Picture yourself in a garden. There are some bushes, some trees, and clusters of flowers scattered about. Several defined paths wind through this garden, but there’s plenty of space to forge ahead through the rough. You can enter the garden at any place, but from the entrance it’s impossible to see out the other side. The garden is seasonal, and its creations grow, evolve, and die over time. No, this isn’t one of those “Who killed Sean in the garden?” puzzles; this is an introduction to the mind of Jerome Ellis.
When Ellis sits down at the piano, or his samplers, or his saxophone, he enters this garden. The creation that then emerges is a musical interpretation of his trajectory through the garden. Each entity that he encounters triggers a motif, complete with suggestions as to tempo, dynamic, and harmonic movement. The path he takes governs the transitions and interactions between these motifs. Sometimes we hear a clean break, sometimes a slow blend of ideas and an eventual distillation to a single dominant figure. As he visits and revisits certain of the garden’s residents, we see them grow, blossom, and wither as Ellis’s concept of them changes. Some are perennial favorites, and others sprout but once, only to return to dust shortly thereafter. This isn’t some quaint metaphor that I’ve constructed. This is how Jerome Ellis actually makes music. He conceives of it spatially, and while the garden is but one space that he tends to inhabit, it’s important to understand this process if we’re to preserve a hope of unraveling his unique genius.
Ellis once thought he would grow up to be a great jazz saxophonist, and while he’s still got some time before he’s considered fully “grown,” it looks like he’s headed down a much different path. This is the story of how he got set on that path, and where he’s going now that he’s on it, as spread across a series of digital 7-inch reviews to come in 2010. Those of us who have been trained on a single instrument (particularly in the idioms of classical music or jazz) and chose at one point or another to embark upon an odyssey with a second or third instrument, sometimes feel like we’re cheating on a loved one. Why experiment with compositions on piano when I could be engaging in regimented practice on the saxophone? And so it was with Jerome Ellis. Piano was an alluring temptation, but he kept it relegated to second chair, playing only late at night when the sound of his tenor would have woken the household. But these precious hours would prove instrumental to Ellis’s musical and intellectual development.
When he reached college, Ellis began having second thoughts about jazz as a vocation. He wanted to escape the pitfalls of bebop that so often leave an indelible mark on nascent jazzmen. The brass and bravado of New York jam sessions failed to excite Ellis. Having achieved remarkable technical proficiency at an astoundingly young age, he wasn’t moved by solos strung together from bits of Charlie Parker solos, and more importantly, he didn’t feel like this is how he was destined to move other people. He began a series of musical experiments with drummer James Monaco, featuring Ellis on keyboards. He suddenly felt as though he were making music of substance, music with the potential to move people on a visceral, and not just intellectual level. James’s background was in pop and rock music, a world to which Ellis had significant exposure, but that had never been his focus of study. He began to draw upon his own disparate influences (gospel, blues, classical) and to discover new ones–music from Java, Bali, and Zimbabwe. Ellis remembers thinking, “I didn’t know this was possible, I didn’t know sounds could do this, I need this, I need to listen to this, I need to make this part of my life.” And so it became.
Amidst these stirring shifts in musical direction, Ellis began performing with the Trudy Silver Group at the 5C on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Silver mentored Ellis, encouraging him to synthesize his experiences both in and outside the jazz idiom and to integrate his previous training rather than to abandon it. The result was an intensely personal manifestation of what could loosely be called free jazz, and Ellis began using this semi-regular gig as a venue for testing his new direction, taking tentative walks through the garden of his muse. It didn’t take long before he began sharing the group lead with Silver, and not long after that it seemed as though each performance belonged just as much to Ellis’s musical vision as Silver’s. I was lucky enough to attend several of these sessions, and as I sat on the subway heading back uptown, with the sounds of the evening echoing through my head, on each occasion I knew I had just witnessed something truly special.
And so, we here at Ampeater are honored to present Jerome Ellis’s first digital 7-inch, entitled “Hymnal” / “Untitled 1”. In 2008 I spoke with Ellis at length regarding this piece, and gained some keen insight on how it came to be. It’s not so much a song or a piece or a composition; the best term I can devise to describe it is a “vessel.” There are certain fixed elements, but every performance sees these elements reconfigured to address Ellis’s increasingly complex musical perspective. “Hymnal” is always performed in three sections, the first uptempo and rhythmic, the second slow and ambient, and the third ushering a return to the first while echoing the central themes of the piece at large. It’s the same cyclical structure that gives closure to the classical sonata form, appropriated here by an orchestra of samples, brought together under Ellis’s masterful direction. But “Hymnal” was and will always be performed live in a single take–there are no overdubs in this recording, and that makes improvisation an essential component in its creation. The saxophone is recorded live atop prepared samples, and while Ellis would seem to be the sole architect of this marvelous and complex construction, the samples that he triggers are also active participants in the piece, tugging it in all directions. Ellis is thus rendered both musician and conductor, positioned at an invisible podium to provide requisite guidance to a dozen or so samples that understand but a handful of basic instructions. The departure in this piece for Ellis is its remarkable accessibility. Very early on in its conception he imposed strict limitations: first, it would have the aforementioned three movement structure; second, all the samples used in the piece would be sacred, and not limited to Western religion or music; third, the melodic contours would be simple, singable, likable. Your average listener typically assumes that artists like Ellis and pieces (OK, vessels) like “Hymnal” are typically thought to exist for some sort of nonexistent hyper-cerebral music theorist as the sonic equivalent of Finnegans Wake or some similarly impenetrable artistic creation. “Hymnal” is the antidote to this assumption. While its complexities are numerous, they’re not expressed as dissonance. This means that listeners are able to relax into the piece and fully grasp its genius without being assailed by tone clusters. When I listen to “Hymnal” I hear equal parts Mozart, Javanese gamelan, African thumb piano, Ray Charles, and Panda Bear; I hear something completely unique, something that I couldn’t have even fathomed to exist before actually hearing it. But most of all, I hear something that moves me, deeply.
B-side, “Untitled 1” (I know it’s ridiculous to call these “sides” on a 7-inch. Even “digital” 7-inches can’t be 30 minutes long, but to hell with it) represents Ellis’s departure into piano music as a serious vehicle for creative expression. This particular path through Ellis’s garden is the one labeled “to Brian Eno’s house.” With nothing but a piano, Ellis reminds me how I felt, what I thought, and what I thought music could be, in the moment I first heard Music for Airports. It’s as though Ellis took a snapshot of time, space, thought, and emotion and upon holding this snapshot up to the light saw tiny holes scattered throughout the picture and then decided to fill them in with sound. One hears this piece and thinks, “It’s exactly what’s missing from ______.” The key is then to fill in that blank, and to recreate as a listener the situation that spawned the creation, in all its minute complexities. If one successfully reunites the two in whatever mental space is reserved for idle thoughts while listening to music, something just clicks and the world ceases to exist as something distinct from the sounds flowing into your ears. Ever tried listening to Music for Airports in an actual airport? Go try it, you’ll know what I mean.
As I mentioned earlier, this is but an introduction to Jerome Ellis--we’ll be featuring his music on several 7-inches in the months to come, and while it’s tempting to squeeze all my thoughts on his music into a single review, I’ll cut it short here in an attempt to create some dramatic suspense. Can you feel it? Good. In the meantime, if “Hymnal” sent you on as much of a journey as I hope it did (if it didn’t, keep listening until it does), you can read the attached interview with Ellis, conducted immediately following the piece’s first ever public performance at WKCR 89.9 FM in New York.
BH: So we’re here to discuss your latest piece Hymnal, just performed live in the studio today, October 20th, 2008, for the very first time. I thought we’d just get down some preliminary thoughts as to your experience with the piece, your history with it, how it came to be, your experience in New York and elsewhere as a musician that led to this most recent evolution, and how you conceive of it as a whole in terms of the general progress of your artistic development. I know that’s a lot to lay on you, but, for starters, what is it? Describe it to people in your own terms.
JE: Um, well it’s funny calling it a piece, cause it’s not written down or anything and it’s really loose. I can play it 40 minutes long, 20 minutes long, half an hour. There’s a lot of sections, but they’re of various lengths, so the piece…I call it a piece because I can’t call it anything else. It’s not a song or an extended song or something, but I don’t conceive of it as a concert piece of music that you sit down and just hear for as long as it happens. It’s more about filling the room than about being a set length. But it does have 3 movements, so there is a classic structure to it with the first and third being rhythmic and dancey and the second being ambient and slower. That’s the way I usually think about it. But the jazz background is in it in different ways. There’s nothing really jazzy about it but the looseness and the structure of it comes from that, in that I have melodies that I can throw around and play at various times and I can play off of those however I want to. As opposed to a jazz group where you’ll have everybody interacting with each other, I’m interacting with the samples and the loops. Not like a one man band, but like a band comprised of singers from the late 1500s and singers from South American in this big jumbled pot.
BH: Do you feel like you’re improvising when you’re performing the piece?
JE: When I’m moving through it, no. Each section is planned out, but within the sections I’m improvising. As a whole it’s very structured, which is different from what I’ve done in the past, especially on saxophone.
BH: So you conceive of yourself primarily as a saxophonist. What has it been like to branch out from saxophone to other instruments, to then moving past other instruments and just focusing on the nature of the sound itself? Are you thinking of yourself less and less and less as a saxophonist, or are you thinking of yourself as a tenor sax player on vacation.
JE: Less of a saxophonist, definitely going in that direction. When I started playing with my friend James Monaco, my dearest friend in the world, last summer, it was him on drums and me on saxophone for a little bit. We tried something like that and it didn’t work out. I’ve always been toying around with keyboards and pianos, so I had brought my keyboard over to his house and started to play a little bit. That fit. So I began immediately to think of things in terms away from saxophone. When I was playing saxophone a lot and I wanted to be a jazz saxophonist, that was the path I wanted to go on and I would listen to lots and lots of saxophonists. It would hinder my piano playing. When I would play piano I would feel bad that I wasn’t practicing saxophone, so it would usually happen late at night or something. I kinda stifled that a little bit, but when I started playing with James I opened up a lot more and realized that I could branch out. It’s been like that since I came to college; less of a saxophone player, more of a composer, I guess you could say–it’s a weird word for me. Just, exploring. Exploring lots of different things, because I realized that there are certain people whose voice rests solely inside the saxophone, and that’s all they need to do. Just as there are people who sing and play piano, and that’s all that they do. But I realized that’s not what I need. I feel much more of an affinity to the piano, actually, which is strange since I’ve never had any training on it. So there’s a lots of things that I used to try to stifle that now I’m welcoming.
BH: So as you added these instruments, it seems like it took you further and further away from jazz. Now this might be a little bit of a difficult question so feel free to blow me off if you need to, but do you feel like jazz is anachronistic? Did it feel in some ways old fashioned, like you were playing in an idiom that wasn’t really going anywhere, like you were playing things past, and that playing Coltrane was somehow not moving forward.
JE: Yeah, I think I had that feeling. It was an uncomfortable feeling, but I think there’s value in people…I don’t think jazz is dead or will die or that people who focus on jazz are somehow not moving forward. That has crossed my mind, and I think a lot of people feel that way, but I don’t feel that way. I played in an ensemble in the fall, and I didn’t feel that I was really saying what I wanted to say. I realized that jazz was a dialect, the same way that rock is a dialect and folk is a dialect, and I realized that I wasn’t really speaking in that dialect. I would bring a lot of these little things into my improvisation that wouldn’t fit into this straight-ahead bop tradition and I would get scolded for it. I began to realize that maybe that’s not how I should play, that maybe it’s not the truest way for me. So I don’t think jazz is dead and I don’t think people who play it are following a dead dialect. It’s possible to be really stale in jazz with lots of hard bop, but it’s also possible to keep it fresh and vital.
BH: Is the bridge between Hymnal and the more traditional bop that you were playing your work with the Trudy Silver group? Do you see that moving in conjunction with the more progressive direction that you’re taking, or is that your remaining anchor to the jazz tradition? Because you are doing composition in that, and you’ve mentioned that you’re taking more and more of a lead role in terms of the creative direction of that group, has that facilitated in this, has it served as a stepping stone to where you are now? Are you still feeling very much part of that or have you now moved beyond it?
JE: No, I do certainly feel part of it. I don’t think I’ll move on for quite a while. I’ve learned a lot playing with Trudy, because when I’m doing free jazz I can bring in these little things that I do that aren’t in this bop tradition. I can do these saxophone river lines all up and down the instrument and all on a five note pattern. I hardly ever swing when I’m playing in that group, and she doesn’t either. When you have free jazz in that domain there’s a lot more room to venture out into other places, and yeah, I have been trying out many different compositional ideas there, both on piano and on saxophone, which has been really good, because she’s very open to all that. It’s helped me with Hymnal, especially when you begin to manage all these different elements. When we played in that 5-piece with bass and tuba and drums, it would often fall to me to manage everything that was going on. So when I mention that I have this band of samples, I’ve learned a lot from playing with her about the way you control them. I guess it’s both, it’s a stepping stone but I’m also very much in it. I don’t see it as just a thing I’ll leap off of and then leave.
BH: For folks who aren’t quite as familiar with the logistics of working with samples, my understanding of it is that in a sense you have complete control over them, but in another sense you’re very much working with them and constantly struggling against them to get them to do what you want. The relationship between working with samples as a band and actually working with real band members is a closer connection than you might assume.
JE: Yeah, it’s really strange. James and I learned a lot about sampling from Dilla, the late Dilla, who is just so good at the art of sampling. We’ve torn apart the album “Donuts” and there’s lots of different things like, well it’s just him, he doesn’t have any people on the record rapping or anything, so he treats samples as humans, he’ll interact with them, he’ll leave space where you hear the person breathing. It’s a lot of fine work on a sample to get it right, because on a hardware sampler it’s important to get it to where when you press a pad and it sounds just the way you want it, so there’s a lot of chopping up a sample, getting it to stop and start in the right spots, volume issues, balance issues, so it’s like being the leader of a group, handling the way people are playing with each other. You might have one person play quieter, or have one person fulfill a set role. There’s 10 samples in Hymnal, so for example there’s three in the 1st movement. There’s the bottom loop, with the singers [sings] so you have that, and their role is to be the rhythmic ground on top of which everything else will build, so they have a very set role. Then there are the two other ones. There’s one of a men’s chorus singing and one of just a lady, and those will come in and out. Their role is more surface level, and you have different roles. In the 2nd movement there’s a sample from a spiritual, the way the man ends the song and then the clapping afterwards. So that’s more of an ambient side thing, and then you have this organ sample from the 1600s. That’s a loop that goes over and over again and that’s also rhythmic in its way. You have to assign different roles to various samples as you would in a jazz group. Where the bass may in one part be a walking baseline, and in another part may be freer.
BH: As someone who was working with a single instrument, a saxophone, how did you build your arsenal, how did you select what instruments were absolutely necessary to creating the sound that you have, and what sound do you think you’ve achieved with the samples and instruments that you’ve picked?
JE: Well the thing that’s interesting about sampling, is that once you have a sampler the entire world of sound is suddenly available to you. It’s awesome and also crazy, how much you can grab and tweak. So it comes pretty necessary early on to limit things, to put boundaries all over the place. There are several boundaries in this. One was that all the samples would be sacred music. A focus in Hymnal is sacred music, and how people from all over the place get into this state of worship or praise or even just losing it. In the 1st movement, the loop that goes over the whole thing, that lays the foundation is from South America. It’s praise music for their gods, and the same thing with the loop in the 3rd movement. The two other ones in the 1st movement are from Java. There’s one of a men’s chorus from Java and the other of a lady and that’s also sacred music. If you hear the word Hymnal you automatically think of something rooted in a religion from the West, because the Hymnal I have that my Mom gave me is staunchly hymns from the Baptist line, so I was interested in using not just that religion but going further. So in the second movement you get these samples from the Renaissance and then one from a modern hymn being sung. In the third movement we return to the ones from South America and we have these different pieces of sacred music from all over the world. It’s helpful to have these limits, because if I wanted to sample something and it wasn’t sacred then I would just be like no, I can’t use that. So it begins to focus the piece. It’s the same way if you have a band made up of similarly minded people, then you’ll have a certain sound. I think maybe that was also what I was going for, putting my saxophone and pitting it with and against people (a lot of the samples are of voices), pitting them against each other but all kinda directed towards the same place. The saxophone is used in a different way; there are two different ways that it’s used, both very far away from how it’s usually used in jazz. One is for chords and for drones that I have throughout. Actually, I have a little name for them, I call them clouds. The process is just looping the saxophone, but I fade or ease into the notes so it sounds like one long drone. That’s one role of the loops that I use with microphones. So you can get a saxophone chord, some sound dreamy, some sound brutal, some throbbing, but that presence of many different saxophones in layers runs throughout. Then there’s also the process of the saxophone as a rhythmic instrument, which maybe fulfills the role of a bass, as in the first and third movements when you have these pounding saxophone notes throughout and then you have these chords stacked on top there. I actually realized after I began the piece that I was listening to a lot of R&B from the 60s and 50s–Ray Charles, The Cardinals, Joe Turner, and I listened a lot to the way the saxophone’s used in R&B. It’s very different. You take a saxophone player from a 1960 R&B group and then you take one in a jazz group and they’re so far apart. The saxophone player in the R&B group acts just as another voice, the lines he plays are simple, they’re singable, bluesy, but you don’t really get a R&B saxophonist playing quickly, his parts are more shouts. So I began to be interested in how the saxophone was working in that context. All the saxophone melodies in the piece are closer to that than they are to a line from bop.
BH: In that sense, as soon as you started playing, it immediately reminded me of something that Don Cherry or Albert Ayler would do, taking melodies from childrens songs and turning them into very freeform jazz, and Don Cherry taking influences from the orient, those were very simple melodic figures that they turned into these great epic opuses, and that seems to be what you’re doing here. Is it also a comment that you seemed to have moved beyond technique? As we’re talking about you moving beyond jazz, really at the core of bebop, (and it’s not really an arguable point) that part of bebop is the display of virtuosity. Are you trying to show, instead of virtuosity, a sense of spirituality? You were talking about using only sacred samples, well in a sense if you’re using all sacred samples and yourself as one of those samples, repeated and dubbed, is this your Love Supreme? Is this a display of your own spirituality, drawing back from the pompousness and the show of bebop virtuosity and just simplifying everything.
JE: That’s exactly right. Especially last year when I would go to jazz clubs and jam, I would get really frustrated and tired of saxophone players. There would be a line of six of ‘em and they would all go up and just play really quickly and really loudly. It can be very moving if you’re very good at that, but I’ve since changed my goals. I’ve done that, I’ve moved people by technique. Saxophone players don’t like to admit this, but it’s really easy to play quickly and loudly. It’s the nature of the instrument. I wanted to shift the focus away from moving people from saying “Wow he’s really good at saxophone” to a different kind of appreciation. I’ve done that, I get really bored really easily. I got this sampler nine months ago, and it’s already central to what I’m doing. I work really slowly and I move quickly in a sense and I drop things really easily, which is sometimes a bad habit. I began to get frustrated with simply having people be like “Wow, you’re really good at saxophone” or “Wow you play really quickly” so yeah, I wanted to pare down the technique. It’s not a hard saxophone part to play. The melody’s all quarter notes and half notes, and I think that’s important. I think there’s kinda a thing with pop melodies in there, and how pop music’s focus isn’t on technique. The value lies somewhere else. When a person can sing something, that’s valuable, and you don’t really hear people singing bebop lines. I mean, some people. Not many. I think that’s what I was going for as well. And that was part of the R&B thing, like I can sing the Fathead Newman solos from Ray Charles songs because it’s just as if he’s another voice in the band. Part of it came out of the fact that I simply don’t have the technique that I used to. I don’t really want to. I don’t practice saxophone as much as I did, I write more and I write with different sounds more. So I don’t really have that technique anymore, and I’m fine with that. My focus has moved on from there. That’s not saying that technique isn’t important, obviously. I’ll never be a saxophone guy, and I don’t want to. I used to, but that changed.
BH: Why did that change, and when?
JE: James had a big influence in this. When I started listening more widely, I started listening to a lot of music from Java and Bali and Africa, Zimbabwe and a lot more pop music. I realized a lot of it was closer to how I wanted to move people. I think people get tired of having to appreciate something for its technique or showiness. I think a lot of people do dig that, which is why a lot of people still like bebop. People like solos, seeing a guy who can solo really well on guitar, but when I listen to people like Deerhunter, nobody ever solos. They move me through different means. It’s like finding a different way to impress people, and impress in the sense not of to “wow” them, but impress in the sense of to make a mark on them. So they’ll move me through the way they layer things and not through the way they solo. I think that’s valuable and often can be harder to do. I think I like to take on challenges a lot and maybe because I get bored. So I made that a challenge for myself, how would I approach making something meaningful and not make the focus the saxophone and the way I’m playing saxophone.
BH: I mentioned briefly the issue of spirituality as involved in the piece. What does this personally mean to you, having moved past technique, and trying to reach audiences with a pop sensibility, you were talking around the issue of really hitting at this interior of a person, trying to touch them on a level that’s not relying on some sort of intellectual processing and really hitting at some emotional core. Yes, it has something to do with being able to hum a tune, and yes it has something to do with the overall simplicity and catchiness of the music–it has beat, it has rhythm, it’s not overly complex–but do you think that using spiritual samples and having a sense of spirituality yourself, that this is the primary message you’re trying to convey and maybe the primary way in which you’re trying to impact your audience directly?
JE: I think that all music’s purpose is to take one higher, and depending on the person and the music is very variable, and I think that we all like to leave for a while. Why it’s weird to think of Hymnal as a composition is that I get really frustrated with a lot of modern classical composition that only connects with the mind. It’s almost like someone telling you “sit there and take this”. It’s supposed to be good for you even though your mind won’t grasp it, or maybe it’s only your mind that grasps it. You can come away with a great feeling, or you can come away feeling empty. I didn’t want that, I wanted to hit on various levels. The interior is important, the spiritual aspect about going higher to someplace. Music can take you away to many places, but the specific direction of up is what I want. Loops have an interesting part in that, because there’s always this element of trance in the way Hymnal is built, because trance is another way that people around the world go higher. That’s where I wanted to take off from. I listen to tons of music from Java and Bali and the Javanese especially, there’s such a sense of circularity. I played with that in Hymnal–the way it ends is very similar to the way it begins. And of course loops are little circles in and of themselves. The whole way it moves within a set place but finding rest inside of that, the second movement hits at that the most. The second movement is the loosest. Every time I play it it’s a little bit different, and I wanted that, I wanted to react to the various things I’m playing. So you have these two saxophone notes going in and out of each other. You have this man singing in the background this same note, going over and over again, and you start to get into this place. When you see people in a church service and they’re taken back by the spirit, all they’ll do is sway and hum. I love seeing that and I love being there. You can only focus on so much in a piece of music, both as the performance and as the audience. There’s like 4 chords in the entire thing, there’s not an emphasis on harmony at all, there’s not an emphasis on harmonic movement. The first movement eventually has two chords and for most of it it’s just one with drone. The second movement has maybe one. The third movement has two as well. When you take the focus away from the harmony, away from the technique, you start to be able to focus on other things like the melody and the way you get swept up. It’s very much about the room, very much about things ringing and swirling about. I think that in having this so open, because I need a lot of space when I’m making things happen in the air, when you have something that doesn’t have a certain genre with it, you can’t say oh that’s jazz or, because it’s kind of electronic but not really, when you have this open feel to it you can start to focus on what you’re saying about the spirit. But I didn’t want it to be heavy-handed, which is why rhythm is there. I could just make the whole thing the second movement for half an hour, and that would be fine with someone maybe, but the rhythm and the dance helps to raise that up and lighten it a little bit. It’s really about the listener. I think that’s another thing I was frustrated with about classical music and often with jazz, people seem to forget the listener. The performers and the composers will treat the listener like someone who has to sit there and take it. Going back to pop music, pop music can’t survive without the listener, the audience, and what the person wants. So I began to care a lot about what the person wants, and of course not everyone gets really excited about drones or loops, but I think having things like clear melodies makes it more welcoming to people. That’s what I think about gospel. You don’t go to church for a concert (well, some people will), but gospel music from the beginning wasn’t about the concert or the musical object. It’s all about people, singing. It’s not about the stage or the person on the stage high above the audience. I wanted it to be welcoming to people, for people to feel free to sway and not have it be this cold thing. It’s called Hymnal, but I purposely didn’t put any hymns in it. I wanted to approach the way gospel music affects people through means that aren’t hymns or songs.
BH: Are you telling a story, do you see a plot, do you see a greater structure? Are you trying to convey something in an arch across the entire piece? Are you taking people from point A and dropping them off at point B, or are you doing that in a smaller form, within each movement?
JE: Well there are two different strands here that I’m playing with, The first is the classical structure, because the classical structure of fast slow fast mirrors the classical structure of 1-5-1, and the whole concept of home-away-home. And that’s how classical music has told its stories for a long time. The sense of being home, being in a place, going somewhere and coming back, is the most basic story of a journey. Because a journey really isn’t a journey until you somehow arrive back home or in a state that is stable. So you have this strand going in there, but then what I was talking about with this music from Java. It’s interesting hearing this music with my ears, because they’re Western, and they’re used to this. I don’t know how people in Java hear, maybe they hear stories in their music, but I don’t hear stories in Javanese music. I hear big circles. I hear just one state of rest. A key thing of classical structure is the notion of tension and being resolved. There’s not a whole lot of tension in Hymnal. The saxophone clouds are pretty consonant, but sometimes I’ll insert half steps above or below to give them a different sound. But the second movement was pretty overall serene. Some people may hear the clapping noises as some tension there, but what I was playing with was trying to reconcile this circular feeling which I don’t feel has much of a story, and I’m fine with that. I really value the notion of rest in music. From what I’ve noticed in learning so much about classical music is that a key difference between German and French classical music is that German classical music is much more linear–Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn. But French classical music–Ravel, Faure–is much more circular much more surrounding. When you listen to Mozart you hear section then cadence then a new section then cadence. It moves very logically, which is why so many studies say that Mozart can help your brain, because it’s a logic that you’re following. Whereas in French music it’s more static in a sense, but so many new things can happen when something is static, like modal jazz is a parallel. When you have a song like So What that only uses two modes, you can go places you can’t go when you have chords every other beat. So story telling in modal jazz is a lot different than storytelling in bebop. As far as Hymnal having an overall story, I don’t really think it does. I think the melodies that we’ve heard throughout culminate in the third movement, so in a sense it’s a journey to that point. But I didn’t really conceive it in a linear fashion like that and not even within the movements. Especially the second movement, I wanted it like a bath where things wash over you. You’re not necessarily saying, “here’s the third section of the second movement,” but rather “here’s where the story rests.” I really value rest in music and peace, because I don’t have enough of it outside the music. I often see music as a refuge. I love finding nap records, things I’ll put on only to surround me and help me sleep. It’s kinda the ambient conception, how Brian Eno sees music. People will often devalue ambient music, they’ll say it has no direction. But I think there’s a lot of value in that.
BH: When someone learns how to read, it becomes very difficult if not impossible to unread. You look at a sign, you understand immediately what it says. When someone has a certain level of musical training either as a performer or as a listener, it becomes very difficult to not grapple with music on the level in which you were trained. If someone has perfect pitch, it’s difficult to not hear a C, if someone has relative pitch it’s difficult to turn that off. Is part of what you’re doing with this idea of a sonic wash, trying to take people who have an innate sense of musical structure and a set of expectation for it, and trying to teach us how to unread, or unlisten, to allow the music to flow over us in a way that isn’t possible in a lot of musical settings.
JE: That’s absolutely right. When I stumbled upon this music from Java, this is for me what I’m most obsessed with. I listen to it every day. I didn’t know how to interpret it. The music is put together in a different way than it is in the West, it’s viewed a different way than it is in the West. I became interested in taking these sounds and the way these things would react with me and trying to mimic those, but not trying to sound like I was making music in that tradition. That’s futile, I didn’t grow up with a Javanese background. When people are exposed to things like that, it’s really valuable, because some people need it. The first saxophone player I ever fell in love with was Dexter Gordon. At that time I needed Dexter Gordon, and everything that he did, that room filling tone, his simplicity…some people need certain things at certain points. When I found this music from Java, I realized that it was what I needed. It’s interesting when you find out that you need something, post finding it. I think that some people like lots of music and then they stumble on something and think “I didn’t know this was possible, I didn’t know sounds could do this, I need this, I need to listen to this, I need to make this part of my life.” That’s happened to me with music from Java and then thumb piano music from Zimbabwe. The same thing, absolutely magical and like nothing else made in the West. It is in a sense a process of unlearning because you have to get used to this thing you’ve never heard, but it can be healthy. Exposing people to that is another goal of mine.
BH: Do you have a sense of where you need to go from here, or are you living in the moment, everything’s perfect, this is the furthest point of your mental musical development and you’re just gonna see where it goes from here, or do you already have an idea of things that need to change, things that need to grow, things that need to expand, are you going to move more towards drone or more towards use of keyboards in this whole project? Where do you see yourself going and are you already thinking ahead?
JE: I’m always thinking ahead. It’s very exhausting doing that, I get really tired thinking about it. That’s another reason why I can’t really call it a piece. It’s never gonna be finished and it’s never gonna be static. In a month, Hymnal’s gonna be different. It’s more of a vessel to pour things into. It’s not like it’s sealed up or set aside. Which is why I’ll never be able to be a composer and publish things. I can never put periods on things and say “OK, that’s the way Hymnal is.” Although the structure will remain, when I learn things I put them into it. A piano piece I wrote last October is now much different. I think eventually I’ll find the state I need to be in and live in that for a long time. This is not it. It’s a good step and it’s a hard step that I’ve taken, but I’m definitely thinking ahead. I have to do a composition for a class I’m in, and I have to write this down for chamber ensemble, which will be the first time I’ve written anything down. I have tons of little sheets of paper that I’ve tried to write piano pieces down. I get to measure 6 and just stop. What if I want to play measure 4 three times? This is another step.
JE: Something I was thinking about a lot during the summertime, when I wasn’t doing free jazz, when I was improvising with James–We were working with specific songs, composing and structuring, and I realized that with jazz and not just free jazz there’s what I call a ceiling. It depends on the players, it depends on the interaction, it depends on how people know each other, but there’s kinda a ceiling and it’s very hard to go past it. You can get really intense and really emotional and you can take people places, but eventually it has to hit the ceiling because…composition has many benefits. When something is composed like a novel or a short story is, the way these more concrete forms move people, you can do in a composition but you can’t necessary do in jazz. Motifs that come back in and out, and structure itself, these can be moving. I was interested in composing this and having a lot of structure to where I could extend the ceiling. When you’re improvising with people there’s only so much you can say because a lot of it’s not predetermined, which applies more to free jazz. When you play standards you have a common ground, so when you play Misty there’s the entire history of how that entire song has been performed and depending on how much you know about it you can take part in all that’s happened before you, so the ceiling goes away there. But with free jazz you can go to really great places but there are some places you can’t go to because of the lack of compositional structure. I’m not saying it’s impossible to structure free jazz, as Braxton will show you….There are so many details that I’ve never had to deal with, with the electronics now, there’s so much weight on me when I play with this setup because there’s so much that could go wrong, but there’s so much more that could happen. The more you have going on the more you’re capable of doing and the more you’re prone to fail. Fail’s not really applicable in music. The more it can fall off. But when everything works together in conjunction it hits. It’s not like hitting your mind, it’s not like you grasping this, it hits you, emotionally, physically, and that’s what the rhythm is for, that’s what the dreaminess is for. When all that works in conjunction it hits. It’s hard to make it hit, but that’s what makes it all the more exciting, when something is achieved that’s really hard. I never got nervous when I was playing jazz, because there’s such a focus in the moment that there’s not much pre-moment work. You’ll have a setlist, you’ll rehearse things, but it really is all about the interaction. With this it’s both, there’s so much pre-work and then you have to do it, and that’s really taxing. It’s interesting, because composers when they write for ensembles, I’m sure they feel nervous in the audience listening, but they can’t really do anything, and even if they’re conducting their compositions there’s only so much they can do. But when you are the only one who this depends on and the people, the samples, the samples ARE people, but the people aren’t gonna do anything. You have to press a button and have them come to life. When it’s all on you, you’re the only one who can make it hit. Of course there’s the importance of people in the room, people taking part, but it’s just that that weight makes it harder to hit and makes it more exciting when it happens. It’s a weird composer-performer role that I’m exploring, and happy with.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem059/02 Untitled 1.mp3