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Kelvin Sholar: Artistic Crossroads

By Published: April 27, 2009

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.

Kelvin SholarPianist, 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 years—if 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 thesis—burned, 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 boundaries—whether 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.

Chapter Index
  1. New Home, New Work
  2. Modernizing the Music
  3. European Scene
  4. Generation Change

New Home, New Work

All About Jazz: The last time we talked you were still with Winard Harper

Winard Harper
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 doing—maybe 80 percent—came 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 Detroit—people 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.

Kelvin SholarI 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
Gil Evans
Gil Evans
1912 - 1988
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 bebop—people 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
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
' "Its About that Time," pieces by Carl Craig—basically 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 works—and 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 history—which is dark and light—with 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.

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Modernizing the Music

AAJ: As you've described it, some of your recent work seems to reflect this same idea of recontextualization of the past in the present—a theme often discussed in jazz writing and which we've talked about before. The idea that jazz is encumbered a little bit by its own reverence for its past.

KS: That is really true. That is one of the main reasons I left New York City. I felt stifled as an artist with a different voice to always, in a way, interpret what I am doing now directly through the lineage of the major jazz masters and the masterworks. To be asked, "Well, how does this reference Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
, Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, Miles Davis, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967

Amiri Baraka has a great quote, "Jazz is a reflection of whatever the modern Negro is." That is from Blues People. When I read that 15, 20 years ago, that hit a nerve with me because jazz isn't something that is limited to the '50s. It is just an outlook. When jazz was still in its inception, the African-American culture was still interfacing with the traditional American culture. So you are getting the influence of classical music, folk songs, and they are struggling with how to interpret that but still give their own voice to satisfy their own needs.

I find a parallel right there—jazz is finding a way of interfacing with whatever is around you today. Those guys were doing that in their own time. They were taking Broadway tunes on the radio that day, songs from TV that day. We lost some of that insight. 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. That is what is limiting it and keeping it from evolving as fast as other genres. It is defined as an art form that still plays the same tunes as the '50s and '60s.

AAJ: Listening to your music, though, I've never heard it as a deliberate rejection of the past. From some of the more classical work, to the most modern, cutting edge stuff that has a more tenuous connection to jazz, it still doesn't feel like a denial.

KS: It's so funny, from what I've said you'd think I'd be an artist only interested in modern ideas and his own way of doing new things. Actually, I am quite for being aware of the classics and being connected to the past. The difference is I don't think the past is always better. I am not a classicist. "Oh man, if we were only back in the past. Things were so much better then, easier, better defined, when it was bebop or whatever."

Kelvin Sholar

No, I think you should be aware of that because the language that we speak is rooted there, but at the same time it shouldn't be a defining point for your modern voice. I don't talk like Shakespeare to say how I feel today. I talk like Shakespeare to show that I am well versed, well read, and connected to my past. I find a value in knowing where I come from. I listen to Dr. Dre or Q-Tip, Tribe Called Quest, Wu-tang because they speak to me more about the inner cities where I come from. That takes me to the root of who I am now.

Perhaps that is a dichotomy in a way, but they are very married in the very same way our democracy is rooted in the democracy of Greece. They are not the same thing 'cause they had slaves and women were not allowed to be citizens. But you take an idea that was very strong and put it into a modern context and show its relevance.

The classics have ideas that are very strong. They are timeless. But they are incomplete if you leave them in the way they were interpreted in the past. In order to make them complete I have to show everything that has happened since then to make them relevant to today's world.

AAJ: Do you think there is any risk to that, as artists such as yourself mix genres, mix musical systems, mix cultural systems, that you start to lose the distinctions between them?

KS: All music is fusion. All music is always a fusion of other music. Even when you say classic jazz, we can take anyone as an example, but Charlie Parker listened to Stravinsky. "Hot House Flowers" is Bizet's "Carmen." Everyone borrows. All music is a fusion of the influences that the composer loves; it is never limited to just one form. Even W.C. Handy
W.C. Handy
W.C. Handy
1873 - 1958
who "invented" the blues was listening to ragtime and classical. The only danger of it being mixed beyond recognition is that the media has to use certain kinds of terms to define what we are observing. That is why rock music becomes Alternative Rock. Its still rock, but you have to add another adjective to make it relevant to people who are wondering how it is different from The The Beatles
The Beatles
The Beatles

or Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry
guitar, electric
. I think when that danger occurs, someone just invents a new term. I think there is more of a limitation on how it is described than in the actual art of mixing, because that is continuous, it is always being done.

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European Scene

AAJ: You've brought, obviously, your own jazz experience with you from New York, but there is also an ever growing European jazz tradition now. What is happening here in Europe that you see as the most potent part of the jazz scene today?

KS: The most potent part of the jazz scene today coming from Europe is the way European musicians are mixing traditional "folk" music and classical roots with the things jazz and American music have brought to the twentieth century. Improvisation, swing, certain attention to production characteristics, certain attention to compositional forms that did not originate in classical forms. Everywhere I go I encounter folk-blends. I just came back from Bulgaria and I heard blends of Bulgarian gypsy music. I am a big fan of Poposov and his gypsy music. I have never heard anything like that. Or the Bulgarian Woman's Choir songs from Thrace from 2,000 years ago, and mixing that with what I thought were traditionally American strengths—improvisation, swing feel, etc. Taking both genres in a direction that you can't predict from one or the other. You can't listen to this and say, "the next step is a mixture of jazz and gypsy." That is a challenge to me.

To quote Barak again, if jazz is the reflection of the modern Negro and I'm a modern Negro, and I can't predict its going to be a combination of jazz and Bulgarian music, then that shows me that this a fresh thing ... That is the key to the future. It's not to forget the past, but somehow find its relevance and always produce something fresh and new.

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Generation Change

AAJ: It's almost impossible, two days after the Obama election, not to hear a little bit of a parallel to what just happened in the world of politics. We've seen a campaign based on change. Look at who he is, what he represents. And having been here for the election, this was not something that just Americans were paying attention to. It may be a left field question, but what has just changed in the world?

KS: There is a paradigm shift from isolating yourself from your enemies that you have war against to integrating yourself with friends that may help you get further where they have different strengths than you might have. You take away your weaknesses by working together. You minimize them by working together. So many world leaders in the last few days have stepped forward and said, "I want to work with Obama" Whereas before people were like, "I don't want Bush in my country."

Kelvin SholarThe day my son was born, Obama was here and I had to reroute my trip to the hospital to birth my son because he was so popular they had to block off so many streets because people were here to celebrate his victory before he even won. It shows a paradigm shift for the world. People are not willing to be isolated ... look at the Internet. Everybody wants to interface. (He) let the people have a voice again. That, to me, is the strongest aspect of Obama's campaign.

AAJ: You've used the word interface several times. Obviously this is an important term for you. The link between the Internet and giving people a voice, allowing a much more global perspective. Here you are, for example, a much different American abroad than the "lost generation."

KS: It's not lost anymore. It's not generation X—it's more of a Y. If you compare it to mathematics, X being the general term for any unknown thing, where Y tends to express a finite or definitive element. It's changed the way we view ourselves. When I looked on the Internet and saw Obama being elected, this is Harlem celebrating. But it didn't show just Harlem and the black community. It showed everybody else. It's all young people. Different colors, different races, willing to celebrate the future. It's not X anymore. We're not lost. We no longer don't know what we stand for.

We know exactly what we stand for: the ability to have our own say in how things change. Standing for what we believe is important, not just being passive recipients of what we inherited from our parents. It is our turn to shape the world. We say. That includes our friends in Europe, in Asia, in the Americas. We are not just isolated in our 50 states. We are part of a global thing that is new. My father is going to come visit my son next month and people in his generation didn't get outside of those 50 states. My mother has never been outside America. The paradigm is shifting. Man, it's nothing to see friends now all over, interfacing with other cultures.

So to get in to that word. This may be silly, but in 1999 The Matrix came out and I really liked the film because it showed something about the digital consciousness and the analog consciousness. How you could be trapped inside some kind of digital world, but still have relevance, a basis, in the analog world. The way, it went back to Plato's cave and other similar allegories.

I say interface a lot because I am interested in electronic music and the only way to import my feeling, my thoughts, and my musical abilities into the digital world is through some kind of interface. Something I can plug my piano into, my microphone into, my keyboard, anything analog, into and translate it into some kind of digital language. And then allow that to be used inside a strictly digital format.

These days I see the rise of interfaces with what is actually happening in the world and how that is represented in a digital format—like All About Jazz—you are actually microphones for what's going on, that computers can't tell, that someone just reading can't know. You are the interface—you are out there in an analog world soaking up all this information, translating it through the keys, putting out this digital medium and anyone can then see what is happening in the world.

All the records are being digitized. All the books are being digitized. That is also a paradigm shift. The world is moving away from an analog representation of itself to where we can manipulate images and information in a digital context.

Kelvin Sholar

AAJ: Many people fear that. See that as a loss or a dilution. You are representing that translation not as a flattening of the analog world, but as something different.

KS: An enriching. To get really, really technical, we write music in two dimensions; we represent three or four dimensions in a two dimensional medium, when we write on a flat piece of paper. When you start doing music with electronic instruments you have infinite dimensions, not only can you have the traditional harmony, melody, rhythm, duration, you also get touch sensitivity, transposition, all these extra things. Once you go into the digital medium you can manipulate what you conceived in an analog world to an infinite degree.

Everything is a tool of the human mind. The mind is always going to be based on an analog brain, you don't lose anything from the real world, you just find new ways to manipulate how you think and feel. How you symbolize. The digital medium is just another way to symbolize how we think and feel.

I welcome it. That is what is allowing us to talk to each other. I send a letter to a friend of mine in China and he sends it back. It takes a month. I can send an e-mail in a second. That is a big change in global consciousness—through a digital medium.

Selected Discography

Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald, Recomposed—New mixes by Ricardo Villalobos and Carl Craig (Deutsche Grammophon, 2008)

Bujo Kevin Jones and Tenth World, Tenth World Live (Motema Music, 2008)

Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald, Recomposed No. 3 (Deutsche Grammophon, 2008)

Francesco Tristano, A Taste of the Last Supper (inFine Records, 2008)

Carl Craig, Sessions (!k7 Records, 2008)

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