When COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic in March 2020, trumpeter Peter Evans was in Lisbon, Portugal. He was supposed to be heading back to the US for a tour in support of his new record featuring the band Being and Becoming. With those dates cancelled, Evans remained in Lisbon, and began an unscripted year of new projects and big life changes.
This Thursday, June 24, Evans will return to The Jazz Gallery with Being and Becoming, belatedly celebrating the release of the group’s self-title debut album.
Not resting on their laurels, Evans and company will present a whole new set of music, freshly-commissioned by the International Contemporary Ensemble. We caught up with Peter to talk about the year’s impact on his writing and playing—a story of improvisation on and off the bandstand.
The Jazz Gallery: I saw Wynton Marsalis’s first live gig since COVID a few weeks back. At one point, he joked about how he was talking more in between the songs because he needed to give his lips more rest! And then Jacob Garchik has joked that 2021 is going to be the “year of the clam.” So I was curious—how are your lips physically? Have you found yourself really needing to build back up into live performances?
Peter Evans: I know that everyone’s had different experiences during COVID—I don’t want to take anything away from that. My personal experience in terms of music and playing has been positive. Minus the financial problem of not being able to do what I normally do to make a living and having to fill those gaps in, I’ve enjoyed this. This isn’t my first gig in a year—I’ve been lucky that I’ve had almost symmetrically-placed opportunities to present my music in public since last July.
I was living in Lisbon, Portugal when this all started to go down. It was cool because I was touring a lot in Europe and I was able to use that as a base. When everything shut down in March, I was supposed to come to the States and that didn’t happen. It took me a couple of days to adjust, but then I was like, “Alright. I want to write a piccolo-flute piece that’s been on my mind for months now, so I’m going to sit down and do it.”
TJG: Did you find yourself practicing in a different way because there wasn’t a deadline for a specific show or piece?
PE: I was able to practice the way I really want to practice, which is more of an open-ended, investigative mining of material. It’s rare that I get like a prolonged amount of time to actually do that.
When it comes to writing, I don’t mind having a deadline. In January, I did a show at Roulette with my other band with Mazz Swift, Levy Lorenzo, and Ron Stabinsky. All of that stuff is really elaborate. When I get asked to do something, I take it pretty seriously. I write a lot of music, like maybe 80, 90 minutes’ worth of stuff and we rehearse and we fine tune it as best as we can under the time constraints.
In April, I had an opportunity through the International Contemporary Ensemble to do a thing with Being and Becoming, and so that was the same thing with writing new material. At first, I thought I’d write five, six little ditties and we’ll just blow through them and it’ll be really simple. That didn’t feel honest or responsible to myself (or the band) in the end; I ended up writing a whole bunch of new music, mainly two multi-movement suites. One is inspired by the Islamic prayer tradition of Salah, the 5-times a day prayer cycle, and the other is inspired by the European Medieval scholastic tradition of the Quadrivium, and that piece is dedicated to McCoy Tyner.
We filmed and recorded all that and it’s going to be a video stream. It’s weird because we’re in this period right now where there’s COVID-type gigs happening and then live gigs happening all at once, which I think is interesting. After this Jazz Gallery gig, five days later there’s the broadcast of this other Being and Becoming project we did for ICEensemble.
TJG: I was curious whether you’d have a new book for the band, or if you’d go back to the material on the record, since that came out last April and you didn’t have the opportunity to do the supporting tour.
With the kind of exploratory practicing you were able to do last year, did that inform the material you’ve written more recently? In a previous interview you talked about how your writing for solo and ensemble performance were converging. Did that continue with your focus on individual practice this year?
PE: Yeah, I think things have changed since that interview in the last few years or so. Now what I do is write away from the trumpet—I try to write away from instruments entirely. The kinds of materials and methods of manipulation that I practice are the things that I’m trying to ingest and hardwire into my system as a trumpet player, as an improviser. However, they are all essentially compositional devices. You don’t really need to have a trumpet in hand to access those.
I still feel like things are still converging in a nice way, but it’s not forced anymore. I think it’s happening in a way that when you’re doing any kind of creative work, you let the stuff come out of you without judging it without analyzing it, and see the ideas through, and trust that all the practice and the hard work that you’ve done to prepare yourself for that moment will aid you in coming up with something decent. I’m trying to sit in that space. It’s not easy but I don’t think it necessarily should be.
The other day, I finished a piece for a chamber music and composition workshop in New Hampshire where I’m going to play and teach. I’m presenting some pieces and I was sitting there the other night, looking at this stuff, thinking, “What the hell is this?” I think it works—all I can do is go into the rehearsal and feel that at least the nuts and bolts work. The musicians are close friends of mine and they’re all great musicians. So while I feel like we can make it happen, there’s still a lot of nail biting. It’s just letting things happen more than making them happen. It’s a continuous process of trying to shed the layers of the onion and get to something that feels true.
TJG: When you’re writing material for improvisers, whether it’s for Being and Becoming, or the ensemble with Mazz and Levy and Ron, how much do you think about writing material to improvise on vs. writing methods to improvise with? How do those two elements interact for you?
PE: I’m trying to be as 21st century about this as I can. I have a lot of respect for the AACM members, the way they remained open to so many different working methods and practices, without judgement. Recently I’ve been checking out the music of [Witold] Lutoslawski. He’s coming at that aleatoric idea from a different angle, and he mixes that approach with other approaches such as strict notation. When you’re trying to create something, the more methods that you know about, the more you can implement when you need.
In one of the new pieces for Being and Becoming, there’s a whole section that’s a highly specific text-based improvisation—basically a set of rules for how to interact that are extremely counterintuitive and create a certain texture. I learned that kind of thing from playing the work of Pauline Oliveros. If you really follow her pieces to the letter, there’s this moment in the music where all of a sudden it doesn’t even sound like music anymore. That’s the test—a lot of times you’ll see players in the performances of those types of pieces where there’s a gentle kind of vibe to all of it—”It’ll get loose then we’ll do whatever.”
But if you actually do her stuff to the letter, eventually the music that’s made is extremely unusual and beautiful, and it goes against a lot of the intuitions that you train yourself to have as a musician. It can be quite difficult! So I did a piece that was inspired a bit by her, playing her pieces, and getting to work with her a bit.
There’s also stuff that’s thoroughly notated, even with dynamics and articulations and all that. In the piece dedicated to McCoy Tyner, we have a “shredding” up-tempo thing with meter changes and chord changes; this is more a vehicle for cycle-based improvisation. I’m not trying to do some superficial collage art; I’m hoping that this all ties together as a whole. As the great Bill Burr said recently: “Everything I’m saying, totally makes sense to me.”
That whole thing of method and writing for improvisers: you can give a great player two lines of music or one bar of music and they can make 10 minutes of music out of it. And that’s a great tool to implement when you must or when you want. I’ve gone through phases in terms of notation—I think now I’ve been through “too much” and “not enough”, and now I’m balancing.
In one of the pieces, there’s this part for two snare drums with brushes—stereophonic snare drums with brushes playing this up-tempo stuff, but with no specific meter. And then there’s a super-specific notated piece for arco bass and trumpet. And these two things happen at the same time. It’s combining methods, trying to communicate what is it about this music that I need to happen, and then can the method of translating that into instructions or notation, can that actually aid the player in figuring out what we’re going for rather than hinder it.
I’ve certainly performed lots of music, especially in the world of so-called contemporary concert music, where it can be over-notated to the point where you feel like you don’t really have much space to navigate. And then the composer isn’t happy because they feel like you’re being kind of stiff! It’s like, “It’s 17 in the space of 5, and don’t rush… but feel free to do whatever you want!” I’m trying to avoid that kind of mixed message.
TJG: Oh man, I know the feeling, and am definitely guilty of being the composer in that situation. It’s sometimes hard to split the difference between the spirit of the music and the detail of it. When writing music for your groups, do you think about writing music you know they’ll sound great on vs. writing music that will stretch them in some way?
PE: I think that the challenge of improvisation is just that. As long as everyone’s on board with stretching ourselves, then we’re going to be fine. The idea is not to wade through my swampy compositions and have it mess you up in some way. There are composers that will try to slow you down so that you can make decisions you wouldn’t normally make. That’s a whole vibe, and it can be cool, but that’s not exactly what I’m doing. I think that with this band, they’re all monsters and there are certain things that I know that if we did, it would just be a slam dunk. That’s great to know, and we’re going to do some slam dunks every once in a while—but I don’t want to only go for the slam dunks.
I’m trying to foreground in the music something about improvisation that speaks to this idea of jumping off the cliff and actually being comfortable with that. The paradox with that idea is that the better you know the music, the more easily you can access that space as a band. It’s like being able to make something a slam dunk, but willfully trying something else that could fail, and just enjoying how that feels.
Something I noticed from playing Braxton’s music for instance—I did a thing with Wet Ink Ensemble where we played his Composition… I think it was 56. You get all this secondary material and there’s paper all over the stage and at a certain point, you’re floating away on your little raft and you don’t know what everybody else is doing. There can be these magical moments where like 35 minutes later, you’re in the weeds, trying to get through something, and you realize that you’re in unison with the whole band now. How did this happen!?
That’s a way Braxton has found a use of notation and composition to guide you into a certain space of spontaneity in life, and I think that’s great.
TJG: I love hearing the idea of creating a situation where people are excited about the unexpected. It’s making me think about basketball, actually! It’s the NBA playoffs now, and over the past couple of seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks were the best team in the regular season—they had a clear, consistent system and they ran it really well. But then once they got to the playoffs, they’d run into a new situation and not be able to adjust. They were a band that sounded really good all the time, but weren’t comfortable being spontaneous when they needed to be.
PE: In terms of looking for analogies with musical improvisation, I find a lot of not necessarily inspiration, but I would say encouragement and corroboration from different spiritual traditions, and other unlikely places. I was checking out parkour. There are so many different subcultures within that, but at times it’s all about improvisation. There’s even some parkour guys that have a particular way of training people. Like, you have 10 seconds and you have to just do something wherever you are, and people come up with really outlandish, creative and virtuosic things.
And then there’s that book by Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It’s all about harnessing that part of the intuition that’s able to use embodied knowledge to do something and be in a flow rather than analyzing every single little thing. She uses her own analogies and examples. Edwards writes about the Trukese people in the Pacific Ocean, who were able to navigate between these tiny islands on small boats. It was something that came through experience, awareness and constant adjusting. When Europeans came over, they eventually figured out how to navigate this area, but it had to be with this abstract, top-down version of things. The Europeans could do it, but it was slower and more difficult for them even with their technology and maritime know-how.
Comedy is another area where it’s interesting to see people getting in a zone to be spontaneous. For people doing standup comedy, you have to enjoy the feeling of it, being on the edge. And then once you enjoy it, once you get that taste of it, then you find ways to get a bigger fix.
Peter Evans’s Being and Becoming plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, June 24, 2021. The group features Mr. Evans on trumpet, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Nick Jozwiak on bass, and Savannah Harris on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. EST. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. In addition, the sets will be livestreamed—$20 per set, $5 for members. Purchase tickets here.