Alex Machacek / Jeff Sipe / Matt Garrison: The Improvision Round Table

Phil DiPietro By

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Alex MachacekAlex Machacek, Matt Garrison and Jeff Sipe have been responsible for some of the greatest moments in electric jazz since the turn of the new millennium.

Now thirty-five, Machacek was unknown until the release of his first solo effort in 1999, but the guitarist's releases since have increasingly upped the ante. Teaming with beyond-drummer Terry Bozzio in 2001, they issued Delete and Roll (Austro Mechana), establishing Machacek as a Zappa-esque rhythmatist and re-composer. Tapping fellow Zappa alum Patrick O'Hearn, Machacek and Bozzio reunited to produce the Out Trio DVD (Altitude Digital, 2001) project. But it was [sic] (Abstract Logix, 2006), again with Bozzio in the throne, that firmly ensconced Machacek as a new star on the progressive-music scene.

Garrison took an opposite tact, emerging from Berklee in the early 1990s directly into very high-profile sideman gigs with Gary Burton, Steve Coleman, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, and John Scofield, continuing the trend most recently with Herbie Hancock. By the time the bassist released his solo debut at age thirty in 2000, Garrison's post-modern approach and technique were fully formed and matured, filtering out all obvious influences, resulting in two more self-published and stunning recordings, Shapeshifter and a combo live DVD and CD, released on the same day in 2004. While many live gigs and the occasional recording show he is equally gifted in avant and straight-ahead settings, and his bloodline stems from jazz' most sacred tradition, Garrison remains committed to the mantle of electric—and electronic—jazz styles.

Jeff Sipe has a decade on his current project-mates, and has played with virtually every name on the jamband scene including the Aquarium Rescue Unit (ARU), Leftover Salmon, Phil Lesh and his own Apartment Projects (he was christened Apt. Q258 for reasons known only to Colonel Bruce Hampton). The drummer was there onstage with the ARU, to many, that scene's most gifted instrumentalists, for the first HORDE tour in 1992, jamming with virtually every band that took the stage.

Sipe became more known to fans of electric jazz in the late 1990s through his collaboration with bassist Jonas Hellborg and guitarist Shawn Lane. In 2002, they released their most hard-hitting recording, Personae (Bardo), upping their international profiles with some electrifying concert dates worldwide. While this was to be their last collaboration due the untimely passing of the great Shawn Lane, Sipe had already set out on another project with ARU guitarist Jimmy Herring, called Project Z, with bassist Ricky Keller, in 2001. This collaboration also culminated because of another untimely passing, that of Keller, dubbed "Lincoln Metcalfe by the Colonel. Their 2005 recording, the first issued on the Abstract Logix imprint, ventured further into jazz with guest Greg Osby, and was fittingly called Lincoln Memorial

So too, has Abstract Logix, the brainchild of one Souvik Dutta, changed the landscape for this music since 2005, growing from a mere storefront into label and clearinghouse, to the point that the name is now synonymous with what fusion has become. With the release of Improvision (2007) comes another transformation; Dutta has moved from label owner to impresario not only because it was his idea to put these guys together, but because he got them to actually do it.

Now they all continue their new-millennium track record by claiming collective responsibility for the electric jazz release of 2007. It roars from the speakers with an abandon and authority rarely felt since the halcyon days of this music, precisely because it is re-contextualized into the now, or perhaps days into the future, of whoever listens to it.

AAJ convened the Improvision membership to discuss the toil and fruits of their collaboration and what may yet come of it.

Chapter Index

  1. Improvision: The Concept
  2. Improvision: The Music
  3. Improvision: The Business

Improvision: The Concept

All About Jazz: So who had this great idea to put this project together?

Alex Machacek: It was Souvik Dutta, the owner of Abstract Logix. It was his idea to put the three of us together. So we got together, played, and then I treated it a little bit, and...now it's done.

AAJ: You did what?

AM: I treated it a little bit.

AAJ: Yes, well this is what we need to find out more about. I spoke to Souvik briefly last week, and he said you got in only a very short recording time. Can you tell us about that.?

Matt Garrison: We just did kind of a jam session gig, which was really fun and then, the studio. I can't remember how much time but it was like six, seven hours maybe.

Jeff Sipe: It seemed like it took us six hours to get the headphone mix [laughs by all] and then we had four hours left to cut.

MG: OK, yeah for sure.

Machacek AAJ: Did you guys share the music beforehand or share files or anything?

AM: Nothing.

JS: Yeah this was totally off the cuff.

AAJ: You're kidding me.

JS: No.

AAJ: You had six hours in the studio and came out with this! I mean, the gig must have really helped then!

MG: Actually I think so.

JS: Yeah, for me too.

AM: I was just in there for the money [laughs by all]. Each of us made what—twenty bucks? It was truly, like $22, I guess—where is my check, man? [Laughs by all]

AAJ: Can we take the last tune, for instance? "Put Me Back to Sleep. I mean this is a warm, mellow, loose, spacey, pretty tune. But it also has very composed-sounding head. It's a very hummable, catchy, ditty. This is not a written song?

AM: No.

AAJ: Well how do you do that? Can anybody tell me how it's done?

MG: I think Alex is going to have to do most of the talking here.

AM: Well, the basic idea was not to prepare too much composed music. I only brought two tunes, which are the second tune ("Along Came a Spider") and the ballad ("Very Sad"). Everything else was just jammed. After the session I took all the material home on my hard drive and listened back to it over and over again. Then I worked on these jams and tried to make songs out of them. I structured these jams, sometimes I wrote a little melody, or I took pre-existing melodies, for instance, some that Matt had already played, and just established them as the main theme. If I thought, "Ah, there's something cool happening," I just worked with that and put it in. The whole re-composing or editing process is comparable to solving a puzzle—but sometimes I had to create new puzzle pieces if something was missing.

MG: Yeah, it's fantastic, man.

AM: That's what I did. And the beauty about that is if you don't put music in front of people, they play in a much more relaxed manner. It's because they can do what they think is right and trust it their ears.

JS: Yeee-ah.

AM: So that's my statement for the record.

Alex AAJ: That's hard to conceive, y'know. And without having exact samples of the music available for you and the audience to hear as we discuss it, as if we all in the same room, I don't know how deeply we can get into it.

What about the two composed tunes? Was "Very Sad written out for the musicians?

AM: No, it wasn't. Well, that's just a little bass riff. Just a simple...

AAJ: Two triads with some call-and-response.

AM: But then the melody—and then that's it.

AAJ: But it's a crazy chord progression, not so much harmonically but that drops accents in crazy places over the bar line, etcetera.

AM: That was just done on cue, live. It was the middle part and we all just look at each other like now, ok—and now, again—done.

AAJ: But Sipe is hitting all the fills, accents and drum parts at the exact right moment. I mean, don't you have to rehearse that?

JS: [Laughs] The part you're referring to was done post-production, matching their parts to my drum part.

AAJ: OK. Well, a slower tempo thing I can see how guys of your incredible caliber can do that but there are some sections that seem superhuman. The first song, "There's a New Sheriff in Town —everything is in there—allow me to oversimplify, death metal, Bad Brains Zappa, Zawinul, Tribal Tech.

JS: There are a lot of influences going on that's for sure. I prefer to think of it as an American ECM kind of approach. There's a lot of space and a lot of groove too—a great balance.

AAJ: Yes, I couldn't agree more in terms of the whole recording. But indulge me on a specific example here. There is a specific part of "Sheriff where there are 32nd notes over an almost synchronized drum part—that's not rehearsed?

AM: No, man, that is not rehearsed, that's overdubbed!

AAJ: The dawn now breaks over our perplexed interviewer. [Laughs by all]

AM: Sorry, I sort of revealed a secret.

AAJ: So you're dubbing a very tight melody not just over, but tied rhythmically, to a drum part that was already there.

AM: Yes exactly.

AAJ: So you're playing with, or shadowing the drums instead of vice-versa.

AM: Sometimes, yeah.

JS: The framework of the thing was done live and improv, and then afterwards, whatever the drums did—for instance, what I did on that tune—I didn't come over and redo anything. Whatever was done that day was it, for me, pretty much—I had to surrender at that point. Through the miracle of technology these two geniuses were able to not just put stuff over, but also kind of re-compose the improv. So that's how it worked out to be so tight.

MG: But I'll admit it. I did a few things, but it's fully—this is pretty much the baby of Alex—Mr Moochachik [laughs]. As far as I'm concerned, and I'm not kissing your butt here, OK, Mr. Alex—don't take this the wrong way. Man, what you did with this thing and of course, with your previous records and the way that you're putting stuff together, and conceptualizing, hearing and imagining what can be done— it's what is right now.


There's been years of editing and techniques and approaches to using sound sources and re-layering the sound sources or splicing and all that other stuff. And I think what Alex is doing is man, the most current and most modern form of that particular art form. That's aside from being a phenomenal musician and guitarist. The actual art form of editing is something that's very particular these days and there are very few people that can do it in the imaginative scope that Alex is dealing with. I haven't really seen anybody do anything like this.

JS: Me neither, actually.

MG: It's kind of weird because I've had this one feeling. I feel like Alex was just wearing my underwear for a couple of weeks [laughs by all]. My shoes, my socks too, you know. And he dealt with that and moved on, and then put on all of Jeff's clothes. It's a fantastic process and these are the things I was actually thinking listening to the record for the first time. Man this cat just sat back and learned the record—he just learned what we do and what was there and put his own intentions on it. Now, problem is, can we live up to that once we get on stage again?

JS: Y'know what? I know what you mean but on the other hand, I think the magic will be there.

MG: Yeah absolutely.

AAJ: So the title, Improvision—is that from the improvised versus the composed?

AM: I remember I was meeting with Eric Dorris , the owner of Altitude Digital, who was visiting LA. I told him about the album, explaining that it was basically just improvised, and then he said, "improvision. I'm sure he meant to say "improvisation, but the word "improvision came out. For me it is an appropriate title—we were improvising with the "vision that we had to lay down some framework that I could work with during the editing process.

AAJ: Is that the way you've approached your other recordings, Alex?

AM: With some pieces on the other recordings I did that. For [sic] I did that. On some pieces I used exclusively this approach and on others I just took what I liked or the semi-recomposing approach but that's where I started that.

AAJ: So, the mixed up writers like me who write that Bozzio or Sipe is drumming along with you—it's backwards?

AM: It's backwards. In the case of Bozzio I wasn't even there—I just asked him to improvise me six minutes of a drum solo. Then I got it on hard disc and I did stuff around that. So that's basically the same approach I did with this record. We just went to the studio and all I want there is this: I don't want to have all my parts be beautiful or necessarily even good—I just want to have enough material.

Whenever I had the feeling we were playing a certain groove or feel that could obviously end up being something I said, "That's fine for me, I have enough material for that idea. So if you luck into whatever and get fifteen minutes of material you can bet that you can make a five-to-seven minute song out of it that is going to be fantastic, especially if you play with fantastic musicians like these two cats. That's all I'm looking for. That said, the best parts for me are truly the parts that are really improvised.

AAJ: So everybody else is freaking out that you don't have enough material or studio time and you're like, "This is plenty.

AM: Oh, yeah [laughs by all]. If I put in some work, I still have four or so possible other songs on my hard drive from this session but to tell you the truth I had a deadline so I had to make decisions and take the parts I was most comfortable with, and deliver that.

AAJ: So, it leads to this question. Will you guys be jumping on stage together anytime soon?

Helborg MG: Man, I hope so. I can't wait again to play with Jeff and Alex. Alex and I briefly spoke about this—about how to find a way to make some pieces of that information come alive on stage. Of course, we already did it—but maybe not with that exact...

JS: That's a good way to do it—it's a real organic way to write stuff. The improvisations that really work—we can take pieces off of those. Great bands like Weather Report did the same thing. They'd take a jam and develop it into something so it had an organic sound.


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