Jazz cello? In David Eyges's inventive hands, it's a natural
New York — Every now and then, in the world of jazz, there emerges an instrumentalist who has chosen not to play the usual piano, trumpet, saxophone, drums, bass fiddle, guitar, and so on.
Toots Thielemans picked the harmonica, of all things, and has done wonders with it. John Graas thought the French horn a fine instrument for jazz, and Howard Johnson not only chose the tuba, but teamed up with a group of fellow tuba players to form his group ''Gravity.'' Violinists have popped up here and there, but cellists are rare.
Jazz cellist David Eyges is making a name for himself in jazz, with three albums to his credit, ??and with his exciting trio, which includes saxophonist Byard Lancaster and drummer Sunny Murray. Eyges has absorbed many kinds of music - jazz, classics, the blues, and African music - and has incorporated these various elements into his own music.
So, instead of feeling aligned to one particular type of music, he says, ''I feel connected to a great deal of the tradition. I think I am extending the tradition in a kind of logical way. I think my three major influences in jazz were Ornette (Coleman) and (Charles) Mingus and (Thelonious) Monk. Because I didn't grow up in the jazz tradition, I think I'm more open to other influences. Very important influences for me were people like Lightnin' Hopkins and Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters - all blues people.''
How would Eyges describe his music?
''My music has a lot of melody and rhythm in it. The basic concept is that the melody can be rhythmic, and the rhythm can be melodic. I play an instrument which is considered to be a romantic, long-lined instrument in the symphony orchestras, but which actually can be used in a very percussive way.''
Eyges can be heard playing percussively, especially on his cello-saxophone duet album, ''Arrow,'' which features him with Byard Lancaster. The absence of drums brings out the percussiveness of his approach. On his trio album ''Crossroads,'' he uses drummer Sunny Murray, whom he describes as ''. . . a very, very melodic drummer, probably one of the most melodic drummers.
Eyges's music has often been described as avant-garde, but he doesn't feel particularly connected to that movement. ''As far as the avant-garde in general is concerned, I think there's certainly been a switch in the past three years or so, away from that very heavy kind of all-out-screaming-let-it-all-hang-out kind of playing. I am not a fan of that style of music, and I don't feel I've ever really played it, except in the very beginning of my career.''
How do audiences react to a jazz cellist?
''People see me as a cellist playing jazz, and they focus immediately on the fact that I'm playing an instrument that's unusual in jazz. But I think my compositions are really a more important aspect of my work than the fact that I play the cello. If I were playing the same kind of music on the saxophone or the trumpet, then they'd be focusing on my compositions. I would prefer this, because I think it's more important.''
Like many of today's experimenters in music, Eyges prefers not to play in a closet - he wants to communicate.
''That's why I put something like Crossroads (a bluesy number) on the album, because I want to reach people, and I think if you put something on like that that people can really relate to, then they will be more willing to listen to the other things.''
Does he think people can relate better to a live performance than to his recordings?
''I think that it's important for them to see us. I think the fact that, when Byard and I do a duet, we're white and black, and the way we interact - they like that, I think people are ready for that.''
Eyges has produced all of his albums, something that seems to be a trend in jazz today. He remarks, ''I'm glad I've had the chance to produce my own records , and I think that sales could have been better if there had been more advertising.
''You won't go into the record store in your favorite shopping mall and find a lot of David Eyges records! You won't find a lot of jazz records period.''
Why did Eyges choose the cello in the first place?
''The cello was convenient. It was one of those instruments you picked out in school. But I've found that it's a great instrument for jazz - you can use it like a bass, you can use it like a guitar, a horn. It's something that can be developed so much.''
The David Eyges/Byard Lancaster duo was the first jazz ensemble in the country to receive a grant from Chamber Music America. Eyges says, ''With this grant we'll be doing a residency of five concerts and nine master classes at Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia. The lines between classical music and jazz are blurring somewhat, and I think particularly the duo is a good example of this. I think it's a good development in the music scene in general.''