Questions from the Atlas

I’m bringing my trio with Ted Poor and Ben Street to the Atlas in Washington DC tomorrow night (Wednesday, May 30th, 8pm). Brad Linde, who curates the jazz series at the Atlas and is also a saxophonist/bandleader of renown on the DC scene, asked me a few questions ahead of the gig. (Cross-posted from the Atlas Arts Blog).

Brad: How does your approach to improvising/accompanying/etc change based on the different contexts you encounter?

Dan: The essence of improvisation is context. That’s what’s special about it. Since it’s happening in real time, since we’re actually making music up on the spot, at its deepest level it should reflect everything about the current moment. I’m not only talking about the note choices that my bandmates make, and that I respond to; I’m also talking about subtle things like the sound of the room we’re playing in, what we’ve eaten that day, how we’ve slept, and what the weather is like outside. In improvisation, we have the opportunity to take all this into account at an intuitive level. It’s exactly like having a conversation with a group of people: depending on how noisy the room is, how well you know the people, the general vibe, you’ll participate in a unique way — if you’re really listening, that is (we all know people who seem oblivious to context, interrupting and forcing their point across). So I see the challenge of improvisation as listening to the current context in as sensitive and authentic a way as possible, and letting myself respond. The other side of this challenge is to be able to find yourself in that context: not to give in to it completely but to find the balance between it and who you are.

Brad: Your compositions are very lyrical, but they have a theoretical underpinning. What is your process behind composing?

Dan: It really depends. I’ve written tunes by coming up with a theoretical idea and more or less filling in the blanks; I’ve written tunes that came to me in a dream; I’ve written tunes that seemed like a joke at the time but that I came to like later. What’s interesting to me is that no matter what my approach is, they always seem to have a common vibe of some sort. I wrote a piano concerto in early 2010, and I didn’t feel like writing much else for the rest of the year. When I started writing tunes again, I was surprised by what came out — a lot of what I was writing didn’t seem to fit the mold of what I thought I should be writing. It took me a little while to realize that I had evolved as a composer, and that my previous ideas about what a tune should be didn’t apply anymore. The fact that one can surprise oneself as a composer is what’s fascinating to me: you are, in a way, divided in two when you write, and one part of you can sneak up on the other without it knowing it. Those kinds of moments remind me that our creativity essentially comes from the same place as our dreams — a place we just don’t control. Or, if we do control it, it goes stale, fast.

Brad: Can you describe your approach to reharmonizing or recreating harmony when improvising?

Dan: I think improvisation gets deep when, instead of being merely a rendition of a tune, it’s a commentary on it: instead of a reading of the text, it’s the artist telling you how he or she feels about the text. Then the music starts to get layered and multidimensional — there’s a frame and freedom inside the frame. Like hearing a story second hand from a particularly inventive storyteller. That informs my approach to reharmonization: I see the tune going from chord A to chord B, and I think, well, the composer liked to go from A to B this way, but how do I feel about that? Well, I like to go there this way! So in the end, there’s a distillation of the will of the composer, since I’m still following the broad strokes of his or her roadmap, and there’s also my own personal taste running havoc inside the map. My commentary on the original, in other words. Thinking about it this way, I think the harmonic possibilities are endless. I’ve also spent a lot of time over the years training my ear to hear new harmonies, and that really helps widen the field for me. There aren’t too many combinations of notes out there that don’t have a harmonic identity, however dense and impenetrable they may sound at first.

Brad: Your piano playing often breaks from the standard texture of “comping”. Can you talk about how you conceive of different textures when you are playing?

Dan: I remember being explained, in my teens, that Bach wrote music based on the popular dance forms of his time. Right away, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to write a series of extended pieces for piano based on the popular dance forms of my time? One for rap, another for drum n’ bass, another for rock, techno, funk, hip hop… I never got around to really carrying that out — although I still might someday — but in the mean time, I’ve used this idea in my playing a lot. One of the trio tunes on my latest record, Peal Repeal, is a transcription of a drum n’ bass groove for piano, with dark harmony. Another, All I Heard Was Nothing, is based on the texture of early Steve Reich-esque minimalist music. So I get a lot of mileage out of checking textures out that are outside of the jazz world and seeing if I can find a place for them in my music.

Brad: You’ve played in the DC area often in the past few years, most recently at the Kennedy Center with Allison Miller. Do you have any thoughts on the DC Jazz Scene? Is there something that attracts you to the District?

Dan: Well, I have some very good friends there, so I love visiting them, and there are also some great local musicians that I enjoy playing with. This may just be an outsider’s impression, but it feels like there’s a lot of jazz going on in DC these days, with new venues opening up right and left. It’s great to come play in a city where there’s excitement for what you’re doing.

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