Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Thursday, October 9, 2014

What’s the Deal with “Interview Music?”


In an article titled Exclusive: A Conversation with Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis with Jeff Tamarkin, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxophonist Branford Marsalis discussed a wide-range of topics ranging from the problems with jazz education, the importance of learning jazz history, and lessons learned from some of the jazz masters. At one point Terence Blanchard begins talking about the term interview music, which is the focus of this piece. This is what Blanchard had to say:

Along the same lines, there’s a thing we used to call interview music. You know what interview music is? That’s the music that sounds better when motherfuckers are talking about it than when they’re playing it. [Both laugh]

[Then Branford Marsalis chimes in with]: I call that think tank music. When you hear them talk about it, you go, “God damn, I can’t wait to hear that shit. But then…”

Before I address their comments, let me first say that the term interview music is something I’ve been hearing for sometime, first from the late pianist Mulgrew Miller and then from pianist Donald Brown. In a 2005 Downbeat interview with Ted Panken, this is what Miller had to say about interview music:

A lot of people do what a friend of mine calls "interview music," [Miller said]. You do something that's obviously different, and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention.

Here's my take on  “interview music.”

As stated in the aforementioned examples, the term is used in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways to put down musicians with eclectic and often times non-traditional musical taste. The musicians usually at the receiving end of this criticism are younger musicians and are often accused of not having any musical connection to the history of jazz as well as having little knowledge of it. And to add insult to injury, these “un-informed musical charlatans” invent these weird and crazy concepts that the press finds interesting to the point that they want to interview them; hence the term interview music.

In discussing this topic, I feel a little like a double agent, since I have been on both sides of this aesthetical fence. On numerous occasions, I’ve taken the zero tolerance positions of Blanchard and Marsalis, where I would quickly dismiss music or musical concepts that sounded devoid of any connection to the music’s history and (black) culture from which it comes. Let's face it, when you’re trying to swing, you tend to have very little patience for musicians who are not--and even less patience for those musicians who have absolutely no interest in trying. It’s like when you have a certain perception of what it means to dress for a gig. If what you perceive as gig-appropriate attire is a nice suit, a necktie and freshly shined shoes, then you are going to have little patience for that person in torn jeans, a wrinkled T-shirt, and dingy sneakers. You’ll even give the person who has on a tacky suit, a tie, and worn out shoes, the benefit of the doubt--since they are at least making an effort, as far as you can see.

I’ve also been on the side of those people that Blanchard and Marsalis are making fun. I’ve very proudly played music that some might consider to be “music that sounds better when motherfuckers are talking about it” or “think tank music.” I’m sure there have been numerous giggles behind my back about some of my solo projects. And I’ll take those shots to the chin. It comes with the territory when you think outside the box. Or when you go against the grain for what it acceptable as "hip."

I attribute some of my unique perspective to having applied for a lot of grants, back when I had the time. When writing grants, there is natural tendency to think about music in more conceptual terms than musical ones. After all, it’s more about selling the idea. It’s comparable to working at an advertising firm, where you have to sell the client on the concept long before anything has actually been created. I must say, it’s a very liberating and fun way of thinking about music. Thinking in this way teaches us how to conceptualize a musical vision. And part of having a musical vision is being able to see what’s not there; being able to see what others can’t. Otherwise, the only other option is dealing with music in a very classical way—which means that you take tried and tested methods and try to master them. I do understand the joy and skill sets that can be received from this approach. At a certain period in my former life, this was all that I knew.

One way I feel that both worlds can better understand each other is by understanding that musicians basically fall into two categories with regards to how they approach their music. You have the experimental thinker and the conceptual thinker.

Experimental thinkers tend to work on a musical concept or with a band over an extended period
of time, constantly reworking and perfecting it. Whereas, the conceptual thinker tends to be more project oriented (or interview music oriented), and often brings an idea to fruition very quickly, and typically moves on once the idea is realized.

Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Dave Douglas represent these two types perfectly-- Marsalis being the experimental thinker, and Douglas being the conceptual thinker.

Marsalis, with a brief excursion with his group Buckshot le Funk and his trio recordings, has been honing the same band concept for over 20 years. In fact, even when his pianist Kenny Kirkland tragically died, he replaced him with Joey Calderazzo, who was very much influenced by Kirkland—although he has come into his own thing in more recent years. Even all of his bassists share a very similar approach conceptually: laying down quarter notes and pulling the strings. And even though his new drummer Justin Faulkner is very different from Jeff Watts, they do share a very similar modern jazz drumming aesthetic. It’s not like in the bands of Miles Davis, whose drummers were as radically different as Philly Joe Jones and Jack DeJohnette or Jimmy Cobb and Tony Williams. And if you compare Scenes in the City with Four MFs Playing Music, they’re conceptually very similar. What has changed is that Branford is a much better player. Which is the primary goal for most experimental thinkers: "Let me keep playing this thing until I get it right."

Dave Douglas, on the other hand, might release two or three records in a row with entirely different bands and musical concepts. I feel this is partly due to the fact he's very prolific as a composer and needs many groups to keep up with his creative flow. But I have found Douglas to be working with more of a consistent core of players in recent years. Composers, in general, tend to be conceptual thinkers--since there is a completeness in composing that that doesn't exist in improvised music. And many composers are commissioned to write pieces, which tend to be one-shot deals.

Many conceptual thinkers tend to write for a specific instrumentation and then they find musicians to bring the music to life after it's written. This makes it easier to form numerous groups. Whereas experimental thinkers, tend have a core group of players whom they write for. Think about the 70 recordings that John Coltrane made. He probably didn't use over 20 core musicians--which is very common with experimental thinkers. One thing that they need is a consistent format. Duke Ellington is another. He composed over 1,000 pieces over a 50-year span, with many of the original members still in tact. Talking about a consistent musical canvass. And let me also add that having different projects every year makes it easier for agents to book you year after year—which I will elaborate on in just a moment.

The quintessential conceptual thinker, in my opinion, is Anthony Braxton. Some might say that he is the grandfather of conceptual thinkers. Within Braxton’s very vast catalogue of recordings, one will find a wide array of instrumentations, concepts, and styles. All miraculously sounding like Anthony Braxton at the end of the day. It’s a much different situation than say a John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter, musicians whose careers can easily timetabled by experimental periods using various core band members.  Braxton doesn't make recordings with projects that are particularly tour friendly. My new recording, in fact, The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation certainly falls into this category. I have no idea of how to take this music on the road. Sometimes it is OK to make a recording of something just because you feel it would be an interesting project to record. And frankly, some projects don’t warrant that they be explored and examined over the span of several recordings. Sometimes the one recording is enough. I don’t want to hear Kind of Blue, Vol 5.

And not all jazz artists follow the conceptual and experimental schools of thought so diligently. In fact, many jazz musicians throughout their careers, become practitioners of both. And this is sometimes more financially motivated than musically. First of all, in order to follow any of these two schools of thought religiously, one would have to be pretty well-established in their careers. They both require a sound financial support system to be sustained—particularly the experimental thinker's approach. It would have been difficult for Marsalis to have kept a great band together for such an extended period without the high visibility situations he's had the good fortune of being in: like playing with Sting, being the Tonight Show musical director and being signed to Columbia/Sony records for twenty some odd-years. And even though Douglas has not had the high visibility of Marsalis, he does have a consortium of concert and festival promoters who are very enthusiastic and supportive of his musical projects. And his business savvy-ness is pretty evident.

Now as far as the press is concerned, I think conceptual thinkers get more attention simply because their projects are more interesting to write about. Let's face it, how many times can the press keep getting excited about your piano trio, year after year—regardless of how good it is? And I’m speaking purely from a journalistic perspective—especially if you’re one of those musicians who pride him or herself on having a swinging time feel and playing tasteful lines. And besides, conceptual thinkers, quite frankly, are just more interesting subjects to interview and read about.  They’re more likely to discuss new ideas and give fresh perspectives on music that people like myself find interesting and often inspiring; whereas, experimental thinkers tend to just demand praise for having done the work and having stayed the course.They come from a straight ahead world tends to be more discipline-oriented than idea-oriented. It’s a more competitive environment. Ye who knows the most tunes, has the most vast vocabulary, d rwand is the most instrumentally solid, wins the brass ring.  

In closing, I'd just like to say that getting good press is not something we should be concerned about. Our focus should be on creating music that gets our core audience excited, not writers for Down Beat and Jazz Times. Great press should only be the by-product of producing work that excites our core audience. And if you’re on an experimental musical path, accepting that the press is not always going to be excited about what you’re doing, year after year, comes with the territory—unless your group is breaking new ground, year after year. This is often not the case. I do, however, feel that the followers of both schools of thought can learn a lot from each other. Experimental thinkers can open their minds a little more and embrace non-traditional ways of thinking, and conceptual thinkers can flood the jazz market with less pretentiousness. And just for the record, this does not apply to the aforementioned conceptual thinkers named in this piece.

To quote the late Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along!”

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