bassist * composer * improviser

Matt Pavolka

#10 Downbeat Players Profile


MATT PAVOLKA Bookish Agent

The cover of bassist Matt Pavolka’s second album, The Horns Band, is clever not so much for artist Valerie Trucchia’s portrait of the musician having tea in a Brooklyn coffee shop, but for a subtly placed copy of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue 1979– 1985 depicted in the lower right corner.  Pavolka, an Indiana native, is an insatiable bookworm, never leaving home without a dog-eared volume under his arm.

“In other art forms, people talk about their influences all the time,” Pavolka said. “Stanley Kubrick often referred to music; he chose all the music you hear in his films.  Kurt Vonnegut talked about The Beatles all the time.  Don DeLillo is into abstract impressionist painters and cinema.  But musicians are always expected to be influenced only by music.  That always struck me as odd.”

The Horns Band (Fresh Sound New Talent) features the 42-year-old on acoustic bass and trombone accompanied by cornetist Kirk Knuffke, alto saxophonist Loren Stillman, trombonist Jacob Garchik and drummer Mark Ferber.  The album extends forms based in both tradition and innovation.  One hears the influence of Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, but also Booker Little and Steve Reich.

In concert at New York’s Cornelia Street Cafe? (with Jochen Rueckert replacing Ferber), The Horns Band performed Pavolka’s cleanly delineated compositions driven by the bassist’s wiry lines and meaty tone while—sans guitar or piano—they explored the possibilities inherent in a three-horn front line.  Song titles such as “Anti-Green Plate Gives Mr. H More Power” further reflect Pavolka’s literary bent, while his music expresses a storyteller’s knack for shape, line and flow.

“Just like a novel that tells a good story, the greatest recordings have a narrative quality, like Kind Of Blue,” Pavolka said.  “But a lot of modern jazz has become impenetrable.  Everybody is trying so hard to avoid any cliche? that they’re making music that’s anti-music, which is another cliche?.  It’s music that doesn’t really groove; it’s not tonal, it’s not pretty, so they say it’s about ‘color.’  But it’s not very colorful.  As a listener, there must be some way to place the music in context so you can parse it, so there can be some entry.”

The bassist provides plenty of entry points for new listeners, opening the door wide throughout The Horns Band, with music that’s heartfelt yet cerebral.  His compositions are angular and thematically wide-ranging, with streamlined arrangements transformed in the furnace of improvisation.

“It feels like everything is coming from the ground up in Matt’s writing,” Stillman explained.  “He’s composed these elaborate pieces specifically for the different players in the band and sec- tions for their personalities to come out.  He’s coming from more of a traditional jazz place, but it’s very extended.”

Pavolka—who cites the Dave Holland Quintet’s Seeds Of Time, Jumpin’ In and The Razor’s Edge albums as precedents for The Horns Band—said, “I wanted to have a band where no one is comping.  How can I create interesting harmonic motion? And how can I write music that isn’t in the usual ‘play the head and everybody blows’ [structure]? I have to do it through my writ- ing.  It’s intuitive with my background to write for horns—things that sound good when horns play them but that don’t sound good on piano.”

Since arriving in New York in 1994, Pavolka’s associations have included Lee Konitz’s nonet, Guillermo Klein’s Los Guachos, saxophonist Ohad Talmor and guitarist Ben Monder.  In addition to being influenced by the city’s jazz scene, he’s also intrigued by the “architecture and shapes” in his environment.

“Being a bassist, that’s the whole game,” Pavolka said.  “You’re shaping a performance.  You can talk about concepts and theories, but it has to be interesting.  People like to say ‘Less is more,’ but take Monk.  Monk can take the most complex idea and put it forward in a way that is as simple as you can make it.  But with great music, sometimes less is less.  Some of the music I’m writing is very hard, but it’s my job as a composer to figure out the simplest way to convey those ideas—to strip away all the bullshit.”

—Ken Micallef 


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