“Whenever you try anything new, you have to be OK with sucking for a while,” Jeremy Kittel says. It’s a surprising statement on two counts. One: “something new” could be shorthand for Kittel’s entire career. Over the course of four solo albums, a fiddling stint with Grammy-winning Turtle Island Quartet, and collaborations with artists like Abigail Washburn, Mark O’Connor, and the Silk Road Ensemble, Kittel has done more than blend folk, Celtic, classical, and jazz; he’s obliterated boundaries between genres. And two: Is it possible for Kittel to suck at anything?
It turns out that Whorls, the violinist’s new album with his string quintet, Kittel and Co., premieres Kittel’s first recorded vocals on two songs, “Nethermead” and “Waltz.” (Sarah Jarosz sings backing vocals on the latter.) So Kittel dared to be less than awesome as he painstakingly perfected his vocals to make sure the pair of tunes was every bit as good as the collection’s nine shape-shifting and spiraling instrumentals. Daring to suck is just one risk of many that seems to define Whorls.
“The spark for this project is those authentic moments of musical connection between players,” Kittel says, an exchange that can spur exciting ideas and point to new possibilities. Kittel is a strong advocate for this communal approach to music making, he adds, which is why this release is credited to the collective Kittel & Co., and not to Jeremy Kittel or Kittel and his band. A free and open exchange between what Kittel calls his “merry pack of string players” leads to music that is more real and more alive, he continues, but that approach can also pose challenges.
“The whole project is about new things and new goals. With that inherently comes challenge,” Kittel says. “But that’s what we wanted.”
Except for Bach’s “Preludio,” which you arranged, you wrote all the compositions on the album. What was your writing process?
Usually I’d come in with fairly worked out sketches. We worked on those as a group, and then we internalized them through shows. Just by playing them we added more details over time, and then in the studio we added yet another layer. Maybe two out of five people in the band read music. [Pieces are] notated occasionally, but I like writing without seeing the notation, so that I was just working with tone. It’s actually faster to make demos and sketches, and highlight different sections where people are playing certain parts and important moments. Then we got together and work-shopped it and refined it. A lot of that happens naturally. The idea is for it to be visceral.
The quintet includes Simon Chrisman (hammer dulcimer), Quinn Bachand (guitar), Josh Pinkham (mandolin), and Nathaniel Smith (cello/organ). What did each player bring to the sessions?
Nat Smith has an incredibly deep pocket on cello. That’s where a lot of his love comes through. Simon adds a lot of space on dulcimer. I feel like sounds have a physical counterpart, so [Simon’s dulcimer] adds longevity to the notes. He’s also an incredible improviser. Quinn Bachand is a unique guitarist in that he combines different genres in his playing. One of the things that really attracted me to him was that we both play Celtic music and we both play jazz. That gives us a jumping off point for doing some things that fall between the cracks. Josh Pinkham has developed his own remarkably fluid improvising style on his mandolin. He probably has the most improvised solos on the record. He’s always had a great rhythmic pocket as long as I’ve known him. One of the things that I love about everybody is the rhythmic aspect. Each person has slightly different ways of feeling and playing rhythm. On the album, “The Boxing Reels” draws on Celtic music, [but] it’s informed by contemporary grooves and backbeats that the guys are playing.
What violin did you play on the recording sessions?
I played a violin by Walter Stopka, a Chicago violin maker. The wonderful-sounding bow is by Doug Raguse from northern Michigan. Bronek Cison made the viola, which also appears on the record. I love Pirastro strings, and I usually use Evah Pirazzi or Evah Pirazzi Gold.
A few years ago, I met one of my favorite engineers in the world. I had the good fortune to go to the Grammys, and a woman invited us to come sit at her table. It turned out that her husband is Richard King, who has worked for Sony Classical. He’s done a lot of wonderful acoustic records over the years. We kept in touch, and I consulted with him before we went into the studio to do Whorls. One of his ideas was to use one microphone, sometimes two, for each instrument, plus a main stereo pair in the middle to pick up the whole group. Each instrument was closely mic’d. We wanted that energy.
How did the studio, Rotary Records in West Springfield, Massachusetts, affect the recording process?
Our friend Warren Amerman bought this centuries-old Congregational church from the Masons ten years ago, and he spent the last decade turning it into this awesome studio space. What attracted us was having a beautiful room with high ceilings to play in and record in, and to be able to use that room-sound as well. It’s inspiring because you’re hearing the sound of the group and you’re hearing your own instrument reverberating in this wonderful way. In my opinion, all instruments, but violins in particular, are made to be heard through a three-dimensional space. There is no comparison between the sound of a dry room vs. a three-dimensional space.
You’ve said that when you reach a balance with your fellow players it can be a holy experience. Can you expound on that thought?
It’s something that happens with any group of musicians when they’re really connected. When you’re in that kind of flow, it’s so intuitive that it makes you question your individuality. With the music [on this project], moments like this have been the most meaningful to me, and they were also the best performances. They’re the performances we used on the record.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Strings magazine.