A Fireside Chat With Greg Kelley
“ I found a Naked City record with John Zorn and there is a quote on the front talking about how they were mixing classical and jazz and hardcore. I got that and that was a new thing for me. ”
If the music is to move forward, it will move forward on the wings of warriors like Greg Kelley. Kelley is not a trend or a term or a magazine cover. Kelley is however, a player and I dig players. Kelley's trumpet is not for everyone. But neither was Ayler and neither is Braxton. But that doesn't take away from his ability to challenge the listener, convention, and stretch the envelope. If you have never heard of Kelley, allow me to introduce Greg Kelley, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
GREG KELLEY: In the fifth grade, they sent around a form asking if kids wanted to play instruments. I thought it was the thing to do, so I brought it home. I wanted to play the drums, but my mom didn't want me to play the drums because they would be too loud. My mother suggested clarinet and my sister made fun of the clarinet and so I ended up picking the trumpet. That is basically how it started. It wasn't too intentional on my part.
FJ: If not for a little ribbing from sis, you could have been a modern Benny Goodman.
GK: It is possible, but I don't think I was all that into that idea either. The trumpet just seemed like a happy median between drums and clarinet. At that time, I was in fifth grade so I was just hearing things on the radio. I didn't start listening to instrumental music at that point. I think that is what prompted me. Once I started playing the trumpet, I started seeking out any trumpet player just to see what you were supposed to do with the thing. Before that, probably just random cassettes of whatever I was hearing on the radio. I was into mostly classical stuff. I got this really bad cassette of trumpet music. It had a bunch of things on there, but that pointed me out to a few people. I really like Maurice Andre for a while and Wynton Marsalis too, but more of the classical stuff than jazz. After a while, I bought some jazz stuff, but for the most part, it was classical music early on that I ended up listening to. Right after I started, I started to really enjoy it and actually sought to take private lessons outside of the school system. Within a year or so, I got pretty serious about it. Then we were in a situation where my school system was not good at all. The high school bands didn't have enough people in it, so they were recruiting people from the junior high schools to play in the marching band. I think just being a younger person and getting to play with older folks, at least they seemed older to me at the time, was encouraging. The group of friends that ended up doing that got really serious about it and we ended up playing the in high school jazz bands and concert bands before we were in high school. By the time I was in high school, I thought it was something that I wanted to do. Little did I know that I would choose a form of trumpet playing that would make me not be able to make a living (laughing) off of it, but that will come later.
FJ: How did you go from Wynton Marsalis playing Purcell to playing what "critics" have termed "alien?"
GK: There were a bunch of things going on at the time. I was listening to, I got into punk rock when I was in junior high school. I got into bands like Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers. For the trumpet, it almost seemed like another world. I enjoyed the music I was listening to, especially baroque music, but it seemed like they were two different kinds of things. I slowly bridged the gap when I found modern music like Stravinsky and Schoenberg were the first ones I heard because they were the most accessible. I kept trying to find more common ground between this experimental rock music and the music I associated with the trumpet. Eventually, I came across George Crumb. One major thing was I was just looking at jazz cassette tapes in the jazz section of the local mall. I found a Naked City record with John Zorn and there is a quote on the front talking about how they were mixing classical and jazz and hardcore. I got that and that was a new thing for me. I saw that he had written classical music pieces and so I started investigating that. He has always been one to name check a lot and so that is how I first discovered European improvisers like Evan Parker and Derek Bailey and that whole scene and that is when it all started to come together. By the time I got to college, I still thought that maybe I would play chamber music or even symphonic music. But then I began to find more and more gray areas I guess between this new improvised music that I was hearing that you could do on a trumpet as well and people like John Cage. It was pretty gradual. As far as the trumpet, at first, I really had no clue that anyone was doing anything besides Haydn or Hummel or bebop.
FJ: In the mainstream, bebop and it stepchildren are all there is.
GK: There is a whole community of people, at a certain point, I decided when I was in school, that I really had no interest in playing this kind of music which was very job oriented. Thinking about making a living became, it became irrelevant. I realized that if this is the way I have to act to make a living, if I have to play this way and follow these rules, I don't really want to have to think about that, so I am just going to focus on the music and food will come in other ways. In terms of getting a chance to play, there is just a whole network of people throughout the country where you can get shows and play. Definitely at first, you can't focus on getting anything beyond gas money to play, which is fine for me. Bhob Rainey, a saxophonist that I play with a lot, we're doing a lot of traveling. We were just basically trying to get out there and trying to play and trying to meet people. But then after a while, you find different organizations that are going to put music on that can help fund a tour so you don't leave your day job behind and lose all the money that you have saved over the past few months in order to go out and enjoy playing music. More recently, we have been having good luck being able to travel oversees and have it funded, which is good. In the States, it varies. It is either being received well in the cities that already have some sort of established scene like Chicago or San Francisco or Seattle, but also, it depends a lot on who is putting on the show. I recently played in Lexington, Kentucky and there is a guy there and he just knows a lot of people and has a lot of friends who are younger and really enthusiastic and we went there and they don't seem to have an improvised music scene there, but they do have people doing noise and off kilter rock. There is not much going on there, so the enthusiasm for anything different is pretty high. Sometimes going to a place where they have an established scene is bad. Sometimes I have played in New York and there is ten other things going on that night and no one will come, yet playing somewhere like Madison, Wisconsin, where there aren't too many musicians, but people are eager for some sort of entertainment, so you get a really enthusiastic crowd there. It depends a lot on who puts it together and how organized they are and how much enthusiasm they can generate beyond it being any kind of name recognition.
FJ: Over the last few years, you have increased your recording documentation, in particular, the trio with Paul Flaherty and Chris Corsano.
GK: I met Paul through John Voight, a bassist around here. When I first moved to Boston, it was really hard to find anyone to play with. If they don't know anything about you, they are not willing to give you a try. But I ended up playing once with John Voight and he started championing me and just bringing me around to people. I am not sure how he met Paul, probably through Michael Ehlers, who runs Eremite ( www.eremite.com ) out in Amherst because he had been putting on shows with Paul Flaherty a lot and shows where John Voight was playing. John set up a show and had me play and had Paul play and set up that connection. So Paul brought me into the studio with Laurence Cook and that worked out really well ( The Ilya Tree ). We played a few times and Paul and Chris play a lot, so he thought it would be fun to try out this trio. Paul lives in Connecticut and he doesn't have a chance to tour or travel much, so his main focus is on recording. He likes to set up these recording sessions. It just worked really well. We keep trying to do more and more. We just played on Sunday.
FJ: And you did a record with Anthony Braxton on Six Compositions 2001.
GK: That was really great. There were some musicians on the West Coast who were trying to put together this Braxton project and they were talking to him and he said that he wanted more brass. A couple of those guys knew me and Taylor Ho Bynum and they suggested me. We basically went down there for a weekend and rehearsed all day one day and recorded the next day. It ended up being really fantastic. I really enjoyed it. I like Braxton's music. I hadn't studied it intensely, but I was familiar with some of what he had been working on and everything. When you read a lot of interviews or text with him, there is a lot of vocabulary involved, which can seem alienating, but meeting him, his enthusiasm for what he is doing is so high and his focus and obsession with his music is really intense and he just brings a real joy to the whole thing. He was so enthusiastic throughout the whole thing and he doesn't treat anyone like they are beneath him. He certainly doesn't act like he thinks he is anyone special. He doesn't have any sort of star complex. He is just really, really into working on music. That is great. Sometimes I think that might be detrimental because I don't think he sleeps enough or treats himself very well, but his enthusiasm is really encouraging and inspiring. He has a good way of telling people what he wants in an encouraging way. That was great. We were going to try and do a small tour on the West Coast for the release of the 4-CD set, but it didn't work out. I hope to do something again like that. It was a good experience.
FJ: Forlorn Green is a collaboration with Jason Lescalleet's computer. Was this recorded in real time?
GK: What Jason Lescalleet does live and what he does at home are two different things. Live, he uses a bunch of reel to reel machines, microcassettes and at home, he does a lot of work on the computer just taking sound and editing it and constructing pieces out of them. For this one, I sent him a bunch of recordings of myself playing solo and he was working with cutting them up and trying to do something and it wasn't working for some reason. What we ended up doing is getting together and recording in real time. For instance, the 27 minute long "Conquest of the Earth" piece is pretty much as is and I actually found that hard to believe when I first listened to it. What happened is, we were playing at a reverberant space and he had been recording me on microcassettes and playing them back at different speeds along with the loops, along with some circuit broken electronics that he was using. I was amplified as well and it just generated a lot of levels, so it sounds like there are seven or eight of me playing at the same time. So he took those recordings and a concert that we played a few years ago and used that as the ground and edited those a little bit and also took other recordings that he had of me and mixed all those together. The general basis is pretty much live and just spiced up after the fact. I guess not unlike some of the later Miles Davis electric things were, a lot of live material, but completely reworked in the studio after the fact.
FJ: And the future?
GK: I have a few records. My main partnership is with Bhob Rainey, who is a soprano saxophonist and the group we have called Nmperign. We've got a quartet recording with Axel Dorner, a trumpet player from Berlin. We have a trio recording we did with Gunter Muller, a Swiss musician who plays electronics and percussion. The quartet is coming out on Sentimental and the trio recording with Gunter Muller will come out on Rossbin, an Italian label that just put out a solo CD of mine ( If I Never Meet You in This Life, Let Me Feel the Lack ). Then I have a large ensemble recording coming out on GROB, which is a label out of Germany. Those are coming out and then there is also a Nmperign recording coming out. There is actually quite a bit. I am sort of taking it as it comes in a way. I am always bringing in elements that I ignored in the past. It seems like lately there is a lot more tonality coming back into it. I don't know if I am being reactionary to my own music, but that is not always the case either. There is really a lot out there. It is just that not all of it is above the surface and some of it is deliberately so. It is amazing. A lot of these younger musicians, their knowledge is astounding.