Skinny Vinny: The Answer to Everything

Gordon Marshall By

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Andrew Eisenberg is the percussionist for the Boston, Mass. duo Skinny Vinny—and a conceptual mastermind. Equally adept with hammer, saw, trash can, pots and pans, or what have you, he can make you think, or muse, by knocking together a table, or banging a stick against a window. An early piece, a big white room with a steel door, was titled "The Answer to Everything." The answer was enclosed within the room. But the door was locked...

Skinny Vinny, from left: Joshua Jefferson, Andrew Eisenberg

No, Skinny Vinny doesn't have the answer, but they aim to please—if your pleasure is difficult, minimal improvised dissonance. Which, for many it is. And for many more, it is a pleasant surprise from a genre that isn't their cup of tea, or weapon of choice. But the duo is not about duels, or combat.

Joshua Jefferson is its alto saxophonist, and bass clarinetist. His deft reflexes and coordination make him a master of what could be called "protective mimicry," if he were not so original. His playing may evoke meadows rife with wildlife, the long trill of a hermit thrush underscored by the bellow of bullfrogs—or, the roar of a crocodile splashing into the Everglades of his native Florida.

A quick study, he has developed his remarkable technique in a short period of time, having picked up the sax in his early twenties, taking lessons from Bhob Rainey of Nmperign. He is also a very fine collagist, drawing inspiration, in both his visual and sonic art, from Marcel Duchamp. He is uncannily adaptable. As a musician he jumps in and out of projects, his own and others, assimilating their conceptual nature and vigorously sharpening it. These projects, centered in the Boston area, combine and recombine with many of the same members overlapping in each.

Combining, recombining, collage, mimicry, camouflage—these are Jefferson's leitmotifs, keeping him always on the move and lookout for new connections, new ways of presenting the new music, new ways of relating to an audience, however limited that may often be—and spurring fellow musicians to keep looking forward and incorporate the next bend or wrinkle in whatever's coming down the pipeline.

Take Skinny Vinny, with Eisenberg on their self-titled, self produced 2009 CD: Jefferson opens with his eloquent chirps and squeaks. Eisenberg mimes the mime, eking a sax-like squeal out of a cymbal with a violin bow. Eisenberg further abstracts this, as if processing it through a computer, yet it is all acoustic. In turn, Jefferson himself mimes this electronic vibe: the rapport and repartee evoke mechanical and electrical sounds of, say, an apartment or enclosed public space, random plumbing clunks, or electrical currents.

This keenness to environment, in this case urban, brings us full-circle to the meadows and glades we heard Jefferson conjure at the beginning. Eisenberg is Jefferson's equal in this power to let a dialogue deconstruct into its environment, and back. Following is what they had to say about that dialogue, in dialogue with me.

All About Jazz: Andrew: what's your musical background? Are you a late bloomer like Josh, or did you study when younger?

Andrew Eisenberg: Never studied music, ever. I've been involved with many different types of music for a very, very long time, and as soon I got out of high school and into college I was very much into electronic music, '94, '95,'96.

AAJ: Now would this be like electronica, or more like Morton Subotnick?

AE: Subotnick came later.

AAJ: So this would be like The Orb?

AE: Techno, ambient, different derivations of all that. Philadelphia was full of it. It was fantastic...I was going to school there, at Drexel. I didn't finish though, but I gave it a little bit of a shot. I got very much wrapped up in the music scene there, and very much into making art, but there was never any music school.

In '97-'98, I was still very much into electronic music, but I started—there was a crossover at that time with making art, and I started making sculptures out of television sets, and leaving them on. And I was using record players and broken records, and I was playing with a friend who made improvised music out of little analog synthesizers. I was starting to get very much into that but I was definitely on the electronic music tip. I didn't get hip to the sound—I didn't get introduced to the new sound [of improvised music] until '99.

I went to the High Wire gallery in Philadelphia, and Toshi Makahara was playing—and I knew there was an art show, and I was expecting an art show. And I walk in and there's two guys—there's some drums but there's two guys standing at the windows. And they open up the windows and they stick their heads out, and they scream out, "Hey! Hey!" and mind you, we're like on the third floor, and I have no idea what's going on. I know it's not an art show. Everyone's staring at these guys. They scream at people for a while and they try and invite people in. They were just screaming! and it went on and then finally one of them started playing, they both started playing, one went back to the window. There was this Norwegian guy and Toshi Makahara. It was a fantastic duo. And then fifteen minutes later, I was like, "Wow." I'm not sure exactly what I just saw, but that really piqued my interest.

I lived there for a couple more years and started to get into percussion. But it wasn't until I moved to Baltimore that I started "playing." There was a great scene there. They had shows like twice, three nights a week. At the Red Room and at other spots there was improv going on. I wanted to make it. I wanted to play, and at that point I started to get into playing.

AAJ: Did you buy a drum set?

AE: I started with bucket drums, and bits of trash, and pots and pans—it's always been that. I still used some electronic, I still had a television, white noise and whatnot. But never a kit. I acquired, someone gave me drums once, like three pieces, and this weird tie-dye kit. I did buy some drums and I tried to play it, but that was many years later and I don't use any of those pieces anymore. I came at it from pots and pans and trash and it's evolved into pieces, but I play backwards. I don't know how to play the kit—I play as if I'm lefty although I'm righty, I play without one of the sticks, just one hand. My left foot kicks the kick-drum, my right foot keeps the time, and nothing talks! I'm always baffled when I see a "real" percussionist and how they do it. It just seems uncomfortable.

AAJ: It seems like a radical transition to go from electronics to acoustic, organic drums. Is that a political or conceptual statement?

AE: My tastes changed a lot. There was a very easy line to start. If you start in techno and electronica, and that sound—

AAJ: There's a beat to it.

AE: There's a beat, but it's also very DIY. It's a very small scene. And I always wanted to be on the edge. I was always trying to find what the fresh sound is. And somewhere in the late '90s, techno started to get "dirty." There was more and more improvised music. I remember a group called Pole, Microstoria, they were leading something of the experimental sound. From there the crossover was more happenstance than anything else. It seemed like the most immediate way for me to get in was to be percussive with it. The physicality of it took over, where with electronic music I was trying to, even though it was a very physical thing for me, it wasn't as fulfilling as what I do now: shake and beat on things.

AAJ: Josh, what got you into experimental music?

Joshua Jefferson: I was just lucky enough at the time to be renting half of Andrew's studio space, at the Piano Factory, and it was just the right time to be around Jules [Julius Vasylenko], and Andrew, and a couple of other people. And I was exposed to what Andrew was doing, he played with this guy Travis and this other guy Josh, in a band called Junior Science. And at first I didn't actually like it! I didn't get it. I just thought they were being silly, they were stupid.

AAJ: What music did you like back then?

JJ: The sax sound, the jazz sound—I always liked jazz. But the improv, it was different. Andrew wasn't playing what he's playing now, he wasn't playing drums. So I was around people who were playing improvised music, and I found a clarinet at a thrift store, an antique shop. I started pulling on Andrew's sleeve to play together, and we did.

AE: The first night you got it!

AAJ: That's an interesting idea, being fresh on an instrument with nothing ingrained in you, it's just a fresh approach.

JJ: That's something Andrew and Jules always remind me of, that fresh approach that's not related to anything except the individual, expressing that pure essence, it's not filtered through school or institutions, it's completely unbound. That kind of energy or that kind of perspective is always what's best about improv. But I wasn't around free jazz. My tastes slowly grew.

AAJ: You both started as artists. Josh, you do collages, and Andrew, you're conceptual.

JJ: At the Museum School where we both met, I was doing mostly printing and drawing, and Andrew—well you were doing the TVs then.

AE: Where Josh is 2D and flat (and in no was is flat a negative thing), I would have concepts of time and space...I took sound classes when I was there. I was very much into dada and fluxus, into performative events and making sounds. There were sculptures but everything was instillation. We were very different, we are very different artistically. I don't practice—I worked myself into a corner. I kept taking the concept of art, and breaking and breaking, and I still can't pick it back up...I never had what Josh has: beauty, in the two- dimensional fine-art sense. That was never my passion. It was never what I wanted to do...There's a soapbox—that's what art is; and you get up on the soapbox and you say something. And you want to make it efficient and compact, or you want to make it funny—I've never had the beauty thing. I never had that level of aestheticism. I've always thought too much about it.

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