May 28, 2024

Website about Jazz and Blues

Interview with Tyler Higgins: Everyone’s taste differs: Video

Jazz interview with a bad musician, as if multi-instrumentalist Tyler Higgins. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Tyler Higgins: – First of all I must confess that I’m not a jazz musician, but I love a great deal of jazz, a lot of my music sounds like jazz, and I’m currently working on my own “jazz” album.

I was born in 1978 and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia.  My parents are from the Midwest and NYC. Both my parents have impeccable taste in music and exposed me to a wide variety of music from a young age.  My Dad sang in a doo wop group in The Bronx as a kid.  My Mom sang in a Mamas & the Papas cover band.  My Grandfather was one of the best fiddle players in West Ireland before coming to America, and was a sought-after trad musician in NYC.

Growing up, I heard a wide variety of folk, rock, blues, country, doo wop, and Irish traditional music at home. Around age 11, I became obsessed with Bob Dylan and began to track down all the music he mentioned in interviews.  Since many of the artists referenced were in my Dad’s record collection I methodically listened to his entire collection.  I’ve been obsessively checking out new music on a daily basis ever since.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up your musical instrument? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose your musical instrument?

TH: – I’ve fooled around on the piano and harmonica since I was a little kid. I played violin in the school band and started taking folk guitar lessons at age 12, me and my brother. This taught me chords and good technique. Once I developed enough technique I spent a huge amount of time playing along to records to learn tunes and solos in the style of artists I enjoyed – Mississippi Fred McDowell, Leadbelly, Creedence, Albert Collins, Sonic Youth, and all the other post-punk, jazz, and Indian classical I was into.

As a teenager, I started performing in the Atlanta anti-folk scene and started experimenting with feedback and guitar tunings. At the time, most guitarists I knew didn’t practice a lot but relied heavily on effects pedals for their sound.  Based on this impression, I didn’t use effects pedals for most of 20 years but invented a lot of techniques of my own.  I’ve invented a lot of guitar tunings and currently use about 45 tunings.

Playing a lot of different instruments is helpful since I write music by playing the instrument I’m writing for.  But I’m really only good on guitar and alto saxophone.

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

TH: – Since a young age I’ve hunted down interviews of musicians I enjoy to see what music they like. In addition to Bob Dylan, I’ve checked out everything I’ve come across in interviews with Kurt Cobain, Frank Zappa, Sonic Youth, and Jim O’Rourke. For example, I quickly went from listening to REM, to Velvet Underground, to hunting down LaMonte Young records. And this was not restricted to music.  To grow as an artist, I made it my job to learn as much as possible about film, visual art, literature, and philosophy.

Mostly I evolved by teaching myself and trying things myself. In college, I continued to play music, played in the jazz band, and led my own rock band.  I had no interest in the music program, which was classically-oriented, but studied all the harmony books I could find and continued to teach myself different instruments, particularly tenor saxophone. After college, I played gospel music in a Baptist church and started playing in a wider variety of contexts including jazz, folk, improvised music, minimalism, electronic, and noise music.  And I was heavily involved in the Baltimore experimental music and arts scene around Red Room and the High Zero festival.

I never associated myself exclusively to a single genre.  So I always maintained a critical stance towards music, with no one music as “my own”.  I drew a lot from negative inspiration – being unimpressed with stuff and then wanting to do a better job myself.

I found my compositional voice by writing music in a completely intuitive, anti-formalist way.   Each album I write is an attempt to record an album that I wish existed.  Although I use experimental means to write and record my music, the real focus is to present complex emotions in a beautiful way.

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

TH: – I mostly practice along to records.  On any wind instruments, I make sure to spend a majority of my time on tone exercises and long tones.  But apart from that I practice by improvising along to records.  This supports ear training and improvisation skills along to music I enjoy.  I prefer to play behind the beat or in rubato fashion so I never practice with a metronome but always try to tap my feet while playing.

Apart from that I like to tinker and try out new ideas and combinations, figure out things from records that I find surprising. But I think of this as fun rather than practice. Since I play a lot of instruments, I try to trade in instruments after I’ve recorded an album to buy new instruments and force myself to learn something new. I check out new music every day. The more music I listen to the more I understand what really moves me and the more I can filter this into my own voice.

To prepare for the jazz album I’m working on, I played saxophone an hour a day all last year, I’m learning cornet, chopped samples from 300 jazz tunes, and created a bunch of tracks on my SP-404 sampler to write melodies to.  Currently, I’m alternating an hour of sax and cornet practice every day.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

TH: – I like melody to take the lead and harmony to provide support or even be implied.  That said, I prefer voicings that include a 7th such as minor 7, dominant 7b9, or major 7 chords.  My favorite chord is a minor 9th chord which I first heard on John Coltrane records.  Minor chords sound pretty to me, more than sad.  But as with anything else in music I want the harmony to play a purpose – and I’d much rather hear little or no chords instead of two chords to ever bar to just clutter up the background.

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

TH: – The only music that means something to me is music that communicates or tells a story. I have zero interest in clever music or formalism, anything written as an exercise. That said, you never know what people mean by intellect or soul as everyone’s taste differs. I find Webern and some musique concrete quite moving and exhilarating.  But at some point I realized I’d prefer to write music closer to the naïve emotions of Daniel Johnston than the highly artistic music of John Cage.

A lot of thought goes into making music regardless of whether the music appears to be cerebral or soulful.  I try to write music in an intuitive way but I have to constantly think about how to sound original and avoid clichés. So a lot of intellect goes into my music, but my heart gets the final say.

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

TH: – The best moments are when I effortlessly come up with something I enjoy –when I can spontaneously write an entire melody or improvise something that comes off perfectly.  Music is a lot of trial and error, or in my case mostly error.  I throw away the vast majority of the music I write, including 3 complete albums I’ve recorded, so that I only keep the good stuff.  For Lonely and Blue I tried to write 4 times the amount of material than I would keep and I doubled that for Blue Mood.

JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?

TH: – Some of my favorite collaborators are Ben Jaffe (Pill) and Nik Francis.  And I’ve been working a lot with Paul Stevens (Slow Parade, Chamber Cartel), who is a tremendous musician.

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

TH: – My kids like some jazz because I play them the good stuff and they don’t seem to care whether the tunes are old.  Mostly I think jazz musicians should play fewer notes and mean more with the notes they play. Lester Young used to tell instrumentalists to learn the song lyrics for any tunes they play so they can get the mood and phrasing right. I find jazz boring when it feels like the emphasis is on instrumental ability rather than artistic expression.

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

TH: – I agree with Nietzsche – without music life would not be worth living.  I’ll have to pass on the other question…

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

TH: – I stay positive because I’m constantly creating and learning new things. And I try to keep an absurd sense of humor at all times.  So I don’t worry a whole lot.

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

TH: – The one thing I would change is the tendency for artists to release albums on a very regular basis that seem heavy on filler. I think musicians should ruthlessly self-edit and only release their best material. I understand the economics of why this happens, but this is a wish right?

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?

TH: – I try to grow as a musician and challenge myself every day.  I want to get better on cornet, learn piano, trade in my guitar for a classical guitar, figure out how to work with ribbon mics, but mostly I want to make more albums that I would want to buy myself and that don’t sound like anything that already exists.  And I want to find more likeminded musicians to collaborate with.

This summer I plan to start playing a lot of shows in Atlanta to experiment with the new, sampler-based jazz material I’m writing.

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

TH: – Absolutely. Jazz started as a folk music and developed into an art music.  Once jazz became an art music that people no longer danced to, musicians kicked off its “new wave”.  Much of free jazz was an effort to return to the expressive potential of its folk roots. This exploration included folk music from around the world as well as extending its art context towards avant-garde classical.  So jazz is both folk music, art music, and world music.

I enjoy too many styles of music to really bother — I only care whether it’s good music. While I like a lot of different genres, I only like a small percentage of any one.

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

TH: – Lately I’ve been listening to the following artists and albums.

Johnny Ace – Memorial Album

Madlib’s Quasimoto records

Sonny Stitt – Personal Appearance

Jacques Coursil – Black Suite

King Pleasure

Experimental house on the Opal Tapes label, particularly Patricia – Body Issues

Shlohmo – Bad Vibes

Wolf Eyes – Undertow

Asad Ali Khan – Raga Miyan Ki Todi

My favorite albums since 2000 are Jim O’Rourke – The Visitor and J Dilla –Donuts. And I really like Hisato Higuchi – Dialogue.

As far as jazz goes I love the classics – Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Monk, Mingus, Miles. I like Modern Jazz Quartet, Chet Baker, and Stan Getz. My favorite vocalists are Billie Holiday, Jimmy Scott, Beverly Kenney, and Johnny Hartman.  And I especially love lyrical, free jazz: Ornette Coleman ballads, Bill Dixon – Winter Song 1964, Noah Howard – And About Love, Ric Colbeck – Lowlands, John Coltrane – Alabama, Ted Curson – Tears for Dolphy, Steve Lacy – No Baby, the Paul Motian Trio.  My favorite current jazz artist is William Parker.

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

TH: – To hell with famous musicians, I would go back to when my Mom was still alive.

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

TH: – What is your favorite record that most listeners have not likely heard?

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack Dejohnette – The Standarts.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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