An Interview

Robin Holcomb & Ron Samworth

This interview with Robin Holcomb and Ron Samworth was conducted by email during July-August 2010.

Tony Reif: This collaboration has actually been in the works for several years now, at least since that first concert in Vancouver in 2006. And of course Wayne has had ties with Vancouver for his own music – Peggy is part of Gravitas Quartet, and Dylan has gigged with Wayne and you. Also there was the Holcomb-Lee duo at the 2008 Vancouver Jazz Festival – all culminating in the second Vancouver concert last November and the recording sessions. Could you say something about how you think this process has helped the music come together?

Robin Holcomb: Ron, Bill, Peggy and Dylan had already been familiar with my music and had performed several of my compositions long before we met. In 2006 they invited Wayne and me to collaborate in the creation of a concert at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. This concert focused on my writing of songs and instrumental music and our collective arrangements and improvisations. Not only is Talking Pictures a quartet of extremely astute and quick-witted improvisers, but also their long history of playing together has resulted in a deep and detailed empathy and intuition that can sound altogether new or inevitable by turns. It was a wonderful experience for me, one of those rare situations wherein I can not only improvise and do whatever arises in the moment, but can also bring to the table any music I want to – and the end result doesn’t have to be only an improvised project, or a chamber music project, or a songs project or a jazz project. There is great logic in their coloration and sense of balance, no matter how seemingly chaotic or contrary.

Wayne and I have been playing each other’s music for more than thirty years. Talking Pictures have played together for many years. There are a lot of historical strands at work.

Ron Samworth: Robin’s music is the perfect vehicle for a band like Talking Pictures. There is such a wealth of information in any given phrase – melodic, harmonic and rhythmic, not to mention the extraordinary richness of lyrical imagery in her songs. It’s an improviser’s dream. Our band greatly values ensemble playing where we create unified improvised pieces that explore a variety of textures and moods. Robin and Wayne seem to share that open, collective spirit.

TR: How did the two of you (and Wayne?) work out the arrangements? Was there much discussion ahead of time about how different pieces would be organized (in terms of solos/duos/collective improvs etc.) or did that develop in rehearsal? Were any of your pieces written for this band or with it in mind, and how did you select what you wanted to record?

RH: We arrived with a general idea of arrangements – the obvious ones – and made adjustments in the rehearsals. Most orchestration decisions were made collectively. I wrote my arrangement of “After the Gold Rush” for this recording – I believe it was Ron who suggested that song. I chose themes for improvising with these particular players in mind. I had performed some of the music duo with Peggy, and other musicians. Some of the pieces come from song cycles I had composed and performed in the past – Angels at the Four Corners and The Utopia Project. Only one song had been recorded before.

TR: Ron, Talking Pictures has been active for over 15 years now, even though Bill Clark hasn’t lived in Vancouver for several years. That’s a pretty long time in the jazz world. What’s been the impetus to keep the group together, and how would you characterize the band dynamics and approach to making music – have they changed much over that time? It’s interesting that both this record and your previous release on Songlines, Humming (2000) were collaborations where most or all of the compositions were brought by the collaborator, in that case the Dutch saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra. Of course you’ve also written quite a lot for the band, especially in earlier years, but now it seems that new projects are the spur…

RS: Talking Pictures has been together since 1993. Over that time we’ve undergone numerous phases of evolution. We have played the compositions of our members and other artists who inspire us, guest collaborators such as Jorrit Dijkstra, Achim Kaufmann and most recently Robin, as well as provided music for a number of theatre, film and dance creations. For the last 10 years or so the group has focused primarily on group improvisation, due in large part to family dynamics and geographical realities (Bill Clark lived in LA and now lives New Mexico). This shift represents no artistic compromise in my view. The group has always displayed a supernatural affinity amongst the players to create remarkably coherent improvisations. The depth of listening and the willingness to forgo virtuosic solos in favour of ensemble playing is one of the qualities that distinguishes Talking Pictures from many other bands. Also the range of influences that are brought into play by the members guarantees a variety of textures and a “cinematic richness” that inspires collaborators such as Wayne and Robin and delights audiences.

TR: Robin, since your Solos solo piano project with Wayne on Songlines in 2004, what other formations have you been working in with your music, and how do they compare/contrast with or complement Talking Pictures? I believe the NY Composers Orchestra has been active again, that must be a thrill to work with…

RH: This year Dave Sewelson (baritone, alto) and I revived our 25 O’Clock Band which hadn’t performed in as many years. This is an entirely instrumental ensemble, very free, with Dave Hofstra on bass and Steve Moses on drums. I recently did a duo performance with experimental fiction writer Lynne Tillman that was very exciting – the combination of spoken word, words set to music and spontaneous improvised underscoring – I look forward to continued collaboration with her. The New York Composers Orchestra has become active again and is going to Europe a couple of times this year for the first time in ages. Wayne and I together with Tom Varner have created a West Coast version of the band that we are calling WACO (Washington Composers Orchestra), playing the NYCO repertoire and adding new compositions by Pacific Northwest members. We perform regularly in Seattle. I am writing the libretto for a chamber opera that Wayne is composing called Smokestack Arias about the Everett Massacre. We have upcoming performances for Heartsong of Charging Elk, a chamber opera inspired by the novel by James Welch that was a collaboration between Wayne, Rinde Eckert and me – I contributed to the libretto and wrote some songs, in addition to singing in that piece.

My longstanding band Larks, They Crazy has been performing infrequently – a repertoire of instrumental compositions and songs. This band is most similar to my collaboration with Wayne and Talking Pictures – peculiar to the members, not as free. I have done several duo performances recently with Peggy Lee – the PuSH Festival and Vancouver Jazz Festival, and in Seattle – all tremendously inspiring. Torsten Müller, Dylan and I did a set at the Jazz Festival last year – also very exciting, and we are planning future performances. I have really enjoyed returning to vigorous, freer playing with these musicians while at the same time keeping songs in the playlist. The Talking Pictures project is the one that includes the widest range of my music. These players share an intimacy and intuition that is staggering and which they apply with joyful abandon in not only our mutual improvisations but also in their interpretation of my compositions. I am very happy to have made this recording and look forward to us making music in the future.