Photo from dennisrea.com
Metamorphic RockDennis Rea is an award-winning Seattle-based guitar player who has a long-standing history playing creative and experimental music as well as progressive rock. In the following interview, which took place in late November 2011, Rea talks about his formative years learning the guitar, his passion for playing music free improvised music (including the band Stackpole) as well as highly-composed and structured music (including work with his band Moraine), and his experiences studying and performing music in East Asia.
Interview By Jack Gold-Molina
Perfect Sound Forever: Can you talk about some of your musical roots, early on?
Dennis Rea: My earliest musical roots were largely the same as most of my peers. I was growing up in the sixties. I remember "milestones" in my young musical life, seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. It's sort of embarrassing, but my inspiration for taking up the guitar was Mike Nesmith of The Monkees. I started playing in the fourth grade and I was not even aware at the time that those guys were not even playing their own instruments on the recordings. It was studio musicians called The Sundowners. In fact, it turned out Nesmith was a pretty good guitar player; he just wasn't featured on the early recordings.
From there, I embraced hard rock when it first arrived. I was into The Who, Zeppelin, Hendrix, The Allman Brothers Band. When I first was exposed to progressive rock, that really turned my head. Something in me felt constrained by the musical format of blues-based rock and I was wanting to explore something more imaginative, so when I heard early recordings of King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Gentle Giant, groups like that, it had a huge impact on my budding musicianhood.
Around the same time, my older brother started indoctrinating me in jazz from a lot of different periods. I remember him sending me home one day with Bitches Brew under my arm, and that pretty much changed everything too. I also recall him laying a record on me that was an Impulse sampler that had a track apiece by the likes of Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and Eric Dolphy. That was pretty strong medicine for a high school mind.
All of those things came together to help form my musical personality, so I have always had a foot in jazz and a foot in rock. That's the way I like it. I don't disavow my background and my enthusiasm for rock music, providing that it is intelligent rock music. I don't normally cast myself as a jazz player with a capital "J," but the music is part of me and I am involved in a number of things that qualify as jazz.
Through the agency of King Crimson, who were augmenting their lineup with some of the foundational free improvising musicians in Britain, that led me to discover free improvisation at a pretty early time in its development. I remember coming across a copy of The Music Improvisation Company, which was one of the earliest ECM releases with Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, so I was touched by that music too at an early age. I would also consider modern classical composers like Gyorgy Ligeti to be primary influences on me. I encountered that music mostly from the soundtracks to films.
PSF: Yeah, the art of being a musician. Would you say that your influences today are similar to what your original influences were?
DR: I go through waves of enthusiasms. I may throw myself into a particular period of modern jazz for six months at a time and then ricochet around and find myself unraveling the roots of some old progressive rock bands. I do tend to sort of have serial episodes, serial fascinations, but from what I was just telling you about my musical roots, I am still enthusiastic about all of those things. I am certainly a lot less enthusiastic about mainstream rock.
I see that many people I know -- listeners and musicians, but certainly listeners -- seem to fasten on a particular period in their musical past that they view as a sort of golden age and remain there. I think it is dangerous not to keep an ear to the ground of today's developments. But that said, and I do strive to do that, I find myself returning to the music from the period that I roughly demarcate as about 1966 to about 1974 or '75. I think that was a magic time in music and in many other things, and not just in rock music. In pretty much any type of music you would care to name, there was revolutionary activity. You had the psychedelic age that really opened up and broadened the frontiers of what was possible in rock music, but at the same time, you had the free jazz revolution that continued on into that period.
You had the birth of intelligent fusion music certainly. The jazz-rock fusion of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and all of their peers arose during that period. The progressive rock bands arose during that period, intelligent global-fusion like Oregon and that sort of thing. But over in the world of classical music, you had revolutionary activity too. The figures in Cage's school were kind of in the ascendancy at that point. Music like Ligeti's was finding its way into the popular lexicon through exposure in film soundtracks. There was just a lot going on all over the world.
Lately, there have been these artifacts unearthed from places like Ethiopia and Cambodia, Turkey, that are these really fascinating documents of the same sort of impulse. The same thing was happening in all of those countries as well. It was just this explosion of imaginative music.
PSF: By artifacts, what do you mean?
DR: Old recordings that are finally seeing reissue. There is that "Ethiopiques" series, and some of the stuff is back from '67, '68. It is kind of crazy, psychedelic music and it was almost like a contagion on the planet. I do think that was an uncommonly imaginative and influential period in music. I ask myself, is that because that was my period, my heyday, the music of my formative period, or is there really anything to that? But I continue to encounter people in conversation and in writings who seem to share my opinion that something really special was going on in music at that time, and that somehow what followed is frequently disappointing.
I think that may be in large part due to the music industry model that settled into place after that time. I sometimes think that The Beatles were unwittingly responsible because the business suits had never really witnessed musical economic success on that scale before. It was like it gave them ideas of possibilities of how to harness that and everything became geared toward mass production and trying to reproduce the success of The Beatles.
PSF: How would you say that your approach to playing versus your approach to composition has been affected over the years by those changes?
DR: That's interesting. I definitely have a dual personality – the improviser and the composer. The player that performs composed music I put on the composer's side, but I do compose a lot of music painstakingly. In my primary band, Moraine, I am writing multi-part pieces for all of the musicians. I write their parts for them.
On the other hand, I am frequently involved in improvised music activity that is the antithesis of that very approach. I have reconciled the two approaches. I don't necessarily blend them, but I am reconciled to the two and I don't see one as having greater value than the other. I struggled with that for a time. There was a period when I was very deeply involved in free improvisation and it was probably my primary focus at that time. I was involved in organizing the annual Seattle Improvised Music Festival. But even during the peak of my passion for improvised music, I still always kept a hand in composed music. I was always involved in a group or two that was working on a repertoire.
One of the things that eventually kind of turned me off to the free improvising community at large was that I would sometimes feel a sense of a kind of unspoken approbation for the fact that I was still involved in playing rock music or conventional melody and harmony, as though it was an all or nothing proposition. I recognize that many people who are active in free improvisation don't have a problem with other types of music, but I was encountering it. I was coming up against an attitude where it was that ‘all or nothing' thing, and I think I took a step back from that whole community because I wasn't interested in denying a part of my musical makeup that was natural and inborn. I don't personally see any contradiction in playing some hairy free improv one day and turning right around and playing very screwed down progressive rock the next.
PSF: I can certainly relate to that. You have had some different projects over the years. Stackpole is how I first came into your music. We just talked about your taking a step back from the free improvisation, which actually describes Stackpole I think in a lot of ways. Would you say that your approach to music has changed from those days of playing free improvised music and what you are doing now with Moraine?
DR: Yeah, I would say so, and I think that proportionally I am playing more composed music, but I still have a healthy dose of improvised music activity happening continually. The approach to my instrument that I bring to those two situations is necessarily quite different. In the improvised situations I am much more apt to play with abandon because I am not thinking about the next modulation that is coming. Basically, when I am playing improvised music, I try not to over think. It is like turning on a water faucet or something. That doesn't mean that there isn't an editorial mind at work, but a certain sense of abandon. I just try not to think and to try to hear the overall shape of the music and where it wants to go, and that's a collective thing.
As far as how my playing has changed, I am very pleased that evidently, I continue to make progress as a guitarist. I am playing better at age 54 than I ever did at any time in the past. It is gratifying to know that one can continue to break new ground physically on your instrument. I feel a lot more comfortable with my instrument than I did even 10 years ago when I was doing the Stackpole stuff. I like the Stackpole stuff, don't get me wrong.
One thing that happened with me in the past year, it was a realization that came to me that was tremendously liberating, and it was that after playing the guitar for forty-some years, I just realized one day that I wasn't looking anymore, for the most part. I had finally gotten beyond that needing to make visual contact with my fretboard to have the confidence that I knew where I was and where to go, and I realized that was just over with.
It was tremendously liberating. I realized that I could let go. It was like letting go of a cane, and I realized that everything including my posture changed as a result because instead of being hunched over and paying close attention to what my fingers were doing, I was finally able to just stand upright and take stock of my surroundings. I think that improved the flow of communication between the audience and myself, and I think that it opened up the pathways of energy because it kind of unlocked my body more.
So, if you asked me what has changed about my playing over the past 10 years or so, I would have say that is probably the big "aha" moment for me. It was nothing I was actually ever consciously striving for, it was just one day it was there, and I just think it opened up the music so much more.
PSF: How did Moraine, your current band, come together?
DR: Moraine is almost unrecognizable now from its origins as an improvising duo between myself and cellist Ruth Davidson. We weren't looking to start a band. We had gotten to know each other and got together informally to play a couple of times, first both on guitars and then she mentioned that she was also a cellist of some distinction as it turned out. That sounded like an interesting combination to explore, so we got together a few times just improvising.
Since we seemed to want to continue to do it on a semi-regular basis, I inevitably started foisting some of my compositions on Ruth and she did the same in return. We started working out a little repertoire. I have some fairly involved pieces, but there was a limit to how much we could flesh them out because we were a duo, and so we started entertaining the idea of involving other musicians in it.
Because we were both string players, my first inclination was to form a string chamber group and exploit the tonalities of the strings, so the next person that was recruited was violinist Alicia Allen, who I had played with in singer/songwriter Eric Apoe's group. I knew she would blend in very well with what Ruth and I were doing, so we brought her onboard.
Next, we decided to start getting serious about it and we brought on a drummer, Jay Jaskot originally. Then we brought on a bass player, and went through three bass players before we arrived at our current bass player, Kevin Millard, who is the right man for the job. By this time, we were a quintet working on a mostly composed set of music, although there are always sections that we leave open for soloists and interpretation.
Then we suffered a setback when both Ruth and Jay moved back east, for different purposes, and it was possible that the band might have dissolved right at that point. Instead, those of us who remained wanted it to continue. We recruited our present drummer, Stephen Cavit, who I had worked with here and there in various situations since the ‘90's. Stephen is also an award-winning film soundtrack composer. That is his main line of work, and he is a choir director at a cathedral. In place of the cello, we brought on Alicia's partner, Jim DeJoie, on a variety of woodwinds. He mostly plays baritone sax in Moraine.
So, that is the story of how we went from being an improvising duo of guitar and cello to a five piece electric progressive rock band. It's interesting that we never termed ourselves ‘progressive rock,' and of the five current members of the band, I am the only one that has really any roots in that genre or deep familiarity with it.
We have the good fortune to be signed to the MoonJune Records label, which has a reputation for releasing recordings of quality progressive rock, both archival stuff from the past like Soft Machine, and a really interesting variety of international groups. We got signed to MoonJune and it was kind of a life-changer for us, but it also had the effect of branding us as a progressive rock band. On the one hand, we found ourselves pretty widely embraced by the progressive rock community, and that has certainly been great for us. It resulted in us getting the plumb gig at NEARfest, for example, which was a dream gig in pretty much every respect.
On the other hand, it has had possibly a sort of limiting effect in that if we get lumped together with the prog rock groups, it isn't really an accurate reflection of what we are. A lot of what we do you could term ‘progressive rock.' You could just as easily call it ‘art rock' or ‘avant rock.' I call it ‘wide-ranging electric instrumental music' myself. But Moraine is more than that, and you will definitely hear the jazz element in much of what we do, and we have a unique specialty of creating adaptations of traditional Chinese and East Asian music.
Moraine, photo from billsprogblog.blogspot.com
PSF: I was actually going to ask you about that. You have traveled to Asia, and I have noticed from listening to the music that you have done with Moraine and an album that came out last year called Views From Chicheng Precipice, that there is a musical influence from the traditions of China.
DR: It is primarily China, but my musical interest extends to other East Asian countries, and Southeastern Asian countries too. My wife, who was then my girlfriend, was offered a job at a university in the city of Chengdu in Szechuan Province in China. During the year that she went over there to teach, she wrote and asked if I might be interested in also teaching at that university.
That was in 1989, and frankly up until that moment, I had never entertained the idea. I didn't have a special interest in China, and I actually thought I was getting some traction in my music career finally at that time. It was not an easy decision to make, but I felt that it was not an opportunity that I could pass up, and so I took advantage of it and I accepted a position teaching English at Chengdu University of Science and Technology.
At the time, my understanding of China was that it was still a pretty bleak and repressive communist country. I had no expectation of performing music over there, but I brought an electric guitar to at least stay in practice. Surprisingly, I got pretty quickly drawn into this ridiculous series of musical adventures.
It started with a knock on my door by a group of very serious looking students who announced themselves as the guitar club of the university and they had heard about the American guitarist, and would I play for them. And I thought, ‘yeah, sure. I'll play for you guys.' But I quickly realized they meant right that moment because they wouldn't go away. They just stayed. I was like, ‘well, alright, but I don't have an amp.' They said ‘don't worry, we have got one for you.' So I followed them to this cold classroom where there was already about 50 people waiting for me. It was a set up.
But that was what launched my music career in China because, unaccustomed as I was to playing solo anything, I apparently passed the audition. Things started snowballing from there and I was performing at ever larger functions, and then I came in contact with some nationally renowned musicians, some of the earliest rock musicians in China.
The whole thing snowballed to where I was playing in large halls with a Chinese pop star, and I eventually put together three of the earliest tours of China by Western bands performing non-mainstream rock music, or creative music. It was a pretty wild ride, but in retrospect, the most important decision I ever made in my life was to go to China.
When that whole experience was over, I felt compelled to sort of bookend it with two projects. One was a book about my experience, Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan, which was published six or seven years ago. But I also wanted to do a music project that would be a summation of my experience of performing and listening to music in China and East Asia.
Unlike the majority of expatriates I encountered in the far east, I developed a keen interest in the traditional music of that culture and I would spend long hours rummaging around in record and book stores through bins of cassette tapes that I couldn't even understand the titles because they were Chinese characters. But trying to make informed selections based on the cover art and what instruments seemed to be featured, I went through a lot of dross, but I found a lot of gems. So, I became very attracted to the traditional instrumental music of China.
Early on in my performing career over there, I began incorporating some of that music into my performances, adapted for electric guitar. I found that certain instruments lent themselves fairly naturally to the guitar because of their construction. I was taking pieces of pipa, Chinese lute music, or gu zheng, the Chinese horizontal zither, I was taking pieces of music that were written for those instruments and adapting them for the electric guitar.
It was partly a gesture of respect for my hosts, it was partly a challenge to myself as a musician, and partly an ice breaker with my audiences. They were always very gratified to hear somebody tackling some of their traditional music. They were very open minded audiences too, which was really refreshing for someone coming from a culture like ours where people have already made up their mind what they like and what they don't like.
After I left China and Taiwan, I let it settle for a while, but these ideas started to grow and I chose some melodies, source material that I wanted to adapt and I was determined to adapt them in unusual ways. The last thing I wanted to do was make another record of ersatz ‘East meets West' music. I wanted the music to be respectful of its sources, but I wanted to be respectful of my sources while at the same time breaking with orthodoxy.
Not being a member of that culture, I felt that I had license to exercise my own interests and influences. That was the challenge- how to do that within the context of that music. I found that East Asian music, where there is a lot of respect for space and frequently is not shackled to an insistent pulse, is actually very accommodating of some of these other ideas.
I kind of cherry-picked a number of musicians from the Seattle area that I felt had the right personality and temperament in that choice of instrument for the project. I brought in some players of Japanese instruments; there is heavy use of non-traditional percussion. I sometimes did some perverse things like blending a stately Chinese melody from the Tang Dynasty with violent free jazz drumming.
I am very pleased with the result, Views From Chicheng Precipice. Moraine continues to perform some of those pieces. It will probably be a continuing source of inspiration throughout my life.
PSF: Are you doing any other projects besides Moraine right now?
DR: I am just launching a new trio, as yet unnamed, with drummer Tom Zgonc and bassist John Seman. I expect that it will be jazzier, certainly, than Moraine or most of my recent projects. I think I want to exercise that part of my musical makeup, so we will be playing a combination of my tunes, things that wouldn't necessarily be suitable for Moraine, and some open expanses of improvisation.
I have been doing a fair number of one-offs lately. More unusual for me, and challenging, was that I did a cameo appearance on a forthcoming record by the Jim Cutler Jazz Orchestra, which is a small big band that typically plays closer to mainstream jazz than I am usually involved in. But for this record, they have got a program of some very hip charts by some remarkable local composers like Daniel Barry, and so that really stretches me out. I have never worked in a jazz big band context like that. It is kind of exhilarating to have that kind of support, the massed horns and all of that. I contributed a few solos to that, and I am proud of it and look forward to that coming out.
I have plans to record a session for release on MoonJune Records next summer in New York with Moraine's former drummer, Jay Jaskot, and a New York-based bassist named Clint Bahr. I expect it will be sort of a power trio, probably some tunes and a lot of improvising.
I have participated in some ongoing local musical aggregates like Non Grata, a sort of an improvisor's big band. I have a very occasional quartet with another guitarist that I greatly admire, Ken Masters. We call ourselves Batholith, and that includes Stephen Cavit, the drummer for Moraine, and Geoff Harper on bass, who was in my old project Stackpole.
I am very happy to say I have had a busy year musically, which, for me, is 25-30 gigs in a year. Locally, around here, I think it is pretty gratifying. In Moraine, we are finding that our audience really lies more outside of Seattle, so we have some pretty exciting opportunities that are hopefully in our future, and we intend to pursue them to the extent that we can, as people who also have jobs.
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