By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
All new music comes from somewhere, and in Wyatt’s case jazz’s extemporaneous tendencies are encoded in the heart of his newfangled song-shapes.
“I’m a bit backwards in the sense that, when I’m recording, I improvise and then build that up with other musicians in the studio, and then I do the kind of arrangement, and decide what it’s all about afterwards — I sit with it with the engineer and we cut it down. And that’s really where the actual composition is. I see what I do as maybe the way John Cassavetes made a film — it was improvised around themes, but then it’s very tightly edited, so that it ends up with a kind of narrative, but it’s more organic than if the script had been exactly written and recorded.”
This way of structuring spontaneity gives Wyatt a very special sound that achieves the persuasive effect of drawing the listener into an artist’s personal feeling for symmetry. You experience his reshaped world, see the possibilities. Upon first listen to Rock Bottom, and probably 500 times over the years, I was floored by the craggily mellifluous, toppling, stuttering piano solo that Wyatt pulls off in the opening “Sea Song.” It is the most startling solo because it feels like nothing less than the direct outpouring of a man’s brain or heart or nervous system into yours. The chance to hear such pure intuition doesn’t come around too often.
“I’m not a schooled musician,” he says, “so I’m not trained in the various sort of scales and stuff. So I just use my ears. And I’d stumbled across the use of whole tones, and it was just using that as a scale, kind of working the whole major-minor thing. There’s a kind of thrill of discovery going on. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, almost.”
It’s one of the greatest piano solos I’ve ever heard, within a song that undergoes radical swings of emotion.
“I just needed something to take the song somewhere, have a journey there somewhere, otherwise it’s just this tendency of pop music to keep going round and round and doing the same thing over again and then stop. What I really like is seeing the whole process through: to prompt spontaneity, to kind of freezing it, depicting it. That’s what I really enjoy.”
What with the current rigid parameters within which musicians can sell themselves, I wonder if Wyatt’s identity as a musician is important to him. How would he himself characterize his music?
“I mean, I never avoid the obvious,” he says, obscurely. “I don’t try to be myself or not be myself, I just trust that if I do something that feels right, it’ll come out right. For example, the last tune on Cuckooland is a song that — sometimes another language I can deal with, I’ve done Spanish a few times, and French occasionally, and even Italian. But Arabic, I just don’t know where to start with Arabic, so I simply asked Gilad Atzmon to sing the song on clarinet.”
Wyatt doesn’t even appear on the track at all. “I didn’t write it; I had nothing to do on it. I just wanted to hear that piece of music, and I did it any way I could. If it means me doing it all, then I’ll do it; if it means leaving myself out, I’m not really bothered about where I am in it. Or whether I’m even visible, really. I’m just trying to make records that I want to listen to.” He laughs.
Wyatt, like so many of our greatest artists, is a remarkably self-effacing guy, as well known for his distinctive vocal interpretations of other artists’ work. On many of his own albums he’s given over the lyric writing to Alfreda Benge; Karen Mantler, daughter of Carla Bley and Michael Mantler, composed, sings and plays on several of the tunes on the new album. Usually Wyatt likes just being a part of the ensemble.
“There’s a tendency now in modern jazz for players or singers to get notice as soloists over a rhythm section. Even Miles Davis hardly ever did that. As great as he was, he would always get the best tenor player he could, the best alto player, the best pianist, the best everything, all around him, and just do his business in that context. He knew how to make a complete piece of music, that it required more than just his own voice — and there’s no finer voice in the 20th century than his.”
Interestingly, Wyatt’s background is in avant-garde and contemporary classical music, under his parents’ guidance. He made his way into pop music from that base, rather than the other way around, as is normally the case. That would explain the wide territory his music covers now, and the varied musicians he plays with.
“The music I still love is about conversations with a guest, really — bebop and so on. Fundamentally, what we’re all doing is based on song and dance, and if it loses that, then it’s . . . something else, I don’t know. Music has a functional thing to the whole history of the world, and those two elements are irreducible. I really like to strip those down and find those things. It’s a bit like doing science, actually narrowing down the chemical there. Reducing things to the poetry of the thing.”