Keir Neuringer is one of the most exciting saxophonists to emerge in recent years and has established himself through the release of a number of records, including his monumental solo recording, Ceremonies Out of the Air, on New Atlantis in 2014. His latest record comes from the collaborative project Irreversible Entanglements, together with Camae Ayewa (known as Moor Mother; poetry, vocals), Luke Stewart (bass), Aquiles Navarro (trumpet), and Tcheser Holmes (drums). This self-titled release on International Anthem and Don Giovanni Records was the #2 record on our Best of 2017 list, was recently reviewed on this site, and received considerable praise from other critics. Throughout his career, Neuringer has displayed as fierce a commitment to the technical mastery of his craft as he has to issues of justice. In this interview, I had the opportunity to delve into some of his lines of thinking about the new record, the possibilities of free jazz today, and its historical and contemporary legacies.
Cisco Bradley: The record is described as “Four relentless bouts of inspired fire music forged from the true spirit of free jazz, driven by searing poetic narrations of Black trauma, survival and power.” From this description, this record seems to lay claim to a revolutionary legacy forged during the era of the Black arts and Black power movements. Could you talk about the legacy of fire music as music of revolution/resistance and how it continues to be a source of inspiration?
Keir Neuringer: There’s a Du Bois scholar in Philadelphia who I consider one of my political mentors, Anthony Monteiro. He talks about how jazz is the soundtrack to Black liberation and that Black liberation is a condition for collective liberation. To the extent that “fire music” is shorthand for something like “jazz-related music that has not disposed of its liberatory roots and aspirations,” I think the claim you ascribe to the record is a fair one.
Just to be clear, “fire music” isn’t about fiery playing of a benign nature. In our assertion that before, through, and beyond this music the oppression of Black women and men will be laid bare, oppressors will be named and shamed, survival will be demanded, and power will be asserted, we are dead serious. As serious as your life.
CB: What drew you to working with Camae Ayewa/Moor Mother?
KN: One of the reasons I wanted to work with Camae after we first met in 2014 was that I felt a kinship with how she was moving ideas through sound and text. Rather than distinct layers — one on top of the other, one in front of the other, words backed up by sound accompaniment — she articulates her ideas as an interdisciplinary artist. It’s difficult to describe. It’s like the texts are prisms through which we understand the sounds and the sounds are prisms through which we perceive and comprehend the texts. But also her installation work and her performance work and her text work all come from a similar place. I’ve been making work in a related way for many years. For me what resonates is that the politics are not just buried in the content, they’re also in the approach. It’s a political decision to be sonically, textually, and formally confrontational, always so heartbreaking but Camae still has that wry sense of humor. (And it’s a political decision how you work with others, how you operate in a scene.)
Anyway when I read a text during a solo saxophone performance I don’t say: this is poetry, and now I’ll play some free jazz, which is not poetry, and by the way I hope you feel uncomfortable because I am confronting you. No. Different disciplines contextualize and translate each other within a certain interdisciplinary approach. (Also, and this seems important to add, maybe an artist’s lived experiences and struggles are only confrontational if they are struggling against you.) And Camae could take a few brief samples and synth sounds and anyone who really listens knows it’s not hyperbole to say she can sequence something that sits proudly, respectfully, decisively next to Sun Ra and Grandmaster Flash and the Blues.
CB: What do you consider to be the artistic vision for Irreversible Entanglements?
KN: One thing that I have been thinking about over the last decade or so is the tension between making art *about* anti-authoritarian struggles, and art that *is* struggle. At its potentially most dull and hackneyed, there is art that reads the news, or recites history. It’s safe. Bad people did bad things, here’s some art about it, my conscience is now clear. On the other end of the spectrum there is shit that is so confrontational it only does that one thing: confront. I’m thinking, as an example, of the hours of my life I have spent listening to ear-splitting feedback loops devoid of any further depth or conceptual heft – it’s just the confrontation. And I have to say, here, that I have made work at both ends of this spectrum. What excites me about the possibilities for a group like Irreversible Entanglements is that there really is so much going on that it feels, to me at least, a lot more like life and a lot less like a narrow part of life with a frame around it. If someone describes for you ‘avant-garde’ as aesthetically, sonically, tonally, rhythmically rigid, I don’t think they know what they are talking about. If the avant-garde label applies to our group, I would like it applied as an attitude toward form, function, and content. I suppose ‘artistic’ vision feels troublesome to me in that my vision for the band isn’t encompassed by ‘art.’ Neither do we have a political vision that I could easily describe for you. As with what I was saying about poetry not being external to the music, I can’t really separate out or classify the different visions for the band. I mean if you listen to us, I think it’s clear as day.
CB: Irreversible Entanglements combines poetry with free jazz, thus connecting with a tradition that goes back to Amiri Baraka and beyond. What do you see as the most potent possibilities for the meeting of poetry and the avant-garde today?
KN: I’m gonna be tough in response and say I don’t think we combine poetry with free jazz at all, because I don’t think Camae’s texts are external to the music, and I don’t think the music is external to the texts. In my view it’s a lot less about combining disparate disciplines and more about asserting their commonality.
You mention Amiri Baraka, who is a creative and intellectual giant foundationally important to us as individual artists, as a collective of artists, and as humble participants in a continuum he radically engaged. You read his poetry and it’s not like it’s outside of the free jazz continuum at all. It defines and shapes the continuum. It’s as integral to it, I think, as any individual instrumentalist of his generation, both in terms of artistry and influence. Like you can listen to Archie Shepp and how is he not as simultaneously playful and lyrical and outraged and defiant as Baraka? Are John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders and Milford Graves and Sunny Murray not poets? Are Sonia Sanchez and Jayne Cortez not free? And not jazz?
I mean, to take it further, whatever invisible line divides poetry and the music that is called free jazz (and the music that birthed it, and the music that birthed that) is secondary to the creative impulse. Crossing that line is not necessarily avant-garde at all, whatever we might take avant-garde to mean. We could say that invisible dividing line appears with a certain European taxonomic impulse to compartmentalize everything: this here is religion and this there is art and this over here is singing (but not spiritual singing, *this* is spiritual singing and there are different rules for that) and this is dancing (dancing inside and dancing outside, different rules) and this here is none of those things. Little boxes.
I suppose it goes back even to ancient Greek statecraft or philosophy or whatever. Plato was just as afraid, on behalf of the State, of certain types of music as US politicians in the 80s were of hip-hop. Boo!
On a really shallow level, it’s an “ancient white tradition” that compels some people to insist that artists do art without injecting politics. It’s a ridiculous and impossible notion. (I joke of course because there’s no such thing as a white tradition or white culture.) That taxonomic impulse shows up most perniciously in how things are marketed and sold: this Irreversible Entanglements record is “free jazz” plus “poetry” and it’s “political.” RIYL that kinda shit, & only that kinda shit, I guess. That notion is dreadful — not just in that it renders certain vital artistic expressions (and the people who make them) worthless within dominant capitalist society, but also in that operators in the scene sniff out the financial opportunities first before stuffing their so-called art inside of those opportunities.
What was the question?
CB: How did Irreversible Entanglements come together as a band?
KN: So when I first heard Camae read her work I was intrigued at what we could do together. I had never worked with anyone in the way, say, Amiri Baraka and David Murray worked together. But I wanted to. After we had played out a few times the invitation came in to perform at the Musicians Against Police Brutality benefit for Akai Gurley’s family, and I asked Camae to be there with me. This was also the first time either of us had played with Luke Stewart. I asked him to join us because I was getting to know him both as a player and as someone who does not deal with history superficially. The meeting of Luke’s encyclopedic knowledge of, and reverence for, Black music’s history, and Camae’s explorations of time, history, and community survival in her Black Quantum Futurism (BQF) project with Rasheedah Phillips, is like stars colliding in my opinion. That meeting is something I’m humbled to witness and participate in every time we get together.
So then imagine when after we play our set, Aquiles Navarro and Tcheser Holmes, these two younger musicians I hadn’t yet heard of, play a set that’s just full-tilt, all fire. Just trumpet and drums, but in that space and inspired by BQF I felt like I could fold time and hear their set together with ours, a quintet with all that energy and emotion and the collective rejection of police brutality and devaluation of black lives and communities. Later I learned that of course they played that way because as a duo they were putting heavy time in accompanying poets at the Bowery Poetry Club. So it all just synced up and it made sense to everyone to go into the studio as soon as we could.
CB: Can you talk about the background to a few of the tracks on the debut record?
KN: The first and last tracks on the album were collective improvisations, performed live in the studio. Both were first takes. In fact, Projects, the closer, was the first thing we ever played together as a quintet. That was our warm up. Jason LaFarge, the engineer at Seizure’s Palace, hit record and sixteen minutes later we had our first piece of music.
The two interior tracks, Enough and Fireworks, have some compositional planning. Both are second takes. Aquiles brought in the melody and the form for Enough. He proposed the title as an instigation to Camae, and the rest of her text was improvised. Fireworks is my composition. I had written the melody and the bassline a few years earlier and brought it knowing enough of Camae’s texts to think it was worth experimenting with. Camae chose one of her poems right there as we were getting started and it clicked immediately. We did the second take just to tighten up the melody.
And that’s how the whole session went, with more music than we could fit on the LP – including a beautiful track composed by Luke that we hope to get out somehow. I think we all felt tough, really ready to put something strong down. The recording session was a moment when we all felt confident about ourselves, we felt no ambiguity about why we are in it, and we got a lot of joy and inspiration out of listening to each other. And that part has only grown with time.
CB: What is the origin of the band name?
KN: It wasn’t immediate, in fact it was after the recording session, that I recalled a phrase I had heard at a BQF reading. I think it was in one of Rasheedah Phillips’ texts, something about being caught up in ‘these irreversible entanglements…’ Not the easiest to utter, not the most beautiful to write out, but it expresses in an ascerbic way where we are coming from and what we as a group are born out of. Struggle and community, despair and defiance. Anyway that’s one way to read it.
CB: What’s next for Irreversible Entanglements?
KN: I have a whole second record planned in my head, and Camae and I keep talking about other sounds and voices we want to bring in. But now that this first record is out and some folks are showing love, we’ll be playing out a lot more. Europe tours in spring and fall, and some festival things we’ll announce when we can, and other shows here and there. It’s been gratifying and completely unlike any work I’ve done before, to receive the attention this record is getting. A lot of that is due to the deserved admiration people already have for Camae’s work as Moor Mother. And I hope as much of it is due to the phenomenal playing of the ensemble – I just want to shout out Aquiles, Luke, and Tcheser as exceptional musicians and collaborators. And I give so much credit to the truly unique and loving way the record labels – International Anthem and Don Giovanni – communicate about us. The artists and communities associated with both labels are really supportive. It has made me feel like this album, which I feel so precious about, is sincerely cared for. That’s ground to grow in.
CB: Your solo record, Ceremonies Out of the Air (New Atlantis, 2014), was a profound statement. Do you have plans for more solo recordings?
KN: Yes! For years there’s been something very specific that I want to do with a solo saxophone record, it’s kind of a secret, but the conditions haven’t been right. That project aside, I wish I could put a solo saxophone recording every year, because my playing changed a lot after recording and touring Ceremonies. The challenges with my next solo are not very glamorous: how will I fund it? Who will put it out? How will pr be handled? I think there were some things that I missed with Ceremonies — I mean industry things, not the artistic side of it — that I want to get right with this next one.
CB: You have five duo recordings with Rafal Mazur. Could you discuss these collaborations, how your work developed with him, and what’s next for the two of you?
KN: My partnership with Rafal Mazur has been central to my development as an improviser — how I play and how I think about playing. We met and started working together in 1999, and since then Rafal’s own trajectory has been pretty inspirational to witness, on the level of technique as well as his philosophical work around improvisation and spontaneous action in general. One thing that is important to our music is that we do not plan. We show up prepared for contingencies, and we play. So what is next for us is to play, because we are prepared for all the contingencies that entails. I hope we can make another record to mark twenty years of collaborating, in 2019. It would be our sixth: the three commercially available discs, a net-label release, and a very limited edition independent CD-R we started out with in 2003.
CB: Thank you!