A Fireside Chat with Kevin Norton
Kevin Norton is one of the most original percussionists my side of the Atlantic. Having documented the music of Anthony Braxton on his Barking Hoop label, Norton, after a handful of convincing releases on the CIMP and Clean Feed labels, continues to advance creatively with Oceans of Earth, a new trio release with like-minded Tomas Ulrich and Joëlle Léandre. An impressively detailed recording, Oceans of Earth furthers the previous The Dream Catcher. Kevin Norton, folks, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let’s start from the beginning.
KEVIN NORTON: It moved me. It felt good. The reason why I played drums was because I related to the rhythm of the music first. There was a kid in my neighborhood, who played a drum set and I might have been fooling around with the sticks and pad at first, but when I went over and fooled around with the drum set, his mom had smashed the door leading to the basement, knocked the door jam off. I thought that playing the drums was pretty powerful stuff (laughing).
FJ: The perception among the masses is that a drummer is not an artist, but filler.
KN: It is kind of a big issue. You know, but it is worth saying again that people like Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and Roy Haynes, but Max Roach in particular, are very melodic drummers. Max Roach is also an amazing composer. He has written pieces that go from solo drum set to pieces for orchestra and pieces for chorus. No matter what he’s playing, the basis of it seems to come from his voice that he has on the drum set. When I started playing the drums, it was the rhythm that attracted me, but at my grandmother’s house, she had a piano and I always used to go over there and fool around on the piano. So it was around college when I started to get into the mallet instruments. For me, a lot of the projects that I do, either as a sideman or as a leader, I have to use the vibes and the drums from almost an orchestral standpoint. I need to hear all the instruments. I need to hear pitch. I need to hear percussion. I need to be in the background. I need to be in the foreground. Percussion instruments, for me, are very expressive and very dynamic.
FJ: There has been a significant shift that should be noted among your generation and those that follow that drummers are no longer merely content with playing the drums, but rather are becoming versed in ethnic percussion instruments and have become students of these cultures.
KN: It is good. My background besides jazz and besides knowing Milt Hinton, I was in a conservatory and so I studied contemporary classical music and I studied Morton Feldman. That is a big part of my vocabulary and I think the guys who play tabla drums or listen to Balkan music, that also rather than us playing the blues or 32-bar standards all the time, the richness of the orchestration can be carried forward and we can also try and compose in new forms and breaking away from the more established forms. For me, it doesn’t distract me from what the conservatives might say is the essence of jazz. It serves to enrich it.
FJ: Han Bennink playing knee or Paul Lytton playing Dixie cups is within the context of their improvisations. However, there seems to be a disturbing trend among drummers familiar with Euro Improv, aping originality and diminishing it to gimmickry.
KN: It is interesting. What you are saying, somebody aping Han Bennink playing on his knee, for one thing, that is really contrived and not really well-thought out. Han Bennink developed his whole thing over years and years and that is why it seems seamless. It is all part of his honest language. For instance, I don’t think I played as well in my twenties as I do now and my idea of using mallet instruments in the context of my whole drum set, I don’t think I did it as well then as I do now. I know if it is going to blend with the other instruments and if it is going to compositionally make sense. It takes years and years to develop that. Guys younger than me are studying other music and playing other instruments. If they hang in there for years and years, that is when it will be interesting, down the line. I think some of it now is exoticism or effect.
FJ: Your thoughts on a mentor/collaborator, arguably the most prolific composer of the modern era, Anthony Braxton.
KN: I want to answer it on a personal level. When the records in the Seventies first came out, like New York, Fall (1974) and Five Pieces (1975), they were brand new records, but I remember getting them just as they came out. What I heard in those records was an excitement and the drive of jazz, but also the sensitivity and the complexity and the expansiveness of contemporary classical music, put together in a very honest way. The music, to me, was very stimulating emotionally and intellectually. To finally, years later, get to be able to play with him, is a huge deal. In between the Seventies and the Nineties, that’s a lot of time, but in that interim, I would read articles where he was being interviewed and there would always be these little things about the spirituality of music and what it meant to him and bringing people together. Lots of people say that and sometimes it is really sort of cornball, but you hear it in his music. He follows through in his music. He has a kind of honesty and integrity that he has never, never let go of. That’s made a big impression on me. What that has done for the music, in general, is that listeners of all ages can go to someone like him and here is a guy who has never backed down from his ideals. He wrote a four-hour opera that I played in, Trillium R. I was just one guy in a pit with thirty, thirty-five musicians, but I was as happy to play that and proud to play that piece of music as anything that I have done in my life. It was just an amazing feat, the amount of work that he put into it. There were a couple of people that said that he should wait until next year to do this. But he was like, “No way. I’m not backing off of this now. I’m doing it.” That’s heavy and that is really inspiration. So many other people would take the safe route. He knew that he could do it. It would push him to the brink, but he’d survive and that survival gives you a lot of energy. That’s one of the lessons for anybody. Braxton has that affect on a lot of people. And he will continue to have that affect because there are people who aren’t even aware of this stuff yet.
FJ: How much of a challenge is it to interpret his music?
KN: I think the thing I like about Anthony’s music and I’ve told this to him, is that at a certain point in the downtown New York scene, there was a lot of interest in making things shift really fast like switching the channels on the television. And I am interested in that, but I am also interested in concentrating for long periods of time. It is not surprising, at least to me, that the music has evolved and some of the pieces that we’re doing now are very, very long and really ask the listeners and the performers to really concentrate for very long periods of time. I really like that.
FJ: What was the impetus behind the creation of your Barking Hoop label?
KN: The idea first came because I thought I was going to make a solo percussion record and I had asked a bunch of people for pieces, but before that came about, the Tri-Centric Foundation started a concert series and Anthony generously said to the group that if anybody wants a contrabass clarinetist, I would be happy to play with them. That was amazing because I did want to write a piece for him because I had this idea, for lack of a better word, “concerto” type pieces for various soloists and I wanted to write a piece like that for Anthony and the piece “For Guy Debord” came about. I was very happy with the way the piece was coming along. We performed it and it was a great performance. We recorded it and I thought I would just want the recording for my own documentation, so I could listen to it and see what went wrong and what I would like to change. The more I listened to it, the more I said that this had to come out. In fact, I did send it to a couple of different labels and they were tentative about it. I couldn’t wait. I really wanted it to come out now. The first CIMP record had been out. The record on Music & Arts had been out. This piece was a great piece. I worked very hard on it. Even though Anthony said that if I wanted to do it again in the studio, he would, I knew it would be hard to get everybody together. So I decided to put it out and that is how Barking Hoop started.
FJ: Sustaining a label on your own, while not compromising your artistic development is not easy beans.
KN: We will see over time. I am glad that I put out the records that I have. They are all different pieces. It is really hard. I have a new one coming out now. It is myself and Joëlle Léandre and Tomas Ulrich. I think it is a great record. We worked really hard on it. But then, to get it out to people and get them to hear it, frankly, it takes up practice time. I allot a certain amount of time. I wouldn’t put anything out that I didn’t believe in a hundred percent, but, for instance, when I am mailing stuff and I try to get it out to the “right people,” I miss somebody and I just try not to get too wrapped up in that. Somebody emails me from Argentina. It could be a wonderful place to send a record to, it is just that time is up. If I did just that, it could easily be a full-time job. It can’t be because I need to practice.
FJ: The album you are referring to is Ocean of the Earth. Joëlle Léandre is one of the most recorded musicians in recent memory. Did you shop it around?
KN: This time I didn’t do that because I wanted this record on Barking Hoop. I wanted it recorded a certain way and I put a lot of work into it. I wasn’t about to have it compromised by a different label. I thought about it for a long time. I did think about some other labels and some other labels might have even jumped at it, but I also felt like it was just too good to give up to another label and perhaps have them alter it. For instance, I guess I can say this because I really like Bob Rusch and CIMP and Cadence, but I don’t think a CIMP recording with these three people would be, for me, the way I would want to do it. I would want to record it in a recording studio, closed miked, and I wanted to have the ability to mix the different voices after it was finished.
FJ: Rusch’s Spirit Room is a specifically unique space to record in and it may not always be conducive to every recording project.
KN: Right, and I think The Dream Catcher (CIMP) is a great record for that label. I also think that Integrated Variables (CIMP), my first record ever as a leader, is a great record on CIMP. I think for that kind of thing, because that is the way we play. That is the way that band played, right next to one another, the sound waves bouncing off one another. It is like what he says. It is like a concert. And we played those things like a concert and that is the way to approach that, but I didn’t think that was the way to approach this thing.
FJ: There is also a new release from the Euro label Clean Feed with your Metaphor Quartet. Considering it featured the late Wilber Morris, will the quartet continue?
KN: No, I didn’t want to continue without Wilber. We talked a little bit about that before he passed away. The music will continue on, but this band is very special. It has four very special personalities and people in it. Hitomi moved back to Japan, by the way, Fred. I just wanted to start another band. It is hard to explain because Wilber’s first anniversary of his death just passed. It was a really beautiful moment. I don’t want to destroy it by just replacing him. The concepts of that band are inside me and they will continue, but not that band.
FJ: Wilber Morris is one of the most under-appreciated bassists/composers in modern creative improvisation influencing both Coasts.
KN: And that was also part of my reasoning behind The Dream Catcher and doing some of his compositions. I know that “P.C.O.P.” is recorded, but I don’t know that “Melancholy” was recorded and “The Archer,” I don’t think that was recorded. That was part of it too, to draw attention to his life and his music.
FJ: You also have a new group with Paul Dunmall and Paul Rogers. The trio completed a recent East Coast tour. There were plans to record at Cadence’s Spirit Room.
KN: We made two great CDs for the CIMP label. The CDs are both indicative of what we played on that tour and different. Every night on that tour was fantastic. Some of the people in these various towns sent me recordings and videotapes of the concerts. They were all really great. I would like to play with those guys forever. I have ideas for written music and other instrumentation with the trio. It is just going to take some time to see what can happen with it. I am hoping that people hear the CIMP records. They are amazing records.
FJ: What are the release dates?
KN: The first one is coming out soon. Maybe, second week in September. That is called Rylickolum: For Your Pleasure. It is CIMP #289.
FJ: What is your practice regimen?
KN: If I could, that is all I would do. Eat, sleep, and that would be it. If it was really up to me, I get so much joy out of practicing. I get so much joy out of listening to a recording of a gig and writing down what I would like to work on. That is how I feel like I have grown and continue to grow. Practice is really an important part of that.
FJ: Your growth, and I have followed it, has been worthy of mention.
KN: Thank you, Fred.
Visit Kevin Norton on the web at www.kevinnorton.com .