We all come to a point in our lives where we just have to ask ourselves what our major purpose in life is. Is it material gain? Sensual pleasures? Power? Even musicians must reflect on why they chose their vocation; travel? Money? (bad call!) Arts sake? For a musician like Canadian born and NYC resident Andrew Rathbun, it can be seen as a long journey of learning and understanding. As St. Francis of Assisi said in his famous prayer, “God, instead of being understood, help me to understand.”
Saxist and composer Andrew Rathbun’s career has been filled with a thirst for knowledge, which he uses to pass on to his audience. His first level of education came very young, through public school and his nascent performing career. He recalls, “I was blessed with a real good school in Toronto as a kid. You were pulled out of school and hour a week, and given a private lesson. There were two big bands, a blues band and a rock band, all guided by faculty members. They were all the best jazz guys in Toronto. I’m still in touch with one of the guys who I “blame” for my life as a jazz musician. He got me into all of this trouble; Geoff Young, a guitar playing. Really amazing, under the radar kind of guys. Great taste, and real inquisitive.”
From there, Rathbun went to the New England Conservatory, and had his mind opened by the educational prowess of such luminaries as Jimmy Giuffre and George Russell. He relates, “Jimmy was one of the first guys that really got me thinking about writing linearly. He taught a sort of jazz counterpoint kind of thing. He was interested in line writing. He studied in LA with a guy named Bill Russo. He was the guy that Jimmy got a lot from. Bill really stressed line writing and how the lines moved.”
“That’s what I did with him. I got to Jimmy a bit later, towards the end of his time in New England Conservatory. He was probably had Parkinson’s at that point, though he wasn’t diagnosed yet. He was moving slowly; the lessons were great, but they took forever. For him to look through something, it took quite awhile, but I really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. It got me thinking, ”Wow, I’ve got a big gap in my knowledge. I need to get better at line writing and counterpoint.”So, when I came to New York, many years later, I finally took two years of traditional 18th and 17th century counterpoint, with a guy here that a lot of guys here in NY study with.”
His experience with Russell was a bit different, as he states, “I never took private lessons with George. I took his courses at NEC. I have great respect for him, but I use very little of his method. The Lydian Chromatic concept is very interesting to me, but, I didn’t find it very useful. He’s basically renamed everything, starting on a different note. He thinks that the piano shouldn’t start on C, but on F. That’s fine and great, but that’s like trying to get Americans to use the metric system. It’s just not going to happen. You’re just not going to be able to change hundreds of years of common acceptance of practice to making theoretical references. You can have many exotic names for all of these scales.”
More important was his time with the open-minded and eared icon Kenny Wheeler. “Kenny has always been important to me. We did a record date. He was kind enough to come over and do a record with me, and I organized it for him to come over twice and do a couple of weeks at Birdland, cause I’m a huge fan of his big band writing. He’s always been a huge inspiration, as well as a mentor, to me. I was interested in studying with him, but trying to study with him is like pulling molars out of a mare! It’s so hard to get anything out of him, because he’s so self-effacing and modest. “Why do you want to study with me? What would you want to get out of me?” Very humble, but I did finally get some stuff out of him. Learning more of his music, conducting his music, and playing his music; I got most out of him that way. By osmosis and getting it on my own, so he’s been an important influence on me, too.”
Because of these various means of learning, Rathbun has taken the musical road less travelled in regard to recording. Instead of simply relying on standards, or other people’s compositions, Rathbun made the conscious decision to not only write his own material, but to make each album a wholistic piece of music in its own right, with a specific theme and message. He explains, “If you really look at the history of jazz, and pick out who you think are the top five most important jazz musicians, guess what? They’re mostly playing their own material. I just think that a true artistic expression comes from writing your own material, and playing it. That’s just another vehicle for your own voice. So, I’ve always felt pretty strongly that it’s got to be your own music. The music that I listen to and buy is mostly original music. It’s not playing standards.”
I can appreciate music for music’s sake. I think it’s easier when you sit down to write to have a character in mind, or to have a vibe or feeling in mind. Look at the history of music. The things that we gravitate towards immediately have that. Look at Coltrane’s “Alabama.” Why is that such a powerful song? Is it because it’s in D minor? No, it’s the subject matter; the lynching of those three kids in Alabama in the 60s. The first time you hear it, it’s really powerful, and then when you find out what it’s about, it’s just devastating. It’s like that with a lot of music.
That being said, I do think that it’s an incredibly important part of music. I still play standards all the time, and enjoy them. I still practice by playing standards, and I still play them in concert. I just don’t choose to put them on my records.The records for me are really an opportunity to write a book of music for a project. I really relish that. It’s like, “here we go! I’ve got 60 minutes to come up with some material.
His 2000 True Stories, for example, was centered around Margaret Atwood poems, while Affairs of State was his reaction to President Bush’s administration. As Rathbun explains, “I kind of like to think about something as an inspiration as I’m sitting down to write the music or to think about who I want to play on it. The poetry stuff took care of itself. I just decided to set the poems to music, so it took a lot of guesswork out of it for me. It’s sort of like writing music with one arm tied behind your back. You have to stick with the contours of the poem in terms of melodic writing, and you want to keep true to the content of the poem. The other projects are just things that I’m genuinely interested in and thinking about on a day to day basis.In our case, art, or music, influences the approach you take and what you’re thinking about. So, you take your own experience and stick it into the artistic grist mill, and out comes a record about the terrors of George Bush and the damage of his reign.”
So, is a disc about Obama on the horizon? “I don’t think that’s in the cards,” he responds.” I’m a fan, but I’m like a lot of people in that I had high hopes and I’m a little disappointed. I don’t think the clock’s run out on him yet. The deck was stacked against him. I guess I’m a little more of a progressive than I thought; I believed he would be able to do more reform than what he’s in fact done.”
I’ve been reading a lot about economics recently. I’ve been reading all of the Michael Lewis books and I read that Andrew Ross Sorkin book Too Big To Fail. I’ve really been fascinated by Wall Street and the bond markets, and how all of these things work. I think Obama really missed a golden opportunity to drop a hammer on these guys and say, “You’ve got to have the bond markets with more transparency. You’ve got to have more of an open market. You can’t trade things bank to bank. You don’t know what the value of these instruments are.” There was an opportunity to do this, and he missed it. I don’t think Wall Street has changed at all.
Sorkin’s book is incredible. The fact that it’s non-fiction is mind boggling. It reads like a thriller. You can’t believe what goes on behind closed doors. It’s the definitive blow by blow of the meltdown with what Geithner and Bernanke were doing. All these guys behind the scenes.
I generally have turned into this non-fiction guy. I read a lot of biographies, especially by David Halberstom.
Rathbun’s latest release, The Idea Of North, stems from his studies on the life of one of modern music’s famous enigmas. “The title comes from a series of radio plays that the great classical pianist Glenn Gould did. He had an interesting career trajectory. He basically stopped performing in public in his thirties, and in his 40s he was almost a recluse. Some people think that he had agoraphobia, the fear of going outside. So, he made recordings, but he didn’t have a direct connection with his audience, and he was also very interested in technology and the radio. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the CBC, asked him if he’d like to do something for the network, and he said, “Yes, I’d like to do a radio play.” They said, “What?”
But, being the era that it was, and the fact that they had funding, they were pretty open minded and said, “This sounds pretty interesting.” So, he put on this radio play, which was called “The Idea Of North,” which was about solitude and different parts of the country. He’d take the train way up north and record different people’s stories. But the interesting thing about the radio documentary was that he was really interested in counterpoint. He was a huge fan of contrapuntal music. So, he tried to do the same thing in the radio play that he would do if he were playing a Bach fugue.
So, he’d bring in a character’s voice, and over on top of that he’d lower the volume of that voice and bring in another voice on top of that. He’d then lower that one, and bring in a third voice, and bring the first voice back in the foreground; just playing with the ideas of spoken word, just like you’d find in the fugue. So, I thought that was interesting, so I thought I’d write some pieces like that as a jumping off point.”
Fascinating stuff, but Rathbun doesn’t sit still, as he’s already found a stimulus for his next project, with a trio. “It’s a project that is centered around playing with forms. As jazz musicians, we improvise with melody, with harmony and with rhythm. But, we haven’t done that much with form. When I say that, I’m talking about taking a tune and finding out ways to improvise with the form of the tune.”
“Let’s say you have a 12 bar tune. You don’t feel like playing all 12 bars over and over and over again; instead you felt like playing the first 3 bars over and over for awhile. Then, you go back to the 12 bars. Or, you just play the middle 4 bars for awhile, then you go back to the 12 bar form. These two guys in the project are interested in improvising with form in a way.”
Which brings us back to the reason that Rathbun’s music is so interesting; it’s a result of his endless pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. He follows a long line of inquiring minds, following the advice of the great sage Solomon, “The beginning of wisdom is: acquire wisdom! With all your acquiring, get understanding. Prize her, and she will exalt you. She will honor you if you embrace her.” Check out his music, and follow the path of a seeker.