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The Union of Poetry and Bass: Miguel Algarin and Albey Balgochian
Interview with Albey Balgochian regarding his new album Soul to Sol with poet Miguel Algarin
By Susan Frances
(more articles from this author)
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What defines jazz music and where does it come from? These two questions have stumped listeners for decades though they seem to recognize jazz when they hear it. Are its roots in New York City, New Orleans, Kansas City or from another part of the world like Moscow, Berlin, Rotterdam, Johannesburg, or Puerto Rico's San Juan? If you ask bass player Albey Balgochian and poet Miguel Algarin what is jazz and where does it come from, their answers may surprise the authorities of jazz music, but it won't surprise the practitioners of jazz.

Both men, revered as erudites in their chosen professions, have come together not to preach to audiences about what is jazz but to show people how jazz music is made. Most people might consider their approach to their art as belonging to the avant garde, after all there are similarities in their style to the spontaneous vocalizing of Betty Carter, the malleable twists and chirping of Miles Davis, and the sonic inflections and refractions of Philip Glass' music. Like these artists, Balgochian and Algarin's creations are an amalgamation of contrasting and sometimes dissonant textures culled with ad hoc expressions, but even more astounding is the melodic resonance in the pair's tracks based on the rhythm they establish.

Tunesmiths often deem the bass to be a silent partner in music, but in this case, the union of the bass and voice are inseparable creating a rhythm that listeners instinctly hook onto and stay fixated on from beginning to end. Their duets on their 2011 recording Soul to Sol is what pianist Cecil Taylor refers to as "magic," which often happens during freestyle collaborations.

The filament for the recording came during Balgochian and Algarin's first meeting in their hometown of New York City as Balgochian recalls the encounter, "My duo 'ZenBeatz' (which is) myself and the lovely one Jane Grenier B., were playing a gig at a joint in New York city. All through our set there was this kat sitting at the end of the bar testifying 'Speak on Bass' 'Bass Sing'... obviously he was digging what we were doing. Near the end of the set, he approached me asking if he could sit in. We had an instant connection and played what I thought was two minutes of magic. It was beautiful, Miguel did one bi-lingual piece (in) English and Spanish and I did what I always do...improvise. When it was over the crowd went wild, Miguel thanked them, walked back over to his seat, grabbed his coat and left. No one in the bar knew who he was. They only knew that he had something to do with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. We eventually saw him on the street, I introduced myself and told him I thought we had done something special. We listened to a recording made that night and decided we should do a project together."

He informs, "I let Miguel know I could make a recording of us in my apartment, we live a block away from each other so, we waited until the time was right, got together on the right vibe and made this recording in two sessions. It was basic, I hit the record button, Miguel began to read from his newest book 'Survival Supervivencia' and I started to play. Our conversation was effortless and all these pieces were recorded in one take."

Their collaboration manifested into the recording of Soul to Sol, which Balgochian reveals about the title of the album, "My wife Jane and our son Miles dreamed up the name."

The songwriting process was unconventional by many producers standards as Balgochian recounts, "Miguel and I just played, no discussion really, one of us started and the other joined in. Our connection is quite unique."

He proclaims that the recording came from re-using one element in particular, "listen...listen....listen and let our minds merge, I listen to Miguel, Miguel is listening to me and we are listening to it...resulting in spontaneous combustion."

Soul to Sol is released by New York City-based Ruby Flower Records which is owned by Ana-Isabel Ordonez. He explains his choice for the label, "We met Ana Isabel of Ruby Flower Records through an online inquiry. She was very receptive to all of my music. We met and found we had alot of, and was very interested in the duo with Miguel. Ana loves the music and is very involved with her artists... what could be better?"

He cites, "My bass playing is strictly improvisational, so I wanted Miguel to do his pieces however he felt them, to have a conversation of spoken word and came naturally."

It is a technique which sharpened his senses while performing in his bands ZenBeatz and Bassentric as he describes, "The ZenBeatz is totally improvised music with spoken word, although her (Jane Grenier B.) poems are memorized, they are improvisationally performed. Bassentric is a multiple bass band whose improvisations are based on my written narratives. ...And of course playing with the Maestro...Cecil has always been so encouraging, completely trusting my voice on bass. Once at a rehearsal Cecil asked I need to give you the notes? which I replied 'No Maestro,' to his smile 'GOOD!' On the real, this is what I have been working towards ever since day one of playing bass, a conversation rather than a learned or memorized piece, all the spirit in the right now."

Balgochian has also honed his chops in the New York City-based band All Revolutionary Music which probes the possibilities of electronic music as he derives, "Electronic music is another avenue of sound exploration. I started out playing electric bass -- rock, blues, and funk. My son is a hip-hop artist and we are constantly exchanging ideas on music. Since 2009, I have focused on the acoustic bass, although I still play electric, and I am finding it quite limitless."

He shares, "I started playing at seventeen. The Bass allows me to express my musical intentions without limits, the bass has everything, the melody, the harmony and percussion...Not to mention how cool it looks and sounds." He cites, "I am formally self-taught' although I've had a few lessons along the way from Major Holley and John Neves around 1971."

"Like any musician that is not a drummer," he vouches, "I love to play drums. I love spontaneity and composing narratives rather than specific notes to keep the band on the same page, but still allow them total freedom of expression. My narratives are meant to draw emotion, I don't dictate what to play but try to make a common thread that connects everyone to the piece."

"As an avant-garde artist," he assesses, "I want to promote the conversation. It's all we have left. My intention is to entrain people, to allow their right brain a chance to grow and experience life beyond the mundane, even if it's just for a moment."

Balgochian offers food for thought to those who desire to tap into the right side of their brain. "Our library contains many books that explore and expand the inner mind, here are a few favorites: Meditation in Action by Chogyam Trungpa (1969), Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (1970), Drawing on the Right Hand Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards (1979), and Improvisation in Nature and Practice in Music by Derek Bailey (1992)

He provides, "We also have an extensive library of video art DVD's that are in constant rotation such as: Picasso's A Bull in Winter, Simon Schama's Power of Art Series, Pollock, Basquiat, Ghost Bird: The Life and Art of Judith Diem, Strokes of Genius: David Smith, and What the Bleep Do You Know? to mention just a few."

He imparts, "Reading is great for quieting brain chatter, but when life is crushing in on me, and my left brain is all wrapped up in mundanity, I call on art to make the shift into the right brain. I will pull out my pens and draw...or a DVD to watch with or without sound. I often project art videos during performances, they are an easy familiar vehicle that entrains an audience."

"There is an uniqueness to music that is improvised," he purports. "Performers, listeners, instruments, time and space become synchronistic; pulsing, breathing and grooving together to access deeper dimensions of consciousness through spontaneous and collective creative pathways. My journey has been to find the vehicle with which I can elicit what I need from the other musicians that play with me. I find using narratives without scores and transcriptions etc. engages them in the right brain experience to evoke the emotion I am looking for in my compositions."

So what is jazz music and where does it come from? According to practitioners like Albey Balgochian and Miguel Algarin, it comes from establishing a rhythm or several rhythms simultaneously spawned from the internal synchronization of one's own body and felt with every fiber of the body, mind and soul. For this reason jazz music is difficult to pin down, and yet, distinguishable from any other music form known to humankind. The flexibility allowed in jazz music renders it open to a wide range of musicians making it is an inclusive art form accessible to anyone, and therefore brethren to the all-encompassing world music.

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