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Brian Groder

January 2007 - It is uncomforting to hear that there are ensemble directors today who question the validity of using improvisation as a criterion for adjudicating young jazz students in competition. This démodé mindset hampers the progression and expression of players and the music - and what for? If players aren’t emboldened to unleash their inner creative spirit, then why do this thing called jazz? (Or whatever you’d like to call it.)

New York-based trumpeter and composer Brian Groder calls his thing Modern Progressive Music and expresses himself freely on Torque, released on his label Latham Records. His fourteen compositions are fully realized in less than seven minutes each. In some free jazz performances where one might not feel a complete catharsis before another piece begins, Groder and The Sam Rivers Trio finish what they start for and with you completely.

The group dialogue begins with "Betwixt," a medium tempo tune that gives them time to simmer their organic stew. "Diverging Orbits" and "Involution" (which he gives "inspirational" and co-compositional credit to pianist Joanne Brackeen) are wheels in motion and elevate the art of the creative process. The Trio reedman Sam Rivers with bassist Doug Mathews and percussionist Anthony Cole, plucked from his Rivbea All-Star Orchestra form the solid ground that Groder needs to step onto with his fluid playing on trumpet and flugelhorn and his intricate yet listenable and enjoyable compositions. [NOTE: Free improvisational music can swing!]

Groder links up with reedman Rivers on "Behind the Shadows Part I." The pair dart in and out and behind each other like two newly acquainted birds in flight, and then they slowly retract from each other. "Behind the Shadows Part II" captures the two much more familiar with each other. They’re together again on "Camouflage" and "Tragic Magic," where Groder pulls out his flugelhorn.

Again on flugelhorn, Groder draws warm tones from the bass strings of Doug Mathews in their duet on "Iota" and "Fulcrum." Another group effort, and aptly named, is the pivotal point of the group’s collective flow that ebbs into the final "Water Prayer," featuring Groder with percussionist Anthony Cole.

Torque contains no convolutions of textures or harmonies that could have weighed it down. Groder proves that the creative process does work with much give and "give more."

Groder’s Double Perceptions performs at Jimmy's 43 Restaurant on Sunday, February 25 in New York City. The group includes Rez Abbasi on guitar, Dominic Duval on double-bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums.

JazzReview: Music and the creative process. Where does that begin for you?

Brian Groder: Well, I believe it is a process. The artists that engage me the most are people who have individual projects that try to present their music or their art in a particular light or they’re trying to develop some form of ideas that they’re working with. Not that I don’t appreciate CD’s that don’t work standards, but I guess the CD's that do that are ones that may be re-harmonizations of standards or have a particular theme or something I don’t know but as far as the process, it involves the collaborations of whom you’re working with. And in my case, the opportunity to work with Sam Rivers was huge for me, someone that respected all the music that he compiled and performed in his particular style. He has a very distinct and individual voice in his improvisation; the way he plays his melodic lines and his harmonizations, the arranging and writings for his big band he’s just very distinct. And that’s wonderful because the world is just flooded with musicians who tend to sound exactly like one another.

And he’s famous for the process that he helped established at his Rivbea studio here in New York City in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s where it was just a laboratory of improvisatory free jazz. Musicians got together for so many nights and just explored so much music together. An audience could really interact and be up-close and watch this process take place. To work with Sam was phenomenal. It was a creative process. It was a wonderful experience.

JazzReview: Torque is your fourth CD. How did it come about and I’ll ask the really dangerous question - was there a need or a desire to record this release?

Brian Groder: That’s an interesting question. I think we’ll go with the dangerous one first. Within me, there is always a desire to perform the music that I compose or work on the small techniques that I’m developing in my improvisations, and that fulfills a need to release that out of me. The recording process allows an artist to document that. There is a lot of music that I’ve recorded that I’ve never released, which I feel isn’t up to certain standards. But there is a very strong need for me to document and to share this music that I do believe in. The music that is presented on Torque is what I considered music that was really together. All the selections are a balanced and interesting set for the listener. We recorded more music and I’ll eventually put other takes and other selections on my website for the listener to hear. But Torque itself is a finished set of music that did relate to each other. Yes, it did fulfill a need and desire within me. I believe that all the musicians involved were very happy to have this music released because it was a fulfillment for them also.

JazzReview: What do you call your music?

Brian Groder: I call my music Modern Progressive [Music]. Some of the music that is on Torque is free jazz, spontaneously created within the moment. Other music was definitely improvisation over chords, progressions and scales that were notated in my compositions. The wonderful thing about Sam Rivers is that he does play free and he also does play over chords. He mixes the two and he knows exactly where he is within the form and structure of a composition. That, to me, is an important consideration for my music because I enjoy and believe in playing both free over chords. I don’t do just one or the other. I’m one of those individuals who investigate, develop and try to do both. That is something that all of the jazz master idols that I grew up listening to - and still do - did. They did both.

JazzReview: I’ve drawn this review quote from your website: Groder’s preference for working with other composer/performers gives his brand of modern progressive jazz unique improvisatory richness and depth. If you agree with that, how so?

Brian Groder: It might allude to the fact that I like working with individuals who have distinct voices and are creative in applying the wonderful musical techniques on their instruments that they’ve developed over the years. There are wonderful, outstanding musical instrumentalists who are just awesome, but to me, don’t have a soul or don’t convey a story in their music. I want to work with the storytellers. I hear a lot of new music here in New York and I don’t hear the connection between the musicians. Everyone has incredible technique. Everyone is playing their you-know-whats off, but I don’t hear the connection to the other musicians within the moment. I know that they’re listening, but what are they listening for and to with each other? That’s something that’s important to me. I’m not saying it’s right; it’s right for me. It’s the richness of playing with musicians who know how to connect with each other and know how to use their technique. It’s not surprising to me that the best musicians are seemingly always composers in their own right. One of the things I was fortunate enough to learn from [guitarist and composition educator] Dennis Sandole was the importance of learning improvisation and composition techniques at the same time, hand in hand. I think that’s invaluable for any musician.

JazzReview: Please compare and contrast your writing for dance and jazz ensembles. In general, how do you approach both?

Brian Groder: O.K. With composing in general, I am continually trying to compose in different ways in presenting new music I have composed than in the way I had displayed or presented it previously. That’s why it’s important to hear other musicians perform and listen to new recordings. Not that I’m trying to cop[y] what other people are doing. It triggers ideas and it may give me an idea for how to resolve an issue in a composition. Composing for me is not the easiest process. I’m not a good pianist. I work very slowly and I’m always working with many compositions at the same time. I keep lots of notebooks, working with ideas and putting things together. It’s an engaging activity for me all the time. I may get up at two in the morning and start playing in amazement to my cat and then go back to sleep and then work on something else. There are elements I’m trying to work with all the time so that my compositions don’t sound the same. That’s the important thing.

One of my mentors is Joanne Brackeen. She is always making sure that I’m doing something new. Recently I brought her some of my work and she said, "These are great. These are all good, but they sound like other stuff you’ve written with the same manipulations." And that’s not good. Not good enough for me. That means take it away, rework it and try to present it differently. She has great suggestions. There are some compositions that we’ve composed together. We were working together and we were of one mind and we said "Yes, let’s just be co-composers on this."

As far as the dance project that I worked on (Music for Dance with The Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance Co.), there I wanted it to be very rhythmic and provide a setting for the dancers to be able to grab a hold onto those rhythms, and contort and manipulate their bodies in any way they saw fit--and to also provide a landscape of rhythm that was very diverse and very specific in one of those alternating time signatures, so that the pulse is displaced and the rhythmic accents of the melody are displaced, but make sense. Yet, there’s a strong rhythmic resolution from tension to release, which I think is important in all music. For the listener, it’s great to have tension, but you have to provide release because the mind can only take so much. I believe this is true in visual arts. There may be an incredible amount of tension in a painting of a modern artist, but they know how to resolve it in some corner of the composition. Rhythmic release is just as important as melodic and harmonic tension to release.

JazzReview: How’s it been distributing Torque?

Brian Groder: In a world that is flooded by new releases, it can be difficult. This is I guess you could call it a vanity label - it’s a label by myself. I’ve learned a lot how you present music and the timeline that you do it [in] and how you contact all the people in the business. It is a business and I’m reminded of that everyday, which is fine. I don’t have the resources financially of a major label to put all the music out to all the [listeners] worldwide on a time scale that they do. You have to have respect for labels. This is what they do and can do. They have all the connections, so I’m making the connections one at a time. I have to take the personal approach and send e-mails and "thank you" notes to everyone who is interested and supports the music or has given it a chance. And it’s a sincere "thank you" because they don’t know me. They have to like it to present it. They’re getting countless CD’s in the mail from everyone and there are so many great musicians out there putting them out themselves. So they have to pick and choose who they’re gonna write about, who they’re gonna present, who they’re gonna spin for their listeners. It’s a different market with blogs, internet radio people are getting their jazz fix and information from a lot more sources than Downbeat and Jazz Times now.

Someone told me the best way to think of record labels is as banks. They’re banks of money and contacts that jazz musicians would never have, and the banks loan these out to promote the music that you write and perform. Of course, they then have to take their interest back because it’s a business for them. So I don’t think that labels are necessarily evil. They have to be understood for what they do. Two books that changed my mind about the way I’m doing this are Guerilla Marketing and The Tipping Point. I bought several copies for people. There are wonderful lessons to be learned in those books that can be applied to what we do as individual musicians.


copyright@2007 Cheryl K. Symister-Masterson This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Brian Groder
  • Subtitle: Elevating The Creative Process
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