Todd Neufeld: Transcending the Limits of Sound

Jakob Baekgaard By

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My approach as a musician is a largely metaphorical one. I've felt very connected to certain literature, to certain filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Carl Dreyer, to artists, to the asymmetrical shapes of the natural world.
—Todd Neufeld
Originality is a hard concept to pin down, but in music, it is a matter of having your own sound. The idea of a singular signature has been a part of the narrative of jazz for a long time, and it forms the basis of the so-called blindfold test where musicians try to recognize the voice of fellow musicians.

New York-based guitarist and composer, Todd Neufeld, would be a strong candidate for a blindfold test. His sound is so unique that it is immediately recognizable. The way he shapes the lines of his instrument reveals an artist in pursuit of a sound that transgresses instrumental boundaries, but it is also a sound that continually feeds off the rich tradition of jazz. For instance, Neufeld gladly acknowledges the influence of pioneering guitarist Charlie Christian.

Neufeld is influenced by the past, but also helps shaping the future of jazz. He is a guitar teacher and is in dialog with a new generation of musicians. He is also a vital part of the record label Ruweh Records, which has released intriguing albums by singer and pianist, Rema Hasumi, bassist Raphael Malfliet and percussionist Sergio Krakowski.

In spite of a pressed schedule due to his many activities, Neufeld generously took his time to answer questions about his life as a musician, the influence of late pianist Masabumi Kikuchi and his new album Mu'U.

All About Jazz: I've heard that it was a record by the famed jazz guitarist Charlie Christian that really got you into hearing jazz. Could you tell about the experience of hearing him, and how your taste in jazz has developed since then?

Todd Neufeld: The experience was simple and magical. I was a 13 year old child who listened to Charlie Christian's Live at Minton's recordings repeatedly, for days on end. There was no reason in my life for me to be doing this. The music had a magic, and I was deeply drawn to it. While now I can isolate it's elements, I am very pleased that my connection to the music started with this very strong and pure attraction. Even though analysis is often the job of the musician, I always make sure the connection beneath it is that unknowable attraction.

AJJ: Did you grow up in a home with a lot of music and did you realize early on that you wanted to play music yourself?

TN: No, I grew up in a home with not much more music than the usual American suburban middle class home. Though they certainly had their creative energies, my father was an immigrant, and my mother from a family of recent immigrants, and their life seemed to be more about setting up a comfortable life for their children.

At a certain phase in those teenage years, my fascination with the music completely took hold. My first teacher, John Quara, was a very soulful and warm musician with his own very real participation in the tradition of the music. Over those early years influences started to appear in my life that tethered me, without me knowing it, to the mythologies and the path of this music. That transformation happened and my mind simply observed it at some point after it had occurred.

AAJ: You have studied both literature and music. Could you tell a bit more about your formal musical education? I would also like to know whether literature still influences your work and the way you think about art.

TN: I studied for several years with John Quara, a student himself of Lennie Tristano, and a great player. Just being in those lessons and hearing him play that blonde L-5, hearing the real thing before me at such an early age created many sleepless nights. After that Joe Giglio helped me organize my approach and filled in many gaps in my knowledge.

At 18 I went to NYU, but I wasn't going to study music in school. The first two years I studied Literature, then I transferred to the music department and finished there with a major in music performance, whatever that means. I met some great people, students and teachers, but I consider the knowledge I acquired there quite inadequate. Thankfully, I was introduced to topics like western counterpoint, which became a further interest down the line. I also benefited from two years of study with Bruce Arnold, who's codified pedagogy was at the time a breathe of fresh air.

The formal schooling happened after my love of the music was very deeply ingrained. So, while it was a slight modulation of my focus, thankfully what interested me in the music was much stronger than anything that school could infringe on too much.

In a direct way I think literature hasn't had much influence on my music. But, in an indirect way, I think there is a large influence. I'm not so much interested in the meaning of words as I am the sound of words. But, my approach as a musician is a largely metaphorical one. I've felt very connected to certain literature, to certain filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Carl Dreyer, to artists, to the asymmetrical shapes of the natural world. I'm quite constantly trying to somehow play those shapes, those films, those stories. Not consciously, but on some level of intent and direction in my mind. Of course I never will be able to, my guitar playing will never sound like an Abbas Kiarostami film. But, somehow in that attempt, that metaphor, a very healthy process occurs. I think that's a big part of my approach to the guitar.

AAJ: When did you first appear as a sideman on a record and how did it come about?

TN: The first commercially available album I appeared on was Samuel Blaser's Pieces of Old Sky. We recorded that in June 2008 after a 26 concert tour that spring. That was a quartet with Thomas Morgan and Tyshawn Sorey. Thomas and I already longstanding relationship by that point, but that tour was my first meeting with Tyshawn. We immediately connected, in terms of the such varied musical references we were fascinated with, the way we were trying to bring that into the directions of our improvisations, and a personal feeling we shared. That relationship went on to many things. Samuel was very open, though he barely had a choice!, and he admirably let the music go where it naturally seemed to be headed. It was a somewhat idealistic way to begin my recording career.

AAJ: By now, you have played in many different constellations and with many different people. Could you highlight some of the groups and records that have been important in terms of your musical development?

TN: Constellations is a good word for it.. Yes, I feel very fortunate in that matter. I hope, and plan, to connect with more in the future. I think I recognized very early on that this was a main source of education that I needed, those challenges that come with dealing with the music as a sideman. Experience is always the best form of learning, seeing what works, and what doesn't and on what timelines, but when it interfaces with other creative artists, it's almost untouchable.

Besides Thomas (Morgan) and Masabumi "Poo" Kikuchi, working in the bands of Tyshawn (Sorey) leaves a very strong impression on me. Playing with him always is something remarkable, but watching the way he conducts the energy of his bands, of his recordings, has been really something. I've done three records of his now : Koan, Oblique -I, and Koan -II, which was just recorded and will be released sometime 2018 I believe. It's easy to recognize Tyshawn's virtuosity and tremendous skills, but what I've watched carefully over the years is his extreme courage. He may have his doubts inside, but when it's time to act, it's all conviction and pursuing to such an extreme his vision and his music. In those ways I think he's a lot like Richard Pryor, in who I feel some similar dynamic. Even with the most abstract content and directions, Tyshawn takes us some place only he could. What a feat that is! My music is different than his, but I've learned a lot about pushing the extremes, and what a certain level can be for the music.

Todd Neufeld with Tyshawn Sorey

AAJ: You have played with bassist Thomas Morgan for a long time. Could you tell about your musical history together?

TN: Thomas and I met when we were 18, out in California, but didn't really start playing until we were 21 (we're the same age, born just a few days apart.) I've played with Thomas in many many configurations over the years. Too many to recall. We've played together in various of Tyshawn's bands over the years, in Samuel Blaser's band for a couple years, we've made records together for Rema Hasumi, Vitor Gonçalves and Alexandra Grimal, we've done countless one-off gigs with groups led by Christian Wolff, Joey Baron, Aaron Parks, Lee Konitz, Flin VanHemmen. And we spent 5 important years together connected to Masabumi Kikuchi, and playing in his TPT trio together.

Over all those years we've maintained a quite close relationship, experimenting, discussing and playing the music throughout it all. One of the most beautiful of the projects that we've embarked on over the years, and what seems as a bit of a touchstone for us, is the playing of older show songs. I don't quite say "Standards," though it may have started out that way. We began researching the original cast recordings of many older songs, most notably by Richard Rogers, finding the exact changes and melodies most close to the source of intention by the composer. What's emerged is a very personal entrance into a unique repertoire of that music. We're both going very deep into the song, and simultaneously on some level letting it dissolve. I'm not sure if Thomas would agree with that description. But, somehow the balancing of energies, between us, and the songs, and the instruments and beyond, creates a real opening.

Over the past few years we've performed this material in duo, and in trio with Billy Mintz and R.J. Miller. The performances seem to connect with audiences in a way that's different than the other material I'm working on. It feels like we've found something, even if it's simple in a way. I think we'll record it soon.

AAJ: It was also Morgan who brought you together with the seminal pianist Masabumi "Poo" Kikuchi. You played together in the TPT trio and in his liner notes to the wonderful album, Sunrise (ECM, 2012), he refers to your trio, saying:

"together we're trying to find new possibilities in ensemble improvisation. These guys (you and Morgan) are young and smart and they catch on incredibly quickly, and we already share a kind of method whenever we play together. But I'm reluctant to use that term, because what we are trying to destroy is a method too—one that's brought us up to this point in time."

Could you elaborate on the "method" that Kikuchi refers to and the experience of playing with him in the trio?

TN: The experience of playing with Poo, and knowing him very deeply, is beyond description. Playing in trio, so many times at Poo's loft, with him and Thomas was as thrilling and challenging an experience as a musician could ask for. His approach, to the music, and the whole playing situation, was so intense, and his playing was so fantastically rich, that it really pushed you. There were many obstacles, and contradictions, and everything was very detailed. I can't say what we did felt like "free improvisation," although nothing was ever written. More it felt as we were discovering, and forming, and following a new creation in real time. It felt very specific as opposed to a kind of openness you often feel with other improv situations.

I can't say exactly what Poo meant in that quote. But, the basic philosophy he taught Thomas and I, was to measure the dynamics. The dynamics between notes, between musicians, between the overtones, between the environment. They all had a type of energy relationship, or counterpoint, that you needed to be tuned to. And if you were measuring them and in touch with their balance, than finding what to play next was very easy, and very much fun. You could just constantly be playing with those dynamics, you didn't need to think about harmony, or pitch names or whatever. In a way he created his own brand of "intuitive music," like Stockhausen did his, though it could be difficult to isolate exactly which ingredients created it. His approach completely encompassed his life and interactions.

The TPT Trio: Masabumi Kikuchi, Thomas Morgan, Todd Neufeld

AAJ: You have a very distinctive style. One thing I've noticed is the use of clipped phrases. Whereas many guitarists play with long, elaborate lines and many, sophisticated "jazz chord" progressions, there seems to be a focus on the possibility of the single tone and it is transformation in relation to silence. Could you elaborate on your approach to the guitar, and how you arrived at it?

TN: Of course as we all know silence is the great ingredient in music. So, if we can deal with it as something alive, to be touched, and alternatively buried and played with, it's very exciting. I have worked on being conscious of the duration of my notes. A typical guitar playing tends to have a kind of lazy approach to duration, it seems to me. But, when I was playing with Poo he would give me a really hard time about the duration of my notes, saying they were taking up all the space of the music. But, more than that, I noticed the way he played with durations really activated the music, it gave it another dimension to the instrumental expression. He must have grew his sensitivity to that a lot over many years of work. So, I've tried to heighten my consciousness about it, then just let my body find how to achieve it.

For the first 12 years of my playing I played with a pick in the right hand. I studied that technique very hard. But, one day I couldn't find a pick and just started playing with my fingers. I immediately recognized that's where my playing was already going. I had been pursuing a vocalist's sound, the expression of the voice. And using fingers in the right hand gave me much more expressive elements and less of a monotonous attack. It also forced me to come up with new ways to achieve what I was hearing, because I had literally zero technique. I was reduced to being a beginner again, and it was a very healthy process. Being short you're always forced to make some kind of discovery.

AAJ: Your approach is very different from the style of Charlie Christian. Do you still feel a connection to him and the jazz tradition of the standards?

TN: I very much feel a connection to the tradition of the so called jazz standards. The depth and realness of what those musicians and those communities were talking about with their music, it's a constant source of inspiration. Their music was their life, and you can hear it, and it's endlessly rich. What a gorgeous human creation they gave. Of course I have to take it to my life, to fuse it to wherever it's got to be. But, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Monk, Coltrane, so many less heralded others, will always be a source of musical ideas and teaching for me.

AAJ: Perhaps you could also tell about the guitar and the equipment you use and how this contributes to your sound?

TN: I'm currently playing an electric guitar that Ric McCurdy made for me. He's a great luthier here in NYC, and made the instrument to some specifications that I needed. The guitar has a very wide possibility for duration, and notes can ring out very long, and sometimes even bloom over time. It has some qualities of a piano in this way.

As far as other equipment, I love older Ampeg amplifiers. For Mu'U (Ruweh Records, 2017) I used a 1966 Ampeg Gemini -II with a 15 inch speaker. It's an amazing amp, with a very open and dark sound, and more of a three dimensional character than any other amp I've played.

AAJ: You mentioned Mu'U. It is your first album as a leader. Could you tell about the idea behind the album?

TN: I did wait a long time to make my first album as a leader. And in someways it manifested as a natural creation of my work until that point. All the musicians in the band are some of my closest colleagues and people over the past several years. Some of the compositions are older, things that I had written for different occasions and that found their place in this band, and some were written very specifically for these musicians and instrumentation.

AAJ: It has a distinctive line-up with two drummers, bass, voice and trombone.

TN: The instrumentation ties into some type of inner desire I had for the album : I wanted to make something that obscures some of our reference points, to the so-called jazz idiom. Having two drummers immediately changes the ways a listener's eyes locate the music. Their usual expectations are immediately perplexed. Having the vocals in the music, and used in not quite a typical way, also obscures some references. Rema's voice doesn't quite sound like it's coming out of a jazz world, where vocalists are often trying to imitate instrumentalists. Rather it has a poetic quality that might reference other stylistic spheres.

All these things serve to get the music past a direct improv/ jazz set of expectations, and towards a less distinguishable sound. And yet those references will always be a part of the language, so there's that tension. Those are generally the albums and musics that I love, ones that in one way or the other are able to transcend the listener, and sound like music beyond styles. This was one way to try to pursue it.

AAJ: I would also like to hear about the meaning of the name Mu'U?

TN: The word Mu'U is a contraction of two words in Japanese. "Mu" means "nothingness" in Japanese, and "U" means "somethingness." I was looking for a word that somehow represented that idea between presence and non-presence, which for me had many personal relevancies. The word was suggested to me by professor and philosopher Kenichi Shimamura.

AAJ: Mu'U is an album that shows many different aspects of your art. Itis both abstract, melodic and, at times, even swinging and rhythmically vibrant, with the congas of drummer Billy Mintz adding a Latin flavor to the beginning of a track like "Echo's Bones." Was it your intention all along to create an album that was very open in terms of musical influences?

TN: Yes, I think it was. That very large swath of musical influences is I think a defining aspect of my generation of musicians. It has been going on for a while, but I think now it's at an extreme level. It seemed natural for me to represent different angles of who I am, but still knowing that my musical voice won't leave any doubts about cohesion.

The musicians on the album, are also so open, so versatile, so able to make these perhaps seemingly disparate stylistic moves seem so natural and connected that I wanted to explore as much of the different textures as I could within one album. Still there is much material and sound worlds that we got into in live concerts that doesn't appear on the album. But, maybe that's for the next one.

With these musicians, this process was also very natural. I've explored so many of musical directions with Thomas, contexts of "free playing," standards, more complex rhythmic material, etc. But, it's always absolutely our two spirits and approaches exploring the music together. The same goes for Tyshawn who's knowledge and openness is boundless. And Billy is so unforced in his approach, always letting the moment dictate the direction with such purity, he seems just as ready to swing on brushes all day as he is explore much more intense, louder playing. So, that kind of theme of the album, of these different stylistic worlds aligning, is very much a natural theme of my relationships with these musicians.

AAJ: Could tell about your approach to composition on this album and tell about some of the key compositions? As I hear it, there is a kind of narrative arc throughout the album, a development of mood. Singer and pianist Rema Hasumi's voice also gives the music an ethereal and poetic quality.

TN: As I mentioned, some of the pieces were composed previously, and some were composed specifically for this group and recording. "Contraction" serves as a bit of an "eye of the storm" in the album. This was composed specifically for this recording and was an attempt at a new approach to my compositional process. It's sound character somehow acts to offset some of the other denser sounds surrounding it in the album. Events occur framed in silence, sometimes overlapping, sometimes not. A very strong melody finally emerges at the end as Tyshawn switches to trombone. Overall though, a very specific attention to a sound world is explored.

The later part of the album functions as a kind of more melodic landscape than the first half, with songs like "Kira" and "Taunti." Rema's voice adds a lot to the album, and perhaps gives it a bit of a signature. Her voice is very poetic and seductive and is a bit antithetical to the current vocalists who, it seems to me, are often attempting to imitate an instrumental dexterity. While I love some of their approaches too, the sound of the voice, it's seductive nature and nuance, is what most interests me, not it's dexterity. Rema goes deep into the sound, and the register she sings in serves to integrate nicely into the context, as opposed to sitting on top of it. The lyrics and recitative words I wrote for her are important, but much more is that ethereal lyricism that the sound of her voice brings to the proceedings. The blend of that very centering energy with the more varied and outward sounds of Tyshawn, Billy and Thomas was the balance that intrigued me.

AAJ: How would you describe the relation between improvisation and composition and the role it plays in your own music?

TN: Well, it's changing... I want to start to thematize that interaction more in the future. But, on a larger picture, I don't see any distinguishing line between composition and improvisation. Thomas playing notes I write out for him is already a type of improvisation. It will never be the same twice, even if you tried. I consider both processes completely dynamic, as opposed to just improvisation, and thus I try to perceive the music in a more truthful way: that the two categories are just constructions. It may be helpful for a store, or a radio station, and as working musicians we understand certain realities. Even in a so-called "free improvisation," someone suggests we don't play for too long, there is some small words of direction offered beforehand, all that is the beginning of a composition, of setting some pre-conceived structure.

No doubt the demands can in some ways be different between playing in a setting like that, and playing a set of heavily notated music. But an artist needs to understand that the composition is fluid till the end, that when we touch it we improvise it, and that the improvisations are full of references and structures that we are playing to or against —in effect that they are one and the same. So, our attitude towards the music can be much more exciting this way, because we're not dealing with this or that, but have to constantly be on our toes to discover the truth of what we're doing is, are we honoring some pre-ordained structure, or are we breaking it and offering a new path, always balancing that dynamic.

AAJ: The album is released on Ruweh Records, a label you're strongly involved with yourself. What is the story behind the label and what is your own role?

TN: Rema Hasumi and I created Ruweh Records in late 2015. It began simply as a vehicle to release albums we were involved with, and have control over them : music, sonics, design and schedule. My contribution has been largely on the audio production side of it: seeing over the recording, mixing and mastering of our releases. It's a painstaking work, but it's something I have some ear for and sometimes enjoy. Mu'U is our fifth release, and there are some more special releases coming down the pipeline in the future.

I'm pleased we've been able to release several debut albums so far: by myself, Rema, Sergio Krakowski and Raphael Malfliet. These are all artists who are dealing with their identity, especially in a cross-cultural way, quite explicitly. Rema's "Utazata" confronting a very honest interaction with Japanese Folk melodies, Sergio's "Passaros" expanding his expertise in Brazilian music into a whole new realm, and Raphael's meetings of improv with works deeply connected to European 20th century classical music. I'm proud that we've helped foster that type of work, so relevant and needed today.

AAJ: How would you describe the state of jazz right now? Do you find that there is a receptive audience and are you optimistic about the development of the music? Who would you say are showing new paths in the music today?

I can't really say much about audiences in general, I guess I can only feel the audience in front of me. But, the musical world is not in a bubble. The society is growing more focused around a personalized and isolated experience. People more and more interface with life through their personal computer. Less and less, to a large frequency, do people go out and experience live life -live music, live arts, that "realness" of life. And of course it has a self-fulfilling kind of prophecy, the more time people spend on the computer, the more people expect computer rhythms and computerized shapes and sounds, and less are they in touch with the realities of the live experience.

Much music today, even the very best stuff that's being produced, to me sounds very much of this computerized world. It's shapes, it's contours, sound mechanical. It doesn't mean it's not very interesting. But, for me, I think there is something not only that I love, but fundamentally important about the uneven contours, the "mistakes," the beautiful blemishes of the music from those folk heros we love. There is what could be said to be a realness, that is unmistakable. I do think, when I listen back to Mu'U, that I was really making that human stamp a priority on this album.

AAJ: You are also a guitar teacher. What are some of the most important things that you would like to pass on to the students?

I don't really have anything I objectively consider important for students. What I try to do is just understand the dynamics of the student with their path, and the dynamics with my presence as a type of teacher. If I can understand on some level where they're at, then it's easy. I can look to see if there's an overlap with an area I feel like I have some real knowledge, and if so, I can try and influence them, show them some new dimensions to a pursuit they're already on.

Though, in the future I think I'd like to teach more by deed, less words. More by how I live my life and what I've found on the guitar.

AAJ: Finally, what are your plans for the future?

I'd like to perform with the "Mu'U" band live. Our live performances are extremely dynamic and expansive and seem to really reach the audience. But, I'd also like to next pursue another context, that has some of the opposite elements of the "Mu'U" band. A solo album is definitely in the offing for sure. Besides sideman performances coming up, I'm planning a solo tour in Europe for May 2018.

Photo Credit:

P. 2: Dave Kaufman

P. 3: Jimmy Akagawa


Todd Neufeld: Mu'U (Ruweh Records, 2017)

Thiago Thiago de Melo: Amazonia Subtarranea (BlackSalt Records, 2017)

Stephano Chytiris: Egata (2017)

Vitor Goncalves Quartet: Vitor Goncalves Quartet (Sunnyside Records, 2016)

Raphael Malfliet: Noumenon (Ruweh Records, 2016)

Sergio Krakowski: Passaros : The Foundation of the Island (Ruweh Records, 2016)

Flin VanHemmen: Drums of Days (Neither/Nor Records, 2016)

Carlo Costa: Strata (Neither/Nor Records, 2015)

Rema Hasumi: UTAZATA (Ruweh Records, 2015)

Stephanos Chytiris: FLUX (2014)

Richie Barshay: SANCTUARY (2014)

Alexandra Grimal: ANDROMEDA (Ayler Records, 2012)

Tyshawn Sorey: OBLIQUE I (Pi Recordings, 2011)

Tyshawn Sorey: KOAN (482 Music, 2009)

Samuel Blaser: PIECES OF OLD SKY (Clean Feed Records, 2009)

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