Interview with David Paul Mesler: A soulful piece of art wins every time: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz pianist and vocalist David Paul Mesler. An interview by email in writing.

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

David Paul Mesler: – I grew up in the Pacific Northwest.  Mountain ranges, fresh water lakes, old growth forests.  A really beautiful part of the country.  My mom was an opera singer and art song recitalist.  My dad translated Korean literature into English.  We frequently hosted conductors, composers, writers, and visual artists in our home — post-concert gatherings, parties celebrating the release of new recordings, that sort of thing.  For us kids, creativity was a given.  Art was held in high esteem.  We all essentially became artists by osmosis.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

DPM: – As a child, I wrote pop songs, first accompanying myself on ukulele, later on piano. As a teen, I wrote musicals.  Very Beckett-like musicals.  In my twenties, I became interested in the cross-pollination of jazz and classical.  The “third stream”.  Gershwin, Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland.  But also Milhaud, Ives, and later, John Zorn.  Eventually, I got into the sorts of things Kronos Quartet was recording in the 1980s and 90s.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  At 17, I was accepted to USC’s Thornton School of Music on a full-tuition scholarship.  I got my undergraduate degree in Composition, with a minor in Piano Performance.  I was playing Walter Piston, Saint-Saens, Samuel Barber, Ravel.  But simultaneously, I was performing live, five nights a week, at the Variety Arts Center, a four-story entertainment complex in Downtown Los Angeles.  I was improvising for silent movies, accompanying chamber musicals, playing and singing in bars, cabaret rooms, sunken ballrooms and comedy clubs.  This was my jazz boot camp.  For four years, I was improvising up to eight hours a night — standards, the Great American Songbook, movie themes, Broadway numbers, current pop and rock tunes.  And I was getting a traditional classical music education by day.  This daily collision of jazz and classical was integral to my development.  And I was in heaven!

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

DPM: – From ages 5 to 15, I did scales, arpeggios, memorized Haydn and Mendelssohn, played in recitals, the usual budding-pianist stuff.  In college, I practiced intensely because of the difficulty of my pieces.  Many hours a day.  Mainly, though, since age 15, I’ve just performed so much.  Multiple nights a week.  So my practice for decades has predominantly been countless hours of public performance.  Also, I compose every day, pen to paper.  That helps.  I remember, too, in my twenties and thirties, I worked very conscientiously, in long practice sessions, on staying inside an improvisation — following an idea moment to moment, letting it evolve naturally, letting musical ideas unspool without jumping tracks or trying to suddenly superimpose a structure.  It’s been a mantra of mine since then, to always choose the first idea.  To listen intently to the exclusion of all else, and go from first idea to first idea to first idea, without second-guessing or editing or questioning.  To just flow.  To just go with it.  As an improvising musician, that was probably my most prolific period of practicing.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance.  There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously.  Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

DPM: – Harmonically, I’m very open to everything.  I love how diverse the harmonic worlds have become over the last 100 years.  Clusters, quartal structures, whole-tone and chromatic scales, “mystic chords”.  They all have their place.  I did a series of double piano recordings, all freely improvised, no preconceived notions except for a vague sense of “genre” or “style”.  I covered just about every classical and jazz flavor there is, in about every harmonic vernacular there is.  I had so much fun.  Overall, though, I’d say some projects I do are very consonant — the “Breathe” albums, for instance.  Others, like the “Kromaticlysm” albums, are very dissonant, even relentlessly so.  I can be a fairly wild player.

JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

DPM: – Actually, I’m happily influenced by anything that’s good.  That resonates with me emotionally, spiritually, or intellectually.  And not just in music.  Filmmakers like Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jean Cocteau, Peter Greenaway, Wim Wenders.  They inspire me.  33 Short Films About Glenn Gould.  Persona.  Mishima.  Dekalog.  Those are incredible films.  David Lynch?  Mulholland Drive?  Brilliant!  And I love painters like Chuck Close, Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky.  Their bold colors, fractured images, daring subtexts, whimsical creatures.  And what about writers?  Kundera, Rilke, Thoreau.  What riches we have available to us!  I’m a maximalist.  Collage, superimposition, and celebration.  These are important to me.  Freeing up your own unique creativity — this is very important to me.  But I never imitate.  I may explore others, enjoy others work, but when I work, I work instinctually, first idea to first idea to first idea, not being overly concerned with the outcome.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

DPM: – Intellectual exercises can be invigorating.  Bach fugues are architecturally masterful — the overlapping conversations can be very stimulating.  Elliott Carter’s string quartets are fascinating in their insistence on simultaneous musics.  But when push comes to shove — for me — a soulful piece of art wins every time.  In music, the Barber concertos, Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” Alfred Schnittke’s “Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled With Grief,” the choral music of Gorecki, a truly great Rodgers and Hart song like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”.  These can take my breath away.  They can walk me through my grief, or make me fall in love again.  They can make the world a better and more inviting place.  They can return us to our humanity.  Now, having said that, I think we need it all — the funky, the frivolous, the aggressively ugly, the hilarious, the profoundly holy, and the intellectually brilliant.  Vive le difference, I say.

JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

DPM: – In my teens and twenties, I tried to please the audience more, to write and perform in more recognizable and familiar ways.  I was putting my spin on agreeable, marketable genres.  Pop, musicals, New Age.  I performed swing music for corporate parties, wrote string-bed scores for documentaries.  It was comfortable music, oftentimes very pretty.  But starting in my late twenties, early thirties, after a stint in Hollywood, I grew out of that and embraced my adventurous side.  I have a real passion for invention.  I’m restless, naturally improvisatory, and a real polyglot.  And I enjoy working in many mediums, including filmmaking, poetry and art.  So, I guess I’d say, I love my audience and I love my fans, but my primary audience — who I’m trying to please — is myself.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

DPM: – There’s so many!  But I guess playing for four different U.S. Presidents stands out.  Seeing Ronald Reagan give a speech at the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles.  Shaking Bill Clinton’s hand, and having him ask to have our picture taken together.  The crazy long motorcade for George W. Bush.  The even crazier and longer motorcade for Barack Obama!  How President Obama made a point of saying hello to me.  Then there’s getting so engrossed in Abel Gance’s six-hour “Napoleon” as I was improvising an accompaniment; falling asleep while performing because I had a fever of 104; various standing ovations; long held high notes that worked; clean virtuosic passagework.  There’s realizing I’d played for both a Best Picture Oscar Nominee (“The Blind Side”) and one of the worst Hollywood productions ever (“Battlefield Earth”).  Dedicating performances to friends or family that had recently passed away.  Crying onstage when singing “A Time For Love,” and this profound and beautiful silence when I was finished, because nobody wanted to break the spell.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

DPM: – Jazz will find a way.  Jazz is about freedom, personal expression, celebrating life, overcoming obstacles.  Most of all, it’s about the beauty and integrity of the individual voice, in all its uniqueness and all its colors.  Any musician searching for freedom — freedom to explore, to improvise, to be themselves, to tell their own stories, without boundaries or barriers — will ultimately, somewhere along the line, be drawn to jazz.  And they’ll take it to the next level and down more tributaries  Stylistic cross-pollination is big right now.  There’s a wealth of genres across the globe to cross-pollinate.  Hip-hoppers are doing it.  Electronica and EDM musicians are doing it.  Traditional jazz musicians are doing it.  Freestyle rap is a form of jazz, don’t you think?  So I’m not concerned that jazz is a dying art form.  Improvisation, in all its guises, is being captured, disseminated and loved as never before.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

DPM: – John Coltrane was exactly right.  I feel very much the same.  When a musician is inspired, we are listening to his or her spirit.  When they are singing from their soul, without barriers, without self-consciousness, without internal critics editing their every move, when they are singing straight from their soul, unadorned, unconcerned, we are witness to the transcendent.  And that’s what we want — that’s what the musician wants, that’s what the audience wants.  To be moved, to touch the sacred, to be moved by what’s holy, to have an experience that transcends this earth and our everyday, workaday lives.  We want to witness and be a lightning rod for emotions that are authentic and true.  We want to break through, and have this invigorating communal experience.  I also believe, personally, as a man of faith, whether we realize it or not, that we want to have a communal experience of the divine, of what’s beyond us.  We want to forget about ourselves and be one with Creation.  Of course, for the musician, it can take years of exercises, practice, rigorous discipline, rehearsals, self-analysis, listening and forgetting, clutching and letting go, learning and unlearning, and playing hundreds, even thousands of performances before we can even approach this level of God-connected, spiritually alive playing.  When we can do that, though, it’s a gift, and a message, to everyone.  And the meaning of life?  For me, the meaning, or purpose, of life is for us to mature — to grow ever more loving, honest, helpful, and empathetic.  To learn to give what we have away, on a daily basis, and to walk each other toward eternity.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

DPM: – A mainstream audience for avant-garde jazz and free improvisation!  I wish there were billions of people ready — even excited — to hear something they’ve never heard before!

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

DPM: – I’m in the process of releasing an album a month for 44 months, so I’m mostly listening to my ensembles.  I’m also in the process of editing over a hundred short experimental films for release later this year, so I’m listening to a lot of sound effects.  On the composition side, I’m using algorithms to translate people’s names into music, so I’m recording and listening to a lot of those, too.  Then there are my sons, who seem to always have Ellington’s band on.

JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

DPM: – Synthesis — of styles, of cultures.  That we’re all in this together.  Yes — be an individual, and what you were meant to be.  Be daring and challenge yourself.  But the flip side of that is to listen to each other, be open to things that are new, be curious.  Quick to listen and slow to judge.  These are all spiritual path messages, really.  Contemplate.  Pay attention.  Be disciplined.  Know thyself.  At the heart of it all, creativity is spiritual, and one of the most amazing spiritual disciplines out there.  It’s boundless and naturally multi-faceted, like Creation Itself.  Making something, if you’re letting it happen and not trying to control the process, and not trying to dictate the results, is a spiritual act.  It’s prayer.  It’s worship.  It’s connection with the divine.  You’re getting things from the ether, channelling what needs to be channelled in that moment.  It’s communing with God, but it’s also communing with our humanness, with humanity itself.  So, if what you’re destined to make is mainstream, and you love it, great.  If your vision is for a smaller, more rarified audience, that’s great, too.  Don’t be constrained by market forces.  Make what needs to be made.  Make what your soul cries out to create.  Anything less, and you’re shortchanging yourself, and our world.  And, frankly, the One who made you.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

DPM: – I’d like to travel to an alternate universe without smart phones, drug addiction, social media, or Trump as President.  Without racism or sexism or any other -ism.  Where wealthy people pay their fair share, and where powerful people wield their power with grace and humility.  Other than that, I’m pretty happy with now.  What a great time to be alive.  There are so many compelling voices and styles.  There is so much to explore, synthesize, and celebrate.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself …

DPM: – My question for you is:  How did jazz become one of your passions?

JBN.S: – Thanks for answers. Jazz draws the onlooker to a deeper league, that of a partnership so to speak, of being along when each spontaneous phrase is created, when each inspired motive is often the interactive result of audience involvement. Jazz music’s dynamic, my life !!!

JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

DPM: – I’m at a time in my life where I’m following every artistic impulse I have, in whatever medium it presents itself.  I’m finishing whatever is worthy, distributing everything as I have time, teaching when I can, and giving 200% in live performance irregardless of how I’m feeling.  It’s a blast, it’s exhausting, and it’s absolutely necessary.

Best of luck with your publication and thanks for the opportunity, Simon. All good thoughts, David.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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