avant magazine interview (2001)

Interview with Vittorio LoConte for AVANT magazine.
This interview was conducted in April 2001 and published in the Autumn 2001 issue #20.

avant magazine
photos by Danielle George and Lyn German

I would like to start this interview with a question about your trio and the record you have made with them, “Mural”. How did you come to this recording?
The compositions I wrote for MURAL were part of a natural evolution. My work is a spiritual autobiography: virtuosic and meditative, emotionally intense yet structurally rigorous.

How much work is behind it?
There is a lot of work behind MURAL. A lot of work and a lot of fun. Each composition has its own unified concept of pitch material. I spent a lot of time improvising with the material until themes began to emerge. Composition is not forced or part of a craft, this is an organic process that happens in real time: literally playing with the materials. After a certain amount of time, images, moods, colors and emotions begin to form. Then a spirit creature becomes apparent. Some people call this the muse. Then it is a matter of maintaining a connection with the muse and to just let the muse guide you. Once I am familiar with the elements of a composition I can tap into it at anytime and jump into the world that the muse is part of. After I was familiar with the compositions, I began to rehearse as a duo with the bassist J Brunka. We’d get together 3 or 4 times a week and improvise with this music. Simultaneously, I was getting together with the drummer Ryan Sawyer a few times a week. Also just to play duo. We spent a lot of time listening to his drums and cymbals to determine the pitches that each piece had. The cymbals had 3, 4, 5 or more pitches, which made up some really beautiful chords, and we used those with the harmony that J and I explored. After about 3 months, we began getting together as a trio. We played as a trio a few times a week all the while doing gigs in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia and 2 months later we recorded the CD.

Is there in it some composition which you would describe as representative of your own way to music?
The first thing that comes to mind is that Caesar has some good results. But you know… it’s been a while since I have listened to MURAL and when I reflect on each tune, I am fond of certain aspects of each piece. Each composition explores concepts that are unique to that composition. As a guitarist the music moves on the guitar in a fun way. The combinations of intervals that are used in these compositions are uncommon to jazz guitar and might be unprecedented.

For a piece to be well suited for the guitar, tactile concepts are almost as important as acoustic ones. When I learn phrases from saxophonists or a pianist I not only learn the notes, rhythms and accents but I also devise fingering’s that are well suited and also fun to play on the guitar. Likewise, my own compositions for the guitar fall under the fingers easily despite the fact that my fingers may appear to be functioning in a peculiar yogic contortion. My left hand functions naturally, with natural opening and closing movements. A well-formed guitar work produces physical pleasure.

At the same time, the rhythms that are used are full of energy and charged with accents that provide a strong forward momentum. The super-fast tempos that I have been exploring over the past few years come from an “elementary pulse”. This goes into the notion of movement. A sense of movement evolves from the pulse. The music is the manifestation of the magic of the movement.

The magic lies in giving value to that which is usually despised. Being an ear player I learned guitar by listening to and learning the parts of other guitarists. After a while you realize all of the material that is NOT being explored by guitarists. So I take the forsaken material and give it value. Vision rather than subject matter becomes supreme. In this way it becomes a search for truth.

Is there some difference when you work with a pianist or a horn player?
Sure, every musician has stuff that defines who they are. Their sound, rhythms, accents, phrases, strengths and weaknesses in certain registers, you know, you key into that stuff. Hopefully, every collaboration illuminates something new. I have recently had the opportunity to work with Cecil Taylor. He is really different. His sense of balance and proportion of materials is unique and he uses chord voicings that are richly resonant. I have to be very alert to subtle shifts in mood, tempo, and emotion not to mention the altered tones in key centers. At least that’s my way of interacting. Some guitarists complain about how difficult it is to work with pianists, or vice-versa, but for me man; I really dig working with the talented ones.

I have collaborated with many more horn players than pianists: David Murray, Mark Whitecage, Howard Johnson, Sabir Mateen, Michael Attias, Daniel Carter, Rob Brown, JD Parren, Jim Ryan, Jimmy Stewert. There again, the above concepts apply but in some ways, there are even more things to consider. Being a guitarist, I find that I have to be careful of the harmonic material that is introduced. Some players feel that when a chord is introduced that they must outline the harmony with their own single note melodies. Free introduction of harmonic materials from the guitar stresses some players out. They might feel like they are getting pushed into regions they weren’t ready to go into. The more experienced players allow and welcome the independent flow of ideas. When I use chords it’s often to establish a sound mass or to illuminate a polytonal color or to energize the rhythm.

Do you intend to continue working with bass and drums or you would like to try other musical solutions?
I really enjoy the sounds of different instruments particularly when played by musicians whose sound I enjoy. For years I have been involved with projects that involve uncommon instrumentation. This sheds new light on the guitar. By association, other instruments bring out the subtle colors of the guitar.

I made a CD called ASHES, which is scheduled for release in July 2001 on the Freedom Jazz label. This CD features 12 other musicians: David Murray (b cl), Matt Maneri (vln), Badal Roy (tabla), Jeribu Shahid (b), Bob Moses (d), Edgar Bateman (d), Todd Margasak (cornet), Felix Sanabria (perc), Michael Sotolongo (perc), Mark Weinstein (flt), Edward Rollin (eng hn), John Clark (fr hn). Only one track features everyone performing at once. The remaining tracks are various breakdowns of instrumentation. There are some rather unusual combinations. These musicians are some of my favorite guys in the world.

Back in February OPIUM made a record for CIMP. OPIUM is a co-led band with David Taylor on bass trombone, Michael Attias on baritone sax and alto sax and Jay Rosen on drums. Now this band is something else. We are really exploring the LOW sounds. I am playing a 20-year-old Ibanez Champion acoustic guitar on a few tracks and this provokes a different response from the other musicians in contrast to when I am using the Fender Stratocaster.

In the eighties the so called Free-Funk introduced a new season for the jazz-guitar, was that style of importance in your musical development?
What do you mean by Free-Funk?

James “Blood” Ulmer, the records on DIW with his Music Revolution Ensemble or with David Murray, or the records on Columbia by Arthur Blythe in the ’70 with Kelvin Bell, or the last James Carter on Atlantic.
I like Blood and Kelvin Bell but I never heard their music, at least consciously, until 3 or 4 years ago. In 1987 I made a deliberate decision to not listen to other guitarists. This motivated me to learn about the concepts that informed other instrumentalists and to integrate non-guitaristic sounds. Kelvin Bell, Aurther Blythe and David Murray have all recorded for CIMP by the way. I heard Ornette Coleman with Prime Time in the mid-80′s and I really dug that band: more for the sonic experiment of sound mass and how naturally Ornette’s unique sound interacted with the colors and rhythms.

In 1993, while living in Philadelphia, I was playing with an 8-piece band, Near Fatal Funk. That band was experimental though there was a strong funk groove. Maybe it was free-funk… a few years later acid-jazz was in vogue. So go figure. Labeling the band wasn’t a consideration. My association at the time was early 70′s Miles Davis. NFF was the last band I played in where I used a lot of effect pedals. It was fun but the sets became a bit too predictable. My ears were stretching out into other areas and I wanted to spend my time developing other concepts.

Miles Davis was really important for me. I enjoy all of his phases and developments, I mean he was an artist who seemed to be interested in searching and he seemed to hire musicians who felt likewise. His Bitches Brew period is still exciting and I got turned onto that in my mid-teens. I was probably 14 when I checked that out. On The Corner scared the shit out of me when I heard it. I mean it, I was living in the basement of my parent’s place and by the time Black Satin came on… there were unseen forces visiting and the hair on the back of my neck stood up.

Who were the players you felt had something in common with your goals as a musician?
John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner, Pat Martino, John McLaughlin, I mean Christ, there are so many. Duke Ellington, Monk, oh man Monk. Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday – you know her phrasing and really subtle glissando, Albert Ayler, Andrew Hill, Bud Powell, Art Tatum and of course Charlie Parker – he and Trane and Miles were the first horn players I tried to play along with. There are so many fine musicians. Goals as a musician? There are so many goals – musical, aesthetic, extra-musical – it’s intertwined with your life, cause you know at the end of the day you gotta live with yourself so it became, for me, “What kind of man do you want to be?” Anyway, the people I have already mentioned, and many that I haven’t, remain heroic because of their perseverance and devotion to the development of their concept level.