10:00am Friday, June 11th, 2010
Sam and I shared words in a café near his girlfriend’s apartment in the east village. We first met at a park but it was too noisy, so we migrated to somewhere more peaceful. After ordering two americano’s we began talking about his music, “The Words Project”. Sam cites Frank Carlberg as one of his main influences. A skilled multi-instrumentalist (saxophones/clarinets/piano), Sam has traveled the world performing jazz of all varieties but when we sat down to chat it was not about his work on the road but rather his studio projects and his usage of poetry in “The Words Project”.
A: There’s a quote on your website saying that you’re “more Bjork than Brubeck”. I thought that was wonderful. When I first streamed “The Words Project III”, I immediately thought of Bjork and her soundscaping palette of earthy music. I wanted to hear about how you feel the lines of “jazz” can be blurred. You have a formal education, grew up in a strict classical setting then attend William Patterson University where (correct me if I’m wrong) the practice of tradition is greatly instilled upon its students. For you now, your music…no offense but it’s not swingin’ right now.
S: [Laughs] You think my sh*t doesn’t swing! The new CD is significantly different from the first two. As far as the lines of jazz being blurred, it’s not something that I’m really conscious of. I think that living in New York and making a living as musician here, I just end up meeting so many people and doing so many things, and being influence by so many things. Often times I don’t really think of myself as “jazz” musician. This new CD is a collection of music that was lying around that I never knew what to do with until I met somebody who wanted to help me record this stuff so we went from there. I think that in New York, that concept of needing it to be swinging and identifiable with jazz…I don’t think many people are about it.
A: Especially now, in the day in age of the iPods when everything is on the fly and we can get anything whenever we want it. We can shuffle things around. You can listen to Bjork and Brubeck in the same day, hour. Do you find yourself being influenced by everything under the sun?
S: I come from a funny background musically; my parents are both classical musicians and immigrants. I didn’t grow up listening to American pop music; I was in my 20’s when I first heard The Beatles. I got into jazz very obsessively when I was about 11 years old; there was practically nothing else that existed to me! I came to embrace other forms of music later on and still, I just discovered Wilco.
A: Great band!
S: Yeah I know! 10 years late! Here I am going to all my friends and they’re rolling their eyes.
A: Check them out live if you get a chance.
S: Will do. I think even looking back to my listening when I was young…I did listen to things that blurred the line. Getting Cassandra Wilson’s early Blue Note record and falling in love with them. Those aren’t strictly jazz records by any means. She sings some country, some blue grass among standards.
A: That’s hip, I’ll have to check that out. I want to talk briefly about the poetry that you’ve been using in your projects. I’m most curious about your process. Do you hear the poem read first, do you personally read it first, or is there a pre-existing melody that you apply to the phrasing of the poem?
S: I haven’t ever used a pre-existing melody for the text of a poem. I have a notebook in which I accumulate poems that I like. When I write, I thumb through that notebook. I’m pretty undisciplined in that way, I don’t look at one person’s work that I want to set. That’s how this new record came about; it’s a mish-mash of things. I don’t listen to versions of it read. I have it written in front of me, generally there’s a melodic idea that starts, either textural or rhythmic, not very thought out.
A: I don’t want to dwell too much on questions of creativity and its source. I know, as a songwriter, it’s often hard to pin down, it’s above us.
S: Writing has always been sort of an ecstatic state for me. It’s something that I almost feel inactive in when I do it.
A: I wanted to compliment your arranging techniques. You tastefully double the voice with various pairings of instruments in the ensemble. Back to the concept of blurring, it blurs the voice into the ensemble. Was that a goal of yours to make the voice one with the ensemble and to not stand out?
S: Yeah, I think it’s also about supporting the vocalist. Things can get chromatic and it’s not a matter of the vocalist not being able to sing it, just a matter of support. I get tired when vocalist is constantly doubled, so I do try to avoid that. Back to what we were talking about before, I never really liked how jazz is a click of people. A lot of the scene has felt very insular. I think that’s part of my desire to bring in other influences and also write music and record music that I feel people who are uninitiated into jazz, someone with an open mind, can come to and get into. I think that the general public and audience knowledge on where jazz is is so far behind that when they do hear things that are contemporary, those things are very difficult for them to access.
A: And do they even realize them as “jazz”? That could be tricky if they don’t even know what kind of music they’re listening to. In particular from a marketing standpoint, selling your music.
S: When you put the label “jazz” on something that to me, doesn’t fit what I want to do. I almost feel empowered not having that label on it.
A: That’s cool. With your music using words, I don’t want to jump to the word “accessible” but people may be able to listen to it easier and relate to it more easily. They may gravitate to art-songs, which its safe to say. Your music may one day be known as contemporary jazz art songs, which is cool! I think its important for people to be able to listen to this music and you are providing that. New harmony, new melodic content and an entire new fusion thing especially here in New York where people have an openness.
S: Well I haven’t performed my music outside of New York. I’ve played outside of New York. There’s openness here but that’s not to say that there isn’t one outside of New York. People here are so inundated; there is so much music. People take it for granted that it’ll be there and that they don’t need to nurture it. I think that playing outside of New York can be a great thing for any adventurous music because I think that people are willing to nurture it more. Unless it’s a place like London where there are a huge number of young musicians who go out and support each other and help propel new things. In terms of the general audience, New York can be a rough place.
A: There are festivals too, I’m sure the application process for those is pretty rigorous. Not to stray from this concept, but patrons are disappearing too. Not to get dark on this interview but my best friends father play’s for the Baltimore Symphony. They’re not doing so hot. Patrons are dying. There needs to be another surge of patrons to do that, to keep thing that your “Words Project’ alive and touring.
S: Jazz is an improvised music. I think the patronage factor for classical music has been easier to sustain because there is something more concrete that comes out of patronage. The composer writes pieces based off of the financial help and there is more and more large-scale composition in jazz and there are a lot of really great foundations that provide a lot of support. It’s also left a lot of musicians, who are not composing large-scale works out of it. There’s a certain discipline in composing the large-scale works, applying for the grants and knowing how to do that. Some people are very good at that but it doesn’t necessarily fit into what some artists are trying to do. It would be great if there was a system for those people.
A: I think more and more jazz foundations are popping up. It seems that way, “preserving America’s art”. With New Orleans and even “Treme” with the sheer hype and people being exposed to jazz. You said that: “the marriage of poetry and jazz can captivate listeners and provide them with a unique experience, especially when this meeting doesn’t overshadow the deepest components of jazz which are creativity, interaction and spontaneity”. I really liked that quote. One thing that I’m trying to get at is the overshadowing concept. I don’t want either of these arts to overshadow one another. That can happen a lot with musician’s ego and certain interaction on the bandstand. I wanted to know if you knew of an experience when you saw overshadowing. Was there a moment during the rehearsals for the first two records when you had to stop and say, “Hey guys, we’re all in this together?”
S: I’ve been really fortunate to work with musicians with a real sensitivity to this concept. I’ve been really careful about who I chose to play this music. I think there are certain people who have the awareness that I’m looking for. These are people who are great musicians and who I’d love to play with in other situations. I think more so with that quote, I meant that the spark and the defining thing in any music that I like to listen to is that its in the moment and that it’s going to be different every single time its played. The artist is reacting to the situation. Its like your talking to somebody, you don’t want to talk to someone who has a canned set of things they say no matter how profound they are. You want someone who’ll be reacting to you and the situation. That’s something that with good classical performers as well. I never want things to be rehearsed to the point where they have that feeling and that’s the approach to recording my music as well. We did the first “Words Project” in one rehearsal. Also, it had never been performed before recording. I moved it up to two rehearsals for the second record. For the recent one, there are nine singers. I never rehearsed with any of them, I sent them PDF’s and they came into the studio and we just worked together. Even though their aren’t any real “jazz” solos on the record I think that gives it the feeling of jazz with certain spontaneity.
A: The writing is in the jazz language with extensions and chromatics. It’s really blurry what you’ve done and intriguing to me. I like it. I went and spoke with Robert Pinksy, who read at Florida State. At FSU, he never rehearsed with the group beforehand and with Vijay’s Trio, they also never rehearsed. It was interesting for me because in the span of 6 months I heard him read with two different groups but some of the same poetry. That brings me to jazz-poetry as a term. Some folks look this term exclusively as poetry about jazz music, which can contain elements of jazz such as repetition. What Pinksy does is read the poems differently depending on what’s happening on the bandstand. He took a lot of liberties. The thing about your music on the other hand, is that it feels more preconceived. Did you want to elaborate on that concept?
S: I think that with my writing, there is room for the singers to interpret and put and emotional stamp on the melodies rhythmically and sonically. There’s a lot of repetition, I have certain songs that just repeat over and over. “Love” from my first record, ends up like a cannon. It’s a melody that is repeated over and over. “Tears” on the new record is similar. I try not to be overbearing with the way I write, so much that I make a stamp. I try to say “this is what I think of this poem” because a lot of these poems, I still don’t know what they mean. To me, a lot the parallels between poems and a great piece of music is that every single time you come to them, they can mean something different to you or mean nothing at all. Say, “Sketches of Spain”. That could be a totally captivating record, or it could be a devastating record depending on where you are. These great poems that I like to work with, I feel the same way about. I don’t want to destroy that providing a very definitive concept over them.
A: In that sense they are jazz-like…scratch that. I’m tired of getting wrapped up in these definitions. It’s a love-hate relationship I have with them; it seems to take away from the personality. I’d rather not have them.
S: That’s something that everybody is struggling with. I think that there’s a camp that wants to define jazz and there’s a camp that says jazz doesn’t exist. That it can be anything. I’m somewhere in the middle. There’s a jazz tradition and I think that anyone who wants to contribute to the art form has to have an awareness of it.
A: That’s with every art. Some of what I recently learned about Ginsberg was his love of tradition and form. He studied all conventions before he broke them. Which is something I feel poetry and jazz strongly share. Why did you, as a jazz musician gravitate towards poetry?
S: I think any good artist takes from other art forms and is inspired by other art forms. I think that poetry was something that I could take a direct use of. I tend to me inspired from different art forms. The initial spark when using this poetry? It wasn’t really thought out for me, I was playing with some singers, and wanted to contribute material. It grew from there. It was a really helpful thing for me as a composer to have this preexisting material. To me it made it easer to work with pre existing material. Maybe that’s because I knew I was onto something, using this stuff that was off the beaten path. I that a lot of jazz musicians and composers would feel constricted to use poetry as a basis. I never had that feeling. I was never a fan of poetry until starting this.
A: You never wrote it?
S: No, never written it and I don’t anticipate writing it actually. If there are any parallels to be drawn between parallels and poetry and jazz in a society it’s that they’re both really shoved out of the mainstream. Poets and jazz musicians lead very fringe existences. It’s a shame. My parents are from the Soviet Union, in that culture, poetry is something that’s much more part of the general awareness than it is here. We get a little bit of it in school and for most people and ti tends to stop there. Most people haven’t been a round a living poet.
A: That’s an interesting concept. Most of the folks we tend to study are long gone.
S: Most people haven’t been around a working, practicing jazz musician either.
A: You were blessed to record, right out of high school with Ray Brown!
S: Well I was lucky. I grew up in LA. Fortunately there’s a great music scene and I was able to work with a lot of incredible people.
A: You worked with [Brad] Mehldau as well. What was that like?
S: I was a luck f***. He was living in LA and just moved there and was looking to play. I was there, this precocious 17 year old and we ended up becoming friends.
A: Still keep in touch?
S: Oh yeah, I’ll be doing something with him at Carnegie Hall next March.
A: I’ll be there. I love his work. I finally got Kurt’s record “Deep Song” It’s really killin’, It’s got Mehldau on it.
S: I actually went through a period of really being obsessed with Kurt Rosenwinkel’s music. To me, there’s a real vitality to it. You really feel that he’s listening to the music of today. He’s got the sound. Another thing that makes good music and good jazz in general is this: I don’t’ like to feel when I listen to music that there’s an agenda. I like to feel like people are doing what they want to be doing in that moment. Whether that means that they’re going to make a record that sounds like Dixieland or make a record that’s completely different next time, as long as they can do it in a way that feels fresh and convincing, that’s great. Those are the artists that I feel I want to follow.
A: You defiantly reflect this in the way you approach different projects and your attraction to participating in different world music’s. Have you ever thought about working with Gamelan music?
S: I actually haven’t yet! We ended up using some of those instruments in the new record. The studio I recorded at had fishing lines of percussion instruments hanging on them so recording, was just f***ing a round. These things again, have never been conscious. I’m way to disorganize and undisciplined a person.
A: Undisciplined! I find that hard to believe!
S: I work, but in a very undisciplined way. One of the things in the new record, I didn’t know this, but it’s a raga. It follows that form, 5-note scale, stepwise the whole time, you know. I have never studied Indian music. I’ve listened to it. That’s how I work. I just like to feel that nobody’s ever trying to prove anything.
A: I’m predicting down the road that this is a similar philosophy to other musicians who work with poets. This feeling that they don’t need to abide by anything, any conformity. Jazz itself, the philosophy that we go on stage and play something different every night. There’s another school of jazz however, the kind of plug-and-play musicians. Those are not the cat’s who will be playing with poets and gravitate towards poets. It’s important for people like you to be active in the scene and be expanding upon this tradition. It’s been over 50 years since jazz/poetry has been happening in New York, which is really great but there’s a new generation. You, Vijay [Iyar] and other cats come from a new schooling, its real important that you keep doing this.
S: I know about this tradition of jazz and poetry. It hasn’t really been a guiding force for you. It’s not something that I feel like my work as come out of. My work’s come out of the tradition of art song, compositions using literary material. The very first set of songs that I ever got into was by Schumann. I think of really great singer/songwriters, using their own words and music.
A: One of your singers, Heather, she comes from a bluegrass background singing with the Wailin’ Jenny’s. She’s marvelous. You really got a good one there, keep her around!
S: She’s a good egg!
A: I sent her an email last night, “keep it up, and work with Sam!”
S: She’s got great presence. All the singers I’ve used, they’ve got a jazz background but also are really versed in a lot different things and actually are more active in things that are further from jazz. Heather spends a lot of her time with the Wailin’ Jenny’s and is more emerged in the bluegrass and folk worlds. Monica is all over the place, participating in a lot of hard edged, rock influenced things. Becca Stephens is an amazing songwriter with an incredible awareness of rock and world music.
A: It would be hip for you to hook up with Grethcen Parlado. She’s certainly raising a lot of eyebrows.
S: Yeah, she’s defiantly one of those on the short list. I don’t know if I’m on hers but she’s defiantly on mine! So if she’s listening to this…what’s driven the “Words Project” for me as well is wanting there to be new standards for vocalists to sing. It’s great to hear a vocalist sing “Skylark” but I think there should be new material. Singers like Gretchen who are writing that material and for me, using poetry has been the way to do that. I don’t anticipate writing things in my own words and I don’t have that hunger.
A: You’ve been quoted as saying that your music is too “off the wall” or “corky” to become standards. I have to say that I think that you’re selling yourself too short.
S: I don’t see “corky” as selling them short. Hogey Carmikle is corky in certain ways. I think a lot of them are too through composed to become attracted to musicians to use but certainly not all of them are. It would be a dream of mine for someone to take them on independently. This music has certain accessibility but also demands strong and particular attention from the listener that is difficult to find amongst audiences. That’s the challenge, that’s where singing Gershwin and something more familiar, with incredibly lyrics but not as complex as the poetry that I use. It demands attention that even I struggle with. Going back to Pinky and Vijay Iyar at The Standard. To devote that attention, that was really tough. I actually don’t have a lot experience going to poetry readings. It’s very difficult to me. My experience with poetry is reading it myself. It’s a demanding art form.
A: You’re right about that! Being completely engaged for the entire performance was challenging. They are extremely talented musicians in front of me, and Pinksky’s content is deep and dark. There was particular poem about the a guy looking down on a city at night…anyways, Pinksy had to scream to be heard over Matt Wilson who was driving it. You really counted hear the words at that portion of the set. I was trying to stay engaged. I think a lot of that has to do with the dynamics the band brings to band stand. From my experience, there were moments of the jazz/poetry events that I’ve put on where the audience I feel was detracted from the action.
S: I think that a lot my settings you hear a short poem happen repeatedly. That makes them easier to digest. I use that technique for that reason. It allows the listener to let their minds drift or wander and still over the course of the song absorb the poem. A lot of my performances, when it’s appropriate, I hand out programs. That hasn’t been a really important part of my work but it does allow people to get inside the work a little bit. Its actually something that I’m concerned with. I spent a lot of money on the packaging of my CD’s by printing the poems in the liner notes. That’s really important to me since most people are buying music digitally, or not buying music digitally. It’s something that is kind of lost. A lot of people certainly told me that they’ve been helped a lot to have the poem to look at while they’re listening. It gives them certain anticipation, reading the line a split second before its sung. How’s this going to be done, how’s this going to be said? There is a great enjoyment with listening to something of having some familiarity and having the poem written down can give that little ounce of familiarity and can enhance the experience. I enjoy hearing “all the things you are” played more than anyone who’s never heard that song. There’s a certain thrill, I have some knowledge of what’s coming. I know the framework that they’re approaching it from. To have the poem written to the listener can give back and that’s really valuable.
A: Its program music, its program jazz!
S: It can be, for someone who wants that experience and then a person has the choice to not read it. When you go to a classical performance there are those who read the program and look up the information for the next piece before it begins and what not and there are those who put the program down as soon as the program starts. I don’t think one experience is more than valuable than another. If somebody’s reading the advertisements for jewelry in the back during the performance…
A: I’ve seen folks read novels in symphony halls….
S: That’s a whole other conversation! Peoples attention spans…what’s considered appropriate and acceptable. I saw something at Carnegie hall, there people right in front of me on Facebook. It’s incredible.
A: Phew! That is a whole other conversation…
S: That is something that anyone producing music right now is up against. Creating music in a culture when the ability to devote attention to one thing is being diminished day by day. I don’t want to create music that’s background music, that’s nice to listen when your clear your house or when you check your email. I saw this TV program that was explaining, “Music is the new silence” for so many people. It’s how they function by doing other things is by listening to music. To me there’s something lost because I want people listening to my music to be an activity unto itself. “Active” is something you do, not something you do in conjunction with other things. More and more, people who do that.
A: Are you guilty of that?
S: Oh! Absolutly guilty of it.
A: I am as well.
S: We’re just all plugged in, constantly.
A: We are. But we can separate engaged listening from the other side.
S: I can do that mentally but I still fight the same urges. When I was a kid, I put on records and I had the one CD that I bought and that’s what I had to work with. Now, I’ll put something on and I’ll say, “I like that, I wonder what else he’s done” and immediately I’m off…
A: I have yet to absorb all of Wayne [Shorter]’s records. I’d like to do that at some point but you’re right, there’s a trampoline effect…jazz/poetry itself is a “click”. The click that goes to jazz/poetry events is even smaller than the click that goes to poetry readings and the click that goes jazz sessions. I’d to say that the click’s that clicks should combine and both support the art. Where do you think they come from, the people who attend theses events? Are they coming for the jazz or the poetry?
S: That’s certainly an interesting thing. I haven’t really been able to tap into coming for more of a poetry appreciation. There’s also the thing that a lot of poetry aficionados don’t want music to be a part of poetry.
A: You think that?
S: For sure, I’ve encountered it. It’s not the majority of them, it’s a substantial number its something I respect. The poems are complete works of art and I don’t feel they need to be tampered with. Just like, I wouldn’t want to do spoken word over some of the instrumental stuff.
A: Spoken word isn’t something that you gravitate towards.
S: There’s one track on each of my records that uses spoken word but again that wasn’t conscious, I didn’t make a decision early on. That’s not the nature of my stuff and where I’m looking to go. There was a real amazing spontaneity to the Pinksy show with Vijay that I loved and I would certainly love to be a part of something like that. It’s just not something I’m pursuing in my own work.
A: Well, after speaking with George yesterday, he offered to allow me to put on my own jazz/poetry event in 2011 at Smalls. May-be in the future we can make something happen.
S: Well actually Matt Wilson and I are trying to set something up in September, a kind of poetry, jazz festival.
A: We’ll I’ll be at school! Hopefully, I’ll be able to pull it off. They’re booked until February; I don’t know how that works. That would be a dream of mine man. I put them on in Tallahassee but that’s a college town. This is where it’s happening.
S: I would like to see these things happening at some of the poetry festivals that happen around the country. I think it’s a question of money. It’s a lot easier to bring a poet out to do a reading than it is to bring a jazz group and have a proper venue, piano and sound system and all that. That’s probably more what we’re up against with making that happen.
A: New York has it though, so many venues with pianos…
S: Umm, fewer than you think. But I was talking more specifically with collaborating with the poetry world. I’m down with anything.
A: Have you ever heard Rob Brown who works with Amiri Baraka? I will hopefully speak to him at the end of the summer. He’s got a real avant-garde approach to the horn, which I really dig. I’m all about Ornette [Coleman], [Jackie] McLean…that whole tone. I’m interested in how he phrases over Amiri’s reading. Have you heard him live with spoken word?
S: I have heard him live but I don’t know his material enough to speak about it. There’s really no spoken word/jazz things that I’ve really listened to and checked out, its kind of a new thing.
A: How did you hear about the Pinsky thing?
S: We’ll I know of Pinksy, and I obviously knew the musician. Vijay and I share a publicist so he kind of pushed me to head out to the gig. I ended up giving my CD’s to Pinsky. I’m coming more out of a different tradition. Check out Frank Carlberg! Steve Lacy is actually the force behind most of his compositions. He’ll set text…
A: How would you describe Carlberg’s music? I have yet to check him out.
S: I think that he’s been really successful with his ability to combine very fresh and contemporary jazz composition techniques with text. Its sung, all sung. I think you’re hearing a great jazz composer apply himself to text. It’s really thrilling and so well sung by Christine Correa. I’m actually not a fan of Steve Lacy’s widow, Irene Aebi but I do recognize that there was a life-long collaboration, the same that I hear in Frank and Christine’s work that I really love. I’ve taken a different path because I end up using a lot different singers.
A: That’ll make the tour challenging.
S: [Laughs] Yeah…at this point my work is so unfocused that I needed to include so many voices in it.
A: I read online that you’re working with poetry from children from Nazi Germany?
S: They’re children from one particular camp in Terezin in the Czech Republic that was used by the Nazi’s for propaganda purposes. It was disguised as not being a camp essentially.
A: Was it composed of all children?
S: No, there were adults there too and a lot of amazing art came out of there too. A number of really incredibly composers spent time there. Part of their method of propaganda was having these little educational art programs for the Jews there. Fortunately there was a teacher who was working for the Germans who actually smuggled this stuff out of there, preserved it. She saw what was going on and saw the worth of this stuff. There’s all these amazing painting and poetry from children.
A: How did you get a hold of it?
S: It’s actually published. There’s a book called “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”. We’ll see what comes of that. That actually is a different approach, what I’ve worked on is more of a non-jazz shape.
A: Did you look to more traditional Jewish melodies?
S: I to fully orchestrate them last summer. They’re defiantly less improvisatory.
A: That’s cool man, I’m sure it’ll be really powerful with that poetry. Oded is working on a Hebrew vocalese project with Israeli-New York jazz musicians. A work in progress…it’s interesting, the influx of Israeli musicians into New York. You probably came at the same time. You said you’re the first generation of immigrant family, there are all of these musical cultures meeting in New York, it’s exciting.
S: Yeah! When I’ve thought about leaving New York, that’s one of the things that I know I would miss. It’s been a huge shaper here. New York is a place where there is no ceiling. You have everything here. For all it’s challenges, that’s the one thing…I’m not convinced that this is best place to be an artist…but I think that one of the things that’s irrefutable is that aspect, that you can just do anything. Anything that you conceive, you’ll find the people, and you won’t just find one, you’ll find 50 of them. I went into “The Words Porject” not knowing many singers and the number of extraordinary singers I found that were able to take on new things, it’s just been something that I don’t think I would be able to do anywhere else. That’s not to say that I couldn’t find great singers anywhere else but in most places you’ll find a handful, here you’re tree it’ll be almost boundless.