Brodie West & Fleshtone Aura: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Free-form jazz paired with seasonal electronic weirdness.
File Next To: Getatchew Mekuria, Sun Ra, Joe McPhee
Playing: WL670 Tuesday, June 23rd at Hard Luck Bar (opening for The Ex)

Toronto improv mainstays Brodie West and Fleshtone Aura (né: Andrew Zukerman) hop on stages across our city periodically, excising ideas and illusions through their shared spirit of collaborations. Brodie brings the sax, and Fleshtone Aura the synth and variations therein. Together, their creations are predictable only insofar as they’re unpredictable. The duo will be sharing a stage with Dutch legends The Ex at WL670 and given their track record (Brodie has collaborated with the band in past, in addition to helming local outfit Eucalyptus), their appearance will be far more than a fluffer for the main course. We grabbed some minutes with Brodie via email to talk inspiration, outputs and next steps.

Describe the origins of your collaboration with Andrew/Fleshtone Aura. When did this first come together?

After hearing Fleshtone Aura On Rusticated Slant, I was curious about how Andrew came up with his compositions, because I liked them a lot. We had a chance to collaborate with Isla Craig on Zeesy Powers’ dance piece titled Common Fate and then we did some recording together.

How’d that turn out?

Our EP Broadway Brodie Andrews is more like a Fleshtone Aura album in that it is “recomposed” to “confuse the issue” so Andrew says. I don’t care, either way, it sounds good to me. We’ve been working on our live set, somehow we’ve been busy already with three gigs in the last month.

Are these original pieces you’re performing or will the set be improvised? Or both?

It should be just like us putting our pants on in the morning but hopefully a slight bit more interesting and over a longer amount of time.

What is it about improvisational/instrumental music that first appealed to you? How long have you been in the genre and how do you keep moving forward?

I’ve been doing basically the same process pretty full-on for over 25 years. It depends how you look at it. Improvisation is what allows me to keep things fluid. I’ve been influenced by so many people and ideas and styles, recordings, conversations, etc., and the result is that I have been included in many projects because of what I can do. It’s not a genre thing though. And now more than ever, I’m thinking in terms of composition, and I’m not trying to be versatile, but trying to find my own style of composition which involves, again, improvisation.

During my early years playing music, in high school through college, I was learning how to play jazz in school. Jazz is a very improvisation-based art movement. I never really thought much about improvisation back then though. Improvising meant taking a solo. I eventually realized that “improvised music” existed as a thing because of Han Bennink. He was a big influence on me, I was impressed by his ideas and how he was able to deal with the jazz tradition and make it entirely his own. He wasn’t just trying to integrate into the jazz tradition, he was using it to support his own ideas about improvised music, which extend outwards in multiple directions. And I should also mention Misha Mengelberg, and by extension the Instant Composers Orchestra.

How did you first make Han’s acquaintance?

I first met Han Bennink at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam. I think it was around 2000 or so. I had been playing in a trio called Zebradonk with Alfons Fear and Shawn Abedin. We were greatly influenced by the Clusone Trio (Michael Moore, Ernst Reijseger and Han Bennink). We had the idea to spending some time traveling around Europe busking. This would be my first trip overseas. We landed in Amsterdam and on our first night we went straight to see Han play. Misha Mengelberg was also in the band — I think it was a quartet. During theset break, Han spotted Shawn’s Toronto Maple Leafs toque and surmised that we were from Canada and he told us how much he loved Canada. We were such big fans and we nervously gave him our CD and he very graciously invited us to the next gig he had at the Bim, playing in a quintet with Jonny Griffin and Von Freeman. When we got to the gig, we sat right up in the front row, but we were late getting in and when he spotted us there — in the middle of one insane one-bar drum break he stopped and loudly exclaimed “Zebradonk”. That was so cool. We were so thrilled at that moment. We started to pester him about taking a lesson. He probably thought we were crazy, he said, “no, no I don’t give lessons.” Then the next time he was in Toronto, he invited us to sit in, along with Dominic Duval and Eugene Chadbourne. The next time I was in Amsterdam, he invited me to play a short duo with him at a small art gallery where he was showing his paintings. That time Mary Oliver was there in the audience. She said we played really well together and to be honest, that’s where I got the confidence to start inviting Han to play gigs with me. A year or so later we toured Canada and released a CD.

Likewise, how did you first connect with The Ex and how often/in what capacity have you played with them?

I met The Ex at Lee’s Palace on the occasion of Ron Gaskin’s VTO Festival in 2004. I was playing with Han Bennink that night. A couple years later, my wife and I spent our honeymoon in Amsterdam (for a year). Terrie and Han were waxing on about Ethiopia and Addis Ababa, and mentioned that we would probably like to join them on their next trip. We joined Terrie and his family and Han (who is pretty much part of his family) on a trip to Addis Ababa. The Ex was planning a collaboration with the great Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria at that time. I was very lucky, I was there when Getatchew presented the body of material which would later become our set. He just got his saxophone out and played through all the melodies, maybe 10 or so. Not many words said. It was so beautiful. And I ended up in the horn section. We played nearly 100 gigs. It was a tremendous experience for me.

Amazing. What countries did you visit during those 100 gigs? Which cities did you find were most receptive/enthused about the music?

With Getatchew, most of our gigs were in Europe. But amazingly, considering the size of the group and the impracticality of it all, we also toured in Canada, the USA and Ethiopia. We were well received everywhere, but somehow we played a lot of gigs in France. We played so much at festivals in France that it got to the point where it seemed like half of the audience was singing along to out set. That was kind of surreal. Also, Ethiopia was always amazing to visit and we had two terrific tours there. Getatchew is very well-received there and The Ex have become local celebrities of sorts.

Although you’re known for your improv roots, are there any artists that Wavelength readers might be surprised that you enjoy?

I find it hard to answer this question because I can’t possibly know what would surprise them. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming they are really listening to music and not just forming little romantic notions about what is cool or whatever. Taste is not where it’s at for me. It’s about the individual musical elements. I don’t think having good musical taste is even a prerequisite to making good music. Taste is always idiosyncratic from my experience. Anyone who is hoping to fit into a certain clique or social scene will try to espouse a certain style because they attach a meaning to it, I get that, but eventually no one knows what you’re talking about, it loses relevance and all that is left is what was the music actually. For more on the topic of taste, check out Carl Wilson’s book, Let’s Talk About Love.

— Interview by Cam Gordon (Completely Ignored)