At Harvard there are two jazz bands: the Sunday band, which is essentially the JV squad, and the Monday band, the varsity team led by the preeminent saxophonist Don Braden. In freshman year I started as the Sunday band benchwarmer pianist, before slowly and proudly making my way up to Monday band. When I got to the Monday band, I met saxophonist Kevin Sun. Sun was a joint NEC-Harvard student and he blew the rest of us away, in torrents, swells, and squawks on his tenor saxophone. He could make the whole ensemble sound better with the slightest of tweaks: while prepping for a Herbie Hancock tribute show, he detuned and bent notes on his sax to sound eerily like the beer bottles on “Watermelon Man.” Even Braden could only shake his head and laugh.
Two years later, Sun is now an active player in New York and has released an acclaimed album with the collaborative group Great on Paper. This week, Sun released a new record with another collaborative group, Earprint, which includes a few of Sun’s longtime collaborators from Boston: Tree Palmedo on trumpet, Simon Willsón on bass, and Dor Herskovits on drums. I caught up with Sun this week to talk about his time playing jazz in China, having a day job, his songwriting process, and how he soaks up information from teachers and older musicians over the years, including Miguel Zenón, Vijay Iyer, and Jason Moran. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
The Jazz Gallery: How did this group form?
Kevin Sun: The band was sort of a workshop/lab type project for me: I wanted an outlet to write a lot of music. I was studying with Miguel Zenón. We had done a lot of transcribing up that point, working on a lot of fundamentals. Basically, he was pushing me to do more composition, and being as specific as possible when notating—especially writing bass and drum parts. He would show me examples of his own writing where all the parts were specified.
TJG: How did Miguel influence your approach to music?
KS: I think he really changed a lot about my playing and my outlook on music. At the time, my sophomore spring, I was pretty dark about things. I remember feeling like there was so much information, but I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do with all of it. I was kind of losing sight of what drew me to music in the first place.
He assigned me a Sonny Rollins solo, “Come Gone” from Way out West, and I didn’t get very far—I was really busy at the time. Basically we couldn’t progress at all so I felt, ‘Wow, he’s not going to let me slide.’ So I started working on it seriously, and saw how much work it was to not just transcribe a solo but memorize it note for note. Memorize, play along note for note with the record, convincingly in the style of Sonny, and faithfully reproduce the nuances.
Even after I had put in the effort to memorize it, it still took a few weeks to get to the point where he was satisfied about the way I was phrasing the lines, articulating notes, putting accents. Even the energy of it. I was trying to get the feel of really powerful ‘Sonny Rollins blowing keys off the saxophone’ vibe. I thought I was doing it, but he was like, “no it’s not there yet. Come back next week and try again.” It was pretty frustrating. At the end of the semester he was like, “Okay, that’s good. We can get started on this next thing.”
TJG: Did you really feel like you really got into Sonny’s head?
KS: Absolutely. I don’t think I had gotten into anybody’s head that thoroughly. From there, I really committed to it. I saw a lot of progress from myself, playing-wise. I started listening, becoming more attuned to things, rhythmically, especially playing with other people. That made music a lot more fun, because it more inter-relational.
TJG: How did you embrace the idea of becoming a working musician?
KS: It took a while. It goes back to the summer of 2012: I basically committed to living in New York and hitting sessions and trying to hang with musicians all the time. I was basically sleeping in the hallway of a room in Stuy Town with four NYU students. It was really funny because they were all finance people. So they had this really early schedule and I had this late schedule where I would be out til 5 or 6 a.m. I went to Smalls or the Fat Cat four or five nights a week. It was really tiring.
At Smalls, I wouldn’t say anyone knew who I was. I was very shy, but I remember a really revealing moment from when I was a junior: I did an ensemble with Jason Moran, and one of the first things he said was, “If you think you’re going to show up at a jam session and play and then someone in the back is going to hear you and give you a gig, that’s not going to happen.” When he said that, it confirmed what I had already knew for the most part. It’s possible to get a gig hanging out a lot. And I know people who have come up that way. But it’s a certain kind of commitment. You have to think of that as a full time job: hanging out at Smalls 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week. I thought about that. And was like, “Would I be happy based on my survey of music being played there for the most part?”
I learned a lot about jam sessions and their social dynamics. It wasn’t totally conclusive that I wanted to be a professional musician. But there were inklings that there were alternatives to what I saw that summer, in terms of micro-scenes. Before that, I just assumed Smalls is one of the epicenters of jazz in New York. But I realized that’s not necessarily the case. Working at The Jazz Gallery the summer after gave me more insight.
TJG: How do you feel your race and age has had an impact on your work in the jazz community?
KS: It’s definitely something you think about that a lot: being Asian American, being young. Being young in jazz means until 50, at least. I wrote a piece about Mark Turner last summer and learned a lot about patience. The gist of what I got is that music and art aren’t a race. It’s a lifelong kind of discipline that you might undertake for various reasons: self betterment, or something more altruistic, oriented toward social justice, improving other people’s lives, especially those who don’t have a voice.
Miguel and Miles [Okazaki] made me slow down a lot, and really focus on details. They have this ethos of, “we have our whole lifetimes to do this. It’s not a sprint.”
TJG: You went to Beijing over the summer. What’s the jazz scene like there?
KS: It’s very small—maybe 20 working professional musicians, and a bunch of students—but it’s enough. Because people are so far away from the epicenter of jazz, they want to swing. But the city also has more of an underground arts scene in general—rock, hip hop, visual arts, photography. For the most part, the main club is East Shore Jazz Club, and I was playing there all the time. We basically just played a lot of standards. I felt implicitly that I was supposed to bring the real jazz to them. I already feel like such an outsider in the jazz scene as it is. But I felt like I kind of had to hold it down. So I had to swing really hard and phrase really clearly, which was really good for me.
TJG: You also TA’d for Vijay Iyer’s class at Harvard. We took the class together in 2014, and it was one of the most thought-provoking and intellectually rigorous classes I took in college. What did you learn from him?
KS: He was able to be inclusive in a radical, transformative way. I watched how Vijay was very flexible in creative ways to make sure he could keep high standards and rigor, but also make the class accessible and useful for people who come out of different traditions. I thought the final concert was really inspiring. I really sensed that the students felt empowered.
TJG: You work at a biochemistry lab. Does having a day job make you a better or motivated musician?
KS: Yeah, definitely in some ways. Time becomes more valuable because of scarcity. I realize that when I was doing music full time, a certain measure of my self worth was doing music. So when you aren’t working during the daytime on music related things, you almost feel guilty. But if you do that too much, it’s not healthy. Now that I have this job, it’s like, I’m a musician, but I’m not in a rush the way I was before. I can see myself being in the city for a long time because of the stability.
TJG: Tell me about the rest of the “Earprint” band.
KS: It’s so easy to play with Tree. Our sounds mesh really well, and there’s a lot of unison, which is really hard to do well. Dor is a great composer. His songs have a true arc to them, moreso than my songs. My songs are just kind of empty spaces where interesting things will happen because of how they’re shaped. Simón is a bassist of unimpeachable taste and quiet strength. He’s also always the first person to point out when I’ve written something dumb or pointless in a composition; he’s a ruthless editor.
TJG: What’s your approach to songwriting for this Earprint record?
KS: I wanted to deal with overlapping rhythmic cycles and working from formal conceits. I got a lot of that from Miles and Steve Coleman and Miguel. I think of a formal idea, try to flesh it out, and use it as a scaffolding.
Vijay has a phrase that he uses to describe his music: “radically unfinished” frameworks or architectures. So I was thinking of writing something where it’s extremely specific but dense, succinct, notated material. When I was writing for [my other group] Great on Paper, I was writing too much. I would always write really long things that were great on paper but really hard to do. With Earprint, it’s been more about, how can I get the most out of the material?
TJG: At what point does an algorithm become a living song? Which is more important: the framework or what you put into it?
KS: They’re both important. If the architecture isn’t compelling, or doesn’t successfully channel creative energy in a way that is productive, then it doesn’t matter how good musicians you have.
I’ve done some event planning, and I remember reading that when you plan a really big party, it’s good to have sections where sightlines are broken on purpose. Have walls installed in a big space so you feel like there are more spaces within spaces. So that’s an analogy, I guess.
TJG: How important is it to have your own distinctive sound/style?
KS: It’s less about being innovative and more about being personal. Which is something Tyshawn Sorey talked about at Banff in 2012. If you think about the things that really matter to you in music and follow them as far as possible, maybe it will be deemed as innovative by the socially constructed sphere of creativity. But that’s not as important as making music that’s really personal to you. What are things that are most compelling, mysterious, challenging and rewarding creatively?
A lot of that for me, is this kind of music that comes from formal conceits. But I was thinking that I’m almost using it as a crutch now. I don’t want to be trapped by that. I think I’m going to try to write more rhapsodic, romantic stuff where I’m not worried about having a conceit.
Earprint celebrates the release of their eponymous debut album at The Jazz Gallery this Tuesday, October 25th, 2016. The group features Kevin Sun on tenor saxophone, Tree Palmedo on trumpet, Simon Willsón on bass, and Dor Herskovits on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.