Hailing from Cherry Hill, NJ, tenor saxophonist and composer Peyton Pleninger claims Steve Coleman, Milford Graves, and Henry Threadgill as some of his most important recent musical influences. Now currently studying at The New School, Pleninger transferred to the school after a year at Berklee College of Music in Boston. His quartet, Biotonic, “explores the relationship of cardiology and human experience through sound” and will be performing for the first time at The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, April 6, 2017, on the eve of Pleninger’s 21st birthday.
We caught up with him recently over oversized mugs of coffee in the Village on a rainy, early spring day:
The Jazz Gallery: When did your interest with integrating the body and sound start?
Peyton Pleninger: I guess it was just two years ago? Like two or three years ago. I got Steve [Coleman]’s record, Functional Arrhythmias, my last year of high school, and that was the first Steve record that I got. I loved it. He was talking about being inspired by Milford Graves for all this stuff, so I was like, “OK, this is the guy I need to go and find.” Then, when I was at Berklee two years ago, he [Graves] played a free show at Brandeis University. You could take a shuttle bus from Back Bay, Boston over to Brandeis to see this show for free. That was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
TJG: He was performing solo?
PP: Just Milford, solo. He plays and he sings, and he was talking about what he does. I went up and talked to him afterward and ended up coming down to his place. The first lesson, or thing you do, you can go in and you get your heartbeat recorded. He’s got a stethoscope with a quarter-inch output, and he goes into ProTools, and you get your heartbeat on an EKG.
He’s built these computer programs that will read your EKG and then convert it into musical pitch. He’s also got these things where it will overlay your heart beat with an imagined heartbeat that’s faster, but at the golden ratio between them. It’s stuff you’d hear in Cuban music or in West African musics, really fantastic.
TJG: What was the feeling you had hearing Milford’s concert?
PP: Wow, man. I got to the end and … well, Milford even said after the concert, “Man, you were smiling the whole time.” And I was!
For me, he’s one of the only guys I see where I feel totally energized after seeing him—like this feeling of just wanting to jump up and down and run around the block. I just feel good.
TJG: Why do you think that is?
PP: I think he’s figured it out. He’s figured out a way to play that’s more than just sound and the way that we perceive sound with our mind. I think he’s figured out a way to play that affects you on a physical level in some way. I think it comes for studying all the heartbeats and all of that, getting deep into the cardiology and figuring out why we function the way we function.
TJG: Could you tell me when Biotonic started?
PP: It didn’t have a name at first. You saw the first gig we played, at SEEDS!
TJG: Yes! When was that?
PP: January 27 of last year.
TJG: It feels like it’s been longer.
PP: Yeah. We played when I was still at Berklee. Chris [Carroll, drummer] would have some smaller gigs sometimes, like he’d play over at the Garage and he’d ask me to come down. That was the way I learned—more than being in class, just going out and playing—so there was one that I came down for. I don’t remember when it was, maybe it was like late 2014, early 2015, somewhere in there.
It was the four of us at the Garage. It was a Tuesday night late set, so Chris prefaced it by saying there’s nobody there for the late set Tuesday night, so you can do whatever you want. We did some of Alex’s tunes, some of my tunes, and we tried to do some standards like Steve Coleman-style, cycles and all of this stuff. I guess that was the first time we played as a group.
TJG: But you had gotten together before to work on music together?
PP: Actually, I hadn’t met Louis before. I didn’t know who he was, and Chris just said, “I met this bass player. He’s great. We’re going to get him.” It felt good, you know, to play with them, so that first summer I was here.
Chris was in Astoria then and he had a studio set up in his house, and he said, “If you want to record something, we should do it before I move out.” So the four of us got together.
TJG: And that became the EP?
PP: Yeah, from a while ago. intro, extro, that’s what it’s called. It came out pretty cool. I mean, we never really played together; we sort of just got together and did that. I can’t remember if we even rehearsed for that—we must have. So, yeah, that SEEDS gig was the first gig. We did that, then we played ShapeShifter Lab.
I’m pretty bad at going out and getting gigs, but Alex is a great guy to have around. He said, “You should try to get a gig every month to keep the music going.” I did it and decided it would be the way to go. It’s cool, and it’s changed a lot since doing that.
TJG: What are the biggest changes between that first gig to now?
PP: We don’t play any of the same tunes. I mean, all of the writing changed for me, because I think it was right around when we played that first gig that I started getting more into it and tried to be more personal. Now there are still charts, but we’ve memorized all the stuff. This is kind of the way it has to go, so now we can be more elastic and have more flexibility with what we do.
The music’s definitely gotten harder. [laughs] It’s gotten a lot harder, but it’s been cool. I think there are more options with everything now, and we just know each other’s playing better. It’s pretty simple stuff, but I think it’s the stuff that makes it sound more like a band, being together a lot.
TJG: Will you be playing new material for the Gallery or a combination of past material?
PP: It’s accumulated stuff. We’ve had most of it for six months or so.
At first I was trying to write new music for every gig, but you just run into the problem of not really knowing the music because it hasn’t been there long enough to know it well enough. It’s stuff we’ve had for a little while, but now it’s at a point where, since we’ve internalized the material, now we can start changing it. I’m really into the [Henry] Threadgill approach and how he talks about with modular forms. Steve has that, too. I think that’s so cool, and I’d really like to get to do that.
TJG: What are you planning to do next?
PP: I’d like to record again. I’m going on tour in Canada with a friend in a few months, so I want to try to record something before I leave. That’s the thing I’m going to figure out the day after the Gallery.
I want to do that, and I just want to keep writing music and come across things that we’d only come across as a band. It’s sort of the same thing that happened with Steve and Threadgill, where they have these specific band sounds. I want to have that. I want to be able to teach new tunes by ear and not have charts, ever—any of that.
TJG: Have you started doing that already?
PP: I haven’t done anything like that where I teach it by ear totally. There were a few months where I wrote so much more than I was practicing the horn. I’d written all these charts and I’d bring them in, and later we went back and actually learned it and internalized it.
I mean, I’d like to get to a point where everything is communicated musically. This is such a cop-out kind of thing, isn’t it, but I think everyone kind of wants that, where you can communicate just musically without talking about all the stuff.
A lot of my music is two or three voices, and I’d like to be able to teach this and not really specify if it’s the high part or the low part—not even specify a hierarchy to it, you know? Right now everybody knows all the parts—I’m pretty adamant about that, so everybody knows all the parts—but I’d love to teach it where I’m not even specifying the hierarchy that I had first imagined with the parts, and just see what happens. But I want to be able to write on the spot, as a band. This is the same stuff I hear Steve talking about, spontaneous composition, just being able to come up with something on the spot like that.
TJG: Is this something you practice now?
PP: I want to practice that more, but the problem is I still don’t have the skills to do that—just even more fundamental stuff, just as a musician. I’ve just been working on fundamental stuff so that I can start practicing like that, coming up with something on the spot and just trying to do it, you know? I really think that it’s probably the way to do it, at least for me.
I was staying at Ohad [Talmor]’s for a while because he was out of town, so I was taking care of the dog and all that, but he’s got tons of great books, so I was like, “I gotta read all of his books before he comes back.” He’s got Harmonic Experience, which Alex was telling me about, so I was working out of that, and the first part is just you sing along to a drone. Chapter 1 is singing the same note as the drone you’re hearing.
I think for me to just spend the time to try to internalize the intervals, the basic intervals, it’s been really so much more helpful than, you know, trying to learn a million solos or learn cool licks. It’s been good for that, and it seems to help a little bit! [laughs]
Peyton Pleninger’s Biotonic performs at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 6th, 2017. The group features Pleninger on tenor saxophone, Alex Levine on guitar, Louis de Mieulle on bass, and Chris Carroll on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.