An interview with jazz composer/guitarist Karl Evangelista by Eddie Wong.
Eddie: Tell us about how you got into music.
Karl: I began on the guitar at age 12, inspired by both the raging psychedelic blues of Jimi Hendrix and Cream as well as the noisy alternative rock of the Pixies, Nirvana, and the Smashing Pumpkins. I discovered jazz some time in middle school, and I quickly identified a kinship between the guitar-based music I had been consuming and the spontaneous, often surreal work essayed by the likes of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Rashaan Roland Kirk.
Eddie: I’m intrigued by the many sides to your music. Could you tell us more about the foundation of your music in jazz? I really enjoyed your trio set in Chicago with Tatsu Aoki and Avreeayl Ra. Could you tell us more about the music in that set? There’s a lot of improvisation rooted in blues and bop and post-bop jazz and it swings like crazy. And there are other pieces with more experimental approaches. How do you decide what to blend, and when?
Karl: I’m reminded of an interesting interview in which guitarist Sonny Sharrock relates that he wanted, first and foremost, to be a tenor saxophonist. I don’t think it’s unfair to imagine that Sonny’s closeness to the music of Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, and others helped to inform his idiosyncrasies, i.e. mostly linear playing, a preference for extended techniques, the use of distortion for note-shaping, etc.
I identify a kinship with Sonny Sharrock in this way. Most of my work that sounds like rock, hip-hop, noise, etc. is tethered to the technical and conceptual language of jazz. It’s not that I’m overly concerned with labels or adhering to some kind of canon—it’s just “where I’m coming from”. I’d like to think that the practice of being a jazz musician has more to do with one’s general approach to spontaneity, as opposed to any specific set of sounds or ideas.
That trio set with Tatsu and Avreeayl is interesting. It was actually my second set of the evening, if I recall correctly, the first being a duo performance by my primary project Grex. Grex’s sound is probably best defined as “art rock”—a blend of simple song and lyric structures with experimental textures—and this show marked the final date of a 30 (or so) date tour. This is the magic of this sort of improvised format: Tatsu, Avreeayl, and I had never performed together as a trio before that evening, but we were deeply invested in the process of navigating and reconciling our differences in conceptual language. I don’t think that this trio set was very different (from a performance standpoint) from what I’d been playing with Grex the entire month or so prior.
Eddie: I love Grex. Was that performance for the Lockdown Festival 2 a new piece inspired by this Covid-19 moment? Tell us about how you and Rei Scampavia develop your pieces. Were there certain musical references/influences that led you to this hybrid of jazz/art/rock music?
Karl: I often say to Rei (my bandmate in Grex and wife in all other matters) that Grex is like a cockroach—it will find a way to persevere regardless of external pressures or circumstances. If I had to identify a central tenet of the band, it is that Grex is my attempt to realize a kind of music that will happen no matter what. The music is nominally art rock/experimental in nature, but the spirit of the band resides in the notion that perseverance and consistency is the key to artistic survival. This is a lesson I (and we) have learned from friends and heroes like Francis Wong, Louis Moholo-Moholo, and Milford Grave,i.e. that the art of making music is “as serious as your life”.
This particular performance is comprised of pieces written for our upcoming album (entitled Everything You Said Was Wrong, out in September 2020 on the Geomancy Records label). As with a lot of our music, these pieces began as short verses or melodic ideas that were then extrapolated into environments for duo performance. To be frank, we’ve been making music in this format for over a decade, the process has gotten very intuitive and hard to define; the only real standard for what makes it into a set (or doesn’t) resides in whether or not the song resonates with us.
This performance was part of the second Lockdown Festival. Both this festival (and its predecessor) were intended to help unify the Bay Area experimental music scene in a period when unity seemed virtually impossible, i.e. when shelter-in-place orders were first instituted and most of us were stuck at home. Each festival featured a lengthy slate of livestreamed performances, with all monies going directly to the artists or to charitable causes of choice (e.g., venues like the Uptown or Temescal Art Center in Oakland, the Alameda County Food Bank, etc.). I’m just happy that people found some utility in the opportunity.
Eddie: There’s so much to talk about with Apura! First, the music is challenging, thought-provoking, and visceral. How did you go about composing the pieces which meld Filipino folk themes with avant guard jazz and experimental sounds?
Karl:The core of the Apura! project is actually really straightforward: I wanted to make music that unified improvisers across geographical and generational boundaries, recalling the wild transcultural free jazz of the 1960s and ‘70s. I was inspired first and foremost by the music of Louis Moholo-Moholo and his brothers in the Blue Notes, a mixed-race group of South African jazz musicians who fled to Europe in the midst of Apartheid. Louis has spent his entire life making incendiary, passionate music that is rooted in a desire to fight oppression. Since we’re now living in an era that feels as critical, in certain very important ways, as the 1960s that the Blue Notes rose to fame in, I wanted to create a project that felt similarly visceral and contemporary.
The other part of this story is that I’ve long been interested in finding a way to unify my musical practices with my history in activism. I’m an active organizer around the Bay Area (I have, believe it or not, a partial background in Public Policy), and my family has a longtime history with progressive causes in the Philippines. My Aunt, Miriam Defensor Santiago, spent her entire adult life as an anti-graft, anti-corruption public servant overseas. Apura! is meant to invoke both the fiery jazz of old as well as the forward-thinking politics that I have long been invested in.
Eddie: When you wrote Apura!‘s songs, did you have the musicians in mind? Each of them has a rich history. Tell us more about Louis Moholo-Moholo, Alexander Hawkins, and Trevor Watts. Tell us a little about the recording process. How long is your rehearsal process and how much do the pieces evolve during the playing?
Karl:When you’re working with musicians like Louis, Alex, and Trevor, it’s not difficult to conceptualize a game plan. I’ve already detailed a bit of Louis’s history, but less widely known are his credentials outside of European free improvisation. Louis was part of a groundbreaking afro-rock band called Assegai, which has been sampled (to Louis’s chagrin) by Kanye West, and he was asked on, but declined to join, bands under the leadership of John Lennon and Frank Zappa. Trevor was one of the core members of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (a “band” often identified with John Stevens), and his own projects Amalgam and Moire Music, among many others, are legendary. Alex has been working with the likes of Louis, Mulatu Astatke, Evan Parker, and Joe McPhee for the past several years, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that he’s one of the best pianists in the world today.
The music on Apura! was largely improvised and co-composed—we only agreed on a series of formats and concepts (e.g., duo, trio, quartet, loud, quiet) ahead of time. Undocumented on this album are a series of pieces we recorded that were drawn from Louis’s repertoire, and I also decided against featuring my own (largely idiomatic) compositions on the session. The other three players are such fantastic improvisers that the notion of introducing too many pre-recorded elements seemed sort of invasive.
We recorded in just two days (the first day with only guitar/piano/drums, the second day with Trevor added) with no prior rehearsal. I consider this album to be more or less my dissertation in free improvisation—it was that educational.
Eddie: You mentioned your aunt and her long history of political activism in the short promo/fundraising video for Apura!. Tell us more about how she inspired you.
Karl: I spoke about this a bit in one of the prior questions, but it can’t be stressed enough that my Aunt’s legacy is much, much larger than me. Some have called her the greatest president that the Philippines never had. She is the rightful winner of the 1992 Filipino Presidential Election (some will contest this, but just as many, if not more, will avow that she was the victim of explosive voter fraud), and the youth and populist movements that she inspired over the course of her multiple presidential bids and senate terms have been responsible for plenty of deeply significant, profoundly forward-thinking work overseas.
On a more personal level, she was very close to both me and my immediate family—I always say that I think of her as my (third) grandmother. She is very much responsible for any overtures I’ve made to a life of public service, but more significant to me is the fact that she both understood and encouraged my passion for music. I’d like to think that the work that I do now, whether with Apura! or otherwise, is my way of continuing my Aunt’s legacy.
Eddie: Do you have any reflections on how activist musicians like yourself will be able to work in this new environment? Are you finding any support from the artists’ funds? What can people do to support this type of music?
Karl: The fascinating and emboldening thing to me is that throughout the lockdown, most of the real, significant aid that has been directed toward both musicians and arts institutions has been generated by grassroots support. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about the difficulty that other working musicians have had in the way of securing unemployment and other emergency funds, and I know few (if any) local artists who have received their stimulus checks. But the multiple fundraising endeavors, artist fund pools, and community initiatives that have been generated by lockdown pressures have had a positive impact on entities that have fallen upon hardship.
I’d say that this is our key to survival at the moment: mutual aid, community support, and grassroots momentum. Identify those institutions that are fair, creative, and constructive, and find ways to work both for and with them. Be generous with your time and resources, but also know that there are others who are willing to help you. Remember that even though external conditions have changed, we’re fighting the same battle as artists that we always have – finding a way to survive, in spite of everything else.
Signal to Noise magazine hails Evangelista as “one of the most original instrumentalists and composers of his generation,” and as the creative force behind boundary breaking group Grex, Evangelista has been called “essential current-and-future listening,” his music “a near-seamless blend of modern jazz, contemporary structuralist composition, indie rock, and blues rock” (Tiny Mix Tapes). This complex, powerful aesthetic fosters an “otherworldly experience” that is “completely original” (Eugene Weekly).
Apura!, which in Tagalog means “very urgent,” will be released on May 22, 2020.Check out tracks and buy the album at Apura!.
As some of you may know, May 22 is the day “Apura!” streets on Astral Spirits. It is *also* the day the Apura project would have debuted in the East Bay, had circumstances permitted.
Since I can neither play with the cats nor offer an album release show of some kind, I’ve concocted what I feel is a bizarre, suitably energetic evening that is very much in the spirt of the Apura project. I’ll be playing together with components of the legendary Keith Tippett/Louis Moholo album “No Gossip” (from 1982), constructing an environment for solo improviser parallel to, around, and inside of the original recording.
45 minutes of mayhem. It’s free and I’m going to be busting my ass off to prepare. I couldn’t let the 22nd pass without some fittingly heartfelt commemoration.