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Roy Nathanson: Auditory Circus

By Published: May 27, 2008

Sotto Voce

AAJ: Your album Sotto Voce, features Napoleon Maddox doing human beat box in lieu of someone playing traditional drums. Was this a stylistic preference that you had wanted as you wrote the music?

RN: The couple of years before Fire At Keaton's Bar & Grill, before Sotto Voce; I was doing this stuff for The Next Big Thing and teaching, but I wasn't going on tour nearly as much as I had. I got a regular gig at this place called Barbes. I had gone through a couple of different phases: like in the '70's when I was starting to act and play together, then I did the straight ahead jazz stuff that I did with Charlie, then the Lounge Lizards and the Passengers, and the writing of songs.... But when I really started getting serious in the last three or four years of writing, I really worked those pieces out at Barbes. It was much less like when I would get people to sing with the Passengers or when I would score a movie.

We did it without the drums; me, Sam and Tim. Curt wasn't even there, except for sometimes. The guys from the Passengers are great players, to get all those guys to rehearsal sometimes is impossible; everybody's older now. So these guys are young; Tim was in his late 20s and Sam; they were more willing to come to my house and rehearse all the time. Because I was trying to sort of build the music around the language. Then we got Gerald Cleaver played drums for a while, and he's really good but he couldn't make it a lot. The truth was, it never sounded right with drums. It was too overpowering and it didn't sound right with nothing.

Roy Nathanson

Then Claire Daly, a baritone player introduced me; we were doing a different project and Napoleon had worked with her, he sat in with us. I heard that guy and immediately thought "this is perfect." This is going to be like a bridge between the language and the music. It works like crazy. Plus he doesn't only beatbox. He goes from beatboxing to singing, if you'll notice sometimes all of a sudden he's singing. And that's the cool thing because then it becomes a continuum between talking, singing and playing.

That's still where I am now because that's why I would rather do that subway thing with Sotto Voce, than the Passengers. I am going to have somebody play drums for a couple of tunes on the subway thing but basically I want to tour this material with Sotto Voce, because I still think that any of the material I'm doing with poems, and moving from poems to song; the beatbox works better.

AAJ: Did you have to approach how you played and sang differently with the beatboxing or is rhythm, rhythm?

RN: That's the good thing about the beatbox. I feel like Sonny Rollins and these guys first felt when they didn't play with piano. Back then they did not want to play with piano players because piano players were restrictive. I feel like that about the drums; they're so noisy. I really like the way beatbox sounds, because I am really into the sound of the alto and it feels like it is so much easier to hear it with the beatbox. I like it better. Now, you can't do as many things as with a great drummer, but still he holds down a groove and that's enough.

AAJ: With your use of beatbox and on other albums people playing samplers you seem to be able to fuse what is current in regards to technology and trend effortlessly into your works. Do you seek out all the new things or does it come to you via your collaborators?

RN: I just try to stay alive a little bit and stay aware of things that are available to me. The first time I heard that sampler... frankly there's been so many times that I have done different things in my career that I thought, not necessarily that I would be a big deal, but I did think that the ways, the directions I was going was going to be big. I thought it was inevitable that the stuff I did with Anthony Coleman, that the next thing would be that jazz musicians would use samples all the time. Why wouldn't you use samples all the time? When it's possible to do music and actually attach those notes to pitches on the keyboard, why wouldn't people do that all the time? But in fact when we started doing it, in the early '90s it was on some pop music and in fact that first sampler stuff I did was in 1990 with Jazz Passengers in Egypt, so it was this big Jazz Passengers comedy-theater we did with Yuka Honda, who was doing sampler (she was then in Cibo Matto), we sampled The Ten Commandments theme. It was a cool way to bring the real world into it. Like the Dada stuff with music concurrent. I thought it was going to be a more artsy thing, than it turned out to be. It turned out to be a big part of pop music and not a big part of art music, it was weird.

Roy NathansonAAJ: Have you ever tried to incorporate a new piece of technology which just did not work?

RN: Well I think that the only thing I've used is samples. To not use samples feels like the elephant in the room, it's just such a big thing. It's stupid, like not using a piano for something... such a big deal. And then the beatbox thing, I don't think of it as a new technology. It's so around, we played with The Roots one time as the Passengers, and so I've heard some pretty cool combinations. I actually wasn't looking for the beatbox thing; then I heard Napoleon, I heard how this was definitely going to work. He's a smart guy. He had his own radio show in Cincinnati, he's a real intellectual, and he really knows stuff. I don't think of myself as somebody who's really, broken serious new ground with that. I don't even really think of myself as an avant-garde musician, I think of myself more as an eccentric like in the eccentric tradition of American music. I don't think that I have really searched for new ways of using the sampler; I just try not to be backward. I don't feel like I'm really an experimenter with sounds as much as a "mixer and matcher" kind of guy.

AAJ: This is my one stock question: Do you have any dream projects which as of now are unrealized?

RN: Oh yeah, definitely. I've met some really interesting poets through this program; like a guy named Russ Gave, a great, young black poet who teaches at the Indiana University now. We play basketball a lot together. I wanted to do an opera on a basketball court. I wanted to have all these different characters; all these people on the basketball court singing, like tons of them.

AAJ: What is the purpose of art and how can people better get it into their daily lives?

RN: To me the purpose of art is just to recognize the elegance in everyday life. That's why I wrote the subway, it's an amazing thing. Everything that happens is an amazing thing. It's a consciousness thing, to really be able to see the humor and power in moments.

Selected Discography

Roy Nathanson, Sotto Voce (AUM Fidelity, 2006)
Roy Nathanson, Fire at Keaton's Bar (Six Degrees, 2000)
Roy Nathanson, Little Fred (Les Disques du Crepuscule, 2000)
Jazz Passengers, Live in Spain (32.Jazz Records, 1998)
Jazz Passengers, Individually Twisted (32.Jazz Records, 1997)
Roy Nathanson, I Could've Been a Drum (Tzadik, 1997)
Jazz Passengers, In Love (High Street, 1994)
Jazz Passengers, Plain Old Joe (Knitting Factory Records, 1993)
Roy Nathanson, Lobster and Friend (Knitting Factory Records, 1993)
Roy Nathanson, Coming Great Millennium (Knitting Factory Records, 1992)
Jazz Passengers, Live at the Knitting Factory (Knitting Factory Records, 1991)
Jazz Passengers & Marc Ribot, Implement Yourself (New World Records, 1990)
Lounge Lizards, Voice of Chunk (Strange & Beautiful, 1988)
Lounge Lizards, No Pain for Cakes (Polygram Records, 1987)

Photo Credits
Top and Bottom Photos: Courtesy of

Middle Photo: Courtesy of Edition Oldenburg

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