Light at Night

The Downbeast interview, Part 2. By Matthew Duersten

June 25, 2007

Spinning The Circle, David Witham's second solo album since 1988's self-released On-Line, shows the pianist's versatility with jazz, world beat, and jamband influenced originals—from the breakbeat electronica of "The Neon" to the gentle balladry of "Who Knows." But he brings some heavy-hitters along for the ride. "My associations with the members of this ensemble span the last thirty-some years, basically the course of my musical career thus far," Witham writes in the liner notes. They include guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Scott Amendola are both on board, as are pedal steel guitarist (and frequent Bill Frisell collaborator) Greg Leisz, bassist Jay Anderson, woodwind player Jon Crosse, and percussionist Luis Conte.

Leisz' pedal steel is integral to "N.O. Rising", an enticing tribute to post-Katrina uplift that implies the New Orleans influence without becoming pastiche, and then draws on the influence of sacred steel bands for Leisz' plaintive solo. Bassist Jay Anderson's tune "Momentuum" takes a left turn into more familiar territory, a sparse, improvisatory venture, with plenty of interactive give-and-take among the ensemble hung upon the hook of Witham's keening melody on the accordion. Conte's Latin-inflected beat drives "The Circle," and he and Amendola unite for what is almost a four-handed percussion solo; the heavy beat fades, though, for what is one of Witham's most graceful solos, almost a dance between the pianist and bassist Anderson. Witham and Anderson have been friends and colleagues over 25 years, and their musical relationship continues to grow and develop.

The spotlight truly focuses on the leader during "Light and Life", however. Paring the ensemble down to a trio with Amendola and Anderson, Witham conjures an intimate piece of personal revelation. With evocative prompting from his rhythm section compatriots, Witham creates great drama without ever sacrificing the whispering quality of his sensual playing. "Afrobeat" takes nearly four minutes to deliver on its title, utilizing a lengthy electronics-heavy intro to fuse a hybrid of tradition and innovation. A harsh electro-acoustic fusion accelerates into a few moments of avant-chamber playing before Anderson intrudes with a grooving bassline, soon accompanied by Conte's percussion. Crosse carries the sharp corners of the opening minutes into the danceable rhythms, however, with an angular soprano sax solo. After another brief chamber interlude, Witham takes an electric solo that recalls Miles' 70s bands with Airto Moreira and Chick Corea. The album ends on an almost wistful note, with Leisz returning to add a nostalgic gloss over the loping "Con Quien."

After such a wide-ranging group of songs, it's almost like looking back with equal parts longing and exhaustion after a long but pleasurable journey, Witham being an ideal tour guide. Here is Part II of our recent chat with the Maestro himself:

Q: What was the concept behind Spinning the Circle?

DAVID WITHAM: Well, uh, the concept was "Let's make a record" [laughs] Or, more importantly, "To get some guys in a room and play some live music." Jeff [Gauthier] had offered to produce one in 2001 and told me, "Just do it when you're ready." Well, suddenly it's like 2006: 'Well? What are you going to do here?' I had songs flying around and I was trying to figure out how to make them an integrated thing, some sort of musical journey. I also had some new song ideas I had kicking around, so I finally set a deadline. The hardest thing to do was getting all these guys in the same room at the same time. That took nearly a year. I thought, 'Okay were gonna be done in a month' and then 11 months later we did the record. We're all freelance people, and there's no regularity in what we do. That gave me more time to work on the songs. Conceptually, this was spooking me the whole way: 'Who are you? You play with everybody and you do all of this different stuff, but what's in your Soul?' I had put the idea of doing the record to the side for awhile when I started producing my cable-access show Portable Universe. The whole idea of that was to showcase groups I was playing with and artists who I felt had kind of slipped through the cracks, and along the course of that process, I find myself being a kind of an 'observer of artists' and how people make art. Take a guy like Nels Cline. He's not trying to put anything in the bag, he's just trying to be Nels, and it kind of filters through all his different interests, from classical music to Sonic Youth. And I realized it's not about putting anything in a bag, if you're interested in a lot of stuff, you try not to make it into a pastiche of your record collection or whatever, you try to filter it through your sensibility so it doesn't sound like you're aping somebody else. I thought, 'I like different kinds of music so I just gotta put my take on this stuff and not get too literal about any one aspect of it.'

Like the song "Afrobeat"—of course, I'm not going to sound like Fela's band, I didn't grow up in Nigeria, but I liked it and I wanted to do something that was kind of nutty and had those rhythms in it, so that's how that one came out. That was like three different ideas that I finally realized, 'Oh you can have this rhythm with this idea' and it all kind of fell into place and made sense. Same thing with the drum 'n' bass track, "The Neon." I like that DJ stuff—what they used to call "Jungle" but it has drum 'n' bass concepts, and it's real open and I like the up-tempo aspects and the chattery drumbeats. But I'm one of those guys, so I'm not gonna do it just like them. I want to use live guys and try to get that vibe with the approaches that are real to me after playing in bands and being pretty versed in the studio.

I actually got the bends from the segue from "The Neon" into "Who Knows," which is a beautiful, almost humanistic ballad without any of the vague "technological alienation" of the previous track.

Yeah, that's the whole thing. I like stuff with beats, I like pretty ballads, I like free improvisation, I like funky stuff…that can get confusing for anybody, a listener in particular. I thought about doing a whole drum n' bass record, but then I thought 'This is going to get boring.' Because I'm just not _that_ deep into it. I'm not one of those 'guys.' So I thought, 'Well how can I have a funky tune and a pretty ballad and some free improv and some tonal free improv?' I said, 'Well, just do it and it'll fall into place and then it becomes more of a journey'—that was definitely part of the ethos behind this. I like to go on a musical journey. I hate to say 'in the old days' but on radio DJs were given a lot more leeway in terms of what they could play, and that's what those guys did back in the day: they took you on a journey with the music that moved them, no matter how eclectic it was. And that's what this record is all about: It has a bit of an arc to it with all the elements I like.

Why did you decide on this specific congregation of players?

I have a lot of friends, and a lot of them happen to be unbelievable musicians. Some thing's don't change—my taste in musicians hasn't. I picked them because they're my friends and because I trust their musical judgment. I mean, I've been working with Jay Anderson since the beginning—talk about a foundation! I cut my teeth playing gigs with this guy and we're best friends, so I knew he was going to be on it. Drums were a little harder, but I've really been digging what Scott Amendola's been doing lately, what he's brought to Nels' group and his own bands. I thought, 'This is a guy that gets most of the eclectic stuff I'm into.' Actually, I was pleasantly surprised because I told him I wanted to do an Afrobeat kind of song and it turned out he was a total Afrobeat nut, and he hipped me to a bunch of stuff I was unfamiliar with so it was an unexpected surprise. Greg Leisz, I've known him since the early 80s. We used to play in these soul bands down in Laguna with songwriter Jack Tempchin [Googlin' note: Tempchin wrote the hits "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and "Already Gone" for the Eagles] We played in a band called the Breeze Brothers, and we did everything from Ornette Coleman to Hank Williams covers in these tiny little dive bars like the White House, the Sandpiper and the Quiet Woman. A guy like Jon Crosse, here's a guy who has a childlike sense of openness and wonder and he can play every brass and wooden instrument ever made and a wonderful arranger and just a wonderful musical sensibility. I knew he had to be there. And Greg, I love the way he plays but I had no idea how I could integrate it into what I do, but he did just fine.

Do you find that being 'genreless' can be a label all itself, or a hindrance, something that confuses people and makes them think, "Man this guy can't settle on any one thing"?

Well, yeah, there's that. But the way the music business is going, and the way they've kind of "niche-ified" listening tastes, they do all these marketing and testings and I just can't believe that any one person listens to just one thing, and wouldn't be receptive to anything else outside of that. A lot of times when the Powers That Be do all of this research and focus groups or what have you, they kind of miss the point. Why not expose people to something different? It's a richer way to go for everybody.

OK then, I'll give you a chance to go ahead pigeonhole yourself before anybody else gets a chance to. Is it that dirty word "fusion"? Can we use that term?

[laughs] I don't know, it's certainly a fusion of different stuff, I would call it "fusion" in the pejorative sense…

The term "fusion" was pejorative for awhile, but it's turned around in recent years…Yeah. Life is a journey, isn't it? It's so rich, then my path is a little more meandering than others, I like to spend time on the side of the road at this one roadhouse before I move on to something else.

Let me read this recent quote about you and your coterie of L.A. jazz musicians from Nate Chinen of the New York Times: "It isn't really free jazz, though free-form playing is involved, and it's not fusion, though it's unimaginable without the precedent of Bitches Brew and the Headhunters." Even the New York Times is confused!

Yeah, well, what do you call it in the post-modern world where everything supposedly has been said already? That is the conundrum of artists at this point, and it is hard to stay in one place because of what's happening in culture: short attentions spans, music videos, iPods, the Internet, You Tube, satellite cable—I mean, I've actually sat and counted how many cuts in a typical 3-minute music video—three hundred-plus cuts! It was dizzying! It's the information overload age, so I guess maybe this is music for the times. It's certainly informed by the past while trying to look towards the future.

Do you have any non-musical influences on your music? Like I was thinking of that short film Neon Hunters you made with Matt Cohn and then having "The Neon" as your opening track? I mean, I thought about it, and a lot of your music does sound very, uh, "neon-esque", film noirish, atmospheric…

Really? Cool!

Yeah, some of the critics who analyzed your playing with the Goatette seem to mention your style as being very "film noirish"—conjuring up images of vaguely sinister rainswept streets, things like that.

Yeah, that whole Neon Hunter period of my life was a grand thing, it was the beginning of this reawakening and examination of all of these artists via this TV show I had. Lately, I've found myself totally invigorated by these neon artists we saw at the Museum of Neon Art. One in particular is Candice Gawne. I gave her a shout-out on the liner notes of the new record. She'd just a wonderful painter and light sculptress and she's definitely an influence on this record. She's someone who has a vision of nature and makes it come out in her art. It's a mixed-medium thing: She blows glass in the shapes of jellyfish and starfish and pumps them full of plasma gas, which brings out these incredible colors. The thing about her is the concept of "Light at Night"—that's very definitely something that's influenced this record at lot. Light at night, not just neon. Another piece on the record, "Light and Life," came from an improvisation I did for a video profile I did on Candice, where you go into the darkened room and you see all these illuminated sea creatures. Norton Wisdom is another big influence. He and Nels came on Portable Universe early on, like 1999-2000, and I just loved his spirit. He'll just spew something out and people will yell "Stop! You're done!' but then he'll either draw over that or take this squeegee and it's gone, and he's on to something else. The sheer output of that guy blows my mind.

What would you tell any George Benson or Al Jarreau fans who would sit down and listen to Spinning The Circle?

I'd say "This is something else!" [laughs] This is "the secret life," as Nels likes to say, "The Art Life."

What do you think Nels means by that?

Well, Nels is the kind of guy who in the pursuit of his vision or his muse would take a day gig so he could do the gigs he wanted to do. For me, I love playing with George Benson and Al Jarreau, these guys are some of the finest musicians on Planet Earth, and I am honored and privileged to be in that position. But as much as I love it, those gigs support my Secret Life. It's not really a day job, because one should be so lucky to have such a day job! But again, a lot of these gigs support my Art Habit, so to speak, and I have nothing but mountains of respect for what they've done, what they've accomplished, what they've been through—George had had five different careers in the music business in the time he's been out there. Here's a guy who's not afraid to be a crooner, not afraid to be the baddest jazz guitar player on the planet. Some critics say it's psychotic because it's all over the place: "What, you don't like this? OK, we'll play something you like." He just doesn't want to keep the blinders on. The timid side of me may not want to play it for someone who is a stone cold Al Jarreau fan, but on the other hand, why not? Who am I to say? Ultimately, guess I'd say: "Don't be afraid - let me take you on a journey through the world of music via my ears. You'll have a good time, and maybe even get to hear something new to you."

Both you and Nels have albums coming out while you're touring with other acts. What is that like? Do you sell you own CDs after the shows?

I haven't quite screwed myself up to do that yet. Some of my predecessors have actually done that where they finish the show and they're out there in the lobby selling CDs as the crowd leaves. It's a little too much "piggybacking" for my tastes. I understand it though. When you're doing it all by your lonesome you gotta find every chance you can to promote, but I couldn't do it. Besides, it kind of confuses the issue. "Well, who is this guy and why is he selling CDs of himself when I just saw George Benson?" They come there to see George, pure and simple, not me.

I have one final question, but it's a doozy: We were talking about diversity as a talent: you, Nels, Leisz, George Benson…For freelance musicians, how much is the diversity of your playing determined by your love of diverse music versus how much of that diversity is just sheer survival, needing to acclimate to any situation?

God, that's a good question. You might be interested in different kinds of music, but being interested in it versus actually doing it, for someone or with someone, are certainly two different things. Liking the music is certainly going to help you, but a lot of the times you might not be on the mark for them! I think of a scene in that Chuck Berry movie Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll! when Keith Richards is trying to play the "Johnny B. Goode" lick and Berry was like, "That ain't it" and they got into a fight over it! He was totally fucking with Keith, and the truth was, Richards wasn't playing that lick right, or at least he wasn't playing it like Chuck did, but Chuck was also fuckin' with him on top of that, he was definitely getting in his grill a little bit. But moments like that one: you listen to stuff for years and love this stuff but to actually get in the room with someone like that and be there, you find yourself along the lines of "Geez, maybe I didn't know as much about this as I thought I did" and then your survival instincts kick in, your experience, your musicianship. For me, if I was going to accept a gig as a freelancer to work with somebody at this point it would probably be someone I'm at least familiar with, and you hope that's gonna carry you through, but it doesn't always.

So if you got a call tomorrow from a Norwegian Death Metal band…

Well, I'd be wondering why they were calling me, first of all. 'Is there something you'd like me to do, that you want me to bring to the table?'

Yeah, yourself. So they can eat you.