Interview | Nate Wooley

On March 5, Ars Nova Workshop presents a performance at Vox Populi by trumpeter Nate Wooley, violinist and electronicist C. Spencer Yeh, cellist Okkyung Lee, and percussionist Paul Lytton. With expansive avant-garde affiliations – noise, jazz, free improv, downtown – Wooley assembled this quartet "to see if a collision of forward thinking practitioners of each of these histories will create something greater than a well-thought out musical fusion." This Philadelphia concert is the third stop on a Wooley-Lytton US tour, where the duo will be teaming up along the way for diverse collaborations with Ikue Mori, Peter Evans, Ken Vandermark, Chris Corsano, Matt Moran, and Joe Morris, among others. Taking a break between recording and live dates in Europe, ANW caught up with Wooley in Lisbon, Portugal to talk about his recent and upcoming work, and the motivations behind this unique new quartet.

Your 2009 release with David Grubbs and Paul Lytton took its name, The Seven Storey Mountain, from a Thomas Merton book. What about Merton compelled you to name the album after his text?

Every religious tradition has a group of people that stand outside of it in one way or another. Usually they form some sort of mystical subset of the codified tradition and that has always been very interesting to me. I did a lot of reading when I was younger of these people: St. John of the Cross, Sri Ramakrishna, St. Teresa of Avila, and others. Of all of them, recently at least, I have been most affected by St. Augustine and Thomas Merton. Not necessarily about their religious beliefs, which has always been beside the point, or at least only academic to me, but because of the way they choose to talk about their belief and their faith. Augustine's Confessions and Merton's Seven Storey Mountain are both incredible documents of their path to a relationship with God. Fine, that is great, but what is interesting to me is their incredible honesty about who and what they were before and while on that path. I've always thought it was strange that certain people are presented as being wholly formed from birth. Obviously this happened with religious figures in the past, and now I think we do it with celebrities, movie stars, musicians, writers, and so on. We are rarely presented with their work as it has developed and been aware of their mistakes, their missteps, their dead end paths. 

So, when I was presented with the opportunity to do a piece for Dave Douglas' FONT I wanted to do something that would allow me room to try something that might fail but would be an honest representation of where I was at a moment in time. That was where the release came from. It was successful on some levels, unsuccessful on others, but I like how honest it is. I've always loved drone and ecstaticism, and this piece encompasses those elements that I don't really use anywhere else. The piece is 7 segments long. The first segment is that 2009 release and the second will be released in June on Important Records featuring C. Spencer Yeh on violin and Chris Corsano on drums. We are recording and performing the third segment on March 11th at Issue Project Room as part of my residency there this year, and I'm really excited because we'll have both trios present, Corsano, Lytton, Yeh, and Grubbs, as well as Chris Dingman and Matt Moran playing some heavy church bell action.

For Creek Above 33 with Paul Lytton you both created mind maps. What was this process and how did it create a shift in your playing and thinking?

Well, the recording wasn't motivated by the mind maps as much as the reverse. We had finished the record and Evan Parker asked us for liner notes. Paul said he preferred to do a mind map, as he had been thinking about his relationships to trumpet players over the years and was interested in trying to trace that work to the present which includes me and Peter Evans. I think it was an interesting exercise but ultimately kind of ironic as I have always thought that duo has no overt connection to a historical context that I've ever come across.

I tried not to look at his mind map to tell you the truth. I am too prone to hero worship and didn't want to necessarily obsess on the connections between Paul and someone like Kenny Wheeler or Leo Smith. So, if the mind maps had any effect on our relationship and how we play together it is that it has made me more aware and diligent about distilling all the past listening and musical connections I've had into a voice that is personal and honest.

In your description of the quartet playing Philadelphia March 5, you describe C. Spencer Yeh has having an “outsider’s perspective.” Can you elaborate on this?

Well, in Spencer's case, I'm thinking of that term, "outsider" in two ways: one, he's outside of the hardcore free improv/free jazz/jazz/downtown NY/whatever that is a social scene in a way. Partially because he has been in Cincinnati doing most of his work until recently but, more importantly, he just has a voice and sensibility that is outside of that circle. He works more in a contemporary art world, to my thinking. His playing, even in improvisation, is very conceptual on a certain level, very visual and the way he engages is not the typical conversational or contrapuntal kind of way that someone who came up in jazz would play.

Also, I think of him as part of an "outsider" tradition. I think this is my own definition of "outsider art" which is not in keeping with the real definition. I don't mean someone like Henry Darger in that sense of outsider, but someone that has found a specific way of dealing with their art, and their output that is not necessarily in line with everything else that is going on around them. The way Spencer composes records, his collaborations, Burning Star Core, his solo playing, has found a way to be successful musically while being "outside" even an avant-garde norm and I think that is a real testament to his vision as a musician. In a way, that's what this quartet is, not just Spencer: a grouping of people that have found ways to deal with a certain mainstream, be it jazz, improv, noise, rock, whatever, and have found that their voice is slightly off center, but have chosen to embrace that and try and continue forward using that information to make some interesting music.

You’ve mentioned before that you conceptualize group improvisation as articulating social structures. How does this group express this concept?

I think the way a group works very clearly mirrors the way a social group works. If you think of four people walking from point A to point B, there are certain natural ways that it will split itself up. At moments they will walk four abreast, sometimes in groups of two, sometimes three and one, etc. Each of those combinations may or may not be accompanied by feelings of tension or relaxation as it relates to the personalities of the people involved and their desires to compete, feelings of inferiority, fears of being overlooked, or fears of being discovered.  All these things work together, along with the natural terrain that you are travelling over to naturally shape the way the group walks and relates to each other.

The same is true in improvised music. At its best, the groupings change depending on all these personal attributes: sometimes all four are playing seemingly unrelated music, sometimes people drop out or choose to support a strong solo voice, and so on. Sometimes it's a battle; sometimes it's boring because there is no tension. I think it's a particularly interesting idea in duo as there is nowhere to hide, nowhere to escape the conversation. This quartet, I think, will be an interesting example because of a shared, but not implicit, history and the different worlds we are coming from. Certain moves that may be very relaxed for Paul or I, coming out of jazz, may create more tension for Okkyung and Spencer, and vice versa. The different musical traditions we're coming from creates a much different terrain than we are used to travelling, to continue the above metaphor.

You have a handful of upcoming releases. What should we be on the lookout for?

It's tough. I really view recordings as documents of a musician over time and so when a record comes out I am usually dealing with something further down the road and, beyond the impetus to revisit projects and do work with them, get out and let things evolve, that a new disc affords, I don't think a ton about it. There are a couple of things coming out this year that I think are interesting in that they are a departure for me, or represent something that I've been interested in that hasn't necessarily been available on recording yet. One is (Put Your) Hands Together, which is a jazz quintet record on Clean Feed that just came out and is my first real jazz release as a leader. That has me totally frightened in a good way. A long form tape piece called The Almond will also be released in the fall on Pogus Records and it represents a certain way that I've been dealing with solo trumpet in the past year, so I'm happy to have that come out as well as I'm moving on to new things. Other than those, there will be the new SevenStorey Mountain on Important Records and some new stuff with Peter Evans, a split 12" solo LP on Dead CEO and an amplified duo record on Carrier Records.

Nate Wooley, Okkyung Lee, C. Spencer Yeh, and Paul Lytton will play on Saturday, March 5 at Vox Populi Gallery (319 N. 11th Street, 3rd Floor). For more information about this concert, please click here.