“Music Keeps Asking Questions”
Then And Again, Here & Now (The Concept Album)
A Conversation with TC3, The Todd Cochran Trio
TC Todd Cochran (piano) // JL John Leftwich (bass) // MC Michael Carvin (drums)
As American kids growing up during the cold war era you were always aware of geo-politics, however, today in many ways is a moment when all of humanity is experiencing something of a global political inferno. At home and throughout the world, the reality of this phenomenal time of transition points to a moment where we can give focused attention to what it means to be human together. In a lot of areas, we are seeking new structures to identify ourselves within which – from an artistic point of view – highlights why creating a collection of jazz standards (in our current climate) is an interesting statement to make.
TC: You give new life to older songs by identifying the creative impulse that was at the core of bringing the earlier to life; the context, the symbolism, the emotion, the double-meanings, codes, ambivalence, the relationships, what have you… and try to isolate what was innovative about the creation of that work at the time. How it reflected and contrasted or represented something different or original in a way that gave it an extended lifetime. It’s relevancy as music. To go back and try to replicate that sound and feeling – to do something identical in today’s world – is futile. It’s archival and lacks the essential spirit of invention. There is power, I believe, in transposing that spirit forward with the familiar bringing a level of comfort as you muse and intermingle influences in a contemporary expression. Honoring the tradition in this way is a high-water mark and the pursuit is always humbling.
The word dystopia is being tossed around quite a bit lately to describe certain aspects of our world affairs, etc. and this is something I’ll never ascribe to as defining who, what and where we are. Jazz is more of a utopian vision. Jazz or “blutopia” has always been a future vision, coupled with imagery of an upbeat reality enlivened by the music. You feel it most strongly while the music is playing and the sense of it dims somewhat afterwards. And people return to the music to reinvigorate a vision that they adopt as their own.
JL: From what I know of human history, we’ve evolved through countless cycles of chaos and healing. In song, the standards reflect real attitudes and feelings. And today we’re still striving for a world of compassion, liberty, and progress. It’s a dream worth working toward, while also working to avoid the pitfalls of war, suffering, and destruction of nature. Our role as artists is to communicate the issues and emotional impact we see them having on the world through our work. Hopefully that work can inform society and give people a way to internalize and work through how they feel about those issues and emotions. The themes that run through art, music, and literature are the same – they express the human condition, love and family, ambition, tragedy, comedy, spiritual connection.
MC: For an artist the music of the American Song Book is like classical music; it can always be revisited and given life in new ways that are very much your own. There’s not only beauty in the musical structures of these songs, but also – and I agree with John – there’re these life stories reflecting people’s experiences. The music also comes from a time when there were fewer distractions and much longer attention spans! [Laughter] Texting and social media is really affecting the way we communicate with each other – how we use language and our ability to communicate with each other on more than a surface level. Using these pieces as the foundation for improvised creativity is like a game of before and after. And at the start of the adventure the audience has something familiar to reference.
Share a little about your beginnings in music and why music matters.
JL: I’ve loved music since I was a kid, growing up around my mother’s Broadway records. I was in a rock band when I was a kid, played clarinet in the school concert band, and sang in the chorus. Even if I weren’t a musician today, I’d be listening to music all the time. I respond to it… it’s another language and makes me feel connected to the pulse.
MC: I began playing drums when I was six years old with my father, who taught me. Music and the drums have taken me around the world. I’ve met all kinds of beautiful people and am very thankful; music fulfills my life and allows me to connect with people.
TC: My relationship with music began when I was three years old and has continued since. The ways in which music matters to me are indescribable with words. I’ve always believed music can make a difference, and it can lead to a betterment of the world. Music has to be experienced – and encourages an emotional honesty. The experience of music is always changing, it’s never the same. It has helped me to investigate the world and understand human feelings.
The interpretive approach you’ve taken on this recording seems to be rooted in a philosophy. What is jazz in the 21st century?
MC: I see jazz today as a personal experience; it’s about seeing and hearing things differently…
TC: Jazz today and moving forward has to continue the stylistic foundation it was built upon. I think jazz in the 21st century is an ultimate setting for the merging of influences. We’re now actually in the second century of jazz and it’s become an even more beautiful salad bowl of tastes and colors. In this salad bowl you have all of these distinct flavors, working together. In a transcendent sense, jazz is about root origins and cultural blending.
JL: It’s realizing that our art form, jazz, comes from many things. To be able to express our in-the-moment feelings as we play is a rare precious thing. It’s an amazing privilege to be here in this time, in this age of technology; to perform, record and share music with people throughout the world.
What are a few of your guiding influences and artistic curiosities? Have they changed over time, and if so, how?
JL: I love it all. I Miles, Coltrane, pop music, classical music, it all seems to have a voice. The creativity draws me in and is sort of a meditation. It takes me to a good place, and to be able to get swept up in that stream is a great privilege.
TC: My guiding influence comes from appreciating diverse viewpoints; especially folks who are seeing the world differently than I do. I learn so much whenever I let go and posit myself inside another person’s existence, and usually, that leap, that area between their reality and mine stimulates something creative and imaginative.
MC: I’m curious about people, all people, because music is conversation. You can talk with this individual or that person – him or her – and discover another concept of sound and music. Everyone I have met in my life has a certain “sound” whether they’re musicians or non-musicians, it doesn’t matter…
What does the setting of piano, bass, and drums – the acoustic trio – represent or mean to you as a creative unit?
TC: The trio is a classic jazz setting of interdependency and communication, where the spontaneous exchanging of ideas opens channels to exploration and discovery. Wherever there’s a collective openness and willingness to stretch – to even become uncomfortable – and freely interact with the band, the music becomes focused and adventurous. Your inventiveness is only limited by the boundaries you believe exist.
MC: In my opinion the trio is everything!
JL: Along with the ideas we’ve been talking about, I think the trio allows each person to express themselves along with the support of the other musicians, and to also make statements filled with your emotional content. It’s similar to a painting or a short story with a message that is expressed as an artistic statement.
With society changing at such an incredible rate we seem to always be adjusting to a new normal. What is beauty?
MC: Peace and positive relationships. Hold off on passing judgment, never assume anything, listen…
JL: What we do as artists, whether painting or photographing, writing stories or playing music, we’re mirroring what’s going on society. We’re giving society the ability to look at itself and think about diverse parts of our lives; what we need to understand, where we are collectively, and then how to move forward. Beauty is the circular effect we get back from the art, we don’t just make it; we’re giving, and we’re getting back too.
TC: Beauty is a concept that progresses over time and is a fascination people will always struggle with. Many notions of beauty, I think, are affectations and entirely subjective. For this reason, I prefer to take beauty out of the context of visual and physical, and find it within the dimension of compassion, of empathy, or in conversation; such as the beauty of looking at another person directly in their eyes and letting them know you’re hearing what they’re saying.
Can jazz expression be defined, and if so, how do we recognize it?
MC: Authentic jazz expression means being who you are musically and fully. We all have different fingerprints…
JL: Jazz expression is just another way of appreciating what you’re hearing in your head. We’re sharing that collective consciousness.
TC: Authentic jazz expression occurs when you’re in touch with a feeling you remember that’s inside of you. It’s a physical memory, and an emotional memory, it’s tactile. I believe jazz expression requires an unmistakable dimension of freedom which allows a shared conversation to occur between the players.
The concept of your album “Then and Again, Here & Now” suggests the old and also the new. What does it mean for the classic or traditional to intersect with the contemporary?
JL: We are performing on instruments created 200-300 years ago, but in the digital age. We’re using sounds that have soothed us for those hundreds of years but expressing the issues and emotions of the present. I feel there is a need for us all to connect our traditions and our past with what we’re facing in the moment – it’s a way we stay connected to our roots while forging our future.
TC: The intersection of old and new is fluid because creative impulses change over time. Whenever we re-visit something learned from the old and contemporize it there’s a natural collision of thinking. It’s important have to have an image of what it is you’re trying to achieve, or you’ll lack direction. A unique viewpoint comes into your art by being genuine, by being authentic, and by being unguarded. While following those things that excite your curiosity, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable. What’s exciting about this trio is that the greater part of what we do as a band occurs by following our instincts – wherever they may lead. Any creative clarity we’re able to achieve comes from trust and musical affinity.
MC: It means you get to feel the melodies, the rhythm and the words that inspired them as an emotional rush – something you’ve observed or felt, for or with someone else, and when you connect that with today – playing it in a contemporary context and before a live audience – the music creates a spiritual bond. It ties together a lot of elements, and inside a burst of musical energy keeps reminding us of where we are and who we can be.
Innovation is a word we frequently associate with jazz. Can a musician consciously innovate or is this something that occurs naturally?
MC: A musician can truly innovate, only if he/she has a story. With life and real-world experience, one has something unique; a personal truth to draw from.
TC: I agree with Michael; however, innovation is a difficult question for an artist to consider. Doing so, I think, naturally puts an additional pressure on the work. Still, “having a voice” is essential with jazz. The simplicity of that is illusive. We’re always reaching for something that’s inspired and fresh, extending from a hoped-for vision, something pure. Artists come to the realization that “the precious thing you are seeking, you already are.” So, you’re working your way back naivety.
You can elaborate on an idea or a form – and you keep refining it until something takes shape. You can improve upon a form, and your delivery; you can embellish it, and people can be drawn to your evolution, the variations of your expressiveness. But I’m certain the notion of “innovation” comes much later, and never from the artist themselves. It’s timing and unique circumstances.
JL: Innovation can happen when a musical artist finds a personal way to bare their truth and emotional responses to daily life. That innovation could come through new instrumental technique, incorporating different styles and influences of different music together, and finding a new way to bring a personal voice into the music. There has been constant innovation over the past 75 years in jazz. We are just the current incarnation of all the work of our jazz predecessors. For me, those are Jimmy Blanton, Slam Stuart, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Eddie Gomez, Miroslav Vitous, and on up to the young guys out there today just picking up the instrument and using a new approach.
What do people hear? Do people feel first and then hear or does hearing something cause them to feel?
MC: In my opinion people feel and then they hear. Feeling awakens the musical spirit that we are drawn to. We run to music like we run to the light.
JL: It’s different with everybody. I think some people are into the visual impact and how people look as they are expressing themselves… Are they sad? Are they jubilant? Are they introspective? The great thing is that artists can touch people all kinds of different ways, in just as many ways as there are people that are listening…
So, in a sense is it the artists role to feed the imagination?
TC: Music can take us to imaginary spaces, like scattered little poetic islands of peace, places that we can escape together and where things that were hazy become clear. The universal creativity we all possess shows us that we’re being guided by something that’s been patiently waiting for us to discover. Music can inspire understanding in our imperfect world.
JL: Our role is not only to feed the imagination, but to express the issues and emotions of the current day. Listening to music and lyrics is a way for all of us to internalize the writer’s message. If the writer is skilled, the music can tell a story of love, pain, struggle, triumph – and that story can circulate in our minds during the day with a melody and a rhythm. That musical impact can also cross national boundaries, customs, politics, religion, economic status, and languages to communicate a message. That’s powerful impact! So, going forward, music has the potential to communicate universal themes and unite us…especially when combined with video and the internet.
MC: Yes, I believe artists are supposed to spark people’s imagination with their music. And by that I do not mean only the imaginations of the ultra-hip, super musically-conscious listener… I’m also thinking about the somebody that drives a truck across country to bring you your fresh vegetables…