Sam Bardfeld: Culture Worker

by Troy Collins

Sam Bardfeld © 2023 Christer Mannikus

Violinist and composer Sam Bardfeld may be best known as a longstanding member of the Jazz Passengers and busy sideman, but he is also a published author and in-demand string arranger for a wide variety of artists, including frequent collaborations with Bruce Springsteen. Additionally, Bardfeld is a member of Roy Nathanson’s Sotto Voce and Joel Harrison’s String Choir and has toured and/or recorded with Michael Attias’ Sextet, Royal Hartigan’s Blood Drum Spirit, Steven Bernstein’s MTO, Butler/Bernstein and the Hot 9, Anthony Braxton’s Trillium Orchestra, Ingrid Laubrock’s Orchestra, Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, and many more.

Bardfeld’s sideman resume features a long, varied list of solo artists, including Elvis Costello, John Zorn, Henry Butler, Debbie Harry, John Cale, Kris Davis, Savion Glover, Willie Colon, Hank Roberts, Johnny Pacheco, and Dar Williams, among others. His string arranging credits include work for Calexico and Nancy Sinatra, film music for Hedwig and the Angry Inch composer Stephen Trask, and work on the off-Broadway musical production of Lone Star Love with The Red Clay Ramblers. He has also served as string contractor for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Gilberto Santa Rosa, and Chuck Prophet.

An instructor of jazz violin at the New School jazz program in NYC, Bardfeld is a Wesleyan University graduate who studied violin technique with Gerald Beal and Joey Corpus, improvisation with Bill Barron, George Garzone, and Richie Beirach, and counterpoint with Paul Caputo. His immersion in New York’s 1990’s Salsa and Latin jazz scene led to his writing Latin Violin (Hal Leonard, 2002), now considered to be an authoritative work on the Afro-Cuban violin tradition.

Bardfeld’s early recordings as a bandleader, Taxidermy (CIMP, 1999) and Periodic Trespasses (FreshSounds, 2006) earned high praise from critics, as did his recent album with pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin, The Great Enthusiasms (BJUR, 2017). I interviewed Bardfeld in the spring of 2023, just after the release of Refuge (BJUR), another trio effort that features Bardfeld and Sarin with Jacob Sacks replacing Davis in the piano chair.


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Troy Collins: Some early biographical information might be of interest to readers unfamiliar with your background. How did you get your start playing music?

Sam Bardfeld: I got started taking violin lessons when I was five. I was obsessed with the American Revolution (having been to Colonial Williamsburg) and the movie 1776 had just come out. A young Blythe Danner, who played Thomas Jefferson’s wife, sings a song about how he wooed her with the violin and I was hooked by the potentiality that lay before me. My mom was an amateur flautist and there was a lot of music in the house. I was lucky enough to be taken to see legends like Pete Seeger (who had sung at my mom’s elementary school when he was blacklisted) and violinist Nathan Milstein at a young age. I went to the Saturday prep program at Mannes until I was 14 and dropped out. At that age, I wanted to be able to learn how to jam with my friends and it was pretty clear I wasn’t on the classical virtuoso path.

I started to learn how to play blues and some folk styles as an entry drug and then started to learn jazz. My teacher (Julie Lieberman) wasn’t a particularly experienced jazz player, but she had studied with pianist Sal Mosca (Tristano’s student) and knew his method for beginners. I was born in 1968 and the music scene in New York City was still pretty thriving in the early-mid 1980s. I feel grateful for the opportunities I had to take so much music in when I was in High School – Don Cherry at Verna Gillis’ Soundstage when the cops raided the place, the weekly Rumba happenings in Central Park, Zorn playing clarinet mouthpieces in bowls of water at the Kitchen, Ravi Shankar at Carnegie Hall, Steel Pulse at Brooklyn College. There were also some great street musicians – I remember a saxophone player I’d listen to regularly who had been involved in Pittsburgh’s version of the AACM/BAG. He had a beautiful sound and was kind of a spiritual dude (wish I remembered his name). It wasn’t your typical jazz star/nerd High School path but a different kind of education for sure. I was also in a great High School rock band, The Connotations, during my senior year. We made a record for Hilly Krystal’s CBGB record label. Hilly had us record “live” after the club had closed. So, we tracked at CBGBs from 2-5 AM, slept on the stage from 5-8 AM, and then took the 6 train uptown to Hunter High School on the Upper East Side.

TC: Did you have any influential teachers or mentors that ended up influencing your direction as a musician?

SB: I think I’ve taken something from a lot of teachers. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan, I studied with tenor saxophonist Bill Barron (Kenny’s older brother) who had grown up in Philly with Trane and Jimmy Heath. Bill was a remarkable player and lovely guy who was one of the post-boppers who had gotten heavily interested in an intervallic approach – Slonimisky, Bartok, etc. I also studied a little with my good friend, woodwind player David Bindman (we’re currently working on a duo project), and fiddle player Stacey Phillips (RIP). As a student, I thought it was more likely that I’d wind up in academia (as an ethnomusicologist/anthropologist) and I had some great professors like Mark Slobin and Betsy Traube.

I took a bit of a winding path after school and didn’t decide to play professionally until the relatively late age of twenty-six. I took about ten lessons each with George Garzone and Richie Beirach, who are both great teachers. Garzone focused on an inside/outside approach to harmony and Richie focused on motific development – both of which are central concepts to me. I took violin technique lessons with a classical teacher named Gerry Beal who had been a student of Jascha Heifetz. I had heard about Gerry from Mark Feldman who was studying with him at the time. Jenny Scheinman started studying with him about the same time that I did and then I gave his name to Regina Carter, so he was teaching most of the NYC jazz fiddling crew. He was a real character who had played with John Lewis’ Orchestra USA with Dolphy. He hustled all of his orchestra mates in Poker and later became famous for contracting musicians for non-existent recording sessions. When Gerry passed away, a number of us studied with a great Filipino pedagogue named Joey Corpus.

I’ve been really fortunate to have been mentored by some wonderful bandleaders. This is probably the most valuable education there is. Roy Nathanson, whom I’ve worked with steadily over the last 20+ years in The Jazz Passengers and his own group, Sotto Voce, has perhaps been the greatest influence. Roy is a really unique artist. When I listen, all I really care about is hearing a strong musical voice tell a story and some of this prioritization comes from Roy. His stories, musical and literate, are infused both by Dolphy and a New York urbanity that is universal in its eccentricity and vulnerability. Springsteen was a kind of mentor for sure – also a storyteller, an encouraging father figure, and someone who thinks about performance with the mindset of a jazz musician. Master percussionist Johnny Almendra (leader of the innovative charanga Los Jovenes del Barrio) was a mentor. Anthony Braxton, Vince Giordano, Steve Bernstein, Johnny Pacheco, and Joe Fonda are all bandleaders I’ve learned a great deal from. There is really nothing comparable to this kind of education and mentorship.

TC: Your latest album, Refuge, is the second effort featuring a bass-less trio, this time with pianist Jacob Sacks (replacing Kris Davis) and drummer Michael Sarin. How did this unique instrumentation come about?

SB: I liked the idea of an intimate group and I didn’t want to give up either harmony or rhythm. It’s kind of a chamber thing with drums. The violin is also quite different timbrally from a horn. It doesn’t cut through a rhythm section the same way a horn does. I love the warmth of bass but it takes up a lot of sonic space and I enjoy having the space for the three of us to have a dialogue. None of us need to lean on a bass player for time – the charts are fairly detailed violin and piano parts and I communicate verbally with Michael about what I’m looking for. As a leader working in NYC, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Kris Davis was brilliant and so is Jacob. Michael Sarin is a perfect drummer for the group because he has such a strong orchestrational voice.

TC: Refuge includes a beautiful arrangement of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” which reminds me that you’ve been working with “The Boss” for a number of years. How did that association begin and how has your role collaborating with him changed in the ensuing years?

SB: I’m pleased with how that tune came out on the recording. I haven’t sent it to Bruce yet, but I know he dug the version of “Because the Night” that was on my last trio recording, The Great Enthusiasms. In the 1990s, I co-led a Cajun/zydeco/roots band in NYC called The Gotham Playboys with some pals from college – accordionist Will Holshouser, and bassist Jeremy Chatzky. We would sometimes expand from a quintet to a sextet and add a vocalist and fiddler, Soozie Tyrell. Soozie (not yet a member of the E Street Band) was one of Bruce and Patti’s best friends and got us a gig at Bruce’s farm in Colt’s Neck for his birthday party. We did the first one in September 1997. Bruce being Bruce, got up on stage with us to play and was still there three hours later. A couple of months later, he asked us and a few other folks to do a recording session at his home studio that was supposed to yield one tune he was contributing to an Appleseed Records multi-artist tribute to Pete Seeger. We did the session live, recording five tunes standing in a circle (horn players in an adjacent room). We continued playing his Colt’s Neck farm birthday parties until 9/11 happened.

In 2005 we got a surprise call from his people saying Bruce had been listening to the tapes of those sessions and digging them and wanted to try it again, so we did another live session in March of 2005 and a third in January of 2006. Again, old-school live with a couple of mics in the middle of the room. No rehearsing. Bruce would play through the songs once so we’d have a chance to scrawl down a quick chart. If he wanted you to solo, he’d look at you or yell the name of your instrument. Much to our surprise, we got a call from his people a couple of weeks later saying there was going to be a record coming out on Sony drawn from those sessions, what became We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Sony, 2006). His people also said, “well, there’s going to be some kind of tour but he may go out by himself, he may go out with a small group, etc.” so we had a kind of live audition at the Asbury Park Convention Center in February. (I remember his heavy calling me and saying, “so you don’t play any other instruments? who the fuck are you?”) Bruce dug having the whole band so then we started having rehearsals at the Asbury Convention Center and adding some other folks to the band, like my friend Chocolate Genius (Mark Anthony Thompson). We needed three-plus hours of material and we started out just with the Seeger-related stuff so we started re-arranging stuff from his catalog. He tended to steer clear of his E-Street warhorses and we did material I dig more anyway. We ended up doing half of the Nebraska record and his stuff from his first couple of records which are a little looser and jazzier.

Apart from the surreality of the whole thing, it was really a wonderful experience. He’s a special person. Deeply interested in learning about every one of his side peeps both because he was curious and because he wanted to bring stuff out in performance. I had like eight solos a night, places I could make a short personal statement. Our sousaphone player, the great and loveable Art Baron, has what you’d call a “large personality.” Bruce picked up on that and immediately made it part of the show. We’d end every performance (before the encore set) with the whole seventeen-piece band parading off the stage, New Orleans-style – everyone except the drummer, Larry Eagle, and Art who’d walk to the front of the stage to take a sousaphone solo. Bruce would then go back out to yank him off vaudeville-style. Except, because of Bruce’s commitment to performance, he wanted to do it in a different way for all 65+ shows of the tour. So, he had his people buy a 2nd sousaphone and ship it to Europe for the sole purpose of having Clark Gayton shadow his notes so he would think it was some kind of fucked up sound situation, sneak up on him, and tap him on the shoulder. This happened precisely ONCE. At Madison Square Garden, his people got Art’s 80-year-old mom to sneak up on him and tap in on the shoulder. It was different every night.

I feel fortunate that he and his people think highly of me and I seem to get a call every four or five years saying “Come tomorrow!” I do some recording or string contracting here or there. I’ve long ago stopped trying to predict if and when I might be summoned.

TC: As a member of quite a few ensembles (The Jazz Passengers, Roy Nathanson’s Sotto Voce, Joel Harrison’s String Choir, etc.), what advantages and challenges do you personally find working in so many different groups?

SB: There are a few challenges but mostly advantages. Not to sound corny, but I feel very blessed to be a “culture worker” at this time in history. American music of the 20th century (also pre and post), particularly music related to the African-American diaspora, is one of humanity’s great cultural achievements. To be able to exist, learn, and create in the richness of these streams is one of life’s great privileges. I see everything I do as part of a continuum, whether it’s playing 1920s jazz with Vince Giordano; avant-jazz with Braxton, Barry Altschul, or The Jazz Passengers; Afro-Cuban music with Johnny Pacheco or Orquesta Broadway; Americana with Bruce Springsteen; or playing with Steve Bernstein’s MTO which can involve all of those on the same gig. For sure, sometimes I need to spend a little extra time preparing for one thing or another but I try to stay centered enough in my daily practicing routine so I’m prepared. I look at “sideman” work as akin to being the best character actor you can be. I want to be Eli fucking Wallach. The artist you’re working with is the protagonist of his/her novel or film and your job is to understand everything you can about that world and create a character within it that fits perfectly and adds to the endeavor without being a distraction. This involves understanding all the variables and contexts – the emotional, the cultural-historical, the genre and stylistic, the artistic language – getting into character, and then creating and improvising from that space. This keeps it interesting and challenging for me and I think, honestly, artists like Springsteen and Roy Nathanson look at what they do as leaders this way as well. In his autobiography, Bruce talks about creating a persona, drawing on his father’s working-class roots. I think my background in anthropology and ethnomusicology also keeps me interested in the different subcultural worlds I get to inhabit. My own music is the little world I’ve created and I appreciate sidepeople who understand the need to exist and create from inside that world.

TC: Your sideman credits are extensive (Steven Bernstein’s MTO, Anthony Braxton’s Trillium Orchestra, Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, etc.), but you also write string arrangements for artists like Calexico and Nancy Sinatra and have lent your talents to film soundtracks and Broadway shows. How does writing and arranging for others differ from composing for your own ensembles?

SB: I haven’t done that much of this lately but I think it’s part and parcel of my philosophy as a sideperson. I try to understand the universe the artist is creating and live within that. The Nancy Sinatra/Calexico tune was a fun project – it had a spaghetti Western vibe and it was fun to roll with that.

TC: As a Wesleyan graduate, you’ve studied violin technique with Gerald Beal and Joey Corpus, improvisation with Bill Barron, George Garzone, and Richie Beirach, and counterpoint with Paul Caputo. But you’ve also been heavily involved in New York’s Latin jazz scene. What prompted you to write the book, Latin Violin (Hal Leonard, 2002)?

SB: I grew up on the Upper West Side in the ‘70s and early ‘80s when the Salsa scene was going full blast, so I heard the music all around me. I used to hang out in Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park a lot, especially in middle school, and the regular Rumba circles were right near there as well.

When I quit my day gig in the fall of 1994, I was lucky enough to be recommended by my friend, violinist Rob Thomas, to play in a new charanga project run by legendary percussionist Johnny Almendra (Mongo Santamaria, Willie Colon, McCoy Tyner) called Johnny Almendra y Los Jovenes del Barrio. Johnny had a different vision than what the other NYC charangas had done and were doing at the time. [Note: The fire at the Happy Land Social Club in 1990 radically minimized the Salsa scene. Before that, the most popular charanga, Orquesta Broadway, had 16 gigs a week and four on a Saturday night]. Johnny wanted a more modern sound similar to the great Cuban charangas of the 1970s and ‘80s like Ritmo Oriental and Los Van Van – who together introduced the style known as Songo. His wife Jillian was an American R&B singer so that was an element of our sound as well. Almendra hired some of the best Cuban and Cuban expats to write for us and we had killer arrangements.

I got the band a regular gig at a Manhattan club called Gonzalez y Gonzalez and we played there every Wednesday night from 1995-2002. We used to have 500 people there on a Wednesday and lots of heavyweights would come and sit in. Violinist Regina Carter was a member of the band for a time. The band toured nationally and internationally and at our peak, had about 100 gigs a year. I also was part of the great Johnny Pacheco’s charanga in the late 90s-early 2000s.

The whole immersion in Afro-Cuban music was a tremendous learning experience for me and something I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to do. Violinists get to take some improvised solos in this music, but the predominant role of the instrument is as part of the rhythm section in the montuno section of the song. This is a radically different role for violinists in general and it engenders a different kind of listening. The word clave literally means “keystone” – the first stone in a building that all the other stones fit around. Hearing all the interlocking parts in an Afro-Cuban band, and effectively locking in with them, is a whole different kind of ear training.

My friend Charley Gerard had a music publishing company and asked me if I wanted to write a Latin Violin book. (The book is about the Afro-Cuban tradition, the title was his choice). He gave me carte blanche to do it the way I wanted. It’s halfway between an instructional book and an academic book. Since I have something of an academic background, I wanted to show how the style – and how to play it – emerged from a very specific historical and social context. It’s really a unique blend of European classical music – coming from the French Danson, into Haiti, then into Cuba after the Haitian revolution; with West and Central African drumming which came to Cuba via the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The two really started to merge around 1900. When the charanga Arcaño y sus Maravillas added a conguero in the 1930s, it was a national scandal and the band was blacklisted for a time (this was also the band in which bassist Cachao Lopez and his cellist brother Orestes Lopez invented the mambo, originally a pedal on the V chord that came out of the montuno section).

Afro-Cuban music is still part of my musical landscape. Amongst other things, I’m a member of Orquesta Broadway which is having its 60th anniversary this year, and a great new band led by flautist Karen Joseph (Eddie Palmieri, Los Jovenes del Barrio).

TC: Considering your ability to navigate multiple styles in an array of different ensembles, are there any aspects of the jazz tradition that you currently find inspiring and/or any established practices you find creatively constraining?

SB: There’s a ton of stuff out there that I’m newly discovering that inspires me. I don’t pay that much attention to whether it’s new or not. I’ve recently been listening to a lot of Sam Rivers because I’m interested in his inside/outside approach. I think of him as a pioneer and standard bearer for this. Also, being involved with a collaborative trio with Barry Altschul and Joe Fonda has had me going back to Sam’s playing and discovering and rediscovering things – Barry and Sam were such close partners. I’ve also been going back and discovering/rediscovering a bunch of Julius Hemphill since I’m working on a string quartet project w Tomeka Reid, et al, that centers around his music (The Hemphill Stringtet).

When I listen to music, I mostly want to hear an interesting voice tell a story so I tend to gravitate to artists who prioritize that. I find some of Mary Halvorson’s recordings very inspiring. I loved Kris Davis and Craig Taborn’s duo recording and concerts. The history of this music is so rich I also frequently am finding older things that inspire me. I’m interested in filling in gaps in my knowledge of jazz and improvised music (and other stuff). I had never heard Ahmad Jamal's At the Pershing so I checked it out in the car the other day and was heavily digging Vernel Fournier's playing. That “Poinciana” groove is some deep New Orleans shit. (Someone pointed out that all three of his drummers, Fournier, Muhammed, and Riley, hail from NoLa). I feel fortunate that I get to play fairly regularly with a bunch of folks that inspire me. I did three nights at Birdland a couple of weeks ago with Steven Bernstein, sitting between Peter Apfelbaum, Ben Perowsky, and Steve Cardenas (et al) and it was just beautiful and fun as hell.

I don’t find anything constraining per se. I’m not that fond of music that just sounds like math or is emotionally cold. “Look ma, I went to music school” isn’t a particularly interesting narrative. (Skills are wonderful of course when in the service of art). There has to be some human element there – character, narrative, humor, cultural depth, emotional depth. Complexity itself isn't the issue. I love Elliot Carter and Thomas Adès for instance. Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton are two great examples of composer-musicians whose music is complex but whose languages are always personal and relatable. I just want to hear a compelling story. I think sometimes jazz musicians miss the big picture.

TC: This issue has become a regular topic of conversation for me lately while amongst friends, most of whom are musicians. Do you feel that the institutionalization of jazz education might be to blame for the increased focus on a more cerebral approach towards composition and improvisation – one that favors complexity over accessibility, for example?

SB: Yes, but I don’t think complexity and accessibility are inherently mutually exclusive or oppositional. I like to think my music is both and I’m always really gratified when listeners who aren’t jazz fans tell me they relate to it. I think the issue is that institutionalization has helped make jazz too self-referential. I think most musicians have little sense of the artistic, cultural, and historical context of what they’re doing. Jazz is an art form and we’re making it now in a specific cultural/historical moment. Of course, there are a million different ways to respond to that. If I was in a position of power at a conservatory, I’d mandate a class that puts jazz and other styles not only in the context of history but also literature, criticism, and art/film history. For one, how about more of a discussion of what it means to be involved in music of the African diaspora. How can we all be playing jazz, rock, salsa, blues, without more of an understanding of what that means?

I recently gave a talk at the national ASTA (American String Teacher’s Association) Conference on Afro-Cuban violin. Before I talked about very specific phrasing for how to make a montuno groove more, I read a couple of quotes from dance scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild about dance, groove, and repetition. On the centrality of dance, “[W]est African Gods are dancing deities in dancing religions ... the existence of these gods is an acknowledgement that the universe is a dynamic process-in-motion not a static entity.” On the centrality of repetition, “[T]he Africanist aesthetic values repetition, or more precisely, repetition as intensification ... In transferring repetition from the chores of daily life to the realm of creative expression, the Africanist aesthetic transforms the prosaic into the sublime and makes a spiritual and conceptual connection between the two.” I think a little context can go a long way. If we put James Brown, Celia Cruz, and Elvin Jones in the context of these quotes, it helps us understand the richness, depth, and power of this music.

I also think the prioritization of the scalar method in jazz pedagogy has young players missing the forest for the trees. The tune itself is the thing. The tradition is to be making a personal hermeneutic of the song. That’s the forest. None of the great jazz masters of the 20th century learned to play by attaching one scale to each chord. Ethan Iverson has written convincingly about this. I want to hear an original voice tell an interesting story. If we’re playing a standard (or not) that story should be grounded in the architecture of the song. Take it as far out as you want but have the voice-leading and melody down.

TC: In reference to performing, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

SB: I think the biggest difference between performing and recording is the differing challenges of staying loose. When you record, you’re making something for posterity and you have this idea of taking a “perfect” solo. There can be a tendency to over-prepare and get in your own way re: flow and spontaneity. With performance, ideally you’re making yourself vulnerable and taking chances in front of people. So you open up the possibility of some concept of public “failure.” Whether you like it or not, you’re in the realm of being an “entertainer” and all that entails.

TC: In a similar line of thought, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially regarding archival copies (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

SB: Well, streaming is a disaster for working musicians of course. I’m taking it as a given that your readers have seen all the statistics re: the fact that artists make virtually nothing from streaming services. At the same time, there’s pressure to have your music on at least some of them to have some sort of presence in that world. For my latest release, I put it on Apple and Tidal which are both services that charge money, but avoided Spotify because they’re the worst offenders. The labels panicked after Napster and bought into a business model that gives them some protection but screws artists. I’m not sure what the remedies are other than legislation and audience awareness that leads to a greater sense of responsibility. There need to be more grants for recording in the U.S. which has little government support for the arts compared to Europe. We’ve essentially moved back into the era of the Medicis where many new recordings are funded by multi-millionaires. A number of the high-profile, left-of-center jazz releases including everything on a particular label are entirely funded by one rich donor’s foundation. I had never done this before, but I just finished an IndieGoGo campaign for my last recording and was thrilled to raise half of what I spent. People who like this music need to understand that it doesn’t make itself.

As far as the platform, I’ve definitely seen some recent enthusiasm for vinyl. A lot of people don’t even own CD players anymore. Downloads are fine as long as folks are paying for them. Bandcamp is a fabulous, artist-friendly platform where artists typically net 83% of the cost of the product (and 100% on Bandcamp Fridays).

TC: Yes, it seems to depend on one’s demographic. For example, everyone I know still buys CDs and occasionally vinyl, but most also subscribe to a streaming service, although far fewer seem to download anything anymore.

That brings us to the present. What projects do you have planned for the immediate future?

SB: I plan to do some more gigs and hopefully some touring with Jacob Sacks and Mike Sarin, the trio that made Refuge, the latest recording. I have a couple of new collaborative projects that I’m excited about. One is the Hemphill Stringtet, a string quartet devoted to the music of saxophonist/composer Julius Hemphill with cellist Tomeka Reid, violinist Curtis Stewart (PUBLIQuartet), and violist Stephanie Griffin (Momenta Quartet). We’ve done two gigs so far which have both gone great (Berlin Jazz Festival in November 2022 and Frequency Festival in Chicago in February 2022). Julius is a hero and an inspiration. Marty Ehrlich, who has a part-time gig overseeing his archive at NYU, has done a great job of publishing and editing some of his music. So far, our repertoire consists of “Mingus Gold,” a suite of three pieces Julius arranged/wrote for the Kronos String Quartet, and some pieces he wrote for the World Saxophone Quartet. I love this group because Hemphill’s oeuvre is so rich, because the personnel is great, and I’m digging playing in a real string quartet. Curtis and Stephanie both have their own New Music string quartets, so they both know how to do the classical quartet rehearsal thing – going bar by bar to get all the bowings and dynamics. Tomeka and I are the jazzers (though Curtis and Stephanie are both great improvisers).

I also have a new collaborative trio with Barry Altschul and Joe Fonda. We have a gig coming up in July sponsored by drummer Andrew Drury’s Continuum Culture organization. Barry is one of my heroes and has played on two of my all-time favorite recordings, Paul Bley’s Closer and Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds. Joe is something of an underappreciated musician I think – just a beast of a bass player. He and Barry have developed a wonderful rhythm section hook-up and used to have a trio with Billy Bang, the FAB Trio. I’m not trying to emulate Billy, he was unique. It’s been a wonderful and educational experience for me to create with these guys as the sole melody/harmony instrument. It’s an inspiring rhythm section and I’ve never been in the position before of having total freedom to help guide things and create structure. This is why I’ve been listening to a lot of Sam Rivers lately!

The Jazz Passengers are working on a new recording, I don’t know much about when it will be out, but Marc Ribot is back playing on most of it and it’s all new arrangements of vocal tunes the band has done over its 35-year history. Joe Fonda has a new quartet I play in with Kenny Wessell (guitar) and Rob Garcia (drums) and I believe he has plans to record. I’ve done a lot of playing as a side-person with a great project led by vibraphonist Bill Ware that does music for a couple of silent films. I’m also a member of two great Latin bands:  the venerable charanga Orquesta Broadway is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, and flautist Karen Joseph (Eddie Palmieri) has a great new all-star band called MamboCha with folks like trombonist Jimmy Bosch, bassist Ruben Rodriguez, and trumpeter Alex Norris. I’m also going to be recording and touring with a larger all-strings project of Tomeka Reid’s next year.


© 2023 Troy Collins

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