Improvisational Composition: An Interview with Drummer Tommy Crane
A photo of drummer Tommy Crane

Tommy Crane is a fixture of both the Montreal and New York jazz scenes, playing with the likes of Aaron Parks, Melissa Aldana, and La Force. A longtime Sunhouse artist, Crane took quarantine as an opportunity to dive deep into Sensory Percussion, combining it with synths and acoustic drums to create the intricately layered tracks that make up his debut solo effort, 'We're All Improvisers Now' via Whirlwind Recordings.

At times meditative and other times frantic, the record covers a great deal of sonic territory using a relatively limited number of sound sources. Cascading walls of ambient synthesizers make the tracks seem huge, yet it still maintains the feeling of a solo musician exploring their inner self. We caught up with Tommy to talk about how his use and understanding of Sensory Percussion have evolved, the advantages of creative limitations, and what it means to be an improviser.

You first used Sensory Percussion on your 2017 collaborative multimedia piece 'Preservation'. How does this new album differ from your previous work with Sensory Percussion?

Sensory Percussion blew my mind at first. It added an element of musicality that was really fun for me to mess around with.

At first, 'Preservation' was basically me and an SPD-SX, a mini Juno 06, and a full drum kit (with chimes, oh yes, chimes!), but at a certain point I needed a way to expand the music a bit. I reached out to Sunhouse and sent them 'Preservation' and they really enjoyed it. And I felt like it could be a good tool for that project. It was really nice with that project just to integrate some of the electronic drum sounds more as triggers at that point.

I hadn't really spent too much time with Sensory Percussion or done a deep dive until the pandemic hit. Like actually getting beyond the very basic level. I mean, it blew my mind at first. It added an element of musicality that was really fun for me to mess around with. But that project was more centered around acoustic drums and then eventually I put some samples into Sensory Percussion and used it in a live setting. But again, very basic until I had endless days on hand to explore a bit.

An image of the four panels of the album art with a white vinyl record overlapping them.
The 'We Are All Improvisers Now' vinyl record.

It seems like you've been using Sensory Percussion as a performance tool for a while. I'm wondering if you use it differently as a production tool for this album.

For this project, I first recorded with Sensory Percussion and layered things in later. I find it to be a good way to work, always starting with drums. For me, it makes a lot of sense. I have a limited harmonic palette, which I think is a good thing at times. The whole process for me--even using Sensory Percussion at the start of this project--was also very limited because I hadn't gone full hog with it yet. I didn't create a lot of controllers. It was literally just assigning sounds that I like or samples that I had to two or maybe three zones. I find that three is usually the max for me.

The track 'Curated Reality' off the record.

I'm curious how the title 'We're All Improvisers Now' relates to your process. You are often categorized as a jazz musician, but there aren't a lot of 'jazzy' improvised solos on this record. In fact, some of it sounds pretty structured. 'Curated Reality,' for example, has a bar of seven followed by a bar of eight throughout the track. Are things like that planned out beforehand, or accidental?

No, it wasn't planned. I never plan stuff like that. The process with this record was very basic at the beginning. It was just improvising a lot. And title sounds a little cheeky, but it was just how I felt at the beginning of the pandemic, which is when I began writing and recording the album at home in our spare room. I just felt like we were all kind of making things up as we went along. I've always made music at home in my little studio and stuff like that, but I never took it very seriously. It was more of a hobby. So the whole process felt new, it felt like I could entertain the idea of improvising my way through making a record.

So it sounds like you're referring to improvisational composition, rather than actually improvising what you're playing during the performance.


An image from the album art showing a close-up of a rock-like object with the track names superimposed in circle above it.
An image from the album art

There are lots of layered ambient textures throughout the record. Other than Sensory Percussion, what sound sources did you use to create these?

Really just a couple of synths. A Prophet 6, a Juno 60. What else? A Critter & Guitari Organelle. I also assigned samples to an SPD-SX sometimes as well. I think that's it.

For a solo record created at home with just a few synths, it sounds huge. It's very expansive, lots of layers. It doesn't necessarily sound like one person.

The dynamics are what sold me on Sensory Percussion because I like playing a lot of jazz. The dynamic range is large and it feels like a very musical tool.

Right. Yeah, there are lot of layers. But it was also somewhat collaborative. When the demos were finished, I thought it would be fun to kind of create this partnership with some musicians remotely. I reached out to a few people for remote performances and a buddy of mine named Jordan Brooks replaced all my bass parts. I'm not a great bass player.

Logan Richardson, who played sax on 'Nordique Americana (pt. 1),' is a really old friend. We grew up together. Honestly, the people I ended up reaching out to were people I was in touch with anyway throughout the beginning of the pandemic through Zoom or FaceTime or whatever. It was all very casual and organic.

Speaking of organic, sonically, there's a lot of mixing the organic (acoustic) with the synthetic (electronic), which is one of the core concepts behind Sensory Percussion. It seems like that notion of natural vs. synthetic is reflected in the album art. Did the sound inspire the visuals or vice versa? Or maybe that's a coincidence?

No it was very deliberate. Tracy Maurice, who created the album art, is a phenomenal visual artist. For this project, she very much wanted to create a hybrid situation. So she reached out to Renee Forest, who is a 3D artist here in Montreal that she was following. She bought a piece by Renee, who makes beautiful 3D work. Tracy and I are also partners and we have the piece in our home. Eventually, Tracy just proposed to Renee, "Tommy made this album and I came up with the idea of kind of blending the natural and the synthetic". And that was the starting point.

We actually did the artwork together. We went to various bodies of water here in Quebec and Tracy would set up ceramic pieces in the water and then film them. That's kind of what she does. She usually makes a piece and then she'll film it herself. She's worked with a lot of really great, far more established musicians, like Arcade Fire. She's very research-based and then she will make a piece and capture it. And with this particular artwork, she wanted to collaborate with someone that did 3D work. So Renee used the photography as a starting point to create the 3D elements.

One of the images from the ablum art that features a rock-like object floating in water
An album art image created by Tracy Maurice.

So what you see on the album cover is the actual physical object in the water, but it's been manipulated digitally after being photographed?

Exactly. Tracy has studied a lot of analog special effects. That's kind of her specialty. She's very into doing the research beforehand. In a sense, I could say that this record was inspired by her because I had never worked in that way before. I've learned so much from her in terms of doing research, trying things, and going through phases to see what's working and what's not.

Usually, I'll just be like, "Let's get some musicians together and let's go to a studio and track and then we'll mix it and off to mastering, blah, blah, blah." This was a much slower process that felt more personal.

In terms of Sensory Percussion, was this research phase mostly just trial and error? Or did you use other resources to learn more about the software?

I went to the user manual a bit, but yeah, I'm more of a trial and error kind of person. I think that's what I love about Sensory Percussion. Working my way through it a little bit. That's the beauty of being a drummer, too; it kind of makes sense and feels intuitive the way they've developed it. It feels pretty natural to me. Like the velocity controls compared a regular drum pad are way more expressive. The dynamics are what sold me on Sensory Percussion because I like playing a lot of jazz. The dynamic range is large and it feels like a very musical tool.

This track uses a preset Sunhouse kit 'Evection' with additional layers of instrumentation built around it.

Just listening to the record, it's hard to say which sounds are coming from Sensory Percussion, which are from a synth, or which are from the acoustic drums. Were the samples you dropped into Sensory Percussion melodic, or did you use it more to add percussive layers?

In general, more percussive. Except for that one tune "Shimo," which is literally just that preset patch that my friend Elliot Krimsky I think helped create.

(Tommy is referring to the Sunhouse kit "Evection" from the Lunar Cities soundpack created in collaboration with composer Eliot Krimsky.)

I really like that sound a lot. I don't even think I changed a thing. I think it's literally the same tempo and I just built around it. That's kind of how I end up working a lot at the time is like, "Oh, that sounds really good. I'll record that," and just start from there.

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