This interview with James Carney was conducted via email in May 2007.
Tony Reif: How did you get started as a musician and what music inspired you to become one? Who were your idols of the time? Are there any interesting stories that come to mind about your musical ambitions and experiences as a child and teenager?
James Carney: I’m the youngest of four siblings, with two sisters eight & nine years older than me, so I heard an incredible amount of popular music as a kid. And I was really into intensive listening by the time I was maybe seven, around 1970, and that was a great time for rock music – I got to hear Abbey Road and Let it Be when they were new releases. In fourth grade, I started with the tuba – my school music teacher, Thomas Lindemann, happened to be the tubist with the Syracuse Symphony and I had scored well on a music evaluation at the end of third grade, so he assigned me his instrument. Looking back, he was a really good teacher, and I learned about tone production, music notation, how to practice – he set a solid foundation.
I did pretty well. In high school I was the first chair in the New York State All-State band, and the principal with the Syracuse Symphony Youth Orchestra. But I had also become a professional keyboard player, and by the time I was maybe 19, I just wasn’t in a space where I wanted to continue with the tuba. Sometimes I wish I still played, but I’m grateful for that experience – to have played Copland, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven in a good orchestra made a lasting impact. And through that instrument I was introduced to Paul Hindemith, William Kraft, and other post-war composers.
The main thing I remember as a young kid, eight or nine, is that I would listen to my sister’s records or 8-tracks with my headphones every day for hours after school. I heard just about all of the Beatles albums, tons of Motown, The Stones, Dylan, Sly Stone, The Who, Al Kooper, The Monkees, Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Carole King, Booker T. and the MGs, Simon & Garfunkel, Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Santana, Gil-Scott Heron, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Deep Purple, Steely Dan, Bowie, Edgar Winter, Joe Cocker, Billy Preston. His music really stood out to me – especially Outa Space and the way he played clavinet on that track. And Zeppelin too – I have a very strong memory of “The Immigrant Song” which came out in maybe 1970. There was just something about it that was both freaky and captivating, and I think my dad must have dug it too, because we heard it together about a hundred times on the car radio. We had Walter Carlos’ Switched on Bach. We had Peter Nero and Don McLean; Elton John, Roberta Flack and Nilsson – they did a great soundtrack for Midnight Cowboy. I also loved 50’s pop music, ragtime piano and the classical music that my mom always played. She was a pretty good pianist, always playing Bach, Mozart and Chopin either on the piano or the stereo. We listened to Prokofiev, Verdi, Debussy – basically anything prewar.
I toyed with classical piano for a year when I was maybe ten, but I guess I wasn’t disciplined enough. Then when I was fifteen, I started playing rock piano and took lessons with a guy in my town named George Rossi. Definitely an amazing player, and he exposed me to the New Orleans piano tradition – Professor Longhair, James Booker, and Dr. John, and that was a huge revelation. Then I started listening to boogie woogie players too, like Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, and I was also checking out real blues music for the first time. Then I got into all of the southern rock music, especially the keyboard players, Chuck Leavell from the Allman Brothers and Billy Powell from Lynyrd Skynyrd. I admired Little Feat and Bill Payne, ZZ Top, Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, Bob Seger and Willie Nelson. And we sometimes tuned in to real country stations on the car radio in those days, because my dad liked it. So I knew classical music, and I was definitely a rocker, but when I was 12 we had moved from Syracuse to a semi-rural upstate New York town in the Finger Lakes called Skaneateles, so I’ve got a bit of country boy in me too – it was always in the air.
Then I got into progressive rock, especially Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Genesis and Rush…Pink Floyd, I still love that music – incredible songs, sounds, and arrangements. At this point I still didn’t know much about the lineage of traditional jazz or bebop, but I liked the jazz and jazz/rock that was being widely promoted in the late ’70s: Jeff Beck, Miles Davis, Weather Report, Bob James, that kind of thing. I Sing the Body Electric from Weather Report and Jeff Beck’s Wired were albums I listened to a bunch in high school. I had Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert, and I also attended his performance of The Celestial Hawk with the Syracuse Symphony around 1980. I remember that event as being a pretty big deal.
So when I graduated from high school in 1981, my intent was to start hooking up with rock musicians, which I did immediately, but to appease my parents I had to enroll at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse that fall as a classical tuba major. The problem was I only showed up about 70% of the time the first semester, and maybe 30% of the time the second. And the school wasn’t too happy about it, either. So I bailed out after that first year.
TR: You were in a regionally successful rock band for 5 years starting around the age of 17 in the early ’80s. I imagine those were wild and crazy days…
JC: There was definitely some wildness. Within a few weeks after graduation I answered a “keyboard player wanted” ad in the Syracuse New Times for a band named Forecast. I got the gig and that was the beginning of the end for the tuba. We did Doors, Who, Animals and Hendrix covers, and played four or five nights a week, every single week, at colleges and bars all over New York State, Pennsylvania, and Ontario, Canada. Up until maybe 1983, the drinking age was 18 in New York State, so there were just a ton of gigs available for bands like ours. We even played on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day a few years in a row – that’s how good bar business was, and apparently how dysfunctional some families were.
Anyway, my second gig with Forecast was a six-night run at a strip club in Kingston, Ontario. It had a fairly rough vibe; biker types would buy a case of beer, grab an opener, and take the whole thing to their table in the club, sit there and watch us with their arms folded and drink until it was all gone. No females in the audience, except for the occasional stripper. And the club owners made us perform after the strippers, the logic of which I’ll never really understand.
Later we played some clubs in Troy and Johnstown, NY that were the toughest I’ve seen to this day. People would throw nickels at us, beer bottles, they’d pour drinks on the equipment, you name it, and guys would walk up to our girlfriends and just grab ’em while we were playing. I once saw a guy immediately after he had been stabbed stumbling around this club in Johnstown, and they threw him out while he was bleeding all over the place, but the guy that had stabbed him was allowed to stay. When you witness events like that and you have people throwing glass bottles at you on the stage, you start to wonder why you’re playing rock covers in clubs, that’s for sure.
TR: Your bio says you discovered jazz in 1986, when you would have been about 22. How did that happen?
JC: I was still living in Syracuse, and after Forecast I played some really nice gigs with Joe Whiting and Mark Doyle, two well-known Syracuse musicians who had put out some records on RCA. Mark is an excellent rock guitarist who played with Meatloaf and he also happens to be a fine jazz pianist and arranger. So I was with their band for a while, and Mark taught me cool arranging tricks with rock piano and got me to think more about orchestrating my keyboard parts, and when he would occasionally play some jazz on my keyboards I was always intrigued. I also played and toured with bassist Rick Cua, who had been with The Outlaws, and he had some jazz chops too. Then in late 1984, I joined a really cool pop band called Screen Test that had great original material in the mold of XTC, Squeeze, and the Beatles, yet it was also theirs. Gary Frenay, Artie Lenin and Tommy Allen – good guys and solid players and writers. We were driving down to New York City to showcase at The China Club in 1985, and Artie, the guitar player, had recently introduced me to the music of Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Bill Evans, and it just turned my life upside down. Then I made my first visit to the Village Vanguard to hear Steve Kuhn, Ron Carter and Al Foster, and that really lit a fire.
So I went back to Mark Doyle and started studying jazz with him, and he imparted great information and taught me some tunes. He was coming out of the Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans school, and he had me look at Bill Evans music books and we would transcribe jazz piano tracks that I wanted to learn. So I was now listening to as many jazz players as I could – mostly bebop and hard bop but I quickly got into the ECM material too. I saw Sun Ra live a couple of times, heard Ornette’s Song X band in Syracuse, and every time we drove to NYC I would load up on jazz albums.
Once I got way into it, I started searching for a jazz music school, but New York City in 1985 was too crazy for me, even as a frequent visitor – it was a very different place then than it is now, so I ruled it out. I had heard about CalArts, and two of my buddies from Forecast, Rob Hoston and Tom Jones, had already moved to Hollywood. So I went to LA, checked out CalArts, and knew immediately that it was going to be the perfect place.
TR: What was the scene at Cal Arts like when you were there in the late ’80s? Who were your contemporaries there and how have those days influenced or affected what you’ve done since?
JD: It was great – I had an amazing piano teacher, David Roitstein, who had organized the program only a few years prior to my arrival. We had Charlie Haden and James Newton on the faculty, and other students my first year included Ralph Alessi, Ravi Coltrane and Scott Colley. Then we were lucky to get Darek (Oles) Oleszkiewicz, Michael Cain, Peter Epstein and many other talented musicians. There was a huge amount of talent in that school.
CalArts rattled my brain and opened my ears to new worlds, and what made an immediate impact was the high level of musical openness from almost all of the new people I was surrounded by. Before my life had been separate musical lives – most of the music I had been making was made with people who didn’t really listen to or like the music outside of the realm they worked in. So all of this new exoticism was overwhelming, but in a good way: gamelans, sitars, tablas, African drumming, electronics and synthesis, jazz and other music that sounded unlike anything I’d ever heard. Once there was a John Cage performance with Cage listening in the audience. I heard Kenny Kirkland and Paul Motian both play duets with Charlie Haden. We wrote a group composition with Henry Threadgill, who was a visiting artist. We had Randy Weston come in to play solo piano, and James Newton brought Max Roach in for an incredible workshop. We heard an extended performance of prayer from the Tibetan Monk choir in the main gallery of CalArts. One time I got a chance to play trio with Billy Higgins and Charlie, and I got to play quartet with Charlie probably a dozen or so times: his tunes, our tunes, and standards. It was awesome.
And from the outset we were truly encouraged to be creative and original. It just all converged on me at once, like “Hey, I can try blending this Balinese scale with this Wayne Shorter-inspired harmony, into a modern groove wrapped inside some Alban Berg, and even if it fails, they’ll be proud of me for trying.” That was the attitude there – you were always encouraged to develop your voice, and to take risks, and we were also exposed in a meaningful way to the other arts, and that certainly had an effect, even if in an intangible or abstract way.
TR: After you graduated from Cal Arts you spent 14 years in L.A. Tell us about that time – what was the scene for jazz like, who were you gigging with, what else were you doing as a performer and composer?
JC: Well, those fourteen years were interesting in that I continued to build and refine my jazz identity while making a living. I worked a full-time day gig from 1990 to 2004 at a place that made Imax films, which are 70mm large-format documentaries, usually shown in science museums.
I started out as a runner, just doing deliveries & pickups, and also reassembling 35mm workprint edit trims of old films that had never been stored correctly. The reassembly job took about a year, and then I started doing cooler things, like recording dialogue tracks and sound effects. Then I became an assistant editor and I learned the AVID editing system, digitizing film and music/sound transfers. And I was now beginning to do a lot of music editing and some composition, and the company eventually purchased and set up a computer-based midi studio for me to use. I also supervised some film mixes – a few times the company sent me to Toronto by myself to save themselves some money. And then I also did outside freelance composition projects – some of those are still played on the Discovery Channel even now, so in hindsight my day gig was quite amazing because I was able to learn music scoring and music editing skills there while getting paid. I absorbed quite a bit about film music and how it works, and the film projects I did have been helpful to my jazz and chamber music, no doubt.
Meanwhile, in 1993, I got married to Heidi, who had been a film student at CalArts the same time I was there, and we had a daughter, Phoebe, in 1997. All this time I was practicing piano, writing music for my band, doing some gigs of course, and I made three albums while I lived there: Fables from the Aqueduct (1994), Offset Rhapsody (1997), and Thread (2002).
Fables and Offset were made with musicians I played lots of L.A. gigs with: Scott Mayo, Chuck Manning, Dan Morris, Darek Oles; and also Ralph Alessi and Peter Epstein, both of whom were already living in New York. Ravi Coltrane, Bob Sheppard, Alex Cline, Nels Cline, and percussionist Dave Shaffer also play on those albums.
I loved living in L.A., and it was cool to develop my work there, but it was also frustrating in many ways, and the gigs we could get were often not ideal, even though we got consistently positive press coverage. It was strange, now that I reflect on it from living in New York for a while. There were some years when we kind of had to settle for inappropriate venues, because we were only playing the bigger L.A. clubs like the Jazz Bakery or Catalina’s once or twice a year, if that, and sometimes the L.A. County Museum of Art. But other than the Jazz Bakery, there were very few places in L.A. where a musician could present the kind of jazz we were playing – our music was too much for the straight-ahead clubs. Around 1998, Rocco Somazzi, an Italian-speaking Swiss guy, opened this swanky jazz bar & restaurant named Rocco, in Bel-Air of all places! And he was presenting some young, edgy modern jazz, and that ended up being a big reason why I hung in there with my music in Los Angeles. He respected my work and showcased my bands, and I was always a part of his presentations. Often we would get three or four night runs at his clubs, so that led to lots of development, especially around the period when we recorded Thread in early 2001. By then the band had morphed into a trio, and I was still playing with Dan Morris, the drummer, and we were playing with either Todd Sickafoose or Dan Lutz on bass. Dan Morris played in my group for ten years, so we really developed a rapport over that period of time – It was incredible how we could get in and out of things without crashing! Having bands with the same personnel for those long periods of time will always be something I’m grateful for; my music and playing benefited tremendously because of that.
TR: You self-produced those three CDs; the last two I believe were recorded at major studios like Ocean Way and Cello. Why did you decide to go to big and presumably expensive studios, and what was the experience like of getting the music together, recording it, and releasing it?
JC: Fables from the Aqueduct and Offset Rhapsody were both recorded at Mad Hatter, which was a studio built by Chick Corea in the late 1970’s. It was a great place to track, especially in the early to mid ’90s, and Chick had a beautiful Steinway D concert grand piano. We actually recorded another entire album there over two different sessions in 1991 that has never been released, so I guess I’ve made three albums at Mad Hatter. And two of those three were direct to 2-track. Thread was recorded in Studio 2 at Cello, which at one time was a part of Ocean Way, and that studio was also about as good as it gets, although I needed to bring my own piano in for that one, which I did through Baldwin; I played an amazing SD-10 on Thread.
I went to those studios and paid the money because I’ve always disliked lo-fi recordings with acoustic instruments – they’re a waste of time. I like Neve consoles, nice mics, big tuned rooms with isolation, high ceilings, good monitoring and sound, and places that have those features and equipment aren’t cheap. As far as doing all this on my own, I just decided to take matters into my own hands, because getting a record deal has never been an easy thing, especially out there. Plus I gained considerable experience as a producer and facilitator – it certainly made me completely appreciate what goes into the making of a record, from conception to manufacturing, and these experiences also gave me the skills to visualize how future recordings might sound while still in the planning stages.
TR: You moved to NY in 2004. What prompted that decision?
JC: I had always wanted to experience living in New York as a musician, and finally the opportunity came up for us to try it, mainly because my film company went through a major downsizing, which meant my job there was coming to an end. And that made it much easier to leave L.A. Luckily for me, my wife and kid were both into the adventure of doing it, because it was a major anchor to pull up, and we’re not 25 anymore. It’s worked out well for everyone; we love Brooklyn and New York City in general. And there’s no doubt that it was the right decision for me musically. I can see my personal growth and I continue to be inspired to improve as a player and writer. And I absolutely love hearing other musicians play live – It’s a passion for me, and I can’t imagine a more concentrated scene anywhere else.
TR: How did you go about putting together a new band with such great players, a band of leaders as one critic called it?
JC: I already knew Ralph Alessi and Peter Epstein, and I had played a good number of gigs with Mark Ferber when we both lived in L.A., so they were always on my short list for a new band here. And when I first got to New York, I heard Tony Malaby play live a dozen times, and he was just killing me – every single time. Without fail, he just delivers exciting, honest and personal saxophone playing, in all kinds of situations. And I guess I just had a feeling that he was a musician that I had to have in my group, so eventually I was able to get him over to my place for a session. Tony is also the person who recommended Chris Lightcap; he thought he would be a good fit, so I called him up too. And man, was he right! That first session was spine tingling, and it was also the first time that Chris and Mark had played together, which I found surprising. And I had heard Josh Roseman in three or four different projects and I loved his playing too. We did some gigs as various combinations of the above, and I knew I had a unique four-horn band and that the chemistry was working. Because what I say about Tony also goes for everyone else in this band: inspired, creative honesty and complete technical proficiency are features of all six of those guys, which certainly makes everything easy for me. There was also this mystical, magical aspect to the band’s quick formation that I really treasure, almost as if I had nothing to do with the process. And I think that feeling carried over to the recording, too.
TR: The music on this record runs quite a gamut in terms of rhythmic feels, from New Orleans second line to funk, to pieces with changing time signatures. Could you talk a bit about how you work out the rhythmic elements of your tunes; what your favorite feels are, and why?
JC: I love asymmetry, and I always thought it was a little weird that so much music is based on these common and predictable forms, like 12, 16 or 32 bars. To me that’s really confining, like expecting a visual artist to use the same sized canvas every time they paint. Some of my tunes might have 52 bars, or 10, or 139, or 274. It just varies with each one. With time signatures, I’m fond of the 6/4 or 3/2 pulse, and it appears often in my work, but I also love 9/8, 7/4, 5/4, combinations of all those, and also things in 4/4 that are so “over the bar” that they don’t even feel like 4/4. But these days I rarely ever set out to write a tune in “x” time signature and I know for sure that I never set up a form with a predetermined number of bars. And I also love plain old 4/4 time – there’s a good reason why it’s so ubiquitous.
The New Orleans second line tradition and funk are definitely big influences, but so are many other things as well. I could point to Hindemith, Steve Reich, Peter Frampton, Rush, Bill Monroe, Henry Threadgill, Conlon Nancarrow, Keith Emerson, War and Stevie Wonder too, when I listen to this recording. They’re all in there, in assimilated and abstracted ways. But in a greater sense, all the music I’ve ever heard – and either loved, hated, or was indifferent to – is just as influential.
TR: Is there some place you often start with when you’re composing, and how do you generally develop your compositions? Is there a Carney “sound” or style, and if so, what elements are typically involved?
JC: 90% of the time I come up with the title first, and then I just try to get into a space where the music has the best chance of developing itself in an unimpeded way. Like I mentioned earlier, I never think about the number of measures, time signatures, chord changes or keys. Often I’m working on two or three new tunes at the same time, and I take turns with them, so I can get time away to glean a fresh perspective. When I was a novice, I might have written the chords out first over a set number of bars, and then gone back and added a melody. But now, I work out everything in a sort of democratic process along the way – melodies, bass lines, chords, and the voice-leading over the form are all considered at every step, and I’ve found that this approach has proven itself to yield music that has the most organic flow, with the greatest sense of natural cadence. At CalArts, John Carter was once a visiting professor of ours for maybe five weeks, and he talked about “developing a fine sense of cadence,” and those words have stayed with me all these years. He was a master of the craft, and the perfect teacher for me at that stage of my compositional development.
If I don’t necessarily know what the time signatures are or how they will be inferred, I’m not concerned by that at all, and I just wait to deal with it until I’m done writing; then I think about getting the music on paper for other musicians to interpret. And that’s the one technical part of composition that I dislike: getting it translated to the staff, because sometimes it takes me a long time to figure out how to notate something that will be the easiest for the players to read, even when I can already play it cleanly. And I usually don’t write anything down until after I’m done, and that carries the potential risk of forgetting something, but it’s become my method. I just think it’s easier to change and develop something to its fullest if none of it is already committed to paper. I even wrote a ten-minute brass quintet that way, internalizing all the voice leading while I wrote, and then notating it all after it was completed. The advantage of this method is that you can revisit the tune anywhere and anytime, away from the piano for instance, and it’s awesome for the development of your memory and for expanding the size of the compositional canvas. It makes you think long-term. You learn to be able to play the composition over and over in your head, just as the future audience will hear it. They’re not going to be fixated on rewinding and reworking the little cells and microstructures like you might be while you’re writing the music, so I’ve found it’s most helpful to step back often along the way and hear the work under construction in a linear sense from beginning to end. Plus this way you have a better shot at recalling most if not all of the composition down the road without any scores, because it will really be under your hands.
Sometimes I work in reverse: “It’s Always Cold When You’re Leaving” on Green-Wood was written that way – the fast, Appalachian style tag line that we play at the end right before the return of the bass ostinato/drum solo was the first thing I wrote on that tune, and then I worked backwards until I was at the beginning. And on this tune, I ended up removing material in a few places, and I also ended up simplifying and paring down the chord changes over the solo section. That’s why some of these tunes took a long time to finish; I didn’t want to rush them, or I knew they weren’t ready. I’m a patient composer, and I’ve grown to not be afraid to change things, or to settle for something that doesn’t move me a certain way. When the tune is done I guess it tells me its done.
There can also be times when a tune comes out immediately, and I don’t want to alter a thing. “Grassy Shoal Hoedown” from Thread was one of those – it only took two days to get that done from start to finish, and it’s not a simple piece of music. When this happens, it reconfirms my belief that we’re always composing subconsciously, and that there are certain times when all we need to do is put ourselves in a state where the music can emerge. So a tune I wrote in two days might really have been developed deep inside over the course of my life. That’s how I look at my work, and why I love being an improvising musician who composes. There’s just so much beauty, uncertainty and mystery involved; where emotions and spirituality, new discovery and the craft all converge, and it’s an unbelievable feeling to witness it emanating from within.
Also, I approach composition as pure improvisation, and vice versa. When I write a piece of music, I want the process to feel as if I’m working out the most perfect, insurmountable, ultimate and unbeatable improvised solo over whatever is being implied by the bass line and accompanying harmonic movement. And often I think a lot about pure bebop, because bebop did that and what it continues to do as a concept is to give a horizontal, linear shape that can really spell out the harmony through the melody; it actually does both things simultaneously, and so to me, the best bebop has always functioned as a model of melodic perfection. So while I’m working through that, I anticipate changes in every aspect of form, rhythm, harmony and the melody, to give the tune the best chance to work at its peak. It gets crazy, because I can spend days trying out tons of different single-note melody lines over the same several measures of voice-led chord changes, and it’s that relentless exploration that eventually yields something that I think works best.
I also sometimes look at composition as a subtractive process instead of an additive one, like the music staff starts out already completely blackened with every note and rhythm possible, and it’s my job to whittle away and erase just enough of those pitches and rhythms to reveal something good that might be contained within. I often shift to that way of thinking once the general shape of a composition has been formed, or when I feel like I should be approaching something from the editor’s perspective.
TR: Something that seems really distinctive on this record are the voicings for the horns and the harmonic language of the arrangements. It’s jazz-based, but I can hear other influences at work too in different pieces. Sometimes I think of brass bands or even Salvation Army bands! Other times there seems to be a certain leaning towards 20th century classical music, though no specific composer or movement seems to stand out as an obvious influence. Could you comment?
JC: There are a lot of influences present – maybe even the Salvation Army band! I’ve just tried to find ways to make these different styles work together in my own little world, because I always got the spine tingle effect from lots of different places – Shostakovich, Zeppelin, Charlie Parker – and when I began writing my own music I had an instinctual desire to make it inclusive of everything I ever loved. In my approach to harmony, there are certain intervals I like to incorporate, and certain ways of voicing chords that make me feel like the music is mine. So I’m glad that you hear familiarity that can’t necessarily be pinpointed. To me that’s the whole point of creating your own music; you honor the past by tipping the hat but never by copying it.