May 29, 2024

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Interview with James Hegarty: Go Now is so full of energy with an amazing level of musical collaboration between us: Video, new CD cover

Jazz Interview with jazz pianist James Hegarty. An interview by email in writing. – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

James Hegarty: – I live in the US and grew up in the Chicago area in Illinois.  I moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1997 to become the head of a college music department there.  I grew up in a musical family.  My mother was a church singer and also played the piano.  My dad played cornet in jazz bands when he was younger and I gained an interest in jazz from him.  My mother was interested in musicals and would almost always have a record playing in the house.  She was my first piano teacher and I started taking lessons when I was 6 but I suspect I played around with the piano even earlier than that.  I remember she told me that she wouldn’t give me lessons until I learned to read (English) so I must have been interested in playing when I was 4 or 5.

When I was about 10 years old I started to learn the guitar and some of my friends formed a rock band.  We played three-chord rock songs and had a lot of fun.  I also play the saxophone and bass clarinet.  For a number of years, I played organ in church.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

JH: – I have always had about three main musical interests: jazz, classical, and technology.  When I was young, I was fascinated by tape recorders and manipulating turntables.  I didn’t own a synthesizer until the 80s but used music concrete methods until that time.  I studied classical music composition in college and graduate school.

My sound is constantly developing.  Like most artists, I am a sponge and absorb influences from many genres of music.  I am also very inspired by visual art including painting, sculpture, and film/video.  Several of my family members are visual artists so the practice of visual imagery is a large part of my conceptualization.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

JH: – I teach music theory and composition to college students and the music that they share keeps me current and aware of a wide variety of musical styles.  As a pianist, I find that “imaginary concerts” are very effective.  When I am practicing, I image that it is actually a performance and that gives me a higher level of intensity and focus.  At various times I have concentrated on scales and exploring chord voicings but my main rehearsal efforts are in executing musical concepts in an immediate way.

JBN: – How do you keep stray, or random, musical influences from diverting you from what you’re doing?

JH: – That’s a challenge because there are a lot of interesting things happening and with the internet it is possible to spend hours exploring and searching for new things.  I find that my biggest challenge is finding the time to really focus on my music when the demands of daily life often cut short my time.  It is extremely rare when I have an extended period of time to work and that is frustrating.

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

JH: – I do view my music as a spiritual expression.  My view on that is that the spiritual inspiration is something that I reflect.  So my desire is to be as receptive and transparent as possible when I am making music.  Pondering my relationship to the spiritual source is a daily activity for me and part of my over-all being.  I can feel this spiritual energy and inspiration when I am performing and this dimension is what keeps me going and gives me spontaneous ideas.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: “Go Now”  how it was formed and what you are working on today.

JH: – I’m going to suggest that we talk about my newest trio album.  We recorded this last week as part of a YouTube livestream from the Kranzberg Center for the Arts here in St. Louis.  The album is titled “Go Now” because it is so full of energy with an amazing level of musical collaboration between us.  The album includes Del on drums and Paul Steinbeck on electric bass.  I am playing piano and electronics.  We are the Off Topic Trio and have been playing together for about 7 years.  For most of that time, Del has been in New York and we were only able to play together when there was a gig and he would fly in.  Recently, Del has moved to St. Louis and we have been playing livestreams each month.  The opportunity to play together more frequently has given us the ability to work even more collaboratively.  Playing in an ensemble is a very important part of my musical practice.  I really thrive on the interaction and energy that a group of musicians can create as a unit.  To me, that is the most exciting thing that can happen in music!

JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?

JH: – There are a number of musicians I enjoy playing with and over the years I have had the opportunity to work with many very creative individuals.  The musicians that I play with are a blessing to me because they give so freely of their heart and soul and are always so very supportive of me and each other.  It is said by many jazz musicians that the bandstand is hallowed ground and in my experience that is completely true.  The beauty of the music emerges from this spiritual union of hearts and minds.

JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

JH: – Soul, I believe, is another way of referencing the spiritual aspect of thought and live.  As a classically trained composer I strive for integrity of statement.  Improvisation is music composition in real time and since it is happening in real time, the deliberative process is fast and compelling.  What sets improvisation apart from composition in my estimation is that improvisation benefits from the dialogue or communication that the other musicians are constantly expressing.  Jazz is widely recognized as a conversation in music and this communication is a very palpable form of direction seeking.  Musical integrity to me is achieved by direction and focus and the ability to be guided by thematic consistency.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

JH: – The music I play is challenging but I believe that the performance aspects of a chamber ensemble can overcome the sophistication of the music and embrace the audience.  A Mozart string quartet is more challenging to listen to than a Berlioz symphony because the symphonic form has a greater impact in terms of dynamics and color.  But the interaction of the performers give the audience an insight into the relationships that exist in the music in a more personal and close-up way.  Jazz ensembles are chamber ensembles and the interaction between the musicians share the human dynamics of the music expressed in body language and musical expression.  Most people I know listen to music because they want to glimpse an emotion or mental space that is different from their own experience.  They want a release, an inspiration, a break from their routine, etc.  I believe small group improvisation is a very effective way to communicate with the audience and share an inspiring emotional and artistic uplift together.

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?

JH: – In July, 2017 I had the opportunity to record my trio at Systems Two studio in Brooklyn, New York.  This studio had been a center of the Brooklyn jazz scene for over 40 years.  It was a thrill to be in the space and to record in such an “institution.”  About a year later, the studio on Ditmas closed and I was sad but it made me even more grateful that I had the opportunity to record there.  Recording studios are a big part of my excitement about making music.  It’s a different experience from playing for an audience but there is definitely a “vibe” about any space and studios are usually filled with musical inspiration and cool people.

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

JH: – I’m encouraged by artists that are incorporating technology and influences from genres such as Hip-Hop.  My own use of synthesizers is in part an effort to expand the borders of jazz.  And it is interesting that many people who are not deep jazz fans often find the electronic sounds and instruments to be fascinating and help make the performance interesting.  One person recently quipped “all those wires really look awesome!”

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

JH: – I’ve mentioned this earlier but a spiritual path is important to me and it is about every aspect of my life, including music.  It embraces everyone, the musicians I perform and work with and the audience.  As anyone who performs will tell you, there is a magic that happens between the audience and performer and I see that as an expression of spiritual unity.

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

JH: – When I was young, I would have answered that it would be awesome to make it possible to record and distribute your music without spending thousands of dollars on a recording studio or having a contract with a record company.  Well, that has certainly come true!  Now, I would ask that

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

JH: – Matthew Schipp, Oneohtrix Point Never, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bela Bartok, Robert Glasper, Philip Glass.

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

JH: – My music is about freedom and equality.  That’s why I focus on collective improvisation almost exclusively now.  The members of my ensembles are creatively free and equal and this is expressed in the way the music is created and performed.  My music is also about beauty and a vision of something new or exciting.  I am striving to express in music a vision that I have of immense strength, vibrancy or color and light, and a sustained and intense musical line.

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

JH: – I am happy being in the now.  However, travel to new or important places is very inspiring to me.  Two places that have made an impact on my music are Tokyo and Mexico City.  I performed at a jazz festival in Romania in 2019 and being there has given me a little insight on the world of Eastern Europe.  New York before the pandemic always was inspirational.  New Orleans is a special place for music and I wish I could spend more time there.  With the pandemic it has been impossible to travel and I miss being able to broaden my field of vision by immersing myself in new places.

JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…

JH: – I’m looking forward to hearing your feedback on our new album.  As a composer it is always valuable to hear what others find in music because I can grow in my ability to listen critically myself.

JBN: – At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

JH: – These have been very thoughtful questions and I hope I have answered them with enough depth.  Thank you for interest in my music!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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