Interview with Tommy Crane

I’d like to convey my gratitude to Patrick Jarenwattananon of NPR for his kind words in featuring my last post on A Blog Supreme/NPR Jazz. Many thanks!

Drummer/composer Thomas A. Crane started his musical career as a French horn player. In high school he was torn between becoming a jazz drummer and pursuing a career in orchestral music. Crane has been touring with various jazz groups since he arrived in New York City from his hometown of St. Louis, Mo. to attend the New School University Jazz Program. At the New School, Crane studied with drummers Billy Hart and Andrew Cyrille, as well as bassist/composer Mark Dresser. He has toured internationally and throughout the United States with the Mingus Big Band, Jeremy Pelt, The Greg Osby Five, David Binney and others. While living in New York, he has performed with Bob Beldon, Joe Lovano, Becca Stevens, David Liebman, Mark Turner, Ben Street, Tony Malaby, Aaron Parks, Logan Richardson, Shirt, and more. He currently appears regularly with Logan Richardson’s Shift, Greg Ruggiero’s quartet, Pete Robbin’s Centric and his own ensemble, Be An Astronaut. In addition, Crane has a solo project entitled doubleberg, and can been seen playing keyboards with the Brooklyn-based band Pocketknife.

RB: Tell us a little bit about your band, Be An Astronaut.

TC: Be An Astronaut is an ensemble comprised of harp, Fender Rhodes, bass, and myself. We have been together now for almost two years, and have actually only performed 4 times. The group was started on kind of a whim. I met Maeve [Gilchrist], the harpist, at a show I played in the East Village a few years ago, and she approached me about playing. I’ve been an obsessive Joanna Newsom fan for years, so I was really excited about playing with harp.

RB: Me too!

TC: That’s right, I remember talking about her music with you when we met a little while back. Anyway, we got together at my apartment and played as a trio—harp, drums and flute. Maeve blew me away. Her approach reminds me of kora, in that she has a very rhythmically driving feel. This is what also drew me toward Joanna’s playing. After we jammed, I immediately had the idea of starting an ensemble with Maeve. From there, I started writing music with the harp in mind. It took about 6 months to assemble the rest of the band. In the back of my mind, I knew that I wanted to make some music with a pianist/composer named David Moore, who I heard at a house party in 2005. His unique style and understanding of space stuck with me. About 6 months after meeting Maeve, I ran into David again, this time playing at Zebulon with an amazing vocalist I knew from Missouri named Krystal Warren. I introduced myself. Oddly enough, I had been offered a gig at the Bowery Poetry Club about a month from when we met. So, I asked David if he would like to try to play through some of this music that I had been writing and consider a gig with Be an Astronaut.

Finding a bass player was an easy choice. David and Maeve had never met, and I hadn’t played with either of them, so I wanted to have a bass player that I had a lot of history with. Chris Tordini was a no brainer. We went to school together in a million different situations. I can’t think of many musicians who are as malleable and open-minded as Chris. And he’s as grounded as they come. That is how it all began….

Oh yes…also, David and Maeve found out that they shared this unspoken bluegrass connection. They both play a great deal of old time bluegrass music. David is an amazing banjo player. What the hell did I know about bluegrass? Well, more than I realized. The banjo might have subconsciously brought us together because my grandfather was also a banjo player. Actually, I own his old banjo and try to play it from time to time.

My music for Be an Astronaut, in its beginning stages, was very loop driven. I was also listening to a lot of music by Dirty Projectors at the time, and they had this unique way of playing contrapuntally that really intrigued me.

RB: I’m listening to “The Getty Address” right now, actually.

TC: Longstreth is a very interesting musician, no question. I was happy to read that he loves Vim Vender. I get so much from his films these days. Anyways, I was getting away from writing through-composed larger ensemble music, and wanted to explore more of a smaller band sound. I really wanted for Be An Astronaut to be a true band. I was also super excited about making music with these incredible musicians who I really had no formal relationship with – with the exception of Chris.

There is nothing more exciting then writing for individual musical personalities. I’ve always been one who did this. Now, I wanted to let go a little bit and fantasize about the total sound of the group in my mind, and try to create canvases in a sense that would allow these terrific musicians to fill in with their own playing. I wanted to give them the space to do this. It was an interesting experiment because I knew what these musicians were capable of bringing to the music. They weren’t as familiar with my music. Being the drummer - the conductor of the ensemble in a sense - it would be easy for me to help direct the music. We’d learn from each other.

RB: In a recent interview with the blog of the VA-based ensemble Glows in the Dark, composer/multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey had this to say when asked to name under-rated musicians:

I’ll go out on a limb with this one…since this is something that has been bothering me for some time. There are so many people I wish to list, but the underrated COMPOSERS who I want to discuss are also percussionists that we all know. Susie Ibarra is my favorite percussionist/composer around right now, and I find that it’s a shame that not many people know that she has a lot to offer as a composer, not to mention the amazing work she is doing. The same should go for Paul Motian, Mark Guiliana, Gerald Cleaver, Andrew Greenwald, Dan Weiss, Billy Martin, Joey Baron, Marcus Gilmore, Milford Graves, Tommy Crane, among others… I personally believe that these drummers who are also composers and/or play other instruments should be recognized for all of how they express themselves, as opposed to only being credited for their sideman work and/or for their drumming abilities. It’s interestingly ironic because what these drummers contribute to the music of their respective bandleaders is so strong and powerful that what they create becomes an essential part of the music itself; they MAKE the composition, as far as I’m concerned.

How does sitting behind the kit influence your compositional outlook?

TC: The funny thing is, and I’m sure you can relate as a composer yourself, I usually think about my contribution to the ensemble last. Drummers are dealing with orchestration and timing/pacing, obviously, on a daily basis, which means our outlook on composition is vastly different than that of other instrumentalists. Hearing a drummer’s compositions for me is like truly getting to know who a drummer really is. Like Tom Cruise revealing himself in “Eyes Wide Shut” after being masked at that absurd house party. A lot of times, it truly is a mystery to me when I hear drummer’s compositions. I love this! We are like the guys in the back of the classroom soaking up all this material and sound, yet we have duct tape over our mouths and fingers for years. Suddenly, one day it occurs to us that “hey, we can come at writing from a different angle”. Every drummer should be writing as much as possible. It clarifies so many things for me about making true music.

RB: …and results in so many enjoyable listening experiences for people like me! Many of my favorite composers are drummers, or at least distribute the groove evenly throughout the ensemble. As Billy Hart likes to say, “the bass drum relates to the bass clef”, etc. How do you approach the orchestration of rhythm?

TC: Indeed. I was just going to take Billy’s words for a moment that “the drummer is the conductor of the ensemble”. Drummers can truly make or break a band. The instruments range is endless in terms of orchestration.

It’s similar to the way I approach drumming in a sense—layers of voices working together, and maybe also counter-acting each other at times. For example, you could think of one sentence dispersed among 3 people at a time. This can create a flow where we all end up being part of the same idea that is constantly shifting around between us.

RB: You mentioned earlier that you wanted Be an Astronaut to sound like a “true band”. Describe the role of collaboration in your music; what does it mean to be a “true band”?

TC: Well, the funny thing is that this is more of dream then a reality at the present time.

“True bands” are few and far between, especially in jazz. For one, we are trained to play and perform in various settings, especially these days, so this creates a lot of musicians who can work in many situations.

There are many micro scenes within the New York music scene. I’m part of a few groups that I can call true bands. Guitarist Greg Ruggiero has a real band that I’ve been part of for years. We still play music the same music we have played for the past 6 years. It is always changing and evolving.

One very important thing is to find musicians that you can be honest and open with, first and foremost. However, while I am a strong advocate of watching a project develop, it is also important to put oneself in uncomfortable musical situations as well. Doing this only clarifies things for me when I get back to the main projects that I’m involved with.

Nevertheless, “true bands” can talk to each other like family. We don’t have to candy coat the way we say things to one another: “Sound great brother,” when you know the music sounded like a moldy closet. There is nothing quite like being part of a community of music like that of New York City these days…

But anyway, getting back…Be An Astronaut is a way for me to breathe musically. For myself, I need the grounding of a project consisting of music that I’m writing, and the balance of collaborating with other musicians’ projects. Projects that are challenging and will constantly put one back in the baby seat, sometimes leaving me feeling like it’s time to do this all over again. It never ends does it?

RB: You tell me! I don’t think I’m ever going to get out of the baby seat…

TC: That is one of the most beautiful things about New York. When I get to drive the van is when I will start to worry.

RB: Well, you are preaching to the choir when it comes to “true bands”; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people echo your sentiments at our last rehearsal: “At X music school we had to read/play so much challenging music, but we never really went into depth with any of it”. More importantly, it’s clear that the audience isn’t buying it either. You touched on the fact that such depth comes in part from working together consistently, but it seems like very few people are actually so. Why do you think that is?

TC: That starts to hurt your soul more then one can imagine after a while. For one, we have to work. We put in as much time as any other field in school, yet when it’s time to hit the streets, very few can survive on music alone. If so, unless you fall into a situation like a working band, one has to freelance.

Another option is to put your all into the two or three projects that you feel most strongly about. This can take years to develop, but I have friends who have stuck with this mentality all the way. It has paid off for them. Saxophonist Travis Laplante, one of the most amazing musicians/artists I’ve met in New York City has kept this mindset for years. I used to question every aspect of his thought process until recently when I heard his band, Little Women. It blew my mind, seriously. He is way ahead of the game.

Now, this is not easy, and on a certain level I can’t relate because playing drums you have many, many options, in a sense. For some, the most fulfilling artistic lifestyle is taking every gig that comes your way; I can’t do it anymore. I don’t feel like it’s fair to the music and the compositions most of the time. Music takes a great deal of time and patience to develop. This is lacking a great deal in music education. “Lets pile on more and more”, says X teacher, never giving the student a chance to look inward. Bands have to go through the process of watching the music grow and change.

RB: Many musicians in jazz and other genres keep day jobs until their bands are working enough, but with jazz it seems like the prospects for touring groups are much slimmer. Can you think of some things that might aid folks like you in feeling more secure with the two-to-three projects model?

TC: Unfortunately, we are kind of missing what was key years ago - learning from the elder musicians. Unfortunately, these opportunities just don’t exist on a large scale. It’s pretty scary in a way. But this is important to talk about. Elder musicians used to take the younger musicians under their wing and guide them. Buy them suits, yell at them about bad relationship decisions, etc…you learned about life as well as music!

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had a taste of this. My first “real gig” was with a pianist named Johnny O’Neal back in St. Louis. He played with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers for years in the 80’s. He took me under his wing when I was in high school. I would go to his house and listen to stories for hours and hours about Art Blakey, and New York in the 80’s. Johnny is a real character and one of the most incredible piano players you’ve ever heard. He played Art Tatum in that movie Ray with Jamie Fox…

RB: You are absolutely right about learning from the older musicians. The lessons that come from apprenticing with the masters are invaluable. However, I feel compelled to point out that, in many cases, the masters were pursuing a one-project model: their own! Therefore, apprenticing with them also served as a crash-course in how to run your own band one day, from the music to the business.

TC: You’re very right about that. They had the market on their side as well though… We are in a different time now. The emphasis on “killer solos” and “chops” has been done. On the other hand, it’s exciting that we are starting to see creative music leaking into the mainstream.

RB: Yes. Nate Chinen recently interviewed the bassist of Grizzly Bear and found himself correct in detecting a Vernel Fournier influence on the band’s new album, and The Mos Def Big Band will be performing at Newport in a few days.

TC: Funny - the Vernel Fournier thing is very clear on that first track.

RB: Yep…that’s the one. As far as what you were saying about older musicians having had “the market on their side”, I would argue that it’s cyclical—the jazz market appears to suffer just as much from the lack of commitment to bands these days. But this is the reason why I was asking the earlier question—do you have any thoughts on what might help us capture the attention of the would-be-interested audience?

TC: I honestly think it is happening slowly. You mentioned Grizzly Bear. Bands like this open the doors and widen the palette for a great deal of listeners. They understand the balance between the art and what sells.

RB: We touched on apprenticeship opportunities earlier, and failed to discuss your experiences in the band of saxophonist/composer Greg Osby. Illuminate that experience for us—how did it add “depth” to your perspective?

TC: Playing with Greg Osby completely changed the way that I approached improvisation and writing—two things that actually go hand-in-hand with one another.

Greg is an amazing bandleader. He says pretty much everything that you need to hear through his playing. I really appreciate this a great deal. It’s easy to become confused as a sideman when a bandleader starts telling you what your doing wrong in his or her eyes, or giving you to many things to think about. When playing with Greg, you work out these kinks in the music through playing. He is unbelievably organic, and gave me a lot of insight into preserving energy as well.

We were on a tour of Spain a few years ago playing everyday for a couple weeks, and one day at the airport I was complaining about how tired I was. Greg said something like, “you better get used to that feeling if this is what you want to do for the rest of your life”, and he proceeded to talk to me about how important it is to preserve energy on the road. i.e. eating right, sleeping when you can, etc.

Another thing about Greg is that he could not stress taking chances enough. He is one of those musicians that constantly keeps you on your toes. He loves making you feel like you’re falling from a building in a dream—the way you completely loose control and just have to accept that you will wake up from this fall.

Greg and I are both from St. Louis, so I became aware of his record Banned In New York when I was about 15. It made zero sense to me at the time, but it blew my mind. “Are they playing tunes? Is this free? What in the world is happening?”, I was thinking. He had created this new world through his music. This idea of someone using their own language to improvise was new to me. I couldn’t trace the music immediately with my ear like I could with most of the music that I was listening to at the time; “This guy sounds just like Art Pepper with a mix of Jamie Oliver”. It isn’t like that with Greg.

RB: In closing, please tell us about a non-musical artist that has influenced you.

TC: Well, some time ago I discovered the filmmaker David Lynch. Watching his movies gave me immediate creative fuel to compose. In a sense he is my muse. I’m fascinated with the world that he creates. You might watch one of his films every day for 11 days and tap into to a completely different set of emotions at every viewing.

I think most of the music I composed early on was after watching Blue Velvet and Eraserhead obsessively. I’m also a huge fan of Angelo Badelmenti’s music. His sounds remind me of my youth in some way…those almost overbearing - and somewhat hilarious at times - 80’s synth sounds. How he can make these sounds so beautiful really floors me. He and Lynch work together like a choir and an orchestra. I was reading an article once where Angelo was talking about Lynch’s love for Shostakovich. At times David will sit with Angelo at the piano and direct Angelo like a conductor while Angelo improvises.

My love for Lynch has inspired me to create a solo project where I go by the name “Doubleberg”. Most of the music is made very half-assedly on my computer, but I occasionally try to perform some of the music in public.

RB: Thanks for taking the time to do this!

Be An Astronaut appears tonight—August 4th, 2009—at the Bowery Poetry Club, and you can also hear Tommy (and myself) with Chrysalis as a part of the Cornelia Street Cafe Guitar Festival on August 18th.