Bassist Fima Ephron is one of those musicians whom you’ve definitely heard play, but maybe not have heard of. He’s played on the scores for films like Fame and 2010’s Howl; toured with singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant; and been a member of Screaming Headless Torsos and Lost Tribe, two defining bands of the 1990s downtown scene in New York.
More recently, Ephron has toured extensively with saxophonist Chris Potter, and he joined Potter onstage at The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday as part of our rent party fundraiser. As a bassist, Ephron slips effortlessly in and out of different styles, always making his presence felt, but never drawing undue attention. But while it is easy to characterize Ephron as a strong, silent type, he’s also an accomplished composer and has recently been stepping out more as a leader.
This year, Ephron has begun performing his original music with a group he calls f33MS4, featuring regular collaborators Adam Rogers on guitar, Kevin Hays on keyboards, and Nate Smith on drums. The group will be making their Gallery debut this Saturday evening with Ziv Ravitz will be filling in on drums. We caught up with Fima by phone this week to hear more about this exciting new group and how the scene for improvised music in New York has changed over the course of his career.
The Jazz Gallery: To start, can you tell us a bit about how this group came together?
Fima Ephron: Adam and I played together for many years in different bands, and I’ve been playing in his trio called DICE, along with drummer Nate Smith. Nate is our usual drummer, but he couldn’t make the gig. I heard Ziv Ravitz playing with Shai Maestro’s group a couple of months ago and I really loved the way he played, so that’s how he became involved. I’ve played with Kevin Hays in Donny McCaslin’s group and I’ve always loved how he plays. It’s not really a working band at this point in that we have a lot of gigs together—we’ve played about three gigs so far—but it’s a group of musicians that I really love to play with, and that’s why I chose them for the group.
TJG: Did the kind of music you were writing help suggest which musicians would fit well in the group?
FE: Less specifically than the fact that I know Adam’s playing and I know Kevin’s playing, and I know that everyone is a phenomenal musician and that we all have sensibilities that work well together.
TJG: You’ve spent much of your career as a sideman, or in collaborative groups like Screaming Headless Torsos and Lost Tribe. What has made you want to step out as a leader with this group?
FE: I’m not the most prolific writer, but I do like to compose. I contributed music to Screaming Headless Torsos and Lost Tribe and have done a couple of my own albums. In a way, I just like hearing my music played by great musicians, and when I have that opportunity I tend to get really excited and inspired to write a lot.
TJG: Are you composing tunes for this group that are similar to what you wrote for groups like Lost Tribe, or are you after something different here?
FE: I wish I could say I had a real concept in terms of the writing for this group, but in the end I really just write what sounds interesting to me, which can take many forms. I’m not someone who thinks conceptually about composition; it’s a much more intuitive process for me. I like to try different things out and see how they work on stage.
TJG: Here’s a chicken or the egg question: when you’re writing, do the musicians you’re playing with on a particular gig affect how you compose, or do the tunes you compose affect what musicians you want to have in your band for a particular gig?
FE: I don’t think it’s completely either one of those scenarios. I’m just writing music. These guys happen to be friends of mine and I know that they can play all kinds of music really well. They all have a wide-open aesthetic. If I called other musicians to play this music, it wouldn’t sound the same, but I think the tunes I write are open enough that they can work well in different contexts.
TJG: Going back to your experience as a sideman, has this experience informed how you lead a group like this one?
FE: As a sideman, you get a good sense of lots of people’s leadership styles. Playing with a great variety of leaders has allowed me to watch and learn how really good leaders are able to get musicians to work well together. Sometimes it just takes a certain personality to pull everything together. I think the most important things are just to be responsive to and honest with the people you’re playing with.
I feel that letting go and letting the other musicians express themselves in the way they want to makes for a better dynamic on the bandstand, even if that means you don’t have as much control over where the music goes. I’ve certainly learned a lot about leading a band from being a sideman, but it’s a whole different experience putting that into practice, and it’s something I’m still working on.
TJG: You were a vital member of the 1990s downtown scene that centered around clubs like the Knitting Factory. How has the changing landscape of New York affected the musicians and bands from that scene? How has the music changed since then?
FE: I don’t claim to be some sort of authority on the New York music scene, but from my own experience it seems to me that there’s an ebb and flow. The Knitting Factory was a creative hub for me and a lot of other people I played with. It gave us an opportunity to play and hear what other like-minded people were doing. In the time I’ve been on the New York scene I’ve noticed shifts, and it seems like in Manhattan, because of real estate prices and everything, there are fewer places to play, but there’s a lot more stuff happening in Brooklyn than 15 years ago.
In the end, what’s most important about the spaces to play in is the support system that comes with them. I feel that most creative people are trying to follow their own muse—the creative process exists in its own space away from the audience. A place like The Jazz Gallery or the Knitting Factory provides a place for people to experience the results of the creative process, but I don’t necessarily think that the space affects the direction of the music. What’s great about The Jazz Gallery or Knitting Factory is that they’re places where musicians would check out other musicians. If you go hear something and it’s really inspiring, that can help move your inspiration in a new direction.
TJG: Going off of that, I find that places like The Jazz Gallery or ShapeShifter Lab don’t have a defined sound or aesthetic in the same way that the Knitting Factory did. Do you think that’s a positive or negative aspect to the scene today?
FE: I think part of that has to do with personalities, like if you have a John Zorn or Steve Coleman who has a singular vision that defines a particular scene. But even back then there was a lot of different styles of music being played in the downtown scene. There was rock stuff and ethnic stuff and free jazz. It wasn’t just one thing. Maybe it’s more diverse now. I’m not sure. And that can be a good thing because it means that people are expressing their own personal musical vision and not feeling the pressure to conform to a particular aesthetic.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter to me what people are doing stylistically as long as it resonates with me. I’m influenced by all kinds of music, and I think that was an interesting part of all the bands I’ve played in, both in the ‘90s and today. So I think it’s a good thing if you can go to a performance space and hear a really wide variety of music.
Fima Ephron’s f33MS4 performs at The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, July 12th, 2014. The group features Ephron on bass, Adam Rogers on guitar, Kevin Hays on keyboards, and Ziv Ravitz on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. $22 general admission ($10 for Members). Purchase tickets here.