My Conversation with Aaron Siegel Part 1: Making Frankenstein Move

(reprinted by permission from the Carnegie Hall Blog.)

Aaron Siegel: I want to talk about process. I was struck in the video that you did with Rogerio [Boccato, percussionist] that we started to see a little bit of your working process. I was really fascinated by that. Probably if Charlie Parker were alive now, he would have a computer, he would have his ProTools setup, and he would be at home writing these pieces and recording them and listening back to them and seeing how they fit over each other.

The meticulousness with which you're developing these works struck me. There's a process of layering and organizing, and it's not a pen-and-paper process from the beginning. It's much more like playing around with puzzle pieces. From your standpoint, how does that ultimately affect what the music sounds like? How intentional are you about that process?

Ben Allison: It is intentional. It's an interesting process. It has changed over the years, but I think I've been on somewhat of a constant trajectory since the mid-'90s. I’ve always been interested in playing with genre and mixing and matching sounds.

Back in the day, I had this antiquated system involving tape decks and little keyboards that you could pre-program, but these days I work mostly with Logic (a music sequencing and recording program). For me, composition is a multi-step process. Usually, it starts is with a germ of an idea—just a sound, or maybe a reference to a particular genre or player. Maybe it's something taken out of my experience improvising with my colleagues. Something interesting happens spontaneously and then I make a mental note or try to capture it on tape so that I revisit it and use it as a jumping off point.

It's hard to say where the interesting ideas come from. A lot of it is trial and error. This is where the computer comes in because it allows me to layer up different timbres and tonalities. It's not just about the notes at this stage. It's more a question of what I’m alluding to with a particular sound. Then I have to get together with other musicians and work it out, see what sounds good. What I eventually end up with is a very basic score, what we call lead sheets. They have bare-bones information. What's not notated is actually the meat of the tune. All of the genre references, all of the textures and musical concepts are best conveyed through rehearsal and actually talking about it and figuring it out together.

Recently, I had a basic beat conceived for a new tune, which I worked out on the computer. But, of course, I'm not going to use my ProTools or Logic samples on a concert. I have to see what actually works in the real world, what actually sounds good. Rogerio will bring over his set of tambourines, so I'm hearing tambourine on this tune and it's connected with the drum part. Things like that are actually rather specific. The only way to know for sure what works is to try it in rehearsal. All this stuff seems very antithetical to improvisation, but the point is that once we have these sounds and this landscape mapped out and the musicians have an idea about what the landscape looks, feels, sounds, and smells like, then they're free to explore within it. Then we're at the point where we're improvising and playing around with those ideas. The actual construction part is collaborative, and then of course the actual performance of something is totally collaborative. It’s very important to leave enough room for spontaneity, for people to engage in a conversation.

Aaron Siegel: It's interesting you say that. Recently, we interviewed Christina Pluhar of L'Arpeggiata, who reminded us that with early music, it's a case of, "Here are a few notes. Now you go and do the rest." It's exactly the same as you described it. Over the centuries, every space has been filled in with notes and directions by composers, but it started out with, "Here's your sheet. Go away and play."

Ben Allison: It's called folk music. As a matter of fact, it has always existed. It has been probably the predominant form of music on earth, because most people just play. Most people don't go to conservatories and study towards the goal of eventually playing. They just play right from the start and figure things out as they go along. Even in the classical world and the jazz world, where you have people who are very accomplished musicians, my hope is that they still have that mindset, that they're still collaborating and figuring things out as they go. Part of being a composer is knowing when not to say anything, and that's often my most gratifying moment, when I've written something that's a nice jumping-off point but then one of the musicians in the band has an idea that's much better than what I was envisioning, and all of a sudden the tune is so much cooler. It's easy to take credit for those moments. But in reality, the musicians have so much to do with that. They're the ones who put meat on the bones and make Frankenstein move.

Aaron Siegel: You have nine or ten records now as a leader, which is a pretty significant catalog. One of the things that was really interesting to me was that up until this point each of the records was mostly your music with one or two covers. Then with your latest record—Action/Refraction—it suddenly goes totally to covers. I use that term loosely, because I think what you're doing is actually a much more sophisticated and much more inventive response.

Ben Allison: Yes, most of my albums to this point have been centered around my original compositions. That’s an important part of how I define myself as a musician. But I’ve also recorded music by legends such as Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill, John Lennon, Neil Young as well as some of my colleagues like Michael Blake and Steve Cardenas (both of whom will be performing with me at the upcoming Carnegie Hall concert).

These are composers whose music I really admire, people whose music strikes a chord. It's a chemical thing. I think the same thing that draws me to playing with Steve and Michael also draws me to listening to those other musicians. There's something in their music that on the one hand feels deeply personal to them but on the other hand feels familiar. Even if I've never heard it before, emotionally it gets me right away. I sometimes get this feeling when I'm listening to someone else's music where I wish I had written it. With some tunes that I hear, I feel almost envious of the composer. I think "I wish I had written that. I almost could have written that, because it sounds so much like something I would want to write.

Aaron Siegel: Is that where the "refraction" metaphor comes in? Do you see the band refracting these other things?


Ben Allison: The light's coming in and being split into its component parts. I'm a science nerd, so that's how I think about things. It's about taking the music apart and seeing what it's made out of. That's the "refraction" part. The "action" part is reassembling it in our own way and trying to find something new to say with it, using the constituent parts of the music as jumping off points.

I call it a covers album because that gives people some kind of a context, but I think it's a little bit more than just covering someone else's music. I try to put my own stamp on it. I tend to be somewhat irreverent as a person, at least when it comes to music. As much as I love these great musicians, I also feel that part of the responsibility of any artist is to try to bring something new and personal to what they do. We have to be a little bit fearless in that regard.

Taking something like a Donny Hathaway tune, especially something like "Someday We'll All Be Free," and taking it apart and rebuilding it in a totally new way is risky. It feels in one way exhilarating and in another way terrifying—because I admire his music so much, and my greatest fear would be that a relative would call me up and say they hated what I did with his music. At the same time I feel like it's our responsibility. Jazz musicians have always been a restless bunch. They've always been the kind of artists that like to push boundaries, taking elements of other styles and reusing them. The tradition of jazz is non-traditionalism, in my opinion.

Aaron Siegel: I'm thinking about how much the notion of the cover has been a part of the jazz tradition.

Ben Allison: In that era, Charlie Parker's "tunes" were really solos that he liked and codified into melodies that he could do more than once. He would take the pop tunes of the day, get rid of the melody, and use the harmony as a jumping off point for a solo. Then, when he played a solo that he really liked, he'd write that down, and that became the tune. It was totally connected with modern American Songbook material.

Jazz at its core is a folk music in that regard—at least it should be. It should be connected to what's happening now. It's our responsibility as jazz musicians to keep it relevant, and the way you do that is either write the new standards or use the new standards as a jumping off point.

Aaron Siegel: An interesting responsibility for musicians is the decisions they make about what songs to cover.

Ben Allison: That was actually part of the challenge I set for myself—"Can I take a Samuel Barber piece [St. Ita's Vision] and put it right next to a punk rock-era PJ Harvey tune [Missed]?" Hopefully we were successful. I like the idea. It's almost a collage approach to writing.

I think a lot of jazz musicians of my generation think about improvisation a little bit differently than in the early days. To continue with Charlie Parker, in those days (as I said) they would have a set of chord changes and a soloist would improvise a melody over the top of them. Their melodies were a language that they were developing—they're connected to that time and that era. A lot of jazz musicians of today are thinking more in terms of soloing with a genre. While the notes continue to be important, they're not our focal point. We're really thinking about genre as the basic building blocks that we can use to improvise over.

What we call jazz has expanded to include almost anything you can think of. The one thing that stays constant is this notion of improvisation. What we're improvising now is playing with genre and using premeditated composition and spontaneous composition as our tool. Spontaneous composition is basically a fancy word for improvising.