Alongside being an educated and thoughtful young saxophonist, Kevin Sun approaches composition with clarity and discipline. In our interviews with Sun, our conversations have revolved around the intricacies of his processes, the development of his practices and patterns, and the specific points where he surrenders himself to the creative process.
Sun’s trio, consisting of bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor, has been making waves along the east coast following the release of his album, Trio—according to Giovanni Russonello the New York Times, “This may be the first you’ve heard of Mr. Sun, a tenor saxophonist, but that will soon change.”
Kevin Sun’s upcoming show at The Gallery will feature a new hour-long work for quintet. The work, in the words of Sun, “explores stillness, space, and texture inspired by meditation and self-reflection.” His new quintet features Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Dana Saul on piano, Simon Willson on bass, and Dayeon Seok on drums.
The Jazz Gallery: “The Rigors of Love”—What’s it all about?
Kevin Sun: Good question! I’m still figuring it out. With this project on May 23rd, I knew that I wanted to write a longer piece of music, and I wanted to use a larger ensemble. This is the largest ensemble I’ve written for: Five people doesn’t seem like that many, but going from three to five is a big jump. Especially writing for piano, which is kind of daunting—there’s a lot of information that you can give a pianist. But I don’t have that much to say about the title, though I’ve been thinking about it.
TJG: How did the title come to you?
KS: It kind of came out of nowhere, which happens often. I always have phrases, ideas, things I’ve read in my head. Sometimes I’ll be on a walk and will jot something down. I’ve found that I often have a better time writing music if I start with an interesting title. Words, phrases, or poetry can give me some abstract idea or feeling to work with.
TJG: Since you began with the title as a means of inspiration, where did you go from there?
KS: I’ve been wrestling with the practice and discipline of trying to compose more music in general. It’s something I love, but it’s hard. I’ve found that the more I commit myself to working through all the details, the more satisfied I am with the process, and I don’t give up and go for the first thing that pops into my head. When I first began writing, I would reach for what I already knew, what I thought might be a good melody, some pretty chords and accompaniment to go with it. But I got bored really fast, it all started sounding the same, and I wasn’t enjoying it. I stopped writing for a while, then a few years back I began trying some new approaches, to put a system in place or develop a system as I go.
Sometimes it can be time consuming because you have to work through information, sit with raw material, and think about how to put the elements together. That’s where the rigor comes in, I guess. It can be frustrating because you’re sitting there for twenty, thirty minutes with a piece of paper in front of you. You’re thinking through things, scribbling ideas down, and it doesn’t work. You abandon things that seem weaker because you’re going for the idea that seems strongest. It’s almost like a staring contest. You want to make the next move, and it’s testing your patience and willpower to think through your ideas.
This is something I got from taking composition lessons with John Hollenbeck. A large part of his approach is considering options as deeply as possible before taking action. I began to understand after a few lessons that we might never get to writing a piece, because his demands on really considering all possible options and making a strong decision was the whole point of the process. When composing this way, you might not even get to writing notes of music for a long time, it’s more about the process of trying to figure out the best possible choices.
That brings us back to the title. I don’t know if this is the most rigorous piece I’ve ever written, but I definitely spent a long time just sitting there, contemplating my options, writing things.
TJG: I’m hearing two ideas of rigor, two equally rigorous practices—the process of sitting down and making putting music on a blank page even though you have doubts, and the other process of thinking, considering, and not committing anything to paper until you’re certain it’s your best bet. Did you commit to one or the other for this piece?
KS: I don’t want to make a hard and fast distinction, but for this piece, I had some specific goals in mind. One was to really trust my intuition. I wanted to write something for the musicians who I asked to play on this show, something both suited to their strengths and still with a lot of notated input from me. Also, I wanted to just let them do their thing as much as possible. Another goal was being willing to write stuff that is maybe uncomfortably slow, that pushes the boundaries of what I’ve written in the past in terms of duration and perception, being willing to try something relatively slow-moving. I wanted to practice being okay with stasis, and seeing what happens when we have a group of improvisers working in that space. It’s different from the trio music where, say, it’s mostly frenetic and explosive and active, here the beats are wider for the most part.
TJG: Tell me a little about the music, then. You’re likely still tweaking and writing, but how did it turn out, especially considering your preconceptions and expectations?
KS: None of it has been sounded out yet. I sent it last week and we’ll rehearse this week. From what I can tell of the MIDI preview, I think it’s going to be kind of dark, but not on purpose, my music tends to be like that. I wouldn’t call it uplifting, but it’s definitely meditative, which is something I was going for. Slowing things down so you have to sit in this space with your thoughts, I wanted room for that.
TJG: One thing that’s intriguing me is that you don’t have an agenda, as in, you gave the piece this really powerful name, and you have specific compositional processes and goals, but at the same time, you’re more than open to seeing what happens.
KS: Sure, that’s fair, I don’t have an agenda in that sense. It’s almost like I created an intense title to point myself in a direction where the piece would be equally intense, and would involve a lot of work on my part. I tried to set the scene for what hopefully will be a long, immersive set of music with connected elements. To the extent that I’ve put a burden on myself, I feel liberated in that it’s almost an excuse to put this group of musicians together in one place. I’ve had a working trio for a while. It’s been great, and I want to keep doing it, but I want to try something totally different too. This upcoming show will feature a group of musicians who I’m extremely comfortable with, but we haven’t played all together. These are some of the musicians who I trust the most right now. The Gallery is the ideal place to try to make it happen. That’s what it’s all about, trying things out. It’s okay if it’s totally weird, that would be okay too. I’ve learned a lot already.
The Kevin Sun Quintet plays The Rigors of Love at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, May 23, 2018. The group features Mr. Sun on saxophone, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Dana Saul on piano, Simon Willson on bass, and Dayeon Seok 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.