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Peter Epstein: Effortless Precision

Stephen A. Smith By

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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.

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