National Sawdust Log interview: Visitors

Schlegelmilch, Goldberger & Black: Three of a Mind

The organ trio is a time-honored jazz convention—only in conventional terms, the band usually is built around the Hammond B-3, the funky old keyboard heard on recordings by Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, and Medeski Martin & Wood. But Visitors, a new album by the trio of organist JP Schlegelmilch, guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, and drummer Jim Black, is built around an altogether different instrument: the Yamaha YC-30, an instrument favored by outward-bound players like Miles Davis, Sun Ra, and (maybe?) Donald Fagen.

Despite that instrument’s vintage, Visitors – due Sept. 21 on saxophonist Chris Speed’s Skirl Records – offers a thoroughly updated vision of what an organ trio can do. Schlegelmilch’s spacey tones and psychedelic drones meet their match in Goldberger’s throaty guitar sound; Black provides his trademark mix of textural finesse and outright pummel. The trio’s tight interplay speaks to similarly open minds, as well as plenty of time logged together on various bandstands.

Via email, Schlegelmilch and Goldberger took questions about how the band and album came to be.

NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Tell us about how the three of you got together originally. I understand that the band started with JP and Jonathan connecting? Where had the two of you come from, and how did you meet?

JP SCHLEGELMILCH: Jonathan and I met through playing informal sessions with mutual musician friends. We lived in the same neighborhood (Greenpoint, Brooklyn) and eventually started playing duo, so I started writing music for guitar and piano. I grew up in New Hampshire.

JONATHAN GOLDBERGER: That was it…I’d stroll over to JP’s place with a coffee and we’d improvise. I grew up in Florida, then moved to NYC from Colorado back in 2001.

What did you hear in each other’s work that led you to collaborate? What were your shared interests and goals?

SCHLEGELMILCH: Jonathan has a unique approach to expanding the sound of his guitar through effects, and his playing has a lot more raw energy than many other contemporary jazz guitarists. We also shared musical tastes beyond jazz, especially more experimental rock artists like Talk Talk, Dirty Projectors, and Sufjan Stevens.

GOLDBERGER: I really dig JP’s writing, and his approach to improvising has this great emphasis on texture, which always appeals to me.

How did you come to decide that Jim Black was the missing piece of the band?

GOLDBERGER: Not long after I moved to NYC, I played in a big band led by Andrew D’angelo. I met so many killer musicians in that group—most of whom I’d go on to play in other projects with—and Jim was one of them. He’s one of the most influential drummers alive, he makes music come to life in whatever project he’s on … He’s probably the missing piece in any band.

SCHLEGELMILCH: I think that when I heard bands like AlasNoAxis, YeahNo, and Human Feel, I recognized an aesthetic that I really identified with. I like the way these bands were able to put rock music, free improvisation, strong melodies, and an interesting approach to compositional form together in a meaningful way. I’d always aspired to play with Jim, and this group’s music seemed meant for him somehow.

Reading up on jazz history, you can’t miss references to the Hammond B-3 organ. But this group is built around a different instrument, the Yamaha YC-30. How did this instrument spark this band’s musical approach? Where might listeners have heard it before?

SCHLEGELMILCH: Jonathan introduced me to the Yamaha YC-30 organ when he sent me an eBay listing. He told me it was the keyboard that Miles Davis played during his electric period (you can hear it on the track “Rated X”). It was also supposedly Sun Ra’s favorite keyboard! The Talking Heads also used it, and Terry Riley played the Yahama YC-45 organ (tuned to just intonation!) in his improvised solo concerts. There’s a hypnotic quality to the organ’s tone that makes playing a simple drone feel really satisfying. I found that I wrote things on the organ that were harmonically much simpler and straightforward than what I would do on piano.

GOLDBERGER: I think it’s on Miles’s Pangaea and Agharta albums, too. Our intention was to approach the definitive organ/guitar/drum trio from a new angle. The Hammond organ is such a beautiful and classic instrument—we thought, let’s try something with a different timbre that hasn’t been heard so much in this context.

How did the music on your new album take shape? Did you write pieces in advance and work on them together, or did you come up with everything in full collaboration?

SCHLEGELMILCH: Some of the music grew out of the duo collaborations we did years ago, and the last two pieces on the album were part of a suite that I wrote for piano and guitar. The rest we wrote specifically for this organ trio.

Is there a specific meaning to the album’s title?

GOLDBERGER: Visitors can mean a lot of things, but for me it’s a nod to the themes surrounding the ’70s film The Man Who Fell to Earth, as well as the novel Stranger in a Strange Land. My filmmaker brother Julian Goldberger shot the photo for the cover, and he captured our vibe perfectly.

SCHLEGELMILCH: I feel it suggests a kind of impending environmental disaster. Visitors could mean humans as visitors on the planet, and I love that the image of the deserted beach suggests something post-apocalyptic.

How did you connect with Skirl?

GOLDBERGER: Skirl is musician Chris Speed’s label; I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, and have fortunately had the chance to play with him on a few different projects over the years. The label itself has a great aesthetic, both musically and visually. It just made sense to be part of that family.

Where do you hope to see things go from here?

SCHLEGELMILCH: We’re playing some shows throughout the Northeast to promote the album over the next few months. I’ve been writing new music, and sensing lots of possibilities for new musical directions that could be explored.

GOLDBERGER: Let’s make another record!

Visitors is available for pre-order on vinyl and CD through the Skirl Records website, and in a variety of download file formats on Bandcamp. Schlegelmilch, Goldberger, and Black celebrate their new release with a show on Sept. 20 at 9pm at Nublu in Manhattan’s East Village;