Wayne Horvitz: American Bandstand

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Wayne Horvitz
By Robin Laananen
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Wayne Horvitz
By Robin Laananen
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Wayne Horvitz
By Robin Laananen

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Whoever said we live in an age of specialization should check out the extravagantly prolific career of Wayne Horvitz. The 48-year-old Seattle keyboardist and composer is a one-man refutation of that glib generalization.

Just don't call him "eclectic." Oops.

"When I hear records described as 'eclectic,'" Horvitz says in a Seattle coffeehouse (naturally) as the Kill Bill soundtrack blares in the background, "I rarely like them. I like a Howlin' Wolf record because every fuckin' song sounds like Howlin' Wolf.

"I hope that my records really sound like me and don't sound like someone trying to cover a lot of different territory."

With his small, rectangular wire-rim glasses and unkempt wisps of Wallace Shawn-like graying brown hair, Horvitz exudes the air of a rumpled liberal arts professor. He also possesses a subtle tenacity commonly found in many of the world's top musicians, a demeanor that communicates "Let's get down to business."

You get the impression that Mr. Horvitz does not suffer fools lightly-which spells trouble for your correspondent.

Despite his dismissal of eclecticism, even a casual survey of Horvitz' two-decade career reveals much real estate being traversed. After spilling his creative seed in New York's fertile downtown new-music scene throughout the 1980s (notably with John Zorn's Naked City), he formed the President, which created extroverted prog-tinged jazz rock. Following a move to Seattle in 1988, Horvitz set up Pigpen, which purveyed free-jazz experiments and King Crimson-esque forays into fusion. Along with drummer Bobby Previte, saxophonist Skerik and keyboardist Dave Palmer, Horvitz explored rhythmically complex improvisation in Ponga. In Zony Mash, he peddled groove-centric jazz funk (though Horvitz argues that it's neither jazz nor funk). Zony Mash's acoustic alter ego, Sweeter Than the Day, traffic in gently lyrical art songs. Horvitz' new project with Tucker Martine, Mylab, encompasses all of his previous elements and adds new exotic wrinkles to his repertoire. And let's not forget Horvitz' soundtrack work, collected on Film Music 1998-2001 (Tzadik, 2002), which ventures into neoclassical and other hazier modes. (He also scored a Gus Van Sant-directed Levi's commercial.)

"I don't play in any styles, hard as I may try," Horvitz protests. "I would love to be a better sight-reader, be a decent stride and bebop player. I love all the New Orleans guys, and I never had any real classical background, which I really regret. I just would love to sit down and rip through Schumann and Bartók and Brahms, and not struggle with it. Organ is a whole other subject. I never pushed pedals because I started very late. As much as I admire someone like Jimmy Smith, it is really the gospel organ players [whom] I envy, or Garth Hudson [of the Band], who just played such perfect music.

"Instead, the only 'style' I'm really any good at, I suppose, is my own, if that makes sense.

"We live in strange times: We either choose from any number of musical approaches that don't really come from our own direct environment, or we make peace with the schizophrenia of contemporary life and do what we can. There are things I don't want to be associated with: irony, postmodernism and eclecticism. I still believe in old-fashioned personal expression. I like music with soul, whether it is Al Green or Igor Stravinsky. I'm just not that interested in 'clever.'

"I'm not interested in music simply because it's strictly intellectually compelling or something no one's done before. I still love music for the same reasons when I was 10: because it sends chills up my spine."

Horvitz is also not interested in pushing his ego to the forefront of whatever ensemble he leads. Remarkably, for all the supremely gifted players who have recorded and toured with Horvitz, flamboyant grandstanding has not marred his music (although Briggan Krauss in Pigpen and Elliott Sharp in the President certainly strained at the leash). Is he a stringent taskmaster in this regard, striving for an egoless approach?

"I think it's the nature of the music," Horvitz says. "I've never been into being a blazing soloist. So I tend to work with people who aren't interested in [soloing]. I'm most interested in ensemble playing, where everyone's contributing. That's what I like about the big bands of the '30s and '40s. Or if you listen to the Billie Holiday records with the Count Basie Orchestra; it's like classical music. Years ago in New York with the President, I made a point of saying I want the role of the soloist to be inside the music. But certainly in Pigpen or Zony Mash or Sweeter Than the Day, I don't say anything except, 'Let's play.'"

Horvitz has one of those discographies that drive completists nuts, a voluminous back catalog under myriad band names on several small (Songlines, Dossier, Cavity Search) and not-so-small labels (Elektra, Nonesuch, Knitting Factory, Tzadik). As both leader and sideman, he's played on some of the most cutting-edge records of the past 20 years, including Pigpen's Miss Ann (Tim/Kerr, 1995), Butch Morris' Dust to Dust (New World, 1991) and Naked City's Absinthe (Avant, 1993).

But despite such a track record, Horvitz' feels his relationship to jazz is tangential-though he's steeped in the music's history and can rattle off scores of jazz keyboardists who have enriched his life. But he gets grumpy when talk turns to his connection to jazz. "Johnny Hodges made some of the most beautiful noises in the history of music, along with a whole lot of other folks in the tradition we call jazz. Jazz is not the only truly American art form, but it is certainly a damn great one, and if that has something to do with me, then I count my blessings."

Certainly, it was jazz iconoclast Cecil Taylor who sparked Horvitz's journey into sonic discovery. His discovery of Taylor's music at age 16 was a revelation.

"I spent a lot of time trying to play like [Taylor]," Horvitz admits, "so I spent a lot of time playing the piano in ways that didn't have anything to do with traditional jazz or classical approaches. [More important, the thing] I learned from him was to play your own music and not anybody else's. So I stopped trying to play like him. But it was fun trying.

"I really loved blues piano playing and was interested in jazz piano, but I never really took to straight-ahead jazz piano playing.
When I heard Cecil, I was transported by it."

While many critics cite Taylor as an innovator, Horvitz does not apply that tag to himself.

"I don't even try to break new ground," he says. "Now, I'm always interested in new sounds. This may seem so naive, but I really like sound. I've always related to something John Coltrane talked about. I played gigs that involved a lot of noise and people thought there was a lot of anger being expressed. They just didn't get I really liked the sound of the noise. I thought it was beautiful. The same thing happened to Coltrane late in his career.

"You have to have blinders on to think you're really changing anything in music," Horvitz declares. "Music is thousands of years old. You hear traditional music from some cultures that sounds so out [compared to] traditional Western music. Those things have been pleasing people for a long time."

What really excites Horvitz is the juxtaposition of unlikely elements. "I was intrigued by those early Cecil Taylor records where the bassist and drummer were playing swing and he wasn't. I saw the Art Ensemble of Chicago many times in my early 20s, and you'd hear both the blues and Stockhausen going on at the same time. One of the most interesting experiences I've had is hearing the music happening in three practice rooms at the same time."

A lesser-known influence on Horvitz's music is the psychedelic-rock movement that blazed through San Francisco in the late 1960s. "I was living there and was really into Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, Janis Joplin," Horvitz says. "Pigpen was called Pigpen for a reason"-it refers to the Dead's lovable keyboardist Ron McKernan.

Wayne Horvitz moved to Seattle from New York (where he was born in 1955) just when he seemed to be reaching new heights of creativity in arguably the world's deepest talent pool for creative music.

"My motivations for moving to the Northwest had a lot to do with just being very fond of this part of the world," he says. "I figured I could make music anywhere. As it turns out, Seattle has a fantastic music scene. 'Jazz' scene, I wouldn't really know about-I don't really involve myself much in what I would term jazz, at least by the definition that is currently used in America.

"As for my world, Seattle has everything I need: lots of great improvisers and a strong interest in contemporary classical music, and all the places in-between."

Indeed, Horvitz's work rate has only escalated since he moved to the Pacific Northwest. While one of his longest-running (and, as he says, "least lucrative") projects-the electric version of Zony Mash-folded in December, he has a hectic schedule in 2004 that will leave little time for Horvitz to give piano lessons to the rich offspring of his Mount Baker neighbors (hey, all that gear he hoards has to be paid for somehow).

In the spring he's releasing a playful children's CD with his wife, Robin Holcomb, and their children, Nica and Lowell, for Tzadik. On another tangent, Holcomb and Horvitz will be sharing top billing on a disc of piano solos for Songlines that will be out in late winter. Tours in Europe with Bobby Previte (for the drummer's Constellations of Joan Miró project) and Briggan Krauss will keep his live chops from atrophying. ("Briggan is just one of my all time favorite people to improvise with. [He] has a brilliant approach to the alto and a beautiful structural sensibility.")

But after being inundated with commissions, Horvitz will spend much of 2004 in serious composer mode. He has a new work for string quartet, electronics and string soloist that premieres at the Cornish College for the Arts on March 28 as well as a piece for mixed quintet, commissioned by Standing Wave for cello, violin, clarinet, piano and percussion, that debuts May 30 at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. Perhaps Horvitz's most ambitious work to date as a composer is the chamber orchestra piece he's writing about the life of labor legend Joe Hill, which will feature frequent collaborator Bill Frisell on guitar. The composition premieres October 24 as part of Seattle's Earshot Jazz Festival.

"I went into this project because I read the Wallace Stegner novel Joe Hill, and I'm a huge fan of Stegner's writing," Horvitz recounts. "I saw Joe Hill as kind of an American outlaw more than a political figure who I wanted to say, 'Rah rah rah' about. And I was interested in Joe Hill as a piano player. He took existing American songs and wrote new lyrics to them. I thought that in and of itself was an interesting thing to deal with musically. I wanted to approach it relatively abstractly, and I was interested in American music and reorchestrating some American music myself."

Horvitz's interest in this quintessential American figure dovetails with his appreciation of American art forms such as the blues (Muddy Waters' pianist Otis Spann had a massive impact on him), rock, folk and, yes, jazz. Does Horvitz see continuity between what he's done in the past with what he's doing now?

"I think everybody has their artistic interests worked out by the time they're 19. Just like most people's favorite records are the ones they listened to in high school and college. I've always joked that I have three ideas and I've been reworking them for 30 years," he laughs. "Yes, of course. The only caveat I'd put to that is it's not a wise career move. The best thing to do is to have your best ideas when you're 23-but I think I'm doing my best work now."

Originally published in January/February 2004

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