Improvising definitions with Hanah Jon Taylor
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Outsiders might assume improvisational music is the refuge of careless minds, but a conversation with sax and flute player Hanah Jon Taylor quickly puts that idea under a few feet of dirt. The 59-year-old Madison resident and Madison Media Institute professor is dedicated to the ethos of "play what you feel," and does so with an ear for both the melodic and the avant-garde on his fourth album, HyrPlasis. Taylor reacts strongly to certain terms and likes to nail down definitions: He bristles at being classified as a "jazz" musician, and calls his band, which plays Saturday at Mother Fool's, The Hanah Jon Taylor Artet, as opposed to a "quartet" or a "trio." He loathes the term "local musician," even though he's lived in Madison since 1993, organized shows at the now-defunct Madison Center For Creative And Cultural Arts and the House Of Sound on Willy Street, and played his first local gig at a South Side bar with Ben Sidran and Richard Davis. Taylor engaged in some semantic pinpointing and good belly laughs with The A.V. Club while discussing his travels to Istanbul, his efforts to bring more "creative music" artists to Madison, and the nature of improvisation.
"Entertaining" vs. "connecting"
The A.V. Club: When you handed off your new CD, you said, "I don't care if you like this or not." How did you develop that attitude?
Hanah Jon Taylor: Commercial appeal has never been the thing that has driven me to concertize or compose. But at the same time, I've always wanted to connect, because I think the music that I am pursuing is not a background type of music. It is not something that people talk over. But I think we can get confused with what is connecting and what is entertaining. And so, I guess at this point, I'm really solid with the idea that I can do both, but I choose to be more concerned about connecting by far than entertaining. That's what I meant when I said, you know, "I don't give a damn whether you like it or not." It was just a rude way of making a point.
HJT: Well, I think that the idea of being local sometimes is stifling of an expansion or a growth. I'm from Chicago. I'm not from Madison. Ninety-eight percent of the gigs that I play in a year's time are elsewhere other than Madison. The cats that I use don't live here. To me, there are three good reasons for me not to consider myself a local musician. But more so than those three, I think one has to start to consider oneself a world citizen in order to eventually become a world citizen. I hope people don't take that the wrong way, but that's where that's coming from, man, and I feel the more obstinate I am about my own identity as an artist to people who live here does a service somehow to the art.
HJT: If you look at music as a language, then it's easy to understand what improvisation is about. We're improvising right now. You're not reading any script, I'm not responding by any script, there's no teleprompters around us, the dog is not telling us what the fuck to say, you know? Once one understands and learns the language, the general language, and then goes on to understand the colloquialisms and nuances of a specific style or that language, or specific vernacular, they want to be able to communicate and speak. It has nothing to do with practicing lines. Improvisation is immediate and emotional and inclusive of response. Almost contingent upon atmosphere. In other words, as an improviser, I actually feel energy in the room of musicians and people who are listening. It's not rocket science. It's kind of like brain surgery.
HJT: In Istanbul, I had an opportunity to experience authentic Turkish music and perform with Turkish musicians who were not playing jazz standards. When I went to Turkey, I went to meet some musicians who I had known through other musicians. To my dismay, the musicians that I primarily encountered wanted to play American standards. For someone like me, who's from Chicago and who's heard that music all his life, I've always wanted to expand past that. I had to find a polite way to tell them that I didn't come all this fuckin' way to play some standards. I think I was successful in doing that in a tactful way, because then I was introduced to some other musicians who played the real deal. It wasn't only the musicianship of Turkey, but just the idea and the ambience of a place that is between two worlds. It straddles the East and West culturally, okay? Just walking through the streets, you hear the call to prayer five times a day, but you also hear humanity in a way that you just don't hear in other places. I can't wait to go back.
HJT: I've got the same drummer, Vincent Davis. We'll probably have a child together one day, I don't know. Either we're gonna have a child together one day, or we're gonna be on the news for killing each other. If you see me on the news, you know I killed him before he killed me. But we'll probably get married and have some children. God knows we've been courting for 15 years. So we'll either commit dual homicide, or we'll procreate and multiply.
The ideal venue
HJT: It would have to be big enough to capacitate 100 people. It would have an acoustic piano and a stage that was raised 18 inches from the floor. It would be a 27-foot-by-35-foot stage with suitable P.A. and recording capabilities. With a long floor plan and windows on at least two sides, because it's important for people to see from outside what is happening on the inside. The Madison Center For Creative And Cultural Arts was a great place, but there was no way that you could have a visual accessibility from the outside to it. I know that we want to consider ourselves a bastion of liberalism, but I had a couple of my white friends tell me that their friends didn't want to go into the place because it "it looked a little too dark in there." In other words, there were too many African statues, and the only person they saw going in there with any regularity was me. You can't make this up! Anybody that came to our place knew that it was a multi-cultural place that was welcoming for everyone. There was nothing Afro-centric about it. The most Afro-centric thing in it was me. I just happened to be the director, but hey, no one else had the idea.
AVC: Speaking of venues, how did your Freedom Fest go over when you brought in Archie Shepp to headline in 2008 at the Overture Center?
HJT: Here's an example of windows again. The Overture Center has nothing but windows. But what does it display through those windows?
AVC: The lobby?
HJT: A lobby of alienation. Either there's nothing happening in that lobby, or everybody that's in that lobby at some event doesn't look like you. All right? So this is what you see. So here I come, okay? The association has already been made: This is a place where we don't belong. We know Hanah's doing a thing over there, but it's no place that we really want to go. Not because they didn't want to see Archie. When you try to put an internationally renowned jazz artist in the lobby of a Midwest theater... [Sighs.] And that's what I tried to do.
AVC: What's the toughest time you've ever had putting on a show in Madison?
HJT: Trying to compete with other commercial venues on a specific holiday without a liquor license. I produced a thing a few years ago on Halloween night called Ghoul-A-Rama, and I still haven't heard the last of it. We produced it at the Bartell Theatre. We had a bunch of musicians, we all had costumes. I was Sly And The Family Stone, Sylvester, what's his name. But what happened was the fog machine malfunctioned, and the whole place... People got so mad at me because they had to put on a play the next night, and the place was murky with fog. These musicians were walking around the fog with horns and costumes and shit.
HJT: I don't want to come off as some kind of sophisti-fuck who is "beyond description." Fuck that. But I just don't want to mislead you, and I don't think too much of seeing myself as being any one kind of musician. Music is universal, man. Without giving too much homage to the cliché, it really is a universal language. Some people feel more comfortable using categories, and I understand that, but let me ask you: After listening to that CD, what would you call it?