There are not many string trios that roll through the Jazz Gallery, and there are certainly no string trios that sound like this. On April 12, the fiercely independent and adventurous musicians Okkyung Lee (cello), Mat Maneri (viola) and Stephan Crump (bass) will perform improvised sets of music at The Gallery.
Lee is an established experimental solo act whose albums have received indie love from places like Pitchfork. Crump works most prominently in the Vijay Iyer Trio, and also has a large array of ongoing projects like the Rosetta Trio and Rhombal. Maneri has worked with a legion of cutting-edge collaborators, from Cecil Taylor to Matthew Shipp, and leads many of his own groups. Together, they’ve built a trio based on equal exchange and uninhibited textural wanderings.
The trio has played together a grand total of 2 times, both live in concert. Crump organized the group last fall, as a way to explore playing with other string instruments. We caught up with Lee and Crump in Brooklyn; excerpts of that conversation are below.
The Jazz Galley: How did this group come together?
Stephan Crump: I wanted to respond to these timbres. And I’m not drawn to doing things that everybody else does. There’s something to be said for the challenge putting together a piano bass and drums trio, and see if I can make this new. But I also like putting some different characters and textures together and trying to come up with something. I also like that even in a classical context, which string trio is more reflective of, this is an oddball lineup—cello, viola and bass—even if you’re coming from that perspective.
Okkyung Lee: I would have said no if it was anybody else. Because the last thing I want to do is be playing with two other string instruments. But Mat is someone who’s very important to me. He was the first person I saw somebody playing non-jazz improvised music. I was at 21 or 22, and I thought improvised music was all jazz. I saw him at the Knitting Factory and remember thinking, “wow, what is this? It’s so beautiful.” But I never thought I would be improvising.
So it was Mat and you [Stephan], and I thought, that can be very interesting and challenging. And we are so different. Which is a good thing. Because lots of times, some of the improvising string quartets basically sound like one person playing altogether. Everybody’s playing the same sound all over the range. So the individuality doesn’t come out.
TJG: What was your first rehearsal like?
SC: We didn’t have a rehearsal. We just played at Korzo.
OL: I don’t like to rehearse improvised music. I already know what Stephan sounds like. I like improvising to an audience. It throws you into a spot that you have to be really in the moment. To me, that’s really important. I think it’s very important that we just got together and played.
SC: Chemistry is either there or it’s not. I agree with Okkyung: if you’re going to be doing improvised stuff, I don’t need to or care to rehearse. And it was so satisfying and thrilling to engage in that format that part of me doesn’t want to mess with it, at least for now.
OL: I think it was really interesting, because the feeling that this was working was almost instant, within a few minutes into the gig. Somehow we were just all in it, and we went with it, and things just started to come out. I thought, “wow, this is really exciting.” And challenging, which is the most important thing for me.
TJG: How would you describe the purpose or sound of this trio?
SC: I like playing with musicians who are not stuck in a particular vocabulary. So with the three of us, it feels like it’s beyond that and it can be anything, and it can just be expression. That can happen on a harmonic and melodic levels, it can happen rhythmically, it can happen just texturally or sonically.
OL: One of my favorite experiences in concert ever was seeing Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis playing a trio. It was like 2003, in Venice. It was these three individuals, totally in three parallel universes at the same time. Often they would find a way to come together, and then just go away again, and there would be these crazy moments where they would be not together—not in the traditional sense—but keep this thing going at the same time. So I think to me, that’s why I like this trio. Because we have different approaches, personalities, sounds. But somehow we still have 3 things going at the same time, but still connected.
Right now these days, improvisational stylized music is becoming kind of a problem, because it’s becoming something someone can take from someone else and start to wear. It’s already developed this body of vocabulary that everybody shares. That’s what I get in Europe a lot. If it’s improvised music, you have to have this sound. It’s not really free anymore.
SC: To me a pitfall of a lot of improvised music is that automatic knee jerk aggression is the leading vocabulary of it. That is a huge turnoff to me. Because it seems like it comes out of nowhere. If you’re going straight to that, how does that have anything to do with what our engagement is? You’re totally leaving me out. You have to be with people who are sensitive and perceptive as human beings: what’s flowing? And then the music comes from that. It’s not like you throw your shit at everybody else.
TJG: How much of a role does the audience play in these improv-based performances?
OL: I do not play for anybody else, except me and the musicians I’m playing with. The reason why I need the audience is that mental space it puts me in. I’d like to think the audience is sharing the experience with me. But I’m not giving it to them. I’m going on my own and they are tagging along.
SC: I do believe there’s an energy exchange with the audience. It serves as a galvanizing, focusing force. And if you’re really going to get to the place where you want to be, it’s an act of fearlessness in the face of that context with an audience. I think of it as turning yourself inside out: fully exposing yourself and all of your sensitivities, perceptions. That’s a really scary thing to do. And it doesn’t happen in the same way if you’re alone.
TJG: Has there been an issue stepping on each other’s toes, given that you’re all string instruments with similar timbres?
OL: You don’t always want to gel so well together. You don’t want to make it sound nice. You just want to find a way to push things in unexpected ways. That’s where the music needs to go. When I work with these two, I don’t have that fear of, “am I going to annoy somebody?”
TJG: The members of this trio played with Vijay Iyer at his Met residency. How was that? Did you learn anything about this trio from also including Vijay?
OL: I think it was a totally different thing.
SC: You just have to approach it as, “this is a quartet.” It can’t be this trio plus one.
OL: I’m not interested in having a “signature sound” as a trio. Each gig will be different and each time we play will become something different. There are things we develop. But we don’t rehearse, so it’s not like we’re playing every week. There’s enough time to almost forget what we did. It can be dangerous knowing what works, the tricks and gimmicks.
SC: I just sent the two of them the recording from the first gig. But I told them, “don’t listen to this before April 12.” You want to be able to enjoy it on its own without it forcing any ideas of what you’re going to play. I just want that to be completely wide open.
The Crump/Lee/Maneri Trio plays The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, April 12th, 2016. The group features Stephan Crump on bass, Okkyung Lee on cello, and Mat Maneri on viola. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.