By Beppe Colli
March 19, 2009
Having listened to it thanks to a fortuitous
combination of events, I decided that I liked the album of duets by Jim
McAuley titled The Ultimate Frog in a way that's quite uncommon these days,
the album being a fine mix of music languages that I recognized as known
and items that were unusual enough to keep me guessing about what was coming
next (which to me sounds like an acceptable definition of "progress
Seeing that the artist's e-mail address
was there on the CD cover, I decided to get in touch (what could I lose?)
asking him for a chat, and luckily McAuley said "yes".
After reading a bit about Jim McAuley's
life in music, my problem was not "what to ask?", but "where
do I begin?". Readers will have to decide whether I solved that particular
dilemma in a way that can be regarded as satisfactory.
The interview was conducted by e-mail,
during the first two weeks in March.
Your recent album,
The Ultimate Frog, features four quite different pairings, both in terms
of instrumentation and musical approach. What's the rationale behind
your choosing these particular players - and performances, of course
- to present as a whole?
This project definitely
evolved in stages. In 2002 I had the incredible honor &
pleasure of recording some duets with the free-music legend Leroy Jenkins.
We had a CD's worth of tracks, all totally improvised. But at that time I
was in the midst of recording my solo CD - Gongfarmer 18 - and was devoting
my energies to finishing that and seeking label interest. When the solo disc
was released in 2005, I revisited the Leroy material and realized that as
much as I liked the idea of a totally improvised album, the pieces could
have even more impact when "framed" by more compositional material.
Obviously, I am not a hard-core improv purist! So I contacted bassist Ken
Filiano. I've always loved the scope and musicianship of his playing, plus
he can swing as well as get deep and soulful. After our sessions, things
started getting out of hand!
It occurred to me that
my most successful and ecstatic moments of ensemble improvising have always
involved one of the Cline brothers. Never both, and never in a duet format.
So maybe it was delusions of grandeur, but if this was to be my duet "statement," why
not include the two musicians I most admire and connect with? So I recorded
with Alex and Nels in 2007 - everything from totally free improv to actual
chord changes (a first for me)! Naturally, I now had tons of material to
choose from, but I felt if I could sequence it effectively, it could be
viable as a 2-CD set.
Some of the performances
are obviously improvised - some even being titled as such. But I'm curious
about the amount of preparation - if any - in some duets, especially
those with bass player Ken Filiano.
The pieces titled Improvisation
are all free duets with Leroy, numbered according to the order they were
recorded. Ken and I had a short rehearsal before our session. I had prepared
some ideas - riffs, tonalities, general roadmaps - but nothing too specific.
For instance, Successive Approximations is totally free, whereas The Zone
of Avoidance is based completely on the E melodic minor scale with a chord
sequence as the "head".
I'm curious to know
something about this "prepared marquette parlor guitar" - I
mean, is it marquette, or Marquette, a brand? What's special about it?
It's very special personally
because it was my first guitar. It came from the basement of a family friend.
I've never been able to dig up any information on the brand, but I'm guessing
it was one of those generic instruments sold in department stores in the
30's-40's. It's small (12 frets to the body) and has the slotted tuning
gears reminiscent of the early Washburns. I've always loved its plunky
sound and started preparing it when I joined the Acoustic Guitar Trio (with
Nels Cline and the late Rod Poole). Incidentally, I consciously choose
to limit my preparations to typical guitar accessories: picks, capos, tuning
forks, slides, etc.
I see you also used
the Marxophone (whose sound is familiar to me since the days of The Doors'
first album, though I didn't know what it was), but I can't seem to decide
where it is here - maybe on Froggy's Magic Twanger? Or are those prepared
The Marxophone is a
novelty instrument that was sold door-to-door in the early 1900's. It's
basically a keyboard autoharp or zither. I use it on Froggy's Magic Twanger
(retuned to the two whole-tone scales). On that track Nels is playing two
prepared guitars on his lap, similarly tuned, using his signature egg whisk
as well as slides, etc.
If my info is correct,
by the mid-60s you were a grown man. So I'd like to ask you a few specific
questions. Were you familiar with the work of, say, Dave Graham and Bert
Jansch, in the United Kingdom, or people like Robbie Basho and John Fahey
in the United States? Talk about this.
I was definitely listening
to Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, John Fahey, Robbie Basho and Sandy Bull
in the 60's. I became aware of Davy Graham much later. I was attracted
to the eclecticism and integrity of their music as much as their obvious
virtuosity. It's only recently that genres have begun intermingling again
(post-modernism?), which made my music - which has always incorporated
classical, jazz, folk and blues elements - more in keeping with current
Listening to music
from the 50s and the 60s what I hear - among many things, of course -
is a sense of place, of the music having a specific flavour emanating
from a certain place, maybe I could call it "regionalism".
Do you think it existed, then? What about today?
Though much of the regionalism
of the 60's - the "San Francisco" sound, etc. - was essentially
a marketing tool, there is certainly a grain of truth to the concept. The
East Coast blues sound of Mike Bloomfield or Paul Butterfield were distinct
from the West Coast styles of, say, Canned Heat or Taj Mahal. At the time,
I was especially enamored of the LA folk-rock-pop scene centered around
the Byrds, Love, Brian Wilson and so on. Today, though it might still be
meaningful to talk about "British non-idiomatic improv" or
"Norwegian death metal," these labels are more relevant to die-hard
fans than to the general listening public. It becomes somewhat meaningless
to discuss "regionalism" in a day of international collaborations
via the Internet, for instance. I personally prefer to listen to music with
no knowledge or expectations regarding its origin.
Talking about John
Fahey (I've read you were signed to Takoma, but nothing ever came out):
Were you surprised by his sudden surge in popularity before his death?
I mean, at one point he was quite obscure.
I secured my contract
with Takoma through a demo that included slide blues, gospel tunes,
Renaissance dances, a Van Morrison cover, Round Midnight and some bluegrass.
So they were quite open to my eclecticism. Fahey's approach was much more
focused, but still found room for ragas, sound collage, blues and country
within a very personal style. Yes, I was quite surprised to see his picture
on the cover of the Wire, but I suspect his late-life popularity was due
in part to his cult status, which was a result of his initial obscurity.
Had he been widely popular in the '60's, I think he would be viewed differently
today. In any case, he was a truly gifted and unique artist throughout
In the 60s you worked
in the studio with Don Costa, alongside people like Tommy Tedesco. Do
you think that the absence of the "human element" that was
prevalent in those days makes today's listening to mainstream music a
more sterile proposition?
If you're referring
to the use of synthesized sound, a resounding "yes"! But isn't
this "sheen" - the precision of the sound - part of the appeal
of pop music? The human element lies more in the vocals and lyrics today.
If you're referring to the post-modern notion of sampling, I think the
focus shifts to the ingenuity & musicality of the mixer/producer. Hence
the popularity of re-mixes. We have become fascinated with the infinite
possibilities of combining sounds rather than with the sounds themselves.
And the samples themselves trigger emotional resonances for those of us
old enough to know their origins!
In the past, groups
like Led Zeppelin functioned as de facto popularizers of
"minority genres" that mainstream audiences didn't really have
any easy way to access. Do you think this role still exists? And what about
a thirst for new things in music on the part of the audience?
In my youthful "purist" days,
I was deeply offended by what I perceived as Zep's ripping off of blues
artists. (Strangely, I've come to appreciate them more as I get older.)
But the practice of appropriating minority genres and repackaging them
as "new" continues to this day, and it still feels more like
exploitation than popularization. And with the easy access of the Internet,
there's no excuse for not seeking out the originals.
As far audience appetites
are concerned, I have noticed a definite shift in emphasis from the "familiar" to
the "exploratory". This again is a result of the Internet's democratization
of music. The mainstream acceptance of "world music" is another
sign that some listeners today seek unfamiliar sounds, as opposed to homogenized
Top 40 fare.
What's the most important
musical lesson you ever got? I mean, were you to choose just one.
It came from clarinetist
John Carter, whom I consider a true musical genius of improvised music.
I call him my mentor, even though we had just a few formal lessons together.
The lesson he taught me was to devote my practice time to the act of improvising
itself, as opposed memorizing scales and licks. This is really difficult
for an aspiring jazz musician who wants to develop his
"chops." You are fighting the natural inclination to develop and
refine your ideas. Even in free music (for me at least), it's hard to resist
defaulting to some lick that sounded so cool the night before - which never
works because context is everything. I find that my best live performances
are those where I can follow the music wherever it may lead without regard
for pre-arranged material (what John called "back pocket material").
Nowadays, the Internet
makes it quite easy for an "obscure artist" to be found and
listened to. Unfortunately, a lot of people have developed the annoying
habit of downloading stuff without paying for it. Discuss.
I have many (sometimes
conflicting) opinions on this subject, but, overall, I think the benefits
of the Internet's democratization of music outweigh the inequities inherent
in downloading. At least in my tiny corner of the music
"business," no one expects to profit financially through their
recorded efforts anyway. And I celebrate the demise of corporate domination
of the record industry; they never properly compensated their artists either.
Possibly some fair model of distribution will emerge in the future. As for
now, I'm just thrilled that my music is available to anyone who's interested
Any future plans
you'd like to share?
I have no desire to embark on another full-fledged
studio project any time soon. Possibly I will release some live performances
and/or home recordings in some format or other (incidentally, you can hear
some of my "home practice tapes" at longsongrecords.com). My
current focus is on developing and performing new material. I am playing
a couple festivals next month, and there is talk of some solo dates this
summer. I am also hoping that the duets album will open the door to future
collaborations and musical partnerships.
© Beppe Colli 2009
| March 19, 2009