Peter Epstein: Effortless Precision

Stephen A. Smith By

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For me, the really successful free music is in essence just collective composition. It's more of a compositional element to say, 'I'm going to solo now. I'm going to step out.' And just by making that decision, you're affecting everything else, because there are repercussions for everyone else in the group.
This article was first published at All About Jazz in June 2001.

Peter Epstein is one of the brightest saxophonists on the New York scene. Since coming to New York from Portland in 1992, he has recorded with Brad Shepik, Ralph Alessi, and a host of others, on more than 30 albums. He has released three discs as a leader with MA Recordings: a solo saxophone album, and two discs of his quartet with Jamie Saft, Chris Dahlgren and Jim Black. A fourth will be released this fall, featuring Epstein with Scott Colley and Peter Erskine.

Earlier this year, I went to New York to hear Epstein play with Ralph Alessi's Modular Theatre. After the show, we went to a nearby coffee shop to talk.

All About Jazz: Let me ask you about your instruments, because you play a few. Is soprano your primary horn?

Peter Epstein: I would say alto is, in that I started on that a few years before the soprano. However, what's interesting is that in most bands where I play alto, I also play soprano; and there have been a number of musical situations where I've only played soprano. So sometimes it does feel like it's my primary instrument. But I couldn't really make a choice, and hope that doesn't ever arise! [Laughs.]

AAJ: What criteria do you use to decide which horn to use in a given situation?

PE: That's a good question. It's hard to define how I feel about the qualities of the two instruments. In general, soprano lends itself to more lyrical stuff; but on the other hand, it can be pretty fiery, too. I think the alto in general has a little more velocity, a little more presence, a little harder. A lot of times it'll depend on the range, too—where the tune is written, and where it feels like it's going to end up in the 'sweet spot' on the horn.

AAJ: Have you worked specifically on your tone?

PE: Oh, yeah. Not 'specifically' in the sense that I've really done particular exercises. But in a way I kind of have my own process to develop technique. It's slow, and kind of intuitive. Maybe the best way to say it is that I've just kind of fallen in love with the sound of the instrument. As time has gone on, I've developed more of a connection to it. I'm hearing it better now, so I hear more what I want out of a sound, or find those things in a sound that are really gorgeous. Doing a solo project also, I think, helped facilitate that a little bit. Because it's so exposed, and there's so much that you can do on the softer side of the instrument which just gets lost when you're playing with ensembles or a group. Exploring that stuff some more, I found a more expanding palette of sound.

AAJ: When I play clarinet, one thing that's always challenging my tone is the hiss of the air passing through the horn. Is there anything in particular that you notice lurking around the corner of your tone?

PE: That air thing kills me, too. There are some times when it might be a nice quality, but I need to have control over whether it's there or not. I get really frustrated—I kind of lose it, actually—if I don't have a really good reed. I'm really, really picky about reeds. It's almost like if it's not perfect, then I'm at thirty percent. If I don't have the sound I need then the sense of time is gone, my fingers feel stiff, and everything goes out the window. It's almost like I've never held the instrument in my hands. It feels like this foreign object. It's only because the sound is wrong.

AAJ: Todd Garfinkle's another guy who seems preoccupied with the sound. How did you two hook up?

PE: I met up with Todd through Miroslav Tadic, who is a professor at Cal Arts. He teaches guitar there; but he's from Yugoslavia, and when I first arrived at Cal Arts, I studied Balkan folk music with him. By the end of the year we were starting to play together. I ended up playing in a band of his for the second, third and fourth years I was there. Right at the spring break of my last year at Cal Arts, he and I went to Japan to make a recording for MA. It was my first time on a real commercially-released CD. It's just continued since then. After I went over with Miroslav...I don't remember what the next project was, but eventually Todd turned to me and said, "Do you have a project that you want to do?" I think I've done 15 for MA now. All my stuff is on there.

AAJ: How much of your conception of tone has developed since you began working with Todd?

PE: I would say quite a bit of it, actually. There's something about that recording process that's really unique. I'm quite used to it now; but whenever I do a project for him with other musicians and it's their first time recording with him, I always try and really prepare them a little bit, because it's so different than being in the studio.

AAJ: How so?

PE: From the musician's standpoint, you just kind of wonder what the hell's going on sometimes. He'll run back and forth from the recording console to where the mics are and he'll just move a mic a sixteenth of an inch and then run back there and listen to it. But it really is a process and he really is doing something, honing in on the sound. It's just so exposed, and you just hear everything. One of the things I realized when I made the recording with Miroslav was that I couldn't really play soft, not in a really controlled way. And because it was an acoustic, nylon-stringed guitar, and saxophone, there was a real issue there. With Todd there's never any amplification. That was a bit of a starting point of many years of going back and working. I really want to have control of the sound, and to feel comfortable with it and connected to it, from an almost immeasurable whisper to as much as I can get out of the horn. Now I feel like I'm getting closer to that where playing softly is not so much of an effort.

AAJ: How did the San Martino Cathedral come into the equation for Solus? Was that Todd's suggestion?

PE: It was Alfredo Gallacci's suggestion. He's the distributor for MA in Italy, and he lives in Lucca. San Martino is the cathedral he's always gone to ever since he was a kid. I think that they had never made a recording in there, and Alfredo had this idea that he wanted to have something recorded there, to capture the acoustics of that space. I don't think Alfredo specifically requested me, but Todd and I had been discussing doing a solo project, and the timing was right.

AAJ: I read a Stereophile interview in which Todd discussed how he thought of the performing space as a part of the group—making a quartet a quintet, for example. It's a unique concept; and if you listen to Solus, you can really hear the cathedral's presence.

PE: Playing in the cathedral, there was no ignoring the cathedral. [Laughs.] It was really quite wet, and quite ambient. I tried to count, myself, and it seemed like it was around six seconds of reverb decay. "Ma" means "space" in Japanese. I think from the very inception of the label, that's been his concept: to go to a space.

AAJ: That's a hell of a space! [Laughs.]

PE: [Laughs.] That's for sure. It's really a mind-blower to be in that space. Right now there's tourists walking around taking pictures, but that's not what the place is about. It's not a tourist attraction; it's a church. There's so much collective energy in those spaces, from worship and prayer and meditation. It's a somewhat palpable thing. That can be a little intimidating.

AAJ: If the cathedral has some 'presence' that can't be discounted, certainly the same can be said of the Partita in D minor. How did you come upon the idea of doing that piece?

PE: That's interesting. I had been playing with this violinist named Jeff Gauthier in Los Angeles. I was in this period of time where I was really working on certain things. I was working on circular breathing a lot, and I was sort of working towards this concept of solo performance. I hadn't really thought, 'I want to do a record'; I just was thinking about how to develop that internally. I was out there to play on a friend's graduation recital. Jeff was playing on it also, so we ended up hanging out a lot, and talking a lot. My friend Andy Barbera played a Bach piece transcribed for guitar as part of his recital. I was really floored by it. It wasn't the first time I had heard Bach; but there it was, right in front of me, and I thought, 'Ahh, alright!' So then I wanted to find some solo pieces, because I think Bach, by definition, is just sort of perfect. I thought, 'OK, I'll get something single-line—it's Bach: guaranteed, it'll be great—to try and explore what he did with the single line, and how he makes whole music out of one note at a time.' Obviously there are a lot of double-stops in some of those pieces, but the one in D minor has less of that—except for the Chaconne, and that's another issue we'll have to talk about, I know! [Laughs.] Jeff copied all the partitas and all the sonatas, and gave them to me. I looked through them, dabbled for awhile, found sections that I liked a lot, and then sort of kept gravitating towards the one in D minor. I found it was a great way to practice circular breathing. A lot of times when I'm practicing, I can't figure out what to play, so sometimes it's really great to have a piece of music in front of me—almost anything. That's kind of how it started. Eventually I started talking to Todd about it, and he was really interested. I didn't think it was possible, and he kept encouraging me to try and get the whole piece together. It fell into place maybe a year later.

The Chaconne, in a way, is the piece. It sort of feels like the other movements are just leading up to that. It's epic, and maybe as long in duration as the first four put together. It's very possible that it was just completely beyond me to try and get to something like that. In the Chaconne, there are many elements, with these huge arpeggios, and these long, long sections. If nothing else, that movement just relies so much on the low G string. There's just G's everywhere. In the first four movements, I was able to sort of fudge it, so a couple of times where there's supposed to be this big, ringing low G string, I'd break off, or I'd do something to mask it, and just go on, and hopefully it didn't break the flow too much. But in the Chaconne, there was just no way. So I actually have this dream of getting a soprano with a low A key, which I don't think exists. I've asked a lot of people; nobody knows, anyway. That would be really cool.

AAJ: You mention an appreciation for the single line. I notice a lot of single-line thinking in your music. Do you compose at the piano?

PE: I sometimes supplement at the piano. I generally compose on the horn, or just internally, somehow. I always keep little manuscript books, almost like a journal. If I'm riding the train, I'll write little fragments down. Sometimes it'll be almost a complete idea, but usually not. Eventually, I'll sit down for a period of time, like days or weeks, where I really go into a writing mode. It's great; I just pick up these books, flip through them, and hope that one out of twenty ideas kind of leads me somewhere. And then maybe I'll take it to a piano.

But the truth is that I still think in terms of single lines even when I'm at the piano. You know, I studied harmony, all the way through Bach and Stravinsky and Carter, and I did fine in class. I got good grades, but I just don't understand it. Or I have my own understanding of it, and my own relationship to it. So a lot of times if there is counterpoint or there is harmony it'll almost be a secondary issue because it's sort of created by these lines. I do write some tunes that actually have changes, standard chord progressions, but those are the minority for sure. Sometimes I get a little self-conscious about it, because I feel like there should be more going on, but I just love the unison line. And those kind of concerns are just wasted energy anyway.

AAJ: That's another thing that I've noticed, in your playing with Jamie Saft, or with Ralph Alessi. When you play a unison, it sounds like more of a true unison, almost like a single instrument playing in two dimensions. I wondered if that was something you were conscious of.

PE: That's what I'm going for. I really love that feeling of precision. Playing with Ralph, there's a kind of effortless phrasing, and breathing, and intonation... To me, there's really something magical about that. You can just get up and play a simple melody together. It's the same thing with Brad Shepik—a really cool unison quality that comes through. I really like that. I love listening to recordings where you begin to lose a sense of what instrument is what, where the particular characteristics of the instruments get lost. I've learned a lot from playing with both of those guys. They're both incredible musicians. I suppose we learn from each other.

AAJ: You seem to work with musicians and instrumentations which I guess I'd describe as "open." Often there's no harmonic accompaniment, and in particular the drummers you work with are known for being very colorful and original. At the same time, despite the openness and the mix of elements, everyone always seems to know where everyone else is.

PE: Yeah. It's really nice to look around and find myself in this community of musicians who are like that. There are certain elements to the playing that are really important to me. I'd like things to be able to get really intense, to really be able to go to an extreme place with that—and at the same time, to not have to go there. Some people who can do that, that's all they do. I find for myself a more sustained interest in stuff that's a little less defined, in a way. It seems like that's what we're doing, here, in this time: trying to negotiate all these different influences. whether it be musically, or in all the other areas of life.

I like the idea of predictable dissonance. For me, the really successful free music is in essence just collective composition. When that's really happening, responsibility is a good word for it. It's more of a compositional element to say, 'I'm going to solo now. I'm going to step out.' And just by making that decision, it's a compositional element. You're affecting everything else, because there are repercussions for everyone else in the group.

AAJ: What do you think Jamie Saft brings to your group?

PE: You can count on Jamie to do the perfect thing. It might be something you'd never think of in a million years. It always seems to feel like something pertinent, and really appropriate, but something I've never heard before. I wouldn't call his playing "impressionistic," because that has a certain connotation to it, but in a way it is. He's like a painter.

AAJ: If I knew nothing about your music, and picked up "Staring At The Sun" in a record store, I'd see "Jamie Saft on accordion" and think to myself, "Wow, that's an interesting choice for the harmonic instrument." Do you think of Jamie as functioning in that role?

PE: Not exactly. What happened on that record is that Jamie is almost like an accompanist, like in the sense of Indian classical music. There's some stuff in Carnatic music, South Indian music, where there's a vocalist, and then there's a violinist following all the lines that the vocalist is singing. It's this interesting place within the music, because it's really present and melodic. It's kind of sharing that realm. It's not just "comping." He doesn't solo a lot on the record. There's just this sort of texture that exists between those two instruments, and on that particular record, it seems like that's what happened. It's almost as if he were like another horn player, a single-line player, that just had the ability to play grouping of notes at the same time. [Laughs.]

AAJ: How did you gravitate toward world music?

PE: A lot of it was just exposure upon arrival at Cal Arts. To see for the first time a virtuoso tabla player do their thing is pretty eye-opening. There's so much happening there with different musics—Gamelan, Javanese, Balanese, and African music. There's just so many things to check out. The idea of checking these things out developed there. I definitely didn't check everything out while I was there, and the things that I did check out, I didn't get as far in some as I did in others.

AAJ: What was your major?

PE: The major was pretty much just straight "Jazz Studies," but it was interesting because that was kind of just 'on paper.' Cal Arts had such a great world music program, and all these other really developed departments in addition to the jazz department. That's what really drew me to go to school there: the breadth of the program. And of course, Charlie Haden, and James Newton...there were some really great people in the jazz department. I ended up being kind of like, home base was the jazz department. But I spent a lot of time downstairs...and outside...[laughs].

AAJ: What did you learn from Charlie Haden?

PE: I think that the real lessons I learned from Charlie were just sort of from being in proximity to Charlie. What he says, and the way he teaches is really great. Nobody's got more stories than Charlie Haden. But what I really got was this undeniable thing that takes place when he unzips the bass case and touches the wood on the instrument. Something really undeniable happens. He goes into a different mode of existence. He's really one with the instrument. It's like he's resonating. It's amazing. That's a pretty incredible example to see quite a few times. He talks about playing the bass, being in the state of mind as if he's on a battlefront, or on the verge of possible death, so that each note is the last note before the grave—to try and keep it in that kind of presence and that kind of immediacy.

AAJ: If you weren't playing saxophone, what instrument might you play?

PE: All of them [laughs], but especially drums. If there's one particular musical role different from my own that I've thought about the most, it would be drums. I'm constantly playing on my body. I studied a little bit of hand drumming at Cal Arts with John Bergamo, this really amazing teacher there—not to be able to do anything on a drum, but just enough to play on my leg. [Laughs.] I really think a lot about the generation of rhythm, the generation of time, and pulse, and how that can happen from the form—trying to analyze what drummers do, and how they do it. Coltrane, especially in the later stuff...his sense of time was so strong. It's almost like he's playing a sixteen-piece drum set. Each note on the instrument is just another percussive sound, in a way, and he's using that to create a sense of time, create a sense of rhythm, in the same way that a drummer will.

AAJ: Do you play standards at all?

PE: I do, yeah. I don't have the repertoire that somebody who really does that needs to have. It's just something that I haven't ever really put together. I love the tunes that I love, and they're the ones that I know. I actually love playing standards. In general, it's not what I'm doing in my musical life. I do it a lot when I practice, though.

AAJ: Does jazz dominate your own listening habits?

PE: It goes in cycles. In a way I probably don't listen to that much jazz. I have weird listening habits. Sometimes periods of time will go by where I don't listen very much—which sounds terrible, and I always feel better when I put some music on. It's like drinking water: It's good for you, but sometimes I forget to do it.

AAJ: Do you tend toward the classics, or do you listen to a lot of newer stuff?

PE: A little bit of both. From the classics, I go back to the stuff that I really love. All of Trane's stuff, that'll always stay in rotation. I am trying to fill in some gaps, in terms of that stuff. But also, I try as much as I can to listen to my contemporaries. I think that there's always really incredible music being made, but I have a sense that we are maybe at a time when there's a growth spurt happening in the music. It just seems like this generation of musicians is making album after album, band after band, that's great. And that's really exciting. So as much as I can, I'm trying to hear what other people are doing.

AAJ: Who are some of your contemporaries whom you find particularly exciting?

PE: Chris Speed. Anything that Chris does I think is brilliant. Jim Black. Dave Douglas—he's putting out so much great music it's hard to keep up with. I really love Briggan Kraus. And Rob Brown—I wasn't so familiar with him before, but now after having played with him in Chris Dahlgren's band, I'm trying to check out some of his albums. He's just incredible.

AAJ: You're running a very interesting project with Ralph Alessi, the School For Improvisational Music [SchoolForImprov.org]. Can you tell me a little about it?

PE: We're in day four right now of a two-week workshop. The Knitting Factory gave us space, so we have a room there with equipment from 11-5 every day, Monday through Saturday, and then we have a concert on Sunday both weeks. We talked with all the people Ralph and I play with, and put together this really great faculty. We're going to do another two weeks in the summer. Ideally, in a year or two, we'll have a permanent site and a real school. It's going great. We have twenty-five students, from all over the US, and a couple from Europe and Canada. I think the youngest is eighteen, and there's a couple of them that are probably in their early thirties. It's a really sophisticated group of students. They're all playing. I think it's what I would have done, had I been aware of something like this earlier in my life.

AAJ: Where did the idea come from?

PE: Just from an ongoing conversation over the years about what's amiss in jazz education, and how important it is. In a lot of cases, when you are able to go to a school where you have access to really great faculty like this, you're talking about tens of thousands of dollars. A lot of people graduate and are saddled with big loan payments. It's already difficult to make it as a performance artist. From the very inception of it, we tried to keep the costs low. When we approached everyone who's teaching, we explained the philosophy to them, so they're all doing it for maybe a little less than they normally would have. Of course, eventually if we have funding, then people can be paid a fair amount, and it can remain light for the students.

AAJ: What role do you see it providing?

PE: I see it providing interaction for student musicians with full-time, working musicians—sort of going back to more of an oral tradition. The whole time I was in school, there was kind of this idea that what you do in school is a particular thing, and it's not really valid until you get out of school. I think a lot of "jazz musicians" will go to schools because it's the only thing they know to do to have access to the kind of people they want to study with. I don't know if I would encourage somebody not to go to college; but on the other hand, my Bachelor's of Fine Arts has done nothing for me. There's far more value to the knowledge I gained at Cal Arts than there is to the degree I got from Cal Arts. There's no comparison. So if there's some way to get to some of that same information, without having to go through that, then I think that could possibly fill a real need for people. I think it's perfect for somebody who has maybe been in school, and doesn't feel quite ready to go all the way into it and pick up and move.

AAJ: Maybe the net effect would be to free people up to direct their collegiate studies elsewhere.

PE: The whole time I was in school, one thing nobody wanted to talk about was how anybody's going to live after school. In a way, that's good, because it was about an artistic pursuit, and I guess it's good not to bum everyone out. [Laughs]. I remember having a conversation on tour with Brad Shepik, lamenting my loan payments. I guess it was worth it, to go to a conservatory; but was it, in the face of this continual chipping away at what little I have? That time, that energy, and that money maybe could be better spent some other way—facilitate making money with music, or making money with something else. Because for almost everybody, money is the primary issue; it determines whether you get to keep doing it or not.

AAJ: How aware are you of the commercial aspects of the music? Is there a sense that you and the 'big names' are competing for the same dollars?

PE: No, not really. I am aware that there are a lot of musicians who are making a great deal of money now, in jazz. There are more people who are demanding higher fees. And well they should. However, for the rest of us, who are trying to break in, there's just so much less left over. And when you contact a festival, and they can't even put the money together to fly you to the festival, let alone pay you, because they spent all the money on the headliners... So not directly, but I am aware that that does have an indirect effect on things. Budgets are spent quickly.

So in that sense, I don't know if I'm affected at all by the fact that people maybe have a little bit more money in their pockets. To be kind of cynical, I think that probably what ends up happening is that people buy a lot of records by people who are on these really good labels, with really good marketing. It seems like jazz is pretty popular right now. The music industry knows that there's a certain amount of money that can be made by marketing a particular kind of product. I think that at the moment, that's probably a pretty successful venture. But I don't know that it really affects what I'm doing on a day-to-day level. Sometimes I wonder if it's not hurting, in terms of the strength of the economy. My rent's gone sky-high, everything in general is more expensive. And then because most of the work happens in Europe, you go to Europe, and you get paid decently, and then you convert that into dollars and it's just nothing. It's kind of a particular problem, but it's a big part of jazz musicians' lives. Ninety-five percent of the money I've made playing music has been from playing in Europe.

AAJ: One thing I hear a lot nowadays is the advice, "Don't choose a career in music unless you feel absolutely compelled, as if you have no other choice." Hal Crook wrote an entire chapter on this in his last book, and I came away feeling as if he had compared musicianship to seminary duty. Do you feel a sort of "calling"?

PE: Yes. That would be a good way of describing it. It's something I connected with very young, and it kind of saved me early on from I'm-not-sure-what. It gave me a grounding, and gave me a pursuit to fill. It became the thing that I was most comfortable doing, the thing that I was good at. I wasn't good at a lot of things, so when I found this thing that seemed to come pretty easily, it was just natural to go into it. It didn't take very long before some of the deeper stuff started happening—some awareness that there could be a life playing music. My father is a saxophonist also, and even though I didn't really grow up with him, that reality has always been there. I would say by age fourteen there was no doubt that this was what I would do—except a couple years later, when I thought about law school! [Laughs.] But yeah, it happened pretty early, in terms of some awareness that it was going to take a lot of work, and that it was a long thing.

AAJ: If I were going to come away from this interview having learned one thing about your music, what would you want it to be?

PE: That it all has a certain kind of meaning to me. I think of music like a vocabulary, that gets wider and wider. It's a vocabulary that can't really be discussed except in other musical terms. Certain musical elements seem to have some meaning to me, just the way that words and language do, even though it's not literal. In that sense, when I'm playing or when I'm writing, I'm trying as best I can to harness these things that mean something to me, and hopefully to get that across in a way that is distilled down to something that's going to have that same meaning for the listener—which probably is just another way of saying, "My music's really important, please listen to it." [Laughs.]

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