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Evan Weiss: Soundscapes

Marshall Taylor By

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Stylistically, Evan Weiss, an up-and-coming composer, arranger and player in the jazz idiom, is a hard nut to crack. Weiss' recent release, Math or Magic (Inner Circle, 2010), contains soundscapes produced by an 11-piece ensemble. The tunes, rich and dense in their orchestration, tread through an array of musical environments teeming with subtly placed electronic sound effects, classical composition techniques and suave Norwegian vocals.

All About Jazz: Your recent release, Math or Magic, is very dense in recurring themes and concepts. How long had this album been formulating in your mind?

Evan Weiss: It took me about a year or more from the time I first conceptualized it and wrote some of the music, and the time that I actually released it—just looking for labels and all that stuff. [As for] the concepts on the album itself, I think a lot of that I arrived at through some other large ensemble projects that I was working on. I went to school at the University of North Texas; there's a big band there called the One O'Clock Lab Band. I had the opportunity to write a lot for that band, and just play with orchestrations. I mean, that band rehearses four times a week. I could bring something in, get a great recording of it, decide I hated it, bring another version the next day, decide I hated it again, bring in a third version, and like it. It allowed a lot of room to try things out that I might not have had the courage to do otherwise if I knew I only had one shot.

AAJ: The layering of the tunes and how they overlap seems very painstaking.

EW: It's definitely a very difficult process. I'm definitely not one of those writers that just sits down at the piano and writes an album. For me, every song has to have some sort of special aspect or feature to it, otherwise I feel like I'm writing the same song. Every composer has had the experience where they wrote six songs, and then realized they wrote the same song six times in a row. That drives me a bit crazy. I really wanted every song on the album to have a particular feature, I guess. That's where a lot of the theory stuff comes in, and that's really the premise of the project: I wanted to have something that sounded like jazz, that sounded like chamber music, but at the same time have a lot going on behind it that you might not catch on first listen.

AAJ: The album is an amalgam of various approaches and styles. The structures, for instance, are definitely not the jazz standards.

EW: I think that's where jazz is going these days; people are breaking away from that standard form of, "Okay, you play the head, then the solos, then the head again." You know, that's the jazz standard form. I think with most of the new creative music, people are trying to stretch out into other forms.

On this album, for instance, you'll find that I tend to work from a minimalist perspective. I'll take something, like a certain pattern, and I'll use extrapolations of that one particular pattern [for various parts]: I'll use it for the melody in one song, the harmony in another song, the rhythm in another, et cetera. So you end up with all of these elements that just sort of weave together. The average listener may not ever pick up on that stuff, but when you sit down and listen to something with that kind of intent behind it, I think it comes across differently.

AAJ: Do you think it could almost be a subconscious effect on the average non-musical listener?

EW: I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine, Paul Slavens, and he said that what he tells people that don't know anything about theory is that theory is the name for things you already know. He drew a really interesting comparison: two guys are walking through a forest, and they don't know the name for a tree. They can see and feel the tree, and they know what they can do: they can cut the tree down, burn the tree, they can use it to make a house. Theory is the ability to say, "Hey, let's cut down that tree." That's one side of it—putting names to things you already know. But on the other side, when you've studied theory, it can influence you to move in directions that you might not otherwise go. It's kind of like, which came first: the chicken or the egg? You can use theory to explain the things you've already done, or you can take the theory and use that to direct your actions.

That's something you have to be careful with, though. There's a lot of music out there that comes entirely from theory and not so much from the heart. I think people can hear that. There's definitely a balance.

AAJ: "Incidents of Half an Hour" is your telling of "The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allan Poe. What inspired you to do that?

EW: That's always been a favorite short story of mine, and I think [it's relevant] to a lot of what is going on right now. I mean, look at what is going on in Libya right now. It's really politically relevant. That's what drew me to choose that particular song.

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