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Peter Epstein: Effortless Precision

Stephen A. Smith By

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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].

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