IMPROVIJAZZATION Nation - Issue # 99
INTERVIEW with The American Music Project (AMP)
Let it never be said that this magazine doesn't "stay with it"... genre is NOT our criteria (for review) here, it is the ENERGY that an artist or group conveys with their music... I don't care if it's down-home cracker-barrel Country, "smooth" jazz or the really "hardcore" experimental stuff... if the artists put themselves into their music - they WILL get reviewed here. & this group has managed to put together one of the BEST integrations of rap/spoken-word and jazz I have heard since the early '60's - it takes GENUINE talent to "do the message" without breakin' it down to "foul" in ev'ry line, & still get the underlying message across - & I can tell you (after about 50 listens through the entire CD), they GOT it! They were really busy, but made time to make SURE you'll get some real insight into where they (and their music) are coming from. Our hats are off to Dane, Keith & the whole AMP krew for this splendid interview... thanks, gents!!!
Zzaj: Having (just) been in Detroit (Dearborn, actually) back in November, I know that it’s not the most attractive of places to be right now…… is that where you all come from? Outline for our readers where you (either as a group, or individually) came from, & how you got to where you are right now……. in other words, a bit of biography, please.
A.M.P.: Dane Bays, Dave Zeigner, and Alex Brooks are all from Detroit, MI. D. Priest is from Saginaw (aka Sagnasty). Curtis Isom is from Lansing. And Keith Javors is originally from Illinois, but is now living in Philadelphia.
Although AMP was originally conceived by Dane Bays and D. Priest, it has by necessity become become a truly collaborative effort requiring the input and efforts of everyone involved. One of the things that makes this work is that we have musicians coming together from totally different perspectives and backgrounds - from school to street, Straight Ahead Jazz to Hip-Hop, Rap and R&B. Everyone’s ability and willingness to respect and value musicians from other disciplines and backgrounds has been the single most important aspect of this project.
For more individual biographical information please see:
Zzaj: I’ve always been a fan of spoken-word and music together, actually long before it became known as ""rap"" or ""hip-hop""; that’s probably because I started out doing spoken-word performances myself…… I believe that the power words have is very important in the arts…… give us your thoughts on that, please.
A.M.P.: We're going to let D. Priest take this one.
D. Priest: Definitely, I agree. Words can make a person smile with joy, then instantly change a persons' mood to anger. Words can hurt and words can heal. Martin L. King, Malcolm X, and many more have changed the world with words. Myself, I like the beauty of words. I started writing poetry at a very young age. I would write my Moms poetry and tape it to blocks of wood for Christmas and birthdays because I had no money to get her anything. For me poetry was a way for me to express myself in a way that I couldn’t otherwise. I can say things with spoken words that I can't say with rap. I think spoken words leave more room for expression. When I put words to music it opens the door to a feeling that’s hard to explain, but I will try.
When I hear music I listen to what the music says and I try to interpret it through words. And when it works, it’s the most beautiful thing in the world to me. When the right words and music connect, the feeling can lift you to a place that exhilarates your soul. If I never got any money from writing and spitting (rapping words) I would still continue to do it because it's my escape that I depend on to lift me up when I am down. I think rap can be a very powerful tool if it’s done right. It can be used as a tool to teach and used to uplift a people in need of uplifting. So, to everyone out there, write what you feel and mean what you say. Coming from the heart is the only way to come.
Zzaj: Your music/words clearly communicated to me (in a BIG way), else I might have ""skipped over"" the CD in the review pile…… tell us, in your own words what you think is most important for you to get across to your listeners…… try and explain this for both the words AND the music, please.
A.M.P.: Most importantly, we want the listener to know that we respect them. It may be naive, but we would like to believe that people are capable of far more than they’re often given credit for. From the beginning it was our goal to try and reach the more mainstream/non-Jazz audience by avoiding the overly judgmental and unnecessary pitfalls of elitism, while maintaining the emotional and musical integrity for which Jazz music in particular is known. In other words, we are of the belief that ALL people are worth speaking to and to look down upon someone just because they may not like and/or have been exposed to a certain style of music simply makes no sense. So, hopefully we have been able to produce an emotionally and artistically sincere music which conveys a message of hope and encouragement, yet is capable of reaching a wide variety of people.
Zzaj: One of the most amazing things I heard (on both the jazz and spoken-word parts) when listening through your CD (over & over, I might add) for the review was a sense of ""hope""…… I imagine that’s something a bit hard to grasp in these so trying times…… tell us (either individually, or as a group) where your hope ""comes from""; why is that important to you in these times?
A.M.P.: Whether its seeing our friends and family lose their jobs and homes, or whether its seeing music venues close and the gigs dry up due to a lack of revenue, all of us are deeply and directly affected by the current economic environment - especially in Michigan. But at the risk of oversimplifying it, in times like these hope is the only natural alternative to hopelessness. Fortunately, all of the members of AMP are well equipped to project hope in that all of us have been through many, many hard times before. But, we are all survivors, and in times like these you have to keep fighting - that’s all you can do. So essentially, our hope comes from our ability both past and present to persevere. And really, in hard times music becomes even more important because it has the capacity to allow people to release and forget about all else around them. Hopefully, for at least one moment, through our music people can feel our hope and it will help inspire them to keep fighting.
Zzaj: Another thing that really struck me when reading about you was your emphasis on "positive" messages…… what do you have to say to those artists who emphasize only the negative through their music? (or do you think it would just fall on deaf ears)?
A.M.P.: People play music for a variety of reasons and in the final analysis they’re going to play what they want and what they feel. As long as what is being said is real to the person saying it then that’s fine. The problems arise when people who haven’t really lived that life and are just trying to push anger and violence for money because that’s what they think will sell - that’s just fake and exploitive. Having said that, we’re not interested in being too critical of anyone else’s art, we would simply point out that any teenager can feel anger and rage. To a certain extent those particular emotions are somewhat of a juvenile response to the emotional challenges presented by simply trying to get by in the world - especially the inner-city music world. Having said that, it is still hard to criticize that too much for us in that we all know where that comes from and in a lot of cases the anger and rage emphasized in some of today’s music is both real and justified. Hopelessness born out of a perceived lack of alternatives is a serious problem and is unfortunately very prevalent in any impoverished area, which is where much of this music is coming from. Those feelings are also something that we have all felt very deeply and none of us are above expressing our anger from time to time - it feels good!!!! Anger is seductive. But to the extent that message reminds people who are not immersed in that environment to remember what’s really going on, that’s not all bad. Its just that the farther down the line you go with your music, hopefully the anger and rage will be replaced by more mature responses such as hope, perseverance, regret, remorse, reflection, etc... Like life, the music’s emotional content matures over time.
Zzaj: Curtis Isom’’s vocals on cuts like ""Path Of Most Resistance"" took me back to an age when (most) soul-oriented performance had a great degree of music involved in it... that’s not always true with rap & hip-hop these days…… explain to us why you think the integration of strong and powerful music in work that is spoken is important…… (or, are the words more important)?
A.M.P.: We are all of a belief that you do not have to patronize people in order to reach them. As for the words, it just seems obvious to us that the stronger the music is the more artistic, powerful, and sincere the spoken words will sound. Art feeds art. But it was also obvious that in order for this to work the words were going to have to be very strong. Frankly, D. Priest exceeded all of our expectations in this regard. His ability to state something so undeniably positive and uplifting while maintaining the aggression/edge of his musical roots in Rap is simply unparalleled by anything that any of us have heard from a contemporary MC - not to mention the courage that it takes for someone to be willing to go so far outside of their comfort zone. Hopefully, the end result has produced a vibe that is equal parts music AND words - both of which are capable artistically of standing on their own.
Zzaj: Without getting into all the gory details, I’ll tell you that I spent many years mired in drugs & alcohol addiction…… we used to say that a performer couldn’t really ""dig"" the folks around them unless they had ""been down""…… give us your thoughts on that, please. Is it really necessary to live in pain to understand the pain of others? (I know that probably sounds like a really weird question, but it’s something I often wonder about).
A.M.P.: There is no way to fake pain. Period. But it is important to remember that people get their pain in a variety of ways - that experience is unique and therefore by definition no two people’s pain is ever going to be the same. Now, as for us, most of us grew up in the inner city - a/k/a "the hood." And lets face it, unfortunately drugs and alcohol do have an historic place in that environment - both musically and otherwise. Again, this is no doubt born out of the type of hopelessness which tends to plague those neighborhoods. The hood can be like a mouse trap and the only known cure is to GET OUT!!!!! But when you’re there its all you know or have ever known and its as though you have blinders on. Frankly, its amazing and at times disheartening what people can get used to. Suffice it to say that the we have all had various degrees of difficulty overcoming and/or avoiding that culture but what's important now is that we have all overcome. What doesn’t break you makes you.
Zzaj: Readers here like to have an idea of where a performer (or group) sees themselves going…… so, give us a little ""inside scoop"" on what your next projects may be
A.M.P.: We are currently working on our next record: Tell No Lies. We’re very excited about where this concept is heading and believe that we have only scratched the surface with regards to all of the artistic possibilities here. For instance, given what a stretch this music was for all of us, on On The Bright Side all of the words are composed/written and the forms and meters are fairly straight forward. However, D. Priest has an amazing ability to improvise/freestyle. So, while much of the words will still be composed, we will be highlighting the freestyle/improvised aspect of the Rap art. Also, the grooves are continuing to develop in a very exciting and forward moving way. Although they are still based in Jazz, we are utilizing more odd meters, world beat concepts, and untraditional forms. The sound of Rap over 11/8 for instance is something very new and fresh to all of us. We sincerely believe that Tell No Lies, although definitely an extension of what we’ve accomplished thus far, will be taking the AMP concept to the next level.
Zzaj: Dane Beys’’ strong sax work (as well as Keith Javors’’ piano, Dave Zeigner’s bass & drums from Alex Brooks) had much to do with the power of jazz ""A.M.P."" was able to project to me…… give us a bit of history about how you all hooked up.
DANE BAYS: As the founder of AMP, I’ll take this one. This is long story, but I’ll try keep it as short as possible for you.
Alex and I have been playing together since I was 16. Simply put, Alex is like my musical Brother. We came up together playing in Detroit and have been playing ever since.
I started working with Dave when I was about 17 or 18 - he had just moved back from Oakland California and he, Alex, and I started playing various straight ahead Jazz gigs throughout the State of Michigan.
I met Keith in Illinois when I was in my early 20's. Our musical connection was instant. Shortly after meeting, Keith and I made our joint recording debut with Mantra, a duet record released in 1998. We thereafter added Alex and Dave into the mix and have been playing and recording together ever since.
So, at the time AMP came about Alex, Keith, Dave, and I had been playing and recording together off and on for 15 yrs. Although we have always had a wide variety of tastes musically, primarily our collective experience at that time had been playing straight ahead Jazz and we all still have a profound love for the performance and history of that music.
I met DeJuan in 2003 in Lansing MI. I liked his vibe instantly and started pressing him to come by my place and play - I had long had some ideas of how to incorporate Rap and Jazz. Although he was admittedly skeptical at first, from the first moment we played together our artistic connection was very real and powerful. It was obvious to both of us that we were coming from a very similar place in terms of what we wanted to convey emotionally. At that time he had just returned from Chicago - he had been living and recording for a label there for some time. We were both feeling somewhat frustrated musically. He was growing tired of the Rap game, and I was feeling musically very restless and was wanting to try and do something different.
As someone who came up playing straight ahead Jazz I am probably not supposed to admit this, but I have always liked Rap music and will never forget the first time I heard Kool G Rap and The Guru spittin' over The Brand New Heavies when I was in New York in 1993-94 - that music knocked me out. I like the power, the emotion, and the ability of the true MC’s to improvise ("cypher" or "freestyle"). And frankly, having spent the majority of my life in the inner-city it has never been hard for me to relate to the feeling of Rap music. Also, Rap and Jazz have one very important thing in common - they come from the same neighborhood. Again, I had been visualizing and wanting to do something with Rap for a long time but had never met anyone with whom I felt a musical connection strong enough to try it. D. Priest filled that gap for me to say the least!!!!! He is truly one of the most talented and soulful musicians I have ever met.
At that time, DeJuan and Curtis had been working together. Big Curt and I hit off right away in that we shared a passion for a lot of the same singers - Stevie Wonder, Brian McKnight, etc. The three of us started hanging out and trying to write all the time. In fact, its kind of funny, but in the beginning our method of writing was very rudimentary. I would simply play something into DeJuan’s voice mail on his cell phone and he would listen to it over and over again and then try and write to it. Needless to say our methods have since improved.
After several months of conceptualizing and rehearsing, we took this new sound into the studio to cut some sample tracks just to see what happened. This was in 2004. At first, I think everyone thought I was crazy and was simply not sure of how this was going to work - "You want to put hard edge Rap and R&B vocals over acoustic Coltrane derivative Jazz?!!! Are you nuts?!!!!" Well, the truth is I probably am a little nuts. But after everyone started hearing how it was sounding we all began getting very excited by the artistic possibilities. We thereafter wrote and recorded the remainder of the music in 2005.
To this day, we all remain very, very close - both musically and personally. This is so important in that it is impossible to create an environment conducive to true expression unless there is absolute commitment, love, and trust between the musicians. I feel honored to have met and played with each and every one of them.
Zzaj: Do you all have to do ""day gigs"" (like I do), or is it just music? On that note, we have quite a few aspiring performers in our readership…… give us your collective wisdom on how a ""career"" in performance stacks up in today’s world. Is it worth all the struggles players sometimes have to go through? What ""makes it work""?
A.M.P.: All of us have had and continue to have to look elsewhere for money at times in order to survive. Music is music, but reality is reality and when push comes to shove you have to eat and provide for those who rely on you for support.
As for a career in performance, in today’s world it is very difficult - no doubt - especially if you’re playing non-mainstream music. Technology has, for better or for worse, completely changed the game. The main issue facing many musicians is the new found and virtually unlimited ability to pirate music off the Internet. If you are under 25 yrs old, you’re most likely so used to getting music for free that you just assume that’s how its supposed to be. The inability to protect your music can be frustrating - but there’s no stopping it - this is the world we live in. The other significant shift is with ITunes. Thus, even if people actually pay to download your song, they now have the ability to simply download the one song they want as opposed to the entire record. This is tough for Jazz oriented musicians to come to terms with because you’re so used to presenting your songs in a collective group, whereas now everything is being reverted back to the concept of a single. While this may be artistically frustrating, it too is simply the way it is now and we’re all going to have to adjust. On the bright side, no pun intended, technology has made it much easier for artists to become more independent and to push their own music through myspace, facebook, youtube, etc. Not to mention that the ability to communicate is so advanced that with relative ease we can lay down a groove in Michigan and email it to Philly for review. This renders geographic distance virtually irrelevant with regards to collaborating with other musicians.
With that said, the best advice we could give to anyone who aspires to have a career in music is to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. First of all, focus on what you can control, namely, your own musicianship/art. Nobody can control how you sound but you. Your relationship with music is your own and you can define it however you like. Enjoy the process and remember that’s all it is - a process - you practice, you get better, you study, you get better, and then you die. That’s it. It never changes. So, place yourself on the path and walk it with all your heart - all you can do is all you can do. Also, if you’re in it for fame and fortune - good luck. However, so long as you have a sincere and undying love for your instrument and craft and are 100% emotionally committed to playing music for the rest of your life - no matter what - then you will be able to have a positive and life long relationship with music that will hopefully be as surprising and exciting as it will be fulfilling. Remember, this is a marathon - not a sprint. And in a lot of ways, it’ll come down to the last man standing.
Dejuan D Priest Everett
The American Music Project (AMP)