Jeremy Pelt: Sound Sculptor, Museumgoer

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Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt wrote a suite for his latest album prompted by his viewing the works of sculptor Rodin at the Musée Rodin in Paris.

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

Did you write in the garden?

I went there last May for two weeks, and in that period of time, I went to the museum even more intensely than usual, maybe five times, to pick which pieces I wanted to write music to. The Gates of Hell and The Burghers of Calais were outside, so I’d sit right there, and I’d have a little music book and I would just sketch some themes. It wasn’t like I wrote the entire thing in the garden. That’s a romantic notion, but that’s not what happened. I was getting ideas, even if it was just one or two bars, writing my impressions.

What was it, specifically, about Rodin that appealed to you?

What struck me was the detail and the sense of movement—and the sense of proportion that some of the life-size human sculptures had. The hands and feet were exaggerated. Also, the sense of drama he conjured. The Burghers of Calais told a really wild story, when you look at the collection of figures there, and the different attitudes of each one, and the way he caught that. The Gates of Hell was the piece that I always came back to. You see the detail involved not so much in the pieces that border it but in the structure itself. We have all those souls that are trying to get out.

How did you go about choosing sculptures for your suite?

I felt that whichever one had the biggest story attached to it was something I could write. I was a film scoring major in college, so this is something I was trained to do. There were some sculptures that gave me absolutely nothing [laughs]. Like, why would I write about that? But then with others, it was like, how could I not write something? With The Call to Arms, there was just this strength about it, with the embattled soldier and the angel behind him. Same thing with Gates of Hell. It was like, how can I make this as eerie as possible? And then Eternal Springtime elicited more of a feeling from me because it was almost like ballet. There was a motion to the way he was kissing her.

You included some intriguing instrumentation in the suite, like vibraphone and marimba.

Marimba and vibes, to me, both have an out quality. The possibilities from one note can transform a whole band and take you different places. It’s certainly something that I learned from Bobby Hutcherson and a lot of the more exploratory players. With marimba, in particular, the sound doesn’t go very far. But depending on how you voice it and who you voice it with, it reinforces the rhythm section. So, a lot of times on the album I had marimba doubling the bass. And that added a grounding, but also a more eerie feeling than the bass could do. When you put in marimba, it’s like, “Oh, something’s afoot.”

Your trumpet gets kind of echoey on the third track, “I Sole Tace (Gates Of Hell).” How did you produce that effect?

When I first started doing effects, I would have an effects processor, which is just a board that has six different presets. It also has a wah-wah pedal built in, and that’s what I was using on records like Shock Value. But it’s [difficult] to carry on the road, so I started to pare things down. Now, what I use on the road—and what I used on the record—is a wah-wah pedal and a delay box, and I tell the [sound engineer] to put in a lot of reverb. It’s supposed to meld in with everything else going on. That’s the atmosphere.

How do the album’s last four tracks, which feature your working band, fit into the project as a whole?

I always envisioned it to be a Side A/Side B type of thing. That was my way of gently prodding the record label to release it as an LP, which I’m happy to say they will, maybe later on this year. I never planned for the suite to be much longer than it was, which also meant that I couldn’t necessarily release a 25-minute full-length album, so I needed music on the other side, and the music on the other side is really just to showcase the quintet dynamic that I normally travel with.

One piece that people seem to be talking about a lot is called “Feito.” Everybody, whether they’re Portuguese or French, has a different meaning for feito, but the tune is named after Luis Feito, who is a Spanish painter. There’s a painting he has at the Reina Sofia [museum] in Madrid called No. 179. It is just gorgeous, very striking to look at, and I can hear this piece in there.

Talk about the album’s title. It seems like something of a statement.

What I mean by the name is, I want the focus to be on the artistry of the compositions more so than me as a trumpet player. As a recording artist, one of the things that you come up against is the idea that you have to be centrally featured. This was something I was very concerned with when I did this record, much to the frustration of some fans, who have told me that they like the CD, but it could have used more Jeremy Pelt. The thing about it was that, from a compositional aspect, I didn’t want it to be me front and center again. That’s why, on track two, there’s no trumpet, or on track four I’ll just have a four-bar solo section amid everything.

Was the process of writing about something nonmusical new for you?

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about something that’s nonmusical. I’ve got a song on Tales, Musings, And Other Reveries about Eric Garner. There’s lots of different pieces that I’ve written over the span of 30 years that have nothing to do with music inasmuch as they’re just musical compositions that are based on something else [laughs]. There’s something else attached to it, whatever it is.

How would you say you’ve evolved since your debut album, Profile, came out in 2002?

It’s something I think about quite often. Back in the day, when I was putting out my first record, I had compositions, but it wasn’t a conscious effort to have a whole lot that fit. You just put together the songs. I don’t think it’s a bad record. Every once in a while, I’ll go back and listen to it. It’s a promising record in that it shows there’s a reason why you’ll hear from me years from now, but it certainly wasn’t this magnum opus where everyone was like, damn, you know?

The way you evolve really comes with your experiences and what you choose to do with them. The more you have a band you want to work with, the easier it is to get inspired by what’s happening onstage. So, I started to write things that were geared toward the band, and that made it more personal. That was one way things evolved. Then it gets a little bit deeper. I think Tales, Musings, And Other Reveries was a good concept album. What can I make happen in this collection of songs? And then you go a little further. I have something that I’m passionate about—I’m traveling in Paris and I love museums. There’s enough passion for me to make something.

What is it that you like about museums?

I just like being lost in them. I can go to a museum, put on my headphones, suffer through the millions of people who are in there taking selfies, and just be completely immersed in different thoughts, seeing what certain paintings and sculptures evoke. What kind of feelings? Do I get the same feelings that I got last year or the year before?

Did you think your suite could be a soundtrack for a visit to the Musée Rodin?

I would not be averse at all if they would play the suite at any Rodin exhibit. That would make my day. What I would love to get impressions on—from random people—is whether they can hear the correlation, musically, between what they’re hearing in their headphones and the art. That, to me, is exciting.

You dedicated the album to Roy Hargrove. What did his music mean to you?

He was ubiquitous. When I used to run the session at Cleopatra’s Needle, he would always be there, and that’s an effort because he lived in the Village. Cleopatra’s is on the Upper West Side. That kind of thing humbles you. He was an influence of a generation, more so, I feel, than even Wynton was an influence of his generation. There was a lot about him that was very culturally relevant. He affirmed that it was all right to feel a certain way about music, which is what we’re all in pursuit of. When I write something like “Gates Of Hell,” I’m trying the best way I can to make you feel a certain way. There’s not a lot of stress placed on that aspect with the generations that are around now. There’s a lot of precision. But my goal as a composer and as a musician, especially the older I get, is to reinforce that what I’m really trying to do is based more in the emotional aspect than in being precise. And Roy definitely is representative of that.

Did you feel that way when you started out as a jazz musician?

I was always really in touch with the emotional aspect of playing. What took a long time to get used to was the precision or the notes or the harmony, learning to meld all that together. But the feel and all that I had no problem dialing in.

You’ve often played as a sideman in the past, though that seems to be changing.

At this point, there are few bands and bandleaders that I respect enough to yield my career to, which is why I’ve consciously made the decision to not play as many sideman gigs.

How did you maintain your musical personality when you were playing in a lot of other people’s bands?

You’re going to be yourself no matter what. It’s not about switching hats. I used to do it, and that’s a sign of how you mature. I was adept at doing those types of things—I’m gonna put on this hat and do this, but now I just say, This is how I’m going to be. I’m just gonna do what I do, and that’s a very important part to get to, if for no other reason than you don’t have to really be conscious of changing over. You’re just completely musical all the time.

You’re 42 now. Do you feel any sense of duty to be a mentor to younger generations?

Absolutely. That’s very important. And that’s why, a lot of times, I might not have the most popular band because I tend not to go to the hottest player on the scene. In my experience, the hottest player on the scene is almost always the most annoying motherfucker on the scene because they know that they’re hot. I don’t need that type of shit. I came up old-school. You had to live something to be able to talk something. And I know I still got a long way to go, but I know I ain’t where I was 30 years ago. You look at these kids, and it’s like, you really haven’t done anything to have a philosophy, because that shit is gonna change. So, when I get bands together, I’m looking for people who are willing to learn. That’s what inspires me.

I mentored Frank LoCrasto. He learned a lot from me, and I learned a lot from him about who’s out there on the scene. I can be very insulated, just trying to get my own thing off the ground. So, people like Frank and [bassist] Gavin Fallow and [drummer] Dana Hawkins—they’d get together and I’d eavesdrop. They’d be like, Have you checked out this? And I’d be like, Oh. That kind of relationship is something that I’m into. The mentorship is very real, and it’s something that I intend to keep going on. Like Chien Chien Lu on vibes—this is her first recording.

How did you meet her?

I met her teaching up at [the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music in Alberta, Canada]. I heard her in a student-led ensemble and was impressed. I went up to her right then and I got her number. I’m just excited when people are excited to learn. I want nothing more than to pass down information that I’ve learned that I know a lot of cats will never get from the people that I got it from, because a lot of times they’re either dead or they don’t have any patience for the younger cats. So, that makes it more of my job to really impart that to people in other generations. It makes me happy to be in a position where I’m able to hire people and kind of be a mentor and a bandleader and give people the opportunity to grow. DB

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