Miles Okazaki seems to have a lot of concerns: Straying away from predictability, diving into new ways of interpreting material, parsing out intervals and rhythms to the smallest detail. But at the core of his music, Okazaki seeks what all musicians seek—to collectively breathe life into musical ideas. When it comes to Okazaki’s sound, nothing is predictable and nothing is certain.
Continuing in his mode of deep inquiry and total immersion, Okazaki infused his newest album with concepts of physical tactility, astrological motion, and sonic disruption. In celebration of the release of Trickster (Pi Recordings), Okazaki will bring Craig Taborn, Anthony Tidd, and Sean Rickman to the Gallery to breathe life into the ‘seeds and cells’ of the project’s compositional material. And, in the spirit of Okazaki’s creative process, we spoke in depth about the project, from the broad strokes to the minutiae.
The Jazz Gallery: In the Trickster trailer, you mentioned that “With these types of musicians, it’s a waste of their abilities for me to be trying to have too much control. These are small ideas that can open up some space for us to do something.” Did you begin this musical approach before the “Trickster” project?
Miles Okazaki: It has primarily evolved out of the process of becoming a better editor of my own material. If I write a certain amount of material, can I cut out nine-tenths of it and still get at the main idea? I try to find a good thing, then use it. Generally, the smaller the seed, the more flexible and mobile it can be, especially if you’re dealing with the types of musicians who can realize the implications and possibilities of that seed.
TJG: So what does that editing process look like, whether on the guitar, on staff paper, on the computer?
MO: Some on guitar, but on this record, I wanted a tactile element to it, wanted to see how these things would feel on the instrument. So I wrote the drum parts by sitting at the drums, the bass and guitar parts at the guitar, the piano parts at the piano. That’s an editing process in itself, because I don’t play any of those instruments very well, including the guitar [laughs]. The editing process for this record was that I’d sit down and ask, “What do I remember from last time I explored this material?” Whatever I remembered, I figured that was the good thing, and the rest I’d just let go.
TJG: Was this approach in response to a way of making music that wasn’t really working for you?
MO: I’ve been moving toward something like this, trusting my intuition and judgement about the material. Not to be overly precious, not to hold on just because I spent a long time figuring something out. Some of these tunes are the results of years of work on certain concepts, but they shouldn’t exist just because I spent a long time on them. It’s not like playing poker and being ‘pot committed,’ where you just have to keep betting. Some of these songs are short little tunes, where I spent a really long time on them, but all that remains is what I think of as, you know, hieroglyphs on the cave walls, washed away over the years. You just see a little bit of what remains. Like the cliche of the sand castle that gets washed away, and you just see the general shape where the strongest parts remain. Memory is like that too. You remember the most important things, and some of the details disappear over time. You slowly build a personal story as some things stand out and other things fade.
TJG: What tune on Trickster would surprise people the most, in terms of how long it took to write versus how complex it is on the album?
MO: Oh boy. There’s one tune on there called “The Calendar,” which pairs a three-note voicing concept and a rhythm concept I’ve been working on for at least ten years. The whole tune is really only four bars long, it just has certain rules about how the harmonies change. It’s quite a small form, and I spent weeks working on the symbolism with an astrologer named Thomas Goodwin. It was a super obsessive study that I was, and still am, doing over these three-note things. I sat at the drums trying to figure out a good way to bring these rhythms to life for, like, weeks. Trying to figure out a groove with a good feeling at a couple of different metric angles. Nobody would know this from listening to the tune, it’s a pretty simple tune [laughs]. That’s an example of how all that work just kind of served its own purpose, and then the tune remains.
TJG: Could you tell me a little more about your work with the astrologer?
MO: I was working on a record called Synovial Joints, Steve Coleman’s project. A mentor of Coleman’s is this astrologer named Thomas Goodwin who lives in Kansas City. During that project, Thomas stayed at my place for two weeks while we were playing at The Stone and doing that record. I’m not particularly interested in the type of astrology you see in the newspapers, but I am interested in the symbolism of certain personality types, the geometry of the planets, things like that.
So the tune “The Calendar,” it has a certain progression. Basically, if you take any 3 notes, they’ll be in one of 19 configurations. The question was, is there any way to move through them in a way that mimics the waxing and waning of the moon, from the most open to the most closed sound? Tom isn’t a musician, but he’s able to get an aural impression of the sound. I’d say, “What does this sound like to you?” He’d say, “This one’s mutable, because when you invert it, it sounds way different.” For example, if you take the notes C, Db and E in that order, it’s quite dissonant. But if I put the Db in the bottom, it sounds like a minor chord with a major 7. So, that configuration of three notes is more mutable than others. If I take an augmented triad, it’s immutable, because it’ll always have the augmented triad sound in any inversion.
TJG: So you played through them, and he helped you parse them into a more astrologically relevant progression?
TJG: I had already worked out the musical and technical stuff, figuring out what scales each voicing is a part of, how many keys can each thing be in, what types of tonalities work for each three-note group, what does it sound like in each inversion, and so on. But I wanted to get away from the harmonic connotations, so I asked Tom, what do these sound like? If you condense the symmetrical and redundant voicings, you can say that there are actually only twelve structures. This is how a lot of the ‘set theory’ guys like Milton Babbitt or Elliott Carter deal with these structures, because they deal with “inversional equivalence,” saying major and minor are the same structure. With twelve, it’s an astrologically more amenable type of number. So we go through the astrological signs, Aires, Sagittarius, etc. How could we assign these twelve triad shapes to these twelve signs? We went very slowly, I came up with a way to move through them, and man, that’s the way it’s in the tune, each voicing moving consecutively by a semitone in a single voice. The rhythm is another story.
TJG: This is obviously a very extended systematic compositional inquiry, but you also spoke previously about not writing things down during the composition process of Trickster, using your memory as an implicit editor? How do you reconcile the two approaches?
MO: All this work is more like research. I’m digging out the foundation area, laying stuff down. It’s not really creative, it’s more investigative. It’s the grunt work of understanding a concept. Once I’ve reached a point where I feel like I’ve done what I can do, then the project comes to a close, I move on, and the composition can begin. That progression sat in the back of my mind for a while, and during a compositional moment, I drew on that progression, which was part of my vocabulary but which I hadn’t used yet.
TJG: So when in the process did the band for Trickster come together?
MO: At the beginning. I wrote the music for these musicians. I had scraps floating around, but in terms of the actual parts, the material, it was all for them. Anything I’d already written was reworked with more specific parts for these guys. Sean and Tidd, I know the type of information they like to get, how much information they like to have. I have a good idea where they might choose to go depending on what I choose to give them. With Craig, he’s a different type of cat. He likes to have a lot of information. He’ll say, “Give me all the parts, everything.” He likes to have an overview, to really get into the actual concept behind what’s going on.
TJG: How would you say the concept of ‘the trickster’ applies to the musicians and the music?
MO: I talked about this previously with Andrew Chow, as we did the preparation for the record at The Gallery about a year ago. But things have evolved. This is a pre-Trump recording, so ‘the trickster’ has a different connotation these days. It’s about inquiry, questioning assumptions. Now, the record is out, the project is finished, and reactions have been positive. We’re dealing with material that’s unstable. These musicians play in a disruptive, ever-changing and adapting way. We try to never let it settle into something predictable. That’s the nature of improvisation—it’s not that new of an idea, it’s just a connection I’m trying to make between storytelling and improvisation.
TJG: Would you say predictability is generally a concern of yours, in terms of improvisation?
MO: It’s a concern of mine in all areas. The question is, when do you want something to be predictable, and when do you not want it to be predictable? I don’t want it to start snowing today. When I go to the store, I don’t want the gallon of milk to suddenly be $60. But, you don’t want to hang out with someone where you know they’ll tell the same old stories over and over. And tunes are like people, for me anyway. I don’t want it to be, “Okay, they played the head, now they’ll do some solos, and then they’ll play the head again.” That doesn’t keep you engaged. It’s like a movie, where you see the trailer, and you’re like “I don’t need to see the movie, I get it.” Or scary movie cliches, where they zoom in on an object, and you’re like, “Okay, that’ll be important later, I’ll just wait to see who’s going to get killed with that thing.” I prefer to subvert that. Let’s keep revealing, let’s keep exploring. If I can do that musically, it’s more interesting to me.
TJG: So how would you describe your musical comfort zone? You strive to push theoretical boundaries and play to the limits of your abilities, but at this point, that mindset might be comfortable for you.
MO: Comfort zone. Hm. I don’t usually present things that are in my comfort zone. Staying in my comfort zone would be playing something like Confirmation [laughs]. And I don’t really do that in public. I do it on certain types of gigs, but my comfort zone to me is doing something in your sleep, automated like breathing. My comfort zone is not my own music. That’s something built to challenge.
TJG: You seem to embrace a visual approach to your art, whether making visual scores, origami, or short videos. Are there any consistent visual practices that go hand-in-hand with your music making?
MO: Before music, I started in the visual arts. On previous records, I drew the album art in pen and ink, real detailed drawings in a soul-crushingly dense kind of style. When it came time to do the artwork for this record I just couldn’t do it again. I did three records like that, and I had to relearn how to draw every time because I never practiced. I learned how to draw and draft as a kid. I was never very creative though. I could copy what I was looking at, figures, objects, scenes. I don’t do that anymore. Once in a while I’ll sit and draw something. For this album, I needed a change for the minimal, where the previous ones were quite maximal. The music was like that too, on previous records. A lot of material, a lot of stuff. Drawings were really detailed, finely rendered, intricate. So, I did the origami thing for this, which I had to learn how to do. I liked the idea of having figurative things, a story, a little tableau, with animals. And there’s this metaphor with the square, the folding, the unfolding, the crease patterns, in terms of the music, the limitations of form, all of that. I wanted to be very tactile, in the same way I wanted the music to be tactile. The music and the cover both have a tactile three-dimensionality.
TJG: I look at your projects and your career and see a lot of conviction and certainty. Have you ever been unsure about being a musician? And how have you stayed grounded and focused in uncertain times?
MO: Oh yeah, I still am. At a certain point, it becomes the thing you’ve done more of than anything else. I’ve been playing gigs since I was about thirteen or so. I wasn’t sure about it, I went to college, I still wasn’t sure, all through college I didn’t really know. There was always the possibility that something else would be more interesting to me. I tried the sciences, didn’t work out. I tried the humanities, visual arts, didn’t work out. I probably have more talent as a visual artist than as a musician, but I don’t have as much creativity [laughs]. Does that make sense? I have more technical skill.
TJG: Was that difficult for you, as a musician, knowing that it might have been easier to be a visual artist?
MO: No, because I don’t know. I didn’t see the road forward, it was closing up. When I entered college, the big thing was mathematics. When I got to college I was passionately into this self-taught thing, and when I got there, it was like “Sit in the class and do your problem set and don’t even talk about what’s going on under the hood.” I though it was horrible, so I dropped it. There were other things that I was terrible at too. Writing, reading, talking. So I was an English major. Studied classics and all that, learned how to write pretty well.
TJG: To challenge yourself?
MO: To learn how to express myself verbally, to write, and to talk. I was the one in conversations just sitting there. I never said anything because I had a hard time putting thoughts together verbally. I don’t feel that anymore because I spent so much time working on it. But I had that problem. You put yourself in situations that force yourself out of your comfort zone. My worst nightmare was someone telling me in a classroom to stand up in a seminar and give my opinion on something, to articulate with all these other smart people. I never got as good as the Andover kids, but I got good enough to be able to write a pretty solid email [laughs]. All that time, I never stopped playing gigs. But I never had formal training on the instrument until I was twenty-two and I moved to New York. By which point my technique was so screwed up that I had to start over. But that’s a whole other story.
TJG: And in that process of becoming an exceptional guitarist and composer, you’ve become an educator as well. You’ve got your book, Fundamentals of Guitar, and your teaching positions at Banff, The New School, Queens College, Juilliard, and the Amsterdam Conservatory, you keep a studio of students at the University of Michigan. How have your own students opened your eyes to your approach to music?
MO: When you’re teaching, you’re held accountable for the information you’re sharing, otherwise you don’t have credibility. If I say we’re going to sing through Giant Steps, hit the changes, play the right notes, come back around and still be in the right key, I have to be able to do that if I want students to be able to do that. The process of continuous demonstration and holding up to continuous questioning from students keeps me on track. They force clarity, kind of like what you’re doing here, asking specific questions while I talk in circles [laughs]. I have certain standards I ask people to meet, which requires me to meet them as well, which can be pretty demanding sometimes.
Miles Okazaki celebrates the release of Trickster at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 20th, 2017. The group features Mr. Okazaki on guitar, Craig Taborn on piano, Anthony Tidd on bass, and Sean Rickman on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.