23 May 2022
New York drummer Michael Lauren has become a key figure in the Portuguese jazz scene, as a musician and pedagogue, over the last twenty years. At the helm of his group The Michael Lauren All Stars, he released the albums “Once Upon a Time in Portugal” (2015) and “Old School / Fresh Jazz” (2018). Now, Lauren releases a new album, recorded as a trio, “Live at Mobydick Records” – the result of a livestream concert. In this trio, accompanying the drummer, are guitarist Vasco Agostinho and bassist João Custódio, playing high-intensity jazz. Eray Aytimur exchanged impressions with the drummer about this new work; the photographs, in Jardim da Estrela, in Lisbon, are by Inês Sousa Vieira.
Throughout your long career you'd made live concert records but the record from a worldwide livestream is a brand-new way of production. Have you ever planned to do so if there were no pandemic? How had your original release calendar been scheduled?
Not really! I just wasn’t interested in doing this type of concert, because it would have been done in an empty club, with no audience to play for. That doesn’t seem to be either natural or a fun way to play music. The only reason I agreed to this World-Wide Live Stream concert was that it was to be performed in a recording studio, where I knew that the three of us would feel more comfortable. Additionally, I was hoping to make a live record that would be pulled from the live stream, knowing that the music was being backed up to multi-track. Then if I decided to make a record from the concert, I would be able to remix the music if needed later. The release calendar was determined by deciding first, when the mixing and mastering would realistically be completed. Then the label, Mobydick Records, would decide what was the best month in 2022 to release the single, followed by the album one month later. The label believed that the end of March was the best time to release the single, which would also give us time to prepare the promotional campaign.
Joined with the first questions, how did the pandemic make an impact, either positive or negative, on your artistic motivation, creativity and efficiency?
Most people were affected negatively by the pandemic. I was no exception. Right before Covid became a problem in Portugal, I retired from my position as Professor Adjuncto of Bateria at ESMAE. That was the first week of February 2020. Covid completely changed my retirement plans and I went without any work for many months, both in my private teaching and concert performing. Fortunately, I had a busy summer playing a variety of concerts and that even continued into the fall. Then the worst happened. I was hospitalized for Covid in early December 2020. Thankfully, I recovered and was able to start performing again in the Spring of 2021. During the periods that I was without work, I spent my time practicing, keeping in shape and working on new ideas. It was in the Spring of 2021 that I was invited and agreed to do the Live Stream concert. In preparation for the concert, I wrote a number of new tunes. It was a creative time for me, motivated by the Trio’s Live Stream date.
Talking about this record in general terms; bendy notes, catchy tunes, flawless tempo, harmonic approach of jazz-rock era at its peak, with long solos, bass ostinatos, etc. but if we specify piece by piece is more to say… First of all Biji is an out of the blue opening for this release. You replaced the swing of the original version with funk &r rock rhythms. What is your connection with Biji?
Yes, I replaced the swing of the original version with a different swing approach. Where the original has a light swing feel, I took a more aggressive hard-hitting approach. The B Section of Sonny Rollins’ arrangement has a light funky backbeat. In my arrangement the B section has a Swinging Latin feel. I also chose to arrange the tune with trading 8’s immediately following the melody and not waiting till after solos, which is generally where trading starts. I have always loved playing Sonny Rollins’ tunes because of their rhythmic melodies and logical harmonic forms. So, when Vasco Agostinho brought Biji to a rehearsal one day, we immediately added it to the group’s repertoire. For me Biji is a happy energetic tune. It’s really fun to play and the perfect tune to open the record and concerts with.
Ritual do Cabrito and Sempre Em Frente are like the tributes for your Rock'n'Roll era. Apart from that these two are underlining both technical virtuosity and theoretical know-how, based more on chromaticism. How do you describe the theoretical and technical base of these tunes?
Because Ritual do Cabrito was written by guitarist Vasco Agostinho, I felt I should ask him what was the theoretical and technical basis of his song. Vasco told me that the tune comes from the bass line and that the A section melody is based on the Blues scale. However, to make the melody more abstract he removed the obvious notes that would normally be played with the resolution chords. Vasco also told me that he wrote the B section to contrast with the A section and thought of the B melody as the anchor that connects the harmony of the B section. He also visualized the chord progression as a curve, which moves the harmony away from the A section harmony. It’s at the end of the curve that reconnects the B section harmony to the A section harmony. Vasco’s use of chromaticism can be heard in his guitar solo. To support the A section, I played a displaced funk/ rock snare drum groove and then contrasted that in the B section with a very 60’s Rock/Soul style quarter note Snare feel. My tune Sempre Em Frente, with harmonic input from Vasco, is an AABA tune based on the African tribal concept of call and response in the A’s. The B section has an 8 bar through composed melody that is supported by all dominant seventh chords. The progression of the B section is as follows: V, IV, V, I, IV, V, IV, V. I wrote this tune playing off a drum groove while singing different call and response melodies into a tape recorder. Upon listening back, I chose the best melodies. The A groove was based on a classic 4 measure Rock/Soul beat, with a contrasting B section groove that has more active snare drum rhythms. Ultimately, this tune is all about locking in the deep groove.
Bonfim Blues is one the most familiar tune by you and likely to be the first indicator of the overall sound of this drum led trio. How did this tune evolve from its beginning to how it is today.
I wrote Bonfim Blues for the first The Michael Lauren All Stars album “Once Upon A Time In Portugal” with the tunes like Freddie Freeloader and Things Ain’t What They Use To Be as inspiration. I wanted a mid-tempo Blues with a melody that was not complicated on the album. So, I wrote the tune. Because the Trio had been playing it on gigs, I decided to include it but with a new arrangement and a slower tempo in the Live Stream Concert. For the new arrangement I decided that the melody, when played the first time, would be played as a question and answer between the contrabass and guitar for the first 8 bars, and then the last 4 bars of the melody would be played in unison. The second time the melody would be either be played, in unison or by the guitar alone. After the solos the melody would be played only by guitar. Also in this arrangement, I decided to play a drum solo upfront. The solo starts free, eventually evolving into a form solo leading into the melody. Later in the tune there are trading fours, which I hadn’t done in the original version either. I also play with more activity and with a harder swing than in the original.
Let's talk a bit on Looking Back at Life, a ballad with an overwhelming bass solo. What do you see looking back at your life to grab the ambience of this tune?
During the pandemic I had lots of time to think about my life, where I had been, all that I have done and things I still wanted to do. So, I decided to write a Ballad that drew the listener inward. I wanted to create a melody that was both introspective and sad, because of the state of the world and lost opportunities, but also emotionally beautiful, as fortunately my life has been full of my many accomplishments, great times, great music and great memories of all the wonderful people that have passed through my life. I wanted to bridge the end of Sempre Em Frente into the beginning of Looking Back at Life. I also wanted to feature João Custódio on this tune. So, I decided that an unaccompanied bass solo was the perfect vehicle to accomplish both. It is a wonderful moment on the album. João is a terrific musician and a killing bassist. I also decided that Vasco, who also a special musician and unique guitarist, should have an unaccompanied solo at the end of the song, which would also be a bridge into the next tune, which is his composition, Fresco. There is a symmetry to having unaccompanied solos at both the front and back of the tune. A symmetry that is hopefully similar to life.
Fresco is an atmospheric, groovy, more like a 2020s fusion. Do you feel a bit distant from bebop harmony these days?
I never tire of bebop harmony. For me, one of the most important roles I have when playing is to support the music I am playing at the moment I am playing it. There are always fresh ways to relate to the changes and you really don’t have to use the rhythmic language of the Bebop era when playing bebop tunes. You must listen to the other members in the rhythm section and the soloists to understand what is possible. Playing is about choices. The challenge is to make the right choices and make the music sound fresh, exciting and committed. Just like the creators of Bebop played it.
If you have been designing The Jazz Tree 2022, how would you place or categorize this album?
I would place this album on the branch called Contemporary Jazz. We are now at period in jazz history where if the artist or influencers call the music jazz then it is jazz. This album is Contemporary Jazz or what I call Jazz & Beyond because of its variety of stylistic influences and its eclectic repertoire. I believe this is a record of the moment.
Not limited to this release, you go on with your Drum Academy education. What is your opinion of and expectations for the new generation drummers? New legends coming?
I believe that this is a very fertile period for drumming in Portugal. There are many excellent and knowledgeable drummers today, some of whom I had the pleasure to teach while I was the Professor of Bateria at ESMAE for 18 years. This new generation of drummers read, have excellent technique, and most importantly they have developed their own sound and approach to playing jazz. Many are also composers and leading their own groups, and that is a very healthy development. Honestly, I don’t know about legends because time will determine that. I just hope that this new generation doesn’t forget about being melodic, supportive, remember that space in music is just as important as sound, play with a full range of dynamics, always be emotionally committed to the music that one is playing at the moment and listen to the music, not one’s ego. The music will always tell you what to play if you just listen