Todd Sickafoose: The Art of Non-Resistance

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Good composing is like good writing. You work hard so that it's easy to read or hear.
Todd SickafooseWith the release of his unique, understated, and critically acclaimed Tiny Resistors (Cryptogramophone, 2008), bassist/composer Todd Sickafoose suddenly and unintentionally upped the ante for indie jazz. Surging ahead of such indie mainstays (and label mates) as Nels Cline, Steuart Liebig, and boss Jeff Gauthier, Sickafoose has garnered strong press from such diverse sources as Bass Player Magazine, PopMatters, Jazz Times, USA Today, and The New York Times. The daring, spacious compositions and performances on Tiny Resistors, Sickafoose's third CD collection, have succeeded in obliterating all the subheadings of "modern," "progressive" and "new"—settling, instead, on eminently appealing.

A longtime coconspirator of Ani Di Franco's, Sickafoose finds himself in the enviable position of touring behind a musical statement that seems to be irresistible.

All About Jazz: What brought you to music?

Todd Sickafoose: We always had a piano around when I was growing up. If you're musically inclined, it's a little like being a seed near dirt. Something's gonna happen. At some point, I wanted to play piano all the time. And I was writing too.

AAJ: Who did you listen to growing up?

TS: My parents had a small record collection. All Ellington and The Beatles. Which probably explains the sound of my band. I try to make us sound like "Black and Tan Fantasy Played by John [Lennon] and Paul [McCartney]. At least some of the time. Later on, I got really into [Miles Davis'] Miles Smiles (Columbia, 1966), [John] Coltrane's Transition (Impulse!, 1965), Ornette's [Coleman] The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959), '70s minimalism. Probably a million records too embarrassing to say now, the requisite dosage of prog rock, stuff like that.

AAJ: When did you decide on bass?

TS: Maybe when I went to hear Edgar Meyer. I started playing double-bass when I was 13, and it was the instrument that opened the most doors. It's been my ticket into so many different kinds of music. Klezmer music, Cuban music. It's such a physical instrument. It probably takes years just to start playing really in tune. At least for me, it did. I played a lot of classical music when I was a kid, which helped my technique. It also gave me a taste for the thrill of a huge resonating orchestra. That thrill is still with me. It's probably the thing currently steering me towards larger and larger bands.

AAJ: Did you study with Mel Powell at CalArts [California Institute of the Arts]?

TS: Yes, I was lucky to study with him in the last few years of his life. He is known as a great American composer but he also had an early life in jazz, playing piano with Benny Goodman's band when he was 19 years old. Mel Powell was a teacher and a thinker who had crystallized his thoughts into single sentences. "Counterpoint is only about rhythm" was one, which I still think about every time I play or write. He also had a real sense of humor, a pretty essential part of all good music.

Todd SickafooseAAJ: What prompted your transition from West Coaster to Brooklynite?

TS: Well, I still think of myself as a West Coaster. It's famously easy to leave your heart there. The Sierras, the Pacific, the redwoods. What more could you want? But all of my best musical friends now live within about two or three Brooklyn zip codes, and eventually I couldn't think of a reason not to join them. New York is always overflowing with music, but Brooklyn has its own real vibrant music scene right now and I can't imagine being anywhere else.

AAJ: How did you get involved with Ani Di Franco?

TS: The connection was that I toured opening for her in 2002 and 2004. During that second tour, Ani was performing solo but putting together a band to record Knuckle Down (JVC, 2005). She asked me to play bass along with Jay Bellerose on drums, who's a real genius. Ani and I made a strong musical connection while rehearsing the new songs, so she asked me to come out and tour as a duo.

It was exciting for me to play such grand venues with such a stripped-down instrumentation. We played Carnegie Hall during that time, and it was a chance to use all the sounds of the double-bass: bowing, harmonics, extended techniques, drumming on the body of the bass. Stuff you don't normally associate with folk music. Recently, the band has expanded to include vibraphonist Mike Dillon and Allison Miller, whose drumming in my band caught Ani's ear. We've been having a good time.

AAJ: Your compositions have very picturesque titles. Do you name them after they're completed, or do you work from the title?

TS: Some of both. The title "Pianos of the 9th Ward" came first. There were upright pianos that ended up underwater in New Orleans after the flooding. I wanted to write something for those pianos. It somehow represents the deep, quiet sadness of the whole catastrophe. "Future Flora" is a title that came afterward. It sounded right. I like titles that give you strong imagery but not a single, specific image. But then some of the titles on this record are real specific. There is a moment in "Invisible Ink, Revealed" when the trumpet and tenor sax are supposed to sound like they're reading the message. It begins at 3:40, if you're curious.

AAJ: How did Tiny Resistors come into being?

TS: Jeff Gauthier and I set out to make a record for his great label Cryptogramophone. My band is really a collective. John Ellis, Josh Roseman, Jenny Scheinman, and Ben Perowsky are all amazing musicians who often play in my band but not yet on any of the records. So instead of trying to pick the best band that hadn't happened yet, I picked the best one that had. I used the record to recreate an exceptional show we had one night at the 55 Bar in New York. The musicians were exactly who you hear on Tiny Resistors, including the violinist and expert whistler Andrew Bird, who happened to be in town from Chicago. That night was one of the first times we used two drummers, and Allison [Miller] and Simon Lott really hit it off. The chemistry of the whole thing seemed worth capturing again, and I'm really thrilled with the results.

AAJ: In composition and arranging, you have a real respect for space. Despite all that's going on, there's never a feeling of clutter, yet it strongly holds together. Spacious, but never ethereal.

TS: That's the intent. Good composing is like good writing. You work hard so that it's easy to read or hear. At every moment your ear should be drawn toward the important stuff. I think it's also part of good mixing. On Tiny Resistors, I just kept tweaking until everything was as clear as I could make it. I hope people get to hear this record on some real expensive speakers. There's details in there that won't pop out on your iPod.

AAJ: Your ear for small touches, like the bells opening "Bye Bye Bees," or the Celeste in "Tiny Resistors," contribute a subtle sonic seasoning resulting in a more memorable musical dish.

Todd SickafooseTS: Thanks. I find it strange that some jazz musicians continue to move toward Monochromatic, like jazz guitarists whose sound is stuck on one flat, dark tone. That is crazy. Or can you imagine being a drummer and not sometimes rethinking the set of five instruments you've been given? Cymbal, hi-hat, snare, bass drum, a tom or two. There's so much more in the world to hit with a stick. So really, I'm more in the jazz tradition of Art Ensemble of Chicago or Keith Jarrett's American Quartet, who exploded open their own instrumentation. To me, texture and rhythm are the most interesting elements of music.

AAJ: Tiny Resistors has certainly garnered some great press. Being lauded in The New York Times and USA Today pretty much kills your underground status. Have you been surprised by the enthusiastic reception?

TS: I wish it were that easy to move above ground and sell lots of records. But the enthusiastic reviews are most welcome, and helping us reach a bigger audience. It's been said that the appeal of my band is not limited to the jazz audience, and I think it's true. But then again, listeners are no more from one genre than musicians are. My hope is that all sorts of listeners will be able to find us.

AAJ: "Black and Tan Fantasy as played by John and Paul" may be the best description yet of your musical vision. In searching for a reference for your sound, many critics point toward Bill Frisell. How do you feel about the comparison?

TS: Bill Frisell is a thinker, a matchmaker, a great bandleader, and a masterful guitar player. I'm honored by the comparison. I think when people say that, they are responding to the openness of the music, the simple melodies, and maybe the fact that I've always had guitarists in my band, often two. Bill Frisell's music is an example of jazz which soaks up everything. The reason it's jazz is because it's instrumental music played with utter spontaneity by gifted improvisers. But it owes as much to folk and rock music as anything else. Maybe that's true of us, too.

AAJ: More and more, it seems like jazz is shifting from an emphasis on a protean soloist to vibrant ensembles where everyone solos and no one solos, to reference Joe Zawinul. Certainly, Cryptogramophone generally, and Jeff Gauthier specifically, feed into that current.

TS: You're right. Yeah, that approach is simply more interesting to me. We still have solos for sure. But they're in there for a reason, not just because it's jazz and that's what you do. It helps to have a tight-knit band. Jeff Gauthier's Goatette has been playing together for almost twenty years. So they just play together.

AAJ: "Pianos of the Ninth Ward" is a very moving piece. Your understating the sadness of it makes it more effective. It's more wistful than tragic.

TS: The great, tragic damage in New Orleans wasn't caused by the loud storm, it Was a result of that quiet—silent—water that came in from Lake Pontchartrain. It's spooky and so sad to think about. The empty city. Instruments inside houses, slowly filling up with clear water. That's what I was thinking about when I wrote "Pianos of the 9th Ward."

Todd SickafooseAAJ: You mention working in larger ensembles. Will the next collection involve a bigger band?

TS: Well, as far as a core band, seven or eight musicians are about all you want. With the right personalities, people sympathetic to all the potential beauties of shifting orchestration, that number is magic. It can feel massive, but also nimble and quick on its feet. More than eight and you enter a realm of diminishing returns, at least with my music. But a huge string section is always sexy. Have you heard Jenny Scheinman's new CD? She rounded up all the great string players in our Brooklyn neighborhood—there are quite a few—and added a veritable string orchestra to her instrumental record, all without having to rob a bank. Hiring a string orchestra is normally an expensive operation.

AAJ: Your plans for the future?

TS: I hope to get my band playing in front of some diverse festival audiences. We are going to tour as much as we can this year. But my main goal is to sell mountains of CDs so that Jeff Gauthier can keep running his great Cryptogramophone label until the end of time. Or possibly longer.

Selected Discography:

Todd Sickafoose, Tiny Resistors (Cryptogramophone, 2008)
Ani DiFranco, Red Letter Year, (Righteous Babe, 2008)
Todd Sickafoose, Blood Orange (Secret Hatch, 2006)
Ani DiFranco, Canon, (Righteous Babe, 2007)
Adam Levy, Loose Rhymes: Live on Ludlow Street (Lost Wax Music, 2007)
Ani DiFranco, Reprieve, (Righteous Babe, 2006)
Ani DiFranco, Knuckle Down, (Righteous Babe, 2005)
Jessica Lurie, Licorice & Smoke(Zipa!Music, 2005)
Scott Amendola, Cry (Cryptogramophone, 2003)
Todd Sickafoose, Dogs Outside (Evander Music, 2000)
Jenny Scheinman, Live at Yoshi's, (Avant, 2000)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Bob Sanderson

Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Cryptogramophone

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