A sonic architect on the alto saxophone, Caleb Curtis builds melodic and methodical structures that are compelling and immediately recognizable. Hailed as a “monster saxophonist” by DownBeat, Curtis puts forth what All About Jazz calls an “urgent and wailing” tone that commands the attention of the room. Curtis was raised in Michigan and trained at William Patterson University, and for nearly a decade has been a regular at sessions across New York. He can frequently be heard with pianist Orrin Evans, as well as in a number of big bands around town. His most personal project is his collaborative quartet “Walking Distance,” rounded out by Kenny Pexton on tenor, Adam Coté on bass, and Shawn Baltazor on drums. Walking Distance began as a project at the Catskill Jazz Factory, and in the four years since, the group has congealed into a concentrated and focused improvisational collective. We met up with Curtis at his home in Brooklyn to talk about his approach to composition, the power of group rehearsals, and the challenges of life in New York.
The Jazz Gallery: Your lines soar and weave together in such a natural way. Who are some of the biggest influences on your playing?
Caleb Curtis: I’ve spent a lot of time studying Gary Bartz. His ability to make melodies out of diatonic information is striking. He’s not an altered-scale big-time melodicist: He’s really good at setting up tensions and following through on resolutions. He’s like Bird, but almost less angular, with a bit of Coltrane in there too. He’ll play two of the same thing, and then a response, as a way of setting up expectation and delivering on it. Kind of like in a blues, but more generally throughout his playing. So Gary Bartz is up there. Similarly, I love Ornette for his way of dealing with repetition in melodic fragments. There’s this great trumpet player, John McNeil, who teaches at New England Conservatory and runs a session at Sir D’s in Park Slope. John said something to me that I really like, which I’m sure he’s said to a lot of people: “In any moment while playing, you should be thinking about what the music demands, rather than what your agenda is.” Often, it’s about being conscious of what you’ve recently played, which allows for and helps build a continuous narrative rather than a series of unrelated surprises.
TJG: Can you get into a flow when you’re thinking along those lines? How can you practice soloing with that level of consciousness?
CC: I try to leave more space and allow a thought to form before I play it. Orrin does that really well, and has helped me discover that whether I hit or miss an idea, it’s good to reach for it. I like to practice really slow–eighth notes at fifty or forty–to really be deliberate about every choice. McNeal also talks about ‘limiting your choices’ so you can actually make them. You go to the supermarket and see fifty cereals, but if you limit yourself to a certain shelf or brand… You know what I’m saying. Musically, I work on exercises where nearly everything is predetermined except for where I start a phrase. Maybe I add one note or take one away. By limiting my choices I get a certain control over them, instead of being overwhelmed by them. On stage, the number of things I could do at a given time feels endless. I practice letting go in order to be able to play anything.
TJG: How much of that approach involves taking information from what’s happening on stage, especially as a member of a collaborative ensemble?
CC: A musician can take any rhythmic, melodic, or textural nugget and spin a whole solo out of it. Sometimes before I start improvising I get a little scared, you know? But then I get up and play two notes and the whole thing begins to unspool. The fear evaporates. Years ago, I’d jump into a solo with an initial idea. I’d close my eyes and say “Okay, I’m going to play this thing and then develop it.” But that forces an agenda on the rest of the band. I’ve learned so much from playing with musicians who are interested in having a musical dialogue.
TJG: Was this relaxed and open musical mindset something you picked up while studying?
CC: I’m sure I heard it at school, but I don’t think I got it until I was in New York. At William Patterson, we had an ensemble that played Ornette Coleman and Dewey Redman tunes. I actually found some recordings of those rehearsals the other day. They’re funny, especially when I hear myself speak. When I talk, the things I say and the questions I ask reveal my inability to sit back and be patient. After a tune, I’d be the first one to say something. Mulgrew Miller was the coach of the ensemble: I’d say, “What did you think, Mulgrew! How was that different from last week’s rehearsal?” He didn’t say much, and I wanted him to talk. But I wasn’t relaxed, and was trying to lead a discussion where a lot of it could probably have been unsaid. I relaxed once I got to the city and saw that that kind of energy doesn’t bring comfort or creativity. Orrin Evans and David Gibson have shown me a lot of that by example.
TJG: Tell me a little about your group, Walking Distance.
CC: Walking Distance is a collaborative quartet that I started in 2012 at a workshop run by Aaron Diehl called the Catskill Jazz Factory. It’s myself on alto, as well as Kenny Pexton on tenor, Adam Coté on bass, and Shawn Baltazor on drums. We went upstate for five days of rehearsals, then played a concert. It was a sudden opportunity to play with people I could trust. Today, we’ve gotten to a place where everyone knows the music so well that we don’t have to count off tunes. We can start playing without even talking. We all own the music. It’s not a problem if any of us come in halfway through a tune and change the direction. We’re all into that – we shift and make these sudden changes.
TJG: What if you want to bring the music one way, but someone else wants to take it in a different direction?
CC: The music is definitely democratic. If someone has a strong statement to make about where the music is going, then they get heard. There’s usually not going to be two people going “My way!” at the same time, you know? Of course, I also like when people are playing strong and they’re not together. I like polyphony and contrast. Some of our tunes are a mix of changes and open, so if you get lost and you’re not right on the form, it’s fine: All it takes is one little hint of where we are and everyone snaps together. It’s like when you’re playing All The Things You Are, if anyone gets lost the tune is so familiar that you can find your place right away. It’s amazing to have that feeling with my own music.
TJG: Did you take this deep and exploratory approach on your album Neighborhood (Ropeadope Records)?
CC: Yeah. we recorded Neighborhood in our drummer’s apartment over four days. We knew we could get the takes, but getting the sound we wanted was a bit of an experiment. Even though we’d been playing the music over and over and over, we never really got burned out during the session, so we got to do all these takes. As we were rehearsing, the songs themselves became their own standards, so we pushed them and developed them and went as wide as we could. On the record, the songs go all over the place. We continue to push in this way. There’s this one song, “Cartoon Element,” with an Ornette-ish melody. On the album it’s super aggressive: Once or twice on the melody, then loud and free for a few more seconds, then finally we take the melody. Now when we play it, someone starts playing the melody, and we drag the whole thing out, then we start playing it together, then we start playing it in time, then we condense it to all eighth notes. We never had to talk about it, it just happened like that on a gig. We change as we go.
TJG: How’d you get the recorded sound you needed in the apartment?
CC: Ben Rubin mixed it. He’s produced a lot of the Smalls Live records. We spent a lot of time mixing with him, and as Kenny said, Ben was able to “Get the apartment smell out of the record.” I meet people today who have heard the record, and they say, “Oh, the sound is great.” It goes to show you how much can be done in mixing. The bass was behind glass, the drums were in a little office without doors, and we all had headphones. We set up mirrors so we could see each other. We rehearsed there, so we understood the space. We experimented with positioning and mic placement, and in the end it came together well.
TJG: Tell me a little about “Freebird.”
CC: On Neighborhood, we did a tune called Dewey Circle,: which is based on Charlie Parker’s Dewey Square. I was playing Dewey Square one day and messed up the melody, playing two phrases in the wrong order. I said Oh, that’s very interesting, and proceeded to rework the rest of the tune that way, mixing phrases up, moving them to different parts of the bar, adding chromatic extensions to lines. I did whatever I wanted. After we played it we thought, We should do this for a whole record. I started writing more and bringing them in. I brought one in on Confirmation which is now called “Feather Report” [laughs]; after we called the project Freebird, we were down the rabbit hole of puns. Anyway. Feather Report was like a 3/4 waltz drum feature, and we thought it would be cool to have it be a boogie-woogie waltz like the one from Sweetnighter, so it’s high energy fusion-y three, which changes the whole song. That’s another example of something where I brought in some material and the band brought it to life in a new way, in a way I never could have imagined. So Feather Report is basically all the Confirmation notes in the same order, but in different registers and rhythms. It sounds nothing like Confirmation, but it’s intrinsically related. The process ends up with music that couldn’t exist without Charlie Parker, but isn’t a reflection of the way that music sounds.
TJG: Have you thought about pulling that process out to include the music of other artists?
CC: We haven’t yet. But it’s made me think that I could generally do it more often and be less explicit about it. Most of the songs are not recognizable as coming from Bird, though it is a collection of music with the same process and creative approach applied. Some of my best writing comes from those restrictions. Once I wrote a song where each subsequent melodic interval is a half-step larger than the one that came before it, until you get to an octave, and then the process starts over. All of a sudden, just as John McNeil would say, you don’t have all the choices in the world, and you have to make a good one with what you have.
TJG: A lot of contemporary composers like Philip Glass, John Cage, and Alvin Lucier embraced compositional approaches like what you’re describing.
CC: Yeah, composing with a process is fascinating. You end up with something you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. On Moose The Mooche, for example, I wrote a tune using all the rests, making a tune that’s the rhythmic opposite of Moose The Mooche. I made a tone row of notes in the opposite order that they appear in Moose The Mooche, and organized each note with other notes in the row. All of a sudden I had this system that created a tune. It has its own distinct character, yet is totally related to Moose The Mooche. If you listen and sing to Moose The Mooche it’s really disconcerting, filling all the spaces that Moose The Mooche leaves.
TJG: So what else is going on these days?
CC: I play in a lot of big bands. And I practice as much as I can without judging myself. I weave practice more naturally into my life in a way where it’s not a task. I try to be honest with myself and know that I practice as much as I can. I just don’t see objectively what value I can gain from being judgmental. Another thing John McNeil told me: “Can you imagine not trying your best in a given situation?” The answer, of course, is no. Sometimes your best is hampered by your circumstances, but you don’t have control over that. All I can do is be relaxed so I can play as well as you can. I try to raise my level, of course, but if you add judgement on top of all of that, then it’s over. There’s no point in feeling bad because you played a wrong note, or got lost on a form, or didn’t know a tune. I’d much rather try to enjoy myself.
TJG: I feel like a lot of musicians use that fear to drive themselves. They say, “If I don’t practice today, I won’t be as good tomorrow.” How do you push yourself without being judgmental?
CC: I care about accuracy. I care about my ability to do what I want. Whether or not I succeed every time doesn’t make me feel bad. I still want to come home and play long tones and be in tune and play with the sound I want. I want to have control so I can do whatever I can think of. If I don’t have the control and I can’t do it, it’s not as successful and it’s not as fun.
TJG: How does the whole picture look when you add living in Brooklyn to the mix?
CC: It means you can’t focus entirely on music. After almost 8 years in New York, I’m not stressed out all the time. I’m not worried. I support myself by doing some web development, so I don’t teach lessons and don’t play gigs that I don’t want to play. It’s a balanced situation that allows me to not be stressed on the day-to-day. If I didn’t live in New York, I’d be able to just focus on music, but then I wouldn’t get to go play sessions, for example. A lot of people here are running to make ends meet and don’t have time to approach their music in an exploratory and relaxed way. So I have a balance that works for me. And the best part about living in Brooklyn is the musical community. You know, it’s called Walking Distance because we used to all live a mile from each other, we’d all walk to rehearsal. We recorded in the apartment we rehearsed in, close to where we all lived, where we spent our time, near our favorite bar. It was our music, in Brooklyn, in 2013. It’s a document of our little corner of our geographic and musical world. Music is less localized because of the internet, but jazz still has to happen live, in a place and with people. For me, you have to be part of a community and build an identity, discover the things that I care about. You have to find a thread and follow it.
TJG: Thanks for taking the time to talk–we’re excited for your upcoming show!
CC: Me too. When I first moved to New York, I worked at The Jazz Gallery. I did sound and sold tickets for a few years. This is my first gig at The Gallery. When I moved here, I had a very specific idea of what jazz was supposed to sound like. But working shows at The Jazz Gallery, I said, “Wait a second, I really like this Taylor Ho Bynum music. Why did I think I wouldn’t like it?” I’m sure a lot of people have had that experience at The Gallery. They went to see a show because it was there, and it opened their minds to new ways of thinking about jazz. I’m grateful on a personal level. The vibe is good.
Walking Distance plays The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, October 11th, 2016. The group features Caleb Curtis on alto saxophone, Kenny Pexton on tenor saxophone, Adam Coté on bass, and Shawn Baltazor on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.