By Troy Collins
Photo by Žiga Koritnik
Nate Wooley: Existing Within the Music
Nate Wooley has been widely acclaimed as one of the most innovative trumpet players of his generation since moving to New York in 2001. Prominent amid a multitude of trumpeters like Peter Evans and Greg Kelley, Wooley’s idiosyncratic talents have occasioned his enlistment as a sideman by, among others, Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker and John Zorn. He has also cultivated collaborations with a diverse spectrum of musicians, such as Chris Corsano, Mary Halvorson and C. Spencer Yeh.
Embracing noise and drone aesthetics, Wooley’s novel approach to the horn transcends the instrument’s physical limitations through a bold combination of radical vocalizations, extended techniques and extreme amplification. This methodology has earned him the admiration of high-profile stylists like Dave Douglas, who has said, “Nate Wooley is one of the most interesting and unusual trumpet players living today, and that is without hyperbole.” Wooley’s international reputation has risen considerably in the last few years courtesy of a number of prestigious festival appearances and artist residencies, ranging from the WRO Media Arts Biennial in Poland to the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.
In addition to numerous sideman gigs and a charter membership in Harris Eisenstadt’s Canada Day, Wooley leads his own projects, including a quintet (with bass clarinetist Josh Sinton, vibraphonist Matt Moran, bassist Eivind Opsvik and Eisenstadt on drums), Battle Pieces (with tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, vibraphonist Matt Moran and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier) and duos with Paul Lytton and Ken Vandermark. His efforts have been documented by independent labels like Clean Feed, Porter and Relative Pitch, as well as Pleasure of the Text, his own imprint. Wooley also curates the Database of Recorded American Music (www.dramonline.org) and is editor-in-chief of the online journal Sound American (www.soundamerican.org), both of which are dedicated to broadening the definition of American music.
His most recent Clean Feed recording, (Dance To) The Early Music, is one of last year’s most audacious releases – a bold reimagining of Wynton Marsalis’ early work that conceptually brings the art form’s modern evolution full circle. Deconstructing Marsalis’ advanced post-bop using avant-garde techniques, Wooley revisits material that initially inspired him without a trace of irony, reworking these deceptively complex tunes as his own. Following the release of this intriguing effort, I interviewed Wooley in the winter of 2016.
Troy Collins: Some biographical information might be beneficial for readers unfamiliar with your background. You moved from your hometown of Clatskanie, Oregon to New York in 2001. How did you first get your start playing in the Brooklyn scene?
Nate Wooley: As tempted as I would be to play into the romanticism of the small town boy in the big city, it would be disingenuous to gloss over the fact that there were a lot of stops on my way from Clatskanie to New York. I spent some years in Eugene, Oregon and Denver, Colorado studying and generally trying to figure out what I could and wanted to do with music. It was a good way to go, actually, as both places had a small but vibrant scene while being cut off from a lot of the rest of what was going on, so I was able to digest a lot of material without a ton of pressure to perform in any way besides my own.
I came to New York in 2001 with some help from Tony Malaby and Angelica Sanchez, who had a place for my wife and me in Jersey City. We were pretty comfortable (or so we thought at least) in Denver at the time, so having a place offered to us was probably, in hindsight, the only thing that would have given us the impetus to make such a huge change in our lives. I knew some players in the city already at the time, so I was able to do some gigs immediately upon arrival, but there wasn’t really ever a concerted effort to be part of the scene at the time. I just played with the people that came across my path who were interesting and seemed interested in me. I think it just was lucky that those people, like Mike Pride, Mary Halvorson, Peter Evans, Trevor Dunn, Andrew D’Angelo and Matt Moran ended up being a part of what is now termed the Brooklyn Scene.
There were a couple of pivotal relationships and experiences, though, that I can and should point to as giving me access to a lot of musicians that may have taken me years to discover, if I discovered them at all. I worked as a busboy at a vegan restaurant when I first moved to town and that was where I met the saxophonist Assif Tsahar. At the time, he had a large group doing pieces in the vein of Butch Morris’ conduction techniques and, without hearing me at all, he asked me to play. The first concert with that group was where I met Okkyung Lee, Mary, Jessica Pavone and a ton of other players I would end up being friends with and working with at points later on. I was with that group for a year or two and it was so large and open that it became kind of a feeder system of new people and experience for me. It helped that this was the height of the Sunday shows at DMG followed by the series at CBGBs so I could really spend that evening listening and playing and meeting a lot of new people without it feeling like speed dating or a business social, which I don’t have the stomach for.
Meeting Mike Pride early on made a big difference as well. He was running one night of Chris Forsyth’s (who also became a close friend and collaborator) series at the Knitting Factory when I played there with Jack Wright. I think Mike may have been the only person in the audience. When I was introduced into his world it was similar to Assif’s large group. Mike may still be underappreciated for his unflagging dedication to making his music and working with a ton of musicians to produce a lot of really strange things. He introduced me to a lot of players and those first five or so years he was really a constant in my musical and social life.
TC: How did you arrive at your particular sound? Were there any influential teachers, mentors or musicians that inspired your current direction?
NW: I have a lot of difficulty answering this question in a way that is satisfactory to myself and everyone else. If I’m being honest about arriving at the way I play, I can’t really point to a lineage or any kind of linear accretion of technique. What I can say, and this is the part that tends to be dissatisfying, is that when I hear music in my head it sounds like the music I play. To reverse engineer an answer, however, I have always felt that every sound should have a really distinct character, no matter how fast or dense it is and that quality is primary to me at this point. I want the trumpet to sound like a voice, but not in the way that is spoken of in jazz tradition which encompasses ideas of singing, sighing, sobbing, etc. That conception feels false to me, and so I tend to gravitate to vocal playing that concentrates on mumbles, whispers, half sentences, rasps, nasal quality – the parts of speech that are neither the extremity of the romantic singing style of jazz or the extreme burps and screams of more contemporary vocal improvisational styles. I guess it’s a weird – and as a strict concept probably unsuccessful – attempt at playing the trumpet as vocal vérité. For the most part, that’s where I’m coming from when I am daydreaming and music is running around in my mind and so that’s what I can’t help but try and play.
The same difficulty applies when the question of mentors come up. I just don’t believe in lineage in that way. I may have gotten one sentence from a person I spent thirty seconds with twenty years ago that has carried a lot of weight with me over the years, and there are people that have a long term effect on me, but which is a mentor? Ultimately I don’t want to put the extraneous pressure of what I decide to do on any one’s shoulders. When you say “I come out of so and so and so and so and was a student of person X and person Y” it creates a false lens through which people view what you do, but it also forces a set of distinctions on those people that they don’t necessarily want or need. There is one guiding principle, though, and maybe this is a better answer to the question. I think that to pay homage to someone you respect, you should engage in the practice of making something in the same way in which they were engaged. If you respect Bill Dixon or Axel Dörner or Wynton Marsalis or Ambrose Akinmusire, then approach the trumpet with the same kind of focus as them, and try to do something so distinct that they would take notice. Maybe that doesn’t preclude them being your mentors or teachers – and I want to make clear that I have these feelings about lineage because I have had so many incredibly giving people in my life and want to respect their time and space equally – but I think an attitude of digesting all the information these people give you, making something you are proud of out of its distillation, and thanking them for their friendship in a personal, non-promotional way, is a direction I’m more interested in going right now, which I imagine will bring up some questions about the discrepancy of making a recording of Wynton Marsalis’s music!
TC: Honestly, Nate (and I’m probably in the minority here), but I wasn’t that surprised by (Dance To) The Early Music – a little, yes, of course at first – but the album’s success is so obviously contingent on your unique arrangements and interpretations that it feels like a natural part of your quintet’s songbook. What was a bit starling is that you would admit to a fondness for that material in a time where irony is still the stock and trade of so many artists (unfortunately). I am a fan of those early records myself, and I find what you’ve done with those tunes to be a natural (if not circular) evolution of the jazz continuum – it seems inevitable to me. What I’m more curious about is how you arrived at a place where sound itself is more important than the quantifiable metrics of an established tradition, while simultaneously claiming in the liner notes that: “I find myself in the unsettling position of following my interest in jazz music down increasingly intellectual paths, while hungering to feel the warmth of my early immolation again in my heart.”
NW: I think that the way you articulate it points toward the answer for me. On the one hand there is the “inspiration” of jazz to me right now and the idea of “sound itself” – both qualitative terms in a way, while on the other are the “quantifiable metrics of an established tradition.” It’s the difference between exploring my individuality with its history, predilections, strengths, weaknesses and elaborating on a tradition that has been constructed by thousands of third-party perceptions of what other people did; understanding the material through filters of what teachers, friends, media and analysis provide. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that! I certainly still deal with tradition in that way, so I can’t claim any dogma one way or the other in this regard. My only reaction to it is that, right now, I’m trying to recognize the filters and understand what I’m gaining from jazz and what it means to me so that the music I make comes from intuition as opposed to “metrics.”
To that end, the record of Wynton’s music could have been handled in any number of ways. It was more interesting to me to approach it in a way that emphasized what was, to me and to me only, the non-articulate essence of those pieces, which meant a lot of nostalgia and trying to find my place in his music. It would have been easier to get textual or meta with the arrangements, but then it’s acting within that constructed tradition by trying to find the opposite of what Wynton did – confronting the swing tradition with skronk or rock or noise – and creating a set of oppositions. That’s not interesting to me at this point for whatever reason, although I think it has been done really successfully by other people. I wanted to work outside of the oppositional construct completely. Not positive. Not negative. Just different and hopefully honest to something that is personal to me. That doesn’t mean it’s radical music, of course, just that it’s being approached from that specific place.
It’s easy sometimes to confuse being inspired by something with adhering to its principles. I was and, still am to some extent, very inspired by jazz music. But, what I do with that inspiration is completely up to me. I’m also inspired by the TV show Lt. Joe Kenda: Homicide Hunter, but it doesn’t make my music have an hour long murder noir story arc. That’s a stupid example and I hope it doesn’t feel confrontational because I understand your intent with the question, but I think there is a tendency to flatten our experience of, not just musicians or artists, but everyone in an attempt to wrestle with all of the information thrown at us. On one level, yes, I am interested in jazz and it gives me something important as a musician and human being. On the other hand I’m very vocal about staying away from lineage and tradition, which are very much a central part of our cultural definition of jazz. In another reading, I am being very intellectual about a tradition that elevates the heart and soul of those that play it. Both of these are contradictions, but what are people but groups of contradictions? If I am trying to do something honest, as I’m claiming here, then that means trying to honestly present the whole contradictory essence of who I am without highlighting some aspects because they would fall under our present cultural definition of “cool” or downplaying others that may be perceived as “lame.” There is nothing unnatural about finding solace and inspiration in an art form while striving toward an aesthetic that may be light years away. I feel like the negotiation of those contradictions is when shit gets done.
TC: To delve a little deeper into this subject, what specific aspects of the jazz tradition do you currently find inspiring and what established practices do you find constraining?
NW: I think that jazz will always be a place for experimentation. If anything, that is its tradition to me, and is what attracted me as a kid rabidly buying records. It was this feeling that anything was possible; that anything could potentially happen from one moment to the next. That feeling exists, of course, in any art form, or life for that matter, but in jazz the potential seemed so heightened to me. Part of that was being young and thinking that freedom and choice were these magical things that certain people had an innate ability to access and part of it was just the newness of every sound. The essence of that feeling is still in me and I think that’s what continues to inspire me; putting on a new record (or even an old one I haven’t listened to in a long time) and not being bogged down in the cause and effect of musical practice and tradition. I am still in awe of the freedom of choice improvisers have and I’m floored when someone finds a completely unique way of navigating the music around them.
It’s the establishment, tradition, and codified practices that feel binding to me right now. You’ve been polite to let me go on and on about this, and I think it’s important for me to be clear that I don’t think jazz is dead, nor am I trying to make a blanket statement about jazz as a confining cultural concept. I’m just talking about my own struggles with this certain idea at this single point in time. I guess I’m in an expansive place right now, so I want to have every possible avenue open to me when I’m playing. I imagine I will have a period of revision and refinement again but, right now, I want everything to be valid without me having to defend it to outside parties. Maybe that’s a selfish desire. I don’t think that the jazz tradition, like any tradition, is completely open to that. I would like to believe that, based on its credo of freedom of expression, it would be, but one only has to go to a message board or even to look at the faces of some concert goers to realize that there are constraints. I’m not talking about opinions. No one has to like anyone’s music, and I’m certainly aware that there are people who don’t like the way I play or write or think and that’s fine. I think the constraint is when a decision is made by others that what you played does not fall within parameters of the music, regardless of its musicality or logic within the piece you’re playing. This happens as much in improv circles as it does in jazz circles, so this isn’t a moldy old fig conversation. It’s a question of hitting certain marks to gain access to a title which then confers validity to what you do. That always seems more like athletics than art to me.
It goes back to the oppositional forces idea. There is a sense in the culture of jazz of A/B. A: this is jazz! B: this is not jazz! therefore A: this is valid art and B: this is trash and shouldn’t exist. I want to make C which somehow encompasses difference. There is a certain musical challenge to that and, within the context of jazz tradition there is a different, non-musical challenge. The energy put into the latter feels wasted to me. I would rather put my time and creativity into the former, if that makes any sense. But, let’s be realistic, there are very few people that can make music without having to articulate what they’re doing or navigate certain predispositions around what it is or isn’t. And, I have too much jazz history and tradition in my upbringing to not identify with jazz tradition and be identified with its culture. So, in the end, it is a necessity as much as it is a constraint. And, in many ways that can be positive. When someone allows you to confront all that; pushes you to articulate it, as you’ve been so kind to do, then it helps you define your own aesthetic that much more.
TC: Do you find there to be any similarities in the free improv and/or noise scenes that you’ve been involved with? There’s been ample documentation about the aesthetic conservativism of certain well-established experimental scenes (early British free improv and its resistance to anything resembling jazz tradition, for example). Compared to the responses you may have received from more traditional jazz audiences, I’m curious if you’ve experienced any similar criticism or judgement in either free improv or noise settings for your jazz leanings?
NW: There was a similar feeling after I made my first couple of solo records, which were much more in the lower case/reductionist vein. I did sense a little push back from corners of that scene when the jazz records I was making at the same time got some attention. Beyond that very slight example, though, I’m tempted to say I haven’t really felt a similar attachment to defined parameters from those other scenes. I don’t know if I would attribute that to the scenes, however. Like I said, this is all about one person’s experience at one moment in time. I’ve changed over the years and, as far as I can tell, the perception of what I do has changed as well. I guess it’s a question of how you value the purity of concept or sound world. Any resistance after those first solo records seemed to have come from surprise that I was also involved in the jazz world as well. That was also almost fifteen years ago. Now, I’ve consciously and subconsciously done a lot of things that keep me on the fringe of all those worlds for better or worse. So, at least as I see it, I’m not really a part of the jazz world or noise world or new music/experimental worlds. I may be known to some in each of them, but I don’t think I could easily be identified being a part of any of them. I think I’ve ended up setting up an identity as a musician that’s decidedly more mongrel (or diverse if I use a more positive word). It’s much easier to do what you want when the expectation is non-expectation.
To go back to the idea of one person’s experience at one point in time, I think my feeling of constraint with the jazz world is just a reaction to a greater push back than I get from the other scenes right at this moment – probably combined with my history with jazz and how I want to self-identify in that world. Partially I think that resistance comes from jazz being a more closed system and the role of tradition within that, which we’ve talked about. As a result of that, I also think that there are more people in that world that may only know my playing through the quintet or playing with Harris Eisenstadt or other groups more closely tied to jazz without seeing the other work that I’m doing with tape or electronics or noise or extended technique, contemporary composition, minimalism, etc. So, as in the example above, it’s more shocking to their sensibility because they aren’t privy to my mongrel nature.
TC: What are your thoughts regarding “pure” free improvisation compared to more traditional theme and variations-based strategies – and how do you negotiate the differences between the two in decidedly different performance settings? As an example, I’m thinking of your heavily amplified duo with fellow trumpeter Peter Evans in the former case and your more conventional quintet in the latter one.
NW: I think idea of “pure” improvisation has two modalities. One of them would be, in its most extreme, something like a person picking up an instrument with no knowledge of musical theory, history, technique or structure and somehow tapping into a primal spirit that somehow was completely realized in the music they make. A lot of people would refer to this as being “truly free.” As you can probably tell, I don’t put much stock in that idea. I think it’s just far too utopian and the dissemination of it does a disservice to the amount of work the improviser puts into developing their voice. The second model of thought is that free improvisation is an accrual of language, or building blocks, or “licks,” or concepts; however one likes to think of it. I am fascinated by words, so I prefer to use the metaphor of language and text. So, the musician builds a vocabulary, they tweak it and certain phrases come and go as they find out how best to express themselves in a personal way. They hone their grammar and work on sentence construction, arcs, etc.; the goal of all this being to have a “pure” conversation in which you can freely navigate all that vocabulary, structure and grammar and make yourself completely, maybe even elegantly, intelligible.
That way of thinking has an element of the transcendental to me; far more than the idea of a tabula rasa way of improvising. The goal, unattainable as it may be, is to be so fluent in your own language that you can simply exist within the music and build, change and obliterate statements quickly and beautifully. Its purity exists in the attempt to make the gap from objective idea to expression of that idea as small as possible. To that end, there isn’t a difference between the duo with Peter or the quintet. It’s just using the language to express the same idea in a different setting. The situation dictates the syntax, but the idea is still the same.
TC: Considering your interest in language, all this discussion of theory and aesthetics reminds me, there is an old adage (or insult, if you will) to the effect of “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, write.” But there is a growing number of musicians who write as well as they play. As a musician who does both, can you give some background on how you became involved with Sound American?
NW: That adage, whether it is applied to writing or teaching has always struck me as lazy bullshit. It’s as if time spent carefully formulating or articulating your ideas in hopes of disseminating them to other people is somehow less valid than playing a bunch of standards gigs in the backs of restaurants for people to talk over. It’s as if any whiff of thoughtfulness gets put into a big bag with “intellectualism” written on it in crayon and thrown into the river. This, by the way, is similar to many of the attitudes we like to spend our time being shocked by in American culture. It’s “backward” when someone can’t articulate a solid point against climate control, but if someone dares to set out a carefully considered essay about what they’re trying to do as an artist, then they’re immediately invalid. As far as double standards go, it’s a relatively harmless one, but it does exist.
And, that feeling ties into the beginnings of Sound American. It’s not like I see anything that no one else does, but at one point I recognized that there are a lot of people that are spouting this nonsense about keeping music “pure” by not talking about it, analyzing it, or deconstructing it, which builds an quasi-spiritual insider culture of “if you have to talk about it you just don’t get it.” On the other hand, I saw camps that wanted to make their music special and exclusive by weaving such astoundingly complex webs of Deleuzian double speak around it that the result is an impenetrable wall of pretension designed to keep the hoi polloi out, but ends up subsuming the actual sound of the music in a sea of polysemy. Okay, both exist. Fine. People have the right to approach their music however they want. It’s not that big a deal. But, my frustration was with the almost complete inability to have a public and rational discussion outside of these two poles; one that doesn’t assume a PhD level knowledge of historical tuning systems but also doesn’t think the reader is too dumb to understand the basic concept of 4’33” and why that may be exciting and radical. There are a lot of conversations in the musical community about “audience building,” but rarely does someone ever talk about just trying to talk to people in a natural way about the music you want them to embrace.
Sound American is the response to that frustration. From the very beginning, I’ve attempted to present material that genuinely seems interesting in a way that asks the readers to do their own kind of research, conceptual or critical thinking; what the journal has attempted to promote (with greater or lesser success). The impetus, though, ties into that original aphorism.
Those who can, do.
What does that mean … to do? It doesn’t mean to write a Facebook post about how barren the cultural landscape is in America or reading an article on how you can leverage your “brand” in the cultural milieu. It doesn’t mean building an exclusive club of true believers or complaining because the club won’t let you in and fuck them. Doing is getting your ideas out by any means necessary with the hope that you can communicate with people. That’s making art, unless you are happy to be Henry Darger then, well, you’re not reading this interview. It means being open to discussing your work alongside others and being open to other points of view. Doing means taking the chance of putting some music out there, playing a concert, making a record, talking about what you do, asking others about what they do and waking up every morning trying to understand something new; whether it’s grasping an abstract concept or being empathetic to another point of view. That’s what I try to make Sound American all about. Musicians talking about why they play music the way they play it and being open to being challenged on large and small ideas. It’s not what’s on your iPod but, deep down inside, why is it on your iPod. Who cares what you’re listening to if you aren’t going to tell us the reason behind it. That isn’t such a huge idea but, somehow, for some reason it’s frightening. Maybe it’s boring. Maybe I am a little naïve, but it’s just music. Having a conversation about it that questions your opinions or reasoning or motives isn’t a life or death proposition. It’s a part of being a human being in a society of human beings, so why shy away from doing it absolutely the way you want? Someone will understand, whether it’s written, audible, or a combination of the two.
TC: Based on that explanation, it seems as though your involvement with the Database of Recorded American Music and your founding of Pleasure of the Text are closely connected extensions of your overall artistic purview, rather than say, satellite interests. Can you explain how those projects (and/or your role in them) came about?
NW: I think that’s fair. It’s definitely a more positive way of looking at things than “day job!” I started at the Database of Recorded American Music about seven or eight years ago now. My initial position was data entry and some very basic database coding, which I am pretty horrible at. Once I was there, I think my love of the music they were highlighting – Robert Ashley, Cage, Julius Eastman, Alvin Lucier, James Tenney, et al. – became pretty pronounced (as did my lack of coding skills) so I got more and more work around the contextualization of that music in DRAM.
I wouldn’t say that I had an articulated artistic plan to include this work in the overall scheme of what I was doing, but I believe in DRAM’s celebration of the American weirdo experimental ethos and the passion that my boss, Lisa Kahlden, has for making experimental and historical music available for research while attempting to compensate the labels and composers in a responsible way. I think possibly my artistic purview, as you put it, has changed because of the work at DRAM, then Sound American, and Pleasure of the Text, although the germ was probably present when I started: classic chicken or egg scenario.
Pleasure of the Text started from purely business efficiency motives. I had watched guys like Ben Hall and John Olson from Wolf Eyes put out their own stuff for a long time and thought it was pretty savvy. You do what you want, when you want, and exactly how you want. Once I released that first recording (Seven Storey Mountain III/IV) I recognized the danger, given my personality, of having an artist-run label. It could very quickly become a vanity project. I didn’t feel I was strong enough to do a Gate 5 kind of thing where it was just my work in this specific way and coming only from me. And, I feel like some of the music I do (for example the quintet) makes more sense on a label like Clean Feed or Relative Pitch that has an aesthetic of its own. Instead, and because I felt so strongly about what we were trying to do with DRAM and SA, I wanted to be able to slowly include recordings from people that I admired; giving them access to a label, but with the caveat that I wanted them to do something they felt they couldn’t do anywhere else. That’s where the Paul Lytton solo recording came from. It’s a weeeeeeird record, but so great and so beautifully Paul. I don’t know that he could do that anywhere else, sadly, or that anyone would push him to do it, so I’m glad that it came out on Pleasure.
TC: Although it might be the proverbial chicken or egg style scenario, it does seems as though all your manifold efforts as a solo artist, editor and curator have dovetailed nicely into a singularly focused aesthetic – definitely more than my day job!
In regards to your own development, did you discover any artists through DRAM that subsequently influenced your writing or improvising that you had not previously known about?
NW: I don’t know that I had any brand new discoveries, but DRAM and, especially, New World Records (which is a sister organization to DRAM) gave me the kind of access I needed to go a lot deeper with some of the composers I was already familiar with. James Tenney, Kenneth Gaburo, Sal Martirano, Harry Partch and Pauline Oliveros became figures of study for me, not just musically but for the way in which they dealt with the conceptual and social/economic aspects of their work. In a way it ties into that phrase manifold efforts in that each of them make music that ties together other broad interests: Partch’s love of Greek tragedy, Gaburo’s work in linguistics, writing as ecology, Pauline’s work with listening and group dynamics. The music is just a part of who they are and what they do in the broader cultural context. In that sense, I found some resonances in myself and it provided me some models of a new direction.
Also, I just love the American maverick aesthetic; Partch, Cage, Julius Eastman, Morton Feldman, Moondog, Eric Dolphy, early Phillip Glass, Robert Downey, Sr., William Gaddis, Burroughs, Laurie Anderson. I just love that specific American something that is raw and bloody and feels like it’s teetering on the edge of failure. There’s something in those people, in that work, that is attractive to me in the same way that James Dean or Steve McQueen or Marilyn Monroe may signify a certain American spirit to others.
TC: Speaking of a maverick spirit, Pleasure of the Text’s modus operandi obviously shares similarities with New World Records in its documentation of both new cutting edge efforts as well as reissuing rare unheard music from the past, which is something John Zorn’s Tzadik label also excels at. That reminds me of your appearance on Larry Ochs’ recent Tzadik album, The Fictive Five, which features some incredible contributions from you – I’d dare say, despite the lofty company, I think you almost steal the show. Can you give some background on how that session came about?
NW: From my point of view, it was all Larry. I’m not sure what his initial thought process was. I did do the Fictive Five music in San Francisco with him once with a completely different band, so I think the concept had been in his mind for the two bass band for a while. It would be an interesting question to ask him. Is he thinking of something like an homage to the New York Contemporary Five? There are some elements, at least to me, of Cecil Taylor’s writing as well, so maybe that is part of what he’s working on as well. But, from my end, it was something as simple as getting a call to do a handful of concerts and a recording with Harris, Pascal, Ken, and Larry. I think he had it completely formed in his mind before he even started working on the practicality of the gigs. I think it turned out beautifully; a testament to Larry’s vision.
TC: It’s an exceptional record. It reminds me of a more compositionally advanced version of the New Thing – augmented with contemporary concepts, like modular structures, coded charts and visual cues.
In contrast to Larry’s working methods (for example), how do you balance basic foundations like melody, harmony and rhythm with more abstract concerns, such as texture, tone and timbre in your compositions and improvisations?
NW: Like I said earlier, I am trying to just play what I hear, and that extends to composition as well as improvising. I spent a lot of time thinking of how to organically fold in tone, timbre, and density over the years. I think I ended up having a lot of false starts in that endeavor, but I heard the sounds or changes in speed and texture that didn’t fit on that grid of jazz tradition. At this point, I think everything, after beating my head against the wall for twenty years, is more or less on equal footing, so I don’t look at the timbral worlds as a supplement to the melodic world. In other words, it’s not about how I can affect the melody I’m choosing to play, but the timbral shifts are an integral part of that melody. Maybe better put is that it becomes a music of gestures and colors and structures in my mind.
That, of course, is much easier when improvising and probably easiest when playing solo without having to bend to another person’s concept of all of those elements or impose my concept on them. It’s a lot less fun, though, because there isn’t that rub that creates something new. So, a lot of the groups I play with or compositional ideas I deal with lately have some element of the social in them, specifically so that I can find new ways to deal with that combination. Probably the most immediate example is Battle Pieces which combines free improvisation in part of the group with a combinatory system of 38 pieces that the rest of the group chooses freely from to create new dialogues within the band. Another way of thinking is a new group with Chris Pitsiokos, Brandon Lopez, and Dre Hocevar where the pieces are looped gestures taught by ear. The group improvises until someone plays an aural cue and we jump into the learned “composition” letting it fall apart until someone gives the next aural cue, etc.
It falls into the same kind of thinking as I mentioned earlier. I see a dichotomy (in my mind and education right now) between completely free/sound playing and tightly composed traditional pieces. I’m just experimenting to find something that is not just between one or the other, but somewhere outside the A/B. So far, especially with Battle Pieces, the music has been something completely different, and that is heartening.
TC: If you see “a dichotomy between completely free/sound playing and tightly composed traditional pieces” at this point in your development as a musician, then how do you approach writing for the quintet, since it seems to offer more of a balance between those two approaches than some of your other projects?
NW: Well, that’s the danger in articulating a system, isn’t it? As soon as you make a statement, you are confronted with your own exception; another example of the reality of contradictions! I view the quintet as somehow outside of all the ideas we’ve been talking about so far. There are really no questions regarding the dichotomy of free/composed involved in that group. Instead of writing toward the difference/balance of free/composed, I write individually for Josh, Matt, Eivind, and Harris. The pieces for the quintet concentrate more on understanding how those guys play and what strengths are specific to them. For example, there are a lot of unaccompanied spaces in that group, which is unusual for a jazz quintet, but Josh and Harris really excel at putting together cogent, elegantly constructed short solo statements that are highly personal, so the writing of a certain composition may center around that. Matt Moran is fantastic with texture, but he also swings his ass off, so I want to find ways of framing the latter without necessarily being so obviously “jazzy.” Eivind is personified subtlety. How do you bring that out and give him spaces to show the wildly diverse ways that he plays without it feeling like a bass solo; what are they ways that he can fit that subtlety into an energy build without feeling like he has to pull the strings off the instrument? Thinking like that is the starting point of those pieces, which may, then, butt up against some of the other things I am thinking about for my own playing. It does become a balance. How to create a sound that has jazz at its core but pushes that tradition in a way that I feel more comfortable with (inclusive of all the thoughts and problems we’ve already touched on) while supporting the guys in the band and giving them things that are fun and personal to play on.
All those examples are just being presented to basically say this, I guess: the music for that group is primarily involved in answering the questions of how to feature each player without making the group or the music something it is not and then editing and sculpting whatever comes out of that into a composition that is musical and hopefully sounds good. The beauty of that group is that everyone is always developing, so each new book of music I write has a completely different set of elements to keep in mind. That’s how the pieces end up being what they are and, in the past couple of years, I think we’re starting to develop a sound that is recognizable. I’m proud of the way that group has stuck together and made something personal.
TC: I’ll readily admit the quintet is my favorite of your projects, but I wonder, in addition to your own ensembles, you have had memberships in numerous bands (currently Harris Eisenstadt’s Canada Day, but previously Daniel Levin’s Quartet, and the Bureau of Atomic Tourism, among others) What advantages and challenges have you found in contributing to so many different groups?
NW: That goes back to the metaphor of language. Playing with different groups, and especially bands led by other people with other visions, challenges you to find new syntax in the way you play. It would be one thing to impose your musical personality on the group, but I find it more interesting to find different lines between someone else’s way of thinking about improvisation and composition and my own. I think it’s good for me to see how elegantly I can fit certain concepts of mine into other people’s frameworks. For example, how to deal with the concept of having a completely distinct and sometimes unpleasant timbre on each note in music like Harris’ which is so beautiful and lyrical. It’s something that makes me myself to be dissatisfied with the way I’m soloing or performing. Daniel’s music is so open and his concept is oriented to writing these perfect little melodies as themes to twist and dissemble, so the challenge there for me is to be focused on those melodies and being present in building a group structure in music that is very open. Teun’s band (BOAT) is about a rock energy that I’m not used to. It is primarily rhythm based which is a challenge for me as my energy tends to be arrhythmic and sound oriented. So, it’s a matter of pushing to see how much of myself I can put into their music before I break that delicate balance. At a certain point, I’ve felt that I reached a limit with some of those things and was not adding to the group any longer, nor was I approaching that challenge in an honest way for myself, and then so it was time to go – for everyone’s good. But, as long as I can still feel that tension in a productive and creative way, I think it’s very valuable.
TC: On a related note, how does this concept relate to your work with Anthony Braxton?
NW: At the very least, working with Braxton has strengthened that idea. What he’s done – what he’s doing – is phenomenal to me. He’s found a way to create a body of work that can expand and contract to accommodate the musical personalities of the people in the group, which is one thing – and I think we all try to do that in our own fashion – but it also invites the musicians to be themselves and provides them a chance to think differently within their own playing. Instead of finding that aforementioned line between his style and your style, his work pushes you to find musical pathways that exist outside of that kind of oppositional A/B thinking that I’ve been talking about so much. It’s really difficult to create those possibilities, even when the modus operandi is modular or performer-based composition. I think that his example of how to create a kind of social world of making music (along with Christian Wolff) has been something that’s been on my mind a lot in the last couple of years, and is something I’m trying to work out for myself.
TC: Changing gears a bit, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?
NW: I think each situation has its own things to offer, as well as specific obstacles. In a perfect world, I think I would prefer to only make studio records if we could really utilize the studio in a specific way; editing, specific mixes, overdubs and processing that creates an experience that is fairly far removed from the live experience. For example, a new recording will come out on Firehouse 12 this year of a double trio which uses a lot of subtle panning techniques and some not so subtle electronic processing to make it something closer to a psych or rock record than a live experience of a jazz or improvised record, not to mention the necessity of some separation to properly record multiple drummers, etc.
If the music doesn’t need that specific kind of studio attention, then my preference would be to record live. I like to play for people and without someone in the room, I find my playing changes a lot, as does my musical relation to the other players. It’s hard to relate in a sonic way to everyone else, even if we’re in a great room and don’t have to use headphones. It just feels strange to me. I can completely understand why a studio recording of something like the quintet would be preferable for mixing and mastering and I have done a lot of recording in studios to great result, but if I had my druthers, I would record everything in a cram packed room with all the energy that brings, even if the sound isn’t as pristine.
TC: Can you provide any additional details about the aforementioned Firehouse 12 recording?
NW: Definitely. It’s a project I’ve wanted to do for years, actually, and I’m really excited that it’s finally making its way. It’s a double trio called Argonautica. I had this thought after reading the epic of the same name of how I would put my ship together if I were on some journey for the Golden Fleece. Silly, I know, but it was just kind of a day-dreamy kind of game that started as a “dream band” scenario, and then became more about what you would write and how you would write for certain people. By the time I really started thinking seriously about it, the music was pretty much constructed in my mind, so it was a matter of getting everyone in the same place.
So, there are two semi-mirrored trios that work in different combinations. One trio is myself, Cory Smythe (a phenomenal new music pianist and improviser that I think gets left out of the conversation far too often), and Devin Gray (a drummer that I think is just now starting to get some of the attention he deserves).
The other trio is Ron Miles on cornet, Jozef Dumoulin on Fender Rhodes and electronics and Rudy Royston on drums. Rudy and I went to school together for a time in Denver and so I wanted to revisit how fun it is to play with him. Jozef and I met in BOAT and I think what he does with the electric piano and electronics is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. Ron, well, Ron is just the closest thing I have to a hero. He has been a major presence in my life personally and musically and I wanted to write some music that would give him some particular spaces that I love hearing him play in and also put him in some contexts he maybe wouldn’t be in normally and see what came of it.
Argonautica is one long piece split into three big sections and the panning shifts in big ways as each section begins. It’s almost as if a page is being turned and we’re in a new space. It will come out on CD and surround sound blurry. Nick Lloyd did an amazing job in the studio on this and I’m still incredibly happy with the music. It is a part of what I’m interested in that I very rarely access, so I’m interested in how people view it when it’s released.
TC: Sounds very intriguing. On a similar tangent, as a label proprietor, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival copies (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?
NW: Personally I like the object. I grew up with the object and think, just in terms of culture and commerce, that the loss of the small record store with the older man or woman behind the counter subversively making you aware of strange new things is a shame. Technically and artistically, there are restrictions inherent in the CD and Vinyl formats that play into how we listen to things, and that can inform our attention as listeners, and structure how we make things as artists. I don’t see that necessarily as a bad thing.
On the other side of that coin, having those restrictions gone can mean new avenues of expression, and I get that. I have rarely heard something that justifies its exclusive existence in a streaming or downloaded format, however. I’m convinced that one day I’ll find such a work, but as of yet, I still prefer the object and the specific attention I am able to pay to music pressed upon it.
TC: In closing, besides the Argonautica double trio, what projects do you have planned for the immediate future?
NW: I’m working on recording a large solo piece called For Kenneth Gaburo in the next few weeks. It’s the largest and most involved of a series of pieces based on the physical positions of the mouth, nasal cavity and throat necessary to make certain phonetic sounds when we speak. The solo piece freezes and uses those positions to subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) shift the timbre of the trumpet as the strength necessary to play a “correct” sound breaks down.
That’s my most immediate concern at the moment, but I am working on music for two new quartets that will begin this year: one with saxophonist Chris Pitsiokis, Brandon Lopez on bass and Dre Hocevar on drums – the other with Susan Alcorn on pedal steel guitar, Mary Halvorson on guitar, and Ryan Sawyer on drums – drastically different music.
Later in the year, I will start working on a series of new commissions for solo trumpet by Michael Pisaro and Christian Wolff as well, which will be a frightening new challenge.