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Polymorphism: Sound Is What You Shape It

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I —Rik Wright
Originally from Winchester, Virginia, a small town in the north Shenandoah Mountains, guitarist and composer Rik Wright studied jazz in a program led by Ellis Marsalis at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. As a professional musician he’s lived in Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco.
Wright ended up in Seattle in 1994, and a few years later founded HipSync Records. Polymorphism is the third release from Wright on the HipSync label. The recording is made up entirely of Rik’s compositions and arrangements, and features the Rik Wright 4tet with Wright on guitar, James DeJoie on baritone saxophone and clarinet, James Whiton on double-bass, and Simon Grant on drums.
Wright’s compositions contain a great deal of musical diversity – inside/outside, free/arranged, acoustic/electronic – which is not surprising, given his passion for sonic exploration and discovery. For example, the tunes “Scatterbrained” and “Some Assembly Required” contain energized, highly-syncopated arrangements contrasted by free solos, while “Minor You” and “Afterglow” are tempo-less, impressionistic soundscapes floating on loops and samples. With so much music going on inside his head, I felt compelled to find out more.
AAJ: Who were some of your initial musical influences?

RW: That’s a tough question for me to answer because I have different influences for different things - playing, composing, producing. I’ve always been a precocious listener. I listen to 25 to 30 full-length recordings a week. I can remember when I was very little, like three or four, and my father taking me to a record store to buy me a children’s record and I made him buy me The Beatles, The Kinks, and the Rolling Stones because I’d heard them on the radio.

One of the guitarists that first caught my ear enough for me to become a fan specifically of the guitarist and not necessarily the group or composer was U2’s The Edge. From a tone perspective, he’s remained a major influence. The next one was Tuck Andress. He really led me into the jazz world. Then Kevin Eubanks, especially on Dave Holland’s Extensions recording, who led me to bridge the jazz and rock worlds. Some other obviously big influences are John McLaughlin, Frank Zappa, and Sonny Sharrock.

However, composers often have a much bigger effect on me than players do. I consider jazz composition one of the highest of art forms. The biggest icon for me in terms of writing and orchestration is Thelonius Monk. Right behind him are Coltrane, Mingus and Dolphy. I basically write in the hopes that one day my material can stand up next to just one of any of theirs. Bartok, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter and Charlie Parker are all big influences as well. Certain producers have also had a major impact on me. Producers are often overlooked but have influenced entire generations of musicians. For me Daniel Lanois, Hal Wilner, Brian Eno, Manfred Eicher, and Lee Townsend have all had a huge effect on how I hear music in my head.

AAJ: What musical concepts are most important to you as a composer?

RW: To me, the most difficult task as a composer is representing your ideas in such a way that the creativity inherent in the score leaps off the page and inspires the same creative spirit in the performers. It’s very difficult to know what to notate, what to insinuate and what to leave out. Sometimes you can give too much information, sometimes not enough. I really struggled with that during the rehearsals and sessions for my last recording, Isomorphism. This time around my good friend Jim Knodle hipped me to Vincent Persichetti’s book entitled Twentieth Century Harmony . The exercises in that book really helped me better understand and notate the polyrhythms and polychords flowing through my brain. I guess I never realized how deeply many modern composers had gotten under my skin. To that regard, Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic concepts deeply affected me, as did Mingus’ methods of deep improvisation in the midst of deep composition.

AAJ: Your quartet can sound traditionally acoustic, sci-fi electric, or both simultaneously. Do you have any theories on blending acoustic and electronic sounds?

RW: I’m not a big fan of theories. I’m too much of an improviser at heart, so I just do something and then sort my way through it in real time. That said, I’ve certainly learned a lot after many years of blending electric and acoustic textures. I wouldn’t classify any of it as “theories,” rather I’d label them as my personal preferences. In most cases I prefer acoustic bass to electric, even if the double bass is effected. I hate electronic drums and I’m not a fan of synthesizers or guitar-synths. Guitar tone has to start with a strong acoustic presence and then you put effects on top of that; but putting effects on top of a bad guitar tone just makes crappy sound become crappier. I’ve heard plenty of fantastic music that breaks the preferences I have for my own ensembles. In fact, my favorite bassist is my friend Michael Manring, who is an electric fretless player.

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