Over the last 20 years, Bugge Wesseltoft has become one of Norway’s prime contemporary jazz exports. His signature style combines improvisation with different forms of electronic music, and he’s applied it to collaborations with stalwart producers like Henrik Schwarz and Laurent Garnier. In 2011, he founded a seven-piece jazz band Bugge & Friends with EMI/Blue Note trumpeter Erik Truffaz, NYC jazz club founder and saxophonist Ilhan Ersahin, a three-piece rhythm section and legendary new York house DJ Joe Claussell. Ahead of their show in Berlin on Friday, Wesseltoft and Claussell reminisce about their musical upbringings, the first time they met and jazz’s roots in dance music. Keep your eyes peeled for EB.TV‘s exclusive live footage from the event in the coming weeks.
Bugge Wesseltoft: I come from jazz; my father is a jazz guitarist. At a very early age I developed an interest for electronic instruments, mainly synthesizers and Fender Rhodes. My idea was to fuse my jazz background, namely improvisation, with the sounds and rhythms of electronic music, and doing that properly has been my goal since the late ’80s. I think we have a lot in common. A lot of people I admire in electronic music, like you, also improvise, be it as DJs or musicians. It’s all about creating a special energy and atmosphere with the audience that’s live and very dynamic. I always wanted to achieve that with my music as well.
Joe Claussell: I grew up in a Afro-Puerto Rican family and I was exposed to all kinds of music. My brother was a drummer in a Latin rock band. I remember finding out about your music when I was running my own record store called Dance Tracks in Manhattan. I was a fan immediately, and to be honest, it’s an honor to work with you. I really consider myself a student in all of this. I come from a DJ background, even though I do play percussion from time to time, and I’ve learned a lot from you as a musician.
BW: I can return that compliment to you. I vividly remember seeing you DJ for the first time in Sapporo, Japan. The way you connected with the crowd and the music you played really blew my mind. It was something I really wanted to be part of, and that’s why I introduced myself. When I had the idea for the Bugge’n’Friends project, I knew I was going to ask you to join me.
JC: You gave me a piece of paper with your number scribbled on it—I still have that, you know. And speaking of bringing electronic music and jazz together, I think music comes from music. It all comes form the same seed, the same vibration. You just have to let go of the thought that there are separating boundaries. When I met you, I had the strong feeling that you approached music with this attitude. For me as a DJ, it was easy to find my place in our project. It felt like an instant match.
BG: Jazz used to be dance music, after all. It only started becoming too academic and concept-heavy in the late ’60s. To be honest, I was never interested in that. Generally I think attention to musical genres moves in cycles. For instance, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, you had this whole acid jazz movement, which brought jazz and dance music closer together again. Every generation has its own impulses; sometimes jazz is part of the equation and sometimes it isn’t. My plan was never to make jazz more popular, though. I’m just deeply inspired by the sounds of electronic music.
I remember when I started to go clubbing in the early ’90s and how much I loved the energy in those clubs. The audience at that time was really dedicated to the music, maybe even more than a typical jazz crowd back then, and I just longed to be part of that kind of energy. I didn’t want to become this intellectual, academic jazz guy—that’s really not what the music is about for me. I’m reading this book about the downtown New York music scene in the early ’70s, where they threw everything together: minimal, free jazz, disco, rock—everything was allowed. That must’ve been so exciting. This time had such an enormous impact on popular Western music, and I love that open-mindedness. Once music becomes too intellectual and formulaic, you lose the possibilities within.
JC: I think people try to intellectualize music too much. I’ve never seen the point of it. It’s about vibration and people listening. In hindsight, it turned out to be quite problematic that jazz lost its roots as dance music. Suddenly it was confined to certain venues. It became way too serious and expensive to experience and listen to jazz. Since then, you’ve had phases where things opened up again, and I think now is one of those times. There’s a younger generation that can feel the vibration and understand and appreciate what jazz is along with other music mixed in.
You mentioned the creative climate of New York in the ’70s. I was very fortunate to experience the aftermath of that, when I started going out at a very young age in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I sucked it all in. I went to the Paradise Garage, David Mancuso’s Loft, the Mudd Club, the CBGBs. I was even a moderate skinhead in my 20s. New York back then was a musical melting pot, which unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore. But there is a resurgence slowing building up there, which is quite exciting.
JC: Yes, definitely. Especially close to where I’m located now in Bushwick, Brooklyn. There’s a lot of space that real estate developers don’t want to deal with, so there’s room for a new underground. Now that Manhattan is completely gobbled up, Brooklyn has become the center for music and art.
BG: Cities need places where movements like that can develop. We had this venue in Oslo called Club 7, which was opened in 1969 and had to close in 1994. I think every musician in Norway who’s old enough to have experienced Club 7 has a special connection to that venue. They put on live music every day, and Miles Davis played there. It was also a library and it was open 24 hours a day. It was incredible. And in all those years the government tried to shut it down. In 1994 they finally succeeded. Ironically they regret that now and spend a fortune on trying to rebuild this kind of vibrant cultural scene—which, obviously, is mostly unsuccessful. You can’t just throw money at people to do something interesting. It has to have roots in a culture or subculture.
JC: That’s true. The problem I see with music these days is that a lot of people take it a bit too seriously. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of great music of all genres out there. But what you see too often is that it becomes about [the producers]. They forget that music is above anybody. It’s been here before they got here and it will be here when we leave. You know what I’m saying? We’re all just students of the music. Go out and do your best, but you should do it with the understanding that you’re serving a greater purpose other than yourself.
I believe that music is something spiritual. It is the source, a vibration that brings us all together more than anything else in the world. I have the feeling that a lot of people are not connected to that source anymore, the real power of music. If people would produce and compose from an understanding of that power I think music would be more interesting again. Even in a lot of the stuff that I very much like today you can hear the limitations and structures that are put on the music that people seem to have a hard time breaking out of. They’re not free in their minds about it. They create music and they want people to like it or they expect a certain reaction, as opposed to creating something out of the melodies and rhythms that are out there and give back with it. I think the best way is to let it flow, create for the right reasons and keep on creating. I think that mindset is missing a bit in music these days.
BG: You know, when I started to go to clubs I loved the fact that the DJ was always standing somewhere in the dark. It was never about this one person who created something, but about the people on the floor and the energy they created together. But with the music becoming more popular and the industry starting to co-opt it there was a necessity to create new idols. That’s very unfortunate. I think this idea stuck with a lot of people: you have to become someone. And as a result you, the person, becomes more important than the music. I don’t wanna be too spiritual about it, but the music will always be bigger than the individual.
JC: I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I love our project so much. We’re seven individuals onstage but there isn’t any ego—we wouldn’t work if there was. When we play together I don’t expect anything from people. What I do hope for is that they feel what we are doing, but it’s up to them if they really tune in. If they groove and dance, fine. But to be honest, really listening, understanding and appreciating what we’re doing is equally important to me. Dancing doesn’t always tell you if you are doing a good job. It is not necessarily the best indicator sometimes. People might be fucked out of their faces and they just groove because of that.
BG: The whole listening thing is somewhat of a problem in electronic music sometimes. Once you drop the 4/4 kick drum, very often people leave. But for me, the heart of everything I do is improvisation. I’m really concerned about this sometimes.
JC: We spoke a lot about jazz, but I never asked you what era is most important for you. For me, it’s the spiritual side of it, the Alice Coltranes and the Sun Ras and things like that, because I can dive into that music and get lost. That’s the era for me, the open and free stuff.
BG: For me it has to be the whole ’60s up to the mid-’70s. Basically everything that Miles [Davis] did. And all the musicians that were part of his band at some stage. That was a very vibrant period. There was a lot of experimentation. I think it is a necessity. You have to experiment with different ideas to come up with something new. Once you get stuck in one idea you’re lost.
PS: Bugge & Friends will play at Heimathafen Neukoelln on Friday, July 2nd. As mentioned above, the show will exclusively be filmed by Electronic Beats. Watch this space!
The term “free jazz” is not what comes to mind when I reflect on Ornette Coleman’s musical legacy. Neither does “avant-garde,” as his music does not evoke any arty, manipulative conceptualism or estrangement. Coleman’s music never made me feel unwelcome, unwanted or unwise. What I am left with are melodies, his storytelling gift and the blues. His musical conversations with Don Cherry are unparalleled to my ears, even by Davis and Coltrane. With every phrase he played and every theme he wrote, Coleman expressed pure, exuberant, explosive freedom. Here are several recordings that have been meaningful to me over the past 25 years. The selection is not a definitive anything, and the choices reflect my own inclinations. Regardless, they are a wonderful way to start your day. I wish there were 50 more Coleman albums, but even if he had stopped after the first, his musical contribution would still be legendary.
“Lonely Woman” The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)
This classic composition is as timeless as any other jazz standards of the cannon, and to me the original rendition captures it the best. The way Coleman and Don Cherry play the theme together is mesmerizing. Their interplaying timbre, in its unique fragility, is displayed here in full glory. It’s hard for me to think of Coleman without thinking of Cherry, and this recording is one of my top ten reasons why.
“Free” Change of the Century (1960)
That bridge from the theme to Coleman’s first solo around 00:30 and again around 5:00 gets me every time. You can hear the unique, dynamic quality of Coleman’s playing and writing. I always feel like he’s telling a story, and when he and Cherry play at the same time, it sounds like a couple of buddies shooting the shit.
“Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation” (1961)
From the impression of chaos, sweet melodies emerge. I don’t know how this works, but it does. It’s a 40-minute improvisation with very few themes. There are two different quintets—Eric Dolphy, Freddy Hubbard, Scott la Faro, plus Coleman’s regular players—one in each stereo speaker. Two drummers always playing at the same time. The message I get from this is that freedom does not equate to chaos.
“The Empty Foxhole” The Empty Foxhole (1966)
Beautiful, clumsy simplicity is this controversial album’s allure. Coleman recorded this for Blue Note in 1966 with a trio consisting of his longtime bass collaborator Charlie Haden and his son Denardo Coleman, who was 10 at the time. Ornette played his usual alto on the LP as well as the trumpet and violin, neither of which he seems to have mastered. The result is an exercise in minimalism and flexibility as well as a philosophical statement about art and authenticity that holds much truth.
“Science Fiction” Science Fiction (1972)
OK, this one is bananas. Check that evil baby popping in there from time to time. Evil, evil, sad baby. I love hearing the non-traditional jazz studio techniques used on this album. It sounds like a Roland Space Echo on the lead vocal. Coleman manages to tap into raw human emotion like few others: fear, excitement, sorrow, manic anxiety.
Ornette Coleman and the London Symphony Orchestra “Skies Of America” (1972)
This is a lovely example of Coleman’s compositional clarity. With its melodic freedom, brooding rigid rhythmic pulse that’s sporadically cut off by volcanic bursts of merriment, it shows Coleman bridging between jazz and 20th century classical music… and kind of sounds like Jeff Mills.
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” Soapsuds, Soapsuds (1978)
I think it’s fitting to follow a symphony orchestra with an intimate duet between Coleman and longtime collaborator Charlie Haden. This cut is Colman and Haden’s adaptation of the theme song from the TV show of the same name. Coleman makes any melody his own with his unique expressive sound. That’s as sweet as it gets.
“Midnight Sunrise” Dancing in Your Head (1977)
This LP is considered Ornette’s “electric” record, where he worked with an electronic band for the first time. Unlike the rest of the LP, on this track Coleman trades the bass guitar oomf with the trance-inducing textures of the Sufi band The Master Musicians of Jajouka. The collaboration sounds very natural—Coleman’s timbre shares similarity to the rif pipe and reeds, and the Sufi improvisational tradition is not at odds with Coleman’s musical outlook.
“Song X” (1986)
It’s interesting to hear Coleman share themes with a guitar player, especially one with such an unconventional soft tone as Pat Metheny’s. The density of Jack DeJohnette’s drumming with Coleman’s sax intensity is dynamite. Just listen to that theme.
“Naked Lunch” (1992)
This hypnotic piece of music is taken from the soundtrack of the 1991 film Naked Lunch. It perfectly suits the eerie Cronenberg vibe, with Coleman diving under Haden’s pulsating bass and the Jajouka percussionists. The whole soundtrack is dripping in soppy West Coast noir that’s put through a prism of madness.
Header image: Shalev Netanel
Matthew Herbert is one of electronic music’s chief innovators, adapting a conceptual vision to the world of . With his Big Band project he’s turned a genre widely believed to be retro on its head, reworking it into a music that is startlingly relevant. Ahead of his performance at Sunday’s Electronic Beats Presents at Jazzfest Bonn, he talks about the personal and professional influence jazz has had on him. Based on a conversation with Louise Brailey.
What I’ve learnt from jazz, and particularly about improvisation, is absolutely, completely crucial to the artist I am now. However, my relationship with it has evolved over time, I really came to it through standards. When I was fourteen my school music teacher brought in some Cole Porter and George Gershwin records so that we could study the songwriting. I know that’s not strictly jazz but the use of a harmonically complex, melodic song as a starting point for improvisation is a key part of late-twentieth century jazz. Fourteen was also the age that I joined my sister’s school big band. We used to do weddings and play Duke Ellington alongside big band versions of Whitney Houston. However, I really came to big band music through a film which I was working on, a hip-hop and house musical Les défi in France. The director wanted to big band music so I had to write some quickly. It wasn’t something I’d ever done before but I worked with an arranger called Pete Wraight who I’ve worked with ever since. Then Gilles Peterson asked me to do some big band versions of some of my old pieces for Montreux Jazz Festival and it kind of accidentally existed from then on. The problem with a big band is that it’s really addictive, there’s nothing else like it; there’s no other acoustic ensemble that makes such a loud noise. It’s a really visceral sound, it’s men and women blowing through pieces of metal tubing. You’re physically moving air about with other people’s lungs. It’s way more rock’n’roll than a guitar band.
For a while I was a bit intimidated by jazz because I’m not a great player. I studied piano for a long time and but I don’t sit down and practice three hours a day—I play to write. Still, I realised a few years ago that the jazz aesthetic was really important to thinking about sampling and the improvised aspect of what I do. In the Big Band live show, I’m the main person improvising because I’m sampling everything the band is doing and messing with it, changing it, playing it back in different places and different ways. Of course, the sampling and effects interventions that I make onstage have to be musically sympathetic to everything else that’s going on, you can’t just fire off an E flat major chord sample over a B minor pedal. Subconsciously you have to be doing it constructively otherwise onstage you’re ruining the hard work of 19 other musicians. It’s helped me to think about how to improvise, and it’s taught me the most crucial skill of improvisation, which is knowing when to shut up.
I think the big band acts as a template for how we should organise ourselves on a societal level: everyone does their bit independently, ultimately feeding into a harmonic and dynamic whole. While it’s a real liberation being able to work on your own in the studio and do things on your own terms and in your own ways, there comes a point where you reach the limits. It’s a useful metaphor for life: I don’t make my own trousers and I don’t make my own cheese and yet I regularly eat cheese and I regularly wear trousers. We need other people to do other parts for us, we should be acting as a community. I think it’s impossible to view society through the filter of atomisation without then applying that to the way it’s manifested in music. There’s more people than ever making music on their own—and that’s fantastic in some ways, affording people opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have had. At the same time, it it tends to lower the overall standard of the people working on the music itself. I’ve really had to raise my game to be able to play with some of these jazz musicians. I can learn so much from a person who has spent three hours a day for the fifty years playing the trombone, rehearsing and crafting. That’s something I could never do on my own. As a consequence I feel humbler to know my place in the scheme of things a bit better—which is certainly not on top.
It’s ironic really, when I first started doing the big band project I got called old fashioned a few times. But if you add up the number of big band albums that have been made—this is off the top of my head—you must have somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 albums. Yet you talk about the number of house records being made, it’s probably coming up to well over 50,000,000, so in a way house music is the more old fashioned, it’s repeated itself more often, it’s moved on in such tiny increments. In many ways there’s something more radical about rediscovering an older form and using it in different ways than doing something everybody else is doing at that time. That feels extremely conservative and reactionary, in a way. I also feel quite frustrated listening to a lot of new jazz music being written today, it feels like it’s waiting for the next stylistic thing to happen. I believe there’s a fundamental revolution happening in music, you can make music out of anything, a bus or ten thousand babies being born at the same time or a lemon being squeezed or the revolution in Syria or Vladimir Putin going on holiday—anything. Therefore it seems strange to me that extremely competent and credible and brilliant musicians still feel compelled to stay within the safety of a particular instrument or particular texture. It just feels like musicians have surrendered and given up on the idea that music can change the world. It’s frustrating to me that collectively music has become safer somehow, the risk has gone. If you’re not prepared to fail be laughed at then you’re going to make music that stays within a safe set of parameters. I realised the minute I started to make more political music and make my political views known that I would immediately lose a whole load of audience: people who didn’t agree with my politics would walk away. But if it’s important to me I have to be prepared to take that risk. ~
The Matthew Herbert Big Band will be playing Electronic Beats Presents @ Jazzfest Bonn on June 1st, 2014.
Above: Wayne Shorter photographed at home in West Hollywood by Luci Lux.
In this interview, taken from the forthcoming issue of Electronic Beats Magazine (available June 1st), EB editor-in-chief Max Dax headed to LA to talk to legendary jazz musician Wayne Shorter. The Wayne Shorter Quartet is headlining Electronic Beats Presents at Jazzfest Bonn this Sunday. You can stream it here on ElectronicBeats.net.
Saxophonist Wayne Shorter is one of the last living jazz giants that defined the genre in its formative decades. Having started his professional career in 1959 with legendary drummer Art Blakey, Shorter joined Miles Davis in 1964 and in the late sixties helped usher in Davis’s electric revolution—a foundation he later built upon with the Weather Report. A practicing Buddhist, Shorter currently leads his own revered quartet. In Los Angeles, he discussed with Max Dax the psychology of risk-taking and the malleability of time.
Only recently, volume two of the Miles Davis The Bootleg Series was released by Columbia Legacy. It features stunning live material by the 1969 quintet, only moments before you guys went electric. Everything sounds unbelievably fresh even though it was recorded forty-five years ago.
Why would you say that was the case?
I think it’s because the sound of the 1969 outfit was never copied simply because nobody knew about it. There existed no official recordings of that band until now. How does the release connect the pre- and post-electric eras for you?
Well, hearing it again, it triggered a lot of memories. The recordings are from the Antibes Jazz Festival in Juan-Les-Pins. Only Miles and me had survived the previous line-up: Jack DeJohnette had replaced Tony Williams on drums, Chick Corea and Dave Holland had substituted Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter on piano and bass. Man, this was some kind of a tight outfit. But I’ll tell you what I connect with this particular recording: I was home in New York, finished taking a shower and the phone rang. It was Jack Whittemore on the other end of the line who was calling for Miles—he was his agent. We had just finished playing some place that week in New York. So Jack said: “Tonight we’re going to France.” We’d go there for one night and then come back the next day.
I guess that’s what you’d call short notice.
Actually, it wasn’t all that unusual. But in this case the rush led to the recordings that you can hear on the Bootleg Series album. Everything just happened so fast in those days. Everything changed at such a fast pace that if you didn’t release something immediately it’d be lost forever. I mean, one day later we came back from Antibes and played at Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey and I don’t think that we sounded the same at all.
You went through a kind of time travel hearing these recordings again and that’s what I’m interested in. Having been one of the creators of this sound, were you aware of the fact that you were working on a new direction in jazz back then?
Yeah. And I think that it is a great thing to finally share that vision with the people of today, even if it took forty-five years to officially surface. I still believe in a future jazz music. I am not trading in nostalgia.
With your own Wayne Shorter Quartet you recently released the live recording Without a Net. Once again you sound like you’re leaving a comfort zone, deconstructing scales and harmonies—like on the epic track “Pegasus” that you recorded in L.A. at the Walt Disney Concert Hall together with The Imani Winds.
In February 2013 I went back to New York to perform together with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. It was another version of “Pegasus.” There was a piece called “Lotus” and another one called “Prometheus Unbound.” I’m working on them right now. I’m mixing the music and all that. It will be released with a graphic science fiction novel. Don Was, who is now the president of Blue Note Records, wants to do it as a coffee table book. I forgot the name of the artist, but I remember that he’s from Atlanta, Georgia. He’s working on it right now in Switzerland because his wife is Swiss. I met him once in a hotel in London, and Don showed me some of his work. I especially liked one picture of his.
Can you describe it?
As I said it was science fiction, which I love. It showed some sort of a galactic council making judgements about which solar system is naughty and which one’s nice. He also did another book of all the racial cultures, pictures of peoples faces with a clock over their heads showing the time zones they’re in.
How do you think about time? I know you converted to Nichiren Buddhism. Buddhism says you have to live in the present tense, but as a musician you are actually obliged to be a man of the future. How do you deal with that dichotomy?
That’s the challenge of being in the moment. It’s a challenge to be in the moment where you don’t present yourself with your Sunday suit on. Actually I think being in the moment transcends time, because one moment is equal to eternity. In that very sense I like it when Stephen Hawking says that “nothing is wasted.” For me, nothing is thrown away, and there is no such thing as nothing. So I’m in all those, you dig it? I’m trying to live out the ongoing evolution of the word itself, the words that we say as well as the things that we think, say and do. Everything, including music, becomes a frontier when you try to do and to infer in the form of film, sound, literature or architecture. Everything we face becomes a precipice. The challenge for the masses is to turn in their medicine, to take responsibility, to prepare as well as they can and to then leave the world of followers. When they then stand at the precipice of the unknown, they negotiate this frontier as leaders. Individuals becoming leaders, individuals who experience singularity as an epiphany. Having said that we try to play music like this. Playing music should be a struggle, like going through resistance. It’s like how an airplane needs the resistance of the air to rise.
So would you say you accept everything as it results from your vision?
I surely don’t blame record companies or other people for anything. As I said, I accept barriers as the resistance that I need to fly. It’s my duty to find out what other uses there are for things that seem immovable. Every obstacle is a potential enabler. I don’t like the phrase, “Use the brains that the maker gave you.” I believe more in exploring the hidden potential of the brain. That’s why I’m trying to play music that actually recalls a conversation that I once had with Coltrane. One time he said that he’d like to make a record that he described like this: “You put it on, and it’s already there. It’s like you’re walking down the street and you see a door and you open it, and everything is already going on: no introduction, no nothing.”
People like you, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and a couple of others represented a metropolitan or urban way of jazz as a lifestyle—as opposed to referring to Africa, like John Coltrane or Sun Ra did. I wonder how important it was in that sense to wear, say, a suit and not a colorful African garment onstage? I ask because your music was and still is also about style and body language. Everything, including the music, was and is glued together by coolness.
Oh yeah. Being a musician and wearing the suit was like making a social statement. Remember the times. Instead of getting up on a soapbox and protesting like some black poets were, we showed our pride with our body language and in the way we dressed. I certainly refer to a European tradition here in the sense that I say that Mozart was a jazz musician too.
How does he fit into that equation?
Just listen to his Symphony #40 in G Minor and you’ll understand. The melodic motif of this symphony is nothing else than a predecessor to the upbeat that you’ll find in a lot of jazz compositions. You see, I don’t stop at the word “jazz” as I don’t stop at words at all. It would have been most fascinating if Mozart had been born 150 years later!
That’s an interesting thought experiment.
To me the word jazz means: I dare you. I dare you for a meaning, for the moment I dare you. Expand on that meaning because human being means so much. It means so much that is not yet there. In progressing we become more and more human. You know, some people say it’s already done. We’re done, like as if we were a cake that came out of the oven. But no, we’re not. We’re everything we do. The conscious decision to wear a suit reflects the struggle within itself. Another conscious decision to keep the group I’m working with now sharp is to leave out rehearsals. It has a practical connotation as we all are living far apart from each other. But it has much more to it than just the practical.
To me this sounds like a continuation of Miles Davis’s working habits. He didn’t rehearse much either, right?
I remember Miles and me talking on the phone a little bit when I had just joined his quintet and he’d announced to me that we’d be going to the studio next week. At that time I had a book that I used to carry with me. I started writing music into this book during my stay in the army. So Miles said “We gonna record next week. Bring the book.”
Because he was curious?
Because he knew. I had shown it to him before, and he’d seen “E.S.P.” in it. That was in late 1964. We then recorded the album E.S.P. in New York in January 1965.
That was a landmark album consisting entirely of original compositions by what was to become Miles’s “second great quintet.”
Yeah, as I said, I’d just joined him. We actually played in West Berlin at the Philharmonic together in September 1964. But back then we didn’t have any original compositions yet. We were still elaborating on Miles’s repertoire, giving it a spin. I should mention Art Blakey at this point: Art always said that we had a message to deliver. That made us bullet proof. I mean, we were traveling all over in trains and planes and we had some close calls. Once a bus almost went over the cliff. But Art would always say that nothing is going to happen to us because we have this message to deliver. I mention this because Miles thought the same. But there were other important people in my life that have influenced me, too. For sure Art Blakey had left a strong impression on everyone he ever met. I remember him spending two or three hours playing with kids in Japan during a tour. And only recently I heard that some of those kids who are adults today say they remember Art Blakey spending time with them and that they want to thank him for inspiring them. They basically said that he enabled them in part to become strong adults and contributing to society.
There is no such thing as wasted time.
Right. And of course we all know that Art Blakey was self-destructive in his own way.
You mean because he was using?
[Pauses] That was not the whole man, the whole person. I was with Art for five years and with Miles for six. When I went to Japan with Art, I remember that we met some Japanese writers who urgently asked us the question: “What is originality?” That was in 1961 during my first stay in Japan.
And what was your answer?
Art said: “Originality is what jazz is.” You know, originality is not copying. So Art said: “Jazz means trying not to copy or trying not to repeat something from the past—bringing something from your own gut.” I like the phrase “the mystery of us.” Not only as musicians, but also as human beings we’re on this adventure called life. I always say life is the ultimate adventure of the mystery of us. I know there’s people who think “ultimate” means “end.” But I think ultimate means “unending.” No walls, no boundaries. The question is: how do you play that?
You mentioned that with your acoustic quartet you don’t rehearse. Obviously that takes trust. That’s where the real magic comes into play.
When we’re not on the road we spend quite a bit of time studying music; not listening to music but studying music, reading music. I read a lot of science fiction novels. At the moment I’m reading a book called The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. The story takes place in the Thailand of the future and the windup girls are females who freed themselves from slavery and have to live in hiding. They call themselves “the new people.” By the way, last week five girls came in here to do an interview for a documentary on Stanley Clarke, and one of them was his niece. They were all mixed—Asian, Latina et cetera. And right before they left they said: “You know we are the new people.” The first book I read when I was twelve years old was The Water Babies by Rev. Charles Kingsley. Today I have about four or five copies. The first one was an abridged version for twelve year olds and only later I found out there was an original version, a more complex one.
Water Babies is also the title of an album by Miles Davis. Had he read the book as well?
I don’t know if he read it but I know that I gave the book to him as a present one day. He recorded Water Babies after I had left the band.
So everything is connected, but how do you connect with your musicians if you’re not rehearsing?
We always start with something we call “zero gravity.” We’ve been together for years now. We have a kind of unspoken communication, almost like E.S.P.. So, when one of us plays something, just one note—it always reminds me of going on a date, you know, a guy and a girl. Usually most dates go like this: The guy is thinking of what to say while the girl is talking and then she’s thinking of what to respond while he’s talking.
But that’s not really listening.
That’s why I say “usually.” But if they’re not thinking and just talking and the other one’s listening, then something’s happening. Even if they are disagreeing! That’s an adventurous date, and I would compare our quartet playing together to an adventurous date.
Or maybe a boxing match? I know that Miles Davis boxed—do you box as well?
No, I never did. But I like boxing. Nelson Mandela, who was a boxer too, hit it when they asked him how he put boxing together with his beliefs about compassion and non-violence. He said when he was boxing he and the opponent approached each other with the greatest respect. Plus he knew that his opponent had been medically examined. It wasn’t some gangster business, you know, when you throw somebody in the ring and he’s not ready for it. That’s when brain damage and all that stuff happens. Mandela said that practicing told him what to do outside of the ring—you know, take the boxing to the prison and fight the guards. Boxing to him was like a seed.
Joe Zawinul once told me that one really important thing about being in a band is that you have to get along traveling together and actually he extended this to the aspect of drinking together. Being together in the Weather Report also meant that you could always relate to each other because you had this common sensibility when it came to exchanging ideas. Do you have as intense a relationship with your new quartet as well?
Oh yeah! We travel together in good ways and my wife travels with me all the time. Only recently Brian Blade married too. He married the young lady he went to high school with. He hadn’t seen her in twenty something years before it clicked. They travel with us too. And we’ll get to the point where Danilo Pérez will join us with his wife too. They have three children but Danilo’s wife is amazing. She plays alto sax and she has a degree in music therapy. I wonder how that will turn out. All of us traveling together…
Bringing the wives on the road is the complete opposite to what Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography about traveling and never, ever taking women on the road. Seeing as how he’s known as one of the greatest and most prolific bandleaders of all time, is this a reaction or comment on his way of leading a band?
No, I wouldn’t say that. You have to know before Miles passed away I had my own band and we would both play at Montreux or some other place. He would go on first and when we met again in the dressing room, he’d ask if we should go on tour together—you know, from bandleader to bandleader. Back then I had Terri Lyne Carrington, a woman, on drums. And he would ask me if I thought women keep better time than men on the drums.
And what was you answer?
Terri was sitting right there, so I said something like women are really good with interior decorating and that I’d think that jazz needed some interior decorating. You know, women are integral to jazz. They may not stay in the forefront, but Miles used to say if you played to an entirely male audience you better get another profession. And that’s one of the reasons why he went into Bitches Brew: He wanted to get into the then uncharted jazz territory where people who liked Janis Joplin and other girls screaming felt thrilled. He was convinced that we knew better how to play this rock and roll. And in all honesty, I anticipated something was going to happen too. The key came to me when we were recording “Nefertiti” without any solos in it, just playing the melody over and over again. Actually it was Ron Carter improvising underneath. I just felt that this was the beginning of a revolution.
The electric revolution? Nefertiti was also the last acoustic album before Miles Davis went electric.
Several writers said that the repetition of “Nefertiti”, this groundbreaking new format, was a nudge into a different thinking. One night I was at Miles’ house while James Brown was having a residency at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. So, Miles was cooking and his new wife Betty was there too. And Miles, he said in his whispering voice, he said: “You know jazz needs another motor, it needs a motor like James Brown has a motor.” And while he was cooking he asked Betty to do a dance step that exemplified the motor. We would often stay in apartments where we could cook and all that, and he’d call our room and he’d say: “Hey Herbie, hey Wayne, come on over and check Betty out!” And then we’d walk into his apartment and they’re cooking and Betty’s dancing to Jimi Hendrix and James Brown and Sly Stone and she’s dancing the new kind of steps we’ve never seen before. And Miles says: “That’s what I’m talking about!”
So I guess it’s true that many important decisions are made in the kitchen while cooking?
I would say yes. Miles would always come up with new ideas in the kitchen and at the same time tease you to taste the chicken or the steak he was just cooking. The same applied to the hotel rooms we were staying: He’d order a lot of food before we’d go to the night club to play—two tables full. Then he’d say: “There it is.”
You ate before you played?
No, we didn’t. But he wanted to look at the food. He’d say: “Doesn’t this look nice?” He would call sometimes and invite me to the Cuban restaurant down the street from where he lived in New York, a place called Victor’s. And let me tell you about yet another favorite restaurant of ours on that corner of 52nd and Broadway right across from Birdland that served the best Wiener Schnitzel in town. Which reminds me, when Joe Zawinul and I met there he wasn’t speaking any English. We were talking with our bodies but it translated as words. That corner was something.
What made it so special?
It was like you worked in Birdland and during an intermission you’d go all the way down to the Village Vanguard. All the musicians would cross each other all the time. Actually it was the only time musicians would see each other because everyone was always working. Some of us would have our own cars. Lee Morgan had a Triumph and Donald Byrd had a Mercedes. Herbie drove a Cobra. If you didn’t meet the musicians on the street you’d see them passing by.
What car did you drive?
No car. I was in the army where I got my driver’s license but I never owned a car until I moved to California twenty-six years ago. And somehow all that goes into the music. What happened between Birdland and the Village Vanguard was nothing else than celebrating a way of life. But regardless of cool you’re always celebrating the wonder of life and you want to celebrate it by giving something back to life, which means to the people. And what you give is what your profession is, so in my case it’s the music. That’s actually the greatest thing you can give to life in celebration of the wonder of it. Music that reflects life is an original gift to people. To me that’s the meaning of life: You have to do what you do—whatever that is—with the maximum possible faith. Does something exist without people? Take the word “existence”: Is it a valid term without people? A tree falling in the forest—is there a sound if there’s no one there to hear it?
Now that you’ve been exploring the meaning of life in other ways, has your method of composing changed? How would you compare writing “Nefertiti” with the Miles Davis Quintet and writing “Orbits” from your last album?
What shall I say? “Nefertiti” came just like that. Almost effortless. Whereas writing music now is like… you have to realize that today is a different time compared to a couple of decades or centuries ago.
What’s the difference?
It’s not only about me and how easy writing a piece of music is for me. We also have to realize that we do what we’re doing with uncompromising faith. We are living in a century where the financiers are not reading poetry anymore. We therefore have to surprise the financiers how we get things done that touch the human spirit without their money.
And this understanding influenced and informed your way of composing your late music? On Without a Net you let classical music theory and abstract ideas infiltrate into your music. What you are doing is not pure jazz anymore. I have to mention Miles Davis once again as he was listening to a lot of Shostakovich when he went electric and that basically informed the way he composed. How would you describe the directions you’re taking with your quartet at the moment?
If jazz sounds like jazz it becomes like a statue: immobile. But the intention of jazz is to move forward. I dare you to go forth. Exactly that is often forgotten. Doing what we are doing is a risk. But it’s first and foremost a chance. You have to come out of the closet during your life as a human being when the coast is clear. That’s what we’re all doing. See, we’re not playing music—we’re dialoguing with life. There’s a difference! We’re having a dialogue with the unexpected. If we can take chances on stage, it all gets down to the definition of faith. Do you know that people have been trying to define the word faith for ages now? They’re still trying to define it! What is faith? Some say it’s something that adapts. Others say it’s something not seen. Faith is the evidence of something not seen. But to me that’s limited. If you ask me, faith is to fear nothing. When you play music, when you embark on a plane. You get on fearless.
That leaves me almost speechless in light of the experience you went through losing your wife in the tragic TWA Long Island plane crash in 1996.
I hope I’m not crossing a line here by mentioning this.
Don’t worry, you’re not. Because I believe that death is temporary, like so many things that are temporary. And that implies that you can detach yourself from that and fly and you’ll meet more than what you’ve lost. And that means with anyone who’s died you’ll more than meet them again. I say it again: Be fearless! I know, it’s easy to say. You got to work hard on it, no doubt. But never forget: We work hard on the other stuff all day long. Just take a look around you. We work hard gossipping on the phone or on the internet for instance. You can always use your time more profoundly. ~
This text appears in the forthcoming Electronic Beats Magazine N° 38 (2, 2014), out June 1st. You can purchase the new issue, and back issues, in the EB Shop. The Wayne Shorter Quartet, featuring Shorter on tenor and soprano sax, Danilo Pérez on piano, Brian Blade on drums and John Patitucci on bass, will play the upcoming Electronic Beats Night of the Jazzfest Bonn on June 1, 2014. The show will be made available soon after on www.electronicbeats.net.
Ahead of Matthew Herbert’s appearance at EB presents Jazzfest Bonn, we compiled a list of five records—long players and stand out tracks—which demonstrate the British producer’s characteristically off-beam excursions into the world of jazz.
The output of British electronic musician and pathological innovator Matthew Herbert is as broad as any musician working today. Covering the realms of classical, house, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Herbert was appointed creative director in 2012) and jazz, he skewers existing musical orthodoxy through his will to experiment. It’s a will embodied within his own manifesto, the P.C.C.O.M where self-imposed limitations (no drum machine, no sampling from existing music, etc.) encourage a climate of inventiveness throughout his work. Now, with his project Matthew Herbert Big Band gearing up to perform at EB presents Jazzfest Bonn in June, the time seemed ripe to pick our favorite jazz-informed moments from his oeuvre.
Bodily Functions (2001)
It’s hard to choose a single cut from Herbert’s 2001 masterwork Bodily Functions—so we didn’t. The samples, many of which sourced from the human body (blood flow, laser eye surgery, the noises emanating from an unborn baby), make up the record’s palette. While that sounds weird, it doesn’t sound weird; from this organic palette Herbert architects a kind of middle point between deep house and swing, with lilting grooves and longtime collaborator Dani Siciliano’s unhurried vocals finding perfect rhyme in the unorthodox textures.
“Meaning of Love” (Matthew Herbert remix) by Karin Krog (2002)
Matthew Herbert’s version of “Meaning of Love” by famous Norwegian jazz singer Karin Krog demonstrates the producer’s originality. The addition of a 4/4 kick and the close cropping of the instrumental flourishes—reapplied as cut-up percussion—should hamper the original’s free flow. Instead, the rhythmic detailing provides a center of gravity around which lounge-y chords and Krog’s voice are allowed to orbit, to gorgeous effect.
“Fiction” from Goodbye Swingtime (2003)
Goodbye Swingtime was the first full-length under the Matthew Herbert Big Band moniker. The implicit jazz influences that had hitherto informed his work were pushed to the fore thanks to the deployment of a full jazz band (as opposed to Bodily Functions’ combo). On record, “Fiction” is a collaboration with singer, guitarist, producer and EB contributor Arto Lindsay with hints of the Brazilian music he grew up with, Tropicália. The video above is an instrumental version taken from the live performance at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.
“Brother, Where Are You” (Matthew Herbert remix) – Oscar Brown Jr. (2003)
Unlike his rework of Karen Krog, Herbert’s re-edits to this piece from 1973 are comparatively subtle. Herbert samples the piano refrain and loping beat at the heart of the song and loops it throughout, providing a tighter, more driving groove. Proof that not all Herbert’s work is bound to concepts—the most exciting thing about this track is its simplicity.
“The Story” from There’s Me and There’s You (2008)
The opening cut from 2008’s There’s Me and There’s You, the follow-up Matthew Herbert Big Band album. As with so much of Herbert’s work, there’s a strong political charge running through it, should you wish to look for it. Here, the record as a whole dealt with the abuse of power, while this track in particular took the sound of rustling newspapers as its concréte basis (a somewhat prescient gesture in light of the Leveson equiry). Eska Mtungwazi provides the vocals. ~