It was a much riskier production than most records that are made now. There was no chance of doing any overdubs. There's nothing redone on the record. The first song recorded‚ "King of Hearts‚" that's the first time I'd ever sung into a microphone. Also‚ they're mostly first takes‚ so it's all very raw and revealing in that way‚ in that there's no moles taken off‚ no nose made smaller‚ no pitch correction. All that stuff that people can hide behind. I'm not necessarily against it. Whatever makes a record good should be done‚ but I think you get a sense of my personality that I hadn't revealed to the world before because it's a voice‚ it's lyrics. It's more specific.
With Crossing the Field‚ it felt over my head to organize that many people. The challenge of creating a context where a large band could be expressive was a challenge‚ and I wasn't sure I could do it. But the larger the band‚ common sense would say that each player has less space‚ less solos‚ less ability to be expressive. I was trying to figure out a way to get around that‚ which is like going against the laws of physics. I was trying to create with more people more space‚ and I think I found a way into that. I go into recording projects with questions‚ and the answers are sometimes revealed. [laughter]
In trying to get their voices out‚ what did they bring out of you?
As a player‚ you mean?
In the singing record‚ I've got to carry it. They create something that's propelling me. They're the wave and I have to surf it. The instrumental record is less like that. There are cases where I take solos‚ like "I Heart Eye Patch." That's a romping groove‚ and I've got to really focus a lot of energy and step up to the level of the groove around me. There were really tricky tunes on the instrumental record‚ too. Bill [Frisell] and I go to take a solo on "I Heart Eye Patch" and it's deceivingly simple‚ which makes it a question of how much to expand out of the chord progression and test the limits. The first one is almost like a tiny violin concerto. I'm having to play over an entire orchestra for the last chorus. Whatever sound is around me‚ if I'm focusing the energy or sailing above it‚ when it comes time to record‚ I've got to pull that out. I think it was a pretty supportive yet dangerous context. But that's just the soloist's task‚ as it is the singer's task.
There are tracks on this new record that are as small as I've ever gotten‚ and then some that are as big as I've ever gotten. There are the two trios with Kenny [Wollesen] and Jason [Moran] with just violin‚ piano and drums. And then there are these big orchestral ones.
That's a great point. I haven't really put my finger on what the difference is‚ but it's in the texture. I just talked to Bill [Frisell] a couple weeks ago‚ and you play with a lot of the same people‚ but on his new album‚ it's definitely Bill -- but it's completely different. Whoever's directing‚ you can tell it's their record. You all have your own voice.
That group of players is filled with very visionary musicians‚ which is why I'm drawn to them. They really have very clear identities‚ and it comes through on them being sidemen. It's very clear when they make their own records. Their voices as composers and arrangers. Bill's new record‚ [History‚ Mystery]‚ in some ways‚ there's parts that are really big sounding. It has the strings and horns and rhythm section. And then there're a bunch of string trio or quartet pieces on it‚ so it gets pretty small.
Bill has a hard time explaining what it is‚ which makes sense because when you're playing‚ the only way to explain it is by doing it. We started talking about what he sees when he's playing. I asked‚ "What about colors?" And it wasn't too much of a surprise that he said he sees shapes and almost… animation. So I'd like to ask you the same question: When you're composing and playing in the thick of it‚ what things do you see?
Not to tangent‚ but it's interesting that you asked Bill that. He had a really transforming dream once that was all based around color. He met some sort of shaman that explained music to him by color and showed him true pigments. It's a dream that he should explain to you; I shouldn't say it. But it makes me realize‚ even that he answered your question‚ that he does connect visually very much with his playing.
I don't really see stuff. I also have a kind of bad memory for that. I feel like writing and playing is much more similar to a dream than it is anything we experience that is more concrete. The way I write is a bit like having a dream‚ and if I can get it down‚ I'm lucky. But if I want to talk about it after‚ I'm a bit at a loss the way I am at interpreting a dream. I'll always give it a shot‚ but I don't really exactly know what happened and why it happened and where I got the materials from.
When I'm coming up with titles‚ which is often after I've written the tune‚ I think of what the song evokes. I come up with lots of titles for songs that aren't just born with a title‚ and then I'm listening to the recording and thinking of where it might place me‚ what kinds of emotions I'm going through‚ or what kinds of shapes are created by the music. When I'm actually playing‚ I don't see that much. But I often invoke different musicians. I think‚ what would Charlie Burnham do‚ or what would somebody do‚ just in terms of having a vocabulary of approach.
It's probably happened‚ but I can't quite remember what I see when I play. One thing I really enjoy about playing‚ and why I keep doing it‚ is that it's like a drug. It blocks out everything else‚ and if I'm in it‚ I feel like I'm accrete of every note. I feel myself move through time‚ on the edge of every note‚ passing into the future. One image that has come to mind when I'm feeling particularly tranced-out by something is an image I had as a kid. I have a couple of these‚ and I've talked to people about them. Bill has one as well. We call it the "little big feeling." It's the feeling -- it's a bit hard to explain -- of a very large hand holding a very small thing‚ like a little crystal. I think it somehow captures the feeling of intense focus but lack of awareness of self. A lot of people have them. I used to have them when I had fevers. It's a feeling of understanding a paradox or contrast. Sometimes I think that comes into my head when I'm really getting transported by a song.
What are the things that happen that throw you off?
Well‚ often it's the same thing that might throw me off if I'm in a dream‚ which is suddenly being aware of it. Like‚ "Oh‚ wow‚ cool! I'm having a little big feeling! Oh‚ shit‚ it's ending! I'm awake again‚ and I'm in G major and playing a B!" [laughter] When I'm totally in the subconscious‚ I guess it's sort of like lucid dreaming. Anyway‚ there are a few different images that come up‚ and one is a forefinger and a thumb holding a crystal. The hand is very big and the crystal is very small and hard. Another one is like a bicycle wheel turning around‚ slightly being stretched on either end and it comes with a yawing sound. It's always something I've had since I was a kid. There's something that feels impossible about it‚ and yet I'm understanding it. Not to get too esoteric‚ but you asked!