On April 27, 2014, the Skidmore College Orchestra will present the world premiere of Emery’s new Double Concerto for Clarinet, Guitar and Orchestra, with his daughter Hannah and himself as the clarinet and guitar soloists, respectively. This will mark their public debut playing in an orchestral setting.
The premiere performance will take place in the acoustically pristine Arthur Zankel Music Center Concert Hall at Skidmore, where Hannah is a senior. The Double Concerto will be Emery’s third and most ambitious piece for orchestra, and his first professional acknowledgement of his daughter’s artistry and musical abilities. Its predecessor, Transformations, was premiered at the Konzerthaus in Vienna by Klangforum Wein, where it was well received and recorded for the German record label, Between The Lines.
Two newly released books feature Emery. The Penguin Jazz Guide, subtitled The History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums, selected Transformations as one of the recordings released in the 2000s. The authors of the Guide are Brian Morton and Richard Cook. Emery is included in Scott Yanow’s comprehensive work, The Great Jazz Guitarists, The Ultimate Guide.
Emery has recently composed two large-scale commissioned works for the String Trio of New York. The River of Orion was composed with funding from Chamber Music America. The work was recorded for Black Saint Records in Milan and has been performed in Europe and America and broadcast live on All Italy Radio. First Light was commissioned by Meet The Composer’s Commissioning USA program. The String Trio toured the work in America and Europe to very enthusiastic audiences. Both works involve notated material composed using established practices and improvisational concepts which arise from diverse standard and neoteric creative impulses.
Downbeat magazine included Emery in the "66 Great 6-Stringers" guitar special feature.
James Emery interview with Klaus Nochtern, "Trespassing Borders"
ArtistPlatform - James Emery Interview by Glenn M. Ito
All About Jazz - an Interview with James Emery by Allen Huotari
interview with Klaus Nochtern,
KN: Your recent albums are titled "Spectral Domains", "Luminous Cycles". There are also compositions with titles like "Red Spaces in a Blue Field" or "Violet into the Blue": What importance does the "optic quality" of a composition have to you?
JE: The optic qualities, for me, refer both to literary aspects of the titles and how they relate to the structure of the compositions. I enjoy paintings and can relate the way a painting is organized to a composition. Balance of materials is the key for me.
KN: Do you have a synaesthetic perception of music? Do you associate certain colours with certain notes or sounds - and are there any preferences?
JE: I can relate keys and chords with colors, but I don't think in those terms.
KN: You seem to prefer a certain transparency in your arrangements and instrumentations. Is this the reason why you play acoustic guitar?
JE: I like to have as much clarity and light in my works as is possible. However, this is not the reason I play acoustic guitar. I play it because of the range of expression that is available to me. There are certain technical things, devices that I like to use and they are played much more fluidly on the acoustic. When the volume is higher, the really fast little things don't come out. It's obviously much easier to play softly, too. When playing electric, it can be hard to play soft. Also, having my sound and ideas travel through an electric wire has always been a little disconcerting to me. I feel better and play better when the sound is right under my fingers. Also, I'm more at ease when the sound I hear is the sound of the instrument rather than the sound of the electric pickup.
KN: Do you avoid amplified guitars, because you don't like them or is only that they don't fit into your concept of guitar playing/composing?
JE: There are no musical instruments that I dislike. Each has its own special voice. For the way I'm hearing music, the acoustic better fits my conception. Also, the connotations that the electric brings up are something I would rather avoid. The acoustic allows me to better escape categorization. By the way, I do amplify my guitar in certain contexts. But I always strive to have that acoustic element in there, even when the amplification is rather substantial.
KN: Who are your favourite guitarists?
JE: Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Bill DeArango, John McLaughlin, Jim Hall, Jerome Harris, Vic Juris, John Williams, Julian Bream, Paulo Bellinati, Joao Gilberto and many others.
KN: Do you enjoy rock-guitarists as well? Whom?
JE: Jimi Hendrix is my favorite rock guitarist. Blues players I like are Robert Johnson, Albert King, B.B. King, Magic Sam, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Skip James, Freddie King and many others.
KN: The ensembles on the albums mentioned before are very much alike: guitar, bass, drums, two woodwinds and vibes/marimba (plus violin on "Spectral Domains"). Could you elaborate on the instrumentation?
JE: This instrumentation allows me to write without having to think too much about the limitations of each instrument. I like to write for facile, agile instruments that can play involved passages. Also, the textures which result are very clear. There is something very flexible and pliable about these combinations. As far as the woodwinds are concerned, I wanted players who can double or triple on various instruments which expand my sound palette considerably.
KN: The use of vibes is not very far-spread in modern, let alone free jazz. Yet there are some great recordings, which you certainly know and which might be compatible with your own musical conception: What do you think of Teddy Charles' work, who recorded with musicians like Charles Mingus, Jimmy Giuffre or Booker Little?
JE: I like the direction that Teddy Charles was reaching for. It has some similarities to Tristano's work. What I most admire is that he was bringing forth a fresh artistic vision and trying to say something new. He was also concerned with orchestrating and not just playing a great solo.
KN: You said in an interview that you were "infatuated with wind instruments". What are your favourite instruments and who are your favourite players?
JE: As a child I wanted to play clarinet, alto sax or oboe. I even wanted to play contra-bassoon at one point. My parents refused to provide me with these instruments. I like all the woodwinds and saxophones and I like trumpet and trombone. My favorites are John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Booker Little, Ornette Coleman, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Sam Rivers, Roscoe Mitchell, Wayne Shorter, Anthony Braxton, Joe Lovano, Lester Bowie, Dave Douglas, Marty Ehrlich, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy and many others.
KN: Your works for sextet or septet represent the state of the art of what can be called "chamber jazz". Do you think it a proper term for your music?
JE: All the labels are mostly meaningless at this point except to describe the historic music for which the labels were coined. I can't control what people call my music so I don't try. I don't think of music in terms of describing it verbally. However, one thing that I think is somewhat accurate about the phrase chamber jazz when applied to my music is that it suggests a combination of the improvisational aspects of jazz with a chamber sensibility in which group concerns such as orchestration, dynamics, group interplay and ensemble unity are brought forth.
KN: Mark Feldman just published some works for String Quartet. Is this an ensemble you could imagine to write for?
JE: I have written a piece for the String Trio of New York combined with string quartet. The piece has not been performed so am still waiting to hear what I wrote. I can definitely imagine writing for the ensemble alone, though. The Bartok string quartets are some of my favorite music and have been very inspirational to me. Also Ligeti's quartets.
KN: What ensembles/instrumentations would you like to write compositions for?
JE: Three years ago I would have said "orchestra". I am very grateful to have had the opportunities to write for the ultimate ensemble in a compositional sense. I guess the one extension of that ensemble would be to combine a big band with 5 saxes, 4 trumpets and 4 trombones and rhythm section with a triple woodwind orchestra with a huge string section. That would be awesome. That's what I would like to write for. As the saying goes, "dream big".
KN: The String Trio of New York has been playing for decades: How important as it for you to have musical long-term-relationships?
JE: Obviously it's important to me. One of the things that continually amazes about people who play the jazz language is that we can just come together and the music will sound really good right away with no rehearsal. But when you've played with the same people for years, the telepathic thing is much more magnified. There's no other way to get this quality. The long-term thing also keeps you in touch with people who come from a similar place and share certain ideals and concepts. It's been a great thing for me lately to play with people I've known for a very long time...such as Joe Lovano, Sam Rivers, Oliver Lake and Thurman Barker.
KN: There's been a long and not always very convincing history of so called "third stream", i.e. the fusion or reconciliation of jazz and classical music. Can you think of any examples where this worked and has it ever been your intention to contribute to this third stream?
JE: If it's a conscious effort - if someone says to her/himself "Now I'm going to combine jazz and classical music" - it's pretty much doomed to fail. If it's an organic thing, if the connection has been made internally in the mind of the composer, it will be a success because it's a natural creation of the composer's mind. It's helpful if the composer thinks outside the box...if it's all music, rather than jazz over here and classical over there, disconnected.
KN: What are the most important influences on your work as far as classical music is regarded?
JE: Which musician is influential has depended on where I was developmentally. When I was studying guitar as a child, Bach, Sor and Richard Pick were important to me. After I started to hear Charlie Parker and Coltrane, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Bartok and Stravinsky were important because I could hear intervals, harmonies, and passages that employed similar musical elements. After I started getting into the AACM people, Stockhausen, Boulez, Kagel and Berio became important to me. Same with Miles, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock - I started to react to Ravel and Debussy.
KN: What are your favourite composers: in classical music as well as in jazz?
JE: Classical: Bartok, Ravel, Prokofiev, Bach, Berg, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Lutoslawski, Kagel, Donatelli, Messiaen. In the recorded era, improvisations have functioned as composition. That is, the performance is the composition. Prior to this era, the composer had to notate improvisations in order to "fix" them. Charlie Parker's solos, Coltrane's solos, have all the integrity of great compositions. Thus, all the great jazz performers were great composers, too. I think there is something to the idea of improvisation being spontaneous composition and composition being improvisation with reflection.
Jazz: Ellington, Mingus, Tadd Dameron, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Gunther Schuller, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton.
KN: I know that it's probably one of the most enervating questions to ask a musician, nevertheless: Which records would you take to the famous desert island? (Please do not name more then ten!)
JE: Charlie Parker: best of Bird on Savoy
Bud Powell: Complete Verve recordings
John Coltrane: Complete Impulse recordings
Miles Davis: Quintets, 1965-68
Dave Holland: Conference of the Birds
Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra, Music for String, Celeste and Percussion, Chicago Symphony conducted by Bruno Walter
Maurice Ravel: Ma Mere L'Oye, Daphnis and Chloe, Tombeau de Couperin, Orchestra of Paris
Art Ensemble of Chicago: People in Sorrow
Bach: Goldberg Variations
Joao Gilberto: solo on Verve
(it's a good thing there are so many boxed sets available. I would have had a dreadful time trying to choose between A Love Supreme, Crescent, Quartet Plays and Ascension...or between Nefertiti, Live at the Plugged Nickel, Miles Smiles, Filles de Kilimanjaro, Miles in the Sky and Sorceror!)
KN: Do you regard yourself more as an instrumentalist or a composer?
JE: The two poles have so stimulated and influenced the other that the distinction barely exists within my mind as a musician. The distinction becomes more real depending on which part of the process of creation I am concerned with at a certain time.
KN: How important is it to you to participate in the performance of your own pieces?
JE: Up to the current time and extending into the future, it's very important because if I weren't performing in my pieces, they perhaps would not exist. In this sense, you could say that my defining myself as a performer is more important than as a composer.
KN: What effect do the musicians who perform your music have on your writing?
JE: Certainly a great effect. If you know the people for whom you are writing, the subtle and overt idiosyncrasies and tendencies of each person can be used. This is a great deal different than if you are writing for a generic ensemble. In the latter case, one must write only for the instruments themselves and not the musical personalities playing them.
KN: Is there a certain starting point, when you write a composition?
JE: The starting point is when I hear it in my head or when I play it on my guitar. The interesting question is: where did it come from?
KN: Do extra-musical concepts and ideas have an impact on you? And if so, how do you transform them into music?
JE: Naturally concepts and ideas outside of music have an impact. After all, I'm a somewhat conscious being living on this particular planet. I stay in touch with world events, news, social movements, environmental concerns, sports, natural history, art movements, and many things. I am not a hermit. I don't consciously try to transform these things into music, but I'm sure that somehow they are brought forth because in creating my music, I try to express what I know, feel and believe in sound. If all the extra-musical aspects are a part of me in my totality, then they must be expressed, more or less, in my music.
KN: Can you comment on the balance between composition and improvisation? Do you make sure that there'll be enough space for improvisation and the individuality of the musicians involved?
JE: This is one of my biggest concerns. Balancing the two pillars of music is extremely important to me. I like to connect my approach with the theory articulated by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his seminal intellectual work, The Birth of Tragedy. For Nietzsche, the rational Apollonian sensibility co-exists in artists - in fact, in all of us - with spontaneous Dionysian instincts. In practical terms, art is often born of tension and dialogue between the structured and ordered (the Apollonian) and the inventive, impulsive and even unruly (the Dionysian).
Many of my compositions involve a multi-thematic approach that combines my fixed ideas as a composer (composition - the Apollonian realm) with a high degree of freedom for each performer (improvisation - the Dionysian realm) as inspiration demands..
It is possible for these two different realms to then stimulate each other, resulting in the growth of both forces into new areas through the inspiration of the other. In the most well conceived works, the duality eventually becomes reconciled and gives birth to a new vision or sensibility. In this rarefied zone, the lines between order and chaos blur - composed forms take on an improvised cast, and improvisation achieves the integrity of composition.
KN: Can you tell us about your future projects?
JE: My muse is cooking something up now, but hasn't yet informed me of the exact nature of the project. It has been a great delight to write for the Klangforum group. To perform and record this music will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of my career.
KN: Baseball- or soccer-fans like to invent "best-of-teams". When you look at the history of jazz: Who would play in your "best-of-team" in which you'd be the guitar player?
JE: I would not presume to include myself on such a team. If someone else would decide to place me upon such a team, I would gladly play, but I'm not putting myself in a pantheon of greats.
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Subject: guitarist JAMES EMERY
Interview Date: Feb. 2nd, 2002
By Glenn M. Ito
GI: Can you recall
the first time you were attracted to music?
JE: The first attraction that I recall came from playing a small portable organ that appeared on Christmas day when I was 6. I started to play and immediately fell in love with it. A few days later I clearly remember, to this day, thinking to myself "I will be a musician". The joy I felt in playing was far greater than anything else I had experienced. I wanted to play any kind of music, various styles or idioms were not a concern. I remember too as a child being infatuated with Grieg, Ray Charles and Tchaikovsky. I remember studying the instruments of the orchestra and the big band (my Dad was and is a big band lover) in the encyclopedias we had in the house and then trying to hear those sounds on the records.
GI: We're very fortunate that you didn't choose a life selling encyclopedias door-to-door. What convinced you to become a performing artist?
JE: As I mentioned before, the ecstasy that came from playing was the deciding factor. After a lot of studying, practicing and performing as a child and teenager, the event that set me on my current path was hearing the music of Charlie Parker. That was a revelatory experience. Since then, I have had many such events, including experiences of Coltrane, Bud Powell, Monk, Bartok, Berg, the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest, Joao Gilberto, the AACM people, Lutoslawski, Sam Rivers, Miles, Tony Williams...the list goes on and on.
GI: Aside from Joao Gilberto, you haven't mentioned one plectrist. What eventually lead you to the guitar? Surely it wasn't the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest!
JE: The guitar was kind of a default position for me. After playing the organ for some time, I started to become very interested in wind instruments and I remember asking my parents at various times for a clarinet, oboe or alto sax. They turned me down every time. I remember also thinking it would be nice to play bassoon but I never asked for that, probably realizing that would be nixed too. So finally when I asked for a guitar, they said yes. I have listened to a lot of great guitarists over the years and Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery continue to inspire. So, looking back, it wasn't always the instrument that I got into as much as it was the pure music that was being played regardless of instrument - that's what excited me.
GI: What would you say are the key components in your unique approach
to composing and performing the music?
JE: It's hard for me to look at what I do objectively and come up with a coherent answer. I know that I place a lot of emphasis on sounding original, both in tone quality and in the musical content. I have always sought to have my own sound - to speak with my own voice - and it's always a great complement to hear that I don't sound like anyone else. So I try to let my own touch, ideas and energy come through at all times. In fact, I really can't do anything but that. In terms of musical content, I draw on a wide range of materials without trying to limit or restrict what I'm using. Harmonic concepts and devices, melodic configurations, rhythmic ideas...ways to juxtapose forms...sound colors and textures...there's no end of possibilities in each of these areas. In terms of writing, I've been trying for at least ten years now to include a substantial amount of written music - through-composed material - in order to sustain a balance with the improvised material.
GI: What is your most memorable musical moment to date?
JE: You must allow me several moments. I'll start with the most recent first: the last concert by the String Trio of New York, Dec. 15, 2001. We started at a very high level and went higher with each successive piece. By the end of the night, we were way up there...over and out. It was our best concert, in my opinion, in 24 years. So it's always good to know that your best work is not behind you. Next, my two experiences with orchestras. The last was in Vienna in Sept. 2001. The orchestra is, in the opinion of some, the most highly developed example of technology available to humans. Whether or not that is true, it is an awesome entity, staggering in its power, grace, complexity and subtlety. I wrote a 45-minute work for Klangforum Wien, a truly gifted ensemble, with Franz Koglmann, Tony Coe and me as improvising soloists. It came off very well. The whole experience of writing and orchestrating for the orchestra is a complete and total experience in every sense of the word. My first piece for orchestra, Cobalt Blue, was for the String Trio and the Air Force Symphony. When I walked off the stage after that gig, my body was tingling all over. Other memories...playing with Sam Rivers… playing with Joe Lovano...Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, Marty Ehrlich, Oliver Lake, Leroy Jenkins, Lester Bowie...so many others.
GI: What is your most memorable non-musical moment to date?
JE: My most memorable non-musical moments are invariably family ones. Meeting and marrying my lovely wife Colleen, the birth of our beautiful daughter Hannah...often being the "primary care-giver"...going into her school to help out...the fun we all have together. All the myriad occasions and occurrences that happen to a family (in the largest sense of the word) in the course of being alive on this planet, all these events large and small are most memorable to me.
GI: I noticed you've titled some of your compositions after family members (Hannah for example). Would you say these family experiences have, in some way, contributed to your music at all?
JE: Well, you know, all humanity is one big family. One day we'll all realize and embrace that fact and all humanity will progress. My own family, and my experiences in and with the world-at-large (the big family) always contribute to my music. I feel that if what one is doing is really original, then everything that happens to that person, all his/her experiences come out in the expression of that originality.
GI: Here's one from left field: What's your favorite food, and can you give some recommendations for fine eating establishments when on the road?
JE: I have so many favorites...my favorite types are Indian, Mexican, Japanese, Turkish, various Chinese cuisines, French, Italian, Thai...I'm sure I'm forgetting some. As for recommendations...well, you had to throw that word "fine" in there, didn't you? That leaves out a whole lot of perfectly nutritious and respectable eateries that we musicians go to simply because they're there. Often we don't have a choice and have to take whatever is available. Anyway...in Chicago for breakfast (24 hour, my favorite kind), it has to be Valois in Hyde Park. In NYC, I love Pasha, Nobu, Maryann's and Mamouns. In Vienna, a regular-style place near the usual hotel called Smutny. Best of all, Fini in Modena. Most of time, though, I can't tell you the name of the restaurant the next day.
GI: Any final thoughts or special announcements?
JE: I look forward very much to the release of my next CD, on Between The Lines. It's titled Transformations, subtitled Music for Three Improvisers and Chamber Orchestra. It's the recording of the event I talked about earlier. I'm still on cloud 9 over the sound of the orchestra, the playing of the improvisers, the sheer musicality of the whole thing. I'm also totally in love with the CD I did with Joe Lovano, Judi Silvano and Drew Gress. It's titled Fourth World and is also on Between The Lines. I recommend it without reservation. I'm very happy with the way things are working out in my career. I like the idea of doing different projects with different ensembles and configurations and pouring everything I have into each one. I am truly thankful to have had the opportunity to write, perform and record my sextet project, the septet project, orchestras, different quartets, the String Trio, etc...and I'm grateful that life continues to unfold in very interesting ways and that I continue to grow and learn. I think it's absolutely true that the best is always yet to come...one thing is for sure - I'm never bored.
©2002 Glenn M. Ito. Exclusive artist interview series. No part of ArtistPlatform may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the publisher.
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An Interview with James Emery
Reprinted with permission from All About Jazz.
"Music expresses that which can not be said and on which it is
impossible to be silent." - Victor Hugo
For many people, music is little more than the sonic equivalent to
mood lighting, serving a simple decorative role, providing
embellishment or modification to the environment, or at minimum,
For others, music (especially rock and pop) provides a set of theme
songs whereby a proxy (typically via vocals/lyrics) indirectly
articulates the listener's personal thoughts and feelings.
However, for many listeners, music establishes a soundtrack to their lives. For these people, music does not symbolize or embody thoughts and feelings but instead evokes and inspires thoughts and feelings. Alternatively, music can provide an aural memory trigger, flooding a listener's mind with recollections of past events that are associated to having heard a particular piece. This is not to say that the music tells one what to think or how to feel but that listeners can find meaning, insight, and renewal for themselves in the simple act of listening. This unutterable, intangible, and often completely idiosyncratic manifestation of emotion and intellect naturally transcends what the musicians originally intended.
Perhaps it is the relative ease of being put into this space that makes the music of guitarist James Emery particularly satisfying (at least for this listener).
Best known as a founding member of the String Trio of New York (a lineup of violin, guitar, and bass). Mr. Emery has also appeared on recordings by Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, and Henry Threadgill to name but a few.
In addition to the fourteen recordings by the STNY over the past 24 years, Mr. Emery has also released half dozen albums under his own name. His latest, LUMINOUS CYCLES (2001, Between the Lines) features a formidable cast consisting of: Marty Ehrlich (alto sax, soprano sax, clarinet, flute), Chris Speed (tenor sax, clarinet), Drew Gress (bass), Gerry Hemingway (drums, glockenspiel), and Kevin Norton (marimba, vibes, tympani, bowed tam-tam). LUMINOUS CYCLES continues Mr. Emery's investigations into a deeply personal sound while evincing new facets as well.
Of LUMINOUS CYCLES, AAJ's Modern Jazz Editor Glenn Astarita
"Throughout his long standing affiliation with the time honored String Trio of New York, guitarist James Emery has righteously emerged as one of the finest modern jazz guitarists on the globe. However, Emery has also exhibited an exquisite compositional pen via a string of mighty impressive solo recordings on the ENJA label, while LUMINOUS CYCLES signifies his inaugural release for Frankfurt, Germany based Between The Lines and On pieces, such as the opener "Luminous Cycles", we are treated to interweaving textures comprised of micro-vignettes, burgeoning rhythms and lilting or at times, penetrating passages amid the musicians' altogether emotive interplay and Overall, this outing may represent James Emery's finest solo effort to date as the artist once again demonstrates his idiosyncratic approach to modern jazz composition! Easily one of the top picks of the year! - Strongly recommended." - MODERN JAZZ EDITOR'S PICK, ALL ABOUT JAZZ, JUNE 2001
To help commemorate the release of LUMINOUS CYCLES, James Emery graciously consented to the following interview which was conducted via e-mail correspondence from February-May 2001.
Special thanks to Glenn Ito of Between the Lines for enabling this interview and for continued support to All About Jazz.
AAJ: Would you please tell the AAJ readers about where you were born, raised, and what your earliest musical memories are?
JE: I was born in Youngstown, Ohio and my family moved to the Cleveland, Ohio area when I was 5. My earliest musical memory is of receiving a small portable organ for Christmas when I was 6. I started playing it immediately, using the instruction book and the song books that came with it. The instruction book used numbers for the notes rather than the typical letter names. This turned out to be a good way to learn intervals and transposition. Anyway, playing that little organ was so much fun that I knew at that time that I would be a musician. I had memorized a lot of tunes and somehow word got out about my ability to play so one day in 1st grade I took my organ in to school and went around from classroom to classroom playing for all the kids. I remember looking up while playing for the 8th grade class and all the big kids were smiling and having a good time, so I knew I was reaching them and making them feel good or at least amusing them. It was a nice feeling for me too.
I also remember loving the music of Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Ray Charles when I was small. I remember studying the instruments of the orchestra and comparing the different sounds.
AAJ: What led you to choose guitar as instrument of choice?
JE: After awhile, my interest in the organ began to fade, and I think it was because of the teacher my parents got for me. He just took all the fun out of it and made it a chore to play. Also, my parents had bought a gigantic Hammond organ and it was pretty imposing to a little kid like me. Then I went through a period of being infatuated with wind instruments. I wanted a clarinet, an alto saxophone or an oboe. My parents turned me down every time I asked for one of those wind instruments. I don't really remember what led me to ask for a guitar, but when I did, they got one for me, along with an instruction book. I ran into the bedroom my brother Joe and I shared and started to get down with the book immediately. After about 15 minutes, I discovered to my chagrin that the useless book could only teach me how to play simple chords that one was to strum while singing the melody of the song, which is what I wanted to learn. So I credit my parents for leading me to the guitar by not buying me a wind instrument. But it's funny that I wanted to play melodies on the guitar, not just the chords. So I was into a wind and melodic approach right away.
AAJ: In addition to the aforementioned "self-taught" lessons, how would you describe your musical education? Formal? Informal? Both? Please elaborate.
JE: After my parents bought me a guitar, they insisted that I study the instrument with a teacher. I was very fortunate to find Ann Stanley, a violinist in the Cleveland Orchestra (George Szell was the conductor then) and a very fine classical guitarist. She gave me a thorough education in the basics of music filtered through the guitar. She told my parents that her aim was for me to be able to play any kind of music when she got through with me. I was lucky to get her as a teacher. I also studied with Dave Trader and Ralph Russo. But Bill DeArango, the seminal modern jazz guitarist, was like a mentor to me. He owned a music store in Cleveland and when I was in high school I went there to buy a new guitar. As I was playing various instruments, trying to decide which one to buy, he was listening to me and after I had decided on a Gibson 335 (my first really nice guitar), he asked if I wanted to give lessons after school at his store. So I started to teach there. So, anyway, the first break I had, he showed me the changes to Cherokee and I played the changes while he blew over them. I didn't know what was happening at all! I heard all these notes and different phrases flowing all over the place. It was my first exposure to jazz on the guitar other than an incredible jazz guitarist I heard as a kid playing on a cartoon soundtrack, probably Bugs Bunny or Road Runner. I think it was Howard Roberts and he sounded great. Anyway, Bill was really deep, one of the first, and maybe the only player of his generation to embrace free playing. I also studied theory and composition at Cleveland State U. and at City College in NYC.
AAJ: When did your first exposure to jazz occur? What was your
JE: The first thing I remember hearing was "Om" by Coltrane and I said to myself: "Whoa...I need to step back from that. I know something is happening, but I'm not ready for that. I better come back to that later." I had been playing a lot of blues at the time, like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf electric Chicago style. I was really deep into that music. But somehow I knew there had to be other expressions of the blues, so I asked Bill about it. He directed me to Lester Young's recordings with Basie in the 30's. Every Tub, Jumpin' at the Woodside, One O'Clock Jump, things like that. I loved Lester's approach, and learned a few of his solos. Three weeks later, Lester led to Bird and when I heard Charlie Parker, that was it. My whole approach to music changed after that. I became very excited by that music and started to study it on my own all day every day. I remember it took me 8 hours to learn Bloomdido, a 12 bar blues. Luckily the record players back then slowed down to 16 2/3s so I could get a handle on all that fast stuff. Hearing Bird led to Diz, then Miles, Bud, Monk, Stan Getz, Rollins, etc... My next encounter with Coltrane was Giant Steps, and I remember thinking "I'd love to play like that." When I heard "Crescent" that really changed me too.
AAJ: To the best of my knowledge, the first recording you appeared
on was Leroy Jenkins "For Players Only". How did your
involvement in this recording come about?
JE: After moving to NYC in 1974, I started taking lessons with Leroy, which basically amounted to me coming over and playing his music with him and him looking over my music and making comments and suggestions. Leroy took me under his wing and introduced me to his friends from the AACM and the Black Artists Group. Many of these musicians were coming to NYC at the time. I guess he felt that I was ready to play so he offered me the date. I feel that I owe Leroy a lot. He set a standard for me to live up to. His group at that time, the Revolutionary Ensemble, was very influential to me. And by introducing me to his fellow musicians, I started to get work with them. Also the idea of being a composer as well as an instrumentalist became important to me. I had begun writing my own pieces while in high school but I never thought seriously about composing until I started playing with Leroy and his colleagues.
AAJ: And at this point, Mr. Jenkins' numerous colleagues included Anthony Braxton, Charles Bobo Shaw, Bobby Naughton, Leo Smith, Joseph Bowie, etc. Among this group of people (many of whom are not named here), who was most influential or inspirational to you?
JE: I can't say definitively who was most important to me, as so many people freely gave their time and advice. I would like to say right now that I am so grateful to everyone who took the time to help me. Leroy was a big influence. I got to see first-hand how he operated, the kinds of things he had to do to make it as a creative musician. He had formed the Revolutionary Ensemble with Sirone and Jerome Cooper and they were very active on the scene. I got a break when the apartment over Leroy's became available and I moved in. The rent was $140 a month in 1974. Jerome Cooper moved in with me as a roommate and he was there for a year or so. That was an education. Leroy would give me tips on things too, like telling me you always need material, that is, new compositions to record, and business stuff to think about, like percentages of the gate, stuff relating to agents, etc. Leroy was looking out for me in various ways.
Braxton was very influential. At that time, his influence on the entire jazz scene was very pervasive. Many people probably don't know or remember that he was one of the top jazz musicians of that time, winning the Downbeat poll as top musician and winning top recording, that sort of thing. He was very interested in new things, as he still is, and searching out musicians who were doing something different. Braxton gave me some work back then and I made my first European tour with him in 1978. I learned a lot from him about how to organize music compositionally and various ways to integrate improvisation into written structures. Anthony also exposed me to the concept of improvising within verbal definitions of musical activity.
Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre gave me my first extended tenure in a touring group. We played a lot of gigs in the 9 months I was with him. He had a trio with Warren Smith on drums and me. I thought his Delmark records were some of the best AACM stuff and I learned a lot playing with him. One thing I remember is that in rehearsal we would work on all these difficult heads and passages and then on the gig, we would forget all that and just play.
Sam Rivers was a titanic force then, and still is. I felt that Studio Rivbea, his performance loft-space and home, was the epicenter of the loft jazz movement. Sam consistently amazed me. He would go on at Rivbea and play for 1 1/2 hours straight, on the highest, most creative musical levels, with no drop in intensity or inventiveness. And playing more horn than most anybody. His trio with Barry Altschul and Dave Holland was amazing.
Dave Holland was also very influential and encouraging. The way he played the bass showed me a string conception that I could try to apply to the guitar, thinking of the guitar as a string instrument. I learned a lot about possible roles and functions a string instrument could bring into play in an improvisational setting thru studying his work and the work of Gary Peacock, Sirone, Charles Clark, Henry Grimes, Jimmy Garrison, Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden.
Barry Altschul was very encouraging, inviting me over to play at his loft. We did quite a bit of jamming over there. Barry was one of the people who personified the scene at that time.
Karl Berger was very helpful and supportive and he thankfully gave me quite a bit of work back then. The Creative Music Studio (CMS), Karl's revolutionary school, didn't have a guitar teacher, and after Karl heard me on a gig in Woodstock with Kalaparusha, he offered me a teaching position at CMS and gave me some nice gigs playing with him. On those gigs, I had the great privilege of playing with people like Ed Blackwell, David Izenson, Dave Holland, Carlos Ward and others.
George Lewis was someone I hung out with quite a bit. He could play anything you could think of and more on the trombone. George was into all kinds of different things, too, not only jazz. He was into computers, which back then was the mighty Commodore 64. George was building his own electronic processing devices and creating electronic music. His creative breadth was quite expansive.
Some of the great gigs I remember from that time other than Sam's typically brilliant performances were Julius Hemphill and Abdul Wadud playing the music from Julius's landmark recording Dogon A.D. at the theater, the Revolutionary Ensemble at Bard College and a just unbelievable week at Ali's Alley (Rashied Ali's club on Greene St. in Soho). The band was an all-star quintet - Air (Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall) with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell. I went every night and every night was amazing. You'd leave there shaking your head. This was in 1977. To my knowledge, that band never recorded, but they should have. In many ways, that group encapsulated the creativity, power and nonconformist aspects of that time perfectly.
I have been delighted lately to find myself playing with some of those influential people after all this time has passed. I finally got to play with Sam on a concert Thurman Barker had both of us on last year. It was everything I thought it would be and more and we played together very well. I recently had the pleasure of playing with another of the leading lights today and at that time, Oliver Lake. The String Trio featured Oliver as a special guest in concerts in New Jersey and Houston.
I met Joe Lovano in 1976 at his loft on 23rd St. We didn't know each other in Cleveland, but did some nice jamming after we met up in NYC. That led to STNY featuring Joe as a guest artist in our 20th anniversary year, 1998. We commissioned him to write a piece for all of us together and did a national tour. We played some beautiful, non-compromising music together.
Along with the AACM people, the BAG musicians from St. Louis had come to NY and re-vitalized the scene. Great musicians such as Lester Bowie, Julius Hemphill, Oliver, Bluiett and others welcomed me into the fold. I first played with Bobo in 1975 with Joe, Abdul Wadud and a few other players. This led to my joining the Human Arts Ensemble. This was a big break for me. Lester, George Lewis and Philip Wilson did many of the gigs we played. The core band was Bobo, Joe, Luther Thomas, Lindberg and me. At that time, you could play a lot of gigs just in NYC. At least a dozen places were featuring the new music nightly.
It was an incredible scene to be a part of. It was everything I thought NYC would be, just full of music, creativity and excitement. The thought never crossed my mind that in a few years, the whole scene would be shut down.
Suffice to say, we haven't seen the likes of a similar creative era since then. It was probably the closest thing to the 52nd St. phenomenon.
AAJ: What did you learn during this time period that you believe has proven to have made the most impact on your career and/or musical philosophy?
JE: A couple of ideas are still very important to me. The concept of music as being a personal artistic expression not limited to one particular genre. At that time, anything went as long as it was original. The whole leader/sideman thing wasn't as important then. You saw a lot of collective groups come out of that period. The Art Ensemble was the group that led the way and they had come out of the collective mentality of the AACM. At that time in NYC, you had the World Sax Quartet, Air, the Revolutionary Ensemble, Human Arts Ensemble, and the String Trio of New York. If I've neglected to mention anyone, please forgive me. Also, the idea that it was probably going to be important to have some business chops. If no one was going to book you, book yourself. Set up your own gigs. A number of independent record labels were started as a result of this idea. I know that a lot of people felt that if there wasn't a recording company to sign up with, they would produce their own records. A lot of great music was documented as a result.
AAJ: The violin/guitar/bass lineup of the String Trio of New York
is unusual (if not unique) for any musical genre. It could also be
easily suggested that it is perhaps also independent of "musical
era" as well. Could you please describe how the String Trio of
New York came to be?
JE: I have told this story a million times. John Lindberg and I had met in Woodstock and found we were interested in playing similar musics. When he moved to NY, we kept jamming just like up in Woodstock. That meant we were playing 6-8 hours everyday. At that time, we were mostly playing at Ed Montgomery's loft, across the street from "the theater". The theater was one of the hotbeds of musical activity. Ellen Stewart of La Mama had basically given this loft building to Bobo and everybody was rehearsing there all the time and there was a concert scene, too. It was at 236 E. 3rd St., btw. Aves. B and C. That was a very rough neighborhood back then, with a lot of negative elements. You couldn't get a latte over there in those days. But if you just went about your business and didn't bother anybody, the guys on the street would let you go ahead. I was over there nearly every day for 2 years straight. The neighborhood is totally yuppified now. Anyway, when we weren't playing in the theater, we were in Ed's storefront jamming. I remember meeting Billy Bang in the hallway at Leroy's building before I moved into the apartment over him. But I didn't see Bang again until one day when he came over to Ed's when John and I were doing our typical thing, which was all-out energy playing for hours at a clip. Bang asked if he could play with us and we said sure. After a few short minutes, we stopped and looked at each other...it was like "wow, listen to that sound!" So we decided to do some gigs and see what happened. We had "accidentally" come upon this combination that would last through the rest of the century and into the current time. It's really a natural sound that goes well together. The STNY is independent of musical era too, like you said. We can play all sorts of music with this combination and make it sound good. We have all the registers, not quite the range of a piano, but all the range of the orchestra. Also, the instruments correspond well with the elements of music, that is, the violin is a natural melodic instrument, one of the major aspects of the guitar is the harmonic function, and the bass takes on the rhythmic function. One of the interesting things we play with in the group is changing these roles around.
AAJ: So how has the group changed over time and how has it remained
consistent ? (given that the violinist has been filled by Billy Bang,
Charles Burnham, Regina Carter, and Diane Monroe)
JE: Anytime you change 1/3 of a group, the changes are profound, especially when the front line voice is changed. Every time the violin chair has changed, the music has changed in positive ways. Obviously, there are many idiosyncratic things that can't be duplicated and we don't try. Every violinist in the Trio is a very special player with very personal things to say on the instrument. So the group has changed radically over time but I would like to think that we have managed not only to keep the music on the highest level we can attain, but that the music has grown and developed in positive ways.
AAJ: Recently it was announced Rob Thomas joined the STNY. Could you please elaborate on this new development?
JE: Diane Monroe played violin with the Trio for 4 years, from '97 to '00. She left the group in November, '00. Our last concert with Diane was at the New School University in NYC. She left to pursue a solo career. She has always been a part of an ensemble instead of being the person out front, so she wants to give that a try. We had a very amiable parting. Diane is a great musician and I hope she has every possible success. She can play the violin more different ways than anyone I ever heard.
Rob brings a fully developed jazz vocabulary to the violin chair. His improvising is not limited in any sense. He has the ear, the experience and the technique to pull off anything he wants. He also brings a big sound and a great work ethic. I am absolutely thrilled to have him in the Trio and he too is very happy about joining the group.
AAJ: Your recordings for ensemble (Turbulence (1991), Standing on a Whale Fishing For Minnows (1996), Spectral Domains (1998), and Luminous Cycles (2001)) are quite varied musically. Aside from the common personnel base (Ehrlich, Hemingway, and Formanek for the first three and Ehrlich, Hemingway, and Speed for the latter two) what other commonalities might be found in these recordings? (Or alternatively, should these recordings be listened to as a loose series of projects or as completely independent projects?)
JE: As I see it, the only commonality running thru these recordings is that it's my playing and writing that is featured on all of them. I'm trying to make my own statements and give voice to my ideas, my feelings and my thoughts without regard to trends or musical fashions. Some people tell me that they know my music and my sound when they hear it. If this is true, then thankfully I am succeeding in what I'm trying to do, which is to make an individual and personal expression in sound.
AAJ: As follow up, are you composing for specific instrumentation or are you composing for these specific musicians? Or both? (I realize that you explain this somewhat in the liners to Luminous Cycles but many readers won't see those. Thanks.)
JE: I'm really thankful that I can get the quality of players that I have been able to work with. I definitely write for the players but you naturally have to consider and work within the limitations of the instruments. This is very clear to me after having written a concerto for the String Trio and symphony in 1998-99 and now writing a chamber orchestra project. In these large scale works, you don't know the players so you have to write for the generic instrument. Still, there is such a vast amount of possibilities in orchestral writing that the lack of individuality is not such a big problem. Also, I have a few soloists in each project so the special personal qualities come thru in that way.
AAJ: What musicians would you most like to work with that you've never worked with before? Why?
JE: Most of the musicians who I've never worked with but with whom I would like to play have passed over. On this side, I'd like to play with musicians like Hank Jones, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, Idris Muhammad, Joao Gilberto, Enrique Morente...people who come from another time and place and have a totally personal way of playing music.
AAJ: In general, do your tunes arise out of improvisation or
JE: In my opinion, all musical works arise out of improvisation. When a composer sits down to write, the music is "given" or "it comes" to her or him. Where does it come from? They heard it internally or when playing an instrument (but that doesn't mean they created it). It is not notated when it is first heard. It only becomes "composed" music when the composer writes it down. So I consider that first contact to be improvised. Once I get my basic motifs in place, much of the writing that comes after that is generated from the original material and that process would generally be considered composing rather than improvising. But you have to be open to let the music lead you where it will rather than you forcing the music here or there. You'll be writing along, say, and then all of a sudden, ideas start to come to you. You think "Ah ha! Isn't that nice? Let's see where this leads...oh! I wasn't expecting that!" And so it goes...
AAJ: What advantages of improvisation do you feel composers usually
don't understand or appreciate?
JE: It depends on the composer and the experiences they have had with improvisation and improvisers. The composer needs to have knowledge of improvising. With some knowledge of improvisation, a composer can get the rare and wonderful quality of a music that is being created RIGHT NOW in their work, and is not music that has been created some time in the past and is being interpreted in performance. It's a quality of immediacy.
AAJ: What advantages of composition do you feel improvisers usually
don't understand or appreciate?
JE: Like before, it depends on the improviser. The best improvisers have a compositional way of ordering their improvisations. They move thru a series of ideas in an organic, structured way. I think the observation that - on the highest levels - improvisation is instant composition and composition is improvisation on reflection is on target.
AAJ: What do you personally find to be the most alluring aspect of
improvisation for you?
JE: The freedom to create any mood, feeling or thought within a panoramic variety of forms.
AAJ: As a follow up, what do you feel are the most common
misunderstandings or popular misconceptions about improvisation?
JE: That improvisation is something you can just do without practicing, researching and studying.
AAJ: Do you have any techniques you personally employ to enhance or
restore your own creative energy when you encounter difficulties in
composing? If so, what are they?
JE: The technique I employ is to simply stop and cool out for a while. If difficulties are arising, it might be caused by over-manipulation of the given material, or trying to make it into something that it isn't. Or trying to put too much ego into it. However, when difficulties arise in orchestrating, you can push on thru without doing much damage. Orchestrating a big piece is like hiking across Africa. You better be ready for a long, arduous journey. You have to keep going, even when it seems like you're in an endless swamp with quicksand all around - one wrong step and you're gone.
AAJ: Do you actively and consciously incorporate insights (whether they are compositional methods or instrumental techniques) when performing, recording, or composing? Or is this accomplished intuitively and unconsciously? (I guess simply put, how often, if ever, do you think about what you're doing?)
JE: A strange question. When I'm learning a piece or creating a new work, I naturally I seek to actively and consciously know as much about what I'm doing as is possible in every aspect. Practice as much as possible, analyze the smallest detail, get as much information as possible, be as ready as you can be and then when the performance comes, let it all go and trust that what comes thru will be as strong and as pure as it can be. It's best to stay in the moment and not get hung up in analyzing what you've just played, otherwise you'll trip yourself up by thinking too much about what just happened instead of what's coming next.
AAJ: Do you have any preparatory routines or rituals prior to
performing live? If so, could you describe them?
JE: If I can, I like to be alone before going to the gig. I like to focus on the music as much as I can and get in a quiet internal space if possible. I also find that sometimes it's very helpful to look at any difficult written music right before going on. Basically everything I try to do before a gig or recording is to eliminate distractions and focus on the music at hand.
AAJ: What is the most meaningful or memorable compliment you've ever received?
JE: I consider the highest praise to be when someone tells me that I don't sound like anyone else and that no one sounds like me.
AAJ: What other projects can we expect from you in 2001-2002?
JE: I just finished a wonderful project this week. Last fall, Joe Lovano and I did some performing in duo and quartet formats. The music was so nice that I decided to look around for a recording opportunity. So just this past week, we went into the studio and cut a record for btl. It was Joe, Judi Silvano on voice and flute, Drew Gress on bass and myself. The date is under my name, but Joe contributed some great pieces. It will be out in Nov. or Dec. this year.
The STNY is doing our first record with Rob Thomas next week. Omnitone is recording 3 nights at The Jazz Standard, a nice club in the city. We're going to record a beautiful piece that we commissioned Dave Douglas to write for us called In So Many Worlds. Chamber Music America provided the funding for that commission. Also John and I will record new pieces that were commissioned thru the Commissioning USA program run by Meet The Composer.
The main thing that I've been working on for the last 5 months is a new work for orchestra. It's a piece titled Transformations and it's for 3 improvisers and chamber orchestra. The improvisers are Franz Koglmann, Tony Coe and me and the orchestra is Klangforum, a 24 piece group based in Vienna. Writing the music has been a huge thrill. There is approx. 22 minutes of thru-composed music and with improvised sections added, the piece is about 30 minutes in length. In September, there will be two performances, in Vienna and Wiesbaden, and then we record the work in Vienna. We'll also record 20 minutes of small group works to make a complete recording. This is also for btl. I'm very pleased to be with btl. They encourage me to get into different things and to be myself, which goes along with my concept perfectly.
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