By Filipe Freitas
Name: Michael Attias
Instrument: alto saxophone
Style: contemporary jazz
Album Highlights: Nerve Dance (Clean Feed, 2017), Spun Tree (Clean Feed, 2012), Renku (Playscape Recordings, 2005)
On Thursday, June 22, you’re going to lead an all-star tribute to Motian’s music. It will be the first of four special events celebrating the fifth-anniversary of the Sound It Out series. How did this invitation happen?
I was at the Greenwich House listening to a concert. It was the Mike Bagetta trio with Jerome Harris and Billy Mintz, and Bradley [Bambarger] told me about the fundraising tributes he wanted to do for the Greenwich House School. He was mentioning different options and we just started questioning: who is a major influence these days for all these people who come from several directions and have so many different perspectives? It’s Motian, both as a composer and bandleader. He really influenced a whole generation of players on the current scene. He’s the one person everybody can love (laughs).
You guys recorded On Broadway vol.5, right? How do you recall working with him?
Actually, I did two records with him. The first was under the leadership of Masabumi Kikuchi and Terumasa Hino and came out on Sony in Japan. Unfortunately, I don’t think it ever had a US release, but I really love that record.
Masabumi, Thomas Morgan, and I had been meeting at Masabumi’s place for several months and improvising completely free. Masabumi was recording all those improvisations and, I mean, it was a pretty intense thing because he listened so deeply. He had these amazing ears and listened like an x-ray, not just to the notes but to the whole shape, the intention, the attitude of the players, the overtones… so, listening to what you had just improvised with him by your side was kind of scary... and great!
Occasionally he would burn a CD right away and say: “see if there’s anything you like from here”. And at that time I didn’t know who was going to be the drummer. I think three or four pieces on that record came out of sketches I made of those free improvisations. So, that was the first record with Paul.
He liked Thomas and me. It was maybe the second time he'd played with Thomas and I think that was when he decided he was going to work with him, and their hook-up is amazing on that record. And then he just said: “I hope we can get to work together some time” and for me it was totally a dream come true. I think of him often and he was a big, big influence. He really changed me in the way I write and think about music, and even in how to deal with making charts.
How was the tune selection made for the event?
I've asked all the musicians to bring their favorites and from that list I’ll pick, I would say, maybe eight or nine pieces; ten at the maximum. Each of them will be performed by a different formation out of the lineup, with lots of great players. Some of the instrumentations are inspired by Paul’s groups, having two guitars, having two tenors, two altos. Some of these guys worked with Paul before while others never did but were close to this music. I don’t know if Ralph Alessi ever worked with Paul, but I think it will be interesting to hear Ralph playing this music… I suggested some of the musicians and Bradley Bambarger suggested others.
Your latest release, Nerve Dance, shows a completely different direction than your debut, Credo, in which I hear lots of folk elements scattered throughout the melodies. What do you think changed in your music?
Credo was released in 1999 but the music had been written since 1996, maybe. It's not my first record. I did another one that only came out in France but was completely lost. But yes, the folk elements are there. Igal Foni, the drummer on that record, and I are very close, and we spent a lot of time listening to gnawa music, which I still love. Some rhythms and even the way the bass sounded on some pieces were also very influenced by the sound of the gimbri ... But to me, “Dark Net”, the first tune of Nerve Dance, is still relating to that, however, the polyrhythms are not so explicit, it’s not just about the grid but how each rhythm pulls against the other and distorts the grid a little bit. It’s different in the way that lots of great music today is played with very complex meters, and it's about being very accurate and very precise. And I think that’s valuable, I mean, we live in a world of machines and we have to deal with these machines in a way that we almost need to be better than them. But that’s not really my thing. Speaking about Motian, he is the best example to link to that because he was definitely not a machine.There are no right angles on this grid, and to me there are also no right angles in African music. There’s ambiguity and that is very important to me. The way that Nasheet, Aruan, and Hebert play on "Dark Net", even though we didn’t talk about gnawa or Moroccan music, tells us it's in there, but maybe it's less on the surface ... And then, you change with time, you get older, and I really feel that I don’t have an identity, in the sense that to have an identity you have to stay identical to some image of yourself. I'm not interested in that. I think identity is deeper.
Do you have a particular compositional process?
I don’t have a single process. I have several processes. When in NY, I spend a lot of time writing in the subway. I carry these little notebooks around and I fill them up, taking advantage of time and adversity, like your enemies are right there! It’s a slightly paranoid state of mind but it’s good because it helps with the creative thing.
I was able to identify Coltrane, Threadgill, and Andrew Hill when listening to your music. Are they big inspirations to you?
Yes, all of them. I mean, Threadgill… I would not necessarily say Threadgill’s specific writing materials but the way he treats his alto saxophone, his sound, and the elegance, incisiveness, and poetry in his music. I think Threadgill has made his own little kitchen and I relate to that. I’m a pretty much self-taught, definitely as a composer I’m self-taught. I had a great saxophone teacher for a couple years in Minneapolis, but in the lessons we basically worked on classical stuff. He left me a lot of room to find myself as an improvisor. So, in that way, I’ve also built my own cuisine.
Coltrane, of course, in a very deep way, always, since I was 13 or 14 years old. And Andrew Hill for sure; discovering his and Paul Motian’s music happened for me at a later time. When I was young it was really Monk, Ornette, Coltrane, Miles, Lester Young, you know… Paul Motian's was through that album with Paul Bley, John Gilmore, and Gary Peacock. Do you know that album, Turning Point? It blew my mind. Also, Andrew Hill was not before I moved to NY. There’s a sort of mystery in their approach to time and you can always hear groove in their music no matter how abstract it may sound. Time is a negotiation between everybody that is playing and that's Andrew's big influence. Every step, every moment, nothing is taken for granted.
John Hébert has been a longtime associate in your projects but Aruan Ortiz and Nasheet Waits are the new valuable elements in a quartet whose chemistry can be strongly felt. What did they bring to your music?
I've done concerts and toured with Nasheet in the past and we both played in John’s first record, Byzantine Monkey, recorded in 2008. It has been a pleasure to play with him together with Aruan and John. They all bring who they are, I mean, they’re such individuals, and they express that individuality in each sound they make and in each sound they don’t make. There’s definitely fire, spontaneity, and risk. Every band is different, and the musicians who play with me in Spun Tree and Renku also have all that, but I agree that there’s a specific chemistry in this quartet and that’s why you have a different band.
How do you see the current jazz scene?
There are so many creative energies at work right now. I mean, people talk about it and you’ll hear the same things: there are not enough places to play, there’s no way that you can live from it… One situation that is happening right now, which is a little bit of a problem, is that, because of economic pressures and the music industry, it’s much harder to live in NYC now than it used to be. To really pursue a creative life in NY, you either have to be independently wealthy or be really good at all kinds of things that have nothing to do with music. Or you have to be very lucky… There’s a whole period of your development where you shouldn't have to define yourself and that’s missing a little bit. You go straight from school to..., you know, you have your PR, you have your image, and that’s what you’re gonna do. And that’s cool, but a little thin. It’s very important to waste time, to make mistakes and to get lost in the woods, and if you’re going to do that, you really have to defend it. The way things are done push you to be successful in a certain kind of way but, artistically, the result of that is not going to last. But there’s so much talent and unbelievable technique out there, and the scene remains vibrant with lots of interesting musicians, especially drummers and bass players, who are all so different from each other.
If not a musician, what would you have been?
Dead! (laughs). I could have done a lot of bad things in my life, and I didn’t because I had this discipline and this passion for music, and that kept me together. Everything has been about how to create a space for it and grow with it.
What other types of music do you listen to?
So many things. Debussy, Ligeti, Bach, lots of 20th century contemporary music, folk music from around the world, classical music from other places, West African music, also hip-hop. There are periods when I get obsessed with one hip-hop album. It just happened with Nas’ album, Illmatic.
What was the first jazz album you fell in love with?
Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. That was when I had perhaps 12 years old. I was like: what is that? And I kept listening to it over and over again.
Can you name a few musicians whom you’ve never collaborated with, but you’d like to?
Roscoe Mitchell, Andrew Cyrille, and Craig Taborn.