April 13, 2015
“Ego doesn't work, teamwork does”
“Pure motivations are the best ones free of any consideration or qualifications Those are the ones that I use as indicators of something that is important for you to check out ... When your instinct leads you there, its for a reason.”
“Your ability to negotiate playing time with somebody else is based on how flexible and accurate you can be.”
Mark Helias (geb 1950, Paterson, NJ, USA) was our guest at the Hochschule Luzern Musik - Jazz in several different capacities, centrally to direct a large student ensemble (splitting a program with music also from bassist Heiri Känzig) for a presentation at the 2015 Unerhört festival, as well as other performances in Switzerland. Mark Helias is a renowned bassist and composer who has performed throughout the world for the past four decades. After his studies at Rutgers University (B.A. 1974) and The Yale School of Music (M.M. 1976), he began his international career in the Anthony Braxton Quartet. Up to the present time he has performed with a panoply of world class artists including: Edward Blackwell, Anthony Davis, Dewey Redman, Uri Caine, Marcel Khalife, Abbey Lincoln, Oliver Lake, Andrew Cyrille, Marilyn Crispell, Julius Hemphill, Don Byron, Bobby Bradford, Barry Altshul, Ray Anderson, Michael Moore, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, and Gerry Hemingway.
Die Gespräche werden geführt von Gerry Hemingway, Dozent für Schlagzeug, Ensemble und Kompostion
Central New Jersey, where Mark Helias was born and grew up, was a mixed experience, particularly when school life began. It was a typical post-war working/middle class environment where creating a safe, stable family and community (took out environment) was a top priority. Mark's growing restless spirit often found him at odds within this community in spite of the good intentions upon which it was created. Early outlets of his expressive nature found their beginnings in what Mark sited as the spiritual nature of music as well as sports, both of which possessed a related quality of challenging individual physical limits. He explained this further as “an [artistic] confrontation with the self - when you would fail or hit the wall and not be able to go anymore. [And] where one hits one's limit, the question arises how do you get beyond the limit?” That, to Mark, is what an artist is always doing, attempting to get beyond the limit. The interest in team sports also paralleled cooperative music ventures which Mark described as a situation where one supports, interacts and as well is pro-active, all at the same time; “that exchange of energy where you know when to get out of the way, when to push, you know when to provoke, you know when to stop - all of that.” He further isolates these abilities as a musical technique, an area he considers most important to his own evolution as a musician.
The beginnings of musical interest came in stages from drumming on telephone books at eleven years old to a friend lending him a guitar at thirteen. The growing blues and rock and roll “invasion” that grew as the early 1960's evolved also fed his curiosity. An experience we both shared was Public TV and late night radio from New York City (Mark lived close enough to NY to receive radio & TV broadcasts), and how the music he encountered in this way literally “shook him to the core.” Some examples from those earlier times were hearing Dinah Washington on the radio who was at this time a pop singer, Errol Garner on TV variety shows, Don Ellis on a public TV presentation. Watching black and white cartoons whose soundtracks were composed by Cab Calloway and Fletcher Henderson as well as classical works like Stravinsky's Petrouchka maintained musical resonance in later years.
Later in life Mark became interested learning music notation and took up clarinet at age nineteen. Within nine months he had become proficient enough to play slow movements of Brahms sonatas. Hearing a Mozart piece with an orchestra live (the London Symphony) at Rutgers University was the visceral sonic epiphany that led him to the contrabass. Even looking at the instrument after the concert heightened his connection. He joked that this moment of connection came without the realization of what it would be like to carry a bass around for the ensuing decades.... to which he added, “pure motivations are the best ones; free of any consideration or qualifications. Those are the ones that I use as indicators of something that is important for one to check out ... when your instinct leads you there, it's for a reason.”
This opened some points on the topic of improvisation and looking at all of the elements that constitute the experience of musical invention. Among these elements is the timeline where, for example, in a duo improvisation both players are concerned with being in the moment, where the only time you can effectively do anything is “now”, and now continues to move. Both players are interactive, proactive with ideas, responding in kind to each other's proposals, maybe being oppositional. In essence they are using all kinds of improvisational strategies. While in the “now”, in the immediacy of the moment, who is minding the ”arc” of the whole improvisation (meaning the structure, form, logic)? Like the Varese quote “the form results from the process” in this case the process is improvisation. There is as well, the perception of the audience or listener, but the question arises, what intelligence gives coherence to that open form improvisation? An area, he notes, that the neuro-scientists have not yet identified with what he termed “background intelligence” that deals with time/space - but not in the forefront. An interesting aside to this topic came with Mark's discussion with our mutual colleague, George Lewis who cited Edmund Husserl's analysis of intentionality as well as his phenomenology of temporality- “retention and protention”, as a historically significant related philosophical theory on this topic.
The conversation continued with a look at Mark's formative experiences, in both New Jersey and New Haven, Connecticut (where we met). There were a number of early performing experiences that Mark described as having happened in some really bad groups, with really bad musicians, and in really bad places. In what he termed a negative stimulus, it had the positive effect of increasing his desire to rise above this, to go beyond. This led eventually to working in musical communities that were more positive, where it was possible to absorb traditional experience on the bandstand by playing with older “veteran” musicians.
One of the central mentors of Mark's bass playing was the renowned classical bassist, Homer Mensch. Homer, who worked with the New York Philharmonic, taught at the Julliard conservatory and in this time was also an adjunct teacher of the bass at Rutger's State University in New Jersey where Mark did his undergraduate studies. As it so happened, Rutger's University offered a very high quality Music Theory education, so Mark who was eager to learn and highly motivated found many mentor's in addition to Homer Mensch. Mark would have never found himself in this supportive learning environment if he had not first pursued music study on his own by attending night school to study harmony and counterpoint. And it was there that his fascination with composition, which he also termed musical organization, found it's first resources.
We then discussed Mark's beginnings with composition. Performances of his early writing occurred sometimes in our mutual work with pianist and composer Anthony Davis, who was a central figure in the musical scene in New Haven, CT. Anthony had many interesting qualities as a player and writer, among them the ability to model the aesthetic core of composers he admired, such as Charles Mingus, Andrew Hill and many others. Asked about what early recordings were meaningful to his interest in composition and jazz in general, Mark offered us a listen to the remarkable 1953 Miles Davis sextet performance of “Tempus Fugit” (listen to the podcast) highlighting numerous details in the composition itself, as well as bringing our attention to moments in the improvising and interaction of the group, notably Art Blakey's outstanding drumming.
This led to a discussion of the importance of rhythm and groove that has inspired and influenced his thinking and playing. The “nexus of 3 & 2” which he grasped, from among other genres, his early interest in and exposure to rhythm & blues bands such as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section from Alabama that accompanied Aretha Franklin on her early Atlantic recordings. This brought about a more differentiated discussion of the subtle ingredients of groove, the combination of timing, quality of sound, envelope (shape from beginning to end of a note) of each note played and so on. The observation of both the sound and the control of the sound of some bass players was highly influential to Mark's concept of playing. Players ranging from Charlie Haden, who could seem to evince an entire world in one note to the remarkable momentum of players such as Wilbur Ware and Oscar Pettiford.
He then spoke of his experience of working with drummers, which of course is so related to the composite result of groove and feel. We spoke first of his many years performing with Edward Blackwell who sometimes offered an interesting challenge as he utilized asymmetry in his solo phraseology. It was not always so clear just where the “one” was by the end of a solo, but it was there! Also, Roy Haynes, who he noted in his perception had the capacity to play in different parts of the beat in different parts of the drum set at the same time creating a complex but yet fully swinging time. He found an immediate understanding about feel with drummer Dannie Richmond, and certainly the variety of these experiences with such masters brought about an evolution in his own role of creating and communicating in time.
“Your ability to negotiate playing time with somebody else is based on how flexible and accurate you can be.” Mark's deeper awareness of time began when he realized early on that he only really knew three tempos convincingly, these were the speeds that were physically natural and comfortable; the ones that were bio-rhythmically available in his system. He realized he needed to overcome this limitation, and master the ability to be able to move outside of what he naturally gravitated too and be completely flexible with tempo.
We went on in the interview to listen and discuss his work with his trio, Open Loose (centrally with Tom Rainey and Tony Malaby) a group he began in 1996 and for which he produced many recordings and tours. In this context he could re-explore counterpoint with the bass often functioning as the second melody. His melody writing found it's inspiration in many places, one that he mentioned was Charlie Parker whom he noted was able to build so much integrity, power and rhythmic complexity into his single line melodies. We then listened to his composition “Chavez” from the 2006 release on the Radio Legs label “Atomic Clock”.
Often he writes without an instrument, just with pencil and paper and then marvels (as do we) at the magic of musicians who bring life and sound to the notation. We carried on in this area of composition and discussed his large ensemble writing and how some of these compositional practices were employed and elaborated in this context.
Towards the end of our discussion, Hans-Peter Pfammatter posed the question of what is beauty in music as well as what is musical tension?
“For me beautiful [music] always has some kind of intense spiritual or philosophical implication to it. It makes me think.”
Gerry Hemingway (June 2018)