Saxophonist and composer Caleb Curtis lives at the junction of rigorous preparation and willingness to explore. This combination of rigor and abandon has placed Curtis in high demand, having performed with a vast cross-section of New York’s jazz community. In addition to leading his own band, he co-leads Walking Distance, a Brooklyn-based collective which released Neighborhood (Ropeadope) in 2015, with a new album to be released this fall. Curtis also performs and records regularly with Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big Band, as well as Josh Lawrence & Color Theory.
Curtis’s upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery celebrates the release of Brothers (Imani Records). The record has some of everything: Detailed orchestration and free improvisation, layered audio production and dry acoustic presence, concise compositions and wild musical gestures. The session for the record included Curtis on alto saxophone, Josh Lawrence on trumpet, Seamus Blake on tenor, Eric Revis and Luques Curtis on bass, and Mark Whitfield Jr. on drums, and was produced by Orrin Evans and mixed by Ben Levin. We spoke in depth with Curtis about Brothers, which represents his debut release as a bandleader.
The Jazz Gallery: The new album Brothers features two bassists (Eric Revis and Luques Curtis), and many of the tracks have different combinations of musicians. How did you organize the session, and how did the session unfold?
Caleb Curtis: The session was one day, and we just went for it. Luques Curtis did half the day, then we did one tune and some improvising with both bassists. Eric Revis took over, Seamus Blake came in, and we finished the session. I’d played some of the material with Josh, and I play with Josh, Luques, and Mark a lot, often with Orrin Evans. We have a common understanding about how to play together. For this record, we didn’t rehearse, and we’d never played this music together as a full band, but the tunes were open enough that we weren’t weighed down by a heavy obligation to the written material.
TJG: What was Orrin Evans’s role as producer?
CC: Having Orrin in the studio really made it possible for us to work quickly and clearly. I didn’t have to evaluate what we were playing in terms of whether it was working, because we all trusted Orrin. If he says “We got it,” then we’re good. There was no “Let’s get another one for safety,” or “Let’s do another take that’s slightly more grooving,” because Orrin was the one saying whether we got it or not. He would either say “Do it again,” “You got it,” or “Maybe a little shorter and more concise,” just enough to keep the wheels spinning and let us play, which I appreciated. It made me feel like I’ll never go into the studio again without someone in the booth who I trust to evaluate what’s happening, even a friend who knows the music and who will be straight with you.
TJG: The longest track is under six minutes, and most are quite shorter. I feel like if “Tried in the Court of Public Opinion” were on your more archetypical jazz album, it would be nine minutes long.
CC: Right. But then what? There’s little I dislike more than an unnecessarily long song. Short pieces can stitch the record together, help it move along without getting bogged down. It keeps the pace going. A friend of mine, commenting about a record he recently heard where everyone took a solo on every ten-minute track, said “I’d rather have one soloist play for ten minutes.” I’d have to agree with that. At this point in my writing, my songs certainly don’t demand a long journey. If I were to write something that demanded it to be long, then I would be happy to make a long recording. And if we’re playing a gig and we’re exploring, that’s cool, we don’t have to keep it short. But if there’s no reason for it to be long, then I really don’t want it to be.
I wanted “Tried in the Court of Public Opinion” to be under two minutes on the album: Even though it’s so aggressive, it’s a kind of palette cleanser. I was surprised by how much slow, spacey time there is on the record. Listening back, I realized how much I like that sound, which is why there’s so much of it. It clarified for me the idea that “It’s okay, I can make a spacey record.” Did you feel the album had a lot of space and open time?
TJG: Absolutely. Of course, not having a chording instrument blows the texture wide open from the start. You and the band take advantage of that space, by filling it or by respecting the openness, but in either case it’s drastic. Eric and Luques didn’t play super actively for most of the record either, they held it down.
CC: Yeah they did. And I enjoyed realizing how different Eric and Luques are once we began mixing. Everything about how they play is different. The sound, the feeling of the time, the impulse of the note, the way that they interact, where they push and where they don’t. It makes it easier to latch on to their personalities. Sometimes when a bassist is playing a more supportive role, it can be difficult to figure out what their perspective is.
TJG: It’s cool that you learned so much throughout this process. With many projects, the album is a final solidifying moment, the execution of a bandleader’s vision. With this album, you organized a session without too much preparation, and since then you keep finding new ways of appreciating the musicians and the recording, which at this point was well over a year ago.
CC: That’s true. I don’t see the point of being too precious about your music. At the end of the day, an album is one piece of a bigger puzzle. Holding on to every corner and trying to exert control, as if I have a perfect vision of how I want the music to be, doesn’t sound like that much fun. If we’re improvising, I want my bandmates to play they want to play. These guys have so much personality that I want them to sound like who they are.
I think this is something I’ve learned from Orrin. He really encourages people to do what they want in his band. One night, I played in Philly with Orrin, who records everything on his phone. We were listening back, and I was playing some weird shit that didn’t make any sense. He was like, “Man that was some weird shit you were doing, but I like that you stuck with it, even though it didn’t work” [laughs]. It didn’t work, but he much prefers that than only doing things you know will work. One of the first times I felt that way with him was at Smoke. I had been in his big band for just a couple of months, and I got super lost on a tune I didn’t know. There were some hits they would play that threw everyone back together, so eventually I got back on track. On the break, he said to me, “We were so lost, it was great.” It was the keys to freedom.
With that in mind, I much prefer that over the pressure of needing to always play the forms correctly for fear of being wrong and bad. You can just go for it and see where it takes you. When it’s good, the music isn’t weighed down with the responsibility of being correct. People who do more in the free scene understood that a long time ago. For those of us coming from playing tunes, forms, and time, there’s a different weight to it.
TJG: You mentioned you were surprised to how much space there was on the album. People tend to play more when they’re uncomfortable, and you sound so comfortable playing with Josh.
CC: When I’m playing with Josh, I know we’re not going to be trying to do the same stuff. In Josh, I have a musical partner who will complement what I want to do without having the same exact goals. We play together a lot now, in his band, in my band, in Orrin’s band. He’s never going to judge what I play, no matter how weird I think it is, or how far I push myself. And at the same time, I can trust that he’s going to come back with something beautiful, that he’s going to inspire me with beautiful, swinging time, a great sound, things I really value. I love when I hear him play, and it frees me from having to play like that all the time, which can feel like a weight to bear. We make for a good complement, and we don’t have to be competitive about who’ll be more successful at doing the same types of musical things.
TJG: Sometimes when you’re playing heads together, you can hear that you’re not feeling the time in the same way, which is great, you’re both being yourselves while also playing together.
CC: I do enjoy playing things perfectly together with him, we have that capability. In his band, we focus a bit more on that. On the Brothers session and with this music, I took more of the lead on phrasing, so I pushed him around a little bit more. Also, the music isn’t better from being perfectly together. I like that, it has personality in this context.
TJG: There are a number of tracks with subtle and not-so-subtle electronics, effects, overdubs. How did you approach the production angle?
CC: My friend Ben Rubin mixed the record, who also mixed and produced Free Bird, the upcoming Walking Distance record. We spend a lot of time together, working on songs and trying to make them into something. With “A Place of Our Own,” I remember being not positive it was going to work. David Gibson wrote that song, which we play in the Captain Black Big Band. There’s a lot of harmony with polychords and slash chords, which wouldn’t necessarily come across without a chordal instrument, so I was worried it would feel empty. When we were mixing, Ben showed me some ideas he had tried, including pitch shifts, reverse loops, some sparkly reverb, or whatever is going on there. I was into it, I thought it really helped the character of the song, and resolved the tension I had about the chordless feel. The mixing process was exploratory, and I had no attachment to this record being an acoustic document. There was an opportunity that sounded good, so we went for it. It makes the song a little creepier too [laughs].
With “On the Other Side of Time,” the mix is really big, and I’m playing trumpet with a saxophone mouthpiece. There’s a lot of reverb on it, and the two basses are panned hard right and left. Eric is doing some crazy stuff on top of the bass, and there are lot of effect-sounding instruments. The last track, “Path of Totality,” has some real production. I’d had this idea of singing intervals above a note on my horn to create an undertone which I thought would function as the bass, and I wrote a song around that concept. There’s an additional production layer which creates a distorted drone in the back.
TJG: How do you play trumpet with a saxophone mouthpiece?
CC: The lead pipe is just smaller than the hole on a soprano mouthpiece, and the principles of the instruments are the same. You have your partials, your overtones. Since it’s basically a straight tube with a reed on the end, it sounds like a bass clarinet. It’s hard to control: I had Josh Landress build me a trumpet lead pipe with cork on the end to properly attach a mouthpiece, but it was too much of an instrument. I wanted it to be more gestural, harder to control.
TJG: The album is called Brothers, and the photo is of you and your brother. Is there an underlying narrative to the compositions?
CC: When you play music with people, you develop a relationship quickly, with understanding and empathy that are hard to recreate in any other social setting, other than with family or people you’ve known for a long time. You can play with someone once, not see them for a year, and when you see them again it’s like meeting an old friend. When you play music with someone, there’s an intense social negation happening. You have to quickly find a level of trust and comfortability that you don’t usually find when you don’t know people that well. In that way, I feel that with the guys on the album. It feels like brothers. I didn’t think of the title until after we recorded. When I’m looking at the photo of me and my brother, I love it. It’s personal, I know where it was taken, I remember being there with him, growing up together. Whenever I look at that photo, I’ll feel that. It’s my way of making the record as personal as I can.
Caleb Curtis celebrates the release of Brothers (Imani Records) at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. The group features Mr. Curtis on alto saxophone, Josh Lawrence on trumpet, Matt Clohesy on bass, Mark Whitfield Jr. on drums, and special guest Chet Doxas on tenor saxophone. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($15 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.