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Kassa Overall: I Think I'm Good

Serena Antinucci By

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If you must acknowledge genre as a necessary linguistic framework for organizing the world, then what are the simplest elements that evoke any given genre? If you can present a thing in its elemental nature, then there is still room on the canvas.
We might never know what exactly happens in the creative mind of Brooklyn-based producer and drummer Kassa Overall. However, his latest album, I Think I'm Good (Brownswood Recordings), gives us an insight in his swirling imagination.

The sophomore release by one of the brightest musicians of the New York jazz scene, I Think I'm Good reaches even deeper than his debut album Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz (2019). Overall breaks down barriers among genres, looking for the unifying elements that exist in all of them, and so hip hop and jazz can blend seamlessly and give rise to a pulsating system that feeds off improvisation. The result is a project that is at the same time experimental and approachable, intimate and powerful, confidential and outspoken, and that focuses on both inner thoughts and social reflections.

All About Jazz: "Show me a prison," the single of the disc, an expression of sorrow for the American prison system, is the song that best describes the experience of confinement (also in "Visible Walls" or in "Please don't kill me"). We are living a crazy time, into forced isolation. What sense do you attribute to it?

Kassa Overall: "Show Me A Prison" draws lyrics from "There But For Fortune" a folk song written by Phil Ochs in the sixties. The words convey a universal lesson: do not pass judgment on someone based on their walk of life, because that person could be you. The original has multiple verses that describe various situations of human failure. My take on the song was inspired by the reality of being a black person in America. The human experience carries with it pain and failure. This suffering is only intensified and sharpened when a society is built on the foundation of systemic racism. With this pandemic called coronavirus we are all made vulnerable, all of us subject to confinement. Some are experiencing for the first time in their adult lives what it means to have their freedom can be taken away. Nevertheless, not all walls are created equally. The pandemic is affecting the poor and working class in a totally different way than the rich. I see with my own eyes how the homeless man is experiencing this differently than my a wealthy friend who can retreat to a country cabin.

AAJ: You call yourself a "jazz backpack producer." Where does the need for nomadic music come from?

KO: Going on tour and not having the money to pay for studio time.

AAJ: Can you tell us about the roots of I Think I'm Good, and its title?

KO: The title comes from the pain and labor of trying to make something worthy of being taken seriously. Being a sideman gave me a front row seat to many of the greatest artists of all time, and also the humility to not put myself first and always be in the service of the music. After 12 years of working as a sideman, however, my own voice often felt unimportant, as if I was a supporting character in someone else's story. I wanted people to understand that my story needed to be told, and that I was the only one who could tell it. The title has multiple meanings. I think I'm good at what I do. I think I'm a good person. But I'm not certain of either. It also speaks to the absurdity of having the audacity to be good, or good at anything. It's also a figure of speech where I come from which means "I politely decline."

AAJ: You have produced a very personal album. It almost comes across as an exploration of your mind. What was it like to open your music to a more intimate dimension?

KO: It was like when I started riding a bike without training wheels. A little wobbly and scary at first. But once you start riding for real, you realize that riding a bike with training wheels wasn't really riding a bike at all.

AAJ: This album seems to evoke the speed of thought, a hyperkinetic musical construction, ruled by an invisible order. What is your relationship with the creative moment?

KO: Total trust. The intuitive nature of improvisation seems to move even faster than the speed of thought. Thoughts are what slows down the process. Like meditating. The moment you stop and think about it is the moment it stops happening.

AAJ: If you were to pick one track on the album, which song is the one that better expresses your inner soul, essence, memories?

KO: "I Know You See Me." It has pain, but also the courage to look the wolf in the eyes.

AAJ: How important was improvisation in your album? What's the balance between improvisation and composition?

KO: Improvisation was the most important element of the album. For me, composition is almost like slowed down improvisation. Conversely, you can think about composition as edited improvisation. These are not rules or definitions, but, rather, thoughts to inspire the process.

AAJ: I Think I'm Good blends jazz, hip hop, spoken word, trap, electronics and classical music. It as if you have been working on the concept of expansion, since there is a democratic coexistence of different genres, an encouragement to freely explore. Do you agree?

KO: Yes and no. I think I'm working more on the concept of reduction. If you must acknowledge genre as a necessary linguistic framework for organizing the world, then what are the simplest elements that evoke any given genre? If you can present a thing in its elemental nature, then there is still room on the canvas.

AAJ: Why did you choose Chopin's "Prelude n. 4" for "Darkness in Mind" in which you collaborate with with pianist Sullivan Fortner?

KO: It happened quite organically, but Sullivan is one of the few people who could truly become that song. It sounded like he wrote it when he played it.

AAJ: "Show Me a Prison" features Angela Davis. How did that collaboration come about?

KO: Angela is a huge supporter of our music and I had the chance to DJ her birthday party. The thought popped into my head that having her on the song would reframe the lyrics for our moment in history. I thought about all the work she has done with incarcerated people. I wonder how many actual conversations she has had like that voicemail I've used for "Show Me a Prison." I am completely honored that she values my work, publicly or privately.

AAJ: In the last song, "Was She Happy—For Geri Allen," you and Vijay Iyer pay homage to the late pianist. What did you learn from her that stays with you to this day?

KO: She expanded my ability to improvise beyond the drum set. We improvised set lists, arrangements, shapes of tunes, performances and everything else. To this day I take that lesson with me as gospel. I see it in all the greats I study. I discover it when looking for the next sound.

AAJ: Speaking of collaborations, there are many musicians on the album, from Joel Ross to J. Hoard, Brandee Younger, Theo Croker and Aaron Parks to name but a few. What was it like working with them?

KO: It was really easy. It felt harmonious, like we were at recess, creating almost for the sake of creating. I got mathematical after the fact.

Photo credit: Luciano Rossetti (Phocus Agency).

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