Sunday, December 8, 2013

Ross Hammond 13 questions

 Photo: Keely S. Dorran
Ross Hammond is serious about music and the message it carries: "That's how life makes sense. Through music. I feel like that's the best voice I have; being able to play and being able to translate what I'm feeling into what I'm playing."

Hammond says he tries through his compositions to address the human condition and to deal with strong emotions. In the last few years, the birth of his daughter has found him exploring childhood and fatherhood in his writing.
"I like to work with themes and have variations on themes," Hammond said. "I don't feel like my music is very difficult or heady or ultra-modern or cerebral. Even though it's instrumental music, I feel like stories can be told. It's a really spiritual approach to writing music."

He's performed with many well-known musicians, including saxophonist Oliver Lake; drummers Calvin Weston and Mike Pride; and bassist Ken Filiano. Hammond plays in a duo with drummer Scott Amendola called Lovely Builders and in a project called Electropoetic Coffee with poet Lawrence Dinkins. Upcoming tours will see him on stage with Dwight Trible and rising saxophone star Catherine Sikora.

Hammond started playing guitar – a gift from his mother – at age 12, not long after moving from Lexington, KY, to Sacramento, CA. 
 "I was taking lessons from a really good guitar teacher named Jim Beeler, and he introduced me to Kenny Burrell and Grant Green and Wes Montgomery and Mark Whitfield. It was a step further than what I was already doing."

Hammond also gravitated toward free jazz "in the Afro sense. Stuff that has a really strong blues-rooted groove and the rhythmic thing is really there and battling horns – a cacophony of sound. But I'm also really into folk music. So I think in a sense the melodies I write are based on lullabies or things that I sing around the house. I always want to have something that's combining those things. Free-jazz improvisation with something that's thematic, a larger thematic idea that's the undercurrent of the piece. If I'm improvising, I try to play melodies against what's happening."

Hammond's own listening tastes suggest the eclecticism of his compositions. On any given day his house will be filled with the sounds of Joni Mitchell or Iron and Wine or Tarbaby or Iron Maiden. He also stays current with the jazz scene. "I'm constantly hearing music that's flooring me and I'm trying to stay up on it. I feel like if you don't stay up on the new music you're living in a bubble and I don't want to do that. "

Hammond's next project is a suite for sextet called The Humanity Suite, based on silhouettes by artist Karen Walker.

"If you're finding that things are always the same, the chances are that you're really not improvising," he said. "I enjoy playing and figuring out what kind of spaces I'm going to get into. The improv guys that I like the most are the ones that can do a lot of different stuff. They can play jazz, free, rhythmic, African, blues, folk songs. I don't want to put out a project where we only play one thing for an hour. I guess my goal is to have a voice and to bring my voice into any style that we're playing so you can always tell that it's me playing. I feel like Vinnie Golia has that and Oliver Lake has that. Whatever project they're in, you can tell it's them that's playing. That's a great thing that musicians should be trying to achieve."

Jason Crane, The Jazz Session

Which was the first musical sound do you remember?

Let's see, when I was really found I liked to stretch rubber bands between drawer handles and make sounds with them.  I was pretty intrigued by how stretching the string to different lengths would make different sounds, which is really all I'm doing now on the guitar.  As for actual music, I grew up in Kentucky and listened to a lot of music on the radio in the early to mid '80s.  I remember my Mom and I used to like Michael Jackson songs and maybe Jefferson Starship.  I think the first record (LP!!) i owned was Born in the USA.  I was probably 7 or 8 years old.

Hammond's 11th and most recent album is Cathedrals, released in June and featuring his quartet with saxophonist Vinny Golia, bassist Steuart Liebig and drummer Alex Cline. It's the sequel to Adored, his 2012 record with the same band.

What do you expect from music?

Well, above all else I expect a sense of fulfillment.  In terms of money some gigs are better than others, some years are better than others, etc. But to be fulfilled and challenged through a life of music is a great thing. One of my favorite aspects of music is that none will ever figure it all out. There are worlds of sounds and ways to create them, so no matter what road you take in music you're bound to be challenged and entertained by it. I also expect music to continue to evolve as the generations go by. I feel it's equally as important to collaborate with new generations as it is to play with and learn from older ones.

So, why do you love the guitar?

I couldn't imagine being without it at this point.  It's a lifelong puzzle.  I get just as much enjoyment out of sitting at home playing some acoustic music as I do playing loud electric, or electronic music, or blues, or African music, etc.  All of these sounds and styles can be found on a primitive instrument with wood and strings.  I love it and am very glad it's in my life.

Which work of your own are you most proud of, and why?

On the surface I'd say probably the Ross Hammond Quartet projects. It was a special thing to me to jump into the mix with these West Coast legends (Vinny Golia, Alex Cline and Steuart Liebig). To be able to do that and to be a peer and collaborator is a great feeling.  However, on a deeper level I'm just very proud that music has brought some amazing and fulfilling life experiences.  I've been lucky enough to play music for friends' weddings and funerals.  I wrote music for my daughter before she was born, and have written music based on old voice recordings of relatives and friends.  I wrote the music to my wife's precessional at our wedding, and have been part of keeping music alive from friends who are no longer with us.  In that sense, I look at music as a way to communicate throughout life.  It's a wild and wonderful thing to be able to have.  That's probably what I'm most proud of.

Which is the main border, the main drawback of the guitar?

I don't really know if there are any drawbacks.  If you're trying to sound like a trumpet it's probably best to just pick up a trumpet, ya know?  We have limitations in pitch and in intonation.  Sometimes we have limits in tuning or electronic malfunctions, but within these limits we make magic.  I don't really look at it as having any drawbacks, assuming the instrument is working properly and is playable.

Tell me something you love in music and why?

I love the community that music provides.  It's a special thing to be able to connect with other musicians without saying any words.  It's a special thing to be on tour in a new city and to be taken in by musicians since they know what it's like to be on the road.  It's a special thing to be able to sit down at a cafe or a venue and be able to geek out on cool records or instruments for an hour.  It gets even deeper for me when I'm with musicians that have families, etc.  The community is my favorite thing.

What’s the difference between a good guitar and a bad guitar?

Well, this is obviously subjective but personally weight is a big thing for me.  I don't have a lot of love for really heavy instruments since a lot of gigs for me get into the 2 and 3 hour mark.  That doesn't mean it's a bad guitar, it's just a bad guitar for me. Generally, guitars that are balanced well (not too heavy) and have great acoustic qualities are my favorite ones to play.  I like hollow bodies, thin lines, Danelectros, telecasters, 12 strings and really any cool acoustics.  I play a lot of banjo and a little bit of bass and lap steel too, so there is always something new to get into.

What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?

Well, it's definitely opened up the door for folks to be able to check out your music. That's a good thing.  It's amazing that kid in Prague can get online and download a record that someone made in Seattle.  That's pretty incredible.  However, it's not without it's shortcomings.  Artists will never make any real money from digital music unless they are capable of controlling their own recordings.  I'll be the first one to say that I believe "services" like Spotify are just leeches trying to make a buck off of artists.  They are succeeding, obviously.  I'm not sure what the answer is, but if artists would stop worrying so much about exposure and just concentrate on making good music and building their audience slowly I think it would be better. Everyone wants to be the hot new thing, but few realize that flashes in the pan never last long.

Define the sound you're still looking for.

You'd be pretty close if you said I tried for folk-based improvisations. Meaning, I'm a really believer in taking simple ideas and stretching them out for improvisation.  Most of my music is written either off of a groove or a melody, for starters. Then the rest is filled in. Even during free improvisation I usually try to play something that I can sing, or hum or tap, etc.

Why and how do you use extended techniques in guitar?

Extended techniques like overtones, harmonics and controlled feedback have always been very interesting to me.  I listen to a lot of saxophonists and other horn players, and the control that some have when they blow overtones is really something to shoot for.  I don't know if it's an extended technique, but I do like to play around with intonation and bending strings in and out of pitch when playing triads, harmonies, etc.  Also, I use some alternate tunings which always make the harmonics and things like Ebow and slide an adventure.

Which living artist would you like to collaborate with?

In terms of guitarists I'd like to play with Bern Nix, Nels Cline, Jeff Parker, Anders Nilsson and maybe Neil Young (!!!).  Those are some of my favorites, along with folks like Ava Mendoza, David Rawlings, Mary Halvorson and a few others.  In terms of other instruments, I'd love to do some collaborations with Matt Shipp, Darius Jones, Zach Hill, John Zorn, Ben Goldberg, Alan Cook, Christian Kiefer and many more. There are so many artists out there now doing great things it's hard to keep up. We just do what we can, I guess.

What dead artist would you like to have collaborated with?

I don't know about collaborations, but I'd love to have had a lesson with Albert Collins.

What’s your latest project about?

I just recorded a sextet piece called "Ross Hammond's Humanity Suite."  It was with Vinny Golia, Catherine Sikora, Kerry Kashiwagi, Clifford Childers and Dax Compise.  It is an hour-long suite broken into six parts that's based on the art of Kara Walker.  We recorded the live performance at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.  That will be a special vinyl release in the Spring of 2014.  Other than that, I'm trying to figure out music for a trio record with Calvin Weston and Jamaaladeen Tacuma next year, as well as a few other projects.  I'm doing a duo cassette-release with Sacramento drummer Jon Bafus, and potentially a solo release of stripped down electric and acoustic songs.  I try to stay busy.  :-)

Ross has collaborated/gigged/recorded with:

Phillip Greenlief, Kevin Seconds, Vinny Golia, Dwight Trible, Alex Cine, Adam Lane, Amy Reed, Steve Adams, Oliver Lake, Randy McKean, Ken Filiano, Mike Pride, Murray Campbell, Neil Welch, Scott Amendola, Chris Icasiano, Steuart Liebig, Scott Walton, Josh Fernandez, GE Stinson, Alan Cook, Tony Passarell, David Boyce, Sameer Gupta, Daryl Shawn, Lee Bob Watson, Brian Ballentine, Wes Steed, Christian Kiefer, Jocelyn Medina, Devin Hoff, Darren Johnston,  Kevin Corcoran, Lucio Menegon, John Hanes, Alex Jenkins, The Inversions, Lisa Mezzacappa, Byron Blackburn and Erik Kleven, among many others...