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Friday, March 25, 2022

"Art Should Try to Hover Above Our Humanity a Bit and Not Wallow in It" - An Interview with Damon Smith (part 3)

NM: Being that list making season was recently upon us, would you mind sharing with our readers some of your favorite music from 2021, both brand new as well as new-to-you?

I think the IST box set is really great, there's also a fantastic trio with Steve Beresford on Confront. Rafał Mazur made a great four CD set of solo bass (The Great Tone Has No Sound, 2020). Joelle (Leandre) has a three CD set (Beauty/Resistance, 2021) and one of the duos is with Rafael. There's a great double CD from Barry Guy, Augusti Fernandez and Lucia Martinez (Bosque de Niebla, 2021). And then, of course, all these Wadada albums, Great Lakes Quartet (The Chicago Symphonies, 2021), Wadada’s solo trumpet CD. Wadada with Milford Graves and Bill Laswell (Sacred Ceremonies, 2021). And then there's the great quartet XPACT that was resuscitated (XPACTII, 2021) - with Stefan Keune, Erhard Hirt, Hans Schneider, and Paul Lytton - that’s a great group. The Kontrabassduo Studer-Frey made a new one, Zip, which is great. Astral Spirits has been doing all those great albums. Ahmed, that's the (Free Jazz Blog) record of the year, I agree with that for sure. I think one of the most important albums of the year is the Tom Prehns Kvartet (Centrifuga, 2021). I'm always interested in everything Jon Abbey is doing on Erstwhile. Then there's been these really wonderful Feldman CDs with Judith Wegmann doing Triadic Memories and For John Cage. The John Cage number pieces on Another Timbre are really fantastic. One of the things that did change me at the beginning of the pandemic is I just got less interested in digital music. I order the CD, and for the most part, I'll hang back and wait until I get the real CD. The only time I've gotten so excited about an album that I've broken (that rule) was recently, there's a new album coming out with Enrico Rava, William Parker, and Andrew Cyrille (2 Blues for Cecil, 2022) and I got a digital promo of that and I listened to it.

NM: Part of free improvisation is how the music is interpreted by the listener. I would argue that listening to an album is a step removed from the experience you would get at a live show. What insights can you give our readers on ways to bridge this disconnect? In your opinion what should they listen for and expect from quality free improvisation?

I think this gets into the meaning of art and what we're trying to do with all of this. The text artist, Lawrence Weiner, is somebody who I'm really into. He did these texts on the wall that he said were sculptures, and he said that he's always trying to make something useful. Somebody once asked Morton Feldman about a structure, and he said, it's not a bridge, you don't have to walk on it. The idea is that you can have things that don't work functionally, in art. It's a place to take ideas.That's why there is an importance on not putting a function on these ideas and to let the ideas just be. So the idea is to be open ended enough so the ideas can be useful, if not functional. Then maybe in another context, they can give an answer to something else. Einstein said he improvised on the piano every day. These last two years have been the most crazy social situations that I've seen, and a lot of times you want your music to respond to those things. There's this impetus to respond to it. But the processes of being an artist are so much slower than that. So in a way, it's better to just respond to those things as a person and then not abandon your post with your work and let your work take that slower path. It's hopefully feeding systems that could lead to some kind of change. Maybe. But it's a much slower, much bigger idea. And in some ways, you would argue that listening to an album is a step removed from the experience you're getting at a live show. I wouldn't call it a step removed. In some ways, I would say that you're removing a step from it because you're getting the pure audio experience when you listen to an album. And I'm definitely one of the few people that is going to say that an album is ten times more important than a concert and especially an album that you can go back to over and over again, that's going to reveal its secrets slowly over time is really incredible. The album I mentioned earlier, (Butch Morris’) When the Sun is Out, You Don't See Stars, I’ve never had a concert that's given me what that album has because you can just keep revisiting it. And I think in this music, any of the free improvisation and experimental music that's worth hearing. One of the ideas is the details, and they just go by too quickly in the concert. And then sometimes the performative things with the musicians, maybe they're making sex faces or they're squirming around or whatever, and then you actually listen to what they're doing and what they're actually playing isn't all that much.

So there's that aspect of really just connecting with the sound. And over time, what you can get out of it. And in my opinion, what people should listen for and expect from quality free improvisation is that it's an open ended thing that's interesting. What they should listen for is whatever they're trying to work on in their work or in their life. If there's a solution for it in there somehow, there's things even if you're not a musician, there's still solutions for other things in these other art forms. And I think that's what's interesting, somebody could think improvised music is great because it doesn't expire. If I have a concert coming up, I might find a solution in something Derek Bailey recorded in the 70s, or I might find an idea that could be expanded on. And so in my own work, I'm trying not to judge the music in the way that I used to before, like when I would try to make a good record. I'm trying to just make sure that the ideas are presented well and played well, right? Because it's not up to me whether the work is going to be useful to the listener, that's the listener's job. You decide if you can get something out of a particular recording, and maybe in 20 years, there’ll be a young musician trying to think differently about bass and percussion and maybe there's some answers in some of those that I was involved in. And I think that's what's interesting and that's what it could be.

NM: You recently called us out for having too much ‘pop music’ on our year end lists, which I thought was an interesting thing to say, all things considered. Being that pop is a fairly loaded word, can you elaborate a little bit more on what you meant?

In that case, I'm not talking about the quality of the music - I can’t stress that enough. I'm not saying not being free jazz means anything more than that. It was also said in the context of there being many outlets for that music vs. very few or really only one for free jazz! And lastly, it was said in the context of having released an album with one of the few foundational figures still with us of the music that got passed over by all the writers on the blog. I do think that definitions are important. I think the meanings of words are important. I think that there are limits to everything, and it's interesting to see what you can do. But one of the things that happens is when you include another element that's outside of the boundary, then you get the critical ideas behind that element. A good example would be Joseph Beuys made a sculpture called 7000 Oaks. And it's 7000 Oak trees planted around the city of Kassel. And there's a basalt stone next to each one, 4ft high or something, and so the stone ends up being the sculpture. And then the idea of it is, that it's Greening the city, it's a social project as well. Well, 7000 trees actually does make a significant difference in how many trees. Whereas if you said your art project is a community garden that produces four radishes at the end of the year, it's not a very good garden. It fails. This garden is not a super interesting art project because it's just a garden like anybody else would have. Right?

I think for example, Fire!, beautiful music and a good band. Nobody knows the music better than Mats Gustafson, he's a total scholar of the music, and he knows he's not making free jazz when he makes a Fire! record. He knows that he's exploring his interest in indie rock and pop music. And those have backbeats, those have bass lines, and I think people who are interested in it would say that the reason it's interesting is because of that. It's interesting because this person who usually makes free music is doing this other thing, same with Natural Information Society. Joshua Abrams is on probably 50 or so great free jazz records, he knows when he's making these records that that's not what he's doing (making free jazz). I don’t think we can call consonant music that is in time free jazz - and again, that doesn’t mean anything else about the music.

So when you do have these elements, one of the things that is not talked about as much is just the absolute power that music has over human beings. And the reason why we're talking today only has to do with that. It’s the same with so many people in my life, it's only because of that power. When I was younger, a lot of my peers were really Braxton-obsessed and walking around trying to talk about being in control of your forces. And I think that is something that is a way to think about this, when you engage in these things.

NM: Deeper in the same thread you said the following, “One of the issues with pop elements like back beats is not just what it is but how addictive those elements are and how much power they have over human beings. One of the aims of free music is to let the other elements of music shine without those elements in the way…” Can you talk about this a little bit more? Particularly as it pertains to the aims of free music, which aren’t always known to the listener.

When you bring in a backbeat, it's so addictive to human beings, it takes control over us. And when you look at anything you might call “bad” pop music, it's usually just whatever with a backbeat. And then you start to bring in tonal harmony, which total harmony actually has to do with the way our ears work and the overtone series and things like that. Our ears love this sound. And so when you bring those things into the music, it's almost like bringing in a shotgun to a boxing match like, well, you should win. And so if we are talking about things from a competitive perspective, yeah, you should be able to make a more pleasant album to listen to with the backbeat than without. So that's a little bit on “pop” elements. And then the ECM records, the last free jazz records they made were probably the Hal Russell records in the 90’s, and before that probably Marion Brown. I listened to two new ECM records this morning. I love that music, but I think it's pretty far from free jazz, and I don't use pop music in my life. I don't use it as a musician or as a listener. But I understand people who do because I use bad TV and comedy and things like that, and things that aren't high art that are outside of music. I just tend to go away from music for those things instead of getting into other music. So it's not like I don't understand. I understand people who do it. And I don't mind you're in a bar and some great pop music that comes on. It's great. It's perfect. So then if we elaborate a little further on it, if we think about the problem with the addictive quality of these elements, when you let them in it's really hard to control. It's really the self control of the musicians, of the presenters, of the listeners. It's beyond what we're capable of as human beings a lot of times. And that's why the older improvisers sort of shunned it 100% because there are few instances where it can be really interesting. Once we actually recognize the power music has, we have to take responsibility when we harness that power for our work.

NM: What do you think about when you are improvising? How is your process different when you play in a group versus playing solo?

Mark Dresser has a really great phrase about how he came to all the stuff that he's figured out for the bass, in which he talks about analyzing his intuition. So a lot of these things came from him improvising on his ideas and then mapping out what they are more technically. You get into things which would be more of a subconscious area when you're listening, when you're bringing things in. Or maybe you've thought about the combination of people and you have ideas you want to bring to the session. I had that recently. You let things happen in their way. And then at a certain point you pull yourself out of that, and look at what's going on. And then for me, I'm often placing things historically, what historically has happened here in this combination since I have the great catalog of improvised music in my head. And then I think, how can I move that somewhere different? Because I like to think of things not as influences, but as starting points. I want to start where Kowald left off, things like that. And then recently I started to think about a recording that I did, and I thought about ideas of time to make sure that it's not rhythmic. So I broke down the patterns to make them asymmetrical and I found that I could do that and do my regular improvising around. It was nice to have this new idea to start with.

And then I suppose the difference between solo and a group is that when you're playing solo, you can really focus on what you're doing, whereas when you're playing in a group, your ear has to divide between what you're doing and what everyone else is doing. And even if you're holding your ground, which I think is an important thing to do as an improviser, you're still noticing where the other people are, even if you're not trying to link up with them perfectly.

NM: Who would you like to work with that you haven’t had the opportunity to yet?

If there was a way I'd really like to play with the great European drummers like Paul Lovens or Roger Turner or somebody like that. That's something I'd like to do. There's a lot of these people that I'd really love to play with like Gunter Christmann, if that's possible. And then another thing I'd like to do is I'd like to make an album with two pianos. I really like mass pianos. One of my favorite things around this time of the year is John Cage's Winter Music, which is for 1-20 pianos. I would love to do a trio with Steve Bereseford & Sven-Åke Johansson. I would love to play with the Swiss Pianist Judith Wegman, also the French pianist Sophie Agnel. I've played with Shelley Hirsch but I'd like to do more playing with Shelley Hirsch, maybe an album with her. I'd like to do some more things with Joe McPhee, because I really love his music. Hopefully I'll be able to play with Gabby Fluke Mogul this year or the next, we'll see. I would really like to play Brotzmann again, but in the context of my work with Jaap Blonk - either just trio or the quartet with Jeb Bishop & Weasel.

NM: As a musician who also runs a label, do you find you sell more albums during years where you have more new releases? How has the pandemic impacted the revenue split between what you bring in for concerts versus recorded music (if you don’t mind me asking of course, just rough percentages nothing explicit, this is a hazy topic amongst us at FJB that we would like to learn more about)? Do you note any buying trends besides Bandcamp day? More sales during the Summer, etc?

So this is an interesting topic. I definitely sell more when I have new releases. I think being a collector of the music helps me sell my music a little better as well, knowing what they (other labels) do. If I'm ordering something specially from overseas, I'm almost always going to get two things because I feel like if something's coming from Austria I should get another item in that envelope. I find that when I make a new release, then my back catalog sells a little better, and I think it is a good policy. If you like a musician, buy some back catalog stuff along with new releases, it gives you a better picture of what they're doing. There's a certain period in the music, 2010-on where I don't have many of the CDs left. A lot of those are just all-the-way sold out, I just have a few. But the period right up until then, from 2000 to 2008, I might have a lot of. I’m finally getting low, but I’ve had some for years because you have to make a thousand CDs. So there's the thing in the thousand CD period. I've been at it for so long and starting out with a release with me and Peter Kowald and then immediately having Fuchs, it's kind of clear what I was up for post FMP, if you want to call it. There's a clear audience who buys those CDs, and I've got people who've really been with me since the very first one who are still buying stuff and have kept it going. I feel like I'm in a good place, setting up my own label in 2000 and keeping it going. People like me are set up like, well, I can just do it myself. You know, there's certain things, if I want a nicer production working with a label can really help, but maybe a production I couldn't afford or something like that or, something for visibility. I like to work with Astral Spirits on certain projects for a couple of reasons. I think Astral Spirits is a great label and they're going to get it to a different audience, and I also think it's good for them. I like what they're doing with their money, putting it back in these younger musicians.

Obviously, at concerts you sell a lot of CDs, but Bandcamp Fridays almost compensated for that. I'm (currently) selling as much as if I was playing and releasing the albums, mainly just because of Bandcamp Friday, they made that happen. And what I can say about numbers is that my releases pretty much pay for themselves; there's not a ton of money being made, but the money goes right back into the label. There's enough money that I'm able to do a little more, make a little bit nicer productions when it's time, things like that. I don't really see differences in sales during the summer or winter, I don't really see anything like that. Maybe in the fall there ends up being more, but there always seems to be more concerts. Even in these times, I've been able to play some, whether it's outside, whether it's online, whether in the little window where we were able to go out and do concerts these last couple of years. There are definitely days where a review moves some CDs or when I've done a pre order.Then that day I'll do better. And then other times when I run sales at my label or I do bundles, I'll notice I've got a bunch of CDs that are related to this one, so I'll make a bundle and then those move pretty well, but my audience is pretty loyal and they've been making this all possible, which is great in kind of talking about how I sort of prefer records to concerts. I prefer making records. I love to play concerts. It's great. 


 Jump to: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4