A video circulating Instagram depicts trumpet player and composer Theo Croker quoting the words of his colleague Kassa Overall in an effort to describe their mutual approach to music: “Forget everything you ever played on this song.”
Overall meditates inside ambiguity. Over the years, he has approached making music from many vantage points: behind the drum kit, behind the mic, behind the audio mixer, and behind the hand-scribbled journal entry. Perhaps these different perspectives inspire him to remain open; perhaps his openness inspires the pursuit of different perspectives.
This weekend at The Jazz Gallery, Overall brings together Persistence of Memory, a new quartet that features Evan Flory-Barnes on bass, Ravi Coltrane on saxophone and Vijay Iyer on piano—artists who walk unique paths but share a common goal: finding connections through spontaneity, creativity, and trust.
Persistence of Memory promises an evening of spontaneous composition with very little—if any—traditional preparation ahead of the set. To approach a live performance with no expectations, no written music and no rehearsals, the players rely on their own instincts and an ability to honor each other’s instincts.
One of those instincts is Overall’s tendency to build a vibe and allow an energy to drive the direction of the music, an instinct that offers Flory-Barnes open-ended space for his lines to resonate. Though the two artists have a long collaborative association, their musical connection has intensified in recent years.
“I’ve always been attuned to what [Kassa’s] been doing since he’s been away from Seattle,” says Flory-Barnes who grew up with Kassa in the same zip code. “It’s always felt natural when we’ve played together in passing over the last 12 years, but within the last two and a half, it’s started to amplify. There’s that core of home, and then there’s this resonance of our own unique musical paths and spiritual paths. It’s a nice convergence of timing – being home and being out in the world at the same time.”
“It reminds me of when you’re in middle school,” says Overall, reflecting on his association with Flory-Barnes, “and everybody signs up for one thing—say it’s chess club or something. And then light dawns, things change and people move around. And then you come back and there’s only three people left, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re still doing the thing?’ ‘Yeah, I’m still doing the thing from way back then.’ ‘Me, too, still trying to do it.’ So at that point, we have similar visions and it’s like, ‘Yo bro, how been? Where you headed?’ ‘I’m headed the same place you headed.’ ‘Well I got gas money, let’s go.’”
Both Overall and Flory-Barnes embrace what some describe as the challenge of being authentic, as artists and as humans. Kassa uses his Tuesday Revive session in the West Village as a platform for experimentation and self-discovery. He invites new players into his performance on a weekly basis—that have included, among others, Ben Williams, James Francies and China Moses—as he bounces new lyrics, compositions and digital mediums off the audience and the other players. Flory-Barnes’ recent undertaking “On Loving the Muse and Family” reflects his own vulnerabilities through different mediums such as variety show sketches and monologues in addition to original orchestral compositions and a choir.
“I’m in a space of embrace and reinvention,” says Flory-Barnes. “I actually feel that in my own music, but it’s reflected back strong when I’m playing with Kass because I see a deep study of the music and a deep study of drumming—but then I see also this appreciation, knowledge, love, joy of hip hop and other forums. And I see the process as reinvention without throwing anything away. With my own work, I’m very much in the process of, ‘How do I bring these things together? What do I share uniquely?’ I’m actually finding inspiration playing with Kassa because it’s all out there – all the bags, all the vibes – and that’s about as authentic as you can get.
“Instead of contriving a certain image, it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna play burning tunes and then it’s gonna be this autotune thing with this deep and dense polyrhythmic yet grooving and accessible thing.’ I’ve been looking at it as a permission slip to explore. I have my music where I’m bringing together my love of Curtis Mayfield and Bjork, and my music where it’s bass oriented and I’m just singing. Sometimes you feel like you have to separate those things, but I feel like the most authentic thing you can do is bring them all together. So I’m finding that reflected through this experience.”
“Talking about being authentic, I think it is really hard,” says Overall. “It’s even hard for the audience because when there’s some music like that—some art like that—it bifurcates the community because not everybody is ready to process. So if you’re processing and the people around you aren’t ready to process, you’re pulling the rug out from you and everybody around you, and they’re like, ‘Hey, give me my rug back!’”
Flory-Barnes and Overall take their metaphors very seriously. As self-described storytellers who search for ways to express their truest selves, an outlet for spontaneous composition strikes a chord that can’t be unstruck. But Persistence of Memory is a quartet endeavor, and they’re not the only ones on the project who are excited to create music yet unknown, yet well loved. Pianist Vijay Iyer has longstanding relationships with both Overall and Coltrane, but has never collaborated Flory-Barnes—the two have never even met in person. Iyer views the upcoming performance as a series of moments in which the potential can transform into the kinetic.
“I think when someone puts a group together like this—this is basically Kassa’s brainchild—it’s usually because they hear the potential: a certain kind of balance, a certain set of interactions, a certain rapport,” says Iyer. “I imagine Kassa brought us together because he hears a compatibility. And I guess I’ve been through that process of sort of summoning an ensemble, curating or pulling together an ensemble from people I know. But I also know from over these years of working with a lot of people that, given time, anybody can make music together. You just have to take the time to figure out how. I trust Kassa’s instincts because I’ve known him and worked with him closely for long enough that I know he can hear on that level. He basically can hear into the future, or hear speculatively. You feel it even when you play with him, moment to moment, that he’s helping drive the shape of the music because he hears a direction for it.”
For Overall, the future he hears is clear in its infinite possibilities.
“Let’s say you’re going to give a speech,” he says, “and you know what you’re supposed to talk about and you write the speech and you read it. That’s one extreme. And then another extreme is like, ‘Hey, we want to pay you a lot of money to give a speech.’ And you don’t know what it’s going to be about; you haven’t written anything because you don’t know what you’re supposed to talk about—but you know that you have to move the people. I feel like that’s the more dangerous way. No training wheels—or climbing the mountain without the rope. To be honest, it’s really hard because you’re relying on the unknown, the invisible elements to help you out, and if you’re not really in tune with yourself, you can get up and there and you’re just not there. As opposed to a lot of people who don’t gamble with their art; they could be in tune, not in tune—either way, they know what they’re supposed to say. They wrote it out; they know it works—it’s more of an equation. As a listener, that doesn’t move me. It also makes me feel very itchy as a musician if there’s not some kind of space for the unknown or the risk.
“Nowadays, if you look at the society of rap—and that reflects everything else in life—nobody’s going, ‘Yo! That wasn’t a freestyle,’ because we’ve kind of gotten away from that to the point where people are almost taken aback when they see you creating in that kind of way. I feel honored to even have that ability, the opportunity to create like that and the courage to rely on it more as time goes by.”
Whether they view themselves as leaders or supportive players, as spontaneous composers and collaborators, Flory-Barnes and Overall are professional listeners. They listen not to decide whether to be receptive or to take initiative; they listen to evolve the conversation.
“It’s a dance,” says Flory-Barnes. “I feel like, as a bass player, in certain contexts, I look at myself as a tailor of sorts, where I’m sculpting a suit to fit the occasion for whatever is going on, but it still has my signature on it. On the inside lapel it says, ‘Made by EFB.’ When you’re leading something, there’s a part where you have to create space, and when you’re supporting, you have to have some initiatives about your playing: concepts and vision and direction—even if that concept and vision is, ‘Okay, we’re going into the unknown—bring your best and let’s see what happens.’
“Sometimes it’s a vision you can convey with your presence and your being and your vibe and your emotion, how you treat people. It’s creating this rapport and this vibe during rehearsals that makes people want to be there. When you’re a supportive player, you kind of scale those things down.”
Asked about the real-time negotiation between inviting someone into his musical narrative and inserting himself into someone else’s while improvising, gently but firmly, Iyer challenges the concept entirely.
“I think it’s simpler than all that,” he says. “It’s not that these narratives are colliding; it’s more that they’re giving way to one another. It’s more about a process of listening and accommodation, of merging and finding each other. I find that it’s best, at least for me, to release most of one’s own expectations or intentions or needs when you get into that context, and try to be as present as you can, and offer what you can to co-construct something.
“As a rhythm section player, I tend to try and stabilize the ensemble. I’m not really trying to take lots of solos; I’m trying to just be a uniter. Maybe that’s often a piano player’s role, or maybe just a rhythm section sensibility. So I guess I’m not so attached to me being heard as myself, because I don’t think that I can ever get around that anyway. I’m more concerned with stabilizing, uniting and building with the band.”
Each quartet member seems to value exploring how their contribution may fit within a variety of artistic mediums, including dance and theater, visual representation and digital technology. For Overall and Flory-Barnes, acknowledging commonality is part of that process – a process that helps them remain open to new experiences.
“It’s a forum for inspiration and expression,” says Flory-Barnes. “I find there are limits that a lot of people place, but when you become an artist who improvises and integrates, we learn how to draw a connection when, sometimes, there have been nothing but divisions. I kind of like seeing where that connection is, even though the channel of the mediums is different.”
“One thing that comes to mind is my mom who is a fundraiser for public radio,” says Overall. “She just came back from this big conference where the keynote speaker was talking about whether it’s a podcast or a radio show or a video, don’t think about the medium. You can’t think like that anymore. You have to just make the thing, and then figure out what it is. I think that’s the way I try to make music. With all these collaborations in so-called different fields, you just make a thing and you realize you’ve kind of drawn outside the line that would be what’s considered what you’re doing. I really like going in, blank canvas, thinking, ‘I’m going to make something.’ It’s not like making something for the sake of using video; you make something and then it’s like, ‘Man, this would only work if we had video.’ I think creating in that kind of way just adds to the idea of free thought and not being chained to the system. Even though you love the system and you’ve studied the system, you’re not chained to it.”
In the spirit of questioning systems, Iyer expresses a counter-understanding of readily conjured, typically separated categories: time, harmony and melody—creating a certain momentum for Overall’s project before the quartet even sets foot on the bandstand.
“These three categories that are used in the West to mean the ingredients of music, I don’t think they’re as separable as seems to be commonly believed,” he says. “I think I have a pretty broad view of what harmony is, for example. We can think of harmony as something that emerges from counterpoint; from another perspective, we can think of it as something that emerges from resonance. Those are two different perspectives; one is more horizontal, you could say, and one is more vertical. The resonance perspective has to do with how tones blend or how vibrations spread—how vibration is shared. So then in that sense, the strike of the piano and a drum at the same time, in a certain way, sets up a field of vibrations that interact. Some may reinforce one another; others may fight against each other.
“So I think having an ear for that sort of thing, that’s actually a core of this music—hearing how the comping of a piano player’s left hand is sort of in the same space as the snare drum, for example; or how the tones of the bass and the tones of the bass drum are basically in the same zone; or how the cymbals and the high hat and the high register of the piano kind of overlap quite directly so that, actually, we can kind of trade off functions. I can basically play a ride cymbal pattern in the top octave of the piano. So it’s kind of being aware of how tone works, because actually harmony and timbre are the same thing. That’s the resonance perspective of harmony.
“We also think of harmony in terms of changes, or change, which has to do with how things change in time. And that also has a lot to do with how energy is handled rhythmically. Harmony doesn’t change without rhythm. As soon as something changes in time, you’re talking about rhythm. So I guess there are multiple points of connection among these different concepts. I didn’t really talk about melody, but when we talk about counterpoint, we’re talking about simultaneous melodies. Also when we’re talking about melody, we’re talking about pitches changing in time, which means it’s also about rhythm. So there’s really no separating these concepts.”
Overall’s artistry tips toward Iyer’s impulse to connect rather than categorize, but each member of Persistence of Memory has trod his own musical path. For Kassa the philosopher, the convergence of these paths at The Jazz Gallery, if nothing else, will be.
“A lot of times nowadays you have a project, and the project is based around some kind of thing,” he says, “whether it’s a social movement or even an emotion like love. But I feel like there’s also something to be said for saying, ‘What if we put these four people in a room, and we don’t decide that it’s about this movement or that movement?’ The minds of the people that are on this project are so expansive, I’m just excited to see what will happen if we just go for it in an unbounded way.”
Persistence of Memory plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, August 2, 2018. The group features Kassa Overall on drums, Ravi Coltrane on saxophone, Vijay Iyer on piano and Evan Flory-Barnes on bass. 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. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.