Carlo Costa has played a transformative role on the New York improvised music scene since he moved here in 2005. Originally from Rome, he studied at Berklee College of Music before moving to the city and studying with master percussionist Susie Ibarra through CUNY-City College. Since arriving in New York, Costa has been a major presence in the improvised music scene with a wholly unique approach to creating sounds with percussion instruments. He has led his own quartet and trio as well as being an integral part of the collective band Earth Tongues which is set to release its third record, Atem, on October 31. Costa has also forged a deep musical connection with bassist Sean Ali in numerous groups and improvised settings, including Natura Morta. Additionally, Costa founded his own record label, Neither/Nor Records, in 2014 which has served as a vital springboard for key parts of the Brooklyn avant-garde scene. Neither/Nor has already released a dozen records, including most recently fellow-percussionist Flin van Hemmen’s release, Casting Spells and the Coves, on September 27. A record from Costa’s trio will be released in 2020.
I had the opportunity to do an extensive interview with Costa on February 28, 2019, about his experiences growing up, his development as a musician through the years, and the work he has down with his bands in New York.
Cisco Bradley: I am here with Carlo Costa at his apartment, on Caton Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn. So, thank you so much for doing this Carlo. It’s a real pleasure to talk with you and get to know your music a bit better.
Carlo Costa: Thank you.
CB: I mean, I’ve been following you for about 5 years, watched you develop and evolve as an artist. I’m wondering if we could start with a basic question. Where are you from? How did you get on the path to becoming a musician?
CC: So, I’m from Rome, Italy and I grew up there. My mother’s American though, so I’ve been a US citizen since I was a child and I traveled here a couple of times growing up. I was 10 when I started taking drum lessons. The way it happened was a little bit random, my sister was taking guitar lessons in a little music school and my mom asked me if I wanted to take lessons as well, so I picked the drums.
CB: Is she older than you? Your sister?
CC: My sister’s older, yeah. A little bit older. And so I started and I got into Rock & Roll, I remember listening to the Guns & Roses. When I was 10 or 11. And then got into a bunch of stuff like Jimi Hendrix, but also more contemporary stuff – Nirvana, Soundgarden, and then I started…
CB: Can I ask when where you born?
CC: 1983. And then, after a few years of that, when I went to high school I was… I changed music schools. I went to this music school that’s called Saint Louis Music Center, I think now maybe it’s called St. Louis College of Music. Now it’s like a bigger enterprise, but it was a tiny school then.
CB: That’s in Rome?
CC: Yeah. In Rome. And I started studying Jazz. I always heard jazz growing up, because my dad has a decent vinyl and CD collection. He got into jazz when he was 18 or so, in 1960. He came to New York, actually, in 1960 and heard some musicians, I think Horace Silver playing in a club here. So he would put on these records and I listened to them. I wasn’t so interested playing that music at first, but then as my lessons progressed, then I got more into music in general. I started getting into jazz and I remember being attracted to Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, those trios. I really liked the way the drums interacted in those contexts.
CB: What about the interaction struck you?
CC: I think the role of the drummer was like a little less timekeeping. There was more phrase to phrase interaction, it was more broken up, the patterns or dynamic in certain ways, than a lot of, bebop or hardbop drumming that I heard on my dad’s records. Or West Coast. He’s really into West Coast jazz too. Which I love. I love all of that stuff but I guess I was… When I heard the drums interact, I heard Jack DeJohnette that played on this Keith Jarrett record and it was really interesting.
CB: Which record?
CC: It was Standards in Norway, I think. 1980 something, maybe ’84 – ’87. And it was unlike any other jazz I heard before that. And then from there I kind of got into listening to records by Bill Evans, earlier records from the ’60s and ’70s, and yeah, so I was also into other kinds of music but there was a moment where I was really into jazz, interested in learning that. And then, as I was finishing high school, that was the thing that I was super into, so my parents were like, “What do you wanna do? Do you wanna continue in pursuing this?” And I said, “Yes” and then I applied to Berklee College of Music in Boston and I went there, in 2001. And I stayed there for four years, and it was really an eye-opening experience I got there. There were some students that were incredible. They were better than teachers, like really amazing talent and also I learned about so many different kinds of music. In particular, I had a roommate who had a nice collection of more, sort of, free jazz, also improvisation and European free jazz, things I hadn’t heard much.
CB: Any specific records that really stand out from that time?
CC: Well, I heard Tim Berne, his music for the first time, with Blood Count, and that was kind of really eye-opening, as well as other records, kind of from that scene.
CB: Anything specific about Blood Count that you recall?
CC: Well, just being kind of amazed by Jim Black’s drumming in particular. But also the way the music has like… I think it has a Rock & Roll flavor, it has this link to grunge in a sense, and Rock & Roll in general and I hear it in Jim Black’s playing, but also in the way some of the music is written, and so it kinda brought together jazz and the rock side of music that I loved growing up. But also, it was really fresh the way that they interacted, I was really into it. And then also, I heard Joey Baron on a bunch of Frisell records and John Zorn stuff, Masada and Joey Baron is… I was really super into his playing. Still am. He’s such an amazing player. And so I discovered that scene and the New York scene. The sort of more downtown scene. I was aware of more of the jazz stuff before… But also I was discovering stuff in that realm too, and European players, Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey. I remember hearing Steve Lacy stuff for the first time when I was there, and I was pretty into it.
CB: He was teaching nearby.
CC: Steve Lacy, yeah. In fact, I heard a Big Band with him in Boston… I don’t know if it was with some students, or just players from the Boston scene. I got lucky, I guess, because in those years next to Berklee, there was this place called ICA, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and in the basement, they had a little theatre space, where they booked a bunch of sort of more fringe Jazz. I saw Tim Berne there, with the trio, with Tom Rainey and Craig Taborn, I saw the ICP Orchestra there once, I saw Steve Lacy with his Big Band, I saw Dave Douglas when he brought a project with Craig Taborn and a bunch of other people and it was… What else did I see? Ken Vandermark I saw once. I saw Brotzmann there with William Parker and Hamid Drake. And this was right next door to Berklee and there were hardly any Berklee kids, ever, at the shows. Like, you know, a school with 4000 music students, nobody was aware of these, or interested. It was really funny.
CB: Why weren’t they, do you think?
CC: I think because it was like a strange insular universe. You go there and there’s all these classes and people were just checking out the masters, so to speak, the older generations: Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, maybe not even older, but just more mainstream, just more famous players. There was also a total disconnect, in my view, at least in my experience, with the Boston local scene. There was hardly any interaction… Well, there was also a big issue that in Boston, most of the clubs or places with live music have a 21 or older policy, or you can’t get into these places. So, when I got there I was 18, so I couldn’t participate in Jam Sessions or stuff like that, so much. Or go see local shows. A little bit. There were some places. But also, there was just a cultural thing. The students were kind of uninterested in exploring the local scene, also because well known players would come in to play shows from New York and elsewhere, so everyone would go see those concerts.. The tendency was to, maybe finish school, then stick around for a year or two and then move elsewhere, often New York. It seems like that was the pattern. Maybe still is the pattern for Boston. Which is kind of unfortunate. I wish there was a more thriving scene. I actually don’t really know too much about it these days, butI know there’s some great players there.. but I think the scene is kind of small. It’s not easy to go play there in my experience. Going back on tour, the times that I’ve gone, there are not so many options, and the shows are kinda hit or miss in terms of attendance.
CB: So you said there was a place right next to Berklee. What was the name of that venue?
CC: ICA. It wasn’t a place where students would play. These shows were well put together, they were known musicians and touring bands… I don’t know what kind of budget they had, or how it worked. I mean, there were, you know, sometimes it was a sizeable audience, but other times it was kind of not so full, but it was definitely a great listening room.
CB: You have the stuff that’s happening in Berklee, and then you have the stuff that’s happening in ICA… That seems like a different world.
CC: Right. But, I mean, I found out about this through students, through fellow students and there were people who were into this kind of music at Berklee. Just, it was… You know, Berklee is more focused on commercial music, on film scoring, on singer songwriters. And then, there’s also a lot of people who go there for jazz, or at least they used to go. I don’t know if now it’s changed, but there’s probably still a sizeable jazz department, which is, I would say, mostly focusing on straight-ahead jazz and…
CB: That is its reputation.
CC: Right. Although there are exceptions. There’s teachers who are involved with all sorts of things. There are a lot of teachers..
CB: You got there in 2001 and left in 2005? How did that transform you? In both positive and negative ways?
CC: I think it was a great experience, that I learned so much, but mostly, I mean, in ways, I feel there was… The biggest contribution was from fellow students. You know, just playing with so many different people, discovering different kinds of music, talking about music with fellow students. I’ve always had a difficult relationship with education, I would say. With school, you know.
CB: In what way?
CC: I don’t know, I’d always had trouble in school growing up, I don’t know. Kind of never, I always disliked the… It’s kind of hard to put in words, but the relationship, I guess with teacher-student relationship, I found not so easy to navigate. And also maybe the structure. I think I did okay at Berklee, but I think I was more interested in things that I was discovering on the sides. Except for a few teachers and a few classes.
CB: That’s a really keen observation that you’ve been about your relationship with education. You’re certainly not the only person and I think a lot of people that are attracted to this music have a similar feeling. At least some do.
CC: Right. I think that’s why I ended up playing this music, because it’s… I mean not the only reason, but that’s partially why, because it’s largely not codified in a way that unfortunately, I must say, jazz has been…
CB: Yeah. Is it like an interest in being anti-authoritarian, is it an interest in trying to do something new, is it … I’m just sort of like, I don’t know the words.
CC: So, yeah. I don’t know if it’s so conscious in a sense. It’s really instinctual. It’s really a gut attraction, I must say. I don’t wanna put any overtly political meaning to it, although I’m sure there is a strong correlation in ways but it’s not direct, or at least I don’t think of it that way, so much.
CB: Yeah. I was thinking about what you were talking about with the teachers. Is it like the placement of expectations on you, that you didn’t find appealing? Or is that whole process of replication? Like, “This is how someone plays drums. This is how Owen Jones played. This is how … Go ahead and memorize that and recreate it?”
CC: Yeah, part of it is that I think. And also, I don’t know, just sort of following a script that you’re given, “You have to do this and do that.”
CB: But that’s not appealing?
CC: Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe, for sure, maybe I should’ve listened more in some cases. I wonder, I sort of was interested in doing other stuff and maybe suspicious also of what lessons the teachers were imparting. I feel like some of them, many of them were not so invested. And so I was like, “You’re telling me to do this, but I can sense that maybe you didn’t do it.” Or it’s like a lesson you’re giving but it’s not something that you… It’s not a part of you or your experience. It’s kind of this thing that everybody’s supposed to do and here you go, do it. I don’t know, sometimes I had those feelings..
CB: So, you talked about this instinctual kind of gut-level thing. Is that kind of where your creative process begins, or somehow it comes out of that?
CC: Yeah, I think so. I mean, there is also, of course, intellectual aspects and maybe more analytical things, but I think I try to… You know, it’s something… It’s kind of inescapable. I’m attracted or not, to something, music, maybe anything else, more on a gut instinctual level. And for improvising, in particular, I think that’s key and my approach is really almost to stop thinking that’s the ultimate goal, in a sense. You’re just in the moment, and you are almost witnessing the moment. You’re witnessing what’s happening. You’re not so active in trying to do something. You know, to do this or do that, or trying to make connections intellectually, you’re trying to plan things. But, at the same time it’s been important for me to work with memory and an idea of composition in performance, in improvising. Being aware of the trajectory of the piece and sort of maintaining, remembering what has happened and trying to get an overall picture as it’s unfolding. I think that’s something I’m attracted to, in improvised music in general. Or improvisers that do that and are focusing on the music compositionally.
CB: Right. So it’s not that is not forcing. You’re clearly compelled to..You sort of have some ideas of what you wanna be. You also talked about being in the moment, living the music as it’s happening, so that it’s not always preplanned or is not always.
CC: It’s not so much a thought, going into a thought process.
CB: It becomes deeper. At an instinctual level, you’re creating in the moment.
CC: Yeah. Those moments, or the shows, or the segments of shows that are like that, always feel the best, I think. Where there’s abandonment, sort of; and things usually work out nicely when it’s the whole band has that feeling. It’s also trust in the other musicians and creating an atmosphere together and maintaining this focus together.
CB: So, you finished at Berklee in 2005.
CC: I finished in 2005 and then I thought, first of all, I wanted to get out of Boston. I was really kind of sick of it, of the city. By the end of my time at Berklee I was pretty ready to split.
CB: So what did you do?
CC: So I decided to come down to New York, and… well I decided to apply for a masters program, so I applied to City College, which was in New York and it was also a cheaper option. Certainly cheaper than a lot of other schools and…
CB: The CUNY?
CC: Yeah, CUNY. Yeah, City College, it’s part of Cuny. It’s up in Harlem, around 145th street. So yeah, I didn’t want to invest a ton of money in graduate school, but I wanted to keep studying a little bit. I didn’t want to… Maybe I was fearful of diving into New York, fresh out of school, at 22. So, I went to City College for a couple of years and did a masters in jazz performance. There I studied with John Patitucci, the bass player, who was leading the program there and was in a couple of ensembles with him. I met some great musicians, that also where in the program. It was small, but there were some really good musicians and then I took private lessons with a few different people. I studied with Susie Ibarra. At first, actually, I studied with Ian Froman who was a teacher also at Berkelee. but he lives in Jersey so I could study with him.
CC: Yeah. Well, through the school. Privately, but through the school. I had the option of picking a drum teacher since they don’t have a drum teacher there on faculty (or didn’t have one then), so I could pick anybody in the city. And as long as they approved of the teacher, I could study with him or her. Then I studied with Susie Ibarra for a couple of years, which was great.
CB: Can you talk about that?
CC: Yeah. I really loved Susie’s playing. I heard her first record on Tzadik, which is her compositions and it’s kind of a larger group, I think. I forget exactly… Wadada Leo Smith is on it I think. And Chris Speed plays clarinet on some of it. And I really liked the sound, the compositions and her approach. Her sound is crystal clear and she has such a nice touch. It’s really… I really loved it. And then I loved the trio record she did, I think it’s called Songbird Suite. It’s with Craig Taborn and Jennifer Choi violin player. They did a couple of records, but that one, in particular, I really like. And so I went to study with her and she has a beautiful technique, really, and we focused on that. My technique was not great then; it still isn’t, but we focused on it and on touch and then we did some other things, and also worked on some piano.
CB: Were you mainly playing drum kit with her?
CC: Yeah, straight up. Pretty much, yeah.
CB: I’ve seen you play a lot of other percussion instruments, so I was wondering.
CC: I was still focusing on drums and we did just straight up drumming, I would say, in some ways. We talked about improvisation a little bit, although Susie was kinda more, in a sense, more old school. She was like more into, “Okay we gotta do this technique stuff” and then, towards the end of my lessons with her, we started working on some things that Milford Graves passed out to her and…
CB: I was actually gonna ask that. Can I ask what that was?
CC: I think poly-rhythmic stuff, which was coming out of Afro-Cuban music. And then I took some lessons with Adam Cruise, who is a straight-ahead jazz drummer, who’s really great. It had a different focus, he’s much more in that world (straight-ahead jazz) and so I studied with him for a little bit.
CC: And simultaneously, when I was there I started playing a bunch of sessions, and I started playing my first shows in New York.
CB: What was the community that you became part of or created?
CC: So through city college, I met some German jazz musicians who were here because there’s a great scholarship program to study abroad. And some of them went to City College, some went to Manhattan School. And that’s how I met Pascal Niggenkemper, indirectly, through some common friends.
CB: Around what time?
CC: This is probably 2006 or 2007.
CB: So you were still studying.
CC: Or maybe even right after. Like, around 2007 – 2008. After City College. And then I started also playing some country gigs with a different circle friend, which I met through music.
CB: Can you describe that just a little bit?
CC: I played a little bit with a couple of bands, with Peter Bitenc, the bass player, and his girlfriend at the time Liz McFadden who was a singer, and some other friends, Justin Keller a jazzsaxophonist, now living in Beacon, NY. Justin is also is a singer songwriter and guitarist. So it was kind of…for fun we would get together and play some country tunes, and then we started playing at some shows, and eventually made a CD and then also Peter started a band, which initially was somewhere between country and more experimental. Jonathan Goldberger played guitar and Peter played bass and it was instrumental. Then eventually Peter switched to guitar and it turned that into a more straight-up country band, with other bass player and a fiddle player sometimes and then this guy, Hans Halsen, who’s now in.. I don’t know if he’s in Nashville, but he’s definitely more country player, great guitar player. And so for a while I was playing in those circles.
CB: What impact do you think that had on you as a player, if any?
CC: I don’t know, I was just… You know, it was a great experience to play with singers and kind of more strict arrangements and… I mean, I like country music. It was fun and different, a completely different circle in a sense, but yeah, in a sense also just a nice performance experience and rhythmically it’s fun to get to groove and that context. Around then I also played in my friend Justin’s singer-sonwriter project, Land of Leland. But simultaneously I was also playing, or pursuing jazz and sort of more experimental improvisation and I started playing a bunch of sessions with J.P. Schlegelmilch, the pianist and Pascal Niggenkemper. I think we got together weekly for about a year or more.
CB: 2007? 2008?
CC: 2008 – 2009, 2010 … Like around there. Initially I started playing sessions with both of them in different configurations, with Pascal and Robin Verheyen a little bit. And then I met Kenny Warren, and J.P., Kenny and I played a little bit. With J.P. I played with a bunch of other people. J.P. used to live in Greenpoint and he had a little drum set and we would play sessions there with a bunch of people, and then we started working more as a trio with Pascal. At some point, I decided to take a lead and I started booking gigs, and we would all bring music, and also improvise. Eventually we did a recording under my name.
CB: That was your first record?
CC: That was my first… Well I guess my first one was a duo. A self-produced CDR with Yukari Watanabe. She is a flutist who used to live here. We had a short lived duo project, we did some shows back then. But then my first more ambitious recording, I guess, was with this trio that was called, Minerva with Pascal and JP. We did some playing here, we did a couple of shows at Cornelia Street Cafe and a bunch of other places. We also did a tour in the Midwest, maybe at some point, maybe in 2013 or so.
CB: Was JP from the Midwest?
CC: JP is actually from, don’t remember exactly, maybe New Hampshire, Northeast. Yeah.
CC: So that was really an amazing experience to play with them on a weekly basis and to develop a language together.
CB: How would you describe that music and can you talk about that?
CC: We did all sorts of things. We also played standards, but we improvised a bunch, and I guess there was all sorts of influences in it, jazz but also 20th-century sounding composition, we were kind of pursuing that sound a little bit. Pascal is a great bow player for example so we would use that.. We would do also more rhythmic jazz centered things, and then also more sound stuff that I started exploring more radically afterwards. But in that band I started using small percussion and exploring texture more, in an acoustic context like that.
CB: It strikes to me very important for your development. I mean, seems to be a huge part of what you’re doing now.
CC: Right. So then, that music still had, you know, there was melody and rhythm, whcih were present in more overt ways. I was playing more with sticks, and there was some groove stuff. It had a stronger tie to jazz, I would say. And then, in the following years, soon after I met Sean Ali . . . I guess we met around 2011 or 2012 and through Pascal, I met Frantz Loriot. And soon Sean, Frantz and I played a session here, at my place. Sean and I first played a couple sessions with some other people before that, but when we played with Frantz, we were like, “Okay this is pretty interesting. So let’s try to do more.” And we booked some shows and rehearsed pretty regularly for a little bit and that band was really and important step, I would say, in my music, because with that band we really started focusing more on texture and a type of interplay that I hadn’t experienced so much before.
CB: You’re talking about Natura Morta?
CC: Natura Morta, yes.
CB: And the first gigs I could find were in 2011.
CC: Okay. So, yeah.
CB: So can you talk about developing your vocabulary?
CC: So I guess we would get together and improvise and talk about… I remember distinctly, discussing about narrowing or limiting the sound palet in some ways so that we wouldn’t use too much material, too many sounds, or too much information in a brief period of time. So, every move from one sound to the next, or every gesture would have compositional weight in a sense. And I think it made is so that the music was more focused and we could blend more and create these sort of composite sounds with the three of us bending, rather than having a more soloistic approach. And that’s really something that is very interesting to me. Has been very interesting to me ever since, in improvised contexts. I really love that aspect of trying to blend, not only sonically but also all around musically.
CB: So is it safe to say it’s not about having this individual sound, 1, 2, 3, 4, but it’s really about something beyond that.
CC: Right, putting them together and in a way that is really compositional, for lack of a better word. I keep saying the same words, but yeah, a very careful placement I would say, and that creates a group sound cohesiveness that’s appealing to me. So we made up exercises to try and to explore different areas and then also developed a lot on stage, performing. Specially when we did a couple of tours.
CB: Is it a certain kind of minimalism, what you say?
CC: Yeah, in a sense yes. I think where sound takes a central role over melody or rhythm or harmony. And so in that way, it brings in a sort of minimalism..
CB: So there’s a certain kind of… There’s an open definitely space involvement?
CC: There’s space, there is also a sort of pacing, awareness of pacing and there is a … Yeah, pacing I would say is important, because usually in that band we take our time from getting from one place to another. I mean, there are some sudden moves too, but they are always prepared carefully, there’s always patience involved. I think we try to maintain a certain clarity, I think it’s important.. and transparency. I think that’s kind of where it starts and then from there, listening very carefully to each other. So that was an important step for us.
CB: You were beginning to talk about some gigs in New York you were doing at that time.
CC: Yeah. We played all sorts of pretty underground gigs in New York, and then booked a tour in the Midwest. Sean got a car at that time so we packed into his tiny car, brought our little drumset and we went to… And for me, it was also like a big discovery of the Midwest. I hadn’t been much. I think I had been to Chicago once before and that was it. So, we drove to Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Chicago, and Pennsylvania. We also dipped a little south too, Maryland and Virginia and drove through West Virginia… So we played in a bunch of places and it was really great to play several nights in a row with that band for the first time. It was a really formative period I think. And then we went back, in the same year we went back to the Midwest in the summer for a little festival they put together in Columbus, Ohio.
CB: Do you remember the name of the festival?
CC: It was called, “What You Will”, I think. I don’t know if it’s still going on. Maybe. It was fun. Kind of a hippie festival.
CB: Your playing has never been the same since right?
CC: Yeah I guess those years generally were quite important. Around then I was also playing in a duo project with guitarist Ryan Ferreira. That duo was also rather important for me. Ryan and I developed a slow paced quasi-ambient music which blended acoustic electronic sounds.. Around then I also started playing with started playing with Dan Peck and Joe Moffet. I think around 2012-2013.
CB: Before we get to that, can… You recorded what, one or two records in that tour?
CC: We did one record, which we put out on a CD. This was in 2012, and we put it out on Prom Night Records. And soon after we recorded another album, Decay, which was released sometime later on FMR Records. The community was Nathaniel Morgan, we started to play, then Frantz knew Jonathan Moritz. We played, with Natura Morta, we played at Jonathan Moritz’s series.
CB: The Prospect Series?
CC: Yeah, the Prospect Series. And then, Flin van Hemmen was playing with Sean Ali and Lathan Hardy. That band LathanFlinAli was around, Pascal started playing duos with Sean. Joe, Dan and I started Earth Tongues, around 2013 or so, and then…
CB: You guys put out a record with that name, right?
CC: We put out, the first record was Rune, and then the second record is Ohio, it’s a double CD. And now actually we have something in the works which hopefully will be out soon. We met kind of in a similar way. We played a session, it was like, “Okay, we should try and do this again” and there was a nice blend between the three of us, both sonically and aesthetically. We had kind of a common ground and with that band also we rehearsed, still rehearse, and yeah, I guess, I don’t remember exactly how.. I mean with any of the bands that I’m involved with… Except maybe for the Quartet, all the collective groups are kind of…you know, there’s always discussion always at rehearsals, but it kind of is instinctual. The way that music evolves, or the band sound forms, there is always so much that we try to drive in. There’s certain things that appeal to one of us, or somebody brings up and we try it and things just take their course..
When I was leading the quartet with Jonathan Moritz, Sean Ali and Steve Swell, instead it was different, I would rehearse more precise things. I had a pretty specific thing I was after. With the collective groups, it’s always been very much collective in that aspect but also intuitive. In the collectives we kind of let the music figure itself out to an extent. After playing for a while we go in some direction and then maybe we get an idea, “Okay, let’s try it for this record. Let’s try this.” But it’s pretty open, it’s pretty general idea, I would say.
CB: So, you’re moving from Natura Morta band into string players, textures. Very distinct kind of textural music. Then you moved to tuba and trumpet and how do you kinda shift gears? How does that… What were the possibilities that you found?
CC: I think, to be honest, the instruments are pretty secondary. I mean, it’s is kind of ironic: of course, they are in the foreground, it’s the most obvious aspect, it’s the sounds of the the instruments, but it’s really, I think for improvised music it’s really about the players. Every group has its chemistry and I think I’ve been really interested in honing that, in pursuing that over more of a soloistic thing such as playing with different people every night, or changing bands around often. That’s a lot of what happens in some circles here or anywhere. You do a project, you record it, put out an album and then change out the band and do the next thing. And for me, it’s always been more interesting to evolve with one band and find a group sound and really cultivate that over the years.
CB: Yeah, yeah. So you didn’t talk about how Earth Tongues has evolved, maybe some of the concepts or the way you feel the music’s about, or…
CC: I think one thing that started happening or we got into doing with Earth Tongues is arriving at moments in our music where there’s less direction and it’s almost like the music becomes a sort of natural environment where it’s pretty still. There’s often a lot of silence, it gets pretty minimal and there’s less of an overt trajectory I would say. And then from there, some sections that are more directional arise, so it’s kind of an interesting balance I find. We go from moments where there’s maybe a more obvious musical build, direction or trajectory and drive to moments where it’s just wide open and it feels like it’s an almost natural landscape. That’s kind of how I envision it.
CB: So you wouldn’t say that you guys have pieces?
CC: No. We improvise, yeah. But with Earth Tongues we’ve discussed maybe doing some pieces for performances, specific performances… Actually I think we’ve done one before, at pioneer works. We did it at our residency in August 2017. We recorded for a week, but also we did a performance during an open studio’s event. It was like a free event with people walking around and we had some tape players set up and we recorded some material on the tapes, each one of us separately, and then there was a composed form.. But usually, we just improvise. And yeah, we don’t really discuss anything in terms of what we wanna play. Just maybe some general things, you know, “this room is kinda quiet, maybe we can really explore that on the side.” Or maybe “it’s a bit noisy so maybe we can dig in a little more”, but really minimal stuff. And the same is true for all the projects which are devoted to improvisation. In most of the projects we don’t really decide much. Natura Morta is like that, we just go in and play.
CB: So with a group like Earth Tongues, how do you know when you’re ready to record a record? You’re not refining pieces, right? Specifically, like developing a vocabulary with each other.
CC: Right. I think, yeah. When we feel like we have some material that is new or different and when we feel like it’s inspiring we might decide to record it… And also, honestly sometimes is the other way around. For example at the Pioneer Works, we decided let’s apply and then in the spring we knew in August we’re gonna do this for a week, so we rehearsed and prepared for it. For example for recording it’s a bit different than a performance, ’cause going into recording, unless I guess after the first record, the first record is maybe is more, go in and experiment.
For the first record you can go in and record and not set too many things, but then the second one is, “Okay, it’s gotta be a bit different.” So, for example, the first recordings with Earth Tongues we recorded some pieces, some of them are a bit longer, some of them shorter. I think there’s 4 pieces on the album. And, yeah. 4 or 5. And for the second recording, as we started doing extended performances also here and there, we did…
CB: What do you mean by extended?
CC: Like two or three hour long performances. So we did a couple of these and we were interested in trying to also record something like that. And so we applied for a residency in Ohio, in the middle of nowhere in the countryside in this farm and we went there one summer, maybe in 2015 and we recorded… Nathaniel Morgan was the house engineer at that point. He was there to play with Jason Ajemian and Jason Nazary, touring in the area, but he was there also as a recording engineer for the residency. And he set up this. And he also, besides being a great engineer, he really knows my music intimately and what I’m going for. All of us really, also Dan’s and Joe’s work. So yeah, we’re all pretty close to Nathaniel and he knows how to capture what we’re going for. So we recorded for about an hour and a half to 2 hours every day, on four days. And then we picked one tracks and released it as a double CD. And so that, you know, just the scale of something that.. that’s pretty big parameter. So, that was the idea for that recording. And for the Pioneer Works, one which is done, we just need to put it out and figure it out. It will be out soon. Pioneer Works has a tiny studio, it’s really small. But it’s nice, it’s like a little room in a container. Have you been there?
CC: So you know in the garden there’s this little tower. It’s nice. Especially in the summer. So there’s a little tower with a little studio built in on the second floor, and it’s one room, it’s kind of the size of half of this room more or less. And so we set up in there and the idea was to record a very quiet material, but keep a level of density. And so have the recording be something that’s really up close rather than having more room sound or… So that was kind of the objective for the recording. So for recordings often times there’s some goal like that, or some particular thing that we wanna capture. But for performances, we kinda leave it up to the moment, really. The decisions are made depending on the room, the general atmosphere, the sound, how everyone is feeling, so yeah.
CB: Let’s shift to talking about your quartet which has evolved into a trio. Did that begin in 2012?
CC: Yeah. Frantz moved to Europe in the summer of 2012 I think. Sean and I were kinda bummed not to have him around, and so I thought, I wanna play more, let’s figure out a way…And so I started this quartet, actually originally was with Jonathan Morritz and Owen Stewart-Robertson, the guitar player. Which was really nice, we had some nice shows.
CB: And Sean was in the Quartet?
CC: Yes. And Sean, yeah. So the idea was to… Yeah, just have another band with Sean, cause I loved playing with him so much. So we did a few shows with that band, which were really nice, but then there was something… I wanted to keep things more acoustic. Owen brought a really great thing, but it felt like he was bringing music in a sort of a louder direction and also more layered, sort of a fuller sound, that I kinda wanted the things to be more, a little more transparent and allow a softer more acoustic, more an acoustic realm. So, I think yeah, eventually I thought to change it up a bit… that summer, earlier in the year, Sean, Frantz and I played a show and Steve Swell attended… I don’t know if he was… I don’t know why he was there actually. Maybe he was playing around the corner. It was at Douglas Street music collective. And he really liked the show and he talked to us, I never met him before, he talked to us after the set and we got together actually, the three of us with him. Natura Morta with Steve Swell, and we played a session and then also I think we played a gig together. We had Steve as a guest. So then I thought maybe we could ask Steve to join the quartet, so then the Quartet became two horns, bass and drums with Steve rather than Owen on guitar.
I had a specific idea of what I wanted the music to… What direction I wanted the music to go in, and I knew what I did not want to get into. I didn’t wanna go into a more of a soloistic free jazz thing, I wanted it to be more, sort of what I was describing earlier. Sort of more of a collective effort, and the sounds blending together in a more collective sound. And so I started rehearsing and brought some things to the table, rehearse some specific ways of interacting and elaborating material and it was really a fun learning experience for me, cause it was difficult even to articulate ideas. So we discussed them, they could be kind of vague, so we would try certain things and talk about it how back and forth, but I think it really centered the music we really found a way to play that we wouldn’t have gone into, by just improvising. Steve is such a strong soloist, and has a history of playing in free jazz bands, but he was also interested…Something I didn’t know, but after we played those sessions with Natura Morta, I found out that he was interested in a more textural approach, quieter, more delicate, more fragile and that was kinda what I was after and so with this Quartet I wanted to really focus on that and not go the more louder, intense free jazz. Even though the instrumentation suggests that, I would say that a quartet with two horns and bass and drums is kind of typical for that kind of music. But I wanted to go in the opposite direction, maybe not completely opposite, but yeah…
CB: You’re the leader of the band, but the goal here is really to kind of this collective sound and invest in this kind of textural approach that you’ve been developing.
CC: Without having any set material, really, which was kinda maybe tricky.
CB: So how is that different than a band that is fully collective or collaborative?
CC: Well, that I sort of … I closed a lot of doors, so to speak. I don’t want this, I don’t want that. And I think it’s just we got to a sort of place faster, maybe, and it was forced by me. So it’s like instead of evolving together and finding something together, I sort of pushed it in a certain direction. Of course, there was always contribution from the other guys in terms of ideas, besides playing, obviously. And, you know we discussed things. Everybody brought some ideas to the table but I was kind of forcing things to go in a certain direction and I think we… It did have an impact, this way of rehearsing and … When we recorded that music, then I decided to start a label. And that’s the first release on Neither/Nor Records. It came out in late November 2014. And was kind of an interesting moment in my life, ’cause also my son Flavio was born, a month prior, in early October, so there was kind of a lot happening. I started a label. I think it was an impetus, actually, as my wife was pregnant, I thought, okay, I wanna have a label, I want to release music on my own terms and in my own timeframe and also hopefully represent music from other musicians in my scene and yeah..
CB: And so, it was a moment of creation for you. Creating a label, having a child, put out a record under your own name.
CC: So it was a busy time and fun. And with the Quartet, we kept playing for another year or two. And then, at some point, everybody being busy with their life, and maybe me not pushing the band too much, Steve also getting busy with other projects and great, great stuff, so Steve stepped out and Jonathan, Sean and I, decided to continue as a trio. And sort of, maybe we weren’t too active at first. We played some gigs here and there, but then the music started getting really good and different also. when Steve left, we decided to keep the band a collective and with that we kinda stopped talking about the music and just played and the music kinda took on its own thing and I feel like it’s substantially different from the Quartet, although there’s a common ground of course, but yeah. And so, this past summer we recorded at Nathaniel’s new studio in Sunset Park and we have that recording in the works also, which is ready also and we’re kinda deciding what to do with it. So that’s the trio. We did a little tour in Northeast in April, to Montreal and some other places, maybe four shows.
CB: I do wanna talk about your solo work, ’cause it’s so strong. You just put out a solo record last year. At what point did you start playing solo, I suppose in tenth grade, or …
CC: Yeah, that’s funny cause drums are really a not solo instrument, traditionally. I never really considered what I was doing as solo playing. I was playing on my own. But yeah, at some point, I guess I heard Susie play some really amazing solo stuff on her records. I think on all of her records there are some short, on those records that I mentioned, there are some short solo tracks. And then I heard Joey Baron play solo, but I also heard some other… I don’t know, I guess I heard other musicians, in general, do solo sets and I thought maybe I could do this and it was something that people have started to do more in the past few years, improvisers seems to me…
CB: Drummers in particular or you just mean everybody?
CC: I think everybody. There’s kind of a solo thing.
CB: I gotta ask. When I think about your playing, and obviously you’re a percussionist, and I often don’t think of you as a percussionist, I think of you as, like an abrasionist, you’re always creating sounds with percussive devices, but it’s not like boom boom boom boom boom. Actually, that’s in all of your plays. And I’m curious, ’cause I feel like it really comes out with your solo playing, because it’s right there, it’s nothing else covering that.
CC: Yeah. Cause it’s just me, yeah. I guess I liked…Yeah, I sort of cultivated a lot of sustained sounds as a way to, I don’t know just focus on sound more than rhythm, because if you’re playing with sticks on drums, of course, you can do a lot, but it’s all short attacks for most of it, and it’s kind of limited in that respect. And so I started using a violin bow and friction on drums or on other objects, on cymbals.
CB: It serves to see you make this circular motion, ’cause I think of that when I think of you, I think of this.
CC: Yeah, ’cause doing a circular motion you don’t interrupt the motion, that’s kind of…
CB: You can go for as long as you want to go.
CC: It’s an even sound, I guess, so maybe I never thought about it that way, but I guess that’s sort of…
CB: So you’re tracing sometimes the exterior of the drum or sometimes parts of the drum where you’re kind of doing it more or less symmetrically.
CC: Or maybe an eight shape or something, two circles. Yeah, so that way I can layer sounds. I can do things with two hands. I like using sustained sounds so I use some some bowls and bows on symbols and stuff like that. I guess I decided to do a show at some point, I think, It was a while ago. It took me some time to decide to record it and, but…
CB: To do a solo recording?
CC: Yeah. But my first solo show was maybe in 2012 or 2013 or so, and for a while, I was just improvising with material that I would work out. Practicing and all. I had these sounds available but I didn’t decide on any sequence, and then at some point I decided to record the material and I think I did a session with more improvised stuff but I wasn’t super happy because, I don’t know, I wanted to distill the music into something a little more compact or more… I wanted to put more material into shorter tracks maybe, or be sure to use all these sounds and so I started planning pieces and for the recording, for the album I planned these two pieces and record in two days. Recorded also some improvisations but then picked out the 2 pieces. And the objective was to use this material, but also tried to layer things in different ways, so have simultaneous things happen and blend textures in different ways. And also by writing two pieces, I was able to sort of split the material, so the pieces sound different, they use different things. And then, Nathaniel recorded it and he placed the mikes. It was also interesting, knowing what I wanted to do more or less, we miked the drums for that purpose.
CB: So, I was thinking about it. You talk so much about the collective sound, texture and all that can be achieved with multiple people. In some ways, the aesthetics are very similar, but the objective maybe is somehow different. Or maybe is not different. I mean, how do you know where you wanna be with your solo work?
CC: Solo is definitely the trickiest thing I’ve done in some respects or in quite a few, but I guess it’s the same instinctual thing: I follow a thread hopefully, I’m patient enough and in the moment enough to capture the moments to be there when a change is called for or something comes up and I acknowledge it, because there’s a lot of accidental things that happen. And by that, I don’t mean discerning really obvious things, but you’re making a sound which is pretty delicate and the fact that it might… You know, the instrument is not built to make that sound and maybe I haven’t even mastered the control yet, or I found a sound that maybe haven’ t encountered that much before, so I’m working on it and they may get changes and instead of fighting it and trying to go where I wanna go, you kinda go with it and I think that’s an important thing, an important set of mind to be in, if possible. With my solo shows I’ve had times when it wasn’t like that. I’ve had shows where I was too self-aware and too analytical and so I felt it was kind of a struggle. But I think when I’m able to relax and listen first, that thing can work out very nicely. So it’s a trust thing. It really has a lot to do with confidence – for any performances but in solo in particular, for me it’s been… The best show is when I feel more relaxed and at ease and I’m able to accept whatever, no matter what drums I’m playing, what kind of room, even if it’s less than ideal, if I’m there with my mind it’s fine. We can work it out. And I had the nicest experience, in the fall. I did a tour in Europe, a solo tour and was the first time that I played several solo shows in a row and so I could really see how it was growing how it was getting better and I was getting confident and I was able to be more focused.
CB: Where did you tour?
CC: I toured in Switzerland, France, and Germany. So I played something like 7 or 8 concerts? It was really nice. It was a really fun experience. And it was in some ways a little bit nervewracking because you don’t know what kind of drums you’re gonna get. And what kind of room. But I was lucky, most conditions worked well and also I kept things flexible somewhat. I also brought a lot of stuff. Percussion instruments of various kinds and a fresh drum head I would change cause I needed some friction.
CB: It was a challenge for drummers and for piano players and for a few other people that are playing instruments that aren’t mobile enough, or less mobile.
CC: Yeah, definitely. Correct.
CB: I do have just a couple of small questions. The first one might seem like a silly question, but I’m kind of curious, when you hear a hypothetical sound in your head, like if you’re thinking about doing something that you’re thinking about, what do you hear? Like, do you hear a voice, do you hear a rhythm, do you hear, I don’t know, whatever, I don’t wanna put words in your mouth, but I’m curious. Are you thinking about what you could possibly do to play solo? Or what you could possibly do playing with Sean and Frantz, or whatever group it is? I’m curious like what sounds you hear? Is it different all the time?
CC: I don’t know, I guess it’s different all the time, really. It’s hard to say. Yeah, I don’t know if I think about it so much in that way or notice it happening maybe it’s kind of… I think one thing that I do is I listen to sounds around me and I think sometimes they inspire things. But as far as like imagining sounds, like sometimes is more concrete. But sometimes is pretty abstract which could be…
CB: Could be the passing of a siren, could be someone laughing in the train, it could be the sound of birds and animals it could be anything. Any sound is fair game, I suppose.
CC: Yeah. the other night I had an interesting just experience. I went to see Stravinsky at the Philharmonic and it was really beautiful. And I was sitting up high and the acoustic from there is very nice, the blend is beautiful, the orchestra, they sounded incredible. But I was sitting on one side, so my seat was facing outward and the stage was on the left and so during the piece there was like hundreds of people in there, so there was a fair amount of scuffling and shuffling and coughing and this and that going on and the lights were dimmed, but you could see the audience and it was pretty interesting just to, you know, for some time I was turning the other way, I was focusing more on the audience and with all these sounds coming from different places, it was pretty fascinating in a sense. So stuff like that. Sometimes it’s just keeping an ear out or an eye out for interesting happenings, or things that happen and sometimes, I think often, we’re not aware of things like that. Visual things also. We’re kinda focused on a task, or this is meant to be this.. You know, you’re at the concert, you either close your eyes or just looking at the stage, focus on that. Everything else I cancel out, and maybe some interesting stuff could come from elsewhere and yeah, I think it’s something that I’m more and more aware of.
CB: One other question, perhaps the most important of all. Why improvise? What’s the attraction to improvisation?
CC: I think I like the fragility of it.
CB: What do you mean by fragility?
CC: So I think this music has … It’s fragile in the sense that it has a high potential of failure in a sense. Which is hard to accept… simultaneously hard to accept for us, or for me when playing sometimes, is like “Oh”, it’s a difficult thing to confront, but I think it’s part of it and it needs… There needs to be a risk involved that keeps me on edge, it keeps me really interested. Also, in witnessing concerts as an audience member or listening to music, even recordings, you could tell when there is a level of risk and fragility. The music is like hanging by a thread and I like that aspect. I like to inhabit that space and I guess I prefer when things go well, but you can’t have one without the other in a sense.
CB: Sometimes it fails. Sometimes you have to improvise.
CC: Yeah, sometimes and I think those are some of the most important learning experiences, are when things really go not according to plan or not the way you wished or just turn out bad. I don’t know, sometimes it has to go that way, in order to progress, in order to make things better. And so, I think that’s a big part of it and also this freedom from having to follow a certain history. Maybe, although now there’s a history of improvising music, which is substantially long, it’s less structured and less codified than other kinds of music, and so I feel there’s more freedom in it. I can do more or I don’t know, maybe that’s part of it too. But, I think that, and this… Also this shared experience with the other musicians is a big part of it. Is making something together on the spot. Discovering things, collectively. I think it’s really fascinating. I really like that.
CB: Cool. The last question, it’s gonna be very short. I’m just curious, and maybe you’ve already spoken this about your label. What compelled you to start your own label?
CC: I think, well, a number of things. At more sort of practical level I was releasing stuff on a few different labels, on different places, I released something in Germany, and in England and here and I was thinking that, as much as it’s nice that I’m putting out record here and there, but maybe I would like to keep, to form a catalog myself and just release it in one place where it’s more cohesive, it represents different aspects of my music and also of some collaborators’ music, and also I wanted to have more aesthetic control on what the albums looked like, what the website looks like. To have more control. But also I thought, if I’m gonna start this I don’t only want to have my own recordings either, I want to represent the music of collaborators of mine and also other musicians in the scene and music that I feel like is not necessarily represented so much elsewhere. So, there’s kind of an aesthetic also tying in different artist were released on the label.
Cover Photo Credit: Peter Gannushkin / downtownmusic.net