New York born, Seattle-based composer and pianist/keyboardist Wayne Horvitz is the leader of Zony Mash, Pigpen, and the 4+1 Ensemble, and co-leader of the New York Composers Orchestra and Ponga, and has been a frequent collaborator of John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Butch Morris, Bobby Previte, and his wife, Robin Holcomb. He also composes for film, TV, dance and theater. But Wayne Horvitz' music can be called anything but eclectic. (Don't call it fusion either...) Right now, he and Zony Mash are touring along the West Coast. Toby Dodds conducted this interview with Wayne just before this tour began. [See Zony Mash Tour Dates...]

Toby Dodds: First, what about the name?

Wayne Horvitz: I regret naming the band Zony Mash. Not that I don’t like the name, I do. But it was really just on a whim. I had a show with this new group I thought I’d have some fun with, and I had just found a pile of Josie 45’s with a bunch of Meters' tunes. They were lying on my desk and I saw the title Zony Mash. I liked it. The problem was that the Knitting Factory made a big deal out of this Meters' connection, which leads to the perception that it is a groove thing or a funk thing. Not to mention the fact that no one should even try and get next to the Meters' music-it is just too unique and too incredible.

One of the things I really liked about working with [John] Zorn from the moment I met him was that he approached everything as a composer first, and a musician second. Everything was a project, and that was the idea with Zony Mash. The Meters' connection is ONLY the fact that it is a classic configuration of organ, guitar, bass and drums. This is the format for this set of compositions. Other times I write for big band, or string quarter, or piano. Zony is my bar band project.

TD: Well if funk and groove are not the primary musical focus, what is? And who served as inspirations?

Cecil TaylorWH: First off, the focus is my compositions, and improvisation. Not necessarily in that order. The heaviest conversion in my life musically came about when I was in college in Santa Cruz. Above all, the music of Cecil Taylor. Cecil totally transformed the way I approached the piano, and music in general. Along with that, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, and especially the AACM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The Art Ensemble's music really helped me look for my own sound, and rediscover the other musics I had already loved. Listening to them live, which I did many times, got me away from just imitating the so called “energy music” of the 60’s jazz avant-garde. I was also exposed to a lot of 2Oth century classical music and experimental music. I got to hear Yvonne Loriod and Olivier Messian play his pieces for two pianos in the college dining hall!! That was a trip.

TD: Well that certainly doesn’t explain the sound of this band entirely.

WH: Yes, but it does more than you might think. When I moved to NYC I really fell into two scenes. One, the so-called Downtown Scene with John [Zorn] and Bobby Previte and Elliott Sharp and [Fred] Frith and [Bill] Laswell etc. And the other with people like William Parker, Billy Bang, Sonny Murray and Butch Morris. At that time those scenes were pretty separate but they began to cross over shortly thereafter. But for me a third thing began to emerge, out of the music that I had grown up with. This included the Dead, Quicksilver, The Band, Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix, Beefheart, and also Al Green and the Temptations, etc., etc. I also spent a lot of time in Junior High and High School listening to Magic Sam, Junior Wells, Howlin Wolf and all the classic country and folk blues artist. When I was in NYC I played with Philip Wilson quite a bit. Philip died a tragic death not too long ago, he was an incredible drummer, and he had been the original drummer with the Art Ensemble and had left them to go on tour with Paul Butterfield. I was a huge Butterfield fan, and had heard this band when I was a kid. The fact that he was in both of these groups blew my mind, but I came to realize how closely related these scenes were. If you look at Delmark records from Chicago, most of the catalog is blues from the west side and improvised music from the AACM. Philip went back to working with Lester Bowie in later years.

Around that time I started my band The President. The first version had Elliot Sharp and Bill Frisell on guitar and later Dave Tronzo. At the time, at places like CBGB’s etc this band was often ill regarded for being too groove oriented and not noisy or free enough. In fact when we played at the Zurich Jazz festival we were catcalled with insults like “Allman Brothers” which was silly because it didn’t really sound anything like that. But I didn’t really mind because I liked the Allman Brothers! Now 20 years later it seems like all these bands are all about the groove and the risk taking is very low for the most part. Times don’t change; they just get re-configured.

TD: You mean bands in the “Jam Band” scene.

WH: Well if you want to get into that bit of semantics.

TD: Well what is a Jam Band?

WH: God if I know. All I know is that in the 80’s it wasn’t cool to have a guitar solo any more and now it is cool again. Certainly Quicksilver Messenger Service went out and jammed, and so did the Count Basie Band.

TD: And Fusion?

WH: Well if you want to make me unhappy, use the word Fusion when describing my music, and if you want to add insult to injury, add the word “eclectic.

I don’t feel that my music is either of these things, and if you listen to what I’ve been doing all along I think my music has been very personal and very consistent. I had an interesting experience recently. I gave a CD of some string music I had composed to a classical critic and promoter in Holland. He had also heard some of my playing in various contexts including Zony Mash. His response was, “Wow, this is like two totally different composers.” On the other hand a cohort of mine in Seattle, a music teacher at the U of Washington recently heard the same string music. He has heard Zony Mash many times as well and other projects along the way. His reaction to the “classical” music was “This is so Wayne Horvitz, this is so you.” In my mind this person got it. He got past whether it was a rock band or an orchestra, whether it used samples and drum machines or trombones and violins. He heard that as a composer I am infatuated with certain harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic devices, and those devices are the backbone of anything I do.

You know as much as I loved working with Zorn for example, and learned a tremendous amount from him, I have never been interested in exploring genres or styles as a way to generate or inform my own music. Irony is of no interest to me, and for the most part the Post-Modern stance just depresses me. I honestly look for all the old corny shit in art: passion, soul, expressiveness and just plain sorrow and joy. Of course what makes John stand out is that in his own weird way these things come through in his music as well.

TD: But you never answered my question. What about Fusion as a style?

WH: So I still have to answer that question?? Well if you mean Fusion as in the 70’s and 80’s. Well it was a tale of two musics. It was the best of music and it was the worst of music. Mostly the worst I am afraid. But of course Miles' Live at the Fillmore totally changed my life. I listened to that record for a year straight. And I saw a Weather Report gig in Santa Cruz with the “Sweetnighter” band that was one of the 10 best concerts of my life. Absolutely incredible. I wonder if it would hold up over time, but at that moment it really transported me. Unfortunately what evolved out of fusion is truly sad.

TD: Lite Jazz? Kenny G.?

WH: Exactly. Of course I can’t listen to any of that stuff. It just drives me absolutely crazy. But I was amused about a year ago by Pat Metheny going off on Kenny G.? I mean if this is what Bill Clinton wants to listen to let him have it. Also Pat’s big critique of Kenny G was “he just plays out of tune pentatonic scales.” That cracked me up. I mean for chrisake most of my favorite music is based on guys playing out of tune pentatonic scales. Has he ever heard of Sleepy John Estes?

What worries me is what a bland narcotic music has become. Everywhere you go there is music being shoved down your throat, to manipulate you, not inspire you. I stopped near Canada the other night for gas. The place had no attendant, you could only get gas with a credit card. It is 2 in the morning and some goddamn Top 40 station is playing from speakers mounted in the pumps. You can’t talk above the music in most restaurants. On airplanes etc... It isn’t just elevators anymore. My mother passed away recently and even in the funeral home I realized there was music playing very quietly thru speakers throughout the entire building with sad but uplifting themes. As Tim and I like to say, “There is a backbeat for every emotion.”

TD: Tell me about the acoustic band? Why are the records released as Wayne Horvitz records instead of Zony Mash records? The musicians are exactly the same.

WH: Yeah, they are. When Keith [Lowe] joined, the band really took a step forward, he really made it happen. And I also had the idea to do some gigs with just piano because Keith is an excellent acoustic bass player. But these tunes were not Zony Mash tunes. They were written for piano, or trio, or some for a sextet I had for awhile. In no way was it an acoustic reading of the kind of music we do in the electric band.

TD: And what about the other guys?

WH: Well what is amazing is how great Keith and Andy [Roth] and Tim [Young] are in both contexts. In the electric band Andy has developed this incredibly unique style-I’ve never heard anything like it. No matter what the vibe is it always swings, and it is very idiosyncratic. The way he builds a feel when I am soloing always blows me away. In the acoustic band he is just perfect. Oddly enough, for those folks who have only heard the electric band, Andy can be the quietest drummer on earth. He plays at a whisper and still gets this amazing feel and sound.

Tim of course is a force of nature. One of the things that drives me crazy about most press and interviews is the focus on me. Tim is clearly doing things with the guitar that no one else is doing-he totally has his own thing-which is not easy on the guitar these days. I go crazy when critics call him “Frisellian.” They hear 30 seconds that remind them of Bill out of a two-hour gig and they say that because they can’t think of any other way to pigeonhole him. In the electric group Tim covers so much territory, and deep down he is a truly great rock guitar player, and that is a lot of fun. In the acoustic group he just contributes so much beautiful harmonic sensibility, and he works well with my concept at the piano. Guitar and Piano is not always a match made in heaven, but somehow he nails it.

TD: Back to the whole Jam-Band thing…

WH: Do we have to?

TD: Yes, what is the difference in the audience?

WH: Well there is one big difference between a Zony Mash show and an acoustic show or any of my other projects. Simple people are standing up instead of sitting. If you feel like you have to play a certain way to keep people moving that is a real drag, but if you can do exactly what you want to do musically and people keep moving that is truly inspirational. It is like being at the Fillmore in 1967 and I’m all for that. You know Cecil Taylor has a theory that the club owners created a situation where people had to stop dancing around the time that be-bop became the predominant force in jazz. If that is true or not I am not qualified to say, but can you imagine going to hear a Cecil Taylor concert and everyone is standing and moving to it. To me, THAT would be a radical transformation of art in America.

TD: Well what about a Dead concert?

WH: Well I guess so. You have to give the Dead credit for creating a creative experience for the band and the audience alike in a populist context. No matter where the music went they let the audience in. They never said, “OK. Now we are making serious ART and you must be in awe of us.”

TD: Are you a fan?

WH: Well I have to first say that the last time I saw the Grateful Dead live was probably before you were born, and I don’t really know much about their music since Europe 72 except to say that a lot of what I heard I thought was dreadful or just not very good. I confess to two caveats about the Dead-Pigpen and one drummer!

Photo by Jay Blakesberg

But on the flip side I love the early records, in fact possibly my favorite Dead record is the first one, which they themselves were not particularly fond of. And I listen to those records often, even to this day. Jerry Garcia was I think one of the great souls of the 20th century in America, warts and all. What an enigma, not nearly as prophetic and brilliant as Dylan, far from the incredible musicianship and taste of The Band, not as sonically brilliant as Jorma, no where near a Hendrix or a Bob Marley. Often out of tune and rhythmically vague. But at their best they just had this wonderful soulfulness - some reading on the mid-20th century in America that makes my heart flutter. I just heard this Dick’s Picks where at first Bob and Jerry sing a few songs with acoustic guitars before the band joins them. You know it isn’t brilliant, but it just gets to you. Garcia is that classic kid who just wants to play music, and he always stays true to himself. And in his own weird way he was a real compendium of American music. He knew his Roscoe Holcomb and his Son House and his Buddy Holly and even his John Coltrane.

You know most of the bands of that era had a sort of organic post-modernism. All these styles and influences merged together because these musicians just had huge appetites for a lot of soulful music, not because they were trying to self-consciously create an interesting concept. It is hard to find that anymore-although a band like Los Lobos comes to mind.

TD: Isn’t the cover to American Bandstand a tribute of sorts to Workingman’s Dead?

WH: Wow-you are the first person to pick up on that. I thought it would be obvious.

TD: Well before we stop, what is new?

WH: Let’s see. Just put out a film score CD on Tzadik. Got a big project that I did with Tucker Martine for the Terminus label. Should be out in a few months. Basically Tucker and I made a bunch of tracks with the computer and then had a lot of guests come in - Reggie Watts, Evyind Kang, Bill Frisell, Robin Holcomb, Bobby Previte, Tim and Keith and Andy, Danny Barnes, Skerik, etc., etc.

I am just beginning to work on a chamber orchestra piece about the life of Joe Hill. This will include members of the Seattle Symphony and Bill will be a soloist. Robin [Holcomb] and I are recording a CD for Songlines. It will be for solo piano, with each of us contributing half the music. Maybe we will play a piece for four hands, who knows?

And we are planning to record Zony Mash Plus Horns sometime this winter. We have been playing the charts off and on for a few years, and for the record it looks like we will have an all-star line-up of Ron Miles on trumpet, Doug Wieselman on tenor, Skerik on Baritone and Fred Wesley on trombone.

TD: Sounds like plenty!

WH: Oh, and I almost forgot. Robin and the kids and I are making a children’s CD for Tzadik that I hope to finish by the New Year. My kids are demanding more money, so I told them to get a lawyer!

[Published on: 11/13/02]

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