A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Jimmy Katz, courtesy of the artist

Photo by Jimmy Katz, courtesy of the artist

The only chance to see the Miles Okazaki Quartet perform this summer is coming up this Thursday, July 24th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The show received a Critics’ Pick in The New York Times, and we’re pleased to welcome Miles back to our stage as he leads the same quartet that embarked on a European tour last fall, featuring Donny McCaslin on saxophone, Francois Moutin on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums. For those who have never heard the band before, Miles has shared two full sets from that tour on YouTube: one set recorded at Birdseye Jazz Club in Basel, Switzerland, and another set recorded at Jamboree Jazz Club in Barcelona, Spain. When he mentioned these recordings to us, he added, “It’s much more different from the way the music was played on the previous record…for lack of a better term, it’s a high-energy thing. It’s pretty wild.”

We caught up with Miles via Skype when he was in Brazil last week to talk about practicing, rehearsing, and inspiration. Here’s our conversation:

The Jazz Gallery: What brings you to Brazil?

Miles Okazaki: I’m down here with Steve Coleman and a group of musicians, and we’re doing a work retreat, basically playing all day everyday and working on stuff. It’s kind of a substitute for extended periods of work that people don’t really have that much anymore, like long club engagements or long tours. It’s hard to get music to a high level with one hit here and there, so this is sort of an extended work trip. Steve does these things every once in a while.

TJG: Speaking of rehearsing, how do you go about rehearsing your own quartet?

MO: I’ve been getting more and more into having less and less material. Personally, I don’t like to read charts onstage, and I also like to see what people come up with and not be controlling all the information. Rehearsal is really just getting a couple of small bits of material together and the rest of it is dealing with improvising together. I’m not a big fan of rehearsals where it’s, “Here’s all my material, learn all my material, and play it the way I want you to play it.” I’m more into, “Here’s some ideas I have and let’s see what you come up with, also.”

TJG: What have you been working on the past year?

MO: I just finished a book recently and it took me pretty much the whole year to write it. It’s a book on the guitar, but it’s dealing with a lot of conceptual stuff. I have to go through a period every now and then of working on the instrument to get to the next level, otherwise that just stays in the same place. I haven’t done that for about 10 years; my level of whatever I’m doing on the instrument is just sufficient for whatever music I’m dealing with, but I haven’t really been working on it as a thing in itself. I finished this book just a couple of weeks ago, so now I have a lot of new ideas on compositions, things that came from that. It’s a cycle thing that’s not determined by anything besides its own momentum.

TJG: You’ve mentioned in other interviews how you’ve observed a “purifying” trend in your compositional approach: more concisely written ideas, less sheet music. Have there been similar trends in your approach to performing?

MO: Yeah, it’s all part of the same thing. I’d say the general thrust of it is eliminating extraneous stuff and getting at more essential things. I’ll go back to old compositions that were really long and involved and look at them a little more critically, and I’ll say, “Well, maybe there was one good little section in this whole thing,” and that can be the tune. That’s enough.

It’s also that way with playing: “Well, on that I didn’t really have to play all these notes. This was the good idea.” It’s a continual process of reshaping and trimming the fat—cutting away the things that are not essential and keeping the things that are interesting, and then exploring those things. It’s dynamic; it’s more about process than about result, sometimes.

TJG: Has it gotten easier to self-edit over time?

MO: I’ve never really had a problem with that. I’ve never really been sentimental about my own music. I don’t consider myself an originator or a composer in the same way you think of, you know, like Wayne Shorter or somebody like that. I think of myself more as a researcher. I look at things and put them together in different ways, but I don’t feel that attached to any particular composition. I feel that everything is just a sketch, a container for improvisation.

I think of the composer as a person who just puts something together, and I think of myself as that, as an assembler.

TJG: Have you always thought about composition in this way?

MO: Well, I just never feel like, “This is my music, these are my compositions, and this guy’s copying this.” I never feel such a personal attachment to individual things. I would like to imagine a situation where it’s open-source—people just putting stuff out there and sharing—and I try to approach things like that. I put my scores online and people can take what they want. I’m not that proprietary about that type of thing because I don’t think it’s original, anyway. The way it’s put together might be original, but the pieces of it are just stuff that’s around.

It’s a collective thing; it’s a community. I think of it that way—just trying to contribute. It’s like they say about the well: there’s a well that everybody goes to, and we try to keep filling it up. I’m not worried about who came up with what. That’s not really my concern, and I don’t think people are going to remember in the long run anyway. I’m more interested in facilitating moving things forward.

TJG: You seem to draw a great deal from existing patterns in the world: symmetries found in nature and the like. Do you ever find yourself running dry in terms of inspiration?

MO: Not really. Inspiration is other people, really. Basically what it comes down to is, when I was first learning guitar, I was learning styles. A lot of people do that; you have do that—at least, I think you do. It helps to have that foundation. Some people stay in that thing: they play those styles and that’s what they do, and that’s cool. That’s an art in itself, to be able to play all these different languages, and on guitar that’s a lot of other stuff besides the jazz thing: all the situations that guitar is in, like funk music and rock ‘n’ roll, Brazilian music, classical guitar.

I went through a lot of those things, but I think right now I’ve gotten more and more interested over the years in looking at fundamentals of music: things that don’t have anything to do with style and that just have to do with pitch and rhythm. We’re here with some Brazilian percussionists who don’t speak English, so we’re just speaking in rhythms and pitches. When you have to do that, you can’t say, “I’m talking about the way Herbie Hancock did this thing,” you know?

My inspiration comes from other people, and there’s a limitless supply of those if you’re willing to go out and find them, musicians who are interested in the universal stuff. I don’t get writer’s block or anything like that because I don’t see it as if I’m reaching into myself and pulling something out. It’s more like I’m reaching out, putting things in, and then putting them back out again. It’s like I’m filtering things through myself, but it’s not just coming from me.

TJG: On your website, you describe music and improvisation as “simultaneously a technical and spiritual pursuit.” What is the significance of spirituality in music to you?

MO: I think of spirituality as something unknowable. I’m not talking about God necessarily, but something that’s bigger than we can understand, and that’s why I was attracted to music in the first place. You just keep digging and digging and you keep finding new things, and no matter what you do in life you’re never going to get to the end—if you have that curiosity. Some people may reach the end of what their curiosity dictates; they may say, “Well, that’s enough,” but I’m not that type of personality. I’m more like, “This question leads to another question,” and that has a spiritual nature to it.

It’s something that is beyond what we can understand in terms of quantities and in terms of one person. It’s more like this: one person can’t do the work. It takes whole communities of people, almost like a beehive or something, where everybody is working to make something happen. One person is just not going to do it. One person can be a leader, and I’ve met some people like that, but even they are not doing it by themselves because the work is too much.

In a way, I see that as a spiritual thing, where people are all connected in a certain way—music being a way to connect people. There are a lot of other ways, too, but music is one way. You can connect people who know how to make music (musicians) with people who don’t (audiences), and they can both deal with it if the music has a quality that communicates. That’s the challenge for the composer, performer, improvisor: to create music that does that, that connects.

TJG: What initially drew you to music?

MO: Rhythm. Later on I learned a lot about harmony, but the things that got me were things with drum beats and melodies that had interesting phrasing, but it was all rhythmic stuff.

TJG: Was it mostly music you heard around the house?

MO: Basically stuff from my folks’ record collections. I didn’t get into jazz right away, but the first things I remember were, like, you know that Miles Davis record Walkin’ where they have [hums “Walkin’” intro] and it kind of turns around the beat if you hear it a certain way—you hear it turned around when they come in with the melody—and all the Monk records. The first one I was really into was Thelonious Monk, and I went into some obsessive periods of dealing with Monk when I was a teenager. It was the rhythmic stuff that I was interested in, tunes like “Evidence” and “Straight, No Chaser” that I just found endlessly fascinating how you can shift stuff around.

Rhythm was always the point of entry for me and I still see it that way. Rhythm is the most basic way to communicate, to get your point across to other people—especially people who aren’t musicians.

The Miles Okazaki Quartet performs this Thursday, July 24th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The band features Okazaki on guitar, Donny McCaslin on saxophone, Francois Moutin on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. $22 general admission, $10 for Members, and free for SummerPass HoldersPurchase tickets here.