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Todd Sickafoose: The Art of Non-Resistance

By Published: September 22, 2008

AAJ: How did Tiny Resistors come into being?

TS: Jeff Gauthier and I set out to make a record for his great label Cryptogramophone. My band is really a collective. John Ellis, Josh Roseman, Jenny Scheinman, and Ben Perowsky are all amazing musicians who often play in my band but not yet on any of the records. So instead of trying to pick the best band that hadn't happened yet, I picked the best one that had. I used the record to recreate an exceptional show we had one night at the 55 Bar in New York. The musicians were exactly who you hear on Tiny Resistors, including the violinist and expert whistler Andrew Bird, who happened to be in town from Chicago. That night was one of the first times we used two drummers, and Allison [Miller] and Simon Lott really hit it off. The chemistry of the whole thing seemed worth capturing again, and I'm really thrilled with the results.

AAJ: In composition and arranging, you have a real respect for space. Despite all that's going on, there's never a feeling of clutter, yet it strongly holds together. Spacious, but never ethereal.

TS: That's the intent. Good composing is like good writing. You work hard so that it's easy to read or hear. At every moment your ear should be drawn toward the important stuff. I think it's also part of good mixing. On Tiny Resistors, I just kept tweaking until everything was as clear as I could make it. I hope people get to hear this record on some real expensive speakers. There's details in there that won't pop out on your iPod.

AAJ: Your ear for small touches, like the bells opening "Bye Bye Bees," or the Celeste in "Tiny Resistors," contribute a subtle sonic seasoning resulting in a more memorable musical dish.

Todd SickafooseTS: Thanks. I find it strange that some jazz musicians continue to move toward Monochromatic, like jazz guitarists whose sound is stuck on one flat, dark tone. That is crazy. Or can you imagine being a drummer and not sometimes rethinking the set of five instruments you've been given? Cymbal, hi-hat, snare, bass drum, a tom or two. There's so much more in the world to hit with a stick. So really, I'm more in the jazz tradition of Art Ensemble of Chicago or Keith Jarrett's American Quartet, who exploded open their own instrumentation. To me, texture and rhythm are the most interesting elements of music.

AAJ: Tiny Resistors has certainly garnered some great press. Being lauded in The New York Times and USA Today pretty much kills your underground status. Have you been surprised by the enthusiastic reception?

TS: I wish it were that easy to move above ground and sell lots of records. But the enthusiastic reviews are most welcome, and helping us reach a bigger audience. It's been said that the appeal of my band is not limited to the jazz audience, and I think it's true. But then again, listeners are no more from one genre than musicians are. My hope is that all sorts of listeners will be able to find us.

AAJ: "Black and Tan Fantasy as played by John and Paul" may be the best description yet of your musical vision. In searching for a reference for your sound, many critics point toward Bill Frisell. How do you feel about the comparison?

TS: Bill Frisell is a thinker, a matchmaker, a great bandleader, and a masterful guitar player. I'm honored by the comparison. I think when people say that, they are responding to the openness of the music, the simple melodies, and maybe the fact that I've always had guitarists in my band, often two. Bill Frisell's music is an example of jazz which soaks up everything. The reason it's jazz is because it's instrumental music played with utter spontaneity by gifted improvisers. But it owes as much to folk and rock music as anything else. Maybe that's true of us, too.

AAJ: More and more, it seems like jazz is shifting from an emphasis on a protean soloist to vibrant ensembles where everyone solos and no one solos, to reference Joe Zawinul. Certainly, Cryptogramophone generally, and Jeff Gauthier specifically, feed into that current.

TS: You're right. Yeah, that approach is simply more interesting to me. We still have solos for sure. But they're in there for a reason, not just because it's jazz and that's what you do. It helps to have a tight-knit band. Jeff Gauthier's Goatette has been playing together for almost twenty years. So they just play together.

AAJ: "Pianos of the Ninth Ward" is a very moving piece. Your understating the sadness of it makes it more effective. It's more wistful than tragic.

TS: The great, tragic damage in New Orleans wasn't caused by the loud storm, it Was a result of that quiet—silent—water that came in from Lake Pontchartrain. It's spooky and so sad to think about. The empty city. Instruments inside houses, slowly filling up with clear water. That's what I was thinking about when I wrote "Pianos of the 9th Ward."

Todd SickafooseAAJ: You mention working in larger ensembles. Will the next collection involve a bigger band?

TS: Well, as far as a core band, seven or eight musicians are about all you want. With the right personalities, people sympathetic to all the potential beauties of shifting orchestration, that number is magic. It can feel massive, but also nimble and quick on its feet. More than eight and you enter a realm of diminishing returns, at least with my music. But a huge string section is always sexy. Have you heard Jenny Scheinman's new CD? She rounded up all the great string players in our Brooklyn neighborhood—there are quite a few—and added a veritable string orchestra to her instrumental record, all without having to rob a bank. Hiring a string orchestra is normally an expensive operation.

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