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Polymorphism: Sound Is What You Shape It

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I —Rik Wright
Originally from Winchester, Virginia, a small town in the north Shenandoah Mountains, guitarist and composer Rik Wright studied jazz in a program led by Ellis Marsalis at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. As a professional musician he’s lived in Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco.
Wright ended up in Seattle in 1994, and a few years later founded HipSync Records. Polymorphism is the third release from Wright on the HipSync label. The recording is made up entirely of Rik’s compositions and arrangements, and features the Rik Wright 4tet with Wright on guitar, James DeJoie on baritone saxophone and clarinet, James Whiton on double-bass, and Simon Grant on drums.
Wright’s compositions contain a great deal of musical diversity – inside/outside, free/arranged, acoustic/electronic – which is not surprising, given his passion for sonic exploration and discovery. For example, the tunes “Scatterbrained” and “Some Assembly Required” contain energized, highly-syncopated arrangements contrasted by free solos, while “Minor You” and “Afterglow” are tempo-less, impressionistic soundscapes floating on loops and samples. With so much music going on inside his head, I felt compelled to find out more.
AAJ: Who were some of your initial musical influences?

RW: That’s a tough question for me to answer because I have different influences for different things - playing, composing, producing. I’ve always been a precocious listener. I listen to 25 to 30 full-length recordings a week. I can remember when I was very little, like three or four, and my father taking me to a record store to buy me a children’s record and I made him buy me The Beatles, The Kinks, and the Rolling Stones because I’d heard them on the radio.

One of the guitarists that first caught my ear enough for me to become a fan specifically of the guitarist and not necessarily the group or composer was U2’s The Edge. From a tone perspective, he’s remained a major influence. The next one was Tuck Andress. He really led me into the jazz world. Then Kevin Eubanks, especially on Dave Holland’s Extensions recording, who led me to bridge the jazz and rock worlds. Some other obviously big influences are John McLaughlin, Frank Zappa, and Sonny Sharrock.

However, composers often have a much bigger effect on me than players do. I consider jazz composition one of the highest of art forms. The biggest icon for me in terms of writing and orchestration is Thelonius Monk. Right behind him are Coltrane, Mingus and Dolphy. I basically write in the hopes that one day my material can stand up next to just one of any of theirs. Bartok, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter and Charlie Parker are all big influences as well. Certain producers have also had a major impact on me. Producers are often overlooked but have influenced entire generations of musicians. For me Daniel Lanois, Hal Wilner, Brian Eno, Manfred Eicher, and Lee Townsend have all had a huge effect on how I hear music in my head.

AAJ: What musical concepts are most important to you as a composer?

RW: To me, the most difficult task as a composer is representing your ideas in such a way that the creativity inherent in the score leaps off the page and inspires the same creative spirit in the performers. It’s very difficult to know what to notate, what to insinuate and what to leave out. Sometimes you can give too much information, sometimes not enough. I really struggled with that during the rehearsals and sessions for my last recording, Isomorphism. This time around my good friend Jim Knodle hipped me to Vincent Persichetti’s book entitled Twentieth Century Harmony . The exercises in that book really helped me better understand and notate the polyrhythms and polychords flowing through my brain. I guess I never realized how deeply many modern composers had gotten under my skin. To that regard, Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic concepts deeply affected me, as did Mingus’ methods of deep improvisation in the midst of deep composition.

AAJ: Your quartet can sound traditionally acoustic, sci-fi electric, or both simultaneously. Do you have any theories on blending acoustic and electronic sounds?

RW: I’m not a big fan of theories. I’m too much of an improviser at heart, so I just do something and then sort my way through it in real time. That said, I’ve certainly learned a lot after many years of blending electric and acoustic textures. I wouldn’t classify any of it as “theories,” rather I’d label them as my personal preferences. In most cases I prefer acoustic bass to electric, even if the double bass is effected. I hate electronic drums and I’m not a fan of synthesizers or guitar-synths. Guitar tone has to start with a strong acoustic presence and then you put effects on top of that; but putting effects on top of a bad guitar tone just makes crappy sound become crappier. I’ve heard plenty of fantastic music that breaks the preferences I have for my own ensembles. In fact, my favorite bassist is my friend Michael Manring, who is an electric fretless player.

AAJ: What qualities do you admire in your fellow band members?

RW: Every single player in my group has two qualities: a massive sense of experimentation coupled with very hefty technical chops. On top of that, I sought out people who were each known for doing their own thing on their instrument. We all swim upstream, so to speak. At our best, any tune can become a game of hot potato where we’re constantly one-upping each other. It’s very hard to have a bad night with these guys. There’s always one smart-ass on the stage who’s going to take a left turn and make everybody think on their toes for the rest of the tune.

AAJ: I caught your show at the Mars Bar with the 4tet and violinist Alicia Allen. At the time, you mentioned she will be joining the band on your regional tour. What additional elements does she bring to the band?

RW: Alicia is a friend of the group who fast became our biggest fan. I’ve performed with her in a few other settings as well. I’m a huge fan of modern improvisational violinists like Jeff Gauthier, Carla Kihlstedt, Eyvind Kang and Jenny Scheinman, and Alicia’s musicality is from that same heritage. It’s another step forward in my quest to blend jazz, rock and folk music into something new altogether.

The addition of Alicia to the group allows the band to get into quieter, more intimate and atmospheric spaces than we were able to achieve before. As you hear from listening to Polymorphism, we already had this wonderful mystery land in our soundscape where the electric guitar, effected acoustic bass, and effected baritone saxophone get very difficult to distinguish from each other. This is how we create those unique spaces in our music where the listener is presented with dreamy timbres they’ve likely never heard before. The tonal values of a violin perfectly complement this sonic palette, and yet it maintains its own unique voice as well. We get into these uniquely lyrical conversations between the violin and the other instruments.

I had a handful of new compositions sitting around that I wasn’t sure how to orchestrate, and the additional voice of the violin opened up new possibilities that I found incredibly inspiring. We’re finishing up supporting Polymorphism as a quintet under the moniker "4tet+1", but in December we’ll be recording the new material for an upcoming release. After that I’m going to rename the band as "Rik Wright’s Zen Tornado" to get us away from a group name that indicates a particular genre of music.

AAJ: HipSync Records has functioned as a label and production company. Describe the origin and development of HipSync.

RW: HipSync Records was founded in 1998 by myself and drummer/producer Simon Grant. We recognized the massive amount of talent in the Seattle music scene and put together HipSync as a cooperative chartered with giving more adventurous Northwest acts the opportunity to get their work out to a broad listening public. Over the years we’ve had some 30 or so people involved with the label’s efforts. And to clear up one common misperception, we’re not just a jazz label. We’re not even primarily a jazz label. We select our artists by the criterion that all forms of modern jazz, electronica, free improvisation, and more experimental examples of popular and instrumental music are considered.

We started out promoting small shows in coffee bars and art galleries, and selling self-produced CDs at local record stores and live performances. We’ve curated concert series at venues like The OK Hotel, Sit and Spin, Speakeasy Café, Tula’s, and most recently The Mars Bar. In fact we’ve just extended our “Electric Bebop” series at Cafe Venus/The Mars Bar to run through the end of the year. Currently our roster includes art-rock band Awkward Star, saxophone colossus Dan Blunck, free jazz trio Disjunkt, out-jazzers Free Consultation, free improvisation group Kallisti, experimental electronica duo Obelus, and The Tony Grasso Saxophone Quartet. We have released and internationally distributed a dozen recordings and promoted over 100 events in Seattle, Portland and Olympia.

AAJ: How has the local club scene changed in the last few years?

RW: Well, obviously there are a lot fewer premium clubs going on now than there used to be. Starting with the 2001 earthquake, which single-handedly killed the Pioneer Square scene, and then the dot-com bust, September 11th, and now the economic “recovery”—more and more venues have folded until there are just a handful of decent stages left. However, in response to all that, there seems to be a strong sense of community rising. New venues are starting to open up and coffee shops and pubs have started to take up the slack in promoting new music. There also seems to be an artistic curiosity present in the audience lately. I’m guessing this in response to the crash of the popular music industry and just plain boring nature of commercial radio. The last two years really sucked for the Seattle music scene, but we’re coming out of it now. The thing that I most like about this town is that people aren’t afraid to take chances and go against the mainstream. There’s a history of unrecognized brilliance here, and the next Quincy Jones, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain types will be drawn here by that same vibe. There’s a ton happening in Seattle these days in many different genres. I think the next two years are going to be a very interesting time to be listening to music in Seattle clubs!

Visit Rick Wright on the web at www.rikwright.com .


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