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 2)

NM: You released a ton of material this year, and a lot of it is archival stuff with some real legends of the trade. Good on you for getting it all out there. Is this year anomalous or do you still have a lot in your back catalog you would like to get released? Anything upcoming that you’re particularly excited about?

Maybe I'd like to see some more reissues, I want to get some things reissued such as Astral Plane Crash  (with Vinny Golia, Henry Kaiser, Ra Kalam Bob Moses, and Weasel Walter). I feel like I didn't have a long enough life as a real CD. I think we made 350, but we tore through them pretty fast. And then there's another really nice album with Weasel Walter and John Butcher (The Catastrophe of Minimalism) that we only made 200 of. I think I'd like to reissue that again. And that's about it. I might try to do some vinyl once the vinyl craze calms down and it's possible. I have an idea to do a Keith Rowe seven inch with some of the material we have left over. So in some ways, I feel like my work, I've always felt a little uneasy about things like quarantine this and that, and pandemic blues, and kind of using that situation as content because it implies boredom. And I feel like if you're really focused on your work, you've just got a ton of work to do in every direction. So all this time period really did was refocus my work. Obviously, releases were something I could have done. And there were a lot of things that were archival material that you mentioned. There's a lot of things in my archive that were just sort of eating at me like, wow, this needs to come out that needs to come out. And for whatever reason, there was something around it like it wasn't.

Sometimes what gets a release out is knowing the cover art. If you know what the cover is going to be, that will be the impetus to get the whole thing packaged up and put out. And things like the Gregorio release, which was a really important thing to be on The Room of the Present. We just hadn't gone through and mapped out what were his graphic scores and what were improvisations. And it seems like a dumb thing but that’s what held up the album since 2008. It was recorded in 2007 and 2008 in two brilliant sessions. I mean, the way we played was some of the best music making I can imagine. We played together so well. It was a really nice group, and he was one of my heroes. Maciej Karlowski (Fundacja Słuchaj label) sort of pushed me for that. I mentioned I had a trio recording with Gregorio on a thread, and he's like, hey, can you send it to me? I'll put that out without even hearing it. And it was exciting to get that out. And obviously the Keith Rowe recordings. One of the things that was going on with that is I was just thinking about trying to get the trio stuff out. But then that Orchestra material (Gooseberry Marmalade) was so important. And when I finally proposed to Keith to make a double CD, he was really into it, to do all of it. And then I was able to get Polaroids from the Cy Twombly Foundation and get that album put out the way that I felt it should be, with two sets of liner notes.

And then, of course, that Roscoe Mitchell thing was exciting to get out, for all of us. Getting that out was just really exciting, because that was a really exciting concert to do, because it turned out that he was into one of our trio CDs. And so, we're sort of meeting this old master but we have even more of an obligation to play our music rather than try to meet in the middle. I played with Cecil Taylor. I wanted to get in there and deal with that language. But with Roscoe, it was more important that we let him experience that particular group playing. And of course, we go to him a lot in it too. He's one of those people, just like Cecil, where without him this shit doesn't exist.

Then there was the trio with Tanja Feichtmair and Gino Robair (The Shrilling of Frogs) that I literally, just from moving not too long ago, I just found a CDR of it, I put it on and it was a pristine studio session that I remembered doing, but that I had forgotten about. It was just so well recorded and the playing was so solid, everything was in great order, and it required just a tiny bit of mastering. And that was from, I think, 2004 or 2003, something like that. So that came out and that was important. What I decided to do after this year is to try to really focus on things from right now, you know, recent work. And the thing that I'm super, super excited about is I went to the East Coast in October, and I started playing with Ra Kalam Bob Moses who I know from Boston. I don't know if you know his work, but he's one of the greatest jazz drummers alive. I did a bass and drums duo with him and I feel like that is something where it’s still a more special challenge than other combinations because of the idea of the rhythm section, you can't get away from it. I don't think it's good to try to get away from it. I think it's good to try to handle it and restructure it. For example, it's a really tough thing to play with an incompatible drummer. But you can actually make great music with, let's say, a bass and a guitar player or a saxophone player, trumpet player that you're not harmonically meshing with. It might even make it better. But if you and the drummer can't get on, it's just a bummer. And I've done some stuff with Ra Kalam, several things, live stuff and I've gone to his place to play with him. He lived down the street from me in Quincy when I lived there. But we made a fantastic duo that just kind of unfolded in order. Super beautiful. And it was actually the last recording at his place in Quincy. He just moved to Memphis, Tennessee. So that's going to come out.

And then the day before, actually, I did a beautiful duo with Jeb Bishop, and hopefully that'll come out. There's another trio with Lisa Cameron and Alex Cunningham. I don't know if that's going to come in on my label, but that's probably going to come out and some newer things with Sandy Ewen that I just did and a duo with Kyle Motl. Really great bass player, fantastic bass player. He was traveling across the country and stayed at my place for a couple of days, and it was really nice. We just kind of set up the recording stuff. I've got some nice wood floors here. So we got a really good duo that's going to come out. And that's kind of it for now. I'm hoping to do some reissues, maybe. Also a trio with Adam Shead and Jason Stein, we're working on that. And that group is going to work a bit this year, hopefully, which is really nice. I went to Chicago and recorded with them in I think it was September. The other thing that was important to get out was the base duo three CD set, obviously.

NM: What is the improvised music scene like in St. Louis? Who are the most active and/or influential musicians in that area?

It's interesting because there's more audience than players, which is pretty odd, because they have the oldest presenting organization in the US, which is called New Music Circle, I believe it started in the 50s. And obviously it's the home of the Black Artist Group, which is pretty exciting, but only two people who used to be super active are still around. George Sams is a trumpet player who's around. I've not played with him yet, but I met him a few times, and he was in a group that had an important history, the United Front, which was dealing with a part of the Asian improv group that's in San Francisco and also in Chicago. And the rhythm section was coming from the Asian improv side of things. Dr. Anthony Brown on drums, and Dr. Brown and I were in a trio with Wadada Leo Smith when I was in my mid 20’s, which was pretty exciting. But that rhythm section was Mark Izu, a fantastic bass player from the Bay Area, George Sams and Lewis Jordan But anyway, they had a record on SÅJ, the FMP side label and some other stuff. And George Sams has an album, an LP on Hat Art. And I don't know how nerdy you go into the Hat Art LPs, but there's a period of the LPs between right before the red boxes, or maybe concurrently with the red boxes, where there are single LPs. They were all doubles for a long time and there's a Jimmy Lyons LP and a few other things. But George Sam's is in there. And anyway, it's an old Hat Art LP. And then Darryl Mixon, who's on some of those Human Arts Ensemble releases, he's still around. And there's some great older players like Fred Tomkins and Greg Mills. And then a trombonist named Jeremey Melsah, Alex Cunningham, the violin player, is probably the person I've played with the most here. There was a trio of some young guys, Jake Edens, Chris Muether, and Drew Gowran, and they were doing outdoor concerts that were pretty great throughout the pandemic. St. Louis has all this incredible architecture because it's an old city and there was this 100 year old pool pavilion that had totally open sides and a cover so you can play there when it rains. And they just started doing the series on Sundays, kind of guerilla, but the park people were into it because a lot worse things happen in parks in St. Louis than Free Jazz. And it was really great. And then Drew moved to New Mexico, which is kind of a bummer, because I really was into playing with him. He has a really great feel. Then there's some people doing more electronic music and noise like Janet Xmas and JoAnn McNeil, some good people around like that and Eric Hall. It's an interesting scene and I think that I only got to see about a year and a half of it before this whole thing shut down. And so we'll see what's going on (after). There's another band called Heavy Pauses. I just did a double bill with them.

Peter Kowald and Damon Smith. Photo by Alan Brightbill

NM: You were a friend and collaborator of both Peter Kowald and Wolfgang Fuchs, speaking of legends. What can you tell us about them as people and what did they mean to you as mentors? How have they and the other mentors in your life (musical and otherwise) shaped your work and your outlook?

Kowald was interesting because Gianni Gebbia connected me to him, and I was only around him for a couple of weeks on his big tour. It's the only time I got to be with him in person. We're supposed to do a duo at the Vision Festival,in 2001, and that's when he first got sick and had some of his intestines removed and we didn't get to play that gig. But he was amazing to be around. I learned so much from him. And, of course, the way that he was putting the instrument into the music was really important for me. He was still involved in free jazz. And we get into these differences of (what is) free jazz, free improvisation. But, of course he was really involved in free improvisation as well. And he was a good model of how to straddle that as a bass player because not only was I interested in free jazz, but if I wanted to play free music of any high quality, there were a lot of the Masters of free jazz still around, like in the Bay Area at that time. The great Glenn Spearman was still around. Marco Eneidi was sort of my musical mentor, my teacher, Lisle Ellis. But Glenn and Marco I got to play with a lot. Eddie Gale was around. I played in Eddie Gale's bands for years. I'm kind of sad I never actually recorded with Eddie, that I know of. But Eddie was around. John Tchicai was around. I got to play some gigs with John Tchicai. People like that were around and playing, and you could play with them.

One of the things I think is brilliant about Kowald really is how he was able to do, like, a trio with Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake and bring in all these sound elements from European free improvisation and still maintain a free jazz situation. I think the Germans, in particular, with the fact that they feel like the Nazis took their music from them, they had this impetus of finding a new music and finding different music and finding music that's a little bit outside of their culture, because the music of their culture has been sort of cut off in a way which has to be pretty brutal. And you can even think about the difference between somebody like Barry Guy who has no fears or problems with classical music. He played in classical orchestras for years and uses it in his free playing, and so do I. And that's one of the things that separates me from Kowald, I have a classical education from the bass teachers I studied with. And I don't mind playing classical things with the bow.

Fuchs was an interesting story. Bryerton & me were trying to think of our ideal person to have a trio with. John Butcher was playing with my friend Matt Sperry, who was killed in a car accident and with Gino Robair. I'd been playing for a few years when I started playing with Jerome Bryerton and I think he started playing this music at the same time. We really developed something together and we played a lot around the Bay Area before he ended up moving to Chicago. And so we said, Well, if we want to work together, it has to be on a bigger scale. So who of all the people in the world would we like to play with? We start talking about it. Mats Gustafsson was making incredible records in that time period, like “Mouth Eating Trees” and stuff like that and his solos and his duos with Gunter Christmann, incredible music, right in line with what prior to now we're wanting to work on. But we really loved Fuchs, he was our favorite. And I think Fuchs, as far as the post Evan Parker (saxophonist), he's the most distinctive and just had this incredible sound, sopranino saxophone, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, and he was a very serious person. And one of the things that I really loved about him is that he was way more into music than friendship. And so he had pissed off a lot of people and gotten shut out of certain things at different times in his life because he was so into the music. It’s like Morton Feldman never speaking to (Philip) Guston again because of the cartoon paintings, and they were best friends. I feel like in our world as it is now, you don't want everybody to be like that, but it's a bit welcome. And Fuchs was just so hardcore. He was so focused on the music and focused on the problems of improvising. I’ve been to dinner with him and Paul Lytton and listened to what those guys are talking about. They're so engaged. And it was a fantastic experience to work with him. Sometimes he would sit us down and criticize what we did the night before when we were touring with him. But he was really funny, sometimes not even intentionally. He had an incredible sense of humor. And so even though he was grumpy, he was cracking jokes all the time, too. There were hilarious things he would say, he was a great person to be around. I still think he's one of the most important voices on the reed instruments in free improvisation, he was really into having your own material that you're responding to. I don't know if I put this one in the CD titles, but I asked him once about a bass clarinet player who was very young at that time who I thought was really good, and Fuchs said, “Besides Dolphy, who is good?”

The other mentor I’ve had, of course, is Lisle Ellis. I was pretty quickly able to meet Bertram Turetzky, who is one of the most important bass players of 20th and 21st century new music, and he is really focused on improvisation, and his most famous student, Mark Dresser, has been a really great source of information. Dresser mapped out all the harmonics and multiphonics and sub-tones (for the double bass) and has written it all down. A lot of the stuff that I do now involves Mark Dresser's research of the instrument, (it’s) right at the core of what I'm doing. What's so cool about it is it doesn't make you sound like him at all. I want to have a good sound and a good tone, and I want to play well, but I feel like his ideas have led me to totally different places than they led him, which is part of what’s great about it.

And going back to Kowald, when I heard the way Kowald was playing - there's certain people like the sculptor Richard Serra, where he takes an idea to its absolute end - but listening to Kowald, you hear so many other things that could happen. It's almost like he opened up doors to all these worlds with all these different things that he did. And it’s the same with Dresser's research, it just pushes all of us that are engaged in it further and further. What happens is because of the way he's mapped things out. If you do discover a sound, it's immediately a lot more portable than it was before he mapped these things out. You can do it in other keys and other pitch areas and registers that you wouldn't have been able to without it. I'm really into playing with a piano, but not being subservient to piano the whole time, but relating to it. So you don't want to just be unrelated, because that's no fun. But I feel like with Dresser's research, I can take these sonic things that Kowald and others did and bring them back and forth between tempered tuning and work with the piano as much as I want or go against things as much as you want to.

My first free improvisation gig of all time was with Marco Eneidi and Gino Robair. Everybody went home after the gig and we didn't have to rehearse. We didn't have to hang out. Being in a rock band is a bit like herding cats. There's the one person who's a little more engaged and you're trying to get people to come rehearse and do things. And I go play with these two, and the music was ten times better than my rock band, and I didn't even have to talk to these guys until ten minutes before we played. Gino and Marco come in pretty early. Marco played with Don Cherry and studied with Jimmy Lyons. Marco ended up being a real mentor of mine right up until he passed. He was someone that I stayed in touch with and he really knew the music and taught me so much about the music, made me practice a lot. I lived with him for a while, and I had one of those houses where musicians were coming through, like a three bedroom apartment that people were rotating through in Oakland.

My third improv gig was at the same place, this little coffee shop that I found, with Henry Kaiser and Gino and a bass player named George Cremaschi. Kaiser and I are still working together. He’s one of my closest collaborators, even though we're far away. There’s some Plane Crash work, which is Weasel Walter, Henry, and myself coming up soon. Sandy (Ewen) I started playing with in Houston when I first moved there in 2010, and she has a really original sound and original way of playing. And there were certain things that I had been working on that were parallel to hers. We didn't know each other at all before, so there was no question of influence. I've got a big wood screw also, you know. You start playing with (different) people and you see who you can get projects over the finish line with, and Houston is a really great place to play the music. Right around 2004, Weasel had been in Oakland for a year and had lost interest in free improvised music and free jazz, and then got it rekindled in Europe somewhere. He was going through all these free jazz records and DJing, I think it might have been Austria, and then he got in touch with me. He actually got in touch with me. This is a cool thing about Weasel that I'll never forget, my first emails from Weasel Walter came to me when I was playing at the Total Music Meeting with Fuchs and Bryerton, and it took us a little bit of time to get together. But then when we finally did we played together really well right from the start. At that time CDs were a bit harder to make because you still had to choose between 1000 or 500 (units), and things were starting to get a little shaky with the digital stuff. My label was doing okay then, but he had different connections and it was a lot easier for him to put out an album at that time. So he puts out all these albums of what we're doing, and it was pretty great. I feel like there was a period where I started to let Weasel drive the boat. I was involved in these things with him, and I would set some stuff up, too, like our trio with (John) Butcher and some of this stuff, and I started to have him play with me (and) with the Europeans that came through and we ended up doing stuff with Vinny Golia and Gianni Gebbia. I don't know how many records we’ve made together, but I think it's 60 or 70. It's up there. The playing is always really easy, because the way that he's thinking about the time and the texture kind of matches up with mine. But then he's got these other influences. One of the things I've always thought about is how my interaction with death metal is through Weasel's bass drum. I don't listen to it (Death Metal), but I get it there, and I like to lock in. We're just able to get projects done, even to this day. He's my main mixing and mastering person also, as well as one of my favorite drummers to play with, when we can play together.

The other important person that I should really talk about is Alvin Fielder. His daughter lived near me in Houston, and he would often stay with me because he liked to listen to records. So he'd be in town for family stuff and he'd stay with me and listen to records and hang out, and we ended up doing a ton of playing together. Being able to get my swing feel directly from his ride cymbal was priceless, (from) somebody with that much history. He was also really into Paul Lytton. He loved Paul Lytton. He loved a lot of European free drummers, as well as being a total scholar of Bebop drumming and free jazz. We were talking about drummers (who played) with Cecil driving to a gig in Birmingham, Alabama, and I said, oh, I really like Tony Oxley, and he said, I like Tony, too, he's got all those beautiful sounds and that’s really incredible - but the thing is - underneath it is a pretty straightforward swing, and then he said, Andrew Cyrille is more adventurous with swing. He liked Andrew, and this idea that swing was something to push the boundaries of, and to push forward, was really a big eye-opener right then. Especially having this person to work that out with, this person who could swing, like, as much as Max Roach. Then he put forward this idea and that defined our work until the end. How can we push these things? How can we engage with them? And it ultimately drove us to doing the gig. We did one gig, but it was enough, with Joe McPhee, and I think that album (Six Situations, 2017) really expressed a lot of what Alvin and I were working on, which is this dichotomy rather than free jazz. It was more free improvisation than (free) jazz. There's a way that Joe plays on that album that is not in the notes, and not in the style, but there's a certain authority and rhythmic power that's related to Sonny Rollins that Joe McPhee plays with on that album. And then we veer into total free improvisation. And then back to this kind of jazz idea, which has really been interesting and really to look at the rhythmic underpinnings of these things. The last few years it has been Ra Kalam Bob Moses. I learn so much from him.

NM: Something I didn’t realize until recently was that you worked on the soundtracks for the Herzog films Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World. What were those experiences like? How is improvising for a score different from improvising with, say, a dancer or performing artist? As I understand it Thompson led the effort for ‘Grizzly’ and Kaiser/Lindsey on ‘Encounters…’ How much free reign was given to the ensemble and did it feel restrictive compared with your normal practice?

(Henry) Kaiser and Herzog were fairly tight and knew each other, and when Grizzly Man came up, Kaiser put the band together. Richard Thompson was the main person providing the music, and Kaiser was directing things, he didn't play on Grizzly Man. We were given a fair amount of free reign. The interesting thing was Herzog sat with us, he was sitting between me and the cellist, and he was giving suggestions and directions. There's a funny moment, I think it's on the DVD, where the drummer John Haynes - a fantastic drummer - is playing hand drums and then Herzog says, no, this is too much like the hippies in Golden Gate Park. There was also a moment in there where they were trying to tell us to improvise, but they actually wanted a pretty straight, like, twelve-eight rock thing, and I got a quick lesson in how rock precision is very different from jazz precision. And I kind of struggled, and it was tough not having thought about that kind of playing in years. What was really nice is Jim O'Rourke was there and Jim had played double bass in high school, and I remember being relaxed enough to just say, Jim, what would you play here? He ended up taking my bass away and he played it. I got to see the genius of Jim O'Rourke in action in that whole session. He's not playing a ton on it, but he's there sort of connecting the dots a lot.

I gave him (Herzog) my duo with Kowald, and I started talking to him about the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, who he is clearly very influenced by, and he gave me these little Post-It notes with German writers on it that I should read. And then when we did Herzog’s film about Antarctica, it was the second time I got to work on the soundtrack. But the second one, he wasn't there. And David Lindley was kind of leading the session in a way. Henry was there. Henry was playing on it, actually. And I had gotten my friend Jen Baker to play trombone. And Cheryl Leonard - who's a fantastic musician - and she was doing a lot of things with tuned glasses at the time. And I was able to get these tunings from Cheryl's glasses and make sort of fake Giacinto Scelsi music out of them, and I got to direct things a bit with the tunings and I re-tuned my bass, so I'm doing a lot of open strings that specially tuned to the other instruments, and Lindley tuned to them.That was pretty fun. I also got to direct the music we made for The Volcano. I think what happened was they asked for fake Scelsi, and I actually worked up one of the Scelsi solo pieces, so I got to take over a bit and say, okay, we're going to do this tuning into these notes, going to play like this. It was pretty fun. That one's got a little bit more of my music in it. For Grizzly Man we didn't play to the film, we just played to Herzog for the most part. I want to play for The Bear Fight, but Werner didn't want to use music there. It was recorded anyway and then when Werner cut the film, he thought, oh, yeah, I need a little bit of music there. So there's, like, 15 seconds. But it's my idea. It's me and Daniel de Gruttola on the cello scraping around. And so that's pretty exciting, too, to kind of have that on there. There were a lot of things that were different from the work that I normally do, but it was a really great experience to have. Kaiser is the only person who I would agree to play a Pink Floyd cover with because I know that the outcome would get us to somewhere interesting. 


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