Pianist Bill Anschell’s latest CD, Figments, is his first solo recording, and I’ve included it on my Best of 2011 list. It’s a wonderfully introspective, beautiful, and at times haunting album that he recorded late at night in his home studio. Below is a lengthy conversation we had recently over email in which we talked about his new album, the current state of jazz economics, the scene in Seattle, and his upcoming electronic music project. For those who aren’t familiar with Anschell, he’s not only one of the prominent pianists in Seattle, but he’s also a fine writer. You can check his work out on his website, www.billanschell.com.
CR: What was your primary motivation for recording Figments, or what was it that you hoped the recording would achieve? Why did you decide to record it late at night after gigs as opposed to during the day, or doing a live solo recording, etc.?
BA: Actually, when I started recording, I wasn’t really thinking about making a finished product and releasing it. More than anything, I was trying to see what sort of solo piano sound I could get with my recording gear. I also wanted to play around and see if I could shake free of the standard solo piano approaches — walking bass, stride, and simple vamps. In a way pianists are almost indoctrinated to use those solo techniques because they’re so pervasive.
I’d heard a few great recordings years ago from pianists improvising more thematically — Art Lande and Ran Blake come to mind — and wanted to head in that direction. It’s a far more abstract approach, and I figured my head would be in a freer space late at night. The recording process turned out to feel good, and I was happy with the way I was playing, so I put in four or five nights and started to think of it as a project.
CR: What are the challenges or different set of circumstances a pianist has to deal with when making a solo record versus recording with an ensemble? How was this project similar and/or different from other recordings you’ve made?
BA: The natural inclination is to try to replace the bassist and drummer by covering the bottom end and playing more rhythmically, via the traditional solo piano techniques I just mentioned. But instead of looking at solo piano as a technical challenge, I tried to approach it as a creative opportunity. With no other players, all of a sudden everything is negotiable — the form of the tune, the changes, even the idea of a steady tempo. Those are the elements that help keep a band together, but they’re not essential when it’s just one player. I’m not the greatest solo player in the stride or walking bass arenas, and I never will be — there are people like Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Dave McKenna who set the bar way too high. But, like any musician, I have an imagination. So my challenge was to set it loose.
CR: One of the things that I really like about the album is how diverse the tunes are – from the Eagles and Beatles to “Willow Weep for Me” – and the way in which you interpret them all in a manner that sounds stylistically and conceptually unified (just the fact that you put “Honeysuckle Rose” on a record with “Desperado” – and sequenced them back to back – and made them sound like they both belong on the same record is really impressive to me). How did you decide which tunes you wanted to record and what approach did you take to make such a diverse set hang together?
BA: You wouldn’t believe how many tunes I recorded — at least 30, I would guess; maybe 40. Since it was my own studio, the clock wasn’t ticking, so I played for a lot of hours over the course of a week or so. I know a ton of music — both standards and pop from my childhood — so I just tried to find songs that were open enough to allow me to take them unexpected places. Some tunes really hem you in, insisting on being played a certain way, and those were the ones I discarded.
Once I’d think of a good tune, I’d just run it through my head, trying to hear it with different feels, finding places that might set me totally free. Then I’d start recording. If I didn’t like it, I’d just hit “delete” and start again. That’s a huge advantage to a home project like this. The flip side was having to listen to all the takes of all the tunes at the end and pick the finalists. After I suffered through that and winnowed it down to about 20 serious contenders, I had a few impartial friends and fellow musicians weigh in to help me pick the twelve tunes that actually made it onto the CD.
I came to jazz pretty late, listening to pop radio as a kid and figuring out the tunes by ear on piano. I got into progressive rock in high school, then didn’t start listening to jazz until I was 19 or 20, which is also when I had my first piano lessons. Because I was pretty much imprinted on 70s pop, those tunes resonate with me in the same way that standards speak to people who grew up on them. When I can turn a pop tune into something interesting to me, I like it just as much as a jazz tune, if not more. What I don’t really care for is taking a pop tune and treating it just like a standard — adding a swing or bossa feel — which to me usually turns it into cheesy lounge music.
The fact that unlike tunes wound up sounding like they belonged together is probably because the approach (abstract, stream-of-consciousness) was consistent, and the tunes, regardless of style, were mainly springboards for venturing into the unknown.
CR: I totally agree with you in terms of how jazz versions of pop music can end up being pretty schlocky. It seems in the last few years there are quite a few people who are incorporating pop music into their books, trying to make them “new standards,” if you will, and with varied success. Who are some people who come to mind who you like that play pop music and do it well?
BA: There are some good ones out there, for sure. Herbie Hancock’s “New Standards” CD, of course, as you imply. A lot of Brad Mehldau’s pop readings are nice. I love the Bad Plus version of “Iron Man” — great sense of humor, which I always appreciate. I just downloaded some of Nguyen Le’s new CD, “Songs of Freedom,” which puts a unique slant on some surprising tune choices.
I always feel like I’ve been robbed when another artist grabs a relatively obscure pop tune I’d planned on reworking some day; Kurt Elling did it with “Undun” by the Guess Who, but I’ll forgive him since it’s a nice version. Taking no further chances, I’m going to stake my territory right now: Nobody else gets to touch “Go All the Way” by the Raspberries, “I’m Not In Love” by 10cc, or “Is She Really Going Out With Him” by Joe Jackson. I don’t know if I’ll ever record another solo disc, but at least now I’ve bought myself some peace of mind…
CR: Something that strikes me about the album is how intimate it sounds, not just the playing, but the recording itself; it has a similar sound and feel that your album with Brent Jensen has. I’m kind of a nerd about recording, mixing, and mastering, so I’m wondering what kind of equipment you use, how you recorded it, mixed it, mastered it, etc. It sounds so natural and alive, in a way that a lot of records don’t, and because I’m a geek, and because the way recordings sound is one of my pet peeves I’m really curious as to how you got the sound you did.
BA: Thanks — I really appreciate that. Recording and mixing the CD myself (or in the case of my CD with Brent, just mixing it) gives me an extra sense of ownership, like I’m totally responsible for what the listener hears. And my secret, if I have one, is just fussing over the mixes obsessively. My gear was pretty laughable: Two $200 mikes (AKG C-1000s), a very cheap audio interface (M-Audio MobilePre), ordinary studio monitors (M-Audio BX5s) and Logic as a recording/mixing software. But I spent a ton of time making A-B comparisons to recordings I like sonically, which helped me compensate for less than ideal monitors and mixing room acoustics. I played around with different mic positions before I started recording, then tried to keep them consistent. I used two layers of EQ: One to notch out unwanted resonances, the other to more gently shape the sound. I tried a lot of different reverbs, both type and amount.
Then — here’s an important one — I sent my near-final mix to a couple of friends/engineers I respect a lot (David Lange in Seattle and Fred Story in Charlotte), and they both told me the exact same thing: I had too much reverb and too wide a stereo spread, so that was an easy final fix. Perhaps most important of all, I found a great mastering engineer in England (Eric James at Philosophy Barns Mastering) who fine-tuned it. I’m sure that audiophiles could find things to complain about, but like you I really enjoy the sound, and can’t believe how inexpensively I was able to do it.
When I was at Oberlin College for two years as an undergrad, I took more classes in electronic music than any other subject. Electronic music has always intrigued me (dating back to the synthesizers in progressive rock bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer), and mixing my own projects is a good first step toward getting back into it.
CR: Have you played much prepared piano? Your use of it on “Big Yellow Taxi” is great, it almost sounds like you’ve created a rhythm section with the found items.
BA: At Oberlin, there was a piano in the recording studio that had every note prepared differently — an 88-note orchestra. My memory of that gave me the idea that I could prepare my own piano orchestrally, albeit in a much smaller way. So I created a few sections: The bass had a thumpy muted sound, the low mids were unprepared (that’s the “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone” refrain), the higher mids sounded plucked like a pizz violin, and the top part just had a lot of weird little effects. I was able to play it like a five- or six-piece mini-orchestra; tons of fun. My biggest challenge was remembering where the dividing lines were among the piano’s registers. I threw just about every loose object from my office/studio into the piano, from towels and blankets to vacu-paks to plastic necklaces.
CR: When I first started reviewing records for Earshot I was a bit surprised at how great the Seattle scene was, not only in terms of quality (I knew that such a big city would have great players), but also in terms of sheer quantity and in the diversity of styles. It seems like, at least to me, that the Seattle scene and the great players there go under-recognized in the national media. Is that a common view among musicians in Seattle? Or am I a bit off?
BA: Seattle has a ton of great players; no question. And they’re definitely under-recognized. But, really, under-recognition is pretty much the nature of every city’s local scene. On the one hand there’s the small group of great national/international headliners, mostly based in New York (or settled elsewhere but still artistically centered there), and on the other there are tons of talented players based outside of New York, with little chance of ever getting much attention beyond their own cities.
If anything, I think Seattle players get a little bit more recognition than musicians in other comparably-sized cities, because Origin Records brings so much attention to them. Origin’s a Seattle-based label that has a huge national impact, and although it has gradually spread its focus beyond the Northwest, Seattle artists are very well represented in its catalog. We also have several leading critics based here, and Jim Wilke manages to sneak a good number of Seattle projects into his Jazz After Hours PRI show. Still, even though we get heard and written about a fair amount, it’s really hard to make the jump to national touring, or even just gigs outside driving range. Today’s jazz economics don’t support that.
CR: I know that building up an audience is something that me and a lot of guys I play with in Kansas City are wrangling with. Do you have any ideas as to how artists can build an up an audience, to get more venues, to get more gigs – especially gigs outside of one’s home base? Does jazz’s current economic model need rethinking, or is it just a matter of people not caring for jazz anymore? Or do artists need to be more sensitive to what people are interested in?
BA: I’d give anything to be able to solve that one; better minds than mine have tried without apparent results. To be totally honest, I’m not sure that jazz as we know it is a great match with the generations that have come into being since the music’s heyday. The current generation is raised on video and accustomed to sensory stimuli that appeal to a short attention span. Jazz doesn’t hit either one of those very well. Most of us aren’t pretty, aren’t good dancers, and aren’t particularly flamboyant on stage; I don’t think we really want those things to be a prerequisite to playing jazz, anyway. We’re still idealists wanting audience members to sit down and pay undivided attention with their ears alone; that’s a tough sell nowadays.
On the other hand, I think artists who totally ignore the idea of appealing to an audience are doing themselves and the jazz field a disservice. I’m not talking about compromising the music itself, but why not use the spaces between tunes to try keeping the audience engaged? Give them some hints about what they’re about to hear; maybe some insights into the upcoming tune that can help them get inside the music, whether they’re musicians or not. Have some personality; maybe even encourage questions or back-and-forth banter. Let the sidemen make some noise, too… And, on a more technical level, I think the chang-chang-ka-chang of swing is dismissed by a lot of today’s listeners because it reminds them of their parents’ and grandparents’ music. Swing is great, but there are also a lot of other interesting grooves out there — more modern ones, some world-influenced — that younger listeners would be more willing to embrace.
CR: In general, what are things you like and dislike about the scene in Seattle?
BA: I like the fact that there are a lot of good players on every instrument, and that there’s a general sense of artistic openness that encourages people to write original music and take chances. On the negative side, like probably every city in the country, we need more venues. And that may be putting the cart before the horse — in order to have venues that can succeed, we need more listeners ready and willing to fill the seats.
There seems to be a particular shortage here of audience members interested in what I would call modern mainstream jazz — instrumental music based in the tradition, but with expanded harmony, rhythm and interaction. There are larger audiences for traditional straight-ahead jazz, for vocal jazz, and for more experimental projects, but the modern mainstream players have a really tough time filling a house (which means that I need to ditch the “mainstream” tag and find some other word).
CR: I’m a bit surprised that there isn’t much of an audience for the mainstream jazz you are talking about, because I think a lot of the more exciting and better albums are from those folks who, like you say, have one foot firmly in the tradition, but are expanding things in new and creative ways. Is the preference for traditional styles, or experimental music, a matter of people just wanting to hear purely straight ahead jazz, or purely avant-garde, and who are not interested in a middle ground? Is this situation you describe unique to Seattle, or do you think it’s more widespread?
BA: I think most of the audience members for totally straight-ahead jazz tend to be older people who were around when that music was actually cutting-edge. For that reason — sad to say — I think it’s going to be a diminishing pool from now into the future. As for people who prefer avant-garde to more modern mainstream music, I can certainly understand it: Avant-garde a lot of the time deals in abstract concepts — for example, changing densities, dynamics, textures, tempos — that can occur on a big enough scale to speak to abstract thinkers in the audience, whether they have a background in music or not. While these variables can also be at play in modern mainstream, the often complicated harmonies, rhythms, and forms hem them in a bit. For this reason, it seems like modern mainstream jazz increasingly requires an educated audience. I don’t think that’s a good thing, by any means, and my goal is to be able to write and play whatever music I want and — no matter how complicated it may be — and still speak to the listeners in some way.
I went to a workshop Herbie Hancock gave some years ago, and he described the same issue. Sometimes jazz feels like a specialized language that can only reach people who have studied and learned it. By buying into that, we’re cutting ourselves off from a much larger potential audience, settling instead for an insider club. Herbie said that realizing that made him rethink his soloing, where instead of coming up with great bop lines that could speak to just the few bop aficionados in the house, he started working on larger, more abstract gestures that could paint pictures in the listeners’ minds. What he said makes a lot of sense, and doesn’t have to mean less musicality.
CR: What projects do you have coming up? Who are you currently playing with?
BA: I play with most of the straight-ahead and somewhat left-of-straight-ahead jazz musicians in Seattle; there’s enough variety to keep me on my toes. I still practice pretty regularly in the hopes that I’m not too old to get better. Toward that same end, I try to take on as diverse a slate of projects as I can; the further a project is outside my comfort zone, the more it’s likely to help me grow. I just got a grant to do an all-electronic CD, and it isn’t going to be electronic jazz; just electronic music, period. No repeating form, no chord changes; the emphasis will be on textures and rhythms. In the course of creating that music I’ll get to explore a different side of Logic, the same program I used for recording and mixing my CD. I’m also doing a joint CD project with a great Brazilian artist, where we’re recording parts for one another’s original compositions, mainly in Brazilian and quasi-Brazilian styles.
On the more immediate horizon, I’m really looking forward to a couple of duo gigs with bassist/vocalist Jay Leonhardt, then a short duo tour with vocalist Madeline Eastman, who’s a blast to work with.
CR: Besides the prog rock groups you mentioned as being influences on you, what electronic music influences you, in particular for the electronic CD you’re going to do? And congrats on winning that grant to produce the album – it seems like grants are becoming a pretty popular way for musicians to pay for producing their work, perhaps that’s going to be the driving economic force for musicians.
BA: There’s a Norwegian pianist/electronic musician/composer named Bugge Wesseltoft who has become my favorite of the bunch. I never would have heard about him if not for the movie “Icons Among Us,” which gave him a featured spot. He’s probably the person closest to the direction I’m hoping to take with my own electronic music, though I’ve got an awful lot to learn first. What I like about him, above all, is that he brings a jazz sensibility to his electronic projects without them sounding particularly like jazz. I also like Squarepusher, Amon Tobin and Aphex Twin, for starters, though I know I’ll never come anywhere near their attention to detail in programming. Doug Zangar, who leads a Logic users group in Seattle (Seattle Logic Users Group, with its apt acronym) told me that a serious electronic music producer spends the same amount of time practicing his/her craft as a jazz artist spends practicing jazz, and unfortunately for me, I’m now trying to do both.
I’d hate to think that grants are becoming the driving economic force for musicians, because I don’t think they’ve increased a bit; more likely they’ve been cut just like all other discretionary funding. If their proportional role is increasing, it’s only a sad commentary on the rest of the jazz economy. There is one arena on the rise, though: House concerts. They seem to be assuming an rapidly increasing role among jazz venues, with their proprietors being today’s jazz equivalent of the arts patronage system from bygone eras.