We were making $400 a week playing at an underground nightclub called Save The Robots where the bouncers told us that our music gave them nightmares.
You were born in Panama, went to school in Pittsburgh, PA, and lived in Austin, TX. Can you describe your childhood memories in Panama, and then tell us how your life transitioned to Pittsburgh and Austin?
I was raised in Dallas, Texas. My memories of Panama are not that clear. I was born there, then left for Houston at the age of three months since my dad was a missionary. Then, when I was three years old, we moved to Dallas.
I enjoyed visiting Colón, Panama several times after that. The climate was very hot, and Colón is surrounded by water so the air was very clean. Also, my cousins were there, and they lived in the tallest building in Colón. I have a memory of all of us running up to the top floor of that building because waiting for the elevator took so long.
Our cousins thought that we were rich – we more well off than they were, comparatively – but we were happy just to hang out together. One day, my cousin Leroy took me to meet some guys who lived in a building without a door and they just had a couch. These three men were living on one couch and watching television to pass time. This is how I learned to appreciate everything I had!
After graduating high school, my teacher suggested that I apply to Carnegie Mellon University. I was accepted in the writing department of Humanities as a creative writing major. I spent my first year learning to write novels, then decided to transfer to the music department.
Can you tell us about that time at Carnegie Mellon?
I studied in the basic conservatory curriculum learning about classical music and opera, especially Mozart and contemporary composers such as Ligeti and Stockhausen. This period of study lasted for two years, then I went to France in my junior year of college and studied on tours for 2 semesters with local musicians and a renowned jazz singer from Europe named Ronald Baker.
I also met future bandmate Daniel Bodwell before I left for France and spent time in New Orleans researching avant-garde music. He introduced me to Kevin Shea in our Sophomore year at Carnegie Mellon. We concentrated on improvised music and later met Chris Strollo, who had a band called Siamese Twins. This period shaped my musical goals – and I decided that I would go to New York after I left college. I had been sneaking off to New York and sitting in with musicians like William Parker and Tom Cora.
In my senior year I was asked to take a leave of absence for school, so I went to New York and began rehearsing with the Cecil Taylor Big Band, called PTHONGOS. Cecil held six-hour-long rehearsals at his house, where I learned a lot about his methods. Often, he would let me stay behind and practice the piano. Eventually Greg Tate, writer for the Village Voice, attended one of my shows with Cecil in New York. I’ve played music with Greg ever since!
In the early ‘90s, you wrote your first songs with Kevin Shea and Dan Brodwell in New York City. It sounds like a really fruitful creative time! Can you explain the history of those songs you wrote together?
I composed every song based on personal experiences. Some were operas, some etudes, some even piano concertos, punk, or fusion. Kevin has his own sound that can change anyone’s composition and make it a unique piece of sound art. Daniel played the chords and held down the song structure. The three of us would often play at art openings and even the seniors’ art reception. We also opened for most of the avant-garde artists coming through Pittsburgh, including Peter Brotzmann, Brandon Ross, J.T. Lewis, and Marc Ribot.
We were also almost fully acoustic. I would belt out the tunes, Kevin would play without amplification, and Dan would use an amp that was turned up to about level 3. We were making $400 a week playing at an underground nightclub called Save The Robots where the bouncers told us that our music gave them nightmares. But later, they came to appreciate our playing – overblown horn, screeching, Kevin smashing the drums, more screaming, clothes removal, sweet song-poems of love.
We lived in Williamsburg with our girlfriends and friends who would come in and out for a week or two. The scene was a mad house, but we were always practicing and always playing. I could write a tune about an experience that I had the night before and we could perform it live the next night or at the end of the week.
My uncle told me that drawing was simply lines and circles. I still concentrate on that in my work today.
As far as those songs with Shea and Brodwell – how many did you write, exactly? Can you list all of them for us?
_A Cartoon Happiness
_Found (For Salome)
_Ali’s Dance Piece
_Platero Y Yo
_Sand on the Piano
_The Blue Dragonfly Mermaid
_And They Laughed
_Water Color Hair
_The Coven Triangle
_Egypt and Italy
_Silver Grey Canopy
_Witness to a Crucifixion
_Les Enfants Avaient Couru
_A Smile at Repetition
_Ballad for the Invisible Child (Piano Concerto)
_Dacia, Suphala, Pandora… (Ballet)
_Stars are A Harem
_End of the Line
_Stars Are A Harem
_O, When My Lady Comes
_The Numbers Game
_You and Me and Me
_Cat Club Tree House
_El Mar Rojo
_Brand New Day
_Un Mec Qui Plane
_Six in the Morning
_1 Note, 2 Notes
I know you’re active as a multidisciplinary artist – you draw, paint, write, and act with equal zeal. When did you realize you wanted to become an artist? Was there any one moment of creative awakening?
As far as I can remember, I sat my mother down when I was 9 yrs old and told her that my plan was to leave a legacy. It was a very complex plan and involved the example of John Coltrane. I was listening to jazz religiously at that time, including Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Joe Zawinul, Miles Davis, and other players that I was exposed to on public radio.
At age three, I would watch my mother draw while talking on the phone, and this instilled a habit of drawing in my own life. My Dad would bring home GQ magazines and I would draw the clothes that I fantasized about having. I would draw while listening to the teacher in class or while listening to the preacher give a sermon in church. My uncle La Darien was also an artist and he, stayed with me and my family for a short period. He told me that drawing was simply lines and circles – I still concentrate on those two things in my work today.
In the accelerated program at elementary school, I made an animated movie with my friend Xavier called Space Exploration. We had to set up the characters and take frame after frame of the cutout drawings to simulate movement. I can remember being nervous at my first piano recital at five years old. I had already been exposed to playing music and acting at a young age so I believe that the feeling of butterflies was natural to me. Also, when I was ten, Allison Tucker had me play a saxophone solo on “Satin Doll” and he tried to take me out to play clubs when I was in high school.
What are the connective aspects of the four media we mentioned? How do you question and refine your own process?
I work with drawing the most, and I write when I go and visit my mom in Dallas. It is a calm atmosphere with not much to do other than exercise and write. I also keep an archive of my past writings and keep a chest of written ideas that become novels in their own right. Music is also a constant for me.
On average, I play three gigs a month in New York, not to mention rehearsals and requests to play on records. I also work with Henry Schroy on his solo projects, as well as with the Micah Gaugh Trio. These projects usually have different hosts of musicians and include unusual recording situations, so for the last four years, we’ve had an exchange going on where I work on tracks created in Brazil.
We are always experimenting with new sounds, and I have to memorize new material so that when we present it again we can navigate through twenty to sixty percussionists and drummers. As far as visual art, I stay connected with Emil Memon, Diego Cortez, Andrew Lockhart, Luiz Fernando Landeiro and Annabell Rodriquez.
I believe that improvisation keeps you present in the moment, and that is when we truly appreciate life and the magic of music.
Musical improvisation is an amazing thing to me. It can turn out like a drunken jam session with your neighbors or a hot Blue Note session in 1960. What is your definition of true improvisation?
I have several approaches to improvisation. Sometimes it is a physical process, like running or swimming and endurance plays a huge factor. It can involve the use of space and counting measures in an invisible piece. You can listen to what is happening and react or ignore everything. I try to approach every performance as an improvisation. If I am doing a solo set and suddenly find myself outside the “trance”, I’ll have to twist and turn to get back into the groove of things. At times, I like to throw it all to the wind and try completely risky sax maneuvers when presented with a short solo.
The people involved in the band also shape much of what will happen. I believe that improvisation keeps you present in the moment, and that is when we truly appreciate life and the magic of music.
You’ve traveled often in South America, particularly Brazil. What can you find there that you cannot in New York City?
I fell in love with Brazil’s warm climate and its people. I have a completely different life there than in New York. New York has become a very corporate environment, which is not conducive to making art. Most of the artists can’t afford to live there anymore, so there is a scarcity of an artistic community. In Brazil, the thought pattern is different – everyone is an artist!
When I went to NY to learn how to play jazz, I played at Carnegie Hall, the Blue Note, Swing Street, Lincoln Center, Dizzy’s Coca Cola, and Ginny’s Supper Club, but my curiosity now lies in music from Brazil and South America. I cannot ignore the ties that I have to Latin America and believe that the next years of my life should be spent studying that culture.
I am also interested in studying in Indonesia with Gamelan and trance-induced singers. I believe that my yoga study will also enhance that experience, but that will be another chapter. There is also a strong tie to Africa in Brazil and I enjoy the spiritual aspect of the spine of Brazil and its people.
We often discuss the concept of “collective memory.” What do you think of this concept? Could we also talk about “collective imagination”?
In a place like Brazil, where everyone is keen on doing something of beauty or expressing themselves through art, it is easier to create more because minds are more open to it and can build on others’ thoughts. I believe that is collective imagination, the freedom to dream and others who share in that no matter what the reality of their life is.
Curated by: Julien Fernandez
Conducted by: Email
Published: August 23, 2017
Total questions: 9
Word count: 1979
Reading time: Seven minutes
Wistfulness: Latin America
Talents: Jack of all trades
Andrew Lockhart, Brandon Ross, Brazil, Carnegie Mellon University, Cecil Taylor, circles, clothes, Colon, Dallas, Diego Cortez, director, Emil Memon, endurance, exploration, France, improvisation, Joe Zawinul, Ligeti, lines, love, Micah Gaugh, Miles Davis, Mozart, New Orleans, New York, Panama, people, Peter Brotzmann, poem, PTHONGOS, Ronald Baker, running, Save The Robots, saxophone, screaming, song, South America, space, spine, spiritual, Stockhausen, swimming, Texas, Tom Cora, trance, William Parker, Williamsburg
About the curator
Julien Fernandez was born in Mayenne, France in 1976. He currently lives and works in Pescara, Italy with his wife, two kids and a dog, Lenny. He is captivated by structural relations between objects, animal behavior, contagion and magic, and is currently working on a mechanism that would classify mental images in the physical world. He also designs and envisions the day-to-day architecture of North of the Internet.
Related conversations W