Far-Flung Inspirations: An Interview with Trio Red Space’s Tim Daisy

By Jeff Jackson 

Trio Red Space is an all-star band led by acclaimed drummer and composer Tim Daisy. Their energetic music is a combustive combination of two very different influences: the innovative AACM jazz collective and the contemporary classical composers of the "New York School." Trio Red Space’s tunes offer consistent surprises, seamlessly straddling the line between written material and improvisation.

Daisy built the trio around two of the most accomplished musicians on the jazz scene. Saxophonist Mars Williams moves easily between jazz, funk, hip-hop and rock, having played with The Psychedelic Furs, Bill Laswell, Ministry, and Jerry Garcia, and earned a Grammy for work with Liquid Soul. Trombonist Jeb Bishop performs with such esteemed groups as Ken Vandermark/Vandermark Five, Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, and Globe Unity Orchestra. 

I interviewed Tim Daisy about Trio Red Space via email. Catch them, along with Charlotte’s own Ghost Trees, on Friday, April 22, 2016 at 8:00 PM here at New Frequencies at McColl Center. 

How did Trio Red Space come together? How long have you been playing as a group?

Tim Daisy: I have been interested in forming a brass, woodwind, and percussion trio for the past a couple of years now. In 2014, I had the pleasure to work with saxophonist Mars Williams and trombonist Jeb Bishop in Ken Vandermark’s Audio One large group both in Chicago and Milwaukee. The idea came to me during this period to write for a saxophone, trombone, and percussion trio using Mars and Jeb specifically. I approached them about this idea and they happily agreed.

I have performed and recorded with both of these great musicians off and on in various ensembles for the past decade, however this is the first time we’ve worked together in a trio format.

You’ve been in a lot of different musical situations over the years. What sets Trio Red Space apart from your previous groups? How does it fit into your overall musical vision?

The trio setting is my favorite context to work in, and I’m not entirely sure why that is! Something to do with the group dynamic in relation to the balance between written material and open improvisation. The trio format suits both my compositional style and my improvisatory temperament. So I was interested in exploring the format a bit further, and to try it with a bit more of an unusual instrumentation. I am certainly not the first composer to write for trombone, saxophone, and percussion, but I am the first to write for Jeb Bishop and Mars Williams! Both of these gentlemen bring an amazing amount of creative energy to this ensemble and I feel we have only scratched the surface of what we’re capable of.

Stylistically speaking, I have an extremely wide range to work with when I come up for the material for this ensemble. Jeb and Mars are both terrific readers and really great improvisers and the wealth of knowledge and experience between the two of them is uncanny. They have both worked together for years in various improvised and new music ensembles—the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet and the Vandermark 5 just to name a couple—and as a result I felt from our very first rehearsal we had strong chemistry and a cohesive group dynamic. I feel this sense of interplay, as well as the ability to dig into the material right out of the starting gate, has set this ensemble apart from some of the other groups I have been involved with.

You’ve said that the band’s material is inspired by the AACM. Are there particular musicians from this legendary collective whose music resonated with what you’re doing with Trio Red Space?

I could write volumes as to the impact that the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians has had on my work over the years. The AACM is arguably one of the most important creative arts movements to come out of the United States. (No argument from me however!)

Without taking up too much ink however, I’ll narrow my focus down to two of the AACM artists who have perhaps had the most profound impact on my work, both as a composer and an improviser: the multi-instrumentalist and composer Anthony Braxton has been a consistent source of inspiration on many different levels. His multi-layered compositional systems, his interest in the work of experimental composers working outside of the “jazz” idiom including John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and his use of unusual instrumentation and approaches to sound are just a few of the many examples which keep me motivated to continue my work. A true original, as a thinker, musician, and as a composer.

The violinist, violist, and composer Leroy Jenkins is the other artist from the AACM who has been very important to me. Mr. Jenkins has recorded what is without a doubt my favorite set of music ever documented in a studio: Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America. It’s on the Tomato imprint. The balance between composed thematic material and open ended improvising is mind-blowing. The use of electronics is extremely creative as well. The music is involving and unique not only because of Mr. Jenkins gift as a composer and instrumentalist, but just as importantly, his ability to gather outstanding and compatible players. I feel he is like Miles Davis in this regard. His ability to find the right people to work together to help realize his creative vision. This is an idea that I have tried to adapt when I put together my own ensembles. And I think I may have found it with Jeb Bishop and Mars Williams!

Another inspiration you’ve mentioned are “New York School” composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown. What specifically excited you from that group of fairly different composers? How did those inspirations combine with the AACM influence?

You are absolutely correct; these composers’ work was vastly different from each other. One can always find issue with lumping individual artists into categories, be it the “New York School,” “Abstract Expressionists,” or what have you. But I have to say, twenty years ago when I first discovered these composers, it was through a recording called the New York School on Hat Art records. Had I not discovered this recording, it might have been some time later before I was able to learn from and appreciate the innovative ideas of John Cage, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff. So, I guess my point is that it’s not always a bad idea to put artists whose individual work may be very different from each other under an “umbrella” if it can help a wider audience gain an appreciation for their work.

One very important aspect of the New York school for me has been Morton Feldman and his fascination with the world of visual art. His ability to apply his interest in the visual medium into his sound world. John Cage admired Marcel Duchamp, Earl Brown was inspired by Jackson Pollack, but Morton Feldman found the most direct approach to framing his compositional ideas in a way that connects to the visual art medium. I can almost see him standing in his study with his compositions tacked onto a wall, studying them as a painter would, making changes to them, stepping back again. 

This is, of course, only one example of the amazing work created by these great composers. John Cage and his writing for percussion ensemble, his use of chance operations. Earl Brown’s Calder piece, his open form compositional technique. All of these ideas have helped maintain a level of inspiration for the work I am attempting to create.

Taking inspiration from the innovative ideas and inventions created by the New York School of composers, and placing it into an improvised music context is where the combined interests with the AACM would intersect. I have always been interested in the art of improvisation and all of my compositions have varying degrees of open ended improvising built into the arrangements. I’m fascinated with why the same composition can take on a vastly different character night after night while performing on tour. Does the improvising affect the written material or vice versa? Or both? Great questions that I hope I never find the answers to!

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New Frequencies at McColl Center presents Trio Red Space on Friday, April 22, 2016 at 8 PM. Ghost Trees opens. Advance tickets are available now.

Jeff Jackson is a novelist, playwright, and curator of the New Frequencies at McColl Center series.

Photo, top: Peter Gannushkin (Courtesy of Tim Daisy)