Armon Bazile has carved out a unique identity in the world of electronic music. His music as Aybee seeks to shake off the rigidity of homogenized house and techno, and the influence of jazz looms large over his works, especially his Miles Davis-inspired collaborative album with Afrikan Sciences, Sketches Of Space. With improvisation guiding both his live and studio work and that of his associates, Bazile bares influence from pioneers like Sun Ra. His latest LP, The Odyssey, contemplates his life and draws on familiar signifiers, but it also reaches into new territory. We sat him down with esteemed Chicago-based music writer and curator John Corbett to explore the deeper meaning behind Sun Ra’s work and examine the roles that improvisation and experimentation serve in times of political and social upheaval. Corbett is well placed to discuss such issues, as he’s the acclaimed author of books such as Travelling The Spaceways: Sun Ra, The Astro Black And Other Solar Myths and A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation.
Aybee: I think [the current political climate] enhances the importance of what we do. I’ve always said musicians operate on a plane above religion and politics and we’re able to connect people that have political differences. As a musician I travel to different countries and play music to different people, and although we may not even share a common tongue, the notes and chords that bring us together are a higher language. Especially when there’s this type of divergent energy in the world where people are getting clannish and tribalistic, it’s very important for us to lead the way and show how we are connected and how we stay connected.
John Corbett: I think there’s a definite relationship between making sound in the world and being aware of the world that you live in. Even for somebody like Sun Ra, who in some ways theorized being removed from the world, being here and being tied into terrestrial politics was a very important part of his early writings. As he moved along in his own thinking he got further from that, but those early writings were particularly interesting to me because they represented him literally on the ground out in the park handing out pamphlets. He was, in his own very special way, fighting for African American rights in the world and fighting for a kind of global identity rather than some kind of recognition in the United States. The way I think about improvisation, for instance, is that one is not just making things about being in the world, but one is in the world while making things. The time frame of it is condensed, so I think of improvising as a microcosm of political or social activity. It all boils down to something that you’re doing with other people or alone as a model social entity.
A: Improvisation is everything for me: it’s breathing; it’s the essence of humanity. There’s a big discussion here in Berlin with the younger techno kids about how certain sounds have become so dominant, so predictable—an industrialized cookie-cutter formula—that it just rips all the humanity out of the music. What people adore about early electronic music is that people were reflecting their own personalities onto the machines. What you’re saying is that we’re all affected by our environment, and how you translate that with your instrument is your personal statement. For me, studying nature and trying to be in tune with my surroundings when I create music is very important.
JC: I love listening to what you do because you don’t follow that cookie-cutter. There’s a sense of looking for new sounds and exploring them and putting them together in different ways that aren’t particularly regimented. I’ve been writing a little bit lately about early electronic music—particularly in Germany—and I might see it just a little bit differently, but I think it’s related to the way that you’re talking about it. Look at the early years of Kraftwerk, for instance: you see them coming from a communal hippie context originally and then rigorously rejecting that. They didn’t strip personality away, but they stripped away the pre-existing assertion that music should be emotional and have personality as the most important element. I don’t think that’s the way the most interesting music is made now, because back then it was a reaction against the dominant form and now it is the dominant form in electronic music, and what’s much more interesting is where there’s personality. Diminishing personality at that moment was an extremely radical move, and it allowed us to do something completely different as listeners. Now, who cares? It’s not so interesting any more.
A: It’s like a lot of people are going for shock value, but if you know it’s coming it doesn’t shock you. Everything now is about being louder or harder. I really had to learn a lot when I moved to Berlin. I came into a field where everything was more regimented and people were like, “Why did you take the snare here and put it there?” Even my hip-hop friends would listen to some of my slower tempo music and say, “Well that’s not hip-hop because you’re using this type of kick drum.” Isn’t it about the artist and what I’m trying to say? Everything has become such a formula that we’ve lost the identity in it.
J: Considering the persistence of pulse, I noticed you’re more open to dropping the pulse for periods of time and having sections with a stretching or changing of time in these ways that I am unaccustomed to hearing from that world. For me that’s a very important part of fostering improvisation, because I feel like the beat can end up being an overly dominant force, especially if you’re playing with other people, but even when you’re playing solo. I wondered what you thought about that?
A: The drum is a part of the language; it’s a word in the sentence. The way I hear the instruments, they all have their individual purpose and meaning and they do things individually. They also do things collectively. Listening to Sun Ra, you have all of these complex harmonies and all of these things that he was doing, and people would say, “That’s just a big mess.” But as your ear listens a bit more acutely you go, “Oh!” I feel like when you’re dealing with harmonies and melodies and polyrhythms and you’re trying to layer a lot of instruments to make some complex statements, you’ve either gotta go for it or you don’t, and I feel that here people just do what the marketplace rewards. And if the marketplace says, “This is what people want—keep doing it,” that’s one type of artist. But then there’s another type of artist that tries to express themselves and grab as many tools as possible to get their point across. For me the principle thing that I got from Sun Ra was his reckless pursuit of what he was doing harmonically and rhythmically. No boundaries; no handcuffs. For me, in my label and with everybody else that I’ve tried to associate myself with sonically, that’s the house on top of the hill that we’re trying to get to. We’re chasing something and we don’t quite know what it is, but we know it when we hear it. I know that I can’t get there by restricting myself to a monochromatic outlook on sound. That’s the ethos of the label. Miles going electric and the whole ‘70s jazz fusion era—that’s a big influence on myself and a lot of my other guys. Sun Ra was there way before a lot of them even began to take that leap, but what those guys were doing was utterly fascinating. When I started doing music, I wanted to pick up where they left off and keep running with it.
JC: Sun Ra called the musicians he was working with “tone scientists.” I like that sense that it’s something you have to take very seriously. He had these two terms that he came back to again and again: “discipline” and “precision.” What I take from having spent a little bit of time with him and a lot of his associates is that if you have two different bands playing the craziest, wildest music you can imagine, there might be one that’s disciplined and precise and one that’s not, and your job as a listener is to be able to tell the difference. With his band, that meant that they had to dedicate themselves to living together and working together at any time. Sun Ra called rehearsals at three o’clock in the morning, and they’d all come downstairs half asleep because he had realized that there was something that they were doing wrong. That takes a kind of dedication that comes out when you listen to them play. You’re hearing something that is very different to people who don’t have that sense of discipline. I love something that has a sense of total abandon or recklessness as much as anyone else, but I think that message about discipline and precision within the music is very important right now. It expands to how you live your life, how you are towards other people and how you think about your position in society. This is a time when we need to be paying particular attention to those things and following those examples.
A: Especially when you break it down into tone and vibration. When you go out to perform to a crowd of people as a musician, most of the people who come understand the type of music you do. When you DJ, you put on a record and you see how people react to the bass tones, the mids, how you can accentuate it, and you learn things about people. You’re having this active conversation with them. Your heart tells you, “I’m gonna play this next because this goes with this,” and you put that on and you get an immediate reaction from people, so you become a social scientist in a way. I feel like I’ve been listening to a lot of things being taken away over the last 20 years, and I think they’re very important because they affect us not only harmonically but also emotionally. I don’t think there’s a disconnect between the way popular music is being rifled at people and how we’re treating each other right now. I think it’s on us as musicians, and not from an elitist standpoint, to say, “Hey, this is important.” We do need to discern that this is candy, this is a vegetable, this is a steak and this is why you need to eat that steak before you eat that candy.
JC: It might be vegetable music time.
A: We’ve got to get our diet correct!
JC: I love that! It’s funny you use that social scientist description. There was a great saxophonist who played with Sun Ra on a couple of occasions named Von Freeman who once told me that he was in the process of writing a book on the audience, because that was the one thing he’d been studying the most over all these years. He said, “I’m up there every night, so I get to see people, and the thing is that I still can’t figure them out. I’ll get up there and do something that’s absolute bullshit. I just played one note for 25 choruses, and they thought that was genius. And then I played the most beautiful, subtle, complex thing I’ve ever done and they’re all asleep or talking to one another.” He positioned himself as a social scientist, sitting there trying to figure them out.
A: It’s fascinating, especially when you go from city to city. You’ll play in Berlin on Friday and you might have a phenomenal set, and you go to Paris the next night with those same records in your bag and get the opposite reaction. You might learn some things, but you learn that you don’t really know anything in the end. What I try to do in that situation is play what I feel and hope that it connects with you, and if so, then we’ll go somewhere together. Sometimes you can be in an adversarial position where what you’re doing doesn’t connect, and I think, “OK, now it’s me versus you. We’re gonna battle it out until we come to some sonic consensus.”
JC: But that’s the thing when we talk about improvisation in DJing: a lot of people think about that in terms of self-expression. To me that’s not the improvised part of being a DJ because that’s there for most music, but it is in feeding off the audience, playing for or against or to or around the audience, and those are the same strategies that improvisers who are playing together are using too. That strategy you just mentioned of antagonism—that comes up from time to time, and it’s sometimes really necessary. If everybody just plays the same thing together, you just end up saying “ohm” for a while and it drifts off into nothing.
A: It’s push and pull. It’s completely different when I do a live set because I’m actually building things right there in front of everyone and I’m having the conversation with myself. If I’m collaborating with another artist, then it’s even better because you don’t have time to think. I have to just hear and react, layering and building as I go along, and it’s always interesting. This summer I had a lot of people come through my flat to jam. It’s been great because when we go back and listen to the recording, I can’t remember what I did. For me there’s no greater feeling than when you communicate with a human being on that level.
JC: There’s a great record by two British improvisers from the 1970s, Trevor Watts and John Stevens—the Spontaneous Music Ensemble—and the liner notes on the record say the paradox of playing improvised music is that you have to be all ears, only listening, and you also have to be dedicated to what you’re offering the other person at the same time.
A: It’s an exercise in submission, and it makes me a better producer. I learn something new every time. It’s more humbling every time, and it helps me leaps and bounds when I play by myself. I hate myself sometimes when I work on music, but improvisation helps me stay in the moment and not think too much about things, and for me that’s where the magic happens.
JC: There’s also a different line of improvising that Evan Parker called the “agree to disagree” line, which is the idea of listening to two things simultaneously that have very little to do with one another. Your brain is wired to figure out the connection between things. It’s sometimes really stimulating to have two things that never fuse. Many times when the Dutch improvisers Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink played, they seemed almost like they were in different rooms. They were great improvisers, and if you listen closely they’re really reflecting what the another is doing, but certainly not in any direct way. I like the idea that there are these various strategies that we’re talking about that have different joys and stimulate different parts of your brain.
A: It tickles the mind. I did a jam session with my friend Luca a few months ago, and I put him on one synth, I jumped on another synth and then my buddy Eric [Afrikan Sciences] was on the Octatrack and some other things. We got going, and Luca kinda locked in with me, so we just let Eric do his thing. We had two synths in this groove side by side, and then I said, “Let’s switch synths,” and then Eric started getting into what we were doing, and then I locked in with Eric for five minutes. It was these different conversations that were going on. It sounds like a coherent body of music, but it was really these different conversations, and regarding what you just said, there were certain points where you could hear where people were going in their own little directions but still staying connected. It’s fascinating because it’s counterintuitive to how we think. I guess you can go to school and be taught how to think, but you can’t go to school to be taught how to feel.
The things that motivate me to do music are emotions. What’s going on in my world: a conversation? A kitten running up the street? How does that make me feel? How do I translate that in into music? I think I’m a more effective communicator if I just disconnect. If I think too much about what I want to say or how I want to say it, the right emotions will never connect. But improvisation puts me in a state that enables the potential for magic to happen. It’s not guaranteed to happen, but when it happens it’s a feeling you can’t describe.
We have it as music listeners. I’ll never forget going to hear Idris Muhammad and Ahmad Jamal at SF Jazz in San Francisco. This concert was just—I didn’t want to do music afterwards. It was an out-of-body experience, and you realize that you can’t really have that experience unless you go out of the body, and that’s something I learned from Sun Ra. A lot of people didn’t get him, and although he’s popular now, I still don’t think people get what he was saying spiritually. I think some folks think it’s a gimmick, but it’s not. If you really listen to what he was saying and how it relates to what he was attempting to do musically, there’s something deeper in there that I wish people would dig into more.
JC: Well, he was very serious about what he was doing. I think his otherworldly persona was a platform for talking about really serious things in a way that transcended the normal, quotidian everydayness. He could talk about being together in the world, but he could talk about it in terms of extra terrestrial issues. His early writings are thinking about the fact that the Bible had been translated multiple times before it got to the King James version, so it doesn’t look or sound much like the original. He and others asserted that coded messages had been embedded in the Bible, and that the only way you could find them was to perform experimental surgery on biblical verse. Likewise, he said that you have to go back into music by performing surgery on it. The experimentation wasn’t there just to be weird. He was into all of those things because they tell you something. You had to cut stuff up so you could get deeper into it, and I think the way he sometimes is understood is very superficial, like “I like Sun Ra because…”
A: “…he wears costumes.”
J: I asked him about costumes the first time I interviewed him in 1986, and he said, “The costumes are music. It’s all music. It’s all about vibrations. It’s how people in the room feel and how they understand.” He took it very seriously. It was part of the thing. It wasn’t just because it was funny. He liked funny things, and he had a very dry sense of humor, but it was all for a purpose. Even if you look at Space Is The Place, which is a really funny movie, there’s a monologue at the beginning of it that’s one of the deepest things you could get to in terms of questions of race. At the end of it he says, “The first thing we’re gonna do on this new black planet that we’re making is abolish time.” He has this whole thing about time, and then he makes jokes through the movie about the fact that Sun Ra was known for being late. You have to spend some time with it, and really deal with it, to understand what’s going on. A superficial read of it doesn’t really give you much.
A: You said something that struck a chord with me a few seconds ago, and that was that experimentation is not just for experimentation’s sake. You’re looking for something, and that’s what myself and the guys talk about a lot. We’re not doing things just for the sake of doing them, which has its own role, but we’re looking for something. When I’m making music, I’m looking for something, and sometimes I find it, and sometimes I don’t. I’m using the rhythm and the tone to try to express myself emotionally without words. That’s the quest. We’re not just doing it just to be weird or to be different. We’re looking for something and the conventional tools are just not going to get us there. For me, no matter what I learn, there’s still much more to learn. I don’t understand people who don’t experiment. Being here in Europe where classical music is so big, and they play other people’s music all the time, I’m like, “Wow man, you never just go in the house and grab your violin and go apeshit? Plug it into this? Or do that?” For me, having that blank canvas and some crayons and just saying, “Go”—that’s living.