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Gene Ess: One Note Says It All

By Published: July 11, 2006

Why do I even do music? In this day and age, its not really practical. Financially, its almost like a hobby. But its the one time in my life that I actually feel that I am doing what Im supposed to do.

Gene EssGuitarist Gene Ess—born Gene Shimosato—grew up on an American military base in Okinawa, Japan, and the eclectic mix of music he was exposed to there gave him a far-reaching enthusiasm for music. It also, perhaps, pulled him away from the classical piano his mother had encouraged him to pursue. A musical scholarship sent him to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and meaningful apprenticeships with saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi and pianist Charlie Banacos. It was inevitable that Ess would relocate to New York, where he joined drummer Rashied Ali's group; the two still work together. Last year saw the release of Ess's Sandbox and Sanctum (SIMP, 2005), a quartet set on his own SIMP Records imprint. I spoke with Ess about his collaborators, his guitar philosophy (or lack of same), his collaborators and his plans for the future.

All About Jazz: Let's talk about your most recent album, Sandbox and Sanctum, which came out in 2005 on SIMP Records. This is a quartet set you recorded in March of last year with drummer Gene Jackson, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and bassist Harvie S. This is subtitled "Song Cycle for Quartet, and that certainly suggests that there's some thematic unity or conceptual thread that links the pieces together to make a whole. What is that whole? Does the CD have a concept?

Gene Ess: Well, I used the term "song cycle in more of a loose way. Even though I started off as a classical musician, and that's a term that's used quite a bit in the classical world, I used it in more of a jazz context in that there are no musical themes that run through the whole thing. But the songs do combine to make up the whole structure of the piece. In other words, they're in a specific order and they're different parts of a musical story that I'm trying to tell.

The title basically says it. "Sandbox, for me, is a symbolic analogy to a place where, spiritually, we as individuals play. I think everybody has that place—a place where we can play and be childlike even if we're 30, 40, 50, 60 or whatever. For me, these songs and this music were that: a place where I can play. And "sanctum is something that has the spiritual connotation of worship. So I'm trying to invoke a place in your own individual world where those two collide. So the music tells the tale of that person who, through their evolution, tries to find that place of peace and joy. That place is playful, but at the same time it's something of deep, spiritual seriousness and consideration.

AAJ: Would you prefer that the listener experience this recording as a whole instead of just singling out individual songs?

GE: Well, yes. From my perspective, the album should be listened to as a whole. I mean, that's not so easy in this day and age, and even jazz radio is just going to select one cut and play it that way. I think each tune stands on its own, but my preference—and the way I created it to be listened to—is from the beginning to end. I wanted to take the audience into something that's out of this world, someplace that's not really here—somewhere that might reflect their own truths. I always think that when people say, "oh, that music is beautiful, it's really not the music. They're saying that about themselves. They see themselves in that music—it's just a kind of mirror that helps a person see their own beauty. So music's a kind of tool to let people experience their own humanness from time to time, because most people do have a very fast-paced life in this 21st century. It's a very difficult world to be in most of the time.

AAJ: It's certainly a very mundane world most of the time.

GE: Yes, mundane. Will Durant, the great American philosopher, basically said that, first, real life is hell. But he also said that we human beings need to pay less attention to the river that carries society—which is filled with the blood and the screams of all the terrible things we do to each other—and pay more attention to the riverbanks, where you actually can see the mother nursing her baby or the artists and craftsmen creating. So if people can find an hour to listen—I think the album's about an hour long—it might help. And all the spaces in between the pieces are calculated and I added these soundscapes at the beginning of the first cut, "Free 2 Fast, and also at the end of the last piece, "Kerama Processional. Two soundscapes to draw the person into this music and then after this journey, to let the guy out. It's almost like a ride, and if people get it, great. Other people might not, but that's not really my concern. It's my musical vision and all I can do as an artist is put it out there.

AAJ: Tell me how you arrived at this particular lineup of musicians to make this record.

GE: Well, Gene Jackson is somebody that I've been playing with since '94. We did a pretty big tour at that time with Ravi Coltrane; we did the jazz festivals in Japan and also some performances in Korea. He and I clicked right from the beginning—it's just one of those situations where you play with somebody and it feels great, and there's really no explanation for it because I've played with other great musicians where we didn't really click musically. But we really bonded, and we've been playing together since then here and there—small gigs, some bigger gigs, whatever. It was great that he was able to do those couple dates at the recording studio because he's quite busy with other projects.

As far as just knowing somebody, Donny and I go even farther back—we went to school together in '84. So I've known him for years, and Donny McCaslin was burning even when he was a student at Berklee in '84, '85. We were in some classes together, some ensembles together, but aside from these school performances, we never played together that much. I knew he had moved to New York, and I met him just out of the blue on one of the strangest gigs; I guess here in New York they call them "club dates.

We played some pop music, and I'm not saying that in an insulting way, but it was just a very badly-produced event done by this producer. Anyway, Donny happened to be the saxophonist on it, so I was reunited with him in New York after ten years or so. So when it came time to do this recording, I knew he'd be the perfect tenor player for it. I've been told the eight songs on this record are rather difficult to play, especially what I've written for the saxophone.

AAJ: The themes seem pretty tricky.

GE: Yeah, and just the music in general. I don't think it's something you can sight-read at a session. It takes some time to get the gist of it. I'd had other players play this music on some gigs, and it just wasn't right, and it occurred to me to have Donny come in, because we'd just done a gig at the Blue Note together before the time of the recording, and I just thought he would be the perfect player for this. I was right; he played the heck out of it, man [laughing]. I'm very happy with the way he played. He interpreted the melodies and these intricate little fills pretty much the way I had imagined it. I guess that can happen—you know, I think we're exactly the same age, and he's had a really similar background to mine. He did a great, great job. He's another very busy player, so other saxophone players have filled in on my gigs since the recording, and it never comes off right. Not like Donny did it, anyway. Kudos to Donny.

Harvie is someone that I just met in the last two or three years. Of all of us, he's the veteran guy; he's older than we are. He's somebody I used to listen to as a student. I've always admired Harvie. Whenever I've heard his bass playing, I've been struck first by his characteristic sound of his playing, and second, by what a free-flowing kind of player he was. It was very attractive to me whenever I heard him on various recordings. So I just came across some people who knew him, and I gave him a call. He was very supportive. He wanted to hear the music first, but once he heard it, he said he loved it. He told me he thought it was very fresh and very different from what's coming out now. So he said he was happy to do it, and he's been doing almost all of my gigs—including the very small ones in New York. I'm very grateful for that.

AAJ: Gene Jackson is an essential part of this music—I've always admired his restlessness, and there's plenty of that here. He never plays on autopilot. He's really prowling around within the music here, almost fighting with it, and that really brings it to life.

GE: That's exactly right. He's unique in that way. I've never met a drummer with that intuitive thing he has. And you know, the way he approaches it can, and does, fall on its face from time to time. It's one of those situations where he'll try it and one night it just doesn't work. But the nights when it does work, it's magic—just unbelievable drumming. And I prefer that. I would rather have the band just screw it up, have an off night, rather than play that autopilot kind of sound that a lot of guys in New York have.

I guess a lot of these guys have such technical virtuosity that they do go on autopilot; that's what it is. Without mentioning any names, I remember not too long ago, this drummer was filling in for Gene, and he had heard from Harvie that the music was a little bit difficult. So he wanted the recording. I told him, "listen, I don't want you to play like Gene Jackson does on the recording. I want you to bring your own stuff. But he said he didn't want to sound bad on the gig, and that was understandable, so I gave him the recording before. And you know, he didn't try to play like Gene, but it didn't sound like jazz—it was this very-well-prepared thing. He wasn't trying to create something at that gig. Every time we play, wherever we play, each tune comes out differently.

AAJ: Well, there's no reason to learn Gene Jackson parts from the record. I suspect Gene couldn't play those himself now; he doesn't want to.

GE: He doesn't want to. He told me that when he was working with Herbie Hancock for those years he did, he noticed that Herbie never listens to any of his recordings. He hasn't for a long time. He doesn't want his music to be affected in that way, and Gene learned from that. He won't listen to anything he's played on either; he says, "that way, when I play the tunes next time, it's like the first time. So he brings that freshness. Plus, he's a very powerful drummer. Even though he's a different animal, there's something about him that reminds me of Rashied Ali, who was one of my first jazz employers when I first moved to New York. They have a very similar triplet feel, even though otherwise they have very little in common. I was talking to Gene about that, and he said it's a Philly thing; they're both from Philly. Of course, he also told me he loves Rashied Ali's playing.

AAJ: Your guitar tone on Sandbox and Sanctum is quite unique. It's got an electric brightness to it that's not exactly like anyone I've heard before. I also like how you mix just enough chords with your single-note lines in your playing. Do you have a philosophy of jazz guitar playing?

GE: I don't have a philosophy. Are you familiar with Charlie Banacos? He's a great teacher up in Boston. About three or four years ago, I asked him a similar question, because I was going through a period in my life where I wanted to come up with a maxim or methodology. He told me he didn't have it. I finally just came to the conclusion that I don't either, and that I wasn't even really a fan of the guitar per se. I know some people really love their guitars, and that's great. But I'm not a fan of the guitar itself—it just ended up being what I ended up playing. It's the instrument that I can express myself on in the most efficient way.

I started out as a pianist, but I rebelled against that—I was kind of forced into it when I was young because my mother's a classical piano teacher. I ran away from that, but fell in love with the guitar later when I was 14 or 15. So that's what I use to express myself, even though on the electronic record I did before Sandbox, I played keyboards as well. But I don't really have the proficiency on any other instrument.

AAJ: So now you're stuck with it.

GE: Yeah. I don't mind it—I love the sound of the instrument, and there are so many great guitar players. But if I have a philosophy, it's not to have a philosophy—just to play what's natural and what you need to express. And I'm not at the point where I feel I express everything as honestly or as naturally as I can. Whenever I reach that point, I think maybe it'll be time [laughing] to try something else. It's still a struggle. I do think that you need to try to find a voice that's your own, and I work very hard at that, man. I try to not sound like every guitarist out there, which is getting more and more difficult!

I remember reading an interview with Paul Bley, and he said, "well, it's not really your fault if you don't sound that individualistic in this day and age, because there's so much that's already been done! He said that in the forties and fifties, it was different. In terms of guitar sound, I know what I don't like and try to stay away from that—and that's how I ended up with the sound I have on the guitar. I am actually pretty happy with the guitar sound on that record.

AAJ: Beyond your guitar tone to the overall sound of the music on Sandbox and Sanctum—do you think this represents your mature sound, the music you're playing today?

GE: Yes and no. The live performances that we continue to do still include these songs, because it is my latest album. But this week, I'm going into my isolation booth to compose for five days straight to try to come up with my next record. I've had enough time—I usually know when it's time to go do that, to put it on paper. It's like giving birth. I don't really enjoy that process of putting it on paper—well, not on paper, I use composing software called Sibelius, but still, it's this time-consuming process of putting all the things inside you out as best you can. So I'm going to do that. Are you familiar with Jerry Bergonzi?

AAJ: The Boston tenor player?

GE: Yes. He was my teacher years ago. I gave him this record. He's one of the few people who I really respect in terms of what they'll say to me, and said he loved the record, but he thought the music carried with it a spiritual and inspirational value. That was touching to me that he caught on to that. I'm not an evangelist—some people want to convert other people, and I have nothing to do with that. But for me, music is the most spiritual activity that a human being can do. I don't really do it for any other reason than that. Why do I even do music? In this day and age, it's not really practical. Financially, it's almost like a hobby. But it's the one time in my life that I actually feel that I am doing what I'm supposed to do.

My next record is going to be less complex. There aren't going to be as many odd time signatures, not that shifting of time or things like that. Lately internally, I've been hearing something more hymn-like. So I think my next album will reflect that; it'll be something more simply stated. I'm hoping to have the same guys, but we'll see. Everyone's very busy. I'm hoping to do the record later this year.

AAJ: I do want to ask just a bit about your previous album, Sunrise Falling (AMP Records, 2003). This is very different from Sandbox and Sanctum. It's very much a studio album where aside from the drummers and bassists on the tracks, it's all you on guitars, synths, loops, and programmed parts. I suppose it's a fusion record, but to me it sounds as much like groups like Sound Tribe Sector 9 as anything in jazz. What were you going for?

GE: I'm an electronic buff. I like building electronic things. The one piece of electronic gear that fascinated me most, of course, is the computer. I'm still, after years of opening them up and looking inside, amazed at what a CPU does. And it comes from sand. It's amazing what a human mind can do. So computers have been this fascinating subject for me. I learned this 4GL language called FOCUS, just to be able to work with this software called Max/MFP, made by Cycling '74. It's a heavy piece of software and it's used by these musicians/philosophers to create their art.

There are two elements to that record. I wanted to express my electronic side, using some musician friends that I've worked with in the past. At the same time, I was contacted by AMP Records, this U.K. label that specialized in electronic music; they wanted me to do a recording for them. So I knew I couldn't do a jazz record because that's not what they did. And I'm of a generation of musicians that, when we grew up, there was no jazz. We didn't hear standards. They certainly weren't on the radio. Most of my generation of musicians learned jazz in more of an educational setting.

Gene Ess So I grew up with electric guitars and synthesizer, things like that. I was talking with one of the bassists on that record, Matt Garrison. He said, "why can't Weather Report be my standard? That's what I grew up with. And in a way, Heavy Weather is my standard; that's what I listened to as a 14-year-old kid. Not Coleman Hawkins playing "Body and Soul. That was not around! I hardly even heard jazz on public radio.

It's a peculiar problem for me that the greatness of this music, the invention of it, all came from the United States. And the United States seems to care about it the least. It's such a great music that you would think there would more public love for it.

But you know, in my darkest hour, I feel like one note on the piano says it all for me. I kind of like B flat. B flat on a nice grand piano—within that note and the overtones, everything in my life that means anything to me seems to be inside that. That one note is enough.


Selected Discography

Gene Ess, Sandbox and Sanctum (SIMP Music, 2005)
Gene Ess, Sunrise Falling (Amp Records, 2003)
Rashied Ali Quintet, No One in Particular (Survival Records, 2001)
One World Tribe, Prayer for September (Prayer Wheel, 1995)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Gene Ess



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