Throughout the history of jazz, musicians have taken on the sounds and forms of popular music and twisted them into a means of their own artistic expression. Beboppers took tunes from movies and musicals and laid new melodies and frenetic solos on top of them. Miles Davis drew from Sly Stone’s funky beats and electric wall of sound, creating a fusion of styles that was visceral and formally abstract. And because of groups like the Brad Mehldau Trio and the Bad Plus, it’s no longer a novelty to hear a jazz cover of a song by the likes Radiohead or Björk.
Like these jazz innovators, saxophonist Aaron Burnett is making music that synthesizes improvisation with popular forms—in his case, electronic styles like house and drum & bass. On Thursday evening, Burnett will bring his “Big Machine” to The Jazz Gallery, presenting music that defies simple categorization: abstract improvisation living within tightly wrought compositions, powered by the rhythms of a dance club. It’s a unique and intoxicating blend, and an experience not to be missed. We caught up with Aaron last weekend by phone to talk about how he created his distinct style and what he has planned for Thursday evening.
The Jazz Gallery: You incorporate a lot of different sounds and rhythms from electronic genres like drum & bass and dub to a degree that few other jazz musicians really have. How did you get started working with these styles?
Aaron Burnett: When I was 18 or 19, I got asked to play saxophone with drum & bass DJs in North Carolina. They paid me a bunch of money and they were like, “Listen. Come and play. We want to hear what you can do over our tracks.” That’s where it really started.
I started playing with DJs and eventually I started understanding the music and incorporating it into my own music.
TJG: What about these electronic styles and your experiences drew you in and made you want to work with them more?
AB: I went to my first underground electronic party when I was 19. It really impressed me. I was like, “What is this music, this drum & bass?” I had never heard this before. After a while, I started going to see big DJs; I started playing with DJs. I eventually started playing at house clubs, doing all different kinds of stuff.
In terms of the saxophone, I started off playing little melodies over the beats, but then I started getting into higher technical things. On saxophone, you can play up to like six notes at once, so I started imitating the sounds of synth leads. I was getting the same sounds that these producers were getting so they kept hiring me. I learned how to do all of that by ear.
TJG: With Big Machine, you aren’t just playing simple dance music with acoustic instruments. There’s a lot of different kinds of improvisation going on as well.
AB: Yeah. That more or less comes from Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, and from the Intelligent Dance Movement, which was like accelerated drum & bass with more intricate rhythms and melodies within that genre.
TJG: What strikes me about your saxophone sound is how even though you’re imitating these electronic sounds, there’s a strong organic and human element to it. Is this tension between the digital and the human something you’re going after?
AB: That’s exactly what it is—it’s combining the electronic elements with traditional jazz and a traditional way of going about improvising. The trick of it is actually being computer-like in the way that you play and the way you execute your ideas. What we’re doing is using those elements and using it in an organic way. We can physically play what the computer can generate.
TJG: You have a slightly altered lineup on Thursday, and in particular you’re working with trumpeter Peter Evans. What do you like about his playing and what does he bring to the group?
AB: Me and Peter are very similar in our approaches to this music, and when we play together, we really see eye to eye; technically, we are matched. He understands the premise of imitating electronic instruments and electronic music. Physically, he can do the same things on trumpet that I can do on saxophone.
A lot of the music that we’re going to present at the Gallery is so intricate to the point that it almost sounds computer-generated.
TJG: In these intricate pieces, there seems to be a very fine line between what’s preconceived and what’s improvised. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between notation and improvisation in your work?
AB: The improvisation is embedded within the intricate compositions. It’s not like a head-solo-head kind of thing. It’s more like, each soloist fits within its own realm, or this is the main concept that we’re going to improvise around together. I through-compose all the pieces and the improvisation is done within those frameworks, and sometimes there may not be any improvisation. There might just be a melody or a more classical notated work.
It’s getting away from the traditional jazz paradigm. I just feel like we’ve heard enough of that at this point and it’s time for something new. What I’m doing is trying to incorporate these electronic styles with the forms of modern classical music and the improvisation of traditional jazz.
TJG: What drives you to play with form and genre in this way?
AB: I’m looking to the future of the music, rather than being a bit of a necrophiliac like a lot of jazz musicians out there. I’m trying to introduce a concept that will last longer than I’m alive. I’m a thirty-two-year-old man, which isn’t that long of a time to be alive. I look at our society, I look at everything that’s going on and what young people are listening to and what’s popular, and that’s what drives me to make music the way I do. I can sit there and play Dexter Gordon patterns all day, but what does that really do for the music? It doesn’t do anything. It’s regurgitating something that already happened. Playing jazz today, it’s much more interesting trying to incorporate all these modern elements into the music rather than trying to emulate something that happened fifty years ago.
Aaron Burnett’s Big Machine performs at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, March 6th, 2014. The group features Burnett on saxophones and laptop, Peter Evans on trumpet, David Bryant on piano, Nick Jozwiak on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m., $15 general admission for the first set ($10 for members), $10 general admission for the second set ($5 for members). Purchase tickets here.