Whether he’s working with ace athletes at Adidas or delivering reliable rhythm with guitarist Dan Balmer, this native Oregonian keeps the jazz swinging. KMHD Jazz Radio’s Deborah DeMoss Smith talked with him about jazz, performing and dance classes.
Deborah DeMoss Smith: You speak the language of jazz, so how does jazz speak to you?
Micah Kassell: I use the ideology of what I consider to be jazz, which is advanced rhythm and harmony. But improvisation is at the forefront for me — the ability to really elaborate on ideas within a structure. I do that in the daytime, too. I’m a designer at Adidas and I do a lot of the same thing. My father was a designer, too. He would play Ahmad Jamal when I was growing up, music like that, and that would help him open up his mind to do creativity thinking. I use music in the day to help my design-mind; I use music at night to open the other part of my mind.
DDS: You run into Art Blakey, Shelly Manne and Max Roach, but you can only talk with one – which one?
MK: This point in my life I’d probably pick Shelly Manne, due to the fact he was an amazing journeyman musician. Studying as a drummer, you’re bombarded by Max and Art because they were so prolific and amazing. Shelly was not as much talked about, so it would be interesting to get his perspective on things. He was a journeyman musician all over the place, but behind the scenes at the same time, not as big a name as the other two guys.
DDS: What music, other than jazz, do you favor that might take some people aback?
MK: I really enjoy anything that has spirit in it that’s the spirit of what jazz was all about in the ’40s-’50s, where it was almost like punk rock leads to jazz. The youth culture was moving it forward. I listen to a lot of local musicians. My generation was really into actual independent rock. I like those guys because they were approaching music the same way jazz musicians would without a lot of promotion, and just going out there and doing it without relying on a label. I like anything that brings an emotion out of me, any music that’s emotional enough to make me feel, to make my hair stand up, whether it’s harmonically, rhythmically or heavy advanced, or straightforward heavy hitting.
DDS: What’s the one word that describes the way you feel when you’re performing?
MK: Editorial. What I mean is that’s the one word I keep in mind. I don’t sound editorial when I play. I generally throw in everything but the kitchen sink as far as my vocabulary. A lot of times I ignore the word. I’d like to be more sensitive and in touch with leaving space and room for breathing, but I think when you get so emotionally caught up in music, which I tend to do, it’s hard to leave that space. With a lot of recording I’ve done with groups, I find that the space that I leave is more beautiful than some of the cluster notes I’m throwing.
DDS: Are you a dancer?
MK: (Laugh) I am a lover of people who can dance. I’m not one myself. I wish I were. My wife and I talk about taking dance classes. It seems like it would be beneficial to the musical and artistic expression in my life. It’s another way of venting that energy out into the world, but I’m not very good at it. My four children all love to dance around the house. That’s their form of free expression. But for me, I always look like Bill Cosby on the Bill Cosby Show. I stick my tongue out and act the fool.