On the shortlist for the best modern guitar record of the year is Turning Towards The Light [Cuneiform Rune 406], by Adam Rudolph’s Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra. In part because it features ten of the most accomplished, forward thinking jazz guitarists in New York, which, when it comes to jazz, means the world. Rez Abbasi, Nels Cline, Liberty Ellman, David Gilmore, Miles Okazaki, Marco Capelli, Jerome Harris, Joel Harrison, Kenny Wessel, and Marvin Sewell, join Damon Banks on bass to form an ensemble unlike any you have heard. The odds this aggregation would become a noisy mess were long, but Rudolph’s strong conception and lyrical conducting conspired to create glorious, surprisingly spacious music—and not just “guitar music.”
“My favorite Max Roach quote is: ‘I’d rather be a musician than a drummer, and I’d rather be an artist than a musician,’” says Rudolph. “On this record, the guitarists were all about the music and the artistry.” Towards The Light is must listening for anyone who wants to hear great music that is not about “guitar,” but nevertheless couldn’t have been made by any other instruments. Rudolph took time to explain his organizational system and the process of forging 10 disparate instrumental voices into a cohesive unit.
Why an all guitars Go: Organic Orchestra this time?
The Go: Organic Orchestra project is a concept and process I have done all over the world with all kinds of instruments. This is the eleventh release. My home base New York Orchestra has 12 string players, six percussionists, five woodwind players, piano, bass, brass players, and guitarists Kenny Wessel and Marco Capelli. A few other guitarists asking me to be in the New York orchestra sparked the idea that all guitars would be amazing. Guitars, especially with the kind of processing and things they have now, are the perfect instrument to interpret my concept and bring it to life. They are also natural rhythm instruments; most contemporary guitarists have had some experience playing rhythm guitar and odd times. By the nature of the instrument they can play what I call “ostinatos of circularity,” which is a big part of my rhythmic concept. With all the great guitarists in New York who are friends of mine, I thought, “Let’s give it a try.” We did one concert and it was so amazing, so far exceeding what I could have imagined, I thought it was worth performing more and recording.
How did you decide who would be a part of it?
I thought it would be interesting to have different approaches from musicians who are advanced enough to deal with this pretty complex material. The important thing was guitarists who had open minds and were interested in trying something new.
My core was the people who play in my Organic Orchestra. Kenny Wesel, Marco Capelli, Damon Banks, and Jerome Harris, were already involved in my projects. Nels Cline and I used to play together way back in the early, early 1980s when I first lived in Los Angeles. Miles and Liberty move in a lot of similar circles. I thought of all my favorite guitarists around New York, and everybody was available, which was amazing because they are all bandleaders.
How did you decide who played on each track? It’s not everybody on every track, is it?
Everybody is on every track. It’s an orchestra, and I conduct it like an orchestra. I use a three page score of interval matrices, interval cosmograms, and ostinatos of circularity. Those three pages, combined with my 21 hand signals, are what you could call the “DNA.” From that, I conduct in a spontaneous way and we make the constructs of the music—it’s never the same twice. A lot of my conducting is based on responding to what I am hearing; I’m orchestrating spontaneously.
The record was done live with all the players in the room. What makes it even more amazing is how clean it sounds. I think Kenny counted over 100 foot pedals. Everybody was set up in a semi-circle sitting in front of their amps with their pedals. James Delatacoma, who engineered the record, is a guitarist. I give him the credit for recording it so well.
Were the amps baffled from each other?
No, he had directional mics in front of each amp and a stereo pair to capture the room. There was pretty good separation, so I was able to do my postproduction work and some editing, choosing the tracks, levels, and things like that.
Is your conducting similar to the Butch Morris style of conduction?
The word “conduction” has a trademark associated with it. I don’t use that word. I call it “Go: Organic Orchestra” because I use a score, which I don’t think Butch always did. Butch was a friend of mine, by the way, and I respected him. I didn’t even see him conduct until about two years before he passed away, when we were on a festival together in Poland. I started doing what I was doing completely on my own in 2000, in Los Angeles, when I created the Go: Organic Orchestra. It was more inspired from my work with Don Cherry. I just finished reading a very interesting biography of Leonard Bernstein, who actually recorded some pieces of improvisational conducting with the New York Philharmonic in 1962 or 1963, influenced by Lucas Foss, who was doing a lot of improvisational conducting. My method is similar to Butch’s only in the sense that you say John McLaughlin, Sonny Sharrock, Charlie Christian, and Jimi Hendrix all play guitar. Butch conducts, I conduct. There are other people now who do it, but other than the fact that we are doing that activity, it’s very, very different. A lot of people are trying to carry on Butch’s approach. Butch and I used to have lunch and talk about the challenges of doing what we were doing, but I don’t really know his method. Mine was all trial and error.
There are three elements involved in what I do: the score materials, which are very important, having to do with interval systems. And then, I make these matrices and cosmograms. I don’t use the Western notation: those little eggs with little dots you have to read left to right. I’ll make a system based upon the symmetric hexatonic scale—it’s six notes. It can go down the inversion or you create these parallel lines. You end up with a box of notes, of interval shapes. I make one gesture and the musicians read it across, another and they read it backwards. You start combining them in different ways and then combine these matrices; because each matrix may be made of a pentatonic scale, or what I call “clustonics” (all the notes between any two intervals). They all have their own triple-diminished patterns. They all have their own interval logic to them, and the musicians can make chords and lines from them. I am conducting lines; I am orchestrating with those as I hear them, but they are improvising inside of those too—almost like the idea of a raga, or the blues. It is more than a scale; it’s a structure. There are notes that are more important than other notes. They can improvise inside of these matrices with chords and lines, but I can also orchestrate spontaneously with these matrices. That is why I call them the DNA materials. Each matrix has its own aesthetic, and this makes the music coloristically variable. The third page is my rhythm concept: ostinatos of circularity, which I call “cyclic verticalism.” It combines the rhythmic cycles you would find in North Indian music (I studied tabla for decades) or Middle Eastern music. North Indian music has the additive concept of twos and threes, and I combine that with the African diaspora concept of two against three in a vertical stacking of rhythms. In some pieces on the guitar orchestra record, the musicians are playing the ostinatos of circularity where the rhythms circle around.
The process of generating those has taken me years of trial and error of find ones that yield the most focus. What I am looking for from the guitarists and anybody in the Go: Organic Orchestra is the holding of opposites. I want aesthetic focus, but at the same time expressive freedom for the musicians.
Are they playing different time signatures that meet up in certain places?
It is an organizational principle; in Indian music they call it “tala.” That’s the framework. I have made my own frameworks I call “signal rhythms.” They get revamped and reorganized in new ways all the time. For example, a simple one would be a 21-beat cycle. They are all playing in a pentatonic mode and playing three sets of seven moving against seven triplets. When the cycles become large enough, it creates a sense of form and shape. What is cool about it is, rather than everybody playing the same thing, you have layers that you can extrapolate when you get command of it, and you have this huge grid of rhythmic possibilities and ways to move through form. That’s a big part of blues, which is a feeling, a sentiment, a spiritual action, but playing the blues you have to know how to move through 12 bars to where it becomes one breath. In Coltrane’s “India” those long 16, 32, and 64 bar cycles influenced by Indian music become a big breath. What we are looking for is a sense of tension and release, and shape. We are all orbiting; we move around and can meet, but also move through—you have a lot of options. It’s not totally free, but neither is it based on the idea of changes. A lot of people need harmonic movement to give them sense of form, but this is a sense of form without fixed harmonic movement. All these players are comfortable playing like that.
There are electric and acoustic instruments involved, as well as various effects. Was any of that predetermined or part of the improvisational process?
I want everybody to bring themselves to the music. That is why this is an innovative concept of what an orchestra can be like in the 21st Century. I am looking for another kind of musicianship in a way that is situated not exactly in the classical realm, where the idea is to bring to life the written music, and not in the jazz realm either where it’s really about solos. This is something else that has elements of both. Unlike the Western Orchestra, I want the musicians to bring themselves. I want their inner voice to be projected through. For example: Miles doesn’t have any pedals and Nels had a Kaoss pad and all kinds of stuff. I wanted them to bring their own concept to it.
My job is to conduct, as much in the sense of conducting like an electrical conductor as leading. I’m listening to them, not just the notes they are playing but the colors they are using and I’m bringing that forth.
In 1977, I lived in Africa where the cliff dwellers in Mali have a concept they call “mi.” That means the inner spirit of a person expressing their voice through an instrument—I just have to say, “Muddy Waters,” and you know what I am talking about. The idea is these individual voices collectively supporting each other. There were some moments when it sounded like Pierre Schaeffer/ Stockhausen/Varese electronic music, but hipper because it had the breath of everybody’s playing in it. That’s the organic part. Everybody is listening; using their imagination, and there to serve the lifting of the music. They move around the instrument their own way, with their own range of colors through how they use processing and pedals.
Was the processing notated anywhere or worked out in rehearsal before you recorded?
We had a few concerts before we recorded, and some rehearsals. I would call them “workshops.” For example: we didn’t rehearse this conversation, but you sort of had an idea of what we would talk about. You can’t rehearse the moment of how it all unfolds. We spent time together where I showed them how to move through these matrices and cosmograms and ostinatos and circularity, and how the conducting works.
I was really impressed with the chemistry that happened between these musicians. Some knew each other well, others didn’t.
Considering the number of players, there is a lot of space on this record. Are you bringing people in and out as part of the conducting?
That’s definitely part of it. We did a lot of duets. I might say to Kenny and Marvin, “Play what you want on this matrix here.” They would start doing something and I’m listening to them. Then I’ll cue other people—maybe everybody, maybe one person or three. I say, “Matrix number three, then play these lines and parallel across.”
It’s like spontaneous arranging or spontaneous painting. It not like the arrangement is going to come in on bar 12 and it’s going to be this; I’m leading and following. Nels and Marco might start something and I might cue them to play what they want, but improvise inside of number nine, which is a triple-diminished cosomogram. They become familiar with it, like playing a tune when you know the changes. I can cue the other musicians in that same cosmogram and orchestrate around them. But it’s not just the background, because then Nels and Marco are listening to the orchestra. It’s like a trio: the two guitarists, the orchestra, and my conducting. I can even conduct a contrasting color, say number five, which was the pentatonic matrix, or a particular counterpoint or something I set up based on their style of playing. In a “blue-green” area, I might set up a “yellow” area of another texture against it. When they hear that, they do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise. It’s the best of what the so-called jazz tradition is: people listening to each other.
There are three things involved in this music: imagination, because anything you can imagine is okay, there is nothing that is too far out; listening, because you have to listen and be in tune with what’s going on around you; and what I call “sharing,” which is this idea of projecting your ideas to one another in a generous way. I can’t tell you how many concerts I have done with the guitar orchestra or with any Go: Organic where I start “here” and we end up way over “there.”
You become one of the players.
That’s kind of how it is. I am some kind of arbiter, in that I decide when the piece is over or if I want everybody to get louder. I have some extra responsibilities, but not to abuse, to follow. I want to serve the music, and I want all of their voices to shine. As I conduct and shape things, I get to make those decisions. My decisions rely on learning the voices of all these different guitarists and finding a context or creating an environment that is going to challenge them, but also allow them to shine in what they do. When we do these workshop rehearsals, part of the process is me learning about who they are through how they play. I am not going to create the same environment for Marco as for Kenny.
We just did a little tour of the East Coast last fall, and everybody was amazing; all of them were available and the music just went to a whole other dimension. I have a live recording; I’m going to start looking at that soon. It’s a process of evolution, but I am really thrilled that these really superb guitarists were all into it and are looking to share this music now. It’s a unique project.
Some Guitarists Speak
Adam Rudolph has an ability to control energy with his gestures, which is very important for a group composed entirely of guitarists. I give him credit for focusing the energy into the form of musical statements, and credit to the wonderful guitarists on this album for their maturity and restraint, always putting the collective sound above any impulse to get out in front. Whatever you think a guitar orchestra might sound like, the sound of this album will most likely not be like it. The point isn’t about a pile of guitars, but about the possibilities of group dynamics, entrainment, and the improvisational hive mind.
It’s been an amazing project from the beginning. All the players involved are really great guitarists, but also very different from each other. It could be a big mess, but because all these guys listen so well, everything finds its level, so to speak. Sounds are constantly changing. Most importantly, we are all doing our best to meet Adam’s vision while expressing ourselves in the moment. I enjoy working with this group quite a bit. And the gear talk is insane—its pedaltopia.
I’m a big fan of the guitar, obviously, so a plethora of guitarists performing together excites me. In this case, the players are used to communicating and making choices at a moments notice. That is the essential paradigm of jazz and I think it’s one reason this album is so fruitful. The other, of course is Adam’s vision. His approach is very rhythmic and serves to create momentum without there being a drummer. But he’s also a keen melodicist, therefore shaping the music in substantial ways.
Adam is a great bandleader to work for, as he balances structure and freedom in a very compelling manner in his compositions and orchestrations. He is constantly involved in musical research and development, generously sharing his findings with fellow musicians, and working with him has always been a rewarding and challenging experience.
Its has been incredible to be a part of the guitar orchestra. Some of my favorite musician/guitarists are in the group and it’s been great to get to know their playing more deeply. Often we don’t get to share the bandstand with fellow guitarists and it was a blast to hang and play with all these guys. As a guitarist, it’s very cool to see and hear the various personalities and extremes of the guitar being explored and stretched. Sonically it’s a bit otherworldly and at times, transcendent. On our last tour, I counted something like 75 effects pedals on the stage – you definitely needed a scorecard to know where sounds were emanating from.
Adam’s scores involve pitch grids and intervallic matrices, which generate the melodic and harmonic material. The music is also very rich in rhythmic elements, as Rudolph works with polyrhythmic cycles throughout many of the pieces. The guitar orchestra contains some very deep rhythmic minds and practitioners and we reached some pretty ecstatic grooves, and some beautiful, densely woven, rhythmic textures.