Common Ground, High Voltage (Delmark 564)
Along with Tom Wright's duties as co-leader and co-composer
of Common Ground, the violinist was also busy designing the cover art for High
Voltage when he was asked to talk about this quintet. One of the more obvious
questions considered the link between Wright's interest in photography and his
years as a musician.
"You have to do two things at once with art," Wright says. "You have to look inside to find the feeling that you're trying to communicate, but you have to stand outside to see if it's working. You find the feeling in yourself, and you make sure you have the technique to communicate the feeling. The same thing happens in photography. For me, with the violin, I had the technique, and now I can say what I feel."
"Sometimes you need to hear someone else to say, 'Yeah! That's how you do it,'" Wright continues. "That's what happened to me when I heard Zach Brock."
Brock is just as enthusiastic about his partnership with Wright and adds, "Tom has a solid foundation on the instrument and he's always trying out new things. He and I think a lot about emulating other instruments in jazz and their phrasing, tone, or articulation. He challenges me in different ways that are valuable for my musical growth."
The violinists joined forces about five years ago and their group's name reflects how mutual affinities transcend generational differences. Wright moved to the mid-West from Washington, D.C. in 1981 to take a prestigious job with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which remains his main gig. About eleven years after Wright began working with the CSO, Brock moved to the area from Lexington, Kentucky as a classical music undergrad at Northwestern University. While the younger violinist was completing his academic work, he began performing with many of Chicago's renowned jazz musicians, including vocalist Patricia Barber. Today, Brock is a leader and sideman in several groups, primarily the Coffee Achievers.
Since both musicians share that classical background---as well as a longstanding devotion to The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix---one can imagine how Wright initially responded to hearing how his current partner reflected lifelong jazz experiences on stage. The CSO vet always sought America's great improvisational idiom to free him from European classical restrictions. Brock grew up with bop; as a teenager, he performed with his trumpeter father, Dan Brock. The potential of two musicians playing electric violin together also intrigued Wright and the results are clear on High Voltage.
"Amplified fiddle mainly gives you the freedom to play in the sweet zone of your dynamic range," Wright says. "Where you've got as much head room above that you can hit when you feel like it---throw out a loud note here and there---as below where you can drop down to a whisper easily. It's great to be in that zone and play with drums, too. We like being horns."
Wright and Brock's emulation of many different instruments helps make High Voltage so fascinating. Brock says that his "What's In A Name?" is an "unabashed tribute" to guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and saxophonist Mark Turner.
"It was my first attempt to get into the way they treat two lines against a rhythm section," Brock says. "How they can create something that's so complex, but forward moving and melodic."
In keeping with jazz instrumentalists' time-honored methods, Wright conceived of his ballad, "Too Late," with words in mind. After the opening phrase came to him while driving to visit family in DC, he let the piece follow its own path.
"What you do is test the feeling of those first few notes," Wright says. "And that pretty much gives you what the tone of the piece is. But you let the harmonies of the notes basically tell you where it's going to go."
Wright's "You Do It" did not originate as spontaneously. He says that it was origianlly part of an extended work and this five-minute piece was, "just a group riff that happened halfway through the tune, but it kind of maps out nicely against the rhythm changes." Another Wright track, "Half Tone Poem," also came from part of a larger piece and the title refers to, "a compositional key in there that is a half step in the melody. The bass stays on this one note and we're a half step above it."
Brock also drew on his background in twentieth century classical music to write "The Itch."
"That's a twelve-tone piece that basically came from using the techniques of serialism," Brock says. "It's obviously not a stricktly serial piece, like Anton Webern, but comes from using those techniques that breaks you out of things that you would normally write."
Not that Brock is always striving to be such a conceptualist. His "Pakula Blues" is a straightahead hard-bop minor key jam.
Along with their own compositions, Common Ground has fun covering Miles Davis' "Nardis" and Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance." And they revisit an initial passion on George Harrison's "Within You Without You." Attentive listeners can hear the group's take on The Beatles' studio experiments when Brock's solo is replayed backwards.
Both co-leaders are equally demonstrative in praising their colleagues. Brock says that pianist Jordan Baskin is "so mature, sophisticated, and mature on his instrument that people are going to figure out this thing about him pretty soon." He also says that being a stringed player himself, the violinist "keys into people who are excellent string players and bassist Mike Arnopol is definitely that." Wright marvels that drummer Tom Hipskind is, "open to anything and can do the most amazing variety of music."
As far as their own future, Wright is optimistic that Common Ground will create a bigger niche for instruments that are still unusual in jazz.
"Here's our goal, to put it simply," Wright says. "When someobody is throwing together the sidemen for a singer or pianist, they'll ask, 'Who's the good drummer in town?' 'Who's the good bass player in town?' We want them to ask 'Who's the good fiddle player in town?' before they think of a saxophone."
---Aaron Cohen, Contributor, Down Beat