Sam Sadigursky Interview by Alex Ariff — March 2012
AA: First, can you give me some background on the making of these records and how you assembled the band for them?
SS: Laurent Coq and I got a grant in 2009, the Chamber Music America / French American Cultural Exchange grant. We had just met the summer before and quickly decided to apply for it together. So, once we got it, I brought vocalist Christine Correa over to France and we did two concerts in Paris related to that grant, one at the club Sunside and a live concert recording for Radio France.
There was a really great feeling about the project from everybody involved. Laurent had put together the rhythm section, and they had all played together as a trio quite a bit before. We were all pretty determined to document the grant project, which became the Crosswords album, which Sunnyside Records is going to release later this year.
AA: So that came first…
SS: Yes, the music written for the grant project came first. Some of the music for Words Project IV did exist already in rough form, but the original impetus was to document the stuff that Laurent and I had written for the grant, and then I figured if I’m going spend the money to record in France, coupled with the fact that I liked working with this group so much, why not record two albums?
So they were both recorded in the same four-day period at Le Buissone. It’s three hours outside of Paris, in the middle of the countryside, with next to nothing else around. Pretty remarkable experience. I had never really done a record like that, it was pretty special. Most jazz records are done in two days or even one day now, much of which is spent setting up, getting comfortable and getting a good sound. We had four days straight of recording, which was a remarkable experience, and gave us the chance to relax and ease into the material, and even revisit things later when we weren’t satisfied with how they came out.
AA: So you recorded the two albums simultaneously?
SS: Yes, the material for the two albums was actually pretty mixed up as we were doing it.
AA: I want to talk about Christine. When we spoke a few years back, you urged me to check out Frank Carlberg’s music, and you told me that one of the ways in which your music differs from his is that you use multiple vocalists as opposed to just one.
SS: I’ve surrendered. And it’s made life much simpler.
AA: Did you write with Christine in mind?
SS: A number of the pieces, yes, definitely. There are a number of songs that she has been the only one to perform. Besides being such a great musicians she’s so warm and easy to work with. All these songs, I identify them with her. I’ve played with her more and more in the live setting over the past two or three years and it just made sense to document all this material.
AA: What is it about her timbre that is so good?
SS: To me, so many singers are afraid or incapable of getting ugly, and Christine gets ugly, and I love it. She has an amazing beautiful voice when she wants to, but also pushes it to its extremes, and takes chances musically that really electrifies the music and the way the band plays it. Christine is much more of a jazz singer than many of the other singers I’ve used, somebody who comes out of the jazz tradition in a very deep way. Words Project IV was intended to be a jazz record, more than the others, to have a certain edge. There are very few overdubs, and there are some aggressive solos on there. So Christine was really a perfect fit, and so committed and easy to work with.
AA: I was curious as to your rehearsals, assuming that there weren’t many of them since you and Christine live across the ocean from the rest of the group. How did you conduct them? Were decisions intuitive or instructed?
SS: This group felt good the first time we played together, musically and personality wise. I really don’t feel like I needed to give them much direction. That’s why I was so sure we could pull this off. I’ve never really been somebody that big on rehearsal either, which also helps. The band only rehearsed once for my first recording, and I still love the performances on that one.
But since we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time and didn’t get to play the Words Project IV stuff live before entering the studio, I sent the musicians some very crude demo mp3s of me playing the songs on piano, along with some loose instructions for each tune. It was a starting point, but thankfully there was quite a bit of evolution once we started playing.
AA: What were the logistical steps?
SS: I flew over and we did two rehearsals without Christine then one really long one with her once she arrived. I had rehearsed quite a bit with Christine at her house in Brooklyn over the months preceding the recording.
AA: Let’s talk about some of the songs. You really had a lot of fun with “The Bestiary Suite.” Lets talk about each animal… were there certain characteristics to each one that you reflected in musical ways?
SS: Most definitely “The Cat” is sort of a tango, and cats just have an incredible sensuality that I thought matched the style. “The Frog” is such a declamatory, matter of fact set of words that I wanted the music to match that. “The Bat” has more than a bit of darkness to it. “The Snake”, I don’t know what to call that feel, maybe there’s a sensuality and a slipperiness to it that reflects the animal. And it just seemed more than appropriate to have that lazy and battered slow swing feel for “The Elephant,” in which this poor elephant laments being removed from the wild, but is somehow too lazy to exact his revenge.
AA: What about the lyric “Sheherezade-y body” in “The Snake”?
SS: That was not easy for me to write, and not easy for Christine to sing. I don’t think I’ve ever had to deal with a five syllable word before that one, and I actually turned it into six syllables when I put it to a melody!
AA: Bertold Brecht’s “Motto.” It’s dark, it’s twisted, it eventually turns into a drinking song. It’s such a short poem. How do you see a piece from so little material?
SS: It is a short poem, just four brief lines, a simple question and an answer. It’s jazz, such a simple and inspiring statement of freedom in hard times. I just wanted to repeat it over and over, so I took one melodic shape, and kept twisting it ever so slightly. One of the things with this record as a whole is that I wanted to make it a vehicle for Karl Jannuska [the drummer], who just totally delivers. I wanted him to have the freedom to let loose and make it more drum centric than anything else I had done before. He really shapes this piece beautifully. It’s also one of the pieces with a big overdub – all the males sing in sort of a choir toward the end. That’s probably the drinking part you refer to.
AA: The choir… Is that a commentary on anything?
SS: Maybe, but not as much as the piece “Pie.” That’s based on the words of George W. Bush, artfully compiles by a journalist who is based out of D.C. He took a bunch of misspoken things by our former president and assembled them into something that is strangely poetic. The line that I wrote for it is based on “What is This Thing Called Love?” It’s a very Lennie Tristano-esque, Konitz sort of thing. I imagine George W. Bush meeting Cole Porter meeting Lee Konitz, and if those three had ever collaborated this may have come out of it. On the album, I follow “Pie” with a piece called “Fear,” also an incredibly short poem which is about fear in itself being contagious and how often there’s nothing to fear, but it still seems to pass “from man to man.”
AA: And tell us about “What Do Women Want.”
SS: Christine has always owned “What Do Women Want,” which is based on a poem by Kim Addonizio, who I later found it is a blues musician herself. It’s a bizarre melody, so off the wall. It’s very chromatic, and very slowly escalates, while underneath the bass plays a circus-like ostinato built off a Major 7th interval, even though the song is primarily in minor key. The harmony actually moves up a fourth at one point, giving it somewhat of a blues tinge.
The poem starts off fairly light, “I want this red dress, and I want it bad.” But by the end she’s saying “I’ll wear it like bones, like skin, It’ll be the goddamned dress they bury me in.” It’s gone from something she wants to something that defines her identity, a crucial part of the image that will outlive her.
One of my favorite moments on the album happens when the tune settles into a stripper-tempo blues and Laurent starts his solo by quoting “Here Comes the Bride” on this piano that we’ve put all sorts of junk inside of to get a clanky, “prepared” piano sound. Having Christine sing over that piano solo was something I decided to try in the studio, and I love what she does there. I could have never written something like that.
AA: What is it about Carl Sandburg’s writing that keeps you coming back?
SS: His writing has this folky quality… The language is very simple but yet evocative, that’s always been key. When the material in a poem gets too dense, there’s no room for any music, so there has to be some simplicity to the language. Frank Carlberg has worked a lot with beat poetry for that reason and actually, so much of the jazz oriented work with poetry has been beat poetry for that reason, because it is so matter of fact, from the streets. I just totally love the sentiment in “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz.” I have no idea where the title comes from, but the poem talks about how important it is to be happy, but just not too “doggone happy.” It feels especially relevant to our culture that puts such a high degree of importance on people always being “happy.” People are constantly asking if are you happy, but nobody asks what that really is – this is a warning a definition of happiness that tries to exclude the darkness and any feelings of sorrow or pain. We get into some really fun with the wordplay in this poem.
AA: And the vamp at the end…
SS: Christine lets loose, I let loose, Karl goes wild. It kind of becomes this gospel thing, the 5/4 time signature becomes a feeling of a big two; a fun performance on the record.
AA: It is similar to your other records in that it’s not a “Sam Sadigursky” record – its very much a communal record, it’s a band. You’re not soloing on every tune.
SS: I’m very conscious of that. Even in the non-vocal music I do, I’m really conscious of having each solo be part of the composition, worked into the composition, if there are going to be multiple solos, have them be different. I consciously avoid having two people improvise over the same section on the occasion that there is more than one solo on a tune. For example on “Nothing”, Laurent takes a piano solo that’s fairly contained over the chord changes to the actual song – it’s the most “jazz lead sheet” of a song on the album, but then I solo on soprano over the ending section that’s just a four bar thing, and Christine works with the last phrase of the tune in that section as well, constantly raising the stakes of the saxophone solo.
AA: What amazes me also is her enunciation of these words, a lot of times when you go to hear poets read live, even vocalists for that matter, enunciation is so critical. She’s right on point.
SS: Exactly. There is this rhythmic sharpness and edge that brings a real clarity to the words.
AA: So, we didn’t touch on “Simple Love Song,” the last song on the record.
SS: That one is based on a lovely poem by Sadi Ranson, which my wife and I actually adapted into the seven blessings for our wedding, which we had friends and family read aloud in the ceremony. Compositionally, it’s more like some things on my previously records, a long, rubato, highly composed melody that reads top down. I take a short saxophone solo in the middle that stays close to the melody, Christine comes back in the middle and takes us out. It’s a very standard jazz form, but it’s an incredibly complex melody that Christine totally nails. I don’t think there are many other singers, that can take on a melody like that and sing it with so much style and ease. It’s filled with leaps at times, but at times also close and chromatic. And mixed in there is a very overt reference to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
AA: So you feel like you didn’t need to do as much doubling with Christine as a saxophonist?
SS: I really don’t like when the voice is doubled by a horn too much, so I tend not to double what she does. You can hear her part in Laurent’s voicings, especially in something like “Simple Love Song,” which is so complicated to sing. Not doubling the voice with horn really allows Christine to take chances and stretch things
AA: Tell me more about the Crosswords album. What was the idea behind the music that you and Laurent had collaborated on?
SS: For the Jazz Exchange grant, we had the idea of taking two English poems and finding their French translations and two French poems with English translations. Laurent and I then did our own independent composition in our respective languages and then performed the settings side by side, which is how they appear on the album. Nine songs total, four by each of us and a bonus track at the end, a tune of mine called “Dreams” based on a poem by Muriel Rukeyser that both Christine Correa and Laurence Allison sing on together.
AA: What do you think separates the two projects?
SS: Let’s see… Laurent’s writing is so different from mine, and he took the helm with his tunes in shaping how we played them. I have no understanding of the French language whatsoever, so I only found out later that he took a lot more liberties with the poems than I typically do. He would sometimes start off with a middle section of a poem or whatever, things that I have never tried. There’s even a rap section in the middle of his setting of William Carlos Williams’ “The Post Office Clerk and his Daily Duty” that Laurence Allison, the French singer on the recording, wrote herself. Even though I have no idea what she’s saying, I love that section of the tune.
What Laurent and I do with each composition is so incredibly different; we had no correspondence whatsoever while we were actually writing. I think the different approaches in our settings is a testament to both our different identities as composers and part of it is the nature of the different languages we were working with. He told me ahead of time that it’s very difficult to set French to music because there are so many strange and harsh sounds in the language. Part of the difference is also that things get changed in translation really profoundly. The crossover into a new language is never seamless, and the translator thus creates a new poem out of the old one. And the beauty of poetry is that two people can read the same poem and take totally different things from it. For example, Laurent’s working of Guillivec’s “Eternity” is such a beautiful setting of two people coming together, but with mine, I somehow found angst in there at the idea of two people always having this slight gap between them that is never quite crossed. Differences such as those were really fun to see, and hopefully people who listen to the settings back to back on the album will feel the same way.
Also, Christine and Lawrence are such different singers, one of the really great things about this project is hearing them side by side. Christine always stayed at Lawrence’s house when we were in Paris and they became fabulous friends, they just totally clicked, so it was a great energy having both of them in the studio.
AA: Does Christine know French?
SS: No. Actually, Laurent and Laurence are the only two people who are native French. Karl Jannuska is Canadian and Yoni Zelnik, the bass player, is originally from Israel. Laurent lived in New York City for ten years or so and then moved back to Paris about in 2005 or so. Strangely, the two of us only met once he had moved back to France.
AA: How did you meet?
SS: He wrote me an email telling me how much he liked Words Project I. We struck up a correspondence and the next time he was here, we got together and played some duo and he’s been one of my favorite composers and pianists since. Earlier today we were talking about this pathological dependence of young musicians on odd time signatures, myself included, and to me Laurent is somebody who defies this. He can write some of the hippest rhythmic stuff in four and three. I totally love that.
AA: You can tell that he’s a mature player. Is he older than you?
SS: I think he’s seven or eight years older than me, and he’s recorded some great records as a leader. One of the things I really love about his playing is he really is not afraid of using the whole piano. With so many jazz pianists, the left hand comps and the right hand plays lines, both within the middle range of the keyboard. I’m drawn to pianists who love the extremes, and like Christine, he always takes chances and instigates.
It’s amazing how Laurent takes what I write and takes it to the next level. That’s totally what I’m going for as a composer. To me, good jazz writing gives the other musicians a clear idea, but leaves them a lot of space to interpret as an improviser and interact with the other musicians. Having people like Laurent and Karl in the group, musicians who are also real composers, I know that their musical decisions will fit into my intentions with the music.
As the pianist in this music, Laurent is really at the helm of the band, much more dominant a role than me as the saxophonist. I’m mostly just playing these counter melodies, these obbligato commentaries and what not. It’s really the pianist who’s driving the engine forward, and Laurent totally delivers here.
AA: It’s a traditional jazz group on both these records. It caught me a bit off guard.
SS: For some reason, with each of the records in this series, I’ve just wanted to turn the last one upside down, which this time meant paring things down a bit. On both of these records, I play mostly saxophone and am a bit more in front, as opposed to previous Words Project albums, where I often played more clarinets and flutes, more gentle and colorful things. I wanted this to be a “coming out party” for me as a saxophonist. In terms of my recorded work as a leader so far, I had always put that second. Also, this record is far more rhythmically driven than the others, so I felt like I could push the players to be more aggressive on that front and not have to be so creative with orchestration.
So, who knows, the next album will probably be a rock fusion band or string quartet…
AA: Where do you go to find the poems you work with?
SS: I’ve bought quite a few books of compilations over the years, some of them were found online, and many came from the time I spent scouring various libraries. I was really lucky to do an artist retreat in rural Minnesota in 2008 and had a lot of time there I to find material. This small town there called New York Mills brings one artist at a time to live in the town and gave me a small stipend and a house to work in. It was a period where I was really engrossed with the poetry settings and I wrote quite a bit in those two weeks. I think a lot of the material for Words Project III came out of that time, as well as a few of the poems that are on the new album.
AA: As a listener, it helps to have the lyrics on hand as you listen.
SS: Definitely. Personally, when I listen to vocal music, I find it hard to focus on lyrics. I get distracted by the musical elements. I know for a lot of people, it’s totally the opposite. They really hone in on the words to the exclusion of the music. I do everything to make sure that the writing, playing and way the record is mixed allows the words to be clear, so that somebody doesn’t necessarily need the the text in front of them. But I think for people like me, its great to have it visible.
Sadly, today, where everyone’s buying music electronically, I’m not sure how many people will take the time to download the digital booklet that will be available with the record, but hopefully some people will do so. With past CD’s, I’ve taken the trouble to create nice physical booklets, but this time around, Words Project IV will strictly be a digital release. I’m running out of closet space for boxes of CD’s and clarinet books!