Jazz interview with jazz pianist and composer Tom Pierson. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – When you improvise, you know where you’re going. It’s a matter of taking certain paths and certain directions?
Tom Pierson: – The key for me is not knowing where you are going. If you know where you are going, you tend to play cliches or things you have practiced. Keeping a sense of adventure and discovery requires not knowing where you are going.
JBN: – Do you ever get the feeling that music majors, and particularly people who are going into jazz, are being cranked out much like business majors? That they are not really able to express themselves as jazz musicians?
TP: The emphasis on copying phrases and harmony from the past, which has dominated jazz thinking for the last 40 years (Lincoln Center Jazz), has been very destructive to creativity. I call them “Elvis imitators”, except nobody thinks that people who copy Elvis are to be taken seriously. On the other hand, a player who copies Bird or Trane can get a record deal! We’re supposed to be creating! You cannot create by copying.
JBN: – What about somebody who is really gifted and puts together a band and just gets upset to the point of quitting because of the business aspects-the agents and the clubs?
TP: Musicians need to take the business aspects seriously. There is no way to avoid it. Some of the best musicians I know have not gotten the success they deserve because they are not intelligent in business. Good musicians often feel there is something dishonest about promoting themselves. Unfortunately, the jazz establishment simply doesn’t know the grassroots well. And even if they knew, since they can’t tell good from bad…
JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
TP: I don’t think this is a danger. A creative person should listen to everything. The fragments that have meaning for that person will stick. The greater danger is being close-minded in ones listening (Lincoln Center Jazz).
JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
TP: Music, or any artistic endeavor, should involve not only the intellect and the soul, but every other aspect of the human personality as well – all the senses, thought, perception, aspiration, philosophy, a view of history, hope for the future, etc. Music should not only be heard, but tasted, seen, felt, smelled, etc. It’s been demonstrated scientifically that especially sensitive perception by one sense (hearing, for example) triggers resonant sensations in other senses (seeing images while listening). I personally will choose a note for a composition according to how it tastes, compared to other choices.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
TP: Performers who think about “giving the people what they want” can never be artists – I’m quoting the Italian film director Federico Fellini. Such performers are more like bar girls, trying to please their customers. The artist can only function by satisfying him/herself. He/she must lead the audience. Asking the artist to “dumb it down” to please the audience would be like asking Michael Jordan not to make any moves that people in the audience can’t make! The audience want to experience something they themselves can’t do. Producers and promotors who don’t understand how art works often make such ignorant demands. Many of those producers and promoters are not qualified to supervise creative artists. By the way, the most downloaded track from last works is the most far-out one – 45/8.
JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
TP: A lifetime of stories!
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
TP: The emphasis on standard tunes is some more Lincoln Center Jazz idiocy. Traditional jazz (“ragtime”) played originals, not standard tunes. Duke played originals. In the late 60s and 70s, every album of Miles was filled with originals. Early fusion (we called it “jazz-rock” then) was all original. In an interview with Douwnbeat around 1940, Duke said, “I’m really worried. Nothing new has happened in swing in the last 2 years.” 2 years!!!!! Thanks to Lincoln Center Jazz, everything new in the last 40 years has been suppressed (there are a few exceptions).
JBN: – And lastly, being a teacher, do you find it difficult to write music yourself?
TP: Teaching has helped me in my own music making. After all, students are trying to solve the same problems as advanced musicians. I find it interesting to watch how students solve their musical problems.
JBN: – How important is it to you to have an original approach? Can you comment on the bridge between being a musician and being a composer?
TP: A creative person must have a personal creative method or approach. If you want to be ordinary, do things the ordinary way!
JBN: – Do you have an idea of what it is you’re trying to say or get across? Is it an idea or is it just something that we feel?
TP: I start with a small idea, a fragment or seed, and try to make it grow naturally.
JBN: – What do you see for your extended future? You know what you have going on? You have life?If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
TP: I constantly must remind myself that this fucked up world doesn’t obey my thinking or my values! (Wouldn’t things be great if I were king….)
JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
TP: I don’t listen to music so much anymore. I need my “appetite for sound” for my own work. If I listen to too much music, it’s like gorging on the appetizers and not being hungry for the main course – the main course being my own composing. That said, next to my CD player by my bed are the following – Guillaume de Machaut, Anton Webern, Elliott Carter, and the complete Miles at The Plugged Nickel.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
TP: Art with a message is propaganda, not art. A ballet, painting, or musical composition’s “message” is the experiencing of the thing itself. That experience is different for each person in the audience. Propaganda is more coercive, trying to persuade the group as a whole.
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
TP: I was never good at history in school. Now I really like to read history. We know so little about early civilizations – Egypt or Greece, for example. However, one must remember how difficult life conditions were then, especially for ordinary people.
JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
TP: I am always interested in what fans or critics have to say about their musical experience. Some listeners are more sensitive than some professional musicians. I recently read Tony Bennett’s memoir. His advice – never underestimate the sensitivity of the audience. The experience of art is completely personal to each person, and I find it interesting to hear listeners verbalize their response to music, especially my own.
JBN: – Thanks for answers. Theories of esthetic appreciation propose that a stimulus is liked because it is expected or familiar, a stimulus is liked most when it is neither too familiar nor too novel, or a novel stimulus is liked because it elicits an intensified emotional response. We tested the third hypothesis by examining liking for music as a function of whether the emotion it expressed contrasted with the emotion expressed by music heard previously. Stimuli were 30-s happy- or sad-sounding excerpts from recordings of classical piano music. On each trial, listeners heard a different excerpt and made liking and emotion-intensity ratings. The emotional character of consecutive excerpts was repeated with varying frequencies, followed by an excerpt that expressed a contrasting emotion. As the number of presentations of the background emotion increased, liking and intensity ratings became lower compared to those for the contrasting emotion. Consequently, when the emotional character of the music was relatively novel, listeners’ responses intensified and their appreciation increased. The potential of music to communicate emotions is part of our everyday experience. Music psychologists have distinguished between emotion perception, which refers to the perception of emotions expressed by music without evoking affective responses in the listeners, and emotion induction, which refers to listeners’ affective response to music. Here, we focus on emotion induction. The first part briefly discusses recent empirical evidence and theoretical reflections on i) the nature of musical emotions, ii) emotion models in relation to music, iii) the influence of factors like familiarity, culture, gender, personality, expertise and contextual features on listeners’ emotional experience, and iv) the link between emotion and aesthetics. The second part concerns itself with musical emotions and the central nervous system and discusses recent findings of brain areas involved in emotional processing of music, issues related to cerebral asymmetry, and the link between emotion and cognition in these processes. In this context, the question of whether emotions evoked by music are similar or different compared to emotions evoked by other sensory modalities has been of substantial interest to music researchers. Therefore, we extensively address this issue and report on current cross-modal affective priming studies. Automatic affective responses to stimuli are essentially relevant for subsequent cognitive, emotional and behavioural reactions: emotions induced by music crucially influence the (emotional) processing of pictures, facial expressions, films, and words. We propose that cross-modal priming studies provide a promising alternative to conventional approaches in order to better understand the nature of musical emotions.
JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
TP: Keep going! Use everything you’ve learned and experienced in life. Every new effort in art is another chance to reach that pinnacle. (Then art will present you with another, higher pinnacle…)
Interview by Simon Sargsyan