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Interview: Don Andrews Of Spirojazz


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Q: Some people, especially those who familiar with progressive-rock albums from the '70s, would expect Space and Alienation as a science-fiction concept record. But Space and Alienation have a deeper meaning on your album, judging from the emotional tone of certain pieces. Is Space and Alienation what we feel from everyday living? In other words, we seek space but yet feel alienated once we have too much of it?

A: Space and Alienation is for me about not knowing and the mystery and emotional distance that goes along with that. And in the end, going forward everyday despite the uncertainty. There are so many people who are so sure of everything now, so close-minded on every side of the argument, so fanatical. But as I listen to all of this noise, no one actually knows anything or has any reason to be all that certain. So space is about the space that is out there, the space between us, and the alienation we feel from each other unnecessarily. We all face the same inevitability. Space, in terms of outer space, or the vast universe, just magnifies the great mystery which eludes us. I guess this album is about embracing the uncertainty.

Q: The “Passing Through" compositions seem to be about death. What inspired them?

A: In a traditional mindset it is about death, but it is more about the continuation of life in another form, whatever it is. I think it is hopeful in the end, and in this case it was about sending a very dear friend on his way.

Q: How did the record come about? Do you plan on an album's overall theme and style in advance?

A: Since I have become a solo artist, all my records have been about something and thought out well in advance. I begin with the concept and compose to the story. Tales was about the years I spent traveling all over the world, adopting my daughter, South America and who I saw and met there. History of our New Age was a requiem for the 20th century and how we seem doomed to repeat it in every age. I don't need words because I believe the music tells a story for those who are listening closely. In the case of Space and Alienation, it came out of natural feelings of living in a place like New York, seeing people everyday caught up in their own world and adding to the meaninglessness of their existence. In pursuit of nothing of real value, not understanding that the real treasure is the people they have sitting right next to each other on the train, the subway, the bus. But not even bothering to make eye contact and missing opportunities everywhere to live a richer and more meaningful life. An incredibly lonely, desperate place. Every big city can be like this, but New York has a hopelessness that is palpable.

Q: What instruments do you play on the album?

A: I play all the instruments and do all the arranging on my albums. In terms of instruments that usually includes keyboards, guitar, bass, and percussion as well as all the programming and mixing. I pretty much know how I want it to sound and then I just need to find the way to get there. Even when I work with programmed drums I add manual overlays, and rarely use sequencers because they take all the humanity out of it. So I play all those notes and repetitive lines that people probably think sounds like sequencing. And I try to do all my solos in one take. Even if there are mistakes during a solo I leave them in. I once heard Charlie Haden say all music, acoustic or electric, apart from its beauty needs to be “deeply felt." He's something of a hero for me, not only because he's such a brilliant player, but a brilliant man. That's how I feel; you don't just play a solo because you want to show off your technique, you are telling a story and bringing the listener somewhere.

Q: How do you feel you have creatively evolved throughout your releases?

A: First, I've had to learn what I was doing with a whole technology so I could communicate what I wanted to. Until about 15 years ago it was always the painter who had the upper-hand over the musician because as long as their technique and execution were there, they could communicate directly without help from anyone else. The musician always had to rely on others to get the point across—sometimes it was better, sometimes worse, but it was always different than the artist heard in their mind's eye. Now, if you can become conversant in the new language then you can create the same way a painter always could. That doesn't mean hitting the arpeggiator or joystick, that means really understanding how things work so you can make music that sounds even like it was produced by a six-piece acoustic ensemble if it is right for the song. I guess over the last few releases I have become better at communicating what I have wanted to get across. And as I've become more adept at the technology, I've seen a lot more possibilities musically. Apart from that, I've worked very hard on my other instruments, guitar especially, and composing on that instrument and thinking like a guitarist is such a different mind process than the keyboard.

Q: How so?

A: You don't see as many bands with multiple keyboard players. Keyboard players tend to have sharp elbows and crowd others out. Guitar players are just the opposite. Being a guitarist is like being embraced into a community. Sharing licks, techniques. I am so grateful for my guitarist friends and teachers. Players bring so much personality to that instrument and it is so packed with individual spirit. And what sounds easy is usually so very difficult.

Q: The music on the album is wonderfully quirky in how it blends disco with New Age atmospherics. What kind of reactions have you received thus far with such an original sound?

A: Some surprise that it was so different from City of Dreams, but very positive. Because I am motivated by ideas when I compose, the genre is an after-thought. I go where it leads. I love everything from classical to country to Latin to jazz to ethnic to punk music, and I don't come at anything with preconceptions but try to understand what it is in itself in its own particular time and place. There is an old term from archaeology called the “sitz en leben" or the “life situation." That means that when you try to interpret an artifact or work of art you need to first understand everything around it, the time, the place, the people who wrote it, why they wrote it, who they were addressing it to.

When applied musically that means you don't judge fusion music - which is, let's face it, really most music on earth - the same way you do other forms. We're not breeding poodles here; music is a reflection of human experience. Rock is not pop, pop is not jazz and jazz is not country. Drop your prejudice at the door and understand the time and the place the music came from. When I hear a new genre I get excited because that means someone new is talking to me. I marvel at some people who think that listening to only one type of music, say traditional jazz in its pure form, is the only legitimate form of music. Miles Davis got sick of that too and I can see why. It's like eating a cheeseburger for every meal and thinking your are a connoisseur. I love diversity in life, in people, in music, in experience. Like I say to some of my musician friends, we know you can play, now what are you trying to say?

Q: What artists have had the greatest impact on you and why?

A: I love so many artists in so many different genres that it is difficult to say. In jazz it has to be Miles Davis because he taught me that soloing was about story telling and genre was something for librarians and not musicians. Keyboard players are too numerous to mention here, everyone from Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner to Brian Auger, Keith Emerson, and Jimmy Smith. Steve Winwood because he taught me that I could be a better keyboard player by picking up other instruments as well and that we are all descendants of blues and soul music. Gustavo Cerati because he taught me that this is all going on in the parallel universe which is Argentina. But everyone from Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss to Ravel has had an impact on me. And still does.

Q: What records are you most proud of and why?

A: I can't really say, there are all like different children to me, especially as I get distance from them. They were what I wanted to say for that time and place, like entries in a diary. There are songs on certain albums that make me smile, like “Lucy Comes Home," which is about a time and place in the future when my daughter Lucy will go back to China and embrace her past and my musical blessing to send her on her way. I smile when I listen to “Rachel's Jungle Dance" from Tales album but there are other pieces like “San Telmo Blue" From the the History Album, “Still Night" and “The Lost" mean a lot to me. “The Lost" especially since my wife heard something in the song I did not when I was composing it, and had so much to do with making it so meaningful. City of Dreams was just fun to make and on the new album, I think “Mary" and “Michael", both dedicated to people I love very much have a special significance as I get more distance from the project. But I'm focusing on the next project now and all the experience that goes with that.

Q: Your previous effort City of Dreams was a homage to your hometown of Chicago. Would you say that Space and Alienation is just as personal? If so, in what ways?

A: For me, it's all personal. It starts with something that I think I need to say and I express myself musically, not with a pen. I made the decision awhile ago that I could be much more descriptive in the universal language that I could the written form. City of Dreams is about Chicago in all its many colors, such a great place and such wonderful people. But also the musical backbone of America, where modern blues got started, where The Rolling Stones went to worship Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. But it's also personal, watching westerns at the Oriental Theater with my dad and brothers, the Chicago my son grew up in, my time on the west side teaching and playing in blues bands, it's all there. All this is captured in the great art on the album by my dear friend, the painter Renzo Ortega, who really grabbed the vibrancy of the city. Space and Alienation is just as personal, but it's more about what we alluded to earlier, the feeling on not knowing, acknowledging the mystery and I guess the hope that goes along with that.

Q: When did you decide to become a musician? What attracted you to become one?

A: I wish I knew. I think most musicians - especially those who are serious about it - will tell you that it isn't anything they really had a choice about. There's a great new song by Lindi Ortega called “Tin Star." It's about a lonely country singer who plays on the street because she can't help herself, and wishes she could walk away but can't. For me, it was always music, from as long as I can remember, and I just had the ability to hear music and play it. Reading music came later and music school nearly killed it because it tried to domesticate something that shouldn't be. As for why I am drawn to it, maybe because many musicians tend to be more open-minded because they can actually hear the universal language. King Sunny Ade can hear Steve Winwood or Youssou N'Dour or Mary Jane Lamond sing in Gaelic, and they can all understand each other perfectly and even communicate back. So that's what keeps drawing me in, as well as searching for more and more musicians to listen to and communicate with, because as I listen and learn from them my own language gets richer and it makes life more meaningful.

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