Photo credit: Amber Gress
One area that is sufficiently under-represented in this blog is jazz. We were recently introduced to a dynamic collective from Brooklyn, called A Tree Grows, who motivated us to explore this specific world and, in particular, it’s fusion-laden overlap with numerous other genres like afrobeat, funk and alternative pop. We decided to interview Emanuel Ruffler, one of the initiators of A Tree Grows, about the band’s debut eponymous album, recently released on NYC label Rufftone Records.
When and how did you get into music and how did you come to form A Tree Grows?
I have been an avid listener and maker of music as long as I can remember, always looking to find some captivating sounds. It is just really a big pleasure for me to be dealing with music. It is a path to our deepest thoughts and feeling. Getting in touch with your humanity on some level…
We started “A Tree Grows” last year after we had spent a few days working on music together and we all felt like we had found a good angle on the instrumentation and the rhythmic direction. This was in late 2015. At that point I had been working with bassist Rashaan Carter for over 10 years and for about 4 or 5 years with his brother Russell Carter. We had been playing in a few really exciting bands together over the years, situations that have very much informed and influenced me: Joe Chambers and Elizabeth Streb was the first one. Then we played with Antoine Roney, with Cindy Blackman… and sort of ended up starting our own band as a result. We had already been trying different ideas over the years – but when we finally added Tivon Pennicott on saxophone it went to the next stage…
I like the idea that your band name represents growth against the backdrop of your urban environment. How did you come to choose A Tree Grows as your band name?
I have only recently found out about the connection with Brooklyn and the novel, which many people think must be our inspiration. Our goal was to find a title that is incredibly broad and simple – yet something that you can easily remember. As an example would be names like “Future”, “War” or the trio “Air”. We had a few good ideas for names but “A Tree Grows” seemed the most expansive and open-ended.
The best band names or song titles are the ones where the listener can find his or her own interpretation, add their own twist to it. Like your idea about the tree growing against all odds in New York, sort of persevering in this rough and man-made environment. That’s a great image, very poetic – and it could in itself lead to creative expression.
Can you tell us about your creative process to create this album?
Our creative process… there are so many! And it keeps changing. For this record we started with a number of fully developed compositions, and we applied our creativity as a band to the arrangement, the sound and feel of it. And we let ourselves be guided by a common idea or setting for each song. This helps us keep ourselves focused on a shared goal and gives us another point of reference. It is liberating in a way. So, for example, we might say this song is supposed to sound like a young animal full of energy. Now when you play you have a lot of references to use. It’s almost like you’re creating a second script on top of the notes on the page.
What was it like to work with Hideki Shiota for your ‘Future Calculations’ and ‘Wau Wau Water’ video clips? Have you worked together before?
Yes! We have indeed worked together before and I hope we’ll continue our collaboration in the future. Hideki just moved back to Japan last month after many years in New York – so it will be more logistically complex to collaborate on these types of projects.
Our first project was the creation of three separate live videos for the band “Painting”. It worked out great and it was premiered in the Wall Street Journal in 2015. It was a weird idea to make music videos of material that wasn’t actually on our album… but in the end made for a great piece that stood on its own. I recommend the readers check it out!
For this record we set up little iPhone cameras all over the studio while we recorded the album and Hideki did a brilliant edit of the footage. This became the video for “Wau-Wau water”. For this type of music video, the tempo and timing of cutting the video becomes part of what you “hear”. Being presented with a certain image at a specific moment in time really changes how the music sounds and feels. So it’s important for us to work with video artists who understand music and who pay attention to minute details of rhythm.
Your name has really gotten around for a NYC artist on their debut album. There’s so many bands in NYC and many never get heard outside of their own local community. How have you managed to reach us so well all the way here in Italy?
It is a great experience to get a response from audiences far away! We have been connecting with websites and radio programs in Europe for many years. Each time the music is publicly played, it is an opportunity to connect with a scene or micro-audience.
And of course, we now have professional help from our publicist Shauna McLarnon at Shameless Promotion PR. You really need a whole team to get the word out. Creative people are not always the best at this type of methodical work, especially if it feels like self-promotion. So, yeah, having the right team to announce the record is key.
What artists do you think have influenced your sound?
I love these questions because they give us a chance to talk about other music that is happening now! Of course each member has a long list of personal instrumental influences. But there is also a collective direction we pick as a band. I think for “a tree grows ” we were naturally attracted to bands that orchestrate their records, like Henry Threadgil, Miles Davis or more recently Solange. All of us in the band have an interest in creating music that has contrast. It should be both simple and complex, which as a concept you could associate with artists like Thundercat, Radiohead or John Coltrane.
Which (living) artists would you want to share the stage with or collaborate if you had the chance?
It would be really great to do something with DeAnthony Parks, one of my favorite drummers and creative people. I am also trying to start working with an incredible vocalist I have discovered recently – his name is Terelle Tipton. Another collaboration I am thinking about is with the incredible trumpet player and composer Baikida Carroll.
What do you think the next year will bring for A Tree Grows? Will you continue composing and recording together?
The next project to be released will be a band from Oakland called “labyrinth lounge”, the EP and video will drop this Summer. Rashaan Carter and I worked on the post production together and it came out very nice. The band features the incredible soul singer Valerie Troutt and poet Ambessa. The rhythm section may be familiar to some listeners: they were playing for years with the late Abbey Lincoln, one of the great jazz divas.
With A Tree Grows, we are already getting started, working on new material. Now that the first record is out we are finally allowing ourselves to prepare new musical ideas… Working with this particular group of people leads us to think conceptually and then create naturally. All of us enjoy a challenge, so we are thinking of expanding our musical language by adding some guests, modifying the textures and instrumentations – or just coming up with a different approach to music making altogether.