Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins and Jim Black
Cécile Even: In 1994 with Jazz Trash your trio implements an original musical proposal, through many tours and recordings. Today, do you let yourself be guided by the musical identity of the trio or are you still searching for a new metamorphosis?
Ellery Eskelin: I think the metamorphosis has been continual since the beginning and it’s almost out of my control. It seems to have a life of its own; I’m constantly surprised that the band, the music that we play, continues to change and develop over the years. I almost feel like I’m observing this happen more than I’m exerting much control. I’m exerting some control over the direction but the impetus of the movement, I don’t know the word I’m looking for, is something that I don’t quite understand. The thing that keeps it going. I’m still trying to figure that out, but maybe Jim or Andrea can answer that differently or better than I can.
Even: Do you feel the same?
Jim Black: I think Ellery, when he started this trio, compositionally, was very exacting and clear in what he was looking for. Even if he didn’t know exactly how it would sound, in his mind he knew compositionally how it would work and it took a while for us to understand it through his eyes. I learned a lot that way; I think we all did. Credit him as well. Being put in the situation of hearing the results when you ask for something. That was interesting over the years and, we’re talking about a long time ago and I’ve changed completely musically in that time and I can’t look back and see where this input even started, exactly. Maybe the seeds were there before I met Ellery but definitely this experience has helped me realize this. So, like everything else, like children or flowers on a farm, they grow. You plant seeds and it grows and it’s out of your control, as long as you keep doing it. And every band I do influences the other project, the next project. We all play in different situations but this one’s a great one to come back to because it’s been up for so long and also it’s in a different place than where it was thirteen years ago.
Black: Sixteen. I’m still reeling from the ten year reunion. Sixteen years ago. Now we’re solely improvising our concerts on this tour, which is not what we did in the beginning, yet it’s completely informed by all this work we’ve done. He can still write. We’ll still morph. We’ll still metamorphose.
Andrea Parkins: I think it’s interesting because, as Jim says, the three of us have all been doing other things in addition to our trio, all this time. What I find interesting now because it’s been a little while since the last tour, a larger space than up until now a little longer, to come back and sort of see what each of us has developed. Ellery creates a space where all that can come back and it’s always been true, that we’re all doing what we’re doing and that it’s somehow not only allowed it’s actually part of the identity because, as I remember, Ellery’s idea was that he wanted three people that could function independently, right? And that each of us could play a solo, each of us functions that way but we come together listening and engaging. I feel that what’s been consistent is that’s always true, is that there’s always space for that but it’s really interesting for me now because there’s been much more time in between, since the last tour, and it’s still true and we’ve changed, I’d say, exponentially. I think as time goes on we change more and more. That’s how I hear it. That it exponentially is growing how we’re changing. I really hear a much broader range of material and ideas and influences and identity. Much stronger for each of us and bringing that back it seems that there’s still room for all of that. So that’s part of the metamorphosis: it has always been inclusive of each of our identities, and it still goes, there’s still room. So it’s the same, but different.
Eskelin: In the beginning, as Jim said, I was composing, I had a lot of music, I had some music written even before we played the first time that was probably more specific, to my mind, than well, let’s say, it was rather specific to my mind; the compositions and what I asked Jim and Andrea to do, how we would navigate these things. Over time, the compositions became less and less specific. In the beginning, I might have a composition that would be more like a blueprint to a building. After a few years I might say, “OK, here are the elements of a building but I’m not going to tell you how to construct it; we’re going to just construct that through the improvisation”. Give you the raw materials, and it became less and less materials over time until I was writing less and less ideas on paper and we were doing more of the composition live through the playing. Now, after sixteen years, this is the first tour we’ve ever done in which we are playing completely improvised with no compositions at all, it’s the first time. And I think that’s actually rather important and ironic, in a way, because as you said, when I formed the band I wanted to have two other people that could create a band that was able to play completely improvised concerts. We never did, but it was important to me that musicians could do that and in bringing that skill to the ideas that I had in the beginning I think created the sound and once the sound was sort of established and we figured out what we could do, over time there was less need for me to build these structures and we are now able to play without much of an effort. I think I might have had three ideas in the beginning.
Parkins: Which I think I might have forgotten, I’m sorry. You’ll have to remind me.
Eskelin: Yeah, I’ll remind you as we go. So, that’s significant to my mind.
Even: those metamorphoses, how can they process collectively? How can they work with your respective personal mutations?
Eskelin: That is related, I suppose, to the first question in as much as in the beginning I had more specific ideas about how I wanted the compositions to go, but I always had in mind Andrea’s sound and Jim’s sound and so there was always a version in my mind of what the music would sound like even if what actually happened was a little different. I’ve always accommodated what Jim and Andrea do and what they bring to the music and I think now the metamorphosis is probably more musical and in real time and less talking about it. Does that make any sense?
Parkins: Definitely, this is the least we’ve ever spoken.
Eskelin: And it works because, I mean it would work any way, but it really, really works because of our history, I think. We all play improvised music with all kinds of different people, some people that we’ve known for many years or maybe somebody that you’ve just met that day and you’re playing on stage; this happens too. The results can be all over the place, could be great, fantastic, we never completely know so it’s always a surprise and it’s always fun. But to do it with a group that’s played so long, that has gone through a lot of different music that I’ve brought to it over the years, I think the results are satisfying on a different kind of level than I’ve ever experienced with other bands. I don’t know quite how to describe it but it seems deeper. It seems very comfortable for me, I mean, this has always been perhaps the most comfortable musical environment for my sound and how I heard my sound. It still seems that way which is kind of nice, you know? As much as we do things with other people and I think this is the first tour we’ve had since late 2007 and it’s nice. We come back and play. I listen to the first bit that we recorded on the tour and it sounds like we’ve been playing every day.
Even: In the liner notes of Kulak 29 & 30, you wrote that your trio had “a real past on which we can build”. Is it truer 15 years later? How much do you still enjoy playing together?
Eskelin: (laughter) So far, so good.
Black: I think that’s a huge part of it. Like, you’re up there improvising, we have to like what’s going on. You’re playing what you want to play.
Parkins: It should be fun.
Black: It should be fun and I think the only reason to write down a song list is because they like what they’re doing, they like the music they’re making and if we’re improvising, with instructions or not, we’re still playing what we want to play. There’s no obligation musically to a certain sound, it’s just a piece of work. We’ve sort of found a way that we can play ball together, and not in a very mental way but, well, this sound goes with this sound.
Parkins: A listening way.
Black: A listening way. An instinctual, “here we are, it’s a safety zone, play what you’ve learned”. I think you can do that from the very first sitting, but I’m glad we took the route we did in this case.
Parkins: It’s very rigorous, actually, the route. If I can say, for me, the trajectory of coming to where we are now through compositions that Ellery wrote in the beginning that had a lot of written material and a lot of very clearly structured and then, later on, less written material but still very clearly structured, and quite a challenge to understand how to make it work, I think that really informs where we are now and that is all in there, it’s all there. But it’s totally about listening and it’s really fun and we know each other well, you know, and musically it’s quite familiar and yet surprising because we’ve all been changing all this time. So, it’s good.
Even: Is that, Ellery, what you call “functional improvisation”?
Eskelin: Functional improvisation, to my mind, as you probably read in one of the reviews or the liner notes, had more to do with the compositions I was writing in the beginning in which I felt that my method of composition was the opposite of the norm. The norm would be composing a form or structure inserting improvisational episodes at certain points, where, in my mind, I was starting with an open canvas that was an improvisation that had not yet happened but into which I was inserting written ideas. And then, trying to find different ways in different compositions to navigate these written ideas. The reason I did that is because I found that it made us improvise with purpose. Whereas, very often in improvised settings there can be moments where you’re not sure what’s happening, maybe you’re just making some sound until something gels and something connects and you go from there. I wanted every second to be purposeful. I wanted it to have a reason to be, not just sort of feeling around in the dark but I really wanted to have a purpose. We knew what we were doing and to me that brought the music really into the moment, it felt intense and so I think that’s what I meant by that comment. To say it perhaps more simply, to me it’s improvising more like composers and less like, well, in my case, a jazz soloist, for example, because I’m a saxophonist and there’s a lot of baggage as to what that means. Do you understand? But maybe Jim and Andrea have something to say about that.
Black: I mean, through these sixteen years I’ve learned through the process of working with Ellery that he’s trying to make things improvisational with a reason. There are not a lot of books about how to improvise and it took awhile for me through the years to understand what that means because everyone has a different approach and sometimes peoples’ approach is to just launch into the darkness, stick with anything, hope things work. A lot of fear is involved, a lot of belief and I think that’s all complete nonsense. Sixteen years later, it’s morphed from what he talked about and for me it’s totally spontaneous composition and every sound, every sound you make once a piece begins you own, you take responsibility for, and that’s it, it’s very clear. There’s no guesswork. There’s no “making it work”. If you believe in what you’re doing and you instantly trust whoever’s playing with you, without any expectation, you can make music. And I like it to be that simple; I don’t want it to be more complicated than that. Everyone has to accept the music I make and the choices I make but I think it’s that clear. It’s not some mystical, mysterious thing and you’ll be told this many times. But I cannot explain it any other way, it’s as clear as that to me. It’s a question of whether you feel like you were there in the moment, really making music and there in the moment really listening and accepting what was happening. I need to end it there, OK, for me, like, that’s it. We can talk more about things, we can try parameters that work, devices and things and little puzzles but it stops for me there. Now, not sixteen years ago.
Parkins: For me, I like the word that Jim uses, the idea of responsibility. Two other words I would use are awareness and intentionality. That if you’re listening and you’re interacting and you’re playing that every move you make is a decision, it’s not like something that kind of happened, it’s a decision, it’s a choice. And I think what I got from Ellery’s compositions earlier, I mean not only in this context but this was a very, very wonderful forum for this, was a certain kind of just enough structure to remind me to be very, very aware. Really, you know, like OK, this is what it is and it might be that he would mention one element like, “We’re all going to go very low here and slow and hang around”. I’m thinking of a particular tune, low and slow, I won’t characterize it otherwise.
Even: Something as simple as that makes you listen harder.
Eskelin: It keeps you from forgetting where you are.
Parkins: Exactly, you know exactly where you are and you know what to listen for and you have the intention of what you’re going to do and you do it, hopefully.
Black: And even if you’re losing yourself in the music, at least you’ve started that process. If you’re going to go random at least you’ve started that event.
Parkins: But it’s not random once you’ve done it. You know, once it’s in the air there’s nothing random, there’s nothing random.
Black: Random is hard to accomplish.
Even: When listening closely to your music I have the felling that you aim for linking a lot of seemingly contradictory ideas like improvisation with composition, of course, but also there are musical singularities with collective identity, diversity with unity, the traditional with the experimental, the spiritual with the physical, the visible or the significant with the invisible or the insignificant, etc. How do you make these links in you music?
Eskelin: That’s a big question, but a good question. I could break it down to a lot of different levels. I mean, you were talking in ways that were very large but I could also answer the question by addressing things that are very small. For example, when I play an idea on the saxophone, it occurred to me over the years that I was taking for granted, thinking about the idea of “what is a phrase, what is a musical phrase?” It’s a question we don’t often ask ourselves because it’s assumed, that’s what I mean by taking for granted, you just understand it or know it without asking why. But I asked myself why. And the implications that has for playing the saxophone. And it occurred to me, well, a musical phrase or idea probably developed out of the physicality of expression maybe through the breath through singing or vocalizing perhaps. At least with respect to the saxophone. I think of the saxophone very much in terms of like singing. And so it occurred to me, well, maybe that’s, I’m guessing, but maybe that’s why. And what would happen if I took more than one idea and put them into one breath or one phrase? Something that might not be musical but I wanted to try and see what that would be like. I was fascinated not by the disconnection but I was more fascinated by the idea of what happens when you put these things together that had never been put together before, at least by me. Now superficially, you could look at that and say, “Oh, OK, I recognize a piece of that coupled with a piece of this and a piece of that”. End of story. But, if you go deeper, I was just more interested in the fact that this really creates a different shape. Unified, together now, get beyond the fact that these ideas have been chopped up and put together, now, what do we have that’s new, what do we have when we do this? It’s more than a hat and glasses, it’s something, hopefully, that has its own singular identity, possibly. The way I think about improvisation, it’s really like the idea of musical DNA, in which a very small unit of DNA contains all the information necessary to construct a portion of your body or your entire body, perhaps. I’m very interested in this idea of musical DNA in which a small unit or an idea like I’ve just described, can be used to create a total organism, that being the band. In a way. This is getting a little silly but it is how I think about it, on one level. My compositional and improvisational methods come from that granular idea of taking two ideas and putting them in one breath, or three ideas and putting them in one breath and making that breath have a unique shape.
Black: And that kind of is spiritual, right?
Eskelin: I guess.
Black: It’s kind of belief what you’re talking about. The way you think about something, that’s kind of big, you know?
Eskelin: What do you mean?
Black: Well, she mentioned the spiritual and what you’re talking about, is well, that’s not a fact you just described, that’s a belief.
Eskelin: I wouldn’t call it a belief but a way of thinking. I would just say that’s how I think about it. It’s as matter of fact as a spoon on a plate to me, but that can be spiritual too, I don’t know what spiritual means to me.
Black: Well, she mentioned it in the question and it seems to me that’s actually the connection.
Parkins: Yeah, what does spiritual mean, exactly?
Eskelin: I don’t know, I don’t have a clue.
Black: Yeah, it’s a dirty word but when you talk about something so passionately and your eyes get wider it looks like you’re...
Eskelin: Well, this was a big, big deal when I figured it out for myself. Very simple idea but for me it was profound.
Parkins: So maybe the question, this is not what you were talking about, but maybe the question about spirituality is that if you’re really excited about ideas, maybe the excitement about ideas is spiritual.
Black: An epiphany about something.
Eskelin: The spiritual is often a repository for things that we don’t know how to understand or talk about what we feel very deeply. This could be an example of that for me. I’m struggling to describe it for you the best way I can and trying to keep it simple and that’s as close as I can come.
Black: It’s not easy to put that stuff into words, so it’s actually nice once in a while.
Parkins: Yeah. I enjoyed that.
Eskelin: I talked about musical DNA when we were talking about sound and I, you know, how can I make one utterance on the saxophone, forget about a phrase, maybe just a sound that has no more duration than a second, how can I make that contain my musical DNA? How can it be complete? Forget about an extended 30 minutes composition, how can I just go “aaaa” and have that be totally complete? And not need anything else? That to me is an ideal. That’s really deep, I don’t know if I have it yet.
Parkins: That’s so interesting. Maybe it’s because of the notion of phrasing. I’m a very language oriented person and I think about language a lot when I’m playing, I can’t exactly say how but I think about sound, mostly. I mean I see this band as a very sound oriented band and for me that going “aaaa” as you said and having that be enough. For me it’s always enough. It just matters where you put it and what else is going on. And how it connects with what else is going on. So for me I think more about sticking in stasis in a stage or in a state of being where things are happening simultaneously and meaning or content or the whole is the combination of what’s happening this way, not this way. Happening vertically rather than horizontally. So if you’re thinking about a phrase horizontally, you know, moving through time, I’m more interested in what’s happening now, now, now, now, now. So it’s vertical. So, maybe Jim is doing something and Ellery’s doing something and I’m doing something and it’s now. But I can’t say if I love language and syntax that I’m probably not thinking about what’s horizontal. I have to be. But I don’t think about phrases so much. I allow it. I used to.
Eskelin: Yes, that’s what I want to bring to any situation, again, as you describe, all those other things are happening, too, but when I would walk into a situation I would like to be able to make any utterance I make on the saxophone be complete and then put that in the mix. That’s all. It’s just an ideal, personally.
Parkins: Yes, I’m kind of struck by different ways of thinking about it, I’m not sure it’s any different, actually, maybe it’s just an approach of thinking but the utterance is complete. Maybe it’s like that relational thing with women, like wanting to make sure it all kind of works. You know, at the same time.
Eskelin: Another area that I think is interesting with this group that maybe also relates to your first question, if I can remember it, is the fact that we are only three, the fact that the instrumentation is a bit unusual means that, to my mind, we often have to pretend to be more than we really are. Or at least in the beginning I felt that way when I was composing things. I felt like, not that we were incomplete because we were always complete, there was always a complete sound, there still is. But by using our imagination, for example, I might have a composition that reminded me of a string quartet, or another one that’s more like a rock band or another one that might be like a jazz big band or none of those things, but if we try to be, we have to play in a way that, for me, is different than any other group that I play in and requires me to be as complete as possible with what I’m bringing to the table. The more complete and strong my contribution is, the better that can happen in which we can create something that is larger than the sum of its parts.
Alexandre Pierrepont: Talking about spirituality, what you said first, the first part of your answer to this question, made me think of surrealist thinking, in the real sense, not the weird imagery, but the definition given of the poetic image, after Pierre Reverdy: take two absolutely different things and bring them together. Then you don’t have to invoke any god in this equation…
Even: In which new directions do you think the music of the band will change again, into unfettered improvisation or more electro-acoustic exploration to more like a song framework?
Black: Cross-dressing, new clothes styles, hair color changes? (Laughter)
Eskelin: Yeah, we’ve done all of those things you mentioned, we’ve been doing that from the beginning. I don’t know that I can describe the process being any different anymore. That’s why I said at the beginning I’m a little surprised. At this point it’s kind of out of my control and I don’t know what keeps the car moving, all I can do is steer it as best I can, but you see that.
Parkins: Well, I think if it continues to be as it’s been and as it really seems to be which is sort of like a container for us to be ourselves, is what it sort of feels like now, it’s just like an open container in which there’s Ellery, Jim and Andrea doing what they do and that you’re providing that container. That’s where I feel the intentionality. Each of us is changing and exploring different material; on this particular tour I’m not playing accordion, I’m playing organ and amplified objects and working with my processing of samples, you know, generative processing. These are materials that in the last year as I’ve been working more and more with my own work and what’s beautiful is that I don’t have to turn that off to be in this situation, in this band. I can bring it, all of it. And if I’m playing a little less accordion these days that doesn’t seem to be an issue because I’m just doing what I’m doing and as it turns out recently I’m just playing drones on accordion or tapping on it and not actually playing it in any sort of technically traditional musical sense. And so there’s room for that. So if my exploration is more towards electronic music and much more towards electro-acoustics, there’s room for that. If I imagined, or whatever Jim’s into that I wouldn’t speak for, that’s for Jim to say, whatever each of us is into that’s the container.
Eskelin: And it’s even more than room for it; the stronger that it becomes, the more important for you, the clearer I hear my relationship to what you’re doing which is one reason that we talked about whether we would use the accordion on this tour or not. Because I was actually hearing something very specific from what you were doing that I really wanted to work with on this tour, sonically.
Parkins: It’s very exciting for me that I can continue to do what I do where I am at this moment. What I’m most interested in I can think, “This is another venue, another place that I can explore my materials that I’m most concerned with right now”. That I can bring that right now and say, “How does it work with Ellery and Jim?” This is amazing; it’s rare.
Eskelin: Because in the beginning, you can tell me if I’m wrong, I was using everything that you did, which at that time you had an organ, you had the sampler, the elements were there. But I had the feeling I was asking you to do something maybe either different with them or taking you out of your zone a little bit, is that right?
Parkins: Yes and no. What I would say is that in order to get to the bus station on time, which is to say, we’re going to arrive at the written material in the piece and you normally would orchestrate it for a specific instrument, you would be very clear, “I want to hear it on the organ” or “I want to hear it on the accordion”. Usually.
Eskelin: Yes, and we worked with specific organ sounds and sometimes even samples.
Parkins: Yeah, I felt very, I can say, I think it was a good thing but I think I sometimes felt like I would hear things that there wasn’t quite space for, because, you know, you were the decider. (Laughter) You were the composer and you had very specific orchestration ideas which I would fulfill. On a certain level I felt like I had a lot that I could bring that I wasn’t actually able to bring, for one thing. At the same time, I noticed that every time Ellery figured out that there was one more thing I could do he’d be like, “Great, do that!” She plays accordion, great, she plays organ, great, she plays sampler, great!
Eskelin: Now do them all at the same time. (Laughter)
Parkins: And I did, and actually I can even say that it was useful for me to develop my own thing because by being forced to do so many things at once that it was almost outside of my physical grasp, almost, I started to explore what the tension was, for me. There became a musical tension of being in that physical state that really, I think, has a lot to do with how my music’s developed and I think that’s great. But it’s nice to be able to do what I want now, (laughter) having said all that.
Pierrrepont: Just a silly question. If Andrea was just about to start playing the harpsichord, different apertures, other instruments, the bassoon, would you include that? Do you think the music can include that as well?
Eskelin: I think that it would be more likely now than ever before in the past. When I first started the band I really was looking for an accordion player. The fact that Andrea also had organ and electronics in her arsenal was a plus; I wasn’t looking for that in the beginning. But it was great that she had that and this sort of thing that you just described, this tension between all these instruments and your role in the band, as that developed, I think to this point I could probably say yes to just about anything because now it’s more a matter of Andrea Parkins is in the band, no matter what she plays. It’s her musical personality, it’s her choices, it’s the way she hears music, it’s the way she responds, the way she instigates. It’s more important than the instrument now; it transcends the instrument. And in a way that’s probably, hopefully true for all of us. I’m so strongly identified with my instrument, the saxophone, it would be hard for me to consider playing something else and being musical on it. But what if we only had what was here on the table to make sound with, what would happen? Would it be Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins and Jim Black? Sometimes I think we could probably manage that.
Parkins: What else would we would we do?
Black: Sixteen years ago it was a big deal to form a band that had a weird instrumentation. Tenor, drums, accordion, OK, crazy. In New York there was a lot of, I think, it seemed at least in Downbeat magazine and other things that it was radical. Never to us. But in the scene, your band doesn’t have a place. That seems absolutely goofy to think about now, it seems so stupid. Like, instruments don’t really matter. I mean, it shapes the sound of what you’re making sonically, but it’s only the personalities as far as I can tell. I’m making a piano trio right now which is the dumbest thing I can think of. Piano trio, the most conservative known, done a million times. And it’s really interesting to think, OK, “How do you find the music in that for me now?” Because it is so, it’s just a glass which everyone uses. But, how can I use it my way and I’ve been looking very hard into that, OK, so what is the music for me, using this animal, the piano trio? There’s so much out there already; it’s so overdone, there’s nothing easy with it, it’s almost all been played, sonically, so the only thing left is the music. Sonically it’s all been explored: drums, bass and piano. Show me something new, sound-wise, but the music, there’s always room for that. The personal statement and that’s all that’s really happening when we play, is looking for that end and when I’m on the “dumb set”, the drum set, it’s also a very old, worn out instrument that you have to find your music on and that’s obviously limitless. If you want to work for it. Finding things that it can’t do, naturally; sounds in your head. I wish I could play like him some nights and it’s very difficult on the drum set, very, very difficult.
Parkins: I know what you mean. It’s not even so good when you have notes.
Black: Nope. So that’s the search, maybe.
Even: In the early ‘90’s you talked about a necessary transition between the age old jazz scene and a new musical one to devise. To which extend do you think this transition took place?
Eskelin: I don’t know if it did or not. I’m not sure now what I meant when I said that. I don’t know if I was talking about a personal relationship with the jazz scene or if I was talking about the jazz scene at large.
Even: You were talking about your mother and the way she used to play.
Eskelin: Oh. OK, right. I was talking about the musical scene in the early ‘60’s when my mother was playing in which live music was much more a part of the culture. People were not watching quite as much television, there were many less distractions in life and so night life was more a part of the culture, in a way, not that it isn’t now, but it’s changed in certain respects. But the important fact is that she was able to play music six nights a week and maybe on the weekends she’d play a matinee in the afternoon on Saturday and Sunday, as well. And not only that, when you played a gig, you played four sets of music, you played all night long. It’s not like now when you save up and play your one set at The Stone and then that’s it until you get your next gig somewhere. And so I was contrasting that with the scene that I grew up into in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s and early ‘90’s that was completely different. That went away and it was very sad because as a little kid, ten years old, I knew what I wanted to do, I wanted to be a jazz saxophone player and I saw my mother playing in these clubs and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to play six nights a week, I wanted to go into that world. Maybe not the healthiest idea for a ten year old boy to aspire to nightclub life but that was what it was. That’s what I saw when I was a little kid. And by the time I was a teenager that was pretty much done and I felt like I was perhaps born too late or something. I felt this was a big problem, now what do I do? How am I going to solve this? And it wasn’t until the early ‘90’s that I began to feel more excited and positive again which was exactly when I started this band. And then I felt like things were different and the experiences that I’d had which I thought were negative that were not part of what I had aspired to still made me who I am even if that meant playing in a stupid Top 40 band to make money in college or something like that. Something that I looked down upon and despised the music and almost developing a self-hatred of like; “oh my God, this is not what I want to do, this is horrible”. But, in a way, playing all that different music formed me in positive ways. And it wasn’t until I started this band that I was able to include all of that experience in one musical expression that was totally positive. And in a silly kind of way that’s why I named the first record One Great Day, as dumb as that might sound. It was so positive, I wouldn’t have been able to anticipate that that could all come together in a meaningful way. As far as the jazz scene or the music scene, I just discovered that rather than playing the same club for two weeks, six nights a week, it just meant being on the road for two or three or four weeks at a time, with this band, with that band. It works differently, you didn’t have one band that worked all year, 48 weeks a year or something like that, although I did do that with a big band, but that was just temporarily something else. But just the way the scene worked in general, it was a little bit more piecemeal, working in six, seven, eight, maybe ten different bands, putting together a schedule over the year so that you were always busy doing something, full time, but you were doing all different things that were all good, finally, doing what you want, and making that work. And that was how the scene changed for me and I thought, “This is really different from what I thought it was going to be, but it’s cool”. It works, and in a way it’s great because it is different and that makes the music different and it makes my life valid in a way that’s even better than if I had entered the scene that my mother was in, had it lasted. Because now this is about my life and our life and our shared community and you and me and the audience and everybody. It felt like community again and that something real was happening and that’s really why I admired what my mother had. Because that was something that was real in the community at that time. You know, it was more than just the idea of playing music, it was music as entertainment, music as nightlife, it was music as life. It was not like art over here and music over there; it was really integrated and that’s something that I still think about, too, and I always want to try and retain that as much as possible. That can be tough sometimes, you know, you come out and you’re talking music in terms of art, spirituality which is all fine and good. You’re playing festivals and constructing these situations in which to play but I really do want to feel that this is connected to our life and when I say our life I mean everybody’s life, even people who don’t even know we’re doing this. We are part of society, community, in some way, and I’m always asking myself what that is, I’m always questioning that. I’m always thinking about ways to make sure I’m not distancing myself and it’s tricky because you’re doing a certain kind of music that does not have mass appeal. But I do think that it’s an important thing, it might not sound possible but I guess for people who have no idea who I am and have never heard of me, but like me, there’s a lot in the world that I don’t understand but I love the fact that there is great literature, even if I haven’t read it. I will never experience all the things there are to experience but I know they’re out there and I know I can access things and I can make choices to do what I have time to do in my life. And so that’s about as close as I can get to what that all was. Does that make sense?
Even: Yes. So, as you said, all of you are circulating between various artistic circles: do you think these different musical worlds are self-sufficient or do you think it all belong to a similar artistic process?
Black: The thing you were saying about knowing that there’s so many things out there that you’ll never actually get to personally handle, like books or literature or painting or art and music as well, now, because music, with the internet, is so much. It’s insane, it’s unimaginable. We used to have a leash on a recording, a cassette, even a CD. Even though there are many more CD’s and you can always burn a CD. With the internet, now there’s no leash. It takes people to guide you into places. So yes, I think it’s absolutely mixed up, in a way. The influence is there. Actually, it’s changed the way I think now. Overall, I can’t think of it in the old way. Even though the timeline of artistic development can be drawn in the history books really clearly, they pretend it’s this way, it went to this, it went to that. I kind of believe that a little bit; in myself, I went to this, I went to that. I’m getting here. Something new appears and it’s very important because it’s new and there’s only one of them and you grab it, musically, let’s say. And now it’s to the point where not only one appears, there’s a million and you don’t even know where to look. So, so much for your belief system now. Now everything’s possible so what’s necessary, what’s usable? Where do you look? Just as a question I’m sort of dealing with a little bit. So these musical worlds, self-sufficient, are similar to artistic process. I’m enjoying going back to museums now, I’m going to the Picasso again today, looking at the same Picassos I looked at 20 years ago; let’s see if I see something different. You know what I mean? That’s kind of, “OK, what’s the point, what’s it doing?” So self-sufficient, I think is...
Parkins: By self-sufficient do you mean different kind of musics that are not...do you mean there’s this kind of music over here and that kind of music over there and they’re not connecting?
Parkins: That’s what I thought, OK.
Black: There’s so much music. Maybe my point, to make it more clear is that there’s so much out there, what’s important now? What’s the point? What are we looking for, what am I looking for musically? There’s no style, there’s no scene, it’s all there, it’s all possible, there’s so much. Maybe it’s just the individual, my relationship to something whether it turns me on or not and how I work with it. I mean I’ve lost complete track of what is good, proper, bad, you know, I can only relate in the moment now. More than I did before. More than thinking of me being an improviser or a jazz musician or a drummer, the weight, what Ellery was saying before about the weight of one gesture, maybe that’s the only thing I’m looking for in any artistic process is the weight of that (handclap), the pressure of that, whatever that might be. And it can sound like this, it could be, it can manifest itself in any sound, any band, any idea, any instrument, any object.
Eskelin: Because things are so much less compartmentalized now.
Black: Yeah, everything’s fused together, sort of, so what are we perceiving now? The drum set or the accordion; the identity of these things don’t matter so much anymore. There are millions of them, so what makes them stand out, what makes them powerful, what makes them attractive? And I think I’m asking these questions of myself because I’m sitting here looking at two books of music to write for a band, which is even a very decisive thing to think about. I’m going to write music for my next album, or something. OK, checking in now I’ve completely lost track of where I was going. I need to totally rethink what I was doing. I have ideas but I don’t even know if they’re good to run into, I don’t know if I should do that again. I probably will do what comes naturally first and then figure it out from there. That’s a messy, messy thing I just said, sorry. (Laughter) Right off the cliff!
Parkins: One thing I wanted to say about this idea of self-sufficiency. I still think that exists, yes. I think there are factions. My experience is that, maybe because what I do is a little unusual, I feel that I don’t quite fit, let’s say, in what I would think of is the jazz scene and because I’ve been playing in the jazz scene, that in the electronic music world, they’re not so sure if I should be there. There are kinds of electronic music that privilege minimalism and quietness and I’m kind of more dynamic. So from my standpoint I think it should be that you can do anything with anyone in any scene because we’re just listening and we’re connecting, or not connecting, but we’re existing in the same space. For me, I’m interested in the relational, you know, how am I going to relate to anybody in any sonic situation, but my experience is that there is still, unfortunately, some factions of community and I think that that is too bad. Factions of community, in other words, a community here, a community there but they are separate communities. Do I think there’s less of that? Yes, for sure it’s less but it still exists and I’m only saying that it’s a big regret that to me that it does exist. For me, I’m not interested in it; I would like to smash it together and just do whatever with whomever.
Black: If we made more money it would happen. (Laughter) No, because Wire magazine needs something to write about. They need to write about some new event that happens: Andrea Parkins got together with a classical clarinet player and so now it’s OK for these two people to make music together. This is all such bullshit.
Parkins: But it’s all so much about what people don’t know, to talk about that. People really have no idea of anybody’s life, nobody knows anybody really, right? I mean, I don’t know what you were thinking about when you were six or eight or ten or fourteen and that’s who you are. So when a writer or whomever comes to you and says, “Clearly you don’t do this, you do that”, well, you don’t know that! How do you know? And so it’s so much about the assumptions, the taking for granted, you don’t know where someone has been and what they’ve done. And how they can apprehend any situation. So all that shit’s really boring in my opinion. (Laughter) To put it bluntly, it’s boring.
Black: At music festivals that aren’t about one style, one limitation, they’re more open to different things, which, in a way waters down the ability for a certain community to get their music out there but on the other hand opens up the gates for more interaction, more cross-pollination, in a formal situation, in an organized manner versus just...maybe then, socially, society-wise that mentality is fostering the telling to younger musicians, younger artists, “it’s OK to collaborate, it’s OK to go here, we don’t need the walls”.
Parkins: I think the younger ones are much more open, though, the younger ones are great.
Black: It takes awhile to chip away on the older ones, they still see themselves as “I’m this” and they’re clinging to their identity so strongly and you see a lot of, I can name a lot of names. (Laughter) I won’t because it’s inherent in their music, you can actually hear it in their music and you can tell it by their track record what they do or do not do, in a way.
Parkins: At the same time, I would say, having said all of this, which I really believe, I am also somebody that, I don’t want to say it’s nostalgia but I have a big respect for a tradition, different traditions, there are different traditions, and there are even traditions within traditions. I don’t want to loose the history. I think it’s really important, thinking of younger musicians, each of us teaches some, I guess, and sometimes I’m a little bit shocked about what people don’t know about anymore. It makes me concerned; I worry about that because it’s easy for any of us to say, “This is what we’re going to do now and we’re open”. But we have a lot of stuff behind us and I think maybe it’s generational. I really value what’s behind me, I value what I studied, I value the rigor of it, I value that I studied classical music for many years and that I have a sense of form that is inherent, even if I’m not doing that in performance anymore. I’m quite sure that affects everything I do as an artist, as a sound maker. I know it; I don’t have to worry about it. I can’t get rid of it. Sometimes I would like to but I think with some of the younger ones, I don’t know if they have the same feeling. I’ve had the feeling that maybe some of them don’t and so for me it’s balance.
Even: As a band, not only as you’ve been existing for a long time but also as you’ve toured and recorded a lot, how important for you, for your development as a band were some organizations like The Knitting Factory, Tonic, hatOLOGY, Kulak, etc?
Eskelin: Well, all of those things were obviously important. hatOLOGY Records made a commitment to me very early on to support this band and that made a very big difference in our ability to tour every year, to document our music once or twice a year in the studio, which is extremely important to me, I really, really, unlike many other musicians, really feel that the studio is my preferred environment, in a way. Not to discount live playing because I would never want to do that, antithetical to what I just said about community in a way. Live music; it’s just different than recording. But, personally, there’s something, the process of recording is like making a document. To me, I’m very close to that idea. I think sometimes that if I wasn’t a musician I could be involved in some sort of documentation of culture or society in some way. I’m very interested in history and archives and preserving culture in a way. Without hatOLOGY, without the clubs you mentioned where we play, I mean it would be a very different story, really.
Black: We don’t have the clubs anymore. Those two clubs have gone.
Eskelin: Well, yes, but others have taken there place. In our case The Knitting Factory was our first gig. Actually, I never played The Knitting Factory as much as people assumed that I did. But any of the places that we have played then or continue to play now are all important, obviously. They, in some way, played a part in who we are, I suppose, or in the development of things, for sure. I would really have to sit down and think hard about separating the strands of what caused this. I’m not even sure it’s necessary, it’s all just part of our history. We do not exist in a vacuum. As much as you may want to talk about this band and our music, we don’t exist separate from anything, we’re part of everything. We’re connected so it’s impossible to think about just us and our ideas and all that shit, you know. Very important, I guess, is the answer to that question. I don’t know. What do you have to add?
Parkins: Not too much.
Black: We’ve been existing for a long time and we’ve also had the opportunity to tour and record a lot. Yes, we have. For me, I’ll tell you exactly how important this is be- cause I have a lot of close friends who are 19 or 20 years old, students that I’ve become close friends with and it’s really interesting to see it through their perspective, musically and socially. I always knew, when I moved to New York in ’91 that my whole existence musically in New York City, in Manhattan, was based around The Knitting Factory and if we didn’t have a club like The Knitting Factory back then we’d have had no place to play. None of the jazz clubs wanted what we did.
Eskelin: Well, there would have to have been another Knitting Factory.
Black: I’m just saying that knowing that a scene for me, not really wanting to admit it...
Parkins: It brought you there, partially, right?
Black: It brought everybody there. It brought Thurston Moore together with you.
Eskelin: But that was going to happen anyway and The Knitting Factory just happened to be there. I don’t think that The Knitting Factory was a magnet; I might differ with you on that.
Black: OK, I’m not saying that The Knitting Factory was a magnet, I’m saying that we are missing a scene where young musicians can meet older musicians; it’s gone. That’s what those places meant to me. It’s how I got to meet the 60 year old improviser and the 19 year old improviser when I was 20 something. And that’s really what I’m saying. Our music, of course, got played. They’re just venues. What’s sad about them now is not so mush that we took them for granted when they were happening but now that they’re gone, it’s a fact. You don’t see friends, I don’t see you anymore. Maybe you never went out that much anyway, I mean you did in the beginning, you travelled.
Eskelin: Well, you’re on the road a lot, too.
Black: And I’m on the road a lot, too but where do we meet in New York. Where’s the club hanging?
Eskelin: Well, there are a lot of different clubs, none of which are as central as The Knitting Factory or Tonic were but there are tons of little places that come and go and the kids instigate stuff, maybe there’s not as much cross-pollination as you had at The Knitting Factory.
Parkins: Age and Race.
Black: And Musics.
Eskelin: And Musics, yeah. I hear what you’re saying; I don’t worry about it perhaps as much as you do because I think that The Knitting Factory was indicative, it was able to exist because it was a time when the people were doing what they were doing and needed a place like The Knitting Factory to exist. And now, it’s different and The Knitting Factory doesn’t exist. If we still needed that, in a way, it would exist somewhere. Not that we don’t need it but something else is happening, I’m not sure what it is.
Black: Financially, only. This thing would still be going strong, raging for the music.
Eskelin: I’m not so sure.
Black: To me these venues were, let’s call them, let’s take away their names and all their dogma and problems...
Parkins: Timing is incredibly important.
Black: A place where everybody can meet, a meeting place for listeners. A walk-in crowd on a Friday night, walking into a venue that wasn’t too expensive, open the doors, having to sneak about it, and they would just walk in and pay money.
Parkins: Exactly. I’d like to go to the Vanguard but I can’t afford it.
Black: Exactly, they would just go to hear something without really knowing what it was.
Eskelin: There’s no central club anymore and those could have been considered central to the scene. So it’s much more diffuse now.
Pierrepont: Same when you play Paris, outside of a festival situation. Like you’re going to play at Le Triton, mostly a jazz-rock place, a nice place tough. Last time, you played at Duc des Lombards, which is really mainstream, but sometimes, once in a while, books a different band. And before, you used to play at Les Instants Chavirés, where you can’t play any more as they now focus on non-idiomatic free improvisation and electronic stuff only.
Eskelin: I remember when we were kicked out; we had too many chords.
Pierrepont: Back in the ‘90s, Les Instants Chavirés was a little bit like The Knitting Factory in New York, on a smaller scale: we were all hanging out there, to hear Oliver Lake or Tim Berne on one night, and Günter Müller or Taku Sugimoto the day after.
Black: And how do young people get informed, you know? They need exposure. What’s happened are splinter groups, like a thing out of Star Wars, rebel groups. Peter Evans, developing in his own personal vacuum for ten years in New York and nobody notices him. For ten years he was fostering his music and no one even knew him because there was no place for him to even get a gig. They kind of made their own little scene in Williamsburg and he started gigging in Zebulon, the Amazon music. My Space, he was discovered in Europe through My Space. And then he was discovered in New York because of Europe.
Eskelin: What about all these clubs in Brooklyn because that’s the change. With the demise of The Knitting Factory and Tonic there’s all these splinter clubs all over Brooklyn that I don’t even know of all that well so we would have to ask, I mean if you’ve played them or you’ve played them than we or we’d have to ask the younger musicians what’s going on because I don’t know that creativity is grinding to a halt.
Black: I didn’t say that. I just said that it’s splintered and there’s no way to meet Thurston Moore if you’re a 20 year old improviser and there’s no way to meet Dave Liebman if you’re a 20 year old improviser in a club in New York anymore. It’s impossible.
Parkins: Unless you want to pay a lot of money and if you’re 19 there’s no way to do that.
Black: So where’s the accidental community interaction, that’s very hard now.
Eskelin: It’s not impossible to meet Dave, I mean, he’ll play at the 55 Bar; he’ll play at Cornelia Street, it’s not impossible, it’s just not centralized like it was. You don’t have one sort of non-stop, three-ring circus like The Knitting Factory was.
Black: It’s not bad, it’s just different. And you talked about young musicians and tradition and this is exactly that thing.
Parkins: Well, one thing that was great for me when I moved to New York was that I lived very near The Knitting Factory. I could walk there. I had no money. I could walk there, I knew the doorman, he would let me in. I would drink a glass of water and not buy a drink and I would see everybody. And I did it every night and I had the experience and I saw everybody, everybody who played at The Knitting Factory and that was not everybody but it was a lot of different people. But also, it was even a matter of booking. I can very well remember going to the Cooler on the West Side, on 14th Street in the early ‘90’s and seeing a gig booked by Thurston Moore in which members of Sonic Youth would play on the same bill with Charles Gayle and with somebody else. And you would understand what the common element was there, it’s about a certain energy and that it could be that these instruments and those artists and that instrument and that artist and to see young people kind of apprehending all of this all at once, they might never have known who Charles Gayle was. But they came to see Sonic Youth. This is great and there are people around still who are organizing events that are inclusive in that fashion. I think it’s very important because that’s how the thing that Jim is talking about can happen. Now in Brooklyn you have many, many clubs and you know I have students who live in Bushwick, which is like far Brooklyn and there’s been there a long time a dance hall, because there’s loft spaces, a lot of contemporary dance, I don’t mean popular dance, you know, choreographers who are working in Bushwick. Now there are musicians there and young musicians are starting venues. For me, living in Manhattan, I don’t even live in Brooklyn, with Manhattan it’s a choice: do I want to get on the Subway and go all the way to Montoya to see that and you know, I don’t. Maybe it’s a function of age, you know, there’s only so many hours in the day, I’m working on my stuff. It’s not like going down the block. If I could still go down the block I would still do it when Tonic was there. But you know I don’t even go to The Stone that much, I go sometimes. I think it might also be that you get busy. I hate to say it but I think it’s also part of it, but as far as the scene is concerned, I do think it’s different. I think what Ellery says about it not being centralized, that we all understood we could all go to The Knitting Factory or to Tonic, now The Stone is just one place among many.
Black: And it feels more like a recital hall to me.
Eskelin: I would be very interested to talk to musicians who are in their early ‘20’s or mid ‘20’s or even ‘30’s about that question because I think that on some level, you said it’s all about money and it’s hard to argue against that and I won’t because I don’t disagree with you but I think there’s another component, just artistically and musically, what is happening and I’m not sure I have my finger on it. That’s why I would really want to ask some of the younger musicians, “What is the nature of the scene from your point of view?” You guys and gals are creating something, you are trying to inhabit a scene or make something happen musically. I guess my point is that there are probably some corresponding changes musically and artistically in the scene among younger musicians that, I don’t know what they are but I suspect exist and that I suspect also probably have something to do with the way the scene is. I don’t know for sure and I could be completely wrong about that but I would be very interested to ask the question to the people who are hanging out in those clubs every night.
Parkins: I think the economics really does affect it though.
Eskelin: Oh, absolutely, I’m not saying it doesn’t.
Parkins: I mean, it was pretty hard to begin with when we came. It was not easy but I can’t imagine how hard it would be now.
Eskelin: That’s true but they must be taking for granted a lot of the stuff that we just talked about as a given. Like for us it was a big deal that Thurston Moore could play with Charles Gayle and that that could happen. It was a big deal, it was a formative event. And if you’re younger now maybe you just sort of take it for granted. That’s not a big deal, it’s been done and now what are we doing, where are we at?
Parkins: Well, do they know who Thurston Moore and Charles Gayle are?
Black: That’s what I’m realizing, that it’s also becoming a little more conceptually separated, at the same time. The young musicians, we like to say it’s more open and it is, in a way, but if you don’t expose the animals to each other, they won’t mix, and I’m missing that a little bit. And the young ones, financially, it’s a lot like the loft scene in the ‘70’s, which I wasn’t around for, but musicians in my neighborhood have rented venues and have started their own performance spaces, like Ibeam, like the Douglass Street Music Collective… they’re even having a festival this summer.
Parkins: And they’re paying for it out of their pockets because they want to have a festival.
Black: And it’s kind of like OK, we have no system, no official money sponsors. No, the artists are doing all of it.
Eskelin: This will be very interesting because when I hear us talk about the scene, we are sounding exactly like the generation that was before us that talks about how fucked up it is for us and how we, us, do not have what they had and what a frigging tragedy that is. And it’s exactly what I was saying when I realized when I was 20 years old that my mother had. I saw it first hand so I knew exactly what I was missing. And yet, something positive, we made it work. And so all I guess what I’m saying is that the younger musicians now have that same responsibility and I’m confident that something will happen. The odds seem insurmountable, the finances are unbelievably crushing, you’re absolutely right but something has to happen and I don’t want to be wringing my hands like, “oh, gosh, this is so fucked’, because that’s a drag.
Black: No one’s saying that.
Parkins: No one’s saying that. Just totally different.
Eskelin: Well, but I think we all agree it’s harder for them.
Parkins: I wouldn’t want to be in my teens or twenties in 2010 in America. I don’t know what it’s like in France for many, many reasons that I can’t take music, for many reasons, I think there would be such a struggle with hope, with possibility. I think the possibilities economically are really fucking brutal. It’s just a different time.
Black: And they’ll find a way.
Parkins: Of course they will find a way. It’s not going to not happen.
Eskelin: I just wanted to point that out because exactly what you just described is how the older generation, older than us, describes us.
Black: Oh, it’s awesome!
Eskelin: And it just continues to go on and on and on. Which is not to say that things aren’t getting worse because I suppose things are.
Parkins: No, I just think it would be hard to start out right now, for different reasons. It’s always hard to start out but I think people will always make music and art and I’m confident of that but the question is does it have to happen in New York, does it have to happen in Paris? It can happen in other places.
Black: Well, it’s actually easier in Europe because there’s more financial backing for what musicians and artists do.
Parkins: Although not as much as there was.
Black: More. Because I’ve watched the first professional generation of student teachers. They go at the age of 23, playing amazing; they’ve never had the tour opportunities, they’ve never done Europe the way that we did Europe, never recorded eight albums for a label, they went right into a teaching situation to survive.
Eskelin: That’s been going on for a long time.
Black: Yes, but there’s a posse of players that are making beautiful music every so often that are employed. Period. They are not making their money out here at all. They’re not making their money from recordings, they’re employed by a system. They have jobs, whatever that means. Either at a computer terminal or at a university or a school. And they come to me and they ask, “Wow, you caught the last boat, you caught the last gig boat. Your generation is the last one to actually do what we want to do”. This is weird.
Eskelin: It does feel that way.
Black: And you have to look at the young students and level with them and say, “Well you can still do it, man”. Just be the best, whatever you think that means.
Eskelin: And that’s not a bad thing when you think about the glut, I’m sorry but when you think about the glut of recordings and things that you can do now that you couldn’t do even 20, 30 years ago, it became too much. Even before the internet it was too much. And in a way there probably does need to be a thinning out and so maybe the answer is exactly what you say, just be the fucking best.
Black: It will naturally fit.
Parkins: I think it’s also, getting back to this idea of maybe it’s not so centralized but that can be taken...you know, there are great musicians everywhere and not just in cities like New York or Paris or Berlin or wherever. There’re everywhere and because so much is accessible maybe not by presence but the documentation of the presence because there’s so much music disseminated and it’s globalized that people are making their music wherever they are and maybe there isn’t going to be an economy, not that it was such an amazing economy, let’s face it, I mean it was just barely enough, barely enough, so maybe that economy doesn’t exist but maybe some other, more modest economy that’s more ubiquitous is possible. So maybe that’s good. Here’s an example. I grew up in a very small town in western Pennsylvania. I was miserable the entire time and people thought I was a freak. So I do a concert in Pittsburg which is the nearest big city to where I grew up. I get a phone call from the editor of the paper from the very small town that I grew up in, “Would I like to do an interview”? And it is a young guy who knows all about experimental music. OK, he’s 25 years old, but I can tell you, when I was growing up in this small town, I didn’t know anyone like this of any age so it was very interesting that this was a guy who’s been educated, is aware, he’s already heard all that is accessible, he is very articulate about so much. He asked great questions, so I did an interview for the local paper. The Penn-Franklin News in Murrysville, Pennsylvania. You know, it was great! My favorite interview yet. Except for this one! (Laughter) Paris, Murrysville.