Name: Rafael Leafar
Occupation: Multi-instrumentalist, improviser
Nationality: American
Current release: Rafael Leafar's collaboration with Jeff Mills, The Override Switch, is out via Axis. It can also be ordered via Bigwax on vinyl or via NEWS (in Europe).

[Read our Jeff Mills interview]

If these thoughts by Rafael Leafar piqued your interest, visit his informative personal homepage. He is also on Instagram.

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?

I’m a multi-instrumentalist. I play all of the woodwinds instruments, piano and synthesizers. I have the strongest bond with the saxophone as it was the first instrument where I could naturally hear my voice.

The different instruments I play all vastly influence the music uniquely because they’re completely different sonically, distinct techniques to each one, and different perspectives that allows for unique ideas.

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?

Yes I do agree the material for improvisation is endlessly transformable. Human improvisation is the greatest synth modulation possible!

I feel my source of that material is spiritual. Connecting with GOD spiritually in prayer and focusing on something bigger than myself produces all the material I need and helps ground my improvisation so that I don’t get lost while I’m out in space!

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?

Yes I agree it’s a great general rule of thumb for most music.

But for the sake of an argument there are moments in music where those dynamics are played with musically. Think of it as being a mixing engineer where there are some elements of the sound hidden in the mix that you don’t necessary hear the first time listening. There are musicians out there that can play musically with that type of multi-dynamic thinking.

And then of course the best ones have that type of experimentation open as an option to use but of course tastefully come back home to a natural state of play in which John is talking about.

I don’t necessarily agree with the second statement. I’ve been in a lot of music situations where I didn’t relate to what I was into creating at the time. Those moments where I didn’t relate actually allowed me to develop further in so many different aspects as a musician and some of those not relatable things eventually made its way back into what I do; Hence this electronic techno sound I’m into these days …

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?

Peace and a calm, meditative mind is the ideal mindset for me. When I can achieve a peaceful, still mindset that eliminates the distracting inner voices from the ills of the world, then I can be in the zone where anything I can imagine is possible. Currently for me the only strategy is meditation and prayer.

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

First it depends on what kind of performance. I’m involved in so many different kinds of genres and styles of music.

But with my music it depends on so many factors; How large is my ensemble for that gig? Who are the instrumentalist playing? Where are we playing? Then all the factors decides what instruments I’m going to bring; acoustical instruments and electronics.

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them? How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?

Music production and the perspective you get from experimentation in the recording studio is how I view the relationship. Even that relationship is a big improvisation to me and also the art of dealing with the hand you're dealt definitely comes natural to Detroit musicians. Musical communication is the connection to both situations of playing to an audience live and playing in the studio.

I usually adhere to connecting with the audience no matter if I’m in the studio or in a live situation. That keeps the music or improvisational language potent. After playing so many different gigs and performance spaces, I’ve become more experienced in how to make the most out of where and what I have access to. You naturally learn more strategies the more experience you obtain.

What I achieve and draw from each experience personally is very similar to the art of a DJ experience. Each time a DJ performs they learn how to maximize the potential of the performance while balancing what is necessary of the essential outcome. Long story short, the feeling!

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?

I feel this project with Jeff Mills is the breakthrough work! If feels special because of all the circumstances that lead up to us eventually working together.

For me moving back to Detroit and collaborating with Sterling Toles on Boldy James album “Manger on Mcnichols” project, to meeting Mike Banks, and eventually Jeff has been a huge blessing. Mike Banks sent me Jeff Mills's tracks because he thought I could add something unique to them. We didn’t know if Jeff would like it or not but I heard the tracks and thought they were amazing. And I tried to squeeze in a little bit of everything that I do musically into them without getting the way of what Jeff already established.

Then lo and behold Jeff liked what I did and then we started creating a whole new project.

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?

My most influential music hero John Coltrane said that “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am — my faith, my knowledge, my being … When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups … I want to speak to their souls.”

I love this statement because it’s closest to I how I feel about music in general. And I believe its not death that music expresses but rather, on the other side of the life spectrum, it expresses grief or loss.