We’ve just passed the equinox, spring is on its way, and Kassa Overall is four shows deep into his TIME CAPSULE residency at The Jazz Gallery. The last gig, featuring Aaron Parks and Rashaan Carter, was a quiet Valentine’s Day affair. The next show will feature Sullivan Fortner, a dynamic and introspective artist who, now in his early thirties, is widely praised as one of today’s top jazz pianists. In our latest interview with Overall, we talked about French existentialist writers, the tribulations of being an independent artist, and the quiet brilliance of Sullivan Fortner (pun intended—read on to see why).
The Jazz Gallery: Hey Kassa. What’s the latest with the new album?
Kassa Overall: Yo. The album is still lit. Right now I’m a super independent artist, so I’m working on booking shows. There are a bunch of little pockets of energy all over, but you still have to thaw them up to reach them, so to speak. For example, I’m performing in Seattle at the Capital Hill Block Party on July 20th, so we booked a show on July 19th at Jack London Revue in Portland too. I reached out to the jazz radio station in Portland to try to get some promotion going: Turns out, they love the record, they’ve been playing it on air, and they were excited when I hit them up. As an independent artist, I would never have known that. That show didn’t come to me, the radio station didn’t come to me. It’s all in that classic phrase, “the squeaky hinge gets the oil.” There are opportunities out there where I have to do a certain amount of creating. That’s the grind right now.
TJG: Would you prefer to have more people on your team, or does doing it yourself give you more freedom to build the career you envision?
KO: I would love to have more people on my team. I have a small team of people who are close to me, who care about me. It’s hard to find people, in a way. On one hand, there are people who would love to be part of what I’m doing. In order to get them to be helpful, they have to know how to do all this stuff, and I have to know how to manage them. I make music, I’m an artist, and now I’m slowly becoming a business owner due to circumstance. I’m learning how to communicate with people in order to get stuff done.
On the other hand, there are the established booking agents, managers, publicists. Anybody worth working with needs you to be on a certain level so they can book you. It’s a catch-22. So yes, I have people I work with, but I’m trying to raise myself up to the point where I become somebody who established managers or agents want to work with. They can love the art, but they don’t need to listen to the album, they don’t care. It comes down to “Last time you played Chicago, how many people showed up? How many people will show up now?” I’m slowly learning that you need to spend time doing the thing you have passion for, in order to make the machine work the best. I need to be working on music, and spending time working on other stuff can take away from my artistic thing. I’m working the angles, but I’m grateful for where I’m at, and am trying to do the best artistic work with what I have.
TJG: You have a lot to be proud of. You’re doing the hustle, the art is great. Props!
KO: I appreciate it, man.
TJG: How was the last TIME CAPSULE show with Aaron Parks and Rashaan Carter?
KO: It was good. We played a little quieter, more intimate. It was Valentine’s Day [laughs]. It ended up giving us a good kind of vibe. I even want to play quieter on the next gig. It was so intimate, everybody in the room got to feel it, we got high together.
TJG: I saw a few posts on social media with laptops on stage. Sampling? Prerecorded stuff?
KO: Aaron has a laptop with some synth plugins. Pretty basic, nothing complicated, but dope sounds. I had some drum loops that I was playing, plus some sound effects, a few tonal plugins that I was improvising with. For this series, I’ve continuously used electronics to provide a sonic shift, a palette-cleanse. There’s a lot of that acoustic piano-and-drums energy, so at some point in most of the sets I get off the drums and provide some vocals or electronic samples for something sonically different.
TJG: What does it sound like? What kind of sonic shift is it?
KO: For example, at the last show, I had these space sounds, this out, cosmic, filtered kind of stuff. I had Aaron and Rashaan improvising and reacting to that. It’s almost like it lets you step away from the realm of communicating via chord changes. You can just go out to space. Then I read some Rumi, we played another song. It all worked out [laughs]. It was real fun.
TJG: As musicians, we’d like to believe we can think about texture whenever we want, whether or not we’re playing out. But sometimes stripping away changes, rhythm, or some element can really help you focus on another element.
KO: Yeah, I think you’re right. A lot of musicians lean on those elements so hard that when you take them away, sometimes it’s like they’re ass-naked [laughs]. Just make some shit up! Some cats don’t know how to hang in the outer realm. For me, that’s where I live. Have you heard about Br’er Rabbit and the brier patch?
TJG: Remind me!
KO: It’s this African or African-American fable, kind of like Aesop, a parable. My dad always talks about it. He mentioned it the other day about Sullivan. Basically, there’s a character called Br’er Rabbit. And there’s a brier patch somewhere, a prickly, thorny plant in a farm or a jungle or whatever. Br’er Rabbit is this trickster figure, which connects to Yoruba culture: He’s a good dude, but he tests you by doing something that throws you off. One day, Br’er Rabbit does something or other to a big animal, and the animal gets pissed off. He’s gonna do something to hurt the rabbit. The rabbit starts saying “Please, please, whatever you do, don’t throw me in the brier patch!” He gets the big animal to think that throwing the rabbit in the brier patch will hurt him. So he throws the rabbit in the brier patch [laughs]. The rabbit starts doing a dance, and sings, “Man I tricked you, I’m Br’er Rabbit, I was born in the brier patch!” [laughs]. You know what I’m saying? He tricked him into thinking that would be the worst punishment, but he lives out there. That’s a long metaphor for how I feel like playing outside.
TJG: Beautiful. And you said you’re reading some Rumi?
KO: Yeah. I stay reading Rumi. Today, Rumi is everywhere, it’s like he’s the original Instagram meme on superpowers. My relationship with Rumi is funny because about five or six years ago, I was walking around Williamsburg and I bought The Pocket Rumi. I picked it up because people kept talking about Rumi this, Rumi that. It was annoying [laughs]. So I bought it, started reading it, and was like “Man, this is obvious, this is for cats who know nothing but want to get some deep stuff.” I got bored reading it, so I put it up on top of the bookshelf. It stayed there for a few years. I lived my life, went through some stuff, some this and that, grew as a person. I cracked it open one day, and it cracked open like a sunrise. It was so much hipper and deeper. Ever since then, I’ve been reading that book. At this point, I’ve read it eight or ten times, and when I get to the end, I just start right over at the beginning.
I recently found The Discourses of Rumi. He was a real spiritual teacher, he wasn’t just a poet slinging his books. I was always interested in what he had to say, not necessarily the poetry itself, I knew there was more depth because the poems were so intoxicating, they cut right to the point. The Discourses of Rumi took a long time for me to get into. It was almost like, metaphorically, his poetry is like porridge, it’s so easy to eat. The Discourses are rough, you know? When I began reading, it was like, Man, where’s the beauty, where’s the honey? But the more I read, the more I started tasting it, so to speak. At the gig with Aaron, I wanted to read something that connected to Valentine’s Day in a way, so I read something from The Discourses out loud. It felt like the perfect way to tie everything together.
TJG: I’m interested in how some art or literature can go right over our heads until we grow up a little. Then, suddenly, they feel authentic. You’ve mentioned that about some music as well, some stuff your dad showed you as a kid.
KO: Yeah. It’s true [laughs].
TJG: It makes me wonder, is there anything right now that you’re not feeling? Do you think a decade down the road, you’ll see what it’s about?
TJG: Absolutely. My lady put me on to Sartre. French guy. You know. Existentialist philosopher type. His lady was Simone de Beauvoir, and she’s heavy. She’s so hard to read. They’re heavy cats, a couple of existentialists who write this heavy stuff. I’ll be reading one paragraph all day, trying to get it. I can’t move on until I get it. These ideas are so complicated that I’m like Man, I’m looking forward to really getting it. It’s the same with a lot of surrealist films. I’ll be checking them out, digging them a little, but I’m also like, “I don’t think I’m really getting this yet.” I know that one day it’ll be the vibe. It’s more non-musical stuff like art and theory that gives me this feeling.
TJG: So interesting! Sorry, that was a long tangent: Let’s jump over to Sullivan Fortner. How’d you meet?
KO: We met at Oberlin, maybe fifteen years ago. He was two or three years younger than me, but he was bad back then. Super killing. Theo Croker and I had a band together, and Theo said, “I’ve got the cat.” We were playing at a house party, Sullivan was playing a Rhodes, and he sounded insane. The stuff he was playing was from outer space. He’s this quiet Southern Christian, he has that Souther-black Christian-gospel sound, but mixed with this weird outside I-don’t-know-what. The only cat I can relate him to is Thelonious Monk, but only in the sense that his playing didn’t sound like anything I’d heard before.
We both got a gig playing at a church. I was his ride, so I’d pick him up every day to play, and would drop him off afterwards. The weirdest thing is, we would barely talk. It was strange. We were both awkward and didn’t know how to talk to people. I’d pick him up, one of us would say “Hey, what’s up,” the other would reply, and then we would drive to church in complete silence. Sometimes we would go to McDonald’s afterwards. That was it [laughs]! We’ve been growing from there. As time went on, we both got a little better at talking. I remember watching him grow into a person, living life a little. I’m super proud of him because he’s just gotten better and better, and also sounds exactly the same: He never switched up his style to play with anyone.
TJG: That’s admirable, especially in someone younger than you.
OK: Oh yeah. I see him as a sixty-year-old human, the way I regard him as a musician.
TJG: Do you talk these days?
KO: Do we talk? Yeah [laugh]! We have good conversations now! But it’s almost like we’re both worried about going quiet [laughs]. I swear! I still feel like I have to say something, because I don’t want to be back in that car driving to McDonald’s again. We just had rehearsal, right, we were talking about all sorts of stuff. Then it would be quiet for a second. I’d quickly say “Alright you wanna play something let’s play something!” [laughs]. Man, Sullivan’s such a bad dude. We’re just playing duo at this Gallery gig. For all the other gigs, I tried to think of concepts to bring to the table, take this, mix it with that, designing something big. The concept for this one is: Sullivan is a genius. I’m going to practice the drums for thirty days in a row, and then we’ll play free improv for an hour. I can’t wait. I’m gonna practice right now.
Kassa Overall presents the fourth edition of his TIME CAPSULE series at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, March 28, 2019. Mr. Overall, on drums, will be joined by Sullivan Fortner on piano. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.