Words by David C. Obenour
Space is loose. Space is infinite. And for all we continue to learn about it, space remains largely unknown. Every attempt, every new exploration yields new discoveries. No two journeys could ever be the same. The same could also be said for improvisational jazz.
Taking inspiration from the great out there and those who have endeavored to thematically traverse it before them, Ayumi and The Spacemen are back with Vol. 2. While the first expedition was propelled through energy and excitement, this latest outing is markedly more subtle and subdued. As Coltrane did before her, Ayumi’s saxophone provides her mission’s gravitational pull for orbiting explorers Theo Woodward (Synthesizer, Vocals), Nebula The Velvet Queen (Theremin), Jake Strauss (Guitar, Bass), and Stevee Bartashev (Drums).
Off Shelf: Outer space has long been an inspiration and held a strong tie to music, jazz in particular. Loosely defined, what makes the connection to jazz for you?
Stevee Bartashev: Infinite, expansive, exploratory, unknown, everything in its right place.
Theo Woodward: I feel like humanity has always looked to the stars with a sense of wonder, vastness, and a desire to explore the unknown. Through jazz and improvisation, players also explore the vast unknown of possibilities. There are infinite possible combinations of rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone which I think mimics the infinite expanse of planets and stars. In jazz, players will describe phrases or melodies that are harmonically distant from the underlying chord or progression as “out”. This I think somewhat refers to outer space and acknowledging the exploration of the unknown.
As an Indian classical vocalist, I have had teachers describe certain notes in certain scales as having more “gravity” than others. These notes act as points of resolution and the surrounding notes will want to pull toward these tonal centers. Almost like the notes of a scale are planets that you are traveling between and the tension you feel when approaching a note is like feeling the pull of its gravitational orbit. These concepts fuel my personal connection between improvised music in general and the idea of outer space.
OS: Are there artists that you have felt particularly moved by for their exploration of space through music? What was it about their playing that excited you?
Ayumi Ishito: ’60s Coltrane. Especially “Interstellar Space”, “Stellar Regions”, “Meditations”, “Expressions” are my favorite albums. I could hear ‘trane was reaching out to outer space or another world. He brings me out there too every time I listen to those.
Nebula The Velvet Queen: When I first started playing music everything we were doing was very cosmic and then with the saxophone it definitely became this fusion of space and jazz, but Sun Ra is the pioneer of that – the beginning, the middle and the end! I like the whimsy of the idea that Sun Ra was from space and the costumes, that he was into improvisation and composition and his use of Latin and African American instruments. The music transports you to another dimension and that’s what we are aiming to do in our music as well. Opening people’s minds and expanding consciousness. We saw the Sun Ra Arkestra play recently and it was a spiritual experience.
TW: Not only the incredible music but also Sun Ra’s outlandish philosophy, interviews, and discussion of celestial concepts I find particularly exciting. I really enjoy the expansive range of his compositions where he will have an album of doo-wap vocal jazz songs but also have records of the most abrasive, dense, and frenetic improvisations I’ve ever heard. I’m also very much inspired by his compositions with ostinato repeating bass lines and this imaginative exploration of harmony over that solid foundation, such as on the albums Lanquidity and Angels & Demons at Play.
OS: As an artist and performer, where does your inspiration come from to lend your own interpretation?
AI: I get inspired by the musicians and friends around me. It’s always interesting to see how others approach music and by playing together with them, I’m able to find a new sound or a new way to approach music.
TW: I’ve been very much inspired by early minimalist composers like Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and David Behrman, etc. The way they combined techniques from Indian classical music with jazz and western classical instrumentation and improvisation really shaped how I approach music. I really like working with tonal centers and drones in improvisations to create a bed over which to explore. The notes then have added meaning and context because they are always in relationship to that fundamental tone.
NVQ: My inspiration comes from the universe. I feel like as artists we are a channel for cosmic energy. Sometimes it’s a download from the matrix, other times it’s a line in a song or something someone says or an advertisement on the subway. Most of all I’m inspired by nature and celestial events. I like to compose or write on full moons.
OS: Album art, fashion, and stageshow have also played a large role in much of the music of outer space. What ways do you look to visually convey your music?
TW: I think through our music videos and live projections at our shows we try to express this connection to the cosmos and the surrealist narrative of our improvisations. I animate our visuals using a collage of 3D models in strange landscapes which move and deform in unexpected ways in an attempt to mimic the music. The wide array of colors, shapes, and movements convey the shifting harmonies and rhythms present in the sounds. I try to invoke the surreal structures of dream states where the unexpected is to be expected.
OS: Outer space is as interesting for the little we do know to the vast amount we don’t know. How does that dichotomy play into your approach of playing and composing?
AI: I try not to know everything I play. If I play something weird, I just leave it as a mystery and take it from there.
SB: Our music is completely improvised. Knowing you’re walking into something completely unknown puts you in a fight or flight – or freeze – mindset. It’s exhilarating.
TW: I imagine this is part of the allure of space travel and research; this feeling of not knowing and the joy of making new discoveries.
NVQ: We’ve played together hundreds of times but each time we go on the final outcome is completely unknown. It’s what makes improvisation so intoxicating. Every single show is a new experience. It still blows my mind that in the complete chaos of improvisation, the band can get completely in sync with each other and create something extraordinarily beautiful and full of harmony one minute, and then formless chaos the next.
OS: This is your second volume with The Spacemen, how was the approach to recording different and what did you know you wanted to keep the same?
AI: It’s actually from the same recording session as Vol. 1!
TW: We improvised continuously for a few hours with some breaks in between, then cut out the best portions to form the two Volumes. I feel that this second one has some of the more free, amorphous sections of the improv.
OS: How does that translate into a live performance ?
TW: Everything is improvised for the most part but through playing together a lot we have developed certain ideas that we return to. For instance, if Stevee starts playing an uptempo swing style type rhythm on the drums, Jake knows to accompany him with some type of walking bassline and I might play some chord structures to blend with them.
I am blessed to play with these musicians because of their deep sensitivity and internalized feeling of accompaniment and support. Sometimes it is rare to find improvisers who know when to leave space for other players and when to push their own sound into the foreground. It can be a fine balance which I think we have been able to achieve for the most part with the Spacemen.
OS: There are a lot of amazing sounds and textures that you captured throughout. Can you pull out any of your favorites? Maybe even share how they were played and produced to achieve the effect?
AI: I like the phaser effect on sax. It’s the signature “spacey” sound.
TW: I keep returning to the song ‘Night Chant’ on our first record. I really like the way the shifting synth drone blends with other instruments. To create the synth line on that track I was using an iOS app called “Spacecraft” – a fitting name! It is a granular synthesis app where you can scrub through a sample and find interesting portions to loop, repitch, add reverb and filtering, and sequence melodies with it. I took a loop of a kind of arpeggiating synth portion of one of the default samples then layered it on top of itself so the rhythms overlap and become more of a shifting drone without a defined tempo.
OS: Are there other recordings you could envision doing with The Spacemen? How do you think they might be different?
SB: I’m curious to explore introducing some arrangements into the group, seeing what output would be created when inputting order into chaos.
TW: Perhaps starting with a scale or melody for us to improvise around, like in jazz or Indian classical music. We could even start with simple directions or feelings we want to express during the jam. There have also been times where we have gotten very ambient and spacious in our improvisations using subtle sounds to create a sort of drifting atmosphere. I would definitely like to capture some of these concepts on another recording in the future.