29 May 2013

Interview: Brad Cheeseman of Brad Cheeseman Group

Bassist and composer Brad Cheeseman has released an EP of tender and intricate contemporary jazz tunes called "Mixed Messages", which you can listen to and/or buy here: http://bradcheeseman.bandcamp.com/

How long have you been playing bass for? Was fusion an early love, or something you developed a liking for as your talents grew into it?

I started playing bass in 2004, so roughly nine years now. Jazz (and eventually fusion) was kind of an acquired taste for me. When I first listened to bands like Weather Report and Return to Forever, it was the musicianship that I was listening for; the language was beyond me. On the more "traditional" side of things, Dave Brubeck's Time Out was the first jazz record I bought, and it was the mixed meter compositions which I was attracted to most, as they appealed to the inner progressive rock fan in me. Since I could get a few of the elements in the music though, I kept listening and gradually began to understand the music better.

Did you start composing immediately, or did you feel like you should wait until you'd developed a certain level of skill before writing your own music?

Composition has always been there to a certain extent but it hasn't really been a major focus until the last few years. Rather than waiting to develop a certain level of skill, I think it was more of a need to make sense of who I am, musically speaking. I listen to a lot of different music and I get to play a lot of different styles, but I wasn't sure if there was a way to do all of it at once without it sounding like a total mess. Could I have my cake and eat it, too? This was the challenge that really got me going, so I started listening to music and asking myself why I liked it, or what I found interesting in it, and the initial result of this process was what would eventually become "Mixed Messages".

The name of the EP fits the music very well, since I get contrasting moods from these songs. For example, “Seven Sages” starts off as a rocking number—I think of King Crimson—but the once the solos starts it gets soft, sentimental, and slightly psychedelic. Were you intentionally contrasting moods, or was it a result of synthesizing different musical styles? How would you describe the atmosphere of Mixed Messages?

I think that I was mainly focused on creating interesting arcs and telling complete stories with these songs, especially the bigger ones like "Seven Sages" and "Mixed Messages". I remember an interview with Esbjorn Svensson (of E.S.T.) who was talking about writing "not just music to improvise on, but music that is music in its own right" and that idea stuck with me and really informed the writing of this material. I'm not really sure how I would describe the atmosphere of the overall EP, though. What do you think?

It depends on the song. "Mixed Messages" gives me the jazz feeling of people who love music playing music they love, cerebral but groovy and passionate. "Winter Solstice" feels nostalgic and sentimental. "Seven Sages" and "Clouds" have the prog rock feeling of going on a journey, a boat trip where the heroes are attacked by a cyclops, showered with gifts, seduced by sirens, etc before making it home. (I just read The Odyssey so that might've biased me.) For the EP as a whole the only thing coming to mind is that it's thoughtful and brooding, as opposed to explosive and extroverted.

I like that. The song-by-song approach definitely works a bit better, as these were all written over a few years and were just some of the songs I wanted to capture most with this group of musicians. That said, I can't give enough credit to the other guys for helping me bring some life to these songs. On paper, "Mixed Messages" probably borders on cold and too intellectual but, well, your descriptors basically sum it up. I hadn't really thought of "Winter Solstice" as intentionally nostalgic, but that kind of makes sense as it's the oldest of the bunch. Rob's guitar solo here really captures what I was going for, though, and Sam's interpretation is wonderful. For the other songs, the Homer comparison is a good one, especially for "Clouds".

Since you mentioned the Esbjorn Svensson quote, I'll ask you about the role of solos in your compositions. Do the songs ask for a certain instrument to be soloing in a certain place, or do you include them because improvisation is a big reason why people play and listen to jazz? Did you ask the other musicians to play in a certain way for a solo because that's what the song needed?

Regarding solos, I think it depends on the song. All of the tunes that this group plays have solos but I don't think it would be out of the question to do a completely through-composed piece of music with this group... it just hasn't happened yet. Still, the solos in most of the songs that this band plays are a part of the song's development, and not necessarily the primary focus. As far as who solos on what, sometimes it's clear from the beginning as to who's going to be featured (i.e. "Clouds" has always been a guitar/sax feature). "Seven Sages" on the other hand, was never meant to necessarily be a bass feature, but it's just kind of stuck (and I wanted to have a good bass tune on the EP). Instead of asking people to solo in a certain way to fit the music, I think it's more important to make sure that the right people are playing on each tune. What tunes are going to bring out the best of someone's playing? Who's going to connect with a song the best, based on what I know of their playing and/or listening habits? Sometimes I miss, or sometimes people ask to play (or sit out) on certain songs, but these are all talented musicians and always surprise me with what they have to say on their instruments.

How would you define the Brad Cheeseman Group? How long have you been working with the guys on Mixed Messages? (Is there a fixed "line-up"?)

Stylistically, I keep referring to the group as contemporary jazz, which is kind of a catch-all term these days used to describe any number of groups, but I like it better than "fusion". To me, fusion has some connotations that I want to shy away from, like self-indulgence and spectacle, whereas this has a bit more heart than fusion might lead people to believe. On the other hand, it's a lot easier to just call it fusion than to explain all of the above. It's definitely jazz to me, but I think it has a lot to offer for people who aren't really fans of jazz.

The line-up has changed a bit since the first performances, and there's always a bit of a revolving door. Matt and Rob were the first to try out the charts, and Sam was there for the first real gig. Jeff first played with us shortly before tracking back in the fall, and Matt decided to pass the torch not too long after tracking was finished. It would be nice to always play with the same people, but the reality is that everyone's busy with work or their own projects and won't always be able to make the gig or commit to working on the material. As much as having subs can be difficult, though, it's exciting for me to hear new people play the tunes and interpret them differently.

Do you see the group only playing your compositions, or could you see playing standards, covers, or stuff by other members?

We've done a few covers here and there... I did an arrangement of Brandt Brauer Frick's "Mi Corazon" which made pretty regular setlist appearances for a while, and we did one-off performances of the Pinball Number Count from Sesame Street and an different arrangement of "Single Ladies". Since most of the performances we do are only one or two sets, there hasn't really been a need for covers. However, we're doing a festival in a few weeks where we need the extra material so we'll do a set of standards. Earlier on when I was still getting some rep together I asked a couple of the musicians to bring in tunes if they wanted, but nothing ever came from it.

What are the plans for the group's future? Live shows? Touring? More recordings?

I'm kind of playing it by ear. I really just want to keep playing live and expanding whatever fan base we currently have, work on getting the existing material together and start introducing some new tunes to the repertoire. There are no plans to tour at the moment, but that would be a lot of fun. It would just be a matter of getting the schedules of five people to lineup for a long enough period of time, as well as making it a worthwhile endeavour for everyone. As for more recording, eventually... it's definitely not something that I want to rush into right now.

What’s something you really love about Mixed Messages, and what’s something you'd like to improve for next time?

Overall, I'm really glad everything turned out the way it did. The production sounds great and everything has a good balance between sounding produced and like a live band. My favourite moments are a lot of little ones, especially regarding some of the solos. During the recording sessions, I was so focused on bigger things like how the grooves felt, or listening for major mistakes, that I missed how good some little moments really were until we started listening back. Sometimes, things that seemed like mistakes during the sessions actually end up being really cool moments that we kept... probably something to do with conviction and people just going for it.

Live, it's not uncommon for songs to be stretched out for the solos, but in the studio we had to really try to keep things under control, which generally meant giving solos a set length. For the most part this worked but it would have been nice to let a few of the sections breathe a little more. Next time I'd try a slightly looser approach and make those calls on the fly.

I know it's hard to point to with words, but what's an example of a little favourite moment?

One moment that sticks out is on the head out of "Winter Solstice", Sam does this huge piano flourish. When he did it, we all just kind of looked around the room at each other, as if to say "you better believe that was the take". Also, the very end of Jeff's solo on "Mixed Messages" was a bit of a surprise for everyone -- I could see the producer and engineer cracking up in the control room. Everyone has these moments scattered throughout, and I suppose it really comes down to how much I enjoy listening to these guys play. We've played the songs a bunch in rehearsal and on gigs, then after the tracking sessions I listened to the songs over and over while choosing the best takes and listening to rough mixes, etc. Which is to say that I know how the compositions sound and I have a general idea about how the musicians play and improvise... yet I never get tired of hearing them doing it and they always have new and interesting things to say on their instruments.

Haha I think I know the feeling when something surprising and awesome happens, and when you finish and think "yeah that was great." Were any of the songs particularly hard to get a good take? Was it hard to decide between takes?

"Seven Sages" was the first one we did, and it took the longest. In the end, I think we did seven takes (how fitting haha). It was coming along and everything was always close. After the 5th take, we switched gears and did one of the other ones, but I knew that we were close to getting it so we went back and did a couple more and, sure enough, the last take was the one. Sometimes, though, there are trade-offs where you can live with one part if another part is really good. It's also really difficult to get a sense of the overall picture while you're recording, because you're so focused on what you're doing... it was always great to take a break and listen back to what we were doing, or to get the perspective of the producer and/or engineer.

That's basically all the questions I had. I had fun. I hope you did too. Thanks a bunch! Any last words? Favourite album of 2013?

I haven't gotten a chance to dig into too many 2013 albums yet, but I've really been digging the new Justin Timberlake and James Blake records. Lots of good music to check out, for sure! Thanks for doing this interview. too. I hadn't really thought too intently about some of these questions, so it was pretty informative for me. Lots of fun, thanks again!

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