Earlier this year, thanks to the efforts of the NU administrative team and Weinberg Senior Andrew Kaplowitz, Cuban rap duo Obsesíon was able to make it to Northwestern’s campus on a travel visa. The group discussed the nature of their work at a WNUR Streetbeat weekly meeting.
The student DJs learned firsthand about the impact that the group’s socially conscious hip-hop has had in their native country, as well as the trials and tribulations of their endeavors. Alexey, one half of the urban duo, sat after the presentation and indulged us with a personal interview.
Alexey: My name is Alexey or “el tipo este” [that guy over there]. I am a part of the hip hop group Obsesión. My partner is Magia. We are from Cuba, “cubanisimo” [we are very Cuban]. In June, we will complete our twenty-first year as a group – something that makes us very proud. More so than the videos or special productions, just being together for so long is what’s most important.
Our group was created as a result of the hip hop from the late-80s and 90s. At the same time, we have learned a lot from underground libraries, from books where we could read about things that weren’t necessarily taught in school. Also, from the people – those that are in the know or who were there.
Our biggest influences, are the rapper, from Puerto Rico, Vico C who broke the “taboo” that if you do salsa, you had to sing in Spanish and if you do rap, it had to be in English. He started to break out and many people in Cuba started to realized – “I am going to do this because this guy did it.”
And there are the classics: RUN DMC, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Public Enemy.
Marc: Can you speak a little more about these underground libraries?
Alexey: Yeah sure, it’s simple… It’s strange, it’s strange. I started to become interested in the history of my country starting from a book like, for example, the autobiography of Malcolm X.
People say “Why do you have to read an American book to understand Cuba?” And it’s because I felt similarities with my history, and similarities that don’t exist in our schooling system, it’s a good system, but there are many information gaps. You have to search for that outside information.
I feel the black children in Cuba grow up with low self esteem or feel marginalized because there aren’t, the history they learn, the patterns to follow or people to look up to – there aren’t many. And the media doesn’t help any either. There, they offer information like in the telenovelas — the soap operas in Cuba are what people see the most, they’re classic — black people don’t have roles or if they do they’re playing infamous roles or slaves — which is part of the history, yes, but look, we have done so much otherwise.
I have a daughter, she’s three years old, and we say there needs to be an equilibrium between what she learns in school and this. I have a responsibility for her self esteem and to support her situation.
There are many people, academics and intellectuals that have demonstrated an interest in hip hop. But you see, academic discourses exist at a very high, conceptual level, that in Cuba is very far away from what is happening in reality. So the hip hop movement does a lot to bring together those ideas and we learn from their point of view as well. This type of interaction has benefited us both.
Marc: what is the difference between an artist in Cuba vs, for example, if you were in a capitalist country…?
Alexey: Well, I think I can speak more of the similarities than the differences. In the sense that, if you lose passion, you’re out. You have to have a mindset of sacrifice – if you think that ‘tomorrow I am going to triumph’, then you have to put in the effort to do so. It’s a career that requires more constant effort than any other.
I think that you have to have a greater purpose. Say someone does it with the dream of being successful, in other careers, you can do that, but with this, you have to have it in your head that hip hop is not a genre if you want to be in magazines, or be mentioned a lot, this level of success is in other sectors.
In both places, sacrifice is sacrifice. You have to be focused in what you want to be and make it happen. This is why I can talk more about the similarities. The differences are contextual, but in the end, passion applies no matter what.
Marc: What has been the most impactful thing you feel you’ve done through your music?
Alexey: Show the people, we are beautiful the way we are. That we have a very beautiful history. We have a marvelous culture. That you don’t have to fit into any model the standards teach us. That is you want to express yourself a certain way or shout then that is good because that is who we are. We have to be proud for how we are.
We have a song called “Los Pelos” [the hairs]. It talks about how our hair is pretty the way it is. Cuban women would straighten their hair or change it to be pretty. And this song came out, and many people, many women started wearing their hair natural, “super afro” and this made me very proud.
Marc: Do you have a message you’d like to bring to the States and to your listeners here?
Alexey: Be careful with the media. It’s horrible. Including, be careful with things that called themselves modernization or civilization, and new technology – because that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in being human.
I’ve heard the words here a lot, acceptance and tolerance, I think, what is more valuable is respect. I don’t hope that you accept me for entering this place, “I can tolerate you”, I think that it is more valuable to respect me, you have to respect me, in the same way I have to respect you.
Respect implies many things, a level of thought that allows you to see diversity as a goal. In this way, I will be a person, when I have your respect.
I’m glad you’ve asked me these questions, you’ve given me a lot to think about. Normally people ask me things like “What is rap to you” but not as many questions that make me look within and ask myself serious questions.
Marc: Do you want to give a shout out to other Cuban artists, with a positive message like yourselves?
Alexey: Ooh, with positive messages…. La Reina y La Real, El Padrino, [old school artists]. It’s great because there are many artists taking off that are great. El Lagarto, he’s very good. El Mesiga – lots of good people. There you have it.
Maxime Usdin and Marc Chicoine of WNUR Streetbeat had the pleasure of chatting with Ben Swardlick and Eric Luttrell, the San Francisco duo behind The M Machine! They discussed their beginnings, joining the label OWSLA, and the release of the new album GLARE. Check the interview out here!
Silke Eberhard is a Berlin-based Alto Saxophonist, clarinetist and composer. Her work simultaneously explores both tradition and progression through projects of original composition and study. Her most recent album, recorded with the I Am Three trio, reimagines the work of Charles Mingus in a bass-less, sax-trumpet-drums trio setting. Eberhard is in Chicago for the second annual Exposure music series at Elastic Arts in Logan Square. The series aims to bring a internationally recognized improvisor, like Eberhard, into the Chicago music scene for a series of workshops, rehearsals and performances. Silke and Paul Giallorenzo of Elastic Arts were kind enough to stop by the “J-Word” this week to talk about the series and the music. Hear the full interview below:
Brock: Thank you so much for coming in, thank you so much for playing, I wanted to start out with asking you about your relationship with Chicago, and the musicians who you will be playing with the next few evenings. How did that collaboration between these Chicago musicians begin?
Silke: The first time I came to Chicago, I think it was 2013, was for the Umbrella Festival and I played in a quartet with Mike Reed, Jason Adasiewicz and Jason Roebke. That was my first real encounter with the musicians, but of course I always looked at Chicago scene and really enjoyed what they do and felt a very strong connection. So I’m really happy to be here now and have that relationship flourishing.
Leo: I’m interested even, if you could talk more about Berlin. Because the city also has such a flourishing experimental music/improvisation scene, of a different nature artistically and stylistically than Chicago. So I’m wondering, for someone like you who is back and forth in conversation with both scenes, what do you see as interesting qualities that bring you to Chicago or why do you think people from Chicago want to go to Berlin?
Silke: This is not an easy question, I have the feeling there are some people in Berlin who like to play jazz, but also improvised music. Of course some people like to separate and do only one thing, but there is a large pool of people who like to do both, and I can see the same thing in Chicago. People play improvised music, but it is also very rooted in jazz, none of us are afraid to swing also!
Brock: Swinging is always good haha, who, if anyone, were you influenced by when you first started playing, either the clarinet or the saxophone? I find it very interesting that you have some records which fall on the much more free-improv side of the spectrum, and also records like the I Am Three record focused on what would be considered more traditional in the jazz canon.
Silke: I started on clarinet when I was a child, playing Bavarian folk music, so it was a long way to get to jazz from there. I don’t know, I love all those old jazz recordings and I want to dive into them and study them. I also like to play tunes, not only my own, but also those of other people and especially my heroes. It was always my goal to rearrange them, not to make a copy, but to make my own out of the tune, and in turn that process has influenced my own music writing.
Brock: It’s interesting you started with the Bavarian folk, because in a way, jazz is an American folk tradition. And in a way, that to approach the music from the tunes and a rearranging concept is a more folk approach to the genre. In particular, on the Mingus record, what drew you to play those Mingus tunes in a trio setting, and what were the challenges you faced adapting those orchestrations to a small ensemble?
Silke: Nikolaus Neuser, the trumpet player, had the idea to do a jam session and play some Mingus tunes wondering how they would sound without bass and piano? We discovered “ah yes,” because those melodies, even the chords are so strong, that everyone in the group could always hear them and play off of them. So we said let’s do this and play the skeletons of the compositions. We don’t think so much about “I am playing my solo now” we really try to do a collective thing all of the time. Every one of us knows all of the voices, mostly the bass notes and the melodies, so we can constantly exchange and switch parts throughout.
Brock: I think you can definitely hear that, especially if you are a big Mingus fan like myself, how each of you are able to bring in these recognizable parts of the tunes at various moments in the songs. So these references are constantly popping up, that if you’ve heard the tunes before, you are probably hearing anyway.
Leo: So you played a short solo set last night, and then you have trio and quartet on Thursday and octet on Friday. You’re covering the the range of ensemble sizes, growing as the week goes on. Was that the plan, or even more broadly, how are approaching the different groups?
Silke: The octet will rehearse, and I have written and brought some music specifically for that group. The smaller groups will be improvised.
Leo: From your experience as an improvisor, what’s the difference between playing in those different groups and playing solo as well? How does your mindset change as a performer, especially with some of these musicians you have never played with before?
Silke: Of course, I’ve played with Fred Longberg-Holm once and with Mike Reed several times, but the set ups are so new, and for instance I’ve never played with Dave Rempis and I’m looking forward to meeting my saxophone colleague. But, you know what, I don’t know what will happen and that’s cool.
We are now happy to be joined by Paul Giallorenzo from Elastic Arts, what is the Exposure series?
Paul: This is actually the second annual iteration of the series. Last year we had Tony Malaby, a great saxophone player from New York. He was in town and we had a similar arrangement of a workshop, rehearsals and two performances. We made this an annual program at least partially to kind of do something a little bigger and more special than our usual programming, which consists of about 3-5 concerts or arts events per week. That works out to about 200 performances or events every year, so we wanted to try to put something together that was a little different, a little higher profile and maybe more special than the usual local-centric weekly programming. The idea for Exposure came about with the intention of bringing someone both significant in stature musically and professionally from outside of Chicago, to come here, not only to give audiences a chance to see and hear them, but also to give local musicians an opportunity to work with this person. In that we are trying to facilitate communication about different types of practicing, different modes of rehearsing, composing and improvising, so there can be a mutual exchange of ideas and influences. Last year was very successful and this year has also been really great so far and we are looking forward to the concerts.
Leo: Thank you so much for putting together this great event, and thank you to Silke for both traveling across the Atlantic and making your way up to Evanston.
Silke: Thank you for having us.
Look out for Silke’s new record out on Intakt records in June featuring her trio and a collection of original compositions.
Guitarist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Kurt Rosenwinkel is among the most celebrated jazz musicians in the music’s contemporary era. It is not hard to find fragments of his distinctive melodic vocabulary and songwriting – they permeate the slick modern jazz coming from a younger generation of artists in Los Angeles and New York City (people like Kamasi Washington, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Julian Lage). Kurt has performed and recorded in various configurations: with his Standards Trio, Quartet, Quintet, the Portuguese big band OJM, and has also appeared on over 70 albums as a sideman. His March 10th, 2017 release Caipi (Sunnyside) features Rosenwinkel on guitar, bass, piano, drums, synths, and vocals and the guest work of Pedro Martins, Mark Turner, Amanda Brecker, and Eric Clapton, among others. You can catch Kurt and the Caipi band during their run at the Jazz Showcase from Thursday, March 30th to Sunday, April 2nd.
L: This project is your total brainchild. You’ve been working on it for years and it goes in a slightly different direction stylistically. What musical or life experiences inspired Caipi?
K: I guess around about ten years ago, the first couple songs came out and just kind of came through me. I didn’t really feel like I wrote anything. I saw these songs and noticed that they had some Brazillian aspect to them, and I thought, ‘oh that’s interesting, I wonder where that’s coming from.” I was in Brazil a few times, had some great times there, and I loved the music of Milton Nascimento. I think when you have a very important time in your life and there’s music that goes along with it, it becomes part of the fabric of your memory. As an artist, when songs come out and are an expression of feelings or memories that you’ve had, the music that’s part of those memories comes out in a way as well. My best guess as to where this music came from is memories of love or lost love and different aspects of life wrapped up in a lot of different music that are part of me. And this came out as Caipi.
I started to realize that all these songs were related. I would just record them in my studio as the years went by. During the year, a lot of travelling and touring. When I’m home, if I can get into a creative space in my studio, then I’ll work on these things that come through, you know, through the years. And these songs were one genre within my musical world that I kept working on, and they eventually became this album
L: I’m wondering if you could speak to the sonics of this record. There are real clear “Kurt” elements that come through but on the other hand it sounds very different from any other of your albums. Were there particular sonic inspirations from Brazil that you drew on while making this album?
K: There are also a lot of rock influences on this album. I’ve always loved rock music and British rock. And obviously there’s my jazz and personal composing style, and that language goes into it. But one of the things that was important for the album was the mixing that we did in London with a great producer and friend of mine named Paul Stacey. He is an incredible producer and guitarist. He’s produced the Black Crowes and was working with Oasis – he’s deep in the British rock scene and his musical tastes are wide ranging, as all of ours are. So part of the sound of Caipi are his sonics. And we were able to mix the album with a good amount of time, which was necessary to get it to sound like that.
B: What was your experience of playing the instruments and parts separately, of overdubbing and elongating the approach to recording and making a record?
K: I did it all on my own, in my studio in Berlin. And then I did a couple overdub sessions in New York with Mark Turner and Amanda and Pedro. I’ve always worked on music track-by-track, since the early eighties. I’ve always been doing that, as well as recording live in the studio with a band. Working on this music it was really a matter of enjoying the process, thinking of what the music needed and imagining it in my mind, and then doing it. I have a bass lying around, so I’ll record some bass. I’ll record some piano. Just doing everything that I can, and then the things that I can’t do I would call different people. To play french horn or violin or saxophone or acoustic bass.
L: Historically, the “live” aspect is such a vital and defining part of making jazz records, and the emphasis is on capturing the interaction between musicians in real time. How did this more insular style of making a record affect your creative process in terms of composing and performing the parts, and then translating the project into a live setting?
K: Yeah, there’s a lot in there. Jazz has so much to do with the interaction moment-to-moment and the chemistry of the band. I certainly would do that if I were making a jazz record. This is something different in the sense that it’s music that is formulated in my imagination and I know exactly how it should be. So my only job is to manifest it. In that sense, I can take care of each moment in the music to make it exactly how I hear it in my head. Yeah, it’s different. But the way that I hear things, it does sound like a group playing because that’s the way it sounds in my head. If I’m playing all the parts then I know how each moment of the music feels. So if I reacted on the drums to a certain moment then at that same moment I can react on the bass or guitar. Then the music has the feeling of that moment in all these parts and they are all together.
It was interesting to bring [Caipi] to a live situation, and I wondered if it might be difficult. I made a record in 2002 called Heartcore, and this was also an album that I did everything by myself at home. And when I formed a band to play that it was very difficult. But this time around, it was a very magical and karmic transformation from the recording process and that very solitary existence of making it. It translated into this group of people, we all came together in Berlin and it was kind of instant magic – chemistry between everyone in the band. From that moment on Caipi has lived in the real world, which is fascinating for me. It’s such an incredible feeling to play this music live and to hear it and play it for people because this has all just been lived in my semi-private world for the past ten years. It’s incredible to me how easy it was to translate it into a live thing. The band that I have is amazing; we’re on the road and having a great time doing our world tour. It feels very karmic.
L: The Caipi band features Pedro Martins on guitar & voice, Olivia Trummer on piano & voice, Frederico Heliodoro on bass & voice, Antonio Loureiro on percussions & voice, and Bill Campbell on drums. Can you talk about these musicians and why you chose them to help you transform Caipi into a live setting?
K: Well Olivia is from Berlin. We met in the Berlin music scene, at jam sessions. I played on her record and she’s a fantastic pianist and also a vocalist, so when I thought about the piano chair I thought about her. Bill Campbell is a drummer who I met through pianist Barney McAll. When I heard him playing it was love at first snare (laughs). I didn’t actually play with him until I flew him to Berlin and we all starting playing together and it was perfect. I just knew he would be perfect for Caipi because he has this groove, this feel and pocket that fits exactly what the sound is, it’s very unique.
Pedro Martins I met when I was president of a jury at the Montreux Jazz Festival. They have a guitar competition there. Two years ago, Pedro was one of the contestants and he was amazing. He won hands down and what he won was a mentorship. We got to know each other over this five-day period and after that we became very good friends. I already had the mixing date set when I met him but I just asked him to do a whole bunch of stuff at the very last minute for Caipi. And he kept hitting it out of the park. Everything I asked him to do he came back with the most amazing stuff.
Another thing that he won through the competition was a recording sponsored by the Montreux Academy. I produced this recording session and it was there that I met Frederico and Antonio. All three of those musicians are from Brazil, from different cities. When I wanted to put the band together I immediately thought of them because they are so fantastic.
Standing central amidst his musical collaborators of over fifteen years, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon bobs and weaves like a boxer in the ring. His fluid virtuosity and effortless command over the instrument shine through in flurries of melody and quick, rhythmic jabs. This past weekend, Zenon brought his longtime quartet, featuring Luis Perdomo on Piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, and Henry Cole on drums, to the Jazz Showcase in support of their newest release, Típico (2017). The album is an homage to the comradery that this group has developed over the course of almost two decades working together. Zenon, who prefers a conceptual and researched approach to writing music, constructed pieces to accentuate the strengths of each band member, and his measured style yielded exceptional results.
Zenon’s quartet represents modern jazz in its most thorough and refined form. There are no music stands, elaborate cues, or momentary hesitations. There is quiet confidence and trust in every beat, but there is also slight rigidity to the music, and that lack of uncertainty and risk-taking prevented me from becoming fully enveloped in its performance on Thursday evening. Even so, Cole’s shrouded swing feel and talent for bridging rhythm and melody on the drum set, Glawischnig’s firmness and ability to find and fill the music’s open crevices, and Perdomo’s virtuosic and blues–inflected modern jazz harmony synthesize the perfect backdrop for Zenon’s unique musical vision.
The night’s most special moment came during a duet performance between Zenon and Perdomo. The two played a beautiful, wistful introduction to “Las Ramas,” bringing the room to a complete standstill. I was particularly struck by the way the two interwove melodic fragments and seemingly merged into a single performer. The jazz world would surely benefit from a duo recording from these two.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with Miguel and pick his brain about Típico, the value of longtime musical collaborations, and his approach to composition and role in jazz education.
We are now very happy to welcome the wonderful saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Miguel Zenon to the “J Word.”
L: Miguel – welcome to the show.
M: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be on this morning.
L: So, this quartet you are playing with at the Jazz Showcase, the same group on your new record Típico, are some of your longest musical collaborators. You four have been playing together for over fifteen years. I’m wondering how the musical vernacular of the group has changed throughout that time period?
M: Well we started playing in 1999 or 2000, and at first we were getting together basically to try out things I had written and, you know, just in a casual jam session format kind of thing. Eventually we got enough tunes that we decided to get some gigs and then eventually put some of that music on record. So, at the beginning it was more about getting together with friends and people who’s playing styles I liked, and trying this music out, eventually, once we started making records and touring it became more about us getting used to the idea of being a band. By that I mean, getting used to interacting together and learning about each other in terms of their musical personalities and focusing on music that would bring that to the forefront. In a lot of ways this new record is a showcase for that attention and learning, but a lot of the music I’ve written through the years, having been playing with these people for so long, also comes from that perspective.
L: Yeah, so this record Típico is a tribute to many of the things you’ve been talking about, being in a band with people you are friends with and that you actually like. I’m interested to hear your approach to writing the music, as it pertained to bringing out the strength of different members of the band?
M: In terms of thinking about the strengths of the different players in the band, I definitely felt from the get-go was looking to write music for specific personalities. Especially when thinking about the idea of rhythm and what that means, and a specific way of feeling rhythm. I was trying to find musicians who were like-minded, who would have a deep understanding with the music of Latin America, who could already feel that rhythmic sense intuitively, so that when we dove into that zone, I didn’t really have to explain things for them. Of course, I’m also thinking about their individual personalities and the things they bring to the plane. After playing for so long, I’ve gotten an idea of what each of them can do comfortably, and with the band being in some sense a vehicle for my own compositions, I’m trying to use them as the platform for that, but also give them space to be who they are. I think for me that is the key about this all. When I started writing music, I never really thought about it from the perspective of having my own band or anything, it was more that I just needed a platform to try out some ideas. Eventually when I found that platform, it made sense to keep that the same and compose music on that constant platform.
B: I think you can definitely hear that on this record, and how that platform allows the music to speak. Listening I was struck by the compositions, the complexity of the compositions, but also the space allowed for each individual performer. I wanted to ask what you would say the process behind a Miguel Zenon record entails? I’ve noticed listening to your discography over the years that each one seems to explore a different topic or a different style or theme. It seems like there is an aspect of research that goes into many of records, could you speak to that?
M: Speaking about the records themselves and the way I approach the thematic material on each record, I do think about them as independent projects. A lot of them, especially the ones where I’ve delved more deeply into a musical idea or theme, like some of the music from Puerto Rico etc. they have been sort of like research projects. I’ve gone deep into one theme and explored that and ran out certain elements that I then used to write music. Típico was a little different because I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it on a grander conceptual scheme, I was thinking about going back to focusing on the sound of the quartet and music for us. When we make records usually the process is pretty similar, it always starts with the four of us building the foundation for the music itself, and playing the music a lot in rehearsal and live before going into the studio. We like to make sure the music is flowing well before we press record and that was certainly the case for this record, we laid down the whole thing in maybe like a day and a half. And then we take it on tour, and usually at some point on the road we will start writing new things and starting the cycle again.
M: For a while now, ever since Alma Adentro, I’ve been looking for a unique look that identifies our recordings and I’ve kind of fallen in love with this vintage photography that deals with the idea of Puerto Rico. For this recording specifically, I was looking for something that was musical, connected to Puerto Rico, and connected to an older, more folkloric idea of what music is. This picture jumped out at me because it had all those qualities, but also it had four individuals in the picture, connecting to the quartet. Reflecting on what típico means to me, growing up in Puerto Rico, usually when someone says típico or musica típica, they are referring to something that you can identify to a very specific group of people or musicians. In this case I was thinking about the music as being something that I identified with, so when I say típico, I’m thinking about music connected to us, the quartet. And the cover to me exemplifies that.
B: Another track on the record “Academia,” referring to school and perhaps your own experience as an educator, you’re at the NEC correct?
M: Yeah, I’m a teacher at the New England Conservatory. I’ve been teaching there for about five years now and one of the things that I really like about the program is that it’s very loose and wide open in terms of how you put the curriculums together for the students. I mostly teach private lessons, and because it’s not exclusively focused on saxophonists, I have to come up with a specific curriculum for each student. A lot of the time I end up coming up with specific exercises, or short compositional ideas for them to work through during the semester. Many times those ideas find their way into my other compositions, fitting them together using the same creative process. And so “Academia” kind of built on that, using some the compositional ideas from time with my students and writing them into a composition.
L: That track in particular speaks to the previous two things you were saying. You are interested in tradition, whether jazz or Puerto Rican, but your music is also very modern sounding and forward looking. And maybe this is also because you spend so much time around young students, but I’m wondering how you think about balancing that interest in tradition and doing something really new and modern at the same time?
M: That has sort of always been the kind of balance I have been looking for. As I get older and interact with younger musicians, I’m realizing how much of a difference there is between my generation going to school 20 years ago and the generation I am interacting with now. The interests are different, the approach is different, their approach to what a jazz musician should be is totally different. So it’s interesting for me to see that and try to react to that in a way. At the same time, I’ve always been very clear about what that means to me and what the importance of that balance means to me. Ever since I got into this music, first off coming from Puerto Rico and not growing up with jazz, I realized early on this music wasn’t a native or first language to me. With any kind of music I learned it was the same, going to the roots, studying it almost from an academic point of view. That process helped me to realize that anything I could become would have to be tied very deeply to tradition. As I have studied the musicians I admire, I’ve realized they all went through a very similar process as well; they connected with a specific musician that came before them and used that connection and study as inspiration to develop their own identity. I’ve sort of made this my mantra ever since then – we need to know what came before us in order to be able to develop into a well-rounded personality.
B: Certainly. One last note we would like to touch on, if you would like to talk about it, the Caravan Cultural, bringing jazz back to Puerto Rico. Can you explain what that organization does and how it has shaped your music making as well?
M: Caravana Cultural is a project I started six years ago in Puerto Rico. The idea behind it is that we organize a series of free jazz concerts in rural areas that don’t have that much cultural activity, or stuff coming from the outside. Part of it is trying to widen the audience of jazz in my country, but also the grander purpose is to use culture and cultural activity as an investment towards everything going on there and to paint a picture that music is an important thing in society that should be available to everyone. So what we do is put together a concert focusing on a specific historical musician. I put together a band and bring it down there, and we usually organize a group of students from the community to play with us at the end of the evening. That is really the most special part of the event, as the music becomes a real connection with the community. We also do pre-concert talks, making it an educational thing touching on jazz history and improvisation. We also started giving out a small scholarship to one of the musicians playing to help them buy musical equipment. Overall this started as a small one-time thing, and now we’ve done about twelve concerts. It’s definitely been the most rewarding thing I’ve done with music and I’m trying to keep it going for as long as I can.
What was your upbringing like? What was your relationship with poetry and music, and how did those mediums evolved and intersect throughout the years?
Reba: I grew up playing the classical piano as well as the violin, and when I was a teenager I picked up the guitar & played terrible songs in terrible punk bands. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in and out of hospitals, & that’s how I developed my love of literature, too – books and records were quite literally, perhaps involuntarily, my only companions growing up. I’ve always written songs & I’ve always written poetry; I still remember spending hours penning the lyrics to a song I called ‘Not Rated E’ (yikes, right?) at 7 years old. I started producing about 2 years ago, while studying poetry in college, when I realized I wanted to extend my spoken word pieces beyond the page.
Historically, your music has been a supplement to your poetry. Now that it’s taking on a larger role in your compositions, do you feel like the themes you deal with are shifting?
Reba: Though my interest in producing began as a sort of cushion for my writing, I’d say this is no longer the case- many of my recent compositions don’t include spoken word at all. I don’t want to say I’m a musician before I’m a poet; I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. They need each other. I don’t think my ‘themes’ are shifting. I am still grappling with being sick, still learning how to have a body.
Do the samples you select have similar relevance to you as your spoken word?
Reba: I’d say yes, topically: I want my voice to situate itself in a mix as another instrument, a gash of sound. I select poems for songs based on their sonic qualities (their fricatives, sibilants, assonance, etc) just as much as I do their “meaning.” The same goes for samples- I choose carefully; everything resonates w/ me emotionally just as much as it does sonically.
Some listeners and critics compare your work to other artists who have a similarly abrasive sound such as WWWINGS, Rabit, or Elysia Crampton. How do you view yourself and your music in the context of the experimental club (if you can call it that anymore) scene, especially in relation to other artists?
Reba: I think it’s wonderful to be a part of this “movement,” if you will, and I draw inspiration from so many of the artists often grouped in w/ it, some of whom are my friends. I like that former ideas of what constitutes ‘club music’ are being challenged & rewritten.
What can we look forward to from you in the near future?
Reba: I’m playing a handful of festivals, touring, and have a second EP in the works.
Dave Rempis, a saxophonist and Northwestern alum, has performed and recorded with improvising legends such as Roscoe Mitchell, Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann, Fred Anderson, and Hamid Drake. In addition to his eclectic musical career as a stalwart of Chicago’s thriving experimental music scene, Rempis runs his own record label (Aerophonic), is the board president of the non-profit arts venue/incubator Elastic Arts, and is an organizer of the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. We caught up on the phone during his brief Midwest tour this past week.
Many of the groups you play with have been long-time collaborations, the most obvious of which maybe being the Vandermark 5 (since 1998). How do the musical conversations of a group develop over time? How does the improvised vernacular grow and change?
Yeah, that’s kind of an essential linking point when you make (improvised music) bands like this. With groups that work in a compositional setting it’s like, okay you write a new group of compositions and that changes the sound of the band. With an improvising band, it’s different because nobody is writing the compositions and it becomes more of an evolution over time of how the group operates and works and interacts with one another. It’s a really organic thing, it’s not something that you can predict or control. And it also depends a lot from one group to another, based on what the individual musicians have been doing in their lives, musically, personally, professionally. I don’t know if you could say that there’s a particular process that unfolds every time with every band.
Does the group’s rapport influence the amount of preparation that goes into a performance? With long-time collaborators, does that level of comfort lead to more or less pre-show planning?
I think it’s a combination of both. With groups that I’ve been playing with for years, when we walk on stage, I know I can expect that everybody is going to be fully engaged in the improvisation. I don’t know what’s going to come out musically, but I do know that everybody is going to be paying attention to one another and dealing with each other in creative ways. We are always listening to different things and influenced by different things in our careers. And the people I work with are all accommodating to that, and are trying to deal with each other in new ways, basically. And that’s what keeps bands interesting. I know the people that I play with can play their instruments really well. So if I get on stage and all they do is play their instruments well, but it’s the same old stuff we’ve been playing for years, it’s not particularly interesting (laughs). That’s part of the challenge of pushing groups forward – dealing with those changes and not trying to just predetermine what your sound is and stick with that.
What about newer formations, such as the collaborations with Nate Wooley, Michael Zerang, or Elisabeth Harnik? What is the value/experience of these types of first time improvisatory encounters?
Some of those first time encounters can be some of the most exciting and revelatory ones because they’re so new and fresh. And there are encounters that happen once like that, and the next time you get together it doesn’t work. You just have to keep your sleeves rolled up and keep working on it because it’s a process–based art form, and that means you’ll have failures. I think any visual artist, writer, etc. can say the same thing.
You have played with improvised music legends like Roscoe Mitchell and Joe McPhee (among others) – what did you learn from how they approach and exist in the creative space? Were there particular things (or attitudes) that they demanded from you as a younger musician?
No, I wouldn’t say so. The thing that I think most improvising musicians want to hear from a new or younger collaborator is somebody who is really making an effort (whether they’re succeeding or not) to come up with some type of individual voice. There are plenty of good saxophone players who can sound like John Coltrane or whoever else. And I don’t think that’s particularly interesting, because Coltrane did that better than anybody ever will. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be familiar with it, or versed in it. But if somebody gets on stage and starts doing that in an improvised setting, forget about it (laughs). But if they get up and are really trying to do something new, whether they’re succeeding or not, even if there’s a glimmer of success, it’s positive.
As long as you keep pushing forward and keep working on your thing. This is a process-based art form and as long as you’re engaged in that process, it’s something you’re going to be engaged in for the rest of your life. It’s a musical practice, it’s a life practice, it’s an approach to life that people like Roscoe Mitchell and Joe McPhee have spent decades thinking about and refining and defining for themselves. And what those people respect in younger musicians is when people try to find a pathway of their own.
So, maybe just approaching that creative act from genuine and honest place?
Yeah, absolutely. And this isn’t specific to more modern improvised music; this is something very specific to jazz, since the beginning of the art form. People were expected and encouraged to develop their own voices. And that’s why Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins sound completely different. And they’re both incredible, when you hear them it’s difficult not to think ‘why would I play saxophone any different than that?’ I think at the higher level of jazz, that’s what people have been expected to pursue. And I think there’s issues with the academy that date back a long time, where you kind of have to codify things to justify your existence, to justify yourself as a professor or justify this as a study. If it’s always up in the air and always evolving, you can’t really justify your existence, or charge people x amount of dollars per year to come study it. But I do think that’s particular to the academy.
One thing that I’ve seen in the last 20 years in Chicago is a model of existence for both avant-garde musicians and people working in more traditional jazz. I feel like there’s been a lot more coming together of those scenes in the last 20 years, which is a really positive development because those things are helping to inform one another artistically but also structurally and in terms of how the music get presented and organized.
Out of curiosity, who are some musicians that you see bridging that gap?
Someone in the younger generation like Nick Mazzarella really bridges that gap incredibly well. Mike Reed is in between those two worlds in a lot of ways. Jeff Bradfield, Dana Hall, Clark Sommers. Greg (Ward) is an incredible example. An amazingly talented musician who can pretty much do anything. There’s an interesting moment happening right now, especially with Constellation, the Green Mill more and more so. Dave Jemilo, the owner there, has always been supportive of a lot of different types of music. Particularly in the last fifteen years or so he’s made some choices to bring in some more avant-garde type stuff. And that decision had has big ramifications in more straight ahead audiences and musicians paying more attention to some of that stuff.
That leads us perfectly into the next question! What level of engagement do you expect from your audiences? What (if anything) do you expect that they know about avant-garde jazz before entering the room?
I feel like most people who are open-minded who know nothing about jazz can come to a performance and hear something and be totally blown away by it if it’s a good performance. It happens that people hear something completely new to them inadvertently and are totally into it. Like right now I’m doing a Tuesday night residency at a bar in Logan called The Burlington. The first night we played there there was a rock show in the back room and we were playing in the front room. By the end of the night we poached about half of the rock crowd because people were like ‘What the hell is this? This is cool.’ I do like to think that it doesn’t require background information.
You run your own record label (Aerophonic) through which you release all of your projects. How does this model work for you? Do you think that these types of artist-run labels, which deal with distribution directly and allow for plenty of flexibility/creative control for the artist, are becoming more important in avant-garde jazz and experimental music?
Yeah, absolutely. It also mirrors what’s happening in the larger culture. Huge pop artists no longer depend on the media to interface with their fans, they do it directly through social media. That said, the music we do is not broadly based appealing music to a larger commercial audience. So for the most part we’re talking about selling records with numbers in the hundreds. For me, being able to actually reach all those folks directly. I mean – I’m the one on tour who’s going around the states or Europe, meeting fans, meeting the people who actually buy the records. It doesn’t make sense that a record label would be trying to leverage those already existing relationships between me and my small fan base. I already have access to those people. I feel like I should be the one reaching out to them, developing that relationship, keeping them interested in what I’m doing and keeping them updated on what I’m doing.
That makes sense. I will say that as a consumer and as a radio host, there is a certain curatorial association with particular record labels. Like I know when I see a new Clean Feed release, even if I’ve never heard of the musicians on the record, there’s a good chance I’ll be into it.
That’s one of the few labels out there that’s incredibly active in putting out really great stuff. I can’t think of any label nowadays putting out this kind of music that’s as active as they are. That’s really a great label.
You help to run Elastic Arts, a venue that functions as one of the primary meeting places and presenters of experimental music and art in Chicago. Elastic Arts is a non-profit – how does this organizational model feed and inform the institutions mission?
It’s one model of presenting this type of music in this day and age. The space itself actually started as a rehearsal space and recording studio for a group of about ten people. Around 1998, a number of them were Northwestern students, people who needed a place to rehearse and record their stuff. It kind of grew out of that. From the beginning there was the informal process of people having meetings weekly and talking about the space and how they wanted to use and develop it. By 2002, they made the decision to formally incorporate as a not-for-profit, which was a really great idea. It took quite some time to fully realize what that meant. In the last couple of years – my improvised music series at Elastic started fifteen years ago – we moved into a new space. I think that on its own has really energized the organization in a lot of different ways. I took over as board president about a year and a half ago and we have a really serious board of directors that are engaged in the organization and bring a lot of different skills to it. People like Michael Zerang, who has a lot of non-profit experience. Katinka Kleijn, who’s a cellist for the CSO is joining our board in April. We have a really fantastic group of people at the moment, and I think that is going to lead to some longer-term growth and sustainability for the space.
Being a not-for-profit makes it more difficult because there’s a process involved, there’s a board involved, and there are a lot of different voices that need to be heard. I think that really helps to strengthen the organization in the long term, because it’s not just one person’s vision, it’s the result of a careful process of discussion and deliberation and decision making.
Does the process of grant-writing (and the recognition of being awarded money) lead to more visibility for the type of music you’re putting on?
When it really comes down to it, the mission and the drive and the ideas behind the organization have to come from within. When you’re interacting with a foundation or a government entity, it’s really more about not taking ideas from them or playing to them. It’s about showcasing what you do, and convincing them that that is something worth putting money into. A lot of times people end up just chasing grant money and create programs that are going to win a grant. You have to have that mission and that idea before you start, and that has to inform everything about what you do. Ideally, it’s having a really strong vision and an intelligent staff that can present the meaning, ramifications, and value of that vision.
The focus of Elastic Arts has been providing a space for Chicago artists to develop their work, and to then take it out and present that to the world. In many ways, I think of us as an incubator space. At this point, particularly right now in Chicago, there’s an incredible younger generation of people interested in free improvisation, contemporary forms of music. There’s a really great pool of players, and I have to say that right now it’s really inspiring to do my series on Thursdays and see all these folks coming in with new ideas and new energy. Doing their own thing working with older peers. And that’s another thing about Chicago. Across the board in the arts, the city has that reputation as a place where people can come and develop their work.
We are here with Volcano Radar. The band is Julia Miller, Elbio Barilari, and joined today by Sam Bradshaw on Bass and Tim Davis on Drums. So what did we hear today?
2 original compositions, 1 song/poem by Leonard Cohen, and finally we ended with an open improvisation.
Tell me about that Leonard Cohen tribute arrangement.
Elbio: Well as you can tell from my accent I am not exactly from here. I’m from the south, but very south, like 10 thousand miles south, from Montevideo, Uruguay. And over there we have a very active Rock and Pop scene, as well as our own Tango and Folk music, etc. And I always loved songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, and I have been a fanatic of Leonard Cohen for my whole life. I was really sad when he died, and even more sad because he died in these circumstances. Julia came up with the idea of doing one of his songs, one of his most recent songs in this broadcast and I immediately said yes.
Julia: But there are not too many people who have the gravitas to do that song and really have the connection to it.
Was that the premiere here on Airplay?
Julia: Yes it was!
On that note, I’m wondering how you guys compose and arrange? Is it a very collaborative process?
Julia: Well those two compositions came from a live, improvised show that we did and recorded, with Tim Davis actually. We improvised those as a group on the spot and ended up forming them into tunes and have used them as tunes in various ways ever since.
Elbio: That’s one of the procedures. Julia and I are both composers, working with symphonic music and chamber music. And we do some structured music. But one good thing about this band is we don’t need to write so much, we write a lot for other things. In this band, what we normally do is bring in some little idea and develop the idea with the band or we just improvise something, we like it, and we try to repeat that and keep it.
I saw you guys are in the studio recording some new material. What projects do you have on the horizon?
Elbio: Yes, we have a few projects in the oven right now. I have been working with Paquito [D’Rivera] for like 15 years, 20 years in different projects – chamber music, Latino music. Finally, he was coming to Chicago and we decided to do a recording session and it went great. But, we still need to mix that one and work a lot in postproduction. But we have a live CD that we are trying to release by the end of this year, or the beginning of next year, most likely. And on March of this past year, we released our duo CD, called Electro Parables or Parábolas Electricas. That one is up and we got great reviews. It’s a record we did in-studio, Julia playing guitar and synthesized guitar and I’m playing all the things I play.
Julia: That was a long form, structured improvisation for us. So the whole piece, especially the first piece, Two Hundred Years of Solitude is one take and then a few overdubbings. No editing or breaking or anything like that, it’s all one large take.
We have it here in the stacks. Electro Parables is a great recording if you haven’t checked it out. I want to thank you for joining us, it was really a pleasure.
Julia: Absolutely. Thank you for having us, it was our pleasure.
Elbio: Thank you very much