On April 14th, guitarist Brandon Ross will bring his group Phantom Station to The Jazz Gallery. This group features a revolving cast of personnel and focuses on both collective improvisation and compositional interpretation. The group also focuses on the interfaces between acoustic sonic elements and sound generation devices. This particular incarnation of the group will feature Stomu Takeishi on acoustic and electric bass, Graham Haynes on cornet and electronics, and Hardedge on sound design, as well as Brandon on acoustic and electric guitars.
Brandon has lent his distinct voice on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, the banjo, and the soprano guitar to many of the leading lights in creative music including Cassandra Wilson, Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Oliver Lake, Muhal Richard Abrams, Me’Shell N’degeocello, Archie Shepp, and many others. His unique compositional voice has served as the creative engine for recent albums with his project Harriet Tubman (with Melvin Gibbs and J.T. Lewis), For Living Lovers (with Stomu Takeishi), and Dark Matter Halo (with Doug Weiselman and Hardedge), along with his own solo project. His explorations of sonic territory are at once ethereal and searing, still yet enveloping, soulful and enigmatic.
The Jazz Gallery: Last year, you were at The Jazz Gallery with a totally different group for Phantom Station. What does this particular version of Phantom Station afford, compared to other versions of the group. The group is drummer-less this time around: what does that do for the interactive process?
Brandon Ross: For Phantom Station, I’ve been thinking about different ways of addressing creating music, in terms of different notational structures that could be employed, and also ways of providing direction in an open context without having a rehearsal. The selection of who plays, for me, is based on who I know that is willing to and has the capacity to self-orchestrate, and to think about creation in a compositional sense… and then there’s also the aspect of sound processing and electronics.
TJG: I want to talk about the role of timbre in an improvised setting, a consideration that’s particularly present in your work on the electric guitar. I saw Harriet Tubman play Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz at Winter Jazzfest, and I was particularly impressed with the soundscapes you were generating, and the way that you occupied a specific sonic register that fit within the context of a large band. How do you select particular sounds that you’ll be conjuring up? Is it something that you’ll hear in your head that you then try to actualize? Is it in response to another musical gesture? An attempt to access a dream-like state?
BR: It’s all of those things, to be honest. The first three things you said hit on the primary approaches that are, at this point, natural for me…One of the things I was asking myself recently, I really love reverb, but what do I love about reverb? What I realized is that it creates dimension, spatial dynamics, and a sort of majestic energy. But there has to be a balance. That’s the thing about signal processing of any kind, even if it’s just basic distortion or a wah wah. What is that sound going to do in the environment that it’s in? Does it bring things into relief or does it obscure some essential activities or expressions that are taking place?
And it’s funny, you know, I haven’t heard that concert yet with Harriet Tubman…that was an interesting concert [laughing], to tell you the truth. Because I could hear the difference in the kinds of understandings that people have about [Ornette’s] music. There is a generational switch and update. Certain kinds of information atrophy because it’s been completed, served it’s purpose, or been overlooked. On the one hand, that could seem like a deficit, but at the same time, I think these changes are necessary in order to keep music progressing. Music is like that.
And hopefully, like anything else, we have enough insight into the essence of what we’re involved in and not an overbearing preponderance about the form of a thing so that we can come to it in our own way. We’re still moving through the same sphere that people that we venerate and admire have moved through, but we’re in another dimensional aspect of it. So the music carries that meta-information and that enlivening and inspiration that brought us to those individuals in the first place. But, we’re not them. We’re not parodying them, we’re not genuflecting to them, we’re not adopting anything that might handcuff us to something other than our own potential as creators.
TJG: It sort of felt like the younger audience was imposing another understanding of the music?
BR: [laughs] I was thinking about the people on the stage. That’s funny, because I also felt that from the audience.
TJG: It was cool, because for me, I heard two energies, because on the one hand, I’m hearing the deep listening practice of the AACM, but then there’s also this thing that feels like it’s coming from Hendrix or My Bloody Valentine. This loud, rock notion of the sublime.
BR: That’s really interesting, because you’re the convergent point for those things, which becomes something else entirely for you. I share that with you as well. The AACM, I’ve been mentored by those guys. But also, Jimi Hendrix…modern electric guitar was transformed when he picked that up. And My Bloody Valentine is cool too. But it’s all about finding those convergent points between really different expressions of music.
TJG: You said that in an interview with WNYC in 2007 that you feel closer to the acoustic guitar because of its immediacy. The electric guitar, in contrast feels like ventriloquism. Can you elaborate on that idea of the electric guitar as ventriloquist? On the one hand you could view it as a dismissal of the instrument, but I think there’s something really interesting in there!
BR: I more or less feel similarly, but it’s not a dichotomy for me. It’s interesting, 10 years ago I said that. So, 10 years forward…the sonic environment is overloaded these days, in the sense that there’s so much information that’s generated through digital material. We have phones ringing and things beeping…The acoustic guitar requires an environment where you can actually hear the depth of the instrument. That environment is one that I really love, but it’s a quiet environment. I just spent the last three hours or so playing my nylon string guitar, and that is a very different thing for me than my steel-string guitar. It’s a space where if I take that kind of information and bring it over to the electric guitar, it does not translate in the same way, because each of these instruments has its own characteristics.…The dynamic range on an acoustic guitar is far more narrow than that on an electric guitar. And once you’re dealing with that issue, it becomes like ventriloquism. Because with the electric guitar, you’re dependent on the kind of pickups in the guitar, and the kind of amplification that is available: lots of variables. The acoustic guitar: much fewer variables, and they’re all entirely organic. The electric guitar these days, with all the signal processing that’s available, mediates between delivery and experience.
TJG: Your work shows a certain preoccupation (or skill) with listening. In your work with Harriett Tubman, this is evinced in the way that collective improvisations emerge, collectively emerging phrase structures and forms. In your work with Cassandra Wilson, this involves a focused approach to accompaniment and arrangement. Both of these things have a lot to do with structure, form, and collaboration. How do you focus your awareness? How have you worked at developing that skill and what contexts have really pushed you in that regard? What listening practices are at work?
BR: I wrote an essay about this in Arcana back in 2009 called “Messenger.” It’s about the idea of stillness, and I think I discussed or differentiated between stillness and silence in that stillness is a function of perception. So “President Obama’s speech at the Selma Bridge” from the last Harriet Tubman CD Arimantha, for example, presented some interesting challenges to me, because, what I wanted to do is to create dimension in the music. How do you create dimension? And how do I find a way, sometimes around, inside of, or underneath a certain trope that’s pulling on me? One obvious trope is playing sixteenth notes or eighth notes against a swing feel. How do you communicate velocity if you’re not dealing with a metronomic expression of it?
When we were recording that record, I spoke to Wadada [Leo Smith] about that question. He said, “you know Brandon, I’ve always thought about things in terms of concentration of activity.” For me, the main way of doing that is to “play the whole band, all the time!” If you’re playing with a band and you’re “soloing,” so to speak, play the whole band, because the whole environment is the music, and all the things in the environment, even if they are silent, are contributing to what is happening. So with that thought in mind, stillness becomes interesting because you can actually rest, which is more than just being silent. It’s a way of exploring how to work with momentum: in harmonic choices, rhythmic choices, and melodic choices.
One of the things I found in Wadada, who we did the record with, is that there was never a moment of any kind of musical conflict. We three [Melvin Gibbs on bass and J.T. Lewis on drums] had been playing together for eighteen years at that point, and Wadada just stepped in and found the space where he could contribute. And that created a kind of dimensional space. You don’t want to think about improvising in this context as a mass of sound, but rather, then, as interactive, multi-dimensional space that’s a collective construction. This is something that I think people often forget in learning what it is to be an instrumentalist.
One of the things about the AACM guys—Threadgill, Wadada, Muhal, Lester Bowie—is this idea of “come to this thing in your own way.” We all like Clifford Brown, we all like Freddie Hubbard, but that expression has already been fulfilled. And your opportunity to fulfill yours is right in front of you… but what is that? People give a lot of lip service to that idea, but it’s actually a hard concept to commit to and live. That ability, for me, comes from deep listening. And not only to sound environment, which includes music, but also to the inner environment, like, the sound inside of yourself—which might be mental chatter, which might be joy, which might be distress… but I believe that there is something inside of us that is animating us and makes our existence necessary. And if we don’t know what it is, it’s incumbent on us to discover that and share it with others—whether it’s through playing music or serving somebody a bowl of soup. What is that there that makes you come back? It’s creating something of beauty, significance, and depth, that requires time and reflection to do so.
My friend Gregoire Maret and I were on tour with Cassandra [Wilson], and I asked him if he was into Dewey Redman, and it turned out that he had taken a lesson with him. I asked him “what was it like?” and he said, “well, he told me to play G. Just one note. Play that note until you get the understanding of that note on your instrument.” Similarly, there’s also a video of [Henry] Threadgill teaching an ensemble down in Florida. He stops them and says, “Everything that can be tuned, should be tuned: this is what will allow you to make music. Music is made in a magical atmosphere. And you can only make music in that atmosphere because you get the vibrations right in the atmosphere…there’s a harmony going on around you in the silence.” I spend a lot of time reflecting on things like that.
TJG: In an interview you said that “It was HARD for me to STUDY guitar, practice, to develop that form of discipline. Painful actually. PLAYING was fun, practice was tough…” I always think of “play” as closer to the creative voice, a fun space where you can express, while practice is more rote, maybe (although this deserves some complication). How do you practice being yourself? How did you find your voice?
BR: From where I stand, the practice would be self-acceptance and adjusting ones intentions to fit who one is. Ornette [Coleman] once told me “always be musically yourself.” To be honest, I meditate on what he said to me every day. So who am I? What’s my musical self? What I’ve found is that I’m full of a lot of musical excess, which is probably why this idea of the sonic environment keeps on coming up in the interview! It’s a powerful thing that we avail ourselves of as human beings, and yet, we still operate out of a dominant system of what being human is and how to express it. We see it in tuning systems, and what the physical body can do with the nature of the technology—I still feel like the keyboard for computers is quite fascistic!
That question about how to be oneself with an instrument involves a reductionist proposition. On the very first professional recording I played on, which is a record I did with Archie Shepp called There’s a Trumpet in my Soul, we were playing in an improvised environment for a poet. I was really young, in my teens, and I was just really excited to be there. I remember walking into the studio with my Ovation steel-string guitar, and this guy comes up to me and says “hey, man—Jimmy” and he extends his hand. I look up—it’s the first person to talk to me at this session—and it’s Jimmy Garrison! Of course, I’m trying to play my best shit…We were going to do another take, and Archie says, “Brandon, this time I want you to just play on your G-string”. I was like “come on!” But these are the kinds of things that people need to lay out for you. One string, so that means we have a monochord. Now your moves are based on other kinds of activity. It slowed me down and took me out of my typical approaches, and it ended up being the best track that I played on the record. That was a huge lesson for me.
So what’s musically myself? What might I be concerned with and involved with that’s not me? Can I insert some things that create challenge, like changing the tuning on an instrument. Although, what’s really interesting about that on the guitar is that, for me, even if I’ve adjusted the tuning, there’s a part of me that still searches for the same resolution, as if I were still in a standard tuning. There’s something about that in this essay “Messenger” in Arcana: the idea that we all come in with a sonic signature.
TJG: Is there anything on the horizon that you’d like to tell us about?
BR: I got a Chamber Music America—New Jazz Works grant a few years ago, and I premiered that music last October at Roulette. It’s a series of ten short pieces, some for improvisation and some through-composed, called Immortal Obsolescence. It’s a response to photographic images of un-discarded facial tissue that were taken by the Venezuelan photographer and visual artist Carolina Munoz. Graham Haynes is playing cornet, J.T. Lewis is playing drums, and Stomu Takeishi is on bass. Hardedge and Doug Weiselman and I have a band called Dark Matter Halo: we have two CDs out—Darkness Interrupted and Cataclysmic Beauty. That band is totally about the guitar as sound generator. James Blood Ulmer heard the record recently and told Hardedge, “man that is not music…this is something visual.” I’ve heard some painter friends of mine, who say “it’s interesting, I often listen to music while I work. Listening to this, I felt like it was communicating this depth of field, this front and back experience that I haven’t heard before.” Harriet Tubman is also going to play on June 22nd at Nublu. On June 21st, I’m playing at Le Poisson Rouge with Bill Frisell as an invitational thing. Bill has invited Julian Lage and I to play, and for the other show, there will be Marvin Sewell and Matt Munisteri. And finally, Harriet Tubman’s going to record another record in May!
Brandon Ross Phantom Station plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, April 14, 2018. The group features Mr. Ross on guitars and voice, Graham Haynes on cornet and electronics, Stomu Takeishi on bass guitars, and Hardedge on sound design. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.