interviewed by Nate Chinen
I'd like to kick off by talking about your personal background --
where and how you grew up, and when it was that you decided to pursue music
as a career.
I actually grew up on the West Coast, a little town south of San Francisco
called Pacifica. It's like a little beach town. It's funny, I just got
back from spending two weeks there, so it's fresh in my mind. It was one
of those little places that was kind of a cool place to live, but there
wasn't a whole lot going on so you had to find things on your own. I played
in rock 'n' roll bands and stuff when I was in early high school, grammar
school. But there was a lot of music around, a lot of different stuff,
and I just kind of luckily had heard some things I liked -- jazz music,
improvisational music -- from during my early high school times, and just
got interested in that, and started pursuing it. I guess I got interested
in jazz music when I was somewhere around 14, 15. There was a great library
in the town there. Whoever bought the records for the library had really
eclectic tastes, so you'd end up listening to anything from Ornette's Science
Fiction to Coltrane's Om to Bitches Brew, Kind of
Blue, a really wide range of music. So I just started checking it out.
And a bunch of circumstances led me to actually start working gigs in San
Francisco in the city when I was pretty young. I was like maybe 16, started
working these gigs, and sort of put it all together pretty early. So things
didn't really happen in a really drawn-out, sequential kind of linear way;
they sort of happened on top of each other.
And you were just absorbing everything you could in that context.
Pretty much, yeah. As that was happening, these opportunities were presenting
themselves. And I started doing it.
When was it that you realized you were committing yourself to a career,
a life in music?
I went to a state university out there for a year in East Bay, and during
that year I knew pretty much that I wanted to be playing. I was already
playing, I was already doing it, and at that point the thought of staying
in school for four years with people that I felt -- at lest at the time,
being sort of arrogant or whatever -- that everyone including the teachers
were playing at it a little bit but not really doing it. And I was sort
of getting the opportunity to at least be around what I considered the
real stuff that was happening. There it was like the Keystone Corner and
these different places in San Francisco and kind of getting to hang out
with the musicians or play with them or whatever. It was right around that
time, when I was 17, where I said 'I think I'd better just be doing this.
This is what I'm going to do, so I should just be in it.' And it just started
Were there people who were mentors to you at that time?
There were several. On different levels. In terms of sort of a mentor
in just playing jazz music, there's this guy who still plays around the
Bay Area a lot called Bishop Norman Williams. He's an alto saxophonist
that came from Kansas City, and he's been a real mainstay in the San Francisco
scene since the '60s probably. He's one of the first guys I started working
with. The thing about the Bishop -- with him it was all about the spirit
of music, just playing, and it was not about talking. In fact, we'd say,
'the Bishop is a man of few words.' He would just call tunes, you couldn't
understand what he was saying half the time; he'd just mumble out the name
of some standard you never heard of and count it off and you just kind
of had to go. So I learned a lot learning those kinds of tunes, jazz standards,
on the bandstand. Just kind of having to deal and listen to it, and eventually
go back and find a record, tighten it up, and hopefully have it more together
the next time. For a lot of people he's been a kind of mentor out there
and an important figure; but for me personally, because he took me under
his wing and in his band when I was about 16, and I did two records with
him early on. So definitely the Bishop. I had a few teachers. There was
a bass player who used to play a lot -- he played with Roy Haynes' band,
and played with Stanley Turrentine's band back in the '70s -- named Toru
Nakamura, who I met through some people that I knew out there. He kind
of mentored me through certain things, just about being a bass player.
He'd lived in New York, he'd sort of done the sideman thing in New York
and all that, and kind of gave me a lot of ideas and sort of helped guide
me through certain things in the straight-ahead scene and all that. So
he helped me in that realm. I mean, there were a lot of other people, but
these are the people who really took an interest and spent some time. There
were other people I was playing with in the meantime out there. Eddie Henderson
was very giving in terms of giving me opportunities to play and get exposed
out there, doing some pretty high-level gigs. Baikida Carrol was there
then, and I used to be in a very fun band with Baikida called Savage Lust
that used to play in the Bay Area. I was younger; I left there when I was
20, so this was all between like 17 and 19. Art Landy was another one,
a great pianist who lives out in Boulder now. Who must be one of the most
brilliant improvisers that I've ever met, and truly eccentric musician,
and I think he was one of the guys who was honest with me about what I
needed to do. And then probably the last one of that group would be Dave
Liebman, who was living out there, and I was in a couple of bands with
in '76, '77. And Dave was also great in terms of guidance, and giving his
opinion on things whether it was solicited or not. It was always stuff
that, even when it hurt, it could help. So those were kind of my mentors
in the early time. Then when I came to New York, Ron McClure and I got
to be pretty friendly. Bass players. Red Mitchell, George Mraz, guys who
spent a little bit of time just hanging.
What's especially interesting to me about this is that it's a pretty
conventional story -- a young and dedicated musician just working and getting
together with older people who've been around. Sometimes I talk to people
in the so-called Downtown Scene who don't think about the extent to which
this really is still coming straight out of a tradition, the same tradition
that guys like Jackie McLean and Red Norvo were a part of. Sure. And
I think looking at the stuff you've been involved with in particular, those
differences become a moot point. I think the first album I heard you on
was something by Bob Mintzer. So the lines that people draw between Screwgun-type
stuff and the stuff that's more straight-ahead, those distinctions don't
Right. Well, I think that so much of that is kind of artificial. I was
maybe more conscious of some of those divisions and the things that made
those things different before. Now, it seems to me like they all feed each
other, and there's a lot of great cross-pollination between all these different
musics, and some people don't want to acknowledge that in any way. A lot
of other people are just dishonest about it, because there was this big
thing about the downtown scene and all that, this whole postmodern
thing, and you get a lot of people who say 'Oh, it can't be jazz, because
this is this new thing,' and a lot of people almost pretend that they haven't
been influenced by these things. It's kind of a defensive action sometimes.
Sometimes it's genuine. I know people that are generally just not, have
no connection to jazz music. That's fine. But if you do, you do. I can't
deny what my background is, and I'm very proud of that. I had a lot of
opportunities to play with people that very few people of my generation,
regardless of what music they're into, have got to do. On the other hand,
I can say that a whole lot of those guys I played with I disagree with
on a lot of fundamentals about music. So what led me to do a lot of the
stuff that I'm doing, was because I did not share that same set of philosophies
-- about what a rhythm section player should be, or what jazz was.
That's a good segue into another question. Let's talk about your
perception of the bass as a rhythm section instrument.
In some ways, I don't think my view is necessarily that radical. I think
that the bass, because of the range and the sound and what has been done
with it, it makes sense that it sort of fulfills this bass function, and
connects the rhythm and the harmony, or the rhythm and the melodic material,
and gives it sort of an anchor for the music. I think for me a lot of that
is that it gives the music a really strong sense of rhythmic foundation,
and something to bounce off of, and at the same time give strength and
buoyancy to. I like to think about how the bass has that great combination
of being this very deeply-rooted strong anchor, but being able to deal
with it in a very buoyant and flexible way. And in terms of being a rhythm
instrument, that's it. You can help establish the groove, you can play
with that; you can totally give yourself up to that aspect of playing the
bass. I mostly choose not to do that. I guess I have these little contradictions
in terms of how I like to approach the music, because I like to feel like
I'm able to do that at any time -- to break things down to maybe their
most basic time-rhythm elements, and be able to really simplify. Or have
that be very deeply rooted in me and play something totally different.
Play against what I'm feeling and sometimes comment on what I'm feeling
musically, or really deliberately shake down the foundation of what I think
needs to be there. A lot of times I'll sit and figure out what really is
the right thing to play, and then play anything but that. Because music
to me sometimes, there's a part of me where it's a game, it's fun. What
can I do to disguise these most basic elements? Sometimes that's just playing
around a groove, or using pitch material that's just outside of
the zone where I want it to land, where it maintains just enough tension
where eventually if I just feel the right moment where it feels right with
what everyone else is playing, to just kind of go 'BOOM!' and find that
spot where you just want to land. Everything else before that can just
be this incredible foreplay before that moment can happen. I like that.
Sometimes it's very much more emotional process, sometimes it's a more
intellectual process where I'm thinking about things that I'm doing. But
I'm always trying to really keep the time and what I think should be happening
harmonically, melodically -- I'm trying to keep that sort of inside of
me, just going all the time. And I like to choose the spots where I just
want to sort of connect with it, with what I'm playing.
I think that's the reason why -- regardless of whether you're engaging
with that moment or holding back from it, whether you're playing a lot
of notes or distilling things to their simplest forms -- there's always
a sense of rigor. That's the sense I get. Now I'd like to quote something
from a blindfold test that Jazz Times did with Tim a couple months
ago. They played him something from Marty Ehrlich's Lucky Life disc
(Enja). He says: 'On a piece like this, with Formanek, the possibilities
are just endless. I've played with so many good bass players but Formanek
is just frightening. Formanek, you can just give him the simplest rhythmic
idea and he just turns it into something symphonic. He's amazing. Rhythmically,
harmonically, he can just make a piece like this sound like an orchestra
piece, and in a trio that's pretty essential.' Any rejoinders? Any way
to enlarge on that?
Well, how can you enlarge on that? [laughs] I mean, that's just like,
you know, in a way that's like everything I possibly could ever want anybody
to say about what I do. What can I say -- I mean, that's like grossly exaggerated,
barely has any element of truth to it...
But I think it does relate to what we just talked about. The line
where he says 'give him the simplest rhythmic idea...'
Right. Yeah. But granted this is coming from a person, we share a lot
of these musical views. I could say the exact same thing about what he
does. And that's something that I feel like I share with like a handful
of people that I play with. Improvisers that have a really broad palette
to choose from, who can go very technical and specific to very gray area
stuff that's non-describable, non-transcribeable. And so for me that's
a description of probably who I consider in my inner circle of musician
friends that I'm very close with. Marc Ducret, Tony Malaby, Jim Black,
there's a group of people I feel really close and connected with like that.
I could say similar things about anybody.
I feel like that sense of collective identity really moves from one
project to another. I hear the ghost of Jim Black on Ornery People,
And when I caught your group Northern Exposure at the Knit, Jim was
in that band. And when I hear the two of you playing together, it's literally
impossible for me to imagine anyone else doing the music you're doing.
Northern Exposure seems to me to be about that identity. I hear that even
in Am I Bothering You? I don't want to say it's lessons learned
from these experiences, but it's something that must have grown or developed.
Yeah, and you have to look at it from both perspectives. How we've influenced
the situations we've been a part of, and how those situations influence
us. And say for myself, in a band like Bloodcount, what I feel by Tim sort
of throwing Jim and I in this thing together, it sort of forced us to come
up with this approach, a way of playing that just kind of happened. It
was things that I'm sure we both had in us to do, that may never have quite
developed the same way had it not been that situation with those people.
With someone writing a certain kind of music, and also an infinite amount
of patience to let us work through a lot of stuff, basically without talking
about anything. That's something that Jim and I have never talked about,
it just happened from doing a million gigs. Both of us walked away from
that experience maybe changed in a certain way. It affected my solo playing,
no question. And on Ornery, there is always a kind of spirit of
Jim there in a certain way, because that's somebody that I feel most connected
with rhythmically. It's not necessarily that I'm hearing Jim, but I'm hearing
the same kind of rhythmic ideal that we've heard together. It has more
to do with connecting with those same points rhythmically that we sort
of connect to together. When we're playing together, we're just totally
zoned in on each other. We're just playing the way we hear rhythm, together.
And finding ways of making it sound musical and together as much as we
can. And it's always spontaneous because it's almost never worked out.
There's a different but obviously related chemistry that happens
between you and Tim, and I guess that Ornery is the best place to
look for that, because there's no one else. There's an interplay there
that doesn't really recall any other bass-and-horn duo combinations. What
tools do you bring to the table that allow something like that to happen?
I think it has to do, almost more than anything, with what tools we're
both bringing to the table. In order for a lot of those kinds of
things to work, things have to be balanced in a certain way. From playing
with Tim for so long, I know how deeply connected with the bass Tim is.
I mean, you listen to any of Tim's music, almost anything he's ever written
-- things are generated from the bass line, there's generated from the
groove, he plays the baritone, he plays the bass lines. He's got such an
interesting approach to that. So I feel there's always this willingness
to -- not necessarily to change roles, but to focus on these bass lines,
and different ways of using tension, using held notes against moving lines.
Sometimes to me it feels as much like playing with two bass players. It's
that kind of freedom, freedom to move around. We both tend to play a lot,
we're both pretty active players, and we both tend to use a pretty wide
register of our instruments. So there's a lot of this thing of setting
up lines and patterns where I'm definitely playing in the bass zone, but
as part of my line I can interject things that are registerally close or
harmonically close to what Tim's playing. Sort of keep pivoting off those
two areas. That's one type of way that we play together a lot. It's really
nothing that's been decided or talked about or any or that, but it's just
an approach to playing that feels like, you know, we're playing off a central
set of some kind. There are times in the beginning of an improvisation
where these different lines get set in motion early on, and that becomes
sort of the material or fodder for the improv, and it gets to be like this
game -- how to keep this groove-bassline-melody thing happening. Sort of
like not dropping the ball, you know? And that's the way it feels a lot.
I've never really verbalized it, but it feels like that a lot. Almost like
there's a constant kind of handing the baton back and forth, like relaying
things around. One of the ways that I've been able to deal with that is
that in the last several years I've really worked at just expanding my
way of playing where I feel like I'm playing the whole instrument all the
time. Thinking of the bass almost like it's a piano, as well as percussion.
So that gets into some kind of contortionist kinds of stuff sometimes where
I feel like I get myself out on these limbs. I'm not quite sure how I get
there or how I get back, but I really enjoy that. It's a thing that has
stemmed from the kind of music that we've attempted to play together; that's
one of the solutions.
It's like inventing a new vocabulary, another set of techniques.
And that's what striking about seeing you with Jim, because he's doing
a comparable thing.
Oh, no question.
And it changes all the time. So I think that's really interesting --
the idea that technique is assembled, and can be extended and expanding.
The thing about Jim, too, is that I have never met another musician (and
definitely not another drummer) who could have maintained so much groove
and deeply rooted rhythm, where you feel like you've got to move, but where
he doesn't need to always define it. He's so comfortable moving in and
out of even and odd bar structures and all that. We can always be implying,
I can come up with some sort of weird pattern and he's so on it right away
that it feels like you never have that feeling of someone's being afraid
because the time is turned around. You never have that, it always feels
so natural. He can deal with it naturally but he can also deal with it
mathematically and technically, make those micro-adjustments to keep things
feeling good. It's amazing.
There was a tune you did with Northern Exposure called 'Bovine Intervention,'
with a section in 10 and a section in 7. The fluidity of transitions in
a tune like that is striking.
That particular piece was pretty much written for Jim for that band.
You write these things and you know that it's not going to sound like deliberately
it's in 10 or deliberately it's in 7. He's just going to come up with some
kind of a groove or part. And it changes. I've heard several different
versions of that already, and they're all equally interesting. And the
way he moves from one to another is pretty scary. Just think: on that 10
thing, which is written in 5/4 but has more of a 10/8 thing, he kind of
does that closed hi-hat, almost double-time thing in there. I never could
have thought of that. I knew what the basic groove was going to be, but
it's such a surprise sometimes when you actually start playing.
Now, given everything that's happening with that band, and with all
of your other current projects -- if you were to hear a track like 'Yahoo
Justice' from Wide Open Spaces (Enja), would it sound sort of foreign
to you? Or is that stuff still very much a part of your present tense?
I'd say it's a little foreign at this point. It was music from a certain
time, and I was sort of putting together a lot of different elements. At
that time I was still thinking more in terms of styles and keeping things
in certain zones. Where now there's a lot more grooves butted right up
against each other, just different ways of structuring things. It's still
me in a certain way when I go back there, but I think I've really changed
a lot in terms of how I look at music, and also in terms of what I want
to put out there that will be interesting for these other musicians to
play. That's what I'm thinking a lot of times too, is how I can come up
with something that's going to maybe get those juices flowing a little
differently than they might.
I noticed on your web site that you teach lessons, and two things
caught my attention. The first was that you'll work with musicians who
play instruments other than the bass. And also that you're very interested
in teaching composition. How do you work on composition, as an instructor?
Mostly at this point, it's been one element of working with students;
either someone who's been studying the bass, or in one case a drum student
that I'd had. Where along with everything else, we'd spend a certain amount
of time just working on compositional things. In those cases it's been
more like coaching a little bit. Being another set of ears. What I think
I've probably mostly done is taken something that was a good basic idea
that starts but maybe runs into a wall, and come in with a fresh set of
ears, and said 'How about this?' Try to get people to look at their music,
once they've gotten it on paper, to look at it with a sort of orchestrator-arranger
head. I haven't had any opportunity to work with too many people where
it's been from the nuts and bolts of composing, and that's something that
I'd like to do more of. I'm mostly self-taught as a composer. I have studied
some, and I try to add new things to my arsenal. I don't consider myself
a really schooled composer, so it would be pretentious to really say I
want to be a composition teacher. But the zone where I'd probably be most
effective is to first of all help people get their ideas on paper, and
then get people to get in the habit of keeping notebooks and then referring
to it. I'm always interested in how, if you have something like a notebook
covering a six-month period of time, how much similarity or common material
there'll be between the different sections. Dealing with non-bass-players,
I take what I'd consider a little bit more of coaching role. I've had several
drum students, and that's always been interesting. I've played with really
good drummers for so long that it's an interesting perspective to work
with a drummer and be able to say 'there something about your touch here,
it just seems like if you were able to lighten up on this thing, or lay
back on the bass drum a little bit it'd let this breathe a little more.'
You can actually deal with subtleties that are not technical from a drum
standpoint, but from someone that you'd actually be playing with, like
a bass player, where it would make all the difference.
As a composer yourself, what sorts of processes do you use? Would
you say that you often start with ideas on the bass, or does it happen
a different way?
It doesn't happen that way that often. It does maybe less than half
the time. I think usually it has more to do with hearing something, like
some kind of groove or a melody line or something; it tends to go a little
more from that standpoint. I probably write more melody lines first more
often, or a bass line that I didn't write at the bass. One of the reasons
I write away from the bass is that I don't want to just write things that
I can play. I want to write things that are maybe going to be interesting.
So that's why you end up with these crazy wide-interval leaps and awkward
fingerings and all this kind of stuff -- because I try to do that away
from the instrument. I know it's going to be weird when I'm writing it,
but it's different from letting the fingers do the walking and doing the
more obvious route. It's a combination, and I'm by no means set in that
process. Whatever gets it going is what gets it going. Sometimes it's just
a matter of getting something started and one thing follows the other.
I lose that conscious thing at a certain point; it just starts moving along.
You get some melody going, and then you go find some bass stuff, and that'll
open up another door. Sometimes by the time you've written a melody, you
start writing a bass line. So you get to a certain point where the bass
line gets so interesting that you kind of throw the other stuff away. Then
you work on the bass line until it runs its course, but some melodic idea
stems from that. That's part of the process that I really enjoy; if you're
open to it, things keep revealing themselves to you. You have to be responsive
to that process, I think.
I think there's that sense of discovery especially on the solo bass
disc. It's quite unclear where the compositional element begins and ends.
And also the things you've been dealing with: the bass as a keyboard instrument,
as a percussion instrument, extended techniques, and unusual stuff. That's
all incorporated in a self-consciously musical sense, and could easily
-- I'm not sure, I haven't seen the music -- but at certain points, it
seems like it's definitely incorporated into the composition. And you wonder
'How is this notated? Is this notated?' And 'How did it develop?'
That recording was a great learning experience for that for me. I was
always afraid, in a lot of situations where you're playing with other people,
to be too sketchy. When you have people playing with you, you're responsible
to sort of be more specific. Whereas myself, I know where my musical aesthetic
is. I know that I'm going to deal with sort of really simple material or
really sketchy material in the way that I'm at least feeling strongly about
at that moment. So I could keep certain things really really sketchy. Several
of the pieces on there are almost completely written. Two or three are
completely improvised. And then there's all kinds of different proportions.
It's probably got the widest range of different approaches in terms of
how much is written and how much is not written.
And what's so great about the format is that because there's only
instrumental voice, and because it's all coming from your head, the listener
really has no indication as to that range and when one thing is improvised,
when it's composed. The sonic range is clear, but the formal range is something
that can only be imagined. Whereas if you were doing the same sort of project
with other musicians, you could infer what's improvised. But because it's
solo bass, it's quite indeterminate.
You just don't know sometimes what's the best way to go. I tend to be
very intuitive about that; I don't really second-guess it too much. It
felt good, it felt natural to me, so I just kind of went with it that way.
Luckily Tim was around to help kind of keep it moving along, help get it
focused too, because any kind of solo recording you can have your moments
of doubt. It's a whole lot of you. And most of us don't think we're all
that great anyway, so you think: 'For better or for worse, it's going to
be a whole lot of me here.' So trying to find at least the best versions
of that that you can do.
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