Guitarist Ava Mendoza and violist Jessica Pavone are ancestral children and heirs apparent of where improvisation has been and ardent creators of where it’s headed. As informed by Sonic Youth as they are Cecil Taylor, the NYC-based musicians are adept at playing both complex, meditative, compositional works as they are at hurtling into the vortex of the full-tilt fury of intense freeform performance.
Mendoza has collaborated with dozens of artists including Butch Morris, Henry Kaiser, and Carla Bozulich, and released more than 20 albums. Pavone has also worked with a who’s-who of improv players such as Anthony Braxton and William Parker, and is featured on an impressive 40-plus releases. The pair is equally at ease performing lyric-based music. Pavone has played in a longtime, heralded duo with guitarist Mary Halvorson, creating dreamlike songs that somehow bridge dark folk with avant-garde classical colors. With her electric trio Unnatural Ways, Mendoza unfurls pure guitar, stompbox wallop housed in truly progressive rock songs.
Mendoza and Pavone roll into town next week for a show at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum (the second time here for Mendoza, who played at Rain Dogs last year). While the pair were far afield — Mendoza on tour in Europe, Pavone on vacation — they were both kind enough to answer a few Q&As via email.
Folio Weekly Magazine: What compelled you to play improvisational/free music? Did you have a specific moment, performance, musical influence or even recording that really impacted your life?
Ava Mendoza: Performances: As a teenager I lived in Southern California. I saw Mike Watt, Nels Cline and Carla Bozulich play in various different improv-y rock projects before I was 18. Soon after, I started checking out other kinds of improvised music and saw Vinny Golia, John Butcher and Wadada Leo Smith play.
Recordings: The ones that turned my head around early on were: Black Woman by Sonny Sharrock, Bells by Albert Ayler, Machine Gun by Peter Brötzmann, and Robert Quine’s sonic guitar playing on The Blue Mask by Lou Reed.
Jessica Pavone: I just started playing free one day with a violinist after an orchestra rehearsal in college. It wasn’t planned. We were just hanging out and that started to happen. I was into it and started meeting others to play free with because I was suddenly opened to it. It seems like an obvious thing to do, but I was in strict conservatory land and 17 years old and many things hadn’t occurred to me yet at that point in my life. Shortly after, my friend Ed brought me to an Anthony Braxton concert and my mind was blown. The rest is history.
Though having an ongoing musical relationship with another improvisational player can help “familiarize” playing with them in the future, do you find it difficult to keep that dialogue fresh, since you may have a sense of where they’re going during performance?
A.M.: Most of the regular groups I play in at this point are a mix of songs/compositions and improv. Things can get stale at times of course, but for me, stirring the pot of written music and improv can keep collaborations inspiring for a long time. When the improv gets dull — write new songs together. When you can’t stand your songs anymore, find new places in them to improvise, or a new way to approach the improv bits.
J.P.: Sure, it’s possible for people to get in a rut playing with one another — the same way it is possible to get in a rut with someone in anything else in life.
Forgive me if this seems like an overly metaphysical question, but it’s an idea that fascinates me. During the actual moment of improvisation, are you aware of a kind of overt shift in your consciousness that seems specific only to those moments of free form playing?
A.M.: I definitely go to a magical, mystical consciousness cloud when I play (what I think is) an especially good show! But that kind of magic can happen whether the music is freely improvised or structured/song-based. Music is music to me … I’m not thinking “now we’re in improv land, or now we’re in structured music land.” In any music there are degrees of freedom, as well as certain rules — you can decide to accept them or push against them. As long as I’m comfortable with the music and there’s some chemistry between the players, there’s a good chance I’ll go into a more instinctive/visceral consciousness than my everyday one.
J.P.: I feel like there is a shift in consciousness whenever I play music whether it’s improvised or written. And the shift in consciousness would be different between those two disciplines as well.