Artist Feature: Colin Hinton

I had the opportunity to talk with drummer Colin Hinton over the past six months about his music, training, and perspective as an artist.

Cisco Bradley: You are about to release a collaborative trio record with Rema Hasumi and Shawn Lovato. How did that band come together?  What concepts and ideas are you collaborating on?

Colin Hinton: Rema was someone I’d wanted to work with for years but I was always too shy to ask.  I’d heard her play at Korzo (I don’t remember whose gig it was) and was totally blown away. I also had her record as a leader, and a few with her as a sideperson. I finally hit her up over the summer and she was down to do a session!  I’m still to this day pretty surprised when people seem genuinely interested in playing with me, especially when it’s someone I really admire.  

I called Shawn Lovato to play with us since he and I have worked together so much and already have a strong hook up. Shawn and I met playing a random session many years ago and after about the third measure of whatever the first tune was, we both gave each other that kind of “oh yeah?” look and we immediately began working together regularly.  

The session with Rema and Shawn was really beautiful and I knew we immediately had a really strong musical connection as a trio. Rema has this beautiful Bley-like lyricism in her playing that I really love, and her time feel is super elastic. Shawn is the perfect catalyst for that – he also comes from a really straight ahead background like myself and also ended up being more involved in avant garde/creative music later in life. The trio feels really balanced and able to switch gears on a dime – it just feels really good to play with those two! After the session, I asked everyone if they were interested in doing some gigs and everyone was on board.  

Later, I messaged Stephen Gauci to try and get something set up for Bushwick Public House, but booking my own groups for that series was a little complicated since I’m in the house band. Instead, Stephen asked if I’d be interested in bringing a group to his monthly Scholes residency to do a gig/live recording. I asked Shawn and Rema if they were interested and they both said yes.

We all brought some original music for the session, did a few rehearsals, and then did the gig. It was two sets of music and I’m incredibly happy with it. Shawn and Rema brought in some of their compositions that hadn’t really been performed before and I wrote two new pieces for the trio.

One of my pieces was a more loosely structured guided improvisation, and the other was drawing more on my inspiration from twentieth-century classical piano music.  One of my main composition focuses right now is writing for piano by drawing on composers whose piano music I really love: Messiaen, Scriabin, Brahms, Webern, Berg, Scelsi, and Feldman, to name a few. My task for 2022 is studying that harmonic language, filtering it through my personal lens, and adapting it for groups that improvise.  I plan to write much more for this group this year and am incredibly excited to see how the group goes.  We’ve talked loosely about doing a studio record in the near future. I sincerely hope that comes to fruition.

This particular recording session actually almost didn’t happen. I had a really bad Covid scare the day before the recording/gig. I started feeling really sick midday, canceled all of my students, and went home to take a nap. I woke up running a 100.4 degree fever. Katharine (my partner) immediately drove both of us to urgent care to get rapid/PCR tests. I was freaking out the whole time about having to cancel the gig last minute. Luckily, both of our tests came back negative. I felt much better the next day – still not 100% but no more fever, so we decided to go ahead with the hit as long as I didn’t start running fever again and everyone was comfortable.

The music from that record turned out really special, especially considering that was our first gig together as a trio and we really hadn’t played together that much. I’m really excited for everyone to hear this music.

CB: What were the main projects you worked on during the pandemic?

CH: A big project was finishing mixing/mastering the Ocelot record. Cat Toren, Yuma Uesaka, and I put a lot of time into that and it was definitely complicated because of the pandemic. Eivind mixed the record and while we were able to get the first few sessions in before the pandemic started, we had to finish the record through email. It definitely was a new approach for all of us but we’re incredibly happy with the results. Mastering with Brent Lambert was easy – he normally does everything through email so that was business as usual.  Then there was everything with getting a label etc.  We are so happy that 577 took us on and have been so supportive of our album!  Working with them has been absolutely wonderful. It is available for purchase here.

I also did a few recording sessions. We did a pre-recorded live stream event at Scholes Street Studio with Ocelot for a Groupmuse concert.  That was a great experience and we were really happy with the final product. Scholes recorded it, Eivind mixed it, and Luke Marantz did videography.

Stephen Gauci did a series of pandemic duet recordings at Scholes and he asked me to be a part of it.  We recorded that duo last July and it is out now on his Gauci Music label.  Stephen is a huge inspiration to me and I’m thrilled he asked me to be a part of it.  I’m also incredibly humbled that he asked me to join the house band at his Bushwick Improvised Music Series and I look forward to him kicking my ass every Monday night now.

I also was part of a collaborative trio recording with Petting Zoo, a group featuring myself, Jessica Ackerley, and Yuma Uesaka. We’ve been a band for a few years now with some gigs here and there, and we knew we eventually wanted to document something. Jess and her husband made plans to move to Hawaii so that moved recording the group up in our priorities. We recorded that last summer (also at Scholes) and are super happy with it. Eivind Opsvik mixed it and Alan Jones mastered it. I believe the record will be out sometime next year on 577.

As far as my composing, I haven’t been up to much. I really struggled with sitting down to write over the pandemic. Initially, Santiago Leibson and I were doing a project where we’d write two measures of a piece then send to the other person to pick up and write two more measures, then send back. We were doing that every day for the first month or two of the pandemic but I think I burned out on it . . . Hopefully we’ll pick that up sometime in the near future – we were getting into some really interesting territories of through-composed piano/drum music.

I also wrote a bit of music for my piano trio (with Santiago Leibson and Eivind Opsvik). The last gig I did before the pandemic started was the premier of that trio – we played two compositions of mine that total about seventy-five minutes of music. My grand scheme is to write a handful of more pieces and record a double album sometime in the next year. Right now, as far as leader projects go, that’s my number one priority.

I think I really struggle with writing without external input. For me that generally comes from going to shows and hearing live music often. I get a great deal of my inspiration that way.  With that removed, well, there’s only so much energy I can get from live streams . . .

Other than those things, my main project during the pandemic was just staying afloat. I have a pretty large private teaching studio and it was definitely a challenge for me to adapt to teaching 25+ students a week remotely. It actually taught me a great deal about how I teach since I was not able to necessarily demonstrate everything in person. I had to find ways of verbally communicating different techniques, ways of playing, sound production, etc. etc. It was a really serious learning lesson for me and I feel like it made me a better teacher.

Also – on January 1st of 2020 I began learning Norwegian. I started just with Duolingo and texting Eivind. I started working with a private tutor twice a week in late February. After the lockdown began, I went a little nuts with it – it kind of became one of my big creative outlets. Since summer of last year, I’ve been taking four lessons a week in Norwegian. I’m fluent at this point (to an extent). It’s a pretty incredible feeling – it’s the first time I’ve had this strong a grasp on a foreign language. I can read Norwegian newspapers, watch films, listen to podcasts, etc now. I’m still continuing lessons and hoping to be 100% fluent in the next year or so. Really hoping the borders will open up again sometime in the next 6-12 months so I can go get some real world practice speaking in Norway and not just continue bothering my Norwegian friends with my horrible grammar mistakes.

CB: What brought Ocelot together? [Would be great to hear about what makes this band work in your eyes, what shared interests you all have etc, that have made this a compelling project]

CH: That’s kind of a funny story.  Ocelot basically started because of a one-off gig at The Shrine in Harlem.  Yuma and I had known each other for a while and played in several different projects together, but I don’t think I met Cat personally until 2017 or 2018?  I remember I saw a group she was in play at Korzo (If I remember correctly it was TMT – a collective trio with Angela Morris, Cat, and Anthony Taddeo) and was pretty blown away by the whole trio (and obviously Cat’s playing).  At some point we played a session that Steve Williams put together and I remember really loving playing with Cat.  Later we ran into each other at a rooftop birthday party for Angela Morris and ended up hanging out and talking to each other for most of the evening.

When I got this gig at Shrine, I didn’t really have a plan, but I knew I wanted to do something with Cat and Yuma. So I emailed them, they were both available, and both down to do the gig!  We had a rehearsal or two and played some of our older original music that we brought in from other groups, and we just really enjoyed playing with each other – it was another immediate musical connection.  After the gig at Shrine, we all kind of looked around at each other and asked “… so… are we a band now?” And that was it! HA!

We started booking things more regularly and writing music specifically for the group. We decided later on to plan a two week tour/residency followed by a recording session. That was one of the most fun tours I’ve ever been on. We are all super close friends and just generally vibe well together. Cat was six months pregnant during the tour (she is an absolute trooper) so that made the tour feel even more special.

I think we came up with the name Ocelot because Cat and I are both serious climbers (or I guess at this point “were” serious climbers. I stopped climbing during the pandemic because the gym closed, and Cat stopped when she got further into her pregnancy), and all three of us love cats.  Cat and I each have two cats – Yuma likes them but is yet to join the Wonderful World of Cat Ownership.

I honestly think the band works for some very simple reasons. First, we all really like each other and get along really well; second, we all have similar (but also different) musical interests; and third, we really trust each other musically. It seems simple now writing it down, but I think finding the right mixture of all three of those components is pretty difficult, especially with a collective band. We operate entirely democratically, and thus far it’s worked out great! We also all challenge each other in very different ways musically. All three of our composition styles are different but follow a similar musical thread. It’s a really great mix of musical personalities and this group is incredibly special to me.

We’ll actually be playing at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, January 29th, and I couldn’t be more excited for it.  We’ll be playing music off the first album, and potentially doing some new music.  We have some tentative plans to do a second record late next year or early the following year.  I’m really excited to see what comes from this group next!

CB: What lines of experimentation have you been exploring over the past few years?

CH: The big ones for me mainly have to do with blurring the lines between composition and improvisation. So much has been said on this topic that I don’t really feel like I have much original thought to add to it, but I will say that I don’t really distinguish between the two at this point. If I’m improvising, I’m thinking like a composer. If I’m composing, I’m thinking like an improviser. The two things really are only differentiated for me in that one is preconceived and the other takes place in real time (and most often with other people).

I also still consider myself relatively new to the world of free improvisation AND the world of composition. I didn’t really start doing much free improvisation until maybe around 2015 – which was also when I began to start getting a bit more serious about composition. Up until that point I pretty much just wanted to be a modern jazz/straight ahead drummer/side-person. I didn’t really have any intentions of being a band leader/composer.

Tyshawn Sorey and I are really close and he basically took me under his wing starting around 2012/13.  I consider him one of my closest friends – he also happens to be a hero and mentor of mine. He actually is the person who exposed me to free improvisation, got me more involved in creative music/contemporary classical music, and even exposed me to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, something I only knew very little about in passing (mainly I had heard about Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but truthfully did not know very much). He basically told me if I wasn’t getting the gigs I wanted/playing the music I wanted to play, I needed to become both a bandleader and a composer and that was kind of the end of the discussion. After that conversation I almost immediately began studying composition and free improvisation with Ingrid Laubrock. It was great!  She totally kicked my ass and I owe her a ton. Ingrid’s work ethic is absolutely inspiring. I’m constantly floored by her output and how consistently amazing her records are. I’m lucky to have had her as a teacher and now get to play gigs with her.

But truthfully, composition, leading bands, and free improvisation, none of this stuff was really on my radar until I was in my mid-late 20’s, and it basically came out of necessity. I’m 33 now and still feel like I’m new to all of this and just trying to figure my stuff out. Hopefully I’m better than I was a year ago, and hopefully I can say the same thing next year.

CB: What are the most important things you learned studying with Ingrid Laubrock and Tyshawn Sorey?

CH: It’s hard to nail it down to just one thing – but both Ingrid and Tyshawn really encouraged me to be myself and to stay true to that.

Tyshawn was responsible for putting me on the path that I’m on now and introducing me to much of the contemporary classical music I’m now interested in, but Ingrid was in a lot of senses my first real “composition” teacher.

I remember after several lessons with Ingrid she asked me to bring my cymbals/snare to our next lesson. I was so excited and also slightly horrified, ha. From that point we started working on playing improvised duos together. This was when I was just first beginning to play entirely improvised music – I learned a great deal from those sessions with her. We also talked a lot about the relationship between what we improvised and what we composed. I’m still digesting most of that six/seven years after the fact, ha. That’s one (of the many) thing(s) I really admire about both Ingrid and Tyshawn (and many of my favorite musicians/composers): there’s no differentiation between their improvisational language and their compositional language. That’s something I’m still working very hard on refining with my own vocabulary.

Outside of the pure “nuts and bolts” lesson things, both musicians really introduced me to SO much music and made me feel like there was a place for me in the so-called “creative music community”.  They both personally introduced me to so many people and I finally felt like I had found a musical home/community that I felt comfortable in – something I always struggled with in the more straight ahead/modern jazz scene.

Another big take away from both of them was work ethic.  Ingrid and Tyshawn both have some of the most intense work ethic of anyone I’ve ever met, and that’s something I constantly hold myself to/aspire to be better at.  I’ve always been a hard worker and totally okay with putting in lots of hours, but the last few years it seems a majority of that work has been spent teaching and doing other things to make money in order to continue living in NYC/funding projects.  Either way – they both showed me that you have to just shut out all of the noise from outside (be that critics, social media, whatever other bullshit occurs in life) and work hard.  Nothing will ever beat hard work.  I remember talking to Tyshawn once when I was struggling writing a piece with an impending deadline and asking his advice on what to do to get over that and he replied “Simple. Ass in chair. That’s it”.  I still think about that conversation a lot.  It’s so easy (as a concept), but something that I think many of us struggle with.

Lessons with Ingrid were more “formal” type lessons: show up every week, bring in pieces I was working on, play free together expanding on concepts/ideas we’d talked about in the previous lesson, and then receive my “assignment” for the next lesson. With Tyshawn, it was quite different – even though I consider him one of my main mentors/teachers over the last decade, I think I only took maybe four-five “formal” lessons from him.

Most of how I learned from Tyshawn was simply by being around him/working for him.  I hauled gear around for him, took care of his apartment/dog when he and Amanda were out of town, sound checked for him, etc. etc. starting around 2014 (if I remember correctly).  We were already friends before that, but this changed our relationship pretty drastically. We spent a LOT of time with each other and became very close.  Lots of really deep/heavy conversations have been had since then and I consider myself very lucky to be so close to him.  He wasn’t afraid to tell me when I was fucking up, but also was more than happy to tell me I was on the right track.  There were lots of nights spent hanging at his apartment, cooking dinner with him and Amanda, and then sitting around listening to records (i.e. him showing me shit I’d never heard before – this is where my love for Jerome Cooper started), and talking about music/life.  My “lessons” with Tyshawn seem like much more of an old-school mentorship type situation – something I don’t see a lot of on the scene today, and something I’m INCREDIBLY grateful to have been a part of.  I’m very lucky and I’m not sure how I’ll ever be able to pay him back.

CB: How did you first get onto the path you are now on in terms of music?

CH: Basically, I went to University of North Texas and was trained to be a straight ahead/modern jazz drum machine. I loved it. I am incredibly grateful for the education I received there, and NOTHING will ever replace the five years I spent studying with Ed Soph. Everything I play on the instrument is because of the tutelage of that man. But it became clearer the longer I was there that my path was slightly left of center. I was getting into the Art Ensemble of Chicago my 2nd senior year at UNT as well as Albert Ayler. I had no idea what was going on in that music but I knew I liked it. But I was really into Jim Black and Dan Weiss . . . that was pretty game changing. I also got Tyshawn’s Koan record from Ed Soph in 2011 – another pivotal moment that eventually led me to seek out Todd Neufeld – someone I now work regularly with.

I dropped out of North Texas and moved to NYC in 2011. One of the first records I bought upon arriving here was Paradoxical Frog. If I had to pick one single album that put me on the path I am on today, I feel it has to be that one. I remember walking around Crown Heights with my headphones on the first time I listened to that record. In the middle of the first track (Kris Davis’ “Iron Spider”) there’s this really quiet part where Tyshawn just suddenly and repeatedly beats the living shit out of a crash cymbal and bass drum. I’d never heard anything quite like that before. And Ingrid’s playing on that track . . . good god.  And obviously Kris is just ridiculously good. Iron Spider is only 4:43 long, but I truly think after the first time I listened to that my path was set.

Maybe my second week in NYC I was at a drum shop picking up a surdo (my first job in NYC was teaching drums for a samba school. That’s a whole other story, but I was pretty equally involved in Brazilian music and jazz when I first moved up here), and suddenly in walks Tyshawn. He had his headphones on, can’t remember if he had the sunglasses at that point or not. That might have come a few years later, but this was 2011. I can barely remember what I did a week ago. Anyways, so I’ve been in the city for two weeks and am on a random errand and am running into one of my favorite living musicians. I decided to walk up to him and introduce myself and ask him what he was listening to. He was incredibly kind to me, gave me his phone number, invited me to a gig he had at Barbes the next night, and told me he was listening to the Morton Feldman Trio and that I should check it out. I went home, bought the album, listened to it, fell in love with Morton Feldman, went to Tyshawn’s gig the next night, and then started studying with him. A few years later I started working for him – hauling his drums around, setting up/tearing down his drums at gigs, sound checking for him, helping him with storage space, house/dog sitting for him, etc etc. I got to be very close with him and Amanda. I miss when we were neighbors.

I feel like there’s a lot of things I could talk about in this regard, my introduction to contemporary classical music, getting into the music of Anthony Braxton, growing up as a piano player and then switching to drums, more about my studies with Tyshawn/Ingrid, and then getting hooked up with Eric Wubbels and REALLY getting my shit fucked up. Also Gauci’s BPH series has been huge for me – I don’t know that I would have been able to meet so many people and present so many different groups were it not for him. There aren’t many venues that would book me and let me do a free set with Tony Malaby, Todd Neufeld, and Eivind Opsvik, simply because I’m the leader and they don’t know me. It’s really been a great place for me as far as developing my free playing and just getting involved in the community.  I really can’t say enough positive things about Stephen Gauci. He’s one of the most inspiring people I know.

CB: What concepts have you been exploring with your quartet with Malaby, Neufeld, and Opsvik?

CH: That group has never actually played any through-composed music together. It’s been entirely freely improvised.  I have plans in the future to write music for the group and do an album, but I’m still toying with how I want that music to sound and how much information I want to write into the music.

All three of those musicians were people I dreamed of playing with before I moved to NYC.  In a way this is kind of my “bucket list” band.

Ed Soph (my teacher at UNT – and also one of the best educators/players alive in my humble opinion) gave me a copy of Tyshawn’s album Koan shortly before I dropped out of school and moved to NYC.  I remember listening to the opening track on the album – “Awakening” – and being absolutely FLOORED by the guitarist on the album.  I’d never heard anyone play like that!  Every single note had so much weight and emotion to it – these were the exact things I’ve always gravitated towards with musicians.  I looked up his name and I had never heard of him before – but it became a goal of mine to play with him at some point after relocating to NYC.  I eventually met Todd personally through a post-gig hang while working for Tyshawn.  It took me several years after that to get up the courage to ask him to play, but when we finally did our first session there was an immediate musical bond.  We did a duo gig over the pandemic and that was incredibly special. I actually have some tentative plans to do a duo project with Todd sometime in the near future.  We also play in a trio with Shawn Lovato. We have kind of a collective group where we play free, as well as a version of that group that Shawn leads and we play his compositions.

In 2006 right before graduating high school I bought Paul Motian’s Garden of Eden.  That was the first record I heard with Tony Malaby on it.  It has been on regular rotation in my life for 15 years now – I can sing almost every note on the album at this point.  When I first moved to NYC, Tony was playing in the house band for a jam session in Brooklyn at The Fifth Estate, this was Diego Voglino’s session.  I remember showing up after someone had told me about the session and seeing Tony and being absolutely floored.  We started hanging out some and talking, but it took me a long time to get up the courage to ask him to play, too.  Tony and I played a duo session in January 2017 and he absolutely destroyed me – like, embarrassingly bad.  But I listened to what he told me and came back a few months later and everything went much better. This quartet formed sometime in 2018? I think? And became a great vehicle for me figuring out how to play with Tony. I also did a good amount of playing with him under the turnpike in NJ during the pandemic. Lots of great sessions were had, and as usual, I got my ass kicked and learned a ton, ha! I love Tony. I can’t wait until the next time we get to play together.

I first heard Eivind when I was subletting in NYC one summer before officially moving here (I used to sublet in NYC almost every summer while I was still living in Texas and take lessons from either Ari Hoenig or Dan Weiss).  This particular summer I was up here studying with Dan Weiss, which of course meant that my ass was at The 55 Bar every Tuesday night.  The usual bass player was Thomas Morgan at that time, but I think that was around the time that Thomas started getting insanely busy, so a lot of those gigs ended up having Eivind on bass.  I absolutely loved Eivind’s sound and his flexibility as a bass player.  Later I heard Overseas and bought all of the records from Eivind – it was around this time I found out we were basically neighbors.  Eivind has also mixed every record I’ve done since 2017 – he’s my favorite mixing engineer in the city.  We also bond over Norwegian stuff – he’s been very patient with me over the last two years as I’ve been learning Norwegian.  It’s great now because I’m fluent and we can actually talk to each other in Norwegian, but man… he has the patience of a saint to have put up with me when I was first learning, ha.  Eivind also plays bass in my piano trio with Santiago Leibson – that will most likely be my next “big” recording project.

Long story even longer – all three of these musicians were people that I specifically said “after I move to NYC I want to work with them”.  It’s a wonderful feeling 10+ years later to have this group together, and consider all three of them close friends.  Hopefully we can have some kind of performance on the books for early February, but we’ll see what happens . . .

Cover Photo Credit: Gaya Feldheim Schorr.

Cisco BradleyArtist Feature: Colin Hinton