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Sunday, November 7, 2021

Interview with Guitarist Gregg Belisle-Chi

Gregg Belisle-Chi. Photo by Andy Clausen

By Gary Chapin

In June 2021, Relative Pitch Records released an unexpected gem in the form of Gregg Belisle-Chi’s, Koi: Performing The Music of Tim Berne, a collection of un- or seldom heard pieces by Berne performed on acoustic guitar. I reviewed this yesterday, and will only reiterate that it is an extraordinary rendering of Berne’s music, in a mode or aesthetic that I hadn’t experienced before. I talked to Gregg in October about this project. With me intruding as little as possible, here is a lot of what he said.

On his background

[I was] Born in 1990 to a pretty unmusical family. My Dad’s an amateur violinist. He’s an immigrant from China. He had a “Study classical music because it will help you do better at math and science mentality.” So, I picked up the guitar instead. That was my rebellion. Once that latched on, it was all rock music for me for a long time, until I heard Joe Pass. There’s a version of Joe Pass playing “Joy Spring” on Virtuoso 2, and it was — I didn’t sleep that night, and I had this experience like, “Oh, my God, this other kind of music is happening, and I’m not a part of it and I need to be!”

After that it was getting everything I could get my hands on that was related to jazz or improvised music. Then there was the typical course of going to music school. I went to school in Seattle for my undergrad and my masters.

Going to New York

When I was in Seattle, I was hanging out with Bill Frisell a lot, because he was still living there. He was a big player in my life. Trumpet player Cuong Vu was an important teacher of mine, maybe the most important teacher that I’ve had. And drummer Ted Poor. Those three guys really encouraged me to come out to New York.

So, 2013 to 2014, I started coming out here pretty regularly to play with bands and friends of mine who had been out here a while. And we moved here in 2017. Up until the pandemic it was all about writing my own music and putting my own bands together. For a long time I made my living as a sideman but I decided that I didn’t really want to do that anymore. I just wanted to see what I had to say. But when the pandemic hit, there was nothing to give anymore. I hit a wall with writing and composing and had to look for other sources of inspiration.

Tim Berne’s Music

Tim’s music has been a huge part of my life since I first ran into it in 2008. And I’ve always been trying to understand how he writes melodies, how he writes harmonies, and counterpoint and all. So it was a lucky thing that he released that solo record ( Sacred Vowels ). When that came out I thought, “Perfect! There’s just one instrument to listen to. I’m just going to get to know that, and figure that out, and once I figure out how he does that, I can figure how he writes for two people.” It was kind of a step by step process I was going to take.

That led me to transcribe and record some of those solos that he did, and then he interacted with those on Instagram, and asked me to transcribe the whole record . And that’s how our relationship started. It was one of the more insane things I’ve ever done.

 Photo by Andy Clausen

On playing Tim’s music solo.

So much of [Tim’s] music is about relation and interaction, and when you have none of that (because you are playing solo) what do you relate to or interact with? There’s a great piano player, keyboard player in town named Pete Rende, and he’s also a great recording engineer, and I heard him talking one time about improvising with the space around you, interacting with the sound bouncing off the walls, interacting with the sound of the squeaking chair. There’s always some kind of sound to relate to. And I think that’s maybe why some of the tracks I recorded [for Koi] have so much space between the phrases. It’s just a way to remind myself to keep listening because even if there’s no one else to listen to, there’s something else to listen to.

Koi is a very spacious album, very thoughtful.

Another interviewer was struck by the amount of pauses. Because Tim’s music is often very dense. Which I guess it is. But at the same time, a sound can last forever. It can start at any time and stop at any time. Density is just the frequency of that starting and stopping. I wasn’t trying to match the density that four or five people could create. I let space and silence do some talking as well.

Why did you decide to use the acoustic guitar solo?

I didn’t actually make that decision; that was actually a request from Tim. Because he had only heard me interact with his music on acoustic guitar, and that was kind of on accident.

During the pandemic, we were all feeling very depressed and unmotivated and it got to the point, with me, where I just didn’t want to turn on the amplifier. The acoustic was sitting right there and I could pick up and start playing and that was the bare minimum of what I could do. But I think it turned out to be the right aesthetic choice. It’s a much more nuanced and intimate instrument, and sometimes those qualities of Tim’s music get lost. Sometimes some of the detail gets lost in the density and timbre. But when you really distill it down to the notes — Matt Mitchell’s solo recording (FØRAGE) is a perfect example of an intimate interpretation of Tim’s music. That was something that Tim and I both valued.

Though the strings are steel, it has a very classical guitar feeling.

I studied classical guitar for a couple of years in my undergrad and the guy I studied with was a master of Bach lute suites. It was kind of through that lens that I approached Tim’s music, because a lot of it reminded me of some of those two-part inventions or some of the lute music. I approach the acoustic instrument with that kind of touch. And I don’t have a classical guitar so I did it on steel-string instead.

There are almost no extended techniques going on.

There’s some right hand muting. That’s the only sort of extended technique that I use. Tim did ask me to play slide on one blues (“Middle Seat Blues”), which I guess isn’t an extended technique, but it is a different sound. I had to be very subtle with it because my instrument was in such poor shape at the time. It was the middle of winter and we had moved in November. I hadn’t had time to find a luthier to set up my instrument. The strings were really close to the fingerboard, which generally produces a very small, clanky sound, especially with the slide, so I had to play super super soft.

How did you approach the idea of transcribing the tunes? How did you decide what you’d be playing?

Tim sent me so much music. Some of it had been digitized. Some of it was just scrawls on napkins or shredded pieces of paper, and some of it was a little bit cleaner but still handwritten. Regardless, everything I recorded, I had digitized myself and printed it out and wrote out fingerings for. Kind of like I used to for learning Bach music on the guitar. Right hand fingerings, left hand fingerings. Which kind of takes the improvisation out of it, but that was just more of the mechanics, to learn the music … I figured out how to physically do it, and then the process was identifying the ideas that I wanted to highlight and pulling them out of the score.

If it’s a melodic phrase or a harmonic movement, I would play with that idea for a while and then I would move on to the next part. It was a lot of moving from one part of the page to another, and then trying to connect those ideas. All until the song became the song again.

What was Tim’s input?

Tim was producing me from Brooklyn, and I would send him recordings, and I think for the first sketches I was kind of playing them more like jazz tunes. I would play the melody and then improvise and then play the melody again. And he just wanted me to abandon that right from the git go. He could tell that was a limitation that was not bringing anything out of me. It was a limitation set up by the jazz world, like this is the way it’s traditionally done.

Tim and I had this sort of tug of war. I would say, “I feel like I just want to honor the writing more.” And he would always say, “Oh, that’s completely overrated.” He really didn’t care … I shouldn’t say that. He kind of almost got excited if he couldn’t tell what song it was. I’m not sure what that stems from, but that was a really interesting battle we had. We both made compromises.

But getting back to your question. It was just about getting to know the music as plainly as possible and then seeing what I could do with it or what I could extract from it. More and more it became about just getting as free with the music as I possibly could.

Gregg and Tim recently went into the studio to record a duet record, sax and acoustic guitar. How’s the duet experience different from solo?

For one, it was a whole new set of music that I had to learn very fast. Not only that, but I was actually writing parts … because a lot of music we played was some of the melodies from the Sacred Vowels. I wrote counterlines and bass parts to it. That’s what I knew how to do his music when I played it solo. I had to have more than the melody to play with. I had to imagine another melody or another voice to it. But when we got into the room and started improvising — you can’t have any preconceived notions about what you’re going to do. Because if you have an agenda, that severely limits the kinds of decisions that you can make. So it has to be reactive and has to be quick.

Maybe I should just drop the musical talk and say how much of an honor it was to record with Tim. His music has meant everything to me for a long long time. To have that experience, I felt very lucky and honored to be able to do that.

Koi, out on Relative Pitch Records, is reviewed here.


Kevin said...

Released on Relative Pitch Records

Jake said...

Great interview, but wanted to note an error in first sentence: album is on Relative Pitch, not Screwgun. Keep up the good work. (No need to post this comment!)