Friday 9 November 2018

Bright Dog Red: "The Ends Justify the Means" [Interview]

"The fact is one's own voice is not heard anywhere else.  It's a challenge to be yourself.  It takes a lot of courage."

Yusef Lateef had a passionate view of the world, his music and his art.  The quest for knowledge was never-ending and it's that level of inquisitiveness that solidified him as a pioneer in incorporating eastern styles within his own blend of far-reaching jazz.

The courage Lateef speaks of is applicable in different contexts: the intricacies involved in improvisation, for example, are genuinely fascinating and incredibly courageous.  The discipline as a musician to listen to the musicians around you and respond in kind, play your part within that cohesion being generated in that collective space, supporting one another... And being able to hear this all play out over the course of 'Means to the Ends' is exhilarating.

Marking the debut full-length project from Bright Dog Red, now aptly aligned with Philadelphia's Ropeadope Records, the improv band from Albany, New York, present their spirited and inspired form of jazz that skilfully weaves in additional elements of electronica and hip-hop.

Founded by drummer, Joe Pignato - a one-time student of Yusef Lateef and now a State University Professor in his own right - and comprising of students who participated in extensive Pignato-led jam sessions, Bright Dog Red's foundations were laid in these freestyled assemblies that date as far back as ten years prior to this album's release.  On the band's Bandcamp page, bassist Anthony Berman describes their playing as "spontaneous, collective meditation" which truly sets the stage for something special.

Joining Pignato and Berman on this meditative experience and journey are Jarritt Ahmed Sheel on trumpet, Mike LaBombard on sax, Cody Davies on electronics, Cully and MC Righteous on rapping duties, Mike Kemmlein and Zak Westbrook on guitars.

'Means to the Ends' is a stunning release and a real highlight for 2018 - the project absolutely serves as Bright Dog Red's own voice: not to be heard anywhere else.  Blue-in-Green:RADIO are thrilled to have secured time with Bright Dog Red's Joe Pignato to discuss jazz improv and 'Means to the Ends'.

Congratulations on the recent release of 'Means to the Ends': you must be thrilled with how the album has been received so far?
Thanks for the congratulations.  It's pretty exciting, seeing it finally out.  The original recordings started as an informal session, the band playing for about two hours straight, in the Disco Studio, the place we record.  At the time, we never imagined the session as something to release, let alone to serve as our first full-length album.  So, now that it's out and people are streaming it, radio stations are playing it, and people have started to review it, if feels really gratifying, like we did right by the work.  The response from other musicians has been particularly encouraging.

Which artists have had the biggest impact on shaping your overall sound?
Always a tough question to answer because there are so many, and you never want to leave the influences out but there have been a few big ones for me personally that I think, as the group's founder, influence the band.  First, Yusef Lateef, as the original impetus for the project dates back to my time studying composition and improvisation with Yusef way back when in the mid 80s during my undergraduate days.  He would lead jam sessions with students from time to time and they were often my favorite moments because they were so unpredictable.  During that time, I had the opportunity to study with Max Roach and although he really influenced my drumming, he was a major force in helping me form my own conception about what music could be for me.  Less directly, I would have to note the Miles Davis bands of the early 70s, Tony Williams Lifetime, Albert Ayler, King Crimson, David Bowie, and Can.  Now you have me on a roll! So many more, Imran.  I could go on and on. Thanks for making me thinking about how many great musicians have had an impact.  The members of the band also bring their own influences, which is really exciting.

Can you talk a little about the nature of creating music through improvisation?
There are as many ways to improvise as there are people, cultures and musical traditions.  So everyone has their own idiosyncratic approach, within some culturally established practice, either firmly within the practice or pushing the margins of it, expanding the practice.  Today, the number of cultural practices for musicians to draw from is greater than it has been, at least greater than at any time in the age of recording.  So one aspect of the cultural practice among improvisers working in jazz and rock is recombinance, the recombination of heretofore delineated styles or idioms.
Each of us is bringing a cadre of musical and cultural references to the group that we recombine as we go forming our improvisations.  For us, improvisation starts from the premises of "just play", listen carefully, and try to avoid ideation, a notion that I got from a conversation with the great bassist Gary Peacock, in which he noted how putting things into ideated thought takes improvisers out of the moment, putting them at a dangerous and debilitating distance from the music making.
Sometimes people refer to what we do as free improvisation, which at times applies but nothing is really free of constraint or structure, so I think of our improvisation more as a recombinant approach.  We start with very little, maybe I'll direct someone to start or call for a loose set of ideas, like let's start this set focused on rhythm.  Then, as the set evolves, we combine and recombine elements from our own musical interests, tendencies, and preferred practices.  So, there's some continuity to those things that helps organize our improvisations.  Generally, we're drawing on styles that can come to the fore or fade into the background, improvisation, jazz, hip hop, electronica, and psychedelia, and other elements as well, depending on the set.  It's strange because somehow it comes together.  Cully, one of the MCs on the album describes it as "an impossible form of unity".
This approach involves some risk.  Not every improvisation works or transitions.  So there needs to be some willingness to be vulnerable, in the studio, on the bandstand, where ever.  In fact, we debated "fixing" some things on the recording but ultimately agreed that we wanted the album to reflect what we do live, transitions, searching, responding and coming together, all of it.

Bright Dog Red is composed of artists who came together through improvised jam sessions: at what point did you realise you might have something special amongst those sessions?
The members of the group, with one exception, were former students of mine at the State University of New York, Oneonta.  As I mentioned earlier, I was influenced by one of my teachers, Yusef Lateef, and started organizing jam sessions with my students, similar to the ones Yusef held when I was in school.  I was always struck by the fact that all of the players came from diverse musical backgrounds.  There was seldom agreement on what to play so I would simply say "let's play and see what happens".  I recorded many of those jam sessions.  A few years back while reviewing the recordings, I shared them with some of the former students and got the idea that it might be interesting to formulate a core group and start playing, to see what would come from it.  I reached out to various students from the past, some who were in school at the same time and others separated by years.  Eventually, we settled in on the current core line up, Cully (MC), Cody Davies (electronics), Tony Berman (bass), Mike LaBombard (sax), and the one member who wasn't a student, Jarritt Sheel (trumpet).  Jarritt, a professor at Berklee, is a friend and collaborator.  He sat in with the band once and it just clicked.  He's been a member ever since.  We have a group of affiliated members who have been in the band or filled in when someone wasn't available and some of those players are on the album, notably MC Righteous and guitarists Zak Westbrook (lead) and Mike Kemmlein (rhythm and effects).

What was the process of recording 'Means to the Ends' like?
We recorded the foundational sessions at the Disco Studio near Albany, New York, Bright Dog Red’s home base.  Those core tracks—drums, bass, lead guitar, electronics, and the rhymes of MC Righteous—were captured live, during a single, completely improvised, session.  Additional tracks were added using a similar approach.  For example, MC Cully freestyled his rhymes over the core recordings during a single take.  Cully took one pass without knowing what was coming next.  Additional tracking, trumpet, saxophone, and rhythm guitar, came later, each employing the same freewheeling ethos.
The 'Means to the Ends' sessions produced some 90 minutes plus of potential material. I culled excerpts from the sessions, forming the basis of the 11 tracks that comprise the album.  Afterwards, I handed those selections off to Paul Geluso, a renowned mixing and mastering engineer, who mixed the album, making additional edits to fine tune each track. 'Means to the Ends' captures the spirit of Bright Dog Red’s live sets.

How did the band come to the attention of Ropeadope Records?
I had been corresponding with the label as BDR were in consideration to support for a more established Ropeadope artist at the time.  Although those gigs never came to pass, we eventually sparked up conversations with the label CEO, Louis Marks, and things came together organically. Louis is a big ears, big heart visionary.  He loves music, understands culture, and has great ideas about what a label should be in this historical period.  We're really grateful to Ropeadope, Louis and Fabian have been great to work with.  We look forward to future collaborations.

Who would be a dream artist for you to either record or perform with?
David Bowie, with Miles Davis and Albert Ayler.

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