The String-Jazz World Music Explosion featured Western Michigan University music professors Tom Knific on double bass, Renata Artman Knific on violin, Andrew Rathbun on saxophone and Jon Ailabouni on trumpet. WMU graduate student Luke Marlowe assisted on trombone, while special guests Alon Yavnai on piano and Jamey Haddad on percussion rounded out the ensemble.
Yavnai was born in Israel, but has lived in Costa Rica as well. His credits include collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, Nancy Wilson, Regina Carter and The New York Voices. Haddad was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His collaborations include Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel, Yo-Yo Ma and Esperanza Spalding. Haddad has been playing in Paul Simon’s band for 9 years.
The Western Herald caught up with Yavnai and Haddad after the show.
Western Herald (WH): Why is it important for people to hear different music from different cultures?
Jamey Haddad (JH): It’s not. No, I’m kidding. I don’t think it’s, ok, first of all, I think it’s only important if it’s actually kind of well enough, you know, if it’s insightful enough and performed well enough that it captures the essence of the spirit of the thing. That would be your hope, because I know a lot of times even people say, “They’re playing jazz.” I go, “Wow, that’s not like any jazz I ever heard and I don’t even think it’s very good.” Then someone comes and says, “Hey, we want to play Brazilian music” and I say “Boy, you’ll give Brazilian music a bad name.” There’s a lot of things that, when you’re in the Americas, people get enticed into doing it. That guy who didn’t sound very good playing Brazilian music early on was me, but because I loved it and because I think I know the difference between what the real deal was and what wasn’t, I invested in it deeply and to the point where I moved there because I loved it. For students, I think it’s really important if you actually love some something to do some preliminary homework, but the best thing to do is to get on a plane and go there.
Alon Yavnai (AY): I think if you get to that point, to add to that, if you do get to that point and you really play this music in a way that you expect this tradition, you kind of fit in. You learn what this means to learn other people better, musicians and other people and cultures because music has to do with people who travel and geography and history, so you just understand the world a little better and you can, when you play, you’re not so concentrated on where you come from. You’re open to hear other things. You get to the level, like Jamey said, you want to be good at it.
JH: And then you find like-minded people. I mean I don’t play Brazilian music as well as I play my own music, being an American from Cleveland, but I know enough about it and the elements of it. I like to think my attitude is open enough that when we play, when I play with people who are actually the real deal in that music, if they’re open-minded too, we can find some common ground that is something that neither one of us have heard before. That’s what’s really exciting, because if he only wanted to play Brazilian music, all he had to do was walk down the street and play with somebody that was there and there’s a lot of good players there. I think we’re finding the spice market from people from other cultures once you’ve done your homework and understand some of where you come from. It’s a dangerous, slippery slope for people who don’t actually, haven’t invested in their own music and don’t own some one thing of their own life in music. Some people keep chasing something and hope that they’re going to find something before they actually go inside themselves.
WH: What inspired you to get into music?
AY: Well I grew up in a house of a father who played accordion and a mother who used to play piano and when I was born, there was already a big upright, brown, old piano that my father bought my mother for their first anniversary before they had money to buy a fridge. That’s what he told me, at least. So I got into a house that loved music and cherished music, not necessarily professional musicians that did it for a living. So the piano was one of the things I would just come and nobody said now you can do it or now you cannot play it, which is a common knock, and it was interesting. Then my father would sometimes play some things, play games like, “How many notes did I play?” It was a game. It started as a game. It still is in a way. It’s hard to explain exactly. The fact that there was an instrument in the house, there was a guitar, we always listened to radio, to music.
JH: That’s nice. That’s beautiful.
AY: To get into music, not professional, just to get into it, I think a lot of people are into music. They’re inspired to play music. It’s very immediate art. If you think about it, music essentially started from rhythm and singing so it’s there. You don’t have to look for it. It’s there. You just have to find the connection. What about you, Jamey?
JH: I was very dyslexic and as a kid, I stuttered really bad. I couldn’t talk very well. We went to an Arabic picnic, my mom and dad are both Lebanese, we used to go to these picnics when we were kids and so I was 4 years old and I wanted to know, my uncles were dancing and they were having a good time and I just thought, “Are you kidding me, man? I could do that.” I knew right then and there I could do it. I said, “I can do that.” That’s all there is to it. As school got progressively harder because I couldn’t read very well and I stuttered bad, I invested, by the time I was in second grade, it was a done deal. I was gone. It’s all I wanted to do. I was lucky enough to have a drum teacher that knew that I had a problem, and he was a marimba player and he would play tunes with me. I’d come in and he’d see me struggling with a lesson and he’d say “You want to play a tune?” He used to play drums for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
AY: Sometimes it’s one person in life who gets you…
JH: I never could thank the guy. By the time I figured out what was really going on in life, he was already gone.
AY: But you’re thanking him. You’re doing it.
JH: His name was Howard Brush.
AY: That’s a nice name for a drummer.
WH: What’s it like to create new pieces and debut them?
AY: Exciting. Moving. That’s all I can say. It’s moving. It’s exciting. It’s invigorating. It makes you want to do more.
JH: When you’re part of the sub-genius cast, you just always worry that you’re understanding the intentions of the composer but don’t close down enough that you don’t give enough of yourself.
AY: I don’t know what sub-genius means.
JH: Sub-genius? It’s like the hair club. I’m president.
WH: What are your favorite moments of your career?
AY: Mine is now. I’m having a ball. Really, honestly, I’m very happy playing with Jamey. We have a deeper relationship, music relationship, and it’s getting better and it’s making me very happy.
JH: I can’t think of anything that I like any more than being, you know there’s an expression. “There’s an opportunity to experience bliss at any moment, in every moment.” If you miss it, you just miss it. That’s all there is to it. You don’t find it, especially when somebody is offering so much music, that you’re in the wrong profession, man. You’re doing the wrong thing. I have to say I can’t think of anything that supersedes it.
WH: Do you have any future musical goals?
AY: I just got like three or four now. What about you?
JH: My future musical goal is to actually spend a little more time in Cuba and just soak it up. I think it’s a real test tube on the planet and I don’t think there’s anything quite like it. I just dig it. Something in me says it’ll do my world some good and I’m not even sure how it’s going to smell in the stew of my life once I turn the heat up, but I’m ready to put some of those Cuban things in the stew.
AY: For me it’s simple. It’s always shifting between performing and composing and I really want to write more music and the wonderful people showing interest in playing them and trying them out and playing them, specifically a brass quintet that I have to work on for three or four weeks from now and then a string quartet and solo piece for violin and viola. I do want to write a piece for Jamey and myself and orchestra. Those are some medium-long term. This is what I want to do, just write different music, different people. I want to write more.