Jazz is arguably the first American musical form, yet it has always existed out of the purview of mainstream society, in large part because of its pioneers, but also because it is intricate, mindful music. There isn’t a clear cut definition of jazz since its practitioners refuse clear cut classifications for their work and rightly so. Throughout its history, jazz has been an amalgamation of various styles, and it is constantly evolving.
Louis Romanos is for lack of a better word a jazz musician. An internationally acclaimed drummer and bandleader, Romanos has embarked in a multitude of musical endeavors from scoring video games to live dance performances throughout his career. This January he released a CD entitled Take Me There, a pensive and melodic collection of original compositions. If you want to know when the quartet will be coming your way, check out their tour schedule.
Read more in my interview with Romanos.
When was the first time you were exposed to jazz?
I started listening to jazz in 7th grade. John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” album was my first and most formative jazz album that I fell in love with. It was and still is powerful, transformative with unparalleled expression driven by spiritual transcendence.
When did you first decide to pursue music as your career?
This happened gradually. When I was at the University at Loyola New Orleans I was gigging with my professors at various clubs and earning decent money while learning to play. My goal was always to become a great player and gigs were a way to perform and work through my issues and earn money. I never really thought about actually becoming a professional musician, it just happened. After a while it was apparent that all my effort was going towards music and I hadn’t acquired any other job skills outside of my craft, so I just went with it. Within my craft I have expanded to acquire many new job skills: composing, MIDI programming, engineering, mixing, mastering, producing, orchestrating, arranging, scoring, and then lecturing about these skills.
Who were your musical influences? How have they changed throughout your career?
When I first started I was too young to go jazz clubs so records were my only means to explore and learn music. I listened to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Monk, Alan Parsons, Pink Floyd, The Police, Peter Gabriel, Billy Cobham. The list goes on and on. Now I am influenced by everything. Music is everywhere, sound is everywhere. All you have to do is listen. Life is music. The technical aspects of performing no longer interest me so much but the science of sound is now endlessly fascinating to me. Why does something sound “good?” What does “good” mean? The definition invariably changes over time.
What was special about living and performing in New Orleans as opposed to other places?
The Community. The people make the place. I met and performed with musicians of all ages. Many of them became my friends and they were and are some of the most gifted, talented and humble people I have ever met. I learned how live well from these friends, that life could be rich even without money. And that learning never stopped. If you are truly in music for the long haul then you have found the fountain of youth because learning never stops. Our bodies age but our minds don’t have to.
What inspired you to choose a Music and Philosophy double major? How has it influenced your work?
I only minored in music. I was a music major for nearly three years and dropped it because I had a disagreements with the music department heads. So I switched colleges and majored in philosophy. This enabled me to take control of my education in ways I never could have as a music major. I had time to study recording engineering, poetry, history, law, religion. As a music major I had to take about 24 credit hours a semester to graduate in four years. As a philosophy major I had to take 16 which left me lots of room for electives. Learning recording engineering was priceless. I also learned that I could compose music because of this. Much of the time I was searching for material to experiment with and I ended up writing my own music to explore the MIDI technology at the studio. Priceless. Philosophy was also a great major for me because it was very freeing. Like Morpheus says to Neo in the Matrix, “free your mind”. If you don’t you’re trapped. Once you learn how to deconstruct the institutions that formed your thought patterns you can take control of your own life and live and think for yourself. The ability to change your thoughts is powerful.
How did your composition work for video games come about? Could you describe this process?
I started writing for games because I love some of these games that come out. Max Payne had a great score. HomeWorld used Samuel Barber’s adagio for strings as its score. Hit Man2 had a brilliant electronic score. It just seemed like a wide open playing field for creativity and I wanted to get in on it so I started going to game developer meet ups and also meeting developers in online communities. I have scored about a half dozen games but haven’t achieved yet what I want in this venture. I am still working on it.
Could you describe your work with the Dance Company in Athens?
I accompany and compose music for modern dancers. I play a hybrid percussion kit that I built and I also use a sampler that I can trigger textures and other sound tones with. This week I accompanied the Urban Bush Women during their workshops at UGA. Fun! And next week I will be giving my own workshop at Brenau University to teach Dancers about music, communication and cross discipline collaboration.
Are there any other interesting ventures for which you provided musical accompaniment?
I have worked with Dancers from all over the US and some in Europe and I will say that they are all interesting in their own ways and have very colorful personalities. I learn from dancers. They put motion to sound and I put sound to motion. The relationship is reciprocal when done well. I use what I learn and apply it to scoring. Accompanying dancers is like being asked to provide a live score.
What attracted you to your fellow quartet members Dan Sumner, Alex Noppe, and Neal Starkey? How did you meet them?
Dan and I met at a jam session and then started a band in New Orleans together called Permagrin where we composed and performed the music together in a duo format: Drums and guitar. Dan was triggering loops and I was triggering samples and sequences and our gear would talk to each other so everything was synchronized perfectly. We released three albums. That band went on the back burner after Katrina flooded New Orleans. We got together for a few more tours and recorded one last CD but we couldn’t grow as a band living in different cities so we ended it. I met Alex through Dan and I met Neil Starkey at a jam session in Atlanta. Neal is brilliant and I always wanted to record with him. I was delighted that he accepted my invitation to be on my CD. Alex is a really fine musician who can bridge the gap between classical and jazz. Luca Lombardi, our newest member, is a beautiful player who also bridges the gap between classical and jazz; he can swing, he can groove, and he can bow. As a composer this will give me new freedom to create in new directions.
What was the inspiration for Take me There? How does Take me There differ from your other recordings?
All my songs are inspired from life events and stories. The title of the record is actually a title of a song I wrote for my mother, which does not appear on the album. The CD was released after she passed so she never got to hear it. Take Me There is my first studio recording of the Quartet and another chapter in my life as a developing composer. I would like to take my quartet in many directions compositionally and I am in the process of figuring this out. Take Me There is different than my other recordings compositionally and stylistically. I look at it as an exploration of four instruments and four personalities. The resulting music is for you to enjoy.
What do you think is the future of jazz?
It’s an open question but the success of this art is in its finding ways stay alive and relevant. Much of jazz is wallpaper music, i.e., music that is intended as back ground music but no one is really listening. Many jazz musicians get stuck being in the background because it pays well but this is where jazz goes to die. Another problem is they get used to being background music so when they have an actual concert where people are listening they play the same way. This background music is labeled as “jazz” but so is Brad Mehldau and they couldn’t be farther apart in spirit. Brad is working off a tradition and expanding upon it, creating with it and keeping it alive. Performing is an art and there is always a reciprocal relationship between the performer and the audience: one feeds off the other in symbiotic harmony. This element is missing if you are just using your gigs as a place to practiced because you think no one is listening. All musicians feel ignored at one time or another and it sucks, just understand what the gig is in context of the larger picture, do your best, collect your bread and move on. My attitude is always to play as if the audience is listening and then they will because music is powerfully seductive: You can’t help but listen to it if it’s good.
We need a new way to brand this music. “Jazz” as a label at this point is meaningless and counterproductive. Tell someone you play jazz and see what their reaction is: they think of the wedding they just went to or the lunch reception at work where the band played nothing memorable. Or maybe they think of the student jazz band they just heard their child play in. Basically, it is not helping market the music. Jazz used to be like punk music: on the fringe, breaking the boundaries of sound and culture. Now it’s wedding music. One solution I see happening is that the artist becomes the brand. Brad Mehldau is labeled “Jazz” in ITunes but he is branded as Brad Mehldau. This is what I am doing with my quartet.
Jazz is a vocabulary within a historical context. Like all languages it changes over time. Jazz has been through many different phases:traditional ragtime, swing, bop, big band, combo, cool, free, infused with other styles and each of these styles represents a new growth on the vocabulary. However many jazz musicians don’t take the time to do their homework and understand where the music they are playing came from. Jazz has a rich historical context: Study it, learn it, embrace it, and then move away from it. Maybe you will come back to it, maybe you won’t. Don’t call yourself a jazz musician just because you can play some jazz standards out of a real book. Jazz is a language and learning it is a long process. It takes time to learn to speak it well and by that I mean years. But in the meantime you need to eat and gig so people label themselves as jazz artists. Just don’t believe your own hype and stop growing; it’s a long journey in a culture that seeks instant gratification. Always keep an open mind; learn from those better than yourself, help those who seek more knowledge if you have it.
Where do you hope to go next with your career?
Onwards and upwards! I have scored a really great TV Pilot called Odessa and a local comedy called Forked and am currently scoring a full length film called Above the Fruited Plain.
I am releasing another LRQ CD next year. I would like this band to go far! And I am working on expanding my scoring chops and composition skills. And I have much more in the works but I won’t say at this juncture what they are.