A Few More Minutes With… Roger Noyes of the Arch Stanton Quartet
CD Review and interview by J Hunter
Photograph by Rudy Lu
THE ARCH STANTON QUARTET
Blues for Soli
In hindsight, I may have done the Arch Stanton Quartet a disservice by referring to their stripped-out underground sound as “garage-band jazz.” All us grey-haired rockers can wax poetic about garage bands like the Music Explosion, the Count Five and – my favorite – the Standells serving up two minutes-and-change of nasty, uncultured excellence… but the Electric Prunes and the Count Five never had a chance to experience sophomore slump because they dropped out after the first semester! Well, the Arch Stanton Quartet is back with Blues For Soli, and there are two bits of good news: First, no sophomore slump here; and second, Greater Nippertown’s musical ambassadors are STILL as nasty as they want to be!
It was their short-but-intense tour of Egypt in 2013 that helped birth the disc’s first four tracks (also known as the “Lady Egypt Suite”), and there’s a definite intensity to the opening track “Kofta.” The introduction has this swirling, almost drunken quality to it that makes you wonder, “How bad will this trip be?” Then drummer Steven Partyka hits this sweet groove straight out of Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay,” and the ASQ is serving up the funk their way; that involves mixing whip-tight guitar from Roger Noyes with open, almost snarling trumpet from Terry Gordon (who is SO on his game throughout this date), while bassist Chris Macchia bows a counter that evokes Frankenstein skanking down the street while sipping from a bottle of schnapps.
For something kinda-sorta different, we get the breezy swinger “Zamalek” (named for a high-end neighborhood in Cairo), led by Gordon’s pedal-to-the-metal solo and Partyka’s flag-waving Scott Amendola imitation, quickly followed by another musical left turn: “Groovin’ at the Azur,” a literal fever dream from Gordon that mashes East and West quite spookily. The trip ends with the title track, dedicated to the character that kept the quartet on the road and laughing all the way through. While most of this music is brand spanking new, Gordon reaches deep into his songbook for the funked-up cruiser “Striped Water.” That’s proceeded by two Noyes compositions: The dark, dark ballad “Aphorisms” and the slow swamp skanker “Dungoode Bayou.” Noyes’ pulsing “Floodgills” would have made a great closer, but as with their 2012 debut Along for the Ride, the ASQ finish off Soli with a coda of its own, the pensive “Convection Zone.”
While the Arch Stanton Quartet haven’t strayed from the no-frills, damn-right vibe that had me eating up Along with two spoons and a straw, they are definitely plumbing deeper depths on Soli, with barely-visible tweaks that speak of streamlining and (dare I say it?) polish.
Noyes was good enough to take time from preparations for the ASQ’s drop party at Albany’s Parish Public House at 9pm on Saturday (October 25) to speak to me about Egyptian high school students, bad bouts with Egyptian cuisine and the next steps in the growth curve of a band that makes me smile like a complete fool:
Q: There’s a massive history surrounding American jazz bands touring the Middle East. Were you aware of that history prior to making the tour, and did any of you feel pressure or obligation as you went forward?
A: We were very aware of that history, particularly about the Brubeck, Gillespie and Armstrong jazz-diplomacy tours of the ’50s and ’60s. While we were inspired by the past, the musicians who contributed to that history also loom very large. They are towering figures in American culture. We just wanted to be a very small part of something positive – namely, the desire of people to make a simple connection through music.
Q: What’s the farthest you (or anyone in the band, for that matter) had traveled prior to getting on the plane for Cairo?
A: I lived for three months in China during college where I learned the pipa (a four-stringed Chinese lute). All of us in the band have performed in a lot of places domestically, but this was a first for all of us in terms of major travel for music.
Q: As I recall, things were just coming to a boil for the Egyptian government at that time. What was the social/political situation in Egypt when you arrived, and what changes and/or demonstrations happened while you were there?
A: We arrived in the relative “peace” between two revolutions: Mubarak had been deposed, and Morsi was in power. Morsi’s short term in office was very tumultuous. The economy was in ruins, the country was plagued by major fuel shortages, and protests frequently erupted in the streets, although they were not as dramatic as the American media portrayed them.
On one occasion, we ended up at Tahrir Square, which was ground zero for the revolutionary movement. From a balcony on the second floor of a shop, we watched as a massive street protest paraded down the street toward the heart of the square. When the procession turned a corner, we headed down to the square, which, at that point was a relatively unpoliced area. A stolen police vehicle sped by and some youths started throwing rocks at it. We got out of there pretty quickly.
Fast-forward to today, and Morsi has since been deposed by the military in a second revolution, which sprung out of public disaffection with the Morsi regime and its authoritarianism. A new president, el-Sisi, was elected over the summer.
Q: Obviously, the sexy résumé point here is appearing at the Cairo Jazz Festival. How does it compare to other jazz festivals you’ve played or attended, and were there other Western or European bands on the bill?
A: The line-up included bands from 13 countries with acts ranging from Brazilian great Gilberto Gil (which was my favorite act!) to Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbini, whose work has a satirical element to it. We performed the same night as Rahbini, who drew a huge crowd. (His mother, Fairuz, is like the Barbra Streisand of the Arab world in terms of popularity, and he comes from a musical dynasty of sorts.) But Rahbini is a politically controversial figure, and I have never seen such a high-level of armed security at a concert. Everyone had to go through a metal detector – including us, just to get to our backstage tent on a completely separate stage.
Overall, it was a very cool gathering of musicians from all over the world: Germany, England, the Middle East, Brazil, Japan, Lithuania… In fact, Steve Gadd’s son, Duke, was the drummer for the band from Japan, Mikarimba, which also has New York City connections.
Q: You also performed and did clinics while you were in Egypt – at the American University in Cairo, and with high school students in Cairo and Alexandria. What kind of audiences did you get at the University, and what was the sophistication level of the high-school students as far as jazz went?
A: As exciting as it was to play the Cairo Jazz Festival, these school gigs were the best part of our trip. The University students were great musicians, really paid attention to what we had to say and asked excellent questions, even noting specific techniques from our performances. The high school students didn’t know much about jazz, but I never heard a more enthusiastic audience in my life! The seminars are part of a great State Department program called “Access,” where young students learn English and about American culture. We explained to them the difference between playing “straight” and playing “swing,” and other aspects of American jazz such as improvisation.
One really fascinating moment was trying to get the students to clap on the backbeat, which comes quite naturally to a western audience. They struggled with it a bit, but when Terry talked about Latin jazz and clapped out a clave, they could copy it in a heartbeat. I thought this really spoke to the rhythmic complexity of music that they were immersed in culturally.
Q: The “Lady Egypt Suite” is named for the bus company that hauled you guys around. It’s also where you met Soli, who was a central character (in every sense, it seems) of your experience. Please tell us a little about Soli.
A: As you note, Soli was our driver in Egypt. Considering the crazy traffic in Cairo, and just the sheer amount of traveling we did, the band spent more time with Soli than just about anyone else on the tour, aside from our friend Jim Ketterer, who was director at AMIDEAST/Egypt and organized the trip in connection with the U.S. Embassy. Soli hardly spoke any English. However, he had this incredible way of communicating with us across a language barrier. I would say he was the least interested in having a conversation with us from the standpoint of an Egyptian conversing with Americans. Right from the beginning he treated us simply as his fellow men. From a political-social standpoint, we wanted this fellowship to come out in the album and in the music.
There was a major fuel shortage in Egypt during the time of our visit. People would wait hours in line to fill up their tank. Somehow, Soli managed to keep the tank full, drive us around for hours, sleep on the bus and be cheerful every morning, ready to hit the road and keep us laughing the whole time. Now that the album is out, we have a couple of people from our sponsor organizations in Egypt working to track Soli down so we can get a copy to him.
Q: How much (if any) of the suite was written while you were in Egypt, and how much of it was influenced by music you heard while on the tour?
A: None of the music was written in Egypt. Some of the music is an ode to our experience, and some of the tunes have a direct musical influence from the sounds we heard while we were there. For instance, the title track “Blues For Soli” is a pretty straight blues (although eight bars, not twelve). It has a program to it: The interlude at the beginning – called “Soli’s Interlude (Asleep on the Bus)” – is intentionally sleepy, to capture the somewhat bleary-eyed experience of our driver who ferried us around Egypt day and night, and literally slept on our tour van. Even Steven’s drum solo is intentionally jittery, like a handshake rousing you from sleep, or a vehicle straining to turn over.
However, the best example of a direct musical influence is “Groovin’ at the Azur,” another one of Terry’s tunes. There’s a great story to this one: We had done a gig in Alexandria, and both Terry and Steven were ill – possibly from food poisoning. They gutted through the gig like champs. However, Terry was in the worst shape. When we got to the hotel (named the Azur), Terry desperately needed some sleep, but there was a very loud, raucous wedding reverberating throughout the entire hotel. Jim and the rest of the band stayed up for a while looking over the Mediterranean and just chatting over a beer. When we saw Terry the next morning, he was feeling a lot better. He also told us that he awoke in the night to hear this incredible traditional dance music being played by a band at the wedding, so he had grabbed his digital recorder and captured the tune. That melody and rhythm pattern became “Groovin’ at the Azur.”
Q: There are five other pieces on “Blues for Soli,” including my favorite track “Dungoode Bayou” and a Terry Gordon composition that goes back almost 20 years. How much of the new stuff was in the pipeline prior to the Egypt trip, and how did that older Terry tune get into the mix?
A: Most of the tunes were written over the past year. Actually, aside from Terry’s tune that you mention, “Dungoode Bayou” is the only other tune that predates our Egypt trip. Everything else was written in the past year. I look at the album as having a Side A and Side B. The first side is the Suite. The second side is a collection of other tunes that work nicely together.
Q: I hear a few minor adjustments in the band’s sound – a little polish here, a little streamlining there. What do you hear the band doing that you didn’t hear on “Along for the Ride,” or even when you played the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival in 2013?
A: On this album, the music is more programmatic. We want people to listen to it in the proper sequence. One of the unifying principles is our use of interludes, and we tried to be a bit more selective in the soloing. I think we also made a few more deliberate ensemble choices, such as the drum breaks you hear on “Zamalek,” the very defined rhythm patterns you hear on “Floodgills,” and some different textures like Chris’s bowed bass parts – even a little wah-wah on Terry’s trumpet. I think we tried to make these deliberate changes to give some variety while at the same time working to stay true to our overall sound.
The Arch Stanton Quartet celebrates the release of “Blues for Soli” with a CD release party at the Parish Public House in Albany at 9pm on Saturday (October 25). Admission is $10, which also includes a copy of the new CD.
Jeff Nania’s CD review at Metroland
A Few Minutes With… Roger Noyes of the Arch Stanton Quartet
The Arch Stanton Quartet Tours Egypt
LIVE: The Arch Stanton Quartet @ More Bread & Jam, 11/17/12
CD Review: The Arch Stanton Quartet’s “Along for the Ride”
Five Firsts: Roger Noyes of the Arch Stanton Quartet, etc.