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Interview: Alec Haavik
By Jul 24, 2008 Nightlife

A highlight of the local Shanghai jazz scene for two years, American saxophonist Alec Haavik is know for his maniacal performances at local jazz clubs, a seemingly inexhaustible wardrobe of fabulous suits, and his mutli-textured, genre-bending, hyper-expansive, death-defying jazz compositions.

He's releasing his latest CD, "Ye Shanghai!" with his band the Friction Five tonight (Thursday) at the JZ Club.

SmartShanghai talked to Alec about recording his album, writing and playing jazz in Shanghai, and heavy metal paradoxes.


SmSh: What were the first records or performers that you saw or heard that made you want to play jazz. Can you pinpoint it to one thing? Light a lightning bolt?

Alec: Made me want to play jazz... Well, it's hard to pinpoint one thing because I grew up with the music. Both my parents listen to jazz so I don't... I think there was a moment when I wanted to play music... and that moment was in this talent show in middle school. I was in 7th grade. And I was in a rock n' roll band actually. So the music that made me want to be a musician was rock n' roll. And... I remember the feeling very distinctly, the curtain was closed and we were behind it, but the curtain was just a cloth curtain, so you could heard the audience very clearly, sort of murmuring and wondering what was coming next.

And I was sitting behind the drums, and the lights were out and that feeling was so exciting... the moment before performing in front of people and so that was a lightning bolt moment for me for wanting to become a musician for sure.

SmSh: You were playing drums then?

Alec: Well that was in middle school and I was playing the drums, but I've played many different instruments. Started out as... well, my parents started me out as all good parents do on the piano [Laughs]. So I studied piano as a young child and then switched over and started playing in the school orchestra with the cello and then later on switched over again and played trombone for a while. Then I got into rock n' roll and started playing drums and guitar too in a band. And then, it wasn't until I was 19 years old until I finally settled on the saxophone as the instrument that I felt I could express what I wanted to express.

SmSh: So can you describe Friction Five's take on jazz music?

Alec: Well, Friction Five... it's interesting because some of the guys originally are jazz players... such as the drummer Chris Trzcinski, you know he toured with Tommy Dorsey's band back in the States. So for sure he knows the jazz idiom inside and out. And also our guitar player Lawrence Ku. But some of the other cats in the band don't really come from a jazz background. We have a percussionist, Leonardo Susi, and he's from Brazil, so he plays all kinds of music and Brazilian styles -- not really a jazz player. And so a totally different cultural dimension comes into the music. And I think part of the purpose for me of the band and of writing music is to make music that doesn't fit easily into a category. So I would like it to be an amalgamation of many different cultural influences and different music genres, ideas, and approaches to try to create something new.

SmSh: So on your bio on your web page it talks about your music and describes it as a "multi-textured language of jazz mixed with the raw energy of rock." What are your rock influences then?

Alec: Well for sure Led Zeppelin has always been my favorite rock and roll band -- and I have a number of tunes -- I have a tune on my first CD... that was a time I really set out to write something imagining if Led Zeppelin was to play jazz with a saxophone player, what would it sound like [Laughs].

And even the title, "Freezer Burn" was my own little play on heavy metal groups that have opposite things in their name like Led Zeppelin -- a balloon made of led or Iron Butterfly -- something that looks like a butterfly but made out of iron. So I thought it was funny that "freezer burn" is like that... and it has e's and z's in it like Led Zeppelin.

And on the CD that's coming out we cover a Led Zeppelin song, "Four Sticks." So that was a wonderful music experience for me to pay tribute to my favorite rock n' roll band -- the track I used to listen to in 6th grade and used to think was so cool. And now when we play it, we get to re-invent it using jazz language and methodology which is improvising and reacting and having musical conversations within ourselves.

SmSh: For the JZ School opening concert at the JZ Club -- I don't know if you remember that one, it was a while ago -- you had a white board on stage...

Alec: Oh were you there?

SmSh: Yeah, I saw that [Laughs]. You were giving a class on "Freezer Burn,' playing and writing on the white board.

Alec: Yeah, that's the one. Freezer burn. Freezer burn. Yeah, that was awesome. Yeah, that was great...

SmSh: So what kind of music are you listening to these days?

Alec: Well, let see... what am I listening too. Mostly I'm wrapped up in my own projects and mostly end up listening to myself quite a bit, but, um, yeah I'm always listening to Bach and he's one of my favorites, and I've been checking out Fat Boy Slim. Kind of interesting...

SmSh: So how does the song writing for the Friction Five work? Is it a group thing? Or do you bring the ideas?

Alec: Well, it's mostly my compositions. So, you know, I do all the writing ahead of time, all the hard thinking and imagining, and then it's a band that brings it to life. So there's always things that get changed or the guys that play the music bring some new dimension to it and some new ideas -- sometimes to the point that it makes me rethink the composition and change it. So this process takes various forms. I have one composition that I have which will be on the CD after this one [Laughs] and that one is perhaps more of a band thing... because there was a lot of indefinites... and every time we played it we weren't sure what the next part would be, but over time it became clear how one section would follow another.

But for the most part it's me, you know, writing things out. I have written music for everything we play, you know... because a lot of the guys in the band are very busy and I'd have to get someone else to play so it's important to have clearly written out music that somebody else can follow.

SmSh: So can you talk about the recording process of the album?

Alec: Yeah, so the recording, we had three different days. The first was in April of last year, and the other two days were in July of last year, and so basically it was a something that we'd been working on, the band had been learning it, and I had been sort of fine tuning the adjustments, and then I think the recording happened at just the right time -- just as things were coalescing and things were coming together, you know, the tunes had found their proper form and the guys had become comfortable enough with the songs to really bring life to them. So I think it was the perfect time to take the band into the studio, you know, before you get too comfortable with it, because then there is still some... still some sense of discovery that happens.

So yeah, we did three full days in the studio and then afterwards it was a long process of doing editing, editing little parts, cutting one thing from one section, and pasting it in to another take. And then we took a lot of time with mixing, getting the tones all right. And we recorded it in the bass player's studio, and he also did the mixing, so it's very much about him and the hard work that he put into this. And I'm really ecstatic about the mix... he really outdid himself.

SmSh: So was it difficult capturing the energy of the live performances on CD? Is that something you were considering? Or do you view the two as separate?

Alec:Yeah, that's always a tough question how to do it. One of the factors is if you are all together in one room recording or not. In the past, for my previous CD everybody was entirely separate, so its an advantage to separate all the sounds and everything is very clear and you have more flexibility with editing, cutting and pasting, and the mixing can go a little easier because there is not so much blending in each microphone, if each guy is in their own separate room.

But as you say, the live energy, sometimes it's hard to capture. So for this CD we were all in one room recording together. And I think that really comes across -- there's a much more frenetic, kind of crazy energy, and that's really important to the sound of this album too. Like the sound of the saxophone being really pushed beyond where it should be, with all kinds of crazy squawks and growls and screams that come out. It's definitely a big part of the sonic texture of the album.

SmSh:So where can people get the CD? Are you pressing them?

Alec: Yeah, I'm doing this myself. It's a self released effort. It will be available at the JZ Club and it will be available at Graceland on Ulumuqi Lu, and also, you probably know Mark Pummel. He's got a shop called Music Pavilion, so it will be at his shop.

And I'm looking for some other small shops to put it in. It's always hard to distribute it yourself, but the goal is to find small places where I can talk directly to the owner [Laughs] and sell 'em that way. And of course on my website.

SmSh: So you've been living and playing in Shanghai for two years. Did you know Shanghai's jazz history before you came? Was it a reason why you came?

Alec: No actually, I ended up here through several different roads that converged... I ended up living in Taiwan for a while, and I was studying Chinese and playing jazz, and at that time, and this might still be the case, a lot of the musicians in Taiwan were talking about Shanghai: "Oh Shanghai is the place, that's where things are developing and expanding, that's where the action is." So one musician that I had met in Taiwan, she ended up moving here to become the music director of CJW, and so CJW was the club that first brought me to Shanghai. But as soon as I got here I realized what a fantastic jazz scene there was here...

SmSh: For the past few years, since the opening of the JZ School, the festivals, and the abundance of locally-based talent, lots of people are talking about "the revival of Shanghai jazz." What's your take on that? Is that something you see also?

Alec: Oh yeah, for sure, for sure. Yeah, without a doubt. Yeah. "Revival" is a good word for it. Because it's... there is a vibrancy to it and a life to it, and a feeling of rebirth, renaissance -- and part of what makes it possible to be revived or [laughs] re-birthed is the fact that everybody knows and everybody feels that there was jazz in the city long ago -- that this was a jazz city.

And so it's just a tremendous feeling to know that these echoes are still strong in the city. And somehow it seems that it's made such a perfect environment for the music here to once again come to life. Everybody likes it. Everybody is into it and has a good time. You know, JZ Club is a fantastic place to hang out, a great vibe, and there is some crazy musical experimentation in the jazz idiom which is happening there, and so I mean it's... yeah, it's a revival for sure.

SmSh: What are some highlights in the past two years -- seeing or playing jazz in Shanghai. Are there shows that stick out?

Alec: Yeah, I think, probably my favorite show of all time was at the 1918 Art Space. It's a gallery not far from Moganshan Lu, and this was a show with my band -- the six person version of my band, which includes our percussionist Leonardo from Brazil. And that show, it was in the art gallery, and it was such an inspiring environment to make music... and you know I love playing in a bar [Laughs] but it was especially stimulating to play surrounded by other peoples' works of visual art.

We didn't have any microphones and that room is huge... so the sound of the saxophone was amazing. It sounded like it was right close to you no matter if you were standing next to it or 50 feet away down at the other side of this big cavern. It was like a warm sound, and I had just an absolute ball that day. I was running around, running from one end of the room to another while I was playing and poking my head out from behind the works of art. Someone posted a little YouTube clip. That gives you a little taste of it. And I was happy to find that because it made me remember just how much fun it was.

So that was a highlight... all the big shows have been highlights... we opened up for a Chinese rock star last yeah at the JZ Festival -- we played before Dou Wei -- and it was you know... thousands of screaming teenage fans getting ready for his show, and we got out there and we laid it down you know. It was a tremendous, high-energy show -- all-instrumental, all-original jazz rock music. And the crowd loved it, so that was tremendous too.

SmSh: Were you nervous?

Alec: Well, it's weird, I don't really get nervous. But yeah, I was scared that they would judge us, and you know -- that they would think it was stupid to play music that doesn't have a singer [Laughs]. And that they would think we're not cool enough or rock enough, but in the end we were, even for the rock n' roll kids.

SmSh: So what's the CD release show going to be like tonight?

Alec: I'm especially excited to say that at the CD release show we'll have something of a reunion band, because Leonardo, he just got back from Brazil and he was there for six months... he recorded the tracks for the CD and then shortly after that left the country for a long time and has only just gotten back in time for the release of the CD. And Nicholas who recorded with us, who hasn't played with us for a little while, he'll be back as well, and Lawrence Ku, whose been taking some time away from the club -- he was just in LA -- he's back tomorrow, so it will be kind of a reunion show as well as a CD release show.

SmSh: So besides your CD release concert tonight is there any concerts in Shanghai you're looking forward to?

Alec: David Friezen and I will be performing with him... but as much as I'm looking forward to playing that, I'm looking forward to his show which is going to be solo -- a solo jazz bass concert. Which I think is going to be pretty tremendous to see if somebody can pull that off [Laughs]. I'm looking forward to that.

SmSh: So I was going to ask as well, you've got a pretty singular look and performing style, would you say the visual aspect of your show is cultivated or a natural thing?

Alec: Well it's a little of both... you know. I take it very seriously, the visual, theatrical aspects of performing music, and for sure that's a part of rock and roll... well, I mean it's an essential part: what do these guys look like on stage and what are they wearing and how do they behave when playing music. But at the same time I try to make it as honest [Laughs], well I hope that it's an honest expression as well...

And these are the kind of opposite things as an artists, our role -- or my role -- is to try to unify these opposites: how can something be contrived, yet at the same time spontaneous and completely honest, so I'm trying to resolve these things every time I get on stage and get in front of people... these are the opposites that I'm trying to make one.

SmSh: Like "Freezer Burn."

Alec: Like "Freezer Burn"... How can it be frozen and burnt at the same time?


Alec Haavik Friction Five performs tonight at the JZ Club. Their CD "Ye Shanghai!" available in locations around town and through Alec's website.

Photos used with this article are from Alec's website.
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