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Get Jazzy: Ornette Hawkins' Journey to 'The Other Side of What'

2017 was an interesting time for drum & bass. It felt like my passion for the jazzier, breakbeat-infused side of things was reignited. Not only did I spent most of the jamming out to Earl Grey's Headwinds album, but it was also the 20th anniversary of Roni Size / Reprazent's Mercury Prize-winning debut album, New Forms. It was also the year I got introduced to Ornette Hawkins, who has a new EP, The Other Side of What, dropping on AGN7 Audio on Friday, January 19.

One question a number of people had was "um, who the hell is Ornette Hawkins?" They've been around for a bit; a track on a Subtle Audio compilation here, a feature on a Rude Operator single there. This EP would be the real testament to their intricate blending of drum & bass and jazz. Before the holidays, we got a chance to speak with the D.C.-based duo to try and get some answers. Press play on the clips from The Other Side of What and learn something.

For those who are new to Ornette Hawkins, please introduce yourselves to the people.
That's an interesting question. I'm not even sure we know anymore. What we can tell you for certain is that we currently live in DC and are a collective of improvisational musicians trying to bring together the spontaneity of jazz and drum & bass sensibilities.

How do two jazz musicians from the D.C. area get immersed in the drum & bass scene and sound?
Well, drum & bass can be a natural extension of jazz, if you let it. We’ve been following its evolution since the early '90s. When it's done right, it retains the same complexities. It's been done before. We just want to take the fusion a step further.

For me, it’s hard to tell what’s live and what’s synthetic on a track like “Raw Sun.” How does crafting an Ornette Hawkins tune work?
We typically start out by rehearsing an idea with a few musicians until it becomes fleshed out. Then we record the live performances. Once it gets into the machine we take some liberties with the arrangement, though there are those performances that demand we keep them largely intact. Drum & Bass mixing techniques are obviously an important part of the sound, as well.

Most of the sounds you hear are live players, though we like to create moments that remind the listener that it’s much more than just live performance.

Are there any direct inspirations to the Ornette Hawkins sound, both in drum & bass and in general?
If we’re being perfectly honest, psychedelia. We want to push the boundaries of the perception of what is possible. Free flowing streams of consciousness in the studio help us see the music from a different perspective. Not too much, though, or you can’t work a compressor.

Talk to us about your upcoming EP, The Other Side of What. We’d seen your name on a pair of releases over the last few years; how long had you been working on this release?
This is a fairly new collaboration. Our first tune, "Jazz Police," was released relatively quickly on Subtle Audio after we made it. The Other Side of What is a collection of some of the more jazz-forward work we’ve produced since then. We also had the opportunity to collaborate with studio-mates Rude Operator, on a cut off their recent EP on 31 Recordings ("Witchdoctor"). It’s probably been a few years—maybe even a decade—since the first ideas for these tracks were initially conceptualized, but it takes time to bring a project like this to full fruition.

What significance does the title hold to the tracks on the release and/or your aesthetic in general?
“The Other Side of What” references a conversation between Alice and the caterpillar in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice finds herself in a situation where nothing makes sense and it causes her to question her own identity. Part of figuring out what "The Other Side Of What" is is figuring out which side is which. You can only do that through experimentation. That's what we're trying to do.

A track like “Legend” feels like something I’ve wanted to hear all my life. The drums are funky and hectic, with some amazing horn work. Are you guys planning on recreating these tunes in a live setting? Is it hard to do that? I feel like drumming a tune like this live would be a serious workout.
We have a 100% live recording of “Raw Sun” that we’re giving away as part of the release. The drumming is incredibly demanding. You can hear Matt Tebo working in lots of phrases directly from the recording, so it's definitely possible. We like giving our players the freedom to improvise because they are capable of taking whatever material we give them and elevating it. Of course, there's a definite appeal to seeing it live, and we’re working to make that happen. There are certain things that we put in our tunes that are impossible to do live—at least to do them honestly—but what you get in exchange is the intensity that fuels creativity in the live setting.

Who’s idea was it to get so blunted on reality with that Submorphics and T.R.A.C. remix of “Raw Sun”? That feels like the hip-hop that really got me open back in the ‘90s!
Our friends at AGN7 Audio came up with the idea to reach out to Submorphics, who was keen on the idea of a remix. He happened to be with T.R.A.C. and the two of them reinterpreted “Raw Sun” in a way that’s so appropriate for the EP. Golden-era hip-hop is another intersection point between newer, technology-based forms of music and jazz. It fits perfectly with the aesthetic of the EP and also goes well with our favorite hip-hop. They did a brilliant job!

Are there plans for more Ornette Hawkins releases or, dare I say, an album?
We definitely want to keep it open by exploring different sounds and textures. You can hear some of what we’ve been up to on the accompanying mix. We do have some plans in the works for future releases, but you’ll have to wait and see…

What are you two getting into when you aren’t getting super jazzy and technical with the drum & bass?
Everyone in Ornette Hawkins has a number of other musical projects they’re working on. All of us live and breathe music, everything else is just a distraction.

Ornette Hawkins' The Other Side of What EP drops on January 19 via AGN7 Audio.


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