Bobby Previte: the Art of Travelling Trustingly

Ludovico Granvassu By

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Bobby Previte has been at the forefront of the creative music scene for more than four decades. A restless aural storyteller with a knack for captivating concept albums, he has just released Rhapsody (RareNoise). This is the first album for which he has written not only the ear-opening music he is known for but also lyrics, which, courtesy of Jen Shyu's compelling delivery, take listeners to unexpected places. In this interview, Bobby Previte talks about Rhapsody, the second part of his trilogy dedicated to travel, and the impact that going to foreign places can have on all of us.

To listen to the music of Rhapsody as well as to excerpts of this interview play the archived podcast of Mondo Jazz (starting at 24:06)

All About Jazz: This is the second installment of a trilogy about the concept of travel. Travel seems to have been a common thread throughout your career like the names of some of your projects, and the titles of some of your albums or songs, seem to suggest: Latin for Travellers, Pan-Atlantic Band, Ground-truther, Too Close to the Pole, Gone, Separation, "Drive South Along the Canyon," just to name a few. What is that keeps drawing you towards the idea of travel?

Bobby Previte: Just last week somebody has told me the same thing, for the first time. This is so strange. Until then I hadn't even realized that! I thought this travel trilogy was the first time I had addressed the issue of travelling. So I guess I'm sort of obsessed with travel because as a musician I have traveled so much... I remember going to Europe for the first time, going to Italy, France, Germany, Holland and many other countries. I perfectly recall how excited I was and how different those countries felt. The first time I went to all those places was as a musician on tour, because I had not had the opportunity of travelling as a kid. I guess that travelling has become an integral part of my life.

AAJ: Travelling, and especially being in a foreign land, can also give an opportunity to reinvent onself, unconstrained by the routines and social expectactions of the place one comes from. Is that something that you have experienced as a travelling musician?

BP: Over time, I became aware of how many times I felt like a stranger. I'd look around me and I'd see people who were going out to dinner together or doing other ordinary things, but a bit differently, while I was alone in these foreign places. And that started to be fascinating to me. How does one navigate the waters of travelling? At some point I realized that one is really vulnerable when travelling. So you have to rely a lot more on other people, on the society and on the infrastructure of where you are.

Meeting people of another culture is the best thing you can do as a citizen of the world. Not everyone can travel, but everyone should. That's when you really start seeing and understanding the human drama. One of the problems in the understanding between peoples is that too many people simply don't leave home a lot. For me travelling, meeting people and seeing how differently they thought, was an eye opener. That was especially true, when, as an Italian-American I went to Italy. As Americans, we're pretty far removed now from our roots. Corny as it may sound, when you travel you discover tolerance, because you see how people live in other places. It's not always the way you live and you find out that that's OK!

AAJ: What compositional or other techniques have you used to translate into music your feelings about travelling, in the first two parts of your Travel Trilogy?

BP: I've been writing music for more than four decades now, and I still don't know the answer to that question. I don't know how the mechanism works. I'm just following my nose, all the time.

The first piece of the trilogy was entitled Terminals. The idea came to my mind while I was on a plane. I was bored, I reached into the seat pocket and I took out the airline magazine. I flipped through it and got to the back pages which contain terminal maps. This particular airline magazine had really cool maps, birds-eye views of the terminals they fly to. These maps reminded me of setups for percussion compositions, with timpani, chimes and small percussions.

Looking at those terminal maps brought me back to when I was in percussion school at the University of Buffalo. That was many, many years ago. Since then I had never returned to the world of percussion and so I decided to write a percussion piece. But I didn't want to just write another percussion piece. I felt the need to integrate it with the rest of what my life had become after I studied percussions. So I decided to integrate the percussion writing with improvisation. And the way I did it was by writing a concerto for percussions. So Percussion, one of the greatest percussion ensembles in the world, agreed to be the percussion ensemble for the piece. I treated them like an orchestra. And I got some of my favorite improvisers, Zeena Parkins, Nels Cline, John Medeski and Greg Osby, and I wrote a concerto for each of them and percussion. That was Terminals. And it all started by flipping through the pages of an airline magazine!

AAJ: How about the music of the second part of the Trilogy, which is featured on your most recent album, Rhapsody?

BP: After Terminals was done, out of the blue, I got a call and was told that I had been selected as a finalist to take part in the Greenfield Prize of Music for which I would have to write a project proposal. I accepted and proposed to write Part Two of "Terminals." My idea was to take the improvisers that I had invited for Part One, improvisers that I had chosen for their ability to carry a concerto for 20 minutes alone, and make them play together. This time, no percussions, just the soloists. In addition, I invited Jen Shyu.

My proposal was awarded the prize and so I started working on the new music. I've actually never told anybody, but my initial idea for this second part of the travel trilogy was to have it performed on an airplane in flight. You know how the on-board entertainment system of airlines these days has 32 channels? If you figure out the right mathematical combination, with five musicians spread all over the plane and connected to the entertainment system, passengers could switch from channel to channel and hear them play in various combinations, solos, duos, trios, quartets, quintet. It was a crazy idea. The plane would get off. Passengers would get served dinner, and through dinner there would be the concert. Then the plane would land, and that would be the end of the piece. So if any airline executives are reading this, get in touch with me, I'll need about $200,000! [Laughs]

AAJ: How did you get from this extravagant idea to Rhapsody, and how come you've decided to rely on musicians which are often associated with electric instruments but wrote for them acoustic music?

BP: I wanted to continue working with Jen Shyu, Zeena Parkins, Nels Cline, John Medeski. Fabian Rucker succeeded to Greg Osby. I decided to approach them as "found objects," in the tradition of found objects music. And then I thought, musicians like Nels, John and Zena are mostly known for their electric work. But writing a piece for people like them is quite easy if it's electric music: I could just write a couple of minutes of music and then add to the charts "Nels Cline -10 minute solo," and you'll get some brilliant, beautifully constructed, electronic solo as part of your composition and now you have "written" 12 or so minutes of music. When you are writing acoustic music, it's a lot different. Especially on an instrument like a guitar, where you play a note and the note dies fast, and then you follow up with another note and then what? So I had to figure out a "zone" I wanted everyone to be in. I had to call John Medeski and tell him "no organ, please" and Nels Cline "no electric guitar, please"! For him, especially, I had to work really hard to get the fingering right, because I wanted to write things down and I didn't want him to tell me "well this is impossible to play."

As for myself, I don't play the drums all that much on this album. Out of an hour I might play 15 or 20 minutes. And when I do, there are no toms on the drum kit. It's just a snare drum, the bass drum and cymbals. I love tom-toms, so that's probably why I took them away from myself. You have to do that sometimes.

AAJ: An added challenge in this project was that for the first time you have written lyrics for your music. That must have been a trip onto itself. How did you approach it?

BP: It's one thing to say to yourself I'm going to write a piece of music on the poems of Walt Whitman. It's quite another thing to write your own words. And it's a completely different thing to try and say something with them in a narrative form. And Rhapsody does have a narrative form. The narrative might be obscure, but it is there. I don't want to give away too much, but one of the things I was trying to do was to make the actual experience of hearing the lyrics mirror the experience of travelling, so that at the end of Rhapsody you are, perhaps literally, a different person and you are in a different place entirely from where you expected to be.

I'm a big fan of some of the old Broadway shows, and authors like Rodgers and Hammerstein or Sondheim. I love that tradition. The way they put words and music together is stunning. So I had a big ladder to climb. It was nerve wracking because I wanted the lyrics to be really good. Simple yet powerful, and that's not so easy.

My wife is a writer. She helped me a lot simply telling me my lyrics weren't awful. I didn't let her see the lyrics for months and months, which is odd because usually when I'm writing a piece, she is always around. When I finally felt ready to show them she also helped me. She would say, "well, this lyric is kind of obscure. What do you really want to say?" and things like that. And it doesn't hurt to have Jen Syu singing your lyrics. You know, I sang them while I was writing them. I was like "Oh my God, this is terrible!" And my wife would tell me "wait until Jen sings them" and I would think "What's the difference? They will be the same words." And my wife kept saying "Just wait until Jen sings them. Wait before you judge them." And then I brought them to Jen and she sang them and I thought "Oh my God, these are good." I realized once again that the delivery is really important. An e-flat is just an e-flat, but when Coltrane plays it, it's different. Jen took these lyrics and lifted them up to an incredible level. All the other musicians did the same with their parts. I feel so fortunate to have these people willing to play my scratchings...

AAJ: One aspect of travel that Rhapsody made me think about for the first time. The trust and faith you have to have in the people you're with, the people that drive you, the passengers around you etc. Looked at it from this perspective, travel can be seen as a metaphor of society, or life in general. But it also mirrors the experience of being in a band and trusting the musicians you play with. How do you build trust in a society? How do you do it within a band? And how do you do it with an audience? Can the experience within a band or between a band and its audience teach lessons about how to do it in a society?

BP: That's an amazing question. First off, you have to respect people. It sounds very simple, but what I mean is that you have to respect them not for who they are or their accomplishments, but just because they are. You cannot travel without having optimism about people. Otherwise, how could you possibly even get on an airplane or a boat? You know, I've gotten sick on tour and people that I didn't know have helped me, they have driven me to a doctor. Without being open to that you just can't travel. You have to have faith that people will generally help you and take care of you. So it is within a band. You just start from respect. After that, everything else becomes very clear. When you do that, people see it, they may respond to that. When I'm with musicians, I like to make them feel as good as I can. I want them to feel free and powerful, like they can do anything they like. I do that with everybody, not just in music. It's a universal thing.

AAJ: What do you bring back home after your travels and what do you hope your listeners bring back home after seeing this project live or listening to Rhapsody?

BP: How much can I ask for? I would like them to be moved in some way. That's probably as much as I could ask of an audience because what I'm trying to do is to reach them and make them feel something.

AAJ: Listening to Rhapsody at times feels like listening to a movie soundtrack, with certain themes coming back from one tune to another. You have already flirted with the soundtrack idea in Set the Alarm for Monday (Palmetto Records, 2008). And, more generally, your projects work as one organic entity, a suite or concept album, rather than a collection of tunes. As a composer, how much emphasis do you place on composition and how much on improvisation?

BP: Whenever I put together a record usually I write it all at once. My records are not a collection of separate songs that I may have written over the years or that had piled up in my drawer but they don't really belong together. I don't like those kinds of records. I always have felt records should tell a story, they should have one color, one smell, one taste. Only then you have a record that has a certain kind of a integrity.

Photo credit: Kate Previte.

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