published Friday, October 14th, 2011

Q&A with multi-genre clarinetist James Falzone

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Chicago multi-genre clarinetist James Falzone about his recent work composing Arabic music and why he credits his uncle with his musical adventurousness.

CP: Walk me through your personal musical origins. How did you start out?

JF: [Laughs.] I forget that people actually want to know that. I began playing the clarinet when I was 10 years old here in Chicago. There's no magic story. I just had a good public school music teacher. She introduced us to the instruments, and up to then, I was a regular, football-playing kid, but something about playing an instrument fascinated me.

I think I didn't even know what a clarinet looked like. She showed us flashcards, and I thought it looked kind of cool, so I came home and told my parents I wanted to play the clarinet. They didn't really believe me, but I kept pestering them until they rented me an instrument.

I'm very fortunate to have an uncle, who is a very accomplished musician. My mother's brother is a film composer in Hollywood. He's won numerous Emmys and has had a long, successful career. He is also a wonderful woodwind player. He played flute in the Chicago Symphony for a time back in the '60s and was a great tenor saxophone player. As soon as I expressed interest, he became a mentor to me.

He lived in Los Angeles when I was a kid, so I would call him and ask him questions about the instrument. When he came home for the holidays, I would spend time with him, and he would buy me records. I had a fantastic education before I knew I was getting an education.

When I got to college, I realized how much further ahead I was. I just had such a good teacher, and what most kids would get in college I was already getting as a junior high and high school kid through my uncle. He introduced me to my first teacher, who was a kind of legendary jazz musician here in Chicago.

I was named after him, and even beyond the technical stuff, he would buy me vinyl records. I'm looking at them them now; I still have them all. He would take me to the record store, buy me records and not tell me there was a difference between the music. He would buy me an [Igor] Stravinsky “Firebird Suite” and buy me The Beatles' “White Album” and a John Coltrane record and say, “Here, go check these out. They're all great records.” I didn't know I was listening to classical, jazz and rock. I would just think, “Uncle Jim said it was good, so I'll go listen to it.”

In hindsight, it was just such a tremendous upbringing, because I didn't grow up with too much concern for what kind of music it was. I was just interested if it was good. I think I've carried that ecumenical look on music to this day in that I'm involved in so many different things. It all stems from those early listening sessions.

That's how it started. Then, I went on to pursue music in college and graduate school and so forth.

CP: You're involved now in so many different kinds of music. Would you say your uncle's method of introducing you to music without concern for genre has anything to do with that?

JF: That's a good question. I think partly, yes. I think I might be a little unique in that sense in that, from a very young age, I wasn't thinking in these very clearly marked out genres. I also think we're beginning to see that more and more from musicians these days. The two gentlemen I'll be on tour with in Chattanooga are diverse.

You have to be diverse as musicians to make a living, but we've also come of age at a time when there's so much access to music, and there's no reason not to be interested in it all. To the extent that you want to and have the ability to learn more about those styles and genres, you can dig into them.

When I was a graduate student in Illinois, I would go to the library and pull out records, no matter what they were. I remember listening to African drumming records and all kinds of avant garde and electronic music. It's just always been the way I've thought, but I also notice that most of the musicians I respect are thinking in very similar ways. For us, the genre lines are gone.

That doesn't mean I would take a gig playing really traditional klezmer music because that's not something I feel I'm well versed in. I've studied it and played and love it and have lots of CDs, but there are certainly better clarinet players to play that music. I respect them enough not to go try and play in that music.

What I'm interested in myself as a composer and artist is how these seemingly disparate things come together in a personal voice, in my own personal aesthetic vision. I have a lot of colleagues all over the world who share the same vision. I really think it's a way of thinking that you find much more common in musicians of my generation than you would have one or two generations ago when you were a classical musician or a jazz musician or a musician within your particular world. Now, those lines are blurred.

Just seconds ago, I posted an amazing video to my Facebook of this banjo playing a raja improvisation on banjo. I play banjo, and I'm not terribly good at it, but I have three children, and I love sitting around playing for them. I posted the video to my account and said that it was an example of how an instrument, in the right hands, can transcend genre. There's no reason to think something has to be a particular way. If you have a musical mind and creative mind, you can make things happen.

I'm involved in a lot of stuff, obviously. Looking at the next two months, right now, this weekend, I'm doing music for a theater production here in town that's a very minimalist sound piece I put together for a theater show. Then, I leave for the tour, which is an Arabic-tinged project. Then, when I get back, I'm playing with a New York jazz drummer. In November, I'm playing with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company doing a piece of John Cage's. These two months provide a really wacky array of seemingly disparate things, but for me, they're all of the same cloth, and I don't have any qualms or troubles moving between the different worlds.

CP: So it's not like being on a bike and having to switch gears. To you, it's all one gear?

JF: Yeah, it really is for me. At the moment in my studio on my music stand is a John Cage piece and next to it is a clawhammer banjo book. You can't think of two more disparate things, but I'll spend time with each today. [Laughs.] It's all the same gear. It's a one-gear bike for me … [laughs] maybe a no-gear bike.

CP: When did you form Allos Musica Trio?

JF: “Allos” is a Greek word meaning “other.” When I was trying to find a way of describing what I was interested in, it is often “the other music,” not the non-mainstream stuff, but the other stuff. I liked that term, so I took it over.

The trio has had a couple of different manifestations. The particular trio came into existence in 2006 for a specific commission from a musical festival here in Chicago. They asked me to put a set together and gave me carte blanche to write whatever I wanted to. I took the opportunity to write pieces that explored my love of Arabic music, which I had been studying formally with a couple of teachers. I've been fascinated by that music going back to when I was a kid through Peter Gabriel's music. He had many Arabic musicians on his records, and I would trace out who those people were and go buy their records.

I wrote about 10 pieces for the festival for that trio. That was the genesis of the project. It has grown and expanded and changed. We still play a lot of that music, but I've written a lot of new things. We put a record out about this time last year called “Lamentations.” Now, it's about a six-year-old project.

CP: In what specific ways has the music or your approach to it grown and changed?

JF: I suppose the original compositions I created were just that, compositions. They weren't through composed - there was room for improvisation - but they had forms. In the last year or so as we've played more gigs and did a residency with a dance company, that's enabled me to let the music breathe and expand a bit more.

We're also bringing in other music. On the tour, we're playing a piece of Breton music. I love that music and play in an ensemble that specializes in French music. There is one particular dance piece from Brittany that I thought would sound great with the oud and the hand drums. I brought it to us, and it wound up that I play the penny whistle on it, which I've played for many years. Just the sound of the tin whistle and oud and the hand drum, I don't know if there are too many combinations like that. Ronnie, who is of Palestinian origin, said there are many instruments like the tin whistle there.

It's been interesting to bring a piece that is not my own composition and not a traditional Arabic piece and let it ferment and get into this mix of music and see what we can bring to it. Ronnie is playing it on oud, and I think it sounds great. The inflection he brings to it makes it sound like it could be a piece of traditional Arabic dance music.

A piece we'll be working on this week to take on tour is a piece of Romanian origin that I've fallen in love with and want to bring to the group. We're letting the music be more communal, as opposed to these larger compositions.

Being on tour - this will be the first for the trio - will be fantastic. There's nothing like playing the music every night in different situations for different audiences and letting it change as it needs to every night. Spending six hours in the car together every day will bring us to a new level, too, and I'm looking forward to that.

CP: When you began composing in Arabic music, did you have any specific expectations, in terms of what you wanted to accomplish?

JF: That's actually a great question. It's really interesting the attention that a musician like myself has to deal with. If you had to put a label on me, if you held a gun to my head and said, “James, what are you?” I would say I'm a jazz musician. That's what it comes down to being. But I have such love and interest and true admiration for so many styles of music.

Arabic music is one of those things I wanted to find some way to bring into my own sphere. So what I did was mimicked a lot of compositional approaches from traditional Arabic music. I would mimic the mode, the rhythm, the scale and the form. But we're not playing in what's called maqam, which is the traditional Arabic theory or tonal system. Maquam involves a whole set of scales and modes that are outside our Western tonality.

It's a micro-tonal system, which I do know a fair amount about, but it's like a whole other lanuage that one needs to be versed in for a very long time before you feel comfortable composing or improvising in. I've studied it and taken courses in it, and I can play the modes, but it's not a language I feel comfortable speaking in the same way I feel comfortable speaking the western tonal language.

My friend Ronnie is completely versed in that and feels comfortable speaking that language. That's why I wanted him involved, because he brings something to the project that I can't.

What that might do to some musicians is make them say, “I can't do anything with Arabic music because I don't understand this tonal system.” For me, that's not what a composer does. A composer says, “I've studied this music, and it's become part of me, part of my musical DNA. So how can I make something that's my own that grafts from this love and devotion to this music? How can I make my own music that is drawing from this source?”

The compositional approach I took was to mimic forms, modes and rhythms but not to be playing within that microtonal system. If someone is hearing the music and doesn't know anything about Arabic music, they'll say, “Oh, that sounds like belly dance music,” and it does. It has that accent, you might say. But if someone knows maqam, knows traditional Middle Eastern music, they will recognize that I've studied Middle Eastern music, but my music is not maqam but something different, a hybrid.

That's exactly where I want to be. I'm not trying to make traditional Arabic music. I'm not trying to make world music. I'm not a fan of world music stew, where it sounds like everything and nothing, all at once. I'm trying to stay true to my voice, as a composer.

A friend of mine wrote to me the other day and said that she had a bunch of my records on shuffle on her iPod. Even though they were all different, she said she could hear my voice come through on all of them. That made my day, because even if it's a jazz record or this record or a more classical record, I'm hopeful that there's a voice that comes through on all of it. That's what I was trying to do six years ago when I created the project, to keep my voice while funneling it through this form of Arabic music.

CP: Do you agree with your friend? Do feel like you've successfully captured that voice in your music?

JF: Yeah, I do. I genuinely like this project quite a lot. Keeping it going for six years now and continuing to find new situations for us is proof that something about this project really excites me and inspires me. It feels very honest. It's an honest expression of me as an artist. That's more and more what I'm trying to do.

I turned 40 this last month, and I realized that that's what it's about for me now, trying to be honest in the way that I express myself through music. If it doesn't feel honest, I won't do that. Allos Musica Trio feels like an honest representation of who I am, of one facet of who I am.

I do feel good about the project and what we did. And the record as well. It's funny, the record, of all the records I've put out, didn't get as much attention. It did get some, and I'm thankful for that. A couple of jazz reviewers who are normally very interested in my work and like what I do as a jazz musician heard the album and I think they didn't know what to make of it.

Some of them have even said to me, “It's a good record, but we don't know how to listen to it.” I appreciated them saying that. They were listening to it as a jazz record, but it's not. I wouldn't want them to review it as such.

CP: Do you find that your fan base is willing to trust you as you explore many different styles or do you have distinct audiences for each genre you write and perform in?

JF: Another good question. I would say that, here in Chicago, yeah, I do have a fan base that likes what I do across the different projects I have. They'll come out to a jazz club and hear my group playing which is a hard-core experimental jazz group. They'll also show up at the Chicago Cultural Center to play with this group, which is a much more refined setting. Then, they'll show up hear me play something in classical chamber music. Those people will show up at all three things and also show up at some completely improvised, experimental thing I'm doing. Some of them really enjoy that diversity.

Then, there are some who just like one or two projects. Many people in the jazz world here like my jazz side, but the Allos thing is too introspective for them. In terms of the wider audience, recording wise, Allos Musica Trio is probably my best-selling record.

In this world, “best selling record” is a funny thing to say, but it's my own little label that I have and control everything in, and it's the one that has sold the most, mostly through downloads. It's being downloaded all over the world. I'm not sure how they've gotten wind of it. I wonder sometimes when you see a track downloaded to some province in Japan how that person heard of it. It's exciting. I've released six recordings now, and it seems like the Allos Trio might be the most accessible to the widest audience.

Locally, I have a following that loves the wide variety of what I do, but in the wider world, the Allos music is more popular. Because it is quieter and meditative and introspective, I think people enjoy it as background music, something on their iPod as they're going about their business. The jazz stuff can kind of get in their way.

CP: You've composed and performed music within a wide range of genres. What were the specific challenges of working within Arabic music?

JF: Certainly, the micro-tonality is a great challenge. For someone schooled in Western music to approach maqam and micro-tonality takes many years to work on. I have continued to work on it and have developed my own approach to micro-tonality. In a couple of months, I'll have a solo clarinet record coming out, and there's a lot of my processing of micro-tonality on that record. It's not maqam, just my way of synthesizing those interests.

There's another challenge I've found in Middle Eastern music that's different than jazz. In jazz, the style of improvisation is different. In jazz, you might have a couple of choruses and then a solo or, in a big band, just four or six measures to play a solo, and that's all you have. You have a solo and you're expected to start burning right away. You want to gain interest and grab attention right away during your solo. It's very high energy and in your face and can be very virtuosic as well.

In Arabic music, I've found that improvisers take their time more and are not afraid to develop these little cells of material, little motifs, and let it blossom. The whole thing evolves at a slower pace.

I've been excited by that and drawn to that and have been trying to augment my improvisatory style with Allos Trio to allow that. There might be an improvisation where I just play a note and let that note resonate for several seconds. That's not what I would normally do in a jazz setting, but in this setting, it feels right. That's a challenge.

That's a different way of letting the improvisation grow and blossom and not be so concerned about getting to some mountaintop, some John Coltrane-like experience of the improvisation. In an Arabic setting, it could just be about the timbre and color of the sound. That could be what's being used for improvising as much as the tone itself. That's a great discipline and challenge for me to be thinking about.

CP: Did you look to different sources of inspiration for the pieces on “Lamentations” than you normally do?

JF: There really is one particular reference point, which is an oud player by the name of Anouar Brahem. He's a North African oud player from Tunisia. He's put out a number of records that are hybrid records. They're certainly Middle Eastern records, and he's well versed in that music and is one of the great oud players of our time, but he also plays with a lot of jazz musicians.

He's done a lot of hybrid projects, and I've been really intrigued by them. He had a trio of clarinet, hand drums and oud. I got the record for that trio in the '90s, and I was fascinated by the sound, the possibilities of those instruments. That's a definite reference point I'm happy to point to because I love that music.

Another inspiration would Erik Satie, the French composer and pianist and wacky, avant-garde thinker. I've been very influenced by him over the years in many ways. I think a lot of this music I'm trying to capture the intimacy and quiet intensity of Satie's music. It's a strange combination of things, but if one is looking for reference points for this project, those two would have to be in there.

CP: What will you be performing on this tour?

JF: We've got a couple dozen pieces we'll be interchanging throughout the tour. We have seven concerts to play, and depending on the venue and the situation, I'll probably change out the repertoire a few times to keep us fresh.

We'll play several pieces that were written at the beginning for the project. We'll also play a piece I quite love by an Israeli guitarist friend of mine that he wrote several years ago with me in mind. I feel like it's a piece I can play with authority. It works beautifully with this trio.

We'll play a brand new composition I wrote in dedication to a friend of mine who is a philosophy professor in Kentucky. We'll be playing at his school. I wrote it with him in mind. I know what my wife has to put up with being married a musician, and I thought about what a philosopher's wife might have to put up with.

We'll also be doing a couple of songs. That's something you often find in Arabic music, everyone plays multiple instruments. Ronnie, the oud player, is also a wonderful singer. He'll be singing at least two songs, both of which are muwashah, which are songs from the very rich Andalusian period of Arabic history, a time of the Arabic and Muslim conquest of Spain.

What I love about this trio is that we're doing my own music, music that doesn't have anything to do with Arabic music but which we're bringing into the fold and also some songs that are very traditional. The repertoire we play has some really interesting places to latch onto, depending on your interest.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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