Latvian Linguists and Lost Photographs
Rob Burger talks with RootsWorld's Michael Stone
There are recordings whose first exhalation transports the listener to an extraordinary parallel universe of the sonically sublime. To wit, Lost Photograph, a droll, fanciful menagerie of found and retro sounds whose fluid, playful soulfulness mark a brilliantly cohesive but unobtrusively conceived effort, commissioned by John Zorn for Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture Series.
Long Island native and multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger (accordion, piano, toy and prepared pianos, claviola, celeste, Hammond S-6 organ, pump organ, bass harmonica, glockenspiel, Indian banjo, chamberlin, orchestron, marxophone, Casio keyboard, shortwave radio, music boxes) has played with Tin Hat Trio, Don Byron, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Susana Baca and Norah Jones, among others. On Lost Photograph he heads a trio whose fluent rhythm section comprises bassist Greg Cohen (Lou Reed, Tom Waits, John Zorn) and drummer Kenny Wollesen (Frisell, Norah Jones, John Zorn).
What are your earliest musical memories? What role did music play at home as you were growing up?
Tell me something about your musical formation.
The jazz program was run by a very hip teacher named Don Palmer. Not only did he introduce me to the music of Duke Ellington and the arrangements of Thad Jones, but he also was really into the more modern sounds of that time, the late 1970s and early 1980s, like Tower of Power and Weather Report. We actually performed tunes from the first Jaco Pastorius album in school big band concerts.
I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and had the opportunity to study and play with Yusef Lateef, Archie Shepp and Max Roach. In addition, I studied classical performance with Nigel Coxe, who also taught at the Royal Academy of London.
After graduation, I moved back home to New York, where I spent a lot of time taking in the music that was happening at the Knitting Factory in the late 1980s. About a year later, I moved to Portland, Oregon, with friend and collaborator Mark Orton, one third of the Tin Hat Trio. There I also landed a gig playing accordion in the Bill Frisell Band, with Joey Baron, Kermitt Driscoll, and then Don Byron. Bill and I continued to work together here and there, doing soundtracks for various films and such, including the score he composed for Gary Larson's animated TV special, "Tales From the Far Side." Working with him fresh out of school was an education all in itself.
What brought you to John Zorn, or was it the other way around?
Regarding the lineup of Lost Photograph, how do three guys come off sounding like an entire orchestra?
As far as the players are concerned, Kenny Wollesen, in addition to being an extremely versatile drummer, happens to be a great vibes player, and he collects various tuneful percussion instruments, vintage electronic beat boxes and so forth. Bassist Greg Cohen is also an incredible arranger and producer. He is really into using extended techniques on his instrument, exploring a variety of sounds with the bass. Both share a philosophical outlook in their approach to their instruments and various styles of music. They know how to be inventive individually and yet, they approach the music to create a unified sound as a band. Of course, they also have played a lot together, mostly in Zorn's original Masada band. Having this rhythm section as an anchor essentially assured me that not much could go wrong in the session.
You're a collector of unusual instruments whose found-sound quality gives Lost Photograph its odd sonic charm. Tell me about your collection, motivation and so forth.
These instruments have such a human quality to them. I am drawn to the nature of these acoustic-mechanical instruments because they can evoke certain naïve qualities of the people they were originally intended for. The fact that there are very few obstacles I mean the modern electronics of digital machines and effect pedals common today between myself as the player and the instrument, forces one by nature to draw out a very individual approach.
Speaking of untamed collections, one association Lost Photograph brings to mind is the work of Supergenerous, comprising Brazilian multiple percussionist Cyro Baptista and guitar wizard Kevin Breitt. Comments?
I have a series of questions playing off the track titles on Lost Photograph. "The Couch Episode" is an ambiguous, suggestive designation. Too much TV, make-out session, psychoanalysis or...? In a funny way, the spirit of Tom Waits seems to hover here.
It's funny that you associate the sound with Waits. I am a big fan of Tom's music and have had the opportunity to watch him work in the studio when Tin Hat Trio collaborated with him on our second record, Helium. I am especially inspired by his use of found-sound and "prepared" objects in order to create a musical world that is very much his own he is a real forward thinker, and a most unique artist.
On "The Couch Episode," your association may be in hearing the rhythmic consistency of the prepared piano throughout this particular song. Often, I apply various metal clips and putty to the piano strings in order to explore the instrument's other percussive sounds the piano is a percussion instrument, after all. I sometimes prefer to extend an acoustic instrument in this way to explore other sounds rather than play electric instruments in conjunction with various effect pedals. I have experimented a lot more with pedals in the past, but often the electronic sounds, with some exceptions, tend to be instantly dated. I'm drawn to the limitless sound variations and possibilities an acoustic instrument can give the player.
So what goes on "Below Delancey"? To my ear, this has a generous infusion of Pink Panther, but there's more of course.
Who is the "Linguist from Latvia?" If I have to pick and that's a tough choice, given the competition this is one of the album's most evocative pieces.
You include two quite distinct traditional pieces, "Dem Monastrishter Rebins Chosidl" and "Aveenu Malcenu." How did you settle upon these?
The other traditional piece I picked to round out the record is one of my favorite klezmer tunes. I first heard this piece performed on a recording of Dave Tarras, and he gave it such a festive quality. My interpretation of this one involves playing tack piano with a Marxophone solo. The latter is a zither that sounds somewhat like a cymbalom. There's a slight reference to saloon music or a hint of Americana in this version, as if Hobart Smith were interpreting Jewish music. Go figure!
"Arturo, the Aqua Boy" is surely a character, waltzing away in music-box fashion. Where do he and his quirkiness come from?
"MEM" has a certain Andalusian feel to it, fused with tango, which makes sense in terms of transatlantic cultural history, especially if you factor in the Jewish presence in Argentina.
As for the tango allusion, I have listened a lot to the work of Astor Piazzolla, as well as more traditional and earlier styles of tango. For example, Troilo is another favorite. It's possible that these influences are, in subtle ways, occasionally evident in my playing and writing.
"Constantinople" East meets West the meeting place for Ottoman Turks, Greeks, Arabs, Sephardic Jews, Gypsies, denizens of the Balkans and folk further afield, on another driving percussive piece.
More recently, when home in New York, I've been playing a bunch with reed player Chris Speed and drummer Jim Black. Those guys are really into music of the Balkan region, and they have re-sparked my interest in this music.
"The Ringling Kid": dreamer, circus orphan, runaway Pinocchio, schemer, ne'er do well or ?
Kurt Weill's "Youkali" is an inspired choice, especially coming as it does in setting up the album closure. A kind of bolero, wherein I hear an emotional element of what Brazilians call saudade, nostalgia, yearning, a cultural longing. Where did you pick it up, and how did it end up in the repertoire?
What's "The Storyteller's Story" about?
One thing to take into account is that in making a so-called "Jewish" record, I was faced with the challenge of producing something geared to a specific series, something I've never been asked to do before. Generally speaking, I am not someone who is interested in digging up an old musical tradition and putting it in a museum. Many people enjoy recreating and performing music in its most traditional forms. This, however, does not interest me, nor does it seem authentic to me. In making this record, it was important, absolutely crucial to maintain a certain level of individuality, something personal, something that was going to push the envelope of what Jewish music is recognized to be today.
Apart from "Linguist from Latvia" and the Weill, the other contender in my book for "most evocative," in a stately, poignant and affectionate way, is the closing track, "The Cantor and His Grandson." An autobiographical element?
One last question. When the lost photograph turns up, what will it reveal?
© 2003 RootsWorld. No reproduction of any part of this page or its associated files is permitted without express written permission.