Ross Hammond: Holding onto the Wave
RH: Oftentimes I'll start new projects with folks who share a common interest. For example, The Revival Trio (with Vanessa Cruz and Shawn Hale) started last year because we wanted to play jazz that was open but based on African rhythms and song forms. Lovely Builders (with Scott Amendola) comes out of a mutual love for jazz, rock, folk songs, et cetera. However, my intent is to always sound like me. I don't want to try sound like Ali Farka Toure when I'm attempting to play African Music because that would be a giant experiment resulting in failure. To me, an improviser has to develop their repertoire and then be able to use it to settle into as many musical situations as possible. Whether I'm playing with a folk singer, a jazz quartet or with a guy who has strapped a guitar to the bottom of his shoes and is walking around the room with it, I need to bring my voice to any situation.
AAJ: Have you ever played with anyone who strapped a guitar to the bottom of his shoes or, for that matter, anything equally experimental?
RH: Yes, I've played a lot of experimental music with different artists (Phillip Greenlief, Wes Steed, Rent Romus, Ruben Reveles, Steve Adams, Kevin Corcoran and others). Most of that has either been in the electronic or free-improvisation realm, oftentimes both. That's all part of the improvisation experience, and I think playing in as many different situations as possible makes you a better improviser.
As for the guitar shoes, I made that up. But that's an idea!
AAJ: In regard to your current project, Cathedrals is the sophomore follow-up to Adored, the recording debut of your quartet with multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia, bassist Steuart Liebig and drummer Alex Cline. Considering you're the youngest of the four members, how did this all-star quartet come about?
RH: I first met Vinny in 2008. He came up to Sacramento to play a concert series I was curating at a long-forgotten venue called The Cool Cat Gallery. He played a solo set and then sat in with a group that I was in with saxophonist Tony Passarell. After that, Vinny came up later that summer to play a festival that I programmed called the In The Flow Festival. That was the first year of In The Flow, and Vinny played in a trio with Damon Smith and Weasel Walter. After that, we played a gig together at the Palms Playhouse in Winters, California with drummer Tom Monson. Then we started playing on gigs together both in the Sacramento area and in Los Angeles.
On one of those gigs, we played with drummer Alex Cline at the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts. I sent Alex a message introducing myself and asked if he'd like to play with us. That video is on YouTube, actually. We just played as a trio and improvised for an hour. It was a pretty fun night, and any time you play with those guys, you just try to hold onto the wave. A month or so later, Steuart Liebig came up and played at a weekly series that I curate in Sacramento at Luna's Cafe.
I started booking LA gigs with those guys as a quartet. We did a couple of shows at Eagle Rock and the Blue Whale, but we weren't playing any songs or structures. Everything was free. It was great because the group could improvise with one another really well from the start, so then it was easy to write music for that band. The improvisation is the foundation, if you will. After a few gigs like that, we recorded Adored at Wayne Peet's studio in Los Angeles in late 2011.
AAJ: In light of the members' combined experiences, how do personal and stylistic dynamics shape the inner workings of the group?
RH: Well, let me start by saying those guys are three locomotives. I feel like it's a dream playing in a band with them. All of them transcend their instruments, and it's probably the best learning experience I'll ever have. Now, as you can imagine, the songs can get away from us rather quickly, especially live. So how to write and present music that caters to the band but still tells the story I want toldthat's the tricky part. I remember we played a version of "She's My Little Girl" (from Adored) at The Blue Whale last year, and it transformed into a free-blowing, high-energy piece. That song originally started as a lullaby for my daughter's naps, but sometimes when we're in the moment the spirit takes over. Maybe that was a power ballad.
But as for communicating with the group; I have a lot of the same interests that Vinny and Alex do. If I ask them about a live Ornette Coleman recording or an Archie Shepp concert or something, they'll not only know it but there's a good chance one of them was there when it happened. Knowing that background is there makes it rather easy to describe what I want to make happen when we're recording. If I tell Vinny he has to come into the piece playing like an elephant, he can do that, and he knows what I mean. And Steuart can groove on anything, so that's nice.