Interview with Mick Rossi about One Block from Planet Earth (OmniTone)
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Mick Rossi geared up to bike Tafuri: Do you feel like you need to "do" music?  I've wanted to ask you this question for some time.

Rossi: That I need to do music...?

Tafuri: Yeah.  Like you have no choice.  You have to do music.

Rossi: That's true. I am compelled completely.  That's right.  I do feel that, but I don't feel like forced; it just happens.  I know it sounds corny, but I'm doing it for the music.  I had a conversation with somebody recently where they were trying to convince me that people are musicians, because they want to express themselves.  I'm not interested in expressing myself; I'm interested in pushing music ahead.  I am expressing myself that way, but I don't need to express myself to people. You understand?

Tafuri: Through your music ... you don't need to express yourself?

Rossi: The need to express myself is not the reason why I'm a musician.  The reason that I'm a musician is so that I can push the music past where it is now.  It's the only thing that I'm really interested in.  Of course, I'm interested it making it sound good.

Tafuri: So you're doing it because you have this "innovation" thing? You feel like you need to be a "groundbreaker" or a "pioneer?" It's like you have this "pioneer spirit?"

Rossi: I think I do have that.  I think we all do in this "creative field" that some of us find ourselves in.  The Frisells and those guys. I think they're not interested in expressing themselves, at least, that's what I'm going to believe.

Tafuri: Okay, but you said you do music because you want to move the music ahead.

Rossi: I do.  I want to change it somehow, though I'm not always exactly successful at it.  But that's my main reason: is to try to change music. That's the reason that a lot of the things that a do sometimes don't sound very good.

Tafuri: Is it an existentialist thing? Like, you want to leave your mark?

Rossi: Well, a little bit.  I don't want to leave a legacy like on some egotistical level.

Tafuri: But you want to leave your mark.

Rossi: Yeah.  I think anybody who writes music wants to put it out into the air somewhere.  And we've made records, right? How many records are we on of our own and of others that are now part of the "thing," in a way, so it's kind of cool.

Tafuri: When you were a kid, were you - and the word I'm going to use is too strong - forced to do music?

Rossi: You know, the weird part about that is that I was never forced, even though my dad was a musician and started me out when I was very young.

Tafuri: Because you wanted to do it?

Rossi: I just did it; it wasn't even like a question.  I wasn't forced, and I didn't hate it.  The weird thing is that I was spread so thin, though, playing a lot of music and also playing a lot of sports.  So, it was a really weird mix of stuff that I was into.

Tafuri: How did you start playing and what were you playing?

Rossi: I started playing when I was four.  My dad started me playing piano.

Tafuri: You had a piano in the house?

Rossi: Yeah.  I had two brothers that my dad also started on playing music. My dad was an accordionist.  He actually started them on accordion.  I'm glad he started me on piano, but I wish I had had some accordion, because I love the instrument.

Tafuri: Older brothers?

Rossi: My brothers eventually stopped, but I kept playing, and then I started studying the drums while continuing with piano and then oboe and then a bunch of things.  I had already started improvising, and I was just a kid.

Tafuri: So when you say your father "started you" on the piano...

Rossi: He started teaching me, and I studied with him until I was about twelve.

Tafuri: Did you go to him and say, "Dad I want to learn how to play the piano?"

Rossi: I don't remember that part.  I just remember that that's all I remember doing.

Tafuri: So, he picked up on something in you? I qualified what I said earlier by saying the word "forced" was too strong, but what I meant was: were you encouraged, was it strongly suggested, did someone come along and say, 'Hey, I think you should start playing the piano?' or something like that?

Rossi: I think, based on the fact that my two brothers had started in a similar manner, it was probably his idea to give all of us some sort of push, maybe.

Tafuri: And how old were you?

Rossi: I was four when I started.

Tafuri: Wow.

Rossi: You know, it's hard to believe, based on my playing these days.

[They both laugh.]

Rossi: No, it's funny, like 'God, don't you think you'd be playing better by now? Christ! 42 years.'

Tafuri: [Still laughing.] Stop!

Rossi: You know, the funny thing is my parents still talk about how I used to drive them crazy playing, because the piano was in the living room, because this was a case where they were trying to get me to stop.  [Laughs.] It wasn't like they were trying to force me to practice.  And, to be honest, I had a couple of unbelievable teachers in grammar school and in junior high school that.  If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have been given such a broad range of high culture in music.

Tafuri: Piano teachers?

Rossi: Piano teachers, yeah, and I had some drum teachers that were great overall teachers.  But, in general, these guys were amazing.  They'd take me to New York.  We played in the school orchestra. It's funny: I'm doing that now.  I'm doing the same thing now when I'm playing percussion on one thing and running over and playing piano on another thing and then...

Tafuri: With Philip [Glass], you mean?

Rossi: Yeah.  I'm doing that with Philip.  And the cool thing is there were a couple of us that he took under his wing.

Tafuri: Who is this you're talking about?

Rossi: Carl DiDonato, from Trenton.  This is a guy that, when we'd go to New York, the first thing we'd do is go to Little Italy and buy statues. We'd go to all the Italian stores, and then we'd go to a museum or go to Carnegie [Hall] or something.

Tafuri: Because you grew up in Trenton?

Rossi: I grew up in Trenton.  He grew up in the Italian section, and I was near the Italian section.

Tafuri: And he taught you what?

Rossi: Well, he really encouraged me.  Not only did he write.  He also arranged the music for the school orchestra, comprised of 80% misfits and a couple of "ringers." There were these Ukranian violinist kids who were amazing.  So, he had a few good people.  But he'd make this orchestra sound great.  I mean, we're talking about fifth and sixth graders, but he'd make it sound like a high school orchestra because of the way he would write for everybody's instrument.  Whatever instruments he had, he would write for them, and he'd make it all work.

Tafuri: He was like the high school equivalent of Ellington...

Rossi: Exactly.  Like Stravinsky.

Tafuri: ...who would write for his players.

Rossi: Totally.  Look at L'Histoire [du Soldat].  The reason why that instrumentation is so bizarre is because that's what he had around at the time.

Tafuri: So, when Carl brought you to New York, what kinds of things did you do? Did you hear classical music or what?

Rossi: Yeah.  But, as I said, the main reason was to buy all the Virgin Marys and all this crazy Christmas shit.

Tafuri: [Howls with laughter.]

Rossi: I'm not kidding.

Tafuri: [Still laughing.]

Rossi: He was such a total goombah.  Yeah, I thought you'd enjoy that.  You'd've loved him because, I mean, he was insane.  This guy was a Chopin maniac.  Liszt and Chopin.

Tafuri: So, he was a piano player?

Rossi: Yeah, he was an incredible pianist.

Tafuri: And that's what he taught you primarily, piano?

Rossi: Yeah, but he also taught us about taste in music, and really that's what he brought to kids who were eleven or twelve.  That's an important time in one's life.

Tafuri: I just had a crazy idea.  Something just ran through my head, so I'm going to ask you about it.  It's interesting that you said he was a Chopin nut, because I've never, ever associated these two people's music with each other's until this very moment.  Does Chopin have anything to do - or vice versa - with [Keith] Jarrett's music?

Rossi: Oh, totally. I mean, are you pulling my leg or what?

Tafuri: No, I never thought of the two of them together.  And, in the back of my mind, I'm sitting here thinking about what a huge Jarrett fan you are and listening to you talk about this guy who was into Chopin.  I had a little epiphany here.

Rossi: You listen to any five notes you hear Keith play, and you hear so much Chopin.

Tafuri: Well, now it is.

Rossi: Now it's obvious to you.  But, I'll bet you, if you asked Keith, he'd go, like, 'It's all my shit.'

Tafuri: To you, to your ears, how are the similar?

Rossi: The chromaticism is so much like Chopin's, and the lyricism of Keith's touch is very Chopin-like.

Tafuri: There are so many different levels of touch.

Rossi: Just the touch. They way he connects notes.  Chopin was just so incredibly sublime.  The lyric chromaticism.

Tafuri: To watch a great classical pianist play Chopin - even when it's very simple stuff - to watch the pianist's hands touch the keyboard, you see it's very delicate and intricate stuff ... like watching Jarrett.  It can be really deep.

Rossi: Well, the piano has a lot to do with it - playing Chopin right.  I mean, anybody can play the notes.  You know who else has that touch? Lyle Mays.  You might not think of him in some "light" way because he's often overlooked, but he has incredible touch. Also John Taylor, Bobo Stenson.  Those guys all have that. You can hear the European influence.

Tafuri: Well, three of the four artists you just named are on ECM.

Rossi: Yeah, your boy, Manfred [Eicher].  But a lot of it is that "thing," too.

Tafuri: Well, the "E" in "ECM" stands for "European."

Rossi: It's a very European tradition, though.  Something that I grew up with, as well.  But over the years, I've become more, well, "fragmented." A lot of that comes from the fact that sometimes I'm afraid to make what I do sound too "pretty" or too "nice."

Tafuri: Too polished.

Rossi: Yeah, in a way. I'm not saying that's a great feat, but I'm almost more interested in making it sound bad, just so it's changing. Not just so it's changing; it just can't be noise.  You know what I'm saying.

Tafuri: If it's polished, it's done.

Rossi: It's not that. It's just that it takes...

Tafuri: If it's polished, it sounds like it's done, and you want it to sound like it's still in evolution or something.

Rossi: In a way.  I feel like it's almost more honest for me to be able to be able to play something that I don't know.  I'm trying to play things that I don't know, even though I'm trapped by my own patterns.  I'd rather sound bad trying to make something honest rather than to make something slick.  You know what I'm saying? I sound kind of like a martyr, but...

Tafuri: But, see, I'm hearing this kind of "pioneer spirit" in what you're doing. Maybe that's not a term that resonates with you, but listening to what you're saying and what you were saying before... You know, all these words are too strong: "trailblazer," "breaking new ground." You want to find something new.  If it's been done before, it doesn't particularly interest you or engage you.

Rossi: That's true. I'll bet I'm part of a huge community of musicians that have the same feeling that they want to break some new ground.

Tafuri: Well, it's a restlessness.

Rossi: Yeah, it is restless.  There seemed to be a group of musicians who wanted to break ground but had abandoned any kind of formal structure or a legitimate basis for creating.  It just can't be "for the sake of," or it's just noise and "squonk."

Tafuri: What do you mean? You don't want to name names, do you?

Rossi: No, I don't want to name names.  I'm just thinking that the trick is to find the balance between holding on to the tradition - to the formal structure that is its deepest part -- and to move away with respect.  You just can't completely abandon the tradition by saying, "Oh, it's gotta be good, because it's different."

Tafuri: Well, it's sort of like, with OmniTone, we don't say "avant garde" because - against the truest sense of how "avant garde" was intended, which is a good thing - the way "avant garde" is used, especially when it comes to jazz or creative music or whatever you want to call what we do, is as a dismissive term.  It means: 'It didn't come from anywhere, it ain't going nowhere...'

Rossi: Who says that? Because it did come from somewhere.

Tafuri: Oh, no, no, no, no.  I mean that when the term "avant garde" is used today, it's used to connote "out" or "no link with tradition."

Rossi: That's right.

Tafuri: It was what you were talking about before.  And your point is that you respect and understand the traditions - the jazz tradition, the classical music traditions, the European music traditions - and that link, that lineage, that connection to the tradition is important to you.

Rossi: Yes.  Otherwise, what do you base your music on? Do you reject Bach? I mean, how can you? Even if you're writing music that has one note it in, you still have to page homage.  The tradition is just so powerful, so it's sad to see the general public looking up to pop music and pop culture, because in it there's no link to tradition.  I think people know, in their bones, when they're moved by something on multiple levels, not just on the "hype level."

It's almost that people like us are trying to exist in two worlds.  One is almost like that of the Dadaists, where we want this work just to exist, solely on its own merit for no other reason than just to exist.  And the other side is that we want people to be "into" the music, too.  It's tricky.  And I almost feel like - well, I'll speak for myself - we feel like we're almost cheating when we "hype" things, when we promote what we're doing. But people also need to know about what we're doing.  So, it's tricky.

Tafuri: Yeah.  But, about the "hyping" stuff, if it's hype, it's hype.  But if "hype" is just getting people excited about something by helping them find hooks to new music so they can understand it or they can make ties to it or they can see the relevance to it - that this stuff is relevant, that music doesn't have to beat you over the head to get you motivated - that kind of hyping is "hype." I had a discussion with somebody recently about how, when I was in London recently for a couple of days, some American words have a totally different meaning in the UK.  For example, people use the word "exploitation" for "promotion" whereas here, in the US, it means something negative.  Or they use the word "cheap" in the UK to mean "inexpensive" instead of how we use it, to mean "something of lesser value." That's my long way around to saying that, just doing something to get people excited about the music doesn't mean that, in and of itself, that work and the music it represents is not worthy or not of higher ground.

Tafuri: But I want to get back to something you said earlier about coming out of the European tradition.  What do you mean by that? Does it have to do with music you listened to?

Rossi: Yeah and also studied, including a lot of music from "the Russians" and "the Polish."

Tafuri: You studied Russian piano music?

Rossi: Yes, Scriabin. I studied a lot of Scriabin.  Just having been drawn to Shostakovich since I was a kid.  Then I played a lot of it and, for me, I'm just "in" that part of the world.

Tafuri: How did you hear Shostakovich as a kid? Are you talking about his piano music?

Rossi: I'm talking about everything, especially his orchestral music.  The first time I ever played Shostakovich, I was 14.  It was in the Trenton Youth Symphony, and I was playing oboe. [He laughs.] I think we were playing Shostakovich's fifth [symphony], because that's pretty much the most famous his symphonies, even though there are many others, too, that are incredible.  And I remember hating it.  I thought, 'Oh, my God, it's so horrible' because, up until that time, we all we'd been playing is Schubert, Beethoven, you know, all the romantic.

Tafuri: So then you had to count like crazy.

Rossi: You had to count, but it was the intervals that were, like, "What is this?" It wasn't even that out but, even so, I remember hating it. But somehow, years later - and I'll never forget this story - I was standing on top of my piano in a house that I'd bought, the first house I'd ever bought.  It was way down in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, when I was still in college, in fact.  And I was putting cork on the wall, you know, with glue.  I was trying to make soundproof this room that was going to be my studio, and I was listening to public radio, and Shostakovich's fifteenth symphony came on.

Tafuri: That's the one with the William Tell Overture in it?

Rossi: Yeah, yeah. And with all the Wagner quotes and everything.  And ever since then, and that had to be 1982 or so...

Tafuri: So, how old were you then?

Rossi: I was about 25.

Tafuri: So, it took ten years for it to really hit you?

Rossi: Well, the Shostakovich thing...

Tafuri: I mean "the Shostakovich thing."

Rossi: You know, I was thinking about something you were saying before.  You were saying something about hype and how people need something to hold onto.

Tafuri: And that it's not "hype" if you're just helping people "get" it.

Rossi: That's true. But I have a lot of arguments - you know, friendly arguments with people - about having to understand the music.  You know: listeners.  They want to understand it; their natural inclination is to want to "get" it or something.  But, I don't know.  I don't know.  I feel like we're almost all personally responsible for trying to help people get it without getting it.  It's not important to understand the music; it's just important to be moved by it.

Tafuri: Well, see, here's the problem.  We have two different audiences that we're talking about.  We have the pop audience...

Rossi: You mean the paying audience.

Tafuri: Yup, they pay. But then there's the audience, the demographic that OmniTone's going after, that pays in a different way.  The audience OmniTone is trying to connect with doesn't mind paying $15 for a CD.  And they're not particularly interested in downloading their music.  They want the packaged CD, and they want the notes and the content - and they want to understand it.

Rossi: And they want to support the label a little, too.

Tafuri: Maybe, maybe not.  But, at some point, you have the potential to develop "brand loyalty" with that audience.  If you can get to this audience, it's a paying audience.  Is it as big as the pop audience? No.  But they're loyal, and you can actually develop with them a credibility that pretty much it doesn't make any difference what we put out, as long as they get the same quality they've come to expect.  You could put out an album by Skeezix McGillicuddy, and they'd buy it.

And then there's the other audience - when you were talking about "paying audience," being ironic or cynical, in varying degrees - that, yeah, they'll pay.  But they want a CD for $9.99, and they won't buy it unless they get that price for a new CD.  And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.  OK, fine.

So, the point is - regarding what audience we're going after - and, well, there are actually two points. One is connecting with the audience that's already "teachable" or already listening, the audience that's already ready to listen, and I don't think you have to do that terribly much to have them "get" it.  I think you just do a little bit to put the music in context, and you connect with them, and they get it.

But then there's this whole other audience that says, "Gee, if we can 'get' some weird little hook that'll make us interested in some way" and we can give them that hook, maybe we'll convert 3% of them.  When you work for a telemarketing firm, the cold call conversion rate is maybe 3%, so maybe we can get 3% of them.  OmniTone's not really striving for that audience but, even there, it's a matter of putting it in context - even through some hooky thing.

Rossi: I understand.

Tafuri: You got this group that's playing this music.  It's kinda jazz, but it doesn't really sound like jazz.  It sounds like film music in some ways, but it doesn't.  It sounds like something you might hear in a cartoon (which can be some great music, as you and I know), but it doesn't really sound like a cartoon.  I, personally, love it, but I don't know where this music's coming from.  For example, when you hear a tune like "Page X." "Page X" is engaging.  Everybody for whom I've ever played that can't stop listening.

Rossi: Really?

Tafuri: You know why?

Rossi: No.... (They're crazy?)

Tafuri: Well, yes, and there may be that, too.

Rossi: They have great taste in music? [Laughs.]

Tafuri: (Well, I doubt that.) It's because of the power of multiple intelligences. Your music connects with people ...  a little bit on this level, a little bit on this other, a little bit on that, a little bit on that other.  And then they're intrigued. And that's what we need.

Rossi: Wow.

Tafuri: With people who are already open to this, you don't need a big hook. You don't need a gaff; you just need a little hook, and you just put a little something on the end of it.  Qualcosa da mangiare.  And they bite.

Rossi: Well, we're talking about the same thing, because what I meant when I was talking before was that because the fundamental basis is already there, people can't resist.  If the music is honest and deep and real - coming from the tradition - listeners are going to feel it.  They may not know why, but then they're also going to be tickled a little by the silliness that you're talking about.

Tafuri: It touches listeners and then they're "stimulated," they're "excited," they're "intrigued" - use whatever word you want - and it's because it's happening on two or three different levels at the same time.

Rossi: I love that. I especially love when you can slide something by people. I like when listeners like it and they don't know why they like it.  That's something that turns me on.  It's like I don't even want them to know, because otherwise it can feel like you're trying to beat them over the head with it, like you're smarter then they are or something.

Tafuri: I don't think that if they know why they like it, that that's like beating them over the head with it.  I think that's a whole 'nother level.

Rossi: Yeah.  I'm not trying to sound condescending or cynical.  I'm giving them more credit by saying this.

Tafuri: Absolutely. The goal is, when you're talking about audiences today - and, again, I'm not talking about the pop audience where you said the money is and, well, ironically, is where the money is, but the money may be there for this five seconds and then, five seconds from now, it may not be - is to get them a little intrigued and you give them something that says, "Hey, here's something that has relevance to what you already know and maybe like," well, then you're doing the right thing.  That's one of the things I love about your music.

Rossi: [Pauses.] You love my music?

Tafuri: WELL...

[Laughter all around.]

Tafuri: Well, I love your music, but what I love about it is that there are so many different elements that are interwoven in it, so it can draw a lot of different people in from different "traditions." It's about "intelligences" - what people are "into." There's a lot of stuff going on in your music.

Rossi: It's all about how the music is manipulated.  And that's still talking about this "movement" I mentioned earlier.  For a lot of these guys and what interests me is the way it's all blended. That's what really gets me going.  It's not that all these elements are just sort of plugged in, it's the way that they're blurred together that's what's engaging.  When you don't know when the music's written or when it's improvised.

Tafuri: Whether it's "through-composed."

Rossi: Yeah.

Tafuri: And that's what OmniTone does.  That's what's "adventurous and listenable."

Rossi: Absolutely.

Tafuri: Okay, but here's the thing - and I don't mean to disparage any "Downtown" musicians here: what I like about your music and what makes your music different from a lot of that other stuff is that your music has more of "familiar elements," more pop, more cinematic elements, more "heartstrings," more goofy funny stuff

Rossi: My music doesn't take itself too seriously - especially this record.  That band and that music, somehow, takes on something that's pretty silly, but I love the silliness of it.

Tafuri: I don't think it's that silly.

Rossi: No, it's pretty silly; it's pretty stupid.  I'm serious

Tafuri: You're serious that it's stupid?

[Both laugh.]

Rossi: Oh, you're so totally confused! [Laughs again.]

Tafuri: Wait! Let me start again, I'm totally confused.

But, seriously, one of the things I love about your music is that, for all its hijinks, your music is real music.  It's the musical equivalent of Lingua Franca; it's a sort of "Musica Franca." It's coming from a very real place.  It's like the pizza we just ate: it's fucking great pizza -

Rossi: It's all about the crust.

Tafuri: And we could go there, too.  But, even though it's great pizza, it's something anyone could eat and enjoy.  And, as we see on the box, even with the special promotion for the "March Madness Package" replete with its .com address.

Rossi: Sal's sellin' out, man!

Tafuri: Ah, but that's my point and my question to you.  Does doing that kind of promotion, does using something hooky to get more business or more customers, does that make the pizza less?

Rossi: This is why you and OmniTone exist, because you help us musicians do that.  We want to connect with audiences, but we're not making music for the audience.  We're not changing it so that the audience will react in a certain way or so we can sell records or whatever.  This is what you're doing. You the guy that's going, "Wow, there's something unique about this."

Tafuri: I know how to map it.

Rossi: Yeah.  And if you were into making a lot of money, you obviously wouldn't be putting out these records.

Tafuri: Yeah, but OmniTone's also not putting out The Best of Albert Ayler.

Rossi: Oh, I though you were. [Laughs.]

Tafuri: [Laughing.] But seriously, folks...

[Both laugh.]

Tafuri: Don't get me wrong, I really dig Ayler's music, but OmniTone only puts out certain music, and it's like the music you write.  But, back to my point, your music touches a lot more bases - and, by making this statement, I'm not trying to make it better or worse than music from other creative improvising musicians - and I think a lot of that comes from the kind of work that you've done and the kind of work that you do.

Rossi: I can't think of anything that I have an aversion to more than entertaining somebody - even if the music is entertaining, which it sometimes is - because I don't know how to entertain somebody.

Tafuri: But Hall & Oates, Carly Simon —they're entertainers.

Rossi: Playing with Hall & Oates or playing with Carly, those were entertaining concerts, but it's still about Carly or it's still about Hall & Oates.  It's not about what I'm doing.

Tafuri: Fine.  But they're the ones making the decision about whether to hire you, whether to have you in the band and on the gig.  And their decision is probably at least somewhat made on the basis of whether you were entertaining enough to want you back for another gig.

Rossi: No.  My contribution was supporting their ability to entertain.  Because that's what they do.  Those guys are incredible at that.  Not only that.  When you bring up stuff like scoring films and the like, that's based on a different monetary structure.  When people are paying you a lot of money, you're going to have to adhere to certain conventions that are part of that medium.

Tafuri: How did you come up with the musical configuration heard on One Block?

Rossi: It was basically a musical extension of the record made before that, the one with Dave [Douglas], They Have a Word for Everything. It's almost the same band, except that Russ [Johnson replaces Dave] and Mark Dresser is filling in for Kermit [Driscoll], who's been doing the band the longest.  It's basically more music of that same band.

Tafuri: That's probably one of my top ten favorite CDs of the past few years.

Rossi: You write for the people in the band; it's all about them.

Tafuri: L'Histoire!

Rossi: Exactly.  When you're writing for Andy [Laster], you know what he's going to bring to it.  That's what's great about music that's both composed and improvised: you don't just get something off the page, you get what this guy is going to bring to it.  And that's where the whole trust thing.

Tafuri: Yep.  That's the same thing.

Rossi: It's a great band.

Tafuri: Sure.  That's the next level.  So, the insane record mogul say, "Gee, I'll put the record out, because I trust your musical sensibility," and then you go ahead and hire these guys, because you trust them.

Rossi: Well, I can't be responsible for anything beyond what I had you.  [Laughs.] At that point...

Tafuri: So, is it true that you all had something like 40 minutes of rehearsal?

Rossi: No, it was a little more than that.  It was probably a couple of hours in one day.  And not only that - and this is a great anecdote, but the day of the rehearsal, Andy was sick, so he couldn't even make the rehearsal.  He called me that morning and said, "Aw, I can't move." And I was like, "Oh, my God, what are we going to do? The gig's tomorrow."

Tafuri: And, "Oh, my God, the whole world is watching!" And it's at the Knitting Factory! [Laughs.]

Rossi: [Laughs.] So, I call John O'Gallagher, who walks in and sightreads this music unbelievably well.  The guy is fucking amazing! Not only that, he rarely even plays clarinet, and there's a lot of clarinet in the music.  Andy made the mistake all the way back when we did [the score for] Nosferatu of telling me he wanted to play more clarinet, so everything I wrote for him was clarinet.  So, anyway, that's the story.  It was one rehearsal.  Andy wasn't even there for it.  John O'Gallagher came in and sightread the music like he'd been playing it for ten years and then, the next day, I got together with Andy for about a half an hour and said, "Look, let's just run through a couple of heads." In fact, that's the way I rehearse a band, anyway.  We never play the music; we just play the written stuff and, too, I don't want anybody to know the music that well.

Tafuri: Well, you were talking about that before, like "playing the music" for you is a discovery process.

Rossi: Yeah.  I want mistakes to happen.  I want 'em to play wrong notes, I want 'em to play out of tune.

Tafuri: Warts 'n' all.

Rossi: It's more fun to play when everything's wrong.  And, you know, I'm not saying I want to go out there and sound like shit to an audience, but, you know...

Tafuri: I've been saying for years that I'm happy to stay as dumb as possible, because then I always have something to learn.

Rossi: [Laughing.] I gotta remember that.

Tafuri: Well, if I think I already know it all, then I got nothing to learn. And, maybe, musically that's what you're saying.  If you get it all "polished," to use a word you used earlier...

Rossi: That's true.

Tafuri: "If I got it all polished then, shit, man, there ain't nowhere to go with it! It's a done deal."

Rossi: That's true. Otherwise, the music doesn't feel alive; it feels almost "contrived."

Tafuri: Do you feel like, when you're doing music with [the] Philip [Glass Ensemble], that you feel like it's on the edge? And you don't have to answer that question, if you don't want to.

Rossi: No, you know, that's an interesting question.  I always feel like it's on the edge when I'm playing with Philip for two reasons. One reason is that this guy's alive ... now ... and we're playing his music now, which is a kind of unique situation to be in.

Tafuri: And if you fuck up, the composer can say to you, "Hey, you fucked up." Bach can't say that.  Schubert can't say that.

Rossi: It's not that Phil is the Beethoven of our times.  But, in the public image, he's about as famous as Beethoven.  And I love the fact that we're playing this music while he's alive, and we're sort of "pioneering" some of this.  We're making this music now, so it's kind of cool.

Tafuri: You said there were two points.

Rossi: The other point is that when I'm playing keyboards in that band, there's a different level of intensity that I enjoy.  But the fact that I get to play drums and percussion is even more fun, because it's not something that I get to do every day. Being a percussion section is a whole other thing, you know.  I've done it my whole life, but it's almost like - with Frank Cassara and I - it's almost like you're in college again.  You know, you're in the back, goofing off. You're in another part of the band.  The percussionists were always in back, and it's like you got your own universe. It's really a blast.  We go to great places.  We play huge, sold-out places.  The people who come are interested, and they love him.  Everybody loves Phil.

Tafuri: I remember when I saw you with the Ensemble last year at la Cité de la Musique in Paris [performing Philip's score for Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête to accompany the film].  I'd never seen you play with Philip.

Rossi: Yeah, but it was a keyboard thing, though.

Tafuri: But you know what? I was sitting on the edge of my seat watching you play...

Rossi: ...hoping I would crash and burn?

Tafuri: I thought to myself, "Man, he is playing!" and for 90 minutes? [Sings two-octave arpeggios to exemplify.]

Rossi: Yeah.  It's a lot of notes.

Tafuri: Then, what was hilarious to me, is - and, you may recall, I busted your chops a little bit on this - is that finally, you come out of this whole thing at the end of the piece, and everybody in the band is bowing, and you gotta stop in the middle of the bow to pick up your bottle of water to have a sip of water.  But, it was true, it didn't seem like you had a chance during the - whatever it was - 90 minutes to get any water.

Rossi: Yeah.  I think I had only one other chance in the whole piece, like four bars or something.

Tafuri: Well, I was sitting on the edge of my seat thinking, 'Man, I wouldn't know if he plays a wrong note or not,' but just about the sheer virtuosity of what you were doing.

Rossi: That's a beautiful piece of music, too.  And to try and synch that with the film, it's insane.

Tafuri: It was amazing! Just in general.  I mean, yes, on the one hand, he's not the Beethoven of our time - and Beethoven wasn't a Beethoven of his time in his time either, but it was still "Wow!" And this is even after seeing, fifteen years ago, Koyaanisqatsi performed live in Columbus, Ohio, with Philip and the band. I thought it was cool then.

Rossi: It's pretty cool.

Tafuri: And that's taking some chances in a different way.

Rossi: And in the "Shorts" program, there's improvisation.  It's cool.  It's almost what like what my band does.  Most of it's written, but there are some moments.

Tafuri: So, can we talk about the music on One Block for a minute?

Rossi: Sure.

Tafuri: What's "Page X" all about? That's the tune I've been obsessing on.

Rossi: The title? I don't know what "Page X" is.

Tafuri: It sounds almost like Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Rossi: Yeah.  Maybe we should call it "Plan 9."

Tafuri: Where did it come from?

Rossi: I have no idea. I'd have to say that music writes itself.  I put the pencil down.

Tafuri: Your music writes itself?

Rossi: It does.  You put the pencil down.

Tafuri: Is that how you write your music: you put your pencil down?

Rossi: I put the pencil down and, when I get to the end, even if there's something "wrong," unless it's really, really wrong, I don't change it.  If I don't like it after the first couple of measures, I throw it away.  The music just has to feel right.

Tafuri: Tell me that "Stasis" has nothing to do with Keith Jarrett, Dewey Redman, and that tune, "Strawberry" something, where they all play right behind each other.

Rossi: Oh, you know? I didn't think of that at all.

Tafuri: It's kind of a slow blues.

Rossi: You know what has the most Dewey and Keith is "Whatever." More so than that one.  That one I'm not sure about.  I don't know where that one came from, either.  I don't remember.  A lot of composers would probably say that.

Tafuri: But if you go on the website and you read interviews of other artists on OmniTone where they say they struggle and toil to get compositions turned out.  You just sit there and go, "Well..."

Rossi: People struggling every day. [Laughs.]

Tafuri: [Laughing.] It's different for everybody.

Rossi: I'm not saying it's not hard work.

Tafuri: Okay.  So, let's be more specific.  Do tunes ever come to you where you got the whole thing at once?

Rossi: That happens. But, a lot of times, they develop themselves on the paper. I met with this woman last night - it was a meeting with this promotional person - and the first thing she said to me (because I had sent her all this stuff) was, "Well, it's nice to see that someone's not struggling to write the music." And I was like "Well, it's not like it's easy, but..." But she goes, "Well, with so many people I meet, it's like 'The sun is facing Illinois, and so I can't get any notes out.'" So, it's funny because, I'd have to say, through all the turmoil and bullshit in my life and all this emotional stuff, I'm still able to write the music. And part of that comes from not judging it.  I'm not judgmental about what goes down on the page.  I'm judgmental about my playing.

Tafuri: Maybe that's the reason why you can do the work you do to pay your bills. Because you're not judgmental about the music you create, you can crank the stuff out at a certain level.

Rossi: You mean the commercial stuff?

Tafuri: I know you feel like the work you do to make money is "what you do to make money," but I listen to it, and I think it's great. The point is that there are a lot of people who can't do that; they agonize over every frigging note.  I read this thing one time - and I'll have to dig out the exact quote - that was attributed to [Frank] Zappa.  He said that every day he tried to write x measures of music.  He wrote every day, whether he felt like it or not.  And when you read or listen to interviews about these authors that write these blockbuster novels, what do they do? They write every day.

Rossi: Yeah.  That's right.

Tafuri: And to be able to do that takes a particular mentality.  Not everyone can do that.  Whether it's saying, "Okay, I'm not going to be judgmental about" or "I don't agonize over every note I write" - although you do sometimes do that when it comes to the artistic stuff, whatever.  You have that ability, and that's what makes your music different.

Rossi: I'm not saying that my music couldn't benefit from doing a little more "reworking," but I actually don't work that way.  Like I said, I don't judge it.  And, if it gets past a measure or two, then I always finish it.  I do not have unfinished pieces of music.

Tafuri: But, by doing that, by finishing things, in a way that's that "taking chances" thing, that's that "putting it out there" thing. Putting it out "on the wind" or putting it out "in the ether," it's have the confidence or the nonchalance to just "let it be."

Rossi: It's very liberating, in a way.  I think some of it's good, and I think some of it's bad, but it's okay.

Tafuri: So what.

Rossi: Yeah.  That's not bad.

Tafuri: Because I know some musicians who'll be hung up for a week on three notes.

Rossi: I know some people like that, too.  But everybody works differently. There seem to be a couple of schools.  There are people who really work and rework and edit, and then other people just let it go.  I think maybe I let it go too soon sometimes but, in general, it works for me.

Tafuri: But with this way, something actually happens.  A piece gets written. Because I've had artists who've said to me, "Gee, I had all these ideas, but then I thought I'd do it this way, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." And, when all's said and done, I don't see nothin'! So what.  Fine.  "You're living in your own world and, when we get to the point where we can hook electrodes up to your head, then everyone else can share in your cosmic experience."

Rossi: But, to play the Devil's advocate, you don't want to be the "Danielle Steele of Composition." I mean, this woman writes like 900 books.  A book a week or something.

Tafuri: But that's the difference between the pop and the more erudite.  And then there are things like the book I just finished reading (and I'm not someone who gobbles up one page-turner after another), The Da Vinci Code.  For me, it operated on two different levels, both on a pop and a more refined level. Your music operates on two levels.  One can listen to it even if one doesn't really listen to, per se, jazz or creative improvised music or whatever.  For me, it's the kind of thing that goes back to the idea of "multiple intelligences."

Rossi: That's what I'm actually trying to do when I write music.  I would say that writing music is probably the only thing that I'm not neurotic about.  But I have the notion that if two notes are put together that are simplistic, I'll reject them, but if they're "simple," that's a whole different thing.  "Simple" and "simple-minded" are different and just because something's "simple" doesn't mean it can't be deep.

Tafuri: Simple as in "modest" or "uncluttered" or "unfettered" or even "easily understood."

Rossi: Well, maybe not "understood," but "felt."

Tafuri: It really resonates internally.

Rossi: That it's really experienced.  Because there's so much "intellectual" music that exists almost entirely on an intellectual level.  I think this has elements of all those things you mentioned. And, of course, the people playing it bring intelligence and feeling to it.  They're all great composers on their own.  It's like these guys are composing on top of my composing. It doesn't get any better than that.

Rossi: I've written a lot of music that's very, very, very serious.  But this is a band that I want to feel like it's not taking itself too seriously.

Tafuri: I think the band gives an amazing performance.

Rossi: And it's live, too.

Tafuri: Even if you don't know it's live, when you listen to it, you realize it's amazing.  Then, at an additional level - like the Frank Kimbrough Trio Quickening CD that we released - when you hear that it's live, it's in real-time, it's one take, well, then your breath is seriously taken away.

Rossi: It was live, but every record I do is like that, though.  I never overdub anything or "fix" things.  Except, on the one before the Knit record, I did play some glock[enspiel] that I did put on it afterward.

Tafuri: Better "glock" then "schlock."

Rossi: [Laughs.] And not the "Glock," although I used my "glock" as a weapon, considering the way I was playing it.

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