Attention Screen Takes Flight at Yamaha The Nature of Improvisation

Sidebar 2: The Nature of Improvisation

"Nothing happens purposefully in our improvisations," Bob Reina declared, post-concert in a five-way conference call with the band. "What you hear is how we all feel collectively about the direction of the piece. Given all our musical backgrounds, I think it's amazing how underivative our music is. It doesn't remind you of another band, or another type of music that we're copying from."

"I really enjoy taking an instrument, seizing the improvisational nature of sound, and playing off it as though I were painting," Don Fiorino explained "As a painter, I always see my music as a reflection of my painting. I try to approach playing with these guys the same way, and visualize color and shape when I perform.

"I think whatever happens, happens in the moment," expanded Don. "When I play, I'm not thinking about who is dominant or out in front. There's really no planning or structuring as we proceed. I may come in with an Indian yaman [raga] theme that's going through a gat—a repeated theme in Indian music—and that may hold us steady while the other guys improvise around it."

As in live performance, Chris Jones takes off from there: "I agree with what Don is saying," he says, "but there are also times when I may start a piece with some kind of theme, and then we go off into an exploration that, to the average avant-garde jazz music listener, really has nothing to do with the opening theme at all. I am a producer and DJ as well as a composer. I try to feel collective unconscious responses. I sometimes look at the entire piece and think, 'How far away have we really strayed from this first idea?' There are times when, after I have created an intro solo—sometimes it's just a noise, such as a whaaaom at the beginning of a piece, that I riff on to give somebody something to glom on to—we depart for a completely different world. We can go so far away that I sometimes feel it's necessary to bring people home and give the listener a sense of narrative completion."

"We were all kind of new to each other's music, except for Mark and Chris," Bob declared. "Even early on in our development, one of my friends, who'd been following my musical exploits for 35 years, referred to Attention Screen as a trio, because he said that Mark and Chris's communication is so telepathic that they really behave as one person."

Mark FLynn seconded the sentiment. "Since Chris and I have known each other since we were kids, there's a lot we've developed together—not just the grooves we've worked on, but also the nuances of phrasings and articulations and so forth. We can give each other a look and basically convey something without speaking. When you know somebody for so long, you can signal something that is recognized right away."

Although not by nature a contrarian, Don offered a different take on how Attention Screen's music may develop. "Sometimes we can evolve into a groove that's okay, but it makes me wonder how long it's going to go on. At that point, I'll take my guitar and crank up the pedal and just do something jagged in there that changes the direction. Or Chris may suddenly interject one of his 'humpback-whale screams,' and then we'll change into another mood. I'll pick up a slide in my right hand, and start playing some scratchy overtones to break the momentum before it becomes monotonous. You don't want to hook into just one thing that keeps on grooving until we do a dance groove. We're not a dance band, and we're not playing for a dance party."

Don usually brings to a gig four or five different instruments. At the YASI concert, he played his regular six-string electric guitar, an electric mandolin, a lap steel guitar, and a former 12-string acoustic guitar that now has a nonstandard tuning and only 11 strings. To ensure that the band doesn't lock in to the same grooves, he intentionally alters instrumental combinations, colors, and dynamics at different gigs. "I view it as packing my paint box before I go to the big canvas," he says. "I look at the gig as the big canvas, and see what happens from there."

Mark operates similarly, bringing different drums and percussion to different gigs. Don once brought along a tongue drum for him to play, and Mark has been known to show up with various Korean drums. "Everything is completely free," says Bob. When we go to a performance, I don't even know what instruments Don or Mark are gonna bring until they take them out of the case."

Leave it to Don, who has an extensive background with Vajrayana Buddhism, to sum things up: "The spirit of detachment that you pick up through your meditation certainly comes through in improvisational music," says Don, "because you ride the flow with an improvising spirit."—Jason Victor Serinus