An Interview

Thom Gossage

This interview with Thom Gossage was conducted by email during August 2011.

Tony Reif: How and when did Thom Gossage Other Voices get started, and how has the band, and your approach to writing for it and leading it, changed over the years?

Thom Gossage: Thom Gossage Other Voices actually played its first gig in 1998 at Concordia University in Montréal. I’m the only remaining member from that lineup of Kelly Jefferson/tenor sax, Gary Schwartz/guitar, and George Mitchell/bass. I remember bringing in my first compositions with much anxiety, but I’d say from the beginning all the musicians I’ve worked have been helpful and supportive. I remember giving the band the charts, then hearing the music come alive – it was, and still is a marvelous transformation from something on a piece of paper to music. At the beginning I described Other Voices as a vehicle for my compositions, but more and more I’ve asked the members to bring their own compositional skills into the type of improvisation we do, which I think of as open work (improvisation with specific guidelines).

In 2001 we made our first CD, but as a quintet with Rémi Bolduc/alto sax, Frank Lozano/tenor and soprano saxes, Gary Schwartz/guitar, George Mitchell/bass and myself. Rémi and Frank have been with the group ever since, Miles Perkin joined the band on the second CD and Steve Raegele joined on the third. Initially the name Other Voices came from the idea that there could be many styles explored in my writing. I would have a heavily written piece move into a free piece then a more groove-type composition. It has changed over the years in that the new music I write belongs to a more coherent body of work. I often discuss music and composition with Rainer Wiens, a friend of mine and a marvelous musician. He led me to the idea of having the improvisation be an integral part of composition, not just something that is tacked on at the end. That has been important in my recent writing.

In terms of being a leader I try not to sweat the small things, with varying degrees of success. Everyone in the band is a leader so they understand the pressures. I try to lead the band to new territory but it’s also new territory for me so sometimes I ask for their patience. Usually Miles can explain what I’m saying.

TR: Do you think of the music the band is making today as in any sense jazz? A lot of the procedures you talk about in the notes that you use to elaborate the compositions are clearly drawn from classical music – but the way the pieces are performed is just as obviously not classical, nor is it “free improv” because there are a lot of structures that are influencing what’s going on. Not that categories are so important, but I’m always curious about how musicians who’ve moved far beyond their jazz training think about what they’re doing.

TG: Well Tony, is it jazz or not. I’m not sure. Personally I would like to think it is. I consider Sun Ship by John Coltrane jazz. At some point however you have to ask yourself if a label like jazz is actually detrimental to getting this music out there. I think the idea of jazz music as easy listening music is being so vigorously sold everywhere that perhaps whether it is or isn’t jazz doesn’t really matter. It’s the perception of what jazz is that is the underlying factor. I listen to Shirley Horn and Ahmad Jamal, play standards in different bands and have a strong connection to the music, but if I describe what I do with my band as jazz then I have to qualify it as not being swing music and not being this or that, so practically is suppose I wouldn’t call it jazz.

I suppose experimental jazz music would be okay. Of course every label has a lot of connotations.

You’re right in your question that I’m referring to new (classical) music procedures, also in the way I look at improvisation. That comes from my experiences in dance with choreographer Isabelle Van Grimde. We explored the relationship between music and dance in many of the pieces and workshops we gave both in Canada and abroad. The type of improvisation Isabelle uses begins with a series of movements that the dancers learn, they then employ methods to improvise with them (open work). They create relationships with the other dancers around them and with the architectural and sonic environment (music) using many components, many based on new musical compositional techniques such as opposition, retrograde, negative space, diminution, augmentation. This type of work corresponds directly to the way I approach the improvisation in the group and how I compose.

How I’ve gotten here I think is a pretty natural evolution. I don’t think of what we do in the group as against any other type of music. I’m just not interested in those types of dogmas. Personally I started playing rock, then jazz, then fusion, then more open jazz, which brings me to where I am now, a type of open work that takes many elements from experimental classical music.

TR: The core of your band (yourself, Miles Perkin and Steve Raegele) also make up Steve’s trio (Last Century, Songlines 2010). How do you work with those two in your band to realize your ideas, as compared to how Steve works with you and Miles? Are there similarities in your approaches to writing and improvising?

TG: I feel very fortunate in the group of musicians I get to play with. It feels like an incredibly well-oiled machine every time we play. I think the years of playing together create a collective consciousness that can’t be underestimated. The whole thing is very organic. I’ve played with Miles in numerous contexts over the last 9 years. He played on all of my CDs except the first one, as I played on his three recordings including the latest, which I’m very excited about, with Tom Arthurs and Benoît Delbecq. We also toured and played on numerous dance pieces with the company Van Grimde Corps Secrets in Canada and internationally. I first heard Miles at a concert he was part of while still in school at McGill. Immediately I was drawn to his playing. We have evolved together since that time. Steve is a very unique player. I think he comes from a strong rhythmic place but has his own voice improvisationally which includes a lot of textures, something I love in a guitarist. Steve also embraces everything I throw his way, which I really appreciate.

I think we all have our own compositional styles. Most of Miles’ music has involved piano, and his sense of melody over extended periods is his own. I love his use of more minimal type structures and some of the improv games he employs. The last CD we created is a textural opus. Steve is a little more reluctant as a composer, which isn’t that rare for a guitarist. He asked me to produce his first CD, Last Century, which was a real treat for me. The sketches he brought in were really fantastic so the three of us collaborated in a real sense to bring them to the finished product. I think the result is a very original CD and the three of us are very proud of it. I also like some of the more rock/indie influences that are in his music. And yes, there are many similarities in our approach to improvising and writing.

TR: Non-Canadian listeners especially might not be familiar with what would be called your frontline in jazz, but Rémi Bolduc and Frank Lozano have been a prominent part of the Montreal scene for many years. What specifically do they bring to the music? And why two saxes rather than sax and trumpet or some other combination?

TG: My love affair with the saxophone goes back to high school when I discovered Charlie Parker, I also played alto. Later on I discovered John Coltrane, a passion I still have to this day. What I love about Rémi and Frank is how different they are as players. Rémi is much more cerebral and angular in his playing while Frank has a more visceral, earthy approach. It‘s a question of opposites filling out the painting. Rémi and I go way back to the 80s, when we played in a band called the Jazz Beards. We also discovered M-base together, and after that I played in the Rémi Bolduc Electric Band. Since then we’ve played together solely in Other Voices. Frank and I play in numerous musical contexts, with Rainer Wiens (Dream Algebra), in a standards trio with Adrian Vedady called the Phoenix Trio, and also in Frank’s ensemble entitled Mtl 4 (with Adrian and François Bourassa). That quartet will be releasing a new CD in the upcoming months. I’m very fortunate to work with such fantastic musicians such as Rémi and Frank. That was the question for me, rather than if it was trumpet and sax or not. I think Tom Arthurs from London is great on the trumpet, as well as Jim Lewis from Toronto and Gordon Allen here in Montreal. So maybe one day I’ll have a project with trumpet as well.

TR: By the way, what’s up with the Latin song titles?

TG: I was reading a book on the Reformation and came across many Latin terms such as id est, ab infra, hic et ubique, I loved the sound of them. I had no idea what they meant, having unfortunately not taken Latin in high school. When I found out their meanings I used the ones that I felt worked well in relation to the CD as song titles. Somehow it connects with abstraction, chance, discovery and the open playing field, elements at the core of the music on In Other Words (id est).

TR: Clearly your music has an intellectual framework; what’s your take on creating a physical as well as emotional (or if that word has too much baggage, let’s say “experiential”) connection with an audience? What do you think an audience needs to bring to the encounter to get something valuable from your music?

TG: I think it was Jackson Pollock who said When someone looks at a bouquet of roses they say it’s beautiful, they don’t ask why is it beautiful, it just is. My hope is that people who listen to the music of Other Voices will be moved by the different textures, melodies and rhythms as well as how invested the musicians are in creating in the moment. The people who bring too much experiential knowledge to the table are often more likely to be the disapproving ones. Rainer has an expression, When people say ‘I know what I like’ what they really mean is I like what I know.

Audiences will have different levels of appreciation, different references, different cultural histories and of course different reactions to the music we propose. I think the important thing is to continue producing music we believe in, and being part of an artistic community that disseminates it to a larger audience. I think your record label Songlines is a great example of this.

TR: How has your conception of tonality/atonality/dodecaphony evolved in your writing, and how do you employ tonality (or the lack of it) in these compositions – in particular, how do you create melodies that please you and that work ‘rhythmically’? Does that word make sense in this context? I guess what I’m driving at is the sense that the music is being moved forward by melody and rhythm working together rather than, in tonal music, primarily by harmony and rhythm working together. The big problem I have with a lot of what I would call bad serial/atonal music is that it sounds arbitrary and unmotivated in a way that tonal music (possibly bad in other ways) usually doesn’t.

TG: I’ve always felt comfortable slipping in and out of tonality/atonality and love juxtaposing them within compositions. What I search for more and more are methods that will break me out of composing based on a tactile relationship to the music I’m writing (i.e. composing on piano or guitar etc.). On my last CD, Impulsi, I was very inspired by the short story and writers like William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor etc. The art of being clear and profound in few words, that’s what I aimed for in the music. With In Other Words my inspiration was the abstract painting and its metamorphosis from an original figure. It’s explained in more detail in the liner notes.

Although I use tone rows and atonality I by no means adhere to a strict system. For each composition I have numerous pieces of musical information to choose from, and it then becomes a question of how they work together or how they make up the character of the composition. This assemblage is very intuitive. The key to the current music of Other Voices is that it almost completely comes from a melodic place. Sometimes the melodies are in unison, often there are many melodies overlapping, and they are placed within a pulse frame rather than more rigid time and harmonic structures. I’m also a big fan of suspension and release, creating blocks of music that answer to each other.

TR: What other kinds of projects have you been involved in recently that complement what Other Voices is doing? What other directions do you see your music (including Other Voices) moving in?

TG: I’m really excited about a sound installation I’m doing for the dance company Van Grimde Corps Secrets. The piece is entitled The Body In Question(s) and is premiering at FTA (Festival Transamériques) in Montreal, May 2012. It will also tour across Canada in numerous locations. The piece includes visual artists such Nadia Myre, Kate Craig, Marilene Oliver, Derek Besant . . . and performing artists Marie Brassard, Sarah Chase, Soula Trougakos and Brian Webb. The artists will respond (artistically) to material given by the choreographer on her research of the human body, informed by her numerous interviews with people from varying milieus, e.g. authors, scientists, antrhopologists, artists, professors. I will create an electronic architectural sound environment for the whole exhibit. I also have an upcoming duo project with guitarist Tim Brady. As mentioned, Frank Lozano’s group Mtl 4 have a new CD coming out. I have the ongoing Kalimba Duo with Rainer Wiens, and I play in the Steve Raegele Trio, the Erik Hove Trio, and the Miles Perkin Quartet with Tom Arthurs and Benoît Delbecq. I’ve been drawing graphs for improvisations that I’d like to try with Other Voices and other groups, perhaps adding another string player (viola or violin), and maybe incorporating the purely electronic composing I’m doing in other projects.