Name: Jamael Dean
Occupation: Pianist, producer, improviser, composer
Nationality: American
Current release: Jamael Dean's Primordial Waters is out via Stones Throw. He is also currently touring Europe:

11 Nov 21 Berlin – Badehaus
12 Nov 21 Utrecht – Le Guess Who?
14 Nov 21 Paris – Bambin

If you enjoyed this interview with Jamael Dean, visit his personal profile on the homepage of his label, Stones Throw. He is also on Instagram, and twitter.

Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?  

The tools I use are the piano, keyboards, Ableton, a pen, and paper. I use them every day and the relationship I’ve come to have with them is one of stability and reliance. They’re always there for me.

The most important quality of the piano for me is the ability to hold many voices at once in a harmonious way. It allows me to make combinations of different sounds and energies that create different thoughts, feelings, and patterns for me to experiment with. Each note has a different energy so when used together it creates layers for me to paint with, not forgetting to mention the rhythms it allows me to interact with using both hands. It feels like I have multiple instruments in one and I love it.

Keyboards are amazing for the different textures the electronic sounds provide. It takes the energies of the piano and provides another context for their usage. Ableton is amazing because I can really dive into frequency in a methodical way allowing me to take the mathematics of music and apply them to mixing and grooves in a whole other way. It also allows me to record many ideas and hear them all at once while allowing me to do a live arrangement in its clip mode. Arrangement view is amazing too when I’d like to slow down the composing process and go deeper into my intent.

The pen and paper allow me to tap into my imagination and actually see them whether it’s symbols or literal words. It’s all important to the creation process.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?

Improvisation is the key to life. It allows you to express freely and be in the moment at the same time. It allows me to be present with the external world while being in tune with what’s happening internally.

I’ve been taught by many teachers that composition is improvisation slowed down. It’s a very similar process where you never truly know where the ideas come from, but you can decipher them with presence, persistence, and the help of inspiration. The inspiration can be anything really.

Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?

Life, the planet, and the elements are the most transformative materials that stimulate me. Every day is different with new ideas, feelings, and desires which make writing a way for me to work through those things in a way that truly brings joy.

Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?

I totally relate to number 1, but number 2 is not something I can agree with as easily because in life there are times you can’t always relate to what’s happening around you.

However, the ability to discuss and come together creates a common ground and foundation for understanding and bettering ourselves and our character while increasing our wisdom. That leads to making possible the impossible, and creating things never imagined. It’s the same musically.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

Every emotion and mental state I’m in leads to creation. We’re constantly creating the flow of our lives as we experience it and make decisions every second of every day. Music is a way to process those things.

Not saying it’s always easy as somethings are difficult to process, but the more you do it the easier it becomes.

The best strategy for that creative state is to live your life, be healthy, and be honest and truthful.

There are no distractions just new developments in the creation of our lives and music. The best support can be managing your own space and finding ways to take care of yourself.

Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting?

Making decisions in a live setting works the same as having a conversation. You don’t want to cut anyone speaking off, but sometimes it happens and you have to find a way to live in integrity with your desires while honoring those around you.

It never hurts to listen and doesn’t cost anything to pay attention. Respect is important.

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?

Everything in the space of our existence is a literal frequency from the light we see to the materials that make up our physical body. Just as your body can only hold so much food, the music can only take so much input before it explodes, implodes, or transforms into something completely different and it isn’t to be criticized.

Performance becomes the ability to make decisions based on that and manage how you contribute to the feeding of the music. The best strategy I have for that is listening and being in the moment because sometimes our best plans don’t go according to how we think it should go. So the best strategy is adaptability and patience.

How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?

Playing live with an audience and in a studio is only different based on your knowledge of the people listening and being aware of their energy. In the studio sometimes we as artists feel less pressure because we can edit things and feel safer with making “mistakes”.

However, at the same time, it can be a lot of pressure to make something that we hope is received well by a greater mass of people. We feel that same thing when performing live, but take solace in the fleeting nature of a moment.

I find great value in the fast nature of a live performance and have great love for being able to slow things down. The greatest experience comes from the balance both provide. It allows me to approach the other differently and creates new perspectives I may have missed in one at some time, giving new routes to take on the journey of creation.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

One breakthrough I had was going to perform in Cape Town South Africa with Miguel Atwood-Ferguson with Suite for Ma Dukes. It was very special because of my love for Miguel’s arrangements and imagination, J Dilla’s music, lush bigger groups of musicians, Africa, and nature.

At the time Cape Town was experiencing a major drought and we when we were playing the music in the outside concert it began to rain. It gave me great appreciation for the frequency of nature and the ability to not only invoke thought, emotion, and actions but also influence nature itself. I then began focusing on the frequencies naturally occurring in this dimension. Through Miguel’s benevolence he was able to touch nature’s heart and restore balance even if briefly to that environment.

In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

I was in my penultimate year of college and it completely shifted my thinking of music as it was something I actually experienced and not just a theory. I understood how violent music could make people violent, but it was amazing to see beautiful music create beauty on the physical planet.

Music can express the motion of planets, the wind blowing, the earth changing, the destructive nature of fire, the healing aspects of water, and our own thoughts and feelings more than we can even rationalize at any one given moment. Everything here as we know it works in a rhythm, and harmony, all for the sake of balance. Sometimes we are not aware of the things that need to be worked out, but if you ever left for a concert feeling overwhelmed, and came back feeling refreshed, inspired, and having new ideas without having any conversations being had, you know what I mean.