When Jacob Mann was in college, his professor asked him a question that changed how he thought about music forever.
“He asked me, ‘what’s the difference between composition and improvisation?’”
Composition, Mann suggested, involves more consideration and thought. Improv, on the other hand, requires quick action. His professor shook his head disapprovingly.
“He was like, ‘it’s exactly the same. Composition and improvisation are exactly the same.”
It’s a view that Mann brings to life on this year’s stunning duo record with bassist Sam Wilkes, Perform the Compositions of Sam Wilkes and Jacob Mann. Recorded entirely in Wilkes’ apartment, the album creates a fluid, transportative mix of compositional improvisation and improvisational composition.
This Friday, the duo come to San Jose to perform—what else?—the compositions of Sam Wilkes and Jacob Mann.
Perform the Compositions of Sam Wilkes and Jacob Mann consists almost entirely of three instruments: Mann on Juno-106 synthesizer and Wilkes on bass and a Yamaha drum machine (Wilkes also contributed some moments of vocal percussion to the album). Together, the instruments conjure a woozily buoyant, cartoonish landscape, often sounding like town music for some unreleased 16-bit RPG, part Earthbound, part Toejam and Earl.
But any audio similarities to video games, they say, come simply from their instruments, both of them products of the 1980s.
“Reference wise, we were more readily thinking of people like Ravel or Duke Ellington than any kind of video game music,” Wilkes says.
Still, any digital sprite would happily chart a world map to the peppy bounce of “The Cricket Club.” Imaginative gamers could easily picture meeting a new ally (perhaps a bookish, clumsy one) to the boinging percussion and whistling melody of “Around the Horn.” There is also, however, the eerily heart-stirring “Homeric,” whose lyrical piano is punctuated by what sounds like clanking bones.
Recording sessions all began with a lengthy stretch of free improvisation.
“Our process turned out to be, Jacob comes over to the apartment, we set up, everything’s ready to record, and then we just play,” Wilkes says. “We just have fun and we record it. No talking, nothing. That would last anywhere from thirty minutes to a couple of hours.”
Once initial improvisatory takes were captured, they would go back over previous ideas, searching for moments of inspiration and refining the ideas they had spontaneously generated.
“It all started from trying to catch inspiration and then trying to craft that into a song,” Mann says.
Wilkes and Mann originally met while studying at USC Thornton School of Music. There, they bonded over a shared love of the Soulquarians—the collective of musicians featuring D’Angelo, J Dilla, Erykah Badu and Questlove (among many others). Soon, they were touring together in the backing band for singer/songwriter Rozzi. Most famously, they often play together in the experimental electronic/jazz group Knower, fronted by Louis Cole and Genevieve Artady.
“That was another thing that we bonded over, our fandom of Louis and Genevieve. We were probably the two biggest Knower fans that we knew. They weren’t even Knower at the time, they were just Louis and Genevieve,” Wilkes says.
It was at the end of a Knower tour that the two decided to try playing a duo show together.
“In the preparation for it, we ended up writing a lot of new music. After that, Sam had the idea to get together and really make a record,” Mann says.
At the SJZ Break Room (aka, the back of the building at 1st and San Carlos), the duo will harken back to their first show together, playing a mixture of duo songs and songs each composed individually.
“When we did the duo show, I was kind of nervous going into it,” Mann says. “But afterwards, I was like, you know what? I’m glad I put myself in this uncomfortable place. We just stuck to our vision, our instruments and cut from a different angle.”
Fri, 8pm, $25
SJZ Break Room, San Jose