Todd Sickafoose: The Art of Non-Resistance
“ Good composing is like good writing. You work hard so that it's easy to read or hear. ”
A longtime coconspirator of Ani Di Franco's, Sickafoose finds himself in the enviable position of touring behind a musical statement that seems to be irresistible.
All About Jazz: What brought you to music?
Todd Sickafoose: We always had a piano around when I was growing up. If you're musically inclined, it's a little like being a seed near dirt. Something's gonna happen. At some point, I wanted to play piano all the time. And I was writing too.
AAJ: Who did you listen to growing up?
TS: My parents had a small record collection. All Ellington and The Beatles. Which probably explains the sound of my band. I try to make us sound like "Black and Tan Fantasy Played by John [Lennon] and Paul [McCartney]. At least some of the time. Later on, I got really into [Miles Davis'] Miles Smiles (Columbia, 1966), [John] Coltrane's Transition (Impulse!, 1965), Ornette's [Coleman] The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959), '70s minimalism. Probably a million records too embarrassing to say now, the requisite dosage of prog rock, stuff like that.
AAJ: When did you decide on bass?
TS: Maybe when I went to hear Edgar Meyer. I started playing double-bass when I was 13, and it was the instrument that opened the most doors. It's been my ticket into so many different kinds of music. Klezmer music, Cuban music. It's such a physical instrument. It probably takes years just to start playing really in tune. At least for me, it did. I played a lot of classical music when I was a kid, which helped my technique. It also gave me a taste for the thrill of a huge resonating orchestra. That thrill is still with me. It's probably the thing currently steering me towards larger and larger bands.
AAJ: Did you study with Mel Powell at CalArts [California Institute of the Arts]?
TS: Yes, I was lucky to study with him in the last few years of his life. He is known as a great American composer but he also had an early life in jazz, playing piano with Benny Goodman's band when he was 19 years old. Mel Powell was a teacher and a thinker who had crystallized his thoughts into single sentences. "Counterpoint is only about rhythm" was one, which I still think about every time I play or write. He also had a real sense of humor, a pretty essential part of all good music.
TS: Well, I still think of myself as a West Coaster. It's famously easy to leave your heart there. The Sierras, the Pacific, the redwoods. What more could you want? But all of my best musical friends now live within about two or three Brooklyn zip codes, and eventually I couldn't think of a reason not to join them. New York is always overflowing with music, but Brooklyn has its own real vibrant music scene right now and I can't imagine being anywhere else.
AAJ: How did you get involved with Ani Di Franco?
TS: The connection was that I toured opening for her in 2002 and 2004. During that second tour, Ani was performing solo but putting together a band to record Knuckle Down (JVC, 2005). She asked me to play bass along with Jay Bellerose on drums, who's a real genius. Ani and I made a strong musical connection while rehearsing the new songs, so she asked me to come out and tour as a duo.
It was exciting for me to play such grand venues with such a stripped-down instrumentation. We played Carnegie Hall during that time, and it was a chance to use all the sounds of the double-bass: bowing, harmonics, extended techniques, drumming on the body of the bass. Stuff you don't normally associate with folk music. Recently, the band has expanded to include vibraphonist Mike Dillon and Allison Miller, whose drumming in my band caught Ani's ear. We've been having a good time.
AAJ: Your compositions have very picturesque titles. Do you name them after they're completed, or do you work from the title?
TS: Some of both. The title "Pianos of the 9th Ward" came first. There were upright pianos that ended up underwater in New Orleans after the flooding. I wanted to write something for those pianos. It somehow represents the deep, quiet sadness of the whole catastrophe. "Future Flora" is a title that came afterward. It sounded right. I like titles that give you strong imagery but not a single, specific image. But then some of the titles on this record are real specific. There is a moment in "Invisible Ink, Revealed" when the trumpet and tenor sax are supposed to sound like they're reading the message. It begins at 3:40, if you're curious.