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Saturday, March 26, 2022

Damon Smith/Balance Point Acoustics Roundup, Part 1b

- The Very Cup of Trembling (Astral Spirits, 2021)

Phenomenal acoustic quartet, this is their second album after 2013’s From-To-From. Here (under titles written by the great Fred Moten), Fielder, Dove, Jackson, and Smith stretch even further out, as they again highlight their deep, powerful connection. - LRE

DS: When I moved to Houston I started to play with Thomas Helton and David Dove. I started playing with David Dove when I got there, trombone player, wonderful trombone player. He also has an organization called Nameless Sound. But the first Christmas that I was there, Alvin Fielder came to see his daughter and so on Christmas Eve we played a concert with this quartet, I believe it was Christmas Eve in 2010, and it was great. The group worked well together. David Devon and Jason Jackson have been working together for so long that they can improvise these tight horn lines together. That's sort of their thing. And so this group ended up being great because Dave and Alvin have a lot of history, and Jason has a good connection with Alvin, and Alvin and I were very tightly connected, and then Dave and Jason were tightly connected, and so then there’s this sort of freedom in those connections. I think that's what made that group so special is the way that Dave and Jason can make these horn parts together. Reggie Workman was one of my biggest influences, and I had him carved his initials into my bass when he used it. And on this album, a lot of times, this would be a thing that you wouldn't want to admit, but in a way, nobody really does Reggie's stuff, and on this album, for some reason, I played more like Reggie Workman than I ever have. And I'm kind of very excited about that. I'm not ashamed of it or anything. So it's exciting that that happens.

And then the thing that was really cool is there's an artist named Charisse Pearlina Weston who was working for Dave's organization, and we got to know her through that. And then her art career started to really take off, and she's doing all this important work, and then she just started posting all this great artwork on Instagram with these cinder blocks and the broken glass. I think the piece on the cover has two iterations, it has that piece, and then there's another version with the glass is unbroken. I always had the vision that her work would be the cover for my label. And then Astral Spirits agreed to do it. I have a strong design aesthetic and I think we talked about that one of the struggles of having a label is having musicians getting their mitts on the design too much.

And also Astral Spirits has such an important identity and such a beautiful concept for their design, which is different from my personal aesthetic, but I really like it. And the record collector in me makes sure to collect their work because of the identity of the label just as much as the music contained. But I really understand the importance of having a label identity. Nate was really cool and agreed to have Theresa's work on the cover and, of course, it's a great fucking sculpture. And then when I was going to get the titles, like we've talked about these other titles, a lot of times I'll get a poetry book that I feel has a similar atmosphere to the music and that captures and the way the poet writes has some kind of either cultural or other connection to the music. Fred Moten wrote this great book of poetry called The Feel Trio and Alvin and I had talked so much about Cecil’s music and I actually met Fred Moten for the first time at this place where Alvin had played as a teenager in College with Bobby Bradford, just doing, like, straight ahead jazz gigs to support himself while at Houston Pharmacy School in the 50s.

Fred did a reading at this place. It was called The Eldorado Ballroom and then I met Fred a couple other times down the road, and tried to stay in touch with him. I grabbed his book, The Feel Trio. I was going to steal titles and I thought, you know what? I'll ask Fred to do the titles for the album. I don't think this has been done before where someone's got a great poet to title the albums and I felt it was a bit like, I don't like to make too much of these rock comparisons, but I always thought it was neat that Blue Oyster Cult had the science fiction lyricist and didn’t write the lyrics to their own songs. I always thought that was an interesting thing about them. But anyway, Fred came up with these titles, and the album is really beautiful. And that title of the album, I think, is beautiful.

Alvin Fielder/Damon Smith Duo
- Songs for Chico (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)

On “Songs for Chico” Smith and Alvin Fielder play a set of compositions and conversational improvisation that never lacks dynamic range despite the limited instrumentation. Fielder has such a unique voice on his instrument, and on this album Smith meets him where he lives. The duo’s rhythmic constructs experiment with swing in ways that reward close listening, so make some time and listen closely. You won’t regret it. - NM

DS: So, I have these backstories, like Jason and Dave couldn't make this that's not terribly interesting, but it's a bass and drum duo. A few months beforehand we had recorded this duo, Alvin and I, and this thing is interesting for a couple of reasons. In my mind, a lot of times the stuff that I'm talking about is fairly banal, like how the session came about and the social things around it or whatever. But there was a place in Houston where you could play a concert at an actual multi track studio, and then you could get a recording where the concert would basically pay for the studio fees. So Dave and Jason weren't available that time in Houston so I decided to do a duo with Alvin. Clifford Allen had actually suggested that I do a duo with Alvin. One of the times when I was booking the concert, I called Alvin and he said, ‘oh, let me get this other cat off the phone.’ And then he comes back on the line and the other cat was Chico Hamilton the great drummer, the Los Angeles drummer whose music I always really liked, especially his quintet music with Fred Katz on cello. Chico ended up dying a few days before the session so we improvised a little song for him where I had a fifth tuning in the bass. It was DADA. And then I tried to play some cello lines related to Fred Katz and Alvin did all these kinds of brushes because Chico Hamilton had this beautiful way of playing brushes.

And then we did two other compositions on this album, actually, which I don't usually do. I normally try to be, as much as possible, a full time free improviser, but we did a Cecil Taylor composition that Cecil wrote for Marco Eneidi Sextet on the album Final Disconnect Notice, and that group is Jackson Krall, Karen Borca, Wilbur Morris, William Parker and Marco on alto. Marco gave me the chart and I've worked up a solo bass version, the version that I now play is quite different from the one on here. The last piece is something that is really kind of exciting to have. I'm really into the bass player, Johnny Dyani, the South African bass player. I love his work. John Tchicai was just outside the Bay Area in Davis, California when I was coming up, and he was accessible, and I actually did a concert with him. I did two concerts with him, and he knew that I loved Dyani’s music so he brought Dyani charts each time we played together and this one, Roots, I believe, was unrecorded. I know Dyani’s discography pretty well, and I don't think this is in there at all. I think this was something that remained unrecorded. Then it ends with this long, beautiful drum solo by Alvin, which is great.

NM: That's a great album. Both of the albums with Alvin Fielder, really, the last two.

- Bass Duos, 2000-2007 (Balance Point Acoustics, 2021)

Reissued set compiling three fantastic duos, the earliest of which (Mirrors - Broken But No Dust with Peter Kowald) was released 20 years ago. These are landmark sessions of contemporary improvised bass, this is one to own and revisit often. - LRE

DS: Peter Kowald was one of the reasons I started to play the double bass, I think I’ve made that pretty clear. I never thought I'd be able to play with him, obviously. And my friend Gianni Gebbia, who we talked about earlier from Sicily, passed on my contact information to Kowald and was telling him, hey, there's a young guy in Oakland, California, that plays like you and all this stuff. Then when he did that big tour in 2000, I started to get emails from him and one of the interesting things was that he wanted to do a duo. I was a little bit intimidated by that, I'm not ashamed to say. And I wanted to do a quartet with this drummer Spirit, a local drummer in the Bay Area who is fantastic, who has a Milford Graves or Louis Moholo-Moholo way of playing. He has a very small kit, so you could play with him acoustically. No amp on the bass. I wanted to do a quartet with him and Marco Eneidi - Marco and Kowald had played together on Bill Dixon's Thoughts, which has three bass players - and that quartet actually came out as Ghetto Calypso on Not Two. But Kowald wanted to do the duo, and bass duos were an important mode of working for him. And so we did it, and it was interesting because when you listen to it, it's one of those moments where, of course, that's me playing at that time, and I was able to do all those things, but my music wasn't quite at that level on a day to day basis in 2000. So Kowald really centered everything and made it so that we could play in this way. And I think he was really excited that I could deal with his material, because then it could be two of his ideas at the same time, which we unashamedly did. I did a lot of things that didn't come from him just for contrast. But one of the things we found out, I could do the throat singing, and I said, I can't do it. It's too much like you. And he said, ‘But I am here. We do it together.’ So we closed the album with the throat singing, and I do the throat singing a bit now. I don't do it a lot, but I'll do it when I feel like it's the answer and he's not there to do it.

NM: When you say played Kowald’s stuff, you mean just in his style, or did he have material that he'd bring?

DS: It was just the material that he had been doing that I got from his records, because Kowald, one of the ways he would play is he would kind of pick a sound and stick on that sound for a little bit. If he's in a group, he might change to another sound after 20 or 30 seconds on the one sound. And then in a group, he might change a little quicker, but it's a moment and a technique. And with him oftentimes, it's a technique. Pulling on the strings and doing glissandos was the way Kowald did it. It's interesting because, (picks up bass) there's this thing where Kowald would take the strings and pinch them together. Then the scraping where you mute the harmonics and then do this kind of scraping thing (bowing circular patterns). So that was one of the things that Kowald invented and then preparing the bass with the bow, detuning, that that was one of his things, detuning. But then the Italian bass player, Stefano Scodanibbio had been coming to the Bay Area.

And so there were a lot of things like, two handed harmonics, that Stefano. I'd taken a workshop with Stefano. I've been working on some of those techniques, and then my bass teacher was Lisle Ellis, so there's a lot of things that I got from Lisle that made it possible for me to differentiate myself from Kowald. I came from doing freestyle BMX and if you learned someone's trick, you had to take it to the next point to make it yours. It wasn't yours until you got it to the next point. So I always thought, instead of someone influencing me or trying to play their material, it's more about using that material as a starting point and looking at where someone had gotten something and trying to start where they left off or maybe even take it, not necessarily a forward direction, but maybe take it to the side or something like that, maybe do something else with it. But it's always a starting point to try to add something. So you always try to try to add something to the situation and try to see what you can do with it.

NM: I appreciate that. I appreciate the metaphor, too. We work in metaphors a lot and that's a good metaphor. (laughing)

DS: Yeah. You could take somebody's trick, but then how is it yours? You have to add something to it or make it go into something else. Make it transition to something else.

LRE: Can I ask something just real briefly? You're looking at, let's see, Kowald was born 44’ in Germany, and then, thinking about this set as a whole, you've got Joelle 51’, and Bertram in 1933. This approach that you bring to the instrument of, like, what have they done and how do you carry that forward? It really is kind of this chronological through-line.

DS: And Turetzky, of course, is the grandfather of the modern instrument, really. I mean, he is the person who started to try to pull away from classical double bass solo material. He didn't want to play that material, and that material is a rough go. Like I said last time, Mozart has an Aria for bass baritone voice that has an obligato double bass solo part, and then there's a lost Haydn bass Concerto, and the rest of it is pretty much written by bass players and not fantastic at best. It's third rate classical music, which isn't horrible if you're thinking Bach and Beethoven and all that first rate at the time. But it's not great music. It's just a secondary music at best until really until there's a Rossini bass and cello duo. There's a couple of things here and there if you really dig for them, and then you don't really get anything written for the instrument until Hindemith writes a bass and piano piece, and then you get a Henze Concerto at some point. But the Henze piece is actually much later than Bertram putting his work into the world. And Bertram just realized that if he would tell a composer that if they wrote a solo bass piece, that he would play it, that they would do it.

So his fellow students, I think he was going to school in Hartford at that time, he started telling people, hey, if you write a solo bass composition, I will play it. And so then at this point, there's like 400 pieces written for him specifically for the double bass. That's pretty spectacular. So at a certain point, he writes this handbook that is more for composers because he wants composers to know what the bass can do. And it's got all the prepared bass things up until that point, things that you could do with the voice, things that you could do with percussion on the bass, where all the harmonics are, where all the notes are, what notes are going to make sense together, what registers are possible. And then there was another guy in Europe named Fernando Grillo who actually played in the King Ubu Orchestru with Fuchs and did all this other stuff. But Grillo was kind of doing a similar thing in Europe with composers like Luigi Nono and Berio and stuff like that and Xenakis, but Turtezky, he got Cage, he got Pauline Oliveros to write something. So he's working with all the great composure of the time, getting these things, getting these things written for the instrument.

And then he also, at a certain point - because he actually wanted to be a jazz player and was really into Mingus before he got a classical education concurrently - but at a certain point, he just decided to stay in the classical thing. I forget what his reasons were, but he decided to stay in the classical thing, but he was always interested in improvisation. And by the time I met him, he was playing a lot with Vinny Golia, and he was really involved in improvisation. And he had his duo with George Lewis on Derek Bailey's Incus label, he had a trio with Wadada, a trio with George Lewis and Vinny Golia and all these other great things. So he was coming up to the Bay Area a lot. There was a bass quartet that I had put together, and then we did Minutemen songs with Mike Watt and this bass quartet and got some extra money to play at a rock club. And he just did his new music recital and then did a workshop after that and some other stuff. And that's where I made my connection with him.

But then his son lived in the Bay Area, so he would come up a lot, and I'd organize concerts and workshops and get lessons, and we became friends. And by this time, this is 2007, but anyway, we're on the phone, and one of us suggested - I can't remember who brought it up, me or him honestly - said we should do a duo the next time he comes up, and then he comes up and we're going to do it, and then about three days beforehand, I was just terrified. I was like, oh, my God, I got to play the duo with Bertram Turetzky - this giant of the instrument, but he was a friend. And this is a bit like the last thing we'll talk about, which is the duo with Moses. Same thing. He’s a total master, but we're friends, so that made the duo go a lot smoother. So anyway, that's kind of how that came about.

So then if we talk about the last disc here (with Joëlle Léandre), this was a really sad thing because Joëlle got brought to Mills College. I forget how I got in touch with her, but I knew plenty of people who knew her and then we actually had a bass lesson scheduled for the day Peter Kowald died. Obviously I got the lesson much later. I did take some lessons with her, but it was really sad because they were close friends and he was somebody I spent three weeks with when he was in the Bay Area and got to know a bit and knew his music really well and his music is probably still the most important music for me and very foundational. But she and Kowald were close friends, and he gave her a lot of early opportunities in improvised music. And he was obviously much older than her and they were really close and she was devastated. And at a certain point in that time period, those few days, Henry Kaiser said, hey, do you want to come over to my studio and make a solo recording for Kowald? And I said, yeah, but we should do a duo with Joëlle. And so we went and picked up Joëlle and brought her to Henry's studio, and we did the recording. I don't think the music is all that sad. It's a bit somber, but I think that we played together pretty well. We made something happen that day, but we just couldn't deal with it for obviously 17 years. I would either see her somewhere or we have another quartet album that we were able to get out.

This was just a little bit too sad to deal with. I'd f get it out and put it on, try to make up titles, try to think about editing, and then Joëlle wanted a better mix than what was there, because we just had a rough mix, there was no mix that was done, and then at a certain point, I just decided that this really needed to happen. I wanted to do this three CD box and Not Two was originally going to do it. No real good reason why it took so long. I think it was just busy when I was ready to do it, and I just did it myself and she got a good mix. And then I was able to find the titles, and I'm glad to have it out. I'm really glad to have that out. It’s the only previously unreleased disc in the set. The Kowald came out around 2002 when he was still alive and the Turetzky had like 100 copies that sold out really fast, so I knew that one needed a reissue.

LRE: Then how much? I mean, this is a bland logistical, sure, but I'm just curious because I do feel like it does start out with almost like one of those mourners wailing, like a keening whale.

I'm just curious, were there conversations beforehand to prepare or was it just like, here we go?

DS: Almost nothing. I don't remember a lot of talking. We each do a solo on it and that's the only one of these duos where there's solo pieces. And I think in her solo, she detunes the bass, that was something that Kowald did a lot. And I think that was a bit of her tribute to him. We never talked about it, but it was funny because Joëlle and I got to know each other at the time. She came to Mills twice and so we talked a lot about a lot of things, but we didn't really talk about what happened in this music. We just kind of did it, and it was there, and Henry Kaiser was there. I think it's cool that Henry Kaiser recorded it because Henry is a good friend. And obviously he didn't say much either. He might have even been the one to say each one do a solo, but there was not a lot of talking. I think we knew it was going well. There was a feeling that we were making something. We knew we were making it for Kowald, so it was a bit more than your usual improvised music duo, because we went in there knowing this is what's happening. I buy all of her albums and stuff like that, and by the time I met her, I probably had most of her albums up to that point. And so she was someone I still get every Joëlle album that comes out, there's a brand new solo on Ayler that's fantastic.

LRE: I love that one.

DS: So good. I mean, she's just so fantastic. And again, she was somebody who was like Turetzky in France. She was getting pieces from different composers. The composer Giacinto Scelsi wrote solo pieces for her. They were all dedicated to her. And she got a lot of other pieces written. And she worked with Cage and she's done a lot of new music. Now she's way more focused, but for many years it's been improvised music that is her main thing because she was close with Derek Bailey, but also some of that came from Kowald. But yeah, she was also just an absolutely foundational figure for me on the instrument from day one. And still I'm a huge fan. I'm buying everything. I make sure to get everything. She's just great. And still to this day, she's just playing better and better and better, more and more interesting.


Jump to: Part 1 | Part 1b