INTERVIEW: SCOTT THOMSON
& SUSANNA HOOD of THE RENT
Open Ears Festival // Thursday, April 28th 2011 //
Coffee Culture Café, Kitchener, Ontario.
Interviewer – Ted Harms
Ted Harms (TH): So, tell me how you got here, your interests…
Scott Thomson (ST): I started playing music late. I wasn’t conservatory- or university-trained as a musician. I started at twenty-five, and had already spent a couple years being involved in various ways with music: as a concert presenter, as a reviewer, radio broadcasting. I just felt like getting closer and closer to the music and eventually I started playing which seemed like the ultimate proximity.
TH: Has it always been trombone?
ST: I tried a couple of instruments. I tried to find the ‘voice.’ I started with, interestingly enough, higher pitched instruments – trumpet and clarinet – and then I started playing trombone and that was just right as it’s about the same as my vocal range – maybe there’s something to that, I’m not sure. I was interested primarily in improvisation when I started.
TH: Were you listening to improv music as a kid and young adult?
ST: I came to it relatively early on. I was probably nineteen when I started listening to Derek Bailey or Anthony Braxton or Evan Parker or whomever. I got into it really deeply, really quickly, which prompted this desire to get more involved. Doing a radio program at the University of Guelph radio station – programming it week in week out, doing the research – was a great education. I was reading and listening as much as I could to figure out what the hell was going on. And soon after I started playing, I began meeting people with whom I could play. John Oswald was a very early collaborator.
TH: Was he in Guelph at the time?
ST: I was in Toronto at the time. I was spending a lot of time in Guelph but some time in Toronto as well and I started playing with John when I was living there. We continue to play as a duet and we often play with [percussionist] Germaine Liu. Along the way, I got involved in different kinds of music through other people’s groups. Ken Aldcroft was an early collaborator in this regard. I started playing in his group, playing essentially jazz-based compositions in an open improvisation spirit. The most long-term groups I’ve been in are the duet with John/trio with Germaine, the Ken Aldcroft Convergence Ensemble, and Friendly Rich Marsella’s The Lollipop People, which is essentially a pop group although unlike most pop groups. It’s very interesting musically.
TH: It has a bit of a cabaret element to it, no?
ST: That’s the word that gets applied to it but I’m never sure what that means. I’m not so good at or hung up on genre labels, but that term seems to mean something to a lot of people so I’m happy to go along with it. I call it two-beat dance step music – oom pah, basically – but with some country and some other stuff in there as well.
I also got involved as an organizer and founding board member of the Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto on which I served until early 2009. And through AIMToronto, we got to work with and produce concerts with Evan Parker, William Parker, Eddie Prévost, Joe McPhee, Lori Freedman, Michael Moore, Dylan van der Schyff, Anthony Braxton…it’s a long list!
TH: That’s a good list!
ST: And growing, at least in term of that organization’s work. They just did a thing with Hamid Drake. The one with Anthony Braxton spawned a spin-off project, the AIMToronto Orchestra, which is now separate from AIMToronto organizationally. Kyle Brenders is the artistic director and I’m the administrative director. So, that group formed to do a project with Anthony Braxton that premiered at the Guelph Jazz Festival and was released on Spool Records. It’s a seventeen-piece creative orchestra and just released its first studio record a couple weeks ago called Year of the Boar on Barnyard Records. My first recording under my name was also on Barnyard, duets and solos by myself and clarinetist Lori Freedman, who continues to be a great friend and a great collaborator – she and I are both based in Montreal now. Though we seemed to play more when I was living in Toronto – don’t ask me to explain that one!
Anyway, at a certain point, I got really interested in the idea of repertoire, a body of composed work that I could play with a group to see what potential the material holds for developing a collective sound and discovering music through improvisations. The models are everywhere in the history of jazz, but there was a really strong one in Steve Lacy, an American soprano saxophone player and composer who started out playing traditional jazz and Dixieland in early fifties with the greats: Buck Clayton, Vic Dickinson, Pee Wee Russell, a bunch more. So, that was his education and then Cecil Taylor came up to him and asked, “Why are you playing this old music?” And all of a sudden he was playing in the first Cecil Taylor Unit! And then he was playing with Gil Evans with later with Carla Bley. In his own late-fifties groups, the music that he wanted to play was by Thelonious Monk. At that point, Lacy may have been composing things but he wasn’t performing his compositions in public, as far as I know. What he was doing in public was playing repertoire, and doing the research to really uncover what the Monk repertoire holds, and he made a conscious decision to focus on Monk for quite a few years. He recorded the first all-Monk record other than Monk’s own bands, and played for six months in Monk’s quartet – he became the fifth member of the quartet which he equated with getting his Master’s degree. He then formed a quartet with Roswell Rudd, my teacher, to play only Monk every night. This was in the early sixties and they released the great record, School Days, which is recently reissued yet again on the Emanem label, who put it out first on vinyl with subsequent issues on Hat Hut…
TH: Sorry, you said Roswell Rudd was ‘your teacher’. Have you had lessons from him?
ST: I studied with Roswell two summers ago at his home in the Catskill Mountains. It was great. He’s a beautiful guy and so warm and so full of the stuff that I hold dear which is, well, to boil it down, musicality and kindness. There’s lots of other stuff there but that’s the main stuff.
So, Lacy and Roswell were working together in the early sixties playing Monk’s music. Lots of people are playing Monk now and doing it extremely well and I didn’t feel a pressing need to explore that repertoire and to present it in public. But when I started playing I was already a fan of Lacy’s and I would go to hear him every chance I had which was difficult because he didn’t often play in Southern Ontario. I’d drive to Buffalo – there was a club called the Calumet where he’d play with his trio almost every year. It was amazing, so beautiful.
Towards the end of his life – he died in 2004 – he played a solo concert at the Guelph Jazz Festival at the Guelph Youth Music Centre, which is a really nice venue for that. It was extraordinary. It was clear that he was dying, he was in pain. There’s a record that has just come out on Intakt called November, which was his last solo concert, recorded in Switzerland. So, that was the November after the September when I heard him. It was kind of the same feeling. He was in such pain that every time he clenched his diaphragm, he’d let out a little grunt. And it was really quite moving to hear him play.
I just thought to myself, listening to this music – this beautiful music – who is going to play these pieces, who’s going to play this incredible repertoire? So, that planted the seed. At the time, speaking of Thelonious Monk, I’d been driving to Kitchener/Waterloo to play with Kyle Brenders, who plays a bunch of reed instruments, but soprano sax is one of his principal horns, and Brandon Valdivia [on drums] and the three of us would get together and play Monk’s music. We’d improvise collectively and play Monk tunes. And we tried doing it in public and it just didn’t come off as I’d hoped. It’s evidence of how tough that music is. I still work on it but I don’t play it in public, at least for now anyway. But it was clear that the three of us had sympathetic interests, Kyle and myself in particular. So, after Kyle moved to Toronto in 2007, after he studied with Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan University, I approached him about playing Lacy repertoire, and he was really excited by that. I started transcribing tunes and I had a small folio of photocopies of Lacy original scores and so we used that as a basis and slowly we put together a band.
Brandonwas the drummer and Wes Neal, an amazing bass player with whom I have played quite a bit in Ken Aldcroft’s group, came on board. That was the beginning of The Rent. We played as a quartet in early 2008 and rehearsed a lot. Along the way I met Susanna Hood, who’s a startling performer, incredible performer. She’s a dancer, primarily, in terms of her training, but also an extraordinary vocalist and really unsung in Toronto in her ability to sing song material. I said, well, I want this woman in my band, I want her to sing and eventually to dance as a soloist in the band. I knew I was onto something when I got her aboard and we had a rehearsal and it was amazing – those are not easy songs to sing. Very wide interval leaps, tricky rhythmic things – she’s great! All the reviews of the record consistently say how great she is & they’re right.
What wasn’t part of the plan – though I’m sure happy it worked out this way – is that, along the way, the two of us fell in love and eventually got married. So, it seemed like there was some synergy going on because, of course, Lacy performed with his wife, Irene Aebi, and that partnership really sustained that musical activity throughout their nearly four-decade collaboration. Susanna and I are just getting started but we’re inspired by the model of long-term collaboration to develop the work together.
The band did a couple of residencies at my venue in Toronto, Somewhere There. I say ‘my’ because I opened it in 2007, partly in order to sustain residencies of this nature wherein a musician or a band, based in Toronto, could get two months of weekly gigs. I found at the time that it was really easy to get a one-off gig in Toronto but really hard to keep anything going and have some sustained period of playing together so you could actually develop repertoire and a group sound. So, we wound up doing one residency in 2008 and then another at the end of 2009. Unfortunately, well… it worked out very well in the end, but, unfortunately, Brandon decided to go away to South America for the winter so I was left without a drummer for the second residency. We’d really developed a whole bunch of this stuff; at that point we probably had about twenty-five or thirty Lacy tunes in the book.
So, I called Nick Fraser, who’s pretty much my favourite drummer in Canada right now, hoping he would consider it, and he said ‘yes.’ So, he did our residency and the band just took off musically. He’s just such a swinging drummer, just so tasteful, and he can really drive the band. We recorded immediately after that residency at The Farm, Jean Martin’s recording studio in Toronto and released the record on Ambiences Magnétiques, a Montreal-based record label run by my friend Joane Hétu. She has been very supportive of the project, was delighted that we were recording Lacy. And since then, we released that record in the middle of 2010, and along the way Susanna and I got married, and then we moved to Montreal, so now the band is based in two cities.
TH: Thank God for the 401 [the highway connecting Toronto and Montreal]!
ST: Thank God for the 401, for Via Rail, for whatever means of transportation allow us to get together, which I still try to do about once a month, often playing in Toronto at the Tranzac Club. But we get to play a couple of festivals, like this one, and we’re playing at the Guelph Jazz Festival in the fall. At this point, I haven’t counted lately, but there are probably thirty-five to forty Lacy tunes in the book. Moreover, like Lacy who, after he did that work with the Monk book, started writing his own music to be sung by his wife and played by his band, I’ve been writing my own music lately for Susanna to sing and The Rent to play. So, at this point, we have a handful of my songs in the book as well. And, it seems like, in time, it might turn into a band that plays my music instead of Lacy’s music. But, for now, the Lacy music is still the core of the thing and I want to focus on that because it still needs and invites a lot of work. It’s still very motivating. So, that’s the history.
TH: Steve was very much pre-occupied with playing regularly. One reason he moved to Paris was so that he could play every night and not just a one-off gig here and there. It isn’t just enough to get a band together and rehearse because everybody would like to get paid for the gig and playing it live does add an edge to it because you can feed off the audience and the venue.
ST: But the energy input and output is just completely different in our specific situation. Playing every night is virtually impossible now, but it’s important to play when we can because the music lives in people’s ears, not just in the band’s ears.
TH: The thing about Lacy though, at least from what I’ve read, is that by the end it seemed everyone just wanted him to play Monk or to not bring the band. Are you worried that, in light of bringing in your own songs, that The Rent will be known as a Steve Lacy project?
ST: I’m not worried. If somebody really wants us to play Lacy music, at this point, I’m more than happy to do so. That may change, but I don’t feel any conflict with that. First and foremost, I’ll try to do what I think is right. But I also understand the economics of the situation. There are going to be some festivals and some promoters that want the Lacy repertoire. I can’t really worry about that. That people want the band to play at all is, to me, the most important thing.
TH: Steve was concerned about his legacy and saying in interviews that he hoped that his songs live thirty or forty years after he’s gone, that people are walking around humming Lacy tunes. Just like he had a hand in the Monk revival, or the Monk continuation, and he used Monk as a springboard for his own music.
ST: He was an incredibly prolific composer and he has so many more compositions than Thelonious Monk does. There’s no questioning the quality and importance of the Monk canon but Lacy was steadfast and diligent about documenting his work. With the exception of Anthony Braxton, I can think of few contemporary jazz and creative musicians that have documented their work so intensively. It’s interesting what you say about having the music live on in people’s minds, ears, and hearts. There’s a two-CD set called Futurities from the early eighties. It’s a larger group playing a suite of songs that set poems by Robert Creeley. They called it Futurities because when they were doing the rehearsals and performances, someone suggested that these are the standards of the future – they’re great and they’re going to live on. He took that one step further and named the whole disc after that. And, appropriately enough, a couple of those tunes are in our book.
TH: You mentioned the Robert Creeley connection. Lacy had a long list of collaborators, and not just musically; there are the poets he worked with like Creeley, Brion Gysin, Lew Welch, etc. How does that inform The Rent? With Susanna involved, you’re already getting the dance aspect, which again was what Lacy did, having written two or three ballets, but where are the future collaborations for the group?
ST: They are too numerous to name. I’m thinking of new ones all the time. The current collaborations are right there in front of us. Lacy was one of the most, if not the most, literary of jazz musicians. He truly believed and felt the inseparability of the arts, a ‘Renaissance Man’ sensibility, something he learned from Duke Ellington, among many other people. So, his pieces are dedicated not only to musicians, but also to painters, poets, writers, dancers. And I like to think I bring some of the same sensibility. I mean, part of the history that I didn’t say before was that I have a couple of degrees in English Literature, I used to help edit a literary journal and I read poetry all the time. I’m deeply inspired by Lacy’s hugely original approach to setting contemporary verse to music by letting the rhythm of the language dictate what the music is going to sound like. And so his treatment of Robert Creeley and the other single-poet projects he did are great. There is a bunch of suites – he started with the Tao Suite, where he set Lao Tzu, the Robert Creeley Futurities, and later on he set Blaga Dimitrova, the great Bulgarian poet, in a recording called Vespers, which is a beautiful project and we do two of those. There is also Taslima Nasrin; it was the last large-group project I saw Lacy do, which is called The Cry. She’s a feminist poet of Indian descent who writes really heart-wrenching verse. And Gysin as you mentioned. The model is a trenchant one for me, and I’m setting poets and poetry I admire to music.
TH: What poets? Any that are contemporary?
ST: We lost P.K. Page last year and she’s probably number one on my radar right now. Jan Zwicky is a superb poet, as well as a contemporary philosopher that people are going to read because she has such a great writerly voice. I’ve tried setting some of Don McKay’s work to music but it’s pretty complex, metrically. Some things live just fine on the page and they don’t need to be touched. The mark of a good poem isn’t whether or not I can set it to music! Thank God!
As I was saying, it’s not like the poetry is untouchable; I don’t approach anything if it’s too precious but, in practical terms, some poetry doesn’t want to be set to music. Some is musical enough as it is and doesn’t need to be set.
P.K. Page’s poetry, for example, a lot of it is danceable. And the connection between song and dance is a priority not only for Lacy but also for me. She’s a painter, as well, and the interdisciplinary feeling is bred in the bone of her work.
But in terms of the interdisciplinary nature of the band, one thing that people don’t know from just listening to the recording is Susanna’s contribution as an improvising soloist as a dancer. It’s really a key component of the band. It creates a fairly unique dynamic in terms of a band playing tunes. It is one thing to improvise with a dancer in a freely improvised context, but it’s something else altogether to be working with this material, and it brings to bear some really interesting questions about what it means to dance on song material. What’s the role of a dancing soloist? And these are questions that Susanna answers startlingly well, and that’s something that you need to see to appreciate.
The Rent: Scott Thomson, Kyle Brenders, Nick Fraser, Wes Neal, Susanna Hood – 2010 (Photo: Jean Martin)
…as it happens, Susanna appears and joins us…
TH: So, Susanna, how do you get involved in the process?
Susanna Hood (SH): Well, I was trying to describe this the other night to somebody after our last show. I want things to stay on an intuitive level, but I would like to get to a more analytical approach to dancing on these songs and I’m starting to engage more actively in some of this research. If there’s the head that is written that we’re improvising on musically, what movement vocabulary specific to that song offers the jumping off points to improvise as a dancer? At this point, with most of the material, I haven’t done that kind of work. So, I’m working on the basis of my experience singing the material, which is corporeal in and of itself – the music feels a certain way inside of me.
I’m also working from the content of the lyric and when I’m actually out there moving, in general, the way I think about sound and movement is very similar. I can say that I hear movement and I see sound – so, those synapses are firing in me all the time! And then when I’m out on the floor improvising, I listen in a different way when I’m moving…it’s hard to describe. My whole body becomes a listening organ so some things I’m very conscious of hearing while, with other things, it’s a quicker-than-thought response and I think different contributions to the improvisation pop out more specifically to me at different times. I’m listening to different people in the ensemble at different moments but I do have a special relationship to the rhythm section. I listen to Nick a lot – not in a way that I could say what he was doing or tell you exactly what Wes [The Rent’s regular bassist] or Rob [Clutton, subbing in for Wes for this gig] is doing. I would say they’re more in my bones. I relate to the horns in a different way, a more linear way; I find I’m either responding directly to them or not at all. But the rhythm section is always present. I’m working to manifest physically what I’m hearing but also making my own choices. In this way, I like thinking of myself as one of the horns, in a way.
TH: For the rehearsals, how much do you work up cues for the other musicians to say we’re going into this section of that section of the tune, and then how much wiggle room is there? Because if you find a groove, you want to keep it going and hopefully everybody can get on the bus with you. But if there is a song structure, at times you might need to drop what you’re doing to go back to the head or we’re wrapping up.
ST: The rehearsal process is fundamentally one of understanding the material better. And that usually has to do simply with investigating the notated parts.
SH: Sometimes we do improvise together…
ST: …but we never work out cues. One of the principles that I’m working with is that the musicians are there because they make good choices. I wouldn’t ask people to play if I didn’t think they would make good choices. I have faith in their ability to organize the music well. So in that sense, it’s really an improvising band; we improvise on, from, and through material and that happens at a couple different levels.
It happens not only on the levels of rhythm, harmony, pitch but also in response to lyrics and to movement in space. And the more we play together, the better that gets. For me, the best rehearsal is simply to play. I’d love to rehearse more but it’s just not practical right now. I want to pay my musicians and the economics of the situation just don’t make it practical. But I don’t think the music is compromised because we have discovered so much in performance already and will continue to do so. There will be some great surprises on Saturday. Rest assured!
TH: This music is a high-wire act. It’s not like going to NASCAR to watch just for the crashes but you do want that “on edge” aspect of it. You know that you’re seeing and hearing something and it’s never going to happen again. Even when you have the CD and people, unfortunately, might show up wanting you to play “The Mad Yak” just like you did on the CD because it’s so great. And then they get there, but it’s going to something different. The song is just the framework and then the band is filling in the gaps.
ST: I can’t spend too much time and energy worrying about what people expect. Who knows what people want to hear? I don’t think people know themselves what they want to hear until they hear it. For me, and I daresay for the whole band, the working process is a positive one because it involves a lot of risk and play. We have material to play with, on, and through and as we’re doing that, individually and collectively, there’s a chance that it could just grind to a halt or fall of a cliff. That’s exciting to me. And most of the music I love functions this way. It just gives me the motivation to keep doing it, and also to write new material so that we have other contexts in which to explore that group dynamic.
Before I forget, there was one other aspect of the interdisciplinary nature of the project that bears mention, the cover of our CD. It is resonant because it’s a painting by our very close friend John Heward, a painter and a percussionist based in Montreal. John was a close friend of Lacy’s. He and Irene would stay at John’s studio when they were passing through. John and Lacy also did a duo recording together, and John’s been a staunch supporter of ours through the whole project so it was natural not only to include his work on the cover, but also, when we make it work, to hang some of his work in the space where we’re performing. We’ve done that at our CD release in Toronto and I’m hoping, in time, to be able do something more elaborate, which involves a kind of set design of some of John’s paintings so that we can really make things vibrate together – the music, the dance, the poetry, and the painting. These things are all happening together and it’s really exciting for me.
TH: I’ve got some Lacy quotes and I think we’ve touched on a lot of them already but Susanna, as well, I could just get your response to these quotes, and just how The Rent is either trying to embody them or use them as a jumping off point.
This is one is just what we were talking about: “The unity between all the arts as well as the infinite possibilities of collaborations between artists of different disciplines and different persuasions has long been apparent to many of us.” Susanna, how does the art influence you, how does the rhythm section influence you…
SH: This project certainly, as Scott’s saying, embodies a lot of those meetings specifically, but I would say, in general, that’s how I’m inspired to work; a lot of my work outside of this context has been influenced by visual art. Almost every project I’ve ever started has its roots there. My father is a painter and maybe this influence comes from there. Certainly, when I first started making work, a lot of the principles of the time when people like John Cage collaborated with Merce Cunningham plus the various artists they worked with like Jasper Johns to Robert Rauschenberg were at the core of the way that I create. I call myself a dance artist because it’s convenient and one needs a label and I’m lucky that the dance world seems pretty open to a fairly broad definition of what dance is. And, as I said, for me, sound-making and movement-making come very much from the same source and I have an intimate experience of that because my instrument is my body, a vehicle for both of those aspects of my work in general and this band in particular.
ST: There’s only one thing I would add. I’ve talked about this in the context of the band, but in general, I made a conscious choice to be in the world of art-making because I get to meet and work with amazing people, the best people, and it doesn’t matter if those people are painters or dancers or writers or musicians or dedicated fans. They’re just really exciting and interesting people and the kind of people I want to populate my world with. So, it’s a no-brainer not to close myself off to the influence of any particular discipline.
TH: Another quote, which we’ve touched on already: “What I’m searching for is a certain rapport between the piece and the playing, something that makes a unity between the structures and the playing. I’m seeking a music that unifies these different things. For me, composition and improvisation must be the same thing – it forms a whole. And since, for example, on School Days it was on the way towards that.” With dance, you might have some steps or movement that you want to get into certain pieces. But how do you allow that to open doors as opposed to keeping things to a rough plan?
SH: I think it really comes down to listening. The most concrete part of my role – the thing that is the least changeable – is the lyric, is singing the song. And even there, every night is going to be different. I’m listening to the way the whole organism is functioning and that’s what makes it interesting and alive and that influences how I perform. It wouldn’t make any sense to shut off my ears and launch into movement or sound.
TH: But what if you find something that works? What if there’s one time when you think “That’s it! This is what I need to do.”
SH: I haven’t found that yet – fortunately or unfortunately! And generally, my experience in this band and anywhere else is that anytime I try to hold on to something or recreate something it’s almost surely a recipe for disaster or it’s not juicy anymore. That’s not what it’s about. It’s a constant act of letting go. That’s just my relationship to improvising in general.
TH: And that works into the next quote. The interviewer quotes somebody else: “The only value of a work of art is the value it gives to other people.”
ST: Is that from an interview by Raymond Gervais?
TH: [checks source] Yes, it is.
ST: Raymond is a new friend in Montreal. He presented Lacy’s first concert in Montreal. He’s a very interesting man and I’m looking forward to getting to know him better. The quotation is from…
TH: … Giuseppe Chiari. Lacy’s response is “Yes, of course. Sartre said the same thing. It means that once it’s done, it’s not yours anymore. It belongs to everyone and it’s for them to do something or not notice.”
ST: This is not my music. One could say this is Lacy’s music but obviously it’s not Lacy’s music either if he says it belongs to the group, it belongs to the people; it lives in the ears of my bandmates and in the ears of the listeners.
TH: And as we were saying before, the audience, in music in general and especially in improvisation, the feedback you get, either emotionally or visually or mentally, is a component as well.
ST: It better be! Or why are you playing in public?
SH: It’s palpable. The whole room is collaborating with what’s going on. The music is all of our responsibility in that moment. And everybody in the room is contributing to that in different ways.
ST: And if it’s on the level of language, so be it. If it’s on the level of composition or written materials, so be it. If it’s on the level of improvisation, so be it. Hopefully it’s all those things at once. But the possibility is that it is any of those things, which just opens up the field.