My album with Lonnie Holley, Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection, came out April 9th. I have another record, officially unannounced, coming out in the Fall. For me to tell any story about Broken Mirror you have to know the second record is there, even if it is still waiting behind the curtain. For this essay I’m going to call that yet-to-be-released record Swish, which is not it’s title but is, if you care to remember, the originally announced, but regrettably unused, title of what became Life of Pablo.
Before Big Inner I had a band called Fight the Big Bull - 5 horns, 3 rhythm section with an honorary 6th horn player and 4th rhythm section member when we were lucky. We were a really good band, something between Sun Ra, the Liberation Music Orchestra, Electric Miles, and Fela Kuti. We obviously weren't that good, but maybe closer than one might think. By 2012, when Big Inner was slated for release, Fight the Big Bull had been my creative braintrust for years. It was instrumental music and I wrote the arrangements, but the soul of the band was as an improvisatory machine. The arrangements were pivot points and pillars, mechanisms to catapult the band into a kind of loosely choreographed ballet - messy but intentional. As we often said “scientific precision will only be noticeable in its absence”. I was enthralled with the possibilities of the Avant-garde. I ate cheese fries with a tipsy Jandek at the now-defunct 3rd Street Diner and Ken Vandermark, a Macarthur Genius Grant award winner and archetypical Free Jazz saxophonist, slept on my floor. Fight the Big Bull was covered by Fresh Air, was on the cover of Jazz Times and for a moment I could see the outline of an Avant-garde jazz career on the horizon.
It wasn't so much that I veered off (or was it on?) course by my own navigation. I started Spacebomb in 2009ish as a continuation of the Fight the Big Bull idea. To me, at the time, the idea was just to bring width and flexibility to the table. I loved the Avant-garde, but I also loved Sly Stone. I think Everyday People should be enshrined in the Smithsonian. It’s Perfect. But On the Corner is Miles’ take on Sly right? And Sly’s There’s A Riot Goin On is his answer to Marvin’s What’s Goin On? And Marvin is Motown and Motown is P-O-P, Michael Jackson right? And Quincy produced Thriller but before that he was Jazz with a capital J, and now we’re back to Miles, let's say Sketches of Spain this time. That’s Gil Evans and he’s Duke Ellington, and Duke’s Stravinsky, but Stravinsky is the archetypical Avante-garde - when he debuted The Rite of Spring in 1913 it caused a riot for heaven’s sake.
The point is I saw a table where all of that could happen. That table was Spacebomb, and to represent the widening of the table I made Big Inner.
Big Inner is songs, there are moments where you hear a touch of chaos - the end of Hot Toddies is a classic FTBB-style, long-toned, cued background, and the end of Brazos is also classic FTBB - but in general it’s 4 minute (plus or minus) songs with lyrics and a lead singer. This might not seem like, and it’s not, a gigantic break from tradition, but if one listened to a couple Fight the Big Bull tracks one would realize that for me, this was a major shift. It is a telling anecdote that when I stepped in front of the mic to sing the vocals on One of These Days (the opening track on Big Inner) I had never sung lead vocals in front of anyone or anything but my high school fourtrack. There is not a shade of green on God’s Earth that correctly identifies how inexperienced I really was in that moment.
Big Inner was an invitation to other artists to collaborate with Spacebomb. It wasconsciously an attempt to begin a production career, one I hoped would traffic in all the waters between Jandek and Michael Jackson. It was not, consciously, an attempt to begin a solo career.
Not directly relevant but undoubtedly true, the last ten years of my life are significantly colored by this strange, unidentifiable, blind spot.
After Big Inner was released I was a singer-songwriter. I looked a couple weeks ago and that’s actually what my Wikipedia says. Obviously to most readers this will seem obvious, a foregone conclusion. But for someone who fancied themselves (and I’d like to think for good reason) a burgeoning professional Avant-gardist, this distinction continues to be odd. But it is true, and the truth is always ok. After Big Inner I made Outer Face and then Fresh Blood, a deliberate and wilful attempt, much more so than Big Inner, to work on songwriting. After Fresh Blood I concentrated on production jobs, Spacebomb, and Flo and I made Gentlewoman, Ruby Man, which was a study in human synchronicity as well as a producers’ production - no songwriting in sight.
Narratives are hardly ever as neat as one might like them to be, but in broad strokes it felt like one arc from Big Inner to Gentlewoman, Ruby Man. At least it was all one big swing, one idea. One burst of momentum, one line of dominoes set-up and knocked down - one by one by one by one. It wasn't that it was the end, but an end.
And it felt good. But I did feel, and I’ve always felt since Big Inner, that this group of records, if taken alone, does not very well express the things that I am looking to express from my art. It represents a rabid interest, and a development of that interest into a craft, but there are large pieces of myself that have been left dormant in the wake of the maniacal focus on that craft.
Therefore, there has at times, been the unmistakable scent of incompletion.
I’ve always been an organizer. If not gifted at least habitual. Like a bird building a nest it's a default setting. Fortunately an album making season gifts this bird many pieces in which to build his nest. There’s small things: chord progressions, song forms, lyrical minutiae, drum machine patterns, chord voicings, synth patches, studio accoutrement, guitar setups, file management, piano practice routines, on and on. And much larger things: budgeting, personnel decisions, aesthetic goals, large scale personal time management, scheduling strategies, studio choices, etc. The nuances and importance of these decisions, both individually and collectively, had become increasingly clear to me over the previous season of record-making. As I entered the season in which I was to make Swish I tackled this 36-sided rubix cube with glee, like a Robin sitting on a pile of long coarse grass, twigs, paper, and feathers.
At least one side of this Rubix cube, or corner of the nest - whichever metaphor you are feeling represents you best - would be dedicated to two of my former lovers: Teo Macero and Miles Davis. And it would traffic in waters that I had not engaged with since Fight the Big Bull. This pungent whiff of incompleteness needed a Teo Macero-scented candle lit in its vicinity as soon as possible..
I developed an idea that was two-fold, relatively simple, but felt fresh. I wanted to assemble a band that was modeled after Mile’s On the Corner bands - lots of percussion, multiple keys, and a free wheeling guitarist left alone to his own devices...
This was the band:
Pinson Chanselle: drums
Brian Jones: percussion
Giustino Riccio: congas
Cameron Ralston: bass
Daniel Clarke: keys
Devonne Harris: keys
Alan Parker: guitar
...and with that band I wanted to do the following.
First, to extract memorable themes from the more traditional songs on Swish and use those themes as immovable pillars for the band’s improvisations to swarm around. It might be a chord progression, or a tonal center, or a bassline, or a drum pattern, or a combination of those things. I wanted to extract an essence and reframe it in a looser, more improvisatory environment. It wasn't just an esoteric exercise, I wanted to record these directed improvisations at the same BPM (tempo/speed) that I would have previously recorded their more traditional brothers and sisters - creating a whole new, and most importantly, compatible world from which I could sample.
And second, to compose a set of directed improvisations that were based on what I called “distilled claves”. A clave, simply, is a rhythm. But more than that it is a rhythmic cornerstone that musicians, the improvising kind or any other, can whirl around. It is African, or from the African Diaspora. An easy and fun way to notate one is like this. You can perform it yourself by clapping on the x’s and not on the dots.
x . x . x x . x x . x x . x . x
What I call a “distilled clave” is just removing as many x’s as possible and still having a magnetic rhythm. Maybe like this.
. . x . . x . . . . . . . . . .
It’s a fun, almost simplistic game, but can be rhythmically potent.
With those goals in mind I put together a set of sketches. Each sketch either contained, as its seed, a distilled clave or a theme extracted from Swish. I also made relatively extensive notes about the sound design for each musician's instrument in each sketch. With this odd book of music in hand I booked the band for two days, a Saturday and Sunday.
The sessions themselves were two days tucked deep into 6 months of recording. They went smoothly, and I was pleased with what we got, very pleased. They seemed to have a touch of magic in the moment, that was noted, but making records, especially your own, has a way of producing spectacularly untrustworthy mirages. Plus, this was 1 one side of 36, so to outpace any potential mirage, and to counter the ever present demons of self loathing I stared straight ahead. This to say, although now I believe this music to be fated by the hands of the Gods, I wouldn't have given myself space to think that at the time.
In the process of finishing Swish we did use portions of the aforementioned session to intermingle with sections of the more traditional recording. That was a successful experiment, and for those who are keeping score the very first section you will hear on Swish is an example of that. However, I had originally hoped that Swish might actually include some long form instrumentals. I wanted very badly to get out my razor blade and cut up this tape just like Teo did and see what magic I could call down. However, both the guardian angel of intangibility-of-competing-aesthetics and the guardian angel of practicality-of-record-making-timetables-and-budgets advised me, strongly, to wait for another door to open.
Thus, having been counseled by two very powerful spirits, I waited.