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Todd Neufeld: Transcending the Limits of Sound

Jakob Baekgaard By

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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.

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