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Interviews

Geni Skendo: Breaking Free

By Published: March 1, 2011
So I would bring my shakuhachi to work when I was making sandwiches. And I would play it on break, and the customers loved it. When I got a little bit better, I applied to New England Conservatory and I got in on a scholarship.

AAJ: You seem to have had a lot of misfortunes that turned into opportunities.

GS: Yes. My visa was running out, and I wanted to stay. I had just made a demo with my friend on bass. We played John Coltrane's "Naima" [from Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1959)]. I played the melody and then I said, "I'm going to play what I want!" You know how you feel a lot of frustration sometimes, you have something to say—with that flute I could connect and express energies. So I played and it was kind of like jazz, free—but kind of skeleton-composition performance, and it was good, and they offered me a good scholarship so I was able to afford the school.

When I went, I said, "I'm going to start with as many teachers as possible," because they're all great. What makes them great? How did they get there? What do they do musically...

AAJ: So it's just as much a study of the teachers themselves as what they were teaching you.

GS: Yes, because it's all connected.

AAJ: You're very conceptual.

GS: I have to be, because if you come from Albania, you always have to think about the big picture, or else you get depressed. I studied with Charlie Banacos for two years—the jazz guru. He plays the piano, but he's a composer. You study ear training, composition with him. I did jazz boot camp with him. He had me write solos, transcribe stuff. And it's funny, all the stuff I was doing with standards, it was free. Because I sing different. I studied Indian music, I studied percussion one semester, I studied for one year with Anthony Coleman
Anthony Coleman
Anthony Coleman
b.1955
piano
.

Anthony was amazing. When I did my audition for him, he said, "A lot of what you were doing was really great, and you were going in some directions where I was really digging it; but at some moment, you lost it." So I said, "Can you help me to get there? Because I want to do stuff, but honestly I don't know how." I was not as conceptual as now. So what we did with Anthony was a kind of musical psychoanalysis. He had me improvise, and he told me the truth, and he had me do different stuff and read different stuff. But he questioned everything I did. Writing this, writing that—in the end, I figured out why I liked what I liked. Sure, I'm going to play better later, but it was good.

One of the guys who really inspired me was Joe Morris
Joe Morris
Joe Morris
b.1955
guitar
. I learned more from talking to Joe Morris than anybody else. He's able to analyze stuff and tell you what's the next thing you should do. He makes things very simple. He finds the most simple thing you can do to change something. He really helped me to play free. I was playing free, but getting lost. He taught me that if you free your brain, you can do anything. He took me under his wing and invited me to his shows, I played with him a couple of times. I recorded a CD with him.

AAJ: Let's talk about your projects. What was your first ensemble in the U.S.?

GS: You know, breaking free: you don't break free right away. It's a process. It happens little by little; it happens one moment when you play a good solo somewhere. But it starts slowly. It happened for me. I was playing for some friends' recordings at Berklee. I was not even a student there. This type of thing started to happen more and more often. A pianist asked me to play—Kevin Harris. My teacher, Matt Marvuglio, asked me to sub for him at a gig.

It happens. There are different levels—the financial one where they call you for jobs and you get paid. I played a lot of weddings with this guitarist. That's good. But Joe Morris asked me to play for a faculty concert at NEC. Joe Morris on bass—it was bass, shakuhachi and violin.

Another one that helped me was when I played with The Violent Femmes. I know them because I bought the shakuhachi from the bassist. We became friends online, but honestly I didn't really know them at the time. My wife asked me who I bought the shakuhachi from, and I told her it was this guy from this band—I don't even like their music. And she said, "They are cool! They have a cult following. I even made out with a boy during one of their songs." So I played with them in concert. They said, "Okay, play a solo."

So I took this free, jazzy, Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
kind of solo, mixed with Jethro Tull. Very rhythmic, but spread around—putting a lot of patterns in, a lot of energy. When people yell at your music, it's a great feeling.

You have to find a way to communicate with people, and that comes with energy. What I like about free jazz is people play their ass off. But to do that, you need skills. It can also come from space or tone color.

AAJ: Tell us more about your other projects.


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