Steve Norton: Debris and Beyond

Gordon Marshall By

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Multi-reedist Steve Norton is best known for his work with the 1990s Boston-based band Debris. Debris was an ambitious, exuberant, puzzling band that puzzled together serialism, free jazz and funk. Their music is in equal measure exhilarating and exhausting.

It was the combination, in part, that burned Norton out about ten years ago, as well as a need to attend to his job and family. Back in full force now, at fighting weight, with drive and direction and reinvigorated sound, he's steaming.

Recent projects include the duck-call trio, Duck That, with Joshua Jefferson and Angela Sawyer; Matt Samolis' Metal and Glass Ensemble; a trio-without-name performing a stunning rendition of Steve Lacy's "Tips," with Noell Dorsey on voice and Samolis on flute; and a duo with Vic Rawlings, Symptomatic.

Symptomatic is, in fact, symptomatic of a theme Norton has pursued throughout his career, the play between paying attention to collaborators and blissfully ignoring them in a way that will lead to discovery of deeper layers.

All About Jazz: I know that your group Debris employed a lot of structure, but when I hear it—and like I said, I know this isn't accurate—but I think of it as an avant-jam band.

Steve Norton: Really...I could almost take umbrage at that. But I won't! For the most you will find that the pieces on the discs, they've all got—there's generally a bunch of written stuff and then there's areas for improv. So there's plenty of improv in there, but it's always within a context. It's kind of like with traditional jazz where you have the head and then a bunch of solos, except it doesn't really work like that. Frequently the written music is something that's episodic and through-composed, so it's not like we just start with something and end with it: we start with something, there'll be some improv, another written section—a different written section will come in, there'll be more improv, and then a another written section which is yet again different...So you won't hear that kind of repetition most of them time.

AAJ: And the tone rows...

SN: Yeah, almost all the pieces composed by me on those discs are twelve-tone.

AAJ: I have a theory. You know Harold Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence?

SN: I've heard of it, I've never heard it articulated.

AAJ: It's an Oedipal struggle between a poet or an author and his precursor, like Wordsworth and Milton...I see your precursor as being Eric Dolphy, and you've been wrestling with Dolphy for twenty years, trying to throw him off, and you've finally done it.

SN: [laughs] Wow, that's funny. So I would accept him as a precursor...On my way here I was remembering a very important evening in the process of my development. This must have been in 1979 or '80. I had a good friend, she lived on Hanover Street [in Boston's North End], three or four floors up somewhere, and she went away, and she asked me if I would come in and feed her cat. This was back when I was living at home in Framingham.

So I drove in, it was like a Sunday night and I came in—I was just happy to be in the city and it was nice out and I opened the windows, and I fed the cat and then I just sat there and I turned the radio on. And I just sat there and listened to something from one of Dolphy's Prestige releases—Out There or Outward Bound (both 1960)—and I can't remember which piece it was, but I loved it and I wrote it down; and the same night I heard Miles Davis—it was "Moon Germs," off The Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1957). And there's a section in "Moon Germs" where—it's not a fast piece, it's a fairly slow piece—and the time goes away, and the horns are playing these sustained chords, and they sound almost atonal. They're almost Schoenbergian, and I was just smitten by that. That was the first time knowingly hearing either of those guys, and thinking, "That was really cool."

I appreciated jazz, but I wasn't really hooked on it...But I had this—I was always looking for things that were interesting, and more interesting, and I ended up finding Roxy Music—

AAJ: I can hear Roxy Music in your work.

SN: No question. Brian Eno's solo records...and then the next thing you know, Fred Frith and Henry Cowell. And I was on my way out there. I always had this feeling, this kind of push, to hear things that were unusual...I worked at Strawberries, the record story in the late '70s and I was really attracted to the Anthony Braxton album, The Montreux/Berlin Concerts (Arista, 1977), 'cause it had that picture of him playing the contrabass clarinet, and I was like, "What the hell is that!"

I had been playing music all my life. I took violin in the third grade, piano in the fourth, I played piano for twelve years. I had a friend in high school, he was a guitarist, and without really knowing anything about free improv—by that point I had been listening to Yes and Genesis, because it was unusual. And he and I started to improvise, because it seemed like the thing to do. I think the stuff we were playing was mostly rock based, chordally and rhythmically, but it always went in strange places and there was never any plan. One summer evening we pulled all the stuff out of the kitchen cupboards, pots and pans, and started playing them. We decided we had to play the kitchen! And recorded it.

AAJ: Did you play rhythms when you were doing the pots and pans, or did you just bang on them randomly?

SN: There were rhythms, we would sort of get into grooves, but it was—it shifted. It shifted a lot. At that point I don't think I'd actually heard any free improv, I wasn't aware of Derek Bailey or Evan Parker. A year or two later I stumbled upon a copy of one of the Evan Parker/John Stevens The Longest Night discs (Ogun)—I found one in a used record store in Cambridge. That was unusual. I think at the time I bought it, it was a little more than I was ready for. But at the same time, I was also getting interested in classical music. I was taking music theory classes in high school. My high school had a really good music theory program. In two years we got through the whole Walter Piston harmony book.

Duck That, from left: Steve Norton, Josh Jefferson, Angela Sawyer

AAJ: I know that Dolphy's two favorite composers were Webern and Debussy, so there's the twelve-tone again.

SN: When I was at Berklee, I was a composition major, and I took a class with Greg Fritze, who's a tubaist, and he's now the head of the comp department—but he introduced me to Webern, and I was just totally smitten. And Berklee was an interesting place to study composition. I don't know how aware you are of the academic controversies of the '50s and '60s, but the controversies are still being played out. Basically the serial avant-garde took over the big writing academies, like Julliard and Columbia and Princeton, and things—to read about it things became very dogmatic: you can't write this way, you have to write that way. By the time I got to music school, I think that stuff had largely played itself out.

And at Berklee, traditional composition was an afterthought. I think there were twelve students in the major. I think I hit it at its nadir. Not a lot of people were paying attention to it. There was nothing dogmatic about it. I took a class on the Beethoven quartets, on Bartok, and on Sibelius. You can't get any less academic and dogmatic than Sibelius...But when I stumbled across the Webern I was just smitten, and he's still one of my favorite composers.

AAJ: Webern would have been a favorite of these dogmatic types.

SN: Absolutely would have. Webern begat Boulez, and Boulez is—

AAJ: The old curmudgeon.

SN: The guy, the guy with the big hammer! Le marteau. So, basically it all kind of got blamed on Webern but I think that's a wrongheaded way of looking at it. It wasn't Webern's fault, it was the academics that seized upon what they thought was the truth. I was just doing it because it was something that worked for me. I sort of took to twelve-tone writing very naturally. It made me very happy. I just liked it. I found it a very enjoyable way to work.

AAJ: I think we should discuss Debris more, because that's your most well known project.

SN: Sure. Let's see. What do you say about Debris? It was—

AAJ: Difficult, exuberating, grating—

SN: More music that nobody likes [laughs]. You, know, one of the things that strikes me about the entire experience, is the constant experience of people coming up to you afterwards, and sort of look at you quizzically, and say, "I really liked it, but I don't think I understood it." It made me think a lot. It's a topic I've been thinking about most of my musical life, and it's like, "What does it mean to understand music?" And I think there's this whole, furrowed brow, "it's all very technical" and you have to understand. It's like, "Really? There's nothing to understand. It's just sound."

AAJ: That's what Greg Kelley was saying when I interviewed him. He wants to leave a door open for the listener to find his own meaning in the music.

SN: That's the only meaning that exists. Right? The only meaning that exists in music is the meaning between the listener's ear. And that meaning's informed by their culture and their upbringing, and all the music they've listened to before that, but there's no code, there's no secret message in there. Just because you don't know where the tone row is, that's no more important than knowing that this folk song ended on a 5 chord.

AAJ: Anything more about Debris?

SN: I think we just went tangential on one of my favorite topics. I think one of my favorite topics is, the way music is constructed in our culture, and the way people are sort of taught— there's specific roles, there's musicians, then there's mere mortals, that sort of thing, so to a degree it's kind of a priesthood. Like you can't really talk about music unless you've developed a type of jargon, otherwise your opinions aren't any good. There's this whole, "Do you understand music, or not," and if not, you shouldn't talk about it. And we're also taught to construct our opinions as facts. "This is great music"—it's not great music, it's music that a lot of people agree that they really like. So we're steered strongly away from our own subjectivity. And we're taught that subjectivity is not valuable, it's mere opinions. In fact, art is completely constructed in the subject. And that's all we've got, and we ought to learn to take our subjectivity seriously.

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