This interview with Chris Clark and Peter Epstein was conducted by email during December 2012.
Tony Reif: This is your first CD release, so take us through your musical history. For example, when did you get really interested in music, who were your major influences and teachers, etc., and what’s your career been like up to now? Any interesting/amusing/defining moments along the way?
Chris Clark: I started taking piano lessons when I was 9 years old, and took up the saxophone the following year. I grew more serious about music in the 9th grade, and played in a number of school ensembles through high school. At that time I was studying with a great Sacramento-area saxophonist and teacher named Adam Jenkins who helped me begin to build a solid foundation in straight-ahead playing but also exposed me to a wide variety of styles. After high school I went to the University of Oregon where I studied with Idit Shner, Steve Owen, and Toby Koenigsberg. A defining moment and one of the highlights of my time at UO was a small-group performance with Ron Miles as a guest artist. That performance was the first time I felt I was able to really clear my mind of anything except the music that was being made and fully commit to the moment. Any time I go into a performance I try to find that headspace and achieve that state of mind and sense of immediacy.
After graduating from UO in 2009 I began my graduate studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. While at UNR I studied with Peter Epstein and David Ake, both of whom are members of the quintet on Cedar Wisely. It was in Reno that I began to play professionally outside of school on a regular basis, sometimes gigging three or four nights a week – playing gigs that frequently gave me the opportunity to become more comfortable as a performer and to explore and take chances on the bandstand as opposed to in a more academic setting. I also began more actively working to develop my own voice as a composer; all but one of the compositions on the album were written during my time at UNR. Overall my experiences during those two years in Reno brought about significant personal and musical growth for me, the culmination of which is the music found on Cedar Wisely.
TR: You moved to UNR specifically to do a master’s in jazz and improvisational music with Peter (who is head of the program) – why?
CC: A friend of mine introduced me to Peter’s playing in 2007 while I was in my second year of undergrad at UO, I believe the album was James Carney’s Green-wood. I was intrigued by Peter’s playing and soon after picked up his 1999 release The Invisible, which quickly became and still remains one of my all-time favorite and most influential albums. At that time I had primarily studied and listened to more straight-ahead styles; this was a very new way of approaching improvisation and composition to me. The level of patience, creativity, musicianship, and commitment displayed by Peter and the rest of the ensemble both individually and as a whole on The Invisible continues to inspire me to this day. As soon as I finished listening through that album I knew I wanted to study with Peter, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with one of my favorite musicians.
TR: Tell us about how this band came together, who members are and how they contribute to the band’s sound and its approach to developing your compositions. Peter, at what point did you decide to engage with Chris’s music as a performer, and from your point of view how has it worked out?
CC: I formed this quintet specifically for the recording session. Zack, Jesus, and I were all students in the jazz program at UNR at the time; we had been playing together in a trio called Fiscus for about a year and a half and were very comfortable improvising together. Peter and David are both professors in the jazz department, and Zack, Jesus, and I had studied with them. The five of us had played together in various combinations as a part of other ensembles, but not all together in this configuration prior to the session. While we each of course have our own individual influences and styles, we also share common musical ‘values’ I guess you could say. One of the things I love about playing with these musicians is the level of freedom that exists when we play together. Following an idea in the moment to a new space wholly different than anything that has occurred previously feels equally as comfortable as staying within the realm of the familiar A perfect example of this sense of freedom or spontaneity can be found in “Indecisive.” Prior to the recording session the overall vibe of the piano and sax solo sections stayed fairly similar. However, in the studio David began setting up a groove at the beginning of the sax solo by tapping on the wood of the piano. The rest of the group immediately switched gears, following his lead. There had been no discussion about this change, it happened completely in the moment. That freedom to really listen and follow the music is one of the many aspects that make this group special, and I think one can hear that on the album.
Peter Epstein: I think the first time I played with Chris was during his first semester at UNR. He was in the small ensemble that I directed and (that semester anyway) I was also playing in the group. I was immediately struck by both Chris’ playing and writing. There was something very real and deep there, territory that was very comfortable for me as a player in a way that transcended the so-called student/teacher relationship (whatever that is). In other words, when he arrived at UNR he may have had a few things to work on (as we all do and always will) but he already possessed a deep understanding of music making, played with a great deal of commitment and passion, and had a nicely developed personal voice as a player and composer.
Over the next couple of years, Chris invited me to play as a guest on a few gigs with Fiscus, and of course I had a similarly positive experience. So when I was asked to be part of this recording project there was no hesitation at all because I knew it would result in some great music.
TR: Chris, apart from the two duo/trio improvisations the tunes are all yours. Within the modern jazz framework that you’re working in they have some melodic and harmonic aspects that display a personal voice. When you compose do you start with specific ideas/concepts that you’ve noted down for possible development, or is it a more spontaneous process that comes out of improvising, an attempt to express something about a personal experience or emotional state, or something else?
CC: I rarely have any previously thought-out ideas or concepts in mind when I compose; at most I sometimes have a mood or emotion which I’m trying to capture. All but one of the tunes (“Inside the Gloves”) on Cedar Wisely were composed on the piano, and my usual process really just consists of improvising until I happen across a memorable melody or chord progression. There are many times when I will spend several hours at the piano trying to come up with an idea and nothing comes of it, it can be extremely frustrating. Once I finally find that initial idea which resonates with me the rest of the tune tends to come to me fairly quickly, honestly sometimes it really does almost feel like the rest of the tune writes itself.
TR: Another thing about this band and the music – I feel a real dedication to and joy in improvising combined with a sure-footed sense of aesthetic balance and an understanding of what makes a performance add up, resonate with listeners. Maybe I’m being overly solemn about this, it’s sometimes hard to hit the right tone when putting musical experiences into words, but certainly there’s a freshness here and a kind of unforced intensity that I find very attractive.
PE: I think you’ve stated it perfectly! That’s a very nice summation of how it feels playing in this band – or perhaps, in a generic way, any musical experience that really feels good. Finding a balance point between intent and result, without thinking about things too much so a real sense of flow can be established, leads to that elusive place that we all want to get to at all times so it’s particularly nice when it actually happens!
TR: The album has a satisfying emotional arc – there’s (to me) some story being told here, one that ends in a strong affirmation (underlined by the title, “Certain”). Chris, did you have anything specific in mind when you recorded the music, or did you come to this sequence (and whatever meaning it conveys) afterwards?
CC: Going into the studio I had not yet given any thought to the sequence, I only knew what material I wanted to document. Once I had chosen the takes of each tune I spent many, many hours listening through different sequences looking for a sense of cohesiveness and natural flow of energy or emotion. There were several sequences that seemed to make sense but didn’t quite feel right, and when I first listened through what was to be the final track order it was clear that it couldn’t go any other way. So I guess to me there is no actual ‘story’ being told on my end but instead a progression of moods or emotions that the listener can interpret as they will.
6. If someone asked you to locate your music in the context of jazz today what would you say about it?
PE: Anything and everything! While there are many musicians that tend to gravitate towards a particular vibe or location within the historical tapestry of the music (and that’s as admirable and cool as any other approach!) many of the folks that I’ve enjoyed playing with (Chris, Zack, and Jesus certainly being among this number) seem to be coming from a perspective where there’s little or no separation between genres, styles, historical periods, or anything else that might provide inspiration or influence. Through-composed pieces exist side by side with free improvisations, standards and originals are approached with similar reverence and spontaneity – it’s ALL fair game. Perhaps that makes it hard to establish a specific location for this music, unless one is willing to accept that ‘location’ as being any and all locations simultaneously.
CC: When I first read this question I completely drew a blank, as I never had to describe my own music in that way. Peter’s response summed it up nicely, anything is fair game in my mind when I sit down to compose or put a set together for a gig – there are many different kinds of music which resonate with me, and my own music draws from all of those sources. Specifically within the sphere of jazz, I am fortunate to have studied with musicians who possess a deep understanding of and respect for the history of the music and at the same time embrace modern developments. I feel equally comfortable and connected when playing, say, a ballad from the 1930s as I do playing my own pieces. The compositions on Cedar Wisely are strongly influenced by a number of artists. One can hear a very direct Ornette Coleman influence in “Inside the Gloves,” which was deliberately written with his compositional style in mind. The other tunes have less obvious influences, but some artists whose music have made a strong impact on the formation of my own compositional voice include Cuong Vu, The Brian Blade Fellowship, and Wayne Shorter, specifically his albums from the 1960s and his current quartet. Other influences, though I don’t think they are noticeable on the tunes that made it onto the album, range from the more esoteric (Tin Hat Trio, Eric Whitacre, Sun Ra) to pop music – Prince, Britney Spears (yes, I am ashamed of this one so I’m hesitant to include her but she has a handful of killer tunes), Fiona Apple, and Metric. The most important thing for me is that I feel connected to the music and can perform it with a sense of commitment and sincerity.
TR: Where do you hope to take this quintet musically, and what other groups or directions are you thinking about for the future?
CC: The future of this particular quintet is a bit unclear. I do know that I will be bringing the whole group together for a tour next fall, however after that I am not sure as we are now spread out with myself in Boston, Peter and David in Nevada, Zack in Colorado, and Jesus in Berlin. This ensemble was an ideal vehicle for my music, and I hope that we can continue to work together and record again in the future. I think my next project will be going in to the studio with Zack and Jesus to record the material we played in Fiscus. I’m looking forward to reuniting the trio and am excited to see how our individual experiences over the last couple of years will influence the sound of the group.