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Peter Gordon: Innovation At All Costs


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Peter Gordon is answering a lot of questions these days. His label, Thirsty Ear Records, is readying for the release of one of its most controversial records yet—and this is the same label that put out records by electronic innovators and hip hop heads DJ Spooky (Optomerty, 2002) and El-P (High Water, 2004) alongside the work of avant-gardists like Tim Berne (Souls Saved Hear, 2004) and William Parker (Luc's Lantern, 2005). Undoubtedly people are struggling to understand Thirsty Ear's latest move.

The Free Zen Society, as they're calling it, brings together (yet again) Thirsty Ear mainstays Parker and Matthew Shipp along with harpist Zeena Parkins for a subdued, ethereal affair meant for moments of reflection. From fire and brimstone comes the softness of water. Like many albums recorded and released under the banner of Thirsty Ear's Blue Series Continuum, The Free Zen Society forces the participants to respond to ideas and dimensions that challenge them as artists.

Gordon has overseen a lot of innovation since he and Shipp christened the Blue Series in 2003. Beginning with The Good and Evil Sessions that year, the Blue Series seeks innovation at all costs, pairing those from traditional jazz backgrounds with forward-thinking progressives in the fields of electronica, hip-hop and rock. Like the angular intensity of Spooky's Optometry or Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp, The Free Zen Society innovates also—by putting familiar musicians in unfamiliar landscapes, erasing all memory and inspiring them to create—from scratch, from somewhere inside; deep, deep inside, tapping into that proverbial well of inspiration.

Still, Peter Gordon finds himself answering questions. Lots and lots of questions.

Peter Gordon: There's a lot of interest. [The Free Zen Society] is unusual for us—it's unusual to even think of free jazz artists to get involved in this space. It almost seems like an oxymoron.

All About Jazz: Everything has a context though. It was surprising to me when I heard the record—or heard about it—but I don't think it's really different.

PG: No. And honestly we're talking about degrees here. When you talk about modern music and these players who have a real fire in their belly and can really just rip it up like the best of them, to see them going in to this space—really, these folks [Shipp, Parker, and Parkins] are very spiritual and they're very deep in their thinking. You don't necessarily think about it but when you think about them as complete human beings, of course the only way you can dig deep into your gut is to have very well thought out spirituality.

It's great because music is music. Contextually, what we do here at Blue Series is to really try to conceptually bring different things forward that hadn't been done before but always keeping it musical and always keeping it with compositional elements so it's finally music and not just a sensation.

AAJ: That's the idea of it being The Blue Series—continuum?

PG: Exactly.

AAJ: There's definitely a context within which each record sits. This record makes more sense following the release, or re-release, of the Nils Petter Molvær records last year [An American Compilation, Streamer and Er). Those albums prepared Thirsty Ear fans for Free Zen Society because they're a little more subdued as opposed to say Matthew Shipp vs. Antipop Consortium or the Beans record.

PG: Which are a little bit more angular. Exactly. I guess we're looking at a multi-faceted diamond. You're really looking at all different sides of a gem and each look gives you something special and that's what we keep trying to do. There's a lot of dimension here. The essence springs from the same well—we put a different face on it, which brings a deeper appreciation. If you just do the same thing over and over—it may be brilliant—but I think the ears just go deaf after a while. We need to try and change the setting a little bit—all of us do, in life. The same four walls that may be beautiful walls are going to start to close in on you after a while.

AAJ: The actual recording of this session took place a few years ago, correct?

PG: We've been active for a long time with these guys. The original thought with this record was to create a chamber group. We had never really done a jazz chamber group before. So we wanted to work actually with a UK-based turntablist named Philip Jeck who creates sort of orchestrated sounds out of turntables. So we wanted to create some soundscapes and some musical packages that could work within his language. That was the concept. We were also bringing in Spring Heel Jack to work with him as well. It just turned out that it wasn't quite right for everybody, for a myriad of reasons.

So [the raw recordings] just kind of sat. [We] still had the kind of chamber ensemble [feel] but we didn't have the other end to put the glue together on it. I guess I just sort of started revisiting it one day and going, "Well, nothing like the present to see what's buried in there. So I sort of dusted them off and started to dig in. I figured there was somewhere to go in there so we really started to think about it in terms of taking you to a different place. To use the language of jazz and improvisation but have the underpinnings be entirely different and take you to a place more meditative, more of a place where you can let your mind go and experience life in a different way, to remove the day from your mind and let you just kind of lift off and go somewhere.

That's what I spent a couple of years doing—over a thousand hours to put this thing together. It was very hard to do.


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