An AAJ Interview with Issi Rozen
“ My inspiration usually comes from great concerts. That is the only thing that consistently restores my creative energy. Whenever I see someone like Elvin Jones play I run home and play the guitar or write a new tune. ”
"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?" ' David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920's
'There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.' ' Ken Olson (President of Digital Equipment Corporation) at the Convention of the World Future Society in Boston, 1977.
February 1, 2004 ' This afternoon Super Bowl XXXVIII will be played and viewed by millions of people across the world. Twenty years ago, during Super Bowl XVIII, Apple Computer unveiled the Macintosh in what is arguably one of the most famous technology oriented advertisements ever broadcast (does anyone remember what other computers were advertised? Hmmm?). This commercial was extraordinarily impressive upon this recently graduated double E with his impassioned concern for technology's effects, good and bad, upon society.
Twenty years later most of those concerns remain and a number of new ones have emerged. As negative examples: One year ago today space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry. This weekend it is reported that computers to be used for e-voting in Maryland have 'vulnerabilities that could be exploited by malicious individuals' while the Mydoom virus overwhelmed the website of a small software company, effectively knocking that company off the Internet.
On the positive side, this article is being written on a laptop computer, wirelessly connected to a broadband modem. Apple has moved beyond computing and into consumer electronics with its iPod mobile music device and iTunes music service (and is partnering with Pepsi to make available 100 MILLION legally downloadable tunes according to the advertisement broadcast seconds ago).
What does all of this have to do with jazz? Well, obviously you wouldn't even be reading this if it wasn't for a host of technologies developed over the past century plus.
Eventually, you may not even be hearing jazz without a connection to the Internet (barring hanging out at your local jazz nightclub). It's left to you, gentle reader, as to whether or not that is a good or bad thing (but this jazz fan is excited to think on the inevitability for seeing and hearing live music from half way around the planet, performed by musicians that might never ordinarily be seen or heard).
But as a legitimate concern, how does this impact the commerce of conventional audio/video distribution? Equally importantly, what impact does this have on the working musician?
One musician who has thought about these issues is guitarist/composer Issi Rozen whose latest (and third) recording, the aptly named Dark Beauty, was recently released on his own label New Step Music as both a conventional CD and as a downloadable MP3. Issi Rozen's second recording Homeland Blues was picked as one of the top 20 CDs in 2000 by WBEZ radio in Chicago, while in 1999, he won the "Best Jazz Performer" award from Boston Magazine in its annual "Best of Boston" issue.
In addition to performing and recording, Issi Rozen also teaches. In 2002, he joined the faculty of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston where he teaches guitar and music theory.
Of Dark Beauty, AAJ contributor Michael P. Gladstone writes:
'Most of the 71 minutes are comprised of Rozen's own compositions with a lesser-known Charlie Parker tune, 'Segment,' and a traditional Israeli song, 'Sheharhoret' (the translation of the album's title), included'I have seen a lot of references to Pat Metheny and Jim Hall as Rozen's guitar influences and, in fact, having been in receipt of this subliminal observation, much of his playing has elements of both guitarists. What separates Rozen from the pack is his unhurried pace and articulation of clear, bell-like notes. Also, Rozen's compositions have a distinct Middle Eastern flavor, which is only natural, having been exposed to both Arabic and Israeli musical influences.' (All About Jazz, January 2004)
To mark the release of Dark Beauty and the inception of New Step Music, Issi Rozen graciously agreed to this interview, which was conducted via e-mail during Dec. 2003/Jan. 2004.
All About Jazz: Would you please tell the AAJ readers about where you were born, raised, and what your earliest musical memories are?
Issi Rozen: I was born in Haifa, Israel but moved to Tel-Aviv at an early age. I lived in Tel-Aviv until I moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music. My earliest musical memories are the lullabies my mother used to sing. Interestingly, they were mostly in minor keys as most of traditional Israeli songs.
AAJ: What led you to choose guitar as instrument of choice?
IR: I saw a TV show with kids playing guitars and immediately asked my father to buy me one. I was 10 years old at that time.
AAJ: How would you describe your musical education? Formal? Informal? Both?
IR: Both. I took guitar lessons for many years and I attended Berklee but a lot of my musical education came from listening to records, transcribing music and learning from musicians I played with.
AAJ: Was there any watershed moment where you decided (or discovered) that you simply had to become a musician? Please elaborate.
IR: During high school I found myself practicing for hours every day. At that point I realized that this is my real passion in life and started thinking about a future as a musician. After high school I had to serve the mandatory three years in the Israeli army. During that time I decided to move to Boston to study at Berklee.
AAJ: When did your first exposure to jazz occur? What was your reaction?
IR: My first guitar teacher played a Joe Pass recording for me (one of the virtuoso albums on Pablo). It was so incredible and different than anything I heard before that I immediately ran and bought a Joe Pass record. I could not believe that anyone could play so incredibly well. I definitely did not believe that I will be able to play jazz one day. It seemed impossible.
AAJ: Who or what are your most profound sources for influence and inspiration? (this can include nonmusical items) Why or how do these influence and inspire you?
IR: John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix.
John Coltrane because of the passion you can hear in every note he plays and his endless pursuit of new ways to express himself. He always did something new and his music constantly changed and evolved.
Wes Montgomery because of the purity of his playing. He played everything by ear and always sounded incredible both melodically and rhythmically. You never hear him rely on technical exercises or repeating the same old licks.
Jimi Hendrix was an amazing player who completely changed rock guitar. Again, like Coltrane, you can hear such passion in his playing. He was unbelievably creative and had such a unique voice on the guitar.
The qualities that these three musicians so clearly exhibited in their music are extremely important to me in my own music. They are a great source of inspiration and had influenced both my playing and writing.
AAJ: 1998 finds the release of your first recording, Red Sea (Brownstone). What were the circumstances that led to this recording?
IR: I founded my group around 1995. By 1998 I felt that the group had developed a strong and unique sound and I wanted to record the material we were performing. We also had a lot of original material that I thought would be great to feature on the recording. I contacted Jack Wertheimer from Brownstone Recordings, sent him a demo tape and he was very interested in releasing our CD. We went into the studio and recorded 11 tunes. Initially, I was planning to choose the best ones out of the 11 but they all sounded really good so all of them ended up on the CD.
AAJ: 2000 sees the release of your second recording, 'Homeland Blues' (Brownstone). Apart from the change in the rhythm section (Dave Smallwood and Harvey Wirht replacing Jim Stechschulte and Steve Langone on bass and drums respectively) what else would you define as being different about this recording? As follow up, what do you see as being the similarities?
IR: 'Homeland Blues' is closer to the sound I am looking for. After the experience of recording 'Red Sea' and working with the band for two more years I was able to get the music to sound more and more the way I want it to sound. The album has a more powerful and deeper sound. Also, my writing had developed further by that time and the tunes on 'Homeland Blues' are more sophisticated harmonically.
There are also strong similarities between the two albums since the musical vision behind them is the same. I tried to feature the unique personality and background of each musician in the band. My writing is also a link between the two CDs. I tend to write mostly in minor keys with Middle Eastern and Latin motives.
AAJ: Your third recording, Dark Beauty (New Step Music) was recently released. In retrospect, what did you learn from composing, performing, and recording the first two recordings that you applied to this one?
IR: The biggest learning experience was that the music sounds best when you let everyone loose to experiment and try new ideas, so as a result, there is much more freedom in the playing on Dark Beauty. Another thing that was very important to me was to capture the musical interplay between the band members that is such a strong part of our sound during live performances.
AAJ: As follow up, what aspect of making Dark Beauty was the most fun? What was most difficult or challenging? What did you learn from this recording that you'll take forward to the next one?
IR: The most fun was definitely recording the album. We had a great time in the studio, we booked three days in the studio but we finished recording the album in two days and there was no need to come back the third day. The most difficult part of making the album was choosing which takes to put on the CD. Since the band played so great in the studio we had multiple takes of some tunes and they all sounded so great that it was very hard to pick which ones should go on the album.
The most important lesson for me is to create a relaxed atmosphere in the studio where everyone feels comfortable to try out new ideas and stretch out as much as possible during solos and when accompanying the other musicians.
AAJ: Pianist Gilad Barkan has been the one constant in your recordings. How did you meet him? What makes him such a compatible collaborator?
IR: I met Gilad when I was a student at Berklee. Gilad is just an incredible musician. He understands exactly where the music is supposed to go. He has great ears and he constantly listens so it is very easy to play with him. I also really enjoy his rhythmic ideas as well as his melodic ideas when soloing and comping.
AAJ: In general, do your tunes arise out of improvisation or composition?
IR: The musical idea always comes from improvisation. When I hear an idea that I like I start exploring it and if I still like it after playing it for a while I'll write a tune around it. After the original idea is there it turns into a more compositional process where I experiment with the harmony and the development of the original motive. The tunes usually change some more after playing them with the group and seeing what works and what doesn't.
AAJ: As a music educator, what have you learned about yourself and your music from the teaching of your students?
IR: The students really help me to keep my passion for music. Working with aspiring musicians helps me to remember the initial passion that led me to become a musician. It is great to see the enthusiasm of the students for knowledge. Sometimes working musicians begin to treat music as their job instead of their passion. The students help me to avoid that.
AAJ: What are the most common misconceptions about jazz that your students have? What concepts do they have the most difficulty in grasping?
IR: One of the most common misconceptions is that jazz is a very intellectual music. It is true to at the student level because of the theory involved but great jazz goes far beyond that. Many students fail to understand that because of the complex harmony and their struggle with chord scales. It is important for me to keep reminding them that their playing should not be intellectual and that once they master the intellectual part they have to let go and trust their ears and soul.
The concept that is usually the most difficult to teach is the rhythmic vocabulary of jazz. Most students grow up listening to music that is based on down beats. It is hard for many of them to feel comfortable with the lack of emphasis on down beats in jazz.
AAJ: In addition to techniques of jazz performance, composition and improvisation, do you feel that intangibles such as enhancements to creativity or imaginative prowess can be taught? If so, how? What approaches or exercises might be employed?
IR: I do not know whether these intangibles can be taught. I feel very strongly that sometimes teachers do the opposite and restrict creativity and imagination instead of supporting it. I believe that music teachers need to let students explore their creativity as much as possible. This is probably the best way to teach creativity. If a student is naturally curious and creative the role of the teacher is to support that and encourage it. I do not know if a student that is not very creative can be taught how to be creative. The analytical perspective is definitely important as long as it doesn't restrict a student's imagination.
AAJ: Under what circumstances do you feel you learn the most as a musician? i.e., rehearsing, playing live, listening to live tapes, recording, composing, teaching? Why?
IR: Playing with other musicians and listening back to recordings that I make. The essence of jazz is the interaction with other musicians. You can only get better at it by playing with other musicians. There is no practice room substitute for actually playing with a band or even just one other musician. Also, I learn a lot from recording myself. I seem to notice things that I don't hear live when I listen to tapes. I always recommend this to my students and tell them that my tape recorder was and still is my best teacher.
AAJ: As follow up, when it comes to a purely observational role, do you find that you learn more by listening to or watching musicians?
IR: Listening. I actually prefer not to watch the musicians and just focus on listening. Sometimes watching someone when he plays distracts me from listening carefully.
AAJ: How often do you practice and for how long? Do you ever force yourself to practice when you really don't feel like it? If so, how do you motivate yourself?
IR: I practice everyday. The amount varies according to how much free time I have. I guess I don't really have free time since I use it all for practicing (I can't remember the last time I saw a movie). There are definitely times when I don't feel like practicing, when that happens I'll start by playing something I really enjoy and that immediately gets me motivated to practice.
AAJ: Do you have any techniques you personally employ to enhance or restore your own creative energy when you encounter difficulties in composing? If so, what are they?
IR: Inspiration. My inspiration usually comes from great concerts. That is the only thing that consistently restores my creative energy. Whenever I see someone like Elvin Jones play I run home and play the guitar or write a new tune.
AAJ: Do you have any preparatory routines or rituals prior to performing live? If so, could you describe them?
IR: I would like to relax before each performance but it is hardly the case for me. Somehow there are always things to take care of before the performance. However, whenever I can I try to just hang out with the band and relax.
AAJ: What's the funniest or most embarrassing thing that's happened to you while performing or recording?
IR: At one gig and older man got up on stage and started walking around the musicians looking for something. He was searching the stage for a while oblivious to the fact that the entire audience was staring at him. I was told later that he attended a Harvard University event that took place there before our concert and I assume he forgot something on stage. I guess he had too much to drink during the Harvard event and didn't notice there was a jazz concert going on.
AAJ: What musicians would you most like to work with that you've never worked with before?
IR: I would love to play with Elvin Jones. He is my favorite jazz drummer and a great inspiration.
AAJ: What projects can AAJ readers expect from you in 2004-2005?
IR: I am beginning to write music for my next CD and will probably try to explore a little different direction this time. I am not sure what it is yet but it should be interesting.
Also, I am planning to continue to grow my new online record label New Step Music and add exciting new artists to the site.
POSTSCRIPT on New Step Music
All About Jazz: What motivated you to found this label?
Issi Rozen: The new technologies and distribution channels available today. I strongly believe that the Internet provides great opportunities for artists and I wanted to take advantage of these opportunities. Most labels choose to either ignore these new opportunities or fight them instead of benefiting from them. I was frustrated with this attitude and wanted to things differently.
AAJ: Do you envision establishing any underlying and/or unifying aesthetic policies or criteria for defining what is (or is not) a New Step release? If so, could you please explain these?
IR: There is no particular unifying aesthetic that I am looking for. The only criteria that I envision for a New Step Music release is that I really like the music. I especially enjoy artists that have a unique sound so I would probably tend to look for these types of releases.
AAJ: Are you accepting submissions for New Step? Should musicians contact you before submitting? What format should recordings be submitted on?
IR: I do accept submissions. The format of the recording doesn't matter but I highly recommend that musicians send me an email before submitting a recording.
AAJ: If you could change one aspect of the recording industry at large, what would it be?
IR: I would put in place A&R people who look for great music and not great monetary returns. Music is an art form but most major labels treat it as a product. I believe that many of the problems that the major labels are facing the result of turning music into a generic product. I strongly believe that if the major labels were focused on signing great artists they would reap the benefits over a long period. When they focus on the next big hit they always need to search for the next big star since their audience is no longer interested in yesterday's star.
AAJ: Do you think that digital recording technology has made it easier for independent recording labels to be founded and to continue to operate? Why or why not?
IR: Digital recording technology definitely helps independent labels and artists. The new recording technologies have helped to lower the costs of recording great sounding CDs. The easier it is to record CDs the better it is for independent labels and artists who can now afford to record more music.
AAJ: Do you feel that the continued growth of the Internet is making it easier for independent recording labels to be founded and to continue to operate? Why or why not?
IR: Definitely. Today you can reach music fans around the globe without the need for expensive distribution. You can sell downloads through the Internet. Also, the web provides many new opportunities to promote artists that in the past may have been overlooked. The global reach of the Internet and the new possibilities it provides are enormous help to small labels and independent artists that know how and are willing to use it.
AAJ: How do you anticipate that the availability of economical and widespread high speed Internet access is going to change the music industry? Is it evolution or revolution?
IR: I strongly believe that it will completely change the Industry's distribution channel. When consumers can download music at home it makes no sense to sell music at stores. You can save all the manufacturing and distribution costs and reach a much larger audience by selling the music as downloads. It should be an evolution since we are only changing the format from CDs to downloads but I believe that it will turn into a revolution. The reason I believe that it will have such a strong impact is because the profit margins will decrease and the major labels will have to completely reinvent themselves. The way music is marketed today will change and we will see more small artists and less big name stars.
AAJ: What do you think are the greatest artistic and business challenges (problems and/or opportunities) for New Step as it heads into the year 2004 and beyond?
IR: The greatest challenge facing New Step Music is reaching more music fans. The market for jazz is very small and the label needs to reach audience beyond the traditional jazz fans. There are many young music fans that are not interested in jazz because they have never been exposed to the music. New Step Music wants to reach a wider demographic of music fans by targeting this group that is traditionally ignored by jazz labels.