To many, all jazz musicians are anonymous. Whether they are big names like Dizzy Gillespie or more obscure talents such as Elmo Hope, they are shadow figures—cats in the dark clubs playing that crazy music.
But to serious jazz fans, such names are legend: the Babe Ruth or Roberto Clemente of our world. And current musicians like Brad Mehldau or Greg Osby are the equivalents of Albert Pujols or Mariano Rivera: future legends that walk among us today. We can see them in our minds, we talk about them over coffee, and we can hear their sounds without even putting on a disc. We’ve memorized the statistics, you might say, from the back of all the baseball cards.
So it’s a shock when a new player suddenly emerges. And when that player emerges, fully formed, as a wily veteran with all the right skills, you can hardly believe it. What farm team was this guy hiding on? Where did he come from? Look at that swing!
Such is the case with pianist and composer James Carney. His latest album on Songlines, Green-Wood is one of the best jazz albums of 2007.
Shame on Me
If I’d been paying attention, I’d have caught him as the winner of the Thelonous Monk Jazz Composers Award in 1999, playing at the Kennedy Center with the likes of Christian McBride, Gene Jackson, and Wayne Shorter. But I can be excused for missing him, as well—during those years in LA he had a day job that allowed him to learn about music scoring and editing—and he released three discs on his own label.
Carney was raised in Syracuse, New York, and he very nearly made it to the conservatory as a classical tuba player. By 19, however, he was strictly a keyboard man, albeit one who had not yet discovered jazz. True rock stardom eluded him and his band Forecast, sending him—with a head newly full of bebop—off to CalArts to study with Charle Haden and James Newton.
Now, with Green-Wood‘s incredible mixture of long-form composition, inside-out playing, and electronic flavoring knocking my socks off, I want to know as much as possible about this amazing player and bandleader. For weeks, I’ve been digging the guy’s heady mixture of Sly Stone groove, Mingus ambition, and Ornette out-ness. So I called him at his home in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, and here’s what he had to say.
On Being Hidden in Plain Sight
“I’m not surprised at all when someone says, ‘I’ve never heard of you.’ I’ve been kind of hidden. Because I lived in Los Angeles for eighteen years, I was off the radar. Even though I was making albums, touring and getting great reviews, it’s not the same thing as working in New York. Even now, I’m not surprised at being relatively unknown. There are hundreds—even thousands—of amazingly talented people in New York, and there are a limited number of venues. So it is hard for everybody to get attention.
“There is an intensity and commitment in New York. I love LA and it was a great place to live for a time—and there are many great musicians there—but it’s safe to say that the audience for this kind of music is few and far between there. There are very few venues, and there is no way they would book half of what I do in New York. There cannot be a more concentrated scene than New York anywhere in the world. And you can be exposed to all the other arts as well. I learned that at CalArts—to consider how the other arts impact you own.”
On the Cinematic, Long-Form Compositions That Grace
“Ever since I started composing, I’ve been trying to get away from the typical AABA, thirty-two-bar song or blues structure. They’re fine, and I still love playing over those forms, but when I started writing my own composition, it seemed like a silly notion to always have things be that symmetrical. I like long-form compositions, and I like that they have a form (a set number of bars and chord changes), but it’s fun when those things get broken up. The way I structured the first tune on Green-Woodwas to have all the improvising in the beginning and then, when I play a cue, everybody knows to come in—then we’re into the form. The trumpet solo is over a form, but it is a bit atypical.
“The first and fourth pieces on the album are excerpts from a commission for the Syracuse Film Festival. On some of the other tunes there are specific interludes between solos that only get played one time—there are introductions and endings that I like. I like to have a lot of detail going on within the forms. And a lot of the forms are pretty long on this record—two to three minutes, four minutes while we’re still playing new material.”
On the Influence of Rock and Soul in This Uncompromising Music
“When I describe my music, I note that I like everything. I really did spend a lot of time at different periods in my life focused on one style of music or another. Jazz was actually the last one that I really discovered. I didn’t know about until I was about twenty-one-years-old.
“As a kid, if anything, I was steeped in my sister’s Beatle and Stones records—the music of the sixties and seventies. We were also listening to lots of classical music. I was listening to all kinds of pop music on the radio. (And—I was a tuba player playing in orchestras when I was young. I got pretty good at it wish I still played it as it’s become a boutique instrument in jazz.)
“I’m sure there are people who don’t care for my music if it doesn’t have a swing pattern with the hi-hat on two and four. But there is a huge amount of bebop and jazz-age information encoded into my music. Bebop is a very important thing for me even though my music doesn’t sound like bebop. But it would be dishonest if I just kept writing thirty-two-bar tunes with the same types of changes that Parker and Mingus used. It’s dishonest because if I grew up listening to Stones and Beatles and Carly Simon and Shostakovich and Bach and Emerson, Lake & Parker, then how can I not reflect all of that?”
On This Music Reconciling “Avant-Garde” and Traditional Jazz
“I think about this a lot. My approach is to be inclusive. I love hard bop as much as anybody. I really studied those Horace Silver records and know and love them. Lots of jazz fans want to hear that, and I think it’s great. The same goes for the avant-garde—there are some places you can go where you’re going to hear squeaks and scratches and very little that even references traditional jazz, and that’s great, too.
“But I do think the barriers are being broken down and there are more musicians now that are capable of doing not only different styles but also finding a way to assimilate them in a really personal way. The guys on Green-Wood were chosen because they can read over changes yet be really free and in the moment—they can create texture and timbre on their instrument. I find the musician who really likes everything to be the most interesting type of musician; they bring so much to the table.”
“Hammer Fingers” (partial) photo by Thomas Hawk
On “Making It” Financially as a Creative Musician
“I made a subconscious decision a long time ago just to do what I want to do because it’s so difficult to control your interaction with the music business. In my early twenties I played rock shows at the China Club in New York City, and all these celebrities would be in the audience and the whole idea was to get a record deal and a management company. You’re at the mercy of a business force where the music has nothing to do with it. At that point I realized—this isn’t something that is appealing to me to fight and overcome. So I wasn’t afraid to do what I wanted to do.
“At the same time I really want people to like the music and I think it is accessible.
“I used to think so long-term, and now it’s more short-term things. I’m not really worried about whatever ‘making it’ is. I don’t even know what that is anymore for a jazz musician. I feel great success right now because I can make the music I want to make and Songlines was willing to put out Green-Wood, which was fantastic. You look at that and are thankful for opportunities because we don’t know how many opportunities we’re going to have.
“As I get older, I look at our world and see myself as a much-much smaller part of it. I take my work as seriously as I ever have, but I worry less about my impact on the world as an artist. We can’t really control the business aspect of what we do. Because we’re jazz musicians and improvisers, the money isn’t great, but we do what we can and we find grants, we find places to play. I take it a month at a time. I feel great success right now because I’m making the music I want to make with the people I want to make it with. And I am making money and I am getting grants and commissions. I just won a 2007 CMA Chamber Music America Doris Duke Jazz Ensemble Foundation Grant. This is what you have to try to do—you have to get money from the places that know how hard you’re working and recognize what you’re going.”
On Keeping the Music Alive by Teaching and Experimenting
“When I moved to Brooklyn, I got a job teaching fourth, fifth and sixth graders for a semester, and I loved it. I was teaching them ‘Misterioso’, a blues by Monk, using music but also taking the music away and teaching it by ear. It was amazing how many of the kids were able to play it without using the notation. That’s one of the things that needs to be stressed in early music education—getting a feel for how things sound and how to train your own body to make the pitches on the instrument using your brain.
“Most people are scared to just sit down at an instrument they don’t know and just play it. I have a drum set and an acoustic guitar—and I’m absolutely terrible at both, but I like using those instruments, I like working things out because it helps you get back to doing things differently with your own hands. It’s amazing how much you can do without instruction if you just concentrate and work it out on your own.
“I have found that with improvisation, people are very scared to try it. When I was working with Charlies Haden at CalArts he said, ‘Try to play jazz like you’ve never played it before.’ And it’s easier said than done. I don’t even think I knew what he meant then—but now I completely know what he meant—and he was right. And that’s the spirit or attitude that even a master should have—you want to be open to anything. You want your mind to be open to that musical moment.”
On Two Musical Heroes—Threadgill and Shorter
“Lots of guys are very impressive on their instrument from a technical standpoint, but that doesn’t mean that that’s making music. Henry Threadgill said something like, ‘It’s not about how well you play your instrument—it’s about how you play your instrument.’ To me there is no such thing as ‘the best’. Somebody is the best when they are as close as possible to being completely themselves.
“It was a great honor to get the Monk Composers award. I got to play with Christian McBride and Gene Jackson (a pretty nice rhythm section), and I got to hang out with Wayne Shorter for an afternoon at his house. The woman administering the award asked if there was anybody I wanted to play on the piece. I joked, ‘Sure, Wayne Shorter.’ She called me back and said that he wanted me to bring the music over to his house immediately. He ended up inviting me inside.
“Wayne is a hero of mine—he is one of the greatest composers of all time and defies categorization. Everything he says is epiphanous. He is mysterious and enigmatic, but he is so amazingly outgoing and positive—he seems egoless and completely at peace with everything that’s going on in the world. I got the sense that he knows things that we don’t know. He has certainly been a big influence on my work—he’s amazing and he continues to be amazing.”
Emerging only now for most jazz fans, Carney most certainly sounds like himself; like a strong-minded musician and composer whose work sweeps up the full history of American music (jazz, pop, classical) and turns it into something special and personal. If he isn’t yet Wayne Shorter or Charlie Haden or Henry Threadgill, then he’s as close as I’ve heard a new musician come in some while.
On the Word “Jazz”
“I’ve been a visiting artist at some really interesting schools. We would play a concert at night and then do a workshop during the day. One time when I did a workshop at a college, someone asked, ‘Do you call what you do jazz?’
“I said, ‘I think I can. I’ve really studied it and I can play bebop and swing and stride—I’ve done my homework and I’ve figured out these things and I’ve transcribed a bunch of solos. So, yes, I do consider it jazz. And if you don’t, that’s OK.’
“But my main point is that it shouldn’t matter. We shouldn’t have to call it anything. Even in a creative music school there are people that ask questions like that. The point is for me to sound like myself.”
Now you’re on notice: James Carney may just be a master in the making.
See also Will Layman’s review of the Green-Wood album on PopMatters.