An AAJ Interview with Rob Reddy

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AAJ: Your press sheet states that you describe your projects as "New American Music Ensembles." Could you please elaborate on what you mean by this? (I could read this as either "new" American music or "new American" music or both...if you see what I mean?)

RR: I think that I started to realize that my music was coming out of all the American "folk" musics that I've been checking out over the past ten years or so. For me, "folk musics" include jazz, blues, gospel, folk, country, or any music made by American people. It came to be that it wasn't important that I was making jazz music or this or that kind of music. But if anything, I think that my music has everything to do with the fact that I'm American. So new American music works for me. And it allows me to not have to use the J word all the time when describing my music.

AAJ: Earlier in the interview you mentioned attending college to study music. Have you had any formal musical training?

RR: One thing that I've done fanatically for the past 10 years has been to document every performance that has taken place. A few reasons—maybe I've needed to have an actual physical body of work; maybe I just have this insane immortality issue that I haven't dealt with yet.

However, these recordings have definitely become an important learning tool for me—I have not really had any formal training in composition, arranging, or orchestration. I've basically taught myself by listening, studying scores, asking a lot of questions, and mostly just from trying things. I can't tell you how many times I've written something for a particular instrument that an orchestration book has suggested not to do—this has usually given me some of my favorite textures and these sounds start to appear in my music quite often. It's sort of just being confident enough to try something-I also have the luxury of working with some incredible musicians—their sounds and abilities are so much a part of my music.

AAJ: You have composed for a number of ensembles that vary both in size and instrumentation. Although it's clear that you target specific instrumentation, do you also specifically compose for the individual musicians that comprise these ensembles?

RR: I definitely compose for individual musicians. But the idea for an ensemble, specifically its instrumentation, comes first. Then I think about whom I'd like to play the parts, whose sound and personality would lend itself best to the music at hand. And being that I've had the opportunity to work with some of the same musicians for almost ten years now, this works well.

AAJ: As a follow-up, could you please describe what unique or specific qualities each of the musicians in The Honor System brings to the band? If one of these musicians were to leave, would The Honor System cease to exist or would it simply evolve/mutate?

RR: The Honor System could only be E. J., Josh, Jef, Dom, Pheeroan, and myself. That's been a consistent personnel for eight years. I think it makes sense for me to keep these ensembles together with the same personnel for however long I need to. I'm sort of able to predict (not to a tee), how somebody is going to phrase a melody, improvise on a form, or just what they're going to bring to something I write, after I have worked with them for some time.

AAJ: Could you please briefly describe each of the following ensembles with regard to its musical identity or function? In addition to obvious differences in instrumentation/musical style, could you describe how they might also be similar? (i.e. unmistakably part of the Rob Reddy musical universe? Is there a broader or perhaps unifying aesthetic that informs every Rob Reddy project?)

a) The Honor System
b) Quttah
c) Sleeping Dogs
d) Quintet
e) Octet

RR: What unifies all my projects is that I basically approach them all the same way. I always compose a melody first and work my way out from that. Usually, when I have a complete melody, I can decipher which ensemble the composition is going to be for. Differences in instrumentation allow for different textures.

The Honor System is definitely a horn thing with rhythm section.

I refer to Quttah as my string group: four strings—violin, cello, bass, guitar, with saxophone and dumbek. It also happens to be the first ensemble that doesn't use a kit drummer.

Sleeping Dogs is the closest thing to a Jazz ensemble for me. Its music is the most open, with the least amount of information on the paper.

The Quintet is an extension of the trio I had with Reggie Workman and Pheeroan akLaff. I added guitar (Jef Lee Johnson) and cello (Rufus Cappadocia). I'm working on an extended piece (a suite) for the Quintet right now, about 30 minutes in length.

The Octet is really bottom heavy. Acoustic and electric bass and 5-string cello with a low E bass string, two saxophones, trumpet, guitar, and drums.

AAJ: As a follow up, what have you learned from each of these ensembles?

RR: I like the idea of sections. Not just string sections or horn sections or rhythm sections, but grouping different instruments together into sections. Sometimes this allows for an instrument to play a role other than what it's known to play. It helps me to get away from the idea that particular instruments are only supposed to do this or that. I think that's why I create these different ensembles. I've also been slowly adding new instruments to my repertoire so I can learn how to write for them.

AAJ: Your press sheet mentions that you use improvisation as a compositional tool, but not as a reason to create a composition. Could you please elaborate or clarify this concept? (e.g., are you saying that for you improvisation is always subservient to composition? Or that improvisation itself is not a means to an end? Or other? If it helps explain, please use a track from Songs That You Can Trust to illustrate your point)

RR: There's a lot of jazz or improvised music where, it seems to me, the composition is serving the function of a vehicle there to be improvised upon. I tend to use improvisation in many different ways—often to support the composed material rather than the other way around. Or I use it to create a particular texture that may not be achieved through notes on the paper. When I inform musicians of the particular purpose of the improvisation (as a segue from one section to another, to support a melody or other composed material, etc.), it can be used as a compositional tool. I certainly write things in which a musician is improvising within a form or on chord changes, but want to give certain aesthetic direction to the mood, shape, or overall feeling that I would like the improvisation to achieve if the composed material doesn't already suggest these things. I'm often bored by what's commonly referred to as free improvisation. I prefer that improvisation has a direction or is connected to a compositional idea.

AAJ: What is the most meaningful compliment you've ever received as a musician?

RR: Just being hired by Reggie Workman and Ronald Shannon Jackson to play their music.

>AAJ: What ten CDs are you listening to most right now?

RR: I tend to listen to a small batch of recordings for a period of six months to a year until I feel I've absorbed them. Here's what I'm listening to now:

Artur Rubenstein, Chopin Piano Preludes
Jef Lee Johnson, Blue
Ornette Coleman, Science Fiction
The New Budapest String Quartet, Bartok String Quartets
Harry Smith, Anthology of American Folk Music
Recordings of Jean Jenkins, Music From Ethiopia
Alan Lomax, Southern Journey—61 Highway Mississippi.
The Real Bahamas—Vol. 1 and 2
The Gospel Tradition—The Roots and Branches, Vol. 1
The Guarneri String Quartet, Beethoven Late String Quartets

AAJ: What other projects can we expect from Rob Reddy in 2000-2001?

RR: December 28th, 1999, I'll premier my first commission (from the American Composers Forum) for my Horn Choir. I'll definitely be writing more for this group in the next couple of years. I'd also like to premier an ensemble called Small Town (an 18-piece group) in fall 2000. That's an ensemble I could see working with for quite a while. So many possibilities. I'll be working and writing for all the above-mentioned ensembles also. I'd like to record the Quintet and Quttah soon. They're definitely ready to go.

Selected Discography

Rob Reddy's Honor System, Songs That You Can Trust (Koch Jazz, 1999)
Rob Reddy's Honor System, Post-War Euphoria (Songlines, 1996)

As afterword, Rob Reddy would like to introduce the personnel for each of his ensembles:

The Honor System: Josh Roseman: trombone; Eddie "E.J." Allen: trumpet; Jef Lee Johnson: guitars; Dom Richards: acoustic bass; Pheeroan akLaff: drums.

Quttah: Jef Lee Johnson: guitars; Charles Burnham: violin, mandolin; Rufus Cappadocia: celloDom Richards: bass; Hearn Gadbois: dumbek, percussion.

The Quintet: Jef Lee Johnson: guitarsRufus Cappadocia: celloReggie Workman: bass; Pheeroan akLaff: drums.

The Octet: Tim Otto: tenor and baritone saxophones; Ravi Best: trumpet; Jef Lee Johnson: guitarsRufus Cappadocia: cello; Dom Richards: acoustic bass; Damon Banks: electric bass; Pheeroan akLaff: drums; (or) Calvin Weston: drums.

Sleeping Dogs: Steven Bernstein: trumpet; Charles Burnham: violin, mandolin; Dom Richards: bass; Qasim Naqvi: drums.

Horn Choir: Briggan Kraus: saxophones, Tim Otto: saxophones; Craig Rivers: saxophones; Sam Furnace: saxophones; Steven Bernstein: trumpet; Bob Scarpulla: trumpet; Vincent Chancey: French horn; Josh Roseman: trombone; Marcus Rojas: tuba; Pheeroan akLaff: drums.

Small Town is in the works will probably premiere in Fall 2000. Tentatively an 18 piece consisting of 5 winds, 5 brass, 5 strings, 2 percussion, and piano.

Rob Reddy plays soprano (his main horn) and alto saxophones in all of these ensembles.


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