INTERVIEW/CD PREVIEW/ TOUR DATES: Tim Armacost - Time Being (Whirlwind)

Tim Armacost
Photo credit: Emra Islek
The New York-based saxophonist TIM ARMACOST who is on a final dates of a European tour spoke to LondonJazz News’s Editor-at-Large Peter Bacon about the vision that prompted his new album - with drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, bassist Robert Hurst plus pianist David Kikoski - and the spatial awareness within it. Plus, the international influences on his music and his favourite tenor players.

LondonJazz News: I understand this album all begins with Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman and a picture in your mind? Can you explain the image and the process it led to?

Tim Armacost: The image that came to me was like a scene from a movie. I am in the studio with Tain and Bob, and Tain is playing on his own, in a way that is irresistibly, passionately swinging. Meanwhile, Bob and I are exploring the melody of Lonely Woman, trying out some different interpretations. I play it one way, and he mimics that, and then after we’ve been through it once, Bob phrases it his way, and I try to feel that.

We have a job to do, but we really want to join that amazing vibe that Tain is creating. Eventually Bob can’t resist, and goes over to start swinging with Tain, and I continue to try to develop the melody of the tune. Seeing that and hearing it in my mind led to the idea of trying out some different ways to swing together, and that became the focus of the compositions for this recording.

LJN: Has a spatial awareness and concerns for the relationships between the instruments always been crucial to your music or is it a more recent development?

TA: This is a new development for me. Swinging for me has always been the main attraction to playing jazz, but that has meant finding the way to feel the music together. The Lonely Woman idea led to these explorations of creating tension by playing in parallel spaces, and then releasing the tension into a beautifully swinging groove by allowing the parallel spaces to merge.

It was a lot of fun experimenting with these compositions in the studio, and it’s been rewarding to pursue them in front of audiences here in the UK over the last two weeks.

LJN: You have a truly international background which includes living in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Washington, New York, Amsterdam, New Delhi… Are there identifiable elements in your music which the listener can link to these places?

TA: There is a concept in traditional Japanese music - where the written music is not notated in time. The notes are written out in order, but the phrase length is determined by the length of the performer’s breath. This idea definitely influenced the writing and performance of the melody of Time Being, the title track. I wrote out the notes of the melody, but just played it for Bob, and had him listen to how I phrased it, rather than defining it metrically on the page.

I have used Indian classical music elements in other recordings, but on this one the Indian influence is a little more roundabout - I had not been able to access Ornette Coleman’s music as a younger musician. During the time I was studying Sonny Rollins intensely, I wasn’t ready for Ornette’s style of playing.

I had to arrive at some level of mastery over the foundational elements of straight ahead jazz before I was able to understand the need to get free of them… and it was in India, right around the time I was turning 30, that Ornette’s music made sense in my ears for the first time. I’d been hearing Indian music played live for a few months - with no piano anywhere in sight - so that probably set me up to be more receptive to what Ornette was doing.

LJN: For the majority of Time Being you are operating in a trio with Tain and Bob - what drew you to use this pair on the album?

TA: As I mentioned, they were a part of the vision of playing this music in the studio, so I was motivated to do everything I could to bring them together to make this music. On a technical level, I needed musicians for whom swinging was second nature - because I was asking them to separate and swing in two unrelated tempos - so they had to have a high level of confidence, natural swing, and the patience to allow the tension to play out, and the trust to know that the payoff would be delicious.

I am grateful that Tain and Bob were open to trying these things out, and I’m excited by the possibilities for further exploration.

LJN: And why Kikoski?

TA: I’ve been playing some gigs with David over the last couple of years, and knew that he also had a level of experience and an open mind, that would allow him to embrace trying something a little different.

LJN: Despite being a multi-instrumentalist you have chosen to restrict yourself to tenor saxophone on the album. What is special about the tenor for you?

TA: I take the soprano to all of my gigs these days, but I choose to play it when I feel like that’s the right sound for the tune, or sometimes I choose it just to get a little sonic variety in the set. I love playing soprano, but the tenor is definitely home for me.

I’ve toyed with the idea of making an all soprano record, but it never seemed like something I really had to do… I had it with me at the recording session, set up and ready to go, but felt like tenor was the right sound for everything we recorded. I’ve been playing soprano on (one of the album’s tracks) One And Four some nights on stage, but I like the way it came out on tenor on the recording. The tenor is quite close in range to my actual singing voice, and I love the flexibility of it.

The soprano is more like a laser, in my hands anyway. It's a little more demanding - whereas the tenor can be wide and warm one minute, piercing and angry the next.

LJN: Do you have favourite tenor players who have influenced you? 

TA: My main influences on tenor are Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Hank Mobley and Pete Christlieb. Very close behind them are Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and Harold Land. And of course, I learned a bunch of Charlie Parker solos… I’ve also studied language from Freddie Hubbard, Tom Harrell, Herbie Hancock, and Bud Powell. Many, many others too, but those are the ones who I’ve most consciously taken things from to build my style of playing.

LJN: Anyone coming up that particularly impresses you?

TA: Of the tenor players who are younger than me, I’m a big fan of John Ellis and Alex Garnett. They both have incredible technical facility, but what comes across is their love for and dedication to the music. Put another way, they are both loving individuals, and you hear that in their playing. Stylistically, I like what a bunch of the younger alto players are doing. Casey Benjamin, John O’Gallagher, Caleb Curtis and Andrew Gould are all guys I’m happy to pay money to listen to…

Tim Armacost is near the end of a European tour but still has UK dates with Michael Janisch on bass and Klemens Marktl on drums: tonight at Royal Academy of Music Festival; tomorrow Friday 17th Feb at The Verdict in Brighton, and on Saturday 18th Feb at The Archduke, London (this final date adds guitarist David Preston).

LINK: Whirlwind details and dates


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