James Singleton finds beauty in complexity

3 12 2014

Offbeat December 2014

A centrifugal force of the New Orleans music landscape (and by landscape I mean improvised jazz, rock, funk, punk and the occasional trad) for decades, bassist James Singleton has laid low, studio-wise, for the past few years, despite his prolific gigging habits. On Dec. 7, he releases Shiner, an improvisational masterpiece recorded with Mike Dillon, Larry Sieberth and a combination of horn players including Skerik, Mark Southerland and the late, great Tim Green. The album release comes to Snug Harbor Dec. 7. Check out the new Offbeat cover story to hear what this project means for James and how he defines his artistic development at this stage in his career. Alas, I did not ask him enough about his sartorial style. Luckily Offbeat’s art director Elsa Hahn picked up my slack with the photo shoot — a good reason to check the story on their pretty new site.

jamessingleton.rococo.elsahahne-392x778Sporting twin ponytail poufs atop her head, her 6-year-old brow creased with determination, Ruby Singleton lays out the details of a Harry Potter-inspired mission for the sidekick she’s met at a grown-up party. Ruby’s father, bassist James Singleton, has come here with his family from an afternoon spent helping Sarah Quintana build shimmering improvisations made of purrs, low-bowed growls and high-pitched ululations for a blindfolded audience at the Marigny Opera House’s Sunday Music Meditation. Now, he keeps a watchful eye on his daughter as she opens up her imagination and shares it with an adult guest.

Ruby summarizes key points of play (the location of enemy lines, who has which special powers) then she and her new cohort push off through the din of party chatter, embarking on their mission, which transforms repeatedly over the course of 10 minutes, growing more complex at every turn. With each new challenge, Ruby improvises into the story; she shows her mettle as an intrepid New Orleans version of Hermione Granger. Her DNA is pretty easy to read, too.

Over the past six years, bassist, composer and multi-instrumentalist James Singleton has maintained a roster of working bands that would dizzy most performers. In addition to his quartet, he performs regularly with theIlluminasti Trio, DVS, 3Now4, James Singleton & Bluebelly, Astral Project, Stanton Moore’s trio, Brad Walker’s redrawblak, Joe Cabral’s trio, the Helen Gillet/James Singleton duo, the Orleans 6—the list goes on. His main gig, though, has been Ruby.

On December 7, Singleton releases Shiner, his first album as a leader since his daughter’s birth in 2008. As he points out a few days before Ruby’s house party-staged Hermione expedition, she’s dramatically impacted the way he makes music. While Ruby’s playtime skills indicate she inherited her dad’s creative curiosity and affection for exploration, he credits her with inspiring, among other things, a new degree of openness in his work. These days, he muses, he may write the beginning of a tune but has learned it would be “presumptuous” to write the end when he has such strong collaborators at his side.

“Parenthood has been an intense deepening agent for my work,” says Singleton, seated in a mostly empty room upstairs at Fairgrinds, his neighborhood coffee shop, the day after his 59th birthday. He pauses to take a gulp of the large black iced coffee before him.

“It’s added urgency to my process and depth to my performance.” He also picked up the trumpet, his first instrument, for the first time in 35 years after Ruby arrived.

Despite these boons, Singleton admits somewhat sheepishly that it’s taken three years to get the album out. The multi-year span reflects the fact that he had to learn a new approach to making an album—one that wouldn’t involve spending large periods of time focused on the record at the exclusion of other aspects of life.

Figuring that out caused some bumps in his process. He recorded a pair of studio sessions before ditching them for live material, though the studio work may appear on a future recording. Sequencing the album took a year, in part because he enjoys his dual responsibilities of booking agent and artist. “The booking agent in me wants the first song to be two minutes long and unbelievably intense and, ‘Yes, we want your band,’” he explains.

Ultimately, though, the final product underscores a lesson well learned.

Recorded during three Snug Harbor performances with Mike Dillon on vibes, tabla and percussion, Larry Sieberth on piano and a rotation of Skerik, Mark Southerland and Tim Green on sax, Shiner encapsulates the reciprocal energy that thrives between Singleton and each of those artists—then magnifies that by four.

“DVS,” Dillon’s eponymous anthem for his punk-meets-funk improv trio with Singleton and Vidacovich, benefits from an added layer of orchestration courtesy of Sieberth.

“Larry is a one-man orchestra on piano and he can play the entire history of Western music in one song,” marvels Dillon.

“In some ways, this is my ultimate band,” Singleton muses, his eyes twinkling behind the frames of his glasses. “Everybody’s a great composer and everybody’s a great melodist and everybody’s strong rhythmically, texturally. And at any point I can fade out or lay out knowing that something amazing is going to happen. And they provide space for me to do the same.”

In this ensemble’s hands, “Lento,” which appeared on Singleton’s 2008 string quartet album Gold Bug Crawl, morphs into something more wistful but also more angry, as the unsteady skittering of a bow and the foreboding growl of percussion meet a high-register piano assault that sets upon Skerik’s horn lines like an agitated swarm of bees. Green’s contribution comes in the form of a 19-minute suite comprised of five tunes that play as one. Casting the piece as an “essential … odyssey,” Singleton says it’s “a great example of the depth of our connection.”

It’s also a prime example of how, like Ruby’s approach to game-building, Singleton’s music follows a path that prioritizes evolution and challenge above resolution.

“Most of the pieces on my project start one place and end up someplace completely different, and to me that’s a huge victory and something I’ve been waiting for,” he says. “I’ve been involved with various forms of traditional improvising for 40 years and typically the music starts in one place and there’s some solos and it comes back to that place. My music reflects the complexity of my experience more if it starts in one place and goes somewhere else and never comes back.”

Despite being as expressive verbally as he is musically, the bassist does not elaborate on Green’s unexpected death earlier this year, implying, if unintentionally, that in this case, the music can communicate more.

He’s less reserved when it comes to analyzing his own work.

“I want my music and my career and my personality to drive the musical discourse towards adult complexity,” Singleton says in a measured cadence. “And you don’t have to be an adult or even smart to appreciate it, because I want my work to reflect the complexities that get me excited about life.”

That philosophy lends itself well to a career that’s spanned as wide a range of genres and forms as Singleton’s has. Before he began pioneering new concepts about rhythm with Astral Project, before he recorded albums with Johnny Adams and Alvin “Red” Tyler, before he started working regularly with the likes of James Booker, James Black, Nat Adderly and Bobby McFerrin, Singleton paid his dues at clubs all over New Orleans.

Having bailed on college after three semesters each at Boston’s Berklee School of Music and North Texas State University, he moved to the Crescent City in 1976 on a tip that guitarist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown needed a bass player. The audition, detailed in David Lasocki’s history-stuffed 2010 biography,James Singleton: Rhythm Crusader, taught Singleton he had some learning yet to do.

Piecing together oral histories, reviews and news stories from throughout Singleton’s life, Lasocki draws a rare and valuable map of the club scene in New Orleans from the late ’70s through the ’80s in the process of telling his subject’s life story. (Lasocki, Singleton notes, “was the tenured music librarian at the University of Indiana” who specialized in Renaissance woodwinds but started writing about the members of Astral Project after developing a jazz obsession. “He’s a Brit and he’s a New Age healer,” Singleton says. “He’s just a total weirdo. My kinda guy.”)

Rhythm Crusader illuminates less commonly known aspects of Singleton’s life like his decades-long love affair with traditional New Orleans jazz and his experiments with transcendental meditation—as well as other, less legal forms of consciousness shifting. It also paints a picture of the bassist as being perpetually hungry for new musical inspiration and information, a picture that rings as true in 2014 as it did in 1976.

Recalling his New Year’s Eve arrival in New Orleans that year, Singleton says the first music that made an impression was a pair of duo performances.

“One was Johnny Vidacovich and Angel Trosclair and I was thinking, ‘How can they think of playing without a bass?’ And then it sounded so good I realized well maybe I should just shut up and listen. And then I heard James Booker with Cyril Neville on drums and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, he’s playing all the bass with his left hand. I don’t know what I would add to that.’ And then finally hearing the Meters and thinking, ‘Wow, I had no idea what funk was. I’m starting from scratch. School’s in session.’”

From that point on, he began to see that the New Orleans music community itself is an education system for those willing to take advantage of the opportunities it holds. (By the same token, he refers to his post-Katrina years in Los Angeles as his “mid-life sabbatical” from the grind of constant gigging.)

It’s not a far leap from there to his notion that music should be something an audience can connect to regardless of their maturity, experience or even intelligence. That philosophy also comes in handy in a town where boisterous and booze-centric club environments are more common than the kind of focused listening that rooms like Snug Harbor are able to foster.

One Saturday night in October, Singleton and Vidacovich joined Dillon upstairs at the Blue Nile’s Balcony Room for a double-header gig of DVS and Mike Dillon band repertoire. The room filled quickly with a mixed crowd that encompassed a range of types, from the weekend-on-Frenchmen-Street characters to faces familiar at Jeff Albert’s often-experimental Tuesday night Open Ears music series. Twenty minutes into the first set, Singleton plunged into a bass solo, alternating deep, rhythmic plucks with percussive rapping on the body of the bass. He locked eyes with Dillon, who turned to his tablas and improvised a motif so melodic it sounded like he’d added a tabla tarang to his rig.

Singleton grinned. He swayed. He looped verbal warbles. He scrunched up his face in gritty, enthusiastic wonder.

“His wild streak to me is that he has the enthusiasm of a 4-year-old, or of his daughter, Ruby,” Dillon later said. “James has been able to maintain a childlike thing with his playing. He’ll just be so enthusiastic. A lot of the guys who are his age or my age, they’ve seen it all and they’re just bored and cynical.”

Dillon and Singleton began sharing the stage after Katrina, often with Skerik. One of the first times they played together, Dillon felt compelled to interact with Singleton’s energy and his willingness to break the rules in service to innovation.

They were playing a blues, the vibraphonist recalls. “Most guys will sort of stay on the blues and stay very true to the form. And it may seem minor to those of us that hear it all the time but all of a sudden, he cranked up his distortion and he just started hitting his bass as hard as he could. I remember thinking, ‘This is awesome,’ and I just started playing a punk-rock beat with him. And now we do that all the time. But when it first happened I was like, ‘This guy’s got the spirit.’”

Sieberth, who’s been improvising with Singleton since the late ’70s when they both worked in Gatemouth’s band, echoes that sentiment, pointing out that the most challenging aspect of improvising is “letting go of what you know.”

“There are sometimes forms in Jim’s music, but even those forms are subject to transformation or [to] letting go of what is expected,” Sieberth says. “Part of the joy of playing with Jim is that you have to be on your toes at all times. Part of it is to expect the unexpected.”

With Shiner’s release date just around the corner, Singleton settles down once more in a quiet room at Fairgrinds. In one hand, he holds a small black notebook full of thoughts on music; in the other, a large black iced coffee.

“Ugly beauty, that’s Monk’s title,” he says, pondering one of the themes he’s jotted down in his journal. He connects the idea to street art that’s simultaneously beautiful and hideous, and references an art exhibit called “Pain” he once saw in Berlin.

His thoughts shift back to music—specifically, to pianist Thelonious Monk’s waltz, “Ugly Beauty,” which he performed, sans harmony, with Dillon and Vidacovich at the Blue Nile’s Balcony Room.

“Did you think the record was dark?” he wants to know.

Layered with color and texture, prone to bouts of punk rock-inspired fury and shot through with unexpected riffs on joy, yes. Dark? Not exactly.

“During the post-production I thought this was the darkest record I’ve ever made,” he counters. “I thought this just reflects the ruin of my [previous] marriage and my life and then recently I started saying, ‘No, man, this is very beautiful and uplifting.’”

The truth is probably closer to an assertion Dillon made: That music can be all of those things simultaneously.

“Sometimes looking deep into the soul, you’re gonna find some darkness, but that’s where you find the beauty to keep going,” Dillon says. “In this culture, we need more darkness to see the real beauty. James is one of those artists who’s not afraid to go anywhere. That’s what I like about playing with him. You start at one place and he’s so wide open to the music and letting it go where the music wants to go, not where he wants it to go.”

Singleton sits back in one of the hard, wooden chairs that circle the room at Fairgrinds. They’re arranged in such a way that they seem ready for either a second grade glass or an AA meeting.

Shifting his weight, he returns to the ideas he’s listed in his notebook.

“Forgiveness,” he says. “And I don’t know how or if that comes through my music.” He sits quietly before noting that improvisation requires forgiving oneself in the moment so that you can move forward, musically.

“It might be the next step.”




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