A true musical polymath, pianist Michael Cain has forged a unique path through the international jazz scene over the last three decades. Cain has worked closely with artists as diverse as Jack DeJohnette, Billy Higgins, Greg Osby, and Me’Shell Ndege’Ocello, and his own music draws from traditions from around the world. His current working band is called Sola, and finds Cain exploring various forms of hip hop and electronica. An old Gallery regular, Cain will bring Sola to our stage this Thursday, July 20th, for two sets. We caught up with Cain last week by phone; excerpts of the conversation are below.
The Jazz Gallery: What’s your history with The Jazz Gallery?
Michael Cain: I’ve played there many times, but it’s been a while. I used to play there all the time when it first opened. The Gallery was my spot—it was my favorite. I’ve been friends with Rio Sakairi since before the Gallery opened, so I’ve seen it go through its various evolutions.
TJG: Can you talk about your band Sola, which is coming to the Gallery?
MC: Sola is the name of my working band right now, and the name of my last album. It was a combination of different horns and keyboard sounds and electronics. It’s an ensemble that helps me get to the world that I like living in.
TJG: What is that world?
MC: I would say that it’s some sort of combination of jazz, and some hip hop in there, and EDM and electronica, and somewhere there’s rock & roll—a kind of hybrid music. I hear all of those elements most clearly in the music.
TJG: Who are some of the people in the hip hop world that you’ve been listening to recently?
MC: I’m really into Kendrick Lamar and I’ve been spending a lot of time with Jay-Z’s new album. Definitely a lot of Migos.
For me, I need to hear what’s happening in the community right now, what people are dancing to. These days, I feel like I live in different places. I teach at Brandon University in Canada, and I spend a lot of time nowadays in Las Vegas, which is my hometown. When I’m in Vegas—which is a great place for music—I’m going out clubbing every night I can. So I’m listening to whatever’s playing in the club, whatever remixes are coming through. I feel I have to get that side of the music.
In my music—I’m 51 years old, so I’m not trying to imitate that music. But I have to hear that music to get to the sounds that I want to play, for some reason. I’ll start there, and really get a sense of what people are dancing to in a big way.
TJG: Are you trying to directly connect to this popular culture with your music, or is it just something that you’re opening yourself up to as a potential influence?
MC: That’s a great question. I would answer that two ways. One, because I’ve been a teacher for so long, I’m always connected to young culture. I keep getting older every year, but the students don’t, so I always have to stay plugged into what they’re talking about. Teaching is an exchange for sure, so they’re learning from me and I’m learning from them. So that’s part of it, but my ear has always naturally flowed that way too. I’ve always been fascinated with the music that young people are making. I’ve always been interested in their perspective—the sounds, the ideas, the concepts, how they’re constructing their world.
More specifically, it’s the nature of dance. It’s what’s happening in the club. For me, the club is the ritual. That’s where a lot of the music is really alive. What’s interesting about clubbing in Vegas, though, is that it’s not a velvet rope thing, or an age thing. Everybody from all generations can be there. I feel that the club is where everything comes together—the people, the dance, the sound, the energy. Because I study this music so much, when I go to write my own music, I can really feel how those sounds and sensibilities can play out in what I’m doing.
TJG: How do you feel about the way the club scene has changed over time?
MC: I definitely have the inevitable mixed feelings. I’ll still hear things that I’m amazed at. I can hear the genius of the culture and see it expressed in a young way. But what I also see is an increasing disconnect with traditions that came before, which to me translates into a lack of initiation. When I see a hip hop show, I’ll see young people acting out in the way they should be, at least to me. You’re supposed to be wild, you’re supposed to be wrong, you’re supposed to test boundaries. You get to a point of initiation and are ready for an elder to come in and help take that energy and talent and connect it to everything that came before. I feel that connecting to the tradition creates the energy that lets you be you as an artist.
One example of this disconnect in tradition comes from this experience I had in the studio. I do a lot of studio work now, particularly at this one great studio in Vegas where all kinds of heavy hitters come through—The OJ’s, the Jackson family came through last year, a lot of great local bands. With technology being what it is, I can do a lot of work from wherever. I can be in Canada teaching and also be laying down keyboard tracks. Through that work, I’ll do a lot of hip hop sessions. While I’m there to just play the session, I’ll always take some time to talk with the artist and talk about what I do as a professor. I did this session with this really great Vegas hip hop band called The Lique. The MC for that band is the unbelievably talented rapper Rasar Amani. Ridiculous. Last year, I brought Rasar to Canada and he rapped with the big band that I direct. We arranged some of The Lique’s music, which blew his mind! And I asked him to do workshops, and he wasn’t quite sure what to do, and I just told him to talk about how he does what he does. And afterward, he was like, “I gotta do more of these! I didn’t know this world existed!” That’s a part of what I do—not only engage with youth culture as a learner, but also as an initiator, someone who can introduce these young artists to older traditions and other worlds.
I feel so strongly about this engagement because I went through it as a young musician myself. I acted out, I was a young punk who thought he knew everything, and yet there were elder musicians who took me in. Whether it was Jack DeJohnette or some other folks I played with for a while, they showed me patience and engagement. They didn’t come in saying “I’m going to show you how it’s done.” They came in wanting to invite me into a relationship, and through that time, we’ll make music together, we’ll live together, and you’ll observe other modes of making music. And from the elder’s perspective, they get youthful creativity in the band. I really learned a lot from Jack about how to be a person functioning in the world.
TJG: How has all of your teaching experience affected your approach as a player?
MC: Teaching has affected it profoundly. There was a period in the early ’90s when I felt like I was almost always on the road. There were still a lot of labels out there, I had record contracts, I played on a lot of records. I didn’t teach a lot didn’t that time, but I noticed when I was recording or touring, caught in the hustle, I sometimes had this feeling that I didn’t love the music I was making. But after the end of a day teaching, I would feel complete, really fulfilled. As time went on, I felt that teaching was going to be really central to what I do. One of the great things about teaching for me is that I’m around such interesting people, guaranteed. It’s like I’m plugged into this funnel of very smart, very creative people at very interesting times in their lives. I feel very plugged into this vibration, this network of people that are constantly wanting to engage and talk with you. In addition, I really saw what a craft it is. It really takes a long time to learn how to do well.
It was when I got to NEC when I really decided that I wanted to commit to teaching. I began to explore a lot of different ways of learning, whether one-on-one or in classroom settings, what resources you need, what are so-called best practices. The more I went into that world, the more I found that I was turning down tours and projects. The balance shifted.
TJG: I’d like to talk a bit about your most recent album with Sola. The second track is called “Esu Dance”—does that title come from Yoruba mythology? Esu is a trickster, but also speaks all of these different languages and can be a mediator between the gods and humans, so I found that it’s an appropriate analog to how you speak these many musical languages.
MC: I definitely had that idea in mind, and you’re the first person to ever comment on that! A lot of those ideas came from Henry Louis Gates’s book, The Signifying Monkey. It’s a heavy book. He’s tracing the African-American literary tradition and black vernacular, which for me are the root traditions that so many things flow out of, including jazz or dance music. The fact that I call it “Esu Dance (Traditional)” is a bit of a joke, because it’s definitely not traditional, but it’s definitely thinking about lineage in the way Gates talks about it.
TJG: Can you talk a bit more about how these African sources have affected your musical thinking?
MC: I first started coming up on the jazz scene in Los Angeles in the 1980s. I was playing with a lot of people out there, like Billy Higgins and Gerald Wilson. It’s really interesting—all the guys playing with Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus, their fathers were some of the big LA musicians that were around when I was coming up. The thing about LA at that time was that it was a real community. If you played around, you weren’t just there for the gig—you were having dinner at folks’ houses, you were at this or that event, you were a part of something larger. A lot of those musicians told me that it was really time for me to check out the roots of what was going on. I went to CalArts too, and did the whole world music thing there. They had an African music ensemble every semester that played Ewe music. The great thing about CalArts is that world music was always taught by people indigenous to the particular region. For example, you got to study with drum masters from Ghana, or gamelan musicians from Indonesia. From that point on, I became a student of that line of thinking. And after all of that training, I began to hear African-American music in a whole new way. I could thread all of these things I heard back to their folkloric roots. It was like being a musical anthropologist.
When I moved to New York in 1990, I played a lot with Billy Hart. Aside from being the jazz drum legend that we know him to be, Billy is a musical anthropologist of epic proportions. If you sit with him for nine hours on a train, you’re gonna hear about rhythms and beats and claves and how they spread and the various mythologies and deities that are connected to those beats and rhythms. I remember touring in Brazil with Billy. He played this rhythm during the show and afterward, people came up to him and said, “That’s our people’s rhythm! That’s from our region!” And Billy was like, “I know! That’s why I played it.” I spent years around him and he really showed me a way of seeing this music as a kind of global map. It was like Billy did this genome mapping of different rhythms, and knew how they traveled. So I really spent a lot of time with a lot of people who introduced me to this line of thinking, starting in the ’80s, and it’s stayed with me since.
TJG: For the Gallery show, will you be just featuring music from the last record, or do you have new tunes in the book as well?
MC: Some tunes from the album, but we have a lot of new tunes that have come up now. I’ve been playing with this configuration for a while now—we just had some great shows in Vegas, and we’re doing a west coast tour later this year. But this band in particular is my Canadian crew. So we’re doing new music, but also the music from the album has really evolved. Since we’ve been able to play so much together, we’ve had a lot of opportunities to tweak and work out and explore and discover what we do well. When I first did the record, I didn’t give music to the guys beforehand. It wasn’t stuff that they had to practice and learn, but I did it to capture a certain immediacy, even if there were some warts. I want to hear them playing for the first time. If I send music beforehand, the players will work things out and the recording becomes them plugging in the things they’ve already figured out, and I like that sound less.
I do a lot of post-production on records like this—cutting, tweaking. For me, it’s like making a film. I’m the filmmaker and the band are the actors. We show up on set, we shoot all these different kinds of scenes. Some of the scenes make sense to the actors, but sometimes, they won’t even know what part of the tune we’ll be recording. And I’m functioning as a director, saying, “Let’s try this other thing. Let’s loop this. You play a solo here.” It’s weird to them—it doesn’t feel like a tune—and I’m all happy! And then I go off on my own, and put it all together as scenes, as the form. So the album sounds natural, like it could have been played straight through. That’s just now how we did it, though.
TJG: The group doesn’t have a bass player. Can you talk about your approach to holding down both the harmony and bass line?
MC: My right hand does all the keyboards/Rhodes/piano parts and my left hand works with all my Minimoog samples, those synth basses. Do you know that band King?
MC: I know some of their family in Minneapolis and they took me to one of their shows. I saw them using that keyboard bass and was like, “Man that sounds good!” With that instrument hooking up with the drummer, you can go a lot of places quickly.
TJG: How do manage this kind of multifaceted setup?
MC: At this point, everything I do is part of this Ableton Live world. I have all of these setups in the program where I can trigger samples, sometimes beats, sometimes spoken word things. I can trigger loops. All of the different sounds I’m using are virtual plug-ins. So this is all looped through my keyboard, and I also have an iPad running the program Conductor where I can mix… the iPad becomes the interface for everything, really. I just use a basic Yamaha digital piano because I like the feel of it, but everything runs through the computer. Even the sounds have gotten to the point where they’re really close to the actual analog instruments they’re imitating.
For me, the finished product nowadays is digital anywhere, whether some form of compressed sound, or some form of streaming. If you’re going to end digital, you may as well use it on the front end as well. With all the pop and hip hop sessions I’m doing, remaining true to the medium from beginning to end is really important. I’m not trying to adapt analog to digital.
Michael Cain & Sola play The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, July 20th, 2017. The group features Mr. Cain on keyboards,Aren Teerhuis on saxophone/vocals, Stormy Allen on trombone/vocals, Scott Brown on guitar, and Eric Platz on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. FREE with SummerPass. Purchase tickets here.