Interview with Adam Birnbaum (Pianist, Composer)

I met Adam Birnbaum after he had returned from tour in Paris with “The Rhythm Road, American Arts Abroad Program”. Spreading the gospel of jazz, Birnbaum is a busy cat and an accomplished pianist given how young he his. We spoke mostly about the grant he received in 2008:

AA: Tell me about the award you relieved for composing the “Dream Songs”:

AB: It is a grant by Chamber Music America. They give out composition grants for jazz musicians; you basically apply for it with a project in mind. My project was to do a suite of music called “Dream Songs” which were inspired by poems by John Berryman. I was exposed to his poetry in college. I took a class on the poetry of Bishop, Lowell, and Berryman. I wasn’t really into a lot of these people before the class. I really the Berryman’s “Dream Songs.” They are really disturbing, a bit twisted, but really brilliant. Kind of like a classic troubled genius. I also found a lot of Americanism I felt could work with jazz. There is sort of this black face persona that comes in, that sort of minstrel  character in his poems, a lot of blues references throughout the poem. He ended up writing about three hundred songs. Three separate volumes. I just took the first volume and I picked out my favorite ten, I think I ended up using and wrote a song to go along with each one of those. What I did was, I found on YouTube Berryman reading these “Dream Songs.” In a lecture hall somewhere, the sound quality is kinda of iffy, but he has a really intense way of reading. Just hearing where he left spaces between the phrases and things like that, really illuminated a lot of the meanings. Just hearing it. So, I decided to use the audio, sort of sync it up, so you would hear him reading, then our music would kind of come in underneath, then the music would take over. Then after that, he would come in back reading, so we kind of seg-wayed in. So you would kind of hear, as an introduction to each song, the poem that inspired it, and kind of get the idea how the music was linked to what was happening in the poem. I though it was a cool way to try to tie it together. Sometimes you try to tie together two different things and it is kind of big, people say ‘ok that was cool, but I don’t really hear, necessarily, how that music was that poem.’ It can still be vague, even the way I did it. At least, I tried to give it a direct link as much as possible. I didn’t write any of the music, until I got the grant. But I had the idea to do this project, basically, originally when I read the poems. I thought at the time, this would be a great project to set music to. I mean, they are called “Dream Songs” already, they have a form, which is almost kind of like a blues form. They have three different stanzas. As widely as they are varied they always kind of stick to the basic form. He is kind of very formal in a certain way, as is crazy and modern as he is, he is really into sticking to form in a lot of ways.

AA: Kind of like jazz…

AB: There are a lot of connections to be made. I mean, when I finally got around to apply for the grant, ideas have been brewing in my head for a while and I wrote the proposal. It is always hard to write a proposal for something you haven’t actually done yet. Then of course things change, once you actually start working on it. One thing that was amazing, in doing research, I did read a biography of Berryman, written by Paul Marini who was actually the teacher I took this class with. He also wrote a really good book on William Carlos Willams. A couple of others ones too, I think. And in the biography, you realize how much work Berryman put into studying all the older poets. He knew almost any line of any Shakespeare sonnet or play. He was that kind of guy. He was just super scholarly, studied everything in the written form. Kind of reminds me of Jazz, great Jazz musicians absorbing the tradition that has come along before them. It is another connection that I found.

AA: Did you feel any influence from classic art song, as well?

AB: Sure, I love lieders. That is one of my secret passions. I really love classical art songs. Sometimes, I actually do jazz covers of Schumann pieces, some Schubert.

AA:You can hear it in your playing. You can tell where you are coming from and you are not an overzealous player, you are very patient, you are very delicate at the same time, you can hear that influence in your playing. I think it is very nice.

AB:I think a classical lieder, in a way, is almost like a jazz standard. It’s a precursor for jazz for jazz standards in that you have a story and you have a song that supports.

AA: Those are the kinds of relationships I’ve also noticed. There are other composers too, there is another composer named Frank Carlberg.

AB: Oh yeah, he is amazing. He definitely seems to have a wide rang of influences. But definitely a lot of classical influence. Sort of merging, really interesting, through-composed music, with improvisation. I would say that I am a little more straight-ahead then him in that most of my stuff ends up kind of being like at a standard jazz form at some point in the tune. He is a little, I would say, beyond where I am at as a composer.

AA: Do you work with any poets in town?

AB: I work with Barry Wallestein, he is a poet, kind of old school Beat poet. We perform pretty regularly, every couple of months, usually have a gig somewhere in New York. Sometimes it’s just duos, sometimes he’ll have a few musicians.

AA: What do you like about that?

AB: Well, it can go either way. I feel like sometimes it can be kind of b.s., but what I like is the moments it feels like it came together and you did something special spontaneously. That feels pretty cool when it happens. Sometimes our gigs will be at a reading and we will actually go up after five or six people who just went up and read and I will go up and play a couple of things. And usually that has a good reaction. He will give us very basic directions; he actually usually wants to rehearse once. The rehearsals going something like he’ll read the poem once, maybe give one or two little directions on wanting to build up here, come down at a certain part, Then we play it once. Just conceptual stuff. Never anything like it should be in D minor and should go to G on the bridge. Usually we play it once and he says cool that’s fine and then we play the gig it is totally different.

AA: What role do you think New York Ctiy plays in jazz and poetry fusing together.

AB: There is no question that there is a certain drive in New York, that is usually a little more intense with music. It is a continuing humbling experience. You either kind of rise to the occasion or you get burned out and leave. And even if that happens, it is not like you failed. It is just a very intense environment.  Eventually, everyone kind of gets burned out and leaves. Some people they get enough success with their career they leave out in a house somewhere and fly around and do gigs. I love being here. You are right in the trenches. Last night I had a gig at Smalls, I can hire basically the best rhythm sections in the world to come play with me at Smalls. Without going into detail, it’s not a great paying gig, it is not a super prestigious gig, people like to play there because musicians come there and check out the music. It is like a hang, but New York is the only place where you have this arsenal of just really great musicians all around you. People are all into, they just want to be creating music and playing together. That intensity kind of strives here.

AA: Do you feel like an outsider because of your love of different arts and not like “I’m a Jazz head”? Do you sometimes feel like an outsider?

AB: Oh yeah, sure. You have to spend a lot of time just studying just jazz, but I always viewed it is really important to get out as much as you can outside of what you do. Get another perspective, go to museums, go to plays. I just try to read a lot, a lot of different stuff. If you get too stuck in just one little thing, you’re not really seeing the big picture. I definitely think that informs my music, in some way or another.

AA: So you went to Juilliard? Is that where you went to undergrad?

AB: Undergrad was Boston College, that’s where I took this poetry class. I eared an Aritist Diploma at Julliard.

AA: Who did you study with there?

AB: I studied with Kenny Barron was my private teacher. He was great. Everyone has very different teaching styles. Kenny is a super laid back guy. It’s like hanging out with your uncle. You just play duo piano together the whole lesson. You just come in start calling a tune and you just play. Sometimes he’ll call a tune you don’t know and he’ll teach it to you.

AA: Do you find yourself drawing parallels in the ways poetry and jazz market themselves?

AB: I am always curious to draw those parallels too. It gets hard because each art course has its own way it works. It is never quite the same. I mean, unfortunately for poets, I don’t think there is any genre that’s as promotionally successful as smooth jazz. That is kind of like a multi million-dollar industry that is kind of like garbage. I mean, if poetry could find a way to do something like that, I am sure they would do it. It would probably just never work.

AA: Well, I mean there’s rap.

AB: Well, ok. There you go. That kind of makes sense. The jazz community, it seems, like in a way it is getting isolated more. Obviously compared to when jazz was a popular music. Nowadays, it is a much more isolated community. And probably poetry is too, I guess. Any way that we can bridge gaps together, get more of an audience, more of a pool of people who are into what we are doing, it will only help. I was surprised when I did my Berryman project. I didn’t get great crowds at the jazz gallery. Maybe 10 people maybe 15 people. I worked for a year writing this music. I found a lot of people who were surprisingly enthusiastic about the project with the poetry. I didn’t expect it to appeal to a wide range of people necessarily. It is a very specific thing. But a lot of people really dug it. Even people who didn’t know anything about jazz or John Berryman, in a way it was a good introduction to both. They each kind of enhanced each other. Jazz can sometimes be a little too abstract for people. So that gave people an “in” to really understand the feeling of the music and vice-versa. Poetry can be a little dry on its own for some people. Having a soundtrack to fit with it kind of helped emphasize what was going on. So, it was kind of interesting, two kind of obscure things could maybe enhance each another by being brought together. I actually did not have anyone on stage reciting the poetry, I just used the recording of John Berryman. And I didn’t use the whole poem, I kind of spliced excerpts. And I handed out a sheet with the full poems. So they could kind of read it as they were listening.

AA: Do you have any thoughts on the current state of jazz education or jazz’s place in academia?

AB: Well, there is no tradition of the greatest head musicians learning in a school. So it’s a little strange that is how it being done at the time now.

I mean, having been in some Jazz Institutions, I have seen, it is not completely, you get surrounding by very knowledgeable people. But jazz is a very, it is not a systematic thing that you can teach the way you can teach science or a more typical knowledge subject. I mean poetry probably really isn’t either. But at least, if you are studying, say, the history of poetry, you can just read all of the great poets and analyze them, try to learn as much about them. But the practice of jazz, which would be like writing poetry, how do you teach that. It’s within. And it just so hard to have an approach and a set of classes that somehow set you up to have a career doing that. It is just very unnatural for a lot of reasons.

AA: Tell me more about the “The Rhythm Road” program

AB: It’s a program that Lincoln Center runs. You audition for with a group and they pick ten groups. The state department is kind of losing their interest in jazz a little bit. It used to be all Jazz groups that would go out, and now its three to four jazz groups and the other groups are hip-hop, bluegrass, and all kinds of other American music’s. But it is just kind of interesting. Because Jazz At Lincoln Center is running the program and they only are accepting a small percentage of the groups that are actually jazz groups, they are actually taking hip-hop groups and sending them around the world. I’m sure what they are doing is the very high level of what hip-hop could be musically.

AA: Is any one music more universal than another?

AB: The one thing I have to say is I find it a little strange that if you go to a places where doesn’t speak English, and your music is basically a lyric based music in english, his makes me wonder how much you can communicate. I am sure people could still appreciate it, but bluegrass and hip hop, both those musics, are basically vocal musics and a lot of it is about the story you are telling. So I think that makes an argument for jazz in general for being better. It is sort of global music. Assuming it is not vocal jazz, that transcends that issue.

AA: So what’s Barry’s poetry like?

AB: It is hard for me to characterize in words, but it is very influenced by a lot of the Beat poets. Also by Berryman a little bit. He has this character named Tony who he writes into a lot of his poems. Which is similar to, I don’t know if you know, in the “Dream Songs,” the character’s name is Henry. And it sort of autobiographical, but the fact that he is claiming to be this fictional guy named Henry, gives his the license to say stuff he wouldn’t feel comfortable saying about himself. So, he kind of does that same thing. He uses this guy Tony to express a lot of ideas. I mean they range pretty widely. I guess in language, they are a little more accessible than say something like Berryman. A little more approachable and less, sort of obscure references.

AA: The audience is responsive to him, they like him?

AB: Yeah, he’s got a pretty loyal crowd of people. He has been teaching for a while. He’s lived in New York for a long time, so he’s got a crowd of people that come out to his shows and they really dig it. He’s very much against taking the two out. He wants a tie musically, a direct tie musically to the poetry and the music. I guess it depends on the content of the poetry.

AA: I noticed that your performance at Smalls isn’t available on their archives, any reason for that?

AB: You know, these days it is getting a little fragile. The relationship with recordings, the internet and jazz musicians. Basically, how are our rights respected, in terms of what we put out there because it is reaching the point, everywhere you go you get recorded and put on YouTube against your knowledge then like there is no value in the actual recordings. Which I don’t think is totally true. But there is an argument to be made for that. So, Spike [Wilner] is trying to get this things going, he’s really passionate about having this futuristic thing where there is a webcam, everything is up there. I think it is really cool, people in Europe, they can check out the show. I think it is pretty awesome if someone in Germany wants to see our show, they can go online or whatever. But, I almost wish they could block it in New York, because I feel like instead of paying the 20-dollar cover, someone can just sit home in their underwear and watch the show.

AA: That’s not the same.

AB: It’s not the same, but I actually heard of people doing that. I’ve had people email or call and say “hey man, I checked you out on the web broadcast last night.” It is floating around everywhere now. And I am guilty of it to. I download stuff. Those bit torrent websites; I get all sorts of jazz shows for free. I can’t help it, it’s up there.

AA: What’s next for you? What’s next on the agenda?

AB: I don’t have too much coming up. I’m doing a tour in July with Al Foster. Most of my work has been with [him]. I’ve been touring with him. Even off for a few months. I have a weeklong tour coming up. In mid July and looks like a pretty long one through September maybe October. And I am getting married at the end of August. That’s basically going to take up my life for the summer.


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