Interview with John Lindberg, James Emery
and Rob Thomas:
[With producer Frank Tafuri]
Tafuri: So, how does it feel doing your first live album? Or is this your first live album as the String Trio?
Thomas: It's actually not our first one, but it's the first live one in America and probably the first one that will be distributed outside of the country of France … that's live. But we did make '92, '4 (?) that's live with Regina Carter.
Emery: An Outside Job.
Lindberg: An Outside Job was done over a period of two nights in a little club in France, and so we did have the experience. But obviously this was a larger scale project.
Thomas: My guess is maybe that that one didn't have as much care put into it in terms of mixing it and editing it and mastering, after the fact.
Lindberg: Yeah, I don't think so. It was kind of a radio production that then they released as a live.
Thomas: As far as live albums go, this was a real "hands on" affair.
Emery: But, Frank, you can say this is virtually our first live recording.
Tafuri: Their first, "virtual" live recording.
[Laughter all around.]
Emery: So, for worldwide purposes outside of France, this is our first live recording.
Tafuri: It's a first, I guess, in a lot of ways. It's also a first recording with your new violinist in the group.
Emery: That's right. This is his debut recording.
Tafuri: What is the significance to you, Rob [Thomas:], of playing with the String Trio?
Thomas: As I'm fond of saying, this is a gig I've had my eye on for the past 25 years.
Thomas: I've been aware of their work since their first record came out. It got a little bit of airplay in Portland, Oregon, where I was living. I was fascinated by the group and the concept and the playing and thought, 'Gee, I'd like to have that gig someday.'
Tafuri: This was something that happened right away when you heard them for the first time? You're like, 'Man, listen to these guys!"?
Thomas: It was like, 'Yeah, so that's that they're doing in New York.' That would have been like '78?
Emery: '79 is when we recorded our first one. We came together in '77, did our first gig in February '78 and the first tour in '79 in Europe and the first recording [during] that same tour.
Thomas: So, the idea of using guitar, bass, and violin as a core trio was something that I had thought of and was even doing at the time. I had a group that was guitar, bass, and violin, and we usually used drums, as well. It was more of a straight-ahead jazz thing, but I was always toying with putting together the "String Trio of Portland." And I actually had a great group with Geri Allen and Glen Moore that did a lot of work.
Tafuri: What album was that, First String?
Thomas: First String.
Tafuri: What about that album really "got" you?
Thomas: The energy … and the playing of James Emery was astounding to me. I didn't know there was anyone playing that much guitar anywhere.
Emery: Thank you. (I didn't either.)
[Laughter all around.]
Thomas: And, of course, Billy Bang was just "exploding."
Tafuri: (No pun intended.)
Thomas: He came out to Portland and did a few gigs. I played in a rhythm section backing him up. That was a lot of fun.
Tafuri: Well, I love the fact that, ever since I've heard the group — which has been a lot of years, that there's so much music that comes out of three musicians. And the group has changed. Rob is, what, your fifth violinist?
Emery: Fifth, yeah, that's right.
Tafuri: And there's so much music that comes out of three musicians — so many different sounds. That's also part of the reason why I love the way the new CD starts with "Upstart." Because, if you put it on and didn't know what you were listening to…
Lindberg: You wouldn't know that it's three string players, that's for sure.
Thomas: You wouldn't know that it was guitar, bass, and violin.
Emery: A lot of that has to do with John having so many different sounds that he pulls out of the bass — both arco and pizzicato.
Lindberg: And "stickato" — when I stick it to 'em.
[Laughter all around.]
Emery: That's the col legno battuto.
Lindberg: "Stickato," like I said.
Tafuri: How did the concept for the group and the kind of music that you do — how did that come together? What was the motivation between those things? Was it just exploration, or it just sort of "happened"?
Emery: Yeah, in a lot of ways, it just "happened." When we came together, there was a lot of music that was just "in the air" that was of an exploratory nature that people were doing at that time. That was the common thing, at least in New York, because there've been migrations of musicians, particularly from Chicago and St Louis, the AACM and the BAG (the Black Artists Group). They had come to New York and revitalized what was kind of a worn-out scene. And the energy and creativity that they brought to town spread all through everything. And it was "in the air," you know? If you were attuned to that, which we all were — I mean, we were all "into" that scene, we were listening to those musicians, we'd been influenced by what they were doing, as well as a lot of other musicians and influences — those were the most "current" ones, they were the seeds that took hold and resulted in this growth. And it's still going on.
Tafuri: How did you and John get together?
Lindberg: James and I had met at the Creative Music Studio in '75. I was there as a student for a semester, and James was teaching there sporadically. Now, I don't know for exactly what reason, but we ended up in some attic room just playing duos for hours and hours on end.
Emery: Well, you were playing like Roscoe Mitchell tunes and "Tutankamen" by Malachi Favors, and I was playing like Braxton stuff and Leroy Jenkins' music and improvising a lot, so I knew that this was somebody who was into what I was into.
Thomas: You had a common repertoire.
Tafuri: And a common, unusual language.
Lindberg: Yeah, it was a very unusual language…
Emery: …and even instrumentally.
Lindberg: Normally, it's like two guys come together and say "Alright, you know 'All Blues,' let's play that," but he was like "You know [?sp] 'Noneh', great, let's go upstairs on that and jam."
Emery: [Sings the line from [?] 'Noneh'.]
[Hearty laughter all around.]
Thomas: It's hard to imagine in today's musical climate.
Lindberg: Forget it!
Emery: But, back then, that was not so much of a stretch.
Lindberg: We just kind of took that for granted. I don't ever remember thinking, 'Oh, man, this is WAY out there, some guitar player.' I thought, 'Oh, sure…' That's what I came here for.
Emery: I actually thought that way, too. I had the idiocy… I'd been in New York for like a year and there was this big guitar study center that had formed. In fact, it was called "The Guitar Study Center." Paul Simon was teaching there a little bit. Big names, you know. I thought, 'Certainly, there're going to be a million people wanting to learn that avant garde guitar. I'm gonna call them up and say, 'Hey, I'm here, bring the students on already. I know it's going to be a major commitment of time on my part, but people are going to want to be learning this.''
Tafuri: I can see that first meeting. James gets out a piece of paper and starts drawing a diagram and says, "Hey, let's do this Braxton tune."
Emery: [Scribbling on a piece of paper] "Hey, you know this one?" [Laughs.]
Lindberg: Well, that was the funny thing, because cats actually did — not only James and I — but there were other poor people up at the Studio at the time, and that's what everybody was really into. It was amazing. Amazing!
Emery: But that music was popular then.
Lindberg: Well, much more than it is now.
Emery: It was!
Thomas: It was getting press, and they were selling records.
Emery: Hey, Braxton, in '76, he won the Record of the Year in Down Beat, musician of the year in Down Beat, probably won for a couple of instruments.
Emery: I mean, these guys were really making major inroads into the jazz "consciousness" — the audience's consciousness.
Thomas: And then?
Emery: Ppppffffublauw [making a sound like a large bomb going off]!
[Laughter all around.]
Lindberg: It took a while, but it all completely changed.
Tafuri: And was Billy [Bang] one of the guys who was there, too?
Lindberg: No, that's the second phase of the story. So, then…
Emery: That's the "street" side.
Lindberg: So, after that semester, well, James had an apartment in the city, and he went back there, and I went on the road with a group of players that were from the Studio, and we went down south or to the Midwest or something, and then I came back to New York — oh, I think it was the following summer after that fall semester. I looked James up, and I ended up staying for some period at this storefront on East 4th Street. And that's when, it seems like, we were doing that big hit at Montgomery's.
Emery: Big hit. But that was 3rd. Wasn't it right across from the theater?
Lindberg: No, that was 4th Street.
Tafuri: At "Montgomery's"?
Lindberg: At Ed Montgomery's; he had, like, a storefront, and we would just go at it in there for hours. Twelve hours a day. And people, you know, could walk by the street, and we were just in there across the plate glass window wailing. Different people would stop in and stuff. Then, one day, Billy came walkin' by, and he's lookin' in.
Emery: Who, by the way, I had met earlier.
Lindberg: You had met him earlier.
Emery: Studying with Leroy [Jenkins] a little bit. And I lived in the apartment over Leroy for twenty years.
Emery: So, I had met Bang in passing, but, anyway…
Lindberg: So, Billy's pressing his nose against the plate glass window, lookin' in, and he's goin', "Yeah." So, finally, he comes in and says, "Hey, can I get in on this?" "Yeah, let 'er rip!"
[Laughter all around.]
Thomas: And I imagine that's just what he did, too.
Emery: Yeah, we did.
Lindberg: We just started playing. We had this high-energy improvisation, then we all stopped after about fifteen or twenty minutes and were like, "Wow. What's one helluvah sound." You know, just those three instruments going at it. The sound. I'm not talking about repertoire or concept; just the sound. And we said, "We gotta do something with this." We had no conception of forming a string trio. I mean, if the guy had come in wailing on a dulcimer, he would've been in, because we'd've had the same experience.
Tafuri: Right, I gotcha. But it was a little bit of a "love at first 'sound.'"
Thomas: A very unique sound. I could have been — and I'm sure you had people coming by with trumpets and saxophones — but when you hear it with the violin…
Emery: It didn't mix. But that sound does. So, we had no intention beforehand of forming this. It happened naturally.
Tafuri: A really organic thing.
Lindberg: But then we really decided then — as far as I remember it — from that day, we said, "Hey, we gotta do something with this." And within a few months, we started doing concerts and came up with a name for the group.
Emery: John came up with the name.
Lindberg: And wasn't that a crafty thing?
[Hearty laughter all around.]
Lindberg: "What are we going to call it? Gee, [with a dopey voice] we're three string players livin' in New York; how 'bout 'The String Trio of New York'?" And they said, "Well, that's good enough for me."
[Hearty laughter all around.]
Tafuri: [To Emery] I thought you'd have that guy who named the guitar institute (or whatever it was) come up with the name.
Emery: The "Guitar Study Center"?
Tafuri: "Hey, he came up with a snappy one."
Lindberg: I guess it is a little bit of a generic name, but…
Thomas: Tell him about your first gig.
Tafuri: Go ahead.
Emery: The first gig I remember was at a theater…
Lindberg: [To Thomas:] Now for our guest interviewer…
Thomas: [In response] Sorry. [Laughs.]
Emery: …that was our first formal gig. But I think you're thinking of another gig. It was a private gig.
Lindberg: Well, the first time we performed we performed in front of a number of people, actually… Yeah, this is pretty good…
Tafuri: More than the passersby…
Emery: …than the passersby at the storefront…
Lindberg: Exactly. I had taken to playing in the street, at the time, with a baritone saxophonist, Pablo Calogero — you probably know him; he plays with all the Latin cats now — but we had a bass and baritone duo.
Lindberg: And we would go and play at different places. One day we got a brilliant idea; we thought, 'Why not play in front of Carnegie Hall? I mean, there's gotta be a lot of people who like music walkin' by Carnegie Hall …
[Laughter starts among others.]
Lindberg: … that would like what we do …
Lindberg: … and give us some money.' So we're out there, standing in front of Carnegie Hall playing, with our hat out, and we're doin' "alright," and this guy stops by and says, " Ah, you know, my brother is having a party tonight on Park Avenue, and what you guys are doing would be just perfect." And I said, "Well, can I bring other guys, you know, bring some more friends." And he said, "Yeah, bring whomever you want; that's great." Well, it turns out that guy was Brian Doyle Murray, Bill Murray's brother.
Tafuri: Yeah, and he does a lot of acting now.
Lindberg: Yeah, so he gave me the address. So, I called Billy and James up, 'cause we'd been doing all those [sessions], and I said, "Hey, I got us a gig. I'm playing at a party, and Pablo's gonna play, too." And we all got on the bus — I remember riding up on the bus — we get there, and we didn't know … [to Emery] did any of us know who Bill Murray was? None of us did?
Emery: They had just…
Tafuri: He was on Saturday Night Live.
Lindberg: They had just come on board.
Emery: Yeah, this was like in '77.
Lindberg: Yeah, and I'm sure [John] Belushi and people like Gilda Radner were there, but we didn't know any…
Emery: …we didn't know any of them. We probably didn't even have a TV.
Lindberg: Right, exactly, yeah. And he had a studio on Park Avenue and a bathtub full of beer (or something), and he flipped over a bed (or something) and made us a little stage. We were playing in different combinations, but then, at one point, Pablo said he'd had enough, then the three of us, we just wailed — like high energy, no-hold-barred blast for like an hour at this cocktail party. Just pourin' sweat…
Tafuri: Peelin' the paint.
[Laughter all around.]
Lindberg: Peelin' the paint. Like for an hour this is going on. Then we finally stopped from that, and people kinda clapped (and stuff), and Bill Murray came over and said, "Man, that's exactly what I was lookin' for for this party. Man, that was great! I couldn't've imagined it better."
[Hilarious laughter all around.]
Emery: And I remember running into him in the bathroom and thinking, 'This cat is a total loon. I mean, this cat is totally gone.' But he's exactly in real life as he is on stage: a total goofball. That's just not acting, when you see him.
Tafuri: That's a great story.
Emery: That's our first gig.
Lindberg: It was, because we got paid. He paid us.
Emery: That was our first gig.
Lindberg: Our first "professional engagement."
Thomas: I love that story.
Tafuri: Well, what I wanted to ask you about — which was why it was so interesting hearing how the band came together — is, because the compositions of the group, the writing of the group, is as important to fans of the String Trio as the sound of the group and the way that the instruments mesh, it sounds like you came together jamming, and you got the sound jamming, and it just sorta "happened" — but (and I don't even know how to ask this) when did the "need" for compositions come into play? When did writing get integrated in along with the sound?
Lindberg: That's probably when we got a record date, we probably figured, 'Man, we probably better have some tunes.'
Emery: No, we started creating works right away. We had material before we did our record. In fact, we had two records-worth of material when we made our first record.
Emery: We did, because we had recorded live at Moers, at the Moers Festival, and that's where we recorded our first batch of tunes. And the second batch was really for the first record that came out.
Lindberg: That was First String, and the stuff was really ready to go, actually.
Emery: So, that [composition] was important right away. But that is something that's developed over time. And that has been enabled by changes in the group.
Lindberg: I just don't remember, when we started, when we said, "Alright, we're going to do this." Who said, "Well, let's start bringing tunes in."
Emery: Because we already had tunes.
Lindberg: We had tunes when we started bringing in for the group.
Tafuri: And Billy had tunes, too?
Lindberg: He had some.
Emery: But the compositions we've brought in have always been dependent on the level of performance that we could muster. So, in the early group, that's a lot more about improvisation. What we could do in terms of composition was a little more restricted than what became possible as the group developed and changed over time.
Tafuri: Now, adding Rob to the group, what has become possible now? What has his addition done for the composition and writing capabilities? How would you characterize Rob's contribution to the group or how Rob changed the group?
Well, we may have different views on this, but it's been really
interesting, because each player has brought in a different set of
dynamics that weren't there before. Or things that were there
before could no longer be done.
Tafuri: But with that "chamber sensibility" also comes the (I won't say "openness" but) "aptitude" or "awareness" to other members of the group that makes for nice improvisation, for nice interaction.
Lindberg: Exactly. I think the
group really grew as a "collective chamber unit" in her period,
and I think her strength wasn't playing jazz "stuff" that had a
lot of changes (or anything). She could do that, but that really
wasn't her forte. As James said, we've always tried to focus
on what the forte of each player is.
Emery: Rob has the ability to do all the written music that we have and to do it really well, but, what I like, is that his improvising vocabulary is unlimited, it's not restricted, at least to a degree that we've never had before. And chops are way up there. So, we can go. He's taking us into another direction, you know, like every violinist we've had. But there are a lot of real strengths here.
Tafuri: But definitely there are times on this recording where he cuts loose along with everybody else.
Tafuri: Some exciting, exciting moments on this recording. Right from the outset.
Thomas: From the "git go."
Emery: Well, he knows what that's all about, you know, to "cut loose." And you don't just "cut loose."
Emery: You don't just wake up in the morning one day and say, "I'm cuttin' loose."
Emery: You have to develop that. You have to work on that and study how to do that, you know? And that's important to him. That is part of the joy of improvising: to just "boom," you're out there just lettin' it go. [Rob] has all the tools to back that up, to enable that to let go and let it go well. That's not always been a priority with some of our more recent players, but it is with Rob. So, in a lot of ways, it's like returning to our roots again, but with advanced knowledge and skill that wasn't always necessarily there. It's been a growth process, and it's just great. I mean, what's better than that? It's like something that's started down here [showing his hand low to the ground] and continued to grow.
Lindberg: And, right now, we're focusing on what every violinist has done, but obviously James and I have been through a number of periods. What we're doing instrumentally. We're playing certain areas of music that are better or worse and others at different times, and that comes into play, too — our own graph of growth.
Thomas: And life experience.
Thomas: You know, that's reflected in the music.
Lindberg: Because, you know, listen to some of those old records sometimes and, just listening myself, I say, "Damn! I could never play anything like that. That was unbelievable!" On some high-energy improvisation, just creativity. I was like, 'Man!' But then I know there're things I can play that I couldn't, wouldn't, couldn't even conceive of then.
Thomas: Yeah, there're things you can think of now that you couldn't then.
Lindberg: Right, right. But just on some cuttin' loose and some freedom and just "goin' for it," I was like, 'Wow, I don't know if I have it in me anymore to go that far.'
Tafuri: What was it like, then, for you, Rob, to come into this group that you had admired and aspired to be part of, to know that you had two guys who'd been playing together for 25 years? I mean, obviously… Well, I'll be quiet.
Thomas: No, go on.
Tafuri: I wonder how much it takes to "cutting loose" and asserting yourself and trying to be part of the mix or get into trio when there's been such a consistency to the duo. I think even if you're a great player, coming into a group two-thirds of which has been together for 25 years could be pretty intimidating.
Thomas: Well, yeah, it was a tremendous challenge. I'd had the experience of playing with these guys before I was actually in the group. I'd filled in when they were between Regina and Diane. That was my initial introduction to it.
Tafuri: So that was four or five years ago?
Thomas: Yeah, I guess it was in '96. I mean, it was no great stretch as far as conceptually what I was doing at the time and what I felt like was the kind of music that I wanted to be involved in. It was challenging, but it was in a "bag" that I was used to, as far as cutting loose. The difference was that no one had really let me cut loose for that long … in a sitting.
[Laughter all around.]
Thomas: The group I was playing with, the Jazz Passengers, is a six-piece group, and there's limited space for people to play. This opened up just a whole other world — to be part of a small group, like that. Anyway, I did get a taste of it back in '96. When the opening occurred last year, I felt like I knew what I was getting into, so I felt like I was ready. Any intimidation was lessened by the fact that I had been just subbing before; it smoothed the way that I was just covering a few gigs, you know, and that I hadn't been asked to join the band. I felt like I had stepped up pretty well at that point, and after that then they knew what I could do.
Tafuri: That's a nice situation to be in.
Thomas: It was actually kinda cool.
Tafuri: It's like a "test drive."
Lindberg: A "test drive" is right.
Thomas: Last year, when they knew they needed a new violinist, rather than having to audition and then having to make a decision on me based on playing with them for an hour, the way it happened was kind of perfect.
Tafuri: OK. So, one of the things you mentioned earlier about this live recording over your first live recording was that a lot more preparation went into it. I guess I'm allowed to be partial to the record, but I feel like it's a great record for you guys.
Emery: I think so, too.
Tafuri: I think it all fits together, though it's very diverse. What kind of thought processes went into putting the repertoire together?
Lindberg: One of the things that's great about this record, that's not often the case in this business… (You know, you often record stuff that that's the first time it's being played … in the studio, or maybe you did a few gigs; that's just the way it kind of goes: you got new material, so then there's a record.) Because we haven't recorded since '98 or whenever it was (I don't know, a few years), we had these pieces come in — Nature, Time, and Patience and James' suite and the Dave [Douglas] suite — that we've been playing for years in public. Different sections, different settings, different repertoire. So, it wasn't at a level of preparing the repertoire; it was done at a much more highly developed place.
Thomas: I beg your pardon.
Lindberg: A lot of the kinks and things had been worked out, so the music itself was really ready to go. It didn't just "come together" for a recording, which is often the case, and then you go and play it for years.
Tafuri: And then you refine it.
Lindberg: Yeah, in my experience, that's the way it happens, and that's 90% of the time. So this is actually the opposite.
Thomas: Well, except for me, because I played a few gigs and then we went and recorded it.
Lindberg: Yeah, you didn't have as many opportunities.
Tafuri: But, in a way, that probably brought into the group a freshness for the stuff that you had been playing for some time.
Lindberg: Yeah, right. So there was a combination there.
Tafuri: I know we did this over several nights of live recording, but your idea was to include things that were part of the current repertoire or had been part of the repertoire that hadn't been recorded, and that's kind of how you went into it.
Emery: Exactly. That's how we intended to make this record and document this new material.
Tafuri: One of the things you've been involved with — and it's documented in this record — is commissioning works. That's quite a way away from those storefront sessions. To actually work in the area where you're working, the arts world, you're each, as composers, getting commissions yourselves and getting grants and getting funding. How did this three-part suite by Dave Douglas come about?
Emery: That was commissioned with funding from Chamber Music America, which is a very active organization that seeks to promote chamber music, regardless of the genre. And this is something that I think is in the forefront in America. In Europe, I don't experience the chamber world or the classical world going outside the boundaries as fluidly as it's happening here. And Chamber Music America has really been a big help to this group for over ten years now. They've really been behind us in helping us, giving us grants for touring and for commissioning, and giving us gigs. Not many gigs, but enough. Also giving us exposure to their core group, which are classical people. They've been a big help to us; they really have.
Tafuri: So you applied for a grant to get money to use for commissioning.
Emery: Yes, that's exactly it, and to commission Dave, in particular.
Tafuri: That was actually part of the grant?
Emery: That was the grant.
Lindberg: We wanted to commission Dave Douglas to write an extended piece for the String Trio, and they said, "Yes; must have it."
Tafuri: And then Dave was free to write whatever he wanted to write.
Emery: Of course, yes.
Lindberg: Except that if we didn't like it, we could break his arm…
[Laughs all around.]
Lindberg: …and get have the money back.
Emery: They don't only give money to an organization for commissioning. They also will give some money to the performing group, as well, which is where they differ from other commissioning organizations. They'll give you some money for rehearsing the piece and getting it into shape. Then they'll also give you the opportunity to perform it at their conference in New York City every January, so you're able to perform the piece for a big crowd, a select crowd, from all over the nation of presenters, management, musicians, and so forth. They helped us get management, also.
Tafuri: Oh, that's cool.
Emery: That was very helpful.
Lindberg: That's how we found Baylin, playing at one of [CMA's] showcases.
Tafuri: Well, I love the fact that not only do we have Dave Douglas' suite on here, but we have another suite on here, as well — Nature, Time, and Patience. Where did that come from?
Lindberg: The title?
Tafuri: Yeah, what was the impetus behind that?
Lindberg: Those are just three things that I think are really important in life … to me: to be in tune with nature, to feel where you are in the context of time, and to have patience. That's where the title came from, though those particular names don't refer too much to the particular movements. Like the "Patience" movement is kind of herky-jerky, and the "Time" section is kind of "flowy," and the "Nature" section is … ah, you know … it wasn't like I was trying to make a musical depiction of nature, time, and patience. But they're just three things that, in a general life sense, that I think about a lot.
Tafuri: Did you construct the "Nature" movement so that it went into that kind of "deep south," rural groove? There's a little section at the beginning. I don't know what to call it. Rob called it "swamp" in the ride over here.
Thomas: I love it, man!
Lindberg: What section do you mean?
Thomas: When we first start improvising. [He sings the theme.]
Tafuri: I mean, it's real down-home, backwoods.
Thomas: I never got that vibe from it until we listened to it on playback.
Lindberg: No, it's like a bluesy thing.
Thomas: It's much more bluesy than I remember it when we were playing it or rehearsing it.
Lindberg: Yeah, so maybe the more we played it, the more that kind of bluesy feeling came out of it. See, but that's what I love about writing this kind of music — and I mean this kind of music: it's so malleable and open to being changed and developed by the players. Over the amount of time you play it, it does really change. The original "flavor" is there, but somebody or some group-of-bodys have taken it to some place and emphasized something that might have just seemed a minor gesture to you [the composer], and it becomes this whole kind of a "thing" that's major in the piece. I'm very open to that sort of thing. I don't like to try to "micromanage" what's going to happen in a piece … not when you're writing for improvisers and not when your writing for particular improvisers. I didn't get to do that really for this piece, because Diane was the violinist, but I really generally try to write not for violin, bass, and guitar, but for the personalities. So, it changed some when Rob started to play it, and I was very open to how that could happen. That "Time" section, the 3/4 thing — that was a much more reflective mood piece. That's what I originally wanted there when Diane was playing with us. We started playing it with Rob, and he started "tearing up" these changes which were pretty simple, but he started taking it in a direction of really expounding on them like a structure of chord changes to really get into an exchange with the bass. I really liked going with that, but that wasn't something I had intended when I wrote that section. But I was more than happy to let it develop into that.
Thomas: The composition provides a framework that's fleshed out by the personalities.
Tafuri: I think that's what's been one of the hallmarks of this group, in particular. I mean, the group's small enough to have that flexibility, and you know each other well enough that you can really write that kind of music.
Thomas: The funny thing about the framework concept is that I was playing this for a classical violinist friend of mine. I was playing, well, I forget what it was, but I think it might have been Nature, Time, and Patience, and he wanted to know, 'Where does the writing stop and the improvising begin?' It's almost like you want to distribute a copy of what we were reading from along with the record so people can see what "instructions" we had. Sometimes we're not playing off a chord sheet or anything written; it's more about the "instructions" and shapes that are indicated.
Tafuri: Well, I certainly would love to see the scores to see what the hell is happening spontaneously.
Lindberg: Actually, it's an
impossible answer, too. On some pieces, it's easier to answer
that question than on others. On Nature, Time, Patience, for
example, there're all these sections in there where there are some
people improvising and other people are playing written parts or some
interpretation of a written part, not exactly the way it was
written. So, it's all an amalgamation.
Tafuri: Well, you know, it's funny, but it's definitely what I look for for the label. When we say "adventurous and listenable," that's what we mean. That there's structure and there's not structure. That the thing sounds organic. It isn't "free" — I mean, free, just going anywhere — but that there is some sense to it and some direction and some movement forward or whatever. But it doesn't sound necessarily notated, but somewhere in the middle. I was just saying to Rob on the way over here today that this album is sort of epitomizes what I talk about when we say "adventurous and listenable." I think there are a lot of elements in this recording so that even people who don't even listen to adventurous music will get "into" it. They'll identify with it. They'll hook into it. And then, who knows, accidentally or "by the way" it may expand their ears a little bit.
Lindberg: "Adventurous" is a good word. I like it because, if you think what it is to go on an adventure, it's generally traveling. You're going on a trip. You're going to a play that's either new or, at least, it's exciting…
Thomas: …where you will experience something unexpected.
Lindberg: Yeah, let's having an adventure, you know?
Tafuri: And it's something, by the very nature of traveling, you're buying into.
Lindberg: Yeah, exactly. You wanna go on the adventure.
Emery: Well, you have to take part in it. It's not like watching TV where you just sit there, and everything's done for you. You have to…
Emery: …stake a claim. You have to engage. You have to work.
Lindberg: And that's a hard thing because, in this day and age of TV and MTV, people just don't want that. They think music's just supposed to be an "end product" that serves them.
Emery: And a lot of that music is like that; you don't have to meet it halfway. It's all done for you.
Tafuri: You don't have to meet it any of the way; you just sit there.
Lindberg: There it is: it doesn't evolve.
Emery: But if that's the effort that's required [by that music], that's what gonna come back. Very little is asked for, and very little is delivered.
Tafuri: What about "Upstart"? It's a great way to start the album. Like I said before, I love the way the album starts because, if one didn't know what the instrumentation is, one would be hard pressed to guess it.
Lindberg: I'd like to see them throw that on a blindfold test to somebody like Kenny Burrell. Say, "Alright, who's this?"
Emery: Well, I didn't write it necessarily as an opener, but I think it functions well in that role. To me, it's just a "fun," melodic, up-tempo, swinging kind of vehicle.
Thomas: A "romp."
Emery: A romp that has little unexpected twists and turns. There are deceptive cadences in there where the ear expects one thing but doesn't always get it.
Tafuri: As you saw in the studio as certain producers were trying to sing along…
[Laughter all around.]
Emery: Yeah, exactly.
Tafuri: And it just pleased you to no end every time [I didn't get it right].
Emery: Well, that's apart from the harmonic cadence being deceptive. That's a rhythmic deception; the ear expects on thing, and something else happens. That was all by intention. I wrote it that way.
Thomas: A lot of bobbin' and weavin' goin' on.
Emery: Bobbin' and weavin'. And I constructed the improvisation also. The listener may not be aware of it, but the structure of the improvisation is formalized to a degree.
Thomas: You're talking about your solo on it?
Emery: No, the three different "situations" which all of us have. [To Frank] Have you caught that yet?
Tafuri: Yeah, actually. But I thought something else. This was what we were talking about: where does the composition end and the improvisation begin or vice versa.
Emery: It doesn't. It's all interwoven.
Tafuri: Listening to it, I thought that was something that happened as a result of playing it.
Emery: Well that's good! That's the idea.
Tafuri: That's what I got.
Emery: That's good, but that wasn't the case.
Lindberg: That what happened? I didn't understand.
Emery: That it was improvised. That it was all improvised.
Lindberg: The whole tune?
Tafuri: No, no. That the improv sections took on their form as a result of playing the same improv section more than once, but that there wasn't more information.
Emery: But there is more information in there. Three distinct sections.
Thomas: That information may be delivered in terms of written instructions or verbal instructions…
Emery: …or both. But they're laid out beforehand.
Thomas: And they're definitely part of the composition even though they're not notes on paper.
Tafuri: And it can change from performance to performance?
Thomas: Not in that case.
Emery: Well, yeah, it can.
Thomas: Well now, what do you mean by "changes"? The sequence of events can change.
Lindberg: Like if we've decided, 'Let's not do it that way tonight.' What Rob's saying is when we developed that tune, leading up to the recording, we did do it the same way every time. But it wouldn't have to be that way.
Emery: It wouldn't have to. That's right.
Lindberg: And that, often times, is what's happened to our pieces over the years, and that's why it's sometimes very frustrating to listen to the old things which were recorded after one playing. Then, fifteen years later, we've made them into these "magnum opuses" with intros and all kinds of stuff. Just because some night some cat played an intro, and then we said, "Hey, that sounded really good; now that you've played an intro to the one you thought we were gonna play, that actually sounds good."
Emery: And then it became part of the thing, you know.
Tafuri: Like Dizzy's [Gillespie] intro to "I Can't Get Started" that everyone then played.
Thomas: Yeah, it's like living repertoire.
Tafuri: That's the aural component,
definitely. That's the thread back to the roots of music,
Emery: Boy, that just came from the same place all these other pieces came from. It's in there somewhere.
Tafuri: But why "Offspring," then?
Emery: I think it's a great name, and I love kids and I love my kids particularly, but I love all children. It's kind of an unlikely name for a child, you know, for children. Isn't it "Off-spring"? I think of it more like maybe a combination of "Off Minor" and "Joy Spring."
[Hearty laughter all around.]
Thomas: Ah, now I know what you mean…
Tafuri: See, he played it "off" a little bit to begin with…
Emery: Yeah, it's a little bit "off" and it's go this "spring" to it, definitely. In terms of the tempo, it's very brisk. To me, it's more about possible connotations for that title — more than like a dedication to children. You know? It's just an interesting word, basically.
Tafuri: I've found it's often interesting to know how people come up with titles, because there're a handful of albums that I have that have "Track 1," "Track 2," "Track 3," "Track 4" for their titles — that's what they say.
Thomas: They have no titling.
Tafuri: They have no titles. You've probably seen that occasionally. Or Braxton's things. I'm sure he could explain to us (or maybe not) where some of those things come from. You know, where does this diagram come from and … whatever. But, in some ways, you see what some artists do, they say, "You gotta give it a title, so people can talk about it." So, it's interesting.
Thomas: Like that stuff you were talking about the other night, "Jimmy Jizzbo" or whatever.
[Wild laughter all around.]
Thomas: Yeah, that's really lame.
Tafuri: But, it's interesting, because generally there is some motivation behind it. There's something … I think.
Thomas: Well, sometimes you just scramble to put a title on something, you know. Then it becomes very arbitrary. Then, sometimes, there's a reason for it.
Emery: Generally, that's the last thing I do.
Tafuri: You never start with a title.
Emery: Nah. I never do that. The music determines the title for me. I'll title it after I'm done with it and look at it then. To me, the music comes first.
Tafuri: Cool. So, is there anything else about the album you'd like to talk about?
Emery: Yes, there is something I'd
like to talk about.
Tafuri: I'm glad you mentioned that, because that was something that was very special to me about this album. I've been listening to the String Trio for a lot of years. In fact, when I was still living in Cincinnati, you [to Emery] called me in Cincinnati and talked to me about trying to get a gig…
Emery: Sure did.
Tafuri: …and I just never happened. But I played your records on radio for years. And it was only a few years ago that I got to hear you the first time live.
Emery: Was that in '97?
Tafuri: Yeah, it was in '97 at Lincoln
Center. It was that Sunday morning concert. And part of it
might have been just that it was my first time to hear you guys live,
which was exciting. Or part of it might have been the crowd that
was there, which was a pretty interesting crowd that was really into
it. I think a lot of people there were pleasantly surprised;
they got a little sparkle out of that. But I also think that
when I heard you guys — and now I've heard you a couple times
since then — there really is something when you play live. And
we don't hear on this recording all the patter in between — the
explanations or the little aside comments — but there really is an
interaction with the audience that definitely comes through. And
I feel like we really have captured it, so that makes it an exciting,
Lindberg: So it's got a lot of new stuff there, but it's all performed with a lot of time and development behind it.
Tafuri: So, a lot of what's behind it is "experiential." It comes from, what I like to call, an "enteric" place; it comes from the gut — a lot of it.
Emery: It's really true.
Emery: That connects to another part of the group that's really documented well on this live recording that doesn't always come through so much in the studio realm, which is that really visceral, "gut" thing that we do. Just "goin' for it."
Tafuri: That definitely comes through. That's what makes it exciting. I was there, and I find myself listening to this recording and going, 'Wait. And they did this live!" There're no overdubs, there's no "this" and there's no "that." This is purely what happens.
Emery: It's "what it is."
Tafuri: And that makes it even that much more exciting.
Lindberg: It really is, when you compare it to what's coming out in the pop music world. Spending months in the studio with all these overdubs, then they come out with something that has a fraction of the complexity and depth of what that record has … which was done, like you said, completely live. It's kind of ridiculous — the difference in process.
Tafuri: Well, it's going to be interesting to see what the reaction to this record is, because I've played this for people who I know are pretty conservative in what they listen to. If they listen to jazz, it's pretty straight-ahead. And I've been really pleasantly surprised at the reaction to this of people who are like, "Oh, man, we can't wait until that comes out; we want a copy of that."
Emery: Yeah, why not? I mean, there's something in there for those people.
Tafuri: It was like the reaction when we [OmniTone] put out the McNeely Tentet record. The Tentet performed live at IAJE, basically playing what was on the record with all the musicians on the record, and there were all these "moldy figs" in there listening who came out, and I sold records to all these cats. I would never, ever thought that some of these guys who were buying records would have bought them.
Thomas: That's great.
Tafuri: I mean, you guys have been trying to expand what you're doing with some of your different programs. Like that "Human Residency" or your work with Joe Lovano.
Emery: That's a "human residency," where we go into classrooms (or whatever situation) and talk about connections between our music and philosophy or art or dance and so forth. The thing with Lovano — he wrote us a piece that we commissioned from him, by the way, called "Myths and Legends."
Lindberg: Also something we haven't recorded, Frank. [Laughs.]
Tafuri: [Also laughing.] One day at a time.
Thomas: It's long, too, man. I think it's one whole record. I think we just stretch on it, man, we could get it up to 50 minutes.
[Laughter all around.]
Emery: I think another thing this group has done is to create a repertoire for itself, where none existed really in a kind of "formal" sense before. There was Rob's group and there were other formations like the String Trio, but playing the "standard" repertoire. [To Rob] You probably did like Joe Henderson tunes. But we really felt the need to create a repertoire.
Thomas: We did originals, too.
Emery: Did you?
Thomas: Yeah, but it was more of a standard type…
Emery: …lead sheet approach.
Thomas: Glen Moore music can be pretty, you know, "not dissimilar" in form to what we play.
Emery: So, anyway, we created this repertoire over the years for this instrumentation. And we've also been active in commissioning composers, and not that many jazz groups are doing that sort of thing.
Tafuri: Well, it's distinctive, that's for sure.
Emery: And I feel another thing that's important for the jazz world is to encourage the growth and the flowering of groups. We have so many groups where it's basically a leader and sidemen.
Emery: We need more groups.
Tafuri: More ensembles.
Thomas: You can count 'em on one hand.
Emery: I know. It's really a shame. That's, to me, one of the big ways where classical music has something really "happening" that just doesn't.
Tafuri: With string quartets and trios and things like that that have been together for years and years.
Emery: Yeah. Right. And there're hundreds of those groups.
Lindberg: And it's gotten worse in jazz.
Lindberg: You always had a few, you know, the Art Ensemble [of Chicago], Air, and the MJQ — there were a few, but now it's all just these "leader groups," and they don't even keep the same sidemen.
Emery: It's hard to do that.
Thomas: Even when you did have a leader group with the same sidemen for ten years, they were like an "obscure" group, someone who's not a big name, but they've had this great group together for years, and suddenly they're going to talk to some big promoter in Europe who asks, "Hey, who y' got in your band?" And it's like, "Oh, Joe Blow … who I've been playing with for ten years." "Well, forget Joe Blow."
Lindberg: Yeah, "Get Gary Peacock and Paul Motian."
Thomas: Yeah, "Forget about it."
Tafuri: And that's what's been happening on major-label recordings for years and years and years.
Lindberg: That's right. It just kills the whole idea of "groups" and long-term musical relationships.
Tafuri: Speaking of which, have there been any other groups that you know of that have been inspired to form with the instrumentation of the String Trio or to play your music?
Lindberg: There was a group in New Orleans that did that for a while.
Emery: And there was one in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Thomas: That was playing String Trio music?
Emery: But they didn't last very long. But the point is now there's music for violin, guitar, and bass, that people in the future and pick up … if they want to, if they're not interested in composing by themselves. If they want to look at what else is out there, there's music there now. And not just by us, either; by these composers who we've commissioned to write. So think there's room for growth there in the jazz world, and it would serve everyone really well… But then you have to get the people in the jazz world behind that kind of idea, because everybody seems to be fine with "business as usual."
Tafuri: You're talking about artists.
Emery: No, like business people, too.
Lindberg: Who's complaining about, 'Oh, there's not enough regular groups anymore'? You never hear anybody wining. Only musicians.
Emery: Yeah? But people don't see that as being a problem. So they're saying that the status quo is OK. Like this guy, Don Braden, who you were mentioning to me earlier. Chamber Music America brought him in to give a seminar on jazz, and he said, "Now here's the way every jazz piece has gotta go. First there's an intro by the piano player…"
Tafuri: Oh, geez, here we go.
Emery: "…then you gotta play the head. And then the horn player solos. Then the piano player solos. Then maybe the bass player and drummer solo."
Tafuri: "And then you trade fours."
Emery: "And then you trade fours, and then you gotta play the head-out."
Thomas: He didn't really say that's how it's gotta go, did he?
Lindberg: Oh, yeah, that's the way he presented it. "This is how it's done."
Emery: "This is how you do it."
Thomas: But that was for people who had no idea of when the composition stops and when the improvisation begins.
Emery: But you would want to say maybe, "This was the way it was done."
Lindberg: "This is one of the more common ways it can be done."
Emery: Not, "This is the way it is done."
Lindberg: Yeah, it was unbelievable.
Tafuri: And then you had the rebuttal?
Lindberg: No, I was just sitting there watching him.
Emery: Probably in shock.
[Laughter all around.]
Tafuri: You were probably sitting there thinking, "Ah, now I know what I've been doing wrong after 30 years. That's what I've been doing wrong all these years."
Tafuri: "Yeah, how come I never do it that way? If only I knew this 30 years ago."
Thomas: "Oh, Mr Braden…?"
Tafuri: "Excuse me, Mr Braden. Hi, I'm a member of the String Trio of New York, and often people come up to us and say, 'Well, gee, we don't know where the composition ends and the improvisation begins,' so thank you for clarifying that."
[More hearty laughter.]
Tafuri: "Now they'll be able to figure it out."
[More hearty laughter.]
Emery: That would've been good.
Lindberg: It was unbelievable.
Thomas: I'll go home and fix up some of those compositions right now.