Interview with Keith McMullen from Ventura, California

: When did you first realize that music was important to you, and what were the circumstances surrounding that realization?

GH: I suppose music as a listening experience was one of the first transportive experiences I ever had. I can remember lying on the floor and taking in one of my brother's electronic records when I was 10 years old and experiencing something akin to a journey through my imagination guided by the sound I was hearing. As well I can remember a sense of mystery associated with the music my older brothers were checking out, wondering what it was, where it came from. I remember being drawn with awe to an older schoolmates drum set. The look and feel of the chrome and shell, even the smell had a vivid allure. I begged for drums from my folks and they eventually humored me with a snare drum and a cymbal. I was obsessed, I had to uncork the magic of a drum roll.

Music was really a vital part of growing up. The mid-sixties to seventies was rich with music that was exciting and fresh. I couldn't grow my hair fast enough. I saw many concerts when I was between 12 and 17 years old. Whenever there was a rock festival within 2-3 hours drive I would hitchhike to be there. I used to go constantly to the Fillmore east to see bands. And of course all of this input fed my desire to perform music. I never doubted it was within reach.

My bottomless appetite would eventually open my musical horizons to the Varese that Zappa would mention in his liner notes, to the Art Ensemble which I discovered through reading a library issue of Downbeat and thankfully found an address to Nessa records and quickly snapped up copies of "Les Stances a Sophie" and "People in Sorrow". And before I knew it I was ditching my rock records (okay a lack of foresight there) and noticing that my record collection was beginning to posess large bands of orange from all the Impulse records I was collecting.

Music represented a place where I was welcome. My identity became intertwined with this safe haven. It kept me alive in the treachorous road of teenage life.

KM: Describe the evolution of your relationship to the drums. How you bands...peer

GH: When I finally graduated from the snare and cymbal that I started on and got my first set of drums at around 12 years old, my dad, who's first love was music; who ended up professionally as a banker but also spent some of his college years under the tutelage of Paul Hindemith, set up some lessons for me at the local music store. The teacher was my first interaction with a professional musician. He worked nightly as a club dater. His concept of teaching was to write out the rudiments in a book and send you home. I didn't get it at all. I can imagine that many a young drummer goes to lessons like this one and fairly soon loses interest. Man just show me how to do that roll. I had no patience but I wasn't losing interest. There were friends who played guitar and I got together with them and jammed.And where I lived you could play LOUD.

In my high school years my parents had the wisdom and money to send me to a boarding school in New Jersey named Blair Academy. There I met some musicians who could actually play their instruments and sing. And so I found myself playing in many different groups, mostly rock and roll, but also blues and country as well. My room mate was the bassist and guitarist Tom Goodkind who ended up as one of the three 'Washington Squares'. His agenda went a very different direction than mine but we had alot of fun making music together in those days. In our senior year he ended up in enough of an existensial crisis that he managed to get thrown out of the school leaving me to my own musical musings.

It was around then that, by way of New York radio, I began to discover jazz and improvised music. I remember hearing Betty Carter on WBAI one afternoon and being totally absorbed in the music and in particular the rhythm section. Every nite around 10 I checked out a show on WRVR (which is long gone) where the dj played one Blue Note record after another. I was hooked on these grooves and played along with them trying to figure out the feel. Fusion music was also providing a link between my rock & roll roots and some mighty fancy beats. My trips to the city eventually found me at Slugs to hear Larry Coryell, and once I was on to that place I checked out whatever came in the door, that included hearing Elvin for the first time. As well my penchant for psychedelia led me to recordings by Sun Ra and late Coltrane. I found myself fairly alone on this musical journey for awhile, my friends couldn't keep up with my appetite for the unimaginable. So by the time I was out of there I was sure I would become a professional musician.

Not knowing what to do about college and with my interest in academia at all time low I applied to the college that would accept just about anyone with an instrument in their hands, the Berklee College of Music. I put off going there for a semester and placed an ad in Rolling Stone in search of jazz piano trio ala Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett and as luck would have it a local bass player who played both Rock and Jazz music called me up. Days later he arrived with a piano player and I found myself playing jazz tunes for the first time. I think I made much more of an impression on the pianist with my record collection than my playing. After I showed him my AACM collection he let me know that Leo Smith lived in New Haven and would be happy to introduce him to me. We became immediate friends and I spent many days therafter filling in the missing links of my musical understanding at his apartment, checking out Wayne and Mingus among others. A few weeks after that I played my first gig with many of the area's better local players. Leo attended and I met him for the first time. I found myself in a community and there could be no better learning experience than this. When Yale started its fall semester in strolled George Lewis who was a philosphy major at Yale. And with him came many charts from his AACM colleagues, Jarman, Roscoe. They also had another drummer so sometimes we played with two drummers. I was learning very fast and also was open to all possibilities, ready to push the limits with these guys. As time has gone on the musical bonds made in this year (72-73) proved to be lasting ones, relationships I treasure to this day. The pianist by the way was Anthony Davis.

I somewhat reluctantly left this stimulating company for the Berklee College of Music. Armed with George's copy of "Beneath the Underdog" I had a go at musical training, college style. I hated it. I barely lasted the semester and got much more out of learning where the back door to the Jazz Workshop was then anything else. I was there practically every night taking in the seven day stints of bands like Cannonball Adderly, Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, James Cotton. While at the college I learned about Alan Dawson and what a special teacher he was. So after I left the college I made arrangements to go study at his house. I did that every other week for two and a half years. Alan could inspire anyone's interest in technique, mostly because his demonstrations of how a rudiment or exercise should sound were so musical, so articulate and so damn fast. I spent every minute I could trying to match his speed and precision, which I never did but I leaned alot trying to. In this same period I made connections to the music department at Wesleyan University in Middletown. There I met, studied privately with and also participated in the classes of the West African master drummer Abraham Kobina Adzinyah and South Indian mrdangamist Ramnad V. Rhagavan. Those two disciplines opened up many new dimensions to my understanding of the organization of rhythm and subtlety and deepness of groove.

KM: What is the first recording on which you appear?

GH: My own is the first, "Kwambe" on Auricle Records in 1977. Shortly therafter comes Allan Jaffe's "Soundscape" (78) which had similar players on it.

KM: How did you come to record and perform as a leader?

GH: It was many things that led me in that direction. Many of my cohorts in the earliar years were writing and producing their own recordings so on the one hand it seemed like a natural direction for me as I was driven towards composition from the start. Around the time I produced Kwambe on Auricle Records my colleagues were moving into New York, I was still based in New Haven. So in a sense out of a kind of neccessity I was making my first moves towards developing my own work base, which was parallel with coming in touch with my identity as a musician. The trio with Ray Anderson and Mark Helias, which was and has always been a collective group, was for all of us at first a helpful tool in developing our skills as bandleaders. Of course our apprenticeships with others was also part of that process and chief among them was Anthony Braxton.

KM: How did you meet Anthony Braxton, and how has he influenced you?

GH: I met Anthony originally throough his colleague Leo Smith, who I mentioned earliar had taken up residence in New Haven. Leo brought Anthony up on a few occassions for small little projects and rehearsals of the early formations of the Creative Improvisors Orchestra. Around that same time Anthony Davis ended up on a recording of Anthony at Studio Rivbea which came out on the Wallf;loers series that documented somewhat haphazardly the loft scene in the early seventies in New York. Anthony had a short tenure in the band after that, then not long after Mark Helias was in his quartet which at the time had Barry Altschul on drums and I believe George Lewis was in the band around this time. Ray Anderson also eventually ended up in the band, round the same time Thurman Barker joined. There were many permutations, but Anthony kept getting encouragement from my colleagues that passed through his band to check me out as a drummer for his group. Finally in 1983, we had a Creative Musicians Improvisors Forum meets the A.A.C.M. event that had a composition of Braxton's and one of mine as well as many other works on the program. Braxton observed how easily I kept up with his score and as well was adfmiring of my work as a composer. Shortly after he called with a tour mostly in Italy with George Lewis and John Lindberg, and the beginning of a long a very fond relationship began.

After playing with Braxton for twelve years there are many levels on which his work and his being were influential on me. I have been asked this question many times and have responded in many different ways. I refer your readers to a book called "Mixtery", which is a 50th birthday tribute to Braxton in which I share some anecdotes about my many years with his music. Braxton is a multileveled person and perhaps spending the time with him that I did, gave me insight into the future dealings I would have with the world and my music. He is on the one hand quite complex in his thinking and creating and on the other hand very basic. He did give me assurance that my obsession with music had a human basis and served a vital purpose in sustaining life with meaning on this planet. That alone was quite a gift. On a practical plane he provided material that inspired its players to some of their best performances. I try to emulate this ability in my own way.

KM: Do you have a guiding aesthetic philosophy(-ies) which inform(s) your compositional style? How has that evolved over the years?

GH: I have some problems with the word style, perhaps on the one hand because the word would suggest that I subscribe to an aesthetic that could fit comfortably in a genre. I can say that I have grown more accustomed to accepting that my music for quintet, quartet and BassDrumBone is rooted in the jazz tradition, but it doesnt take a rocket scientist to realize that my notion of what jazz is quite a bit wider in it's worldview view than the coat and tie-ers who dominate the marketplace with accurate and lifeless replications. But just where does my solo music go in the Tower bins? Cubbyholing just doesn't swing with a good deal of what I do.

So addressing this wide topic will involve making a few choices to help narrow the field of discussion. Lets speak to the matter at hand as far as the upcoming performance in Ventura is concerned. With the quartet I am seeking to further explore strategems that I used in my writing with the quintet. One of the more dominant characteristics of that approach is the use of a collective approach as regards the way in which material is organized and how the improvisations are directed. On the one hand this is rooted in the formally organized methods employed in the classic early New Orleans and Chicago traditions, in the same way as it informed by more modern notions of collective improvistation, and in a way events in nature and life where independent events occuring in the same space simultaneously manage to create something complimentary and coherent.

Another issue is the multiple layering of different pulses and as well the modulation between different, sometimes seemingly unrelated tempos. This tendancy has evolved through the years with my association with a number of likeminded bassists, such as Mark Helias, MIke Formanek, Dieter Manderschied, not to mention Mark Dresser. I think this way of looking at the rhythm section as a continually shifting pallette to interact and construct statements with, shows up as formative element of Mingus' approach with Dannie Richmond. I think this approach broadens the possibilities for interaction between the instrumental layers while still regarding the traditional and I might add successful role of creating a rhythmic harmonic foundation to improvise upon. Don't mean a thing if ain't got that multidemensional swing.

As far as the writing I have always favored getting alot out of a little. That certainly carries over to my solo work as well. Here one of the guiding aesthetics has been how to get as much sound as possible and not break my back. Very early on I reduced my road schlepp to cymbals, a stick bag and a few pieces of small percussion. I have never felt limited by this, rather more I have felt stimulated to continually cull more ways of producing sound out of a basic set up as possible. This notion shows up in my choices as a composer as well, where particularly in small group writing I want to get as rich and diverse a sound as possible out of the instruments (and players) at hand.

from March/April 1998 (by email)

To learn more about the occassion of this interview and the presenters who brought my quartet to Ventura, California, pfMENTUM, Click Here!!


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