Pianist Pascal and saxophonist Remy, the Le Boeuf Brothers, return to The Jazz Gallery this week to perform new music from their upcoming release that features the JACK Quartet, a leading new-music string quartet that has been acclaimed for its “explosive virtuosity” (Boston Globe) and “viscerally exciting performances” (The New York Times). The brothers have performed at the Gallery numerous times over the years—including a premiere performance of a Franz-Kafka inspired, Chamber Music America-commissioned work in November 2012—so we’re excited to welcome back to our stage the brothers, who will be performing quintet minus strings.
Here’s our conversation with the Le Boeuf brothers about their upcoming show on Wednesday:
The Jazz Gallery: According to Remy’s website, you’ve just recorded a new album, which features strings. Can you tell us a bit more about what’s to come on this album, and how you’ve adapted it for live performance—in this case, without strings?
Pascal Le Boeuf: We don’t want to give out too much about the concept of the album, but we can say that it is a collaboration with JACK Quartet. It’s going to feature JACK Quartet, Ben Wendel plays tenor and bassoon on it, and the rhythm sections will alternate between Justin Brown and Ben Street, and Peter Kronreif and Martin Nevin. Justin and Martin will be playing at the Gallery, so it’ll be the band from the CD.
Remy Le Boeuf: It’s also going to be my oboe debut, as far as jazz recordings go, which I’ve been excited about for a long time. Ben and I are going to do a little oboe-bassoon duet, but the project is basically based around music inspired by literature. I’ve got a piece that we originally premiered at The Jazz Gallery last time we played there: A Dream: The Beautiful Imagination of Franz Kafka. That’s a twenty-minute narrated piece, and we’ve got this excellent narrator, Paul Whitworth, who really gives a strong character to the piece.
Pascal’s written a bunch of amazing new works and after our last album, which was a remix album, we were hoping to explore another area, which was more contemporary classical influences. That comes out in our collaboration with JACK Quartet, and they’re just one of the most solid string quartets in New York right now, I feel. They were amazing to work with and we tried our best to give them a vehicle to be who they are, compositionally at least.
TJG: You recorded with strings previously, didn’t you?
PLB: On that album [In Praise of Shadows], we added strings afterwards. We were really getting into postproduction, so we wanted to take postproduction and use it in an acoustic way, which is really nothing terribly special—I mean, every rock band does that—so not to sell ourselves short, but this one is more traditional in terms of how we recorded things.
TJG: Are the strings improvising as well? How did you negotiate that, working with improvisors outside of jazz?
PLB: We tried to make the language loose enough that they could interpret and improvise over the compositions without having to think in terms of chord changes. I feel like there’s a whole style of improvisation within the contemporary classical genre, and just by listening to things I think there are a lot of albums that do that really well. Vijay Iyer just did an album with strings [Mutations], which I definitely listened to and thought, “I wonder how this works.” And the improvisation for the strings is more about concepts, like, “Here are the rules of the game, and you can dance within it.” It’s the same as jazz in an overarching way, but a little more flexible in some ways as well.
RLB: I’d say it’s really interesting to interact with the guys in JACK in the realm of improvisation because we’re both coming out of different traditions, yet we have so much shared language to communicate with.
TJG: The show on Wednesday won’t feature strings, though.
RLB: Right. We’re going to be doing a mix of stuff from the upcoming album; we’ll probably play some stuff from our past albums and some new material that we’ve been working on.
TJG: The music on your past few records sounds so expansive and lushly produced through headphones; how do you negotiate expectations for your audiences with a live situation?
PLB: I think regardless of how the music is produced for headphones—which, by the way, I’m glad you said because I like to write for headphones, too—it’s really about compositional devices and statements. We don’t have a string quartet, but I’ll use a keyboard that has the same effect. It’s not like I’m going to put a string patch on it, but recently I did a gig at the [Jazz] Standard where I wanted to play this one song from the Le Boeuf Brothers album we just recorded, and instead of strings I took a little keyboard and put it through a bunch of guitar pedals and was able to create a similar atmosphere.
There are ways to recreate the function of a piece live without having all the bells and whistles, or the production stuff, or the strings playing. I think at the Gallery I’m going to try to stick mostly to piano, but I’m going to bring a little keyboard and pedals for the things that a piano can’t do.
TJG: Jazz albums today are sometimes unfairly labeled by critics as “pandering” to audiences or “detached from the jazz tradition” when they try to incorporate modern techniques like post-production techniques/remixes, or otherwise they’re labeled as hopelessly out-of-touch with the present when they don’t…
RLB: You’re absolutely right. If you’re not one thing … there’s no place to live, especially if you’re fusing different things together. It’s a really hard thing to do. At least, it’s a hard thing to get critics into your music if you’re not basically doing what they’re already familiar with. But there are some really cool critics out there; you just never know who you’re going to get when it comes to reviews.
PLB: I do think that it’s frustrating that a lot of jazz-specific writers are not familiar with the electronic music that, say, influenced our Remixed album. I mean, some of them are, but I think that because of that, it was harder to find an audience among critics for a project like that as opposed to a project that’s more based upon tradition in an obvious way that people can understand.
I mean, we’ll just keep writing the music and people can write words about it if they want. It’s not going to influence our process, and we respect the tradition for sure—we’re definitely about that—but I think there’s more than one tradition out there: there’s a tradition to jazz, there’s a tradition to rock, there’s a tradition to electronic music, and there’s nothing wrong with mixing them.
As a matter of fact, within jazz it’s frustrating to hear people incorporate electronic music without ever checking out the electronic music tradition, you know, because it takes a lot of work to go through the evolution from Brian Eno to Flying Lotus and think about how certain things work and certain things don’t. If I want to do something different, I want to make sure it works.
RLB: I feel like when it comes to being a music critic, it doesn’t really matter what genre it is. I don’t really like it when people listen to my music in terms of picking apart traditions; I like it when they hear it as an emotional language and just see it in that context because, to me, that’s what’s most important. And that’s part of the reason why both of us were inspired to base this next album off of language rather than other music.
RLB: When critics write about the upcoming album, we hope they get on board with the fact that, yes, we are using the tradition of 20th century literature—our take on it.
TJG: You both have a solid jazz pedigree, having studied at MSM with highly respected elders on the scene. Do you ever get feedback from them about your more adventurous, less traditional projects?
RLB : Yes, I remember Dave Liebman gave us some feedback after our first project, which was really kind of him—just general music feedback—but when we put out the Remixed album, we got feedback in the form of interest. Tim Lefebvre wanted to a do remix, Dave Binney—who was one of the guys we really respected growing up—was down to do a remix, and even our peers. Now that we’re out of school, I feel like the relationships between peers and elders are kind of breaking down.
We’re all people and we all find ourselves working together, and in order to work with somebody you have to be equals; to work successfully with somebody, you have to see each other eye to eye, I think. So that’s been an interesting transition post-school, I suppose, but we’ve gotten positive feedback from people. I’m sure if there’s negative feedback, they’re more likely not to say anything. [laughing]
PLB: I’d love to hear what Kenny Barron thinks of the Remixed album.
TJG: So you both clearly listen to a ton of music.
RLB: Yeah! [laughing]
TJG: Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the idea that you will never listen to it all? How do you prioritize what you’re checking out, especially if you’re incorporating sampling into your music?
PLB: Well, we usually sample from ourselves more than we do from other things, so that’s not such an issue, but for me listening is really about feeling. It’s about some way to acknowledge what you’re feeling.
It’s almost like a therapy: if I’m overwhelmed in the subway and it’s crowded and it’s rush hour, then if I put on something like Miles Tilmann or Sigur Rós or the new Boards of Canada album, which I love—
RLB: —wait, which one?
PLB: Tomorrow’s Harvest?
RLB: Oh, that’s not new anymore!
PLB: It’s not the newest one, whatever. [After putting on music] Then it puts me at ease. I can close my eyes and I’m in a happy place. It’s the same way we prescribe music if we want to party, and we put on James Brown. It really helps me get in touch with my feelings, so I really try to do that first and let that inspire my music.
There was some dissonance when I was in college 10 years ago, where I realized that the music I played and the music I listened to were different, and that I should be finding the bridge between those things. Now I really try to link what I listen to with what I feel with what I’m playing, so even if I’m playing a jazz gig and I’m listening to Boards of Canada, I’ll be thinking about Boards of Canada in my head and the way I was feeling in the subway, and that will come out somehow.
RLB: That said, I still listen to a lot of everything—jazz as well. The new Joshua Redman album is really good, Trios Live. There’s a lot of stuff out there, but I feel like it comes on its own. I’ll put something on or somebody will send me something or my friend will put out an album; I just feel like I’ve always got plenty of good stuff to listen to.
The Le Boeuf Brothers Band performs on Wednesday, August 20th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The band features Remy on alto saxophone, Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone, Pascal on piano, Martin Nevin on bass, and Justin Brown on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. First set is $15 general admission and $10 for Members. Second set is $10 general admission and $5 for Members. Free for SummerPass Holders. Purchase tickets here.