Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Chris Forbes Trajectory.

Photo Courtesy Chris Forbes.

Chris has become a helpful regular in the comment zone and actually likes to write so I badgered him to go through the profile question ordeal and ...voila.

1.What brought you to music?

I was interested in music pretty young according to my mother. She said I always seemed to gravitate towards the musical instrument toys at the expense of most of the others. My earliest musical memories revolve around the piano that we found in the parsonage at my Dad's third church posting. It was a South African made Steinway and I sat at it for hours playing clusters and the most dissonant things possible. I remember being really interested in the clash of overtones that low clusters made. I think that even then I had a real kinship with dissonant music. After about a year and a half my parents got me piano lessons. My teacher used a method that immediately encouraged improvisation and composition and those remained interests of mine all through my schooling. Back then actually I didn't see much difference between improv and composing and would often write pieces in my head through improv that I never committed to paper. Early on I was a fan of the twentieth century and luckily grew up in a small midwestern college town with good contemporary music being played all the time. Loved Stravinsky after hearing the Rite of Spring and continued exploring Schoenberg, Webern Ives and even Penderecki, who I met at the age of ten or so. When I was in seventh grade a hippie music teacher (technically he was a Dead Head)  turned me on to Boulez and Stockhausen....and jazz improv. From there it was a quick journey of discovery from Bop and Bird to Ornette, Cecil, Braxton and the like. By the time I was in high school my parents were wishing I was into heavy metal like all my other friends instead of the cacophony that exploded from my room every night. 

2.Describe your role models, muses and mentors.

I've always been a bit of an autodidact with jazz. My piano training was pretty classical up through college. I learned a bit about jazz harmony from a friend of my dad's who played a kind of jazz based church music. Much of the rest of what I know in jazz was from listening pretty carefully to the great bop pianists, Bill Evans and then McCoy, Paul Bley and of course Cecil. The defining role model for me musically is Cecil. I admire his tenacity and his insistence on being himself completely even when it has not been convenient for him. It's impossible to be a free jazz pianist without some debt to Cecil, even if you go in a totally different direction. His is a pretty amazing presence.

I ended up going to Berklee in Boston for college. There was a bit of a free music scene there at the time, mostly surrounding George Garzone and his avant-big band student ensemble. I was a regular for a while at Michael's Pub listening to the Fringe. But it was the early 80s and the avant-garde was really dying at the was pretty lean. My piano teacher encouraged me to move more into composition and I took a traditional composition major with a minor in classical piano. That allowed me to apply for the Master's program at Juilliard where I was accepted and studied with American Master David Diamond. Diamond was definitely a major influence on me. He taught me that every note mattered and how not to settle for my first musical thoughts. He felt the biggest danger for improvisers is that our facility for musical ideas can sometimes mean we don't examine them as much as we could. I've tried to keep that lesson even though I don't compose concert music much any more.

I also have to give props to two individuals on the NYC scene who really helped me early in my time here. I'd kind of given up on free jazz during a long time in Washington DC where the scene was pretty dismal. When I turned 40 and moved to Chicago I had a sort of midlife creative crisis and went back to free playing. I did a little work in Chicago, but when I moved to New York I decided I would really put myself in a learning posture. I met Daniel Carter and spent a lot of time playing with him early on. Daniel is one of the most generous musicians and someone who has the gift to help you build your confidence as an improviser, plus he has an interesting take on just about everything from music to philosophy to politics. The other big influence was Sabir Mateen. Sabir gives workshops sometimes and when I moved to NY I was lucky enough to get into one. I learned more about playing free in a group there than I had in any experience in my life before. Sabir has a real gift for conceptualizing group situations and has a strong idea about what every member of a group should do. He has turned my mind around several times about the role of the piano in free music and unlocked some real mysteries for at Sabir's workshops I met some of the closet collaborators, Ras Moshe and Matt Lavelle. I will always be grateful for that.

3. Describe your community of colleagues and audiences.

Mostly I hang around the younger elements of the downtown scene. Matt Lavelle is one of my closet collaborators and a good friend. Matt is always on a journey and he really wants to bring all of us with him. Currently I play with him in Morcilla, a group that started out as a Latin/Free concept but has morphed into much more than that.  I'm also working with him in a new group which will come out in a couple weeks at the Festival of New Trumpet and we're pretty excited about it...Matt is describing it as attacking Trane's concept, but in our own way. For my part I'm trying to imagine modal playing that doesn't involve either triads or's an interesting problem.

I also spend a lot of time playing in bands with Steve Swell. I'm involved with Steve's Nation of We band, which is pretty thrilling as it is a collection of really great known and lesser known players, many of whom have played with Cecil. Steve has a really interesting approach to composing for this band, which includes alot of conduction and I find our gigs to be real events...few and far between but really special.

I also am working in a new band with Steve, Rob Brown, Hill Greene and Michael Thompson. I'm excited about this group because the caliber of playing is really high and as a rhythm section we've reached an almost telepathic level fairly quickly. Steven is hoping to record and tour with this band soon. I hope it happens as it would be my first out of NYC touring.

The other major people I work with are people associated with Ras Moshe's Music Now. Ras is gifted with an uncanny ability to put people in musical situations and watch the sparks fly. His Music Now bands are almost always a rotating cast of characters...almost experiements in blending musical personalities. We've made some music I'm really proud of...alot of it is available on YouTube. And Ras is a deep cat...really uncompromising in his vision and very thoughtful.

4.What are the important elements you apply to your personal approach to performance, repertoire and composition?

I have an almost mystical relationship to harmony. Early in my life I read Schoenberg's Harmonielehre and I think I got infected with the old Austrian's note mysticism. Schoenberg felt the chord was actually the vertical expanding of the melodic tone. Though he never went far enough, I used him as a starting point for my conception, in which harmony is made out of the cellular structure of melodies and at least to my mind is just a thickening out of the melody and tone color. Various combinations of notes have deeply personal meanings to me. One six note chord I use obsessively came to me twenty years ago in a dream and has always represented the mysterious and numinous for me whenever I use it. Another might represent the earthy or the violent, or the erotic. I don't usually let anyone in on these personal meanings of chords...but it's more or less conscious on my I'm telling a very literal story in tones.

As far as repertoire and composition, most of my work lately has been as a sideman so I haven't performed my own tunes much. I'm hoping to change that. I'm really interested in the line between the composed and the improvised. When I last had a working trio, we did mostly freely improvised work, but in such a way that most audiences thought that the material was pre-composed. I liked that...and I like writing tunes that sound like improvisations. I'm also finding myself more interested in open form composition, game pieces and music inspired by fractals and chaos algorithms.

5.What role does teaching have in your work?

I made my living primarily as a music teacher. I taught piano early in my career but since 1994 I've taught music in schools in Maryland and New York. I'm currently working as a teaching artist in Brooklyn, in a program that combines in school interdisciplinary arts and an afterschool comprehensive arts program housed in the Sunset Park neighborhood. I work with children from kindergarten all the way through high school. This work keeps me creatively fresh and challenged. Through it I have developed in interest in hip hop and how hip hop can be developed in creative ways. I have also learned a lot about world percussion, through my work with our percussion ensemble. And last year we did a musical based on a book by Salman Rushdie. To match the fantasy of the book, we decided to design and build our own orchestra. I immersed myself in instrument making theory and we ended up with many unique mallet and stringed instruments for our orchestra. The music itself combined composed music and conduction and has given me a new outlet for my own creativity. I've continued to experiment with new instruments and tuning systems. My significant other says I can't go into a china shop now without trying to ring all the glasses.

6. How have changes in the economy impacted your work?

I've never really earned a living out of playing or composing music. Oddly, I'm having the best performing year ever in my career, with more gigs per month than ever and most of them actually bringing in some real money. But the teaching artist work, which pays the bills, has been a little shakey. I was laid off for a while this summer, but hired back in the fall. I feel like I've dodged a bullet for now, but the chances of needing new work are greater than they've been before. 

7. If you perform beyond your region or overseas, how has that changed over time?

I have yet to do the overseas thing. I am hoping for it, but also know that it's hard given my teaching schedule. The same is true for domestic touring in any extensive way. However there are some small things in the wings that I hope will pan out.

8.How has technology and changes in the way music circulates impacted your work?

Not really. I never recorded very much before 2004. In fact I had a 20 year hiatus in free jazz and in jazz in general. I've been a sideman in a handful of small label projects and put out my own CD back in 2005. I put out a small batch but I've still got about 100 of 'em left. I honestly love the freedom that the home recording boom has given us as musicians, and I think the internet can be a great marketing tool, but I also think that it's harder and harder to get noticed, even with this expanded market. There's so much out on the net and sooooo much of it is of questionable quality. It can be quite a job to get your small needle in the haystack noticed...quite as difficult as it was in the bad old days of record labels. So to me the answer, as it has always been for avant-garde musicians, is DIY. We need to take some pages from some of the punk bands or Dirty South hip hop. Too many of us are still thinking on a label model and that is almost totally dead, and I don't think it will be coming back for us. We have to create our own destiny.

9. Describe your current and potential future projects and collaborations along with things you would like to do.

Matt Lavelle has my whole career planned out for me! He says I should do a trio album, then a quartet or quintet, another trio album, and then maybe something with strings...the man's full of plans!

Actually I do want to start a working trio soon. I have a lot of ideas and even some people in mind for it, but I'm a really bad leader when it comes to shilling for gigs. I blame it some on my day job, which is really demanding on my time, but if I'm honest I can admit that I have a pretty big lazy streak. And also a bit of an easily bruised ego...rejection is hard and gigs where two people show up really get to me if it's my band.
I have two pieces I'm working on right now that I hope to one day play with's called The Infernal Machine and is based on a long series of melodies generated by a fractal algorithm, interrupted by free improvisations from the band. The other is called Major Arcana and is a series of notes, textures, scales, methods of improv, each based on a card from the Tarot. The performance while actually be ordered by dealing out a reading and then performing based on the spread of the cards...sort of like Zorn's game pieces but with a different twist I hope.

I've been lucky in the people I've worked with, especially people in Steve Swell's bands but there are a number of people I'd like to persue things with. I'd love to do something permanent with Will Connell, an amazing player who is underexposed in the community but played with Horace Tapscott and Cecil among others. I'd love to do a larger project that could shoot some work to people who've helped me like Matt, Ras, Sabir and Steve. And at some time I'd love to do something with a really large ensemble involving composition and conduction...and even some of my invented gamalan instruments. There's a lot in my mind...there's always a lot in my mind. The problem is bring it out.

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