Interview with Change of Time
(Adam Kolker, John Hebert, and Russ Lossing, interviewed by Frank Tafuri)

Change of Time: John Hebert, Russ Lossing, Adam Kolker

Tafuri: How did you guys come up with this concept of doing Bartók?

Lossing: Well, it was an aborted jam session, actually. We had a session scheduled at my apartment. And I don't remember who was suppose to play drums, but for some reason the drummer didn't make it. So, it was just the three of us, and I had this music sitting on my piano. And we got the idea "Let's just try playing this..." You know, "whatever"...and we did. And it just kept evolving from there - different ways of playing that music.

Tafuri: So everybody just huddled around the piano score...or piano pieces and did this?

Lossing: Yeah...exactly.

Hebert: Well, we didn't play any really complicated ones at first.

Kolker: No, the first time we played, we played free on one of the Mikrokosmos. Just kind of picked out parts and.... I don't remember which one it was, and just let it evolve

Tafuri: So that was the start of it?

Kolker: That was the first day.

Lossing: And we dug it

Hebert: And it was fun to improvise. Just within that one get-together, we noticed a lot of possibilities within the music that we could develop further. So, we said 'OK, that was great, let's get together again.'

Lossing: Right.....

Hebert: it really happened kind of fast, I thought. As far as between then and actually putting something on tape, recording the actual thing...

Tafuri: So it was natural...it felt like something that was very natural ?

Lossing: We'd been playing together a bunch before then.

Hebert: Yeah, and in various different grooves and combinations.

Tafuri: So you guys already had a certain rapport?

Lossing: I think so, yeah.

Tafuri: But then after you started working on this stuff for a while, and playing it for a while, did you get it strictly from the printed music, or did anybody listen to recordings, or play it?

Lossing: I think we're all familiar with Bartók. I've personally played them since I was a boy.

Tafuri: The Mikrokosmos, or Bartók in general?

Lossing: The Mikrokosmos. That's what pianists do when they're little boys: they play Bartók. [Laughs.] So, we're all familiar the - and fans of Bartók. Concerto for Orchestra and...

Kolker: Maybe not the actual Mikrokosmos pieces...I don't think I'd really played through them before we got together playing

Tafuri: I love his string quartets and Concerto for Orchestra. Did you ever hear Don Sebesky's arrangement of that. Strings, percussion, and ...

Lossing: Celeste!

Tafuri: and Celeste. Actually it's that and a couple of other things. It's on a funky album on CTI years ago. It was called The Rape of El Moro...It's called "Footsteps of a Giant." The bulk of the piece is based on...it's three different Bartók things...but the bulk of is...

Hebert: I first heard that piece in the movie Poltergeist

Tafuri: Oh really...(laugh)

Hebert: The first Poltergeist he used that percussion/Celeste movement for some of the theme music in that movie. I was really diggin' it then, and checkin' it out now...

Tafuri: Why do think you got so interested - why do you think this felt so natural ? I mean, we know that you guys play together - so there's a certain rapport. But individually, why do you think this appealed to you?

Lossing: I think it's the material itself. The way he uses modes and little motivic ideas. The interval play in the music. The way he actually composes music and puts it together lends itself to using the raw material for improvising. It's a natural thing that expands.

Kolker: It's very melodic and in some ways it's kind of simple-especially the pieces that we've dealt with in some ways - on some level they're folk tunes. Well, they're not necessarily folk tunes, but his inspiration - which is very similar to the way jazz developed. It was improvisations based on folk melodies or on simple melodies.

Tafuri: Right.

Kolker: We discussed different composers to do this with, after we started on this. It was difficult to find any others whose music was so melodic and lent itself to actually composing improvising variations on it, because a lot of other composers.....I don't know, that may be wrong, but-

Hebert: Well, the instrumentation has a lot to do with it...

Kolker: It just lent itself...

Lossing: It's these particular pieces themselves though. Because of what they are - they're progressive piano pieces. Six books, and the first book is very simple. But even the first book has wonderful ideas. They seem very simple if you just look at them but, if you really start to look at them carefully, they're fantastic. So we take from books four and five. That's what all of these come from: book four and five.

Kolker: Which is also kind of coincidental because those are the ones I happen to have, and six gets a little more complicated. [laughter]

Lossing: Six is more pianistic, right? Six is more for piano. That's why these pieces lend themselves...it's not like taking an orchestral piece and extracting, or something like that.

Hebert: It's all there.

Tafuri: Well, it's funny that you mention melody, because when you sent me the recording and I first put it on, I immediately thought of each of you and other works that you've done; other groups that you play in; other recordings that you play on. I think that one of the commonalities between the three of you is that you all each do have a sense of melody. Even in the improvisations you play and the accompaniments you play - John especially. What you do is very melodic. It's not even accompaniment, but you could almost record it in a separate track and play it back, and we would go "hey, listen to those little melodies." I thought that was interesting, because it allows for the "melodicity," if you will, to come through, and yet the freedom to play, the space to play.

Hebert: Yeah.

Tafuri: I'm curious - did you ever think about expanding the group - adding additional instruments?

Lossing: We talked about doing drums. I like the space with no drums.

Kolker: Exactly.

Tafuri: And it seems like there's a certain tension without the drums. There's that element that's...

Hebert: There's a lot of freedom, too.

Lossing: I think it's really special to find a rapport. You know, you add another person to the mix and it changes. It screws it up a bit. It's something special that we just kind of decided to-

Hebert: -we found something that works.

Tafuri: Besides, those other guys didn't show up for the rehearsal....forget it!

Lossing: It would be great, but I think it would be different maybe do some other music or something.

Tafuri: Now, in the midst of these, these aren't all actual Mikrokosmos?

Kolker: All but two.

Lossing: Yeah, there's two original.

Lossing: There's one piece that I wrote: "Pozeny." That's where Bartók went to school, in Bratislawa.

Tafuri: What inspired you to write that?

Lossing: I wrote it in his spirit. If you listen to it, it sort of has some of his vibe. I use some of the materials and the way he thinks about intervals and things.

Tafuri: And then there's this piece on here 'Béla' - which is co-attributed.

Lossing: That's a free piece - totally free and improvised. It was at the end of the session thinking about what was in the air. We had been playing these Mikrokosmos all day, so it kind of culminated in that improv...we just played free.

Kolker: When I had started sending this CD out for gigs, I had written something up that said that no directions or instructions were discussed before we recorded them, and that was true. At the recording session we were like "which one are we going to play?" And that was it...we didn't say anything.

Lossing: But on the other hand we had prepared.

Kolker: We had played a lot before, so there was a lot of material we had done before to draw upon. But the level of adherence to the printed music was varied greatly from piece to piece. And we didn't prioritize that at all. If we felt that that was important...well, in other words, there were no rules at this session.

Lossing: The process was like this: after we decided to do it, we decided which ones we were going to do. Then we took each one, and we examined it very carefully, and we learned how to play it exactly as is on paper. We tried different combinations of voices and who takes what...but we learned the pieces exactly, so that we know how to play them exactly as they are.

Tafuri: But there weren't always three lines.

Lossing: No, but there always seems like a way to divide it up three ways somehow. And then we tried arrangements - different concept of arranging, like we'd play part of it in tempo, and the next part rubato...we tried all these different combinations. We rehearsed like that for weeks. That was the idea from the beginning: it was a preparation - preparing our minds and everything.

Kolker: As an improviser, you practice things and, when you play, you forget about them. We did that as a group. We did practice very specific things, but when we performed, for the most part - even when we talk about things sometimes when we start playing in the performance, it goes out the window.

Tafuri: Do you find that if you talk about it too much, it spoils what happens?

Lossing: Not necessarily.

Hebert: It can happen. I believe you can over-rehearse certain things and take away some of that.

Tafuri: What kind of response do you get from live audiences when you do this?

Kolker: It's been interesting.

Hebert: For the most part people seem to really dig it.

Kolker: Well, no. [laughter] One concert we did at my school, University of Massachusetts, for my faculty recital - it was packed. There were a lot of professors there who dug it. There were a lot of people that had to attend because of their jazz history requirement, so it was packed, but with people who have probably never heard any jazz performances live - maybe one. And this was introduced to them as "jazz". We talked to them before hand and said don't have any expectations, because this might not be like anything you've heard in class. Part of their assignment was to write critiques of the performances. And some people loved it, and some people said "I don't think the saxophone player knows how to play his instrument. How come the piano player was in the piano pulling at the strings?" Or, you know, "this was just noise, I couldn't wait to get out of there." [laughter]

Lossing: The great thing was that the head of the classical piano faculty came backstage afterwards and said he thought Bartók would approve.

Kolker: Nigel Cox.

Lossing: And he's somewhat of a Bartók aficionado...as a pianist.

Kolker: We played at this place called the Vermont Jazz Center. A bunch of people came out toting their copies of the Mikrokosmos to read along while we played....

Tafuri: Oh, really? They brought music to the gig?

Kolker: Yeah, and people really loved it. There were a lot of kids there who loved it. A lot of people said they didn't know what to expect. I have to say, the response has been...

Lossing: We did a gig one time at Cornelia, and I made copies of the scores and put them on the tables...and they were all gone, everyone took them home. They really dug that, it gave them something to latch onto. And there were a lot of musicians there as well.

Tafuri: But the music is in general is easy enough and clean enough that people that can - even people with moderate music background - can relate.

Kolker: I found teaching jazz history in school, even people that don't read a note of music...if you put a Bird solo up on a transparency while you're playing the record, they can relate on some level - just seeing it. The shape...the density of it. In the whole scheme of things, these things are on the simple side in terms of the actual...

Hebert: ...how many notes are there...

Kolker: ...yeah. So, they're fairly easy to digest by people in varying levels of comprehension.

Lossing: Yeah, they are definitely playable. That's the beauty of it.

Tafuri: And even if you just pick out little parts of them - like if you can't play everything...you know, just little shapes to everything that's there. So what are your goals with this? What would you like to do with this music?

Kolker: Make a lot of money, and become famous and marry Pamela Anderson (laugh)...

Hebert: It would be nice to go on the road - this music and band, and keep investigating the music. I mean, there's still a lot there that we can...

Tafuri: In each of your own spheres, in the areas that you work in, do you see in your own experiences more of a coming together of the "Classical" world and the "Jazz" world?

Hebert: Yeah, it seems lately that a lot of people are sort of adapting 20th century music to play in smaller ensembles and improvised music using some of that material.

Tafuri: We heard that with folk music and we hear that with - Balkan music was big...the klezmer thing is big and a lot of the folk elements are big. And it seems like there really is a folk element to Bartók's compositions - even his very sophisticated ones. I'm just curious from your own experiences.

Lossing: Do you mean if the classical world and the jazz world's are coming together?

Hebert: I don't know if the worlds are coming closer, but I think maybe the jazz musicians are sort of adapting.

Lossing: Lee Konitz did this thirty years ago - he recorded the Mikrokosmos, with Jean-Pierre Rampal.

Hebert: But if you're referring to what's happening now, in the scene that we're all associated with...

Tafuri: Well, thinking about the stuff that ECM first put out - I'm thinking about back in the 70's. A lot of that stuff I never considered to be jazz. I call that sort of contemporary European classical music or European improvised music. And it seems like in the "jazz" world you had either people that were playing straight-ahead, you had people that were playing free, and you had other people who were trying to find something in the middle, to play within structures, within forms and stuff like that. It seems to me like there are certain types of music that are coming out with a resurgence of a better understanding of twentieth-century music and the general acceptance of it. Now maybe is really the time for a sort of cross-pollination to occur.

Lossing: I think more people are drawing on twentieth-century music now. You're right...especially within the last few years. I see people playing Schoenberg's music and Webern...

Tafuri: Right, Uri Caine, the Mahler project, and then this group Side Show that's doing Ives. Oscar Noriega and John Hollenbeck are playing Ives' music.

Lossing: Right, I haven't heard that yet - I'd like to.

Tafuri: I wouldn't call Ives' music folk music...

Kolker: Some of it is, actually.

Lossing: Yeah, the elements are Americana - Sousa marches twisted and bent all over the place.

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