New York City
Interview by Josh Shapiro
May 29, 1998
Josh Shapiro: Just to fill the audience in, real quickly, and then to perhaps a few more questions, on what were just speaking about, and that is that we're very sad to announce the very tragic passing of Mr. Denis Charles who sadly passed away very early Thursday morning at the age of sixty four from what was thought to be some sort of heart failure and for all of you hearing this for the first time, I'm sorry to bring you the news but those of you who've loved Denis Charles both as a human being and for his music, and are interested in perhaps more of both of these things, here at the station we're doing our bit in dedicating the entirety of tomorrow's programming; beginning earlier, we'll have a memorial broadcast of Mr. Denis Charles, and it will begin this very evening tonight at midnight, it will go for 24 hours, so the entirety of tomorrow, Monday, we will dedicate all of our programming to Music of Denis Charles that will include of course spinning many records that he was on, some taped interviews that the late Mr. Charles gave here in our studios as well as some studio performances so, though lots more will be announced throughout the rest of this evening, so do stay tuned tomorrow for lots of music of the late great Denis Charlies.
And Dennis Warren, now, to return to one final followup question that dates back to before we turned to the music about 15 minutes ago and that is this : We were speaking about recording live material and going back and listening to it. I have a curious a question and I've asked a number of artists and certainly gotten some interesting answers. That is how, and certainly of course this question is open to Tor Snyder as well, here with us in the studio and that is how do you feel that the composition change and takes on a new life when you go back and listen to a recording; versus the actual performance of it. And is there a way to evaluate the music while you are playing it, versus going back and listening to it afterwards?
Dennis: Yeah, what has happened, and I only gained from the fact of having many years of playing. I could not do that in the first ten years of my playing. I didn't have the capability to hear the whole sound, at the same time that I was playing the sound. seeing the picture, and seeing where things were, enabled me to facilitate to make the connection so the music goes to this change and that change, you know when you have to change. I can feel how to make that change and see how it felt in the whole picture to have a performance or a theme or a song or anything that goes from A to Z. So that's the magic.. I can now hear the orchestration of things. Does that answer your question Josh?
Josh: Can you elaborate maybe a bit about, when you were speaking about hearing the orchestration of things.
Dennis: You can listen to a playback, and you can say yeah that's inspirational, that feels good that moves that really flows, and then you can hear things tumbling apart. Now those parts that were tumbling apart occurred to me at a longer period in performance fifteen, twenty years ago than it is for me now. So the parts that are vague in my performance, while I'm performing may only last for five seconds in a concert, because I can adjust to something else that makes it feel good, that makes a change in the music's flow. And when I listen to the playback of me doing that I can see that I have a way to facilitate that on the drums logically, any time I make a change like that, it makes sense when I hear myself in playback do that. That was always encouraging to me as I just got better and better. And anything that you do requires your craft and discipline, but once you've been seeking a certain kind of sound, everybody out there, in any endeavor, once the sound that you been seeking, in whatever endeavor that is, because you have been seeking it, you build up your own discipline in your particular craft, in your practice it's going to be so magical for you. Fifteen years into the endeavor, you're going to be able to do things that you couldn't even imagine. You will see how everything really is always connected like you thought in the beginning, but now you're able to do it, as quick as you can do in speaking the language.
Josh: So the listening back is really a learning process. Tor, here in the studio, furiously writing away, I'm curious what you might have to say.
Dennis: Yeah , I should let Tor do some talking, man, and I should bail out.
Tor: I wish I was there for the rehearsal, man. After listening to our music and being down here in the studio, I'm ready to play.
Dennis: Yeah, well if you had the Internet midi connection, man you could be jamming live with us. We could have gone that way too.
Tor: Yeah well that may happen soon. But, I'm definitely very very excited about Tuesday night. There's just going to be a tremendous amount of energy expended that evening... Raphe made an analogy to his compositions being like a baby, which is an appropriate analogy. As an aside, Dennis and his wife just had a baby boy, Miles, and this is Dennis' first as a parent of his new boy.
Dennis : Yeah, the baby's name is Miles Coltrane Warren. I call him "Little Train".
Dennis: Hey everybody come out to the Knitting Factory, man. We sold out last time, people couldn't get in. This time there's going to plenty of space. You know, its this March 31st, Tuesday at 10pm. Eight bucks so... and you'll be to see the next show too with Raphe's band, in connection to the late drummer Dennis Charles as well. So we want everybody to come out there.
Josh: Clearly lot's of excitement about this performance coming up. Umm, let's turn over maybe to Tor Snyder. A couple questions for you maybe before the top of the hour and then some music. And the question I had for you is unless you'd like to elaborate on your own experience in this as far as performance versus the kind of the playback experience of the music. But assuming not to move on, and you can answer both these questions if you'd like, I was curious more about your feelings toward your individual expressions, how that is complemented within the band and we touched on it before, but certainly you can expand on it, how that has changed now with the addition of a guitarist, you've d played with a few guitarists, in the past, but how that's kind of evolved, so your individual expression versus the group expression and how you fit into the whole mix, if you 'd like talk about that for a moment.
Tor: Sure Yeah I'm just grateful to be affiliated with Dennis Warren and to be working with him over these years and to be part of this band, the Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble. When I came up to Vermont to the Black Music Division of Bennington College. It was a real turning point for me at that point in my life. I was already obsessed with music. I had been listening to a lot of music, and Jimi Hendrix, some blues guitar playing, and I heard many different musicians, but what was going on there at that time was very special and unique. I think out of all the musicians I heard and seen perform on any instrument, hearing Dennis's professor Milford Graves perform at that College really had a profound influence on me, as far as possible and how to approach music, and what is music anyway? and you know my guitar playing has evolved in a kind of strange fashion and ....I really had a great opportunity to develop that in the context of the band. So often when I'm performing, I'm not really approaching the guitar in a conventional sense, I'm just trying to find different ways of approaching the instrument, finding different colors and different textures and different ways of interpreting energy in myself and the energy around me and through my instrument. It's great with Mike as a sort of foil, because you know any electric guitar player has a certain legacy of Jimi Hendrix and different music that's out there and sometimes we can really sort of excite each other and really lock in together and it's almost hard to tell the two guitars apart and sometimes in the context of this music which always has a life of it's own and really blossoms and each performance is really unique; we just have very different colors and very different textures that we are adding as electric guitar players. You know to the larger context of the music. (laughter) I don't know if that answered your question!
Josh: That's a pretty thorough answer. I thank you....Tor now we've been waiting a bit to talk about this but now it's probably appropriate to jump in and talk a bit about ....I guess is a two parted question that I have. And the first is if you wouldn't mind discussing a bit, your inspiration as a guitar player, individuals you felt, who have helped you develop your playing and how your playing has grown to fit into this ensemble and I guess the second part of the question which is open to both yourself and Mr. Warren who is probably still there in Boston on the the other side of the telephone is how this band the Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble fits into kind of the history of the improvisational music in the 20th century and jazz since perhaps the Sixties. Although you don't need to necessarily restrict it to that, so in any event, if you first maybe talk a bit about your background in improvisation and the people, figures who have been important in your development as a guitar player.
Tor: Well, as I mentioned I've been playing guitar for awhile, my mother plays guitar. In fact she put out a record back in 1965. I don't if it ever been played on WKCR or not (laughter) but it's a good record and I was struck by it from a young age. I had an experience that was very profound experience for me as a little kid: seeing this film about Jimi Hendrix.I was too young to see him live, but that really expanded my awareness and consciousness about the emotional and spiritual power and energy behind the music and just the electricity of spontaneity and music in the moment. My aspiration has always been as a guitar player to really communicate very deeply with myself and try to translate that and express that as energetically and positively as I can, as a guitar player, and its been a long process. It's been a long struggle, but I'm fortunate to be in this band and to be working with Dennis because it's such a wonderful context to really open myself up and just put out all the love and energy that I can musically...
I wounded up at the Black Music Division of Bennington College in the early Eighties and it really was kind of weird serendipity that got me there. Because I was not aware just how extraordinary the music department was there at that time. Of course that's were I met Dennis and stated to work with him. The faculty there was essentially Professor Milford Graves on drums; the great trumpeter Bill Dixon and another great trumpeter Arthur Brooks who I was my teacher in my first improvisation class. The only guitar player that they really spoke to me about as a sort of green student, was Sonny Sharrock. And that sort of marked my introduction to Sonny Sharrock and his music. And you know I didn't realize it at that time but Sonny Sharrock would become a great supporter of this band and you know we've had a really wonderful association with the late great Sonny Sharrock. And I have to say that beyond Jimi Hendrix, perhaps he's been the guitar player who I was most directly inspired me and showed me, open up my ears as to different things, different approaches to the guitar. and to music. And I know I'm just talking and talking, but on our first CD (Very Live, 1994)and our second CD (Watch Out!, 1996) we were very fortunate to have that quote from Sonny Sharrock which I think ties into your second question. "The movement we started so long ago is still alive in the Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble".
Josh: Maybe you could touch a bit about what exactly does that mean? "The movement we started so long ago..."Do you as a member of the band, feel affiliated with a certain movement. Maybe you could identify it and then elaborate on what that means as far as responsibility to the music, and as a far kind of ground zero, where you launch from which you launch as far as your music goes and if there are barriers you still need to break away, etc.
Tor: Let's see, well you know Dennis of course has a teacher -student relationship and a friendship relationship with Professor Milford Graves who is one of the innovators on the drums. And Raphe Malik has of course five CDs that he has performed with another great innovator the pianist Cecil Taylor. Through the Seventies Raphe and Cecil worked together with Jimmy Lyons in that line up of the Cecil Taylor Unit. So I think this band now is sort of at the. ..If I may so at the forefront of this tradition of new music that began or reached a certain stage in the Sixties. Spearheaded by the efforts of Bill Dixon, Milford Graves, Cecil Taylor, Sonny Sharrock and John Coltrane with all the excitement and innovation that was going on during the early Sixties. And though the Seventies with the electric/African American music of the Miles Davis ensembles. It was in the Seventies at Antioch College that Dennis and Raphe first crossed paths and Cecil Taylor was on the faculty of Antioch College at that time. Martin Gil the percussionist in the FMRJE was at Antioch at that time and so there's sort of different generations and different decades. And this is on going history; so you know Sonny Sharrock was still at the forefront of what was happening and Professor Graves is still at the forefront of what is happening. But we're band that even though we have a history and we've been around for awhile were kind of new to the scene. We are getting more recognition with the cd that we have out on Accurate records and we are trying to get a third cd out. But our music is very much tied into that history. but it's also very much a music of the moment, as Dennis was very eloquently describing. Raphe was also touching upon how his compositions elicit a certain feeling and atmosphere and a certain dynamic; they also allow for maximum room for creativity and individual expression and while even even in the context of one of Raphe's compositions we're all responding to one another and feeding off the tremendous energy that's going on stage at that time. And the music continues to go off in different directions and it is much as adventure for ourselves as it is for the audience. I know many people in the audience have used the word "memorizing" to try describe the experience of being at a Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble concert. Every performance is a unique event and the musicians offering their essence of their life at that moment in the context of the concert.
Josh: Tying yourself, perhaps to this tradition that you are alluding too do you feel that there's a certain responsibility of not necessarily performance value because I' m sure as any artist would tell you there is just a certain responsibility to one's self in expressing it and in creating the greatest possible music but, specifically to these artists, whom I guess you guys identify with. Is there a responsibility of a continuation of this music which, I mean as we all know certainly doesn't quite get the publicity - It's never quite been pop music. I was curious if you feel a tie - a responsibility to that lineage; in addition to the title you mentioned. Please feel free to say no, if I'm trying to put words into your mouth.
Tor: Well it's a wonderful lineage and there's some incredible music that's come out of that. So I think the responsibility is just to communicate with ourselves, to develop as musicians as much as we can and offer music that's from the heart and is pure and uncompromising in it's ideals. So I would say that that's the responsibility.
Josh: And certainly the insertion of revolutionary into the name...Either a lot or a little could be made of that. In what way is the ensemble still braking ground? And is there a goal? Is there a kind of a feeling that there is breaking ground or is it a different vision of simply playing music that you have to play because that's music of the moment and what it is is what it is. Is there a philosophy that fits into either one of those two camps? Or would you characterize it differently?
Tor: Well, I know we feel the music is revolutionary. There was a period when we were going by the name Full Metal Electric Jazz Ensemble and everybody said "Put the Revolutionary back in the name- It's so appropriate". So the "Revolutionary is definitely in the name! Dennis I know, could speak very well on this subject. Just the fact that it's music of the moment. It's music of the times. It's music without compromise. It's a synthesis of all of our personalities and the electricity and the electronics of the guitar and the history of the hand drums and and the conga drums and the rhythms that Dennis is playing on his drum set. It's everything. There's a certain universality in the music and there's just a tremendous force and energy .
Josh: Maybe, perhaps let's ask Dennis. Are you still there? Nope. Probably practicing with the band (laughter). So we'll continue on. We'll talk maybe a bit, about the make up of the band as far as personalities. Not necessarily the specific personalities of each member but I know Dennis Warren is listed even on the cd as the leader of the band. "Dennis Warren's Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble" and I'm curious how his leadership, plays into the decisions the band makes musically and otherwise as well as leadership on any kind of improvisational exposition. If their are individual leaders. If you can maybe touch on that, just for a moment.
Tor: Dennis's drumming, his sound on the drums is definitely the backbone of the group. The foundation of the group sound. At the same time Dennis has been essentially the producer of the various Full Metal projects over the years. And I've been fortunate enough to have been there with him from the beginning to coproduce and assist him with some of the projects that we have done. We have always been producing ourselves and we've put out a series of cassettes that were available through an organization in New York City called Stork Music that was founded by the great local drummer Jackson Krall and the pianist Mark Hennen. So we did a series of recordings with different musicians, people like Glenn Spearman who has also worked with Raphe Malik in the Cecil Taylor Unit, and now we have these two cds out and an affiliation with Accurate Records. We are trying to get our third cd out. So Dennis been the spark and the driving force behind the production of the band. All the music we do and certainly the compositions are Raphe are predicated upon the personality and the energy and the mastery of Dennis's drum playing.
Josh: You mentioned in the break and certainly this might be interesting for some of our listeners, about your relationship as a band with some other bands both kind of in the avant garde jazz scene and in other scenes. And I was curious maybe if you would touch a bit- I know you performed a bit with Jon Fishman of the popular group Phish. And I was a curious about what kind of relationship you also have maybe with what's often termed the downtown scene here in New York City. If there are groups that you worked with when you do come down to the city, and if there are groups that you worked with in the Boston area?
Tor: Well we did one show up in Burlington, Vermont where we had the opportunity to open the show for Jon Fishman and I had met him before. That was the first time that he had seen us play and I know he is a big fan of ours. He really dug what we were doing. I do have to give thanks to Page McConnell whose the pianist in the band Phish. He's been a big supporter of ours too. In the Knitting Factory booklet in fact it is his quote describing the band. He said "The Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble provides ethereal spaciousness, challenging rhythms, and wailing guitar lines, fluidly improvised in a free jazz environment. Don't miss them in concert!"
I want to say going back to Sonny Sharrock that beyond offering us that wonderful quotation, he was one individual who really went out of his way to make himself available and to offer encouragement to the various things that we were doing. Last year in Boston, we did a tribute concert to Sonny Sharrock. It was at a club called Johnny D's Music Club which is where I first met Sonny Sharrock when he came through town with his band. We were fortunate enough to have his daughter Jasmine who is a student in Boston come to the show. In fact when we played at the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival '96 where we dedicated that performance to the memory and the musical legacy of Sonny Sharrock. So he's been another individual who has really been a big standup for us. There is a gentleman named Sabir Mateen who plays in the Raphe Malik Quartet; Dennis is also a regular member of the Quartet. I've been fortunate to work with Sabir here in New York in different bands, so he is another individual who is a tremendous musician. And if you come down Tuesday night to see the show; you'll have the opportunity of hearing Raphe's own outstanding Quartet which has it's own personality and features Raphe's compositions in a different context and also features the musicianship of Sabir on clarinet, flute and saxophone.
Josh: Mentioning now a couple of names in the jazz world that you feel somewhat affiliated with, or have helped you out along the way. I'm curious what type of influences are evident in the band, outside of what is considered maybe the traditional jazz setting or maybe the traditional jazz avant garde setting of which we've been talking about a lot. Especially, I mean the group the Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble I mean there's an electric bass, there are two electric guitars, clearly the electric element is very prominent in your music and I was curious what are the influences that are outside of the scope of the jazz world that are part of the band.
Tor: Everything is part of of the band. It's our entire life that we are representing up on stage. We all listen to different music. We have all had our own experience outside the band and within the band. Earl is a really outstanding flautist, he plays piccolo as well. He has a very strong background, educationally and professionally as a classical musician. He's a classically trained flute player, and at the same time he has years of experience doing a whole range of jazz: jazz standards to free jazz, to the music of the Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble. So he brings a lot of different colors, and a lot of different techniques to the band. Raphe has a certain attack and a certain style in this band, but he also has many different elements and dimensions to his music. He grew up listening, not exclusively to avant garde, but the whole spectrum of black music, and jazz music. Mike and I we listen to so many guitar players. We try to listen to all the guitar players and we both interpret that as musicians in very different ways so there's a lot of ground that we cover in the music we listen to.
Josh: Thanks for coming down and we are going close the show out now with one final take from the concert in Burlington, Vermont "Live at Club Toast" on January 19, 1998. And the Ensemble for the final time here, the FMRJE with Raphe Malik on trumpet, Earl Grant Lawrence on the flutes, Tor Yochai Snyder on guitars, we've been so happy to have with us this afternoon, Mike Sealy on guitar, Albey Balgochian on the bass, Martin Gil on congas and percussion and the leader Dennis Warren on drums and timbales. So we're going to close with the tune "MLK Freedom Fighter" Your tuned into our tail end of our Jazz Profiles. I thank you for tuning in this afternoon. My name is Josh Shapiro. It's been my pleasure to bring you this wonderful music all afternoon and you're tuned in of course to radio station 89.9 and WKCR fm.
FMRJE at Toronto Jazz Festival
Interview by Ben Portis
June 22, 1996
Ben Portis: I would like to start by asking about the mission of the group, or how this differs from other configurations that you and your colleagues perform in. One of the expectations that many would have hearing the name Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble is an onslaught of free jazz sound -- an assault. Its not like that. Its a warm, communal sound. Its a band that is listening closely to one another. Could you talk more about that?
Dennis Warren: Yes, definitely. I think that the orchestral dynamic is primarily due to the composition, or compositional expertise of Raphe Malik, the trumpet player and the primary composer. The concept of Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble is almost what the name implies -- a total commitment to the maximum possibility of sound. You could see that, if you listened to groups playing the norm, they might have a crescendo lasting 15 or 20 seconds. That last little bit of music, I always hear that that is where the music really begins. If it stayed at that level and developed out of that, that is what is really behind Full Metal. There is always the possibility to expand at any given point, always to the maximum possibility of that sound potential. So as I think about it, that is the fundamental essence of the idea of Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble.
Also, the name is break off of the movie Full Metal Jacket. It's not the movie but the concept of what "full metal jacket" really is in military terms: the casing that enwraps a bullet, a total metal casing bullet that is wrapped in a metal jacket. I was looking at the idea that the Full Metal Revolutionary jazz Ensemble being a vehicle for my drumming style, to be in continuous flow, because that is the way I really would love to play. Before Raphe joined the group, we were doing total improvisation, letting where the sounds would take us and having dynamics that would come about from the playing. When Raphe joined the group in 1989, we used his compositions, which further extended that musicality for the group. That's really how the the musical situation is set up. The idea of "Full Metal" is really to take it to the max. Its always at the maximum capability. If people say "What kind of music are you playing?", well I ain't playing jazz, I ain't playing avant-garde jazz, I ain't playing "this-kind-of " jazz, I say I'm creating my own jazz, I'm playing Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz music. It comes from putting those words together and creating our own idiom.
You saw in the late 70s and early 80s, the real phase of acid jazz, pioneered by groups like Last Exit, the 1975 Miles Davis band, with two guitars and two electric basses, or even Miles Davis in 1970, when they did "Live at the Fillmore East" and had that electronic sound. Its really coming from that. That is the real basis of acid jazz. It has nothing to do with hip-hop and samples. Acid jazz was instrumental playing, coming off what happened with "Return To Forever" and that ilk. We want to make that acid jazz jazz statement of where it really comes from.
Ben Portis: The acid jazz/free jazz lineage is venerable at this point. Both you, Dennis, and Raphe are associated with mentors whom we think of as real pioneers and senior musicians, Milford Graves in your case and Raphe with Cecil Taylor's Units. Although there are many associations with strong figures, Jimmy Lyons as another example, or Archie Shepp, when I listened to your performance I thought of some of the early groups that are often overlooked, like Marzette Watts' or Frank Wright's, in the warmth of the sound. And in a strange way there is some association with Charles Mingus' works. There is this intense narrative quality about the compositions. Nowadays, so much jazz is self-referential in terms of style of the tradition. This music is unmistakably about something else. Its about life.
Dennis Warren: Yes, I think you've just hit the crux right there. If the idea of art is coming from a representational and referential point of understanding, so it comes down to a deep base where you are trying to be appreciated. How can you immediately be appreciated? You do something that is completely understood right off the bat. That's just a natural reaction, to always communicate, always be successful, always get what you want, always be able turn it on or to turn it off. But the revolutionary concept of the band, my outlook on that, is that that doesn't matter. The ultimate expression is to try to get to that innate self and be there with that, because that is fundamentally your life.
While you're here on this planet, what can you say? Can you say that you did one thing all the way, all the way the way you wanted it? Can you say that once? To have the one thing like that in your life, you can be very, very happy. The post-industrial things, to stay alive, to have a car, to have a house, a family, good food, etceteras, etceteras, being healthy and all that, after that what have you got? If you can say there was this one thing you did all the way, maxed out, you can be blessed!
Raphe Malik: May I add something about composition, as the guy that wrote the music. On the bandstand, you have your life to relate in an improvisational setting. This is different from other functions of music where you are just an interpreter. Playing so-called Western forms of music, you are offering your experience as an interpreter. The composer is the genius and you are the executor of his compositions. In the jazz sense, one thing always amazed me about Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. The genius of their music could always be understood by the average person on the street, even if they weren't familiar with the form. They had such human quality. They meant what they played so strongly, that you could hear a narrative quality, story-line. That's what you picked up on.
One of the things that is very important to me as a composer is to set up an area to reach deep down inside of themselves and pull out statements that relate intrinsically to everyone's experience, right then and there. That's why I enjoy playing with Dennis Warren. Dennis is one of the only drummers I have played with who has the spontaneous ability to be there.
The revolutionary concept in our methodology is that we are more loosely constructed than groups that play conventional music or groups that play "jazz" or groups that play avant-garde without compositions. Where you say it becomes becomes self-referential, other people would not be so kind and say it becomes self-indulgent. When you have a composition, the beauty comes with musicians mature enough to take that material and spontaneously make it there own, by repeating and changing the form. That's what is free about it. We are very involved with the audience and the perception of what we do on an intrinsic level. All performance is like this. But the rules of our game are designed by the leader of the group, the group thrust, the composer, the key feelings or, if there are none, the architectural dimensions of the pieces, so that there are story lines or threads.
Listening to the other musicians last night, I felt that we reached a point where I heard clear references and influences of musicians in a non-detrimental way. My big beef with a lot of prevalent jazz is that some of the players are so derivative they're actually playing the same notes. You have trumpet players that sound so much like Miles in a certain period that when the record is played or you hear it live you wonder where is the personality who is playing the music. Last night in the soloing, I heard the tenor player (Raqib Hassan) make some some really beautiful statements that involved Coltrane, that involved Archie Shepp, but were not derivative in an uncomplimentary way. I often had that experience being on the bandstand with Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons for a period of fifteen years. I heard Jimmy and his sound reminded me of Bird, but he wasn't playing the same notes. The sonority that he had on the alto had the same evocative nature. he wasn't really copying Bird on a level that would make it a pain in the neck to listen to.
I would say that our observations about the story line nature of what we do are due to the fact that as musicians we're mature enough not to get in each other's way. We're lucky with the soloist. We have the group thing where we have the total improvisation, but we also have the sense that when it breaks down that people know to go with the flow. The flute player, Earl Grant Lawrence, is a twentieth century cat. The way he plays, a very interesting thing happens with the bass and drums and percussion when he solos. If we played the same way with the flute, with or without the microphone he'd get covered up.
Ben Portis: I would go so far as to say that the solos have a very marked quality of not displaying personality as such. There was a musical language but they were purposeful solos in that ultimately they did not run out of steam -- they brought everyone back into the dynamic, the destination.
Raphe Malik: Well, basically when the soloists play, what happens is their statements are related to how much ability they have to call spiritual presence into their statements. When you have players such as Larry Roland on the bass, what he can offer is not only the backdrop for the horn players to play, but also the personal history he has as a musician -- its a deep wellspring. Basically, when people are expressing their musical values on stage, one of the things that happens is that the relationship between music and life becomes really apparent. You can't fool anyone when your performing this music. If you go up there and you're unprepared, either you haven't practiced or you don't know enough music. That's the first thing everyone is going to be able say. When you make the observation that people did not seem like they were taking too long in their solos because they had continuity and they could hold your attention, the reason is because they had that much to say. They had that much to offer. That kind of offering and the nature of what we're doing is selflessness. Its not about personality. The star system is for people of another ilk.
Basically, what we're doing is we're cleansing ourselves and cleansing the listener in a communal experience that relates to what people call religion. You don't have to call it religion. To me, listening to good music is the one thing that clears my head, so that I can feel myself in the space where I don't feel threatened by some of the negativity that abounds in life in general. The music is the solace of the world on that level. You can be in an environment that's very negative. I think that black music particularly has this quality for the entire world. Everyone on the planet understands what jazz is about intrinsically, because it represents the freedom to express yourself despite the facts that things may or may not be fortunate for you in terms of the negativity on the planet. In that sense we are the great griots or oral historians of the cultural legacy and that's a heavy responsibility. You really really have to do your homework. Fortunately, everyone in the group has this kind of a background that they understand this cultural legacy. It includes everyone. It's not separatist. It's not exclusive. What it is is a human quality. Basically you have to pay obeisance to the spiritual nature of someone like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. You cannot be messing around because those cats were very, very wonderful and they changed the nature of our entire civilization with the kind of cultural information that they disseminated by playing music.
Ben Portis: Perhaps you might speak about some of the musicians and inspirations that have been closer to your own experiences They don't seem to emerge overtly. How did your experiences with Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons lay the groundwork for what you are doing in Boston? There are a lot of New England connections. Cecil Taylor started at the New England Conservatory. Bill Dixon has been up at Bennington College.
Dennis Warren: Bill Dixon was born on Nantucket Island, so he goes way back.
Raphe Malik: We are all in the same area here. One of the most reinforcing things for me meeting Jimmy Lyons and Cecil Taylor was to find out that they came from striving families, where things academics and things of that nature were stressed. The myth and the stereotype about musicians being inarticulate, folkloric heroes is reversed when you meet people like Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor because they are very erudite. The other thing is they dug people like Bird and even popular rhythm and blues artists. Then you begin to feel that its okay.
I grew up playing bebop. The only reason people identify me as being avant garde is because I haven't made all the recordings that I'm capable of making, music of different natures. But when I was playing that music in the 60s as a teenager, my approach was not considered cool by the wardens of the museum-quality atmosphere that people reduce the forms of music to be being parochial -- "Oh no, you can't play that. That's not a dominant seventh chord." Basically if you started screaming on a horn at that time Trane was alive, which I felt like doing, you get misidentified as someone who doesn't appreciate Bird or Miles in the 50s and 60s. Its a very interesting problem. For me, well Bird was my hero, ever since I was ten years old Bird was god, on a certain level, because he extended that vocabulary of jazz in a direction of being a virtuoso. His vocabulary! People still have not come to grips with that. The same thing is true for Lester Young, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, the list is endless-- what I'm saying is the personal striving nature of these cats to expand their vocabulary. That's who I identify with, even though people may not identify that in my playing. I dug Fats Navarro. After I heard first Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, then Miles Davis, when I started to hear hear Fats Navarro and other players of that time period that had a language and an ability to be so casual. Clifford Brown is a total genius. This cat could play. There isn't anyone who could not understand the beauty of this cat's music when he played. That's a genius. That's a real genius.
I think we are trying to get that casual that we can just drop bombs like that on the bandstand. That's our aim in our own humble way. In my own humble way that is what I'm trying to do, to be proficient on my instrument through hours and hours and hours of practice, that I can literally say whatever I want and make those be understood.
Ben Portis: Raphe, you are the composer but this identified as Dennis Warren's group. What is the leadership role with the Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble?
Dennis Warren: Perseverance! Basically, I just organize the gigs, putting the group together to have concert dates, putting the music into a package so that it can disseminate and continue, something that started in 1987-88 just out of the urge to be able to keep playing. I had another band with Tor Snyder, the guitar player for this, and my brother Davis -- Marty Gil was in the band as well -- in Boston called the Underground Voice Band. That went on for a couple of years. I graduated from Bennington College in 1984. I went back to my hometown, started this group, we did music for a couple of years, did recordings, produced cassettes. Then I felt I wasn't going any further musically with my brother and I wanted to expand. I was looking for other players to create a sound and I put some people together. I decided to call this Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble. A couple of years went by I hooked up with Larry Roland. Larry played with the Raphe Malik group. Raphe played with us, brought Marty back in, Earl later on in the the early 90s, Tony Owens a couple of years back. The group has developed that way. Its coming from the idea that I want to play, but I want to play with a certain force. If you can find people that you can play with you have potential of creating a sound. Its really about the association or the unit that you bring together. That is the number one plot going down next to imagination. Imagination enables bringing people together, to organizing something. That's a real powerful thing. That's where my leadership comes into play. I'm able to persevere to make sure something keeps happening.
You may be doing four concerts a year, but I want to make sure that the sound just doesn't go into the air and that's it. There's always a recording, a project that comes out of this every year, something to build on. Since 1989, every year I've always had a recording project until the last couple of years where we've had CD's. We've come up with the latest CDWatch Out! through Accurate Records, which has worldwide distribution through Rounder Records. All that organization since 1988 is culminating in our playing the Toronto Jazz Festival. I sent cassette albums worldwide in the early 90s up to the present out to radio stations and to other people who were interested. Ron Cole of CIUT-fm was playing Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz tapes back in the early 90s. Two years ago he heard of the Next Wave series and put together a demo tape for the artistic directors, Ron Gaskin and Jim Galloway. Then the festival people called me up and said they'd love you in Toronto, they've been playing your music up here for the last five years. Here we are today. That's my leadership role. That's how I making sure that things continue to happen.
Ben Portis: Artistically, I'd say you are ever-present. You are an extraordinarily active drummer. There's always a lot going on and its very intentional. There are not a just alot of fills or rolls. Is the drum the bedrock of this group in some sense?
Dennis Warren: Yes. I'll tell you something. A lot of people don't talk about drums and a lot of people don't talk about drummers, but I always say that it's really the drummers, the American trap set, the new acoustic instrument, which helped create this jazz music the way its played. That's because the way the trap set player can play, he's taking the role of three percussionists from a historical drum concept. To produce that orchestral sound of percussion, you have to have four or five players. the modern trap set gives you the capability to play the clave' of rudimentary percussion, the cymbal representing cow bells, the mid-toms represents the middle drum of the "conga" family, the lower drum represents the tuba drum or the bass drum of the "conga" family, the snare represents the quinto, the high voice in the "conga" family.
When all those possibilities come together, that's when I look at the idea of that rhythm in drum sound, when I strip it off, when I strip all the cultural, functional influences of it, strip all that away, what you come up with -- the sound is on and the sound is off. Look at that as a binary concept, one and a zero, it's on and it's off. All the permutations of off, off, on, on, off, off, on, off, off, on, on, on, on, on, off, on, on, off, off, that's all it really comes down to. I layer that with the idea of chaos theory, the sounds that randomly occur in the universe, atoms moving, collisions of electrons. Dealing with accidentals, when you incorporate that with playing on a drum set that has all this timbre to it, all these instruments -- when you mix in that chaos to the moving over the drum set you get an attack of percussion, the way I attacked it last night, the way I've been dedicated to playing over the past twenty years. I believe in that relentless pursuit, in the training and the discipline. You tap in to the ancient forces of the hypothalamus. I'm trying to tap into that primordial human force, with chaos theory, and binary mathematics, that's what I'm trying to condense my drumming into, to ride that force and turn it into conversation. I don't have to think about the mechanics of the language.
Brian Portis: There is a second drummer in the group, Marty Gil, who plays the congas and various other percussion, and the other members of the Ensemble also pick up percussive apparatus in the course of the performance. How do you, Marty, augment the incredible dynamics of Dennis Warren?
Martin Gil: Simply by being myself, by being present with my viewpoint and experience. I respond to the performance while participating in it.
Dennis Warren: Marty Gil and I go way back to 1971. We played a lot of hand drums, a lot of congas. The thing about it, which I think Raphe was talking about, a lot of people will say "You are not playing this way, you are playing wrong, therefore you are not playing music, therefore you do not exist. Stop!" I know that when we were playing way back in 1971, I'd think, well I'm hearing the sound, I record it then listen back -- "Shit, that sounds like Burundi drumming" or something. That all came about naturally and I knew, maybe its not this style or that style, but it has existed somewhere in the world. Marty was somebody I could play with who wouldn't worry about being wrong or right. We just played the sound to see where it takes us. Playing for three, four hours takes you closer to the ancient spirit of drumming, playing the sound. Perpetuation of sound is the perpetuation of life. When the sound is alive, we're alive; when the sound is gone, we're gone.
Martin Gil: It's unconditional really, just being there, not having a subjectivity, being open, hearing, being present. At a performance, I try to be a sponge, then I try to wring that sponge out and give people a drink: "Here it is. Here's the essence." Except that I don't do that as an I, Martin Gil. I see myself as a relayer of information, pushing toward the future.
Brian Portis: I would like to direct a question to Larry Roland, the bassist. There was a lot of interplay evident in the solos last night. You have a very striking approach to the bass, very reductive and deliberate, yet some of your most profound shaping of the music brought another dimension to a featured moment of one your fellow artists, I found this especially so during the guitar solos of Tor Snyder, where you participated very quietly with a strong sense of you listening to his playing. Could you talk about your involvement with the ensemble?
Larry Roland: Well, bass to me represents deep emotion, like a river, a foundation, emotion which goes beyond the exterior of one's self and looks at this deep unknown, where we find what we're made up of. That to me represents bass, the sound and the whole emotional mood that it brings out in support of the melody. It harmonizes everything, with Dennis's playing, with the percussion. The bass helps propel those drum sounds. I look for openings and play off, while I am trying to support the soloists or making my own statement. I always hear the rhythm. The bass enhances that rhythm and lends color and mood to the melodic structure, even the direction of the tune.
I listen carefully to Tor Snyder. Tor reminds me of Jimi Hendrix and Jimi runs deep in me. I listen to a wide range of music. I was fortunate to grow up in a household where we had Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, Brahma' Third Symphony, Charlie Parker blowing "How High the Moon", and Sarah Vaughn -- you know, the whole array of music -- Frank Sinatra, everything. As a result, it has left an indelible impression on myself where at a very young age I started buying the Temptations, Jimmy Smith or Jimmy McGriff as far as organ trios, Jimmy Hendrix and things of that nature. I also got into world music. You know, I was interested in sound, I was interested in ways that people expressed themselves through sound. Up on the bandstand, when Tor is soloing (or Raphe or Earl or Dennis or Marty or Tony or Raqib, when they're soloing) I try to bring all of that towards trying to enhance, provide a springboard or a partnership in a particular direction through the unknown. Being influenced by the soloists brings out certain things in me. It helps me to develop my identity on the instrument, my approach. Bass is a very challenging instrument, especially played in a situation as Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble. Its really helping me to live a fuller life, in terms of looking at things closely. I look at the bass as the current of cause and effect,that unseen force. I feel as an agent to represent that through sound. I become a vessel. After a while I'm gone. Its a spiritual activity for me. In particular Tor and I have played together for three years and I haven't really developed an approach. I listen to Tor very closely, and and its just recently that I come to a point where I say "Hmm, I hear Jimi, I hear Howling Wolf, I hear bits and pieces. What can I do behind this to take it somewhere else?" That's what you heard last night.
Ben Portis: Last night's performances and your new record, Watch Out!, were particularly dedicated to the memory of Sonny Sharrock, another extraordinary electric guitarist, who is more of your generation and has been a comrade. What was his contribution to your development?
Dennis Warren: Sonny wrote this quote for us in 1992. He recorded with Milford Graves, my mentor. They did an album called Black Woman in 1971. Sonny was always opened to our kind of sound. He's the guitar player with Miles Davis on Jack Johnson. We saw him in Boston with Last Exit . We have been sending him cassettes all a along and he came over with a quote written out: "The movement we started so long ago is still alive in the Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble." That was really special to us. He showed his recognition for what we had been doing. He's a legend and he went out of his way to do this for us. That showed his humility and caringness.That's what I like to carry on. For people of other generations you show that concern and warmth. That's a real positive tradition.