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Brian Carpenter: In Between The Cracks

DanMichael Reyes By

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AAJ: What did you guys work on before?

BC: He's from the Bay Area and he moved to Gainesville, Florida to pursue a Master's Degree in Acoustical Engineering and for that short period of time, maybe two or three years, we played in some funk bands. Right after that, he got the gig with John Scofield. I think Scofield was originally using Charlie Hunter at the that time but Charlie Hunter was unavailable so he brought in Avi and they've been working together ever since.

But he moved back to the Bay Area and it wasn't until after he moved to New York that I was like "I have to look him up." I was trying to find a vehicle—a project—that could work. The funny thing is, he's known as one of the world's great rhythm guitar players, but he doesn't play any rhythm guitar in this record.

AAJ: Let's stay with the topic of instrumentation. What made you want to use a choir on this record?

BC: I love choirs and when I was listening to the Alec Wilder pieces, I found myself singing along, and I asked myself "Why am I singing along to these strange pieces?" I realized—while listening to it—that [Wilder] is doing a lot of contrapuntal writing because he's a big fan of Bach and he was taking that into his work with the octet. So I thought it would be interesting to have a choir and have each voice singing different contrapuntal melodies. That's where the idea came from. But I also just love the voice. I think the voice is so expressive if you can use as an instrument. We actually used a lot more choir than we ended up using.

AAJ: Really? So there's more than what was released on Book Of Rhapsodies?

BC: Yeah, there's a second volume of this that we might put out in the next couple of years.

AAJ: Wow, I can't wait to hear those.

BC: Yeah, but a lot of it didn't work. We recorded choir on "The Children Met the Train," but it didn't need it. But on "Dance Man Buys a Farm," I can't even imagine that [song] without the choir because the choir adds so much to it. It's funny because I was reading a book, an Alec Wilder biography, [and] somebody was quoted saying that the Swingle Singers—this French pop vocal group—was doing what Alec Wilder was doing 30 years earlier. The Swingle Singers, their claim to fame was taking Bach pieces and setting them to voice and having them swing. Alec Wilder was doing that with original music back in the late 1930s. What I was trying to figure out when I was listening to it was that I couldn't really figure out another composer who did contrapuntal writing in jazz that early. [Wilder] may be the first. If you put voice on top of that and it integrates well then it almost sounds like Swingle Singers because of the nature of the contrapuntal melodies.

It was an experiment and we just brought in this choir. I happen to know some people in New York and Boston that I thought could [sing] it, read it, and nail it. I think we recorded almost 10 songs but we didn't release them all. It was an experiment that worked because the voice is so expressive and the melodies are so strong. Why not have a voice sing the [melodies]? Not to say that the instruments aren't expressive.

But I was hearing the [voices] when I was listening to the records. I was hearing a Swingle Singers thing. It's funny, you almost wonder if the Swingle Singers had heard some of this early Alec Wilder material because that's what it sounds like to me.

It was a blast to record the choir and it was really fun. We could tell during rehearsals that having a choir was really great and we were like, "This is really going to work." Even during the vocal rehearsal we knew it was going to work.

AAJ: The addition of the choir really grounds—not to put a definition or pigeonhole what you're doing- -the music in the whole idea of chamber jazz. Was chamber jazz a term that you coined? Or is this a term that's been around for a while?

BC: I don't know who coined that or who came up with it. Maybe someone else did? I just thought it was a way of describing the [music] in a way that was clear. That this [music] was somewhere between jazz and classical. I think that's actually why the Alec Wilder Octets aren't very well known. I asked musicians—I probably asked 50 musicians in New York, "Have you heard of Alec Wilder?" I probably got two people say, "Oh yeah, I know who that is." Musicians! Not people off the street, musicians! That's stunning! Why is that? I think it's because he's a footnote in the swing era because he didn't adhere to the jazz formula. He wasn't interested in the jazz formula, whatever the formula was, he was writing original music. That's why a lot of these composers that were writing in between the cracks get lost in history.

I love connecting the dots and finding composers that people don't know about or may not know about. It's almost like an honor, you almost become an evangelist like, "Have you heard of this?"

AAJ: You're Alec Wilder's Billy Graham.

BC: [Laughs] Exactly! But so many people didn't know who he was. Maybe this record might change that a little bit. But I would love to keep playing it live— it's very hard to play it live, it's deceptively simple. I think the reason is that the feel constantly changes. Within a piece, there could be straight eights then four bars later it could swing like crazy. That's really strange.

Another thing is that the lead lines are constantly changing. In four bars you could have the clarinet could have the lead melodic line then he hands it off an alto saxophone that has the lead line for seven bars and it's this relay race. There are definitely different melodic voices happening at the same time, but in terms of the arc of the whole piece, the lead melodic line is constantly changing every four or five bars. It's just constantly changing and the ground is constantly shifting. "It's Silk Feel It" is a perfect example of that, the ground is constantly changing every eight bars and that's actually how we mixed it. We would mix eight bars, then go to the next eight bars, and then the next eight bars. Danny Blume—who mixed the record—would ask, "Who has the lead line here?" because it's not really obvious.

It's one thing to mix it and another to play it live. Everybody in the orchestra has to know where the overall arc of the piece. They have to know whether they're supposed to be playing the lead line, loud, or quiet. You don't know that unless you can really hear the whole piece. So it's subtle and it's really hard to play live and we only played two of these Wilder pieces in the CD release show.

You also have to wonder how [Wilder] recorded it too. Did he write all that stuff on the pieces? Did he write swing, light swing, heavy swing, straight eights? What was on the charts? I'd be interested to get some of the charts. I think Gunther Schuller has some of the original charts. George Schuller told me that Gunther has a few original charts of the Alec Wilder Octets and I just sent him a CD so I'd like to see what he thinks. But I'd like to see those because I'd be interested to see what's on the charts. It would just be interesting to see what [Wilder] wrote there.

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