With “Rich In Symbols,” a captivating cross-disciplinary exploration of art through music, musician and composer Chet Doxas has interpreted paintings from MoMA and The Whitney. This week, Doxas returns to The Jazz Gallery again as a leader, presenting the quintet project with both immersive sounds and images. With Doxas on winds and synths, Brad Shepik and Rob Ritchie on guitars, Zach Lober on bass, and Jerad Lippi on drums, the ensemble has a lush, orchestral presence.
When the album was released this fall on Ropeadope Records, our writer Kevin Sun interviewed Doxas about the inspiration and process behind the project. We spoke with Doxas again, diving into his visceral experience of standing before works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Robert Mapplethorpe with pencil in hand, sketching musical ideas that would become works for his distinctive quintet.
The Jazz Gallery: In a previous interview with Kevin Sun, you discussed the process behind “Rich In Symbols.” By composing in front of works of art, it seems like you were able to “be yourself” in a new way. Did bypassing your instrument allow something new to emerge?
Chet Doxas: I don’t think I’m in the minority in that I can be quite hard on myself. My inner critic can be extra critical. But I’ve found that when writing music inspired by something I’m looking at, that inner critic gets very quiet, and I just get to work. If you frequently tell yourself “It’s not good enough,” or however you talk yourself out of something, I recommend working this way.
TJG: Were you intimidated at the start? Especially since you were working in front of some of your favorite artworks.
CD: I started working in museums because I found that I work better if I’m in front of the artwork, sharing the space with the painting. But I’d be looking at a Keith Haring, then walk to the next room and there’d be a Georgia O’Keefe, then a Robert Harris portrait, and I said “Well, this is getting to be a little much” [laughs]. So I tried to reign it in and focus on one genre. One of the books I was reading at the time was a book called “Please Kill Me” by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain about the New York punk scene from roughly 1975-85. What’s cool about that period is that it was one of the last times, at least in New York, where there was a community of artists and musicians coexisting and inspiring each other with their work. They had social meeting places like The Mudd Club, CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, Andy Warhol’s Factory, and people would talk about their music or their art or not talk about anything and just party. That was an exciting idea, so I decided to try to make music based on the images that were being produced around that time.
TJG: What excites you about that idea?
CD: I like being around people. And while you can find a community in New York, you can still have a lot of time to yourself. Which is cool, because there’s work to do. But at the same time, the city has changed a lot, and I dug reading about the way it used to be. There are so many things that I love from that period, and I wanted to see how it would unfold in my own music.
TJG: I know it encompasses a wide scope of artists and artworks, but how does that period of art look, to you?
CD: One of the things that excites me most about that movement is what is sometimes referred to as ‘primitivism.’ Haring’s and Basquiat’s works often look like cave paintings. In a certain sense, it’s minimal, even if the work isn’t “minimalistic.” The idea of exposing the base nature of who we are, that rawness, is a common thread between that and, say, the band Suicide, or Velvet Underground. It’s art and music that looks and sounds like it’s in the primordial phases of what it could be. It’s stripped down. I feel that way about the Keith Jarrett American Quartet too, sometimes. It could be something else, but that’s not the point. I’ve always liked that idea of music having a foot in that ancient realm.
TJG: You’re using a lot of language, “ancient, primordial, minimal,” that could apply to composition, but it seems like your process was more visceral and not so much “This painting looks minimal, so I’ll write something minimal.” What was on your mind as you stared at these works?
CD: A lot of the writing was actually quite verbal. I’ll write a melody, and alongside it, I’ll have text, and I’d put words in. “This is cropped,” or “Visual reference to poverty.” I’ll take those things out of the museum with me, on paper. My thoughts and the music all end up on the same manuscript.
TJG: So what’s it like to spend a long time looking at a work of art, then pick up the horn and interpret what you’ve constructed?
CD: I’m still not sure. I find that I don’t play a lot, and I’m okay with that now. At first, I felt like I should be playing more. But on “Rich In Symbols,” I like how compared to a more typical jazz quintet record, the album has only a few saxophone solos. It feels different live, and people expect to hear more playing. I’ve learned to accept that it’s okay. We’re all grownups here: People don’t need to hear ten saxophone solos. It’s cool. People want to hear the work you’ve put into the music. As a listener, I want to be allowed into the process. I want to feel like there’s room for me, even if I’m not playing. That’s one of the cool things about our music. There’s a lot of respect for the audience; you can give them room to experience the music without forcing it on them.
TJG: Was there a catalyzing event that made all of this come into focus for you? It doesn’t seem like you could wake up one morning with this much insight.
CD: Well, it’s close to that, actually. I had this dream, three years ago. If we’d met prior to this, you’d be surprised, because this really wasn’t my style. But when I woke up, I could picture colors with people. As you and I are talking right now, I have a color in my head, a kind of powder blue. When I met someone, a color comes up. Around that same time, I started hearing music when I looked at paintings. It’s not full-blown synesthesia, where people hear music for certain colors and vice versa, but there’s something going on. I’m kind of riding it, not looking too closely.
TJG: Have you been going to sleep every night hoping for part two of that dream?
CD: I’m just hoping that I don’t fuck it up [laughs]. I’m preserving it. I’ve been playing with Carla Bley over the last few years, and we’ve talked about this idea of protecting yourself and your ideas, especially these days. Not necessarily from anybody stealing them, it’s just protecting yourself from everything at the same time. The internet, social media, things screaming at you. It’s hard to sit down and get something creative done these days.
TJG: Sometimes it feels impossible.
CD: These days, it’s sometimes out of reach. And it shouldn’t be. When we were kids, and decided that we want to literally make air move with our hands, to vibrate the air in a way that moves other people, we weren’t thinking about this. There’s a segment of an Arvo Pärt documentary where he talks about these ‘treasures’ in you that need to be protected. It’s a beautiful message, and he’s in touch with that energy of inspiration and creation. All that is to say, sometimes I just want to let it be, and not look too deeply at what’s going on.
TJG: Your current ensemble mixes punchy electric bass, edgy drums, dreamy guitars, synths, and a robust sax sound. You have so many colors at your disposal: Do the choices get overwhelming?
CD: I just had a talk with Zach, the bass player, about that. As people get more production-savvy, most people can figure out how to get the sound they want immediately. For me, the song has to be written in some form, and then I can dress it up. I just heard an interview with Lorde, and she doesn’t play an instrument. That’s crazy. She just makes her tunes, and for what they are, they’re as good as they get. Amazing pop music, sounding a bit different, she has her own world that she made up in her bedroom and just went from there. With our sound, on stage or in the studio, there might be technical things, where I’ll say, “Can you make the bass sound more like The Cure?” For example, the song “Orchard” is written for a Robert Mapplethorpe portrait, and I wanted the bass to sound tough, a little kinky, camp it up a bit, you know. “Guns and Lipstick” kind of vibe. Things like that remind me of how a painter would work. At the end of the day, it’s almost the same thing.
TJG: At shows where you project art works on screen, what sort of feedback have you gotten from the audience?
CD: People dig it. They always say the same thing: It’s nice to be able to look at a painting for longer than normal. You know, the average person looks at a painting for about eight seconds. At the live shows, people get to accept that they’ll be looking at one image for six minutes at a time. It’s a beautiful thing we get to experience together. I wish we had the real works, but it’s not easy. Every painting has its own set of rules. If a family owns a Keith Haring picture at the MoMA, you don’t go taking it off the wall and bringing it around [laughs]. But it’s great to share the air with these works. When you pluck a note at the Vanguard, everyone goes, “Ah, that sounds so good,” because the listener is part of the experience. It’s the same with visual art. When you walk around the corner at MoMA and you see “The Starry Night,” whether you’ve seen it once or a hundred times, it’s arresting, and we get to share the space with it.
Chet Doxas Rich in Symbols plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, March 8, 2018. The group features Mr. Doxas on saxophone and synthesizer; Brad Shepik and Rob Ritchie on guitar; Zach Lober on bass; and Jerad Lippi on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.