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Jeff Gauthier: Open

By Published: January 3, 2012
AAJ: On Open Source, "Seashells and Balloons" has a lovely, boozy momentum: chaotic and spontaneous, and melancholic. It stands out in the CD as an interesting character. How did this composition come about? Is there a story there? It sounds as if Tom Waits and Harry Partch had been drinking together all night.

JG: Really? I hear Sergei Prokofiev and Alberto Ginastera going out drinking together, but I can see where you're going with this. "Seashells and Balloons" started out as a way to showcase the trumpet and violin by improvising in a way that could move organically into composed music. I like pairing composed music that has a sense of humor with free improvisation, because it keeps the improvising from getting too serious and precious. It's so easy to slip into the "bloop bleep" school of free improv, but when the written music exhibits a sense of humor, it kind of cleanses the palate and opens up other possibilities. The title comes from an expression that my friend David Breskin likes to use, which is a quote from the great basketball coach Al McGuire. When he was asked right before an important playoff game how things were going with his team, McGuire said something like, "It's all Seashells and Balloons," which tells you absolutely nothing except that you asked a stupid question.

AAJ: "Prelude to a Bite" recalls the electric-fusion Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
and that spirit, to a degree. These days, there seems to be a really amazing bunch of fusion musicians and bands out there, and the term is a much broader one than in the '70s; fusion is maybe not such a dirty word these days, and more open. What are your thoughts?

JG: That's where it all comes from, and fusion isn't a dirty word in my book, at all. Miles, Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report
Weather Report
Weather Report

, Mahavishnu—that was all considered fusion back in the day. Miles changed the face of music many, many times, and most of those ways haven't been fully explored nearly as much as they should.

AAJ: And what of the fusion music of today?

JG: The thing is, musicians have been following this path ever since the '70s. Maybe it's good that every few years or so the purists assert themselves and try to purge jazz of any undue influences. But I think it's healthy that people's ears are starting to open up again to different kinds of sounds. It's a sign that music is growing again, and if it doesn't grow, it dies.

AAJ: On the record is another composition by [bassist/composer] Eric von Essen—the very lyrical "Things Past." Could you talk about this song, and how you developed it from the original, please?

JG: "Things Past" was a piece that Alex, Nels, Eric and I played in Quartet Music, a band we had for about 12 years. I've put an Eric von Essen song on every one of my albums ever since he died in 1997, mostly as a way to keep his music and his memory alive. Over the years my memories of him have faded, but his music still sounds fresh to me. "Things Past" was written as a quartet tune, so I took a few liberties by adding a trumpet line to it. He probably would have written it differently, but that's what you get when you die too young—people mess with your shit.

AAJ: The song is dedicated to Shawn Bates—would you care to talk a little bit about this dedication?

JG: I dedicated the song to my friend Shawn Bates because she passed away suddenly right before the artwork for album was finished. Her death was a shock and tragic reminder of just how fragile this life is.

AAJ: Joel Hamilton and Alex Cline form a formidable rhythm team. Alex features a lot on "Joy to a Toy" but he and Joel color every second of the CD. What do you like about playing with these guys?

AAJ: I've been playing with those guys so long, they're like my musical family. I love them because they can rock, they can groove, they can swing and they can turn on a dime.

AAJ: The title track is an epic—this should really set an audience on fire. How much of "Open Source" is composed and how much is improvised?

JG: I'd say about half the piece is composed and half is improvised. The idea was to combine written music with improvisation, and to use some "old school" compositional techniques to move organically from the very sparse beginning to the rather intense and anthemic ending. The conversation between the drums and guitar is supposed to be a sort of improvised counterpoint to the written counterpoint. My idea was that this conversation would at times overwhelm the written sections.

AAJ: Beyond the spacey effects, which are quite powerful, it sounds like a modern classical composition. What was your mindset on this piece? Could you talk us through this track?

JG: The first half of "Open Source" features a melody that is stated three times in three different ways over a group improvisation. The first is an antiphonal statement between the violin and trumpet, the second is a two-part canon, and the third is a three-part canon adding the piano and bass. While all this is happening, the drums and guitar are improvising a wild conversation that is growing in intensity. The second half of the piece introduces 6/8 time, then turns that original melody upside down and backwards while harmonizing it. After solos over an E drone, the second melody repeats and works itself up into a frenzy, at which point the piece starts winding down and ends with the original melody, asked as a question by the violin.

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