This interview was conducted by phone, September 24, 2008 with Tony Malaby, and subsequently by email with Fred Lonberg-Holm and John Hollenbeck.
Tony Reif: How did the idea for the Cello Trio happen, and what different directions are you taking with this trio than with Apparitions or other groups?
Tony Malaby: I planned it in terms of doing something that I wasn’t doing with my other groups. The first thing was an instrumentation issue, I wanted to play with an instrument I really hadn’t improvised or performed with a lot before, and I was also looking for somebody who could function in the bass role and who was going to bring a different kind of buoyancy to the feeling with the time and rhythm. The fact that Fred is also so fluent with the language of electronics, that was an added plus, so sonically he brings even more than I expected. Another idea behind the group was to include someone from a very different background than John and me – we come from more traditional jazz backgrounds, Fred is coming more from electronics, rock, noise, and the Chicago improvised scene. And I also wanted a band that played compositions by my peers – like my wife, Eivind Opsvik and Bill Frisell – and I don’t really do that with my other groups, they interpret my music or do solely improvised performances. A group like Apparitions is a group of individuals that all have a history together, we’ve played in so many bands as sidemen. It’s refreshing to have someone from outside the circle I’ve developed in NY.
TR: Fred, coming from Chicago gives you a different perspective on this project. How did you hook up with Tony?
FL-H: I met Tony when he came to the midwest and we did a few gigs with Jorrit Dykstra and the guys from the Valentine trio. He and I hit it off pretty quick and he asked me if I would be interested in trying to do a trio with John, whom I had not met but had heard play and thought would be an interesting person to play with.
TR: And how have you found working with Tony and John?
FL-H: Considering myself more of a noise improviser than a jazz musician, I’ve found the project to be a very interesting and challenging experience. I have never played with a drummer quite like John (nobody is quite like him of course!) and the way that Tony orchestrates the pieces is also very different from what I am used to. I not only live in a different city from John and Tony but also in a different world in a sense. But… working with people who don’t necessarily do things the way I do (whatever that means!) is something I always appreciate. I just always try my best and look for ways that make the music happen (which is always different from one gig to the next let alone one project vs. another). The thing that ties it together for me is Tony though. I think its must be a challenge for him as much as any of us but I think he does an incredible job of tying it all up.
TR: John, how does the group look from your perspective?
JH: I’ve played in many of Tony’s bands, but he wanted to start a trio, originally as you know with tuba. The cello especially brings out a very soft approach…delicate chamber textures. But then Fred has lots of effects and can get a huge distorted guitar-like sound, so then we can go more in that place. In other words, Fred and the cello are defining parameters for this group. One more thing I’d like to add: whenever I play with Tony there is an air of expectation, of mystery, of excitement…this must be his creation, although I don’t know how he does it! I feel a deep connection to him musically…like we played already in a past life.
TR: Tony, you’ve talked about visualization as part of your creative process – is the music here also informed by juxtaposing visual metaphors, images, colors/forms?
TM: Always. I’m always thinking that way, just trying to get out of the jazz tenor headspace, it’s become so codified – and I can really do that, so I have to shake myself loose from it. I’m constantly drawing from painting, photography, film, and trying to structure things in that way. For example “Warblepeck”: I’m trying to scribble and pick and be pointillistic with some of the timbres I use, at the same time drawing from nature, bird sounds, trying to get to a really primal space.
TR: You’ve played in a lot of different contexts, your own groups and others, covering the spectrum between more or less inside and more or less free. I’m curious about what you feel are the most basic components of your sound and your approach to improvising that you bring to all the music you make regardless of style/genre, vocabulary, harmonic content etc.
TM: Peripheral listening. I’m at a point now where I’m embracing the whole sax tradition – and working on ways of turning that lineage inside out, getting outside of the box in terms of linear language. I’m trying to think more graphically, texturally, but still retain part of that foundation that’s still so strong in terms of good sound and good rhythm, but re-assemble it in a way that creates a new language for myself, that’s really getting into composing in the moment. And the thing that allows me to do that is playing off what’s going on around me, being plugged into that more than what’s coming out of the horn. It’s a commitment to really deep listening, and just reacting in an automatic way, and that’s what John and Fred are doing too.
TR: Are there any people or concepts that have remained a constant inspiration to you?
TM: In the last three or four years I was exposed to the films of Stan Brakhage, and that’s a really big source of inspiration. How to transfer that to sound, to saxophone playing and to composition. Also paintings by Cy Twombley, Pierre Alechinsky, Mexican folk art, and classic film noir, and silent films, Buster Keaton. I draw from these elements in ways that really affect rhythm, pacing, the storytelling aspect, and not just the sonic and textural universe. I try to draw on the rhythm and pace involved in good storytelling.
TR: Do you have a particular world-view that you feel your music expresses?
TM: I think mystery, allowing people to hear the process and not being afraid of that – everything in jazz these days is so athletic and picture-perfect. I really like creating and listening to music where you can really hear people engaged in the mystery of creation and process. We’re having such a blast and really surrendering to that, and not caught up in perfection.
TR: One of the most interesting things to me about the Cello Trio is how the three of you manage to create a really clear sonic picture though all the ongoing layering and interplay. Surfaces are in motion (often virtuosic), but the playing always seems grounded in something much deeper, an underpinning that’s being worked through or with. There seems to be a lot of intent to the way the music is being explored, but yet it’s the freedom and expressiveness that the listener responds to. Is this largely an unspoken thing, something that develops over time playing the material, or at a certain point do you usually set out some ideas or suggestions to help guide the process?
TM: How you’ve just described hearing the music is exactly what we want people to do, and to be thinking about. Sometimes as a leader and composer, if you lay too much on your musicians you’re not going to get that effect. The compositions are really strong and simple, so it’s just a matter of playing together and performing together, that’s how we’re creating a relationship and learning for example how Fred interprets a written structure when John and I are improvising against that. “Anemone” is a good example of where you see three people really caught up in that responsibility or being a free agent. Someone’s in the role of holding down the written material and someone’s improvising against it, and then it flip-flops. And if you talk too much you kill that process – things tend to happen the same way night after night.
TR: John, I was often amazed at your ability to layer sounds acoustically, in real time. How do you go about doing that?
JH: I just try to find the right sound(s) that can be unique to each tune, that’s what I do naturally. I like and need to work within a large palette of sound, it’s what I like to hear as a listener. As far as layering goes, this is possible in a trio, there’s enough room.
TR: And Fred, apart from looping, how do you use electronics to modify your sound in different ways?
FL-H: For me the looper is only a quick way of recording and playing back material but not so much a ‘modifier.’ A number of the other devices I use I consider more as kinds of ‘mutes.’ The first wah pedals were sold as a way to make your guitar sound like a trumpet with a plunger (some of the first endorser/spokesmodels for wahs were trumpet players in fact). I use filters, overdrive, distortion and fuzz pedals as mutes too (sort of like harmons and straights and cups for brass players). I also like ring modulation, which is the most esotreric thing in my rig. I like to use them in conjunction with a feedback loop pedal I built so that I can overload them and turn them into oscillators that can generate sounds on their own even without an external source. Add to that the acoustics of feedback through the amp and cello body and you have a pretty wild terrain to explore.
TR: Tony, as you mentioned, you’re also working here with pieces by your wife Angelica Sanchez, Bill Frisell and bassist Eivind Opsvik who is a member of your quartet Paloma Recio. What drew you to these pieces? In particular the Frisell tune doesn’t seem to have been in circulation much – it appears on Billy Hart’s 1985 release Oshumare that Bill plays on, and it’s also on your second CD, a group you co-led with LA trumpeter Dave Scott.
TM: I was looking for pieces that delegate different responsibilities to people. For instance Angie’s piece is two voices: sometimes I’m playing in the bass function, holding down the vamp while Fred improvises, and then we switch roles. One of the things I really like with that piece is the uniqueness of the feel and time. I love the groove that John comes up with, and that’s something that just happened as a result of playing the piece. I think those two voices are so strong that the piece can generate something like that.
Eivind’s piece, I was looking for something that would bring out the humor that John and Fred have as sonic improvisers, and when we tried it out it was so much fun – I knew that John would get into his gadgets, and Fred would get into his thing on it.
The Frisell piece is one of my favorite moody pieces, it’s a really good brooder. And again, a really cool set of responsibilities: those chord changes happen, and it has a really unique structure. I really like hearing John play the chords on the melodica – it’s a unique color and mood world, and also really fun to play on.
TR: Where does the Cello Trio go from here?
TM: Who knows? I chose two sidemen who are so busy, I can only hope for the opportunity to perform and develop things further. But we do have two shows in October, and three in December – the 19th and 20th at Cornelia St. Café, and I’m working on Philly for the 18th. Also we do have an agent: Company of Heaven, Andreas Scherrer. Hopefully we’ll get to tour Europe in 2009-2010.