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An interview with Rhys Tivey

by Andrzej (Andre) Pilarczyk
November 2014

For many a jazz lover, regardless of age, there is a respect for the music's tradition and it's evolution regardless of their individual preferences in jazz styles. Some like Swing, others Dixiland and still others prefer Bop, Hard Bop, Third Stream, Retro-Bop, Jazz-rock or experimental/ atonal jazz. However, all jazz lovers regardless of preferences respect a young up and coming musician who has focused and dedicated their love and life to furthering the jazz idiom.

Few, if any jazz musicians, get "rich" anymore playing the music- and they know that. But they play it because they love and respect it while hoping to make a living doing it, if they're fortunate enough. In the recent past there are notable young players who have made an impact on the national jazz scenes. Grace Kelly, Esperanza Spaulding, Myron Walden, Trombone Shorty, Tony Desare and John Pizzarelli, who along with many others have successfully have been passed the jazz baton and carried it into the future evolving a new jazz voice built on it's time honored traditions and foundations.

Trumpeter (and sometimes singer) Rhys Tivey is such a musician. He has absorbed the jazz tradition, practiced it hard on his instrument and successfully played the music in front of audiences to have gotten to the point that he was finally committed and ready this year to make a recorded statement about himself and his love for jazz. His debut CD recording, No Voice No More, with collaborators Jean-Michel Pilc on piano, Ross Pederson playing drums and Sam Minaie holding down the bass lines, is a superb first outing that stands out because it's got that rare emotional component, great dynamic band interplay and it's not churning out the tiring hard-bop standards that so many young musicians fall into that awful rut in their debut recordings where instead of saying something new, they're regurgitating the past.

Rhys had a moment in his busy day-to-day schedule- no doubt, trying to make a living at this jazz music thing- to answer a few questions for's contributing photographer (and sometimes writer) Andrzej "Andre" Pilarczyk:

Q: This album conjures up a different sound direction drawn from the modern jazz tradition. I'm hearing the melancholy trumpet textures of Mile's "Ascenseur pour l'echafaud," Tomasz Stanko's very early 1960's work with Komeda, and other's (Mark Isham, Wadud Leo Smith,...) in your composing and playing. It's actually refreshing to listen to your album. Your not following the pack of young players that are stuck in a Hard-bop groove with their composing and playing. Am I off on who has inspired you? If so then who?

A: Miles has been the most constant source of inspiration for me. Even though I rarely listen to him anymore I feel as though his sound has sunk into my bones. There is such depth, intent, and intensity in every note that he plays, and in every space he leaves for the band to fill. When I hear him I feel as though someone is revealing to me the most profound and miraculous truth. He leaves nothing extraneous, yet each phrase is also spontaneous. I like the association you took with "Ascenseur pour l'echafaud," also because his process for recording that was to my knowledge particularly impromptu and intuitive. I didn't consciously choose particular artists to influence this album, but looking back I think my aesthetic for this was received especially from Wayne Shorter, Maria Schneider, Gil Evans (with Miles), Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Debussy, Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach cello suites.

What far surpasses any other motivation for me in performing and recording, is state of mind. If the music flows from centered soul and flow, it transcends those technical elements of instrumentation, feel, harmonic complexity, speed, all those things that make it into a genre or give away its influences. So for this album, the emphasis for me personally was accessing that centered state of mind, trusting in my ability to improvise, without much concern for rigid formal elements. (Of course there was a lot of hard work for gaining technique and internalizing harmonic/melodic/rhythmic knowledge, but all that for me is done with a hope of internalizing it and never thinking about it during improvisation). I wanted to compose a handful of songs that would provide a good launching pad for improvisation, select a group of musicians that I knew would improvise with great sensitivity and intensity, and prepare my mind. That preparation came also from yoga and meditation.

Q: I am at a loss coming to an understanding of titling the album after the first composition, "No Voice No More." I'm not saying that I didn't understand the words in composition with it's bluesy-gosple tinge, but why that title and what's the message you want to share through it?

A: This was my first public musical expression in recording, so on one level, the album announces the beginning of my voice (as a trumpeter, composer and additionally vocalist).

In terms of the full lyrics' correlation to that, I think oftentimes a performer and listener unite, a listener identifies with the performer's self-expression and feels it as their own for that moment, a performer at times gives a voice to the struggle of the listener. I have a relationship and story behind the lyrics, but I'm more interested in letting a listener interpret it in a personal way than expose my story. One person told me they interpreted the song as expressing the unheard voice of the many animals and plants that have disappeared at the hands of human expansion. That's a poignant interpretation.

Q: Dream 1-5 is credited as an ensemble composition. I'm assuming you brought in the skeleton of it and everyone else filled it out. Is that true?

A: Actually those five songs were completely freely improvised, without any words of direction spoken prior to recording. After taking several takes of free improvisation I chose my favorites and ordered and titled them in a way that felt like a narrative arch.

Q: Putting the one standard, a vocal one at that, "My One And Only Love," it fits but is a musical departure from the other compositions in sound and texture. Many jazz musicians include standards or popular tunes so their audiences have some point of reference to understand or accept the musician's originals. I am curious why this tune and what significance it has to you?

A: I fell in love with John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman doing this song, and its what inspired me to work on vocals. It's just a song I love and while I didn't include it as a point of reference, I felt it as an ending. Also I always play in a way that's a little uncomfortable and risky in performance, and my voice especially at the time of recording was way behind trumpet in comfort and confidence. So to include this felt a little risky, but I don't mind if listeners pick up on my voice being underdeveloped, because I know the heart was there, and because I welcome imperfection and humanization. So the first track, with literal vocals, announces the album as the beginning of my figurative voice as a whole musician. The last track, also with literal vocals, and with a slight stylistic departure, opens the door for what new possibilities lie ahead in future projects.

Q: There is a brilliant and intuitive interplay between you and your side-men, but it's especially apparent between Jean-Michel Pilc and you. How did the collaboration come about and have you played long together?

A: Jean-Michel Pilc and I met while I was studying at the NYU Jazz Department, in 2010, and I took private lessons with him. He was very encouraging and challenging to me, and he shared a love of free improvisation, of stripping away all associative constraints and letting yourself be receptive and present while you let the music come through and interact with other players. He prioritizes improvising beautiful music, always above adhering to some genre expectation of what is right. That mentality is central to the album for me. We played duo a lot.

Q: The interplay and almost psychic connection between great Drummers and Bass players. I'm getting a sense of that in your debut recording. Have Ross Pederson & Sam Minaie played extensively with you or with others before this recording?

A: Ross and Sam play regularly with one another, and I met them and played with them around the same time in 2010. After planning the recording session, I only later found out that the three of them had just started playing together as a trio. Right before our recording, they were on tour and recorded together, so it was very serendipitous timing.

Q: What would you like to say about this recording that hasn't been asked? The word out on the street is that you had a very successful CD release party in NYC. Any plans for one in Capital District?

A: The CD release went very well at the Cutting Room. I am grateful for the experiences I had in Albany growing up going to ESYO, ESYO Jazz with Paul Evoskovich, playing with Michael Benedict, Alex Torres, studying with Eric Latini and Kevin Hendricks, and generally engaging with the Albany scene. Already in recent live performances I've been integrating a lot of different new material into performance. So I hope to play in Albany very soon and share music from this album as well as new material.

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