An Interview With Dave Harrington, Patrick Shiroishi & Max Jaffe

Will Schube speaks to each member of the new trio, getting each to share three albums that reflect the spirit of their new free jazz LP Speak, Moment.
By    March 26, 2024

Image via Yousef Hilmy

Show your love of the game by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon so that we can keep churning out interviews with legendary producers, feature the best emerging rap talent in the game, and gift you the only worthwhile playlists left in this streaming hellscape.

Will Schube still can’t believe Larry David got Salman Rushdie to say ‘fatwa sex’ on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Heady, honkin’, wildin’ free jazz first seems like a foreign language, in which the code is cracked when you finally understand. And Dave Harrington, Patrick Shiroishi, and Max Jaffe’s new trio album, Speak, Moment, may initially scan as unapproachable, but beneath the improvisatory structure is a mighty, infectious, and inviting heartbeat. As Shiroishi tells me, “I just want people who hear our music to feel something.”

The trio linked in a patchwork manner. Psych-leaning improv maestro Dave Harrington and Max Jaffe can trace their roots to their shared time in the NYC underground. Once both artists were firmly relocated in LA, Abrams connected Harrington with another friend of his, Shiroishi. The duo immediately hit it off too.

Shiroishi appears everywhere you look, whether at the tragically defunct ETA Highland Park (where this trio often played together) or on tour with reincarnated rock gods The Armed. He’s also a member of the most excellent chamber-folk-jazz group Fuubutsushi. Harrington, who fans of this site should know, broke through as one-half of Darkside but has become a jazz hero for a new generation in more recent years, between his solo releases and live shows. He has also single-handedly revived the Online Ceramics secondhand market in LA with his Dead-celebrating jam band Taper’s Choice (real heads—real Heads?—know).

Jaffe suggested the trio hit the studio, and aside from a few general touchstones and ideas, the group decided to record some ideas and see what came of them. The result is Speak, Moment, an otherworldly blend of these three players’ voices into an urgent, pulsing, shifting organism.

“It can go any number of ways, but this is just one of those lucky cosmic things that worked out,” says Harrington about the project. “Sometimes people show up and they have a really concise thing that they do, and then it’s about interacting with that. Some people show up and bring a little more malleability.” Harrington credits the success of this project to each player’s balance.

“This worked because the three of us hold those two things in equal measure,” Harrington adds. “We operate in a lot of different musical worlds, and so we’re used to being a little chameleonic, but we all have very strong identities as improvisers.”

This record is both a collection of songs and a rare token that should be cherished. It’s a live capturing of three generationally talented musicians performing together for the first time, speaking a language immediately felt but impossible to translate. This shit happened in the 60s, when all-timers would link up for a day and drop a record. But as it turns out, Harrington, Shiroishi, and Jaffe are part of a history that is rich, vital, and still innovative. We should count ourselves lucky. It is, to put it bluntly and a bit obviously, what makes music so f*cking cool.

To help decode the roots of Speak, Moment, we asked each member in the group to share three albums that either reflect the spirit of the LP or serve as a jumping off point — whether you’re a free jazz connoisseur or hide in the other room when the honks come calling.

Hey Dave! What’s your first choice?

Dave Harrington: I Have The Room Above Her, by the Paul Motian Trio, which includes Paul on drums, Bill Frisell on guitar, and Joe Lovano on saxophone.

Max said you were definitely going to mention this one.

Dave Harrington: Yeah, it’s a real touchstone for me. I love that record and I got to see them play at the Vanguard when I lived in New York while Motian was still alive. That experience really stayed with me. I don’t think we sound anything like them, but the way that they deal with space and the absence of bass in the music is something that I constantly remind myself about when I’m playing in a sax-guitar-drums format.

I don’t have to give a rundown of the album. It’s hard to describe. I remember when I saw them play, they would do things where they would swing and they’d play tunes, and they would just be totally at ease with the fact that there was no bass player there keeping the pulse. It was this kind of shared responsibility that created a kind of drifting, floating groove that is very unique. Motian would do things like just play the ride cymbal every now and then in time, but not keeping time, just kind of trusting that time was going to be there every time his hand went back to the cymbal.

He would lift his hand up and take a beat and then just smash the kick drum. It was never aggressive, it was never avant-garde per se, but it had a looseness and freedom that lived inside this beautiful music. If nothing else, I listen to this record and I think about it in this context of comfort with space. It’s almost a reminder because I use a lot of electronics and I can easily become a wall of drones or noise or harmonic goo if I’m not careful. This record is a reminder to me that in that context, with this instrumentation, that space created can be the greatest gift.

I like that idea of trusting that the rhythm will be there. Did you experience that while recording Speak, Moment?

Dave Harrington: Max as a drummer is very open to being flexible with things. He can groove whenever he wants to, but he chooses when he wants to do that. I don’t know if we’ve ever really talked about the Paul Motian of it all very much. I don’t know if that’s an influence for him, but I think there is a way in which Max can be very painterly and very abstract and very melodic and gestural in his playing. That definitely caters to this sort of approach.

How about your second record?

Dave Harrington: There’s this record called Drunken Forest by a band, I suppose, or a project called Death Ambient. It’s a Tzadik record — John Zorn’s label. I think it’s from the early 2000s. The band features Fred Frith on guitar, Kato Hideki on bass, and Ikue Mori on drum machines.

All three of them have again, like the last trio, huge, interesting, fascinating musical lineages. I don’t know the origin story of how they became a band. It’s super hard to describe the music, and I love that they call themselves Death Ambient because it really speaks to something in the music. It’s kind of ambient music, but all the songs are three or four minutes long. It’s not a Music For Airports situation.

This is just such a touchstone record for me. The thing I love most that they do on the record is create a very abstract, very electronic — especially because of Ikue Mori — electroacoustic ambient music. There are all of these acoustic elements that are at the center of the music, and they play this free — what I assume to be, and could only be — free improvisation, that also has these really beautiful melodic moments to it.

It goes in and out of these thematic things or these bits of melody and harmonic consonance, and then into this void. Fred Frith will play paintbrush on guitar and Ikue will bring in static crackle living organism stuff. Hideki is playing a bunch of different instruments on it. There’s banjo in there somewhere. There’s this real freedom of texture in the record that I think about a lot.

There are some records that I don’t listen to all the time, I’ll listen to every now and then, but they remain in my memory as an influence. This is one of those things. The way that that record lives in my mind is strong. I’m often influenced by some combination of the last time I listened to it, but maybe sometimes my own memory and internalization of it.

And what are you choosing for your third record?

Dave Harrington: There’s an album from Derek Bailey called Ballads, which is also a Tzadik record, weirdly, from around that same time, the early 2000s. I don’t know how much of a Bailey head you are…

I’m familiar only because I got super into Zorn towards the end of high school.

Dave Harrington: Well, the short story on Derek Bailey is just that he’s just one of those guitar players whose approach is a huge influence on me. He wrote a small book, kind of like a monograph, on improvisation that I read a long time ago. I got into his music and I listened to a bunch of his records. At the time of the session, I had just finished reading this biography by Ben Watson about Derek Bailey. I was having a Bailey Renaissance.

He’s a British free improviser, and he played in a lot of different circles and crossed over with ECM people. He lived in the European Peter Brötzmann free jazz world. At the end of his life he was in New York a lot, or maybe he moved there and was playing at Tonic and made some records that were produced by John Zorn.

This is one of them. This record is kind of a stand in for Derek Bailey as an idea and icon. This happens to be one that I listen to a lot. Bailey had a concept called nonidiomatic improvisation. It essentially meant trying to play freely in the moment without reference to genre. Depending on who he’s playing with, sometimes they kind of sound like free jazz, sometimes they kind of sound like new music, sometimes they sound like noise rock. He made a record with The Ruins that was on Zorn’s label. The nonidiomatic improvisation concept is something I think about probably every time I play a show. Whenever I go somewhere and I’m improvising, Bailey will pass through my mind at some point, and he’ll remind me that what I really need to be doing is listening as hard as I can and responding. That can be anything.

It’s an exercise or a concept that stays with me because I love genre. Part of the fun that I have when I’m doing free improvising gigs is I’ll just pitch a big softball down the middle that feels like a samba or a lounge jazz tune, or I’ll just start playing what can only be Krautrock and see where it takes us. Because I enjoy that so much, Bailey is a reminder to me to then get out of that and be like, I can play any note. I can play any rhythm. I can play no rhythm. I need to detach myself from any point of reference. If I just really listen to what’s happening near me, how can I respond without trying to contextualize it?

I was hot on the Bailey tip when I went into the studio, and Robbie, who was the engineer, is one of the only other people I know who’s read this obscure Derek Bailey biography. I walked into the session and I started popping off about Derek Bailey because I was really excited about having finished this book. I thought maybe that Max or Patrick would be into it. Robbie turned around to me and was like, ‘Oh yeah, I loved that.’ I thought it was a good sign.

What’s your first record, Max?

Max Jaffe: My first is one by Mika Vainio, Ryoji Ikeda, and Alva Noto. It’s called Live 2002. They’re all electronic musicians, and the sensory percussion stuff I do was very much inspired by this palette. Even though this music doesn’t have any acoustic instruments, I’m definitely really inspired by this record and the artists. Each artist, as far as what they do with just sound source and texture and electronics, is really compelling. I love how they embrace using machines. There’s also an element to this in how they structure the whole improvisation. The way that they move together through an improvised structure feels similar to what we’re doing.

What is sensory percussion?

Max Jaffe: It’s the drum set electronic stuff I use in this group and a lot of other things. It’s the clicking and popping stuff that’s synced up with the drums on the first single “Dance of the White Shadow and Golden Kite.” Not every track on the record has it, because we’re improvising. That work of making sensory percussion kits, which includes a whole layout of samples, is hard to do on the fly. I have a few things that I made ahead of time that might work in an improvised setting, and that happened a few times that we tracked stuff. Sometimes it felt like acoustic drums was all I needed.

What did you choose for your second record?

Max Jaffe: My second record is The Necks’ Three. I love this band. I’ve seen them once. It was just a totally jaw dropping performance. Yeah, the way that these guys play as a trio is something that I would love for us to be able to begin to approach when we’re at that age. They started playing in 1987, which is when I was born, so we’ll get there one day, I hope. I can cite them as an influence, but I don’t think we’re in the same ballpark…yet. The way that these guys improvise together is so inspiring. They’re doing things on a much grander scale because their instincts as improvisers have been honed over that many more years than us, I would have to imagine. I’ve never actually really done my homework and gone back to what The Necks sounded like in 1987, or if they’ve improved. Maybe they’ve always been this good.

This album is three tracks long, and each composition is so fleshed out even though it’s improvised, too. There’s something aspirational and inspirational about that. The way that they’re using production—I don’t think they’re using any electronics in the performance. The way that they use the whole process of mixing and editing and the production on the record is really unique and it gives it a very specific flavor. When I first heard Tony Buck’s drumming, it was a long time ago and I was still new to New York. His whole approach actually was very revelatory for me as far as exposing how else you can play drums.

What did you pick for your third record?

Max Jaffe: I’m gonna go with Deep Listening by the Deep Listening band, which consists of Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster, and Panaiotis. For ambient music, it’s a classic. Improvised music can sound all sorts of different ways. This album just shows how three people can improvise sound in ways that are restrained or refined while still being quite sharp. When you discuss improvised music, there’s a whole world that’s maybe too unpleasant to listen to or too academic. This manages to be really accessible in a way. It’s a super musical even though it’s quite experimental.

There’s a philosophy to it, but you don’t necessarily need to know what that is to enjoy the album.

Max Jaffe: Exactly. That can be frustrating about more academic music or things where if you haven’t read the little artist plaque before hearing the piece, it doesn’t make sense. These things can enrich music, but it shouldn’t be required reading.

Patrick, what’s your first record you want to discuss?

Patrick Shiroishi: Miles Davis’ Live-Evil. It’s just a f*cking bop. I revisited it recently. They just do such a good job of creating this vibe and having this atmosphere and groove, which I think we eventually settled in on the third track of our record [“Dance of the White Shadow and Golden Kite”]. When I revisited this album, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can see us being in the vein of this electric Miles period.’

Everyone is on this record Dave Holland’s a favorite of mine, Keith Jarrett’s there. Everyone that shows up on that record is f*cking amazing. Do you hear any John McLaughlin in Dave’s playing at all?

Patrick Shiroishi: Personally? I do. I think one of his favorites is Jerry Garcia, and so one of the albums is going to be a Grateful Dead album, who I’m actually not too familiar with.

Perfect segue.

Patrick Shiroishi: They have an intimidating f*cking discography. My friend Lizzie gave me the Europe 72 album to spin, so I’ve been listening to that recently. It’s kind of rad. Everyone that I’ve asked, they all have different reference points on what’s the best era. I just read a Marc Masters’ book on the history of the cassette tape [High Bias, excellent read]. He has a section on the Dead in there and the tape culture that followed the band. I love that they had such a dedicated following and the live show was as coveted as the studio stuff. That even goes back to the jazz stuff, with free jazz and live recordings. The electric Miles shit, too. There are so many extra records and live accompaniments that have come out. There’s a plethora. Even the new CAN live records. It’s all so cool.

Do you get The Dead?

Patrick Shiroishi: Not yet, but I’m going to f*cking try. I’m going on tour. There’s going to be a lot of time in the van to listen to stuff. I’m going to give it a shot. I don’t think I’m going to be well versed in it, but yeah, I’m going to give it a shot.

What about your third record?

Patrick Shiroishi: It’s Albert Ayler’s Swing Low Sweet Spiritual. I f*cking love this album. As I listen to my playing, I take more from Ayler. The greatest of all time, of course, is Coltrane. Deep down I want to be like Ornette, but when I play I am pulling more from Ayler than the other two. I don’t know why. I feel like I’ve listened to more Coltrane and Ornette as well. I don’t know what it is. On the first track of the record [“Staring into the Imagination (Of Your Face)”], I think it’s in the vein of Ayler’s playing on Swing Low. We get rowdy on the latter half. Ayler gets very f*cking rowdy. I don’t think I’m as rowdy as him, and never will be, but, I try [laughs]. His discography is beautiful. Bells is super important, too, but Swing Low is just the album for me.

Do you think you gravitate to him because of the mode you participate in?

Patrick Shiroishi: I do. I definitely do a lot of exploring of sound and more harsh noise saxophone things. Ayler definitely eccles and set a lot of the blueprint for that. At the end of the day, though, melody is the most important thing about music. Sounds are f*cking sick and I love making extreme sounds and figuring out new sounds on saxophone — extended technique stuff. That’s all super interesting to me and I hope I’ll never grow tired of trying to search for a new sound, but humming a melody is what sticks with you. That’s what you’re whistling before going to bed.

Brötzmann is a giant of sound, but when he was at home he would only play Coleman Hawkins or melodic players. That’s crazy! The last solo record that he put out had no real honking—I think it was his last solo record. He was just doing covers of standards. I thought that was a beautiful arc to his story. I’m glad he put that out before he passed away, rest in peace. Ayler’s tone on Swing Low is just, ‘Man, you f*ckking feel it!’ At the end of the day, whether live or on record, I just want people who hear our music to feel something.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!