Publisher Profile

Laurence Borden Interviews Bassist Gregg August

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LB:     How does composition influence your playing, and vice versa?

GA:     When I write something for my group I often think about what I’m playing, my bass line or function within the tune. Is it clear or obvious to the band? We rarely rehearse before a gig so I keep that in mind when writing. Having said that I certainly am not trying to have a group that features bass, or me. I want the thing to be about all of the players, all of their voices.

LB:     After graduation, you went to Europe.  Please tell us about your experience there.

GA:     After Juilliard I won the Principal bass position with La Orquestra Ciutat de Barcelona in Spain, where I spent two years. Living there, learning the language and playing music was an incredibly enriching experience, but I wanted to focus on jazz and decided to leave the orchestra. I loved Europe and had very good musician friends living in Paris so I decided to go there. I liked very much living in Paris but soon found myself yearning to be more challenged musically. Every musician will say that musicians in New York play at the highest level because of the fierce competition, but I would add that it’s also brutally honest here. I felt in Paris just being an American jazz musician gave me an advantage over my peers, but that wasn’t what I needed or wanted. I suddenly felt a desperation to get back to New York, realizing that I needed to be here to develop myself.

LB:     Jazz comes in many flavors; which are your favorites, and how have they shaped your own personal style?

GA:     I’ve always loved Latin rhythms, and felt a certain affinity for them even before going to Cuba and becoming obsessed with it. I’ve been there three times, the first in 1999. Like most musicians who go there I’d say that first visit was life changing. Aside from the obvious — wanting to dig deeper and get closer to Cuban music in general — it was observing and learning to understand the relationship Cubans have with music that was so inspiring. Witnessing the passion and intensity of expression made me realize how fortunate I am to be a musician, no matter what style of the music I’m playing. I came out of there just wanting to play.

I also feel very close to Wayne Shorter’s music. In fact I had to stop listening to it for a while because everything I was writing seemed to have that impressionistic side of Wayne, like those pretty sharp 11 or lydian chords. I’ve also gotten close to Ornette’s music — all of those amazing tunes, the melodic flow that he possesses when he blows, and that swinging funk his rhythm sections always seem to have.

LB:     You are quite active in the New York jazz scene; tell us about your various positions and collaborations.

GA:     In addition to leading and writing for my groups, I play with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. We have a residency at Symphony Space playing several concerts each season, as well as playing Birdland every Sunday. In July I’ll perform with pianist Elio Villafranca — who you previously interviewed here at Dagogo — at the Caramoor Jazz Festival, with Lewis Nash and Joe Locke. I’m also involved with projects outside of jazz. For example, I’m Principal bass with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. We just played two amazing concerts with the great R&B singer Erykah Badu. I got to play electric bass — I was the happiest bass player on the planet. I also just completed my first orchestral piece and it was read by the Buffalo Philharmonic in April. The piece is called “Una Rumba Sinfonica,” into which I incorporated the orchestra polyrhythms found in Cuban rumba.

LB:     I recently heard you and your sextet perform at Smoke on NYC’s Upper West Side.  The performance was superb but I was struck by two things in particular: how the seven of you were able to fit on the small stage and, on a more serious note, the subtlety of your leadership.  In fact, had I not known it in advance, it would not have been apparent to me who led the band.  This was all the more remarkable, given that you occupied the rear of the stage.  How do you pull it off?

GA:     There are challenges leading a band as a bass player, both sonically as well as “geographically” as you noticed with me being in the background of the stage. But leading a band is really about having a vision and surrounding yourself with players who share your vision, or at least understand your vision. I don’t believe in discussing too much because that can lead to cats becoming self conscious and overly intellectual, and that will just kill the spirit. Yes, I have to be clear with the charts and all of that, but the music really comes to life in the improvisations and of course I would never attempt to direct or lead that. Musical trust is the key, because without it there’s no voyage.

Gregg picture 2

LB:     It’s been over five years since the release of your well-received CD, One Peace. What was the inspiration for this particular recording?

GA:     The reason for forming a quartet was that I simply was looking for a different sound from what I had been doing with the sextet. I had played a bit with Sam Newsome and thought the sound of soprano, HIS sound and the extended techniques he employs would be refreshing. Also I wanted more intimacy which would provide more space for blowing — with six players, not everyone was soloing equally. The sextet tunes on the recording simply needed to be recorded. I had written them a few years before and performed them often, and the band was playing them well. I didn’t want to abandon them.

Some of the tunes were composed with specific people in mind, friends or family; A Ballad for MV was composed for my girlfriend Marie, while Bandolim is actually something I wrote for the great bassist Dennis Irwin after he passed.  It was amazing how much Dennis knew about so many different kinds of music. He introduced me to the music of Jacob do Bandolim, a legendary mandolin player from Brazil. Dennis was so excited talking about him as I was just about to go to Brazil for the first time, and I’ll always remember him for that. The more obvious dedications, For Miles and For Max in fact are not that obvious, meaning I titled them for my nephews, not Miles Davis or Max Roach.

LB:     When you compose, do you have a plan in advance, or do you let the music take you where it will?

GA:     I’ll admit that writing is very difficult, and I don’t have a failsafe system. Creating parameters or guidelines is essential. Without them I find it hard to become decisive — everything sounds good, or bad, which is really the same in that the piece never really becomes focused. It helps to be inspired by a specific rhythm/groove or a mood or color. Working with text has also been good for me, as it provides a blueprint or sorts. It also depends on what I’m composing for, whether it’s “through composed” music or music for improvisers. Then the parameters are very different. On occasion I’ve been able to see the whole tune or piece before even starting and only have to “fill it in.” But like most composers I battle myself in that I tend to quote myself, relying on similar sounds and tricks from other pieces. So I try to move things around, to change them a bit. The risk is the music can then sound forced and unnatural. I’ve heard it said that composers are really writing the same piece over and over, and that each new work is another attempt to write the previous thing, to improve upon it. I can understand that sentiment, but as I search for my own voice I’m not ready to accept writing the same material if I can prevent it.

LB:     Do you have plans to go back in the recording studio again soon?

GA:     I’m planning to record in the fall a large ensemble piece called “Dialogues on Race.” The Jazz Gallery commissioned me to write it a few years back and I’ve been eager to record it. It was received very well and I feel the subject matter is important. I set to music, poems composed by both white and black poets who discuss race issues in our country. I’m revising it now and getting the funding together. It’s a pricy project because there are 12 players, and because of issues of copyright for the poems.

LB:     What are your thoughts on the current state of jazz in the U.S., and world-wide?

GA:     Hmmm… I’d say the music continues to evolve and develop. There’s lots of cross pollination contributing to this. Because of higher education (conservatories) a lot of musicians  understand the roots and traditions of the music. But what frustrates me is how little musicians actually get to perform. There are so few opportunities to gig. If you play once a month with your band you’re considered lucky. But the music doesn’t develop. Jazz came into being and many of the musicians became masters because they played all of the time. We hear stories about the long gigs back in the day, maybe from 10PM-4AM, then jam sessions afterwards. The only extended gig in NYC right now is at the Village Vanguard, where bands play six nights in a row. I’ve played there many times with JD Allen and I tell you there’s nothing that compares. You feel stronger in every way, physically, musically, emotionally. School can give you the tools and the knowledge, but musicians need to play.

LB:     Gregg, I would like to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.  I look forward to hearing you perform again soon, and urge Dagogo readers to do the same whenever possible.

GA:     And thank you Larry. I enjoyed this very much, and appreciate your giving me the opportunity.

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