The James Carney sextet at the Rubin Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Oscar Noriega.
Perhaps you’ve had the pleasure of hearing an iteration of The James Carney Group perform around town. It could be that you’ve been at one of the nearly five hundred shows he’s programmed through his Konceptions concert series. Maybe Carney has come to your home, studio, or venue to repair and tune your piano. However your paths may have crossed, you’ll know that James Carney is one of New York’s most productive and captivating pianists.
Originally from Syracuse, Carney lived in Los Angeles where he attended CalArts and started a family. Carney was busy while in LA, winning grants and accolades from the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Composers competition and the California Arts Council Fellowship, to name a few. He released three records as a leader, always finding resourceful and innovative ways to enlist in-demand musicians and produce his own albums. After returning to New York in 2004, Carney won back-to-back awards from Chamber Music of America in 2008 and 2009, and released two more albums, the much-praised Ways & Means (Songlines 1580) and Green-Wood (Songlines 1566). There are more awards, albums, and collaborations as well: For a remarkably detailed interview with Carney, take a glance at his 2007 interview with Songlines.
On December 21st, James Carney will play with his newest ensemble, including Ravi Coltrane (saxophone), Stephanie Richards (trumpet), Oscar Noriega (woodwinds), Dezron Douglas (bass), and Tom Rainey (drums). We caught up with Carney to discuss the birth of his newest ensemble, the joys of being a piano technician, and his latest ‘improvisation-and-transcription’ way of composing.
TJG: Later this month you’ll be playing at The Jazz Gallery with the latest incarnation of your band. What will you be playing?
JC: As we speak I’m writing it now; I’ve got four compositions that are partly written on the computer, and a few more elsewhere, probably six tunes total. This project is a reprise of this first recording that we did in February. What I’m also doing this time is writing intentionally simpler music, just so we can get into it quickly. The worst thing is to kill the mood by having something be so complicated and hard to get into that it distracts from the overall approach and goal. I’m trying to learn from the first experience with this group, as well as drawing on my experience with mid-sized ensembles. I’ve done a few records with four or five horns, and having the three horns is nice because that fourth voice can take a lot of time to orchestrate correctly. I like to give everybody challenges and feature everyone at different times, you don’t want one person to get all the nice parts. I always go back to what a teacher told me a long time ago, which is that “Even if you feel like you’re not writing at the moment, you’re always assimilating ideas, and at some point it’s going to come out. You can’t help yourself.” With that attitude, it makes the process a lot easier, more fun, and less filled with pressure.
TJG: What does your writing process look like these days?
JC: As a compositional tool, I’ve been keeping my Zoom H6 next to me. I always write things at the piano, and don’t really put it into Finale or write it down until I’ve worked through it on the instrument. Usually by the time I put it in the computer, there’s twenty or thirty bars of music. What I’ve realized is that with the Zoom, you can take your improvising and directly use it as material for composing. I’ve said this to students before. When I sit down to compose, I think like an improviser. That’s what we do when we compose, we improvise until we find something we like a lot. If we can come up with something that’s memorable, that’s the composition. But it’s impossible to remember everything you play, so having the recorder and going back to listen to pure improvisation is great. My composition process involves a lot of transcribing, editing, and not getting in the way of things. Before using the recorder, it took a lot more time to write. I can write six compositions now in less than a month, and I used to be a lot slower. It’s been helpful.
I like having something where the harmony is implied by the lines, whether melodic line or bass line. I like to work in a more linear sense instead of banging out chords. Thinking that way allows a rhythmic counterpoint to happen, where things can go over the bar. It’s good to have the vertical harmonic foundation, but if I think about the interaction of melodic lines over the bass, I feel like I can make more interesting music. We’ve done this both on stage and in the studio—I think about the sequence of tunes as if we’re recording while I’m writing. It’s almost like writing a suite of music, a complete album. I’ve done it on the last couple of records and it seems to do pretty well. It helps me figure out the pacing, and I can make changes in the process accordingly. Writing for these guys is really gratifying, they’re all amazing readers and can play anything. It’s nice to come in with something clear, simple, a little challenging, and being able to get out of their way and let them bring to it what they will.