“The first time I read the review, in the NY Times of Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire, I knew I had to read that book. When I finally did, I fell in love with her writing. This book was not like some Hollywood horror flick, she gave each vampire a history and a personality with feelings. The undead became living creatures. Those combinations drew me in and kept me reading every book that was part of her Vampire Chronicles.”Dom Minasi
Dom Minasi is a truly gifted and adventurous jazz guitarist out of New York City who has played many styles under the Jazz umbrella and now plays in the avant-garde idiom. Here he talks about his latest double CD The Vampire’s Revenge. It is an informative and fun read.
JGL: Hi Dom. Let’s talk about your latest CD The Vampire’s Revenge and its origins. It is an exciting work that spans two CD’s and features at any given time 22 musicians including a conductor. Simply put…what the heck were you thinking? lol…
DM: I wasn’t! I had no idea how big and involved it would be. It started with a germ of an idea way back in 1996. I was playing with saxophonist Blaise Siwula, bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen. Dominic suggested we compose some tunes and summit a demo to Bob Rusch at CIMP Records. At that time I must have been reading the third Anne Rice book from her Vampire Chronicles and being in a ‘dark’ place, I wrote this sinister melody and named it The Vampire’s Revenge.
To make a long story short, CIMP rejected the demo, but I kept the tune and it became part of the repertoire with the duo I had with Blaise & later on with my trio. A few years ago, hoping to form a group named ‘TIME’ (The Improvisational Music Ensemble) I started to write little snippets of melodies for a Vampire Series. After the release of Takin’ The Duke Out, I became very busy and I did not think about the project or ‘TIME’ till last year. When It came time to decide what to record after Quick Response, Carol and I talked frequently about what kind project it should be. We discussed the possibility of recording another Trio CD, DDT+2, Organ group again, or go the traditional guitar, bass, drums, piano and saxophone route or do something totally different.
I have a love of composing and literature. I write and read practically everyday. Over the years the author I read the most was Anne Rice! We decided to go for it. I would a form a group like ‘TIME’ and use the common thread of Vampire mythology to compose movements, but give each movement a song title. The titles and music must be in sequence with a continual story line; and let’s not keep it totally serious; why not inject humor either in the titles /music? ‘TIME’ was suppose to be a nine piece ensemble; guitar, bass, drums, violin, cello, alto, tenor, trumpet and trombone. I started with that premise and worked in (small groups) and out (larger ensembles) from there.
JGL: Dealing with 22 musicians and a conductor must have been both an amazing reality and a scary situation. Now I know that you had your core of working players alongside you, bassist Ken Filiano, drummer Jackson Krall, vocalist Carol Mennie, and cellist Tomas Ulrich. But how easy or difficult was it to get the rest of the players on board for this monumental session?
DM: I wanted to use my trio as the foundation for all the ensembles on the recording.
Ken Filiano and Jackson Krall and I have been together since 2001. Our playing is forceful and tight and no matter how big an ensemble, we could be the thrust that could be the driving force behind each group. I knew from the start that I wanted a series of guest artists. My first problem before I wrote a note was to find out who was available and if were they interested. I made a ‘wish list’ of everyone one I wanted to play with.
I started sending out emails or making phone calls. To my astonishment, everyone said yes except for David S. Ware and Anthony Braxton, they were too busy. Joe McPhee requested a piece for two tenors, which I began writing for him and Peter Bronztman, but after numerous tries, it became apparent that Peters’ schedule couldn’t line up with our designated time slots. I called Sabir Mateen and fortunately he was available. A few turned the project down because of the reading and working with a conductor, but all in all I had 22 musicians who said yes. When everyone said they would like to do it, I knew this would have to be a double disc set and this project would be an enormous undertaking. I couldn’t have the best free form players on this record and not have them play. It would be ridiculous to have someone of Perry Robinson’s stature, or any of the other players, to come in and play 2-3 minute solos; in fact it would be insulting to their artistry. The next problem was to get schedules and work out a plan. Once I had the schedules, then I wrote the titles and thought about what combinations and who and what instrumentation I wanted for each ensemble.
JGL: There are 118 minutes of combined (2 CD’s) music on The Vampire’s Revenge. How much of that was written and how much was improvised? Did you do all the writing and if so, how does one go about writing for such a large group of players?
DM: Every piece has written music. I did all the composing and arranging. The Vampire’s Revenge, The Dark Side, The First Day and Where You Gonna’Go? Where You Gonna’ Hide? were all composed at an earlier date with this project in mind. I just needed to decide who I wanted to play on the already written/ newly composed pieces and what kind of ensembles to arrange for.
How do I go about writing? I start with one note and go from there. My process always starts with me thinking and hearing it in my head. I may do this for days; even weeks till I am ready, then it just flows out of me. I stopped using the guitar and piano, years ago. I compose strictly from what I hear inside. The good thing now is I have Finale and I can hear it back immediately and make adjustments. The old way was to compose a piece and hopefully have an ensemble that could play it. 1993-1997 I was fortunate because I was the principle composer for a group called ‘MICE’ (Manhattan Improvisational Composers Ensemble) I was able to put my composing skills to use with that group. That experience prepared me for this project.
On this record the written music sounds improvised, but that’s the way I wanted it to sound (through-composed with lot’s of room for improv). I spent hours thinking about how to accomplish this. Knowing what each player was capable of doing, and deciding how to harness that capability into a workable musical situation so that they could feel comfortable and at ease with the process. I wasn’t worried about the group improvs or solos. These people were the best of what they do. I wanted the music to sound coherent and not like an all-night free-form jam. So many avant-free jazz records are musicians jamming together. Someone does some editing, breaks up the long collective soloing and gives them titles. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted distinct melodies that had a purpose and would move the music forward with each title or movement. That’s why I had Byron Olson conducting the larger ensembles. There was no way that I could conduct the transitional sequences from written music to improv and play my own part and hold it together.
There is a history between Byron and me. Byron produced my second album for Blue Note, “I have A Feeling I’ve Been Here Before”. We have been friends ever since. Byron is a great composer/musician and although is background is steeped in traditional jazz and classical composing and arranging, I knew he would be the right choice for the job. After a few meetings of going over the music and what his role and everyone else’s would be, he came in totally prepared.
JGL: Did the whole process from writing to recording go smoothly for you or were their hiccups along the way?
DM: The hardest part was trying to have the small groups rehearsal. I couldn’t get everyone in the same place at the same time. I scheduled the rehearsal for the Saturday before the recording. My plan was to have a different small ensemble rehearse on the hour starting at 12pm. Joe Giardullo (soprano) couldn’t make it. We got together a few days before to go over his part. Blaise Siwula (alto) was there at 12pm, but Ken and Jackson weren’t available for that date. The actor I hired to do the recitative foe Where You Gonna’ Go?.. over slept and didn’t show up. I got Peter Ratray to come in a few days later and go over it with me. Although it was a man’s part, Carol stepped in for the rehearsal.
At 1pm Steve Swell (trombone) and Mark Whitecage (alto) came in along with Carol to go rehearse The First Day. Tomas Ulrich (cello) and Jason Kao Hwang (violin) came in at 2pm for Who’s Your Dentist? And Perry Robinson showed up at 3pm to rehearse The Seduction. The day of the recording, I planned the recording date the same way. I had the rhythm section come in first to get our recording levels. The plan was that at 12pm on the hour for the next four hours I would record each piece. My only worry was, that as completed units, we all hadn’t played together yet. To my joyous surprise, once we got going, it ran like clockwork. By 4pm we finished all four pieces and everyone was superb.
We rehearsed the larger ensemble the day before the recording. I sent the music out to everyone to go over on their own till rehearsal. The larger ensembles consisted of John Gunther and Ras Moshe (reeds), Herb Robertson (trumpet), Steve Swell (trombone), Tomas Ulrich (cello) Jason Kao Hwang (violin) Carol Mennie (voice) Francois Grillot (bass-2). For the longest piece, Blood Lust, I recorded the inserts at a later date, using Borah Bergman (Piano) for insert one and Paul Smoker (trumpet) Joe McPhee (tenor) and Steve Swell on insert two. I created some new language for some of the big pieces and I wanted everyone to familiarize himself or herself’ with that language. To be honest, the rehearsal was a little rough, but once they understood what I wanted it went a lot smoother.
I followed the same sequence for the big ensembles at the recording studio. 11am sound check for the rhythm section and every 20 minutes or so we had the horns then the strings come in. The next problem was how to get the musicians to ‘stop on a dime’ and go into the written parts when they are improvising collectively or individually? We solved the problem by giving Byron a microphone that he could do count offs into the written music. It went so smoothly, that Jon Rosenberg (recording engineer) was stunned as was I. I couldn’t have asked for a better musical repartee among the players. Everyone listened to each other and complimented the variety of musical styles we brought to the table.
The following month I recorded Matthew Shipp with the trio. Matthew came in totally prepared. We got it on the first take as we did all the others’. A few weeks later, Borah Berman, then a week after that Joe McPhee, Sabir Mateen, Paul Smoker and Steve Swell. While Joe, Paul and Steve were there; we recorded the second insert for Blood Lust. You may ask why inserts for Blood Lust? Logistically, it was the only way. Joe and Mateen were on the road for most of the summer, so this was the best way.
JGL: Your wife, Carol Mennie, a wonderful and talented musician in her own right lends her voice to this project in a way that I have never heard from her before. What was it like working with her in this context and what was it like working with vocals in this distinct forum of free expression?
DM: I’ve worked with vocalists before. The group I mentioned earlier, MICE, had an opera singer in it, so I was comfortable writing for voice. I knew that for The First Day I wanted to add a vocal line as a contrapuntal voice which would give it that extra needed punch. Carol’s involvement in Just One More Bite came as a complete surprise to her. Let me explain. My wife is my biggest fan and what I call the tonal half of our relationship.
When I decided to go full throttle into the avant-field, Carol came to every gig and sometimes there were only two or three people to play for. But she was there! Through the years, whenever we would work on her repertoire, I would drive her crazy and play some very out and fast lines. After a while she would sing those lines back to me note per note. Sometimes we would just do it for fun as a warm-up. When I came up with the title Just One More Bite,
I told Carol I wanted to include her in this piece and she would have to sing a duet with me and some of the other players and end up soloing on her own. She gave me a look that said: “Are you out of your freakin’ mind”! I gave her my very serious look back that said, “don’t argue, you’re doing it!” The day before the large ensemble rehearsal, she said she had an idea that she wanted to try on the recording and if it worked we could keep it, if it didn’t we could always cut it out and do her part over again. I had no idea what she had in mind. When it was time for her cue to come in and she ended her solo with the repeated “just one more, just one more “and she brought in the drama and the sexual humor and screamed “bite”! Well you heard it, it’s hysterical and of course we kept it.
JGL: I noticed after a couple of listenings to “The Vampires Revenge” that your voice as a guitarist takes a back seat a lot of times to the totality of the music presented. Now this is not to say that there is little guitar playing going on because there are plenty of moments where your playing is front and center but it seems like the guitar, while an important component within the tunes, is not the end all be all instrument that one would expect from the leader of the date. Was this an original intention or did you have to alter your playing to allow the other voices to “penetrate” the tunes if you will?
DM: This was my original intention. I wasn’t going to have the best ‘out’ players on the planet there for window dressing. They were there to play and that’s exactly what I said to them before we recorded. I knew exactly what I wanted. When you hear a stand out solo on a piece, it’s because I wrote that music for a specific musician in mind. Example: I said to both Ras Moshe and Herb Robertson before we recorded the title piece; “This is all about you. You are both totally exposed so go for it”and I said that to each and every player that had a big solo. The music took precedence over any feelings I might have had about me being a leader or the main soloist. Since I’ve been a leader, it has always about the group sound and if that means I become a sideman at times, it’s OK. Besides, my presence is felt throughout both discs conceptually and in the composing, and arranging.
JGL: As mentioned in the liner notes to your CD, the music is based on Vampire lore with special dedication to Anne Rice’s writings of the undead. I have to admit that I too have always been a fan of the Vampire mythology and am a mega Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel fan. What was it about Vampires that drove you to this “monster” project and is it just coincidence that Jazz musicians are a decidedly nocturnal bunch?
DM: The truth is, I’m a day person. My days start at 6am. That’s when I get all my company work done, especially when dealing with Europe. If I have a gig at night, I have to take a nap. It’s been that way for years with me. The first time I read the review, in the NY Times of Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire, I knew I had to read that book. When I finally did, I fell in love with her writing. This book was not like some Hollywood horror flick, she gave each vampire a history and a personality with feelings. The undead became living creatures. Those combinations drew me in and kept me reading every book that was part of her Vampire Chronicles.
JGL: If you had to do this all over again would you? Are there any more magnum opus’s around the corner from the pen and spark of Dom Minasi?
DM: If I had to do it over again would I? In a heartbeat! I can’t tell you how rewarding it felt to play with these musicians and bring this musical vision into reality. Everyone connected to this project left their ego’s home. From the very first moment of the first beat of each piece, they all knew instantly that this was not about them, but about the music and it would not have sounded as good as it does if they walked in with their ego’s on their shoulders.
To answer the second part of your question. I am finishing up Carol’s next record, which will be out next year. A few weeks ago I recorded a project with drummer Ray Sage. Blaise Siwula, pianist, Suto Nobuyoshi and vocalist Motoko Shimizu. I am getting ready to record with Borah Bergman. I will be recording an album (April 2006) with guitarist Jon Jon Hemmersam. I have some concerts coming up which I want to play some new music for.
I am also re-writing the large and small ensemble pieces from VR into condensed versions for different working combinations. Example: The Trio + Cello, Trio +Trombone, Trio + Alto, Trombone & Cello etc. Lately I have been composing 21Century music. I just finished a solo cello piece with 4 movements for Tomas and I am finishing up a string quartet piece that will have it’s premier this summer. Hopefully I can take off a few weeks off here and there to recoup. Shortly after all this, I start working with Austrian playwright/director Franka Fiala on an opera.
JGL: And finally, I have really enjoyed listening to this CD and I wish you all the best with it. How is the community at large receiving “The Vampires Revenge”? Are you getting any airplay or is this music more of a concert only vehicle?
DM: As I am writing the answers to this question, today April 11th, The Vampire’s Revenge was released exactly one month ago. The first seven days it was out, it was the number one add-on for radio play on CMJ. Last week and this week and holding it is number 14 on the Top 20 Jazz Chart on CMJ. Besides the USA and Canada we are getting airplay in Brazil, Columbia, Puerto Rico, England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, France , Russia and Australia . The overall response from critics, media, musicians and the general public has been overwhelming. I’ll be honest Lyle; it’s something I never expect. I absolutely thought this CD would permanently end my recording career but instead the record is opening doors I haven’t been able to penetrate before. At some point during the next year, I hope to get funding so that I can do a major concert performing all the music with all the musicians in its original form.
JGL: Thanks Dom for taking the time to talk with Jazz Guitar Life.
DM: Thanks for the interest Lyle.