The Fay Victor Ensemble @ 5 Years

Next week FRIDAY, JUNE 25 The Fay Victor Ensemble will debut at Vision Festival XV.  Its a big deal for a vocal-led quartet of all original music in a bastion of free improvised instrumental music. It’s also a big deal because as a group, The Fay Victor Ensemble just passed the five year mark and we’ve kept busy with two critically acclaimed records to our credit and many performances in NYC and outside. Since we began, I’ve mentioned here and there how we got started yet I thought now is a good time to share with you how happy I am to lead this distinctive band of comrades and adversaries and how it came to be.  And how I found myself along the way.

After living abroad and settling back in New York in 2003, I came to town with a fresh recording of the two final concerts I had in the Netherlands. After a couple setbacks, my husband and writing partner, Jochem van Dijk and I got the project that became Lazy Old Sun released in 2004.  One issue was the matter of a Jimi Hendrix tune I wrote lyrics for and recorded for release.  We got through to the publishing company for Jimi’s estate and the woman who took calls said it would never be approved because “If Jimi wanted lyrics, he would have written them himself” and that was that. In response I said, “But don’t you want to listen to the piece before making that decision?”  She said no. I was livid. I was hurt.  Not so much because she said no but because the company didn’t even want to hear it.  I thought how close-minded an approach for such an inspirational spirit. Can’t blame Jimi though; it’s the gatekeepers.

We took Hendrix’ Third Stone From the Sun off of the record, bummed, but what could we do?  There was something else too – because Lazy Old Sun was primarily an album of pop covers and jazz  compositions (there are 4 originals on the record), the licensing costs for all this music was a hefty fee for a little label like us, especially since I’m not good at keeping pieces short.  These factors made Jochem and I say – Screw this!  Let’s write our own damn tunes for an entire album.  We’d been including originals in the last two records I released, so the leap was to making an all original music project was taken.  We can say what we want and no licensing fees and we’d start with the lyrics meant for the Hendrix tune.  Only thing: who’s gonna play it and what is the ‘sound’ gonna be?  The sound had precedent with the group I’d started in the Netherlands plus I’d been busy with sound within a band concept for a long time.  I’d try to pick up from there with a quintet of trombone, guitar, bass & drums.  And I needed the group to respond and react to me, not accompany me, I wanted to be a full member of the group but I was still figuring out that role.

Just being back in New York and voraciously checking out the scene, I made it a top priority to form a band to do just that and other things I couldn’t articulate so clearly.  I got a group going a little under a year later, but it didn’t work out.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted yet but I knew that improvisation and musicians with an ease of playing inside and out would be essential.  So the first group was a way for me to find out what mindset best suited what I was going for.

I heard bassist Ken Filiano many times since I’d returned to NYC and loved his playing. I wasn’t sure if he’d be interested in playing with me and actually felt he may be out of my reach at that time.  After having a discussion with trombonist Steve Swell, who gave me some of the best advice I’ve had since I returned to New York.  He said,

“Don’t be a afraid to reach out to anyone you’re interested in working with because you never know where people are, and musicians are always looking for interesting projects.”

He also mentioned guitarist Anders Nilsson, because  I was looking for a “European” approach and sound on guitar. To be more specific, ECM or Terje Rypdal-esque. I reached out to Ken and Anders  who both and expressed interest but I needed to hear Anders live.  So Anders invited me to a duo gig of his with bassist Ken Filiano.  Neither had known I had called the other and I didn’t know that they were getting together for close to 4 years privately and that this was their first public gig! I was sold on both of them after that gig and it was no question that they vibed with each other.  Now for a drummer.

I had a drummer in mind for the group and was close to contacting him when Ken recommended Michael TA Thompson.  I couldn’t find anything online for Michael so I called him up and left a message saying who I was, what I was interested in and directed him to go to my website to check out my music so he can hear what I do. When we spoke a few days later, he commented at length how much he liked the message I left – that I didn’t want him to call back unless he liked the music and wanted to talk, that I didn’t want to waste his (or my) time.  He liked the music too.  I heard him a week later on a gig with vocalist Barbara Sfraga at the 55Bar and  loved his sound on drums and how he swung.  He could also groove and take it way out. That made the group.

So on April 30, 2005, after one rehearsal – we played our first gig at the 55BAR.  Mostly tunes from Lazy Old Sun and it was…magical. I can’t really explain it.  It worked and felt good for me.  I could tell they liked the music by they way they played and the questions they asked.  I knew these were the musicians to develop Jochem’s and my original music.

In the meantime, Jochem and I were writing lots of material for some future recording and I started a monthly residency at Freddy’s Backroom in Brooklyn, NY.  At Freddy’s (and at the 55BAR) the FVE regularly worked out the music and the ideas that became Cartwheels Through the Cosmos (ArtistShare 2007). It  was a tough process in some ways too.  I wasn’t always sure of what I wanted or how to explain it, that always causes frustrations.  I needed to train them not to treat me like a “singer” or accompany me in that way.  I wanted each voice to be equal in the group – an integrated sound with voice and lyrics, which was sometimes difficult to balance alongside free-wheeling improvisational excursions. We had to develop the dynamic responses necessary to move in all directions and keep the clarity of the music.  I improvised much less than I do now and only in specific places/pieces.  A trombonist didn’t work out for the group so I decided it being a quartet was enough.  We now have moved on to a place where form and free are so blurred at times that it makes my heart smile inside.

Through all this time we have organically developed as a band.  The first 2-3 years of our existence we played a lot around the city, developing the music, playing for empty rooms sometimes but getting to that  sound I was looking for. We are also a distinct group of folks:  Michael and I are of Caribbean extraction, Anders is a Swede and Ken is the only true American in the bunch but he’ll say he’s Sicilian first.  We’re all very proud folk in our own ways – all of us want our voices heard.  It works so well because I want to hear those voices and react to them in real time.  They couldn’t contain themselves if they wanted to and this has made me a stronger and more confident vocalist because I enjoy and delight in the chaos that ensues and what that opens up musically for me and for the group. It is such a joy not to KNOW for sure what is going to happen.

How thrilling is it to put a group together to tell my tales in a different soundtrack and have it garner so much attention as our sophomore and current release, The FreeSong Suite (GAM 2009) has done.  So many people have reached out publicly and privately to express their feelings on the project and how refreshing it has been to hear it – you can read more about that here. I also want to thanks all the friends, family and more that have hung out with us, checked out the music and gave much needed feedback.  Good or bad, I needed to hear both sides. We wouldn’t be where we are as a group without being open to hearing it ALL. And now we’re performing on the Vision Festival on next week, after receiving a wonderful write-up in the New York Times Festival Preview, where Ben Ratliff recommends our set at the Vision Festival alongside performances by Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Anthony Braxton, Steve Coleman, Mike Reed and more!!!

I’m so excited, I can barely sit still and we’re moving forward. Already busy with the next project (expect to hear some of it at the Vision Festival XV) and expect to see us out in the city a bit more this year as we’ll develop the music through performance, as we always have.  With plans to head in to the studio next year for the first of a two-part release, projected for Fall 2011. Jochem and I still have more we want to say and I’m blessed with one of the best group to say it and share it with. Thank you and see you for more!

-Fay