Photo: Daniel Oduntan

Laraaji Takes a “Quiet Journey” (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

“Quiet Journey” is the new single from Laraaji‘s upcoming LP, Moon Piano, out 9 October via All Saints Records. The record is the second in a trilogy of recordings made inside a Brooklyn church and stands in contrast to its predecessor, Sun Piano, in that it proves more introspective and minimal. The music was recorded by Jeff Zeigler (Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs, Mary Lattimore) and edited by Christian Havins (Dallas Acid).

“Quiet Journey” is a profound statement from the veteran pianist, a breathtaking example of Laraaji commands his instrument and his ability to uplift the listener with his improvisations. Above all else, music is a spiritual endeavor for Laraaji, and the listener is reminded of this within the piece’s first notes.

Laraaji spoke with PopMatters about making these recordings and his ongoing relationship with the piano.

In some ways, these records take you back to where it all started: Inside a church.

The church is a Unitarian Church with a pretty elegant large interior with a large grand piano. As I dug into the piano, I was connecting a full circle with my original contact with piano, which was in a church, usually when the church was empty, back in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in the early 1950s. So here I am now playing a grand piano to my delight, enabled to explore improvisation in an empty church.

This is improvised music, but I wonder what your preparation for a session such as this involves.

I might do some calisthenics, yoga, breathing, Tai Chi Chuan, and meditation to get in touch with the cosmic field, or the eternal presence. A day or two before, I’ll be doing exercises on the piano, scales, and arpeggios, and imaginary exercises to animate my approach to the piano.

There’s no written music, but there are riffs and tidbits of themes that show up every time I’d sit down to a piano to play. It’s like an ongoing conversation. Then there’s the new, the pulling music from the sky, as I like to call it. There’s no written music; there’s no specific direction that’s pointed out except the direction that’s allowed by my inner work just before sitting down at the piano.

What role does the individual piano have in the recording you make?

While the sound engineer, Jeff Ziegler, and the other people were setting up the room, I had the opportunity to do my scales and arpeggios and get a feel for the piano. It was an official concert grand piano, concert-length with the top up. I immediately fell in love with it. The piano is like a healing instrument because of its long bass strings, which puts out a very rich bottom.

I like interacting with it. I can dance with it. And then the way the keys respond to my fingers, the pressure, and the response of the string sound to my striking with a hammer. Those are things I feel out while the sound engineer is setting up the room.

Usually, I’m already into the zone of bringing through music before the recording has even started. So there’s part of me that’s saying, “Gosh, when are they going to be ready?” Because I’m ready. [Laughs.]

Every piano, of course, has its own properties and personality. Are there ever times where you’ve played a piano that maybe isn’t in great condition, but enjoy it because you’re having this conversation with the instrument and trying to pull the sweetness out of it?

That’s always the case. Sometimes, the most challenging pianos are the ones that aren’t being upkept. They might be in the back of a store, or the basement of a church or the back of a studio, discarded, and some of the keys don’t work right. But the idea is to find a relationship with that instrument. In that relationship, I can do something on the level of musicality whether it’s a rhythm, melody, or harmony, to animate my relationship with it.

The most highly maintained piano I played was one I played in Majorca during my traveling years. I was playing it backstage after a rehearsal of my normal music. After the stage was clear, and the other musicians went off to have dinner, I snuck backstage and found this piano and it practically played itself. I was so impressed with this piano that I had to go and find somebody in the main office and ask them, “What’s the story about that piano?” And they said, “Oh, that’s the piano that Arthur Rubinstein and Nina Simone request every time they come here.” So it wasn’t an accident.

Some pianos actually play themselves. Other pianos, you have to apply some aggressive pressure to get into the musical zone.

You have a comedy background and appeared in Robert Downey Sr.’s film Putney Swope. What memories do you have of that film?

I was only shown two pages of the script, on the night that I went in to do my reading. I was unaware of what the whole movie was about, who was in it, and what the content was until I saw the final film. I was kind of startled. I had no idea there was the use of illegal substances, profanity, or that it was bumping up against the edge of racial identities.

A couple of months after the movie was released, there was a buzz around the Black community in Harlem and I got in tune with that one day when I dropped in on a Sunday poetry reading at a church in Harlem. I came in, sat down, and this young, very passionate man of color was reading this poem. The poem had a cadence and a chorus.

It was “Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum and the niggers who did Putney Swope should be offed!” I started thinking about the images I wanted to contribute to the mass media. That was an invaluable moment because it put a fire under my butt to go out and find some spiritual education and start meditating and get a sense of my core identity so that I would feel better about what I put into the mass media.

I could see that some people are very sensitive about how people of color are being portrayed in mass media and that that film didn’t portray people of color in the highest image, what people of a Black nation would want to see.