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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Gaya Feldheim Schorr, courtesy of the artist.

Colin Hinton, a Brooklyn-based composer and drummer/percussionist, returns to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate the release of his latest record, Simulacra. The long-form, textural calliope features Anna Webber on tenor saxophone and flutes, Yuma Uesaka on tenor saxophone and clarinets, Edward Gavitt on guitars, Shawn Lovato on bass, and Hinton himself on drums, percussion, glockenspiel, and gongs.

The compositions are dense, spiraling, and often surprisingly intimate, and clearly synthesize influences from Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton to Messiaen and Feldman, while leaving plenty of room for Hinton’s background in the power and structure more straight-ahead jazz. In a long phone conversation with Hinton, we learned about the composer’s approach to open material, his relationship with his ensemble, and his process behind putting the record together.

The Jazz Gallery: Loving the new record! You packed such a diverse array of sounds and approaches into a unified set of performances. It seems like the album, described in the liner notes, is addressing this timeless question: How do you capture a music moment in a way that celebrates its life force, yet acknowledges the limitations of the format? Do I have that right, in the concept of Simulacra?

Colin Hinton: In certain regards, yes. The liner notes were written by my buddy Robert Grieve, a great guitarist, composer, human based in Toronto. I contacted him, and he got excited because the album is called Simulacra, and he’s big into philosophy, so he went super deep into the whole simulacra/simulation thing. He went in on that, which I loved. I didn’t actually find out about it until after I named the album, so it’s a funny coincidence. I named the album as I did because each piece on the record is inspired by a specific musician/composer that had a huge impact on my musical and/or personal life.

I came across the word simulacra as an anagram, which is how I arrive at many of my tune titles: You see that in titles like “Obversify” or “Synesthopy.” I delved into the history of the word simulacra, and liked the idea of a representation of something, and enjoyed looking at the history of the word and how it has evolved over the last six hundred years. I let Rob go nuts with the writeup, there’s some headiness to it. I like the ambiguity, and people keep asking me about the title, so that’s fun.

TJG: I don’t know a lot about your musical process, aside from what I’ve read. It’s clear that there’s composed material: Hits, melodies, harmonic unity, form, structure, even swing and time. Then, there’s clearly improvisation as well, stuff that sounds like someone creating in the moment. I’m interested in hearing about your working process within these worlds.

CH: My background is as a straight-ahead jazz drummer. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a little away from that, though I still love listening to and playing that music. My first exposure to music outside of that was Brazilian music, then South Indian music. Then, as I was studying free improvisation and contemporary classical music, I realized that to do what I wanted to do, I needed to start composing: I didn’t start composing until I was twenty-six.

Generally, I don’t want people to be aware of what’s composed and what’s improvised in my music. There are a number of things on the record that sound improvised but are actually written, and things that sound written but are actually improvised. I’ve been working with this group for several years, and this is the fourth book of music I’ve written for us.

I’m also great friends with everyone in the band, and we’re very familiar with each others’ musicality, so that puts me at a huge advantage. I wanted to try to 1) get away from a typical head-solo-head thing, and 2) avoid long-form composition for improvisers where it’s like “Here’s written material, here’s improv, here’s a form, here’s a vamp,” and instead have the composition and improvisation move together simultaneously. That was a cool challenge to try to address. There might be three people who have written material that’s part of a composition, while one person is soloing, and another person has the option of playing composed material, or pitchless rhythmically notated stuff that they can improvise along, giving them a general sense of being part of the ensemble, where they can be the soloist. I love finding different ways of orchestrating the people I have so that something is always in motion.

TJG: When you’re generating this material, are you improvising and transcribing? Do you have a compositional procedure that you’ve found works for you?

CH: I write everything at the piano, and before I sit down and start writing a piece, I generally have an idea of what I want the piece to do. Then I might start generating some harmonic areas I want to look at, and from there it depends on whether I want melody, a non-melodic sound world, just dense harmony with nothing else… I have techniques that I’ve adopted and keep returning to, regarding how I generate harmonic material and melodies over that.

TJG: Take one track from the album, for example, and tell me a little about what you wanted it to do, and how you got there.

CH: The last track on the album, “Slab Warmth,” was inspired by Anthony Braxton, a hero of mine for years, and finding his music, along with the rest of the AACM, was a life-changing moment for me. When I started to dive into that music, a lot of things started making sense in terms of bridging gaps between a jazz, contemporary classical, and free improvisation. I heard Braxton, Muhal, Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith,, they were all doing what seemed to me to be coming from, in certain regards, a similar place, yet it was composition-heavy.

I wanted “Slab Warmth” to do a couple of things: I wanted to incorporate a couple of ideas that I heard from the 80s and 90s Braxton quartet–they would do a series of compositions called “Pulse Tracks,” and I knew I wanted to have a lot of improvisation over this idea. There are two tenor solos, Anna first and Yuma second. If you listen, Shawn and I are playing this long rhythmic cycle, nothing repeats, it’s all pitchless material that becomes the form. Anna and Ed have no harmonic material from which to work, so the prompt is: Play as free as you want, or play with these rhythms, and let’s see what happens. I wanted to structure the melodic segments in a similar fashion, where there’s this dense rhythmic counterpoint going on. It’s different each time it happens, but it all comes from the same basic material.

TJG: What does this music look like on paper? I read that you took a lot of notational ideas from John Cage, that you don’t write chord changes, that you like specific guitar voicings, things like that.

CH: On paper, it’s long. It’s all through-composed, minus the open sections, and is pretty dense. I didn’t write it to be difficult music, but because of the nature of what it is, it’s hard. I’m very lucky to have the people I have in this band that’ll put the time into learning it and playing it incredibly well.

TJG: One of the striking things about the tracks is that many of them are quite long. It’s exciting when people release long-form recordings! I know Ed edited the recordings too. Did you do a lot of long takes? Splicing? Did you record longer bits and trim them?

CH: Yes, to everything except for the last one. The only track we did in full was “Slab Warmth,” which we did in two takes. If I remember correctly, we did that one last, everyone was tired, I was totally fried. We just decided to do that one start to finish, and got it done in two takes. I’m still amazed.

We did the exceptionally long tracks like “Obversify” and “What Was” section by section, because I knew it was going to be to difficult to get the result I wanted to if we tried to do it start to finish. There’d be too much punching, having to do retakes, or I wouldn’t have been happy about how it turned out. Going into the session, I made a detailed schedule of which chunks we’d play when, and how we’d collage it together afterwards.

For me, I’m not the biggest fan of splicing. I’m conflicted: I want it to be an accurate representation of how the band performs live, but realistically, to get a studio recording like that… Studio and live recordings are two different beasts. This band can play this music live, and it’s fun, but in a documented format, since it’s so dense, I want it to sound a certain way on the record, and the only way I can get those results is recording it the way we did, which was doing it in sections.

TJG: I think everyone on the record sounds so good, particularly Anna Webber. She blows my mind.

CH: Me too, man. I can’t say enough good things about Anna. Everyone in the band… this stuff is not easy, and everyone is playing their ass off and putting in a lot of time to make it work.

TJG: There’s a lot of good conversation between Anna and Yuma as well. Have you workshopped that over the years? Does it happen organically?

CH: All of the above. I know how they play together, and I love that. Originally, this group was a trio, me, Ed and Yuma. There were a few gigs that Yuma couldn’t make and I called Anna to fill in, and it became a back-and-forth. As the group went on and I continued writing, I decided, why don’t I have both of them in there? I added a bass player, and after that group worked a bit, I thought it was super special to hear how Anna and Yuma worked together. I started to figure out ways that I could take advantage of that, giving them an intro to that tune “Synesthopy,” where it’s bass flute and contralto clarinet playing together. On “Slab Warmth,” I wanted it to be loud and rambunctious, with two tenors throughout. I thought, There needs to be a place with two tenors going ballistic, and they knocked it out of the park on that. I love listening to that, they did it so well.

TJG: Like everything recorded at The Bunker, this record sounds so good. The mastering is excellent, the editing is tight. I’m curious about the timeline from rehearsals to recording, mixing, editing, and release.

CH: I didn’t finish writing this music until a few weeks before this recording session, when we had a gig at The Jazz Gallery in September of 2018, right before we went into the studio. I was sending completed parts at the beginning of that month. I was on vacation in Canada at the time, and was waking up early every morning and working for three or four hours just finishing parts for everybody. I got back from Canada, we had two rehearsals, both of which were intense and stressful, we did the soundcheck at the Gallery, and everything came together.

From the recording onwards, I knew I needed to sit with it for a minute. Around October or November, I started talking with Ed and getting the edits together. Around December, I started mixing with Eivind Opsvik. I was working two full-time jobs at that point–on top of my private lesson studio and my gigs, I was teaching English, math, and reading at a residential treatment facility. So Eivind and I were meeting up once a week for three, four hours at a time, and that took I think two months. I think we spent twenty-six hours mixing it, potentially eight sessions.

Once it was mixed, I was looking for a mastering engineer. It was right about the time when Anna’s last record came out, and I loved the way it sounded. She recommended this guy named Brent Lambert, I believe he runs Kitchen Mastering Studio. I started looking into that, and he’s done John Hollenbeck’s albums. So I sent him an email, we got working on it, and I think the turnaround on that was about a month, and it only took a few drafts to get it right, so the whole mixing and mastering went from about November to maybe April. It was pretty involved. Again, the music is super long, super dense, and I want it to sound a certain way, which took a lot of time. From there, I started shopping it around to labels. On a whim, I sent it to New Focus, and I got an email back the next day from Dan Lippel, who seemed super interested. I went with it, and I’ve been so happy with everything they’ve done. I’m excited to have a release on that label.

Colin Hinton celebrates the release of Simulacra (New Focus) at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, November 14, 2019. The group features Mr. Hinton on drums & percussion; Anna Webber on tenor saxophone, flute, & bass flute; Yuma Uesaka -tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, & contralto clarinet; Edward Gavitt on electric & acoustic guitars; and Shawn Lovato on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.