If Something Is On Fire, Maybe It Needs To Be: Philly saxophonist Keir Neuringer on distilling a troubled world into turbulent jazz

By
Keir Neuringer
Keir Neuringer | photo by Peter Gannushkin | courtesy of the artist

The moment you hear Keir Neuringer‘s alto-saxophone vibrating through an art museum — the warm tones bouncing off of avant garde sculptures — and watch those tones solidify into zoetropic color and immerse themselves into Muhal Richard Abrams collages, the only thing that seems to make sense, in the moment, is that you’re watching a reinterpretation of jazz.

It’s with his decidedly experimental (and experiential) band Irreversible Entanglements (featuring Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, on poetic vocals) and his crashy, noise ‘n blues and equally experimental/experiential outfit Neuringer/Dulberger/Masri that Keir is able to accomplish this feat. With the release of Irreversible’s self titled debut on Don Giovanni Records, and the N/D/M trio’s Dromedaries on Already Dead Tapes, Keir has stepped into the same spaces where the conversation on jazz is being informed by artists like Matana Roberts, Tyshawn Sorey and, of course, Kamasi Washington. His rustic, granola-outdoorsmans meets suburban punk dad visage aside, Neuringer channels the spirit of this young jazz movement, often moving beyond the genres confines, yet remaining steadfastly reverential to its roots, expressions, and most importantly to him, the genre’s intrinsic radical politics.

The Key sat down with this eclectic, inspiring musician and discussed what it’s like to transmit waves of change in a world that doesn’t seem to want to.

The Key: We first met at an event called ALL SOUND IS QUEER, a melding of experimental and noise acts voicing music through a queer, futurist lens. You played solo and it was an expansive, breathy piece. What was the inspiration for that piece and how has your work evolved? Why do you think experimental music and now, noise music, have become nearly inseparable to jazz music?

Keir Neuringer: That was a really special event and I was honored Catherine Pancake invited me to participate. I thought a lot about the essay (by Matmos’ Drew Daniel) that inspired it and gave it its title. I arrived thinking more deeply about how prescribed boundaries and binaries of genre don’t apply well to my work. Without planning ahead, I constructed a vulnerable, un-amplified piece in a way I never had before.

I don’t know how old I was when I realized I was straight. But as much as I was socialized straight, I was also raised to think of music in terms set forth by capitalism. And that never felt good to me. I don’t get ready to perform and think: let me make a jazz piece, or an experimental piece. And I don’t think: let me make something that queers jazz. I don’t ever feel like I fit, and I don’t get excited about music that fits, and I don’t think I make music that fits. I’m only really interested in the variety of jazz that is risk-taking, and I think that that goes back to the music’s revolutionary, liberatory roots. So I don’t think experimentalism and jazz, at least the interesting varieties of them, have ever been separated. But I do find a lot of official, or academic, experimentalism distasteful, like off-the-bat this “experiment” might not be true. How big of a risk does one take if failure has no impact on survival?

That said, I don’t know that I agree with you that noise and jazz music have become nearly inseparable. There’s a lot of noise that has implicit or explicit fascist leanings (which I would consider anathema to jazz, and everything I stand for).

 

TK: With both of your projects, Irreversible Entanglements and Dromedaries there’s a sense of chaos that belies a more meditative purpose. How do you juxtapose the healing nature of jazz and its elements with the wild, “something is on fire”
approach free jazz can lend itself to? What are the major differences emotionally in either band? Are there political differences? I feel like playing with Moor Mother in Irreversible must invoke a sort of lived politic if you will.

KN: Well, the first and easiest answer is that if something is on fire, maybe it needs to be. Fire is danger, but it’s also renewal, healing. Everything from the phoenix archetype — birth and rebirth (which by the way is the title of a great album of free improvisation by Max Roach and Anthony Braxton) — to burning candles and incense, to staring into a campfire or a fireplace, to cop cars on fire when people riot for their liberation. It can all be very healing, no? But I don’t necessarily embrace the notion of chaos in my music; spontaneity, yes, but not chaos. The spontaneous aspects of the music that I make don’t conflict with its meditative qualities, I don’t think. And they definitely don’t conflict with having a sense of purpose. My approach to improvisation and spontaneity is about rigorous preparation – through practice and discipline, deep listening and being an empathetic collaborator – for all contingencies. That approach, particularly the empathy piece, is straight up radical in our time. So it’s not just a decision about music, but a lived politic right there.

Dromedaries grew out of my partnership with Philadelphia multi-instrumentalist Julius Masri. Soon after I moved to Philly, in 2012, we started playing very high energy free jazz as a saxophone/drums duo, mostly in basements and art galleries, and found a really strong match a few years later with Shayna Dulberger, a bassist and composer in Brooklyn. Our idea is to go as deep as we can into this empathetic high energy that we conjure up together. There is no overt political or conceptual statement with Dromedaries, but the trio is important to me nonetheless because there are unnameable points to discover that can only be found through the doing of a thing. Irreversible Entanglements, in contrast, came together differently, as a result of intentional participation in an anti-police brutality event. We are born as an ensemble out of a determination to resist centuries of violence and oppression directed at Black women and men. What is maybe interesting is that we don’t sit around and discuss the horrors that Camae Ayewa (Moor Mother) deals with in her texts. Everyone in the group knows, and we engage these realities in different ways in our daily lives. So instead, the band talks about music and food and we shoot the shit. Onstage we go to work.

TK: You’re a dad, right? I spoke to Kamasi Washington recently and we discussed briefly how jazz music’s connection to youth, and black youth specifically, is being lost, mostly because in the US jazz is underfunded and musicianship is not taught in schools. What are your thoughts on jazz seeming to fade from the black community and is there any conflict internally playing this music in 2018? Will your children be raised in a “jazz world”? Why or why not?

KN: Oh man I could talk about this forever. Yes, I’m a parent – specifically, I’m a parent, through adoption, of a black child. So speaking as the white parent of this child, it is absolutely essential for me to raise him in a world filled with black excellence and black love and direct access to all of his black cultural inheritance. He may choose to love jazz or not, but I’m raising him to develop it as a vernacular, and I think at almost three years old, he is doing that. It doesn’t come about just from listening to Thelonious Monk and Pharoah Sanders and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and ATCQ (all of which we do a lot of in our household).

He associates me with the saxophone and the saxophone with me, but he has to be surrounded and embraced by black people “doing jazz” too. Part of that is his interactions with my friends and collaborators. Part of it is also exposing his neighbor friends to the music, and him to what they are listening to (which I do, so that he’s not the one weird kid who recognizes the Art Ensemble of Chicago but can’t hear Cardi B). And part of it is just living in South West Philly: like, he saw the Sun Ra Arkestra live on 40th Street before he could walk! The question about jazz seeming to fade from the black community is really complex though. There are so many brilliant black musicians who are carrying the music forward right now. Oftentimes, it’s true, there are limited audiences – which can be code for limited PR budgets. Or the audiences are predominantly white – but this is as old as jazz itself, with the finest musicians in the US connecting with adoring audiences and supportive budgets in Europe.

On a personal level, I consider myself to be a humble participant in the culture. I think it’s possible to participate, even push boundaries and innovate, without appropriating. I could expand on this if we were talking about white musicians in jazz.

The reason I bring it up at all is your question about internal conflict. Yes, I do feel tension playing this music now. That is because I am always looking for the points of tension in my life, to explore and work around them. One point of tension is how so much of my official education acted to enforce the myth that black people were no longer involved in the music. Even in high school it’s like the black kids aren’t in band, and that’s supposed to be about each kid’s individual choice combined with some bizarre genetic predisposition, that white kids have and black kids don’t, to want to play instruments and have their parents pay for their private lessons.

TK: Philadelphia jazz legend Byard Lancaster once said “one of the reasons we have violence in the schools is we’ve taken music out of the schools.” It’s really perverse to deny children the opportunity to play instruments. Wherever black youth are separated from both their cultural inheritance and basic educational tools, alarms of attempted genocide should be blaring. Maybe jazz is relevent among black folks, maybe it isn’t, but who makes that determination, and how?

KN: It’s the removal of access to instruments and instrumental education in the public schools. It’s the rank anti-history taught at the college level that strips black people of their primary and leading role in the development of music in the United States. It’s stripping jazz of its political roots, over-emphasizing white participation and leadership in the music, and forcing what George Lewis of the AACM calls a communitarian music into a capitalist framework – which will always and necessarily be racist and misogynist.

TK: What are the physical logistics of playing in two bands that seem to require extensive emotional investment, especially with members being spread out across the map or embarking on other projects at any given time? What venues have you played and do you think the greater indie music crowd is ready to embrace jazz again?

KN: Managing these logistics – and I love that you acknowledge emotional investment! – is difficult. In fact I’m involved with more than these two projects: I have collaborations in Europe too, where I lived for a decade through most of my 20s and early 30s, and I have different short-lived projects each year. While all this work progresses pretty organically on the creative side, it’s so difficult to keep things up logistically and financially, and also in terms of being present for my family and community. I appreciate work that pays well, of course, and I also need the energy of projects and performances that happen beyond considerations of financial remuneration. So, within whatever niches and scenes I inhabit, I’ve had the opportunity to play some good festivals and venues, as well as some wonderful theaters and art spaces and living rooms and basements. I’m definitely not here for creative capitalism, any type of entrepreneurship, branding myself, or being a “creative,” whatever that means. I’m here because the music that I make and the work that I do fosters relationships, which is why that emotional investment matters to me.

Is the greater indie music crowd ready to embrace jazz? In my opinion that depends on whether or not it is ready to make serious political commitments. I must admit, I don’t use the term “indie” really, but as I see it, the way jazz seems to be applied in indie circles is as a reference, a veneer, a stylistic touch. I’d liken it to what KRS-ONE has described as the difference between rap and hip-hop: “rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you are.”

TK: What’s next for you? What are some goals you’d like to achieve in 2018?

KN: I want to be open to new things while also hitting some specific notes. There are a few recordings I plan to make this year: my second solo saxophone record, and a second Irreversible Entanglements record. I am also writing some long compositions for two contemporary music groups in The Netherlands that I’m close to, Ensemble Klang and Modelo 62, that I need to finish. I want to find a better outlet for some of my thinking about arts and culture, a lot of it has been conversational, or in interviews here and there. Finally, I want to find out what the capacity is for learning instruments among my kid and some of the other children in the neighborhood – up to now it has been free play (drums, percussion, keyboards, mics) in my studio at home. I want to see if we’re already to take it to a higher level.

Keir Neuringer appears with the Neuringer / Marsi duo on February 22nd at The Mothership in West Philadelphia; more information on the show can be found at its Facebook event page. Irreversible Entanglements will give a free performance at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, March 13th; more information on the event can be found here. Irreversible Entanglements is also planning a NYC show in February and a European Tour in April; check the band’s Facebook page for more announcements regarding both.

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