An Interview

Patrick Zimmerli IV

This interview was conducted by email during September-October 2016.

Tony Reif: This is Songlines’ second archival release, recorded in 1992 and only now seeing the light of day. I’d like to look at it with you from the point of view of both today and back then (1 year before we met, 3 years before the release of the Patrick Zimmerli Ensemble’s Explosion). In the liner notes you write in some depth about the post-Schoenbergian aesthetic you were exploring and the structure of the various pieces, as well as some extra-musical, literary references (to Greek mythology). Those notes are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the music, but for those who don’t have access to them, could you talk more generally about how this music strikes you today and what you think it relates most to in the jazz and wider music world of 2016? Do you hear echoes or reverberations of your jazz of the ’90s today?

Patrick Zimmerli: Well I’d like to think that the notes are not essential to the understanding/enjoyment of the music! To me it’s just a jazz record with a bit of a twist, which is to say a jazz record – wouldn’t all our favorite records fall under that description?

In terms of how the music comes across today, I hear it as quite trad actually. It’s true that “The Paw”, “Three Dreams of Repose” and ”Conceptualysis” are unusual, but they still feature some fairly traditional improvising sections. The other pieces – “Hephaestus”, “Athena”, “Soft Blues” – definitely swing, at least in parts, in a post-Joe Henderson or Sonny Rollins kind of way. And that’s really amazing when you consider how outlandish people found this music when I was first writing and playing it.

In that sense, though, despite playing rhythmic games that are a lot more advanced than some of the odd-meter-fests one hears today, I don’t think I hear the influence of this music on today’s jazz. Because there was a basic sonic grounding. We care a lot about tone, color, expression here – and even charm, humor, and swing. We may not always be pinpoint-accurate in rendering these complex rhythms, but the flip side of that is there’s nothing robotic at all in the interpretations. We’re clearly going for a very soulful, emotionally direct, and ultimately humanist delivery.

I find a coldness to a lot of the new “complicated” jazz being played today, and it has to do with sound. Whatever these folks are playing, they’re not really prioritizing beauty of tone, expressiveness. To be fair, there’s a century-long tradition of this – Schoenberg famously disparaged tone quality, wishing for instruments that allowed for greater technical capability at the expense of sound; and even early Philip Glass, with its incredible sonic flatness, can come off as just really heady. Though we were playing some heady games in Shores, it’s not really about the games or cleverness at all in the end – the technical aspects are subsumed under a real effort to make an artistic statement, to impart a message.

By the way, the fact that this music is “only now” seeing the light of day doesn’t seem at all unnatural to me. Composers are used to thinking in very long timespans. We spend our time studying pieces that have been written 50, 100, 200, 250 years ago and more, and that seem fresh and relevant today. So what’s 25 years?

All music is at least a little old by the time it is released on CD, and mine is necessarily older than most, since there’s always quite a bit of preparation required. The music I wrote for Joshua Redman that is coming out on CD next year is already five years old. I just had a premiere of a piece that I wrote in 1998. And I’m always writing new pieces that are in various states of finality vis-a-vis their coming into the world. So even this considerable delay between recording and release doesn’t seem to be so far outside the normal creative process. We do have the benefit of retrospect, and are able to do some phenomenal things both in post-production and packaging that make the idea of releasing the music today extremely exciting! So I’m really thinking of this as a new release just like any other.

TR:  I think the first things listeners will be struck by are the often really strange intervals and angular rhythms of most of these pieces, and the intricacies of how the different elements and instruments work together by pulling against each other. This is not just polyphony and polyrhythm, but perhaps an attempt to apply to jazz a kind of structuralist approach. Can you talk about the underlying conceptual patterns in this music and how they work to knit together the diversity? I’m thinking that harmony might be one ‘key’ to that.

PZ:  Hearing the instruments working together by pulling against each other is an interesting way to think about it. I think at that time my philosophy was that the further the instruments could be away from each other, doing totally different things, all the while adhering to an invisible common pulse, the greater sign that they were really listening to each other and feeling things together.

After all, it’s easy to feel a beat if you have a drummer laying down a groove. The more abstract the beat gets, the more implicit it becomes, the more difficult it is to keep together, and the more you have to rely on your own internal pulse, and both trust eminently that your colleagues are feeling it the same way as you are and also take minute aural cues to make fine moment-to-moment adjustments. So both your internal listening and your antenna, your external listening, have to be developed to an exquisite degree. That is to say, this music challenges those two faculties hard, from the perspective of the performer. I’m not sure we got there but the idea of challenging ourselves is certainly part of why I wrote this music.

I’m not sure about “structuralism” but there are certainly conceptual patterns at work here, overarching concepts that function on the level of “what is this piece of music about” and what are its intentions. And this exists on the level of the project as a whole (“layer 20th-century techniques into a jazz context”) and each piece individually (“create a line that sounds like it’s slowing down and speeding up over a steady underlying, invisible pulse”).

Musically speaking, there are unifying elements that are specific to each piece. In “The Paw” the thing that unifies everything is the silent pulse; in “Three Dreams” it’s the 45-16th-note interlocking rhythmic pattern that repeats in the piano, bass, and drums; and so on.

Harmony you could see as unifying also, but in fact in all these cases it’s the repetition that unifies, rather than one element per se. One can take some out-there harmonies (“Conceptualysis” for example) and if they are repeated enough, as a vamp for improvising, it gives a sense of continuity.

TR: Apart from elements of harmony, what other pre-serialist musical concepts do these pieces embody? Are there other 20th century classical composers who you were drawn to? Stravinsky or Messiaen maybe? Or perhaps even way back to late 14th century Ars Subtilior?

PZ: I was one of those people who came down emphatically on the Schoenberg side of the Schoenberg/Stravinsky divide. Don’t tell Ethan Iverson, but I really was never drawn to Stravinsky’s music, apart from The Firebird, which I first heard in middle school as the entrance music for Yes concerts. I dragged my heels studying the Rite, I feel like I’ve been bullied into it by the classical world which puts so much value on novelty of orchestration and texture and expressionist gesture/sound effects these days (and The Rite is indeed quite amazing from an orchestration perspective) as opposed to music that’s more content-driven.

Messiaen is not that important to me either, although Turangalila is amazing, as is the Quartet for the End of Time, and generally he undeniably wrote quite a bit of great music.

These two actually wrote a lot of “odd-meter” music, and that was never something that I was particularly attracted to. I always considered polyrhythm more interesting than polymeter. In fact, this music of Shores is all is steady meters— “Conceptualysis” is in 5, “Three Dreams” has a bar of 13/16 but otherwise it’s all in 4/4! That goes for the most rhythmically radical music in Explosion and Expansion as well, it’s largely notated in 4/4.

As for early music, I was attracted to Gregorian chant, my parents had a record from which I lifted a couple of themes, but I didn’t really delve into that music in any depth until much later.

TR: Another fascinating aspect of this music is the relationship between composition and improvisation. In the pieces on Explosion it’s sometimes hard to know who is soloing and who is not, because the soloist is playing improvised counterpoint to written material that can be as dense and attention-getting as the soloist’s playing. The music here hasn’t perhaps quite reached that point, but it’s heading in that direction.

PZ: Well, I always get this question about composition and improvisation. I was at an Eighth Blackbird concert the other night in Paris, they were doing pieces by young-ish contemporary classical composers, Bryce Dessner, Jacob Cooper, David Lang, Ted Hearne and others, and I was thinking to myself “They should be asked about the relation of composed to improvised in their music!”

I say that because a lot of these composers set up repeating structures, complex vamps in a key that have a kind of predictable or at least readily graspable harmonic path, and then subvert that structure via something that sounds “unpredictable” or cuts across it in “unusual” ways. In one piece they were playing these improvisational interjections that involved some extended techniques, high violin trills, cello scratches. Whether the composer really knew it or not, s/he was invoking a certain tradition of improvised music.

Then I thought that in every tradition there’s an idea of expansion of an idea in more or less predictable ways. To further abstract the idea, there’s always a combination of the “predictable” (compositional) and the “unpredictable” (improvisational) in music, reflecting basic human needs, no? We all need predictability, routine, knowledge that the sky won’t fall in; and we all need unpredictability, excitement, the thought that we don’t know what’s coming next. Isn’t that what improvisation is? You have the basic structure, what’s written, and then you kind of expand on it extemporaneously in the moment (or in the case of composers of strictly written music, you try to make it sound extemporaneous).

But improvising offers real benefits over playing strictly notated music, where people playing a written repeated pattern are confined to playing just that. Jazz drummers, when given a repeating pattern, are at liberty to add and vary. And jazz musicians always know what the function is of what they’re playing – whether it’s falling more into the predictable or unpredictable category. I’m not always sure that contemporary classical performers are 100% aware of that function, which can make their performances feel less committed.

TR: Could you talk about the problems that you and the other musicians on Shores had trying to improvise over such stringent and unfamiliar parameters? You mentioned you used the same kinds of chord changes used in conventional jazz; what guidelines (if any) did you have in terms of what to play when, what choices to make? Did you woodshed your solos at home? How did the other melodic soloist, Kevin Hays, cope (e.g. his solo on “Three Dreams of Repose”)?

PZ: The main problem was one of style. I would have these contrapuntal backgrounds and then subject them to chordal analysis. The chords would often be complicated and fly by quickly, though they were mostly the basic traditional symbols – Gb13, A minor b5/C, whatever.

Chord symbols are a way of associating a certain passage with a certain scale to improvise over that passage. The problem is, when jazz musicians see those chords they make associations not only with a scale but with a style of playing. We had all played a million things using those chords already, influenced by whatever jazz we had heard, along with whatever ideas we had come up with in the course of developing our own voices as improvisers. But now we had a novel context, and we needed to at once navigate the tricky chord changes and also to create something that blended with that context.

And no, there were no added guidelines or instructions. All you had was the musical context and the symbols, we had to figure out the rest.

This was what made it so difficult. Of course, in my case anyway, I did an enormous amount of personal practice to try and find solutions to this problem. Ideally, you get to know the background rhythms and melodies to the extent that you can play off them, and get into a real musical dialogue with them in the moment. I think we achieved that in some of these takes, but for example sometimes I would try to fit Coltrane licks into the pieces, or Kevin would reach for a Herbie thing, and to me that’s where it became problematic.

Sometimes the disjunction is interesting and thoroughly credible. I’d say “Three Dreams” is like this, where the head, the written context, is extremely pointillistic (albeit melodic/harmonic) and then the blowing is almost in this ECM-like mold over that.

TR: Some people will probably find the overt intellectualism and complexity of some of this music a bit off-putting at first (with the obvious exception of “Soft Blues”, by far the most straight-ahead, swinging, jazzy piece on the record). What would you say to those folks?

PZ: Well, I mean, overt intellectualism compared to what? It’s instrumental music, all of which is already relatively “challenging”. People complain all the time that jazz is too intellectual, and they’re referring to, like, Duke Ellington.

All music has some intellectual qualities; this is by far not the most intellectual music ever written. I definitely was aiming for a balance here, of the emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual. What separates this music from other music isn’t its over-reliance on the intellect, but rather its originality, its distance from other kinds of music, especially at the time it was written. If you want to understand this music in a fully engaged way, you have to bridge that gap, which is to say you have to sufficiently familiarize yourself with the music to be able to recognize the various elements of predictability and unpredictability at play.

TR: Do you think this music asks for a different kind of listening to unlock an emotional response? Is that something you were thinking about at the time, or was it more relevant to the music of the Ensemble, or the classical music you were composing later in the ’90s such as the piano trios? What is the relationship between beauty and emotion anyway? For certainly, aesthetics, even beauty in a very traditional sense, seem major pre-occupations here…

PZ: Well the relationship between beauty and emotion operates differently in different art forms, I’d say. These terms become completely vexed when you get into jazz. Was Hank Mobley an “emotional” player? Was Thelonious Monk going for “beauty”? These terms are sufficiently nebulous that I will be argued with, but I think the answer in all cases is no. Jazz seems to me more linked to oratory (as was the music of the Classical period, as Elaine Sisman and other musicologists have noted). It’s the idea of rhetoric, of “telling a story”. When I listen to Hank I get, I’m not sure I’d call it insight, but my reaction is more “aHA”, or, “hah, wouldn’t’ve thought of that.” It’s like a conversation; is a conversation beautiful, or even always emotional? Not necessarily overtly so, and yet conversation is one of the most profound of human pleasures.

Or again, when you listen to Trane and his quartet go off on these solos, what’s the response? There it’s less narrative, but there’s some incredibly powerful force that draws you in from the pit of your stomach, that grabs you. There you have a visceral intensity. Again, I wouldn’t call it beauty at all! Maybe because for me beauty has a connotation of the inert – a beautiful painting sits on a wall being beautiful (beatiful women, and men, can also have this quality of inertness). Beauty is calmness, tranquility – Coltrane was volatile, tumultuous, full of forward movement and intensity. It’s primal, it speaks to a very deep place in our beings. I guess it’s more total to the being, it’s more internally experiential, rather than something that is observed externally.

TR: How did you adapt your tenor sax sound to this music (if you did)?

PZ: I definitely created this music around my saxophone sound, albeit not at all consciously or deliberately. It was just what I had worked really hard to create over the preceding several years.

“The Paw”, “Athena”, “Soft Blues” really use the horn in a straight-up jazz way. The rubato sections in “Hephaestus” and “Conceptualysis” may have had a more free-sounding approach, but the basic instrumental sound was the same. “Three Dreams”, with its static held notes and sudden leaps, was the closest to a more “classical” sound I had to try and get to, but even here in the blowing I adapted a kind of post-Brecker inflected sort of sound.

 TR: In 1993 “The Paw” was the winning piece in the first Thelonious Monk Institute Composers Competition, and you’ve mentioned that this recording circulated in the NYC underground back then. Did you get much feedback about it from other musicians? And what prompted the move to form a different group to pursue this direction further, with guitar (Ben Monder) instead of piano, electric bass (Stomu Takeishi), and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion (no drums)?

PZ: I mean, “underground” is perhaps the wrong term, sexily mysterious for no reason. There was simply a small group of lesser-known musicians that always admired this music (many would become less lesser-known in the ensuing decades). But at this time I was extremely disaffected with the jazz world (I didn’t know it at the time, but I probably would’ve been disaffected with just about anything) and I wanted to be getting along into something else. I wasn’t comfortable with the connotations of the jazz drumset and bass sound in particular, they seemed just way too culturally loaded. For me the hi hat, for example, was a culturally, semantically, socio-culturally loaded object. So I expurgated it from my music.

Lately I’ve begun to soften on all this stuff. I mean, I have a one-year-old daughter. She makes me understand creativity and play in a totally different way, and it’s helped me to accept the shocking reality that my background is as a jazz musician.

But softening is softening. It’s a neurochemical inevitability. It doesn’t mean that my younger self wasn’t entirely right.

TR: Your new piano-based quartet (Ethan Iverson, Chris Tordini John Hollenbeck) premiered Clockworks, a book of new compositions, in New York this September at Le Poisson Rouge. There are some direct connections with Shores Against Silence – for example the references to Greek mythology in some of the new pieces. Can you give us an idea of how this new band and music builds on the foundation of Shores, and how it departs from it?

PZ: Well, the music explores similar terrain that I was exploring in Shores – flexible rhythms over a hidden background pulse, some pointillism here and there. But Clockworks is much more about the compositional throughline, and the narrative that it represents. The piece tells a story, it’s as narrative, in a very abstract sense, as your average Strauss tone poem. In that sense it’s totally different than Shores, which is a jazz record, a bouquet of pieces offering various points of view.