Name: Paul Giallorenzo
Nationality: American
Occupation: Pianist, keyboarder, producer, composer, improviser
Current release: Paul Giallorenzo teams up with Charlie Kirchen, Ryan Packard and Ben LaMar Gay for the debut LP The End and the Beginning of their quartet RedGreenBlue. It is out now via Astral Spirits.

If you enjoyed this interview with Paul Giallorenzo and would like to find out more, visit his official website.

Over the course of his career, Paul has recorded and performed with a wide range of musicians, including Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Ensemble Dal Niente's Mabel Kwan and Jessica Pavone.

[Read our Charlie Kirchen interview]
[Read our Ryan Packard interview]
[Read our Ben LaMar Gay interview]
[Read our Ingebrigt Håker Flaten interview]
[Read our Ensemble Dal Niente interview]
[Read our Jessica Pavone interview]

When did you first start getting interested in musical improvisation?  

In 3rd grade there was a day when we picked our instruments, and I wanted to play trumpet but I didn't know what it was called, so I went with what I knew - clarinet, since my older brother played it. In middle school I started taking piano lessons and in concert band I switched over to alto sax and quickly found that it was more fun (and easier) to not play the music exactly as it was written.

In high school, I quickly realized these reed instruments were not for me and focused more on the piano, and to a lesser extent, guitar. In my piano lessons we focused on rock and pop, and eventually jazz. There wasn't an option to play piano (or guitar) in our high school concert band, so I started playing in the jazz ensemble and in rock bands, which was my first foray into "improvisation". Back then we called it jamming, and it was very exhilarating but quickly I realized that rock keyboard wasn't that fun for me and jazz made much more sense, felt better, and was more liberating.

I started studying jazz more seriously and in college I got exposed to "improvised music" proper and it made complete sense to me and I've been hooked ever since.  

Which artists, approaches, albums or performances involving prominent use of improvisation captured your imagination in the beginning?

At first, it was the feel I was interested in - the swing feel of Miles Davis and John Coltrane albums of the 50s and early 60s. I made my way into their later albums and Coltrane's in particular had a profound impact me on.

In terms of completely free improvisation, I had my first taste through DJs I met at my college radio station WNUR, but it didn't really click until I saw it live in Chicago in the late 90's. Musicians such as Fred Anderson, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Jim Baker, David Boykin, Michael Zerang and many others influenced me greatly, and made music that didn't have to have an apparent melody, meter, or structure, but rather it was more about the sound and the ideas and the real time interaction in a live setting that was magical.

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?

Absolutely. I didn't have the discipline for or interest in classical music. Rock music was, to me, limited in terms of structure and sound (I was unfortunately only exposed to a tiny sliver of "rock" music before college) and it seemed like a dead end to me.

I don't see a separation between musical and personal here, but jazz (and later on, improvised music) was exactly what I needed - something that was intellectually substantial and endlessly variable, but that also relied on intuition, feel, connection, and other intangibles.

I was able to directly connect to it in the moment, express myself, while still working on improving and relating and progressing towards a greater degree of expression and satisfaction.

How would you describe the shift of moving towards an improvisation based practise, both as a listener and a creator?

It made more sense to me and I could see a future for myself in this approach, largely because I had the good fortune of being in Chicago since the late 90s and there were so many inspiring musicians that blew me away with improvisation, free jazz, and experimental music.

I also, almost immediately, realized that this kind of music was even less commercially viable than "jazz", which is already kind of like the least popular music there is, so I had no illusions that I was going to "make it" or even earn a living. That kind of freed me up to just do my thing, practice and grow, connect with musicians that I admire, and focus on creating what I believe was worthwhile music and groups. Sometimes I wish I was a little more ambitious when I was coming up, but I think I've benefitted from having time and space to develop my thing.

Breakway was the first regular group I had that was all improvised, that played and recorded regularly and did a few tours.

Developing a cohesive group sound that evolved and deepened over time was a new thing for me and it was really rewarding.  

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?

I do see myself as part of a tradition - it would be impossible not to be, and I've considered a lot as to what I think makes improvisation "good" or "successful" and what makes it the opposite. A lot of this I owe to the musicians that came before me, and my experience as an audience member and listener.

I don't claim this to be unique or original, but my approach is to focus on listening while playing, trying to express myself while also leaving space for new possibilities to have a chance to emerge and develop. I've always found it a tricky balance between being relaxed and open, but also fully engaged and ready to lay it all down and go for it. To not feel the need to fall into grooves or habitual actions, even during the awkward moments, but also not to be afraid to play time or in a key.

One thing that I remember learning specifically was not to (necessarily) be reactive and quickly respond to a change or to mirror what another person just did, but to think of your sound as an independent voice in the mix. Back in the day when I would have conversations about improvised music more often, I would sometimes hear people say they don't like improvised music and I would often challenge them and say that it's because most improvised music is not great, and you can't judge a whole "genre" based on a few examples.

Also, I've learned that it's much harder to really dig improvised music from a recording than from seeing it live and getting the energy of the room.

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

I used to go the Sunday jam season at the Velvet Lounge religiously, and it wasn't free improvisation, but the music there was open and it could often get way out.

One day, when I was setting up for a gig there, Fred Anderson was talking to a few of us and he kind of just said something like, "the key to playing well is just to be relaxed and give your ideas a chance to develop" or something like that, I'm paraphrasing, and there wasn't like this divide between jazz and improvised music, but that had a lot of meaning to me, as well as how Fred lived his life - kind of just working on his thing, absorbing influences and inspirations, and focusing on expressing himself fully, with the faith that this is what makes good music, as opposed to constantly trying to do something or be something or sound like something that is not naturally who you are or what you have to say.

It struck me as very profound.

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?  

I've had many frustrations with the piano. It's not portable. Almost every piano you're going to play is very likely to be flawed (tuning or otherwise) and even in the best case, it's going to be different that what you're used to. The notes are tempered and it's kind of an on/off thing, as opposed to strings and horns, where you can bend notes and get much more expression from a single note just from slightly adjusting air and/or fingering.

Also, in the world of free jazz, especially in Chicago in the late 90s / early 2000s, piano had come to be a somewhat superfluous instrument at best. Many players followed the line of reasoning and aesthestics of Ornette Coleman and others that the chords and harmony of the piano kind of get in the way.

These limitations took me to electronics, which is world I still feel that I've only barely begun to explore, but it's opened up so much possibility.  

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?

I'd have to say when my first group as a leader, GitGo, started working. We recorded our first album in 2005 and it didn't get released until 2009. I would describe this group as "free jazz compositions", kind of a contradiction of terms perhaps, but not really. Each of the musicians in the group had more experience than me, lots more, and it was both nerve wracking and intensely pleasurable to have these guys play my music.

Paul Giallorenzo · Porous (For Quintet)

We got a spot at the 2010 Chicago Jazz festival, which was super rewarding, especially since I had been grappling with the "is it jazz or not" idea, and to be included in a jazz festival was very validating and exciting.  

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?

Perhaps because there is safety in numbers, I feel most free and expressive in a small group format, especially with a horn and drummer. The drummer has the rhythm / foundation, the horn player has the melody, and I cover everything in between.

In situations where we play "tunes" or "songs", I used to rely on a bass and drums but have found more recently that not having both or either of those instruments also creates a kind of increased freedom and ability for me to occupy those roles. In many situations, not having a drummer often, but not always, allows the music to be more dynamic and able to be quiet with energy or loud with sparseness. Solo performance is the most challenging for me, but also both the most familiar and I hope one day the most rewarding.

But yeah, I often find having a bass player or not makes a pretty difference to what register I cover and I how I feel I fit in to the sound, and how I approach playing in these cases.

For you personally, how would you describe the relationship between a clear individual vision and cooperative results?

Both are needed.

Groupings where no one is leader might have good moments, but it's really hard to sustain a group identity and sound and build on it. Situations where I'm the leader I tend to find more rewarding, but other situations where I'm there to just show up and play are often the most fun.  

Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?

There's many ways to interpret this question, but for me, I've often thought of improvised music as existing on a spectrum between "drone" and "beats", with drone being a sound that is universally connective to musicians and audience members. Anyone can join or hear a drone, and by doing so, there's an automatic unity that occurs. But because you can't stop time, drones are constantly shifting, changing, and creating constructive and destructive interference, and that's where beats come in.

Going back and forth between the two, cyclically, is a recipe for endless improvisation.

Nik Bärtsch reduced the art of musicianship to three principles: 1) Listen! 2) Only play the essentials 3) Make the others sound good. What's your take on this and how do these principles pan out in practise?

I can't argue with that. Only playing the essentials is the same thing to me as using space, but actively listening the whole time.

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?

In many improvised situations, especially when there is a rapport between the players, I've noticed that even the freest sounding material has a pulse or some kind of cyclical experience of time. Just as you know to come in at the top of the form for a song, many times you can just feel where something ends and something else begins. Correspondances that seem like coincidence are no more extraordinary then two people walking towards each other and simultaneously moving out of the way of each other.

So much of our experience and perception and communication is non-verbal, but because you can't talk about or describe this type of information, it's easy to think it doesn't exist or it's some kind of hoax or something. But it's very real and just because I can't or don't explain it to you doesn't make it less real.

Also, a lot of music is about practicing with repetition and developing habits, and we're all cyclical beings that move in and out of modes with some kind of periodicity - these often appear to line up with others more than randomly at least partly because our perception has evolved to see order everywhere, even when it's not explicitly there or intended.

An improvised music setting could be thought of as a closed system, where the equivalent of energy and angular momentum is conserved, and since all the components of system were set in motion at the same time and place, concordances will arise. Kind of how all the planets in the solar system where set in motion at the same time and somehow even though each has a very different orbit, they are all on the same plane and their paths are constantly creating resonances.

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?

Being creative to me is a balance between being relaxed and invigorated. Trying and being. Intending but not caring. I often feel most creative during an improvised performance, and when I'm writing music or creating ideas or structures outside of a performance setting, I find I'm often trying to inject a type of spontaneity into the proceedings.

This consideration of spontaneous action as a source of creativity was first articulated to me, even though it didn't resonate until years later, when I read Bill Evans' liner notes for Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, where he compares improvisation to a type of Japanese artform, talking about the necessity of natural action and motion without deliberation or explanation.

In a non-performance setting, it's easy to get bogged down in possibility and criticism, and it's a challenge to try to apply improvisational principles of generating and then committing to an idea and developing it, even when you have the luxury to deliberate and revise. Of course that's necessary, but I find my best ideas are kernels that are discovered through this process, and then refined and edited in the next phases.

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?

These are all intimately related, especially in a improvised music setting. There is no clear boundary or distinction. I would add to that your mood, whether you had a good night's sleep, what your past experiences with the collaborators are.

So much of improvising is being sensitive to the environment and responding in real time, and during these moments, everything affects everything else.   

In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music and improvisation express and reveal about life and death?

All music, whether it's improvised or not, has three things in common, like life. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I often think that people who have an aversion to improvised music, it's not necessarily because they find the sounds ugly or the ideas boring, but because it's unfamiliar to them and they don't know where it's going or when it's going to end. So there's this anxiety about what they're experiencing.

In a performance, the musicians and the audience might have very different experiences during the performance, but we're all together at the end and in the beginning.