A FEW MINUTES WITH… Joe Pignato of Bright Dog Red & a peek at new album How’s By You?

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I get music for “Jazz2K @ The Saint” from multiple sources – from publicists, former press contacts, music labels, and even directly from musicians; I am also inundated by emails from all of the stakeholders listed above, asking me if I’d like to hear their latest product. It was in this way that I was introduced to Bright Dog Red when I received an email from drummer Joe Pignato, explaining that he was the leader of a Capital Region band that had just been signed to Ropeadope Records, and would I be interested in hearing their debut disc Means to The Ends?

At the time, I didn’t know that Pignato was actually Dr. Joseph Michael Pignato, a professor in the music department at SUNY Oneonta who had received multiple awards and presented research on five continents. I also didn’t know that BDR was a project that had been brewing for several years and was accruing fervent fans & rave reviews on the NYC club circuit. All I knew was that this band was working with Ropeadope, one of the early innovators in alt-jazz indie labels – and they’ve been around long enough that they don’t have to waste time & money on cowboys or losers. As such, I emailed Joe back and said what I usually say: “I’ll be happy to listen.”

To say I was happy after listening to the divine madness on Means to The Ends would be a gross understatement. I tend to duck and cover when presented with music that’s improvised from start to finish, because more often than not, you get a group of musicians who are too busy examining their own navels to create anything that anyone outside their immediate families would be willing to listen to. In this case, Pignato’s collective of musicians, rappers, and electronics wizards had created a brilliant package of vibrant, intricate, surprising pieces that was as committed to building & maintaining strong, individual, identifiable structures as they were to making music that consistently thinks outside the box – and then stomps that box into itty bitty pieces.

There’s something else that makes me duck & cover: Second albums! It’s not just athletes that suffer from the Sophomore Jinx. Too many debut recordings from too many artists (in all genres) turn out to be just another false dawn. Happily, my trepidation disappeared about fifteen seconds into “Runnin’ ‘em Hurdles”, the rampaging opening track on Bright Dog Red’s latest offering How’s By You? If anything, the “beats, bars, and blasts of sonic energy” BDR brought to the table on Meanshad been strengthened with musical and emotional rebar – something I put down to two choices made by Pignato prior to hitting the studio.

First, where Means to The Ends showcased the collection of musicians that came and went with a song or performance, How’s By You cuts it all down to a single quintet: Pignato, saxman Mike LaBombard, rapmaster Cully, electronics wizard Cody Davies, and bassist Anthony Berman. This brings just enough consistency to the overflowing chaos. Second, Pignato puts the solos and counter-solos in the hands of LaBombard and Cully, so the listener has only two voices to get to know. While the rest of the group certainly puts their respective imprints on each piece, it’s LaBombard’s volcanic sax and Cully’s deceptively unhurried raps that drive every message home. What’s more, Cully’s freestyling gives each piece a lyrical framework that provides the listener with a storyline and a protagonist and does it in a way that will appeal to everyone from this generation to the Beat Generation.

Pignato was good enough to spend a few minutes talking to me about How’s By You and about the process that went into BDR’s creation and development.

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Since you’re in charge of concepts for this band, you’re the man to ask this: When did the concept of Bright Dog Red come to you? Is there a musical or historical precedent?

Some years ago, around 2004, I started holding jam sessions with some of my SUNY Oneonta students, at my home, which at that time was in the Catskills. These sessions were kind of freewheeling, anything goes sessions, because the players all had different backgrounds, some were in my jam band ensemble, some were jazz players, others were electronic musicians, some rappers. So, the sessions started with a kind of confusion, “What should we play?” At some point, I just said, “Play. Don’t think about what. Just play.” 

I was inspired by one of my teachers, Yusef Lateef, who held similar jam sessions with his students, in which he would encourage us to simply improvise. Some inspiration also came from feedback I got from the great bassist Gary Peacock, who had listened to an unreleased recording of free improvisation I made with some friends. Gary said, “the parts I dig the most, are the ones without ideation, where you’re just feeling, as opposed to thinking about what to play.” I have been about and in pursuit of those moments for much of my career.

Another “Concepts” question: What’s the musical development process for Bright Dog red? When you come in with a “concept”, is it beat-related, chord-related, or something else?

As implied by the first answer, our sets, our recordings, our rehearsals are wholly improvised. So, it’s a bit different each time. I do set out a concept or parameter or even concepts or parameters here or there. They could be rhythmic, they could be harmonic, melodic, or more conceptual, like, “Let’s play like a lullaby.” We switch it up live depending on the venue, the set, and the audience. The core membership gets to know each other’s proclivities over time, which actually gives us a bit of built-in structure. My job then is to direct us beyond what we know, into that which we have yet to explore. I do that largely by playing, although I sometimes call out suggestions on the band stand.

Do you remember the first time Bright Dog Red played in public?

It was Labor Day weekend of 2015, we played a small festival in the Catskills. Our second gig was at BSP Kingston, with Jack DeJohnette in the audience, which was a real encouragement for us. Jack’s a friend and mentor and to have him come out and see the band early on really encouraged us to push things along. Within two months or so, we opened for George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and got booked at noted jazz venues, ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn, and at Spectrum NYC, some pretty auspicious gigs for a new band. 

Talk about the move of the band to New York City. Did you find a more accepting audience there?

I am from there, having worked for years in the jazz recording industry (CMP records, ECM Records, RCA Victor). I also lived in Hudson County, NJ, right across the river, for decades. So, I had friends there. Through Jack, I met the great bassist and visionary arts entrepreneur, Matthew Garrison, who kindly booked us at ShapeShifter. He and Fortuna Sung have been great supporters and nurturers of our ensemble. Then, through playing as a sideman at Spectrum, the owner invited Bright Dog Red to premier a new series and for a time, we had more gigs at that esteemed venue than any other band. So, it just happened organically. With that said, we have a bit of a Philadelphia following, having played there a few times in the past couple of years, with a return booking in early 2020. Also, we have played Boston, a city that was very receptive to us and we hope to return soon.

This group was originally a collective with different cast members moving in and out. Why did you decide to go with a set lineup, and what was the process like for deciding who you wanted to go with?

The band is still very much a collective. There’s a lot of overlap in the membership from album 1 to album 2, and there’s overlap and consistency between gigs but the actual line-up changes. A fixed lineup has the benefit of allowing the band to develop over time, to build the kind of intuition and cohesion I think you can hear on How’s by You? The collective approach has its own benefits too. It allows us to bring in folks, based on availability, to keep it new, evolving, to keep us from playing what we think the group is and to encourage us to play what the group might become on that given night.

I have to say my favorite band member is Cully, because his style seems so “alternative” to hip-hop. Is that your feeling, and what’s the one thing you love about his work?

I have come to see Cully more in the tradition of the Beat poets. It’s interesting because they’re not really an influence of his; in fact, I recently turned him on to some Kerouac. But, there’s kind of a similarity in his approach, which is completely improvised. His abilities to morph his voice for the sounds of the band, with wordplay, and with implicit social commentary really shine on How’s by You?

How did Bright Dog Red hook up with Ropeadope, and what’s your experience been like with them?

Early in the band’s history, we were in discussion to open for a Ropeadope act. Although that gig did not pan out, it led to conversations that led to the first album. We’re thrilled to work with a label so closely aligned with our ethos, aesthetic, and values. We’ll begin a third album soon, due out on Ropeadope in fall of 2020.

Means to the Ends was your first disc for Ropeadope. Was the music you recorded part of the set you’d been playing, or was it all new music for that date?

The tracks for Means to the Ends were captured during a single rehearsal session, with minimal overdubbing. The session stuck with me and as I listened to the recordings; I felt there were distinct moments, sections, periods of repose or clear breaks and I began to mark them, to edit them, and to mix them as individual tracks, moments drawn from that night. That process, combined with excellent mixing and additional editing from Paul Geluso, a New York-based mixing and mastering engineer and a longtime collaborator, led to the album as it was released. What’s on the album is pretty darn close to what is on those original sessions.

How’s by You is your latest release. How was the recording process for this versus the process for Means to the Ends?

It differed in two ways. The tracks are drawn from three discrete recording sessions. For those sessions, we knew we were making an album, as opposed to say, improvising without care for the recording. A bit more direction, with regard to concept but no real sense of tracks or tunes, or what the album would become. That all came in the post recording work.

The How’s by You? sessions produced over two hours of music. I spent many more hours poring through the recordings, marking transitions, editing breaks, and roughing out each of the tracks that appear on the album. Paul Geluso mixed this album too, making additional edits to fine tune each selection. How’s by You? incorporates a bit more studio craft than the first.

We used the studio getting creative with the edits, thinking about things like isolation. With the first album, we really wanted the rawness of our live sets to permeate. On How’s by You?, we thought, “what can we distill from that energy?” I’d like to see future albums mix and match the visceral nature of what we do live with the more controlled possibilities of the studio and post-production. In that way, How’s by You?, is kind of a transition for us but the improvised origins of our music will remain constant. It’s in the band’s DNA.

Any chance we’re going to see Bright Dog Red in these parts any time soon?

I sure hope so! We have played in home territory four times, twice at the old Madison Theater, once at Jupiter Hall, and most recently, we did a Super Dark Collective show at Desperate Annie’s in Saratoga Springs. We’re hoping to add a date in the area in early 2020. Stay tuned!

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