Swinging Modern Sounds #98: Against Jazz


Nate Wooley, the reason for this piece, is a essential force in the contemporary music. Not only is Wooley a shockingly inventive and energetic trumpet player, who can apparently play in any form and who is beloved not only of relatively orthodox jazz musicians but also of rock, experimental, and noise aficionados, but he is also a person who knows everyone playing these days, and who travels easily among the various constituencies. He is also a studious and admirable polymath. He has read and seen and heard everything there is to be seen and heard, or so it seems. And if that weren’t enough, he has for some time now been the editor of an extremely influential journal, Sound American, a periodical currently in the process of becoming more ambitious, with a visible print edition. If you want to read a great piece of meditation and speculation on the idea of change, and one which reflects the musical capabilities of its author, read Wooley’s editorial letter about mulling over the history and future of his periodical. As with Wooley’s music, Sound American has been all over the place with what music is and means and what it feels like, and is essential reading for anyone who cares about the points of contact between classical music, new music, experimental music, and jazz.

I can also attest to Nate Wooley the individual, whom you will meet below, as thoughtful, funny, serious, understated, confident, unapologetic, and deep. I got to play with him on a couple of occasions, to be in a room with him as a player and to watch him, for example, exhibit circular breathing on the trumpet, which was incredibly moving; likewise did I see how improvisation, as an activity, unites all of the disparate learning environments of Nate Wooley into the one thing, the one profound and moving complete statement that is Wooley on the trumpet. As with many improvising musicians of my acquaintance, Wooley the musician answers all the questions, and you can hear this, for example in his Seven Storey Mountain series of recordings, and in his duets with Ken Vandermark, which represent vastly different moods but which are excellent in their disparate tendencies.

The Columbia Icefield album is new in a number of ways, with respect to other Wooley offerings. It is carefully constructed in its instrumental themes (it values composition as much as improvisation), it leans very much away from jazz ideas about rhythm toward something closer to rock ideas, and it is very ensemble oriented. The ensemble is remarkably strong, with Mary Halvorson on guitar, Susan Alcorn on pedal steel, and Ryan Sawyer on drums. Halvorson, assuredly one of the most unusual and interesting guitar players in New York City now (if not in American music whole), appears on Columbia Icefield in a way that is outside of her warm and understated recordings, as a noise guitarist occasionally, and the interaction of guitar and pedal steel, the swapping back and forth of musical responsibilities, is lovely and startling. The space on Columbia Icefield, in its lack of a heavy bottom end, is airy and inviting, and it’s hard not to think of that space as relating to the environment being described in the title of the project, and in Wooley’s stated ambition to try to create an analogue to the Pacific Northwest of his youth.

But any presumption about mood and intention on Columbia Icefield is hasty, because the moods shift on the record a lot—from light and accessible to dark and repetitive and foreboding and back again, often with Wooley’s keening and poignant trumpet at the center. Wooley lives in a place that both does not ignore Miles Davis and Jon Hassell, but which is also as aware of vernacular music and orchestral writing and post-minimalism. It’s a dense, changeable, mercurial, and fascinating record, this one, a real journey, and as such more passionate and demanding than music often is these days, but that’s what’s great about it, and it’s what great about Nate Wooley, too. The interview that follows has some of the most thoughtfully reasoned discussions of what it means to grow as a musican as I’ve had the privilege of listening to. Wooley is not just a great player but also a great thinker about the arts, and lots what follows could be as useful to prose writers, or sculptors, as it is to other toilers in the field of music.


The Rumpus: How much of Columbia Icefield was composed versus how much was improvised?

Nate Wooley: That stuff is way more composed than anything I’ve ever done; I’d say it’s eighty percent composed. Unless you hear a section that’s obviously someone taking off, that’s the only section that’s improvised. Everyone kind of has one: Mary has one; Susan has one or two. I had this idea of creating structures that either resolved or had tension or created static or had all three at the same time. Normally, I just try to let the musicians handle that and explain it, but, for some reason, I really wanted to have that on the page before they got there so I had to really consciously put improvisation in, which was weird when you’ve got that band; we should just really kind of let them go. Mary, Susan, and Ryan have been super cool about playing charts and just knowing they have these spots that come out.

Rumpus: What is your composition process?

Wooley: I have a notebook and I have different ideas. A lot of times, I’ll get an idea from something outside of music—the obvious one with that record being the Columbia Icefield itself—but there are also a lot of things with painting and sculpture and especially film. The way film is edited. So, then I start thinking, How do you make a musical version of that? So, with those pieces, I think almost all of them, they were based either on film or essays, the way essays are structured. I would start with an idea or whatever was on my mind and then tinker with it until it made sense. It very rarely stays with a clean version of that idea but it starts from there. That’s always been the way I’ve worked: seeing something outside of music and trying to figure out how to make a sound version of that and these pieces definitely came from… especially Clifford Still.

Rumpus: Clifford Still?

Wooley: I was getting really into Clifford Still at the time and had seen his paintings in person for the first time; I don’t know why it took so long. Seeing them on the page doesn’t really do much but when you really see them… So these ideas of these big colored spaces with irregularity running through them, that became kind of the theme. Like, “How can I do that in these pieces?”

Rumpus: The first piece—the “Lionel Trilling” piece—starts with a very sort of minimalist guitar figure that repeats for a long time. Did you just write it in your head?

Wooley: Yeah, I was in Maine when I wrote that. We go to Maine every year—my wife and I—and I had this idea of repetition to a point where, when it changed, it became a big deal and, on the drive up there—my wife was driving that portion, it just came to me what the thing would be so I got maybe the first three or four little cells in my head pretty memorized and just jotted them down. Over the course of the week I figured out how it would develop from there. I always knew it would be Mary and Susan doing it but I didn’t know what I would do until I figured out the rest of it. That’s one of the things that’s been great because I just told Mary and Susan: “Wait until it’s really comfortable and then change it,” and I had to dial it back a little because we could play that tune for an hour and a half.

Rumpus: [Laughs]

Wooley: Ryan and I would be sitting there twiddling our thumbs thinking, “Are they ever going to change?” That’s perfect; that’s exactly what I wanted but, for the record, I said “When you start to feel comfortable, how about we change it so it’s not an eighty-minute piece.”

Rumpus: This would all suggest that you knew the ensemble early in the process, that you were writing for the ensemble.

Wooley: Yeah, that was one of the very first things. I wanted to learn to write music that had improvisations but got away from jazz. I think I am and was, at that point, kind of done with swing and jazz. The band followed from there. I knew Mary and Susan, for sure, and I just thought Ryan was kind of perfect. Not just because he’s a great drummer but I knew I wanted some kind of text thing and the way he sings is so bizarre.

Rumpus: Was the combination of Mary and Susan of interest because you knew that they were working together already or was it of interest because the pedal steel is sort of Western-inflected?

Wooley: That was definitely part of it—the latter. I think I really liked the idea of them together because Mary is so angular and kind of sharp and very pointed and aggressive and Susan is so smooth and lyrical but they can both do the other thing, too. I didn’t know they were working together at that point and I had a gig with Mary and I said, “What would you think of doing this band with Susan?” and she said, “I love Susan; we just recorded a new album!” So, I was kind of like, “Maybe you don’t want to do more,” but she was really psyched and, you know, Susan was the same way: “You know, I just finished something with Mary and it worked out great.”

Rumpus: It seems to me like Mary’s used in a really interesting, applied way on your album; she doesn’t always sound like Mary on the record, especially that solo in the second song. It’s got a lot of distortion on it, too, and she’s normally super clean. What kind of instruction did you give?

Wooley: I didn’t give her any; that was really just all Mary. I structured the piece out so that myself, Susan, and Mary would each have a spot in the three sections. I think it was just a kind of a perverse thing on my part to put her over the drum because what does Mary Halvorson do with a drum? She’s so harmonic and plays fifty different harmonies a second so I gave her that section and during the recording she just laid into it and we were like, What? I think it was her chance to shred; she was like, “If you’re going to give me the spot to do it, I’ll do it,” and we played it live a couple times on the East Coast and, in the improvised sections, she’s a super rock hero. Maybe it’s the sound of the backdrop because I’m always running through a ton of reverb and Ryan is really a rock drummer, but she can do maybe what we don’t expect her to do. It kind of speaks to how broad she is; her music is so specific that she can go anywhere she wants to go. And the same with Susan; she plays things I never expect her to play.

Rumpus: That whole pedal steel as an improvised music thing is very original.

Wooley: For sure.

Rumpus: So, related to this is the question of why there’s no bass on the record. Can you address that?

Wooley: That’s a good question. I never conceived of having a bass player but I never thought about the fact that I didn’t have a bass player until we played our first gig. I think we played only “Lionel Trilling” for like an hour and a friend of mine came and said, “How come you don’t have any bass? It’s weird that there’s no bass sounds.” I started thinking that maybe I screwed it up; there’s even a version of those tunes with bass where I thought maybe Trevor Dunn would play electric but, as we got deeper we got into it and started to think about the recording, the whole thing kind of had this free-floating vibe to it and I thought the bass, then, either puts us in groove or it grounds everything and I didn’t do it.

I think Susan, being the person that can go the lowest, covers those areas when it feels like it needs it. The same friend—I gave him the record—said, “You know why this is great; it sounds like Prince and Prince doesn’t have bass either.” I was like, “Oh, yeah!” He said it has the same buoyancy so I don’t know what changed his mind because he was definitely like, “You have to get a bass player” the first time he head it but, this time, he was much more open and I think it’s true: everything is sort of up high. When a bass note comes in and Mary goes off, that’s the only time there’s a heavy bass.

Rumpus: How much rehearsal did you do?

Wooley: Not enough. We had two solid days. The thing that’s interesting is that Susan doesn’t really read that much. She memorized everything.

Rumpus: Wow.

Wooley: I sent her midi files and she listened and learned it, but there’s a lot of stuff there, things in order. It took us a really long time to get things together and, on the record, it was great. It was totally cool but I’m now realizing, now that we’ve done it on the road a couple times, it would have been so much better to do two weeks of gigs because it would have been a completely different, open sort of thing. I think that, because we were on the edge because of the lack of rehearsal, it created something I’m really happy with. It would have been a totally different record with another week of rehearsal but getting the four of us together in one place is not easy.

Rumpus: Mary’s touring a ton, right?

Wooley: Yeah, between Mary, Susan, and me… And Ryan just joined Gang Gang Dance so he was never around either. My agent in Europe said, “People are asking for the band; can we do something at the end of the year?” and the first time we could all get together was like May of 2020 or something and she was just like, “All right, I can see what this is going to be. I will think a little further in the future now.”

Rumpus: With the recordings, did you really try to play through the entire piece or did you record in sections?

Wooley: We recorded sections. I don’t think we needed to but, for some reason, that was always kind of the idea I had in mind. I wanted it to be a little bit of a studio record and I had just done a bunch of recordings with new music groups and that’s a lot of the way that they work. With these crazy pieces, it’s just like, “Let’s do these eight bars,” and we’d do three versions and then move on. So, that’s where my head was and that’s how we did it. It would have been really different had I just let everyone play through but it worked out well and it allowed me to kind of put some of the taped stuff underneath that I knew I wanted to do.

Rumpus: Oh yeah, can we talk about electronics and how that’s part of the idiom? Did you live process anything?

Wooley: No, all of that stuff was just stuff that I added. With one of the pieces—”Lionel Trilling”—there was a moment when I was too uncomfortable during the piece for whatever reason and I felt like it needed something. I had all these voice files from, I think, when I made The Almond and so I just started putting chords underneath it and then the huge piece just kind of fell into place so I thought, since I did it in one, let’s do it in all. I found different things to add to each piece. Initially, I got a sampler because I thought, I’m going to have a sampler to do it live and we’ll do the whole thing, and then I realized that where I put those things was totally dependent on what people were improvising in a lot of cases so it wasn’t going to work for me to just put a sample on the thing. We did the first gig in DC in a really small room and I had the sampler and was going to try it anyway and it was clear that it was way too small for us to use any kind of PA; it was going to be crazy loud so we didn’t do it and I didn’t miss it. So, live, we’ll just play. That’ll just exist on the record. In the second tune there’s a more subtle tape thing where Ryan is just playing the brushes and I start doing all these different speeds of him and he kind of plays that way. He could essentially create that just using the brushes, so some of those things come up. I have faith in the band live when we’re playing it through to manipulate things in a more interesting way than I can using pedals.

Rumpus: Does that imply that the Columbia Icefield band considers itself an ongoing band as opposed to a project?

Wooley: Yeah, I think so. I think everybody’s happy playing in the band; I think people are committed. I think people understand the sound of it which is interesting to me because, to me, it was a very new thing but, by the end of our little tour on the East Coast it was like, “This is the sound of this thing.” I could see, with Mary and Susan and Ryan, that lightbulb that I’ve had while playing with Thurston Moore where I go, “This is what I do; this is my job.” It’s not necessarily what I would do in my band but this is what will make everything work the best and I’m actually happy to do that. I play that way, too, in a normal improvising gig so it’s become its own kind of entity, which is really interesting. I’ve never really had a band like that.

Rumpus: I want to ask about the thematic vibe of the thing and its expressed relationship to the Pacific Northwest of your childhood. How much does that stuff inflect the composition and the result? Do you think of it as narrative in the sense that you’re trying to be illustrative?

Wooley: I don’t know how narrative it is; I think I’m trying to create a sense of place and that’s narrative in a way as well. When I had all three pieces together I did change some of them because it seemed almost too narrative, almost too much like, “Nate Wooley plays the hits of the cedar forest.” I didn’t want to do that so I kind of changed things but wanted to keep a certain sense of silence that I experienced growing up. It’s not a very silent record but just the pace of things, the density of things.

A lot of people have told me that they find it to be uncomfortable music. Where I grew up, the area surrounding it is a pretty uncomfortable area; it’s very dense and overgrown. You can look up and not see the sky because the trees are so tall. I love that but I recognize that that also has a certain kind of quality of throwing people off and making them feel uncomfortable. I wanted to try and capture that feeling and the fact that it wasn’t necessary a dangerous feeling. It just was like “This feels a little something but I also feel warmth from it.” That’s probably about as close as that gets.

There are some pretty overt references in the middle of “Seven in the Woods” with all the folk music-sounding stuff. Those aren’t specific pieces but the sound of it kind of comes from my childhood. My dad sang folk music sometimes for fun and those kinds of sounds of weird, wobbly harmonies are in my head. That kind of thing is very overt but the other things that are kind of spatial and dissonant just intended to give that quiet but dense feeling that I got from that specific part of the Northwest.

Rumpus: Because of the dissonances, it’s kind of anti-new age in an appealing way. But I was also thinking of the Pacific Northwest and how it must be changing considerably and that the feeling in the music is a pastoral feeling destabilized by industrialization.

Wooley: I think that the record of the Northwest is more of a portrait of how I knew it and not how it is now. There’s a lot in it that, inadvertently, is nostalgic but also there’s a lot in it that’s inadvertently frustrated with the change but recognizing the change. I think someone would say, “It’s modernized; it’s become less bucolic and less safe” but the thing that I most miss about, say, Portland, is how sketchy it used to be. It used to really not be a very nice place but it was colorful. It had that danger but with warmth; you never really knew what someone was up to and it was very much a sailing/mariner kind of town. So, there’s a lot, in my mind, in the way the pieces came together that are both kind of celebrating that sketchiness, that kind of shakiness and how change happens and how something on paper may seem anti-societal can actually be changed and what you lose when you change that, some things that aren’t so cut-and-dry that you lose them when you clean things up.

Rumpus: What about the literary illusions on the album? You have one piece that’s named after a critic of note and then you’re using a celebrated poet in the third piece. How does that relate to the overall thematic implications of the whole?

Wooley: That’s a good question. The choice of writers doesn’t really relate although the second piece comes from a line from a Jim Harrison poem and that’s probably as close as I get to the Northwest. There are people I grew up around—adults and people my own age—where I perceived a balance between physical work, creative work, and scholarship. Scholarship meant you were checking out your own stuff; you weren’t subscribing to anything. There were people that worked hard all day but they were also voracious readers. You might meet a guy who’s a lumberjack but was reading Kenneth Rexroth; that’s kind of a stereotype but that existed and so there’s something about doing this kind of music that sounds folksy, a little bit dangerous, a little bit noisy, is named after this place that’s kind of foreboding but, then, everything is also coming from the warmth of sitting in front of a fire reading. I just happened to be reading The Liberal Imagination when I finished that piece so I was like, “I’ll call it ‘Lionel Trilling.’” John Berryman I keep coming back to for some reason and, actually, we’ve been doing versions of Seven Storey Mountain V where I have someone record some of the Dream Songs that start blowing out over the top and Ryan had just gotten into those pieces, too, so I knew he would at least understand where I was coming from.

Rumpus: What is Berryman saying to you? He’s so dangerous right now you can’t mention him in the academy, and so I’m really interested in your decision to use his words.

Wooley: I know. I even sent some of them to be recorded and the woman recording them was like “I’m not doing that,” which absolutely made sense as I thought about it but I was seeing it within the context of the overall piece. I find Berryman fascinating because of his commitment to not only one way of writing or one way of putting a story together but of committing to those characters. I think it’s just an interesting way of dealing with poetry and so I became fascinated with it in that way. I grew up being fascinated by Beat poetry but, for some reason, when I went back to it at a later age, it seemed a little immature but then, when I read Berryman, that was kind of what I wanted that to be; this was that for an older person, recognizing the controversial bits of it, for sure.

I also like people who did stuff that was somewhat under the radar and way out and then were not recognized for it; it’s the same unclassifiable thing that I have for Harry Partch. Who knows why Harry Partch got what he got; it’s so bizarre what he’s doing. Berryman kind of fits that mold for me, too.

Rumpus: I feel those poems are representations of dream work, and as such very effective. There’s so much writing that purports to describe what a dream is like and it’s all so artificial and simulated. But something about Berryman and, I would say, even about the super uncomfortable race pieces, is it feels sort of genuine in rendering what the unconscious feels like and that’s singular. The hideous representations of blackness are what his unconscious really wanted to say about race.

Wooley: Absolutely. It seems more like a whole picture of the human being without bits being scrubbed out. Maybe because he’s attempting a dream-like state, there’s nothing that’s scrubbed up or cleaned up and it’s the ugliest bits. If I was really able to write my dreams down as well as he did or write in that kind of dream state or represent it, I’m sure I would have horrible stuff in it, too, because we’re all human and that complete picture is interesting.

Rumpus: His self-destructiveness comes from the same place. It’s like this intense commitment to what consciousness actually feels like that you’re willing to die for it.

I want to talk about the jazz issue again for a second because it’s so interesting to me, the problem of jazz. The guitar parts on your record definitely do not feel like jazz to me even though the dissonant intervals are not unknown harmonically in the jazz community, but it sort of verges on new music, or some vestige of art rock or prog. How do you discuss genre here?

Wooley: My thing for myself, lately, has been to try and make music where, if genre becomes specified to the listener, it doesn’t destroy the musical hold. I don’t try and do anything that’s genre based. I have, for sure in the past, said “This should be a jazz thing” or “This should be a rock thing.” Over the years I went through all these dogmatic phases.

I’ve been teaching at the New School and I’ve learned that the capital “I” in improvising is being able to handle everything and not being shut off to anything. It seems super obvious but it’s hard when you’re playing that music not to compartmentalize. Especially with this record, it was the first time that I wrote things from a non-genre, non-tradition oriented scheme. I was really just looking at, “This is the sound I want.” That idea of stasis versus resolution versus tension all at once: that was all I was concerned with. The only thing I’m bummed out about with the record is the first solo I take on “Seven in the Woods” has jazz elements to it.

Rumpus: [Laughs]

Wooley: I went, “Fuck!” Whenever I hear it I wish I hadn’t played that eighth note line. It feels natural but everybody else was so good at living in that music without referencing anything and I was the only one that was referencing a genre. This is the first chance to really do that because even “Seven Storey Mountain” has all this sort of genre stuff in it.

Rumpus: Do you imagine that the resistance to jazz is a transitional moment or just a kind of phase?

Wooley: To me it feels transitional. I still like jazz; I like playing it. But there’s nothing I hear in my own music that does that anymore. If I hear something on the radio I enjoy it; I heard some Woody Shaw on the radio this morning and was like, This is amazing, but, for the first time since I was twelve or thirteen, it didn’t make me want to go practice that stuff. I was like, This is amazing and now I’m going to go work on some trumpet stuff. It’s been thirty years of working with that stuff. I haven’t mastered it but I’ve come to a point where I’m happy the way I play. Do I need to force myself into that position where I will get the call from someone like Tim Berne? No. And that’s okay to realize that. At age forty-four. [Laughs]

Maybe I’ll just do my own thing and I’ll appreciate those guys for the amazing musicians they are and I’ll just be over here doing this thing instead. That’s kind of where I’m at right now; it’s a weird release of a lot of structure and tension that I’ve had since I was a little kid. You know: trying to do a thing and practicing this many hours a day of this and this and this and then just letting go of that. I’m going to wake up in the morning and what do I want to work on? I just want to play a B for an hour and listen to all the overtones and you realize that this has opened all this stuff up and you’re way happier and you sound better. The people around you are happier.

Rumpus: Is it possible that just improvisation itself leads in that direction, away from a sort of moribund commitment to the jazz tradition?

Wooley: It has for me. You can probably find examples where it’s done the exact opposite. It’s something I think about a lot because I wonder sometimes about people’s reasoning behind what they do. Not that I’m judging it but I find it interesting to see where people go. For me it’s become clear over the last couple of years that you’re only going to get this one shot to do a thing and you’re never going to make a masterpiece consciously. You’re never going to change the musical world consciously so what you really should do, if you want to leave any kind of lasting impression, is to follow your train of thought with as much rigor as you can and with as much energy and as much creative verve as you can and then be done with it. Once I realized that, almost all the jazz stuff went away because I just didn’t have any interest in being rigorous about that anymore.

I didn’t have the kind of energy I needed to make that music at a high level and I didn’t hear it. I’ve never heard a string of eighth notes again. What I hear is essentially what I play: this string of sounds that has different depths. Even as a kid I heard that and, for years and years, I’ve tried to shoehorn that into a thing. It hasn’t made me miserable or anything; it’s been a nice learning experience but, at a certain point, you’re not going to make that record. You’re not going to be the person that changes things so why are you doing this? Why aren’t you playing the stuff you hear in your head?

Rumpus: In your life as a guy who also edits an influential periodical about music, a lot of the time you’re dealing with new music and you’re not dealing with jazz at all. Has that also played a part in the journey?

Wooley: Yeah, although, I think, I was already probably more interested in other music than jazz when I started doing that. Our first conversations: when talking about long-form pieces and stuff like that, I was already thinking that way… I think it has affected me. It’s the newness of it to me. Even with the issue that’s out now, I basically understood it; I knew what a matrix was and I knew some of that music but every time I talked to someone, I felt like a whole new world was opened up to me. A little of that—leaving jazz or whatever I’m going through now—is that I don’t find much that’s new. Even things I’m told are new, I feel like I’ve heard thirty records like that, and since I haven’t found the thing that blows everything open for me in jazz, I look elsewhere. At some point, there will be a new thing and I’m sure I’ll be excited about it.

Rumpus: Even the jazz musicians that you’ve done at Sound American are impure.

Wooley: That’s true. We’ve never done like Sonny Rollins or something. At some point we really should but it’s just hard for me to do it and there’s one thing I’ve always said about “American” in Sound American—that’s a problematic name for a journal for me but the American is kind of beyond geography. It’s this certain kind of exploratory spirit that I equate with Harry Partch and Pauline Oliveros and just general weirdos just trying to figure out how to keep doing something new and pushing things and failing and being totally excited and happy to fail.


Photograph of Nate Wooley Quartet by Chris Weiss.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →