For a working musician in New York, it’s common to play in multiple ensembles. It’s not too uncommon to be a bandleader for two or more groups. It’s rare, however, when a bandleader decides to take two freestanding bands and create a new project combining every member of both groups. That’s exactly what Chris Lightcap has done with SuperBigmouth, a combination of his longstanding groups Bigmouth and Superette. The mega-band features all eight members of the two bands, including keyboardist Craig Taborn, tenor saxophonists Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek, guitarists Jonathan Goldberger and Curtis Hasselbring, and drummers Gerald Cleaver and Dan Rieser. The full lineup will hit the stage at The Jazz Gallery on October 3rd to celebrate the release of their upcoming album. We spoke with Lightcap on the phone about the logistics of leading a larger project, the musical opportunities afforded by overlapping instrumentation, and perhaps most importantly, all the details on his adorable new puppy.
The Jazz Gallery: How have you been? Is now a good time to chat?
Chris Lightcap: Yep, now is cool, let me just check something… We just got a puppy, so I just want to see if she’s doing okay [laughs]. Everything looks good.
TJG: Aw! What kind of puppy?
CL: They’re calling them Bernedoodles: She’s a Bernese Mountain Dog mixed with a Miniature Poodle. So, a mini Bernedoodle.
TJG: Wow. How’d you decide on that breed?
CL: There’s one in our building already. We met this dog, and he’s completely amazing. We got in touch with the same breeder that they used. We wanted to get a rescue dog, but any time you find a poodle mix at a shelter, it’s usually been spoken for–my wife’s allergic to dogs, so we needed some kind of poodle mix. We decided to bite the bullet and go for this breeder. Amazingly, two weeks later, our neighbors from across the street showed up with a puppy from the exact same litter: Our puppy’s sister. Our neighbors got the same idea when they met the other Bernedoodle in our building. So, our puppy has her sister living across the street from us, and her half-brother living downstairs.
TJG: You’ve got a whole block full of Bernedoodles.
CL: Yeah, it’s all Bernedoodles all the time now [laughs].
TJG: It’s not so common for a touring musician to get a pet.
CL: It was a stretch, for sure. But she seems to be pretty easy, as far as puppies go. We have a million great dog walkers in the neighborhood, and it’s a very dog-friendly neighborhood. I know several musicians around who have dogs, and they’ve given me a lot of great advice about how to tour when you have a dog, what to do when you get out of town, different boarding options. My wife and I have two older kids now, 10 and 14, who get themselves home from school and help out. It’s not as overwhelming as it might seem.
TJG: Has the dog done anything for your musical life? Has she changed your practice routine? Do you improvise along with her barking?
CL: [Laughs] It’s made me a lot more productive. I was already used to that from having kids, but this kicks things up a notch. The dog is actually really into music: I put on WQXR, the classical station, and she just chills out and takes these long naps. I can leave her alone for an hour or two at a time. We lucked out.
TJG: So, let me ask about SuperBigmouth. Lots of musicians have more than one band, but they usually keep them separate. What was your idea about putting them together? I see you did gigs at Roulette and Shape Shifter Lab in 2017, was that a catalyzing moment?
CL: The gigs were set up by me as an opportunity for the larger ensembles to perform and try out new music. Almost as soon as I put Superette together, I started hearing the guitars and saxophones from Bigmouth and Superette interacting in my imagination. I was intrigued by what it might be like to write for that. Then I thought, I might as well have both drummers play too. And Craig. And then: I’ll just put the two bands together. It became a foregone conclusion that when I was done with whatever we were going to do with Superette, I was going to try to do SuperBigmouth.
The opportunity to write for SuperBigmouth ultimately came through grants from Chamber Music America and The Shifting Foundation, writing and production grants. I realized, I better do this now while I have the opportunity. To do something on this scale is usually way beyond my budget. Any recording is out of my budget. I was lucky to have CMA to fund Epicenter, and Shifting funded the Superette record, and both funded SuperBigmouth. It was just a matter of seizing the opportunity when it was presented to me. I started writing about a year and a half before we did the first gigs: I needed that time because with my touring schedule, and all of the other bands that I play with, I end up doing a lot of my composition on the road. That’s how the whole process played out.
TJG: So with these larger projects, do the grants dictate what you’re able to create?
CL: It’s not that they’re dictating. Grants presents opportunities. The great thing about the Chamber Music America end of things is that there’s a writing stage, a performing stage, and then you have additional funds to use for other things related to the work. You can use it for recording, touring, promotion. With Epicenter, we did the two premieres on a tour, and had additional money at the end for recording. That was fantastic. We did a whole West Coast tour that included several festival shows, and then came back and recorded it a year later. This is my third time writing and producing a record due to the good fortune of getting this grant money.
TJG: With the Roulette and Shape Shifter gigs, what did you learn, and what did you come away with that you’re now following up on with this new music?
CL: The Shape Shifter show was September of 2017, and that was the first time we performed. Roulette was two months later, and was right before we recorded. That gave me two months to make revisions to the music. I didn’t do a lot of writing in my revising, but I had a lot of time to think about how we were going to do production, how things were going to work in terms of improvising versus composed material, collective improvising versus solos, different combinations of duos, setting up pieces to have saxophone and guitar doing improvised duos with the band, on the second track, “Zero Point Five.” I was able to think through all of that.
“Through Birds, Through Fire” is the lead track, the first single that was released. I ended up writing the whole intro after the Shape Shifter gig. It originally started with bass and drums, and I wanted it to start with something that felt like more of an event. It needed something there. I did the opposite, starting with guitars and saxophones, then had bass and drums enter in the middle of that. I thought that worked more effectively. I took it from material I’d already written for the end of the piece. That’s the way I write, a lot of the time. I start with a bunch of material, then mold it, rather than trying to start from nothing, I’ll take a bunch of stuff I already have, and use it in a modular way, moving things around. I find it to be a very fun way to work.
Composing can be very overwhelming when you start at the beginning with nothing, and I try to use whatever skills I have as an improviser to come up with lots of material that I can then decide what will work where. I talk to a lot of younger composers about this. I have a fair number of young bass students who come to me and end up wanting to take composition lessons. That’s one of the things I try to tell them: Capitalize on what you can do as an improviser. Being able to do that is a huge asset. It becomes so much more intertwined with the rest of your process as a musician, rather than thinking of composing as a separate activity, which was always hard for me.
TJG: You mentioned that one of the catalysts was “pairs of people,” and curiosity about their interaction: Tony and Chris on saxophone, Gerald and Dan on drums, Johnathan and Curtis on guitar. What was it like being in the studio, watching the duos negotiate each others’ space?
CL: It was really fun. I had a good sense of how Tony and Chris sounded together, and how Johnathan and Curtis sounded together. I also had a good sense of what the combination of the four of them was, from the gigs, but I heard it so much more clearly in the studio. With Gerald and Dan, they had never worked together before, and I’d never been a bandleader on a project with two drummers before. I wanted to make sure that Gerald and Dan were in the same room—I wanted as many of us in the same room as possible, but I knew it wasn’t going to be practical, because we didn’t have enough time in the studio. So I decided to have Gerald, Dan, Curtis, Jonathan, Craig and myself in the main tracking room at Brooklyn Recording, and then I put Tony and Chris in their own room. By doing that, I was able to start with a natural room sound, and got a lot of interaction between the harmonics of Gerald and Dan’s cymbals, and between Tony and Chris.
When mixing, we had a lot of fun getting different levels, different room sounds, and hearing how the different combinations work. There are some times where all four of them are improvising together. There are times where Tony and Jonathan are playing lines, or where Chris and Curtis are playing, still other times where Chris and Tony go off and do their thing. A lot of moments for Tony, Chris, and Jonathan, with Curtis doubling my bass parts. With the writing, performing, and production, those combinations were particularly fun.
Once my writing process is done, I can really have fun with that. I don’t stress about it. The balance and musicianship are already in place, everyone sounds great. I don’t have to worry about “Man, this part’s not in time.” Gerald and Dan came up with all these amazing drum parts together as a drum section. They blew me away throughout the entire process. The challenge with two drummers is that they’re either used to being the only drummer, so they overplay, or they’re overly deferential to each other. Somehow, they found a balance where neither one of those things happen. It really sounds like two drummers, it’s a wonderful combination.
TJG: One more question: Funny enough, yesterday I went to a round table discussion with the rapper Common, who was talking about how as his career, budget, influence have expanded, he’s been attempting to use that platform as an activist. That seems like a trend with people who have expanding projects. With Snarky Puppy, their music has become more socially conscious as their audience and projects expand. As your musical scope widens, are you starting to think about what that could mean for you as a musician in the public eye?
CL: I am a political junkie myself, and I’m involved in a fair amount of political action and activism. I’ve never actively pursued that in terms of my role as a bandleader. Part of my reason for that is that bandleading ends up being a relatively small part of my life as a musician. I take part in benefits as much as I can as a player, donating my time for good political and social causes. But this is something I’d like to pursue. If I’m given enough of an opportunity to do it, I would love to. There are a couple of thinly veiled titles on my record that have a political bent. The last one, “Sanctuary City,” is a reference to the manufactured immigration crisis by the person who I refuse to acknowledge is our president—I don’t mind anyone knowing that I can’t stand Trump: That’s not a very controversial stance. Anyway, I think all those things steep into my writing. In terms of speaking out against it, as a way of presenting my music, it’s something I haven’t done yet, but I’d love to be given the opportunity to do more of that, and it’s something I intend to seek out more.
Chris Lightcap’s SuperBigmouth plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, October 3, 2019. The group features Mr. Lightcap on bass, Craig Taborn on organ, piano, & Wurlitzer piano; Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek on tenor saxophone; Jonathan Goldberger and Curtis Hasselbring on guitar; and Gerald Cleaver and Dan Rieser on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $2o reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.