The following interview with Quinsin Nachoff was conducted at the Songlines office in Vancouver on August 18, 2005.
Tony Reif: How did you get involved in music, specifically jazz?
Quinsin Nachoff: I started off playing at school because my dad had a saxophone, and I did a bunch of summer music camps – band camps. In grade 7 I met my first music teacher, Alex Dean, a tenor sax player in Toronto, at that time he was one of the up-and coming-jazz saxophonists on the scene. I studied with him through high school and he exposed me to a lot of different kinds of jazz.
The thing that really turned me around to pursuing music as a career was a five week music workshop I attended at the Eastman School of Music. There was a composition component and a strong performance component, and I got to work with some American names. Pianist Bill Dobbins was running the program, Keith Copeland was there, Gene Bertoncini, this was 1991 (I was 17). I was at a crossing point between going into artificial intelligence and computer studies, or music, and I got turned on to the whole artistic element of music. They really stressed understanding the whole history of the music.
I entered U of T the following year, they had a new jazz program run by Paul Read, which was great, I studied with Alex Dean, Mike Murley, Kirk MacDonald, but my main influence in terms of composition was Frank Falco, who Alex had turned me on to. I studied privately with him and ended up taking a year off to just study with him. He got me composing a lot of music and analyzing it in a non-academic, practical way. Most of it was technical stuff but he had his own system for theory that was trying to get to the essence of the music. We looked at Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Bartok and Stravinsky, all using the same method, analyzing the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic content – style would come later.
TR: What styles or composers in fact were you particularly drawn to at that time?
QN: I’d grown up listening to a lot of 20th century composers because my parents were really into that, starting with Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, going up to Stockhausen, Xenakis, all this would be around the house when I was a kid. With Alex and Frank there was a lot of traditional jazz – especially with Alex I spent a lot of time learning how to play like Ben Webster, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. Even Louis Armstrong…then checking out the more modern guys but seeing how it had evolved. Coltrane of course and Sonny Rollins were big influences. (I got into Ornette later.) Frank opened up my ears to the west coast thing – Tristano, Konitz, Warne Marsh, people who were coming out of that. This was more playing-wise but it affected my writing as well.
TR: So you went back to U of T?
QN: Yup, managed to finish a Bachelor of Music. And all these summers I was doing workshops – I went to Banff when I was 20. The Lake Placid Institute I did a couple of times, and a major one was in Sandpoint, Idaho, run by Gunther Schuller, he had Joe Lovano out there for 3 weeks, I got to work with him very closely, and Kenny Werner, Billy Hart. It was a great opportunity to play with and experience what some of these musicians at the top level were doing and what it meant to be at that level of creativity.
TR: You met Jim Black at Banff?
QN: The first year I was there I met Kenny Wheeler, that was a big influence in that he had such a romantic way of writing music that was also very intellectual and colorful, just combined a lot of things. He certainly has his own unique sound and approach. I ended up going back to Banff after I graduated and did it for 3 years in a row. I was moving to New York and I wanted to meet some people from New York and it was good for that. The first year I went as a student, the 2nd year I went on scholarship because they needed good sax players. At the time Kenny Werner was heading up the program and the third year (this would be in 2000) he asked me to come as a coach, and that’s when I met Jim. There was a piano player there from Montreal, Josh Reager, we ended up playing together on his music and it was such a great experience, in particular there was a ballad that we played, and just the amount of texture and color changing from brushes to sticks, also he was using a lot of smaller cymbals and toys, small percussion instruments. I imagined him playing on this project, which I had written most of the music for at that point.
TR: So you moved to New York?
QN: Yes, I spent two years there on a Canada Council study grant, it was a very intense experience, it was difficult getting proper visas to work, but I learned a lot and played with a lot of people – Ron McLure, sat in with Billy Hart, saw Joe Lovano and Kenny Werner. I studied with Jim McNeely which was really great, I brought in some of these pieces and he had a lot of good suggestions and was really supportive and encouraged me to record them.
TR: Had you played a lot in Toronto before this?
QN: Yes, just before I moved to New York I did a tour across Canada promoting my first CD, summer 2000. I’d been back and forth to New York but actually moved there after the summer. The summer before I did a tour across Canada with Don Thompson which helped establish me a little in Toronto and opened up opportunities to play with other people, mostly just pick-up stuff and doing my own projects. After I moved back from New York I was playing pretty regularly – the Dave McMurdo Orchestra which includes a lot of the more established musicians in Toronto, guitarist Tom Posgate (which led to a tour this summer with Howard Johnson which was a lot of fun), and various up-and-coming players. I also did Canadian tours with New York guitarist Rez Abbasi and Icelandic pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs.
TR: What was the music on your first, self-produced CD like?
QN: It was taking more traditional, post-bop elements and trying to stretch them, it was original music but rooted in tradition. I had a French horn player on it, Chris Komer, which added a different color, he’s a strong improviser too.
TR: So you applied for Canada Council grants to perform and also to record the Magic Numbers repertoire.
QN: And got both grants. It was a long process, took a couple of times applying and creating several demos and doing several concerts using Toronto musicians, but thankfully it finally came together.
TR: Were Jim Black and Mark Helias part of the concept from the beginning?
QN: Not in the writing process for most of the music. A bass player friend of mine from Toronto, Michael Bates, who moved to New York, was studying with Mark and layed a whole bunch of Mark’s work on me, and I concluded he would be a great choice. I applied for the concert grant to bring them up from New York. About the string quartet, I met Nathalie Bonin at Banff the same year I met Jim, she was there studying, she played this insanely difficult piece by Dave Douglas and made it sound effortless.
TR: But she’s primarily a classical and classical new music performer?
QN: She’s done some tango stuff as well, and for the last five years has been interested in improvisation, she’s been taking lessons in New York with pianist Gary Dial, who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music. [See Nathalie’s website for info on other jazz groups she performs with.]
TR: And the other string players?
QN: I trusted Nathalie to come up with people she wanted to work with. The big issue with classical musicians in a jazz or popular context particularly is time-feel. In relation to this music, the thing that differentiated this quartet from others was the ability to play very accurate time well, as opposed to playing behind the time, or tending to surround it rather than playing right on the beat.
TR: What I usually hear from jazz players who work with classical musicians is that they don’t know how to swing. You’re saying something rather different…
QN: With this project I intentionally avoided the need to generate swing feel from the string quartet. Even the choice of Jim – we tended to stay a lot closer to rock and straight 8th influenced music. I think that’s a key to linking the classical and jazz worlds at the moment. Of course there are the exceptions of amazing string players who can swing – Mark Feldman, Eric Friedlander, Ernst Reijseger, but they’re not the norm yet.
TR: That’s one thing I really noticed about these pieces, they have a very “classical” time-feel about them; there’s a lot of interesting rhythmic interplay between different instruments at times, but it’s all carefully plotted out.
QN: But there are also improvised sections where the jazz trio can explore more freely.
TR: You mention in the notes that Sonny Rollins was a touchstone for the kind of exploration that you’re talking about here. Could you give us any particular examples of how a certain piece developed in performance and through the recording process in relation to the traditional virtues of jazz: improvisation, group exploration etc.?
QN: In several of the solo sections, certainly the more I played with Jim and Mark, and it was only a few days that we had to get to know each other musically, but as the music came together the level of trust went up and that’s when the best music happens. By the time we got to the recording things were feeling settled and we could dig into the improvised sections. For example in “Sun-Day,” Mark’s solo with the strings and Jim’s solo are both gorgeous. As a group, things developed for example on “Branches,” where the trio and Nathalie improvised together.
TR: So, beyond questions of style and form (which you go into in the liner notes), what kinds of feelings were you hoping to project through some of these pieces?
QN: I tried to capture quite a spectrum – each piece (sometimes within itself) and certainly across the album as a whole I tried to project a cross-section of emotions. For example, the ballad “October” was a really meditative, melancholy and austere piece. “Branches” is frenetic. “To Solar Piazza” tries to capture the angst and intensity of Piazzolla’s music. A couple of the other pieces were film music, so they tried to establish the moods of the images. “Circles & Waves” is aiming for a romanticism along the lines of Kenny Wheeler and Maria Schneider, romanticism without being cheesy or corny. “Postmodern” is a little more crazy and playful, throwing all these styles together (Mozart moments, free improv, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, rock, just little snippets all juxtaposed or squished together). “Whorls” is a much more serious piece, inspired by Berg and Schoenberg.
TR: And what about the rockish time-feel, do you think that it makes the music more attractive to young listeners who are grounded in rock, post-rock etc? What audiences to you have in mind for this music?
QN: Yeah, I think a younger listener would be able to grab onto something they recognize, everything else that’s layered on top of it is going to be something new for them possibly, but they might not find it as unapproachable maybe as something really swing-based, which you so rarely get to hear on the mainstream media. Of course there are educated listeners who are hopefully going to seek out this music, but by the same token I’m not trying to alienate anyone, someone who doesn’t have a huge musical background could still relate to the mood of a piece, the energy involved. When I was constructing this music I was thinking that it could appeal to someone with a classical background, that they would find the rock and jazz elements intriguing, and the same would go for someone with a more strict rock or jazz background. Of course it hasn’t necessarily worked out that way – classical festivals find it too jazzy, jazz festivals find it too classical, and rock festivals, well…
TR: Jazz of course has gone through a lot of changes by incorporating music from all over the world, especially in the last 15 years or so. And there has been a lot of give and take between avant-jazz, improv, contemporary classical music, process music, etc. What do you think, speaking for your own music and direction, is worth pursuing among all these possibilities for mixing things up?
QN: Basically you’ve hit all the areas I like. Down the road I’m planning to incorporate more baroque music, and I’d like to explore Indian classical music in more detail.
TR: Is there any Indian influence in Magic Numbers?
QN: Only very tangentially. I’ve listened to Indian music but I haven’t made any direct attempt yet to work with those elements of rhythm, ornamentation etc.
TR: What about other areas of world music?
QN: In the most recent recording project I did with John Taylor and Ernst Reijseger, and Nathalie as well, there’s a piece that’s influenced by traditional African music (Benin and Ghana especially), and there are also Macedonian rhythmic elements in it. There’s also a nice thing at the end where all the strings are playing with the back of the bow and it sounds almost like thumb piano.
TR: What other projects do you have in mind for the future?
QN: I want to do a trio project with saxophone/organ/drums, leaning a bit more towards organ-trio and rock/funk influenced music. I also am planning on doing an orchestral project, but with a jazz rhythm section, really a jazz chamber orchestra, maybe combining some of the elements of the previous projects, something that would offer a lot of different possibilities for color.