Kissinger in Space: Intentions and Players
All About Jazz: You've got a CD under your own name, Kissinger in Space, which you've released on your own Ettinger Music imprint. This is, like your 2003 CD August Rain, a quartet set that includes drummer Scott Amendola. But even though these records have a lot of similarities, there are a hell of a lot of differencessome have pointed out the relative absence of violin loops here, and perhaps less Amendola loops as well, but that's just one element. There's Tony Malaby's tenor instead of Art Hirahara's Rhodes. There's more composed unison playing, and more counterpart soloing in place of single- instrument soloing. There's even less conventional structure in the song formsAugust Rain is a very unclichéd record, but it does have head/solo/solo/head structures. Ultimately, I think there's no loss of melodic beauty or rhythmic fascination, but the almost psychedelic, ecstatic, vibrating sound of songs like "August Rain or "Shunyata has been replaced with darker, more stark landscapes that have a sort of after- the-storm loveliness that's more somber. That's just my longwinded take.
So let's start with you telling what kind of music you wanted to create for this one. How do you think it differs from August Rain?
John Ettinger: I think you nailed a lot of it. I guess there are two or three main things that stick in my mind, as far as the differences go between the two records. The first one would be the instrumentation; I think just the sound of the Rhodes puts you in a certain kind of space historically to all the music that that sound is attached to. So that, combined with all the loops that you mentioned, creates a whole other kind of vibe. But the recording studio made a difference, too. Both places were great, both engineers were great, and they were wonderful experiences.
But August Rain is very much an analog thing from beginning to end, and Kissinger in Space is very much a digital thing from beginning to end. To me, it's not a plus or minus thing, but it did turn out to be a different kind of sound. And combine that with the switch from the Rhodes to tenor, and less loops and all that kind of thing, and the sound quality's kind of dramatic. I never really thought about trying to create something that was the same or something that was different. It was just, "here's the music, here are the players I want to play withlet's see what it's going to sound like. That's sort of the post-recording analysis [laughing] of why it sounds different.
AAJ: This is a really, really great group that's about as attuned to each other as a band can get without being too sensitive, too afraid to not follow. So I'll ask you about the players.
Tony Malaby is really as good as he gets on this record, which is a great compliment to him. It's amazing how similar in tone your two instruments can sound when that's what you wantand how different they sound when that contrast in tone is appropriate. Maybe any decent reading saxophonist could do the unison stuff with you, but it takes a special combination of imagination and sensitivity to do all the counterpart lines that he does with you all over these songs. What attracted you to Tony?
JE: Well, the main thing is that I've known Tony a long time. We went to school together years and years ago, and I hadn't really played with him since then. We've been in touch, but I hadn't really played with him. He was going to be out hereI'd tried a couple of times to get him to do some stuff beforeand I told him who the rhythm section was, and he was really interested in that. He'd never met either of those guys [bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola] at that point, and that was part of the way that came together. Tony's such a great player, and he's one of those guys who, in every situation I've heard him in, always sounds like himselfhe always sounds like Tonybut he can fit anywhere. He's just got this wonderful identity; there's this kind of generosity in his playing. I hear it on other CDs he's onbut in my experience with him, he just got inside these tunes and played them like they were his. It was a lot of fun sorting out just who was going to do what where.
As far as the dual solos that happen a lot on this disc go, that was a decision that we made at the rehearsal. We talked about it then, and realized that this could work pretty well. And the open sections ended up just being that in a lot of cases. Yeah, that worked out surprisingly wellI wasn't planning to go in and do that as much as we did, but I enjoyed that a lot. I think part of why that was effective was his ability to sort of glom on to what's going on. He just climbs [laughing] right into your head! It was definitely an adrenaline thing for me, doing this recording.
And the hookup with the other guys was perfectly intense, too. Scott and Devin have played a lot togetherof course, they're part of the Nels Cline Singers, and they do lots of other projects together. So they've got a really strong hookupmuch like [bassist] Todd Sickafoose and Scott did on the previous record. In fact, for the previous one, Todd, [Rhodes player] Art [Hirahara] and Scott had had an existing band going into the recording, so we benefited from that. The guys on Kissinger kind of all knew about each other, but they had never met until we got together on that rehearsal. They were very interested in playing together, though. Tony knew about Good For Cows, that band that Devin has; he knew about Scott from all the stuff that he does. And both of those guys knew about Tony from all the things that he does. So they all liked the sound of it; they thought it sounded great.
So from a producer's standpoint, it was a lot of fun watching those guys meet each other, and from a playing standpoint it was even more fun. Since that recording, Devin and Tony have played quite a bit together in New York. I think Tony's guested with Good For Cows a few times and he's had Devin on a couple of his projects. So I'm a matchmaker!
AAJ: Yes, you created a real East Coast/West Coast summit. One thing I love about Devin's playing here is that he can improvise remarkable melodiesbut he can also just play a deadly repeating bass line, which is a not-uncommon element in your tunes.
JE: Yeah, I like that. I used to play bass a lot, and that's probably where that comes from. It's also a fun way for me to start writing, because I tend to hear bass lines first a lot of times. Then I'll build things on top of that. It doesn't always work that way, but a lot of times it does. And he just nails grooves. He's clearly really into it. I'd say, "Go ahead and stray from that if you want. He'd say, "No, this'll work. I'm just going to do this for a while. He's a guy who knows a lot about bass functioning in lots of different kinds of music, and he's not afraid of just laying them down like that and just grooving really hard on it.
AAJ: That's such a great trait in a bassist. Some bassists don't want to do that.
JE: Yeah. I don't know why that is. I think not wanting to play something like that is less likely among guys that are more honest about all the music that they heard growing up. Anyone under, oh, sixty years old at this point, has heard lots of different kinds of music. Everyone's grown up with all these kinds of music; there was so much to hear growing up, and it was hard to even avoid it unless you were so out to just do one particular thing. I've always had a hard time eliminating all the music I've heard. I'll spend some time focusing on a specific genre for a while, but generally it's like, "Now I'm going to listen to this, now I'm going to listen to this, now I'm going to listen to this. The question sort of became, "How am I, in my musical life, going to do all of this stuff? Eventually I just gave up trying, and the solution is to get a rhythm section that can play lots of different stuff. Then you just write whatever you want and see what happens. But yeah, Devin's wonderful at all that stuff.
AAJ: So you say Kissinger is a very digital recording, as opposed to August Rain . But is there any real postproduction after the fact?
JE: No. It's very much live-in-the-studio. We did everything in one day, essentially, just like August Rain. The whole band was there for one day and we did a couple takes of everything. The only postproduction stuff was fixing a couple errors I made on written stuffthings like that that you'd do anyway. But it's very much not a cut-and-paste ProTools project in that regard. All the looping and stuff that Scott did was done real-time; he did that while everyone else was playing and improvised those in or, with the written material, just played the loops while he was playing. I think "Kissinger in Space is the only one where I played any loops on this record. We might have gone back and boosted the signal on a couple of the songs or added a little processing or something, but nothing was really moved around or rearranged at all. class="f-right"> Return to Index...
Kissinger in Space: The Tunes
AAJ: Let's talk about some of the actual songs on the record. "Better Angels is a short one which actually is different from August Rain, which, with the exception of the Peter Gabriel cover "Lead a Normal Life, had all long pieces. I like how this one goes from free improvin this case, you and Devinto the actual composed song. It's all pretty lovely, and I like Devin's bass line during your violin melodyhe's sort of commentating in a very wise and grandfatherly way before Tony adds his own shadowing melody to your violin. Any thoughts on this one?
JE: We didn't really know what we were going to do with that tune. That's probably the most song-like song that I have. I don't know if it really sounds that way, but that's probably the tune that has the most changeseven though we didn't end up playing on them. And if you took off the improv in the front and just did the tune with a regular beat, it would almost sound like a pop tune. Which is finesomeday I'll probably mess with that idea live and we'll experiment with that sometime. But we wanted to just get that kind of ethereal, floaty thing in how we treated it.
I think the decision going into the recording was, "Heywhy don't Devin and John do a solo in the front? That would be good. So we did, and that's what happened, and we did a couple takes of that. I was pleasantly surprised by the hookup Devin and I had on that thing. All three of these guys do this, but Devin in particular on that tune just creates this atmosphere for you to play with and then it becomes pretty effortless. And here the tune really has that ethereal nature. Someday I would like to do it in a way that emphasizes the changes more, but these performances seemed like the right way to go for the recording.
AAJ: "Kissinger in Space is made of rather different elements that somehow cohere to make an amazing song. This one has your only violin loops on this record; it begins with loops from both you and Scott and that four-note seesawing violin phrase of yours that Tony sort of adorns as the tune goes into a total rock groove that reminds me a little of King Crimson. Then there's some loopy, treated improv strangeness in the middlethere's a very sighing, kind of a marooned quality to this partbefore the rhythm section slowly coalesces around Tony's improv melody to go into a very cool 2- and 4-accented slow groove. Then there's a unison coda over this groove to take the tune out. This doesn't really describe what is a classic piece of yours. Tell me how it all works and how you wrote it.
JE: Well, I had two sections, and I knew I wanted to use them both, and I was not exactly sure how we were going to do that. Every tune has its own problems, and the thing you have to deal with on this tune is getting from one section to the other. The tempo for the last section is related to the first tempo. The dotted quarter note of the first section becomes the quarter note of the second section, and that's where you get this big kind of downshifted groove that sets up the last section. Devin starts the new tempohe just starts playing that groove, when he feels it's right, in the middle of that group improv and Scott joins in and they make it into this almost "When the Levee Breaks [the Led Zeppelin tune]- sized thing, and eventually we take it out. And that group improv thing [laughing] is sort of the development to get to that groove.
But it was definitely conceived as a more rockin' thing, so the King Crimson reference is, I think, reasonable for that first section. To tell you the truth, the second section might have been inspired a little bit by [trumpeter] Cuong Vu's It's Mostly Residual album [ArtistShare, 2005], which I loved. I really loved it when he did that particular kind of thing. That's one of the best records I've heard in a long time, and I think he captured [guitarist Bill] Frisell's best performance in a long, long time. The way he goes in and out of these long, beautiful melodies that'll pop in in the same kind of wayit's a lot like what we did on this one. I have to give him credit for that; it's my melody, but the idea probably came from listening so much to It's Mostly Residual.
AAJ: Well, Devin's changing the section by cueing the band with a certain little phrase, and that's pretty much what happens on It's Mostly Residual. Frisell or someone will just play the phrase that tells everyone it's time to go over there now.
JE: Exactly. Devin just started pumping away on those eighth notes in the new tempo, and I think Tony was already playing that beautiful melody that was leading to that, and suddenlythere we were, new tempo, and they just played this big groove. When we listened to the playback for that take, I had had a preconception in mind that wasn't what really happened, and I was really doing battle with that. But those guys were listening to the groove and going, "Yeah! That's really cool! And I was saying, "Ah, well, you know, ah But I ended up saying, "Well, we'll leave it; I'll deal with it later. Then I listened to it the next day, and I thought it was really a strong section. Those guys just pounding away at that thing sounded really good.
AAJ: I suppose it can be a little shocking at first when the song isn't doing what you were ordering it to in your mind.
JE: Exactly, and more often than not, it ends up being okay or better [laughing]. "Oh, okay, that's much cooler than what I imagined it might be.
AAJ: I think "Harper Lee is perhaps the most complex and, as it were, "breakable of the songs hereit seems to require such a delicacy of emphasis on the part of the players that I think it would be easy for it to go wrong. The first part of the song has Scott's mbira being looped and treated as Devin's arco bass begins a melody that's taken up by your violin before Tony takes it up. Then there's some great counterpoint between you and Tony before Scott's cymbals bring in a groove with a two-way sax/violin dialogue that just goes and goes. The whole piece has a great symmetry and thematic unity that is really special.
JE: That's probably one of my favorite ones on this record. It felt kind of chamber-y when I was writing it, and I wanted it to be as simple as possible and not to get too detailed. It's definitely one of those things where the improv is very overlaid with the composed parts. I liked the way it ended up coming out. Tony's playing in the high range on those melodies in the beginning is, I think, just gorgeous. I think that Devin's solo up front is really gorgeous, too.
That one is a weird tune in that it's pretty much as close as I have towell, I was going to say "through- composed, but maybe "The Doors Are Closing is the most through-composed. But in the middle of "Harper Lee, it's another one of those cases where Devin's playing a repeating bass line that was written, and there's a little bit of variation on it, but he's definitely doing the Devin thingholding on to it. The two- way solo between Tony and me turns into a three-way thing, because Scott gets so deeply into that, and across the bar line there are all these beautiful effects, just rhythmic things happening between the three of us. That was probably, improv-wise, sort of a new area to get intoand for me, one of the most fun areas to get into as a player, because of where those guys took it.