Rich Halley: The Outsider

by Troy Collins

Michael Vlatkovich, Rich Halley, Clyde Reed + Carson Halley                                              ©2014 Bob Pyle

Based out of Portland, Oregon, tenor saxophonist Rich Halley has been making bold, uncompromising music outside the jazz mainstream for over 30 years. An adventurous neo-traditionalist with a predilection for the expressive potential of free jazz, Halley’s robust tenor testimonials invoke numerous antecedents, ranging from swing-era icons like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster to probing modernists like Sonny Rollins and Dewey Redman.

Halley’s current quartet, The Rich Halley 4, was formed in 2010 at the end of a five year recording hiatus. Since then, Halley has been on a roll, issuing an album a year with the group on his own Pine Eagle Records imprint, including Requiem for a Pit Viper (2011), Back From Beyond (2012), and Crossing The Passes (2013). All these records feature the same lineup, with veteran trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, longstanding bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Carson Halley demonstrating steady growth as an ensemble on each successive release.

The Wisdom of Rocks, the band’s fourth studio recording, is no exception; the date finds Halley and company working through a series of intricate tunes that balance freedom and form without disavowing the basic principles of swing. Halley’s rousing originals, like the “The Atoll” and “Of Fives and Sixes” extol the harmonic freedoms established by Ornette Coleman’s seminal piano-less quartets, bolstering craggy melodies with a rich vein of bluesy ardor. As Halley himself has stated “the tradition is to extend the tradition,” and nowhere is this more implicit than “Heat in May,” a rubato ballad that frames Halley’s breathy, Lester Young-inflected musings in a post-Harmolodic context. “Radial Symmetry,” one of a handful of blues-based numbers, similarly updates classic tenets, abstracting them with a flair for the dramatic worthy of Mingus.

Halley’s embrace of jazz vernacular extends to the avant-garde, with each session typically including a selection of collective improvisations. This effort features three brief detours into divergent sound worlds: the aptly titled “Trip Through Turbulence” is wooly call-and-response; the brooding tone poem “Faint Scattered Lights” is the inverse, awash in legato tones; and “Conversation in Blue” extrapolates a conventional blues line with lyrical panache.

Inspired once again by hiking through the Wallowa Mountains, as was Crossing The Passes before it, The Wisdom of Rocks conveys Halley’s love of the outdoors by translating the weathered perseverance of natural structures into a sound that references tradition without being constrained by it. I interviewed Halley shortly after the release of The Wisdom of Rocks about his working methods and being a creative musician living in an area that is cosmopolitan on many counts, but seems incapable of sustaining a vibrant cutting-edge jazz scene.


Troy Collins: Your previous working quartet with bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Dave Storrs included Bobby Bradford on cornet, while the current configuration features trombonist Michael Vlatkovich and your son, Carson Halley, manning the drums. What precipitated this change in personnel?

Rich Halley: The quartet with Bobby was wonderful but we were only able to perform together occasionally due to geography and schedules. The trio with Clyde and Dave was more of a regular gigging band. After about five years Dave decided that he wanted to do other musical projects. Clyde and I had a real affinity and wanted to keep playing and developing the music. Carson and I had played a lot of duo gigs together and he was also in the Outside Music Ensemble so Clyde and I started playing with him. We played quite a few gigs as a trio. Then we added Michael. I had played with Michael in various groups since the ‘90s and I knew he would be a great addition. A second horn creates all sorts of possibilities for harmony, counterpoint and sonic variety but of course it has to be the right person and Michael was perfect. The current quartet plays pretty regularly.

TC: Bradford and Vlatkovich have very different musical personalities, with Bradford’s harmonic subtlety the proverbial yin to Vlatkovich’s expressionistic yang. Although such a comparison is an obvious oversimplification, do you find you differ your approach at all when playing with either of them?

RH: I think it’s natural for your playing to be shaped somewhat by the particular musical context. I probably play a bit differently when playing with Michael as opposed to Bobby but it’s not something I do consciously. Both of them are great listeners and they each have very individual personalities, so the musical choices they make while we’re playing can shape the music differently. Bobby comes out of the tradition of playing highly developed melodic lines which can imply a certain harmonic context. His playing is very logical but also warm and subtle. And occasionally he will take off in an entirely new musical direction and take the whole band to that place. Bobby prefers to play in the context of compositions as opposed to totally free, but of course he does that very well too.

Michael often plays complex melodic lines, but he also works a lot with sounds and textures. His approach can be abstract and visceral at the same time. In his solos, it’s not uncommon for him to go to a contrasting musical space from the preceding feel. Michael is very comfortable with playing totally free and we do quite a bit of that. Both Michael and Bobby frequently play improvised ensemble parts that add a lot to what we are doing. When I’m playing with either of them, it’s always conversational. What I play at any given point is really in the moment. It’s not anything that’s planned out but is reflective of where we are at that point in the music, including whatever feel may be set up by the written parts.

TC: On a similar note, how does Carson’s energetic playing change the dynamics of the group compared to Storrs’ more abstract approach.

RH: Carson plays deep grooves and that’s a very important musical value for him. He provides lots of energy and propulsion for the group. He also likes to play rock, funk and hip hop feels, so variations on these get interjected into what we do and give additional variety to the music. But Carson is also sensitive and doesn’t overpower the rest of the group. He plays textural and quieter things well and uses a lot of dynamics. He really internalizes the compositions and lays out the structure on the composed portions of the music.

Dave’s approach was different in that he tended to play in more of a counterpoint role. He would often play against what other people were doing to provide contrast. This frames the music differently and gives it a different feel. The drummer plays a big part in determining the overall sound of any jazz group.

TC: Your prior works for trio, with Reed and Storrs (recorded and released in the early 2000’s on Storrs label, Louie Records) suggest a more open, improvised format, while your pieces for the new quartet sound more structured. Can you talk about how you approach writing for different size ensembles?

RH: There’s more of an emphasis on writing with the current quartet. The fact that there is another horn gives me more things to explore in the compositions and the compositions tend to be more complex than those we recorded with the trio. The compositions we recorded with the trio were more starting places for improvisation whereas those in the Rich Halley 4 tend to set up a little more defined space. Also, the way Carson plays the composed sections makes their structure more clearly defined.

But the blowing in the Rich Halley 4 is not any more structured because when we improvise it’s completely spontaneous and there are no roadmaps. We do things that may sound structured that are actually totally improvised. When we improvise everyone interacts in a very compositional way. I refer to this as compositional group improvisation and it’s something we consciously do. Each person is hearing what we have played as a whole and adds new musical statements based on that context. You have to create the right balance of tension and release. This helps us build each piece as a complete and coherent musical statement.

TC: The titles of most of your pieces are evocative of the great outdoors and natural phenomena, which is somewhat unsurprising considering your academic background. Has your training as a field biologist had any impact or influence on your music writing?

RH: I think that if you do art, your life comes out in your art in some way whether it’s intended or not. And since my interest in nature and the outdoors has been a big part of my life it undoubtedly has some influence on the actual music. But most of the influence is probably on an intuitive level. For example, I might try to translate some feeling I get in the mountains into music, but since music is so abstract, the translation is sort of fuzzy and on more of a pure feeling level. But the influence definitely is there because it’s part of who I am and what I value.

TC: Do you typically write parts specifically geared towards your band mates’ strengths, or do you embrace an egalitarian approach, where the tunes themselves are more open to interpretation by different players?

RH: The compositions are written with the players very much in mind. In many ways the players in the band are the determining factor in how the music sounds. I’ve talked about Carson’s role, and what Clyde and Michael do are equally important. Clyde is the glue that connects many things in our music. He has a great sound and plays with a lot of feeling. He is able to respond to whatever is happening and enhance it but he also is able to pivot the band in new directions when that is appropriate. Clyde plays in a very flexible way, and this allows the group to move spontaneously in any direction that feels right at that moment. Michael is not only a great player but is also a wonderful composer. And this compositional sense is very evident in what he plays. He’s very aware of how his playing affects the whole band and he often improvises accompanying lines. He also plays a lot of different ways, from really melodic lines to sounds and textures using mutes and plungers. This provides sonic variety in the group.

If I were working with other players the compositions would probably be somewhat different. And there is a fair amount of latitude in how they can be played. Written parts for the horns are fairly strictly notated but the bass and drums use a basic score and evolve their parts in rehearsal. The open sections are completely open and dependent on how we improvise as a group. So if one of the regular members of the band were replaced with someone else, the band would sound quite different because that person would play the written sections with their own feel and would make their own personal choices in the improvised sections.

TC: Many of your recent releases feature brief collective improvisations alongside pre-written numbers. How do you feel about “pure” free improvisation compared to more traditional theme and variations-based arrangements?

RH: I like doing both, although I think long totally free improvisations come across better in live performances than on recordings. The written compositions we perform have long freely improvised sections so there is not as much difference between the two approaches as one might think. When we play live, we intersperse compositions with free improvisations so what you hear on recordings is fairly representative of how we play live. Except that our free improvisations tend to run longer in live performances, and are sometimes used as a prelude or postlude to a composition or as a bridge between compositions. The two approaches are basically two sides of the same coin; the band improvises together in the style we have evolved regardless of whether we are working from a composition or not. And playing completely free sometimes helps us loosen up the way we play the compositions and makes them more musical.

TC: Your biography indicates you’ve spent some time in Chicago and San Francisco, yet you’ve ultimately decided to stay in Portland. How do you feel that living in a city located outside of the jazz mainstream has affected the development of your artistry?

RH: Portland has a decent jazz scene but it’s very mainstream oriented. There are not a lot of venues where I can play my music regularly and there are not a lot of people dedicated to playing the type of music I am involved in. In some ways this makes it harder to move the music ahead. On the other hand, since I am a bit of an outsider both locally and in the wider jazz world, it leaves me free to do things as I see fit without being concerned with following trends or any sort of peer pressure. I’m also very fortunate and grateful that Michael and Clyde are willing to travel from Los Angeles and Vancouver to play in the band. It’s a DIY sort of world. But that’s OK with me. I’m happy to have the opportunity to develop my personal voice in music while living here in Oregon.

TC: You’ve been the musical director of the Penofin Jazz Festival since 1994 and co-founded the Portland Creative Music Guild in 1991. Considering Portland’s distance from more established metropolitan jazz centers, do you find organizing necessary towards maintaining a healthy local scene, or does leadership come naturally to you?

RH: I don’t know if leadership comes naturally to me but sometimes it’s necessary in order to make things happen. We started the Creative Music Guild because there were almost no venues where we could play freer music in Portland and we wanted to provide an alternative. I’m not involved in running the Guild these days but it’s still alive and well. The Penofin Jazz Festival has been a wonderful opportunity to present music that I personally like without having to worry about commercial considerations. This is mostly due to the generosity of my sister-in-law Barbara Newell, who runs the company that produces Penofin wood finishes and who has done a lot for the small community where she lives in Northern California.

TC: With two decades worth of experience as a leader and organizer, what have you seen change in the Northwestern jazz scene and/or what has remained the same?

RH: I’ve seen a number of cycles where jazz becomes more popular and there is more opportunity to play, followed by a drop in opportunities and activity. This is particularly true for more open improvised music. About ten years ago, several musicians that I performed with moved out of the Portland area or stopped playing. For a while this impacted the creative music scene quite a bit. But over time, things change and new opportunities present themselves. That’s the case with the Rich Halley 4 and I see this in the Creative Music Guild, where a new generation is working to present different and interesting events.

TC: Your discography has grown exponentially as of late. I’m assuming this is attributable in part to being retired (a detail revealed in a 2013 interview)? And if so, how do you find post-retirement affects your creative process?

RH: It’s a lot easier to find the time to compose and practice when you don’t have to work ten hours a day. Now I’m able to make music my first priority instead of trying to get in some practice after coming home at the end of a long day. I was fortunate to be able to retire early from my day job while I still have lots of energy and enthusiasm to apply to music. Now I can really get into it and concentrate for long periods on writing new music. I also have more time to do outdoor activities. In short, I’m having a great time!

TC: Wisdom of the Rocks is the fourth album by the Rich Halley 4 in as many years. Each successive release sounds like a natural evolution, with the unit’s chemistry growing incrementally in terms of cohesive group interplay. Can you talk a little about the process behind this development?

RH: I think when you play with compatible people over a long period of time there is a natural evolution that takes place. In the Rich Halley 4 we have wonderful group interaction. Everyone really listens and plays with the overall musical statement in mind. Each player has their own approach and over time we all learn how to best use our individual approaches in concert to make a cohesive group statement. Through playing, the band discovers certain “spaces” that work especially well, and these get stored in everyone’s’ memory as places we can go to in improvisations. As the group continues to play together, a considerable repertoire of these spaces gets developed which we can then access when it feels right. This is not necessarily a conscious process because it mostly happens intuitively, but it definitely happens. In this way the group evolves and develops as a unique musical entity.

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

RH: I’m always a little more self-conscious in a studio, at least initially. In a live performance you’re mostly concerned with the overall flow of the music and don’t worry about little mistakes as much as you would on a recording. And in the studio you don’t have the interaction with an audience so that’s a bit of a loss. When you’re hearing the other instruments through headphones and people are more separated physically it feels different, and it takes some time to get used to that new feel. As a saxophonist, my horn sounds really weird through headphones, so I have to take the phones off one ear so I still get some of the natural sound. But after a couple of hours, I find that the group starts to loosen up and play more naturally, like we would in a live situation. Playing in the studio makes it harder to get loose, but we adapt eventually.

TC: As a label proprietor, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival hard copies versus ephemeral downloads?

RH: For me, recording is primarily a way to get the music out to listeners who would otherwise not be able to hear it. It’s not really a way to make a significant amount of money, given the relatively small audience for this kind of music. But I’m always happy to see that people from all over are listening to our music. I don’t download a lot of music although I do listen online a certain amount. I might prefer to have an actual disc or vinyl record with pictures and perhaps notes to look at but to just check out different music the web is great. I really don’t care what medium people use to access our music. The important thing is that people listen. And it’s easier than ever for someone in a location remote from where we are to access the music, so I think that’s a good thing.

TC: In light of the recording industry’s current complexities, do you find musical inspiration in any technological advances or stylistic movements?

RH: The music I am involved in is about playing live and acoustically, even when we are recording. So the advances related to creating complex layers using many tracks and electronics/computers don’t apply directly to what we are doing. But it’s certainly much easier to do some editing when it’s needed using the current software. Sometimes I will hear a pop or hip-hop recording with a lot of layers and that will give me an idea about how that concept might be applied to what we do. So certainly there’s some influence. And I really like some of the grooves I hear in hip-hop. But mostly I’m interested in developing musical ideas based around live group improvisation. There are still a lot of possibilities to work on in that universe.

TC: Beyond jazz, are there any contemporary non-jazz based artists you find inspiration in?

RH: I listen to a variety of non-jazz music including European classical, African and Afro-Cuban traditional, Indian classical, Native American, Latin, rhythm & blues, country & western etc. But most of it isn’t really contemporary. I do listen to a cross-section of contemporary music sort of casually. For example, I go to the gym several times a week and the trainer that works there usually has hip-hop or contemporary pop music playing which I listen to. But even though I pay attention to the music I often don’t know who the artists are.

A couple of years ago I was playing at the Vancouver Jazz Festival and heard Robert Glasper’s trio with drummer Chris Dave. I was pretty blown away by Chris Dave. He was definitely working out of a hip-hop vocabulary and was doing some amazing things using a lot of subtle variations in phrasing.

TC: Besides the Rich Halley 4, are you currently maintaining any other performing ensembles or collaborations?

RH: Right now the Rich Halley 4 is my musical focus and I’m pretty busy writing music for the band, recording and playing gigs. The Outside Music Ensemble is on hold for now due to a lack of suitable outdoor gigs. There are some other projects in the back of my mind but there’s nothing concrete at this point.

TC: What projects do you have planned for the immediate future?

RH: The Rich Halley 4 recorded a couple of months ago and I will be working with that material for our next CD which should be out in 2015. We did a successful Midwest tour last spring and I would like to get the group to the East Coast next year. I’m looking forward to performing more with the band.

© 2014 Troy Collins

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