An AAJ Interview with Rob Reddy
“ I think the idea of being self sufficient is very important-also realizing what it was that I appreciated most in the people that I look up to--Ornette, Ellington, Shannon Jackson, Bird, Mingus, Threadgill, Workman, Max Roach--all these people have created what I see as their own 'Musical universe' ”
Imagine for a moment that you are a graduate student of American history. The twist to this premise is that you are alive 10,000 years from now. As part of your research you are investigating life in 20th century America. Your goal is to attempt an explanation of life in America through examination of 20th century American music. Assume also that wonderful resources such as All About Jazz have moved on to the electromagnetic afterlife and that your sole source of information is the music itself. Given this set of circumstances, you are not examining 'music history' but instead "music as history. What might you conclude or infer and how might you hear if exposed to the music of Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, George Crumb, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Albert King, Hank Williams, Cole Porter, and Rodgers/Hart if considering them as contemporaries ? (remember, that 10,000 years from now, our present century will be less than 1% of American history)
Now take the next step and assume that you somehow discover that jazz musicians of the 20th century were often concerned with capturing the moment and/or were creatively motivated and inspired by socio-political events. You might not realize that the "moment was generally a very small temporal window (seconds, minutes, hours) and existing within a highly localized geography (e.g., a recording studio, rehearsal space, nightclub, concert hall, etc.) with a relatively small set of participants (band members, recording personnel, audience). As a historian, you might naturally expand both the temporal window and the geography in order to get a bigger picture (which would be consistent with preserving a discrete period of time via an aural document). Given this perspective, what might you conclude or infer and how might you hear if exposed to the music of Louis Armstrong, Eubie Blake, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Herbie Nichols, Anthony Braxton, Charlie Haden, Bill Frisell, Gerry Hemingway, Tim Berne, and Dave Douglas if considering them as contemporaries?
Given that this article is written post-Thanksgiving 1999, the above speculative scenario and inquiries could well be the result of an overdose of festive spirit, roasted turkey and red wine (patriotism, nitrosamines, and alcohol's scary mix indeed).
On the other hand, it cannot be denied that America 1999 is still quite a young nation. Given that music is historically viewed as evolving slowly (remember, hybridization and mutation are not the same as evolution), but that America had very little pre-existing culture plus that Americans are supposed to be genetically pre-disposed to revolution, rebellion, resistance (a new take on the three r's) and independence of thought (this last being my own favorite traditional family value), it can easily be postulated that as a nation, America has authored its own music. Although jazz has been suggested to be America's only true native art form, the various advocates of maintaining the "purity of jazz seem to vacillate over if this simply means that additional elements should be excluded or whether it denies or revels in its inherently ''mutt qualities (blues, gospel, etc.).
Analysis, arguments, and theory aside, one would ultimately hope that everyone reading this would agree that America is blessed with a vast and rich musical heritage, one that should be deeply drawn upon for hope and inspiration in the coming century.
One young musician who seems to incorporate this aesthetic into his music is saxophonist/composer/bandleader Rob Reddy.
Although Reddy would seem to prefer not to use the word jazz to describe his music, the two CDs recorded by his longest standing ensemble, The Honor System, are a clearly worthy and nearly inevitable manifestation of the music that has historically preceded them. Convenient points of reference (and I emphasize the word "reference ) are the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Albert Ayler, Henry Threadgill, Reggie Workman, Louis Armstrong's Hot Seven, and, naturally, the music which infuses the work of these great artists as well.
Of Songs That You Can Trust (Koch Jazz, 1999), the latest CD from Rob Reddy's Honor System, AAJ's Glenn Astarita writes:
Your speakers are liable to wilt and degenerate into molten rubble while playing the opening track. After listening to this recording it is easy to visualize the sweat dripping from the musician's faces as if we had just witnessed a live performance. These gents put every ounce of effort they can muster into their performances and it shows. The message here conveys tons of impact, zestful compositions, clever arrangements and heated soloing as the "Honor System means what they say. Reddy, along with an assemblage of top-flight proven jazz warriors bring it on home, featuring thrills and excitement along the way. Songs That You Can Trust is just that!
In summary, Rob Reddy's music is truly American: confident without being arrogant, brash but not swaggering, and celebratory to the point of boisterousness and joyous unrestraint.
But most of all it's fun. It doesn't require analysis. You don't need to be a graduate student of anything just to savor and enjoy. All you need is a set of ears. Just listen.
To help celebrate the release of Songs That You Can Trust, Rob Reddy graciously agreed to an interview with All About Jazz. This interview was conducted via e-mail in November 1999.
All About Jazz: Let's start with the obligatory biographical info. Please tell the AAJ readers a little bit about yourself (e.g., when and where you were born and raised, what are your earliest musical memories, etc.)
Rob Reddy: I was born ('66) and raised in Kings Park, Long Island, which is just about an hour outside NYC. Its funny, your question made me think of what my earliest memory was...the Moon landing ('69, I think). Anyway, I am the youngest of six children and there was quite a bit of Music (amongst all the other noise) in the house. Mostly Popular Music of the time, a lot of rock and folk and some R&BBeatles, Hendrix, Joni, Stevie, Zeppelin, etc. I really got into it relatively early on. I loved trying to save up some money to buy an album (I worked in my father's delicatessen at a very early age). I was a fanatic about reading and memorizing creditsmusicians, dates, just general liner note info. Can't quite tell you why.
AAJ: Why, what, or who led you to choose the saxophone?
RR: There was (and still is) an upright piano in the house. My mom played well. Well, we actually had to beg her to play. She would bribe me by saying if I helped her with the dishes, she would play for me. She would always play "Für Elise, and something called "The Spinning Song." I asked if I could take piano lessons around the age of seven. My father knew of a teacher, Ranny Reeve, who would travel from one end of the Island to the other to teach. He was a great teacherall the basics and whatnotbut what was amazing was that he encouraged me to compose at age eight or nine.
I think my first composition was for my first cat that had passed away. And in the meantime he had me playing the Bartok piano music, Khatchaturian, Bach two-part inventions, and some boogie-woogie and ragtime. He eventually invited me to his home, where he would have sessions every other Friday night. He had children (I think I was around 11 or 12), high school kids, and adults, all there to learn to play Jazz. We would play "Satin Doll," "Green Dolphin St.," "Four," "A-Train," "Little Darlin'," etc., and he would try to get us to use our ears and eventually start improvising on these songs. I think I first went to these sessions as a pianist, but soon brought my alto, which I had chosen to take up in the school music program.
I honestly cannot remember the impetus for choosing the saxophone. I think I just really dug the sound of it when I heard it (mostly in pop music, Brecker and Sanborn on a bunch of stuff, King Curtis on that John Lennon record, and Fathead on Ray Charles's records.
RR: I really don't know exactly what led me to a career in music. I think I just wanted to remain as immersed in it in college as I was in high school. My parents insisted that I go to college, so it had to be to study music. Though I do remember seeing Miles on his "comeback" tour, and I remember saying that I wanted to do thatlead a band? Be that focused? I can't say exactly what it was.
AAJ: Although you can't pinpoint what inspired you towards a career in music, can you explain why it was important to consciously make the decision to become a composer and bandleader?
RR: I think the idea of being self sufficient is very important-also realizing what it was that I appreciated most in the people that I look up to---Ornette, Ellington, Shannon Jackson, Bird, Mingus, Threadgill, Workman, Max Roachall these people have created what I see as their own musical universeregardless of whether we know them as jazz musicians, or whether they come from this thing or that thing, they have all created something so very much their own---through composing their own music.
AAJ: Although you've been composing music and leading bands for more than 12 years, you've only released two recordings as a composer/bandleader. Why?
RR: I tend to write for larger ensemblesHonor System, Quttah-6; the Octet; the Horn Choir-11; the Quintet and Sleeping Dogs-5; Small Town will be an 18 or 20 piece ensemble. Also I've always had a policy of trying to pay musicians as well as I can. Never ask them to "play for the door" or that sort of thing. The same thing goes for recording. Right off the bat these make for a costly budget and most of the labels that might record my music may not have the resources ($$$). I do a lot of grant and commission writing to try and cover some of the artist fees for recordings as well as live performances. My projects are starting to get a bit backed up now. Quttah, the Quintet, and the Octet all have more than a CDs worth of material and are definitely ready to be recorded.
AAJ: How many recordings have you appeared on as a sideman?
RR: No sideman creditsI was with Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society for about 2 1/2 years, but we never produced a recording from this period. The same from my work in Reggie Workman's ensembles. Just strange timing I guess.
AAJ: What specifically have you learned from working with Reggie Workman and Ronald Shannon Jackson that has been of the most significant or lasting value?
RR: Working with both Reggie and Shannon has always reconfirmed my desire to be a bandleader and composer. Although their music is quite different, there are some similarities in their approach to band leading. Most significant to me is their ability to draw what they need out of a musician and still allow them plenty of room to be themselves. I think they both (like myself) seek to hire strong personalities that will bring something unique to their music. I may hear something in my head for as long as a year before it gets to a musician, and by that point I've usually arrived at a very specific thing that I want to achieve. It's very important to me that I get close to that sound, and it's very important to me that my musicians feel comfortable, fulfilled, and confident that they're there because they have something valuable to contribute to my music. I think that through witnessing Reggie and Shannon as bandleaders and about 12 years of my own band leading experience, I've found that it's possible to achieve this sort of balance.
AAJ: Your press sheet states that you describe your projects as "New American Music Ensembles." Could you please elaborate on what you mean by this? (I could read this as either "new" American music or "new American" music or both...if you see what I mean?)
RR: I think that I started to realize that my music was coming out of all the American "folk" musics that I've been checking out over the past ten years or so. For me, "folk musics" include jazz, blues, gospel, folk, country, or any music made by American people. It came to be that it wasn't important that I was making jazz music or this or that kind of music. But if anything, I think that my music has everything to do with the fact that I'm American. So new American music works for me. And it allows me to not have to use the J word all the time when describing my music.
AAJ: Earlier in the interview you mentioned attending college to study music. Have you had any formal musical training?
RR: One thing that I've done fanatically for the past 10 years has been to document every performance that has taken place. A few reasonsmaybe I've needed to have an actual physical body of work; maybe I just have this insane immortality issue that I haven't dealt with yet.
However, these recordings have definitely become an important learning tool for meI have not really had any formal training in composition, arranging, or orchestration. I've basically taught myself by listening, studying scores, asking a lot of questions, and mostly just from trying things. I can't tell you how many times I've written something for a particular instrument that an orchestration book has suggested not to dothis has usually given me some of my favorite textures and these sounds start to appear in my music quite often. It's sort of just being confident enough to try something-I also have the luxury of working with some incredible musicianstheir sounds and abilities are so much a part of my music.
AAJ: You have composed for a number of ensembles that vary both in size and instrumentation. Although it's clear that you target specific instrumentation, do you also specifically compose for the individual musicians that comprise these ensembles?
RR: I definitely compose for individual musicians. But the idea for an ensemble, specifically its instrumentation, comes first. Then I think about whom I'd like to play the parts, whose sound and personality would lend itself best to the music at hand. And being that I've had the opportunity to work with some of the same musicians for almost ten years now, this works well.
AAJ: As a follow-up, could you please describe what unique or specific qualities each of the musicians in The Honor System brings to the band? If one of these musicians were to leave, would The Honor System cease to exist or would it simply evolve/mutate?
RR: The Honor System could only be E. J., Josh, Jef, Dom, Pheeroan, and myself. That's been a consistent personnel for eight years. I think it makes sense for me to keep these ensembles together with the same personnel for however long I need to. I'm sort of able to predict (not to a tee), how somebody is going to phrase a melody, improvise on a form, or just what they're going to bring to something I write, after I have worked with them for some time.
AAJ: Could you please briefly describe each of the following ensembles with regard to its musical identity or function? In addition to obvious differences in instrumentation/musical style, could you describe how they might also be similar? (i.e. unmistakably part of the Rob Reddy musical universe? Is there a broader or perhaps unifying aesthetic that informs every Rob Reddy project?)
a) The Honor System
c) Sleeping Dogs
RR: What unifies all my projects is that I basically approach them all the same way. I always compose a melody first and work my way out from that. Usually, when I have a complete melody, I can decipher which ensemble the composition is going to be for. Differences in instrumentation allow for different textures.
The Honor System is definitely a horn thing with rhythm section.
I refer to Quttah as my string group: four stringsviolin, cello, bass, guitar, with saxophone and dumbek. It also happens to be the first ensemble that doesn't use a kit drummer.
Sleeping Dogs is the closest thing to a Jazz ensemble for me. Its music is the most open, with the least amount of information on the paper.
The Quintet is an extension of the trio I had with Reggie Workman and Pheeroan akLaff. I added guitar (Jef Lee Johnson) and cello (Rufus Cappadocia). I'm working on an extended piece (a suite) for the Quintet right now, about 30 minutes in length.
The Octet is really bottom heavy. Acoustic and electric bass and 5-string cello with a low E bass string, two saxophones, trumpet, guitar, and drums.
AAJ: As a follow up, what have you learned from each of these ensembles?
RR: I like the idea of sections. Not just string sections or horn sections or rhythm sections, but grouping different instruments together into sections. Sometimes this allows for an instrument to play a role other than what it's known to play. It helps me to get away from the idea that particular instruments are only supposed to do this or that. I think that's why I create these different ensembles. I've also been slowly adding new instruments to my repertoire so I can learn how to write for them.
AAJ: Your press sheet mentions that you use improvisation as a compositional tool, but not as a reason to create a composition. Could you please elaborate or clarify this concept? (e.g., are you saying that for you improvisation is always subservient to composition? Or that improvisation itself is not a means to an end? Or other? If it helps explain, please use a track from Songs That You Can Trust to illustrate your point)
RR: There's a lot of jazz or improvised music where, it seems to me, the composition is serving the function of a vehicle there to be improvised upon. I tend to use improvisation in many different waysoften to support the composed material rather than the other way around. Or I use it to create a particular texture that may not be achieved through notes on the paper. When I inform musicians of the particular purpose of the improvisation (as a segue from one section to another, to support a melody or other composed material, etc.), it can be used as a compositional tool. I certainly write things in which a musician is improvising within a form or on chord changes, but want to give certain aesthetic direction to the mood, shape, or overall feeling that I would like the improvisation to achieve if the composed material doesn't already suggest these things. I'm often bored by what's commonly referred to as free improvisation. I prefer that improvisation has a direction or is connected to a compositional idea.
AAJ: What is the most meaningful compliment you've ever received as a musician?
RR: Just being hired by Reggie Workman and Ronald Shannon Jackson to play their music.
>AAJ: What ten CDs are you listening to most right now?
RR: I tend to listen to a small batch of recordings for a period of six months to a year until I feel I've absorbed them. Here's what I'm listening to now:
Artur Rubenstein, Chopin Piano Preludes
Jef Lee Johnson, Blue
Ornette Coleman, Science Fiction
The New Budapest String Quartet, Bartok String Quartets
Harry Smith, Anthology of American Folk Music
Recordings of Jean Jenkins, Music From Ethiopia
Alan Lomax, Southern Journey61 Highway Mississippi.
The Real BahamasVol. 1 and 2
The Gospel TraditionThe Roots and Branches, Vol. 1
The Guarneri String Quartet, Beethoven Late String Quartets
AAJ: What other projects can we expect from Rob Reddy in 2000-2001?
RR: December 28th, 1999, I'll premier my first commission (from the American Composers Forum) for my Horn Choir. I'll definitely be writing more for this group in the next couple of years. I'd also like to premier an ensemble called Small Town (an 18-piece group) in fall 2000. That's an ensemble I could see working with for quite a while. So many possibilities. I'll be working and writing for all the above-mentioned ensembles also. I'd like to record the Quintet and Quttah soon. They're definitely ready to go.
Rob Reddy's Honor System, Songs That You Can Trust (Koch Jazz, 1999)
Rob Reddy's Honor System, Post-War Euphoria (Songlines, 1996)
As afterword, Rob Reddy would like to introduce the personnel for each of his ensembles:
The Honor System: Josh Roseman: trombone; Eddie "E.J." Allen: trumpet; Jef Lee Johnson: guitars; Dom Richards: acoustic bass; Pheeroan akLaff: drums.
Quttah: Jef Lee Johnson: guitars; Charles Burnham: violin, mandolin; Rufus Cappadocia: celloDom Richards: bass; Hearn Gadbois: dumbek, percussion.
The Quintet: Jef Lee Johnson: guitarsRufus Cappadocia: celloReggie Workman: bass; Pheeroan akLaff: drums.
The Octet: Tim Otto: tenor and baritone saxophones; Ravi Best: trumpet; Jef Lee Johnson: guitarsRufus Cappadocia: cello; Dom Richards: acoustic bass; Damon Banks: electric bass; Pheeroan akLaff: drums; (or) Calvin Weston: drums.
Sleeping Dogs: Steven Bernstein: trumpet; Charles Burnham: violin, mandolin; Dom Richards: bass; Qasim Naqvi: drums.
Horn Choir: Briggan Kraus: saxophones, Tim Otto: saxophones; Craig Rivers: saxophones; Sam Furnace: saxophones; Steven Bernstein: trumpet; Bob Scarpulla: trumpet; Vincent Chancey: French horn; Josh Roseman: trombone; Marcus Rojas: tuba; Pheeroan akLaff: drums.
Small Town is in the works will probably premiere in Fall 2000. Tentatively an 18 piece consisting of 5 winds, 5 brass, 5 strings, 2 percussion, and piano.
Rob Reddy plays soprano (his main horn) and alto saxophones in all of these ensembles.