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Dennis Gonzalez : The OFN Interview [part 2]

[part 1 / part 2]

Dennis Gonzalez with Faruq Z. Bey and Northwest Improvisers
Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, November 2004
Photo courtesy of Robert Barclay


I want to acknowledge the wear and tear on your nerves and heart as we move through this discussion, as the devastation in New Orleans, because of the flooding and damage brought on by Hurricane Katrina, holds a very personal connection for you. You have several good friends there, musical associates like Tim Green and Kidd Jordan, and have been trying to reach them and involve yourself as you are able.

I think that the status of my friends from New Orleans may be in flux for a while yet.  Saxophonist Tim Green was in San Francisco for a series of concerts when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and didn’t have a place to stay, so he came to my home and lived with us for about three weeks.  He has since visited his house in Algiers Point to see what actually happened to it—it turned out to be in great shape except for his trees—and he now lives in Austin and works with Cyril Neville, who has decided to live there instead of trying to move back to New Orleans.  I pray that by the time this interview is published, the diaspora of New Orleans musicians who were scattered to the four winds will be reunited along with friends, family, and extended community in a secure and renewed New Orleans.  I know that Kidd Jordan and his family are well, and in fact, he has started playing concerts again.  His son Marlon was lost for a few weeks, but he was found safe.  Guitarist Jonathan Freilich, and poet Kalamu ya Salaam are safe, for which I am thankful, and I’ve heard that trumpeter Clyde Kerr is also well, but I’ve not gotten word about bassist Elton Heron, or pianist Darryl LaVigne.  As the days come and go, I expect that all will be accounted for.

I want to focus separately on the Henry Grimes connection. I have read a significant amount of the ink he’s received since returning to performing following an improbable period of retreat from the world. Grimes’ resurrection has become a cause célèbre in improvised music circles, understandably I think. In relative terms, he’s received saturation coverage, yet I have not seen his linking to your ensemble, nor his first post-exile recording, Nile River Suite, which was recorded under your leadership, receiving just notice.  My intention is not to stir up animus, but to provide an opportunity for you to expand beyond simply acknowledging Grimes as a ‘sideman’ on that beautiful release.

I have an instinct about this facet of the Grimes story I will hold in reserve, until you have an opportunity to respond.

I’d love to hear your take on it because I myself don’t know why the jazz media’s reporting on my association, recording, and playing with Henry Grimes was so minimal, especially because I was able to get Nile River Suite finished and distributed in time for it to be the first recorded work by Henry Grimes in 37 years!  The CD that has appeared with Henry Grimes on bass that has gotten the most attention, and which jazz writers mistakenly claim is his first released work in this time frame is the CD on Ayler called Live at Kerava, with David Murray.  David Murray and Hamid Drake have very high visibility in the world of jazz, but inaccuracies in documenting historically significant events, such as the resurrection of Henry Grimes, for example, are frighteningly common in the world of jazz journalism.  If this is because of laziness and lack of fact-checking on the part of the writer, or because the writer has an agenda to push, I really can’t say, but I suspect that there are other, political, reasons.

The amazing thing about Nile River Suite, is that it sold out of two pressings quickly, and it was named to the Top Ten lists of jazz CDs for 2004 by many publications and writers in the US and Europe, including BBC3, along with NY Midnight Suite.  Reviews were wonderful—not a negative word in all the reviews I have been made aware of.  From what I’ve seen and heard, it’s considered one of the more “perfect” releases: soundwise, creatively, the interplay and solidarity between the musicians, preparation of the music, even the cover art.  I’m pretty proud of all that. And still, the orders are coming in so fast that I almost can’t keep up!

I have read many criticisms of Henry’s playing since his return.  This Nile River project is an important document of proof that he is a master player, on the same level as Malachi Favors, Sirone, Fred Hopkins; he is one of the few elders of the instrument.  He was the consummate musician in the studio and on the stage with my Inspiration Band.  He was quiet and listened very carefully to what we were all playing, and his contribution is an amazing thing to hear.  I have nothing but praise for Henry, and another thing I must point out is that at Vision Festival 2005, my quartet was the last group to play, at 2:30 in the morning.  And though more than half the audience left before we played, Henry was up front, first row, totally awake, totally aware, and cheering wildly for us.  It was such a pleasure and an honor to see that the great legend Henry Grimes was there in body and spirit for us!  I hope one day to be able to pay back the honor.      

Let’s talk about the occasion and circumstances around performing and recording with the NY Midnight and Nile River bands in late 2003. The connective tissue, aside from you, is drummer Michael “T.A.” Thompson.

In August of 2003 I went to New York to play the first Festival of New Trumpet Music.  I had invited tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, who I only knew from emails and from replying to his posts at Jazz Corner’s Speakeasy Web site, to play in the front line.  He had recommended virtuoso bassist Mark Helias and drummer Gerald Cleaver to round out the quartet, which was set to perform the 9:30 PM set at Tonic on August 9th.  I’d scheduled a quick rehearsal at the soundcheck that afternoon but Gerald hadn’t arrived by the end of our rehearsal, and he still hadn’t made it to Tonic by the end of the first set, which was played by Matt Lavelle’s band with Mike Thompson in the drum chair.  I remember being really impressed by Mike’s playing and wondering aloud to Roy Campbell, the festival’s co-curator, just who this fantastic drummer might be.  Roy realized that Gerald was not going to make it in time for my set, and so he took it on himself to ask Mike if he would play with us.  Two minutes before the set, I huddled with Mike and sang some of the music to him, and then we were off and running.  The audience ate it up! 

During soundcheck, Mark Helias suggested that I contact Pedro Costa, executive producer for—at that time—a new independent jazz label in Lisbon.  Mark commented to me that Pedro had spoken to him the week before in Lisbon and had asked if he was really playing with my quartet at Tonic the next week, and Mark replied that it was true.  Pedro then encouraged Mark to get me to record the concert, because he was very interested in putting out one of my recordings on his label, Clean Feed.  Mark didn’t know at the time that I had planned to take my digital 8-track with me to New York so that I could record the concert.  The machine only captured 37 minutes of music, however, so when I got home, I mixed what I could and sent copies to Mark, Ellery, Mike, and Pedro.

The concert was very strong, and a great success.  It felt like the ensemble had been playing together for years, though we’d not even done a full rehearsal.  In the middle of our set, Gerald Cleaver came in to Tonic walking right up to the stage with a pleading look on his face!  I found out later that this serendipitous opportunity to play with Mike was due to the fact that a severely jet-lagged Gerald Cleaver, just arrived from Europe, didn’t wake up when his alarm clock rang earlier that evening.  Mike, always the gentleman, stood up from his drum throne and offered to hand over his sticks to an embarrassed Cleaver, but much to my relief, his friends Ellery and Mark urged Mike to stay and finish the set, which he did.

Ellery and Mark were not convinced that the 37-minute recording showed them at their best, and so my idea of going in and finishing the recording at Tonic, with the same 8-track and the same microphones was nixed.  Pedro Costa, though, was so excited by what he heard from the mix I sent him that his company offered to pay for a studio recording in New York in November of 2003.  After emailing frantically back and forth for a month and a half, Thompson, Eskelin, Helias and I finally agreed to meet at a place called The Studio in SoHo at 11:00 the morning of November 22, 2003, but unfortunately, not everything went smoothly that morning.

During the month and a half that I spent setting up the NY Midnight Suite recording, I decided that I wanted to take further advantage of the time and money spent traveling to New York and all that it entailed: lodging, food, transport by taxi, as well as the recording costs.  So I got in touch with trumpeter Roy Campbell, who’d helped Dave Douglas set up our Tonic gig.  I’d read about the miraculous return of Henry Grimes, and knowing that Grimes was playing in Campbell’s group with “T.A.” as well as Sabir Mateen, plus, realizing that Henry Grimes’ return had not been made “official” yet with a documentation of his playing on a CD, I set my sights on being the first to release a CD with the newly-found legend playing bass.

Everyone quickly agreed to the recording, which was to take place the next day, Saturday, November 23, at a defunct recording studio-turned-rehearsal space called Universal Rehearsal.  The amazing thing is, that I asked up front that the musicians record the project “on spec”, meaning that they would not get paid at the time of the recording, because I didn’t have the cash, and they all agreed.  Later, we agreed that I would pay for the CDs to be pressed, and each of the quintet would receive a certain amount to sell, in which case they would end up being paid fairly well for the session.  The recording went well, and it felt natural to work with these musicians.  The arrangements I wrote were simple, but with a group of this caliber—and with their soulfulness and dedication—the pieces became major works of great beauty, stunning in their variety and intensity.  The connection to the NY Midnight Suite project was, as you’ve stated, Mike “T.A.” Thompson—a very strong connection indeed.  When the recording—which I engineered on my faithful Yamaha digital 8-track—was done, we packed everything up and headed over to the Bowery Poetry Club, where we played the same pieces we’d recorded earlier that day in concert.  It was an intense and exhausting day, fulfilling and beautiful.

Let me get back to the NY Midnight Suite recording.  We had agreed to use someone other than me to engineer this particular recording, because I wanted the burden of engineering the session off my shoulders.  And because Clean Feed sponsored this particular session, I wanted to concentrate on the music; I needed to get it right; I wanted to make sure they got their money’s worth.  But I wanted a way to take the recording home with me so that I could study the music and mix it the best possible way.  I went down to the studio the day before the recording so that the studio techs could find a way of recording the music onto my 8-track digital recorder—it has always served me well, and it’s always given me award-winning recordings—but there was a mix-up of some kind, and when we arrived at the studio the next morning, the engineer and his assistant were upset with me, they were upset about having to use the 8-track.  Apparently, the studio hadn’t found a way to send a signal to the 8-track and they were frantically trying to figure it out at the last minute.  The bass was minimally isolated in a booth, which was open at the top, allowing too much of the saxophone sound to “bleed” into the bass microphones.  Another problem was that the trumpet microphone was too sensitive for the amount of sound I use when I play, so it would crackle and hum, and this noise found its way onto the tape.

In the end, the session was beautiful and I went home with a slightly-flawed recording of some very superior music on my machine.  The feeling in the studio that day of nervousness and a bit of “attitude” between me and the engineer didn’t matter after all was said and done.  And although I ended up having to work with the sound for several weeks before getting a good mix, it was worth it.  I minimized the noise on the trumpet track and the music turned out beautifully well.  It was a huge learning experience for me.

The NY Midnight Suite recording garnered many awards and many great reviews, just as Nile River Suite did; two very gratifying recordings with a lot of very beautiful playing by all my musicians.     

Funny how people, places and things link up, and we conclude, variously, that serendipity/karma/kismet is operative.

Not only were those three elements present during the two recordings, but I also had an awareness of what was swirling around us during those two very different sessions; what raw materials were there for the taking that were provided by our proximity to them… how to take those bits and pieces of life and music and find the miracle in them.  It provided a way for me to learn to recycle those bits and pieces of the problems, and make the usable, instead of lamenting that I didn’t deserve what I got!

A website relationship: collaborating with Eskelin > Helias > Tonic > Roy Campbell > TA Thompson—who is, finally, the other connective tissue between two important, strongly realized recording sessions.

I’ve realized that we have to use tools effectively, to our advantage.  We have to be quick learners in this world of bytes and pixels.  In the past, we had to wait weeks to get a reply by handwritten mail, and frequently I long for those days of that kind of hands-on communication.  But I’ve decided that friendships can be forged and good decisions can be made by taking advantage of the intuitions I glean solely from electronic blips on the screen.

Dennis Gonzalez, Wojciech Pulcyn, and Kazimierz Jonkisz
On tour in Legionowo, Poland, March 15, 1993

There were more than a few obstacles—again, people, places and things—around the frenzied recording of those two documents.  It seems like your musical odyssey is replete with what Tibetan Buddhists hold as an integral sanity principle—“transforming obstacles into the path of enlightenment”.  In less high falutin’ spiritual terminology, you have acquired a flexibility and creativity in “working with what’s been spoiled”.

Years ago, I was being interviewed by Chris Douridas, who now programs music for major films in Hollywood, and I made a statement that surprised him tremendously.  I commented to him that most of my music gets its life—its zest—from mistakes.  I explained that there are always so many mistakes, stumbling blocks, in the way that I play, whether due to technique, or the situation, that I have to use these as raw material for building my concepts, for building my compositions.  I would have failed miserably as a musician, as a composer, if I hadn’t taken these wrong turns, these slipups, and made them fresh components for a totally new expression.  Sometimes it’s something as simple as a wrong microphone, like in the recording of NY Midnight Suite, which was crackling unmercifully.  Instead of asking the engineer, who should’ve changed it immediately without my prompting, to give me a more appropriate microphone, I found the right distance and changed my volume, my attack, my phrasing, and eventually found a way of playing that is different than I normally play, and I think that made a huge difference, in the long run, in how the music worked itself out.  The crackling made me take a closer listen to the music, and I found other subtle problems that needed changing.  I ended up with a better recording.

In the recording of The Desert Wind, for example, saxophonist Charles Brackeen suffered a seizure, and when he came out of the flailing and guttural noisemaking, he had crushed and broken his tenor saxophone.  He was so angry, and obviously still “under the influence” of the seizure that he began speaking in tongues and gesticulating fiercely.  We were all in awe of this raw power that he was exhibiting, apparently with a direct line to some unknown place, and soon, he was out of words.  He picked up his soprano sax and began blowing ferociously, angrily.  That could’ve been the end of the recording session, and we could have all gone home upset and disappointed, and broke, but instead, I asked the engineer to turn on the tape machine to record the outburst of emotion and sound, which was amazing, and when Brackeen got to a certain place in his playing, the band, which had been watching and listening in amazement, joined him in re-constructing, out of his screaming lines, the title song of the album.  If you go back and listen, you can hear his delirious pain and anger, and the song quickly transforms into a composition of triumph and spirit… “working with what’s been spoiled” indeed.     

I think both the NY Midnight Suite and Nile River Suite sessions own stellar playing, synergy, and their share of effective solo moments.  I hear what you’re referring to in saying the arrangements it all hangs on were simple, yet frame a high degree of variety and intensity.  In “Sketch the Wings of Midnight”, for example, a five-note motif sets up fantastic solo statements.  In “Runaway Taxi Uptown,” a nine-note riff—spirited, propulsive, your “Broadway Boogie Woogie”—calls out a similar solo intensity.  And I’ve already referenced one of my favorite solo moments: Eskelin’s a capella intro to “Hymn for the Elders”.  And, for quirky, personal reasons, your essaying of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in “Sketch the Wings of Midnight”.

I knew that under the circumstances I didn’t have the time or the money to rehearse these groups thoroughly, so I had to write down quick and easy motifs, tiny rhythmic hints that would give a band lots of information and direction to guide them in their improvisations.  I would fly into New York, stay three days, getting as much done as I could, and leave.  And since I really don’t like jam sessions—because frequently they degenerate into unending noodling and thrashing—I had to have a sketch of a map so that the music would end up somewhere new and exciting.  I’ve learned over the years that the right people, with a bit of a push in the right places, can do marvelous things. 

Your Ellery Eskelin reference is an excellent example of the magic that can happen when a great jazz musician is given just a hint and then trusted to get the job done.  I suppose I could have written a complete melody with chord changes and directions written out, but I knew Ellery had a certain magic to express, and he allowed himself to walk unknown territory in search of a statement.

I have had many situations over the years where I’ve had the time and the budget to work out and rehearse detailed arrangements, and what’s amazing to me is that my music always ends up going where it’s supposed to, because one of my rules is that the music is paramount.

There are still two more sessions that preceded these two recordings that are yet to be released by Clean Feed Records, which are terribly awesome in their own way.  Just wait until you hear them!  These two recordings that I speak of were actually recorded in concert on August 8 and August 9 of 2003, three months beforeNY Midnight Suite and Nile River Suite.  The first one, documenting my first concert away from Yells At Eels since 1999, in Boston, is a fascinating glimpse, a preview of the music that is to come in November of 2003.  This CD will be released at the end of 2005.  I wanted to use a Boston crew, though I was encouraged by many to take my NY Quartet to Artists-at-Large Gallery in Boston for the preliminary show.  I chose to use Charlie Kohlhase on saxophones, 19-year-old Croix Galipault (a student of Joe Morris’) on drums, Ken Vandermark, veteran bassist Nate McBride, and the great Joe Morris himself on bass as well.  That session is called No Photograph Available—though there is one available—and documents a re-working of music from the Old Time Revival recording of exactly one year before.

The second recording is the so-called Tawnik recording of the NY Quartet (which is heard in the studio recording NY Midnight Suite) live on the night of the 9th of August, the evening after the Boston concert.  Originally, the quartet had decided not to release the concert, as the tape cuts off prematurely, and the sound quality seemed a bit “iffy”.  But Pedro Costa and the crew at Clean Feed would not rest until they’d convinced us all to release the tapes.  So Mike “T.A.” Thompson and I took the tapes to Jim Clouse in Brooklyn and worked on the sound and the mix, and I must say, the results are striking.  The Tawnik (the word “Tonic” pronounced like a Southerner would) CD should be ready sometime mid-2006.   

I have told you, in reference to Nile River Suite, that I’ve not really warmed to Mateen’s playing before; I’ve caught him live, in a frenzied TEST performance, and a few recordings.  I really dig his contribution to NRS, on each instrument he picks up—the Dolphy-esque sax, clarinet, flute axis. 

I had been wanting to work with Sabir for a long time, and I was so pleased that he was available and willing.  Sabir is one of those rare players who is worth waiting for.  With a bit of patience and study, his greatness eventually unveils itself, and his playing—to one’s ears—becomes clear and lucid.

This connects, to my ears, to a couple of Gonzalez strengths: firstly, your generosity to soloists.  You seem more curious to hear your associates flesh out your arrangements than in self-indulgent soloing or over-control of the ensemble. It sounds as if you sketch outlines to be filled in/completed by “guest” musicians.  Secondly, they receive ample, but very disciplined, solo space.  Everybody gets some.  So you never, as leader or as trumpet voice, dominate your sessions.  Yet often your tags on the conclusion of a solo statement rein things back in; there is a gathering in, collecting quality you exert as leader, that I think helps evince a soloist’s most potent playing.  So the qualities are generosity combined/coupled with a restraining/gathering influence, very skillful means when collaborating with in full effect cats like Lake, Mateen, and others. 

I was criticized mildly at the beginning of my recording career for allowing soloists too much space, and then for allowing the music to be varied and wide-ranging, and I finally decided to do it the way I felt.  It’s worked well for me all these years, and my intuition has not been wrong.  I listen to critics carefully, and I’m usually not upset by negative criticism, because I feel that the critic is usually an informed listener, and can usually comment impartially on facets of my music that could use tightening up.  I am very careful with every release, because I realize that the finished document is what the listener will hear for years to come, and I have been rewarded over the years with enthusiasm and praise… the two necessary staffs of life for the creative musician.  You point out that I seem “more curious to hear (my) associates flesh out (my) arrangements than in self-indulgent soloing”, and I have to say that I am not interested at this point in a solo statement.  That is why I choose the sidemen that I do, because they know how to comment instrumentally on what they feel my music is saying.  I am truly interested in what they will play, and I have always been happy with the results.  I have to go forward in time and predict what a piece of music will sound like, and I am not usually too far wrong, most of the time erring on the conservative side… which means that I’ve always ended up with something better than I thought.  I have to be able to listen while the event is proceeding and guide subtly and respectfully the various directions in which each soloist is moving.  I have very rarely chosen self-indulgent soloists, though there have been a rare few, which almost guarantees the success of a statement.  I also have to be very vigilant in controlling the environment and mood, and I always try to make the musicians who work with me feel confident that the situation is under control.  I’ve seen many a situation go awry because a leader lost his temper over a small detail, or because he allowed a primadonna sideman to be overindulgent or domineering.  I just don’t let that sort of thing happen.  As far as I’m concerned, we are equals, and nobody has shown that better than Oliver Lake. 


Dennis Gonzalez playing with Tim Green's Crescent City Brass Band
London, England, June 1989
Photo by Ruth Davis

The legendary Oliver Lake brings a strong spirit of simpatico to your work.

Part of the reason he is legendary is not just because he is an elder and because of his longevity and perseverance over the years, but also because of that “simpatico”, as you call it.  We first played 12 years ago in Dallas and in Houston, and then after a long time of not working together, we got back together for a series of events—some concerts and a recording.  Every time, he was the same: patient, conscientious, creative, friendly, always smiling, and hard working.  The rest of us would be joking and telling stories and Oliver would be over in his place, running through his notes, playing the lines over and over, practicing.  I’ve never had to worry that he’s going to pull a trip on me.  He’s usually the most stable member of the band, and I’ve always played with some very stable people.  I don’t have time to waste on trying to straighten someone out.  So to be able to play with Oliver Lake is a blessing.  His very presence demands authority.  But he is also a role model as well.  He was a living example to my sons when Yells At Eels played Vision Festival in June of 2005 and Oliver was in the sax chair.  He asked us over to his house to rehearse there, and we felt totally at home.  The boys were amazed. 

He reverberates with you on several levels—at the foundational level for both of you, Lake was involved with the Black Artist's Group around the time you were organizing daagnim in Dallas.

Actually, it’s interesting that you say that because BAG was active from ca. 1968 to 1972, and daagnim was active from ca. 1978 to 1982, almost a decade’s difference.  In setting up daagnim, I looked not only to the AACM in Chicago, but I studied the movements and activity of BAG in St. Louis.   

daagnim and BAG were involved in divergent missions in some respects, but at the core, both affiliative groups were about the musicians’ ownership of self-determination for the aesthetics and business of their respective scenes.

I think that the divergence you speak of is more on a timeline than in actual practice.  Possibly one other divergent aspect was the blatant multi-ethnicity / multi-raciality of daagnim.  But at the core, as you state, both of our groups were about convergence of purpose: to determine what we would play, under what circumstances, and where we would play.  And you are correct about the importance of the aesthetics.  In fact, it was paramount at that time that we take the “new tradition”, which Oliver and company had pioneered (along with the AACM crew), and extend those freedoms and permissions into our playing situations.  It was our business to be heard and to extend the possibilities and situations of our playing and composing.

More potently to my mind is the linkage Lake provides to that generation of great improvising musicians whom you’ve “Hymned”—subjects, that is, of your Hymn book: Mbizo, Hemphill, Carter, Cherry, et al.  Given your regard for this lineage, it must be very gratifying to have written tunes with Lake’s voice in mind for the Idle Wild session.

In March of 2004, Oliver played in Portugal at the Coimbra Jazz Festival, and I remember asking him about Malachi Favors, particularly because we debuted the composition “Elechi (Elegy for Malachi)” at that time.  He admitted to me that he’d never recorded with Malachi, even though he’d wanted to for a long time.  He’d never had the chance.  So we were feeding off each others’ experiences—Oliver as a representative of the previous, better-known generation, and me, representing those who continued the examples set by Mbizo and Hemphill and Cherry and Carter and Lake himself.  The trading of information across generations was very gratifying.  Learning the codes firsthand just by listening to Oliver play with that authority I mentioned earlier, but at the same time hearing him with that authority embellish the extensions of the tradition he helped shape.  It was amazing, this vortex of exchange.  I listen back to the live recordings from that time and I get caught up in the sweeping winds of prayer and respect, of ritual and release that musicians of Oliver’s generation handed down to us, and its dissolution and reformation into something even newer, even finer, more precise.

You reference debuting “Elechi—Elegy for Malachi Favors” with Lake in Europe in March of 2005, then recall: “I get caught up in the sweeping winds of prayer and respect, of ritual and release.” You're referring to listening to the zeitgeist of the 70s-era ‘jazz’ improvisers, but this is a fair characterization of “Elechi”, a very fine suite on Idle Wild.

One of the feelings I look for, one of the spaces I want to surround me, is the feeling of losing myself in the music.  Usually I am too conscious of my playing, and I have to concentrate on learning from moment to moment just how to guide the ensemble through the places I want them to go, even if I myself have never been there, and that gets in the way of this desire for unconsciousness.  This awareness is a big obstacle for me, but I believe it is also a way for the music to become, to be guided to a great excellence.  Some of the few times I am able to transcend the “noise” in my head, this awareness of the factors that make up a great performance, are the times when I can set up the ensemble and then I let them go, and the ensemble goes on without me.  Then I can just stand there and listen to the interaction of a great soloist with a great rhythm section.  That is when I can truly get caught up in the ritual of worship and transcendence that I wish my music to be, as when Oliver Lake and I play together on the same stage, and the whirl of the music becomes a magical vortex that sucks everything in and spits it out in another place.  For “Elechi” to have reached that point, especially in paying homage to a great spirit, Malachi Favors, is beautiful for me to understand.     

Following a ritual prelude that recalls the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Lake solos mournfully, then you enter with notes warm and ebullient. The contrasts within the suite, the territory covered and the facets of grief conveyed within 21 minutes, are stunning. The latter half of the Elegy gains propulsive steam, Thompson kicks ass, Filiano walking the bass, strong horn statements, then a gradual simmering down to complete the cycle.

I want my music to go places, as I’ve tried to say so many times.  As in my explorations of the earth in my travels, where I encounter so much magic and mystery—so many different ways of being—in that same manner, I want my music to expose and dig up the ancient and the new, the dynamic and the static, the astounding and the mundane, and in this way strike a balance of rest and movement.  It’s important that there be space as well as clutter, and everything in between, in one piece.  Even in my more silent pieces, there is a yearning for the other extreme.  The silence is like an empty bowl that begs to be filled, for universes to be born and to die, only to be born again.  I listened to the Art Ensemble, studying their ways and movements in deciding how I wanted this piece to proceed.  One of the beautiful things they reveal is the importance of ritual in music, and one way they allow this to happen is with the exploration of explosion within silence, such as the use of gongs, and the use of topography and the cinematic, as in their use of small instruments and bells.  The shaping of sound is a way of shaping the territory of the mind and the spirit, and they teach us soundshapers how to practice our craft, which is really an art, more efficiently.  They are prime examples of how to become code and how to use code to say without words what needs to be said.  It is the body language of music.

Moving on through “Bush Medicine”, to Lake's stellar workout on “Dust”, to the conclusion of the disc, you provided generous solo space for Lake, and he works within that space so consciously and concisely.

Oliver Lake has much to teach, and I try to show respect and appreciation by allowing him his calling, which is to testify, to bear witness to the gifts of the spirit, to the generosity of his being.  He is a preacher of sorts, and must be allowed to speak.  How else can we learn what it is he’s trying to convey? 

He has certain recurring themes in his playing that he returns to from time to time, almost as if asking the listeners if they are still with him.  He is conscious of the fact that for many listeners, his is a new language, or a new dialect, but it can be easily understood if the listener is engaged.  He makes sure that he stays aware of attention spans and difficulty in listening.  He has pared down his vocabulary, one of the things a mature player does to communicate more effectively and more efficiently.  He is quite intelligent, and intelligent in his playing.

By the way, your sound on “Bush Medicine”, speaking of East Texas, is reminiscent of Bobby Bradford, circa “The Law Years”. You display that fat tone, punching that free bop thing like it’s your first language.

I met Bobby for the first time in August, in New York at the Third Annual Festival of New Trumpet Music.  I knew him by reputation, and had listened to a few of his records, but I didn’t know his playing that well.  I decided early on to listen to players of other instruments in order to escape from the influence of trumpeters, and so truly, I went without treasures such as Bobby Bradford.  His tone is gorgeous, almost African, like Harry Beckett’s, and his approach is immaculate and well thought-out, well practiced.  I love his compositions and his organizational skills in the music.  I am flattered to hear my sound compared to his.

Also, on “Idle Wild” (the tune), Lake’s tonality and melodicism are strongly redolent of his playing on “Hymn for the Old Year”, a tune he penned for the fantastic, overlooked Billy Hart release, Enchance, from 1977. I feel like saying that I don’t hear these linkages and connections as derivative, but as inarguably flowing within a specific lineage.

I think that not only is Oliver part of a particular lineage, I think that he has established his own lineage as well.  But because it is so personal and idiosyncratic, he is not given the same respect in terms of saxophonists who study him and play like him, at least that I’m aware of, in the same way Julius Hemphill has a school of players.  Part of the deal is that Lake is very self-effacing, and so he does not have the same kind of aura that a Julius Hemphill would have.  Another problem within this community of improvisers is that Lake’s sound is so specifically his, and he is a living player, that it would seem derivative to play like him and not come off as copying rather than paying respect.


Dennis Gonzalez Revival Brass Band opening the Dallas Museum of Art's Centennial Celebration
January 8, 2003
photo by Cesar Mateos

Dennis, you performed at the Downtown Music Gallery on 9/11/04 (DMG is reportedly the wallet-shrinking epicenter of NY for new music fans; happily I have never been there!).

I know this gig was particularly powerful for you, and I think for the audience that attended. I recall you saying you are typically reticent when performing, deferring to your associates in making a lot of verbal contact with listeners. At this event, you leaped across the interpersonal proscenium and made very direct contact with those who came to hear the music. There must have been present a spirit that moved you to do so?

This whole concert was a really fast deal, but once I started working on it, I knew it had to happen.  I got an email on September 2, 2004, telling me that that the guys at Clean Feed records in Lisbon, who’d already put out the NY Midnight Suite record, would be traveling to New York, arriving on the 7th of September, and that they’d be there through the 13th. One of the guys coming would be Portuguese saxophonist Rodrigo Amado, who plays alto, tenor, and baritone. They were coming to New York to buy CDs, LPs, DVDs, in short, anything jazz to stock the new jazz store they were preparing to open in October in Lisbon. It’s pretty difficult to buy jazz, especially newer styles of jazz, in Portugal, except at concerts.  Usually, the Clean Feed guys will set up a booth where they sell whatever is available to them, as well as the CDs the musicians bring with them to sell to the audience.

I’d heard Rodrigo’s playing live at the after-festival Jam Sessions at Coimbra Jazz Festival in March of 2004 (when I played with Oliver) and on his own CDs as leader of LIP—the Lisbon Improvisational Players—as well as his CD with violinist Carlos Zíngaro and my friend, bassist Ken Filiano, the CD called The Space Between. Anyway, at that time, he’d never played in the U.S., though he’d visited many times, and so I thought that this would be the perfect excuse to put together a group and a concert with Rodrigo.  Since that time we’ve recorded a CD in Lisbon and two weeks ago, in mid-September of 2005, he came to Dallas to play with Stefan’s group Unconscious Collective and with Yells At Eels.

After trying the usual places for a September 11 gig, Mike Thompson informed me that it was too quick to put something together in a place like NY, but that something would come up, even if it meant a jam session at someone’s private home. My intent was to showcase Rodrigo in his first appearance in New York in public, along with the rhythm section I’ve been working with (Mike Thompson on drums and Ken on bass), in order to let people get to know his name and his music.  So it seemed that there would be no gig, and to top it off, Ken was out of town.

I decided to call Downtown Music Gallery to see if they could book us a gig there, and when Manny of DMG answered, I asked if DMG would be open to a Saturday night concert and he said yes. We settled on an 8:00 PM show and he asked me to email all the pertinent info to him ASAP so that he could post the concert particulars in their newsletter. I decided that the concert was to be called Improvised Meditations: In Remembrance of 9/11, and would feature me, Rodrigo, Chris Sullivan (on bass), and Mike Thompson. After a few small problems, the concert was booked, and it apparently caused a big sensation in New York, because there were no jazz concerts in New York that weekend in memory of 9/11. I even got a call from Ken Filiano asking if he could join the group onstage, and so now we had two bass players. Because of the tiny Downtown Music Gallery space, Thompson brought only a hi-hat cymbal and stand and a snare drum as his drum kit... if you've ever seen Mike play, he can play an entire concert with sticks and a cymbal stand, if that's all that’s available.

For some reason, New York City on Saturday night, September 11, 2004, was suffering from terribly slow traffic and non-existent parking. Ken arrived with his bass at 7:45 PM; I arrived at 8:00, after being introduced to the local firehouse gang at the fire station just around the corner. They'd lost ten colleagues and were overjoyed that I would be playing a concert in their memory in their neighborhood. The place was decked with flower wreaths and candles burning bright. Mike (with his cymbals, stand, and snare) arrived with Rodrigo in tow around 8:10, and Chris Sullivan arrived with his bass around 8:20. The audience by this time was ready to hear some music, and they overflowed the DMG space and were standing at the open door talking and looking in our direction expectantly. I recognized some faces, including Mark Taylor and a punk rock friend of my sons’ from Dallas, visual artist Mike McNeil. The Clean Feed guys were sitting on the floor directly at our feet snapping pictures of this great event and having the time of their lives.

I decided to get the music going around 8:35, asking the bassists to start first... they sounded amazing, especially since they were playing acoustically. I didn't want the music to be somber, but it was a bit serious and quite celebratory. I could have let the bassists play by themselves all night, but I did come in with a simple repetitive trumpet line which was joined after a minute or so by Rodrigo Amado on alto. I really wanted to hear him, so I motioned for him to take the first solo, and his playing was plaintive and boppish at the same time. About halfway through the piece, Mike Thompson began swinging mightily.

What was supposed to be a 45-minute concert turned into an hour-long celebration of life, and although I had not planned on a third piece, the group started up again, and I let them play, as I walked through the audience, where I hugged and shook hands with everyone there and gave a few words of comfort and prayer to each one. It was a beautiful feeling for me to be able to let the sorrow in me become joy at knowing that love was in the space, and that we are all in it together.

I had never done that before, as I am quite shy one-on-one.  Part of my shyness stems from the fact that I have lost a great deal of my hearing to an ear infection, but a few months before, I’d finally been fitted with a pair of 18-channel digital hearing aids, and I could actually hear the comments, questions, and good wishes from the listeners that I talked to.  It was liberating to be able to connect that way with the audience, and I’ve made that a regular part of my concert playing.

The spirit I felt at DMG that night is difficult to explain.  It was a combination of the feelings of the audience—we have to remember that the majority of these people were in New York when the tragedy of 9/11 happened—as well as my feeling of being blessed to be there with these people, knowing that we were all alive and able to listen to music and breathe and see and feel.


Dennis Gonzalez in Boston
Artists-At-Large Gallery
August 8, 2003

Please talk about your experience with both Vision and the Festival of New Trumpet III.  I think the experience of playing festivals is of interest, and I saw Vision as an arduous process for you—not to say you need to address the various snafus attending that booking.

You know, part of any gig is the process that the musicians have to go through, especially group leaders, to work out a performance.  And part of the history of a gig involves documenting the triumphs and the pitfalls of that process.  Because Vision has become such a huge festival with so many legendary players, it is difficult not to have sometimes massive problems with the business aspects of it.  I was ecstatic, as were the boys, to be asked to play Vision 2005 in New York.  I had originally proposed a double trio which would combine Spirit Meridian and Yells At Eels:  My son Stefan and Mike Thompson on drums, my older son Aaron and Ken Filiano on bass, and a two-piece front line which would be Oliver Lake and me.  During negotiations, the festival discouraged us from presenting that group because of budget constraints, and since we were going to be on tour during this time, and were relying on income from that gig to keep us solvent on the road, we decided to pare it down to Yells with special guest Oliver Lake.  And because Oliver was available, we accepted the festival’s offer to play on Tuesday, June 14. 

So important was Vision to us that we built a month-long tour around that date, and we had already confirmed all 28 tour dates, including a week and a half in Portugal, when I got an email stating a unilateral change of our performance date—on the part of the festival—to Sunday night, June 19.  It was a severe blow to us in many ways.  The tickets to Portugal had to be changed—quite an expensive proposition—and we had to work with Steve Lantner in Boston and Benjamin Lyons in Baltimore, as well as our other hosts all up and down the East Coast and in Portugal.  But we scrambled and rearranged all the dates, only confirming a couple of performances the day before we left Dallas, including four dates that we shared with the Ze Eduardo Quartet from Faro, Portugal.

I must add that Vision Festival itself had a series of near-disasters which were much bigger in scope than our three-man road trip, and the fact that it happened at all is a great tribute to the wisdom and guidance of Patricia Nicholson.

Our performance was the last gig on the Vision Fest calendar, scheduled for midnight on the 19th / 20th.  We were a bit discouraged because the lineup for the day ran late, and we didn’t hit the stage until close to 2:00 AM the next morning, after the staff decided to take the two huge centerpiece sculptures off the stage as we were setting up.  And unfortunately, this was taken a sort of unintentional signal by the weary audience that the festival was indeed over, and there was a huge exodus out the front doors of the Orensanz Center.  We were very grateful, though, to the audience who stayed and supported us, and our ritualistic performance, with spoken word, gongs, and bells, was a thrill for Aaron and Stefan, and for me, as their father, to see them perform at such an illustrious event.  We ended up playing a great mixture of older arrangements from Yells At Eels, some music from the new Spirit Meridian CD, and the untitled incantatory opening song, which was written especially for the tour.

The FONT performance, about two months later, also in New York, was a beautiful event with a great ensemble put together just for the festival.  I had not played in a brass band configuration since playing the Dallas Museum of Art’s 100 Hours celebration with a group of high school musicians from North Dallas High School (put together just for the opening event in January of 2002).  It is always a treat to play brass band music, and a challenge as well.  The two other brass bands I played with over the years were Tim Green’s Crescent City Brass Band in London in 1989 (this group included Earl Turbinton on soprano sax and Lionel Batiste on bass drum) and my own Pneumatic Insurgence with a young Roy Hargrove in the second trumpet chair back in 1987.

The week my Pirate Radio Brass Band played FONT at the Jazz Standard in August of 2005, the festival had decided to dedicate all performances to the memory of Lester Bowie. I asked Steve Swell to join me on trombone, Matt Lavelle on second trumpet, Mark Taylor on mellophone, Andrew Lamb on tenor sax, Mike “T.A.” Thompson on drums, and the great Joe Daley on tuba.  Brass band music relies on fairly complex arrangements which take months and months of working together to play well, but I knew the group not only were all great improvisers,  I also knew they had great reading chops, and the afternoon rehearsal at Steve’s place, plus the quick soundcheck rehearsal later in the afternoon at Jazz Standard were more than enough to cement the group and have the music ready to play that evening, after an inspiring and brilliant set by Bobby Bradford’s drumless two-bass quartet.

Our host, Dave Douglas, stayed throughout the proceedings to make sure everything ran smoothly, and the staff at Jazz Standard paid great attention to us and treated us really well all night.  The audience of old friends and new friends was right with us, appreciative and encouraging, coming up before the performance, and after as well, to tell us just how much they’d loved the music.  The only regret I have about putting that particular performance together is that we didn’t have the time or the money to go into the studio to record it.  I think it would have been brilliant.  My solace is that Dave sent me a board recording of the music about two weeks after we played.  Although it’s a clear recording, it’s not mixed well enough to release it on CD, but it shows the great potential of the septet.  I’m hoping that maybe in the near future we can work something out and get us all back together to record a great document of the music.             

The Festival of New Trumpet Music gig, to me, placed you in a larger perspective of trumpet voices, an honorific gig, being the third consecutive.  Any aspects of the fest scene you wish to address would be interesting.

I got an email from Roy Campbell three springs ago telling me about a festival that he and Dave Douglas were working on... the festival that became FONT.  He told me that to his knowledge there’d never been a totally trumpet-in-jazz festival, and that we as trumpeters are very important, but overlooked, because there are so many saxophonists out there getting all the attention.  They intended to begin remedying the situation by calling the top trumpeters in jazz to NY from around the world for the first FONT in August of 2003.  Unfortunately, as it was grassroots festival, the participants had to play for the door, and we all agreed to do it that way.  This, however, meant I had to foot the bill for my trip to New York, which included paying the band, flying myself up there, and putting myself up—food and lodging.  It was an expensive undertaking, but this gig was the beginning of a new start for me in the jazz world after being underground for some five years.  That is one thing I thank Roy and Dave for. 

The first year, in 2003, I played with my NY Quartet and the second year I put together Spirit Meridian—another gig for which I put up my own money.  So when I got the call this past spring from Dave Douglas to play the third consecutive FONT, I started to explain that I couldn’t afford the expense, but he told me that the festival was prepared to pay me a fairly good sum of money.  He also mentioned that the festival was planning a tribute to Lester Bowie—one of my favorite trumpeters.  It was exciting to know that I’d be able to afford to go and that I could do something I’d wanted to do for a long time, put together a tribute to Lester.

One of the exciting things about such a festival is getting to be a part of a group of trumpeters who are known for their unique approaches to the horn.  It was great, for example, to put a face with the music I’d heard played by Lester’s replacement in the Art Ensemble, Corey Wilkes.  He was sitting in the audience the night I played, and I took advantage of the situation and went and introduced myself.  He’s got the same open spirit as Lester, so I can see why the AEOC would choose him.  I’ve mentioned Bobby Bradford… he’s a horn player who I’d never met.  I’d never even heard him live!  So to go up to him and chat for a while like we were old friends is amazing to me.

The same kind of event happened when I was asked to play the evening of solo trumpet music in London in March of 2004.  The event, curated by Nathaniel Catchpole through his improvised music network ONGAKU, featured one Hispano-American trumpeter—me; one Anglo-Chilean flugelhornist—Guillermo Torres; one trumpeter from the islands—the great Harry Beckett; and two Londoners—Jamie Coleman and Matt Davis.  Playing solo in the echo-rich chapel of Saint Augustine’s Cathedral, an old neo-Gothic church, the five of us exemplified the various approaches available to players of trumpet.  Whereas FONT was definitely a jazz affair, the ONGAKU solo trumpet Festival was more adventurous, traveling to different areas of trumpet stylistics, technique, and alternative approaches.  But both were, to me, very intriguing and exotic events in their own way.

Dennis, what’s on the near horizon for your art and music?

I have several unreleased recordings in line right now, two at Clean Feed and one with Yells At Eels which we will probably put on daagnimRecords in the near future.  In October of last year I went to Lisbon to perform various concerts for the opening of the Clean Feed company jazz store, Trem Azul, in the Bairro Alto section of Lisbon.  While I was there, Rodrigo Amado set up time at a studio to record the next version of Lisbon Improvisation Players, with me on trumpet.  That should be out in the spring of 2006.

The other recording is the Boston concert of August 8, which I spoke about earlier.  Hopefully that will be released by year’s end 2005.

And the Yells At Eels recording we have been working on for almost a year.  Actually the boys are producing it, so it’s their decision about when it’s ready and how it will be released.  I don’t mind letting them take care of this one, though I imagine I’ll actually be doing a lot of the actual piecing together of the mixes, the cover art, and the liner notes… we’ll see.

I am back doing a lot of visual art, especially works on paper… Xerox paper with colored charcoal and chalk, and a bit of collaging as well.  It’s a lot of work, but since I am in a lull as far as the music goes, I am taking up the slack by producing a series of new artworks.  On the music side, I’ve also been asked by Rodrigo Amado to work with him on a European-American tour for next summer or spring.  I don’t know who’ll be in the ensemble, but it should be great to hit the circuit again.  And Clean Feed is proposing my next project to me… I can’t really speak about it yet, but as soon as something is confirmed, I will put out the word.

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