Listening to Ken Filiano’s DREAMS FROM A CLOWN CAR left me so intrigued that I had to ask him some specific questions about its inception. And boy, am I glad I did, there is so much more under the surface than I suspected.

I first heard Ken when he lived on the Coast and was working with Vinny Golia’s Quintet. He was a great friend of Dottie Grossman. Then, for awhile he was b-coastal. Eventually resettling in New York. He grew up on Long Island so he was back home.

I’ve collected his records for years and especially cherish his on-going — decades! — duet albums/cdS he makes with San Francisco woodwinds master Steve Adams. Among all the other hundreds of collaborations Ken is involved with. Mostly, nowadays, I know him as a member of Connie Crothers Quartet of which I have must have won the lottery because I have performed and made records with.

I am also looking forward to hearing Ken’s record with the free improvisation group he has with his wife Andrea Wolper on vocals, and Connie on piano.

Ken talks in con-current consecutive sentences — that is: he has several avenues of thought flowing at once — all of it aiming toward his conclusion. It makes perfect sense when you are listening to Ken but can be a little tricky to transcribe. (Ken did make some amendments to the discussion about “Retronym.”)

I remember the time we had all convened in Los Angeles at the Bing Theatre of L.A. Country Art Museum (January 31, 2000) to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Nine Winds Records and Vinny had assembled his Vinny Golia Large Ensemble to perform for the occasion (this evening now available on Ninewinds DVD 0300). And I was running around grabbing musicians to read the KUNM station I.D. for my radio show, and I buttonholed Ken and he did it on the run and nailed it in one take, he ran through all of the problematic wordage and inflections of Native American place names and unusual New Mexico townships without a blink. If Ken hadn’t taken up bass he could have had a career in radio and television with a talent like that. He has a very quick mind.

So, CLOWN CAR has seven pieces but we only covered three, so far. But, that’s the beauty of publishing on the web: You can always add to it.

I called Connie Crothers to discuss Ken and here’s what she said that Tuesday morning:

“Ken Filiano may be the busiest bass player in the world today because everyone wants him. There may be other bassists with a higher profile but there are no other bassists wanted as much as Ken Filiano. Everybody wants him. When I first heard Ken I was just thrilled by his playing and from minute one I was hoping that one day I would have an opportunity to create some music with him and that stayed in my mind until the opportunity presented itself. And I have had the great glorious fortune of having Ken Filiano in my working quartet. We perform quite a bit together, and now we’re on two records with each other, one of them the quartet plus you, and the most recent is with trumpeter Roy Campbell and my quartet, both of these sets are live from The Stone. And Ken adds something which is not so easy to describe but one of the things I could say is this: He has a radiant energy. So, the way I might describe it, speaking as the piano player in the band: His energy radiates out from the center of the note, and this is every note he plays! If he’s playing a quarter-note bass line, it radiates out of the center of every quarter note that he plays, on up to the most intensely intricate filigree, this kind of phrase within phrase, delicate, ethereal notes that have this very strong energy center. Every note that Ken expresses on his bass has that burst of energy, from the center, and it creates a radiant energy within the band, it feels fantastic to play with him, to play with his energy.

Then, I could add that he has an extraordinary sense of time. His timing is extraordinary in every way. It’s extraordinary in the way he expresses the pulse — whether he keeps the quarter note or not — the pulse is very strong. And then he can get into all of these intricacies in his solos. Sometimes it’s an intricacy of notes and sometimes it’s an intricacy of sound quality. And everything he plays has this quality of energy and timing.

So, for example: If he gets into a stretch where he’s dealing with some of the unusual, profoundly original, never-heard-it-before-anywhere, qualities of sound he gets from his instrument — it’s not like the kind of time that you could notate, but, all the shifts of sound that he gets are clearly rhythmically delineated, even if they’re softened or floating in some kind of way — he just has this amazing sense of time.

Then, the way he handles his bass, you know, it’s so completely part of him, he plays with not only an effortless mastery but also with this kind of personal merge that he’s got with the intstrument. So, it feels like you’re in contact with the very heart and soul of Ken. The bass amplifies his musical mind and this quality that he’s got which I can describe as . . . huge heart. He’s got so much heart in his music.

So, I could say — and this goes along with everything I know about Ken — that he’s just a fantastic person. [Laughing] You know? this is a dream here! You could say to yourself: You’re just dreaming. How could someone be so great as this? And he is. And he’s like this all the time. So, no wonder everybody wants him. We’re extremely lucky to have him in the band.” — telephone conversation July 19, 2o11 Connie Crothers & Mark Weber

One last story: When we were mixing & mastering the cd CONNIE CROTHERS + MARK WEBER LIVE AT THE STONE (New Artists Records) at Systems Two in Brooklyn, we decided to take out the various stage patter that naturally occurs during a performance, and there was this thing I did on stage that I learned from Michael Vlatkovich — Michael has this immediate way he’ll shout a band member’s name (after the tune is over), say, when someone was featured, Michael will shout with outstretched arm, “CHRIS GARCIA!” or “BILL PLAKE!” — so, I picked up on this bit of stagecraft and at The Stone that night the duet (poem + bass) with Ken I shouted, “KEN FILIANO!” just like Michael Vlatkovich, of whom Ken knows and knew what I was doing that night, ha ha ha. BUT, and so, when we deleted all that baloney from our finished CD, Ken ruminated, “You know, I’d like to say that as a sample and put it in my alarm clock! That get me out of a bed in a jiffy.” KEN FILIANO !

Ken Filiano @ Studio 475 (Connie’s loft) — September 24, 2009 — photo by Mark Weber

(released March 2011)

Telephone interview May 11, 2o11

Mark Weber: Tell me about the tune “Retronym”

Ken Filiano: I got the title from a William Safire article — I sketched it out when I was in Tondella, Portugal, at the festival there. And, in my hotel room, I finished reading the article, that I had brought with me, from the New York Times, on basically the synonym, the homonym, and this term: retronym.

[ ret-ro-nym: a word introduced because an existing term became inadequate. “Nobody ever heard of analog clocks until digital clocks became common, so ‘analog clock’ is a retronym.”]

I really liked this idea of taking — like, the word guitar and saying electric guitar — adding something to an old word that already exists, to make it something new, out of old material. So, I said, that’s kind of cool, that’s where we, as all current western artists, are musically now.

MW: . . . poetry, slam poetry.

KF: Yeh, exactly! So, it’s like we’ve said everything already. Broken all the rules, all the boundaries, over the past twenty, thirty, forty years. We’ve broken boundaries for poetry, for sound, for art, you know it doesn’t have to be a particular style any longer. We’ve created such freedom that there’s, ah — for me at least — there’s no struggle to define yourself within a contained unit. For instance, in bebop there was/is a strong harmonically, technically . . . and then, in the “free school” there was/is another set of rules which broke down the boundaries . . . leaving us free to do anything. But doesn’t freedom, to some degree, need something to fight against in order to define freedom? So, for me (subjectively) I think we need that existential struggle in order to define “freedom” — and this is what I feel is missing on some level, for me at least, and perhaps (I ask) we aren’t as free as we think these days?

Ken Filiano @ Studio 475 (Connie’s loft) — September 24, 2009 — photo by Mark Weber

MW: And “Retronym”?

KF: So, what I did is I found this bass vamp. That’s a cycle. Okay, so that’s one piece of old material that’s been standing around for decades. Then I said: What kind of melody do I want on it? So then I said: I’m going to use a 12-tone system. So, when I got home I started working on the whole thing. I did the whole matrix of all the 12-tones: retrograde, retrograde inversion, inversion, all this stuff, right? Then I worked the material in a way that made melodic sense. Then I serialized some of the rhythms — again, that’s old material, 20th century, that’s old news now, right? Everything is serialized — serializing rhythms, intervals, very effective tools in 20th century composition. So, I made it incorporating in this piece using serial techniques. Then I said: Okay, now we’re going to have some other old material which will be: improvising. Throw some improvising in there. And it’s like all this old merial we’ve had around but it comes out in a different way, perhaps. That’s what my aim was. I mean, to some degree, is there really anything new anymore? Mostly now there’s the recycling power of creative compost and mulch creating new from old, is what I’m thinking. LOL! Then, of course, the quantum element is the individual’s improvising inside of it. Maybe this is what makes something “new”? The “present tense of the artist in “real-time”? (Still working on this one.)

Ken Filiano & Ratzo Harris — September 25, 2009 — photo by Mark Weber

MW: On a tune like this do you actually write out the arrangement?

KF: Oh, yeh, yeh! Yes, I do.

MW: For each part?

KF: Yeh. The thing is, ironically speaking — that’s another thing — the thing is composed, then I say: You’re going to improvise in this section for a minute while we’ll be playing this line, then you’ll improvise in this section, while we’ll be playing this part. It’s a pretty long thing. SO, it’s interspersed between what is composed and what is improvised. And that will come out organically. Of course, what is originally composed and arranged can many times be developed and refined through real-time performance — hearing what really works or not — and by the creative suggestions of the guys in the group, all highly creative cats in their own rights.

MW: Are the improvised parts structured?

KF: No. Just whatever you are hearing at the moment. If I’ve done my job right, then the composed material should provide them with a portal for their own individual creative response to emerge — compost concept, again, LOL — and take the music where they feel it. For me this is what brings in the quantum entanglement: the relationship of each individual’s dedication to both the composed material and their creative improvising consciousness.

MW: So, how would they know when to come in?

KF: When the melodic lines ends. Say, when Section A ends, rather than repeating back to play Section A, someone will solo inside there. And then they’ll cue it back, or I’ll cue it back, or we’ll organically find out way back, then we’ll repeat A. Then play A to B, and then when Section B ends, which is through-composed, the next person then improvises and when that’s finished we repeat B and go straight to Section C. So, it’s kind of like a slinky effect. Now of course, in the “heat of battle/performance” there could be a breakdown of the plan — this is another topic, but it could be a whole new approach to the piece, which we deal with. Ah yes, serendipity.

MW: Slinky?

KF: You know, how Slinkys go from one to the other when they’re moving down steps. So, the form is: A — improvisation — AB — improvisation — BC — improvisation . . . . and continuing in this fashion. Remember the old slinky?

MW: Let’s talk about the meditative one, the tune called “Shinobu,” if has baritone and tenor saxophone.

KF: Shinobu. Yes, baritone and tenor. That was a tune in search of a title and I was in the recording studio and one of the assistants was a Japanese woman and her name was Shinobu. And I thought: That’s a perfect title. And I didn’t know what it meant. It has the perfect sound, so I jumped on it. I asked her if I could use the name, and she said: Oh yeh. So, I said: What does it mean? She described it to me as the strength to persevere through the act of creation, from the point of where you don’t know what’s happening in the creation, to the final result of the act of creation. And I said: Ah, man, yes! So, that’s like the ability to sustain tones, to hold themselves in integrity, to have the strength to play a melodic line in a free environment, to have the ability to hold the long phrase or the long note.

MW: Yes, I get it.

KF: So, I thought, this is perfect for the title.

MW: So, that tune was just a long line?

KF: It was a line with chord changes. Ironically, it’s funny because it has a specific set of chord changes, it’s almost like a Wayne Shorter kind of tune, in the sense, you know, it’s got changes built on the traditional tonic-dominant idea but it’s been disguised. And so, in a free-blowing record you say: Well, there’s not many ballads. Not many ballads and not many that also have chord changes. So, the idea that this is going to be the centerpiece, almost, on a record that’s suppose to be, quote, free improv is . . . but then again, in the past twenty years we’ve defined what free improv is now. And I think we’re still in the process of defining it.

MW: Oh, really?

KF: Yeh. We’re still trying to find the new solution to what those words mean.

MW: Where do you stand presently on this idea of free improvisation?

KF: I think, it’s free to, ah, free to make Your choices not from your ego but from the music you hear. From the music material you’re playing. For instance — actually, this is a good example — in the rehearsal I had today we’re working on this music, and the drummer, Royal Hartigan, he has these great — he’s been around the world studying percussion music of different societies — so, his whole language is being in these cycles, you know, 24-bar cycles, 17-bar cycles, whatever the cycle is. Hafez, the composer says: Royal, I don’t want you to play cycles, just do your thing. Right? You know, do your thing but don’t play cycles. So, all of a sudden it became static in the other thing, where there were no cycles. So, there was a discussion that came up about being free to use the cycles if they felt right and also don’t use the cycles if they don’t feel right. To be able to freely associate both things. And not have to be stuck in either a cycle or non-cycle.

MW: Okay.

KF: I think that’s what real freedom is: to have the ability to make your choices along the way.

MW: You know, when we were talking about the meaning of Shinobu, recently I came across the Sanskrit word: Avidya. What it means is: ignorance. And I was thinking that I’m going to start telling everybody that that is my name! Ignorance.

KF: [laughing]

MW: Completely ignorant and unknowing. I know nothing!

KF: Yeh! Dumbass!

MW: [uproarious laughter] But, it sounds so beautiful: Avidya.

KF: Yes. Now, is it ignorance as far as knowing, or is it having no intellect to work from?

MW: It actually refers to being ignorant about certain large issues regarding the nature of consciousness.

KF: I’m going to have to check that out. I like that concept. On some degree we’re all struggling with that, don’t you think?

MW: Are you kidding. Across the board. I see it everywhere I go.

KF: I see it every morning when I wake up and look at my friggin’ face!

MW: [laughing]

KF: I go, Oh, man, what didn’t I do yesterday that I said I was going to do, and didn’t do?

MW: Well, on this record, when did the clown thing come in? Let me back up. Was this record a planned event, or did it just happen to gel on a gig and you decided to take these guys into the studio and record?

KF: Over the years I write a lot of music, well not a lot, but, I write music along the way. And I haven’t been, quote, a leader, whatever that means. But, I’m starting to think about spearheading a few projects, and a couple years ago this band started to get together, and I like the way Michael Attias and Tony Malaby play together. They’re really a team. And we started doing some gigs. And I said: You know, I have all this material, it’s time to record it. Pretty much my preference is to use a band that works well. Not that there’s something to be said for just throwing people together, that’s a language of itself. But then, there’s something about people getting into a unity where there’s a great amount of trust. And a slight tension, when it’s there, that’s a part of it. And being able to really create a language out of the material. I like that. So, this band has been together, even though we don’t do a lot of gigs. Then I finally decided in 2008 to record it — I work slowly — and so, it finally came out the end of last year — 2010. And the whole project had nothing to do with clown car. That’s a whole other sidebar issue.

See, I had this music, and I had this idea — you know, I’ve always felt like — a lot of guys will write snippets of music and have everybody interpret that and I didn’t want to do that because I felt like, if I’m going to put my name on it, as a leader, I had the responsibility, to myself, from my own Catholic-Italian-Jewish guilt, to do a lot of the work, you know? I write the material but inside of it, let everyone do their own thing. And each time it would be different. That was the idea of this group.

MW: And the group is called Quantum Entanglements.

KF: Yes, Quantum Entanglements, because you never know what’s going to happen. Who’s going to be pissed off about something in life, you know, always the gravity is going to change on a constant basis. So, the title, the clown car thing came about — Andrea [Wolper] and I were going to a gig of hers. We were late. A little bit, because of my schedule. A little later than she wanted. We were at the 55 Bar [Greenwich Village]. So, I’m trying to find a place to park. I’m driving down the street and she says: Ken, you treat it like it’s a clown car, you’re driving me crazy. And instead of being the groovy husband and say: You know, honey, you’re absolutely right. I’m screwed up. I’ll fix it tomorrow, I’ll change. Instead of that, I said: OH, MAN, that’s the perfect title! Dreams from a clown car! I got the title! And she looked at me, at first, a little bewildered, then she said: You’re right, that’s a great title.

MW: Who wrote the liner notes?

KF: Gilles Marie-Paul Laheurte. He’s a percussionist, here in New York, and also he’s living in Africa. He does some stuff with the United Nations. He’s like a cultural architect. And that’s another great thing. I couldn’t figure out who I wanted to write the liner notes. Should I write the liner notes, or should I get somebody? I wanted somebody who understood the music and maybe a little bit of my history, and last summer, or a summer and a half ago, I guess it was — and I hadn’t seen him in a long time, I didn’t know that he had moved back to Africa — he’d kept his place in New York, but he had moved back to Africa to do his work — and I was at The Stone, I had a gig with LouGrassi and we did the soundcheck and who comes walking through the door — it was Gilles, and like immediately, boom, I knew he was the cat I wanted to ask to do the notes.

MW: Ken, tell me about the tune — it’s got tenor and alto, it’s kind of a slow tune, toms & mallets . . .

KF: “Baiting Patience,” yeah.

MW: Yes.

KF: That’s an experiment in which I fell in love with. I had this bass line, which is a tune. When I had written this bass line I was reflecting on something I had done with Warne Marsh, years ago. Like something he would do. He would play a melody and he would displace things a beat, displace things by a quarter-beat. And I had written this bass line and I was displacing it in different places by a note or a quarter-note — a quarter-beat, or a full beat. I had written it a number of years ago but I never could figure out a line for it ………………

Warne would do all this stuff to change the phrase and the framework. So, I had this bass line but I didn’t know what to do with it and I took it to this guy who I study composition with and he said Yeh, it has a strong identity but what are you going to do with it? And I said, I don’t know. SO, every once in awhile I go through form books, just to refresh my memory of musical forms, you know, the standard classical European western forms. And I came upon the passacaglia which is a repeated bass line, continually repeated bass line. And I said: Man, check it out! This is it! The piece has to be in the form of a passacaglia, right? Like in a Bach passacaglia it’s a continously repeated bass line, usually 8 bars or something like that. Mine is 24 bars. This is going to have to be a big piece. And also, at the same time I was studying the first movement of Beethoven’s string quartet in C# minor. I was starting to watch how he’d bring his lines into counterpoint. So, it’s late at night, and I say to myself, this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to take the tones of the bass line and start using them — find the tonal materials — and start writing fragmented pieces so that the horns will come in at different times — so, basically, the whole thing is composed, from beginning to end. It’s the only through-composed piece on the CD. But they’re fragmented, the horn lines are pulled apart, each one comes in — it’s their own event, in their own time — but it’s all specifically notated. And only towardsthe end, when it’s kind of baiting your patience, then I start having one horn play the line while the other is improvising. Then, at the place where they join together, I have the next horn take the line and the other improvises. So, there’s always this thread of both the bass line going on and the written-composed saxophone line, right? Two voices, to the very end. And on top of all that, while the horns are interspersed, I told T.A., the drummer, I told him to improvise: You’re soloing the whole time, if you want to play a pattern, play a pattern, if you don’t want to play a pattern, don’t play a pattern.

MW: So, with the two interweaving saxophones every note is written for them and/or their parts are structured?

KF: Yes. Until the very end when you’ll hear one line going and then you’ll hear this energy bubbling up, and that’s when they’re improvising. It’s a very controlled — and I use that word loosely, not fascistically — but very specified on this one. It was kind of an exercise — well, not an “exercise,” I hate that word, it has bad baggage. It was a discipline I imposed that I wanted to make music with and also to force the issue. Like when you put a water-saver nozzle on your shower, it kind of sprays out, it forces the water through a different lens. So, I was trying to force the horns — not belligerently or aggressively — into their improvisations, while the drum has the ability to be totally free. That was the idea. And it worked beautifully with “Baiting Patience.” Think about it. When you’re baiting patience — like my father used to say: Don’t bait my patience. Or, I was someplace once and the cop was telling me: Get out of here, you can’t stay here. And I was kind of bugged. I was looking at the bag and he wanted me to move. It was night time. So, I said: What? He’s in his car, says: Get out of here! And I said: What? And finally I forced him to get out of his cop car. I was baiting his patience: I’m telling you to get . . . and I said: Ah, man, I’m an old man I can hardly hear. And he says: Sure. And I left. I just wanted to bust his chops.

MW: [laughing]

KF: So, this whole idea of writing this stuff is so everybody is forced, to the end. And I think it brings the listener — theoretically — it brings the listener to the same idea. Check it out. When you listen to it again I’d be interested in your feedback.

MW: Well, I had thought about Warne and Lee. And so, it’s a through-composed piece? That
amazes me.

KF: Yeh.

MW: Because they’re just floating.

KF: Yeh.

Connie Crothers Quartet — Ken Filiano, Connie, Roger Mancuso, Richard Tabnik — session at Connie’s — September 6, 2006 — photo by Mark Weber

Connie Crothers Quartet — Ken Filiano, Connie, Roger Mancuso, Richard Tabnik — session at Connie’s — September 6, 2006 — photo by Mark Weber

Saxophonist Steve Adams at Outpost Performance Space, Albuquerque — March 30,  1996 —
photo by Mark Weber