Desmond White has been an active bass player in the New York jazz scene since his move here from his native Australia in 2009. As a bandleader, however, he stretches into the many roles of multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, lyricist, and producer. In 2013 he released Short Stories, the first album of his own songs. His second album Glace will be released on the Biophilia Records early next year.
At the Jazz Gallery, White will play the songs from the forthcoming album live for the first time. Playing with him will be Nir Felder (guitar), Glenn Zaleski (piano), Guilhem Flouzat (drums) and special guest Kate Kelsey-Sugg (vocals). We caught up with him in Crown Heights’ Colina Cuervo on a chilly October afternoon, and talked about the new record, the shifting infrastructure of the music industry, writing lyrics, and Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
The Jazz Gallery: Would you give us a brief overview of what this new album is about?
Desmond White: It’s a bunch of songs I’ve written over the last three years, since the last album. I guess, broadly speaking, they’re all about mistakes or behavior patterns that have led to regrettable circumstances. The album is there to catharsize those maybe and get rid of them. Some of the songs seem to come out OK despite their “evil source.”
TJG: In the lyrics on the album I noticed you use some contrasts. I wrote one of them down: the line, “I’ll be mean to you/ to make you smile.”
DW: Honestly, I think that’s just an Australian gimmick to maybe insult or make fun of people when first meeting them, as kind of a casual way to express affection. I think the Australian way of interacting is a little more sarcastic, and it can be abrasive. I’ve had to tone that down a bit since coming here.
TJG: But it’s also something that you use when you write.
DW: Yeah, definitely. I guess I’m not so interested in examining only the good parts of courtship and all the niceties and beauty, because I think we spend a good deal of time on the other side as well, so I like to get into those themes as well—the bad decisions and men being assholes, basically.
TJG: Do you feel that through putting that to music there is some sort of transformation that happens?
DS: Mhm. For some reason there are things that I could write in a song that I couldn’t really say at will. I couldn’t even tell you certain things that I find easy to put in a song. You can hide behind the music a little bit. Some people find singing more exposing—they feel more vulnerable—but I feel more vulnerable speaking than writing lyrics.
TJG: What is the main difference that you see between playing bass on jazz gigs and this project?
DW: I guess it’s a slightly different skillset. You and the other musicians need to know a little bit of language from that pop world. For me, it feels the same. Apart from the singing part. I don’t usually sing when I’m playing jazz.
TJG: What kind of work on your singing you’ve done since you’ve started doing it?
DW: I’ve been taking some pretty steady lessons with singer Sara Serpa. She’s amazing. But a lot of the work I’ve been doing with her is shedding any judgment. She says she sees a lot of musicians that want to sing, that are so hard on themselves and immediately want to sing at the level that they can play their instrument, which never normally happens. And letting go of that has been very helpful. She’s been pushing me to not worry so much and that’s been very helpful. I by no means have mastered it, but I’m getting there.
TJG: Do you feel that singing has influenced your bass playing in any way?
DW: Only in the sense that when I’m singing and playing, I don’t have the freedom to play all the stuff that I normally do, because I’m concentrating on doing both at once. But I think that’s good. I think, generally, when someone is singing, you want the bass and the rest of the band to be doing less shit, not more. So that restraint that is forced on me hasn’t been a bad thing. On the album, you’ll hear that there aren’t a lot of bass solos or even complicated bass parts, really, and that just seemed to fit the music. Which I guess session dudes have known for years and years, but I’ve only fairly recently discovered.
TJG: There have been a few bass player-singer combinations recently, for example, Esperanza Spalding and Alan Hampton. What do you think there is in the relationship between the bass, specifically, and its role in the band, and the voice, that might facilitate this combination?
DW: One of my big inspirations is MeShell Ndegeocello. She is the perfect example of someone who will only play enough bass to serve the song or serve the part. She writes such beautiful songs and she sings so well that she kind of exemplifies that perfect marriage between really solid powerful bass playing that doesn’t overpower the lyric or the song. And I think Alan and Esperanza definitely come out of that tradition. Although, I mean, what Esperanza can do is pretty amazing. She can kind of be virtuosic on voice and bass at the same time, which is … not cool, not acceptable.
TJG: How did the band for this album form?
DW: Well on the album it’s only me, and various drummers. I’m playing all the other stuff. I can pretty much do everything at home these days, except for drums. Drums still need a good room and studio. But the band on the gig is people I’ve played with, either in their bands, or with other groups, and I just felt that they would be a good group. They’re all incredible improvisers but also have the sensibility to look at the song and say, “well, this is what it needs now” and kind of subjugate their own egos to, you know, play simple parts. Nir especially is amazing, he can play so much guitar, he’s a monster, but if the moment calls for it he’ll really play a simple part, or texture, and it’s really hard to find people that will do that.
TJG: What kind of sounds or textures do you feel you’re able to explore with this ensemble?
DW: I really like the way that the piano and the guitar can work together if you have some parts of them double and then some parts sometimes I’ll write or I’ll record a guitar part and then find a piano part that clashes just a little bit in some way with it, so you have a nice little dialog. And when you have people like Nir and Glen that can read so well, you can write really complicated stuff and they can read it and also apply their musical sensibility to it. Yeah, hearing those textures comes out is really rewarding for me. It’s nice to see that realized. I rehearsed with them a week or two ago. Just kind of seeing their listening. You write all this stuff that’s done on, like I play piano and then play guitar. But to hear real musicians, you can get a real touch out of the guitar and a real touch out of the piano and to hear that together, it’s very rewarding.
TJG: In terms of lyrics and music—what is the interaction between the two as you’re writing?
DW: I’ve always had a sense that a certain chordal sound will make me feel a certain way, and further to that, that a certain chord or sound on the guitar has an attachment to some time in my life—low point or high point. So I’ll often come up with a chord or a melody, and it already suggests to me something, it’ll draw out a mood that I’ve experienced in the past, or some fuckup, or some awful thing that I’ve done, and then once that feeling is in your head… I use a technique that I heard Gretchen Parlato talk about, where you write one word about what the song is about and then you just write as many different words or phrases surrounding that, that come into your mind, and then try and slowly massage or bake them into cohesive lines.
TJG: As a budding lyricist, what do you think about Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize win?
DW: I don’t know the literature world that well, but it seems to be a bit of an elitist mentality that would exclude all other art forms, basically, and feel that their territory is being encroached upon by this kind of derelict folk singer from the 70s. I wonder if any of those people have really stopped to check it out, to look at his lyrics and the songs and his message over his whole career, and then say “Oh, this is shit.”
TJG: Yeah, and considering that within the establishment of the Nobel Prize, there isn’t a space for musicians at all, maybe this will be a stepping stone to create that.
DW: Yeah. There have been more musicians winning the McArthur grant in recent years, which is a great thing for everyone, that jazz musicians, especially, can be acknowledged as geniuses, proponents of serious art and culture. So, I think it’s a step in the right direction. It’s great that he won. He could have been a bit nicer about it, but what did we expect.
TJG: We were talking a little about categories. You were saying that things seem to be really malleable these days, that saying ‘jazz’ and saying ‘indie’ isn’t necessarily that relevant anymore.
DW: Yeah. I’m lucky to be involved with this label Biophilia, which is Fabian Almazan’s small label, small but growing. Specifically with artist-run labels, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Fabian use the word “genre” or “what kind of music is it.” It’s not that he doesn’t care, but if he signs a musician, he knows that that musicians is going to produce a certain level of music and he’s not concerned about what category it’s in so much. So I feel very lucky to have that kind of small family to be a part of, and I think that’s pretty much all musicians are looking for these days. I think no one’s expecting great advances and five-year contracts and crazy distribution.
TJG: Do you know what your next project is on the horizon?
DW: I’m pretty ready to move on from these songs, that’s for sure. I guess that the hazard of doing them all on your own over a protracted period is that I’ve heard these songs so many fucking times. It’s not that I’m not proud of them, but I just want them to kind of exist and then go away to whatever the next thing is.
Desmond White plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, November 3rd, 2016. The group features Mr. White on bass & vocals, Nir Felder on guitar, Glenn Zaleski on piano, Guilhem Flouzat on drums, and special guest vocalist Kate Kelsey-Sugg. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.