentioned Eddie Harris. And in 1961, he and Muhal Richard Abrams began to form a rehearsal band that eventually became the core of the Experimental Band, and that became the core of the AACM.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This is a convoluted way of asking how you first encountered the Experimental Band and got into the AACM.

TB: At this time the Experimental Band was functioning. Of course, I didn’t know, but it was functioning. And how I got to meet Muhal was, when I was in high school, one of my best friends turned out to be Muhal’s son, and he knew that I was in the band in high school. And in high school, you know, you hang out together at lunch periods, and talk. Of course, I was a little different, and he wanted to find out what I was always doing after school. I was going home practicing, you know. And he told me that his father had a band rehearsal and was a bandleader, and for me to come down and check it out. So I said, “Wow!”

So of course, I took advantage of it. One Monday night he took me down to the rehearsal. Now, at this particular time the Experimental Band was rehearsing every Monday night at [the Abraham] Lincoln Center in Chicago. Lincoln Center is one of the cultural centers on the South Side. So they were in rehearsal. And that was my first encounter of the AACM.

Q: For people who don’t know, just describe what the Experimental Band was.

TB: The Experimental Band was a band put together of a lot of musicians on the South Side, including Eddie Harris, Phil Cohran, Roscoe Mitchell, Delbert Hill . . .

Q: And Muhal, of course.

TB: Muhal, of course! The Experimental Band was a band where musicians could come together and work on their own music. At that time there was a lot of energy among the musicians I just spoke of, Roscoe and Muhal, and they were at the point that they were doing a lot of writing. They were also jobbing around in Chicago and playing gigs and everything with big bands. Morris Ellis was one of the bandleaders around at that time that a lot of us worked with.

But this was a place, though, for everybody to come together and work on some of their original compositions that they normally wouldn’t get a chance to perform. It was run very orderly. Whoever had their composition up would direct it (of course, they would explain it first). Because we’re talking about people who had really gotten up into their music, man. In fact, they had changed the music notation. They used different music notation! At that time, you had a few people who just didn’t like the . . . Well, I’m not going to say they didn’t like it, but they just had their own symbols, you know. So they had to explain this, you see.

And of course, this was very different for me, because I’m a kid. For me, it was something really different and brand-new, you know. And I got such a big charge out of the fact that these people, not only was the music different, but they were serious about it. I mean, they could explain what they had on paper, and they had a feeling about what they were explaining and what they were doing.

Q: So you had musicians of different predispositions coming together in a rather unique situation. . .

TB: It was very unique!

Q: What do you think were some of the forces in Chicago that enabled this? Is it possible for you to say?

TB: Well, yeah. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with the fact that we were equal in terms of coming and discovering new ideas and new concepts of expressing and writing music. It’s funny how it seemed to all happen with everybody at once, you see. The period that I knew of was ’65. That was my first year of visiting the Experimental Band. So I think a lot of it had to do with, well, gee, nobody had any big record contract or nobody had 20 tours looking at him . . .

Q: It took some of the pressure off.

TB: It really did, I think. And the fact that we were all there together, and we were all equal in terms of discovering these new ideas. So there was no interference, I guess.

Q: Also there wasn’t that much work in Chicago at that time, was there?

TB: There wasn’t that much work.

Q: The urban renewal on the South Side.

TB: That’s true.

Q: The organ trios had changed.

TB: A lot of the clubs. . So it did affect the music. So right there at the Lincoln Center we were able to just start sharing these ideas, and it was like school, you know. Because I used to come down to rehearsal, and here was Henry Threadgill, Vandy Harris, Roscoe Mitchell and Delbert Hill, the first time I heard a saxophone quartet. I never even thought of it. Then I came down and hear these guys, four of them in a corner, going over these quartets, and it was just great! It was just something that I hadn’t seen.

But sure, I think a lot of the fact that it was easy for us to come together, there wasn’t a lot of work happening at that time, and it was just the opportune time for us to come together.

Q: Within the rehearsal band, there were different configurations and smaller groups that developed. I know you were playing with Joseph Jarman, and in 1967 you did your first records with Joseph Jarman and Muhal.

TB: That’s right, Joseph Jarman. Song For.

Q: Tell us how you met Joseph, and some of the connections with Joseph and with Muhal.

TB: Well, Joseph was right there in the woodwind section in the Experimental Band. Of course, he had a composition. Of course, by me going to school at the Conservatory, see, I had been introduced to playing mallets, like for tom- toms and tympany, you see. So he had a chart for mallets, you see. So we went through this chart, and he was a little amazed maybe, surprised that I had a touch for playing.

Q: You could play the charts.

TB: Yeah, I could play the charts. I could read.

Q: Your rudiments were very developed.

TB: Yeah, they were pretty developed at that point, that I could read, you see. And he had music; I mean, music for the drums. Of course, I had played all these other gigs with people, and there was no music. I would just go up and play. But here I come down to the Experimental Band, and these guys not only have music for the brass and woodwinds; they’ve got a chart for me. So that was in itself different.

But anyway, after the chart he came over and told me how much he really liked the sound, and what I was into. And I told him that, well, I would like to play some music, I’m not playing with anybody. So he asked me to come down and start rehearsing with his group. So I would get down on a Monday early. At that time in the Experimental Band there was a bassist by the name of Charles Clark. He was a very exceptional player, and he also was in the string section in the Experimental Band. Obviously, Charles had done some playing with Joseph before, because I could see that they knew each other, see. And Fred Anderson, a saxophonist in Chicago, also was in the woodwind section. So when I got to our first rehearsal, well, Fred Anderson was there, Billy Brimfield, the trumpeter who lives in Evanston, and Charles Clark and Joseph and myself.

Q: Was Christopher Gaddy on that also?

TB: And Christopher Gaddy, who was an exceptional keyboard player at the time. But we were all at this rehearsal, and that was the first time that I had got together with some people who were really playing some serious music, and I could see that it was just different. So I really wanted to be a part of that, you know.

Q: Let’s hear “Adam’s Rib” from the first LP on which you participated, Joseph Jarman’s Song For. Say something about the LP.

TB: First of all, I was going to say that after four or five months of getting really active with Joseph and playing some gigs around Chicago and the Experimental Band, the surprising thing came up one day that Joseph said, “Look, we’ve got a record date.”

Q: Had you been gigging? A few jobs here and there?

TB: We had a few gigs here and there. And it’s funny, my only experience with gigs were in clubs. All of a sudden, I look up and we’re playing in a bookstore. So immediately I knew that this music was going to take me in a different place. It was different, and it was exciting, you see. So just to make a long story short, I looked up one day, after I’d known Joseph four or five months I look up, and there I am in a studio making my very first record.

Q: Do you think that Song For is representative of the music that Joseph was doing at the time with the group?

TB: Yes, it is. Because the music that you’re about to hear is the music that we were playing during this period, and this is 1967 in Chicago.

[Music: “Adam’s Rib”; example of TB’S percussion music; Muhal Richard Abrams, “The Bird Song”]

TB: This is the stuff that was going in Chicago during this period.

Q: Programmatic music of all idioms.

TB: That’s true. Of course, during this time, we were doing this in clubs! We didn’t only do concerts at Abraham Lincoln Center.

Q: There were concerts at the University of Chicago campus.

TB: That’s true. There were a lot of concerts. I can remember most Fridays there were concerts at the University of Chicago. Also, the Student Union there used to put on a lot of concerts that the AACM members participated in. So we had some people that liked this music, and supported it, and wanted it to be heard.

Q: Meanwhile, the big band was still functioning.

TB: The Big Band was functioning every Monday. And believe me, no matter what happened, we all made that Monday night available for the Experimental Band. Because hey, that was the time that somebody got their music played, and that was a real serious and big deal then.

Q: Is Levels And Degrees of Light in any way representative of what was going on in the Big Band?

TB: Yes, it is. Because in the Big Band we had people like Henry Threadgill. Well, you know Henry, he’s really into theatre, you see. So for him to use the Big Band and use some recitation and some theatre, and be able to combine it, he definitely was one who would do it — and of course, Muhal. And Joseph was doing a lot of theatrical material. A lot of stuff.

So this was all a brand-new experience for me, and I had never seen it anywhere else. Of course, by the time of this recording with Muhal Richard Abrams, Levels and Degrees Of Light, my second record, I am really involved musically and, you know, as a group. I really felt I wanted to be a part of this movement here that was happening.

Q: I neglected to ask you about some of your musical influences outside the Chicago music scene? Who were some of the tough drummers who you thought well of?

TB: Well, the first guy that stands out is Cozy Cole. Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me, because in that period Cozy Cole made a solo 45 called “Topsy.” That was the very first drum solo that I memorized, beat for beat and rhythm for rhythm. I mean, I got that down. Because it just had a lot of emotion in it. So Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me at that time.

Also Roy McCurdy, who was the drummer with Cannonball Adderley. And of course, my drum teacher, Harold Jones. During the latter part of the ’60s there was a TV show that used to come on an educational station in Chicago, WTTW, a program that used to come on once a week called “Jazz Casual.” This was my first time actually seeing the music on TV. Of course, Ed Sullivan and all them people were on TV, but the band never really got featured. But here was a TV show that featured music, you see. So I was influenced a lot by, of course, Philly Joe Jones, Roy McCurdy with Cannonball, and Elvin Jones, who was with John Coltrane’s Quartet. I saw the original quartet on this show “Jazz Casual.” The host of the show I think was Ralph Gleason. Anyway, he ran this show once a week, and I saw Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, the John Coltrane Quartet, the pianist Bill Evans.

Now, these people were coming to Chicago, but I could not get in the clubs. There was this one club that they used to play at called McKie’s on 63rd and Cottage Grove, right there by the El. The El train is the elevated train that runs in Chicago, for those who don’t know. But I used to catch there right at 63rd and Cottage Grove, and I used to pass by this club, and I would see these names in big letters: The John Coltrane Quartet, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins. And this was the club.

Q: And cats would be jamming there.

TB: Of course they might be jamming there.

Q: Gene Ammons might be strolling by and give a lesson for out-of-towners.

TB: That’s right!

Q: Were you playing in venues outside the AACM? Were you playing classical music at this time? I know you said you studied at the Conservatory.

TB: Well, mainly it was private training and ensemble classes at that time. At this time, ’66, ’67, ’68, those three years, most of my activity was with the AACM, with Muhal and Joseph Jarman. Those three years most of my activity was that. And we got some gigs!

Q: You went to Detroit, for instance, in 1967 and ran into John Sinclair.

TB: Yeah, exactly. John Sinclair was an organizer in Detroit who used to organize concerts at Wayne State University, and one year, I think it was ’67, he got us a big gig at the Ann Arbor Jazz Festival. And you know, this is my first big out-of-town gig now. Joseph Jarman, the late Christopher Gaddy, the late Charles Clark, and myself on drums. So this music that we’re hearing on Delmark is a very good representation of the music scene in Chicago.

Q: And you’ve filled us in most thoroughly on things that were happening.

TB: I hope so.

Q: We’ll progress now and move to events that happened later. TB: Sure. As If It Were The Seasons, that was my third album at this time. This was a session that was put together by Joseph Jarman. We have Charles Clark on bass and cello, myself on all kinds of drums, a vocalist named Sherri Scott, Muhal Richard Abrams on piano and oboe, a very good flutist who really never got any attention named Joel Brandon, and Fred Anderson is on tenor sax, John Stubblefield, who has a big feature here, is also on tenor sax, and the late John Jackson on trumpet and Lester Lashley on trombone. This composition is written by Joseph Jarman, entitled “Song For Christopher.”

Q: Everything changed in Chicago after 1969, because that’s when Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall and the Art Ensemble left for Europe.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This, of course, would have had its effect on Thurman, who was still a very young musician.

TB: Well, Joseph in ’68 had gotten involved with the Art Ensemble, and they were really into some intensive rehearsals. So boom, there I was, the late Charles Clark had died, the late Christopher Gaddy had died — and these two people were like my brothers; we did everything together. So it was a real lonely period for me, because Joseph now, you could say the quartet had broke up, and Joseph had joined forces with the Art Ensemble . . .

Q: They were lacking a drummer, however. Did the possibility of your performing with them ever come up?

TB: Yes, it did. And it came up at a bad time. And I swear, it’s one of the biggest mistakes that I regret in my life. Because the group had gone to Europe, and you know, they were pioneering some areas. They didn’t have anything really guaranteed, and they had been to Europe for a few years now. We’re talking about the years 1970-’71. So they were in Europe. But at this time, I had gotten involved with theatre, you see. In 1968 I started doing the Broadway production of Hair. Q: As a musician?

TB: As a musician. I got a call, and I was playing percussion, okay, so the Broadway show Hair was in Chicago at the Schubert Theatre — and I looked up, and there I was in theatre now.

Q: With a good union job!

TB: With a good union job! And see, that was a big deal for me. See, my father is a retired union man, so he was very pleased and very happy. So here I was working downtown at the Schubert Theatre at this time, doing Hair. That job lasted two years, from 1968 to 1970.

Q: Naturally, you didn’t want to leave that for the insecurity of roaming Europe.

TB: Well, of course. So what happened was, I get this call in the wee hours of the morning, something like two or three o’clock in the morning, and it’s from overseas — and this was Roscoe Mitchell. And Roscoe Mitchell expressed, “Well, look, T-Bird. . .” That was a nickname that came from Roscoe. He calls me T-Bird, and now it caught on, and everybody calls me that, now, you see. But he gave me that name. And he said, “Look, we’ve been over here working, and we’ve been thinking about it a lot, and we would like for you to join the Art Ensemble.” So of course, the first thing I said was, “Well, look, do you have any gigs?” And Roscoe was really honest. He said, “Well, no, we don’t have any gigs, and we don’t know where our next gig is, but we’re working on some things that we’re pioneering, some new areas.” So I said, “Well, look, I’ve got a gig; I’m doing this show” — and I never knew! Well, I had this full-time job, and I didn’t think I should leave it.

Q: It happened to a lot of musicians in Chicago, what happened to you.

TB: Yeah! So I said, look, I couldn’t make it, but I would like to join them if they got back into town. So Roscoe said, “Okay, I understand.” And the next thing I knew, months and months up the road,they came back.

Q: They came back in ’71.

TB: They came back in ’71, and they had Don Moye.

Q: That was that.

TB: That was that. I kissed that gig goodbye, and that was that.

Q: What else was happening as far as gigs in Chicago after they left for Europe? You were playing with Kalaparusha [Maurice McIntyre]?

TB: I was playing with Kalaparusha, and I was doing a few gigs with Leroy Jenkins now. He was still there, you see, after the Art Ensemble had cut out and everything. So we had these gigs at clubs on the South Side. I’m trying to think of the names of some of these places; it’s been so long. But George Freeman, Leroy Jenkins, myself, and. . .

Q: George Freeman playing the AACM type of music?

TB: Yeah, he was into it. He plays guitar, and that was the first time that I saw guitar into the music.

Q: Was Cosey doing. . .

TB: [Guitarist] Pete Cosey was doing a few things. At this time, Pete along Sherri Scott. . .

Q: Who played with Earth, Wind and Fire . . .

TB: At that time she was rehearsing with Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, and he was getting the band off the ground. They were doing a lot of rehearsing.

But mostly in this period I had really gotten involved in theatre. Not saying that the AACM was not functioning. It was still going on. It was just that we were still doing our concert series. . . You know, a lot of people had left, like the Art Ensemble, but at the same time we were recruiting new blood. Like Douglas Ewart, who came in at that time. So we were getting new blood, and the organization was still moving on along with the times.

Q: And the Big Band was still functioning.

TB: And the Big Band was still functioning. And you’ve got to remember, even though we had this concert series happening, we were very, very supported by the community which we lived in and participated in. And I think that was one of the main differences between then and now, was the fact that. . .

Q: In New York City.

TB: Yeah, but . . .

Q: But then in New York City as well. I think New York City is just not that type of town.

TB: It just isn’t that type of town. And at that time in Chicago, we were very well supported by the community. And we used to even go outside and play outside and jam. I don’t know, this was with Muhal, Muhal would bring his clarinet out, and Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, Kalaparusha, Charles Clark — We used to take our instruments out there in Jackson Park, which is a large park on the South Side, and just sit out there and play. For me it was like a rehearsal. Maybe for people like Roscoe and maybe Muhal, maybe they were thinking of, “Well, this is a way of getting this new music out to the people.” See, for me at the time, I had a comfortable gig, and I was getting gigs, and I was playing some music, and I was active.

Q: So you were active in theatre throughout the ’70s, is that it?

TB: Most of the ’70s.

Q: What made you decide to return to performing creative music, then? And let’s talk about some of the circumstances that led you to return actively to the scene.

TB: Well, one thing was that after playing in theatre, I had learned a great deal. Number one, I learned how to play with a conductor. I learned how to play in a section. Because in theatre, not only do you have a trap drummer, but you have two or three percussion players. And a lot of my training, and a lot of music that I was studying at that time, I’m having an opportunity to really try out now. But I learned a lot in the pit orchestra. And one of the main things was being able to play in a section.

So after, say, 1975-’76, I started getting back to the AACM, into that music. Because I had gotten all of this training, you see. And for the first time, I felt like I wanted to add something to the music of Muhal and to the music of Joseph Jarman and Roscoe, or whoever was doing something. The music took on a new meaning for me at this time, because I had the years from ’71 to ’75 to really think about all the music that I had performed in the late ’60s with Muhal and everybody. Because at the time I was performing it, I really had on clear idea of this new music, you see.

Q: I can think of an analogy. In the 1950’s, and in the ’60s, for that matter, a lot of musicians after their initial apprenticeships in the Army, and got their rudiments very much together in the Army by playing all the time.

TB: That’s true.

Q: And it sounds like this theatre job performed a similar function for you.

TB: It really did. And I was just able to sort of get a clearer understanding about the music. And keep in mind, I’m still studying, I’m practicing very hard. . . So when I returned in ’75, that was really a very progressive year for the organization, because everyone had really gone out and developed their personal concepts.

Q: George Lewis had hit the scene . . .

TB: George Lewis hit the scene in that year. So it was like a revitalization of everything, you know. And I think especially the Art Ensemble, Muhal, Jenkins, they all had had a taste of getting their music performed and recorded, and gotten a taste of the business, gotten a taste of the music scene outside of Chicago. Because you’ve got to remember, before that time nobody had left Chicago.

Q: And that was a time when musicians from all over the country began converging on New York.

TB: Exactly. Now, I must get in here that during the early Seventies, like ’72 and ’73, there was a collaboration of musicians from St. Louis, like for instance, Oliver Lake. Oliver Lake had formed a new music organization I think called X-BAG . . . I think that’s it; I’m not sure. But I do remember that there was a collaboration with the St. Louis musicians.

Q: I remember Julius Hemphill was coming to Chicago in the ’70s.

TB: Exactly. Julius Hemphill. We’re talking about Oliver Lake, we’re talking about Charles Bobo Shaw, Baikida Carroll. Who else?

Q: Joseph Bowie.

TB: Joseph Bowie, of course. So the AACM members even went to St. Louis. And they produced a concert in collaboration with both groups, and also we did the same thing for X-BAG, and Oliver Lake and Baikida and everybody came from St. Louis to Chicago to participate in a concert series that we did. And that was a real strong thing that happened in ’71 and ’72, or so.

Q: Let’s get back to some music.

TB: I was going to go with some more of my percussion duet record.

[Music from Muhal Richard Abrams, LifeaBlinec, “JoDoTh”]

Q: Now we’re in 1978, and in 1978 Thurman joined Anthony Braxton’s working band.

TB: That’s right.

Q: That was a very tight band.

TB: Yeah, it was. It really began in 1977. Anthony Braxton had come to Chicago, and I guess at that time he had just broke up the quartet that he had with Barry Altschul, Dave Holland and George Lewis that was his working band, they’d made some records for Arista. There was an AACM Festival I remember at McCormack Place.

Q: I remember that. Braxton played a gig all on clarinets, with you and Malachi Favors.

TB: He played a gig all on clarinets. And part of that concert was a quartet with Leroy Jenkins on violin, Leonard Jones on bass, Anthony and myself. After that concert, Braxton asked me if I wanted to join the band, and I was just thrilled. I was ready. So that’s the beginning of how that started. We went out. That was the fall of 1977. I remember my very first gig with the quartet out of town was the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival, which was in Philadelphia, I think. And that was my first big out of town gig with the Braxton Quartet. I must say, at that same time Ray Anderson also was very new in the band.

Q: Another Chicagoan.

TB: So Ray Anderson and myself were the new members of the quartet in 1977, and Mark Helias had joined the quartet a few months prior, so he had already played a few gigs. But for Ray Anderson and myself, the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival was our first gig.

Q: How did you like playing with Braxton? What’s the relationship of his music to a drummer, in some sense?

TB: Well, it was really interesting, because Braxton had a way, first of all, of notating his music. He gave me the same part that Ray Anderson had or that Braxton had, see. That was one of the big differences, see. It wasn’t a drum part. It was a part that everybody else had. So now for the time in playing improvised music, I could not only create my own drum part, but I could follow along with all the other instruments to see what they were doing. So it was exciting, it was different. In a way, it was a lot easier for me to adapt to his music, because this was, I would say, my first feeling how jazz and classical music could mix together. This was my first introduction. Because a lot of Braxton’s music had these sounds and compositions that were very close to classical music for me. So for the first time now, with all that training that I watched the percussion players play in the orchestra pits in Chicago, and watching my percussion teacher at the Conservatory. . . For the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the knowledge and strokes, and the finesse and touch on my drum set playing jazz.

Q: Did Braxton produce a lot of new music during that time?

TB: He was writing a lot during this time. And I think the way the band was going. . . I know we used to travel a lot. And he would be so occupied with turning out compositions every day, just for this band . . .

Q: And he’d play them on the stand that night?

TB: He’d play them on the stand that night.

Q: Nice for Braxton, to have a band like that.

TB: It was great for Braxton! I hope he had his ASCAP and all that stuff together. But it was great for me, for everybody, because we were not only playing some new music, but we were working, we were out on the road, and we had an opportunity to perform it that night, and to see how it would go for the first time.

So for me, for the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the percussion concept on traps. All those years with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, I didn’t really know how to. . . I mean, this music was brand-new. I was trying to find my way, you see. One thing about Muhal and Joseph at this time, one thing they did give me, and that was a lot of support. Even though I didn’t know what the hell I was doing — I was trying. But they gave me a lot of support. But by the time ’77 came around, I had a pretty clear idea about how I wanted to perform and how I wanted to construct.

Q: You were a mature musician at this time.

TB: Yeah, of course. Now I’ve learned a lot. I’ve played a whole bunch of gigs, and I’ve learned a lot. And believe me, that’s the best training you can get, is right there on the bandstand.

Q: Just playing.

TB: That’s true.

[Music: Braxton Quartet, “W6-4N-R6-AH0”]

TB: That recording was done while the quartet was on tour, so it was a real special time for me. Even though I had recorded with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, it was a very good time for me. Because to record with Anthony Braxton who at that time had risen to be a very popular figure in new music, and number two, he had a record contract at the time, so that was a little different.

Q: And later that year you recorded with Sam Rivers.

TB: That’s right. What happened was that the AACM gave its first concert on New York territory in 1976, right here at Columbia University. We were able to perform our first jazz festival right here in New York. And in the audience, of course, was Mr. Sam Rivers. I had performed with some of the groups and with the Big Band. So Sam was in the audience — and this was in ’76.

A few years later, I get this call right out of the blue. It was Sam Rivers, and he was asking me to come to New York and to make a record. Of course I was floored! I said, “Sure, when are the rehearsals and when can we get together, because I need to learn your music.” He said, “Look, we’ll just rehearse in the studio. But can you be here by this particular date?” I said, “No problem.” So my very first contact with Sam Rivers was in the studio, and we made the record that we are about to hear called Waves on Tomato Records. Of course, I am now very familiar with Sam Rivers in terms off what he’s done, and all the Blue Note records that he appeared on with Andrew Hill and Tony Williams — the early Blue Note dates.

Q: Not to mention that he had used Braxton’s previous bass and drums.

TB: Exactly. Now here I go, I’m beginning to think that I’m in a circle here, because somehow Anthony Braxton’s rhythm section went with Sam Rivers — and we’re speaking of Barry Altschul and Dave Holland. At the time I joined Sam, Dave Holland was still there. This recording features Joe Daley on brass, Dave Holland on bass and cello, and myself on drums and percussion, and Sam Rivers. Like I say, I was really back, because this was my first contact with Dave Holland and Sam, and here I am getting ready to make a record. So it was quite a special event for me.

[Music: S. Rivers, “Surge”]

Q: Thurman, you played a gig this past weekend in Boston with Sam Rivers as guest artist.

TB: Exactly. It was my gig. I was able to get two nights at a club in Boston called Charlie’s Tap, Friday and Saturday, the Thurman Barker Trio featuring Sam Rivers. Anyway, I had an opportunity to be able to join forces with an artist who I was able to learn a lot of music from, and we played a lot of gigs. As a matter of fact, after the Waves record, we went on tour. Contrasts was also done while we were on tour. Sam did spend a lot of time in Boston, studying at the New England Conservatory, and then throughout the ’50s.

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Filed under AACM, Anthony Braxton, Drummer, Interview, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sam Rivers, Thurman Barker, WKCR

For Andrew Cyrille’s 74th Birthday, a 2004 DownBeat Feature , and Several Verbatim Interviews

For Andrew Cyrille’s 74th birthday, I’m posting my “director’s cut” of a DownBeat feature, as well several contemporaneous interviews, an interview that appeared in the liner notes for one CD of the double set Anthony Braxton & Andrew Cyrille: Duo Palindrome 2002, and the proceedings of a WKCR interview  from 1997.  Additionally, here’s a link to a previously posted Blindfold Test from the early ’00s, and an interview i conducted with the maestro in 2001 for a piece on Cecil Taylor. (https://tedpanken.wordpress.com/tag/andrew-cyrille/)
* * *
Over a fortnight in July, Iridium, the upscale mid-Manhattan venue, presented two very different bands comprised primarily of hardcore survivors of the ‘60s “New Thing.” The common denominator was drummer Andrew Cyrille, who fed and stoked the simmering fires that, back in the day, had led the cohort to try to change the world with music.

During the first week, Cyrille participated in open-ended tabula rasa sets with Henry Grimes and Perry Robinson, who were joined for one night apiece by Dave Douglas and Gary Bartz and for the final four by Bennie Maupin. On week two, Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman propelled outcat avatars Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd through 12 sets of their own programmatic music. Cyrille addressed each circumstance with the finesse and power of a master tennis player, instantly intuiting intentions, recalibrating dynamics and rhythmic shape, volleying back deadly accurate, complementary responses to every salvo and deploying an enormous lexicon of beats and timbres to keep his postulations fresh. In the consistency of his creativity and unfailing professionalism, Cyrille epitomized the discipline and exhilaration of speculative improvising at its highest level.

These qualities are no secret to Cyrille’s peer group. Attracted by his ability to mold a multitude of drum dialects into a continuous  stream of ideas, composer-improvisers like John Carter, Muhal Richard Abrams, Leroy Jenkins, Oliver Lake, Don Pullen, David Murray and John Lindberg employed him extensively on projects during the ‘80s and ‘90s. During the past 15 years, he’s partnered with Workman and Lake in a coop trio, and on numerous gigs and recordings with Mal Waldron, Horace Tapscott, Dave Burrell and Finnish saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen. In the ‘70s and ’80s, Cyrille expressed his compositional voice with Maono, a quartet featuring David S. Ware and trumpeter Ted Daniel, and over the past decade he’s led more consonant, groove-oriented ensembles that articulate the rhythms and melodies of the African diaspora. These followed the pioneering 1969 solo drum recital What About [BYG] and a 1972 percussion dialogue with Milford Graves entitled Dialogue of the Drums. Over the past quarter-century, Cyrille has documented a string of extemporaneous encounters with such diverse artists as Jimmy Lyons, Irene Schweizer, Richard Teitelbaum, Vladimir Tarasov, Borah Bergman, Peter Brotzman, Odo Addy, James Newton, Peter Kowald, Greg Osby and, recently, with Anthony Braxton.

In a conversation for the liner notes of Duo Palindrome: 2002, Vols. 1&2 [Intakt], documenting the Braxton-Cyrille meeting, Braxton, whose 1979 duets with Max Roach are classics of the idiom,  illuminated Cyrille’s extraordinary resourcefulness at musical conversation. “Andrew has his own special rhythmic logics and sense of time, and he hears everything in the music,” he said. “He has a very clear understanding of what constitutes an idea. He works with devices that he’s evolved to suit his own needs that give the illusion of time in a very strict way. He’s a conceptualist who is able to respond to the moment in a dynamic array of syntaxes and propositions, while at the same time, his work is very mature and he goes to the HEART of the problem.”

“Andrew is a very sharp-minded individual,” says Grimes, who recalls first breaking bread with Cyrille on a Brooklyn gig with baritone sax legend Harry Carney in 1963, and toured with him and David Murray shortly before the Iridium engagement. “We develop forms playing with each other. I think the important thing to remember is that we both learned to do that playing with Cecil Taylor. You never forget those things.”

* * *
“I didn’t know that,” Taylor laughs, upon being informed that Cyrille, his regular drummer from 1964 until 1975, was preparing at the time they first met to matriculate at St. John’s University as a chemistry major. Born in Brooklyn in 1939 to Haitian immigrants, Cyrille learned his rudiments in a junior high school drum-and-bugle corps from instructors like Lenny McBrowne, Willie Jones and Lee Abrams, all established jazz drummers of the day. They brought the aspirant to see Max Roach, himself a son of Brooklyn, rehearse at a bar called the Putnam Central  around the corner from his school, and told him about Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke and Shadow Wilson. By 16, Cyrille, who had bussed dishes at a Horn & Hardhart cafeteria and rolled carts of ready-to-wear around Manhattan’s Garment District after school, was earning pocket money on local dances and social functions with a trio that included guitarist Eric Gale. Soon, he was swinging on gigs with eminent beboppers like pianist Duke Jordan and baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne.

One afternoon, trumpeter Ted Curson heard Cyrille rehearsing, and came in from the street to listen. “When the rehearsal was over, Ted said he was going to Times Square to rehearse with this piano player,” Cyrille recalls. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come on over? You never heard anybody play piano like this in your life.’ I took my snare drum. We went to the school, and I met Cecil Taylor. Cecil let me sit in, and then we took the train uptown and played some more at a club on Amsterdam Avenue around 154th Street where I’d gone several times for sessions.”

“What I remember about Mr. Cyrille,” says Taylor, “is a session at a place on 158th Street called Branker’s. I think it might have been Mal Waldron’s gig, and he allowed me to sit in. At one point Andrew sat in with me, and played a rhythm that made me stop playing. I looked at him, and I asked him, ‘And what is that?’ He gave me that wonderful Haitian smile and said, ‘Well, you want me to try it again?’”

That year, Cyrille, daunted by the difficulty of studying chemistry by day, gigging at night, and doing both to the best of his ability, opted for music and transferred to Juilliard. There he “learned the literature and materials and theory of music,” and began to accrue the strains that comprise the sum of his mature tonal personality. “My head was into jazz, and that’s what I wanted to get together,” he says. “My teacher told me he’d prepare me to work in one of the symphony orchestras, which was not what I had in mind. So I went out and found people who would help me – like Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams, Illinois Jacquet, Hank Mobley and Kenny Dorham. The first drummer Freddie Hubbard played with when he came to New York was me, at the Turbo Village in Brooklyn. Same with John Handy; we played a gig at the Shalimar in Harlem, across the street from Sugar Ray’s by the Hotel Theresa.”

Extracurricularly, Cyrille gigged and recorded with Sudanese bassist-composer Ahmed Abdul Malik and Babatunde Olatunji’s drumcentric ensemble, and began the process of internalizing the rhythms of the African continent and extrapolating them to the drumset. He played for classes at the June Taylor School of Dance for emerging choreographers like Michael Bennett, Jamie Rogers, and Claude Thompson. “That taught me a lot about playing drums in an independent manner, and making music from the drums,” he states. “I drew on that experience in making solo percussion records. Someone would tell me, ‘Make my body move,’ and I had to play the rhythms and accent things in a way that would do that. I also learned the way Africans visualize some dance component when thinking about the music. When I began working with Cecil, he would ask me what informed my playing, and one thing I told him was that dance did.”

As Cyrille accumulated knowledge, he became restless with the musical status quo. Throughout this time, he remained in touch with Cecil Taylor. “Cecil wasn’t who he is now,” Cyrille states. “He was a guy who was practicing and wanted to get his thing together. We’d run into each other, or he’d hear me play, and say, ‘Yeah, man, sounds like you’ve been listening to Philly Joe Jones.’ I mean, Cecil had his ear to what was going down. We developed a spiritual relationship through our musical attraction until we began to work together regularly.

“I had never heard anyone play the piano that way – the speed, the alacrity, his passion for the music, the information he had, the way he notated his music, what he asked from each of the musicians who played the music in rehearsals. With Cecil I could do whatever I wanted. I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, ‘Play five beats of this’ or ‘give me three beats of that.’ He’d say, ‘Man, you know how to play the drums. Do what drummers do.’ So it was incumbent upon me to make sure that my integrity was as true-blue as Baby Dodds or Zutty Singleton!  I did not want to do anything against the tradition of those guys, and the people from whom I learned, like Max and Art and Philly Joe, in case people might say that it wasn’t it wasn’t blue-blood, so to speak. I got my information together on every aspect of the drumset – the independent coordination, the foot-play, the dropping of the bombs, being tasty, playing in the spaces, accompanying – and I brought my information to the table. But it was my own sense of how to do it. It wouldn’t necessarily be the same kind of rhythms my mentors they would play or the way that they would parse or organize the rhythms. But then again, it was!”

“Mr. Cyrille had a secret,” Taylor says, choosing his words with care. ”You could take him wherever you wanted, and he had the ability to distill whatever the structures were, to go with you there, and react in the most musical way in any situation. He understood—and understands—about the joy of accompanying, and feeding, and being fed. He is meticulous as well as exquisite. He is the epitome of the logical, but beyond that, he’s magical. The logical world could be painfully objective, but he is magical in the sense that he understands what the sound perimeters are, and because of his exquisite taste, he makes a transition from being logical to being a spiritual healer.”

Taylor recounts hearing Cyrille put his process to work over a week at the Blue Note several years ago with Mal Waldron and Workman. “I went three consecutive nights,” he says. “It was an experience in what mature musicians can do. On one occasion it came time for Andrew to make his drum statement, and I felt I was actually hearing the music transposed from piano to Andrew’s instrument. You could actually hear Andrew developing the material in Mal’s compositional form, and see the slices of the structure being transformed by Andrew’s playing.”

Whatever the context in which the give-and-take of improvising occurs, Cyrille attends to the kinetics of sound in motion. “I think a lot of the invention in improvising comes from the push-and-pull of people playing their own rhythms, motifs, themes in keeping with their concept of the music,” he says. “I try to think of a rhythmical shape that will allow me to make music with the voices of the drums. For example, when Cecil sits down at the piano, he’ll usually start with something pointillistic and jagged. So I’ll begin that way, then I’ll take a step, another step, two-three steps, then sit back and listen for a while, and pace, like fencing or a cat stalking a mouse.”

* * *
In one of their rare meetings since 1975, Cyrille joined Taylor’s group for a panoramic 1999 Berlin concert, documented last spring on Incarnation [FMP]

“Cecil was very sharp,” Cyrille recalls. “We had a magical dialogue. This kind of improvising is a matter of very close listening and trading of information. It’s like a game. We put forth sounds, ideas, rhythms, melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements, and we surprise each other with replies and continue to evolve within the dialogue. It can be endless. And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, it’s as though we’ve finished a conversation. We’ve grown, matured, to some degree even mellowed. It’s always a struggle to create art. But the way we put forth the effort is so much smoother and more nuanced. We’re much more confident with the language than we were.”

Cyrille manifests that confidence whether, as Workman puts it, he’s “doing what you do the way you want to do it or compromising certain things to satisfy a need.” “I believe that the more you know, the more you have to say,” he says. “For me, it’s about learning how to play music, and music is broad. It’s giving what’s being asked for. When I was in school, Willie Jones and all those cats talked about, ‘You’ve got to be a professional.’ Max Roach was a consummate professional. I’d see Gigi Gryce and Jackie McLean at a place called the Continental, and they looked professional. That means they were working and making money.”

During the ‘70s, as musicians from Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles came to New York and shook up the scene, Cyrille found new sources of inspiration. “What I got from those people is that there’s no particular formation or configuration to play this music,” he says. “I appreciated that cultural perspective. I love adventure. I love to explore. It boils down to being creative and dealing cooperatively within the concept the music presents to find exciting, new and different stuff. It’s how you reinterpret the prescription to make things happen.

“When I’m playing with Braxton, then it’s a different prescription from forty years ago. It’s different when I play with Muhal Richard Abrams, but sometimes it’s the same, because Muhal often plays blues at the end of his gig, and he’ll want a backbeat. I used to play organ gigs at those places where Don Pullen also played, like Hempstead, Long Island, on Thursday or Friday nights, when those sleep-in women who worked at the homes out there had a night off. You’d have the blue and green lights turning around, with those filters, people were dancing and men were meeting women, and a lot of times you had to play those blues so those people could get off, so they could actually feel they were having a good time. You LEARNED how to do that. That’s part of being a professional. With Cecil I did what I wanted to. But the challenge then is to keep something happening on the same level as it would happen if I was playing the blues, or if I was playing with a dancer who would say to me, ‘Okay, drummer, make my body move.’”

“Part of the excitement of playing with Andrew is the spectra of gambits thrown into the air,” says Braxton. “It’s not like we just do everything we can come up with. We define parameters and work inside them, and he presents me with very mature ideas and conceptual propositions to either accept or transform. There are rhythmic time spaces, sections that demonstrate extreme timbre states, sections which take more silence into account, and sections which are multi-directional. His vocabulary is really broad. It’s the same with Max Roach. He has enough ideas and experience to take the hi-hat, make a whole concert on it, and not bore you. Andrew has that kind of understanding. His music goes past the concept of idiomatic. He always respected the scholastic and scientific components of the music, he’s always been open, and that openness put him in a very different psychological and vibrational space from many of the New York musicians of his era.”

Closing in on 65, Cyrille is not about to close any doors. “When the element of surprise is not there, it doesn’t seem like there’s too much happening,” he concludes. “I remove as much of any barrier as I can, I aim for the heavens, and always try to have something that will surprise not only myself, but the musicians I am playing with and the audience that listens.”

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (7-22-03) — for Duo (Palindrome) 2002:

TP:    Was this your first duo interaction with Braxton?

CYRILLE:  The first duo, yes.

TP:    What’s your performing history with him?

CYRILLE:  I did a recording, it must have been back in the ’80s, with him and Jon Raskin, the bassist Cecil McBee, and a pianist named Dred Scott, on Tristano music.  That was for Hat Hut.  Years ago we did a concert in Connecticut — I think at Wesleyan, when Bill Barron was up there and Bill Lowe.  Anthony Davis, Gerry Hemingway; a lot of cats who were new music at that time, and that was one of the places where it was done.  Prior to that, I first met Braxton in Paris when I went there with Cecil in 1969.

TP:    That’s when he traveled to Europe with Leo Smith and Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Maybe it was during that BYG Festival business, when all the musicians were in Paris, and I did those recordings with Grachan Moncur and Jimmy Lyons, and I did the solo What About album.  I met Braxton in the street, and I forget the details, but he came up and said, “Oh, my name is Anthony Braxton,” and we started talking and meeting each other, etc.  It was just guys from different parts of the country who were into the music, and in Paris, and had something in common.

After that, I’d see him in Europe and other places on occasion.  He was doing a lot of recording.  He was then almost the way David Murray was in terms of recording.  He was recording all the time.  He was the darling of a lot of those people.

TP:    That quartet was very popular for a few years.  He kept them working quite a bit.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, he did a lot of stuff.  Before that I saw him with Circle, that quartet with Chick Corea.  So I’d been checking out Braxton from time to time.  I remember this one time someone had put out the word that he didn’t want to work with drummers, or something derogatory from him about drummers, and I went up to him at the old Five Spot and asked him about it.  And he said, “Me?  No, man. How can I not love drummers?  I play with drummers all the time.  Drummers are some of my favorite people.” Blah-blah, blah-blah.  You know how he gets.

Then later on, I heard that duet recording he did with Max Roach.  And on a number of occasions, he said to me that I was one of his favorite drummers and one day he’d like to do a duet with me.  He’d done one with Max Roach and he’d like to do one with Roy Haynes.  I don’t know if he ever did one with Roy Haynes, but here I am, number two, and maybe one day he might do something with Roy.  But that’s more or less how we got in touch with each other.

TP:    What was your early sense of the dynamics of his music?  I’m presuming you didn’t listen too closely to it, but enough to form an opinion.  How would you describe his musical personality?

CYRILLE:  It was different. See, a lot of times what defines great musicians, and sometimes you have to get used to this… It’s not necessarily the melodies they play, or maybe even the harmonies they play, but it’s the rhythm.  And the way he assigned rhythm was just a little bit different.  It was a little bit pointillistic, you might call it.  Steve McCall was working with him on occasion…

TP:    Barry Altschul played in that group, so did Thurman Barker and Gerry Hemingway.  It was a pulse-oriented group.

CYRILLE:  All I’m saying is that the way he would play… I bought a couple of records.  To me, a lot of the music was pointillistic. In other words, BEEP bop, BOOP.  Buh-bu-bup.  buh-bup.  That’s kind of what I thought about it.  I knew he could play tunes, etc.  But then, when we played Lennie Tristano music, which had to do with straight-up-and-down bebop, more or less, then he came into another light.  The light had to do with, I guess, playing not in a pointillistic, but let’s say kind of a legato, where you had those melodies, like “Lennie’s Pennies,” based on “Pennies From Heaven.”  Those kinds of bebop lines. The legato kind of thing instead of staccato.

TP:    So you found that could go into various approaches depending on the context.

CYRILLE:  Exactly.  Which is the sign of a great musician, somebody who is flexible and has studied and learned the language.

TP:    What was it like to work for him that first time in organizing that Tristano date?

CYRILLE:  Well, it was a lot of work.  I can’t say that it was easy. But he knew what he wanted to do.  He had a sense of direction, and he knew more or less what he wanted from each one of us. When we play jazz, period, I don’t care what variation it is, most of the composers or people who are the leaders want you to play the material their way, so then we can come together.  I just had to find my way on the drumset with that music, and then we’d bring my department to the other departments, and join them so we could have more or less a corporation — or a cooperation.  It was pretty cool.  I enjoyed that music.  Everybody was straight-ahead, everybody wanted to make it a success, and I think it came out being that.

TP:    In a broader sense, what was your impression when you encountered the AACM guys 35 years ago?  You’re a New York musician, and that approach wasn’t necessarily agreeable to every New York musician. Maybe I’m wrong about that when you all were in Paris.  But what was your overall impression of that earlier AACM music at the time?

CYRILLE:  I have always been one who understood the regionalisms that existed and exist in the music.  First, I knew that there were regional bands, and people who came from different parts of the country and played the music a bit differently, who came in with certain ideas and feelings and things they thought were important, and at the same time made the contribution to the whole.  I felt the people from Chicago were some of the most innovative in terms of breaking with the tradition as well as being part of the tradition.  I know they were doing all sorts of things in terms of how they were composing. It wasn’t AABA form a lot, or the sonata form, so to speak.  They were playing a lot of extended forms, and doing all sorts of things rhythmically and harmonically that maybe some of the other people from other places weren’t doing.  You had musicians who came out of Detroit, you had musicians who came out of Indianapolis, even the New Orleans people…

TP:    But what I’m getting at, Andrew, is that perhaps more than any other New York musician of your period, you really embraced the aesthetic that a lot of the AACM and BAG people were dealing with when they got to New York.  You played with Muhal for years, and others.  As a New York musician at the time, with Cecil, I mean, Cecil was pretty much full-bore straight-ahead and take no prisoners type of thing in 1966 and 1969 — though I guess not all the time.  But it was a different attitude toward organizing music.  So I wonder if you can trace back to the impact that attitude of making music had on you.

CYRILLE:  Now, you’ve got to remember that we’re talking about Cecil, who of course is one of the great people in my music life.  But I’m not Cecil, see!

TP:    But you were in the band 11 years and knew him from the late ’50s.

CYRILLE:  That’s true.  But as a result of having experienced playing with Cecil and wanting to make a contribution to the history of the music, to the lexicon of the music, and especially as far as drums were concerned, AND the fact that my mind was opened… I was still and am still learning.  I love to explore different ideas with people and see what I can do with those ideas as far as those drums are concerned. I’ve done things with Japanese musicians, or the drummer Vladimir Tarasov from Russia, and the dancers, etc.  So when I met people like Muhal and Leroy Jenkins, and they asked me to part of their concepts… I even organized a tour and took Henry Threadgill and Fred Hopkins to Europe after Steve McCall quit Air.

There was another contingent of musicians from Chicago who I’d had the opportunity to work with prior to the time when people like Muhal and Jenkins and Wadada and George Lewis… I worked with George and Leroy and Richard Teitelbaum… Well, Teitelbaum isn’t from Chicago, but I met him long ago in Connecticut.  All of those people were more or less in touch with each other.

But just to get back to what I was saying about my openness, and the fact that… Look at Coleman Hawkins.  He was all over the place, doing all kinds of things with people.

But getting back to the other Chicago musicians:  I met people like Julian Priester.  Also there was John Gilmore, whom I had done some work with in the Olatunji band.  And on a couple of occasions, I did play with Sun Ra and that Arkestra — way back when.  Sun Ra used to come to my house, as a matter of fact, when I was living in Brooklyn.  He and Walt Dickerson used to show up early in the morning.  There was Clifford Jordan, who I’d played with on occasion, doing some gigs in Brooklyn.  Charles Davis was another one, who lived around the corner from me.  So it’s not that I didn’t know these guys.  So when the second wave came in, hey, here I am.  I’ve got feet in both camps, so to speak — the bebop camp and then the avant-garde camp.  But I knew this, too.  If I were going to do something that was a bit different from some of the other drummers, then I knew I had to do something that was going to be conceptually acceptable to a lot of those people from the AACM.  And that’s where their heads were.  So in a sense, my connection with Cecil, who let me know that I could do anything with anybody I want, any time I wanted to do that… So it was no problem for me dealing with the concepts of the people from Chicago.
All I know about all of this stuff is, if somebody asks me to do something with them, and if it’s different, then I have to learn about what it is, and then it’s my job to bring it to life — especially if I like it.  If I don’t like it, that’s a different story.  But for John Carter and all those people, I have to bring this stuff to life.  A lot of the stuff is written music. But it’s not the page that’s playing the music, it’s the person.  That’s the way I feel about most of that stuff.

TP:    Are there different challenges for you in dealing with, let’s say, the less pulse oriented forms of drum music that you’d be encountering?  Did you have to develop new techniques?  Did you have to develop a difficult vocabulary?

CYRILLE:  That’s an interesting question.  Most of the time, when I think about myself, I think about myself as using pieces of the language that I have learned from the traditional greats, like Jo Jones and Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones and Baby Dodds, and listening to all of those people, seeing and hearing how they would play.  Frankie Dunlop and the big bands I saw him playing with.  Rufus Jones.  Even Buddy Rich to some degree, even though he was a speed merchant.

TP:    That came in handy with Cecil!

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s right!  Number one, to be able to play the drums.  When we learn the instrument, we have to go through the schools, more or less, of some of the other drummers.  When I was working with Illinois Jacquet, he had Jo Jones in his head.  So to some degree, I had to give him some of the stuff.  I couldn’t do all of it, because I was too young and I didn’t know that much about Jo Jones.  But I had to be able to play songs like “Robbins Nest” and “Flying Home.”  Certain things would happen in those songs that would bring certain kinds of climaxes, which were almost things that were scientifically proven, you might say!  They would get to certain peaks, and then make certain descents, and go back to certain peaks… You had to know what to do in order to play that music.  So yeah, I was learning, and of course, there were a lot of things that I didn’t know, and sometimes I’d be frustrated because I couldn’t give people like Jacquet, for instance, everything he wanted all the time.  Then, again, I don’t necessarily think that I had to, because I was trying to find my own place, trying to do my own stuff, and some of the stuff he probably didn’t like either.  But he was stronger than I was at that time.  He was the leader of the band, and I was still finding my way.  But still, he hired me.

Anyway, all I’m saying is that with all of the stuff that I’ve learned, even the stuff that I did with Nellie Lutcher way back, playing in 2/2…those kinds of things I can use in some way with the things that I do today.  So for instance, if I’m doing a duet with Braxton or Greg Osby and it comes into my mind, well, I want to try something that might have a two-feeling for a part, or maybe even a whole (I never really thought about this until now), I can play like a two-feeling, and maybe stretch the meter, so to speak.  Then it’s up to THEM, then, to deal with what I’m putting down.  So what I’m saying to you is that the stuff that I play as a drummer, it’s not necessarily so much where I’m not using the techniques or not using the vocabulary that I have.  It’s just that I might be using it in a different way.  It’s the same old thing, like when people talk.  We still use words.  But sometimes, when we think about what we’re saying, we use the same words but the meanings are different.

TP:    Let’s talk about how that applies to what you and Braxton are doing here.  You mentioned at the beginning that Braxton had told you that you’re one of his favorite drummers and he wanted to do something with you some day.  So let’s jump-cut to 2002, and talk about this recording came to be.  Was it on your initiative or his?

CYRILLE:  Well, this is what happened.  Very often, it’s about being in the right place at the right time, and the sky opening up and the lightning come out, and it strikes whoever is in the vicinity and we say, “Eureka, I’ve found it!”  Anyway, I had gone to hear Anthony play a solo concert at the Ethical Culture Society.  I was there with a number of other people listening to him, and the music was gorgeous.  But at the end of the concert, I went over to congratulate him, and he said, “Oh, Andrew, it’s good to see you.  When are we going to do our project?”  So I complemented him on his playing and I said, “Look, Anthony, any time you’re ready, man.  Let’s exchange numbers and talk about it.”  He said, “Okay, I’ll call you.”  So I gave him my number, and a couple of weeks later he called me and said, “Hey, man, let’s get together and do this project.”  He told me that he had Jon Rosenberg in his employ, and Jon and he had already done some work at Wesleyan University, of Anthony recording with different people, and Rosenberg would be willing to come up and record us.  The price was right, and we got a date together, and I said, “Okay, fine,” and then it came to pass.

TP:    How much preparation did this involve?  Was there a rehearsal?  Let’s talk about the dynamics of putting together this two hours.

CYRILLE:  I sent Anthony some music I had written and prepared.  Sometimes with those concepts… Well, we talked about them a bit on the telephone, and he told me some stuff that he was going to do.  I forget whether he faxed me any music or not.  Maybe he did.  I can’t remember.  But I know we were preparing for each other.  Braxton’s solo concert was in May 2002, so from May until we came together…

TP:    What’s interesting is that his compositions here are Compositions 310 and 311, and on the solo concert he did five subsets of Composition 312.  I don’t know what that means, but I’ll try to find out from Braxton.  Because each one has a different graphic connotation.

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] Well, that’s what’s happening.

TP:    So it sounds like he gave you some stuff that was preoccupying him at the time of the solo concert.

CYRILLE:  Perhaps so.  But all I saw was the music.  I didn’t remember the melodies.  I played them at Wesleyan and I got into it.

TP:    well, your stuff seems more melody-oriented.  His stuff seems like more sound navigation structure stuff.

CYRILLE:  Kind of.  Well, he only gave me I think two written parts.

TP:    The other one seems more just a motif you took off on.  It doesn’t have a number, but is called “A Musical Sense Of Life.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a title like that from Braxton.

CYRILLE:  Well, those titles were to a large degree my titles.  We sat down and talked about it.  I came up with these titles and words, and explained to him, why I felt this particular piece should be that, and so on, and he agreed.

TP:    So we had this conceptual preparation before you actually came up to Wesleyan in October.

CYRILLE:  Very much so.  Conceptual and including improvisation as well as written music.  He has two credits individually, I have two individually, and then we have the rest in duo as composers.

TP:    I think your point that he brings out a more legato side when playing with drummers… On the Max Roach records, he played beautiful melodies, and here he plays similarly.  Do you approach different configurations with a different approach to the drums.  Would you play differently with Oliver and Reggie or Dresser and Marty, or if you’re playing with a Muhal Sextet… Obviously, they all have different demands.  But your overall approach to the interactive component of playing with other people… How does it differ in duo context for you?

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s a heavy one.  When you use a term like “overall”… Overall has to be the person.  It has to be Andrew Cyrille.  And then it depends upon what music I’m playing.  Then I get my information on what I have to do from what the composer dictates when he writes the composition.  If I’m playing with David Murray’s Big Band, and we’re playing Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” and he’s got Carmen Bradford singing, I’ve got to bring myself to that and give those people what they need so they can deliver what they deliver in the Ellington mode.  That’s the same thing that I do with everything, even though they might be different in terms of concept.

TP:    Let’s talk about the conceptual aspects of duo music, then.

CYRILLE:  Playing solo to me is the most difficult.  The reason is that you don’t have anybody to feed off of or to get some kind of information from that you can relate to, so to speak, so you’re always more or less relating to yourself.  With duet, you have fewer than three or four.  So as far as playing a duet is concerned, you have to give something to the other person that they can more or less vibe off of or feel good about, or hear or conceptualize with the desire to play.  And they have to do the same for you.  During the duet with Osby… All of them.  I’ve done duets with Osby, Oliver. Carlos Ward, who’s another one that a lot of people haven’t gotten.  I did duets with Jimmy Lyons.

TP:    A lot of pianists say they think of the piano as an orchestra.  Do you think of the drumkit as an orchestra?

CYRILLE:  You could very well say that, too. There are so many different parts of the set, and you can get so many different sounds in relationship to the combinations, or the combinations in relationship to the different pieces of sound that you can find on the set.  Then you have to be able to generate that so that somebody gets something from it, so it’s not just noise, or what some people might consider noise.  I guess it’s the attitude, too, that whomever it is playing with the drummer comes to that forum with.  If you think it’s noise, then perhaps you won’t make any music. But if you think it’s music, then it’s a different story.

But there’s one other thing, too, that you’ve got to remember about drums, especially from where the “jazz drummer” comes, and from there in terms of Western music, where a lot of the other people come from, too — the Rock and Fusion people.  That’s out of a metrical sense of time.  So when you start thinking about Africa, again, and you start thinking about a lot those rhythms that the Africans play, which is very often the basis of the feeling that jazz musicians play off of, like the shuffle beat, CHONK-A-CHOOK, CHONK-A-CHOOK, then you’ve got that and you go CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCKA-CHOCKA-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM… You get a lot of that stuff that comes out of Africa.  And many jazz pieces are still being written off that rhythmical motif, what they call the quarter-note, and then you get the dotted eighth note and the sixteenth note.  BANG, DIKA, BANG, DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG.  I’d say damn near 85% of all the music written in jazz is based on that rhythmical motif.  That’s one of the problems we have with stations like WBGO moving away from that foundation to play music that perhaps doesn’t emphasize that dotted quarter-note, dotted-eighth and sixteenth beat.  See, all of that music that you hear that’s so-called mainstream or CD-101 stuff comes out of that particular motif.

TP:    As opposed to what we might call swing or…

CYRILLE:  No, it ain’t opposed to swing.  That’s what swing is. That stuff is based on Swing. So I’m saying, it kind of comes out like a shuffle, see, which is nothing but you get the quarter-note and you get the dotted sixteenth, and you just keep repeating that with the accentuation on 2 and 4.

TP:    So 35 years ago, when you’re making Akisakila with Cecil, the patterns and responses you’re making are constructed off these elemental building blocks from African music that you’re speaking of.

CYRILLE:  Precisely.  So from those building blocks you can thrust a certain kind of feeling.

TP:    Or many kinds of feeling, I guess.

CYRILLE:  Or many kinds of feelings, that’s right.  See, this goes back to me working with Mary Lou Williams and saying to her, “Gee, Mary Lou, I’d like to play the ride beat differently and still play the music.” She said, “Well, if you did that, you’d lose a lot of work; a lot of people wouldn’t hire you.”  And that’s what she was talking about.  So if you go BANG-DING-A-BANG, DING-A-BANG, and I’m playing that with Jacquet, then I say, BANG-DING-A-DANG, and let a couple of beats go and no space, or say, BANG-DING-A-BANG, BANG, DING-A-BANG, DINGABANG-DINGABANG, DANG-DANG, DINGABANG, DANG-DANG, DINGABANG, he’ll say, “What the fuck are you doing, man?!  Swing!”

So when the concepts change, and you have Cecil and the people from Chicago and now a number of other people considering how we’re going to move these rhythms, then it’s no longer a problem because they’re basing their music on what it is that either the drummer is playing or however it is that they conceive of playing that dotted-8th or 16th, and maybe they’ve even moved away from that and… See, a lot of the time, the way most of those composers got to their music (I know this to be a fact with David Murray, and you can go back to Ellington), is they’d think about what the drummer would be playing, and then they’d write their melodies over that.
TP:    Well, going back to Ellington, there was often a dance orientation to it.  I mean, the drummer used to be completely functional, back when there were chorus lines and tap dancers and so on.

CYRILLE:  Of course!  Let me tell you something.  You know that I played for dancers.  I’m talking for people out of the June Taylor School — Jamie Rogers, Michael Bennett, Claude Thompson.

TP:    You played for dance classes.

CYRILLE:  Dance classes, and I did gigs… I did something with Cleo Parker Robinson at Jazz @ Lincoln Center 2001.  I’m trying to make a point.  I had a gig one time in the projects somewhere.  It was a dance for regular people who came to a party.  They had no dance education or training, but it was what they would do socially, what they’d learn from their parents or friends.  The three musicians I was supposed to play with, probably a bassist and piano player and saxophone player, for some reason didn’t show up for a while. I was there, the first one.  The people began feeling impatient with the music.  I mean, they’ve got their schedule.  So I just started playing the drums.  I don’t know what rhythm I did, but I was playing something.  And do you know, those people got out on the floor and started dancing.  All I’m saying to you is knowing certain things to play and certain things to do that will elicit certain responses in people.  Music is also scientific in that light.  We deal with emotions, but there are certain ways that musicians can make people feel by the notes and scales that they play.  We learn this stuff in school.  It’s the same thing with the drums.  If I want you to march, I’ll play a march.  If I want you to waltz, I’ll play something in 3/4.

So with that kind of information, when I decide that… How can I put it?  I can augment it.  I can contract it.  I can do it like I’m talking to you in terms of rhythm — those ingredients.  That’s what I do.  Here you and I are having a conversation.  I’m not talking to you in 4/4 meter, one-two-three-four, here-I-go-Ted, you-can-hear-me-talking…

TP:    It’s not iambic pentameter.

CYRILLE:  Right.  So as I’m speaking to you, sometimes it’s the same way as I think in playing the music.  But I’m still using my words or the words I’ve learned.  Maybe I can learn new words, go in the dictionary and find out the meaning of so-and-so and bring another word into my vocabulary.  But it just clarifies, let’s say, more what it is that I’m trying to say.

TP:    But of course, within a musical performance, each musical conversation is organized around a certain set of themes and structures.  You’re not just going anywhere.  Within an improvisation, there are explorations of separate motifs; you’re not going all over the place on every different thing.  So there is a formal aspect to a performance.  It’s not just like a conversation.

CYRILLE:  You are precisely right.  But now, you see, here is another concept that some people don’t realize or understand or don’t know about, and I guess it has to come into realization. There are two ways of playing.  There’s one way where there’s a prescription: In other words, we say we’re going to play this tune or that tune, or we’re going to play this composition or that composition based on either some idea that the composer presents, whoever the composer is, or we’re going to play a piece that’s “open,” which means that the composition is after the fact.  So when you say “all over the place,” sometimes the music can be all over the place.  It depends on what one decides to do.  And sometimes, when it’s all over the place it can be fantastic.  For instance, the concert I did with Kidd Jordan and William Parker at the Vision Festival.  We had no rehearsal.  The first time the three of us played together was when we got up on that stage.  And from what I understand from the people who were there, they enjoyed it very much, the heavens opened up and all that sort of thing.  But as one of the participants, I can’t exactly tell you what people were receiving in the audience. I’m having a good time playing.

TP:    But what I mean is that you’re playing ideas.  You and Kidd Jordan weren’t just playing random sounds.  You’re playing ideas that you’ve developed over 50-55-60 years of playing music and thinking about music.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Just like we’re having a conversation now.

TP:    When we did the Blindfold Test for Downbeat, I gave you a Braxton-Max Roach piece.  You said, “Most of Max’s rhythms are very clear.  They’re distinct and they’re anchored.  How he thinks of some of those original rhythms is amazing.  There’s a definite thought process that he puts in.  I know that he has to work with it.  He thinks of something, he comes up with a rhythm, and then he executes it on the drums, and that’s why it comes out with such clarity and weight.”  And motif and theme-and-variation construction, and so forth.  It seems that, more or less in this concert, you play from that perspective.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would agree with you.  Because I am a product as much of Max Roach, in that evolutionary line, as you might say somebody like Carl Allen or Cindy Blackman or Joe Chambers.  All of us come from more or less the same funnel, that same matrix.  Max comes out of Jo Jones and Baby Dodds.  Max was telling me himself the people that he listened to.  Kenny Clarke and Sid Catlett.  When you start thinking about the person who started syncopating the rhythm with the swing, Kenny Clarke was the person who did that shit.  Kenny Clarke was older than Max, and Kenny Clarke was doing that stuff up at Minton’s.  In terms of that bebop stuff, with those licks being put on different parts of the drums, especially with the bass drum being syncopated, Kenny Clarke started that stuff.

TP:    After Max and Braxton, I gave you Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley.  And you said about Oxley, “The drummer sounded as though he was matching color textures with Cecil’s panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics, rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm, as, say, a Max Roach would. So there wasn’t very much push-and-pull there, or give-and-take. There wasn’t a lot of the polarity, which sometimes causes electricity, which brings forth another kind of magic and generates another kind of feeling.  I think usually in improvisation, a lot of the invention comes from people playing their own rhythms and motifs in keeping with whatever their concept of the music is.”  So you were saying that there’s basically a unison and it was less interesting.  So there are two different approaches to playing in these separate duets that you elaborate upon, and it seems very much that you’re in the former camp.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would say so.  Now, if I had to do some stuff like Tony… I’ve played with Tony, and let me tell you when I did that.  I did that with Tony and Rashied Ali, and there must be a recording of this.  I’ll get back to the point.  Don’t let me lose the point.  I played with Tony and Rashied with three saxophone players and three bass players in East Berlin right after the Wall came down.  We did a concert there for Jost Gebers and FMP.  I’ve also done things with Peter Brotzman and Peter Kowald, and there’s something in the can that was done back in the ’80s with Brotzman and Kowald.  He has a duet with Teitelbaum and another duet with John Tchicai, and he’s trying to figure out how the stuff can come out.

Anyway, on this one piece with these nine musicians, I played with Oxley.  Sometimes there would be duets between myself and Oxley… The concept of the concert was that among the nine musicians there would be certain kinds of combinations.  So maybe there would be two basses and a saxophone, or two saxophones and two drums.  Whatever the configurations came out to be was how the music was presented.  So I can’t tell you exactly when I played with Tony or with Rashied, or when all of us played together.  But with Tony… And I heard Tony and Cecil again in Den Hague a couple of years ago, when I was over there with Mal Waldron and Reggie Workman. It’s like a wash, so I can get a lot of percussion instruments… There’s a guy named Paul Blackman who plays like this skiffle band in New Orleans, but he plays these rhythms, etc. But I can get all different kinds of…

Hey, this is even better.  If I had all of that stuff, let’s say, that Chick Webb had around him, or maybe even Sonny Greer, and then I would go and just wash…

TP:    You mean washes of color.

CYRILLE:  Washes of color.  You know when you play on the piano and you from one end of the piano, and you go all the way up to the top, and you play these glisses… That’s the word.  To me, very often what Tony does is he plays these glisses of rhythms.  Which is cool.  But sometimes, too, you could take those pieces of glisses and you can make certain rhythms out of it.  So for me, instead of playing like that wash… I can’t say that’s all he does.  But the general impression that I take away from having listened to Tony is this is how he plays.  At least, this is how he was playing with Cecil.  Maybe when he was doing that stuff with Bill Evans years ago…

TP:    Well, when it was time to play time, he played time, and when it was time to play with Cecil…

CYRILLE:  But here’s what I’m saying.  When you start talking about time, time can also be pointillistic.  And he doesn’t do that.  He plays glissando time.  Here’s another term.  People use these things, and I come up with them sometimes, too.  It’s difficult to explain sound and feeling, to give people a good picture in words of what’s happening with the music. So you come up with stuff like “liquid time.”  Liquid time to me would be like water, where you would get motion, but you wouldn’t get any separation.  Think about a river or think about the ocean.  Don’t you see motion?  Don’t you see rhythm?  But is it divided?

TP:    If you were going to think of a visual arts analogy, there’s a kind of Jackson Pollock analogy to Tony’s playing.

CYRILLE:  Yes, all right.  In other words, all of us being human beings, we have to try to relate whatever we do to our bodies on this planet!  So we can’t get too far out, although sometimes we can make analogies as to what it is that we think and what it is that we feel, from whence these ideas come.

TP:    But your playing on this duet with Braxton, for the most part, is not pointillistic.  It’s much more in that Max Roach sort of theme-and-variation aesthetic.  You postulate a rhythm and you sort of set it up as a field, and then you do various iterations and modulations of that idea, and Braxton plays his melodies and does his theme-and-variations and modulations on the melodies and rhythms.  Then the next piece is another idea.  It seems like there’s a sequential sequence of ideas that you work on.  Is that accurate or inaccurate?

CYRILLE:  I can’t say it’s either one.  It’s somewhere in between!  Because there are certain pointillistic things that are done in some of those compositions.  I remember there are some things where I’m playing on the rim of the snare drum, or something, and I would call that pointillistic.  Then maybe I might go from pointillism to some kind of legato, or maybe even glissando type of effect.  Maybe not so much glissando.  But thinking about it now, I could consider that in some kind of musical way from the drumset.  But there are certain things where I play a click and a clack and a bop and a bang, and Braxton relates to it in that way — and that’s what I consider to be pointillism.

TP:    Who would set what up first, from tune to tune?  Would the rhythm be the first principle?  Would the melody be the first principle?  Would it vary from tune to tune?

CYRILLE:  It would vary from tune to tune.  Sometimes Braxton would start something… See, what he’d do, sometimes he’d go to one of his other horns, and each one of those horns have a different timbre, and then I would think to myself, “Gee, what could I do to match that timbre?”  Then with the rhythms he would play, I’d think what can I do to give some kind of contrast or unison to those rhythms.  Sometimes, when we would stop…and I’d stop it… See, that recording could have been a blast… It could have been the same kind of performance that I did with Kidd and William — just played from beginning to end.  Kidd and I stopped maybe once during that performance, and then we started again.  But sometimes, even some of the stuff I’ve done with Cecil is just from the beginning, just get up and start playing and we don’t stop until the final note is hit.  But with Anthony, we started playing, and then it got to a certain point… Like, the first piece, “Duo Palindrome,” it got to a certain point and I said, “I’m going to stop now,” and it was a complete piece.  Also conceptually, I was thinking we’d have different pieces, this was not just going to be an improvisation from Point A to Point Z.  I wanted it to be that way because I wanted different feelings and different concepts to project it.

TP:    Braxton did a live recording with Max on Hat Art after Birth and Rebirth which is totally different.  Probably because it’s a studio recording, Birth and Rebirth is segmented into tunes, but on Hat Art it’s basically an 85-minute improvisation where they flow one into the other.  What dynamics in Braxton’s playing have evolved over time?  Is he a different player than he was 15 years ago when you did the Tristano record, or when he was doing the quartets, or the duo with Max?  what do you hear as distinct to this period?

CYRILLE:  Like all of us who decide as youngsters that we want to play this music, more or less essentially we’re the same people.  I think of Picasso. Of course, he’s the grandmaster, a genius, and I could only aspire to be something like him.  But when you saw Picasso’s stuff from his twenties, there was a grand line that started from his first paintings to the time he died.  You could always tell it was Picasso.  The grand line. Regardless of whatever it was that he was conceptualizing or doing, you knew that this was Pablo Picasso.

TP:    You could say that, but if you’re familiar with Picasso you can also locate a piece by how he is deploying that grand line at any given moment.  You sound different now than you did 35 years ago or 20 years ago.  I don’t know exactly how to quantify that, but I think I can discern your periods.

CYRILLE:  That’s very interesting.  Frank Lowe said to me that he was playing for somebody some recordings I did with Coleman Hawkins, and then he turned around and played something you might consider more modern or different from “Just A Gigolo.” And the person said, “Is that the same Andrew Cyrille?”

TP:    Parenthetically, someone told me he played for Kenny Washington something you did with Bill Barron forty years ago, and he was nonplussed.

CYRILLE:  You’re talking about Hot Line.  I had a great time on that date.  But my point becomes this.  Is there a certain kind of recognition of my sound, maybe of some of the ingredients that I play from one period to another. I would like to think so.  I don’t know.

As far as Braxton is concerned, to me he is the same Anthony Braxton who has now evolved and has become set in his concepts in terms of what it is he wants to do, and feels that he is carrying some weight, and what he says means something as far as the lexicon is concerned — the evolution and history of the music.  I would more or less have to feel the same way.  Both of us are still here, we’re still making contributions, and we have a sense of history, we have a sense of present, and we also have a sense of where we would like to go in terms of what we have done.  I am always looking for new things to bring forth, but there’s no way in the world I can deny my mother and my father!  You know what I’m saying?  In that way, I think Braxton is more or less the same.  Because when we talked to one another in order to get this feeling of camaraderie and hand-in-glove, we’d talk about the same things you and I are talking about in terms of what makes us tick, and what makes us tick from then until now and what we hope will continue to make us tick, all things considered, as far as life is concerned.

TP:    When we’re talking about the theme-and-variation-on-a-design Max Roach approach to rhythm and Tony Oxley’s glissando thing, you can almost extrapolate that into cultural aesthetics about how to approach musical improvisation, the Afro-diasporic and the Modernist European, as it were.  Perhaps we could discuss this in terms of the scene of world improvisation, where these worlds have come together substantially over the last 30 years, in great part because of the AACM guys and their embrace of the forms and structures of the Euro-Modernist canon, and also the European community of free improvisers.  Do you have any reflections on the convergence of those streams and how it might be manifested in an interaction between you and Anthony Braxton?

CYRILLE:  You’re bringing in another piece of who we are.  Me being an African-American, I’m very much European, too, because this is what we learned, this is our culture, this is who we are.

TP:    But I’m talking about forms of music.  But please continue.

CYRILLE:  But there’s no way in the world for anybody who is a legitimate human being to start talking about what they do outside of where they live and how they got to be what they are.  So when I play with someone like Irene Schweizer, and I’ve done a number of things with Irene, and we’re going to do some more stuff… David Murray was part of he last thing I did with Irene.  So how in the world can Irene Schweizer, me and someone like David Murray get together and play on a stage if we don’t inherit certain things from each other’s culture?  Does it have to be so cut-and-dried?  You say Europe, you say Africa, you say America.  Well, yeah, you’d have the polarity when musicians from Africa and from Europe did not play together.  But as we have evolved… We’ve had a couple of wars in Europe, people like James Reese Europe…

TP:    But you didn’t have Stockhausen playing with Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins, or Pierre Boulez using Hank Jones or Oscar Peterson to improvise  within a piece.  Those are very different attitudes towards what music is.  But within the AACM, or with Cecil Taylor, that convergence exists.  It is a kind of paradigm shift.  I’m speaking more of the modernist notion of European music than the broader civilizational stream.

CYRILLE:  But you see, all of these things are works in progress.  In other words, civilization is an evolution.  So in a sense, when you start talking about Stockhausen and about Boulez, how do I know that Boulez won’t call me up and say, “Come on, Andrew, play some drums” for one or another thing. This is an evolutionary process.  Some people understand it. Some people want to see what will happen when they put maybe acid and a base together to see what the effects are going to be.  Sometimes nothing will happen, sometimes you get an explosion, sometimes you get a hybrid or a mutation that’s fantastic.  People say, “Yeah, we should have thought about that all time,” but sometimes it’s just an accidental combination.

Point:  Last year Reggie Workman and I go to Finland to do a project with one of the great Finnish saxophone players, a guy named Johanni Altern(?), along with some Finnish strings.  Now, the guy who wrote the string music is a guy named Ato(?) Donner(?).  Now, Ato(?) Donner(?) has 18 strings, violins and cellos and basses, reading this music.  So he says to me, “Play what you hear within the context…” He gave me some charts that I had to read, but as I was reading the charts with the strings, I’m also improvising the same way I would do it if I’m reading Duke Ellington charts.

What I’m saying to you is that those people from Finland, coming from that cultural base, get together with me, coming from another cultural base, but at this time, in terms of the evolution of civilization and the planet, I’m influencing them and they’re influencing me.

TP:    So as the world gets smaller, these kinds of interactions become more common.  It’s no longer an exotic thing for this to happen.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  It’s not as exotic as it was before.  Maybe if I went to play with some Amazonian Indians, there might be some different stuff coming out.

TP:    That’s something Peter Kowald was interested in, taking folk musicians out of their local contexts, and creating a broad dialogue of discrete vocabularies.

CYRILLE:  Outside the concepts people have about each other… There’s only one human race, and the simple reason for that is because everybody can still cross.  We can all have an offspring with anybody on the planet.  So conceptually, in terms of culture, the same thing could be possible!  Again, when you start talking about Braxton and the guys from Chicago dealing with some European forms with which they have filtered some Africanisms, so to speak: That’s what jazz has always been anyway.  From the spirituals through the gospels… Well, maybe the gospels were a little different.  But you’d take those harmonies by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and they’re singing some of those European hymns about Jesus and God.  It’s the same thing that’s been reprocessed over and over through the generations.  It’s just that each generation has to interpret it according to the dynamics of the time in which they live.  Some times are better than others.

TP:    I think the one problem with comparing this hybrid phenomenon we’re talking about is that the role of the drums is very different…

CYRILLE:  Well, in the Fisk Jubilee Singers there were no drums.

TP:    But there were certain rhythms that they more than made up for.  If you want to really extrapolate abstractly, there’s a continuity from that up to the Cecil Taylor Trio with you!  If we look at that trio and the John Coltrane Quartet as the two extremes to which that notion of music-making went, and how much farther could it go after that?  So there is evolution. There is a difference.  And I think Braxton and the AACM people are the people who were doing all that research and development on how to elaborate that difference and find a way to continue — find their space.

CYRILLE:  In some ways, something I did that worked was a concert with Miya Masaoka, Richard Teitelbaum and Frank Lowe.  Masaoka is Japanese-American, and she comes in with the koto, etc., and we start playing these rhythms.  You hear the sound, so you’ve got to get used to the rhythm.  That’s something that’s going to be in evolution as time goes, what the Asians bring to this mix of “America” and “American music.”  I’m all for it, in a lot of ways.  I am open to it.  I want to be part of it. It feeds me, I feed them, we feed each other.  For me to say, “Well, my thing is this, and I don’t do nothin’ else,” that’s not Andrew Cyrille.  Whether it be avant-garde or whether it be Ellington stuff… Because Lord knows, I had a fantastic time playing Ellington’s music, and I’d do it tomorrow if I had to.  I loved it.  With all those great musicians up there, and Carmen Bradford singing on top of all that stuff.

But getting back to Braxton: As the arc of life moves from the time I met him, back in Paris around 1969-70… I was hanging out with Philly Joe Jones in Paris, and we started talking about Braxton. He said, “Yeah, man, I knew Braxton can play.  You know how I knew he could play?  I watched the way his fingers moved.”  And we laughed.  But that was Joe’s impression of Braxton, and Joe relayed that to me, and that made me also consider Anthony… Because he was given an endorsement by somebody whom I looked up to.

TP:    We’ve been talking a lot about concept, but we haven’t talked that much about feeling.  And obviously, the way you play in an improvisation will pertain directly to the way you feel.  You’re going to feel one way with Cecil Taylor.  You’ll feel another way with Oliver Lake and Reggie.  You’ll another way with John Carter, another way with Muhal, and another way with David Murray.  How does it feel to play with Braxton?

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] It feels good!  I can’t say it feels bad!

TP:    Well, it felt good to play with all those people, or you wouldn’t have stuck with it all that time.  But it felt good differently.  Let’s talk about the distinctions that make the difference, even though they all made you feel good.

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] You’re something else, man, with your analyses and questions.  They cause me to think, and I have to find things to carry some truth to them and also mean something.

I always have to come from the way that I get to how I feel, and then I have to understand what we’re talking about when we’re talking about feelings.  Feelings usually come from some experience that somebody has.  Right?  You feel good or you feel bad.  So in the brain it says to you, “Gee, this is going through my body” — like sound, etc., because it travels through the skin and that’s how we feel, too, physically.

In a musical sense, what I have to do, again, is find out what’s on the page.  In other words, let’s put it this way.  Braxton gives me a score, and he’s playing one line, I’m playing the other line, and then we come to a part whereby there is this…it’s not a painting, but you might call it a sketch, where he has these lines and figures, and he says, “Play this at this particular time, whatever you think or feel about this.”  So here I am now, at the moment I’m talking to you, and let’s say he had venetian blinds — because I’m looking at venetian blinds in front of me.  So let’s say it’s venetian blinds on this page, and I’m looking at them and saying, “Well, what do I feel about venetian blinds, and how can I interpret venetian blinds on the drumset?”  I can go from left-to-right and right-to-left, left-to-right to right-to-left, left-to-right to right-to-left, and I can do that, say, from snare drum to tom-tom, from snare drum to tom-tom, back-and-forth and back-and-forth and back-and-forth.  And just from that motion, a motion like a windshield wiper blade, I’ll be able to get kind of sound.  I’ll get some kind of rhythm.

Now, how does that make me feel?  Does it make me feel good?  Yeah, it could, if I’m doing it and it’s coming out and I’m not flubbing, and it’s very clear to me in terms of how I’m doing it in terms of one to another.  You gave me another idea in terms of a rhythm — OOM-BOOM, OOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM; I could do it slower or I could do it faster — looking at the Venetian blinds.

Then what Anthony does in relationship to it also makes me feel a certain way.  When he’s playing, I could say to myself, “where is he going with this?  How can I play this so that it makes him move into another area or makes him feel he wants to create with this sketch he’s given me up to a certain point, and then we move on.”  That happens on the record.  Sometimes I’ll play certain things, and then he will imitate them.  He’ll come back and play verbatim rhythmically just the piece I’m in.  It’s interesting and it’s cute, and it makes me laugh.  So in that light, it makes me feel good.

I don’t like to think… Hey, look, it’s like asking somebody is the cup half-empty or is the cup half-filled.  So I don’t want to start talking about what I don’t like, because it ain’t about that.  So the only thing I can say as far as doing the thing with Anthony is concerned and how I feel about him in relationship to John Carter has to do with what they’re asking me to eat.  In other words, what they have cooked up for me to eat and taste and digest, and what am I to do with it with my on sense of seasoning, or to put in my oven and bring out a certain way.

It’s a difficult question.  This is how I have to look at the overall thing, since you used that term…

TP:    I did.  But now I’m being very specific.

CYRILLE:  How can you get to the specific without some kind of overall?  Or how can you get to the overall without some kind of specific?  Both of them relate to each other, even though they may be on opposite sides of the pendulum.  But when you ask “how do you feel about something?” what else can I say than that I feel good.  I can say in terms of this project, I thought it was a grand recording.  There are some magical things that happen.  There are some things that come out of the tradition, where you have theme-and-variation, but I feel there are also some other things that weren’t quoted or stated in past presentations.  Now, this has to be for people who can sit down and listen with some sort of history of the music in terms of the evolution, or people who will sit down and just say, “Hey, man, this is some good stuff; where are THESE guys coming from?  I like this.”  Or some people will say, “Hey, man, turn that shit off.”  Because I’ve been in the company of so many people who just don’t even give a damn what’s being played.  They don’t want to hear that.  You’ve got to turn on 97.1 with the hip-hop, and then you get a response out of them.  But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a great project and I think it will stand the test of time.

TP:    Some of these songs I’m familiar with.  I think you did “The Loop” on one of your solo albums in the ’70s, and “The Navigator” is from that quartet you had with Sonelius Smith.  Can you discuss the dynamics of those pieces?

CYRILLE:  I have a duet tape somewhere around here of me and Butch Morris doing “The Loop.”  That was the first time I ever played the piece in public many years ago, when he and David Murray first came to New York.  “The Loop” is a piece I’ve played on occasion with people, you could say as a foil maybe, or something to give them to think about, and I’ve explained to them what I mean by “The Loop.”  The loop, to me, is like a figure-8 laying on its side, like the infinity sign.  So you go back and you go forth, you go back and forth.  It goes, DINK-duht-duht-DANK, DINK-duht-duht-DANK.  Then on top of that, I improvise a rhythm with the drumsticks on the drumset, with the basic rhythm being with the hi-hat and the bass drum, with that feeling of looping.  I explained that to Anthony, and I asked him to improvise something within this particular concept.

He wanted that one, and he also wanted…there’s another one that starts out with a basic ostinato kind of drum feeling.  He wanted those to be the first pieces, I think, of each CD, but I didn’t want that.  So we discussed that and came to an agreement.  I wanted “Duo (Palindrome)” to be the first piece, because that was more representative of how I felt our collaboration was or is at this time — even though “The Loop” is part of it.  Sometimes they say that to sell a CD, you’ve got to have a hook, and the first hook should be one of the strongest things on the CD in order to get people to buy it.  Because usually, when people pick up a recording, the first thing they do is play the first track, and if the first track is appealing, then they say, “Hey, I want to get this,” and then they listen to the rest of it.

Anyway, I thought it would be better for me and Anthony to have “Duo (Palindrome),” since that’s the idea anyway; we’re looking at each other, and 2002 is 2002 going forwards and backwards.  So conceptually, that’s what I got him to agree to.  He had another idea in terms of the water.  But I sat down and thought about it and explained it to him.
TP:    The tracks that are co-credited could be called improvisations.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would say so.

TP:    Then we have “Water, Water, Water.”

CYRILLE:  That comes basically out of an African matrix that has a 6/8 feeling.  “Water, Water, Water” is a piece I recorded with Mor Thiam on Ode To The Living Tree, and I’ll tell you where the concept came from.  That came from me being on Gorie Island, which is one of the slave points of embarkation in Senegal, with David Murray, Oliver Lake, Fred Hopkins and Adegoke Steve Colson.  That was my first recording in Africa.  The feeling of being on that island… I was saying, “It could have been me,” as being one of those people moving through the door of no-return, getting on those ships, and being in those places of confinement.  I’ll tell you this much.  I visited Dachau, which is near Munich, and the construction of those camps and what I saw on Gorie Island is the same.  The same people could have constructed it.  It’s terrible.  And it makes me feel very sad as I’m talking about having viewed both of those places.  What people do to people, man, is terrible shit sometimes.

Anyway, I just thought about the buoyancy of being in one of those slave holds of one of those ships, and the ship moving up and down on the water.  That’s how I got that sense of composition for “Water, Water, Water.”  The beat is a 6/8 Ghanaian beat — GANK, GUGANK-GUGANKGU-GANK, GUGANK-GUGANK-GANK — and I augmented it with some other things that I do… In other words, that was the code.  The other part of it, with the sock cymbal and left hand and the bass drum, I added in terms of independent rhythms to support that code.  That was one of the pieces that I played with Anthony that projected this ostinato, which he liked very much.  I think he also wanted that to be the first piece on the second CD.  So we compromised, and I said, “Okay, Anthony, that can be the first piece of the second CD.”  I didn’t w want “The Loop” to be the first piece of the first CD.  For some reason, I didn’t want the drums to be out there like that on both CDs.  Maybe I have to analyze more in my head why I didn’t want that.

The excerpt from “The Navigator”: I wanted a rhythm that projected some kind of a march, and that was something that was the section of “The Navigator” which comes from the beginning part.  Now, all this is very interesting about me and water.  I’m not sure about what all this means, even though I’m a water sign, as they say, but I don’t necessarily believe in that kind of shit.

TP:    Did you used to go to Brighton Beach or Coney Island?  You’re from New York!

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Riis Park was the place.  The thing about “The Navigator” is that when I asked a friend of mine to send me a picture of what he thought of the music, he sent me a picture of the coast of Panama, with these palm trees, and when I saw that, I said, “Yes, this works as the cover for ‘The Navigator,'” and then the association with water came after I’d written the composition.  I wrote the music, then I remembered this term, “the navigator.”  Noah Howard had said to me somewhere in Europe, “Yeah, you’re the navigator.”  So when I started writing this piece, I was going to call this “The Navigator.”  The navigator can be an airplane pilot, too.  Anybody can be a navigator.  But in this particular case, it came down with water and the navigator.

“Dr. Licks” is a brand-new piece, the one I most recently wrote.  “Dr. Licks” comes out of some drum licks, and I just wrote some notes to the drum licks.  I’m going to expand either with Marty and Mark or Reggie and Oliver.  It’s a sketch, so to speak.  But Anthony played it very well.  He brought some information to it in terms of how we could do it, and that was good.  We had to practice that a few times, because how it was written was relatively difficult.  I’d have to do it again myself, even though it’s my tune.  But I’d have to get in and use my brain to play the music.

TP:    You said you titled “A Musical Sense Of Life.”

CYRILLE:  Right.  I titled most of them, except for Anthony’s.  But we agreed on the titles.  I did the same thing with Richard Teitelbaum, titling most of the things on that recording, Double Clutch.  It has to do with how the music makes me feel, and what it makes me think about.  I guess all music which does not have words makes people think of something.  So whatever it is that you think of could be the title.  And if you agree with somebody that you’re in collaboration with, then fine.  Or if it’s just your piece… I said, “This is ‘Dr. Licks.'”  I didn’t say, “Tell me what you think about this title.” The other ones I said, “This reminds me of so-and-so; does it remind you of this?” And we sat down and listened to the music.  This was up at Rosenberg’s house, when we were thinking about titles.  He said, “Yeah!” or “No” or “Yeah, but you can add this word.” Like, “Duo (Palindrome),” I was going just going to say, “Palindrome,” but he said, “No, let’s make it ‘Duo (Palindrome),’ and when I explained to him what the word “Palindrome” meant in terms of 2002, he said, “Yeah, let’s call it ‘Duo (Palindrome) 2002.'”

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (WKCR, 7-30-04):

TP:    Let’s talk about the two weeks at Iridium, and then we can branch out. It was an opportunity for you to navigate a lot of the different areas you navigate. One was very open-ended improvising, and the other was more task-directed, playing tunes and interpreting them in your own way. Looking back, how do you evaluate the whole thing?

CYRILLE:  The first week, of course, was challenging in that I had to deal with different personnel in the front line, so to speak. The horns were different. It was Dave Douglas the first night, then Gary Bartz on the second, and the third through sixth nights was Bennie Maupin, and each one of them came with something else insofar as how they decided how they were going to play what was being asked for. A lot of times, when people say things are open, sometimes they are very open and sometimes they are a little less open, even though, say, the improvisation might be free insofar as what you do within those different aspects of being open.

Now, what I mean is a lot of times, Henry would say, “Okay, Andrew, you and I will go out and we’ll start something and play together, and then Perry will come in, and then Bennie would come in.” Or he might say, “I’m going to start with a solo, and then Andrew, you come in, and then Gary, you come in.” Or he’ll say, “All of us start together.” In that light, I have to decide what it is I’m going to do based on a couple of things. One would be if that I’m going to start with Henry, then I have to have something in my head that’s pretty clear in terms of what I’m going to do to thrust the music out there and give it some thrust as I am presenting what it is that’s on my mind. At the same time, it’s like a gambit, an opening gambit in a chess game. So you make a move, and if both Henry and I make a move together, it might be some kind of unison, and sometimes it might not be a unison. So from that explosion, so to speak, or that piece of genetic, or genesis-birth, we go from there.  Then we begin listening to each other.

On the other side, if he says, “Okay, Andrew, you start and I’ll come in,” then I’ll start something more or less with the same idea that we play something, then he’ll relate to it.  He’ll listen and then he’ll play what he thinks goes with that.  It’s the same thing with me.  If he starts something, then I’ll listen to it.  Then I’ll try to find some music in my head that comes out of the drumset that will go along with what he’s playing on the bass.

TP:    By the end of the week, were you doing more unisons or call-and-responses?

CYRILLE:  Well, sometimes it was a call-and-response and sometimes it wasn’t. What I like to do sometimes with bass players… Horn players, too, but especially sometimes with bass players, because it’s not often done during the song… We’ll do exchanges.  So in that light, they’re not necessarily unisons; they’re like call-and-responses. Unisons are usually played when somebody plays something definite and it’s repeated. So then if I wanted to play exactly what would do that, and that would be a unison.  Other than that, there’s always a certain amount of “counterpoint” that’s going on, whether it be rhythmical or whether it be melodic — or even sometimes harmonic, depending on what the instrumentation is.
person was playing, or vice-versa, then we
TP:    You have a lot of experience playing in that context, but how much do you get to do that these days with people who share your history? What was interesting about the two weeks is that you were playing with people who were your generational peers and whose histories intersect in various ways. It’s an interesting dynamic.

CYRILLE:  The first week, of course, with Henry and Dave and Perry… You have to understand, too, that Perry is an extraordinary musician, insofar as, yes, he’s part of what you might call the avant-garde movement, but he plays a lot of standard tunes also. When we were touring in Europe… We didn’t do too much of that at the Iridium. On occasion, we’d play a standard.  But he was playing things like “My Foolish Things.” We played “Oleo” at the Iridium.  We also played that in Europe.  And there were several other pieces, standard repertoire. Another one was “Doxy.” He likes those standard tunes Sonny Rollins played, because he had a lot of experience with Sonny.

Anyway, we would segue sometimes from things that were totally open, or freely improvised, into something that had a certain kind of form. What that does is, that gives a kind of tension-and-release not only to us, the musicians, but also to the people who listen. Very often people appreciate that. Then sometimes, with certain groups, it’s just freely improvised for the whole set. On occasion we did that at the Iridium. We didn’t play any standard material with Dave Douglas; that night it was just free improvisation for the most part, if I remember correctly. When Gary came in, you know, Gary likes to play certain things in the pocket — grooves. So at a certain point in time, he would start playing something that had an ostinato motif, and we would all pick up on that and go there. Also sometimes, coming out of a solo, let’s say… And this was something great that Henry did. Coming out of a solo that I was playing. I’d start playing some kind of a rhythmical motif in an ostinato way, or maybe not even ostinato, maybe I’d just do it a couple of times coming out of a solo, and then Henry picked up the rhythm and added some pitches to it, and that became the genesis of another piece, or something that evolved from a solo that I was doing.

He’s great that way. His ability to be flexible is fantastic. Bass players very often have to play a lot of ostinato lines, and then when those ostinato lines are played everybody, including me, the drummer, and the horn players or piano players, we can dance on those kinds of things.  It gives us a bed that we…like little kids jump up and down on and do whatever flips, jumping off the bed, jumping back on the bed, etc., landing on your behind, on your stomach — and it’s because you have that mattress there.  That’s what Henry provided.

So that week was interesting in that way. The other thing about sometimes playing free is that you have to find something, number one, that is of interest to you.  That is, I, the musician, have to find something that I feel good about, and then try to get the musicians on stage to relate to it and have them feel good about it, and then collectively we can give that to the audience, and the audience feels good about what we’re feeling good about.  So it’s not as easy sometimes as people might think it is, because we have no prescription.

TP:    Playing free doesn’t imply, then, any particular way of playing.  It doesn’t imply playing rubato or playing metrically.  It has more to do with playing the idea that suits the moment.

CYRILLE:  Right.  And that could be metrically or it could be rubato. It all depends on what you decide to do.

TP:    Would that have been the case, say, forty years ago?  Let’s say you and Perry Robin and Henry had been playing at the Judson Church in 1966, would those options have come into play, or would there have been a more rigid approach to what you could or could not do?

CYRILLE:  Well, it all depends on where our heads were at the time, and what was being put out there at that particular time.  I can’t really tell you. Forty years ago…

TP:    1964-65-66.

CYRILLE:  Well, it would depend on the people I was playing with. I remember playing rubato stuff with Walt Dickerson back in 1961-62. There weren’t very many people that I came into contact with at that time who were doing that kind of stuff.

TP:    But by ‘65-’66, you were with Cecil a few years, and Unit Structures is ’66 and Conquistador is ‘67, or vice-versa. What I’m saying is, had the three of you been together then, would you have availed yourself or so many options, or might your approach have been a bit more rigid?

CYRILLE:  Well, I can’t answer that. It all would have depended on what we wanted to do at that time.  If somebody came up with that idea and said, “Well, let’s play free…” Well, for instance, look.  When I was a kid and 15-16 years old, I had a band where it was Eric Gale, the guitar player, and another young fellow in Brooklyn named Leslie Braithwaite. We used to get together, and we’d play tunes like “But Not For Me” “Lullaby of Birdland” and “Scrapple From The Apple.” Now, at that time, if somebody said, “Hey, man, let’s play some rubato stuff,” probably everybody would say, ‘Hey, man, what are you talking about?  That stuff is not what we want to do; that’s not the kind of music we play.”

I was trying to learn how to play time, learn how to swing, etc.  Around that time we began meeting certain musicians, like Duke Jordan and Cecil Payne, etc., all those guys in Brooklyn, and there was a certain kind of basic thing that you had to do if you wanted to play drums with them, if you wanted to be a musician. If you couldn’t do that, that meant you couldn’t play with them.  Now, all of this other stuff came later on insofar as musicians who became stronger and decided that they wanted to do something else musically — philosophically is really what it comes down to — and had the strength to do it.  Like, for instance, Cecil. Because Cecil played standards, but then he decided to become more or less what you might say an iconoclast.  And he broke that up!  Because he felt that he needed to do something else…a way to play the music. And he would say that there was another way to swing, you see.  In some ways, that’s true.  But when you don’t play changes in a very methodical way, if you don’t keep time in a very methodical way, it opens the music up. Things open up. So at that particular time, when we began to do that kind of stuff, it was something that we were doing in contrast to something that we had already known about, you see, that we could do.  It was a matter of choice.

TP:    I won’t keep this real historical.  But I’ve never had a chance to ask you in a detailed way which drummers you were modeling yourself after when you were that 16-17-year-old learning to play those tunes.

CYRILLE:  Well, listening to records.  The first records I went out and bought were… The first or second 10” record was one with Red Rodney, and the other one was “Tempus Fugit” with Miles Davis, with Gil Coggins on piano. Red Rodney looks like he’s about 19 years old on the cover. But I had a job.  I was working in Horn & Hardhart, washing dishes, and I started getting into the music.  I had a drumset.  And I began listening to this music, which was fascinating to me.  And since I was playing drums, I decided, “Gee, I wonder can I do this; I’d like to do this.”  And I kept trying.

TP:    You  were in high school, working at Horn & Hardhart, and you’d already been in the drum and bugle corps.

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  I started in the drum-and-bugle corps when I was like 11.

TP:    And you picked up your rudiments quite quickly from all accounts.

CYRILLE:  Well, sort of.  Rudiments are something you don’t necessarily pick up quickly, because they’re sticking patterns, and you have to LEARN them. Then you have to continuously repeat them in practice, and then, of course, you put them into parade cadences for drumming, the bugle, etc., and bass drums and tenor drums to be in conjunction with.  So you play those march rhythms, those martial things. For military!  That’s what those drum-and-bugle corps are.  They’re quasi-military bands.

TP:    For the troops to march in time.

CYRILLE:  That’s right. You see what I mean?  We could start talking about that, too, scientifically, a 17-stroke roll and a 13-stroke roll.  Like, when you start it and then you end it on the 13th beat, that takes a certain amount of time for the soldiers to make their steps. RRRRMMMMMP, and that’s when they put the foot down. They hear that, and then they know; this is how you get them to march in unison.  So if you want to get them to march a little faster, you play a shorter roll.

TP:    So you’re in high school studying chemistry and you have an after-school job at Horn & Hardhart, and you start hearing trap drums on these jazz records.

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  But let me take you back a little more, too.  See, it all is mixed with other influences.  Many of those people who were teaching me the rudiments to play in the marching band were also jazz drummers. People like Willie Jones, for instance. Then there was Lenny McBrowne at that time, and Lee Abrams, who was working with Dinah Washington and probably had done some stuff with Lester Young. Willie Jones had done some stuff with Lester Young and was working with Monk. But see, the person who came to the grade school to start the drum-and-bugle corps…

TP:    You were saying the people who taught you rudiments were jazz drummers, and the person who started you in grade school was a guy named Pop Janson.

CYRILLE:  Abdulio Janson(?) was his name, that’s right.  He came to the school and resuscitated the drum-and-bugle corps that had existed before I got to the grade school.  I guess this was during World War Two.

TP:    Had your family emigrated from Haiti?

CYRILLE:  Yes.  My mother and father did. My mother came here at the age of 23, and they came here in 1926. My father came here in 1919, you see, and he was born in 1894. They’d been here for a while.  My mother had me at 36, and my father was 46.

TP:    Was there music in your family or extended family?  Were people playing the Haitian folkloric stuff or various Caribbean things?

CYRILLE:  My mother would sing me the songs like “Frere Jacques, frere jacques…” She was always singing to me, and playing those games, the fingers go into the chest and then into the mouth and then the eyes, to teach you how to talk and where the different parts of your body were.  She always did that. We had a piano in the house. I never took any lessons; my sister got the lessons. But see, then, my mother and father separated when I was 4. Had they not separated, I don’t necessarily know what would have happened to me, what they would have done with or for me.  But I remember before my mother and father separated, she gave the piano to a club that she belonged to, the Haitian Alliance, because they needed a piano. She’d say that I was dirtying up the keys and I was biting the wood and all that sort of stuff. I guess I was teething or something like that. Anyway, she gave the piano away, and I… The piano always fascinated me, and I always wanted to play it.

So eventually, when I got a call to join the drum-and-bugle corps… As a matter of fact (I tell this story all the time, and it’s true), when the call came around to the classroom (I was in 7th or 8th grade at the time) that Pop Janson wants to start a drum-and-bugle corps, I remember saying to myself, “I don’t want to join any drum-and-bugle corps because I don’t want to march up and down the street.” Probably if some of my schoolmates hadn’t joined up, that wouldn’t have done it either.  But a good friend of mine at that time, my buddy in grade school, he had gone to the bugle corps, and I had gone over to his house in the afternoon that day to meet, and his mom said that he had gone to the auditorium. So I went over to the auditorium. Now, this is a funny story. Another classmate of mine, whose name was Eli Beans(?), and Eli came out of the auditorium… Of course, at that time there were other kids in the class who were like tough guys, and we’d have to spar with them. Sometimes you would get into fights. Because some of them were bully types, but some were rational and intelligent [LAUGHS], so they joined the corps. I remember one young man named Smith, and as I was walking up to the door of the gym, Eli looks at me, and said, “Hey, man, Smith said if you don’t join the corps, he’s going to see you tomorrow.” So I guess some of it… And it’s not that I wouldn’t have fought with Smith, and gone out there and did what I had to do all the time in order to survive in that environment.  But my friend Bernard was in the corps, there were a few other boys from the classroom, and so I said, “Okay, I’ll join.”

TP:    It was the path of least resistance.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, so to speak.  And, then, too, I wanted to hang out with my buddies who played the drums and bugles, and they asked me what did I want to play, and I said, “Okay, I want to play drums.”

This is how things work sometimes. You go in and put a quarter in the slot machine, and then you hit the jackpot. So I went in there and they showed me how to hold the sticks, and then they said, “Play this” — the roll, mamadada, mamadada, bop-bop-bop-bop, right-right, left-left, right-right, left-left. Then they showed me one that was a little harder. They said, “Okay, you can do this, that’s good; now try this one.” Right-left, right-right, left-left. And not even thinking, I did it, right-left, right-right, left-left. I remember it was Willie Jones, and he said, “Hey, man, look at this kid!  He can play this paradiddle!” They called that a paradiddle. I didn’t know what was going on.  I just did it.  So then they discovered that I had what they called natural hands.  As a result also, I liked doing it, because it was a challenge…

TP:    And you could do it, so you didn’t get bored.

CYRILLE:  I could do it.  So I found a vehicle.  I found a voice for myself in terms of sound and being able to do something that made me feel good and made other people feel good.

TP:    Once you discovered the trapset, though, and were playing, I’m interested in who the voice were that you were emulating.

CYRILLE:  Okay, let me finish the story. People like Willie Jones and Lenny McBrowne were coming down there, helping Pop Janson get these kids together, of which I was one.  Then Willie said there are other ways to play the drums, and got a drumset. So he would invite me and some of the other kids, especially Bernard, over to his house on occasion, and we’d sit at the drumset. So then he started telling me the bass drum does one thing, the hi-hat does another thing, the right hand does this, the left hand does that. Also Lenny McBrowne was saying the same thing. They were older than us, obviously. Then they started talking about these jazz musicians. They said, “there’s music that drums play other than parade music.” So then they started talking to us about Max Roach, they started talking about Art Blakey, they started talking about Shadow Wilson.  And then, sometimes they would take two or three of us to this place called the Putnam Central, which was around the corner from the school we went to where the auditorium was, where Max Roach would be practicing. (Putnam Ave. and Claussen.) So Max would be up in this place, practicing — I say “up” because it was upstairs. We couldn’t go in because they sold alcohol in the place, So we would stand in the vestibule and listen to this guy up there playing, and I mean, I heard this BARRAGE coming out of there, and I didn’t know exactly what it was… They kept talking about these people.

Just to make a long story short, that was my introduction to the drumset and to the sound of jazz, so to speak. Aside from hearing Max Roach practicing, during that same period of time, there was Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich was out there, Cozy Cole, and these people were making hits that were played on the radio station WWRL.  Out here, people liked Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and they’d be playing that music. So as a result of all of this stuff coming together, I was given a certain kind of ground, I was given a nest that I could go to, and then begin to decide for myself what I wanted to do with my life.

TP:    And then someone like Willie Jones or Lenny McBrowne could show you how Max or Art Blakey or Shadow Wilson constructed a pattern or a groove.

CYRILLE:  Well, yeah.  But you see, it’s not as easy as that. Because drummers… There’s a certain thing called independent coordination. You’ve got to do it over and over and over, until after a while, it becomes something where you don’t even really think about certain things, and it becomes muscle-memorized. Then you go on from there.

TP:    Let’s take things from there to 1964: There are a number of things you’re doing. You’re doing regular gigs where you have to play time, like with Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams and Illinois Jacquet…

CYRILLE:  Nellie Lutcher was way before that, like 1959.

TP:    It sounds like you go to Juilliard around ‘60, and there you play at sessions, you get a gig with Mary Lou, with Jacquet, you have to play time and do what you have to do. Then you’re also playing with dancers and you’re getting a multidimensional notion of what rhythm is, and a certain sense of abstraction. Then you’re hearing African drummers, and you get a gig with Olatunji, which is seminal for you, because you’re hearing all these rhythms and having to play them and internalizing them. Then you meet Cecil when you were about 19 or something…

CYRILLE:  I met Cecil when I was 17.

TP:    So it’s 1957, you’re 17, you meet Cecil, and you go to this joint with Cecil…

CYRILLE:  No-no.

TP:    You’re at Hartnett and then go uptown…

CYRILLE:  Yeah, but see, that was much later on. That was six or seven years later. Cecil and I would just see each other. I mean, he was another musician. He wasn’t who he is now. He was just a guy who was practicing and wanted to get his thing together. I mean, he had a sense of direction, I’m sure.  But he’d see me, and we’d wave to each other, like guys see each other on the street and sometimes nod… I’d play, and he’d say, “Yeah, man, sounds like you’ve been listening to Philly Joe Jones.” I mean, Cecil had his ear to what was going down. Yeah, I liked Joe, because I met Joe at the same time, too.

TP:    He hung in Brooklyn a lot.

CYRILLE:  He lived in Brooklyn, not too far from the Turbo Village.  But there were a lot of musicians who worked there. Here’s a footnote for you. The first drummer Freddie Hubbard played with when he came to New York was me, at the Turbo Village. The first musician that John Handy ever played with when he came to New York was me. We played a gig up at the Shalimar by Randolph, in Harlem, across the street from a place called Sugar Ray’s at 135th and 7th, across the street from the Hotel Theresa. I forgot what the organ player’s name was. But that was the first gig John Handy made when he came to New York. We were talking about when he was at Iridium, laughing about it.

What I’m saying is that all of these things, in a sense… See, even before I went to Juilliard, I was playing gigs with people like Duke Jordan, like wedding receptions and things like that. There was a lot of that stuff going on in Brooklyn. Like, almost every weekend, you’d sit by the telephone and somebody would call you up in the morning or late in the afternoon, and you’d get a phone call saying, “Hey, man, there’s a gig uptown on Bainbridge Street’” or “There’s a gig on Ralph Avenue; they need somebody for a party,” or “There’s a wedding going on; are you available” or “Can you do this tomorrow?” Eventually, I didn’t have to work at Horn & Hardhart, or I didn’t have to deliver… I was working in the garment center. I was delivering rolls of textiles from one place to another.

TP:    and you were studying chemistry.

CYRILLE:  And I was studying chemistry. Exactly. That was something I had to make a decision about as to what I was going to do with my life, whether I was going to continue pursuing chemistry or whether I was going to pursue music. The difference was that I liked chemistry, I liked it a lot, but I loved music — so I went with the love.  And the love continues.

TP:    At what point did playing function, playing time, start to feel confining?

CYRILLE:  See, that’s a term that I don’t like.

TP:    Well, when did it feel that you had to do something? Playing with Illinois Jacquet to playing with Cecil is a radical difference in attitude.

CYRILLE:  But see, the thing is that for  me, Andrew Cyrille, there’s not such a bifurcation. For me, it’s about learning how to play music, and music is broad. So even if it was, say, ametrical or not playing certain tempos, time, etc., that was fine, because we were playing another kind of music. It’s like when I was playing in the high school band and playing Dvorak and stuff like that.  It’s what was being asked for.  When I was playing for the dancers, it’s what I heard in my mind that was given to them so that they could do their choreography.

TP:    So you were a professional. You had the attitude of a professional very early on. Was that notion of professionalism innate to you?  Or did musicians teach you that?

CYRILLE:  Hey, look, this is what goes down, man. You look at the dictionary, or at least when I was in school… Willie Jones and all those cats talked about, “You’ve got to be a professional.” I’d see a Gigi Gryce, a Jackie McLean, all those cats at a place called the Continental. They looked professional. So what does that mean?  That means they were working. See, they were in business. So if I also wanted to make some money, like Max Roach… Max Roach was one of the consummate professionals.  You’ve got to do what people do who do the business, who make the money.

TP:    But you turned that into a way of also making art, because you approached each function as creatively as you could.

CYRILLE:  Right.

TP:    At least, you now have all those vocabularies down, and it’s your creative voice.

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s therapeutic for me, because I’m one of those people who loves excitement, who loves adventure, who loves to explore. I mean, those things that I did with Milford Graves, playing drums with him, was one of the most exciting things in my life — that record we did The Dialogue of The Drums.  That’s some tough stuff. So anybody, even when it’s with Roswell Rudd, Archie Shepp, Oliver Lake, it’s all still the same thing in terms of being creative and us dealing with each other in terms of the concept that the music presents. So if I’m playing “Hope Two,” that piece Archie wrote for Elmo Hope, I still have to struggle to find some stuff in there that’s going to be exciting and that’s going to be new and different, even though the prescription might be the same.  But it’s how you reinterpret the prescription to make the shit happen.

TP:    Are people interpreting the prescription similarly, or is it a different prescription now than it was forty years ago, when all of you who were on stage at Iridium were feeling your oats?

CYRILLE:  Look, if I’m playing with Braxton, then it’s a different prescription from what it was forty years ago.  If I’m doing something with Muhal, then it’s different, but sometimes it’s the same, because Muhal plays blues a lot of times at the end of his gig, and he’ll say he wants a backbeat.  When I was playing those gigs with people like George Braith and Billy Gardner… I used to sit in with Lou Donaldson from time to time.  You play those organ gigs where you have to go out to those places where Don Pullen also played, like Hempstead, Long Island, where those sleep-in women who would be working at some of those homes out there… On Thursday night or Friday night, they’d have a night off and they’d come to those clubs, where you’d have the blue and green lights turning around, with those filters, where people were dancing and men were meeting women, and a lot of times you had to play those blues so those people could get off, so they could actually feel they were having a good time. You LEARNED how to do that.  That’s part of being a professional.  But as a musician, it’s not something that you deal with from the head down.  You deal with it from the stomach up to the head, and then you FEEL good about what you’re doing, and then those people, of course, feel good about what they’re hearing you play, what you’re giving them.  They’re out there on the floor dancing. It’s the same thing even when I was playing for people at the June Taylor School of Dancers.  You play the music, and then you can watch their bodies move to the way you play the rhythms, how you accent certain things. So that’s the thrill for me.

TP:    It sounds like playing for Cecil was your own time.

CYRILLE:  Well, with Cecil I did what I wanted to. But the challenge then becomes to keep something happening on the same level as it would happen if I was playing the blues, or if I was playing with a dancer who would say to me, “Okay, drummer, make my body move.”

TP:    Or if you were “swinging.”

CYRILLE:  Yeah. But see, the definition of swing to some people means Sid Catlett.  That’s who Kenny Clarke told me was his favorite drummer. See, Kenny Clarke told me… And all these things MEAN something to me.  I’d like to BE that if I could.  He told me that Big Sid was a drummer who all of those chorus line dancers who used to do stuff with Duke up in Harlem, when they would have rehearsals… Because sometimes, as a drummer, you need that if you’re going to do certain moves. He said those dancers loved Big Sid because he made them feel as though they were dancing on a cloud. And when you start thinking about it, all of those instruments sit on the rhythm.  They sit on the drums.  They sit on the drums and the bass.

TP:    You were joking about Valerie Wilmer’s comment, and it’s in the liner notes of this FMP date with Cecil, that Cecil gave you the metaphor of playing for a dance along with him, or extrapolating the things you’d done in dance towards creative uses with him.  Is that how Cecil helped to shape what you were doing, or was it something you were prepared to do and came into naturally?

CYRILLE:  See, a lot of times people will say certain things, and then you have to come up with how you’re going to do it. So if that was said to me, then I had to think about maybe something that I played for a dancer somewhere, at sometime, or maybe something that I would play for a dancer now if that were the situation.

The most outstanding thing, in my mind, that Cecil ever said to me was, “Do what drummers do.” It’s very simple. I know what drummers do, because I’m a drummer, and I’m going to do what I do. See?  So in that light, he never told me, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, do this, that or the other.” Maybe twice I remember he asked me to play something specific, like a 3 against a 5, or some kind of metrical situation.  And he wasn’t really that specific about it. He just said, “Play 3 against 5 here,” blah-blah, blah-blah. And I did whatever it was that I thought he was talking about.  But most of the time, and I’d say 99% of the time (if I have to talk about that being 1 percent when he asked me to play this or that), it was always, “do what you want to do, man; you know what to do.”

Even when we were at Antioch and we were with that big band, we had that orchestra of students… There are some tapes around from that period, which is great. But what I was doing with that orchestra and the “percussion section” was whatever I felt like. See?  I would write music out in my way for the other drummers, who were part of the ensemble, and that’s what went down. So when Cecil would do the orchestration and give the notes to the other voices, I would be in the back, and whatever it was that I heard, I would apply the percussion music to whatever it was that was going on with the melodies and the harmonies. So it was always that way with me and him.  And the challenge for me becomes to bring that up the highest artistic level that I could, to bring some kind of feeling, bring some kind of logical meaning to what it is that I am playing or what it is that I am orchestrating.

TP:    Still, the overriding notion is whatever it is.  It’s not a one-sound type of thing. I’m not saying this pejoratively, but when Rashied Ali was playing with Coltrane he was going straight-ahead, and so was Sunny Murray with Ayler.  But I can’t see them approaching each area in the systematic manner you do. What makes you stand out, it seems, is that you’re able to apply systematic logic in a very creative way, which makes you and Braxton a logical mix.

CYRILLE:  That could very well be. That could be the analogy.  But see, I’ve always tried to be open. I can’t say I love everything because that would be a lie. But I have played duets with Rashied, and I have tapes of me and Rashied playing together in a concert at Antioch, and it’s great music. Now, Rashied showed me a lick, which is something I use from time to time when I do solos, that’s something Coltrane showed him — it’s a thing called “Coltrane time.” It deals with a rhythmical concept that’s based on numbers, like 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, and you play it a certain way, and it comes out of what Coltrane was doing when he was into the Indian raga stuff, like “Sun Ship,” when you hear that kind of rhythm. Rashied showed me and Milford Graves that rhythm, and sometimes when we get together and do a collective…or when I do it with maybe other drummers, too… I’ll show them the rhythm, and we’ll play it. So that’s a system, and if you want to call that a certain straight-ahead prescription…

But straight-ahead very often means that you’re playing 4/4…

TP:    I meant it differently. What I’m thinking about with is how many different areas of getting sound and vocabulary and stories out of the drums you seem to be able to weave together into one personality. It’s like Braxton said, you have these thousands of phrases that you can call up at a moment’s notice…

CYRILLE:  You know why?  Because I believe that the more you know, the more you have to say.  That’s the vocabulary. That’s like words. You’re talking I’ve got to come up with a typology.  Well, if you knew all the words in the dictionary, I’m sure you wouldn’t have that much of a problem.

TP:    Which also sounds a lot like what the AACM people were talking about in the ‘60s. Braxton made some reference to that as well. The notion that you listen to everything.

CYRILLE:  Yeah. And I love being that kind of person. Not long ago, Zildjian did a thing for Steve Gadd. They were talking about the greatness of Steve Gadd is that he can go into all of these sessions… And we’re all sitting there listening to whatever they’re talking about, and they’re praising him, all praises due… They’re talking about how he goes into these studios, and then he listens, and whatever these people want, he gives it to them, and sometimes they don’t even know what they want, but they ask him to do something in relationship to what it is they’re playing, and he comes up and he plays this stuff, and it WORKS for them! And obviously, it must work for him.

I am the same kind of person in this genre — or I want to be this kind of person. Max Roach to some degree is that kind of person also — almost.

TP:    He wouldn’t occur to me because he seems to be so unto himself.

CYRILLE:  Well, he played for dancers. He played shows.  He played big band with Ellington. He played in the drum and bugle corps. He wasn’t always the Max Roach that we knew. He just worked hard, found himself in that situation with Bird and those people, and he wanted to be somebody who contributed to that vein of music.

TP:    That applies to your professional life now, because you play in a staggering range of situations. The Finnish cat, Tarasov, the European improvisers, Cecil, the thing with Reggie and Oliver is one sound, the thing with Dresser and Marty is another type of sound, the percussion group with Moye, Tabbal and Obo Addy… So apart from keeping you busy with a lot of projects, the diversity and multidisciplinarity of it must keep you tremendously stimulated.

CYRILLE:  Oh, yeah.  And the point becomes to manage my time so I can find the time to do what I really need to do to to give what’s necessary to all of it.

TP:    Now, the quality you’re talking about, that you’re the type of guy Zildjian was referring to with Steve Gadd, really came to the fore in the second week at Iridium. You have a bamako beat, on another one you’re playing 4/4 spangalang… Each piece had a frame, and within that frame you’re…

CYRILLE:  Yeah, the bamako beat comes out of my experiences with Africans. Olatunji wasn’t the only African I played with. This is interesting. I played with a group of guys, we used to play dances — a guy named Victor N’Kojo Finn and Joe Mensa. There was a saxophonist from Detroit named Wendell Harrison. There was John Gilmore and Marshall Allen in some of those bands. Sun Ra used to come up to rehearsals and sometimes tell Olatunji to play one thing or another. Yusef Lateef even did a couple of gigs with Olatunji. But anyway, all of those people I mentioned to you, including myself, were playing the African stuff. So when somebody like Roswell Rudd comes up with “Bamako,” there’s ten different things that I can do with that!

TP:    Did you ever play with Latin bands?

CYRILLE:  Yeah, you play mambos.

TP:    Or with Haitian bands.

CYRILLE:  No, I never played with any Haitian bands, but you hear the rhythms.  Here’s the point. Even when you’re playing with Latin bands or Cuban bands… I’ve done some stuff with Daniel Ponce — he, I and Milford, as a matter of fact.  The thing is, once you understand what the matrix of that stuff is with this African rhythm, then it can move through anything that relates to that kind of playing, you see, with that downbeat on the 1 and the downbeat on the 1 and 3.  With swing, the inflections are on the 2 and 4, which is another way of thinking about music — and why that is is another thing.  What you play in the middle of it, from one beat to the next is the flavor. But when you play, like, Brazilian music… Now, one of the musics that I did play with some people that gave me a little bit of trouble was Brazilian music, because the inflection of where they placed the beats in the meter was a little different.

Another thing is that a lot of music comes out of the way people talk.  So what’s being played is also how it’s being said in words. It’s just that they’re playing it in sound. Because you take all of those people from the South and the Delta, etc., when you hear them talk and you hear them play, it’s almost the same thing.  What I’m saying is that when you play the African music, and you understand how to move from one place to the next with those sounds, you can play with people from Cuba, you can play from people from Nigeria, you can play with people from Haiti, you can play with people from the Dominican Republic. So anybody who is related to that in any way all can come together.

TP:    The common root.

CYRILLE:  It’s the common root.  It was the same thing with Mor Thiam, who’s from Senegal. On that record, Ode To the Living Tree, on the end there’s a piece called “Water, Water, Water” and at the beginning… Well, Mor Thiam just sat down and started playing. I had some concepts about evolution in terms of playing the swing beat, which is what I did, and we had no problem. Because I understand the genesis of that music.

TP:    Let me ask you a more general question. What do you think about the way drum vocabulary has evolved since you first got in the game?

CYRILLE:  Well, it’s fantastic. Elvin brought another thing to it. Tony Williams brought another thing to it.

TP:    Were you paying attention to Elvin and Tony?

CYRILLE:  Damn right I was paying attention to them.  You pay attention to it because you hear it, and all of a sudden, you hear something that’s kind of the same, but the way it’s being said… We all speak English, but sometimes you hear an orator talk, and he begins putting some stuff together, like Martin Luther King stringing it together in a way that you know is cool, but then again, it’s different — and it’s attractive.

TP:    But in the ‘60s, you were checking Tony out?  You were checking Elvin out?

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  Because when I first heard Tony… I met Tony at a place called the Coronet in Brooklyn. I forgot who he was working with. But he was one of the cats that had come on the scene.  He was working with Jackie. He wasn’t working with Miles yet.  Then I hear this guy, and the thing was that being so young, he was so strong, and then the way he was assigning the rhythm, the way he was playing it, how he was, let’s say, enunciating what he was saying, was very, very strong, and then, at the same time, very, very musical. So then what you say to yourself is, “Damn, how did he hear that?” What is the grid for that? Well, you kind of know what the grid is, but you say, “Damn, this guy…” It’s like looking at a painter. You give him a canvas and somebody does one thing with the canvas and then somebody else uses the same paints or form, but you look at it and say, “Wow, this is really different!” So that’s what I saw with Tony…

TP:    Who are some of the other drummers who emerged after you got your mature voice who you were checking out and paying attention to?

CYRILLE:  I’ll tell you who I like.  Lewis Nash is a good one. Lewis is strong.  Lewis knows the language of playing the drums.  And he’s creative with it, and I can tell that he continues to work at it.  He’s very strong, and so many musicians in the straightahead idiom like him. They like working with him.  He gets all kinds of calls for that kind of stuff.  He’s not so much of a threat insofar as taking them into some area where perhaps they won’t be able to do what they need to do.  In other words, he’s the consummate drummer for people like Tommy Flanagan or maybe Cedar Walton… And he can do so many types of things. He worked with Oscar Peterson and all those people…

Somebody else who is a very creative musician but doesn’t get the same kind of play in the media is Michael Carvin. I’ve done duets with Michael Carvin. Which were superb!  I might do some more of them.

TP:    Where I’m coming from is I want your sense… You’re 64. So you’ve lived through about a half-century of jazz music. Things have changed, and the way drums are approached has changed — maybe. Is that so?  If so, how is it…

CYRILLE:  I teach over at the New School.  So I see a lot of young kids who come in there who are 19-20-21 years old, and they know a lot about what has gone on — and some of them don’t know a whole lot about what has gone on. But they come in with raw talent, you see, and some of them are a little further along than others in terms of their ability to play the music at hand or the music that’s asked for by teachers in the classrooms.  And some of those kids are really excellent. I mean, they’re phenomenal.  And some of them are already playing professionally. So they come in with the attitude that they want to do their thing, and the point becomes that if they’re doing their thing within the prescription of the classroom, of what’s being asked of them, then it works. Very often I don’t tamper with certain things. I might nudge them this way or that a bit, or make them realize certain things that they should look for when they’re playing with a singer or maybe doing something with a bass… Anything that will make them better musicians.  But insofar as them being creative and being able to play certain kinds of rhythms within the tradition, sometimes it’s just amazing.  All you’ve got to do is come up there and check some of them out. We have these what they call listening sessions once a semester, and the classes come together, and each class plays a couple of tunes, and the bands from the different classes get graded by the faculty that’s designated to be there on that day. I might be there, Joanne Brackeen might be there, Reggie Workman has a class there, Joe Chambers, Billy Harper, maybe Cecil Bridgewater, Cecil McBee was there… All of our classes play.  And in some of those classes, some of those drummers are fantastic little students.

TP:    One thing that’s happening is you’re finding a lot of drummers from outside the U.S., like Dafnis Prieto… The term might seem amusing to you, since you’ve brought so many elements into your music for so long, but there’s a sort of bilingualism, where people have an idiomatic command of Cuban music, say, and learn the jazz vocabularies, and blend the cultures into a sort of hybrid.  There are so many musical communities in New York breaking bread with each other. Do you see that having an impact on the sound of the music now?

CYRILLE:  Oh, of course. Because jazz has always been a music that has been evolving.  This is what the United States is. So if we have not done anything, we’ve done this.  We’ve given different cultures another methodology to express themselves within their own cultures.

TP:    I think that’s a great one-sentence breakdown of the phenomenon.

CYRILLE:  Yes.  And all of them love us for that.  That’s why I can go to the Soviet Union and play with Vladimir Tarasov, and we can have a ball.

TP:    So it really has to do with the process.  The process is the most important thing.

CYRILLE:  And if one understands the process, then we can work together.  Now, there is one group of drummers with whom our process does not always fit immediately, and that’s the Indian drummers, because they have another system of counting.  When you begin to base certain things on the Western tradition in terms of how we learn music… For instance, when I went to Russia and was playing with Vladimir… He invited me to go play with him. So I was saying to myself before I went, “What in the hell are we going to play?  What are we going to play together?” So all I could do was prepare myself for what I had.  And when I got over there, I had written the chart. He could read it. He gave me a chart.  I could read it.  Then, from there, he began telling me that where we was born, Archangel, was a port more or less like New York, where you had sailors coming in from different parts of the world. So when he was gigging, like me, you’re 15-16-17-18-19, or however old you have to be in order to get into places that sell liquor, you begin to learn these different kinds of musics from the different people that come through, and for certain things you have to play for people. For instance, I learned how to play polkas when I would be playing barmitzvahs and stuff like that. So I’m sure he more or less learned the same kind of thing.  So when you’d say “shuffle,” he understood what a shuffle was.  When you’d say “backbeat,” he understands what a backbeat is. When I went to his house, there was a picture of him standing with Duke Ellington. See, Duke had gone over there, and it just so happened that he was able to take a picture with Duke.  That’s where his head was.  So when he got with me, we had the same type of methodology, even though his inflections were perhaps a little different because he came from outside the States.  Also, the other part of it with him is that he was dealing with the Ganelin Trio, who were also playing “free jazz.” So in a sense, we had worked together insofar as the processes were concerned.

I did something with him last year in Hungary (and I think it was done twice) with a dance company called… The name will come to me. Vladimir and I played music to a piece that was choreographed… It was like a play.  Then there was a film.  We improvised a lot… We talked about how we were going to do it, certain places, certain things we were going to improvise.  Just like I did with Henry.  Here we improvise, here you play this, here I’ll play that, you play this against this, here we’ll read a certain thing, here you’ll only play, there you’ll only play. The dancer is… They live in a place called Kanitza(?), which is right below Hungary, in Yugoslavia. He came to New York.  He’s a big-time guy over there. I think he lives in France, too. Joseph Nagy.

All I’m saying is that with Vladimir, we understand the process, and with that, we can get together. We can communicate.

TP:    You said that your early mentors pounded into that you have to be a professional.  Did they also pound into you that you have to be an individual?

CYRILLE:  Yes. And I’ll tell you why.  I used to hang out with all of them cats. But the cat that I would be with on a physical level more than any of the others was Philly Joe Jones. When we were with Joe and Max and all them people, they would talk about, “Hey, man, you got to play your own shit.” Among the intelligentsia, it’s about “is this cat playing his own shit or is he playing somebody else’s stuff?”  And it’s cool if you’re playing somebody else’s stuff, because it works. It’s been tried, it’s true, and it’s been tested.  But when you can get out there and do something unique, like Elvin or Philly Joe Jones or Max Roach or Roy Haynes… Even Buddy Rich, to some degree. I could talk to you about how I feel about him.  But he was unique in a lot of ways. He played his ass off in some ways. But as far as Joe and Max and those guys, it wouldn’t be true to say they don’t respect other drummers, because that’s not true.  They do.  All of us out here are trying to do what we do.  But the people who shape the music, who cause other drummers to think about what they’re doing and think about those people, are the people who are lionized. I can’t say they’re respected the most, but these are the kings.  Then you have the rest of the world — the princes, the dukes and the earls.

TP:    You mentioned Lewis Nash and Carvin. Can you name anyone else doing what you describe.

CYRILLE:  There are people who are trying to do certain things. I don’t always understand what he does, but he’s in it to some degree in terms of being creative and trying to find something that works — Bobby Previte. Hemingway is another one who’s an individual, who works from his own system as far as tuning the drums is concerned. Of course, Paul Motian is another one.  The way Motian assigns the rhythm is different. I’ll tell you who else is different, though I don’t know if he’s under 50, is Tony Oxley. I don’t necessarily play that way, but he’s got an arsenal of whatever makes percussive sounds, and that’s what he plays.

TP:    I was thinking of people like Tain or Bill Stewart…

CYRILLE:  Those cats are… Stewart is a strong man. I first heard Stewart when he was playing with Enrico Rava in Germany. I had a gig with Spencer Barefield and Oliver Lake at Leverkusen, and I heard Billy Stewart, and he was really quite impressive. He was strong, and he knew what he wanted to play, and he was fast, and he gave the band what they wanted — he was somebody to behold. Tain is another one who is a great person, extraordinary with his talent.

But what I’m talking about is when you hear somebody who comes in, and they’re playing something that is really different. I’m talking about like a Tony. He’d do certain things with one hand, he’d do something with another hand, and the way he was playing those rhythms, you never heard anything quite like that.  That was different! Elvin was different.  See, Tain is different, too, but not AS different. Another one who is like that, to me, is DeJohnette.  See, DeJohnette is kind of like a synthesis.  He is an excellent drummer, but I don’t think he has influenced the legions of drummers around the world the same way like Max or Tony or Elvin or maybe Philly Joe Jones.  Then there are other people who come under that. I remember I liked listening to Frankie Dunlop, and I like listening to Ben Riley.  All these guys are very good.  Another guy who is really unique, but to me he hasn’t diffused what it is that he does within the wider context of the music, is Milford.

TP:    He’s pretty much unto himself, not much of a team player.

CYRILLE:  Right. In a lot of ways, you have to play with him.

TP:    I think one reason why the drumset is such a powerful instrument apart from the noble sound is that the rhythms all embody some sort of story, since the original function was to convey information. I’m wondering if, when you’re dialoguing in rhythm and using independent coordination, if you think of it that way — if you think of it as a storytelling function.

CYRILLE:  Yes.

TP:    Is that explicit?

CYRILLE:  Well, very often it is. Let me go from here. I remember playing with some Africans one time in London, and the guy said to me, “Just don’t think, man; just go ahead and play.  Don’t think; just let it come out.” Now, to me, that’s playing and the music is after the fact. Just play. That happens sometimes when you get on the bandstand. Like, if I’m going to go up and play with Brotzmann or Kowald or something like that, it’s fun, and you let it happen, and then it evolves. You’re listening to each other, see, but you’re playing the music. Now, if somebody says to me, “Hey, man, play something for me like Art Blakey played on ‘Moanin’ because I want a march rhythm…” Oliver sometimes says this, “Yeah, I kind of want to march.”  So you think of a march, a martial rhythm. Now, you might improvise on the martial rhythm, but everybody knows… [SINGS CADENCE] It (?) Because it has a certain cadence that you’re telling a story of something that’s martial. So if somebody says, “Yeah, I want you to play the bridge of ‘Night In Tunisia” with a Latin beat,” so you think of something that tells the story of Mambo or Cha-Cha or whatever, like some of those tunes like Reggie was playing with Roswell and Archie last week.  They had a montuno kind of cadence to them, the one that Roswell calls “Puchi and the Bird.” Reggie plays a montuno on it, and as long as he stays there with that montuno, I can play all kinds of stuff in relationship to it.  But still, there’s a story, so if I play, he goes [SINGS OUT DIALOGUE] — automatically that brings somebody to Africa. It can also bring you to Cuba or Haiti.

TP:    You have a very scientific approach to music within your creativity.

CYRILLE:  Well, yes.  You know why? What does science mean?  Science means that when you do a certain thing, you know you will get a certain result. That’s what all musicians do, I would imagine. I would think that singers in particular, if you want to sing a ballad… “My man don’t love me!!!” Isn’t that a science?  Isn’t that the science of music?  And isn’t that what we teach, or what you learn when you go to the conservatory?  You learn how to do that shit to affect people.

TP:    But different people have different ways… You’re very systematic. It’s interesting, because you’re so methodical but also so creative.

CYRILLE:  Well, we could start talking about what is creativity.

TP:    Yes, we could.  But maybe we won’t.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, right.  See, it’s all fun to me, man. As long as I can make some money, too.

[PAUSE]

Cecil and I did have a couple of rehearsals, with Honsinger and Franky. We played together the night before for quite some time, so we got all our vocabularies together. In other words, we began to feel each other out, and when we went to do the concert, the energy was more or less the way we’d played it.  The thing about it is, sometimes you can’t really prescribe what’s going to happen.  Sometimes that’s what makes it so beautiful, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you just get into it, and something fantastic happens. Now, sometimes it doesn’t work, for whatever reason.  But some of the greatest moments I’ve had with a lot of musicians playing creative music is when you just go out there and hit, like doing the shit with Kidd Jordan and William, or even some of the things that I’ve been able to do with Dave Burrell recently. Some of these things haven’t been recorded; just when you get together on stage and play a concert, you say, “Wow!  That was really something else.”

Again, with all of this stuff, it’s a matter of it happening in the moment with whatever we have to bring to the table.

TP:    I wasn’t saying anything one way or the other about it. I was just surprised that that was the feeling.

CYRILLE:  See, what happens is Cecil sits down at the piano, and he begins playing the way he plays, or I’ll begin playing the way I play or the way that I feel right then. So if it’s one of those up-tempo energy kind of things, I’ll do that.  Very rarely does he sit down and start playing very legato, ballad type things. Most of those things are very pointillistic when he starts, jagged to some degree. So you begin that way. You take a step, take another step, take two-three steps, then you sit back and listen for a while, and pace. It’s almost sometimes like a cat. You watch cats, and they go up, and then they see what they want, and they’ll move down to the ground, then they sit up again, and they move and see what they want, and then… It’s almost like stalking sometimes. Sometimes.

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (WKCR, 11-16-97):

[With Muhal: “Drumman Cyrille”]

TP:    Let’s repeat your biography.  A Brooklyn native, and you started playing drums around when?  What piqued your interest?

CYRILLE:  I started playing when I was around 10 or 11 years old. I guess the thing that piqued my interest in the drums is that I found a way to express myself that I didn’t have prior to playing the drums. I found, in a sense, my voice; I could enlarge my voice. That might be a literal explanation

But along with that, I had other young guys with me, who used to play in my drum and bugle corps, and we would get together. It would be like friends who would be playing a game. We would learn these rudiments and these drumbeats, these beats that we would play for parades, etc., and as a result we’d see who would do one or the other better.  If one could do something better than the other, then we’d try to help the other one do what it was that he didn’t know — or I didn’t know.  There was a gentleman named Abdulio(?) Janson — Pop Janson, we used to call him.  He’s the guy who founded the drum-and-bugle corps in the grade school I went to in Brooklyn, St.  Peter (?). When we graduated from that school, he used to come to Brooklyn and get us and take us out to Long Island to play at the C.W.V. Post in Huntington.  So it was an outing for us.  It was something for us kids from the school and in the neighborhood to do.  Like most kids…

TP:    Did you play all the components of the drum within that?  Did you start playing the snare or the bass drum?  Do you remember which implement was the first one for you?

CYRILLE:  It was the snare drum from the very beginning.  Some of the other kids played the tenor drum, which stands behind the snare in the drum line, and then the third line, you’d have the bass drum.  So we had some kids who played the bass drums, some who played the tenor, and some who played the snare. I was one of the kids who played the snare. It was really a great time, in a way, to get us out of the neighborhood and have us do something which was positive.

TP:    In Brooklyn at that time there was an active music scene, and you could see music be played, and you probably had access to watch some drummers.

CYRILLE:  Oh, very definitely.  Some of the drummers who used to come to the Corps to teach the kids were professional jazz musicians.  There was Lee Abrams, who used to work with Dinah Washington and Lester Young. There was Willie Jones, who also worked with Lester Young and Thelonious Monk. Then there was Lenny McBrowne, who worked with Paul Bley and did a show in California with Jon Hendricks –  maybe Blues For Mister Charlie or one of those things that Jon Hendricks had put together. Lenny was the drummer for that, and he also worked with people like Booker Ervin. Of course, all
those drummers were aficionados of people like Max Roach and Art Blakey and Shadow Wilson, and so they told us about those drummers also, and other ways of playing the drums.

TP:    Were you into emulating drummers at that time?  Who were some of the people you’d try to replicate motions and strokes?

CYRILLE:  For the most part, we learned these strokes, etc., so as a consequence, when you start listening to records, you have to imitate somebody… The records I used to buy had Max Roach on them, they’d have Art Blakey on them, or I’d hear Shadow Wilson… There were young drummers in Brooklyn like Maurice Brown and Arthur Trotman, and a few others.  There was my grade school partner, Bernard Wilkinson, who was Max’s brother-in-law.  We would all listen to the professionals. There was Steve Butler, too.  We’d all look at each other, watch each other, talk about the drummers that we liked, and some of us would play more like Max or Philly Joe or Art Blakey or Arthur Taylor or others.

TP:    Let’s talk about your transition from student to professional, and how it became apparent to you that being a musician, being a drummer, would be your avocation, would be your life.

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s a large jump. There were some things that I thought about doing with my life in a professional capacity before I really said to myself, “Okay, I want to go for music.” When I left high school, I had decided to study chemistry for a while, so I was a chemistry major.

TP:    Where did you go to high school?

CYRILLE:  I went to St. John’s Prep, and then I went to St. John’s University.  Then, at St. John’s University, I was still playing at night. I was playing with people like Duke Jordan and Cecil Payne and making gigs.  So it was hard for me to do both, and do both well — and I’m one of those people who, if I’m going to do something, I want to do it to the best of my ability. So I had to make a choice. Either I was going to remain in chemistry and really study that and put the time in as I should, or I was going to be a musician and put in the time to do that. So I had to make a decision between something that I felt I liked and something that I thought I loved. I liked chemistry; I liked it a lot.  But I loved music.

So I went with the music — for a number of other reasons also. Like, for instance, it was teaching me about the history of African-Americans. It also gave me an opportunity to see a direct entrance into employment. Also, I kind of felt like it was a line of least resistance in terms of something that was natural to me. I liked chemistry.  I don’t think I was a natural mathematician.  I had to work at, if you know what I’m saying. I think my brother is more of a mathematician than I am. In fact, his daughter just got a scholarship to Carnegie-Mellon for mathematics.  But I’m not as good as they are. So I went with the music.

TP:    But you were already at a level of proficiency where you were making these type of gigs, and then had to make a choice of what it was going to be. Do you remember your first professional gigs, and what sort of gigs they were?

CYRILLE:  There was always a bunch of young musicians in Brooklyn.  I remember Chris White (the bass player). There was a saxophone player, Jimmy Revis(?).  There was also Bobby Hamilton, who played drums.  There was another trumpet player, Larry Greenwich. We’d get together on occasion and play for dances, parties. We’d get together and have jam sessions. Also, the people whom I really started learning the music with, the language of music, was the piano player, Leslie Braithwaite, and the guitar player, Eric Gale, who went to high school with me. We had a trio, and Eric would play bass on his guitar, and Leslie would play the piano, and I would play the drums. So we started learning those tunes — “But Not For Me,” “Now Is The Time,” “Well, You Needn’t.” This is how we began to develop. As a result, people would hear about us and they would hire us to do various little jobs.

TP:    You eventually entered Juilliard. You make a decision that music will be your life, you make arrangements to enter Juilliard…

CYRILLE:  I thought, well, if I’m going to study music, I might as well go to a music school. Again, with Leslie and Eric, we were saying, “Man, if you want to study music, you can go to Manhattan or you can go to Juilliard,” then we started asking musicians who had gone to both what the difference was.  I decided I wanted to go to Juilliard, so I had to prepare to take the entrance examination.  Believe it or not, I didn’t think I would pass!  The guys who were my examiners were these two great musicians in the European classical world. They were Morris Goldenberg, who was playing for the Metropolitan Opera and also for the NBC Orchestra at the time, and Sol Goodman, who was playing for the New York Philharmonic. I went to take the test, and they asked me to read something which I had prepared, they asked me to play a few drum rudiments, and I played it.  I remember I made a mistake in the part I’d prepared to read, and they said, “Hold it, you made a mistake there!” — and I went back and corrected it.  Then I got a letter saying that I was accepted to the school, and I was very, very happy. As a result, I never really looked back.

In the school then were other young guys who helped in terms of helping one focus as to how one was going to do this music and its business. In the school at the time was Roland Hanna, Bobby Thomas, Addison Farmer, Gary Bartz was up there with me, Grachan Moncur was up there, John Gordon, and a host of other people who aren’t as prominent today.  Herbie Martin, a tenor player, was another one.  We’d all get together, and we’d start talking about what we were going to do in this business!

TP:    Was there any possibility of dealing with jazz in the Juilliard curriculum forty years ago?

CYRILLE:  No.  I actually went to Juilliard to learn how to play jazz, but it wasn’t to be then. So I had to meet people who were learning the music so that I could learn how to do it. There were people like Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams and Illinois Jacquet. Those were some of my first experiences, while I was still in school. I’d met Morris Edwards, who was a bass player at the school also.

TP:    You were gigging with them at night while studying days at Juilliard?

CYRILLE:  Well, yeah, but it was closer to music. But I’d do those things, and sometimes in the summer you’d have gigs and go off when there was no school.

TP:    How would you evaluate the Juilliard experience?  Was it valuable for you?

CYRILLE:  On a certain level, yes.  It taught me about the literature and materials of music, a lot of the theory, etc. It got me into a music in a way which I hadn’t been before. As far as having a percussion major and playing the xylophone and learning about the timpani… Even though I played timpani in a high school band, but it wasn’t anything like what I was going to learn on the college level, and especially at a place like Juilliard. It prepared a certain foundation for me as far as understanding how music was put together in a literal way.  But if I went back and continued to study now, I’d probably get more out of it.  Because my head was really into jazz, and I really wanted to get that together.  I remember Morris Goldenberg telling me that he would prepare me to work in one of the symphony orchestras, and that was not what I had in mind.  But that’s what he had in mind for me.  Even though he liked jazz, he wasn’t that much of a person who would direct his students in that way.  It was a philosophical difference in terms of what I wanted and what they wanted to give me. So again, I went out and found the people who help me in what I wanted…

TP:    Extracurricularly.

CYRILLE:  Right.  I remember we used to go into the record library, people like Gary and myself and John Gordon and a fellow named Vernon who played alto saxophone.  We used to have to listen to recordings of people like Mendelssohn and Elgar, Bach, Beethoven, whomever, for our literature and materials in music classes.  Then the next day, when we had a class, the teacher would place the record needle on a particular part of the record and ask us to identify the composer and the movement, and so we had to listen to those recordings.  It was just like somebody asking you to read some book and prepare the lesson. This was the way they did it with audio recordings. What would happen is very often we’d be in the library, not necessarily listening to those pieces, but listening to some jazz records.  Sometimes jazz records would cause one to react in a very emotional way, and you’d say, “Yeah! Yeah!” — and it’s supposed to be quiet in the library, and you’d be saying “Yeah,” and you’d have these earphones on, so sometimes you couldn’t necessarily hear what you were saying, you couldn’t hear yourself making these exclamations. Then the librarian would come over and say “Sshhh,” and we’d say, “Oh.” That’s the kind of thing that was going on there as far as us and jazz.

TP:    We’ll begin our chronology with a track from Andrew’s first recording, with Coleman Hawkins, on the Moodsville label…

CYRILLE:  It wasn’t my first recording.  It was my third or fourth one down the line. My first recording was with Walt Dickerson, and we can talk about it later on.

TP:    Were you doing odd gigs with Coleman Hawkins at this time?

CYRILLE:  Not at all. That was a very interesting collaboration, so to speak.  I had been doing some recordings for Prestige with Walt Dickerson. I remember this one particular afternoon, after doing one of the recordings, the A&R man, Esmond Edwards, said to me that he had a recording with Coleman Hawkins in a couple of weeks, and Charlie Persip was supposed to make the recording, but for some reason Charlie had a conflict and couldn’t make it.  So he asked me would I be available.  And of course I could be available!  And I was available.  I had never played with Coleman Hawkins before.  As a matter of fact, I had never heard Coleman Hawkins live. I had heard him on record and on the radio.  But I didn’t know what to expect.  So I showed up at the studio, and we had the rehearsal in the studio. I was shaking in my boots, because I thought I was going to be sent home because I couldn’t make it, but they started the recording, and Hawkins never said anything to me, but just nodded when he liked something that I did, or we listened to the takes and he said, “Yeah, okay, that’s fine” — and that was it. That’s how I met him.

[AC-Hawk, The Hawk Relaxes, “Just a Gigolo”; w/ Walt Dickerson, w/ Bill Barron, w/ Ahmed Abdul Malik]

TP:    That set indicates that you were exploring a wide range of percussion texture, meters, and exploring ways of extending what the drumset could do at that particular point. Maybe we can keep our comments on the particular tracks keyed to that process, because in the next set we’ll be hearing you with Cecil Taylor circa 1966-67. A very fruitful relationship with Walt Dickerson over the years.

CYRILLE:  Walt was introduced to me by Philly Joe Jones. He was coming to New York from California, and he had asked Joe did Joe know of a drummer he could call who wouldn’t mind working in a group he was thinking about putting together. Walt came to New York, and gave me a call, and that began a relationship. That must have been back around 1960-61, if I’m not mistaken. We’ve made a lot of music together. Walt gave me a lot of freedom at that time to play the drums within the context of the music that was being presented, and in conjunction with being musical colleagues, we also became very good friends to this day. Walter had a unique gift for playing vibraphone, and as a result, he expressed it with what you hear, and he would also try to relate to me more or less the same attitude about playing drums.

TP:    It almost seems redundant to say, but his conception of the instrument is quite percussive in terms of an ongoing dialogue with the drummer, an ongoing web of texture.

CYRILLE:  That’s where his head was.  He would play the vibes with such speed and alacrity, and I’ve never really heard anybody duplicate that, the way he would phrase and the kind of technique that he displayed.  Vibe players to this day, when I see people like Bobby Hutcherson or even someone like Brian Carrott, ask me how Walt’s doing, where is he, etc. As a matter of fact, I mentioned him to Milt Jackson a while ago, and Milt knew Walt Dickerson. So everyone who plays that instrument is aware of the kind of vibraphone player he is.

TP:    Did the date with Bill Barron have anything to do with a working group?

CYRILLE:  It’s the dream of most musicians (and at the time, I think Barron was no exception) to have a working band, a band that can go out and get some gigs. So when he told me about us doing this recording, it was also with the idea of making some gigs, having some gigs result from making the recording. So I’d say yes, it was something that we were thinking about.  But the employment scene for musicians, especially who play creative music (even then, one could always say cutting edge. I guess I’ve always been in that genre of musicians), it’s difficult. It was difficult then. So I don’t think we ever really made any gigs with that formation. I made some gigs with Bill afterward at places. I remember at Wesleyan College where he was teaching, and a couple of other things in Brooklyn. But that session was done… We rehearsed, we got the music together, and we did the recording. Yes, we kept our fingers crossed hoping we would get some work, but it wasn’t to come to pass.

TP:    Was Ahmad-Abdul Malik a working situation?

CYRILLE:  Same idea.

TP:    A very ambitious musician, and a unique sound for that time with the meters, colors and rhythms he was using.

CYRILLE:  Right. Ahmad had a passion for African music, and especially the kind from North African, and in particular, for this case, the Sudan. So he wanted to bring that expression, that subculture into the larger culture of jazz. So that’s why he would have a horn player like Tommy Turrentine or a saxophone like Eric Dixon, a drummer like myself or a cellist like Calo Scott, because he wanted to express that kind of music, that expression of music within the larger jazz context.

TP:    This would imply that at this time, or maybe before, you were beginning to expand your sense of possibility on the drumkit. Were you beginning to study African music and absorb it and find ways to absorb it into your concept?  When did that start?

CYRILLE:  That really started when I was working with Olatunji. I was aware of African music, but not the extent that I would become involved in it when I was working with Olatunji and literally African drummers or American drummers who you might call Afrophiles. As a matter of fact, that was at the same time I was at Juilliard, which was in the early ’60s.

TP:    So it is at the time of this recording, which is May 1961.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  It’s all around the same time.

TP:    What did it do for you to be around the African drummers? I’d imagine it was a big consciousness-expander.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, and what it did was, it gave me an opportunity to learn a lot of those African rhythms and apply them to the drumset. Let me go back for a moment, because you were asking how I learned a lot of these rhythms and did I study this-that-and-the-other. Sometimes, one gets into more of a particular kind of expression when one is introduced to it. This is like somebody bringing the book to you about mathematics, and you look at algebra, and before you know it, you’re into trigonometry or calculus because of the interest. Most musicians who are composers and who might have unique ideas about doing things will ask a drummer to play certain rhythms.  Malik had a very specific idea in mind, in terms of the kind of rhythm that he wanted on “La Ibkey,” he explained it to me, and then, of course, I had to work it out.  I had to work out what he had in mind so that he would be satisifed with the rhythmical foundation for the music that you heard. So once that was introduced to me, then, yeah, I might go out and buy some music that was played by Hamzel(?) Djinn(?) or some other Arabic percussionist, and hear more of how those drummers would play rhythms. Yeah, you learn from that. As a result of working with Olatunji, I had to learn how to play African claves. So as a result of that, yeah, I’d go out and buy some more music that dealt with Africa.

A lot of the times, yes, it is after the fact when something is introduced that one goes out and investigates more.  And of course, too, if one is very serious about what one does, then one goes out and one gets more information so that one can be broader when the occasion arises again.

TP:    As one’s consciousness and philosophy changes, it’s not necessarily apparently until it’s already happened.  But looking back on it, can you discuss how your philosophy of music-making changed, if it all, from 1962, when you made “A Cool One,” and working with Cecil Taylor in 1966. Was there a change in philosophy, or was it the demand of the function?

CYRILLE:  Well, a demand of the function adds to the philosophy, because the philosophy is what it is that you think about the music. So if somebody begins to talk to you about what it is that you think, then you start talking about it. Then they tell you what they think. Then if they want a certain thing, they say, “This is what I would like to have, so can you play this, or try this, or do this or that or the other?” So that adds to your philosophy. So this is, in a sense, how you change.  This is how you absorb.

TP:    I don’t want to say “free music.” But when did your orientation toward the type of music Cecil Taylor was playing begin to happen? Certainly it was all in the air in New York City.

CYRILLE:  Yes, it was all in the air.  And if you listen to one of those tracks with Walt Dickerson, I think “The Desert,” you will hear me playing some free drums. That’s before I began working with Cecil. So that is a documented track that shows I was playing you might say rubato drums on that particular track. So my head was already there.

But you see, I was always one who wanted to make a contribution.  And during this period, too, you’ve got to remember, I was working with people like Mary Lou Williams, and most of us who know about this music know where she came from, and she was, in a sense, a free spirit with an open mind. She worked with people like Andy Kirk way back when to doing duets with Cecil Taylor, so you know she had to have an open mind. I used to say to her, “Gee, I’d sure like to find a way to play the ride cymbal differently.” With her own information and what she knew about the business and the music, she’d say, “Well, if you do, you won’t find anybody to work with.”  But then I did find people to work with, and the main one in this particular instance was Cecil Taylor. I could do whatever I wanted to do with the cymbal or the ride beat or whatever you want to call it. So as a result, yeah, a door was open for me to play “free music.”  And it’s not as free as a lot of people think it is.  But this is how you get into it.  This is what happens.

TP:    Let’s hear what Andrew Cyrille sounded like with Cecil Taylor in 1967 on Conquistador

[CT, “With/Exit”]

TP:    I’ll read from Valerie Wilmer’s liner notes for a solo percussion album that Andrew did in 1969, a year of creative ferment in Paris, entitled What About?  “This is the first recording as a leader by Andrew Cyrille, and it remains a classic. Nothing like it had ever appeared before. Using the Western drumset alone, Cyrille expresses every emotion from a whisper to a scream. Then as now, the drummer’s personal vision lent an unusual angle on his cultural roots. He ignored the trends then being favored by his peers — the total rejection of timekeeping pioneering by Sunny Murray, the more obvious manifestations of an African aesthetic epitomized by people like Milford Graves. Indeed, at a time when the assertion of ethnic identity could be said to have been as important as the need for change in the music itself, his approach seemed curiously purist.  But thoroughness and attention to detail have always characterized Cyrille’s work. He even uses a metronome in rehearsals.”  Still?

CYRILLE:  Sometimes, yes.  When I practice myself. I don’t use it… [LAUGHS] I’m supposed to be the metrnome!

TP:    “In Brooklyn, where he grew up, he was renowned for his control of the ‘rudiments,’ as certain ritualized sticking techniques are known in the drummers’ vocabulary.  “Everybody knew Andrew had hands,” Milford Graves recalls. His first gigs were with pianists Nellie Lutcher and Mary Lou Williams, and in 1964 he met Cecil Taylor who hired him because of his affinity with dancers and ability to approximate their actions with the drums.” What do you recollect about your first meeting with Cecil Taylor and how you moved into that school of thinking and playing?

CYRILLE:  Well, I met Cecil Taylor years before 1964!  And we were playing together years before 1964. I saw Ted Curson the other night, and I refreshed Ted’s memory about how he introduced me to Cecil, walking down the street in Brooklyn, where I was playing in a place called the Universal Temple with Leslie Braithwaite. Leslie and I were playing duets, and Ted happened to hear us from the street — he and Harold Ousley, as a matter of fact.  They came in, and started talking to us about what we were doing. Then the rehearsal was over, and Ted said he was going to New York City at this school called Hartnett, and he had a rehearsal with this piano player called Cecil Taylor, and he said, “Why don’t you come on over? You never heard anybody play piano like this in your life.”  I said, “Okay,” and took my snare drum. We went over to Hartnett, which was located on 42nd Street near Broadway at the time, and I met Cecil Taylor.  Cecil let me sit in at their rehearsal, and then Cecil and I took the train and went uptown and went to a club, which I forget the name of, which was up on Amsterdam Avenue around 154th or 155th Street. I had gone up there, because they used to have sessions there, and I remember a piano player who worked up there named Cecil Young. I knew there was a piano, so I said to Cecil, “Let’s go up there…” At the end of the rehearsal with Ted, Hartnett closed, and Cecil and I wanted to continue playing, so we went uptown, we played some more — and that was our introduction to each other.

From that time, we had more or less a spiritual kind of relationship in terms of people who were attracted to each other in a chemical way musically. I used to see Cecil on the scene from time to time, and he’d see me. The opportunity to begin to work with Cecil when he had actually begun to develop the Cecil Taylor identity with what he was doing with the music…

TP:    How would you describe the Cecil Taylor identity?

CYRILLE:  The way that he plays the piano.  Nobody that I ever heard played the piano that way, again, with that kind of speed, alacrity, the information that he had about what he was doing, the way he would notate his music, the passion that he had for the music.  Also the way that he would have the rehearsals, what he would ask from each of the musicians who was playing the music. I guess that identity on the drums, as far as I was concerned, was that he’d let me do anything I wanted!

TP:    You had total trust that whatever was done would knit.

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  He trusted my integrity, and of course, I trusted his integrity.  We talked about the history of the music.  That was something that we talked about all the time. There was never a time when we did not acknowledge our predecessors, from Louis Armstrong to Joe Oliver to all of those people.  We always talked about that, and that was the foundation, to a large degree, for what it was that we were doing.  We were very clear about that. So yeah, we trusted each other, and as a result, we decided that we were going to play this music a certain way.

Cecil would always say to us it wasn’t just his music, it was OUR music, and we were all making contributions, so it was true.  He would say things like, “Look, all of us are geniuses.” Not just to throw around a term like that loosely, but he was just talking about the creativity and what we were doing in relationship to what Valerie was saying.

So just to get back what you were saying about the dance, etc., and how I met Cecil… See, all of those years between ‘57-’58 to ‘64, when I really started working at Cecil… That happened up at Hartnett, too, because Sunny Murray was involved, and drummers were being changed, so he asked me did I want to do this with him up at Brandeis. Those are the details. But prior to that, all during that time, I was working. I was getting my education together as far as learning about jazz, and I was learning it from the masters.  I was going to classes with people like…I’m saying this not in the academic sense of being at an institution…

TP:    Extracurricularly.

CYRILLE:  Extracurricularly, with people like Illinois Jacquet. Mary Lou Williams. I was working with people like Kenny Dorham.  I was learning from people like Hank Mobley. I was making those gigs. Also with all of that happening, Olatunji was in there.  I was also playing dance classes at the June Taylor School of Dance with people like Jamie Rogers, Michael Bennett, Claude Thompson — these great choreographers.  Michael Faison used to come in there.  All kinds of people.  And a lot of these people were also Juilliard people — Juilliard dancers. See, I was introduced to that aspect of drumming, which is a whole other thing (we could talk about that perhaps, about dance and the drums) by Bobby Thomas, who was playing clases. I used to go up there and sub for Bobby sometimes, and then eventually I got my own classes.  That taught me a lot about playing drums in an independent manner, and making music from the drums.  That’s how I was able to make a couple of solo percussion records, just because I was able to play music that the dancers would say… For instance, I remember Herman Howell would say to me, “Okay, make my body move.” Then I had to come up with something that would make his body move, that they would like and that they could do their exercises and choreography to. So as a result, when I began working with Cecil, he would ask me what would inform my playing.  And one of the things I said was that dance did — and it was true.  So that’s what Valerie is talking about.  So it’s a very concrete reference.

TP:    Let’s hear the solo recording to which Andrew referred, and of which Valerie Wilmer wrote.

CYRILLE:  “From Whence I Came” was a conceptual piece, and you’ll hear me breathing and you’ll also hear me playing mallets on the tom-toms. My idea at the time was the fusion of body and soul together, which talks about from whence I came. In other words, as human being, we’re spirit and we’re also flesh, so the flesh has to do with playing the drums and the spirit has to do with me breathing. So this is what you will hear.

[AC: “From Whence I Came”; AC/Milford, “Nagarahl”; AC/Lyons/Lee, “Nuba 1”]

TP:    The first two hours have given us a 360 of musical color and sound. It’s astonishing to think of the ground Andrew covered between the 1961 recording with Coleman Hawkins and “Whence I Came.” A few words about what we heard. First, The Dialogue of the Drums with Milford Graves. You and he are often mentioned in the same breath, along with Sunny Murray and Rashied Ali when people talk about the drummers who came to the fore in the new music of the 1960s.

CYRILLE:  This session was part of a larger session at which Cecil Taylor was present with the larger ensemble we had been teaching at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It lasted several days, if I’m not mistaken, and at one part of the concert in one of those days, I had suggested that Milford and I do a duet. As a result, the concert was recorded. Actually, these are just excerpts from the total concert. I forget how long it went.  But there used to be a guy there named Fred Siebert, and Fred was the person who helped us edit the larger tape, and we got it down to about 40-45 minutes. We decided we’d give titles to certain parts of the concert and make tracks. That’s how Dialogue of the Drums came about.

TP:    When did you and Milford become associated?

CYRILLE:  It must have been back in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s. I first heard of Milford at a class that I was having at Hartnett, and Giuseppe Logan came in with this recording, and he asked the teacher if he could play this recording to listen to him and his drummer — and the drummer was Milford.  But I had met Milford before that, when Milford was playing timbales. I was playing a gig in Long Island, at St. Albans Terrace, and there were two bands. I was working with John Gordon, the trombone player, and Milford was working with a dance band, and he was playing timbales. That’s the first time we laid eyes on each other.  Then as time went on, I began hearing his name, doing the “free jazz,” and then I heard of him in association with Sonny Morgan, the hand drummer, who was also working with Olatunji as part of the drum ensemble at the time I was there. Then I heard Milford in association with Don Pullen. I remember doing a concert, if I’m not mistaken, at the Harriet Tubman School in Harlem with Sam Rivers; I was doing a gig with Sam, and Milford was up there with Don Pullen. He checked me out and I checked him out, and eventually we got together at my suggestion; I suggested we get together and play, and document some of the things that both of us were about at that period of time.

I was always under the impression, and I think legitimately so, because Max and Philly Joe would say to me that each generation should come and make their contribution to the music, and see what they had to say.  Not only them, but that’s also an African tradition. So I thought that I was on firm ground. I knew I was doing this kind of music with Cecil, and I was the drummer, and I knew Milford was doing the same thing with Albert Ayler and Don and the New York Art Quartet, etc. — and I thought we should get together and do what we do together in order to say, okay, this was our time, and we were an offshoot of some of the things that had gone before…

TP:    An outgrowth, organic development…

CYRILLE:  Right. That’s the way I felt, and I’m sure he felt the same way, more or less. So we got together, and we started doing these duets, keeping, of course, Africa in mind, as you hear — and during that time there was a very large consciousness about “black is beautiful,” with all of the things that made Black beautiful in our minds. Then, of course, I knew Rashied Ali was doing these things with Coltrane, Interstellar Space, etc., so he was also a natural choice in terms of a larger drum ensemble.  So we called that ensemble Dialogue of the Drums, and we did a number of concerts together, and we even did a TV show on the NBC program Positively Black.

I think Milford is a drummer that everybody should check out at least once, because he’s unique. He’s different in his approach to the drums and how he thinks about making music from the drums. I think his contribution simply has to do with the approach he has to let other people know that they can do a lot of things that are outside the “metered time” aspect or technique of playing.  It can be done.  He’s done it.  And that’s something I can say I appreciate him for.

TP:    I’m going to step back to the question about picking up information, particularly in regard to African music, which requires not only a command  of meters and patterns, but a philosophy of playing and interacting with other musicians. So throughout the ‘60s and I’d imagine as you began to travel more, you’d see more African musicians and picking things. A bit more about your exposure to African music and conceptualizing it into your total approach.

CYRILLE: Well, I used to play a lot of gigs with African musicians. This is one great thing about being on the New York scene, because so many people from so many different cultures come, and if they like you and they want you to be part of their program, and if you’re willing, then it kind of happened.  There used to be a guy up here at WKCR who had a program named Joe Mensa, on The African Show. Joe Mensa played guitar. Joe Mensa also used to play a lot of African dances, African parties. I started working with Joe Mensa.  He liked me, I liked him, I wanted to get more into the African way of thinking about rhythm in a literal way, and Joe Mensa was a very good conduit for me. We started working. He showed me how to play African Highlife, etcetera, how Africans would assign rhythm to the music with the drumset.

TP:    Elaborate on “Africans would assign rhythm to the music.”

CYRILLE:  It had to do with playing space.  Also playing certain emphases that would accentuate certain parts of their music. Also a way that they think about the music and dance, because you hardly ever hear any African music without visualizing or seeing some dance component. So the way of playing on the 1 and the 3 of the bar, which are supposedly the strong beats of the bar, so you think about something like the African 6/8, which goes 1-2, 1-2, and you can also count 1-2-3-4-5-6, click… You hear me clicking; I’m clicking on the 1 [click], 2… There are different ways of approaching that. But how you flesh out the meter with the rhythm makes the feeling different from the 1-and-2-and, when you get a march… [SINGS THE FEELING] That’s what I mean when I’m talking about how they assign rhythm to a certain kind of mathematical meter.

I learned that from Joe, I learned that from Olatunji, and I also worked… This is interesting, too.  I worked with a band called Victor and Kwesi Finn.  They were two guitar players; one played guitar and the other played bass.  They had a band which included me, John Gilmore from Sun Ra’s band, Marshall Allen was in the band, Wendell Harrison, who’s a saxophone player from Detroit, Danny Thompson also. I’ll tell you something else.  Sun Ra used to write music for Olatunji.  So we’d get all these interconnections, and we all felt that this stuff was legitimate in terms of the large part of what jazz was founded on — African music. That it was a legitimate and positive and real heritage to what we were doing. We felt no pain.  It was great.

TP:    No pain.

CYRILLE:  Right. It was fantastic.  And we were being liberated again, or at least being given more information. The other thing, too, that a lot of people don’t realize about Africa and Africans: Even since the slave trade, from the slave trade until now, Africans have always come to these shores and have reinforced the music that we play. I play with Africans today.  I did a duet not long ago at Dale Fitzgerald’s Jazz Gallery with Obo Addy from Ghana. Did he reinforce me?  You’re damn right he did.  So there we are.

TP:    We also heard what you described as a conceptual piece for solo drums, and something which sounds like an extension of that, Nuba, with Jeanne Lee and Jimmy Lyons. Talk about the evolution of bringing your experiences in dance and theater and drama into your musical presentation. Not too dissimilar to things the AACM was doing in Chicago at that time.

CYRILLE:  When I and, I would imagine, a number of other people who compose music need inspiration, we can get inspiration from anywhere.  You can get inspiration from an orange or an apple or a tree, and you can also get it from the dance.  And since I’d had a lot of experience playing with dancers, I thought… Then, the philosophy which tells us we’re both body and soul. I thought with that piece, “From Whence I Came,” it had only to do with the body and the soul coming together, and then you have this life form which is made.  And human beings starting off, you know, flesh, spirit, then growing and becoming what we all are, human beings as a species, and doing what we do in life. Now, yes, a lot of it was abstract, but a lot of it wasn’t abstract either.  If you start thinking about some of the repetitive rhythms I play within the context of the whole piece, some of the ostinatos, which one could say, “Yeah, Baby Dodds could play some of this.” Then of course, I would go off and play some things which were rubato, ametrical.

The way I think when I’m doing these kinds of things is that… We move, and we don’t have any kind of real prescription in terms of how we’re going to move our arms or when we’re going to get up.  We don’t get up at a count, we don’t sit down at a count, we don’t move our arms to a count. We do it.  If we want to get a glass of water, we just go and get the glass of water. So if you have to try to imagine how to replicate or reproduce something like this in an art, then you have to take what you do, that is, with the medium that you do it in, and try to give a reasonable facsimile in terms of somebody making a move.  A move might be [SINGS A PATTERN] rather than another…

TP:    It’s a sort of artificial grid to keep everything ordered and together.

CYRILLE:  It’s a matter of choice. Cats are out on the football field right now, today, on a grid, and that’s part of the game.  So it all depends on how you want to make your “game,” or how you want to have your prescription, or make your music. See, you could do more or less whatever it is that you want. People will listen. Either they’ll get it or they won’t.  They’ll like it or they won’t.  But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it.

TP:    The next set will focus on groups Andrew Cyrille led up into the early ‘80s. Andrew Cyrille & Maono.

[AC & Maono, “Metamusician Stomp”; “That Life Can Endure”; “High Priest”]

TP:    A few words about your compositional concept for ensemble, two-horn, no piano, one-horn and piano… Beginning a band.

CYRILLE:  I met David Ware when he was part of an ensemble that Cecil had together for a Carnegie Hall performance.

TP:    He played with him in ‘75-’76…

CYRILLE:  Yes.  I met David, and I liked him, and I wanted to form a band and put something together.  There was a trumpet player, I think his last name was Gray… I forget his first name. He was part of a group that Cecil had, too. He had gone to Japan with Jimmy Lyons and this guy.  Anyway, I thought about Ted Daniel in putting this work together, and I had done some work with Ted some years before over at the Washington Square Church, so I knew about him. I needed a bass player, and actually Nick was recommended to me by his brother Gene, who was studying with me back in the mid-’70s. So I just felt that I needed to explore some other avenues of whatever talent I had and I thought it would be a good idea to do some writing and try to have this played by some musicians of my choice.

TP:    Your comment on the liner notes of Special People is: “A lot of people say that the tunes come out of the drums, which in a sense, they do, because I think like a drummer.”

CYRILLE:  I think what’s meant by that is that drummers have rhythm. A lot of composers… I’m talking about guys who do some of the great music that we know, like Ellington.  A lot of the music that they write is structured on some drum rhythm. They get a rhythm, and then they layer it with melodies and harmonies. So if a drummer has rhythm first, if you get the rhythm, that’s usually the first element of music. Then you get melody and harmony. If you have the rhythm, then you have to find melodies, notes which express that other part of music, melodic motion… So I think that simply what is meant… For drummers sometimes it’s a bit difficult because we don’t deal with pitched notes in terms of the diatonic scale — the piano, etc. — so you have to develop some knowledge about composition and about the piano, and have some idea about what you want to put these rhythms to, or what you would like to put to these rhythms. That’s in a sense how I write.  Not all of the time do I think of a rhythm first. Sometimes I think of a motif and then I try to expand on it. It’s not an easy thing for me to do, but sometimes I am able to struggle and get through it and have something which I can offer and people like to hear, and will play, or will buy.

TP:    The next set will focus on your associations with some of the musicians who emerged in New York in the ‘70s from Chicago and St. Louis. You’re still playing with many of them, like Oliver Lake.  They infused fresh blood into the New York scene. You’ve made  numerous recordings with Muhal Richard Abrams, five or six. How would you describe his take on things and its effect on your thinking.

CYRILLE:  Muhal is a true spirit. Muhal is one of the deep thinkers. And again, I have to say this:  He comes out of the tradition.  There is never a time when we get together where he isn’t talking about some of the great piano predecessors like James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. He just knows all about that stuff.  And Muhal, of course, has a lot of information about composition.  He is a great composer.  He knows how to put those voices together.  In other words, an orchestration comes out, and it comes out beautifully, and he has some very original ideas.

Just to give you a little bit of background, I met Muhal, again, with Cecil.  We were playing a gig in Chicago. I remember Muhal coming to the concert. I remember Henry Threadgill being there. I don’t remember if Malachi was there; I kind of have an idea in my head… Well, Malachi could have come to that concert, but Malachi and Roscoe and Lester I met years ago, way before the ‘70s, back in 1967, in Palo Alto, California.  I’d gone out again with Cecil, and I was living at the house of a fellow named David Wessel, who is a drummer, and now a doctor in psychological acoustical sound. I remember Roscoe and Lester were in town, and they were living in a facility that was not too far from David’s house. It was a building…

TP:    They were bivouacking.

CYRILLE:  They were bivouacking!  But the stuff is something when cats are true believers, true spirits.  You get out there and you do it the best you can, and you realize it.  I was living at Wessel’s house, and I’d get up in the morning, and I’d hear Lester and Roscoe and Malachi over there practicing. It would be 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning, and these cats would be tootin’!  So eventually, they came over and we introduced ourselves to each other.  There’s a recording actually of the first time that we met of me and Roscoe and Lester. I have it at home on a tape.

TP:    In the history of the music, what the people in Chicago were doing has often been counterposed to what was happening in New York in a variety of ways.  They were dealing with a different method of organizing their music. What was your impression? How do you regard that other path, if indeed there was one.

CYRILLE:  You see, I think that was great, what they did. What I got from all of those people is that there’s no particular formation to play this music. So if I want to play a gig with a cello player, I would do that.  As a matter of fact, I’ve done duets with Leroy Jenkins; not here in the States, but in Austria we’ve done duets. Different kinds of ways to make the music.  A lot of people feel that “jazz” has to have two horns, piano, bass and drums, and if the formation is outside of that configuration, then it ain’t jazz and something is wrong with it. That is not the case.

Those musicians from Chicago came to New York… They’d been doing it out in Chicago.  But when they came to New York, they knew that they had something which worked, and whatever the configuration was, it happened with the music. So you listen to something without a piano or without a bass, or sometimes even without drums. On occasion, I was part of those configurations, and I appreciated that kind of cultural perspective.

Just to say more about Muhal and myself: Muhal gave me an opportunity to participate in his concepts about music and composition, and I had a number of opportunities to play with large ensembles, big bands with Muhal, to take the information that I had accumulated up to the point where I met him, and introduce that to his music in my style. Of course, there was a lot of reading of charts, which is also something that I was told by my predecessors, people like Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones and Frankie Dunlop and Charlie Persip — drummers have to know how to read. That was very important at one point. Sometimes they’d say if a cat couldn’t read, that meant he was lacking in some way. So I went and learned how to read music.  Which I’m so glad I did, because I use it to this very day.  So many of the more modern forms of jazz are extended pieces, it’s just impossible to remember everything if you can’t read. That’s something I can appreciate. And Muhal  had a number of pieces which went in many different directions. So that and the opportunity to bring to life a lot of the scores that he wrote, for me to bring to life via the drums in conjunction with many of the other voices, was something that I’ll never forget and will always appreciate.  Just his general knowledge.  Also, he showed me a lot of compositional techniques. So I can’t say anything but right on, Muhal.

[AC/Muhal, “Seesall”; w/ L. Jenkins, “Albert Ayler: His Life Was Too Short”]

TP:    A few words about your association with John Carter and the suite, which was a bit overlooked at the time, and is out of print.

CYRILLE:  Eventually it may come back. I think the young people who are interested in this music should go out and research it… [ETC.] I had a wonderful experience with John Carter. Working backwards, I remember the last time I spoke with John. He wanted me to go to Japan to do a duet with him. That would have been fantastic, but fate did not allow it, and John passed on.

TP:    He was an innovator in clarinet techinque and concept.

CYRILLE:  I liked the clarinet. I’d listened to people like Benny Goodman and Johnny Dodds, and I heard Jimmy Hamilton, and I knew about Alvin Batiste. But when I had the opportunity to listen to John Carter, and then hear and play with him, he really did something else for me with the clarinet. I met him on a gig at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam. I had taken the train from Spain the night before, and I had to make this gig at the Bimhuis with John… I was in Spain with my own group, Maono, and after that I had something to do with John. I remember getting into town right before the gig started, and I remember walking into the Bimhuis, and there was John on the stage with Santi DiBriano, and we introduced ourselves, had a rough rehearsal, and played the gig.  I must have gotten there at 7:30 or something like that, so we must have had an hour, and then we made the gig.  From that period on, John and I formed a relationship. He liked the way that I played drums.  He liked the way that I played his music.  Then he started hiring me to do any engagement that he had on the East Coast and New York.  He told me, “When I come to New York, I want you to be the cat to work with me.”

Through John I also met Bobby Bradford, and formed an association with Bobby, and have been doing some work with Bobby in conjunction with David Murray over the past couple of years.  Bobby has introduced me to several players, notably Chris Fagin, who is one of John’s students.

Anyway, John had this vision to do the recordings you mentioned, starting with Castles of Ghana, and when he put that together, he wanted me to play drums. John was an interesting composer. He’d come to the rehearsal not with everything formed in detail. He would have these ideas and he would have notation.  He would know what he would want to do in special places.  But more or less, we would put the arrangement together and the segues right at the rehearsal, and sometimes even in the recording studio, depending on how much time we had to get it all together and when the date was.

Conceptually, John was very close to me.  As I continue to write, I’d like to do some things, more or less, in the same way John did them, just in terms of how he’d use certain fragments of the music and link them together in a kind of loose but at the same time very focused and direct way. For instance, you can get a theme, then he’d say, “Work this theme a certain way,” and you can do this or do that or the other, then when we get to this section you can do a certain fill or fill-in so we can move from this section to the next part of it, which might represent something conceptual in relation to what the music is. Like in Castles of Ghana, you have the castles of Ghana as it begins, and then the next… He’d get these different themes, and link them together one to the other.

TP:    It’s an episodic concept.

CYRILLE:  Yes.  Also the way he’d play lines with Bobby, how at some point they’d be in unison and then split off into some dissonant harmony, and then come back again, and play maybe the same line but just about echoing each other, maybe a fraction of a beat behind. At the same time, even though it had this feeling of freedom; this kind of elasticity that would be overriding some kind of fundamental rhythm, but it was still free, and you would get this feeling of being something that was breathing in and out, but not necessarily contained by a BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM, and then you’d have to do whatever melody you had in relationship to the meter exactly. So you could have a rubato kind of theme that is placed on the musical bed of an ostinato rhythm or something else.

[AC w/ John Carter, “Capture”]

TP:    The next set will consist of duos, and speaking of pregnancy, it’s the most intimate form of musical communication. The first will set Andrew with long-time partner Jimmy Lyons.

CYRILLE:  Again, I try to think of a shape, a rhythmical shape that I can make music with the voice of the drums, or the voices of the drums. I lay that down, and either I will have some kind of a melodic line or a theme that I ask the other voice to play, or I let them play what it is that they hear in relationship to the rhythm that I present. So more or less, that’s how I play duets. Then, of course, too, you have to listen very closely to the other person and try to make a musical marriage that will be beautiful, that works.

TP:    A few words about Jimmy Lyons. Working with him so consistently over 10-11 years, and many subsequent encounters. The dynamics of his style and the place it put you, performing with him.

CYRILLE:  Jimmy was a real aficionado of Charlie Parker. Sometimes when I would look at him playing, the stance he would assume and the way he’d play the saxophone, in other words, how he looked while he was playing… Bird never moved, as far as I know.  I never had the opportunity to see Bird. But I don’t think he moved back and forth, to and from the microphone, or would be bending, etc. He would just stand up straight and blow. That’s the way Jimmy was. He would stand up straight and start blowing. I would listen to him, and sometimes listen to that tone he had, which was very reminiscent of Charlie Parker. Even some of the excerpts that he would play while we were in our improvisation, sometimes, marathon as they were, you’d hear him quoting some lines from Bird, some of those tunes, and maybe even some of the things that Bird would play in a solo.  But of course, Jimmy was extending or elaborating more and trying to go further with his improvisational perspective, with the kind of music that we were playing.

Again, Jimmy Lyons was another true spirit in the tradition of this music, a very dedicated being who took nothing for granted as far as the practice of this music was concerned. I never felt a letdown from him.  I never felt that he wasn’t trying or that he wasn’t giving his all in relationship to playing. When I was with him. as with so many of the others; I’ve been very fortunate this way… Whenever I was with him and I was playing with him, I always had a ball.

TP:    We’ll excerpt from Burnt Offering, a release of a 1982 concert in Allentown, PA., May 15, 1982…

[AC w/Lyons, “Burnt Offering”; AC w/Tarasov, “One Up, One Down”; AC w/ Kowald; AC w/ Crispell]

TP:    Any other thoughts on duo performing after the series of performances we just heard, which contained such great variety of material, concept, information, colors, rhythm, sound…

CYRILLE:  It’s just another manifestation of what one can do with music. You have to conceptualize what it is you want to do, how you’re going to do it, and then you have to do it. If you have a very willing partner, then, of course, the sky is the limit. I love playing duets. I love playing duets with any of the number of voices that we have with musical instrumentation, from drum duets… Sometimes I do duets with the great drummer Michael Carvin; he’s another one I love to play with. Sometimes you have to not think about the fact that there’s not the conventional instrumentation around you, and you just go into… I go into the drums and try to find as much music within the instrument as I can, so that I can make myself feel good, and of course, feed the person I’m doing the duet with and hope that they feed me in return, which is usually the case.

TP:    Seems you really thrive on the sound of surprise and being surprised by the other person’s locutions in the performance.

CYRILLE:  That is another tenet of jazz principles. What I think most of us like about jazz in its broadest conceptions is the element of surprise.  When the element of surprise is not there, then it seems like there’s not too much happening.  To hear Elvin Jones playing, and to hear one of those riffs that come out of nowhere, and you say, “Wow, what is that?” That’s what made Charlie Parker so great, when he would take a phrase and how he would develop it and where he would end up with it.  That’s something which I always try to remember when I’m playing, and which I try to incorporate as much as possible — as much as my creativity will allow, sometimes even thinking about its limitations. So I try to remove as much of any barrier as I can, and I aim for the heavens and always try to have something of a surprise, not only for myself, but for the musicians I am playing with and for the audience who listens.

TP:    One of the great things in jazz is the quality of aiming for the heavens within the most grounded, functional situations, and I think that Shakill’s Warrior by David Murray is a great example…

[AC w/D. Murray/Pullen, “Live At The Cafe Centrale”; AC w/Hannibal, Oliver Lake, Steve Colson, Reggie Workman, “Where’s Nine?”]

TP:    A few words about My Friend Louis, more the traditional drummer’s record than your earlier Maono recordings. Those featured primarily your compositions; here you’re working a variety, and interpreting them with an all-star ensemble.

CYRILLE:  That was a band I put together to play at Condon’s, the club on 15th Street, and had the opportunity to record for DIW/Columbia. I wanted to do something for my musical colleague, Mr. Louis Moholo, the South African drummer, whom I had an opportunity to do a duet with in England back in 1980, and wrote “My Friend Louis” for him. As a result, since I had this all-star lineup and I had these excellent musical minds, all of whom compose, I asked each of them to contribute a few, which they did.

TP:    Later we’ll hear an album called Tribute To Bu, and this gives me an excuse to ask about some of your drum influences. You mentioned drummers that you heard and drummers who are your contemporaries, but you didn’t mention the drummers who thrilled you as a youngster and perhaps continued to as you became more experienced as well. First a few words about Art Blakey and his impact on you.

CYRILLE:  One of the first records that I ever bought had Art Blakey as a drummer.  That was a record with Miles Davis called Tempus Fugit, a 10” Blue Note LP, and with that, I heard Art for the first time on record.  Then I went out and bought Dig with Miles and Art. Then, of course, I used to listen to Art Blakey play at the Cafe Bohemia on Barrow Street, way back when. I used to hear him there with Johnny Griffin, and also with Bill Hardman and Jackie McLean and Spanky DeBrest, Wayne Dockery. So I’ve been an aficionado of Art Blakey from way back when I started playing drums. Also, with my solo percussion ventures on record, of course, I was given entree not only by Max Roach, who did (?) and Drum Conversation, but Art Blakey, with his Message for Kenya and Freedom March. So I wanted to pay respects to a mentor, one of the elders in my heart and in my mind as someone who has given me so much — and so many.  Not just drummers, but horn players, piano players… I thought it would be fitting to play something that was kind of reminiscent of him, but at the same time more or less my interpretation.

[AC w/James Newton, “Tribute To Bu”; w/ Mor Thiam, “Ode To The Living Tree”; AC/ “X-Man”]

TP:    The X-Man date, Andrew, brings in explicitly folkloric Haitian rhythmic and melodic themes, with a different connotation.

CYRILLE:  We won’t have time to play two compositions with Alix Pascal, “Lydia” and “Answer Me.” I would like to do more of that kind of exploration with Alix and other Haitian musicians, if possible, and bring that subculture more into the “mainstream” of jazz, like so many of the other Caribbean rhythms and melodies, to be filtered through our experience here in the United States with jazz.

[AC w/Lake, Workman, “Shell” [excerpt]

TP:    Words about Oliver and Reggie.

CYRILLE:  I met Oliver many years ago in Toulon, France. He was there with the Black Artists Group, Bobo Shaw and Joe Bowie. Over the years we’ve been able to collaborate. I used to see Oliver play at the lofts, the Ladies Fort and Studio Rivbea. We had an opportunity to play in Europe — he, I and Leroy Jenkins.  Then Reggie got us together to do some things with his Synthesis group — Crispell, myself and Oliver. Then Oliver called me to do some work with him on  CDs called Edging and The Other Side. I called Oliver to do some things with me.  And so forth, and here we are.

I’ve known Reggie since Reggie lived on New York Avenue in Brooklyn, and he was working at the Muse Museum and running the music program there. Of course, Reggie Workman, Cecil and me did something at Town Hall in the late ‘60s with Jimmy Lyons.

[AC w/ Mor Thiam, “Water, Water”]

* * *

Andrew Cyrille Colleagues (Henry Grimes, Reggie Workman, Cecil Taylor):

TP:    Well, there’s the things with Cecil.

GRIMES:  Yes, we did a lot of playing with Cecil together.

TP:    But before playing with Cecil, you hooked up on jobs in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

GRIMES:  Yeah. I remember one job specifically just in Brooklyn. It was Harry Carney’s group, and we were both there playing with him.

TP:    What was that gig like?

GRIMES:  It was fantastic. We did a lot of swinging and enjoyed that kind of swinging thing with Harry Carney.  It was beautiful, just that inspiration of improvised music.

TP:    Do you remember which club in Brooklyn?

GRIMES:  I don’t remember the name.

TP:    What things at that time struck you about Andrew’s approach to trapset?

GRIMES:  He had a definite flavor. Like, you look at Kenny Clarke; he has that definite flavor thing. Certain musicians have a charisma that comes out in their music, and he reminds me of Kenny Clarke.

TP:    In the sound or in his attitude and process?

GRIMES:  In the sound that he makes musically.  And rhythmically. He does some rhythm things… Sunny Murray and him are on par together, but that’s the degree of power that Andrew has.

TP:    They have very different approaches to playing drums, though.

GRIMES:  Very different.  They are both avant-garde, but one is like a swing player — that’s Andrew.

TP:    Are you saying that Andrew embodies more vocabulary out of the timeline, that he absorbed the drummers before him and builds on it.

GRIMES:  Yes, I think so.  It probably is so, because he knows a lot about percussion and who’s playing.

TP:    So you played with him with Harry Carney, and probably not long thereafter with Cecil.

GRIMES:  Right.

TP:    In 1963 or 1964, was playing with Harry Carney and playing with Cecil two aspects of the same sensibility, or did you have to have a real different mindset?

GRIMES:  Well, it’s the same in that it’s demonstrating that all musicians tend to this one thing, and it’s about “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Jazz musicians had that swing. Sunny Murray was one of them even though he’s vastly avant-garde; and so is Andrew very avant-garde, but he’s also one of them.

TP:    You played with Cecil, and then it was probably close to forty years before you played with him again. So it must be clear to you how Andrew’s playing has evolved. What are your impressions of the type of musician he is now vis-a-vis the Andrew you knew in ’67?

GRIMES:  Well, the thing is that he always has made a certain progress, and I think that’s his power — of understanding music and drums.  He always makes this progress.

TP:    Do you mean a methodology of playing, or do you mean that he is always accruing new vocabulary and building?

GRIMES:  It’s always a new vocabulary that he accrues, and that’s a very interesting thing about his playing

TP:    Everything has changed in the interim, but some things are very similar. Apart from the growth that any musician will experience as they mature and gain wisdom, what are some things Andrew is doing now vis-a-vis then that strike you?

GRIMES:  Well, he’s always the same Andrew today.  It strikes me that he demonstrates that power that he has time after time after time.

TP:    It seems Andrew is always playing ideas.

GRIMES:  Yes.

TP:    A constant stream of ideas. Never patterns. It’s really ideas. It’s fascinating to focus on, and it must be fascinating to play with him.

GRIMES:  Oh yes, it is. He’s a very interesting player.

TP:    Talk about how you’d set things up for him. He said a lot of sets would start from a blank slate, you’d start with an idea or he’d start with an idea, sometimes it would be a unison, sometimes it would be a call-and-response, but it was often from a blank slate

GRIMES:  Well, I think the important thing you’d like to remember is that we both played with Cecil Taylor doing that. Playing with Cecil Taylor and learning things with that, you never forget those kind of things.

TP:    Could you describe some of those things?

GRIMES:  Cecil brings out the best in his players, and Andrew is one of them. I was another one.

TP:    What is it that he does?

GRIMES:  It’s the sheer force and power of music. The dynamic power in music, and the progress of jazz itself. But that’s something that’s hard to convince you of just talking about it.

TP:    But watching the two of you next to each other, anyone with any knowledge of how the timeline works is going to think here are two people who have played with just about the whole aesthetic spectrum of jazz. You and he both played with the people we think of as the great straight-ahead players of the time, and leapt into the next thing as well.

GRIMES:  Well, we were working together at the Iridium, and by the time we stopped working, I was just getting warm. That’s the way it goes.  But I’m looking forward to working with him again.

TP:    I’m sure it will happen. You seem to have infinite possibilities in what you can get done. Is there anything you’d particularly want to express about him that I’m not eliciting with these questions?

GRIMES:  Just that it’s form-fitting. Not like a suit, but like… We develop forms playing with each other.

TP:    And you seem to fit hand-in-glove.

GRIMES:  Oh yeah. He’s always working things out that way.

TP:    It sounds like you listen in the same way that he does.

GRIMES:  I think so. I think we do listen in (?).

TP:    He described it at the end of the conversation. He said Cecil used to have a lot of cats, although now he likes dogs, and he followed that by making the analogy of playing with Cecil as being like a cat looking at the prey, and taking a step, then standing back and thinking about what he wants to do, and then…

GRIMES:  I know what he means.

TP:    It seemed to fit the experience of listening to the two of you.

GRIMES:  I know what he means by that.  He’s a very sharp-minded individual.  And accurate. Deadly accurate.

Reggie Workman on Andrew Cyrille:
TP:    When do you recall first playing with him? He recalls a concert with Cecil at Town Hall in ’69.

WORKMAN:  Yes, that could possibly be it. I seem to remember running into him at some jam session at some place in Brooklyn before then, though.

TP:    Do you have a memory of what he sounded like in the jam session?  Were the building blocks of what he does in place when you first heard him?

WORKMAN:  I wouldn’t say anything, except I could hear that he had a unique approach to the instrument. I wouldn’t say anything was in place at that point, way back there. By ’69, he definitely had started shaping himself. But when I first heard Andrew, I think it was at some session somewhere in Brooklyn.

TP:    In your words, what’s unique about Andrew’s approach to the drums?

WORKMAN:  Well, once Andrew decides to go inside himself and deal with the music the way he likes to deal with it instead of fitting the need, which he can do very well, he has a very fluid style of approach to the rhythm and the time. A very fluid approach.

TP:    He seems like a real master of theme-and-variation in the way he articulates his ideas. He always seems to be on a track, and develops his ideas to logical conclusions.

WORKMAN:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    You’ve been playing together quite a bit at least 15-20 years. How did that start? What brought you together?  Was it settling out in New Jersey?

WORKMAN:  Well, not really.  Basically, Andrew and I, because of seeing one another and knowing one another over the years, we’ve always had a mutual respect for one another’s music.  Therefore, we come together whenever we can. So when we have a gig with somebody else here and there, that’s part of our honing our musical relationship, and then we found that as we all try our individual projects, we were on the same page, and so we often were at the same place, with him and Oliver and myself.  If it was not their band, it was one of my bands or one of Andrew’s bands. So we would end up running into one another often. It turned out that as we approached the business arena, since we were often with the same band or with the same person, we looked at the difficulty in booking projects, so we decided that we should try to get together one project where we would work together only under that circumstance — and it was a compatible circumstance, because all three of us had a compatible musical direction.
TP:    You also were working with Mal Waldron for a chunk of time. What do you think are the attitudes that you share in common? You seem to function very comfortably alongside each other.

WORKMAN:  It’s a hard thing to pinpoint.  But basically, it’s the aesthetic of the music.  The other part of it would be just the idea that we have the same concept as far as time is concerned. We understand one another’s strong points and weak points, and we compensate when necessary without any recourse. There’s a musical compatibility as far as understanding where one another are coming from, and therefore it makes it possible for us to make the music whole as a unit.

TP:    You were talking about sharing a similar approach to time. Can you go into that in a little more detail?

WORKMAN:  Well, Andrew’s approach to time is very fluid, and so is mine.  Therefore, we find a matrix there. He knows when he’s working with me that he shouldn’t expect to hear things the way they usually are coming at him, because I usually don’t play that way.  I know the same thing about him. And at the same time, I know that he understands where it always is, and if he deviates, and it doesn’t affect my thought pattern. I imagine over a period of time that we’ve both come to understand that about one another. At the end of the day or at the end of the chorus, we’re all in the same place at the same time.  It doesn’t affect our creativity as to how we get there, but yet it turns out to be a harmonious venture.

TP:    Was the recent week at Iridium a satisfying one? If someone had seen you a lot that week, would it be hearing the two of you on your highest level together?

WORKMAN:  No.  I don’t think you can say it’s a highest level when you’re satisfying a need for a situation.  Because your highest level is when you’re doing what you do the way that you want to do it, and then you have to compromise certain things with certain people according to their whim if you happen to be dealing with either some kind of a coop group like Archie and Roswell have. Andrew and I are featured guest artists, but it’s not our program.  It’s their program. Therefore, we satisfy the need as far as that’s concerned.

TP:    So the group with Oliver would be…

WORKMAN:  More compatible, because we each bring something to the podium.

TP:    Is there anything you want to say about him that doesn’t fall under the response to a question.

WORKMAN:  Well, the only thing is that Andrew is a very brilliant musician. He’s not just a drummer. He’s a very brilliant musician who has real strong ideas about the music, about the aesthetic, about the history, and he puts a lot into his music, and he’s very serious and sincere about what he does.  And you hear that in the way that he approaches a groove. I know each project that I’ve had with Andrew, it’s been… All of that is apparent in the music when you work with Andrew, when you know who he is and what he’s doing.  And therefore, whenever I get the opportunity, I recommend him for whatever situation that I’m in, if it’s compatible with the way that he thinks. All are not, of course. There are many different situations. So each situation has something that’s compatible with each person. Like, there are many situations that are not compatible with me, and I would rather not be there.  That’s one of the democratic things about this music: You find your own level, and that’s where you function best and that’s where you seek to be. With Andrew, he has found his own level, he knows what he wants to do, and now he does it well.

I am very glad you’re doing this. Because Andrew has been around for a while.  He’s been putting a lot in.  And he deserves some recognition.

Cecil Taylor on Andrew Cyrille:

TP:    When was the last time you played with Andrew?  Is it the record from ‘99 that’s on FMP?

TAYLOR: Well, I think it just came out this year. That was interesting, because Tristan was on that, and this guitarist Franky Douglas, and man, it was really funny and it was really wonderful. For many years, I’ve felt that Tristan was really my right-hand musical personality. But on this date, I believe it was the first time Tristan had played with Andrew. Andrew started playing, and Tristan’s reaction was…well, he just started dancing while he was playing!

I’ve been very fortunate in the percussionists who I’ve played with over the years.  And Andrew had a secret. You could take Mr. Cyrille wherever you wanted, and he had the ability to distill whatever the structures were, and to go with you there, and react in the most musical way in any situation. So he understood—and understands—about the joy of accompanying, and feeding, and being fed. He is meticulous as well as exquisite. He is the epitome of the logical, but beyond that, he’s magical. The logical world could be painfully objective, but he is magical in the sense that he understands what the sound perimeters are, and because of his exquisite taste, he makes a transition from being logical to being a spiritual healer. And plus, his personality is… He’s a fine human being to work with.

TP:    It’s interesting that he stated that his choice around the age of 18 or 19 was to be a chemist or to be a musician.

TAYLOR: [LAUGHS] That I did not know.

TP:    But he was working as a musician, so he could make money.  But that would have been around the time when you first met him. He says you met around 1957. You were rehearsing with Ted Curson at the Hartnett School. He went up there with a friend named Leslie Braithwaite, he sat in, and then (I may be conflating several encounters into one thing) you went uptown to a place in Harlem where there was a pianist named Cecil King, and played—and that began things. What do you recall?

TAYLOR: Well, the first time I remember meeting him, although it’s very possible that he has another take on it… I do remember at the Hartnett School; that’s where I met Earl Griffith. What I remember about Mr. Cyrille was at a… They were having sessions at a place on 158th Street called Branker’s. That’s where I met Mal Waldron. I think this was 1958. I think it might have been Mal’s gig, and he allowed me to sit in.  Then at one point, Andrew sat in with me, and played a rhythm that I just stopped playing and looked at him, and I looked at him and I asked him, “And what is that?” And he gave me that wonderful Haitian smile and said, “Well, you want me to try it again?” – or something like that.

It was a very fascinating experience to hear Reggie, Mal and Andrew, play those three consecutive nights, and I was there when they were playing at the Blue Note. I went three nights, because it was an experience in what mature musicians… I imagine their three ages built up to maybe 180 years, and to hear these gentlemen play… Mal, as you know, besides being to me one of the really fine human beings, but one of the most subtle pianists. By that I mean he really understood the magic of how to make music below middle-C – among other things.  But one of the most outstanding things that happened, besides they all played beautifully together, was that on one occasion Mal, who wrote the most musical organizations of sound, you know… When it came time for Andrew to make his drum statement on that, I felt I was actually hearing the music transposed from piano to Andrew’s instrument. The Maestro, of course, said, “The drum is a woman.” Other people say the piano is but a drum with 88 keys. His intelligence: You could actually hear the material in Mal’s compositional form being developed by Andrew, and you could actually see the slices of the structure being transformed by Andrew’s playing.

TP:    Did Andrew embody that quality when you first began to play together regularly?

TAYLOR: Well, I don’t know. What I know is that… That’s very interesting, because there was a drummer from uptown I played with, a very nice man, I think his name was Jack Williams. Then the wonderful Dennis Charles. At that time, when I ran into Andrew, it (?), but in the meantime, in 1960, I played with the Whirlwind, James Marcellus Murray, right on Christopher Street. In terms of my own development of the music that I was about… You see, in meeting Jimmy Lyons, and by ‘62 it was obvious we were going a certain place. When Murray left… Of course, Murray, who… That’s something I could talk about on another occasion.  But when I first played with Murray, Murray could do Elvin Jones, you know, perfectly. But we all were living in a loft on Bay Street, where the Trade Towers were, and man, I remember Murray saying, “Well, what do you want me to play?” I said, “Whatever the music suggests to you.” Well, whatever it suggested to him, he told the wonderful (?), “That MF Cecil, I could have been the world’s greatest bebop drummer.” But as time went on, you see…

But then, on the other hand, Andrew’s personality was different, you see. That’s what I mean about his understanding. Wherever I want him to go, Mr. Cyrille understood that and supported and complemented that.

TP:    That’s a quality he’s always possessed.

TAYLOR: And that makes him, you see, in the time where there are many drummers who seem to have a hearing problem, an inverse problem, you can hear them and no one else, you see… But he knew how… Well, he is one of the preeminent percussion forces for me.

TP:    To what extent do you think his being there in ‘64 and ‘65 and ‘66 molded the shape of your music in those years?

TAYLOR: I mean, it’s a trip that, once started, does not end. My parents’ temperament were perhaps diametrically opposed.  Well, different. So Mother, of course, took me at the age of 5 to the Apollo to hear Chick Webb and his new singer, Ella Fitzgerald. The next year, when I was 6, she took me to the Paramount to hear the Benny Goodman band, where I heard the extraordinary Teddy Wilson and this monumental Lionel Hampton, as well as Gene Krupa. And hearing Papa Jo Jones at the Roxy Theater in 1944 with the great Basie Band, and Lester, you see, and the quality of… And then hearing the Lunceford band with Crawford – all of those drummers. And of course, the Maestro with Sonny Greer, you see. And then hearing Buhaina, you see, with THAT kind of… And Philly, you know.  And of course, Maximilian Roach, that shit that he did with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown in the years ‘54 to ‘56.

But, you see, when I heard “Poco Loco” – ha-ha-ha… I was attending New England Conservatory at the time.  And by the way, I noticed there was an article about Richard Twardzik. It’s a matter of chance, you know. I knew Dick Twardzik while I was in Boston, you see. As a matter of fact, we went to Symphony Ballroom to hear Bud Powell, and …(?)… playing in a club in Boston, and I would go there and listen to that, and nothing very interesting. [BLOTTED OUT] …think of the percussionist …[BLOTTED OUT]… As you probably know, I met Lee Konitz when he was a salesman at Sam Goody’s in 1948. So I knew all about… I mean, Tristano was one of the people that I really listened to.  Then it finally came out… Just three years ago, I was sitting with Tony Oxley in this hotel bar where we were staying, and in walks Lee Konitz, only to find out that Lee Konitz had played with Tony Oxley.

When I think about all the …[BLOTTED OUT]… the masters, really, you either hear them or you ….[STATIC, BLOTTED OUT]….

So the idea is that once you become aware in the deepest part of your being that the music has chosen you, then you don’t have the choice but to just surrender to it and you will ….[STATIC]….

TP:    But you and Andrew for eleven years were playing together a lot, even if a lot wasn’t publicly. You started your last comment in response to my question on how Andrew might have molded the way your music sounded over those years. Now, one thing he said is that he only remembered two times when you told him what to play, that once you wanted a five-beat pattern, another time something. Whatever you have to say. You seem to think so alike. There was something different about that group.

TAYLOR: Listen, when I started playing with Jimmy Lyons, whom I met in 1960, it went on for 26 years. And with Andrew, we would still have a …(?)… It was a continued crescendo of the evolvement of an idea that we all agreed about. As a saxophonist, Lyons ….[INAUDIBLE]…. waiting for those notes, but he of course had the liberty of writing the notes any way he chose. Because that was one of the compositional ideas, to give players the ultimate choice in the transcription of an idea. So it became obvious that there was another voice emerging, there was a group emerging.  That’s why it was called the Unit. It was a specific idea about where we were going, and those two gentlemen who played with me the longest, you know, helped solidify an idea. So one has to be forever grateful for the generosity shown.

TP:    How often between ‘75 and ‘99 did you and Andrew share a bandstand?

TAYLOR: Let me see.  I went to Antioch in probably ‘72, and Andrew and Jimmy came out, and then Andrew left when I came back to New York in ‘72. We played… It was funny. He was going to Israel, and I said, “Well, I’ve not been to Israel.” I was going to Nickelsdorff, and he said, “I’ve never been to Nickelsdorff.” I said, “I’ll take you to Nickelsdorff if you take me to Israel.” Now, Andrew can probably correct me on this. I believe we went to Israel in the summer of ‘88. Because I think it was the fortieth anniversary of Israel’s independence. Then I took him to Nickelsdorff, where he introduced me to… Oh, that wonderful pianist. I have his picture on my bathroom wall, along with Don Pullen. Horace Tapscott. So I met some of Tapscott’s musicians in Nickelsdorff. Then Andrew, the next time we played together I guess was for Jost Gebers in ‘99. The record has just come out this year, I understand.

TP:    I’m interested in your perspective on the quality of his tonal personality now vis-a-vis when you were playing with him then.

TAYLOR: Well, you know… Ha-ha…

TP:    Is it just a matter of maturity?

TAYLOR: Well, we all do that.  But when you play with musicians, they will let you know that they will follow you.  And I was obsessed, you see. And these gentlemen…we all agreed that the path that I would like to go was comfortable for them. So the contribution was shared by all, you see. Now, my personality was shaped by many things, and you bring that into the proscenium whenever you play, as certainly all musicians bring their personality as nurtured by the environment they live in. So what I’ve found (and I only want to speak for myself) as you grow older, you have a finer appreciation of the camaraderie that exists between musicians, because then you realize that these gentlemen do not have to play with you.  And there are times when some of my rehearsals have been 6 and 7 hours long, and it isn’t so much as telling people what to do. You don’t do that. You let the music speak, and if a passage or the shape of the musical design…if I am required, I can play it over as many times as possible, so that the musician can hear it, you know, and then decide what they want to do with it.

TP:    The other big piece I’m writing right now, as it turns out, is an appreciation of Bud Powell on his 80th year.

TAYLOR: Oh, God!! My God!

TP:    So, Cecil, would you like to put in your own two cents?

TAYLOR: Well, I can tell you two things about Mr. Powell. When I heard “Poco Loco,” in the store in Boston which was right on the shoulder of Symphony Hall, they had a booth in there where you could take a record out and you could go in the booth and listen to it. And when I heard “Poco Loco,” I said, “Well, he’s gone.” And Maximilian is holding on for dear life. You probably know what Bud said about that.

TP:    “You’re supposed to be Max Roach.”

TAYLOR: But the other thing is… You see, the other loving information I got was from Walter Davis. You see, Walter, who could play “Poco Loco,” and told me this wonderful story when he took Bud to meet THE Thelonious, and Thelonious sat down at the piano and said, “Oh, I know about you, young fellow; let me show you, I can play a lot of notes.”

But the other thing about Bud, I was sitting under him (as I did graciously and felt very fortunate to be able to do this) when he was playing at Birdland, and when I heard him play “Glass Enclosure,” my attitude was, “You mean, that’s possible?”

TP:    Was he part of your learning process? Did you study his compositions? Did you emulate his style?

TAYLOR: Well, you know me. I’m not that gifted. What I do is, I simply listen, and if it touches me, that’s what I go with. I mean, I heard… I mean, that propulsion!!

TP:    Well, there are many times when it sounds like you’re inspired by that sense of propulsion.

TAYLOR: Well, now, I’ll tell you a funny story. The wonderful Dexter Gordon, whom I really will always love, said to Woody Shaw, on two occasions, “Woody, who is my favorite bebop pianist?” And Woody, who used to tell me, “Eric Dolphy told me about you, Cecil – and you look like my uncle.” I said, “Fine, Woody.” So I mean, the wonderful Dex said to Woody, “Hey, Woody, who’s my favorite bebop pianist?” So Woody just looked blank. And the wonderful Dexter said, “Well, he’s standing right next to you, Woody.” He did that twice. But Dexter was a very clever… I would say if Andrew Cyrille is a model of human behavior on one level, certainly for me, Dexter was a model of human behavior on another – before I even get to the magnificent Mr. Jones.

TP:    Could you elaborate a bit on the model of behavior?

TAYLOR: Well… Ha-ha-ha! We could always do this for another time. Oh God, there’s a wonderful word I’d like to learn, and it has to do with (oh, I’ve got to get this right) the adoration of women.

Let me put it this way. When I saw Cabin In The Sky and then saw Stormy Weather, I said to my father, “I’ve got to go see her.” She was going to make her first appearance on the Capitol Stage, and the great Ellington band was there.  And Dad, who never raised his voice, he looked at me and said, “Well, son, she’s pretty, but she can’t sing. You’d better listen to Ethel Waters.” Which was so… Dad was so… Because Dad, of course, had five favorites. Coming from Kiawah, North Carolina, the same place that Mingus’ long-suffering drummer came from. It was Danny who said, “No, you don’t pronounce it ‘Key-a-wah,’ it’s “Ky-a-wah.” Because Dad’s father was a full-blooded Kiawah.

Anyway, when I go to the Capitol Theater… Oh, I could tell you a lot about Lena. Jesus Christ. When Lena came on that stage, Ted, it was like she was floating on air, and the people said, “Ooohhh!” The other interesting thing was, Luther Henderson, who was related to Fletcher, was her vocal instructor, and she had a jazz septet, you see.

Now, that was ‘42. One of my relatives… My Dad was the head chef at the River Crest Sanitarium, and he said, “You never go into Howard’s room.” I said, “Okay, Dad.” But Dad went to sleep, you know, and I watched him go to sleep, and I walked down the hallway… By the way, River Crest Sanitarium was in Astoria, and Dad was the head chef. Tony Benedetto comes from Astoria, so Dad knew Tony, you see, because the family… I mean, Dad was the head chef. Anyway, I go down to the end of the hallway, and there in Howard’s room the lights were…

By the way, my mother had a living room. She had crocheted all these doilies and shit, you know, and said, “No, you can’t go into my living room unless… You’re not dressed appropriately.” So she had… The feeling in the room I’ll always remember, because… You met Syeeda, haven’t you? Syeeda was the five-foot woman who used to carry drinks to the bar at the 55. Well, that was my mother. My mother was five feet tall, 90 pounds, and her foot size was 3.

Anyway, I go down to the end of the hall, and the first thing I see, the lights in Howard’s room were like coefficiently in tandem with the lights in my mother’s living room. And then I see a picture of a blond sailor on the wall, then I see Marlon Brando in Streetcar, and I say to Howard, “What is that music you’re listening to?” “Well, kid, it’s Billie Holiday.” I said, “I see.”

So I say to my Dad, “Well, I’ve got to go see Billie Holiday.” “No son of mine will ever go to see that woman!” So I get… He gives me the money, and I… This is in ‘42. Billie is working on the street, and I go down there. In those days, they had these gentlemen who seemed like they were seven feet tall, they had on the uniforms with the cap on, the epaulettes.  And I put my foot in the door, and this guy looked at me and said, “Kid, where do you think you’re going?” Well, Mother ran the family. When she got mad, the whole house shook. Whatever I said to that cat, I remembered Mama!  And he looked at me and he laughed, and he said to me, “All right, young man, will you follow me.” He took me to the end of the bar, he called the bartender over, and he said, “You give this young man any soda that he wants.” And I’m standing there, and this vision comes and starts singing.

And it’s very interesting. Hildegarde, the German chanteuse, was at the Waldorf, and there are pictures of this blonde Hildegarde. For some reason, she had on white velvet gloves that went up over her elbow.  And here is this woman named Billie Holiday, with a gardenia in her hair on the left side of her face, dressed all in white, abundant but not even chubby. She had on white velvet gloves. And when she sang, her right elbow moved toward the center of her stomach and her left leg dipped, and I said, “Jesus Christ, where am I?” I said, whatever that woman did to me when I was 13, if I ever grew up, that’s what I would like to do to an audience.

I saw Billie through all of the years. The last performance I saw Billie was the last one that she gave at Town Hall, where we had to wait, you know. The wonderful Mal Waldron was playing with her, which is another tribute to Miss Holiday – because Holiday’s pianists were stride pianists. And when Billie came out… Oh, man, I could tell you so much about these ladies! Boy!

Because when she came out the first time, that’s when I understood about the spirituality of the music BEYOND the appellations they were giving it, you see. Because I mean, I stood out in front of Carnegie Hall, and I watched these people, all kinds of… It’s like when Ellington was buried, I’m at this big church up there, and two women who happened to be of different ethnicity, they are talking about what the Maestro has given them. Those are the kinds of things that you say, “My God, it is, it transcends…it’s not even about the womb; it’s about the gene.” It’s not about… Well, anyway, Billie’s last performance, of course, her face had changed…

If I might be so bold as to say, send her to Dr. Fu Hsieng, down at 369 Broadway. He was raised in China, I believe. He’s an acupuncturist. And many of his patients have gone to chemotherapy. And a lot of his patients have been told to go down and see him. He is listed.

TP:    Back to Bud: Did you get acquainted with him?

TAYLOR: No-no-no.

TP:    In Paudras’ book, he writes about you visiting him and spending time with him when he came to New York, that you and Ornette were spending time…

TAYLOR: Oh, yes. Oh, oh-ho-oh-ho!  Hey, but if he didn’t mention Bill Dixon, because Dixon was there, and that was something! Ornette and Bill Dixon. Of course, Paudras, if I remember correctly, was sort of a pianist who was supposedly shepherding Mr. Powell. But as you know, Powell had had a lobotomy.  And man, oh, boy, you know… When he came back, I was sitting in my usual place right under him at Birdland. I heard the first note, and I ran from the place.

Another thing I can tell you about my experience with Bud: I was in Birdland one night, and he was playing with a trio, and he got up there before the bass player and the drummer, and he started playing a piece. David Rose wrote this piece. David Rose, I believe, was Judy Garland’s second husband. It’s a beautiful piece called “Our Waltz.” And Bud started playing it, and the manager of Birdland said, from the middle of the floor: “OKAY, BUD, STRIKE IT UP!!” – and the master went into strike up the band.

And of course, the last time I saw the great, and… I mean, for me, THE figure after 1940 was Charlie Parker – and Diz, of course.  But Charlie Parker.  And I’m there, and Bud is playing with Bird, and I could tell you that shit was something.  And Mingus.  And for some reason, Mingus left the bandstand, and for some reason Bud got up and left the bandstand, too. I can still see the Master saying, “You guys are destroying the music.” Charlie Parker said that. No, Mingus could never play with… Mingus, I mean…oh-ho-ho, the stories I could tell you about Mr. Mingus. Well, we all have to deal with our parents.

I hope you found something of interest, because Cyrille is just a marvelous… And give him my very best.

TP:    I hope to see you play in New York one of these times.

TAYLOR: Well, that is something else.  But anyway… It’s so much about the pianists that I grew up listening to. I could tell you about Erroll Garner and all of those beautiful people that kept me alive, really.

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Filed under Andrew Cyrille, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Drummer, Muhal Richard Abrams, WKCR

The Pile (#2): Two Recent Releases by The Cream of the AACM First Wave

The Association  for the Advancement of Creative Musicians means a lot to me.  I encountered a number of the members as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the middle ’70s.   The Art Ensemble of Chicago had recently returned from Europe, and Muhal Richard Abrams, Joseph Jarman,  Don Moye, Henry Threadgill, Ajaramu, Amina Claudine Myers, Douglas Ewart, Wallace McMillan, Pete Cosey, and a bunch of others were living in proximity to Hyde Park and playing concerts locally, including the UC campus — the New York migration had not yet begun. Critics John Litweiler and Terry Martin were on the scene.  So was Chuck Nessa. So was Lorraine Black. One time in 1974 or 1975,  Fred Anderson brought his sextet to Reynolds Club, I think, for an afternoon concert, and on my way in I heard amazing, Coltrane-in-the-gutbucket trombone lines that traversed the horn’s registral range. Turned out they were from George Lewis, who had recently moved back to Chicago after graduating from Yale.

I’m a New Yorker, grew up on Bleecker and Thompson, and New York attitude bebop — Sonny Rollins, to be specific (friends used to tease me about my boast that I had all of his records—which, I’ll confess now,  I didn’t), not to mention Bud Powell and Bird and Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and ’50s Miles and Coltrane — spoke to me above all other music. I related to them, I think, because I spent so much time at the West Fourth Street basketball courts as a kid, and their music seemed like an analogue to the ballers I looked up to — among them, Billy, the fastest guard I’ve ever seen who could tomahawk at about 5’8″;  Valentino Willis from the Harlem Wizards; Butch Barbizat, who at 6’2 was the leading rebounder on  the Power Memorial team that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) played; Timmy, who had what I considered a superior bank shot to Sam Jones. On the musical tip, pop didn’t seem serious enough — as a wiseass Bleecker Street kid, the folkies seemed too self-satisfied, Dylan too solipsistic, Cream and the Rolling Stones too bridge-and-tunnel. I liked Motown and EW&F, and in Chicago I went to the South Side and West Side blues clubs with my friends, and checked out rootsy stuff by David Bromberg and Dan Hicks, but I couldn’t patch into funk.   Nor was I feeling out jazz then.

That afternoon at Reynolds Club,  my paradigm began to shift. New worlds opened up. Jarman did solo concerts that incorporated kabuki and Asian ritual. He performed on campus in duo with Leo Smith and Oliver Lake. George Lewis began learning how to develop improvising software, and  joined Braxton. I got into the magic of Von Freeman. I stopped believing in the sanctity of my personal taste, and began making an effort  to explore modes of expression  that fell outside of it.  I’ve never stopped loving the main-stem of jazz expression. But the aesthetics of speculative improvisation and experimental music mean every bit as much, and brought me into other areas that I once disdained from ignorance. Or, to cite one of my all-time favorite homilies, from Ellis Marsalis:  “son, you don’t know what you like; you like what you know.”

Muhal Richard Abrams:  Duos with Fred Anderson and George Lewis: SoundDance (Pi)

There’s an old master quality to these barely-roadmapped musical conversations between Abrams—elected  NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Famer last year at 80—and long-time AACM colleagues Anderson, the late outcat master  tenor saxophonist and  charter member of the organization (from 2009, a year before he passed), Lewis (recorded in 2010), the polymath trombonist, electronicist, improvising software creator, and professor of music at Columbia University, who met Abrams in 1971 while on sabbatical  from undergraduate duties at Yale. There’s a call-and-response quality to the former duo, as Abrams supports Anderson’s huge-toned idea development, then spins off variations of his own; whilst the latter performance is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite, transitioning from one concept — the range spans stride piano to post-serialism — to the next without a blink, as though the music were creating itself.

The proceedings bring to mind that one of the key tropes of Lewis’ magisterial history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself (U.Chicago Press),  is the autodidactic learning path that Abrams imparted to such ’60s members as  Roscoe Mitchell,  Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Amina Claudine Myers, John Stubblefield, Malachi Favors, Douglas Ewart, and on down the list. They also evoke an exchange I had with Abrams and Lewis in 2007, for a Downbeat piece framed around Streaming, a spontaneous triologue with  Mitchell, when I asked them about Quartet (Sackville), a 1975 encounter that marked the first recorded meeting of the three.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” asked Abrams.

    “It seems like we’re going too far back there,” Lewis said.

    “You were just talking about histories.”

    “Only in reference to coming together to perform,” Abrams explained calmly. “It’s very important to accept, if you can, how we view the basis of this. George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

    “Questions like that lead to a species of mythmaking,” Lewis added. “I’ll take it to the place of procedure. Whenever we first began to play with each other, what I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration. The sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multi-perspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Roscoe Mitchell Note Factory, Far Side (ECM)

The third and most cohesive recording by Mitchell’s Note Factory project, a kind of double quartet in which Mitchell on saxophones and flute and thirty-ish trumpeter Corey Wilkes (Lester Bowie’s replacement in the Art Ensemble of Chicago) interact with two pianists (Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer), two bassists (Jaribu Shahid and Harrison Bankhead, who also plays cello), and two drummers (Tani Tabbal and Vincent Davis). It’s dense music, and though I’ve listened twice, I’d probably need another two or three to start breaking things down.  Suffice to say that Mitchell’s bandmates are sufficiently intimate with his intense concept as to be able to engage each other in what Iyer once described as “immersive counterpoint,” generating clear, non-imitative ideas simultaneously like a Dixieland band in a parallel galaxy. Although Mitchell, who turned 70 this year, offers healthy helpings of spirit-catching circular breathing and multiphonics, what comes through most palpably is the innate soulfulness and lyricism of his songs and his instrumental sound.

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Filed under AACM, George Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams, Piano, Roscoe Mitchell, Tenor Saxophone, Trombone