Two interviews with Marc Hannaford

I first became aware of Marc Hannaford when I saw him play with Allan Browne, as part of their trio with bassist Sam Pankhurst. It was at one of the now legendary Allan Browne Monday Night gigs at Bennetts Lane and I was completely mind-blown. This was a trio of great empathy, playing music that seemed to go through the history of jazz, envisioning its future. One particular tune from the set stayed in my mind for a long time, perfectly capturing this ‘jazz of future past’ concept – Duke Ellington’s ‘The Mooche’, the melody diluted with abstract minimalism and daring ideas, while Allan Browne’s drumming invoked Sonny Greer’s spirit and the exotic, mystery sounds of the Ellington ‘Jungle Music’ era. I left the gig in a trance*.

Six months later, Allan Browne passed (“my man’s gone now” Julien Wilson wrote on Facebook) – last week he would have turned 75. The void he left in the Melbourne jazz community is still gaping.

In the meantime, Marc Hannaford moved to New York City, to teach music theory at Columbia University and continue growing into the brilliant improvised music explorer he is and has always been. These days he is back to Australia, touring with his New York trio.

The first interview posted below is about this tour.

The second is about the Browne-Hannaford-Pankhurst trio and that gig, which was recorded and released last year, aptly titled Monday Dates. We did this at the time, but for some reason, I had it shelved all that time*. I think it’s long overdue.

Marc Hannaford Q&A #1: “Improvisation and navigating complex composed material is a fraught and risky process”

How has your experience in New York been so far?

New York is both an amazing and incredibly challenging place. Perhaps the biggest challenge constitutes balancing my academic research with maintaining a community of musical collaborators. Both activities require an extraordinary amount of time and energy. Luckily I know many inspiring musicians and academics, and these people both encourage my work and generate inspiring work themselves.

Talking and working with academics such as Ellie Hisama, George Lewis, Paul Steinbeck, Brent Hayes Edwards, and Andrew Goldman has shaped my thinking, writing, and teaching. Publishing and presenting my research is also an extremely rewarding part of my academic life. I will never forget meeting and talking with Muhal Richard Abrams and Evan Parker – two musicians whose work I hold in the highest regard – during my PhD. It was also an honour to work with Roscoe Mitchell on one of his transcription/orchestration projects, now released on Ride the Wind. Finally, writing, correlating, and spearheading what turned out to be a successful petition against the firing of Mitchell from Mills College with Tyshawn Sorey felt like a victory against the defunding of creative and experimental practice at the university level.

Musically, one of the biggest highlights is working with Satoshi Takeishi and Simon Jermyn on my music over an extended period. I could not have asked for more empathetic and virtuosic collaborators, and each New York performance we have done has been a highlight of my life here. I am very excited to perform with this group in Australia in August. I also recently performed a set of Anthony Braxton’s music with Ingrid Laubrock, Tom Rainey, Erica Dicker, and Dan Peck at the Stone’s concert series, as well as a set of Ingrid’s original music with her, Josh Modney, and Sam Pluta at National Sawdust. Both of these performances were incredibly challenging, fulfilling, and fun, and in many ways represent the musical world that feels most like home in this city.

Additionally, listening to and/or playing with Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Peter Evans, Nicole Mitchell, Tim Berne, Ben Gerstein, Linda Oh, Kris Davis, Ralph Alessi, Matt Mitchell, Anna Webber, Michael Formanek, Kate Gentile, Nicola Hein, Jen Shyu, Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby, Dan Weiss, Jim Black, John Hebert, Thomas Heberer, Daniel Levine, Devin Gray, Elias Stemeseder, in addition to the musicians listed above, keeps me inspired.

I also continue to listen to my fellow Australians for inspiration: Scott Tinkler, Simon Barker, James McLean, Erkki Veltheim, Sean Wayland, Stu Hunter, Phil Slater, Anthony Pateras, Paul Williamson, Andrew Gander, and Steve Barry, amongst others, have all recently released incredible original music that continues to galvanize my creative energy.

What are you going to present at your Australian tour? What should the audience expect?

Throughout this tour we will perform a selection of my original compositions from the past six years. My musical voice has evolved considerably during this time, so the sound of this trio contrasts markedly with a lot of the music I made while I lived in Australia. This music also incorporates electronics, which is a relatively recent addition to my work.

“Overall, audiences can expect to hear an empathetic and energetic trio perform my intricate compositions, which feature undulating rhythmic patterns, liminal harmonic fields, melodic twists, and a very wide sonic palette.

What are your expectations from the audience?

For me a good audience commits to following the musical journey that the group navigates on stage. Performing and improvising with the rather complex material that I composed for this group requires us to maintain a laser-sharp focus throughout our sets, and knowing and feeling that the audience is present for this journey is a huge part of what makes live performance so special. Furthermore, vulnerability also comprises a large portion of musical performance: improvisation and navigating complex composed material is a fraught and risky process. A committed and attentive audience injects energy into the room that helps us perform at our best.

What would you say to introduce your current trio?

Simon Jermyn and Satoshi Takeishi comprise the other members of my trio, and both musicians are rightly regarded as important figures in the New York improvised music scene. Simon and Satoshi bring a beautiful commitment to this music that incorporates attentiveness to the details of my compositions, awareness of group dynamics during improvisation, and highly developed and personal respective approaches to making music. These are some of the qualities that I look for in collaborators. I also value their openness to approaching the material in contrasting ways as the group evolves, their ability to recognize when more or less assertive approaches can facilitate new musical spaces during performance, and their deep relationship to various musical traditions without being beholden to them.

How did this trio come to be?

I met Satoshi and Simon through mutual friends: they are both known in New York as musicians who can seamlessly shift between complex written material, structured improvisation, and more open collective improvisation; in short, they are central parts of the musical community that I identify with. The group coalesced around a shared commitment to working on difficult musical materials together, without pressuring ourselves to produce concerts or recordings. Rather, we decided to work on these compositions for the sake of improving our collective musical abilities, and only began performing once it felt natural to do so. This tour of Australia in many ways feels like the capstone of this project.

Your performance at the Newsagency is part of the SIMA/ Freedman New Jazz series; how do you view such initiatives?

SIMA, the Freedman Foundation, and the Newsagency are each crucial nodes in the larger network of Australian jazz and improvised music.

“As the 2013 Freedman jazz fellow, it is amazing to be able to come back to Sydney and share some of developments in my creative practice since I moved almost seven years ago.

I vividly remember enjoying my performance at the Sydney Opera House during the finals for Freedman Fellowship in 2013 and was very grateful to receive the support from the Freedman Foundation. Of course, my artistic development continues, so it is even more heartening that the Foundation extends its support in the form of co-presenting my trio’s Sydney concert with one of the longest running advocates for Australian jazz, the Sydney Improvised Music Association (SIMA). I am very grateful to SIMA for all that they do to present jazz in Australia and support the national scene, and especially for their support for this tour by hosting us at the Newsagency.

Part of your academic work is focused on female jazz and improvised music artists; why did you choose this subject?

One of my primary academic interests is on intersections between music and constructions of gender, race, sexuality, and other categories of identity. In short, it is remarkable how often essentialist ideas regarding identity intertwine with artistic imperatives, including those related to production, reception, analysis, and history, among others.

“Put another way, my research explores some of the ways that various creative practices push back against narrow associations between identity categories (or their combination) and expectations as to what those artists should do, look like, and/or sound like.

My recently completed dissertation on Muhal Richard Abrams, pianist, composer, and cofounder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), explores some of these issues, particularly race in relation to both the so-called binary between improvisation and composition, as well as music theory. My 2017 article, ‘Subjective (Re)positioning in Musical Improvisation: Analyzing the Work of Five Female Improvisers’, foregrounds gender-based discrimination in jazz communities and some of the ways that female musicians situate their creative practice in relation to those attitudes.

What is the main thing that helped you improve as an artist?

I do not think that I can reduce this down to just one thing, so I outline three points that I feel help me improve as an artist.

First, practice a lot. The physical and cognitive fluidity that improvisation requires means that we must feel intimately connected to both the physical and artistic materials that we are dealing with, and this fluidity only emerges when one invests significant amounts of time with those materials.

Second, spent the majority of your practice time on things that you cannot already do. If you are not regularly failing in the practice room, then you are not improving. Practice for me is a process of finding and identifying ideas that I cannot execute but would like be able to, and then devising exercises and compositions that force me to incorporate them. It is extremely important to focus intensely on your task at hand. That may range from relatively general aspects such as sound production and dynamics to more formalistic materials such as particular harmonic or rhythmic structures. Practicing this way can be hard because it means constantly struggling and failing often. It therefore also requires a level of honesty about ones playing that can be brutal to repeatedly confront in the practice room. In my experience, however, it is the most productive way to work on my creative practice.

Last, work on the ideas and concepts that excite you most, not those that you feel like you should do. As Paul MacNamara once told me, creative fulfilment ultimately comes from developing one’s own ideas about music, not someone else’s. This is not to say that the ultimate metric of creativity is necessarily originality or novelty, but personally I prefer to see and hear things that exceed my imagination, and this kind of creativity only comes from bravely and constantly exploring one’s own ideas about music, sound, and art. This approach can be isolating, so I would also recommend finding others who are either interested in overlapping ideas, or at least have a similar drive towards experimentation and individuality.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

Here is some music that I have been listening to a lot lately. I don’t think that these pieces literally describe my state of mind, but I think that they are inspiring!

The Dark Pattern – Phil Slater

De Sica – Shekuza

Road and Coil – Simon Barker

VWETO II – Georgia Anne Muldrow

Glace – Desmond White

Flight of the Wig – Psalm One

A Quiet Farewell, 2016-2018 – Slauson Malone

Phalanx Ambassadors – Matt Mitchell

The Mansion – Brett Naucke

Flamagra – Flying Lotus

FM!- Vine Staples

Clockwise – Anna Webber

Play Braxton – Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser, Gerry Hemingway

Piano Concerto, Invocation, Spur, Fama, Retour an dich & Lotofagos I – Beat Furrer

Marc Hannaford is touring around Australia:

Listen & Purchase

Marc Hannaford Q&A #2: “Al, Sam, and I loved jazz from all eras”

Why did you decide to release Monday Dates?

Al, Sam, and I were always planning to release these recordings. We felt that they really capture the feeling and sound of many of our live gigs. I think of Monday Dates as a counterpoint to our first record, Lost in the Stars, which began as a conceptual project around Mary Lou Williams and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In contrast, Monday Dates captures the openness, patience, and joy with which the trio interacted with more standard jazz repertoire.

We had already picked some takes when Al passed, but it took me a long, long time to get to a point where I could confront the music again. Thus part of the reason why we are releasing the music now is because it took so long for me to go back and listen to the recordings and to read Al’s old emails.

“Recording provides an ontological grounding for ephemeral occurrences – it testifies that something existed or that it happened. Documentation is extremely important, especially in Australia where local history is so often subsumed under an America-centric history of jazz and culture. Monday Dates is our testament to the live sound of our trio.

What is the history of this trio?

Al and I used to have a trio with bassist Sam Anning. When Sam A. moved to New York in 2010, Al and I started looking around for other bass players to play with. I met Sam Pankhurst during a trip to Brisbane in 2009, and he had moved to Melbourne just after Sam A had moved to New York. The three of us started playing together and felt that the trio had great potential.

Sam P brought a new kind of energy to the group that pushed Al and me to renegotiate the way we played together. As with any new group, it took a moment for the group to click, but once it did we really felt that we were on to something. Al began including the group in his roster of groups for his Monday-night residence at Bennetts Lane. Over time we worked up both a large set of jazz repertoire and the set of material that went on to become our first record.

“The group adopted a highly experimental approach to canonic jazz repertoire – we pushed each other to follow our musical lines of thinking beyond what felt comfortable or obvious. New vistas of musical exploration opened up as the group pushed itself, which subsequently afforded further exploration – a beautiful feedback loop emerged from our creative experimentation.

Furthermore, a group cannot play music with such a philosophy unless it is bound together by trust. For us, that meant committing to our improvised negotiation of musical space even as we were unsure of where we were headed. It also meant not blaming one another if a performance turned out to be less-than-satisfactory – we would simply try again and trust in the process. To commit to those ideas you have to trust and support the musicians you work with, and those traits were foundational to the experimental aesthetic of this group. Our recording of ‘Daydream’ on Monday Dates is an apposite example of this process, to my mind.

When one commits to the notion of group improvisation as the collective negotiation musical space, it becomes difficult or impossible to distinguish between the contributions of each of its members. Thus, although our respective musical aesthetics both overlapped and contrasted and we explored and negotiated our conceptual and aesthetic commonalities and differences during improvisation, at no point can one point to the influence of a particular member without also considering the web of relations between the three of us. Put differently, collective improvisation imbricates each member of the trio in a set of entangled relations such that the identity of the group is not reducible to its individual members.

This trio managed to go back to the source of jazz, re-imagining decades-old compositions, and bringing new life to them; how did you approach this material?

The group’s repertoire developed as part of the trust-based process that I mentioned above – suggesting and exploring musical directions that did not have a clearly-defined direction or goal during performance meant expanding our idea of the kinds of musical spaces that those compositions afforded. The more we pushed ourselves beyond our comfort zones, the more the compositions opened up to us.

“On a pragmatic level, this group functioned with as little reference to printed music as possible – we learnt and memorized the vast majority of our material from recordings. Al would ask me to either send him the specific version of a piece that I was using as a reference, or send him a recording of myself playing through the tunes. He would learn the material – however complex – in this way. We would then arrive at our gig early if we felt like we needed to run through the material.

Al, Sam, and I loved jazz from all eras. The group’s repertoire reflects that affinity. Al also represents a strain of jazz history in his own right – I spent many years listening and studying his work with the Red Onions, Paul Grabowsky and Gary Costello, Andrea Keller and Tamara Murphy, Tim Stevens and Nick Haywood, and his quintets. Playing with Al also furnished me with an outlet for my interest in pre-bebop jazz piano – Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, Lil Hardin, Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, etc. – without pressure to reverently recreate that style. Al was not terribly interested in authentic recreation inasmuch as he was in exploring the playful, joyful, and experimental spirit of jazz and improvised music.

Some of the pieces on Monday Dates came from more personal sources. Al suggested Mal Waldron’s ‘Warm Canto’ because he played with Waldron multiple times on the latter’s visit to Australia. He also often mentioned Peggy Lee’s version of ‘Where or When’ when we played it, and always loved playing Monk.

 

What was the significance of Allan Browne’s Monday residency at Bennetts Lane?

From a social perspective, Al’s residency helped establish a close-knit network of musicians and music-lovers. I was a regular attendee at Al’s Monday gigs long before I began playing with him, and those gigs allowed me to hear and meet a host of musicians that I had only ever heard on record.

“Regular attendees of Al’s Monday gigs understood that Bennetts operated differently during those nights compared to others: there was usually only one person working the bar (Jeremy or Meg), the pace of the evening was slower and more relaxed, and the atmosphere was often more like a gathering of friends in someone’s living room than a gig at a club. Al’s onstage announcements embodied that climate – dry, absurd, surrealist, and hilarious literary performances in their own right. Al’s references to floorshows, tantric practices, T.S. Eliot, piers-jetties-breakwaters, and Monk’s meeting with Australian television executives were mainstays during the time that I was there, and I’m sure that other musicians have a host of additional recollections. To me, Al’s announcing represents the dual irreverence and earnestness of Australian larrikinism – an ironic play on the showbiz aspects of jazz performance that both poked fun at and embraced the artifice of public performance.

From a musical perspective, a central tenet of any residency is its regularity, and regularity allows bands to develop their respective approaches to repertoire and improvisation in a way that is difficult to mimic otherwise. Al’s Monday residency thus afforded me with an opportunity to learn and experiment with repertoire in a way that I have never experienced. Monday nights at Bennetts with Al came to feel so comfortable, and that comfort was foundational to our process of musical experimentation.

How would you describe Allan Browne’s legacy, in general – and on a personal level?

I do not suppose that I can summarize Al’s legacy here. It is too robust, encompasses too many people, and reverberates in too many different ways for me to capture. That answer requires a book project, which I hope someone adopts.

“Musically, Al allowed me to engage with the history of jazz in a way that I have not really found anywhere else. It is rare to hear, meet, and regularly perform with someone whose knowledge of the music is as deep as his was while also avoiding a dogma of authentic recreation. I feel luck to have had this opportunity and hope to pass on these ideas on to others.

Personally, whenever I think of Al I think of his generosity, intelligence, and warmth. Those are personal traits that I hope to embody.

Soon after these recordings you relocated to New York; how was that transition to you?

My transition to living in New York was in many ways a common one – I both was excited at the prospect of exploring new communities of musicians and missed the ones I had back in Australia. My excitement and longing oscillated such that my overall feeling about my move often changed each day. Certain events accentuated either side of the equation – I was getting to hear and see some of my heroes perform live for the first time and was in a new and stimulating intellectual environment at Columbia University, but was also sometimes struck by the irrecoverability of what I had left behind.

What part of the trio did you carry along in your ‘luggage’?

I cannot itemize the aspects of the trio that I brought with me to New York: suffice to say that those musicians are a fundamental part of who I am. I still love the repertoire we played, although I do not publicly perform it very often any more. I had trouble playing or listening to music for about eight months when Al passed away – it was the first time in my life that I lost the desire to involve myself with music for an extended period. Eventually that feeling abated. Even so, I avoided the repertoire that I associate with him for a long time.

I eventually returned to the piano and music, although it certainly feels like the part of my musical being that obsesses with standards and early jazz has temporarily receded. I have enjoyed focusing on improvisation and my original compositionsnew parts of my musical self are emerging.

Perhaps the most tangible and ongoing reverberation of my time with Al is the sonic imprint left by Billie Holiday’s 1930s and 1940s Columbia recordings and Miles Davis’ famous live recording from 1964. Al adored these recordings and almost always had something from this collection playing prior to and between his sets at Bennetts Lane. These recordings are my madeleine – whenever they come on I am transported back to those gigs with Al. The introductory track on Monday Dates is meant to capture that feeling – the sound and feeling of the room before and as we start playing.

Where do you see your music going from here?

I try not to plan out my musical future. I will continue to work on my music, collaborate with others, and perform. New York is great for finding new and unexpected collaborators. I enjoy improvising outside of my comfort zone – it is a productive counterpoint to the work I do with my regular groups. My goal with both activities is to arrive at a deeper understanding of my core aesthetic tenets and see how those interact with others.

Music is a community practice in many ways. My musical self is an amalgam of the people I currently interact with and those with whom I have interacted with in the past, but remains perpetually unfinished. Allan Browne is undoubtedly a core aspect of my musical selfI would not be who I am if it were not for him.

LISTEN & PURCHASE

*[Ed. Note – For me, that gig also marked a seminal moment – the official change of guard here at the Australian Jazz website, when founding editor Miriam Zolin decided to step down and hand it over to me. Miriam took me to that gig and introduced me to people as the new editor. So this album documents something personal for me too. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t post the interview all this time. Who knows?]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *