Free improvisation as a chess game for four players
A moment when people with a wish to improvise without limitations come together — «Endless Roar» and Vestards Šimkus on music where everyone is a composer
Even though the Latvian jazz and free music scene are pretty creative and colorful, one can’t state that it’s overflowing with artists or collectives that specialize in entirely free improvisation. By «completely free», I mean an improvisation with no borders or rules, only a starting point. One thing is clear – it’s a highly complex type of music, where musicians have to listen to their colleagues very carefully and be able to react in a matter of nano-seconds and also decide how exactly they will respond. Another thing is obvious – the musicians must be very powerful for the result to come out esthetically pleasing. Here I can state that Latvia has such musicians, not only in jazz. In this conversation, I am joined by four gentlemen from very different backgrounds: pianist Vestards Šimkus and «Endless Roar» – a collective that unites three musicians – Arvydas Kazlauskas (saxophone), Stanislavs Judins (double bass) and Jachin Pousson (drums). Vestard is widely known to every Latvian citizen that has an interest in classical music, «Endless Roar» is known to everyone who’s onto another kind of music, the one that balances between free jazz, avant-garde, ambient, noise, and art rock. In 2022, the «Jersika Records» label released an album where all these musicians came together to create something unique and to partake in a free improvisation journey.
Congratulations on an exciting album! How did you decide to do something like that? Vestards is from the world of academic music, and all of you are from different backgrounds; how did you decide to partake in this adventure?
Arvydas: We have been collaborating with Vestards for some time already – in a duo and trio setup.
Stanislavs: Jachin has already played with Vestards as well
Arvydas: That’s right, you were the one who introduced us to Vestards, right? I think that was the beginning of our story.
Vestards: It was in 2016 when we contacted each other. Actually, Jachin contacted me and said – let’s play together! So we organized a recording session, it was in May 2017. It was Jachin, Arvydas and me. We met up in the music academy in the grand hall with a grand piano, a marvelous setup with electronics, microphones, and everything – basically the best environment for an excellent recording of improvised music, and we played! We didn’t talk to each other much, and we never discussed any details about the music; we just started playing.
Like a «free-flow»?
Vestards: absolutely «Free-flow»! I don’t even remember who started, but somehow it just grooved with each note, and the session was long – an hour and a half of several long improvisations. After that, we decided we should continue doing this.
And then Stanislavs joined?
Stanislavs: As to me, the story went like this – I was very into free improvisation since 2012, maybe even earlier than that – in the beginning, I was playing by myself, then we had a trio with Deniss Pashkevich — «DP Trio», we have some recordings as well; then I started improvising with many other musicians, from the classical music department. Most often, I played with Alexei Bahir, and then at some point, I met Arvydas; we talked some, I told him about my ideas, and he replied — wow, Jachin and I are doing the same thing, maybe let’s try doing it together? So we gave it a try and realized that our thoughts follow the same route, we are like-minded people, so we began meeting up more frequently, and a duo became a trio.
And you, Stanislav and Vestard also have played together at some point?
Vestards: Yes, indeed we have; there is an interesting story there, by the way: I had the opportunity to compose music for a film – a feature film «Breathing Into Marble», directed by Giedrė Bainoriūtė. I started by writing music while watching the movie for the first time, but soon I realized I wanted to compose for a specific lineup: a piano with a double bass and a female voice. The voice part was taken care of by an excellent Lithuanian singer Indre Dirgelaite with whom we have already performed in concerts; a very talented singer. As to the double bass part – I thought of Stanislavs, who had proved himself in multiple creative projects of different genres at the time. I highly appreciate him as a music creator and a composer, it is truly amazing what he’s doing composing and arranging, so I proposed that he join me in this project. In through we have been acquainted for quite a long time, we shared dorms while studying at Emīls Dārziņš Music School.
Stanislavs: After that movie aired, I received a call from a friend; he said – congratulations on the award, I just saw it on TV! Vestards did receive the award, but I also participated in the recording!
Vestards: The music was awarded a «Lielais Kristaps» prize; I am grateful from the bottom of my heart.
Arvydas: «Fun Fact» about the movie — while I had no idea this all took place, I was contacted by someone from the studio; it was when the movie was in its initial filming stage, they needed someone to translate the plot from Lithuanian into Latvian, they were searching for a person who spoke both languages freely. So I agreed, and worked as a translator there, while my colleagues were also involved – in writing music!
So, the three of you played together (Jachin, Arvydas and Vestards), then you three (Jachin, Arvydas and Stanislavs), and now you all play together!
Stanislavs: We also played with you, Evilena!
Arvydas: Yes, and me, some years ago!
Jachin: Wait, what?
Arvydas: Yes! We played together in a funk band!
Well, Riga is quite a small city. You know what they say — everyone knows each other through two or three handshakes? Well, in Riga, you might not need any handshakes at all! [laughs]
Arvydas: Maybe one! Ok, one and a half!
So, how did you decide to do an album together?
Arvydas: At some point, there was a project that went by the name «Art needs space»…
Vestards: «Sound needs art».
Arvydas: …and yes, the title of the album also was «Sound needs art» («Skaņai vajag mākslu»), Vestards was invited to compose a piece for that, and he invited us to join in. Then later, in 2020, there was a concert in Veltspils.
Vestards: Yes, Miks Magone invited us after hearing this album. So this concert was also where we played together for the first time.
Arvydas: Yes, in Ventspils concert hall «Latvija».
Jachin: It was also during the covid restriction time, so we had only about 100 listeners; it was the maximum number of people allowed in attendance.
Vestards: But at least we had a public rehearsal alongside a concert.
Jachin: It was about that time that «Jersika Records» started planning our album recording.
Arvydas: Yes, Mareks Ameriks heard us playing with Vestards and invited us to do a recording together.
Jachin: We already had one album at the «Jersika Records» label.
Arvydas: Yes, «Rush Hush».
So, it was Marek’s idea, then?
Vestards: Yes, he’s the producer of this album. We are delighted that he incited us to do a recording with him. The label itself is very interesting.
Tell me a little of the process — how exactly do you do that? I know the basics of the free improvisation concept, but when it’s four people in a band, it seems like a lot. Is it hard to find a common wave?
Jachin: When we came together, we asked each other to prepare a few ideas, then we would share them with the group – a few bars, a couple of phrases, and then describe the structure upon which they should take place. So we kind of went in a circle – this is my idea, let’s see what we can do with it. Then we would try each idea several times, which formed our concert set, and we kept some of the ideas for the recording. When we play them again, some of those ideas are referred to as the seed ideas.
You said you had an assignment to prepare ideas, but did you have a topic or a frame for this idea, or was it just out of the blue, whatever comes to mind?
Vestards: when we talk about ideas, it doesn’t mean that we write down some actual notes – it could be rhythms, textures, or certain concepts of soundscapes. I can’t repeat the things I played, not a single note from what I played in the recording. Besides, the actual structure of the improvisation that you hear in the recording – each improvisation is really not so preconceived; we don’t know where it leads, we don’t know where it goes, or how it ends. During the process of improvisation, we react to each other, and if someone takes this improvisation in a different direction, we follow, we don’t know how it ends.
So you do the free-flow, you create some music, and then you decide that this one should be called this, and this should be called that?
Arvydas: yes, we came up with the titles much later
Usually, the music has a message, so what’s yours? What do you want to tell your listeners with your music?
Jachin: I think some ideas involved a particular picture, but not all of them. But maybe a mood, a scene, or some interaction between entirely different entities. It’s not necessarily a message you can put in a statement, a manifest, or anything
Arvydas: even if you give a title to the theme, we could come up with another one the next day, and it would also match the music very clearly for some, but I think that the music is still an abstract form of art. I don’t remember who it was – a pianist and composer at “Skaņu Mežs” that composed super complex music, he was in his late 60s, he played a piece and said – it’s called “Green Meadows”, Michael Finnesy. It was like “rut-tut-tphrugh” [makes different unintelligible sounds], and it was “green meadows” for him.
Vestards: because we play free improvisation, our music is also free of any conceptual frames; that’s what really characterizes our music. If we give titles, those titles are meant to stimulate the listeners’ imagination, not provide a particular message. It’s for the listener to be able to connect to our music.
Like a starting point. Would you change any title on the album now?
Arvydas: we had some suggestions, but no.
Stanislavs: Man vispār liekas, ka kats cilvēks pats par sevi jau ir kā stāsts, katram cilvēkam, katram mūziķim ir sava dzīves pieredze, sava mūzikas pieredze. Ja tu brīvi spēlē, tev jau būs sava muzikālā seja, un katrs no mums ir ļoti atšķirīgs, tāpēc tas arī ir tāds stāsts — kad mēs sanākām kopā, mēs veidojām jaunu stāstu no mūsu stāstiem. Ja mēs spēlējam kopā ar Arvīdu, mums ir viens stāsts, ja ar Vestardu, tad cits stāsts, ja spēlējam četri — vēl citi stāsti, mēs papildinām viens otru, un tas vēstījums… Īstenībā interesanti, mēs esam mēģinājuši kaut kādus vingrinājumus taisīt, ka tagad viens spēlē, tad otrs spēlē.
Arvydas: Mēģinājām ielikt sevi kaut kādos rāmjos treniņa pēc.
Stanislavs: Tas bija neinteresanti, vienkārši spēlējot tā, kā jūtam, vienmēr skan labāk un interesantāk un pilnvertīgāk.
Do you think you have to be very well acquainted personally to partake in such an adventure? Or maybe it doesn’t depend on that; you see the person for the first time and just start playing?
Vestard: by the way, why did you invite me for that first recording session? How did you know I’ve been improvising? Because I was secretly doing that at home at the time! [laughs]
Arvydas: maybe not so secretly! [laughs]
Jachin: I think it was through the cellist Erna [Daugaviete]; she was studying Sound engineering, and she needed to do recordings for her final exam. We talked about what could be interesting for her to record, I suggested the “Endless Roar” combination, but then she also mentioned it would be great if she could record you; I think it was partly your idea to invite me in the first place
Vestards: it strangely coincided with the time I started playing improvisation concerts publicly, I had just played my first improvised solo concert in Spain, I posted this video and a week later I received a message from you
Jachin: that’s right, I saw that, I had it in my head. So we were already planning an improvisation, and I said we should invite you. I suppose when Erna asked, I said something along the lines of “Maybe I could invite Vestards to come along”, then she said if I could do that, it would be absolutely great
Vestards: many thanks to her! We didn’t really know each other when we started playing together, but we immediately felt that it was easy. Up to this day, I can say that I have never met people with whom it would be easier to improvise together. These guys are so easy to play together, it’s incredible! So inspirational! I usually come up with ideas I would never have if I had played alone.
Arvydas: going back to your question, I think jazz musicians, and especially free jazz musicians, do it all the time – they regularly and readily meet people and play together, but I believe that the longer you play together, the better results you can come up with in the end.
Stanislavs: it’s like friendship
Arvydas: yes, you start catching the ideas more quickly and react more quickly. Even if it’s free improvisation, it becomes better in time. It’s about something other than how much you communicate outside of playing together. It’s more about how much you play and actively create music together. It could be connected, but it’s musical. The more you get used to your partner’s style of playing, the better you know who’s more tended to take the lead, who’ll most likely follow that lead, things like that
Jachin: maybe it has something to do with all of us being very keen on improvising, I mean each of these guys is very enthusiastic when it comes to this situation where you have the ability to use more of listening and more of the spontaneous response, there’s the spark of joy in this act some people find the common joy of doing this together. A sport we all ultimately fell in love with together. Maybe it is a bit like a sport when there is a team that clicks, you read each other’s mind and have fun with each other. Sometimes, a new person joining the group could change the whole dynamic. It could be surprising, and when you’re all doing it together, there’s no clash, subduing, dominating, it’s more like – this makes the whole thing more complicated before there was one way of listening, now there’re two ways, three ways, more options. If I play with Arvydas, I only have the choice of following him or contrasting him, but once you’ve got two options, you can do something that makes sense to what they’re doing, or you can follow one or another. It just multiplies the fun. Two player chess, three-player chess, four-player chess
Arvydas: the more players you have, the more complicated it gets, to be honest. There’s a challenge because you have to know how not to play sometimes! [laughs]
Especially if you hear something interesting, it’s only natural to want to join! So, do you have roles – a leader?
Jachin: no, we always share
Vestards: a lot depends on who starts the improvisation. The one who starts must have some kind of idea, even if it’s one note. We often say that it’s someone’s piece because he was the one who started it. Still, there can be no authorship to improvisation because the moment someone joins the piece, my authorship disappears, and the music can move in different directions. During all improvisations that we play, at least one of us leads for at least a moment, we always feel when someone is taking this improvisation in a different direction, but it’s always temporary; someone else always takes the leader’s place.