Whether you call it progressive, free or experimental, jazz devoid of structure has an open-ended purpose of providing the listener with a highly individual experience which is what the new CD by the trio Vintage Astronaut (Michael Kinchen/keys, John Daniel Ray/bass and Jonathan Greene/drums) is all about. Titled “Now It’s the Future”, it’s proof positive that the metaphysical can also be accessible.
Whimsical song names abound, like “Text Message from Saturn” and “Robot to Robot Massage Parlor”. The latter track is full of complex and masterful rhythms that propel the music forward while funky dancing on the keys gives way to a thick electronic vibe with exciting beats. “Dreamstate Mind-Hockey” opens with a melodic turn on guitar and then the doors get kicked in with music that ricochets off every surface. “Living the Dream” invites wind-down, meditation or your favorite glass of dry red. The CD is the first of four for this project, and it’s extremely colorful and nuanced, meandering like a thought pattern that’s broken free into an eternal spider web.
How do you define prog jazz and how do you present it in a way that people are open to listening (especially jazz traditionalists)?
Progressive jazz is a term we use to describe a wide variety of music, but, to me, the term describes a particular lineage of music as well as an approach to the process of making it. Jazz is a term that has been around for a hundred years and refers not to a specific style but to a broad spectrum of harmonies, tonal choices, arrangements and song formats. I see progressive jazz as the leading edge of this evolution, and it requires the performers to be informed by all of the previous music that has fallen under the moniker of jazz.
Jazz has also traditionally featured group improvisation and individual improvised solos. Our goal with this project was to document collective improvisations that follow a narrative format; structured as linear ideas rather than ‘verse, chorus, verse, bridge, etc.’
We haven’t made this music with the goal of appealing to jazz traditionalists. We love traditional jazz, and all of us are informed largely by our study of that music, but we expect this will appeal more to people looking for something new and interesting. This is music created entirely in the moment, for the moment, and we feel it should be listened to differently than composed music. Each piece is an exploration; a small study of a particular vibe, idea, or sound. It should be treated in the same way as a photograph or painting – just observe it for a few minutes and see what comes up within yourself.
Talk about your sense of humor as a group and how it helps the creative process.
The funny thing is that we’re all very serious about the music. The music and the improvisation are sacred for us – something we approach with the highest intention and respect. The song titles happen after the improvisation, when we’re listening back to the recording and cracking jokes about our experience.
Improvising together is a very intimate activity, and after years of playing and touring we have a shared sense of humor that comes out when we’re together. Any ridiculousness that comes across in our public persona is just us being our authentic selves.
Is the title of the CD “Now It’s the Future” a reference to life in 2020?
No, but it certainly fits this insane year. This project has been in development since 2015, and the title came from a one-off show we played together around that time. Everything about this project seems serendipitous; things have just happened as they needed to and doors have opened in front of us. That’s how we know we’re on the right track!
Improvisation is all about continuous adaptation to a perpetually changing situation. For our improvisations to work, we have to be listening to each other completely; we have to understand each other’s ideas, agree with them, and then incorporate them into what we are playing instantly. There is no space for ego, no time for thought; a disagreement would completely derail an improvisation in an instant. Jonathan Greene (drums) might imply a different time signature in one bar, and expect us to catch the implication and shift to that time signature in the next bar. Except that there is no expectation, only ideas and their incorporation. Everything you hear on these albums is conceived or “streamed” in the moment. That’s what “Now It’s the Future” refers to; the music is a snapshot of the Now, that was then, here in the future.
Why did you decide to release this in four parts?
The original idea was to improvise for a week, five nights in a row, and take the best of the music and condense it into one album. What ended up happening is that while I was editing I realized that there was no way all of my favorite music could possibly fit onto one 70-minute CD, or even two, or three, and so the number became four. There is still probably an hour of music that I love that didn’t make the cut, and we will release some of this in video format.
We had my friend Daniel Fox Johnston from Still Frame Storytelling come out and shoot video of the entire project, but the reality of this massive feat is that only about 60% of the footage is usable. Some of this lines up with the albums and some doesn’t, so the videos we release won’t correspond directly to the released music. Some of the best video footage is from music that didn’t make the album cut, so we’re treating them as separate versions of this same project.
We plan to release the next album around Christmas and the final album in early 2021. All four will be available on streaming services and for purchase from our website. Our project homepage is www.nowitsthefuture.com, and when we’ve released all of the music, that will be a site where you can access all of the audio (with some unreleased tracks) and all of the videos.
What story are you telling with this new CD?
As I was compiling the roughly 300 minutes of audio into albums, I generalized the music so it fit four different ‘vibes.’ The first album, titled “Now It’s the Future” (also the name of the project as a whole) I see as a general overview of the type of material that we got. This newest album, “Haircut: 2082 AD” fit a ‘space’ vibe; the third, “Brave New Underwater World” fits a ‘water’ vibe; and the last one “It Was the Future” fits an ‘earth’ vibe.
This isn’t a concept record where we had intentions for the meaning of the music beforehand. I expect that everyone who listens to this music will construct their own stories with it. We are all science fiction enthusiasts, and so some of the names are derived from stories we’ve read, but there is no intended meaning behind them. They can be taken as guides for interpreting the music in a narrative way, but the only actual narrative that has taken place is a documentation of that particular moment in time that the music happened.
Which are your favorite tracks and which were the most challenging?
One of my favorite tracks it the very first one on the first album, “Living the Dream.” This tune started as a duo between Michael Kinchen (piano) and me because Jonathan needed a break. We recorded in July in a small bar with large windows open, and sometimes the heat became distracting. As is the case with most of this music, I don’t have any memory of playing it – almost like it happened to somebody else. This was a beautiful moment in the show when the music slowed down to breathe, and then Jonathan comes back in with this quick, light groove that feels like we’re flying. The harmony for this tune sounds like it was pre-arranged, but that was just one of those moments when we all heard the same thing at the same time.
The challenging thing about the production is the sheer scale of the project. I ended up bringing home almost thirteen hours of improvised music. Because the recording setup didn’t change throughout, I was able to do one blanket mix for the entire project, then cut it down to individual tracks, then finalize the mix for each song. There were some tunes that started out as twenty-minute pieces that I had to cut down, and this was only possible because we played to a metronome most of the time. Another one of my favorite tracks is “’88” from the new album, which refers to the tempo. There’s a bit of dialogue at the beginning I left in because our MC, Jonathan Kirby, was naming all of his favorite hip-hop tunes at that tempo. Coincidentally (or maybe not) that is our favorite tempo.
What/who are your musical influences?
Michael Kinchen is unavailable for comment, but knowing him and having heard him answer this question I [John Daniel Ray] would say he’s very influenced by jazz from the 1940s to present, but also heavily influenced by classical music, from Renaissance to Stravinsky, as well as an early immersion in church music that had him playing organ at age three or four.
I’ve travelled with Jonathan Greene enough to know that he has an extremely wide musical palette. He says his main influences are Frank Zappa, the Bad Plus, Zach Danziger and 8- and 16-bit video game music. We share a love of electronic music, and have spent some time listening to and emulating electronic pioneers such as Apex Twin and Squarepusher.
I am heavily influenced by the classical music that I grew up with and studied in school, but what I produce and listen to now is generally very far from that.
One of my main inspirations for this project was a Ted Talk given by Zach Danziger and Owen Biddle called “Wrangling MIDI.” They pioneered some concepts that I’m incorporating into my instrument where computers react to what an instrumentalist is doing rather than where an instrumentalist plays along with a computer. I spend as much time now learning software and programming instruments as I do practicing bass, and my influences have broadened to electronic music producers and programmers. I primarily listen to jazz. Ambrose Akinmusire is a favorite of mine recently.
Why did you form the band with these other musicians?
I’ve always loved improvising, and I read a book called “Free Play” (by Stephen Nachmanovitch) about ten years ago that set me on the path towards this band and this improv project. I’ve had these ephemeral ideas about what I think improvisation is, should be, and can be, and I’ve tried many iterations with different band members. These guys are the two players who are able to listen and improvise in the way I want. This is the band of my dreams; there are no two musicians in the world I would rather do this with.
I’ve played and toured with these guys in other bands, and so we’re great friends already and know each other’s musical styles and tastes. Jonathan Greene is currently pushing the envelope on drums; he’s doing things with polyrhythms that I’ve never heard other drummers do, much less incorporate into their playing well enough to improvise with them. Michael Kinchen has an insanely deep knowledge of harmony, counterpoint, and has a massive musical vocabulary spanning hundreds of years and many styles and idioms.
I am constantly learning from both of these guys, and literally every time we play I’m blown away by their creativity and ideas. There are a lot of musicians I look up to, but these guys have inspired me and taught me more than any other players ever have. I feel like a little boy getting to hang out with Superman and Batman every time we play. “Now It’s the Future” would not be possible with any other musicians.
Why do you like the intimacy of a trio?
I like the freedom of a trio. Adding even one more person limits our freedom a great deal, no matter the player. That said, the next improv project I want to do will incorporate a vocalist and maybe a horn player. Often, placing limits on music can inspire new ideas and push things further than they would go otherwise.
There are other reasons I like a trio. The reality of the music business is that we have to make money in order to create art, and a band with three people is more profitable for each of us. It also makes traveling easier and cheaper. Three people is a very easy personal dynamic as well. I’ve toured with dozens of bands, and the more people you involve, the more potential for conflict. Conflict ruins improvisation. In order to maintain the freedom we have with our music we have to be completely open with each other emotionally.
What do you want people to take from your music?
I want our music to inspire a sense of adventure. Our music is sometimes uncomfortable – and I think that’s necessary! Comfort is the antithesis of improvisation, and life. There’s a saying that “life begins at the edge of your comfort zone,” and we try to stay on this edge. There was never a time in the performance of this music that we were comfortable. I want this music to inspire people to live, and I want this music to be the soundtrack to their lives and adventures.
How has the pandemic affected your production schedule?
We are based in Winston-Salem, NC, which has been a relatively good place to weather the pandemic. The cost of living is cheap enough here that we’ve been able to maintain our lifestyles even without playing live gigs, which has been our main source of income. We’ve all had to find other work, but we’re fortunate to have enough of a support system here for creatives. I am forever indebted to some very fine people for their selfless financial support of our work. Our city’s art’s council had given us a grant to help with the promotion of this massive project, and we’ve received unsolicited donations from individuals that have allowed us to go into the studio to start work on the next project even in the midst of the pandemic. For “Now It’s the Future,” the audio for the project was finished before March when the pandemic got here, and since then I’ve had the time to learn how to edit video. I don’t think the video portion of this project ever would have gotten done without the pandemic!
The most difficult part of this pandemic has simply been persisting as artists. Some of my favorite music has been created in very adverse situations: music created by African American musicians living in racist environments; music created by artists battling with depression or other mental illness, etc. There is a great band from northern Africa, Tinariwen, who have been persisting as artists despite having their lives threatened by the Taliban for being musicians. Music is an outlet for pain, and I feel like my music is given validity by the struggles of my life. Not that I’ve been oppressed in any way – but my life has had its share of struggle. My bandmates are both black and have dealt with a lifetime of endemic social and individual racism, and have that enormous weight added to the struggle they’ve had as humans. Despite the extra difficulty of operating as black men in our society, they have both managed to make careers as artists – not an easy feat in any circumstances – and excel. Jonathan and Michael are heroes to me, and I’m honored to share music with them.
We haven’t gotten to play together nearly as much since the pandemic, but the times we have been more joyful and energetic than ever. The struggle brought on by this pandemic and the social unrest during this year has provided extra emotional fuel for our music. We can’t wait to start playing shows again when that’s possible.
Debbie, thank you for these thoughtful questions! I can tell you’ve researched us and listened to our music. Our music is new and a lot of people will need some backstory to understand and possibly enjoy what we do. Thank you for helping us share that!
For more information visit https://www.vintageastronautmusic.com/.
Photos courtesy of the artists and Paul Jensen/Onama Media Group.
(c) 2020 Debbie Burke