5 Questions with
Sweeney Schragg of Quasimodal
26 OCTOBER 2009
Quasimodal releases its sophomore CD, Discordia Concors, at Kuumbwa on Thursday (October 29).
The guitar glides through plucked and drummed rhythms, pulling the listener into the “Cat o’ Nine Tails Waltz.” The tune, by guitarist/composer Sweeney Schragg, is on jazz trio Quasimodal’s sophomore CD of original tunes, Discordia Concors, which has its official release at Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Thursday (October 29).
Schragg — who holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Jose State and studied music at Cabrillo College — formed Quasimodal with drummer Chris Haskett in 2001 as a quartet. Musicians came and went in the group’s life until bassist Pete Novembre (who also plays with AZA) joined in 2005. The melodic jazz band settled into life as a trio, releasing its debut CD, Immaculate Imperfection, in October 2006.
With the upcoming CD release in mind, Schragg agreed to answer a few questions for Weekend Santa Cruz.
In Quasimodal’s bio, it says you started in “2001 from a garage full of Mardi Gras revelers.” Were there masks involved? What really happened?There was a party of San Jose State English graduate students, the typical sort of debauchery, except this time around, because of the approaching holiday, the hosts — who were from St. Louis where Mardi Gras is big — wanted jazz rather than the usual musical free-for-all. Chris Haskett, drummer and fellow graduate student, and I found a pianist and bassist who knew a lot of jazz standards. The four of us faked our way well enough to impress the inebriated celebrants, whose understanding of Mardi Gras traditions encompassed little more than the drinking part.
Quasimodal is releasing its second album, Discordia Concours, this week. What did you learn — about you as a group, about your music — during the recording process? How had the group changed since it went into the studio for its first album, Immaculate Imperfection? On the debut CD, there was a fresh energy, this need for us all to be on our toes, as they say, because Chris and I were just getting to know Pete. We were learning to play together with all that open space we had in the trio format.
Since then we’ve developed an understanding of one another’s capabilities and idiosyncrasies, so we are able to play together more intuitively. I’ve certainly learned to be patient over the three years it has taken to produce the second CD — accommodating our separate busy schedules — but I’m happy now that we didn’t rush into it and instead let the compositions develop and our performance of them mature.
Your compositions have fabulous names. Tell the story behind “April, Don’t Be Cruel.” How did that piece, when you wrote it, lend itself to that name? Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, which had had Elvis Presley among other seminal rock-and-rollers on its artist roster, was quoted as saying that he knew Presley had a hit for RCA Records with “Don’t Be Cruel” because it had the winning combination of happy music and sad lyrics. Earlier, poet T. S. Eliot had riffed on Chaucer’s prologue to the Canterbury Tales (which talks about the sweet showers of April) in his modernist tour-de-force The Waste Land by calling April “the cruelest month.” I liked the idea of combining those two sentiments in this “happy” swing tune, for which I recently wrote lyrics about the sweet, but potentially delusional promise of spring time.
Where does improvisation fit within your compositions? How do you balance the two when playing with the group? To my mind, the improvisation is what makes the music, with all its eclectic rhythmic and harmonic elements, fall under the category of “jazz.” The framework of each composition — chords, melody, rhythm — provides a take-off point for each player to create “air sculptures” as Frank Zappa likened them, which when things are clicking can form in pleasantly unexpected and unplanned ways.
The group often plays at Takara Japanese Restaurant in Capitola and A Perfect Finish Wine Bar in San Jose. How does playing in front of an audience that’s there for more than the music influence your playing? Any great stories? I enjoy playing to crowds of people who talk among themselves — I can tell when they are listening and enjoying the music. It has been great to perform as often as we have, and we’re lucky that both venues allow us to play what we want. Our repertoire includes my compositions along with jazz standards we enjoy and jazzed-up tunes like “Hotel California” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” which endear us to the staff and clientele.
At Takara we seem to be a particularly big hit with small children, who sit on the floor across from us, impressed that Chris has found a socially acceptable way to whack on shiny things. When the sushi chefs applaud, we know we’re doing all right. A Perfect Finish is right downtown in San Jose, in the old “red light” district just down the street from a joint that has featured drag shows. The street life is colorful, let’s say, and the wine bar has two long walls of windows, giving us a panorama even as we appear to be in a proverbial fish bowl to those on the outside. It’s not unusual for the police to show up in force around midnight as the rowdy patrons from the clubs in the vicinity spill out onto the sidewalks and jealous scuffles ensue.