May 18, 2024

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Interview with Ian Charleton: Take a new look at things you think you know: Video, New CD cover

Jazz interview with jazz composer and conductor Ian Charleton. An interview by email in writing. – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Ian Charleton: – I was born in southern Illinois and moved with my parents a few times before we landed in College Station, Texas when I was about 13.  Although neither of them are professional musicians, there was always music at home.  Later in life, my dad started playing Irish fiddle.  Early on, I listened to a steady diet of country and bluegrass but my dad had a few jazz records that he’d play from time to time.  I remember specifically him listening to “Sketches of Spain.” As a kid, it just sounded weird, but it was there, it was at home, and I wasn’t threatened by it.  One of the first concerts that my folks took me to about this time was a double bill of The Temptations and the Four Tops.

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

ICH: – Like most writers, I started as a player.  As a saxophone player, it was impossible not to be significantly influenced by the great saxophone players of the past.  First in high school and especially college, I spent a lot of time transcribing Charlie Parker and a lot of Cannonball Adderley.  Along the way I dug into some Joe Henderson and John Coltrane, too.  My influences as a writer started—like a lot kids in high school jazz band—by playing a lot of Sammy Nestico.  When I got to college I was exposed both by playing and by arranging study to writers like Thad Jones, Rob McConnell, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim McNeely, and more.  As I got further into arranging, my ear was drawn most strongly to Kenny Wheeler and Maria Schneider and I spent a lot of time in graduate school immersed in “Music for Large and Small Ensembles” and “Evanesence.”  “Music for Large and Small Ensembles” is still one of my favorite recordings of all time.

When I finished school and joined the Navy, I didn’t find a lot of appetite for either Maria Schneider and Kenny Wheeler.  The Navy Music Program has a different audience and a different mission.  But, the education I’d gotten allowed me to take the skills I’d gained about how to learn—how to teach myself—and started re-studying Sammy Nestico as well as starting to study folks like Nelson Riddle, Tom Kubis, Billy May, and Gordon Goodwin in depth.  I also spent a lot of time digging into film scores learning how composers established moods.  I aimed to give the players I wrote for enough substance to dig into and get some satisfaction from, while presenting a product that a large proportion of our target audience would like.  After almost 20 years of writing in that environment, that is where a lot of what I hear in my head comes from.

Like all musicians I’m the sum total of my education and experiences.  I’ve got a deep and abiding love for hard bop as well as really inventive writers, but I tend to write in what I hope is a style more readily accessible to the musical laity.

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

ICH: – Time and rhythm have always been my Achilles heel as a player and I’ve spent a lot of time over a lot of years getting my fundamentals down.  That took the shape of doing a lot of metronome work on classical and baroque repertoire (especially the CPE Bach Suite for Unaccompanied Flute – Wq 132).  Then balancing that with transcribing players whose rhythmic concept appealed to me: especially early 1960s Cannonball Adderley.  I view time and rhythm as a skill rather than a talent, it can be studied, strengthened and developed.

As a writer, my practice is curious listening.  When I hear something that catches my ear at the moment, I take the time to ask what it is, how was it put on the page, and how I can steal it.  Then, whatever the next project is that calls for that trick, I’ll see if I can use it in a way that makes sense.  I don’t use any more than one (maybe two) new “tricks” in a typical arrangement.  At most a few seconds of clock time.  This way, if it fails, the rest of the chart isn’t ruined and it’ll still be usable by whomever I’m writing for.

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

ICH: – I’ve never really worried about what was influencing me.  I don’t think musicians should live in a vacuum.  One of my teachers, Dan Haerle, said “At any time, you are perfectly alright and simply in some stage of your growth.”  What I wrote twenty years or so ago was what I was writing then with the tools, experiences, and philosophy I had at the time.  What I’m writing today is what I’m writing today with the tools I’ve got now and the collected experiences I’ve got.  People change.

Now, if I’ve got a particular project that needs to sound a particular way, I will spend a lot of time restricting my listening to artists that are playing or writing in the vibe I want to achieve.  This way, when I shift to creating, this is going to be the vocabulary (melodic, harmonic, rhythmic or whatever) that is most likely to come out.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

ICH: – Part of my job with the Navy requires a certain level of physical fitness.  Both achieving and maintaining that goes a long way to achieving both kinds of stamina.  When my body is healthy, I feel better and I’m better equipped to deal with stress, more resilient, and I think more clearly.  When those things come together, both playing and writing get easier.  I feed myself pretty healthy foods and have learned to manage my own dark tendencies.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2021: Ian Charleton Big Band – A Fresh Perspective, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

ICH: – The players.  A writer without a band is very much a painter without a canvas.  It doesn’t matter how hip or beautiful or inspiring or whatever the music is without real people to bring it to life.  No matter how many times I’ve done it, it’s a little nerve-wracking putting a new piece of music in front of real people and counting it off.  Did what I put on the page really represent the music I heard in my head accurately?  Is my notation and editing clear enough to allow people who don’t share my brain to efficiently realize what I want?  Hearing real people bring my music to life is one of the greatest highs in life I’ve experienced.

The album started because of two unconnected events.  In December of 2019 I played a Christmas party with a guitarist I’ve worked with for years who asked if I’d had any thoughts about doing another big band album.  He’d really enjoyed my 2013 album, “Brain Chatter.”  At about the same time, I read an exciting article about all of the great tunes that would be entering the public domain in a matter of days.  My first thought was to reimagine a lot of public domain tunes for big band.  When all my playing work and social life dried up with the pandemic’s arrival, I used writing as my cushion to fall back on; creating beautiful things in the presence of so much ugliness seemed the right thing to do.  While I did write a lot of arrangements on public domain tunes, only “Tea for Two” made it to the album.  Maybe the others will surface some other time.  The album evolved into what it was released: some reimagined standards, with a leavening of what was going on in my head at the time as a composer.  Rather than force my writing into something inauthentic that would sound forced and contrived, I just let it go where it wanted to between some pretty broad boundaries.

JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

ICH: – This album is entirely a studio session.  In fact, the only time this band gets together like this is in the studio.  While I’d love to take the band live or even on the road, we’ve never done a live hit under my name.  Maybe later on.

Although this album is a private effort and is in no way associated with the U.S. Department of Defense or any of its components or services, the overwhelming majority of the musicians on this date are military musicians.  The Hampton Roads area of Virginia (where I was living when this was recorded) is a hotbed of great musicians because there are so many military musicians there.  Within a 45-minute drive you’ll find the Naval School of Music and bands from three different military services who each bring something valuable to bear.  In fact, all but one of the players on the disc are either active duty, retired, or veterans of the service bands.  Tapping into that network seemed a natural choice.  Between who I and baritone saxophonist David Fatek knew, I was able to build a really good band.

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

ICH: – All human beings have a soul and can be moved by it if we choose to let ourselves be vulnerable and to listen.  However, creating effectively and communicating that creativity in an efficient way to others requires the intellectual side of the human experience.  What I think might be at least as important to add to this equation is humility.

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

ICH: – Absolutely.  Unless someone wants to listen to what you’ve written—whether that’s a book or a musical composition— you might as well not have written it.  Music or other art that only appeals to a very narrow audience is missing a lot of its communicative power.  You might as well give a moving speech to a brick wall.  If I can get someone in the door with a catchy tune that makes someone’s feet tap—build some trust—they might pay more attention and be more receptive when I offer them some more exotic fare.  The trick as the bandleader is to give your players enough musical satisfaction that they want to play your music and play it with passion, while keeping your audience engaged and entertained.

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

ICH: – The summer of 1999 playing pianoless trio hours upon hours every day with Jeff Curry and Ami Rothenberg.  So much great music, so much learning and open-mindedness.

Summer 2004 playing the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” in the main piazza in Assisi, Italy and the audience spontaneously singing along.

Being part of the first American military band to play on the Philippine island of Batu-Batu and the local government closing the schools and bringing every student on the island to hear our show.

Watching dozens of students stand amazed at their hitherto unknown abilities after hearing music they’d written played for the first time.

Playing a rock band show in Times Square on a Saturday night.

Hearing Dick Oatts live with the Village Vanguard for the first time.

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

ICH: – The audience decides what makes a standard, not the musicians.  But, jazz musicians have demonstrated that they can reimagine just about anything.  Let’s expand the canon of what a “standard” is.  A lot of the tunes that we look at as “great” standards today started out their life as pop tunes or Broadway showtunes.  No academic produced a list of tunes and decreed “Henceforth, these songs and these songs only shall be The Standards!”  Musicians played and reimagined the tunes that were around them.  The audience dug them, asked for them again and again, and they became standards.  Why does that have to stop?

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

ICH: – From my wife on down, everything I’ve got is because I’m a musician.   Because of that, communing with music seems as natural as breathing.  The most meaningful experiences I’ve had in my life are because I’ve been a musician and because of the places that music has taken me.  A bass player I know named Jeff Curry summed it up well when we were talking about world religions.  “They all boil down to the same basic thing,” he said.  “’Don’t be bad, and take care of the guy who’s worse off than you.’”  There’s a lot of truth in that statement.  I’d like to make something beautiful, move someone positively at the core of their being with that beautiful thing, and—with luck—leave this place a little better than I found it.

The way I’ve communed with music has changed a lot over the years.  Early on, it was almost exclusively as a player.  Later I started identifying and gaining some recognition as a writer.  Along the way, I taught a lot of people how to write and how to rehearse bands (and learned more than they did!).  These days I do a lot more leadership, management, and mentorship than actually making notes.  It’s all rewarding.

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

ICH: – I’d have people be more open-minded to music that isn’t like theirs.  Just try it; you might like it.

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

ICH: – As I write this, I’m listening to the “Rise & Shine: A Blue Note Morning” playlist on Apple Music.  I’ll probably move on to “Lickety Split” by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra later on this afternoon.  Jim McNeely is some kind of a genius.

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

ICH: – Take a new look at things you think you know.  They might not be what you think.

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

ICH: – As a musician I’d love to be able to hear the Miles Davis Sextet (with Cannonball and Coltrane) live.  What a band!  A lot of the writers I dig had some formative experiences around that time; I’d like to share some of those experiences and learn from them while they were learning their craft.

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

ICH: – What’s your connection to jazz? Why is it that moves you enough to talk with jazz musicians and write about us?

JBN: – Since 2001, I am jazz critic and Jazz is my life !!!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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