Photo credit William Geddes.
Saxophonist and composer Chet Doxas is nothing if not inquisitive. In each of his prior Jazz Speaks interviews, Doxas has stepped forward with engaging questions and observations about his craft and collaborators. In recent years, Doxas has concocted a brand-new trio alongside pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Thomas Morgan. The trio will perform new music by Doxas written for specifically for the occasion, in anticipation of a recording session for the trio’s debut album.
In an wide-ranging, back-and-forth conversation, Doxas and Gallery staff writer Noah Fishman discuss poetry, musical mentors, and the happy accidents of composition.
Chet Doxas: I’m on your website to refresh my memory of your work: I’m looking at your writing now, and am curious about your approach to poetry—I’ve also been starting to write poetry myself.
Noah Fishman: It’s funny you mention that, because poetry used to be a larger part of my life, but recently, I’ve only been writing poetically when I’m either starting a new composition, or if I’m writing down a dream. Do you sit down and say “I’m going to write a poem now,” and then a poem comes out?
CD: I wrote my first poem at the beginning of the summer. So far, it’s getting me into a space that I’m trying to become more familiar with while improvising. This ties into the trio with Ethan and Thomas too, and the music I’ve been writing for us. I’m trying to write from the space where things reveal themselves, instead of–for lack of a better word–forcing things. Did you study music formally?
NF: Yes, in a number of different settings.
CD: I’m choosing my words carefully, because I want to avoid labels in my head, but do you ever find yourself wrestling with how you learned music?
NF: Great question. My upbringing is formal yet multifaceted. I’ve studied in a lot of traditional roots/folk music communities–Irish, Swedish, Old Time, Bluegrass, Appalachian, New England. I studied electronic music at a conservatory in Paris, I studied contemporary music at universities in the US, I studied jazz with teachers and mentors through various schools. They’re all “formal,” but they’re all so different. I find that I’m able to see musical things from different perspectives without having to leave the category of “music education.”
CD: That plays into a bigger character study about how people deal with their own education. It’s making me think back to something I’ve been working on myself, with the help of Ellery Eskelin. I’ve been making monthly visits up to his apartment, and recommending it strongly to people. He’s the closest thing I’ve had to one of those mystical mentors. You know those legendary piano teachers that people visit? Like Sophia Rosoff? The greatest piano players, jazz and classical, paid visits to her apartment, everyone from Brad Mehldau and Barry Harris to Jacob Sacks and Ethan Iverson. You face a lot of yourself in those lessons. A scale is never mentioned, nothing like that. With Ellery, we talk about the magic of music, and to be in the presence of that spirit reminds me of all these beautiful community-oriented musics you mentioned. Basically, I feel like dealing with your past, accepting yourself, and feeling good about your journey have everything to do with what you’re going to do next.
NF: It sounds like either now, or in the recent past, something about the way you think about music has frustrated you, and you’re looking to have your horizons widened.
CD: In a sense, I feel like I’ve been at a bit of an impasse. Last time we spoke, that was right when I discovered that paintings trigger a lot of music in me. At the time, I had been pretty hard on myself, practicing and never feeling great after I play, beating myself up. Why? Where does all that stuff come from? You don’t have to look far to realize that a lot of it comes from fear, ego, and unrealistic expectations.
NF: So you’re saying those expectations and fears have ties to “formal” music education?
CD: I won’t go that far. School can help you become enchanted by the ways in which music is one of the great gifts. I’m approaching it that way now, yet it’s taken me a long time to notice that aspect of music as much as I have in the past year. I’m absolutely enchanted by that reality. The music you mentioned has a community spirit, which is so beautiful: My wife grew up on the east coast of Canada, and to this day, you finish dinner and you go in the kitchen and you play and dance, like a ‘ceilidh’ in the Irish tradition. That’s still alive there. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the social aspect of that music that I think are lacking in formal education. Yet, at the same time, I don’t want to bad-mouth schools, because schools can truly open your mind to a lot of things.