May 21, 2024

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Interview with Julian Gerstin: Different musicians manifest their intellect and feelings in different ways: Photos, Video

Jazz interview with jazz percussionist and composer Julian Gerstin. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Julian Gerstin: – Music was what the cool guys did at parties. The girls paid attention to you and you didn’t have to talk. After awhile I started getting fascinated by the music itself. How did real musicians get those sounds? Maybe because I was playing congas and bongos, I was equally fascinated by the cultures these sounds came from as the music itself; I started trying to learn about Caribbean and African music and cultures. In other words, not just how did they get those sounds, but WHY those sounds — what did they mean?

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

JG: – As a white kid growing up in American suburbia, it took me awhile to start meeting people who could help me learn about these cultures and teach me techniques and traditional rhythms on my instruments. This didn’t happen until I went away to college. Meanwhile I was always listening to recordings, but back then, in the 1960s and 70s, it was hard to find recordings of African or Caribbean music. Not like it is today! As I slowly improved over the years, I kept finding better and better teachers. I’ve studied with master musicians from and in several countries (Cuba, Martinique, Ghana and others), and I’m still taking lessons and exploring — right now it’s Arabic and Puerto Rican traditions … As for finding my sound, it’s never been something I’ve been very concerned with. I just try to play well in whatever style I’m playing. When I do, and when I share this with other good musicians,  I feel like I’m expressing myself. I might be playing a strict part in a traditional style, or a piece of written music, or improvising; it all feels expressive.

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

JG: – Not having had music lessons as a kid, no one really explained practicing to me. Also, music was never my main source of income, so it wasn’t the main way I spent my time. A lot of my practice was playing gigs. As the years have gone by and music has become more central to my life, my practice routine has improved. On the other hand, I always studied and performed traditional African and Caribbean styles. What a great way to learn about rhythm! From there I’ve expanded to Balkan and Arabic styles. One of the things that fascinates me is that there are some consistencies to how rhythm works in different cultures, but each style has its own approach as well. Cuban and Martinican rhythms are both Afro-Caribbean but they’re also different in some crucial ways. They both share a rhythmic drive with Balkan music, yet it’s a different kind of drive. For me, learning a number of different styles, and spending time with musicians from and in those cultures, has been central.

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?

JG: – The short answer is, I like melody, and in many of the traditional styles I play the melodies are primarily vocal, so there’s not much dissonance. A longer answer: I started composing late, in my mid-fifties. Having learned so many cool rhythms and percussion instruments, I wanted to play them in a jazz setting — not just as decoration, but as central to the music. So I had to start writing the music, and often (though not always) my compositions were based on rhythmic ideas. Meanwhile I’ve been taking theory and working on basic skills like ear training and piano, and now I’m in an MFA in Music Composition program. As I’ve learned more about theory and harmony it’s become more equal. On the new CD, “The Old City,” I set out to write in specific styles with structures that interest me and to concentrate on harmonic progressions; the melodies (mostly) fit those styles and progressions. Now I want to write material with looser and more unusual forms, and this will probably be more dissonant. But I really like melody, so the dissonance needs to be at the service of melody and probably won’t dominate.

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

JG: – I’m all about influences. I do feel you have to live with them and study them a long time, and not just use them superficially.

JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album 2018: <Julian Gerstin Sextet The Old City>, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

JG: – What I like most about it: the wonderful musicians who make it come alive. They gave a lot to the music, from correcting my mistakes to suggesting numerous  details to giving their all at the recording sessions. I write with my core band very much in mind and am grateful for their willingness to spend time with my music … As mentioned above, now I want to go in a more experimental direction, so I expect the next CD will sound very different.


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

JG: – They are not separate. You need both. I try not to even think of them as two different things to add equally, like salt and pepper; I try not to draw a line between them in the first place. Also, different musicians manifest their intellect and feelings in different ways. It’s not as simple as “if a musician reads music, he’s intellectual” or the opposite. Some people might read music well but not be intellectual about it at all; it’s a skill they’ve mastered and they use it intutively, like reading a novel. Or they might not read music, but be very intellectual in the way they approach music, knowing and understanding a huge repertoire in detail; I’ve known a lot of traditional musicians like this. And I’m just using reading as one example of how these things run together.

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

JG: – That’s a good question; it’s something I’m always aware of. I usually think about how a listener might respond to what I’m writing. But every listener is different, so I guess I’m really composing for an ideal audience, which is myself and a few close friends and the musicians in my band. At the same time I’m willing to write for myself, and try things out that I really want to try, without worrying too much about others’ responses.

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

JG: – The gigs where the musicians listen to one another and lock in are special. They might be jazz, they might be a traditional or folk music, they might be any style.

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

JG: – I serve on the board of a community non-profit, the Vermont Jazz Center. We’ve been around for nearly 40 years. Reaching young people is one of our main concerns. We have year-round classes and a week-long jazz camp in the summer, and we are constantly raising scholarship money through donations and grants. My sister-in-law runs a similar non-profit in Philadelphia, bringing classical instruments and lessons to inner-city kids. These community efforts are great, but even better is exposing young people to jazz, or ANY music, through the schools. Let’s revamp American education from the bottom up!

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

JG: – I am not spiritual, and make no attempt to write spiritual music.

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

JG: – Equality, peace, justice … wait, did you say ONE thing? In the MUSICAL world? I guess more money and support for musicians. Which, of course, would take a change in American culture and politics … towards equality, peace, and justice.

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

JG: – I’m in an MFA in Music Composition program so I listen to a lot of music that I want to learn specific things from. Right now it’s contemporary experimental jazz. I listened to this a lot when I was younger, and now I’m back to it, both going back to people I loved then (Coltrane, Ornette, Sun Ra) and finding new favorites (Gerri Allen, Gerry Hemingway, Amir El Safar, to name just a few).

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

JG: – I never saw Coltrane live when I was young, so it would either be him with the classic quartet on their most transcendent night, or Machito at the Palladium.

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

JG: – Can you help me find gigs for the sextet in Europe?

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. There is no near term, but next year we may turn you on to our jazz festivals.

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

JG: – Just keep going. Thoughtful and positive responses like yours are a great help!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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