Half-Japanese and half-New Zealander, Mark de Clive-Lowe was initially invested in electro club culture before becoming a jazz musician. He finds multiple artistic voices with his new album, Heritage. We caught up with him in New York at the Winter Jazz Fest, January 2019.
The album was recorded live. What were the significant aspects of postproduction?
We recorded three nights at the Blue Whale, in Los Angeles. We played the same set each night. And then I went to the studio just with the rhythm section – so just me, bass and drums. We played the music again, and then I kind of mixed it up. So you might listen to the record and hear horns from the live show, but the rhythm section was recorded in studio! Or, part way through the tune I might switch from the live version to the studio one! But you can’t really tell. Every now and then you can hear bits of the audience, and I love that sound, but even that doesn’t mean that what you’re hearing happened at the Blue Whale! It’s a real mix up.
Admit that you just added the sound of the audience!
(laughs) It’s really cool. Even in the studio we recorded in the same way, through a live process! I like to engage a lot of technology while I’m doing live effects and live sampling. I guess the production that you hear on the record is done live, that’s how it happens.
The technical aspect of your performances must be stressful sometimes! I guess that you’ve learnt to deal with it over the years!
Trusting technology has become a thing for me. But even before I really went digital, I remember having a Rhodes, a MPC-3000 and a moog. One gig the whole thing just fell on the floor and smashed. But with the computer-based set up I’ve had the craziest problems. And right when I think everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, and that I know all the solutions, then something else happens.”
So you always have a piano on the side!
That’s the best situation! I had gig when something really crazy happened and it got me yelling to the band that there wasn’t any way around and that we needed to play unplugged! Which is cool, but the aesthetic I really want to present … for me the process is a huge part of the music. To take that out is cool if I’m intending to do an unplugged gig. I love that, but if it’s not my intention, then it can be frustrating.
What were your worst experiences?
I had a computer that just died! It went black, on stage, at the middle of the gig. It was because the power plug just fell off. But now I’ve learned to tape it. I was playing, restarting the computer, restarting Ableton … I’ve had a couple of gigs in extremely hot weather in Los Angeles and I learnt that the Mac has a temperature limit, an operational limit. When it’s about 214 degrees fahrenheit, which is really hot, it dies. So, I had a show in LA in the middle of summer, and we set up on stage in the sun. And I wasn’t even thinking about it. The computer is the nucleus of the whole set up. We played the gig and it was over a hundred degrees. It was like 45 celsius or something like that and we’d been in the sun all day. We played and the tempo started to go faster and slower and faster and slower – then the sound just started cracking. Between me and the drummer, the technology is the most important thing. It was his first gig with me and somehow we made it work! Someone plays something and music takes another direction. When the technology does that, it’s not ideal but that’s where we go!
At this point I have an app on my computer which shows me the temperature of all 4 CPUS in the core at all times. You know when you put your laptop on your knees and it’s hot. That’s how it gets! Really hot, dangerously hot. So I bought this kind of stand which has a fan under it. If it happens somewhere while you’re touring and there isn’t fan, I ask for some ice and put it under the computer while obviously protecting it from the water. It’s like … let’s do something!
I love the aesthetics and the sonics and the textures that technology allows me. So for me to be able to include that is kind of fundamental.
Why did you decide to release your new album in two parts?
There are a lot of double albums, triple albums. With streaming, there’s no limit to the length of an album. It can be 20 hours long and it doesn’t really matter, right? But when I recorded the album and listened to the whole thing, I thought that there was too much information to digest. I have friends who have albums that are triple albums or whatever, and personally I think the same thing. If you’re interested in this music, as a listener, genuinely interested, then I would like you to have a chance to digest it. So I would rather give you 45 minutes and let you have that story. And you might want to listen to it again and you can really get into the story. If I just give you 90 minutes at once, that’s a lot. Keith Jarrett’s Expectations, for example: too long. I listen to it in halves. So this is my listening habit. It became a practical idea and then, once I decided that and I split the music into two records, it felt that it had two halves. The first record is maybe a little more subtle. The second is more beat heavy. Therefore, the whole project tells a whole story and you get a Yin and Yang bounce thing, which is also a very Japanese idea: you have these two things that bounce into each other as a whole. It also allows people the room to tell their own story with it.
This album is very personal. Did that change the way you collaborated with the musicians?
I think so. Because, I know the Japanese influences in my music. It’s innate, It’s part of what I grew up with. But I’m not going to presume that everyone had that same experience, obviously. Before the record, I knew who the musicians were going to be. Because that’s my working band in L.A. Josh Johnson is such an amazing talent on saxophone and flute and empathetic to the music. I sent him a record before the gig. It’s by Hozan Yamamoto with Gary Peacock, it’s called Ginkai, with Masabumi Kikuchi and Hiroshi Murakami. Very ECMish. I wanted Josh to get the vibe. And I don’t even know how much he digested it or not. But that was very intentional, like: check this out.
Every track has a story. And they are culturally very idiosyncratic. So when I was able to share those stories with the band, it gave them some intention for the music. When the music has lyrics it’s much simpler: that’s what it’s about! But when it’s instrumental music, often times, providing the narrative and giving the meaning really makes it clear for the people. There is one track called “Niten-Ichi” which means “two heavens as one.” It’s about the samurai, Miyamoto Musachi: he was like a killing machine, he was like a Darth Vader samurai. He thought with two swords and he mastered this technique. So no one could beat him, and they called this technique “Niten-Ichi,” two heavens as one; two swords. When I was rehearsing for tonight’s gig at Winter Jazz Fest with new musicians and telling them that story, Kyle, the bass player, was taking notes. It makes more sense that way. There is definitely a sharing of the narrative needed to get everyone’s intentions on the same page. And I think there is an element of restraint in the music. It’s not about: “look how fast I can play!” even when it can be really intense, there is a certain delicacy and balance into it. I feel like sharing the narrative of the compositions helps the people I’m playing with understand where it comes from.
Does it affect their freedom in terms of paying?
For example, if I say that we’re going to play just in C-minor, one musician will feel it’s restrictive, the other musician might think it’s freeing. So it’s about perspective. This music is specific, both melodically and harmonically. In traditional Japanese music, throughout the country, there are specific scales which make up the melodic vocabulary of the music. The compositions are all based around these certain tonalities. That dictates a melodic and harmonic texture, to which the musicians have to stick to. You can look at that as being restrictive. But there is a lot of freedom in it. You can’t have freedom without boundaries anyway. So here are the boundaries. Compositionally too, I want to keep this stuff so simple. I hope that people feel that there is a lyrical simplicity in the compositional structures. The musicians collectively bring it to life. But it’s context. It’s like if you’re playing a ballad and the drummer comes in with a crazy solo. If it wasn’t the plan, it’s out of context!
Do you think notions of spirituality are helped by simple melodies?
Yes, I do. In my own spiritual practice, everything comes out of simplicity. If you’re meditating it comes down to nothing. If you want to meditate but you have a record on and something in the oven and an audiobook playing, you’re not going to meditate. Because it such a personal expression and story, it really ties in to the Japanese aesthetics in buddhism, zen buddhism and shintoism. Yes, that simplicity was always important.
Maybe spirituality is about focusing, too. If the music is complex, even if you’re an amazing musician, you’re still focusing on the technicality of it.
I think that’s more restrictive! If there are crazy harmony changes and crazy time signature changes and all theses different things, then flowing through that you got to really force that music. For myself and the band I want to be able to bring this expression to a moment of balance and share that.
How do you see the dynamic between linking music and spirituality while sharing it with the audience?
Obviously, music is an energy which connects to the audience. That’s what it does, right! Through the history of what’s referred to as spiritual jazz, it’s all very clear that harmonic settings create collectivity. And for me harmony is at the heart of everything. When that lays the greater foundations, then I think the heart connections are more easily made. That’s why when you hear chill out yoga music that is quite ambient, quite drony, it allows you then to journey. One of the tracks is called “Memories of Nanzenji.” Nanzenji is a temple and a garden in Kyoto. In Japanese gardens everything is intentionally shaped and placed and set. The Japanese do it in a way that reflects nature. Whereas, say in France, if I go to a public garden, everything is so geometric! You can see it reflecting mankind’s influence over nature. This is how we control and shape nature. I see how the garden is a representation of national cultural identity. Nanzenji is a place where I zoned out. For the track “Memories of Nanzenji” on the record, I wanted to reflect this: let’s just zone out, let’s just be. I’m not trying to force my shape on something.
You went to Nanzenji.
I went by myself, which helps, and there was no one else there, either! Nanzenji is a paradigm or an archetype of the Japanese garden and temple.
On “Bushidō 1” the way of the warrior – the track sounds like it could be harsher, darker, more brutal, but it remains beautiful, what is your conception of the Japanese warrior mentality? How does it feed into ideas of masculinity?
The way of the warrior is the samurai code. The samurai being the Japanese warriors of old. There are eight tenants. And the tenants have a lot more to do with humanity than they do with killing people: honesty, integrity, accountability, empathy, responsibility, compassion. These are the things the warrior is built on. There was a point in feudal Japan when there were no more wars. So the Samurai had nothing to do. Instead, they went from being master warriors to being poets and musicians and writers and textile makers. They became artisans. And the Bushido, the way of the warrior, remained. It’s almost like the ten commandments: these are good things, it doesn’t matter what you do with them. They exist separately to actions. When I wrote Bushido, I wanted to reflect on how the way of the warrior can manifest itself in different ways. On Heritage II, there will be a second part to Bushido.
In drawing inspiration from Japanese mythology and children’s folktales in your music, do you find yourself connecting with narratives/storylines or is it more of a general mood that grabs you?
It’s more of a mood. But on each of the records I cite one actual traditional folk song. On the first record it’s “Akatombo,” which means the red dragon fly. It’s a short solo piano interlude. It’s a melody that everyone in Japan, kids included, knows. It might as well be “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” it’s like that. And, for me, my connexion to that piece of music is my mother, who is my Japanese parent. It represents my maternal connection very strongly. When I play it at a gig, it’s really quite emotional. So it’s about that feeling, it’s about reconnecting with that life experience, more than “what was the red dragon fly doing?”
Do you consider your compositions as living, changing things? Do performances affect your compositions over time?
Absolutely. They definitely evolve. For example, with my album Church. There is a chart for every track. I never updated the charts after it was recorded, which was five or six years ago. And the music was played a lot. So there are points when I give the charts to new musicians but tell them that we don’t play that bit like that anymore. I have to explain it. So, yes, things evolve, they change! I love how Wayne Shorter does that. You see him playing with all this music on the piano, but he’ll be playing this small bit here, on the chart. You find what you need in the moment. In the context of Heritage, as the music evolves over time, I could imagine us pulling little bits of the two records together. That would be amazing!
What made you decide that it was now the time for you to make such an album?
When I was much younger, my mother used to tell me: “you should do some Japanese music” and I thought it was whack. At the time I was listening to A Tribe Called Quest, Four Hero and Herbie. So … no! And then I started touring in Japan and I would do a couple of folk tunes and arrange them. I did it because I felt I had to, being in Japan. I feel like in my personal journey, as a human being on this planet, the older I get the more I feel connected to my Japanese half. And the more I need to be there. It pulls on me like a magnet. It’s crazy. In that journey, there is a question of my own identity, and we all go through this: who am I? And if my main expression is music, then what is that music in relation to who I am?
I grew up loving one particular band: Branford Marsalis’ quartet, with Kenny Kirk, … Tain and Bob Hurst. To me that’s it basically! There came a point in time when I wanted to make that music. But we have completely different experiences. All four of them are all black American jazz musicians and come from different part of the United States. So the music has that lineage, their shit goes back to Africa. That’s what it is! My family does not go back to Africa but to Japan! So there was a point when, as I grew up, I let go of wanting to be that. I realized that wasn’t me, but them. But still, I wondered: who am I? I spent a long time in London, had a huge passion for underground club music. So that became a huge thing for me and it’s a big part of my expression. But when it comes down to finding the essence of the music, of what music means to me. The idea of being Japanese keeps coming in mind more and more. For the last few years, every trip in Japan has gotten much deeper. I still have family and friends there. It feels like my spiritual ancestral home. New Zealand, which is my other half almost feels like a convenient place that I was born on. I am half Japanese and half white New Zealander. My New Zealand is extracted from England, Scotland … Maybe two or three generations back. In the eighties, the European diaspora in New Zealand had no cultural identity. New Zealand’s cultural identity is in the Maori indigenous people. Today, it’s more blended. But back then, it was different. So I was thinking that it meant nothing to be a European Zealander. But being Japanese meant something to me. It was my touchstone that I could grab on to. And now it’s a genuine expression. When I was in my twenties, I would go to Japan and start to play a few folk songs because my mom told them to me. I enjoyed it but didn’t feel connected to it. Now, I recognize who I am. I know there is a story to tell here.
I had small insecurities about this. It was personal. I didn’t know how people would react to it. Especially people who know my history with club music. I was a little unsure. But at the end of the day, I’m ok with doing this and that is what matters. I hope people will enjoy it.
It’s about finding your own voice, your signature and what you want to say!
It’s one thing to know your voice on your instrument. But your whole musical journey is something else. It’s interesting to get some feedback from people from Japan. They’re getting the Japanese influence in my music from another perspective. I’m not born and raised, so to them I come from another place!
How long have you been aware that this is what nourishes you.
Going to Japan has always nourishes, unlike anywhere on earth, and on a deeper level. Even if I didn’t notice it. But not long after I moved to L.A, I started to play in a band called Ethio-cali that was inspired by Mulatu Astatké. I found it really easy to play. Not the technicality. But in terms of connection, it just felt right! And then I found out, while doing some research on Japanese music, that the specific scales in Japan are identical that the scales used in Ethiopian music. Not similar, identical! It’s just that in Ethiopia rhythms land different, and in Japan the phrasing is bit languid and doesn’t punch as much. It made sense to me when I found that out. I realized why it was so easy for me to relate to Ethiopian music. That made me really curious.
Then I was offered a show in L.A for this organization called Grand Performances that do huge outdoor summer shows every year. They wanted an Asian-Pacific oriented piece. So I did a Japanese project that I called Mirai No Rekishi, which means the “History for the Future.” The idea was that the past informs the present. And for that I actually brought some Japanese musicians: Yumi Kurosawa on koto, Kaoru Watanabe on Shinobue (a kind of flute), Shing02, who is a bilingual Japanese rapper, and I had my band as well. So that was integration: traditional instruments and a conventional line up. I’d never felt the way I felt after we played that gig. I’ve never felt so connected to music before. To be very broad. In my music worlds, I’m either doing kind of a jazz gig or kind of an electronic gig. I love them both. It’s either jazz mode or club mode. But when I did this Mirai No Rekishi gig, it wasn’t like that, it was music, it was me! And it was such a beautiful moment. It gave me confidence knowing that it wasn’t a novelty thing, but a very genuine expression.
Was it a relief in a way?
It didn’t feel like relief. I was excited. But in some way, it was maybe a relief. The masters … Everything they did is in my head. I can relate to it, and use these classics as paradigms during concerts. But this experience freed me from that tradition. It made me understand how I can bring what I love about the piano and technology; how I can bring it along with a band and the music. That’s a relief in a way! This is good! I like it!
Being an artist, finding your way … it’s such a journey! Tell us about your L.A. party: Church.
It’s a quarterly party and it’s been on for eight years now. It relates to this conversation. Church started out when I wanted to present my journey as a musician in one night. At the beginning it would start of like a jazz club, with a trio or something, and then, it would morph into a house party. For jazz purist, it was a foreign concept to see this environment transformed into a dance party. The dancers would come down early, and they would see us flipping some Ellington, Ornette Coleman or Monk. You got to see how it became their thing. That’s my life! For me it was never about just one thing. I wanted to be broader than that. Now we take it for granted. But in the late nineties, it wasn’t obvious. It wasn’t until J-Dilla died that a lot of jazz musicians said that he changed their life … “so now he changed your life?” Church was about presenting that. It’s a really fun way for me to collaborate with people.
Your new album is informed by ideas of cultural memory and identity – but how do you think notions like yearning and nostalgia play a part?
Identity is a necessarily deep question! Especially from an American perspective. And I’ve been in Los Angeles for ten years now. Yearning and nostalgia are huge part of identity! Identity is a sense of belonging and a sense of self. And if there is any disconnect in one identity then you’re going be yearning for that. You can even have nostalgia for something you don’t know. It’s super deep like that. I feel like this is the beginning of a whole journey for me. So it fulfils a yearning. And “Akatombo,” the folk song, is so nostalgic for me! Everything I wrote, for all the compositions on the record, I knew that they sounded as I wanted them to sound because they brought nostalgia.