These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You’re known as a major figure in contemporary jazz, in part because of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But at Mills, you hold the Darius Milhaud Chair in Composition. Do you think that’s still difficult for some people to process — that you’re an improviser, but also a composer of “classical” music?
Well, let’s say I’m trying to change that. I’ve always believed in studying music across the board. I’ve never been fascinated with putting myself in certain categories. Especially now that there’s a lot of folks out there that want to know how this improvisational thing works. And the way that I would describe that, of course, is like composition in real time.
Years ago, you told me you once had a rule against writing orchestral pieces, because you thought those wouldn’t get played. But now we’re hearing a lot of new orchestral music from you.
I’m amazed by all the offers I’m getting to do concerts, with different orchestras around the world. And it allows me the chance to come into the orchestra under my own terms. It reminds me of how things were moving along in the ’60s. I just got back from Bologna, Italy, with the orchestra there, with Tonino Battista conducting. When some instrumentalists came in at first, they didn’t know what was going on, a little bit. But by the time the performance went down, I could see that people had really made a transition there, and were really open to improvisation.
In April, the S.E.M. Ensemble gave the premiere of a chamber-orchestra version of one of your improvisations, “Distant Radio Transmission.” How do you create an orchestral version of a piece like that, one that has its origin in avant-jazz performance practice, and that still needs to have room for improvisation in the orchestral setting?
On “Distant Radio Transmission,” Stephen Harvey did the transcription [of the original improvisation]. And then I got one of my current students, John Ivers, to transcribe the “air sounds” that the soprano saxophone is doing, on the orchestral piece. He was with me in New York when we did the scaled-down version. And he was also with me in Bologna, when we did the full version for orchestra. I always try to link all these things together, because this thing to me is an ongoing process: the study of composition and improvisation in parallel. The transcriptions of the improvisations have provided me with material that I can generate a lot of pieces from in a very fast way. So I still see these as things to improve upon. If I’m working on it and I see, “Oh, I could have done this; I could have done that,” I do it, inside of the orchestration.
“Bells for the South Side” has some vibrant chamber pieces that also include improvisation. “Six Gongs and Two Woodblocks” features you on soprano saxophone, William Winant on percussion and James Fei on electronics. How does a composition like that take shape live?
One thing I learned from Muhal Richard Abrams [an A.A.C.M. co-founder] and the Experimental Band: He’d write these compositions, and then he’d ask people to improvise. And people would take off doing whatever they wanted to do. You can’t just do that. Experienced improvisers will look at the materials, and then they will develop those materials in the same way you would do if you were writing the composition. I gave James certain pitch elements, for the electronics. And of course William Winant and I had real notes. I look at the composition, and see what elements are there.
The droning tones in that track remind me of an earlier piece of yours, “S II Examples.” But your playing is always developing. When Mr. Fei’s electronics get intense midway through, you respond with some ferocious timbres. It sounds like you’re searching for a new articulation, on every single note.
Absolutely. I was once in the car, listening to this radio show, and then all of a sudden this saxophone player came on and I was thinking, like: Wait, every note is different. Every articulation is different. And then at the end they said: “That was [the saxophone great] Benny Carter.” I was so relieved, I didn’t know what to do.
With the “S II Examples,” I had that curved soprano saxophone. I went through all the different possible fingering patterns, and then put together multiphonics, quarter tones, and so on and so forth. I can take that to another place, now that I’ve learned how to circular-breathe.
“Spatial Aspects of the Sound” is a striking, somber chamber piece. You conduct it, and then play piccolo, toward the end.
If you see it in real time, at a certain point Kikanju Baku enters the stage, wearing [the Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist] Malachi Favors’s wrist bells and ankle bells, and he’s dancing and moving with the sound. In the theater you can see how that actually happens: William Winant is in the center; the pianos are on each side of him. Something might start in one piano, and then be picked up in the other piano.
The album closes with a performance of one of your most famous tunes for the Art Ensemble, “Odwalla.” So this covers a lot of ground.
I have such great memories of that piece. One of the main versions I remember is from being in Paris in those early days. We created that piece for a performance at the American Center there, with the bass saxophones. Later, Eminem sampled me doing that.
Which Eminem song is that?
It’s called “Don’t Front”! It didn’t make his main record, but it’s online.
Bringing up hip-hop reminds me that you rapped on one of your solo albums, back in the early 1980s, on the track “You Wastin’ My Tyme.”
Well, that was inspired mostly by the Last Poets and stuff. Because rapping wasn’t totally “in” at that time. It was starting. And now it’s just, like, full blown. People have done some amazing things — I mean, my God.
Do you listen to contemporary rap and R&B?
I do. I like Anderson .Paak, that’s for sure! That “Come Down” piece. Right now, I’m running here and there. But when I get a chance, I calm myself down and tune in to what’s going on.
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