Interview: Ava Mendoza


Interview with guitarist Ava Mendoza in my apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, March 11, 2014

Cisco Bradley: What path did you follow to becoming a professional musician?

Ava Mendoza: I played music ever since I was a little kid. I played classical guitar and classical piano my whole life growing up. I started piano when I was 5 and guitar when I was 7. I got more serious about it just as I was becoming a troubled teenager. I went to Interlochen which is like Oberlin for high school. A boarding school in northern Michigan that is very art focused. I went there for classical guitar. They had a major like in college. I went to there for classical guitar for 3 years and got more serious and more immersed in it there. I was super into it, but at the same time I was listening to tons of punk rock and getting into experimental rock, and free jazz. So at some point I got an electric guitar and started playing with the two other people that I could find who were into improvising together. We just started experimenting. By the end of high school I realized that’s what I wanted, to be doing and I was listening almost exclusively free jazz records at that point. I got out of there and went to Cal Arts (California Institute of the Arts) for one year? Then I took a year off and went to the Mills College. I was more doing electronic music by the time I got to Mills. Which is cool, they’ve got a good program for that. But by my last year there I was back to playing guitar all the time. I didn’t want to be working on Max MSP, I wanted to be playing guitar.

CB: Who did you study with at Mills?

AM: Fred Frith is there, so him, and John Bischoff, one of the electronic music dudes there. Chris Brown is another electronic music guy there, though I didn’t study with him. Fred is the person that most improvising musicians know there. Now Roscoe Mitchell is there but he wasn’t when I was there. There’s a great 20th century theory professor there, David Bernstein who I studied with. He was a Cage scholar, but has a broad knowledge about 20th century classical stuff. He was excellent at framing that music within its socio-political context, which is rare and was important for me to learn.

Already by the time of my last year there I was playing a lot in the Bay Area. So I got out of there and was playing consistently.

CB: Where exactly is Mills located?

AM: It is in Oakland. It is getting towards east Oakland. It is a really awkward neighborhood. It is not the bad part of Oakland but it is not the greatest neighborhood either. So freshman come there and get mugged. [laughs]

CB: So you were training at Mills, but you were also getting your foot into the Bay Area music scene simultaneously.

AM: Yeah, I knew that I want to be playing out a lot. By my second year there, I was really trying to go out to play away from Mills as much as possible.

CB: Were you mostly collaborating with students who were at Mills or other musicians?

AM: Some of them were, but some were older musicians. Like Philip Greenlief is a guy I was playing with when I was at Mills. He is a saxophonist from Bay Area and goes out of his way to take younger musicians under his wing and bring them into the scene. John Raskin was another person. He is a saxophonist in ROVA. I played with a lot of people who were at Mills too, but some older musicians. Bob Marsh, a cellist who is out there, and Moe Staiano, a percussionist, and Gino Robair, another percussionist. So, lots of people that had already been playing in the Bay Area for years. When I got out of there I had a rock band with Moe Staiano called Mute Socialite. That is what I was focused on.

CB: When did you enter Mills?

AM: I entered Mills in 2003.

CB: and then you finished …

AM: 2006, three years. So I got out of there and was playing more free jazz and playing in this rock band. With Moe Staiano and Shayna Dunkleman, who lives here now. I went on tour with Carla Bozulich who is a singer from the west coast originally. She used to be in a band with Nels Cline called the Geraldine Fibbers in the 90s and early 2000s. She had a new band called Evangelista starting around 2007, and I toured with her as her guitar player. I was just trying to tour, playing as much as possible.

CB: Where did you guys go?

AM: Mute Socialite were mainly on the west coast. We just did trips up and down the coast, and then with Carla I went across the country. After a few years I slacked off touring a little bit, just trying to play locally and didn’t want to go on tour and lose money. So I stuck around home a little bit longer. It was at the end of 2008 into 2009 I starting playing with Weasel we started a band called “QUOK”. Originally it was me, him and Devin Hoff. Everyone moved to Brooklyn from that band, separately. Anyway we played together for a year or so, and then were invited to play this festival in Austria, Wels Unlimited Festival. Devin moved right after the invite came and couldn’t play. We ended up asking Tim Dahl, who you saw me play with in Brooklyn, to do it. We did a little tour as a trio in Europe, and then on the east coast. By that time I was feeling that it was too hard to tour from the Bay Area. I had a great time touring in Europe. I did some solo stuff also.

CB: This was in 2009?

AM: That tour was in 2010. Then I was thinking this works a lot better than touring on the west coast, and I don’t want to just be playing locally in my city. I want to play every night I can. [laughs] I always had a good time when I came to New York and also a good time touring on east coast. I knew I needed to move and was trying to figure out where the move was going to be to for a while. Eventually it became clear that this was the right place.

CB: What does this mean for the music that you’ve been making up to this point. Are you able to bring some of those projects with you?

AM: Well, not exactly. That would be cool if I could, but my main project for the last few years in Bay Area was Unnatural Ways; that’s my trio that I wrote all of the music for with Dominique Leone and the drummer Nick Tamburro. That I can’t bring with me, unfortunately. I got asked to play that music at the Victoriaville Festival, in Canada, and the then at the Moers Festival in Germany right after I moved out here, but I didn’t have a band and couldn’t rehearse with those guys anymore because I moved to east coast! But I have formed an east coasty version of Unnatural Ways. So that is the thing now with Tim Dahl and Nick Podgurski.

CB: So that’s something you’ve formed since you came here.

AM: Yeah.

CB: And are you going to play both of those festivals?

AM: Yeah. UW will play, and I am also playing with Fred Frith. Fred has a record called Gravity, which is a 1979-like kind of classic prog-meets-contemporary-classical record. It was only a studio record, never performed live. But a couple years ago he put a group together to perform the record live in the Bay Area, and that group is playing both of those festivals also. So I will do Fred Frith’s Gravity and Unnatural Ways east coast version at both festivals!

CB: So, do you have other projects you are looking to build here?

AM: Basically I moved here because there is such a huge pool of crazy good people. I don’t have an agenda of other projects. I want to play with UW, and to start playing solo again, which I haven’t done in several years. But other than that I am open to collaboration with a lot of people. I’m getting the lay of the land and setting up little sessions with people here and there. But I feel like I haven’t played with a lot of the people that I think are awesome around here.

CB: I hope that continues to go well. Do you want to talk a little bit more about your background on the west coast? Where did you grow up?

AM: I lived in Chicago until I was 10, and then I moved to Orange County, California: Irvine. I lived there ostensibly through high school. But then I went to Interlochen for 3 years of high school. That was where I first felt “this is the path I want to go on”. It became clear that there wasn’t another thing that I was going to do instead of music. I’d played my whole life up until then but that’s when it became clear.

CB: Before you went Mills you went to Cal Arts. Were you also studying music there?

AM: Yes. I was studying guitar there. There iss a great, great guitar player there that isn’t known as much as he should be, Miroslav Tadic. He is a Yugoslav guy, or ex-Yugoslav guy– Serbian. He was a great classical guitar player originally but now he mainly plays all this Balkan stuff that he arranges himself. He is a killer electric player as well, and great improviser. He played a lot with Wadada Leo Smith, who was on faculty there for many years. So I studied with Miroslav there as I was becoming less focused on classical guitar and more focused on electric stuff. During that time, I was listing to a ton of free jazz. I got into Sonny Sharrock. At the same time, because I came from classic guitar and acoustic guitar and finger style technique, I didn’t play with a pick at all then. I was listening to all of these older blues guys from 20s to 50s.

CB: Anyone in particular?

AM: Reverend Gary Davis is a big one. Joseph Spence plays folk tunes, I wouldn’t call him a blues guy necessarily but he is another one who’s near and dear to me. Anyway Rev. Davis and Joseph Spence are the big ones I got really into. I tried to rip off their feel. [laughs] But a lot of other people I got into too, like Robert Johnson and Skip James and Pink Anderson. For acoustic guitar, that is still some of my favorite playing. I’ve gotten into more electric blues players like Howlin Wolf and Buddy Guy. I guess that stuff was in tandem to me getting into Sonny Sharrock and more No Wave stuff like Terry X and Andy Moore, noisier guitar playing and because I was from southern California, Nels Cline who is there. He was the first person I saw play live who made this kind of guitar noise that amazed me. That was revelatory for sure.

CB: Did you ever play with him?

AM: Yes, we became friends. I asked for lessons but he always joked that he was too stupid to teach. So instead we got together and just sat around and talked about music. I went to his house and listened to his records. He and Carla Bozlitch were together for years, so I became buddies with both of them and later played with both of them.

CB: What about Nels Cline’s music really appealed to you?

AM: Lots of reasons! Because I came from classical guitar, he was really the first guitar player that I saw whose playing was so intensely personalized. I had seen many good jazz and classical players but he showed me that the instrument could be part of your character.

CB: Did you see that manifesting in yourself?

AM: I definitely wanted to get that. I felt I wasn’t getting that from playing other people’s music. Like playing Bach. [chuckles] I was just getting start to hear but I really wanted to have a broad sonic palette. I really wanted to get into the sound world of guitar a lot more.

CB: Are there other influences on you as a player?

AM: There are so many. Chrome is a big influence, a west coast rock band. Helios Creed is the guitar player. Sonically, he does so much cool stuff. The way that they write things, these repeating hypnotic riffs I really like. He has this phasery wah wah post-Hendrix, sort of industrial Hendrix sound that I real like.

CB: You mentioned you listened to free jazz?

AM: I got really into Albert Ayler. That was first thing in high school grabbed me.

CB: A particular record?

AM: Bells was the first one that I heard, which I still love, though it might not be my favorite. Then Live in Greenwich Village, Slug’s Saloon, so yeah, that was one of the first things, and then Ornette Coleman. More of Ornette’s 60s stuff at that time. Somehow I missed the electric Prime Time bands until a lot later, but now they are super important for me. Ayler and Ornette and late Coltrane, I got really into those saxophonists. I kind of wanted to play saxophone, actually, and that was part of my attraction to electric guitar, having this big sound that you could change the timbre of easily like saxophone. You can’t do that with acoustic guitar. So I tried to do it with pedals and just how you touch the electric guitar. Derek Bailey was another super big influence. Peter Brotzmann, Nipples/Machine Gun and all of that early angry European free improv stuff. So, it was 60s and 70s music that I got really into.

CB: Was there a fair amount of free jazz going on in the Bay Area when you moved there?

AM: When I moved to the Bay Area there was not much free jazz going on but there was a lot of improvised music. It was more quiet, listeny improvised music rather than fire-breathing free jazz [laughs]. That’s not really the thing there, at least not in that period. The thing there is about listening, very west coast, maybe being in the same sound world as one another and making similar noises, pretty polite [laughs] in the way that you play together, which is cool, but different. It’s not like … William Parker [laughs], it’s a different ethos.

CB: Was there anything that changed for you when you started to hear improvised music played live?

AM: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’ve thought about it. It did, definitely. I played with friends in high school and I played with this guy John Dikeman who was already at the time this great, weirdo free jazz saxophonist. He lives in Amsterdam now and is super active. Playing and listening to records was really emotionally cathartic for me at that time. I felt that the music was so open and that you could get to all of these emotional places that you can’t any other way or through any other kind of music. When I moved to the Bay Area and started to go to more improvised music shows, I don’t think I felt that! [laughs] I felt more engaged intellectually by that music, interested in the way one can cooperate within a group and interact with other players. But I did miss the more fire-breathing free jazz that I had been playing and listening to earlier. I think I learned a lot musically from the more polite approach that people tend to have on the west coast, but it’s not necessarily what I love.

When I moved there and began to go to more improvised music shows, it became more of a genre to me. I became aware that there were all of these unspoken rules of it. So, in contrast to the way I had idealized it when I was young, I realized that it was a type of music that also could be codified. I started looking around for stuff that felt fresher to me, and started playing in that rock band, Mute Socialite. That was the first time that I ever played really loud! That was revelatory because I realized I could still do cool stuff harmonically and timbrally, but it could rock. And because it was really fun. That band was sort of like a No Wave band meets Sonny Sharrock. I got to play long, weird, noisy solos with two drummers. That was my first time playing energy music.

CB: What do you mean by energy music?

AM: I guess music that is about propulsion and catharsis. Where it is stated from the beginning “this is about propulsion and catharsis,” not just “this might happen to end up going there, but it could be something else too”..At the same time I was playing solo finger-style stuff, trying to negotiate the disparity between that and the louder rock band stuff. I was trying to figure out how I could be me and do both of those things, because both are very important to me.

CB: When you growing up, was music something that was listened to a lot in your family setting?

AM: Definitely.

CB: What kind of stuff?

AM: I listened a lot of classical music growing up. I didn’t really listen to a lot of pop music until age 12. I really liked the Carmina Burana when I was a kid, by Carl Orff. Bach, Mozart, just classical music. Bartok, who I still love. Shostakovich. My dad is from Bolivia, so there was always music from there floating around the house, folk music from there. My folks were music lovers, but not snobby musicophiles. They are not record nerds, but music was important to them. So, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, their early 50s and 60s stuff was around the house. I definitely heard a lot of that stuff early on. Basically there was always interesting family-friendly classical and jazz music around the house, and also Bolivian and other Latin American stuff floating around. They listened to a lot of Cuban music. I never studied any of that music, any kind of Cuban or Bolivian or any south-of-the-border music but I feel like the harmony, the chord changes that they use, really seeped in from listening to it over and over and over.

CB: Did you meet any resistance from your family in becoming a professional musician?

AM: Yeah, they wanted me to quit. [laughs] They were like: why don’t you be a lawyer, you like to argue! [chuckles] That was always the thing. Why don’t you go back to school for a law degree? No! [laughs] In one way they were very supportive because they respected it. My mom has a degree in art history so she understands doing something no one cares about because you are obsessed with it. And she respects it. But at the same time they were worried about how I was going to pay my bills, and so was I. So they try to convince me to stop for a long time, but now they’ve accepted my fate. [laughs] They are sweet. They come to shows now and are really into it. As I became a teenager I introduced them to post-1965 Miles Davis and John Coltrane and they are really into that, they love electric Miles stuff and some Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff. So, they like 70s fusion music. They can appreciate what I do from the perspective of it being related to that.

CB: How would you describe your style or your sound?

AM: In many ways free jazz is the first music that I really fell in love with, but I havc more of a rock sound. That’s the kind of sound that I’ve always been attracted to, a big, sustainy sound. More like the 60s and 70s rock but done in a way that I can do harmonically interesting things and play a little more idiosyncratic melodic lines. Fuck! That’s a hard question! In my writing I am always trying to figure out interesting ways to combine writing and improvisation. It is really important to me to write good songs that are not just an excuse to improvise. Not, you know, skeletal jazz tunes with a 20 second head and then 15 minute solos. I do have a couple songs like that actually, but in general I would say I want a more fully formed song. At the same time, when people play my music, I want them to be able to be themselves and have their own sound. It is important that certain parts are a certain way and it is important that other parts be really free. In Unnatural Ways for example, I want people to have room to play themselves but at the same time there are certain that I want to be tight, to sound very rehearsed.

CB: Genre has come about a bunch times in this conversation. Does genre even matter anymore?

AM: To me, no. To me genre is something that I’m always stumbling on, it seems so shallow. But that’s how people are taught and think about music. To me, it is about a sound and approach that is personalized.

CB: So, if everyone is their own genre, can you try to describe your own genre?

AM: Rock and roll free jazz would be more or less accurate. Rock and roll meaning the full spectrum of rock and roll from the early stages of 50s R&B and pre-that stuff to psych-rock, noisy no wave bands, and metal. That combined with a free jazz ethos where you improvise with abandon.

CB: Any thoughts about your future in New York?

AM: I am super happy to be here and excited to tour this half of country more because I haven’t really done that much yet. I’ve never toured in the South at all, so I am looking forward at some point doing that. There is a lot about this country that I haven’t seen.

New on Jazz Right Now




Playlist for Week of 5 April 2014

  • David S. Ware – Passage to Music (Silkheart, 1988)
  • Max Johnson Trio – The Invisible Trio (Fresh Sound, 2014)
  • Signal Problems (D. Gouker, E. Trudel, A. Hopkins, N. Ellman-Bell) – self-titled (pfMentum, 2014)
  • Sara Serpa & Andre Matos – Primavera (Inner Circle, 2014)
  • Patrick Breiner’s Double Double – Mileage (Sulde, 2014)

Interview: Tomas Fujiwara on His Early Years as a Musician in New York

Peter Gannushkin /

Tomas Fujiwara. Photo by Peter Gannushkin /

Interview with Tomas Fujiwara, Oct 1, 2013, at his apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, NY

Cisco Bradley: You played with the Matana Roberts Quartet. I would love to hear about your involvement with that. Maybe I am wrong, but it was my impression that that band never recorded.

Tomas Fujiwara: There actually is a record, a live record, called The Calling, it was basically done on the room mic at Zebulon at one of our gigs. We had a regular gig there about once a month or once every six weeks. It was released on the Utech label. Let me check if I have it … You are in luck! Here you go!

CB: Oh, wow! I will probably have more questions once I have heard it. When was it recorded?

TF: ’04 maybe? Does it say? Zebulon, Brooklyn …

CB: Sometimes those Utech CDs have a little slip inside.

TF: Pretty barebones! [laughs] I know there was a review of it, maybe in All About Jazz, when it was All About Jazz, and not New York City Jazz Record.

CB: I keep coming across records I don’t know about.

TF: You know, the sound is a little tough to hear all of the nuance. I think they had just one mic hanging from the ceiling. You would finish the gig and they would just hand you a CD. I think that’s basically it, maybe a little tweak here and there.

CB: I sometimes actually like those kind of recordings.

TF: Yeah, I remember the review, someone did a review of it, and they described my solo as, what were the words they used? Basically they were saying it takes a while for the solo to get going and just because I started really quiet and if you listen to it you kind of can’t hear anything. No, I’m playing!

CB: You think they would understand it’s the quality of the recording!

TF: Yeah, I’m doing some really quiet stuff there. Yeah, they are like Tomas’ solo begins with like 45 seconds of silence. No, no!

CB: Anything you can tell me about this band, I would love to hear! How the band came together and how concepts behind the band …

TF: I had probably played with Matana a few times before that band was put together and I’m trying to remember, basically since I’ve moved to New York, I’ve had some kind of a connection with people from Chicago that’s kind of grown over the years. She’s from Chicago, spent a lot of time there, and she knows a lot of those musicians, so somehow we had musician friends in common, and so we played together. Actually the first time Mary [Halvorson] and I played together was in a project of hers that just did one concert. And when we started playing regularly, it was in a duo context. She would just come over and we would play duo and then we did some gigs, I feel like we did a number of gigs. She was in Burnt Sugar at the time and they would have one or two bands play before that were usually comprised of Burnt Sugar members and a few times as a duo we did stuff before Burnt Sugar gigs. And then, she decided to put together a quartet. I think that is how I met Thomson. I think she knew Thomson from time in Boston. I think they were both in Boston either at NEC or just living there, so that’s how I know Thomson. And obviously I’ve known Taylor [Ho Bynum] for years.

CB: Is Thomson from Chicago?

TF: No, I feel as if he is from the New England area. I feel like he spent some time at NEC or that he spent some time in Boston. So she put together that quartet and we would play her tunes. For the most part, it was just this regular gig at Zebulon that we did for a while. I don’t know how long we did that for, better part of a year I guess, maybe a little more.

CB: What I could find is that you began playing together in October 2004. CB’s Lounge, Barbes, Jazz Gallery … and then in 2005 you had regular gigs at Zebulon.

TF: That sounds right.

CB: Then a few gigs later in 2006 and even into 2007.

TF: Oh, wow. Really? I feel like it wasn’t that long.

CB: April 15th at Jimmy’s? Maybe I can go double-check that.

TF: And that was the quartet, not some new project? Of ’06 or ’07?

CB: ’07.

TF: I highly doubt that. I remember the first time I did one of the Coin Coin chapters we played at the Moers Festival. That would have been May or June of the year, maybe ’06. From that point on, everything I did with her was the Coin Coin stuff. The quartet was no longer active. I don’t think there was an overlap. That quartet was very much her tunes and once it went into Coin Coin stuff, no matter what chapter it was or lineup, the concept was it was one piece with this system of notation she was developing. Once it went there, it stayed there in terms of when I played with her.

(Photo by Brett Walker)

(Matana Roberts in 2010. Photo by Brett Walker)


CB: What’s the notation that you mentioned?

TF: Well, there’s some Western notation, but there’s also shapes that correspond to certain types of sound, there’s also just text, instructions, or words that you are supposed to represent musically and then just a lot of different cues. So, stuff like that, the rules, there are a lot of common strategies between the pieces. I’ve played at least three of the chapters. It’s hard to tell. Sometimes she calls it the same piece, but she’s made revisions to the actual pieces. So yeah, in terms of my involvement, there was the quartet and then the Coin Coin stuff.

CB: In terms of the notations you mentioned, did that start with the quartet or Coin Coin?

TF: It began with Coin Coin. The Utech music was, in terms of the written stuff, was pretty straight forward in terms of notation. That’s my memory. With Coin Coin stuff there are separate sheets of written instructions or even a key of symbols. With her quartet music maybe she could just give you a couple pieces of sheet music and talk a little bit about it: we are going to go here or we are going to go there. With the Coin Coin stuff there is the sheet music but there is also a key glossary, yeah, like a star means this, or a triangle means that or whatever, and so you apply that to the chart you are reading.

CB: Interesting. I’d almost like to take a look at that. It sounds visually interesting.

TF: I can check really quickly … ok, she had these binders and then the people that were in this thing … a lot of this is on the album cover. [Tomas then demonstrated this visually]

CB: So each time the piece is played, it could take different shapes?

TF: The road map is the same. So we are hitting those boxes to the songs, hitting those boxes in the same order. Now, obviously there is the improvisation element, but there are also different characters and so you are following a different line … so these are five different characters and so for each concert she will tell you that you are a different person.

CB: So each part is played by a different person?

TF: Well, she has done this with large groups so you might have 2, 3, 4 people playing the same part, but in everything I’ve ever done there is at most doubling of a couple of the lines, but usually … the album comes out …

CB: Today, actually. I announced it on my site yesterday. I am dying to hear it.

TF: I haven’t heard any of it. It was fun to record. And that is a quintet, so each one of us had our own part, except Jeremiah, the vocalist, he has a different set of instructions.

CB: So … her quartet. Was it mostly improvisational?

TF: Yeah, they were all her compositions … all or maybe … [looking at the Utech CD] oh now, there are some covers here. There’s a Sun Ra tune, looks like it, but she would obviously arrange them. They were mostly her originals and there was a lot of space for improvisation, whether it was open or over a form with certain parameters, but the concept of that was definitely tune to tune.

CB: I’m curious, I saw some listings in the New York City Jazz Record some listings for the Tomas Fujiwara Group or sometimes the Tomas Fujiwara Quartet with the same people, was this a separate project?

TF: With that, that was a period when I did Stomp for a while. I was leaving that and I was doing gigs and I wanted to be as active as possible during that transition period. So I booked these regular gigs. And so I tried for the same group, but not everybody was available for all of them. Taylor definitely did a lot of them. Matana did a lot of them. Timo [Shanko] did at least one of them … I think beyond those gigs that particular group didn’t … I’m trying to remember what the next thing was after that. What year was that?

CB: 2005.

TF: That sounds about right.

CB: I noticed that you did a series of four at Villa Della Pace.

TF: Yeah, that was an Italian restaurant around the corner from Stomp that we used to hang out at and they had some music, so I did a weekly thing there for a while. I feel like I had Taylor, Timo, and Matana pegged for those, then sometimes someone couldn’t make something. I can’t really remember who else did some of those … Thomson did at least one. Musically, we played a few of my tunes, but it was also some arrangements, not even standards, or even just Wayne Shorter tunes, something like that, Ornette … And like I said, that was just trying to do something during that transition period. I had already been playing with Matana, I’d already been playing with Taylor for years, and I’d played with Timo a bunch. He’s from Boston and we’d played together, and so I was just trying to get some momentum going, but that band never recorded or anything like that.

CB: Anyway, it is good to get any information about groups that didn’t necessarily record.

TF: Yeah, that was really the main focus for that. It was a really important transition for me getting grounded here in New York. By that time, technically, I had been living in New York for years, but I had came and was just getting my feet wet really. I came here when I was 17 … to keep on learning, and I still feel like I am learning now, but I came without a lot of experience. So, what do they say? Trial by fire? So, just coming, listening, doing sessions and all of that stuff. And then I got Stomp and so I was touring. When I came back, I had a few musical connections, Taylor being one of the main ones, that really kind of survived through that time. And then starting over, the tricky thing—having a regular gig, like anyone will tell you, like someone who has a pit gig for a Broadway show or even a regular teaching job or anything like that. In retrospect, I would have returned and told nobody that I was doing Stomp because it was flexible enough that I could have been really busy, but people think “he’s got this regular gig, he’s probably not available.” But it was nice to have that so that the transition to regular living wasn’t so abrupt. And then when I decided to leave it for good, something like those gigs was a conscious effort to add activity without relying upon other people to do that for me. I didn’t put that band together with the intent to … you can see by the venues we played at, I couldn’t get gigs at known places or anything like that. It was just to be out there doing stuff and have people hear me who might not otherwise hear me.

CB: So there was no goal of recording?

TF: I’m really not good at remembering to bring the portable recorder to gigs, I don’t think I had anything like that, but I can check.

CB: I’m just really curious to hear the sound. So, if you ever find anything …

TF: I might not want to hear it! [laughs] But really that [Utech] CD will be a good indication … Matana and Taylor were very important people to me, not just our history together, but they have always been supportive of me and it’s kind of beyond their desire to have me as part of their projects. So, also just very encouraging, they will recommend me for things, if they know of an opportunity. And now this has been going on ten years plus with each of them. And so it was very important to me to have these two very strong people not just as colleagues or supporters, but obviously their musicianship is great. So I feel that that Matana record will show some of that from that period of what we were getting into.

CB: Taylor’s sextet record was recorded in 2005, I believe.

TF: Really? The Middle Picture?

CB: It wasn’t released until 2007.

TF: OK, that makes sense.

CB: So his group was also going around that time.

TF: Yeah, that makes sense. So that’s the first time I started playing with Mary regularly. Evan I had known since college, so we were reunited, so to speak. Now he was playing guitar, when I knew him in college, he was playing saxophone. Taylor and I had obviously maintained a thing. Again, I had known Matt Bauder through Chicago people. And actually while I was in Stomp I hung out in Chicago for about six weeks and we played, but this was the first time I played with him regularly, so it was an introduction to that, and we’ve gone on to collaborate in other things. His quintet has its second record coming out this year, the Day in Pictures. It’s fun. It’s great.

Peter Gannushkin /

Taylor Ho Bynum. Photo by Peter Gannushkin /

CB: I’ve never heard that group play live.

TF: He’s definitely trying to have a CD release party later this year. I will let you know. So, yeah, that sextet was very key. I also met Jessica [Pavone] through that group. In some ways that group was the start of a new community and pool of musicians. I had other ones through other things I was doing, but if you look at that sextet and how much music I’ve gone on to play, especially with Taylor, with Mary, and even with Matt that sextet of Taylor’s was big for that. And then Taylor had a trio with me and Mary that branched off of that. We did a tour, an early tour during that period. There are some trio tracks on that sextet record. Is that the one that goes solo, trio, sextet, or maybe that’s the next one? Anyway, that might be the second one.

CB: So, the trio did record on the sextet record.

TF: Yeah. There’s one, I think it might be the second, the first piece is solo cornet, then the trio, and then this suite of the sextet and maybe another trio and it ends with another solo. It might be the Asphalt … The new one from that group is coming out later this year.

CB: I was wondering about that trio.

TF: Yeah, the sextet went to Europe, but the trio did at least one U.S. tour because for some reason we have a lot of wacky stories about that tour which come up often. I don’t remember what year that was.

CB: Any good stories for the record?

TF: Definitely not for the record! [laughs] No, I mean, it was one of those, where you have … well there was one place in Detroit at this old abandoned factory with rooms that went on forever and one of these rooms had this basketball hoop nailed to a wall and there was a 3 am game between the trio and another band that was playing. Literally we were playing 3-on-3 at 3 in the morning in the pitch black drunk and stoned … you know, stuff like that. Mary’s making every shot she’s taking. She’s standing there, every time someone passes her the ball, it’s going in, going in, going in … I think for me, those early bands and early tours, at least for me were very important to me for this transition that I was making. Obviously everyone in that band was in a different phase of their lives, so it has different significance to everyone. I’ve also always been into the idea of a band, especially what we do—there’re so many moving parts. Someone will get a gig and hire some people, do it, very good musicians, and do it well, professional, and sound good, but there’re are very different dimensions when you have a band and you are a part of that it’s very exciting. And that sextet was very much a band. That was a sound that was bigger than the sum of its parts. If you ever talk to Taylor again, you should ask him about, we played at the Vision Festival with that band, kind of at the end of that sextet’s run, and we’d been playing this same suite for all of our gigs, it was modular, it wasn’t like there was this one piece you just got sick of. We all felt like that Vision Festival gig was the crowning achievement. They recorded it, pretty good quality, and played it on BBC, so he must have a copy of it. The albums are great and it was always fun to be a part of that band and the whole process, but that gig was really … it was the Vision Festival with a really great audience, so it felt like it was 2000 degrees in there [laughs], everyone’s soaking wet. Everyone knew the music so well that we could really be free with it and what I remember with that piece which was great was it would start with solo guitar from Evan and end with solo guitar from Mary, I think it was that way, or the other way around, I’m pretty sure that was it. It was always the book end of the piece.

CB: Each piece?

TF: No, we would always play a suite and we had these pieces and they could be cued this way or that. I think the order could be rearranged, there were these variables, it’s not like you just got sick of playing the same piece. At the same time, we all knew the written material so well that we could just throw it around, but it was always bookended by two very different guitar solos. And they were always great, but on this particular night, Evan just kind of set the mood, we played this crazy set, and then Mary wraps it up perfectly. For everyone else in the band, when we would play those pieces, the concert starts, but I kind of have a couple minutes to get into the mood along with everyone else because I’m not playing. It’s almost like I finish, but the piece isn’t done, and I can kind of come down in a certain way while still being a part of the piece. I just remember that particular concert, it was just really incredible to be a part of that to have the table set to perfectly, you do the whole thing, and then it’s wrapped up perfectly. You should ask him about it. I wonder if it holds up … and that’s one of those where everyone in the band was just like “Wow! That’s the one!”

CB: Where was Vision Fest held at that time?

TF: That was in the auditorium where the Office is now. It’s not the old church. It’s where Arts for Art is now, where they have the Vision series. There’s an almost bigger, theater space.

CB: Well … thanks for sharing all of that. This is just the kind of reflection I need to write a compelling story. It’s interesting to hear you speak so affectionately about those moments.

TF: All of those people are key musicians and human beings in my life and that period with all of us together was really important to me in a lot of ways.

CB: It seems that around that time a new community was really coming together.

TF: Yeah, aside from Taylor, that’s where it started for me with all the others. Probably now I can trace back just about anything that I’m doing now to some kind of event around that time or some kind of gig or session. A fun time, a tough time! Definitely a challenging time for me personally. I mean you are paying dues again, from the bottom and you understand intellectually why, but then again you are doing it again and it can be personally challenging to persevere and obviously you are older and you have other life experiences. In my case, not that I took it into consideration then, that much, but you are a part of this hugely successful … you are doing something that the lay person thinks is very successful [Stomp], so they treat you in a certain way. And obviously I don’t care a whole lot about this, because otherwise I would have made other choices, but the shift in how people treat you is jarring when you go the other way. And most people will only go the other way because of something out of their control and here I’m choosing to leave this dream gig or what would be perceived as a dream gig, so it was a challenging period. These people and this music were the driving forces for it.

New on Jazz Right Now This Week





Playlist for the Week of 29 March 2014

  • Rempis-Daisy Duo – Second Spring (Aerophonic, 2013)
  • Yoni Kretzmer’s 66 Boxes – Graceless (Out Now, 2014)
  • Turn Around Norman – We Turn Around (AlgoRhythms, 2011)
  • Ras Moshe – Live Spirits, vol. 2 (Utech, 2006)
  • Danny Fox Trio – Wide Eyed (Hot Cup, 2014)
  • Roy Assaf Trio – Second Row behind the Painter (One Trick Dog, 2014)
  • Bobby Avey – Authority Melts from Me (Whirlwind, 2014)
  • Basak Yavuz – things … (Muzik Yapim, 2012)
  • Archie Shepp – Mama Too Tight (Impulse!, 1966) [vinyl]

Interview: Matthew Shipp

(photo by Lisa Adasheva)

(photo by Lisa Adasheva)

Interview with Matthew Shipp via email, March 14-20, 2014

Cisco Bradley: What new direction does Root of Things (Relative Pitch, released March 2014) represent for your trio with Michael Bisio and Whit Dickey?

Matthew Shipp: I don’t know if new direction is the right term—maybe more intense integration is the way to look at it. I am definitely trying to tap more and more into a jazz sound—as if the trio provides a veneer for a sound world you think you might be familiar with—the traditional piano trio but yet where the direction the music seems to want to go is a sound and pulse continuum—so that is a matter of finding deeper and different angles to explore more than a change in direction. I think the particular focus of some of the written material might be a little different than heads I’ve written in past—a different energy and tack.

CB: What has it been like to work with Whit Dickey and Michael Bisio through the years?

MS: Whit Dickey I have known since the late 1980s and I have been friends with him so long that I don’t remember any process involved—it’s like we are family. Whit is the perfect drummer for my style—Bisio and I have known each other for years and we had talked about playing together long before we actually did but from the first note we played we felt like relatives. I have a very close bond to both of these gentleman.

CB: You made waves with your playing with figures like William Parker and David S. Ware from the 1980s onwards. Could you talk about the atmosphere of the scene during your early years in New York?

MS: In the early 80s—seemed in the downtown avant scene there was really a separation between the so-called black school and white school—seems to me having everyone—white and black play at the knitting factory sort of brought the idea of downtown avant more together as opposed to a William Parker-type school and a John Zorn-type school—but also there was a big division between the uptown straight ahead school with Wynton [Marsalis] as the head honcho—and the downtown school both white and black—that separation still exists—the black downtown school got no attention in early 80s until three things happened: 1) a swedish label Silkheart records came along and started recording Charles Gayle, David Ware, Other Dimensions in Music, myself, and others 2) the invasion of alternative and punk rock labels recording free jazz and with that punk and alternative musicians like Thurston Moore and Henry Rollins championing the music and the musicians they liked where usually from our school and 3) the vision festival coming along and getting an international reputation for specifically this music. With those three things David, William [Parker], myself, William Hooker, Roy Campbell, and others started being able to do some things. Of course William [Parker]’s success was the product of a tremendous amount of hard work and countless projects he had been doing for years—and David was a lone wolf who did not work under the premise of downtown black musician—he was on his own—but he did benefit from the paradigm markers I mentioned above.

CB: It is very common for musicians doing creative music to pine for the Knitting Factory days because of the dynamism of the scene in those years. How might such a scene be recreated? Or do you think it would be better to push in a new direction?

MS: Would most likely be better to push in a new direction and make something new happen. It is just that the Knitting Factory was such a centralize place and image that it created some continuity on some level but I think each artist will have to create their own way of getting out here.

CB: Has the creative music scene in New York City gotten better or worse over the past five years?

MS: That is hard for me to answer for I am so focused on my own thing and surviving doing my own thing that it is hard for me to take in the whole scene. First of all, I don’t go out anymore—I am getting to my mid 50s and I don’t hang out like I did in my 20s-30s and even early 40s. I’m a homebody. So I know there are a lot of clubs in Brooklyn but most I’ve never even been to. Seems like there is a lot of activity but I am not sure what’s what. I think society all and all is in a very bad place and the culture in general is so shallow that whatever is going on in this music whether people are making money or not-needs to go on—just to balance this horrible culture out. Whether the climate is bad—and it always is—the most important thing is for people to do what they do. Maybe there is some overall cosmic purpose behind a lot of this and whether you make a bunch of money—or whether you get recognized by Downbeat is not important in the overall scheme of things. But to answer your question of course things are bad on this scene. The culture is so unbalanced and fake to begin with that I don’t see how things could be peachy-creamy in any of this. But that is not going to stop any real artist from doing whatever they need to do.

CB: Do you have any new groups or albums coming up in the next year?

MS: My current trio cd—Root of Things—2 new cds with Ivo Perelman—I will have a live duo CD with Darius Jones—a couple of projects I am a guest on—the Core Trio—and a group of drummer Jeff Cosgrove—and I am going into the studio for a solo CD on Thirsty Ear.

CB: Can you say more about the CD with Darius?

MS: Yes—we have a CD coming out in a couple months of a bunch of live stuff pulled from a few gigs—and of course that will be on AUM Fidelity—and I love playing with Mr. Jones—think he is one of the bright lights in the music. He can elongate and elasticize his phrasing in a way which a lot of people have not heard him do—almost to the point where he is like a spider weaving a web. He has true organic potential in his sound—a real product of the language in other words.

CB: If you could change one thing about the New York creative jazz scene, what would it be?

MS: The perception that what we do is “out”—as opposed to other stuff—if what an artist is doing is coming from their insides and is real then it’s not out it is just what it is.