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Dom Minasi: Vampires, Chaos in Time, and Total Control

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With every record, Im saying, 'oh, theyre going to hate this.' This is how I feel. You have to understand, I come from a place where for years, I got fired.
Dom MinasiEven in the notoriously difficult jazz music business, Dom Minasi's had a rough time of it. The 63-year-old New-York-born-and-bred guitarist/composer was playing in a jazz trio by the time he was 15 and had an extremely full teaching/gigging schedule up until 1973, he was signed to Blue Note Records. Unfortunately, the George Butler-led 1970s Blue Note was a conflicted and faded label with a lust for commercial grandeur and an almost total lack of conception about how to achieve it. In any case, it wasn't an ideal time to be signed to the company, and after 1974's pretty-good-if-cautious When Joanna Loved Me and 1975's just-plain-bad I Have the Feeling I've Been Here Before, Minasi left the label. And, for that matter, the business—he concentrated on teaching and writing almost two decades.

Minasi rather cautiously reentered the jazz world in the early 1990s as the principal composer for MICE, the Manhattan Improvisational Chamber Ensemble (he had gotten a degree in composing a few years before). Soon enough he was gigging again and the close of the decade saw the release of Finishing Touches, a trio recording on CIMP Records, and the first record under his name in 24 years. Determined to follow his own artistic path exclusively, Minasi and his wife Carol Mennie founded their own CDM Records imprint, which released the Dom Minasi Trio's Takin' the Duke Out CD in 2001 and has continued to release Minasi product (and Mennie's own I'm Not a Sometime Thing) to this day.

None of the CDM records is bad, but the new double CD The Vampire's Revenge is both very good and very strange—it's utterly sui generis and altogether other. To put it simply, it's a vampire-themed concept album that manages to fuse ambitious composition and burning free improvisation. Its huge ensemble of musicians comprise a who's-who of improv greats who combine in just about every grouping imaginable. No one, however, is playing more marvelously than Minasi, whose percussive, masterly attack is both technically frightening and utterly focused on serving the music. I telephoned Minasi at home to discuss all sorts of things—but mostly The Vampire's Revenge.

All About Jazz: You took a long hiatus from recording after your somewhat unhappy Blue Note period in the 1970s. Since 1999, though, you've been recording under your own name with some regularity and since your 2001 Takin' the Duke Out album, you've been releasing your own stuff on your own CDM Records label. What inspired forming your own label and releasing your music this way?

Dom Minasi: To have total control. I wanted to have total control over everything that I did, everything I put out—the covers, the liner notes, the tunes, the musicians, every note. I didn't have that at Blue Note, and it was not a good experience for me. Even though guys are being signed now when they're 18, or 22, I was 31 when I signed with them. But I still didn't know anything about the recording business; I was kind of naive. So I learned a lot then by not having control—I just did what they told me to do. When I came back into it, first I recorded for CIMP, and that was good. Then when we decided to do something else, some people suggested to me that a lot of artists now are starting to form their own record companies; they've been doing it themselves. That was the wave of the future. So in 2000, we formed CDM Records, which stands for my wife Carol; me, Dom; and Mennie/Minasi. So we put a whole team together, got some investors, and now it's a whole enterprise. We have a promo guy, a radio person, lawyers, distributing companies, the whole works. It's a full-time job, besides trying to write and play.

AAJ: This ties in with CDM, Inc, your nonprofit organization, right?

DM: Yeah. I'm very much into education; that was the whole purpose to form that. So it's for teaching, doing workshops. I had done a lot of workshops for young audiences for an educational company and I wanted to continue that. We do things in schools to get the kids more aware of music and jazz. My wife comes from a theatrical background, so she's involved in the theater end of it. And because I'm also a songwriter, we do workshops where we can write an original theater piece, with her handling the acting end and me handling the music and lyrics. It's a whole thing that we do.

AAJ: This brings us to your newest release, The Vampire's Revenge, an enormous, epic double CD inspired by the novels of Anne Rice. This is a remarkable, unique album that's good and interesting in so many ways. It's also rather different from your previous CDM albums. In any case, I think it's something only you could pull off. I know the seed of the project was the title cut, which you wrote back in the 1990s, but why don't you give me an overview of how this album came to be.

DM: When I came back into it in the nineties, I never really pursued any jazz gigs. I had played with [bassist] Dominic Duval in the eighties, but I was just into doing my workshops with kids; I enjoyed that. I wasn't really looking to get back into the recording end of it. But I got a call sometime in the early nineties from a guy who had a big-band group, like ten, twelve pieces. He said, "the guitarist can't make it. You want to come on in and sub? I said, "I'm really not interested in doing any big bands unless there's something in it for me to play. I do read, but I just didn't want to sit there and play chord changes. He said, "no, there's stuff for you to play. So I went down and lo and behold, there's Dominic, and the drummer was Jay Rosen. So we hooked up again, and Dominic was involved in all kinds of things. One of them was this group named MICE [Manhattan Improvisers Chamber Ensemble], which had bass, drums, an opera singer, violin and a reed player who doubled on everything.

I was not with the group, and there wasn't any guitar in the group, but Dominic knew I could write, and said, "why don't you come in and write some stuff and play with the group? That's how I started to develop this whole writing for bigger ensembles. I wrote a lot of things, a real mixture of classical music, jazz, free improv. John Gunther was the last person to play with the group, and John could read anything, and he could play all these different instruments—it was great writing for him. That's why, when I did The Vampire's Revenge, I wanted him on it. So that's where I honed my writing skills. Also, in 1988 I went back to school and two years later, I got a degree in composition. I studied with [composer] John Corigliano, who was very much into contemporary writing, and who is a great writer. When I saw his score to Altered States [the 1980 Ken Russell film], it just rang a bell in my head: I thought, I need to learn how to do this. I'm the type of guy that, once I decide I want to learn how to do something, I pursue it and pursue it, spend a lot of time with it, and teach myself. I taught myself jazz harmony and theory when I was a kid, because no one was teaching it then.

So I wrote for this group, and eventually everyone parted ways, but Dominic and Jay and I still played together; we had a quartet with [altoist] Blaise Siwula. Dominic wanted to submit something to CIMP Records, and at the time, I was reading a lot of Anne Rice. So I wrote this kind of sinister melody and named it "The Vampire's Revenge. We didn't record for CIMP, but it became part of the regular repertoire of the different groups I had. And I had it in the back of my head that someday, I would love to do a vampire series.

When the time came to do a new one after Quick Response [Minasi's 2004 organ quartet CD], we were discussing it—we discuss every move we're going to make and bring it to a committee, the whole thing—and Carol suggested, "why don't you go for the vampire thing? I said, "well, I'm not sure how big a project it is, but let me send out some emails and get in touch with people, see who wants to do it. Well, everybody said yes. The only people who turned me down did it because they were too busy, not because they didn't want to do it.

Anthony Braxton was in the middle of all kinds of stuff—and he and I hooked up a couple of months ago, so we may do a recording together soon. I was going back and forth for a year with Peter Brötzmann, and finally, I thought I had him, and his schedule changed. It just didn't work out. David S. Ware said he just wanted to concentrate on his quartet. But of everybody else, 25 people, 22 of them said yes. I looked at my wife and said, "this is going to be a really big project because I can't have players like this and come in for a minute or two! It would be disrespectful to what they do.

Once I had the schedules and I had the players, I started with a couple of tunes I already had—I just needed to rearrange them. Then I started thinking about titles, how I would do the album, and its order. Then I started writing. The way I write, I don't use the guitar or the piano. I just write everything in my head. Sometimes I think about if for weeks before I actually write a note. Then things just started to flow and come out, and it worked out. The guys came in and left their egos at the door.

The biggest problem was getting it organized. The second problem was how to get from free-form playing to reading, and back and forth, and back and forth, and have the transitions work smoothly. And for that, I decided to use a conductor for the big group, when there were ten or twelve pieces. I had a guitar part, and I couldn't play my part and conduct and make sure everyone was doing what they should be doing. So I called Byron Olson; we've been friends since my Blue Note days. I asked him if he was interested, and he said, "well, I'm not into avant-garde, free-form playing. I said, "well, there are arrangements, and new, written music. So he came over and said, "yeah, let's do it.

I told him exactly what I needed him to do, how to conduct the players: he would decide who would solo when, and how to get the people back into the written parts. We had one rehearsal with the big group, and he came in, and he knew the music. It was amazing how much time he'd put in and studied, and I was so happy. He was even there for the mix of the big-group stuff. He's such a professional, and a great composer himself.

The biggest problem with the big groups was really just how musicians naturally are. It's the same thing with me—when I'm playing music, I close my eyes, I'm not looking at music or at anyone. So we had to be able to get them to come in on a dime; they had to look at the music. So at the recording, we gave Byron a microphone with his own track, so everyone could hear him say, "okay, letter B is coming up, so get ready—one, two, three. Like that. Otherwise, it would never have worked. And the transitions were so smooth.


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