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Victor Haskins: Embracing His Audience

Nicholas F. Mondello By

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Victor Haskins is one of those young musicians who seems to be able to do it all. He's an award-winning trumpeter, composer/arranger and educator/clinician—all at 21 years old. His debut recording, The Truth (32 Bar Records, 2013) received significant well-deserved acclaim. Haskins, a young visionary, has developed ImproviStory, what he describes as a new and emerging form of audience-generated extemporaneous musical improvisation. We caught up with Victor as he prepares to perform ImproviStory at this year's Festival of New Trumpet Music later this month in New York.

All About Jazz: Victor, on behalf of All About Jazz, thanks for taking time to speak with us about ImproviStory and your current and future projects.

Victor Haskins: Thanks, Nick.

AAJ: Please tell us about ImproviStory, what it is, and how it came about.

VH: Well first, I might want preface it by saying that ImproviStory is not tied to jazz at all, though people who enjoy jazz will probably have an affinity for ImproviStory because of the element of improvisation. Maybe let's talk about where it comes from.

AAJ: Sure.

VH: When I was learning how to improvise, I realized that the methods that they taught in school and what I gathered from around me didn't fit with how I wanted to play. And so, I had to create my own sound, style and way of thinking about improvisation and how that connected me to playing tunes. I realized that you can literally play anything over chord changes as long as you resolve it and you play it with intent and conviction. So, every tune can potentially sound the same as one plays familiar patterns to their muscle-memory over chord changes. To combat this issue, I developed this idea—"Melodic Improvisation"—where the melody of the tune provides the inspiration for the improvisation. It's like a game—a board game, but, each tune has its own rules; you wouldn't play "Monopoly" with the rules of "Sorry," even though both are "games," so to speak. Each tune has its own personality and is its own world, and the improvisation is a reimagining of the melody, as opposed to simply "playing chord changes." My whole thing is connections—connecting the musicians to the melody, the musicians to each other, the music to the audience, and the audience to the band.

AAJ: I see.

VH: I feel that at times there's a large disconnect between jazz musicians and non-musician audiences. It's like the musicians are playing for musicians, not the audience. So, I don't want the audience not going where the band is going. The audience should be going on the same journey as the band.

AAJ: So ImproviStory emanated from that?

VH: Well, it was my writing first. How could I create parts for the band, so that no matter where it is—the journey—you—as the audience—are always there with us? What became ImproviStory would happen when I would practice a lot by myself. The tunes I played—jazz standards—would always become something different each time I played them—their own thing. Then, I would freely improvise for people without using pre-existing tunes and they'd say "that was a nice tune." The thing is they weren't tunes—not pre-existing tunes, anyway. Even so, they followed the story I was telling with how I improvised. So then I thought: if that's the case, I wouldn't necessarily need a pre-existing tune per se, or, if the audience could suggest a story for me to improvise, I could create a melody out of their idea. Then they could then have a deeper connection to what it is I'm playing. Because now I'm not just creating a strong logic for them to follow—it's deeper than that—it's a story that they've created and I've elaborated on in my music.

AAJ: So, it's a little like the TV show, "Who's Line Is It, Anyway?" where the host would give a suggested scenario to improvisational comics and they would act out a sketch. ImproviStory is, therefore, your improvisational musical expression of the suggested story idea from the audience. And you as a soloist improvisationally play that suggestion out—it's your vision and interpretation. Is that the idea?

VH: That's exactly the idea.

AAJ: It's also a lot like "program music" where you improvise musically but stick to the suggested emotional and energy elements envisioned ideas from the suggestion.

VH: Right. And the beautiful thing is that the suggestion could be anything. For example, I did a couple of private demos for different groups of people; some were really into hearing and seeing music and others had a more passive relationship with music. All of them made great and interesting suggestions. Someone suggested "Robin Williams" (who had just passed), another suggested "a clown ruins a birthday party," another said "the Titanic," etc. Between all of these it's like "Where can this idea go?" "What all encompasses this idea?" The idea can be a broad or specific idea. I love acting and that show. It's akin to acting in the improv sense. No rehearsing, just the skill of connecting with peoples' imaginations. That's what makes it so special.

AAJ: Back in the 50s, there were jazz musicians who performed while Beat Poetry was recited. How is ImproviStory similar or distinct?

VH: Well, ImproviStory is all done solo. There aren't any words. It's really getting the audience to see instrumental music in a very descriptive way. That's why I don't want to attach it to the word "jazz." When I was doing some demo performances, I asked people to listen and give me feedback. Even if you know nothing about jazz, you can appreciate it. There's a stigma about jazz, you know, like it's "elitist music." I've had issues with the word "jazz." This is creative and improvised music. If they can connect with it, fine.

AAJ: If you're performing with your group, how do you integrate the ImproviStory with your musicians with the ideas that are provided by the audience?

VH: ImproviStory is not for a group—that actually defeats the storytelling aspect of it—then it becomes audience-suggested program music.

AAJ: Have you ever considered creating your own ImproviStory and then asking the audience their interpretation or their story they derive from your music?

VH: Yeah, that could be totally doable. Could be a good idea for creating a dialogue that goes beyond the suggestion and performance

AAJ: How do you stay creatively sharp? Here you have a specific canvas upon which you "paint."

VH: The most important thing is that I have access to unique ways of seeing things. I've taken mundane things like Nursery Rhymes and created ImproviStory from that. For example, if I look at a tune like topography, like each section of a tune had a unique topography or texture or landscape. So I ask: "How do I create that landscape?" "How do I make that sound or character?" "How can I do that so the melodic idea I play transforms to the "character" of the story." It's always about different ways of creating. I never think of specific notes, but, once I have sufficient ideas in place, I go. "How do I make the story go to the next level?" So, when I perform or practice, it's different than a video. It's a totally different energy. It's always "How can I make this "wild" and advance the ideas?" Reading a lot of different books and watching films help, because that's a direct correlation to the music—seeing how other artists develop a story in their non-musical element.

AAJ: A trumpet question ... I know you're playing on an early 20th Century cornet and you also play trumpet and flugelhorn. Are or aren't there any sort of limitations or enhancements intrinsic in the particular instrument you're playing when creating an ImproviStory?

VH: Yes, that's a very good question. Each performance I always bring all three instruments because each has its unique sounds. When a story is suggested I usually think for about 30 seconds when I'll think about and ask myself which "paintbrush" I'm going to use to "paint" this story? Each instrument makes me feel a different way for playing. Depending on the story, I'll pick a specific horn. Sometimes, I'll make the wrong choice for the ImproviStory and then it's difficult for me to fight to make the instrument match the suggested story. Each one has a very distinctive quality.

AAJ: Do you incorporate effects such as "multiphonics" or "growling?" What about mutes?

VH: Sure! Personally, I'm not a huge fan of "multiphonics" on the trumpet, so I don't do that. It seems to sound and work better on trombone. "Extended effects" are fair game, without a doubt—they are like different thicknesses or textures of paper... different filters on a camera lens...

AAJ: Do you see ImproviStory as an educational methodology for instrumentalists, both in terms of watching what you do or where students actually attempt ImproviStory?

VH: Yes, absolutely! In the near future, I want to do workshops or residency session with ImproviStory the same way I've done with trumpet and jazz music, only the scope and audience would be different, or at least, expanded. ImproviStory could certainly be used for instrumental musicians, but it could also apply to non-musical fields such as creative writing, where ImproviStory performances can be used as an alternative method of viewing the writing process. Instead of using words, writers would think of their writing in terms of music. ImproviStory can be used to help learn how to avoid clichés, develop ideas in new ways, make their larger ideas make sense—all are issues that developing improvisers have in music. It's music, but in a different way than most people are used to—it's music that you "see," just as much as you hear or feel it. It's a cinematic experience.

AAJ: I see you will be performing ImproviStory at the Festival of New Trumpet Music in New York later this month.

VH: I will be performing ImproviStory at FONT later this month at IBeam in Brooklyn.

AAJ: Victor, thanks so much. This is great. It's a fascinating concept. Good Luck.

VH: Thanks, Nick! I appreciate it.

Photo Credit: Scott Elmquist
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