Drummer 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. Mominand Taranaare 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 musicexperimental 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 electronicaa lot of it felt either too mechanical, or not enough improvisation was going on. Stuff that was more openlike Supersilentwas 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 economickeeping the size of the ensemble downas 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 travelsome 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 PortugalPedro [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?
RM: 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 loopsand my music is based on non-traditional time signatures anywayit 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 thatprogram 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 wishanother element of control over the setting that's providedbut it's totally open.
AAJ: In your demo recording, it sounded like all of the instrumentsincluding the electronicswere 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.
AAJ: 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 brutalwe 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 therethe Bad Plus are selling records and touring...
RM: Oh certainly, there are people out there and touring who are successfulPedro 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 bleakpeople 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 promothey 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 ownunless you want to have a comfy teaching gig and sit at home, putting out ten records a year and be happy with that.
AAJ: Mary Halvorson is a creative improviser, composer, and wonderful technical player, and her new record is arguably one of the best indie-rock albums to come out in the last five years. Aesthetically, this could be extrapolated to the whole "We Jam Econo" Minutemen thing that is really how this music is becoming.
RM: She's coming from that background and listens to that music; she's a friend of mine, as is the drummer Kevin Shea who she plays with in People. I know that they listen to Deerhoof and Matmos and stuff, and you have to have your ear out for everything and not exclude it by being a purist. You have to challenge yourself, but there are all these amazingly trained NEC, Berklee and New School musicians out there without a jazz audience to back them up.
AAJ: How has your experience been with the press? You and your work seem less visible compared to some others, yet you've clearly got a busy schedule and you work.
RM: My biggest frustration is that though the media haven't been unkind to me, there are other more prominent musicians out there and the press works in a certain way to give them more space. They're doing amazing work, but there are others of us out there. I totally think about it that way all the time. The comparisons on the surface are inevitable in some ways; I interviewed with Pedro Costa a few years ago for www.jazz.pt and he picked three Indians in New York to interviewme, [saxophonist] Rudresh Mahanthappa and [pianist] Vijay Iyer.
AAJ: And they're doing things that have very little in common with what you're doing.
RM: I'm doing all these tours and squeaking along'Hey, by the way, here I am'but otherwise I don't bring it up because it's an elephant in the room, and I can't think about it. If I start thinking about it, it'll hinder my art.
AAJ: It seems that many critics don't quite know how to review Miren or Climbing the Tree (Clean Feed, 2004). Your work can't easily be pinholed; it's just round or square enough to not quite fit. At the same time you see labels putting out album after album with tried-and-true motifs.
RM: I don't discount what people are doing in any way, but at the same time, whatever happened to people being interested in combining disparate things? Here I am jumping up and down about it and not getting a response. To be honest, this is a career and a business, and certain people focus more on that and do well at it, whereas I focus more on the artistic side of things and have to remind myself to be cognizant of the other side. I don't want to make it sound like a rat race, but I think my stuff is worth hearing and hearing about. I listen to a gazillion records and I know what I'm doing is different.
AAJ: What about the next recordwhere will it be?
RM: I'm hoping it'll be on Clean Feed. I think label loyalty does become important in the sense that the economy can't sustain so many things being put out and if you have a history with the label and its artists, that all helps. Pedro has been really good to me and he understands the power of Tarana. But it's a small label without a real PR machine. If he had enough resources to send out and get records played on CMJ charts, I'm sure he'd do it. Also, it's a reciprocal relationship where we help each other out, and for the last record I hired a publicist on my own dime to help push the record. It's got to be a two-way street; you have to be proactive and say, "What else can I do to help promote the record?"
AAJ: What would be some other things you would do if you had the resources to promote?
RM: Well, with Climbing the Banyan Tree, I charted it for CMJ. It was at WNUR and WFMU in the top ten for months. I did that on my own, paying to get charted and sending discs for playlists and stuff. I was beating out people like Norah Jones and Dave Douglas for a couple of weeks!
AAJ: You have to pay?
RM: To get on the CMJ mailing setup. DJs decide whether they like you, of course, but I just ran out of steam and money because it's a lot of work. It did help in touring; we'd be in Urbana, Illinois or somewhere in the Midwest and people would say they'd heard our record. That's so cool! I could also find reviewers that Pedro didn't know about; a disc could go to Songlines UK, the Wire, Signal to Noise, or other channels that aren't part of the jazz orbit. It got written up on some fairly big web channels, you know. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that print media still matters. I mean, you can only put so many pages in a magazine, as opposed to buying tons of bandwidth, so print distills information down to its essence.
Then again, a magazine might have three records to review for world-jazz and they pick two, and Tarana doesn't get reviewed because I'm not as well known. But that's where the PR machine comes in. I'm not a newbie to this game and I think it works both wayssometimes it's the reviewers' preference and sometimes it's the editors.' But the latter certainly holds true for the bigger magazines. It happened like a finger snap in some instances, but if Pedro and I alone had sent out copies, it wouldn't necessarily have happened. Those players or labels who can afford well-connected publicists get the write-ups more often.
When you ask me how I'm treated by the press, what percentage of this situation feeds into the equation? I'm making a blanket statement, but I'm sure a lot of other musicians feel the same way. How do you get yourself out there and continue to be recognized through this whole so-called democratizing internet-media thing? You can just go to Myspace and listen to someone's musicyou don't have to get a special promo package or something. For me, this is the path I've chosen, but the more I get ignored, the harder I'll scream as opposed to packing up shop. I depend on myself to get my music out there, and eventually something will crack, something will give, and somebody will take a listen to meit's just a reminder that these are the conditions that musicians are up against in this market. You can't think about this stuff too much. I'll be out there touring, even as people are always surprised at how much I'm able to tourgoing to Macau, Hong Kong, Calgary and Portugal in a year, without even a quarter-page profile in most jazz magazines.
AAJ: To move onto some of the other things you'd mentioned doing, you're working with reedman Will Connell, Jr. now. How did that come about?
RM: Yeah, he's one of the unheralded heroes of the scene, having worked with [pianist] Horace Tapscott and so forth. He was part of an ensemble that got put together for this AACM concert in Novemberthere was me, [tenor saxophonist] Kalaparusha, Connell, [bassist] Mike Logan, and we just came together. Someone in the audience ostensibly loved it and recommended us to some festivals in Europe. This is much less unwieldy than that first trio with Kalaparusha and [tubaist] Jesse Dulman. It's got a more traditional setup and Kalaparusha and Will Connell are great foils, and I'm a far better player than I was with that earlier band. All of it is coming together in a much nicer way.
AAJ: It's interesting to hear you revisiting a jazz lineage, because previously, jazz-oriented situations weren't able to capture what you wanted to do.
RM: It's giving me the freedom to play how I want to play, but within a jazz context. In other so-called free jazz bands I have made records with, I was forced to play a certain way and that was a big difference. That's also the big difference between the AACM guys (who I've been working with somewhat lately) and the other free jazz guys. One reason the AACM came around was because they were looking for alternative ways to play, even within the free scene.
AAJ: It's interesting that the AACM concerts in New York have brought in musicians like yourself, [trumpeter] Ted Daniel, Will Connell, and players who are not historically associated with the Chicago scene. How is it happening, from your perspective, that the AACM values are becoming more inclusive?
RM: It may be because I worked with Kalaparusha that they were aware of me and sought me out, but I do think they're more open musically. [trombonist-composer] George Lewis, whom I saw at the Sons d'Hiver in Paris, was doing creative stuff with electronics, in a trio with [pianist] Amina Claudine Myers and [reedman] Roscoe Mitchellit was some of the outest stuff I've ever heard! Four thousand people were going nuts and loving it. The instrumentation and personnel that Threadgill and Braxton bring to their ensembles, too, is a testament to that openness.
AAJ: How is Kalaparusha these days?
RM: Well, he's here in the Bronx and he has some health issues, but he still plays and makes it out to some of these higher-profile gigs and festivals. But I got called for this gig with him in 2008, which was great, and I hadn't really heard from him since that trio disbanded. I haven't kept up because I'm focused on Tarana, you know.
AAJ: Could you talk about your rock project?
RM: Sure. I was working in Fulton Lights with singer-songwriter Andy Goldman, who's a really open cat, and he brought in some unique folks like Peter Hess (from World/Inferno) and Karen Waltuch on viola, Jim O'Rourke, Beth Orton, me. Anybody who hires me to be in a rock band isn't looking for a traditional Dave Grohl or whatever [laughs]!
AAJ: Well, you're connected with people like Kevin Shea, too, from storm&stress.
RM: Yeah, that was way more experimental, though. This is more in the pocket. Some of the stuff isn't that different from what I play anyway, but it's a little more focused and it's not a stream of consciousness. It's still me, and he's very open to that. Being in a rock band forces me to play differently because they're not all schooled musicians and don't read charts and so forth. They rehearse a lot, which is a trait that sometimes is missing from jazz, and I like thatto play and come up with arrangements together. I've always wanted that in jazz, and I may have come to that in a more tangential way.
AAJ: You found it through a tangent but you also made it yourself. In Tarana, you must be very rigorous with that.
RM: Sure; when Tarana were in Hong Kong before the tour we rehearsed for like four days, rather than just putting something together and going.
AAJ: It seems like the first record was a little more comparable to a blowing record, but Miren wasn't like that at all. Could you discuss the background of Tarana?
RM: Of course. Basically, it got started serendipitously. I had done a jam session with [violinist] Jason Kao Hwang and I was already friends with [bassist] Shanir Blumenkrantz, who wasn't an oud player per se, but a very musical cathis playing on the new Cyro Baptista record is amazing. What I liked about him is that he was playing the oud, but in a non-traditional way. I'd already been writing music since 2002 and had the first version of this band more jazz-oriented, with Peter Epstein on tenor saxophone. Then I was starting to hear moreagain, 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. I lived in India, England and the Middle East, and I wasn't happy with saxophone and bass as a way to express who I am. I was looking for something new and it had to be something that kept evolving. I wanted it to be something I could grow with.
AAJ: You want it to be of a piece, and whoever you plug into certain outlets, you get something that makes sense.
RM: And something that you can keep working with; Tarana could easily have become a footnote and I could've gone on to something else, but I always felt this was something I could keep developing, as well as find out who I was through the music. The first band fell apart, as they both wanted to go on and do different things, and I had to pick new people who could stay with it and I picked Sam and Brandon. I wanted to keep the band growing, but it still was Ravish Momin's Tarana. Whatever you put in theretheremin, accordion, cello or trumpetit's still my music and my drumming. That will be the thread that runs through all the instruments and that's what hooked Pedro, because initially we were signed up only to record as the first version of the band.
AAJ: You've also arranged traditional South Indian music. Have you thought you might arrange other composers' music and place it in the context of Tarana?
RM: Sure, I would love to, and I think a lot of it would be getting past the legalesenot that I want to do the music of Shuggie Otis or anything, but I definitely want to play other people's music. Like Skye, who's with me now on violin; he's offered to bring some of his music. He's got his own quintet. He's a great up-and-coming composer. He's about 28 and is a very mature player; he's in a Brazilian band and he can go from avant-garde music to traditional Turkish music and Blues. That's really hard to findsomeone who can dig into Leroy Jenkins and come out spinning Ali Farka Toure, plus with touring chops to hold it all together.
That's a huge component of why I choose the people I donot just having badasses in the band, but who can tour and get along with people. It's not like those other players I've chosen in the past are bad or anythingthey're amazing, it's just like a second (or third) marriageyou have to think about it a little more before jumping into it again. I'm a little wiser and more in tune with the kind of players I want. I may not have violin in the future, but the ability to straddle different musical worlds is what I need.
AAJ: How early in your playing career was this evident? When you started working as a musician, when did you realize that you required these certain syntheses?
RM: I think it was a logical choice for me. It was out of necessity because, like I said, I wasn't getting work and I wasn't feeling anything because I didn't know what kind of player I wanted to be. I knew I wanted something from everything, though I didn't have the proportions figured out or anything.
AAJ: Were you thinking along those lines prior to joining some of the saxophonists whom you played with? Were you playing in "free" bands more for the work?
RM: No, that was a logical extension of playing in those bands. I wasn't career-minded in that sense. I genuinely thoughtperhaps naivelythat free music really was free, and that you could bring in your own ideas. It really wasn't like that, and I got jaded.
AAJ: Well, you were also with bandleaders whose ideas were pretty specific, too.
RM: And to be honest, the whole concept of time in free musicsomehow those became mutually exclusive domains, and I have no idea why or how. I don't understand that.
AAJ: You studied a bit with Andrew Cyrille. Did he have any insight on that front?
RM: He was a very big part of why I play the way I play. I'd gone through x, y, z jazz teachers who said, "Let's unlearn you," and I wasn't feeling that. Andrew was the first teacher I had that auditioned me and said, "If you're going to be my student, just play for mewhatever you can." He sat there, closed his eyes and listened and I felt ridiculous, but he said, "Okay, I see what you have and what you don't have, and I want to build on what you have." No one had ever said that to me before, and he's a very deep cat. He acknowledged my Indian musical roots as a basis for jazz, and that's still the most revolutionary thing.
AAJ: He's always been an explorer.
RM: He was one of the first to use his hands, tapping on the drum seat, chanting or blowing into his instrument, and he was way ahead of the curve. He was doing a lot of extended techniques. He had a lot more facets to his personality than playing with Cecil Taylor or somebody would make obvious. He's just a very diverse cat, but with intent.
AAJ: You've done some teaching yourself, too, right?
RM: I do teach, but it's more at an elemental level with kids in the schools, rather than teaching my thing. It's teaching jazz history, going back to Bix Beiderbecke and Jelly Roll Morton for these kids who only know Jay-Z, Common, and Ne-Yo. I'm trying to build them up from there. It's very rewarding and very frustrating at the same time.
Honestly, I haven't mastered anything, so I'm not ready to teach my roots. I have so much to learn and so much to put together that when I do get there...well, maybe it will always be a work in progress. I know at some point I'll have enough of a grasp to be able to talk about this, but right now I can't, because I'm still learning.
AAJ: It's interesting to think about having a record date and the thing seeming so perfectly gelled, yet to hear you say that you're still well in the middle and don't have anything close to a mastery, when the music itself seems so tight and clear.
RM: That's cool to hearI don't mean that I don't have it together, but I mean it more in terms of process. The creative process is never-ending. Ten years from now, if I'm still doing Tarana and you ask me this question, it may have a completely different feel to itit may be more sophisticated or evolved. It's evolved enough to function where we are now. But it may evolve in ways I can't even imagine. And that's what excites meto go back full circle with electronics; they push me out of my comfort zone. I don't know, but I want to push myself, understand and challenge myself. Sure, I want to be judged by the electronica heavies, and it's intimidating but I'm not scared. I want to learn how to write more melody and harmonyall the things that are a challenge to me as a drummer. I'm coming from an unschooled backgroundI went to school for Civil Engineering, not music!
Again, it's all about experience and if I didn't have the practical chops, I couldn't put these tours together. You need a lot of daily management skills, and there's so much from waking up on time and managing the road directions to handling contracts and stage setup, riders, hospitality, not to mention playing your ass off when you get up on stage. Now it's second nature for me and I just do it. You need to have that naïve optimismI can make a difference, I can be grassroots and I can get out there on some level and make a living doing it. If I didn't believe in that, what would be the point of doing this or anything else?
Fulton Lights, The Way We Ride (Android Eats Records, 2008)
Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana, Miren (A Longing) (Clean Feed 2007)
Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana, Five Nights (Not Two, 2006)
Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana, Climbing the Banyan Tree (Clean Feed, 2004)
Kalaparusha and the Light, Morning Song (Delmark, 2004)
Kalaparusha and the Light, The Moment (Entropy, 2003)
Ravish Momin, Sound Dissolving Sound (Sachimay, 2000)
Top Photo: Peter Scherr
Center Photo: Era Jazzu
Bottom Photo: Elaine Chu