(photo by Catherine Slowik)
Groundbreaking avant garde alto saxophonist Chris Pitsiokos is making waves in New York. At only 24 years of age, Pitsiokos has already developed his own vocabulary with his instrument and through his compositions. During the first half of 2015, he has been very active releasing three new records. The first, with avant metal drummer Weasel Walter, Drawn & Quartered was released February 1 on One Hand Records, featuring some fierce, raw improvised pieces. On March 1, Pitsiokos released Paroxysm on Carrier Records, a duo with experimental electronicist Philip White. Pitsiokos described this record as “the clearest crystallization of the saxophone-noise vocabulary I had been developing in the two years prior.” It is a showcase of violent, abstract noise improvisation. In mid-July, Pitsiokos will release his first trio record, Gordion Twine (New Atlantis, 2015). For the first time in his career as a musician, the leader says, he is moving toward “composing jazz” bringing his experimental techniques and aesthetic vision to a melody-improvisation-melody structure familiar to more traditional jazz performers. If anything, this is exactly what Pitsiokos’ music needs—a melodic turn with more linear improvisations that nevertheless scream with uniqueness. It has been a pleasure to watch the Chris Pitsiokos Trio emerge over the past year as an increasingly cohesive unit and one to watch as its develops in the years to come. Gordion Twine is now available for pre-order.
Solo Record Release
Pitsiokos also released a solo record in April. He had this to say about it:
“In April of this year I released my first solo album, Oblivion/Ecstasy. It is an artifact, punctuation, a frozen moment part of a larger journey of the exploration of what it means for my person to meet this foreign object (the saxophone) and attempt to expand the possibilities coming out of such a relationship. My efforts in this regard did not involve a formalized or systematic exploration of the horn and all of its possibilities. Instead the album stands as the culmination of a two decades long intensely personal meeting of my own body with this body of metal, leather, shellack, and cane. The exploration was an act of genuine love of the instrument, the kind of love that one has for something that has been a part of ones life as long as one can remember. This love affair expressed itself, for many years as curiosity–a burning desire to intimately understand the instrument’s eccentricities, limitations, strengths and weaknesses. The act of pushing an instrument to its extremes in particular, and pushing the aesthetics of sound in general towards the brink of un-listenability and oblivion can be an ecstatic act, and at the moment of the recording of this album, I felt my improvisations were existing on that narrow boarder. In particular, my studies, experiments, and explorations at this time tended towards expanding the timbral variety of the saxophone, rather than developing an intervallic vocabulary (although recently I have been working in that area).”
Upcoming Live Performances
June 29 – Dre Hocevar Large Ensemble with Nate Wooley, Chris Pitsiokos, Joe Morris, Lester St. Louis, Bram De Looze, Philip White at Shapeshifter Lab
July 12 – Chris Pitsiokos Band “Three Concentric Sections” at Threes Brewing
July 18 – Chris Pitsiokos Trio with Max Johnson, Kevin Shea at New Revolution Arts
July 20 – The Undermine Trio with Chris Pitsiokos, Brandon Lopez, Tyshawn Sorey at JACK
August 17 – World premiere of the Chris Pitsiokos Quartet with Brandon Seabrook, Tim Dahl, Weasel Walter at Silent Barn
Interview with Pitsiokos at His Apartment in Harlem, July 27, 2014
I interviewed Pitsiokos late last summer before recording the trio record. He spoke in detail about his background as an artist and how he has begun to establish himself here in New York.
Cisco Bradley: Could we start with you talking about how you got into this kind of music? What are your musical roots? However you want to characterize it.
Chris Pitsiokos: Well, I’ll start up in the very beginning, I guess. I had some attraction, very early on, to the saxophone. I don’t really know when it started. My Mom claims it was when I was two. I was actually deaf for the first two years of my life and my Mom ascribes my fascination with sound to that.
Cisco Bradley: Wow. How young were you when you started?
Chris Pitsiokos: My parents bought me an antique saxophone. Actually, I have it in the other room. A C-melody horn, when I was three, maybe. It’s kinda broken. It can play a few notes. It’s kind of a joke. But I got sound out of it. And, I actually thought I was playing melodies. It was pretty crazy, actually. I thought I was playing melodies and I definitely wasn’t.
A few years after my brother made fun of me. He said, “You know, when you were playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star on the saxophone, you were just kinda like playing the same not repeatedly in the rhythm of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I was like, “No way, man!” And, then I went back to the saxophone and I pulled it out, that saxophone, which I hadn’t played in years, I was like, “Maybe he’s right.” So, I pulled it out and, yeah, it only played one note. Imagination is a powerful thing.
And, then, I think when I was seven or eight, this was summer after my second grade year, my parents found somebody who would teach me saxophone. And, then middle school came around. There was a jazz band. So, the first time I actually got to play jazz, there was no improvising. It was all written out solos.
I wanted to improvise but the teacher had this attitude of, “it takes years of study.” That’s all he would say. Like, “it takes years of study to learn how to improvise”, which is true but you have to start at some point … But, I always really, really, wanted to improvise and I was fascinated by it. And, I almost didn’t believe it. I remember in middle school thinking to myself, listening to these soloists, these jazz soloists, and thinking they must have a pretty clear idea of what they’re gonna play, which in fact was sometimes true but, a lot of time, it wasn’t true at all.
And, I just remember being totally amazed at anybody who could just invent something on the spot like that. Anyway, that was all in Long Island.
And, then I went to high school. I got more into jazz. I actually found a teacher that was interested in teaching me jazz and how to improvise, essentially, in that context. So, high school was at a boarding school in Massachusetts called Groton School. And, it was extremely isolating. I think it was great for me. But, it was really, really in the middle of nowhere and you just didn’t leave campus pretty much, period. We had this thing called Surprise Holiday and you’d go out on a Saturday for a few hours to Boston or Cambridge. That happened once a semester.
Cisco Bradley: Wow.
Chris Pitsiokos: Most of my personal study was jazz at this point, in high school. But, for whatever reason, I was getting–I think it was, basically, because I was more talented at it–I was getting more attention in the classical music world.
I linked up with saxophone professor, Fred Hemke, who’s the professor at Northwestern. He’s a student of Marcel Mule, who’s kinda the leader of this whole French school of classical saxophonists who premiered a lot of the works for solo saxophone in the middle of the 20th century. So, I was playing that repertoire. People like Jacques Ibert, Paul Creston.
It’s really dorky saxophone stuff. It’s really intricate solos that I’ve returned to recently. I don’t really like them. They’re kind of corny. But, they’re sometimes very challenging. Very like fast, lots of high tempos. So, I linked up with Fred Hemke. I flew out to Northwestern and took lessons with him.
Cisco Bradley: When was that?
Chris Pitsiokos: That was when I was like 14 for the first time, I think. So, I was getting lessons from him. Then, he invited me to Norway to attend some master classes and play as part of this festival there called St. Olavs Fest in Trondheim.
After high school, I went to Kenyon, which is an Ohio college. Then I studied at Kenyon College in Ohio for a year. At that point I remember listening a lot to Charles Mingus, more Albert Ayler. You know, Charles Mingus, like, Dolphy period Mingus. At this point, I was playing mostly jazz although my teacher was way more classically oriented. So I won a concerto competition.
I got to play in front of an orchestra for the first time in a saxophone concerto. That was cool. Kenyon was a cool experience. And, then I got into Columbia, which was a transfer.
My grandparents’ house was vacant for a summer. I went there and played all day every day for the summer. I didn’t have a car. It’s in the country. I had to walk two miles to get to the grocery store.
Cisco Bradley: Where is that located?
Chris Pitsiokos: Setauket, Long Island. And, that’s when I really tried to just learn tunes and shed a million different patterns. But, I wasn’t really playing with anybody at that point. The whole summer was just practice alone.
Cisco Bradley: Was there anybody in particular you remember meeting there at Columbia?
Chris Pitsiokos: I met Richard, who’s the guitarist in Bob Crusoe, early on. That stuff was pretty… It felt pretty crazy. I mean, we would go into basement practice room of some dorm. We had a whole mess of instruments – guitars, drums, piano. We were rotating on instruments a lot playing really, really out, crazy stuff. It was very exciting to me.…loud music. Eventually, we kinda settled into our instruments, like, specific instruments. We don’t really rotate around that much anymore.
Cisco Bradley: So, could you describe that rotation?
Chris Pitsiokos: We would move from one thing to another while the music was going on. I don’t think we actually ever played any gigs that way. But, I also had a guitar. I wasn’t really a guitar player. You know, I learned rock songs in high school. But, I had a guitar and I was doing like kind of prepared guitar stuff in addition to saxophone. And, then there was a piano there. So, sometimes, if we wanted to make some noise in the piano, we’d do that. And there was a drum set and… Eventually, we kinda settled into our specific things. That was also noise-oriented music.
Anyway, that was my senior year of college, so I should step back. I’m gonna step back a second.
Cisco Bradley: Okay.
Chris Pitsiokos: Alex Blake. I linked up with Alex Blake, who’s a really awesome bassist. He was touring with Sun Ra when he was like 15. He’s also on a good Frank Lowe record called The Flam. I linked up with him. I just went out to a gig of his and we kinda hit it off. He was kinda into me playing more straight ahead stuff. But, I just want to mention him because he was… He invited me to play gigs and it was a really great experience. I don’t know exactly how old he is. But, he’s on the album My Brother The Wind with Sun Ra and, I think he was 15 or 16 when he was on that. So, I don’t know when that album came out. I think it’s an early one.
So, he was like really, really supportive of what I was doing but, at the same time he had this old school jazz attitude that if you want to play free, you had to sort of pay your dues first and like learn…Like, you have to be a really burning straight ahead player before you can play free, which is like kind of an old school mentality. Or, at least I view it as an old school mentality although I guess certain people still share that.
I think it’s an okay mentality except for the fact that it’s kind of single-minded… It kinda takes jazz as something that’s isolated and that you have to learn the whole progression in order to be relevant, or make legitimate music. Meanwhile, it hasn’t been that and it isn’t that. You know, you take inspiration from all these different directions and do whatever you want with it. I am a human being, not a cog in the jazz music machine. So, he would have me come and sit in on gigs. I wasn’t really playing gigs with him per se but, he’d say, “Come to the gig. Bring your horn.” and, he’d have me join the band for like two tunes or something like that. They were extended tunes. Long solos.
I played with Arturo O’Farril then. He’s a more Latin-oriented jazz musician. This guy Chris Hunter (from Super Sax), Casey Benjamin. All these pretty straight ahead guys. Casey Benjamin is in Robert Glasper’s Experiment or whatever and played for like Mos Def or something like that. So, I was playing with those guys.
And, then eventually, there was some shit that happened in my personal life and, that kind of catalyzed me having… for the first time since I was very young, I stepped back from the saxophone a little bit. And it’s the only time since then. And, I don’t mean I stopped playing. I still played, but my approach was less “I need to play every day, period. I’m gonna find time to play every day.” It wasn’t like that, which is how it has been the rest of the time pretty much. It was less fanatical. It was just like, I’m gonna pick up my horn whenever I feel like it. And, that kinda ended up not being that often for whatever reason at that time. You know, it was once a week or twice a week. I was more into playing with people then. So, if I had an opportunity to play with people, I would. And, I was really, really, getting heavy into computer music at that time.
Cisco Bradley: So, this was around 2010?
Chris Pitsiokos: Yes. It was the summer of 2010. And, at that point, I kinda stopped communicating with Alex Blake. It just kinda fizzled out, you know? I didn’t sever ties. It was just like I wasn’t… didn’t really pursue it. You know, we still hung a few more times. I had him on my KCR show in late 2010. But, I was actually sending him stuff that I was doing in the electronic music world at that time. I was doing stuff with Max-MSP and Pure Data which are popular programming languages for computer music. And, I was doing processing. And, I had this group called Tetractys with this guy Justin Chun and, he was processing my saxophone.
I was also doing other stuff. I was doing computer music too. Like, I was kinda using filters and white noise and, I was also sometimes using turntables. It was a pretty beautiful period of exploration. I was really trying a lot of different stuff that I had never tried before. And, I was really getting deep into the computer music stuff and, you know, played pieces that were inspired by Christian Marclay when I was modifying vinyl playing on turntables using samples and using time stretch for samples. I mean, a lot of the basic processing that a lot of people do in computer music. So, there are times when I have my saxophone on stage and I don’t actually pick up my horn.
I mean, it was an improvising duo and, sometimes, I was just preoccupied with what I was… maybe I was just doing the other stuff, you know, I was focused on, turntables and computer music. And, then Fall of senior year was when I met up with Nat. Well, I’d known Nat for a while and I knew Richard for a while. Richard Lenz is an artist, photographer. The guitarist for Bob Crusoe.
And, that’s when that basement stuff was happening I was talking about where we were kinda like messing around on a lot of different instruments. Richard likes playing loud. He plays the guitar that’s totally un-tunable and the nut is broken off and he used a hose connector to fix the neck, which was completely cracked in a show when he dove onto the floor. We played a lot of sort of one-off weekend shows in cities that were accessible to New York city.
Cisco Bradley: Such as?
Chris Pitsiokos: We’d go to Baltimore. We went to Syracuse. We even went… I think maybe on a long weekend or maybe we did it all in a weekend…I don’t know…We went to Kenyon and Oberlin. We went to Portland, Maine. Like, anywhere we get to with a car, for no money pretty much. And, sometimes we’d get there and there’d be like five people in the audience or something. We would travel hundreds of miles and play in front of nobody and make no money. It was bizarre. But, it was fun. We had a really good time. And, some of the shows were really great.
We played in Baltimore in this basement that had sort of this round robin of bands playing. We were all stationed off in different parts of the basement. It was a big basement. It had all these wings. And, it was kind of rapid fire, like, 15 minute set, 15 minute set, 15 minute set. And, it was packed and people were like getting in our faces. Richard ended up at the bottom of this pile of people. At the time, I was doing some computer electronics and, as soon as it started, I just closed that off and hid it so that I could just play the saxophone. And, it was great. It was really fun. It was a wild, wild party and it was wild music. Yeah. I remember doing a lot of that. Those kinds of things.
And, then sometimes … we went to Portland Maine and we played for some basement show and it was like… there were like eight people to begin with and we totally cleared the room… There was one person there by the end of our set, literally.
Cisco Bradley: Your involvement with computer, do you feel like that changed how you thought about the saxophone?
Chris Pitsiokos: Totally.
Cisco Bradley: Can you describe that process?
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah. What I was doing with the computer was much more noise-based and it led me to a more noise-oriented … Or, things don’t happen that clearly but, I believe that my more…my going in a direction on the saxophone that was more noise-oriented probably had something to do with the fact that the electronic music that I was making was more noise-oriented. It’s a supposition. I don’t know. It could have been just where my head was going in general: more noise. But, in any case, there’s some kind of a relationship there.
And, in general, there was an opening of possibilities for sure because I was trying all these different sounds. And, then a lot of the stuff that I was doing with Bob Crusoe was just completely noise-oriented. I hardly played notes in the saxophone, things with real pitch content. Now, I do more of that with that group.
Also, this guy Daro Behroozi, who’s still active on the music scene, the Brooklyn music scene. Great saxophonist. He really turned me on to a lot of stuff. I met him through WKCR when I started doing a radio show there and continue to to this day. He turned me on to a lot of free improvisation. He was actually my mentor. This intern-mentor thing at the beginning of your time at WKCR. And, I was interning on his show, which went from 2-5 am Monday mornings. And, I would bring my horn. The show was called Monday Morning in Mono. It was all pre-1957 jazz. But, I’d bring my horn and he would play some long piece or something and then we’d play together, just free improv. He would turn down the faders.
So, yeah, he really turned me on to a lot of stuff.
Cisco Bradley: Cool. That would be 2011?
Chris Pitsiokos: That actually started in 2009
Cisco Bradley: And, that’s when you got involved with WKCR?
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah, exactly. That was a huge eye-opener. I mean, I was just browsing that library all the time. It’s a huge resource. When I started looking into new music…
I mean, I knew about free jazz at this point, obviously, but when I started looking into real new music, like contemporary composition and stuff, I remember being totally… I knew very, very little and kinda just started playing random CDs from the library. Literally taking shots in the dark. Just throwing in a CD and see who is this person?
Cisco Bradley: Wow. Wow.
Chris Pitsiokos: That’s when I first started listening to Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, the whole British thing. The Topography of the Lungs… stuff like that. Yeah.
Cisco Bradley: Up to that point, with your relationship with jazz, was it mostly with older performers or those who were no longer actively playing?
Chris Pitsiokos: In terms of jazz, I remember hearing… I mean, I heard Steve Lehman when I was a sophomore I think, for the first time. I remember when I first heard him actually. I walked into the control room at KCR and somebody else was DJing and, it was the octet Travail, Transformation and Flow album. Tyshawn, Mark Shim on tenor saxophone, Chris Dingman… I don’t know. All those people. And, it was mind blowing to me. It was amazing. Yeah….
Steve Lehman… I’m trying to think who else. Maybe Miles Okazaki. I knew who Mary Halvorson was. I was checking some of her stuff. I think it was during my senior year that… or maybe my junior year that I first started to hear Peter Evans and my mind was pretty much blown. I think I heard one of his solo albums. I don’t remember if it was Nature/Culture or More is More.
I remember when I first heard it, also I was listening to WKCR, and somebody played it and… I just turned on the radio and I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know who it was, what it was. I remember not really knowing if it was a trumpet for a long period of time. Probably minutes or something, because what he was doing is so contrary to how I… or, not contrary but so different from the way I was used to hearing the trumpet.
Cisco Bradley: Were these people that you wanted to like seek out to play with or these are just sort of people that you were—
Chris Pitsiokos: At this point, to be honest, I mean these people were so distant so … I mean, it seems ridiculous to me now ‘cause really they’re accessible people and I was living in New York City. But, Columbia, in general, I’m not saying everybody at Columbia is like this, but there’s a real like insular culture of… I mean, you don’t really leave campus.
Like, you can easily. It wasn’t like… High school, for me, where like you basically couldn’t leave campus because there was… I mean, you can walk out into like a farm field or something. But, you know, I just… I mean, besides the stuff that I do with Alex Blake or maybe going to a few jam sessions early on in my Columbia career, and a few noise shows, I didn’t leave Columbia much at all. And, it didn’t really occur to me to go and seek out Peter or anything like that. We played… That band Bob Crusoe played a few shows around a little bit but never really outside the upper west side. Yeah. Peter was around the station at that time ‘cause he was dating somebody who was a DJ during my senior year. And, I didn’t meet him but he was a presence.
I don’t know. It wasn’t until Bob Crusoe was on tour and we had a show with Weasel [Walter] that, I mean where he was on the bill, that like it even like occurred to me that it was an option for me to go up to these people and be like, “Hey, I play music kinda like yours” or “I like your music. Wanna check out mine?”
It never occurred to me. It really didn’t. [Richard did once gave the guys from Borbetomagus a CD of Bob Crusoe’s music when we went and saw them at Union Pool in November of 2011, and Jim Sauter finally got back to me about it about a year and a half later and had very nice things to say. Since then we have played two shows together, for completely unrelated reasons. Funny how these things happen.
Cisco Bradley: So, you were playing and Weasel was playing on the same …
Chris Pitsiokos: On the same bill. He checked us out before we showed up and he liked us, I guess, enough to show up early enough to hear it. I remember him saying something like, “Yeah. Normally I wouldn’t show up so early but, I checked you guys out. I was like, whoa. These guys are good.”
And, he recorded our set and he was very positive. He started talking to me afterwards and he gave me a CD with Sandy Ewen and Damon Smith that I went home and listened to and loved.
Cisco Bradley: What group were you playing with?
Chris Pitsiokos: That was Bob Crusoe. That was like the tail-end of a week-long tour we did with this no wave band called the Sediment Club.
Cisco Bradley: Do you remember where that show was?
Chris Pitsiokos: Cake Shop. It’s on the lower east side on Ludlow Street. Yeah. So, I talked to Weasel after that and then I… we like exchanged emails or whatever and then I emailed him … I don’t really remember how it came about exactly but, we eventually decided to play a show together. And, the first show that we played was—
Cisco Bradley: Was it duo?
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah, it was a duo. The first show we played was at the Freedom Garden, which is a DIY space in Bushwick. It was a basement of Bushwick New School kids.
Cisco Bradley: July 28, 2012?
Chris Pitsiokos: Yup. That’s true.
Cisco Bradley: So, just after you graduated?
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah, pretty much. And, it was an intense performance and he decided to release it actually on his label ugExplode. And, that was Unplanned Obsolescence, which is the first… my first released thing ever and my first thing with Weasel. And, at that point, I opened up my eyes and realized like, hey, a lot of these people I can just email and they’ll play with me. So, then I started doing that. Exactly that. I was living in Bushwick and I was sharing a practice space with Weasel and a few other people. And I started playing with many new people. Weasel was really the one who hooked me up with loads of people. I owe him tremendous amount. He really helped me and vouched for me and, I ended up playing with loads of people. That was the beginning of me being networked to any musicians and getting the opportunity to play with anybody.
Cisco Bradley: In 2012, that kinda took off?
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah, yeah. And, I mean, you know, “taking off” is maybe strong. These things happen slowly.
Cisco Bradley: Yeah. Sure, sure. So, you’re playing with Weasel with that duo and then…
Chris Pitsiokos: I guess it all happened pretty fast. Yeah. So, then I hooked up with Ron Anderson.
Cisco Bradley: Ron Anderson. Right. Okay.
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. I was playing with loads of people. I had a group that was called Finite State Machine and I was experimenting with these structures that… how did it work… Well, I know how it worked but, I’m trying to remember how to describe it. So, there were different scenes, different musical rules and you navigate between these musical rules with gestures and, those gestures can be made by any member of the band.
The original group I think was a sextet. It was Nat Flack on guitar, Max Jaffe on drums, Daro Behroozi on reeds, this guy Alex Hood on trumpet, and Joe Merolla on cello. So, pretty much all young people. And, I was trying out a lot of ideas with this new compositional system that I invented. And, you know, it’s akin to I guess something like John Zorn’s game pieces, I guess.
Although it’s not really a game per se and it’s not tactical on the same way as some of those Zorn pieces are but, it, you know, involved some kind of decision making in the hands of everybody. Yeah. So, the way it worked is you have what I called a musical scene. So, let’s say a musical scene was “long notes.” And, those long notes are cued by the leader.
The leader of any musical scene is also the person who can navigate out of that scene into something else. So, let’s say—
Cisco Bradley: So, it wasn’t… It clearly wasn’t always you?
Chris Pitsiokos: Exactly. So, each musical scene had a leader.
Cisco Bradley: Okay. And, how was that determined?
Chris Pitsiokos: That was just kind of random. So, like, you know, I’m the leader of the sustained note section. Daro is the leader of the silent section or something. And, that kind of got around the problem of…if you have six people… It’s hard enough to get six people to look at one person, it’s really hard to get six people to keep their eyes up enough so they could see everybody. So, during each scene, you just would have to keep your eye on one person and then he would decide where the composition goes next. So, you might be in the free improv section, and if I’m the leader of that scene, I do some other gesture that leads us to the sustained note section. And, then in the sustained note section … There were cues within scenes too. Like, the sustained note section for instance, which was a real section, there were gestures for how loud and also the approximate range. So, you know, it was kinda like sound painting or that had an aspect of that, I guess.
Cisco Bradley: This is kind of like sort of like conduction, in a way? Or, not?
Chris Pitsiokos: I mean, an individual scene could be like that.
Cisco Bradley: Sure.
Chris Pitsiokos: But, theoretically, the idea that I had was an individual scene could be anything. It could be playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” The idea was that it was open. For instance, we could just play like a piece of sheet music for one scene. And, these things were structured in the way that the scenes were connected to one another. It wasn’t like you can navigate anywhere from anywhere.
So, let’s say we’re in the sustained note scene. Even though the whole piece might have like 20 scenes in it, right, the way the score is actually written is there are arrows leading from one scene to the next. So, maybe I can only go to silence or free improv from there.
Cisco Bradley: I see.
Chris Pitsiokos: But, then maybe from free improv, I can either go back to either the same scene or I can go to, you know, like noise blast or I’d go to swing or … I don’t know. I mean, we didn’t have a swing scene. I’m just making stuff up.
Cisco Bradley: But, then you’d be passing off leadership to whoever that person—
Chris Pitsiokos: Exactly. Right. Yeah.
Cisco Bradley: Interesting. Okay.
Chris Pitsiokos: There were many different iterations with this kind of group. I did it in a duo with a drummer named Ian Marsanyi, also, at the Freedom Garden once. And, in that case, leadership was always shared ‘cause we just had to keep an eye on each other. There was no leader of each scene. It was just a … We were both leaders ‘cause it’s easy enough to just look at each other. So, we could always navigate out. Yeah.
Cisco Bradley: So, that was going on in 2012?
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah, that was 2012. I think it ended before … We had a show at Death By Audio I think like December 9th, 2012 – it was like the full quintet or sextet or whatever it was. And, to be honest, I don’t actually know if we played any other shows. We had a lot of rehearsals. Or, it seemed like we did.
And, the last element … it was initially conceived as something that anybody in the group, in the rehearsal process, anybody in the group could also come up with a scene. So, it was supposed to be like this organism that grows from rehearsal to rehearsal. For the first rehearsal, I came with this cell, which was just three scenes, all interconnected. And, the idea was after each rehearsal or maybe at the beginning of each rehearsal people would sort of submit ideas to the group and we decide where it would go on this map that was just ever growing. As it turned out, most people… there were like two people who brought in suggestions ever and the rest…
People are lazy, I guess. But, you know, it grew into something that was probably like 15 scenes big and it was fun.
Cisco Bradley: And, when you played live, did you go through all 15?
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah, I think so. And, you don’t necessarily have to. But, I think we probably did. That was fun. I think Mary Halvorson, Weasel Walter, and Peter Evans were headlining.
Cisco Bradley: Okay.
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah, it was good. I have no real reason for why I ended that group but, it just kinda felt right. I mean, sometimes ideas are good and people are just hard to deal with. And, even the music’s great. Those musicians are all great. I had a fun time playing with them. But, it could be tricky.
Cisco Bradley: Yeah. So, then you were starting to move towards your trio?
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah. I guess in March 2013 was the first time I played with the trio.
Cisco Bradley: So, what I have is like April 20th at Freedom Garden?
Chris Pitsiokos: Oh, yeah. No, actually that was the first one, was April. Yeah, you’re right. 4-20.
Cisco Bradley: 4-20. Okay.
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah. And, that was with Kevin Shea and Tim Dahl.
Cisco Bradley: Was that the original trio?
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah, it was.
Cisco Bradley: It has evolved a little bit?
Chris Pitsiokos: It’s evolved over and over. Yeah. Totally. But, yeah, up until this thing with Max and Kevin, Tim was always the bassist. And, then I think the next string of shows was Tim and Weasel, which was a great little tour we did down to Richmond and back. It was like four dates.
Cisco Bradley: Right. Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia …
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah, and New York.
Cisco Bradley: Oh, at Silent Barn.
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah. We had a recording session during one of those days in the middle of nowhere.
Cisco Bradley: Is that record coming out?
Chris Pitsiokos: No. Maybe some of it on something else. We didn’t quite have it together for that session for whatever reason. I mean, there was some good improv stuff but the pieces weren’t actually executed in the way that I wanted them to be. And, to be honest, these pieces haven’t haven’t really been executed the way I wanted them to be fully almost ever, which is why a record of that material hasn’t come out yet. Although, I’m going to the studio with Kevin and Max, which involves a lot of this material that I’ve been writing for this trio configuration over the course of last year and a half. We’re going to the studio hopefully in August, sometime, to record some of the stuff and, I’m hoping that works out.
Cisco Bradley: I suppose we’ll talk a little bit about that music?
Chris Pitsiokos: Oh, totally. So, the first stuff I brought in for Kevin and Max were tunes, which is the first time I’d written tunes since college. You know, just the melodies. And, it was the first time I’d written tunes that have no preconceived harmonies. I think I brought in three tunes. I wrote them all in one night and they’re all really short. I played with Kevin and Max in one gig, just a free improv gig, at JACK back in January or something and, it was fun. I think we may have played together in a session once. And, then I decided that I wanted these tunes to be played by them and, we did it and it was amazing. ‘Cause over the course of the previous year, I’d written all this crazy music that’s so freaking challenging and we’d rehearse our asses off and it still wouldn’t really work.
Sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t. This latest configuration with Tim and Jason Nazary, the latest configuration of the electric trio, was … We played two gigs and one of them was like pretty on point. But, I mean it’s weird music, it’s challenging music, and required a lot of rehearsal time. But, then I wrote these tunes and I was like, man, this is so easy. It took me 20 minutes to write these tunes. We were playing them, they sounded great with no rehearsal. It sounds like a lazy man speaking, but, it was kind of this eye-opener. You know, they’re both good and they’re both valid ways of making music. So, I introduced them to these tunes and we played them and it was great. They’re great readers, Max and Kevin, and they’re really fun to work with. And, they’re also really gung-ho about just wanting to rehearse and stuff, which is great.
They’re both really busy and yet they still want to rehearse my music, which is an amazing opportunity. And, then I started introducing more of the material that I actually wrote initially for Tim and Weasel or Tim and Mike. Or, you know, basically, for Tim plus a drummer. And, that stuff is more intricate and more through composed. Initially, I thought maybe we would just play tunes in this project, but, now, that actually has sort of replaced the old trio pretty much. The previous trio with Tim.
Cisco Bradley: Okay. I would love to hear about, you know, where you see yourself kinda going from here. I mean, there’s obviously stuff that you can talk about that I don’t even know about.
Chris Pitsiokos: Well, there’s Philip White and, that’s been like a really, really special collaboration from the start. Philip and I met at Issue Project Room and he was the managing director there. I was like basically an intern under him, in a way. A totally different context. So, then I eventually heard… Philip was no-input mixing but it’s computer modified. It’s kinda complicated and I don’t really need to go into it. But, it’s noise music. And, we played for the first time about a year ago and played at Douglass Street. And, we played a couple more gigs and then Sam Pluta asked Philip if he wanted to do something on Carrier Records. And, so we’re releasing something on his label. And, we recorded it over three days at JACK actually.
Cisco Bradley: November 2013?
Chris Pitsiokos: December. Right after Christmas, 26th, 27th, and 29th. I don’t really know exactly what to say. It’s improvisation and it’s different from anything I’ve ever done before and different from anything I’ve heard before. So, I’m really excited about it. And, I’ve just been… we’ve been getting down to last edits this week.
It’s interesting ‘cause the stuff that he’s doing is sonically similar to what I do on the saxophone or vice versa, you know? We do things that are sonically very similar somehow despite the totally different nature of our instruments.
And, we also played in a quartet format for two gigs with Sam Pluta and Peter Evans at Bard and then at Jack. And, that was also really cool. Two horns, two electronics set up
Cisco Bradley: When is that gonna be coming up?
Chris Pitsiokos: Sometime this Fall . I don’t know exactly. I don’t think a date has been set. And, then the next thing is Brian Chase. He got in touch with me about actually doing something on my radio show more than a year ago. Yeah. It’s been a while. And, we started playing. Maybe I don’t have anything to say about these things. It’s just improvised. I mean, it’s … I guess I don’t really have much to say about that. But, yeah. I don’t know. It’s been special working with him too.
Cisco Bradley: And, those duo formats, is it free improvisation? Do you go into strategies or do you talk about it ahead of time in terms of sort of …
Chris Pitsiokos: We talk a lot but it’s always pretty abstract. For instance …
Cisco Bradley: Who are you talking about in particular?
Chris Pitsiokos: I pretty much don’t talk about playing with Weasel but, with pretty much everybody else we talk a lot.
Cisco Bradley: Okay. So, you guys kinda discuss it before?
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah. Well, not in terms of like, “well, let’s do this” or like “more of this”. Brian and I recently had a conversation in particular where we were talking about vulnerability and how a lot of times you can play and be afraid of being vulnerable and that can get in the way of good music from happening. And, I think that’s not a trivial matter in the improvised music scene. Yeah. So, things like that.
You know, things that are abstract but meaningful. Abstract in the sense of it’s not really getting into the actual content. I mean, it results in different content when you talk about these things and work through these things. But, we’re not talking about musical content. We’re talking about abstract content. We’re not talking about what notes we’re gonna play or intensity…
Cisco Bradley: You’re talking about ideas?
Chris Pitsiokos: Yeah. But, not even like musical ideas.
Cisco Bradley: Shapes?
Chris Pitsiokos: It’s like ideas about energy and feeling. I obviously don’t really see any hierarchy in terms of composition and improvisation. I compose and it’s just as interesting to me as improvisation. There are some fundamental differences. But, one hypothesis is that if you’re going to compose, you should compose … Or, rather, the musical result might be better if you approach the composition with sincerity and care. In other words, coming up with something like loose structure that you just came up within three seconds, like, “Let’s play a really loud and intense” or like, “Let’s play really short things”, it’s kinda doomed to fail because it’s half-baked … Not that I haven’t played and thought of a million of these concepts.
And, I don’t think anything is… There are always exceptions, there really are. There are definitely exceptions. But, I think in general, I mean, things should be approached with sincerity and care. And, all these compositional structures that you think up on at the moment are not… that’s not really gonna get you much.
Personally, at least, I think that … Well, personally, it’s interesting because I have the sense that my improvisation might … my voice might change over the course of my life in terms of how I improvise and even how I approach it. I’m saying this from the perspective of a 23-year old. Like, I don’t know. I really don’t know. But, I have like a sense that, and I’m saying this from a perspective of a 23-year old ‘cause I am a 23-year old, I have a sense that I have developed my voice as an improviser and I’m going to, roughly speaking, continue doing what I’m doing as an improviser as long as I improvise.
There are new and exciting things that are going to happen. My voice will change. But, there’s some kind of like abstract concept that’s in place. And, I think that for most improvisers, that’s how it works. Like, I don’t really think that … I think that improvisers develop their language young a lot of the time and persist in it. Yeah. I don’t know.
And, I don’t feel that way about composition at all. I don’t feel like I have my voice in composition and, I think that’s gonna continue to evolve into totally different things over the course of my life. Composition is hard. Like, building up a vocabulary and learning how to be responsible for multiple people… It’s enough to be responsible for yourself but, it’s difficult to learn how to communicate to multiple people about these ideas. I mean, it’s a lot of practical stuff to learn. It’s a tremendous amount of practical stuff to learn about how instruments work and how people work to just get your compositions to be played in a way that you want them. And, also getting compositions played is something that requires a great amount of infrastructure that most 23-year olds don’t have available to them. I couldn’t dream of having a large scale, like a work for orchestra played by competent musicians. I mean I could get together 20 of my friends, including the ones that don’t play music at all and play…something.
So like, John Zorn, I think that he pretty much improvises like he did when he was 30. Maybe not even as well. On the other hand, his compositions have developed enormously and the stuff that he’s composing now–and I’ve kept up on it–is amazing. And, the stuff, the way it’s developed over the course of the last five years, is amazing. I mean, he’s still growing and changing and … But, that’s all happening in the compositional realm for him. And, I think that there’s something not… It’s not just his specific identity. I’m using it as an example. But…
So, I think that that’s… I guess what I’m saying is that reveals something about the way composition functions and the way improvisation functions and about how … I don’t really quite know how yet or what that it means but…
Cisco Bradley: Well, that’s what the rest of life is for, to just sort of explore and figure that out I guess!
Chris Pitsiokos: A lot of great improvisers kinda figure out what their thing is and … Of course, they do new stuff and do different stuff but, their voice is kinda in place. Like, Cecil Taylor, like Evan Parker. It’s kinda like … Over the course of their life, you sense change but it’s not like the difference between like Giant Steps and Ascension. It’s not like that, if that makes any sense.
But, I do think Zorn’s compositions are really exciting. Yes. But, as far as improvised work goes, I think the stuff that he did in the ‘70s and early ‘80s is really freaking great … and groundbreaking. And, I don’t think, in terms of improvising vocabulary, any real headway was made after that.
Cisco Bradley: So, we talked about Brian Chase. We talked about Philip White. We talked about Weasel. Is there anything else that you wanna kinda … Or, we kinda hit it?
Chris Pitsiokos: In terms of projects?
Cisco Bradley: Yeah. Anything else you have cooking?
Chris Pitsiokos: Oh, yeah. So, there’s a solo thing. I think I started doing solo shows… maybe like a year and a half ago or something. And, my approach tends to be I will start off with something and I’ll know what I’m starting off with. And, then from there, I will improvise. I need that first impulse, I feel. I need like the composed first gesture to get to a good place ultimately. And, the first thing usually is good too, but. It’s almost like I feel like the beginning part, which actually is usually like… actually, for a year or something, it has just been a crazy high thing. It’s almost like a meditation to get into the right mindset for the rest of the set, if that makes sense.
It’s like I’m bringing that process onto the stage sometimes. I also recently, and I haven’t performed this at all yet, started doing stuff with a microphone. And, basically, what that is…the microphone is played through an amplifier… without the saxophone. And, I’m essentially doing what I do on the saxophone with my mouth directly into a microphone. And, the result is like… Well, whatever. I’m not gonna try to describe it. But, it’s more… to most ears It would fall much more easily into the noise category. Yeah. But, I think I’m gonna release those two things as separate things – the saxophone thing and the noise thing.
Cisco Bradley: Okay. So, you have one coming with Philip White and one coming with Brian Chase and then the two solo? Potentially one—
Chris Pitsiokos: The two solo things are like still very… I can’t like say those are coming yet. I mean, I don’t really know when that’s gonna happen. Weasel, Brian, and Philip. Those are all recorded. And, hopefully, the trio will be recorded this month [July 2014].
–Cisco Bradley, June 10, 2015