interviewed by Nate Chinen
You and Tim have recently collaborated quite a bit; I've seen you
together a few times now. Can you speak to the affinity between the two
One thing is that I've been listening to Tim's music since I was in
high school. Right when Fulton Street Maul came out. I grew up in
Minneapolis and he played at the Walker Art Center. And so I was like,
I had just gone to that show and I've been into him since then. So I'm
sure a certain part of the affinity comes from the fact that I was listening
to him for a long time, and was a fan. I mean, I was like 16, 17, so a
certain part of my musical development I got certain things out of that.
Another thing in terms of our influences, there's a lot of parallels. I
had been into Julius longer than that, since I was 12 or 13. I know that
music really well, and just listening to that music specifically, I have
affinity for that kind of creativity, that sense of seeking a certain kind
of innovation. You know, just trying to do things in an interesting way.
Just in terms of concept, I think just the fact that we both probably share
an affinity for a certain concept of what creativity is, I would say. Why
you're doing music.
That brings me to the question of what I would say is probably a
fairly unusual upbringing musically. The fact that you were working with
university professors long before you graduated from high school, and the
fact that your tastes were as catholic as they were. How did you get to
The Hennepin County Public Library was a big thing. I don't know exactly
why I started listening to so many different things, but the library aided
that. There were a lot of things to get. I used to go and check out piles
of records. And there were a lot of things going on in Minneapolis at the
time. Once you started getting into music, there was a lot to see. This
was the 80s, so between Prince and the Time sort of thing, and this sort
of underground rock thing, the Husker Du/Replacements thing, Walker bringing
in a lot of people, and me being into jazz for other reasons
I think just
all those factors, it came together at a certain time for me, which was
early, and I started wanting to check out a lot of different music. Really
at first it was seeking a reconciliation between certain things because
I found myself interested, and couldn't find links between things. Like
I was into punk rock but at the same time I was really trying to play jazz
piano at a young age. Those worlds especially the jazz piano world
are really separate. So instead of trying to choose one or the other I
just listened to both. And more things: a lot of metal, a lot of New Wave
stuff, and then that evolved into a lot of other electronica things. When
I went to school in Michigan at the end of the '80s, early '90s, the techno
thing was huge. That was an influence. I remember listening to the radio,
and that stuff had just left and was starting to come back, so it was still
pretty underground. They had shows in Detroit where I heard stuff I had
never heard before. So all those things kind of came together. Hip-hop
first, punk rock, metal, jazz, and contemporary classical, through the
What sort of strategy did you use to get to that reconciliation between
these different things? Pure absorption?
I think the strategy was to not reconcile them. There is no reconciliation,
I didn't find a need for it. The strategy was to find your way out of that
trying to worry about why you would listen to one thing, and then go
and listen to another. During that time period when I was in it, I didn't
notice, but after I noticed that a lot of people my age at that time were
probably going through similar things. And it had to do with public radio
at the time, and the kind of records that were being released at the time.
The library system had all these older AACM records and contemporary classical
things, because they would just order from these catalogues. Public radio
was playing a lot of stuff, so if you stay at the left end of the dial
and keep an open mind, then you can find all that stuff. That's always
been the case to a certain extent, but for Middle America it hadn't been
the case for a while. So I got into that early and I think a lot of other
probably had a similar experience. I don't know.
This translated into playing experience for you, even at that time.
Well, in high school it was a small little group of us from Golden Valley
that I knew. There's a bassist Reid Anderson who plays in New York a lot.
We were the same age. And there's a drummer Dave King who's still in Minneapolis;
he's has this group called Happy Apple.
So we were all in this little neighborhood in the suburbs. And there
were some other musicians around. We were kind of into different things,
but it all centered around that. I don't know why we got into certain things.
Reid played in a group with Dave, and I was playing with some other musicians,
but then Reid and I started playing together a lot. And I played with Dave
too, since we were like 12. But we were doing like
there was a lot of Rush
going on, things of that nature.
I read somewhere that when you went to Michigan, you first intended
to be a comparative literature major.
Well, that wasn't my first. My first was that I was going to be a composer.
And then comp-lit was in there big-time. I quickly got off wanting to deal
with the music school; nothing against the music school, I just decided
I didn't want to do a music degree really. And then I was off in that world,
lots of comp-lit. I went through a number of majors, getting within a semester
of a bunch of different majors. English and then comp-lit was a big thing.
But then I kind of moved over more into broader culture studies: dealing
with ethnomusicology and other things.
And were you doing any studies in composition?
No, I kind of left off the composition thing early when I got to Michigan.
I never really studied it there. I mean, I was writing and composing but
I never really did it formally. Because I started playing in Detroit and
playing in Michigan and getting groups, getting together with people. I
had a forum to develop those skills away from that. And I sort of realized
that I wasn't really interested in that concert tradition. I don't really
want to write for an orchestra or do anything in that world, for some reason.
Whatever I want to write, I can get small groups to do it. And I wanted
to do other things. I could have applied myself more, but I was too interested
in things away from music.
It was at this time that you met and started playing with James Carter.
Yeah, my first gig in Detroit. I think I was a sophomore. There's a
drummer Gerald Cleaver, and he was one of the first people I met when I
went to Michigan. He was a student too. And then he hooked me up with this
gig, and it had James Carter and either Rodney Whitaker or Jaribu Shahid,
with this trumpet player. At a restaurant. And that's where I met James.
I remember they came out to Ann Arbor to rehearse, and James was in there.
Was that an immediate rapport?
Yeah, on the gig, because it went out. It was this restaurant gig but
James went out, as he's wont to do. So we were playing these bebop tunes
and then he took it out, but I just went with him. Because I was already
kind of over there. I don't think that was happening a lot. There weren't
that many young pianists in Detroit then. Carlos McKinney was still in
high school or junior high at that point. So I think James was like "whoa,
somebody my age who does that." Because we would go out and come back in.
I don't remember what tunes we were playing.
That's a propitious moment, in a way, because the two of you both
have this ability to go as far back as possible and then as far forward
as possible without having a switch. There's an organic quality to it,
by virtue of the fact that you both dealt with that music on all those
Hopefully. Yeah, some levels better than others. The realization that
it's a continuum makes it a lot easier. Because you can see the connections
between different things as opposed to the differences. And then playing
the styles becomes a matter of just addressing the differences after you
realize that you're playing the same thing. I don't know if that makes
Do you feel like that perspective is pretty uncommon?
I would say it's more common, but only to a certain extent. There's
still major gaps in a lot of people's awareness of that continuum. I think
the contributions of the AACM are still highly underrated. And I think
Sun Ra's place in the stuff is still highly underrated, or only certain
aspects are understood. And there's a lot of other things. Julius still
hasn't gotten any of his due. A lot of musicians my age came into it through
people; maybe they know Tim. Through Tim they should get to address Julius
more. But I think a lot of people haven't addressed that. one problem is
that it's still hard to find a lot of that stuff. Some of those seminal
records are still buried somewhere. And it makes it harder to realize how
much stuff was done. Those guys did so many things in the span of 20 years;
they addressed really everything that a lot of people are dealing with
now. A lot of people will deal with one concept that was dealt with on
one album back in '71, that'll be the basis for a lot of groups now. Which
isn't a bad thing, but it's just interesting that there's a lot of depth
from the mid-'60s to the '80s, in that whole world. People like Oliver
and Julius and Roscoe and Muhal. Those kind of people, I think they're
misunderstood. I've had musicians say, like if I mention I play with Roscoe
Mitchell, they're like: "Oh really, is he good? Who is that? What is he
like?" I'm like "Oh my God." I mean, this stuff is going on 40 years old.
Well, just look at the final episode of Ken Burns' Jazz. The
Art Ensemble is in there, and the only thing said about them is that their
audience consisted primarily of college students in France. We could get
into a long discussion on this. But you're probably one of the youngest
musicians around who's in that film; there's a shot of you playing with
James. Oh yeah. So you're complicit in this whole thing!
Yeah, it seems that way. 'Cause I was watching that kind of frustrated
and then I was like: "Oh, I'm in there. God." But you know, everybody knows
the political agenda is pretty clear for the people involved in the making
of that thing. You can't expect them to do anything but further their own
agenda. Its impact makes it kind of an issue, but what are you gonna do?
Do you foresee a time when there'll be an open and intelligent discussion
with regard to the AACM and even someone like Cecil?
Yeah, but unfortunately after they're gone, which is often the case.
And then the discourse will be skewed. I think there will be some intelligent
discourse, but a lot of things will be confused. Everybody has different
agendas. There's so many racial, political, musical issues that come into
play that it's going to be hard to unravel it. It depends on who's chronicling
these things. In terms of influence, the most interesting part of it is
just really understanding what was going on musically what the contributions
were and how that was operating. If you look at that stuff as part of the
larger world of free jazz, and understand it as "this is a free jazz world,"
then you really are missing out on how it's an extension from that. There's
so many different musical problems that were solved, and musical aesthetics
that were developed under that umbrella of "anything happening post-'65."
That's sort of the period that people know the least about. Because it
got too far out for people. And a lot of that has little to do with traditional
free jazz, energy music, or whatever. They utilize those textures and colors,
but there's just so many things. On initial listen, it sounds like the
same sorts of things, but Roscoe's music is vastly different Threadgill's
music. All the way through, not just now. Or Braxton's. So I think that
there needs to be more close attention, but I think unfortunately they'll
be lumped together in a certain sense. George Lewis is finishing his book
on the AACM, and that may further something. I'm curious to see what he
does. But it's supposed to be a definitive work, so I'd be interested in
reading that. There'll be intelligent discourse, but it'll happen later.
It still won't happen now.
What's something that you as a player have taken from that school?
The thing that comes to mind for me is that more than most keyboard players,
you have a real awareness of texture within the context of any ensemble.
I don't know, it depends on the different personalities. The most contact
I've had in that world specifically is with Roscoe. The kind of things
that he works with in the groups I've played with have to do with developing
your ideas within a certain space, to make it as three-dimensional as possible.
To make it as full of activity and different currents so that it's a really
deep structure, as opposed to being a one-dimensional structure. He likes
a lot of depth. There's room for subtext. But staying with your own ideas
in that context, that's what creates the subtext. You need a lot of people
developing things. And what that does to the group structure: things start
to create resonances with each other. The meaning stems from the multiplicity
of ideas. A lot of improvisers prefer to refer to each other, and in this
context it's a little deeper. But coming out of that, the possibilities
of sound change, because you're sort of forced to evolve your sound, your
ideas and everything on your own in that context. What that does for me
having to deal with that gives me a different sense of where to go inside
of that improvisational space. It's more than just "do I follow a person
or do I not follow them," but how do you engage the space. What you were
saying about texture: the biggest thing is that you don't want to get in
anybody else's way. It really forces you to listen to everything almost
with more clarity because you're not following anything in order to almost
stay away from it. Does that make sense? You become really aware of the
texture. The same kind of space you're trying ot create, you become aware
of that space. So instead of focusing on one idea or one line of improvisation,
you're focusing on this unified space in which all this stuff's occurring.
Playing with Roscoe has made me hear that kind of space differently than
when I went in there. When I went in there, I think I was much more of
a unified improviser in terms of conception. Does that make any sense?
That's pretty convoluted.
What I'm hearing is almost as if it's thwarting the linear idea:
instead of moving in any one direction, it radiates, and you're in the
center of that. I think the notion of spatial relations is interesting.
I don't think Roscoe has ever said that, but that's just how I conceptualize
it. Part of that also came out of listening to a lot of electronic music.
I really appreciate Tim's thing because it's the place to fuse those things.
It gives me the arena where I can bring in aesthetics from contemporary
electronic stuff coming even from electronica, that dance-culture stuff
or whatever in ways in which they develop stuff. Or not develop it; there's
a lot more stasis there, and I'm sort of interested in that.
I remember seeing a gig with just you, Tim and Tom. You were using
the Rhodes plus the Kurzweil, and there were some points at which the stuff
you were doing reminded me of sonar pings with a disembodied quality,
but a lot of substance.
That's actually from electronica, but also from the AACM: the idea that
you could develop that kind of thing. That's the biggest thing I got from
them, in this case bringing in these electronic elements into this context.
Because it defies the concept of style. The AACM has sort of defied the
concept of style, if you take all the members together. It's always like
what can you bring in and involve to utilize inside a musical context.
So with the sonar pings, I was really into this idea inside of Tim's thing:
when there's room to improvise, instead of taking a soloistic posture or
trying to develop a solo or ideas, I would try to create a space. Which
is really an ambient music device. I would improvise, which means creating
in the moment, but I would create a sound space or a certain texture or
a little movement of some sort that's pretty unrelated to jazz, in terms
of playing a solo and expressing a linear musical idea and developing it.
Simply because it was interesting to try to do that. Sometimes I will play
a solo. But if you start soloing with electronics it sounds like fusion,
and a lot of that's been done.
The tune you were playing, that I'm referring to, was "The Shell
Game." And as I said, you're doing these metronomic-type bleeps, but shortly
afterwards, you were also doing some wah-wah Rhodes stuff. That brings
me to, for instance, "Basic Math" from the Innerzone Orchestra disc. So
you're bringing these seemingly disparate techniques together in one space.
It's really interesting.
I hope so. It's interesting to me. I don't know if it always works in
a sense, but I don't think it's supposed to work in any specific way. Sometimes
I like to collide those things.
It's nice because there's no heavy precedent for this exactly.
There's other electronic things, but I'm trying to do it a certain way.
The main idea is from Sun Ra, which is just really improvising with electronics.
There's a sense of this kind of improvisation that's very African- American
in its tradition, which is just sort of like interacting with the instrument.
As a gesture, just purely as an interaction. It's not even as goal-oriented
as it could be in a European context. It's just sort of like: "I'm going
to turn this knob a certain way." And that's how a lot of Detroit techno
was created it was like interacting with step sequencers in an improvisational
way. Turning steps on or off, it would change the sound. Even something
down to like taking a TB-303 and turning the frequency knob, which became
rigeur for the last 10 years. But it was just some guy saying "I'm
gonna turn this knob in real time." That kind of thing, it's always part
of what people do with instruments. Like how people play guitar, bending
strings. It's this physical interaction with whatever the device is. With
electronics it gets interesting. For the kind of music stream I'm involved
in, Sun Ra was right there doing it as soon as the synthesizer came out.
What you just said reminded me most of seeing you with Mat Maneri,
when you were on the B-3. You'd hold a chord, at this really subterranean
volume, and then pull various stops to mutate the sound. There was a gradation
to it. That to me seemed like it really dealt with what you could do with
this instrument at this time.
Yeah. I approach the organ as another tool. The elements of style, of
appropriate style of how to utilize the instrument, I kind of don't deal
with in those contexts. Just because there's a lot of people who do that.
I came to organ late, and I sort of approach it just like a big synthesizer.
Which is what it is. It's an electric musical instrument.
Yet on that Carterian Fashion album, you addressed it in a
much more traditional sense, too.
I did? I hope so. I mean, that was the idea, but see that was the first
time I had ever played it before, with that record. I tried. I didn't really
know what I was doing. I'm not an organ guy like that. I know some, because
you can figure it out. And I can play a keyboard instrument. But I don't
know how to do all that stuff. But after that Carterian Fashion
I toured with that group for a year, so I played organ a lot. That's when
I started figuring out other things to do with it. Because it was cool,
you can do so much. There's so many things you can do. And every one is
different, so it makes it really personal. When you're working with stops,
they're all sort of different; everybody designs them differently, and
they jury- rig them and all this stuff. Larry Young is a big influence
for that. I looked at it the Larry Young way; he used it like that, as
a sound tool.
Do you feel closer to keyboards than to the piano?
They're equal to me. I think if somebody ultimately forced me I would
choose the piano, just because it's the piano. But when I started playing
piano, I got my first synthesizer at about the same time. When I was 12,
I got this Moog. So I've been doing electronics all along. I went through
phases. I went through my jazz-purist phase where I was just playing piano.
But even then I still messed around; my jazz-purist phase wasn't much of
one, because I was still doing a lot of other stuff. I was always doing
stuff with synthesizers. It wasn't something that I came to after piano.
They were always developing in a parallel sense. In Michigan I was doing
mostly jazz piano, but I had a group with Gerald Cleaver that was like
totally doing we were pretty improvisational electric thing, totally
I read an interview from '95 where you said that you tend to resist
the fixed tonal quality of the piano.
It depends on the context. If I really engage myself with jazz piano
as a style and as a tradition, then you're really engaging yourself with
the fixed tonal thing. That's just what that is. If I'm listening to Hank
Jones and wanting to really get in there, that's what that's about. But
other than that, I don't really hear that way. What I hear is not that.
If you just sit me down and say "play what you hear," I kind of hear other
I've noticed that, especially when you're playing an acoustic piano
in an acoustic setting, there's a stuttering technique that you use. I've
heard it in everything from Mat Maneri's "Hush Little Baby" to James Carter's
"Take the 'A' Train." It brought me to the poet Nathaniel Mackey. I'm going
to read a quote and see if it resonates with you at all. He says that the
"stutter is a two-way witness that on one hand symbolizes a need to go
beyond the confines of an exclusionary order, while on the other confessing
to its at best only limited success at doing so. The impediments to the
passage it seeks are acknowledged if not annulled, attested to by exactly
the gesture that would overcome them if it could." Reading that, it puts
me in the mindset of thinking that because it's something you do with the
acoustic piano, it's breaking away from that fixed quality, and it's also
sort of alluding to it in a way. Do you have thoughts on that.
That's interesting. Let me think. In relation to piano, yeah. The first
thing I think of when I think of that in relation to music is just a lot
of the stuttering, stammering qualities with sampling, and with a lot of
breakbeat. It's like a quality of amnesia. There's a lot of development
which is about playplayplayplay the sample, but nothing ever plays all
the way through. And there's a lot of stuttering there. contemporary music
in general has a different kind of reiterative quality. It's interesting
in terms of the piano thing, because I haven't really thought about that.
But there is an aspect of that.
It's not as if you only employ that on the piano; I've heard you
do that on the Rhodes and I've heard you do it on the Hammond. But I hear
your piano playing as often really willfully percussive. That's what makes
me think of this. The acknowledgment that this is in fact a percussion
...so why not treat it like one. Whereas with the keyboards, you
very often seek to exploit the fact that you can prolong, sustain, and
keep these tones going.
Specifically with piano in a jazz context, I identify it as... The way
a lot of early stride and boogie-woogie players approach piano, and blues
players, is really African, and not European. It stems from a tradition
of balofons and thumb pianos. They see a bunch of keys and the instant
cultural reference is that. So it is in that sense some kind of idiophone,
some kind of percussion instrument. That's sort of the beginning of the
development of the piano inside of that music. It's later that you more
uses of European technique. But if you listen to Meade Lux Lewis, any of
those people, they're playing a keyed balofon-type instrument. That's always
been the approach, and I sort of extend that because I hear it that way.
Like we were saying earlier about resisting tonality; that gets you away
from that. Because all of a sudden you're not looking at it as a system.
Because that's what the keyboard really is: the embodiment of a system.
And it's not even really that ergonomically sound. It's kind of like a
very awkward device, the way it's designed. We've used it for years, but
it's actually not very well-designed. You could do it better. But if you
look at it as a bunch of individual little drums or whatever, it becomes
interesting. It changes the way you approach it. And I do that definitely.
I should think more on the Mackey, in terms of how I would extend it. My
mind went somewhere else with that.
I don't want to pull things out of thin air; I thought that in this
case it might be something that could make sense.
I think so. I just have to think about it in relation to piano. Because
I hadn't thought about the fact that I did that in that way. That's interesting.
Tell me about your compositions now. Are you working on doing a lot
In April I'm doing a trio record for Thirsty Ear, and I need to really
finish that writing. Right now I'm going to do this tour with Tim, and
when I get back I'm going to work on finishing those ideas. And it's a
piano trio, so I just need to sit down and work with piano; I've been doing
so much electronic stuff.
So on the disc it's all acoustic.
How has your compositional vision changed since the Diw disc, which
was six or seven years ago now?
I think that one, I was just trying to get some songs onto a disc. It's
changed with sort of how I... I don't know, because I can't even remember
how I was thinking then. I think after that I got more into trying to focus
in on a few elements in a specific project and really break things down
to a few key kernel simplistic elements, and try to explore those and restructure
them and recreate them. For instance, how the roles function in a piano
trio, and what constitutes structure. Redefine those, maybe not playing
free but not using preordained structure; maybe using cueing as the primary
structural thing, and evolving a cueing language so you could get into
deep structure but with aural cues. I've been interested in working with
the traditional sound of the jazz piano trio, but redefining the whole
structural thing. Which is sort of the opposite of what I think a lot of
people are doing now. Since the '80s a lot of people have been interested
in the cosmetic aspects of style, transmuting style by changing the sound:
playing jazz with distortion, you know, metal people playing bebop or whatever.
I'm sort of curious about the inverse which would be that sound, but
what you're doing structurally or how you're even making the music has
nothing to do with the real traditional jazz approach. It might even almost
sound like bebop but the way you're thinking about it is totally different.
I don't know what that will yield, if anything. It might not be very interesting.
But there's been a lot of things for the piano trio stuff that I've been
doing based around that. And based around utilizing rhythm as a primary
developer, really deeply involved in that. Not just forms, not structures
with meters, not rhythm in that sense. But really an integrated group concept
of rhythm where each beat has its own life. Of course all this stuff takes
a lot of work with musicians, which is the thing I haven't had. I don't
know how it will manifest on this recording; probably not too much. But
the goal then would be to get something out so I could start working with
the trio and then try to really develop that kind of stuff.
Some of the players you work with on a regular basis have spoken
about roles, especially rhythmically. I've spoken with Marc Ducret, and
I spoke with Mat Maneri. I'm wondering: do you feel like when you come
together with different musicians, you take on various personae? I know
that you're servicing the needs of the music, but is there any transformation
that takes place otherwise?
Yeah, to a certain degree. It's all part of how I play but I definitely
bring different aspects of the character to different groups. There's some
groups where a certain high attention to a really specific rhythmic thing
is more appropriate than others. Or where maybe too much coloristic information
could obscure. So yeah, there's several different kinds of personalities
that I adopt musically, depending on the context, and the musicians who
are playing. I think so, yeah.
So when you're leading the trio, you're the person defining exactly
what that is.
To a large degree. Still depending on the musicians; I think I still
tend to do the same thing. It's really interacting with the musicians in
terms of the kind of music that can be produced. Even a group under my
name that's my music, I'm not really very dictatorial about that in that
sense. If it hasn't been established or sort of developed as a group concept,
then I'm not really worried about imposing it until it evolves organically.
I haven't played enough with groups to really know this, but I think I'd
still tend to go with the flow. I wouldn't really impose any specific stylistic
bent. But saying that, I also wouldn't get together a certain group of
musicians to play a concept that I didn't think they would want to do.
Who's going to be on the trio disc?
It's Gerald Cleaver and Chris Lightcap. The same guys you saw with Mat.
back to top