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INTERVIEW: Composer-Pianist Michael Cain and the Sounds of Summer

Pianist-composer Michael Cain with bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Kevin Washington. As the Michael Cain Trio, the ensemble performs at the Water Works in Minneapolis this Saturday, July 9 at 3 PM.

It’s summer time in the Twin Cities, which means freely flowing local brews, endless barbecue, and outdoor music concerts. This Saturday, the MacPhail Center for Music steps into the latter role for the latest installment of the concert series Sounds of Summer. This series, operated in partnership with the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board for a summer concert series, features a performance on Saturday on the banks of the Mississippi. From 3-7 pm, MacPhail will provide live music at the Water Works in Mill Ruins Park in Minneapolis. The program features the Michael Cain Trio and the renowned Cuban pianist Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera, as well as other affiliates in concert.

Michael Cain is the Director of the Electronic, Music, Recording Arts Program (EMRA) for MacPhail – as well as a performing pianist, composer, and professor of jazz and composition. Michael spoke with the Arts Reader about his career and planning the weekend’s concert.

Michael, you wear many hats as a musician. How often do you get to set some of those aside to play with your trio? How did you, Kevin Washington, and Anthony Cox first start working together?

Anthony and I first worked together in 1988 in James Newton’s quartet with Billy Hart on drums. That was my first European tour. Shortly after that Anthony formed a quartet I was a part of with Dewey Redman on saxophone and Billy Higgins on drums. That group released an album in the early 90s called Dark Metals, so Anthony and I have been close for a long time. It was through him I met Kevin when I moved to Minneapolis, and we’ve been able to play together a few times with Anthony, and most recently with PaviElle French’s Sovereign Suite, which she premiered at the Fitzgerald Theater a few weeks ago.

In addition to performing, you’re also the Director of the Electronic Music and Recording Arts program at MacPhail. What are some ways that this program continues to adapt to the ongoing pandemic?

EMRA launched at the start of the pandemic so we’ve been adapting from the beginning. We are very collaborative and responsive in our approach to our offerings, we want to meet learners where they are at and with the tools they have available to them. For the pandemic that meant creating ways in which electronic music making, and all that it entails, can be taught online, which we’ve been able to do quite successfully. That’s largely due to an incredibly talented collection of EMRA teachers which includes Isaac Rohr, Krysta “K.Raydio” Rayford, Kenichi Thomas (DJJustNine), and Barbara Cohen.

What style(s) of music will we hear in your portion of the concert?

A: I would solidly call it Jazz. Given the format of the piano trio with bass and drums, and the nature of the event, I would call this a jazz concert. I play a lot of different styles of music, largely because I do a lot of studio work, but jazz is close to my core musical language. As times progress and different genres emerge, I really value getting to play with musicians who are fundamentally steeped in a given musical language. Anthony and Kevin are not “tourists” to jazz, they know it on a deep level which is acquired over many years and many experiences of playing with masters. When I play with them I feel an ease and joy that comes with knowing we are speaking the same language.

Where do you begin with picking repertoire for an outdoor, public concert like this? Is the set list notably different than if you were playing in a club? 

It is different, actually. Playing an acoustic piano outside brings a very different sonic dimension to things. There are no walls in a room to contain the sound, so it doesn’t come back to you in a certain way. It kind of disperses quickly. It’s a bit strange until you get used to it.

The way that affects the set list for me is I lean towards music that has more of a direct punch, perhaps a bit more energetic. Music that can travel well and reach a listener outside. And I always think about what musically fits the type of event, whether it’s more a party, a hang, a celebration, etc.

I always want the listener to have an experience that is joyful, profound, and transformative, and part of that is thinking about what brought them to this event in the first place.

It’s been a few years since 2018’s Hoo Doo was released. Is there another album in the works?

Perhaps, the beginning outlines of another album has started to emerge but it’s still early yet. After Hoo Doo, which I really like as an album, I wondered if the album format was the way I wanted to release music in the future. Or would it be singles, or something else.

I’ve made quite a few albums as a leader – around 11, depending on how you count – and been on many others as sideman. At this stage in my musical journey, I don’t feel compelled to make an album, which is a nice place to be, while I do feel very compelled to make music.

If there is another album coming it will flow from an organic process where the musical ideas naturally organize into a collection of recorded pieces called an album, and there does seem to be something happening in the back of my mind along those lines that is exciting me, so we’ll see.

What’s another music performance that you are especially looking forward to this summer?

I’m going to be an artist-in-residence at Auckland University in New Zealand for the month of August, where I’ll be doing several concerts. Some will be with local Auckland and Wellington jazz musicians and others some very electronic, experimental music. The residency will also include several lectures and workshops. At the start of this interview I mention my first tour in Europe was in 1988, that’s a lot of years of touring in some capacity.

For this residency I’ll be in one place for an extended period of time, allowing for conversation and collaboration, which you can rarely do on a tour. And it’s New Zealand, which I’ve never been to, so I’m very excited about this trip!


Basil Considine