Kelvin Sholar: Artistic Crossroads
“ Somehow we thought it was more definitive of jazz to keep our viewpoint in the past. I don't think that is at all relevant today. In fact, that is one of the things that is killing jazz--for me. ”
Pianist, composer, programmer, writer, philosopher Kelvin Sholar is a modern Renaissance man, an endangered species in our modern times of careerism and hyper-focused resumes. At any one time, Sholar seems to be grappling with more ideas and projects than very few are capable of doing over several yearsif at all.
To give a sense of the scale, the second time I spoke with Sholar, when he was still living in New York and had just finished a brilliant set at HR-57 in Washington, D.C., he handed me a copy of his doctoral thesisburned, of course, on disc. At home, I opened it up to discover an ambitious tome blending philosophy, mathematics, linguistics, music theory, and just about everything else.
What makes Sholar most impressive, however, is not simply this cerebral acuity, but his rapacious drive to translate his ideas into the very cutting edge of music that recognizes no boundarieswhether recording delicate solo piano, playing as a sideman for Q-Tip, or collaborating on Grammy nominated dance albums.
After several years of only brief contact, I had the distinct privilege of meeting with Sholar again for an extended discussion and to listen to his latest works, this time in his small apartment in Berlin where he had recently moved with a new wife and child.
Once again I left with the sensation of having experienced the equivalent of intellectual shock treatment and with my ears reawakened.
All About Jazz: The last time we talked you were still with Winard Harper and were also playing with cats around New York doing various projects. Since then, you've moved to Berlin and started all kinds of new forays. It seems like there is a whole new Kelvin. How did you end up in Berlin and how has it changed your music?
Kelvin Sholar: One of the main reasons I came to Europe was that a lot of the work I was doingmaybe 80 percentcame from Europe somehow. Festivals. Special occasions. I was asked by various bands to come as a sideman. I would find myself here so much, either in Greece or in France, or Italy, Germany. My agent lived in Bologna and I would stay at his house. So I decided to just go there (for awhile) and branched out and played all over Italy. Then I came to Germany to do a tour and I really liked Berlin. The cost of living, the history, the way it felt to me more like New York than what I had found in Italy. Berlin had enough things like New York that it felt somehow familiar. I decided to move here. Since then it's been a constant process of interpreting my past through new interactions. Whether through techno or Bulgarian music, or even German traditional classical songs.
AAJ: Let's talk in more detail about some of the projects you are currently working on.
KS: There are three projects I can mention that really sum up what I stand for. I'll start with a record from Deutsche Grammophon that I worked on with Carl Craig and Rich von Oswald. Carl Craig is an innovator of Detroit techno. Techno is from Detroitpeople think it is a German phenomenon but it is a Detroit thing!
On this album (we) took the music of Ravel and Mussorgsky, recorded by (Herbert von) Karajan, chopped those up, added electronics, and recomposed them to the point that you have elements of the original, but it is a new piece. Then, I went and actually performed that live with all acoustic instruments. Most people that I talked to did not expect that. The album had come out two days before and the people who bought it thought they were gonna get two guys from a studio pushing buttons on their laptops. But they showed up and there was an orchestra standing there! It's a very exciting project because it shows a large borrowing between jazz, classical and electronic. Which is so new and fresh, it's wet.
I also did another project using Stravinsky. I am a big fan of Stravinsky I heard the "Rite of Spring" when I was 18. I took classical music at Wayne State University and we had to analyze the first eight bars and when I listened to the piece I was so floored by the piece, I had never heard anything like it.
So, when I was approached to do a project taking the music of Gil Evans and forming a band around that, I said that's interesting, but I don't think I could do anything better than what they did. That isn't even my goal, to top past masters. I thought it would be more interesting to take works I am interested in. So I took "Rite of Spring" and "The Firebird Suite," both ballets ... which were composed for dancers with these weird time signatures and pagan sounding music. I thought that had a real relevant flavor for jazz, because jazz is dance music. In my opinion if you can't dance to it, it doesn't have that much jazz. So I transcribed all of it. I'm proud to say and ashamed to say I spent every day of a full month writing down everything I could of those pieces! And then immediately tried to transfer that to a jazz quartet ... how would I as a jazz musician give reverence to Stravinsky?
The third project I want to mention is something I am still working on called Jazz on the Dance floor. It's my interpretation of reintroducing jazz to the jazz floor mentality which (it) originally came from. Ragtime was made for dancing, swing music, even beboppeople danced to it. After that it got more into jazz music as an art, as a headspace. With this project I decided to take classic pieces I liked, Miles Davis' "Its About that Time," pieces by Carl Craigbasically things that I think of as classic and show how I would interpret them, including incorporating electronics. I didn't want to do it all acoustic because that isn't much different from many other jazz records.
These three projects really represent my viewpoint these days. Constantly mixing, constantly experimenting, constantly trying to make things anew, constantly trying to show the relevance between modern things and old things. They are not separate.
Classic is classic because it is good. It stands through time. For example, I think Martin Luther King's, "I Have A Dream" speech is gonna be as relevant as anything by Shakespeare or Plato's writings or any of the great worksand maybe Obama's acceptance speech! Just the way he put the ideas together are so enduring. It doesn't matter what language it was presented in. The ideas are so enduring, so classic, and so strong. It doesn't matter whether I interpret it with this, or that, it doesn't besmirch it at all. It interfaces more with what is happening today. Maybe a kid today cannot understand how to reference Martin Luther King, except through his grandparents. We've got Obama today. New art forms. Let's try Miles Davis through techno. It gives us something different, something that is true to the heart of jazz without being the same as the (current) presentation of jazz.
AAJ: That is something you and I have talked about before. The idea of how important it is to have connections to the past, but not be bound by that past. Is there something also about moving to Berlin that resonates with that idea? You look around at Berlin and there is a dedication to being modern here, but you can also go to Unter den Linen and see a construction project that is absolutely meticulous in restoring a building from the 1700s.
KS: That is totally how I feel about Berlin. It has such open arms and such an open heart. From Eastern Europe to the rest of Europe, to America, South America, people feel comfortable here because of that openness and willingness to mix and represent its historywhich is dark and lightwith all its modern ideas. Let them be one thing in a new context. Berlin really stands for that in my mind ... it continually reinvents itself. It continually stays on the edge of what is happening. It continually references its past, where you find buildings that are complete replicas, as you said, but also someone put an all-glass bubble in the center of the city! The people are into it. The government is into it. The artists are into it. I really expect great things here because of that.