Name: Caleb Wheeler Curtis
Nationality: American
Occupation: Saxophonist, composer, improviser
Current release: Caleb Wheeler Curtis HEATMAP is out now via Imani. It features a quartet also including pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

[Read our Gerald Cleaver interview]

If you enjoyed this interview with Caleb Wheeler Curtis, visit his official homepage for more music and information. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and bandcamp.

When did you first start getting interested in musical improvisation?  

When I started playing saxophone, in the public school band program, I was already interested in playing jazz. I remember improvising innocently on piano as a kid, and finding music in it.

My education always had a focus on improvising in a traditional jazz context. It wasn’t until I moved to Brooklyn in 2009 that my awareness of the breadth of possibilities with musical improvisation started to broaden.

Which artists, approaches, albums or performances involving prominent use of improvisation captured your imagination in the beginning?
I loved Rahsaan’s Bright Moments, Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, the Jazz Messengers’ Caravan

When I was 18, a friend had an extra ticket to see Ornette Coleman at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. I went, without any awareness of Ornette’s music, other than perhaps it was “wild”. I remember the concert was intensely captivating. It took me a few more years to wander into his musical world. On my new album HEATMAP, the song “Surrounding” bears the influence strongly in the melody. My first teacher, Vincent York, has a forceful and beautiful sound that I can still hear in my head.

My dad bought me a copy of Spirits In The Field by Arthur Blythe. It sat in my CD alarm clock and woke me up many mornings, and I could never figure out if I liked it or not. Eventually, I realized that confusion was one of the reasons I loved it.

Focusing on improvisation can be an incisive transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?

One of the ways I began to find improvisation as the primary driver of my music was through exploration and fascination around sound and timbre.

In a lot of the composed music I was playing, especially in small ensembles, I began to realize that timbre and texture were not among the main concerns. I was never fully convinced by content oriented music, where the ideas that generate the pitches are the important part, and my extensive personal study of the saxophone eventually began to reveal more possibilities.

I was also motivated to do something, anything, different from what I perceived to be the primary narrative of saxophone playing.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to improvisation? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage?

To me, improvisation means always considering the moment. The moment is now, before, and after. Rhythm, melody, and harmony can help you see into the near future and also re-contextualize the recent past. For me, these are just the first three elements to be explored with improvisation.

When considering timbre, dynamics, vocalization, projection, intonation, articulation, balance, along with non-musical elements the possibilities become fascinating. When these are explored in real time with an ensemble we have the opportunity to uncover music in a way that can feel like magic.

As a saxophonist, I feel connected to players that place a high value on playing with a voice-like quality, like Johnny Hodges, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, others …

They play with an expansive palette and can be expressed in differing styles. My teachers and inspirations have been primarily Black American Musicians, and I aspire to be a part of this tradition.

What was your own learning curve / creative development like when it comes to improvisation - what were challenges and breakthroughs?

My path with improvisation started as an intellectual exercise, but has become an emotional one as the barriers have fallen to time and a frame of reference shift where my relationship with music has become primarily an aural relationship.

I had a few instrumental breakthroughs, after many years of diligent work on sound and fundamentals I began to discover some sounds for myself. An accident led to a thought, to a new sound I could produce on the instrument. Through collecting these sounds I started to think about their individual qualities and how they may fit together into a broader relationship with improvisation and vocalized, emotional, playing.

Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?  

For nearly 20 years my primary instrument has been a beautiful Selmer Mark VI alto from the mid-60s. Every time I open the case, wherever we are, it feels like saying hi to an old friend.

I know so much about that instrument that can never be described in practical terms, the intricacies of the mechanism and sounds we can produce. I have never found that access to a musical idea is limited by this instrument, when there is an issue it is nearly always that I am not clear and focused. Because of the excellence of the instrument, I have subsequently demanded excellence from myself - there is always more to do there, and at times that has produced a narrowing developmental path.

In February of this year I was excited to find a Buescher Tru Tone Straight Alto (what Rahsaan called a stritch) for sale online. I’ve been performing and recording on it since. These instruments are really unusual and I’ve always wanted one - like an alternate universe of something I already know so well.

This instrument was made around 1930. In comparison to my Selmer it has major mechanical and ergonomic issues, but it has been providing me with an opportunity to let go of some of my intense focus on accuracy and clarity, and just enjoy the feeling of the instrument and the sounds that can be produced.

I have also been performing a lot more on trumpet, and finding some musical excitement, timbral changes, and performance fear and anxiety along the way. Between the straight alto and the trumpet, I feel excited and wild on the gig. It helps me walk into the situation and accept it for what it is, using my air and intuition to produce emotion and something greater than the notes that are selected.

Can you talk about a work, event or performance in your career that's particularly dear to you? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

My new album, HEATMAP, although my third album as a leader, feels like my first. It is the first time I felt a clear sense of direction from start to finish, and even a year after the recording it still feels new and relevant to me.

I started working on the album while at a residency at MacDowell in New Hampshire. It’s a perfectly tranquil environment to compose, practice and relax. While the music started to unfold, I was reminding myself that I wanted to leave space in the music, the air, the musician’s minds, and for the listener to hear each player. I thought about making music that can be heard, that prioritizes how the instruments and people sound.

This may sound funny, but I often encounter music that makes me hear the ideas, the architecture, the thinking, more than the sounds.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your collaborations? Do you feel as though you are able to express yourself more fully in solo mode or, conversely, through the interaction with other musicians? Are you “gaining” or “sacrificing” something in a collaboration?

The first thing that must be done is to listen to the music being made. This has to happen whether I am playing alone, or with a group. A well intentioned collaboration, approached honestly and with intentionality for respect and mutual listening, is one of the most satisfying musical experiences for me. A collaboration can be as short as a performance, or as long as a career.

One of my long term collaborative projects is with Ember (bassist Noah Garabedian, and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza). Our latest album, No One Is Any One, features Orrin Evans on piano, and is a great example of what is possible when the aforementioned concepts are in place.

Ultimately, music is to be shared, not just with the audience, but with the musicians. I think creating an environment where everyone can be heard, relaxed, and inspired is a skill unto itself. This is what a great bandleader does, and what I aspire toward every time I lead a band.

When you're improvising, does it actually feel like you're inventing something on the spot – or are you inventively re-arranging patterns from preparations, practise or previous performances?

I think of it more as a cultural expression of something abstract.

When we get together to play, the music spills out naturally. One moment we are talking about our day, week, life, and in the next moment we are knee deep in sound. I want them to be different expressions of the same thing.

Do we re-arrange patterns when we talk with each other? In a way, yes, but ultimately we feel that they are novel expressions and experiences. We have things that we say or do that give us comfort and stability, and sometimes we need those things. Music is the same way.

To you, are there rules in improvisation? If so, what kind of rules are these?

The strongest guidelines that have helped me the most with improvisation are:

1. Listen to the music
2. Play what the music is asking for, it may not be being played yet, or it may be silence
3. Be generous

In a live situation, decisions between creatives often work without words. How does this process work – and how does it change your performance compared to a solo performance?

During a performance, we can detect changes in direction, or suggestions from each other. Since music is abstract by nature, we cannot be sure that we understand literal meaning or intent from these suggestions. So, we can take them in whatever way makes sense to us. Through a continuous process of making and receiving suggestions, the music moves.

The exception to this is when there are literalisms pre-defined in the music, perhaps a phrase that cues a new section, or something of the sort. The suggestion and listening process can produce incredible situations, thrilling in the moment!

When playing solo, this still applies, but the suggestions may be accidents, or surprises discovered during the process of discovery. This process is fundamental to me, it is the driving force that makes improvised music exciting.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? In which way is it different between your solo work and collaborations?

For me, the greatest obstacle to being creative is clearing my mind of distractions. This is hardest when I am by myself. Without distraction I can pursue an idea without judgment.

This is the other main difficulty, and it is very important to not judge the ideas as they come. Investigation will reveal the value of an idea, change the context, or find a dead end.