Peter Zummo and Mabe Fratti Don’t Know What’s Coming Next

The collaborators talk improvisation, “world music,” AI, and much more.

Mabe Fratti is an experimental cellist and composer from Guatemala, and now based in Mexico City; Peter Zummo is a New York-based composer, who is heralded as a pioneer of avant-garde/experimental jazz. Mabe is featured on Peter’s new record, Deep Drive 2 +, so to celebrate its release — it’s out today on Unheard of Hope (Tin Angel Records) — the two hopped on a Zoom call to discuss the questions, “Fusion: is there a future?”; “Improvisation: good or bad?”; and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music 

Mabe Fratti: I just read your email about the fusion thing. Now I understand what you meant. 

Peter Zummo: Did you think that was an interesting question?

Mabe: It is! It’s a complicated conversation though. You’re collaborating with people from Japan, right?

Peter: I just did, yeah. Last week. 

Mabe: And did you feel that you were in this dilemma?

Peter: No, I didn’t, actually. I mean, it goes back to graduate school for me, probably around 1980-something. There was a world music program there, so people were starting to do this — mixing Indian music with African and jazz or whatever. My favorite professor — I realized later, I learned more from him [than anyone else] — he stood up at a colloquium and said, “You haven’t done anything.” And everyone was shocked. He was very, very vehement about it. And that’s always stuck with me.

Sometimes I’ve been in groups where they join the different things, and it’s not really joined on an elemental level. It’s more like they’re there, and these people have these instructions, and these people can’t really relate to those instructions, so they play their thing, and it’s kind of a mash up. You know, it doesn’t really get into the nitty gritty of, how do you make something new that invites everyone, and gets you out of your own culture, [your own] listening habits? So it’s an ongoing thing with me. But I don’t know if it really relates to our current album release.

Mabe: I think the term “world music” — [or] I even see the term “global music” — I don’t understand exactly why it still exists. Like, you remember those music compilations, Putumayo?

Peter: Yeah, yeah. 

Mabe: [Laughs.] They were a big thing here, in Latin America. In Guatemala, you’d see them everywhere. It was kind of an exploration of music from different nuclei around the world. And the term “world music” kind of started from a very weird perspective of, “there’s ‘world music’ and there’s normal music.” And what is the difference? For me, it’s like what you’re saying, that there’s really no fusion, no conversation in that situation when you separate those terms. 

But then there’s also very good conversations that come from traditional music that comes from a very well preserved practice, and having a conversation with a maybe more globalized, heterogenous sense of music. 

Peter: Yeah. Well, what is interesting is when these cultures evolve by themselves, I think. Now they have access to drum machines and production and they start doing their new thing as the music changes. And world music — the meaning changed, because when I first heard it, it was a course of study in university. I’m coming from a Western classical tradition, and then jazz and rock, and we found out that, “Well, your perspective is not universal. Other people see things differently, and if you go to the village in Indonesia or something, how do you know that the person cooking in the back is not important to the music? Because you don’t have the understanding.” And now world music is like a genre — a big genre that that subdivides. So that’s on my mind. 

But [you and I] put something together. We met at the BBC, and did three gigs: Coventry, King’s Place in London, Alice in Copenhagen. And then we recorded. So it was something new that was coming from different places, although I think we all pretty much had both classical and electronic, new music backgrounds. But we also each bring unique backgrounds, from my home culture in Cleveland, Ohio, and yours in [Guatemala].

Mabe: Yeah. And I mean, my instrument as well — it’s a very Western instrument, right? I also had that upbringing musically. And, yeah, it becomes more complex the more connected we are. It’s crazy to make all of these distinctions between, what is the other music? 

Peter: Right. 

Mabe: In my school, my teacher had his own philosophy of music. He was against any kind of contemporary music learning. So I had my own hermetic learning, according to the practices of my Guatemalan teacher in this Guatemalan academy. So there’s a relationship there, of how his aesthetic compass led me to some kind of performance. But as a Guatemalan person, even my own upbringing wasn’t… I’m not indigenous from Guatemala, I’m not a native, so my learning was pretty different as well. So it’s funny. Is my music world music? I wonder…

Peter: [Laughs.] Well, we all break out, don’t we? Of our own little traditions. I like to think of the term “cultural inertia.” Because people just want to stay — well, especially at the academy. The word “conservatory” — keep it the same. [But] culture innovates, tradition innovates, and we all have the need to break out — you and I, our friends.

Mabe: Yeah. Is it something that you have experienced recently, this breaking out of your tradition?

Peter: Well, I’m aware, usually, that what I present tends not to fit in anyone’s expectations. And I’ve been around long enough that I’m pretty confident that this is what I’m going to do. [Laughs.] There’s no hope that I’m going to change. I just try to get better at it. And I think that if I look, I can see that the audience is saying, “Oh, this is something new, this is different.” Or more importantly, “This is happening in real time right in front of me.” Because you know how we did it — there’s notes on the page and rhythms, and I let you play whatever.

Mabe: Yeah, yeah. I remember you had this napkin with the riff. [Laughs.]

Peter: [Laughs.] Yeah, I have all kinds of little pieces of paper. And I like it, because it’s almost a graphic score or an artifact. But now we’re transitioning into my other question on improvisation. You know, there’s always improvisation, even if you’re playing Mozart. Because there are things that are not specified about, “maybe slow down a little here,” or [maybe] you touch the piano a different way. We can improvise, and we do. But for me, it’s better to have a process, a plan, something to start with, so I can zone in and start engaging the particular activity, whether it’s intervals or chords or whatever, so I’ve got something to do. And then I start doing it and it becomes what we call improvisation. Then it’s also collective improvisation, because I hear you and…

Mabe: Yeah. I remember your scores, the fact that we could have the choice of transitioning from one side to the other. Or if one makes one decision, we know that he makes a decision because we listen to them and we can follow them into the other part of the score that might be the end of the score. I remember that, and I really enjoyed [it]. That was a new structure for me. It was very nice to play, because it was kind of like traveling around the score freely. For me, that was pretty exciting. I feel that I really like, as well, to have a frame. Like the napkin that you brought that time — that was a very simple rule that, [and] we could travel around it but we always had a ground. 

I’ll go to shows [and] it’s pretty exciting — it’s totally free improvisation. And sometimes [I’m] having conversations with other people, and they are like, “It’s too much,” or, “it always ends up end up sounding the same.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but sometimes it’s kind of like people having a conversation.” When I see people getting really into it, into this very beautiful state of concentration that they end up in all together somehow, it’s pretty exciting to see. Especially because it doesn’t start with anything, right?

Peter: Yeah. Well, in a conversation, you respond, right? If someone says something, and then in response to what they just said, you modify what you were thinking of, or you speak directly to them. And I feel like in music, that introduces a lag, a delay. Like you make a statement, so OK, I play a similar phrase. Then I think that can get a little dull. Whereas, if we each have our own track and you’re really getting into it, then we collectively become an organism. The group becomes more than the individuals. And that to me is more interesting, because I don’t know what kind of communication that is. How does that happen, that we’re working together? Things are happening really fast on stage, and your note and my note make two notes — they make a phrase.

Mabe: Exactly.

Peter: That couldn’t happen if I waited for you to finish and then said my answer. So that’s a big part of it for me. And I think that if you provide the material so that you’re working from some plan, then that’s more likely to happen.

Mabe: That’s right. Maybe conversation cannot be a good analogy, because there’s so much interruption happening. The other day, I was improvising with this very good pianist. She was playing so fast and the saxophonist was playing also pretty fast, and I remember I was like, how do I make a decision? Because you get so cerebral, and you feel like harmonically you have to be there as well, doing the exact notes. Of course, improvising implies that you exercise that ear and you can find your way through. But when it’s so fast, it’s funny because you don’t have to think harmonically, but like, what could be the point then? Because sometimes it’s pretty textural and you can be very muscular about it. But when it’s so harmonic, it’s for me like, how do you travel with it so fast when you don’t really know where this melody is going? How would you how would you handle that? 

Peter: Well, you can stop and listen. Which, I find I have to tell myself, because I feel obliged to be doing something because people are looking at me or the recording is happening. Sometimes it’s better just to sit back and figure out. Oh, now I can think of something to play. And also, musically it’s good to let it drop down to a duet.

Mabe: Yeah, that’s right. And do you think that free improvisation has evolved throughout the years? Have you felt that there’s something that has changed?

Peter: Well, I feel like it’s devolved. 

Mabe: Really? 

Peter: [Laughs.] Well, you know what I find less interesting is, the free improvisation happens — it’s a quartet, and then it’s like, “Man, we were so tight, we were really communicating.” I don’t know, it just feels like you’ve lost something that existed in classical music as a way to bring musicians together, to make those beautiful sounds. 

But you mentioned something — because we were still free in the recording, but we had this background week that had to do with music that I’d put on the page. And then it was pandemic the next week and we went home. [Laughs.] I had the files from the recording, and I had a year now because the record wasn’t going to be released. So I had a year to go through the files and start getting into micro-editing and patching and taking Sebastian [Rojas]’s synthesizer and extending it so that it started earlier, and taking Peter [Broderick]’s violin line, and I had to make it fit. That’s kind of tricky. But also making mix and edit and selection decisions, and that continues the composition process. So it’s like I’m now making the arrangement almost virtually using the computer. So that is almost extending the improvisation and the composition into another realm, because you’re making a record and the record has to be something that people want to play again, if they’re going to buy it.

Mabe: Yeah, you have the choice of making something that wants to pull people away or pull people closer. I remember one [thing a] friend told me about improvisation, something that I felt like, that makes sense to me: We talked about a spectrum, where on one side you know how the thing is going to end, and on the other side, you don’t know how it’s going to end. And you can travel within that. Because what you said about Mozart, for example — you kind of know the double bar is at the end and there’s the final notes, right? And on the editing, I guess you were like, “OK, I’m going to bring this, but I don’t know what’s going to happen next.” And then you come up with the idea. 

It was nice that you faded out that last song, “Way Better Than I Expected.” What is that name? 

Peter: Where did that come from? I don’t know. You know how I write down little words and phrases.

Mabe: [Laughs.] I know, I know.

Peter: Oh, I know where that came from: Decades ago, I did a concert on Staten Island at the Tibetan Museum, and I had a really good quintet with good players. The concert went well and everything, and a friend of mine from my neighborhood — who was associated with a kind of alternative bookstore cafe, a former hippie type from the Lower East Side in Manhattan — and he came up to me after the concert and said, “Peter, that was way better than I expected.” [Laughs.] Which was a compliment.

Mabe: [Laughs.] Of course. But it’s funny. 

Peter: But you remember that song — the simple melody, that’s all I had. It was, what, six bars of music? And the first three were not that much different than the second three. And then I wrote the bass line, which was about four notes, and then I came up with some keyboard voicings. We had that, so we did, like, a 22 minute take.

I started going through it and I go, Well, I don’t know, there’s not that much here. So I made a very short thing that I put at the beginning of the album. Then I found another piece at the end, and Richard Guy from the label said, “It has to be longer, find more.” So I got it up to three minutes and 43 seconds. I was going to record a vocal at home to add — I just thought, it needs something — and then a cricket came in the room. So I took the vocal mic and I put it by the door, and I recorded two tracks of cricket, and faded the cricket out. 

Mabe: Yeah, I liked that.

Peter: But since then, I went back to the 22 minute take — like in the past year, long after finalizing the record — and I found a much longer, seven minute segment that’s really good.

Mabe: Way better than expected. 

Peter: Yeah. But it didn’t hit me — I had to come back three years later and listen to it.

Mabe: Yeah, that happens. That’s weird, right? It feels like we listen differently depending on the day.

Peter: Yeah. I need time to listen, to appreciate what might have happened.

Mabe: This might be a very millennial, as I am, question: What do you feel about AI in music? When I see people improvising, I think, I don’t think a computer can do that because this is so many crazy brains.

Peter: Well, I’m not sure about AI.

Mabe: Do you like it?

Peter: I try to educate myself. My son is very much into technology and photography, so he’s exploring what can be done with it. But I mean, if you look at the history of technology just in my lifetime — I went to a panel discussion here on Staten Island years ago with the local arts council and they were talking about photography, and I said, “Well, what about video art?” Which had, of course, existed for 30 years at that point. And somebody said, “No, no, no. Photography is art. Video art cannot be.”

Mabe: [Laughs.] OK.

Peter: That’s cultural inertia. So I said, “Well, no, I think it can be.” So I’m sure that AI will somehow become art, but I think it needs time. But I think that the art is stronger if the artist can control a lot. And, you know, I let the ensemble go out of control, but I still could control it afterwards. And that can include removing things to make a clearer statement. Sometimes you have to take a lot of stuff out. 

Mabe: Yeah, sometimes it’s about silence making sounds more special. You know, the same thing of backing up when you don’t know what to play. 

Peter: There was a moment where Sebastian sneezed. Do you remember that?

Mabe: Yeah, I remember.

Peter: And you laughed.

Mabe: That’s in the recording?

Peter: Well, I had to work around it. [Laughs.] 

Mabe: [Laughs.]

Peter: But that’s a creative opportunity.

(Photo Credit: left, Steve Gullick)

Peter Zummo is heralded as a true pioneer of avant-garde/experimental jazz. Having worked with a myriad of bands, orchestras, composers and musicians, his celebrated trombone style is widely known as one of the most beloved features of Arthur Russel‘s sound, for whom he played and collaborated. He’s also known for his work with LOUNGE LIZARDS, Tom Skinner, and Teo Macero, among many others.

On his new album, Deep Drive 2 +, Zummo revisits 2014’s Deep Drive album — his last release for Unheard of Hope (Tin Angel) that saw him collaborate with Ernie Brooks, Bill Ruyle, and Aftersun composer Oliver Coates. Taking the material in an entirely new direction on  Deep Drive 2 +, he enlists an equally impressive new band of collaborators: Peter Broderick (violin, drums, synth), Joe Carvell (bass), Sebastian Rojas (synth, organ) and Unheard of Hope label mate/celebrated cellist Mabe Fratti

Deep Drive 2 + is out now on Unheard of Hope (Tin Angel).