Interview | Thiefs rob concepts from all realms of the avant-garde

Thiefs — Christophe Panzani, Guillermo E. Brown and Keith Witty, from left — perform at Strathmore on Friday. Courtesy Matt Merewitz

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

When an artistic community – creators, fans, commentators, patrons – finds some consensus about its present state, that comes with a handful of benefits, some of which can seem like burdens. For one: It sets everyone up to move right along, to the next battle or idea or flare-up. In jazz, we’ve recently broken past the notion that we might invent some form of aluminum siding that would keep out the influence of other, developing musics. Most of the major acts you hear about today – your Robert Glaspers, Esperanza Spaldings, Rudresh Mahanthappas – are chasing some earnest blend that places jazz alongside other established frameworks (hip-hop, soul, Indian classical music).

Don’t get comfy quite yet. Now we reckon with the next level up. From the look of things, that’s where you’d find a group like Thiefs. They’re thinking about jazz reluctantly, drowning it in forms of music that also shy from the spotlight. Thiefs, who perform this Friday at the Mansion at Strathmore, are a sax-bass-drums trio, to put it lazily. They’re really not that at all. All three members – the drummer Guillermo E. Brown, the bassist Keith Witty and the saxophonist Christophe Panzani – supplement their analog work with electronics. Brown puts a particular emphasis on those extensions, and on some tracks he sings. (Often, his voice sounds like a bad omen, almost spoken, with a tone of compunction.)

The mélange they’re going for has to do with experimental fringes: electronic music, post-hip-hop, art rock, minimalism, modern poetry. Rudy Van Gelder, the famous jazz producer, drew out sonic atmosphere with the placement of his microphones and the contours of his studio. On their forthcoming debut album, Thiefs do it with samples of natural sounds, clipped speech, bubbling electronics and muffled horn lines. You can find some of the old ideas about saxophone trios that John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman started working out in the 1950s and ’60s, but you’ll have to dig for them. (You might hear the beginning of “Olive Island” – Panzani’s saxophone over a sitar-like loop – as a bit of reverential game-playing with Coltrane’s “Alabama.”)

All three members are jazz stalwarts, but have followed their curiosities elsewhere, too. Brown was a member of the avant-garde saxophonist David S. Ware’s band, and has worked with the pianist and conceptualist Vijay Iyer, the poet Saul Williams, and others – in addition to producing his own electronic solo albums. Witty focuses much of his attention on the improvised music avant-garde, working with folks like Anthony Braxton and Matana Roberts. Panzani, who lives in Paris, has toured with the Carla Bley Big Band and plays in the French hip-hop group Hocus Pocus. I was able to catch up with all three members of the band over the course of a couple phone conversations; we talked about their synergy, the new record, and the joys of fighting with each other all the time.

CapitalBop: When did Thiefs start? It was with the help of a grant, right?

Keith Witty: It’s been a little spread out. Maybe the first time the three of us got in a room together was in 2009, but it was only about an hour, for us to record one song and submit it for this French-American Jazz Exchange grant. I don’t think we saw each other again as a unit for a year. … But there was some synergy there. We literally rehearsed one song and played it twice and recorded it and parted….

We’ve actually gotten this grant twice now – the first time with Chamber Music America [in 2009] and this time with the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation

The first grant sort of let us become a project, [in that] a project has a one-time notion to it, and a band is an ongoing entity. The goal of the second grant was to keep it going as a band. I don’t think we would have cared that much if the small audiences we’d played in front of in France and Belgium hadn’t given us so much support. Often they weren’t jazz crowds… At one sort of college town in Belgium, we got kids coming out and saying, “I’m not a jazz lover but I can really relate to this band.” …

CB: Keith, you and Guillermo have been playing together for 20 years. How have you developed together? What’s different about your playing now that you think he had something to do with?

KW: I met Guillermo when I was 18 and he was 19, [in 1995]. He was a year ahead of me at Wesleyan University, and I remember showing up and he pretty quickly took me under his one-year-older-than-me wing. I’d say he’s been sort of my brother in rhythm ever since. We quickly sort of had a deep push-and-pull rhythm section relationship. There are certain drummers I play with where everything fits together easily and it feels really good always, automatically. And then there are others where there’s this, like, tug of war going on all the time. And sometimes when you listen back to these tug-of-war relationships, they’re the ones that sound the best. It’s kind of surprising. Guillermo and I actually fight sometimes when we play together – and sometimes when we’re not playing together. It makes for something unique rhythmically that’s been hard to replicate in other musical relationships. It came together quickly, and has been something that we experiment with and enjoy ever since. It’s changed over time because both of us have gone in so many directions….

After college, Guillermo got me a couple really meaningful gigs. He put me in his Ware quartet when William Parker was sick…. But then Guillermo kind of split from there and has really gone in directions that were always a sort of mutual love for him – which is sort of avant-pop music….  I’m no jazz purist but I also pursued some of that more intellectual modern jazz aesthetic. And Guillermo didn’t really want to go there; he wanted to sing.

Now we push and pull on each other aesthetically. [When making the album] sometimes I would come up with an idea and he’d say, “That’s too complicated; we have to make this accessible.” And then maybe he would bring something and I would try to stretch it out, add layers to it…. Things have changed and morphed via our personal transformations in that way.

CB: Expand on that – what unique elements does each band member bring to the table?

Christophe Panzani: [Keith and I] met in Paris [in 2008], through a friend of mine, a drummer who called me one day. It was in the summer. He told me, “I met this guy from New York; he’s a bass player, and he’s a great musician. Maybe we could play an informal session together.” So we just met in my studio in Paris. That was a lot of fun; as a French jazz musician you always look to the States and New York as a kind of paradise of jazz. So everyone who comes from there is a half-god of this music or something.

Keith, actually, wasn’t. [laughs] I’m kidding. It was a great meeting and a great first experience together, and then since then we saw each other a lot in Paris and here because I was coming here a lot – like twice a year. … Keith loves to practice a lot and have someone to practice with, and I’m the same. … We started putting all the things we practice together into the band… We wanted to start bringing it to people.

KW: Relationships are kind of the whole basis for making music. If you find a kindred sprit you might just play long tones together – two notes. And it might just be different or special in a way that two other frequencies aren’t. And I think we both sort of had this recognition – that’s why making music is called “playing.” You just get together and you feel like you’re kids and you’re playing.

CB: Guillermo, you were in David S. Ware’s first ensemble to use electronics. How did it affect you to be involved in the career of a master at that critical creative juncture?

Guillermo Brown: I think I was fairly instrumental in at least helping David to engage with working with new technology in the ensemble. It was my connections that helped him get the gear that he started working with, and he started asking questions. His instrument and computer – I definitely helped him out setting all that up.

David is a master of sound and sonic exploration, and I think that he saw in the new digital instruments possibilities to continue to explore – this idea of breaking through and breaking out and finding new sounds and developing new strategies for meditating inside of a sonic world. That was, I think, one of the main tasks in David’s projects: finding new sounds. If you listen to his saxophone playing, he’s always searching and searching. He was able to achieve an immense new language, and I think he attempted to insert that language into a new instrument. And that’s a long process, so imagine what he could have come up with if he was able to spend the same amount of time working with the electronics as he had in developing his saxophone sound.

Me, at my stage, I’m lucky enough to have my strategies kind of developed interdependently. Just by function of the time I grew up in, and the access I’ve been able to have to whatever various means [of expression].

CB: What’s your process for incorporating all your instruments – electronics, voice, drums – into Thiefs?

GB: This has been a longstanding challenge for me, in terms of incorporating electronic and acoustic instruments into my sound. It continues to be a game. I think each song is its own game, and each project has its own pathway. And I think you have to start thinking about things in terms of software. Each ensemble has its own strategy – or each idea has its own strategy. And you don’t get locked into, “This is the way that I do it; this is the process.” …

The instrumentation [of Thiefs] is very fragile in some ways. So in terms of incorporating electronics, you have to be very concerned with being able to not slaughter the other instruments. It’s something that I’m always concerned with as a drummer – you really have to pay attention to dynamics. Even more so. So how do we continue to make the technology breathe and do things that make it feel more natural?

CB: How do you do that?

GB: You have to be really tuned into dynamics. A lot of it for me is about having the amplification appear inside of – or apart from – the drum sound. It’s a lot about being really tuned into the mixing. And I have my own amplification system that doesn’t go straight to the house. It’s much more like a drum; it’s kind of an electro-acoustic idea, that you should have the electronics appear and that the speaker is also part of the instrument. It’s not separate…. The same way that a guitar player thinks about how the sound and feel of their instrument is extended through the sound of the speaker and how that’s incorporated into the sound of the group…. You have to self-mix a lot; I’ve been in that situation where it’s not a perfect studio environment, so you really have to be super tuned in to making the two worlds blend. And that comes in the writing stage: The kind of imaginations and conceptualizations of the sound. Some of the drum sounds on the record are my voice. The way that a voice mixes in with other instrumental sounds or other sounds in the group is going to be different than a drum.

CB: You guys all share a love for Nas. I noticed it not just in the band name, but also in the last track of the record. Is there anything in particular you can say you try to use from his music? And in what way is the hip-hop of the Golden Age generally a factor in your music?

KW: I don’t know that there’s any musical reference to Nas; he’s definitely the first rapper that blew my mind when I was 14 or 15. I see Nas as like Neil Young – a genius who puts out a lot of good music and a lot of bad music. The name Thiefs just developed at this little restaurant gig near my house…. The last song on the album was called the “Thiefs Theme,” a reference to Nas’s line, but then we changed it to “Play Me at Night.”

CB: Christophe – you’re very entrenched in the French hip-hop scene. How has that worked its way into your playing with this band?

CP: Yes, I’m involved in the hip-hop scene in Paris and in France. I first met those guys from a band that’s very big in France called Hocus Pocus. We’ve been touring together for like two years; we have two albums. And with those guys I met a lot of people in the hip-hop scene in Paris. Big names in France – Oxmo Puccino, and IAM, which is like the first French hip-hop band. …

KW: What you need to know about Christophe is – and I don’t want to offend any French musicians – but he’s not a French jazz musician, in his musical nature. His little French jazz side peeks out and Gulilermo and I will look at each other and say, “There’s the Frenchman!” But he really has a different personality than anybody else I’ve met – and than most horn players. Most have an innate desire to be heard above the band. That’s the innate desire of the instrument. Christophe has a fabric sensibility – a desire to be in and around and integrated with the rhythm section, which is why as a trio this works and we sometimes don’t have to add any chordal element. Even though we like to do that, for more sound and possibilities.… And he clearly has an understanding and an appreciation of the hip-hop aesthetic, or else this wouldn’t really work.

CB: Guillermo, your work brings in drum ‘n’ bass, and experimental hip-hop. How do you feel that music speaks to similar impulses as jazz always has – ideals of freedom, of rhythmic subversiveness, of identity?

GB: It’s just important to always realize that these different forms –not necessarily the genres, but the different forms that musicians use – are always hyper-important lessons and pathways for us as musicians. They’re sort of pathways or tropes that time and time again work for musicians and also for audiences. As a contemporary musician and contemporary artist, it’s important to focus on what works – in groups and in interacting with audiences. How do you look at your relationship with those forms and how you’re going to ignore them or respond to them, and analyze how your own creative output works within them? For me, obviously jazz is one of those forms that I have studied, and hip-hop as a form too. All the different subgenres and classifications are all styles and forms that I have looked at time and time again.

CB: Have you found commonality between the forms?

GB: Absolutely. It’s much more engaging to look at the commonality and work within that than to rail against it. It seems much more natural that the mixtures will continue to happen more often than not. Sometimes it can appear as inauthentic, but that’s only because there are some sort of artificial separations that occur for whatever reasons – because of whatever institutions are in place to exploit separation, rather than bringing these things together. I think all of us [in Thiefs] continue to be about bringing things together.

For me, that plays out in the music, and that plays out – and I say this time and time again – from the drummer’s seat and the vocalist’s seat. Drums and vocals are constantly about that shared language…. These things resonate with us on a very basic level. And the drum set is this kind of utopian model for communication and understanding…. And then of course the DJ and turntable and modern tools of the digital age are an extension of that as well.

CB: What was it like to compose “Hurricane Daze,” which I understand is the only piece that you all composed together as a band, during the process of making the album?

KW: There was definitely collaboration on the other songs – editing each other’s ideas. But it was the only one that didn’t specifically start with somebody. Or maybe it did – I gathered some samples for “Hurricane Daze.” … I think I’d made a sample template and I sent them to Guillermo and he did something completely different with them and then we merged them. It was a few days after the hurricane [Sandy]. We had a Jazz Gallery gig slated for that day. The Jazz Gallery was completely under water in Lower Manhattan…. We had our saxophonist in town, and we said, “Man, we really need one more song for this record.” It’s hard to remember what happened, but it was very joyful – it was very easy. We’d spent a few years developing a sound for this ensemble and it flowed out very easily.

CP: I remember listening to each of the samples – what you’d made [Keith]. And then Guillermo arrived with his laptop and he played [his], and we were like, “Wow – these are the same ones?”

KW: Yeah, Guillermo is a sound architect – he can crate something really special and it’s like, “Man, you don’t even know what you’re doing with this machine.” He just has a natural touch with knobs.… My samples were much closer to the sound of the original. His were very different.

CB: Guillermo, how do you think your creative rapport with Keith has fed your endeavors, in and out of jazz?

GB: I feel like we have such a kind of highly developed intuition, just in a traditional instrumental sense – in the rhythm section – that it’s kind of uncanny. It’s just a beautiful partnership that we’ve been able to develop over the years. It has sweet highs and crashing lows. But that is truly part of the emotional fabric of our relationship, and the struggle that we continue to develop. It’s important to have tension and release. Who wants to hear jazz that’s all figured out? That’s what the authenticity is – the push and pull and the tension and release is obviously built into some of the compositions. But it’s actually very, very, almost magical because it’s in the journey that we’re taking together as humans – that we’re taking together in our life. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

CB: Christophe, what is their back and forth like?

CP: It’s a lot of fun because I watch it from the outside but I’m really in the middle of these two guys. It’s very easy and fun to watch them and go from one side to the other.… It’s good to be three, because if it was just the two of them something might have happened by now. [laughs]

CB: Does their energy and combustion create a creative dynamic for the group?

CP: Yes, it’s combustion, I think you’re right. It’s like in an airplane or a high-speed car with a big engine – a lot of combustion. You need a lot of energy or else you cannot move…. Sometimes it could burn or explode and then you go nowhere, but most of the time you go fast and you see a lot of things. It can drive you very far from where you thought you were going. You never go where you thought you were going, and I love that. I cannot just play what I would have played by myself. Sometimes you play with musicians who play everything and they don’t move … but here you cannot do that.

KW: This is why no matter what comes along in our music to make me think it’s not jazz, we always seem to come back and say, “Well, it sort of is, irrefutably.” Even if we use samples or loops, it’s never the same twice. And it all falls into this general overarching spirit of collaborative exploration. And maybe some people don’t think it is jazz, and I’m sure we’re going to offend plenty of jazz lovers with our efforts – I think we already have. But we just can’t find what else to call this when we play. It’s just different. Even material with electronic loops in it doesn’t come out the same twice ever.

CB: Guillermo, Keith said that he feels the collaborative exploration of Thiefs’ music inevitably makes it a jazz band. Do you feel that way? And would you say you approach all of your projects with the sensibility of a jazz musician? How would you define the “jazz” sensibility, if at all?

GB: Ah, man. I don’t even think about it anymore. I’m not into that battle. Any time I get into that battle, or that battle touches me, it’s so violent…. It’s just like, [makes a vile noise with his mouth] things are dying off. And people hold onto things because that’s all they know and you get into a comfort zone of what you know and you’ve spent years learning. And then something new comes along, and it’s about evolution, isn’t it? What there was dies off. It seems like a pretty simple equation. For whatever reason, there are so many variables and parameters that are happening in music and art in the United States, in the music industry, and you have to adapt. And that’s the real spirit of jazz – and the real spirit of hip-hop, and the real spirit of rock. You know? The real spirit of music. That’s what humans do. As extensions of our experience in the world, we continue to change how we express our condition. Different technologies come into play – whether it’s the saxophone, the drum stick, or the digital audio work station, and we respond in our own way to the technologies that we make.

Thiefs play at Strathmore at 8:30 on Friday. Tickets cost $20 and can be purchased here. More info is available here.



About Giovanni Russonello

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A co-founder of CapitalBop, Giovanni Russonello is also a music writer and critic for the New York Times. He also teaches writing as a lecturer at New York University's School of Professional Studies. He previously served as a contributor to the Washington Post, the FADER, JazzTimes, NPR Music and others, and hosted “On the Margin,” a books show on WPFW-FM. He graduated from Tufts University with a bachelor’s degree in history, with a focus on African-American history. Reach Giovanni at [email protected]. Read him at or Follow him on Twitter at @giorussonello.

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