May 29, 2024

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Interview with Todd Cochran: Music is an instrument of peace: Video

Jazz interview with a problematic person, as if pianist Todd Cochran. An interview by email in writing. – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Todd Cochran: – My roots are in San Francisco, my hometown, where I was born and raised. It’s a picturesque seaside town replete with steep hills and dramatic views. Located by the bay, the city has a marine climate with temperate weather year-round. It has a large pier, and just south is its neighboring peninsula. The sizeable adjoining communities are connected by two landmark bridges: the Bay Bridge, and the Golden Gate Bridge. In tastes, style, and environment, San Francisco represents the prototypical model of a socially progressive city. It’s a well-documented fact that the confluence of radical attitudes and ethnic intermingling in the Bay Area – which began and peaked in the late 60s, and continued throughout the 70s – in academia, the arts, and politics, was so overwhelmingly impactful that it became the epicenter of the American cultural revolution.

It was my fortunate happenstance to grow up in this tremendously charged environment of changing attitudes and transforming social consciousness. While my parents had professional careers, they both were musicians by advocation and endlessly passionate about the arts, history, and all things cultural. My family home environment was always filled with music. So, it was a combination of the times and geographical location, conflicting forces, and the pervasive pressures of the socio-politico shift – that shaped my early outlooks. Music has been central in my life for as long as I can remember. Owing to circumstance, and without any sort of a grand plan, I became a musician and something of an adventurer as well.

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

TC: – I tend to think of my sound as an extension of my voice. This “voice” is articulated by the sound. And as the two are not the same (synonymous), I think of sound as giving “voice” to something that needs to be expressed, articulated, and acknowledged. Music gives language to what we cannot see. It connects us to the beyond, and to worlds we want to make. I do not believe you attain a voice early in your musical pursuit. Your “voice” appears as you reach a certain point of understanding the reason for doing something and the fundamental theme or core meaning of the ideas you want to convey artistically. This entails the way you look at the world, relationships, love, and the important things that inspire you into action. It requires being decisive about how you want to tell stories and convey messages in your most authentic way. This moves you to consider how you want your instrument to speak, the colors, the tones, and the fundamental technical aspects you must refine in order to convey your poetics most expressively.

As a musician, having a “sound” is important and a quest. At the same time, it is also an elusive proposition. Attaining it requires an indeterminate amount of time and occurs in the background as you as work (study, practice) with the aim of defining your musical identity.  We begin by emulating artists we are attracted to and admire. This is the beginning. We are then thrown into a process of deep learning, initially by replicating and gradually trusting ourselves to explore our own ideas in relationship to the model that stimulated our curiosity.

I think my “sound” found me (I did not find it) after years and years of work and devotion to the pursuit of something greater than I presently am and that I continue to hope I will artistically fulfill. If I can summon and produce a sound that listeners recognize as real and authentic, then together we can ride the wave of musical language to a better place – a compassionate existence, and one of our making. Some time ago I wrote a composition titled “She Is Gentle Rain,” and in the piece I use a combination of tonal images and melodies to suggest the mysterious effect of the creative muse. As a soundscape it stretched me and opened fresh elements to explore. Stretching enlarges your viewpoint and widens your sound palette.

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

TC: – Thought-stimulating question! Jazz is a deep and powerful idiom. Each of its elements require attention in order to fulfill the music’s expressive possibilities. Repeatedly, for me, the key is balance. By applying balance – matched amounts of attention – to the all-encompassing elements of jazz, I am able to both enhance my keyboard techniques and sustain my growth relationship to the music. Jazz is played entirely in the present time and to do this effectively requires disciplined preparation. In addition to playing the piano itself, I’ve found balance to include a focused state of mind, an unyielding historical perspective, and an abstract understanding of the music. Without balance it’s possible to get mired in one aspect to the detriment of another.

Pertaining to rhythm and my overall rhythmic sense, I am a runner. I’ve been a cross-country runner for decades, running in the hills and on trails. For me, running is a necessary alone and solitary exercise. This is where the music I’m working on/imagining gets tested. There’s a cadence to long distance running. There’s a polyphony of thoughts, phrases, and accents. When it comes to the physicality of music, running is where I practice, listen, and sharpen my rhythmic instincts.

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

TC: – We are continually bombarded with information from endless sources with the agenda of influencing our actions. In today’s reality conflicting influences are unavoidable. To think clearly our ongoing challenge is to devise a way to effectively turn down the noise. As it relates to creating art, overcoming the battle of what you call “disparate influences” means detaching yourself from undue stimulation and being centered. It comes from having a well-defined vision of the sound space, and a clear understanding of the emotional atmosphere, and setting of the story you are telling. This is something you learn to grasp over time. Our accumulated observations of people and living situations form footprints. With a focused mental picture and a unifying idea, you evade going astray. Music is many things – and never a single thing. So, there’ll always be instances where utilizing a musical language with unpredictable elements enriches the story being told.

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

TC: – Preparation is a practice with many components. The first is to separate yourself from the effort required to play the music, and then imagine the music being performed, including the unplanned elements, as though they had always existed. The next is to remove thinking from the act of making, and merely create with your instrument. Lastly, as it relates to “both spiritual and musical stamina” the process entails a philosophy of emptying the mind from notions of what the music must be and opening yourself up to the accidental possibilities.

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

TC: – In my mind, when making music, there is no fixed partition between the two. One informs the other with the soul representing the personality, and the intellect an evolving state of reasoning. Both can be and are subjective and objective because there is always chance in the moment. The excitement is at the crossings where the two intersect in a musical slice of time.

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

TC: – I believe very strongly in the relationship between the audience and artist. Music, in my opinion, is incomplete until it interacts with its audience. I have always called this essential aspect “putting people in the music.” The music can be about the people and for the people, at the same time. The language of music allows a unique exchange of ideas to occur, all without words. Touching people and communicating heart to heart is one of the highest of forms of communication.

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

TC: – I have three. The first is Sun Ra sightings and I’ll explain. I have strong memories of seeing the iconic conceptual artist, Sun Ra, over a period of years at a number of concerts I played with Bobby Hutcherson. He would unexpectedly appear at either the right or left side of the performance stage. His was an unmistakable presence and as we (the band with Bobby) would venture into freedom swing and collective improvisation. His presence was a conduit for a certain type of spontaneous thought – deep and filled with imagery.

The second is recording three pieces with the visionary poet and author Maya Angelou. Supporting her reciting her own words at the piano introduced me at another level to the unique world of pattern language that she created. Her essence reflected a beautiful and multifaceted love of life and how to be a giver.

My third is playing in a band with Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins at the Fête de l’Humanité (Festival of Humanity) outside of Paris for an audience of close to 100,000 people. The sheer energy of an engaged audience that size thrust me into a ‘never-the-same-again’ understanding of the powerful reach of music and collective humanity.

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

TC: – I believe the key to stimulating young people’s interest in jazz is early exposure. Exposure to the music as an expressive language of life. It’s not a matter of being ready or not ready. Jazz can easily be introduced to young minds in the same way that children are introduced to folk tales and make-believe adventures and talking insects and plants before they can really understand the words. What’s important is teaching children how to listen and about what they can potentially hear and feel while listening. Young minds look for magic because they believe it’s there.

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

TC: – The spiritual experience of John Coltrane traverses an expansive range of humanness. The voice within is the voice of what can never be completely defined. “That something” that resonates indelibly in our musical memory is neither the notes nor the sound, but the true spirit in which the art found its way to our heart. The meaning of life is made up of moments we can categorize as everlasting and therefore extend into eternity. John Coltrane expressed this as love, “A Love Supreme.”

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

TC: – I would change the perception that Black intellectualism and Black representations of transcendence in musical art is only to be experienced in certain styles of music.

Vision is the vital fundamental of creativity. There is a lot of highly imaginative, futuristic, idyllic, and phantasmal art that has been classified and critiqued as the resulting expected outcome of an oppressed experience. I do not, however, see the occurrence of transcendent creativity as rooted solely in the dilemma of the Black experience. And to that point, I appreciate that the resulting work comes from the witty talent of hardworking, truth seeking and inspired imaginative minds. The intention of creating something insistently fresh and new, and that reveals a deep inner experience can lead to making diverse forms of art. All of which are primed for universal recognition. Seeking beauty beyond the boundaries will enhance our future and drive the creative excitement of our musical world.

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

TC: – Birds in nature. Surrounding my house is a very melodious assortment of birds.  Doves, Song Sparrows, Goldfinches, Wrens, Robins – all engaging each other in these fascinating conversations. They’ll trill in clusters and then you’ll hear an answer, often in staccato bursts that continue their dialogue. As you listen, a group of them seem to be perched on the branches of a single large tree. Then judging by the excitement of their sounds they exchange information – a group of birds in one tree with another in a tree across the way. It goes on for hours! My favorites though are the nightbirds who start singing a little before 3AM in the morning.

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

TC: – Music is an instrument of peace.

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

TC: – In a heartbeat I’d want to be transported to “The City of Jazz” – the majestic and grand utopian place that Duke Ellington described in his autobiography “Music Is My Mistress.” This is a place of democratic values in the purest sense, where the streets are named after musical innovators, high art cultural ambassadors, thinkers, and peace makers. What Duke Ellington described is the language of music personified.

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

TC: – My question is about how you envision the citizens of different societies and the global village being influenced by jazz as a mediator in improving relationships between cultures throughout the world. In forming new models of coexisting and innovation that will make for a less troubled and more positive future for humankind, what must we learn, not forget, and carry forward from our past?

JBN: – Unfortunately, there are so many fools and scum in jazz. I am preparing a separate article about them. And it is easy with intellectual musicians. It is very difficult with you too.

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

TC: – This moment for me is more about sharing a philosophical reflection of all that I’ve absorbed and continue to learn/gather from the various musical and creative camps I’ve been in. Whenever I happen upon something interesting, I’m always thinking about how I can meld that discovery into what I’m doing. Jazz has always revealed itself to me as the touchstone of all that I do creatively. And it’s the sensibility of an improviser that I bring to my piano playing, composing and musical storytelling. Everything that’s relatable and worthy of understanding can be communicated through a good story. The variations are infinite!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Bayeté Todd Cochran – Todd Cochran

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