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Peter Gordon: Innovation At All Costs

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AAJ: I've read that you approach some projects with a template that you want the artists to respond to. And that you will find the artists that suit that particular endeavor, and that's why you may see Craig Taborn instead of Matthew Shipp or Hamid Drake instead of another drummer on a certain record.

PG: Yes everything is project-driven. We don't have the luxury of just putting out the next quartet album or whatever. Each project has its own essence and it needs the right combination of musicians to bring that forward. That's where the magic is. You're bringing artists who may or may not have played together but you feel can respond to the stimulus you're giving them. That's what makes it special. The creative process becomes very collaborative on many levels and you have to have the right people. As opposed to musicians who have a well rehearsed thing, it's getting musicians in the room and there is where the magic happens.

AAJ: Being that Thirsty Ear is a label that has a limited number of records you can afford to put out each year do you feel that push to make every record special, and not to be fatalistic, because you don't know how much longer you can keep doing this?

PG: I think that's a personal goal that is regardless of longevity. This is my thirtieth year in the business and I only want to put out records that I feel make a statement and go to a place that I haven't been to before. I personally believe in the basic intelligence of the listener. If you believe in that then you believe that they also can go to places they've never explored before. And then it becomes your obligation to not give them a repetition of something they've heard. You have a professional obligation to take them to an unknown land. It's as much about keeping the interest alive for myself—if I can please that after all these years then I've pushed forward.

The record industry doesn't need more music. We have more music to last ten generations henceforth. What the industry needs more than anything else is innovation. Innovation is what we lack at this point. We are a very studied business and industry. Everyone studies each other and everyone has been influenced by each other. We have our great masters and no one can escape our big masters—it's like a quicksand we fall into. You have to force innovation because it's not promoted as greatness. If you look at the essence of jazz—that's the original punk rock back in the day. These guys are the bad boys, these are the guys that were saying "screw you to music, doing their late night sessions and cutting the cloth in a different way. [Jazz] has become so institutionalized it's become antithetical to its original roots.



When you have so much worship of the traditionalists its hard for young musicians to thrive because it seems like you're going to the alter every time [you play]. We're trying to encourage them to go to a different church and get a different flock going. We believe in a language of improvisation.

AAJ: In life, in general.

PG: Everything. But you can only base improvisation and you can only do well in that if you have an absolutely firm foundation on the basic principles of what you're doing. If you're improvising just to do it, you're spurting out nonsense. If you improvise knowing the basic so-called rules and knowing the basic principles and then taking that and reconstructing that in an innovative way, then you're working forward from an educated point of view as opposed to a punk rock point of view, which is more of an attitude. Which is okay—that works there. It's a different aesthetic. We respect tradition but we're here to screw it up.

AAJ: I think that what Thirsty Ear does can speak to younger people and it goes against this notion that jazz is dead or that young people don't listen to jazz. But do you feel a pressure with this dichotomy of wanting to put out records that are innovative, and The Free Zen Society does that, versus putting out another record with Beans or El-P or someone you know that young people will identify with and who might pick up this record.

PG: Again—project by project. I think innovation is the key. And if it's with the hip underground rappers like El-P, Beans, or Mike Ladd and we have the right project together then absolutely. We're not driven by a commercial formula we're driven by an artistic vision. Granted, we did just have our first Grammy nomination [Sex Mob's Sexotica]—we didn't get it and maybe that was some oversight of the Grammy committee. You get there because finally the project is successful.

You're trying to hack down with your machete a new path because the old path is time honored, time worn and just worn-out quite frankly. We always felt the concept of jazz in particular was about doing something fresh and doing something special.

It's hard to do that with such a body of work behind you that is so well documented. You've gotta find your own path. That's what we do. And we're not limited to just using jazz musicians. Jazz is the basic rooting but we bring in those other types of musicians who can bring in a different aesthetic and bring [the project] to a different place.

Jazz doesn't succeed because it's not in the common culture. The common culture is about today not about yesterday—yesterday is history. And if jazz wants to be alive and it needs to be alive, it needs to relevant and it can't be relevant if you're always tipping the masters of fifty years ago. It can only be in historical society then. The masters are great and the masters will never be topped and that's precisely the problem—they never will be topped. So let's try something new! Let's try something fresh.

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