Interview Q & A  Barry Davis & Gerry Hemingway  

May 8, 2011  - This interview was quoted in an article published May 15 for the Jerusalem Post (read the article here)

1. What are your earliest musical recollections?

I think the notion that music was a mysterious, alluring and desirable world came first via my brothers who both were avid collectors of records. I have distinct memories of hearing a mixture of R & B and 60's Rock & Roll and being indoctrinated into the counterculture of music via the records. Perhaps because they were older their music curiosity was something we could share and was kind of ticket to hipness for me, so just by shear maturity they were coolest thing I had access to. The radio also held my fascination and still does. It remains one of my favorite places to discover something I don't know about music. Music was in my family and my dad loved to sing and kept something of a traditional alive around holidays where we would sing Christmas carols. He also had a set of Whitechapel handbells and regularly bought over his musical friends from his years at Yale to practice holiday music for handbells which he and his group would perform at benefits and social events in New Haven, Connecticut.

2. Did your father influence you musically?

In that he had a love of music I think somehow it rubbed off, but what intrigued me initially about music was more from my brothers, and partially from a woman my folks hired to drive me back and forth from school (we lived in a rural suburb of New Haven, so school was 10 miles away) and she played the radio in the car and from that, as an 8-14 year old, I first heard things like Sam & Dave and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. My dad and my grandmother both indoctrinated me to orchestral music as they were both involved directly and indirectly with the New Haven Symphony. Sometimes my grandmother hosted receptions for the visiting conductors and soloists and in this way I gained some proximity to master musicians. My dad also enjoyed to put things like Mahler and Bruckner on the stereo system and get out the score and read along with the performance, which I sometimes partook in. I had no idea that he had really explored symphonic composition as a teenager until later in my life when with the help of my brother he heard one of his early orchestral works performed by the New Haven Symphony in a special fundraising event. It was quite moving and ended up forming a kind of closure with his earlier unfulfilled passions as a musician.

3. Why did you gravitate towards jazz as a teenager?

The radio once again was influential. I was able to get WRVR where I went to school in New Jersey as a teenager. WRVR was a then mainstream jazz station in NYC, that ran a regular show hosted by Ed Beach broadcasting a lot of tremendous bread and butter Blue Note recordings, all of which were like magic to me. I had no real frame of reference except acoustic blues and rock, all I knew was that the drumming I heard was magnetic and a mystery I desired to penetrate and with no other guidance than my ears I would sit down and play my own drums to it, clueless about the fundamentals, structure and methodology of the music. My curiosity led me to seek out books and publications in the library where I would eventually find out about the experimental musics of the AACM and also about 60's players like Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, some of whom were integrating a then fresh connection to African traditions.

4. What did playing with people like Anthony Braxton add to your musical world?

Playing with Anthony was a natural outgrowth of my roughly ten years of association with Leo Wadada Smith, who took me under his wing as a teenager seeing that I had a vibrant curiosity and bottomless appetite for exploration. Leo lived in New Haven after his time spent in Europe in the late 60s and early 70s. From time to time Braxton would show up at our version of the Experimental Band (the Experimental Band was the name of Muhal Richard Abrams laboratory ensemble in the mid-sixties in Chicago which served as the prototype for the AACM) and rehearse with our musical community in the New Haven area. Prior to my joining Braxton's quartet, Anthony had utilized many resources from the New Haven community, the first being George Lewis who although a fellow Chicagoan and AACM member was musically very much a part of what went on in new Haven in the mid seventies, and also Mark Helias played with him in the late seventies for about a two year period, Anthony Davis on occasion. Anyways I do historically digress, when a moment came for me to join I was already quite in tune with Anthony's wide scope of expression. His world made sense to me, the poetry, the dichotemies, the elaborate intellectual frameworks (for instance three dimensional logic systems), the visceral - you could even say primal element that underscored the musical revolution of the sixties, all of it felt like home to me.

As a side note to recollecting, just a few weeks ago, Mark Dresser, Marilyn Crispell and I just recorded a record of Braxton's compositions for Tzadik records as a trio. It was very interesting to revisit the material on our own after so many years. Our various tenures, for all three of us, mine being the longest at 11 years, are centerpieces to our musical life. And for me my efforts to renew a connection with Anthony finally materialized in 2007 when we got together to create a 4 CD set of duets (Old Dogs 2007). I am big believer in what might be called the continuum of music, hence the plethora of very long musical relationships.

5. Do/did you feed off the early free jazz masters? and did you get anything from the early jazz masters, modern and earlier?

The term "feed off" has a parasitic ring to it, but I understand that you mean to ask what chapters of the various histories in the big continuum did I find resonance with, and the answer is all of the above. I started teaching music cultural history as part of my work as an educator at the New School in NYC and I incorporate the exhaustive research I did for that into my current teaching work at the Hochschule Luzern. I created lecture courses in both World Music history as well as Contemporary Jazz (and its Exponents), and the latter obliged my thorough review of what happened in the sixties (also what predicated the changes, socially and musically) and the contextualization of subsequent eras which is quite an elaborate unfolding. Very few institutions have supported this period of history choosing to focus on what happens before the sixties, which is a neater and easier to follow, and also fairly well documented by now. In any event, my entry point to the music is 1972, and rather quickly I was paddling in the same river of many of the great progenitors of the mid late 60's particularly the AACM but also some of the NY based icons of that time as well. My review of the history for the purposes of teaching it to others who knew nothing of it made me realize just how influential the various, cultural, political and social upheavals of the sixties underlied much of the musical thinking that served as a foundation to what matters to me in music and art.

And as for the other chapters, I am known for my omnivorous and endless curiosity for so many musics and for this I must give credit again to Leo Smith who as a teenager would introduce me to many musics including King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson as well as the Music of Burundi and the Peking Opera. I am just now reading a wonderful book of interviews with Baby Dodds, one of my heroes, and whom I dedicated my first solo recording to, and he along with all of the great masters of my instrument and the music that they participated in such as, Chick Webb, Sid Catlett, Kenny Clarke and so many others all are a vibrant part of my ancestry and musical possibility.

6. Do you think straightahead jazz has runs its course?

Not at all. Anyone who listens to what I do in a broad way will see that traditional jazz music, and with it the feeling of swing is encompassed in much of my approach as an improviser and a composer. I recently played a concert with Ellery Eskelin and Gary Versace in New York, the concept of this project is to weave standards that Ellery first learned from his Mom, who played a hammond B3 in Baltimore, tunes like Witchcraft, How Deep is the Ocean, East of the Sun, Don't Explain, into free improvisation. The interpretations of these tunes are quite open, sometimes they swing like hell through the form, sometimes they become quite abstracted but all the while they thread the tapestry of the long story.

7. Do you think there is a rock music element to what you do?

Totally!!! its at the bottom of my root system. I was drawn to this music at an early stage of life, as a partial result of what I explained earlier in terms of the environment and influence of my brothers. I saw everyone in this period, Hendrix, Cream, The Who, Jeff Beck, Cactus, Grateful Dead, McDonald & Giles, Joni Mitchell, I saw them all, often many times. And from it I think I culled a deep sense of the blues which still permeates my writing and playing to this day.

8. What inspired you to look for different ways to play percussion?

Sound experimentalism seemed to be in my DNA, and also perhaps a partial result of an alteration of my DNA from the psychedelic era. As a kid I would do experiments with tape recorders and play feedback on my beat up guitar for hours fascinated by what I later would understand to be overtones. When I was about 10 years old my brother played our family "Visage" by Luciano Berio one night and it completely transported me to a world where sound could have so much narrative and physicological dimension to it. I was literally transported to another experiential dimension and I naturally was curious to experiment with creating my own unique sounds. As a drummer this also really started to be a strong part of my musical expression that began when I started giving solo concerts in 1974.

9. You play with electronics. Is it difficult to blend percussion with players of electronics instruments and devices?

I play with electronics, and I play various forms of electronic music myself and as you just learned I was exposed to music concréte at an early age so this world of music language has always been familiar to me. An undocumented work I did with analog synthesist Hal Freedman and saxophonist Hal Lewis called "Rippling" was a piece that was created out of many hours in the Yale Electronic Music studio around 1975 and in a way was one of the first significant works I did with electro-acoustic music. Then in the late seventies when I moved to NY I continued my relationship with Hal Freedman (we had a group called Ibex with Ned Rothenberg forinstance - also undocumented) and also began a new relationship with Earl Howard which continues to this day (Mark Dresser also became involved with Earl's music early on as well). I always continued on my own work sometimes with the help of Hal or Earl in terms of equipment or critical evaluation, discussion and debate about the direction of electronic music. What I find difficult is to play with electronic musicians who dont listen and interact like acoustic musicians, or who use generic electronic effects that I find lowers the quality of their musical expression.

10. How has your musicianship evolved over the years?

I think I have refined my understanding of listening and hearing, two interdependent aspects of creating a compelling musical experience. I think I have continued to challenge myself with projects that push my creative potential as a composer, producer and player beyond what I know so that I can keep exploring a relationship with the unknown or maybe better put, the edge of knowing. I also enjoy teaching, which has obliged me to be on top of my traditional and extended technique so I can demonstrate and teach with an impact. My students are often on a very high level technically so teaching them becomes a very interesting challenge, as is forming an effective and meaningful jazz pedagogy.

11. How has BassDrumBone evolved over the years?

Something like a successful marriage, now in its 34th year, we value each other's musical and personal relationship very highly. The time we get to perform on the road is like a gift, a reunion of a family. And it does not stagnate or become content with its past accomplishments, but instead keeps a vibrant spirit and edge to its natural chemistry. I have good news regarding BassDrumBone and my visit to Israel. I will have copies of the brand new release on Clean Feed of our newest CD, "The Other Parade" at the concerts with Assif and Mark.

12. How do you decide on the instrumentation of the groups you play with?

The groups I have led seem to evolve out of whom I connect with musically, coupled with my desire for orchestrational possibility (the quintet is a good example in this regard. Beyond the groups I have also worked as a composer and player in more wide ranging orchestrations including Chamber ensembles, String Quartet as well as symphonic orchestra.

13. Which is your favorite instrument to work with? Is it piano, which offers melodic and percussive properties…

I dont have a favorite instrument really, it has more to do with the players, their thinking, their openness, their way of hearing and connecting, the possibility of making something compelling together.

14. What attracts you to Mark Dresser's playing?

Where do I begin? When I think back to when we met in 1975 it was first his sound and the physicality of his approach to the bass that knocked me out. He impacted all of us in the New Haven scene with the sheer muscularity and ferocious power of his approach to the instrument. Being a very social being with a big heart he found his way quickly amongst the community of interesting players in New Haven and I am immensely grateful for his impact on what happened there, not to mention his introducing me to Ray Anderson, Stanley Crouch, Black "Arthur" Blythe and many others he had previously connected with in California. It could be said in retrospect that our musical relationship really gathered depth in the context of playing with Braxton. Here Braxton's music brought out a variety of challenges and propositions for us, and Mark and I were eager to explore them. This is when we first explored some rigorous investigation into subdivision and grouping which we were approaching from a variety of angles individually. We developed a rather unique way of relating to each other in multiple tempos and timbres, creating a multi-dimensional environment that finds cohesion despite the independence of our individual materials.



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