. . . and much more!
By Jeff Cebulski
Most current Chicago jazz ensembles are fashionably postmodern (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and are testaments to the ceaseless creativity of the local jazz community. I’m thinking of Geoff Bradfield’s and Matt Ulery’s recent works and Dana Hall’s “Spring,” especially. In preparation for this article, I revisited the music of another local ensemble organizer, bassist Kitt Lyles, whose 2015 release Real Talk was both refreshingly retro and thematically fresh, a Southern guy bringing his roots to the Northern climate. Besides the sparkling production, Lyles’ compositions brought to mind the height of the hard- and post-bop eras, reflecting the influence of Charles Mingus in his ability to fashion moments where the supporting cast could shine—exuding the joy of playing music without, perhaps, the emotional stringency of the famous bassist’s approach. Add both a piano and guitar for comping, and you have a stagewide expression with Lyles’ sturdy bass planted in the middle.
Lyles’ story is similar to a growing number of aspiring jazz musicians who come to Chicago, either as students or as independent artists, in order to craft a career in an environment that is preferable to the high cost/staunch competition of New York City. In his case, Lyles moved from South Carolina to attend Northwestern University, graduating in 2013. From his experience within the Northwestern music program, Lyles gathered a multicultural group of young musicians and formed the Real Talk Collective, whose performance at this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival was warmly received by their audience in the Jazz and Heritage Pavilion.
Lyles’ new album, Wake Before Dawn, is of a more postmodern, cosmopolitan nature, featuring two expansive pieces among the seven selections. The album is due for release early next year, but the current Collective will perform an early CD release concert at Constellation on December 6. Using this event as a starter, I spoke with Lyles about his music and career.
Jeff Cebulski: Does the new album continue in the direction of Real Talk or move in a different direction, compositionally?
Kitt Lyles: Wake Before Dawn is both an expansion of Real Talk and somewhat of a new direction. I set out when planning this album to not limit my compositional vision in any way within reason, as opposed to trying to create a cohesive concept for a set band. So, while Wake Before Dawn has a core septet, similar to Real Talk, it also has a lot of special guests and a string quartet. I basically didn’t want to fit it into a jazz box, but rather to just bring the music I was hearing to fruition the most organic way I could. So, while Real Talk has some clear Southern gospel and folk influences, Wake Before Dawn goes a little further in that direction on some tunes, especially with the addition of vocals. But the album also has some very straightahead, throwback-sounding tunes that aren’t shy in their homage to the jazz tradition. And another disparate element is the influence of some Latin folk genres I have been playing with in groups like Son Monarcas and Yuri Hevia, who are featured on one song on the album.
From a music aesthetic perspective, each piece on the album has its own vibe and explores that vibe as fully as it can without compromising for continuity. But the pieces all work together in the sense that they come out of my music ecosystem as a working professional in Chicago, along with my Southern background. They don’t seek to satisfy any jazz intellectual marker of complexity or innovation, but rather seek to stay true to their emotional tone and come from the organic joy of making music. In other words, I tried not to calculate how any of it would be received in the jazz community or whether it’s on trend with what the hippest cats are doing, I tried to just make something that was honest and uncontrived to me.
JC: Are all or most of the people who played with you at the Jazz Festival part of the new album as well?
KL: There are some core band members from Real Talk: Gustavo Cortiñas on drums, Roy McGrath on tenor, and Joaquin Garcia on piano. [Trumpeter] Justin Copeland flew in from Portland to guest on two tracks as well. The album has eighteen musicians in total, though, including my new core members Emily Kuhn on trumpet, Chris Shuttleworth on trombone, and Erik Skov on guitar. Other guests include a string quartet; two folk musicians—childhood friends from South Carolina who flew in for a track; Mercedes Inez Martinez and Irekani Ferreyra from [the group] Son Monarcas; a great young pianist Evan Swanson who has moved to New York; and Chilean/Palestinian percussionist Yuri Hevia.
JC: How do your compositions germinate? Do they start with an idea that needs a line, or a line that builds up into a finished work, or a form based on a specific instrument? Or? I am fascinated with how compositions evolve—and how different writers/composers work. You can improve on my terminology, of course . . . I am a listener, not a musician.
KL: Oooh, that’s a good question! They come together like a seedling branching out looking for sunlight, and next thing you know it’s a tree. There’s not always a rhyme or reason to it. I often start with a chord progression I like, with a certain groove to it. That captures a lot of the vibe right away, and then a melody that syncs with the vibe eventually comes to me, often after much experimentation. “Learning, Growing, Grounded in Truth” and “The Water and the Wind” are companion pieces on my album with an interesting compositional link. Both songs are about pushing against the boundaries of who you are as you explore the world, and the tension between your expansion and your roots.
I was thinking about those things after a conversation with a close friend, and I just kind of plopped my hands down in the middle of the piano and started repeating this simple chord in quarter notes, then gradually worked the hands to whatever notes sounded good to me until they were super spread out and more intense, and then it collapses back inward. Well, I took the top note of each chord in that sequence and out of curiosity just tried playing them sped up, which seemed to naturally land on an upbeat 6/8 rhythm, and it created the melody to “The Water and the Wind.”
I’d say though that I rarely write as conceptually as that instance, usually it’s just music that captivates me and I’m drawn to work with it. But it does happen from time to time. I’m very specific about what I want my tunes to come out like, and often it takes a couple years for them to develop to the point I’m happy with them and feel like I found what I was trying to say. A little too much of a perfectionist sometimes. “Birdsong,” from my new album, took me four years to develop from the starting ideas into the vision and arrangement it became. The recording process for Wake Before Dawn has been a long one, too. We started a year ago in November and are just finishing up.
JC: Will composing for an ensemble be your main creative context, or do you see yourself either expanding to conducting an orchestra or forming a trio or quartet?
KL: Going bigger than this album is probably not realistically in the cards for a while; coordinating so many musicians’ schedules and logistics/economics of a big project is quite a task. I don’t really see myself conducting, per se, or doing more formalized large ensembles. Smaller group stuff like trios, duos, etc., is definitely gonna happen. Me, Erik Skov, and Gustavo Cortiñas play together a lot as a trio and we’ve talked about doing a record. I play with Erik in a jazz duo a lot as well, and we have a blues duo project where I actually play guitar and sing. I have dreams of maybe arranging some of my compositions for nonet eventually, doing a real throwback kind of sound. I don’t plan to limit my creative outlets in terms of the type of ensemble to write for, except that orchestra or big band isn’t really what I’m looking to do anytime soon.
JC: Was the bass your preferred instrument from the start?
KL: My first instrument was trumpet when I was young, but I quickly moved to the electric bass when I discovered Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine and other bands that were very exciting as I was going into high school. I pretty much bought a bass to perform “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the school talent show with my friends because no one played bass. So, it was unwittingly a strategic move given the demand for bass and lack of people playing it. I started doing upright bass towards the end of high school after I got into jazz through a public school facility in my hometown [Greenville, South Carolina] called The Fine Arts Center. The FAC had a jazz-specific curriculum I could attend for half the day after going to my regular high school for the other half of the day.
JC: Who were your favorite bass performers to listen to and learn from?
KL: I was always drawn to Charles Mingus for his ability to make the bass really speak and express emotions like other instruments. And I just like the dirty, no-nonsense way he plays. And it translates to his writing too; there is so much personality and expression. And those elements take priority over note choices. His music is rhythmic and emotive and messy in the best way possible. Influences included all the classic masters like Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Ron Carter. Omer Avital is one of my favorite current guys, also for his bluesy and expressive sound.
JC: What jazz/other albums did you listen to that made a difference?
KL: For this album, and my writing in general, a few albums that really influenced me were Vine by Chris Cheek, The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint by Ambrose Akinmusire, Sinatra and Strings, Miles Ahead (particularly Gil Evans’ arranging), and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady by Mingus. Outside of jazz, anything by the Allman Brothers or Derek Trucks band, old delta and Piedmont blues, indie folk groups like The Everybody Fields and Shovels and Rope, and in the Latin world Son de Madera, Cuerpo y Alma by Pedro Aznar, and Eva Ayllon in general to name a few.
JC: How does a guy from the Southeast end up in the Northwestern jazz program?
KL: You know, the short and cryptic answer is following a girl, ha! But really, coming from South Carolina I had very little perspective on what a music career looks like, what a jazz community with a longstanding tradition looks like, what life in a big city is like. I started at a small school close to home and quickly realized the music education there wasn’t going to cut it. Someone mentioned the name Northwestern to me—I had basically never heard of the school before—and so I looked it up on a whim and saw that Victor Goines and Carlos Henriquez, whom I had seen perform in high school with Jazz at Lincoln Center at the local performing arts center in Greenville (my hometown), were on the faculty. So I basically applied entirely because of that, with no real understanding of anything other than those were the real-deal cats, and I needed something more challenging. Northwestern was the only school to which I applied to transfer, and luckily I got in. It’s funny, my international friends from Mexico and India have more friends or connections from their hometowns in Chicago than I do. There really aren’t too many Southerners. I almost never meet anyone from SC.
JC: What aspects of the Northwestern program were crucial to your development as a musician, composer/arranger, and group leader?
KL: The program had an enormous impact on my development as a musician. For one, I met at NU so many of the amazing musicians I still play with six years later. Carlos Henriquez was a monster technician on the bass, and really helped me get a sound that had depth and tradition behind it. Chris Madsen reshaped my understanding of how to learn jazz from the oral tradition instead of books, and was very influential as a composition/arranging teacher. Victor Goines teaches with a lot of tough love, and really prepared me for the difficulties that come with making a career in music. He has an incredibly high standard of professionalism and intense work ethic, and those things probably did more to prepare me for the real world than anything else. Everyone who comes through the program has plenty of stories about his way of teaching, and it wasn’t always easy, but doing music as a career is never easy and you have to have some resilience and scrappiness to survive. Not to mention being willing to embrace contradiction and negotiate with people’s very disparate personalities. That’s probably the hardest part of bandleading and doing music in general. It’s hard enough to coordinate getting the right people in the same room at the right time, let alone getting everyone on the same page musically.
JC: Do you have your own Goines story you can share?
KL: Ha! Let’s just say there’s a certain level of intensity required to dig into an art form with the history and complexity that jazz has. But what I’ll say about Goines is that I remember countless instances where he went incredibly out of his way in the midst of an absolutely insane, busy schedule to make time for me and my NU colleagues. He would drive us to jam sessions before catching an early morning flight, invite us to his house to play or hang with great musicians, come to the middle of nowhere in Brooklyn to see my group perform at Shapeshifter Lab during our East Coast tour promoting Real Talk, and then invite us to sit in on a JALC rehearsal the next morning. Or just a week ago, he squeezed in an hour before sound checking at Symphony Center to swing by the studio and record on Gustavo’s latest project Desafio Candente, which you should keep your ears open for in the next year or so, by the way. He always shows up and makes time for his students, past or present.
JC: What is the future looking like for you?
KL: 2020 is looking like a lot of shows, hopefully touring to promote the new album, and playing bass with a lot of cool projects. I’m gonna release my album online officially in 2020 (the release show this December will be an exclusive chance to get physical copies before I officially release it) along with a couple videos from our studio sessions. I’m recording with both Son Monarcas and Yuri Hevia before the end of the year. Son Monarcas is recording their second album that mixes Mexican son jarocho and other Afro-Latin rhythms with jazz and psychedelic pop. Percussionist Yuri Hevia has a project where Arabic music meets South American folk and jazz. As I mentioned, Gustavo Cortiñas has a monolithic new album project we just recorded that may not make it out in 2020, but we’ll be playing with his project a lot either way. Erik Skov put out a great album this past summer, and I’m sure his group will be playing out a lot this year. I’ll be doing more with my blues duo with Erik as well. You can catch me around town with comedic folk/world music group Abud: A Band, and I’m also gonna be joining my friends Maeve and Quinn (indie/chamber pop) on some shows in 2020.
So, lots of music happening! This city brings together quite a cornucopia of people and music, and I feel quite lucky to be a part of that.
Kitt Lyles and his Real Talk Collective will perform an early release concert at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave., Chicago, on Friday, Dec. 6, at 8:30 p.m. Pre-concert date tickets are $12, $15 at the door. For more information visit www.constellation-chicago.com www.kittlylesmusic.com.
"Jazz with Mr. C" is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org