Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes: an espresso with Nate Wooley

August 2, 2022

At the end of July, was released “Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes”, the new album by trumpeter, songwriter and band leader Nate Wooley.

> Ivano Rossato

“Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes” has just been released: how were the songs that make up the album born?
With this band, I am always trying to get the music to feel like a story intimately told. So, the three long pieces of the record were formed with that in mind: I tried to make them something whistleable or hummable but strange, like a person talking around a campfire while the shadows created by the flames make everything seem a little odd or menacing or magical. That’s the aesthetic hope anyway, so once I find the melody, it’s just a matter of how to set it harmonically, rhythmically, and instrumentally to get that feeling. For this record, it was about finding those moments or stories to tell, then setting it in the larger gesture of the record with the field recordings and guests and overdubs in the studio to make the whole thing feel like an even larger story that moves from the trucks starting up in the beginning of the record to the sound of the water close up at the end.
How do you combine composition and improvisation in your personal creative process?
They feed off each other. I improvise something and it concretizes into something more set and compositional which then gets twisted through improvisation and change to something else in an ongoing process. When writing for a group, the same thing takes place, but you are giving compositional material over to other people that will manipulate it in different ways through their improvisation to inspire you to present them with different compositional material. It’s all very cyclical and never-ending, which I love.
Interesting the definition of “Burlap Heroes” read on Bandcamp … do you want to tell us about it?
It’s a phrase that I pulled out of an essay by the American writer Saul Bellow. I can’t even put my finger on which essay it was now, but his idea was to describe a sort of everyday human. I thought about that phrase a lot, and it kept bringing me back to the idea that living now, like living at any time, is a heroic act; it takes stamina and patience and a certain combination of sensitivity and irascibility. We are so quick to laud people for taking action beyond what is considered “normal”—those rushing into a burning building or creating something unique and meaningful—and we should hold those people up, but the phrase, “burlap heroes,” is an attempt to appreciate humanity on a more micro level by singing the praises of the small victories of daily life: the self-recriminations and attempts to get better; the moments of inner understanding; the carrying on after we’ve not been our best selves.
“A burlap hero is one who marches—consciously or not—back to the sea in hopes of making no splash, who understands and embraces the imperfection of being, and in that way, stretches the definition of sainthood to fit.”
How did you choose the musicians who recorded with you on “Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes”?
Like any situation where you’re gathering people around you, you want it to be emotionally sustainable. So, Ryan, Susan, and Mary (and Ava Mendoza who tours with CIF for Mary), are people that I enjoy having around. They challenge me musically and personally in a way that is supportive and loving, and hopefully I do the same for them. That’s step one, because no one plays music so well that they’ve earned the right to act poorly to other human beings. Next, I like musicians that can’t help but play the music their own way; all of these folks are immediately recognizable as improvisors. And they want to play differently every night. They take risks and try to push the music into new directions every time we sit down to play it.
You’ve had the chance to play with very peculiar styled musicians. What do you think you have learned from each of them from an artistic and human point of view?
I don’t know if peculiar is a word I’d use. It kind of goes with the answer above. I like musicians that make sounds that resonate with who they are personally. The reason that may sound different is that music, even improvised music, tends to coalesce into a series of ideological/aesthetic pools out of which there are only slight differences from player to player. I’m saying this as someone that has certainly waded in those pools, and still does to a certain extent. It’s like learning a language. We all tend toward the same vocabulary and syntax is mostly set, and therefore the number of ways we have to pull ideas out of a word-horde and place them in the right order to create meaning is pretty limited. But then the world also has poets that have found a way to approach the same word-horde with the intent and attention necessary to create meaning in a way that hasn’t been thought of before. i think that’s what has inspired me in the musicians I assume you’re talking about like Anthony Braxton and Ron Miles and Evan Parker and Ken Vandermark.
What are the plans for the next few months?
I am in Lisbon for “Jazz em Agosto” putting on a version of Seven Storey Mountain VI, then I get to go up to Stockholm to the Edition festival and play Éliane Radigue’s music for a week, which is a real treat. That is the beginning of August, then I come back for a week in Germany with a new group with Ken Vandermark and Klaus Kugel. Another week off, then I come back to premiere an exciting new piece by Radigue in Paris, her first piece made  to be played outdoors. During that time, I’ll be putting together the next issue of Sound American, which is an homage to Roscoe Mitchell.
Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes: an espresso with Nate Wooley copyright Jazzespresso 2022.
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