Earlier this year, Timothy Simmons released an album of instrumental tracks titled Climbing the Spiral Stairs. The plan all along was to follow it up with an album of collaborations building upon the original tracks that he had recorded. The result, Friends Meeting, is as mesmerizing as Climbing the Spiral Stairs, yet a different album altogether insofar as each musician brought something new to the table, dramatically transforming each tune. Given the nature of the project, I wanted to hear from Simmons as well as the artists he worked with to get a sense of how it all came together.

TIMOTHY SIMMONS

What was the idea behind following Climbing the Spiral Stairs with an album of collaborations based on that initial album?

I was so thrilled with how the guitar improvisations for ­Climbing the Spiral Stairs came out, that I wanted to expand on them. Since they were improvised, and my passion is improvising with other like-minded folks, I thought it would be fun to share them out and ask others to add their own improvisations to them. Once their improvised parts came back to me, I added drums, bass, percussion, synths, etc. But at all times, everything I added was improvised and recorded in only one or two takes. I wanted to keep the entire thing feeling live and improvised. So, even though it is all done remotely and with multi-racking, it still is a collection of free improvisations.

How do you know the musicians you asked to work with you, and why did you choose them to contribute to the project?

Well, you’re one of my oldest friends, and we collaborate all the time, so choosing you was easy. Plus, you engineered the recordings for the original guitar improvisations that this album was bult out of. Todd Rogers plays viola and violin on “Oscillation I,” Alina Plourde plays English Horn on “Oscillation II” and oboe on “Stick and Weave” and Jonathan Best sings and plays piano on “Waiting for the Afterglow.” They are all friends from Music for People, which is where many musicians go to explore improvisation and to make music that is free from rules. Drew Anello, who plays guitar on the track “Orbiting,” is an old student of mine, and Khalil Munir, who does the incredible recorded tap dancing on “Stick and Weave” is a fellow teacher and collaborator.

Why is the new album called Friends Meeting?

Friends Meeting is a title I’ve been kicking around for years, and in this instance, it just felt right, since the record made out of a bunch of friends meeting, virtually, to make music!

DREW ANELLO

Which song did you collaborate on, and what drew you to that particular song?

“Orbiting”! I liked the tempo change and build up of moments it takes the listener on a journey. Also Tim asked me to play on it and I always jump on every opportunity I can to play on his music

What did you add to it?

I added some ambient guitar. I added a drone at the end I tried to not get too in the way.

How did you go about figuring out what to play? 

Honestly a lot of my session work is throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall and seeing which one sticks–haha. I try to ask myself is what I’m playing serving the music often its no and I have to create more space.

What do you like about collaboration in general?

It’s an awesome way for multiple artist to express themselves and create a masterpiece together!

More specifically, what do you like about working with Timothy Simmons?

Tim really kicked off my music career he’s been a friend and mentor for about seven years and has given me a lot of inspiration as an artist as well as taught me a lot of valuable lessons. One of which being adding silence to the tune. Its a really affective way to add more emotion to a song

Do you have any solo projects that you’d like to talk about?

I write music as a “Mello Anello” and play throughout NYC quite a bit. I also produce write and play for other artists and run a studio based in Brooklyn!

JONATHAN BEST

Which song did you collaborate on, and what drew you to that particular song?

“Waiting for the Afterglow”

What did you add to it?

Piano and voice.

How did you go about figuring out what to play?  

I had just put a new mic pre/compressor in the rack and I thought this would be a good place to test it out. So I put down a piano track without even knowing the key. Just started playing. Then I recorded my voice making up words as I went. I asked Tim to take out two lines that I thought were superfluous.

What do you like about collaboration in general?

You come up with things that would have been impossible with just one. It’s like the universe is drawing with two or more crayons.

More specifically, what do you like about working with Timothy Simmons?

I always know it will be deep with Tim because he is dedicated. So it creates trust.

Do you have any solo projects that you’d like to talk about?

Everything’s a collaboration these days.

TODD ROGERS

Which song did you collaborate on, and what drew you to that particular song?

“Oscillation I.”

What did you add to it?

Violin

How did you go about figuring out what to play?  

Tim’s foundation had an exuberance to it and when I hear this in a piece I’m often moved in a Carnatic direction.  To be clear, I don’t know how to really play in this style, but I chose something that to me was evocative of Carnatic.

What do you like about collaboration in general?

It’s the IT for me when it comes to music, it’s always been about the connection.  Even if I don’t play much or do anything particularly noticeable or interesting, just being inside the soundscape being created together is gold for me.

More specifically, what do you like about working with Timothy Simmons?

Tim’s arrangements are truly unique, and he has so much talent spread across so many instruments.  He even plays accordion for god’s sake!  These abilities are matched by his production talents.  On this piece for instance, he really dug in, probing in several different directions till he found what was just right.  All along the way he sent me versions for my input, making it a true collaboration

Do you have any solo projects that you’d like to talk about?

Definitely not!  My work always involved others.  Here in Brooklyn I started a project called “Throughline” which fuses electric blues and Eastern European influences with a dose of effects-driven spaciness.  It’s all original work and largely fueled by improvisation.

MARC SCHUSTER

Which song did you collaborate on, and what drew you to that particular song?

I worked on “Spirals” and “Lost in Space.” I was attracted to the jazzy feel of “Spirals.” The track Tim sent me was originally called “Seven Up,” and it reminded of Vince Guaraldi. That was before he added the ethereal e-bow parts, which I like. Now it sounds like Vince Guaraldi teamed up with Robert Fripp to score a very cosmic Charlie Brown special. I mean that in a good way!

What did you contribute?

I added drums to “Spirals” and keyboards to “Lost in Space.”

How did you go about figuring out what to play?

For each song, I put the track that Tim sent me on a loop and just kept playing until I liked what I was doing. For “Spirals,” it was a matter of figuring out how the song moved, almost like figuring out the stride of a horse and then trying to walk alongside it at the same pace. For “Lost in Space,” I was actually listening for the spaces that I could fill in. In my head it was like, “Okay, Tim is doing a cool thing here, so I’ll hold back, and now there’s a part where Tim is holding back a bit, so I’ll play something.” I suppose the main thing I did was listen.

What do you like about collaboration in general?

My favorite thing about collaboration is getting a different voice on a recording. I do a lot of recordings where I play all the instruments. As a result, my music starts to sound fairly predictable to my ears. I always know what the drums or the guitar solo is going to sound like. Collaboration adds a layer of unpredictability, which makes the music more fun.

More specifically, what do you like about working with Timothy Simmons?

Working with Tim is fun because he lets musicians do what they want to do. He doesn’t say, “I need a guitar solo here, and I want it to sound like this.” It’s actually quite the opposite. When he asked me to contribute to this project, it was more a matter of picking a song I liked and then adding whatever I wanted to add. As a result, I got a chance to play drums on one track and keyboards on another despite the fact that I’m most comfortable playing guitar.

That’s another great thing about playing with Tim. He lets people go outside their comfort zones—and once they’re there, he pushes them a little further. With “Spirals” in particular, I knew I wanted to try my hand at playing drums, but I didn’t realize at the time that the song was in, I think, seven-four timing. It took me about three hours of playing along with the track just to come to that realization, which is when I realized that the original title, “Seven Up,” was a hint. I just thought Tim liked fizzy soft-drinks.

Do you have any solo projects that you’d like to talk about?

I recently published a children’s book called Franky Lumlit’s Janky Drumkit, which Tim actually encouraged me to write. It’s about a boy who wants to play drums but can’t afford a kit, so he builds one out of odds and ends he finds in the recycling bin. Very DIY. Tim and I are also releasing another album of improv music under the name Simmons and Schuster. It’s our second album. We’re calling it Dos.

I also recently unearthed some old tapes I recorded with my friend Brian Lambert a long time ago when we were the Star Crumbles. Interesting stuff. I feel like the past and the future get blurred a little when I listen to it. I can’t say too much about it because there’s some weirdness about who owns what. Not between me and Brian, but between us and other entities who shall, for the moment, remain nameless.

2 thoughts on “My Passion Is Improvising: An Interview with Timothy Simmons — and Friends!

Comments are closed.