Jan 6, 2013

About Lawson: An Interview with Jacob Zimmerman

We’re kicking the year off right and featuring Tales From the Land of Lawson as album of the month. This means that for the entire month of January, you’ll be able to purchase it for a measly $5! Composed by saxophonist Jacob Zimmerman, the music is woven in patient, melancholic drama. The story of the Lawsonites provides the powerful narrative for this musical journey. For generations, the ancient people of Lawson lived at sea. They traveled and explored without laying anchor, only to suddenly abandon their ships to pursue a nomadic life across the Stawnee Mountain Range. The album is filled with top-notch Bay Area musicians such as Michael Coleman, Dan VanHassel and Dan Good on synthesizers, Matt Ingalls on clarinets, Matt Nelson and Drew Ceccato on tenor sax, Corey Wright on baritone sax and Rob Ewing on trombone. If you haven’t already heard it, now is the perfect time to pick up your very own copy.

Luke Bergman had some questions for Jacob regarding the album, the future of Lawson, and music in general. Here’s what he found out:

Luke Bergman: This is my first time interviewing someone. I’ve been on the other end of it and all I can think of is questions I hate answering.

Jacob Zimmerman: (laughter) Like what?

LB: Let’s see, like: “Explain your music.”

JZ: (laughter)

LB: OK, did you assemble Lawson for the purpose of recording an album or was it a group that you wanted to perform with?

JZ: Definitely perform with. With the original personnel down in the Bay Area I didn’t have recording in mind initially. That’s usually how I work.  I’m not hugely interested in spending a lot of time making records. Mostly I’m interested in being a pretty active performing artist. I designed the music for Lawson to be flexible for a certain range of instrumentations. That kind of consideration has always been important to me, just making it possible to perform easily.

When I recorded the album, ironically that was at the height of my poverty down in the Bay Area. I had no money but I knew I was going to move away from the Bay Area so I wanted to find some way to document it. So I roped my friend the composer and pianist Dan VanHassel into recording and also playing on the album.  He did it for basically nothing, and spent a ton of time on it. We recorded a bunch of material because I had this lofty goal releasing all of it in three volumes. But everything took forever so eventually I just narrowed it down to six tracks.

LB: You were still able to wrangle quite an impressive cast of musicians for that recording.

JZ: Yea.

LB: I’m sure that they were probably equally excited to be a part of a group like that. Were they pretty enthusiastic about the music?

JZ: I think so (laughter). There was no money involved so I don’t think they would have done it otherwise. They’re all so great and accomplished and busy with their own things. I was very honored to get all those guys involved.

LB: Yea. Obviously there’s a lot of improvisation in the album, but it’s really striking the way people are approaching playing in terms of pacing and patience and things like that. How much direction were you giving people regarding to pace to unfold the music?

JZ: Yea, a lot of instruction. That was really the main thing that we had to work on. I’ve found in my experience within free improvisation that there’s a zone that’s very slow and droney and really easy to access. People that are inexperienced I think feel very comfortable in
a very slowed down context. I get really frustrated with that when I’m playing with other people. Not necessarily because the music is slow, but because I feel like the way that individuals start working and responding becomes very slow as well and the mind becomes less sharp. So what I wanted to work on was making music that was very slow and gradually shifting, but that involves real intense concentration on the part of the performers. It requires a certain amount of restraint and focus on being an independent part of the group. Not responding too much to what the rest of the group is doing. It’s a hard balance because everyone is working together to make this group thing, but I wanted to allow for the individuals in the group to have the feeling that they are independently making their own choices about what they’re doing. Although the choices they’re making in the context of Lawson are very limited.

LB: Right.

JZ: It’s not really that much improvisation actually. But it’s music that’s best played by improvisers just because it requires a certain type of concentration that I think is a highly developed skill.

LB: You use the word drone, and I would agree that especially with no drums or traditional rhythm section instruments, and mostly long tone instruments that there is sort of a drone quality to the overall sound. But the music never feels like it’s pulseless, it always feels
like there’s some sort of pulse driving things, even if it’s an abstract pulse. Did you discuss things like rhythm very much in any way with the musicians or was it more just like listening for decision-making and the pulse is just an amalgamation of the group finding each other’s place?

JZ: I’m trying to think…there’s really not a pulse in most things. And of the pieces that do have a pulse I direct the players to play their rhythms more like durations to avoid the sound of an obvious pulse. But it’s interesting that you say that, I think I know what you mean. Maybe it’s just momentum in a way?

LB: I think so.

JZ: The music is slow so that creates a very vertical feeling of time. It feels very static. It changes so slowly that we feel like we’re hovering around the same place the whole time. But the way that the music is constructed is all about the individual parts being very linear. I think it could just be the interaction between a vertical time feeling and the linearity of the material that gives you that feeling.

LB: Yea, what made you want to slow things down like that?

JZ: Partially as a challenge. I like composed music that’s very slow. I really like ballads and Bach chorales. I am really into the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt whose music is often slow and minimal. I was studying Javanese Gamelan music at the time, which is very meditative. Slowness also fits in with this emotional, extra-musical thematic concept for the group, which is that Lawson represents a group of people that have experienced extreme diaspora. Their population was decimated and they had to leave their homeland ages ago, so they have this very mythical and profoundly sad connection to their ancestors.

LB: What came first, was it being inspired by that story or just finding it to be a good allegory for the music in some ways?

JZ: I don’t remember. I think probably both came together at the same time. Now all I remember is how both the story and music have fed off of each other. I’m very interested in melody and in particular the aspect of contour within melody, which I see as a very fundamental aspect of music. So, the contour aspect relates a lot to the story of the Lawsonites being people that are nomadic and constantly moving and dealing with geography and trails and maps. All that has inspired how I write the music.

LB: So you’ve had more performances with a new group of Seattle musicians since then. What are you plans for the future of Lawson?

JZ: I want to perform a lot more. This year my new years resolution is to do at least 6 performances in 2013, one every other month. In the past I’ve tried to do more but it ends up being just too much. For every show I can’t help wanting to do something new and special each time. I like to end each set with a cover. I’ve done stuff by Randy Newman, Arvo Pärt, Sun Ra and, as you know, Heatwarmer!

LB: Are there any new themes or new devices in the new compositions?

JZ: Yea. I’ve started getting really into this thing from Arvo Pärt’s music. I’m working on a massive piece that will probably end up being at least a half hour long. It’s completely through-composed with no improvisation. I’m combining concepts from Arvo Pärt with stuff from Anthony Braxton. Pärt has this concept he calls “Tintinnabuli” where a melody that’s very lyrical and step-wise is always paired with another voice called the “T” voice that follows the same contour but just uses notes from a minor triad. The “T” voice can have a different proximity to the melody, above or below. The idea is that the melody is very free and linear while the “T” voice is inherently more circular and stable.

I love the concept and have been trying to create an atonal version of that which is where the Anthony Braxton influence comes in. Braxton has described a lot of his Ghost Trance Music from the last 20 years as being “Sonic Geometry.” I want to incorporate some of the abstraction and complexity from Braxton’s approach into the systematic Tintinnabuli concept.

So that’s what’s going on, I’m writing this big piece. And then, since a lot of the Lawson stuff is really soft I have this vision of doing a lot more loud stuff and achieving the same sort of rich ensemble blend where all the instruments aren’t always very distinct. I keep having this dream of what a Phil Spector-produced Lawson album would be like. I’ve written a couple test things in that vein but I’m still thinking about it.

LB: So Roscoe Mitchell is composing a new version of his legendary piece “Nonaah” for Lawson for the June 7th concert at the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall. What has your collaboration with him been like so far? Is he adapting a lot of these devices and goals that you’re talking about with the band into the composition?

JZ: He actually just sent the score to me and I haven’t looked at it closely yet. I know it’s largely based off of this recent version he’s done for chamber orchestra. When I studied with Roscoe at Mills College he was very interested in Lawson. When we first started rehearsing I mentioned it to him and he said “Tell me when, I want to come listen. I’m not going to let you leave me behind, I need to know what’s going on.” So he’s familiar with the project.

The version of Nonaah for four alto saxophones was a huge influence on the initial concept for Lawson. In particular the second section, which is all very slow, atonal counterpoint. Just that one chunk of that one piece was a huge inspiration.

LB: So the album “Tales From the Land of Lawson” is the featured album for Table & Chairs in January which means it’s on sale. Do you feel like there’s anything that people need to know about the music or anything that would prepare them for understanding it or getting the full experience? Or do you feel like it’s something that you can immediately hear it and understand what it’s about?

JZ: That’s a good question. I don’t normally think too much about how people will consume stuff…

LB: Which is good.

JZ: I guess (laughter).

LB: Maybe, I don’t know. I think it’s good.

JZ: Yea. Well, I think I’m purposefully just as good a person to guide someone in the listening of the album as you are or somebody else that has heard it before. It’s hard to tell people how and what they should look for.

LB: True.

JZ: To me the album has a lot of variety. It’s a survey of the ways in which the basic concepts of the music can be realized. It’s starts very slowly one note at a time, and ends up with “Precipice” which has a lot of polyphony, intensity and complexity.

The album follows a dramatic arc which tells the history of the Lawsonites. I didn’t originally plan on that, and actually none of the pieces had titles until the very end of the process. So the titles were tailored to help tell the story. It’s definitely good to listen to the whole thing from start to finish.

I think what I was hoping for with the music on a very basic level was just that people could listen to it and with the suggestion of the titles and the story of the Lawsonites, be able to listen to the music and let the music create images in their mind. It’s not something too specific. I just want to make music that is very visual in its own way.

LB: What music are you really excited about right now? What do you think is cutting-edge, new cool stuff that’s happening?

JZ: Besides Table & Chairs!? Well, I’m not really in a stage where I’m seeking out a lot of new stuff. I’m pretty involved with learning about older music.

LB: That reminds me of something that John Coltrane said in an interview from 1966 when he was really starting to explore outer-limit stuff. He said he’s mostly focusing on strengthening his roots, so at the same time as he’s moving forward with this new kind of music he’s also trying to strengthen the base of where he’s coming from. Would you say that’s kind of a parallel to where you’re at? Pushing forward requires strengthening some basic understanding…

JZ: Definitely. One of my personal artistic needs is to feel a part of something that’s much bigger than myself. I wouldn’t necessarily call it tradition because I don’t prescribe to having to do things the way they were done before. But the way I see it I’m always looking for
substance in music and art. I feel that with older stuff, history and time refines and brings to light those things that really have a life of their own artistically. I think that’s what really influences me a lot.

It’s not always something that’s always very tangible, but for example the thing with melody in Lawson. If we talk about music being comprised of harmony, rhythm and melody, I would say that melody is by far the least tangible and most abstract of the three. Rhythm is inherently very mathematical and harmony has a lot of theory and science attached to it. Melody to me seems to have a lot of stuff that is not scientific. And melody in Western music is super old and predates harmony. I just find melody and counterpoint infinitely more interesting than harmony. That’s what’s new and cutting-edge and inspiring to me!

To answer the question more literally, within Seattle I really like Gust Burns’s music because he deals a lot with the same conceptual things like verticality and linearity in music. He’s doing it in a totally different way than I’m dealing with it, but I think conceptually we have a lot in common.

I’m also really into that band Rats from Los Angeles. I’ve always wanted to cover a Rats song.

LB: That’s some pretty mysterious music to me.

JZ: Exactly.

LB: I love it though!

JZ: Yea it’s weird stuff. There’s definitely a connection between their music and Lawson.

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