Classically trained, jazz-forged bassist and songwriter Rob Duguay positions himself behind the music and, at times, behind the two other players on the Songevity trio’s new album, Safe In Sound, released earlier in June. He’s even listed after Justin Kauflin, the ridiculously talented piano player in his trio.
Who does that?
A guy who isn’t about ego, a guy who’s after the music in the sounds of our everyday lives — turned up a notch. A guy like Duguay, young and powerful in his breadth of knowledge and appreciation for all that life has to offer.
Born in Toronto and based in New York City, Duguay puts a tremendous amount of perception in his latest album, connecting nature with a special jazz nurture in seven elaborate compositions that flow through the body and mind and out to the universe, becoming universal — a kind of universal, steady script musicians of all types follow from one gig to another, if they’re being real.
Rob Duguay gave up a lot more than meets the eye in an exclusive AXS interview from earlier today about the whole, beautiful mass of his original music and his original Songevity trio.
AXS: There’s a lot more to Songevity’s new album, Safe In Sound, than what’s on the tracks. Take the musicians for instance. Each one of you comes to the table with a ferocious set of chops, history and a story to tell. How did you three first get together, and how did you know this was the right mix?
Rob Duguay: I surround myself with people that I love and respect as people first. Finding top quality musicians is a prerequisite when forming a group and playing in New York City. So the personalities of the musicians, that may be a secondary concern to a promoter, actually becomes most important when a musician forms his own band.
Nadav, Justin and I go back to 2005.
I met Justin at William Paterson University, where we both were enrolled in jazz studies. We played in a few ensembles together, chatted in the hallways and became close friends.
Nadav [Snir-Zelniker] and I met at a New York City jam session. We played a tune together and it felt great! We exchanged numbers and he’s been top-call ever since.
I believe I introduced Justin and Nadav in 2008, playing shows in smaller venues around New York City. They are both as humble as they are talented, and there is no room for “ego tripping” in our group.
AXS: Each one of you plays as if you don’t have a script, coalescing music out of nowhere in a space of your own. Who brought what to the compositions on Safe In Sound? Any moments during the recording where you found yourself acting like a fan at, say Kauflin’s amazing high-wire act?
RD: SONGEVITY has finally reached that amazing point in an ensemble’s life where we’ve been playing some of our compositions for so long that we can take lengthy liberties during improvisations and in the spontaneous arranging of the actual compositions. When musicians play a song over and over again, they begin to hear new opportunities in the realms of rhythm, melody and harmony. For example, perhaps Justin may make a small embellishment to the melody or play an unwritten counter-melody in his left hand; Nadav may choose to fill up space in the composition with a drum fill that would change each time he plays it or perhaps leave empty space for me to fill the space using my bass. Anything can happen at any moment and the glue that holds us together is listening to each other and playing with each other for many years. It’s difficult to be a fan of something that you are a part of creating without sounding pompous. But let’s just say I’m a huge fan of Justin and Nadav and that’s why we’re here!
AXS: Justin Kauflin is amazing. He holds the heart of the narrative on most of your pieces. Was that intentional on your part, or a natural extension in the role of the pianist or simply a matter of Justin Kauflin at work?
RD: Justin has so much to say and a desire to contribute to my compositions and that’s something for which I’m so grateful. One critique I’ve faced is that my compositions aren’t entirely bass-centric and, if I’m supposed to be a leader, I should stand in the front. To that, I would answer that I created SONGEVITY as a collective (hence not the “Rob Duguay Trio”) and my goal is more about creating lasting/quality musical experiences through composition and performance for listeners, rather than standing out front as a leader. Bassists historically function as the “backbone” or the “support” of an ensemble, so it makes sense that my work as a composer/performer would be similar. I guess what I mean to say is that I’m just as happy to create something for others to build off as I am to join the building process myself. Calling Justin and Nadav as my construction team is not by chance.
AXS: “Blue Because Of You” is Kauflin’s jam. What went into this particular composition? It’s romantic, joyous and almost euphoric, in a secular gospel sense.
RD: When I compose, I’m really trying to embrace and realize a feeling. The composition also has lyrics and is a love story, albeit cliché, about the way it feels when you see someone repeatedly and start falling in love before you even meet the person. The person feels a strong love (represented in the composition by strong harmonic motion in a driving waltz/gospel feel), but is tender and actually sad they haven’t met or had the courage to say anything to this person (represented by delicate counter passages and rhythm breaks). As a composer and bandleader, it’s my duty to share these stories and ask the musicians to play with a certain feeling in their hearts in order to realize the original feeling of the composer, in this case me, and I asked the right cats!
AXS: A lot rides on your ability to convert ideas on a page into music, as the bandleader and songwriter. What inspired the songs, and what are you particularly proud of.
RD: Well, I just spoke in some detail about “Blue Because Of You,” so let’s talk about how “Skipping Rocks,” an activity that was one of my favorite pastimes as a child visiting lakes/ponds and the ocean with my family. It’s contemplative. It’s fun. It’s a pattern of life. I enjoy likening the human experience to other things found in our universe and rocks are no exception. How are they similar to us? Well, to oversimplify, we are matter getting energy from the sun. We come from the earth, we skip across it, and we will assuredly drop back down. A skipping rock, chosen for its sleek shape, both flat and smooth, comes from, let’s say a lake, and is given energy from a human, skips along the surface of the water, only to inevitably drop back down to its source. So not only was the pastime important to me, but this new concept regarding the human experience was, too, and that’s when I know I have an idea that’s worthy of creating a composition. Think about the way a rock bounces on the water’s surface: long bounds at first that become incrementally smaller. The opening bassline and drum parts I wrote reflect that, as it’s written in 6/4 time with each measure containing a half note, then a dotted quarter note, then a quarter note, followed by an 1/8th note, followed by a trilled note. “Skipping Rocks” is an example of a song written from the bass/drums first and then creating a strong melody to augment the experience. The other compositions on Safe In Sound all have similarly profound yet unique approaches.
AXS: What kinds of music do you enjoy listening to and playing?
RD: You can tell whether music is coming from a sincere place or not. I listen to the kind that does and prefer not to gentrify music or any type of art as that pigeonholes artists into dark places. People ask me, “Do you only play jazz?” I respond, “Well, this morning I studied Bach with the bow, then taught a Caribbean/Calypso ensemble at a high school, then blasted some hip hop on my way to my jazz gig and I’m playing with a Cuban band tomorrow night so... you tell me what kind of musician I am, if you dare!”
AXS: Who are your biggest influences as a jazz musician?
RD: I’m equally influenced by birds, wind through the trees and babies crying on the subway, as I am by Art Tatum, Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington. As an artist, I’m into sharing my outlook on patterns of life. As the great Randy Weston says (paraphrasing!), “All musicians are influenced by the music that comes before them. Before instruments were invented, the Africans were influenced by the stars, wind, animals, thunder, etc.” I guess I’m more into that vein than I am just listing off some great musicians I love to listen to.
AXS: What can jazz offer a world that’s currently in turmoil? What does jazz offer you?
RD: Jazz represents and offers strength in a world that’s in a precarious position. No matter what world news I read during the day, good or bad, I’m taking those feelings and patterns with me to the bandstand. When musicians come together, they are preaching the patterns of life so as to say, “We see your patterns, o’ crazy world, but we will continue to devour them and spit them right back at you in the form of this beautiful music. Nothing surprises us, but we do respect your power and omnipresence.”
AXS: How do you convey your influences and your inspiration into something you can call your own, as on this new record?
RD: Since I highly consider and respect my influences, I do the same with the music. I never have rushed a composition. Sometimes I’ll get an idea and write a composition in one sitting that I’m content with keeping. Other times, I mull over a composition, sometimes for years, before completing it. Either way, when the intention is sincere in writing a song, it’s almost impossible to replicate another person’s work even if you’re both thinking about shared concepts, such as lost love or excitement.
AXS: What would you like to be known for when all is said and done?
RD: Someone who shared everything they had and everything they were with the world.
AXS: What’s been the reception to Safe In Sound so far?
RD: People I truly respect have heard the record and have written to me saying things like, “Rob, your ensemble has truly arrived now,” and, “This is the best representation of who you are.” My toughest critics have always been my parents and they love it, so I’m set.
AXS: Songevity plays at the Boom Boom Room 7 p.m. July 23. Play up the vibes there. Give some cool reasons for coming to this show to experience the band live.
RD: While this is not a concert setting and this meeting isn’t considered a ‘CD release,’ the Standard Hotel’s Boom Boom Room creates an amazing setting for music. Picture a gorgeous grand piano on a stage in front of 30-ft. windows offering a panoramic view of Manhattan and the surroundings accompanied by beautiful people drinking cocktails dressed up to the nines and having a ball. It’s an “old New York” feel like no other and this will be our first ensemble meeting post-album release.