Tony Tixier is a pianist, composer, and bandleader, whose prior albums and tours have included potent collaborations and vivid narratives with artists including Seamus Blake, Christian Scott, and Justin Brown. His new album, Life of Sensitive Creatures, is deeply personal, chronicling Tixier’s reflection of our role on the planet, spurred by the passing of his grandmother. The album has a complex emotional tenor, containing both optimism and pessimism.
With a trio rounded out by Karl McComas Reichl (double bass) and Tommy Crane (drums), Tixier leads a group that moves through the material with intention and confidence. “It’s a songbook of emotions, put to music,” says Tixier in the liner notes. “We’re making art—a moving painting—and I’m proud of that.” In anticipation of the album’s release at The Jazz Gallery, we spoke with Tixier about his thoughts on the growth of the album and the music he has yet to make.
The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making the time to Skype on your busy tour schedule. Where are you now, and where are you going?
Tony Tixier: I’m in Amsterdam now, for a last-minute session at Bimhuis with Ben Van Gelder. I’m going to Berlin tomorrow, and then New York, to play the show at the Gallery. After that, Lyon, Paris, and back home to Los Angeles. Before that, I was in London, playing at Ronnie Scotts, then in Madrid. I was also with Seamus Blake, touring with his quartet, which was another good excuse to be in Europe.
TJG: What are you doing in Berlin tomorrow?
TT: We’re playing at A-Trane with my German trio. I had a friend at MSM who lives in Berlin, Tom Berkmann, a bass player, and I play with him and drummer Mathias Ruppnig. We’re doing songs from Life Of Sensitive Creatures there. It’s way different with this trio. They’re more in the learning stage of the music, getting to know it. With my New York trio, Tommy Crane and Karl McComas-Reichl, we’ve been playing for three years, so we know the music, we know where we want to go. But it’s also great playing with newer people, because they’re fresh. They have a different type of focus and intensity.
TJG: In the new album’s dedication and video trailer, you wrote; “Along the way we meet, question, and feel a wide range of emotions, all while continuing to breathe and cohabit together. Stay listening. Stay sensitive, never forget that all creatures on this earth share the same home. That’s what this music is about.” Did you write this?
TT: Yeah, it’s my broken English [laughs]. You know, when I wrote the music for the album, my grandmother had just passed. That’s when I started, and decided to take it into the studio. She was 86, and would talk a lot about the world, how we, human beings, are burning it, consuming it too fast. We’re a selfish species. Are we too focused on ourselves? Tommy, and Karl, they’re into talking about this. And through playing with them, I’ve learned how to open my heart to other creatures, you know? The music is really about this human conversation. The titles are sometimes kind of negative, but I like to take the negative and transform it into a beautiful dream space. It’s an ode to life, to all sentient creatures.
TJG: Yes, many of your titles are cynical. “Denial of Love,” “Illusion” and “Calling Into Question,” even “Causeless Cowards” and “Blind Jealousy of a Paranoid.” How do you take that cynicism and spin it into something beautiful? How is that cynicism presented?
TT: The album is like a book. I’m actually going to do a book for children with songs from the album. The introduction is “I Remember A Time of Plenty,” to put people into the shoes of kids. Let’s be more open-minded, try to listen: It’s a reminder that we should all love each other, or at least in general, have more love. Sometimes people look at you with judgement. We don’t give each other our hands, and I think we should. “I Remember A Time of Plenty” asks, “Why is it this way? Let’s open our hearts again. Don’t deny us this.”
TJG: What inspired you you to write such a narrative, emotional album?
TT: It’s what I do all the time. My first two albums were the same, starting with Parallel Worlds in 2008. My other album was Dream Pursuit in 2012 with Justin Brown, Logan Richardson and Burniss Earl Travis, and that was the same kind of thing. Some titles were “Negative King,” “Anxious Shneck,” “Alone Faced with the Inert World” [laughs]. When I write a song, I write a text too, a little poem. From those lines, I get the title. Sometimes, a melody comes. A bassline arrives. Moods come through. It’s my European roots, maybe: I like the drama. I like when it’s a bit stormy. These storms bring the beauty, the light. We all live in parallel worlds, you know? We think we have the answers, yet you look across the table and someone else has a different opinion. It’s a way of confrontation through understanding. When you accept that you live in one world, you can be more open about exploring another. Now, I’m 31 years old, I don’t want to prove if I can play fast or slow. I’m trying to sing with the piano. The trio, we’re breathing together like one person. We’re trying to travel, open our hearts, our sensitive sides.
TJG: In the liner notes, you wrote that “I chose players who are my friends and who feel a special empathy with my writing.” Do you speak a lot with your trio about the topics your songs address, especially while traveling?
TT: Yes. When we talk about the meaning of what we’re going to play, sometimes we laugh first, no? We get used to it. We talk about that, too. We don’t need to rehearse that much anymore. We have our melodies, our forms. I like it to be as free as we can, because we already know so much. We’re riding the same space ship, we know our destination. We understand each other, me and Tommy and Karl, and it comes through on the record. It’s the kind of album I’d be listening to at ten years old and think, “Ah shit, this is boring.” Because when I was younger and digging Ahmad Jamal, I was only listening to the parts when they blow. I skipped the poetry. With this album, even if you don’t listen to jazz or improvised music, you can still make your own movie in your mind.
TJG: Has making this album changed the way you play and listen?
TT: It’s work and practice every day. When I play in front of a live audience, I’m changing. I’m shifting. I never stay in the same place. The album is already a year old. When we play, I listen. And when I listen to other music, I want to travel. I don’t just want to hear a smart phrase, some historical reference, some fast lines. I want to hear people expressing something personal, something authentic. It’s like someone who goes to a museum, looks at lots of artists and painters, and then begins to paint: You can see their own style, their own voice, but it didn’t come from nowhere. What makes my vibrate today is authenticity, something that comes from personal experience.
TJG: Will you work more with Karl and Tommy? It seems like you have great synergy.
TT: Yes, and Karl and Tommy are both vegan [laughs]. They are, actually. And they’re really sensitive. They’re in touch with their feelings. A lot of musicians care about how they’re going to impress the crowd, what people will say about them afterwards. But they’re not really interested in you, you know? Tommy and Karl are really open minded. Before a show, or after a rehearsal, we hang out, we have a nice discussion. They’re not afraid to meet new people. We learn from each other. We hear each other. There’s no ego. And they’re incredible musicians too, of course, but they’re never flashy. If you listen to the album, they just move together. We’re dancing. The next album is going to be even more in the same direction.
The Tony Tixier Trio plays music from the album Life of Sensitive Creatures at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, December 6th, 2017. The group features Mr. Tixier on piano, Karl McComas-Reichl on bass, and Tommy Crane 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.