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John Ettinger: Broken Pedals and an Open Mind

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As far as my having a philosophy of violin in jazz goes, I guess its just not really necessarily worrying about the fact that I play violin.
JohnAlthough violinist John Ettinger's been a presence in the San Francisco Bay Area music scene since he moved to the region from Arizona in 1992, he was by no means a household name even on the West Coast and was virtually unknown elsewhere. That state of relative obscurity made his recorded debut as a bandleader, August Rain (Ettinger Music, 2003) a wonderful surprise. Simply put, the album was great —who was this guy? August Rain's compositions—all but one Ettinger's own pieces—had fascinating, memorable structures, and their supple, sharp improvisations always seemed informed by the compositional materials. It certainly didn't hurt that Ettinger had surrounded himself with bassist Todd Sickafoose, drummer Scott Amendola and Rhodes player Art Hirahara—all outstanding Bay Area players who seemed deeply committed to and wisely understanding of his compositions. Best of all, the CD sounded both old and new at the same time. The tunes had the structural soundness and inside/outside vitality of modern jazz, while Ettinger's digital loops and Amendola's loops, and the organic eclecticism of where the music was allowed to go (into rock-inflected areas, certainly, but ultimately anywhere the musicians cared to take it) had the bracing flavor of something altogether new.

It seemed like it was time to chalk another one up to "those West Coast cats" as Ettinger joined the ranks of vital, fascinating Pacific-side players producing great new music—players like guitarist Nels Cline, clarinet player Ben Goldberg and the aforementioned Amendola.

Which isn't to suggest that Ettinger's music bears that much resemblance to Cline's, or Amendola's, or Sickafoose's, or any other San Francisco- or Los Angeles-based musician. It's its own animal. In any case, he's a technically-skilled, imaginative violin player who balances his fondness for loops pedals with a dry, laconic delivery and almost vibrato-free tone that blended marvelously on August Rain with the other three players on the session.

Ettinger's follow-up CD, Kissinger in Space—released in late 2006, again on his own Ettinger music imprint—more than solidifies his reputation. If it's no better than August Rain, it's just as good, and best of all, it's different. Drummer Amendola is, once again, an enormous force in the music, but Hirahara's Rhodes has been replaced with the tenor saxophone of New Yorker Tony Malaby. In place of Sickafoose is bassist Devin Hoff; in place of August Rain's individual soloing is a greater focus on solo counterpoint. The digital loops are considerably less prevalent. If the music is of a more somber beauty than August Rain, it's no less magnificent, and the CD was one of last year's very best recordings.

Ettinger's recorded accomplishments are all the more remarkable when one considers the fact that, due to the responsibilities of raising a family, he doesn't even work full-time these days as a musician. I spoke with him about the new CD, his fellow players like Malaby, Amendola and Hoff, his thoughts on the violin and the West Coast music scenes, and more.

Chapter Index

Kissinger in Space: Intentions and Players
Kissinger in Space: The Tunes
Thoughts on Violin
Gear
West Coast Sensibility


Kissinger in Space: Intentions and Players

All About Jazz: You've got a CD under your own name, Kissinger in Space, which you've released on your own Ettinger Music imprint. This is, like your 2003 CD August Rain, a quartet set that includes drummer Scott Amendola. But even though these records have a lot of similarities, there are a hell of a lot of differences—some have pointed out the relative absence of violin loops here, and perhaps less Amendola loops as well, but that's just one element. There's Tony Malaby's tenor instead of Art Hirahara's Rhodes. There's more composed unison playing, and more counterpart soloing in place of single- instrument soloing. There's even less conventional structure in the song forms—August Rain is a very unclichéd record, but it does have head/solo/solo/head structures. Ultimately, I think there's no loss of melodic beauty or rhythmic fascination, but the almost psychedelic, ecstatic, vibrating sound of songs like "August Rain or "Shunyata has been replaced with darker, more stark landscapes that have a sort of after- the-storm loveliness that's more somber. That's just my longwinded take.



So let's start with you telling what kind of music you wanted to create for this one. How do you think it differs from August Rain?

John Ettinger: I think you nailed a lot of it. I guess there are two or three main things that stick in my mind, as far as the differences go between the two records. The first one would be the instrumentation; I think just the sound of the Rhodes puts you in a certain kind of space historically to all the music that that sound is attached to. So that, combined with all the loops that you mentioned, creates a whole other kind of vibe. But the recording studio made a difference, too. Both places were great, both engineers were great, and they were wonderful experiences.

But August Rain is very much an analog thing from beginning to end, and Kissinger in Space is very much a digital thing from beginning to end. To me, it's not a plus or minus thing, but it did turn out to be a different kind of sound. And combine that with the switch from the Rhodes to tenor, and less loops and all that kind of thing, and the sound quality's kind of dramatic. I never really thought about trying to create something that was the same or something that was different. It was just, "here's the music, here are the players I want to play with—let's see what it's going to sound like. That's sort of the post-recording analysis [laughing] of why it sounds different.

AAJ: This is a really, really great group that's about as attuned to each other as a band can get without being too sensitive, too afraid to not follow. So I'll ask you about the players.

Tony Malaby is really as good as he gets on this record, which is a great compliment to him. It's amazing how similar in tone your two instruments can sound when that's what you want—and how different they sound when that contrast in tone is appropriate. Maybe any decent reading saxophonist could do the unison stuff with you, but it takes a special combination of imagination and sensitivity to do all the counterpart lines that he does with you all over these songs. What attracted you to Tony?

JE: Well, the main thing is that I've known Tony a long time. We went to school together years and years ago, and I hadn't really played with him since then. We've been in touch, but I hadn't really played with him. He was going to be out here—I'd tried a couple of times to get him to do some stuff before—and I told him who the rhythm section was, and he was really interested in that. He'd never met either of those guys [bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola] at that point, and that was part of the way that came together. Tony's such a great player, and he's one of those guys who, in every situation I've heard him in, always sounds like himself—he always sounds like Tony—but he can fit anywhere. He's just got this wonderful identity; there's this kind of generosity in his playing. I hear it on other CDs he's on—but in my experience with him, he just got inside these tunes and played them like they were his. It was a lot of fun sorting out just who was going to do what where.

As far as the dual solos that happen a lot on this disc go, that was a decision that we made at the rehearsal. We talked about it then, and realized that this could work pretty well. And the open sections ended up just being that in a lot of cases. Yeah, that worked out surprisingly well—I wasn't planning to go in and do that as much as we did, but I enjoyed that a lot. I think part of why that was effective was his ability to sort of glom on to what's going on. He just climbs [laughing] right into your head! It was definitely an adrenaline thing for me, doing this recording.



And the hookup with the other guys was perfectly intense, too. Scott and Devin have played a lot together—of course, they're part of the Nels Cline Singers, and they do lots of other projects together. So they've got a really strong hookup—much like [bassist] Todd Sickafoose and Scott did on the previous record. In fact, for the previous one, Todd, [Rhodes player] Art [Hirahara] and Scott had had an existing band going into the recording, so we benefited from that. The guys on Kissinger kind of all knew about each other, but they had never met until we got together on that rehearsal. They were very interested in playing together, though. Tony knew about Good For Cows, that band that Devin has; he knew about Scott from all the stuff that he does. And both of those guys knew about Tony from all the things that he does. So they all liked the sound of it; they thought it sounded great.

So from a producer's standpoint, it was a lot of fun watching those guys meet each other, and from a playing standpoint it was even more fun. Since that recording, Devin and Tony have played quite a bit together in New York. I think Tony's guested with Good For Cows a few times and he's had Devin on a couple of his projects. So I'm a matchmaker!

AAJ: Yes, you created a real East Coast/West Coast summit. One thing I love about Devin's playing here is that he can improvise remarkable melodies—but he can also just play a deadly repeating bass line, which is a not-uncommon element in your tunes.

JE: Yeah, I like that. I used to play bass a lot, and that's probably where that comes from. It's also a fun way for me to start writing, because I tend to hear bass lines first a lot of times. Then I'll build things on top of that. It doesn't always work that way, but a lot of times it does. And he just nails grooves. He's clearly really into it. I'd say, "Go ahead and stray from that if you want. He'd say, "No, this'll work. I'm just going to do this for a while. He's a guy who knows a lot about bass functioning in lots of different kinds of music, and he's not afraid of just laying them down like that and just grooving really hard on it.

AAJ: That's such a great trait in a bassist. Some bassists don't want to do that.

JE: Yeah. I don't know why that is. I think not wanting to play something like that is less likely among guys that are more honest about all the music that they heard growing up. Anyone under, oh, sixty years old at this point, has heard lots of different kinds of music. Everyone's grown up with all these kinds of music; there was so much to hear growing up, and it was hard to even avoid it unless you were so out to just do one particular thing. I've always had a hard time eliminating all the music I've heard. I'll spend some time focusing on a specific genre for a while, but generally it's like, "Now I'm going to listen to this, now I'm going to listen to this, now I'm going to listen to this. The question sort of became, "How am I, in my musical life, going to do all of this stuff? Eventually I just gave up trying, and the solution is to get a rhythm section that can play lots of different stuff. Then you just write whatever you want and see what happens. But yeah, Devin's wonderful at all that stuff.

AAJ: So you say Kissinger is a very digital recording, as opposed to August Rain . But is there any real postproduction after the fact?

JE: No. It's very much live-in-the-studio. We did everything in one day, essentially, just like August Rain. The whole band was there for one day and we did a couple takes of everything. The only postproduction stuff was fixing a couple errors I made on written stuff—things like that that you'd do anyway. But it's very much not a cut-and-paste ProTools project in that regard. All the looping and stuff that Scott did was done real-time; he did that while everyone else was playing and improvised those in or, with the written material, just played the loops while he was playing. I think "Kissinger in Space is the only one where I played any loops on this record. We might have gone back and boosted the signal on a couple of the songs or added a little processing or something, but nothing was really moved around or rearranged at all. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


Kissinger in Space: The Tunes

AAJ: Let's talk about some of the actual songs on the record. "Better Angels is a short one— which actually is different from August Rain, which, with the exception of the Peter Gabriel cover "Lead a Normal Life, had all long pieces. I like how this one goes from free improv—in this case, you and Devin—to the actual composed song. It's all pretty lovely, and I like Devin's bass line during your violin melody—he's sort of commentating in a very wise and grandfatherly way before Tony adds his own shadowing melody to your violin. Any thoughts on this one?

JE: We didn't really know what we were going to do with that tune. That's probably the most song-like song that I have. I don't know if it really sounds that way, but that's probably the tune that has the most changes—even though we didn't end up playing on them. And if you took off the improv in the front and just did the tune with a regular beat, it would almost sound like a pop tune. Which is fine—someday I'll probably mess with that idea live and we'll experiment with that sometime. But we wanted to just get that kind of ethereal, floaty thing in how we treated it.

I think the decision going into the recording was, "Hey—why don't Devin and John do a solo in the front? That would be good. So we did, and that's what happened, and we did a couple takes of that. I was pleasantly surprised by the hookup Devin and I had on that thing. All three of these guys do this, but Devin in particular on that tune just creates this atmosphere for you to play with and then it becomes pretty effortless. And here the tune really has that ethereal nature. Someday I would like to do it in a way that emphasizes the changes more, but these performances seemed like the right way to go for the recording.

AAJ: "Kissinger in Space is made of rather different elements that somehow cohere to make an amazing song. This one has your only violin loops on this record; it begins with loops from both you and Scott and that four-note seesawing violin phrase of yours that Tony sort of adorns as the tune goes into a total rock groove that reminds me a little of King Crimson. Then there's some loopy, treated improv strangeness in the middle—there's a very sighing, kind of a marooned quality to this part—before the rhythm section slowly coalesces around Tony's improv melody to go into a very cool 2- and 4-accented slow groove. Then there's a unison coda over this groove to take the tune out. This doesn't really describe what is a classic piece of yours. Tell me how it all works and how you wrote it.

JE: Well, I had two sections, and I knew I wanted to use them both, and I was not exactly sure how we were going to do that. Every tune has its own problems, and the thing you have to deal with on this tune is getting from one section to the other. The tempo for the last section is related to the first tempo. The dotted quarter note of the first section becomes the quarter note of the second section, and that's where you get this big kind of downshifted groove that sets up the last section. Devin starts the new tempo—he just starts playing that groove, when he feels it's right, in the middle of that group improv and Scott joins in and they make it into this almost "When the Levee Breaks [the Led Zeppelin tune]- sized thing, and eventually we take it out. And that group improv thing [laughing] is sort of the development to get to that groove.

But it was definitely conceived as a more rockin' thing, so the King Crimson reference is, I think, reasonable for that first section. To tell you the truth, the second section might have been inspired a little bit by [trumpeter] Cuong Vu's It's Mostly Residual album [ArtistShare, 2005], which I loved. I really loved it when he did that particular kind of thing. That's one of the best records I've heard in a long time, and I think he captured [guitarist Bill] Frisell's best performance in a long, long time. The way he goes in and out of these long, beautiful melodies that'll pop in in the same kind of way—it's a lot like what we did on this one. I have to give him credit for that; it's my melody, but the idea probably came from listening so much to It's Mostly Residual.

JohnAAJ: Well, Devin's changing the section by cueing the band with a certain little phrase, and that's pretty much what happens on It's Mostly Residual. Frisell or someone will just play the phrase that tells everyone it's time to go over there now.

JE: Exactly. Devin just started pumping away on those eighth notes in the new tempo, and I think Tony was already playing that beautiful melody that was leading to that, and suddenly—there we were, new tempo, and they just played this big groove. When we listened to the playback for that take, I had had a preconception in mind that wasn't what really happened, and I was really doing battle with that. But those guys were listening to the groove and going, "Yeah! That's really cool! And I was saying, "Ah, well, you know, ah— But I ended up saying, "Well, we'll leave it; I'll deal with it later. Then I listened to it the next day, and I thought it was really a strong section. Those guys just pounding away at that thing sounded really good.

AAJ: I suppose it can be a little shocking at first when the song isn't doing what you were ordering it to in your mind.

JE: Exactly, and more often than not, it ends up being okay or better [laughing]. "Oh, okay, that's much cooler than what I imagined it might be.

AAJ: I think "Harper Lee is perhaps the most complex and, as it were, "breakable of the songs here—it seems to require such a delicacy of emphasis on the part of the players that I think it would be easy for it to go wrong. The first part of the song has Scott's mbira being looped and treated as Devin's arco bass begins a melody that's taken up by your violin before Tony takes it up. Then there's some great counterpoint between you and Tony before Scott's cymbals bring in a groove with a two-way sax/violin dialogue that just goes and goes. The whole piece has a great symmetry and thematic unity that is really special.

JE: That's probably one of my favorite ones on this record. It felt kind of chamber-y when I was writing it, and I wanted it to be as simple as possible and not to get too detailed. It's definitely one of those things where the improv is very overlaid with the composed parts. I liked the way it ended up coming out. Tony's playing in the high range on those melodies in the beginning is, I think, just gorgeous. I think that Devin's solo up front is really gorgeous, too.

That one is a weird tune in that it's pretty much as close as I have to—well, I was going to say "through- composed, but maybe "The Doors Are Closing is the most through-composed. But in the middle of "Harper Lee, it's another one of those cases where Devin's playing a repeating bass line that was written, and there's a little bit of variation on it, but he's definitely doing the Devin thing—holding on to it. The two- way solo between Tony and me turns into a three-way thing, because Scott gets so deeply into that, and across the bar line there are all these beautiful effects, just rhythmic things happening between the three of us. That was probably, improv-wise, sort of a new area to get into—and for me, one of the most fun areas to get into as a player, because of where those guys took it.

AAJ: Well, I certainly don't want to be suggesting that you and Tony are doing all the interesting stuff in here with just a rhythm section playing underneath you. A perfect example of how the quartet plays as equal voices on this record is "Tangle, the album closer. It has a composed 7/8 groove, and a melody from Tony that your violin part adorns and complements before the counterpart improv gets going. This groove could get static, I think, but it doesn't because of the changing rhythmic configurations of Scott and Devin and you and Tony—lots of elbowing and nudging of one against another—tangling, if you will.

JE: Well, when I was listening back to that tune, I thought it sounded like two duets throughout—two duets that are reacting to each other. Tony and I are improvising and kind of butting heads once in a while, following the written counter-line, or the role of the written counter-line. And those other guys are playing the groove, but they're doing all this stuff too, and we're just [laughing] knocking the bar lines down like crazy in that give-and-take in a really nice way. There was a lot of fun deep in the middle of that tune. And Devin would just pop out; the B section of the bass line was almost dubby, in a way, and he just really played that character up, and it all, strangely enough, held together.

AAJ: I think you were saying that on "Harper Lee, there was a sort of interlaying of improvised and composed parts. On "Talking Leaves, what I assume is improvisation is so thematically of a piece with the song, especially with those unison phrases stuck in there, that I find myself changing my mind and thinking that it's all through-composed—until I realize that no, it is improvised. There is lots of improv in "Talking Leaves, no?

JE: Oh, yeah. It is a really long melody, but the improv section—which is, again, Tony and I over Devin doing the bass line and Scott doing his own improv version of that—is very close in some places to the spirit of the melody. It stays really melodic; it doesn't suddenly jump off and become really angry or different: "Oh, we're improvising now. It very much follows out of what the composed part is. I don't really talk about it, because guys like this just do it. I don't have to talk about this at rehearsal, or anything like that, because one of the things these guys just do is find the character of the piece and play that piece. And there are always open sections. There might be one written thing—in this case, the bass line was written. But they stay within the character and the vibe of the piece, and that's sort of the goal. The goal is to sort of provide the subject matter for the improv.

It's the idea of having overlapping sections and maybe one written thing continuing through the improv, or two written things—and having it all overlap. That really interests me; I like music that I hear that does that, and at this point I like writing stuff like that. That's not to say there's not a completely-free improv project coming up someday soon! But for this project, that was definitely what was interesting to me.

AAJ: You mentioned "The Doors Are Closing, which is pretty fascinating. It's just a lovely written three-way melody of arco bass, violin and a sometimes rather flute-like saxophone. I think the melody just plays through three times, with Scott's electronics sort of painting over the construct. So he's the only improviser here. I love the brief pause before the three of you start the melody up again, and I love the quality of intuition, which is Scott's improv, over something more rational—that three-way melody.

JE: There's a sort of collision—well, "collision is probably the wrong word, because it worked well. But the three-part melody sounds kind of old, kind of chant-y. And Scott's thing is obviously very electronic. But there's this place where it meets in a kind of ethereal way that I like a lot in that performance. That tune was originally conceived as a vehicle for improv after we did the written section. But we were playing through the line, and I think Tony suggested trying to repeat it to see what that sounded like, and we ended up with this sort of chant-like quality. He's playing so high—I mean, that's all tenor. And he doesn't mess one of those notes. It's so high—like you said, almost flute-like in its sound. It's odd. It's a really unusual timbre, those three instruments, and it was another of those cases where it ended up different from what I was expecting in a really nice way. That tune—it's a little dark, I guess, in a meditative kind of way.

AAJ: When Tony plays up high like that, it's a completely different sound on tenor saxophone than anyone else on earth.

JE: I've had people listen to that track and say, "What instrument is he playing there? They tend to think it's either an alto or a soprano. One person thought it was a flute. Because those first few notes are just so round. It's stunning. I've certainly never heard anyone sitting next to me, anyway, play that high that long on the tenor. And that soft! The dynamic thing had to be really difficult, too, because it's not really a loud part. It's not like he's screaming up high; he's playing these beautiful little quiet notes up there.

AAJ: "Dual Diagnosis has a lightness and a crispness of execution that I find characteristic of your music in general. I like how the unison melody head starts right up with no intro or anything and doesn't really ever come back, not explicitly. This one really has a slippery, killing groove with a shifting, prowling bottom that heats up quite majestically. It's the perfect opening track for the CD.

JE: I really enjoyed just starting the tune on the very first note of the A section, no intro whatsoever, after August Rain started with a two-minute textural thing—which I'm sure had a lot of people who may not have been into that particular sort of thing jumping right away to the next tune [laughing]. But it was kind of fun, just for my own amusement, to start the CD this way. And it turned out to be a pretty good opener, and this is one of those tunes where the character of the A section was hopefully strong enough to dictate the open solo section. And this was completely open; if Devin had wanted to, he had the option of repeating bass lines, but he did a lot of beautiful stuff in there and that underpinning was really a lot of fun. That was just one of those "Okay, here we go—hold on, kind of parts, and it was fun.

AAJ: I do hear that A section in everything that is played afterwards.

JE: Well, that's definitely the idea. It's like, "Here's what we're talking about. Say anything you want about this. You can interrupt; we can talk at the same time. That's fine. And that's what happened.

AAJ: "Quaint is the one piece that actually has individual solos as opposed to interlocking parts or contrapuntal solo lines. And it has an A section and a B section—A having the concrete time, B being a rubato part. These are conventions of jazz, of course, but what's interesting here is how the parts blur—how the boundaries are not that clearly delineated. Tony's solo is wonderfully phrased, totally creative, great—and it's really in the B section, but there's a moment of the A-section feel in his solo. And your solo starts in a rubato section but the time doesn't so much change as coalesce, gather, form—into that outro descending line. All of it feels like it could never be played exactly the same from occasion to occasion.

JE: That one could have gone a lot of different ways as far as the form of the solos. The solos both grow out of the B section—that's the B material first there, but it could grow in a lot of ways. The idea was just to eventually work back into the A section. It's a pretty simple instruction on that one, although, obviously, we all run through a lot of different things to get to that. Yeah, that was a [laughing] blowin' tune. That's the blowing tune, if you know what I mean.

AAJ: Have you performed this material live?

JE: I haven't yet. I am hoping to—later. I'm hoping to book some shows. At this point, we're looking at summer. My whole thing is that I've sort of taken a sabbatical from some of the live stuff that I had been doing because I've started a family; I've got a couple of young kids. So I'm not playing out a lot right now. I hope that'll take off again soon. I'm still working all that out. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


Thoughts on Violin

AAJ: Violin isn't the most prominent instrument in jazz or improvised music, although there are plenty of great players doing it from Jenny Scheinman to Regina Carter to Mark Feldman to Billy Bang to you and so on. It's interesting to hear how violin is played in the context of this music—how much vibrato, how much pizzicato, etc. What's your philosophy of your instrument, if you have one?

JE: Well, now that you mention vibrato—I've been trying to avoid that [laughing] for years. I'm sort of making my peace with vibrato. I have made that peace, I suppose.

JohnAAJ: You don't use much vibrato, that's for sure.

JE: I kind of listen to horn players and take cues on that. They're sort of the center of the development of the music, and some sax players of the older school have all kinds of vibrato—you know, Coleman Hawkins, that kind of player. And then Wayne Shorter, well—I know it might be there sometimes, but he also just plays these pitches that move in pitch sometimes, but there's no vibrato per se. I think my sound, if anything, early on, came from there. I'm not saying I set out to sound like Wayne Shorter, but that sound was an archetype for me when I was learning to do the jazz thing. I wanted to get away from the really dramatic vibrato that tends to be overused by classical players, or that's inherent in those styles.

AAJ: Well, that's what people think of when they think of classical violin, or, if they haven't heard it in any other context, violin in general.

JE: Right. But it creeps up and surprises me where I hear it sometimes. I was listening to Sonny Rollins recently, and there's a fair amount of vibrato in some of his playing! I was surprised. But he's got such control over it—his vibrato will be in rhythm, almost, and it'll change note to note based on whatever the rhythmic message of the note is. But as a violinist, I did try to get away from vibrato early on.



As far as my having a philosophy of violin in jazz goes, I guess it's just not really necessarily worrying about the fact that I play violin. It's more just learning as much about that music that I can. I think, at this point, there are so many violin players—you just mentioned a few good ones and there are a lot more these days, I think. It seems like it's almost become common enough that we're over the fact—or we should be over the fact—that we're a unique crowd. It's more about what the music is, or what you're going to say with the music.

AAJ: That feels where it's going. Away from tokenism.

JE: I hope so. "Wow, you play jazz violin? Wow! I've never heard of that! class="f-right s-img">
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Gear

AAJ: I know you utilize loops in your playing, and I'm curious about your gear. Tell me what you play through—are you playing purely acoustically at all or do you play through an amp at all times? I also think I hear some violin doubling or chorusing on older stuff like "Shunyata and "August Rain.

JE: Well, there is no doubling. On "Shunyata and on a lot of that first record, on a lot of August Rain, we re-amped some of the stuff. That's just taking the existing track and running it through an amp again to get that crunchy, distorted feeling. That was the method of getting that sound. And a lot of times, that was blended with the mic sound and with the clean pickup sound. Generally, for recording, I've got a pickup on my violin and there's a mic overhead, and I'll take the mic signal, the clean pickup signal, and then the effected line. Then we just figure out the blend later. In the case of "August Rain, we took the clean sound and ran it though this beautiful little old Fender Champ from the early '70s that Todd Sickafoose owns and loaned to me for that purpose. I love that Champ! That was a lot of fun using that one for that kind of thing.



But that's primarily the way it's recorded. As far as the looping stuff goes, that's just the effect line, obviously, and as for the pedals used—it varies. Primarily, the Line6 DL4 is the primary pedal that I've used on both of those records. Last summer, I bought one of the old [Electro-Harmonix] 16 Second Delays, just because that's sort of the model for a lot of that playing that I like. That's the one Frisell used.

AAJ: I think Cuong Vu, too, although I might be mistaken.

JE: Yeah, maybe. And [guitarist] Nels Cline—still, I think. So I just wanted to get a hold of one and see what they sounded like. Unfortunately, it was [laughing] not a very good specimen of that unit! It crapped out a bunch. I've got some broken pedals. I don't know what I'm going to use in the future. There's another looping company that Scott told me about—a company called Maneco. It's this guy in, I think, Uruguay, who makes these pedals. There are a bunch of different versions, but the original idea was to a really hard, strong, tank version of the old 16 Second Delay. Now he's added filters and done lots of different variations on that idea. So they show up in the States once in a while, and I bought one of those last year, too, during my looping research [laughing]. And it turns out Scott used to own that actual pedal. He sold it to one guy and that guy sold it to me! So Scott's looping is done on that kind of pedal; he's got some other versions from that company. But I can be dangerously close to a pedal geek at times. So they'll show up on my stuff again.

AAJ: Actually, considering how interesting you find them, it's a bit of a tribute to your overall artistic aesthetic that you use the loops so sparingly on this new record.

JE: Well, the original conception of the album—this was way before I wrote the music—was actually different. I was thinking I wanted to do a loud electric trio, heavy on the loops. But when Tony became involved was actually the same time I began doing the writing, and the same time all my pedals started crapping out. So all those things intertwined to make the music what it was! But mostly there were all these melodies I wanted to hear these guys do that seemed unlike what I'd heard them—especially Tony— do before. So that dictated a lot of the direction away from the trio concept. But the broken pedals were an influence too. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


West Coast Sensibility

AAJ: It's always tempting to think there's a local style in a city or even a large area—certainly that makes it easier for writers to discuss what's happening there even if it's really kind of mythological. But there are West Coast guys like Scott Amendola, you, Nels Cline, [clarinetist] Ben Goldberg, who are all doing amazing, great work. Of course, I'm combining cities here—Los Angeles and San Francisco—so it's all kind of dubious. But is there anything you West Coast players share in sensibility? Or, for that matter, Bay Area players?

JE: That's a good question. I don't know if I have a good answer for it, though, because with all those people you mentioned—like Nels and his brother Alex down in L.A., and Scott and Ben and lots of others up here in San Francisco, and guys in Seattle doing great stuff too—I guess there is sort of a thing. At least for the Bay Area, the one identifying influence for me, that attracted me to the area and that seems to play a role in identifying the stuff that comes out, is a certain openness. There's a lot of boundary-free music-making. I don't know for sure, but I think this is largely the case in New York now, too, judging from a lot of the guys hanging in Brooklyn and what they're doing now. There's a lot of post-post-post-post- everything going on now. There's certainly the neo-bop stuff going on there, but it doesn't seem to be the only way anymore. It's not like you still have to do that exclusively or your methods aren't valid. Not like it used to be, although there are pockets of that stuff, and always should be—that music should be preserved and upheld and performed. That's all great.

But I think one of great things around here is that there are these really hardcore academic guys—I don't mean that in any dry sense. I mean guys like Ben Goldberg and [guitarist] John Schott, who just study so hard, and there's this really rigorous thing going on within their music. And that's how they knock down the walls. Then Scott has elements of that kind of method, too, but he also just plays lots of different styles and then has the rhythm section of his band, and all the players in his band, define how it's going to sound. That's probably closer to what I do. You just write the music you want to write and have it linked together by the fact that the same people are going to play all the tunes. That goes a long way in making a sound good.

JohnAAJ: You've told me you're taking something of a break from playing out. What's your life like as a working musician in San Francisco? Can you support yourself playing music? And do you take a lot of side gigs?

JE: I have supported myself playing music. Right now, it's different because to start this family, we needed benefits, so I've been doing other stuff for the last three or four years. I'm fortunate to have a flexible enough situation that I can do some playing, so I'll probably continue doing it this way. I'd hate to make my kids suffer because of my art, if you know what I mean. I don't want to put that on them. If, at some point, I can make a decent enough amount of money doing just music, yeah—I'd love to do it hardcore, full-time.

The goal right now is just to make as much music as I can. I used to do whatever the phone call asked me to. Whatever the gig was, I'd go play it. I used to do a lot of improv stuff in this area. Before I moved here, I did a lot of bass playing and a lot of violin stuff for all kinds of music. And I both loved and hated it. No, that's not fair to say—I always love to play, and some music is more fun to play, and some situations are better than others. But I've always wanted to do what I do now musically. So the idea now is that I have limited time, and so I'm going to focus on just writing my own stuff. I'll do something if it's something I like, something in the ballpark where I feel I can really contribute something. Relatively recently, [clarinetist/ composer] Beth Custer did a beautiful soundtrack for a silent film called My Grandmother. That was actually two or three years ago, but it was her soundtrack to this Russian movie, made in the Georgian province of Russia in 1929. It's this really dark slapstick comedy—this out movie. It was really fun to do. So I took a week and did that. Todd Sickafoose and some other local players were on that. So projects like that that come up—you've just got to do them. But primarily, the focus is going to be on just writing and performing my stuff. And the next goal, I think, is going to be getting out and playing it live this summer. We'll see how that works. Everyone's schedule is so crazy, so I'm not sure how that'll shape up. We'll see.

AAJ: Do you foresee writing and recording any new music in the next year?

JE: I'm always writing a little bit. I write down ideas in notebooks. I've got some ideas already—and a lot of notebooks [laughing]. Right now, though, it's a question of funding the next one, to be honest, and what exactly it's going to be. So I have no plans at the moment, but lots of ideas.


Selected Discography

John Ettinger, Kissinger in Space (Ettinger Music, 2006)
Honeycut, The Day I Turned to Glass (Quannum, 2006)
Percy Howard's Meridium, A Pleasant Fiction (A Necessary Angel, 2004)
John Ettinger, August Rain (Ettinger Music, 2003)
Beth Custer, Vinculum Symphony Live! (BC Records, 1999)
Percy Howard, Incidental Seductions (Materiali Sonori, 1999)
Pete Forbes, The Gulf Between (Stemming Music, 1998)
Scott Rosenberg, IE: For Large Ensemble (Barely Auditable Records, 1997)

Photo Credit
Richard Ward


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