Adam Rogers: Tonal Beauty
“ ...none of my compositions directly reflect any of those formal [classical] techniques...But I think having internalized a lot of that information...has translated into a certain idea of how to write things. ”
Don't be surprised if Adam Rogers becomes a household name in the near future. His two latest records, Allegory (Criss Cross, 2003) and Apparitions (Criss Cross, 2005) are must-haves. His working band (Scott Colley, Clarence Penn, Ed Simon, Chris Potter) is made of superb musicians, and it shows on wax. His compositions are oftentimes complex, but never fail to be extremely listenable. The Frisell influence can be heard alongside the classical background.
His resume reads like a veritable pot luck of jazz, pop, and everything in between. He has worked with everyone from John Zorn and Giora Feidman to Michael Brecker and Chris Potter to Elvis Costello and Norah Jones. With an immediately recognizable tone, Rogers has all of his influences and priorities in order and is ready to break into the mainstream. I got a chance to talk with him at his apartment in New York City.
All About Jazz: This is your third record as a leader, so you've found your niche a little bit. I want to talk about your various influences. We'll start out with your education. How do you think your classical music education has contributed to what you're doing right now?
Adam Rogers: Well in a lot of different ways, as a guitarist, the fact that I studied classical music seriously for five years was a big influence on my sound on the guitar both acoustic and more peripherally electric. My exposure to all the classical music that I played and studied in college has affected me or influenced me as a listener and as a composer.
AAJ: How so as a listener?
AR: Well it opened me up to a lot of music that I might not have listened to had I not been playing classical music, such as Spanish guitar music, contemporary 20th century guitar music, chamber music, singing in a chorus. It was pretty much total immersion. Non orchestral instrumentalists had to sing in the chorus so I got exposed to a lot of music there. Renaissance music, Bach masses. Of course the classes were quite rigorous. Everything from ear training to Shenkerian analysis to studying four part harmony species counterpoint, and 20th century music, writing fugues. I was exposed to a lot of technical information that I would have gotten nowhere else but at a classical music school.
The information that I acquired in Mannes was information that I only could have gotten at a school; it's not stuff I could have learned playing gigs. Even in the playing of classical music there isn't as much applied music theory as when you're playing jazz; when you're playing jazz, you are constantly applying your knowledge of music theory in whatever way you've learned it because you're improvising and you're dealing with what scale goes over what chord at what time. In classical music you're playing something that's already written, so you don't really have to know what's going on in music theoretically to play what's written, although it's very helpful to.
AAJ: So then how does that in turn affect you from a composing standpoint in terms of making full compositions?
AR: I would say that none of my compositions directly reflect any of those formal techniques, like I don't write fugues or sonatas. But I think having internalized a lot of that information from my classical music studies has translated into a certain idea of how to write things that, where if I write two lines that are contrapuntal, I'm trying to write two lines that are truly working together as opposed to two lines that are just mirroring each other. My exposure to everything from Renaissance music to the most modern 20th century music has influenced me as a musician, I don't know exactly how it's translating, but that music is in my memory bank as something to draw on, something that's inspiring. And I still listen to a lot of classical music, so it's really affected me in a lot of different ways.
AAJ: That's something that I always find interesting, that everything you listen to, everything you ever hear, influences what comes out and everybody's unique in that way. I always find that amazing.
AR: Yeah if you listen to a lot of stuff and you're open to it and you really listen to it, it's bound to get into your information storage area and come back out as part of your being. I try not to ever mimic anything, but there are things where I write stuff where I go wow such and such was an influence while writing this composition. Actually the title track from Apparitions was really influenced as I said in the liner notes by the composer Morton Feldman. I don't know what kind of techniques he uses specifically; as I've never studied his music but listening to it a lot has been influential.
AAJ: In terms of influences let's talk about the people you've worked with as a sideman and as a co-leader. I'm just going to list some of the people you've worked with, and if you could tell me how working with them has influenced you as a leader and as a musician. We'll start with the Lost Tribe.
Boy, I mean that was 11 years we played together so there's a lot of things, the influence of each of the musicians in the band, David Binney, Fima Ephron, Ben Perowsky, David Gilmore, I mean they all influenced me greatly as musicians. You know I worked so closely with all of them and they're all such amazing musicians so in a lot of different ways were very influential. Ben I've been playing with since we were 16 or 17 years old and I've learned a lot about rhythm and general musical things from playing with him. Dave Binney is a great composer and a great improviser and we're great friends. We've talked a tremendous amount about music and he's been very influential, as has Fima Ephron. I mean that's a long story because we're all really close friends and so our relationship was not only as co-leaders of this project but as friends discussing life and music.
David Gilmore is a great guitarist as well as being a great composer so it was great to play with him and to play his music. His tunes have and had a lot of odd meters which I was not as familiar with at the time. Just the influence of having a band for 11 years that actually had some success and where we were able to tour and make some records that I feel very good about. We were doing exactly the kind of music that we wanted to do at the time. We weren't very concerned with anything except writing the kind of music we wanted to write. We would sit around and rehearse this music that was coming really from our hearts; we weren't concerned with it being popular. And to have an arena to express all of our compositional ideas was a really fantastic thing.
AAJ: So that was a completely collective gig?
AR: Absolutely, yeah.
AAJ: How about Randy Brecker?
AR: Randy I've worked with a lot over the years, let's see the first record in 1995 and I've played on a couple other records of his. He's a really amazing person and a phenomenal trumpet player and composer. Great musician and very relaxed about music. And his music had been an influence on me certainly way before I ever got a chance to work with him. He is also a very generous person as a bandleader, you know you can play whatever way you want, take as much time as you want, which was very influential to me in terms of the fact that what's important from the leaders vantage point is whether what the musicians are playing is happening or not, and if it's happening it doesn't matter what it is.
AAJ: Is that the same kind of approach you take on your records?
AR: Pretty much, yeah. You know the guys that I play with are all people that I've worked with a lot. I use them for my records because I absolutely love the way they play. I try to address making suggestions on a case-by-case basis. If it's something that I think is working, great, if it's not, we'll choose another approach. With the guys that play on my records, there's very little if any editing that I do relating to their contributions because they're such great players. And I also try not to be controlling because the reason that one gets incredible musicians is so they interpret your music and bring what's unique about their insight to your music. If I wanted everybody to hear the thing the way that I hear it, I'd just play it all myself. And I have a studio at home, I can do that. If something's not happening I'd rather just get somebody else than tell them how to play. That approach has been greatly influenced by people like Randy and Michael Brecker in terms of getting people to play your music because you love what they're bringing to the table.
AAJ: So then let's talk about Michael Brecker a bit.
AR: Mike has been very influential for me because of that same approach. He uses people because he loves the way they play, I think, and doesn't really dictate approaches unless, it seems, that it's necessary.. And so Michael as a bandleader has just been an amazing person to work with. In my experience whenever he's made suggestions, he's been absolutely right and it was something that was apparent.
AAJ: Something that needed to be said.
AR: Yeah, and I mean, needless to say he's one of the great saxophonists in the history of music and he's been an inspiration to work with. Aside from all of the incredible saxophonistic things he does, just the sheer amount of energy that he creates when he plays is really phenomenal. To generate that kind of energy, to me, is really unbelievable. For the most part when I'm playing with him I'm playing with this "jazz guitar sound that's not like with tons of distortion and a whammy bar where you can easily access the kind of energetic approach from using a rock sound. I do that purposely because I'm trying to generate energy and excitement without the first, obvious choice in terms of effects.
AAJ: Wow. That's amazing. Let's move on and talk a bit about Giora Feidman.
AR: Giora, that was one of my first really professional gigs, it was my first touring gig, and I got it from my studying and knowing how to play classical guitar. He plays Klezmer music, Jewish folk music, with a classical approach. That was an amazing experience. He's got one of the most incredible sounds on the clarinet and he's a phenomenal musician. He can play pianissimo (quiet) with such intensity that it's mind- blowing. He taught me a great deal about music. When the bassist and I would be asked to play your average Jewish folk rhythm, he would stop us and say, "You have to approach playing that rhythm, which is on the surface quite simple; with the same intensity you would approach playing Mozart. A very heavy concept. What he was saying was one of the most profound things. First of all, never play on automatic pilot, always really mean what you're doing, and also choose your approach. You don't just play music without thinking about it. This is also a guy who doesn't improvise, he interprets melodies. It was a very helpful lesson to somebody who's trying to be a jazz musician.
AAJ: How about anybody else that's been a major influence?
AR: All of my peers, Scott Colley, Dave Binney, all the guys in Lost Tribe, Chris Potter. You know I've always tried to, as a side-person, to really engross myself in someone else's vision so I can take something away from that experience. It's a fine line for me, as an improvising musician, going to play somebody else's music. You want to bring yourself to that music and also you want to leave yourself open enough so that you can learn from what the person you're working with is showing you. So pretty much every experience I've had working with somebody else has been a learning experience for me.
AAJ: Right on. Now I want to shift gears and talk about the band that you've been working with. It must be tough to keep a band like that together for that long.
AR: Well, not really. I know what you mean but that would be more applicable if we were touring constantly or working a lot. To book one record session or one rehearsal with these guys can be really challenging because everybody's so busy. There is such a wellspring of talent in NYC so I've had the great opportunity to have a lot of amazing musicians play my music. People like Jeff "Tain Watts, Antonio Sanchez, James Genus, Chris. When the group that's on the record isn't available I put together different groups. Sometimes I'll do a trio with Scott and Clarence, or with James Genus and Clarence, or a quartet with Chris and myself and Clarence and Scott. You have to be malleable. I used a wonderful young pianist who's played a lot with Dave Binney over the years named Jacob Sacks who's really amazing. He's the first pianist I've ever used besides Edward and that was really great.
AAJ: Now I want to try and decipher the heavy sound this band creates, it's a heavy sound but it's also very collective. I want to ask you up front, did you have a vision for the band's sound when you started out, and do you have a vision for its sound in the future?
AR: What I envision in that music is envisioned through the compositions that I write, and the X factor to me, which is something I welcome, is how they interpret it. I have certain things that I'm very specific about. Generally a lot of my tunes have written bass lines, written piano lines, written countermelodies. I haven't written out drum parts, so what people want to bring to the music is certainly up to them. Other than the specific things that I write down on a piece of paper, I don't envision much. How people will interpret what's left to interpret is what I welcome. Unless something really strikes me as something I don't want to hear in a composition, I don't really give much instruction. I think in saying all that I probably do envision it very specifically just because these are the guys that I choose to have on the record, and in choosing them, they bring specific incredible sounds and interpretive quality that would be completely different if I used another band. But what they're going to do exactly is always a surprise, and that's what I love.
AAJ: I want to discuss what each player brings to the band. Why don't we start with Clarence?
AR: Clarence, I just love the way he plays on a lot of different levels. He's very creative, I love his sound on the drums, the way his cymbals sound, his cymbals are not brash. He always is a part of the fabric of the music. He also has been a really big part of whatever success that my tunes have had on my records because he always finds a really amazing part to play that makes my music sound more musical. I write really hard music sometimes, and the drummer depending on their approach could make it sound kind of pedantic, but Clarence always comes up with some kind of beautiful color that helps the tunes sound more subtle and effective to me and that's amazing. There was one tune that we did on my first record, Art of the Invisible, called "The Invisible that had this really tricky kind of intro, and Clarence came up with this part and it was like, man I never would have thought of that.
AAJ: Yeah, he really is imaginative. Let's move on to Scott Colley.
AR: Scott is someone I've been working with for years in a lot of contexts. One of the things about everybody in the band that's great is that I've had the opportunity to play with all of them as sidemen in other people's groups and in their groups. So we're all constantly cross-pollinating. I've worked with Michael Brecker and Dave Binney and all kinds of gigs with Scott. I mean what can I say, he's a virtuosic bassist with a fantastic sound, swings his ass off, and he's got the biggest ears in the world, can hear anything. He is also a great soloist. He's such a creative and virtuosic musician, but virtuosic in a way that you would never really say, "Oh he's virtuosic. He's never about technique for technique's sake, and he has a really dark, woody bass sound. I'm kind of a freak for great bass sounds. He's very supportive and very interactive, he kind of shifts effortlessly and seamlessly from one function to the other seamlessly.
AAJ: How about Chris?
AR: Chris is a phenomenal saxophonist, I love his sound, an amazing improviser. Really creative. I don't get the sense that there's any blockage between the idea and the realization of it with Chris. Not only does it seem that he can play anything you'd like him to play, but he's got an incredible amount of taste and discretion. It's always music first and that seems to dictate everything he plays.
Edward as a pianist. You know everybody in the band, I don't know maybe it's from being such a sound freak and having been influenced by studying classical music, everybody in the band really has an incredible sound, like if you play just one note their sound is so deep. Edward has a beautiful touch. Incredible patience when he plays and really creative. It's also that they all have very specific identities, and I love to have their identities in all of the music that I write. Other people have other identities and that would change the way my music sounds, and that would be great too, I think everybody has something specific. I think what I love about all of them especially is that they can go from style to style, there are no boundaries. Nothing's taboo. You can just play like the simplest swing beat with Clarence and Scott and it feels so great, and it can within seconds go to incredibly visceral free territory. All of their artistic tastes are reflective of my own. We share a lot of the same interests and a lot of influences.
AAJ: Yeah, you guys could play "Happy Birthday and turn it into a great jazz tune. What really struck me about the sound of the band on Apparitions and Allegory was the contrast that's present. Every time Chris is playing a very technical, swift solo, you're really feeling for the mood of the piece. When you're comping, Ed is playing this beautifully understated coloring, and Clarence is so imaginative. I wondered if you could comment a bit on the contrasts evident in your sound.
AR: Well, I'm not completely unaware of it. All of the guys in the band are really incredible listeners, so that's a really important part of it. When someone's playing something that's very busy, you don't want to play something that's very busy at the same time. It's OK and more dramatic to play very sparsely while someone else is playing a lot of notes. I guess that's another thing I love about this band as musicians is that they're very conscious of dramatic contrasts, which is a very important thing to me. And Edward is a great pianist to play with because in most cases as a guitarist you can't comp at the same time as the pianist because both players approach comping in the same way it just ends up being like gobbledy gook. But with somebody who's conscious like Edward, if I'm trying to play traditional jazz comping, Edward will play colors in a register that's away from the register that I'm playing in and that's fantastic. So you know they all have really impeccable musical taste and are extremely good listeners too. It's not really a concept of, "OK you play sparse, I'll play busy, you comp, I'll play high, it's just kind of what happens. But the main thing is everybody listens.
AAJ: Ok so now let's talk about Allegory. I know Criss Cross likes to do records in one day. Did you guys have much rehearsal time for this one?
AR: A couple of rehearsals I think for Allegory. A bunch of the tunes we had already played. It was a lot of music to do in one day.
AAJ: I wanted to talk about two tunes specifically. The first one is "Phyrigia. That tune was more about the sound as opposed to the notes that are played. Could you talk a bit about that one?
AR: The melody is built around a sort of Phyrigian scale. It was definitely influenced by a certain John Coltrane-like composition and tempo. I wasn't really going for anything in particular, just writing, and it seemed to work pretty well for the kind of tune I wanted it to be. It's the kind of tune that everybody in the band knows what to do with. The arc of the tune has a sort of a natural dynamic. A lot of it also is Clarence plays that tune so well, knows how to build it up and then play the bridge very quietly. As a composer in jazz music I aspire to writing tunes that really illustrate a clear interpretation, meaning when guys hear it they know what to do with it. Some music can be hard to play technically but easy to hear. Tunes that work really well are playable. So that tune I think I wrote one that was easy for everyone to hear.
AAJ: Wow. The second one I really liked was "Was. It seemed to be sort of teetering on the edge of something, I don't know what, and it never fell off and that was amazing to me. I wondered if you could talk a bit about that one.
AR: I'm not sure exactly what you mean, teetering on the edge of falling forward?
AAJ: Falling into, I don't know, a faster tempo, or there were a couple notes that I heard in my head that weren't played, but it was good that they weren't played. I can't really describe it.
AR: Yeah that tune, I wrote it on acoustic guitar. Initially I had heard it and recorded it on a demo I did a few years back much slower, where people actually soloed over it. It has a sequence of a lot of constantly changing chord changes, it's sort of a hard tune to solo over, and I never really felt it was working. The idea for the interpretation on "Allegory was not so much to solo as to sort of trade back and forth. Chris and I sort of soloing and playing the melody at the same time. The idea was to constantly play the melody so that it never really becomes a solo. But you know there's a versionI don't know if you've ever heard Miles' version of Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti they just play the melody, Miles and Wayne Shorter just play the melody and Tony Williams sort of solos over it. It was a very innovative interpretation of a tune. Herbie Ron and Tony play all these different kinds of ways behind the melody. It's really brilliant.
AR: A couple of rehearsals.
AAJ: There was one tune that I really liked on that one, that really stuck with me, and that was "Persephone . I loved the little acoustic hook in it. Very Crosby Stills and Nash.
AR: Hmm...Well, I wrote the piano part which is a kind of combined bass and piano part first, and it elicited a strong feeling in me when I came up with it, it was evocative of something that I felt deeply. It actually took me a while to write that tune because I experimented with a lot of different melodic approached before I found one that I felt was as engaging as the piano and bass part, which is a lot of times what my journey in composing is. I'll come up with 1 idea that I really love that's very strong and then to put all the other pieces together, that's what the real challenge is.
I think it was Stravinsky that said composition is ten percent inspiration and ninety- percent work, I don't know if that same percentage structure exists for me but always one part of it is pure inspiration and the rest is work and a lot of experimenting. So that tune took me a while to come up with the contrapuntal melody that I wrote over the A section, and the B section I think I tried three or four different things before I found one that I thought was good enough to latch on to the A section. It's a hard thing. You know, ideally with a composition you want to write the whole thing beginning to end out of inspiration. But a lot of times what ends up happening is that some part of the compositional process is sort of intellectual. You get one good chunk that's visceral and then it's like, great all I have to do is get another thing that feels like that, but it doesn't necessarily happen. But that tune took me a while to write, I'd come back to it day after day for three or four days.
AAJ: Let's talk about the differences and similarities between the two records.
AR: It's hard for me to say, you know, I'm pretty subjective. I think there's probably a little less straight swinging things on Apparitions than there is on Allegory or Art of the Invisible. In conceiving all three of the records I've had a backlog of compositions that I wanted to record. I think with Allegory and Apparitions I wrote a lot of the material a couple of weeks before doing the record, which I like because the record ends up being a document of one period. All three records, I think, were realized in the way that I wanted them to be realized.
It would probably be easier to ask this question to somebody else who's familiar with my music. I don't think of any of them as better or worse. I feel like my playing is stronger now. I have a clearer idea of how I like to have my guitar recorded. Also because it's a one day recording, it's such a blur, which is what I love and also what is incredibly challenging about it. What I like about it is the fact that you have no time to reflect, it's just like whatever happens. I'm really into the idea of being able to pull it off. All my favorite jazz records in the world were done in maybe two days. I think every Blue Note record was done in probably a few hours. I'm writing a lot of music that's very hard to execute, but still if you didn't get it in three takes you're not necessarily going to get it in eight takes.
AAJ: Yeah, it captures the essence of jazz, which is improvisation. Let's end with what's going on right now and what's going on for the future.
AR: Well I'm thinking about what my next record's going to be and I'm not completely sure what that is right at this moment. And I'm continuing really along the same lines that I've been continuing on, trying to do more and more work as a leader. I've been working with John Patittuci, in a trio with him, and either Nasheet Waits, Antonio Sanchez or Clarence Penn, and investigating a lot of different kind of classical and jazz things that we do. John is a phenomenal acoustic and electric bassist. That's also a nice outlet to play some of my own tunes trio as well because John's really open to that. And then the various record dates that I do relatively consistently, which I love. I'm doing a smattering of recording in New York and touring, but a nice combination of both.
AAJ: Are there any specific goals you want to accomplish in the next ten years or fifteen years?
AR: It's sort of along the lines of what I've been doing. I'm trying to just develop as a musician, trying to develop as a composer, trying to find new ways of writing music and playing that I haven't discovered as of yet to keep it interesting for myself. I have a few different projects that I will record in the near future. I'd also like to do a solo record.
AAJ: Adam, thank you very much for your time.
AR: Thank you.
Adam Rogers, Apparitions (Criss Cross, 2005)
Edward Simon, Simplicitas (Criss Cross, 2005)
Terri Lyne Carrington, Structure (ACT, 2004)
Erin Bode, Don't Take Your Time (MaxJazz, 2004)
David Binney, Welcome to Life (Mythology, 2004)
Adam Rogers, Allegory (Criss Cross, 2003)
Randy Brecker, 34th N Lex (ESC, 2003)
Michael Brecker, Wide Angles (Verve, 2003)
Josh Roseman, Treats for the Nightwalker (Enja, 2003)
David Binney, South (ACT, 2003)
Adam Rogers, Art of the Invisible (Cross Cross, 2002)
Scott Colley, Trouble in Paradise (Palmetto, 2002)
Chris Potter, Traveling Mercies (Verve, 2002)
Alex Sipiagin, Hindsight (Criss Cross, 2002)
David Binney, Balance (ACT, 2002)
Fima Ephron, Soul Machine (Tzadik, 2001)
Norah Jones, Come Away With Me (Blue Note, 2001)
Randy Brecker, Hangin' in the City (ESC, 2001)
Bill Evans, Touch (Zebra, 1999)
Lost Tribe, Many Lifetimes (Arabesque, 1998)
Alex Sipiagin, Images (TCB, 1998)
David Binney, Free to Dream (Mythology, 1998)
Bill Evans, Starfish and the Moon (Escapade, 1997)
Groove Collective, We the People (GRP, 1996)
The Tango Kings, Tango Kings (Big World, 1996)
David Krakauer's Klezmer Madness!, Klezmer Madness! (Tzadik, 1995)
Randy Brecker, Into the Sun (Concord Jazz, 1995)
Lost Tribe, Soulfish (Windham Hill Jazz, 1994)
Bill Evans & Push, Live in Europe (Lipstick, 1994)
Walter Becker, 11 Tracks of Whack (Giant, 1994)
Lost Tribe, Lost Tribe (Windham Hill Jazz, 1993)
Phillip Johnston's Big Trouble, Phillip Johnston's Big Trouble (Black Saint, 1992)
John Zorn, John Zorn's Cobra Live at the Knitting Factory (Knitting Factory, 1992)
Mel Gibson & Branford Marsalis, David and Goliath (Rabbit Ears, 1992)
David Binney, Point Game (Owl, 1989)
Adam Rogers Discusses His Imminent Debut Release and More
Top photo: Lourdes Delgado
All others: David Korchin