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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?
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