Mark Egan Discusses What Went Into Creating About Now
Composer and bassist Mark Egan returns in 2014 with a more introspective album called About Now. The album features a trio made of Danny Gottlieb, Mitchel Forman, and of course Mark Egan. Egan took some time to discuss what went into the making of About Now, his gear, and his experience at the University of Miami.
Abstract Logix: You have played with Danny Gottlieb on many projects, but how did the three of you come together to make About Now? What was your inspiration? There is obviously a lot of interplay between musicians on the album. How much of the record was planned ahead of time?
Mark Egan: I love the openness of a trio and the space that it creates for everyone to express their ideas. I played in a trio with Larry Coryell for eight years and really loved that open format. My recording, As We Speak, released in 2007, is a trio featuring Danny Gottlieb and John Abercrombie.
For the About Now project I wanted to record another trio and this time with keyboards. The use of keyboards rather than guitar opens up the sonic space and gives me a lot of room to explore on the bass.
I’ve been playing with Danny Gottlieb since the early 1970’s and we have a lot of experience as a rhythm section team from our Pat Metheny Group days, our group Elements and many other varied projects. I’ve been playing with Mitchel Forman since 1976 with Elements and many projects in New York and worldwide. Mitchel was on my previous recording Truth Be Told as well as on my first solo record Mosaic and he also recorded on the Elements Spirit River CD. He is a master pianist as well as a multidirectional electric keyboardist.
I wrote the music specifically with Danny and Mitchel in mind and all of the compositions for album were composed and arranged ahead of time. My inspiration for the compositions was to create different backdrops that would be open vehicles for everyone to be featured as well as to have an active trio dialogue. I was very open to leaving plenty of room in the arrangements for Danny and Mitchel to create.
ABLX: How does your new album About Now differ from your last release Unit 1 and how have you grown as a musician in that time span?
ME: The basic difference is that About Now is a studio project of original compositions with Mitchel and Danny where as Unit 1 is a live recording of twisted jammy standards with John Hart-guitar and Karl Latham-Drums. What is similar between the two recordings is the creative intent for improvisation explorations.
Even though Unit 1 was released in 2013 it was recorded in 2009 so I’ve had five years of growth on the bass from touring worldwide with various artists as well as a strong focus on composing for a variety of projects.
The release before Unit 1 was my last solo project, Truth Be Told which features a quartet with Mitchel Forman, Bill Evans and Vinnie Colaiuta. This project is more of a comparison to my latest, About Now.
Truth Be Told had more of a groove focus for my bass playing and compositions and About Now is more introspective, featuring my fretless playing in a more intimate setting as well as drawing from production techniques from my earlier solo projects such as doubled 8-string melodies and layered harmonics.
ABLX: You have played and recorded with Danny Gottlieb numerous times over the past thirty years. What is it about Danny as a drummer that makes it so easy to collaborate?
ME: Danny is a master drummer and has seriously studied the jazz-drumming lineage. His experiences encompass a wide spectrum of musical styles from very experimental to pop music and everything in between. Danny is a great team player and is always listening and supporting as well as driving the rhythm section. Not only does he have great command over many styles but he is a master improviser.
We have a great communication from having played together for so many years in so many different situations. So much so that we know where each other can go and are very tuned into how to support and shape the music together as a team.
ABLX: The song Cabarete introduces a theme at the start of the tune, but never revisits the motif until the last song Puerto Plata. Is there a connection between these two songs?
ME: Yes, there is a connection to the intro of Cabarete and Puerto Plata. We did repeat the intro motif after the piano solo for a few measures. However, when we recorded Cabarete, the intro groove felt so good that we decided to make a separate song with just the intro as a vamp, which would feature a drum solo for Danny. I decided to title that piece with the drum solo vamp Puerto Plata that closes the album.
ABLX: What inspired some of your song titles?
ME: My song titles are inspired by a variety of experiences and ideas. I try to come up with a title early on so that it influences the direction of composition.
The tune Sailing reminded my of a Herbie Hancock tune, Maiden Voyage, so that is sort of a play on words. I also love sailing and boats and fishing and the water in general.
The title for Cabarete was inspired by a tour with Elements in the Dominican Republic to a town called Cabarete. This song has a Latin feel that was reminiscent of the local groups that were performing at the festival. It also reminded me of the amazing people that we met while playing there.
About Now is a pensive composition and I titled it to express being in the moment. The thing that I like most about playing creative music is that it’s all about being in the moment and reacting and going forward.
Graceful Branch is a song that was inspired by a friend who is a gardener and she told me about a remedy that she used for her dog, Coqui. I loved the title and was inspired to write a song with that graceful sentiment.
Mckenzie Portage was inspired by a fishing expedition in the boundary waters of Canada with my great friends Bill Evans and Tom Waterloo. We hiked the McKenzie Portage to access some very remote lakes and it was the most intense trip of my life. We carried canoes, gear and food for thirty miles through the densest forest of the Canadian wilderness. The fishing was great once we arrived and this song captured those feelings.
Little Pagoda was inspired by a trip to Bali, Indonesia and is a tone poem that features the trio in a very ECM sort of way.
Tea in Tiananmen Square was a title I came up with while on tour in China with George Grunz as I sat in Tiananmen Square sipping tea. The song has an eastern sentiment as well as thoughts about what happened there.
So, as you can see my song titles come from my experiences and thought processes.
ABLX: What gear made up your rig for this record? Did you use your fretless Pedulla 5 string bass on the whole album?
ME: I played a variety of my Pedulla basses. Most of the songs were recorded on an MVP 5-string fretless. I also played my 5-string fretted as well as an 8-string fretless on some melodies. The harmonics on Sailing were played on an 8-string fretted as part of my double neck bass. As far as electronics I recorded through two Radial JDI direct boxes with Jensen transformers as well as two Millennia TD1 EQ’s.
ABLX: As a bass player, and a composer, how do you compose? Do you exclusively use the bass, and what techniques did you use to compose the songs that make up About Now?
ME: I compose in a variety of ways. For About Now I composed many of the songs on acoustic piano. I recently built a recording studio, Electric Fields, in Connecticut and acquired a beautifully rebuilt 1929 Steinway B grand piano. Even though I’m not a pianist I’m very inspired by this instrument and this was the foundation of the writing for this project. I also compose on the bass as well as in a DAW and sometimes just in my head.
Usually the process starts with an initial idea, a groove, a bass line or chord sequence and I continue to develop the ideas. I find it very helpful to have a recording device while I’m practicing so that I can document an idea that will later be used. I have a little program on my iPad called DAW and it’s a basic recorder that I can just use as a scratch pad for ideas. When it came time to put together songs for About Now I started listening to all of the ideas that I had collected and picked the best ones that I thought would be good for the trio with Danny and Mitchel in mind and started developing them into full arrangements.
Creativity comes in waves and you have to be ready to capture those precious moments and develop them into compositions. It really takes being open and not distracted which is becoming very difficult with all of the technology that is around us. When I’m composing I turn off my cell and house phones and go in on the music. If I’m writing ideas into music manuscript I try to write as much as possible to describe the feel, tempo, harmony, melody and some idea of an arrangement.
So many times in the past I look at something that I had written and I have no idea of what I was thinking about so I’ve learned to document as much as possible.
ABLX: You use so many unique basses. Frets, no frets, 4 strings, 10 strings, double necks. Do you have a “main bass” you prefer to use or does it depend on what you feel the song calls for?
ME: My main basses are my M.V.Pedulla 5-string fretless and fretted. I use them on 90% of my playing.
It does depend on what the song or arrangement calls for. For fluid and melodic songs I’ll usually choose the fretless and for more groove style music that calls for more point to the sound I like the fretted sound. Sometimes I use my 1964 Jazz Bass for vintage groove tracks. I found that bass at a Flea market while living in Miami in the 70’s. I’ve recorded with it with Sting, Joan Osborne, David Sanborn and on many sessions in New York.
ABLX: Do you approach composing a trio album like About Now differently than when you compose for music and television?
ME: Composing for movies and television is completely different for me than composing a trio album like About Now.
When you are writing music for visual medium it’s a different process and inspiration and you are using your sensibilities to work together with the director’s vision of the project. This can be a very creative process and usually brings me to musical places that I wouldn’t have explored on my own projects
Writing for my own projects is home for me because I know the areas that I want to explore, the players to write for and the type of productions techniques. I’m writing for my own musical movie in my head.
ABLX: You graduated from the University of Miami with musicians like Jaco Pastorius and Metheny, and came onto the music scene in the late 70’s with the Pat Metheny Group. What was it about that time and atmosphere in Miami that produced such incredible musicians?
ME: Musicians were drawn to the University of Miami because there was a great jazz program led by Jerry Coker. It was 1969 and things were really changing in music. Saxophonist Whit Sidener took over for Jerry Coker and was also a visionary mentor for so many musicians who have gone on to make incredible musical contributions.
ABLX: What was it about the time?
ME: Miles Davis had just released Bitches Brew and Live Evil. Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Led Zeplin, Cream, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever were all releasing great new progressive music. Miami was a port city so there was a confluence of Afro Cuban, Brazilian and all the music from South America. This transformation was happening all over the world but especially in America and in Miami there was a very special music scene. I feel fortunate that I was born into the baby boomer generation.
I also realized from my studies at Miami that I had to go back to the roots of Jazz and really get a full understanding of the lineage and evolution of improvised music. I’m still going back to those roots to solidify my foundation.
ABLX: Do you have any plans for this trio to record together again?
ME: Yes, the trio will be recording a follow up record to About Now this summer and it will be released in the spring of 2015. This is such a fantastic trio to play with and I want to continue to give it room to evolve. I’m composing the songs now and really look forward to reuniting with Danny and Mitchel in the near future.