This interview with Peter Epstein was conducted by email during March 2014.
Tony Reif: What was the impetus behind forming this new quartet? You’ve known each of the members for a long time, right? And performed with each of them in various other contexts. You and Ralph for example have worked together at SIM (School for Improvisational Music). And you’ve had other quartets in the past, but no quartet recordings for over 10 years, and I think no regularly gigging American group of your own since you started teaching at the University of Nevada, Reno. So why these musicians, and why now? Is there a particular set of musical ideas or qualities that you want to explore with this group, something specific you had in mind and were aiming for, or did it come together more for the pleasure of playing your music with a great group of friends (Sam also being a former student of yours) and improvisers?
Peter Epstein: I think your wording sums it up best: “…come together more for the pleasure of playing your music with a great group of friends.” While this recording represents the first efforts of this particular grouping of musicians, in truth we’ve all played together a great deal (I have 25 years of history with Ralph, 20 with Mark, and 15 with Sam), just not in this exact combination. In any case, the music that we’ve all played together has consistently been music that is intimate and personal, and more about the individual people one is playing with than simply having a given instrument competently “covered”. In my mind, in my ear, I simply hear these guys playing when music “plays” in my head. I love playing with many many different musicians, but for me at this point, the first sounds I hear internally when thinking of trumpet, bass, or drums, are those of Ralph, Sam, and Mark.
In an interesting way, playing (and just being) with these 3 musicians feels like coming home in that it is a completely safe and supportive environment. It’s as if nothing can go wrong (even if things go wrong!). Because there is such a relaxed but total commitment to the music, to each other, and to the moment at hand. If something unexpected happens, guaranteed it’s cooler than anything I had in mind so I’m not just open to it, I welcome it because I know everyone is more than capable of taking advantage of whatever opportunities arise within the music, and of doing so with grace and artistry. And I think everyone is approaching the situation in a similar way. This makes for a very comfortable and stress-free space when we’re playing together.
TR: You’ve noted the group’s shared language and nuanced clarity of communication, and for a young ensemble which has only performed a couple of times that’s a notable achievement. What kinds of previous shared experience do you think account for this palpable sense of coherence, communion, and spontaneity?
PE: This is probably due mostly to the shared experiences discussed above, but there’s no doubt that we all share a somewhat similar aesthetic and conceptual views of the music. Or, at the very least, there are vast swaths of shared, overlapping territory. Certainly plenty of space for us to explore together!
TR: When I first heard these performances it struck me that there was a connection with Ornette’s classic quartet (Cherry, Haden, and Higgins or Blackwell). Not that your music is a throwback or close stylistically to Ornette’s music, but somehow 50+ years later it seems that the spirit of that group and Ornette’s compositions have inspired a lot of players like yourself who move freely between inside and more outside playing. The audacious, benevolent, joyful-mournful spirit of that group hovers like a blessing, you might say, over a lot of the jazz of the last 20 or 30 years especially. It seems to me for example that some of the dancing, darting quality of your group’s improvising, or the way lyricism and a harder edged freedom and mobility cohabit your and Ralph’s solos, reflect how you all have internalized and are renewing Ornette’s message (among many others, no doubt!). Any comments on that, or more broadly on how you see this music in relation to the history of jazz?
PE: It’s interesting because there was a time when I thought about Ornette’s music a great deal. Same with Coltrane, Miles, Wayne, Frisell, Threadgill, Steve Coleman, etc. However, lately I find that I spend most of my time trying not to think too much about influences. I don’t know that I’m necessarily trying to avoid obvious influences or previous modes of playing and/or writing, but perhaps I’m trying to not-think-about-it-too-much so that whatever is there will emerge organically and not due to any sense of what should be there, or what folks might like, or any number of other extra-musical considerations. I’ve become increasingly committed to the goal of simply being honest musically. That sounds so obvious, and something I’m sure we all strive for, but in truth, it is very challenging and can be a bit scary.
TR: Your compositions range from primarily quiet, introspective pieces like “Polarity” to more angular, mainly uptempo numbers like “Hurtle” and “Constance”, or “Email to Nigeria” with its African polyrhythmic feel (what’s the time signature?) [10/8: 3/2/2/3] mixed with echoes of New Orleans 2nd line strut. One thing I’ve noticed though about your pieces here is that they often have contrasting interludes that change things up for a minute, or perhaps more subtle ambiguities of feeling and tone. What’s your writing process like, or does it vary a lot? Do your melodic ideas come with built-in structures, or do you tend to synthesize pieces from diverse bits and ideas?
PE: My writing happens in many different ways. Most often I will come up with a melodic idea or a groove of some kind and then sort of fill in various layers as I go. Sometimes I’ll sit down at the piano and the way that my hands first touch the instrument can be enough to inspire further investigation. So, it happens in different ways. In truth, after all these years, I still don’t have a good personal understanding of what my compositional process is. I mostly just tend to feel grateful when something comes to me, and I am ready for it.
TR: Do you think about the emotional effect a piece might have on an audience, or is it more a matter of letting things evolve in performance and seeing what comes?
PE: A bit of both, I think. We all want the audience to enjoy what we’re doing, but we also want to express ourselves honestly and not just in a way that might best appeal to the listeners at hand. I’ve learned from experience that it’s best to avoid arriving with too much of a preconceived idea of how something should sound, how it should be played or interpreted by the musicians. I tend to want to write things that are more simple and elemental, then let the performers use the existing compositional material as a starting point but one that necessarily needs their input. Most of my tunes, if read directly and literally off the page, sound a bit silly. They need life and vibe and interpretation breathed into them by the collaborators that I rely on so heavily.
TR: There used to be an overt world music feel to much of your writing – for example the music you and Brad Shepik created on the Lingua Franca release. Obviously this one doesn’t have that emphasis, but I’m wondering what non-western, non-jazz music you’re listening to these days and how it burrows its way into your writing and playing (if it does).
PE: Again, I’m not as strategic about all of this as I might have once been (should be?) and these days I’m really just trying to allow whatever is currently “in there” to “come out”. Of course, some of those sounds and influences are still present, but perhaps they’ve been somewhat displaced or balanced by other material. In truth, my listening habits over the last several years have veered towards older historical stuff that I missed or passed over when I was first coming up. I’ve been listening to a lot of Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins, and Benny Goodman, revisiting standards, etc. And of course I listen to a lot of “non-western” stuff too but it seems to me that the way these influences manifest themselves comes more in the form of how I think of music internally: I have always felt drawn to modes/drones, I think about constantly and practice frequently rhythmic concepts derived from South Indian (Carnatic) classical music, and of course the several years I spent studying Ewe music from Ghana continues to (will always) reverberate inside me.
TR: You’ve played soprano and alto sax equally for many years I believe. In your own music, do you think of them as quite distinct voices with different affective characteristics, or is it more the sound and range of a particular piece that determines which of them you’ll use?
PE: Sometimes the choice is determined by practical matters such as range and how a particular melody fits on one horn or the other, but often I’m not sure of the reason myself. Certain tunes just seem to “want” to be on soprano, others “want” alto. And I sometimes really enjoy switching that up: I get used to a tune being on one horn or the other so it can be an interesting feeling to switch that up. That said, the two horns (voices) are quite different from one another. In general, the soprano feels a bit more lyrical, and a bit more gentle, while the alto is a bit heavier and more raucous.
TR: What are your plans for this group? I know you’re working on a west coast tour for the fall – is there going to be a CD release concert before then?
PE: Still working on it. I have a gig at the Reno Jazz Festival in April, will probably do some gigs in NYC this summer, and I’m working on the west coast tour in September/October.
Not sure if it will happen, but I also have a connection at the Kathmandu Jazz Festival. The organizer is a huge fan of Lingua Franca and we’d talked about trying to bring that group. I’m not sure if I can get either group there (they don’t pay for travel and they don’t pay performance fees) but I’ll be working on it.