As a drummer and composer, Colin Hinton balances an eclectic taste with a sharp focus. He’s as comfortable in a free improvisation setting as he is writing exacting chamber music. This Thursday, September 6, Hinton will make his Jazz Gallery debut as a bandleader with his group Facehugger, a quintet that sits at the nexus of contemporary improvisation and concert music. Featuring woodwind players Anna Webber and Yuma Uesaka, guitarist Edward Gavitt, and bassist Shawn Lovato, Facehugger will head into the studio next week to record their debut album. We caught up with Hinton to discuss his path through diverse musical styles and their communities, and how this journey has impacted his work with Facehugger.
The Jazz Gallery: Your music explores a lot of intersections between different musical practices—namely improvisational practices from jazz as well as sounds and structures from modernist classical music. How did this exploration begin for you?
Colin Hinton: A lot of this started when I became more aware of the AACM. My background was in playing more straight-ahead and modern jazz and that was initially what I wanted to do when I moved to New York in 2011. After trying to do that for a couple of years, I never felt like I fully committed to it, I felt burned out. I didn’t really know what else was out there. I then started hanging out more with Tyshawn Sorey and following him around. He really introduced me to this musical world that I knew existed, but didn’t know that much about. A lot of what he showed me initially centered on the AACM, specifically the music of Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams.
TJG: In that period, were there particular records or pieces from those musicians that ended up being big eye-openers?
CH: I got the Art Ensemble record A Jackson in Your Houseway before I got into this music. I was probably 19 or 20. It was a pretty huge record for me, but I didn’t really understand the context behind what the Art Ensemble was. Tyshawn then told me to check out Braxton’s ‘80s quartet, specifically the live recordings from Coventry and Birmingham.
I didn’t completely understand what was going on—I wasn’t really familiar with Braxton’s musical world and how the band approached those pieces as part of a big, open work. But I was just fascinated by the initial aesthetic of what they were doing. It wasn’t until a lot later when I went back and bought those records Four Compositions, Five Compositions, Six Compositions, that make up the bulk of the source material for those live performances. I can’t stress enough how big of an influence his music and writings have been. Everything about the man is inspiring. The way he talks about music and life really resonated with me. I’ve actually never heard him play live or had the opportunity to meet him, but hopefully I will get to one day.
One of the other people that had a huge influence on me at the time was Ingrid Laubrock. I studied composition with her for about two years. She also showed me a lot of AACM records, especially a lot of Henry Threadgill records that I didn’t know, but then talked with me a lot about Stockhausen and other composers that she was drawing from.
At about that same time, Tyshawn got me into Morton Feldman, and I started getting into more contemporary classical music. The culmination of this path in a lot of ways came about a year and a half ago when I started studying composition with Eric Wubbels and he just blew the lid open on a lot of that world for me. In a way, I feel like I ended heading toward this world because I felt like I had exhausted my outlets in some of the other worlds that I was working in. I felt that I was looking for something that I hadn’t quite found yet and just kept searching. Where I am now feels like it’s more open-ended than the other places I had ended up in before.
TJG: I feel that just because you hear something new, it’s not necessarily going to change your aesthetic trajectory. Like with Feldman’s music, its spaciousness and focus can be really confrontational and not everyone is going to love it. How did you react when you heard Feldman’s music for the first time and why did it seem to have such an impact?
CH: I actually remember this very vividly! Tyshawn kept saying, “Morton Feldman. Morton Feldman. Morton Feldman.” And I had heard the name, but didn’t know anything about this person or his music. Tyshawn told me to pick up a recording of Trio. I remember putting it on and thinking that this was the most dissonant, slow-moving thing I had ever heard—what the hell was this?
I got the record not long after I moved to New York in 2011. I was a 23-year-old kid that just got out of jazz fantasy camp—I had no idea of what this was. But I was really intrigued by it, and it became something I revisited pretty regularly, though at something of a safe distance. Even though I liked how it sounded, I didn’t have the background information to process what this thing was. Seven years after that initial listening, I’ve studied an immense amount of Feldman’s work and really gotten inside of it, I understand the process and the language and the intent.
When I started studying with Eric, he asked if I liked Feldman, and then give me a huge list of other composers and pieces I might like and I just went nuts with it. From there, I really got into post-Feldman composers like Bryn Harrison, Bernhard Lang, and Beat Furrer.
TJG: At this point in your life, how do you see your traditional jazz training and this modernist classical music world playing out in your compositions for Facehugger? Do you see your work as a clear fusing of elements, or something else?
CH: I write a bunch of different music. I have a weird avant-rock band whose music sounds nothing like Facehugger where composition isn’t the main focus. I’ve been writing a lot of music for chamber ensembles this past year, and I wanted to figure out how to bring some of that vocabulary into an improvising group. With Facehugger, I feel that a lot of what I’m doing is taking the improvisational aspects from the jazz and free improv worlds that I’m a part of and working those in with what I like to do as a composer, which is writing dense, long-form, through-composed structures. Luckily, there have been a lot of people who have done this before me, and a lot of great influences to draw on, like the AACM composers who have been doing it for the past 50-plus years. Tyshawn is doing this, Ingrid is doing this, Eric is doing this. I’m really lucky to have Anna Webber in my band because this is very much a path that she’s on as a composer as well and she’s been incredibly helpful.
TJG: With your interest in long, through-composed forms, I’m curious about how you integrate improvisation into these structures. For example, you can have a through-composed form and the players improvise within that form, or you can have some composed sections and then the players improvise connections between.
CH: This was definitely the most fun part about writing this music. In these piece, my objective was to keep the composition developing and changing without a cyclical solo structure, but still have improvisation. In a lot of cases, I wrote through-composed material that some players improvise on top of. It’s not quite like background figures in a big band chart, as the form is always in motion. I’ll give the improviser information about what the other musicians are playing, and trust that the improviser can make something inside of it.
With five people in the band, and the fact that Anna and Yuma are such great doublers, there are a lot of exciting things that I can do texturally within the pieces, and a lot of shifting roles. There’s a wide spectrum in terms of how much an individual’s part is fully composed, and how much is left to interpretation. In some cases, one player will be soloing and I’ll write a bass line for Sean to play, except that it will be just the shape of a line without designated pitches. It’s kind of a guided, improvised accompaniment to another kind of improvisation. Eric pointed me in a lot of different directions in terms of these ideas. I stole a lot ways of notating these ideas without giving too much information away from John Cage.
TJG: It sounds like you’re giving different degrees of constraints to different players at different times, and those shifting constraints can drive the form.
CH: Totally. I stopped writing chord changes in my music years ago. I write a lot for guitar and I use a lot of really specific voicings. This voicing might contain the notes of this particular chord name, but if you look at how the chord functions, or the register that it’s in, that chord name isn’t a substitute for what I’ve written. If you’re a soloist and you blow over that named chord rather than the written one, that line isn’t necessarily going to work. So one thing that I’ve worked on with Facehugger is how to develop a different language for communicating harmonic constraints for improvisation.
TJG: How have the other players in Facehugger dealt with these different methods of communicating constraints, considering they’re not necessarily a common and shared system?
CH: Luckily, I’m at a point where the people that I’m hiring for these projects are familiar with these different ways of notation and improvisation. Everybody in the band does have a base training in jazz, but they’ve all gotten involved in different creative scenes outside of that. Because of that, I don’t have to tell them too much. Since we’ve been working together for a while, they know that when I write a chord voicing, it’s in that order for a reason.
TJG: You’re about to head into the studio with Facehugger to record your first album. Why did you feel that this was the right time to document the band in this way?
CH: This is actually the third or fourth full book of music that I’ve written for the group. It originally was just a trio. It was me and Ed, and then either Anna or Yuma. I wrote a whole book of music for that configuration. As I was writing that book, the music kept getting more dense and complex and I thought that it would be really nice to have a bass player. And then I thought about who the horn player would be, because I had been working with both Anna and Yuma. But then I realized that since both of them double comfortably and I had them doubling all the time, that I should just make it into a quintet with both of them. Then I wrote a whole book of quintet music, and then a second. So this is the fourth book.
I feel that this is the first time I’ve felt ready to document what I was doing. For the first few books, I was doing a lot of experimenting, and at this point, I feel that I have a much clearer idea of what I’m doing and what I’m trying to present. This group of musicians has been very patient with me in developing this music for the last year and half, two years.
Colin Hinton’s Facehugger plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, September 6, 2018. The group features Mr. Hinton drums & percussion, Anna Webber on tenor saxophone & flutes, Yuma Uesaka on tenor sax and clarinets; Edward Gavitt on guitar, and Shawn Lovato on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($15 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.