Interview with Bob Bowen and Ohad Talmor
Tafuri: How long as MOB been in existence? (I'm not even sure if I know that.)
Bowen: Since '98.
Talmor: Since '98, yeah.
Tafuri: Because, the first time I heard about it was, maybe, when you, Bob, came up to me at IAJE —and then Matt [Wilson], at some point later, came up to me —and said, 'Hey, we got this new thing.' How did MOB come about? (Did we talk about this before?)
Talmor: Yeah, we did. The first round.
Bowen: Well, I'll admit —
Talmor: "Hey, man, you got my first record, man? Hey, buy my first record, man..."
Tafuri: I will, and then I'll read the interview.
Bowen: I had met Matt, through some gigs, and really loved playing with him. And I had met Ohad at the Manhattan School of Music and, so, I brought the two of them together.
Tafuri: That's cool.
Bowen: And that's when the romance began.
Talmor: "Romance without finance is a...
Talmor: That's right.
Bowen: We made the first recording in the fall of 1999, because my son was born, literally, two or three weeks after we made the record.
Tafuri: So, you'd remember that exactly.
Bowen: Exactly. It was my last "go-round" as a single person, before I became a parent. We had been together for about a year-and-a-half, by the time we made the first record. We'd played some gigs at the Internet Café, and we'd played some gigs at the Knitting Factory.
Talmor: And Detour.
Bowen: Yeah, a bunch of places. Then, we had gotten this repertoire together, and then we went in and made the first record. And then we talked to you in January of 2000 because, by then, we had finished the record.
Tafuri: So, now, it's been six years —something like that —so, how does —
Talmor: Six years during which a lot of different things happened to the MOB Trio that have enriched us tremendously. Besides playing as a trio, we've played with each other —not as part of the MOB Trio, but still interacting in different settings, mostly with the [Lee] Konitz Nonet. Then, another setting was this septet with Brazilian musicians for which I wrote music based on Dexter Gordon's music.
Talmor: All these different things —really straight-ahead things, freer things, playing with Konitz (which how do you define that). Everything comes home when we're playing together with MOB. So, this is kind of a rare thing; gravitating toward each other in different settings, each bringing our own luggage —that contributes to MOB's really unique sound. You know, when I was listening to the tapes, I had kind of a weird taste of what happened at the recording. It was kind of a black-and-white thing, liking at one point, not liking it at another. But, one thing no one can take away from us: this is a unique trio. Really. The more I listen to us, the more I realize that no one does this. It's not "revolutionary"; I mean, we're not reinventing the music or jazz. The combination of different personalities and the repertoire, which is a weird combination of extremely complicated stuff that's very precise at some times and at others played with complete abandon, makes us unique.
Tafuri: You know, that's really true.
Talmor: And I think it's unique. I regret that we didn't have one more night of recording, because then we would have filtered, like the best armagnac, the efforts of the MOB Trio.
Tafuri: If you'd have had three armagnacs to pick from, then you could have found just the right one.
Talmor: I tell you.
Bowen: The very first time we played together, there was something that we "found." In all the stuff we've been through, personally and as a group, and in working in different settings —that thread has always been there. And that thread was what kind of pinned the [Lee Konitz] Nonet, the cell of the three of us being in that. The thing that strikes me when I listen to the live recordings is that, no matter what happens musically, the thread is always there ... no matter what. There's some kind of thread when the three of us get together.
Tafuri: That's significant because —and this is not meant as any kind of dig —it's not like this group has played tons and tons of gigs as a trio —you know, working several gigs every month or long tours —so, there obviously had to be a connection on some other kind of level.
Bowen: It's like we're family and, even if we don't see each other for two or three months, we get back together, and it's "right there."
Tafuri: Well, that's cool. And, I guess, one of the things that I love about the band —that I loved about the band, the first time I heard it —the interaction of the musicians coming at the music from both a real straight-ahead and a real "free" place. Each of you has played a lot of straight-ahead gigs, and each of you has played in freer contexts, so it's interesting to hear how the musical "space" that each of you is in at any one time overlaps, intermingles, or coincides with another's.
Talmor: For sure. I think that's one of the factors that makes us different. And our "common attitude," that's another thing. I remember that, when I started playing music, this guy Glenn Ferris, this trombone player, was the very first American musician I played with back in Switzerland. After the gig, I walked with him and his wife to the hotel where they were staying, and he said he liked the music. (Obviously, I was still very green and there were a lot of things to learn.) But he says to me, "No matter what, the most important thing is attitude." It kind of sounds like one of these make-you-feel-good, PC phrases, but that's not what it was, because it's true, and it had a very strong impact on me. And I feel that Bob and Matt have that attitude —well, really, just Matt, because we had to "sludge" Bob along. [Laughs.]
Bowen: Hey, look... [Laughs.]
Tafuri: What is that "attitude?"
Talmor: It's the ability to "let go" and, at the same time, keep what you're doing coming out of the heritage —something that only comes with some level of maturity, sophistication, and innocence. We'll go into the "straight-ahead" thing or a "free" thing or a funk thing —and let's not forget that the MOB Trio has a very strong groove element —and, regardless, there's something weird and special about the way we play time. I was trying to explain yesterday to Phoebe [his wife] about the way we play time. So, I said to her, "Can you clap to it, can you feel the time?" And she was trying, too, but it's not there and yet it is there. There's an incredible zone, into which we get, where there's time/no time and when everything happens. It happens on all these different levels —different levels of speed or whatever, it's just great! Konitz has that.
Tafuri: Blurring the line between just playing the music and playing as an individual and playing as an ensemble, it all works.
Talmor: It's like walking on a tightrope; it requires complete commitment. Sometimes, it just breaks. I guess that now, I've gotten to like this record, because I didn't like it too much at first. It is what it is, which means sometimes you gotta fall on your face.
Tafuri: You've gotta do that.
Talmor: Yeah. Like, on a Wynton Marsalis record, you never, ever hear that, you know? But, it's actually part of the language, and you see the vocabulary of the language that is part of us.
Tafuri: There are two interesting things about that. One is that, sometimes, what you feel like may be falling on your face, the listener doesn't know about. I mean, they don't know and, if you're a real artist, they don't get it.
Bowen: You see, sitting here listening to Ohad pontificate, the word that comes to my mind is "broad." Our conception of time is broad; our conception of the composition is broad. It's not, "Oh, this quarter note is here, or this hit is here." It's more like, " Generally speaking, the note goes here; generally speaking, the time is here." When there are tempos, they're always in a range. It's all about broadness. Part of our connection is that we understand how each other bullshits on stage, and we can hear that and connect with that. That's what really allows us to not worry about it and to trust each other. When you talk about "falling on your face," there's this connotation of pain or some kind of accident, but what happens with us is that we accept accidents, and we're in the moment —
Talmor: —and we fall gracefully on our faces.
Bowen: It's what gives us a broad, fat cushion. We're like cushions for each other; we allow each other to do that, and that's part of the broadness of the music. I could play the most possibly wrong note, and it just changes the whole kaleidoscope of what's going on.
Tafuri: What's extraordinary is that what you're speaking about reflects the kind of repartee that bands, who've been playing for years, try to develop. And some musicians who do play for long periods of time together or go on long tours or play every week never develop the kind of rapport that MOB has. So, for the amount of time and frequency with which you work together as MOB and still that mix of precision and "looseness" (to extend the title of the last album [ Loose]) or "broadness" (you use your word, Ohad), other groups would fall apart; they wouldn't be cohesive at all.
Bowen: Part of that is because most musicians have a pre-existing idea of what's going to happen when they play, of what the end product is going to be.
Talmor: Right. That's very true. It's contextual.
Bowen: There might be some "range for improvisation," let's say, but the end result is 'this is a structure, and this is what we're creating.' When we do it —and all three of us are accomplished composers, so we have a lot of respect for the composition —when we approach it, we understand that, 'Okay, we're doing this tune, but who knows?'
Tafuri: The composition is a springboard to improvisation.
Talmor: It's so difficult not to be a slave to your preconceptions. Bob was talking about me "pontificating" but, when I do workshops, that phrase is sure to come out: "do not be a slave to your preconceptions." Preconceptions not only affect your music, but everything —your relationships, your blah blah blah.
Bowen: It also has something to do with not being "wedded" to your compositions. You write this piece for the band to play and then, when it goes somewhere totally different than where you'd intended or what you'd hoped for, you're ego can let go of that preconception, because you're not wedded to it. What resulted is just as interesting or more interesting than what you wrote.
Talmor: I just wanted to say that there's another side to things, when you're talking about not having egos involved. For me for the MOB Trio, besides the looseness and the technical things and the musical aspects that I find so appealing (and I defer here to other people's reactions), is the emotional impact the band's playing has. Ultimately, for me, that's what matters. As a composer, as an arranger, I try to start from that place. What happens with the MOB Trio is very emotionally potent, and that's a very fragile space. Because it's so present and so fragile, that emotion is sometimes hard to convey in a recording. It's much easier to convey commercially. But, ultimately, what we do is Truth, and there are more than a few moments in the album where I feel like that emotional potency is really there.
Bowen: When we play, we're pretty much standing there "naked." Somehow, something about the three of us playing together, strips away whatever "normal" stuff we bring with us.
Tafuri: Which is a big deal!
Bowen: We end up being very exposed, so I think that's part of the reason why, when we go back and listen to the tapes, we think, 'Oh, shit, oh," because we see how exposed we really are.
Tafuri: I think it's really interesting that you, Ohad, went on earlier about preconception and how you tell your students not to have any, not to go into their music with any preconceptions because, from what I heard initially secondhand and then what you told me when I asked you about it directly, you changed your opinion about the recording, because you had to change your own preconceptions. I remember hearing the roughs —and I've been through producing recordings with several artists (including one that we spent a lot of time playing back in the studio, that the artist loved in the studio, and then said afterwards after listening to the roughs at home, said "It's terrible, we're going to have to do it all over again") —and loving it. As a producer, I pick the artists for their creative ability and integrity, and then I'm open to what they create, but I'd suppose it's harder, as the composer and creator of the music, to break your own preconceptions.
Talmor: There's always this "place" that I use to make value judgments, and emotional impact has a big, big part in that place. I try to strip the music of everything else and try to focus on that. There are a lot of tunes in the roughs where I didn't think we were getting there. I mean, this isn't Mozart's Requiem ; it's music we wrote and that we improvise on every night. But I feel that the tunes we have on the record really are telling.
Tafuri: I think it's an exceptional record. It covers a broader span of moods than what was covered on Loose [the band's debut recording on OmniTone] —and, I suppose, that's to be expected after several years of growth —but part of what makes this recording special is the part the audience's reaction played in this session. As the producer, that was one of the reasons why I suggested you do a live recording, because I've seen you guys live. Seeing MOB live, the audience can see how you're each in other's "spaces" and how you feel comfortable interacting in that way, and their reaction to and with the band adds another interaction. I feel like the band sounds different when it's live. When it's live, there a sort of "fourth chair" in the band, which is for the listener.
Talmor: To tell you the truth, I don't know how much you can quantify the impact of the audience, especially since I, personally, tune them out when I get into my music bubble, unless you have an opportunity where they interact vocally.
Tafuri: No, Matt contributed enough of that on his own.
Talmor: Yeah. Did we save all the laughs on the ends of all the tracks?
Tafuri: I wanted to make a bonus track that starts several minutes after the recording finishes, with all of Matt's laughter strung together.
Bowen: I think you're right. There's a special energy that happens when musicians play for an audience that changes the chemistry of how the musicians interact. The result is different. Somehow, having an audience present increases our imperative to let go.
Tafuri: I find that interesting, because that seems counterintuitive to me; I would think that having a live audience in there makes the musicians want to be —
Talmor: —more in control. Yeah.
Tafuri: Well, okay. That wasn't the word I was going to use, but that's the idea. If you fuck up in the studio, you can edit that out, you can punch the right thing in, you can do another take. But, if you're in front of an audience...
Talmor: I mean, that's the true essence of jazz, man.
Bowen: Maybe I used the wrong phrase to explain but, if you're in a studio and you make a mistake, you can do it again, right? But if you're in front of an audience, you get one pass. In that case, it's just too much to think and to worry about it, so you have to really let go more to get into the right "space." So, I think it even pushes us farther along to that "place."
Bowen: We're standing there, and we're very exposed.
Tafuri: It was like you said earlier: you're coming at it from a more open or —to use the word you used earlier, Bob —a "broader" space. Coming at it from the other perspective, you're in a band playing a live gig, and you have all this tough ensemble stuff you gotta execute —all these notes, all these crazy jumps —and everything has to be totally synchronized, because that's the point of the music, yeah, then I can see how the broader, letting-go, looser space is an alternative to that tightening up.
Bowen: Part of it, too, is that there's an element of "plumber" in all three of us. I mean, you don't have to know Matt very well to see his performing side come out. Part of the alchemy that happens with the three of us is that each of us can tell stories, so there's a narrative thread to whatever happens when we play.
Talmor: That's a good point.
Bowen: I think that's why what we do works. We never seem to lose our narrative sense of direction, because of the way the three of us work. We have a way of doing it where we don't conflict with each other or stomping on each other.
Tafuri: It's like you were saying earlier: you're all bullshitters. You like performing, and you like telling stories.
Bowen: Exactly. 90% of being a good storyteller is bullshitting.
Tafuri: It's in the delivery.
Bowen: It's being able to really bullshit in any situation and do it well. That's what we're doing up there, a lot of it. It's "Okay, I'm up there in front of everybody, and we're going to make this mean something."
Tafuri: Yeah, but this is good bullshit. It's like when a friend came up to me —I don't remember when, maybe in high school, maybe in college —and said to me, " Frank, you are so full of shit. But, with you, your shit is real." [Everybody laughs.]
Tafuri: I took that as a complement. And it's the same way with the Trio: your shit is real. You're hams, a little bit. You're entertainers, at some level.
Talmor: At some level, I guess. Here's my Bullshit Story... When I was an exchange student in Florida, I used to say so much "shit," because I'd just found this new language. So, I they gave me this little keychain that said "O.B.S.T." —Ohad "Bull Shit" Talmor —just to remind me that I was full of shit. [Everyone laughs again.]
Talmor: [To Bob.] You can relate to that side?
Bowen: Oh, yeah, definitely.
Tafuri: But to be able to do that, to have the ability to do that and to like to do that, that's a sort of level of extroversion that one doesn't always see in a band on stage, especially a "new music" band.
Bowen: Part of that quality is that we're not taking ourselves too seriously.
Talmor: What does that mean? I'm always confused when I hear you say that.
Bowen: Except for Ohad.
Talmor: I mean, I understand you're non-sophisticated. I don't want to embarrass you in front of Frank, but... [Chuckles.]
Bowen: There's no pretension. Not "serious" in that we're not going up there saying anything but "Here we are, and we're going to play some shit for you!" And somehow, some way, we're going to make it work.
Talmor: That's an egoless attitude.
Bowen: That's what I mean. We're gonna go up and relax and have fun. We're going to play some music, and it's going to be emotionally deep, but we're also going to have fun. That's what we're doing: coming together and making music and, hopefully, telling some stories and bringing the listeners along to visit places they've never been.
Tafuri: Well, speaking of stories—
Tafuri: . . . I guess that's dedicated to Cal Collins.
Bowen: I lived in Cincinnati for a while, and that's one of the places where I really "cut my teeth" as a jazz musician. I had the privilege to play with Cal Collins many times and learned so much from him. He was the real thing, I mean, you don't get any better than Cal Collins. He had a way of playing chord melody on the guitar that I've never heard anybody else do.
Tafuri: I don't even think he read music or, at least, that was the story. He played with Benny Goodman and other bands, and I don't even think the guy even read music. So, talk about real thing —"unencumbered," he could be playing like crazy and still make what he was doing sound real loose.
Bowen: It was very open! I think a lot of my ideas of openness and broadness I got from him.
Bowen: Yeah. I learned "Stardust" from him on stage. I was a young kid, just barely playing a few years, and we were playing together and says, "You know 'Stardust'?" And I was like, "I've heard it before."
Bowen: And he goes, "Just follow me," and stars playing it. It is experiences like that that I treasure most. And, man, he could tell stories.
Tafuri: He was a great storyteller ... both literally and musically.
Bowen: So, in August of 2001, when I found out that he had died, I went through this long period when I was thinking about him a lot, about how important he was to me and so many different people, and I remembered one particular event that happened that happened to me. I happened to be playing a gig with him when I finally decided, in my brain, that I was going to ask Amy to marry me. I was like, "Okay, you know what? I gotta ask her to marry me, and we're gonna move to New York. I'll ask her to marry me first, then I'll ask her about moving to New York." So, on the break, I told Cal what had run through my head. I said, "You know what, Cal? I just decided I'm going to ask Amy to marry me." He goes, " Really ! That's great!" So, I said, "I figured I'd go out next week and spend a hundred dollars and pick up an engagement ring." He cuts me off and goes, " A hundred dollars?! —A hundred dollars?! —A hundred dollars?! " And that's all he kept saying. At first, I was like, 'What is he saying?' and then we finished the gig, got into our cars, and we went back to the [Blue] Wisp [a famous jazz club in Cincinnati, Ohio] to hang. We're driving a half our or whatever, and we get back to the Wisp. We pull into the parking lot, and he gets out of his car and looks at me and goes, " A hundred dollars?! " So, that's the name of the song. . . .
Talmor: It's dedicated to Sam Furnace. I had met Sam through Russ Johnson.
Bowen: I had a chance to play with Sam several times, too, so I knew him as well.
Talmor: I played with him in different settings, as well. There are few people that you meet who have the gregariousness and positive outlook Sam had.
Bowen: And there was absolutely no jive about him. No bullshit.
Talmor: Talking about bullshit, he loved to talk. I mean, he could talk you up for a long time.
Bowen: But he was a straight-ahead cat. If anything, he was totally straight ahead as a person.
Talmor: That's the thing. He was really lovely, generous, open —all these things that make you feel good. He would listen, as opposed to just wait to talk. He'd make you feel good. I played with him with the Big Apple Circus with Diedre [Rodman] . . . His illness really affected me on a personal level, because I had lost my father to cancer, so I knew how it just eats you up and that's it. It sucks your life away. When he died, it really affected me. . . . A lot of the music I write is the result of emotional impact, and that tune came out in just a half an hour. . . . [about "Play Some D"] No, that's emotional fantasy. I wish I were 6'8" and could play basketball. . . . I love playing hoops. Once I discovered it, it's been my psychotherapy; it cleans my head out. I love the fact that, in basketball, a lot of elements are close to those in jazz. . . . The dancing part, improvising the moves, the creativeness that comes from having to figure out what you're going to do with all the scenarios that can happen to you in a split second, and you have to make a choice. . . . The game has a dancing component to it that I really like. You see that the players who are most effective have that sense of grace and sense of rhythm that is phenomenal. Phenomenal.
Bowen: I wrote that several months after my daughter Stella was born. She is the little star of my life. We've been through a lot of changes with her because, when she was born, we found out she had Down's Syndrome. She had to have open heart surgery at nine months to fix her heart. So, there've been a lot of emotional ups and downs going through that. This is one of those songs that came to me in one fell swoop. I was on a gig, and I heard it on a break; it was just in my head. I ended up writing it out and, basically, it was finished the next day.