Interview with Nate Wooley conducted via email, December 2012-May 2014
CB: How did you first go about forming the Nate Wooley Quartet. Were Matt Moran, Reuben Radding, and Take Toriyama the original members? I found concert listings as early as June 2004. Did the band form shortly before that or earlier? Did the group ever record?
NW: I’m not precisely sure where it came from initially. I remember doing sessions with Matt and Reuben. I met Matt when I was suggested to him by Andrew D’Angelo to play in an early version of Slavic Soul Party. Reuben and I met at the Right Bank, which was a short-lived club in Williamsburg. Initially we played with Randy Peterson and were just trying free ideas out and a couple of my tunes, but that didn’t work out for whatever reason. I had played with Take once or twice and knew him through Tony Malaby who was (and still is) my neighbor. Somehow he came into the conversation and it seemed to work as a group, so we worked for about a year like that. It developed a sound and had a certain feeling that I liked. I then took a break because I was working on some other stuff and during that time Take passed away. We did do one show after that with Jeff Davis but, great as Jeff is, it just wasn’t right, so we sort of stopped. The quintet didn’t come about until well after that.
CB: Your career seems to have been building for a number of years, but then really took off around 2009. What happened?
NW: Oh, who knows? Honestly, I could speculate I guess, but I’ve never really thought about it. I didn’t even realize it was 2009 that things took off. I just go week by week and try and do what I need to do. I’ve never done anything that was aimed at being a career builder. It’s not in my nature. If anything, I’ve probably done lots of things that have held me back! But, I believe in the stuff I do and am happy when people like it. I feel lucky to be able to put out as much as I do and get to go play and am afforded the opportunity to have time to work on music. That’s no joke. Maybe there was just something in the water around that time …
CB: When did you form the quintet? Why did you select Harris Eisenstadt, John Hebert (later replaced by Eivind Opsvik), and Josh Sinton? Were you already writing music with them in mind?
NW: The quintet formed in 2008 I think. I got a gig at the Stone during someone’s curation (can’t remember who now) and it was more of a “jazz” oriented month, so it seemed like the right time to start writing music and do something that was in that tradition as I had been missing that part of me. I really picked the guys that I thought would be an interesting combination with/against me and with/against each other. Harris and I have been friends for a long time and I know his drumming well. I think he is a great and sensitive drummer, but he also can bash and be aggressive if you poke him in just the right way and so that seemed just about perfect for the music I was writing. I didn’t know Josh that well, but liked the idea of a trumpet/bass clarinet front line and every time I had heard him play I felt like he was always pushing just beyond his comfort zone which I love, and I still am never sure what he’s going to play on a given tune, even if its the fourth time we’ve played it in four nights. Matt was just that first guy that kicked my ass in New York. I used to really hate the vibes, but when I heard him play the first time when starting with Daniel Levin’s quartet, we found an instant chemistry and he made me love the instrument. I think we have the same general internal speed too which helps a lot. Eivind is just a bass player that I’ve always admired. He can make very small changes to what he does that make the tune great. I really appreciate that, especially in this band where the rest of us are so busy. He can hold things down and then play these gorgeous solos or step out for just a second here and there in a way that changes the whole dynamic and that is phenomenal to me.
CB: Why a quintet? Or was it just that you had those musicians in mind? Were there compositional challenges you faced preparing music for the group and for these players in particular?
NW: The quintet was really just a group of musicians I wanted to play with. I think there were elements of wanting to try and do something that maybe was a reimagining of a traditional jazz format, to see if I could push the forms of the classic jazz tune, rearrange them in a way that still felt like hard bop or modern jazz but had little difference in the form, the sound, the approach to playing. Deep down inside I think I wanted it to be a Eric Dolphy style quintet too. Dolphy and especially Booker Little were obsessions of mine in high school, so there was something there that was in my ear, I think, when I started putting together a dream team of players to play that music.
Compositionally, I just wanted to find a balance between rigorous, dense, swinging writing and plenty of different kinds of space for people to improvise in. I have been so frustrated in the past when I’ve worked in groups that are neither/nor. They have a lot of writing, but also want you to be “free” but they’ve written in such a way that you really only have one or two viable musical options unless you want to be that guy that is always throwing the monkey wrench into the works. I think that can be a good thing sometimes, but I don’t want to always be that guy and there is a kind of lack of commitment in that kind of music for me, so I wanted to write things that were either very precise and obviously so, the challenge being trying to subtly change the way you manipulate your one or two ways of playing on the piece, or extremely open like a set of musical clothes hangers that are concrete and real, but can be used for whatever you want to hang on them.
CB: Your compositional approach is very interesting. How has the quintet evolved over the years? Did you have specific goals for your first album vs. your second?
NW: I’m not sure there’s been a discernible evolution with the quintet music. There is the obvious change between records of the new format which features two bands: one with the standard quintet make up of trumpet, bass clarinet, vibes, bass, and drums and the second with what I like to think of as the “brass band” set up with tuba replacing bass and bari sax instead of bass clarinet. This was actually because of the popularity of Eivind, the bass player. I don’t like subbing people out in my groups, and so I had to turn down a lot of concerts possibilities because of Eivind’s schedule. So, when writing this new book of music, I tried to make it so that it could be performed by two different ensembles as much as possible, thus giving me options when Eivind is busy. It’s not fool proof, as now Dan (the tubist) is also insanely busy, but it does make you think about how the different timbres interact within certain kinds of writing and what works for one group that may need aesthetic tweaking for performance in the other set up.
Each album is based around an idea that is more social or personal than musical. The first was really little homages to the women that raised me, not musical portraits, but just energy put into giving them something. This second record is the same idea but really written completely for one friend, but also along the lines of the concept of friendship and the different stages or types of friendship. The music has nothing to do with those people or ideas, but it tends to provide an overarching structure in my mind for some reason that the tunes can fall into as I’m writing. I should also say that in both cases, the pieces started as writing exercises based off of different structures, the first from studying Christian Wolff’s etudes and the second from Claude Debussy’s piano preludes. There’s no reason for anyone to know that necessarily, as it isn’t intended to be part of the interest in the work, but I say it now, just to give you an idea of where the basis of that work resides.
CB: Could I get you to talk a bit about the stories behind the songs on (Put Your) Hands Together and (Sit in) the Throne of Friendship? I have heard bits and pieces, but I’d love to learn more.
NW: Hands Together is written for many of the women that helped raise me from birth and through all the time trying to figure my stuff out. So, each of those songs is named after one of them. Most are about my Grandmother’s (Hazel) sisters who took an active role in all of us kids growing up, my mother, my wife. The tunes aren’t necessarily tone poems about the people (except maybe Hazel) but just ways of putting their names on something kind of lasting.
Throne is based on a couple of different ideas. The whole thing stemmed from a reading of the Derrida book on friendship, the idea of friendship. In it, he’s describing “pure friendship” as a category in which the loss of the friend creates a sense of loss in the life. I looked at the friends I had that fell into that category and just wrote titles that paid homage to them in one way or another. Some of the titles come with stories I tell on stage just to connect with people, other titles are just for me.
–Cisco Bradley, July 8, 2014