Perfect Sound Forever

The Sounds of the Birds

Photo courtesy of Duval and Pete Gershon

Dominic Duval interview by Steve Koenig
(Sept 1999)

Dominic Duval's 1997 solo bass disc Nightbird Inventions struck me fiercely and is a breakthrough in his playing. I heard this disc and knew he had hit a plateau. Something special had happened. It wasn't a fluke. Duval is clearly playing on a high level that shows no sign of abating. The C.I.M.P. discs of his String Ensemble, featuring Joe McPhee and Mark Whitecage on horns, are exceptional records that reach the same intuitive level as those of the Arcado String Trio and Paraphrasis.

At Duval's string trio performance at the Knitting Factory's Old Office on August 23, violinist Jason Hwang started with a slurred pizzicato, joined by Duval's low, winding bass moan. Cellist Tomas Ulrich sounded like a sweet violin until he crunched the bow hard against the strings giving us exquisite chills. Duval played a strong but tender solo. Reedman Will Connell, in the audience, put his arm on my shoulder and said, "It takes a lot to make an 'old' man cry." Bartender Renee, listening intently throughout, also was in tears at the final suspended notes of the trio's second set... fading slowly into ether.

Since this interview in June, Dominic has a dozen more discs out, as a leader or sideman, and played with many new partners. We begin talking over dinner in a restaurant on Indian row in the East Village, talking about music and sound in general.

"I live on a river, with the sound of birds."

PSF: You are clearly a listener. Of all the choices of instruments, why play bass?

I have no idea. Actually, I have an idea. It only had four strings and I figured it was the easiest thing to play. Had I known what I was getting into, I would've picked the piano. Four strings on the bass and I thought there were four notes; there are three and a half or four octaves there; I had no idea what I was getting into.

PSF: How did you suddenly develop your own sound?

For twenty-five years I had no idea what's been going on in music. Now I had to figure out what'd being going on for twenty years. Things have hardly changed at all between 1974 to 1994, in terms of all the stuff that makes this music what it is.

PSF: Are you familiar with Evan Parker's work?

I have quite a few of his discs. One of the first things I did was tell some friends, "I wanna know who is special." I bought four of his discs. He's extremely talented, has an extremely personal sound. He has a unique approach to music; almost a school in itself.

PSF: Evan Parker is starting to work with electronics a lot, and he's one of the few who seems to do it well.

In Nightbird Inventions I use electronics. All it does it distort the sounds, but it's got to have substance. Electronics has always interested me, only because I really like progress, I really like technology. Evan himself is an effect, with the circular breathing and the way he formulates tonal centers. All by himself he's an effect. Now what does he do but he adds a group of musicians who refuse to follow any standard idea of what tonality he's in, so you wind up with Evan, Barry Guy, Paul Lytton, who are the antithesis of American jazz. However, there's always that overlapping thing that comes when you hear Evan, Coltrane in his later years, Don Cherry's groups, New York Eye and Ear Control, John Tchicai, and people like that; the guys who were there at the very beginning. Then you go back to Sidney Bechet and hear the tone he had, so you hear the weight between all this stuff, but Evan's one of my favorite saxophone players. His trio is a breath of fresh air in today's time. They're not based on anything else. They're icons of themselves. You just know who they are. You can pick them out anywhere.

PSF: Is most of your work free improv or do you have heads and structures?

Improvisation; there's no such thing. Why? Because you can't play something you don't know. You can only restate something that you've learned, somewhere. You've had to have heard it; you've had to have absorbed it somewhere in your life, in your musical past. We're like sponges. Whatever we listen to we store, especially musicians who really have the strongest points of memory, the strongest points of influences and passions; they pick up things and they keep them with them. So things we've heard ten years ago, twenty years ago, ten minutes ago, they're all part of the ongoing, working vocabulary that we use.

Now, improvisation, the word alone means to make something out of nothing, or to make do with something. To make do with what? Since I'm starting with nothing, there's nothing to make do with. I cannot play anything that I don't know. I must approach music with the knowledge that I have, which is harmonic, dynamic, melodic, and rhythmic; all those things come into play. It's still not improvisation; it's just organizing things like Cecil [Taylor] does, and other musicians whom I really respect. They organize things to make a piece of music out of things that they've worked on, or that they've thought about doing, and having an opportunity without anyone interfering. They will create this in real time.

The improvisation comes when, for instance, we're working on three different things: we're looking at a tray, this spoon, this little beaker here of milk, and this coffee cup. [He stacks them.] The intervalic relationship between these three things together, if you stack them on top of each other, and then you just drop it, the sounds that that makes, even though you've just dropped all three things together, that, as a combination, makes an improvisation.

Now everybody hears that sound and they will do something with it: they could do nothing with it, they could improvise around it, or they could do something contrapuntal. They will do something that has some method of validity to it concerning that sound they heard, while the three instruments together making music create a fourth element, which is an improvisation. That is what I'm interested in: the relationship between the musicians who are playing to create something together, that alone we couldn't have created. It, like a symphony, like a string quartet, becomes a whole piece of music, which is my main goal when I make music. Whether I play by myself, which is almost an impossibility, or with others, which is why, on Nightbird Inventions, I used all those effects, because the effects were the other musicians. I wasn't in control of those effects. The effects were controlled by time, space, and an engineer. I gave him the freedom to use these effects when he wanted to. I just told him what I wanted to use, so he wasn't coming in from left field. I wanted the familiarity of knowing what something sounded like, but when it happened and how it affected me, was the cause and effect of Nightbird Inventions. That's how Nightbird Inventions was born; by experimenting with sounds that I was familiar with, but couldn't control... and still interject my own intellect into something that has no intellect, which is a machine. The machine only does what it does if you push a button. So this guy pushed a button, and I responded to that, and I created something, this third element which became the Nightbird.

PSF: How does your playing change depending on who you're with?

Michael Jefry Stevens. Michael and I go back a long time. Mike is a romanticist. In our trio recording, you'll see in a very beautiful, almost languid, form of music because of Michael. Michael is a sad romanticist, and plays in a beautiful space, so when Michael and I get together, we really... He said, "What are we going to do?" and I said, "You're going to respond to me, and here's my energy, here's the energy that I'm giving you," and he just picked up on it and ... the record." There are pieces on there that are reminiscent of the Elements record, but on a much higher plane. His musical playing has grown immensely; I'm very proud of Michael. He's been there pushing and plugging away; he's become a wonderful musician.

PSF: Elements is the first thing of his I'd heard and I liked it immediately. Did the titles come after the recording?

The elements are the musicians and the space that they take up in any given improvisation. The only real direction came from each individual musical being responsible for developing an idea from the very beginning, on their own, and then the group picking up on that, improvising over the idea the individual came up with, or individuals. There are groupings of two, or three, and so the elements became obvious when we were listening to the playbacks and trying to find a way of describing this music and realizing that all these particular elements were like the elements water, fire, air, all these things that scientifically are considered to be elements, and the atmosphere, all these things making up the planets. We just kind of extended that to the recording, but the idea of elements came after we recorded the piece and were listening to it. Both Michael and I were astounded how each piece had its own clarity and its own force. Some is very, very red. We were even toying with the idea of naming them by colors, but we decided to use the elements angle instead. That was our first endeavor at playing, for public, improvised pieces like that, the short improvised pieces, almost like chamber music.

PSF: How did the Equinox Trio get its name?

Equinox got its name from me, taking three musicians who have the same abilities in different areas, putting them all together, and making a whole out of them, yet each piece being as important as the next piece to support the music being made. Equinox is all parts being equal, and so: equinox. I did the sequencing, the titles, and the dedication came from my wife, a poem she had given me. My father-in-law had died, and some pets we loved very much had died, two of our friends had died, all in the same six-month period, and this was our way of... [Indian birthday music comes in. We both shrug, sigh, and we all start clapping to film music.]

PSF: I want to ask you about some of the people you play with. Tomas Ulrich, the cellist in your String Ensemble, has blown me away every time I've heard him Live, as well as on his own discs.

I heard Tomas playing in a little group at Context Studios about four years ago, and I asked Michael if he would introduce me to Tomas. We introduced ourselves and I talked to him about putting together a group. At the time we were working with a semi-classical group called MICE, short for Manhattan Improvisers Chamber Ensemble. That was myself, Dom Minasi on guitar, Eleanor Amlin on vocals, she was a soprano, Jay Rosen on percussion, John Gunther on reeds, and the violinist at the time was Rod Thomas. We did a recording, and we were just finishing up that project and I was talking to Tomas about putting together a string trio. He didn't know me, so he said, "We'll see what we can do," and Tomas and I started playing together. The first thing I noticed about Tomas was his incredible technique, and his wonderful intonation, and ability to play in space that really doesn't exist, sort of like a horror movie, and yet could play beautiful melody and wonderful melodic phrasing and so he and I got to be friends and a lot of this music that you heard, the string music, is based on a relationship between myself, Tomas, and another violinist, Jason Kao Hwang.

PSF: One of the things that strikes me about Jason is that I've heard him play in almost every possible context and he's always right there no matter who he plays with, no matter what kind of ensemble.

He's got a level of integrity that never wanes. He's always one hundred per cent. You can't more than a hundred per cent of somebody, so whenever you hear Jason, you get one hundred percent of Jason. It's not, "Is he going to have a good day or a bad day?" You get the most you can get out of him. You could flog him, but you couldn't get any more. An amazing musician. Jason and I just did a duet that will be coming out on Blue Jackal Records. The owner heard the duet and he fell in love with it. A lot of the techniques I used in Nightbird I used in the duo sequencing and we played it live to two-track. We couldn't believe it was just him and me; it sounded like a string quintet and [we're interrupted by the Indian birthday music and hand-clapping again, seemingly the specialty of this restaurant].

Let's talk about my partner-in-crime Jay Rosen. He is my counter part, my alter being. He always seems to know where I am intending to go with an idea, almost before I seem to have thought of it. Just listen to the wonderful space he leaves in his playing. There is always just the right amount of drums and interesting sounds that at times seem almost non-existent, but without them the music could never be complete. Jay uses his sticks and various tools to create music not unlike a composer orchestrating a battery of strings to cause just the right amount of tension in a movement of musical ideas to make the most of what would have only been silence. Jay is one of the most caring and sensitive musicians I've had the privilege to meet.

PSF: You've been playing with Joe McPhee a lot, recently.

His ideas are always part of a continuum of musical ideas which seem to be moving toward a more complete picture. Each new statement becomes part of this puzzle which only Joe is able to fit into the right place in the grand scheme of his musical journey, which I feel privileged to be a part of. Joe McPhee, is one of the most constantly brilliant musicians I've ever had the privilege of making music with.

PSF: Someone special I've only recently discovered, and then he died, was Glenn Spearmann.

Glenn and I met recently, up in Victoriaville, two years ago I believe. We did a recording with him and John Heward, called TH. It's on CIMP Records. I found him to be a wonderful musician and a really nice person. Not without his problems; nobody is without their problems. When you're a musician and you're only interested in music, I guess you kind of put all the other stuff aside. I've been trying to segregate, isolate music from personality and from things I wouldn't necessarily associate myself with. In Glenn's case, he was much of a gentleman, and I made certain demands on him which we both decided were in our best interests in terms of playing music together and how we were going to develop a musical relationship. He was very respectful of me, and vice versa, and so we had a short but fruitful friendship. We did a duet record, which has just come out, and it's a wonderful recording. I was very happy; I think it's one of Glenn's finest moments. There's a dedication I wrote on the record which is indicative of how I feel about him. He's a wonderful musician. He left a wonderful legacy for us all; his sound and the way he plays music.

He's a very different type of musician, influenced by very few people. Maybe at one time by John Coltrane, but Glenn developed a very individual voice. I'm drawn to people who are individual in their approach to music. It has to be something very different for me to be interested. Glenn had this wonderful way of putting notes together; his intervals, his tone, unlike a lot of other musicians that I've heard that are trying to copy one style or any other style. His overall view of music, how he fit in there was almost like a tree in the forest. He didn't necessarily want to be singled out, but he wanted to be strong and he wanted to have a place of his own and I think that's how his music struck people: very strong and yet hidden; you'd couldn't always see it all the time because he wasn't flashy. But without it, you'd have a huge space, which is what we have today because he's not here. And unfortunately, nobody's ever heard of him; he's unheralded. Luckily my records are coming out before I die.

PSF: Stick around. [we laugh]

I'd like to stick around; my object is to stick around. I have wonderful children, a wonderful wife, a great house, a good life; I want to stick around.

PSF: What would be a good entree for someone who doesn't know your work?

My next record. Whatever's coming next.

PSF: I first heard you on disc on Leo, and you've been leader or player on dozens of CJR and CIMP records. What was it like working for Leo Feigin, and for Bob Rusch?

The CIMP experience is probably the beginning of my recording career. Maybe the first recording was with Leo; he put out Elements. The second recording was with Mark Whitecage, Free for Once which came about in a very strange way. Mark and I had recorded the GM record Split Personality in '95, and I told Mark that I was gonna send it up to Bob Rusch. Mark had been trying to get Bob to record him for years, but Bob could never find anything that he liked. You know how Bob is; he's such a connoisseur of music, and he'll only record something that he believes in. Mark didn't believe he was gonna do anything with this recording either, so I said let's see what happens, and Mark said, "Fine, let's send it to him." I sent it up there, and Bob Rusch called back the next day and said, "I want to record the trio," and I told Mark that, and he almost fell on the floor because nobody had been paying attention to us at all. I had sent it to Evidence Records, and they had toyed with the idea of putting it out, but it was such a strong recording that Bob brought us up there.

After the first recording Bob had seen something in me. First of all he couldn't believe that he didn't know about me, that somewhere there was a link that he didn't know about that he could find which could link me to some great past. I said, "Don't look; there's nothing there." I've been a father, and pretty much square for the last twenty-five years. When I dropped out, I dropped out for other circumstances unrelated to music, and I had never gotten to the point where anybody was taking me seriously to record me.

I actually did a recording with John Hammond in 1968. It was never released; it was shelved. He paid us the date, and we went there and did it, and it was good work and he just decided not to put it out. Columbia Records thought it was just too far over the edge, I guess, for them, and they lost interest in what we were doing. I also did a country and western record that was never released with some bluegrassers.

PSF: You gotta do some of that with Eugene!

Eugene Chadbourne?

PSF: That would be fun! The idea of a record with you, Chadbourne and Haden...

Charlie Haden?

PSF: Yeah, that's his roots!

Right. That would be a lot of fun. I could play the Hutchings bass, almost like a violin.

PSF: Tell about the Hutchings bass, because you specify it in the liner notes.

There's a woman named Carleen Hutchings; I believe she's in her eighties. She developed a way of making instruments; the top plate and the back plate are electronically tuned with a special device she's created; a special method of tuning the plates, so that all her instruments are tuned like Stradivariuses. She has eight instruments; they're all part of a violin octet. Each instrument sounds like the next, in terms of its timbre, and the space that it takes: the tone that it gets. They're like seasoned instruments but they're all brand new. I found this woman through a series of strange recordings that people we talking about. Her musical society was in there, called the Catgut Musical Society.

At the time I was looking for a chamber bass, to do the Nightbird Inventions, and I came across her name, called her up, and she said, "I might have something you might be interested in. It's kind of a half-bass," so I went down to see the bass. She didn't know me from a hole-in-the-wall. The bass looked like a flat cello. It's probably no more than three inches deep, but the size of a bass. She said, "This is the small bass," so I picked it up and get the bow out and I started to play it, and I realize, this is an incredible instrument. She heard me play, and she said, "You were made for this instrument. I could let you have this instrument. Would you like to play it, because the bass is just sitting here doing nothing." She gave it to me. This is a thirty-five thousand dollar instrument and she gave it to me. I signed a piece of paper to take out insurance on it, and I played this bass for about six months, and I did that recording, The String Ensemble Live In Concert. Now I have another recording coming out, with Jason Kao Hwang, called A Vision Quest, and that's done with another Hutchings bass. She retuned the plates of a nineteenth century bass; it's adapted to her tuning, which is a fourth above normal turning. The thing I like about it is that he has a high C string, so I'm able to play passages with much more of a cello timbre than I would on my instrument. She's been very good to me; she's just about given me this bass to play as long as I want it, as long as I need it, which could be forever. She's an incredible woman, and the bass, you'll hear it when this record comes out, it's just incredible. She's a scientist, that's what she is.

PSF: What makes playing with Cecil Taylor...

Cecil's one of the great living musical organizers. No matter how good you are, he makes you sound better, because I believe that music, like all great things, aspires to its highest point. It's like being in a room with dozens of people, but there's this one person who stands out as a dynamic figure, and musically speaking, Cecil is that dynamic figure. No matter who's around, they pale in comparison, because his music is so passionate, his exaggeration of abilities. I don't think there's a day that goes by when he doesn't work at it, whether it be physically or mentally. He experiences music as life: it's all-encompassing.

PSF: What's expected of you when you play with Cecil, whether in concert or in the studio?

Nothing and everything. Cecil can see the greatness in somebody, or the weakness, and he utilizes all of that. He only expected me to play the best that I could behind him and he'd take care of the rest. It was never my music, it was our music, and he was the sculptor. I was just the tool to make that music, and when I added something, I added it to something that would have been equally great without me, but because of me became much stronger, because the elements that I use to play music, because we play in a difference genre, in a different space and time.. His knowledge is much more encompassing than mine. I don't deny that he's a genius; I've always thought the man was a brilliant person. Just listen to the way he puts together these elements to make the sound that he makes, this musical... it's like the hurricane we were talking about. You know it's a hurricane and you just want to find a place to hide, but with Cecil there's no place to hide. If you're at a Cecil concert, there are only two things you can do: you can either sit there and sweat through it, or you can get up and walk out. [We laugh.] You can't just be lackadaisical and have a conversation and talk about the time of day; it doesn't work that way. It's the way that thing grabs you and pulls you in that's the beauty of it. Just think: it's as if you had something to say and the whole world would listen because it was so powerful, and, maybe Christ was like that. When Christ was on the mountain giving the sermon, maybe that's what it was like, this incredible, passionate personality that made you believe what he was doing even though you had no idea what he was talking about.

PSF: Is there any Cecil moment or gig that stands out?

I remember going to the Irridium, the second or third night we were there, and the manager came to the back and said, "You know, Mr. Taylor, you were short ten minutes on the set last night." Cecil Taylor, right? So Cecil looked at him; this guy was gonna melt. You had to pick him up off the floor, that was the kind of look Cecil gave him, so Cecil said nothing else, he just walked into the room, got dressed in his little outfit that he wears, and he said, "Are you ready, guys?" An hour and forty-five minutes passed, from the first note to the last note. We're supposed to play forty-five minute sets.

Well, an hour and forty-five minutes goes by. There was nobody in the place. There was a line around the block; people trying to get into this room. There's people sweating, maybe four people left, maybe five people left out of two hundred-fifty, sweating, try to bear this out. Cecil is 'destroying' this piano, and we go in the back and nobody says anything. The manager comes in and they've got rid of the four people that were left, and they ushered in the rest of the crowd; they're supposed to have another set. So the manager says, "Mr. Taylor, it's time for the next set," ten minutes after he got finished playing an hour-forty minutes of the most torrential storm I've ever been through with him, and Cecil says, "No problem." He sits down, does another hour, we do another hour. One ten-minute break and two hours and forty-five minutes of Cecil Taylor music. It's almost unheard of, and never again did anybody in that club say anything to us. Every time we came in they just turned their backs, afraid that something might happen, and I think that was the funniest thing that happened to me, although I actually played through all that. I don't know how I did it.

You know, with Cecil, I don't know where we start, I don't know when we stop, I have no idea what has transpired, I only know that it has been great. And when it stops it stops. It's so perfect. The last note, you know it's the last note. It's not like you have to guess, and there's no beginning; there's only this complete package. If he stopped in the middle, he'd start it exactly where he left off. Same idea, same verse, same phrase. I don't care what the regulation was, the tempo, the volume, the passion-- exactly from where it starts. That's how he would knit it together. It's okay, take a breath; go. That would be it, right there at that point. No question about it. If there was a stop you wouldn't know there was a stop. If someone got killed in the audience, and they dragged the body out, by the time they dragged the body out, and we started again it would be exactly where he left off. "We gotta finish this phrase, guys..."

There are a number of processes he goes through in different color keys. Cecil is responsible for something I call the "all-tone row." It has ninety-nine keys, so there is no note that's unplayable, and there is no note that's playable. The harmonies are figured out in terms of intervalic relationships between melody notes or dynamic sequences that have their own life, their own body. They're all dark or all light, and light in terms of either very energetic, very uplifting, or very dark, foreboding, or almost percussive. It may take forever to get to the piano; the piano is only part of the elements [he uses] because, as you know, he's also a poet, and a dancer, and a performance artist, so when he starts, it's like a picture. He starts painting his picture. Sometimes it's right from the beginning: Bang! It's there. Other times it's like setting up the framework, putting up the easel, getting the paints together, getting this color, this color, this color. That's what it's like; it's like watching an artist prepare to go a painting, prepare to do a sculpture. All of a sudden, you have no idea how you got in there, but all of a sudden the picture's being painted, and you don't know how it happened because it's a question of his drawing you in with him into the story and all these things are stories. They're about his life at that moment, and how he's grown, and how he's gotten to where he is, and what makes him Cecil Taylor. I think that's something that I've leaned from him: how to show an audience who you are through music, not so much as how you play.

PSF: Have you played a solo concert?

No, I'm going to do my first one at the Guelph Festival this September. I'm doing a performance of the Nightbird. Someone will have to tell me how I'm going to do it, but I'm going to do it. [Dominic is laughing.] I'm excited; it's like someone just opened up this other door, and I'm gonna walk through it. If the door's open, I'm gonna walk through it, and if I don't like it on the other side I can always come back, but right now there isn't a door that I've opened that I haven't liked, so I'm doing what I want to do.

Since this interview in June, Dominic has a dozen more discs out, and has played with dozens of new partners.


Dominic Duval Nightbird Inventions Cadence Jazz
Dominic Duval/ Jay Rosen Wedding Band CIMP
Dominic Duval's String Ensemble Live In Concert Cadence Jazz
Dominic Duval's String Ensemble State of the Art CIMP
Dominic Duval with the C.T. String Quartet The Navigator Leo
Ivo Perelman Seeds, Vision Leo
Ivo Perelman/ Rory Stuart Quartet Revelation CIMP
Herb Robertson/ Duval/ Rosen Falling in Space Cadence Jazz
Joseph Scianni/ Duval/ Rosen Big Onion CIMP
Michael Jefry Stevens/ Duval Quintet Elements Leo
Cecil Taylor Quartet Qu'a: Live at the Irridium Vol 1. Cadence Jazz
Cecil Taylor Quartet Qua'yoba: Live at the Irridium Vol 2. Cadence Jazz
Mark Whitecage Quartet Free For Once CIMP
Mark Whitecage Quartet Caged No More CIMP
Mark Whitecage Quartet & Joe Scianni Trio 3+4=5 CIMP
Mark [Whitecage] 'n'Marshall [Allen] Monday Night CIMP
Mark [Whitecage] 'n'Marshall [Allen] Tuesday Night CIMP
CIMPhonia 1998, Part One CIMP
CIMPhonia 1998, Part Two CIMP

Also see our Joe McPhee/Dominic Duval tribute

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER