Jazz Institute of Chicago

A Conversation with Damon Short

Damon Short
interviewed by Lazaro Vega
Blue Lake Public Radio

Drummer/bandleader/composer Damon Short answers the phone in Chicago and is soon overflowing with praise for the new Roswell Rudd release on Knitting Factory Records, "Broad Strokes," saying, "It's the most beautiful record I think I've ever heard."

What follows is a transcription of the conversation we had, portions of which were broadcast on "Jazz From Blue Lake" along with music from the quartet's "Removable Media" and the Scea-Short duet "Balance of Power," both on Southport Records of Chicago.

June 23, 2000
Let's talk about the Damon Short/Paul Scea Quartet—this is a really interesting band. It's very flexible and diverse, though the instrumentation on first glance you wouldn't necessarily see it as such. I mean, the bass trumpet of Ryan Shultz? Is that instrument within the range of the trombone? The tenor saxophone and trombone have always had a nice timbre blend. I'm wondering is that the reason he's playing bass trumpet in the band?

Ryan is one of the best musicians I know. He's one of these guys that, for reasons I can't quite figure out, doesn't get nearly enough recognition. Maybe part of it is that almost nobody plays the bass trumpet now. People are confused, almost, because the range of the instrument is lower. It's sort of in the range of a trombone, but it doesn't exactly sound like a trombone, and he really doesn't approach it the way most bass trumpet players or valve trombone players do. Valve-trombone is a similar instrument.

I've known Ryan for about 20 years. Most of the guys I play with I've dealt with at one level or another for quite awhile. He gets his own sound on the horn. A lot of what he's playing, I think people would pickup on it more if it were in a range that they were more used to. It's a funny thing. I've actually listened to some copies I've made, and when I hear Ryan back at a higher (tape) speed, he sounds like a trumpet player and you get the connection more, I guess, of what he's doing. I've always got his connection going. Don't get me wrong with that.
It's just sort of an ironic thing that he's a great player in any kind of idiom, whether it's a hard-bop thing, straight-ahead, or more along the lines of what he's doing. It's been frustrating for all of us that he doesn't get as much recognition as he should.

One great thing about him, being such a great musician, being able to play in so many styles and having something to say in any kind of idiom, is his great gift of really blending well with other instruments. That's also a real gift that (saxophonist) Paul Scea has. They're both very listening musicians, very responsive to one another; and very importantly, also, they're very well versed technically.

Sometimes virtuosity gets overused as an end in itself. But that's not true with these guys. They know how to use that to certain ends but still be creative and expressive with what they're doing.

Personalities in the band work well, which is always important, so there's more of a group concept. No one has an agenda. Everybody's out just to make music, have a good time doing it and hopefully present it so that the audience can get something out of it, too.

Well, to that end the quartet is more of an ensemble-directed band than a soloist with rhythm section band.

Exactly. With the right kind of bass player.

I've been fortunate. There's a circle of bass players here that I've been able to work with. Whether it is Noel Kupersmith, who's on the record, or Kevin Tkacz who's playing with us next week because Noel had another commitment. I've done some things with Larry Kohut or Brian Sandstrum, people like that. They're all good players, they know the instrument, but they're also able to be flexible and contribute to a group effort.

Especially the way I like to write, and the way that Paul likes to write, is another reason this project works well.

There are certain concepts that a composition presents. Like, rather than just, 'Here's the head and we're just going to play free; or, here's the head and we have a cycle of changes.' We're not really interested in that. If we're doing a composition there's a certain mood or a certain suggestion that the improvisation would take, and it wouldn't by and large be necessarily a series of solos. That gets boring in any kind of music. You're sending them a piece of music. You don't have a head; you don't have a series of solos and then the head again. Or you don't have a short statement and then people blowing their brains out for five minutes and then doing something else. Although that's valid in its own way.

We like to keep some sort of shape to the piece, and ideally it wouldn't be the same shape every time.

Let's talk specifically about that. For instance with "Song Not Heard" which you wrote on the quartet recording "Removable Media" (Southport S-SSD 0060), what is the mood, the suggestion that you made there? And is it then a series of variations within that mood, or does it have the opportunity to mutate?

That's basically an arrangement. It was going to open up with a bass statement before the first horn comes in, then the percussionist making some sounds in the background to establish a sort of dark, ironic ballad. There's a lot of irony in the music that I write. That particular shape is suggested and can be followed. Sometimes we play it and it could go somewhere completely different. Depending on the situation.

It was funny. On one of the last tours we did, we were playing in a club, the top floor of a sports bar. You could hear all the conversation downstairs. All of the sudden I started hearing this gargling sound, and it was Paul Scea playing his bass-clarinet and basically talking to the people downstairs. It happened right in the middle of this piece, and it fit! It would have been silly somewhere else but it was perfect for the moment.

On that particular recording with the quartet ("Removable Media"), most of the tunes we did on that were actually one take. So theoretically we could have done the same repertoire on a different day and it would have sounded completely different. That also goes along with the duo session, "Balance of Power" (Southport S-SSD 0068) that Paul and I did.

Those two records were recorded on consecutive days. Paul and I had done a couple of duo things, live things, before that. We had two or three set pieces as far as written outlines, but otherwise we decided we were just going to go in the studio and play. We both got a surprise because the material we recorded in the studio was really nothing like anything we had done before, which was kind of curious but also exciting and ultimately irrelevant because we were happy with the way things had turned out in the studio. It just wasn't what we expected we were going to come out with.

So, say somebody comes to one of your concerts on this Midwest tour and knows your composition "Bullets"? Would they recognize it?

If they knew the record they would at least know the head, as all of the tunes on the quartet CD at least have written out head arrangements. When you think about it, the form of "Bullets" is probably more heavily structured than anything else. I would think that if they knew the record at all they would probably recognize "Bullets."

That was my point. I didn't know if you would take that out and it would be completely different the minute you approached it live.

Part of why I write music is to push a soloist into other areas of creativity, to compel a player to go for something that he normally wouldn't play—falling back on licks or patterns won't usually work in my music. Having said that, when the chemistry of the ensemble is right, the shape of the piece can go in directions that I may not have even thought of, which is even better.

Let's get back to what you were talking about before, that the idea of performance is not necessarily a star vehicle for your tenor saxophone player with rhythm section around them. There's more of a fluid interactivity in the music that is part of a long, evolving tradition in jazz. There have been doors opened on this. Even the Bill Evans trio did it, but without some of the sonic extremes that you might investigate with your quartet. This has been an on-going and very exciting aspect of music in Chicago, especially since the mid-1960s. Do you feel you're part of that tradition?

To a certain extent, yes. Actually to a great extent personally, people like Ryan and even another guy who I know you're familiar with Chuck Burdelik. I've been doing projects with Chuck going on twenty years now. I've been involved with more, I guess, cutting-edge things since about the late '70s when I was still in college.

I was in Dekalb, which is West of Chicago, and I would come in and hear some of the ACCM things when quite a few of the AACM were still in town. I was doing a radio show myself and I was really interested as a college student basically in building a library and documenting different elements in music.

Despite the disco and fusion thing which when I was in college was ridiculously pervasive; I was just sort of on the outside—in the late '70s Anthony Braxton was very active. Arista had just started and there were a lot of things on that; the Braxton stuff was coming out. I remember seeing Air in a club when there were about five or six people there. And then getting a chance to talk to these guys, and just was being really excited about the possibilities of what music was.

Steve McCall was an amazing drummer.

And a beautiful person: he was one of the sweetest guys on the planet. I spoke to him a couple more times. I can't say I ever really knew him, but he was always a beautiful person and just a wonderful player. Fred Hopkins, too.

Seeing Braxton in the late '70s, and like I said, the Arista recordings that were coming out, that really changed my life around. As well as seeing Cecil Taylor in the late 1970s.

I've been playing drums since I was little. My older brother played drums, and my older brother, he's about 6 years older than I, he listened to Benny Goodman. The first type of jazz I heard was Benny Goodman, and after that I started listening to Charlie Parker, middle-Miles (Davis) and then John Coltrane. I was fortunate in a sense that the music I was investigating as I was growing up pretty much followed the chronology of the music. I was able to see how all these parts fit together.

I've listened to a lot of drummers. If you're growing up in the mid-West and you're a white kid you listen to Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson, that type of thing. I started playing drums in the mid-1960s. By the time I got into high school I was starting to listen to Max Roach, Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. And I've listened to a lot of people.

I would suppose my main influence and still my favorite drummer would be Elvin, but the other people—Steve McCall was like a troubadour on drums. He was just such a beautiful player, the colors he would get. And then there's Andrew Cyrille, Barry Altschul, Paul Lovens. There's so many. Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motion. There're all kinds. Billy Hart. There are so many terrific drummers out.

My main function is still to make whoever I'm playing behind sound better, however. Maybe that might be lying back more, or it might be kicking them in the ass to do something. But if you listen to all of the different things that are out there, it just expands your palette. And then you have to decide what's appropriate for the given moment. I'd like to think I'm usually pretty good at that. But it's fun. I like to be in a musical situation as accompanist as much as a pianist or a guitarist would be as far as where a piano player might voice a chord a certain way to compliment or stimulate whatever the soloist is doing, that's what I'm trying to do on the drums.

I know many people come into the music at a certain level of development. Whether they were growing up and the first thing they heard might have been Return to Forever.

Or "Take 5."

Something like that, or in the last 20 years they heard Sun Ra because here's this guy running around in a metallic suit. So that's exotic and that's how they got into it. And then once they do that, then hopefully they'll investigate other things as well.

Don't misunderstand me—I'm not comparing Sun Ra to Return to Forever, at all.

That seems to be the natural thing for anybody when they get involved with jazz; they find this ocean of sounds, this world of music that's been evolving for 100 years in America, during the time when recording technology was around to capture it. So in your personal development when was it you put together the quartet that's coming out? How long has this band been together?

I met Paul Scea in 1989–1990 while I was doing a concert with Paul Smoker when he was still living in Iowa. Paul Scea was also living in Iowa at that time. Around that time I did the "All of the Above" session. [ed. released as Damon Short, Southport Records (SSD-0028)]

I had been doing things along that line with Chuck Burdelik. During that time Chuck was unavailable for a while. He had some health problems, which I'm glad to say he's long past. I wanted to get this record session together. Smoker introduced me to Scea, who's playing I liked very much and still do, of course. We did that session in 1990, and it came out in 1994 finally.

He [Scea] lives out in West Virginia, which makes it hard to get together on a regular basis. We both really enjoyed Ryan's playing, and we had done some things with Noel Kupersmith when Paul had traveled to play in Chicago. It was just like, well, why don't we put something together and just do a recording and split the writing?

Paul's style of writing and mine are different, but it wasn't really a Jekyll and Hyde type of thing. (We felt) our styles of writing would mesh on a particular project. So we set it up. On a couple of my trips back for other gigs, we scheduled some extra gigs at a couple of clubs in Chicago to just do some duo improvisation. So, if nothing else, it was a financial arrangement for both of us that we could both get our music done, both play with people we wanted to play with and basically get two projects out of it for less than what one might cost us otherwise, as far as money and time, etc.

We found some time and he came in. We spent a week and worked on some music and did a couple of days recording and came up with the two CDs on Southport that have come out in the last couple of years. We're pretty happy with them. Especially with the duo record, we could have gone in again the next day and gotten a completely different record.

So, 1997? This is really a fairly new ensemble, then. That's very exciting.

I was wondering did you ever play with Hal Russell?

Actually I did, yes. It was just a couple of substitution gigs that Steve Hunt couldn't make. Hal was a unique individual. I enjoyed playing with him, and I enjoyed his spirit a lot. Like I said, I never did it on a long-term basis, but I enjoyed the things that I did do with him, and he was definitely a force.

Is that where you met Burdelik or did you know him before that?

I met Chuck at a Hal Russell gig in 1980-81 probably. Because Steve Hunt the drummer with Hal was a good friend of mine. So I had moved to Chicago and went to one of Hal's loft concerts and met Chuck there. Or, wait, I met him on an off-the-wall wedding job. But we got together.

The first things that Chuck and I did, I put a band together on my first bit in Chicago about 1981. I was definitely interested in more off the beaten track things at that time. Off the beaten track would include Thelonious Monk music, because at that time nobody was playing any Monk music because Monk was still alive. I put together a band with some other people I had met in town. I had only been in Chicago about a year or so. We did primarily Monk compositions. We did them more straight up and down then I'd do them now. Chuck primarily played alto. That was a good time. We had that band together about a year or so.

I left Chicago for a couple of years but I stayed in touch with Chuck. Then I moved to New Orleans for a couple of years and moved back here in about 1987. I had Chuck down for a concert in New Orleans during that time. He's always been a real critical part of what I've done.

For me and for many musicians who know his playing, he's a giant. He's a brilliant, brilliant player. I feel really fortunate to be able to play with him as much as I have.

Now, you're going to be playing with him at the Velvet Lounge on June 30th?

Yes. What I'd like to do is more things with Scea and Chuck together. I enjoy both their playing, and they enjoy each other. Their styles mesh well together. Chuck just isn't able to travel as much when we do these types of things, which is unfortunate.

On the last recording project I did, which is still pending release somewhere, I had both Paul and Chuck on it. Basically it was with a larger ensemble, which also had Paul Smoker, Ryan Shultz and Larry Kohut (bass). Chuck plays on quite a bit of that, too. It's a welcome thing to have the opportunity to play with these guys. Like I say, Scea is in West Virginia, and Smoker's in Rochester, New York. So we have to do a lot of advanced planning to try and get together and do these things.

But it's always really satisfying.

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