The fusion of jazz improvisation and experimental rock has its share of guitar heroes including Pat Metheny and Derek Bailey. The genre is experiencing another surge of energy by the likes of Boston-bred Edward Ricart, guitarist for the Ohio-based Hyrrokkin and the DC-based Matta Gawa. Ricart’s new recordings with these bands are being released by his indie label New Atlantis, an imprint under Sundmaji, the label owned and managed by his fellow compatriot, singer-songwriter Jason Ajemian.
Ricart reveals that his goal to start a record label was on his mind since he began his journey as a professional musician. “I've wanted to have a label since I was a kid. Great labels like Dischord, Skin Graft, Black Saint, or BYG have a unique identity, and to a certain extent, when I pick up a record on any of those labels, I have a good idea that what I'm picking up is going to satisfy a particular musical craving. The records on those labels are always surprising and challenging, but they're consistent to the vision and identity of the label.”
He has a clear vision of the brand of music which he wants his label to offer to audiences. “I see New Atlantis as a great way to document the community I'm a part of. I'd like to release as much music as possible, and it will hopefully be diverse. As more releases come together, I'm eager to see how broad the sweep of the label can become. An early goal was to offer some archival and historic recordings of great free jazz, and hopefully this year we'll be able to make that happen. We release CDs and have a cassette/CDR series to ensure that we're always releasing new music, in the face of the great expenses associated with operating even a small label.”
He projects, “In 2012, New Atlantis will be releasing a powerful quintet disc from William Hooker, and a great cassette of free improv from the Psychotic Quartet featuring Dan Blacksburg, Evan Lipson, Katt Hernandez, and Michael Evans. We'll have some vinyl releases this year too. It’s been a great learning experience and hopefully someday it will simply sustain itself.”
New Atlantis has become the launch pad for Ricart’s recordings with the jazz fusion ensemble Matta Gawa, whom he plays with drummer Sam Lohman on the project. Ricart explains how he and Sam came together. “When I first moved out to Washington DC from Boston, I immediately started looking for musicians to play with. My background was mostly in creative underground rock music -- bands like Fugazi, Hoover, This Heat, Tortoise, Shellac, June of 44, etc. Sam auditioned for a rock band I had tried to put together, but everything is decentralized in the DC metro area. The commute to get together would've been outrageous, so we both went our separate ways for a spell.”
He reminisces about his time in DC, “At the time, I was really digging deep, checking out free music and was really interested in records like 'Sound' by Roscoe Mitchell, Albert Ayler, etc. but hadn't had an opportunity to really begin improvising myself because I didn't know other improvisers. I eventually started playing regularly with another drummer, and we would play a few times a week, and since I was coming from rock music, what was happening was naturally a mixture of some of the methods and spirit of improvised music, with some of the tonalities that are more typically associated with rock music.”
He describes how his first recording with Sam came together and would be called Ba. “I had put together a solid collection of effects pedals back in Boston, and with this new project, I started to record, loop and process bass lines on the fly, and then I would blow over the top of them. Eventually this duo started playing out, and I started meeting and improvising with more people. I showed up to play an Electric Possible gig presented by the great Jeff Bagato and Panic Research, and Sam was playing free music in a trio called the Sonic Suicide Squad. I had just moved out to a cabin in the woods, and Sam would come through a few times a week, and we would just play for three, four hours without stopping, and then pick up again.”
Ricart extols, “Sam is a great free drummer. That first Sonic Suicide Squad set I checked out was really heavy. He can fill so much space without ever repeating himself, and without imposing a domineering feel onto the music. I could probably count on one hand the times he dropped an actual beat into a Matta Gawa jam, and they are probably all on the new record, Tambora. His playing opens everything up, even though he never lets up. Many of the bass lines I loop for the band are in odd time signatures... or they're longer phrases that float across bar lines. I think part of the reason that works for us, even though we're playing free, is because of the way Sam works with time. Those loops wouldn't be as effective with a drummer trying to lock into them with beats. Sam also uses two enormous ride cymbals, the kind used for a marching band, and they sound great.”
Following the duo’s debut recording Ba in 2010 has been their sophomore release Tambora. Ricart evaluates how the two records differed. “Ba was produced in just a couple of hours, recorded for Engine Studios by the label owner, Steven Walcott. Steve had recorded and released music from some good friends from Boston, a band called Exultation of Larks, so I got in touch and sent him some music. He was interested in doing a record with us, and we learned he was just beginning to work with the people at ESP-Disk for support promoting and distributing his releases. We drove five or six hours from DC up to his studio, in a cabin just outside of Albany. We started tracking around 9:30 the next morning, and were finished just after 11:00, before lunch.”
He recounts, “We recorded Tambora with our good friend, Jason LaFarge at Seizures Palace. Jason has recorded groups like Khanate, Devendra Banhart, Swans, Charles Gayle's trio, and much more. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a better studio for any style of music. Jason is a great engineer and the tracking room is tremendous with an enormous sound and high ceilings. We took our time recording, and stretched a 6 hour session into like 8 or 9 hours. Some friends were playing a concert in the courtyard outside the studio, so we checked out some music, ordered food, listened to records, and just made a whole day of it. By that point, I think I'd already recorded four or five sessions with Jason, so I was comfortable in his studio. We started mixing the record with Jason, but a friend in Northern Virginia finished it up for us. I think we were heading on tour at the time, and then I was in Chicago for a month, so we went with someone local to mix and master.”
He assesses, “I think there's a tremendous difference in the overall sounds and vibes of the two records. By the time we went in to track Tambora, we both recognized that even though our music is freely improvised, we were often choosing to work with a very particular sound, by basing the improvisations on loops, loud guitar, and free drumming. We've played a whole range of improvised music together, but when we get together as Matta Gawa, we both have an idea of what we'd like the band to sound like. That's a large part of why we named the band instead of just playing under our own names. Matta Gawa is a particular animal. Even though anything goes, and we're always creating spontaneously, we both try to steer the improvisations where we want them to go using the defining features and characteristics of the group to get us there. Tambora shows us as a cohesive, relaxed duo, and as a result, I think the songs sound more dynamic, even more composed.”
The track “Position” from Tambora is a multi-textured piece which Ricart deems, “is one of the higher energy, free-wheeling tracks on the album. It was improvised and composed on the spot, but I think we used the tried and true method of starting off with a fairly tight, rhythmically off-kilter intro, and then just blasting off from there when it feels like the time is right.”
Now, newly married and newly relocated to Ohio, Ricart has embarked on a new music project called Hyrrokkin which features Brett Nagafuchi on drums and Paul Larkowski on guitar. He tells how he first met them. “I shared a practice room and a band member or two with Brett and Paul in Boston about seven years ago. They played in Exultation of Larks, and I played in a trio with their drummer, Joe Barker. They were outstanding. Later, when I started curating the New Atlantis series of shows in DC, I booked Brett and Paul in their next group, Kuan, in DC and in Baltimore. Matta Gawa played the dates with them, and it was great to reconnect. A few months down the line, Kuan were booking a month-long North American tour, and I learned their tunes and filled in for their bassist. Matta Gawa ended up going on the tour, as well, so I was playing 'free rock' on guitar with Matta Gawa, and then through composed rock songs on bass with Kuan.”
Performing with Nagafuchi and Larkowki clicked for Ricart as he says, “I relocated to Ohio to work on Hyrrokkin with Brett and Paul, and initially I planned on playing bass. I came up with a bunch of riffs to put on the table, and we picked a few and built some songs around them. Paul is great at coming up with creative, unique guitar parts, and Brett is a powerhouse, always pushing himself as hard as possible. Neither of them ever plays anything obvious, and they really surprise me with their ideas. Paul also turned out to be a great bass player, and so we've been splitting guitar and bass duties between us. The songs came together quickly, and we decided to go on tour, after just a couple of months as a group. We booked a five week North American tour just a couple months after forming the group.”
Hyrrokkin’s debut album became Astrionics released by New Atlantis. He recollects, “As far as the recording goes, we recorded Astrionics in our rehearsal space, with our friend Nathan Moore, in just a few hours. We wanted to have a document of our group before our tour, and of course, something to put on the merch table and hopefully put gas in our tank and food in our bellies. We recorded live, and pre-mixed everything because our recording console had just two inputs, so we couldn't adjust the volume of the guitar or hi hat, for example, once it was recorded. It was truly punk rock in spirit, and I think it turned out great. We released it on cassette, and later CDR, and have sold far more copies than we ever could've anticipated.”
He cites, “Hyrrokkin has given me the opportunity to play electric bass regularly, which is a different beast but can be a real blast.” He illuminates, “With Hyrrokkin, there's sections where we cut loose and improvise, but most of it is pretty densely structured, and those sections are written into the fabric of the piece. Putting the compositions in front of people at a concert gives us the chance to feel out different songs, sections, or transitions, and to gauge how things are really flowing within a particular piece. We generally try to compose and then move on, but we've changed a few parts of a couple of the tracks on Astrionics since playing them out 50 or 60 times. Like I said, the music is challenging and it really keeps you on your toes. We're all excited to make the next record with this band.”
He reflects, “Playing in Hyrrokkin has also been a great work out. Since the three of us practice and see each other every day, it’s very easy to look in and note the progress, as we grow as a band, as players, and as individual composers.”
One common link between Matta Gawa and Hyrrokkin’s recordings is Ricart’s affinity to merge jazz improvisation with experimental rock, which he endorses the union of without caveats. “I think there is absolutely a common thread between the two methods of expression, and while I often perform one without incorporating the other, I definitely feel my natural inclination is to just bring the two together.”
He provides, “In general, I grew up listening to rock music on labels like Touch and Go, Homestead, Dischord, and SST, all labels known for music that is typically more atonal and rhythmically ambitious. I think it’s interesting to note that Greg Ginn, founder of SST, guitarist of Black Flag, has recorded with Bern Nix, guitarist of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time Band, and is an avowed fan of Ornette's music. Homestead Records, home to great recordings by avant rock bands like Bastro and Live Skull, eventually released music from David Ware, Joe Morris, William Parker, Matthew Shipp. It’s all just music and I love digging into it all.”
He asserts, “I look to all of the stuff I like with a reverence and try to hear as much of it as I can. Sun Ra, Derek Bailey, Hans Reichel, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Steve Lacy, Peter Brotzmann, Paul Dunmall, This Heat, John Edwards, Sonny Sharrock, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, AMM, Paul Rutherford, Masayuki Takayanagi, Marion Brown, Clifford Jordan, Stanley Cowell, Herb Robertson. I could really go on for ever. It’s not just rock and jazz either, it’s everything.”
Ricart has an impressive arsenal in his collection which enables him to explore a wide spectrum of tones and combinations of sonic patterns. “I've used a bunch of effects,” he admits, “but I used a Gibson ES-335 on both the Hyrrokkin and Astrionics records. I've started using a Gibson SG as well. I think a big part of the tone is the ES-335, and never really cranking the gain over the top. I was using a very clean Fender amp with Matta Gawa, and eventually downsized to a smaller combo with a separate bass amp to run the low loops. I try to use pretty subtle effects on the guitar itself only pushing stuff over the top when it’s necessary, and mostly I use the effects to add texture. I like the contrast of the processed loops with a relatively pure, overdriven guitar. In Hyrrokkin, I don't really even use stompboxes, it’s just the guitar into a great big amp.”
Besides Ricart’s projects with Matta Gawa and Hyrrokkin honing the brand for his indie label New Atlantis, he is also investing in several his compatriots including guitarist Nick Millevoi whom he has had a fond opinion of since their first encounter. “Nick opened up my first gig with Marshall Allen, maybe my first gig in Philadelphia playing in a quartet that played tunes from some awesome early '90s Joe Morris albums. We ended up playing and trading gigs in DC and Philadelphia, and his power trio, Many Arms, who are now recording for Tzadik music label, released a record on Engine Studios about the same time that the first Matta Gawa album was released. He's a great friend and it was a pleasure to put out his solo record. I think it turned out great. He played a week or two of dates with Hyrrokkin last fall, and we got to check out the new tunes. His new solo stuff is just outrageous, and it should be coming out some place, later this year. Nick and I just recorded a session together, I played bass and Nick played guitar with Travis Laplante on tenor sax and Ches Smith on drums.”
Another compatriot of Ricart’s is singer-songwriter Jason Ajemian and his band the HighLife. He discusses how he and Jason joined forces. “I shared a bill with Jason a few years ago, and I ended up booking his group in DC and helping out booking them gigs on the East Coast. He ended up playing on my first quartet CD as a leader, Ancon with SLAM Productions [featuring] Herb Robertson and Andrew Barker. Jason and I had discussed working on a label together on and off for a while. His label is called Sundmagi, and New Atlantis effectively began as a sublabel or series of releases on Sundmagi. His music covers so much ground, and the HighLife is him stepping out, fronting what is effectively an extra-bonus variety show. They're a great band and they really are working as hard as possible, touring as often as they can. So his record was effectively a split release between both labels.”
Ricart credits his exposure to performing and working with a wide range of musicians as having affected his style of playing to believe in his ability to be spontaneous, acting as a catalyst to the musicians around him and reacting to the music which the musicians around him play. He distinguishes, “Improvised music is generally just a snapshot of all of the players on that particular day. With free music, you will be making a completely different record each time, even if you use the same players. The session is just a more permanent document of whatever the dialogue is on that particular day.”
He recalls, “On my initial gigs and recordings as an improvising musician, I was definitely trying to push my playing in a particular direction for each gig or recording, trying to realize a rough impression of what a 'free improv' or jazz session is supposed to sound like. The more I look to my past and my early influences, which I've spent some time doing since we started Hyrrokkin, I find that I have a much broader foundation for my own guitar playing. I think incorporating as many influences as possible into the lexicon of my own playing has helped me take some great steps towards developing my own voice, and now it is a stronger voice than it was, even six months ago.”
His enthusiasm for playing free-style music has merit as he points out, “There have been a few key moments in my life where I realize that a particular project has pushed my playing further, sometimes in a direction I would never have imagined a few years prior.... I would definitely say that those hours spent playing with Sam, even before we'd named the band or played a single gig, were hugely formative. Later, playing with two legends- Marshall Allen of the Sun Ra Arkestra and then with Calvin Weston of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time Band, we would play for 2 or 3 hours straight, typically with a large ensemble, and then get back up and hit for another 2 or 3 hours. I remember coming home from a tour with Calvin and thinking I was playing better than ever, and it was due in no small part to his driving, ferocious drumming. The same can be said for William Hooker, with whom I've played with as a member of his trio. It is very difficult to grow without allowing yourself to be challenged, and I was able to dig deep with all of those guys.”
Though Edward Ricart can list his musical influences by heart, there isn’t one particular musician who inspired him to play the guitar or bass. It was a decision he entirely made on his own as he remembers, “I started out back in middle school, and fell in love. I don't quite know what it was that drew me in, but it felt great and I knew right away I was hooked for life. I started out playing drums, and still try and play every so often.”
He ruminates over how the music industry has developed since his formative years as a musician. “It’s amazing to see styles of music develop or vanish,” he remarks, “and trends come out of nowhere. Obviously many of us probably remember downloading music from the internet 10 years ago, and waiting overnight for one or two songs to download. Now you can basically stream entire records or gigs through Youtube, totally separated from the physical product of the record or experience of the concert. I think in some ways, the real challenge might just be to stay active. It can be discouraging, recognizing that record stores, which were a huge part of my early romance with music, are disappearing. The collapse of some of the larger independent record distributors makes it that much harder to actually get your records into a record store. Instead of talking to people about music in record stores or at concerts, people talk about music on the internet, and where there used to be strong, active, and diverse local musical communities in cities all over the country, I really think there has been a shift away from experiencing the actual record or the actual gig, towards consuming as much as possible digitally.”
He observes, “In some cities, the skyrocketing cost of real estate and the lack of people interested in attending concerts of any kind mean there are fewer venues available to see music in even if you are a member of the minority that is motivated to go spend money on a gig. Of course, the lack of spaces means there are fewer places to play, which is my only true concern in all of this anyway. This is all challenging stuff to ponder, and while it can be discouraging, it’s a choice to try and do this with any degree of seriousness. I enjoy every minute of it and look forward to as much as I'm able to participate in.”
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