Ohad Talmor: Rootless Cosmopolitan

by Troy Collins

Ohad Talmor, © 2022 Frank Siemers

A true cosmopolitan, Ohad Talmor is an Israeli born in Lyon France, who grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, and now resides in Brooklyn, New York, a naturalized American. A classically trained pianist, Talmor picked up the saxophone while attending High School in Florida. Fostering his dual interests in composition and improvisation, Talmor was mentored early on by the legendary Lee Konitz, with whom he eventually worked, co-leading, composing, arranging, and playing in three distinct projects: the Lee Konitz Nonet; the Konitz-Talmor String Project; and the Konitz-Talmor Big Band.

As a bandleader, Talmor leads several ensembles that reflect his multi-faceted musical persona: The Newsreel Sextet features trumpeter Shane Endsley, guitarist Miles Okazaki, pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Matt Pavolka, and drummer Dan Weiss; The Newsreel Trio features Okazaki and Weiss; The Ohad Talmor Grand Ensemble is a big band featuring many of New York’s leading improvisers; and The Mass Transformation Nonet specializes in the Music of Anton Bruckner, among other composers. It features Austria’s Spring String Quartet, singer Judith Berkson, Endsley, guitarist Pete McCann, and drummer Mark Ferber.

As a sideman, Talmor is currently a member of drummer Adam Nussbaum’s Leadbelly Project featuring guitarists Steve Cardenas and Nate Radley and is also part of a collaborative trio with Nussbaum featuring bassist Steve Swallow. Other collaborators include, but are not limited to Jason Moran, Joshua Redman, Fred Hersch, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Chris Cheek, Carla Bley, Joe Lovano, Chris Potter, and Billy Hart.

Talmor’s longstanding interest in combining improvisation with through-composed music has found him involved in writing for various jazz, electronic, and contemporary classical projects. His music has been performed by an international array of ensembles, including: Portugal’s OJM Big Band; Germany’s WDR Big Band; Brazil’s SoundScape Orquestra; European Radio Jazz Orchestra; and Belgium’s Bruxelles Jazz Orchestra. His contribution to the contemporary classical genre includes music composed for pianist Martha Argerich, Austria’s Spring String Quartet, Porto’s “Casa da Musica” Orchestra, and Sao Paulo’s Symphonic Band. Talmor’s Double Concerto for Piano/Drums and Double Orchestras was premiered in February 2010 by Porto “Casa da Musica” Orchestra and the OJM Big Band, with Moran and Weiss as featured soloists.

Talmor holds a composition degree from the Manhattan School of Music and is the recipient of several Awards, including the SUISA 2012 Swiss Musician of the Year and the 2015 European Broadcasting Union Composer of the Year Award. He currently teaches composition at the Geneva Conservatory (CPMDT/AMR) and serves as an adjunct professor at the New School and the City University of New York. His latest release is Mise En Place, by the Newsreel Trio. I interviewed Talmor in the winter of 2021, concurrent with Intakt’s release of the album.


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Troy Collins: Some early biographical information might be of interest to readers unfamiliar with your background, which seems fairly complex. How did you get your start playing music?

Ohad Talmor: I come from a family and am myself an emigrant of Jewish origin. I am the fifth generation born in a country and emigrating to another one. In my case, the United States.

One of the links tying this lineage together is a cultural bind. In my family, with its educated, left-wing intellectual background, learning an instrument was not a luxury, but almost a necessity. Classical music was on in the house, as well as some more traditional music from my parents’ respective backgrounds. My dad was a Sephardic Jew from Bulgaria/Turkey speaking Ladino with his family (Judeo-Espanol) and he loved the music from this tradition. My mother is Ashkenazy from Romania and had a more formal upbringing – she loves opera and could sing along with the great classics. So, I started early on the piano and my studies led me through the classical path of the conservatoire in Geneva, Switzerland, eventually getting a degree at the age of 19. But piano was always problematic. Even though I am grateful I have it now as a tool for composing, it was burdened with all kinds of expectations. Typically, for my family, to “be a musician” you had to either be a virtuoso, or nothing. There was no other path. To add to this, the parents of my then girlfriend were world famous classical musicians; pianist Martha Argerich and conductor Charles Dutoit. Martha, in particular, I grew close to and remain so to this day. Besides her incredible musical gifts, she is a generous woman willing to share. 20 years later I was invited to perform and conduct at some festivals in Japan and Switzerland which she led, but back then, she was another huge weight in the musical universe I was dealing with. Piano was simply never an option, especially when you heard it all day long played by Martha or the folks she’d have over non-stop at her magic house (Friedrich Gulda, Chick Corea, etc.).

So, music was never endorsed as a career path, nor ever supported by my family. At the age of 15, I accidentally ran into a TV broadcast of a Sonny Rollins concert. It was like a revelation. I remember being awe-struck by all the music that came out of this man, these sounds, seemingly free flowing and invented on the spot. I had no idea how he did it, or even what this whole thing was all about. At the age of 17, I moved to Florida, first as an exchange student, then as a prospective college student. I went to a high school where I was placed into the big band playing piano – as by then I had deciphered and figured out bits and pieces of this language I had been exposed to, but without guidance. There I met older jazz guys – retirees who started opening some doors. When the second semester started, I was given the option to take another music class, and someone suggested that I play another instrument. There was an old Bundy alto sax laying around in my host family, so I brought it to band class. Another student showed me how to put it together, where to put my mouth and where the notes were. I remember being so excited at the prospect of being “delivered” from the burden of the piano and being able to explore in my own terms this music I was by then listening to non-stop. It took me a few days to figure it out – I was a good reader, so I got to play it in the jazz band – with a terrible sound. Eventually I was introduced to an older gentleman who had played the big band scene in the 1940s-1960s and I began to formally study the instrument, the repertoire, and improvisation.

After Florida, I came back to Geneva, the place where my family had eventually settled when I was a child (I was born in France but moved to Israel shortly after). I started university classes under pressure from my parents, studying philosophy and musicology. I loved what I learned there, but my heart was mostly concerned with jazz.

Geneva has a wonderful club/teaching place called the AMR. There I laid ground, attended the jam sessions, listened to all the concerts, and hooked up with the local scene. But I was kind of lost. In 1990 Lee Konitz came to play as a guest for a big band led by an eccentric composer, Alain Guyonnet. Alain was a friend and he asked that I participate – mostly because I spoke English! Meeting Lee proved crucial to my life. I quickly latched on to him. First by helping him and organizing a few concerts in Switzerland. Then gradually by sitting in, playing alongside. In 1994, my passion for saxophone had been equaled by my thirst for composing. I wrote an hour and a half long chamber orchestra, “Suite for Lee” (it featured, amongst others, drummer Mike Sarin, strings, and woodwinds). This piece was premiered at the Geneva Jazz Festival. After touring Europe with Steve Swallow, both as guests to a group led by a great Swiss trumpet player, Carlos Baumann, I decided it was time to get out of Switzerland. I auditioned to the Manhattan School of Music as a composer, eventually moving to New York City at the end of 1995. I was able to complete my studies there in three semesters. Once that was done, I immersed myself further in a world I am still swimming in.

TC: What was it like being mentored by Lee Konitz, and then eventually working alongside him?

OT: My relationship with Lee had an identity of its own which went beyond mentor-mentee or teacher-student.

In the beginning, the relationship was very much one way. After our initial meeting, which took place during that big band recording I mentioned earlier, the ongoing dynamic was mainly me initiating communication and trying to help with his bookings in Europe. Since I was involved with this important venue in Geneva, the AMR, I was able to organize a few things which had Lee come over and play either duo (he did a few dates with Kenny Werner), or with trios and guest rhythm sections (I remember asking a young Jim Black to play in one of these). During this time, I was merely soaking in his presence. Learning by observing and seeing how Lee would deal with music and people. In that same period, he would regularly ask that I play for or with him, and on occasions, had me sitting in on a couple of these trio gigs. There was never a formal sit down or lesson plan. More spur of the moment “let me hear you play Stella” kind of deal. But these moments were very meaningful, though to be honest, more of a testament to Lee and his faith in me, knowing how I played then!

I think Lee was always deeply intrigued when anyone would come to this music or the instrument from an angle of facility, and instinctual approach. Never mind that he was a virtuoso who played with Bird and a who’s who of the jazz world by his early twenties. I guess there must have been something that fascinated him in me as well, seeing how quickly the saxophone had taken over me and how I seemingly figured my way around the horn as well as improvising with a semblance of cohesiveness.

At the same time, Lee always reacted well to people who took a genuine interest in him or his music. He had a healthy dose of ego, which showed in all kinds of funny ways. As he aged, this personality often took on a more complaining form, but it remained at core the ego of a generous person with a highly developed sense of self and artistic worth. He was a complex, at times complicated man, and it took me years to learn how to navigate around him and find a place or a role that would be befitting for both, especially when it came to music.

But I would say that at the core, our relationship, though existing within a musical framework, had its roots on a much more personal level. This came to light much later, toward the last part of his life, when our communication turned into that of a father-son. In the last 10 years, there was very little business or music. It was more about life and death, relationships, the ups and down of a man’s journey. And jokes, curiosity, inquisitiveness with regards to the world at large. We would often talk about music he had heard, or a musician who had stopped by his house, or a concert he went to hear during his daily walks. But it was always framed in more “humane” terms, as in terms dealing with the “humanity” of the experience. I think that Music, with a capital M was always a Mystery. He had figured a way to make sense of it for himself, but was constantly questioning how this or that person’s choices were relevant and making sense too? He most definitely imbued that sense of wonder in me. And the core value with improvisation, unguided by egotistical attributes, “showiness,” etc.  I guess I still think like that when I play or listen to music.

So, I met Lee in 1990 at the age of 19. These five years immediately after meeting him, between the age 20 to 25, were very difficult. Normally, this would be the time when one grows artistically at an exponential rate, often under the tutelage of other musicians, or a guide, or within the frame of a musical institution. Despite having established a natural rapport with Lee, he was based out of NYC and I was in Geneva. So, we would only see each other a few times a year. For the rest, I was basically left to my own devices, trying to figure out the music, and a path in it, somewhat unguided. The jazz culture in Europe and Switzerland is very different than in the USA. I did practice thousands of hours and my instincts, guided by my passion for the music, made me seek out as many experiences as possible, but in hindsight, I wish I had been guided within a more rigorous framework.

Eventually, I came to realize that I needed to leave Europe, and Geneva, and it was in no small part due to Lee that I was able to come over to NYC.

The event which facilitated this move to NYC was my composing of an extended piece for chamber ensemble and jazz trio, featuring Lee as a soloist in 1994/95. I simply called it “Suite for Lee Konitz.” It was an hour and half long, written for string quartet, woodwinds, bass, drums, and Lee.

It was my first real attempt at composing extended forms. I didn’t have any formal composing or orchestrating training and had only done a few big band arrangements prior. These were not very good and difficult to get played the way I had imagined anyway. So, this suite forced me to dig deep, assume choices based on music that fascinated me then: a lot of Bartok, Stravinsky as well as Gil Evans or Brookmeyer. But more importantly, it forced me to try to imagine a space where Lee would find his space as an improviser within the busy setting of my writing. In hindsight this was not a bad piece, especially for a first attempt at the genre. But what it did show me was first: how incredible an improviser Lee was; his ability to listen and adapt to the musical surrounding while staying true to his voice. Then, it laid the ground for what would define my relationship to Lee until pretty much the end of his life. I would never be the saxophonist playing along Lee – he never said it to my face, but I know for a fact that he didn’t love the way I played. But I became the composer-arranger (and saxophonist) who would collaborate with him and create a string of projects for a variety of ensemble aimed at bringing forth Lee’s contribution not only as an improviser but as a composer as well. In that sense, this was an extraordinarily fulfilling relationship. Our golden years, between 1998 and 2014 resulted in five albums, hundreds of concerts. It was never a stroll in the park, as Lee questioned, prodded, refused, enthused, negates, offered ideas, got mad, got emotional, and a whole rainbow of other emotions. There was a period where he and I went through a confrontational phase, which had more to do with personal and family reasons. But we moved on, eventually acknowledging that though our paths met, I was a very different musician than he was.

In the end, I think it was as meaningful as can be and it allowed me to grow. I am still processing all he’s brought.

To be honest, a lot of this music I don’t listen to because I don’t find my writing up to par with Lee’s playing. I am very proud of our last project, however. “Old Songs New” is the only project I ever wrote for Lee where he didn’t have one note to read. Maybe that’s why it works so well. It took me almost 30 years to figure out how to write for him. And that was to not write for him. This was his last album ever recorded, and the last concert he ever played was these arrangements of standards he loved so much.

A couple of months before he passed, in February 2020, I went to visit him in his old and large rent-controlled apartment on West 86th street. This is the same place he had let me stay back in 1995 while he was out on the road, and I needed a place to crash while auditioning for the Manhattan school of Music.

By then, Covid was in full fury and Lee was already affected by cognitive decline due to old age. We sat and talked for a bit. It was difficult. Then I asked him if he wanted to play? At first, he was reluctant, he hadn’t touched the horn in months, but then he warmed up. His horn was sitting in his music room, alongside his Steinway which now sits in the performance space SEEDS which I created. He slowly put the mouthpiece to his horn. The reed was dry, it didn’t matter. I sat at the piano, and we played for about 25 minutes. First, “All the Things You Are,” then “Out of Nowhere.” He sounded amazing. He came back to life in a way. His speech sped up; his senses were all back. Then the phone rang. He stepped up and walked toward the phone. He looked back at me and just said: “Yep, this is all very real.”

When it was time to go, he walked me to his door, and there hugged me a bit longer than usual. He took my hand and said, “when can we go out again?”

So yeah, I miss him.

TC: Wow, that’s quite a remembrance. I’m curious though, since you mentioned it, but what do you think it was about your horn playing that he didn’t particularly care for?

OT: Well, I think it was a number of things which contributed to me feeling that my playing made him uneasy. But I should say first that this was by no mean a final judgement. Lee kept an open mind and ear. Though he would react on the spur of the moment to whatever was going on musically that didn’t please him, he would also be receptive whenever he heard someone surprise him. He hardly ever complimented me on my playing, but the handful of times he did, it was clearly because he didn’t expect to hear what I had just played.

Lee had a problem whenever he heard musicians improvising on automatic pilot, or, in the case of saxophonists, when their sound and language slipped in the influence of other saxophonists he didn’t like, such as John Coltrane, whose sound turned him off.

So, in my case, I think it was a combination of things. I love Coltrane, and Wayne Shorter, and a number of other saxophonists whose language influenced me, if not more, at least with the same impact that the saxophonists Lee held in higher esteem: Lester Young (above all!), Warne Marsh, Mark Turner (even though he would question whether Mark heard all of the fast notes he’d play!) etc.

And then, my whole musical esthetic is rooted in other influences than the ones he cherished: I love funk and hip-hop, I play and practice Hindustani Music assiduously (on the bansuri flute under the guidance of my teacher Steve Gorn), electronic music, experimental contemporary classical, traditional Brazilian or Judeo-Espanol, etc. All of these worlds contribute to my musical identity. It felt to me that for the most part, Lee missed a sense of coherence or adherence to the core values he played and preached whenever he was confronted with my personal music. He would ask: how much of what you just played was improvised? Or, how can you improvise based on this material which is so abstract? Or, how can you hear this?

I think that beyond the emotional impact of his judgement – something which took me years to get over – Lee taught me the value of reaching for the essence of whatever it is I was doing musically, especially when we would be playing together.

On a number of our concerts, especially with the String Project, we would play a tune or two as a duo for the encore. Generally, it was one of his tunes, or “All the Things You Are,” “Subconscious-Lee,” etc. I always felt that these moments were his measuring stick for me. Nowhere to hide. I am grateful that the last few duos we had he didn’t wince. But he didn’t cheer either! Haha!

TC: Konitz mentored you, and you became a teacher yourself. You’re currently teaching composition at the Geneva Conservatory (CPMDT/AMR) and also serve as an adjunct professor at the New School and the City University of New York. Have you ever played with any of your former students in a professional capacity, in say a live concert or recording situation?

OT: Yes, I have, in a variety of settings. This aspect of music teaching and learning is very important to me. It underlies a larger issue that is the institutional teaching of jazz (and all that this word holds in terms of musical experiences).

This music is community as Miles Davis said. And it is best learned as part of this community. Today, of course, you can legitimately argue about the relevance of such community where this kind of music is hardly the stuff that resonates for most people. Jazz, classical, or any music which require a semblance of active listening is not part of the fabric of society. You could argue it never was. Mozart or Beethoven's music was not heard by the common folks – they were mostly dealing with music played by minstrels – and that was essentially folk songs. When jazz was the soundtrack for entertainment and social life, then it was somehow aligned with people's listening habits.

So, how do you teach and share this music knowing that? Jazz was (is) an embodiment of some communities and it truly holds meaning when exercised and lived as part of a community of like-minded people.

I don’t feel like universities foster that kind of thinking – especially when you spend upward of $70k per year to get a jazz degree, there’s something inherently wrong with the system. These institutions are now in kind of a closed loop which feeds on itself to justify itself. We would be much better served as musicians if only 25% of the resources allocated to jazz education went into music production: live performance spaces above ... But I guess I deviate at this point ...

I personally don’t feel that the ultimate way to come about this music happens in a jazz school, especially at a university level – meeting other musicians, teachers and students alike is probably the best thing these institutions have to offer. It does sound hypocritical of me seeing that I teach in a number of such institutions. However, I managed to carve a teaching platform which, at the very least, aligns with the same practices and goals I would implement in a non-institutional setting. Thanks to the pedagogic and artistic independence that has been granted to me by the schools where I teach – something necessary for any teacher to reconcile the spirit of the music with some institutional expectations.

In the Geneva School, I put together 10 years ago a large ensemble of about 10-12 musicians consisting mostly of teachers and a few alumni of the program. This ensemble’s sole goal is to bring to life the compositions of the students – something they all have to do twice a year. We meet regularly and play 3 concerts a year. I don’t know of any other jazz school in the world that has such a teachers ensemble dedicated to the work of their students.

For my own projects, I have often hired ex-students, or – and that is another subject – younger musicians I heard play in my performance space SEEDS. Just this past week, I played a concert in Singen, Germany with a new Quintet which mixed some masters: drummer Jorge Rossy, pianist David Virelles, and a great Swiss bassist Banz Oester, and for the occasion, a young 26-year-old guitarist Théo Duboule, whom I had met and mentored about 7 years ago. And he sounded great.

Most of the relevant lessons I learned playing this music were done in live settings, by musicians who play(ed) better and had more experience than me. I feel that it underlies some core values shared by a number of musical heritages: learning through filiation, under the supervision of a guide, or mentor. In that sense, I follow in the footsteps of the Hindustani musical tradition which operates mostly under the premise that this music is best taught by a guru.

To this day, I seek to surround myself by better musicians, regardless of age. And as I now feel I have a musical voice of my own, I try to emulate the masters who have passed their music onto me, downstream to younger musicians who are receptive to such teaching experience.

TC: Speaking of surrounding yourself with better musicians, the touring jazz bands of a prior era featured long-term personnel, but that has largely changed today, for various reasons, both aesthetic and economic. What advantages and challenges do you personally find in maintaining so many different groups?

OT: The diversity of projects I lead, or co-lead is essentially a reflection of my areas of interest. I don’t think that working with only one or two groups would be satisfactory and cover all the music(s) that resonate with me. I find meaning in what I do by addressing this pluralistic musical vision and connecting it all, in varying forms and gradations. All these repertoires and diversity of sounds inform each other and in term, allow for the growth of each one of these on their own.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the organic integration of improvisation with sophisticated orchestration and often complex, or abstract, compositional settings.

So, for example, the study of North Indian rhythmic language connects with some compositional aspects I love in Ligeti or Norgard, which in term are exploited within a specific improvisatory setting when played by musicians with a certain time feel. So on and so forth. It is a rewarding self-feeding loop which allows the music to be pushed further and for a coherent exploration of my own language.

That said, this vision has only coalesced in the past ten years or so. I had to go through a number of experiences, experimenting and trying things out for the sake of expurgating them out of my system first. It is a long process, mostly riddled with unsatisfactory musical results. In the end, I came to realize that my current creative arc needed to be expressed in three contrasting yet interconnected projects in order to allow the full exploration of my ideas. Hence a Sextet, a Trio, and a Large Ensemble (glorified Big Band). My Sextet, which I call “Newsreel” has been a grounding project. It also features the musicians who have been central to most of my other musical ventures. I am very lucky, so far, to have been able to collaborate with musicians who are not only torch bearers or innovators on their own, but above all, who share a similar artistic vision. But then, I rarely initiated a project with musicians whom I hadn’t previously met and established some kind of trusting relationship. Most of these long-term groups are the result of early encounters stemming from my initial New York days. It is mostly a matter of comfort; when it comes to my own playing, I come from a place of insecurity and it took me until the past few years to get to where I am now, where I feel comfortable enough to call anyone and play together.

“Maintaining" a project is a good way to describe the dynamic involved with regards to long term projects. To be able to fulfill an honest and balanced vision of the music I seek to explore in each one of these projects, it is important that I be able to play and write for somewhat of a steady group of musicians. Also, since the repertoire in each one of these projects is often demanding, it is difficult to ask a musician who’s never played the music before to come and fit in right away. In that sense, the advantage of working with the same group of musicians is clear.

I do have other longstanding working groups, but these are more collaborative efforts, including the Trio with Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum, or a two tenor saxophone quartet with my Swiss friend Christoph Irniger.

The main challenge with longstanding projects is paradoxically imbedded in the idea of a long-term collaboration and is the danger of stagnation or falling into a comfort zone which would prevent growth. Maybe it’s been the case? It is hard to say when one’s perspective is so close to the music and the people who play it. Hopefully, my own restlessness and maybe a sense of insecurity might have prevented any artistic idling.

The group of musicians whom I have been collaborating with for so long: Dan Weiss, Miles Okazaki, Jacob Sacks, Shane Endsley, Russ Johnson, etc. just to name a few, I have been playing with since the mid-90s. All of them have evolved along their own path and grown tremendously. Typically, I met drummer Dan Weiss in 1996 at the Manhattan School of Music when he was 19. We started playing regularly from 1998 onward, but he was nowhere the musician he is now. I guess, similarly for a number of other musicians of my generation whom I started working with then: Jason Moran, Jacob Garchik, etc. Very much of my own growth has been, if not predicated by, definitely related to their own growth and evolution as musicians, even though our careers took different paths.

Another potentially negative aspect of having to lead (too) many musical ventures is that I cannot put as much effort in each one of them separately with the same consistency that would be required if I had just one main project to deal with.

I think I have been mostly able to avoid this trap by scheduling work around each group carefully. Making sure that they do not overlap so as to remain focused on just one repertoire at the time. But it would have been so much easier with just one project.

The negative commercial repercussions are inevitable, however. When the narrative for a musician becomes too complicated to be carried out beyond soundbite length sentences, it invariably affects its standing in the jazz ecosystem. When you are about “too many things” and not easy to be framed, then how can you be commercialized with ease? Not that I think that I am about too many things – I do believe that my musical output is connected in a coherent esthetic – but having that many groups, with seemingly different repertoire can be a hard sell for the general public out there.

TC: As a composer, do you write parts with specific players in mind, or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes are open to interpretation by different groups of players? Similarly, how do the personal and/or stylistic dynamics of individual band members shape the inner workings of those groups?

OT: It really depends on the situation. For the projects which include longstanding collaborators such as my Sextet or Trio or with a few other musicians whom I have been playing with for many years, I always compose music which takes into account what they can do and their area of comfort. By area of comfort, I mean how much I can stretch the compositional or instrumental demands without compromising the end result because said demands put an impossible burden on the musicians. That’s really my favorite way to go about composing.

I feel spoiled because some of these musicians can basically play anything I put in front of their eyes. They either already thought of it and practiced this particular idea, or their approach is so sound and secure that they will tackle the challenge and embrace it as another stepping stone for their own musical growth. It is a wonderful attitude to be surrounded with, and a constant source of inspiration. And I’d say this is very much a trademark of the New York scene.

Even though a lot of my music is very scripted and puts emphasis on the information (or sometime total lack of it) on the page, when played by these musicians the end result is very much indebted to their musicianship and personalities. And that’s what I want. The control happens during the writing process. But once the information in front of the musicians, it’s in their hands.

With some large ensembles, I have no choice but to write not knowing the individuals who will be playing. So, this presents another set of challenges. I wasn’t really good at it, and it took me a while to figure a way to compose whereas my ideas would still find a way to be translated correctly without losing their essence. I don’t mean this to sound pretentious. A lot of what I go for, as I have mentioned earlier, is rooted in a more prismatic conception of music. So, for instance, I want to assume that whoever is playing this part has an intimate experience of swing, knows about jazz at large, is not lost when dealing with compound rhythms or is not afraid to use extend techniques on their horns, etc. These are for the most part unrealistic expectations. It has taught me a great deal over the years. How can I find solutions in the writing to translate a specific musical idea which can be played by most ensembles? Because of that, I have had to learn to shift my focus and often rework some parts in order to make sure that these get played right in order to accommodate a specific group of musicians. Interestingly it’s got mostly to do with rhythms and the various languages appended to it.

Of course, the context for which I have to write plays an important role. Original music is one thing, but I do get a lot of work arranging other people’s music for various size ensembles, and that places its own sets of demands on the process. I try to follow the same guidelines as I would in my own music, which oftentimes leads me to a conversation with whoever’s music I have to arrange (if they’re still alive!) where I ask them if it is OK that I re-appropriate the music to myself, even if this means transforming it and they can’t recognize it. My experience is that they almost all say yes, until they hear the result! Then it takes them time to get around to liking it, or not!

TC: Considering your ability to navigate multiple styles and genres in myriad ensembles, are there any aspects of the jazz or classical tradition you currently find inspiring and/or any established practices you find creatively constraining?

OT: I feel that music is an embodiment of something universal that can ring true beyond genres or styles, or beyond its constitutive language. Some practices are more influential on me than others. I tend to shy away from the purely “entertainment” practice of the music. Though I value, and love the connection with an audience, I don’t feel that it necessarily needs to be translated using the lowest common denominator such as over simplified 4/4 grooves, loud and fast, showiness, etc.

I would say that for the most part, any one tradition which is played and guided by foundational values I hold true is a source of inspiration. This makes it both tremendously rich and at the same time can be a source of immense confusion, or frustration!

Jazz and classical/contemporary/avant garde (or whatever you want to call the music) are such open and fluid ecosystems today, some sort of gigantic tree that keeps on expanding. But there are still fundamental aspects and practices I am looking for within each branch. For the most part, it’s got to do with an awareness and true practice of the “roots” of this tree; core elements which are based on the integration of the language, as impersonated by the masters who came up with it. This speaks about the idea of responsibility, something I keenly engage with other artists whenever talking about creative art – or beyond when we look at societal issues at large of course. By responsibility I don’t mean some intrinsic sense of ethics which is built-in in any art form, but more an open attitude at the source of the artistic gesture whereas the artist is engaged in whatever he/she/they produce in full awareness of the interconnected dynamics that give meaning to the art produced. This may sound vague, but it plays a huge role in what I find inspiring or not whenever I listen to, see, or witness art. I have never heard someone play a jazz tune, having invented on the spot a meaningful improvisatory language from scratch. Or it’s difficult for me to resonate to a string quartet playing from a helicopter.

I guess it boils down to looking for something “necessarily universal.” Sounds pompous and very Kantian, but at this point; what the hell.

The music and musicians I resonate to or with the most today are people who are more often than not involved in some sort of interdisciplinary dynamic. Of course, I love to hear master musicians play a style in its purest and most absolute form: Charlie Parker, Nikhil Banerjee, Doudou N’Diaye Rose, etc. but today I don’t know that it entirely satisfies me anymore. So, it is the integration of multiple languages into something new that I often find a source of inspiration. It is also the integration of new instrumental practices; electronics/analog or not, acoustic instruments played through electronics and DAW based music interacting organically with live musicians. There is a whole field to be explored which I have been engaged with as of late and I am at the same point of excitement with it that I felt when I started playing the saxophone!

TC: In reference to performing, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

OT: I think that both live or in the studio, the challenge is to accept what comes out, knowing that a recording setting will magnify details in your playing, and to some extent the writing, and it is often unsettling. So, in an ideal world I would love these two environments to be connected, as in an extension of each other. But the settings dictate much of the experience and it’s rarely the case.

Most of my recordings were done in a way that tried to emulate a sense of playing live. Starting with my early albums for the Knitting Factory label or the first couple string projects with Konitz, which were all recorded live to 2 tracks in the studio with limited edits. A what you play is what you get kind of deal. And I still enjoy this formula. But with more challenging music, it is good to have some measure of flexibility which allows for things to be fixed later. Sure, it does compromise the sanctity of an uninterrupted live performance, but often, mostly for the sake of the written material, I feel that the result – when done responsibly and tactfully – is worth this sacrifice. And I am at point now where I feel secure enough and accepting of what comes out in my playing that it doesn’t really make sense to do more than one or two takes. It's usually as good as it will get.

I have been using SEEDS, the performance space I have in my house, for a number of recordings, including both Adam Nussbaum Lead Belly Projects and the Trio with Miles Okazaki and Dan Weiss. We were all playing in the same room and in close proximity, which doesn’t allow for much editing, however it created a space which is the closest thing to a live performance. I think that if I had the means to do it, I would definitely go for live recordings to document my projects, in parallel to studio recordings, then find a way to bring out the best out of both settings.

TC: In the same line of thought, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry, especially regarding archival copies (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

OT: I think it’s a bigger question than can be addressed here, and I don’t know that I am really qualified to answer it.

I would say this, however; from a musician perspective, part of the issue is control of the content, which includes the share of revenue, from hard copies or digital.

From an audience standpoint, this is about having access to legitimate content – and not just truncated wiki-size bites for immediate consumption, and also about having access to relevant information or true narrative about the music and the musicians.

The problem is complex since musicians don’t profit from the sales of streams anywhere close to the numbers which they were getting when selling hard copies. But on the other hand, you can legitimately argue that your music, once on the internet, is accessible worldwide. So, what’s that trade-off?

Clearly things are not balanced, with a handful of mega-corporations reaping the proceeds without an equal sharing system.

It also puts amateurs who decide to release albums online of music they created on Garageband in an hour on a quasi-equal footing with professional musicians who spent their lives on their art.

It puts a weird emphasis on what it means to be “successful” in the digital age. Musicians who are Instagram stars and maybe without any of the fundamentals or necessary attributes discussed earlier become valued in ways which are harmful for the creative scene at large.

There is room however for any new growth in music, including one that’s consumed in one-minute increments on a small 2x3 screen via micro speakers. Is it a reality which proposes a set of constraints that can be harnessed creatively? I feel it is very much so, and in that sense, I am curious and open to it.

I grew up with cassette tapes, LPs, and CDs, and still own over a thousand of these, but today I use digital for most of the music I listen to. And I don’t know that I find it inferior in terms of quality. However, I make a point of buying each album I like. I use Bandcamp, since this seems to be the most serious and supportive environment out there and a number of my friends turned to this model very successfully.

That’s a solution I can live with for now.

TC: In conclusion, the inevitable question is how have you been handling the pandemic and what projects do you have planned for the immediate future?

OT: The pandemic and lockdown have been difficult, but it mostly had to do with family issues. I have two children and as a single father had my hands full addressing their respective needs. It was a transition period for both, and it was important that I take the time to be present more than ever.

The loss of Lee toward the beginning of the pandemic also contributed to make things heavier. It happened while New York’s suffering was at its worst so the sadness and hurt got compounded.

Then like many other musicians I tried to stay relevant and active while being locked home. So, there were a fair number of small music video projects and attempts at completing various loose ends. Nothing really successful nor meaningful I might add, other than maybe renovating my basement ...

My teaching, which I had been doing online anyway since 2010, didn’t really get affected, other than the workload effectively getting heavier. Teaching provides me with the financial lifeline to keep my head above water and be able to concentrate on other things, and this is invaluable, especially in a time of crisis.

But my situation was not as bad as many of my peers by virtue of the fact that I was able to travel to Europe regularly from the spring 2020 onward in order to teach and even play concerts, and throughout most of the lockdown. I was spared the brunt of the negative effects, something I am grateful for.

For the immediate future, the plan is to conclude this long artistic arc I have been on for the past 10-12 years. So much of what I have been composing and playing deals with the integration of complex writing, Hindustani music and improvisation: “Layas”; the piano concerto for double orchestras written for Jason Moran and Dan Weiss, the Sextet and the Trio are all rooted in the same vision. I have one more project which will bring a sense of completion to these areas of interest. It is a set of 12 Études for Large Ensemble (Big Band). The aim with this repertoire is to explore a number of constraints and complexities along the similar lines as the classical études from composers such as Debussy, and in particular Ligeti. I don’t think it’s ever been done, at least not to the extent that I am going for and for this particular vernacular. So far, I have already written four of them but I need the time to complete the remaining eight. Then find the necessary funding, which is considerable, to record, and hopefully play a couple of concerts prior. Thankfully I have the support of the wonderful Intakt Records label. They released the Sextet and the Trio and will work to make the large ensemble album a reality.

I also want to dive into a couple of universes which have been calling me for a while:

First, re-visit the repertoire of people like Dewey Redman (who is the only saxophonist besides Lee whom I took lessons from in my twenties), Ornette Coleman, Muhal Richard Abrams, etc. I want to play a lot more with musicians who have been informed by these universes and allow myself the space to explore playing these colors. The quartet with pianist David Virelles is a group I am looking forward to exploring further.

Then, there is the whole electronic and analog synthesizer world. One of my closest friends, Denis Lee from Brazil has been instrumental in opening many doors and he introduced me to a synthesizer maker in Sao Paulo, Arthur Joly, who designed one especially for me. I have slowly been integrating it into my own musical world, (I have a duo with the drummer Gerald Cleaver who shares similar interests) but I also feel that I need to study this technology seriously first before being able to produce any kind of meaningful music.

Finally, I would like to compose thru-composed music for non-improvising – new music musicians or ensembles. I did start a few pieces such as a piece for solo cello or a quartet for string trio and bass clarinet. But that’s dependent on commissions coming my way so here is manifesting for some of this music to come to life!


© 2022 Troy Collins

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