Monday, January 11, 2010
Beau Bledsoe: The Plastic Sax Interview
Beau Bledsoe freely admits that he isn't a jazz musician. Yet he regularly collaborates with many of Kansas City's most adventurous jazz artists. Intrigued by his new Alaturka project, I recently conducted an extensive interview via email with Bledsoe. The unique insights of the accomplished guitarist should prove invaluable to Bledsoe's fellow musicians. Discriminating music fans might find Bledsoe's compelling perspective intriguing.
Plastic Sax: The list of accomplishments in your biography is almost overwhelming. You've seemingly been everywhere and played everything. Are you able to provide a concise description of your work as a musician?
Beau Bledsoe: I facilitate “auditory handshakes” between instrumentalists from Kansas City and artists from other parts of the world. I produce musical conversations that honor both artists’ cultural backgrounds and my vision of a new and interesting sound.
PS: You're remarkably versatile. Just how many different styles of music do you perform? And exactly how many instruments do you play?
BB: Most of my work is classical chamber music. I also perform Argentine Tango, Flamenco, Mexican Folkloric, and Turkish Music. I play the guitar and the Arabic oud, which I suspect are really the same thing.
PS: How many different musical settings did you perform in last year? What ensembles are your top priorities in 2010?
BB: If anything, my work is always changing month to month. Last year I composed and performed musical interludes for Carmen with the Kansas City Ballet. I worked in a great ensemble Flamenco Mio including KC tenor Mark Southerland and a great Flamenco dancer from Sevilla, Melinda Hedgecorth. I played a lot of local shows with my wife Zhanna Saparova who is also a great Flamenco dancer. A few Argentine tango shows and a Turkish festival in NYC. Brandon Draper and I did a ton of duo performances around KC. I think my personal favorite was an impromptu “Night of Boleros” at Café Sebastienne with Guatemalan violinist, Sergio Reyes and Paraguayan percussionist, Fernando Achúcarro. I really love those pretty old songs. I also played Baroque continuo for the Bach Aria Soloists and played with my friend Nathan Granner a lot. For January 2010 my top priority is Alaturka. We’re in the midst of recording and defining our sound at the same time. I also have a new recording coming out with Soprano, Victoria Botero that is very close to being finished.
PS: My sincere appreciation for a vast range of music often startles people. It even makes passionate advocates of just one sound angry. It seems only natural to me. I can't imagine limiting myself to just one type of music. What types of reactions do you get from listeners and fellow musicians as you jump between tango, jazz, classical and other styles?
BB: It’s impossible for me to stay in one place musically because the world is such a seductive place! It’s actually very rare that anyone gets theirs feathers ruffled. I can think of one instance last year where I played a classical chamber music concert with a local Baroque ensemble. The director asked me to perform a solo, so I chose an Ottoman classical piece performed on the oud from the same Baroque time period. I played it for all of the members of the ensemble and everyone was very excited about putting it on the program. It was a certain wealthy benefactor that became extremely upset afterwards that I would do such a thing. Most people never seem to be bothered by these kind of issues.
PS: How did you come to explore so many different musics? Did it happen as a result of your own curiosity, was it economic necessity or- this is my pet theory- did you just want to play with the best musicians you could find regardless of genre?
BB: I feel that it’s impossible to be an artist these days and not react to everything else that’s going on. I’m a result of the first internet generation that has access to just about anything we care to hear. I never think in terms of “world music” or “ethno-musicology”. It’s just the normal state of things now. I also love forcing my new interests onto everyone that I play with and seeing what happens.
Sometimes I’ll actively resist getting involved in another culture’s music. During my first trip to Istanbul, I told myself I really didn’t need to buy an oud. “I needed another interest like I needed another whole in my head.” Thankfully, my wonderful wife Zhanna bought one for me one our last day there as a Christmas present.
PS: Your YouTube channel offers a virtual trip around the globe. My favorite footage, incidentally, is of you and your friends Cacho and Martin. I think I like that guy's voice even more than Nathan Granner's. What's your favorite clip?
BB: That’s my favorite too. I love how Martín sings La Misma. I’ve been playing socially with these guys since the early 90’s. They live in a little town called Manuel Doblado in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. Maybe I’ll drag Nathan down there with me someday. He’d fit right in! The sad an amazing thing is that Martin’s voice is nothing special in central Mexico. He’s the local shrimp vendor and has never had a professional engagement in his life. In Mexico, people that sing well like him are very common. Most all Mexicans regularly get together to sing songs that have the same emotional resonance for teenagers as their grandparents. These Mexican Rancheras such as La Misma are the equivalent to a good country song.
PS: When you're performing in any given format, does your work in other styles come into play? For example, do you have to consciously attempt to block out your interest in jazz as you're working with a classical violinist?
BB: If I’m switching back and forth between styles during a concert it can be a bit jarring. All of these music styles come from a different place inside me and I have to get my head into that place before performing. If it’s only one genre for the whole evening, it’s never a problem. The different voices do tend to leak out and influence one another such as a big Flamenco strum during a performance of a Bach lute suite.
PS: Because you cross genres so frequently, you must have unique insights into what works and what doesn't work both artistically and financially. What have you learned about music and marketing that musicians who never stray from one genre might not understand?
BB: When Nathan Granner and I were touring a lot, (classical music) I almost never played in KC anymore. When I’d return home and run into people around town, I couldn’t tell them where I was going to be next and that made me feel out of touch with my own city. I slowly started building back my local presence and I’ve managed to strike a balance between local, national and international markets. From what I’ve observed, I think the bigger differences lie in the venues that you play in rather than the genres. If you earn locally in Classical Music or Jazz there is a real “glass ceiling” that we all know about. You have to leave occasionally and play out of the country or the next state over to get the better artist fees. Then what happens is that when you play locally, it becomes a special event. Look at what happens when someone like Deborah Brown performs in her own hometown.
PS: How did Tzigane, your record label, come about? What does Tzigane offer that musicians can't get elsewhere? What's the value of record labels in general in 2010?
BB: I can’t imagine ever wanting to be on a record label and Tzigane is actually not a real record label. Brad Cox, Jeff Harshbarger and myself formed Tzigane a few years ago as a response to the question “What are you up to these days?” Answering that simple question had become ridiculously complex as we were all playing in each others’ projects and there had become so many of them. We decided to form an “artistic umbrella” of all of our projects, recordings along with other like-minded artists. Then we could point people there for information and product. It is a “if you like this, try this” approach to marketing. We pool our finances together using sales from shared projects and that allows us to attend conventions and keep up the newsletter/website costs. Tzigane is just an effective loudspeaker for people to learn what were up to and nothing else.
PS: Please share a little bit about your relationship to jazz. I sense that you're a Django Reinhardt guy. Am I right? What elements of jazz most appeal to you?
BB: I’ve never been a jazz musician but I always seem to be around them. I often go to the Mutual Musicians Foundation after work with my guitar and the guys will invite me to jam but I don’t even know a single standard. I listen to a lot of jazz recordings (I’m a Wes Montgomery man myself) and go to many shows every week. I’m always in awe. Its’ very existence is really an amazing story that I often try to convey to people in other countries. When I play with my friends who are accomplished jazz musicians, sometimes I cannot discern what they are doing from magic. When I improvise, what comes out is usually in the vernacular of Flamenco or Turkish music so it has those kinds of scales and phrases.
PS: I believe that jazz must incorporate outside influences and embrace new ideas if it's to remain culturally relevant. It's not that the music is stagnant- the performance last week by Bobby Watson and Horizon at the Blue Room confirmed that- but only a tiny percentage of music fans currently appreciate it. Do you agree with me? And if so, do you consider your work with Alaturka as "important"?
BB: If there are polar attitudes in a genre it is indicative of the health of the genre. You need the conservative guys preaching the canon and the crazy guys blazing new trails and all the people in between to keep an art form vibrant and alive. Once that stops happening then you can put the nail in the coffin and proclaim it “dead”. It seems to me that music now is so “tiny percentage” niche based that everyone can make a place for themselves if they try. The fun thing about Alaturka is that we’re often at a loss as to what to do with it. There’s no precedent that we know of so there is a lot problem solving and invention, which usually results in something fresh to our ears. I do feel it’s important and inevitable that musicians from other genres and locations play together more and try to create something new.
PS: What was the inspiration for Alaturka? How did the band come together? Are you the leader or is it a collaborative effort? What are your plans and aspirations for Alaturka?
BB: When I travel to other parts of the world, all the musicians from other places seem to be insane over American Jazz. I tell them I’m from Kansas City and it always gives me a huge amount of clout. When I was in Istanbul there were a lot of artists trying to fuse Turkish music with Jazz music with fairly dismal results. I would often think to myself that if I could only get some of my KC Jazz musician friends to Istanbul, they could really cause some damage! It was so easy to hear the sound in my head that could be created. My philosophy to these kinds of collaborations is to utilize what I call the “auditory handshake”. I’ve always had a disdain for grafting one genre onto another because one of the genre inevitably gets short-changed. I can’t tell you how many Flamenco groups I’ve heard in Spain that have a Kenny G clone stuck into their ensemble for that special “jazzy” sound. By envisioning an equal “handshake” between two cultures, ideally both parties and cultures are treated with respect. This was the inspiration for forming Alaturka, which I do lead and arrange for. I submit the charts and book the dates but Rich Wheeler (tenor sax) is the most prominent musical voice. Sait Arat (darbuka) is from Istanbul and he’s managed to work his way into the scene here fairly quickly. He’s an amazing musician who is now regularly working with Mark Southerland and Mark Lowrey. Sait and I represent the Turkish part of the group and Rich and Jeff Harshbarger (bass) represent the jazz part. Most of our rehearsing is talking about how to get these two styles to mesh and retain what makes them both great. I’m not interested in having Rich and Jeff learn to play authentic Turkish music with the funny microtones and ornaments. I want them to sound like they already do. Although, we often play in strange time meters such as 9/8 and 10/8 which are very common in Turkey. My immediate plans for the group are to finish our first recording and play more festivals out of town. Sait has been getting us a lot of Turkish festival work around the country and we’ve even been touted as an example for east-west political relations “Hey if these guys can get along then blah blah…etc…”. This is of course very amusing for us. Our semi-regular dancer Burcu Suer, told us that her dad saw us on national television in Turkey. My ultimate goal is to get us all to Istanbul and show them the sound I was talking about at the beginning of this paragraph.
PS: You told me that a Sunday night Alaturka gig with a relatively hefty $10 cover attracted a full house at Jardine's. How'd you pull that off?
BB: Buy using the method and techniques touted by Plastic Sax of course! Facebook, Twitter, email, video, you name it! Actually $10 is on the low end but I wanted to get in the neighborhood of the typical jazz club cover. We charged $20 for the show the month before (Bluestem). I really think these musicians should make a living that somewhat reflects their efforts and if I can get audiences to come, why not? We actually got some ribbing from local jazz musicians about the $10 cover. Weird huh? We made good money that night and it allowed me to pay the guys that sat in with us too and that feels amazing!
PS: Are you a full-time musician? Do you earn a living solely through music?
BB: Yep. That’s all I do. Sometimes I think I should incur a happiness tax. I’ve only had one “worky job” since I’ve lived in KC when I moved here for grad school. I didn’t need it for long and that’s why I love it here.
PS: What Kansas City area musicians do you most respect?
BB: My immediate circle of friends/colleagues are the first to come to mind and they’re mostly Jazz guys. Jeff Harshbarger, Brad Cox, Rich Wheeler, Sam Wiseman, Brandon Draper. I really like what Matt Otto is doing and I hope to play with him soon. I could listen to Will Matthews all day. His sense of swing kills me. I always think he’s going to be too late and it’s just perfect. The classical violinist Elizabeth Suh Lane absolutely mystifies me with her abilities. She’s the best player I’ve ever sat next to.
PS: What's your favorite thing about the Kansas City music scene? Your least favorite?
BB: The musician community is outstanding. I feel my greatest wealth is the group of musicians I work with. There is an underlying etiquette that is part of the musician culture that does not seem to exist in other cities. If you financially undercut someone, everyone knows. If a club stiffs one of our own, everyone knows. We tend to take care of one another. The largest deficit is the communities’ famous self-esteem problem. I see this behavior mirrored in other musical communities around the world. I was staying in a very famous mid-size Flamenco town in southern Spain this summer and all anyone could talk about was how dismal the scene was. As an outsider, all I could see was 24/7 Flamenco. This place was swimming in it and everyone was complaining that it wasn’t there. It reminded me a lot of my jazz friends here in KC. I argue with them all the time about this - usually while we are at a great jazz club or rehearsing a cool new show.
PS: You've literally toured the world. Aside from Bobby Watson and a handful of people who trade in classical music, you're probably the most widely traveled locally-based musician. Wouldn't your life be easier if you moved to Europe, Turkey, Argentina or New York? Why do you keep returning to Kansas City?
BB: Hey, that sounds nice! I wonder this myself sometimes! In all seriousness, I know many musicians in larger cities and I’m not so sure life would be easier. I really like the huge metropolis feel but I’ve never lived in one. The thing with Kansas City is that it has a very attractive balance of work opportunities and low living cost. This has historically been the magic “goldilocks” zone for artists and Kansas City seems to be retaining more and more of them because of this. I get plenty of interesting and challenging work and I don’t need a day job. I bought a beautiful home three years ago and I have my first child due in March. I couldn’t have ever imagined doing that as a musician when I started out.
PS: I know you have a house concert on January 23. Please provide, if possible, a list of other opportunities for people to see you perform in the next few months.
Jan 24 House concert with percussionist Sait Arat
Jan 22 with saxophonist, Matt Otto at Café Sebastienne, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
Jan 27 Alaturka at R Bar
Feb 3-6 Concerts with violinist Elizabeth Suh Lane, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Feb 13 Alaturka, Café Sebastienne, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
Feb 21 Alaturka at Jardine’s jazz club
Mar 17 Concert with tenor Nathan Granner, Sacramento, California
Mar 27-28 Concerts with Bach Aria Soloists
April 23-25 “The Lewis and Carroll Expedition” Owen Cox Dance Group H&R Block City Stage Theater--Union Station
(Image provided by Bledsoe.)