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.

Also, a lot of the music on the album is cinematic. The imagery in that story is so rich and inspiring, I thought it would translate well into the music. There's some obvious aspects and some less obvious. I used some big orchestral chimes to represent the classic sound of the godfather clock, and then there's some woodblocks, which represent the ticking of the clock. That's all sort of woven into the music.

AAJ: Over the course of the CD, you have three "Triptych" pieces that appear, almost as intermissions. What are their roles in the album as a whole?

EW: For the overall orchestration, they kind of split up the density that's going on. I mean, the whole album is so dense. For me, the "Triptych" pieces offered a nice little breathing point between some other really dense and intense music.

From the theory side of things, the three pieces are all harmonically the same, but with different rhythmic interpolations based upon different numerical ratios—if you want to get into the notary behind the [tunes]. [Laughs.]

AAJ: The solos on the album often blur with the rest of the composition, mainly because the underlying music is so structured. In that way, the solos almost don't sound improvised at all.

EW: For me, the most powerful compositions—at least the most powerful compositions in improvised music—don't just involve one soloist: they involve the whole composition. In that regard, it then becomes the composer's job not just to write a good melody or a good groove, but to create a good environment for those soloists to improvise within.

There's a lot of jazz being written where it's not so much about writing a song for someone to solo over, but instead it's about creating the canvas for the musicians to do their thing over. Then the skill of composition is no longer based upon the orchestration or anything like that; it's based upon an intimate knowledge of the way the members of the ensemble improvise. The more you've played with people, the better you know your musicians and the better your compositions will turn out.

AAJ: What inspired you to use the cinematic sound effects on the album?

EW: Just like everyone else, I love watching movies. I listen to a fair amount of film music, and sound effects are a good and very literal way to represent things on a record. There's a lot of this esoteric and theoretical mumbo- jumbo, but if you hear an actual grandfather clock, you know it's a grandfather clock. You hear a door open, you know it's a door opening. Your hear footsteps, you know it's footsteps. It makes the imagery pop; it makes it come alive in a way that music can do, but maybe couldn't do quite as effectively without it.

AAJ: How do you pull off the sound effects live?

EW: I've performed these compositions more with my quintet than I have with the full ensemble, but if you have a good sound guy who knows the music, you can cue them in to play the sounds through the PA. I also have this little Roland loop station thing that you can save sounds into, which is easy enough [to use] if you have all your sounds cued up and know how to select them. Then you wait until the spot in the song and tap it with your foot.

AAJ: If you don't use a click track, how do you handle the effects that are more heavily syncopated with the music?

EW: We don't use the stuff that's synchronized precisely with the beat of the ensemble live. I wouldn't want the band playing with a click track; I don't think it would sound as organic. That's really the only way to do that well.

AAJ: How long have you been using these effects, and how were you introduced to them?

EW: I really only started experimenting with sound effects toward the beginning of this project. I went online and did some research on recording sound effects and just looked into some sound libraries that would have some effects. The footsteps [from "Incidents of Half an Hour"], for instance, we actually didn't record: that's a purchased, found sound effect from somebody else's library. We didn't make the footsteps, but the clock sound and backward vocals we made. A lot of it was discovering what was going to work well that we would be able to do, and what would be better to get from outside sources.

More recently, I've gotten into some sound design where I'm actually doing a bit of recording and editing specific sound effects for film, video trailers, or whatever it might be. But that's only happened since the project.

AAJ: Your music has a score-like quality. Have you ever considered audio-visual work, or perhaps even film scoring?

EW: Yes, actually I have. I'm just starting to get into that a little more now, using this project as a springboard. I'm working on some projects around Dallas—just a couple short film projects. As for having video accompany the music at the live shows, I actually had thought of that and had been talking with a video artist about collaborating, but it just never pieced together for this particular project, due to deadlines. But I'm really excited about cross-disciplinary project experiences, and for my next project I would definitely like to have a video aspect.

The equipment keeps getting cheaper and cheaper. You have these indie-rock garage bands traveling with really cool video artists. You're starting to see that more in jazz with the younger generation, but I guess it's not huge yet. But I think it's just a matter of time.

AAJ: The spoken vocals on "Left of Center" are Norwegian. Is there any significance to that?

EW: Well, we wanted that sort of sprechtstimme sound, which happens to be German, I believe. But our vocalist, Hildegunn Gjedrem, happens to be Norwegian, and we said, "Well, she knows Norwegian, so why not Norwegian?" [Laughs.]

It was more about the way the language sounded; the particular country doesn't have too much significance with me. I just liked the way those words sounded in that language. It's really beautiful—like Germanic, but prettier. [Laughs.]

AAJ: What are you ultimately trying to say with the album title, Math or Magic?

EW: In my press release, I discussed the balance between mind and heart, where on one hand we're using all our knowledge of theory, but then [on the other hand] we can't write good music solely based on that knowledge. Knowledge is not enough to create art. [Knowledge] is more on the side of craft. I think it's a combination of the two; it's the combination of coming up with something you really feel emotionally and spiritually [connected with], and then using the theory you've learned to execute that.

Going back to the earlier conversation I had with Paul about the tree, the only reason those guys would think of chopping down the tree is because they know houses are made of wood. If you're in the woods, you wouldn't think to chop down a tree unless you knew what to do with it. Again, we're coming from two different sides: ideas translated into theory, and then theory being translated back into ideas.

AAJ: Calling your music jazz is painting you in a corner. How would you classify your music, or can you?

EW: I think most of my favorite music I listen to these days isn't very classifiable. I think now we're not so locked into, like, if you're going to play jazz, you hang out with these people and you play music with swing. Like, it used to be that jazz was swing music; it used to be that classical or orchestral art music was all in that old classical style. Now you have classical composers using all sorts of jazz rhythms and harmonies, and jazz composers using all sorts of classical theory. You have different sorts of world music, like Balkan and Gamelan music. South Indian music is hugely influential in the modern jazz scene. A lot of the guys on the forefront are studying with South Indian masters.

I would definitely classify my album as jazz, but what I wouldn't do is classify jazz as music that always swings, or always, well, anything. Jazz is just sort of becoming a word for music with improvisation.

AAJ: Jazz music is certainly not at the height of its popularity. However, jazz is not a standalone term anymore; it seems to be disseminating throughout the other genres.

EW: I think part of [jazz not being as popular as it once was] can be blamed on the business of music. You know, certain artists are popular, but they're popular because they have millions of dollars behind them. I mean, if you put enough money behind anybody you can make them popular. There's a certain element of that, but I think there's also an element of jazz musicians separating themselves. In a way, a lot of jazz musicians have shot themselves in the foot by making their music so theoretical and so esoteric that all of a sudden it's not fun anymore. Most people want music that's fun, or at least music that touches them somehow; people want to be moved by music. I think if your main goal is to display your technical prowess or to succeed at some mathematical equation, then you lose that heart aspect in music that everybody connects with in the first place. Instinctually, as humans, that's why we listen to music.

AAJ: What was it like studying with Don Lanphere?

EW: I was very young. Looking back now on my lessons with Don, I wish I could go back and relive some of that. I mean, I was a kid. I wish I would have appreciated all that back then, just so I could've soaked up his history a little more. He was always a really beautiful musician, and was always coming from that heartfelt place, no matter how much he was getting after me about practicing this or that. Whatever it was he had me working on, he was coming from an honest place. I always really appreciated that about him, even at a young age.

He passed away a couple years after that. I was able to go to his funeral, which was really nice. A huge crowd of Seattle musicians showed up and played "Amazing Grace."

AAJ: Are there any genres or concepts that you have yet to experiment with, but would like to?

EW: Like we were saying earlier, I would love to write more for film. I would also like to write for orchestra, not that I've ever done it before or know how to do it, but I feel, if given the opportunity, I would jump on it. I think if I were given enough time to work on it, I could come up with something really worthwhile.

AAJ: Other than being an arranger, what other projects are you involved with?

EW: Well, I have an original quintet that I play a lot with down in Dallas. These two projects are what I do with my original music, and then there's various other projects, some singer/songwriter and big band stuff. Nothing that I'd talk too much on, at least not right now.

AAJ: If you had to think of a single concept or theme that this album represents, what would it be?

EW: I guess balance. You know, in musical aspects, but also balance between mind and heart.

Spiritual balance is also really important. My family was like a rainbow of different religions, but I didn't find myself being particularly drawn [to any certain religion]. Religion has never been my thing, but spirituality certainly has been. I feel like I've grown a lot through my music, spiritually.

I mean, it sounds kind of cheesy to talk about improvisation as meditation; that's something people have been talking about since before John Coltrane, but it definitely applies. It clears your mind and allows you to experience another place. The things that complicate life drop away when you're playing music.

AAJ: According to your philosophy on music, there is great music all over, both trained and self-taught. What do you think is the main tool for creating great music?

EW: I would have to say honesty. If your music is honest, then it's going to come across as honest; it's going to communicate something. Music is really about communication. If you go to music school and you learn all the right things to do, and you write a song based upon all those right things, then you're not saying anything; you're regurgitating. It's like trying to write a story based upon what somebody told you were the aspects that make up a good story. Sure, those things might help the story play out, but that's not what makes it a good story. You have to say something. You have to have something to say, and if you can communicate that effectively to your audience, then that's good music. I may like it, I may not like it, but I think it will still be good music because it's honest.

Selected Discography

Evan Weiss, Math or Magic (Inner Circle, 2010)

Backside Pick, Higher Place (Backside Pick, 2009)

Nobody's Business, Forward Momentum (Nobody's Business, 2008)

Hildegunn Gjedrem, The End of the Beginning (SiTMoM, 2007)

Photo Credits

All Photos: Courtesy of Evan Weiss

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