Speaking from home in Seattle Ted Poor had just ‘‘got the family out the door’’ and was waiting to begin his day as assistant professor of jazz studies at the University of Washington, ‘‘Udub’’ as he goes on to refer to the university later in the conversation, where he works Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Clark Kent-like in his mild mannered speaking style by contrast as a gigging drummer and certainly on the often intense and stark You Already Know his musical personality is a galaxy away.
His students in Seattle are taught a ‘‘little of everything,’’ he explains. He does one-to-one lessons with drummer jazz students among his classes and teaches combo and has a ‘‘jazz lab’’ and concentrates on ‘‘focused listening, learning by ear and improv based on records.’’
It is Poor’s seventh year in Seattle. He arrived at the city partly because of the fact that his friend and bandmate Cuong Vu was already on faculty. The trumpeter, best known for his work with Pat Metheny, goes back years with Poor and they still play together regularly.
The big story for 2020 however is the fact that Poor is in the rare position of putting out what is his ‘official’ debut as leader on the label often dubbed ‘The House That Trane Built’ – Impulse!
Has it sunk in yet? Poor says it is ‘‘certainly a dream come true. Impulse and Verve records are some of the most important music to me and to participate in that community is a wonderful challenge.’’
‘‘Official’’ debut yes. He tells me, however, when he was a student at college not far from where he grew up in Rochester, New York state when studying at the Eastman School of Music, he made a record called All Around.
That release in 2004 was significant in that it began his playing relationship with guitarist Ben Monder, a connection that continues to the present. Monder, Poor says, came up to Eastman and ‘‘we hit it off’’. The tunes on that obscure record nonetheless were made at top New York studio Avatar were a mix of originals including Poor’s ‘It Doesn’t Hurt’ and some Coltrane. The last time Poor played with Monder was about a year ago on Day After Day with Matt Brewer, largely a solo guitar disc.
Coming from Rochester where drum icon Steve Gadd hails from I asked Poor how he related to Gadd’s music and he said that at first ‘‘he was aware primarily of his pop and rock playing with James Taylor and Paul Simon. Gadd would come to Eastman to do a masterclass with a percussionist who would play congas and Steve would do brushes. It was a deep experience because of the simplicity and depth of complexity and about feel and feeling.’’
Drums were Poor’s first instrument, his parents told him he began at two years old.
‘‘They took me to a Horace Silver concert at Rochester, it was meant to be outdoors but it was rainy and was moved inside into a jam-packed smaller room and I was up close to the band.’’
When he got home he started making kits out of utensils. His parents, he says were open-minded music lovers and ‘‘my dad is a drummer but he was not playing at the time.’’
Into BB King and the Allman brothers Ted recalls listening to A Love Supreme in the car with his dad, ‘‘the third movement’’ – ‘Pursuance’ was a revelation.
Now years on, quite extraordinarily he finds himself on the label on which John Coltrane made his greatest work. We talk about Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali, Coltrane’s great drummers from the Impulse years who were poles apart in their approach, Jones the classic thrusting hard bop drummer in the classic quartet, Ali the experimental multidirectional iconoclast of the later years.
‘‘I guess with Elvin people talk about his explosive, propulsive style which was incredible of course. It strikes me how personal everything he played was. He couldn’t do anything but play that way – not limited, we all are striving for distilling a statement. The quartet provided a beautiful counterpoint.’’
After college Poor moved to New York city to start his post-college gigging career in earnest. Poor had another record out much later he tells me before this official debut as a leader plus a lot of sideman work and that subsequent record could not be more different to the first because it is an indie-rock type collaboration with singer Grey McMurray and which was released in 2013.
Poor refers to it as ‘’jazz influenced rock blues songs’’. But he was not in a ‘‘place to tour it at the time’’ and the project fizzled out. The early work is hardly known. Without being rash I think by dramatic contrast the jazz world globally will know about Poor all over the place this year given how innovative and fresh the inspiring You Already Know is.
Based on saxophone-drums duets the record has a compelling authority to it in quite a different way to say the equally striking Dem Ones (Gearbox, 2015) by the MOBO-winning Binker and Moses duo, an album that was closely aligned to the Coltrane/Ali Interstellar Space sound in certain obvious respects.
Poor has also had some interesting sideman experiences in his early career. I like particularly his Amateur Dentist work with the reedist Joris Roelofs.
Poor was introduced to Roelofs who was in New York out of the Amsterdam scene by bassist Matt Penman and the two of them played tours with Joris in Europe and recorded. ‘‘It was a working trio for a number of years,’’ he says. Roelofs played mainly bass clarinet but Poor tells me that Joris is a great altoist as well. And certainly given this latest album of Poor’s with Andrew d’Angelo he gravitates towards the alto register a lot.
Joris liked to ‘‘switch roles’’ and Poor found this stimulating he says. They played mainly in Europe. He also gigged before his Roelofs days with saxophonist Nicolas Masson who like Roelofs later he met in New York. ‘‘He’s from Geneva and he organised some tours in Europe.’’
With Masson on the striking, almost Chris Potter-like world of Departures, you can hear the Ben Monder connection again bearing fruit in the alchemy with Poor. Certainly you can easily hear how Poor finds himself in very open musical situations that bypass conventional notions of jazz genre.
The one thing all his work from this period has in common, and the new work corresponds to the same working pattern, is that much of the music is grounded in original composition, the extra element of band interplay in a live context and above all the discipline of improvisers in using the shape of composition to find room for their own individuality and internal expression.
Poor and D’Angelo take a highly ground-breaking approach, the technique of recording the album also deepening the listening experience from a production point of view, the d’Angelo sound more pinned to the world of Ornette Coleman that after all smashed up the jazz language into a new one in the 1950s and one that we are still coming to terms with, while Poor does not play multi-directional instead he leaves a lot of space, the drums like a vocal line in some respects and certainly tuneful and personality-laden in a way, and injects a by times brutal pared down sound that has a visceral impact and is enhanced by judicious overdubs that enlarge the sound world. The saxophone wails, it does not rain down.
As for the oblique title ‘‘You Already Know’’ Poor tells me he is drawn to titles that have meaning ‘‘in a number of ways’’ and leave space for the listener to ‘‘bring themselves’’ to the meaning itself. He sees the album as a ‘‘collection of drum beats and melody, the sax singing so personal and so beautiful.’’
Co-produced with Blake Mills he says that the album was recorded first in Brooklyn and then overdubs were added at Sound City in Los Angeles. The overdubs (strings, piano etc) ‘‘illuminate the bits of composition’’ that he and Mills were determined would be incidental to the main focus of drums and sax.
It is pretty clear that that aspiration has been fulfilled because the sound is so intimate and immediate and yet not at all depopulated or gloomily empty if left just to the instruments themselves. Poor says Blake was ‘‘quick to point out when he was pushing the overdubs too much. His idea was to imagine the drum and sax in the middle of the stage with instruments on the outside participating and then receding.’’
In Sound City, Poor had previously worked there in 2014 with the singer-violinist Andrew Bird for his Are You Serious? album. Blake was playing guitar. He says it is a ‘‘really compelling studio, quite plain in a way. Some go for perks and frills but not there. It has a simple and business-like environment.’’
The original tracks were made in Brooklyn over a period of a year and then when Impulse came on board ‘‘Blake and I had a sit down and decided on what overdubs we wanted.’’
As for the drums on the record he uses an old Rogers kit with 20-inch toms, 12-inch rack toms, 16-inch floor toms and a 1920s 15-inch Ludwig Black Beauty snare used for the snare overdubs ‘‘to resonate with the composition and Andrew’s melody and compensate for the lack of bass and guitar.’’ The mic-ing he adds ‘‘provides a bit of depth.’’ On the tune ‘Kasia’ the cymbal he says has a gong-like quality.
One interesting thing on the record that shows a link to my ears is in the track towards the end, possibly the most accessible and grooving of all the tracks, ‘Push Pull’, which I think fans of UK band Sons of Kemet (and Impulse label mates of Poor’s) will really love. Poor indicates that the ‘‘accompanying beat came first. It was a simple, repetitive, arrangement and then we were investigating how long we could play.’’
Poor met D’Angelo in New York ‘‘in the jazz community’’. He is from Seattle and came through the city and Poor and he played what Poor terms a ‘‘memorable gig’’ together at the Royal Room spawning the idea to record. Speaking a little of jazz clubs Poor says he likes their ‘‘sweaty’’ atmosphere but is just as used particularly when he is playing Americana soaked indie with Andrew Bird to bigger venues and likes in those places the situation of the band on stage. In Seattle he says Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley is relatively a ‘‘large club’’ but much smaller and more avant is the club that pianist Wayne Horvitz runs, the Royal Room where he and d’Angelo first gelled. Poor, who has been a member of the Chris Thile Live From Here band for some time, will be playing with Thile in April at Town Hall in New York city on 4 April. Before that You Already Know comes out at the end of February and Poor plays Seattle to launch the record on 7 March. Interview: Stephen Graham
Andrew d'Angelo, top left, with Ted Poor. Photo: courtesy Crossover Media.