Posts tagged: soukous

Lesson/Interview with Skerik

By , June 19, 2017 12:14 am

I’m listening back to a recording of 2 hours I spent talking with Skerik, one of the saxophonists playing today that I really look up to and find inspiring for a multitude of reasons.

Skerik is an example of a musician that, to me, has developed a truly individual style while at the same playing in a way that shows a reverence for all musical approaches, both past and present (and future too, for that matter), and when I hear that in another musician I always think the same thing:  “where is this person coming from?”

That question was really the motivation to ask him for a lesson.  I know you can never really fully answer a question like that, but in the process of talking to him for an afternoon I really learned a lot about his feelings on music, performance, and being a musician in general.  

I’ve written and rewritten this post many times, trying to accurately describe and articulate as many details as possible while still being brief and easy to read, but we covered so much ground I am finding it impossible.  

In the end, I’ve just decided to write about a few of the common threads and larger points that I’ve drawn from the recording, so I hope the intent still comes through.

TIME

The importance of Time in its various facets manifested itself at several points in the conversation.  The first was when Skerik was describing some of his experiences in London after moving there early in his professional career thanks to the encouragement of Leif Totusek, who introduced him to Soukous musicians and South African musicians.  Skerik described playing singular ideas or songs for hours and hours with these musicians without stopping.  Recalling one specific memory, he remembered working on a specific tune with South African musician Bheki Mseleku until he was dead tired, going to sleep, and then waking up to find Mseleku still playing through the same song.  This commitment to “putting in the time”, in his view, is how musicians develop into those superhuman examples, the musicians that can play in a style with complete conviction and authenticity.  

Those stories of London kind of bled into second-hand stories he related about rehearsal rules and procedures in bands like those of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart; infamously strict, meticulous, and LONG, working on music for months at a time before it is ever played live or recorded.  Again, time, and commitment, plays a large part in creating music that becomes iconic and, to a certain extent, timeless.

This isn’t to say music must be created this way.  Skerik also talked a bit about friends and musicians who have the ability to create that kind of musical excellence with less preparation, and used session and sideman musicians from New York or LA as examples.  These are players who have the skill set “to thrive in those conditions”, as he said, and he spoke of those musicians with an equal amount of admiration and reverence.

REVERENCE

Which brings me to the next thread.  As we talked about past musical giants, talented contemporaries, and musical mentors, and then beyond music to car mechanics and builders and tradesmen of all kinds, I realized that Skerik has a serious respect and love for humans that work on a craft and can perform that craft on a high level, beyond what I think an average person has.  He uses terminology like “shaman”, “sage”, and even “Yoda” for these people, by whom he is amazed in their ability to fix things, both literally (as in cars or musical instruments or houses) and figuratively (musicians and artists).

I’ll save the stories he had about non-musical trades for another time (but ask me about it when you see me if you think of it, they’re hilarious) and focus on how he talks about the musical “shamans” that came up in conversation.  Again, I can’t go into too much detail, because there are just too many names and too much stuff, but I can say that a lot of the names Skerik mentioned when talking about his musical development are the same names that would I would bring up if I were talking about mine – the larger-than-life jazz giants that changed the music, as well as the jazz musicians that we agree were underrated or passed over.  But Skerik’s reverence extends further; whereas, to a certain extent, my musical gods existed in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, and mostly came from jazz, Skerik upholds all of those and then some – across musical styles and across many more years, and he speaks of all of them with wide-eyed astonishment, shaking his head and throwing his hands up when trying to describe how mind-blowing they were or still are to this day.

That reverent tone took me a little by surprise, I guess because when I had seen Skerik play, I always felt like he was playful, tongue-in-cheek, and subversive, not this “serious” musician type.  This assumption and judgement was all wrong, but for a variety of reasons, as I would find out.

SERIOUS” MUSIC

Skerik recounted a story of a time when he was young and living with a girlfriend in France about how people view music.  The girlfriend’s father listened to and enjoyed jazz and many other different styles of music, as well as played accordion and sang.  In one particular conversation the father used the phrase “serious music” to describe classical music.  The father was a good person and someone Skerik liked and respected, and he meant no ill will by using the phrase, but Skerik remembers how it raised his hackles immediately.  “I was like ‘how is this other music not serious?'”, he said.  It wasn’t clear if this was in reference to another specific genre of music, but it doesn’t have to be for the anecdote to make a clear point:  no style or category of music is more “serious” than another if the musicians involved are dedicated to doing it at a high level.

On a similar note, we talked about jazz musicians like Eddie Harris and Clifford Jordan that, while continuing to innovate and explore new ideas musically, maintained connections to other styles.  Harris could go from the most technically virtuosic saxophone playing to singing blues songs in his sets, as well as writing horn parts for Earth Wind & Fire, and there are stories of Jordan and other musicians he played with routinely going out and hanging at blues clubs in town when they weren’t on the road, sitting in or singing a tune themselves.

We talked about how musical categories can be damaging, and touched on the power that Wynton Marsalis’ comments in the 80′ and 90’s had, both for good and for bad.  For a well-known musician like Marsalis, who Skerik was inspired by and loved and respects, to tell everyone in attendance at the Paramount (where Skerik remembers seeing him), for example, to go buy a Thelonious Monk record the following day, and at the same time make public comments that directly affected the livelihood of artists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, is both powerful and dangerous.  “How can someone do so much damage and so much good?”  Skerik said, lamenting this behavior that very well could have kept a lot of exciting and new and different music from a larger and deserving audience – “all that music is completely relevant, and we lost a whole generation of people…being able to enjoy all this crazy free [music]” –  while at the same time opening up other important musical doors to that same audience.   (Skerik  said the articles that are specifically referenced and linked to in this essay and interview by Ethan Iverson provide excellent information regarding this topic.  I’ve mentioned Iverson before here.)

PERFORMANCE

I mentioned my impressions of Skerik in performance earlier, and he got into that a little bit too.  It came in the context of music as a communal experience, something to be shared with the audience.  That general concept is something I had already thought about quite a bit, and talked about with others, but I really enjoyed Skerik’s take on several aspects.

About the exchange between performer and listener:  “We need their energy, we need their attention, so that we can use that listening power, it’s so reciprocal…that energy is unstoppable.”

About process:  “Include them, let them be a part of the process, the circle, and ultimately the result.  That’s something that’s important to me, process and result, how they’re different.”

About actions in the moment:  “Sometimes I get into this mode of, if the music is playful, if it has some element of playfulness, or if some of the musicians have a sense of humor, I’ll be goofy or something on stage, not to trivialize the music, but to keep people engaged with the music…and sometimes that can help during a solo, helps me create space during a solo, if I can be dramatic or….do something unusual – it’s not planned, I’m not doing it for being unusual’s sake.”

The last quotation I will include, which I think is fitting, came after a few stories Skerik had about making a solo an “event”.  He was talking about saxophonists Steve Potts and Mark Turner, in two different stories, creating beautiful and meaningful spaces with their playing:

 

 

“Of course we need all these intellectual tools and all these things…but at the end of the day the vehicle to deliver those things is a sense of expression, of expressiveness.”

 

 

I am very thankful to Skerik for taking the time to talk, and thank YOU for reading!  

If you can, please check out the Joe Allard pedagogy at http://www.joeallard.org/pedagogy.html , and Skerik’s website at http://skerikmusic.com

-Art

 

 

 

 

 

 

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