The Road Continues: An Interview With Mark Helias

Photo by Marcela Joya

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Mark Helias should need no introduction considering his unparalleled body of work. There are few bassists over the last half-century that have composed and played on as much imaginative and influential work. I find myself returning to his solo albums with regularity, always intrigued by the breadth of sound they contain and the ways Helias gets the most out of small ensembles.

His solo discography is excellent on its own, but the list of artists he’s played with is something else: Don Cherry, Anthony Braxton, Ed Blackwell, Anthony Davis, Dennis Gonzalez, Dewey Redman, and so many more. Further, he also made one of the best bass records ever with Mark Dresser, 2000’s The Marks Brothers, and continues to explore new ideas while teaching in upstate New York (I loved his recent duo album with Jane Ira Bloom). While we talked about Cherry, Blackwell, his solo records, and loads more, there are at least two or three interviews worth of ideas and memories we could talk about it. Mark can be found via his website and much of his music can be heard on his Bandcamp site (which I can’t recommend enough).

First, can you tell me about some of your earliest music memories? Were there any songs or experiences you had in your early years that have stuck with you and left a strong impression? 

I grew up very aware of my sonic environment in addition to the music environment with which I interacted actively and against my will. I remember hearing my first harmonic modulation and wondering why it was so impactful. I did not have a lot of musical stimulation in my home, per se, although I did hear Tchaikovsky’s Bb minor piano concerto at a fairly early age. My older brother was intent monitoring the hit parade on AM radio when I was 6 or 7, possibly earlier, so I heard all of the early 50”s pop music as a child in real time, much of which was of very high quality and most of which I remember to this day. 

What, then, eventually made you want to learn to play music yourself and what brought you to the bass? 

That is a broad question. Let’s say that music was always a fascination with me, so it seemed natural to want to make music, just like watching sports made me want to play sports… that is to say “inhabit physically” the activity of interest, not just to observe and absorb. 

You ended up at Rutgers studying under Homer Mensch. What was that experience like and how did learning from Mensch help shape you as a bassist and as a composer? 

Studying with Homer Mensch was about being in the studio of Homer Mensch. That process of study was a true mentorship which included a community of bass players for whom he afforded a social and musical connection to instill a spirit of collaboration and generosity in music making. I worked with Homer Mensch for seven years of intense study and he afforded me a foundation upon which I could find and realize my own voice. It is a traditional model of mentorship which manifests in all cultures in its own specific way. 

One thing that always struck me about your solo records – and as I write these questions I’ve got Split Image on the stereo – is how your songs have this uncanny ability to sound bigger than they should be, and by that I mean – let’s take Split Image as an example – the band is a quartet, but if someone told me there were 8 or 9 players, I’d probably believe them. I guess my question is when you’re composing, what is your approach like? Do you typically have a single idea in mind as a starting point and you expand from there, or is it something else entirely? Is this feeling of these songs sounding ‘bigger’ a conscious thing? 

Other people have mentioned that the ensembles sound larger than the numbers would indicate. It is probably the orchestration and counterpoint in the pieces, which is designed to produce the most musical resonance and harmonic overtones based on instrument blends and intervallic interaction. Ellington and Gil Evans are models for maximizing the richness of sound produced by instruments interacting. But, great writing for any ensemble combination is a lesson in sonic saturation and acoustical physics. The genre is beside the point, it is the manipulation of sounds, registers, and instrumental color that produces the energy. To be clear, on Split Image one piece (“Quiescence”) actually has some horn overdubs by Herb Robertson to fill out the orchestration in the written sections. 

When I think about Open Loose, on the other hand, it always seemed more restrained in the sense that as a trio, it’s laser focused on the massive possibilities of this trio setup of drums, bass, and tenor and the countless ways those can interact. Playing with and writing for Open Loose, it seems like there’s a different mindset from the pieces composed for your solo records. What was it that lead to the formation of Open Loose and how did this trio impact your own compositional and creative practice? 

Just to clarify, all of the albums under my leadership, including all of the Open Loose recordings were composed and directed by me. I have never thought of Open Loose as restrained. It is a trio so the set theory is 3.2.1 equaling 6 ways to combine the players (plus silence. However, the ability of the folks in that group as soloists, improvisers and sonic artists changed everything about how the compositions were realized. Granted the pieces were written in detail, and the result of a lot of hard work and experimentation, but the realization of those pieces, the breathing of life into those pieces only occurred when Tom Rainey and Tony Malaby absorbed and reconfigured the music. In that situation as a composer, I was aware that the pieces were detailed (in some cases very detailed) blueprints for something else to happen. There were always creative suggestions as to where to take that music. That was always a cooperative effort. In my other albums of varying instrumentation the end result was always influenced by the process of realizing the pieces with those musicians. Either through suggestions on their parts or my noticing something interesting coming from the musicians and exploring that further. Compositions only exist in abstraction until they are played and come alive in sound. 

I also have to ask about Nu because I ended up on your fantastic Bandcamp page due to the Live in Glasgow release you put up last year. It’s such a wonderful document. Before I get into Nu, what prompted you to share this recording after all this years? And how deep are your archives anyway? I just saw you put up the final Slickaphonics show and I need to grab that, but I can only imagine what all you’ve got recorded… 

Nu was a very special project initiated by Don Cherry but kept cooperative musically, which was such a fascinating and wonderful decision. Don was great that way, very inclusive and very positive. Also, an absolutely inherently musical person. Blackwell and I played together for seventeen years from 1975. It was not well documented in a way, considering how much we actually performed together, which was a lot. With Carlos Ward and Nana Vasconcelos I can say that Nu was a stimulating ensemble. I must have had a board tape from the gig and digitized it years ago. I found it during the pandemic and was so knocked out by the performance that I decided to release it. 

So, how did you first get involved playing with Don Cherry and Nu? 

I had been playing with Dewey Redman since 1978 and Blackwell since 1975. I met Dewey through Blackwell and Don through both of them. It was the orbit of Ornette Coleman. I also got to record with Charlie Haden and also produced a recording of Ray Anderson with Blackwell, Charlie Haden and Simon Nabotov. 

What’s the biggest thing you learned from Cherry? 

Don was like an African Griot or a troubadour. He also spent time in Africa and played the D’ousson Gouni which is a kind of African guitar and looks a little like a Kora but with lower pitch and fewer strings. He could make music at any time with any material. I didn’t learn specifics but absorbed a process. We also laughed all the time. 

I’m always taken aback by just how incredible the ensemble is and on the Live in Glasgow recording, Ed Blackwell really shines. I am such a massive fan of his and, as you point out in the liner notes, his solo on “Pettiford Bridge” is something quite special. How did you first meet Blackwell? 

When I was living in New Haven, Connecticut I was playing a lot with pianist Anthony Davis. He had been engaged for a recording with Marion Brown and was scheduled to rehearse at Wesleyan University where Edward Blackwell was teaching. Cecil McBee was on the date but couldn’t make the rehearsal so Anthony suggested I come and cover for Cecil McBee. It was a pretext to get me the opportunity to play with Blackwell. After that we collaborated often and thank Anthony daily for the introduction. 

What was it about playing with Blackwell that you appreciated so much? As I was digging through your discography to prepare for this, I knew you all had played together a number of times, but didn’t realize just how much you all did together. 

There are unreleased recordings of us that I don’t have access to. We played in many bands together and recorded occasionally. Blackwell connected the earlier masters (Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, Max Roach eg.) to the post 60’s. At the same time, Jo Jones and Max were still vitally active throughout ;that period. You could here the earliest jazz to the most modern in Blackwell’s playing. Plus, he lived and played in Africa for some years and connected the jazz tradition to its original roots. His playing was always informed by the pan-African experience. His approach to form was unique as he would sometimes play through the phrase structure rather than mark it. His interpretation of a given piece was always very personal and sometimes surprising to me. Encompassing his whole approach was a rhythmic drive, and a polyrhythmic swing all his own. 

I could probably go on and on asking about all the ensembles you’ve played in, but that would probably get old! I do have to ask about the Marks Brothers album with Mark Dresser, though. It’s one of my favorite things you’ve done. Can you tell me a little about how the idea first started and how the album eventually came about? 

We met in 1975 and started getting together to play. Eventually we started composing duo bass music for each other and started performing and ended up making the recording. We also toured Europe as a duo. We will do another recording at some point for sure. 

Thinking back on all the great projects you’ve been part of, all the fantastic songs you’ve written, the teaching you’ve done, and so on, what are some of the moments that really stand out? 

Too many to pick from. Let’s just say that playing music with special creative beings as a life’s work is an honor and a privilege.

To wrap up, I have to ask about your recent albums with Jane Ira Bloom. They’re both wonderful, but this latest one, See Our Way, has been on a regular on the stereo the last few weeks. The music on these albums is so emotionally rich and deep. There are moments that almost take my breath away (“Laser Plane,” for example, is something else – wow). How important were these sessions for you considering all that’s been happening in the world and the impact it’s had on live music? 

The duets with Jane helped to keep us connected as musicians and humans through the worst of the pandemic. Sometimes we can forget that making music is a social art form based on humans relating in an open space of generosity and connection. The pandemic was the polar opposite of that idea and we immediately began working on a way to counteract that reality. 

The first album was done remotely, but, See Our Way was done in-person in New York. How did that change the dynamic and the process? How was the experience of making this record different than anything else you’ve made? It carries such an emotional weight to it, it’s quite something. 

While we were recording remotely for the first album I remember feeling like I was on stage somewhere with Jane and that she was right next to me playing. When you close your eyes and relate through hearing, spacial displacement becomes irrelevant. I am not saying that playing remotely is the same thing as playing in the same space, but I am saying that, in the end, it was not an impediment to making great music in the most intimate way possible. It ended up feeling so normal! 

And lastly, what’s next for you? 

Now that live performance is again a possibility I will be touring this summer in various projects, recording Anthony Davis’ Opera “X”, teaching a week long seminar on improvisation and touring quit a bit in the fall throughout Europe. I am always writing and will be looking forward to more of my own recording projects as well as getting together with new folks to improvise. 

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