“Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi” was released Oct. 1, 2010. Louis recently released his second solo album, “Album 2”. Check them out.
Though she greets me at the door with her usual smile–the corners of her mouth rising to reveal her teeth without, somehow, moving the rest of her face–Genevieve doesn’t seem herself tonight. She tells me that she’s working on a piece of music for her grandfather. He’s sick, and she worries that she won’t be able to finish it in time. While she works, I occupy myself with a foam ball and the basket affixed to her living room wall. I’m trying to bank a shot off the opposite wall when she closes her laptop and joins me.
She asks if I’ve made one yet. I reply that I haven’t, and hand her the ball to try the shot herself, but she hands it back. Her smile returns, and she demands that I keep trying. Even though I’m pretty sure I can’t make the shot, I try again. And again. And again. A hundred shots later, I feel bizarrely invested in this once pointless venture. I’m beginning to think that I can make the shot after all, that I’m going to make it. Sure enough, the ball finally finds its target. Genevieve shouts her approval and high fives me.
I wonder out loud how long we’ve been at it. She shrugs. My question suddenly seems silly to me.
Pop musicians are in the business of showing people a good time. One occasionally detects a note of desperation in their theatrics, though, a nervous compulsion to look over their shoulders as they shake their asses in our faces and silently plead from behind steely eyes: “are you having fun yet?” Therefore, when I say that I don’t consider Louis and Genevieve to be pop musicians, I mean it neither as a compliment nor a slight, but rather to distinguish their particular brand of fun from what normally passes for fun these days.
It is often taken for granted in today’s musical culture that musicians must choose between being serious and having fun. Young musicians seem either manic to the point of insanity, or so sad that one wonders where they find the resolve to pick up an instrument. Louis and Genevieve have artfully carved a niche for themselves someplace far from both extremes. Theirs is the fun of an absurd idea carried through to its conclusion, whether it be comic, tragic, or some combination of the two. Fun, in this context, is not so much the continual exudation of happiness as it is an attitude towards ones life. It is the ability to open oneself to the strangeness of the world without fear. Fun is a model for courage.
If that seems too dramatic, I wonder: have you ever heard anything like this?
Louis comes by later, and he doesn’t seem himself either. He’s been working on music all night. As we discuss the album over Genevieve’s kitchen table, neither of them seems quite sure what comes next. “We’ve spent a year of our lives on this album,” Genevieve says, “and I don’t know if anything will come of it.” An uncomfortable silence follows, which Genevieve breaks by asking me if I want to make brownies.
No ordinary mix will do. The three of us peruse the selection at the local grocery store for what seems like half an hour before settling on double fudge. But perhaps triple fudge would be even better. And why is there no quadruple fudge brownie mix? A lengthy discussion of why no such option is available ensues; would that be too much chocolate, or is the word ‘quadruple’ too inelegant to be printed in sweeping cursive letters across a box? No definitive conclusion is reached, but the matter seems terribly important, to hear Louis and Genevieve talk about it–a sensation oddly similar to the way their music makes me feel.
Krishna and Radha dancing the Rasalila, Jaipur, 19th century.
My housemate enters our living room to the sound of a furious drum solo.
[“Amnesia” by Robby Marshall, from his album, Living Electric. Robby Marshall – saxophone, fx, samples; Andrew McKay – guitars; Danny McKay – bass; Zach Harmon – drums; Romain Collin – Rhodes.
“What are you listening to?”
I consider telling the truth.
It’s a Miles Davis record.”
Maybe next time.
“Fuuuuuck yeah,” he moans, collapsing into our papasan for a listen. After a minute or two, he asks which Miles Davis record it is.
I consider lying.
“It’s not a Miles Davis record.”
Another person might be annoyed, but we’re a couple of jazz musicians, and this is our favorite game. “The drumming sounds like early Jack DeJohnette, but tighter. Terri Lynn Carrington?” Strike one. “Jim Black?” Strike two.
“Are these New York cats?”
The realization comes too late to save him from striking out, and so it is with resignation that he concludes, “oh, this is Robby’s record.”
Robby likes to make coffee with filtered water. I once asked him if he could tell the difference, and he shot me the same look of mild annoyance as when he sees his name spelled “Robbie”. But today, he fills the coffee maker with tap water. The coffee pot recently met its end on the kitchen floor, so he places his mug beneath the drip instead.
He hasn’t been sleeping well. Somewhere between organizing a big band to perform with Dave Douglas at the Hollywood Bowl, hustling gigs for his own groups, and grinding out a living in the LA music scene, the summer has slipped away. And with a recording session for his band Root System fast approaching, he can ill afford to rest.
Left to right: Robby Marshall, Damon Zick, and Dave Douglas. (Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times)
It’s been two years since Robby released his debut record, Living Electric, but the trials involved are still fresh in his mind. “Holding the finished product in my hands was great,” he says. “But designing the packaging and pressing the CDs was expensive and time-consuming, not to mention recording, mixing, and mastering the music.”
Those difficulties, however, haven’t dissuaded him from doing it all over again—writing and rewriting music, scheduling and rescheduling rehearsals, relentlessly writing emails and making phone calls to corral the musicians he wants into the studio on the dates he’s reserved—on the contrary, he’s more determined than ever.
But what if everything falls apart? Or what if it comes together, and no one listens? And what about the hundreds of copies of Living Electric still packed in boxes next to his desk? If these thoughts ever trouble Robby, he isn’t letting on. He finishes his coffee and disappears into his room.
The Blue Whale is an oddity among Los Angeles jazz clubs, a reasonably priced venue that regularly features young local jazz musicians. On this cool July night, about a hundred people have packed themselves into the small space, drinking and loudly conversing as the Los Angeles Jazz Collective’s Summer Jazz Festival unfolds.
By midnight, when Robby Marshall and Root System take the stage, the crowd has thinned out considerably. Those who remain, however, are quiet and attentive. Over the next hour, they will experience a whirlwind tour of Robby’s influences; which is to say, the music of people around the world having a good time.
Eastern European folk song, Peruvian lando, and New Orleans 2nd line all have a place in Robby’s conception of the rasa lila, a Hindi phrase which means “dance of aesthetics”. The concept inspired an original composition by Robby, and is reflected more generally in Root System’s diverse book of music.
Before the night is over, Robby will shake every hand in the audience, exchange numbers with every musician, and chat at length with the management. It isn’t an act; he really loves this part of the evening. And who can blame him? As high as he took this audience tonight, he’ll be back to the grind tomorrow, broken coffee maker and all.
Perhaps that’s why, upon returning home late, he doesn’t collapse into bed. He must be tired, but he kicks off his shoes and turns on the television. By morning, the dust will have settled on his ambitions again, and he’ll spend the whole day polishing them. Tonight, they shimmer before his bleary eyes, so close he can almost touch them.
The club is packed shoulder to shoulder, and the crowd buzzes with anticipation. Five musicians take the stage, assuming their positions behind their instruments, a standard jazz configuration of trumpet, tenor sax, keys, bass, and drums. But this is no jazz club. A DJ is spinning remixed soul music, downtown hipsters mingle with college students and a few grizzled older drinkers, and there isn’t a framed photo of Miles Davis in sight.
And when the band hits, they HIT with the ferocity of a punk band. The low growl of Shane Endsley’s trumpet blends seamlessly with Ben Wendel’s sax as they uncork swirling, knotty melodies; Nate Wood’s drumset cannot contain his exuberance as he bangs away at cymbals arrayed on the floor around him; bassist Kaveh Rastegar rocks steadily in the center, an anchor in this sonic storm; and Adam Benjamin, wearing a wide-brimmed hat that covers his eyes, twirls knobs on the effects pedals on top of his Rhodes keyboard, conjuring sounds never before heard from that instrument.
Few in the audience try to dance, but no one can resist moving. As the band layers groove upon polyrhythmic groove, heads bob and hips swivel. Ben is in the middle of an extended sax solo, his instrument distorted so as to sound exactly like an electric guitar, when suddenly the groove changes, modulating to precisely one third of the previous tempo. The band hits this new pocket instantly, without missing a beat. A cry of amazement goes up from the audience – they aren’t sure what just happened, but it sure felt good.
The band is Kneebody, and their unique musical vocabulary and sonic ingenuity makes them one of the most exciting ensembles working in improvised music today. We spoke to Adam Benjamin about his role in the band, and about the development of their personal language of musical cues.
Vikram: You guys always seem to have big smiles on your faces when you’re playing, like you’re egging each other on. As a musician, that’s really exciting to watch, but it’s also frustrating, because it’s like you’re having a conversation or telling an inside joke that no one else is in on.
Adam: There’s so many inside jokes it’s insane, such as the cueing. Our cues are a pretty large vocabulary of short, transparent musical phrases that we can play to alter things. By transparent, I mean that they are meant to not jump out, not be too obvious. They’re meant to blend into the rest of the music, so that it is not too apparent that we’re giving each other musical instructions. But we can control the direction of the improvisation in many ways, or hopefully at this point in EVERY way.
We have cues to change most major aspects of the music. We have cues for changing meter, changing key, and each member of the band has a musical name. With the names, we can cue each other in and out for orchestrational reasons. There’s another cue that resets the orchestration, so that we don’t have to move people in or out one at a time, but rather, we can move to a particular duo or trio, or whatever. We can tell each other to play certain figures using the musical names, like we can tell each other to loop certain parts. We can tell each other to solo, or we can tell each other to stop soloing. We can tell each other to change the texture of what we’re playing, to take a solo break.
Anyone can play a cue at anytime. The only restriction is that Nate can’t do the cues that are pitch dependent, but he can do the names, because in addition to being different pitches, they’re also each a different amount of pitches. So he does the name stuff a lot, where he’ll cue me in or out. Usually out.
Vikram: Does that ever turn into an argument on the bandstand? What happens if you’re getting a direction you don’t want to follow?
Adam: In a normal musical situation, if you’re just talking, and someone is like “Hey man, do you want to solo on this one?” and you’re not feeling very comfortable, you would say, “no, no, I’m cool man, it’s good.” But one of the cool things about the cueing is that if we’re on the bandstand playing some hard song, and I’m half lost, and someone plays the “Adam Solos” cue, I’m just like, “Fuck.” Because you can’t argue with the cue. I mean, what I could do is cue myself back out, or cue someone else to solo right away. But you try to trust the other person’s instincts. If I get cued to solo and I’m really uncomfortable or lost, then maybe I’d cue something different behind me to solo over, or I’d cue someone to solo with me or trade with me, but I wouldn’t just be like, “eh, shut up.”
Vikram: I suppose there’s a little bit of pride too – even if you are lost and you get cued to solo, you don’t want to just surrender.
Adam: It’s less of a pride thing and more of a respect thing. If someone cues something in the band, and you miss it or disobey it, that’s not a good place to be. That means that either you weren’t listening, or you don’t give a shit what they think.
Matt: It can turn into an intense conversation during the performance, but what keeps it form becoming a gimmick or trick, or just a game? What keeps it on the level of art?
Adam: Just our taste, hopefully. When we’re first getting a new cue together is when we tend to overuse it, because we’re still learning it in rehearsals, so when we go to perform we fall into a space where we’re doing it a lot because that’s all we’re hearing.
We never really intended to develop this whole system of cues, it just sort of happened. The first cue: Shane wrote a song called “The Slip,” that’s just an A section and a B section, and there’s a cue to stop the A section and go on to the B section, and a cue to stop the B and go back to the A. So we were just doing that, and then we realized that when we started the B section, we could start at different tempos. Or we could play the cue to start the B section while we were in the middle of another song. So that was an easy thing to fall into, and it grew from there. The second cue was when Ben soloed for like twenty minutes at some gig, and it was going nowhere, and we were all really annoyed, and we were just like, “we need a cue to stop this.”
The whole point of the cues is that they’re there only when necessary to steer things, but if we could get away with not using them…
When I was at Banff this past year giving a talk about the Kneebody cues, Joshua Redman was in the audience, and he asked something like “if you could have the Kneebody system where you can communicate all this stuff to each other and change things on a dime, or you could have the Wayne Shorter Quartet system, where it’s harder to change things on a dime but you have this really amazing intuitive sense of moving from space to space together improvisationally, which would you rather have?” And of course, I was like, “Wayne Shorter is a god.” Those guys are way beyond where we’re at. But in the long run, it’s hopefully for the same purpose – we’re just trying to nudge each other along or turn the music around when it gets stuck.
Matt: I have some questions about the way the music is put together: It’s never done with sheet music, right? It’s all done by ear, so when you write something for the band, what happens next? How do you go about learning new music?
Adam: Sometimes we’ll have notes we make while we’re composing, but there’s never charts that are handed out or anything. We try to always have everyone learn everyone’s parts, though lately we haven’t been able to do that as much as we were doing at first, due to time concerns. Generally, we just teach it section by section. At times, it feels like Kneebody is less of a band, and more of a class, where the thing we’re getting really good at is learning this complicated music by ear. And specifically, learning each other’s really complicated music by ear, where we understand each other’s compositional voices enough that we can adapt and learn new material more quickly than we would in other situations.
Matt: It seems like that music must take a lot of rehearsal, yet seemingly you can’t rehearse that much, since half the band lives in New York, and the other half lives out here in LA.
Adam: We basically never rehearse. Unfortunately, that means we don’t get as much new material happening, which is sort of a drag. Though we don’t rehearse that much, but what we do have is a pretty good amount of years of performance experience together. We have the ability – even if we are under rehearsed, even if we can’t hear each other, even if we’re playing in some awkward place on two hours sleep – to play a concert that leaves us feeling okay about it.
Matt: Let’s talk about the beginnings of Kneebody. You were in school with Shane and Ben at Eastman, right?
Adam: Right. We were in school together, we all started the same year, and we all lived in the dorms together. Ben was like the kid from California, and I was like, “who is this kid with the coiffed hair?” He was a classical conducting and bassoon major who switched to jazz. Then I met Nate after I switched to CalArts. He was a sophomore when I was a senior. And I met Kaveh right after that, he had started at Eastman right after I left, and he was friends with Shane.
I stayed in LA after graduating CalArts in 1999. Nate was still here, and then Shane, Ben, and Kaveh all moved out. And I introduced everyone, I’m proud to say – I organized the first session where they all met Nate. We had a weekly gig at a coffee shop at UCLA, before we were a band or anything, it was just a weekly thing we had. And it was really bad for a long time. We had this regular gig, and it was just really bad music and a super awkward pairing of people, uncomfortable on many levels.
Vikram: Looking back, what was it about the group that kept you guys together, even though it was so bad?
Adam: I don’t know, I think it was just that we all liked each other. I wanted to keep working with those guys, and so it wasn’t a stumbling block that it was so bad. And we all knew it was bad. We just felt like we wanted to work together, because we had known each other a while and had lots of mutual respect, and also we felt like we were meant to work together for some reason. I think that’s still what propels us through times when the band is not as rewarding as at other times, or when we feel like we’re just sucking it up.
But it was definitely a weird match at first. Nate was more of a stickler at that point in time, musically. He was generally pretty critical of when we would go into too much improvisation. He likes his music short and sweet, concise.
Matt: What were you guys playing? Had you started a Kneebody book at that point?
Adam: We were playing some jazz stuff, but it was mostly random original tunes we had written, and various, just, jams, because it was kind of a loose gig. We hadn’t really gotten into writing the denser, through-composed music yet – that was like a year later, when we got a weekly gig at the Temple Bar. Shane had gone on tour for a long time, and so it was just the four of us, and we called the band “Wendel.” There was pretty much no improvisation; it was just loud, through-composed rock music. And then when Shane got back to town, he kind of rejoined the band, and then it evolved into Kneebody.
Matt: We talked before about how you relate to the jazz tradition. How connected to jazz is the band Kneebody, aside from your own personal connection?
Adam: I consider Kneebody a jazz group, because I see what we’re doing as coming out of the way jazz groups evolved many years ago. But there are definitely other things in there. I don’t really conceive of it as a bunch disparate parts – it’s just us playing the way we play, and we kind of embody all of these different influences and sounds.
Matt: When it was just the four of you, and you were starting to gel as a group, who brought what to the band? Because when I hear Kneebody today, I hear your compositional stamp, and definitely Shane’s, and Ben’s…
Adam: And Kaveh’s too. His songs maybe aren’t as many in quantity, but in an average set things are spread out pretty evenly among us, compositionally. For some reason, Nate just refuses to write music for Kneebody. We’ve given up trying to make him. But he propels the music in other ways, bringing so much performance-wise, and also in the way he engineers the records. And in the way he eats. He’s a very passionate eater. It’s kind of disturbing actually. He’s very committed to his eating. When he eats something he likes, you’re gonna know about it.
Vikram: And when you think about the group now, what do you think each member brings to the table?
Adam: We always talk in clinics about our influences. There was one interview we did years ago, where Ben got stuck putting a quick little label on everybody. I don’t remember most of them, but Shane’s really stuck out – just two words, “Funk Mentors.” So I’ll go with that for Shane. Ben is “Classical music.” Nate is “pretty flashy.” I mean, he’s good, you know? He’s really good at the drums. Kaveh is the “Rock and Roll.” And I’m just “chords,” I guess. Actually, I feel like I’m a little bit the contrarian, where I’m always trying to pull things back, or be more reflective in the music, whereas the other guys generally tend to push things into a more energetic space.
But anybody can bring anything, which is what’s cool about that band. We all go off and play different tours with other musicians, and then that lets us bring new things to the band because it broadens our horizons and skill sets. It’s very difficult to predict what people are going to bring musically, and everybody in the band is multifaceted enough to bring something different all the time and keep surprising each other. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to keep it going for a long time.
Tune in next week for the last segment of our conversation with Adam Benjamin, where we discuss his participation in Dave Douglas’s Keystone band, his keyboard gear, and his plans for world domination.
To go back to Part I of our interview with Adam, click HERE.
“He says: When we choose to make art, we choose to build, and we choose to dig. There is no unmarked plot. In music, as in meteorology, a synopsis obscures what initial conditions illuminate.” — Adam Benjamin
It’s November of 2008. F. Boo Studios, which is connected to Robin and Keven Brennan’s home in Burbank, CA, is filled to capacity. Most of us sit on the floor surrounding a grand piano, the closest but an arms length from it. When all are settled, the artist enters to warm applause. He smiles gratefully—he knows everyone here personally—but he looks nervous, too, embarrassed.
He still looks a bit sheepish as he sits down and gathers himself. Only when his fingers push down the keys, and a sound totally unlike that of a piano jumps from the strings, do the listeners realize that they’ve been had.
Now, we’ve learned a thing or two about avant-garde composition in college. We are familiar with numerous methods of preparing piano strings to make different sounds—paper clips, putty, etc.—methods composers have used for over 50 years. But none of that knowledge shields us from this opening sucker punch, and by the time we pick ourselves up off the mat, he’s halfway through a raucous rendition of “Willow Weep For Me”.
For those who haven’t witnessed one of Adam Benjamin’s clandestine performances—the last one we attended took place in a narrow garden behind a flower shop—his forthcoming solo piano album, Alphabets And Consequences, is a handsome consolation. There’s an intimacy to this set of miniatures that draws the listener in; it’s as if you stopped by to say hello, and he sat you down by his piano and asked you to listen to something.
“I think this album pretty accurately represents me,” Adam wrote on his blog, “and because of this I am quite nervous about it actually being released. You know, the frailty of humanity, and all.” His ambivalence, unusual for a musician who has composed, performed, and recorded as much music as he has, is poignantly expressed in the sixth track, “Adam Benjamin”:
His right hand shuffles nervously onto the stage, haltingly intoning its strange song—as if it would be just as happy at home, rifling through Adam’s voluminous collection of baseball cards. After a minute or so, it finds its confidence and holds forth with clarity, but it isn’t long before it remembers itself. Awkwardness and poise dance and struggle, repelling and informing each other until, eventually, they wistfully agree to disagree.
Vikram: Why piano?
Adam: Well, why not piano? I don’t know; I was too young to know better when I started, and it seemed to be the funnest thing of all the other things that I liked or had any reasonable level of aptitude for. And even now it seems to be the funnest, coolest thing. It combines thinking on your feet, and creativity, and conceptual work, and all the things that I admire.
I started on my own. I had a toy piano, and I taught myself how to play some themes from TV and classical music. And so when I was five my parents were like, “we should probably get him a real piano.” My grandparents had this crusty old piano that my mom had grown up playing, and they had that shipped to where we lived. I was awestruck—it was so big compared to the toy piano.
I think the toy piano is gone, but the real piano is still at my parent’s house. It’s basically a toy.
Vikram: Do you remember making the transition from playing piano as a hobby to playing piano as a career?
Adam: I think I may still be making that transition. It’s week to week.
Music college was definitely the turning point. It was my senior year of high school, and I was trying to decide between schools. I had some music schools, and some liberal arts schools, and others where I could do both. I don’t remember how I ended up choosing music school over the other options, but it didn’t feel like it was a big, weighty decision at that point.
It seemed like the music people were better at being smart at “other stuff” than the “other stuff” people were good at music, so music school seemed like the safest option. But I still didn’t have that much confidence in it. My parents thought I should go to Eastman, because Eastman gave me the most financial aid and it was a shorter drive. And I was like, “oh, ok, whatever…”
I remember getting this letter in the mail—this was the first year they had an undergraduate jazz program at Eastman, so there were only eight students—and it listed all of them: Adam Benjamin, Shane Endsley, Ben Wendel… And I was like, “I wonder who all these guys are?” It said they were bringing in two professors to start the program, Michael Cain and Ralph Alessi, but I had never heard of them.
I had no idea what I was in for, but within two or three weeks, I think I just knew. I was so impressed by my teachers and what they were able to do musically, and who they seemed to be personally. And right around that time, Dave Douglas was a guest artist at Eastman and played with the Tiny Bell Trio. Jim Black was the drummer in that band, and I had just never seen—I mean, my idea of a good drummer at that point was the dude from Phish. And I saw Jim Black play, and I was like, “oh my God, he’s got the windup toys on the snare drum, and he’s doing all this crazy shit!” I had no idea about any of that stuff until I got to Eastman.
Vikram: You said music people seemed to be good at other stuff. What was your other stuff?
Adam: My first year at Eastman, I was really buried in music stuff because I was so far behind when I got there. All the other dudes could totally play jazz, and I was really clueless. I could do cool free improvisations, and I knew music theory, but I couldn’t play jazz to save my life. So I was just putting that together. Then my second year I got really into typography.
I wanted to make a big change in my life, so I was going to move to California and go to CalArts and be a double major in jazz and typography. That lasted two weeks.
Matt: Tell us about your experience at CalArts.
Adam: By the time I got to CalArts, I knew I wanted to get really good at playing solo piano. I wanted to get some bands together that played unique, interesting music. It was a really weird experience, changing schools. They’re so different curriculum-wise, and it was so different culturally. It took me a really long time to adjust to living in the dorms with these free-spirited California kids, who were just hanging out and doing drugs.
I was really intimidated by all the girls—by everybody, really. But then, pretty quickly, I got my first gig with a touring band, Ear 2000. The lead singer of that band was David Arquette. He would wear these weird zebra-print suits with his underwear on the outside. It was a whole different world, really a weird thing for me to be thrown into. I didn’t fit in with those guys at all.
But it was really interesting, because it took me to Europe for the first few times. It was my first experience being a working musician: having shit go wrong, getting ripped off for some money, getting overworked, but learning and having some cool gigs along the way. That was my first experience with rock and roll. At this point, I don’t think I had ever felt “the jazz feeling”.
It’s January of 2010. When we enter Adam’s cozy Santa Monica flat, he’s looking out over the Pacific from his porch. “Look at this sunset,” he says reverently. And we do, silently. Its beauty inspires Vikram to take a picture, but the flash pierces the perfection of the moment—an intrusion that, judging by Adam’s quizzical glance, he does not appreciate.
He says he needs some caffeine before we start the interview in earnest, so we drive a short distance to a spot he likes. He may have caught us smiling at the upper-crustiness of the joint, because he asks if we like fancy coffee. Vikram replies that he does, though he doesn’t really ever seek it out. “Oh,” Adam says excitedly, his eyes growing large and his smile widening, “I seek it out.”
We sit down with our cappuccinos and cookies, and Adam asks if we know a place that can dry clean his suit in a hurry. His band, Kneebody, in conjunction with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, has been nominated for a Grammy for their album, Twelve Songs By Charles Ives, and Adam wants to look his best for the awards ceremony. We reflect for a moment on the irony of all this—a rock band composed of jazz musicians has received a Grammy nod for “Best Crossover Classical Album” for paying tribute to a man whose music the concert music elite broadly disdained when he was alive.
We consider asking him how he feels about all that. But then we remember hearing Kneebody play those Ives songs live, and how exciting it was to see little kids jumping out of their seats at the sound of it, and we know it really doesn’t matter what the snobs of a hundred years ago or the Grammy voters of today think. The bitterness of our cappuccino and the decadence of our cookies seem far more compelling right now.
Matt: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician? I ask because, when I met you at Banff, you asked all the students in your master class to question how they relate to the jazz tradition.
Adam: It’s complicated. One of the reasons I always try to bring that up somewhat quickly in a situation like that is, a lot of the people who are pursuing a jazz education aren’t necessarily doing it because they love jazz, but because there just aren’t that many options in music education. I went into a jazz major in college because I didn’t want to be a classical musician, and really, jazz and classical were the only choices at serious music schools.
I think for the people at Banff—the shining lights of the young musical generation, you know—a lot of their work and energy and thought is being focused through jazz. And some of them naturally gravitate to jazz, and some of them come from a jazz background. But a lot of others end up being in a circle that uses the word ‘jazz’ a lot, and uses the jazz history and the jazz lexicon a lot just because that’s an acceptable thing to do in a music education setting, even though that might not be the music they’re most interested in, or the music they’re most naturally connected with.
So I think it’s good to take stock of where you are, to make sure you’re not being suggested into a role. It took me a long time to find a place where I felt connected with jazz, and I felt like I had to earn that—not to disparage not getting to that point, because then you’re just connected with something else that is equally meritorious. But for me to get to that point, I felt like I had to have a certain amount of experiences that felt like jazz experiences.
I do consider myself a jazz musician, but I think the way that I approach the different music work I do, even the stuff that’s not jazz music, and even just the way I conceive of my career, of my musical community, and of my relationship with the history of the music—it’s an indulgence. I would like to indulge myself and say that I belong to this movement, even if it’s not in the most direct way. But I would like to think of myself that way, so I do.
I got “the jazz feeling” for the first time when I was 21, and I’ll never forget the day. I was in my bedroom, in my apartment in Newhall near CalArts. I had definitely listened to a lot of jazz, and I liked jazz, but it still wasn’t really coming naturally to me. So I felt like it was really a watershed moment for me when I put on Wayne Shorter’s JuJu one day, and that first track—I just kind of heard it for the first time. I sat in my room and listened to it fifteen or twenty times.
Matt: Why do you think that record grabbed you? You had probably heard other great jazz records at that point.
Adam: I was just ready for it at that moment. My lifestyle was starting to loosen up around that time. I was starting to get a little bit accustomed to living in California and being a little bit older, and just screwing around and experimenting more with—things in life. I mean, let’s face it: most of the time, “the jazz feeling” isn’t going to come that naturally to a kid like me, coming out of a small town and not having any connection with jazz.
I had no love for jazz beyond other types of music, and I had no real connection with the African-American experience, and I had no real experience with—I just had no real experience! I had a very rich internal world and was a creative person as a young man, I think, but I had no connection with things in history or culture really. I don’t know if that sounds grandiose.
Whether you can “feel” jazz—obviously, that’s a purely subjective thing. It’s just a matter of whether you feel like you’re feeling it. And just to get to the point where you can feel that—it’s like assessing yourself in a certain way, and saying, “I now think enough of myself to think I can truly feel something in this music.”
Vikram: Have you ever soured on jazz?
Adam: No, I haven’t. I think the only frustrations I had with jazz weren’t really with jazz music, but with what I perceived to be a backwards set of values that seemed to be embodied in a lot of jazz education. Just like, in order for me to be who I naturally felt I was, I would first have to do all these other things that I didn’t feel any connection with. And that, I think, made me bristle. But I didn’t have to deal with that once I got to CalArts. Also, by the time I was old enough to know who I was a little bit, and was making the music I wanted to make, then that just didn’t seem important. I definitely have a million moments of feeling like jazz is hard and I suck at it. But I don’t have any moments of being mad at it.
The first and biggest step was just—Mike [Cain] and Ralph [Alessi], my teachers at Eastman, those guys were players on the New York scene. So I got the sense that there was a scene, and most of it’s in New York, and it’s these dudes, and this is the kind of music they do. And that was a thing. I went to New York to see them play with each other in these places, and I was like, “ok, this is actually a movement of music.”
From then on, I just never really understood all the talk of “jazz is dead and there’s nothing happening.” I thought, “wow, there’s just so much happening!”
Join us next week for the second part of our conversation with Adam Benjamin, in which we discuss what’s happening—with particular focus on his membership in one of the most fascinating musical ensembles around, Kneebody. Our New York readers can catch Kneebody Feb. 17-20 at the Bleecker St. Theater; see their website for details.
“Check this out.” For one edition of my trombone teacher’s weekly dose of music appreciation, he removed a red CD from a jewel case with dark blue liners and placed it in his stereo. Mysterious, rubato piano chords floated out of the speakers; then the bass kicked the time off, and the piano answered it with a simple riff. A drumset quietly simmered beneath it all. Three horns joined in with the piano for a while before giving way to a trumpet solo. “This sounds pretty cool,” my teacher said, fading the music out just as the trumpet solo ended. “He’s not a great trumpet player, though.” I was fourteen years old, and I agreed.