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Ben Wright Interview

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by Samuel Weinberg

After interviewing Jack Wright for the blog a few days ago, it only made sense to interview Ben Wright, his son and collaborator on his new record As If Anything Could Be The Same (Relative Pitch). Ben, who lives in Taos, NM, has been a natural and frequent collaborator with his father, playing in various contexts throughout the years. Ben thoughtfully answered some questions which can read below!

 I’ve read that as a musician you began in punk-rock and found yourself as a free-improviser in large part due to your father. How was it growing up listening to this music? Can you talk a bit about your

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Ben Wright Interview
by Samuel Weinberg After interviewing Jack Wright for the blog a few days ago, it only made sense to interview Ben Wright, his son and collaborator on his new record As If Anything Could Be The Same (Relative Pitch). Ben, who lives in Taos, NM, has been a natural and frequent collaborator with his father, playing in various contexts throughout the years. Ben thoughtfully answered some questions which can read below!  I’ve read that as a musician you began in punk-rock and found yourself as a free-improviser in large part due to your father. How was it growing up listening to this music? Can you talk a bit about your own history as an improviser? From a young age, I became accustomed to Jack practicing in the house.  There were periods in those days when he was quite ambitious and hungry to push his playing to new feats of emotional expression and physical stamina.  He found a way to make music the focus of his life, practicing for hours every day. I heard a lot of scales, intervals, and expressive experiments. As his music began to grow away from idiomatic playing characteristics of free jazz, the specifics of his practicing method adopted more atonal and arrhythmic characteristics. The sound of Jack practicing became the sonic background to living in his house. I certainly had my own music that I was listening to, so it didn’t occur to me at the time that I would eventually become attracted to improvising music.   As a teenager I was attracted to the spirit behind playing punk rock music.  I was more interested in the eclectic crazy stuff than the straight up hardcore/thrash, but in either case, the music was extremely accessible and driven by an energy that I felt was missing from the more commercially approachable genres of music. I played electric bass in a band with my brother playing drums called “Thirteen Weirdoes From the Yellow River”. With youthful exuberance, we gravitated towards hyper, weird, odd meter kind of stuff, and played most of the small rock clubs in Philadelphia at that time.  I was never that interested in jazz so I cannot count that as one of my direct influences, although I’m sure it’s in there somewhere. More recently, I have come to appreciate some of the jazz genre, but I am approaching music more through the direction of improvisation. I did some improvising with the electric bass, but never felt completely satisfied with it. Most of the bands I became involved with incorporated some degree of improvisational performance, but usually in a kind of rock context. I became really inspired with the idea of inventing music on the spot, and cultivated many relationships with like-minded musicians. The music would come in and out of grooves and themes while incorporating noisy and chaotic elements. The only pure improvisation at that time occurred while playing with my dad. Eventually, I bought an upright bass and immediately found the medium that made sense to me improvising in the purest sense. I studied bass at Community College of Philadelphia and at Temple University, both briefly. I enjoyed the training to get a handle on the technique and the skill necessary to play the upright the way I wanted to play it, but found the standard classical repertoire generally tedious and boring. The high point for me was playing in the full orchestra performing Beethoven’s 9th. I became interested in modern classical music, and especially sought out the weirdest ethnic world music I could find. It became easier to play with Jack on the upright, because it seemed we could speak a more similar language with our instruments. I also began straight up improvising with other musicians, even though it felt as if I was starting all over on a new instrument. Through the upright, it became easier to stay away from the groove-derived improvisation, and focus on a more sonically oriented context of improvisation. While still living in Philadelphia, my improvisational musical partners included Scott Moore, John Berndt and other Baltimorites, a group of Pittsburgh improvisers, Michael Aaron and assorted others. At that time, in the early 90’s, Jack had moved out to Boulder, so our musical interaction became more sporadic. Still, we began to tour together, with saxes and upright bass. Sometimes he would fly east, and we would drive together from there, making our way through New England, or heading West. I have lost track of how many times we did these kind of trips. In 1996, I moved out to New Mexico. I immediately fell in with a band called “Lords of Howling.” This was kind of an improv folk band at first, but gradually they moved in a more cohesive direction, therefore less interesting to my tastes. I started playing tuba and became involved in an improv marching band. Again at first we were more of a noise band, but then a repertoire of songs developed to accompany our innate desire for instant composition. That band, continued until recently. After a few years in NM, I began to seek other improvisers locally. I played a lot and a put out a cd with Kurt Heyl from Santa Fe, called “Gross Motor Music.” We toured some and played with other improvisers in the Santa Fe and Albuquerque community. I switched out my plywood bass for a beautiful sounding older solid wood bass, and felt that the change caused many more sounds to become available. I felt then and still do that this uprighteous bass allows me to truly dig in and uncover a vast array of sonic possibilities due to its rich sound and enhanced availability of frequency manipulation. The musical possibilities with Jack deepened, while we continued our musical growth through sporadic and intense playing and touring. Do you find that your improvisational connection with your father is stronger because he is your father, or is there a way to bracket that when playing? I believe that the connection is strong between my father and I not simply because he is my progenitor, but on another level, he is a trusted musical confidant. There is a lot of trust and a lot of experience playing together built up over the years. There is love shared between us, but I don’t think that necessarily allows us to play music together. It allows us to be patient, to travel together and enjoy our time together. Perhaps this results in a strong musical connection, but it is hard to separate it out or bracket it while in the act of playing. When we are making music together, I am aware of our relationship, but I don’t feel that this is the driving force of the music. I really strive for becoming completely present with the sound of the playing so it scarcely matters who (me included) is making it. However, I have felt that there is similar kind of urgency and rhythmic compatibility to our playing. This may be attributed to a father/son connection, but in the end I tend to associate it more with being truly open to each other and the experience of playing together. I don’t think that this ability to play together comes easily either. We both struggle with our own feelings and judgments and fears, and often times we are not in sync with our post performance analysis. We have had to develop our ability to communicate both with words and with sounds to sort through this confusion. It is still a work in progress, but of the musical collaborations in my life, it has remained unusually fruitful. Can you talk about the process by which this record was made? How did the idea to record a duo record come about? This album has been a long time in the making, at least as an idea. I think we wanted it to really capture the intimacy of our duo at its best moment. With this impossibly high standard, it became difficult over the years to stop and say, ok this is really it. We have made countless attempts at recording our duo. We were almost always pretty satisfied at the time of recording, but lacked the push to put it out to the world, probably because we always felt we could do it better. Whether or not that is true is debatable, but the essence of recording improvised music or even performing it live is attempt to capture a snapshot in time of an ongoing musical relationship that is forever changing. As the days, weeks, months, and years passed since every initial recording, it became harder and harder to go back and find the value in something back in time. There has always been the feeling that we had much more music ahead, so why take the time to fuss with that old stuff. I suspect that many earnest improvisers wrestle with the same dilemma. “As if Anything Could Be the Same” is an attempt to stop time and connect our efforts with the greater stream of current improvised music. I received the final cd in my mailbox, exactly one year since the day we recorded it, which also happened to be my birthday. The cd was recorded over two days, starting on December 31st 2012, and continuing on January 1st 2013. We recorded in my studio in Taos NM. One challenge to recording our duo is the relative volumes of the two instruments. We knew that mic bleed was going to be a problem, but opted for minimal separation to create the most comfortable playing situation. Improvisers are usually very touchy about the exact parameters that create an inspired performance, even though the common knowledge is that there is nothing that can be done. After the recording we felt pleased with our creation, but knew that the work had just begun. We did some editing to the recorded pieces, but only at the in and out points. There was no splicing or the inserting of parts of one performance into another. The effort was to give an accurate yet deliberate choice of selections from our duo. We haggled a bit over the particular choices, but in the end felt pretty agreeable to the selections. An old friend of Jack, Bob Falesch mastered the recording. He found the bleed frustrating to deal with, but in the end did a fantastic job of bringing out the best in the recorded sounds of the instruments. We are grateful to Kevin and Relative Pitch Records for the opportunity to release the recording. 4) What do you like about playing duo?  I will answer this in the positive and the negative. I like the focus of playing duo. It seems to lend itself to an intimacy of interaction. This can be a powerful experience and can lead to a direct sense of communication with the other player, but it can also backfire if there is a rift in the desires of the players. This is not to say that duo players need to be simpatico to make good music, but it seems that there should be some concurrence of intention. I actually prefer trio because with the third element, I feel there is a better balance between the personalities of the players. As you continue to add members to the group, the players feels less and less exposed, but also less able to direct the flow of the music. If the democratic urge is in place, the duo becomes either a debate or a synchrony, while with the trio, the individual is reduced to a minority, and the music becomes more of an implied agreement. The individuals more readily become encompassed by the whole. The duo with Jack results from the experience of playing with many other partners, on both of our parts. Even when we tour as a duo, we almost always find ourselves in situations performing with others at least for a time. You live in New Mexico, are you at all involved with any improvised music there? if so, what is it like? What do you enjoy about touring and playing elsewhere? I improvise quite a bit here in NM. There are groups of people here in Taos, and in Santa Fe, and Albuquerque that I play with, but the performance opportunities are a bit spotty. I play in a couple of different groups that get together sporadically to play and to perform. Wind Up Birds with Dave Wayne and Robert Muller is a free jazz group that started with a focus on the music of Horace Tapscott. We do our own arrangements of his compositions and explore the written in free space with our own personalities. The Rumble Trio is a group with Mark Weaver and Mike Balistreri. It is two basses and tuba, but we always play with a variable fourth member. This group has been going for over 10 years, with sporadic performances with many visiting and local musicians. I continue to make music with longtime partner Scott Moore. His improvisation is usually very theatrical and brings in other non-musical elements. I also play with many visiting improvisers, including Tatsuya Nakatani, Andrew Drury, Jeremy Drake, Andrew Lamb, Thollem McDonas, Paul Elwood, Kris Tiner, Kurt Heyl, Bob Marsh, and Bradford Reed, among others. I have been involved in promoting some concerts here in Taos involving visiting bands and musicians. My connections with these people have been cultivated through my travels elsewhere. I believe that travelling is really important to continuing these musical relationships and feeling a part of the continuum of improvisation present in the U.S. The touring also challenges me to continue working on my personal skills as a player. I often encounter other musicians, especially bass players that introduce me to techniques or different energies related to improvising on the bass. What’s some recorded music you’ve been listening to recently? Can - The lost TapesHorace Tapscott New Orleans Brass Bands Balkan Brass Bands The Z’s Music of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burundi, Uganda) Bellyachers Listen, New Guinea, Steve Feld field recordings Zurna Dauli trios Honk Horn Bands of Ghana Sun City Girls Alan Lomax recordings, Romania, Prison Songs, Puglia Ethiopiques Trombone Shout Bands Leadbelly, Robert Johnson etc. Coltrane – Sun Ship Assorted Ethnic music from around the world
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GO TONIGHT!! Jesse Stacken's Quartet at Korzo
by Samuel Weinberg For the past few years, pianist and composer Jesse Stacken has been setting routines for himself, such as recording improvisations daily and weekly for a year, writing a composition every week for a year and posting the recording and the score on the internet, and he is now almost finished with the latest of these, which he calls The Messiaen Project. A few weeks ago, I read a post which was being circulated and shared by a number of people, in which Stacken articulately expressed many difficulties of what it’s like playing creative music in New York City today, amongst other things. Suffice it to say, I found this blog post to be pretty touching and thoughtful, so I reached out to Jesse to talk to him about it and some of his past projects. He was gracious enough to agree and we had a lengthy conversation by phone about these sorts of things. (You can read Jesse’s initial blog post which inspired this chat here!) In these projects that he’s constructed for himself, Stacken has made himself rather vulnerable, and is always  candid about his various musical struggles in the written portions of his blogs. It’s a decidedly special thing. But while he’s not doing these sorts of incredibly personal projects, Stacken also leads bands and tonight at Korzo, as part of the Konceptions Music Series, Stacken is brining his great quartet of Tony Malaby, Sean Conly and Tom Rainey to play. You should surely check him out!  You can read our conversation below! ———- Let’s start by situating the Messiaen project with the things that came before it: the weekly/daily improvisation projects, the weekly compositions project, etc. How did those projects begin? Sure, well that whole thing started basically, because I had just gotten a Zoom recorder, and this was, I guess, 2010. I don’t know, one day I just put it on and played an improvisation and I did it a couple of days later, and listened to those and then suddenly had this idea of making this a daily routine. Because I’m good with routines, I like them in my day. I get up and I do some yoga and stretching, and I have this whole routine that I like to go through every day. So I thought that I could maybe make this part of the routine and listen to these recordings and learn from them. But then I began thinking to myself, ‘If I do this, how am I going to stay on track? How can I start going and not stop doing it?’. I decided that sharing it on the internet, on my website, would ensure that I would really do it every day. Then I began doing it everyday. I usually would record a week or so of improvisations and then listen to them as I posted them. I wasn’t doing the upload part of it every day, which was actually the hardest part of it. But, you know, it was great. It was fun. That year I was doing some traveling, and so that’s now a bit of a travelogue—now I look back and I see where I was, and I remember the situations and what I had to do to get this done. Once, for instance, I had to find a piano store in Dublin just to get a recording done.   It must be nice to have those as reminiscences to go back to. Yeah. And people change, you know, and you remember how things were back then, and how things were going. I had started a zen meditation practice, so it kind of fit with that, a little bit. It was part of it, in a way. So anyway, I didn’t really set out to do it for a year or anything, but when I got to a year mark, I knew that I wanted to commit to something, but I didn’t know if I wanted to commit to a whole year of daily improvisations again, because it was challenging to do it every day. And around that time, I had had some really great experiences improvising with friends for extended periods; like playing for an hour, or even more, and really getting into a different headspace. So I decided to do another year, but do one improvisation every week, and have to make it an hour or longer, and really trying to deal with that challenge and even try to get into that headspace myself. So I did that and that was challenging. I don’t think I ever got to that space. It’s hard by yourself. And also, the timing of it became an issue. I would have to keep in mind when I started, and not try to look at the clock. Well that would certainly take you out of that headspace.  Yeah exactly. But it was a good experience, nonetheless. I learned a lot about dealing with distractions in my mind. It’s hard to sit there for an hour and not start daydreaming, at least for me. And I kind of wonder a little bit about the state of mind; maybe sometimes those daydream states are okay if I’m improvising by myself, and perhaps those moments are some of the best moments. Maybe it’s just a way of getting things out and letting it flow. So then after a year of that, it kind of made sense for me to write a composition every week. I set out to do that and that was a lot of fun. And it was challenging in some ways, in that I had to write one every week. Usually the composing of it wasn’t so bad, but the hard part was learning to play them, well enough to record them. Usually I do a lot of teaching, and with rehearsals, and everything else, so I spent Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday working on it, Thursday finishing it up and then I was putting it on Sibelius to make the score look nice, and then that left Friday and Saturday to learn the tunes.  And some of those tunes were really hard! Yeah, some of them are, some of them aren’t. But that was a challenge with that project. I wanted that weekly composition project, at least when it started, to be kind of like an etudes project. That is, I wanted each piece to start with a certain aspect to explore. And I think part of it was that I feared that I wouldn’t be inspired some weeks; that I would sit down and just be blank and not be able to come up with anything. So I thought that I should have some ideas or some concepts that I could start with. So that’s what I started with, but it ended up becoming a bit contrived or forced. I started having to force myself to put these etude elements back in there, when they didn’t really need it; things were really flowing and I didn’t have a hard time finding ideas. Sometimes I would be writing a piece, and it wouldn’t really have any of these etude ideas, and then I’d have to go back and fit one in there. It seemed to me that that wasn’t necessary. If things were flowing, I decided I would just write it. So I kind of dropped the etude idea of it and then started to write pieces freely from there. I did that and definitely learned a lot from it. It was a lot about trusting myself and trusting my inner voice. Since there were 52 in that year; I know Hermeto Pascoal wrote a piece every day for a year! I’m pretty sensitive to the opinion of my peers, which you know, is not something that I’m crazy to admit, but it’s something that I learned from that project. After writing a bunch of things that I thought were cool, or that I thought other people would like, I then wanted to write some things that I thought were just simple and beautiful and major, or kind of a pop-like tune. But I had all of these thoughts about whether it was hip or not. And of course it’s all bullshit and I shouldn’t listen to those thoughts, but they’re there, so the big takeaway from the weekly composition project was just being able to trust myself and working towards that, and not worrying about what others think. And also to be honest, because honesty in music is really the most important thing, or one of the most important things, and people hear that. If you’re being sincere, I don’t have to worry about who thinks it’s cool. So during that time I had done a session with Robin Verheyen, the saxophone player, and he was into Messiaen and he looked at one of my pieces and said, “This kind of has Messiaen’s third mode in it”. And I was pretty surprised, and I had known a little bit about Messiaen, and had his book The Technique of My Musical Language, and I didn’t really read it, because it’s kind of an intense read at first. But I had listened to a lot of his music and loved it. I had learned one of his piano pieces, which took me about a year to learn, and then I began to think that I could spend the rest of my life learning these piano pieces! So I cracked open this book, and I checked it out a little more—and this was about half-way through the weekly composition project—but I wrote one of the pieces around one of the Messiaen modes and it felt so fresh, the sounds, harmonies and relationships were just amazing. And so I wrote a piece like that, I actually wrote a couple, and then I began to think that I could do that for a whole year, using these techniques. So I kind of tucked away the Messiaen modes, in the case that I decided to use them later on and not want to use them all up. That’s just what I did! So basically applying one, two, or three of Messiaen’s techniques per composition. I started out reading that book cover to cover and then started writing pieces.  So the year is almost done.  Yeah, I have about 5 more weeks left. I’m sure you’ll write some reflective things, but if you want to say anything about what you’ve gotten from it so far, now that you’re almost at the end, I’d be interested to hear.  Yeah, I’m still thinking about it. It’s funny, I wrote a lot about it in that post you read, really about being myself and trusting whatever wants to come out and to let it come out. And it’s kind of funny that it took the Messiaen techniques to teach me how to get something major-y that I liked, like I did that week. I had been trying to get something like that piece out of the Messiaen scales, and there are only about 3 or 4 pieces out of the whole project, where something happened in my life, where I was in a more reflective mood, or felt like writing something that was kind of happy, pretty and beautiful. But then I would sit down and find that it would be really difficult to succeed at it. You can get a lot of interesting chords out of Messiaen’s modes, but the chords don’t relate to each other in the way that they do in typical western harmony. And this whole year, believe it or not, I’ve been on this huge Willie Nelson kick; I found some of his first records, and I just think that some of his songs are just so amazing, and they’re like all of these very traditionally oriented harmony; 1-4-5 harmonies and things like that. They would have these different phrasings that were just great. So there’s been so many times where I’ve just wanted to write something like that, which has been hard to do. So since that one week—which was a real outpouring in that post—musically, it was kind of a breakthrough because I kind of found a way to combine a couple of modes to get the major thing happening, and I also didn’t feel self-conscious about putting it out there, because I had just been working so hard to get to that point.  The writing of words in this project has been much more than the others. I didn’t write a description of every piece in the weekly composition project, but for this one it feels like, at the very least, I feel that it’s necessary to explain what techniques I used and usually I’ll try to explain why I titled it that way and things like that. But that week, I just had all of these dark thoughts, just one after another and I was hearing and seeing all of these things and it was really just caught up with me and I had to let it out. And then I really had to live with it because a lot of people read it, and then a lot of people were commenting and talking to me about it. Landon Knoblock wrote a response that he felt like, for him, playing for himself is not enough. He believes in making it accessible and I don’t disagree, but to me, it’s a different part of the process.  For me, the process of composing and performance starts with me and I have to be open to it, with it and present, whether I’m at home or in front of an audience. I have to be there with myself. And then, another part of the process is presenting the music, and presenting it in a way that people can understand. That’s what I think Landon was talking about and what he’s good at. I’ve been talking about these sorts of things with other friends, too. Most of the music that I’m involved with and that’s going on in my scene is not really easy-listening music, it’s pretty challenging. So we need to make it fun and there needs to be an element of reaching-out to the audience, if anyone is going to get something out of it, especially non-musicians. It needs to be presented very clearly and in a forward way. So you play a bit with Patrick Breiner a good bit and he does a lot of things like that, especially in his solo work.  Yeah, he’s who I was talking about. I’ve been talking to him a lot because we’ve started a duo project together and there’s also a quintet that we have called How to Make A Mountain. So we’ve been talking a lot about making those things presentable and not being like, “Hey, does anyone know what time it is? Should we play another?”. We’re really trying to bring it.  So Patrick told me that that band has been playing every week since September? Yeah, those guys come over once a week. Not everyone can come over every time, but we mostly have four or five of us there. It’s been very interesting. It was a real learning process. For me, it was inspired by the group that Patrick is in called VAX with Devin Gray and Liz Kosack. I heard one of their shows at a house concert that Devin put on, and it really blew my mind. They did this through-structured set, with a lot improvisation, they had this plan of what to do, and these moments that happened. It was super entertaining, there was a lot of comedy, movement, entertainment, masks! Parts of it were really annoying, part of it that was funny, some spoken word stuff. For me, I thought that this was the answer, you know? So that was really inspiring for me. At the same time, I was having these feelings that it doesn’t seem right that we’re always hiring musicians, doing one rehearsal and paying people out of pocket if nobody comes, which happens a lot in this city, and a lot of great music happens that way, but I was just questioning it at that time. Then this came along, and I realized that this was exactly what was needed: people who have spent time together, people who aren’t paying each other out-of-pocket, and are rather just getting together to do it. So I was inspired by that, and started thinking about trying to do a couple of things like that. I talked to Patrick about it and we’ve started a couple of things: we started a duo and we get together and play duo every week and we started How To Make A Mountain. I had an idea that I wanted it to be a wild, kind of punkish-jazz band…kind of like The Thing, a Scandinavian trio. We started by trying to write some pieces together, but it was just not really working—it was too hard, and we didn’t really know each other yet, musically. And because people had to miss some rehearsals, we just started playing and improvising. Pretty slowly it got to be really fun and things started to really open up. The first improvisations were kind of us trying to figure out how to fit in and dealing with how to make five people, playing free, sound good together. It wasn’t that great at the beginning, and it wasn’t unified. But slowly things started happening and we started telling stories, between takes, where we began relating personally. And then the music started coming together in these improvisations. Now it’s getting better and better; it’s really open. “Open” sounds cliche, because everybody who plays in a freely improvised ensemble talks about it being open, but I mean being really open to things outside the box; being open to everything; using instruments in different ways; using our voices; all sorts of things. So that’s been really fun. Now I think we can be in a position to write some things together, where we have some starting base and some sort of frame of reference. We know each other now a bit more.  (Breiner/Stacken duo)  So let’s talk about the quartet that’s playing at Korzo, with Tony Malaby, Tom Rainey, and Sean Conly. Sure. That goes back to the weekly composition project. A lot of the tunes I wrote at that time seem to work really well in bands. They all started as solo piano pieces, but some of them were essentially lead-sheets—very simple chords and harmony. So I started playing them with people in sessions, and it was always very fun. I decided that I wanted to play with Tony, I wanted to play with Tom, and I wanted to play with Sean, so I booked them for a gig. We did a quick rehearsal and played some of those tunes. And this is kind of like what I was talking about before, about this sort of other kind of way of doing things in New York City. The cool thing about this, though, is that these songs are very simple and most have short forms and many of them we just play off of the forms. So it’s cool because you get to hear these guys playing really simple, easy music and just having fun, and not having to stress to play things that are too complex. I see a lot of guys playing music where they’ve got charts that stretch five pages long. While that stuff is amazing, I feel that this is a nice contrast to that. They get to just screw around. And they’re great at it! Actually the day after the Korzo gig, we’re going into Systems Two to record that music and it’s going to be on Fresh Sound New Talent.   And you’re splitting a bill with Tony that night. Right, he’s amazing. And he’s a really important guy in the scene. You know, he acts like a mentor to a lot of younger musicians.  What’s some recorded music you’ve been listening to lately? [laughs] I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve just discovered this Willie Nelson record called Red Headed Stranger, it’s a concept album from 1975 and I just am obsessed with it right now. I can’t stop listening to it! It’s just great man. It’s just what music is to me. There’s nothing but emotion in it; there isn’t flashy technique, there isn’t complexity for the sake of complexity. I think part of the reason I like it so much, and part of the reason that I love country music so much, is that it’s such a contrast to the rest of my musical life.  I think it’s also a nice contrast to living in New York City. I remember I first heard Hank Williams when I was at MSM, because they had a collection of his CDs at the library. At that time, they had a collection of his music that I just thought was really great. I listened to a lot of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and then I started finding these old Willie Nelson records which are all really cool. It’s funny because I haven’t found anything new and then this weekend I found that record Red Headed Stranger. His songs are so great! And there’s always an extra chord or beat snuck in there that you wouldn’t expect. 
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Jack Wright Interview!
by Samuel Weinberg This week, in conjunction with the release of the new duo record As if Anything Could Be The Same (Relative Pitch), we are featuring a week of all-things Jack Wright on the Search and Restore blog. Not only do we have an interview with Wright himself, but we’ve enlisted a legion of his past and present collaborators to speak a bit about their experience playing with Wright.  Jack Wright is a remarkably prolific practitioner of free-improvisation, and in the forty+ years  of his playing career, he has scoured the United States and Europe looking for venues and collaborators, often finding them in obscure, overlooked towns, playing for whomever decided to show up. As Joe Morris aptly put it in a piece that I will post later this week, “Jack Wright is like Pete Seeger to many younger musicians” and indeed, seems to be the Pete Seeger of the avant-garde, in a larger sense. I recently saw my first Jack Wright concert, which was the first show of a recent duo tour with drummer Andrew Drury and it was a truly revelatory moment for me. The sounds that Wright produced on the saxophone were unlike those I had ever heard before; his absorption in the improvisation was evident.  It was my great pleasure to correspond with Wright, which produced the interview, below! I’ve also included a track from As if Anything Could Be The Same— which is a duo record with his son, bassist Ben Wright—to stream, below! ———————- This record is one of the few that you’ve recorded with Ben, maybe the only one aside from Tenterhooks. What was behind the decision to make a record with him? We’ve been recording as a duo for almost twenty years without it being a project intended to be offered to others, so this was only an instance and nothing new. I’ve wanted to be satisfied in a way that I couldn’t hold it back, in a sense was already released and out of my hands, and not a calculation of “good enough.” This was what came out of our sessions in Jan. 2013. It resisted my efforts to think it could be better, which had been the case earlier, and has the only kind of perfection that is suitable for free playing. It is in the rare category of being both accessible to audiences I have never had and fully pleasurable to me after many listenings. This category balances the other one of mine, which is more challenging to listeners, including to myself, and satisfies the need for playing on thin ice. We recorded without an ultimate aim for it, then a producer of Relative Pitch Records asked for something and I sent him these tracks, which I felt were appropriate for the label. Do you find that the relationship that you have with Ben, as a father, makes improvising with him different than others, aside from the natural differences that he has from other bass players? When you approach playing as the job you do as a musician it’s with the goal of creating good music, a positive effect that results in audience and critical response, what’s thought of as artistic success. You don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that, so there are restrictions, including the choice of partners. But when you play for the experience (ultimately of beauty) you operate and choose partners differently, then deal with the playing situation regardless of where it’s going. I am very selective who I spend my time playing with, on the basis of what I have experienced with them and my expectation of what might come. I am easily bored, intolerant, a junkie for new experience. When Ben and I play we treat each other strictly as “experiential” musicians, so if we had not been family-related the music itself would be the same. It’s more like brothers playing together, which I also feel with other close partners, like Andrew Drury, Ron Stabinsky, Evan Lipson, and Ben Bennett. Playing with this approach, especially over time, you develop a close bond apart from personal dynamics, a trust. This is an entrainment on an unconscious level, where there is an instinctual connection, an intimate knowledge of the other that is behavioral rather than literal. Without selective musical judgment I wouldn’t have been playing with Ben all these years. Yet there’s also the fact that we have loved each other and wanted to get together, and playing became part of that long ago. Some aspects of our lives are unavoidably forced on us, or at least we are forced to choose for or against what is thrown across our path. I once asked Ben where he learned to improvise so well and he said, “Well, I grew up hearing you play all the time [in his teenage years].” He was free to be repulsed and run away from it; he chose instead to stay. The fact that I’ve not been, and have no prospects of being a successful musician has meant that his own love of music has not been muddied by a career goal, as mine has been at times. I’m rather struck and fascinated by the way that you conceive and operate as a textural saxophonist and not as an exhibitionist, or prominent soloist who ostentatiously displays saxophone virtuosity. I was wondering if you could talk about that in a general sense and perhaps more particularly in how you interact with Ben in that way. It’s interesting that you contrast “textural” with “virtuosic,” even though one can be a virtuoso when it comes to texture—if I were a critic I might describe myself as that. “Virtuoso” has acquired negative connotations, but it really means that someone is technically proficient, without any value judgment. If you turn towards a certain area of technique, whether circular breathing, tonguing, chord progression, or texture, you will develop proficient over time. I think by texture you mean sound outside the most common, even normative sound of the instrument, since all sound has one kind of texture or another (timbre). I began to focus on sound while playing with Berlin reductionists in the early 00’s, as a move away from scalar note-playing, moving fast from one pitch to another, creating intricate, difficult patterns. Reductionism interrupted that with long tones, quiet, and even silence at times. I was attracted to doing the reverse of what I had been doing—the most radical shifts we can make follow through on the simple question, why not? I didn’t so much feel an exhaustion, as you put it, with the technical limits I had been pressing against, but rather needed more options, more vocabulary, more freedom than playing out of an internal drive. I wanted to experience playing free of “the need to play,” to explore a wider range of feeling, beauty that wasn’t tagged as mine. Also I was aware that what I’d been doing was not speaking to the contemporary situation but was rightly perceived as past-oriented. The world had changed; what I’d done in the late 70s as an extension of 60s free jazz had suffered a break. By the late 90s it was subject to categorization as nostalgic and backward-looking, what I would call retro-free jazz. It was increasingly acceptable and formulaic, appealed to an audience that believed authenticity lay in mirroring the heroic past, and was the basis for building a career. This I could have done but it would have bored me, and my interest was rather to open new paths into the world. For me reductionism was a way to to acquire new tools by denying the use of what I already knew. Ultimately I had to reject it as an aesthetic—too orderly and pre-structured, oriented to high art purity and evoking a reverential response. I soon began putting more physical energy into my playing again, using the tools I’d learned. My line is now more broken and unpredictable than before, my volume level variable and not stuck at “high,” I have escaped to some extent the lead role forced on the saxophonist, and my sensibility is harder to decipher and categorize. At the same time my playing counters the trend of erstwhile reductionists (mostly Europeans), who have gone towards composition and pre-set form rather than open-ended improvisation. I play often with electronicists (sometimes quite loud) and junk percussionists, responding in kind to their off-the-wall sounds. If I had more flexible jazz-based partners I would probably introduce more conventional notes along with sound. However, even free jazz is still rigid in its taboo on sound exploration, which would jeopardize the legitimacy and recognition that jazz offers its players today. If jazz were still an exploratory music I might be considered part of that history. As it is, I and my partners happily inhabit a no-man’s land, when it comes to genre classifications. In playing with Ben over the years I imagine he picked up some of my sound orientation and broken line; in turn, his energy helped push me back to all-out playing once again. There’s a synergy here over time, mutual influence. Where family comes in is that we see each other regularly, as I said above, and playing has often meant touring, a long family visit. I’d rather call this traveling with music, exploring geography, urban and non-urban audiences, with added-on partners, and each situation yielding unexpected circumstances and effects. (Ben Wright, bass; Ron Stabinsky, keyboard; John McClellan, drums) How does that textural mentality apply to solo playing, a format you’ve performed extensively in? First of all, texture, or unorthodox sound, is only one aspect. I see free playing as utilizing every possible direction, including conventional notes at times, indistinguishable from normal music except that they are used as one option among many, almost ironically, since they refer to musical conventions. I don’t play solo on tour very often, mostly in circumstances where I find myself without a desired partner. In the avant music world the solo is supposed to establish the artistic level and uniqueness of the player, which I find meaningless for the actuality of playing. However, I’ve recently come to value the recording studio (my home) as a chance to discover what I would do deprived of pressure or encouragement to please others, and also free of influence from partners. In this situation I often avoid the sound orientation, partly because I tend to move straight from practice to recording. If practice is exploratory self-teaching and not rehearsal or warm-up time then it’s already a kind of solo playing. It’s possible to experience every moment of practice as music at the same time as body movement. In practice I use multiphonics to push the embouchure out of normative alignment and expand beyond the convention of “one fingering, one sound.” But I still devote time to conventionally tuned pitches, although in an order where the interval is difficult to detect, big leaps and random pitches. This relates to my general approach. Instead of going “out,” which is how jazz improvisation operates, I see myself in practice rooted in the outside, and just treating that playing as music without trying to shape it as such. I take the position that anything I play is music, so I’m not striving to make it, or do the best I can. That’s the essence of what Friedrich Schiller called “the play drive” two centuries ago, that has continually undermined every official definition of music. In this spirit I record, and find myself using more pitches, rarely conventionally tuned with each other, combined with subtle differentiations of sound, from the dull sound of “false fingerings” to the harsh multiphonics, contrasted with the normal ones. This kind of playing often goes unnoticed in the mix of a group, but here it can come to life. Also, most partners play continuously, without gaps or “dropouts,” or the predictable “solo space” in jazz, so precision timing (which I discovered in reductionism) is more effective when playing solo. Although this particular record is on Relative Pitch records, can you talk about Spring Garden and what having your own label has allowed you to do for presenting your music? Very few of those who perform and record their music get to have their work distributed to anonymous consumers. At least 99% of us are obscure and unknown to what could be called a public, anonymous peasants to the aristocrats. To make our music available at all requires the self-production of the post-sixties entrepreneurial musician. This has led today to the deluge of free offerings, challenging the music business and the hierarchy of players. For me DIY production began in 1982, with Spring Garden Music. I took the advice of my peers, who thought that just one record was enough to establish oneself as “serious” about pursuing music, which was all I needed. My LP cost me a quarter of my annual income, so I didn’t expect to do it more than every ten years. Like most of us I put out cassettes, mostly traded. With CDs, costs began to go down, and by the turn of the millenium I needed to do more to legitimate myself in order to get gigs. I also began to find new partners taking me in new directions, so I began to produce more. People started ordering from me online and I used each contact as an opportunity for a conversation, and to find out if they knew a place to play where they lived, anywhere in the US. So the label began to serve several purposes. Spring Garden Music is non-commercial, meaning I don’t expect to cover costs, as almost all non-musician American labels hope to do. They are cautious, only dealing in musicians whose names have consistently brought some calculable return on the investment. This maintains the general conservatism of art music production in our time, the distinction between the few, encouraged to churn out repeats of what they or others have been doing for decades, and the many that no public would ever encounter. The many have no stake in self-replication, free to go any direction—whether they do so or not is another question. I’ve read that your first foray into free improvisation was inspired by many of the political events going on around you. How has that changed? Has the current political climate somehow influenced your music in a different way, if at all? This is not altogether false but misleading. For a brief period, ’69-74 or so, I was a political organizer on the community level in Philadelphia, also involved in keeping Movement organizations throughout North America in contact with each other. I dropped out of academic study and teaching to help build a non-party political movement, one that would take history in a revolutionary direction. I witnessed the decline of activism and went through a major personal transformation, for I no longer had any place in the world, no work I considered meaningful. To be able to play music was not inspired by revolutionary expectations so much as their collapse. Music was something valid to do in the world that the world could not stop me from doing. But to be self-sustaining it couldn’t hinge on the career, the American dream, or anything extraneous to the actual playing of music of my own aesthetic direction. The last half of the 70s was misery for me, but in it I seem to have forged an independent spirit, sloughing off the inessential, such that I have not fitted the operative models of artist musician available today. Do you have any other projects and tours that are forthcoming that you’d like to speak of? There is a CD with percussionist Ben Bennett, “Tangle,” coming out in May 2014 on Public Eyesore, a solo cd in the works (maybe called “thin ice”), and tours in various stages of preparation, which can be accessed on my schedule page: www.springgardenmusic.com/schedule.html. I spend far more time reading and writing than playing music, and have been at work on a book on free playing. This has required extensive historical research and writing, and I would not want to project when that will be completed, but it will. My occasional essays are here: http://jackiswright.wordpress.com/  Do you find yourself listening to music often? If so, what’s some recorded music that you’ve been listening to lately? I listen to everything for pleasure, which is often perverse, that is, unsatisfying and puzzling. I’m especially interested in musics that I’ve dismissed, recently 70s minimalism and disco, which I encountered in my studies for the book. I might walk past a club with live jazz and am enthralled for two minutes, almost tearful, then disgusted and feeling betrayed. I seem to need music that is worthless, on the low end of some scale, including my own. If music has made its way up the music world hierarchy to approval I have to find my own reason for liking it. A music I loved through the sixties, such as traditional classical, is now a struggle to listen to. I don’t have any favorites, just things that make me prick up my ears, usually temporary. I’m an old-fashioned anti-consumer (a fifties motif) so I get music exclusively by copying, usually out of collections wherever I spend the night on tour, and what I come across on the internet. I haven’t wanted a piece of music so badly that I’d pay full price for it. In the early 80s I did a radio show of non-western music in order to be able to go through their library. I felt I knew the kind of thing the West was capable of and needed something to contrast with it, music from people who didn’t even think of music as a category, who didn’t “value” and evaluate music. Music is not “the background for my life,” as seems to be current. I gave my first record to a guy who rejected it by saying, “You can’t do anything else when you’re listening to it.” I took that as a compliment.
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