Improvisation in the context of electronic dance music usually amounts to no more than hitting the ‘random’ button on an arpeggiator.
But when it comes to Cobblestone Jazz, the Canadian techno band, this could not be farther from the truth. In fact, the three-piece, comprising of Tyger Dhula, Mathew Jonson and Danuel Tate, take it to the other extreme. They begin their live shows with no prepared material, confident that inspiration will strike in the moment.
The effect is a totally unique performance, heightened by the buzz of anticipation. Even their releases are not pre-rehearsed, but are recorded in one take. Make no mistake, this is not a hit-and-hope ramshackle performance. Rather, it requires extreme skill and understanding – so much so that, only after 20 years of playing together do they truly “feel comfortable being uncomfortable”.
Tate’s jazz background inspired the format and his intelligent keyboard skills, Jonson’s synth and drum programming artistry, and Dhula’s production skills and DJ background have generated a healthy and diverse following which includes Giles Peterson, Moodymann, Richie Hawtin, and Laurent Garnier. London superclub Fabric in particular have been a big supporter over the years and 2015 has already seen the group play MUTEK festival in Montreal and Japan’s Rainbow Disco Club festival.
Standout releases include their two albums 23 Seconds (2007) and The Modern Deep Left Quartet (2010), as well as classic singles 'Sun Child' and 'Dump Truck'. Their new EP Northern Lights marks a return to IIWII (It Is What It Is), the label they first released on in 2002 with EP 5th Element, and which Jonson took over a few years ago.
Ahead of their July gig at Fabric, R$N questioned the dance music pioneers on the art of electronic improv.
What initially was the trigger for trying improvisational performances within electronic music?
People have been improvising since the cavemen. It was something that was happening around us. We were inspired by friends and our community who were embracing it.
Can you pick out the moment early on when you realised you had hit upon something special?
From the beginning, we have felt the same. I think we are continually searching for something special.
How much preparation and practice does it take?
We started playing together 20 years ago. It’s taken that long for us to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. Up until a year ago we still had some programmed bed tracks to guide us while we played but now we start with nothing.
What is the key to making an improvisational performance work?
The are many factors. It’s important to listen to each other, to understand the tonality, to hear the phrasing of the music, to let others speak and have a conversation with each other. This could be any kind of conversation from a love story to an angry fight, it’s important to have the courage to really jump out and express yourself. Sometimes it’s like acting when you’re amplifying the mood and not necessarily always being yourself. Sometimes it’s important that someone breaks all the rules and goes crazy. If you trust each other and have a good deal of experience playing together you can do this in a way that works.
What do you think the impact on the audience is compared to non-improvisational?
Good question. But there are two kinds of music, good music and bad music. How it was performed has a huge effect on the outcome.
What made you move from laptops/samplers to keyboards and drum machines?
Before we ever released a record we defined roles for ourselves. We had no intent to finish a record, we just enjoyed playing for people. We started playing like a band with instruments and it’s always felt more natural. We incorporated computers so we could perform some of the songs we put out, but in the end we found it more exciting to show up and surprise each other.
How has your process and style changed over the years since you began?
It has become more honest and direct. When you are young it can be a challenge to be truthful with each other, because you are afraid of stepping on toes. Recognizing that music doesn't have to be defined as something coming out of a speaker has helped.
What is it about electronic dance music that inspires you?
People coming together to dance and enjoy each other.
What is your favourite album of all time?
It would really depend on the situation, but if pressed, I’d say it would depend on the genre and situation, but if pressed one more time I’d say Stereolab’s Dots & Loops (Danuel Tate)
Keith Jarrett Solo Concerts: Bremem/Lausanne (Mathew Jonson)
Lonnie Smith’s - Mama Wailer (Tyger Dhula)