Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On the Sofa #3 with Rachel Musson

On the Sofa with Rachel Musson 
Saxophonist RACHEL MUSSON has played with Mary Halvorson, Sebastian Rochford, Gail Brand and many others. She has released one album with her ensemble, Skein, the critically acclaimed Flight-Line, and has also recorded with NewYork based drummer Federico Ughi and Caroline Kraabel’s Mass Producers. She is currently working with Danish saxophonist and flautist Julie Kjaer. Tatterdemalion (Babel 2013) is the debut album of Musson's Trio with Liam Noble and Mark Sanders.The result is an in-your-face electrifying, completely free workout, by a deep-thinking free-improv threesome engrossed in energetic dialogue. Tatterdemalion was chosen by All About Jazz’s Mark Corroto as one of the Best Releases Of 2013 and an album of the year by New York City Jazz Record.

Listen to and buy Tatterdemalion on the Babel web site here

KATAN500: Favourite colour?
RACHEL: Green. I think. Yes.
KATAN500: Jazz is  in 150 words...
RACHEL: An inconvenient category, an attitude, and approach, probably not what most people think it is…hmmm
KATAN500: Fruit salad or black jacks?
RACHEL: Definitely fruit salad. I’m not sure what a black jack is.
KATAN500: See here...
So  where would you like to go on holiday?

RACHEL: I’m currently looking forward to a trip I’m planning to Thailand to study Thai massage. I’ve studied it before, but I’m hoping to brush up on skills and learn plenty of new ones. I suspect it's more of a lifelong task than this statement suggests. All the best things are. I’m also hoping to take a saxophone and find somewhere to play. Is that a holiday?

KATAN500: As long as extended loafing is a substantial part of it...

RACHEL:  I’d also like to make it back to New York in the not too distant future to hook up
with a few musicians who’ve suggested playing. Is that a holiday?

KATAN500: Hmm. Well how do you relax?

RACHEL: I’m not so good at this. Relatively lengthy silent mediation retreats seem to be the only thing that does the trick for me at the moment! Otherwise yoga helps a lot.

KATAN500: Last book you read?

RACHEL: Ouch! I’ve had my head in various anatomy books for what feels like forever…and yoga
and mediation books. I guess it might be ‘The Solitude of Thomas Cave’ by
Georgina Harding – a fictional story set in the 1600s of a man choosing to overwinter alone in the artic. I’m currently making a belated new years resolution to read more fiction.

KATAN500: Is 'Jazz' dead?

RACHEL: Pass! I hate this question/debate. It feels a bit irrelevant. I know you’re asking it because
it’s such a well-worn question. There are so many amazing musicians out there making amazing
 music….much of which defies genre these days. So it doesn’t really matter whether ‘jazz’ is dead.
There’s plenty of inspiring music happening. The whole financial situation that surrounds it is
another matter, though.

KATAN500: So creatively no, but financially yes ...something like that? Do you have another job...besides musician?

RACHEL: I teach part-time in various guises. I teach saxophone at the City Lit, a place I really love.
And, I also specialize in working with music with children with autism and other special needs.
But more recently I’ve trained as a yoga teacher and am currently completing a course in sports
and remedial massage. So I sense, even if it’s a distant future, a change afoot in terms of how I
support my more creative pursuits. I think I’d be particularly interested in working with musicians who might use bodywork to address the various postural problems that come from repetitive practice, or even stress and stage fright… Watch this space.

KATAN500: What was the last piece of music you listened to?

RACHEL: Well, I’m just back from a very lovely few days in Cornwall as part of the Sound and
Music Portfolio scheme, and each night we had a listening session where people brought a couple of tracks to share with the group. It was a great way of finding some new music to listen to. [Katan500: Care to comment on it...] A couple of things were particularly memorable for me – Sidsel Endresen being one, and the Arcado String Trio. Specifically an album they did with a clarinet trio called ' Green Dolphy Suite' (on Enja). So I’m really looking forward to checking out a few things over the coming weeks.

KATAN500: Where were you last seen / heard?

RACHEL: Apart from the Sound and Music thing, it was a week or so ago with Alan Tomlinson,
Dave Tucker and Jim Lebaigue at Alan Wilkinson’s wonderful Flimflam night in Stokey.
I was supposed to make it to the recent London Improvisers Orchestra gig – I so love this band, but the February malaise got the better of me.

KATAN500: No-one asks a man what's it like being a man playing jazz, but I feel somewhat compelled to put the question to you....

RACHEL: Oh no. The question. This might have to be a separate Q+A! Looking back, I think the lack of
role models early on was an issue. [katan500: I would never have heard of pianist Hazel Scott if I hadn't been doing research on black women's hairstyles in the 1940s]. I thought things would have got better than they are by now. There is some improvement out there in terms of numbers of female musicians, but not massive. I’ve had a few less than pleasant experiences in the past, but I think the greatest challenge is an
internal one – the stories held by your mind. And these are probably different for each female musician. And maybe the younger generation of musicians has less to shake off. I don’t know. And it can get a bit boring turning up for a gig and being the only woman in the room – both on stage and in the audience. It still happens now occasionally.

KATAN500: Since reviewers (almost all) are male how do you think your compositions are received. Do you think there is an attempt to be gender-neutral? What do you think when you see words like 'in-your-face' and 'hardcore', 'screams and wails like a drunken ghost'? Language as part of culture reproduces signs that evoke certain stereotypes: is the same language or nuances used to describe the work of male composers? I'm just wondering if to use terms such as 'hardcore' 'in your face' you are being accepted as one of the boys...

RACHEL: A tricky question. I do think many reviewers to try to be gender neutral. I don’t think the use of the words’ in-your-face’ has any gender reference to them except if, of course, they are used with an element of surprise or followed up with a reference to gender. The only time I’ve really felt a gender reference in a review was when a fellow female musician and I were playing in a trio with a male musician, and myself and the other female musician were very patronisingly referred to as ‘his ladies’.  Am I being accepted as one of the boys? I don’t know. But I don’t feel any need to be ‘accepted as one of the boys,’ certainly now I’m getting older and with it getting less self-conscious and in need of acceptance. Obviously I desire respect, as most people do, from fellow musicians and listeners. I understand that hardness can be seen as a masculine quality. But everyone, if you are going to think like that, has a range of masculine and feminine qualities. Maybe it’s interesting that reviewers have picked up on the harder aspects of my playing…I do think I play soft as well. It’s not a decision, though, it’s just what happens. When I’m improvising I try to switch off that conscious mind, or at least turn it down, and let things run their course. Maybe if I lived somewhere a bit less frenetic there’d be less ‘drunken ghost’ in my playing!

KATAN500: What's a wonderful, creative experience for you? And what might be the
ingredients that let that happen?

 RACHEL: Hmmmm… I quite like the unexpected. That thing where you hook up with someone for
a play and end up having a great time. It’s nice to be surprised, and to be pushed out of your
comfort zone. On this recent Sound and Music weekend, for example, I did some playing with
electronic musicians Shelley Knotts and Shaun Blezard. I’ve worked a little with electronic musicians
in the past, but not a huge amount, and it’s great to be challenged by totally new sound worlds
and tempos of working (it sort of felt slower and larger scale). And then, of course, there’s the
opposite, when you hook up with someone who you’ve been playing with for years, and all that
shared experience feeds into a feeling of great comfort and trust.
KATAN500: Which was your most challenging piece of work?

RACHEL: I think when I was a student a classical composer presented me with a soprano part that was
 wall to wall scored multiphonics that he’d copied out of a book and had no idea how difficult
it would actually be to produce.

KATAN500: What’s the best compliment you’ve received?

RACHEL: I have to say I’m particularly fond of Jack Chuter’s quote from his blog on experimental music that goes something like, ‘reminiscent of a cold car engine refusing to start.’ There was also the chap who got pissed at a duo gig by myself and Julie Kjaer who said that we sounded like ‘syncopated farts’. Doesn’t get much better than that really.

KATAN500: Who / what are your musical influences? I’ve seen Evan Parker mention a few times...

RACHEL: Really – who mentioned Evan? Evan is rather fantastic, of course. When I think of influences I think of people I was listening to a long time ago. Otherwise I suppose everyone and everything is an influence at the moment. There’s so much amazing stuff happening in London. Way back when Lee Konitz was a huge influence on me. His later work. As was early Coltrane. Fairly straight ahead stuff really. I hugely loved Dexter Gordon. And Art Pepper – talking about when I was a teenager now, and both the European and American Keith Jarrett quartets. Around that same time I was also listening to some great British musicians – Bobby Wellins, Julian Arg├╝elles, Geoff Simkins, Iain Ballamy. And then much more recently I have to confess to a bit of a Mats Gustafsson phase. And Brotzmann. Oh…and the list could go on.

KATAN500: John Fordham said that you were a hot ticket for 2011 after the release of Skein's Flight Line, which was closer to idiomatic jazz and folk music, but the emphasis for Tatterdemalion  is on collective free improv suggesting that you have moved off jazz's centre ground, how would you now characterize your current musical interest? Where do you 'position' yourself?

RACHEL: My current musical interest is still definitely improvisation. I’m thoroughly enjoying the freedom it’s given me, and a sense of really beginning to find myself in the music. But I do think at some point I might venture back towards jazz (whatever that is) or composed music. There’s an art to writing compositions that promote freedom rather than writing the musicians into a corner that I haven’t cracked yet. I’d like to try crack it! [Katan500: How do you see the role of melody?] I like melody... I like melody in improv. I think/hope we’ve got past the stage of it being terribly unfashionable. I actually particularly like slightly cheesy (or heartfelt?!) melodies and simple harmonies with the odd twist and turn.

KATAN500: Tatterdemalion received a fair amount of attention – interesting title meaning a demented marvel comic villan right... what made you choose this?  How did the collaborative process work?

RACHEL: Well…I initially wanted to call it Disco Duck! [Katan: Flight Line featured some fine ducks on the album cover... got a thing about ducks then...]. But unsurprisingly that title wasn’t approved by the
others, so it somehow ended up as Tatterdemalion. There’s something slightly decrepit about the sound of the album, something reminiscent of a worn out fairground ride. And tatterdemalion was a title I found that somehow personified that. The recording was literally a get into the room and play affair.The collaborative process was (and is) what happens when we play together on gigs. Maybe that sounds obvious, but I think we thrash things out musically... [Katan500: ...a collective thrash...] rather than round a table in a discursive sort of way.

KATAN500: Is there some sort of etiquette that you follow e.g. do you decide how much time you
each it about striking a balance, or is it about democracy? Do you see any politics (with small p) in the way musicians collaborate in free improv – is it egalitarian in form, a dismantling of power structures?

RACHEL: Yes – definitely a dismantling of structures. It certainly throws out the age-old structures normally associated with more ‘conventional’ jazz. That’s a major attraction for me. There is probably some kind of unwritten/unspoken etiquette, but I’m not so sure what that is. I guess a bit like how there’s etiquette when you go to the pub with some friends, but you don’t necessarily spend the first fifteen minutes establishing what that is. You allow people some space, work with them, challenge them a little, and establish a way of communicating.

KATAN500: Have you started work on a new album?

RACHEL: No, not yet! Although there’s this trip with Hannah and Julie that’s recording this week.
I have a little seed of an idea for another album that’s just starting to take a little bit of shape.

KATAN500: Who is your ideal partner (however you choose to interpret)?

RACHEL: Ha! So, as it’s just a couple of days to Valentines’ Day, I’m going to let you know
what I’ve got planned…Alto saxophonist Julie Kjaer, cellist Hannah Marshall and I are going to spend a few hours in the early evening recording. Can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing on the 14th Feb!

KATAN500: Would you be unfaithful to your sax, or flirt with another instrument?

RACHEL: Yep – I gave up saxophone for a good chunk of time when I was in my twenties – bit
of a long story, perhaps eight years, but I took up accordion as a way of keeping
myself musically engaged. I have to confess it defeated me, though – it’s so hard!

KATAN500: What made you chose sax?

RACHEL: Not really sure – probably something terribly unromantic like hearing it at school.

KATAN500:  What gigs have you got coming up?

RACHEL: I’m very much looking forward to an upcoming gig with Alex Ward’s new quintet and sextet at the Vortex on the 5th of March. He’s written this really great piece that totally cracks the composition/improvisation balance I was talking about. And I’ve a couple of gigs with the trio with Liam and Mark – in Derby on 12th March, and London (e17 jazz) on the 26th. I’m also getting to play a couple of times in what’s a regular duo with bassist Olie Brice, including at Arch 1 on the 25th Feb. And then there’s this 8-piece saxophone group that’s starting to come to life. Saxoctopus. I think we’re going to do a couple of pieces alongside Trio Riot at the Vortex on the 24th March as a way of getting the whole thing off the ground.

KATAN500: I shall look forward to seeing you at the Vortex Jazz Club. Thank you for being an excellent sofa buddy...

Other reviews for Tatterdemalion

John Fordham  (The Guardian) 13/6/13

Glen Astarita (All About Jazz) 11/9/13

Bebop Spoken Here 12/5/13

Tomajazz 2/5/13