Interview with MOB Trio about their release Loose (OmniTone 15004)
by Frank Tafuri
Frank: What I like about the Gabritchevsky for the cover is that there's form and looseness to it, which is like the album.
Matt: It's a great picture, man.
Frank: You know that what we put out on OmniTone is what we like to call "adventurous and listenable jazz" that can be translated into the sort of freedom and structure on the painting. How did the idea for M.O.B. Trio come about?
Bob: We did a jam session once, I think at Matt's house. I was trying to remember when that was, exactly, but I can't. I think it was spring of '98?
Ohad: Yeah, something like that.
Matt: Was Audrey born? Did we start before Audrey was born? How I met you was that gig at the Cigar Bar.
Bob: Yeah, Merchant's.
Matt: Merchant's. I remember, I had a martini. I think you talked about Ohad, then you brought him out.
Bob: Right. I think it might have been spring of '98. We played in Matt's basement, and shit just clicked right off the bat.
Ohad: It actually was before that, because I remember talking with Matt about going on the road with the Septet, and that was before I went, so that's before '98.
Matt: Yeah, it was '97, because Audrey wasn't born yet. Audrey was born in February '98.
Ohad: So yeah, it was a year before that...
Bob: Maybe it was fall '97.
Frank: So you just walked in off the street? Like they had a sign up on his basement? [laughter]
Bob: I met him at Manhattan School of Music. In our trials out there.
Frank: In learning to be "legitimate" musicians.
Bob: Becoming masters.
Ohad: And we miserably failed.
Matt: And we didn't do anything else after that session before we started doing this stuff. Did we do another gig together with somebody else?
Bob: That was the first time we played together
Ohad: Then we talked about playing together and doing some other stuff. We called Matt and went to his old place and played in the basement when it was not flooded.
Matt: Yeah, and it was cool.
Frank: One of the things I really like about the record is that you have all these compositions which, like we were talking about with the painting, have structure and form to them, it seems like — I haven't seen the written music — and yet there's a lot of room for improvisation. How much did the compositions grow out of your playing together?
Ohad: As far as I'm concerned, the stuff I wrote I wrote specifically for the band.
Bob: I did, too, although in the beginning I used some compositions I had written before. But they became M.O.B.ized.
Frank: In what way? What M.O.B.izes them?
Bob: Well, I think we have an approach to playing — the three of us — is idiosyncratic to what we do and is compositional, in a way. No matter what we're reading, there's a certain way of interpreting the music that comes from the three of us playing together.
Frank: So when you say the composition was M.O.B.ized, you mean the interpretation if it as opposed to the actual written composition itself?
Bob: I mean, the stuff I wrote for this group, I had in mind the way we play. So, I was sort of writing a vehicle with ideas for the group, but the group has a certain approach that makes us sound like a band, no matter what composition we're playing. Between the three of us, there's pretty diverse style in the way we approach music, but it still sounds like a band.
Ohad: There are three composers. The three of us compose, and that comes out when we play. When we get out of the written parts into the playing parts, you hear composers thinking. That switch is always there — whether it's turned on or off — it's there. Either people turn the switch for the composer mind on or not, and I think that's what's great; there's a combination of the two when we play. It dives in and out of that thing. It can go completely left with screams — like the night you came in to hear us — or...
Bob: Yeah, I think what he said is really hitting the nail on the head. The three of us are composers.
Bob: And we function like that as musicians when we're playing together.
Matt: I'd say, too, for me what's really made it cool is — and this is a good way to think about it and about bands in general — is that we really hadn't played any gigs where we really had to care all that much.
Frank: About what?
Matt: I mean, about just ... whatever. You play the AlterKnit or you play... I mean, I think we've all matured in that way — I know I have personally — where you go in with less of an agenda, you know, like 'we have to accomplish this' because this is a gig. I think that's a danger point sometimes; the great thing about having a band is you play, the danger point is you start getting into that mindset. So, I think it's been pretty careless ... but in a cool way. That's what was great about the recording: we knew the music. I said "Wow! It's time for us to go in because we know this music just enough to be dangerous." But not too well. So it'll be interesting to see where it goes after we tour, because then it takes onto another meaning. I think it's pretty cool to have (I forget how I describe it one night) the "Tightest Untight Band" or something. I think it has a lot to do about being carefree about it. I think that's the mark of people just walking in and standing there naked and not worrying about it. And that's a real thing to get over: you can't walk away from a gig like 'We failed' or 'We succeeded"; you just have to walk away going "We played." And I think that's why I'm so excited about the record. We went about it in that way, too — not worrying about the headphones, not worrying about this or that — just going in there playing. The music, to me, takes on another total dimension. For me that's interesting, having been in a lot of bands and now band that have been together for a while, to see the evolution or the evolution and a little bit of deevolution and evolution again — of how the process works.
Frank: When you all decided to go out and work as a band — I mean, it's one thing to jam in an unflooded basement and another thing to go out and start playing as a band — you never had any other intent to expand the band? All along it was just the three of you?
Matt: Yeah, I think so.
Frank: Because one of the interesting things for me — and we've heard it in groups since the beginning of this music — is that you don't have a chordal instrument in this band, which opens things up in a lot of ways.
Bob: There are certain tendencies in some of us as composers that make this trio work. I tend to think contrapuntally, and I know Ohad likes to write contrapuntally, so most of our harmony is implied between what's going on, and there's a certain freedom to that.
Frank: Right, because there's a linearity to it as opposed to —
Bob: — so there's a definite structure, but within the structure, there's a lot of breathing room.
Frank: Something you said, Ohad, which I thought was interesting, and it's sort of related to what Bob was saying — you said you've written all of your compositions (or most of them) for the group. What kinds of things do you think about if you're gonna write for the group?
Ohad: Well, that's simple. They're the baddest motherfuckers New York has to offer. You can write the most difficult shit, and they'll play it. (Laughter all around.) That's basically it.
Frank: So that's it.
Matt: Or play it, at least, some of the time...
Frank: Every other note...
Ohad: As far as I'm concerned, it starts with the aural imagination — the sound — that they all get. They have such a specific sound. Bob is not limited to four strings — he had to play five — and he's got that big, fat sound, and Matt's got that beautiful, dark sound on the drums. And that combination creates...
Frank: It makes a lot of space, too, when you're talking about light and dark like that. There's a lot of room in between for, maybe, ah, a tenor saxophone or something like that.
Matt: I heard this interview the other day. It was a profile on [vocalist] Sheila Jordan — some of it must have been an old interview, because they're talking to [bassist] Harvie [Swartz] about the duo [with Sheila Jordan] — and Harvey said the third member of the duo was space.
Matt: And I thought that was really cool because I think we play sometimes like "Jimmy the Piano Player" just isn't there. It doesn't like we're trying to accommodate for it [his not being there], it just sounds like it just isn't there. The space thing is a great idea. I mean, I play in a lot of bands where there's no comping instrument, but this one has a unique approach to it. I think it's cool because it's more for the music and not caring about whether it was going to be a "thing" or gettin' a record out. I mean, we just played, and when we did those gigs, it was just cool.
Ohad: I think the whole process with the band is like that. It's exactly what Matt says. It's never been an agenda doing this, doing that, you gotta have two sets of 48 minutes with a blues and a ballad and a bossa nova in the middle —
Matt: — or a Bulgarian funeral whatever. I mean, I don't know, it's not like "OK." And I follow that in my own bands. It's a real thing to get away from it, like "I don't want this to happen." It's like walking it and having something just happen.
Frank: From the neck down.
Bob: I think part of the reason why we click is that we're able to play with abandon.
Frank: That definitely comes through, and you need a lot of space to do that, and you need sympathetic partners. Part of it is trust — to know you can move wherever you need to move and the others won't get in the way.
Bob: Or if someone plays something that's a mistake or not exactly what was written, it becomes an event that we respond to, rather than "Oh, he fucking missed a downbeat again."
(Laughter all around.)
Matt: That thought it probably going through there many times. (More laughter.) I mean, Ohad says his music is very, very challenging to read or whatever, but it's about how we play the composition and not about the composition. I think that's his approach. But I've learned a lot. To me, learning in this music is more about the relations than more about the actual physical aspects of playing. It's about "How can you keep it that way" or most of the time or whatever.
Bob: And here's the thing: when we play with that kind of abandon, the shit's miraculous; everything comes together, and something happens that none of us expected or could even dream of happening —
Frank: — which is exciting, which is what musician's live for —
Bob: — right. Maybe that happens on a good night, maybe that happens five percent of the time or ten percent of the time. The rest of the time, maybe, the shit's not quite as great, but because we're willing to make that whatever-you-want-to-call it, to take that chance —
Frank: — commitment.
Ohad: Funny, because at the rehearsal when we play (because mostly we talk) —
Frank: — You mean you guys can talk? I can't believe it. And on that note...
Ohad: As far as my tunes are concerned and everybody's tunes, you give the tune out and play.
Bob: There's not much "Oh, I'd like there" or "Oh, I want you to do this" ... usually. It just gets handed out. You don't have to say too much.
Ohad: "Yeah, what's the ide—" "Well, try to read it, and you'll see."
Frank: It's good when the tune itself contains that kind of encoding, when it has that integrity to it ... like a Monk composition or an Ornette thing. If one's attuned to that, it goes to the right place.
Ohad: See, that's a good point. The tune has to bring that aspect, but the tune has to have the resource in itself to bring the individual.
Frank: It has to be a true vehicle: to help carry.
Ohad: Right, and that's the idea of the band: to have the tune be a vehicle. Because what you want to hear is the person playing it; you don't want to hear an exercise of style. As far as I'm concerned, music is more the How than the What.
Frank: The process.
Ohad: Yes, that matters. So, instead of playing that scale or that specific style associated with that tune — that's pointless — "sterile" would even be the word.
Frank: So we're not gonna see the M.O.B. Trio-Jamie Aebersold play-a-long.
Ohad: Well, they tried for a long time, but we've resisted.
Matt: I'm actually very into the idea that we do a Play Along with various composers. I think that would be a good OmniTone record. Play along with Cuong. —
Ohad: That would be a great idea. —
Matt: Playing along with Equal Interest.
(Laughter all around.)
Frank: I could lay the piano parts in.
Matt: I think one of the cool things about the album is for me that the recording aspect of it was that we played these songs like we played them, even though we'd been playing them for a while, which is kinda like the cool thing, I mean, because there was no definitive version that we could ever recall, because the gigs have been spread out enough or whatever. I mean, that's been what's been kind of cool. Every time we get together, it seems like it's the first time, which is kind of cool. Again, maybe after we tour, we it'll change. Maybe it'll go to a different place.
Frank: Well, it's going to be interesting to see how you keep that, what I call, "first take freshness." And I say that because I just came out of the studio after two days. And when you put great musicians in the studio — who, maybe, individually have done their homework in maybe duos and trios, and now you've got a quintet in the studio all of a sudden in the studio playing — man, there're things about the second take that are tighter or the third take where they really got the head or they really got this [or that], but [clicks his fingers three times] that "thing" is gone, ya know?
Bob: The spontaneity.
Frank: Yeah. May we talk about the compositions a little bit? One of 'em I really get a kick out of is "Funk Assembly."
Matt: Bob Bowen...
Bob: Yeah, it's... [Long pause.]
Frank: All right.
(Laughter all around.)
Matt: And the transcription is "dot-dot-dot-dot."
Bob: I don't know what to say. I think part of the reason why I love playing with these guys and why they're so great is they're both wide open. We're not just talking about swing or Latin; we're talking about all sorts kinds of grooves and all sorts of kinds of feels and incorporating them and using the instruments that we have to be expressive in what ever kind of rhythmic feeling that we're talking about. I wrote that with that in mind. Just to have a new backbeat, you know, some kind of funky stuff happening.
Frank: Well, there's definitely from each of you — and if you look at your backgrounds — in addition to the linear thing and the color thing, there's definitely a rhythmic thing that's happening independently. It's kind of fun to listen to it bounce around and hit and deflect... There's a real thing going on.... There's a tune "S.A.D." — seasonal affective disorder, isn't it?
Matt: Is that a real disease?
Ohad: I think so.
Frank: Well, they claim that in the winter when you don't get enough light, you get depressed. They say take Vitamin D and sit under a "grow" lamp for twenty minutes a day.
Matt: Also doing that yoga breathing were you go "mmmm," and it buzzes that — no, it's for real — this gland you have that sunlight gets to (or something). It's supposed to help.
Frank: So, maybe in the next version of the tune, at a certain point you can all start going "mmmmm."
MOB: Mmmmm.... [Cackles all around.]
Matt: It's a really great thing to do; it's a really cheap buzz. I like it.
Ohad: It's cheaper than getting high.
Matt: It's my version.
Ohad: [Pause.] Nothin'. What about the tune?
Frank: I'm just curious about what the origin of it was?
Ohad: Aaammm. I don't remember how—
Frank: That's what I said, we don't have to talk about these. And some guys don't want to talk about—
Bob: — I think it's intriguing to talk about it.
Ohad: It's really a simple tune. It's a simple melody. It's based on four chords, and they just came out one day. It's one of the few tunes we actually play on the — maybe we didn't play on the —
Bob: — no, we did.
Matt: I did.
Frank: Someone had to interject some freedom in there.
Ohad: There were chords. Let's put it this way: there were chords involved, and ah... and ah... yeah!
Matt: Well, for me, the song is cool — and I told Ohad this just recently. I mean, I hear a lot of music and I get to play a lot of people's music, and I'm think — just every once in a while I'll be someplace (I think I was in Europe) — and, all of a sudden, that tune just came to my head.