This interview was conducted by email during August 2016.
Tony Reif: Could you fill us in on what you’ve been up to with your own music since the release of Everything Forgets in 2009, including your self-released Solo Volume 1 (btw is there going to be a Volume 2?). I know there was at least one other group you took into the studio, but you decided not to follow up on that session. Why did that project not in the end live up to your expectations for it? And how did you begin to rethink where you wanted to take your music after that? To me some of this music harkens back more to Music Needs You than to Everything Forgets – a kind of nostalgic quality that has a lot to do with both melody and harmony (e.g. the two waltzes “Delaware” and “And Bright Snow”).
Ryan Blotnick: Well, you know I have always written harmonically clever waltzes and that kind of thing. This is just how my mind works – I have always been fascinated with Wayne Shorter and Mingus and Bill Evans and composers that kind of lead you down the harmonic rabbit hole and then somehow get you back home. I think the short answer to your first question is really mostly a function of what happened to the economy after 2009 – less gigs in New York, less gigs in Europe, and it just got a lot harder to develop a group to the point where it could make a strong statement in the studio. I had a great project with Mat Maneri, Eivind Opsvik, Eliot Cardinaux, Randy Peterson and Michael Blake – we played a few shows and I wrote a body of work for that sextet, recorded some of it, and submitted it to Chamber Music America. Unfortunately to get funding for a project like that you are competing with people like Bill Frisell and it is a shot in the dark. Without funding I decided that a sextet was unsustainable – I would lose a considerable amount of money just playing one show in New York. I also went into the studio with Kresten Osgood, Ned Ferm, Søren Kjaergaard and Jonas Westergaard, my old friends from my time in Copenhagen, but the band hadn’t been broken in and we were basically just reading the tunes and I decided to fold on that band as well. I do believe there is a great album in store for both of those groups but it may have to happen in an alternate reality where creative music is more valued. Kush is really in a way a collaboration with RJ Miller – because we were both living in Portland for a winter and playing with bassist Tyler Heydolph each week it gave us the chance to explore some new grooves and it made my own playing develop in some new ways. I am not sure I would use the word nostalgic to describe the music – it is thoughtful and at times kind of bittersweet but I am certainly not looking backward for inspiration. I think a lot of “modern” cats look outside of themselves for direction and this music is more introspective even though it reaches out to the audience very directly.
TR: You grew up in Maine, lived for 10 years on and off in NYC, and definitively moved back to Maine in early 2015. Many NY-based musicians end up moving out of the city, to upstate NY, or wherever is far enough away from the NYC energy and state of mind (and high rents), while still maintaining some connections to the city. But I sense that for you it maybe runs deeper than that. You’ve written, “East coast jazz does not have to be manufactured in New York City. On his latest release, Ryan Blotnick illustrates this point by crafting soulful, original music shaped by the aesthetic of his home state of Maine.” In what ways does this music reflect a Maine aesthetic, apart from a generally more laid-back quality? Could you tell us about how this music, and this band, came together, and also your history with Michael Blake going back to when you were still a teen-ager? Also about Jonny Lam and his beautiful pedal steel playing on “Lunenburg” (I’m curious if this was an overdub or whether he was playing it live with you).
RB: To explain a little bit about Maine culture – when my parents moved here it was one of the poorest states in the country, next to Mississippi. People think Maine Lobster, L.L. Bean, yachts, etc., but that is a very small slice of the population that comes from Boston or New York money. They come for a very short window of time every summer to boss us around and remark about how “people are so nice here,” and then they pack up and leave. While they are gone we fix up their cottages, tend their gardens, and make sure everything is ready when they come back next year for their spree of ego-stroking cocktail parties. The true Maine culture is proud, witty and kind of shrugs off this couple months of servitude. Mainers are versatile survivors, aware of their own worth and are happy where they are at, so they can laugh at themselves.
What I see as sort of monied urban American culture is kind of the opposite. Everyone is putting on airs to be the greatest in the world at something. In order to be able to tour this album I have to pretend I am God’s gift to jazz guitar or else nobody will book me because jeez, I could book this other guy who so-and-so says is God’s gift to jazz guitar. So everyone is propping themselves up and there is a massive insecurity underlying every human interaction. You talk to someone who is supposed to be one of the world’s greatest listeners and you can’t get a word in edgewise. So when I was in New York I felt like everyone was a part of this charade and the people that got their music out there were the most shameless with the unending self-promotion and backstroking. Now, what drew me to jazz music in the first place was the opposite of that. I was coming up as a smart kid through a school system that was emphasizing memorization of a whole lot of information without much emphasis on how to use it. Kids competed to say the right thing to get good grades, but music was the only place you were rewarded for saying the right thing in the right way with some awareness of the others around you, and a sensitivity to tone. This goes deeper than just music – this is the basis of society. When I discovered jazz, here were true idols that commanded authority and spoke from the heart and were at the same time humble, witty, and self-deprecating. This was like the true Maine culture as opposed to the summer people full of hot air. So when I starting working in restaurants and doing carpentry in Maine in the summers I found out that although I missed the scene, I was happier being surrounded by people who weren’t trying to prove as much. On top of that, the carpenters and dishwashers were more open-minded in a lot of ways than the so-called artists that sucked up all the oxygen in New York. So I moved back to kind of reset and make sure that I wasn’t full of a bunch of hot air and I think it has been good for my playing as well.
When I got together to study with Lee Konitz a couple of times he tried to get me to think about where the note starts – does it start in the fingers? Or the heart? Or the brain? I didn’t really get what he was talking about at the time but I think I understand it better now. Insecurity is a terrible beast and will ruin our chances to really make contact with others. When I get insecure (for example in the face of a giant like Lee Konitz) I lose track of my own voice. My rhythm gets shaky, my phrasing goes sour – the note loses its power because of the constant second-guessing that my ego is insisting upon. This was the biggest hurdle for me a few years ago and living in the city was only making it worse. When Lee plays he lives and dies with each note but it is also not forced – it is very heavy yet still light at heart. In an attempt to sound heavy I had stepped in too close to the music and it was not flowing like it should. So I took a step back.
TR: For quite a few years you’ve been the guitarist in NYC-based Akoya Afrobeat (is the band still together though?). What drove your interest in African popular music and Afro-jazz? What kinds of insights and experiences have you had studying African styles and playing with musicians such as South African saxophonist Duke Mseleku? And why did you decide to bring that history together with this new jazz project? Was having Michael Blake in the band part of it? To my ear he certainly brings a soulful energy to the record: he knows how to strike a balance between extravert excitement and a deeper, more hypnotic quality – it’s that balance that can make his soloing so compelling (for example on “Delaware”). To me he’s the perfect foil to your playing, which emotionally speaking usually seems to start on the inside and reaches out, aiming for that kind of balance from a different impulse or direction.
RB: I have always been fascinated with every type of rhythmic music and Afrobeat is an amazing synthesis of West African and African-American musics. Playing with Akoya put me deep in the rhythm section where I was stuck with one rhythm line for the whole twenty-minute song. At first it felt like jail time but after seven or eight years I found some freedom there! I guess the main thing with African music is that every style has its own rhythmic fingerprint that goes way beyond anything you could put down on paper. When the music is passed down from generation to generation there is a subtlety about how to place accents and how to feel certain rhythms that gets lost in music that is passed down in writing.
Imagine your great grandfather wrote some really abstract new music a century ago and you dig it up in the attic. You get someone to play it and it is just a bunch of bing bong vwoop shhh textures. How much is that going to help you understand who your great grandfather was? Or who you are? Or your relation to others and the world? You would be better off if he left you a house! But if your great grandfather was a great West African musician you could go home and people would still be playing some inflections or a kind of phrasing that your great grandfather invented and the music would still be alive – an unbroken thread passed down for generations. Probably that is an idealized version (having never actually been to West Africa) but I think it illustrates how important it is to have music that is learned by ear and passed down from one generation to the next. That is why I always try to simplify my music to the point where it is memorizable – I also think it speaks to the audience more directly this way.
TR: You’ve mentioned quite a diverse bunch of influences on this music, from Alice Coltrane (Journey in Satchinanda) and Billy Strayhorn to Fela Kuti, Oumou Sangaré, Mandingo Ambassadors and Tal National. Among guitarists, Frisell, Ribot, Jakob Bro (who you studied with during your time at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen), and Ali Farka Touré. Could you link some of these influences to specific pieces, and also talk about RJ Miller’s contribution to the Alice Coltrane vibe on “Kush” and “May Day”, and more generally how his playing makes this record different from anything you’ve done before?
RB: When I was in Copenhagen I spent some time studying with the great guitarist Jakob Bro. I was in a very competitive jazz mentality and he was starting to explore more rock-like chord progressions. He challenged me to write a song with just three or four chords, and I came back with a few sketches. To his dismay I had picked a bunch of weird jazz chords with lots of extensions! Years later I would write a song that lived up to his assignment while sitting in the eaves of my friend’s house in Nova Scotia – “Lunenburg”. Jakob is the opposite of most jazz guitarists – he actually waits and listens before he plays. If you are not aware of his work I highly recommend checking it out – with the help of the Danish government he has been able to record a dozen records with people like Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell and Paul Motian, capturing them in some very unique settings.
When we were workshopping this music over the winter we were also playing RJ’s music (check out Ronald’s Rhythm on Loyal Label), and he was trying to break out of a certain way of thinking about music. RJ wanted the music to simmer and just keep expanding as opposed to my natural inclination to sort of tell a story using a predetermined form. Alice Coltrane’s music is a great example of this – it doesn’t register as a series of solos and I think it has a lot in common with West African and possibly Indian classical music that way. I think RJ’s playing on this record has a constant variation that is really hard to pull off the way he does it. The groove is always very much there even if he is playing all around it. I see it as an extension of what Paul Motian and Ed Blackwell have contributed to the music.
TR: What does the title “Kush” refer to?
RB: Kush was a club in New York where I first met Michael Blake when I was sixteen, on my way to freshman orientation at William Paterson. He was playing with Ben Allison and Jeff Ballard and it really sent my friend Ned Ferm and me through the roof. Also, the bass line of “Kush” is based on a middle-eastern rhythm [in 17/8] that Duncan Hardy showed me called “Kush Rank” – I thought that was an interesting coincidence.
TR: Is there anything in particular you would like listeners to take away from the record?
RB: Nothing particular, I would just hope that they could engage with it in their own way and have it lift them up.
TR: Now that you have a band together that’s a really cohesive unit, how do you see things developing from here? Are you writing more pieces for the book? Does the band also play covers?
RB: This album is really just a starting point. I will be writing a lot of new music this winter and have thought about adding some covers to the book, although that is not really a priority. I think as my relationship with Michael Blake continues to evolve toward less of a mentorship and more of a collaboration there with be a lot of great music to come out of that.