Filipino-American guitarist/composer Karl Evangelista (b.1986) ranks among a new wave of creative musicians grounded in jazz, 20th century experimentalism, and popular song, exploring the place of multiculturalism and ethnic co-existence in an increasingly post-cultural, trans-idiomatic cultural space. Signal to Noise magazine hails Evangelista as "one of the most original instrumentalists and composers of his generation," and as the creative force behind boundary breaking group Grex, Evangelista has been called "essential current-and-future listening," his music "a near-seamless blend of modern jazz, contemporary structuralist composition, indie rock, and blues rock” (Tiny Mix Tapes). This complex, powerful aesthetic fosters an “otherworldly experience” that is “completely original” (Eugene Weekly).
Evangelista has explored the possibilities of intercultural dialogues across a vast spectrum of academic and professional situations. Evangelista has worked in a wide variety of ensembles with or under the direction of, among others, Achyutan (Marvin Patillo), Scott Amendola, Tatsu Aoki, Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), India Cooke, Fred Frith, Eddie Gale, Ben Goldberg, Matthew Goodheart, Phillip Greenlief, Darren Johnston, Lewis Jordan, Myra Melford, Hafez Modirzadeh, Bill Noertker, James Norton, Zeena Parkins, John-Carlos Perea, Gino Robair, Daniel Schmidt Marcus Shelby, Aram Shelton, David Slusser, Damon Smith, Karen Stackpole, Moe Staiano, Melody Takata, Wayne Wallace, and AIR co-founder Francis Wong, and has performed in new arrangements of works by Luciano Chessa, Christian Jendreiko, Polly Moller, AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams, and Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder Roscoe Mitchell.
Evangelista’s interest in fostering cross-cultural musical dialogues has also led to grant-based research (’08) on the Blue Notes, a group of South African exile musicians (paper presented at the Guelph Jazz Festival, ’08), multiple guest lectures at UC Berkeley, and continued work at the community-based East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. Via Asian Improv aRts, Evangelista was awarded a 2011 Zellebach Grant for the composition of Taglish, a suite centered on Filipino-American culture; an album of the composition was successfully funded via Kickstarter and released in late 2012. Evangelista holds a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from UC Berkeley (’06) and an MFA in Improvised Music from Mills College (’09).
Principal Ensembles. Primary: Grex (w/M. Rei Scampavia & Robert Lopez, 2009-present), Karl Evangelista’s Song & Dance Trio (w/Cory Wright & Jordan Glenn, 2009-present), Host Family (w/Andrew Conklin, Jason Hoopes, & Jordan Glenn, 2007-2009)
Other Bands as Leader: Revenant (w/Michael Coleman, Tom Djll, Nava Dunkelman, etc., 2013-present), Ai-Ai (Grex w/Eli Wallce, Bob Ladue, and Jordan Glenn, 2012-present), Swarm Intelligence (Grex w/Phillip Greenlief, Cory Wright, Dan Seamans, and Jordan Glenn), Dino Piranha(w/Phillip Greenlief, Noah Phillips, Bill Wolter, and Jordan Glenn, 2011-2012)
As a Sideman: Francis Wong Unit (2006-present), Lewis Jordan with Music at Large (2010-present), John-Carlos Perea Trio (2013-present),Eli Wallce Trio (w/Jon Arkin, 2013-present), Jordan Glenn's Mindless Thing (2012-present), Shaken Flesh (leader: Jordan Glenn, w/Rent Romus, Michael Coleman, 2012), Bob LaDue Band/DennyDennyBreakfast (2012-present), Papa Snap (leader: Alex Vittum, music of Fela Kuti, 2010-present), Eddie Gale Now Band (2010-2012)
Which was the first and the last records you bought with your own money?
The first record I ever purchased with my own funds was Beck’s Odelay, enmeshed as I was in the early 90’s with alternative rock. The last album I purchased was a copy of Don Cherry - Live at the Bracknell Jazz Festival, 1986 (on the short-lived BBC Jazz Legends imprint)--incidentally, this is the only officially released recording of Don’s band Nu.
What do you recall about your guitar learning process?
Naturally, I never stopped learning--or, rather, the process of aspiring toward greater individuality and proficiency on my instrument has led to an increase in involved study as the years have worn on. Obsessive practice at the outset meant that I developed a working technical facility pretty quickly. It has taken me far longer to cultivate a sense of taste, to moderate technicality with musicality, and to balance the “inward” listening that accompanies hyper-technical playing with the “outward” listening that is central in jazz and free improvisation.
What gear do you use?
I almost always play a Gibson Les Paul of some sort--partly by choice, partly because I’ve had secondary instruments stolen from me. My primary instrument is a (mostly) stock 2000 Les Paul Classic--this vintage was meant to emulate the 1960 Les Paul Standard, complete with an extra thin neck profile (this is partly the reason I’ve played this model for so long). My setup is probably physically hazardous, sort of similar to Sonny Sharrock’s--I use a set of 12s with a wound 3rd string (for intonation) set very high off of the fretboard. Fred Frith called this setup “unplayable,” and I don’t disagree with him.
Ross Hammond turned me on to the ZT Club (the larger version of the Lunchbox, with somewhat more significant clean headroom), and I’ve been using one ever since. My basic pedal chain includes a Boss TU-3, a Boss RC-30, that green DL4 that everyone uses, whatever Morley volume pedal I own that still works, a Digitech Whammy, an EHX Neo Clone, and a SansAmp GT2.
Which work of your own are you most surprised by, and why?
Grex. Being of a one-track mind, I tend to gravitate toward a handful of projects that fulfill certain basic musical desires and challenge me technically, psychologically, and emotionally. Grex began as a one-off project between my wife (then girlfriend) Rei Scampavia and me, and it has ballooned into my primary compositional focus. This is the one project I have that has been defined in terms of its output rather than the initial concept--the music that we produce at any given juncture is ultimately as much a surprise to me as anyone else.
The basic reason is chemistry. Rei and I (and now also drummer Robert Lopez) have a variety of shared creative interests but are virtually incapable of articulating similar ideas in mutually predictable ways. Rei has a measure of classical training and a background in Javanese Gamelan, analog synthesizer music, and pop; Robert is an accomplished classical percussionist with a strong working knowledge of experimental rock, hip-hop, and world percussion. I find that an issue with a lot of contemporary jazz and experimental music is its communal insularity, and it’s rare to find a working group in “out” music comprised of musicians hailing from widely divergent backgrounds. I find that the very different personalities that comprise Grex both engage my energies as a trained jazz musician and challenge my tendencies in really original and exciting ways.
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a musician?
I’m fortunate to say that the first real “jazz concert” I ever attended was Pharoah Sanders at the old Catalina Jazz Club (before it was on Sunset in Los Angeles). William Henderson was on piano and Dwight Trible served as vocalist and emcee. The concert began with Pharoah entering from the rear of the room playing soprano saxophone--he circled the entire audience before he reached the stage. I don’t remember much else--the band played “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and “The Creator Has A Master Plan”--but I do recall that the energy in the room was truly uncanny. People were standing up and shouting, pumping their fists in the air. I wasn’t accustomed to seeing cerebral music accompanied by such a visceral audience response--it made me realize that the mind and body are not and should not be mutually exclusive entities.
What quality do you admire most in a musician?
On a personal level, I’ve always admired musicians who are persistent and deeply committed “workers.” Roscoe Mitchell is one of the most accomplished musicians in new music, and there has not been a time I’ve seen him when he wasn’t exercising some new creative muscle or dreaming up a new, seemingly unlikely conceit--Fred Frith is the same way.
On a musical level--and as someone who has long grappled with prolixity--I admire patience and attention to space. I find that it is easy to learn how to play the guitar “fast,” but exceedingly difficult to make dense, speedy playing meaningful. Musicians like Grant Green have made profound statements on the instrument with economical phrasing and very concentrated skill sets. Sonny Sharrock in his more linear moments is like this, too.
What's the difference between a good guitar and a bad guitar?
I feel as if a good guitar exposes the player’s better qualities, whereas a bad guitar will inhibit those qualities or anonymize the musician. This doesn’t mean that a good guitar is necessarily easier to play, only that one can identify a degree of synergy between a guitarist and an instrument that he or she uses frequently and to good effect. To return to an earlier point, Sharrock’s later setup is completely inefficient for speed runs, tapping, lengthy slurred phrases, and a lot of other contemporary technical devices, but it’s perfect for Sonny’s style--the Les Paul Custom is tonally rich and responds well to an aggressive attack, and higher gauge strings/high action are well suited to an economical, linear style that makes frequent use of bends and a heavy slide. I mean, Sonny would probably sound like Sonny on a cheap instrument, but I think his guitar served to “amplify” his individuality while eschewing the excess.
What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?
Even as a relatively young musician who often participates in marginalized idioms, I feel as if it’s harder now than even two years ago to (a) move physical product and (b) recoup the cumulative cost of recording. Some things remain as they always have been--live shows will always be the best opportunity to sell physical copies, since they serve the dual purpose of sonic record and tour artifact. At the same time, I’ve seen most online sales shift over to digital over the course of the past couple of years, and I’ve seen streaming emerge as the principal form of listening to any sort of recorded music.
The really interesting thing as of late is how the larger debate seems to have changed from “should music be free?” to “who facilitates the free music?” When sharity blogs were first emerging and everyone was falling over themselves at the opportunity to hear any number of long out of print records, rights holders were scrambling to protect future commodities (i.e., income from possible reissues). Cut forward nearly a decade and physical reissues are economically untenable--everyone is simply fighting over the infrastructure. It’s no coincidence that sharity blogs began to dry up the minute a large chunk of Noah Howard’s back catalog went up on Amazon.
The advantage is that “smaller” musicians--like the majority of us who operate in experimental music--can operate independently (i.e., record, release, and distribute with essentially no middle man). Yes, the majority of my sales come from live performance--and good recordings are still prohibitively expensive, home recording be damned--but it’s very easy for me to turn a profit on each unit I sell, and I have reasonable control over how people consume the music.
Depict the sound you're still looking for.
Quoting Coltrane: " I would like to bring to people something like happiness. I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I'd like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he's broke, I'd bring out a different song and immediately he'd receive all the money he needed."
What is the best thing about playing a guitar….and what is the worst?
On a technical level, I love that the guitar combines the malleability of a horn or voice with the precision and harmonic scope of a keyboard instrument. The electric guitar in particular is very accommodating to textural manipulation, and amplification allows for a huge dynamic range--I find I can indulge the tactile tendencies of a percussionist with the tonal muscle and timbral complexity of a grand piano.
On a psychological level, both the best and worst part of the instrument is the specter of essentially 100 years of electric guitar history, centuries (if not millennia) of the guitar as a technical concept. I’m both deeply enamored with and sometimes intimidated by just how much has been done with the instrument. It isn’t often that I hear something that strikes me as “new guitar music,” and this is occasionally depressing--but what new and great guitar I’ve experienced in the past few years--both music from established masters like Frith and younger folks like Ross Hammond, Ava Mendoza, Andrew Conklin, and Will Redmond--is enough to embolden me in my own endeavors.
What do you need from music?
Approval? Seriously, I’m happy to create music that continues to engage me, to hear music that inspires me, and to participate in music that is both creatively fertile and social in nature.
Popular music has generated this bizarre opprobrium among fringe music exponents, and I have to imagine that this isn’t always warranted by quality--maybe sometimes just an “us or them” psychology. I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with music that aims to be popular among people, only (really) when crassness compromises the integrity of the musical vision.
I don’t think that Michael Jackson on Thriller is really less musically complete than Coltrane with A Love Supreme. Both albums are singular objects. Ultimately, you’re evaluating whether the music is (a) successful on its own terms and (b) if it communicates on its own merits. Beyond that, you can’t tell the audience where to go.
Tell me one musical work which has provoked a change in your music.
Don Cherry’s Brown Rice was epochal for me, the piece “Malkauns” in particular. Cherry had a way with tone and attack that is technically imprecise but deeply vocalistic and powerful on a gut level. Charlie Haden’s indomitably slow solo at the beginning of the track, paired with the the long, reverb drenched trumpet solo at the piece’s core, hit me very hard--the whole performance forced me to reconsider whether “traditional” technical particulars (e.g., harmony, meter, tempo) were more important than abstract constructs like attack, energy, and space.
What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?
Grex goes on tour throughout July-August of 2014, and I’m the process of both preparing material for that tour and composing new pieces and concepts for us to work on. I’m also in the process of assembling a chamber opera centered on the history of my Aunt, Miriam Defensor Santiago, and her bid in the 1992 Filipino Presidential Election--that would be centered on Grex but may also feature some of my longtime friends and musical cohorts, including Francis Wong (of Asian Improv aRts), John-Carlos Perea (who worked previously with Paul Winter), and Jordan Glenn (who works quite a bit with Frith and the bands Jack O’ the Clock and Wiener Kids).
My longtime goal is just to construct a music that is simultaneously internally “complete” and open enough to allow continued experimentation and growth. Grex is on its way there. I’ve always been deeply inspired by music that is both a piece with tradition but also inimitable and very personal--the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Trane, Ayler, the Brotherhood of Breath--and I’m ultimately more interested in making this sort of self-defined music than “merely” achieving the impossible task of getting better at guitar.
Karl Evangelista/Grex: Taglish (SUA, 2012/2013)
The $100 Guitar Project (Bridge Records, 2013)
Sam Ospovat: PIKI (2012)
Grex: Second Marriage (SUA, 2011)
Wiener Kids: What A Mess (2011)
Dino Piranha: Live at the Makeout Room (2011)
The Eddie Gale Inner Peace Orchestra: The Remake and Beyond of Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music (2011)
Grex: Live at Trinity Chapel (2011)
Karl Evangelista Trio: Live at Kingman’s Ivy Room (2010)
Jordan Glenn: Mama Long Legs (2010)
Lewis Jordan w/Music at Large (online only, 2010)
Grex: Live at Home (SUA, 2010)
Host Family: Dream Recess (2010)
My music speaks to the notion that life is inextricably connected to art, and that one’s experiences both shape and partly determine the nature of an individual’s creative perspective. I arrived at this conception as a Filipino American deeply engaged with the culture and history of jazz and improvised music; I grew up enmeshed in dualities, raised as a Filipino in America, learning to love art that was generated by “foreign” cultures--African American, African, and European. Ultimately, I’ve found my musical voice in the interstices of my multicultural upbringing. My compositional and improvisational aesthetic blends jazz, rock, western art music, contemporary sound and “noise” based art, and Filipino folk melody into an aesthetic that is, like me, a unique amalgamation and summation of, as well as commentary on, its parts.
Most of my work over the past few years has involved developing environments for improvising musicians and musicians more versed in “closed” performance practices (e.g., pre-20th century “classical” repertoire and modern pop music) to fruitfully coexist in. This emphasis may be traced back to the genesis of my primary group, Grex--a collaboration between me and my wife, a formally trained classical pianist. Grex forced me to confront the technical limitations fostered by the “linguistic” disconnect between musicians from different backgrounds; in this case, my wife favored rhythmic complexity but was reluctant to improvise, whereas I leaned toward improvisation at the sacrifice of structural elements. Grex found a happy medium wherein each member adopted elements of the other’s style. This band was, and remains, a microcosm of my larger creative inquiry: how can one reconcile disparate elements, and at the same time create a unity that is greater than the sum of its parts?
If there is any value in my art, it is as a mode for how I wish to live in the world and, for that matter, as a model for emerging 21st century performance practices. I realized early on as a musician that, while I could never quite “be” the artists I admired, the art I was making through their example was itself an expression of my personhood. Similarly, though I could never be the the same sort of Filipino my parents are, I could carve out my own path and make it, quite possibly, something better. My music is not “eclectic” for the sole purpose of creating collage; rather, I draw from multiple influences as if they are colors on a paint palette, the final work both paying tribute to its source material and hoping to surpass those sources as something genuinely new and “apart” from them.