With an expressionistic, unbridled sound on alto saxophone and an imagination to match, Andrew D’Angelo has been a distinctive voice in the New York avant garde scene for nearly three decades. Whether leading his own groups big and small, or working with groundbreaking collaborative ensembles like Human Feel and Tyft, D’Angelo’s playing is deeply felt, sometimes anarchic, sometimes fragile and haunting.
While D’Angelo developed a reputation for incomparably high-energy music earlier in his career, his most recent music has gone in a more meditative direction, such as his album Norman, released on LP in December 2014. On Thursday, October 15th, The Jazz Gallery welcomes Mr. D’Angelo to present another moving and reflective project called Vanities, featuring pianist Pete Rende, guitarist Ryan Beckley, and special guest drummer Andrew Cyrille. We caught up with Andrew D’Angelo this week by phone to talk about how music has been a means of healing since a diagnosis of brain cancer several years ago, and how D’Angelo’s musical community has changed over his career in New York.
The Jazz Gallery: The project you’re bringing is called Vanitas, yes?
Andrew D’Angelo: I got commissioned to write a piece on the theme of ‘death’ or ‘transition.’ I asked Pete Rende to join me, and we played it in the Greenwood Cemetery in July. We did three nights of concerts in the cemetery, which was really fun. My friend Dylan Keefe (of the band Marcy Playground) was telling me that he does still-life paintings called vanitas. (The term refers to a symbolist style of still-life painting, often pointing towards the transience of materialism.) Basically, it’s the idea that you can’t take your money and possessions with you after death. So, I called the project that Pete and I were doing Vanitas. We made this 30-minute piece, which is basically five different takes on the concept of death. One is that, actually, you don’t die, you just transition to another dimension. One is that you become an angel. One is a Hebrew or Jewish thing where death isn’t even acknowledged: You’re just gone. One was for my father’s death, a sort of “here today, gone tomorrow” idea, and so on. So, Vanitas came to work as the name of the band. We wanted to keep doing shows, and Pete said we should ask Andrew Cyrille to play—a great idea. And then Ryan [Beckley], a guitarist who I know from Seattle, heard me talking about it and wanted to get involved. His approach suits the context of the project very well, and I’ve always wanted to work with him.
TJG: That’s a fascinating way for a project to evolve, where it starts as a duo and then you add people as you go.
AD: It’s funny, because this is a collaboration between Pete and I. Having drums and ambient guitar can give us all room to do different things. It is fascinating, and it’ll be interesting because the four of us have never all played together.
TJG: And so you met Ryan [Beckley] in Seattle?
AD: Well, he’s from Seattle. But I actually think I met him in New York. I knew him because he knew a lot of kids I had taught from Seattle, who went to Roosevelt High School. That is an interesting question, because we don’t know exactly where and when we met.
TJG: So you’re from Seattle, right? You went from Seattle to Boston, and then finally to New York?
AD: Sort of. I grew up in Seattle, and then when I was twenty I moved to New York, stayed for about a year or two, and then I moved to Boston to play with Human Feel, with Jim [Black] and Kurt [Rosenwinkel]. I was there for three or four years, then we all moved back to New York.
TJG: So what has it been like gravitating between these cities, all in pursuit of music?
AD: That’s an interesting question. The internet has really changed our world, especially in the arts. Now when I go to Seattle for shows, or wherever, Austria or Austin, everybody seems to already be more in touch with each other, so it’s not like “Hey nice to meet you, what do you do?” Because people can listen to your sounds and creations before they even really know who you are. It doesn’t even really matter anymore where you live, you know? I was just hanging out with [bassist] Reid Anderson for some dinner and drinks, and he was saying that he was thinking of moving out of town. It’s like yeah, why not? I’ll miss having dinner and drinks with him, but it’s not going to alter his career. People live all over the place these days. Jim Black is never home—nobody is ever home [laughs], we’re all traveling all the time anyway.
TJG: These days, everybody has already heard everybody before they hear anybody. It’s a fascinating way to develop—could you talk to me a little bit about the development of your personal style? Not necessarily the musical language you utilize, but the style and approach you take to the language.
AD: So almost ten years ago now, I had a seizure. I woke up and they told me I had a huge brain tumor. After some tests, I ended up having two surgeries to remove my right frontal lobe. But I chose not to do chemotherapy or radiation. I basically told the doctors that I wasn’t doing any more treatment: I went to India, China, Iceland, Tebet, all over the world seeking healers and healing. Even in Seattle and New York, I found people. I basically went on this journey into the metaphysical world. The first healer I met, a fantastic man named Peter Roth, said to me, “Do you know why you asked the brain tumor and the cancer to come into your life?” Cancer is resentment, and where the cancer resides is where the resentment is held. So I asked myself why cancer decided to visit me when and where it did, and I healed that aspect of my soul, spirit, my entire being. I found a path where I was completely healed—not only healed, but more whole than I was before. And so basically, after that huge insane experience, I realized that music is really about tapping into a source and energy. Some people call it the ‘over soul,’ some people call it the ‘subconscious,’ some people call it a ‘higher self.’ You’re channeling this creation through your body, and putting it down on paper, or playing it through your instrument, or painting or drawing it.
And so, as far as my approach to what I do, at this point, and pretty much ever since that period when I had brain cancer, which I call “brain,” is about having full conscious awareness about tapping into the energy from my higher self. I try to let that energy flow through and come out in a certain way. It’s interesting because I was in the studio last week with Human Feel. Kurt said “Man, what happened to the complicated, crazy music you used to write?” That’s not what the source is giving me right now. It’s giving me these more surreal, sublime, tonal, atmospheric, kind, calm sounds. It resonates to a different frequency than when I was twenty-eight. It’s not an age thing, but having gone through a personal and spiritual transformation, my creation process has changed. The focus is on a different place, on different vibrations.
TJG: So when you told that to Kurt, what was his reaction?
AD: He closed his eyes, and tapped into the source, and played my music from his heart. It was beautiful, he didn’t even question it. He totally understood. And actually, it’s interesting, because Jim Black wasn’t really getting it [laughs]. But Kurt and Chris [Speed] were right there. They just stayed quiet, said “Okay man, got it.” And we got into this trance, and it was beautiful.
TJG: Speaking of people tapping into a communal, collective energy, could you talk to me about the genesis of the DNA Orchestra?
AD: I had done big bands all my life. After “brain,” I started doing color therapy. I was working with this couple who taught me color therapy, and was working on opening up my chakras, using different colors like violet to cleanse myself. One of the healers I was working with said “You realize that in numerology, your initials are AND, which is DNA. This means you can read people’s DNA, and you can help and heal them.” So basically, what I discovered after “brain” is that the reason I experienced cancer was so that I could become a healer and help other people heal. So I do that quite often now. I have consultations and so on.
So the DNA Orchestra—you get it now, it’s my initials. I was writing music where I would infuse this color therapy energy. I would put the energy of, say, the color royal blue, into the music while I was composing. That’s your brain. Green is your heart chakra, and that’s a very healing color, like the color of a tree. So as I was healing, I was using that energy to infuse my music. To be honest, the big band was about making a big splash. I just had two surgeries, I’m missing a quarter of my brain: I’m going to show you how I can still do this, with lucidity and passion. I had this group of people who were anxious and excited to be with me and make music with me after they watched me almost die in the hospital. You have doctors telling your friends and family that their son, brother, friend has one to three years to live, and you’d better get ready to say goodbye. All of a sudden, it’s past three years later, and I’m doing really well. I’m not being egotistical—I was excited. I had a trio, but I wanted something bigger.
TJG: To follow up, in terms of your personal journey, it’s so soulful, inspiring, enabling. You’ve been described as a limit-pusher. I’m wondering if you’ve met resistance anywhere, and how resistance has played a role in your growth.
AD: That can be a big question. Have I met resistance? A little bit. I did these shows in Copenhagen. For the last year or so, I’ve pretty much been only doing meditations on stage. My trio is an older project. Some people in that band might have been resisting the idea of focusing and grounding and doing meditations, where I have the audience hum or sing as we go into a trance state. There was resistance there, but that was more of an uncomfortableness on that person’s part. We’re all connected to the divine at all times. It’s just a matter of focusing on it. I’ll tell you this: Two years after “brain,” when I was really getting into this color therapy work, vibrations, frequencies, chakras, everything, which can be seen as new-age or whatever, there were some of my friends who couldn’t be around it. It was so contrary to the Andrew they had known as a child or teenager or young adult. So they departed, but they’re all back now [laughs].
TJG: On a lighter note, I was listening to an interview you did with NYU, where you discussed the release of Norman and the importance of releasing it on vinyl, so your community and supporters can have something to hold and experience and look at. I wonder if that ties in with some of the themes you’ve been talking about.
AD: The answer is yes. My original intention was exactly what you just said. When I was doing the artwork and composing and sequencing, I was putting my love and healing intention into every one of those records. I even put an affirmation, hidden under the cover art, that nobody knows what it is, but it’s there. So there’s this energy that’s infused in the intention of the work. It’s so interesting that you brought this up, actually. Last week, I sent two records and a couple of DNA Orchestra t-shirts to my cousin. And somebody stole them out of the box! [Laughs] At first, I was like, man! But then, talking to her on the phone, she said, “Wait, that’s kind of cool, somebody has your music. Maybe they needed it.” So that person unknowingly was attracted to something unknown, which is basically healing energy. That music was the first thing I recorded after “brain.”
TJG: Is there anything you’d like to add about the upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery?
AD: I’ve actually not been to the new Jazz Gallery since Rio moved it. I’m really looking forward to performing at the new space, because I’ve heard nice things about it. Rio is so personable and friendly, and I like the personal aspect of working with her. And Peter Rende, his words were “Man, that piano has a vibe. I definitely want to play that piano.” I like when a place has a certain energy, and the instruments have a certain energy. Andrew [Cyrille], a special guest for this gig, was psyched to do the show. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the show.
TJG: We’re enthusiastic about the show too. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us, Andrew.
AD: Thanks so much!
Andrew D’Angelo and Vanitas perform at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, October 15th, 2015. The group features Mr. D’Angelo on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, Pete Rende on piano, Ryan Beckley on guitar, and special guest Andrew Cyrille on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for the first set, $10 general admission ($8 for members) for the second. Purchase tickets here.