Opening Yourself to the Musical Moment: Max Jaffe on Collaboration, Improvisation, and His New Trio Record
A black-and-white photo of Dave Harrington, Max Jaffe, and Patrick Shiorishi smiling from a parking garage rooftop.

Max Jaffe is a drummer, composer, and longtime Sunhouse artist whose work synthesizes elements of jazz, electronic, and experimental music into an exciting new format. Max joined forces with multi-instumentalists Dave Harrington and Patrick Shiroishi on their new record 'Speak, Moment', which is out now via AKP Recordings. The record is an entirely improvised work made by three artists who are comfortable exploring the unknown. Moving through minimalist ambient landscapes to noise-filled cascades of sound and back again, it invites the listener to open themselves up to the new and the strange. Listen for yourself below, and read on to hear how Max used Sensory Percussion on these tracks.

We last caught up with you in 2019 around the release of your solo record Giant Beat, which was made with Sensory Percussion. Since then, how has your approach to making music with Sensory Percussion changed, if at all?

It's interesting because I feel like I’m going further down that same path I was on at the time of that record being made, but the path is constantly turning and winding. That Giant Beat record felt like the culmination of the first phase of my working with Sensory, where the goal was to make solo music not as solo drum set music, but I wanted to see if I could use the technology to write songs--whatever that word might mean. And then while I was getting my MFA in Music Tech, I started really exploring more of the ways I could use it as a collaborative tool. And sometimes that collaboration might be between the computer and myself, as if we’re a duo. I started exploiting randomness, and I was studying at CalArts, so I was signing up for ensembles and I was able to test out these things I had been working on in playing situations. I was just trying to come up with kits that were almost the opposite of what I had done before.

It became much more collaborative, just being open to whatever musical moment might come out of improvising with people. It forced me to think a little bit more to avoid feeling like I was looking at the computer scanning through what I had built instead of being in the music. Ultimately, when I'm playing drums, the kit is just the palette. And Sensory Percussion can work in so many different situations, so I started thinking about it in those terms: augmenting the acoustic drum set, making groups of sounds I could rely on in a wide variety of situations. Just like how I have a few cymbals that serve me well across a wide variety of situations.

The album cover art for Speak, Moment featuring collage of a an open door on a desert background.

That's a cool way of thinking of Sensory: It could be a collaborator in itself or it could be another instrument in your arsenal.

Yeah. I felt like I had hit a bit of personal creative ceiling with the first batch of things I did with it. Those were what I call a one-to-one kind of relationship where it's just hitting the drum to control a sample. The sample might be short or it might be long, and it definitely still goes deeper than the SPD, but it was still that type of setup where I’m in my head trying to remember which zones are playing which samples and that kind of stuff.

But the drum set just operates very differently from that. And I started discovering ways to use Sensory where I could actually lean into the imprecision of my playing. Where it doesn't matter if it’s a rim tip or a rim shoulder, it’s all just augmenting the natural sounds of the instrument and there are no wrong notes or misfires. The stuff I started building no longer relied on everything being trained perfectly with zero crosstalk and zero mistakes on my part.

So was this record part of that transition into more collaborative work?

Definitely. When I moved to LA, I already knew Dave [Harrington] from New York and he was one of the first people that I reached out to. He was super supportive and excited to have me here, throwing me into various improv gigs. And then I played with Patrick [Shiroishi] a few times on some sessions. But they had actually never met each other until the day we recorded the album. The three of us had never played together. I just had this feeling that they would be simpatico, that they had similar musical energies. Maybe it was because they both wore all black all the time. Anyway, I had played in trios before with drums, sax, and guitar. For whatever reason, I really like that instrumentation for a trio. I just felt like if I set up a session for the three of us, something cool would happen.

Just listening to the record, it’s fairly evident that you're listening to drums, sax, and guitar, but there are so many other textures that are hard to assign to one person or the other. I assume there were some other gadgets being used in addition to Sensory Percussion?

I started thinking about Sensory Percussion in terms of building sounds I could rely on in a variety of contexts, just like how I have a few cymbals that serve me well across a variety of situations.

Yes. Dave has a huge pedalboard he was using, and I was actually running Sensory through Hologram’s Infinite Jets pedal. Patrick was mostly just playing sax, but occasionally had two saxes and at times played some percussive things he found in the studio. Not having a bass also opened up some low end space for the sounds coming from Sensory Percussion; I had some sub sounds loaded across different kits.

A black-and-white photo of Dave Harrington, Max Jaffe, and Patrick Shiorishi smiling and looking down at the camera.

In terms of sound design within Sensory Percussion, are there any techniques you rely on a lot, or find yourself going back to?

Honestly, my workflow with the software is not the most organized. A lot of the kits I used were made in between moments at a rehearsal. Some of them were done very haphazardly at a soundcheck or something like that. I'll copy and paste a kit and then build a variation of it and then switch between them on the fly. So I like that about Sensory Percussion; it can be adapted to so many different musical contexts.

But on this record specifically, on the track "Ship Rock," for example, I have one zone with basically a whole folder of rim samples from the original Roland 808 drum machine. I wanted it to sound like they're all falling down the stairs and it's just almost like more of a clattering kind of thing. So I have an LFO that's assigned to the play button of that sampler. So that's just going all the time. But there's also a low-pass filter on that zone that filters out everything, so it's just silent. Then I have an envelope assigned to rimshot center that opens up that filter everytime I hit a rimshot, and that's the only time you hear the crazy falling-down-the-stairs sound.

So even though I was collaborating with two other musicians in the room, I still had things like that set up where I'm collaborating with the computer as well. The rate of the internal LFO is making decisions about the sound that have nothing to do with what I'm playing; it's set to a predetermined value. But then my playing is what opens up the filters and lets you hear those decisions made by the machine.

Anything else you want to share about the record, Sensory Percussion, or your music in general?

Just that I'm really excited about this record and that Sensory has been an increasingly big part of my sound. To make this kind of instrumental music, to have my name on it, and have Sensory be a big part of it feels good!

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