Parisian Thoroughfare
curated by
Alexandre Pierrepont

Mike Reed
Interviewed by Alexandre Pierrepont and Francis Hofstein
for L'art du Jazz
Francis Hofstein, Editor in Chief
Published by Éditions du Félin, Paris


Jason Roebke + Mike Reed                                                                                         Ziga Koritnik©2010

Francis Hofstein: So, straight on, why are you a drummer?

Mike Reed: Well, there’s two answers. One, this is like the typical answer for people: when I was young, I became fascinated with the drums. I think I was watching the Muppets Show, and Buddy Rich was on it… and so that’s how I think I discovered I was into drums! And then, I was always telling my parents, “I want to play drums, I want to play drums”. Maybe they’d give me a little toy drum here and there, but I really wanted a drum set and they were like, “No”. Finally when I was going to high school, you know, you have a celebration and people give you money, so I had this money and they couldn’t stop me from buying a drum set! I took a few lessons and kind of knew how to do some things and my older brother is a musician who played guitar and my grandfather was very much into music. Very much into country music, like Waylon Jennings, like Willie Nelson. In high school I played a little bit. And then, like most teenagers, you’re thinking about driving cars and playing sports and it was just another thing that I had. Sometimes, every three or four months, I’d play a little drums for a couple of days. But I loved music. I thought for a second, “Oh, it would be great to be a DJ, or be in a hip-hop group”, or whatever. So, why I really played the drums was because when I went to the University and I met people who were really into music, some of them were really good musicians and we shared some musical interests like jazz and blues records and some rock records and stuff like that and I thought, “I want to play! And you know what? I have these drums. I think I’ll play these drums”. Had I started with nothing I’d probably be playing keyboards or something else, but I just had drums already so I didn’t have to buy an instrument (laughter) If you listen to the music that I make for my bands, I don’t solo very often and so the music is not “drummer’s music”. I like being part of the band instead of being the focal point. I just wanted to play in the music and share in it, you can hear it in most of the records on which I play. When I finally started to take real lessons, people didn’t teach me that way. They were like, “no, you serve a function, you keep time, you support the rest of the band”. And so it kind of worked with my personality, too, and the way that I think about things. I really like the idea of having a unit, a team. And I also think that way for jazz and improvising. That instead of being soloists; obviously there’s always a solo, that is one of the big parts of jazz music, but like with the quartet, with People, Places and Things, I never wanted the band to be where one guy takes a solo while another guy goes over there and stands and waits. No, no, no, you have to pay attention, ‘cause there’s things that you need to do while the band is happening or that could happen so that we’re all participating all the time. I like that more and so the drums… I don’t know… I wish sometimes that I could play piano better. But drums, I do love the instrument. When I sit down, I really do love to play the drums, just I like the idea of making music. Also, with improvising, with free improvising, drummers that really interest me are ones who can do things without really having to strike the drums in a traditional way. They can get sounds out of it that are just... Sometimes, if you play with a guitar player or a bass player, they have the ability to bring it down very quiet, the dynamics. And so, what do you do as the drummer? You make one noise and it’s like, “Oh damn, I just ruined it”! So, how to think about how to get the instrument to not sound like the drums, whether it’s bowing a cymbal, or rubbing the head, or using something different to strike it so you get a different sound, now you can still be part of the music. I really like people who do that well.

FH: In a way, using all the musicians the way you use them, or involve them, is like using the whole drum set. You want them all to play together, always, to stay in the music. It’s very interesting…

MR: And it’s not that you’re not always participating: you’re always involved in what’s happening. And that might mean, don’t play, because you’re involved, you’re like, “Oh, wait, don’t do anything right now”, because you want to allow something else to happen. You’re still engaged in it; it’s not like you just took your solo and then went and took a break. You’re always having to be involved with what’s going on.

Alexandre Pierrepont: More and more drummers are also composers of their own music. Starting maybe in the sixties with the first Tony Williams, or with Milford Graves and Joe Chambers, in very different ways: Either they don’t “solo” much, either they are in a state of permanent solo. How do you look at the think between having this understanding of the way you want to be a drummer and the emphasis on being a composer?

MR: There’s a lot of great drummers. Do you know how I judge how I really love a drummer? It’s if I want him to be in my band. If I was the piano player or the tenor player or whatever, that guy’s great but do I want him in my band? No, not really. I want this guy. And probably it’s because certain people play compositionally. And some other people play function. It’s like you’re swinging and you have to do these functions here. This stuff in this section comes so you have to set it up. Other people are always thinking, well, this sound adds to the compositional structure of the piece, whether it’s actual written music or it’s improvisational music. It’s hard to say how it works, but I can hear it when people do it. And it’s like the nuances of how hard they’re playing, especially when you hear them play the same tune many times. Someone who I really love in Chicago, a contemporary, Frank Rosaly, he’s a great drummer. I’d love to have him in my band. Because I can hear him playing and he’s, “OK, I need to do this”, and when I hear him play these same tunes, he’s treating them differently every time – where there are other people who are great drummers, but it’s like they’re doing it the same way. There’s something to be said for that, that’s kind of interesting, but not to me. Because it’s not compositional. He’s just going thump, thump, thump down the line of what needs to happen, instead of it always being very fluid and open-ended and what could be happening, so you’re kind of composing on the spot what the drum parts are which is really interesting. And also very frustrating. And also incredibly joyous, because when it’s working, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, that’s it”! – this new moment of making the music work. So, yeah, I think people use that comment a lot, playing compositionally, but I also notice that drummers who write very interesting music, they play like that. They play with a nuance. Maybe it’s a hit on a bell, he’s playing like what he’s hearing is a piano and that’s why he’s doing that. You can hear it; you can feel it. He’s thinking across the whole band’s sound. And it could be in listening to a duo, it’s really beautiful when you can hear somebody do it that well. Gerald Cleaver, he’s another one like that, very compositional in his playing.

AP: Do you think it’s possible to compose from the drums?

MR: Of course. It definitely is. A lot of people have done it. But I don’t do that. Well, that’s not completely true, because if you do play compositionally, you may be playing a rhythm that’s very interesting and that moment may inspire you, it makes you think about what other instruments that might sound like. So, if I’m doing that and think, “Ah, that’s really cool”, so then I get up from the drums and go and pick up another instrument and I still have the drum part in my head so then, what would the rest of the band sound like? But I couldn’t sit there and write music just from the drums, it doesn’t make sense to me. Other people do it. Their concept is probably more oriented to that. I know Hamid Drake’s concept is very much about rhythm; that’s what his power and focus is really on. But that’s not necessarily my focus.

FH: Rhythm is not necessarily your focus, is that what you said?

MR: It’s not necessarily my focus. Some other people have different concepts of how they will attack not only the music but especially their instrument. For me, this sounds crazy, but even the drums, I don’t necessarily think about it, even though the rhythmic aspect is essential, I don’t necessarily think that is what needs to happen when I sit at the drum set. And I don’t want anybody else to have to think that is what has to happen, either. If that’s what they’re thinking in the band, in my band, then they’re thinking wrong. If it was somebody else’s band and they need to do that, then that’s a different story, but for me it’s like, no, I don’t want to do that, I’m not going to play that swing rhythm or that beat, I just don’t want to. It doesn’t sound right to me. Sometimes, playing live, you make these decisions and they sometimes work, but I think on recordings, they pretty much work because it’s like: Now, why aren’t you playing this beat? It doesn’t sound right to me and then we listen back and it sounds better when you don’t do those things. Then all of a sudden it opens up for me, compositionally. I don’t write intense, crazy, very intense music: I write tunes. They’re nice, they’re fun and we can elaborate on them. But it doesn’t square the parameters, because I don’t know enough about long form composition to try to break conventions. So I have a lot of conventions that happen in the songs that I write and if I don’t, it’s slightly by accident. Like a song in sixteen bars in my version is nineteen; it’s kind of by accident, because it sounds right, there should be these extra bars. I don’t know why, but it’s not because I’m going to do something very smart here and add these. There are other times where it’s very conventional and it’s like sixteen bars and how do we now make this different? We need to make it sound different. Maybe it’s familiar but not rudimentary. And that’s by arranging; it’s by the conceptual process and also by the people you bring into the band, onto the team. Which I think maybe is one of my stronger suits – knowing who to have involved and how I need them to function. If there’s a compositional or arrangement aspect that I’m pretty good at I guess its personnel. Having the right type of people involved and then giving them the assignments that they may not really understand. And then also listening back to what they then feed back. I’ve really thought a lot about it, and I’d really like to write and talk more about the idea of collective arranging. Like the Dutch guys who have the whole thing about “instant composing”. But the idea of collective arranging has been around forever.

FH: What’s the difference with improvising?

MR: Improvising is part of it, but for instance, I’ll bring in some new music, written out, and I’ll give it to everybody and say, “OK, let’s try this, this here’s the idea, you do this, you do that”, and we try it. And then, it doesn’t sound right, so, “Can you try bowing the vibraphone on this, but only the second time through?” And then he might say, “Yeah, but I’ll just use these notes of the chord, because if I play too much of the chord it’ll sound too heavy.” Then he adds his part of it, his ideas, and it all just kind of builds up and then – this happens a lot with the band Loose Assembly – we don’t ever write down what we said was going to happen, and then we fine tune it, and that’s our arranging. So we’ve collectively shared an idea that I’ve put forth with this tune and we’ve used it, and now that thing that he does, that thing which he’s figured out, is essential to the song. And so essential that, for instance, what will happen, with that band especially, everybody has a different part. Now, we could play a set of music without a set list and somebody else will play his part and will be freely improvising and these arrangements where the vibraphone does this, the cello does this, the alto does this, bass, drums... It’s like all these roles could be reversed just by things where, “I’m playing your part now, what are you going to do?” Well, that means, “I’ll be the improviser on top”, and he goes there, playing the bass part, and she’s playing the alto part and all these places can sort of switch. We’re kind of arranging on the spot in a different way, it’s this collective way of arranging, but improvising is obviously part of it. But even if you go back to certain Mingus records, whether it’s some of that Booker Ervin stuff, I’m sure there’s a bunch of stuff that’s not written down. But now it becomes what you play, it’s part of the tune. It’s an idea that’s gone on for a long time, but I like to understand how different people do it. For instance, some of the guys in ICP, like Michael Moore – who is a great composer – they’ve been around forever, the way that they tell me about how they work through making their music, it’s like, wow, they’ll work on making a new piece for years. “Oh, yeah, it’s a new tune, it’s like two years old”, and they have these different methods of doing it, of how they collectively write and arrange a piece of music. I’m just very curious about how different people do it. Like, that’s how I do it with certain groups but, yeah, part of it is like I can even write the chemistry of people.

AP: Perhaps is it why you don’t really need to know more about how to write so-called extended compositions? Because you’re not in the tradition of the one single author…

MR: Still, I want to be good at this other thing. I want to be good in the same way that Ellington and Strayhorn are good at it. I think I’ve gotten to be on the road, to being good in the way of modern composers and arrangers, more on the creative side of things, like Roscoe Mitchell, like those kinds of ideas and concepts, conceptual work. And obviously writing music. I’d really love to be able to write, to really orchestrate for big band, that would be great. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do that at that intensity. With the octet record, there’s arranging that I did, but Greg Ward really helped doing the orchestration, so we would sit there together with new tunes and I’d say. “OK, here’s the tune, and I want the horns separate, either this way or that way”, and then he’d play some ideas and I’d say, “No, these notes really have to be on top”. And then there’s this whole event that will happen, the band will collapse down, then will build back in. Then he’s say, “Well, what about this?” And I’d say, “No, these two notes go here”, and he’d scribe it out and then we’d try it. And then we’d do the rehearsal and we’d both be like, “No, that’s not really right”… But he can really do it so quickly, with lots of ideas and he’d say, “Well, if you really want these two notes here, then this chord has to be different, this is not that chord anymore”. It would have taken me a week to figure that out where he would do it in two minutes! It would be great to have that knowledge base, so I could do those types of things. But if you do things like that, it’s like the collaborative thing I was talking about earlier, where you want to be part of something. You kind of give up some of that because you’re not discussing and figuring out and getting feedback and ideas. It gets to be a lot more singular because it’s just you, which I think can be very helpful. But I think it will always be, for me, about working collaboratively and collectively with the group. Still, I would like to be able to say, if somebody’s changing something, “Oh, that’s a new chord, yes, I know that, yes, let’s do that”. Also, to be able to give more in other people’s situations, too.

FH: You mentioned Charles Mingus, and Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Are they big influences?

MR: Yes, I mean, when I was ten, eleven, twelve, I was really into the blues – me and my brother were. Really into Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, and Muddy Waters. We’d go to the record store and buy record after record, and in all the record stores they were always right next to the jazz section. So, one day I walked over too far and I said, “Hey, this looks interesting, two guys with saxophones on the cover and it says ‘Blues for This’ and ‘Blues That’, I don’t have any blues records with saxophones on them so I’ll take this home”. And I took it home and it was awful, it was terrible, it was not the blues…

FH: Who was it?

MR: It was Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins! There was one tune on there, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” which sounded OK, but the rest was just awful. And so I made a tape with just that one song on it, and then I realized, like a year later, this is great! By then I knew this was Ellington material, so I bought a bunch of Ellington. And with the Mingus stuff, I mean, this stuff is so vast as far as small groups, and obviously being part of the bebop movement, but then his bands, with their rawness and edginess, and I think he doesn’t get enough credit for that, were on the cusp of free bop and improvised music. I’ve heard stories about his own issues with “free music”, but you can hear his influence on it also by what’s going on at the time, extended ideas of composition… Jesus, it’s ridiculous! As well as his incredible development of songs, like “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” which is like three other tunes you’ve heard on previous records. Wait a minute, this is a song from this other record from four years ago! The way he does constantly this redeveloping, and refining his own music, it’s really clever.

FH: So you began with blues music?

MR: This sounds really crazy, but I think I got into music when John Lennon got killed. It was all over the news, and so me and my brother – I was six or something, we watched TV all the time, ‘cause that was our baby-sitter – we asked our parents, “Who is this?” And so they bought us Beatles records, as we didn’t have very much to do, we didn’t play outside a lot, so we just listened to this music and there are all these references to blues music in the Beatles, or The Rolling Stones, and stuff like that. So then, we went and figured out about blues, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and all the Chess records stuff. That was huge and it sort of stayed there, we were really into all of that until we went to high school, and then there were a lot more things that came into play. It made me think, “Because you love the drums you should buy this Buddy Rich and Max Roach record”, so I got that, and then some Dizzy Gillespie and stuff like that, and then we’d hear all these names like this Miles Davis guy, and so you’d get “’Round Midnight” and this Charlie Parker guy, so you’d get a Best of. And then, it’s like you’re supposed to really like this stuff, it’s supposed to be really good for you! And I have this idea in my head, too, that if I really listen to the music, it would make me smarter. You know: they must be really smart, because they play so fast! So I figured if I listen closely and I really like it, then I’ll be smarter!  At the same time, some of the Armstrong stuff, it’s so accessible… When people ask me about jazz and say “Oh, it’s so hard to understand and I don’t get it”… well, I don’t think you should be listening to Albert Ayler right off the bat. Maybe you should start here, and graduate up to understanding what Albert Ayler is, why he sounds like this. You can’t just jump into the deep end of the pool otherwise; you’re going to drown. Sometimes, if people go to shows, I think it’s different, because there’s a visceral reaction. But if you want to go out and buy a record, I’m not going to tell you to buy any Ornette records. Go get Charlie Parker With Strings; you’ll like that. Play it for your girlfriend. And then build up, because otherwise you’re trying to squeeze all of this history of music in at once.

AP: What was your first exposure to what they call “contemporary jazz”?

MR: Of course, listening to Coltrane, that’s a big thing. Coltrane Live at Birdland is amazing; it took me a year to figure out what Elvin Jones was doing. I had no idea; but at first listen, I thought it was brilliant. I must have been 15 or something then, but even when I was 21 or 22, I thought the Art Ensemble was ridiculous; this was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. It shouldn’t have been that big of a gap but I was like, “No, I can’t stand this”. I think one of the key things is that I was missing links like Ornette. A lot of times, something doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you know what’s happening at the same time, because a lot of it is somewhat reactionary to it. Take the loft scene: a lot of that is a reaction to the denseness of the New York sound, as compared to the very spacious and absurdist – and I don’t mean that in a negative way, I mean that in a conceptual way – of the AACM material. By the time I turned 21, I was really listening to Ornette, and three years later I began to understand Sound, the recording by Roscoe, and I thought, “OK, this is interesting”. I still wasn’t convinced but I was like, “OK” – even if, for me, it was still like jumping into the deep end of the pool. Like, “What is this; this makes no sense to me at all”... And then in the meantime, you have all this bullshit about schools, jazz schools. I didn’t really go to a jazz school, but I was always around people who went to jazz schools. And they were talking about Joe Lovano, and Chris Potter, and Javon Jackson, and Terence Blanchard, and all that bullshit, you know, that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re 18, 19 or 20, and it’s like this revitalization of classic jazz is supposed to be the focal point. If anything was “weird,” it was something like John Scofield. And if anybody was influenced on guitar, they sounded like Pat Metheny – not Jim Hall, not Sonny Sharrock, you know? But this is the foundation of US institutionalism, and the university system, so that’s what you’re getting. Nobody said anything to me about Bobby Bradford or John Carter, except for one person, when I was finally leaving the University, and I asked, “Well, what should I do, should I move to New York?” And I sucked, I was awful, but they were very nice teachers and they said “Oh, you sounded great, maybe you should move back to Chicago, maybe you should go and meet some of those AACM people”. I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about”. And they gave me some records, which I thought were just terrible.  Why are they telling me to do this; why would I do this? Because nobody had said anything about these guys; they’d talk about Coltrane, and Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins, and they’d talk about what was happening at the moment, and with the Marsalis, and all this other stuff, but creative music was not really discussed. I had no idea.

AP: This may be the missing link for your generation, even for the generation before: there’s not really a handing- down of the “contemporary traditions”, from one generation to the next. It was more or less true until the late ‘70s, when new, young improvisers were able and willing to play with creative musicians who were their elders. Now it’s like people are sometimes more aware of what happened 50 years  before they were born, than just 10 or 20 years ago.

MR: The institutionalism of it is the problem. It’s not traditions that get passed on by musicians. Instead you get passed a sheet of paper that says you graduated from a University, and you know something about jazz, but you don’t know anything about it! And that’s part of the issue. And these people who are supposedly experts, they’re only telling you this viewpoint that fits within the cover of Down Beat. It’s very one-sided, where there are really 40 sides, maybe 1,000 sides! Or maybe there are no sides, because it’s a ball, I don’t know. But that’s a really big problem, in how people get ideas passed down. And there aren’t opportunities, either. Especially in Chicago, you have this: there’s this idea from the history of jazz that you get into somebody’s band, you’re in The Jazz Messengers, you’re in the Count Basie Orchestra, it’s like, “New horn player in Monk’s band!”. Who’s going to hire me to be the new drummer in a certain band? The opportunity doesn’t exist. In New York I guess it does, to some extent, maybe on some level, but for the rest of the world; it doesn’t.

FH: You mean it’s a problem of transmission?

MR: Yeah! Who cared about Freddie Hubbard before he was in The Jazz Messengers? Nobody. And he gets in there, begins to make a name for himself, and Wayne Shorter starts making a name for himself too, and suddenly they’re like, “Hey, you know what, we should make a record of yours; we should give you your own date, we’re going to give you some gigs ‘cause you’ve made a name for yourself”. The same with John Zorn and Dave Douglas, that relationship. There’s obviously a huge history for somebody becoming someone out of being in somebody else’s scene. But in Chicago that really doesn’t exist.

FH: In the ‘30s and in the ‘40s, there were territory bands: in each town, there was at least a band that was able to play with anybody who would come visiting. In other words, where you lived, you could experience that real transmission. How can you still have that sort of transmission nowadays?

MR: On the bottom level, Roscoe might call me to do a gig, but there’s just a few people who can do that. And for that, there’s like 30 guys who might get that call! If it were 1957, let’s say, I might be playing with a gazillion different people! I might get the call from so and so, and that would be a good gig. But it no longer exists. At a certain level, that system might be useful for certain people but for me I never really cared. Well, that’s not completely true, I do care. It sucks that you don’t have that mentorship. That’s really hard, ‘cause you’re just out there. Take Art Blakey, speaking of bandleader, drummer. Part of his thing, after a while, was to bring people up. He would say that every night he’d have a different person in the band and introduce the band so they would learn how to do those things, including making sure this is how you dress. Because one day you’re going to have your own band. Like Han Bennink was telling me about Steve Lacy: “When I was playing with Steve, he was telling me how to do these things.” You don’t have that anymore. And it’s awful, it sucks, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, ‘cause for me I think it’s OK but only because I’m doing a good job figuring it out as I go. I observe a lot of people and listen to what they have to say, and I also listen to what I don’t ever want to do to people in my bands. Situations that I don’t want people to have to be in. But I think for other people that’s difficult because they don’t have somebody or some examples that really help them develop. Like they can be great players, maybe they write nice music, but all these other things that you have to do in order to have a career, it’s a mystery, and that’s just hard. I’m lucky in that way, that I kind of helped myself; some other people I feel bad for, because they need those opportunities which don’t exist anymore…

AP: Your two main projects for the moment, Loose Assembly and People, Places and Things, both relate to a certain vision about the past, the present, and the future – even through dreamy states sometimes – in a personal sense and in a more collective sense, simultaneously. Where does this inspiration come from?

MR: Both of those projects, People, Places and Things more directly, are wishes and desires for that mentorship, for that link to somebody, something that actually might say, “Yeah, you are one of us, you’re part of this thing”. Loose Assembly musically and idea-wise is, I’ve never made a claim any other way, it’s like a Roscoe Mitchell sextet heir. Originally that was my premise for this band. It obviously has a lot more going on, different things, but when you listen to some of that stuff, you sound like that. In a certain way, I want to be validated. You are influenced by that and you’re doing something good with it. With People, Places and Things, of course it’s looking for that missing moment. When I first really wanted to play jazz, I wanted – I still want to be – Philly Joe Jones! I’m never going to be Philly Joe Jones, I don’t even sound like Philly Joe, but I wish I could play like him. I wish I could play the serious, hard-bop stuff, but I don’t really do that. It’s creative music that swings, but I don’t go out and play standard gigs. It’s not part of my yearly routine. I did it, but now I’m looking for stuff that’s more creative. The thing that’s important about it is not that I’m not going out to play gigs where I would have to introduce “Have You Met Miss Jones?”, or this or that, it’s that when those people were making that music, it was as creative as anything that I’m doing now. So, if I cannot link back to that in some way, there’s a problem. This is why this project exists. I have a link to it personally: when I practice I try to practice that, I sit there and play jazz, swing rhythms, that’s pretty much all I do. The music that I end up making personally is not like that though it has some of that in it. And it has many decades of history and knowledge and other influences, as well. But the creativity and the spirit is, I feel, the same. And I want somebody to say that to me, too. And this is one of the things of having the project with some of the older musicians who were part of it. It’s like, I want them to say, “yeah, you understand the spirit of this and maybe more so than somebody’s who’s out there now just doing exactly what we did back then. We did that, you want to do that? We can go out there and do standards all night long, that’s great, but are you as creative as we were then? Probably not.” Some people are great, don’t get me wrong. I love a great straight-ahead band. But, for the most part, what people get handed down as far as, this is it, this is jazz, at the creative level… no.

AP: It’s kind of interesting because, after your concert on Friday night, I got the same kind of energy, through a different music, a music from today definitely, that I got from listening to some old recordings. Like if the only possible continuation of this music, the spirit of this music, was through contemporary musicians not playing it exactly, but something that is out of it, and with all the experiences in between. Something of a paradox maybe, but most likely an escape from the false contradiction between the “old” and the “new”…

MR: Maybe this doesn’t hit your question, but I think if I could figure out some of these things from the past, then I could figure out something more about myself, like I know who I am. I mean specifically me. I’m trying to say, “This is where I come from”. And part of it is I’m saying this, but it’s also a little bit of a question because of this thing which we’ve said earlier, that there’s no mentors, there’s nobody whose given me the right to say you’re my mentoree or my protégé, nobody has given that to me. Nobody has taken me under their wing, but I am. That’s why I say it’s a little bit of a question: it’s like, please, tell me that I am, and if they do, if that’s true, then maybe I can say something about what I am going to be.

FH: Well, at least I can tell you that, as a listener, I get from your music an element of ambiguity, like it’s always two things at the same time –  that is very enjoyable…

MR: Yes, there’s a sense of vulnerability to it. Especially for Loose Assembly, there’s a way that the band sounds, and even for People, Places and Things, which is a very muscular band with the two saxophones. But in the improvising and the riskiness of what’s happening, it remains vulnerable to also being criticized. So yeah, uncertainty, sure, but I’d rather have that moment of uncertainty and say, “I don’t care, I feel good, I’m certain about it and if you don’t like it then that’s your problem”.

FH: Well, if you can’t be adopted by Philly Joe Jones, then you have to adopt him, even as his son (laughter)! That’s the only thing you can do. It doesn’t mean you have to play like him, of course. It’s not possible anyway, and it wouldn’t be a good idea.

MR: Well, there’s people who can play like that, but it’s not that interesting. I think I may have gotten as close to that as I possibly may ever get, because I got the chance to do some really great projects. One, obviously, this octet record with Art Hoyle, Julian Prietster and Ira Sullivan: they weren’t just guests; they were actually involved in part of this project. I knew, when I first approached them, they were skeptical. I sent them our quartet record and they were like, “What is this?” I could tell they were like, “OK, I’ll try it”. After the first rehearsal, they were like, “OK, these guys know what they’re doing with all of these concepts of how we’re making this music”. I could sense the respect level just growing. It became a real thing, so I think, in a certain way; they gave me that validation there. And then, over the last year and a half or so, I have been doing things with Roscoe: the last thing, and we’re hopefully going to get this record out, it’s Loose Assembly with Roscoe Mitchell as the guest. A 34-minute piece which features him, that was basically written for him. This was the dream, as Roscoe and also Henry Threadgill were two of the two people I had in mind when I started Loose Assembly. And Roscoe was like, “Yeah, this is great, let’s put it out!” And I’m like, “Really?” And he’s like, “Yeah”. So maybe I did get some of that after all this time, years of wanting that, and also wondering where and who it might come from, or if it was even possible. It is partially because I had to do it, I had to put myself in these positions. I start with these projects and these ideas and try to go on tours and make these records and then, all of a sudden, you’re around these people and you’re like, “Would you want to do this?” And then they’re like, “This is great, this is really cool”. And suddenly you have this relationship and, not to say that I’m their son, but, “You’re one of us, you understand what I’ve done with my career and you’re showing it to me in this music we’re doing together”. So both of those two projects; I don’t know if there’s too many more high points you could have, musically. You’re kind of looking for musical father figures, you know? And ones that you actually know, not just ones that exist on record, or that you read about. I can call them up and we can talk.

FH: Don’t take it as a formal question, but what can you say about swing? I think contemporary music like the one you play is also swing music. In France, there is still a great deal of discussion about what swing is, like if it was some kind of “essence”...

MR: People ask this question all the time and I think that when people ask it they’re kind of… well, if you have to ask it, then there’s a problem. It’s like asking: “What is love”? Well, being in love is different all the time, you know?

FH: Sure. Just like when Louis Armstrong was asked, “What is jazz?”, and basically answered, “If you ask the question, you’ll never know”.

MR: And there’s lots of these that can swing. It’s phrasing, I think, first and foremost. It’s emphasis of space, but I think in the end it really comes down to where – and I don’t want to talk about how specifically people play the beat, because the way Ed Blackwell plays swing is totally different from the way Shadow Wilson plays it. Like this comment I made before, it’s like love. Does that mean the day you get married, or is it that thing you do when you pick somebody up from the airport and the other everyday things... but you know it’s love, right there. That’s swing, it swings, you know? But this very rudimentary idea of swinging, it’s so stupid: are we just supposed to judge swing by Baby Dodds, and then forget anything that Nasheet Waits plays because there’s all this advancedness and new ideas? But it still swings! And it’s so highly conceptual. So then, let’s just talk about math, plus and minus. Let’s forget about algebra and geometry, and everything in between, and philosophical math, because that stuff just doesn’t make any sense to discuss what it is. I think what it is really has to come down to… if you don’t think it swings because the band isn’t swinging, that’s fine, you can say that. But what is the composer’s and the musicians’ intent? If this is not supposed to be in time; if it’s out of time but it kind of swings? Well, what does that mean? You know what? I don’t know what that means, but if somebody said that to me, I’d be OK. I’d do it and they’d be, yeah, that’s right. Or they’d be no, maybe a little less, a little more, a little less, too loud… how am I supposed to define that? There’s no time, there’s no time signature but it kind of swings. So these parameters that people want to keep on it are just useless after awhile.

FH: For me it’s just a thrill of creativity, if I have to define it, it’s a thrill of creativity, that’s all. It’s when you hear many different things in one thing, in one note, in one tune, or in one way of playing. It’s a kind of multiplicity.

MR: I hear you, I don’t disagree with you, I’m OK with that.

AP: There’s another question we ask to every drummer we meet. Let’s re-read what John Coltrane used to say about Rashied Ali: “The way he plays allows the soloist maximum freedom. I can really choose just about any direction at just about any time in the confidence that it will be compatible with what he’s doing. You see, he’s laying down multi-directional rhythms all the time.” How do you relate to this multi-directional idea, or reality, and what’s the importance of it for the next generation of drummers?

MR: I think that, conceptually, I cannot sort of not do that. It’s almost trickier for me to stay within the boundaries of conventional drumming ideas. Usually, there’s just these odd phrases and really delayed responses that are completely counter to anything else that I’m doing on the drum set. What’s funny about that quote is that it seems so dated, because I don’t even think about it. It just seems so commonplace to people who I appreciate as drummers that I never even consider the notion of multi-directionality. It’s like, well, of course. Milford Graves, and this is around the same time period, definitely has got that going on, and this is at the beginning of free jazz drumming, but it’s more than that, it’s the combination of it all. Because Gerald Cleaver and Nasheet Waits do this very well, where they’re playing in time really well, there’s meter. But what they’re able to do in manipulating the focus is really intense – and then, obviously, the whole notion of playing at tempo, but not in time. Or it’s just like constantly shifting, you know. What Gerald and Nasheet are able to do is the high level of it. And this concept of a series of pulses here, but there’s no meter and you’re just rolling, those are commonplace. If you can’t do that or if you don’t know about those operations, people will just brush you off, “That guy doesn’t know what he’s doing! He has no idea!”. This is such a common thing. But at a certain time period the reaction of people when Rashied joined Coltrane was, “Why does he have this guy in the band? This guy can’t play the drums”. But now you can hear people playing these conceptual ideas, you’d be like, “Wow, that guy can really play”. You’re not measured by the same tokens as like “ding-dik,da-ding-dik,da-ding-dik, baca-da-baca-da-boom”. Instead he’s like playing this really free time thing, and this weird cross rhythmic thing, and you’re like, “Wow, this guy’s really good”. Or he’s juxtaposing one idea over another, or maybe there’s this linear flow and you can see it because it’s so much more the language of drumming. Because in that time frame, not to take away anything from Billy Higgins or that group of folks, but I couldn’t even imagine it. There are people who don’t know really what’s going on with creative playing, and I specifically mean coming out of what the Coltrane era stuff really sets up, between that and New York Art Quartet, or any of the Albert Ayler stuff, and this fact-language of music. What that sort of sets up, if you don’t know how to evaluate and hear it, then you don’t know that music, you’re not coming from it. You’re coming from something different. So for me, it’s like, yes, of course. And we have dumb terms for it. If somebody comes in with this piece of music and wants to do something creative, we just say, “So you want us to do this free jazz carpet groove?” It’s just this generic thing which at a certain time was very avant-garde, very adventurous. And it’s not that it’s no more. When it’s done well, it still is, but now you could say, “Play a rock groove, play a swing beat, play free jazz carpet grooves”. And you would do that thing; it’s part of the lexicon of how you play the instrument now. So, it’s “Play, good, let’s go!
AP: If it became commonplace, then it is proof it became successful…

MR: Well, yes, obviously. Because you would not have asked me that question: you already know the answer!

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