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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Ian Douglas

Photo by Ian Douglas

In preparation for his May 6th release on Whirlwind Recordings, Bobby Avey comes to The Jazz Gallery to celebrate Authority Melts From Me, a suite inspired by the 1791 Haitian Revolution and Haitian Vodou drumming practices.  Winner of the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Composers Competition, Avey is a prominent pianist noted for his critically acclaimed records A New Face (2010) and Be Not So Long to Speak (2013) in addition to his work with Dave Liebman in Expansions: The Dave Liebman Group and on Vienna Dialogues (2006)

Authority is Avey’s largest project to date. After receiving the New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development grant from Chamber Music America, Avey traveled to Haiti in 2012 to record a Vodou drumming ceremony in a small village outside of Gonaïves called Soukri.  Drawing on his field research in addition to other ensembles, Avey composed the suite with inspiration from Haitian Vodou rhythms. The hour-long suite features Miguel Zenón, Ben Monder, Thomson Kneeland, and Jordan Perlson, who accompanied Avey in his performance last February at Symphony Space.

This Friday, April 18th, Avey will be joined by the musicians from  Authority Melts From Me to perform the suite in its entirety. We caught up recently with Bobby by phone to discuss the context of the project.

The Jazz Gallery: Through your introduction to Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” you were made aware of Haiti’s challenging history and became inspired to do your own field research in 2012, documenting Vodou drumming in the community of Soukri. In addition to this, you also drew on inspiration for this record from the Port au Prince drumming ensemble, Societe Absolument Guinin.

Could you touch on the differences between these two ensembles? Why did you focus on these two groups for the project?

Bobby Avey: Firstly, prior to my involvement with Soukri, I already had a CD from Societe Absolument Guinin and was fascinated by it. As far as documentation goes, it is very well recorded. When I received the grant for this project from Chamber Music America, I was interested in finding another vantage point in Haiti that would give the project more depth. What I found is that saying “Haitian Vodou” is a bit like saying “jazz,” it really doesn’t get you all that far. Every single community that practices Vodou has a different tradition. Even communities that are only 20 minutes away from each other can sound completely different.

In terms of comparing the groups from Port au Prince and Soukri, the group from Soukri incorporates a bell and two hand drummers. I’ve never seen the Port au Prince group live, but, by ear, that band has three drummers and no bell or metal plate player. I found that, when transcribing, it was easier to interpret the group from Port au Prince in terms of Western musical notation—far easier than the group from Soukri. The style from Soukri seemed to exist more in the cracks rhythmically.

As far as anything beyond that, I’m only approaching this from an outsider’s viewpoint. I never took a lesson with anyone there. I wasn’t learning Haitian Vodou drumming from the ground up. I was just listening to these specimens from the outside, electing parts that I found intriguing and trying to understand them on some level.

TJG: Authority Melts From Me is structured with historical considerations—not just with respect to music, but also with respect to political, social, and economic issues. Do you see the study of history becoming a trend in your creative work moving forward?

BA: I do see myself incorporating different points of interest in future projects rather than having them strictly be musical entities onto themselves. I don’t see myself as a historian by any stretch; I see myself as a human that is interested in not separating my work as a human from my work as an artist. Music can potentially be a very powerful tool. It is more meaningful if it is coming from a place that is more than just musical.

TJG: In your political statement, you’ve outlined 20th-century Haitian challenges as they relate to U.S. involvement and Haiti’s present-day circumstances. Have you been back to Haiti since your field work in 2012? Have you become more involved in the political discussion since the suite’s completion?

BA: I have not been back to Haiti since 2012. I wouldn’t necessarily characterize myself as involved in the political landscape in Haiti.  I think interests follow a natural lineage—if you take interest in something, you become more interested in the context and then trace outward from there. I learned about Paul Farmer originally, then the Haitian Revolution, and then the context of U.S. intervention up until present-day.

As a U.S. citizen, I became concerned with those issues and have continued to follow contemporary Haitian issues, but I wouldn’t say I’m involved politically. As a citizen of a country, there is rather little that we can do in other countries; it’s very easy to criticize something going on elsewhere. The greatest things we can affect are going on in our own country. I’m interested in Haitian issues, but there isn’t too much I can do about it in the political sphere.

I’m just hoping that this project may inspire some Americans to learn about the role that the U.S. has played in Haiti. Among the many obstacles that Haiti faces like natural disasters, internal corruption, poverty, etc., one of the greatest is consistent foreign intervention.

TJG: Can you give some insight as to why you chose to work with Curtis Macdonald, Tyler McDiarmid, and Michael Janisch on this record? 

BA: Curtis is a dear friend and I respect his musical intuition. The scope of this project was so big—definitely my biggest work to date—that I really needed an extra pair of ears that I trusted in the studio. Curtis has a great knowledge of the studio and knows who I am as an artist. I thought he would be a really sympathetic extra set of ears to give me some feedback. In many cases, I become hyper-focused on my own parts, so it is really helpful to have someone else there for feedback.

Tyler McDiarmid was recommended to me by a number of people and has a lot of experience; it was a pleasure working with him. He engineered and mixed the record. He is childhood friends with Michael Janisch, who now lives in England, but they’re both from Wisconsin. I got in touch with Michael; I liked what Whirlwind Recordings had to offer.

TJG: Who did the artwork for Authority Melts From Me? Why did you choose it?

BA: The artwork is by Jeremy Shantz; he also did the promo video for this project. Jeremy is a friend that lives in Montreal. The artwork is of a statue of a man named “Dutty Boukman,” a slave and Vodou priest from the British West Indies. Not too much is known about him, but he is the person reported to have called this massive Vodou ceremony the night preceding the slave involvement in the revolution, August of 1791. That artwork is actually a rendition of the statue that exists in Haiti of Boukman blowing a conch shell to call the meeting to order. Boukman was killed within a few months after that. He was known to be the initiator or one of the initiators of the revolt. Jeremy incorporated the melting from the title into his artwork.

Throughout the 18th century, there were upwards of a million different Africans kidnapped and sold into slavery just in Haiti alone.  The title, Authority Melts From Me, is an attempt to reflect the self-empowerment that these kidnapped African slaves used to break the chains of slavery and seek a life of dignity. This is the only such time in recorded history where slaves were able to parlay the revolt into declaring their independence.

TJG: What is up ahead in 2014? Any new groups, projects, or records on the horizon?

BA: No other projects that are ready to discuss. I’m going to do a short tour with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society in June in Canada. I’ll also tour in the fall with Expansions: The Dave Liebman Group. Finally, I’m going to be touring for Authority in England in December.

TJG: What music are you listening to these days?

BA: I’ve been listening to some Shostakovich string quartets. Olivier Messiaen—he’s one of my biggest influences from a color standpoint. Also, Dan Weiss’s new large ensemble record Fourteen that just came out—I’ve been really digging that. It’s a great statement.

Bobby Avey will perform at The Jazz Gallery this Friday, April 18th, 2014. This performance features Bobby Avey on piano, Miguel Zenón on alto saxophone, Ben Monder on guitar, Thomson Kneeland on bass, and Jordan Perlson on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. $22 general admission and $10 for members. Purchase tickets here.