Music is better than we are – an in-depth interview with Patricia Barber

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Chapter 1: Angels, Birds and Us – the trip to Vienna 

Every year, I spend January 1 performing a very cherished ritual.

From the moment I get out of bed, I retire to the living room with a large cup of coffee and two daily planners. One is for the previous year, the other for the one that’s just starting. I don’t answer the phone, don’t reply to e-mails or even turn on the computer. For up to ten hours, I’m engrossed in a meticulous routine during which I’m completely isolated from the world. It’s my favorite day of the year.

For exactly a decade I’ve been keeping a daily journal, recording everything I do and all that’s important to me. I write down my schedule, the amount of work I get done and the specific way I relax afterwards. I document where I go and whom I meet, whom I talk to on the phone or online and the topics of our conversation. In case Ioana and I happen to be traveling, I mention the places we visit.

My new year’s ritual consists of meticulously studying every entry in the old planner and occasionally writing down important information in the new one – names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, birthdays and appointments.

The entire first day of every year since 2007 has been dedicated to one long, detailed trip down memory lane. It’s not only an effective mental exercise that has verifiably improved my memory, but also an opportunity to reminisce. It’s a chance to come to terms with the lows but, more importantly, to relive the highs.

Once in a while, something so cool happens that I get excited at the prospect of reliving it even while the event is still taking place. Which brings me to December 3, two days before my thirty-first birthday.

Exactly four weeks after the monumental Bagatelles marathon wherein I got to see a great number of my favorite musicians live, I once again found myself inside the legendary Porgy & Bess, this time staring at a photograph of one of my absolute creative role models, Chicago-born composer, pianist and vocalist Patricia Barber.

The night of the Zorn concert I kept thinking that a bucket-list experience like that was a fitting event to close off an intense, capricious year and usher in the lull of the winter holidays. Little did I know that, for The Music and Myth, 2016 was far from over.

Those who have been following The Music and Myth over the years know what Patricia Barber’s work means to me. I’ve discovered her a short while after setting up the website (and, implicitly, starting my study of serious music) and her phenomenal record Smash has been a constant presence in the Cherascu household ever since.

I’ve never shied away from expressing my opinion that Smash is one of the best records in any genre in recent memory. This flawless, profoundly lyrical and thematically comprehensive work has even inspired me to create The Music and Myth Awards as a response to its artistically criminal omission from the 2014 Grammy ballot. Simultaneously, it has inspired me to ridicule NARAS at every turn, which has become almost as notable a tradition as the prestigious Music and Myth Awards themselves.

For Ioana and me, seeing Patricia in concert meant fulfilling a musical ambition that dated back almost four years. But there was another longtime goal I was looking to achieve: sitting down for an interview with one of music’s most captivating storytellers.

On Friday evening, one day before the concert, I was standing outside Patricia’s hotel on the Vienna beltway. The interview was scheduled for 22:00 but I’d arrived early, accompanied by my usual jazz-traveling party: my wife and in-laws. I spent that hour at the ground floor restaurant, mostly fretting about where the hell I was going to conduct the interview, since the establishment was uncomfortably loud and the receptionist had assured me that there was absolutely no other communal space in the boutique hotel. I knew from walking around the area that there were no other quiet spots in the vicinity, so I was left anxious and irritated.

My anxiety was instantly dispelled when Patricia came down to meet us in the lobby (I’d asked Ioana to join me for the interview). There was something about the distinguished musician’s personality that gave me the feeling I’d known her for years. She greeted us like friends and we proceeded to look for the quietest place we could find. A quick inspection instantly disqualified the cramped locale, so Patricia just shrugged and said, “My room?”

We took the elevator up to the fifth floor, while Patricia recounted how she’d had to call the reception to get an extra chair, because there was only one in the room.

“I told them, ‘I need more than one chair, I’m an old person’,” she joked. “This is a children’s hotel.” We laughed and she turned to Ioana. “See, but now you’re going to have to sit on the bed.”

Chapter 2: Post-Enlightenment Free – the interview

Patricia, I know you’ve been struggling with a cold for the past few days. How are you feeling now? 

It’s fine. It’s over.

That’s good to know. First, let me say, we’re happy to have you back in Europe.

Thank you.

I know you haven’t been here in 2016, but you’ve been here many times over the years. Can you discern a difference between the jazz scene in Europe compared to the United States?

I can’t tell because I’m only playing these specific clubs, so I can’t tell if you have more than that… in Vienna, for instance, more than Porgy and Bess. So I can’t tell you what it’s like in Europe, unfortunately. You’d have to live there for a while to understand.

When you’re traveling, do you have the chance to collaborate with European musicians or play together at festivals?

No. We go like this (she makes a gesture of the hand to symbolize going directly from one place to the next).

Do you always go to the same venues?

No. Budapest, for example, was a different hall – a wonderful, wonderful experience. But often… I’ve been to Porgy & Bess, I’ve been to the New Morning in Paris. So, some are new, some are old.

You’re a resident musician at the Green Mill in Chicago…

Yeah. I play every Monday.

How did you end up collaborating with them?

I had been working at the Gold Star Sardine Bar, which was a very popular club; a very nice club. The only thing about the Gold Star was that [the owner] insisted that I do standards, which I got to know very well after nine years there. I knew them anyway, but I got to know them extremely well. But I had a feeling that I wanted to write my own music and that wasn’t okay with him. So I sat home for about a year (laughs). I took time off. I wasn’t sure I still wanted to do this. And Dave Jemilo called me on the phone and said, “Why don’t you just come in Sunday night and see what happens?” I said okay. So I did that. And from there we went Sundays and Mondays and it became very full and then we stayed on Mondays.

For how long have you been playing there regularly?

We don’t know. Dave and I don’t count exactly. Eighteen years… something like this.

That’s a long time.

It’s a long time.

So, basically, your career developed simultaneously with this ongoing gig.

(Art this point I dropped my notebook and papers and spent a while picking them up off the floor. I joked about the fact that I’m Romanian and that until 1989 we barely had electricity, which is why I prefer good old fashioned pen and paper over modern technology. Patricia agreed that “paper doesn’t run out of batteries.”)

I remember playing in Romania and it was raining on the Steinway piano. I was so upset. I wanted to cover the piano instead of continuing the concert.

This always happens at the Garana Jazz Festival. I don’t think they’ve had a single year without a downpour. In fact, I was going to ask you whether you had any notable memories from performing in Romania.  

That was my memory. “Oh, my God, we can’t let it rain on the piano (laughs).” But it was a beautiful place up there on that mountain. And that hotel was really, really beautiful… just gorgeous.

On October 5 at the Ear Taxi Festival you debuted a new song cycle called Angels, Birds and I. Are your concerts in Europe going to revolve around this new project? Will you be presenting it for us tomorrow? 

Yes. I’ve been putting [the songs] in the concerts, but not like a song cycle, in order. Because that takes a very special kind of situation and this is not that. But I have been putting them in the concerts, two or three per set and they definitely influence the set, they definitely influence the whole vibe… the sound.

When you put together the set list for a concert, do you specifically look for a narrative coherence? Do you pick the order of the songs based on their topic?

No. It has much more to do with tempo, pacing, key. To make a difference between those things for the audience, who may have never heard me before and they’re not so interested in the five tunes. So it has to do with tempo, key, variation, time signature.

Tell me a bit about this song cycle. I know the songs are built around your fascination with singers, specifically opera singers. How did this project start?   

The first song I wrote is called “Higher.” I wrote this one for my mother, who was a great singer. So that was what brought me to the singing. Singing to her when she was dying was a great source of relief for her and I also wanted to tell her that it’s okay to go. So,this is called “Higher”, meaning…

(she quotes from the song)

And you my true love

Have been stilled by pain

Grounded in silence

On Earth you’ll remain

Until an Air

Blows in like spring

You’ll be young again

Raise your voice, take wing

So it’s a song meant to ease the transition.

Yes, but using song, using music. That started it. After that started, I wrote another song. Then, Renée Fleming came into the jazz club. She had been at the club before and we just enjoy each other’s company. I said, “Is there something you’d like to hear?” and she showed me her iPhone which had a very specific list of my songs. Some of them were these songs and some were other songs like “Scream”, which she also sings and it sounds beautiful, really beautiful. Working with her, I wrote more songs and then she would take them and so I wrote some more songs. “Surrender” she also sang and I accompanied her. We ended up doing a concert together in Chicago, New York and Washington DC of my music – only my music. So a lot of these songs have become art songs, because they don’t really need a drummer.

When you performed them together, did you also sing or just play piano?

I played. I played, she sang.

So you wrote the other songs with Renée in mind.

In the middle of it, I did. In fact, “Voyager”, which I’ve done and I’ll probably do tomorrow night, is written with her in mind. It is definitely about Renée Fleming. It’s definitely about her or the phenomenon of the operatic singer. Then, “The Opera Song” I wrote for her – only for her – which I probably won’t do tomorrow night and “Muse” I wrote for her. “Muse” is the culmination of the five-song cycle. I became the god of music because I’m the protagonist, I’m the one writing music. And the god makes a contract in agreement with her – “If I give you music, will you give me form?” As gods always want mortal form.

When you’re writing music, do you perceive yourself as a songwriter first, then a vocalist or pianist?

It’s hard to say. Different times, different things, you know? Sometimes I feel like playing the piano, sometimes I feel like singing. I love composing, but it’s a very solitary activity. Being an introvert, I think that I could do that only and then just change the keys and hand them to Renée, or hand them to somebody else and I think I’d be relatively happy with that. But music is dead if it’s not communicated… it’s just dead. You write it and it has to go out and have a relationship with people, otherwise it doesn’t work. So, I’m stuck in this situation; once I write this music I have to play it and sing it for somebody, otherwise it doesn’t work. They have to hear it and I have to understand in some way that they understand it. I have to know in some way that they get it. They don’t have to get it all the way, but it has to work in some way. Just musically perhaps, harmonically, lyrically… you know?

Who is the first person you play new music for? Is it your wife?

Often. Often it’s Martha, yeah.

I remember talking to Neil Cowley about this. I asked him if he ever got feedback from his family and he joked that he’s sensitive and he’s scared of what his wife would say. That she has, I quote, “the unfortunate habit of saying the things that will make me cry the most.” That’s why I was wondering about the first person to hear your songs.   

Martha, definitely Martha. But then I send it to two or three people. Renée is one these days. If it’s this kind of a song, I send it to her. And, whatever she’s doing… she’s all over the world, she’s busy right now, especially this year… but she always gets back to me.

Where did this interest in opera and classical music, especially the classical musician, originate?

It started… well, with Martha. Martha’s an expert in 18th century opera; it’s her field… Mozart and the castrati… She’s written three big books and won a bunch of book awards now. She introduced me to classical music twenty years ago. Since then, I’ve been listening to opera, just amazed sometimes. The first time I heard Verdi, I was amazed. But I started to feel trapped by the harmonic language of jazz. It’s very specific, very strict. So I went to a friend of ours – whom she’s out with tonight, in fact – Shulamit Ran. She’s a great composer. She’s won a Pulitzer prize and everything. I went to her for a few harmony lessons and she taught me – it was like a magic key that she gave me – she taught me how to break apart or break away from that very strict harmonic system of jazz.

Since then, it’s been crazy. I mean, even on Smash, a lot of those things are stepping outside of the normal jazz harmonic system. You can see that influence starting very early on in pieces like “The Wind Song”. Some of those chords I go to on the bridge are not jazz. You would not expect them to happen. Way back in “Morpheus” – that was 1993, when I won that Guggenheim fellowship – I started stepping outside. And for “Morpheus” I used Schumman.

I studied Schumman and watched the way that he moved his chords and I kind of based “Morpheus” loosely on that kind of idea. So this is an art song, there’s no reason to have a drummer. Any opera singer can sing it. Shulamit told me as soon as I put them in a book, they will.

What’s the plan going forward with this? Do you plan on extending the song cycle or will you keep it to five?

This particular one ends at five because the god of music has struck the deal with the singer and she gets what she wants – she gets to be inside the sinner’s skin. She gets to know what it feels like to be the opera singer. I didn’t realize when I started the song that it would be the end but that is the end. They’ve merged. There will be more songs and they may be art songs or not, but that song cycle is done.

Do you plan on recording it in any form?

Yes, I would like to. I was just having a conversation on the computer with Paris. TSF wants to record the concert and I’m saying, “Not yet.” These songs haven’t been recorded and I don’t want to record them at a live concert. So we’re having this discussion.

Why not?

The first time they’re heard I want to make sure they’re right. I want to make sure they’re perfect.

This is decidedly not a jazz approach.

Right. Well, I have so many of those songs I can do, but this song cycle is different.

How would you envision your next record?

I don’t know. I just finished the five songs, so I want to take my time. This isn’t the problem. Everybody’s telling me, “We need a record.” First of all, I think the album is outdated. I’m not sure I want to do that anymore. I just did a live CD from the Green Mill. You can get it on my website and it’s really fun. It sounds exactly like the Green Mill, including the bus that comes by – you can hear the bus.

Now that’s a jazz approach.

That’s really fun. I’m not sure I want to hand myself over to any kind of record company anymore. I think that it’s old fashioned, but I’m the minority at this point. But I’m sure I’m right… I’m sure I’m right (laughs). So I will record a CD or an album with the five songs, but I haven’t written the rest of them. I have time.

Nothing in the immediate future, then.  

No.

I definitely think you can take your time. Smash will undoubtedly stand on its own for a long time.

Well, I feel that way. I definitely feel that way. There’s no hurry. I just feel completely confident in the path I’m taking right now. It’s definitely not consistent with the path that other musicians are taking.

Did you maybe feel that the record company or the record format didn’t do [Smash] justice? Is this doubt about putting out another traditional record somehow connected to your experience with Smash?

Well, they didn’t do justice to it at all. But I think that’s partly because of the times, you know? The record companies are just falling apart. They have nothing really to offer anybody and they just take the money from individuals. If I offer an album on my website, I can actually make some money… not a lot, but some. And that seems more fitting to me, so we’ll see. People threaten me all the time, “If you don’t do this, this is going to happen to you” and I’m like, “What is the worst that can happen to me?” What is the worst that can happen to me? What? I don’t come back to this club for a while? So what? I don’t care… I just don’t care.

As you know Smash is one of my all-time favorite records. It also inspired The Music and Myth Awards back in 2014 when I chose it Best Vocal Record. As the person who inspired The Muisc and Myth awards, I was wondering who you’d pick as Best Vocal Record and Best Instrumental record for this year. It can be from any genre.   

Renée Fleming, Berg. That Berg album is great. And Shulamit Ran, Glitter, Shards, Doom, Memory. Her latest string quartet is unbelievable. The Pacifica Quartet plays it. And they did an amazing series of Shostakovich.

So, these are the best records of the year.

For me, you know? This is what I’ve listened to.

That’s what the Music and Myth Awards is all about: the listener’s personal experience with the music. When I write my Music and Myth awards article every January, I always make a point out of stating that these are my subjective picks. My point being that any awards are entirely subjective and anyone who claims otherwise is lying. Music is an individual experience; nobody can conduct an objective evaluation. NARAS has no idea what they’re doing…

No. Not at all.

It’s all just somebody’s personal opinion. This is the cornerstone of The Music and Myth Awards. I just wanted to bring this up since it all started with you and Smash. But going back to Angels, Birds and I, is there any other musician you’d like to hear performing these songs?  

All of them (laughs). As many as I can get. I mean, all of them that I love and admire. My music might, in fact, appeal to people like this, as it appeals to Renée. I would love to get Philippe Jaroussky to do a thing but, you know, he’s too famous. I would love to get Alice Coote, a mezzo-soprano – a low mezzo-soprano – to do some of these tunes. So… many, many people.

How about Angela Gheorghiu? My wife is a great fan of her work and I know you are too.  

Oh yeah, she’s pretty special.

I don’t listen to a lot of classical and opera. I mean, I can listen, but I don’t presume to understand its complexity. I’ve always been drawn mostly to jazz and world music.

I’d love for great jazz singers to sing this. I’ve been trying to get Sheila Jordan to sing one of my songs forever, but it’s not happening. I don’t think that she reads music, so it would take some time for her pianist to teach it to her. But any great jazz musician. Kurt Elling sang “The New Year’s Eve Song” and it sounds great. And it’s getting more and more play, I can see it from my royalty statements.

Speaking of royalty statements, could you tell me a bit about what it’s like for jazz musicians nowadays trying to support themselves from their art. Al Di Meola told me that people are buying a steadily decreasing number of records in the U.S and that, I quote, “there’s not one CD store in the U.S.” What is it like now compared to ten, fifteen years ago?  

You mean the computer? Oh… well, it took away our living. It took away any payment from writing songs. So I would think that people who might consider writing songs for a profession will not do it anymore. I can’t imagine how they would start. They can make money in concerts but… I used to make really good money writing songs and now I make none. Zero. Songwriting is just zero. Spotify and all… they have taken it all.

As a self-published author, I understand the situation very well. But I have to admit that the internet has helped me discover so much new music and so many musicians whom I’d never have known otherwise. I ended up buying their records and going to their shows.  

There are good things. There are good things about it. It’s hard for anybody. If you make shoes or you make rocket ships, somehow the value of it… You know, if you don’t get paid for it, somehow it screws around with your head a little bit. But I’m very independent. I’ve been so independent all my life so it doesn’t screw around with me as much as other people but it’s definitely something… it’s definitely a thing. Because I started buying real estate when I was twenty-six, I can survive.

So it’s not exclusively music then.

No, I can survive because I bought real estate. I rent places, you know? Even today… I’ll be on the road and someone writes to me and says, “Where’s the milk?”

Do they know they’re renting places from Patricia Barber?

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

That seems like it should drive the price up.

Well, Air BnB is making it so that you can do that. And sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But most people – ninety-nine percent – enjoy it when I practice (laughs).

Because we were talking about singers and your new song cycle being about singers, I wanted to ask you a related question. You have a very unique way of expressing yourself as a vocalist. There’s a certain particularity about your delivery that involves not only your timbre, but also your intonation, your speech tempo. Does it come naturally or is it something you’ve practiced and developed? Are you aware of it while you perform?  

Yeah, people tell me that and I don’t exactly know what they’re referring to, which is fine. I don’t look into it too deeply. I did, of course, work as a singer when I was young, to stay in tune. I worked as a singer to keep the hands in exact metric time and to loosen up my voice so that’s like a two… double-brain thing. I worked on all those things but… no.

You’re not aware of it.

No, no.

This is a question I ask almost everyone. Being a science fiction author, it’s somewhat of a trademark question in my interviews. If you could travel back in time to the moment when you first realized you wanted to pursue a career in music, what would you tell yourself?   

I would say, “Do what you love. Always do what you love.” Because I get up in the morning and I do what I love. The financial aspect… you have to think of something. If you have some other idea that can help you, if you can start investing when you’re young, that would be great. Maybe not in the stock market but something else. I don’t trust the stock market right now, with the way things are. I never have. I’m not very good at it. I’m good at a buildings and windows and toilets and stuff like that.

In recent years, the political sphere has been dominated by a powerfully divisive rhetoric and there seems to be growing anger and discord all over the world. Do you think that musicians can play a part in bringing people together or help bridge the gap or should music stay completely outside of politics and current world events?

I think music is very healing. I was very political during the election; I worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. I know her. But when I go into the concert hall or the jazz club I do not speak of it. Because, to me, music is better than all of that. Music is, interestingly, the one thing that survives centuries. It survives Aleppo being razed to the ground. Music will survive that, and it floats over the centuries and it comes to us in the form it was in the fourteenth century or the tenth century, it still comes to us. Music is amazing that way.

Now, having said that… some of my songs are political. They have been in the past, less so now, because I’ve been interested more in universal themes. Sometimes my songs are political, so you can tell kind of where I stand on the political scale. And I’ve had to pay for that in terms of… I’ve been banned from certain venues and certain radio stations because of the content of my lyrics.

Did it ever affect the way you compose?

It didn’t before, but now the U.S is different so, I don’t know… It probably won’t affect the way I compose. But when I was working for Hillary Clinton, I would have to take the pins and everything off before I went into the club, to make sure that I was just neutral. And I took out the songs that were political. I used to write funny songs about Bill Clinton and Obama – I took them out. Because I don’t want someone to be uncomfortable. I just think music is better… it’s just better than we are. It’s just better. You can give someone something better than what we have on this Earth.

I think you just gave me the title of my article.

That’s good (smiles).

I have just one more question. This one is from Ioana. Will you be performing “Scream” tomorrow night? 

Chapter 3: An Angry Song – the performance

“Yes,” she said, flashing a mysterious smile whose significance we would discover the following evening. We told her that “Scream” is Ioana’s and my favorite and she seemed pleased to hear that.

We said our goodbyes and I was surprised and delighted to find out that Patricia reads science fiction, as I’d brought along a copy of my first book as a gift – a token of appreciation for being so generous with her time. After getting to talk to her so extensively and getting a glimpse inside the mind of this thoroughly dedicated musician, we were even more excited about the upcoming concert.

We arrived at the venue thirty minutes early and were seated at a balcony table, right above Patricia’s piano. By the time the artist walked out and informally introduced herself and her band, the place was packed. When she started playing, I realized why meeting her the other night had felt so familiar.

It’s a rare thing among musicians – and indeed artists of any kind – but Patricia Barber the person resembles Patricia Barber the artist almost perfectly. It’s like she is a walking embodiment of her music: captivating, graceful and intelligent, candid but at the same time somewhat mysterious. On stage, her confident and charismatic presence belies the stage fright she claims to suffer from to this day. Her rapport with the audience is reserved but sincere, and her crowd interactions never come off as forced or pandering.

Perhaps the most heartwarming aspect of her performance was the very visible degree of intimacy between the pianist and her instrument. She seemed to relate to the venue’s trademark Fazioli as an old friend, not just a tool of the trade, at times seeming as though she and the piano were speaking a language only they could understand, complete with its own set of private jokes.

Though Patricia’s incomparable voice and the aforementioned particularities of her delivery can be so captivating as to demand the listener’s full attention, her piano playing is equally distinctive. Her percussive and unrestrained technique stands in fascinating contrast with her deep voice and controlled cadence, giving the songs a feeling of strength, even when she sings – in her own words – “a bad song” like Sinatra’s “This Town” or – in my words – fantastic songs like “Code Cool”, “The Moon”, “Caravan” or “You Gotta Go Home”.

Her band consisted of longtime collaborators Patrick Mulcahy (bass) and Jon Deitemyer (drums) whose performance was absolutely commendable for the subtle ways in which it enriched and highlighted Patricia’s articulation, without ever distracting from or stepping out of the songwriter’s creative identity.

For us, the highlight of the evening came right at the end. After the musicians left the stage to enthusiastic applause, they returned for an encore of “Light My Fire” before leaving again without having played “Scream”. I realized the significance of Patricia’s smile from the night before – she’d been planning to close the with “Scream”, demonstrating a brilliant insight into narrative coherence after all.

“It’s an angry song,” Patricia said, telling the audience that she’d been feeling rather angry herself lately. “Perhaps I’ll record an entire album of angry songs,” she mused.

After the first encore, the band returned to a standing ovation. When they started playing “Scream”, it took me back to the time I’d heard Mark Knopfler playing “Telegraph Road” in Budapest. For someone born in a country that was, until fairly recently, musically and artistically isolated, hearing your favorite musicians playing your favorite songs carries just a touch of otherworldliness that would be hard to imagine for someone from a different background.

There isn’t a lot to say about the band’s rendition of this modern-day anthem. It was perfect, start to finish. Perfect. Any attempt to describe it would not do it justice and might even be discourteous. “Scream” is, by excellence, a song that speaks for itself and demands to be experienced.

The feeling of otherworldliness persisted long after the excellent concert. On our way home, while waiting for the subway, I thought back to a few hours before. We were having dinner at a restaurant close to the venue. The Music and Myth’s Patron Saint, Sofia Rei, had just texted me to talk about a new project she’ll be bringing to Europe in 2017. She asked me how the Zorn show was and I told her that I’m actually back in Vienna, just an hour away from seeing Patricia Barber in concert.

The surrealness of that moment instantly made me think how exciting it will be to relive the experience on January 1. Now, just a few hours away from my yearly ritual, the day I think about the most is the day I started The Music and Myth. I think about how much I’ve learned, how far I’ve come and what an incredible journey it’s been.

Happy New Year!

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Authenticity through awareness – an in-depth interview with Sofia Rei

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Photo by Sandrine Lee

If you are familiar with my work, then you know The Music and Myth is very dear to me. It’s a project I set up almost three years ago for no other reason than to share with the world my sincere passion for music and my fascination with this superb form of storytelling. I dedicate countless hours of my life to sifting through the latest in excellent music and then writing about it in order to help promote the artists I love and the products of their extraordinary talent.

But that doesn’t mean that the Music and Myth is not a personally rewarding creative outlet.  On the contrary, whenever I receive an e-mail from a reader telling me they’ve checked out a particular artist’s work, bought their record or went to their concert because they read about it on my website, I am on top of the world, both as a fan and as an independent artist myself. But it goes beyond that.

Through this website I’ve had the chance to meet and talk to musicians I’ ve admired for years, discover exciting new music  and even make new friends. Whenever I have the chance to interact with these wonderfully talented and dedicated artists, it is a creatively inspirational and all around soul-enriching experience.

I consider the following article my crowning achievement as a music writer. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with my absolutely favorite vocalist, the exceptionally gifted and disarmingly brilliant Sofia Rei. Her work has been a staple of my musical experience for over a year, as well as a spring of creative energy.

I met Sofia a day before her concert in Vienna, which was part of her most recent European tour. I had a chance to sit down with her for an in-depth interview. From the start, my ambition was to write the most comprehensive article ever written about this talented musician, as a tribute to her always inspiring work. The lengthy feature contains the story of my feverish (literally) six hour car ride, a review of the concert as well as the interview, which I have left almost verbatim so that the reader can really experience the personality of the artist.

Take your time with this one for a glimpse into the thought process of one of the world’s greatest musical minds.

Authenticity through awareness – an in-depth interview with Sofia Rei

“This next song is about all the different masks we have to wear as performers, all the personalities and emotions we have to summon up. It’s a very schizophrenic process.”

With these words, Sofia introduces my favorite song in her outstanding repertoire, the intense and dynamic title track of her most recent record De Tierra y Oro. Against the backdrop of the ornate Mozart hall, Sofia is looking radiant in a bright red dress that reflects her warm and colorful personality. Her long hair is tied in a side braid and she is wearing a pair of large, round silver earrings, looking for all the world like the embodiment of her music: simultaneously elegant and unrestrained, impassioned and cerebral. In the solemn atmosphere of the Mozart Hall, one of the venues in the Wiener Konzerthaus, the New York based Argentine musician stands out as a vibrant presence.

With her on stage, looking focused and determined, her band mates JC Maillard (guitar, saz bass) and Tupac Mantilla (drums, percussion) are joined by guest musicians Eric Kurimski (guitar) and Raynald Colom (trumpet). I’m leaning back in my chair, realizing how lucky I am to have made it here. As Sofia starts singing, my mind is spinning the events of the last few days like the fragile thread of a spider’s web.

Chapter 1: “I hope she was number one!” (The Story)  

We’re in the lobby bar of the Lindner Hotel on Belvedere Rennweg 12, about an hour early. My wife and I had initially planned to take a short stroll on the beautiful streets of Vienna before meeting Sofia at 7 PM for the interview, but the absolute shit weather is literally raining on our parade. The heavy rain and skin-piercing wind are nature’s contribution to what feels like an organized effort by the entire universe to compromise the trip we have been meticulously planning for over six months.

I’m sipping on raspberry flavored tea instead of my usual red wine because I’m still on freakin’ antibiotics. Merely three days ago, I was laying in bed with high fever with the upcoming trip looking increasingly like a physical impossibility.

Bent on seeing my favorite vocalist with a determination that spat in the face of reason and self-preservation, I managed to bring my health to a marginally stable condition just in time for the concert. After what turned out to be the most miserable six-hour car ride of my life, where I often felt like passing out and/or throwing up, I finally found myself in Vienna, feeling like I had just enough strength to conduct my interview before ending up in the emergency room reciting my medical history in German.

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Photograph by Sandrine Lee

Had it been any other concert with any other musician, I would have probably remained at home, safely tucked in my bed. But there is a certain quality to Sofia Rei’s singing that makes you want to fight rain, high fever and fatigue, just to see her performance.

In the past year, since getting acquainted with her talent through a Youtube video of the Song Project’s concert at the Warsaw Summer Jazz days in 2013, I have written several articles about her and developed a deep fascination with her work. She has an unparalleled way of conveying emotion, so much so that I established a rapport with her work that I’ve only shared with that of a handful of musicians in my life. As a music writer who listens to a vast amount of new music every year, I have little opportunity to return to a particular project very often. Yet, over the past year, I must have listened to the Warsaw concert over a hundred times, as well as the other incarnations of Sofia’s art, whether it was her excellent solo records or the plethora of videos of her performing anything from this breathtaking rendition of Mexican classic “Luz de Luna” to this fun display of street music.

While working on my novel, I often found myself playing her music in moments of creative stagnation. Like the legendary Tom Waits, Jan Garbarek and Patricia Barber before her, Sofia has grown into more than just a musician whose work I enjoy: she has become a muse.

Her art is a constant presence in my life, as is her voice. That voice, coming from somewhere in the hotel lobby, is shaking me out of my febrile daze. For the past few minutes I’ve been staring at Raynald Colom, whom I recognize from the promotional pictures. He came down to the bar a few minutes after my wife and I sat down. He took a seat at the bar, his back turned to us. I didn’t want to approach him because I didn’t want to impose, so I decided to just wait for Sofia to show up. To my left, a wall is blocking my view of the rest of the lobby, but I hear Sofia’s unmistakable voice and so does Raynald.  He turns to his left, cries out “Querida!” and disappears from my sight. In a few seconds probably spent hugging after not having seen each other for a long time, they both show up and sit down at the bar.

I walk up and introduce myself and she greets me like an old friend. Sofia Rei smiles just like she sings: with the entirety of her being. Her warmth and friendliness instantly shine through, also key elements of her spellbinding stage presence. She quickly introduces me to Raynald as I introduce my wife.

“He is a writer,” Sofia explains. “We got in touch when he wrote some stuff about me. Which was the first one? The top female vocalists?” I nod. “I hope she was number one,” Raynald says with a mischievous smile. “She is now,” I answer and Sofia chuckles. “No, no… it was someone else.”

She thinks I’m kidding, or that I’m just trying to flatter her, but I’m being entirely honest. Life is like a stream, in constant motion and so is my experience with music. For instance, in the year since I wrote the article, I’ve discovered Arco Iris, an excellent and supremely polished album by Amina Alaoui, released under the ECM label, which should definitely be enough to earn her a spot among the Music and Myth’s top female vocalists. In this time, I have also immersed myself deeper into the “myth” of Sofia Rei.

I have often stated in the last few months that Sofia is, at this moment, in my opinion the world’s greatest vocalist. It’s a gut feeling I have based on my perception of several aspects of Sofia’s artistry, just like the feeling I had a year ago when I wrote the article. At this moment, talking to Sofia in person, the question occurs to me: What exactly is it about this particular musician that makes me say to whoever is willing to listen, “This is the world’s greatest vocalist!”, backing up that statement with the credibility of The Music and Myth as well as three years of hard work?

What makes Sofia Rei so special? In a way, finding out the answer to that question is the most important part of this trip.

Meanwhile, the talkative Sofia tells us about her experience in Latvia and how she broke her beloved charango at the airport while traveling to Vienna. Luckily, she managed to get a quick replacement from a man named Luis Parra, whom she had met through common Facebook friends and whom I would personally like to thank on behalf of The Music and Myth. We finish our drinks and I suggest we head to the hotel’s restaurant, to find a quiet place for our interview.

Chapter 2: “It’s nobody’s experience!” (The Interview)

Let’s open the interview by talking a bit about how you got your start in music.

I started at the age of nine with classical music in the Colon children’s choir, which is at the opera house in Buenos Aires. My grandmother took me to an audition. I think she saw an ad in the newspaper or something like that. I was already singing in three choirs by then, I really enjoyed it, so she thought it would be a cool thing to do and brought me there. My parents probably were not so sure it was a good idea but they were like, “Ok, whatever, yeah sure…”

And then I got in. It was a very competitive environment for classical music in Argentina, particularly at the Colon Theater and particularly with the choir director we got. It was completely insane. But this discipline in music has definitely had an effect on me.

And you didn’t stay with classical.

Well, I did for a long time. I worked until I started high school, first at the Colon Theater children’s choir and even in the national children’s choir later on for a couple more years, learning theory and solfège and all sorts of things so I’d be able to read and understand a lot of theoretical concepts too. It was a job really, I had to be there every day for rehearsals and concerts.

By the time I started high school, I had such a crazy schedule already that I was… I kind of lost it. I was like, “Ok, this is too much”. And it was too much traveling. I lived right at the edge of the capital. It would take me at least two and a half hours every day back and forth to go to rehearsals. So I quit.

High school was the only time in my life that I didn’t do music professionally. I was singing in the shower like everybody else, but I wasn’t doing anything. Then I started playing drums when I was sixteen.

Drums?

Yeah, I still have my drum set back home. My niece actually has it now.

See, you can’t find that in any interview.

No (laughs). Actually, when I was thirteen I went radically from classical music to  – and my family listened to a lot of other stuff – I turned into a complete punk rocker. I loved loved loved all these bands that were doing this kind of music. Later on, I got into drumming. I got my drum set. But I didn’t play in any bands, I was just playing on my own, you know, learning stuff. And I kept it in my basement for a while; it was a phase.

At some point, from one day to another, I just stopped it completely. This drum set kind of stayed in the family. I’m very glad my niece is playing it now.

After I finished high school, I went back to the professional side of it. I started my career in the National Conservatory. But back home, classical music – it’s sad because it shouldn’t be like that – but unfortunately it has a connotation of stiffness, being out of reality, backwards, retrograde… for no reason. For instance, at the National Conservatory at the time, if you were a singer you would never have a harmony class because your instrument was a melodic instrument, as if you would never have to harmonize with the world or anything. There was no need for you to understand harmony. And they had all these crazy rules. Basically, they turned the students into these robots that were not allowed to play music. So there was no music at the university. And this is like the highest – you know, Conservatory for Classical Music – there was no music in the school: there was no choir, there was no orchestra, there were no ensembles, there were no people making music inside the school.

It’s so insane that I think about it now and I’m still shocked. But that was the situation. And not only that but if you wanted to do your… whatever, if you wanted to be a singer or you wanted to play piano, you had to spend six years with your instrument, studying before you would be allowed to play with somebody else or do a duo ensemble or to have some kind of environment where you would actually play music, you know?

So this was shocking to me from the beginning. I was always finding my own ways to do things. And I got lucky in the world of classical music, because I have a low range. I have both actually, but I definitely have a low range and I could do a lot of roles and could fit into a lot of jobs. I was a mezzo-soprano and that’s an alto. There are a thousand million sopranos on the planet, not so many mezzo-sopranos and altos, so I already got the shortcut for a lot of these jobs, which was awesome. And I could read. I could sight read well, so that was also a big advantage. I had a good musician’s training aside from being a singer.

I got into doing a lot of work in that field, but also with a lot of groups that were doing contemporary music, because I was interested in exploring extended techniques and stuff like that. They were all like: “Can you do this?” (makes a clicking sound with her tongue) “Yeah!”, “Can you do that?” (makes a humming noise) “Yeah!”, “Can you do… “ You know, like “Yeah, yeah sure… show me!” (laughs) They were all like, “Yeah, great, yeah!” and I’m just imitating a sound, but they’re like “Yeah, but the other ones, they can’t do it…”

So that was fun for a while too, all these different circles of contemporary music. So I was doing lots of different styles within the classical music realm but also little by little more connected to other things. I started studying guitar, actually. I played lots of instruments throughout my life and I’m probably really bad at all of them (laughs). But I play a little bit of guitar, a little bit of piano, a little bit of charango, a little bit of all sorts of different percussion instruments . I used to play drums but, I don’t know, I never got the commitment to any of this. And I always always always sang, you know? I never had to think about it, I would love practicing that and doing things like training.

With the other [instruments] it was always more difficult to be disciplined. So after a while I got bored. But I think it was a good thing to have a little understanding of all these different instruments too, for writing and as a bandleader also to understand at least to a minimal degree what your band mates are doing.

Then I got into jazz and improvised music. A teacher of mine – a guitar player – brought me four records. Four tapes, actually. Yes, I’m that old (laughs). One of them was Bobby McFerrin’s Play and I was really blown away by this album. Actually, I didn’t like it. I didn’t even like it. I did not understand. But it was so complex to my ears at the moment and so intriguing that I listened to it a million times.

I went through the same thing with Tom Waits.

Yes. I was like, “What is this?” But there was something so appealing in the bad, you know, that I just kept listening. That opened up a whole new world for me. Because my family never listened to jazz. My parents were more into a lot of tango, folkloric music from Argentina, from Latin America. They didn’t know about it, it wasn’t around. My friends… pff…they were far away, I’m talking about the other punk rockers (laughs).  It wasn’t around, it really wasn’t around. And then, all of a sudden, I started listening to Carmen McRae a lot and Ella, Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone and all these singers. It was like discovering a completely new planet. It was fascinating. I think I always liked challenges in general. I can’t stay with one thing, I get bored. I have to find something that’s going to be difficult. There’s that competitive side of me, I guess.

In a way, jazz was a very interesting, intriguing thing because it was very challenging. I understood from the beginning that musicianship here is key. You have to have amazing ears. You have to really be able to hear all these things in order to improvise. You have to be able to actually reproduce anything you’re hearing; that’s improvisation. They really have to develop that, because what you don’t hear, you can’t sing. That translation of what you hear…  When you have this amazing line or this great thing and then something comes out that’s different, it’s the biggest frustration on the planet.

So that’s what you train: the translation. And also what you can actually hear. That was fascinating to me from the beginning. I was trying to really get into this deep musicianship and musicians’ world. That was kind of what led me to moving to the U.S, you know? It was like “Ok, go to the source.” I was super into jazz at the time and vocal improvisation and what you can do with your voice as an instrument, the different possibilities. Everything led me to either New York or Boston, mainly those two cities.

You went to Boston first, right?

I went to Boston because I applied to three music schools. I got into all of them, but I had the luck of being on tour with the National Youth Choir, which was yet another organization I worked for in Argentina for four years. We toured a lot. We toured Europe a lot and Brazil and Argentina and the U.S. We were doing a U.S tour and we had a stop in New York, so I visited the Manhattan School in New York and Berklee and NEC [New England Conservatory] in Boston and I just got a great vibe about NEC, you know?

I was like, “This looks like the real thing.” They are all about artistry, they are all about kind of pushing the personality out of the musician, rather than massively imposing content and that one way to do things that some bigger schools do. They have to, in a way, because it’s unavoidable when you have five thousand students. You have to format because it is so difficult to do. It’s out of hand really when you have so many people.

But NEC had a very small jazz department at the time. I think there were one hundred and ten students altogether in the whole jazz and contemporary music department. The cool thing was that they had this contemporary improvisation department that was kind of like a world music-slash… whatever didn’t fall into these two big categories of jazz and classical. So they had music of Turkey, music of India and they also did a lot of other… they kind of connected… it was called the Third Stream Department, because it literally was. You could take classes on any of the three. It was very free. Every teacher there was already an amazing musician. They didn’t give a shit about things like, “Oh, you have to go over your major scale again!” because, in fact, nobody cared about it. It was like “Ok, here is something that might interest you and you’re going to pass the class… probably… “ I mean they might not tell you, but you know already that they don’t care. You already got into this school, it’s very competitive and all your classmates are these phenomenal musicians that are eighteen, nineteen, twenty – whatever age from eighteen to forty –  incredible, completely out of the box and brilliant. So already the company was good. It was really a great experience.

And you also got involved in teaching.

Well, I was already teaching in Buenos Aires. My mother is a philosopher and she’s a philosophy professor. She made a living as a professor all her life, so she loves teaching. Basically, if one of your parents is a teacher, it can be the most annoying thing or it can be awesome. There is a line she always gives me when I’m like, “Mom, you know, I discovered about such-and-such and whatever.”

“Ah, Sofia, yes… there are libraries written about that subject!” She’s always saying that to me (laughs). And I’m like “Mmhm… I get it…ok.”

But it was a really cool thing because she’s a very knowledgeable person. She really knows a lot about so many topics, so much about history and art and literature and of course philosophy. So it’s just cool to be around her, because it’s kind of like sitting in class. I think she really is a great teacher and I think she inspired that in me. My sister also teaches. Nobody in my family is a musician, they are in different fields. But there is that “teaching gene” and I like it very much, especially when it’s in the format of workshops that turn into this motivational situation where you have a group of forty singers and they are all trying so eager for information. I really like and appreciate that.

I was wondering about the whole  teaching aspect because I talked to Terri Lyne Carrington recently, she’s also at Berklee…

Yes.

…and she talked to me about being a mentor. I also spoke to Jazzmeia Horn, a young vocalist from New York, who told me that there aren’t enough mentors for young musicians while Terri said that the young musicians aren’t as eager to learn from their elders as they should be.

That’s true. It’s kind of strange. The whole student thing turned into “clients”, you know what I mean? It has to do with how the universities do their business, of course. If you turn everything into a business, then education becomes a side aspect of what you do. Then you have clients, you don’t have students anymore. Then the students feel entitled. I had parents of eighteen year old kids who would come to me and say, “But we paid for the semester, so my daughter has to pass the exam!”

“But she didn’t come to any lesson and she doesn’t know two songs by the end of the semester. Maybe she’s not going to pass because she’s just not doing anything for it.”

“But we paid the tuition.”

So there is this whole dynamic to it.

Well, you can pay for a Ferrari and then crash it into the first tree.

Right, you might not know how to drive it. The motivation of a lot of students is: “I made it into such and such school.” It’s like winning a contest, like being on American Idol. This line I got many times:

I’m like, “So, what brought you to such and such school, why are you here? What do you like?”

“So… I was discovered by, like, the grandmother of so and so…”

Are you kidding me? Really? Discovered by who? From very early on there is this focus on the business side of it and not necessarily on developing in your instrument some kind of personal voice. I found pretty shocking that a lot of students were not even thinking about that, which for me was a key thing. I didn’t want to copy – I’m sure I ended up copying a lot of stuff that I didn’t want to, because I was listening to singers that I really liked – but originality was a point. It was something that I had in the back of my brain all the time.

You want to be able to express yourself in your own way as an artist, right?

I found that in younger generations – not everybody of course – but it’s more of a rule that they’re not interested or not questioning that, you know? The whole individuality, finding a specific or a unique voice. I often hear from students about the fear of school ruining their “personal style”. With these particular students I’d say, “Sing something for me,” and they would always sound like ten thousand other people on the radio. “Ok, you’re not going to have that problem honey, don’t worry!” (laughs) “School’s not going to spoil it for you, don’t worry, don’t worry. Tell me the next thing I have to worry about.”

But it’s been a really great experience. You are sometimes very disconnected from what the newer generation is listening to and it’s great to put that back on the table. I think it really helped me understand a lot of things. Because technology and the way people interact with each other is so different right now from ten to fifteen years ago. And I have some amazing students… amazing, amazing, amazing. I’m always trying to connect with them and to help them. They’re moving to New York and are like “Oh, what to do, I don’t know…”, I’m like, “Come, get a coffee at home, talk about it. We’ll figure it out.”

But it’s also tough. I think a lot of people get this dream that they are here already and they made it because they got admitted and they are the “next big thing”. All of a sudden they look around and there are six thousand of the next big thing in the classroom, and then other ones all around the country and then other ones all around the world. Because when this becomes a professional thing, there is this entitlement, “I’m getting a degree, so that means I’ll be working as a singer or as a piano player.” That’s really not true. Nobody can guarantee you absolutely anything. You might walk out and… good luck, have a good life! Maybe you’ll just never have a career with it.

As a teacher, I think you have to feed the good part of it, which is the creative part. Pave the way for them to understand a lot of things that they might not have yet, in their bodies and instrument-wise. It’s very challenging.

Let’s talk about your records. I’d like to start with The Song Project, since that was my introduction to your music.

Everything starts with Zorn (laughs).

I call him the “mad genius of jazz”.

He’s a genius, for sure. Basically, what happened was… Everything starts with NEC also, this music school where I met many people that I’m still collaborating with and that later on I kind of reconnected with. One of these people is Ayelet Rose Gottlieb. She’s a great singer from Israel. We studied together and connected, we became really good friends. Then she moved to New York and we didn’t see each other for a while – I moved to New York later. She came to my house one day and told me about this project she started with another singer. They had a rhythm section at the time and they were doing a vocal Masada project for Zorn. At the same time, they were asking for singers to do this project at Carnegie Hall with Bobby McFerrin, an improvised opera about the Babel tower with singers from all around the world who could improvise but who also had some kind of background in roots music.

I applied and so did she. We both got it. We sang with Bobby at Carnegie Hall and it was super great. I met a lot of people that I kept working with over the years, other singers. So, anyhow…  Ayelet basically got me into it.

Zorn decided to reconvert this project into a female vocal a cappella quartet, so we sent him some suggestions. He heard my music and he really liked it and I became part of the band. Then I brought in Malika Zarra who is an amazing Moroccan singer. That’s how the band started. That was 2009. We recorded the first Mycale record and then we just toured. We did a lot of big concerts… marathon concerts all over the world with him.

Then he called me to do the Song Project, because he knew me already from Mycale and he wanted a lyricist. I think he probably wanted a diametrically opposed vocalist. I mean, if you think of Jesse Harris and Mike Patton and myself.  You know, Jesse is a great singer songwriter and Patton is…

All over the place…

…all over the place, this amazing performer and great singer and I’m like… completely… we’re three different animals, you know? So, the cool thing was that we literally put it together the day before the Moers concert. We never met before to rehearse. We met in Germany. And we wrote the lyrics to the songs. I actually never sent anything to [Zorn], I guess he just trusted whatever I was doing with it. Later on, I found out that there were some demos involved, but I just never sent anything.

Did you get to pick the songs?

He left it open for me to decide, but he suggested five or six songs.  We ended up doing four of those, I think. They all have different titles now but it was: “Besos de Sangre”, “La Flor del Barrio”, “Tears of Morning”. Then I did “The Book of Shadows”, the one with Jesse…

That one was left out of the record.

It wasn’t on the record because it wasn’t in that concert where the album was recorded. There are some videos of it. So, that’s how the whole thing started. It was a great experience because we were always on tour. I had met Mike and Marc Ribot and Joey [Barron] and Trevor [Dunn] and everybody, but it was the first time I was actually singing with them and also working with John as a conductor on stage. Because in Mycale he was there, but he wouldn’t be conducting. So that was really cool.

What’s the dynamic of such a project, with all these musicians on stage at the same time? I call it a powerband or a superband…

It’s quite a superband.

When you just look at the band,  you have Marc Ribot and Joey, who I’m a huge fan of, and John Medeski… it’s just a huge band with different personalities. What’s the dynamic like, as opposed to performing with your regular band?

It’s great. In a way they’re all jazz superstars, but at the same time they are the most down to earth people ever. You’d never hear any bullshit from any of these musicians… ever. They are super nice and really down to earth. They are really focused on the music. All of them. So that’s really great. You see that and that’s a good energy for the concert and for the project.

I think the coolest thing about this project is when you’re singing “La Flor del Barrio” and Mike Patton is doing background vocals, and he’s so gentle about it.

It was really funny because I didn’t even think about it. Zorn asked us to have background vocals so I’m like, “Sure”. So I got all the songs that they were doing and I sort of organized my own backup vocals because we’re not going to rehearse so … I met with Jesse, because Jesse lived ten blocks away from me, so that was easy. With Mike I never met. And then I’m like, “Oh, it would be really cool if you could do this line.” I asked John before and he’s like, “Sure thing, I’m sure he’d be down for it!” and I asked Mike and he’s like “Of course, that would be great.’” And then a lot of people are like, “You got Mike Patton to sing backup vocals for you!” (laughs)

I never thought of it that way. And he was so cool. He’s like, “Is my Spanish good? I don’t want to fuck it up.” I said: “It’s perfect!” (laughs)

It was cool to see Mike, who is usually screaming and howling… and then there he is so laid back and subtle…

I think one of the most incredible things about him is that he can fit into any role. If you see the stuff he does with Mondo Cane or…

Yeah, he’s a cool guy.

He is an incredible musician, an incredible singer.

He’s got an impressive range.

Yeah, if you hear some stuff that he does… I think he can really sing and then he can go and do all this crazy stuff. I remember, at the beginning of some of the concerts, I would be warming up and he’s like, “I don’t really do that” and then he’ll be cracking his neck like… (makes cracking noises). Then he’s like, “This is my warm up!” (laughs) I think I’d be mute for half a day if I did that.

It was a really cool environment for the three of us to be working together. I love working with singers, I completely love it. I have Mycale and The Song Project is also with other singers and I have a lot of projects with singers. I love it! And singing backup vocals, I love that too. When we were in that project… doing backup vocals for Jesse or Mike… it was super fun, I loved it.

Is there any plan for Zorn to go forward with The Song Project or was it just a one-year deal?

It was a specific project also because it was part of his Zorn @ 60 big retrospective, which was amazing, clearly. The problem with continuing the project, I’m guessing, is just to find a second to get these nine people together, who are all super busy. Everybody is touring all over the world, so if you have to book even a rehearsal one year in advance. I know he doesn’t have any plans in the near future, but I am sure – and I hope too – that we will be doing something in the future again, because a lot of people really enjoyed it. I think it was something special. Also, a mini-retrospective of Zorn.

It’s crazy: the show starts and it’s “Batman” and Patton screaming and the band going crazy and then there is this pseudo-bolero going on and the whole dynamic of it is completely different. Then Jesse is doing his thing and it’s completely… it’s very schizophrenic, but in a good way. It’s fifty minutes of complete schizophrenia. That shows Zorn’s range of work, which is great. That’s the beauty of that project. The extremes, you know?

I was really happy that the Song Project Vinyl Singles Edition came out in December. I was just preparing to write my article with the Music and Myth Awards for 2014 and it would have just felt wrong not to have The Song Project in the best vocal record category, since I must have listened to the Warsaw concert hundreds of times. It was really the defining musical experience for me in 2014.   

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Photograph by Rafael Pineros

Let’s go on to your own work. First of all, I want to ask about the band. You seem to have roughly the same line- up for a long time, where did you guys meet?

Well, I work with a lot of different bands so often times you just meet musicians that work in different projects and you “kidnap” different people for different things you want to do. I know a lot of musicians, being in New York and working a lot. When you’re working a lot and you’re going to see music… I’m very involved in the New York scene, so I go to see music a lot. I am part of many different projects. I am the lead vocalist of a lot of different projects, so it’s kind of like… I don’t even think about it.

People call me and go, “I need a guitar player for such and such project” because I’ve got like a database of people (laughs). At this point, I really know for specific types of music what can work and what not. These are all people that have been crossing paths with me somehow in Boston or New York. I met Tupac in Boston. He also went to NEC, but we didn’t go to school together. He actually moved to my room when I moved to New York, so he lived in my ex-Boston room. We became really good friends and he started playing with me about four or five years ago.

Yayo Serka also… we started playing together when I moved to New York. And Franco, I’ve known him for fourteen years. We started playing together very recently actually, but I shared a ton of concerts with him as the drummer of other bands I sing with or listening to him with other bands.

Can you give me a rundown of the projects you’re involved in right now?

I have my trio and I have my sextet format. Those are the two main formats that I’m touring with for the music that we’re doing right now. I’m also involved in three different projects with Zorn: One would be Mycale, the other would be The Song Project and the third one will be the new Masada Book Three project that we’re doing with JC.

I’m also working with Manuel Valera, who is a Cuban piano player based in New York, who has a project of Martí poetry that he wrote music for. So we have that project and it’s all great Cuban musicians from New York involved in it. I am also working with Myra Melford in a project that’s old texts of Eduardo Galeano. I’m actually not singing in that project (laughs). I don’t sing one note all throughout the concert, which is so weird to me. I’m a bilingual narrator.

I was just going to ask if you’re the drummer.

(Laughs ) No, I’m a bilingual narrator and I have to kind of dialogue with the music. Let’s see… what else am I doing? Oh, I have my solo project too, which I have not been exploring this past year. But I’m hoping to do more of that soon.

Solo?

Just my pedals and my charango and my voice. And I’m sure I’m forgetting ten thousand others but that’s pretty much it.

Talk to me about your creative process. What inspires you? Is it just music or do you find inspiration in other art forms also?

It could be really anything. I find that there is always some kind of seed that triggers the work. I record voice memos all the time, of ideas that I have. One of twenty of those ends up being developed into something. It could be… musically… it could be a baseline, it could be the lyrics to something I wrote, it could be a text I wrote. I write a lot, actually. A lot of these texts that I write don’t end up being any lyrics or anything, but they trigger ideas for lyrics sometimes.

Or I use a part of it and then from there I develop a whole song. Or it could be a rhythm. De Tierra y Oro actually has a lot off songs that were inspired by trips to specific places. I also did quite a lot of research on South American roots music. So, by listening to that style, I really have a lot of that information which can come out in the writing or in specific rhythms. But, you know, I’m converting everything into what I want to do. Literally, there are rhythms that don’t exist, or grooves or styles of music that don’t really quite exist in that record.

It’s funny because people who aren’t really familiar with Latin music, or Latin American music – Latin music is a horrible word to say, just because it doesn’t describe anything. It’s such a vast continent. Sometimes in the charts, music schools would – thank the good lord they don’t do it anymore – but they would put in the “style”… they’d be like: jazz, bossa nova… Latin. I was always joking about it. What the fuck is that? What the fuck is Latin? Latin could be a 6/8 groove that’s more similar to the Moroccan rhythm or it could be… it could be anything. And one thing is completely unrelated to the other. But, I guess to an untrained ear – maybe somebody who’s not familiar with Latin American music – might think that certain specific things are happening are traditional when they’re not.

I always find it funny when they’re like, “Yeah, so what is that rhythm from ‘La Gallera’?” and I go, “No, it’s not really from anywhere….” It’s just conversions. And I’m glad that I get to work with musicians who bring so much to the table. Because this record is not just me. A lot of it of course is my writing and whatever, but the people I work with have also this condensed identity, like mixed music and the concept of blurring musical styles. And nobody gives a shit. Nobody’s like, “Oh, but they’re playing a chacarera, so it should be this!” Nobody cares about that. And I love that. I don’t care, I’m not a purist.

I consider it kind of normal to be mixing things together, because that’s how we live. And we’ve lived like that for a while, so it would be kind of strange to keep some forms so specific, since that’s not really how we listen or how we live. I live in New York, I’m an Argentine.

Often times people will want to put things into a category. I understand that sometimes things have to be labeled. So let’s say it’s “world music”. World music does not define anything, of course, but the whole concept of roots music right now is quite crazy. If I went out on stage and I had my mate in my hand and my poncho maybe, hopefully ornament my hair with some feathers, then that would be very “authentic”, ok? That would be very authentic, because I’m from Argentina. And that’s what people want to see. That’s where they want to place you culturally. Yeah, the gauchos and the indians and God knows… and yeah, she sings chacareras and she’s really bringing herself into it. I would be so far away from bringing myself into a performance or anything of mine if I’m wearing a poncho. I probably wore a poncho two times in my life. I had one when I was a kid. But that’s not part of my culture, that’s not who I am. As an Argentine, that does not describe who I am and what I grew up with.

In general, when people go for that, they want to listen to something that does not exist anymore, that is not real and that does not reflect the culture in whatever country they’re fantasizing about. You go to Peru and you go to the main square and you want to see everybody playing cajón and everybody dancing festejo and its great ‘cos that’s what people do in Peru. No, it’s bullshit. If you go to Buenos Aires and you see somebody dancing tango in the street… you know that’s bullshit. People don’t fucking dance tango in the street . That’s for you, the tourist. It has been staged for you. And it’s wonderful, it can be fun, but really… for you to go home and think that you actually saw a tango performance in the streets of San Telmo…

It’s difficult because people want to catalog it. It would be better, of course, if I had three more feathers in my hair. It would be so much more what they’re expecting. There’s this whole idea that you’re from the village and where did you leave your horse? You know? Mmhmm… well, bad news for you: I actually grew up singing classical music and it’s a completely different environment than what you’re imagining, you know? And, at the same time, yes, you have all that. In my house we have folkloric music. I traveled the country a lot, so I know of that too. But to decide that the pureness of it is just keeping everything else outside and keeping it “uncontaminated”…that’s not true. That’s not our experience. It’s nobody’s experience.

In some rare cases, it is. For instance, in the pacific coast of Colombia, where they have this really fascinating music performed by afro-descendants that were kind of isolated for a long time. And they played marimbas and they have a very characteristic music that’s still alive there and that’s very close to a hundred years ago. That’s uncontaminated for real. So that’s true, that’s happening there.

But then, if you move it somewhere else and try to present it in the same way as it was there…

…something’s going to happen. It would be ridiculous, in a way, if I moved to New York and lived there for fifteen years and I’m still singing chacareras in the same way I was supposed to be singing them in the village up in the mountains somewhere…wherever they want to imagine I was born (laughs). So  that’s not going to happen.

So you’re going to keep the same creative direction in the future?

Well, you’re always changing, it’s normal. I don’t have a plan, I don’t know what I’m doing next. I’m probably going to be focusing more on this Masada project of Zorn and then probably on a next thing of my own. But there is no plan and I’m an independent artist, so I don’t have a record label telling me, “Ok, it’s 2015 and you have to release something!” So whenever I feel like I have something that I like and I enjoy and that makes sense, then I’ll probably put it out. Hopefully I’ll  be having more time because I’m teaching a little bit less. My touring schedule with the teaching combined was killing me. I’m still teaching and I also tutor students at my house, it’s crazy. I was too exhausted to continue. So hopefully it’s going be an opportunity to write more.

Are you committed to the independent scene or would you sign with a big record label?

I think the whole record label thing is a tool. It’s not your role. What I hope for is to keep my independence in the sense of my artistic creativity and my artistic output. If I can decide on whatever content I create, whatever content I put out…when I do it, how I do it, then ok… great. If a major record label wants to work with me and wants to put that out and maybe they offer something that I can’t achieve on my own, I might think, “Why not?” Again, as long as they would not impose on these other aspects, why not? As an independent artist it’s always a big struggle. The part that I don’t appreciate is all the time you have to put into organizing and dealing with logistics, spending time doing all this work, time that could be spent creating.

I like that I have full control of what I do. I’m a little bit of a control freak. In a way, it works for me to do it how I want and to establish my own pace and rules and everything but, you know… I’m not against [signing with a big label], I’m not looking for it either. Little by little I created something that works for me without much of a plan, simply by doing it. To be able to tour and have my band and work with the musicians that I want and to be in New York working only in the projects that I really want to do that’s an achievement. I have that choice. And I think that’s the beauty of it.

If you could travel back in time to when you were nine years old and had your start in music, what would you tell yourself? What advice would you give little Sofia?

(She leans towards the recorder and rhythmically smashes her fist against the table) Go and study fucking piano as you were told by every-bo-dy!!! That’s what I would tell to little Sofia. You little, stupid little kid, go and practice ten hours a day of your stupid piano, what were you thinking? That’s what I would say (laughs).

With that being said, I turn off the recorder and thank her for the interview. I can see that she’s exhausted, the grueling schedule of the tour (with a concert in a different city almost every day) having left her tired, but no less amiable. She answered my questions with complete honesty and admirable patience and I let her retire to her room, but not without telling her first how much I look forward to the show then next day.

“You guys should come find me backstage after the show,” she says, giving us both big hugs. “We’ll hang out!”

Chapter 3: Earth and Gold – one of the world’s most passionate vocalists at the zenith of her creative and expressive potential (The Concert)

The concert starts with the sinuous, hypnotic echoes of “Coplera”, the opening track from Sofia’s sophomore record Sube Azul , before changing pace with “La Gallera”, a lively recount of a cockfight in Cartagena. The latter was the  winner of the 2013 Independent Music Award for best song, and for good reason. Performed live, the track is always an intense ride. This time is no different, as Sofia combines speed and melodiousness to a delightfully intoxicating result.

The playlist consists mostly of songs from De Tierra Y Oro but also some surprises, like the two John  Zorn pieces from the upcoming Masada Book Three project on which Sofia and JC will be collaborating with the legendary composer. In the tradition of “Besos de Sangre” and “La Flor del Barrio”, the mystical sound of Zorn’s compositions brings out the most haunting manifestation of Sofia’s voice, while JC has a chance to show off his skill and impressive versatility in two songs that predict another fantastic record.

Another “bonus” is the inclusion of perennial crowd-pleaser “El Pirata”, where Sofia’s lively vocals and Tupac’s entertaining antics with body percussion complement and enhance each other in a showcase of formidable timing. In a heartwarming moment, the two musicians share a big hug after what was surely an exhausting interpretation.

Throughout the show, the band shows good chemistry, a testament to their experience of playing together. JC capably shadows Sofia with his guitar, his saz bass and backup vocals while Tupac’s energetic percussion and entertaining antics serve their purpose of showmanship and getting the audience physically involved (and I have to admit the Austrians really held their own when Tupac challenged them to mimic his body percussion).

Guest musicians Eric Kurimski and Raynald Colom are a delightful addition, with crisp and polished contributions. I especially loved Raynald’s trumpet on “De Tiera y Oro” one of the tracks I was eagerly awaiting the entire evening. Speaking of songs I was eagerly awaiting, my wife and I both had goose bumps when JC started playing the first notes of “La Llorona”, a traditional recount of the myth of weeping woman who drowned her children out of love for a man and whose ghost haunts the landscape of Latin American folklore. The song has become a bit of a calling card for Sofia and there is no single song in her repertoire that feels more raw and emotional. The singer once again embodies her musical character with bone-chilling devotion. Her passionate delivery, with otherworldly shrieks and wails, becomes a testament to her own comment on the schizophrenia of performing.

I have stated before that Sofia’s major strength as a vocalist is an uncanny ability of conveying emotion, a quality the Viennese crowd seems to greatly appreciate, as they always wait for every song to play out to its very last nanosecond before erupting in enthusiastic applause. Those who are unfamiliar with Sofia Rei’s work and have just come to the show out of curiosity are just finding out what those familiar with her talent already know: that they are witnessing one of the world’s most passionate vocalists at the zenith of her creative and expressive potential.

The band closes the evening with “El Tamalito” and Sofia’s animated cries of “tamales calientes”, and I am certain the venerable concert hall has rarely hosted more powerful and dedicated performers. After the show, as Sofia is getting ready to receive praise and sign autographs, my wife and I are preparing to meet her back stage for some photos and conversation.

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Photograph by Aivars Slisans

Chapter 4: Que paso con tu Schnitzel? (The after-show hang)

I’m in a corner talking to Raynald, thanking him for doing justice to my favorite song, as Sofia and her other band mates are signing autographs. I also get a chance to pick up JC’s record Carnal Carnival, released by his project Grand Baton, which the guitarist warns me is “loud. It’s not like what I’m playing with Sofia.” You’ll be able to read a review of it on The Music and Myth sometime next week.

When the last members of the audience have left, Sofia seeks out the event organizer. “Is it all right if I bring some friends?” she asks, before she graciously invites my wife and myself to join her and the band for dinner. Not many people get an opportunity to spend time with their favorite musician. As simply a fan it was great to be in Sofia’s company, but as a writer it was even more important since my goal was to connect with her and get a good sense of who she is as a person and an artist, so I can write my feature.

We go to a nearby restaurant called Gmoakeller, where Sofia is greeted with a round of applause from some of the patrons who had just seen her impressive performance.

“I’m not sure they can fit us all,” a hungry Sofia worries, as the waitress seems a bit taken aback by the number of people and the volume of luggage. “They’re right across the street from the concert hall. I think they’re used to big groups of people carrying instruments,” I assure her and she laughs.

We finally get a table and have a seat. I’m enjoying just being in the company of such talented musicians as we talk about the music industry and my pet peeve, the Grammy Awards, specifically how they seem to be restricted to a small perceived elite while other artists are constantly overlooked.

“We should have our own awards,” Raynald concludes. Sofia points at me saying, “This is what he is trying to do,” to which Raynald just respectfully shakes my hand. Being able to write about music that inspires me is it’s own reward but getting the recognition of musicians I respect and admire is the undisputed highlight of putting in countless hours with The Music and Myth.

I ask Sofia about her European tour, telling her that I wish she would come to Europe more often and play more cities.

“You know, Andrei, it’s not that easy,” she says. “It’s quite difficult to set up a tour like this and find venues. Often times, people are afraid to take a chance on musicians they don’t know.” I understand where’s she’s coming from, though the only thing going through my mind at the moment is the memory of the exhilarating performance Sofia and her band put on. If talent and commitment were the only deciding factors, Sofia Rei and her band, along with others like them, would be selling out stadiums worldwide.

But the conversation doesn’t stay on the serious side for long. In a social situation, just like on stage, Sofia is the glue that holds everything together. Being with her in a friendly, relaxed environment, helps me understand as much about the artist as her music does.

I watch her paying attention to what everyone around her is saying, making sure to keep the dialogue flowing between her friends like a conversation conductor. At the same time, she is focusing on her own conversations with a fierce intensity, sometimes dotting down whatever information she finds interesting in a little notebook. I hear her talking to the waitress in a surprisingly melodious German (Ja, ja… danke schön, sehr gut… bitte, bitte). I laugh as she constantly makes jokes and is always ready to reward everyone else’s humor with her adorable, distinctive chuckle. When she turns to Tupac, who hasn’t finished his meal, and asks him, „Que paso con tu Schnitzel?“ it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard uttered in two languages. Slowly, more like a resolution than a revelation, the answer to my question is shaping up inside my mind.

What makes me think of Sofia Rei as the world’s greatest vocalist is more than her admirable songwriting ability, her powerful and trained mezzo-soprano voice or even the passion with which she spins her musical yarns. She is more than the sum of her parts. To me, what makes her the greatest is the fact that she approaches music the same way she does life: without holding anything back.

The interview, the concert and the lovely dinner all revealed a musician whose character is defined by an inexhaustible energy and razor-sharp wit, a fascination with the world around her and an authenticity that stems from a deep understanding of who she is as a human being. But above all else, Sofia Rei is defined by her willingness to share this understanding with the world.

by Andrei Cherascu

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Photo by Ioana Cherascu

Telling stories with instrumental music – an interview with Terri Lyne Carrington

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Picture via terrilynecarrington.com

It’s the first day of the JazzTM festival. It’s only 1PM, the show won’t start for another seven hours, so the square is almost empty. A handful of people have gathered around the stage to see what’s going on. Terri Lyne Carrington – the evening’s main event – is doing a sound-check, calmly directing traffic. Guest vocalist Lizz Wright pauses from time to time to take a picture of the lovely Cathedral that overlooks the square.

I arrived a bit early but I’m glad I did because I get to witness the open, natural vibe characteristic for sound-checks. I remember Tom Waits jokingly stating once that whenever he goes to the philharmonic it is just to see the band tune up their instruments. He claimed he leaves once they’re finished, because for him, the most interesting and lively part of the show was over. When Terri’s band is done and my buddies from JazzyBIT take the stage, I go to meet the two-time Grammy award-winning drummer and composer at the café which is being used as a backstage area. She seems tired but she’s very friendly. Her calm, contemplative demeanor makes for an enjoyable interview.

Terri, you’re back concerting in Europe. At one point you took a twenty-year hiatus from recording in the U.S and produced your albums in Europe. Can you tell me about the difference between the jazz scene here as opposed to the U.S?  

Back then, it felt like the U.S jazz scene was a little more conservative. Europe was a little more open musically. More open to experimental music. Now it’s changed and the U.S scene is a lot more experimental and merging different genres, which I like a lot. I was always trying to merge jazz with groove stuff and more electric jazz but not really fusion, not “smooth” jazz. It seemed like you could try things over here a lot easier. Nowadays it seems like the U.S has some cool stuff going on. I think that the Internet has made the world a lot smaller, so everybody’s checking out everybody else. Everything is a lot more global.

You live in Boston and teach at Berklee. Is Boston a good city for jazz?

Well I grew up in Boston. The scene was really great in the ‘70s when I grew up. So many jazz people coming to town, to clubs. It was kind of like a little NY back then. Now it feels a lot more college-oriented, which is ok. There are some really talented students from Berklee and going to conservatory and other places. I think it has a young energy, which is good. And experimental, in the sense of young people who could be into indie rock and jazz, or hip-hop and jazz and fusing those things. People still come up from NY. Especially with a place like Berklee that now has, I think, seven venues where you can always hear some great music. People outside of Berklee come to the school on any given week. So that helps with the scene. Especially since I’m at Berklee, I can see what’s happening there. A lot of that is open to the public. So, it’s a good scene. But it’s not like New York. There’s nothing like New York.

I talked to a young vocalist named Jazzmeia Horn recently. She complained about the lack of mentoring from the older generation, the established musicians. She said – I quote – “the elders have disconnected themselves”. She mentioned Roy Hargrove coming out to sessions and how she would like to see more of that happening. How do you feel about that? I know that you yourself have mentored young musicians.

Let’s see, that’s a hard one. I was mentored very much by veterans. It’s great that somebody like Roy goes and really plays a lot in clubs. People have just  gotten busy and it’s harder. I mean, I do it because I teach. So I have students. The ones that you find that are very special, you know, you invite them places and hang out with them more. So it becomes like mentoring for sure. I know there’s people that do it. You have to be persistent. The students or the young people have to really want to learn. I think what happens is, over time, this stuff has been at their fingertips. They take it for granted. There’s a certain sense of entitlement that has surfaced over the years. So, that place of humility and eagerness to learn and be around the masters, I find, is not there anymore as much as it used to be. So when somebody like Roy Haynes comes to Boston, every drummer at Berklee should be there trying to check him out, you know what I mean? And it’s just not like that. So it kind of makes the established players less likely to want to mentor, because it seems like the respect is not the same as it used to be with the young musicians. I think that for anybody who really shows that they want it, people will step up. Because we want the music to continue to flourish.

You have now won your second Grammy award, this time for Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue. How does this impact your career? Does it affect your creative process at all? Do you feel pressured by it when working on new music?

I don’t think it affects the creative process. I mean, this next record I’m working on, Mosaic Part 2, it’s going to lean a little more towards RNB, especially with the vocalists: Oleta Adams, Valerie Simpson, Lizz Wright, Lalah Hathaway, Paula Cole, Jaguar Wright, Chanté Moore, people like that. So jazz heads may not like it as much. But it’s the kind of record I want to do. Having won two jazz Grammys, it’s still going to be a jazz record, but with a soulful essence to it.

Your latest projects, Mosaic and Money Jungle are vastly different recordings. How did you approach them creatively? Is it more difficult to compose as a drummer?

For me it is, yeah. It takes me a long time. Probably three times as long as somebody else, or more. Like, the Money Jungle song “A Little Max”…it took me forever. It took a long time to get it. I don’t know, I just follow my heart, follow my muse, follow whatever’s driving me at the time. I’m not trying to do this or trying to do that or trying to take advantage of anything. Because I won two Grammys, I’m not going to say ‘Oh, I have to come back with another jazz record, straight ahead’ to try to get another Grammy. I mean, this record I’m about to do, I’m not sure where it would even fall in the Grammy category. It probably doesn’t have a home. So I can’t really think about that stuff. I just want to keep making quality music. I want to keep working.

Any up-and-coming young drummers I should be keeping an eye out for?

I don’t know, I don’t hear all the up-and-coming ones. I hear some people with some great potential. There’s a drummer who came through my high-school program at Berklee named Adrian Cota. He’s great. But you have to wait and see what happens. Justin Faulkner was in my high-school program, he plays with Branford Marsalis. He’s great. So you have to sort of see how people develop. Antoine Roney’s son now, if you haven’t heard him you should go on the internet. He’s about ten. He’s going to be amazing. He plays a lot like Tony Williams right now, it’s amazing. It’s actually really crazy.

Can you describe your creative process? What inspires you? Do you find inspiration in other art forms besides music, or jazz specifically?  

I don’t really listen to a lot of jazz. I find inspiration in daily life but not necessarily in other art forms. I think most of my inspiration comes from either music or just…life, you know. It depends. If I’m writing a lyric, it definitely comes from life. It’s storytelling. So the idea is to try be able to tell stories with instrumental music too. And it’s hard. It’s easy to tell stories with words. Without the words it’s hard but you still want to tell a story, you know?

If you could travel back in time to when you were seven years old and had your first contact with music, what advice would you give yourself?

Wow, that’s interesting. I don’t know, maybe to practice more. To take my solo career more seriously. I took a long hiatus in my solo career. I feel like I’m making up for lost time now. So, I would have maybe not done that. I would have built a catalog of records earlier. Learn other instruments more. Maybe play the piano better or maybe guitar or bass or something. Now that I’m so much more interested in producing, I would have told myself to learn more engineering and other things in production. Now that I’m older and working so much it’s hard to go back and take classes. When I was in school I could have studied more of that stuff.

by Andrei Cherascu

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Myself with Terri Lyne Carrington

Life-enhancing and inspiring – an in-depth interview with Neil Cowley

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Picture via Facebook Profile

The view from the window looks very familiar. In fact, I think it might be the room right next to the one where Jeff Pedraz stayed last year, when he played with Kurt Elling on the second night of the festival. Back then I wrote: ‘The view is beautiful, so I decide to snap a quick photo; I probably won’t be back here very soon.’ It turns out I’m back one year later, hanging out with another talented young musician.

Three hours before his band, The Neil Cowley Trio, electrified the JAZZTM audience with a stunning, high-energy performance, I met pianist Neil Cowley in the lobby of the hotel, at 6 PM sharp.

‘A musician on time for his interview. I can’t believe that,’ I said to the smiling Englishman, remembering the struggles I’ve had trying to get a sit-down with some of his peers.

We took a seat at a table in the lobby but quickly noticed that it was a bit loud. Neil suggested we go to his room. As we sat down at a small table beside the window (where I noticed the familiar view) we got into some friendly chatter and I immediately knew that this would be my favorite interview.

Neil is fantastically approachable; a laid-back, funny and humble person and an all-around nice guy. He answered my questions in a straightforward manner, offering a valuable glimpse into the mind and the world of a talented and successful musician.

Let me get this out of the way first, because I know it’s something you get asked all the time. You’ve talked on countless occasions about your music technically not being part of the jazz genre and how jazz audiences, so-called “purists”, react to it. I wanted to ask, is this still an issue after eight years and five records? 

It is an issue. It’s an issue for us, it’s an issue for jazz itself. I think there are many jazz musicians who would say that we’re not jazz, because we don’t necessarily improvise in the usual way – the way things are composed. They’re composed very methodically, very strictly. And if there are any extensions or expansions, they tend to happen live and not on record. So we don’t necessarily sound like jazz. We definitely look like a jazz outfit because we’ve got piano, double-bass and drums. I’m not a great ‘defender of the faith’ when it comes to jazz. But we’re told that we are jazz by more people than those that tell us we’re not, so I guess we are jazz, then. I’m not hung up on it particularly. I think there are some fairly interesting chord progressions in [our music] and that makes us jazz. But we’re interested in so  many other things. It’s a practical, logistical point really. The jazz festivals are the places that are best equipped to deal with us. They have pianos and all that. And they have a real sense of the fact that the music is the most important thing. Everyone comes to listen to the music. They don’t necessarily jump around like maniacs, you know? So I guess we sit best in the setting of a jazz festival. We kind of just are jazz, whether we like it or not. I’m a little embarrassed by the word, because I think if I were to listen to a jazz record I’d probably go back about 50 years and listen to something that sounded right and vintage and crackled a bit. I would think of that as jazz. And I probably wouldn’t think of us as jazz from the outside. But we seem to be.

Well, Europe seems to generally be pretty open about what it “accepts “ as jazz. Many European jazz acts transcend the genre. Is the U.K perhaps more closed-off in this respect? Is the jazz audience in the U.K more “traditional”?   

I think it’s the same old cliché: ‘If you can make it in the U.K you can make it anywhere.’ They want you to fail (laughs). And generally speaking, they regard musicians as lower-class persons in the U.K. They love music, but the general attitude is that they wish musicians would just get a proper job. So playing and gigging in England can be hard. When you’re playing in Europe, people will be nice to you and you’re wondering ‘why is everyone being nice? why is everyone glad that we’re here?’ It’s very strange.

It has always been that way, as far as I’ve perceived it. My first ever foreign gig I think was in France. It blew me away when people were pleased to see us. Yeah, it is a bit of a U.K thing. And yet, we’ve got a lot of fans in the U.K. We do really well there. They understand the crossover that we do. But I think there are some of the older jazz-heads who don’t.

There was a Facebook post that someone put up, and they tagged me. And they said to a friend ‘check out Neil Cowley!’ Not knowing that I was tagged, the guy suddenly went ‘isn’t this that jazz that isn’t jazz?’ He really hated it, clearly. He said ‘I tried to listen to it, but I can’t,’ Didn’t like us at all. But I could see on his page that he liked jazz in a certain way, pretty conservative I suppose.

I love all sorts of music. I love old and new music. Some people just want to hear the same record put out again and again for the rest of time. They feel comfortable there. And for me that’s the absurdity of it. Jazz is now some sort of an academic past-time. There are university degrees galore in jazz. When I was a kid, jazz was not treated like that. You had to study classical music. Now you can study jazz everywhere. I wonder if that’s such a good thing, because now we’re just regurgitating and we’re probably over-analyzing and concentrating on what jazz ‘is’. Once it becomes a classical form like that I think it’s doomed to stick where it is. Which is an irony because it was such a culture-changing medium . And it’s difficult to maintain a lifeblood that way.

I live in a neighborhood which is…well… it wouldn’t be the first neighborhood you’d go to in order to find a music fan. It’s a very nice village and they haven’t got a clue. It’s not a good thing, being a jazz musician, I have to keep it quiet. But I played on big pop records so I just talk about that.

I can imagine the conversation:

‘I’m Neil Cowley, from the ‘Neil Cowley Trio,’’

“Who?”

“I played for Adele,”

“Oh!”

(Laughs) That’s a carbon copy of the conversation. I get that every time.

Does it bother you?

No, no. That’s totally understandable. I’m almost uncomfortable when they do know who I am. I expect people to go ‘I love those records’. And I’m really proud to be on those records, (Adele’s 19 and 21) because I think you have to wear many hats to survive as a musician. I’m not a jazz purist. And I’m actually very good at doing that kind of thing. I’m a very good session musician, although I do it very little these days. But I’m proud that I’m on something that people know and they understand and have in their car, something I hear in every single restaurant I ever walk into. It’s nice, you know? I don’t listen to what I’m doing but…

You don’t listen to your own stuff?

No, it’s a nightmare for me. It’s different if it’s Adele, because she’s the star and I just listen to her voice and concentrate on that. I’m just in the back. I play like eight notes. But I do that quite well, I do it dynamically. But everything in music is an art. There’s an art to everything. There’s an art to that too and I do it very well, and I’m proud of that. But when someone says ‘I love your music’ and they play it at a dinner party I’m like ‘oh no!’ Because I care so much about what the trio does that if I hear it I’m over-analyzing it and listening to every note and going ‘I could have done that better!’ So I tried to avoid that if possible.  

It’s normal to be better known for your pop work. A lot more people listen to pop than to jazz.

It can be dangerous if you get labeled with it. But my thing was I played on the record and then I never did another thing with her. I never toured live with her, I didn’t want to. I toured a couple of world tours in my early twenties and I had a great time but I had enough. Music means too much to me to go out on the road playing the same thing again, night after night when I’m not entirely into it. So I never toured again with anyone else except this band. I never have since I was twenty-five. I’ve made that a rule. So when Adele asked me early on I said no. I mean, I’m on the record, it’s played everywhere. I get the notoriety and the joy of it getting played everywhere but I don’t have to go out and play it live which is my idea of a nightmare. It would never be me. I mean if this – the Neil Cowley Trio – was completely over and I needed some cash, and it was a really cool band, then maybe. Touring has not been in my plans for fifteen years.

Can you tell me a little bit about the dynamic of the pop scene compared to the jazz scene?

I think what I’ve noticed early on as a working musician in the pop-scene is that it’s pretty cutthroat. It tends to be ageist. You don’t necessarily have to be the best. The pop scene is still predominantly run by A& R executives who are mostly hideous people. I could think of a couple of them who I’ve met and I can’t believe they exist like that. They are comedy shows and are not necessarily doing the right thing for the artist. This is the thing that people miss about pop music, it’s full of incredibly talented people. But then it’s wrapped up and presented to you. And I think that, quite often, the way it’s wrapped up and presented to you, you’ll go ‘oh no, that’s horrible’. But under that there can be some incredibly talented people. I worked with a girl called Birdy, she is amazing. I think when you see the team around her you think ‘I hope she’s being treated ok’ and ‘I hope her career is being thought of rather than a quick buck’. Because she is amazingly talented. When you’re in the room with her you can tell she’s spine-tinglingly good. I actually think that the pop scene is really good at having people who are talented. And then there’s some really good underground artists, like Micachu. She is from North London and she is a pop artist where everything is wrong: her teeth are bad, her hair is bad – she is amazing. She is a bit dirty…

My type of musician…

Yeah, you got to check her out! She’s like punk pop and electro as well. But incredibly well educated musically.  And she’s turning it all on its head. It’s wonderful stuff. I find that incredibly invigorating and exciting. Actually, when it comes to the jazz scene, I don’t follow it much. I’m more inclined to see what’s happening on the pop scene. I probably would know about the jazz scene but I wouldn’t analyze it. Probably in fear of me copying it compositionally (laughs). I don’t want to hear that, it might influence me, I might sound like someone else. So I try and avoid as much other jazz as possible. And I’ll probably listen to older stuff really, if I’m honest.

So what do you listen to, specifically?

It would be older stuff. I mean, I like piano and Hammond and I love fantastic old piano players like Errol Garner. Really romantic, charismatic piano players. And I love the things that are on the funkier side of life. If I’m really honest, I like bands like The Crusaders , you know? I like Fender Rhodes – it’s a keyboard, it’s the best thing in the world – so bands that play Fender Rhodes, I’ll give them a listen always. So I don’t necessarily listen to the cutting edge stuff.

Who is your favorite piano-player?

That hasn’t changed much in about thirty years. It would be Errol Garner, because he makes me smile. When he plays there is a smile in the room and I just love that. The way he swings, the way he smiles in his playing, I find that life-enhancing and inspiring. I like things that entertain in that way and that make you feel good about life. Everything is just so incredibly positive. It would be him still. I can’t think of anyone that would replace him, in my life.

Do you feel like he influences you when you compose?

I do actually, yeah. The way that he draws out emotion – I try and emulate that.

Any “new” guys?

Michel Petrucciani. He’s amazing, I love his playing. And it’s got that romantic edge as well. We’re getting a bit closer (laughs). Brad Mehldau I don’t really listen to.

I think you’re the first musician who ever said that to me. It seems like everyone listens to Mehldau.

He doesn’t speak to me. I look at him and I go ‘cryin’ out loud he can play, man he’s good!’ but I don’t feel it.

You have to connect with the music.

And I don’t with Brad Mehldau. And he’ll probably say the same of me. He’ll probably go: ‘who?’ (laughs) So he doesn’t connect with me. Michel Petrucciani definitely connects with me. No one else springs to mind.

 Let’s talk about Touch and Flee for a little bit. First of all congratulations, it’s an excellent record! My only gripe with it is that it’s too short.

It’s the old rock’n’roll adage ‘leave’em wanting’ (laughs)

Well, you succeeded.

Thank you. I agree in many ways that it was – what is it, ten tracks?

Nine.

It was fourteen initially, but I got rid of five because they didn’t fit. I’m always guilty of putting too much on so I put a rule this time that I had to make it concise. Someone else has also complained…

It wasn’t really a complaint, though.  

(Laughs) No, I know..it’s a nice complaint. It’s a nice thing to say. But, it’s just the way it is. Just the way it panned out. When we listened to those fourteen track, those five didn’t fit and those nine did. And it felt like that was the right time to finish. So I’m afraid that’s just the way it is.

What is the concept behind it? What did you want to accomplish with this record?

We wanted to move on slightly from our usual mode, which is very hook-laden and quite energetic… 

Loud, louder…stop!

(Laughs) Loud, louder…stop! It’s syncopated, it’s all those things that we’re known for. We felt like we made The Face of Mount Molehill Part 2 and we scrapped it. So we actually got six months into the last year when we said ‘No, I’m not feeling it’, it feels like we’re putting out the same record again. So we stopped, we didn’t do that. And we made a new one. We wanted to just extend a few things. In recent compositions we ventured into a world where the stories were longer, more drawn-out, perhaps more sensitive. We wanted to do that. In actual fact, it’s been the scariest thing I’ve ever done. When the record company says to you ‘that’s a brave new direction’ you know you’re in trouble. That’s what they said to us. And I thought ‘oh shit!’ So that’s what we’re left with ‘brave new direction’. But I think we felt that it was important to make something better and extend what we do. I have to say it’s quite hard to integrate into the set. Because the set is so powerful and vast and energetic, it’s pretty hard to integrate those new tunes into the set. In fact, so much so, that we’re playing the Barbican in London and I think we’re going to do two sets. We’re going to do one with Touch and Flee complete and then we’re going to do all the hits in a second set. Keep them separate. It does feel detached from other stuff, so we felt it’s ok to do that so it’s a ‘brave new direction’ and slightly scary for us. And Touch and Flee, the concept was just a story I had read in a newspaper that 40% of under-forty-year-olds in Japan are now averse to touch. They don’t like physical touch. They’re so connected with the world of cyberspace and technological advancement that they’ve forgotten how to touch. So they’re going to classes now, run by ex-women-of-the-night, who are teaching them to touch. And also ‘touch and flee’ is a literal translation of ‘toccata and fugue’. And Rex (bass-player Rex Horan) said ‘I think the music on this has a very different touch to it – a completely new touch’. It all became this one big mess that we made in the middle. So those are these sort of rules, the elements behind it.

I feel like it’s really a genre-bending record.

Well, we talked about pop and jazz before. My ethic has always been – because I’ve worked in the world of pop –  to cherry pick the favorite places and people that I have met in pop, because I think that you’re always competing. People think that jazz is completely insular and I think that’s a mistake. I think you’re competing in an overall market, if you want to use commercial terms. It’s a big market and you’re always competing. So I use very expensive pop studios. Like Rak Studios, where I recorded most of the Adele stuff. That’s a massive studio, great big piano, huge desk, tape machines. And Dom Monks, the guy who produced it, engineered for Ethan Johns, who produced Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne. He’s a massive pop producer and he creates an amazing sound. I’ve always been a big fan of this sound that he creates. So we got Dom in to produce the record and I think the sound is ‘big’ which is very important to us because it sounds ‘expensive’. It sounds like the best it’s ever going to sound. So paying attention to the sound is very important. There is kind of a pop crossover, sonically.  Even though we’re definitely a jazz band, we do it in a pop environment so I think some of that rubs off.

Hold on a second. Did you just say ‘we’re definitely a jazz band?’ I think it might be the first time you ever said that in an interview.  

(laughs) It’s a revelation. I suddenly realized that we’re a jazz band, right here at this interview.

I’m so happy to be here for this.

Oh yeah, it’s an honor for all of us. (laughs)

Tell me about what usually inspires you? Do you get your inspiration from other art-forms as well or is it just life in general?

Well, life in general does affect it. The compositions are done at home on my piano, with my family in the background. It’s essentially me getting quite lonely and quite melancholic. I try to combat that in some ways. The other thing is, I don’t listen to jazz so that it doesn’t affect me. But you have to have input. And there normally would be some genre or area of music that I’m obsessed with at the moment. For The Face of Mount Molehill it was Krautrock. I’m really obsessed with guys like Can and Neu!, I was really into that at the time and I think that seeped through. And I wanted to have the same qualities of that. This time, I’m not sure, Rex’s words are ringing in my ears about us being a contemporary classical concert-hall band now, so I was trying to create contemporary classical music through this thing. So I was probably listening to more of that. I mean, I always go back to Shostakovich. I love Shostakovich. And I was listening to that whole Eastern-Block area of classical music. So I’m trying to emulate that but with a three-piece band. I think that would have been my background. I’m terrible…I kind of go ‘oh, don’t listen to things! don’t look at things!’ because you got to find it from within. It’s a big mistake. Eventually, I’ll go to an art-gallery or something like that and go ‘oh, yes…I understand creativity again.’ (laughs) So things would pop up along the way but I couldn’t specifically tell you what they were. They were just good creative moments and other creative things that inspired me throughout. But I also like to write about people. I try and emulate a character that I like through the music.

I read somewhere that the names of your songs come from people that you know.

I’m trying to think of some of the titles on this record. They’re much more about themselves, these tunes. “Queen” is a tune about a woman I’ve met in Northern Ireland. There’s a city called Derry. Very troubled, historically, with terrorism and things. But she’s the self-appointed ‘Queen of Derry’, she’s just a fashion-queen…loud and funny and very amazing person. So that’s named after her specifically. I dedicated it to her, she’s thrilled about that. I should get more specific with my titles rather than being subtle about it.

You mentioned that you write music with your family in the background. Do you ever get feedback from them?

No, I’m scared of what my wife will say (laughs). She is not a diplomat when it comes to this. She will tell me exactly what she thinks. She has an unfortunate habit of saying the thing that will make me cry the most (laughs). When it comes to music, I’m so sensitive about it. I’m oversensitive. Some people I really enjoy playing it to, not many though. I find it really hard because I’m so sensitive to what people say. I think my biggest fan is my daughter. She’s six. There’s a track with her laugh on it on The Face of Mount Molehill. She’s laughing and the track has been written around her laugh. She’s like ‘I love what you do daddy’. I know it’s biased, I know it’s completely rigged but I’ll happily take that. I play [the newly written music] to the band, that’s the first time I play it to people. But they’re normally good to me.

Is it always you composing?

Generally. There’s a couple of tunes we’ve done together but I’m a control-freak so I tend to do it that way. And I think that creates the sound that we make. In real terms I invested and continue to invest money in it. I mean, you talk about Adele…well, that money just goes into this band. It’s a labor of love, as you say. If I looked at the books, whether I was up or down, I’d probably be down. But there are other things that come as a result of this, good things. And I do well. I’m very happy with my life and happy with my ‘income’ if you want to talk about it in those terms. But I think the Neil Cowley Trio, in terms of plus and minus on the spreadsheet, would probably be a ‘minus’, because I spend too much on the recording. I totally financed the first record. I think they’re all breaking even slowly. That’s where it ends up. Well, you know, The Neil Cowley Trio…I say we don’t make money, but we do. The gigs are good, they pay well. The albums themselves though…because I want them to be so good I spend so much money on them, so they’re a ‘loser’ but everything else is a ‘winner’. I think in about three or four years we’ve started saying ‘oh yeah, this works, it’s worth the sacrifice’.

Do you have any pre-show or post-show rituals?

We shout. (laughs) We shout and we laugh and it’s high energy backstage. We all make each other laugh a lot so there’s real high energy. We shout, we scream. We run around like children. We’re big kids. So that’s really the only ritual: high-energy shouting.

One last question: If you could travel back in time to when you were six years old and had your first contact with music, what advice would you give yourself?  

I suppose that would depend on the mistakes I felt I had made. And I think that, despite the fact that I enjoy this part of my career where I invest in myself in much the way we just spoke about, I only found the courage to do that when I was in my late twenties, maybe about thirty. And I would just say:

‘You got time, all the time in the world. Start now! Start all that work now. Invest in yourself, believe in yourself. Believe that you can make a sound that is uniquely yours and that your voice will be heard! And please believe in it. Don’t wait ‘til you’re thirty, start now! Because then you’ve got a massive head-start.’

It worked out for me because I’ve had so many influences I could call upon by the time I was thirty. So it did work out for me. But I think if I did it again I would say just ‘don’t doubt yourself!’

I’ve always doubted myself my whole life and now that I’m in this band, I’ve got the confidence that I do know how to write and I do know how to play. I got a thing that I do, I’m ok about it. So I’d just say to myself:

‘You have it, believe in it, trust in it, start honing it now because you have it! You have it! Don’t doubt it! Don’t spend all that time trying to find your voice, trying to find where you belong. You belong in you, with you. Doing your thing. So don’t look for someone else to conjure it up for you. It’s all about you!’

by Andrei Cherascu

NC

Myself with Neil Cowley


Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.

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Gentleman, bio-farmer, musical mastermind – an interview with Paul Zauner

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photo via paul-zauner.com

For over six months I’ve been looking forward to my trip to rural Upper Austria, to be part of a unique musical experience which has earned a cult following in Europe and beyond. The INNtöne Jazz festival, organized on a farm and bringing together a wide array of stunning and diverse musicians (this year, among others: Paul Kogut, George and Camilla Mraz, Jazzmeia Horn, Mario Rom, Nino Josele, Raul Midon, Pablo Held Trio) is the brainchild of one man: musician, bio-farmer and record producer Paul Zauner.

The festival was every bit as interesting and unique as I had expected, from the intimate setting (Zauner is basically welcoming you into his home), to good food and refreshing beer, and the opportunity to enjoy said food and beer in the company of a varied and select audience and a group of outstanding, hand-picked performers. INNtöne is a wonderful opportunity to create some very personal musical memories, more akin to a large annual family gathering than an organized entertainment event. It is a rare cultural phenomenon that values the myth as much as it does the music and the creator of this myth is Paul Zauner.

At the end of the third and last evening, as I was getting ready to go home, I looked for Zauner to say goodbye and thank him for the experience. I had planned on interviewing him but, understandably, he was not very easily approachable during the festival, with everyone vying for his attention. After a few failed attempt at talking to him I gave up on the idea of an in-person interview. Luckily, when I went to say goodbye he told me he finally had time for a sit-down, so we went looking for a quiet place to talk. The aptly named St. Pig’s Pub (by the looks of things a former pig-sty converted to an impromptu bar for the duration of the festival) proved too noisy. We crossed the yard and entered the building behind the food stands, where the living spaces are located. A flight of stairs took us to his office, a crowded and pleasantly silent space where we both sat down at a big desk. When he crashed onto the chair opposite mine I could see just how tired he appeared. The hectic rhythm of the last three days had no-doubt taken its toll on him. With the noise of the courtyard reduced to a murmur and the only other noise coming from a group of children playing in the hallway, I finally had a chance to get a glimpse into the mind of this great patron of Jazz.

The INNtöne festival, now in its twenty-ninth year of existence, is truly one-of-a-kind. Please tell me how the whole thing began.   

It was like this: I used to play piano in a blues-band and I wanted to further develop the music, so I studied piano and trombone. I was initially into stuff like Emerson, Lake & Palmer but I also started listening to a lot of free jazz, Anthony Braxton and Art Ensemble of Chicago, and also swing music. Because of this I developed a very personal concept of a particular type of sound that I was trying to create. So I provided this blues-band with a horn section and it became the Blue Brass Connection. It was always about the sound. Not just creating some instrumental music, but creating a particular sound. Whenever we played anywhere in Upper Austria, many people showed up. Back in the ‘80s this type of blues-music was very popular.  A friend of mine, with whom I had worked for the Vienna  Jazz Festival, told me that Lou Donaldson had a free day in May and asked me if I would be interested in playing a double-concert with Donaldson. We asked if we could play in a castle in one of the neighboring villages. The mayor asked the governor of the province for money but he misunderstood and thought we were planning on holding a festival and not just a concert. So we received money for a festival. It all began entirely by accident.

Once we had the money we started bringing in diverse artists like Workshop de Lyon and Rypdahl and all these Austrian musicians. It was the same as today, very diversified. We also did things like accordion solo concerts back when nobody would have thought of putting an accordion in Jazz. People used to say ‘you can’t do this. an accordion solo-concert in jazz – this doesn’t work’. I always said ‘ok, let’s do it anyway’. I never really cared if it was traditional or not, it just had to have heart. So that’s how it started and it all grew from there.

Tell me about choosing the artists. Do you do this personally?

I choose everything personally, as a matter of fact. To me, everything has to amount to a dynamic musical whole. After loud comes quiet, there is a particular dramaturgy to the whole story. Everything has to fit together.

 How did the public change in these almost three decades?

The public is, as always, very open. They open their hearts to the music. This is the same today as it was in the beginning. Whenever I get criticized, whether people say it’s too “free” or it’s too “traditional”, I accept the criticism but I move forward with my own agenda, so to speak. I do what I think is right. I do that because I try to take people with me on an emotional journey, an emotional journey of hearing and feeling.

Your festival has the reputation of showcasing young talent. Talk to me about that.

Well, that’s part of the big picture; giving a chance to new people who are extremely promising. Because they play fantastically and they make people happy. In three or four years, perhaps Jazzmeia Horn will cost as much as the rest of the line-up put together. I’m not saying that will definitely happen, but it could. So our chance of bringing these people here under these circumstances, while keeping the festival at this particular level, is now. Because I don’t want to make (the festival) any bigger. I’d like to keep it at this level, maybe even a bit smaller. Of course I can invite Gregory Porter again now, but that’s not the point of the whole thing. We need to create an entirely new composition. I don’t want people coming just for Gregory Porter.

I guess the effect of that would be to turn the other performers into opening acts for the bigger stars, in a way.

That can’t happen. It has to be like Friday, when Mario Rom became the unexpected main event. And for that, a lot of research is necessary. You have to invest a lot of time and work into getting the most outstanding people. They don’t necessarily have to be young, they can be very old, if they were forgotten. They can be at the peak of their careers but maybe they aren’t as compatible with this industry  as a Paul Kogut – who incidentally plays incredibly well. So it’s not just about discovering young talent, it’s about discovering the already existing grandiose musicians or allowing the forgotten to come into their own.  It’s also about justice in life, musical justice so to speak. People who don’t make as much “noise” as others tend to be more easily forgotten. It’s imperative that I don’t let that happen.

This brings me to something I have been very curious about. You mentioned before that you didn’t want the festival to grow and I’ve been really fascinated with the fact that the festival managed to remain this size for almost three decades. It makes me think of the Gărâna Jazz festival in my own country, which started similarly (held in the backyard of a local Inn) and developed into a phenomenon that now draws thousands of people every year. How have you managed to purposefully prevent that from happening with INNöne?  

I wouldn’t allow that to happen. Because then it becomes a flow that I can’t stop; economically too.

If you could travel back in time to the day you first got involved in the music business, what advice would you give yourself?

I would advise myself to never, under any circumstances, lose perspective. Because if you start doing something and you lose perspective then it becomes a problem. All sorts of unwanted problems can arise.

You are involved in so many things and have a very active lifestyle. You’re a musician, a record-producer, a bio-farmer and event organizer. How do you manage to balance all these things? What’s’ the secret?

Wake up early, practice as much as possible and just simply do everything from the heart. If you do everything with great love, then it works out.

And don’t lose perspective…

That’s right (smiles). Don’t lose perspective.

by Andrei Cherascu

Carrying on the legacy through conscious music – an interview with Jazzmeia Horn

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 The Music and Myth proudly presents an extensive interview with Jazzmeia Horn. At the time of this writing it is the only one of its kind on the internet.

For The Music and Myth, the INNtöne Jazz festival was a nice opportunity to hit the countryside, hang out at a farm, eat pork roast and drink beer while listening to some of the greatest Jazz in the world. But it was also more than that. This unconventional event offers another, very valuable experience: the chance at a glimpse into the future. Event organizer Paul Zauner has a knack for recognizing promising young talent and getting them in front of audiences a short while before they become prominent players on the Jazz scene. The most recent example is Gregory Porter, who performed at the festival in 2010 and won a Grammy for his record Liquid Spirit just this year. Seeing a young musician – perhaps only a few years away from international acclaim – in such a cozy, intimate setting is something truly special. The artist opens up in a way that becomes almost impossible after their eight hundredth’ gig and in front of very large audiences.  Just imagine being at the Apollo in 1934, the night Ella stepped on a stage for the first time and sang “Judy” and “The Object of my Affections”.  I know I would have loved to be at a Frank Zappa concert back in the ’70s and see a scrawny kid named Tom open with bawlin’ piano-ballads. At INNtöne, I knew I would get a similar opportunity, and one name that caught my eye was Jazzmeia Horn.

The twenty-three year old musician, fresh out of the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, has certainly been garnering much praise for her determination, her charismatic stage presence and her old school approach to music. I was looking forward to her set and to interviewing her afterwards. While her performance certainly exceeded my already very high expectations, so did the interview, where I discovered that Jazzmeia is just as warm, graceful and charming in person as she appears on stage. She also possesses an outspoken nature and an air of wisdom which seems to contradict her young age. That comes from an acute awareness of her place in the music industry and a powerful feeling of cultural responsibility. Like I’ve mentioned in the article covering her performance, when you are in her presence, you get the feeling that a very bright future awaits this musician. I am certain that the readers of this interview will get the very same feeling.

 Jazzmeia, what do you think of the Inntöne festival so far? How do you like it?

It’s great. Look at that!  Right there, see…(she points at a lady carrying a tray with plates of pork roast)

It’s why it’s called Jazz at the Farm. This is what it’s all about.

(laughs) Exactly, all this meat. I don’t even eat meat.

You’re in the wrong place then. 

Oh no, they have some good pasta. I ate some pasta earlier.

You had a great set, congratulations!

Thank you.

You’ve got a debut record coming up, is that right?

I’m working on it. We’ve only been in the studio one day. What happened was that the bass-player Eric Wheeler plays on the road with Dee Dee Bridgewater a lot. So I don’t want to just tell him ‘hey man, if you don’t get off the road with her you can’t play with me’ (laughs). That would be rude. I’m happy that he’s working elsewhere, you know?  But it’s hard.  Victor Gould, who plays piano, is occasionally on the road with Wallace Roney. Sometimes getting the guys in to have another session is just really complicated.  So I’m working on it.

Can you talk to me about the record? Is it going to be standards or original compositions?

Yeah, original compositions. They sound like standards. They are definitely swinging, definitely classic jazz. If you were checking out Ella or Bettie or Carmen McRae, it would be a mixture of that with maybe some Lauren Hill and a little bit of Erykah Badu and maybe some Jill Scott and Marvin Gaye. You know, it’s just a mixture of soul, really.

My music is conscious music. It’s about being aware of the food that you put in your body, being aware of the community that you’re in and how the environment affects you in the community that you’re in, but in music. ‘Cos that’s what Jazz is, you’re telling a story, you know? And why not speak about the story that’s happening right now? I think the music is definitely important and, especially since my name is Jazzmeia, why not carry on the legacy, right?

Because a lot of the young people are really not that interested in Jazz. I’m talking about the mass population. Especially people of the African diaspora, which is where the genre came from. They’re really not interested in the music because of the way the media portrays Jazz just in general. It’s not on the mainstream.  So people are not really conscious about the movement and how it’s going. I just want to free people’s minds, that’s really what I want to do. Everybody: white people, black people, Indian people, orange people, yellow people. Seriously, I’m so serious. I just want people to be happy. Be happy with themselves, ‘cos that’s what we can do. If we’re happy with ourselves we can have love to give to everyone else, you see? So that’s what my album is really about.

What will it be called?

Probably – this is about 70% right, it might not be this – but I’m thinking The Naked Truth Dipped in Culture. I’m hoping it can be released mid-September or early October.  It’s coming out this year. Hopefully by the fall, so that way I can submit my music in December or January to festivals, to book them a year in advance. That’s my goal.

 You’ve moved from Dallas to Harlem, what can you tell me about the Jazz scene in New York? What are the biggest challenges for you?  

I don’t really have any now but I used to. Being in school was really complicated because in America there are no schools that teach you what you want to learn. Especially college, but education in general. You have to be your own school. Schools have their own agenda as far as what they want to teach the students. They’re trying to teach you something that you’re not even going to need, something that’s not necessary for your day to day life, you know? But you can definitely learn from it.

So, with that being said, I moved from Dallas in 2009 and went to school in August 2009. It was very hectic for me because I couldn’t understand why, coming from Dallas, I’m learning less than I learned back home. And I’m in New York, where the Jazz scene is five thousand times better than it is in Dallas. And still I was learning so much more back home. It’s because the people are real to the music. Not to say New-Yorkers aren’t real to the music, because most of the population in New York is not made of people who are from New York anyway, especially in the Jazz scene. You’ll find that 30% of the Jazz musicians in New York are actually from New York . So it was just really hard trying to go to school and deal with somebody else’s agenda, when I have my own agenda. Because I was trying to learn how to improvise better as a vocalist, how to improvise better as a musician in general, how to work on my technique and find out really who it is that I want to be musically and what I have to offer other than a beautiful sound. Sound is there, that’s actually the gift. But then, how do you mold it? How do you manifest it into actually what you want it to be? So that was really hard because the New School was like ‘do this, do that’ and it had nothing to do with the goals that I was trying to reach so that…sucked. (laughs)

And then I learned how to cope with it. I said, ‘ok, this is what the New School wants me to do, and this is what I want do, so this is how I have to balance it out’. That was the good thing about it, I learned how to balance them. Then, once I graduated college, it was so much better for me because now I have my own agenda and I can check out other people and what they’re doing as well. Everything on Earth is recycled. Fashion is recycled. What we wore in the 1920’s, that shit is going to come back around again, we’re going to wear that again (laughs). So that’s what happens. We evolve but we recycle and keep on traditions as we grow. So I feel the same way with Jazz. A lot of cats are not really interested in playing straight ahead. They want to play out, they want to play all this other stuff. And I only know that because I was allowed to go out and check out the scene.

There’s so many killer musicians, I’m not the only killin’ vocalist on the scene. I feel like what I can do for people is just be professional and show musicians and other people that I want to work and that I want to be playing, and be professional about it. If you’re not professional you can definitely get cut. Like, if you don’t show up…forget about it!  They can just call another vocalist because everybody’s killin’. You’re not the only killin’ one so…you just got to be on your p’s and q’s with that kind of stuff. And also practicing.

It’s hard because I want to go around and say ‘hey guys, you wanna play, you wanna shed?’ and they’re like ‘no!’ But if I say that to a musician who is not a vocalist, maybe a tenor player or trumpet player, they’ll be like ‘yeah, yeah…what are you working on?’ We just vibe instantly. And I want to feel that way more with vocalists.

The elders – the vocalists who might be in their 50s or 60s – of course, yeah, they can understand it. It’s because they relate to the Jazz. Not that the young cats don’t relate, but the elders understand where I’m coming from and they’ll come to me and say ‘I’ll do it’. We all get together and we sing and stuff. But the vocalists who are my age, they are not trying to hear. They’re like ‘I have my own agenda, I have my own thing, I don’t care’.

Do you think that’s because of competition?

Yeah, and that sucks. I don’t like that. I feel like, if I can go to a trumpet player and say the same thing, I should be able to go to a vocalist as well. We’re all musicians, you know? That hurts my feelings a little bit. I take it personal sometimes. I have to learn how to stop doing that. But I’m working on it.

The scene (in New York) is just great. There’s so many great musicians. If my bass player can’t make a gig, I can just call somebody else. Whereas in Dallas, there’s only five or six other players I can call. So if I didn’t have a bass player I’d have to find another way to make it work, any way that I can. And there’s a club on every corner.

I just wish two things: that the clubs were reachable to the younger generation, kids who are younger than me, so…like…high-school. In a lot of clubs you either can’t go because you’re too young or you can’t go because it’s like fifty dollars. With the way the economy works right now how the hell are you going to charge a kid fifty dollars to get in a club? It’s really inaccessible. And not only that, I wish a lot more of the elders would come out to the sessions. Roy Hargrove comes out to sessions, you know what I mean? We can learn from the elders. So when they come out to the sessions that’s like hip, you know. If you went to the sessions back in the ‘50s or ‘60s, if you went to Lenox Lounge or you went to St Nick’s Pub you could always find…like…Gregory Porter used to hang out at St. Nick’s pub, Jimmy Heath used to hang out and you could just go to them and be like ‘hey man, can I get a lesson?’ Now you can’t do that, and that sucks. That’s why all these cats want to play this out shit that has nothing to do with the legacy of the music. Because the elders have disconnected themselves. So what happens when the young generation falls behind and the elders disconnect themselves? There’s where I feel like I come in.

I know you are heavily influenced by the older generations, but what about the younger artists? Who influences you? Who do you listen to?

Oh, we can go on for years about what I listen to (laughs). But right now my top 5 are: Rachelle Ferrell, Bobby McFerrin, Jason Moran, Christian Scott. I like Ambrose, the trumpet player, he’s killin’. I also love Dee Dee Bridgewater. I like Kirk, of course (piano-player Kirk Lightsey). I like a lot of Gretchen’s stuff but I wouldn’t…I don’t consider Gretchen a Jazz musician, but who the hell am I?

How do you write your music? Can you talk to me about your creative process?

This recorder that you have – let me see! I have one of these, and it’s an Olympus too. So what I do is I take it around with me everywhere. I have it in my pocket upstairs. And sometimes I’ll think of something and it will turn into a song. I’ll just record that little bit and then when I get home I can sit down at the piano and figure out what it was that I was thinking about two hours ago. So I have just this recorder with like a hundred short snippets of something. So what happens is, over time, as I practice and my musicality gets greater, I usually have a tendency to go back and listen to tune number 5, instead of say number 555. And I find that the way I thought about it then is so much different than the way that I think about it now because of the growth spurt. So I’ll go back and fix this and tweak that and do this and do that. I just have sheets of music that either I’ll turn into a song and play or I’ll use it as a jingle. That’s another thing that musicians don’t really know about, writing music for film.

Film scoring and stuff like that – the money is so good. I learned that from Carmen Lundy. I did the Jazz Ahead program in 2013 and she told me about film scoring and how to write compositions for films and for TV shows and for all kinds of stuff that has to do with media. Once I found out about that, some of my songs that I didn’t like or didn’t think that I would be able to perform on stage, I turned them into little jingles or something like that. So it really just depends on where I am and how I’m feeling.

I just keep that recorder with me because if I’m in a bad mood, I’ll sing a song about it ‘cos that’s who I am. I’m a vocalist. I have to vocalize no matter what I’m doing. I’m on the train sometimes singing and people are like “shut the f**k up!” (laughs) But I can’t help it, that’s just who I am. And my voice is the way to do it. I just keep that recorder on me.

One last question: where do you see yourself in 5 years? What are your goals?

I would just like to tour all over the world and have my music reach the mass population, simply because I feel like they need healing. There’s not a whole lot of music out there that reaches the mass, like Beyonce’s fans or Jay-Z’s fans. Those people are brainwashed. Seriously, they have no sense of who they are, where they come from. They don’t care because the media tells them who to be, what to eat, what to drink, what to think about, how to dress. And I just want to show them that not everybody is like that. And that can make the world a better place, you never know. I feel like I can choose my gift that God gave me to just bring people to the light. And that’s really what I want to do. Even if it’s on a small stage. Because as long as people are hearing and it’s touching somebody, even if it’s one person , I’m satisfied.

With that being said I thanked her for her time and, with a big hug, we said goodbye. A while later I tweeted the  following phrase:

Prediction: you will see Jazzmeia Horn at the 2015 Grammys, you’ve heard it here first folks!

That’s the effect that this artist has on you. She makes you think of great things – for herself and, implicitly, for the future of Jazz. Jazzmeia Horn has everything going for her. She’s got the look, she certainly has the talent and she seems to possess an innate understanding of the subtleties of artistic expression, demonstrated through the ease with which she connects with the audience. But she also has one more thing which I think will prove vital to her success: a personal mission.

by Andrei Cherascu

The natural sound of the guitar – an in-depth interview with Horea Crișovan

Horea

For a long time I have been planning on interviewing a Romanian musician whose work I’ve been  following for over a decade. He is a well-known and highly respected session guitarist whose talent is, in my opinion, unmatched on the Romanian music scene. He has performed in a wide array of bands and musical projects but now he is preparing to launch his first solo venture which is shaping up to be an iconic presence on the quality music scene. His name is Horea Crișovan and I invite you to read this in-depth interview in which he talks about his debut record, his views on writing and recording music, his experiences playing alongside the likes of Dominique DiPiazza and life as a full-time musician. Enjoy!

Chapter 1: Who is he?

“Well, what does it even mean to be a great musician?” he says and shrugs, then leans back on the swivel chair at his desk. We’re in his living room drinking white bio-wine out of two coffee mugs (the wine glasses are at his girlfriend’s house) and talking about the qualities that make up a good musician.

“I don’t know,” I answer. “How about having a writer offer to write a comprehensive article about your work?”

He laughs. Horea Crișovan does not think he is a great musician. In fact, he doesn’t even care whether he is or isn’t. What he cares about is the quality of his compositions and the purity of his sound. He wants his music to be perfect not because he wants the credit, but because he feels he owes it to his songs.

“It would be a shame about these songs if I don’t execute them properly,”

This humble and down-to-earth demeanor is what makes this highly accomplished musician as likeable in person as he is on stage.

“Vanity is the cancer of the ego” he always says. It’s a phrase he keeps repeating like a mantra, with the steadfast and slightly comical conviction of a musical monk, until it  becomes almost a leitmotif for our conversations. Over the last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with him and we discovered that we have quite a lot in common, from our taste in music to our mutual interest in wine and a similar mindset to the way in which we approach our respective art-forms. There is, however, one topic about which we disagree: Horea doesn’t think he is the best guitarist in the country.

Chapter 2: The Romanian Music Scene            

I’m standing in front of the entrance to the hotel we’ve chosen as our meeting point waiting for Horea to make his appearance. Predictably, he shows up on his bicycle, an object that has become almost as associated with his image as his trusty guitar. He owns a car (an older Mercedes he’s planning to get rid of) but he doesn’t own a driver’s license. The bike has been his primary means of transportation probably from around the time he embraced an ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet and started jogging a daily five kilometers. No doubt that’s the reason why he looks like he hasn’t aged at all since the day I first saw him perform with funk band Blazzaj in 2003.

“Hi, it’s great to finally meet you,” he says as we shake hands and I thank him for taking the time to speak with me. Our relationship so far has been limited to the unavoidable Facebook-friendship and a mutual appreciation of each other’s work.  It turns out Horea knows and likes The Music and Myth almost as much as I like his music, a humbling revelation for me and an important stimulus to keep this website alive no matter where my writing career eventually takes me. We enter the hotel and Horea politely asks if we may take a seat at one of the tables in their restaurant for a cup of coffee, which he then proceeds to order with milk and honey. I start off the interview with a question that has been plaguing me for years:

What ever happened with the third Blazzaj record?

(For those who have no clue what I’m talking about, funk band Blazzaj, of which Horea is an integral part, has been around for fifteen years. They’ve released their first record in 1998 and their second in 2003. Ever since then there’s been talk of a third record with new compositions being presented at concerts every once in a while but it has failed to materialize for a decade now for some reason)

“Well, Blazzaj is a very disorganized band (he laughs). I’ve recorded my guitar parts somewhere in 2009. I think it took me about four or six days. But I think Petrică (Ionuțescu) still has to record his trumpet section and Vita (vocalist Tavi “Vita” Horvath) still has to write some lyrics. Right now they’re both busy with their respective bands, Negură Bunget and Implant Pentru Refuz, so I understand.”

So the record is still in work?

“Oh yeah, it will come out, of course. It’s already written. In fact I think we have too many tracks so we’ll chose around eleven or twelve from the twenty that currently exist. Some of those twenty are still in a project phase, we didn’t even finish them because we didn’t feel they were interesting. We’ll have to see when the album comes out. It all depends on Uțu (bass player and recording engineer Uțu Pascu). He’s involved with the National Theater and the German Theater and he also plays with Kumm, a band with which he is currently touring Germany and other countries. So he’s not really available right now. He’s the one mixing the record. There are many factors at play.”

The conversation shifts to performing, specifically how important it is to convey your feelings to the audience. This expressiveness is a trait most evident in the performances of this virtuous musician. I mention that the reason I couldn’t get into Al DiMeola’s first few records was his emphasis on speed and technique at the expense of emotion.

“So, you don’t like the first twenty years of DiMeola’s career but you like Horea. That’s not bad.” He laughs again. This funny, easy going-side of Horea’s is beautifully captured in his playing, and especially in his acoustic compositions. When I tell him that his acoustic work is my favorite he seems pleased.

“Oh man, you just have to come by my place,” he says, “I’ll show you where I record the songs,”

He shows me a picture of a small sound-box he’s set up in his living-room, built by himself.

Tell me about what it means to be a full-time musician in today’s Romanian music scene.

“I had the ambition of making a living from music exclusively, but not as a target. I caught a favorable circumstance. If I were twenty-something years old right now instead of forty-one I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a musician. There are people around who, at twenty-five or twenty-six are very talented and perhaps more gifted than myself. Not as composers but from the point of view of technique, availability, the capacity to adapt. They’re all night-owls this new generation, they all go to bed at eight in the morning. I’m not like that, I’m old-school. I don’t think I’d be a survivor in this jungle if I wouldn’t have the background that you know so well, with all the pain and the effort and all the projects: Neurotica, Blazzaj, Abra  and Ilie (Stepan).  Every one of my projects. But at the same time, because I’ve lived a modest life, I’ve managed to mobilize myself musically and spiritually, in order to write exactly the music that you like.

The fact that that I manage to make a living from music is a fortunate occurrence and I’m always sort of expecting this dream to end. The way the economy is, with the financial crisis that doesn’t seem to end…

And it’s not a hundred percent yet; I’m still a radio voice-over, I lend my voice to all sorts of commercials. I can say I earn about eighty percent of my living from being involved in music. I also consider myself really lucky. I’m not a big drinker, I don’t exaggerate when it comes to vices. I own a car but I don’t have a driver’s license, I get around on my bike. So I don’t need a lot of money in order to live. I did need a lot of money to buy microphones and guitars, because if what you do doesn’t sound good then you have no way of expressing yourself. That’s the ugly part. Because of that I have to ask for money, perhaps more money than other people my age and that’s why I maybe get some negative backlash.”

Well, to be honest, I’ve heard stories about your supposed high financial demands when you play with Fely.

(Horea plays together with pop vocalist Fely Donose as part of Fely & The Band which also includes Florin Cvasa)

“Oh yeah, with Fely we ask for more money, because it’s mainstream. We have to. And I have to tell you – this isn’t even off the record  – at forty-one years of age I feel it’s my responsibility to lay a bed for the new generation to sleep in. Who’s going to ask for more money if not me? If the guys who have already made a name for themselves in their respective niches don’t ask for a decent pay than the up-and-comers will end up singing for free, or maybe they’ll even have to pay to perform in a club. This general displeasure with the fact that we ask for a decent pay is unfounded. Those who play music for a living should be happy that prices are what they are.”

There’s a lot of envy out there, especially towards Fely, who is incredibly talented and successful. I’ve heard many people criticize you guys for playing covers, but I think it’s bullshit. It’s not like you can just go out and hear Adele and Whitney Houston songs live anytime. I think it’s great that you play these songs and I don’t think you should feel pressured to write new music if you don’t want to.

“Well, Fely does write music, she writes a lot of very successful pop music.”

I don’t really follow the pop scene so I don’t know much about that.

“Her songs are multi-million-viewed. And I have a message for those who think we charge too much: we charge the standard rates for a cover band that plays a two hour set. Except with us you get the flagship: you get Fely, who is very well-known. And here’s another secret: we’ve been around in this particular formula for three years now and we charge one hundred Euro more than we did when we held our first gig. Except now we play a lot longer. We just live by the credo that we love to play music, we don’t really care about making big money. There is another category of people who pay us a lot more than what we asked for, sometimes two and a half times more, and then they brag about how much they paid for Fely & The Band. You’d be amazed. So they brag about how much they paid us and then word gets around that we ask for a lot of money.”

Well, for me, that’s why I want The Music and Myth to always remain the one writing venture that I don’t do for money. I do it just because of the passion I have for music. I don’t earn a dime from this website nor do I want to. I want it to remain a labor of love and passion. Music has helped me overcome some really dark times in my life. If it weren’t for music, if it weren’t for Tom Waits, Mark Knopfler…

Horea’s face lights up at the mention of Knopfler and I remember that I’ve heard him play Dire Straits tunes in some of his gigs. It turns out that he too is a great admirer of the former Dire Straits front-man and guitar-player.

 Chapter 3: What makes him tick?

The idea of writing an article about Horea had been on my mind from the day I first started The Music and Myth, but I wanted to wait for the right moment. That moment came this February and it seems that the timing could not have been more perfect. I decided to approach him about this interview after I saw his performance at the BA.Rock festival in October. At the time I was looking forward to interviewing Al DiMeola so I was already listening to a lot of acoustic guitar music when Horea’s performance completely blew me away. It reminded me just why I’ve been a fan of his for over a decade now. We talked and I told him what I wanted to do and we decided to wait until the hustle and bustle of the winter holidays was over. When I called him at the beginning of February I found out that this article was going to appear at a very important time in his career as he is preparing to release his debut album of acoustic solo compositions. I was very excited to hear this as this is one record that is definitely a long time in the making.

Horea Crisovan is a well-known name on the Romanian music scene. This versatile guitarist has been around for a long time and he has been contributing his talent to a varied scope of projects, from funk band Blazzaj (where I first became acquainted with his work), to rock bands Neurotica and BIO, to his work with iconic musician Ilie Stepan, to the Mozart Rocks project which is exactly what it sounds like and most recently his work in the cover band built around the incredible voice of the talented and delightful young vocalist Fely Donose. However, I have personally always been more attracted to his acoustic compositions which he plays predominantly at festivals and in various formulas (most often with Mario Florescu, Teo Milea and Victor Miclăus). Sadly, these evanescent compositions are hard to find (barring some Youtube appearances which are few and far between) and in my opinion a solo record showcasing Horea Crișovan the acoustic guitarist and composer was long overdue. From the moment we talked on the phone to set up a date for the interview to the moment we ended up drinking wine in his living room as he gently played Dire Straits songs on his Auden guitar I managed to fulfill an ambition I’ve had ever since I started being interested in quality music: finding out what makes Romania’s best guitarist tick.

 Chapter 4: The international music scene and his real trip

“I’m a maniac when it comes to Mark Knopfler, I love him a lot,” he says with a large smile on his face. “You write a song like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘Brothers in Arms’…or ‘Telegraph Road’…”

That’s my all-time favorite…

“…you write a song like that and you can just start growing silk-worms (laughs), or…I don’t know…start making banners or laminating ID cards…”

We both laugh for a few moments.

“…I think I know the solo from ‘Telegraph Road’ by heart” (he went on to prove this bold statement when we hung out at his home).

I think that’s one thing you really have in common with Mark is that you both have that certain feeling for melody…

“Well, it’s important.”

I know, but not everyone has it. Some guitar-players possess this feeling more than others. It’s something the audience can sense when hearing you play, especially on acoustic. As a listener you think to yourself: this guy really thinks of the melody, he’s not just trying to be aggressive or to show off his skills. You’re intensely focused on the melody.

“Yeah, that’s the most important aspect, it took me a while to understand that. Still, it’s always been my instinct to create melodious tunes. You’ll get a lot of that on my records.”

Tell me about your records.

“There will be two: one for solo acoustic guitar and another one with a band. I’m working on the first one now. My Real Trip, that’s what it’s going to be called. The next one will probably come out next year. But you have to drop by my place to really understand what it is I’m doing. I’ve already recorded the first three tracks (this conversation happened on February 7th) and I think I’ll have a total of about eight or nine. On the first. On the second, I’ll have about seven songs.

How are you going to launch and distribute it?

“It’ll be a non-profit thing. I’ll produce about 500 records myself with the financial help of some friends.”

So you never thought about taking it to a label?

“We’ll see. For now, I just want to record it and tell the world: this is me! The record is called My Real Trip. This is who I am. I’ll just see if I sign with a label. We’ll see what happens.”

I’d just like to see you on the international market. I always think: here’s this excellent guitarist and composer, and he’s so well-known in Romania…why isn’t he know internationally? You certainly should be. I’d like to see you simply as Horea Crișovan the composer and guitar-player and not just as a member of a certain band. Not Horea from Blazzaj, or Horea from Fely & The Band…

“I was always in the background, I enjoy that. I enjoy annihilating the vanity. And I always say this: there’s a great difference between vanity and ego. We Easterners, we kind of know this. The ego is something we need because it defines us. If you didn’t have your ego you wouldn’t be able to write anything. If I didn’t have mine I wouldn’t have the confidence that a certain group of notes belongs to me. Ego is good. But vanity is the cancer of the ego. That’s what you need to keep under control: vanity! The moment you start denying it, that’s when it’s at its strongest. I’ve always tried to keep my ego in check so I didn’t mind this side-musicianship. But at a certain point it can become a dead end. So this record is my first attempt to make myself known. But it’s not ambitious, not at all. I don’t try to force it on anyone. I just put it in front of your door and say: Hey, remember me? You saw me at that concert…here are those songs you liked.

It will be a record on which you’ll be hearing a human being, not a machine that produces chords and ranges. It will be a man. I’ll record it at my home. I worked about three weeks at the logistics of the recording process, making the acoustic box sound good, I have all sorts of soundproofing foam, I bought a laptop that makes very little noise so that I can record even at 3AM in the morning when the building is asleep and there’s that kind of silence that makes your ears ring…that’s when I have to record.

Because from three microphones you get a lot of background noise and the album is going to be completely recorded using microphones. It will not be edited for mistakes. For example, a certain track will be recorded in eight versions and I’ll just pick one entire version, rather than cut a certain part from version number 5 and another from version number 3 and so on, and stick them together. If I don’t get it right one night, no problem. I’ll go to sleep and try it again the next night.”

So it will be just one take

“Just one take for every song. If you don’t do that you’ll lose the spectrum. If you change even slightly the position of the microphones it doesn’t sound the same. The whole record has to have the same sound, like Knopfler or Floyd, the same sound, the same harmonics. I want that for my own record too. I want that natural sound, that little imperfection that gets you closer to the common man, the man who doesn’t know that it takes so and so many hours of studying to play a certain range “perfectly”, to make it sound “crystal”, those are not words I like.

I just try to think to myself: what is my reference? In twenty years, when I play this record,  what do I want to hear? I don’t want fashionable effects or compressions or mixing or stereophonic, just the natural sound of the instrument. You know how it is. My guitars are all made from Indian rosewood, they’ve got rosewood back and sides and cedar tops. Wood can’t evolve as a sonic concept in thirty years, the Indian rosewood sticks to the cedar in the same way. A guitar that’s properly constructed will be constructed the same way in twenty years. Same with pianos. You might be surprised to find that an old piano might sound the same as a new Steinway or Yamaha with an extra zero in the price-tag. That’s why I want the natural sound of the guitar. I want to have something to look back to in the future. I want to be able to say ‘well, at least it sounds natural’. If I play it back and it sounds just like it did on the guitar that means that I’ve properly aligned the microphones and I played nice. The natural sound of the guitar, that will be the motto for this album. I’ve always searched for the acoustic sound and I’ve always had a connection to it. I want beautiful songs that sound natural. It’s sort of a reaction against radio edits. I don’t want this record on the radio, thanks!”

We talk about the state of the current music scene, especially as pertains to young musicians. I mention to him what Al Di Meola told me: that he felt there are many talented young musicians  but they  don’t write as much as they should.

“Interesting,” says Horea with a contemplative gaze, “My impression is that they compose too much.”

We both burst out laughing. He then shows me some more photos of the small sound-box he built at home and again he tells me that I just have to come by and see it. I can feel how much it means to him, how attached he is to this place where he creates his music. It’s his getaway. It reminds me of the affection I have for my little home office, the place where I write, where I am writing this very article. I spend most of my time in here and in many ways it’s my favorite place in the world. I feel something similar in the way in which Horea talks about his little home studio.

Chapter 5: Valentine’s Day

One week after the initial interview I arrive at Horea’s home to check out his self-built sound-box. My wife is with me, helping me out with some of the photo equipment. The small one-room apartment is dominated by a construction that looks like some sort of time machine. It’s  made from soundproofing foam and inside, it’s a world of its own. Microphones, a silent laptop, recording equipment and a chair complete this DYI studio.  Once I take a seat and put the headphones on I’m completely immersed in Horea’s universe and the isolation that allows him to focus on the purity of his compositions. It’s his own world, both the journey and the destination of his real trip.

We sit down and talk for a while. With the interview now behind us we are just making friendly conversation. With  one of his guitars in his lap he gently plays a few notes from time to time, following the course of the discussion. I mention my struggle to get the interview with Al DiMeola and he plays a bit of ‘Mediterranean Sundance’, I talk about experiencing Mark Knopfler live in Budapest and all of a sudden it’s the opening chords from ‘The Man’s Too Strong’ where I decide to join in on vocals. By the time we get to Romeo & Juliet Horea’s girlfriend and my wife join in on the impromptu jam-session and it all turns into an evening of fun around campfire sans the actual fire. The highlight, though, was when Horea backed up his bold statement and proved that he, indeed, knows the solo from ‘Telegraph Road’, one of my all-time favorite songs. This entire experience captures the essence of Horea Crișovan the musician. He is a man who makes music accessible to the listener, who captures the essence of music reduced to its bare essentials. He doesn’t like to hide behind the smoke and mirrors of sound effects and a loud volume. He prefers the natural, unadulterated sound of his instrument. On stage Horea plays like he is in his living-room and vice-versa. Every time he performs it’s like he invites you into his home and I think that is the key ingredient to his amazing charisma.

On our way home my wife turns on the radio and we hear a sappy love-song which serves to remind us that it’s Valentine’s Day. We had all but forgotten this questionable holiday as we don’t make a habit of celebrating it. But if we did, I can’t picture a more pleasant way of spending the evening.

Chapter 6: Love the audience you’re playing for, feed off their reactions

What music do you usually listen to? Especially when you compose?

“Lately I listen to very little music because I play a lot of my own stuff to pick up on what needs to be changed. Mostly I listen to old stuff that I really like and that gives me energy. Usually, I play Knopfler’s A Night in London every once in a while. I play Richard Bona’s Marciac gig with Raul Midon, I listen to a lot of Hiromi, also the gig in Marciac. The Marciac stuff is usually recorded very well and that’s important to me.”

Ah, so you do like Jazz

“Of course I do. But I’m not a great musician, I don’t know notes on the level of a Hiromi, you know? And Keith Jarrett’s also great, I like him.”

At this point his phone rings and it’s his band-mate Fely Donose, who is having trouble connecting to the local area network on her laptop. I crack a few jokes about having worked in IT and I try to give some advice but in the end the solution is the infallible option: restart it.

There’s something else I wanted to ask you. Now that you’ll be releasing this album, will you try to promote it internationally as well? 

“Well, for that I’d need to sign with a big label. I don’t know, we’ll just see. When it’ll be finished…”

When will it be finished?

“I’m pressing hard. My Real Trip should be finished around April-May. Like I said it will be around five hundred copies, but nothing fancy. A cheap cover. It will be mostly a presentation record. But, if there is interest from record labels it can re-recorded, re-mastered and remixed. I don’t want to sit on it for too long because I want it to have the same vibe, the same feeling. The more time you spend on a record the more you risk losing the message.”

Every record has to have its own story. It has to have a coherent narrative. It doesn’t matter how complex a record is…

“Mine will be very simple (laughs).  It will feature two instruments, two of my guitars. On the acoustic end I work with two companies: with Schertler and Auden. On electric guitars I work with Manne. I’ll use nylon chords on the Schertler and metallic ones on the Auden.”

Alright, let’s talk some Jazz. I know you’re name is always connected with the Gărâna Jazz Festival. 

“I’ve got a great emotional connection with the Gărâna festival. Six years I’ve played there. But I don’t know what to say, it’s become such a big event that it almost seems strange to play alongside such huge names. I’ve played with John McLaughlin’s bass player, Dominique DiPiazza opening for The Yellow Jackets. But I sucked. I rehearsed for eight hours every day with Dominique and it was horrible…I think I’d like to repeat the experience but not necessarily with him, maybe someone else. He’s very crazy, this guy (laughs).”

Well, McLaughlin is kind of eccentric as well.

“I met him (McLaughlin) in Frankfurt. I was wearing a t-shirt that read Alligator and he came up to me and pointed at it and said ‘You’re an alligator’. He was joking around. I said ‘Wow, John, I’m very honored to meet you, very honored. You know I played with your bassist, Dominique DiPiazza’. He said ‘Really? And you could play with him?’ (laughs). I asked him what he meant and he said Dominique is very, very choosey. If he doesn’t like the person he’s playing with he’ll just pick up his bass and leave.’

That almost happened to me in Gărâna. For three days he kept me in incredible tension, I barely got any sleep. He kept saying we’re incompatible, that he likes my playing, just not on his tracks. At the end, two hours before the gig, he gave me a hug and said ‘You play very well. You’re the first musician I know who knows only a little but plays at a high level. Most of the others know a lot but they don’t play very well’. “

We both burst out laughing.

That’s great.

“I’d like to feature Dominique on one of the records, either this one or the next one. I still have to decide which one. Because I wrote a piece for two basses, called ‘Basic Dance’. And I played it and sent it to him. I’d like to have him (Dominique) and Decebal Bădilă on it. They’re friends. I sent it to both of them a few years ago and they agreed to be on it. They don’t even have to meet, each of them will record it in his own studio, send the tracks and I’ll mix them over here. You can imagine how hard the track was to write because I had to play the bass parts myself. It took me about two days to get the hang of it, to be able to play what was in my head. I can’t very well send a bad track to Dominique and Decebal, they’re A-level players. So I sent it and Dominique said ‘Why don’t you play the bass yourself on this track, you play very well.’ (laughs) I said, ‘No, no. You’re mistaking me for someone else (laughs)’. So he liked it. He even said ‘Horea, why didn’t we play your compositions at the Gărâna Festival? You’re aware you weren’t performing at the level suited for my compositions.’ I said ‘Of course I’m aware, your tracks were recorded with Biréli Lagrène (laughs)’. Bireli’s probably the greatest acoustic guitar player in the world today, I don’t think there’s anyone better than him right now. There was this very difficult piece we had to play called ‘Dinello’. I had no idea what to do with it. I copied it from Bireli note for note. I studied for a month waking up at 6 AM in the morning every day with my metronome next to me. And Dominique said ‘Oh, I don’t want you to play it like Bireli Lagrène, I don’t like the way he played on this one.’ (laughs) That’s Dominique DiPiazza for you. I’d also like to record something with Vlatko (Stefanofsky). I know he’s really busy so I might drive up to Skopje to record, just to play the track face to face, that might turn out to be really great. If Vlatko has the time I’d also like to tour three cities with him: Timisoara, Cluj and Bucharest.”

So when the record is done do you plan on touring extensively to promote it?

“I’m not sure about that. It’s hard to find somebody to play with, someone who’ll play my songs the way I want them played. That person has to be willing to take my directions where sound is concerned and not play too loud on stage. Because everything will be unplugged. If the right person exists, someone who doesn’t suffer from the ‘cancer of the ego’, then perhaps I’ll play with them. If not, then for now this music will only be featured on the record. The second record, the one with Mario Florescu, Teo Milea and Victor Miclăuș, is already almost entirely written. It will be recorded live. My sound engineer from Paris, Adrian Popescu, the same person who’s helping me out on the first record, he’ll travel over here especially to set up the microphones and to record it and he’ll probably also bring his own high-end equipment. The big problem with a record like this is percussion, percussion eats up decibels and needs to be completely phonically isolated. Also, another tricky factor is that, in order to get a powerful sound you need to amplify via cable. That means that the instrument’s piezoelectric pickup helps you avoid feedback. But that’s not a natural sound. It’s powerful but it doesn’t necessarily convey what you want, in a sensitive track. It doesn’t always pick up all the notes in a chord. You need a microphone in front of an acoustic instrument and in order to place one or even two microphones you need the stage to be quiet. If it’s rock, let it be rock! Pump up the volume and let’s have a good time! Because that’s the feeling and the vibe. But if it’s acoustic and you want to obtain a wooden sound, one where you can hear the chord, the finger, the fingerprint, where your soul can pass through that instrument, you need to be very careful with the sound. These are details that separate those who think they know from those who really do.

In a way that’s tricky because you’re always tempted to want your instrument to be heard from everywhere…that’s vanity. The balance with the self must be attained at a volume that’s perhaps only a little louder than when you play at home, so that you can hear your friend playing beside you and he can hear you. It’s all about the relationship between the musicians. That’s why the biggest brands of the boutique-zone don’t build powerful amps. You won’t get a Schertler amplifier at over 250 or 300 watts. Because why would you play the guitar loud on stage?

I’m only concerned with what can be heard on stage. Whatever will be heard in the venue is the concern of the sound engineer. But if the sound on stage is already pseudo-natural, by the time it reaches the speakers it’s gone and you’ve lost that tiny bit of genuineness. The sound that reaches the speakers will be distorted anyway, so at least try to keep that natural sound at fifty percent. And that is your responsibility as a performer. The most important thing when you’re creating an album is to record it properly: the recording level, accuracy and silence. The music I make is very simple, not simplistic, but simple: simple music. In a way it’s semi-naïve.”

I think the way you planned out this record, the concept behind it, is complex.  

“That’s something you, the listener, have to feel. Everything I do comes from instinct, I don’t necessarily plan it out. The tracks haven’t been developed too much. Probably the most difficult one lasted two hours. It was a momentary feeling, I picked up the guitar and started playing. But for two of the songs I couldn’t play what I was imagining in my head. ‘Enlight’, for example, took me about two days. I had everything planned out in my head, just the way you hear it now, only nicer (laughs). But I just couldn’t play it classically on the regular guitar. It just didn’t sound well. So I had to fumble around with the guitar’s attunement.”

What does your creative compositional process look like? For example, Di Meola told me he loves to write music at his house in Miami. Every chance he gets he retreats there and starts composing.

“Congratulations to him, I just write music at home. I don’t have a house in Miami (laughs).

Well, there are two styles. The music for this acoustic record I’m working on has been written simply by picking up the guitar. The music I write for the various bands I play in has mostly been composed on the bicycle. On my many long trips on the bike, especially at night where there’s not so much noise from the cars, I get a certain theme playing in my head. My greatest accomplishment has been buying a cell-phone with a recording option, one of those little Nokias. I think almost the entire BIO album has been written as a result of me belting out into the phone (laughs). But whenever I start the compositional process I have a clear idea of where I’m going.”

When you’re finished recording these records, will you continue with the acoustic solo work?

“Well, I’ll keep doing this. Unfortunately, you don’t earn a lot of money doing this so I’ll have to do some mainstream work as well. But I definitely won’t neglect the acoustic work. I just want to let it grow naturally. If there is a demand for it and the record is appreciated I’ll be very happy.”

So what makes a good musician? I still say you’re Romania’s best guitarist, I don’t care if DiPiazza said you know only a little.

(Laughs) No, that’s completely true, I don’t know a lot. I haven’t studied music. But in the end it all comes down to conveying your art. You have to love the people in front of you, the audience you’re playing for. You have to love them. You have to feed on their reactions to your music. If you look into the crowd and you see somebody reacting to your music that’s it, that’s the moment! And you already play differently than you have in your last gig. You adapt. If you’re just cold, just a musical machine there’s no point in doing this. I was very touched by what Răzvan Mazilu (a Romanian dancer and choreographer) had to say about my song, ‘Times Passing By’. It’s a song I composed in about fifteen minutes, it wasn’t hard at all to create. I already had a clear picture of it in my mind. So one day, at the rehearsals for the Baroque Festival in Bucharest Răzvan said ‘Horea, I’d like to die listening to this music’. And he is a great artist who expresses a lot through the way he dances, the way he moves, the natural simplicity of his gestures on stage. I was very moved by his words, by the fact that an artist of his caliber had been impressed by ‘Times Passing By’. It means I’m doing something right. And it’s a song that’s simple, just like Răzvan’s own gestures: very simple, very clear, conveying emotion very directly. But that’s something that the listener has to feel.


Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.

Mindguard Cover