Jazz Speaks: Year One

As Keith Jarrett averred in an interview with Ethan Iverson, "I hate reading other people’s interviews, because I don’t want them to be boring, but they’re never filled with much at all." The art of interviewing is not easy, and it's something I learned a great deal about and gained a great deal of respect for the summer after my freshman year of college, when I worked on the Leonard Lopate Show at WNYC. At the end of that summer, I thought at the time that I would never do another interview ever again, but then The Crimson came along and then, after that, Jazz Speaks, The Jazz Gallery's blog. Leonard's brand of live, unedited interviewing is especially remarkable, but I've also always been partial to Terry Gross on WHYY's Fresh Air. 

I'll say this glibly because it's true: I can't believe it's already been a year. It seems like just yesterday that I was buying economy packages of bottled water at Duane Reade and feebly wheeling them through the rain to The Jazz Gallery, but I have to say that I much prefer what I do now. My most recent interview for Jazz Speaks was with guitarist Miles Okazaki, who performs with his quartet tonight at The Jazz Gallery; I'll be there, and I hope to see some you of you there, too.

If you haven't checked out Jazz Speaks, which was started by musical wünderkind Rafiq Bhatia back in 2012, I highly recommend it for conversations with forward-thinking jazz artists about their craft. The stable of writers at Jazz Speaks also continues to expand, which now features musical colleagues of mine like Kevin Laskey and Tree Palmedo, as well as a host of other great writers. Below are some of my favorite interviews I've done over the past year:

The Jazz Gallery 2013-14 Residency Commissions: Ben van Gelder Speaks (June 2014)

TJG: Do you ever struggle with writer’s block—especially when dealing with a commission project like this—and, if so, how do you move past it? 
BVG: Completely. Writing music within a timeframe is very challenging, but I started doing this knowing that there’s no option for failure, so you have to come up with something; that’s a really healthy impetus. When nothing happens, it can definitely be frustrating and you can panic at the prospect that this will keep going for the unforeseeable future. So I definitely have strategies: I run whenever I feel stressed out, anxious, or negative. I take a break and run or walk or do something physical that allows me to completely put my mind onto something else.
Listening to music when I’m really stuck helps. I started writing pages down in a diary where I’m writing pretty much anything that comes to mind, but it mostly ends up being stuff that frustrates me. I analyze my previous compositions and analyze the process and see where the tipping point is: where did it shape up into a composition and I focus on that, you know? It’s like, “Well, you’ve done this before, so it’s possible, so how did it go last time?” so I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s what I thought about.” There are little strategies that you can use to help yourself, and you need it.
The biggest one I have is an inspiration board: I have a whiteboard in my room, and in the middle I wrote “Residency Commission” and outside of that I wrote all the things that I want to draw from—what I’ve been thinking about and that I’d like to see reflected in the music. I wrote the instrumentation next to that, the practical things—how many songs do I want to write ideally, planning rehearsals, yada yada yada. I keep diaries and write things down, and that really helps.
One artist who really inspires me is Haruki Murakami—this is kind of a tangent, but I think it’s pretty relevant—and writing didn’t come naturally to him. He didn’t start until he was 29 when it struck him that he always loved books, and he figured that he could become a writer. Now when he writes he has a very specific routine where he wakes super, super early and exercises and then writes for 5 hours, so when most people start their days he already has five writing hours clocked. The consistency will lead to something; it gets him into a kind of meditative state and that’s when stuff starts flowing for him. And he runs a lot, too: he wrote a book about how running influences his writing process called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I find that I very much relate to Murakami’s artistic process.
TJG: When you were coming up, what was the scene like in terms of older players working with younger players? Do you feel like this has changed since then?
JS: It’s definitely changed because even before me there was more apprenticeship going on in the jazz scene where young musicians were playing with their elders. A lot of the older guys are passing away and there’s not much mentorship. A lot of great musicians are moving out of this town. If you think about it, a lot of the great guys that we look up to—the Wayne Shorters and Herbie Hancocks and Branford Marsalises—they’re not even in town. But when I was coming up in Philadelphia, I was always surrounded by older musicians who’d take me under their wing and have me on their gigs, and I’d learn their music.
When I got here, it didn’t happen so much and I had realized that things had changed. People came through Art Blakey’s band and Elvin Jones was still going, but these guys were just passing away, so now it’s not really happening. I think it’s important because as much as it’s great for young musicians to get jobs as leaders, I feel as though a connection is sometimes lost when they don’t spend time with the masters. And not that I’m a master—I’m not talking about me—but just in general: spending time with someone who’s been out there for a little bit, their perspective changes.
They don’t see the same way; they don’t learn how the older people learn. I mean, that’s something that I still wish I had. I’ve learned it a lot from being with Roy Haynes, and he’s definitely been a mentor and I’m thankful for that. He showed me the importance of things that maybe a younger musician would disregard or ignore.  I’m talking about learning standards, lyrics. A lot of young people just want to get out there and play originals—which I think is great, too—but for me I’ve learned that there are so many other angles.
TJG: How important is it to you to collaborate outside of the world of jazz?
BW: It’s really important! You can’t really answer these questions without everything sounding like a cliché, but there’s no way around it: the fact of the matter is that I think musicians today have a hard time self-identifying themselves as one particular thing. Not everybody—some people really do commit and say, “I’m a jazz musician, that’s what I do.” I think that’s great, *laughter* but it just turns out that that’s not who I am personally.
If jazz is supposed to be this art that’s a search for self-expression, then all I’m doing is expressing what my influences are and what the things are that I’m passionate about. If that’s the spirit of jazz, then I’m a jazz musician. But, as it turns out, when I express those influences they lead to many places that are outside of this world that we loosely put under “the j-word.” So at the end of the day, I self-identify as a musician. That’s it. No genre; I self-identify as a musician.
It’s interesting because when you read biographies or go a little deeper under the surface of the great artists in any genre, you discover that, in fact, they were listening to and checking out and admiring all kinds of music and art that had nothing to do with their field. And I feel like that’s not a coincidence. I think that’s what brings depth to a lot of artists that we love: there’s this whole unspoken world of study and appreciation going on that would surprise many people.

Dan Tepfer Speaks (December 2013)

TJG: In a post on your blog, you mention how playing with Lee Konitz not only made specific aspects of playing stand out to you, but also the necessity of tying various elements together in a holistic way. Can you speak a bit more about the learning curve of playing with musicians in a duet setting?
DT: I mean, that was a total “ah-ha” moment, you know, where I just realized that everything has to be working on the highest level for it to be good. Let me think about other moments…Just about rhythm: when you have a bass and drums, rhythmic problems are way simpler. Essentially, you can just listen to the drummer and that’s where the rhythm is coming from, but without that, there are philosophical questions, like, is it coming from me as a pianist? Am I the source of the rhythm and the saxophonist is leaning on that, or are we creating that together? I think the best duos are those where rhythm is created together, and one thing I’ve been working on is that. Also trying to get away from rhythm being in my body, but being in this invisible space between us; it sounds really esoteric, but it’s a really real feeling.
There’ve been some moments of revelation with that kind of stuff: I was in Cuba last year studying Batá drums, which is really intense rhythmically and complicated, so I was tapping my foot to keep a sense of where I was. Sometimes, you come in on the second sixteenth note and it’s just easier if you’re tapping the foot on the one, and the guy I was studying with was like, “Why are you doing that?” I said, “I guess it’s easier; it helps me keep the time,” and he said, “You should try not doing that.” I replied, “Well, what do you pay attention to if you’re not checking in with where the one is?” and he said, “Just listen to the melody.”
That made me realize that rhythm can be approached from this completely other place—not entirely about stomping your foot and bobbing your head up and down—and in a much more peaceful place of just melody, in a melodic sense of hearing rhythm. These Cuban dudes are grooving like there’s no tomorrow and it looks like they’re doing nothing; they’re completely relaxed. You’re not losing anything rhythmically by not doing those other things. In fact, it makes it more grooving, so that’s a more recent thing I’ve been working and that’s something Ben and I have talked about a lot—allowing rhythm not to be a self-absorbed thing but something light that happens in the ether.
TJG: Considering the broad range of musical sensibilities and traditions that you’ve studied and draw from, do you consider yourself a “jazz” musician? How do you respond to the question, “What kind of music do you play?” 
SL: It depends on how much time I have. *laughter* I tend to like to point to key practitioners whenever I can instead of talking about being a jazz musician or playing jazz. I just talk about the people whose music is really meaningful to me from these various traditions, like Charlie Parker and Jackie McLean and Betty Carter and Andrew Hill. Sometimes people associate those names with jazz and that’s fine with me, and with Tristan Murail and [Alexander] Scriabin and Michael Finnissy and whomever, people associate them with whichever lineage. That seems to be the most helpful thing—to talk about actual people and artists instead of genre definitions—but, of course, it’s a convenience, so sometimes you sense that if you say “jazz,” people will know what you’re talking about and other times they won’t. 
***And my very first entry for the blog, an interview with Juancho Herrera.