Every solo concert is a learning opportunity, and this one was no different. I found myself going back to little motives over and over again – there was the allure of a certain dominant-to-tonic lick, an odd minor third in the upper register here and there, some fragments of old standards (maybe because it was Valentine’s Day) – and it helped anchor the structure of these improvisations.
Special thanks goes to Derek Beckvold and Andrew Hock for sharing the evening with me – they both did long-form solos which were totally amazing (you can listen to Andrew’s set here). Also, extra special thanks goes to Rob Chalfen for running the Outpost: its casual radicalism makes it one of my favorite places to play.
A word or two about the compositions: the three tunes we played at the event were written specifically for that concert. My goal was to strip back some of the layers of composition, in order to try to reveal the thing – or anything – that lies underneath. From Godard’s movie My Life to Live: “A bird is an animal with an inside and an outside. Remove the outside, there’s the inside. Remove the inside and you see the soul.” If you similarly remove the outside and inside of composition, what is the remainder? This is my melancholy science.
Thriving Off a Riff is based on a Webern string quartet, but only in the loosest of terms. Some of the pitch material is kept, and I try to maintain a similar sense of pacing and form. The goal for me was to show, in some small way, the inadequacy of pitch as an expressive device. That at a certain point, pitch fails to express some of the expressions that are most basic and essential for us to express. I chose to base the piece after Webern because of his connection to and mastery of pitch, and to show that (if only to myself) there is more to his craft than the clever reordering of pitch rows. This aspect – pitch – was the first compositional layer I chose to peel back.
A Shrug of the Shoulders is an attempt to give aesthetic weight to failure and incompetence, much in the same spirit as Samuel Beckett, whose words started this blog two months ago. I’m interested in investigating the point at which virtuosity breaks down and becomes irrelevant to the musical goals. The compositional challenge has an interesting proposal: how do you write music which remains interesting (or at least sympathetic) yet embraces failure? Do you go for charming impotence, humorous ignorance, or (preferably) do you go for something deeper? This aspect – virtuosity – was the second compositional layer I chose to peel back.
An Excuse for Laziness examines the metaphorical end-of-the-line for composition. The compositional aspect, instead of relying on pitch or form or other written aspects, is based on orchestration – each player is limited to playing with certain cliche sounds from early jazz performance practice – and on the prerecorded tapes which James and Joe manipulate on old, barely functional tape players which they didn’t necessarily know how to operate. My goal, in the loftiest and most pretentious way of putting it, was to try to capture an aural sense of oldness, to show that at the eleventh hour it is improssible to remain timelessly hip and that sooner or later everyone looks at least a little old-fashioned. Was it a success? Well, it’s a topic I’ll certainly have to come back to. This aspect – composition, itself – was the third and last compositional layer I chose to peel back.
After all this: what remains? I’m not yet sure. Check out the tracks, and tell me what you think.
And, as if that wasn’t enough for me to blabber on about, here is my arrangement of Raffi’s Baby Beluga, which was performed by the Comprovised All-Stars:
I’m extremely grateful for all the wonderful performers that you hear on these tracks, and deserving of particular thanks is Travis Alford and Dan VanHassel for arranging the concert and inviting me to bring my weirdo stuff as well as Joe and James, who play so wonderfully (and musically!) on the trio tracks.
There is this tradition of solo trombone improvising. In Derek Bailey’s book on improvisation:
The most interesting soloists to my ears often turn out to be trombonists. Paul Rutherford and George Lewis, in their different ways, both seem to make improvisation the basis of their solo playing and also take advantage of the “singleness” of the solo situation; happy for the music to sound like one person, playing alone. pg.109
Well, that sounds like an interesting thing to explore! Today, on a whim, I recorded some solo improvisations.
I’m working on developing a solo language. I have to say, it’s challenging for me to improvise all by myself for any extended period of time – I think the longest track is two or three minutes, and most of them are closer to half that. There are stories about Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell really focusing on individual details of music in order to extend their improvisations, and I can totally understand why. My personal favorite is the fourth track, because it has that focus which is lacking in the other three.
I’ve also never quite wrapped my head around what Derek Bailey means by “singleness”, at least in the sense that, desipite working on solo playing for about a year, I have yet to be able to enjoy the emptiness.
Anyways, I’ll continue to work on it. One person, playing alone. Thanks for listening!
I was coming home from a big band gig in Maine this evening – we were listening to music in the car – and Mississippi John Hurt came through the speakers. I had discovered Hurt back in February or so, when I was going through old delta blues records, searching for a vibe of authenticity that I felt was absent in my own playing. I checked out lots of amazing artists, and the three that stood out the most to me during those winter months were Charlie Patton, Lightning Hopkins, and Mississippi John Hurt.
Hurt was particularly special to me. When you listen to really good blues musicians, a lot of them sound like they lived a really hard life – Patton sounds like his voice can just barely croak out the necessary syllables, Sun House sounds as if he’s tearing his guitar apart – pulling each string right to its breaking point. Hurt is different. He sounds normal and gentle, not like the good-fer-nothing deviant musician type, but like the type of guy that quietly lives his life going to work during the week and to church during the weekend.
And if he sounds like it, it’s because that’s what he did. After cutting a series of sides for Okeh Records in 1928, the Great Depression (and probably his disposition for family life) put his music carreer on hold until the folk revival movement of the 1960’s restarted it – and he became a real star. For the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s he was a share cropper and weekend gig musician in Avalon, Mississippi.
But most important of all is the music. Listening to his stuff is reassuring to me: he’s not necessarily hip like blues musicians typically are. His voice is soft and delicate and his guitar style is very precise and meticulous. He was living proof that you don’t need to be a hipster scumbag to make interesting music, that people who weren’t cool also had a right to express themselves, and that expression could sound good and interesting to other people.
On June 26th, I’ll be premiering a new project at Rutman’s Violins as part of Travis Alford’s Comprovised music series. It will feature James Wylie on saxophones and clarinet and Joe Moffett on trumpet (and Scott Halligan might join us if the stars align in our favor). We’re going to play music that addresses some of the ideas I’ve been tossing around in my head – this is the first group I’ve had that has nothing like a rhythm section, and I’m going to try to channel the sounds of early jazz.
Needless to say, I’m really excited to begin working again on something that’s my own thing.
Right now I’m trying to break the 10 minute mark as far as composition and form are concerned. All of my previous work really times out at 5 or 10 minutes – after that the composition looses steam. I’m trying right now to write music which could go on for twenty minutes and still be interesting.