Drummer Chris Corsano on What Makes a Jam Not Work, Free Jazz, Noise, and Bjork

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Chris Corsano is one of the most sought-after percussionists in the nebulous sphere of intentional aural insanity that constitutes free music and its various iterations as noise, psychedelia, and having-something-to-do-with-jazz.

Since the late '90s, Corsano has performed solo and in infinite combinations of players -- both heartily obscure and incredibly popular. In the early 2000s, his partnership with free jazz sax shredder Paul Flaherty thrust his singular technique and experimental methods onto a higher platform of notoriety and esteem. Since then, he has collaborated with everyone from day-and-night trippers like Six Organs of Admittance, acoustic diviners like Matt Valentine and Erika Elder, and even Björk.

Corsano will be in town for a string of dates around South Florida (complete information after the jump), including a stop at Radio-Active Records in Fort Lauderdale. We gave him a ring to talk shop before the gig.

Have you always preferred to bill yourself as a solo entity performing with other solo entities, rather than as a band?

I was in bands, and I like the idea of bands as a way to work, this thing that you develop. But also, I was playing a lot with Paul Flaherty and we would sometimes play as a trio, sometimes as a quartet. We're more into the law firm style of listing things. I'm not for or against either one. Logistically, it became the easiest thing. And I have things with people where we decide to use a band name, but I don't think it affects the music.

It doesn't affect the music, but maybe it affects the process? Rather than being composites in a singular unit, everyone that takes part in the jam is their own entity.

With Bill Nace, if we call it Vampire Belt or Nace and Corsano, its more for a setup for if we put out a record or book a show. Well if we use this band name, how will it will resemble previous records and shows? So it's about audience expectations. And about how much you want to fuck around with peoples' expectations.

It never influences the music or the approach. I like record titles and song titles because there aren't lyrics in 99% of what I do. Titles are a fun thing to tack on after the fact and see if there's something that has some relation.

How much does fucking with expectations play into your approach?

It's there to be used if it's the right thing to do. It's not what the music, or this thing I do, is about. Something I've noticed from going to shows and seeing other people do stuff every once in a while, it's something I enjoy. Maybe enjoy is not the right word. When other people have done it, it might give me something. Therefore it's a valid way of working, if the situation calls for it, whatever that means.

When was your introduction to free improvisation?

I was about 19 when I started seeing people play. Cecil Taylor, William Parker. Records too. Ascension. A lot of this stuff was catching my ear. What wasn't working for me when I was in bands was more rock, punk, what have you. I was feeling limited. I was responsible for those limits.

If there was a trio, I was 1/3. And we'd do the verse eight times and then the chorus. It got too predictable. If I was a predictable player of compositions then trying to break into this new form would help me be a less predictable person. At that time, and for a while after, it seemed like the best way to get stuff done.

Regarding your multitude of collaborators, is there such a thing as practice? Or is it more, "Let's do this!"

A lot of the time it's the latter. Sometimes that has to do with life. Last night, I played in a trio and none of us actually lived in the city in which we played, and we all sort of descended upon it, did the hit, and that's that. You could say something about that immediacy. You know you're only gonna get one chance. The impulse isn't so much to tinker as it is to just get there and make sure you're doing as the most music you can be.

Some groupings just clique from the get-go. Maybe with others, there's a reason to work on things. And then there are people that practice to death and that gives them their sound.

What makes a jam not work?

Mediocrity. A totally subjective, "I'm enjoying this or I'm not." And then if you're making the music and you're making music in front of people and maybe those people get charged money or at least they're spending their time and watching you do your thing. If that's the case, I feel like you owe them a great deal. You should be trying to do something for them. Even if that's piss them off. Give them something they couldn't have from scrolling their Facbook feed, mindless deadening entertainment.

You try push some sort of emotion. So a thing thats not working: Nothing is getting pushed, people are running through the motions, no ideas are happening, or just really boring obvious ones. I look at it in terms of responding. there's an Improv conversation about the weather that never really goes anywhere, and just sort of restarts. There are improv cliches just like there are indie rock cliches. A jam isn't working when you're doing a thing you can't stand and then that's when you need to be like, "I really need to change what I'm doing."

When established groups like Six Organs of Admittance or MV/EE have you play on their records, what is it do you think they're looking for?

Maybe they wanted something looser than what a lot of drummers tend to play. With [Six Organs of Admittance's] Ben Chasny, he wanted something super high energy for "School of The Flower." Like, "Go apeshit."

Sometimes it works, other times there are things you didn't think about volume-wise. And then it's like, "OK, this is gonna take some thinking." which gets back to the thing about "Do you just hit it or do you need to work on things." Sometimes it's just about making instruments work together.

Tell me about your experience working with Bjork.

I did a year and a half, 2007 to 2008, for the Voltaic record. Her band changes pretty drastically from record to record.

Do you think she was after that looseness? What did she have in mind.

She had in mind that she wanted drums, and she wanted higher energy, I think, She played me a bunch of stuff and I recorded over it and she gave me free reign. It was a day of recording, about six or seven tracks, more related to my solo stuff. Prepared drum, different bits of metal and string, sounds that are not exactly drum-like but have some kind of percussive thing happening.

Her M.O. is similar to many of the other people I've worked with in the free improv tradition. The difference [laughs] is that she went in an edited everything I'd done. So it was more like samples than a full on collaboration.

That's what makes her her. She works on a large scale. There was a 10 piece brass band, two electronic artists, a harpsichordist, and then her. There's a lot in that record. Its similar to hip-hop production but instead of going through records you bring in live musicians to do stuff that you move around and place here or there. The tour was me going back and hearing [the music], trying to play back those parts, adding parts. Totally different than my usual style, and much more of a background role, learning to not have your ego make you overplay.

When you set out to release a record of new material (versus live material that was not necessarily performed with the intent to release), how much of the songwriting exists outside of the jam, if any? Are you a one-take kind of guy?

There's some editing. With the solo stuff especially, but with the groups as well. if we all agree that that five minutes is something we like but then it deeps in energy well then we'll do a fade or something. It doesn't usually get much more crafty than that. Pretty caveman style. Go in, and press record, and see what you get.

How did you link up with Bill Orcutt?

The first time we played together was at the Tufts Festival in New Castle U.K., as part of a trio with Allen Bishop, an unannounced trio. I hadn't seen bill play solo at that point. But I saw Harry Pussy twice. Adris was like one of my all time favorite drummers. So much changed for me the first time I saw her play. As a drummer, it's almost impossible to overstate how much it fucked with my head. There are things that happen that kind of change everything and the rest of your musical career is chasing after bringing that feeling to other people, this revelatory ecstatic whatever.

Did you get into free jazz and that led to noise or vice versa? Which came first?

Up until hearing free jazz, I was into hardcore. SST stuff. Minutemen, Black Flag, Bad Brains. High energy stuff. Beefheart when I was about 14, 15. Beefheart and the Minutemen have amazing rhythm sections, and the way the instruments talk to each other.

Before that, Hendrix. That's more me, the loud and crazier side of rock. And then hearing the Boredoms at, I dunno 16 or 17, right around that time. That would have been the only noise I knew about. And Ornette Coleman. Someone was like, If you like the Boredoms, check out Masonna. If you like Ornette, check out Archie Shepp. Noise and free jazz came at just about the same time for me. I've always been trying to carve out where the two intersect and make them intersect in ways that they haven't been or they have and people haven't noticed.

Friday, November 29. Chris Corsano solo Gramps, 176 NW 24th St, Miami, Florida

Sunday, December 1. Chris Corsano as part of Kenny Millions Sextet, Radio-Active Records, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 845 North Federal Highway, 3pm.

Sunday, December 1. Chris Corsano solo at Sweat in Miami, FL. 5501 NE 2nd Ave., 9pm.

Tuesday, December 3. Chris Corsano solo, Churchill's in Miami, FL. With Rat Bastard, Steve Bristol, Kenny Millions, Rubber O Cement, Fritz Welch, Andy Ortmann, The AstroKats, Samsara, Mr. E.

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