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Mark Whitecage: Free Music with Purpose

By Published: April 16, 2004

And all this stuff happens naturally. If I’m playing ‘Dolphin Dance’ I’m playing it, I never leave the tune and play something else; otherwise I wouldn’t call it ‘Dolphin Dance.’ We know where the tune is all the time. A lot of this new music is people just fishing, they go on fishing expeditions and hope something will turn up. I see a lot of guys that are noodling around for twenty minutes and then they get very excited because something happens. The trick is to start off with something happening, and that’s what we try to do.”

Electronics and Ducks on Acid

With an interest in electronics that dates back to the ‘60s Whitecage has, in recent years, been spending more time creating a rig that allows him to create a virtual one-man orchestra. The first CD to really explore this avenue is ‘03’s Ducks on Acid , where Whitecage utilizes a complicated and ever-changing series of effects to create loops and build harmonies. The result is strange and unusual. “You can set up certain rhythms with the echoes,” explains Whitecage, “and let that be your rhythm section. I use guitar pedals because you can do everything with your feet, leaving your hands free for your horn; I’ve always been interested in pitch shifters, playing more than one note at a time has always fascinated me.

"I grew up in a house full of pianos and I ended up playing the sax—I’ve got one note where I’ve got to do everything. So having a pitch shifter to create harmonies, that is very cool. Also, I use a seven-minute looping device, so you can put something in—you can have a riff, you can have a whole tune, or you can make a bass line if you want, and you put it in this loop and it just keeps playing, so then you can go on to doing other things. I have two of these looping devices and another one that’s just a delay. You learn by playing—I played them every day for a couple of years and you learn, by playing them, just how to control them the same way you learn how to control anything else.

“I played every day,” continues Whitecage, “I’d just sit down and take an hour and explore it, and Ducks on Acid is the culling out of about a year's worth of explorations. Nothing was written down for it. I tried to do that a few times, I tried some of my compositions, but it never worked, so it was all just improvised. But I still think of it as composing; I don’t think of myself as an improviser, especially when I’m doing something with the electronics. You know, you’re making a bass line and then you’re putting something on top of the bass line, it’s the same thing as if you’re using a pen and paper except you’re doing it in real time and you’re hearing it. And there’s no going back. Sometimes it gets so thick you go crazy, but you have to be very careful, you have to have your escape route planned. There’s one button on the rig that will make everything fade out, so if I get into too much trouble I know I can hit that button, make everything fade out and then it’s just me and my horn.

“I have the whole system feeding back to itself,” Whitecage concludes, “and I have learned how to control it but I haven’t recorded it as well as I need to. But the rig keeps changing; it’s too easy the way it is now, so I have to find something to throw in there to shake things up.”

Developing a Free Approach

While Whitecage is characterized as a free player, the natural evolution requires a combination of both discipline and an attitude towards breaking free of constraints. “If you spend too much time with scales and chords,” explains Whitecage, “you get this emotional investment in them. I’ve met a lot of piano players who have spent so much time working out their inversions and things that they are emotionally attached to these chords and they can’t play free, can’t break away from it. I’ve always guarded against being over-developed in any one area of the things I do. Still, I don’t throw anything away. I might go back and play ‘Round Midnight,’ some old standard, but it has to be fresh and new to me; once I learn how to do something I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Whitecage sees the road to freedom as being an educational process. “The first thing,” Whitecage explains, “is if you just play free your fingers are going to go into natural places, and you’ll play the same thing everyday. One thing I used to do, for example, was read. I had a flute at one time, when my kids were very young, and a clarinet book and I would practice the clarinet book on the flute. I’d play something new everyday; just read something; anything that I hadn’t played before. Make my fingers do different things, make my hands move in different ways. Do all the exercises, all the scales. You hear the younger players all hung up on Oliver Nelson’s Blues and Patterns , you can almost tell their age by what they’re playing, because they’ve spent too much time on the one book. My idea is just to study any piece of music and read, even if it’s a harp piece. I still do that.”

“But you have to be loose with things,” he declares, “or else it wouldn’t become your structure; if you tighten it down then it becomes something that’s not you anymore. If it’s loose, if you’re in the moment, then you’re playing with the truth, you’re playing what’s really happening. If you’re thinking about the music then you’re not really playing. If you’re seeing it, you’re not really playing it. There’s musician’s music and composer’s music. I saw some of Steve Reich’s charts once and there’s a clarinet part that is a repeated pattern thousands of times over. The horn player doesn’t even get to participate in the music, although maybe later he can hear it back; but he’s so busy doing it that he’s not in the moment any more; I’m just the opposite of that, if that makes any sense.”

Acoustics and the Current Climate

With the exception of the 2003 Drimala release Rules of Engagement, Vol. 1 , a duo record with Duvall, all of Whitecage’s recent output has been released on his own label, Acoustics, which is a bit of a cottage industry. Rather than press large numbers of CDs, he produces them himself out of his home, creating limited edition releases where supply meets demand. With the exception of Ducks on Acid , the recordings have all been from live performances. He does, however, have plans for a new studio recording with a new band. Jay Rosen and Dominic Duval will be part of the effort, but there are also parts for cello and trumpet. Whether it sees release on Acoustics or elsewhere has yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, Whitecage continues to pursue his muse, although he sees recent developments in American politics as adversely affecting the ability for artists to get out and promote their music. “For a long time I was doing most of my work in Europe,” says Whitecage, “until Bush made us hated all over the world. It’s hard now to be an ambassador and go over to Europe, to France and Germany, where I’ve traditionally played. They can’t get people to come to our concerts anymore. People won’t come for American artists. Being an American is a liability; it used to be, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that everybody wanted American jazz musicians, and so it was a very positive thing to be an American, but not now. And Bush is keeping a lot of people from coming over here, because they have so much trouble with their visas. There are a lot of musicians that can’t get into the country to play with us; the whole world has changed.

“Europe is still a bastion for creative music,” he emphasizes. “I’m going over with The Nu Band (Roy Campbell Jr., Joe Fonda, Lou Grassi and myself) in January, 2005, but it hasn’t been easy for the trio. I had to stop doing it, I lost money on the last trip, and I couldn’t afford to lose anymore, so we’ve done other things. We’re working on it, but it makes me angry.”

Still Evolving

But despite the hurdles that have been placed in the way due to the current political climate, and the marginalization of jazz from being a popular music to a niche market, Whitecage is positive about the future. He is busy writing and painting, and is looking into releasing DVDs where he can better integrate both art forms. He is involved in numerous projects including Rozanne Levine’s New Reed Quartet, his own new group, the experimental Hudson Bay Explorer’s Club and, of course, the trio with Duval and Rosen. With an insatiable hunger for artistic development, there is clearly a lot more to be heard from Mark Whitecage.

Visit Mark Whitecage on the web.

Photo Credits
Rozanne Levine

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