Saxophonist and composer Caleb Curtis lives at the junction of rigorous preparation and willingness to explore. This combination of rigor and abandon has placed Curtis in high demand, having performed with a vast cross-section of New York’s jazz community. In addition to leading his own band, he co-leads Walking Distance, a Brooklyn-based collective which released Neighborhood (Ropeadope) in 2015, with a new album to be released this fall. Curtis also performs and records regularly with Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big Band, as well as Josh Lawrence & Color Theory.
Curtis’s upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery celebrates the release of Brothers (Imani Records). The record has some of everything: Detailed orchestration and free improvisation, layered audio production and dry acoustic presence, concise compositions and wild musical gestures. The session for the record included Curtis on alto saxophone, Josh Lawrence on trumpet, Seamus Blake on tenor, Eric Revis and Luques Curtis on bass, and Mark Whitfield Jr. on drums, and was produced by Orrin Evans and mixed by Ben Levin. We spoke in depth with Curtis about Brothers, which represents his debut release as a bandleader.
The Jazz Gallery: The new album Brothers features two bassists (Eric Revis and Luques Curtis), and many of the tracks have different combinations of musicians. How did you organize the session, and how did the session unfold?
Caleb Curtis: The session was one day, and we just went for it. Luques Curtis did half the day, then we did one tune and some improvising with both bassists. Eric Revis took over, Seamus Blake came in, and we finished the session. I’d played some of the material with Josh, and I play with Josh, Luques, and Mark a lot, often with Orrin Evans. We have a common understanding about how to play together. For this record, we didn’t rehearse, and we’d never played this music together as a full band, but the tunes were open enough that we weren’t weighed down by a heavy obligation to the written material.
TJG: What was Orrin Evans’s role as producer?
CC: Having Orrin in the studio really made it possible for us to work quickly and clearly. I didn’t have to evaluate what we were playing in terms of whether it was working, because we all trusted Orrin. If he says “We got it,” then we’re good. There was no “Let’s get another one for safety,” or “Let’s do another take that’s slightly more grooving,” because Orrin was the one saying whether we got it or not. He would either say “Do it again,” “You got it,” or “Maybe a little shorter and more concise,” just enough to keep the wheels spinning and let us play, which I appreciated. It made me feel like I’ll never go into the studio again without someone in the booth who I trust to evaluate what’s happening, even a friend who knows the music and who will be straight with you.
TJG: The longest track is under six minutes, and most are quite shorter. I feel like if “Tried in the Court of Public Opinion” were on your more archetypical jazz album, it would be nine minutes long.
CC: Right. But then what? There’s little I dislike more than an unnecessarily long song. Short pieces can stitch the record together, help it move along without getting bogged down. It keeps the pace going. A friend of mine, commenting about a record he recently heard where everyone took a solo on every ten-minute track, said “I’d rather have one soloist play for ten minutes.” I’d have to agree with that. At this point in my writing, my songs certainly don’t demand a long journey. If I were to write something that demanded it to be long, then I would be happy to make a long recording. And if we’re playing a gig and we’re exploring, that’s cool, we don’t have to keep it short. But if there’s no reason for it to be long, then I really don’t want it to be.
I wanted “Tried in the Court of Public Opinion” to be under two minutes on the album: Even though it’s so aggressive, it’s a kind of palette cleanser. I was surprised by how much slow, spacey time there is on the record. Listening back, I realized how much I like that sound, which is why there’s so much of it. It clarified for me the idea that “It’s okay, I can make a spacey record.” Did you feel the album had a lot of space and open time?