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David Fiuczynski: Salt, Sweat, Love, Tears

George Colligan By

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

David Fiuczynski is a very unique guitarist. Many of you know him from his successful band called Screaming Headless Torsos. He's played with Hasidic New Wave, trumpeter Cuong Vu, and pianist Hiromi. I first met David at a rehearsal with drummer Billy Hart, and then we played a few projects with clarinetist Don Byron over the years. We've been working together in Jack DeJohnette's band since 2009, and during our European tour this past May, I found some time before a show to talk to David about micro-tonality, which if you didn't know, is music that uses intervals of less than a half step, or notes in between C and C#, and his teaching at Berklee among other things.

George Colligan: So why microtonal music on guitar, and how? Go!

David Fiuczynski : It's interesting, since some people think I'm a fanatic, and I can't blame 'em for it. The first time I was exposed to microtonal music was at New England Conservatory. One of the big pioneers in Boston was Joe Maneri—he was teaching there. And the first time I heard something microtonal, I said, "Stop!"

GC: [Laughs]

DF: I said, "What are you doing? Could you please stop?" But then I thought, "You know, it's been said that there's only two kinds of music: good and bad." and that's right, because finally I heard a good microtonal piece. It was really happening, so that's when I started checking things out in more depth. I ended up taking a class with Maneri in the late '80s.

But the real way the way I got into microtones was non-Western music. And it's really like you hear something, you analyze it, you transcribe it, you learn it, and you want more. So to me, an Arabic call to prayer, or a Turkish melody, or something like that, a Chinese melody, a Vietnamese melody, it's like, "Oh, wow, ok." They have notes that we don't have. So you start seeing well, what systems can I use? It kind of affected me like Eastern blue notes, just like the blues. I mean, all those blue notes, those sweet notes; you can't find those on the piano.

GC: Right.

DF: So I started to learn, I started to play in bands with any kind of Eastern thing going on. The one band that really allowed me to do whatever I wanted was Frank London's Hassidic New Wave and also Matt Darriau—I would sub sometimes with the Paradox Trio, so that's where I learned all the melodies and inflections. And I started playing with cellist Rufus Cappadocia. He's on my first KIF (Fuzelicious, 2003) CD.

I should say where it really hit me was in 1992, when I played with this group in Morocco. It was Western players from Paris , New York, and LA, and we were the house band backing up about 10 Moroccan folklore groups. So we rehearsed in Marrakesh. It was a dream gig for like 2 weeks; Jamie Haddad was on percussion, John Hassel on trumpet, everybody who had any kind of non-Western musical experience.

And then we performed at the World Fair in Seville. And all the Moroccan musicians—they came up to me, and, only because I played guitar, it was very important for them to let me know that Hendrix came to Morocco.

GC: [Laughs]

DF: And that kind of sowed a seed, and that's where I was really interested in mixing these things with micro-tonality, like fat grooves—I experimented with a lot of downtown groups, but they were more jazz-oriented, and it was cool, but I just kept thinking, "Wow, what would happen if I combined this with grooves?" and then to really do it you need micro-tonality because a lot of these melodies, they just don't work on 12 notes per octave.

So a lot of playing with bands learning melodies inflections and then eventually I returned to NEC—New England Conservatory—for my Master's, and I really focused on micro- tonality. I actually took Joe Maneri's last class, and I studied with a sitar player and a Turkish harp player for 2 years and various classes and I just you know—all my assignments I tried to work off a 72-note per octave grid, if possible, and then learn the melodies precisely. But then there's also Western micro-tonality , and that's where you take notes and stack them into chords. That's where it gets really dangerous.

GC: Ha!

DF: But also really exciting! I think there are some really incredible opportunities, as you noticed playing with Jack DeJohnette.

GC: Right.

DF: You know it doesn't always work, but there were times when you're just thinking, "Wow!"

GC: Sure.

DF: And then it's the same thing; well, I want to know more, "Why does this work?"

GC: Right.

DF: How can I expand? And I really feel like in a groove context—in a jazz groove context with micro-tonality and Eastern inflections—we're not really doing Eastern improv concepts that much, but I think you can really do amazing things.

GC: Do you think that is one of the things that makes this particular band unique? The fact that you and Rudresh Mahanthappa have a handle on this stuff?

DF: You too!

GC: Well I'm interested in it, I think that a lot of...

DF: I can tell you right away there's a lot of people interested in it.

GC: [Laughs].

DF: But you're making it sound good. I mean, you know, you're using a set tune and you're experimenting.

GC: Yeah, yeah.

DF: But trust me I've sought a lot of people out, and tried things. Non-Western players, Westerners just jamming, so-called pros, students— and I've seen many people with great intentions—and actually people more experienced than you, coming up with a whole lot less.

GC: Oh, well, thank you !

DF: But not too many cats are even trying.

GC: And the fact that Jack is open to it. I mean, because he's the one that seemed to be pushing us to do it.

DF: Did I tell you how I got this gig?

GC: No, please do!

DF: So I played Don Byron's wedding.

GC: Oh, yeah!

DF: And he got married to a Jewish lady.

GC: Yes, that's right.

DF: So you know Fima Ephron was on bass, and he's the band leader and he said, "Hey, do one of your intros." So I did my vibrato-wannabe-Arabic- micro-Western point-of-view-unorthodox thing. It just so happened that Jack DeJohnette was an invited guest to Don's wedding and he came up to me after the set and said, "Wow, that's the sound I've been hearing in my head for a couple of years!"

GC: Cool.

DF: So don't knock wedding gigs!

GC: So we were talking about Berklee.

DF: Yeah, and under President Roger Brown, Provost Larry Simpson, and just basically everybody else, Berklee has been very supportive of new ideas. I started teaching a microtonal ensemble, a groove ensemble. I just based it on simple Arabic [and] Chinese melodies or arrangements of Western classical quartertone string quartets by Julian Carillo, or quartertone piano pieces by Alois Haba. Arrangements of simple non- Western melodies, microtone melodies, Western classical microtone pieces, groove- oriented, getting used to playing the microtones either playing in a tonal system. But playing micro-tonally, and pushing against the chords, or actually having microtonal chords and playing microtone melodies on top, or just kind of using your ears and playing free. There's a lot of different methods.

GC: You mentioned that Joe Maneri didn't like microtonal music on keyboards?

DF: He didn't like it. It was almost too precise on the instrument. He didn't like the way it meshed. I happen to love it, though!

GC: Did he have reasoning for why? Was there sort of a philosophical idea behind it?

DF: It was the sounds. I don't know if he had the best sounds, you know. The DX-7 type sounds—unless you're Prince—you can't really make that stuff sound good.

GC: How do you balance teaching and performing?

DF: It can sometimes be a challenge. Berklee encourages the teachers to go out and get so-called field experience. At the same time you know, you can't leave a semester. To make up sometimes I have to get a sub or if there's enough work I can take a semester off.

GC: How has fatherhood changed your outlook on music, working, [and] creativity?

DF: You really realize where your priorities are. It's changed my outlook on life, really there's nothing better. Music is cool, but there's more to life than music. But also when I'm playing music it's really focusing on where's the meat, you know?

All the dumb stuff you think about like, "Oh, do I need this new toy?" "Oh, I need to work on my chops," etc... It's really like, where's the beef? Where's the pocket? Where's the salt, sweat, love? Tears? Where's the melodies, where's the space? Everything else is just not as important. If you break it all down, can you just play it on one instrument, is there a song there?

GC: Right.

DF: What's like for you?

GC: Well, that could be another blog, but I have similar notions to what you just so eloquently said.

DF: You get hungry because you know often you're so busy. Often I get really hungry for music.

GC: Yeah, its true. Obviously playing with Jack DeJohnette's band is really something special. But even so called lesser gigs are more exciting too, because I don't take it for granted.

DF: And I don't take on bullshit gigs, you know?

GC: Right.

DF: I have no time for that. And I mean not necessarily gigs where the music isn't happening, the bread isn't that good, but also some serious opportunities. I think to myself, is that what I really need to do? I don't really need to do that. It might put a nice little chunk in my pocket; give me some more exposure, maybe. There's good players on the gig and stuff, but maybe it's ultimately taking me out of the zone I need to be in, you know?

GC: I wanted to try to reconstruct what we were talking about the other day in the car, we were talking about 12 tone music and...

DF: Oh, and we were talking about serialism and...

GC: Yeah!

DF: Overplaying and fusion.

GC: Yeah! Can you just tell me your thoughts about that?

DF: Well, in terms of fusion, I'm between a rock and a hard place, because essentially whatever I do is gonna go down as fusion. But I kind of feel like, my team sucks! You know what I mean?

GC: Yeah, right!

DF: You have a lot of really big names that overplay, you know? And that's where you can actually give fodder to the Wynton Marsalises and have them put it down, I have no problem—I love when people destroy it. I love it! But if you do three tunes in a row where you overplay, and then you don't do any ballads, in other words, do seven tunes in a row where you overplay, it's too much of the same thing. You get beat up. You're numb! I hate it. In terms of teaching, I see the same problem with students. And some will say, "Well, you know, they're young! They'll out grow it!" No! I've seen people now that 25 years later they've still got "overplaying-itis." It's a disease! We all have people we know who talk too much. We have some pretty nasty names for these people: Motormouth! Space invaders! And so on. Now if we don't like these people, why would we want to sound like these people?

GC: But how do relate fusion to serialism?

DF: Well, the context was this: a serious musician was talking about how 30 years later, here's the next cycle of fusion players. And this musician actually said that the role of the guitar was-to play a lot of notes! And I'm saying, Puke! No! Yuck! Wrong!

This ain't G.W. Bush! By that, I mean that if you say something untrue over and over again people start to believe its true. No! It's not musical, not spiritual, creative, never was, never will be. It's a form of repetition that's not happening. Repetition is a tool, like Beethoven: "ah-ah-ahhhh" (sings the melody for Beethoven's 5th symphony). Some people don't like Beethoven. But have you ever heard someone say, "You know, I listened to the 5th symphony, and Beethoven is a genius and everything, but if I hear another ah- ah-ahh (5th melody) I'm gonna scream!" No, when people play too many notes, it's not happening.

It's a very cerebral thing. What I wanted to say about serialism is this: I think the language is very rich. I find it interesting that you have rules written in where you have to change things always to balance loud with soft, and with orchestration as well, if you have trumpets then you need strings. You have to change timbre, you have to change dynamics. But it becomes static. I think that's where Western culture painted itself into a corner, with making everything so cerebral. When you think about Miles Davis, in terms of musicality, Miles is getting better and better over time almost like by default because there are so few players who put space in their solos, you know?

GC: But I mean, maybe it's hard to teach how to leave space.

DF: I don't think so. I think you should just... encourage it. And you know another thing about my kid is like—my two and a half year old understands everything—just bring it up in class, "You know its very important." Everyone one talks about phrasing.

GC: Sure.

DF: And just say, you know, "You need space."

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