Ravish Momin: The Business of Time


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Then I was starting to hear more - again, what drove all of this was that I wasn't getting work, and also having lived in all these countries before America, that is of course a big part of who I am.
Ravish MominDrummer Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana is one of the most consistently rewarding and intriguing groups to grace the roster of Portugal's Clean Feed Records. Formed in 2003, the group has notably featured violin and oud as its instrumental color of choice in staggeringly complex yet hard-swinging compositions. Momin—and Tarana—are a genre-fogging unit, blending jazz improvisation with forms from South and East Asia and North Africa. However, this mixing of genres is endemic to Momin's working methods and has expanded to his appearances with other ensembles like the rock band Fulton Lights, tenor man Kalaparusha's ensemble The Light and pianist Ursel Schlicht's Ex Tempore.

All About Jazz: You mentioned all this woodshedding and these things you've been keeping under wraps. What have you been up to lately?

Ravish Momin: I've been working, of course, with Tarana and we've been touring a lot, at least for this kind of music: six tours in 2008 to six countries. A lot of it I book myself, which is even more insane; I'm sure you can appreciate that. A lot of guys have managers and agents. So [I've been] touring and doing all this work, and I reached a sort of head where I wanted to go somewhere else with the music and needed something to happen.

I've also been hanging out with my cousin from the band Dalek; he's been turning me on to a lot of new music—experimental new electronica that I liked a lot. I wanted to put that into in an improvised music setting, and also I wasn't really happy with what I heard in a lot of electronica—a lot of it felt either too mechanical, or not enough improvisation was going on. Stuff that was more open—like Supersilent—was the equivalent of free music with electronics. I thought that there had to be more to electronics and more to jazz than any of what I was hearing. I started shedding on my own; there's a lot of heavy tradition and lineage that has to be learned. I didn't want it to look like, "Oh, he's trying to get on the bandwagon."

I did some tours with it and I was very happy with this new direction. I started working with Skye Steele on violin last year and recently with Greg Heffernan on cello, and I might add Michael Bates on bass. Tarana has become a very open thing, and it's exciting.

AAJ: About two years ago, you'd mentioned expanding the palette in terms of adding more acoustic instruments. Now electronics have entered the fold. Is that as much economic—keeping the size of the ensemble down—as it is technical?

RM: No, it's certainly not economic and it doesn't replace acoustic instruments. It's funny, I was just putting together a proposal for something with expanded strings and with laptops added. No one has done anything with oud, pipa, cello, violin, drums and laptop. So I think I'm on to something.

I was asking Rachel Cooper (from the Asia Society) to recommend some people who would be interested and who could travel—some people that Butch Morris has used. He had an East meets West project in which I also participated, and there were Chinese musicians who could really play also. More recently, I've rehearsed with [shakuhachi player] Kaoru Watanabe, who could go from playing free jazz to traditional Japanese music. That's certainly not gone from the picture, and my next record will have a more varied feel with different stringed instruments, laptop, and things like that.

AAJ: Tell us about the tours you were undertaking.

RM: It started in April of last year, actually; we got a grant from the Asian Arts Agency of Bristol [England] and from the English Arts Council as well, and we did about six or eight gigs all over England. Then we did Jazz Ao Centro, in Portugal—Pedro [Costa, of Clean Feed Records] brought us over there. Then we did a Canadian tour where we did the Iron Works in Vancouver and went through Alberta. Finally, we did a Midwest tour in October, and a tour in China that we came back from a couple of weeks ago. We actually made money on all of it, too.

AAJ: How has it been in terms of reception from audiences, especially in places like China?

Ravish MominRM: It's still a closed society but they're opening up and hungry for new things, and they have this burgeoning economy and a lot of kids who are interested in the music. There's a laptop player there who has worked with Mike Patton, for example, and he's up there. He's brought [John] Zorn and Ikue Mori to Hong Kong and stuff like that. He was telling me how valuable this music was over there; going from traditional pop music to abstract electronica is a big leap. Tarana was somewhere in the middle; we were playing the same venues that laptop people were playing and everybody was very open to us everywhere we went. It kind of spoiled us!

AAJ: What about the "jazz" audiences? Have you noticed in the years since you began Tarana any change in how they receive what you're doing?

RM: A lot of our work is in Europe, and they're inherently open; they'll have Fennesz another night. And yet here in the States, it's actually getting worse. There are some new venues opening up in New York doing good things, but a lot of stuff is closed to us. I don't put a lot of energy into playing in New York because it's so much work, whereas in Europe, the audience is already there and excited to see you play. You don't have to hustle so much. It makes you feel that people care about improvised music.

AAJ: From introducing electronics into the ensemble, how has your approach to the kit changed, if at all?

RM: The approach hasn't changed but it has made more demands on my technique. For instance, I'm using loops and I can modify them live as I'm playing (depending on the patches and so forth) and when you're playing along with anything that's preset, you have to have your shit together. As an improviser who's really focused on time, it kicked my ass into getting my time together because if you're off on those loops—and my music is based on non-traditional time signatures anyway—it can really throw you. If we're doing a piece in 7/8, 13/8, or 15/4 and I'm not on, it sounds terrible.

AAJ: How's your experience been with the implied time that you're creating on the kit transferred to electronics?

RM: It's another instrument and a valid palette, like adding shakers or something to percussion setups, and I want to go somewhere else with it than what I've heard Satoshi Takeishi or Jim Black do. I'm using a program called Ableton Live which actually lets you do that—program beats and random patterns on the fly. It has a velocity function that allows it to mimic a human feel where things don't always sync up. The patterns change and it's very close to how improvisation might sound.

I've added on top of that an additional element, so the whole thing is filtered through a MIDI unit where I have these pads that provide alternate textures and loops. I can trigger those on the fly as I wish—another element of control over the setting that's provided—but it's totally open.

AAJ: In your demo recording, it sounded like all of the instruments—including the electronics—were on equal footing.

RM: Awesome, that's our goal. Eventually I'd like to take it further, where you won't be able to tell who's doing what and it'll be a huge, massive sound. The cellist might be using some effects and allowing a sort of blend.

AAJ: With the acoustic Tarana recordings, and especially Miren (Clean Feed, 2007), it wasn't always clear who was doing what. It also seemed like being discernible wasn't that important.

RM: That's what I'm going for. Sure, there are soloists who can play technically, but again for this music to develop, it has to be more about the band and less about the individual ego. I'm more interested in what excites me sonically, whether it's a Braxton quartet or electronic music. Not to mention, jazz and creative music are already marginalized economically, so that you really have to focus on getting an individual approach together rather than spreading yourself thin.

Ravish MominAAJ: There's a Chicago saxophonist about whom the consensus seems to be that his touring quintet is where it's at; even though the other projects are cool, they distract and lead to a diffusion of what you might have.

RM: Especially in this economy, you can't get the money together to do that live, so doing five or six projects doesn't really work. You have to be cognizant of the world you live in. I remember a quote from [late saxophonist and composer] Julius Hemphill saying, "Jazz is the paper kingdom," which is brutal—we all look great on paper and like we're doing so much, but the reality is that not many are making a living off of it. For me, I'm actually trying to make a living out of it. This is what I'm trying to do. Sure, I could have a couple more projects going on, but you really need to distill what you want to do.

AAJ: Improvisers with a supportive community seem to exist out there—the Bad Plus are selling records and touring...

RM: Oh certainly, there are people out there and touring who are successful—Pedro keeps doing the festivals and bringing people over to Portugal because he's cognizant of the fact that if you're going to sell records, you have to be out there. Bands that are touring are the ones who are selling records, for sure.

AAJ: It seems like in the past few years, the market for music and CDs has gotten somewhat bleak—people are downloading everything and not buying anything. And tangentially, maybe jazz is the new indie-rock. It's a weird thing to say, but it's under the radar of most of the population and self-production or small labels are the only thing making it move as a market. One has to make tours oneself and do it out of the proverbial van.

RM: Yeah, but a lot of the musicians haven't realized it yet. People assume that they're going to get calls because of their merit and have tours, but by and large if you're not one of the chosen ones, you have to be out there selling yourself. I was talking to a curator of a Brooklyn-based venue and he was telling me that a lot of the jazz guys won't even do any promo—they won't send e-mails, nothing. How do they expect anybody to know about it?

Saying that jazz is the new indie-rock is a heavy statement; you could open up a whole discussion forum on that and see what happens, because it's so loaded. To be self-fulfilling and self-actualizing, it has to work from the angle of the labels and the musicians who have to realize that they need to be self-sufficient. Records don't sell themselves and you have to get a publicist and an agent, or be your own—unless you want to have a comfy teaching gig and sit at home, putting out ten records a year and be happy with that.

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