Interview by Andrew Daly
Todd Cochran is an American multi-instrumentalist who primarily works within the genre of jazz fusion, as well as rock, avante-garde, and more. In addition to being an accomplished solo artist, she has worked with the likes of Bobby Hutcherson, Automatic Man, Peter Gabriel, and more.
Todd’s influence is boundless, and it was a treat to dig into his early origins before diving deeply into his latest record, From The Vault: Notes For The Future. For an artist who has spent the bulk of his career stretching the possibilities of soundscapes through intense and repeated musical reinvention, it’s refreshing to see that From The Vault: Notes For The Future is yet another progression.
In support of From The Vault: Notes For The Future, Todd Cochran beamed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to peel back the onion on his early origins in music, his latest record, and more.
When did music first enter your life?
I was born into a music and art-loving family to two parents who were musicians by advocation. From my earliest childhood memories, I cannot remember a time when music was not present in my home. My father was a singer and pianist, while my mother was a violinist and played the piano.
Classical music and jazz were central to their life. I listened to recordings with them, watched their favorite performers on television, and we had a family tradition of going to live concerts which allowed me to hear a range of musical styles. I’ll never forget how we would discuss what we had heard for days afterward.
Which albums were most important in terms of sharing your sound? How did those records influence you early on?
The most important albums to me were those that amazed me with emotion and transported me to distant places with sound. In the classical world, I enjoyed the piano compositions of Bartok, the keyboard and choral music of Bach, and was fascinated by the Firebird Suite of Stravinsky.
The art of the great jazz musicians Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone matured me emotionally and made me want to learn more about the world and the world I wanted to become a part of. I got my first taste of the majesty of the blues from jazz and gospel music and a sense of dimensions beyond what we see with our eyes in classical pieces.
The two of them together created a bridge I’ve always wanted to access freely, with music and art, and very importantly, in life and relationships. Then when R&B, folk, and rock entered my purview, the seeds flowered, and I’ve never been uncertain about my pursuit of music.
Paint a picture of the scene you were privy to in your early days.
Recalling the San Francisco (my hometown) scene in the late ’70s is like riffing on American mythology. There were tremendous strengths, creativity, and fragility—the excessiveness in the music scene during that period. But as we know, the city was populated with artists now internationally recognized as true creative visionaries. It was a revolutionary period at the peak of the civil rights movement and the counter-culture change.
The super close proximities of different groups of people due to the small geographic area made for interactions between the city’s ethnically diverse cultures and the creatives with the literary, contemporary theatre, dance, and visual arts scene very much intertwined. To this add musicians circulating between the jazz, R&B, Latin, rock, and psychedelic communities, and it was one of the most creatively invigorating scenes imaginable.
Anything that stands out most from the eclectic mix?
The scene I’ll recreate/paint is a picture from my school/early college days as a late teenager playing with jazz alto saxophonist John Handy (Charlie Mingus alumni). He was also collaborating with the master Indian Hindustani classical musician Ali Akbar Khan. When not performing with Handy, I also played Latin gigs with trumpeter Louis Gasca, whose datebook alternately had him working with Janis Joplin and Van Morrison.
A school friend of mine’s older brother was playing with the Jefferson Airplane. Years before, I’d listen to Sly Stone live on the radio hosting his nightly show, on which he’d spin records and sing, accompanying himself on the guitar. The lead-in theme song of his show was Ray Charles’ recording of “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” Adding to this mix were fantastic stories.
For example, I’d hear about Taj Mahal (blues and folk artist), a big star at the time, from my haircutter, who was also his barber. Other lodestones of San Francisco were the City Lights Bookstore and the American Conservatory Theatre, hubs for cutting-edge ideas. So, I was surrounded by a potpourri of authentic and stylized influences from every angle. I know how fortunate I was to have this exposure during my formative days.
Can you recount your first show and how that led to you signing a record deal?
One of my first attention-getting shows was with my band, a quartet, as the opening act for singer Donny Hathaway at the Berkeley Community Theatre. Another key performance leading to my first record deal was playing keyboards with “The Fourth Way” (a pioneering band on CBS Records) at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West. The series of these gigs and a few others put me on the radar of Fantasy Records, and soon after that, I was offered a deal with Prestige, a label under the Fantasy umbrella.
How did From The Vault: Notes For The Future come together?
Intrigued by the possibilities, I dug deeply into electronic music and keyboard-controlled synthesizers early in my career. Learning various theories about emulating acoustic sounds and natural noises and blending electronic textures that could be used in musical contexts became a passion of mine. What I hadn’t anticipated at the time was that my work with electronic keyboards would lead to my involvement in a wide range of collaborations in art rock, R&B, jazz, world music, and film.
While I focused on the piano and contemporary art music for some years, my electronic techniques were compartmentalized in a quiet place. I believe it was a part of my evolution for this album of electronic music to come about. Then there’s serendipity, a highly intuitive professional partner, and a beautiful muse who stimulates a flow of inspiration.
The acoustic side of this record is fantastic.
Thank you for that. In my acoustic journey, I had begun incorporating some of the colors and hues of oscillations and resonance, and several newly available synths piqued my interest. It was a matter of me tuning in to how music-making was changing.
Curious about where I saw a potential new wave of imagining could emerge, I dreamed about an empty chair that was there for me to fill. It was enticing beyond the ordinary and the start of another adventure. I’ve always believed that music can make a difference. When art is your life, you have to recognize conditions and give your all to bringing your ideas into the here and now.
What sort of gear did you have to work with in the studio?
From The Vault: Notes For The Future was recorded in my home studio. For me, a critical aspect of composing and recording is workflow. A good process frees up creative space. I have an acoustic room with vaulted ceilings and hardwood floors where I record my piano, strings, winds, voice, or African and Southeast Asian instruments, including an assortment of Balinese gamelan gongs and chimes I brought back from Indonesia.
Adjacent to the acoustic room is my workstation area, which includes a DAW, a 32-input console, house sync, speaker systems, and vintage keyboards. With my electronic keys, I work around 65% in the box with samplers, soft synths, and processors. The older analog gear I have requires detailed adjusting and fine-tuning. Moving back and forth between analog and digital is tedious, so whenever I get something I can commit to, I capture it and migrate the audio into my DAW.
What moment or moments from the sessions stand out most to you?
A high point of the project’s sessions came during the phase of doing final edits and assembling the album. There is a time sequence basis to the concept of this album. Listening to echoes from the future reveals how we, with our imagination, can move in and out of time to understand ourselves in the world better.
The idea of releasing and freeing something awaiting its moment in the sun is sage-like but not overreaching. Realizing that I had fulfilled (from my perspective) the objective where the “music map” reinforced the scenarios of the allegorical story I was telling was a fantastic private moment. It signaled that I could let go, and the album was ready to be shared with its audience.
In the wake of the album’s release, what was the response like?
Thus far, the album can only be heard on Bandcamp, where selected tracks are available for listening before the official release. Nonetheless, the responses have been enthusiastic about the recording’s sounds, textures, melodies, and overall immersive feeling of the combined music and concept.
What experiences did you have in terms of touring and promotion?
I enjoy the touring and promotion phase of getting the music to its audience. With media hosts, I’ll be doing interviews about the project that will be streamed and later viewed online. I’m also doing a track-by-track series of short clips explaining my take on the music.
Honestly, how the ideas took form, and the underlying meaning of the album concept is important to me. The high point is performing the music live with my band, which I thoroughly love and am excited about because this is when people become part of the music – making the circle complete.
Does making music in a low attention span world frustrate you?
If I fixate on it, yes. But the present-day reality of low attention spans is a symptom and by-product of what the tech industry has generated if we were to push a button and magically alter the dilemma of low attention span by returning to a simpler time and place from the past.
We would then be confronted with a number of the glaring problems we have since been able to fix in our society. So, in acknowledging that today’s music fans have a brief attention window, the solution is to bring other elements to the experience—visuals, dance, language, and words—in combinations that embed the art in an immersive experience.
What’s next in all lanes?
I’ve committed myself to gathering my thoughts and writing a book about how truth matters in this age of puzzlement. It’s based on the premise that if something works in a certain way for a long time, right or wrong, you should want to know why.
The massive vortex of conflicting viewpoints has to be deconstructed, and I’ll ideate on what that might look like. Soon I’ll be fleshing out the narrative material and music for the next album. Collaborations that stretch the boundaries of music, dance, and the visual arts are of great interest to me, and I’m sure that my involvement in making short films will continue.
Todd Cochran: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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