Photo by Jessica Carlton, courtesy of the artist.
Kevin Sun is a “saxophonist, improviser, composer, and blogger,” but given the depth of his inquiry and practice, the title “saxophonist” alone certainly carries weight. Sun constantly works to avoid habits and heighten his awareness on stage, work that is plainly evidenced on his new album, TRIO. “Composing for three voices, I feel like I can really challenge myself,” Sun says of the project. “There’s plenty of room to make something happen… I picture it as a triangle versus a square: it’s still very sturdy, but you have to give it a point.” The music does have a point, often an explicit one: The trio, including bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor, originated as a vehicle for Sun to explore compositional, methodological, and musical concepts.
Sun was the first jazz saxophone performance major to graduate from the Harvard-NEC Dual Degree program, studying with Miguel Zenón and John Hollenbeck along the way. Based in Brooklyn, Sun has been involved in a number of different bands over the past few years, including Great On Paper (GOP), Earprint, and Mute. Additionally, Sun is a longtime contributor to this very blog. His own blog, A Horizontal Search, has been recognized by National Public Radio’s A Blog Supreme and Ethan Iverson’s Do the Math. We spoke with Sun in anticipation of the release of his new record. Our conversation covered his compositional intentions, his transcription practices, and four independent references to Lester Young.
TJG: Congratulations on the album, which is only days away from being released. In a recent interview you did with Abe Perlstein, you spoke about how this trio was initially formed as a means for you to stretch out and try new things. What was the biggest stretch for you on the album?
Kevin Sun: A lot of the songs are really challenging. “Transaccidentation,” the first track on the album, was the first thing we ever worked on as a trio. I wrote it with the idea in mind of using another piece as a compositional model. Jason Palmer, the trumpet player in Boston, recommend that process to me one night while hanging out at Wally’s. So “Transaccidentation” is inspired by a Vijay Iyer song called “Habeas Corpus” from his album Blood Sutra [ed. note: Blood Sutra was commissioned by The Jazz Gallery in 2002]. I bought a book of his compositions as published by Mel Bay, and I was looking for people to work on his fascinating, challenging music. When Matt, Walter and I got together the first time, we played through Habeus Corpus. Writing something in that vein was the starting point for “Transaccidentation.” That process, and its result, is one example of a stretch for me.
TJG: It’s great that you can trace that chain of influence from Jason Palmer’s advice to Vijay Iyer’s tune to your own composition. Did that set the tone for the trio, in terms of how you’d work through the rest of your music?
KS: Pretty much. I don’t want to use the word ‘calculated,’ but it is pretty calculated in terms of cause and effect. Vijay was a big influence on me in school, and he always talked about writing compositions that were just out of reach, requiring some kind of stretch. Similarly, I want to write songs that demand things of me that I can’t really do, encouraging me to stretch. I’m especially interested if the stretch requires other people, such as sustaining or navigating lots of details and contours, while bouncing off the playing of others.
TJG: It’s not always easy to pinpoint what you can’t already do: You could easily say to yourself, “I’m a jazz saxophonist. I transcribe, practice, and gradually get better.” Do you have an established process for noticing or cataloging the things you’d like to improve?
KS: That’s a good question. I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m writing my goals for the next three, six, twelve months, but it’s on the horizon. I record myself compulsively: I think my friends all know this [laughs]. I do it surreptitiously, usually at jam sessions. I’ll put on my voice recorder before I get on to play. At jam sessions, it’s hard to tell what things sound like, but I want to hear what I’m doing and how I’m interacting. I started doing that a couple of years ago, when I lived with pianist Isaac Wilson in Boston. He got that habit from Jason Moran, who told his students at NEC to constantly record themselves, especially since it’s so easy and costs nothing. That’s probably the most consistent thing I do to notice how I want to improve. Maybe not even ‘improving,’ per se, but just becoming more aware of my playing. When you play in a public setting, or with people I don’t know that well, that’s when you tend to fall back into your habits.