Bobby Avey

“This suite ‘Authority Melts From Me’ is programmatically based on Haiti and the slave rebellion of 1791, which led to the only time in history when slaves had been able to eradicate slavery in the society where it originated.” – Bobby Avey

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Piano/composer and Whirlwind Recordings artist Bobby Avey may seem like the new kid on the block to many, but this very talented, insightful and self-effacing young man has been highly regarded within the Jazz music fraternity for many years. Michael J Edwards sat down with the genial Mr Avey to primarily discuss his adventurous new release ‘Authority Melts From Me’ – a musical statement highlighting the plight of the indigenous Haitian people, past and present – during rehearsals for the album launch later that evening at Pizza Express Jazz Bar, London.

Michael J Edwards: Greetings Bobby. Please give us an insight into Bobby Avey’s background. Who is Bobby Avey?

Bobby Avey: I grew up in a musical family, my father was a musician. Music was around the household and I took piano lessons at a very young age, but didn’t get really serious about it until I found Jazz when I was about fifteen or sixteen years old. That’s when I started working towards getting serious.

Michael J Edwards: And your mother?

Bobby Avey: My mother wasn’t musically inclined, but my father played Jazz piano and saxophone.

Michael J Edwards: Where did you grow up?

Bobby Avey: I grew up in north-eastern Pennsylvania.

Michael J Edwards: Was it a happy childhood?

Bobby Avey: Very much so, it was a good place to grow up.

Michael J Edwards: What made you gravitate towards the piano?

Bobby Avey: When you start something so young you don’t have the perspective to make these kinds of decisions. It’s something that just over time I dug into more and more and more, and never felt the need to switch to another instrument. In fact, even when I dabbled on other instruments, it’s always felt like, “Man I’m wasting time; I could be getting so much better on this instrument as my main axe!”

Michael J Edwards: So who are some of your main influences on piano when you turned fifteen/sixteen?

Bobby Avey: The first musician who got me excited that Oscar Peterson, not really an influence per se, but I listened to him a tonne and I’m still in awe every time I listen to him. But I drew more influence rise from Wynton Kelly and Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Richie Bierach.

Michael J Edwards: So I guess you took elements from all of them when creating your own style?

Bobby Avey: Yeah, that’s how it works. There’s a rough order of doing things, I mean, you have to do your homework, you have to cover your bases, you have to check out certain periods in history. And then you also have two actively go towards the things that turn you on, because that’s your identity and you shouldn’t impede a developing identity. So you take a little bit from everybody and it matures all the time.

Michael J Edwards: I understand you did extensive research for your latest CD release. Why the title ‘Authority Melts from Me’?

Bobby Avey: This suite ‘Authority Melts From Me’ is programmatically based on Haiti and the slave rebellion of 1791, which led to the only time in history when slaves had been able to eradicate slavery in the society where it originated. The title is meant to reflect the self empowerment of those kidnapped African people, to break the chains of slavery and seek a better life for themselves and their families and future generations.

Michael J Edwards: What made you turn their story in to musical form?

Bobby Avey: Twofold, first I’d be more interested in fusing certain views and histories that I hold about the world with my music, because I think it gives it more meaning to get a message across like that. How I got on Haiti was that I visited a friend who was living in the Dominican Republic, which is the same island that Haiti is on, and there were a lot of Haitian migrant labour workers there. So I started asking him about that situation.

Michael J Edwards: So this visit took place in 2012?

Bobby Avey: Even earlier, in Haiti I was there in 2012, but I visited the Dominican Republic in 2009. So he gave me books to read, and there as a Jazz musician it’s very natural to trace lineage outwards. Once you check something out, you want to know whose father that influence belongs to and so on and so forth; so tracing outward to the history of Haiti was really a natural progression for me. And I got the idea to tell the story; because the night before the slaves got involved in the uprising they held a massive voodoo ceremony. So I thought if I fused two drumming rhythms with this programme material it might let the spirit out there be consumed.

Michael J Edwards: It’s a suite consisting of three songs I believe?

Bobby Avey: Three songs and two interludes.

Michael J Edwards: Please explain the background regarding the various titles within the suite?

Bobby Avey: The first track ‘Kalfou’ is a word in Haitian Creole, and practitioners of Haitian voodoo believe that an alternative world exists parallel to our own, where spirits and past inhabitants of the world reside. And this world exists relatively close to our own and can be reached via a voodoo ceremony, especially facilitated by this drumming. A portal or a window can open up between the two worlds and spirits on this alternative world come to make their wishes known; and the name that portal is ‘Kalfou’ which means crossroads. The first fact this event embody the trance-like state of the ceremony.

Michael J Edwards: Were any of the tracks on the album predetermined or was it a purely organic process?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Bobby Avey: It’s never predetermined; if it was predetermined it might go faster (chuckles). It’s nice, but I’d rather the act of composition be a complete process of discovery, because I don’t create something that’s already in my mind, I don’t want to create something that I’ve already heard or that’s like something I’ve already heard. I really would like to discover something that’s new territory, and for me that involves not having so much of a rigid framework in place in the beginning.

Michael J Edwards: So we move on to the second track ‘Louverture’?

Bobby Avey: In French It means opening. ‘Louverture’ is the last name of Toussaint Louverture (L’OUVERTURE) the foremost leader of the slaves during this revolution, and it’s about him. There’s a fairly epic sax solo in it, with swirling rhythms underneath, changing at any given moment. There’s a soundscape that I’ve created for piano and guitar; there’s also something at the end in which I try to replicate the struggle of this whole situation, which is over a decade long. But beyond that there is no specific direct programmatic linkage.

Michael J Edwards: The third and final part of the suite is ‘Cost’. Details please?

Bobby Avey: ‘Cost’ is meant to reflect the human cost and tragedy of any war when you lose upwards of half a million lives. It’s difficult to know exact numbers for sure, but ‘Cost’ reflects the severity and the gravity of the situation.

Michael J Edwards: Have you had favourable feedback regarding the project so far?

Bobby Avey: Yeah! Very favourable!

Michael J Edwards: It is definitely not the one listen piece. It is very introspective and deserves multiple listens. Is that how you view albums when you listen to them?

Bobby Avey: I certainly like to listen to music where I’m not able to catch every element of it the first time round. I like simple music as well, but I generally like music where there are a lot of different nuances to it.

Michael J Edwards: What does the name Steve Coleman mean to you and your music?

Bobby Avey: I came across Steve’s music late in high school. I’ve checked out quite a bit of it and have all the respect in the world for him. Fortunately, he just got recognised this year (2014) with the MacArthur ‘ Genius Grant’, which was well deserved and long overdue. I understand why you asked the question that they might be some artistic overlap there, but I’m not really employing any of his systems here. Rhythmically he travels all over the world and draws from cultures and traditions and incorporates that into his own music; so really that’s what I’m doing here, but I’m doing it specific to Haiti. So there is somewhat of artistic overlap, but it’s not like I’m employing any of these systems.

Michael J Edwards: What was your reason for incorporating interludes on this album?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Bobby Avey: It’s to obtain balance. When you’re taking rhythms that are meant to conjure up spirits from alternative world, there’s a lot of intensity there, and anything I can do compositionally to change the texture of the situation has got to be necessary for balancing for the listener. The First Movement’s extremely intense; you’re dealing with extremely soft solo piano, an ‘Interlude’ afterwards I think is very effective. And then the Second Movement morphs really naturally into some solo drums; so it was a matter of balance.

Michael J Edwards: Tell us a little bit about fellow band members, starting with Jordan Perlson whose drumming is reminiscent of ‘Animal’ from The Muppets, given the frenetic and dynamic way in which he imposes itself on three tracks?

Bobby Avey: I’ve known Jordan for almost fifteen years and we’ve been playing together for ten. So I knew what his abilities were and how I might be able to push him to get to this new territory, which I think he did on this record. Also how to notate the ideas in order to give him the freedom necessary for him to be himself, while still dictating something that’s completely outside of our experience rhythmically. So it was definitely a challenge, it was a collaborative process to an extent; Ninety percent of the way i’d give them the music, and then we’d work together to sculpt things from there about what might be best for the rest.

Michael J Edwards: There’s also a liberal use of bells, rattles, tambourines, tom-toms and numerous other percussive instruments. Was that to add authenticity?

Bobby Avey: Yeah, I gave him (Jordan) free range to bring anything that he wanted to augment the traditional (drum) kit.

Michael J Edwards: Some information on bass player Thomson Kneeland please?

Bobby Avey: Thomson and Jordan and I had been playing in a trio for six/seven years. So I usually use them, and then augment the trio with a horn player for different gigs… For this particular gig I used my core trio and then had these two fine gentlemen (Miguel Zenón & Ben Monder) augment the band.

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Michael J Edwards: Please give us the lowdown on guitarist Ben Monder?

Bobby Avey: Ben has amongst the most distinctive and unique personalities on his instrument out of anybody I’ve ever heard on any instrument! I have the ultimate respect the Ben and what he brings to the table, and knew that he would be contrasting voice for Miguel (Zenón) because he has a very different style. I wanted the extra instrument for the layering option, because I was working with individual drums that had relationships to each other. I knew I would want different option for textures; more musicians to be able to layer my ideas.

Michael J Edwards: As your writing these compositions are you visualising the musicians that you want to play each part?

Bobby Avey: Oh yeah! Absolutely! I’ve been familiar with Ben’s work since I was in my teens, and so I know what he does extremely well far better than anybody in the world, and I’ve done my best to set him up in those type of situations.

Michael J Edwards: Moving on to alto saxophonist extraordinaire Miguel Zenón, how did that link up, about?

Bobby Avey: I became aware of Miguel’s music in college and have followed him ever since. He’s a rhythmic type; he also sings on his instrument like no other that I’ve heard. And I knew certainly he’d be able to handle the rhythmic component and handle the harmonic component. Again he’s a contrasting voice to Ben with what he brings to the table, which is so fresh.

Michael J Edwards: It must feel to you like the equivalent of being part of an NBA dream team?

Bobby Avey: This is the exact people I wanted for this group, so yeah, I’m very fortunate.

Michael J Edwards: Do you envisage this album as being the first in a series of such projects relating to Haiti going forward?

Bobby Avey: Yeah, it’s not unlikely that I’ll revisit Haiti at some point; it’s not going to be the next project though. And I would like to continue having messages reflecting on histories that are important or bringing messages for social change into the music for a wider range of topics, and I shall be making sure something like that happens going forward.

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Michael J Edwards: Are there any contemporary musicians around at the moment who excite you musically?

Bobby Avey: I’m always excited about what this piano player named Phil Markowitz creates. I’ve had the good fortune to be acquainted with David Lieberman and I’m always interested in what he puts out. And I’m also interested Vijay Iyar puts out, an incredible mind and composer. And of course, Steve Coleman as you mentioned earlier. Also to be honest I draw and have been drawing on influences outside of Jazz more so than inside of Jazz for a long time in order to sort of chartered different path.

Michael J Edwards: You mentioned David Lieberman; he’s quite an influential acquaintance to have. I believe you’ve gone on to record a duo album with him. How did that meeting come about?

Bobby Avey: Lieberman played with Miles Davis in the seventies. I was fortunate to grow up near where he lives, and he actually reached out to me when I was sixteen years old. He said, “I heard you’ve been checking out the music, why don’t you come over to the house and I’ll check you out and we’ll take it from there?” Then I went over and he was very explicit about what I’d have to do to ever come back to his house. I did the work and went back to his house and he told me again this is what you have to do to ever come back. I did it, and eventually it morphed into discussing about music and dealing with compositions, and then eventually it morphed into playing together.

And when I was in college, he contacted me because he was working on a song cycle by Schubert that he was going to be playing with a string quartet in Prague. I believe. It was an arrangement of the string quartet; he wanted to play the original first, so he said “Can you learn this music”? And I said, “Sure!” And then he called me later that day he said, “We have to do this!” And I said, “Do what?!” And he said, “We have to take songs from this era and find away to improvise on them.”So I said, “Okay!” So that’s how that record started, and I’m now fortunate enough to play in his band.

Michael J Edwards: How old are you now?

Bobby Avey: I’m thirty

Michael J Edwards: What was it like when you won the Thelonious Monk award in 2011?

Bobby Avey: First off, just to clarify, I won the composition portion of the competition as opposed to the actual piano competition. Every year they have a specific instrument they focus on the competition and in that year it was piano. They also have a parallel competition just for composition. I submitted my composition for it to be judged towards the end of November and they called me and said that you’ve won – which was great! It was an amazing feeling to get recognised, but at the same time it didn’t make me better than I was, it didn’t make the song any more valid than it was before. That’s just a good fortune of a select number, or even one person saying, “I like this!”

Michael J Edwards: But it no doubt helps going forward with getting your name out into people’s consciousness?

Bobby Avey: It gives you credibility for sure. In the early going in one’s career, it’s tough to get the wheels from not spinning and to get people to know who you are, so I appreciate that. But at the same time music is not a competition.

Michael J Edwards: Are there any Avey siblings out there who are musically inclined?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Bobby Avey: I have one younger sister; she’s an actress playing the lead role in Chicago right now.

Michael J Edwards: Thank you for giving up a part of your precious rehearsal time. Do you have any final messages?

Bobby Avey: It’s my pleasure and I’m honoured to be over here presenting my music.

Michael J Edwards

Essential Album: Authority Melts From Me (Whirlwind Recordings) 2014

Essential Website: http://bobbyavey.com/

Essential Book:
Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (winner of the Pulitzer Prize Winner) • ISBN-10: 0812973011 • ISBN-13: 978-0812973013

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

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