This Friday, March 16, The Jazz Gallery welcomes guitarist Miles Okazaki and his Trickster project back to our stage for two sets. The project began as a book of tunes premiered and honed at the Gallery in 2016, and came out on record last year to much acclaim, appearing on several “Best of” lists. Before Trickster’s return to the Gallery this week, we caught up with Okazaki to talk about how the music has continued to develop over time, and the notion of ideas versus information in a piece of art.
TJG: You first presented this music a little over two years ago. Has anything about it changed in that time?
Miles Okazaki: Well, everything changes, because people change, and they forget some things. And I forget things, or I change them, and things become less interesting. But that’s part of what this record was about. Not worrying about what you forget. I didn’t use any sheet music, for example. I’ll just play whatever I remember from what I wrote. And that’s what I’ll do this week, I guess [laughs]. I’ll just do whatever I can remember. I’m trying to remember but I’m not going to go look at the sheet music. Cause this particular set of music is an embodied type of feeling. I want it to be like that, like stories—I remember this story from my childhood, or from my relatives. Something about that has a meaning to me that’s internal.
I deal a lot with sheet music, and a lot of quite structured and determined things, and I’ve done a lot of things like that. My previous records are quite meticulous, and so I’m trying to let go of some of that, you might say. These are just little spaces, so you can just remember what that space feels like and go back into it.
TJG: You make a lot of allusions to mathematical forms—like in The Calender, with the inclusion of ratios of celestial movements—but on the top, the music has this very buoyant and tuneful quality. When you write, do these two things happen at the same time? Do you lead with a snippet of melodic content, or do you first sit down with a concept and develop some kind of systematic way of thinking?
MO: That tune was actually written on an airplane… all it is is just some notes moving, and some rhythms, and then a shape that it goes through. So yeah, you can say mathematical, but I never use that word to describe music. There’s no mathematical operations happening.
I mean, if you’re saying concerned with numbers, and you say that’s mathematical—well, you can say that’s numerical, but I’m not saying, “this multiplied by this, the square root of something.” I’m not doing any of those type of operations. Anything that you want to want talk about with pitches and discrete numbers of things, you can say is mathematical, you can enumerate them. And a calendar, and all these things things that we use—it’s a natural thing for humans to try to make order out of things. And for them to make order out of things, they make things like calendars. Something is repeating, there’s a cycle. It’s something that we a call a year. How long is it? We want to know how many days, why isn’t it this many days, how can we organize it in some kind of a way?
So, yeah, those are structures. But they’re largely metaphors for how we think and put order into things that are disorderly. Like pitches and rhythms—they’re organized. People are always looking for a dialectic, or a binary type of things. There’s something that’s soulful, and something that’s mathematical, and these things are sort of opposed somehow—and I think that’s all bullshit.
That being said, yeah, there are some structures involved and there are some hidden things, but I prefer to let them remain hidden. It’s more about how it feels. I do, personally, get very interested in music theory and stuff like that, but nobody in this particular band cares about what theory is behind it, at all. They just wanna play, so I have to make things playable and easy to memorize.
TJG: Well, how about with a song like Kudzu?
MO: In that instance, I had a little travel guitar and I was camping in the woods, looking at things growing on top of other things. And so the melody has all this ornamental stuff in it, like plants on top of one another. But the tune is just a blues, but it has a slightly mysterious thing about it with how the rhythm works out.
There wasn’t any consideration to that tune, except for how to get that feeling of something being a skeletal thing with some other thing growing on top of it. It’s like a visual metaphor, and then there’s some deceptive stuff happening rhythmically. If you hear it, you might not hear the same way as someone else hears it, in terms of where the beat is and all that stuff. But a lot of my tunes, all through records, have been like that. I like the ambiguity because it lets more people dig it, or not dig it [laughs]. Like, “damn, this is too ambiguous.” Some people don’t like ambiguity. Some people people want more, like, “Dum-tu, dum-tu, dum,” here’s the beat. I don’t really like that so much, I like it more “maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that.”
TJG: You talked about a portion of the source material for this album, a book on trickster myths, with Andrew Chow early on. How faithfully was the album structured around that particular set of myths?
MO: It’s hard to remember now. You start off one way, and the thing evolves so it really doesn’t belong to that project anymore. It is a body of work but I’m not thinking so much about how it got started. It’s like when you have kids—I have three kids—I don’t even remember what they looked like when they were babies. They just looked how they look now, and they act the way they act now.
However the thing came about is how it came about and I wrote about it, and all that stuff, and it’s valid, but I’m not really thinking about that anymore. Sounds, they go out, and compositions, they get performed, and then they grow and they become their own thing that’s determined by the forces that are built into those things.
I have this little garden out here, and I used to have very meticulous maps of how I was planting everything, and a very detailed log for it. But the last four, five years have been too busy to do anything, and I let it go. And now, it’s doing its own thing. And it’s cool—it has its own order. It’s a natural order, not an imposed order.
Sometimes it’s good to impose some order to keep things from getting too wild, just chaotic. Because, eventually, they will just become weeds. And so, that’s kinda what I do when I’m leading a band—I just sorta direct a little bit. I’m the traffic cop, or whatever.
But as far as a composer, I’m more so doing experiments, or little bits of research that come out as possibilities, you know? But I don’t see myself as a composer. I’m looking at some music here by Matt Mitchell—this guy’s more of a composer [laughs] than I am. In terms of, like, generating a lot of material that’s having this whole language. I have an approach, I think, and it might be recognizable to some people, and I have a way of playing a guitar. But as far as composing, I’m just trying to make environments.
If I have one good idea on the record, I’ll be happy. Because the idea is what remains, without all the executions. If I could say to the other musicians, “Here is the idea of this song,” and they said, “Oh, I get the idea—let’s do the idea!”. That’s much stronger to me than, “Here’s all the information. Do the information.”
I was thinking about Sol Lewitt. He has these artworks that are just kinda instructions. They might come out different ways depending on who’s doing it. There’s one up in DIA Beacon — I’m remembering this from years—it looked like this wavy thing, a bunch of lines going up the wall, and it’s very interesting looking. But then, the instructions on how to do it are, like, okay, you get 50 people in a room. Give them each a pencil. Line up them up, shortest to tallest. And the shortest person goes up there and they start at the bottom of the wall, and they just draw a a straight line up freehand, up the wall, up to the highest point they can reach. And then, the line’s crooked—it’s freehand. The further it goes up the wall, the more crooked it gets, cause they’re trying to reach. And the next person comes up, and they draw a line, and they have to get it as close as they can to the first line without crossing it. So there’s a line next to it that follows the contour, and the lines get more and more exaggerated—and you end up with this very crazy contour map.
Obviously, the result of something like that is going to be different every time. But the DNA of it remains the same. And the DNA is just a strong idea. You’re introducing an element of chaos that has to do with the errors that people make within something that you’ve set up.
Like a garden or some other thing, depending on what happens, what moves you make. This person goes there, they react, and the form gets messed up. We have to find a way back. And the way you get back can be very interesting too. I don’t get upset when a form gets messed up. I don’t turn around and yell at everybody. I try to find a way back. I say, “Let’s get a compass and a map, and try to find our way back without stopping.”
Miles Okazaki’s Trickster plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, March 16, 2018. The group features Mr. Okazaki on guitar, Matt Mitchell on piano, Anthony Tidd on bass, and Sean Rickman on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.