Mondays With Morgan: Max Light (new album Henceforth)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with Max Light, a gifted guitarist, composer, bandleader and educator who has performed and recorded with Donny McCaslin, Kaisa Mäensivu, John Ellis, and many other greats.

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Henceforth, released on 15 June, is Light’s new leader album. A purchase link for the album can be found at the bottom of this article.

Max Light holding guitar and looking at an exposed lightbulb. Red background
Max Light. Photo credit: Luke Marantz

Guitarist Max Light counts saxophonist Noah Preminger as one of his most crucial music connections. But when they met, Light was drowning onstage.

Toward the end of Light’s time at New England Conservatory in Boston, he began performing in trumpeter Jason Palmer’s group as per a weekly gig at Wally’s Café Jazz Club. But the grooves and harmonies proved prohibitively complicated; Light struggled to improvise over them.

“I got the gig and wasn’t ready for it,” Light tells LondonJazz. “I was just getting dragged around the stage.”

But Preminger clearly saw something in him – they’ve been thick as thieves ever since. In that time, Light has blossomed into a nimble, dynamic and imaginative guitarist and composer. And his new album, Henceforth – released this month on SteepleChase – is the fruitage of both realities.

Featuring Preminger, bassist Kim Cass and drummer Dan Weiss, highlights like “Barney & Sid,” “Luftrauser” and “If You Could, Would You” portray Light as more than a jazz guitarist – he’s an omnivorous talent, attuned to all forms of music that get under his skin.

Despite operating in a mellow acoustic jazz idiom, Henceforth is indebted to inspirations far afield: in the course of an hour-long interview, Light cites alternative rock, AC/DC and the technical death metal band Meshuggah as foundational influences.

“Same with Trane, or same with Kurt Rosenwinkel or same with Keith Jarrett or Paul Bley or Albert Ayler, or whoever,” Light says. “Maybe I’ve always been like this – like, I don’t care what I’m interested in. I’m interested in it, and I want to let it out when I’m improvising.

Read on for an interview with Light about getting his musical bearings (via a hefty dose of the film School of Rock), the road to Henceforth and – as per the title – where he wants to go from here.

Max Light playing guitar with red background looking happy
Max Light. Photo credit: Luke Marantz

LondonJazz News: How would you contextualise Henceforth within your discography?

Max Light: The quartet on this record is actually the same band that has recorded under Noah’s name for SteepleChase.

In 2020, right before the pandemic, we did this record called Contentment, and I was totally starstruck and nervous to play with Dan Weiss and Kim Cass. I’ve been a huge fan of them both forever. Then, obviously, the pandemic happened, and nothing came of the record for a while.

But in October ‘21, we all went to Europe on a tour, playing Noah’s music. It was just so enriching and intense to play with this group every night that I decided I wanted to make a record with the same band. I feel like we just built this chemistry and were interested in the same avenues of playing original music.

I’m always writing, and had built up a book of basically what I felt was enough music to make a record. I couldn’t imagine cooler, better musicians playing it than these guys who I’d been playing with a bunch. 

So, we were in Europe in October; the recording was set for March, I think. Then, I got Covid and had to move everything to May. Eventually, I booked a bunch of gigs for us to play, but it was still the very recently post-pandemic world where it was really hard to book things and venues were taking a lot of precautions.

It was a whole process getting together and playing the music, and finding places to play to develop my original music as opposed to the stuff we had been playing. But what’s interesting now is, we basically have twice as much music with this same group of musicians. 

Max Light, Dan Weiss, Kim Cass, Noah Preminger standing together facing camera
L-R: Dan Weiss, Max Light, Kim Cass, Noah Preminger. Publicity photo

So, tonight [at our album release show], we’ll play a bunch of stuff from the record, as well as a couple of new compositions of mine, as well as a couple of road-worn Noah Preminger compositions that we’ve played absolutely to death – and have really found a thing inside.

Which is a cool thing, because I feel like, these days, my life is so freelance all the time. 

Playing with [bassist] Kaisa [Mäensivu, in Kaisa’s Machine] is a good example; she tries to call the same people, basically. I’ve been playing that music with her for a really long time, but I feel like there aren’t that many groups that I am a part of that are the same group of people, working on a book of music over an extended period of time.

That’s the idea for this band, and every tune on the record evolved out of various different compositional exercises, or emotional places. Some of them are more recent, and some of them date back 10 years, probably, and I just hadn’t gotten around to recording them.

So, a lot of iterating, a lot of drafts, and lots of workshopping things live on the bandstand – seeing what works long-term.

LJN: Noah seems like a crucial connection in your musical life.

ML: He’s one of the most individual saxophone players in the world right now, for sure. So, obviously, when it was time to make a quartet record, he was beyond my first call. He was the dude I heard on all of my music, basically. 

We’ve been fortunate to do a bunch of different stuff, and play a lot of each other’s original music. We have an open dialogue and are very much in agreement about what is fun and what is good and what we want to do.

LJN: Can you open it up to Kim and Dan and where they fit in this quadrangle?

ML: Those guys are very clearly influenced by such a wide array of music, and it’s so clear when they improvise that they’re coming from all these different places. Both of their original compositions are so layered, and so full of influence and different things that they’re hearing – that aren’t just modern jazz, or traditional jazz form, or playing tunes. 

That’s something I think a lot about as well; I’m really influenced by metal and rock music, as well as free improvisation, as well as contemporary classical music and world music.

LJN: Metal and rock! I wouldn’t have guessed.

ML: I mean, I play guitar, so I came up playing rock. The reason I got into music was amusing: I saw School of Rock, with Jack Black. 

LJN: Listen! That movie is foundational. It formed me too!

ML: We’re the same age. It came out when I was in fourth grade, and my parents just listened to whatever was on the radio. I had no idea that there was all this music out there. And I heard “Back in Black,” and it was over for me.

I saw that, and I started playing bass in an elementary school rock band. Eventually, I switched to guitar because I was listening to all this music, and trying to write music. Guitar was more fun; it was easier to compose ideas on.

I came into AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, Pantera and Metallica, Death and Meshuggah. Just heavier and heavier, and more technical forms of metal. 

I had a guitar teacher in high school who was basically like, “That stuff’s all cool; check out Pat Martino with the Joey DeFrancesco Trio.” He showed me [2001’s] Live at Yoshi’s, and I was like, OK, I’m going to be a jazz musician. For sure.

LJN: Let’s dig into Henceforth a little more. Can you talk about the first tune, “Barney & Sid”?

ML: That is a song about two cats I used to have. It really developed as a compositional exercise using 12-tone theory and West African rhythms. 

I wanted to write something with a bunch of voices that I could play simultaneously on guitar, and I wanted to write something that could be perceived in multiple time signatures. 

So, the focal point is this undulating, ostinato bass line underneath this repeating dyad in the guitar, that is basically a 27-beat cycle that can either be felt as three bars of triplet E 3, or it could be a bunch of other broken-up kind of things.

That’s something that’s always interested me in music – time, and seeing it in different ways. Playing inside it, and playing around with it. 

I worked a lot on 12-tone theory when I was at New England Conservatory, and it’s followed me through my life. Something I like about it is that you can derive harmony and melody through this abstract, serialised system. 

You can make something beautiful out of it. You can make something relatable to your own ear, and the ear of the listener, reaching limitations and forcing yourself to solve a different problem compositionally.

That’s one that I started writing a long time ago, and have iterated and iterated upon until it arrived at this version that’s on the record – which feels final now.

It made sense as a title for two cats, because it has these two lines happening simultaneously. One of them is kind of chaotic, and one of them is very sturdy, which related to these two specific cats.

LJN: Spiritually connect “Barney & Sid” to another song on the tracklisting.

ML: Another one to relate it to – which is kind of about exercise, or trying things and challenging yourself – would be my arrangement of Coltrane’s “26-2,” which is titled “Half Marathon” on the album.

This is another one that came through this wry process, where I thought it would be a funny meme to play “26-2” in 13 – so, “26 ÷ 2.” That was the working title for a long time.

So, that one is a less drawn-out process, but came from a similar place of just wanting to challenge myself and create something elegant out of a terse situation. It’s definitely just a meme, but it’s fun to play on.

LJN: Connect “Half Marathon” to another tune on Henceforth. Perhaps as per the Coltrane language.

ML: This tune “Luftrauser” is also on the record. It relates, in a way, more to Ornette Coleman’s music. 

It’s a melody that’s just driven by itself, and wherever it wants to go. It comes from that way that Ornette would compose, as well as a lot of Kurt Rosenwinkel influence – I was super into his music in college. There’s a great tune of Mark Turner’s called “Iverson’s Odyssey” [that Rosenwinkel performed on] which is a similar kind of D-flat blues with a funny form. 

That’s another one where I was pulling from different places, trying to play something that would be satisfying and fun and interesting. 

The title comes from a video game of the same name by a very small Danish independent developer named Vlambeer. It’s a really simple arcade-style game, and it has this floating feeling to it where you’re just coasting along with the plane, spinning around and shooting other planes.

It just felt like a natural thing. I was writing this song while playing this video game, so it just made sense to marry them: Ornette, Kurt Rosenwinkel, video games.

LJN: You mentioned Kurt as an influence, and I can hear that, but you’ve taken it somewhere else entirely. Early on, how did you synthesise the musicians who did work on you into a personal artistic voice?

ML: I think it’s less of a conscious decision than it is to just let my ear like what it likes, or do what it wants to do – and not feel like I need to expect something of myself based on what other people might expect.

I’ve always wanted to explore different things, and different music, and different avenues of composition and improvisation. 

So, when I got really into Meshuggah, I was like, This is it! I’m just going to be into Meshuggah. I love Meshuggah. I love the guitar player. I’m going to think about that all the time, and I don’t give a f– if this is relevant to the background jazz gig that I’m going to play later tonight.

LJN: Let’s make another connection. Give me another tune with distinct Kurt Rosenwinkel DNA.

ML: Maybe a good one to talk about is the title track, “Henceforth,” which is the most rock, alt-rock, metal-influenced one.

It’s basically a rock song that is a little funky. There’s something a little messed up about it. That one was less about a challenge or influence or thinking about something consciously – more about a fun, funky relationship I found on the guitar. I just wanted to write basically a pop/rock song with various influences.

In a way, that relates to Kurt, because Kurt plays rock, and Kurt makes other kinds of music. But this one could have lyrics; it could be a singer/songwriter song. It’s just this funky little rock tune that I enjoyed playing and didn’t really edit. I kind of just barfed it out and it was whole. I put it down on paper and it never changed.

It’s got a middle section with a brutal death metal breakdown in it, basically.

LJN: One last connection: give me another Henceforth track with that funky rock influence.

ML: Another one that’s more rock-y – or maybe compositionally has a different thing going on – is “If You Could, Would You?”, which is the oldest track – I wrote it 10 years ago, maybe more. It has this edgy, alt-rock, metalcore kind of thing going on.

But it’s very harmonically rich – it was definitely influenced by a lot of the music I grew up listening to. Very influenced by technical metal bands like Between the Buried and Me – but maybe not like that, because it’s kind of cleaner and sadder.

That’s another one that I wrote ages ago and never got around to recording, but always liked it. And when it came time to make a quartet record, it made sense to have these guys play it.

LJN: Give me your standout moments from your bandmates.

ML: Definitely Kim Cass’s intro on “Subjective Object.” Every solo that Noah takes, for sure. I don’t know, man. Everything those guys play to me, at all moments, is pretty insane. Beautiful sound conception, interpreting the s– out of my music. Kim plays these unbelievable harmonics. 

They’re all freaks. They’re all complete freaks of nature. Completely unique individuals on their instruments who are playing at the highest level, like no one else can really do.

LJN: Where do you want to go from here? What are you chewing on?

ML: The tune itself, “Henceforth,” is kind of about what comes next. The whole groove is displaced by a quarter note – it’s a quarter note early – so that, to me, was like, This is what’s happening; this is what’s coming. Henceforth, this is what we will do.

So, to me, it made sense as a second record – to be like, From now on, I’ll just be doing this. Writing my pieces and hiring my favourite musicians to play them. And continuing to let myself be down and interested in whatever I’m interested in.

LINK: Henceforth purchase link

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