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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo credit William Geddes.

Saxophonist and composer Chet Doxas is nothing if not inquisitive. In each of his prior Jazz Speaks interviews, Doxas has stepped forward with engaging questions and observations about his craft and collaborators. In recent years, Doxas has concocted a brand-new trio alongside pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Thomas Morgan. The trio will perform new music by Doxas written for specifically for the occasion, in anticipation of a recording session for the trio’s debut album.

In an wide-ranging, back-and-forth conversation, Doxas and Gallery staff writer Noah Fishman discuss poetry, musical mentors, and the happy accidents of composition.

Chet Doxas: I’m on your website to refresh my memory of your work: I’m looking at your writing now, and am curious about your approach to poetry—I’ve also been starting to write poetry myself.

Noah Fishman: It’s funny you mention that, because poetry used to be a larger part of my life, but recently, I’ve only been writing poetically when I’m either starting a new composition, or if I’m writing down a dream. Do you sit down and say “I’m going to write a poem now,” and then a poem comes out? 

CD: I wrote my first poem at the beginning of the summer. So far, it’s getting me into a space that I’m trying to become more familiar with while improvising. This ties into the trio with Ethan and Thomas too, and the music I’ve been writing for us. I’m trying to write from the space where things reveal themselves, instead of–for lack of a better word–forcing things. Did you study music formally?

NF: Yes, in a number of different settings.

CD: I’m choosing my words carefully, because I want to avoid labels in my head, but do you ever find yourself wrestling with how you learned music?

NF: Great question. My upbringing is formal yet multifaceted. I’ve studied in a lot of traditional roots/folk music communities–Irish, Swedish, Old Time, Bluegrass, Appalachian, New England. I studied electronic music at a conservatory in Paris, I studied contemporary music at universities in the US, I studied jazz with teachers and mentors through various schools. They’re all “formal,” but they’re all so different. I find that I’m able to see musical things from different perspectives without having to leave the category of “music education.”

CD: That plays into a bigger character study about how people deal with their own education. It’s making me think back to something I’ve been working on myself, with the help of Ellery Eskelin. I’ve been making monthly visits up to his apartment, and recommending it strongly to people. He’s the closest thing I’ve had to one of those mystical mentors. You know those legendary piano teachers that people visit? Like Sophia Rosoff? The greatest piano players, jazz and classical, paid visits to her apartment, everyone from Brad Mehldau and Barry Harris to Jacob Sacks and Ethan Iverson. You face a lot of yourself in those lessons. A scale is never mentioned, nothing like that. With Ellery, we talk about the magic of music, and to be in the presence of that spirit reminds me of all these beautiful community-oriented musics you mentioned. Basically, I feel like dealing with your past, accepting yourself, and feeling good about your journey have everything to do with what you’re going to do next.

NF: It sounds like either now, or in the recent past, something about the way you think about music has frustrated you, and you’re looking to have your horizons widened.

CD: In a sense, I feel like I’ve been at a bit of an impasse. Last time we spoke, that was right when I discovered that paintings trigger a lot of music in me. At the time, I had been pretty hard on myself, practicing and never feeling great after I play, beating myself up. Why? Where does all that stuff come from? You don’t have to look far to realize that a lot of it comes from fear, ego, and unrealistic expectations.

NF: So you’re saying those expectations and fears have ties to “formal” music education?

CD: I won’t go that far. School can help you become enchanted by the ways in which music is one of the great gifts. I’m approaching it that way now, yet it’s taken me a long time to notice that aspect of music as much as I have in the past year. I’m absolutely enchanted by that reality. The music you mentioned has a community spirit, which is so beautiful: My wife grew up on the east coast of Canada, and to this day, you finish dinner and you go in the kitchen and you play and dance, like a ‘ceilidh’ in the Irish tradition. That’s still alive there. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the social aspect of that music that I think are lacking in formal education. Yet, at the same time, I don’t want to bad-mouth schools, because schools can truly open your mind to a lot of things.

NF: Sure. I’ve wondered about that too, in both the jazz and classical communities, which are so closely tied to schools. I love to play music; I’ll play any time, with anyone. But when I invite people over for dinner, or people go out to a party, I always wonder, why don’t people bring instruments? Music is what we do, this is our lives. We should feel allowed to play even when we’re not in the practice room, on stage, or at a lesson.

CD: What do you think that comes from then? What do you make of that? That’s what I’m dancing around.

NF: I have some thoughts, but I’m not exactly sure. We should circle back to this—I’d love to turn toward your trio: To jump right in, you have played but you don’t play a lot with Ethan and Thomas, right?

CD: Right. This is the beginning of a new band. I got to New York five years ago, and those guys are extremely busy. That, combined with my relative newness in New York–not having the profile or network to offer enough work to people at their stage in their careers–means that I take what I can get in this point, knowing that we’ll play, record, and tour in the coming years. That’s a long-term project, to build a tour around an upcoming record, and establish the trio as a regular working group.

NF: I’m sometimes surprised when I see gigs like this pop up, because I know that the three of you are so incredibly busy. It’s super cool, and part of the magic of New York. I wonder, what is it about playing with Ethan and Thomas that sparks something to you?

CD: I can sum it up in one word: Sound. It’s not necessarily what they play, it’s how they play it. Personally, and this is a subjective thing, there are plenty of others who play this way too. I can listen to Joe Lovano play the phone book. I’ll listen to Lee Konitz play anything. With Ethan and Thomas, as soon as they touch their instruments, it’s already great. That comes from a lot of individual work. Ethan has one of the greatest touches on the piano today. Same with Thomas, you hear one note and you’re like “Oh, that’s Thomas Morgan,” in the same way you might say that about Bill Frisel.

NF: That’s funny, Bill and Thomas play together a lot.

CD: Exactly, did you see the Paste Magazine duo they did? Gorgeous. So, knowing that it’s not necessary what you play but how you play it is something I want to be in and around as much as possible. This links back to my visits with Ellery. Those are long, full-day hangs where we talk about exactly that: Why do I still want to listen to Lester Young on any given day? Among many other things, it’s the sound, the tone.

NF: Have you had the space and time to talk with Ethan and Thomas about this?

CD: Not yet. It’s on the list. I want to hear them speak to this. The more experience you get, the more you can fill in the gaps. I’ve gotten to play a bunch with Carla Bley, who has an amazing piano sound. It’s a galvanization of spirit and tone. Every time she touches the piano, it’s magic, I’m telling you. Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington-level placement. She puts her hands down on the keys, and you never would have played something there, but she just did, and it was exactly right. It’s like standing in front of a great painting: “How did they do that? Why does that work?”

NF: How have you been thinking about your composition process, regarding the trio with Ethan and Thomas? Thinking about their voices? Creating prompts for interaction? Starting from a more poetic standpoint and extrapolating musically from there?

CD: All of the above. My whole day is structured in 25-minute intervals, using the Pomodoro technique, named because the originator used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. It’s quite simple: 25 minutes on and 5 minutes off, and once you’ve done four rounds, there’s a 25-minute break. It’s based on a 6-8 hour day, and I use it for everything. Writing, practicing, admin work, emails, computer stuff. Knowing that any given thing is the thing you’re doing in that moment, you get this meditative experience of being an observer: “Oh, I just returned emails for an hour, it felt easy, and it’s done now.” So today, I’ll practice for two hours–four tomatoes–then take a 25-minute break. I’m trying to finish some charts, so I’ll probably do another two hours of writing, then an hour of administrative work.

Regarding composition, when the timer is going, there’s a built-in feeling of not being too precious, because there’s plenty of time to edit. You know how intimidating it is when someone puts a piece of paper in front of you and says “start writing!” It’s a lot less intimidating when someone says “Here’s 25 minutes, let’s see what comes out.” I guarantee you’ll be amazed at what happens. Wow, it’s a tune! Maybe it’s not finished, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe tunes are never finished. That’s another Carla Bley thing: She’ll change titles of tunes over time. It’s like, “You can’t do that!” Of course you can.

NF: Tell me about a song you’ve finished already.

CD: Sure. We’re going to be playing a song called “All The Roads.” It’s based off a picture I saw of an ancient map of Europe that had all the cartography, countries, and borders taken away: All that was left were the Roman roads. In our kitchen, we have a leaf, with everything but the capillary system removed. So you see the veins of the city, the roads as the veins of Rome… I contemplated this space through meditation and free writing, and a very still piece came out. It’s simple: The chart has each note that we play, all whole-notes. Each note is as long as it takes to breathe out and then take another breath. So, the tempo is dictated by everyone’s breath. There’s physicality built into the music.

NF: Have you played “All The Roads” yet?

CD: Yeah, we did a gig at Cornelia Street Cafe–rest in peace–right before it closed. I wrote “All The Roads” for that gig, as well as a few other tunes. I’ve added four or five since then. But these guys have such beautiful sounds that you don’t want to over-write. It’s a pet peeve when I listen to other people’s music, but it shows up in my own writing too, where it’s like, “that’s not necessary, that’s just getting in other people’s way.” A lot of my process is just taking things out. Sometimes, I’ll just write chord changes in place of notated material. With Steve Swallow, I’ve noticed that if you put changes in front of him, the stuff he’ll improvise, you’d be backflipped if you wrote that at home, it’s just so beautiful. Everyone has that in them, at that level. Thomas Morgan is certainly one of those people. I try to do that as much as possible, and only “write” something when it’s absolutely necessary.

NF: Yet with your other project, Landline, you have a record that’s coming out soon, and you did so much composition for that project.

CD: Exactly. We wrote so much. About every two weeks, for two years, I’ve had a composition deadline. That definitely got the juices flowing. I didn’t believe that the more you write, the faster it gets, but when you’re writing a lot, it does start to come out more fluidly. Now when I sit down to write, it is indeed faster. It’s not that you say “I’m going to write fast,” but the more you do it, the easier it is. You start to surprise yourself. Do you have a method that you use to compose?

NF: Right now, I don’t. Or I suppose I do, but my favorite things that I’ve ever written have happened without me realized I was writing them.

CD: Oh yeah. Those are the gifts.

NF: The more you compose, the more those moments happen.

CD: I’ll take your word for it. I’m waiting for some of those gifts to come. Steve Swallow told me that Falling Grace took him a month to write, and to me, that’s a tune that sounds like it just spilled out. But he had to grind it out.

NF: Whether or not something is a gift also depends on how you perceive it. Sometimes you can look back through a tune, or half-tune that you’ve written. You might say, “If this was played at half the tempo, it might be one of the most beautiful things I’ve written.” Or, “Maybe this should be minor instead of major.” It could be the smallest thing that opens a whole world for you.

CD: I’m fascinated by silence. These days, I’ll sometimes write several bars of rest for the full band. That impulse keeps coming up, so I’m just going to keep allowing it to happen. It reminds me of the rhythm of telling a good joke, in a way. We’re all grown-ups now, we’re playing music for adults, and I think including silence is respectful; it lets people contemplate and digest what just happened.

I’ve also been playing with the idea of pushing and pulling the tempo within a piece. I’ve never been methodical about it, in the way I’d have to be if I wrote for classical musicians, but there are parts of my written material that speed up and slow down. They’re not metrically mapped out so much, more like, “Here, get faster, there, slow down.” Letting musicians bring their own rhythm, improvising a pulse, these are ancient qualities in music, being loose. I think you’ll agree that over the past few decades, tempos have gotten pretty tight.

NF: In that realm, Nordic folk music will blow your mind. Tempo is often treated as not even the second or most important thing, after melody and harmony. Rhythm is usually more of a loose framework to keep dancers together, a kind of dance that beautifully prioritizes melody over pulse. But I could talk about this for hours—we’ll have to pick this up again soon. Thank you for making time to chat about your work and your music.

CD: Absolutely, I’d love to continue this conversation about how people continue to grow through music. I get a lot of inspiration from watching the “recent” Sonny Rollins videos on YouTube, thinking about how music and life intertwine. Ellery is a zen practitioner, and I don’t know if Sonny is, but they both have so much to say about music and the spiritual realm, your personal path, how everything intertwines. It all starts to become the same thing, and I’m fascinated by how that happens.

The Chet Doxas Trio plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, September 26, 2019. The group features Mr. Doxas on saxophone, Ethan Iverson on piano, and Thomas Morgan on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.