June 2008

Andrew Sterman: Genre Resistance

Tenor saxophonist and bass flutist Andrew Sterman’s ambitious project The Path to Peace, a lyrical suite based on the spiritual teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, is hardly your garden-variety jazz project, on any level. Then again, the artist himself—while generally rooted in jazz over the past few decades—has followed a less-than-conventional career trajectory, with a résumé speckled with names like Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, Freddie Hubbard, Aretha Franklin and, from the contemporary-classical-music niche, a long association with minimalist composer Philip Glass.

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Joe Mondello

Andrew Sterman

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that seeking out the literally and idiomatically itinerant Sterman recently found him on the phone from a remote outpost in southern Australia, amidst kangaroos and emus. At the time, he was on tour with Glass, in whose ensembles Sterman has played since 1992, in addition to multiple other personal efforts.

Sterman’s Glass connection runs deep these days. The Path to Peace, which includes drummer Kermit Driscoll and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, was released on Glass’ own Orange Mountain label, as the first non-Glass-related title in the catalog. And then there is the question of lines of influence: Glass’ operas have often dealt with historical and philosophical figures, including his own Gandhi-based opera, Satyagraha (which is being revived by the Metropolitan Opera this spring).

Does Sterman feel a strong Glass influence behind this piece? “I actually think that there isn’t very much,” Sterman insists. “More than anything else, the fact that Philip and I get along in the particular way that I do was that I was interested in that stuff from before I can remember.”

From stylistic and marketing perspectives, Sterman recognizes that the piece, loosely tethered to the “chamber-jazz” aesthetic, “is different. I have trouble with this music—finding the right niche and the right, pardon the expression, label. I love many kinds of music and I think everybody now does. I can’t really think of anybody who only listens to one kind of music. I’ve played so many kinds of music and loved so many kinds, and still do. I’m actually expanding that rather than focusing it.

“I guess it’s basically a jazz record,” he concedes. “Fundamentally, it’s a jazz language. But what I do with it, I think, is quite a bit different. I haven’t figured out or really heard anyone come up with something, so if you have an idea, let me know,” he says, laughing.

Another incidental influence of his long Glass stint is the shifting emphasis from a more improvisation-based jazz orientation to a more scored-based composition. Improvisation appears throughout the suite, including some steamy sax solos, but in tightly controlled ways. Sterman comments, “I really tried to put myself deeply into this piece when I was writing it and playing it. All the different stuff I’ve been involved with is in there—straightahead jazz and free-jazz, American song stuff, contemporary music, composition stuff and long architectural forms.”

Although now standing on its own as a purely musical work, The Path to Peace was originally conceived in collaboration with Indian-born choreographer Sridhar Shanmugam, with multi-media elements, including footage of Gandhi, later added to the mix.

As Sterman recalls, “When we met and decided to collaborate, I told [Shanmugam], ‘You know, I won’t write music that sounds at all like Indian music. The point is to find the feelings in the language that we’re in. I think that’s very important. Otherwise, it becomes like a film score or something. That’s using polite language: What I said to myself is that it becomes ‘Mickey Mouse-ing,’ like scoring a cartoon, albeit an illustrious one. But still, it’s just not right, from a spiritual and artistic point of view.”

Sterman doesn’t clearly delineate between and segregate the varied musical experiences he has had, right down to his brief work with Frank Sinatra, when Sterman was an impressionable early-20-something. Speaking of Sinatra, Sterman notes, “Particularly late in his life, he just didn’t want to do those pop hits. He wanted to do the stuff he loved. Everyone in the halls—which could be 15,000 to 20,000 people—got the music. He’s singing for them and it works, and yet there was no pandering. He was so intense.

“He was able to do that, and that’s, in a way, the holy grail of music performing—when you’re absolutely doing what you want to do, and it is also really working for people at the level that you’re sending it out. Even though my music is quite different from Sinatra’s, that value system got to me really deeply.”

Sterman has been redefining his new musical voice in recent years, a process through which The Path to Peace is his first major manifestation. In much of jazz, Sterman feels, “There are so many notes being played, and often with really impressive skill. And yet something seems tired with it. Speaking as a tenor player, we’re guilty as much as anyone, or maybe more, of just producing a barrage of notes. As much as I love this language, we need to reorganize something, to make it sound fresh and meaningful again.”

More generally, Sterman is in a transitional state in his creative life. At present, he has a blowing session in the can and two larger, concept-driven works in progress. Clearly he’s out to till some new soil, off to the side of jazz, at least in its most conventional setting. As Sterman asserts, “I very much believe that every culture at every moment needs its own art. We have nearly the whole history of jazz, all these American geniuses on record. It’s just phenomenal. And yet there’s a compelling need for new music, and not just to rehash and make tribute music that’s done with great expertise. I don’t mean to put it down, but it’s very much not my interest.

“We’re at an interesting point. Even classical avant-garde jazz is a movement that’s 40 and 50 years old. When I was coming up, we tended to think that something modern would go in that direction as a launching point. But I no longer think that’s the case. I still love that music and I incorporate certain principles of it, especially in my concert playing. But we’re in a different place now and we need something.

“My question is, what does it sound like? For me, right now, it sounds like this record. This is my personal, current music.”

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