Mark Whitecage: Free Music with Purpose
“I have the whole system feeding back to itself,” Whitecage concludes, “and I have learned how to control it but I haven’t recorded it as well as I need to. But the rig keeps changing; it’s too easy the way it is now, so I have to find something to throw in there to shake things up.”
Developing a Free Approach
While Whitecage is characterized as a free player, the natural evolution requires a combination of both discipline and an attitude towards breaking free of constraints. “If you spend too much time with scales and chords,” explains Whitecage, “you get this emotional investment in them. I’ve met a lot of piano players who have spent so much time working out their inversions and things that they are emotionally attached to these chords and they can’t play free, can’t break away from it. I’ve always guarded against being over-developed in any one area of the things I do. Still, I don’t throw anything away. I might go back and play ‘Round Midnight,’ some old standard, but it has to be fresh and new to me; once I learn how to do something I don’t want to do it anymore.”
Whitecage sees the road to freedom as being an educational process. “The first thing,” Whitecage explains, “is if you just play free your fingers are going to go into natural places, and you’ll play the same thing everyday. One thing I used to do, for example, was read. I had a flute at one time, when my kids were very young, and a clarinet book and I would practice the clarinet book on the flute. I’d play something new everyday; just read something; anything that I hadn’t played before. Make my fingers do different things, make my hands move in different ways. Do all the exercises, all the scales. You hear the younger players all hung up on Oliver Nelson’s Blues and Patterns , you can almost tell their age by what they’re playing, because they’ve spent too much time on the one book. My idea is just to study any piece of music and read, even if it’s a harp piece. I still do that.”
“But you have to be loose with things,” he declares, “or else it wouldn’t become your structure; if you tighten it down then it becomes something that’s not you anymore. If it’s loose, if you’re in the moment, then you’re playing with the truth, you’re playing what’s really happening. If you’re thinking about the music then you’re not really playing. If you’re seeing it, you’re not really playing it. There’s musician’s music and composer’s music. I saw some of Steve Reich’s charts once and there’s a clarinet part that is a repeated pattern thousands of times over. The horn player doesn’t even get to participate in the music, although maybe later he can hear it back; but he’s so busy doing it that he’s not in the moment any more; I’m just the opposite of that, if that makes any sense.”
Acoustics and the Current Climate
With the exception of the 2003 Drimala release Rules of Engagement, Vol. 1 , a duo record with Duvall, all of Whitecage’s recent output has been released on his own label, Acoustics, which is a bit of a cottage industry. Rather than press large numbers of CDs, he produces them himself out of his home, creating limited edition releases where supply meets demand. With the exception of Ducks on Acid , the recordings have all been from live performances. He does, however, have plans for a new studio recording with a new band. Jay Rosen and Dominic Duval will be part of the effort, but there are also parts for cello and trumpet. Whether it sees release on Acoustics or elsewhere has yet to be determined.
Meanwhile, Whitecage continues to pursue his muse, although he sees recent developments in American politics as adversely affecting the ability for artists to get out and promote their music. “For a long time I was doing most of my work in Europe,” says Whitecage, “until Bush made us hated all over the world. It’s hard now to be an ambassador and go over to Europe, to France and Germany, where I’ve traditionally played. They can’t get people to come to our concerts anymore. People won’t come for American artists. Being an American is a liability; it used to be, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that everybody wanted American jazz musicians, and so it was a very positive thing to be an American, but not now. And Bush is keeping a lot of people from coming over here, because they have so much trouble with their visas. There are a lot of musicians that can’t get into the country to play with us; the whole world has changed.