Bad Touch, a collective jazz quartet playing exciting new music that draws from the whole spectrum of jazz history and has a great new album out, should never be mistaken for The Bad Plus, a collective jazz trio playing exciting new music that draws from the whole spectrum of jazz history and has a great new album out.
Okay, there might be a few similarities between the groups, but they’re nothing more than superficial. Bad Touch, which features Loren Stillman on alto saxophone, Nate Radley on guitar, Gary Versace on organ, and Ted Poor on drums, has developed its own distinctive group sound where any instrument can take the lead at any given time. Their collective taste is broad and the results are satisfyingly unpredictable.
This past January, Bad Touch released their third album together, Going Public (Fresh Sound), featuring original compositions by Stillman, Radley, and Poor. On Saturday, the group will celebrate the release of their record with a performance at The Jazz Gallery. To get a sense of how the group has developed its unique sound over the past several years, we talked with saxophonist Loren Stillman by phone.
The Jazz Gallery: Where did you meet everyone from Bad Touch? How did you come together as a group?
Loren Stillman: I met everybody individually. I met Gary first back in like 1999 or 2000, and I met Nate around 2003, and Ted Poor around 2004-2005. We all played in separate situations and I felt there was a kinship in the way they played music and improvised on an individual level. I thought it would be a cool experiment to see what these guys would sound like together. I guess it was around 2006 or 2007 when everybody got together to play.
When you fall in love with something, there’s this initial reaction that draws you in. It was just so fun to play music with these people, in addition to the beautiful sounds that they were creating. It all just kind of came together, as I had hoped.
TJG: Bad Touch’s instrumentation harkens back to bassless organ groups led by Jimmy Smith and Larry Young and others. Are you consciously drawing from the jazz organ group tradition?
LS: I don’t think I thought about that tradition once when forming the group, though I do love that tradition a lot. Sometimes the music really goes to that place. I think the way Gary treats the organ is really special and outside the box. He’s trying to fit his playing into the group in a more subtle way. I think that’s a big part of what makes our sound less traditional. He and Nate have this wonderful blend together—they can sound like one instrument sometimes. Also, the music we write for the group doesn’t necessarily want to swing all the time; it wants to go into different places. Maybe it’s adding to the jazz organ tradition, or at least I hope so!
TJG: You say that everyone in the group is coming from the same place as improvisors. What is that place, more specifically?
LS: It’s really a place of spontaneous arrangement. We’re all very dedicated to the history and lineage of jazz and the many stages that it’s gone through—we’ve studied all of them, I hope—and have gotten to a place where form is something that’s easily manipulated on the spot.
At first, I was the only person composing for the group, and then later on Ted and Nate started writing for the group. I think initially I took leadership of the band and it was under my name—it was the Loren Stillman Quartet for a while—but everyone was so equally invested in the group that it became very collaborative.
We’re playing all form-based music—there’s always a backbone to what we’re playing. The idea is that it’s being treated differently each time. We’re thinking about form more orchestrally, rather than everyone gets their turn to be a soloist at different times. It’s more about the listening and the interaction aspect of improvising. Things change very rapidly in the group. Someone can suggest an idea, and it takes the material in a completely different direction. So if you’re set in your own ways as a soloist, you’re going to miss all of that.
TJG: More and more groups today are taking this group improvisational approach to their music, and some even have these very specific systems they use to facilitate the improvisation. Do you in Bad Touch have a set system like that, or is it more intuitive?
LS: We haven’t sat down and said, “This is the aural cue that I will use in order to suggest we move into a different musical place.” All of that has pretty much happened naturally over time. A lot of times these things fail. People try to do things and they don’t work out, and you say, “Well, I’m not going to do that again.” But I think there’s an inventory of experience that we have as a group that allows us to find something new. It all happens through experimentation and allowing the group to take different kinds of risks.
Whenever we play, I always get this feeling of being on the edge of the music. We could completely teeter off or find something really great. It’s where I like to be musically. The great thing about playing with people for a length of time is that I can feel comforting taking a lot of risks. The hard thing about improvising is feeling comfortable with discomfort.
I played with Paul Motian for years at the Village Vanguard,and every night, I have to say, was the most challenging musical experience because every night he demanded that the music be different. That’s one of the only experiences I had where somebody demanded that you be the most creative person you can be at all times. If Paul felt like you were doing something that you knew how to do already, he would call you out on it. In the back room, he’d be like, “Hey! We did that last night! Don’t do that again! We’re doing something else.” It was so cool that he didn’t care if you took a chance and it ended up being a bad risk.
It really taught me a lot about music and how I wanted my music to be as well. It felt so unnatural and so bad at times, but I learned how to feel comfortable with that—with not knowing what was going to happen next and never relying on something that came before. I try to recreate that feeling each time I play.
TJG: While being in a group for a long time makes you more comfortable taking risks, on the flip side it also means it can be easy to get complacent and recycle musical gestures that have worked in the past. How do you keep the music sounding fresh?
LS: I think it’s a lot about splitting the leadership role up. There are four people who will take any initiative as they hear it. Somebody is going to start the song different than they did the last time, like starting it as a solo or a duo. It’s about allowing that to happen and working with people that want to keep taking these risks.
I guess the thing about complacency is that you look back on what worked in the past and you say, “Why don’t we just do it that way again?” I think the collective attitude of the group is that just because it worked the last time doesn’t mean it’s going to work again.
We don’t do a lot of rehearsal and I think that helps the music a lot. I think a lot of over-rehearsed music starts to drop and get stale.
TJG: Have the pieces that you and the other members of the group bring in changed over time? Has that been another outlet in terms of keeping things fresh?
LS: We’re all coming from different places as composers, so when Ted and Nate started bringing in pieces for the band we had a different outlet. Writing something and then hearing it interpreted by the players always gives you new ideas to how to continue to write for those people. The great thing about working with Bad Touch is that when I bring a piece to the table and the group interprets it, it’s no longer just my composition.
In the past, some of the stuff has been really elaborately notated, on my end. There were a lot of chords and rhythms and forms; a lot of it was very specific. Working with the same group for so long means that I don’t need to be that specific in my writing. Just from trial and error, I’ve realized that sometimes the more simple, the better.
TJG: So the idea of a performer-proof score almost seems silly when writing for Bad Touch then.
LS: Yeah. 99 percent of the reason that you’re working with these people is that you love the way they play music, the way we improvise. In playing with these guys, I trust what they’re naturally able to do. It’s not like you need to rehearse how to improvise—that’s already what you do. In writing for them I really want to show off their abilities as improvisors.
TJG: One thing that’s really cool about your new record Going Public is that it captures that sense of risk and spontaneity that you usually associate more with live performance. How did get that feeling in a studio environment?
LS: The way we made the record was with all live takes and everybody in the same room together, which isn’t very common these days. We really felt like we play best live for an audience and why not try to recreate that feeling in a recording studio. I don’t think there were any edits done or any overdubs. The way you hear the music is exactly the way it was recorded. There are no tricks—we’re just relying on our musicianship to make it all happen.
It just felt better that way to us. When you play live, you have this interaction where you hear each other naturally in a room, so why would you go into isolation booths with headphones? It doesn’t make any sense if you’re just doing it to fix your mistakes. Just don’t make mistakes!
TJG: Or in your case, you treat mistakes as opportunities for new expression.
LS: Yeah, exactly.
Loren Stillman and Bad Touch celebrate the release of their latest release “Going Public” at The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, April 19th, 2014. Bad Touch is Stillman on alto saxophone, Nate Radley on guitar, Gary Versace on organ, and Ted Poor on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. $22 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here.