Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr, courtesy of the artist.
Colin Hinton, a Brooklyn-based composer and drummer/percussionist, returns to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of his latest record, Simulacra. The long-form, textural calliope features Anna Webber on tenor saxophone and flutes, Yuma Uesaka on tenor saxophone and clarinets, Edward Gavitt on guitars, Shawn Lovato on bass, and Hinton himself on drums, percussion, glockenspiel, and gongs.
The compositions are dense, spiraling, and often surprisingly intimate, and clearly synthesize influences from Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton to Messiaen and Feldman, while leaving plenty of room for Hinton’s background in the power and structure more straight-ahead jazz. In a long phone conversation with Hinton, we learned about the composer’s approach to open material, his relationship with his ensemble, and his process behind putting the record together.
The Jazz Gallery: Loving the new record! You packed such a diverse array of sounds and approaches into a unified set of performances. It seems like the album, described in the liner notes, is addressing this timeless question: How do you capture a music moment in a way that celebrates its life force, yet acknowledges the limitations of the format? Do I have that right, in the concept of Simulacra?
Colin Hinton: In certain regards, yes. The liner notes were written by my buddy Robert Grieve, a great guitarist, composer, human based in Toronto. I contacted him, and he got excited because the album is called Simulacra, and he’s big into philosophy, so he went super deep into the whole simulacra/simulation thing. He went in on that, which I loved. I didn’t actually find out about it until after I named the album, so it’s a funny coincidence. I named the album as I did because each piece on the record is inspired by a specific musician/composer that had a huge impact on my musical and/or personal life.
I came across the word simulacra as an anagram, which is how I arrive at many of my tune titles: You see that in titles like “Obversify” or “Synesthopy.” I delved into the history of the word simulacra, and liked the idea of a representation of something, and enjoyed looking at the history of the word and how it has evolved over the last six hundred years. I let Rob go nuts with the writeup, there’s some headiness to it. I like the ambiguity, and people keep asking me about the title, so that’s fun.
TJG: I don’t know a lot about your musical process, aside from what I’ve read. It’s clear that there’s composed material: Hits, melodies, harmonic unity, form, structure, even swing and time. Then, there’s clearly improvisation as well, stuff that sounds like someone creating in the moment. I’m interested in hearing about your working process within these worlds.
CH: My background is as a straight-ahead jazz drummer. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a little away from that, though I still love listening to and playing that music. My first exposure to music outside of that was Brazilian music, then South Indian music. Then, as I was studying free improvisation and contemporary classical music, I realized that to do what I wanted to do, I needed to start composing: I didn’t start composing until I was twenty-six.
Generally, I don’t want people to be aware of what’s composed and what’s improvised in my music. There are a number of things on the record that sound improvised but are actually written, and things that sound written but are actually improvised. I’ve been working with this group for several years, and this is the fourth book of music I’ve written for us.
I’m also great friends with everyone in the band, and we’re very familiar with each others’ musicality, so that puts me at a huge advantage. I wanted to try to 1) get away from a typical head-solo-head thing, and 2) avoid long-form composition for improvisers where it’s like “Here’s written material, here’s improv, here’s a form, here’s a vamp,” and instead have the composition and improvisation move together simultaneously. That was a cool challenge to try to address. There might be three people who have written material that’s part of a composition, while one person is soloing, and another person has the option of playing composed material, or pitchless rhythmically notated stuff that they can improvise along, giving them a general sense of being part of the ensemble, where they can be the soloist. I love finding different ways of orchestrating the people I have so that something is always in motion.
TJG: When you’re generating this material, are you improvising and transcribing? Do you have a compositional procedure that you’ve found works for you?
CH: I write everything at the piano, and before I sit down and start writing a piece, I generally have an idea of what I want the piece to do. Then I might start generating some harmonic areas I want to look at, and from there it depends on whether I want melody, a non-melodic sound world, just dense harmony with nothing else… I have techniques that I’ve adopted and keep returning to, regarding how I generate harmonic material and melodies over that.