by Phil Enns
For Jazz Winnipeg’s Nu Sounds series last year, local jazz guitarist Keith Price organized a Double Quartet to re-envision Ennio Morricone’s landmark soundtrack for The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly in the style of Miles Davis’ late 60s-early 70s “electric period” (the full soundtrack, accompanied by scenes from the film, can be heard on Youtube). This year, Price’s Double Quartet is set to perform at the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Live on the Rooftop series on July 3. Stylus sat down with Keith to discuss his past work, what currently inspires him, as well as his unique approach to jazz and composition.
Stylus: Since the inaugural Double Quartet performance last year, have you had a chance to watch The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with sound?
Keith Price: Unfortunately, no. I have a copy of it, and I just haven’t had time to sit down. Cause I want to sit down and really enjoy it with sound. I have a son who’s not yet two, so it’s just been crazy.
Stylus: It’s funny. I sat down and watched the whole movie before seeing your show there. And then I realized only afterwards that you hadn’t heard the original soundtrack at all!
KP: Well, I’m kind of familiar with the theme of it. Someone gifted me with an LP with a bunch of the music from that and other films that Morricone did, so I’m familiar, but I haven’t sat and dug into it. But I wouldn’t have been able to do it, I think, if I had heard it. It’s so. . . renowned, that it would be, I think, probably debilitating if I had heard it.
Stylus: The description of the next [Double Quartet] show seems a little vague: “the band. . . will follow the muse wherever it may take them.” I recall a story you told of a show you played in Toronto where you had got a band together and the only instruction you got before playing was, “Go!” Is this the kind of spontaneity you’re hoping to recreate at this show?
KP: We’re always kind of doing that to some degree. If it’s a jazz standard, it’s very scripted. There’s the form and you repeat, repeat, you know. Then with the Double Quartet, there’s just sketches. Just trying to guess what Miles Davis was doing with Bitches Brew, and whatnot. So I’d say, yeah, we’re always trying for that. It just depends on how much outline has been done. For Bitches Brew, [Miles and his band] did a lot of jamming and actually spliced a lot of tape together afterwards. So when I was experimenting with the music for [The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly], I was thinking with that in mind: not to write too much. To give a framework, a tempo, a chord or two chords. Just enough information that you could then fill in, like let the muse take it from there. When it’s totally open, it’s almost harder to be creative, because anything could go, and you have eight different senses of what should happen. But with a little framework, then you have eight people collaborating to be creative within that outline.
Stylus: What is currently inspiring you?
KP: I’m really interested in Ali Akbar Khan, who was a sarod player – which is similar to guitar. He’s playing the music of Northern India, which is like ragas and stuff, so very modal music. So I’ve been listening a lot to his stuff and trying to incorporate what I enjoy about him. I was trying to learn about how to do slide guitar to show a student, and I was watching a Derek Trucks video, and he said that [Khan] was a big inspiration for him, so I checked it out and just loved it. He really takes his time to really dig into a note, and then, like, slide up to that note again. It’s almost like he’s slowly painting. And with the raga, it’s like a scale, you know, but you can’t overplay certain notes. You can’t really balance them either, or else it loses something. So, it’s just a very different way of playing. I’ve been really enjoying the simplicity, but it’s also deep. It’s really focusing on a note at a time.
Stylus: I’ve noticed that about your playing, too.
KP: Maybe when I heard him it was like, “Oh, that’s more like what I mean to be doing.” So, there’s that, and then I listen to a lot of electronic music. It’s really about the sounds and the samples. Boards of Canada, especially, and Nicolas Jaar. So not jazz stuff at all lately. Just different palate-cleansing stuff, you know?
Stylus: You recently made a decision to retire all your previous compositions in favour of new ones. Is this a permanent thing?
KP: Well, it’s not easy, but I can see the benefit of it right away: that it’s just forcing me to work and, therefore, get new stuff out. I heard that George Carlin did that and obviously it’s evident that every year he was taping a new special.
Stylus: And he would never repeat himself?
KP: No, like he would tour for a year: he’d write it, tour it, record it, and then start the process again. And I don’t know if he did twenty HBO specials, or maybe more? And like, the last one he did before he passed away was my favourite. He only got better with age. It’s like Ali Akbar Khan. I read a quote [of his] this week that said something like, “After ten years as an artist, you may please yourself. After twenty years, you may please your peers. After thirty years,” – so on and so forth. It’s like, “after fifty years as an artist, maybe you’ll please God.” We’re so focused on, like – the culture is so into “the-kids-on-the-talent-show TV” or whatever. We’re not talking like life-long pursuits, you know? I guess I’m kind of rambling, but I don’t know, I guess I get excited about that kind of stuff, so… Yeah, I’ll probably have to keep doing this, as sad as it is to throw away all the stuff that you did and maybe enjoyed. But I don’t know. I can always break my rule! But a lot of artists have done that. I mean, Miles [Davis] did it, Coltrane, and, you know, U2 and the Beatles. But I mean it’s a natural thing if you’re an artist. I think if you’re a commercial entity, maybe it’s not.
Stylus: You’ve always sort of gravitated towards suites and extended pieces (e.g. Gaia/Goya suite; GB&U soundtrack; even Zoom Zoom from your first album). Have you always had an interest in that? Where did that influence come from?
KP: Well, even with the first album, I really was careful about how I placed the songs; that it should have a flow. I guess I’ve always been interested in “the album,” not like a single, you know? And if I had to think fast, the first live concert I heard was Pink Floyd. My dad took me, and we sat outside the stadium. At an open-air concert, you could just get a lawn chair and listen, you know. I was really into that stuff, and Dark Side of the Moon. And to me, that’s a very suite-based thing. Even to give away a little secret, Gaia/Goya is slightly based on Animals, the Pink Floyd album. So I guess it probably comes from Floyd. But at the time I was going to write “Gaia/Goya,” I was with Ron Paley and the RWB. Ron had done this beautiful ballet, A Cinderella Story, and I was really paying attention to that, and the way that he was bringing back certain themes and how that whole thing develops, which was a giant undertaking. I thought it would be fun to challenge myself to try something like that. So I guess “Gaia/Goya” was 20-something minutes. The movie thing is longer…
Stylus: Your latest release, Solo Guitar, was influenced by your involvement playing through “Artists in Healthcare.”
KP: It’s been about seven years now that I’ve been doing that stuff. Right from the get-go, it was really heavy. I started out in the hospice, playing for the terminally ill, and I was not prepared for that; just dealing with the heavy emotions that are around that. But it was a learning experience to see how music could deeply affect people. It shows the value of music and of human connection. It’s deeper than music, I guess. [Also,] I guess I wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to do any of that stuff if it wasn’t for all the hours spent in the hospital playing. Some of the things on the solo album are a bit dark. Like, I didn’t play them at the hospital, but they definitely developed there. It was nice to be simple. Guitar is not easy to play solo, so I mean, I picked up chops, but. . . jazz musicians are always so complicated and so technical. It’s been freeing just to play simple melodies and just enjoy that. I think that comes out of the hospital [experience]. You know, you don’t need all the fanciness or whatever. I’ve been trying to distance myself from that pursuit as much as possible. I feel like it’s limiting. But it’s always in the back of my mind – the jazz audience, are they judging that I’m not playing fancy?
Stylus: So, you’re almost a little bit like “Jazz for the Common Man.”
KP: All the other genres of music, or most of them, their central focus is like a connection; an emotion. You know, like a singer-songwriter or a punk rock band. All these genres, to me, share something, and I’ve tried to bring that into jazz and make that the focus. [Before writing “Gaia/Goya,”] I was reading a lot of Gary Snyder, and I love the way he writes haiku. So much is said with just a few things. So I try to keep the melodies – not really like haikus, but in the spirit of haiku.
Stylus: You recently became a father. How has parenthood affected your creative output?
KP: Well, it’s shown me that being an artist takes a lot of selfish energy, in a way, whether you’re doing it ultimately for yourself or for others. And a young parent doesn’t get a lot of “selfish” time. It’s a perspective changer. Now, it’s like serious time management. But at the same time it’s inspiring. It’s amazing to be there as someone grows. I feel like maybe once he starts going to daycare or to school, then I’m going to have a lot to say creatively. There’s so many moments, but then, you’re so exhausted, and there’s no time to really put it down, you know? Like, I got to get the diapers, I got to do the dinner… those are the things that have got to happen now.
Stylus: This year at Jazz Fest, you played a free show at the Cube. Could you talk a bit about your experience with Jazz Fest overall?
KP: I really enjoy the energy it brings to the city and particularly the Exchange District. It’s really fun to have a lot of great music happening within a few city blocks. As a local artist, it gives me an event to work towards and a chance to showcase my music and my progress as an artist. It’s also great to hear so many of Winnipeg’s talented musicians and to get a chance to bump into them and catch up.
Stylus: You tend to play a lot of the smaller venues at Jazz Fest. Are there plans in the works/have you ever been approached to play a larger theatre show?
KP: No, I haven’t. I mean, it’s not something I ever really think about. I mean, we have played the West End opening for [Robert] Glasper and before the Bad Plus, but. . . some guy who writes haikus and just threw out his back catalogue—I mean, you’re not going to put that on the main stage, right? But I don’t mean that in any negative way. It’s not even part of my equation, like, worrying about it. I mean, one day it would be wonderful if they ever asked!
Stylus: Maybe fifty years down the line, when people are covering your retired material, then you’ll be asked.
KP: If I’m lucky, I guess.
Don’t miss Keith Price’s Double Quartet at the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Live on the Rooftop series on July 3.