|Jeremy Walker by John Whiting|
On Saturday night, April 13, at Bethel University in St. Paul, pianist and composer Jeremy Walker will premiere his latest piece, “7 Psalms,” a new work for jazz quartet, solo voice, and choir. I interviewed Jeremy in late March for a profile that appears in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune tomorrow (Thursday, April 11) and is already online at the Strib’s website. Print has word counts and column inches, and we talked for more than an hour, so there were things we covered in our conversation that didn’t make it into the profile. If you don’t know anything about Jeremy, you might want to start with that, for background and context.
PLE: You’ve written a work called “7 Psalms” that uses texts from the Book of Psalms. But you don’t want people thinking or saying you’re a religious person. Are you?
Jeremy Walker: I don’t think so. We’re Christians … It’s complicated. Just because I think something is true doesn’t mean I understand it … It’s not an outward thing.
Plus you’re performing at Bethel, an evangelical Christian college.
Jason Harms [the soloist] works there, so we get the hall for free.
Did you have Jason in mind as your singer from the start?
Originally I was going to sing it. And it was going to be a much smaller project. Then I decided I didn’t want to sing any more publicly.
[Note: In 2010, Walker released a CD called “Pumpkins’ Reunion” with his Small City Trio, a band with Jeff Brueske on bass and Tim Zhorne on drums. He sings the title song on that recording. It was a courageous act. I’d always wanted to ask him about that, and now I did, sort of.]
Not that you shouldn’t sing …
I shouldn’t! The whole reason I sang on my record was because my voice was a major hang-up for me. I felt like it was standing in the way of composition, and freedom at the piano. It was never about being a singer. It was about ripping off a scab. I loved singing as a kid, and one day I was told I sang too loud. As an introvert, that made me … well, I never sang again. But [the voice] is such a primal instrument. I sang all of the lines in “7 Psalms” and that’s how the music came about. But I didn’t want to perform them.
Do you think the psalms are singable?
Not easily. I read next to nothing on Hebrew poetry, but one thing I did read said it has “symmetry of thought.” It’s not about rhyme scheme or rhythmic scheme. For me, it became a challenge, artistically.
What do you call the music you’ve written for “7 Psalms”? Do you call it jazz? You’ve said that one of your compositions is a jazz piece; does that mean the others aren’t?
No, it’s just that one is most identifiably a jazz form, with open solos. There aren’t a lot of repeating open solos in this. There’s no sectional thing.
Is the music mostly composed or mostly improvised?
It’s really pretty equal. The choir is all composed. It is jazz in the sense that to me, if there’s any definition of jazz, it’s that the rhythm section is almost always improvising, or has the possibility of almost always improvising. The drums in particular. Tim [Zhorne] has no written material; he’s looking at the score. We talk about it, but I trust him, so he’s pretty free. In that sense, it’s jazz.
You play with a lot of people, but Tim and Jeff [Brueske] are your core group.
Yes. It’s hard because I love so many musicians here [in the Twin Cities]. I love playing with Chris Bates and Miguel [Hurtado], JT [Bates] and Anthony [Cox]. Any of them could take this music and it would be wonderful. But when it’s a project of this size, there’s a closeness among the three of us, and a lot of shorthand.
Did you know from the start that you were going to have a choir?
When did you decide that?
It was Tim’s idea. I had maybe 16 bars of music for Psalm 3, and he said, “It would be cool to write this for choirs, and we could perform it with various choirs – in churches, schools, communities.” As soon as he said that, that was it. I love the idea of community and communal music-making.
Does the choir sing the whole time?
They sing on every piece.
When you were writing this music, did you listen to other psalm settings?
No. I wanted it to exist as much as possible just in itself.
Are you happy with it?
Going through all the s--- we’ve been through, [my wife] Marsha and I …
Do you feel this music expresses and addresses that?
I think so. But I didn’t mean it that way.
But it’s personal.
Of course. But I never meant it to be a statement, other than a musical statement.
Music itself is personal. Maybe you didn’t mean it to be autobiographical?
Or certainly not evangelistic in any way. It’s me. The music is me. Being an artist, a composer, I want people to hear my ideas, and to hear what they want to hear in them.
When did you start composing?
I started writing little things as a kid. And then I stopped completely. I went through this period when I thought – there are so many great jazz compositions, why would I bother? There are so many great standards. There’s Wayne Shorter. Why would I bother?
Where did you learn composing?
I studied music for two years at Normandale Community [College]. I knew some harmony. I mainly learned it on my own. I transcribed Duke Ellington charts on my own, as best I could. They’re hard to transcribe. With the psalms, I decided – I’m just going to follow what I want to do.
Did you hear melodies in your head when you were reading the psalms?
Mostly. Six months ago, I had almost the whole piece in my head. It took a while to pull it out.
How did you form your close connection with Jazz at Lincoln Center?
Wynton [Marsalis] did a clinic at the U of M when I was 20 or 21. I admired him, so I went up and talked with him. I talked more with Wes [alto saxophonist Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson] and we kept in touch.
My biggest connection was with [tenor saxophonist] Ted Nash. I met him in Iowa City maybe 15 years ago. Tim and Jeff and I went down to hear the band. I was so shy, but Tim said, “You should go up and talk to Ted Nash. I’ll buy us coffee if you’ll go talk to him.” Ted joined us for coffee, he and I became close friends, and that led to even tighter connections in the band. He gave me saxophone lessons. [The year] 2001 was when things really got tight with that group … Those guys had a huge influence on my early career. Less so now, which is as it should be.
When you had to stop playing saxophone in 2004 – because you could no longer make your mouth work, or your left hand – what did you think you were going to do?
I knew I was going to play piano.
You wouldn’t have to blow, but you still had the hand thing.
I had a digital piano. When I had access to my grand piano at Brilliant Corners [the jazz club Walker owned for a time in St. Paul], I had started to fool with it more. I wasn’t playing, but I spent more time sitting at it and finding chords and that kind of thing. The hand seemed not to bother me. It was probably just delusion or desperation, but I decided to learn to play.
So there was never any question that you were going to continue with music in some way.
No. Honestly, maybe if I had something else I knew how to do … but there was never anything else. I just loved music. I loved the scene here. The musicians here are very special to me and a big influence on my playing. All of them are really important to me.
What was your first response when you got your diagnosis of Lyme disease?
I was much sadder than I thought I would be, because it’s just … ah, it’s fifteen years, at least. I first saw a doctor with these symptoms thirteen years ago, and for all those years I’ve felt – it’s me. I’m one of the losers.
Are you feeling less burdened now?
Yes. There are still moments when I’m really sad. But it beats not knowing. It beats thinking you’re a fraud.
Are you resentful?
I suppose. The [music for the] psalms sounds that way to me.
You’ve said you hope people really hate “7 Psalms” at some point while they’re hearing it.
[Parts are] going to be uncomfortable. Things happen.
There are places where there’s very little to hang your hat on. Melody is there. Form. Meter. I’ve done things with meter I’ve never done before, and changed it a lot more. Dissonance. I’m just following the line, the text, and my imagination, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable because the thoughts it inspires are uncomfortable.
The feeling is in the psalms. “At night I make my bed swim and drench my couch with my tears.” There’s no one who doesn’t know that. The intensity of feeling in the book is what provoked the intensity of the music.
Is this a new direction for you?
I think it’s the most me. The subject matter is probably a one-off, but the kind of material it introduces is where I like to be. I don't know what I'll do next. Walt Whitman? Byron? I love text. It's very freeing to have to work with it. And I love singers.
What do you want people to take away from Saturday’s concert?
Whatever they want.
That’s an easy answer. You must have some intent.
My outlook on things is – let’s come together. But that’s so cheesy I don’t even like to say it out loud. I don’t personally like agreement. Agreement makes me nervous. So there are a lot of times in the music when things don’t agree.
What would you like people who don’t know you and haven’t yet heard you play to know about you?
Honestly, as little as possible … I love music. I love musicians, being a musician, making music with people. That’s been the hardest thing about this illness, feeling I couldn’t do that. I even like people, a lot. I’m shy and don’t necessarily want to talk, but I like people. To have many people on a stage making my music, that’s really exciting.
Do you think “7 Psalms” is the best thing you’ve ever written?
Far and away. I hope it’s not the best thing I’ll ever write, but harmonically, rhythmically, the forms, the melodies, the textures – nothing else compares.
Everybody has a unique thing they bring to a scene, to music in general, that only they can do because of their particular physiologies, story, biography, interests. This is the first time I’ve thought – this is mine. This is my thing … It’s mysterious, it’s difficult, and hopefully it’s beautiful. It is beautiful. I cried as I wrote it.