For his next trick, Mr. Haavik will split his brain in half. Musically speaking, that is.
On the one hand, the tenor maestro is working to fuse his jazz, with its fluid tempos and on-the-spot improvisation, with the world of DJ-ing in his Electro Alliance. Once he’s got that sorted out, he’s going to be taking the music into whole another dimension with Global Friction; reworking the music to be played by violin, traditional Chinese instruments and tabla. We met up with Alec to drink some Kaffelaku 猫屎(literally cat-shit) coffee (‘the enfant terrible of coffee’ comments Alec, ‘no sanitized mermaids here’) and discuss the musical challenges of such an endeavour.
The Electro Alliance, one of the first bands to grace the stage at On Stage, is the band that we’ll hear at the JZ Festival. They'll play at the Earth Lounge stage, a space previously reserved for DJs that now features live artists, most of whom have a serious electro angle; others on the stage include AM444, Chekov, and the Jungle Mico Project. Alec’s Electro Alliance is formed around the Friction Alliance trio, which consists of Alec, drummer Jhonny Joseph and bassist Fred Grenade.
This summer has been a ‘wonderful time’ for the trio, who have managed to ‘expand and solidify what we’ve been playing, with these extremely difficult rhythmic structures becoming easy, fun and stress-free to play. This is what I dream about, to have challenging, difficult music and to play it with the same conviction as some 3 chord rock and roll.’
The trio then expanded to include keyboardist Steinar Nickelsen, an important member of Haavik’s ‘Friction Universe’ who ‘has electro running through every vein in his body.’
The Electro Alliance were getting good at playing 'spot the photographer'
L - R DJ HBD, Jhonny Joseph, Alec Haavik, Steinar Nickelsen, Fred Grenade
But to become ‘truly electro-jazz’ requires another element. After experiments with Ableton Live looping technology, Alec found the missing final component in the Electro Alliance formula in the form of China DMC Champion scratcher DJ HBD; adding another new technology into Alec’s world. Performing with DJ Noodles earlier this summer he brought along a vinyl record of his early work, eager for her to use it to scratch on, only to find that she used Serato Technology – digital decks. This opened up a number of new possibilities:
‘All my thought experiments about using DJs were thinking they would need a vinyl record, but becoming aware of the Serato box…this was a revelation for me.’
Alec is planning to use Serato technology to the fullest, hoping to have the DJ play a track in one key whilst the band continues in another tonality entirely.
‘What I’ve been interested in is bitonality, polytonality, altonality, even monotonality, I’ve always been fascinated by multiple chord changes happening at one time.’
Recalling his earliest DJ-ing experiences scratching and making weird noises on a Fisher Price Record player, this foray into electro-jazz was ‘a nice reawakening for me of this musical source that I’ve been connected with my whole life.’
It conveniently coincided with the arrival of DJ Q-Bert, one of the world’s greatest scratch DJs.
‘I could see his hands – I watched the whole thing and it was so beautiful, he’s such an amazing virtuoso, it was so good it made me cry.’
For most musicians, rethinking their approach to music in this way would be enough. Not for Alec though.
Alec’s other direction came about through the ‘magic of social networking’ where he became friends with Dong Lan, an erhu player from Vancouver heavily involved in fusion music. Meeting Dong Lan coincided with the arrival of the Taiwanese group Orbit Folks, also friends of Alec, and gave him a chance to build on other Global Friction projects he worked on before, including guzheng and erhu. This line-up includes sax, drums, pipa, piano, violin, upright bass, tabla, and guzheng.
‘I saw this as such a wonderful chance to put together friends from different parts of the world.’
Global Friction will perform reworked arrangements of Alec’s compositions alongside pieces from Dong Lan and the ‘Ghost Trance’ music of experimental music master Anthony Braxton. Being able to combine traditional Chinese music with the work of Braxton in the same gig combines two major influences in Alec’s musical life.
‘For me Chinese opera has personally been the most profound Chinese artistic experience, I’ve gone to many performances since I’ve been here and I just love the depth. The practice and the mannerisms and the gestures and the sound to me is very moving, mostly because I just really don’t understand it and for me I always find this sort of musical experience, when it’s almost sacred for me is when I like it but I really don’t understand it, this is the kind of musical experience I look for. When I write music that’s what I set out to do, what I hope for.’
The links between Braxton’s jazz-based experimental music and traditional Chinese opera might seem obscure, but they are there. Braxton, for example, was a multi-instrumentalist, and this is a common theme in Chinese opera.
‘I arrived at a Cantonese Opera rehearsal to find that there was another tenor saxophone player there. I thought that this was great because I could follow along with him. But instead, he put down his saxophone and picked up a cello! I was so blown away by this combination of instrumental ability. That kind of "double" as we call it, is extremely rare in the musical circles I have been a part of. We tend to be more specialized. But I found it to be the case with the Chinese Opera groups that all of the players found it very easy to put down one instrument and pick up another. In the case of Chinese Opera music, the objective is to create a full sound in the ensemble, with as many different textures as possible combining to create a single line with many colors together. So it is not so important to have two players on the same instrument, because there is so much more to be gained if one of those players was to pick up a different instrument.’
Blast from the past - Alec at the first JZ Festival, 2005
Global Friction will be playing at On Stage on the 18th, and Orbit Folks will be performing during the Festival. Alec and the JZ Festival do go back a ways.
‘The JZ festival has a very special meaning for me. My first group playing my music in Shanghai was specifically formed to perform in the first JZ Festival, in JZ Club in 2005.
Since then, I’ve performed in all the festivals usually in different bands, I’ve seen the festival grow just as my career has grown. I really feel like I’ve been growing alongside the JZ Festival, it’s been fascinating to see the festival in different locations.’
More on Alec here and here.
WORDS: PETE J, ALEC HAAVIK
PICTURES: TRINA LION, HERA LEE