Beyond Category — Ep 21 — Andrew Durkin

Andrew Durkin’s “Breath of Fire” is out now on PJCE Records! This pianist and composer, who led the firebrand Industrial Jazz Group in concerts around the world, releases his first album in seven years. The meditative music is inspired by Durkin’s yoga practice, which he has started as way to keep his body flexible, and his spirit engaged. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe on iTunes!


[Pre-intro] Hey Beyond Category listeners. After you listen to this episode be sure to check out pjce.org and see some of the events we’ve got coming up. On May 22nd KMHD Jazz Radio will broadcast the Oregon Stories project, our audio documentary project featuring music by Darrell Grant, Mark Orton, and me, Douglas Detrick. But whenever you listen to this episode, we’ve probably got something cool coming up. So just give in to the temptation. Pjce.org. Here’s the episode.
[Doug] Welcome to Beyond Category, from the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. I’m Douglas Detrick. Andrew Durkin is getting older. The pain in his back, the way he looks at American politics, and his child growing up…all of it has him contemplating mortality a little more often than he used to. But, instead of retreating from the difficulty of life, he’s lit a fire in his belly that helps him keep moving. Breath of Fire is his first recording in eight years, and it’s out now on PJCE Records.
[Doug] At the center of this music is the essential nature of breath. This is Andrew Durkin.
[Andrew] Breath of Fire is a breathing technique…
[Doug] …a breathing technique from yoga, which Andrew practices because of a degenerative disease that affects his vertebrae.
[Andrew] I have ankylosing spondylitis. It’s hard to spell. It’s essentially just an aggressive arthritis that affects the spine, the hips, and the neck. One of the effects is that it slowly fuses the spine. So in the past, people who have had it, by the time they’re older you see them stooped over, and they can’t un-stoop. So, the idea is to try to stay as flexible and active as you can, so that’s how I got into yoga in the first place.
[Doug] If you know as little about yoga as I do, then you might think it’s all about holding funny poses. But for Andrew, yoga is about a concentrated experience of one’s own breathing.
[Andrew] The thing about yoga for me is not just that particular technique but the awareness of breath in general. This is something that musicians can relate to, right? Even as a piano player, I’m always thinking about how I’m breathing because I’m thinking about phrases and I’m thinking about how one thought leads to another.
[Andrew] Breath is sort of the core of everything. Breath of fire, I’ve found, is something that is very helpful at a particularly difficult or stressful point in the practice. So, if you’re doing yoga, it’s a way, I’ve found, to stay grounded. People talk about finding comfort in discomfort, and I love that because that’s so…life, for me.
[music changes]
Breathing is a big part of that. It’s inherently grounding and detoxifying and cleansing thing that our bodies do naturally. So much of the time we don’t even really think about it because it’s so much a part of us. So I love that idea of just becoming aware of it, and cultivating it.
[Doug] If you hear some of Andrew’s earlier music, with his Industrial Jazz Group, you’ll hear right away what it’s about—it’s boisterous, it’s raucous. It’s definitely not about death.
[Music: Industrial jazz group]
[Andrew] The story with that group is that we evolved from a quintet into a big band. As the group got bigger and bigger, the comedy got bigger and bigger too, the comedy really started taking over. So, I think when I was working on the music for this record, I was deliberately staying away from that as a mindset.
And to some extent, I was really just making the music for me. You know, like, I wanted to write the music that I really wanted to listen to. And to some extent with the Industrial Jazz Group as we got more successful, I became much more aware of audience expectations. That was all fun, and I still love that group, but this was a departure.
[Music: Breath of Fire]
[Doug] A departure to where? When I asked Andrew where he was headed as an artist now, he didn’t have an easy answer.
[Andrew] It’s so hard to describe beyond just a feeling, you know? Part of it is definitely like, paring down to the essentials again. At it’s biggest the Industrial Jazz Group was 15, 16 people. That’s a lot of sound to stand in front of and conduct.
[Doug] And with that many people, it’s hard to ask them to be quiet. Writing the music for this album was a chance to deal with some quiet, some silence, and feel this new feeling he was experiencing. And what feeling was that?
[Andrew] Getting old. Some people might say “maturity,” but I wouldn’t put it in those terms. It’s a different phase of your life. When I was in the heyday of Industrial Jazz Group I was in my thirties, it was no big deal to go on a tour where I knew I was going to be sleeping on couches, if I slept at all. The music I was writing for this project came when I got to a point in my life where I wanted to feel more grounded in one place, I wasn’t as interested in touring as I had been. All that definitely informed the compositions that came out.
[Doug] But even with all this talk of slowing down, being quiet, and getting old, this album is more like a celebration of life than a funeral. It’s a party, and what do you do at parties? You laugh, and at this party you laugh at mortality. Sounds like one hell of a party, right?
[Doug] You’ve been hearing music from Andrew Durkin’s “Breath of Fire,” the 28th release on PJCE Records. Stream and buy the album at pjce.bandcamp.com. And if you want to support the PJCE, consider becoming a member and get access to previews, discounts, and other perks along with your tax deduction. I had some personal circumstances this winter that prevented me from finishing this episode. Thanks for waiting for this one to come out. This has been Beyond Category. I’m Douglas Detrick, the Executive Director and podcaster-in-chief of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. Thanks for listening.