String Theory (Interview)

By Cicily Janus for (November 11, 2009)

The fog has lifted off of the coast of Seattle with the rise of Origin Records. As the fisherman of jazz today, they’ve cast their nets and pulled in a catch of fresh, raw and bold talent. Their latest catch: saxophonist Ricky Sweum. 

Pulling Your Own Strings, which came out in mid-August 2009, has received some of the highest accolades from today’s best musicians including Dave Liebman who quotes Ricky as being a “burning tenor player with technique and ideas to spare…well worth checking out.” Other musicians who praise his album include Walt Weiskopf, Saxophonist Bill Evans, Bassist Rufus Reid, Pianist Marian McPartland, and James Moody who said it was a, “pleasure for my ears.” 

But what catches the ears and places them in full attention is his sound. There’s candy with each sound bite. His playful style is obviously related to many distant jazz family members. 

The influence of Dexter Gordon and Michael Brecker can be heard, with a dash of Leibman on the side. His hipster caché can be attributed to many of those grandfathered influences. Yet the tone and rhythm of his attitude can only be granted from his inner core. 

The day in and day out of the life…touring the country with a big band, being a father, running his own gig scene in a small-ish town has grossly changed his tune and his story. Breaking across the expected norm, he’s pulled his own strings to contribute a unique weave to the cloth of modern jazz. Every tune is original, fresh and outstanding. 

All About Jazz: Where were you or what was your school of thought when you were recording this album? 

Ricky Sweum: I like the basic Buddhist principle, which I believe applies: We must always realize that we have choices instead of falling prey to whatever action that’s happening. We should be aware of the different feelings that are arising within us and choose to act in a way, at all times, that is peaceful to others. 

One of the themes in my life for a period of time was the idea that I had to be content and happy with what is. I had to not feel like something has to be different or that it could have been done better or that I had to go back and relive that moment and think about how it could have been better…I have to, instead, just own what is. 

AAJ: Do you feel this way about the album? That it is what it is? That you own it? 

RS: Yes I do. I didn’t feel like this initially. Not at all. I spent the first few weeks after the recording feeling like I was going to have to put it in the trash and redo it. All of us felt really bad about it. 

We had this excitement of going into the studio after we had been playing tons of gigs over the summer (of which I had digitally recorded every single one of them and listened to them) which gave us great confidence to go into the studio. We were used to creating these magical moments and then listening to them right away. It puffed us up, made us think that we deserved to be in the studio…but when we did the session we were all driving back from Denver and we put the rough mix in the CD player and all just felt terrible about it. 

AAJ: Was it the recording session itself that made you feel this way? Or was it something else? 

RS: Yes. I don’t know if it’s the experience of performing live in front of people who are feeding off of your energy and music and your solos…finishing a tune and getting applause and that instant gratification of the memory of what we just did. This is a great feeling. 

But while we were in the studio it felt like it was representative of us on a night where we were only there 70%. And this feeling, after the recording, lasted for a good month. But listening to it almost a year later, having the distance, we all feel that it’s a wonderful representation of our talent. We all love it. 

Going through that initial disappointment was huge. I didn’t think it was as good as I hoped it would be and I was worried because I had already committed to the mixing process and hired a Grammy Award-winner to do so. I thought, okay, I need to commit to this and be with it and that’s when my attitude shifted. I guess we find what we look for. It’s as easy to dwell on the negative things as it is to dwell on the positive. 

AAJ: You’re signed to and distributed by Origin records. What would you say was your biggest challenge in the process of hiring and finding the right label for your album? 

RS: I had it in the back of my mind, once everything was laid down in the studio, or even before that really, I hoped that the album would be picked up by a label. I’ve done a number of recordings in the past that have all been self-released and they were great but I only sold a couple of them, gave them away mostly to friends. 

Having the label was something that seemed to be missing in my musical development. It was one of those things I think a lot of musicians need to have in their lives. But for me, I’d been feeling that I needed it for a long time even though I went through such a long stretch where I didn’t feel like I was ready to put forth the effort to have something on a big label. 

That being said, you can, as an artist or musician, spend a lifetime in a practice room preparing for something. If you’re always looking to improve, you can always have the excuse that you’re not ready, especially in music where there are always going to be an infinite amount of things to work on. For me, I had to have that missing step, that validation. I didn’t have anything under my own name. Obtaining it became this big unknown…I had to figure out how to break into it. 

AAJ: How did you break into it? 

RS: Over the last few years I’d been following Origin Records because I had some close friends who had their own records through Origin. I thought maybe, if they were doing it, that I could do it as well. 

A good friend of mine, I went to high school with, Toby Koenigsburg, who is now a professor at the University of Oregon, went through this stage a little earlier than I did. That feeling of having to prove yourself and your world not just to yourself or your friends, but to prove to everyone that you’re serious about your music. It’s just one of those rights of passage when you’re taking yourself to that next level. You can’t just prove it to yourself, you have to do it for the world. 

One of the ways I’m doing this is by having something commercially released on a label. That was one of his goals through his tenure track and he did it and had great success. I knew from his experience and the experience of some of my other friends that this label was what I wanted. Plus I had never really had this many personal connections that were tied to a label. It also happens to be that Origin also puts out really great material. It’s been twelve years since I first heard about Origin records and they’re finally getting the recognition they deserve. 

When the mixing and the mastering of the album was completed I felt like it was a really great product that was worthy of being listened to by the smaller independent labels. Then I made a list of all the labels that might be interested in me. Origin was always at the top of my list. I’m just thankful that they were the ones who showed the most interest. 

AAJ: You said you hired a Grammy Award-winning engineer to do the mastering and mixing of the album. What did you learn by going through the post-production process with someone of that caliber? 

RS: It’s such a different world. A lot of what’s habitual for me as a musician is that I’m focused on the sound, rhythm and the melody. I worry about the interaction with the other guys and the rises and falls in the context of the music. But when it’s all finished the mixing and the mastering is a whole different way of listening to music. My ears just don’t usually live there. For me, the whole process was a great experience to live in for a while. I learned how to listen to how things actually sound. I didn’t have to worry about rhythm and the things I would normally listen to and for and I could free myself from having to hear the music in ways I typically hear it. Instead I’m listening for subtle colors and brightness and darkness and the relationships between balance levels. Bob Dawson, who did the mix is a master. I felt amazingly confident in turning the project over to him with a list of different things I wanted to have fixed. Not only did he take care of the list he took care of his own list. 

AAJ: How much of a hand would you say the average musician has in the post-recording process? 

RS: It depends. You can be involved as much as you want. I wanted to produce as much of it as I could but my training doesn’t lie in that area. It truly was a learning process throughout. It’s just not where I normally live. But these guys make the big bucks for a reason. I once heard it described to me that you have to find an engineer that has golden ears. They live in that place all the time. 

I tried at first, thinking that I would have a much more hands-on approach to mixing, having some guys from the Air Force band do some initial mixes. But our experience levels were as such that we would get to the point where we thought, okay this sounds better but not perfect and none of us had a clue as to what to do. That’s when I knew it would be worth going to those golden ears. 

With David though, I thought I would be able to just drop it off and let him do the work like I did with Bob. But he wanted me to be there. He wanted to know what I wanted to get out of it and what I was hearing. He wanted me to bring in reference CDs that I’ve listened to. I’ve listened to some of them hundreds of times and I realized that I had taken for granted the things I heard that really made them different from each other. 

For example, I love ECM records but when I started to really listen, I thought everything sounded like it was in a concert hall and there was lots of reverb. So I had to rethink what I would want for my project. Then I listened to a Chris Potter recording and it had no reverb at all. It sounded very crisp, like it was done in a small room. So it seemed that this CD was going to sound like it was either in a small club setting or a large concert hall. It was all very subtle yet significant. 

I was almost done with the whole process when I played him one more. It was one of Michael Brecker’s CDs. There was something about the sound of Brecker and where it sounded coming in from the mix. He listened to it and then cocked his head and said “I’m glad you played that for me. It puts the tenor in a different space.” That’s the word he used! It was like the tenor sound was like a bubble over someone’s head, roundish…and after I heard him say it was in a different space, talking about that CD, the sound was then more like a little laser beam in a smaller area, instead of here and there. I learned that this part of the process was about putting the sound in a different space and a whole different concept. It was an amazing experience to work with someone who devotes their lives to hearing music in different spaces. 

AAJ: How do you feel about the recording now, having gone through this part of the process in such an intimate way? 

RS: It’s just comforting to know that this project has been touched by these two great listeners of music. Everything on here is original and I’m able, when I listen to it now, to focus on the actual music. 

AAJ: What influenced you during this process? 

RS: This was the first time the group had hit the studio and we weren’t used to it at all. We were in separate rooms when we were used to playing very tight, close to one another, and playing acoustically. But when you’re in the studio, you’re separated by closed doors and the lifeline you have is just a pair of headphones. It took a couple of hours that day to really feel comfortable with it. It was definitely awkward for me. Initially it felt like a job we had to do. We had to stay focused and come back to that little instance of separation. From the moment you go into your mind and you’re feeling that resistance…as in something that doesn’t feel ideal you have to change. 

I had to realize that this was the situation we were in. Instead of reacting negatively, we just decided to own it and make music. I took my shoes off and started swaying back and forth and getting into the music. Music is such an audio experience and yet for me, early on, some of the most significant music that influenced me were recordings I’ve made live, on my own. Concerts, bootlegged…they enter this different dynamic. Instead of being something you hear, I was there, seeing it. I was feeling whatever you can feel from being a live person who was watching them physically interacting with each other and then how they interact with the audience. 

Those were really significant to me because I could go back and listen to the whole recording and remember the whole experience as opposed to just remembering and hearing a sound. Sometimes I feel that music is too sterile otherwise. Yet I get goose bumps when I listen to music like this. Not only is the music great but to experience that energy in a live situation reconnects you to what I love about music. 

AAJ: Where did Pulling Your Own Strings come from? 

RS: I wrote the tune, Pulling Your Own Strings the first year I was at William Patterson. This was the first time I really had a “band.” We got together and said, okay, let’s see what can happen if we play together as much as we possibly can. 

William Patterson is a great school to go to because we had all those fantastic players but for me, the schooling didn’t really begin until after the classes were done. Every evening you could go there and people would have these Jam Sessions. It was a great atmosphere. You could go room to room and jam with different guys. But with my group, we almost made ourselves exclusive. We felt drawn to do something more than just the typical jam session mentality. Also, when you’re in school you’re often placed by your teachers in the different ensembles. This also means you’re not always placed with the people you really want to play with. 

We used our intuition and said there’s something really special about playing with this particular group. We all felt this way. Night after night after night we got into the whole collective. I’m sure it’s not new to get into the collective improvisation thing, but sometimes, in jazz, there’s a great new idea that comes along an dit dies with that person other than having others pick up on it and recognizing that it is really special. For us, it became less and less about hearing the arrangement and having us solo one after another. We made sure everyone played collectively, improvising the whole time. What came from this was me taking the time to write and contribute to that ensemble with my writing. I would get these riffs together and piece it into tunes. Pulling Your Own Strings came from that time in my life as well as a lot of the other tunes on this album. I guess over time since then I shelved a lot of them. 

Once I entered the air force down in San Antonio, I put another band together called, Eat the Sun. There were some truly decent players and some exceptional players and once we began playing the tunes resurfaced. I loved this tune and when I started to play it again for this, I knew it would be my favorite tune on the album. It also reflects what I believe in. 

I believe we have a certain amount of control over our own destiny. But like a marionette doll that’s controlled by the strings, our human bodies are like that doll. There’s this force so much greater that’s actually controlling everything. Some say it’s God but to me, to use the word God is a cop out of responsibility or saying I just don’t understand the nature of reality. I’d like to say that God takes care of everybody but I’m deep seeded in my belief that we’re not separate from God. We at least have some sort of communication with that power. To take it even further, we are that power ourselves and yet to be fully in control of that, you can’t have your ego in the way. If you sit around in a box in a room and do nothing, I believe nothing will happen to you. If you decide, in turn, to do great things, in turn, great things will happen to you. Our will to have things happen is a very powerful and under used tool in most people’s lives. This is my visual imagery behind Pulling Your Own Strings. 

AAJ: Why the wait between your schooling and the air force and more to put out this record? 

RS: Maybe it wasn’t a conscious decision. I went through a period of time in New York where I didn’t play as much. It wasn’t a conscious decision to focus on something else, I just happened to get into other things. Marshall Arts, Nature Studies and a fresh relationship really took my mind off of the “me” mentality and also from focusing on what I wanted to do. I just didn’t feel good enough to be a jazz musician doing my own thing in New York. 

There was this standard of an almost perfectionist level that got in my way, and still does…all the time. I don’t want anyone to hear me sound bad ever. Even now. 

AAJ: Do you think that holds back a lot of artists, especially young artists? 

RS: No. When I was younger I had this fearlessness. A reckless abandon. I would jump into positions I wouldn’t do now. I wasn’t afraid of things. Somehow I grew afraid of and I guess I need to figure out what happened along the way. 

But when you go to school you have a support group of all the people you’re playing with on a daily basis. You can put a band together and say, let’s go get gigs and everyone’s collectively in it together. So if you fail, everyone’s cool with it…and half the time no one shows up to the gig. At least you’re not worried then. But when I left that comfort and went to New York I became like that dog that curls up in the corner after it gets yelled at enough times. I trained myself early on to fear certain musical situations. 

AAJ: What do you do, as an artist, to overcome that fear? 

RS: If I want to call it fear I can, but if I want to call it a standard…or a personal standard that I’ve set on myself, I feel it’s fine and safe. It’s safe for an artist to say, “I’ve got something I’m working on and I don’t want anyone to see it until the painting is finished.” That’s fair. But really, I guess it’s a fear of the critic. But the older I get, the more years I spend saying this is how music is. It’s not just music, it’s a way of life. It’s a guidance. How you approach music is how you approach life. It ‘s a religious principle and becomes who you are. It’s about being less concerned with what other people have to say and realizing that this is just part of the fun of the dynamics of relating to other people. It’s how other people feel about you and feeling good about what they say. You can do what you want with what they say. Maybe they’re right, maybe what they’re saying is true but then you have the choice of letting it influence you or change you. But I have to be first, resolute in my own feelings. I have to know what I truly believe in and that this isn’t going to change me. I’m going to stay true to myself. Even ten years later, I have to have something representative of me, all original, all my own doing, from being able to pull my own strings and know that the power of doing so was something I made happen.