Kirk Knuffke: No Limits
by Troy Collins
Kirk Knuffke Courtesy of Madeleine Ventrice-Knuffke
Kirk Knuffke is one of the most distinctive improvising cornetists working today, becoming a force on the New York scene with his boundless creative virtuosity and comprehensive understanding of the jazz tradition. As a bandleader, Knuffke’s projects include a longstanding quartet with trombonist Brian Drye, bassist Mark Helias and drummer Jeff Davis, and co-leading Sifter with guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Matt Wilson. An enthusiastic collaborator, he is also a core member of numerous working bands, such as Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom, Josh Sinton’s Ideal Bread, and Matt Wilson’s Quartet, among many others.
Big Wig, the debut of his quartet, was issued by Clean Feed Records in 2008, followed two years later by the trio recordings Chew Your Food (NoBusiness) and Amnesia Brown (Clean Feed). The all-star session Chorale (SteepleChase) arrived in 2012, featuring pianist Russ Lossing, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Billy Hart. He has also recorded a series of duet albums with Drye, drummer Mike Pride, and pianist Jesse Stacken – the latter of which often feature inventive readings of obscure standards.
But it’s his newest endeavor as a bandleader that is the most surprising – a trio with Helias and legendary straight-ahead drummer Bill Goodwin, who is best known for his work with such mainstream legends as Gary Burton, Art Pepper and Phil Woods. Although it may seem like an odd combination at first glance, they share a mutual admiration for Ornette Coleman’s maverick spirit: Knuffke is a former student of Ornette’s; Helias was a member of Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell’s bands from the late ‘70s to early ‘90s; and Goodwin leads a band he calls the Orntette, dedicated to performing Coleman’s early groundbreaking music. The threesome’s Royal Potato Family debut, Arms & Hands, incorporates inside and outside elements equally, perfectly balancing swing with freeform expressionism, bolstered by the appearance of guests like Drye and vanguard saxophonists Daniel Carter and Jeff Lederer.
Mentored by Coleman, Butch Morris, and Ron Miles, Knuffke’s all-inclusive artistry and focused drive has enabled him to rise above his peers to play on an equal footing with his elders, like Goodwin and Tristanoite Ted Brown. Intrigued by Knuffke’s catholic embrace of the jazz tradition, I interviewed him in the spring of 2015.
Troy Collins: You moved to New York in 2005 and have been quite busy since, but some earlier biographical information might be beneficial for readers unfamiliar with your background. Where are you from originally?
Kirk Knuffke: I grew up in Colorado. I’ve only lived in two states in my life. I was born in 1980 in Colorado Springs, then my family moved to Ft. Collins where I lived until I moved to Denver at age 20. I started playing piano when I was a toddler, my mom has some pretty cute pictures of this. My brother Jay played trombone and I used to take his trombone out of the case and play it when he wasn’t home. Going to his high school jazz band concert I noticed the trumpets. I thought they looked really cool and I liked that they stood up when everyone else on horns was sitting down. I got a trumpet and soon after that a cornet at age 12 and started school band, but I refused to take lessons. I started playing professionally at 16. There was a big ska revival and a big swing dance revival happening at the same time, so I found a bunch of work doing both, all through high school. My friends and I had a ska band called “Area 52.” We played punk as well and even played shirtless – my, that must have been a sight! I took my first lessons from Corry Petersen at 17 and I took a few lessons from Hugh Ragin. I had a great high school band director named Mike Smith who played jazz drums and hipped me to a lot of stuff, like Henry Threadgill and John Zorn. Can you imagine if there was someone that cool in every little town in America? After high school I went to college for a year, but I was too anxious to move on and I dropped out of University of North Colorado (in Greeley) at 19.
I was always set on being a player and I wanted to move to Denver, because in Colorado that’s the big time! I wanted to be closer to cats like Ron Miles, Mark Harris and Kent McLagan and they were all super sweet to me. I started hanging out a lot with Ron; they were never official lessons and he never told me how to play, but they were still lessons to me and I asked a lot of questions. It’s impossible not to learn when hanging out with someone like that. I also studied with pianist Art Lande which was a trip. I was making my living playing in blues bands mostly, and funk band horn sections. I played in blues and soul bands with the great Walt Jenkins and Brian Hull and a bunch of other stuff, including a band that played African dance music with Mark Harris and Glenn Taylor. There was a lot of great stuff to do. My friends and I would get together and play jazz and I did as many of those gigs as I could too. I had a few odd jobs, never for more than about two months a year. I’d save up a little money and quit.
TC: So, I take it that you earn a living based solely off your performances then? Do you ever have to do any sort of session work or commercial gigs to make ends meet?
KK: Anytime I’m playing it’s a gig and gigs have been my living with a few short exceptions, and there have been some lean times. There’s been nothing but gigs for the last seven years. I’ve also never considered myself too hip to take a particular gig when I need one. When I moved to New York, especially, I played all kinds of funerals and parades, etc. Luckily I got more and more of the work I wanted to do and I don’t have to do those at the moment, but they were great. The funeral band especially, I think taking part in rituals and ceremonies is a duty of musicians and it means a lot to people. I don’t turn down recording sessions that sound interesting either and I’ve done quite a few. I like to test myself to see if I can make it work. I worked very part time for a year at the Julliard Bookstore from 2007 to 2008. That was the only job not playing in NYC, and I spent all the money on books!
In NYC I wanted to keep my options and time open, so I made less money sometimes. I never sought out a Broadway gig, a serious recurring club date situation or a teaching gig. But all of those things are totally valid things to do. And I did a lot of club dates in Denver. My idea was that I tried to keep as much time open as possible, so when gigs I was really excited about came along I could do them, and had enough time to practice for them.
There is a teaching element that I really enjoy when we go out with the Matt Wilson Quartet. We do lots of clinics and I’ve taught master classes by myself and I do dig that. I also have taught one of the weeks each year at the amazing Maine Jazz camp. I’ve never had more than a few private students at any given time and I don’t have any at the moment. I don’t seek out students but if motivated people come to me because they want to learn specifically from me, I am very happy to teach them.
I think people should work as much as possible in as many different ways. When young jazz musicians are wrecking the gig, it is usually because they haven’t done enough gigs and enough varied gigs – gigs that are supposed to make people groove or dance, or laugh, or cry, or think.
TC: Speaking of Matt Wilson, I’m impressed by your role in his current Quartet; many of Wilson’s ensembles over the years seem to have been strongly divided between inside (Arts & Crafts) and outside (the original quartet configuration with two saxophonists) aesthetics. On its most recent Palmetto release, Gathering Call, the Quartet sounds more equally balanced between the two approaches and I was wondering if your presence had anything to do with that, or if it’s just a natural evolution for the band?
KK: Thanks! I’ve been in the Quartet for six years now and I think Gathering Call is a really nice record. Matt wants his next album to feature both folks from the Quartet (old and new) as well as Arts & Crafts to celebrate twenty years on Palmetto, that’s in the planning stages now. When I joined the band it changed as you can imagine. And on that record you are hearing a quartet that has evolved for years, and of course adding in John Medeski, who can play anything! (Matt and John have also known each other for decades.) I think it was an evolution with this lineup. I love to swing and play forms and changes and Matt knows that. I also love to play free! Matt and I have done a bunch of stuff together: in 2011 we recorded Sifter with Mary Halvorson, for Relative Pitch (that’s a fun band); and the same year we made Pound Cake with Ted Brown, for Steeplechase; and we also play in Jeff Lederer’s quartet with Bob Stewart.
TC: That diversity brings me to my next question. As one of a select few young cornet/trumpet players who have mastered both traditional and extended techniques, your interests seem much more equally balanced between the two than most of your peers. What are your thoughts regarding “pure” free improvisation compared to more traditional theme and variations-based strategies?
KK: The problem is in the separation of these things which were never separate at the beginning of jazz. So called “extended techniques” are as old as the music itself. Look at Rex Stewart and Henry Red Allen, those guys were avant-garde! Look at all the noises King Oliver made. These things are what defined early jazz and words like “trick” or “freak” were used to describe them. It has been said that every artist creates their own universe and the universes of two artists don’t need to intersect or even correlate. But I think there are a few defining factors that make one artist’s universe truly radiate and expand in all directions: time and sound. Good time is the basis of all good music, and good sound comes from good time. Sound is made of time, tone is made by the right things happening at the right time. The most advanced thing you can do on the trumpet is get a good sound, and the music should move people. So it’s about balance; like in all art, I do the things I’m attracted to that I like to hear. I often question whether some people I hear even like their own music. Love is the most important thing, loving the music. And I’m interested in the aspects of playing that I love from the entire history and the sound in my head. I want to take the listener for a ride and keep the proportions right, and not serve them up a big plate of salt. Maybe something can be really salty but not the whole evening. I don’t think about moderation, moderation is boring. I think about elation and different kinds of it.
Thelonious Monk said you have to keep it simple so people can dig it, and anyone that knows his music knows it’s not simplistic in a bad sense and that the architecture is perfect, and it is thoroughly digable by everyone. Louis Armstrong said you gotta’ be able to play sweet and hot. I have firm interests in both free and structured form-based improvising because I don’t really think they are two separate things, in either case I play what I hear. Free improvisation is my first love and my home base. I thought I invented free jazz in my friend Marshall’s basement in the 10th grade – we made hours and hours of cassette tapes, just cornet and drums. I took my discovery to my band director and he said “maybe you should check out this guy Ornette Coleman.”
TC: Earlier you said “I often question whether some people I hear even like their own music.” I’m curious if you could elaborate a bit more on that? Personally, I find a lot of what is currently considered “lower case improv” (for example) to be stultifying in its conceptual purism. I’m just curious what your take on such aesthetic extremism is, from a performer’s point of view?
KK: Sure, yes I find that sometimes too. The problem is when people are hard liners in any direction – once things are too stylized. Ornette Coleman told me “Never play on a style level.” It’s a deep concept and when I tell people that quote they are often confused. Isn’t all music in some kind of style? What he means is only playing the style. When something is called “non-idiomatic” I usually know exactly what it’s going to sound like before it starts, so how is that not an idiom? Whenever anything is off limits then it’s not really jazz to me. Or it’s not the best jazz it can be, how about that. For some folks playing pitches is off limits and for others playing non-pitched sounds is off limits. And some people seem to burrow further and further down into whichever hole they choose. I think people can get stuck in their “style.” And they worry about the jazz police somewhere thinking that they are not hip because they played a melody or not hip because they squeaked, or not hip because the whole record wasn’t in crazy time signatures and some kind of doctoral thesis. I think you can hear that worry in the music sometimes. Nothing should be off limits except for not being able to play your horn. Bad taste is going to be bad taste in any setting and poor musicianship too.
I’ve talked with many close friends about the phenomenon you speak of and I can say that some people’s version of free improvisation can be some of the most limited music around. Opposite of that kind of limitation is someone like Sun Ra, who is one of the most well-rounded musicians ever: composed/improvised; form/no form; complex/simple; pitched/non-pitched; short duration’s and long; blues, beautiful ballads, and always – swing! Again, it all comes down to love in the music, on the straight-ahead side too. Some of the most joyless music I’ve heard of late was some very chopsy people playing Wayne Shorter tunes and flying up and down their instruments with complete cleanliness and zero vibe. In the end the result is the same whether you are doing that or making the sound of a hissing radiator for a whole set; if the music doesn’t move, it doesn’t move. Both things can be great, I love to hear the right folks play Wayne Shorter tunes – Wayne Shorter is pretty darn good at it for instance. And I love free music that focuses on sounds when it’s done with love and emotion. Steve Swell is amazing at this, as are many others. I wish I could watch Charles Gayle every night I’m not working. Cold is cold, warm is warm.
TC: A palpable dedication to all aspects of the tradition can undeniably be heard in your cornet technique and tone. How did you arrive at your particular sound? Did you have any influential teachers or mentors?
KK: I had a few teachers, I only took trumpet lessons from age 17 to 19: Corry Peterson; a few from Hugh; and a few classical lessons that I didn’t really learn much from, not because classical music is bad or teaching is bad, just the teacher in this case. There aren’t many musicians in my family but I had a great uncle on each side that were. My uncle “Count” was an opera singer and played some brass too. I have pictures of him with trombone and trumpet, but I didn’t get to meet him. My uncle Warren on my mom’s side was a Dixieland cornet player and singer. I used to sit in with him when I was a little kid and hold on for dear life, he would sing “Margie” and play “Big Butter and Egg Man” and stuff like that. Then I started hanging out with Ron Miles, and like I said he never showed me how to play or told me what to practice, but he was an incredible mentor and still is. We would hang at his house and talk about what he was listening to, he introduced me to Lee Konitz and Steve Lacy. I asked him a bunch of questions about chords and improvising. I took lessons from pianist Art Lande in jazz and improvisation after I dropped out of college. He was great and I learned a lot. He was big on swing feel and used to stop playing the piano and yell at me when things weren’t happening. He would make me learn a tune and then he would change it every chorus behind me to lose me.
As for sound, I got a very specific sound in my head and wanted to achieve it, so I did a lot of experiments. I read a lot of books too, like Liebman’s book on getting a personal saxophone sound. Books about vocal blend, and books on breathing. I thought about each aspect of sound and what I wanted in terms of vibrato and articulation too. Then Butch Morris became a huge mentor. I started playing with him in 2006. I played with him until he passed in a bunch of different combinations. He was the first person to ask me to record in New York and the first to take me to Europe. Butch was a huge inspiration on cornet and his concept of musical organization really shaped the way I think. Butch was a life changer.
TC: Let’s talk about your latest album, Arms & Hands, which features bassist Mark Helias and drummer Bill Goodwin – a somewhat surprising combination considering Helias’ association with the avant-garde and Goodwin’s reputation as a traditionalist. Can you explain how this particular lineup came about?
KK: It’s a magic team with Mark and Bill! It’s true Mark has an association with the avant-garde, but he loves to swing; he’s an amazing bass player for any environment. Bill also loves to play free and wide open and not everyone knows that. Bill is an encyclopedia of modern music and has more experience playing than just about anyone I know. Whenever he starts talking, it’s something amazing About Leroy Vinegar, Art Pepper, Zoot Sims or Sweets Edison, and on and on – any of the myriad masters he’s played with. I first heard Bill watching videos of Art Pepper. I was wondering “who’s this amazing drummer?” Of Course! Bill Goodwin! I felt moved to contact Bill. I’d known about his playing for years of course with Phil Woods and many others, but the videos with Pepper were so great I had to find him. After we spoke a few times he invited me to come play with him at his weekly gig at the Deer Head Inn. We played standards and had a ball, afterwards we listened to Ornette Coleman records together and he told me he wanted to resurrect a band he had called the “Orntette” and asked me if I’d like to do it. Yes! It’s a group that focuses on Ornette’s early materiel that he wrote in California, that’s when Bill first met him. After playing in this group of Bill’s and later a two guitar band he made that worked at Dizzy’s, I wanted to start a group with Bill playing my music. He is so fun and so unpredictable. Mark Helias says “You never know what Bill is going to do!” Which brings us to Mark. I asked Mark to play years ago and after that he started a quartet with myself, Tim Berne and Mark Ferber. So the idea to combine these two monsters took shape in my brain. They had never played together before but were fans of each other’s work. You can’t beat the collective experience and groove of these two, it’s such a hip band!
TC: The album includes a few homages, including “Pepper,” dedicated to the late Jim Pepper. It’s a wonderfully sly tune with an infectious groove. I’m curious how you feel it relates to Jim’s legacy?
KK: Not all of my tunes are dedicated to someone but a bunch are. It’s fun to make a dedication because it can give a piece even more identity, something more to think about when playing it. I also like to include images of people or places or things on the charts. I really dig Jim Pepper and I feel he is a really under-sung guy these days. His influence is big and present, but under the surface. I hear folks imitate his imitators. I dedicated it after writing it. I was listening a lot to Pepper when the tune was written but it wasn’t written to sound like him or anything. I was also listening to Tibetan music and the song came out sounding like a chant of sorts. So it made me think even more about Pepper’s Native American heritage and how he would perform those great Native American songs. A dedication can also introduce a new listener to someone you’d like them to check out, maybe people will go listen to some Pepper if they dig the song. I knew some people that didn’t really know about Booker Little until Dave Douglas made In Our Lifetime, then they checked him out. That’s pretty nice!
TC: I agree; Jim Pepper is sadly under-sung. In a similar vein, “Chirp” is for Steve Lacy, whose work you explore in great depth with Josh Sinton’s Ideal Bread. Can you describe how working in Sinton’s repertoire band came about and the potential influence of Lacy’s music on your own?
KK: I started working hard on Lacy tunes and studying him before I moved to New Nork and before I met Josh. I bought Lacy’s great book Findings and practiced out of it a bunch, also making my own exercises for cornet based on Lacy’s soprano exercises. Ron Miles introduced me to Steve and also told me to investigate his solo work and Lee Konitz’s solo work. He asked me improvise over chord changes without any accompaniment and we talked a lot about how this could work or not.
So my interest in Lacy goes beyond that band but is integral in its inception. When I moved to NYC I already had this interest. On a random session I met Josh and saw he had these charts photocopied from Lacy’s hand. I was very intrigued and knew I had a kindred spirit of some sort and asked if we could get together and play them as a duo. That’s how the band started. We played duo on the Lacy charts for a few months with no idea of starting a band. One day I called Josh and said we should have a band that’s only Lacy tunes but with no soprano sax! He said “I’ve wanted to do that for years,” so it was very mutual. But Josh took the reins and started the booking, got us the recordings and the rest, so it is Josh’s band for sure but I had some hand in the match striking! Tomas Fujiwara has been there since we made it into a quartet. Tomas is the man. We went through a few bass players, but Adam Hopkins is also the man; he saved the band in a way by providing exactly what we needed at the right time. Adam is a great bass player. Josh has a really original concept and sound on baritone, together I think we make a very nice band.
Lacy is a huge influence as a player and a composer, his work in both areas has a kind of laser vision, so clear. He was a maverick in every sense, one can draw inspiration from any facet of his artistic output; he was a complete artist.
TC: Moving on beyond homages, one of the most understated numbers on Arms & Hands is “Umbrella.” Can you discuss the inspiration behind this evocative ballad?
KK: I’m glad you mention that song, it’s a favorite of mine. It’s not an homage but it is a dedication. It’s dedicated to Matt and Felicia Wilson. I wrote the tune based on a poem, so it has a lyric that’s been sung at concerts by Christine Correa and others. The poem is by Shunn Theingi, age 9. I discovered it in a book I found on the street, from the NY writers coalition.
Jeff Lederer had his students perform the piece at the Litchfield jazz camp. It makes me proud when my friends want to use my compositions. The tune is over a B drone with the bass E string tuned all the way down to B. Mark and Bill do a beautiful job on it.
TC: That’s a really interesting back story to a beautiful piece of music, whose low B drone is very evocative. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a joyous take on country crooner Ernest Tubb’s “Thanks a Lot” closes the album, and since I know that you’re a big fan of Lester Bowie and Sonny Rollins’ idea that no song is off limits, I was wondering – as successful as this interpretation is – do you have any other favorite tunes outside the jazz mainstream that you like to improvise on?
KK: I love old country music, the kind my parents like. It’s hard to find anything very recent to like however. My dad loves music and even though he never played, the house was always filled with music, too much so for my mom most of the time, and she would turn it down when he left the room sometimes! Especially when we got home from church on Sunday, he would crank up something. I was always into the oldies radio station, I remember all my friends were listening to Def Leopard and I wanted to turn it to the oldies.
I found “Thanks a Lot” while going through my dad’s records with my wife Madeleine last year and I just had to play it over and over. It’s a fun tune with a funny lyric but I find it really moving too.
Thanks, thanks a lot
I like to play tunes like this for sure, it’s the only “cover” on the record. Ron Miles gave me a copy of Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy The Odyssey of Funk and Popular Music right when it came out, when I was 17, still one of my favorite records! Yes, nothing is off limits if you like it. I have a plan brewing for more stuff like this!
TC: I assume you feel the same way about “If I Were a Boy” from Gathering Call then? I have to admit, I was surprised to find out that was a Beyoncé song, and pretty faithful to the original. Was that Matt’s idea?
KK: Yes that is a funny one! It was Matt’s idea, he genuinely likes Beyoncé and there’s nothing ironic about his choice to play it. I was with him on the road when he bought her newest CD. I enjoy playing the song a lot and I’m glad it’s on Gathering Call. Matt told Jeff Lederer and I that he would like to play it, so Jeff made a quick chart right before the gig. I have to admit I’d never heard it before I was to play it, so I was listening back stage to it on the phone. With a tune like that you have to know the words and phrasing (especially if everyone else does!), or you’ll mess up the rhythms – you can read a rhythm but if you don’t know the words then you won’t know what to emphasize. Also, when we recorded it, it was new to John Medeski and we didn’t talk about what it was, we just played it. The simple chart we made didn’t say Beyoncé on it and John thought I wrote it! Jazz musicians, as we all know, used to play popular songs all the time. Of course those songs also lent themselves very well to improvising and had a lot of great chord changes, melodies and so on. But if you look you can still find nice songs like Matt did. I think that’s important for the music.
TC: It’s funny that John thought you wrote that tune. Speaking of which, how do you initially approach writing for each of your ensembles? Do you typically write parts specifically geared towards your band mates’ strengths, or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes themselves are more open to interpretation by different groups of players?
KK: That’s a good question, there are many answers actually. Sometimes I put the bands together based on the personalities of the musicians and I know they will fit the music. That’s one way! I like to draw on music I’ve written from years ago as well as today. Sometimes I’ll dig up a really old tune that’s never been played, sometimes written when I was much younger (as in the case of “Next”), before I knew the folks in the band, but it’ll present itself and I’ll know “this is the band for this tune!” There are a few songs on this record like that. Other tunes were written specifically for these players. I love to play swinging time with Bill for instance, he is so good at it! Mark loves to swing too, and playing open forms with Mark is the same thing. It may interest folks to know how happy Mark was to play “Thanks a Lot,” he exclaimed “this is my shit!” when I handed it out. I wrote “Bright Light” for instance to feature Daniel Carter and I heard him the whole time I wrote it. Brian Drye and I go way back, and I knew he would be perfect for “Next,” a tune I wrote when I was 19 that had never been recorded before. So it’s a mix of everything. I write a lot of music just based on an inspiration from somewhere and also coming out of my improvisations. I got to watch Ornette Coleman write music and that was very inspiring, he did it straight from the horn. A lot of folks write from the piano. He would play until he liked something and then write it down, I do that a lot. I also write just walking around without any pitch generators, and I sing into a voice recorder. I write from the piano too, I write a lot of music in Italy at my wife’s parents’ house where they have a piano. The pace is a lot different there than in New York and somehow that leads me to write more from the piano.
TC: In addition to memberships in numerous bands (Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom, Josh Sinton’s Ideal Bread, Matt Wilson’s Quartet, et al.) you lead a number of unique groups yourself: the aforementioned trio; a quartet with Drye, Helias and drummer Jeff Davis; and co-leading Sifter with Mary Halvorson and Wilson. What advantages and challenges do you find in maintaining so many different groups?
KK: There are a lot of groups, but that’s all really fun! I like the challenge of all the different environments. I do wish some of the groups could work more, but that’s the nature of the beast. A group like Sifter works as much as it can with trying to get Mary, Matt and I in the same room. Scheduling three busy people is hard. I love it when one group works a lot and the music starts to breathe in a different way, things loosen up and tempos begin to shift around, arrangements start to change spontaneously. At least that’s what happens in a good band! Playing a lot can also make things stagnate in the wrong environment with the wrong group of cats. But that’s not the case with the bands I get to play in thankfully. It’s also very fun and challenging to play the same room night after night with the same band, and we’ve done a lot of that with Matt’s band and Alli’s too.
TC: How do personal and stylistic dynamics shape the inner workings of your various groups?
KK: This is an interesting question. I think stylistic dynamics always shape a band, but personal dynamics can vary wildly in their influence. Someone’s style makes the music and one person can change a whole band. The best thing is when someone has a strong personal style but also lives to serve the music and the group, helping to make everyone sound good! Everyone on this record is like that, as is Kenny Wollesen and my other friends. I try to surround myself with sympathetic souls. Personal dynamics are different, they are important, but less so. For instance, you can play great music with someone you don’t even particularly like personally. There are a lot of historical examples of this. You can be best friends, complete strangers, subtle enemies, etc. But I think it always helps to be friends. The Matt Wilson Quartet is a great example of this, we all talk all the time even when we’re not on the road and we have celebrated holidays together. Bill and Mark and I talk a lot on the phone and Bill has given me some really great advice about life.
TC: You mention historical examples of even enemies having the potential to make great music together. Stan Getz and Chet Baker immediately come to mind, for example. Although I know it’s not a performing relationship one would seek out, have you ever had this experience?
KK: Nothing too bad! I’ve been lucky. But there has definitely been a broad spectrum. It’s also interesting that some of my best friends are people I play with but we also never talk unless we are playing, that happens too. I’m always surprised, jazz musicians are usually very nice, I’ve encountered bad vibes only a few times. Maybe that’s due to the avant scene I run around in, maybe it’s not as true in other circles, I can’t say for sure.
TC: How do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?
KK: I love both, and both can have their ups and downs. I know I would feel incomplete if I didn’t have each regularly in my life – live performances especially. If I go a few days without a gig I start to feel stir crazy. Practicing is one of my favorite things in life but you need to play music for people. Live concerts can be the most transcendent experiences, when you and the band are firing on all cylinders and the audience is right there with you tuned in and firing up the music with their energy. The audience can make all the difference in the world to how the music comes off, especially with an attentive crowd that also gets excited. A sleepy crowd can bring down the music and the morale of the band in a similar fashion. I especially like going to towns where there isn’t an abundance of live performance all the time and people come out hungry. Also the sound of the room can affect things a great deal for better or worse, but a good band can find the music.
Recording is very important to me as well. Another mindset but similar, here the mics are the audience and you want to please them too. Also sound in this case can be a challenge, playing with headphones on is usually a necessary evil, but it’s pretty evil! You take something like playing your horn that you’ve done since you were a little kid and then everything around this normal thing in your life is different and then that’s how it gets preserved. But you get used to it and it doesn’t matter anymore, it becomes another thing you know how to do, but I remember very well those first few times. But getting the sounds recorded and hearing them back, is awesome. And then you get to share that music around the world with people that can’t make the gigs. I take an approach to recording that makes it more like live performance. I book very short sessions, none of my records have taken more than a half day. I’ve recorded more than two takes of a piece only once or twice and that was to change the arrangement. It’s one or two takes tops. I also like to keep rehearsal to a bare minimum. Rehearsal is where the least music happens usually, people just want to make sure the notes are right, take little non-committal solos just to make sure they get the transitions and so on – rehearsals are my least favorite. So frequent gigs and recording are very important, and daily practice essential.
TC: What are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival hard copies versus ephemeral downloads?
KK: On the record industry at large I think it’s an interesting time. I have always been a hard copy fan myself. Wanting something, finding it, buying it and owning it gives it value. I love my collection. So I never saw the appeal of downloads really. It is easier to bring files on the road than hard copies and I do travel with an iPod, but it’s loaded with my CDs. The physicality is important, you go to someone’s house, you see their records and books and you see what they’re about. Like the John Waters’ quote “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ‘em!” Listening to music should be away from the computer at all costs. I was just reading Duke Ellington speaking about needing an “isolated mind” to get anything done. The internet gets rid of much needed isolation. Rather it keeps you in a purgatory of neither real interaction or isolation. Music should be about choice and hard copies help with that. My dad always talks about how much he loves 45s, because you have to sit there and do it. Pick a song, put it on and listen, if you get up and leave you miss the song and the whole event is over and you missed it. I think the real drag is streaming. It’s an all you can eat buffet open 24 hours a day that has every food ever known to man, who can deal with that? The answer is you can’t. If you walk into a room for the first time and you pick somewhere to sit, odds are you’ll sit in the same place the second time, it’s just how people work. So if you have every option in music all the time, the same thing will happen.
I was at Ornette’s house one day years ago when the whole bit torrent thing was starting to happen, Ornette had someone over to help with web stuff and as an example the guy clicked on a link and quickly downloaded all of Ornette’s discography, from Something Else!!!! to Sound Grammar, which had just come out. Ornette said “all my music just like that!? ... oh, that’s cold” and that’s just what it is. When you sit down and decide to download someone’s lifelong artistic output for free as in the case of the Ornette story, you go to a shady website and you probably have a feeling you are doing something wrong, and many people do it anyway. But with streaming sites it is presented as if there is nothing wrong, and you don’t get to download it so it’s not like you are stealing, I think this is more dangerous. I think streaming or torrent downloading not only doesn’t help musicians live, small labels survive or stores stay open, I really don’t think it benefits the listener either.
There are still lots of great labels that want to put out music and musicians are unstoppable. I think the jazz fan is different than the average pop listener and I think a lot are collectors and want the physical thing. I think the big thing to understand is if you want to support a group the best thing to do is buy their record, from the label or from them, especially if they are touring. That money is really needed and used for gas and food, etc. When it’s not there, they notice.
The other thing I love is the record store, it’s sad to see less of them than years ago. But again there are still great ones, like Amoeba in Los Angeles, Downtown Music Gallery in NYC or Twist & Shout in Denver. It’s important to support these places. Stores help you discover things. When I lived in Colorado I went to stores constantly and still do, but back when I was younger if I saw a guy on the cover with a saxophone or a trumpet and I didn’t know who they were I would listen to it, and then buy it if I liked it. That’s how I found Arthur Doyle, imagine, in Denver, Colorado! Books, magazines, good sites like this one, good stores and good labels can help guide you to good music.
TC: Concerning records themselves, since you mentioned copying your CDs to an iPod for tours, I’m curious about your age and preferred format; CD or vinyl? For the record (pun intended), I’m in my mid-forties, as are most of my friends, who still buy CDs – despite the hype that the CD is dead and/or dying, even when over half of all album-based music sales are still made in the CD format and less than 4% are on vinyl. I don’t even own a turntable, and have been buying CDs since the late ‘80s – I’m not going to voluntarily change formats now!
KK: I’m 34 (as of April 2015). My collection is almost completely CDs. I have some vinyl that I got from a friend that was moving and I got some from library sales years ago. When I buy music it’s usually CDs. We have that in common for sure! Back when I had a car (age 16 to 25) I always wanted CDs so I could take them in the car, and then I faithfully carried a CD Discman for years into the MP3 age. Some vinyl people share a gene with folks that feel the need to tell you they have read the book before seeing the movie, “oh yes I have that too, on vinyl, you should hear it on vinyl.” I like the sound of vinyl too, but the music interests me the most.
It’s nice to have music put out on LP and Arms & Hands is, as well as CD. So if folks want it they can have it. It seems like people love to talk about CDs being over, not just going out of style but almost being passé. These tend (to me) to be vinyl only folks and people that also don’t have qualms with streaming services like Spotify.
TC: As a lifelong collector, I agree with all your points, but your Ornette story reminds me, how did you first meet Ornette Coleman?
KK: How I met Ornette is an interesting story. In the summer of 2006 I was hanging out with my buddy Kenny Wollesen and we went to hear Dewey Redman play in Central Park. We got there and he saw Chris Potter and David Binney, so we all sat together. I have to say this was all very exciting for me as I had only recently moved to NYC. Getting to hear Dewey, hanging with Kenny, and getting to meet and hang with Chris and David whom I was already very familiar with! It turned out to be Dewey’s last gig. I saw Ornette at the show and I had to tell him he changed my life – not to go too crazy, but I wanted to let him know. I walked through the crowd but missed him and he went backstage and I couldn’t get back there. So I waited around by one of the exits after the concert hoping he would pick that side to leave and he did. He could have left through the other side of the park and I would have missed him. I thanked him for his music and he struck up a conversation. We ended up talking for a long time and he invited me to come to his house and play. I did many, many times after that for four years or so. I learned a great deal from him as you can imagine, he is really a Socratic teacher, everything is a question.
TC: I’d be remiss to not ask you more about your studies with Ornette, since you must be one of the few who have. Is there any anecdote or story involving him and his teaching that would translate well to the page?
KK: It was so amazing to hang with him all the time that I didn’t even tell my friends about it for years. I only told a few people the first couple years, opening my mouth about it at all felt like bragging. He is dressed to the nine’s every day of the week even if he doesn’t leave the house, and he works every day. You go into his study with the leopard skin print carpet and the horn is out on the desk on top of a mountain of manuscripts. Being in the same small room with him while he played was a life changing experience – that sound! The sound you already knew so well, but now three feet from your face. The next part might make more sense to horn players, but if you’ve ever seen someone put together a saxophone from the case, then you’d know all the steps that are normally taken: putting on the neck; then the mouthpiece; wetting the reed; aligning it just right; putting on the ligature. Ornette got his case one day that the horn wasn’t already out, inside the bell was the neck, not wrapped with anything, with mouthpiece, ligature and reed already on and banging around inside, he put in on and Bam! That sound!
We played duo a lot, sometimes for a long period without stopping if he was pleased, or he’d stop after a few seconds if he didn’t like what I did – no pressure! Sometimes he would ask me to play solo. One time he left the room for a second and I stopped, then he said “don’t stop!” and he still didn’t come back for a while so I kept playing, that was a trip because it was one of my first visits. When he finally came back he had a bunch of questions for me about what I played. As I said before there were always a bunch of questions. He asked me “How did you stay so clear of a tonic?” And I’d have to explain myself. He’d ask “What’s more important, the idea or the key?” The idea. He asked “what’s your favorite key?” I said “I didn’t have one” and he said “right answer!” There was always talk of “the idea” as supreme and the resolution, always based on either a half or whole step, as what ties it all together.
TC: Since moving to NYC, you’ve made the acquaintance of a number of high-profile musicians, besides Ornette and Helias, including Butch Morris, Michael Formanek, Billy Hart, and most recently, Bill Goodwin. I’m guessing you’re driven, rather than just lucky in this regard?
KK: I’ve always felt very driven to be the best and play with the best, and playing with the best doesn’t just mean the most famous. My parents thought the amount of practicing I did was unhealthy at first. I want to meet and play with people I admire because I want to make the most music I can. Duke said “you have to be in the right place at the right time doing the right thing with the right people” so he adds what you’re doing to the equation – you have to be able to play too! So I think it’s always drive mixed with a little luck for me, sometimes very little! Playing with great people leads to playing with more great people too. It’s because I play with Matt Wilson that I got to meet and then play a lot with John Medeski. There is so much I want to do, so I try and think of good ways to go about it. It’s also fun to meet as many musicians as possible because they are such interesting people and I have made so many friends along the way. I love that some of my best friends are in their 80’s for instance, I don’t know if that kind of thing happens enough in all walks of life.
TC: Speaking of Ellington, that reminds me that you also seem to favor short, one word song titles, much like Ellington did later in his career, as did Steve Lacy. Were you inspired by their example, or is this merely a coincidence?
KK: Naming compositions can be difficult, because a lot of the tunes don’t have words. I’ve talked a lot with Karl Berger about this. He has a cool approach of singing the lines until they present some kind of lyric and then using a snippet of that. I’ve done this for some things since he told me about it a few years ago. A lot of my music is written with rhythms from speech to begin with. In the case of an homage or dedication a title can be pretty obvious but other times when a composition comes out of the air, less so. Some tunes just never seem to present a name, as was the case with “Next.” I wanted to move on in my work from finding a name, I had just read some George Carlin and he had a great quote, “Always do whatever’s next” so I called it “Next.” I think I was influenced by Ellington and Lacy a bit in the naming. I like names for jazz compositions that don’t sound pretentious, be it about an equation or some flowery imagery. I tend toward short and sweet but not always. Mingus had some great long titles, my friend Matt Pavolka is good at coming up with long titles too.
TC: What projects do you have planned for the immediate future?KK: I’m working on bookings for the trio with Bill and Mark. I’ve completed two CDs for later release: one is a quartet with Bill, Kenny Wollesen and Stomu Takeishi, called Lamplighter with all original compositions on Fresh Sound New Talent; and the other is a trio with Hamid Drake and Jamie Saft called Little Cross with some hymns and spirituals, as well as originals, on Steeplechase. I made a duet CD, actually a double CD, with Karl Berger called Moon, that’s coming out this month (April) on NoBusiness under Karl’s name. Other sideman stuff out soon will be with Todd Sickafoose’s Tiny Resistors, Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom, Michael Bisio’s quartet and Michael Formanek’s Big Band CD on ECM. Matt Wilson is going to record his new CD this June. Right now John Medeski and I are also cooking up a duet CD which I’m very excited about.
© 2015 Troy Collins