COVID CONVERSATIONS, Volume 3: Roy Nathanson

If you see saxophonist Roy Nathanson on the Q train, head down and pen out, he’s writing a poem. (His second book is due for publication soon).

He hasn’t been riding the subway lately, and we know why.

Had you heard Nathanson—head up, saxophone pointed skyward—at Joe’s Pub, in Manhattan, last week, toying with Bach and digging into new tunes, he’d have been celebrating the release of “Heart” with his bandmates in the collective Endangered Quartet, his latest context for music-making.

That gig got canceled along with, well, everything else.

Endangered Quartet extends both long-running and more recent relationships for Nathanson: with trombonist and singer Curtis Fowlkes, who co-founded the Jazz Passengers with him in 1987; with Tim Kiah, whose bass playing and vocals were key elements in Nathanson’s inventive Sotto Voce quintet; and with Jesse Mills, a violinist whose training and experience is primarily classical, but whose innate senses of swing and of humor make him an easy fit into Nathanson’s genre-free, accessible-yet-challenging musical sphere. (It helps that Mills can sing, too.)

According to Dan Kaufman’s liner note to the new album, the group came together through an informal get-together two years ago in Nathanson’s Brooklyn living room—“around the idea of letting the instruments have a certain intimacy together, one that allowed for the compositions to breathe,” Nathanson said.

That sort of closeness may not be possible in these shelter-at-home times. Yet Nathanson has found ways to create musical intimacy while maintaining social distance, sometimes from his second-floor porch. And Endangered Quartet’s new songs and reworkings of existing music—especially Nathanson’s lyrics to Kiah’s lovely “Endangered Hearts”—have lately taken on new meaning.

The group turned their record release party into a Facebook Livesession, with some guest commentary from Elvis Costello. “If music ever had the ability to look into the future with hope, to even guess at the future,” he said, “then I think you can find it in these recordings.”

Nathanson and I spoke about opening hearts through music, lockdown be damned.

What was the last gig you played before it all shut down?

Strangely enough, the last real gigs I played were in French Guiana with this wonderful French band, Papanosh, and Napolean Maddox, who played in my Sotto Voce band. We have a project together to explore the English word “home” all over the world, but particularly in French-speaking countries.  We’ve done workshops with immigrants and immigrant children in France and in hospitals where people are losing different mental capacities. We work with these communities to explore ideas of belonging and various identity questions that are at the root of so much bullshit nowadays.

Anyway, the French government paid for our trip to French Guiana to do the “home” workshops and concerts in this beautiful and strange place that voted to continue being part of France but clearly has a very different population mix than continental France. French Guiana has a majority population of former slaves, Amazonian Indians and a smaller number continental French natives.  The country has a fairly small number of people (less than a half million) all of whom explore these questions of national and ethnic identity daily.

So, in the last few weeks of January, I was with Papansoh and Napoleon in residence in Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana and did two really lovely concerts there based on workshops in one area of the country.

Then I was home for a few weeks teaching at NYU, writing and getting ready to go on tour to France in late March and a good deal of April and May.  But first I was to fly to UCLA to be a guest in Arturo O’Farrill’s “Cross Cultural Conceptions in Jazz.” and a little gig he set up there in L.A.  That was, like, March 9, and on the way to the airport I got cold feet and just called Arturo and said I didn’t feel comfortable going.  I felt ridiculous cancelling like that, but I was so conflicted and it was all so weird. The car service driver told me on the way how his wife had to go into the hospital with symptoms and I just freaked.

What was the last gig you heard before it all shut down?

I don’t go out that much when I’m home, so most of the gigs I hear are when I’m on tour. So the last live gig I went to was a Papanosh gig they did in French Guiana.  They were playing music from a terrific new CD they’d made, and Napoleon and I were in the audience.

You’ve found ways to share your music—from your porch and front yard, during this shelter-at-home period. How has that worked, how did it feel?

I was recently asked by the Europe Jazz Network to be on a panel of musicians from different countries, to discuss our personal experiences during this pandemic, and there were several fundamental difference between my experience and the other panel members.  Firstly, and most obviously, they were European musicians who get more support at all times by their respective governments as do other workers and citizens in general in Europe, so there were issues around that.  But also, the other two musicians, one from Norway and one from Portugal, were young and far more comfortable finding ways to share their music online.

For me, there is just no way to replace the experience of playing with and in front of people.  It’s just essential to the experience of meaning-making with sound. I’m lucky enough to own a house in Flatbush (I grew up this neighborhood, which the realtors now call  Ditmas Park). My family lives on the 2ndand 3rdfloors, and our friend’s family lives on the first floor.  So the very first day of this lockdown, I decided to go out to my second-floor deck and play one song exactly at 5pm, and asked my downstairs neighbor, Lloyd Miller, who is a very good musician and a bass player, to join me from below.

I looked at this idea as a way to provide something lovely on our block and the blocks around us, that all of us could count on.  I thought it should be at an exact moment each day in a very uncertain time. It’s turned out that other neighborhood musicians have come by to join in.  I don’t play any of my own music on these “porch concert” songs.  I just play songs that people know that and seem to me to speak to the moment, and that I feel comfortable playing —“Amazing Grace,” all the Bill Withers’ songs, “This Little Light of Mine,”  60’s R&B stuff we all know and an occasional jazz tune that seems right, like one time we played Strayhorn’s “Daydream.”  Mostly they are forms of R&B.  A video of one of these porch concerts was shown on WNYC’s “Greene Space,” and we are raising money through that for Flatbush Development Corporation, a community organization that provides all kinds of programs for the many struggling people of our neighborhood.

Anyway, that’s been a lovely experience but it hardly replaces playing a real gig with your own music that come from the investigations into sound and composition that you do in your basement.

So this experience of sheltering at home changed the way you experience your music and your writing?

Like I said, I was supposed to be on tour in France and in Europe generally during most of this period and nothing can replace the true interaction between audience and performer.  That dialogue is just the essential stuff of being a musician/improviser.  But playing by myself during this period I’ve found myself editing solo improvisations into little compositions.  Even when I play something like “Lush Life”— to get more deeply into the composition.  Not having that dialogue with others either keeps me depressed on the coach or gets me playing by myself into protools where I’m thinking more compositionally. The most messed up thing is not having the interplay with other musicians; that just clearly sucks and there’s no replacing it for me.

As to writing, I was working on a long book/dialogue/poem before this all happened. I haven’t spoken about this much yet but suffice it to say it was very much involved with memory and these are times where memory recedes and the moment is right in front of your face. So I’ve been excited that my second book of poetry, which has all my work for the last 10 years, was supposed to come out on Madhat press in September—but given these times, it’s been pushed back to January and even that is not certain given the tours being closed etc. But anyway, I found myself going back to writing short “plague poems,” specifically about the moment.

You had planned an album release for “Heart,” from Endangered Quartet. What should have been happening? What is happening instead? How has that worked out and affected you, emotionally and in practical terms?

My very close friends, Curtis Fowlkes, Tim Kiah and Jesse Mills and I put together a collective band called Endangered Quartet that composes and arranges a kind of chamber music.  It’s been a beautiful experience of finding our voice in these last two years or so. Curt and I started the Jazz Passengers together, of course, and both Curt and Tim played with me in Sotto Voce. Then I’d met Jesse through Tim, when he subbed on a Sotto Voce gig about 10 years ago.  Jesse is a wonderful classical violinist. I grew up with a mother who was a classical pianist, and I’ve always had a particular affinity to the pianists and violinists who are classically trained – particularly if they really like jazz and improvisational music.  Jesse is certainly that, and Tim has become a terrific orchestral composer, so it’s been a blast for me to write for this group and to experiment in playing in these through-composed pieces that involve improvisation but are more intentional in terms of orchestration and group sound.  The Passengers were invited to play in a few chamber-music festivals years ago, and I do think that I’ve always gravitated toward creating meaning through group sound and involving lyrics into that mix, and this new band furthers all that for me.

So finally we finished the CD that was released on New Focus Recordings’ Panoramic imprint on May 22nd.  The concert was supposed to be at Joe’s Pub, which really is the perfect place for this subtle combination of sounds that includes vocals.

Of course the concert has been cancelled, and we’ve scrambled to find some kind of way to make an event about the release. So we settled on making a kind of film out of a Zoom discussion and a listening party featuring tracks from th CD.  To help get at least a little buzz on the thing I asked my friend Elvis Costello, who’d already heard the CD and really dug it, to help out. He’s great guy and generous, so he gave a lovely guest introduction.  Anyway, the whole thing was weird but we’ve done what we could and who knows what now… I really looked forward to getting the band booked, and of course that’s the only way to make any money from something like this but, still, it’ll be nice to know that people are hearing this music that, oddly enough, does really seem to speak to the vulnerability of this moment.

The lyrics that begin the title track to the new album — the ones Elvis quoted in that Zoom discussion—are stirring. Do they take on new meaning for you right now?

Yeah for sure.  Even before this pandemic we’ve been in the throes of some pretty serious dystopic shit in this country, with a totally immoral and amoral nut and his cronies running the show.  As a public-school music teacher for years and an old lefty who was at Columbia in the early 70s, I’ve always been yelling about the levels of inequality in this country but that shit has been so on steroids these last few years that yelling seems wildly redundant.

Tim is a wonderful musician who wrote the song “Endangered Heart.” He said that the song was about endangered animals, and he asked me to write some lyrics to the beginning of the tune. My sense was that, as musicians and as a poet, our responsibility is the uncertain science of the heart.  Scientists have given us more than ample doomsday evidence of the science of environmental destruction, historians and sociologists have given us more than ample evidence of the institutional destruction of the structural deficiencies in our collective response to these problems, but, as artists, it feels like we’ve got to find someplace in the cracks to talk about the heart. I kind of ran with lyrics about us birds and our bird hearts. The lyric that Tim wanted me to keep was the one about us needing to, “See the world through the eyes of a child.”  I don’t totally believe that, but I certainly understand the deep emotion behind that, so I put that lyric into a context I could believe in.

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