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Interviews

Steve Korn: Third Time's a Charm

By Published: January 15, 2004

I think my compositions have probably evolved more to suit my drumming. I

Good things come in threes, the saying goes, and so it is with the third release from Seattle drummer Steve Korn. While his first and second CD projects contained a total of six original compositions, Points in Time features seven Korn originals, providing us with the clearest glimpse into his musical psyche.

Recorded at Studio X in June of this year, Points in Time features an all-city cast with Korn on drums, Paul Gabrielson on double bass, Marc Seales on piano and the coupling of Mark Taylor and Rob Davis on saxophones. The CD is due out in December, with a CD release party scheduled for Dec.11 at the Triple Door.

All About Jazz: “Hymn,” the spacious opening track, provides an attractive contrast to the second-hand-ticking, syncopated urgency of the next tune “Helio.” The former ends – pitch for pitch in the horns – where the latter begins. Is this grouping a coincidence or by design?

Steve Korn: The horn pitches at the beginning of “Helio” are actually different than those which end the “Hymn,” but the vibe is very similar. You’re right, this is by design. When performing these pieces live, they are always grouped together and were composed with this in mind.

AAJ: “Tangents” is a modal piece with a large solo passage which offers an intriguing in-stereo comparison: saxophonist Mark Taylor, recorded on the left channel, and saxophonist Rob Davis, on the right. What qualities do Mark and Rob bring to your music? Did you write any of the tunes on the record with them in mind?

SK: Mark and Rob are like a team. They’re best friends, for a period of time they lived together, and they have played together for years. They’re both extremely gifted, disciplined musicians who have a genuine appreciation of the differences in one another’s playing. They both came up studying with Don Lanphere and attended the University of Washington. So, they know how to play together. This can’t be overstated. Whether playing written passages or improvising together, there is an immediate connection between them that would not be the same had I paired either of them with a less familiar partner.

There are many great examples on the CD of how well these guys listen to and compliment one another. They both have so much range, from great melodicism to all-out, “eat the horn alive” type aggressiveness. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from both of them over the years. They’ve both turned me on to a lot of different music as well as forced me to raise the level of my playing just to try and keep up! They’ve both exemplified for me what it means to be a disciplined practitioner of this music. As for writing with them in mind, I did know I wanted them for the recording when I was composing the music, however I don’t think I write for specific players. I just try to write the music I’m hearing in my head. When it came time to record, I let everyone in the group pick which tunes they would like to solo on.

AAJ: Your first and second recording projects, Here and Now (Origin, 1999) and Pride and Joy (Origin, 2000), each featured three original compositions. Points in Time more than doubles that number with seven originals out of nine total tracks. As you continue to mature as a composer, in what ways does this growth affect your perspective as a drummer?

SK: I haven’t really noticed an affect on my drumming. I have always tried to approach the drums from a compositional perspective, always trying to react to a composition by playing what it makes me hear in my head and trying to make choices that I think will best enhance it in relation to what the other players in the group are doing. This is a hit or miss proposition and is at the essence of improvisation, as I don’t want to determine one way of playing a piece and try to recreate it again and again. I think my compositions have probably evolved more to suit my drumming. I’m trying to strike a balance between interesting writing and arranging with a lot of room for the group to interact via the improvisations. Some people write tunes that have very complex melodies and harmonies followed by solo sections that are very difficult to navigate or lock the group into having to play certain figures or with a certain vibe.

To me the soloists sound like they are just trying to make it through the tune and don’t have the opportunity to really play and say something and interact with the group. I think it’s a real challenge to write material that has depth and is interesting yet is accessible enough for the soloists to bring their depth. I’m also trying to write tunes without an agenda. That is, I don’t feel the need to follow standard forms or rely on jazz-like harmonies, rhythms or phrasing. That stuff goes into my tunes if it’s honestly what I’m hearing but I try not to force anything, just like my drumming.

AAJ: “Beacons” is a classical-sounding ballad with a contrapuntal head harmonized for Davis and Taylor on soprano saxophones – an ambitious undertaking in any genre. The tune’s composer is Jochen Feucht. Who is he? How did you hear about his work?

SK: Jochen Feucht is a fantastic German saxophonist who I happened upon accidentally. About two years ago, Dave Marriott recommended the recordings of German pianist, Florian Ross, an amazing composer. I really loved the drummer on the CDs, Jochen Rueckert. I went looking for more CDs featuring him and was led to Jochen Feucht’s Signs and Lines recording. I really liked the playing as well as his composing and decided to transcribe “Beacons” for my record. It provides a nice contrast to the rest of my material.

AAJ: “Little Bird” is a delicate piece with a beautiful harmonic progression – the perfect vehicle for Marc Seales’ piano artistry. What prompted you to compose this sonorous tune?

SK: I think Marc Seales makes this the perfect vehicle! Marc has been one of the most important musical influences in my life. We have a wonderful relationship with enough common ground and enough difference that I think we push each other into new places in sort of an oblique way. We tend to hear rhythm and phrasing similarly, so there has always been a fundamental rapport in our playing. Paul Gabrielson also deserves a lot of credit for finding that balance of space and time-keeping that gives this piece it’s unique feel. Paul is a fantastic bassist with a tremendous range as a player. He can swing his ass off or play very sensitively and spaciously as evidenced on this piece.

As for “Little Bird” it was composed for my daughter, Hannah. My wife was pregnant with Hannah at the time and we didn’t have a name for her. We asked my son, Ben (then two-and-a-half), what we should name her and after presenting possibility after possibility, only to be turned down, I asked Ben what he thought her name should be. Without hesitation he blurted out Big Bird!!! I told him she wouldn’t like to be called Big Bird and he suggested Little Bird. We agreed to use it as a working title. The melancholy quality of the piece was because some tests had suggested that Hannah had Down’s Syndrome. I composed the piece during the two-week period we were waiting for the results of our amnio. We’d gone through the same thing with Ben and fortunately both are fine. I think the piece expresses not only some of my sadness, but a little bit of pain and hope. I’m glad you sensed that there is a story behind it.

AAJ: Your recording ends with the tongue-in-cheek “Theme Song from the Sit-Com of the Same Name,” a retro-soul-shuffle with shades of Barney Miller. There’s a natural playfulness in this tune that, I imagine, must have been fun to record in the studio. Who says jazz musicians take themselves too seriously?

SK: I’m glad the lightheartedness comes across, it was exactly my intention. This song is simply fun to play. I was hesitant to include it on the CD, but thought exactly as you said, not to take everything so seriously. I really enjoy just playing a simple groove, trying to make it feel as good as possible and this was a perfect contrast to some of the other pieces on the CD where I’m continually reacting and changing what I’m playing.

Visit Steve Korn on the web at www.stevekorn.com .



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