Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Bjorkestra: An Interview With Founder Travis Sullivan

You have to give Travis Sullivan credit. It takes not only vision, but no small amount of courage to take the music of a much beloved and genre-bending performer and arrange it for a new musical setting. And a new setting, indeed, it is. Sullivan has taken Bjork’s music and re-arranged it for an 18-piece jazz band—The Bjorkestra.

Although Bjorketra’s debut album, Enjoy!, was just released January 22 on Koch Records, the band has around since 2004. As for Travis Sullivan, he has been a part of the New York City Jazz scene for the past decade—performing with the likes of Joe Williams and Clark Terry. He released his debut solo album, As We Speak, in 1999 to excellent reviews. Not too bad for a guy from a small town in New Hampshire.

Dynamic Meter got the chance recently to talk with Travis Sullivan about The Bjorkestra and his career.

Dynamic Meter: So, New Hampshire doesn’t seem like it would be the hotbed of jazz. When did you start studying music and what kind of music scene was there where you grew up?

Travis Sullivan: I started playing saxophone when I was 10 and piano a couple of years later. I didn’t get interested in jazz until I was about 16 years old. The band director at my high school was a drummer and Berklee School of Music graduate. He would stay after school with me and some other students and we would play songs from The Real Book and some of his original tunes. That was where I got my first introduction to playing standards and improvising.

It was at The University of New Hampshire that I really started to get a more “serious” education in jazz performance. Although I was working on getting my B.S. in Biochemistry, the music department took me under it’s wing and the last couple of years there I played lead alto sax in the UNH big band. I was very lucky to be at UNH at that time, because there were several other students that were very serious about studying jazz and were great players too. Also, Clark Terry is an adjunct professor at UNH, so he would visit a couple of times every semester to do workshops. He would bring great jazz artists with him like Phil Woods, Snooky Young, Frank Wess, and James Williams. Kenny Werner also did several workshops there too, right around the time he was writing “Effortless Mastery.” He was a big influence on me.

As far as the jazz music scene in the southern New Hampsire area, there are a small number of dedicated and talented musicians around. It’s also close enough to Boston so that you don’t have to drive too far to hear great music too.

DM: Where did the initial idea for The Bjorkestra come from?

TS: It started with having the idea to arrange one of Bjork’s songs, “Hyperballad,” for a big band that I was playing with that was led by a Scandinavian jazz singer. This was back in 1998, and I was just getting into Bjork’s music. I never finished the arrangement for that band. It wasn’t until about four years later that it was completed. From there I decided I was going to write a song cycle for big band and vocals, with Bjork’s music as the central thematic material. I never imagined ten years ago when I wrote the first notes of the “Hyperballad” arrangement that it would lead me on this course with The Bjorkestra!

DM: How have you selected the songs to arrange?

TS: The selection has been more or less intuitive and has depended on a several factors. Of course it has to be a song I like, but also I have to be able to imagine what I can do with it in putting it into a big band context. My choices have also depended upon varying the style, tempo, and mood of The Bjorkestra’s repertoire as much as I can. I have also made choices based on what I want to learn about arranging, and have selected songs that I have believed that through my reworking of them will teach me more about the craft.

DM: How do you get started with arranging one of Bjork’s songs.

TS: There hasn’t been any single approach. It’s all based on what my initial impulse/reaction to the song I’ve selected, so it’s been different for every arrangement. However, I have found it useful to strip down the song to it’s bare minimum, musically speaking – and have created lead sheets with just melody and harmony, and then built it up from there. That way I can approach the arrangement the same way I would arrange a jazz standard. Also, it has given me a great appreciation for the inventiveness and genius of Bjork. I’ve found her songs stand on their own without the production and the techno grooves.

DM: Is there a difference in your approach in the arrangement due to whether or not the piece will be instrumental or have vocals?

TS: I think that there’s a little bit more freedom in the writing the instrumental arrangements. When writing a vocal arrangement you really need to be careful to write figures that are going to complement the vocal line and not get in the way. Frequently I find myself writing something for the horns behind the vocals and then eliminating some or all of the material later on. There are a few more choices that can be made when the vocals are out of the picture–you can increase the complexity of the writing to some degree.

DM: As a follow up, how did you find Becca Stevens. She has such a great voice. Was it a challenge to find a singer that could take on Bjork’s tunes, without mimicking her style?

TS: Becca was recommended to me by one of the musicians in The Bjorkestra who had her as a student at The New School. It was a little bit of challenge to find the right singer for this role, only because I didn’t know what I wanted when I was writing the arrangements. I had always thought of each arrangement as a sort of sound canvas, and the vocals were to be another color in that canvas. Of course, when you take the music off of the page and into performance, the importance of having the right vocalist becomes paramount. It was more important for me to find a singer that could hang in the big band context, which meant having a good understanding of form and being able to sight sing as well as being a strong reader in general. The fact that Becca has assimilated Bjork like a traditional jazz singer has assimilated Billy Holiday is the icing on the cake.

DM: Do you try to directly recreate the sounds from the original songs, or do you take the notes and the rhythms and consciously arrange them in a new way? “Cocoon” is a good example. The original starts with very electronic sounds and beats. Can you walk us through your approach?

TS: Every arrangement has been approached differently. I’ve drawn upon both Bjork’s studio and live recordings as source material. Sometimes the arrangement becomes a strong vehicle for improvisation and is greatly expanded upon from the original Bjork version, which is the case for our version of “Army of Me.” In the case of “Pluto,” I departed from the original tone of Bjork’s version all together and changed it to a bossy nova that evolves into the techno of the Bjork track. We also do a couple of songs that are more or less straight re-orchestrations of the original.

“Cocoon” is a good example because it contains a little bit of everything in terms of my approach to arranging Bjork’s music. When I decided to tackle an arrangement from Vespertine I heard a lot of possibilities in “Cocoon.” First, I changed the meter to ¾ rather than the original 4/4 for a couple of reasons: it almost sounded like Bjork was phrasing the melody in 3, and also because I heard the potential for a re-harmonization of the melody to reference the waltz “Someday My Prince Will Come.” This is also a little bit of tone painting for those familiar with the lyric of this song.

As I was writing this arrangement, several other ideas came to me because of the mood that was developing, and I wanted to include some free improvisation. I was influenced by Jim McNeely’s writing, somewhat, when I included the unaccompanied piano solo. I also used Bjork’s high-pitched vocal melody near the end of the song as a jumping off point for a free tenor sax/trombone solo. The ending of the arrangement expands on the “for a boy” section of the Bjork version and has an orchestral, Vince Mendoza sort of vibe.

DM: There are some other jazz performers who are known for taking rock music, for lack of a better term, and re-imagining it in a jazz context. Brad Mehldau’s Radiohead covers and The Bad Plus taking on Nirvana are a couple of well-known examples. Do you feel as though there is a connection between these performers and what you are taking on with The Bjorkestra?

TS: The Bjorkestra was conceived as a work unto itself, a song cycle for big band and vocals more or less, and I think that is where there is a departure from jazz artists that play covers of rock/pop music. The connection lies in that the modern jazz artists you mentioned are seeking to expand the language of jazz rather than continue to regurgitate the same music that was already played (and played with much more originality and passion!) forty years ago.

DM: On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the traditionalist jazz musicians—those who don’t like this blending of genres. What kind of reactions have you gotten from these or any other musicians?

TS: Jazz musicians are starving for new music, and The Bjorkestra has been met with a great deal of enthusiasm with all of the musicians that I’ve approached for their involvement with this project. That has been true not only with the NYC based musicians, but also the contracted artists that we’ve used on the U.S. West Coast, the South, and in Europe as well.

With the traditional jazz establishment—and by that I mean Lincoln Center and so called “pure” jazz clubs—I feel like we don’t even fall on their radar as of yet. Rock clubs and spaces with more eclectic programming have been far more receptive to booking The Bjorkestra.

Regardless, we are performing at The Jazz Standard in February as part of our CD release celebration, and I’m hoping that our success at this venue will start to open up opportunities at other jazz performance venues. I think it’s only a matter of time, because The Bjorkestra, like it or not, plays jazz!

DM: Other musicians who are not regular members of the band, such as Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ben Monder, have been sitting in. What has this been like? Does it change the arrangements at all? Is there anyone you would really like to have sit in?

TS: It’s been a fantastic experience having some distinguished artists sit in with us. I had Ben Monder come in and record a solo on “Army of Me” and he sent it in a different direction with some crazy sounds that he used. Kurt played on “Hunter” at a Knitting Factory performance and it was very cool to hear his sound integrated with the band. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin also played an entire show with us once, and he tore into an unaccompanied tenor solo on “Cocoon” that sounded like a modern classical saxophone etude – it was amazing!

Having these artists play with us though doesn’t necessarily change the arrangements, but their performance does contribute to overall vibe and energy of what’s going on in the moment.

There are several people that I’d like to have sit in with us: Dave Douglas, Matmos, and Zeena Parkins would all be great. At the top of the list though, of course, is Bjork herself!

DM: Of course The Bjorkestra isn’t your only project. Tell us about some of your other work.

TS: I play saxophone in several other projects in which I am a leader or sideman. The Casual Sextet is my band that plays some interesting music and features some excellent musicians, including Rez Abbasi and Janek Gwizdala on bass. I also co-lead an electric jazz group called Identity Crisis with The Bjorkestra drummer Joe Abbatantuono that has been playing around NYC here and there. I play in bassist Danny Zanker’s Anti-Elevator Mission, which plays Middle Eastern jazz/fusion, and we just released a CD last year with that band, and I also play with The Sean Nowell Firewerks Quintet, who just had a release on Posi-Tone Records last year. Other than that, I’m playing and sitting in with whoever I can, learning, and trying to absorb as much of the New York experience as I can possibly handle!

DM: New York is really happening right now. Is there anyone you dig down there that has not made it onto the radar of those who live outside NYC?

TS: Yes. There are several artists that are known in NYC but are not on people's radars outside of NYC. The first one that comes to mind in Daniel Carter, who is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist (he plays, alto & tenor sax, clarinet, flute, and trumpet) is a free improviser. He's in his 60's now and although he is well known in the underground jazz world in NYC, he's not as well known elsewhere. Also, there are a couple of large ensembles that I really love listening to - The Delphian Jazz Orchestra and The Pedro Girardo Jazz Orchestra are both very unique and innovative bands. I imagine that one reason they are not known elsewhere has a lot to do with their size - it's very difficult economically to take a big band on the road. Other artists that I think deserve wider recognition are Rich Perry, who is one of the tenor sax players with the Monday Night Village Vanguard Orchestra and is a brilliant soloist. Also, Art Hirahara (the pianist for the Bjorkestra as well) is someone that blows everyone away with his playing, and isn't that well known outside of NYC.

DM: Well Travis, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. It’s been a pleasure.

TS: Excellent questions man. I enjoyed answering them!


Danielle said...

Fabulous interview! And what an interesting approach Travis has ... I love the comment about a "sound canvas."

I think I need to re-listen to "Enjoy"

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