Having recently graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2013, spirited trumpeter and composer Victor Haskins is already making an impression in the music community. Haskins released his debut album The Truth (32 Bar Records) in March 2013, receiving praise for his “…flowing ease of execution that allows him to explore exciting, rhythmically unique improvised lines that hint at Woody Shaw.” Haskins has not only shared the stage with great names like Christina Perri, Dena DeRose, Jason Moran, Jason Mraz, Nat Reeves, Temptations, and Warren Wolf, but was also selected as a member of the 2013 class of Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead and awarded second place in the 2012 National Trumpet Competition (Jazz Division).
Aside from his pursuits as a composer and performer, Haskins has also been crafting his faculties as an educator. He recently spoke at TEDx on the role of improvisation and has been leading a Jazz Outreach program for The Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts. This Thursday, May 22nd, Victor will perform in a chordless trio with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Clarence Penn as part of our Thursday Night Debut Series. This will be Victor’s first performance as a leader at The Gallery and we hope you will join us! We spoke to Victor this month by phone to learn more about his work and what’s in store for the upcoming show:
The Jazz Gallery: Last spring you graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and have since been hard at work, playing many opportunities primarily throughout the Richmond and DC area. How has this transitional year gone so far?
Victor Haskins: It’s been great! The primary reason I worked hard to finish my course requirements and graduate a year early from VCU was to spend more time working on my own music and less time working on school. Considering the year ahead, I will be continuing to establish myself throughout the Richmond, VA area, making an effort to travel and play in different cities and working more with educational outreach programs.
TJG: Educational outreach is clearly an interest of yours—you recently spoke at TEDx Lizard Creek on the topic of improvisation and have been working with the Jazz Outreach program for the JFK Performing Arts National Symphony Orchestra Education Department this year. Can you talk more about your aspirations as an educator moving forward?
VH: This past semester was the first semester that The Kennedy Center facilitated a jazz outreach program, and I have been leading that effort. Schools that are partnered with the center have the option of choosing an outreach program for their school. We bring in a program that I designed to discuss jazz as it relates to the idea of “communication.” The goal is not to walk the student through a historical, stylistic overview of the genre, but to explore how jazz can strengthen communication skills. In my TEDx talk, I explored the role of improvisation in people’s lives through different mediums: a tune, a motif, and an abstract idea. The audience at TEDx was not limited to musicians. I think it is interesting to explore these concepts with non-musicians and help them see how it’s applicable to their lives as well.
That is truly the concept behind my playing and composition: establishing “connectedness,” connectedness through the melody, the tune, the band, and the audience. The more connections that are made, the more powerful everything becomes. I think my primary goal with children is to expose them to improvisational music. There is a disconnect between younger generations and jazz. A lot of people have preconceived notions about the genre or have never been exposed to it—even in their 20s. They see jazz positioned as an elitist genre that you have to be “in the club” to understand. I recall a house party that I played with my jazz group in college; it was mostly people my age and they were actually blown away by it. It’s my hope that through earlier exposure to jazz, children will be more apt to seek it out later in life or to become a musician themselves. This music is real; it’s not museum music and you don’t have to be an intellectual to enjoy it. It’s just people’s music.
TJG: You grew up in different countries in Asia and Africa before the age of 10. Did your geographical settings as a child influence your musical efforts in any way?
VH: With my mother in the Air Force as a child, I lived in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Lusaka, and New Delhi. I moved to Stafford, Virginia in middle school. Of course, being in those countries not only exposed me to various forms of popular world music, but also to many different instruments. For example, when I lived in India, they would have tabla and sitar masters give concerts at our school. Also, whatever music I was exposed to through TV and radio definitely had an influence.
The most important quality that I took away from living internationally is a general open-mindedness, which comes as a product of being acclimated across different cultures. I didn’t have any formal music training before playing trumpet in sixth grade. I never received any real private instruction until I entered high school. I’d get a lesson every five or six months from Rex Richardson at VCU. That was my introduction to the idea that music was a viable career. Seeing someone like Rex build a fulfilling career as a musician inspired me to do the same. I was also definitely influenced by what was being played at home, more so along the lines of R&B or Motown. I really got into jazz on my own, though.
TJG: You’ve cited Miles Davis and Woody Shaw as your primary musical influences. Can you expound more on what you’ve learned from each of them, respectively?
VH: Actually, at this point, I wouldn’t say that Miles Davis is that big of an influence. Woody Shaw definitely is, as is Bunky Green. With respect to Woody, certainly the angular and intervallic ideas that he came up with were attractive to me, but it was more the sound as a whole that grabbed me. When I first heard him, I thought he was actually too harsh, but the more I listened to him, the more I came to appreciate the crispness and articulation throughout his sound. More than any of that, though, it was Woody’s use of rhythmic variation that really stuck with me. All of those elements really made him different than trumpet players before and after him.
Of course, I’ve checked out the whole trumpet lineage from Louis Armstrong to Clifford Brown to Fats Navarro—all those cats—but I actually don’t listen to trumpet players all that often because I favor the angularity and the fluidity of saxophone players’ approach to improvisation—players like Bunky Green, Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Wayne Shorter, and Sonny Rollins. For example, Bunky Green’s playing on “It Could Happen to You” from his recent release, Another Place, is such an inspiration to me. He plays a lot of stuff that would be considered “out,” but it never really feels that way because you always know what tune he is playing: the feel of the tune, the phrasing, the way he’s manipulating aspects of the melody of the tune—it never feels too far out.
My goal is never to play too “out,” but to try to weave improvisation throughout the tune. It’s not about playing a series of patterns or licks, but about trying to find ways to manipulate the tune with the band in such a way that the tune is never lost. I always relate improvisation to board games: you wouldn’t apply the rules of Sorry! to Monopoly, for example. When I approach a tune, it’s important to consider the rules or elements that give the tune its unique distinction.
TJG: What about influences with respect to other genres?
VH: I’m definitely into classical, Indian, hip hop, rock—really anything I can get my hands on. I really like the band Tool, for example. I like the way they work with rhythm and mixed meters.
TJG: You recently released “Flight 370″ Themesong for a Tragedy” as a video response to the events surrounding missing flight MH370, and have been making an effort to build a YouTube channel with high quality content. What is your relationship to video as an artistic medium, and how do you see this relationship evolving as audience consumption habits change?
VH: Video is a very important medium and more and more as a discovery tool. I spent so much time when I was in school evolving my craft as a musician and now that I’m out of school, I’m learning more about new audience consumption habits: how they go about finding or searching for things. Being able to see someone perform something adds another layer of connectedness between the listener and performer. I’ve been working hard to use video to present my original music as performed in a live setting. There is something very special about a live performance—something that you lose in the editing process of a studio recording. Video can really serve to amplify the “live” experience.
TJG: What is the context of your relationships with Drew Gress and Clarence Penn? How did you all meet?
VH: I met Clarence when he came to VCU to do an alumni concert a couple years ago. Clarence did a master class that day on music professionalism, and we had the opportunity to play together. Between meeting him, hearing him speak, and getting to play with him, it all stuck with me. I knew that I would be calling him when the opportunity was right.
I’ve never actually met Drew but I had heard him on some recordings that I was into, like Marc Copeland’s New York Trio record. The chordless trio configuration that I write for isn’t as simple as a horn just blowing over a rhythm section; it’s much more interactive, and I need a bass player who can create that contrapuntal energy. The records I’ve heard him on really seem to exemplify that. I’m really interested to see how my original tunes, which I usually play with my working trio comprised of Randall Pharr and Tony Martucci, turn out in this new setting.
TJG: How do you go about approaching composition? What is the goal in mind throughout this process?
VH: The goal with composition is to realize a musical idea in its most complete fashion. When I sit down to compose, I either start with an abstract idea or a musical idea. I take the idea and assign a title to it to try to describe that feeling. I then try to develop these ideas individually; there are no real rules to my method. Something has to be creating interest at all times. The composition and improvisation are always linked. It’s not, “Okay, now we’ll play a head. Okay, now we’ll blow over it.” There are some aspects of that type of song form happening, but the way the melody and accompanying parts interact define the rules of the improvisation.
The tune has to be open enough to allow for improvisation and the melody has to be simple enough to allow for manipulation. The song form has to be conducive to what I’m trying to communicate with the melody. I never have a boilerplate song form that I work with; the form evolves as the tune, melody, and message of the song all evolve themselves.
I know a tune is finished when the whole tune feels complete. When I start writing a tune, all I really start writing is the melody and the bass line; those are the only essential parts of the tune. There has to be a good amount of counterpoint between the two. I should be able to hear for myself what the drums are doing, as I don’t write drum parts for chordless trio. I give the drummer the melody and the bass line.
It’s all about trying to find out how everyone in the ensemble can push the tune forward. I really like the chordless trio format because there is a lot of freedom for the melody, bass line, and drums to work together. We all kind of assume different roles throughout the tune.
TJG: What music are you listening to these days?
VH: Well, I’ve been working on writing a lot of material recently. When I’m writing I try to limit my consumption of other music as to not let it influence my ear. I try to keep a clean palette so to speak when I’m doing something new or creating something.
The Victor Haskins Trio will perform at The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, May 22nd, 2014. This performance features Victor Haskins on cornet, Drew Gress on bass, and Clarence Penn on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. First set is $15 general admission and $10 for Members. Second set is $10 general admission and $5 for Members. Purchase tickets here.