Interview / Peter Vircks
Here is the interview I conducted with Peter Vircks, a jazz musician from Minnesota. This appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Stone Path Review.
Introduction, by William Ricci
Minneapolis-based musician, composer and arranger Peter Vircks is a founding member of the modern jazz group Moveable Feast and the Peter Vircks Quartet. He is also a member of Rhythmic Circus and part of their current production Feet Don’t Fail Me Now.
In 2004 he was accepted to attend the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music where he was mentored by Bill Frizell, Dave Douglas, Mark Turner, Han Bennink, and, Clarence Penn. He is also a 2007 American Composers Forum Subito Grant recipient and subsequent adjudicator. Vircks is credited as a sideman on dozens of recorded albums and has performed music on several nationally syndicated commercials and independent films.
Peter’s debut album, What You Believe is True, was released in 2014.
More information and tour dates can be found at: http://www.petervircks.com including November 21st at Jazz Central Studios in Minneapolis, MN.
- When and why did you start playing the saxophone?
I started playing the saxophone the summer before fifth grade, in 1984, when kids in our school district were offered group lessons. I was tested on mouthpieces for all the band instruments and was told I might do well with any of them. I made all the right sounds and had a previous musical background. Other sections were filling up so I was steered toward the saxophone. My folks bought a King Cleveland alto for me.
- Were there any other instruments you tried or wanted to learn?
Well, I’d already been taking piano lessons at age five and had been singing in the church children’s choir for a few years at that point. I even bought a guitar with my own money from the Montgomery Wards catalog when I was six for twenty-six dollars. I never really figured out how to play that crummy model at all. The strings were too high off the fret board. Somewhere there is a super-8 film of me smashing it to bits.
- When you played in high school, were you thinking or planning for music to become your career or focus?
I played in band until the middle of freshman year in high school. There was a compulsory marching band and pep-band component for all concert band members. Now, I was a skateboarder and that was my Identity. Image conformity, groupthink and sport ball were already things I questioned.
Dressed to the eyeballs in thick blue polyester uniforms, one of my older section mates was reprimanded by the director for something she didn’t do. I noted the injustice and immediately voiced my concern, which somehow earned me a parent-teacher meeting. In the past, I also had been scolded and punished for things I did not do by the same director. I was a great student with great grades, but in the meeting I was given the choice to leave band or stay on. I left. It brought my mother to tears, but, except for her tears, I was not conflicted and it felt like a weight was lifted. I loved music but not the stress of band room authoritarianism.
By that point, I had earned high marks in the state saxophone ensemble competition and I really liked playing the instrument, too much to just abandon it. So I sought out private instruction and kept playing.
When senior year rolled around, an independent music study class was offered as an alternative to regular study hall and there was also the extra curricular Jazz band. I joined both because I was really getting into figuring music out. I loved playing along with the radio and jamming with schoolmates and friends, but improvising was still walking around an unfamiliar living room with the lights out.
It was impressed on me around that time that, while choosing what you’d like to become, first determine if that which you’d like to become, as an end, is a good thing. If it is, then aim in that direction, forget about the end, and start walking. So I did, kind of.
- How did you come into jazz?
The word “jazz” is problematic. There are issues historically with cultural appropriation, etymological uncertainty and its creation as a commercial label too constrained to corral the many species of music it spawned in the twentieth century.
The word, to many non-musicians, conjures images of swingy-dingy, lindy hopping, black and white footage of the bygone, post WWII era America with lots of flash and razzle-dazzle. Big band jazz-hands and couples dance-off competitions. Or the opposite: milquetoast, synthetic, “smooth jazz” with its pantyhose saxophone solos replete with the obligatory super long high note that was probably born in an elevator of some department store in a suburb of Los Angeles. I generally don’t identify with either set.
I still use the word “jazz”, but sparingly, I guess. Mainly because there is no good alternate word, no term has arisen to take its place. When I say I’m an “improviser”, I’m met with blank stares or folks assume I’m talking about “noisy” free-jazz. Free-jazz is a part of my picture, but only a part. When I say Black American Music, folks say “hip-hop or R&B?” When I say America’s Original Art Form, they say “baseball?” or “water fowl decoys?”
Technically, I was introduced to the music in my school’s sixth grade “Jazz Band”. My first improvised solo in a concert occurred in seventh grade. A girl I liked gave me a necklace after that concert which blew my mind. That was a sweet reward for a terrifying experience. Enter Pavlov’s dog.
But really, I think the kids in that middle school band were just doing what they were told for fear of punishment, going through the motions. There was no cultural or artistic context, no clear explanation of the origins or direction of the music and no examples of the authentic music were ever played for us, in my recollection. If there was, it was lost. We just sort of clunked along not able to absorb the academic description of swing as described by our director, who resembled Lawrence Welk’s elf in gum soled Clarks, bless his heart.
At the same time, as a skateboarder in the later 80s we were few, marginalized and harassed. Petitioning the city council didn’t get us a small outdoor area set aside for skateboarding. So, behind the businesses, in parking lots and alleys where folks didn’t mind us or couldn’t find us, we improvised over the paved context. We honed skills in our bag of tricks to perform over different obstacles. Much later, I came to recognize how akin to musical improvisation skateboarding is, like both of these skill sets use the same pathways in the brain. There are just as many ways to skateboard over a cement-parking block, as there are ways to blow over a C7#9 chord. The freedom comes in developing an array of options. In the moment, exciting new possibilities present themselves as we improvise using the things we’ve practiced.
- Was music part of growing up?
I grew up in a house filled with the music of John Denver, Crystal Gayle, Neil Sedaka and Roger Whitaker. My older brother was a metal head, blasting it from the basement. In those pre-CD days, the early days of MTV, I could wade through what I heard on the dueling pop radio stations without getting too excited about much. But interest peaked with songs like Axel-F and Rockit.
When Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock album was released, I was way into break dancing. Hancock’s Rockit resonated with that dance esthetic, but I could never have known then the depth to which his creativity had already affected American music in previous decades. I was fully insulated. No one I knew probably had any knowledge of that sort of stuff, most suspiciously, any public school music teachers I’d associated with.
In 1987 I bought my first ever compact disc, from the grocery store. It was entitled The Best Of Jazz Saxophone Vol. #3 because, hey, that’s the instrument I play. It was then that I realized I could relate the physical vibrations and sensations I got playing the instrument to historical examples and how they got their tone. It also started to feel like I was coming into a secret knowledge. A real world of music and style apart from anything knowable in family and current friendships, let alone school band. Many of my early impressions of this CD persist. Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis had this tearing, earthy and wide sophistication I liked. Zoot Sims was impossibly fast, lilting and fluffy. Illinois Jacquet felt labored, woody and stuffy yet bouncy and funky. Gerry Mulligan (on soprano) was beautifully complex. Sonny Stitt was squeaky and sharp, but really real.
There were two record stores within biking distance from my house. One had previously been a Volkswagen dealership and the other had a huge sousaphone-like contraption on the sign. I would buy Fugazi, Meat Puppets, Primus, G.B.H., U2, Spyro Gyra, The Cure, Blue Oyster Cult, and Sting among other artists. Some were misguided choices, others not so much. Fugazi hit me in a positive, anti-discriminatory, anti-racist sort of way, but the Sting album Nothing Like The Sun really struck me. The compositions and lyrics had gravity for me, but what slayed me was the saxophonist. I identified with that. With his sound. I didn’t know until years later, after listening to a lot of Branford Marsalis, that it was him on that record.
Another ear opening experience I had was while practicing to the radio. I would regularly pick a random station and try to play along with whatever was on. I’d stumble through everything from Dust In The Wind to Life In A Northern Town to The Rose to Phil Collins – country, commercials, classical. One day, I turned the FM dial all the way to the left. I knew that if the cloud cover was just right and the wind was blowing in the right direction I could get reception from a college station some sixty-five miles away that had weird music programs. Through the static, I heard bassist Jaco Pastorius. My mind was blown. I had never heard anything like it. Like getting stabbed in the brain by some urgent liquid metaphor.
More and more, I strayed into the “Jazz” section at the record stores. I “discovered” more favorites: Stanley Turrentine, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, and Joe Lovano. Also, Michael Brecker, who I then thought looked like a jerk on one album cover, made me furious that that guy could play like that, may he rest in peace.
- Were there other careers or interests you explored?
My High school had one of the best graphic design and printing press programs in the area. I loved drawing, photography and creating imagery, so I enrolled throughout my four years there.
The instructor, Mr. Carl Loverude, a great teacher, hoped I’d find my way into that profession. After all, it was one of my top two picks for a career. Upon hearing I was considering a direction in music, he gave me some words of wisdom: “In graphic design, it’s what you know. In music, it’s who you know”. Those words haunt me on my bad days.
I was torn between those career paths. So, alone, I picked a penny out of my pocket and flipped it… Tails. Music.
I ended up at UMD in the Jazz Studies program instead of Stout University for graphic design. Life would have been so vastly different had it gone the other way. My wallet shrugs when I think about it.
Life would also have been vastly different had I stayed there, at UMD. I left after a year and a semester. The education was not lacking, but the scene. And the promise of more gig opportunities back in Minneapolis seemed to trump any girl or band or degree trying to keep me there. I transferred to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis for a short while.
There were these two days in 1994. I was living near the U of M with one of my best friends, in his house, and I was working at a neighborhood grocery store part time after classes. I was gigging a little around that time. My friend and I had a bad falling-out regarding something trivial about hardwood floors, so I moved out of his house. Then the director of Jazz Studies stood me up the 6th time for an audition. I was fed up with the institution and that was the last straw, so I quit school. For other reasons, I dumped my girlfriend and quit my job, then moved back in with my folks. Toughest two days of my life up until then, but it was a clean break.
Through the nineties I’d had a few different day jobs. For a while, I was Geovista driver and navigator for Geospan Corp. manning the first vehicles for filming 360 degrees while driving with GPS navigation plotting, for what was to eventually become Google Maps’ Streetview. I was also a furniture mover, fishmonger and trucking coordinator for a non-profit.
- Who are your influences? What impact did they have on your style?
I don’t have a single greatest influence, but a short list of saxophone greats I admire, in a rough chronology, might look like this: Dexter Gordon for his tone and phrasing, Stan Getz for his lyrical invention, Yusef Lateef for his tone and world influence, Stanley Turrentine for his quintessential sound, Lou Donaldson for his rhythmic taste, Wayne Shorter for his compositional vision, Joe Henderson for his unique melodic approach, Bennie Maupin for his lean phrasing, Michael Brecker for his harmonic virtuosity and viciously devastating technical ability, Joe Lovano for his husky sound and rare cleverness, Branford Marsalis for his beautiful fluidity, Courtney Pine for his vibrant stamina and Kenny Garret for his core sound and soul notes.
- What music are you currently listening to?
Lately, I’ve been listening to Vince Mendoza’s albums Epiphany and Nights On Earth, Robert Glasper’s Black Radio & Black Radio II, Donny Hathaway’s Extensions Of A Man, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Wayne Shorter’s Allegria album and Brian Blade’s Mama Rosa.
- With your involvement in Rhythmic Circus, concerts, recordings, travel, how do you balance career and family life?
It’s tough. I usually justify time away from my wife and kid by relating to my Dad who has been a truck driver since the late 50s. He was gone a lot when I was growing up, but he always came home. I grew up with his absence not being a big deal. It is sort of shaping up to be like that with my family now, but my business now is not as consistent or lucrative as my father’s was then, leaving my wife right now with undue burden. I’m in no position to turn down work and I’ve even been doing part time labor to fill in the gaps between gigs. I remain optimistic though.
Air travel has lost its novelty. My wife travels for work as well and we’ve done pretty well with our pact to not both be gone at the same time, but it has happened where we’re practically high-fiving on the concourse after my flight arrives at the airport and I’m handed the kid so she can leave on different flight.
- Do you encourage your children to play music? What do they think of your playing?
My son started piano lessons when he was five and there are keyboards, a guitar, recorders, drum set and percussion at his disposal around the house. He also knows how to use the record player. His tastes currently lean toward rock and pop music, but he’s only ever said good things about my music. He even told me last week, very matter-of-factly, that it wouldn’t be a bad idea for him to play the saxophone when he’s older.
- What do you hope your legacy will be?
I hope my legacy will be that of an effective communicator of compelling, unique, transcendent, uncompromising musical ideas where beauty trumps base convention.