Below are links to interviews with Kevin Norton that contain a wealth of information about his approach to music, performing, the music business, composition and the role of music in society. All interviews are reprinted by permission of the authors.
1) Are there fundamental rules or guidelines to performing free jazz drumming?
The "role" of drumming, period, is maybe where we should begin. Is it a time keeping, supportive role? Is it an equal voice in a counterpoint texture? I think it's all of the above. Some of my favorite drumming is by Barry Altchul on Braxton's record, Five Pieces 1975. It's everything: it's soft, sensitive, sparse, coloristic like classical music and it's ferocious, propulsive "jazz" drumming like Art Blakey or Roy Haynes. The term "free jazz," or at least what it has become, bothers me a little. I guess it bothers me because it implies that there is no basis for the improvisations or that people are free NOT to listen to the other players. In a sense, the beginnings of what became termed as free jazz, was a return to collective improvisation, a concept that had been increasing dropped from post Louis Armstrong jazz. I think in collective improvisation your ears, your listening skills, should be on a higher level than in a soloist/rhythm section context. Really my point is that these divisions are blurred and have been for quite some time.
2) What were you listening to at the age of ten, when you first started playing?
Around the age of ten I was listening to a lot of different styles of music. My father worked for Columbia records. So, in the house, there were records of Monk, Miles, Harry Partch, Moondog, the Chambers Brothers, the Moby Grape, Charles Lloyd, Ornette Coleman, Beethoven... they were all equals to me, maybe because their recordings were all the same size, LP size, you know?
3) Where are you from/what is your birthdate?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, USA, January 21, 1956. When I was around five or six years old my family moved out to Staten Island, NY. That's where my childhood took place.
4) Your first teachers were? Milt Hinton and Barry Altchul were also a part of your early development, what did you learn from each?
> My very first teacher, Mike Sgroi, worked in a music store a couple of blocks away, near the Staten Island Rapid Transit station. Mike was definitely a jazz head. Again, I was listening to a lot of records, so the records were also my teachers. I only took a couple of lessons with Barry, maybe two or three and then I got very sick and had to stop everything for a while. He was out of the country by the time I got better and that was that, we just drifted apart. But I think one of the first questions I asked him was something like your first question "what is free time?" or "how do you play free time"? And he described the relative time or tempo as a circle or clock and that that circle can be divided many different ways, but everyone in the group is back at 12, for instance, at about the same time, even though how you got there was totally different. Or another way of putting it is that the time or tempo is implied, not obviously stated. We also played together him on piano and me on drums. He was very generous with his time. Milt Hinton was/is very important to me. He opened up a whole world to me. Before meeting Milt, I listened to jazz and practiced but after I got to know him he would take me around to recording sessions and gigs I got to see all the "other stuff." He really thought it was important that musicians, especially rhythm section players, be versatile craftsmen. I got the impression that he felt this way maybe for two reasons: 1) if you can only play one "style" of music, you're probably not interested in relating to people different from yourself and therefore closing down instead of opening up, 2) to be able to adapt, so that you can financially survive as a musician. I think it would have been very easy for Milt to go the way of other jazz musicians; burn out, become bitter. He realized that he had a lot of positive energy to offer to people. He was a jazz educator, and music documenter before anyone else jumped on the band wagon. He was also generous with his time. I would also consider Kenny Washington a teacher, informally.
5) You developed a reputation as a strong mallet player, how did you acquire this skill?
I started to play xylophone when I went to Hunter College, where I met Milt Hinton. My good friend, Tony Sbordoni, said "why don't you take it home for the summer?" and I started at the very beginning: scales, arpeggios, sight reading of easy tunes. It was kind of humbling at first because I was already playing gigs with Milt Hinton as a drummer, and already arranging for my first jazz ensemble, but I wanted to be able to understand what saxophone players were dealing with playing my arrangements. I could basically hear what I wanted to write but I couldn't play it on an instrument, yet. So I studied with some serious classical players from Julliard, worked hard, got into the Masters program at Manhattan School of Music and studied with Bill Molenhof, a jazz vibraphone player who had a totally different take on playing the mallet instruments. After school I did whatever kind of gigs I could do, which wound up being mostly drum set or timpani gigs, but kept practicing vibes. As I started falling in with the so called downtown crowd, to me at the time, open minded experimentalists, I would say "hey, I play vibes too, why don't you write a vibes part for this piece." So people started writing harder parts, so I had to get better. When I did my trio CD, Integrated Variables (CIMP#121), Bob Rusch suggested that I arrange my quintet compositions for the trio... but between Mark, George and me there were only two pitched instruments, where there used to be four or five. So I decided to include the marimba and glockenspiel to the trio so there would be three melodic lines and some beautiful color shifts. I think my mallet instruments are used really effectively on James Emery's Spectral Domains CD and many of my recordings with Anthony Braxton as well. I listened to people like Philip Wilson, Jerome Cooper, Don Moye, Barry Altchul, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Chambers, "classical players" like Max Neuhaus, Michael Pugliese (whom I went to school with), Keiko Abe and of course the great bebop/post bop drummers like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, on and on. I played classical gigs in Carnegie Recital Hall, jazz gigs everywhere, blues gigs in bars in New Jersey, klezmer all over the world, gospel gigs at street fairs, avant-rock gigs in basements on the Lower East Side. I've been putting all of my percussion experience together in my compositions and in my percussion playing with Anthony Braxton, for instance.
6) Compare the difference of working with Milt Hinton to working with Fred Frith. What different aesthetic choices do you make?
Though I've played with Milt, on and off, over a long span of time, I only played with Fred for a little over a year, late 1988 to early 1990. The band was called Keep the Dog. I would say that the time I spent with Fred was kind of early on in my development. I looked at both relationships as a sideman. In other words, play the music as accurately as possible first and then find yourself, inside the music. With Milt Hinton, this worked well. He trusted me to play within the context or vocabulary of his music, so I didn't even think of it as making choices, at the time. Of course, Fred's music is a different context. I thought it was a context I was familiar with and interested in because I had run into him in New York and heard him play some really great solo concerts and he had heard and liked my playing with an avant-rock band called Zozobra. First of all there was a lot of written music; the idea of Keep the Dog (Fred, Rene Lussier, Jean Derome, Zeena Parkins, Bob Ostertag, me and sometimes John Zorn) was to play his music from over 15 years. Again, I looked at it as a sideman, getting all these time signatures together, etc., which I did very well, but he wanted more tension, counterpoint or even imperfection, not just accuracy. This idea of counterpoint, seen not only as different melodies, different rhythms but also as an emotional counterpoint within the music was a new and powerful idea to me and it has stayed with me to this day. Fred and I parted company with me saying "I think that I should write more of my own compositions and find my percussion voice inside them." He said "I think that's a good idea." So Fred was encouraging me to work harder to find things inside myself and I thank him for it.
7) You seem to align yourself with (as a sideman) strong distinctive composers -- Anthony Braxton, James Emery, Phillip Johnston, is that an intentional decision on your part?
Yes, absolutely. I think it comes from the big impression Milt Hinton made on me when I asked him what were his favorite records that he played on and he said "the George Russell records." (I thought he was going to mention a Louis Armstrong record or a Cab Calloway record.) He felt that they were challenging, but still evolving from what came before; serious and fun. So I was always looking for composers whose music I respected and enjoyed and who would challenge my skills and concentration. I wanted to play with Braxton and Emery in particular. Playing James Emery's music helped my vibes and marimba playing grow tremendously. There were difficult parts to negotiate on "Chromosphere" and "Red Spaces...". Playing the piece "Sound Action #7" in particular was great for thinking about color, density, interaction and linear improvisation. I think James would tell you that this is a Braxton inspired piece, by the way. Playing with Anthony Braxton has also had a very positive effect on my percussion playing, of course. The scope of his music is very wide. I've played in jazz quartets with him, orchestra pieces, Trillium R (the recently performed and recorded four-act opera), and all the various Ghost Trance ensembles since the first Ghost Trance recording in 1995. Some pieces have very specific, sometimes difficult passages of music (good for woodsheding purposes, too... like the xylophone part to composition No.96, for a small example), other times there are no specific rhythms or orchestrations so I have interpreted this as an invitation to play in and out and around the written music, concentrating on sonic color. Mark Dresser, Marie McAuliffe, Edward Ratliff, Nick Didkovsky, Scott Miller and Jeff Schanzer are some other strong, unique composers that come to mind. I have enjoyed playing their music, learning from them or rather we learned from each other about many aspects of making music.
8) Do you see your own playing tied into the 60s free school of energy playing or more of the so called downtown Knitting Factory contingent?
Both, but I'm more or less an "independent." As I mentioned before at a very young age I was listening to, and playing, a lot of different kinds of music. I think part of the reason I wanted to compose and lead more was to try to organically integrate all the "love interests" of my musical life. For instance, I would be in a "free" playing situation and think "great, now why don't we bring in some slower melodic ideas for a change of scenery?" Or, I would be playing in a total time keeping situation and think, "great now let's free things up!" etc. (not out of lack of concentration or focus, you understand). Whereas the aforementioned imaginary leaders might have aligned themselves with a group, (clique, scene... choose your own word), I realized for me to feel complete and honest, I would have to try and cut my own path even though I loved my friends on the "established" paths. Some people feel they HAVE to pick a side and go to war and dress up their attitude with words like "vision" and/or "integrity" (maybe written by a press agent). It's boring to me. I'm a dreamer and idealist, but also a hard worker/researcher.
9) What type of percussive dynamics go into playing Braxton's Ghost Trance Music -- what is your understanding of the same?
As far as my understanding of the Ghost Trance Music, I would refer the readers to Bill Shoemaker's eloquent notes for "Four Compositions (Quartet) 1995" (Braxton House BH-005); they are the clearest interpretation I've read yet. By the way, this disc was the very first Ghost Trance recording and still one of my favorites. As far as the percussion playing is concerned, I can think back to the very first Ghost Trance session. I practiced all day and night before the day of the session (August 19, 1995), though we had no idea of what we would be playing the next day. There was nothing really said by Anthony before the rehearsal and recording as how to approach the percussion playing. At a rehearsal for a gig before this recording (the gig released on "Small Ensemble Music 1994" on Splasc(h).), I asked Anthony, "Do you want these parts played on pitched percussion or non-pitched percussion?" and he said "I trust your ears." Thank you Anthony! That's how I've approached things since then except when there are really specific parts for specific instruments like in the orchestra pieces, operas, etc.
My thinking at the first Ghost Trance session was that since Anthony, Joe and Ted were holding down the time and the pitch material (The Trance) I should change the colors as much as possible, maybe even getting away from playing the trance altogether. I tried playing the vibes with one hand and playing non-pitched percussion with the other for a while. As time went on in the Ghost Trance performances, I got better at both reading and NOT reading the trance; in other words, blurring and shading, lessening the difference between composition and improvisation. I worked on thinking about the over all sound of the entire performance and how all the sounds (my percussion possibilities with the various colors of the other instruments of the ensemble) blended together.
In the notes I mentioned by Bill Shoemaker he says "It can be argued that the foundations of GTM are pointedly anti-academic." For me, finding the balance point between realizing where you are in the piece, intellectually aware of your musical surroundings and closing your eyes (so to speak -- I don't want to miss a cue!) and feeling the music is like being at a large, delicious Korean meal, surrounded by all those great possibilities!
10) Why did you select Guy Debord as a subject matter for your nine events suite? Do you see the Debord piece as having political tones to it -- say much in the way Max Roach dealt with Civil Rights themes in his work?
The music for the piece "For Guy Debord" started to come to me first after the elation that I felt from Anthony agreeing to play with my ensemble, and the idea for the music came from finishing a unique piece for my Ensemble and David Krakauer ("Three Movements for Solo Clarinet and Ensemble" on "Knots"). A multi-sectioned work for my ensemble: DeBellis, Bindman, Ulrich, Fonda and myself with a guest soloist. The idea of linking the music with Guy Debord's ideas came at two different times. I had read an article in a newspaper just after Debord committed suicide and I was so moved that I searched out "The Society of the Spectacle." I was really taken by the feeling behind the ideas. In fact I paraphrased Debord in my notes for my CIMP trio CD. That was a few years before the Greenwich House concert. Somehow as I started to write the music, ideas that seemed related to Debord's (truth vs. falsehood, capitalism vs. the environment, what makes something "art", etc.) came up and I referred back to Debord. Then I thought the whole piece, not just one part of it could be inspired by Debord.
Do I see the Debord piece having political overtones to it? Politics is both a vague and broad term. Sometimes "politics" means vote for this guy or get the other guy out, in other words, maneuvering actions and ideas with a specific (perhaps "simple") agenda in mind. I can't say that I don't have interests and feelings in matters like this but that is not my point in "For Guy Debord". Will I ever write a piece like "Don't vote for Bush!"? Maybe, but right now I don't hear the music in that so I will continue to talk about it with people, continue to write to Washington and preach to young people to get involved and vote. As a musician, I feel the music has to communicate as music itself, first.
I feel that by calling the piece "For Guy Debord," it's more of an invitation to check out his work and the political/cultural history of the times, much too complex for me to "explain" in music. My music, which is informed by these philosophical ideas, filtered through my own overlapping philosophies and personal experiences and feelings, is a call to listen to new musical structures. It's not free jazz, it's not bebop or classical composition, yet IT IS informed by all of these ideas or "styles." Many people have heard the piece and had a hard time figuring out when there was improvising going on or the musicians were reading very specific material. So the piece is a complex, reflective reality, not fitting into a simple explanation.
In "Freedom Now Suite" or "I Have a Dream" by Max Roach, the politics and music are one. They are successful works of the highest artistic level. I have always loved Mr. Roach's drumming, from Charlie Parker to Clifford Brown to his own bands to Anthony Braxton, and I know these pieces, but I wasn't even thinking about them till you mentioned them (even if not specifically). Max Roach is also one of America's greatest composers!
When you think about the word "time", what leaps into your mind? Is it a precious personal resource that you never have enough of and is always diminishing? Is it simply a universal given that allows us to index our personal memories? Is it a scientific variable that can't be measured or defined except in terms of itself? Is it a benchmarking principle that aids in demarcating beginnings, middles, and ends? Is it a blank canvas waiting to be filled?
.When you think about the phrase "time management" how do you feel about yourself? Is it bewilderment as to why you're always running behind schedule? Is it pride as to how much has been accomplished so quickly? Is it dismay as to how little has changed for so long? Is it shame as to why so much of it is spent in reading an on-line jazz magazine? (peace, my beloved editors, ‘tis only a joke)
It could be suggested that performing music is "time management" (i.e., controlling events such that an accomplishment can be successfully maximized within a finite amount of time) in one of its purest forms. In expressing a thought or emotion, a musician claims a piece of time as his/her own and fills it with sound. It could be a few notes or chords played very slowly over a protracted amount of time. It could be many played very quickly in a short amount of time. The sounds could be chosen nearly randomly or impulsively, based upon intuition in spontaneous reaction to the environment. Or they could be chosen very carefully and deliberately, based upon specific parameters to be followed or goals to be attained.
Some of the most interesting music results when the boundaries between composition and improvisation are deliberately crossed if not obliterated. In a typical instantiation, this occurs when one musician (aka the "leader") voluntarily opts to let fellow musicians (aka the "band") decide HOW to manage time, but moderates WHEN that occurs. This can be accomplished by simply pre-scheduling intervals for improvisation within a composition, or by merely "suggesting" what the musicians "might" play within designated temporal perimeters, or by any other means available to the musicians (leader+band) collective imagination, creativity, temperament, or skill.Although "time management" is a woefully inadequate phrase with which to describe his music, drummer/percussionist Kevin Norton can unquestionably be described as a musician who gets the maximum accomplished within a finite amount of time.
While he may have come to wider public recognition through his association with Anthony Braxton (as yet another example of the extraordinarily gifted musicians that grace Mr. Braxton's recordings) Kevin Norton has also contributed articulate and imaginative skills as composer and improviser via performing/recording with Milt Hinton, Fred Frith, James Emery, Frank London, David Krakauer's Klezmer Madness, Phillip Johnston's Big Trouble, Marie McAuliffe's Ark Sextet, and Edward Ratliff's Rhapsodalia.
Most recently heard with Anthony Braxton on "Ten Compositions (Quartet) 2000" (CIMP Records) Kevin Norton has released several recordings of his own music and has initiated his own recording label, Barking Hoop, to document the most recent examples.
Of the Barking Hoop inaugural release, For Guy Debord (in nine events), All About Jazz modern jazz editor Glenn Astarita writes:
"Kevin Norton exhibits his writing and arranging expertise on this intriguing release inspired by filmmaker and writer Guy Debord…For Guy Debord (in nine events) comprises one extended piece, segmented into intersecting movements… the band pursues circular themes and Afro-Cuban rhythms as the soloists up the ante with heated exchanges via yearning cries and propulsive motifs, yet it's not all about lengthy soloing and bravado as Norton injects disparate elements into this thoughtful and artfully conceived opus…Norton's concepts and implementations provide the listener with a solid base for his or her psyche to run rampant…Highly recommended!" (ALL ABOUT JAZZ, February 2001)
Of the second Barking Hoop release, In Context/Out of Context), All About Jazz modern jazz editor Glenn Astarita writes:
"Kevin Norton continues to infuse previously applied concepts and practices into novel ways and means of exploring the outer boundaries of swing, bop and improvisation, witnessed on this trio set…Norton along with frequent collaborators, saxophonists Bob DeBellis and David Bindman embark upon the bass-less trio route as the band explores rhythmic variations in concert with, alternating dialogue and triggered responses…This band also excels at melding ferocious swing and free-bop lines with Norton's polyrhythmic and altogether expansive developments…the musicians seamlessly transform matters into heterogeneous regions of sound consisting of whimsical themes, quiet interludes and articulate three-way conversation, atop sub-plots and quixotic passages…Recommended!" (ALL ABOUT JAZZ, March 2001)
As concluding perspective, Anthony Braxton might be the musician most often associated with jazz who is identified as being both exemplary and prolific with regard to how a "composer" can achieve a desired artistic aim through skillful "time management" (willfully surrendering control without abandoning it altogether). But an examination of his works and of the works of the musicians who have performed with him over the past 30+ years (Kenny Wheeler, Sam Rivers, George Lewis, Dave Holland, Barry Altschul, Ray Anderson, John Lindberg, Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser, Gerry Hemingway, Marty Ehrlich to name a few), evinces a collective testimonial and mutual devotion to a musical form and practice that is continually growing as opposed to merely being preserved.
Looking forward, it's natural and logical to expect that Kevin Norton will also spend his time in giving nothing less than his best to further this growth. All we have to do is take the time to listen.
True to the theme of "time management", Kevin Norton miraculously and graciously squeezed in many hours of typing alongside beloved practice time for this interview (which was conducted via e-mail in July 2001).
Thanks to Glenn Astarita for facilitating this interview.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ: Would you please tell the AAJ readers about where you were born, raised and what your earliest musical memories are?
KEVIN NORTON: I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1956. Around 1961 or 1962 the family moved to Staten Island, N.Y. and I lived there until college. One of my first musical memories took place in the family home in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I had a record that I loved because it was the beginning of a TV show theme (I don't remember the name of the TV show. For some reason "Checkmate" keeps coming into my mind and the image of a melting chessboard...maybe somebody put LSD in my Nestle's Quik!) The sound was kind of like a "Secret Agent" jangling guitar. I kept picking up the needle and playing the beginning over and over again. This sound gave me so much happiness! My grandfather couldn't stand this insanity and ripped the needle off the record and slammed the phonograph top down! He might have ended that moment of musical obsession, but I gotta laugh, the jones lasts to this day!
AAJ: What led you to select drums and percussion as instruments of choice?
KN: I'm not sure how I came to choose the drums in the very beginning. The first instrument I had was a snare drum with a little cymbal coming off the side. I also got a practice pad early on and had a neighborhood teacher who was a stickler for the rudiments (basic technique building exercises). I met this kid who played drums in the school band. At an assembly in front of the whole school he got to play a little drum solo. He asked me if I wanted to see his drum set at home. He had a Ludwig kit that looked just like Ringo's down in his basement. The kit was so beautiful and this guy's house was so neat and clean. He asked me if I wanted to try his drums. Of course! It was so loud and so much fun, I was lost in the sound again! Then I was interrupted by this loud bang, louder than my drumming. We started to cautiously walk up the stairs from the basement to where the sound came from and we noticed the door had been slammed so hard that the jamb was hanging off the frame splintered into several pieces. "I think my mom is mad" he said, "you better get out of here." I sneaked out the garage and went home in a very happy and excited state, convinced I was on the right path. I begged my parents to get me a drum set, not mentioning the smashed door.
In junior high school I started timpani because I could read anything on the snare drum that they gave me. I wound up in the Staten Island borough-wide music program which met at my junior high school on Saturday mornings. It was there, in fact, that I met Kenny Washington and many other young musicians from different schools on Staten Island. I wound up playing timpani there as well since the hot-shot drum set player (a Buddy Rich protege) couldn't read pitches in the bass clef and hear a perfect fourth.(I think he became a semi-famous rock drummer.) It was rough for me since I really didn't have a "classical" teacher, I was really on my own to figure out an approach to timpani.
I started to play xylophone when I went to Hunter college, where I met Milt Hinton. My good friend, Tony Sbordoni, worked at Hunter and said "why don't you take it home for the summer?" I started at the very beginning: scales, arpeggios, sight reading of easy tunes. It was kind of humbling at first because I was already playing gigs with Milt Hinton as a drummer and already arranging and composing for my own jazz ensemble, but I wanted to be able to understand what the saxophone players were dealing with, playing my arrangements.
Listening to a Max Neuhaus record (on which he plays pieces by Feldman, Cage and Earle Brown) attracted me to some of the other possibilities of percussive sound, coming from an avant-garde/classical approach.
AAJ: As a percussionist, do you find a physical or visceral thrill to music making? Why or why not?
KN: Sometimes. I used to play blues gigs in bars, just groove loud and strong...and there are elements of physical abandon written into groups like the Context Trio. However, my gigs as a sideman seem to exist because I read music well and many times (not all the time and I guess it's how I approach it as well) that might preclude physical thrill seeking. I will be looking for more percussive/physical thrills in the immediate future.
AAJ: How often do you practice now and for how long?
KN: A great day is when I get to practice most of the day. A good day is when I get a few hours in. An OK day is when I have so many other things that I almost shouldn't practice but I walk around with timers and say "30mins or 10mins (and yes you CAN get something done in that time span) won't stop me from getting the other time demanding projects done. Let's say I'm doing a lot of typing, I will say to myself, "break time! Gotta practice a little." and do it.
AAJ: Do you have any tips or tricks for "enjoying" practice time?
KN: I always enjoy practicing but if someone doesn't maybe he/she can keep telling himself/herself : "Well it beats hangin' out in phone booths lookin' for spare change."
AAJ: Do you ever force yourself to practice when you really don't feel like it? If so, how do you motivate yourself?
KN: Again, I love to practice but I can tell you it IS harder to face very difficult music sometimes. It's easier to practice stuff you have a handle on, but that's why I try to be careful with how I organize my practice time. If I have a challenging piece by a certain composer to learn and I don't have a lot of time, I will practice only that piece and let other stuff go. I could always stand to practice jazz time on the drum set or learn new/old Monk tunes on the vibes but if a concert of a composer's brand new music is imminent that must take priority.
AAJ: How would you describe your musical education? (i.e. does it include formal training? Completely informal? Both?) What lessons were learned here that you still apply in your career?
KN: My musical education was and is both formal and informal. I started taking drums lessons from a neighborhood teacher but my dad worked for Columbia records in the 60's, 70's & 80's (he died in 1987) and so there were a lot of records in the house and I just listened and listened. My teacher was really into jazz as well as the rudiments and reading. My dad would occasionally say "OK here's some jazz...Miles Davis and Monk, but here, listen to the Last Poets or Harry Partch. In junior high school and high school I was involved in a "classical" orchestra but I didn't have a "classical" teacher per se. What I did have were the Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn recordings so I could listen to the music and get it in my ear, but a "formal" classical teacher at that point would have really helped. I was kind of "on my own" at this point in my life.
It was around this time I came across a Frank Zappa quote or paraphrase where he said " forget school, go to the library and educate yourself!" I went to the Lincoln Center library and took out scores on a weekly basis.
At Hunter College I met Milt Hinton and got to work on my jazz playing and some teachers there recommended that I study privately with some people from Julliard to start getting my mallet (xylophone, vibes, etc.) playing together. I really enjoyed being with Milt at Hunter and started to play gigs with him outside of school. I also really enjoyed the theory and composition classes at Hunter. I got to study with Louise Talma, Myron Fink, Louis Martin and Donald Lybert amongst other great teachers, it was a great time.
After I graduated I took a year off and then went to Manhattan School of Music for my masters in percussion. They thought it curious that a theory and composition major would want to get his masters in percussion but I worked hard there. I was mostly interested in the orchestra, percussion ensemble and Claire Heldrich's New Music Consort because in my mind I was already playing gigs with Milt Hinton on the outside, why should I play jazz in school when there where all these "classical" groups that I could learn from?
Then after school, I took another left turn and went back to trying to get drum set gigs and playing mallets occasionally. I started to fall in with the "Downtown" scene a little and really enjoyed it. I mean after playing a timpani gig with some small chamber group and then going to hear Ikue Mori play in a basement somewhere was a very liberating experience. I wanted it all: I wanted to be able to play classical gigs, jazz gigs, free improvisation gigs, but something about playing with Fred Frith made me see that I had to find my own voice within all these various musical loves.
Speaking of my musical education, I also learned a lot about jazz and jazz drumming from hanging out with Kenny Washington, who I knew from Staten Island and I learned a lot about composition from Eric Ewazen who I met at Julliard. I've also learned quite a bit from Anthony Braxton. Like most of the world's musicians, I consider my education a never-ending pursuit. (As is processing the information and figuring out who I am within it all.)
AAJ: As a music educator, what have you learned about yourself and your music from the teaching of your students?
KN: I've learned that I like teaching because it's a great excuse to study more myself. Every teacher will tell you this: you may think you know something (and probably do) but when you have to explain it clearly to someone with less experience, you may find out that you have taken some things for granted.
AAJ: When teaching, if there is one single message you want to get through to your students, what would that be? Why?
KN: My students tend to be on different levels and I try to deal with them as individuals, so I don't think there can be just one message. There are a few that I stress though.
For my students who are technically advanced, in a jazz context, I tend to ask "What are you trying to say with your music?" It's OK to learn Charlie Parker licks for their own good and for conceptual reasons (i.e. how to approach a ii-V) but if you are playing a tune, deal with the "here and now", deal with the musicians in this room and don't force your Charlie Parker licks into this situation because it's not 1951 and you're not playing with Miles Davis, Walter Bishop, Teddy Kotick and Max Roach. That's why composing your own music is helpful, you really have to ask yourself "what am I trying to say?" Find your place in the music, don't force yourself or your ideas onto something that may already be in motion, with it's own beautiful identity. (Having said that I wish I had another parallel life so that I could just spend it working on the music of Charlie Parker, Monk, J.S. Bach, Olivier Messiaen, Anthony Braxton, etc!)
It's also important to stay in touch with the fun of music. It's important to be disciplined in your approach and organize your time effectively, serious stuff, but don't lose sight of the original feelings that got you involved with music. Though the word "fun" on the surface sounds a little shallow. I think it's fun to concentrate on something for a long time: practicing a hard piece, trying to solve a compositional problem. Some people might use the word "flow."
AAJ: Among the many talented musicians you've worked with who has presented you with the most challenging and/or synergistic relationship? Who have you learned the most from working with? What is it you've learned?
KN: Without a doubt working with Anthony Braxton has been one of the great joys of my life. There always challenges in playing Anthony's music but he's always made me feel that the notation is a guide and having a unique, intelligent, heartfelt approach is just as important as accuracy. I was listening to the very first Ghost Trance recording recently (Four Compositions (Quartet) 1995, Braxton House 005). It's still one of my favorites (of the pieces released so far). I was pretty nervous because we had no music to practice, he just set the date up. I practiced all day and night before the day of the session (August 19, 1995) though we had no idea of what we would be playing the next day. There was nothing really said by Anthony before the rehearsal and recording as how to approach the percussion playing.
At a rehearsal for a gig before this first Ghost Trance recording (the performance is released on "Small Ensemble Music 1994" on Splasc(h).) I asked Anthony: "do you want these parts played on pitched percussion or non-pitched percussion?" and he said "I trust your ears." Thank you Anthony! That's how I've approached things since then except when there are really specific parts for specific instruments like in the orchestra pieces, operas, etc. Anyway, even though I was nervous, Anthony made me feel comfortable to try out different sounds and approaches to the written material. As I remember him saying at an orchestra rehearsal: "If you haven't made a mistake, you've made the biggest mistake of all."
AAJ: As a follow up, what musicians that you have never worked with before would you like to work with?
KN: I could probably name five hundred musicians that I would like to play with. First of all, I want to continue to play with Anthony because no matter the context, orchestra, jazz quartet, Ghost Trance, whatever, I've always come away challenged, interested and energized. I always feel like I've grown a little more after I play with Anthony.
Also I want to continue with the people that I have developed good relationships with over the years: Bob DeBellis, David Bindman, Tomas Ulrich, Andy Eulau, Kevin O'Neil, Bern Nix, Haewon Min, Dave Ballou, Steve Lehman, Wilber Morris, James Emery, Nicki Parrot, Ron Jackson, Mary Ann McSweeney, Drew Gress, Ed Ratliff, Michael Attias, Sam Bardfeld, Alfred Harth, Bob Celusak, Denman Maroney, Mark Dresser and Marie McAuliffe. I'm sorry if I've spaced on some names. Getting back to the "500 musicians I could name."..if it's going to happen it's going to happen...it's good and healthy to dream but I think I'd like to keep those dreams personal right now.
AAJ: What defines a successful piece if music for you? (whether in our own work or that of others)
KN: The short answer for me is, if the parameters presented are followed through and satisfied, then the piece is successful. I think viewing things this way make "style" a less important consideration. I've been moved by classical music, punk rock, jazz, Iranian folk music. I want to "feel" the music and be intellectually stimulated by it. Though that sounds simple enough, I can be really analytical and critical of my work and the work of others. I don't love the feeling of listening to a piece or a set of music and feeling kind of empty and thinking "well that was interesting."
AAJ: What are the most attractive/problematic aspects of improvisation for you?
KN: There are many kinds of improvisation: free improvisation, improvising melodies over chord changes and/or time forms and a musician could learn how to improvise within various "ethnic" vocabularies, say Indian music, learning the various forms, rhythms and scales specific to that music.
When I was growing up and started to play music, improvising, playing along to records, it was "easy" and fun. Reading music (in a lesson or elementary school band) could be stressful at times. I didn't understand why someone would write out music (especially drum parts) when it would be just as easy to improvise.
When I started to play timpani in junior high school and got to play cool timpani parts like "Overture to Romeo and Juliet" by Tchaikovsky, I realized that reading was important and that a part like the Tchaikovsky could not be improvised.
Free improvising can be really exciting or it can be a real drag because some musicians are not "free" at all, but are greatly limited in their abilities (conceptual hearing, control of their instruments, etc.) and their ego prevents them from really listening and getting beyond a surface reality of "free" improvised music.
AAJ: What are the most attractive/problematic aspects of composition for you?
KN: I find I really need time alone to "compose." To pitches and rhythms, dynamics down on paper, to have it be clear for other musicians to read and for the "intentions" of the composition to be articulate. It requires concentrated time and I'm always running away from other things to find that time. It's hard for me not to want to get together and jam. On the other hand it's such a great feeling to be responsible for the structure of sound from start to finish AND have it feel natural and organic, as if it were improvised. One piece where it really came together for me was "The Enduring Heart" on "Flood at the Ant Farm" by Big Trouble. That piece is totally written out and when I've played it for people they've said "but isn't the trombone part improvised?", etc. That's a successful piece to me. These concepts were advanced in "Three Movements for Solo Clarinet and Ensemble" on "Knots" (Music & Arts CD1033) and the entire "For Guy Debord" (Barking Hoop 1) piece. There are sections totally written and sections where the focus or primary "voice" is improvised. In these pieces there is a lot of composition work but I loved playing (reading and improvising) with my friends/colleagues including Anthony Braxton, Bob DeBellis, David Bindman, Tomas Ulrich and Joe Fonda. If I played these pieces with totally different musicians I feel like I would have to accept the differences, even though I may not "like" the differences.
AAJ: Are you able to separate/distinguish your composer self from your improviser self?
KN: I always want the "composing" and "improvising" to get closer together so that for the listener it's difficult to distinguish and easier for me as a person to feel "whole", not compartmentalized. In other words, I don't want to separate/distinguish the composing self from the improvising self, even though it might "happen."
AAJ: Who would you consider as contemporaries, peers, brothers (sisters)? Why? (note: this might include non-musicians)
KN: I'm glad you mentioned that it could be a non-musician. I had a very important experience just prior to putting out my first CD, "Integrated Variables" (CIMP#121) and I mentioned it in my most recent release "In Context / Out of Context" (Barking Hoop 2). Maybe it was around eight years ago that a friend of ours, (i.e., Haewon and me) Dongsin Hahn, took us around to various places in Brooklyn and Queens and introduced us to several Korean diaspora who came to the U.S. to work on their art, mostly painting. All of the artists impressed me with their intensity and sacrifice. When I was in Yeong Gil Kim's studio it hit me how similar our work areas were and the sense of concentration and resultant happiness. The big difference was when I finished practicing or playing a gig, there was nothing but the memories of the music in the ears and minds of the listeners, (very important and beautiful) when Yeong Gill was finished there was something people could look at over time, discuss and refer to. I felt that I had to begin to record and document my music, even if only for myself. Yes, I got this feeling from Mr. Kim, more than any musician that I knew personally at that time.
This reminds me of your questions about improvisation and composition. At one time I was of the mind that I could improvise forever and with the sense of "just letting it go", the skills and feelings would always be there, but in fact, the skills and the feelings are always in a state of change and it's important to have documentation at various junctures.
AAJ: Your first release on Barking Hoop is "For Guy Debord" (in nine events) by The Kevin Norton Ensemble with Anthony Braxton. Could you please describe how this work came to be and how it was constructed?
KN: It started in two ways.
First, I wanted to write a piece for my ensemble and Braxton, similar in concept to the little concerto ("Three Movements for Solo Clarinet and Ensemble") that I wrote for David Krakauer and my ensemble for the disc KNOTS (Music & Arts CD 1033). (I want to continue with this concerto idea with other guest soloists and my ensemble)
Second, I was reading an article about Guy Debord and his suicide: I was moved by the depth of his convictions and interested in learning more about his ideas. I began to read his "Society of the Spectacle." When I began working on the basic musical materials for the "concerto" for Anthony, I went back and listened to my trio CD "Integrated Variables" (CIMP #121) and noticed that I had paraphrased Debord in my notes for it. I said: "…it's important that we embrace our complexities and not let media mediate our own experiences and emotions. We seek to avoid both selfishness and conformity by directing our psychic energies, integrated and differentiated, to reflecting a complex reality." Maybe another way of looking at it: the music can be emotionally direct without constantly referring back to an established form or sound. Or: why try to fit your ideas into an established form? Let the content (and honesty) determine the form, no mater how "complex" it might seem. Don't pander, don't cave-in to a sound bite mentality. I don't know that this represents Debord's philosophy well, but it's what I have resonated with.
The titles for the events are taken from his text or ideas either fairly directly or tangentially. I thought about the overall structure of the piece first: where I wanted the piece to start and where I wanted it to end and then how the path from beginning to end was going to be navigated. Unlike the aforementioned "Three Movements for Solo Clarinet…" I wanted to give everyone in the ensemble a chance to interact with the written material.
AAJ: As follow up, the track sequence (and a few of the titles) for each event are missing from my copy of the cd. Could you please list the track sequence, and give a brief description of the "event"?
1) "Instinctual Eye of Consciousness" Vibes-Alto (Braxton) duo. Totally written out.
2) "Endemic Characteristics" Vibes, 2 flutes (DeBellis and Bindman) 90% written out (with moments of improvisation for the flutes). Braxton soloing on contra-bass clarinet
3) "Future, Past, Tense"- short cymbal/gong statement. Totally written out.
4) "Dedalus" - cello (Ulrich) bass (Fonda) totally written duo Braxton soloing on sopranino sax. Drum set improvising interactive with both strings (written) and sax (improvising). Drums signal change to move to "Revolutionary…", David Bindman begins conga.
5) "Revolutionary Practice" Gb pedal in bass. Kevin moves to vibes. Braxton and DeBellis read material "open placement" Kevin moves to drums for second "section" of "Revolutionary…" It becomes more of a duo improv for Braxton and DeBellis based on the written material. Kevin moves back to vibes for the third "section." Lessening density, segue into…
6) "Component" a bass solo with written fragments for starting point, middle possibilities and ending point. Segue to…
7) "Fragment" a drum solo with written fragments for starting point, middle possibilities and ending point. Segue to…
8) "Not at the Periphery" totally written out in score form (Fonda-bass, DeBellis-alto, Braxton-alto, Bindman-tenor, Norton-drums) Tomas Ulrich improvises with score as guide.
9) "Deliberate Intention" Vibes - Alto(Braxton) duo 95% notated. Solo for Braxton over vibraphone ostinato. Last measures rhythmic counterpoint notated, "free" pitch choices.
By the way Francesco Martinelli's "Anthony Braxton:Discography" (It's a really great book if you are a Braxton fan!) lists approximate timings for nine events and points out that there are no index points, just presented as a single track on the CD.
AAJ: What did you learn from the composition and recording of this work?
KN: I think that "In Context / Out of Context" was build on some of the things I learned from "For Guy Debord, but I feel like it's mostly an instinctual learning, not a codified and/or studied learning. I'm trying to move from one thing to the next as quickly as possible. I can't be impulsive when I start using paper and pencil but I can be impulsive when I get a "sound" for a project in my head. I want to be able to come to peace in my mind with the two approaches I seem to have: a) the impulsive (improvising?) and b) the careful, thought out (composing?). I say "composing" and "improvising" because it reminds me of one of your earlier questions about making a distinction between the "composing self" and the "improvising self" and like I said then I don't want to consciously make that decision, though I still "feel" a difference picking up drum sticks or vibe mallets from picking up a pencil.
As already mentioned above, I should have indexed where the events occur, I originally thought it was intrusive…I wanted people to really listen to the whole piece intact, the way it was performed and meant to be heard. After talking with some people's opinion that I respected, they suggested that the index points (or track numbers) and listing of the events would have been helpful listeners to understand the work better.
I re-learned that Braxton is an incredible musician. A great reader with great improvising instincts. He and I worked very hard on the written material especially "Instinctual Eye…" He loved it and thanked me for writing it. I can't thank him enough for the hard work and positive spirit he put into the performance!
One night I was listening to "For Guy Debord" (and I don't listen to my records as much as I listen to other people's music, not even close), maybe two years after the performance, I started crying because I felt Anthony was really playing from his heart, and I called him on the telephone and we had a great conversation filled with ideas and a broad spectrum of emotions and humor! I feel the same way about the rest of the group: Bob DeBellis, David Bindman, Tomas Ulrich and Joe Fonda.
In fact, when I recorded the piece I had no intention of releasing it, I just wanted to have it so I could learn from it. I wanted to start a record label so I could put a solo percussion CD (which I'm still working on) thinking that no label would be interested in a solo percussion CD, so I would have to put it out myself. As I was listening to my little cassette tape of the "For Guy Debord" concert, loving the playing that I heard, I thought this is where to start a label. Some smaller labels showed some interest, but it would be emotionally clearer to put it out myself. So I learned to get in touch with myself (as they say in the psychology biz) and forgo taking the "usual routes" that would have left me disappointed or resigned at best. Of course, anybody putting out a CD will learn a lot about distribution, manufacturing, etc. I'm tempted to say it's something every musician should do once in his life, but it does bite into my practice time…so I once again learned how much I love my practice time!
AAJ: Do you believe the term "modern jazz" should be applied to this work? Why?
KN: My music is informed by "jazz", of course: happily. My music is also informed by "classical composition." I don't think of combining "2 parts classical and 3 parts jazz"...creating some kind of formula. I'm just trying to "sing" in my own way. I'm just trying to work with the various instrumental sound possibilities and come up with new ideas or forms that will inspire the performers and (then) the listeners. As with my fellow composers (Kevin O'Neil and James Emery for instance) there are many musicians that take the "classical" and "jazz" traditions (and love them on a gut level). Yet the music of Kevin O'Neil is different from the music of James Emery which is different from the music of Kevin Norton. Sometimes when people (especially writers) hear that composers are into both "jazz" and "classical" they want to call the music "Third Stream." Another inadequate label (just dealing with Kevin Norton, James Emery or Kevin O'Neil for instance.) These labels don't get me really angry like they get some other musicians (understandably) [Mingus: "Well the word jazz bothers me. It bothers me because, as long as I've been publicly identified with it, I've made less money and had more trouble than when I wasn't... As I started watching my "jazz" reputation grow, my pocketbook got emptier. I got more write-ups and came to New York to stay. So I was really in "jazz," and I found it carries you anywhere from a nut house to poverty. And the people think you're making it because you get write-ups. And you sit and starve and try to be independent of the crooked managers and agencies. You try to make it by yourself. No, I don't get any good feeling from the word jazz." (1964) From page 279 of Keeping Time: readings in jazz history edited by Robert Walser Oxford University Press. Max Roach: "What "jazz" means to me is the worst kind of working conditions, the worst in cultural prejudice…that is why I am presently writing a book, I Hate Jazz. It's not my name and it means my oppression as a man and musician." (1972) Ibid. Page 309]
Again, I think it comes down to the musicians not being able (sometimes able or willing or allowed or asked) to define their own terms.
On the other hand I want to look at the good side of things: when I think of "jazz" I think of Milt Hinton and his music. When I think of "classical" I think about how much I love J.S. Bach's music or in the case of "third stream" I think of George Russell or Anthony Braxton or John Lewis. It's very important to define our own "terms"…but I don't want to burn a lot of time or expend energy in a negative way.
Thanks for asking this question! I'll be working on essays to all the related tangents for the next hundred years!
AAJ: Your second release on Barking Hoop is "In Context/Out of Context" by your trio (with David Bindman and Bob DeBellis on saxes and flutes).You describe this work as consisting of a number of shorter pieces played in sequence without a break. Were these pieces originally composed and envisioned as a whole? Or is "In Context/Out of Context" a composite of separate (originally independent) pieces that were assembled or integrated into a (now dependent) whole? Please elaborate.
KN: "In Context / Out of Context" was specifically written for me and Bob DeBellis and David Bindman to get a chance to stretch out. As I already said, some of the previous pieces for the ensemble were written as sort of quasi-concertos, bringing in outside soloists. "In Context..." was an attempt to do that with smaller forces: just three people instead of six and it being a "concerto" for everyone involved. These pieces were originally composed with the thought that they would be parts of a whole. The overall arc of the piece was considered first. Only one part existed (in a slightly different form) before the conception of "In Context."
Some of the compositional goals were:
1) have passionate almost cathartic feel combined with a "classical" chamber group's precision.
2) "Areas" to play "free" in and "areas" to work with harmonic motion and pre-determined rhythmic forms.
3) Use of the extremes of the register and texture available with two groups of instruments (woodwinds and percussion).
AAJ: As follow up, you mention being influenced by Cecil Taylor and Charlie Parker as provoking the idea for "In Context/Out of Context." You also mention that these influences might seem to be disparate to some but not to others. Regardless of one's opinion in this matter, do you feel that this work should appeal to fans of both Parker and Taylor? What seemingly disparate singularities, ideas, or qualities in the works of Parker and Taylor might a listener be able to be draw together as a result of hearing "In Context/Out of Context"? Or alternatively (and despite context) should "In Context/Out of Context" be listened to as being "in the tradition" of BOTH Taylor and Parker?
KN: "Should appeal" is maybe an awkward choice of words. It's my hope some of the combatants in the "jazz style wars" would put down their "weapons"(attitudes?) for a while and realize we are all looking for the same things. Some of those "things" would be to work with or gain control of our musical materials and define our own terms.
Parker was working with pre-determined chord changes, creating complex melodies with harmonic implications. Cecil Taylor does not work with the "standard" pop song forms (Yes, I know except in some of his very early recordings.) but came up with a more "through composed", yet highly emotional and personal improvisational vocabulary. Cecil as compared to Bird had a different "surface sound" but they both succeeding in seeing their musical plans through to fruition, highly intelligent but without sacrificing emotion.
David Bindman, Bob DeBellis and I enjoy practicing and playing in the "Parker stream of consciousness" and the "Taylor stream of consciousness." It was Bob DeBellis that kept reminding me of Jimmy Lyons' achievements, especially with Cecil Taylor ("Nefertiti, the Beautiful One has Come" or the CD reissue "Trance" was always on of my favorite Taylor CDs, but I heard it differently after my conversations with Bob DeBellis about Lyons). It was with David Bindman that I had a great time playing "Cherokee changes" many times, but in particular (two months before the "In Context" concert) while warming up before a totally unrelated sound track recording. Thinking, "This is fun, let's have fun!" I "wrote" those changes into the structure of "In Context / Out of Context." (Charlie Parker wrote a new melody "Koko" so that he could work on the changes of "Cherokee") So, to me, it's a grass roots piece.
AAJ: In his essay "Kafka and His Precursors", Jorge Luis Borges wrote: "The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future." Dave Douglas wrote (in an interview with AAJ, as response to the preceding quote): "In 'Lutoslawski Profile', a book of interviews with the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, he says, 'Composers often do not hear the music that is being played; it only serves as an impulse for something quite different - for the creation of music that only lives in their imagination. It is a sort of schizophrenia - we are listening to something and at the same time creating something else.' I would have to agree, and add that by making new music we influence the way the music of the past is seen."
KN: First of all, I think it's very true that "Composers often do not hear the music that is being played; it only serves." (Dave Douglas quoting Witold Lutoslawski). For me, I'll listen to Brahms or "Cannonball" Adderley or Martin Carthy, whatever and conceptualize: "What if?" It's nothing like "let me take this lick and use it in one of my pieces." The way a "precursor" would work into my work would be more abstract than that and at the same time, more organic. For instance, how "Cherokee" made it into "In Context / Out of Context" or going back in time, how Stravinsky made into "In Balance." on KNOTS. Stravinsky got up every morning and played J.S. Bach on his piano and then he went to his composition work. Where is the Bach in Stravinsky? Everywhere and nowhere. You can't say "Ah Ha! A quote from the Well Tempered Klavier, Book I, Prelude in C Major, measure 5! It's not that obvious and therein lies part of the fun of endless research!
Now getting back to the Borges essay: for such a small essay (4 pages in the book I have) it's very complex. It sets up many potential courses of tangential research. Relating to Kafka he mentions: Han Yu, a prose writer of the 9th century, Kierkegaard, Zeno of Elea, Aristotle (384-322 BC), etc. You could spend a lot of time doing the research to get a better grasp of what Borges is talking about. Ensuring that life would never be boring. I also think that Borges was suggesting that Kafka was tapping into something universal and of course, we all are. I think that's what all great artists (creators) do: A great piece of music, a book, a painting, opens doors to new (or old) ideas, that opens more doors and on and on.
AAJ: As follow up, How do you think these statements are applied to you and your work as a musician/composer? Who (or what) might your precursors be? What works do you think might bear resemblance to works of your own, yet nevertheless have little resemblance to each other?
KN: Yes of course I have precursors. Who would my precursors be? Well there are probably many, some I know of and many that I don't know of.
What works of mine? I say let the listeners/readers chew on this last one. Kevin O' Neil just called me and told me that this new piece I'm working on, "sounded like 'Amsterdam Complexities'." That was a really interesting statement because I had forgotten about my composition "Amsterdam Complexities." I thought I was thinking of Elliot Carter and Cecil Taylor when I wrote this new piece "Change Dance (Troubled Energy)" Who's viewpoint is more "correct"? Both of our viewpoints and all the truly involved listeners.
My job now is to get back to composing so that these "connections" between all of us will continue.
AAJ: What's the funniest or most embarrassing thing that's happened to you while performing or recording?
KN: Well, it wasn't funny to me at the time, but my car got towed while I was working on the music for the movie "The Music of Chance." I had just finished getting my stuff into this mid-town Manhattan studio and I went downstairs and the tow truck driver told me "once the hook is on there's nothing I can do. Here's where you can pick up your car." So I went through the whole day concentrating on the music, trying to push away the thought of how a nice chunk of my fee was going to go towards getting my car out of the pound.
Another time was when I was playing with David Krakauer in Besancon, France. We had dinner just before the concert and someone recommended this dish made with local mushrooms, "only found in this part of France." The dish tasted great. As we started to play I felt like my stomach was in bad shape and getting worse by the second. Maybe after the second piece, I caught David's eye and with that "come here" motion in my forefinger, David, in front of hundreds of listeners, came within earshot. "I'm going to be sick. Do something, play a solo piece, I've got to puke." So I left the stage and David in his perfect French talked about his solo piece called "Rothko on Broadway." I heard him start to play it as I frantically looked for a sink or toilet, which at this point seemed surprisingly and annoyingly difficult. After my bodily responsibilities were fulfilled I returned to the stage to finish my musical responsibilities. I went back on stage as the audience applauded for "Rothko on Broadway" so nothing was made of my exit and re-entrance. The whole band, including me, had a good laugh after the concert.
This is a good question. I would like to think of the "funny things" more often.
AAJ: What projects can we expect from you during 2001- 2002?
KN: I now have a duo with pianist Haewon Min. We play the music of Anthony Braxton, especially music that Anthony wrote for piano and woodwinds (I play the woodwind parts on marimba or vibes). We had a very successful start at Roulette (in NYC) this past March and Anthony just gave us some more music to work on so I'm really looking forward to this project continuing and growing.
I'm also looking forward to two more Barking Hoops coming out in September or October. One for a new group of mine with Mark Dresser Dave Ballou Steve Lehman Rachel Telesmanick and me. The other will be Anthony Braxton's current "standards" quartet (Anthony - saxes , me, guitarist - Kevin O'Neil and bassist - Andy Eulau.) It will be called "8 Standards (Wesleyan) 2001." Also a new, beautiful Portuguese label TREM AZUL will be putting out Kevin Norton's Meta-Four Quartet (me, bassist Wilber Morris, trombonist - Masahiko Kono and vibraphonist - Hitomi Tono'oka) "Live at the Knitting Factory" some time in early/mid 2002.
On October 4, 2001 I will be performing new compositions at Merkin Hall in New York City (as part of the Interpretations series) with yet another group myself on drums and vibes, Drew Gress -bass, Sam Bardfeld - violin, Tomas Ulrich - cello and Haewon Min - piano.
Also be on the lookout for two cooperative groups I'm involved in: Trio Viriditas (Alfred Harth - saxes, Wilber Morris - bass and me - drums and vibes) and the The Iron Monkey Trio (me, Andy Eulau and Bob Cellusak - tenor and soprano saxes).
As a "sideman" there are two great CIMPs coming out: Anthony Braxton's "9 Compositions (Hill) 2000" CIMP#236 and Steve Lehman's "Structural Fire" CIMP #245
AAJ: In conclusion, if you hadn't chosen music as a career, what might you have chosen instead?
KN: I used to joke that I was going to go to law school and with the course of recent events that might have turned out to be very useful. Or if a had any kind of 9 to 5 type job, I could just leave work come home be with my wife and son, listen to music as a hobby, but I'm not that kind of person. It's very hard for me to "turn-off..".I don't want to stop working if something is going well and then if I'm finished it's on to the next thing almost immediately. Music is the perfect career for a type-A personality! So here I am and there I go, forever!
Kevin Norton is one of the most original percussionists my side of the Atlantic. Having documented the music of Anthony Braxton on his Barking Hoop label, Norton, after a handful of convincing releases on the CIMP and Clean Feed labels, continues to advance creatively with Oceans of Earth, a new trio release with like-minded Tomas Ulrich and Joëlle Léandre. An impressively detailed recording, Oceans of Earth furthers the previous The Dream Catcher. Kevin Norton, folks, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
KEVIN NORTON: It moved me. It felt good. The reason why I played drums was because I related to the rhythm of the music first. There was a kid in my neighborhood, who played a drum set and I might have been fooling around with the sticks and pad at first, but when I went over and fooled around with the drum set, his mom had smashed the door leading to the basement, knocked the door jam off. I thought that playing the drums was pretty powerful stuff (laughing).
FJ: The perception among the masses is that a drummer is not an artist, but filler.
KN: It is kind of a big issue. You know, but it is worth saying again that people like Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and Roy Haynes, but Max Roach in particular, are very melodic drummers. Max Roach is also an amazing composer. He has written pieces that go from solo drum set to pieces for orchestra and pieces for chorus. No matter what he's playing, the basis of it seems to come from his voice that he has on the drum set. When I started playing the drums, it was the rhythm that attracted me, but at my grandmother's house, she had a piano and I always used to go over there and fool around on the piano. So it was around college when I started to get into the mallet instruments. For me, a lot of the projects that I do, either as a sideman or as a leader, I have to use the vibes and the drums from almost an orchestral standpoint. I need to hear all the instruments. I need to hear pitch. I need to hear percussion. I need to be in the background. I need to be in the foreground. Percussion instruments, for me, are very expressive and very dynamic.
FJ: There has been a significant shift that should be noted among your generation and those that follow that drummers are no longer merely content with playing the drums, but rather are becoming versed in ethnic percussion instruments and have become students of these cultures.
KN: It is good. My background besides jazz and besides knowing Milt Hinton, I was in a conservatory and so I studied contemporary classical music and I studied Morton Feldman. That is a big part of my vocabulary and I think the guys who play tabla drums or listen to Balkan music, that also rather than us playing the blues or 32-bar standards all the time, the richness of the orchestration can be carried forward and we can also try and compose in new forms and breaking away from the more established forms. For me, it doesn't distract me from what the conservatives might say is the essence of jazz. It serves to enrich it.
FJ: Han Bennink playing knee or Paul Lytton playing Dixie cups is within the context of their improvisations. However, there seems to be a disturbing trend among drummers familiar with Euro Improv, aping originality and diminishing it to gimmickry.
KN: It is interesting. What you are saying, somebody aping Han Bennink playing on his knee, for one thing, that is really contrived and not really well-thought out. Han Bennink developed his whole thing over years and years and that is why it seems seamless. It is all part of his honest language. For instance, I don't think I played as well in my twenties as I do now and my idea of using mallet instruments in the context of my whole drum set, I don't think I did it as well then as I do now. I know if it is going to blend with the other instruments and if it is going to compositionally make sense. It takes years and years to develop that. Guys younger than me are studying other music and playing other instruments. If they hang in there for years and years, that is when it will be interesting, down the line. I think some of it now is exoticism or effect.
FJ: Your thoughts on a mentor/collaborator, arguably the most prolific composer of the modern era, Anthony Braxton.
KN: I want to answer it on a personal level. When the records in the Seventies first came out, like New York, Fall (1974) and Five Pieces (1975), they were brand new records, but I remember getting them just as they came out. What I heard in those records was an excitement and the drive of jazz, but also the sensitivity and the complexity and the expansiveness of contemporary classical music, put together in a very honest way. The music, to me, was very stimulating emotionally and intellectually. To finally, years later, get to be able to play with him, is a huge deal. In between the Seventies and the Nineties, that's a lot of time, but in that interim, I would read articles where he was being interviewed and there would always be these little things about the spirituality of music and what it meant to him and bringing people together. Lots of people say that and sometimes it is really sort of cornball, but you hear it in his music. He follows through in his music. He has a kind of honesty and integrity that he has never, never let go of. That's made a big impression on me. What that has done for the music, in general, is that listeners of all ages can go to someone like him and here is a guy who has never backed down from his ideals. He wrote a four-hour opera that I played in, Trillium R. I was just one guy in a pit with thirty, thirty-five musicians, but I was as happy to play that and proud to play that piece of music as anything that I have done in my life. It was just an amazing feat, the amount of work that he put into it. There were a couple of people that said that he should wait until next year to do this. But he was like, "No way. I'm not backing off of this now. I'm doing it." That's heavy and that is really inspiration. So many other people would take the safe route. He knew that he could do it. It would push him to the brink, but he'd survive and that survival gives you a lot of energy. That's one of the lessons for anybody. Braxton has that affect on a lot of people. And he will continue to have that affect because there are people who aren't even aware of this stuff yet.
FJ: How much of a challenge is it to interpret his music?
KN: I think the thing I like about Anthony's music and I've told this to him, is that at a certain point in the downtown New York scene, there was a lot of interest in making things shift really fast like switching the channels on the television. And I am interested in that, but I am also interested in concentrating for long periods of time. It is not surprising, at least to me, that the music has evolved and some of the pieces that we're doing now are very, very long and really ask the listeners and the performers to really concentrate for very long periods of time. I really like that.
FJ: What was the impetus behind the creation of your Barking Hoop label?
KN: The idea first came because I thought I was going to make a solo percussion record and I had asked a bunch of people for pieces, but before that came about, the Tri-Centric Foundation started a concert series and Anthony generously said to the group that if anybody wants a contrabass clarinet player, I would be happy to play with them. That was amazing because I did want to write a piece for him because I had this idea, for lack of a better word, "concerto" type pieces for various soloists and I wanted to write a piece like that for Anthony and the piece "For Guy Debord" came about. I was very happy with the way the piece was coming along. We performed it and it was a great performance. We recorded it and I thought I would just want the recording for my own documentation, so I could listen to it and see what went wrong and what I would like to change. The more I listened to it, the more I said that this had to come out. In fact, I did send it to a couple of different labels and they were tentative about it. I couldn't wait. I really wanted it to come out now. The first CIMP record had been out. The record on Music & Arts had been out. This piece was a great piece. I worked very hard on it. Even though Anthony said that if I wanted to do it again in the studio, he would, I knew it would be hard to get everybody together. So I decided to put it out and that is how Barking Hoop started.
FJ:Sustaining a label on your own, while not compromising your artistic development is not easy beans.
KN: We will see over time. I am glad that I put out the records that I have. They are all different pieces. It is really hard. I have a new one coming out now. It is myself and Joëlle Léandre and Tomas Ulrich. I think it is a great record. We worked really hard on it. But then, to get it out to people and get them to hear it, frankly, it takes up practice time. I allot a certain amount of time. I wouldn't put anything out that I didn't believe in a hundred percent, but, for instance, when I am mailing stuff and I try to get it out to the "right people," I miss somebody and I just try not to get too wrapped up in that. Somebody emails me from Argentina. It could be a wonderful place to send a record to, it is just that time is up. If I did just that, it could easily be a full-time job. It can't be because I need to practice.
FJ: The album you are referring to is Ocean of the Earth. Joëlle Léandre is one of the most recorded musicians in recent memory. Did you shop it around?
KN: This time I didn't do that because I wanted this record on Barking Hoop. I wanted it recorded a certain way and I put a lot of work into it. I wasn't about to have it compromised by a different label. I thought about it for a long time. I did think about some other labels and some other labels might have even jumped at it, but I also felt like it was just too good to give up to another label and perhaps have them alter it. For instance, I guess I can say this because I really like Bob Rusch and CIMP and Cadence, but I don't think a CIMP recording with these three people would be, for me, the way I would want to do it. I would want to record it in a recording studio, closed miked, and I wanted to have the ability to mix the different voices after it was finished.
FJ: Rusch's Spirit Room is a specifically unique space to record in and it may not always be conducive to every recording project.
KN: Right, and I think The Dream Catcher (CIMP) is a great record for that label. I also think that Integrated Variables (CIMP), my first record ever as a leader, is a great record on CIMP. I think for that kind of thing, because that is the way we play. That is the way that band played, right next to one another, the sound waves bouncing off one another. It is like what he says. It is like a concert. And we played those things like a concert and that is the way to approach that, but I didn't think that was the way to approach this thing.
FJ: There is also a new release from the Euro label Clean Feed with your Metaphor Quartet. Considering it featured the late Wilber Morris, will the quartet continue?
KN: No, I didn't want to continue without Wilber. We talked a little bit about that before he passed away. The music will continue on, but this band is very special. It has four very special personalities and people in it. Hitomi moved back to Japan, by the way, Fred. I just wanted to start another band. It is hard to explain because Wilber's first anniversary of his death just passed. It was a really beautiful moment. I don't want to destroy it by just replacing him. The concepts of that band are inside me and they will continue, but not that band.
FJ: Wilber Morris is one of the most under-appreciated bassists/composers in modern creative improvisation influencing both Coasts.
KN: And that was also part of my reasoning behind The Dream Catcher and doing some of his compositions. I know that "P.C.O.P." is recorded, but I don't know that "Melancholy" was recorded and "The Archer," I don't think that was recorded. That was part of it too, to draw attention to his life and his music.
FJ: You also have a new group with Paul Dunmall and Paul Rogers. The trio completed a recent East Coast tour. There were plans to record at Cadence's Spirit Room.
KN: We made two great CDs for the CIMP label. The CDs are both indicative of what we played on that tour and different. Every night on that tour was fantastic. Some of the people in these various towns sent me recordings and videotapes of the concerts. They were all really great. I would like to play with those guys forever. I have ideas for written music and other instrumentation with the trio. It is just going to take some time to see what can happen with it. I am hoping that people hear the CIMP records. They are amazing records.
FJ: What are the release dates?
KN:< The first one is coming out soon. Maybe, second week in September. That is called Rylickolum: For Your Pleasure. It is CIMP #289.
FJ: What is your practice regimen?
KN: If I could, that is all I would do. Eat, sleep, and that would be it. If it was really up to me, I get so much joy out of practicing. I get so much joy out of listening to a recording of a gig and writing down what I would like to work on. That is how I feel like I have grown and continue to grow. Practice is really an important part of that.
FJ: Your growth, and I have followed it, has been worthy of mention.
KN: Thank you, Fred.