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Interviews

Greg Campbell

By Published: September 23, 2004

Everybody borrows something from somebody. Nobody's got all original everything.

Greg Campbell, who plays drums and percussion as well as French horn and vibes, is known for his work as a jazz musician and improvisor. As well as having an extensive education in the field of percussion and having studied with the likes of Dave Holland, Cecil McBee, and Tom Collier, he has a performance resume that includes work with Wayne Horvitz, Stuart Dempster, Michael Bisio, and Wally Shoup to name just a few.

All About Jazz: What influenced you to start playing drums and percussion?

Greg Campbell: My dad was a drummer, still is a drummer, and it was sort of the family curse. I have a brother who lives in San Francisco who is a drummer and an older brother who is a bassist who plays drums. Through junior high I played French horn. When I got into high school I wanted to play in the jazz band and they didn't have any French horn parts. I kind of had been playing drums for a long time, I just took it a little more seriously and started learning it instead of messing around. I sat down with some books and started listening to more recordings and just being a little more organized and serious about playing drums.

AAJ: So you pretty much started in high school then....

GC: Yeah, pretty much. I didn't really actually play drums very often before then except for just messing around.

AAJ: I've noticed that sometimes you will do gigs with the French horn.

GC: Yeah, I like to incorporate that in improvising situations that are kind of open where there are more possibilities of, you know, where the idea is creating different timbres and sounds.

AAJ: So, how did you get into playing improvised music?

GC: For a long time I guess I would classify myself as a pretty conventional straight ahead jazz player. But I always liked things that were a little more intense and things that were kind of searching. I think when I moved to Seattle I just happened to be with a crowd of people, you know, so it was sort of a gradual evolution of things that I had already heard and started to like. I went to the New England Conservatory in Boston and a lot of people I know studied with Joe Maneri who is I think still there. I didn't study with him and I have regretted that since I have found out more about him, but think if I had known about him I would have done some things with him there. So it was sort of a gradual transition from being interested in more adventurous mainstream jazz to kind of moving outside of that.

AAJ: I have noticed that a lot of your stuff, the stuff that I have seen, is way outside of what you might call a jazz structure or any kind of structure for that matter — a lot of your work with different kinds of percussion and use of string bows, for example.

GC: Yeah, I mean those are just ways of getting outside.... You know, sometimes the most interesting gigs are the ones where I bring the least stuff and I can take a few elements of the drum set and try to do different things with them that I have never done before. I find sometimes I bring too much stuff in that quest for a kind of variety of timbres and sounds and I will feel like I have to use everything. But, on the other hand, I really like to just try stuff. Bows are really a great way to, you know, cymbals are one of my favorite things to experiment with because they are full of all kinds of different overtones and sounds that are harder to hear and that's why people don't really use them. But they have this really low overtone that you can manipulate with a microphone if you know how to do it. John Hollenbeck, the drummer, will sometimes do things like that.

I like to experiment with harmonics on cymbals by holding it in certain places and trying to get different combinations of tones, but those are things you can't do in a mainstream or jazz performance because it's very quiet usually. So it's hard to have people hear them unless they are miked very thoroughly, although this trio (the Ficus Trio) played at the West Seattle Jazz Festival and we were miked and surprisingly we did a lot of very quiet...we were playing outside and people were walking by. Somehow we managed to get into some very quiet musical spaces and people were listening.

AAJ: That's interesting about the different cymbals. With jazz they've got kind of the steady swing thing happening and it would be really tough to get into anything creative with the cymbal tones.

GC: Right, yeah. There tends to be kind of one way of thinking about what instruments can do. My own sort of theory is that that one way of treating instruments is more a part of the European/Euro-American art tradition of music and the idea of taking a single thing and trying to find out what it can do comes from African sources and other folk traditions where you might not have a lot of time and space and resources to make musical things happen so you have to use what you have and get as many things out of it as you can.

AAJ: Can you talk about some of the projects you have done, some of them that maybe you have enjoyed more than others or maybe some that you just found to be more interesting?

GC: That makes me think. Well, there's a trio that I play with with Mike Bisio and Rob Blakeslee that I really enjoy. We have only done a few things.... That's a really interesting situation because it is a little less about timbral explorations in a way. Rob writes compositions that are more thoroughly composed than, say, with the Ficus Trio. It's fairly open, the structure, and then we can kind of go wherever we feel like going. So, those things are kind of related. I like working with both of those groups.

AAJ: The Ficus Trio, that's with....

GC: That's with Gust (Burns) and Gregory (Reynolds). I can think of one particular gig that was really interesting which was Project W with Wally Shoup and Brent Arnold. We had Bob Rees playing percussion. It was at a space called Vital 5 which I think was an old bank or something, kind of over on the Denny Triangle, I think that's the neighborhood. They were knocking the building down and so this was the last anything that was going to be held in the building that was not a deconstruction event. So we sort of figuratively tried to demolish the building in a way. For some reason that idea really was kind of a nice inspiration. There were some places where we actually got into sort of really heavy, intense, loud sounds that may be approximating something coming down. And then there were some other spaces, too, that were a little less intense. That's another musical group that I like working with. It's got a little bit of a free form operating structure, but Brent and I will kind of function as a rhythm section. We'll do, you know, kind of rock beats. It's hard to say, you work with different people and they bring different things out of you in different situations. Things sort of come to me. I'm not an intense planner and I encounter things or they encounter me. It's not like I'm in some intensive way really searching for that one thing that I am looking for. I like responding to whatever happens at the moment, so that happens in different ways with different groups and different people.

AAJ: Playing in the moment, that is something that I think a lot of people miss. They learn to play one certain form of music, or maybe even a couple of different forms, but they miss that playing in the moment aspect. You know, what's really happening around you versus where you are going next.

GC: Right, and I think one down side of jazz pedagogy, you know, jazz in the academy, is that people study things in a really deliberate way, which is okay too. Coltrane got this rap a lot about playing the same things over the same chord changes even though they were things that he had worked out and they were very unusual but they were very formulaic. I don't think that necessarily is a bad thing because if somebody as inspirational as Coltrane can make that work then it's a viable musical approach. But I think that a lot of times you study or you transcribe a solo or you work on a particular pattern or lick and then you pull it out at just the moment when you know that it will work, which is fine, and that's a valid musical approach but sometimes that makes for music that is supposed to be in the moment that is a little less "in the moment". It's like taking your one lick and then you go back to the time when you worked it out and you bring it into the present, so you're not really in the moment.

I think that even in improvised music that happens in a certain way but you don't know when you might need to bring it out, where like if you worked out a 2-5-1 pattern or something in a certain key you know that you'll be able to use it over this tune at this time. In improvised music you have less of a chance of getting stifled by the things that you've practiced. But that's not to say you can't be inpired and playing in the moment in any kind of setting. Even somebody playing the oboe part in the Bach B-Minor Mass can do it in a really inspiring way if they are in the moment.

AAJ: Given some of the things that you have done in the past, do you feel comfortable with where you are musically right now?

GC: I feel right now like I would like to do a little more writing, composing, and putting groups together which is something I haven't really done in any deliberate way. Part of that has to do with the fact that I've been working on degrees for a long time and I've been working and I have a family and that, you know, I have certain responsibilities I have to take care of in regards to that. I'm moving toward a point where I think I'll be able to do more musical work that I feel is a little more of my own and, you know, use people too that have used me in their groups. It's a different level of collaboration but it's something I'd like to move more toward. I have done some amount of composing over the last seven or eight years, but it's sort of way in the background. I'm just trying to get to the point where that's a little more part of what I'm doing all the time.

AAJ: So, do you practice regularly?

GC: Luckily I am in a place where I can actually practice. I lived in apartments for a long time and that was a hard thing.

AAJ: Given the musical situations that you are working with, do you feel like you get a chance to really indulge yourself on a musical level?

GC: Yeah, I think so. I've found that the times I have written stuff and put performances together that during the performances — and maybe this is because I haven't done it as much — I'm more worried about the performance as a whole and I tend to take shorter solos and not really think about what I am playing as much because I am thinking about what the other people are doing and whether the structure is going to hold together the way I've envisioned it. I think it's a balancing act in a way and it's something that, as I move toward more writing and organizing, that will be something that will become more automatic and I won't have to worry about it so much on the surface, but it will be underneath that it will be something I'll have to not think about. I will be able to not think about it as much.

AAJ: I would find it difficult to imagine you not enjoying yourself on stage (laughter), in your performances, getting sounds and things out of different kinds of percussion that you don't normally hear. I mean, in the mainstream of course you never see that. Like, for example, when Jerome Bryerton was in town last year it was interesting what he was doing but you take things in a little bit different direction. You have your own style.

GC: Well, it's nice to think somebody thinks so (laughs) because I'm not sure I ever do. I always think I'm borrowing things. And, you know, everybody borrows something from somebody. Nobody's got all original everything. But, yeah, I'd like to at least think I'm moving toward some kind of style.

Photo Credit
Jack Gold



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