Sparking the Imagination: Living Fossil, “NEVER DIE!”

If there’s one thing I’m learning about jazz as I dig more deeply into Canada’s jazz scene, it’s that the music can not only soothe or excite, but also inspire leaps of imagination.  “NEVER DIE!,” the new project from Gordon Hyland’s ensemble Living Fossil, is one such album.  By turns invigorating and contemplative, “NEVER DIE!” is an experience as much as anything else.

Gordon Hyland is a tenor saxophonist, but with a twist – he’s unafraid of technological innovation, utilizing effects pedals with his instrument where inspired to do so.  Experienced jazz fans will no doubt notice these departures from tradition; for me, as a neophyte of sorts, the sound of the album is cohesive and exciting.  (Sometimes I think it helps to be less aware of canonical practice; it really frees the ear from expectations!)

As regular readers know, I’m always loath to pick favorites from an album but if you’re still dipping your toes into jazz, I’d suggest “Living Fossil” and “Satellite” as terrific starting points… the first is a slower, more meditative track, while the latter is a terrifically funky piece that definitely should get you moving.  My philosophy on great books and movies is that you find something new in them each time you read/see them; that’s equally true of great albums, and quite true of this one – I’ve heard new (wonderful) things every time I listen to it. While we’ve just missed out on a couple of opportunities to hear the group live, Living Fossil is absolutely on our bucket list to hear live.

We are fortunate that Gordon was able to talk to us in such depth about the project – we appreciate his time, very much.

I’m really curious about the origin of your band name… the promotional material mentions that you came across the concept in some work by Jacques Cousteau. Can you talk a bit about the concept of the ‘living fossil’ and why it felt appropriate as a band name?

I’m always looking for different words and phrases that could work for creative things like compositions and band names.  When I found a 20-volume set of Jacques Cousteau’s books while walking home one day, they piqued my interest and I was curious to see what inspiration they might provide. Written in 1975, “The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau” is rife with beautiful imagery of all aspects of ocean exploration, and Cousteau introduces each book with an essay on the overarching theme of that volume. These essays have such an amazing perspective on the nature of exploration through scientific observation of the world and how it relates to mankind’s evolution. They are dramatically written with a kind of macrocosmic view of both nature and science that has made me rethink the bigger picture of how we fit into this amazing world in which we live.

Cousteau’s books refer to the nautilus as a living fossil because it hasn’t noticeably evolved since the Cambrian era roughly 500 million years ago.  The term living fossil immediately sparked my imagination and this fascinating sea-creature has become the mascot of this band. The nautilus is a fascinating animal: it is jet propelled, has tentacles, a shell, and it lives in a relatively deep zone of the ocean between 100m – 700m below the ocean’s surface.  Visualizing really helps me make decisions when writing instrumental music and the traits of the nautilus definitely spark my imagination with visuals of what it must be like to be such a creature.  How would it feel to have reached the apex of your physical evolution so long ago?

Living fossil evokes in me a bittersweet visual of an ancient life form that has been in its ideal form for a while, looking upon life with deep perspective and insight.  Even the juxtaposition of the words “living” and “fossil” have an incredible way of generating many different ideas outside of the realm of creatures like the nautilus.  There’s an implication of time, and of life and death.  A living fossil would seem to be in a frozen fossilized state but somehow alive.  Perhaps it’s aware of it’s own stasis and therefore may possess some sort of meta-wisdom.

Practicing an instrument that has already had its moment to shine in popular music makes me feel like a living fossil sometimes in comparison to what the rest of the world is up to.  The saxophone, like jazz, has already reached the apex of its popularity and has now moved into the realm of art music, historical reproductions, and novel interjections in different popular music forms.  But, I don’t think the saxophone and jazz are “dead” as some people like to needlessly say.  Far from it.  I imagine that what happens in this stage of musical evolution is similar to what a nautilus might experience: its physical form is known and unchallenged by its environment, leaving the nautilus free to enjoy, what I imagine to be, the simple things in life while evolving its perspective on the universe through thought.

Although Living Fossil was originally only the name of the second song on NEVER DIE!, the vibe of the song and how it brought into focus the role of both guitarists made it the perfect name for our band in my view.  The name generates so much imagery and metaphor that I hope our audience comes up with their own way of interpreting the name that enriches the experience of listening to our album.  I’m very curious as to what you and your audience think of the band name… What does the band name trigger for you, and how does that affect how you listen to the music?

Living Fossil

Your musical studies focused both on saxophone and electronics. In terms of how you compose, what role does each play, if any? 

Studying saxophone and electronics has broadened the scope of what I hear when I compose and what kind of contexts I would like to explore as an improviser through the music that I write.  I really like using different instruments and softwares to compose, because they change how I hear music and what I write.

Perhaps I should clarify that “studying electronics” in my bio refers to the study of different computer softwares as part of a workflow for composition.  I’ve always loved trying to combine the saxophone with electronics, so I also did research on the history of the electrification of the saxophone in an essay I wrote titled “Not Just a Gimmick: The Electrification of the Saxophone.”

One could argue that the tool that is used to capture a composition during the writing process is a subjective lens that leaves flavours of the medium on your music.  I had the opportunity to study composition with Dr. Eliot Britton at U of T and one of the things we worked on was using different software workflows to compose.  I would build several stacks of samples, sounds, rhythms, and melodies before staggering them into the form of a composition.  This workflow is how many electronic artists build a song and what I would compose as a result was completely different than what I would compose had I just sat down at the piano to write a song.  I still make a point of using pencil, paper, and piano to write a lot of music, but I also use Sibelius notation software, Logic Pro, and Ableton in different arrangements should I feel that it would make it easier to capture a musical idea.

Working with midi in a computer program like Logic allows for easy copying and pasting of one’s ideas.  You can move sections of a song around in a more intuitively visual way, in contrast to the staff-paper style software like Sibelius or Finale.  Instead of moving bars of music or notes on a staff, you move segments of midi data in visual blocks.   “Satellite”, the 5th track on NEVER DIE! was written in Logic as an exercise to see what kind of musical ideas the software would help me produce. The player-piano-like midi scroll in Logic is a completely different way of visualizing music.  It’s more like punching out notes with a single-hole-punch than music notation.  When I was writing “Satellite”, I didn’t want to do what I normally do: sit at the piano and work out a melody and a progression. Instead, I limited myself by using just my ears and the midi scroll to create the melody, bass, and harmony parts. The beat and the bass line came first, followed by the melody and harmony parts. The result was a very angular melody over an ostinato style bass line, with crystalline sounding harmonies; something that I know I wouldn’t have written had I been using the piano.

In contrast, the melody to “Meta Max” was written completely by ear on the saxophone. The saxophone allows for large intervallic leaps that I wouldn’t necessarily gravitate towards if I were writing on piano.  I recorded the lines and transcribed onto staff paper. I then found chords that matched the shapes of the melodies on the piano.

“Living Fossil” was written completely on the piano and then arranged for saxophone and guitar afterwards. This made for a relatively simple-sounding, yet very challenging, melody to play on the saxophone.  This method imbues a totally different character to “Living Fossil” in contrast to “Meta Max” and “Satellite.”

And for those jazz purists out there who think electronics have no place, how would you respond?

I would respond by saying that jazz is a vehicle for musical synthesis and electronics are just another tool for creating interesting music. Musicians and composers are constantly incorporating the sounds and techniques of both more modern and more ancient art forms into their musics. Jazz is a syncretic tradition that has always evolved through the absorption of other musics. The “jazz purist” narrative is just a style of negative critique that keeps musicians from playfully exploring music like a child would – without hinderance of any kind.

I may be overthinking this but I was struck by the juxtaposition of titles with “Macrophages,” “Living Fossil,” and “NEVER DIE” one after the other… first, blood cells that help keep us alive, then the idea of an organism that never evolves, and then a piece that’s almost a scream (at least in the middle) for life. Was this a deliberate setting on your part?

I didn’t juxtapose the songs based on their titles, but I’m really happy the titles of the first three songs on NEVER DIE! provoked your imagination to connect them into a single narrative.  They each began as separate entities, but when we play these songs live, they function as a trilogy. It has intuitively, even magically, worked out that way.  So at this point, they are difficult for me to separate, which is part of why they were placed in that order on the album.

I love how music provokes thought in general and I really wanted to spark the listeners imagination with the music, the song titles, the album artwork, and the liner notes. Maybe it’s a word, maybe it’s a sound, maybe it’s an image of some kind, but I never want to prescribe what the audience should feel. The power of music to inspire new thoughts in the listener is the reason that I want to make music. I also firmly believe that the best art is art that allows the audience to participate in their own unique way. In other words, it isn’t about watching the performer, it’s about the performance provoking the imagination of the audience.  It isn’t about listening to our music, it’s putting on an album to add a soundtrack to something the listener is doing.

Your group is referred to as “post-bop” – for those who aren’t knowledgeable about jazz, how would you explain this term?

Post-bop was the best existing sub-genre of jazz that I could use to encapsulate the music of Living Fossil. In reality, there are many genres represented on the album, from fusion and free music, to avant-garde and M-base, but this felt like the closest spiritual counterpart. Post-bop was a sub-genre coined by musicologist Jeremy Yudkin to describe the music of Miles Davis’ second great quintet. That quintet featured Davis on trumpet, Tony Williams on drums, Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Ron Carter on bass, and Herbie Hancock on piano. Although Living Fossil’s music doesn’t exactly fit into the mould of Miles’ second great quintet, some of the adjectives used to describe the genre were very fitting for this group, my favourite being “freedom anchored in form”, which I found in Yudkin’s book “Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, and the Invention of Post Bop.” There are many definitions of the genre you can find online, but I also in particular liked the description on Wikipedia’s Post-Bop article where it’s described as “…jazz from the mid-1960’s onward that assimilates hard bop, modal jazz, avant-garde and free jazz without necessarily being immediately identifiable as any of the above.”

I know you’ve done some compositions for films and theatre; as I’ve been listening to “Lorraine,” it strikes me as having a really cinematic feel, that sense of a story being played out in the course of the piece. Is there in fact a story to “Lorraine”?

“Lorraine” was actually written by alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. I also feel that it has a cinematic feel and have often wondered who Lorraine actually was. Was she Coleman’s friend, a girlfriend, a lover, a sister, or his mother? I don’t know, but whomever she was or wasn’t, the piece seems like a satire on some sort of repetitive conflict. Someone once said to me it reminded them of a Looney Tunes soundtrack.

Composing and sound designing for film and theatre has definitely had an effect on the way I make music both as a performer and composer. Sound design has made me focus on sound as something outside of a melody and harmony that can elicit emotions in the audience without them consciously knowing why. When you’re underscoring a film or a play with either music or sound design it’s all about tension, release, and how it relates to the story vis a vis the objectives of the characters. I sometimes imagine each instrument as a character in a story to figure out where their parts need to move in the composition, or to figure out what comes next in the song.

A reason I included “Lorraine” on the album is because it has been an important song for me.  I’ve used it often as a theme for jamming with new people I’ve never played with before and as a way to loosen up a group in a rehearsal. Montreal alto saxophonist Dave Turner introduced me to “Lorraine” while I was studying with him at Concordia University and I’ve played it ever since. This song embodies Yudkin’s “…freedom anchored in form…” to me, which is something that I want all of my music to have.

I love how the promo materials refer to “Satellite” as “stadium saxophone” music. (My better half recently picked up a “Starsky & Hutch” DVD and this brought some of that show’s soundtrack to mind, strangely enough.) How would you describe this particular piece?

Haha! I love it! Yes, “stadium saxophone” music is definitely a tongue in cheek description meant to inspire thoughts of saxophone epic-ness. The word I was trying to avoid was “prog” because in my experience promoting and marketing my own music, I’ve learned that the word “prog” is considered a “term of ridicule,” even off-putting to some people who would actually enjoy the music. That being said, there’s no denying that “Satellite” sounds a little proggy, not to mention that most of the members of Living Fossil have been generally inspired by prog music to some degree.

Stadium Saxophone music is a derivative of “stadium Jazz,” both a running joke with our producer/engineer Andrew Mullin with regards to the epic prog-ness of some of the music we’ve made with him in the past, and a track on Donny McCaslin’s album “Casting for Gravity.” Donny is arguably the most epic saxophonist out there right now and is probably playing the most stadiums as a saxophonist. One might argue that he’s carrying the torch of the original stadium saxophonist, the late Michael Brecker. The Brecker Brothers, co-led by his brother and trumpeter Randy Brecker, were definitely “stadium jazz.”

I took a listen to some of the tracks on the “Starsky & Hutch” soundtrack, and the first track, “Old Days”, by Chicago definitely sounds like a “stadium jazz” tune. Super tight brass passages, epic strings, heavy guitars, crisp verbose drum fills; these are all hallmarks of stadium music.

You worked with some terrific musicians on this project, many of whom you’ve worked with for a number of years. The more I learn about Toronto’s jazz scene, the more apparent it becomes that there are a lot of really gifted musicians, many of whom frequently work together on one another’s projects. (A sort of six degrees of separation game…) How do you choose the musicians with whom you collaborate?

In a way, the musicians choose you. They’re the people that keep making themselves available and who synchronize with the timeline of your projects. There are so many people that I would love to work with in this city, but just don’t have the time or opportunity to connect with for one reason or another.

I met Mack when he was 18, finishing his grade 12 and subbing into The Advocates Big Band for his music teacher Miles Crawford. He sounded absolutely amazing. We chatted at the end of the set, exchanged numbers, and we’ve found ways to musically connect ever since – even over a decade later. The rest of the musicians I met largely through the tightly woven community of musicians from the University of Toronto’s music program and Humber College’s jazz program – Mack, Neil, Vivienne, and I having graduated from the former, and Andrew Roorda and Torrie Seager, having graduated from the latter.

The core group is comprised of members of the Ninja Funk Orchestra – a live electronic band that featured Mack Longpre on drums, Neil Whitford on guitar, synthesizers, and samplers, Andrew Roorda on electric bass, and myself on effected saxophone, synthesizers and samplers.  We’ve done so much playing together in so many different circumstances that they were the obvious choice for making the music of this album come to life.

Torrie Seager came on board in 2014 when I started workshopping some new compositions. He and I had been playing together in Vivienne Wilder & The Vice Presidents and his guitar tone and love for jazz improvising seemed like the perfect contrast to the soundscapes and rock-influenced style of Neil’s guitar playing.  Vivienne Wilder is fearless improviser and exceptionally musical human.  Her classical training on the double bass brings the bow to life on tracks like “Lessforgettable” and her love for Charles Mingus gives her basslines a rich tone and melodicism that anchor the acoustic tracks on NEVER DIE!

I couldn’t have asked for a better group of musicians to have as friends and collaborators on this recording.  They helped make this recording project sound better than I could have ever imagined.  Together with our amazing producers Mike Murley and Andrew Mullin, I feel like we’ve captured a tiny moment in time in the Toronto arts scene that hopefully will… NEVER DIE!

~ L

Visit Gordon Hyland’s website.

Preview and buy “NEVER DIE!” on Bandcamp.

Listen to “NEVER DIE!” on Spotify.

Exposed to the wonders of CBC and Montréal Canadiens hockey as a teenager thanks to a satellite dish in rural Kansas, I have been an unabashed lover of all things Canadian ever since. I am a lifelong collector of esoteric and varied music, a teacher of piano, an avid reader, and a stamp/coin collector. In real life, I work in the field of technology.

Come find me on Goodreads.

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