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Interview with Lisa Mezzacappa, Chameleon Hunter

Bassist, composer, and former C4NM curator Lisa Mezzacappa premiered her free jazz song cycle Glorious Ravage last weekend at REDCAT in Los Angeles as part of the Angel City Jazz Festival. The ambitious piece is inspired by the writings of lady explorers of the 19th century, and features a large ensemble of improvisers from across California, performing in dialogue with films created by four Bay Area moving image artists.

Center for New Music members and readers can purchase 25% off tickets for concerts at Brava Theater Center on October 1 and 2 with the promo code RAVAGE.

Lisa Mezzacappa. Photo © Heike Liss 2015.
Lisa Mezzacappa. Photo © Heike Liss 2015.
Adam Fong: I’m interested in how it is to have people collaborate who are coming from a distance. How much time do you need to put together a piece like this? And how do you propose that to people like Myra Melford and Nicole Mitchell, who are so busy?

Lisa Mezzacappa: The logistics have been like a full-time job figuring it out. I knew I didn’t want to let go of that part, though, because I knew this was an opportunity to try something on a bigger scale, and I had the idea of making connections between all these people.

AF: Have any of them played together before?

LM: Some, but not a lot. In particular, you have the Southern California contingent who really do not interact all that much with the scene up here in San Francisco.

AF: Why do you think that is?

LM: I think there’s been a history of not that many gigs up here. Also they have academic jobs down there, and they have former lives that keep them really busy. Nicole [Mitchell] is often traveling to Chicago, and Mark [Dresser] gets called back to New York.

So I felt, this is ridiculous that we’re all so close to each other, it’s not that far, but Nicole has never met Cory [Wright], and Kyle [Bruckmann] has never played with Mark, and every time I see Michael Dessen who is an incredible musician and composer he says ‘oh yeah, I’ve gotta get up to the Bay Area.’ So I said, ‘well, how about now?’ So that’s the curator in me thinking, this is a pretty fantastic scene, and nobody is paying attention on a national or international scale to what is going on. Maybe I can see what happens when I try to make connections with these people.

It added an enormous financial and logistical challenge because of everyone being spread out. So I really had to have a commitment to that. There was definitely a moment where I thought, I could make a great local band… But I decided to try to make this part of the project happen.

AF: What do you think are the opportunities that would not have come about if you weren’t working with people from across the state?

LM: I think it feels more special because of these exciting new meetings. As a composer-bandleader, you ride this great wave of having long relationships with people, and so much of my music is born from long incubation periods. We’ve all been in each other’s groups as well, so we have these shortcuts for dealing with complicated musical ideas. But then there’s also, as an audience member, and as a musician in a band, the excitement of thinking, “I’ve never played with this person before… and she put me in a duo with them.” Or, “we have to open this piece together.” So I’m excited about the energy of these new meetings, against the backdrop of long relationships. As I say that, I’m getting goosebumps, getting excited at how it’s going to come together.

AF: Isn’t that how it started even for you, with a new meeting with Fay Victor at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts?

Lisa Mezzacappa Trio feat. Fay Victor
LM: Yes, well, it was even before that. I met her the year before when she came out to play at the Jazz School in Berkeley. She just called me to accompany her.

AF: How did she know about you? Was it through William [Parker]?

LM: It might have been through William, or just William’s scene in New York, looking for a bass player who could do all the things she likes to do. So we met for this one gig where I was just backing up a singer, for all I knew, and then I was looking for a chance to do more. The Yerba Buena concert was our first opportunity to write for each other, which was really fun. So yes, that surprise to have connected with each other, was kind of great.

It’s nice for improvisers — sometimes with composition you’re trying to control everybody and get everyone on the same page. But there’s always a little bit of this wild element when people don’t exactly know how they’re going to respond to each other, and they can’t just rely on knowing everything about each other. We sometimes take each other for granted, so this adds a little edge.

AF: Who’s the edgiest in the group? Is there an outlier?

LM: You know, everyone’s got something. Vinny Golia is a lunatic, and I say that with the deepest affection and admiration. He’s got so much personality, and I have him playing all these crazy extreme instruments. He’s always full of surprises, and that’s why we love him.

At rehearsals I’ll put the smallest sketch in front of him, and his gas pedal just goes all the way down. He runs with it as if he might not be able to ever play again after 10 minutes from now. To feel that intensity supporting you, playing your music, is amazing.

And you know, Mark Dresser is full of surprises — he has so much virtuosity and so many ideas at his fingertips. At rehearsals I’ll put the smallest sketch in front of him, and his gas pedal just goes all the way down. He runs with it as if he might not be able to ever play again after 10 minutes from now. To feel that intensity supporting you, playing your music, is amazing.

AF: One thing that is so unique to this project is how it draws people not just from different locations, but who come from different micro-scenes in new jazz. Are there are other people who organize ensembles like this who are models for you? Where else does this kind of work happen?

LM: That’s a great question, because I need to figure that out in the next stage of this so I can refer to other models that exist. So far, it’s a little bit of a strange animal — the film component feels like such a Bay Area thing in the way we’re working together. And also you’re right that the musicians aren’t all conservatory-trained jazz guys who play original jazz music. Everyone has some other aspect of their personality.

AF: Right, I think of Kyle, who used to be part of a post-rock noise scene.

LM: Exactly, and who plays in contemporary chamber music ensembles and also in orchestras. And then Dina Maccabee who just went back to school at Wesleyan for a composition degree, and has these intricately crafted pop music projects where she’s playing ukulele and singing, incredibly artful projects. She also had a singing string quartet she worked with for years, and also plays a mean fiddle. Then you also have people coming out of avant-garde jazz, but who also happen to be able to play XYZ kinds of music.

That might just be who I’m attracted to–  the personalities who come alive for me. It’s also a kind of musical chameleon, I think, who interests me — this is a fun person to write for, because they don’t have rigid boundaries, and they don’t think in styles. I don’t think in styles, I just think, “this is the feeling of the piece and it has these elements.” And all of the people in this band can jump into that and not worry about being a jazz musician being asked to play intimate chamber stuff, or not improvising enough. I’m asking them to do really difficult extended techniques at one moment, and at the next moment take a free jazz solo. So there’s this flexibility, a chameleon-like quality to all of them.

AF: As creators we try not to care about where the CD would end up in the record store. But would it be fair to call this jazz? Do you feel that it fits in the jazz lineage?

LM: You know, I’ve always felt that was where I belonged, but increasingly I think I’m learning that the jazz establishment – meaning some complex of the venues, the bookers, the record labels, and meda – I don’t think they’re super-interested in what I’m doing. I don’t think there’s much precedent for it. So I consider my vocabulary and the processes that I go through, in putting together people and making music, SO informed by jazz. More than anything else, that’s a total given for me. And yet, I think the sounds don’t resonate with somebody looking for “jazz”. And what I do with other disciplines, there’s not much of a precedent for that in jazz. So increasingly I’m not really bothering with that word, even though it’s part of who I am. I just think of it as contemporary performance, more broadly… we’ll see where that gets me!

I really fought for that “jazz” word for so long, thinking it has a right to be as broad as I want it to be. But the reality of it is, I don’t find that coming back to me, that resonating out of the jazz world – as being open, and being about ideas and process, and interaction, and certain kinds of training and skills. It’s about a certain sound, I think, right now.

AF: It’s becoming galvanized stylistically?

LM: Maybe — I think it’s gotten into a smaller little box than it deserves to be in. To me it’s this expansive language where you can say absolutely anything.

AF: But I think the establishment is more about virtuosity in the execution of a specific language.

LM: It’s very specific, yes. Specific instrumentation, specific sounds, feel, a certain kind of record production. There’s a whole bunch of that, that is not really how my music sounds. Of course there are a bunch of outliers, like Henry Threadgill is finally getting his due, and Anthony Braxton more and more, but they’re a little corner of the jazz world, and those guys have fought with that word their whole lives, too, and call their music contemporary music, creative music.

AF: Do you think it’s a natural thing for a form like jazz to find its marketability and then fix how it sounds? Do you think that could happen with intermedia, that intermedia works start to have an archetype?

LM: Maybe that’s it — when a thing gets called a thing, people start to replicate what they think the thing is, versus just make interesting work. And it’s actually interesting you said “intermedia,” because we’ve all seen music performances with film or video that felt so empty and disconnected, like there was moving wallpaper with a sound piece.

AF: Well, we have the iTunes visualizer!

LM: Yeah exactly… it’s just so far from how this work came about. It’s about four unique humans, unique individuals, and the struggle in all of that is how it came together. It wasn’t an easy visualization of music. So yes, I guess it’s intermedia in the sense that it has other media as part of it, but these four are part of the music as filmmakers. They’re part of all of us grappling with these ideas and this material together.

AF: How much musical language do the filmmakers have? Are they able to communicate with you, read scores?

LM: You know, I learned along the way that I would sometimes take things for granted. I’d use musical shorthand, like “after 8 bars of this vamp then I’m cueing to your so and so,” then I’d realize this may not mean anything to this person. But actually I’m really lucky, and I chose these people, because they have very broad artistic minds. They’re even interdisciplinary within the field of film and the moving image. They use animation, they use hand processing, they’re photographers, they’ve done visual art.

AF: So they’re chameleons in the visual form, too.

LM: Exactly. Music is just one more thing for them to connect with.

AF: One more question about chameleons and intermedia… how much of this do you think is a “could only happen in the Bay Area” phenomenon?

LM: I feel like that’s 100% true about this project. That’s why part of me is excited about broadcasting it, and partly why I needed to do something big that waved this flag for how we work out here. It made it a lot harder for me to work on this scale, and it’s not totally sustainable to work like this moving forward. But I needed to try something that I think broadcasts the reasons I stayed here, spending the last 14 years as a Bay Area person.

AF: Yes, that’s a long time! I know you gig overseas and in New York. Have you ever had moments where you felt the pull to move somewhere else?

LM: I still think I could live in Sicily, in a cottage and just practice. But the reality is my work is here, my people are here. It’s nice to get injections of other musical worlds. But I think this work broadcasts a lot of little things I’ve discovered out here about how I want to work and what kind of work I want to make. We’ll see if the rest of the world gets that.

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