It’s a bitter start to March, beyond unseasonable, but inside Joe’s Pub the vibe is a little more breezy. Mark de Clive-Lowe is on the East Coast maiden voyage of his Live at the Blue Whale EP, debuting a set of four tracks that embody “the idea of one foot in the tradition and one foot forward,” his own pastiche of homage to inspirations Ahmad Jamal, Yusef Lateef and Sun Ra. It’s a burning set, featuring Nate Smith (drums), Burniss Earl Travis (bass), Jaleel Shaw (alto sax) and John Robinson (guest vocals). De Clive-Lowe’s fluidity on the grand piano is rivaled only by his sonic manipulation of its sound, which he runs through a variety of processing hardware. There are a lot of smiles on the bandstand.
A knowledgeable and continual student of music eschewing “systematized pedagogy,” de Clive-Lowe champions rigorous exploration, self-realization, and community, evident on both the new EP and his last album Church. I catch up with him via phone a couple weeks after the NYC gig.
“I’ve just been impressed by an iPhone function,” he says, citing the “Maybe: Ari” Big Brotherism on the latest OS. This is impressive for a man so versed in technology. He’s back in Los Angeles after taking the Blue Whale set to the Midwest, and we’re both sipping coffee at home. De Clive-Lowe speaks with an openness that immediately makes me want to call him Mark, and our conversation feels not unlike one of his sets, wending its way easily among topics. An edited version appears below.
AS: How were those gigs?
MdCL: We just did my party ‘Church’ in Chicago. I’ve never fully delegated it to anyone, and I did for this, to the point they even lined up a bass player and drummer for me who I met at soundcheck and didn’t choose myself. It was kind of risky, but it turned out great. A nice way to meet people on the bandstand [laughs].
I was watching you at Joe’s Pub, and I feel like that’s part of the allure of what you do. There’s definitely a ‘no safety net’ kind of approach, just doing stuff on the fly, very improvisational - that’s a huge part of your sound.
Yeah, for sure. As long as the other musicians get it, to a point, then we’re good, but I have definitely played with people who are really good musicians, but it’s just not their thing.
Do you feel like there’s one thing above all else that makes for a good Mark de Clive-Lowe sideman?
I think open-mindedness more than anything. Generally cats I use are heavy jazz players, so they come from that modality, and you’d think that would mean they’d be open-minded, but like any genre, we have the left, right wing and center kind of players. I love the combination of tradition and new evolution and forward thinking, so if someone’s too stuck in one and not the other it can be problematic. I find that if someone’s a solid player, and specifically genre-wise, if they’re open-minded, then we can go anywhere.
That was definitely evident at the Joe’s Pub gig. Had you played with Nate and Burniss and Jaleel before?
Nate, I’ve played with a lot. He was the main drummer on my album Church, and he was pretty much the resident drummer for a year and a half, monthly, in New York. So we’ve played a fair amount. Burniss, we’ve only played a couple of times. We’ve hung a lot. A lot of it comes down to that, too; I’ve gotta like the people [laughs]. It’s really hard to be fluidly creative with someone who you clash with. Jaleel, I’ve played a few gigs with, but he’s great because he’s so into anything different, and I think when it comes to a bass player and drummer, or guitar or keyboard player, you’re more likely to be open, but if you’re an alto sax player, by nature of your instrument, you might be more constrained by tradition and expectations. He’s an amazing straight ahead player, but with him it’s all music.
So, you’re from New Zealand, born and raised?
I’m half Japanese, so I spent a lot of time in Japan as well.
And then you moved to London?
Yeah, I moved there in ’98, was there for almost 10 years.
And I read that was prompted by signing to a label?
The move to London originally happened because I was chasing a girl around the world.
That’ll do it.
Yeah. Most of my major life changes have been a result of chasing towards or away from a woman [laughs]. But the London thing was solidified by having my album Six Degrees picked up by Universal in the UK. And that definitely locked down the idea of putting down roots in the UK.
I feel like that’s in pretty stark contrast to what you have going on now with Mashibeats. How would you describe the transition from working with a major label like Universal to where you’re at now, in terms of independence as an artist?
I feel like it’s very much in stride with the times and the way that the industry has evolved. That album was signed in ‘99 and released in 2000; that was still at the peak of the traditional music industry. I was in the jazz department so it was already a little more niche than their mainstream department. They had the machine and the machine still worked; the average album lasted in the public imagination a little longer than it does now. It was a whole different time - we didn’t have mp3, it was all CD and vinyl. I benefitted mostly at that time from being able to just be the artist.
I didn’t have to wear multiple hats, basically. As time went on I did different projects for different labels, a lot of remixes for independent labels, sort of one-off projects. It was interesting, in that transitional period from before to what they call Music 2.0, seeing that some labels had their shit together and some really didn’t. In the UK you had a label like Ninja Tune doing amazing things, as an independent label, and then you have a major signing something a little more niche than they could probably handle, and it just doesn’t work. As time went on it became more self evident that if I wanted to do things how I want to do them and on the timeline I wanted, then I’d have to do them myself. The whole idea of handing in the record and it being shelved for 2-3 years before it comes out… I can’t deal with that, really.
It’s the worst.
But at the same time, maybe that’s to my detriment. There’s circumstances where had a I made a particular album on a particular label that had a particular push, it might have landed differently. But I want to keep creating and keep moving, and whatever facilitates that is the way I’ll go.
In terms of the scope of what you’re doing now, it seems like your hands are on everything. Just the fact hat you run your own YouTube channel, to having your own label; does that extend to the booking and management end?
Yeah, it definitely does. I had a New York-based manager for awhile and ultimately I just didn’t feel like that relationship was justifiable. If I’m delegating or working with someone in any capacity, then they have to be able to elevate what I’m doing beyond what I can do. That pretty much led me to develop my hat-wearing in every possible direction, having to deal with everything… which is not always ideal. At the same time, it helps my accountability. If I’m not turning up to one aspect, then it’s just not getting done. I [also] love working in teams, so when the right people do come along it’s always great to lean into someone else, whether that’s a musician on the bandstand, an event producer, a label partner. Ropeadope are great like that - they’re not quite acting as a full label, they’re more like a label-management, co-label situation. It’s cool, because in some ways I might not get as much as I’d get from a traditional label, but I get a lot more leverage and leeway to do things exactly how I see.
It seems like that’s their number one goal - let the artist be the artist and help that.
Yeah, absolutely. There’s no right or wrong way to do it; the whole industry changed so much that we’re still learning.
I feel like the way you operate musically, which is very progressive and has evolution to it, applying those principles to the business end – maybe it’s not always gonna be easiest, but ultimately the most fulfilling or rewarding.
That was hard, man. That was the single hardest thing I’ve ever done, having done a lot of things. I imagine that’s what it’s like when you campaign for an election – every day counts. I learned a lot. I really did my due diligence to understand more about social media metrics and conversion rates, how those work and how to get people’s attention and maintain it. That was all really great, but it was a very, very intense month of the actual campaign, and the month leading up to it. It was a lot of work, but it was super encouraging to not only hit the goal but exceed it. I felt like that was a vote of confidence from fans and supporters saying, “We dig what you do, and here’s our vote for you to do whatever you want to do, because we believe in it.” I’m not sure if I would do it again, but I like the idea of it.
At this point in the industry we’ve seen it work to varying degrees of success. That last De La Soul record was crowdfunded in, I don’t know, six hours or something–
Yeah, but if De La Soul can’t do it, then there’s a problem [laughs].
Exactly, so how does it trickle down to indie artists who are trying to put music out?
I do see indie artists who don’t do their homework properly, who kind of think, “Oh I’ll put up a Kickstarter and then I’ll get my money for my album,” and it really does not work like that at all. It’s a whole ecosystem unto itself. I think anyone can, but it’s like anything - you need to put in the hours of sweat and study and commitment and see it through.
I think we hear the word “content” a lot, especially in the artistic world, and I always go back and forth in terms of whether that’s positive or negative, whether that kind of diminishes the art itself, or is it really what we’re talking about here? I feel like that’s a big buzzword in crowdfunding. Have you ever thought, “I need this piece of content”? Have you ever looked at it through that lens, or is it just like, “I just have to put this out, it sounds great”?
I look at it both ways. With the Kickstarter campaign specifically, I did a YouTube series of one take videos, and those were created as content to drive traffic to the campaign, there’s no question about that - that’s what they were. At the same time, they have to be musically what I want to share, and have to represent me. So I think in this day and age you have to be somewhat aware of both, but I try and remember that when it comes to the actual music, ultimately it’s gotta be the music I believe in, and it’s gotta sound how I want it to sound. As a byproduct, it is by definition content, but I can’t possibly preempt how people are gonna interpret that content or how they’re gonna use it.
Talk to me about the release and the inspiration for this new live EP.
I’ve done a lot of studio records, not a lot of live stuff. I always found that there was a disconnect between my studio records and what I’d perform on the road, and part of it actually has to do with the piano itself. I grew up playing piano when I was very little, but I stopped playing for 10 years while I was in the UK. I’d be in a studio session and the producer would say, “Let’s put some piano on this,” and I’d just say, “Nah man, let’s put some synth on there…” And you know, they still operate the same way as far as the keyboard interface, but an acoustic piano is a different beast. I felt like I had to divorce from it completely. It wasn’t until I moved to the states, and [wife and frequent collaborator] Nia Andrews had her debut show, and asked me to play piano, and I remember saying, “Nah, I’ll play Rhodes…” She’s like, “No, it’s my show; you’ll play piano.” There was a baby grand at the spot, and I played piano on her show, and it was cool. Something about it was like, oh yeah, this is that instrument that I– that I grew up on.
Why do you think you rejected it so fervently when you moved?
I rejected it because I was forced on it when I was four years old by a very, very strict father, so I didn’t have an opportunity to create my own relationship with it. Fortunately that rejection wasn’t music as a whole; I didn’t feel that need. He was pretty old school, so in high school, once I started listening to hip-hop - he hated that, it was a way for me to upset him but still be in music.
Was he a musician as well?
He wasn’t. He had a frustration of having not been allowed to be a musician. He kind of implemented that on his children, whether we liked it or not. So I feel like I had to take a break, and just explore music in different ways in order to come back to that instrument and form my own relationship with it. It wasn’t until the last two years that I’ve really started to feel comfortable on it to a point where I like what I hear, as opposed to when I was younger, it’d be like, “I wanna sound like McCoy Tyner, Kenny Kirkland, Herbie Hancock.” I was in that kind of jazz-head mentality of being in awe and intimidated and inspired by people who one can’t possibly become. So to go through a decade of ostensibly club music and electronic music and remixing and programming and sampling, and then come back to this instrument with more of a producer’s ear than the aspiring piano player’s ear, it was really great. And then to come to the Blue Whale EP - it’s a venue I play at maybe 3-4 times a year in LA. I love the space, it’s very conducive to playing creative music, and something about it just elicits certain kinds of performances for people. I recorded that show kind of on a whim, and listened back to it and felt like there was something there that I wanted to share, and also to share something that could be a bridge from the last record to the next record.
In the past two years or so, there’s been this real shoring up of the LA jazz scene. Do you feel like that’s true? Do you come to New York, and not like it’s the same old same old, but do you feel like there’s a difference on each coast?
Oh, there’s definitely a difference. I think that the section of the LA scene, the hot thing right now, is purely based on PR visibility and the success of Kamasi [Washington] and Terrace [Martin]. The thing to not forget is that those guys were playing that music the whole time. They didn’t suddenly reinvent themselves, and then they’re signed and then their record blows up, it’s just that now, suddenly outside of LA, they’re being heard. But when it comes to the two cities, yeah –I feel like, and I’m really generalizing here, before I risk putting my foot in my mouth [laughs]– New York has this incredibly high level of musicianship and execution, pretty much untestable. I feel like LA has this really rich, broad range of concepts, which I think is pretty much untestable. Both of those elements exist in both of those cities, but are respectively stronger [in each]. For me, right now, I would rather hear concept over execution. I want to hear an idea rather than the textbook example.
Actually, the night after your show, I saw Thundercat at Irving Plaza, and it was like - obviously he and Justin Brown and Dennis Hamm can just… shred. Above all else, I think the concept of what they’re doing is possibly stronger than the individual notes they’re playing. I mean, they’re playing a rock club, so they’re playing loud, and what’s coming through might not be the intricacies of the solos, but it’s this entire package.
Yeah, totally! Without concept you’ve just nothing; you’ve just got a whole lotta notes. And I think that’s the criticism that gets leveled at jazz when it’s not either trending or actually engaging, it’s just a whole lotta notes to someone unless they’re a student of the music. But why would you want to play just to the students of the music when you’re trying to actually, you know, translate a feeling to as broad an audience as possible?
I love the idea and the concept of what I do, and what I see happen at Kamasi’s shows and Thundercat’s shows, is that the audience perceives the energy of the music, and they may not understand what’s happening at all. I’ve had shows where we’ll have a packed dance floor getting loose to what I basically think is free jazz, but undercut with some electronics, and I don’t care that they’ve never heard Ornette Coleman, you know? That has nothing to do with it! It’s just like, let’s get on the energy of this and see where it takes us.
It seems like we’re in the midst of a moment where jazz music has become less and less precious - it’s not about this perfect thing, it’s about the experience and whatever the feeling is.
Totally, and we have that 20/20 hindsight now, where what we used to call open format DJing, where a DJ would play all genres – that used to be its own niche. But now I feel like the listener, especially younger listeners, they’re really open to everything. As long as the energy and the vibe moves them or touches them in some way, you can get them with the most outrageous avant garde music, the most minimal electronic music, the most lush soulful stuff - you can put it all together and tell a story with that and be captivating.
Yeah, it’s hopeful. So two questions about your musical diet - any records that you go back to, a warm blanket record, that you can go back to and–
Oh my god yeah. So many [laughs]. So many of those. Most of them are jazz records. One would definitely be Ahmad Jamal, The Awakening. That was the second piano trio record I ever heard. My big brother gave it to me when I was maybe 13 or so, and it just stuck with me ever since. There’s a record by Cesar Mariano called Sao Paulo - Brasil, which, for me is like if Herbie had grown up in Brazil and then made the Headhunters record in Brazil - that’s basically what it is. I love that. I was heavily into hip-hop in the early ‘90s, so there’s a lot of records from that time that are really special to me - X-Clan particularly struck a chord with me. But yeah, man, I feel like there’s something to be gained from everything, and I love checking out something I’ve never heard as much as something familiar.
Anything that you’re feeling recently?
I do like –I mean, I’m a little biased because I did put this album out on my label– an Italian artist named Tommaso Cappellato. He’s like a hybrid jazz drummer and techno-head, and he created a solo record which kind of morphs those two worlds together in a one man presentation. I love that kind of thing, because it’s not entirely audibly obvious, but he really has one foot in the tradition and one foot stepping way forward. That’s the kind of thing that really grabs me. Sometimes our kids will be like, “Did you hear such-and-such song?” and I’ll put it on and it’s just the most banal trap contemporary rap, and it’s not doing anything for me, and I feel like that’s because it doesn’t have that– I feel like I need that duality which is rooted in the past and moves forward. Whether that’s architecture, or food, or visual art or dance, or whatever it might be - I like to see that. There’s a whole range of new music that either doesn’t do that, or if it does it, it’s reference to the past is highly superficial.
It’s too obvious.
Not to sound like a grumpy old man [laughs]. And there’s a lot of talent in LA who may not have even recorded yet, and I’m just kind of waiting for their record. I can’t wait for the world to hear them.
Also, you being from New Zealand - that part of the world has been killing it. Obviously Hiatus Kaiyote –I know you did a remix for them– when they came out, it was everything I ever wanted and didn’t know that I wanted.
Exactly, that’s the perfect way to describe it. I feel like for me having not grown up in the States, and I think this speaks to Hiatus and other artists, it’s that - having not grown up here, I’m not even subliminally constrained by the restrictions of the tradition. If you’re a jazz musician and you grow up in New Orleans, then it’s gonna be harder to break out of that tradition, whereas if you’re growing up in Auckland, and you listen to music from New Orleans, it’s easy just to cherrypick the inspiration, and the vibe or the essence of the feel, and there’s no right or wrong way to digest that. So I think that’s really helped my journey a lot. From my time in the UK to my time here, my perspective is not local.
You mentioned getting some music from your dad and your older brother. Would you consider those your primal sources for music, your first sonic molders?
Yeah, those were definitely the seeds. My dad had a big big band record collection, and like, Leonard Bernstein musicals, and then my brother was into early bop, piano music especially, and late swing, so they definitely planted seeds. But there was a distinct moment when I would hear something, and it just– for example, when Mo’ Betta Blues came out. I went to see Mo’ Betta Blues and the music absolutely blew my mind. That was a life-changing moment for me. It got me into Branford [Marsalis]’s group, and specifically into Kenny Kirkland, but I remember kind of sharing that with my brother, who’d given me this music, and it was way too out for him. That was a moment where I was like, “Oh, there’s a lot more to music than you’re showing me, and clearly there are other things that resonate with me.” It was the same with hip-hop.
Getting into the first two Public Enemy records, and my dad catching me blasting them, and just being like [angry father voice], “This is not music!” [laughs]. Clearly, there’s more to music than your record collection! At the same time, those are very special records for me. When I came to New York last week, it had been a red eye, I got in the car, and my driver was like, “You’re tired, maybe you want some jazz on to just chill and relax.” He changed the station to WBGO, and there was a big band playing, and it was some ’30’s stuff, and I didn’t recognize the intro, and then the tune drops. It was Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls,” which is a specific track that I remember from my dad’s collection so well, and it really resonated with me. He passed away four or five years ago, and I felt– that was a connection moment. I was like, okay, he’s proud of what I’m doing. It’s all good.
That’s awesome. That’s what it’s about, though. The whole thing is a legacy.
On that tip, I do feel really lucky to collaborate with a lot of these musicians who, before I knew them or collaborated with them, I see them as the standard-bearers. Nate, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, James Genus, Marcus Strickland - all these people, but then they’re all so supportive of what I do, which has helped me really appreciate that as much as what I do is different than any peers, it has a validity and a place in the world.
For sure. Going back to what you were saying about the live EP being a bridge to the next thing: what are you looking at for the future?
That’s a very good question. I’m really enjoying getting back into the piano. The manipulation and use of electronics and technology - I love that. It’s really fun and has an aesthetic quality and a concept to it which I really enjoy, but there’s something about the piano– I don’t know. If you’re a builder or tradesman, you can have all these fancy tools or you can just have a hammer and nails - I’ll just take the hammer and nails. So there’s a bit of that aspect to what I’m thinking about now. I’m also getting into exploring my Japanese roots more, and traditional music from Japan. So there’s different things coming into the melting pot, and we’ll see where that goes. At the same time, I love the gigs where I get to rock a dance floor. So I feel like the finale is gonna be all those elements in some form.