When it comes to fresh bands like Brooklyn based A Tree Grows, we are eager to “meet” them and get to know them. Tivon Pennicott, Emanuel Ruffler, Rashaan Carter, Russell Carter & Duane Eubanks are more than promising jazz musicians serving, -and having served-, in a plethora of jazz-related projects over the past years. So why hesitate…Let’s get it on!
Feel free to introduce A Tree Grows to readers of lastdaydeaf.com…
We are a new band from New York, we create instrumental music.
Your debut single ‘Wau Wau Water’ is an excellent mix of jazz, electronica, soul and afrobeat, respecting the “old” but as well remaining fresh and modern. Would you like to talk about this gem?
Thank you for this great description. The single was actually the first track we worked on so it created a sense of direction for the rest of the album. The idea for this song was to create our sonic snapshot of the pre-historic ocean, or some other body of water that has all the ingredients for life, it is full of possibilities. There are waves, there is sunshine, some minerals maybe… and out of this we ended up with the spark of life that over time turned into you and me, and the world we see today. We learn about this process in biology class, but there is so much mystery and poetry in this image, we could easily play off of that. We used some of our favorite compositional techniques to give the feeling of an overlap, waves small and large. Often the sections or melodies don’t begin or end exactly where they do in ordinary song form, and that creates a slight shift that catches your attention.
Continuing on your debut single, acclaimed videographer Hideki Shiota is the man responsible for its visualization. I guess you are both fortunate enough to cooperate on this one. Can you talk a bit about this project?
Hideki Shiota did a series of three amazing videos for the alt-jazz duo Painting last year, which Emanuel plays piano in. We recommend you take a look, that was our first collaboration and I think it showed us what’s possible. Hideki has a number of important talents when it comes to creating music videos: he has great taste and knowledge in music and understands what we are going for. And he knows how to “improvise” in video – the same way we do in music. He knows you can combine different shots in a number of effective ways and I think he accepts and invites an element of chance and surprise. He is also a really quick worker, which makes these elaborate videos possible without a huge crew or months of production.
For the ‘Wau Wau Water’ video, Hide was given the very crude footage we had shot ourselves during the recording process. I don’t know how he did it, but he somehow managed to make the edit interesting enough to watch just our hands and instruments for five minutes, even there are no faces or any other footage in the video. It’s a remarkable feat of assembly.
Tricky one! Are your compositions born of the “seed” of improvisation or well-planned structures ‘breathing’ fusion air?
Our music is a lot less improvised than you might think! We add some extra colors and spices during the performance, but most of the songs are more or less through-composed with improvised sections here and there. Even the experimental noise tracks and Rashaan’s solo bass tune use variations of the other tunes material to order themselves. If you listen carefully you’ll hear us playing certain parts of other songs backwards or upside down.
If you want to really hear us improvise you’ll need to hear us live. Or you can check out our live video called “Tragic – A Tree Grows live at BOS”. That video shows us in full jam-band mode. We all love to cut loose and improvise, but when we created this latest recording we wanted it to be short and concise.
Since you hail from Brooklyn, New York, can you generously give us a brief description of the ‘underground’ jazz scene over there, regarding significant bands, venues and even festivals worth mentioning? Is there a local jazz scene, or do you operate individually?
Some of our band members live uptown in Harlem, so we aren’t really 100% Brooklyn based. New York in our humble opinion is still the centre of the universe when it comes to many styles of music. Most of the important jazz-related records of today are being created here and there is an endless supply of both legendary and super-talented unknown musicians. The level of musicianship is second to none. Yes, there is a local scene, but honestly that local scene is known to the rest of the world as the “The Jazz Scene”. Our guess is that a large number of bands you see at international festivals are based in NYC. There are also still a lot of great venues, even though it has gotten a lot less in the last twenty years. Music neighborhoods keep changing and clubs get priced out and forced to move to a more affordable area… That old story.
At the moment a lot of new and cool venues are opening and operating in Bushwick, Williamsburg and also in South Brooklyn, Gowanus, etc. In terms of festivals, we really like Winter Jazz Fest, which is just around the corner. In the summer there is “Vision Fest”, which Rashaan played last year with David Murray. Then there is Prospect Park Bandshell, which is just a wonderful place to see lots of different kinds of music. We saw Herbie Hancock play there last year, and thousands of people chanted “Herbie for President”. New Yorkers definitely know a lot about music.
Despite the fact that you are a newly formed band, each one of you already carries a precious music heritage. How difficult is it (or not) to work together and also avoid the “Real Madrid” effect? (i.e. too many ‘stars’ on the same team….)
So great to hear a nice sports analogy, especially if it’s about soccer…! Well Real Madrid won the champion’s league two out of the last three years, so I’m not sure that having too many stars is that big of a problem for them (Laughs).
But seriously, just like in sports, being an incredible team player is a prerequisite to being successful and in demand. All of us in this band invest a good portion of our time and talent into other people’s projects, so we need the musicianship, mindset and the social skills to make the music happen – no matter what the setting.
The main hindrance in building a new project is usually more mundane: finding time to get together. Being working musicians means a good amount of touring and being part of many bands. So it’s not always easy to get us in the same room. We were lucky on this project and I think we have learned that “time is music” (not money!). So when we do get together we are focused and we know exactly what we are looking to accomplish.
Your debut is going to be released via Rufftone Records, an eclectic New York label. How did this collaboration come about?
Rufftone Records also released two precursor albums: Rocket ‘Tipp-Topp’ which featured Rashaan, Emanuel and Duane in a similar musical texture. It’s still available on Spotify and iTunes. And then last year they released Painting ‘Gravity’, which was the first record where we used the storyboard process that helped arrange A Tree Grows. I heard that they are also looking to produce some music with the amazing Valerie Troutt, a vocalist from the San Francisco Bay Area, who went to college with Rashaan and Emanuel.
Which jazz masters would you consider as your biggest influences and why?
Our greatest jazz influences… i hope you have a few hours for this answer. One thing that is a bit unusual about jazz musicians is how much they know about history – and how many different angles and cross-connections there are on the family-tree. Jazz has a very specific vocabulary, which changes over time. For you to converse with others you need to be fluent in a lot of different sentence structures. When somebody plays a certain phrase, it could be a connection or commentary to a different style, a certain record or just a nod to something you played just earlier. So if you don’t have the historic context you really cannot participate. In a way having a well rounded knowledge of the jazz tradition is the most important thing, more important that one particular person. They are all interconnected.
But if we had to boil it down to the biggest influences we would probably come up with Miles Davis, due to his visualist/theatrical approach and his drive for stylistic innovation. We would also want to mention Wayne Shorter, who now stands for an almost metaphysical view of improvisation. And he pioneered many of the harmonic colors we use on this album.
Are you thinking of touring in order to promote your debut release? Any possibility that you will travel to Europe for gigs?
Absolutely, many of us are in Europe frequently with other bands, so as soon as there is an opportunity we will get on the road and present this music to interested audiences, wherever they may be. Stay tuned!
Photo credits: Amber Gress