In his previous interview with Jazz Speaks, pianist and composer Gabriel Zucker spoke at length on his personal conflicts between composed and improvised music. His philosophies stemmed from his ensemble The Delegation, a large-scale long-form group dedicated to exploring the lines where spontaneity meets notes on the page.
This Thursday at The Jazz Gallery, Zucker will be co-leading a trio (plus special guests) consisting of drummer Dre Hocevar and cellist Lester St Louis. The fare of the evening will be freedom and exploration over two open-form sets. In a recent phone interview, Zucker outlined some of his current feelings on improvisation and composition, and spoke about his musical relationship with Hocevar and St. Louis.
TJG: Could you tell us a little bit about what we’re going to hear with this group?
GZ: We’re doing an open-form free improvisation with a couple of different bands. It’s actually the first time we’re going to have all of those people on stage together. The three of us, Lester, Dre and I, do a lot of free improvisation together in different configurations. We do a lot of talking and thinking about what that means. So we thought it would be interesting to get that on stage with some other improvisers that we all admire, and see what happens.
TJG: So it’s the three of you at the core, and you’ll be tagging different people in as the set goes on?
GZ: Exactly. We’ll be joined by Tony Malaby]on the first set, and Tony, Chris Pitsiokos, and Henry Fraser on the second set.
TJG: And it’ll be free from top to bottom?
GZ: As far as I know. It’s possible someone might come in with a bit of a structure, but most likely we’ll just sit down and play.
TJG: Taking a step back, how did you start working with Dre and Lester?
GZ: Well, we’re sort of a group of friends first and a group of collaborators second. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I don’t know. Dre and I play together in a trio with saxophone player Bryan Qu, so we’ve worked together a lot, in primarily improvised music. And then, Lester and Dre play together in Dre’s piano trio, Lester and I know each other from the venue Spectrum, where I play a lot, so we’ve done some improvisation together there. And then, we’ve played lots of different sessions together, in many different configurations, and we do a lot of talking about improvisation and about music in general, so we’ve shared a lot of ideas that way.
TJG: So in terms of the genesis of this project, as you were saying, what is it about Dre and Lester’s playing that really pulled you toward them?
GZ: You know, I don’t do that much just free improvisation with people, because things can get kind of unstructured, messy, uninteresting. I’ve found that with both of these guys, that’s not really a risk, just because they’re both so in tune to what’s going on. We have a lot of shared background and experience, and we can create something on the spot that I see as avoiding some of the common pitfalls of open-form improvisation. I think about things very compositionally, including large-scale free improvisation, and I think it’s something I actually really pull off with those guys. Sometimes, you get together a free band, and it devolves into everyone doing their own thing, spins off into nowhere. We’re really able to create coherent statements together. So when I’m looking to do any kind of improvisatory gig, that’s my number one criterion: Making sure I’m playing with people that sensitive and that in tune with what’s going on, in terms of making musical statements and not just flashy textures.
TJG: Dre’s mission statement seems to be that of a self-professed risk-taker. How do you tune your ears and your approach when you’re on stage with him?
GZ: He’s definitely a risk-taker, I’d agree with that. The thing about being onstage with Dre is that he does not hesitate to throw you for a loop in the slightest. When we first started playing I thought that would only happen in rehearsal, and it turns out that no, it’s something that happens on stage too. He takes risks on a macro-level, in terms of what he’s trying to do as a musician in general, and then on a micro-level at the individual gig, which keeps things pretty interesting. We’re obviously still able to react to each other. We’ve been playing together for over a year, which is tighter free improvisatory interaction than I’ve had with a lot of other musicians. So, you know, I know to expect the unexpected in that collaboration.
TJG: I interviewed Ted Poor a couple of months ago, and he spoke about a similar process. When you’re improvising and listening, the process is very reactive. When your hands are there on the instrument, yet you’re listening outwards and reacting to things outside of your personal sphere, how do you stay rooted in the mechanics of playing music?
GZ: There are as many different images of how you go about this as there are improvisers. The one that started clicking for me is that you’re not listening to others and yourself; you want your ears to be in the middle of the group. It’s not like I’m listening to Dre and Lester, and then I play things. I’m listening to what ‘that trio’ or quartet or sextet is playing, and trying to contribute things that’ll take it into a better direction. In terms of facility, it’s a matter of having been playing piano for eighteen years. I think we all start to hit the point where that’s not a limitation. Any musician will tell you that the technical aspect is not on your mind, and that’s as true for composers as it is for improvisers.
TJG: One of your ensembles, The Delegation, is kind of a mix of jazz and chamber music in instrumentation and approach. You’ve said that you met many of those musicians at Banff and in New York, because a lot of them are improvisers. I’m curious about what, in your eyes, makes somebody an improviser.
GZ: What makes someone an improviser… I should have like a pithy one-liner on this, right? Something you can quote elegantly [laughs].
Well, improvisers, I think what it comes down to, are the people who are able to create music that’s really in the moment, and not just recreating something else that exists. Technically speaking, I think it often means that someone is making up the notes they’re playing in addition to how they’re playing them. But I think that’s secondary to the matter of someone who is really present in the music they make.
The context of the Delegation, which I’d like to speak about for a second regarding the difference in approach… I was talking to Kevin Sun during my last interview for The Gallery about how I was trying to do this music with more chamber-oriented people, not improvisers. Things would kind of fall flat without that effervescence in the moment. People would be in the page, they would get their notes right, and somehow it wouldn’t click. For non-improvisers, if it doesn’t click, I think it’s the composer’s fault. For improvisers, no matter what you’re putting in front of them, including nothing, it’s on them. Maybe that’s the distinction I should have given you at the beginning of the answer. Improvisers take one hundred percent of the responsibility for the quality of the product into their hands, no matter how much or little you give them. That’s why they tend to execute even composed music in a really exciting way.
I want to deviate for a moment here. As for The Delegation, you probably saw the Jazz Gallery profile for the last time I played there. I have a lot of things that I work on in my music-making, in a lot of different idioms and musical elements. There’s hard-driving weird rhythmic stuff, and then there’s certain harmonic aspects, even singing and words get involved. There’s the exploratory nature of open improvisation. There’s usually one project at a given time where I’m trying to bring all of these different things together, and that’s what I was doing with The Delegation. It’s important for me to always have something I’m working on that proves that this is all part of a coherent vision of why music is meaningful.
But, this project is not that. I also like to have other projects going on that are focused more on one particular aspect of music-making. Right now I have another band, currently a quartet, where we take the rhythmic aspects of my larger-scale compositions and just hone in on that. We meditate on these small but complex ideas, we’ve got kind of a pop-rock drive into it, because we can with that kind of context. I’m singing and playing guitar, really focusing on the songwriting aspect of what we’re doing. Similarly, the trio I have with Dre and this saxophone player Bryan Qu, focused on the question of “What can we do with free improvisation?” You know, if we really focus on that element, what does it look like, and what are the possibilities?
TJG: So in the current configuration that you’re bringing to The Jazz Gallery, you’re talking about freeness in its entirety. So, to reference your last interview, you said something to the effect of “For every note I write down, I should be able to say why it’s written down and not left for improvisation, and for every improvisation to say why it’s improvised.” When you have to justify why you’re improvising something, is that a concern that pops up in this smaller, freer context?
GZ: Ah, a little bit of a “gotcha” moment there, right? [Laughs] No, I think it’s sort of different. That was the philosophy I was using in terms of creating a mixture of composition and improvisation in The Delegation. In some ways, I wrote another big “try to bring everything together” piece, which I premiered a couple of weeks ago at Spectrum with Tyshawn Sorey, Adam O’Farrill and Eric Trudel.
TJG: Wow, Tyshawn Sorey gets around!
GZ: He does, man, I don’t know how he does it. Well, I kind of know how he does it: He has one rehearsal for everything. So everyone else is like sitting through ten rehearsals to learn the music, and he sits down and plays it, because he’s so good at playing stuff.
So anyway, when I’m looking at one of those large-scale pieces that’s really trying to bring out the best elements of composition and improvisation, that’s kind of my guiding principle: Write down the stuff I feel is integral to the music I want to make, and leave the rest for the musicians to improvise. It’s not so much the guiding principle of this [free project] because, well, we’re improvising. So obviously there’s not so much theory about the relative roles of composition or improvisation.
The result is that some of the things that I love about composition sometimes won’t come across as much. So that’s why [free improvisation] isn’t the only thing I do with my life. But sometimes with composed stuff, the greatest improvised stuff gets lost, and you miss out on that too. The way I think about improvisation, no matter how well rehearsed your band is, which is often never enough when your compositions are complicated, the musicians are more attuned and keyed-in when it’s improvised music, because there’s no attention that has to be diverted to “where are we on the page?” or “where are we in the form?” or “what’s going on?” Everyone’s just one hundred percent there. This produces results that, in principle, you could reproduce by writing them down and rehearsing your musicians for a million years, but in practice, you’re not going to get those results.
A lot of people say “Well, I could compose something better than they’re improvising.” Yes maybe, but will it be executed in performance as well as you think it will? We’re here in the real world. What you want to hear is contingent on a group of human beings with a limited amount of rehearsal time and brain space to devote to realizing your concept. In reality, when you compose, you end up sacrificing something of the vitality of the moment. And you do it for the sake of getting getting other results which I find meaningful, but there should be no misconception that you’re not losing something when you compose.
TJG: I’m not trying to set up another “gotcha” moment, but you said in your previous interview that you really love long forms that “Take you across the entire world and hit every emotional area.” When you’re doing a long free set, ostensibly that is a long form, in that you’ve committed to a musical approach. So how does that philosophy translate into this kind of free approach?
GZ: Very directly, I think. It took me a while to realize that people have highly contrasting opinions on what forms should be in improvised music. For a while I thought that people were, frankly, being lazy and not thinking about it. But I’ve come to realize that there are actually different philosophies.
One of the things that was actually really helpful in this was Joe Morris’s book The Properties of Free Music. At the end of the book he did a survey of sixteen people who do free improvisation as the core of their music-making, and asked them various things. One thing he asked them all was, what is your approach to form? Is it something you do beforehand, or do you make it as you go? I was shocked by the results. These are all musicians I greatly admire and respect, but there are plenty of them who said “Yeah, form happens, whatever.” It’s interesting, but it’s a result, not an intentional preconceived thing. They say “I’m interested in the process of how the thing comes about in the moment,” and that’s fine. That’s not my philosophy on free improvisation. And that’s something that definitely gets me into conflict with plenty of collaborators: I don’t think Dre and I see eye-to-eye on this one either, which is part of what makes it interesting. When improvising, you’re making a piece of music with form just as much as you are when composing. Just because you’re creating it contemporaneously doesn’t absolve you from the responsibility of recognizing that.
TJG: You said you and Dre don’t see eye-to-eye; what do you think he would say his approach would be?
GZ: Well, I wouldn’t say we absolutely disagree on this point, but it’s something we’ve discussed. I feel pretty strongly that you should be careful about your form, because otherwise all that will happen is the tail will wag the dog and [the form] will play the music for you. Like any musician, he has a respect for what form means and what a form can do. He often writes very detailed compositions. But I think he’s more of the mind that you can look at the other side of the equation. What does it really feel like if you decide to disregard the form? My default position right now, and it will be interesting to see if I feel this way in five years, is that when you’re done, you’ve created a piece of music. You haven’t just created a series of unrelated experiences. It’s the same way that a painter, when they’re done, has a canvas with an image on it. In visual art, someone walks up to it and sees the whole thing, while music plays out over time. At the end of the day, it should be as much of a single, coherent thing as a piece of art you walk up to and look at all at once. I feel pretty strongly that that’s how listeners, especially less experienced listeners, approach this music. I say that from my memories of how I experienced improvised music before I was really immersed in it. You know, “It got more involved there, it got louder here, then they went faster, then there was the section with the extended notes.” You sort of hear these big chunks that define your experience, and I think it’s important. Everything else takes place within that framework.
As an improviser that’s absolutely something I’m thinking about. I’m often trying to build an organic structure, as much as I would as a composer. At relevant dramatic moments, I try to return to certain textures. I get very aggravated if a certain ‘dramatic ending’ is reached, and then if someone misses it and keeps playing. Compositionally, that would have made so much sense to end there. That’s something I think about a lot. But then to bring it back in terms of doing improvisation versus composing it, yeah, obviously if you compose it, form is one of those things that’s better done through composition than through improvisation, which is why I find myself being a composer a lot. That’s what I was referring to during The Delegation interview. As long as you’re thinking about it and keeping track of it, and not just letting it happen to you, I think someone with enough skill can create something just as nuanced as a composed form.
TJG: Many artists pressure themselves to encapsulate their life experiences within their musical statements. How familiar are you with this pressure, and does any of this inform your work?
GZ: Interesting. You know, I can’t say I’ve ever written a piece of music about my social policy research, and I can’t say I’ve felt pressure to do that. That may be a bit of a tongue-in-cheek answer but it’s true. I think in a lot of ways, my vision of what I’m trying to express in music is very emotional most of the time. It’s not related to specific actions, jobs I’ve had, or things I’ve studied. So in that sense, maybe ironically, sort of the range of stuff that I do is maybe not even that directly expressed in my music. I mean, it’s certainly there, because it all makes me who I am, right? So that’s part of the thing.
TJG: That’s fascinating, and a bit unexpected.
GZ: I’ve never been one to confine myself. A lot of people will have a very specific musical thing you know, like “I did this rigorous analysis of this one thing” which might be musical, or it could be anything. I imagine that if I were one of those people, I might take some of the stuff I’ve worked on in other fields and translate it into music. I’ve had a job for the last two years, working on policy regarding homelessness, and I suppose I might have a suite of pieces about homelessness, or something. But that’s not really how I think about things. I do think, in defense of those of us who have a lot of things going on, we do have less time to do whatever specific thing it might be, but I do feel pretty strongly that the more different things that I’m doing, the easier it is to keep creative in each one of them. If you hit a rut as a composer, and you go work on your policy job, it can really take your mind off of it, and you really come back fresher. So yes, I don’t spend all day doing music. I’ve got some other stuff going on. But you know, you come back to it, and it turns out that somewhere in the back of your brain you’ve been at it the whole time. You plant seeds and your brain develops them without you knowing about it.
TJG: Sure. So the relationship might be a more passive one?
GZ: Yeah! I think it’s more symbiotic, but in a more implicit or passive way.
TJG: So do you feel, or expect, any sort of more direct bridge in the near future between everything that fills your time? When multiple things happen within one person, they’re bound to cross paths at some point.
GZ: You know, I don’t think of the connection as being that direct. All my life I’ve done a lot of stuff. Most people probably sympathize with that. Many people give up all except for one at some point. I’m down to two general sets of things, and it’s working pretty well for me. Eventually I might have to give way somewhere, but maybe I’m in denial about that. I haven’t thought to much about it. For the time being, having two careers is working out pretty well [laughs]. I enjoy it, and I’m lucky that the schedules for both are pretty flexible. I do think, in my other world of policy and economics, things are very analytical. There’s very little emotional content. It’s very much math and critical thinking. And I do think that leads into how I experience music.
It’s hard to know how someone else hears and thinks, but based on a lot of conversations, I think that for me, there are certain meta-aspects of the music that tend to be black and white. Wait, that’s not quite right. Let me take back those two sentences. I am very analytical in the econ and policy stuff that I do. The truth is that I think music is very emotional. The point I was trying to make is that I think there are certain meta-questions in the music that I tend to see as having yes-or-no answers. As opposed to other people, who might say that there’s some mysticism there that you can’t explain. That’s something that thinking in a critical or quantitative world makes me less open to. But at the end of the day, my music is not very analytical, rigorous, or “mathy.” It’s about more raw, emotional content.
Zucker/Hocevar/St. Louis plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, July 30th, 2015. The group features Gabe Zucker on piano, Dre Hocevar on drums, Lester St. Louis on cello, and special guests for each set. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for the first set, $10 general admission ($8 for members) for the second. Free with SummerPass. Purchase tickets here.