As a bassist, composer, and improviser, Nick Dunston shows up on the bandstand with decisive vocabulary, positivity, and a readiness for mystery. In speaking with him about his bandmates, Dunston doesn’t hold back with wonder and respect, peppering his observations with exclamations of “he’s amazing” or “I don’t know how she does it.” Citing a lesson he learned from Tyshawn Sorey, Dunston says that when working as a composer with improvising musicians, “The idea is to allow yourself to have your mind blown by them.”
Dunston will be bringing his new project, Nick Dunston’s Atlantic Extraction, to The Jazz Gallery stage. Combining carefully crafted compositions on a foundation of personal and musical trust, the ensemble features the somewhat unconventional configuration of Nick Dunston on bass and voice, Louna Dekker-Vargas on flutes, Ledah Finck on violin and viola, Tal Yahalom on guitar, and Stephen Boegehold on drums. Check out our interview below; we went deep on Dunston’s approach to the craft, and his thoughts on leading an ensemble with feet firmly planted in the worlds of improvisation and composition.
The Jazz Gallery: I’m calling you from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Tyshawn Sorey is in residence for the week. You’ve played with Tyshawn a number of times; have they been formative experiences?
Nick Dunston: Playing and working with Tyshawn has dramatically influenced the way I think about music, not just in terms of composing, but in leading a band as well. He takes a hard-working and diligent approach to the composition process, but retains this mindset of like, “I have these improvisers in my band for a reason, and it would be something of a waste if I just had them try to fulfill this vision I have, instead of actively writing music that allows them to grow within it.” The idea is to allow yourself to have your mind blown by them. I’ve picked that up from Tyshawn, as well as some technical musical ideas too, the importance Tyshawn places on form.
TJG: How do Tyshawn’s ideas about bandleading manifest themselves, in terms of how you speak to your ensemble and the choices you make about personnel?
ND: This is my first band where I’m not a co-leader, and where it’s an ongoing project that I envision having a long future. Something I’m striving for, inspired and prompted by Tyshawn, is that two of the players, Ledah Finck and Louna Dekker-Vargas, don’t have backgrounds in jazz the way that Tal, Stephen and I do. A few years ago, it would never have occurred to me to hire people from a non-jazz background or a background dissimilar from mine. Being blown away by what they bring to the group has not only influenced me as an improviser: It has challenged me as a composer, to write for improvisers who come from a different idiom than I do. It has opened my mind in ways I wouldn’t have imagined.
TJG: That brings us nicely to the band itself, in terms of how this specific quintet came together.
ND: Right. Last spring, I wanted to start a project. I didn’t have particular sounds in my head; first and foremost, I wanted musicians I felt drawn to as people. I started to wonder who would work well together, personality-wise. I wanted a fixed band that I could grow and develop with over a long period of time, so I also picked musicians I could see committing to a long-term project.
I met Stephen almost two years ago. I’d heard about him from musicians my age who had recently moved from Detroit. We played together for the first time at a session: I don’t exactly know what happened, but for some reason, he wasn’t able to bring cymbals or hi-hats. I obviously noticed when he showed up without them, but once we started playing, it never registered in my head. He made so much music on the drums alone, it didn’t feel like anything was missing. I was lost in a trance. There’s a lot I love about his playing, but his sense of orchestration in particular is literally unbelievable at times.
I’ve known Tal the longest, because we started at the New School together. I’ve always had great admiration for him and his musicianship, but we’ve only started playing recently through this project, and now we play in other contexts as well. A lot of people tend to describe Tal as a guitarist who can play anything on his instrument, which is true, but I try to focus on his quirks. He has a vibrant, strong, particular personality that comes through in his playing, and makes him a special, unique musician, on top of his ability to eat up any kind of music.
I actually went to high school with Louna. We never met then, but we officially met at the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival, which I was a composer at in the summer of 2017. She’s a ridiculous flautist and improviser. Outside of the music and playing process, she unapologetically seeks out opportunities to connect with other artists, and to facilitate interdisciplinary communities across different social circles of musicians, and non-musicians for that matter. In this group, with her being the only wind instrument, when the rest of us are on strings and drums, I don’t know how she does it, but she has an amazing way of maintaining a distinct personality as a musician, without sounding jarring or contrasting in any kind of way.
Lastly, I met Ledah at the same time I re-met Louna, because they have a duo project called The Witches. Ledah is amazing. On top of her orchestral and chamber background, she’s a formally trained composer. With that, and her engagement with free improvisation, as well as her strong roots in American fiddle music… Well, I don’t want to simplify the relationship between those elements and the ways that she sounds, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say those don’t contribute to her intensity and uniqueness. It’s something I never thought I’d come across in a group of my own.
TJG: In describing your bandmates, it’s already such a potent quintet. There’s a lot ready to happen just in describing the different personalities.
ND: Totally. Again, I didn’t pick players to move toward a sound I had in my head. That freed me from a lot of my own expectations as a composer, and allowed me to open up and grow in accordance to what the band is shaping up to be. Choosing musicians to fulfill a sonic vision is a totally valid approach, and I’ve done stuff like that, but it’s not what I’m interested in right now. These musicians and people are so special. It would be selling the band short if I were to simply write music, then decide whether they “played it well” or not. I’m a decisive and particular person, and I write music that challenges the band and myself in many ways, but at the same time, I’m not looking to take any shortcuts in terms of development. I’m not looking for them to check off some kind of box along the way. I’m looking for a balance, a mix of patience, open-mindedness, and more importantly, indulgence. I’m just obsessed with all of their playing, and I have no doubt that this group will become something I couldn’t have possibly imagined. Every time we get together, whether it’s a gig or rehearsal, my expectations are completely shattered and surpassed.
TJG: You’re the primary composer for this group, correct?
ND: I am, yes. Everyone in this group is a sick composer. For this gig, we’re playing mostly my music, plus two by Tal and one by Louna.
TJG: Tell me a bit about your compositions and how you think about them, now that we have a sense of who’s in the group.
ND: I’ve written most of these compositions recently, with this group in mind. A few older compositions of mine have been re-appropriated for this group, but it’s primarily new compositions. As I said earlier, working with Tyshawn Sorey heightened my attention to form. There’s a lot of improvisation structured within these forms, but everything is set out in a particular way. Part of what really affects my compositional decisions for this group is the fact that we don’t come from a same musical or improvisational background. It’s challenged me in terms of finding ways to compose for improvisers without relying on things that are specific to our improvisational idioms. That isn’t to say that we don’t bring our backgrounds with us: Of course we do. But in terms of the improvisational provocations within the pieces, I’ve had to really think them out and get inventive with them.
TJG: So with that in mind, how do you approach composing for this group?
ND: All of my compositions begin as titles. I’m inspired by the sounds of words, not even necessarily their meanings. I’m into puns and wordplay too. I have this tune called “Tattle Snake”—I don’t know what that means, really, beyond an obvious play on the words ‘rattle snake,’ but I didn’t write a tune and then give it that title: I knew for months that I had to write a tune called Tattle Snake, and that’s how the composition started.
I enjoy the opportunities I have to play around with instrumentation, which informs many of my decisions. I’ll sit down when I’m writing a piece, think about combinations of instruments that I can run with, and often times, the more interesting combinations are the ones that aren’t in line with the “rhythm section as an engine, plus soloist” thing. My pieces have lots of pockets of duos and trios. Most importantly, I write music that is reliant on the musicians listening for material that pulls us through the form. This kind of approach allows us to get away from the page. I want to give only the information that’s necessary, ideally as little as possible, but the most that they’ll need. When I write that way, it allows musicians to really get away from the page, and to improvise together in ways that are natural each musician. Because the form is so structured, there’s always a sense of direction that accommodates the excitement these improvisers bring.
TJG: Tell me about a piece you’ve brought to the group, where you were able to see that work unfold in real time, and maybe some surprises along the way.
ND: I have this tune called “Globular Weaving,” where the title comes from something a character said in the Netflix show Maniac. A lot of it involves bass, viola, and drums doing this ongoing groove texture in more or less rhythmic unison. We don’t play pitches on that groove, and so that is automatically exciting to me. Ledah is able to get a huge variety of pitchless textures, making her instrument sound like a multi-faceted drum. The piece has an improvisational section where the flute is given a specific line, and she eventually deviates from it and plays around with it. The guitar plays a figure that is triggered by what the flute plays. The textures and content these cats play, with the simple ideas they can run with, it’s this weird blend of satisfying and exciting, something I never expected. So, we eventually fall into this weird groove that is derived from this pitchless percussion texture, and Stephen always runs with something that makes it so weird and groovy, it’s amazing. There are a lot of unrelentingly repeating ideas until they grow and break free of their forms. We fall into a collective noise-improv sort of thing, and then… You’ve gotta come to the show to hear how it ends.
TJG: In anticipation of the show, you sent a blurb describing how the group “explores artistic vulnerability on multiple levels.” I wonder what the idea of artistic vulnerability means to you, particularly in the context of this group, as opposed to personal vulnerability.
ND: From the beginning, each of us were outside our comfort zones. We’re improvising with people from different kinds of backgrounds than us, and with people who play instruments we don’t normally play with. The balance of letting our personalities flourish and not holding back who we are as improvisers, but also being self-aware, sensitive, open-minded, has allowed us to be particularly vulnerable with who we are as artists. That common understanding of where we’re coming from and how we’re approaching the music, as people who aren’t experienced with this kind of band environment, has allowed us to form a profound sense of trust in each other. We’re still getting to know each other, we’re still developing. I’m very much in this for the long run: I’m not trying to take any shortcuts with this group. This is uncharted territory for a lot of us. Allowing for that vulnerability has really influenced the growth and shape of this band.
TJG: You sent me some Instagram videos as a snapshot of what you’re sounding like these days. Do you find that social media plays a role in your creative practice?
ND: Right, that’s a good question. I’m into the idea of the group having an exposed growth process. I understand why some bandleaders want to have more of an incubated thing, where they’re very private with their groups until they give a polished performance. I’m not really looking for it to be so polished to the point where I want to hide what we’re doing. The process of growth is important and beautiful, and it’s something I want to share with people who are interested. Too often, if we don’t share the process, we reinforcing the idea that the art is only found at the tip of the iceberg. Being aware of the work put in can be beautiful to look at, in and of itself. Whatever you frame, that becomes art work, in a way. If there’s a moment that was recorded that I think is beautiful, then I don’t see any harm in framing that and sharing it with the world. I value mystery and surprise, but honestly, with this group, there’s no shortage of that every time we play. We always shatter and surpass my expectations.
Nick Dunston’s Atlantic Extraction plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, October 24, 2018. The group features Mr. Dunston on bass & voice, Louna Dekker-Vargas on flute/alto flute/piccolo, Ledah Finck on violin & viola, Tal Yahalom on guitar, and Stephen Boegehold on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.