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Escape Velocity

Exploring Melody Through Intuition: Justin Walter Interviewed
Christian Eede , July 31st, 2017 09:27

Following the release of his second album via Kranky earlier this year, Electronic Valve Instrument player Justin Walter discusses his choice of instrument as well as the power of improvisation

“The only reason I’m able to do what I do is because I found a new set of tools,” Michigan-based Justin Walter tells me. Those tools he’s referring to are the combination of the Electronic Valve Instrument and his computer that form the primary basis for his latest record, the Kranky-released Unseen Forces.

That record sees Walter strip back the various components that made up his debut with the label, 2013’s Lullabies & Nightmares, foregoing layers of percussion, and allowing his EVI, a rare instrument that is best described as a synthesiser for a trumpet player, to take centre stage. What follows is a gorgeously psychedelic fusion of ambient music and jazz - Walter himself views Unseen Forces as a jazz record despite the conceptualism that lies at its heart - built entirely from extended recording sessions of improvisation, with Walter decidedly opting to shun any writing and preparation from his process. Admittedly, Walter says, this would later lead to complications as he came to presenting the record on tour, having recently wrapped up a series of shows supporting Colin Stetson, with the challenge seeing him have to learn how to play many of the record’s melodies with his EVI all over again.

The distinctive sound of the EVI runs straight through Unseen Forces. Its frequently piercing yet simultaneously soothing timbre appears mostly solo, save for the piano that opens the album’s title track and the appearance of the trumpet which Walter had been playing as a jazz musician before discovering the EVI around six years ago, and still plays as part of other projects now, including Michigan afrobeat experimentalists NOMO, on one or two other tracks on the record. “Learning the EVI isn’t something I ever did because I was unhappy with what I was doing before,” Walter insists, adding that the instrument simply offered him a new adventure and a new tool through which to express himself.

“One of the things I realised at the beginning was that there was a divide, which I think still exists, in that I’m a jazz trumpet player in one world and then I’m also some kind of strange, experimental musician in another world, so something that I wanted to do when I realised I was in that position was find a way to combine the two.” Unseen Forces goes a significant way to doing just that, Walter’s trumpet fusing effortlessly with the EVI on the album’s title track for example, and the latter instrument, above all, giving him the tools to carve out a sound that is clear-cut yet understated, creating melodies that delicately unfurl and earworm their way into your psyche. At one end, Walter offers cosmic, fuzzy drone pieces like opener ‘1001’ and ‘Isotope’, while at the other lies more clear-headed, ambient material such as the shimmering closer ‘Red Cabin’ and the record’s centrepiece ‘It’s Not What You Think’.

Connecting with Walter over Skype, he told me about his personal discovery of the Electronic Valve Instrument and what it offered to him as a then jazz trumpet player, the instrument's ever-increasing rarity and why improvisation requires a lot of patience.

Could you tell me about when and how you first became aware of the Electronic Valve Instrument?

Justin Walter: I’ve been a member of a group called NOMO for quite a while now and one of the saxophone players, Dan Bennett, was experimenting with a modern-day version of the saxophone called the EWI (electronic wind instrument) which is a MIDI instrument. He showed it to me and although it’s built for saxophone players, I discovered that there’s an internal menu that you can adjust to change the fingering, so it can be played somewhat like a trumpet. I was really curious so I purchased one and spent the best part of a month messing around with it before I found out that they actually made one for trumpet players anyway. They’re so rare that there’s only really one guy that does the repair work and sometimes sells them online. It just so happened that he had one for sale when I first checked so I bought it, and that’s the one I still play now. That was probably around six or seven years ago.

Was it a difficult instrument to learn to play?

JW: Well, it’s just a very unique instrument. It’s extremely easy to produce a sound with it - there’s no technique required to do that because you can just blow into the sensor and it will create a sound. Although it does have three buttons like a trumpet, the underlying structure of how you play it is nothing like a trumpet at all. Some people play them and it’s really impressive that they can do so so linearly - John Swana is someone who comes to mind using it in a jazz setting, and playing with a jazz language. It’s really challenging to play it that way, but what the instrument does make it very easy to do is shift up and down with octaves. When you play the trumpet, at least for me, there are all these limitations so you ask yourself what is possible at any given time. You can’t play extremely high or low or for very long either because you have to take a breath and let your lips rest. With the EVI, you can pretty much do anything - there aren’t many limitations technically.

Is it that factor that specifically led to you choosing to devote your musical output to the EVI?

JW: I just became fascinated by it very quickly. Previously, I had been spending most of my time in a jazz setting, firstly as an improviser and soloist in a very straight-ahead scene, and secondly as a composer, where you’re sitting down and writing music to be performed and recorded later. With the EVI, it was just so easy to play it. I could play it all day and not get tired, so the compositional process that I began from that point never required pen to paper, and sitting down to think about something before trying to make it happen. It was always more of an exploration of what seemed natural on the instrument, and just messing around with it - trying to see what new sounds and melodies I could create without too much intention other than trying to make something that evokes some sort of emotion.

The EVI is a very rare instrument, and there aren’t many people taking it up. Do you have any idea why that may be?

JW: I guess most trumpet players aren’t into synthesisers [laughs]. It’s such a cool idea, but to play it properly, you do really need to be a trumpet player. If you’ve spent a large part of your life learning to play trumpet and then you become a trumpet player, that’s what you do, and then you have to figure out how many of those guys are into synthesisers, and would feel comfortable making that shift. There just won’t be very many people interested. I don’t think they actually make them anymore. I know AKAI acquired a license in the 1980s or 1990s to make them, and the one that I play was made by Crumar, and they only made 500 of those. Since there’s seemingly only one guy doing the repairs now too… I hope his health is well.

You were playing the trumpet of course before learning to play the EVI, but did you play other instruments before that?

JW: Well, when I was very young, my mother started me on violin and I played that for around six years until I was maybe 11 which is when I began to learn to play the trumpet. I do play a bit of piano - not so much lately though. I’ve got an upright bass in the attic which is pretty much gathering dust these days too, but I use to have quite a bit of fun messing around with that. The piano that I play on the record, I have no memory of what happened when I recorded that. I spent around a day in Chicago at my friend Eric’s house. He inherited his family’s Steinway [& Sons piano], so I was really excited to hear what it sounded like. I just sat down at the piano and just played very randomly for quite a while. 99% of that is recorded on a disc somewhere, but that opening line to the title track on Unseen Forces came from that and it worked quite well.

Improvisation is key to Unseen Forces with none of the recordings on the album having been pre-written or prepared. Outside of a live setting, do you always solely use the EVI for improvisation?

JW: There’s just no way that I could sit down and write this music or come close to producing what I do with a traditional keyboard. I would just have no idea how to do it. The instrument is fundamental in the process that I use and so at no point is there any composition. The closest I’d say I get to that is that if a melody does come to mind, I would totally try to produce that with the EVI and record it. The thing that I find most enjoyable is having this tool that lets me explore these sounds that hopefully, for me at least, seem new. Whether those sounds are good or bad, and I do or don’t decide to use them, they’re still something that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to create or conceive of. As time has gone on, I’ve definitely acquired a sense of some limitations with the instrument, and the longer I spend exploring it, the more familiar it gets. Over time, it therefore becomes less new, so it’s not always entering into the unknown when using it, but I still like to approach using it without too much pre-conceived intent.

There was a statement of sorts alongside the album that stated that the improvised recordings you made could serve as the foundation of, or source material for, additional improvisation.” Could you expand on what you mean by this? Is there an ever-evolving element to the way that you work with improvisation?

JW: A lot of the time, I would record a little bit, like a melody or a small loop to mess around with. Let’s say you create a loop that lasts 45 minutes or something ridiculous like that, so if you have that, you might want to add to it or sample it and use it elsewhere, using it as source material to create something new, so then that things also serves as a foundation for you to create new material, and that cycle just keeps repeating until you either decide you’re done and you don’t want to look at or listen to anymore. Through the process of first improvising, and then adding or taking elements away, and then improvising more, you start to develop something that has a message unique to itself.

The opener for the album is made from a live recording that I made really early in the morning when I had an urgency to create something. It ended up being around 25 minutes long where I played the opening part and you can hear a sequence come in on the track. I sat there and listened to that sequence for around 20 minutes when first recording it because it sounded so nice that I just wanted to listen to it. When it came to finishing that for the record, I just added a final melody to the closing and cut out most of that middle 20 minutes. ‘Isotope’ on the album started years ago. I don’t even remember what the source material was, but it started out as a sequence and I worked through around 20 different versions of the song where the opening that you hear was actually recorded as a multi-track improvisation over something that isn’t even there anymore. The EVI solo half-way through was the final part that I added, so there are is a lot of trial and error involved of adding and taking away layers and trying out different things to get the right sound.

Is more time spent sequencing the record and sitting at your computer than actually recording with the EVI?

JW: Absolutely. The editing part can be a lot easier and less stressful than the recording because you have more control over what’s happening. I love performing and improvising, but that process can actually be quite painful sometimes because, to be honest, although I don’t know what the exact percentage might be, most of what I record doesn’t work out because I have no idea what I’m doing [laughs]. I’m just working from intuition so I’m left with a lot of recordings that aesthetically I’m not really into. That’s just part of the process of improvisation and I have to accept that. As a result of that, you might start to think it’s you and beat yourself up about it, but you just have to come to terms with the fact that you’re not fully responsible when it comes to that.