Kevin Sun is a “saxophonist, improviser, composer, and blogger,” but given the depth of his inquiry and practice, the title “saxophonist” alone certainly carries weight. Sun constantly works to avoid habits and heighten his awareness on stage, work that is plainly evidenced on his new album, TRIO. “Composing for three voices, I feel like I can really challenge myself,” Sun says of the project. “There’s plenty of room to make something happen… I picture it as a triangle versus a square: it’s still very sturdy, but you have to give it a point.” The music does have a point, often an explicit one: The trio, including bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor, originated as a vehicle for Sun to explore compositional, methodological, and musical concepts.
Sun was the first jazz saxophone performance major to graduate from the Harvard-NEC Dual Degree program, studying with Miguel Zenón and John Hollenbeck along the way. Based in Brooklyn, Sun has been involved in a number of different bands over the past few years, including Great On Paper (GOP), Earprint, and Mute. Additionally, Sun is a longtime contributor to this very blog. His own blog, A Horizontal Search, has been recognized by National Public Radio’s A Blog Supreme and Ethan Iverson’s Do the Math. We spoke with Sun in anticipation of the release of his new record. Our conversation covered his compositional intentions, his transcription practices, and four independent references to Lester Young.
TJG: Congratulations on the album, which is only days away from being released. In a recent interview you did with Abe Perlstein, you spoke about how this trio was initially formed as a means for you to stretch out and try new things. What was the biggest stretch for you on the album?
Kevin Sun: A lot of the songs are really challenging. “Transaccidentation,” the first track on the album, was the first thing we ever worked on as a trio. I wrote it with the idea in mind of using another piece as a compositional model. Jason Palmer, the trumpet player in Boston, recommend that process to me one night while hanging out at Wally’s. So “Transaccidentation” is inspired by a Vijay Iyer song called “Habeas Corpus” from his album Blood Sutra [ed. note: Blood Sutra was commissioned by The Jazz Gallery in 2002]. I bought a book of his compositions as published by Mel Bay, and I was looking for people to work on his fascinating, challenging music. When Matt, Walter and I got together the first time, we played through Habeus Corpus. Writing something in that vein was the starting point for “Transaccidentation.” That process, and its result, is one example of a stretch for me.
TJG: It’s great that you can trace that chain of influence from Jason Palmer’s advice to Vijay Iyer’s tune to your own composition. Did that set the tone for the trio, in terms of how you’d work through the rest of your music?
KS: Pretty much. I don’t want to use the word ‘calculated,’ but it is pretty calculated in terms of cause and effect. Vijay was a big influence on me in school, and he always talked about writing compositions that were just out of reach, requiring some kind of stretch. Similarly, I want to write songs that demand things of me that I can’t really do, encouraging me to stretch. I’m especially interested if the stretch requires other people, such as sustaining or navigating lots of details and contours, while bouncing off the playing of others.
TJG: It’s not always easy to pinpoint what you can’t already do: You could easily say to yourself, “I’m a jazz saxophonist. I transcribe, practice, and gradually get better.” Do you have an established process for noticing or cataloging the things you’d like to improve?
KS: That’s a good question. I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m writing my goals for the next three, six, twelve months, but it’s on the horizon. I record myself compulsively: I think my friends all know this [laughs]. I do it surreptitiously, usually at jam sessions. I’ll put on my voice recorder before I get on to play. At jam sessions, it’s hard to tell what things sound like, but I want to hear what I’m doing and how I’m interacting. I started doing that a couple of years ago, when I lived with pianist Isaac Wilson in Boston. He got that habit from Jason Moran, who told his students at NEC to constantly record themselves, especially since it’s so easy and costs nothing. That’s probably the most consistent thing I do to notice how I want to improve. Maybe not even ‘improving,’ per se, but just becoming more aware of my playing. When you play in a public setting, or with people I don’t know that well, that’s when you tend to fall back into your habits.
TJG: I spoke with Maria Grand about this when she had her residency with Steve Lehman. She recorded her residency shows, and consequentially talked about how she wanted to strengthen her sense of phrasing. What sorts of things have you noticed from your recordings?
KS: Some of it can be mundane. Like, I tend to start phrases on the ‘and’ of beat two. Sometimes it’s more subtle things, like feeling time. Does the beat feel wide? Am I rushing? Have I missed opportunities? It’s about identifying habits that have unconsciously become ingrained in your playing. It’s hard to always be self-aware in the moment. You’re listening actively and responding to things, but you’re not always critiquing yourself while you play. So it’s good to have the recording to notice these tendencies.
TJG: Does this cycle of “practice, perform, record, critique, repeat” ever become a burden for you?
KS: I’ve never thought of it that way. It’s fun. It feels natural. Like a lot of people in New York, I spend a lot of time on the subway. It’s not an ideal place to listen to music, but it’s probably the most appropriate environment for listening to a low-quality voice memo of yourself playing [laughs]. But I wouldn’t sit down in front of my speakers and listen to myself play a voice memo. I’d rather listen to Lester Young.
TJG: “Three Ravens,” the third track on the album, has quite the melody. I’m not sure I’ve heard anything quite like it before.
KS: In the way that “Transaccidentation” was inspired by Iyer’s “Habeas Corpus,” Three Ravens is inspired by Ethan Iverson’s “Aviation,” which itself is based off “Conception,” another popular jam session tune. Iverson wrote this high melody with long lines over sustained bass notes that land here and there. I loved that texture, and wanted to explore that device. I’d been playing the tune “Lover” a lot at NEC in my last year, and had also been checking out some negative harmony. You can think of “Lover” as basically a bunch of dominant chords for the bulk of it: That’s an attractive feature for players who want to use negative harmony as a vehicle. I treated it as a negative harmony etude, working out over dominants in a formally clear fashion.
TJG: So you have these calculated tunes, yet also tunes like “One Never Knows Now.” Was that tune entirely free, did you talk beforehand, is there an underlying compositional structure?
KS: It was free. We recorded the whole album in one day—we got there at 11 A.M. and left after midnight, which was a long day, especially since most of the music is challenging, for me at least [laughs]. I had the C-melody saxophone with me in the studio, inspired by Lester Young, and I wanted to see how it sounded in a studio. So we just played free. Walter and Matt were both really enthusiastic about the take, and I thought it was a good contrast from everything else.
TJG: “Announcements” has this remarkable urgency, and it’s the shortest tune on the record. Can you tell me a little about it?
KS: I wanted to write a song to make announcements over. I thought, “Maybe it should be an intricate drum chant.” So Walter and Matt play this intense figure that cycles around, and I make announcements over it at live shows. You know, “Thanks for coming,” and so on. There’s this short melody that’s pretty knotty, and that’s it. Before the recording, I’d never played that long over it. They go into it, I make the announcements, I play the melody, and we end the show. It’s very utilitarian.
TJG: There’s a lot of information out there about your transcribing process. Tell me a little about your mindset while transcribing. Where do you go? Do you disappear into the music? Do you zone out? Do you imagine yourself as the musician on the recording?
KS: It really depends. The way I was taught by Miguel Zenón in school, which goes against how most people are taught, is to write it down first. The rationale is that often times, you’re writing down something that’s technically out of your reach, because it’s too fast or too unfamiliar. So you write it all down and practice it slowly, away from the recording, until you have the notes under your fingers. Then you can go to the recording at speed and play along with it while trying to catch as much detail of the feel and all that. I’ve done that a lot, especially while in school. For the past year, I’ve not been writing it down. I’ve only really been doing 20- or 30-second solos, basically Lester Young solos with Basie where he’s playing a chorus or half-chorus. I can get it all in one sitting, and once it’s in my head I can play it over and over, and never need to write it down. The work of doing this is really about getting inside the sound of the artist, connecting to the energy in their playing. I can only imagine if Lester Young were playing at a jam session now, he’d lift everyone up with his energy, his feel. That’s the most amazing thing to me.
TJG: Andrew Katzenstein writes in the liner notes that “Sun’s improvising suggests that he’s consciously trying to move beyond what he knows in order to push on toward something new.” If someone were transcribing one of your solos, what do you think would be the biggest indication that you’re trying to push yourself?
KS: Probably mistakes. Notes that don’t sound fully, sound in a different register, or unintentional squeaks all give away what I was going for and whether or not I got it. Sometimes I land an idea, but half of the time, if not more, something happens that I didn’t intend. I try to avoid playing solos where everything sounds perfectly clean, as if I had practiced it, but it still happens.
TJG: That implies that the listener has a sense of what you’re going for, and whether or not you’ve hit the mark. Assuming that we’re looking at places where you consider yourself having hit the mark, what in your playing evidences your process of pushing your playing forward?
KS: Patterns, or things that I’ve more obviously practiced. When I was studying with Miguel, we transcribed a lot of Coltrane, specifically the ’57–’59 era, later Prestige. It would amaze me that Miguel would say, “You can tell what he practiced.” There’s a certain portion of solos where you can isolate certain scale exercises. Maybe he doesn’t play the whole thing, but there’s enough on the page that you can extrapolate it. To me, those are indications that he was trying to reach beyond, doing the work so he could get beyond it.
TJG: Do you think it’s relatively novel that people today are recording themselves in a way where you can hear that they’re reaching, rather than documenting something more polished?
KS: It varies from artist to artist in terms of their approaches, as well as the context.
They say that all artists are trying to improve themselves, but a lot of the time, you’re fulfilling some other purpose, playing for dancers or communicating joy or just feeling good, not necessarily playing something new. That’s something I’ve wondered a lot about with Lester Young. From when he began recording to when he left Count Basie, do I hear that he’s reaching for specific things? Sometimes in live recordings, I’ll hear things that don’t appear in studio recordings. “Oh yeah,” I’ll think, “maybe he was working on this or that.” But it’s not always clear.
The Kevin Sun trio celebrates the release of their record Trio at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, January 31st, 2018. The group features Mr. Sun on saxophones, Walter Stinson on bass, and Matt Honor on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.