Today, Heart of the Ghost releases a new record, their fourth, Live at Rhizome. Heart of the Ghost is a collaborative trio of alto saxophonist Jarrett Gilgore, bassist Luke Stewart, and drummer Ian McColm. I had the pleasure of booking them for one of their first gigs at my loft concert series, New Revolution Arts, and have found the band riveting ever since. Prolific as ever, the band has released three previous records. I had the opportunity to speak at length with Jarrett Gilgore on Labor Day weekend in 2019 and then updated the interview recently. Gilgore is a refreshingly humble, yet intensely committed artist who has a transformative presence on the bandstand. He has a unique musical voice and is one of the visionaries of the Baltimore music scene.
Cisco Bradley: So I thought maybe you could just start by talking about how you got on the path to becoming a musician? What led you to it? How did you get into the music that you’re doing?
Jarrett Gilgore: Well, my dad plays jazz piano and there was always a lot of music in the house. He plays every day and is often studying theory and composing. He and my mom would alway have records on. Jazz, rock, funk. My parents took me to a lot of concerts when I was little. My mom would take me to the Philadelphia Orchestra and Philadelphia Art Museum. My grandfather was also a big jazz fan and my grandmother is a painter. So I was exposed to a lot of music and art since I was born.
I took piano lessons when I was six or seven and taught myself how to play drums around then too. I would play with classic rock records and try to play the beats I heard. When I was nine and it was time to pick an instrument in school I chose the saxophone. I don’t remember why but I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. My dad was listening to a lot of jazz, like Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and it all sounded the same to me. My ears weren’t developed yet. But once I started playing saxophone it gave me some context that wasn’t there before and I became curious. I didn’t get much from the music program in our elementary school. It was taught like any other subject in school. You’re not supposed to be creative. You’re supposed to follow directions and follow the conductor. I learned some fundamentals and how to read through the program but none of it felt like music. There was no creative stimulation.
In middle school I played in the jazz band and my band teacher was amazing. A really great dude and he saw I had passion and encouraged my creativity and expression. And then this was pivotal. In eighth grade I got two gifts that were pretty life changing: Miles Davis, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, the five-disc set. And these gifts were from people who were like, “Oh, Miles Davis is a jazz musician right? And this is on sale at Barnes and Noble.” They didn’t know what they were getting me into, you know? And around that time I also got the complete John Coltrane on Impulse.
Cisco Bradley: Boom.
Jarrett Gilgore: Yeah. A path began to emerge. I would get to school early and go to my band teacher’s room in the mornings with Miles and Coltrane CD’s. We would listen to them together. He was a great guy and an integral part of my development when I was just starting out. I also got the Ken Burns Jazz boxset as a gift. I dug in super deep to all those CDs and I really resonated with Ornette Coleman playing “Chronology” and Cecil Taylor Trio playing “Rick Kick Shaw.”
So I was like 13 when I got hip to that stuff. I got a copy of the Cecil Taylor album Conquistador! when I was 14. That made a deep impression. As did Unit Structures which I heard the same year. My dad got me a copy of Ornette! that same year and that was so deep for me — Ornette’s tone and compositions and the joy and celebration he brought to the music — it changed my life. I think I really started to feel the push to be a professional musician at that time.
And that same year I discovered Sun Ra Arkestra. That was another huge turning point for me. I got a copy of Space Is the Place and I heard “Sea of Sounds” and I was just like, “What, you’re allowed to do that?” I actually wrote to Marshall Allen via Myspace and told him he was my favorite saxophonist and thanked him for his music. I didn’t hear back from him personally, but someone sent a message on his behalf saying he was flattered.
So between those influences and immersing myself in Ornette’s music, I saw how much larger the world of jazz was than the exposure I was getting in the jazz band at school. I always felt like I needed to play music and express myself. I was hyperactive as a kid and medicated on Ritalin and Concerta and I needed to find a way to move all of this energy through me. And hearing free jazz gave me permission to do that. I would say I was doing it out of necessity. I got into a lot of trouble at school because I had so much energy. I needed to find a way to release it that didn’t piss anyone off. At 14 I didn’t have the harmonic knowledge and technical facility to play bebop in a way that felt free, so I started improvising with free jazz records as I continued to study traditional jazz.
Cisco Bradley: Was that when you started pursuing your own sound? How were you thinking about that? Was it there at the very beginning?
Jarrett Gilgore: When I was 11 I began studying with a private teacher named Thomas Razler who was really encouraging and incredibly sensitive to me. He didn’t push me too hard to focus on one thing and he also helped reel me in when I was trying to bypass getting my technique together — he was like, “No, you need to learn harmony and scales and how to play these arpeggios and 7th chords if I’m going to be your teacher.” So that was really helpful to have a strong traditional education at the same time from someone who I really respected and who respected me. We would also improvise freely together and talk about it.
So back to the question you just asked — I think I was always searching for a vehicle beyond words to express my voice and saxophone just kind of appeared in my life. I think the pursuit of my sound was there from the beginning. I would hear the difference between John Coltrane and Joe Henderson and just be like, “How is that possible? It’s the same instrument but these guys sound totally different. I sound totally different than they do. Ornette and Charlie Parker sound totally different. Where do I fit into this?” It got me deeper into more subtle aspects of tone and sound, personality and phrasing, and the different energy that players bring to the music.
Cisco Bradley: Would you say there have been big breakthroughs or is it more like a gradual journey?
Jarrett Gilgore: I think it’s both. The most memorable musical breakthrough I have was getting stoned one summer when I was 16. I was laying down in a field and just hearing all the different sounds. I realized there is this cosmic symphony. Everywhere and everything that we do is part of it, you know? A mandala. A mandala of vibrations and light. Color and form. It was a deep experience of interconnection. That experience really brought the music to a more spiritual level for me. When I was a small child, 4 or 5, I was watching the trees dancing with the wind. So effortless and fluid. I told my mom, “The trees are dancing with the wind. Life is one big concert.” So I guess this experience I had at 16 was an expansion of something I already seemed to have a knowing of. Nature has always been a very deep teacher for me.
But to answer your question from a more technical perspective, I think working on music is a bunch of moments of arriving at different plateaus and staying there for a while then moving to the next one. Any kind of growth is like that. Like we’re just doing something and with time and honest inquiry, we become more aware of patterns, and our understanding of those patterns changes. Then we recognize the limitations inherent in them — how they’re not serving us anymore — and we move on and shed those layers. It’s a natural process. Sometimes it takes quite a while to see it because we get attached to our beliefs and experiences and misperceive them as solid and real and refuse to listen to feedback from others. Then something shakes us and invites us to go deeper or move on from it.
Cisco Bradley: Was there a jazz band in your high school?
Jarrett Gilgore: There was. I didn’t make the jazz band my first year there. The band teacher and I butted heads. He didn’t let me in because he said I sounded too much like Charlie Parker.
Cisco Bradley: What does that mean?
Jarrett Gilgore: I don’t know. I guess he wanted more of a big band thing. A jazz army. I was pretty rebellious. I’ve always had a problem with authority when the rules feel arbitrary and when I don’t feel respected. I never liked school. It felt like a prison.
Cisco Bradley: So can you talk about that? I mean does that manifest in your music? Is that a strong driver for you?
Jarrett Gilgore: I think feeling free is a strong driver for me.
Cisco Bradley: Free from what?
Jarrett Gilgore: Not free from something but more like, free, to be honest. Free to show myself. More like feeling like I have permission. It took me a while to realize I’ll never feel this permission unless I give it to myself. That’s ultimately what it’s about for me. The courage to give myself permission to be vulnerable. Radical presence and acceptance of whatever arises. That’s kind of what the path has turned into for me. And music is just a small piece of that.
Cisco Bradley: Are there other ways that you could express this or do you feel like this is the primary mode for you?
Jarrett Gilgore: Music has been the main vehicle for a long time. But in the last few years my meditation practice has really opened things up for me. Buddhism and meditation have always been in my life peripherally but a few years ago there was a huge shift and now it’s become a central part of my life. Spiritual practice and meditation helps me find that strength to be vulnerable in every aspect of my life. That’s what I’m looking to do. And that vulnerable, tender spot in the heart is the place where honesty and compassion radiates from. Just trying to get out of my head and into my heart. Trying to apply this same presence I have when I improvise to all situations and relationships in my life. And when I get cocky and think I’ve figured something out, something shakes me and I fall. The practice never ends.
Cisco Bradley: That’s beautiful. When you came up against this authority that existed for no reason, did that become a challenge for you? Like okay, I’m going to go do this my own way?
Jarrett Gilgore: Yeah I think you could say that. It started when I was a really little kid. It was just a natural tendency. Curiosity and rebelliousness. Questioning adults. Questioning everything I was told. Not feeling satisfied with people’s reasons. Not seeing the point. I’ve always been interested in understanding why I’m supposed to be doing something. And if the why makes sense but not the how, then I’m gonna find another way to do it. This is a deep pattern that I’ve just begun to work with.
Cisco Bradley: We’re talking all sorts of things?
Jarrett Gilgore: Yeah. It manifests in a wide variety of ways. I think it also contributed to a feeling that I was never part of the team or community or a scene. I’ve always had an aversion to following the dominant culture. Hesitancy to join a group of people. Not timidness, but just hesitation. Anxiety. There’s definitely some trauma with guys too — the lack of sensitivity that guys have when it’s only guys, you know? Patriarchal stuff. A narrow image of manhood I guess. I’ve always been hyper-sensitive, particularly to social dynamics and that stuff just made me want to be alone. And then the moment a woman or someone who doesn’t identify as male, comes in, everything changes. Guys act differently. It’s really strange.
Cisco Bradley: Right.
Jarrett Gilgore: I wasn’t a loner growing up but I never had longlasting friendships. Until high school, I don’t remember having any friendships that started in the beginning of the school year and then carried over to the next school year, you know? I was also very into reading philosophy and the classics and writing poems. I always had this intense intellectual hunger, but also a huge thirst for poetry and art and music.
Cisco Bradley: What year did you graduate high school?
Jarrett Gilgore: I graduated high school in 2010 and then I did a year of community college after that. Then I moved to Baltimore in 2011 from a suburb of Philadelphia called Doylestown. A big part of why I’m in Baltimore is because I went to this jazz camp called Litchfield Jazz Camp in Connecticut in 2007 and 2008 —this was in middle school — and Mario Pavone taught a composition class there. And Dave Ballou was there. So was Russ Johnson. Pianist Peter Madsen. And that opened me up to a TON of stuff. So I went to that camp for two years and started writing my own music. Then I put a group together with my saxophone teacher, and a couple other musicians. I remember I was in computer class my sophomore year of high school and I didn’t want to work on what we were supposed to be doing so I tried to book some gigs in Philly. I found a series called Sci Fi Philly that was a collaboration with Ars Nova Workshop and I got a gig on their series at Gojjo in West Philadelphia.
Cisco Bradley: And when was that?
Jarrett Gilgore: 2008 I think. That was a huge deal for me. The first show I played in Philly. I had played shows around my hometown, Doylestown, but never in the city. It was all my original compositions. I played some other shows during the next couple years on the same series. It was my first experience of a community of improvisers.
Cisco Bradley: You were 16?
Jarrett Gilgore: Yeah.
Cisco Bradley: And so it was possible to book gigs locally?
Jarrett Gilgore: Yes. In Doylestown there was a record shop called Siren Records that I would do stuff at and a coffeeshop called Saxby’s but besides that there really wasn’t much.
Cisco Bradley: But you were able to book gigs in Philly?
Jarrett Gilgore: Yeah. It came from this youthful naiveté.
Cisco Bradley: What do you mean by that?
Jarrett Gilgore: Well, I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t self conscious about my music yet. It didn’t even occur to me that the stuff I’m making is juvenile and I don’t really know what I’m doing, you know? So I had that working in my favor, this fearlessness and drive.
Cisco Bradley: You just wanted to goddamn do it?
Jarrett Gilgore: Yeah. At that time I added all these older musicians on Facebook who play improvised music, you know, just to see what they were doing and stuff and to learn more about them. So I learned very quickly that if I wanted to be a musician I needed to play shows, and no one else was going to book me these shows unless I did it myself.
Cisco Bradley: Compositionally, what were you trying to do at that time?
Jarrett Gilgore: Most of the songs I was writing were melodies and then they would go into free improvisation. I was super into Tim Berne then. His harmonic and melodic concept is really interesting to me. And then I heard this band in Philly called Shot x Shot. That was Dan Scofield on alto saxophone, Bryan Rogers on tenor saxophone, Matt Engle on bass, and Dan Capecchi on drums. And that made a deep impression on me. I was getting more into Anthony Braxton too. I read Forces in Motion and that was a big inspiration. I was writing some weird stuff. Alasnoaxis was also a big compositional inspiration at that time too. I was listening to rock music as well as free jazz and Alasnoaxis really bridged that gap for me. It also changed how I considered the role of the saxophone because Chris Speed takes the role of the singer in that band. I was also listening to a good bit of Morton Feldman. Patterns in a Chromatic Field was my favorite at that time. So I was exposing myself to a ton of out music and doing a lot of exploring.
Cisco Bradley: Where did you go next with your music?
Jarrett Gilgore: So I’ve already met Dave Ballou. Dave’s in Baltimore and he’s the head of the jazz department at Towson University. Michael Formanek is at Peabody. Another musician from my hometown, Natalie Mering, who goes by Weyes Blood, was living in Baltimore at the time and she really dug it. So I felt this urge to move to Baltimore. I thought about moving to New York but I wanted to develop more before doing that. So I moved to Baltimore to go to Peabody and I studied saxophone there with Gary Thomas. He played with Miles in the ’80s and Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition. He played a deep role in the the M-Base style that emerged in the early 90’s a la Steve Coleman, Greg Osby. Very cerebral stuff. It was interesting to me.
Gary has a really unique way of playing. HIs sound is really intense and his language is very chromatic and dissonant and he applies it to standards and chord changes in a very unique way. He’s very much into knowing exactly what you’re playing and how it relates to what is the harmony at that moment. Very intellectualized. He also didn’t take any of my bullshit and attempts to bypass the hard work of learning to play bebop and chord changes. It would have been much easier and less beneficial to study with someone who just let me do whatever I wanted and get away with not learning the tradition. So Gary’s musical precision and accuracy and not taking any shit, really gave me a good education in playing traditional jazz. At this point in my life the only time I do that is when I’m playing a wedding or cocktail gig or something. Haha. Michael Formanek is also a really incredible teacher who I learned so much from at Peabody. And he’s played with such a wide variety of musicians, from Chet Baker and Stan Getz to Elvis Costello and Tim Berne. I just wanted to soak up all his wisdom when I was at Peabody. So I got a very vast education there. But the politics at Peabody were off-putting and I hated the culture there. Even within the jazz department there was a lot of bullshit.
Cisco Bradley: What was it?
Jarrett Gilgore: Normal academic stuff — over-intellectualization, conceptualization, conservatism, arrogance. The jazz department was super small and the classical department was huge. There was very little collaboration between the two departments. Some teachers who were supposed to be playing integral roles in my track there, seemed to just be there for the paycheck and didn’t really make themselves available to students. I also had a very hard time finding people who were into the same stuff as me. And people didn’t want to leave school to explore Baltimore. They heard all this stuff about how dangerous Baltimore is and Peabody was like a little bubble for most people. My experience there was very weird. I was kind of a ghost. People would only see me in class or in a practice room, otherwise I’d be at my apartment or out in Baltimore checking out music.
Cisco Bradley: Did you go there for four years?
Jarrett Gilgore: I was there for four years. I had this double life in Baltimore as a student and as a working musician in Baltimore. In 2008 when I was at Litchfield Jazz Camp, there was an RA there who was a student at Towson studying with Dave Ballou. His name is Zack Branch and he’s a great cellist and improviser. He was living in Baltimore. In 2011 when I moved there, the day after I arrived, he had a party at his place and I went to that and met a ton of people in the jazz and free jazz scene. At that time there was also a collective called Out Of Your Head Collective that played every Tuesday at The Windup Space. The curators would assemble combinations of musicians who had never played together before and they would improvise together. There were two bands every Tuesday. Matt Frazao and Adam Hopkins founded that collective. So it was very auspicious. A day after I moved to this new city, I met the crew of people that I wanted to be around, so I was able to get creative sustenance and have deep friendships in that scene at the same time as I was going through a very strange conservatory education. It was really special.
Cisco Bradley: So were you attending Out Of Your Head every Tuesday for a while?
Jarrett Gilgore: I was going every Tuesday.
Cisco Bradley: So that became your community?
Jarrett Gilgore: Yeah. That was the first and only community that really felt like a community to me. But that ended in 2015. The culture of it had changed a lot. When I started going it was all about the hang. And then musicians began to view it as a gig. That really contributed to its demise. A bunch of new people wanted to play on it but they wouldn’t come to hang out unless they were playing. The thing that made it so special just kind of disappeared.
Cisco Bradley: So it ended for you in 2015, around the time that you were finishing at Peabody then right?
Jarrett Gilgore: Yes. I actually curated the last cycle and it was pretty special to be sending if off like that.
Cisco Bradley: So after that you decided to stay in Baltimore?
Jarrett Gilgore: At that time I wanted to start a band. A band that doesn’t have the mentality of a jazz group that only rehearses for shows, but more like a group that rehearses every week and memorizes music and gets really tight. A rock band mentality. And I figured Baltimore was a great place to do that because people have more time because rent is inexpensive, and there are some really great musicians here. So I started this group called Time Toss and that was with one of the founders of Out Of Your Head, Matt Frazao, this drummer Sam Balcom, and tenor saxophonist Liam Hurlbut. In 2015 I got a few calls to play with some larger indie bands and the experience of playing shows for larger audiences of non-musicians was a driver for making this band. I was feeling very dissatisfied with the free jazz and improvised music scene in Baltimore and every other place I would tour to. Like it was very insulated and not very relevant to non-musicians, and pretty elitist, so I wanted to start this band that would still keep the intensity and fire of free jazz stuff but have this rock band aesthetic as well. So it was two saxophones and then I would play synth as well and Matt played bass and Sam was on drums.
The first show we did was at the Windup Space with Susan Alcorn and Microkingdom. There were probably 75 people there and the response we got was very positive. So we kept it going. We only existed for two years or so. We started making a record and didn’t finish it and then it just kind of stopped. I think I booked all the shows for that band, probably like 50 shows that we played that year in Baltimore, DC, New York, Vermont. None of the shows I was booking for us were jazz shows. That was by design. I just didn’t want to continue playing for an audience that was exclusively musicians. The bills were rock shows and we were the outlier on all the bills which I think is a really good thing. Diversity is important. And you’re usually not playing for people that have listened to a lot of free jazz before, so they were often a bit more excited about it.
Cisco Bradley: Will that record ever come out?
Jarrett Gilgore: I doubt it. I got pretty burnt out with that group and and there were some creative differences that started coming up that weren’t there in the beginning.
Cisco Bradley: What did you gain from that experience?
Jarrett Gilgore: I think it opened me up to realize that I can kind of do whatever I want musically. These genres are just boxes that aren’t always helpful. They can be but they’re really not solid things. I realized that jazz and free jazz is something that I play and I like to play but I don’t need to identify as a jazz musician or a free jazz musician. I love to improvise and I also love to play pretty and lush music, harmonic music. I mean, it’s all music, you know? And then through that band I got some sideman work playing with Dan Deacon. I played a bunch of shows and some festivals with his ensemble. We did one last year with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I remember feeling so liberated after I graduated from music school. I was like, “I don’t need to play jazz anymore. I can listen to other types of music.”
Cisco Bradley: Was that relieving?
Jarrett Gilgore: Yeah, it was very relieving. I felt much lighter. And I’ve always loved melody, and in a lot of the free jazz I hear now there’s not much interest in melody but lots of interest in extended technique. For me, to be true to myself is to continue playing with melody. I also love the colors that you can use with harmony and there’s very little collective intentional harmony in improvised music, so I got deeper into composition as well.
Cisco Bradley: So then what other projects have you been working on?
Jarrett Gilgore: So 2016 was the beginning of this trio Heart of the Ghost with Luke Stewart and Ian McColm. I think the first show we played was at your house!
Cisco Bradley: That’s crazy. I didn’t actually realize that! March 2016. It was one of the best shows I ever booked at my loft, New Revolution Arts.
Jarrett Gilgore: Yeah, I met Luke in 2012 in DC. I met Ian in 2015 in Baltimore.
Cisco Bradley: How did that band come together?
Jarrett Gilgore: I played with Luke starting in 2012 or 2013 with Jaimie Branch and this drummer Sam Lohman in D.C. and I met Ian in 2015 when I was playing with this other band I had called Triage. This was with Noah Jarrett and Kevin Ripley on drums. So we were doing a live recording in Baltimore and Ian was in one of the bands that was on that bill. He sounded amazing so I really wanted to play with him. Luke and I had talked about playing together in some trio formation for a while so the three of us met up and started playing. I also got this grant through Johns Hopkins University to study Jimmy Lyons and that culminated in a performance of Lyons’ compositions in May 2016. So I asked Luke and Ian to play at that concert. That was probably the second performance we did and things felt really good with those guys. None of us were trying to force anything to happen. And we’re still not. The band just grows organically.
So we played a few times in Baltimore and then we started to play at Rhizome in DC a lot. And so now, four years later, we have a couple tapes out and and an LP that was released last year on Dagoretti Records. We have another LP that is about to come out also on Dagoretti which is a quartet with Dave Ballou.
Cisco Bradley: What would you say the concept is? I’ve seen the band. I just want to hear it from you. Internal conversations that you’ve had? Or the vision or the conception? Strategies or approaches that you are using?
Jarrett Gilgore: So I titled the group and I think the title says a lot about what we’re going for — well what I’m going for. I can’t speak for Luke or Ian. The way I feel about it is, you know, you have this ghost — the spirit of this music — the spirit of the free jazz from the 60s. And now it’s the second decade of a new millennium. And what keeps it alive is the heart of the music, you know? I’m not trying to do anything new. I’m just trying to be honest. I think that’s what the group is about.
Cisco Bradley: Heart of the Ghost is definitely one of my favorite bands. I think that was one of the best shows that ever happened at my house and when you guys played at Hart Bar last year, I think that was also one of the best shows in that series.
Jarrett Gilgore: Thank you so much. Most of the artistic innovations that really speak to me are people just doing their thing and being honest. Not trying to contrive this thing that hasn’t been done before. The innovation comes from facing inward. Many things contribute but I think capitalism is a big contributor to this branding and re-branding that we see happening in so many aspects our culture. In music, art, fashion, even spirituality and yoga.
People keep trying to distinguish themselves and what they’re making and not giving credit to the past. Like something is by definition better if it’s new. It’s a very myopic approach and I think it’s pretty unconscious in a lot of people. It’s the emperor’s new clothes. I think it also has to do with musicians and artists being public figures and their name is basically their brand. Social media exacerbates this. It’s an imprisoning attitude that really requires a lot of strength and discipline to not indulge in. At this point I care very little about my image. I’m not gonna lie and say I don’t care at all, but I’m trying to dissolve these barriers between the private me and the public me. I just want to be me at all times. It’s difficult.
And artistically, I care very little about the pursuit of newness or innovations in music. I’m more interested in the pursuit of beauty. What resonates with me? Why? Is it for social reasons or does it really touch my heart? Why am I afraid to pursue this if it’s unpopular? What is my fear telling me?
Cisco Bradley: Wow that’s fascinating. What other projects have you been working on?
Jarrett Gilgore: I have a duo with a guitarist in DC named Anthony Pirog. We started playing together in 2012 or 2013. I met him at Out Of Your Head Collective but when we really hit it off was on the first night of a duo tour that I was doing with Jaimie Branch. We played a show in DC and Anthony played a solo set and then we started playing together. I did a show with Anthony and Jaimie as a trio at this festival in DC that Luke helped put together. Dog Daze Festival I think it was called. After that Anthony and I met in Baltimore a few times to improvise and hang out and I began playing in some of his groups.
After four or five years of playing and hanging we realized that we love pretty songs and are jaded about similar things in the free jazz scene, and we really bonded over our love of the music of Skuli Sverrisson. Skúli is one of a kind to me. This duo with Anthony is similar to Heart of the Ghost. We’re not trying to do anything new. We’re just doing stuff that we love and being honest about it.
Cisco Bradley: And what’s the name of the band?
Jarrett Gilgore: It doesn’t have a name (yet). We’ve been writing songs and are working on a record now. I’ve also been working on some stuff as a duo with Anna Roberts-Gevalt who lives in Brooklyn. I met her when she was living in Baltimore. She has this duo called Anna & Elizabeth and they re-contextualize old time music with experimentalism. They’re amazing storytellers too. I played on their last record on Smithsonian Folkways. Susan Alcorn was on that too. I toured a bit with them in 2018 in support of that record. I was playing saxophone, synth, and drums. We played as a trio. Anna and I also bonded over our love for Skuli Sverrisson’s music. Anna and I have an album that we’re very slowly working on that is also not finished yet. 95% of that music is composed. I play organ on most of it.
Cisco Bradley: Cool. Very different projects.
Jarrett Gilgore: I’ve also been working as a duo with a poet in Baltimore named Anna Crooks. Lots of Annas in my life. Haha. I started this duo with Anna Crooks as I was getting deeper into transcribing speech on the saxophone. I was checking out some Ben Gerstein videos of his speech transcriptions and Sam Weinberg recommended I try transcribing some Gertrude Stein, just for practice. Then I played this improv show at this club in Baltimore called the Crown. Anna was reading her poems while we were improvising. I was fascinated by the poems being read so I asked if she wanted to get together. So the shape of that duo now is that I record her reciting a poem and I transcribe it and play it on saxophone. Then she reads it live and I improvise around the transcriptions and we both do solo stuff. The intention is to blur the lines between speech and music because there’s so much melody hidden in speech. It kind of creates a strange musical context for how poetry can be perceived. So that’s been really fun as well. I’m also playing with a trio called Tulpas with two friends in Mexico City. Gibran Andrade on drums and Arturo Baez on bass. We’ve played some shows in Mexico over the last couple years. We have a new digital release out now as a quartet with German Bringas that was recorded live at Jazzorca earlier this year.
Also a new tape out now with Jon Lipscomb and Ian McColm called Wheel of Misfortune.
And I started a solo project earlier this year called Lilypicker. My last name has some etymological connection to “lilypicker” so I went with that. It’s been on my mind for years to start a solo project but I’ve been too scared to do it. Too scared to really put myself out there. I still am. The fear is a good indication that this is what I should be doing. It’s now becoming an outlet for all different types of compositions that I write. It ranges between drones and electronic music to instrumental pop songs and sentimental love songs. For live shows, it’s a rotating cast of musicians. A “band” with no fixed line up. We only played one show this year opening for Moon Hooch and that was rad, but then the virus began shortly after that so it’s been on the back-burner.
Cisco Bradley: What music have you been working on since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis?
Jarrett Gilgore: Very little. Every time I pick up the saxophone to play it just feels like bullshit. Instead I’ve been going deeper into my spiritual practice, meditating a few hours a day, going on long hikes, doing yoga, cooking. Teaching a lot of lessons. Working on other things. It’s very refreshing. Meditation is helping me see patterns much more clearly. I’ve defined myself as a musician from a young age and that identity doesn’t help me much. It really narrows things. It’s like what I was talking about earlier about genres. These things are boxes and they’re not solid but they provide some organizational benefit. Other times they really box us in and prevent us from seeing outside of them. Every tool can be a weapon I guess.
So I’m working very hard to unravel these knots and identities are a large part of that. So these days, putting pressure on myself to play music feels like a really bad idea. Putting pressure on myself to do anything feels like a bad idea. I’m just trying to make space for whatever comes up and trying to be really gentle to myself and others.
Cisco Bradley: How do you see the rising Black Lives Matter movement intersecting with the music scene in our present moment?
Jarrett Gilgore: I don’t know. I’m very cut off from the music scene at the moment. I deactivated my Instagram and Facebook when I realized I wouldn’t be playing any shows for a while.
I’m hopeful that black and POC artists will get more opportunities and recognition for their art and music, but I fear that some of these opportunities are coming from a place of white guilt which can actually have the effect of fetishizing or tokenizing black and POC artists. I’m not sure that actually brings us closer to solving these problems. It’s a very complicated set of things, and I don’t claim to have any answers.
I’ve been thinking a lot about whiteness and maleness and I guess for me, the deeper I go inward, the more I realize that any collective change starts at a more local level. And for me that local level right now is hyper-local. Inner work. Working with my traumas and sitting with my pain and grief and anger and fear. And bringing radical acceptance and radical self-love and tenderness to that pain. Making space for it. Allowing it. And part of that is admitting I am racist and I am prejudiced and I have gigantic blindspots and there are things I do not know.
I think it’s important to be comfortable realizing we don’t know things and we have infinite things to learn about others and ourselves. When I do that, the more I realize that you are a reflection of my self. I’m a reflection of your self. Each of us are a mirror of each other. When we are projecting our shit, that mirror is really dirty like it’s literally covered in shit. When we can rest in presence and see each other (not look, but see) I think the mirror can get a bit clearer and less smelly and connection and understanding can begin to take place.
For me, a huge part of this inner work or shadow work is addressed by Buddhist psychology and meditation techniques. Cutting through the root of the conceptual mind. When I am trying to understand experiences with the strategy of applying concepts, by definition, I am a step away from the experience. I can’t rest in the experience. The concept becomes a representation of the experience and I’m not even engaged with what is happening anymore. It’s very dangerous (and tempting) to do this with uncomfortable emotions. And I see this happening a lot in discourses about race and feminism and the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s a very natural tendency that humans have. Particularly white humans. It’s deeply embedded in whiteness and colonization. We don’t know how to feel uncomfortable and work with our guilt and shame, so we play these games and intellectualize our own and other peoples’ experiences. We are so disembodied. We’re a bunch of bodiless heads floating around trying to think our way out of our feelings. I think a commitment to feeling can really point us in the right direction collectively and can pave the way for deeper dialogues and communication.
Cisco Bradley: Thank you for sharing these insights and for the in-depth discussion of your music and spirituality. I hope to see you play live again whenever that can happen!
Editing Credit: Gabriel Vanlandingham-Dunn