John Lindberg: Exciting Adventures
by Troy Collins
John Lindberg ©2016 Kontos Sotirios
John Lindberg moved to New York City from Ann Arbor, Michigan, as a teenager in the mid-1970s. The bassist was soon in the thick of the downtown loft scene, gigging with Marion Brown, founding the String Trio of New York with Billy Bang and James Emery, and studying with David Izenzon. In the ensuing four decades, Lindberg has worked with an impressively long list of luminaries, including Anthony Braxton, Albert Mangelsdorff, and Wadada Leo Smith.
It is with Smith, however, that Lindberg has enjoyed his most enduring relationship; the two have been performing together since 1978, when they toured Europe as members of Braxton’s Creative Music Orchestra. Since then they have worked in each other’s ensembles in various configurations, including a touring duet, as documented on last year’s Celestial Weather (TUM Records).
In addition to his role as an improviser, Lindberg is an award-winning composer with a catalogue that contains over one hundred and fifty published works, as well as commissions from The Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, New York Chamber Ensemble, and Neues Kolner Streichquartett. His discography as a leader, co-leader and sideman boasts over a hundred appearances on record, issued on a variety of labels, including Cecma, Black Saint, West Wind, ITM, and Sound Aspects.
Along with Celestial Weather, Lindberg’s recent recordings include Juggling Kukla (NoBusiness), a duet with cellist Anil Eraslan; and [A]live at Roulette, NYC (Jazzwerkstatt), by John Lindberg’s TriPolar, a trio with multi-instrumentalist Don Davis, and vibraphonist/percussionist Kevin Norton. Lindberg was interviewed in the fall of 2016, concurrent with the release of two brand new albums, simultaneously issued by Clean Feed Records: Born in an Urban Ruin, by John Lindberg BC3, with clarinetist Wendell Harrison, and Norton (playing vibraphone and percussion); and Western Edges, by the John Lindberg Raptor Trio, with baritone saxophonist Pablo Calogero, and drummer Joe LaBarbera.
Troy Collins: You currently have two new albums out under your own name on Portugal’s Clean Feed Records: Born in an Urban Ruin by BC3, and Western Edges by the Raptor Trio. Can you give me some background on how these ensembles and their subsequent recordings came to be?
John Lindberg: These two albums are the result of a combination of musical interactions that have developed over the last few decades.
The BC3 album is the most recently recorded and is a direct result of my fairly recent move back to Michigan. In a previous phase of life that had me living in the Detroit area around the year 2000, I had the good fortune to connect with Wendell Harrison, and during that period we did a number of duo, trio, and quartet performances. We had an immediate connection which was extraordinary. We did some more work together sporadically over the years, and simply kept in touch. So back in Michigan, I was inspired to write a series of works for clarinet/bass clarinet, vibraphone, and double bass. As is often the case with me, writing for specific personalities is just as important as the actual instrumentation, so the music on Born in an Urban Ruin was created with Wendell and Kevin Norton in mind from the beginning.
Kevin Norton has been a friend and colleague since around 2002, when I started to play in ensembles under his direction, and I was then back living in New York’s Hudson Valley. We have developed a growing rapport ever since then, and have done many diverse projects together. He is prominently featured on my 2011 album, TriPolar, [A]live at Roulette, NYC. I thought the instrumental and personality combination that is BC3 would create a very expressive chemistry, and it certainly did. Kevin and Wendell had never met until the first rehearsal just before the studio recording, so this album has that certain “unknown” factor that can come from that dynamic, which had a very particular, and frankly, surprising, effect on this recording.
The Raptor Trio album is primarily an outgrowth of an enduring friendship and musical collaboration that Pablo Calogero and I have shared since we first met over forty years ago when we were both sixteen years old. During the ‘70s loft era on New York’s lower east side, we worked together in myriad formations, and began delving into each other’s compositions, often in a very informal way. I’m really happy to have three of Pablo’s pieces featured on the Western Edges album. His playing and composing have long been close to my heart. Over the decades our lives have moved in a variety of directions and to diverse geographic locations, and we’ve always found ways to stay in touch, keep up our friendship, and create music together. Pablo was strongly featured on my 1984 album, Trilogy of Works for Eleven Instrumentalists, which remains a recording of marked sentimental value to me.
Pablo had been living in southern California for some time, so when I arrived there in 2011 to teach at CalArts, we reconnected and started getting together as much as possible to keep on working our stuff out. We thought it would be really something to make a baritone, bass, and drums trio recording. Joe La Barbera’s office at CalArts was right next to the one I used, so I had this great experience of hearing him play, practice, and teach through the wall quite often – sometimes while I was doing the same simultaneously. Anyway, we would of course talk as well, and it seemed such an obvious thing to ask him to be the drummer for the project Pablo and I had brewing. He was into it, and we got into the studio to realize it pretty quickly. I’m not sure, but I think Joe and Pablo may have first met in the studio. So this album too, has a certain “initial outing” quality to it. Joe brilliantly complimented, and added to, what Pablo and I had worked out, and I hoped the outcome could be shared one day. Now it has been through this release.
It was Clean Feed’s idea to release these two albums simultaneously – a concept I originally balked at – but I think it was actually a great idea that made a lot of sense.
TC: Since the Raptor Trio’s roots can be traced your formative days in the loft jazz era, perhaps you can take a moment to describe how you came to be involved in that seminal scene?
This period of high creativity and raw energy combined dynamic human development on myriad levels and imprinted me in many ways. The one defining quality that comes up when I reflect on this relatively short, yet completely profound piece of history is this: kindness.
When I was evicted from my apartment and was standing on the street with nothing but my bass and a duffel bag, Bobo walked over and invited me to move into The Theater – which I did for two years – rent-free. When I showed up at the aforementioned Lowe and Behold recording session, Phillip Wilson noticed that I was looking pretty peaked, and took me out and bought some rice and beans for me to eat before that session got underway. When there was an episode where I had become suddenly and seriously ill, David’s wife, Perry, picked me up and got me to a doctor.
Yes, it was a time of cooperative endeavor, unfettered creativity, and high levels of inventive fervor at every turn. But above all, I remember it as a time of kindness.
By 1979 I had moved to an apartment of my own on East Sixth Street and had gotten married. And in 1981, I moved to Paris with my wife, and my immersion in the historic and bygone mystical and magical loft jazz era was essentially completed. What a time it was. So much began. So much ended. And so much from that time still connects to, and lives on, in many aspects of my life and work to this day. It was, perhaps, even the beginning of my understanding of how everything is interconnected.
TC: And one of the more prominent reminders of that time is your ongoing work with Wadada Leo Smith. Thirty-eight years is a long time. Can you elaborate on what that working relationship is like?
JL: We have had in intuitive connection right from the start. It has been remarked that “something seemingly telepathic” is happening between us, and that is not at all an inaccurate way of depicting it. To work together in way where much is unspoken, unexplained, and allowed to unfold mysteriously yet deeply felt, is a hallmark of our connection. That symbiotic type of relationship has led to us being the best of friends, as well as long-term musical collaborators.
A unique and remarkable characteristic of our working relationship had been the wide array of settings in which we have worked together. From being sidemen together (such as our initial experience playing together with the Braxton Creative Music Orchestra, and several other situations since) to our duet project, to him being a member of my ensembles, to my being a member of his ensembles, to conducting workshops together, to teaching classes together, to working extensively both in the studio and in live performance all over the world, it has all served for an extraordinarily broad experiential canvas to continually create upon. Through all this, we have gained intimate knowledge of each others work as composers, interpreters, improvisers, organizers, producers, and educators – again, from a vast array of experience with a longevity of development. The longevity has by its very nature seen us face together all sorts of challenges and events together – from grueling tours, to personal crises, to celebrating many wonderful moments and achievements, and beyond. All of which informs our work with a deep experiential encyclopedia to draw from, in connection with the synchronous nature of our beings, resulting in the rare connection that we have shared for a long time.
As we do this interview, I’m preparing for our upcoming duet tour of the Midwest, where we will be performing compositions by both of us from last year’s release, Celestial Weather, and then we head directly to Berlin to present Wadada’s The Great Lakes Suites.
I suppose I could maybe best sum it up by saying that over the many years we have constantly found ourselves in myriad creative environments, and have continually developed new creative projects to engage in together. Even when there are considerable gaps between actual active work, we always remain connected in spirit and empathy.
TC: Are there any other musicians that you regularly work alongside, with whom you have a similar bond?
JL: No, not on the profoundly deep, ongoing, and comprehensive level that I have just described.
That said, my career has been significantly defined by long-term collaborations, to relative degrees. In their own ways they either are, or have been, important energy exchanges that have all taken on their own particular character.
I’ve already referred to the ongoing work and friendship with Kevin Norton over the last fourteen years or so. The eight-year run with Anthony Braxton was vital to me as a kid. From about 1981 until 1996 I worked a lot with pianist/composer Eric Watson in duo, trio and quartet settings, so that was about an invigorating fifteen year run. The mid 90s work with Albert Mangelsdorff – over about a five-year period – brought about three of my most cherished recordings and a number of really special performances. And of course, very close to my heart is the more than three-decade enduring collective, String Trio of New York. It has gone on and on in a nearly unimaginable number of permutations; that thing has obstinately clambered on through five shifts in the violin spot, several great subs in the bass and guitar spots over the decades, and the addition of many wonderful guest artists who’ve joined in the journey.
In 2010, while at a festival in Istanbul, I had another unique symbiosis occur, that erupted with a rare immediacy, with the cellist Anil Eraslan, a connection that has endured since that inaugural meeting. Although we haven’t had the opportunity to do a lot of work together over the six years of our connection, when we do create music it is a uniformly exquisite and moving experience. Last year we released a limited edition vinyl LP of our duet, Juggling Kukla, so that was very cool.
This is probably a good time to take what is perhaps a somewhat crucial diversion. We’ve been talking essentially about “working relationships” with human musicians. Many of my favorite musicians are not human. Particularly my close relatives from the winged family of creatures – the bird tribe – create music that I’ve been mesmerized by, listened to on a daily basis, and directly engaged with, literally my entire life. Also, what I sometimes refer to as “the night-sounding creatures,” most pertinently the many varieties of insects and frogs, have equally captured by auditive attention and fueled my spirit as well as my own sonic inspiration, again, all my life. So while these aren’t necessarily “working relationships,” they are essential relationships to the heart of who I am, and are one of the most direct conduits for me to the natural world, where I find the deepest peace, serenity, and sense of realness. So depending on how we define “work alongside,” perhaps I could add, that yes, these natural world musicians are ones with whom I share a similar bond, although it obviously plays out in an entirely different context.
TC: You are certainly not alone in your admiration for, and deriving inspiration from, birdsong and other non-human generated sounds (Eric Dolphy is perhaps the most famous advocate). Can you elaborate on specific examples of how birdsong and the like has influenced your playing and/or composing?
JL: First of all, it is primarily an awareness of being one with the natural environment – in absolute concordance and harmony with it – as opposed to being separate from it, in conflict with it, or viewing it as something to subdue by human will.
Therefore, on perhaps a more ethereal level, realizing that birds – and in particular for me, the raptor crew – are close relatives, informs a certain overall approach to the space one would put oneself in when creating music. On a more directly tangible inspirational level, this view would explain how a composition such as “Raptors,”from the recent Raptor Trio album, is arrived upon and performed: by looking within from such a perspective, and guiding the performing artists to go for a flight in a like way, as a unit. This same dynamic was explored earlier, in a different fashion, with the recording of the piece, “Soaring Hawk,”done in duet with the inimitable master percussion artist Ed Thigpen, while simultaneously serving as a tribute to Coleman Hawkins. I really miss Ed. I learned so very much from him.
There are quite a few examples of direct inspiration from this realm in my composing and performing over the years. Perhaps most obvious would be the two ensemble albums I did in the late ‘90s: The Catbird Sings and A Tree Frog Tonality. These title tracks are expositions upon particular transcribed melodies, rhythms, and textures from the named contributors that were my near neighbors in the environment I was living at the time.
The 2010 album by the psychedelic experimental jam band BLOB, Earphonious Swamphony, placed us in an imagined – yet collectively experienced in varied forms – wetland environment robust with the mysterious, stunning, and outlandish sounds that emanate from such places. Our instrumental and electronic interpretation of this placement resulted in some really surreal yet depictive sound collages, that frankly I think are fun to hear for the whole family – that family being the entire swath of all that exists, as one.
Wind is fantastic music, and for anyone whose ever spent a night on the Great Plains listening to it whip and whistle around their ears at an amazing rate, they know how enormously intense that music can be. Thunder is a groove – undeniable and literally earth-shaking. I love thunder! The natural world offers a non-stop grand improvisation of musical richness that is beyond all understanding, making it all the more phenomenal.
So my playing is something, when I am performing, that comes through me. I am not in thought. All thought process comes in the preparation and practice phases. In performance, I am in a place of flow, of optimal experience, and intuitive reaction. That’s on a good day, when the focus is acute. Other times, my litany of human foibles get in the way of all that, but I simply try my best, always, to get right back on point. The result has been sometimes described as “otherworldly.” And it is, when it’s happening, really happening. For everyone experiencing it, in a given moment.
In connection with all this is a visceral interest in extra-musical activities that have come to inform my work as a musician in rather unexpected ways. Serving as an ambulance driver for a community rescue squad, building a cabin with carpenter friends in the timber meadows of South Dakota, engaging as an observational naturalist in north woods wilderness areas – these types of life experiences, and more, have been vital input for continued musical creativity, growth, and sharing.
TC: Having known some people who were EMTs, I’m curious about your past as an ambulance driver. Can you elaborate?
JL: It was a call to service. I was driving past my local community rescue squad facility and on their sign out front this plea was posted: Urgent Need For Volunteer Ambulance Driver. Why Not You? Well, I pulled over to the side of road and sat there a while. Yeah, why not me? So I turned around, went in there and volunteered.
It involved getting CPR Certification and a few training sessions with an experienced driver, then I was off into it. I realized pretty quickly that this work was definitely in the vein of being in the flow of optimal experience. From the first time that beeper went off in my house in the middle of the night and I jumped into my car and raced to the facility to quickly assemble the crew and whip off to the incident, I was way into it – on the level of it being a very real way of helping others in an immediate way, and no doubt about it, I was into it being a real rush and state of hyper-focus – when we flipped on the siren and flashing lights and sped to a scene.
This was in a rural area, and a substantial number of our calls were relatively benign, and we’d simply load people in the bus and get them to the regional hospital for whatever treatment they needed. In the more serious, life and death, chaotic situations – like wrecks involving multiple vehicles – the professional EMTs from the closest city squad would show up and take over. So in those situations, while we were often first on the scene, it was a matter of just keeping things from deteriorating further before the pros came and more actively intervened, and then get those in the most serious predicaments off to the city hospital. But we had a lot to do, followed directions and aided the pros and the cops, and generally mopped up and got anyone in less serious condition to the regional hospital.
Technically, the most challenging part of the job was driving fast on rural roads and trying to not make the ride too rocky, often having the EMTs yell stuff at me like, “C’mon on man, smooth it out, I’m trying to put an IV in back here!” Sometimes the patients would direct their displeasure with their bouncing around back there at me as well. Then there was the additional challenge learning to back that bus carefully into the bay. I did the best I could.
More than once, when we were speeding down the road and watching the traffic split off in front of us, with siren and lights blazing, a certain colleague would exhort, “You never feel more alive than when you think you’re going to die!” I never really queried him on the inner meaning of this exhortation – was he referring to our possible deaths, to those in danger of death trying to get out of our way, or the persons maybe needing some sort of resuscitation that we were speeding towards? Maybe all that? Didn’t matter. It was apt.
The folks that worked on that rescue squad were a great bunch. They were generally really kind, caring folks and uniformly displayed a strong equanimity amongst all the mayhem that we sometimes found ourselves in. Some more vociferous than others, as mentioned, but that overall sense of remaining level-headed and capable in the face of urgency and crisis was really impressive to observe, learn from, and emulate.
TC: As I’ve said, I knew some EMTs, and they were a colorful bunch. Most had some sort of need for “supplemental support” considering the extreme conditions and hours, but there also seemed to be an attraction to living on the edge, which you so effectively described. I’m curious if maybe that love of being on the edge and being in the moment doesn’t have some sort of parallel in playing creative improvised music?
JL: I can only speak for myself of course, but yes, I think there can be a rather direct parallel. At the top level of creative music performance one has no idea whatsoever what is going to happen next, yet one is so focused on each moment of optimal experience, that you are also utterly prepared to react – spontaneously and experientially – in whatever way is called for to make compelling, genuine, authentically communicative sonic expressions.
Just as when one is immersed in responding to a crisis or emergency involving others, it is a very intuitive, reactive space to be in without time to think things through, but again, to react spontaneously and experientially through whatever one’s preparation process has been.
While one arena involves high level artistic creation, and the other is often literally riding that edge of life and death (which can be intoxicating and even somewhat addictive – the classic case of the adrenaline junkie, for example), I’m reminded of Rashied Ali’s famous reference, that playing this music is “as serious as your life.” I know that for myself, and many of my colleagues, that statement is really what is happening, it is not metaphorical. There are emotional, physical, financial, and logistical costs, and a host of others, involved with giving one’s life to the creative music and all that that entails.
In reflecting further on your question, I’d say that the being on the edge dynamic is definitely endemic to both arenas we are discussing here. The creative music edge probably most often has a longer, wider arc to its edge, while the crisis response arena probably usually has a shorter, sharper edge. In relation to all that, it is no coincidence that one of my new releases is entitled, Western Edges.
I’ll let a master I’ve learned enormously from have the last word on this subject:
“The Edge ... there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”
TC: In regards to working along the proverbial edge, I’m reminded of something drummer Allison Miller told me in a recent interview, which is that she considered ego to be the aspect that most constrains creativity in jazz. I was wondering what your thoughts on that statement might be?
JL: I am familiar with that interview and found Allison’s remarks to be not only right on point, but very welcome to hear. It seems, at least to me, generally speaking, folks want to scurry away from this perhaps difficult and challenging reality and simply look elsewhere for answers or solutions.
Allison stated that ego, and its relative fear, are to blame for all things constraining and lacking creativity. That’s a really perceptive statement, and I think it’s fair to say that it actually applies to all aspects of the human condition, and extends further on to be what is at the root of all things destructive and mean-spiritedly competitive. It is mind boggling to realize how completely indoctrinated we can become – through a plethora of modalities that seep into us both consciously and unconsciously – with models and formulas for living that have clear expectations and pressures to actively exercise ego, fear, and some of the other extended family such as hate, anger, and greed. In many cases the behaviors emanating from such designs are widely applauded, lauded, awarded, and rewarded by our society ... at least on an external level of perception. Whenever one actually goes in, and takes a deep, and what can be a brutally honest examination, of what is really happening, it seems clearly obvious that an equation something like the following is perhaps an authentic way to actual freedom, creativity, construction and cooperation:
+ love, borne of compassion, – hate, borne of ego, = (at every turn) peace & serenity
This is a simple concept, an ideology perhaps, yet it is experientially arrived upon. My own life excursion has found me treading down many of the dark destructive paths, the results of which are then of course transferred, sadly and even tragically, to those around you in whirlwinds of chaos and discontent. And we see this type of thing, over and over again, all around us in myriad contortions, and at the core it does indeed seem to always come oozing out of the ego into a state of self-absorption and self-loathing, which then quickly translates to loathing the “other,” and to yet more fear, greed, and ultimately destruction, in some form or another.
I do my best to learn from everything that happens, in music and in life overall, and face up to what needs to be faced up to, and it is an ongoing never-ending learning and growing process, no doubt.
So I agree heartily that ego constrains creativity in jazz, as it certainly only gets in the way of the mystery and guiding force of the music itself, and blocks the widest possibilities for freedom of expression within an ever-evolving art form, the natural consequences of which seem to call for unfettered and always unfolding explorations.
TC: Following on from ego into a more practical mode, do you typically write parts specifically geared towards your bandmates’ strengths, or do you follow a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes themselves are more skeletal in conception?
JL: One of the luxuries engendered by long-term collaboration is the possibility to write in-depth for specific musical personalities, and personality combinations. I don’t think of it in terms of given or perceived strengths and weaknesses, as I also don’t think in judgmental terms about what may be perceived at a given time as being good or bad. That is simply an outcome of having viewed occurrences in this life as being of strength, or as a good thing, for example, only to discover – either a bit further down the road or when shown in a different light – that I was viewing the same as weak or bad. So I do my best to avoid this kind of judgmental process altogether and see everything that is happening as an ever-shifting energy field that is often surprising and always an exciting adventure.
So when writing for known bandmates I address their personalities – as I understand them – with a broad approach, incorporating material that I think will both highly compliment them while equally challenging them. I can add that I do the same when writing for myself.
Then there is the factor that every ensemble has its own character as to how the musical assembly process works, ranging from substantial input and suggestion from every ensemble member to it being guided entirely by the so-called leader, with various gradations in-between. In my opinion, in writing music for improvising artists, the best results are achieved with some level of ample input by all the contributors to the music, in whatever form that may take. I’ve brought in pieces that have seen wholesale change done to them through this process, and others that changed not at all, or very little. It’s actually fascinating to see and hear what is going to happen. It’s one of the many things I love about creative music, this certain quality of the unknown always being there, sometimes omnipresent, sometimes lurking in the shadows, but always there.
There are also the instances where I was simply wrong (yes, deeming oneself as right or wrong is again a judgment, yet I see this in the same malleable ever-changing light mentioned previously) about what effect a piece would have on a given group. A solid example of this that comes to mind is the piece “Skip,” which I wrote especially for the Winter Birds quartet recording (with Baikida Carroll, Steve Gorn, and Susie Ibarra).
That thing was not a piece for that quartet at all! I was really mistaken. I didn’t fight it, or try to press to make it happen, just put it aside, and we recorded what I consider a beautiful record, without that piece. Many years later, I pulled the piece out and put it before the group TriPolar (with Don Davis and Kevin Norton), a different instrumentation and new personalities. The thing then worked great! Who would have thought? We performed it extensively and recorded a great version of it. So the routes any given work takes can often be a surprising one, and revealing, which leads to new perceptions and growth.
In writing totally notated works (which in my catalogue include string quartets and quintets, small and large chamber ensemble pieces, and solo works) there is a different process in play as I’m intent at getting all the necessary information down on the page to depict in the most detailed way possible what I’m saying. In these instances I’m writing for essentially classically trained instrumentalists, often ones I do not know personally, so I’m writing for instrumentation specifically, to tell the story I have in mind. I’ve found that so-called classical musicians often have as many suggestions about the interpretation of work as jazz or improvising artists do – and often very specific ones about articulations, dynamics, phrasing and so on. I’m always open to these suggestions – whether I use them or not – because, well, there is simply so much that I don’t know. Many suggestions from various artists about my compositions have been implemented and as a result enhanced the story I had in mind. Sometimes I decide to not use them, or use them partially. Essentially, what I’m saying is that I love and appreciate input and feedback. It has been really helpful to me, and crucial to my development as an artist.
I once had a graduate student at CalArts come and tell me that he appreciated my class that particular semester mainly because of one thing – which was that when students asked me specific questions it would not be uncommon for me to answer, “I don’t know.” Then, as a class we would explore that question, and not be intent on answering it, or solving it per se, but investigating it and perhaps leaving it as a mystery to be embraced as just that – a mystery. He went on to say, by comparison, that his experience in academia was that teachers almost always had some kind of answer to every question posed, and, to him, to have a teacher often say “I don’t know” was refreshing. He thanked me for that. There may have been many other students that just thought I was an abject idiot. I don’t know. I just mention this here because it’s a cogent example of how a place of not knowing can be nurturing, and a well for creativity to spring from.
Finally, to address directly the aspect of this question about the egalitarian approach with a skeletal conception – a description I like very much by the way – I’ll say that is indeed a way of assembling things that I’ve utilized, maybe most literally with the JazzHopRevolution project, where the process involved me recording the music in New York – essentially the “beats” with drummer Tani Tabbal – then sending these skeletal bass and drums tracks to lyricist Rahman Jamaal in California, who would then write and record the vocal tracks on top of that, addressing the agreed upon subject matter. Then we’d go over it on the phone and work it all out. Sometimes I’d even get a live rap over a rhythm track on the phone right away. That was great! This was a process that worked really well for us, and when we eventually physically met for the first time to do the actual recording and filming together, it was like we had, on another sphere, already known each other and been working away on stuff for quite some time. That was a memorable experience that taught me a lot.
TC: Thinking of collaboration, what is the current status of the String Trio of New York? And perhaps more importantly, how has the group’s trajectory affected your own personal development as an artist?
JL: Status: 1. At this point the venerable ensemble could be silver elite, gold, platinum, sapphire or diamond. I’m not the one to decide, but perhaps there is a mechanism out there, or a decider, that could ascertain where the trio best fits in that pantheon.
Status: 2. A well-seasoned unit always fully prepared to report for active duty.
The trio’s trajectory has so many chapters, and footnotes, that I imagine it has affected my own artistic development in many ways that I’m not at all fully aware of. What I am acutely aware of is the organic way that the original version – with Billy Bang and James Emery – came together. That single event has probably had the most obvious and profound effect on me of all. We met up, just starting playing, and were absolutely flabbergasted by the sound we created together, and immediately collectively agreed it was something to move forward with and formalize in whatever way we could at that time. This ensemble had no thought-out concept of instrumentation, personnel, or anything else. It simply happened. The way that we so unquestioningly trusted this thing we had organically discovered, is a sensibility that has stayed with me always, although similar scenarios have been exceedingly rare, and nothing has ever actually paralleled it. That is a beautiful, beautiful thing in this life; inherent, unconditional, unquestioned trust. If Billy had been playing a tuba, James a xylophone, and me the bagpipes, and we had been taken by the sound that we created in the same way, that’s what the ensemble would have been. We would have trusted it and gone with it. No questions asked.
The evolution of us going from a discovery in improvisation, to a composers collective, to introducing classic jazz works into the repertoire, to commissioning an array of stellar composers to write for us, to adding in extraordinary guest artists, has been an absolutely incredible ride to contribute to, share in, learn from, and frankly be awestruck from, considering all the cascading phases that were flowing out of that original meeting over a really considerable period of time.
Most of all, I have a strong sense of gratitude for being part of a force that has a strength in and of itself, that defies definition, categorization, or specific criticism. It is a living organism. In learning to respect it for just exactly what it is, it certainly has made me very aware of respecting all other aspects of musical endeavor I engage in. So the mix of states of unawareness and awareness with which our path has been trodden on, from my perspective, is both mystifying and affirming. I love that about it.
TC: The String Trio of New York’s compositional approach obviously mirrors your own style of writing, which includes an array of tonal colors and historically aware genre tenets. As a composer, how do you negotiate multiple stylistic idioms within your own multifaceted pieces?
JL: I don’t negotiate with styles.
What I do is write from the heart – often about specific historical events, in homage to certain inspirational figures, in reflection about emotions felt and experienced – and utilize everything I’ve absorbed through extensive listening and research. I like all kinds of music, and therefore all kinds of influences seep in, and I neither strive to avoid, nor include, specific styles and genres. If what I want to create and express happens to fall into some readily definable genre, that’s simply a natural result of the creative process of putting the pencil to manuscript paper, and seeing where it goes as I put down whatever I think will be necessary – which can take on a wide variety of structures and systems to effectively indicate to the musicians what the story is, what the backstory is, and the spectrum of possibilities that I see for interpretation, and using the pieces as a vehicles for highly focused improvisation that require keen reactive skills to what everybody involved is playing.
To me, it’s not the stylistic frameworks themselves that matter so much, but rather the manner in which they are pulled off in the context of creating a compelling and authentic narrative.
TC: In addition to your own ensembles and collectives like the String Trio of New York, you have had memberships in numerous bands. What advantages and challenges have you found in contributing to so many different groups?
JL: Primarily that they all were, and are, learning experiences.
Having ascertained by the time I was in third grade that the formal school environment wasn’t for me, I bided my time and then left it at the first opportunity: after turning sixteen. So I was a first-degree dropout, in the sense that it was fully premeditated.
Having emphatically chosen this route, it called for a curriculum of self-education, which actually was largely dependent on an ability to seek out an apprenticeship of sorts, and then also constantly put myself in situations where I was learning on the job, so to speak, with musicians that were older, more experienced, and far better than I was. This part was not that difficult as a teenager and into my early 20’s, as I was surrounded by musicians that met this description, and I had only to count on their patience, kindness, and openness to allow me to learn in this way. I was fortunate to find many such situations. As to the apprenticeship, I was offered this through my relationship with David Izenzon. It developed on a wide array of levels, far beyond that of bass playing, and I think that apprenticing with someone often does do just that – take one to areas never imagined when you initially engaged in the relationship – I suppose that is fundamentally the point of a true apprenticeship.
The advantage of multifarious immersions is being able to learn from many very different ways of organizing and presenting music. One learns as many things about how you would never want to do things yourself, just as much as you learn things that you’d really like to subsume and maintain moving forward. All these experiences, put together, have served as a means to a really broad-based education.
Being totally into exciting adventures in all facets of life, I inherently love a good challenge, of any kind. And whether I fail or succeed in meeting them (and this is again open to shifting interpretations) I always learn from taking them on. Often a good part of this learning comes in the preparation process. As much as it is has possible, I’ve always been into preparation for looming challenges. I learned this in the Boy Scouts. Be Prepared. It may be the single most useful lesson I was ever taught. That said, I’ve often come up short in this regard, and then had to go back and see where I screwed up in my preparation (and hence my execution), and again, learn from that. And then, in creative improvised music where spontaneous reaction and intuitive response is core to its integrity, preparation serves to give you tools (sometimes unconsciously implanted ones) to be the most effective you can possibly be in any given situation. So taking on a diversity of challenges and I’m thinking of this word in the sense of it being a call to take on something that requires special and extraordinary efforts of various sorts – has been another key component in a viscerally experienced educational progression.
Another thing about exciting adventures is that an intrinsic part of them is that you are confronted with situations and circumstances you could never have possibly even conceived of preparing for, and you have to deal with them nonetheless with immediacy and efficiency if you are going to persevere and move through it. You are presented with things that seem like unsolvable problems or dilemmas and you just have to work the problem, then the next, and the next, and so on, until you’ve moved through it. That kind of stuff is exceedingly demanding and absolutely exhilarating!
As part of a natural progression, as I’ve aged, I’ve found the flipside of my original educational process to be integral to continued learning: that being for some time now I’ve reached out to younger, less experienced artists that have a fresh and new slant on the creative process and see what those kind of collaborations can do to enhance my own knowledge, imagination, and perceptions. There are endless modalities of continuing education, without a doubt, as long as one is open to them all.
TC: As one who is interested in “exciting adventures in all facets of life,” I’m curious if any non-musical adventures have influenced your approach to making music?
JL: I previously referred to the ambulance driving, the building of a cabin with carpenter friends in remote South Dakota timber meadows, and engaging as a north woods observational naturalist earlier – all of which have deeply informed my approach to music, and all of which definitely had their aspects of “exciting adventure” to them, no doubt! The building project had direct connections to the music in this regard: I learned an enormous amount about assembling interlocking structures and systems, something that translates to music construction in a not at all abstract way.
I’ve come to see over time that all of life experience congeals as a singular whole, and it is not really necessary to separate parts or sections out from that whole, although it can often be useful – and even fun – to do so. This view of an “oneness” took considerable time for me to arrive at.
So here’s some specific exciting adventures that most definitely have been crucial in molding the being that I am and therefore the music that I create: Thru-hiking the Greenstone Ridge on Isle Royale National Park in 1971 with my Boy Scout troop ... this experience cemented a life-long love for nature and wild places and getting out to hike within them; hitchhiking all around the country with a double bass as a teenager ... what an overall arc of adventure that was with many spokes off that wheel being equally challenging – from sleeping under roadside picnic tables to waiting for several hours along a Kansas highway while being baked in the sun and seeing various mirages to being picked up by truckers that would work their CB radios and line-up rides for me right on down the way; every concert tour, but most pertinently the one that those of us that experienced it refer to among ourselves as “The Tour,” where over seventeen days and nights everything that could go wrong did and then a whole bunch more stuff that we could never have imagined also gave us seemingly insurmountable challenge after seemingly insurmountable challenge – we met them all, and it was this tour that yielded the recording A Tree Frog Tonality, perhaps a testament to the strength and camaraderie gained through it all; running and completing the Los Angeles Marathon in 2004 after having only ever run a maximum of ten miles at a time leading up to it, slugging it out on a ninety degree day, having the inner realization at about mile twelve that I’d now gone somewhere never before visited, nobody warned me that my toenails could turn purple and fall off, which they did – great lesson in perseverance and the joy of reaching deep within to go where you’ve never been; playing in a men’s hockey league into my mid-forties and sometimes getting absolutely annihilated out there, and thinking, “What in the world am I doing this for?” ... then getting out there on the ice for my next shift and it being yet another absolutely exciting adventure; hiking extensively through wilderness area such as in the Black Hills and the Porcupine Mountains, often alone, and being challenged in ultra-focus over every step, every observation, every sensation felt; the processes of recovery and discovery in the wake of devastating injuries and flattening illnesses ...
Often it is the participation in endeavors that are simultaneously physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually challenging. Other times it can be as soft and gentle as seeing a Rose-breasted Grosbeak landing on a branch outside my window, or seeing and hearing Sand Hill Cranes fly over me as I’m walking in the woods.
And then there is that extreme exciting adventure of looking a blank slate dead in the eye – whether it be a blank piece of manuscript paper, a blank calendar, or other such open canvases – and think, “What am I going to do now?
“Life is an exciting adventure … or it is nothing.”
It’s something of a choice, and I made mine early on.
TC: Speaking of choices, I’m curious how you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?
JL: I once had the extraordinary opportunity of having a front row seat to a production of the Israel Horovitz play, Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway. It featured the two-person cast of Jason Robards and Judith Ivey.
The only real point of reference I had going into this was having seen Jason Robards in a few films, which I had thought he was brilliant in, so I was excited to see him in person. What ensued was a real peak life experience in the context of observing an artistic performance.
The play itself was fantastic, the performances were riveting, and I was utterly captivated. I could feel it, really deep down. Watching the sweat drip off of Jason Robards, the spittle flying out of his mouth, the manic physical energy that Judith Ivey exuded – all just a few feet away – made it such a gut-felt experience, that it was as if I myself was in the play.
At its completion, as they took their curtain calls, Jason Robards just sat in a chair, covered with sweat, eyes bloodshot, clearly totally expended from having given everything he had to this performance. It is an image that sticks in my head with crystalline clarity.
Maybe it’s a single moment I can point to that defined for me the vast gulf between live performance and recorded performance.
They are really two different things. For actors and actresses there is an analogous situation with what musical artists deal with. Acting on film vs. acting on stage, playing in a studio versus playing on stage. It’s my own feeling that recordings can only, at best, capture some sort of replication, or facsimile, of what actually happened. I could have watched every single thing Jason Robards ever filmed for example, and from that I don’t think I could have even an inkling of the profundity of what he had to offer as an actor, such as I received from that one night sitting there right in front of his magnificent performance.
Obviously the process of recording in a studio (or filming in one), offers all sorts of production possibilities that cannot happen live. The numerous takes that can be done, the effects that can be added, the mixing and re-mixing that can be done, the possibility to isolate performers in separate booths hearing what is happening only through headphones, recording in small segments rather than in thru-takes, editing and more editing ... depending on the producer (or director) there’s a seemingly endless array of techniques available to use, plus there is more time to do achieve a final result in.
There are definitely genres of music where studio recording is perhaps paramount to an artist’s expression, and is in fact the best format for them to work in. I really don’t know all that much about that, in the broad sense of how the recording industry works on a comprehensive scale. I can speak to the experiences I have had in the music I’ve done however, and for me, the basic difference of there not being an audience to feed off of, interact with, and communicate directly to, when in the recording studio, is probably the main thing that makes it such a different enterprise. Although, when attempting to skirt this void by recording live albums, I’m still left with the sense that it does not really even come close to the actual live experience. And how could it? It is simply something entirely different, which serves another purpose that offers another experience. There’s nothing quite like sitting alone in a room at home and putting on a vinyl side of exquisite music, closing your eyes, and drifting away to an alternate reality ...
Or maybe better said, drifting deeper into reality. While much of commercial music seems to me to have the primary intent of entertaining listeners and distracting them from reality, the music I involve myself in – creative music rawly derived from the heart – seeks to draw listeners further into reality in a very deep-rooted way. (That’s a considerable difference.)
I like both live performance and the craft of studio recording. I view them as different challenges that call for different skills and sensibilities to be employed. Each of these differing settings for playing inform the other, and can, when seen in a wide overall sense, blend into one artistic statement, expressed over the arc of an artist’s career. The documentary aspect of recording is interesting; things can live on long after a given performance, long after a performer’s life. The mystical experience of a live performance that happens in a swift moment or set of moments, and then disappears into the ether forever is the most spiritually affirming and rewarding one to me on a communicative level of immediacy, as there are just those beings that are present in a given space at a given time that experience it, and they will all experience it and remember it somewhat differently! There’s no going back to examine it again and again, except through collective memory. I find that absolutely fascinating.
TC: In a similar line of thought, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival copies (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?
JL: I have never created any music with the intention of it being compressed down into a MP3 format and listened to through ear buds while one is riding on a bus, or worse yet, arrived upon while poking at a mobile device while driving and therefore unwittingly becoming part of that whole tragic widespread distraction that is going on now. When I make an album, carefully creating an overall narrative, I’ve never had the intent that individual tracks could be acquired (via downloading and streaming platforms for example.) So that aspect is an artistic disturbance as the work is taken out of its context. There are pieces that can stand alone as singles, but as an artist I would want to make that decision, and now that’s become impossible.
As to the state of the recording industry at large – as it pertains to jazz and creative music – it’s a state of mass chaos. There’s a huge oceanic cesspool of quantity available (with gems out there among it all, no doubt), sure, but as to quality of much of the actual work and as to how it’s being presented ... well, yeah, it’s a travesty of sorts. Yet there are remarkable labels – Clean Feed and TUM are among them – that are finding ways to creatively persevere amidst the chaos, and I have nothing but admiration and appreciation for their ability to do so. That’s the way it is and I just do the best I can within the environment that is (and vinyl is making a come-back of sorts so I see that as a real positive thing), not fighting it, just trying to be in harmony with it all on some level. No easy task. But that’s fine. Easy tasks have never attracted me.
We are in a time where comfort and ease of accessibility is viewed as being the most important things (together with an expectation that much of creative content out there should be free or really cheap), and instant gratification is coveted. I know for myself, that for everything I’ve ever discovered that was really worth something, it took a lot of searching, work, and effort to find it, and then more of the same to examine and explore it. There was nothing easy or comfortable about any of it. And every ounce of effort was well worth it. Lest I end up just sounding like a crotchety old coot who’s simply been unable to adapt and keep up with modern technological developments, and had it all pass him by, I’ll turn to some words (that echo my own sentiments) of a very unique creative artist that I think might sum up this scenario in a superior fashion than my own utterances can:
“There’s a lot about records that you cannot feel from a CD. I know that’s an era that’s gone, but for a lot of people my age, it was a very important thing. How a record slips out. The crackle when it plays. It’s lovely, very alive. CDs are not alive. I know everything’s about comfort these days - that’s why there’s digital instead of analog. Analog is more beautiful than digital, really, but we go for comfort.”
TC: In light of the recording industry’s current complexities, do you find musical inspiration in any technological advances, stylistic movements or particular artists?
JL: I’ve spoken quite a bit about what inspires me, but I can add that I am constantly inspired by all genuine artists, of all kinds. Any being that takes on this behemoth of a calling grabs my respect and attention, in one way or another.
The two most moving, inspirational live performances I’ve seen in recent times were the Crazy Horse Singers at Rosebud in South Dakota. An incredibly powerful experience that opened a window to an entirely new realm for me. The other one was the Sun Ra Arkestra at the San Sebastian Festival in Spain. That was so uplifting and buoyant – with solos particularly mesmerizing to me by Vincent Chancey and Marshall Allen – I just felt like I could ride on the buoyancy and beauty of it for quite some time, and in fact, have done so!
I have really loved listening to the recordings of Iris DeMent for quite a few years, and more recently have really been enthralled by Alanis Morrisette recordings that I’ve been discovering.
Both of these singer-songwriters really fascinate me, and I feel something from their work that, yes, I find very inspirational.
Since looking at an array of screens is something that I focus on keeping to an absolute minimum (with the exception being my keen interest in following and studying the work of quality filmmakers) digital technological advances haven’t been a source of inspiration, rather more of an unwelcome distraction, and something that has increasingly made direct face to face communication devolve into an array of digitally compressed emotions and utterances being bandied about at un-absorbable volumes. So I seek to find, and maintain, relationships based on direct personal contact where things are discussed, examined, and experienced together in depth and at length. That’s the type of relationships I find to have real human value.
TC: What projects do you have planned for the immediate future?
JL: This question is indeed a ubiquitous one in cultural circles, and while I understand the curiosity, it frankly doesn’t connect with how I live, so I can’t answer this in the form of an outline of upcoming projects that will be unrolled, or anything like that.
What I can say is that I stay resolutely focused on what’s happening right now (with varying degrees of success). The distractions pulling one away from this focus can be massive.
So my plans are therefore based on the immediacy of the circumstances and situations I find myself. Your question is about the immediate future. Right at this moment I can best answer that by saying; living life to its fullest, walking lightly on the earth and allowing for the possibility of creative fervor to emerge with each step, finding space for quiet contemplation, packing my stuff up in this hotel I’m in and hoping I don’t – yet once again – leave something useful behind, preparing my mind to concentrate on the rigors of driving on I-94 to Chicago, prepare my mind for the performances there with Wadada Leo Smith and Mike Reed. That’s what the projects of the immediate future for me are. I’m interested, as are some others, about what the “next projects” brewing might be. I understand, and appreciate, that interest. I am constantly creating new projects, putting some aside, and coming back to some that have been dormant.
So, I don’t know. There are undoubtedly things on the horizon that seem solidly in place and then may well turn out not to be, others that are not even in my line of vision now that will materialize and come to fruition at some point.
What I have planned for the future – as concerns musical projects or other endeavors – is something that I certainly don’t have control over, maybe I can influence it a bit through perseverance and determination. Therefore, accepting and embracing what does come, and making the absolute most of it, is the way I think and feel my way down the path of the exciting adventure of life.