Music lovers: how often do you get to take a seat at a concert, knowing full well that what you’re about to hear is completely improvised, with three world-class musicians who haven’t so much as joked about what they’re going to play? I mean nothing: no agreed-upon head arrangements, no standards, no verbally communicated keys or time signatures, no predetermined tempos, no set instrumentation, no form, just pure seat-of-the-pants musicking?The truth is, there aren’t many places in the world to hear that. But Hartford is one of them; for a third year, Hartford’s Real Art Ways brings back its Improvisations series, founded by trumpeter Stephen Haynes and guitarist Joe Morris as an extension of a concert the duo gave with drummer Warren Smith as Parrhesia. The format for Improvisations is deceptively simple: invite an improvising musician to come in and engage in a musical conversation, and what happens, happens, with little separation between the audience and the players. The music’s visceral and real, breathless and spectacular.
The first installment of Improvisations happens on Sept. 15 at 3 p.m., when percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani joins Haynes and Morris at the Real Art Ways. The Advocate spoke with Morris about the history of the Improvisations and what goes down during these impromptu sessions of musical alchemy. [This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]
Q: The musical partnership with Stephen seems to go back a long time. When did you meet and start playing together?
A: I’ve been living back in Connecticut since 2001, so I’d say it probably goes back around 10 years. We did a few things around Hartford back about 10 years ago for a few years, every now and then, not too much. We decided that we were going to try to find a way to play here, so that we didn’t always have to go to New York to play. Both of us have always organized a lot of things for ourselves and other people — Stephen, for longer here in Connecticut than me, but I did that in Boston, where I lived for a long time. We’re both accustomed to doing that.
Q: You ran a similar series in New York, right?
A: I play quite a bit in New York. I did a thing for a couple of weeks at The Stone [experimental musician John Zorn’s venue] in New York City in January. The Stone operates like that. It gives different musicians a residency, where you’re expected or permitted to play every day. I did that for the period I curated — two weeks. I played every day, or almost every day.
Q: When you do a stretch like that: I imagine as an improvising musician that’s a great thing. What do you see happening over time with these kinds of extended engagements?
A: For the Stone run, it gets deeper and deeper as you realize that every set — I played two different sets every night, with different people, and that’s similar to the Improvisations series in that every concert is with different people, so that every group, every person that plays there is like their own orchestra. As an improviser, I have my own orchestral ideas, but I’m very interested in having the music be what it ends up being. You find yourself learning things in the process of doing them, and it’s the ultimate in the act of improvisation, in the art of improvisation. You have to adjust and move forward, even if the conditions present you with something that you maybe wouldn’t choose to do on your own. There’s an agreement with the process that happens that really gets incredibly fulfilling. I can say that, after the Stone run, I was elated. I levitated for weeks after that. It was really one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, to feel like I could do that, and that everyone was so agreeable to that. And the Improvisations run has been like that for two years now. Every concert has been different. Every concert has been great. Every concert has surprised us, and definitely surprised the audience. It’s really been an amazing thing.
Q: You both know scores of improvising musicians all over the world. What goes into inviting guests to perform?
A: I think it’s simply the creative decision to not repeat ourselves. We certainly have a very big community of musicians who are linked together, and I think what we show is that those links are connected by differences, by variety of approach, by different ways of playing and different pieces of information that come out of each of those people. I think, for me personally (and maybe I can say the same for Stephen), the ability to use every bit of skill and imagination that I have over the course of the season by playing with so many different people is the ultimate. To me, that’s like having a completely broad repertoire, to be able to play anything. In this idiom of music, it’s the ultimate challenge to be able to play with whomever walks in the room and still arrive at a different result, not just, “Okay, now we’re going to play like he plays,” or “now he’s going to play like I play,” to come to a common understanding or shared understanding that results in a surprise for all of us and the audience. The real thing we can show is that it’s the difference that makes up the commonality. We’re all working to be unique, together, and I think that’s really the example that this art form shows and what Stephen and I are really interested in presenting.
Q: One of the dynamics that appeals to me is that you and Stephen have the home-court advantage, in a way. You have the room, and you have a dialogue that exists between the two of you that continues through the year. At the same time, you have this other individual — it’s an interesting dynamic. How does that work from your perspective? Is there a confidence going into it knowing that this thing with Stephen exists, and yet you’re going to explore this other thing? Or is it like three people meeting for the first time, every time out?
A: Every time out is three people meeting for the first time. Stephen and I don’t rehearse, and we don’t ever talk about the music. I think our plan is to set up a situation for ourselves to play that’s very positive, that isn’t fraught with any kind of expectation of perfection, or even an expectation of success. The odd thing is that, operating that way, we’ve been able to be successful and feel like it’s gone perfectly. But I would say the elements in play when we’re performing are so many and varied that I have no idea how Stephen is going to react to anything, and I don’t think he knows how I’m going to react to anything. It’s always three times three times three, to the third power, operating in plus, minus and neutral. It can go anywhere, and it always does. We don’t provide any more comfort for one another, and no one ever leads it. No matter who’s there, we all just sort of sit down and have a musical exchange. I’d say I have to work as much to understand what Stephen’s playing and to find agreement in that as I do just simply agree with it. It’s the challenge for all of us.
Q: The musicians you work with: I imagine they’re pretty well accustomed to the whole vibe of just walking in and playing. But is there any discussion at all with the guest performer beforehand?
A: No. If there’s any sort of artistic direction besides just picking the people, it would be in understanding that the people we’re inviting to play are game, that they are down for it, they’re interested, they’re easy to work with, they’re uncomplicated in their professionalism. They say yes, we show up and we play. One of the pitfalls in trying to do this thing is that it often collapses within itself. The expectation that some musicians have had in the past to fulfill some objective they have in performance, whether it’s financial or artistic, the musical direction means that you need a lot of preparation, you need a certain kind of player, it’s hard to accomplish things without preparation. So we’re looking for musicians who understand that this must be easy. This must be possible. We have to happily sit up there and do the best we can, and I think we’ve done a really good job in having a really broad cross-section of people — people who are unknown, people who are very well known, people from different countries, different places, men and women, and to keep it flowing in the same way, where it’s never predictable.
Last year we had three drummers: we had Charles Downs, Joe Cleaver and Tyshawn Sorey. And I don’t think we could have had three more different performances. They were unbelievably different. And nobody said anything. There were just drums, and we played. I think that’s the nature of what we all do, but we don’t always get to show it. Stephen and I think this is the ultimate way to do this. You know, I travel around the world and do this with people, but the chance to do it right here… And I think this is the best venue for it that I’ve ever performed at. I think this is as good as it can get, right here. I do this everywhere. I was in Spain this summer, I was in Chicago, England, showing up with people: none of it is better than this. It’s all good, but none of it is better.
Q: Tell me about Real Art Ways and director Will Wilkins: What does it mean to you that a venue like this has been available for a musical endeavor like this one?
A: It started with him presenting a concert for Stephen that featured me and drummer Warren Smith, just having a really good audience, really good vibe and the whole thing. The conversation between me and Stephen and Will was, basically, we’re in a recession. There’s no money for anything. There’s no way to play. Things are looking really bad. From Will’s perspective, we can’t support a series here. Me and Stephen said, “Well, what can we do?,” agreeing that the reality was against us getting any money. But the space was there. We asked if we could use the space, with no expectation that we can get money for it, to try to build an audience this way. Will, who’s an artist in his own right in the way he runs that place, said, “Yeah, you can, really, go ahead.” So, what they’ve done is they’ve given us time slots that work for them, and we’ve worked with them to maintain a kind of gratitude. I think Stephen and I have just been grateful that we’ve had a place to use in a really bad time for this kind of music. I’ve always felt that the best way to do anything when things aren’t going your way is to just get busy and organize something. Get started, do it grass roots, do it yourself. Stephen’s operated like that all these years too. So that’s what we did. Because we know a lot of people with big names and who are great musicians, or who are unknown but are great musicians, we have good relationships with them. They agreed to do it, and we found a way, mainly by audience attendance, to pay them. A couple of times we’ve dipped into our own pockets, and we haven’t taken any money, but we’ve managed to pay everybody with no funding. No one has left without getting paid. No one has walked out and said, “That’s it?” They did it for the door, and because the audience kept showing up, we were able to pay everybody.
Will also suggested that we engage with the audience, that we made sure to speak to the audience, that we invited them to come back — something we were inclined to do anyway. But he’s really good at reminding us to keep our audience coming and engage them in the whole process, and they’ve been like that. We have a regular audience. They talk to the musicians. They’re excited about that. People take photographs. It’s been an amazing thing. This year, the economy has gotten a little bit better, so Will is funding us for this season. It’s not a huge amount of money, but to us it is. It’s changed things in the sense that Stephen and I can take the money for the work we do and we can guarantee people some money. It’s amazing. So it’s proof that working with an institution in a cooperative way instead of “we’re the artists, you give us the money” kind of way — which works badly in a lot of situations, because it means we have to do what they want us to. It means they have to make sure it’s successful. For us, it means this cooperative kind of experiment that’s worked out really well for everyone. Now I think we’re in a different situation in that we have funding, but we’re in the same situation in that we’ve created something that pretty much works effortlessly. And so we’re just going to just keep it going the way we’ve done it, and if the money runs out, we’re hopefully going to keep doing it.
The engine is really the audience. It wouldn’t happen if people didn’t keep coming out. I’m a native of Connecticut. I grew up in West Haven and I live in Guilford. I learned about this kind of music when I was a teenager in New Haven. It’s always been a big thing for me to just do what I want to do on a world-class level wherever I live, not just say, “This is a great local scene.” No, no, no: this is as important as anything like this that happens anywhere in the world, and the artists we have are proof of that. We have William Parker and Tyshawn Sorey, [bassoonist] Sara Schoenbeck and Ingrid Laubrock, Tatsuya Nakatani and Ken Vandermark. They come because they know me and Stephen to be like them. I go to Chicago and play with Ken Vandermark. He comes where I am and plays with me… This is what people like us do in the world. We want it to thrive, so we do it on our own. But it is a credit to Hartford that there’s an audience and an institution and press who see the value of it, because in other places — bigger cities, sometimes — they don’t. I can tell you: all the years I did that in Boston, it was very hard to get anybody to pay any attention to it, and it still is. So I think it’s credit to Hartford and Real Art Ways, who has consistently, one way or another, supported this kind of music throughout its history… Things are tough. Musicians are having a hard time getting gigs. They’ve always complained that there’s no money. We found a way to do this with a little personal sacrifice. Our reward is that we get to play, and we get to give some gigs to people, which means a lot to me and Stephen. We get to set up our own community in a part of the world, as part of the circuit. That’s important to both of us.
Improvisations: Joe Morris and Stephen Haynes, featuring Tatsuya Nakatani, Sept. 15, 3 p.m., $12-$15, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org