Amazonas Green Jazz Festival, Manaus, Brazil (Part 3 of 3: Ed Sarath profile/interview)

In his third and final dispatch from the Amazonas Green Festival in Manaus, Brazil, NYC writer Ted Panken places the focus on American  musician Ed Sarath, who “divides his time between teaching, scholarship, performing, composing, recording, speaking, and spearheading leadership initiatives.., ” according to his official biography:  

One of the many pleasures of the 2023 edition of the Amazonas Green Jazz Festival in Manaus, Brazil, was the opportunity to hear two concerts of works by Ed Sarath, Professor of Music in the Department in Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation – which he founded in 1987 – at The University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance, and Director of the interdisciplinary U-M Program in Creativity and Consciousness Studies. Sarath, 70, also plays flugelhorn and serves as president of the International Society for Improvised Music (which he founded).

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He’s a prolific author, most recently Black Music Matters: Jazz and the Transformation of Music Studies (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018) which, along, with Improvisation, Creativity, and Consciousness: Jazz as Integral Template for Music, Education, and Society (SUNY/Albany, 2013), he describes on his website as “the first to apply principles of an emergent, consciousness-based worldview called Integral Theory to music.”

Sarath’s c.v. description may sound a bit abstract and academic. His two festival concerts were anything but. He presented five pieces on opening night, including scorings of two poems by Manaus-born poet-journalist-composer Anibal Beça (1946-2009), on which the chorus raised a joyful noise, at one point collectively improvising vocally at some length on a passage before resolving back to the harmonic structure. He concluded the concert with Amazonia Verde Para Sempre (“Amazonas Green Forever”), a vivid suite inspired by ecological imperatives. The singers opened with a kind of folk song that served as a leitmotif; the percussion evoked a wide range of sounds culled from indigenous and Afro-Brazilian traditions, conjuring the rain forest that surrounds Manaus and the Amazon’s unique ecology.

Choir, the orchestra and soloists on “Day Is Done”. Photo credit: Carolina Falcao/ Amazonas Green


A week later, Sarath convened the Amazonas Symphony, the choir and a top-shelf Detroit-centric cohort of soloists (including violinist Regina Carter, resourceful percussionist Mark Stone, bassist Marion Hayden, drummer Gayelynn McKinney, and Sarath on flugelhorn, along with Capetown-based percussionist-flautist-“little instruments” master Dizu Plaatje) to perform a 5-movement, 40-minute interpretation of Maya Angelou’s poem “His Day Is Done,” written after the death of Nelson Mandela in 2014. As Sarath notes, the piece began “with something almost out of Renaissance music, modal counterpoint with just strings,” before the voices entered; the more percolating, “African-inspired” second movement featured solo passages for and Dizu Plaatje. During the third movement, the choir, propelled by primal drums, improvised on Angelou’s phrase “27 years of imprisonment,” then came to a sudden stop – Plaatje concluded with a passage on mouthbow. The strings and brass met the music’s considerable dynamic and rhythmic challenges; the chorus projected a collective soulfulness and passion that did justice to the subject.

On the following evening, he played flugelhorn with the Detroit-Capetown contingent and Brazilian pianist Cris Bloes in an Afrodiasporically-oriented unit called Global Jazz Collective, to which he contributed “19/8,” named for the time signature.

I’m embarrassed to say that I was previously unfamiliar with Sarath’s remarkable career. I did my best to correct that information gap in a conversation the afternoon following the first concert.



LondonJazz News: What percentage of your writing is for classical orchestral or large band?

Ed Sarath: I have a fair amount of big band material. I began writing for big band as an offshoot of my small ensemble compositions, as I was always drawn to expanded orchestrational and formal possibilities. On and off, I also have a nine-piece ensemble called Timescape, which has a string trio, sometimes a string quartet, along with rhythm section and two horns. That’s a nice bridge for moving between different genres, which is very easy to sensationalize. For me, drawing from lineages has always been natural; I try to find instrumentation that serves that purpose.

I haven’t studied composition formally. I have some background playing classical music In graduate school, I had a very good regional orchestra gig, and I loved it, but even as I was sitting in the orchestra, I was taking in the sounds as a composer-improviser, improviser-composer, not necessarily as an aspiring professional trumpet player in an orchestra section.

LJN: That autodidactic background as a composer is not so dissimilar to the paths of the early AACM musicians in Chicago or the Detroit-based musicians who connected with them back in the day. You’re a contemporary of some of the important second-generation AACM figures. Are you from the Midwest?

ES: No. I was born in Ossining, New York. When I was three years old my family moved to Westfield, Connecticut, where I grew up. I started playing trumpet there when I was 10. I was straight classical until coming out of high school, when jazz hit me like a freight train. I started buying records and immersed myself in the sounds. I also read the liner notes and got records the side-personnel made as leaders. Obviously, trumpet players – Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard – were important early influences. But I would see the personnel on their records and branch out from that. It was a very non-linear path in terms of chronology or style; I’d go from Miles to Charlie Parker to Eric Dolphy to Cecil Taylor to Louis Armstrong to Art Farmer to Lester Young. Nobody said, “You’ve got to do this before you do that,” which is a very rigid pattern that permeates jazz pedagogy, although that approach has little to do with the jazz tradition.

I developed a very strong affinity for modal jazz, even though I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I was just drawn deeply into the sound of Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, and of course, Coltrane’s stuff with McCoy and Elvin. Dave Liebman was an important influence, too, way before I had the opportunity to collaborate and become friends with him. And then, in terms of big band writing, everyone was doing Thad Jones and I loved playing his music. Also there was Don Ellis, who did a lot of odd meter things, and was a huge influence.

I went to a small college in Connecticut, Western Connecticut State College, where Jimmy Greene subsequently did amazing things directing the jazz area. That’s where I started composing. They didn’t have much jazz then, which I found frustrating, but in retrospect, it was incredible because I had to sort things out by myself. For instance, I taught myself jazz keyboard voicings. It just dawned on me; nobody suggested this. I thought that no matter what instrument you play, you need keyboard chops. Barry Harris was very articulate on this point. You don’t have to have fast right-hand stuff (unless you are a pianist). You just have to play nice-sounding voicings with extensions. I taught myself that, after realizing that when I would sit down and play, like, I, III, V, VII chords, I’d be thinking “that’s not the sound that we’re getting on the record.” When I started composing small-group and even some large ensemble things in my early 20s, I had no idea what I was doing. But I would not have traded that experience for anything, because it laid groundwork for some of the areas I now explore.

Then I lived in the Midwest, doing graduate work in Iowa City, Iowa, for a while. I also did some freelancing on the West Coast, both in L.A. and a project with a quartet in the Sacramento area. I lived in northern California for a while. Then I returned to Iowa City, which is a college town with a small but happening jazz scene. There I did part time teaching and formed the Iowa City Jazz Orchestra, for which I wrote most of the music. We made a record called Fifth Fall. I also did a lot of small-group playing. People came from all over for lessons. I had some basic creative strategies that apply across instruments and helped musicians evolve a personal sound. We’d cover a lot of ground in my lessons – standard tunes, free playing, innovative approaches on standard rep, composition, harmony, etc.

I started putting my name out for college jobs, and the University of Michigan position opened up. I came in out of left field to even get an interview, but I was one of the finalists and got the job. I didn’t have a doctorate, but I had a Masters, and at that time you could land a teaching gig in jazz with that. I’ve been there since 1987. I think an important reason why I was hired was that I had a fairly well-developed system of teaching improvisation that drew from diverse influences and therefore was highly suitable for engaging classical musicians as well as jazz musicians. I actually formed a faculty improvising ensemble my first year or two with some of the top faculty people. Donald Sinta, for instance, the great classical saxophonist, I got him improvising. Michael Udow was doing some improvising. Harry Sargous, the oboe teacher at the time, plunged into improvisation for the first time, as did. Martin Katz, a world-renowned piano accompanist for opera singers.

The academy has its problems. But if you play it right, it can be a very nice situation, because you have a lot of freedom. If you’re writing music for large ensembles at a place like Michigan, you have access to really good players right down the hall – classical, jazz, big bands, orchestra players, choirs and everything. Also, I’m interested in teaching. I developed a lot of coursework around creativity and consciousness/spirituality and its connection to jazz. I even designed a degree program called Jazz and Contemplative Studies, which caused an intense debate, but I got two-thirds of the faculty vote. It’s one of the first degree programs that incorporates the study of meditation, which is part of the jazz tradition.

LJN: How did your interest and knowledge and intensive studies in that area begin? I’ll assume, having lived through the time, that the West Coast was where you…

ES: Actually, it was way before that. I spent a summer in 1974, when I was 21, at the Berklee College in Boston. It was a 12-week session while I was an undergraduate at Western Connecticut, which didn’t have much jazz. I was hanging with several musicians who were very involved in meditation, which I got very deeply into, and meditation became an important part of what I do. As time went on, I started seeing the relationship between improvisation and meditation – meditation is improvisation in silence, improvisation is meditation in action, something like that. I started articulating theoretical ideas around that relationship and its ramifications for education and society and have several books and articles on the topic. I deal quite extensively with the nexus between improvisation, consciousness and the evolution of the individual voice, which everyone talks about – but there’s not that much in the literature in terms of understanding its inner mechanics, how it actually develops. I am also very interested and write a lot about collective consciousness – what happens in improvising ensembles, and also what happens in group meditation. Both processes in group formats stimulate deep connections.

His Day Is Done - Regina Carter

Regina Carter (foreground) with Ed Sarath in “My Day is Done”. Photo credit Carolina Falcao/ Amazonas Green JF


LJN: In 1987, when you joined the University of Michigan, your conception was probably fairly complete. Have you assimilated much new information and vocabulary since then?

ES: Significant pieces were in place by then for sure. Then it was a matter of moving more into a more overt cross-cultural, or even trans-cultural synthesis. The odd-meter work definitely took further strides. The “Amazonas Green Forever” piece last night was basically in a 46-beat cycle — a bar of 12, a bar of 11 (that’s 23), and then another bar of 11, another bar of 12. It’s a symmetry. You can get sucked into the sensationalism of odd-metered music, so I tell my students: “If it’s really happening, it feels as natural as and as melodic as 4/4.” I felt that 46-beat cycle is maybe the closest I’ve gotten to that. I’m happy with how that turned out. When you see it on the page, it looks very complicated, but if you have melodic substance and rhythmic coherence that draws the player in, they’re going to really dig into it. The Amazonas Jazz Orchestra got the music in plenty of time and they did a great job.

I’ve also developed a fairly extensive system of rhythmic training that draws from various sources, Indian, Mideastern… For a while I did things with Don Cherry’s-Karl Berger’s ta ki ga me al, but then dug into Carnatic konnakol, which sort of replaced that. I interacted with Karl from time to time; we did a recording together. I never went to Creative Music Studio, though met a lot of people that went there and it was always a source of inspiration. So that was part of my identity, too. Karl and I were thinking along parallel lines.

LJN: I guess Don Ellis’ music could be a portal towards your interest in meditation and consciousness, because his music was drawing on cultures that incorporate meditation in religious ritual.

ES: In that case, kind of Mideastern, with the 2s and 3s. Of course, there are a lot of approaches to meter. But in terms of meditation, India definitely came in there, and of course there’s the rhythmic process of tala cycles, the spiritual connotations of raga structures. I love that kind of connection. Music and consciousness is nothing new, but it’s such a deep subject. I think that’s a pathway for the future of education, the future of humanity in terms of how we realize human potential. Improvisation, music consciousness, spirituality.

LJN: Were you involved in those years as well with “the avant garde,” the AACM people, people like Bill Dixon, the use of extended techniques on trumpet and things like this?

ES: This is an interesting question. I was drawn to free improvisation early on in my jazz journey, but I never really thought of it as free jazz. I came to realize that free improvisation and free jazz are not the same. Free improvisation can include free jazz, and vice versa. I didn’t really run into the AACM until I had already been doing free improvisation, as well as a number of other kinds of improvisation and composing, for a while. Then I realized the AACM is a whole lineage. I haven’t tapped into it directly as much I would like, but have drawn great inspiration from it. I’ve interacted with Douglas Ewart on several occasions. George Lewis and I have had some connection, more sort of scholarly than playing. I had Oliver Lake play with our University of Michigan Creative Arts Orchestra, a large improvising ensemble, a couple of times – once in Chicago and another time in New York.

Back in 1987, I did some classical orchestration, using strings. But actually, my writing for choir is a relatively recent development. I’m trying to figure out where this came from, because at the point when that happened, I was deep into writing books and articles. So I’m combining, trying to keep my chops together as a brass player, doing some composing and also publishing like that, because I felt like I had a story to tell, theoretically, aesthetically, philosophically. Being at a big conservatory and seeing first-hand the marginalization of jazz and Black music, I wanted to bridge those boundaries and tear down the racial biases.

I realized that you can develop coursework that gives classical musicians opportunities to dig into Black music, which I did. I teach not just jazz with classical musicians, but do more of an open stylistic, open approach to improvisation. But as soon as you’re dealing with rhythmic grooves, you’re dealing with Black music, which raises issues for musicians mainly with classical backgrounds. If you’re coming from a European perspective, it’s very hard to dig into the rhythmic, embodied dimensions of Black music, let alone the improvisation process. I think George Lewis’s Afrological-Eurological distinctions are important in this context. You don’t just go from Eurological into Afrological lineages, You must do some serious work.

The choir writing is interesting because it forced me to come to terms with a foundational melodic core that I always thought was one of my strengths as a composer – and a player, too, if I might say so. Generally speaking, voices aren’t capable of the technical things you can do with, say, writing a sax soli; you won’t write fast tutti passages for voices as you might for saxophones or strings. Writing for voices initially also involved simpler rhythmic ideas. But when I connected on that level, my instrumental writing, just from a technical standpoint, blossomed in terms of counterpoint, dexterity, ability to handle more involved kinds of things. That was a very important development for me. I’m still in that mode.

LJN: Do you do comparative cultural studies of consciousness regarding African, Afrodiasporic and Indian music and other polyrhythmic musics with animistic origins rooted in calling forth deities?

ES: Well, there’s aspects of that. My approach is to combine practical engagement with meditation and related practices with theoretical principles. In the mid-90s, I started teaching a class around 1996 called Creativity and Consciousness. It was in the School of Music, but it was offered to students from across fields – student-athletes from inner cities, along with kids from the humanities and sciences, as well as to music majors. The thrust of the class was dealing with consciousness from a practical standpoint with certain meditation techniques, and integrating theoretical/historical principles in that context.

I developed rhythmic exercises for music majors (but you also can use them for athletes), inspired by Karl Berger’s Gamela Taki, which he got from Don Cherry. Athletes can use those things to enhance their performance because it’s improvisation. We’d deal with consciousness from the standpoint of a transformation that you can directly experience, and then we use that as a lens to look at different models of consciousness. The academic materialist view of consciousness tends to reduce everything to neurological activity in the brain. That’s a tiny aspect of the bigger picture, especially when you go to indigenous worldviews where consciousness is primary in the whole cosmos. So I use that kind of materialist/post-materialist dichotomy as a lens to critique the academy as based on European epistemology – that is, basically reducing knowledge and reasoning in human beings to information – when indigenous worldviews have a much bigger picture. Let’s use the arts, let’s use consciousness to expand that picture.

Even though students come from various fields, the class is offered as part of the Jazz Department, so let’s look at jazz as a vehicle into Black Afrofuturistic views of consciousness, ancient to the future. Dealing with Afrofuturism is more recent for me. But I could have used the word back then, thinking about somebody like Sun Ra. Speaking of Afrofuturism, I’m designing a new course on UFOs, and the connection between improvisation, consciousness and extraterrestrial intelligence.

LJN: Music does operate in conjunction with the physical laws of the universe…

ES: There’s so many angles. The story of Black music is part of our national legacy and our national healing. It’s also a global story. I believe that you can’t tell the story without going deep into human creativity and spirituality. And when you open it up like that, the question of whose story is it collapses or gives way to an answer that this is really everyone’s story and it’s up to all of us to tell the story, to refine it. The Black Music Matters class is not just about jazz and it’s not for jazz students only. There is also a connection to a stream of thinking in the jazz tradition that white musicians cannot play jazz as authentically as Black musicians, I have no problem with that. I still have to tell my story musically the best I can, and I’m going to do it. I teach this class the same way. I think the more you can frame it in terms of big questions, you don’t remove the complications, but what you can do is diffuse the knee-jerk reactions.

LJN: Do you plan to continue teaching?

ES: Yes. I’ve been teaching for 36 years and still have things I want to do in that capacity.

LINK: Ed Sarath’s website

Categories: Features/Interviews

1 reply »

  1. Wonderful interview with Ed Sarath. I bought his book and recommend it to all who embrace music as a passion.

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