James Singleton: “My life is a distortion”

“Just had my caffeine,” proclaims James Singleton as he tears into a speedy melodic series of thumps on his upright bass. A cool breeze from Bayou St. John blows onto his cluttered porch, making the otherwise oppressive spring heat bearable as I watch the ongoing photo shoot. With no accompanists to rescue him from potential danger, Singleton showcases his ability to tame the hulking wooden beast he has wrapped his arms around in this impromptu miniature performance. A bedazzled shirt featuring a decapitated teddy bear and the phrase “Eat the rich” occasionally peeks into view as he grits his teeth and works his way up and down the neck of the bass, transforming it from foe to friend.

Singleton is perhaps best known as part of Astral Project, the bold modern jazz group he’s played in since the late 1970s. Over his four-and-a-half decades in the city, the bassist has also worked with a who’s who of New Orleans music. He’s the rare type of musician equally equipped for recording with adventurous piano prince James Booker and performing alongside bounce rap’s beloved queen diva Big Freedia. Even at 66 years-old, Singleton is still seeking out new firsts. A week after our interview, he and drummer Justin Peake lugged their gear into the dimly lit interior of Banks Street Bar for a performance with guitarist Cliff Hines‘ electronic project KLYPH. It was Singleton’s first time ever working with a modular synth player. Standing beneath a broken disco ball, he pushed the improvised music to its freakiest extremes with the low growl of distorted, bowed bass notes, the bright ting of a colorful children’s xylophone, and the martian-esque sound of a manipulated pocket trumpet.

Singleton’s new album Malabar isn’t your typical overly-polished modern day jazz record that takes pride in its smoothness. These sessions showcase the explosive collision of six top-notch musicians looking each other in the eyes as they tear Singleton’s compositions apart and spontaneously reshape them in real time. While the bassist has recorded some of these tunes with other configurations before, these versions reek of the wonderful sense of delirium that only comes at the tail end of a busy Jazz Fest season. Malabar documents where musicians’ brains go after an exhaustive two weeks of nonstop gigging with everybody and anybody. On a breezy spring afternoon, Singleton opened up about his need for distortion, keeping traditional jazz radical, and the grind of making a living as a working musician.

When did you record the new album?

I was going to lie and say, “Oh, that was last week!” But, yeah, it is more than four years old. I do a lot of post-production—not a lot of editing but mix is a big thing with me. I grew up on Hendrix and The Beatles and classical music so I’m thinking in orchestral terms, always. I really want to accelerate the process and move more quickly towards a body of work, but then I struggle with the order of the compositions. Post-production is a big deal to me. I’m hoping to get more and more efficient at it. I have a couple of projects in the pipeline that need to be edited, ordered, and done the artwork for… I’m feeling extremely grateful that Scott Borne and his partners at Sinking City decided to put it out. I’m already on the [Byron Asher] Skrontch Music project that they put out and there’s another one coming out. I’m just thrilled that it took long enough to get a locally-owned team behind it.

I think one of the things that I love about the album is the way that you and the band use textures. Some of these are songs that I’ve heard you do with other projects, but I do feel like you really set them apart from those other versions.

I’m deeply grateful that you noticed that because I am obsessed with texture and orchestration. I’ve played traditional jazz with some of the greatest living traditional players. I’ve played so-called modern jazz with some of the greatest. I don’t know if you’ve seen my resume but it’s pretty spectacular what I’ve gotten to do. But, having said that, I feel that for me and my generation and, presumably, the coming generations, texture and orchestration are a huge deal. Though I love music for saxophone, piano, bass, and drums, I need a broader palette to satisfy me. For me, the practice dates to post-Katrina, when I started working with Skerik and Mike Dillon and Stanton Moore in different situations—especially Mike because with Mike I get four guys for the price of one. He’s one of my favorite drummers on Earth, which is saying a lot, plus he’s a brilliant tabla player and tons of other percussion instruments. [He has] tons of different vocabularies, some of which I’m not familiar with. He and Skerik got me to understand minimalism for the first time [after] being a longtime hater. He made me aware of punk rock textures and metal textures, which were things that I had just kind of ignored doing the hard work that I had to do to learn about some of the vocabulary that I did internalize.

I know the distortion pedal is part of your vocabulary. Did that owe to your collaborations with Dillon or did it predate that?

No. I owe that to being in a band for 40 years with the genius Steve Masakowski, who doesn’t need those textures but I do. I was raised on Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and I need distortion. It’s a big part of my life. My life is a distortion!

I once interviewed the great Ron Carter and he was talking about how people love to see “the old man playing on an antique.” I think about the way that you approach the upright bass. You definitely give it the respect of something like that, but you do push the boundaries of what you traditionally would do with that instrument.

To this day, I play the earliest styles that emerged from New Orleans, in terms of jazz, almost every week. I play at Palm Court, sometimes Preservation Hall. Traditional music with no amplification whatsoever, just the bass. But for my own music, I need textural variants and a huge part of it comes from me being a very frustrated and frustrating trumpet player, because that is the higher-pitched voice that I am always unconsciously trying to get out of the bass. When I first moved to town, I was playing on Bourbon Street and Bourbon Street was almost all jazz at the time. I had more than one bandleader turn around and roar at me, “Play the fucking bass!” Because I was in the upper register, trying to be a saxophonist or a trumpet player on bass. Among the countless gifts that New Orleans has given me is becoming a better bass player.

What motivated you to move here in 1976?

It’s funny because New Orleans and south Louisiana music have been part of my life for ages. My parents were huge fans of Preservation Hall, Al Hirt, and Pete Fountain. They would visit New Orleans and leave my brothers and I with a babysitter, Lutheran missionaries—lambs to the slaughter—and come down here and have their fun. We would question and say, “Why can’t we go?” And they’d say, “Oh no! New Orleans isn’t for you kids.” I remember seeing Doug Kershaw on the TV and hearing John Fred [& His] Playboy Band. I saw the Preservation Hall band when I was about nine years old and was blown away that these old guys could rock the house so hard. These experiences were foreshadowing of me living most of my adult life in New Orleans and finding my career here. I had been going to music college for four years. I went for a year-and-a-half to Berklee College of Music in Boston and then I went to North Texas State because they had classical as well as jazz. I made some great friends and some good musical connections. Then I gave up music school and tried philosophy, literature, and psychology just to make sure I had a revelatory experience doing LSD. Everything in my house that I was renting looked empty and forlorn to me. I had been offered a gig in New Orleans and turned it down. I called them up the next day and begged, “Can I still come?” and they said, “Yeah.” So I came down to play with the famous bluesman Gatemouth Brown.

For people who weren’t around then, what were your initial impressions of the city and the music scene circa 1976?

The music scene was and is astounding. It’s incredibly rich and varied for being a relatively small town compared to New York, Chicago, London, Paris, L.A. Within two months, I wanted to quit the job I moved here for because I wanted to play with the great players that I heard: Henry Butler, Earl Turbinton, James Black, Johnny Vidacovich—and I ended up doing so. It’s really been one great musical opportunity after another ever since. It’s gone from me getting to play with much more well-formed artists than I was in my 20s, 30s, and 40s to me feasting on the parade of talent that comes through this town. So many great artists come here because they hear about it and they stay for a while. Bobby McFerrin came here and we played on Bourbon Street every night for a few months. There was a period in the ‘80s when I got to accompany an amazing variety of international jazz musicians and not just jazz! We played with Charlie Rich. I played with Natalie Cole. I’ve played sissy bounce music with Katey Red and Big Freedia. Traditional artists: Preservation Hall, James Booker, the Marsalises, most of the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Johnny Adams. It’s a long list. Everybody needs a bass player. I caught the tail end of a pretty intense Cuban music scene here. There were still a lot of Cuban diaspora musicians and people and dancers when I arrived, so I got to dip into that, studied the tumbao and all the Cuban rhythms with masters like Hector Gallardo. Blues artists: I played with Lightnin’ Hopkins, Gatemouth Brown of course, James Booker, Professor Longhair. It’s just been a parade of astounding opportunities for me.

At the Dithyrambalina (original Music Box Village), 2011 (photo by Joshua Brasted)

I don’t know how it is now but, prior to the pandemic, you were one of the city’s busiest gigging musicians. How did it feel when everything suddenly stopped in 2020?

It felt great for about two months. I felt like, “Wow! This is the mid-life sabbatical I deserve!” I had a similar experience during Katrina. My family relocated to Los Angeles for three months [after Katrina]. I was going back and forth [between] two of the most interesting, incredible cities on Earth every month. I had the ocean, the desert, the mountains, and five or six of the strongest art museums on Earth in L.A. After the pandemic started, I said good. It took me months to start getting my unemployment so that was a little bit worrisome, but I spent more time at the piano, more time composing, and still doing some gigs on the down-low. Musicians in this town were way out in front about wearing a mask, getting a vax as soon as it was available, insisting that masks be required of the audience. A lot of people were against that, but I think the music community was ahead because we value what we do and a huge part of our process is performing in front of people. With the liminal demise of intellectual property, it becomes even more crucial to perform. It started to wear thin and I started to get some gigs with my buddies in Nolatet, which is a touring ensemble from time to time. Mike [Dillon] said, “I think I’ve cracked the code. We just need to play in states that have Republican governors.” We did that for a while and they developed a whole new band out of it: Punkadelic. They’re doing great. They’re just relentless road rats and I’m grateful when I get used on those gigs and more grateful when I get to use them on my gigs.

I feel like it forced us all to step back and do a moment of self-reflection that, in our busy lives, we don’t get to do often.

It’s taking a closer look at late-stage capitalism too. It’s very heartening to turn on the radio—and I try not to do it very often—and hear about the unionization of some of these huge corporations and perhaps a reemergence of that consciousness: the inventors of the weekend, the inventors of the eight-hour day as opposed to a 14-hour day. Moving towards caring about each other more. That is something that is important to me.

You’re talking a lot about labor-orientated issues. What are some things that you want to see going forward as a gigging musician in New Orleans?

I’m 66 years-old. I moved here at age 21 or 22. That first summer, I starved. I was eating hot dogs and whatever I could steal after I quit my steady job. Within two years, I was routinely making my rent every night. Of course, then I got into another bag of trouble with hardcore substance abuse, but I managed to quit in time to get a house. The bad news is [now], even the gigs you don’t want to do pay one-tenth what they paid when I moved here. I went before the board of the musicians’ union at age 25 because I had worked with a non-union musician. I was fined five months’ rent for breaking the rules. I didn’t squawk. I pulled out my checkbook and wrote them a check because I had ten grand in the bank because of the union. I am opinionated about that. I think $20 should be absolute rock bottom to hear live music, and when I say “rock bottom” I mean that should be the lowest you should pay. Whether it’s worth it or not, I think to walk through a door, sit down, and listen to music: You should pay $20. And I don’t think I’m rock bottom.

I certainly don’t think you’re rock bottom.

That’s the political side of my rant. My priority is emotional depth and connection with my music: connecting with the other players and hopefully we get across the footlights and connect with the people. The second priority is probably texture and new forms emerging because that’s what happens in human life. Humans are hardwired to grasp at patterns but it’s when the patterns are subverted that something really interesting happens. I’m drawn to ambiguity and uncertainty and difficult questions when I listen to music, when I read books, when I see film. I think of film as being the ultimate artform. I think music should be able to have the same aspects. I know I live in a town that celebrates its traditions, but I often try to point out that when Jelly Roll [Morton] did it, when King Oliver did it, it was not traditional. It was still radical. It was still basically punk rock. A lot of people hated it and were scared of it. And if you don’t bring that spirit to it, something is missing. You can’t be complacent and simply codify the past and regurgitate it. That’s not a happy, adventurous life.

I say that a lot about The Meters because a lot of people in my generation think of that as the stuff that bands on Frenchmen or Bourbon Street cover. Back when that band was coming up, it was radical stuff.

It was. Fucking Earl King! Allen Toussaint! Dave Bartholomew! All of these guys were breaking new ground and that’s what made them happy. I’ve encountered that same attitude the entire time I’ve been in New Orleans. [Astral Project saxophonist] Tony Dagradi and I moved here at about the same time. He was composing and fusing his modern jazz sensibilities and complexities with New Orleans street rhythms. [Former Astral Project pianist David] Torkanowsky put us together as Astral Project with the Mardi Gras Indians. There was no rehearsal. We just started doing what we do and found the connections in real time. It can either be deliberative and worked out or you simply force mate the issues and find out what emerges, what’s worth keeping, and what’s worth cultivating.

As a musician who has been working at this process for decades, do you find it hard to continue to break new ground or do you worry about the tendency to become complacent?

No. What happens is you begin collaborating with younger people. I probably shouldn’t be in ANTIGRAVITY if I don’t say something about the gender barriers too because when I started collaborating with Helen Gillet and Aurora Nealand, my experience with women musicians was mainly as: They were the leaders and they were my boss, which is good and important too. Embracing diversity, rejecting patterns or willfully subverting patterns is where the action is. It’s always been that way. I’m a dyed-in-the wool modernist. I was born in 1955. My parents were surrounded by debt-free, college-educated daredevils. They weren’t thinking about money. They were thinking about “What do I dare try? What do I risk?” That’s how I grew up. I wasn’t thinking about careers. I wasn’t thinking about, “How am I going to make it? Am I going to be in debt because I went to college?” That wasn’t an issue so these things need to be addressed. We need to educate our populace and one way of doing it is playing challenging music.

photo by Zack Smith

What advice would you give to young musicians who are reading this interview?

Three words: compose, compose, compose. If you go to jazz school, they’ll tell you that you have to learn to play the canon, and there’s a lot to be said for that. It’s incredibly difficult and challenging for most people. The other side of it is you have to realize that some of the people you think are great did all that work before they were 20. There was no jazz college! Steve Grossman was one of my favorite saxophonists. He was playing with Miles Davis when he was 18. He could play all of Charlie Parker at age 15. So are you going to stay in that lane and keep trying to mine at this gold that was mined 70 years ago? Or are you going to jump into the opposite, punk rock? When punk rock emerged, I didn’t even pay attention, but my brother was a photojournalist in Bloomington, Indiana. He said, “Wow! I’m photographing these kids that work in fast food restaurants and on the weekend they pool their resources to buy heroin and rock’n’roll equipment and make music that is kind of badass.” I was very skeptical, but I now see that that is what it was. It might be more important to see what you have inside you immediately at hand than to go digging in the classics. I feel fortunate that I was raised on folk music, church music, and Beethoven, and then jazz. But with the internet, it’s all so close at hand. Just check it out and see what you can absorb immediately. See if you can transform it or if it transforms you.

I think one of the beautiful things about recorded music is someone like Louis Armstrong and his recordings are just as accessible as something some kid did here 10 minutes ago. It is a great duality that all of these things are on a somewhat even playing field as long as you find them.

Yeah. I think that conversations go forwards and backwards in time. Einstein famously said that (I’m paraphrasing): Time is the most stubborn illusion. As a kid, I had a vacation in London and saw that Fletcher Henderson was right next to Joe Henderson. Now, I go, “Of course! They’re barely 20 years apart.” I don’t think that I can bring the energy that I bring to Jelly Roll Morton compositions without understanding Hendrix, if not Evan Parker.

People perceive these different generations or movements in art and think, “Oh, that’s so old.” Still, in New Orleans, we have a lot of masters around whom people don’t give their proper respect. For instance, I think of Johnny Vidacovich and George Porter Jr.

I think they’re respected. Those are my brothers and I’m their cheerleader so I refuse to admit that they’re underappreciated because, psychologically, I want to lean forward with my love for the masters. I want to say a couple things about the recording [Malabar].


If you’re from New Orleans and you’ve been to the Jazz Fest and you know musicians, you know it is a time where everyone is working their ass, thighs, and better part of their lower back off. The recording was made right after Jazz Fest [in 2015]. I felt the energy in the room of everyone having their chops at the absolute height and, at the same time, not giving a fuck. Several things happened that surprised me. A lot of the energy of jazz comes from perceiving conversation. It’s usually the drummer and soloist. You hear Elvin [Jones] and [John] Coltrane. You hear Johnny Vidacovich and Dagradi. You hear Leo Nocentelli and Zig[aboo Modeliste]. The thing that happens on this recording multiple times is I’m hearing multiple conversations simultaneously. That’s because everyone on the recording is a great composer, a great player, and a great bandleader. They are constantly reaching for something they haven’t heard before. You’ll hear the saxophonist having a conversation with Mike Dillon on vibes. Simultaneously, the bass is talking with the baritone sax. The percussionists go from being two separate guys, fighting or fucking, to an eight-limbed hydra of percussion that seems to be one entity. These are the reasons I can listen to it repeatedly. That’s definitely a goal of any musician: creating a recording that stands up well to repeat listenings.

You had talked about this recording being a few years old but, with good art, it doesn’t matter if it was recorded yesterday or a few years ago. What matters is the content.

Ellis Marsalis had told me that, before I was even dreaming of making my own recordings, the more complex and higher levels of music have shelf life. They don’t have to be just the latest, new thing. That being said, look at Mike Dillon putting out three records during the pandemic. I do use that as a carrot. I feel like there is catching up to be done.

You talked about the interplay between musicians earlier. I think that speaks to the mastery of everyone involved in that recording. It’s a large group. When you’re all having those types of conversations, it could very easily devolve into total chaos.

Yes. There’s tons of space even with those conversations. I think it’s a miracle. The other thing I wanted to mention was a pretty pronounced generational divide, even among the so-called modernists. When I joined Dagradi’s band, we definitely were trying to read the written material exactly as it’s written and put as much soul as possible into every note and make it as deep and emotionally compelling as we possibly could. What I learned from Mike and Skerik and then [Jonathan] Freilich as well is there is a certain point where you can even fuck with the written material and change it. They do. You hear Freilich doing it on the first song on the record [“Black Sheep Squared”]. We play it straight once and then he just plays a different melody. He plays the same melody but displaces the rhythm and goes against the grain of what Mike and Rex [Gregory] are playing. I love him for that.

“Malabar” is the title track. It’s also a region in India. Can you talk about the connection?

I love titles with multiple meanings because titles are essential to move the piece around. We could no longer say, “Opus Nine Number Six.” We need something that people can remember. The problem is then they’ll say, “Do that song about black sheep.” They make an association that is unintended. Malabar is one of my favorite words because it is a region in India where the Malabar Christians claim Jesus went to learn all this hoodoo. In Paris, Malabar is a brand of candy. In central America, Malabar—same spelling, Spanish pronunciation—means thug. My favorite is: Malabar is the winning horse in the D.H. Lawrence short story “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” which has always been a favorite. It makes it harder to pin it down.

I like the way your bass is the first voice you hear on this record.

A lot of people are pissed off that I don’t have any bass solos. I do a bass solo with Stanton Moore, I cop the house. I do a bass solo with Astral Project, I cop the house. But my records? Hardly any bass solos.

James Booker performing with James Singleton and Johnny Vidacovich at the Maple Leaf Bar, 1982 (Photograph by Michael P. Smith © The Historic New Orleans Collection, acc. no. 2007.0103.1.1203)

I think it’s good that you’re outspoken about stuff.

A very small but very important part of my career is teaching. I love it. I just don’t like to punch a clock. Sometimes, we’re on the road. With the old band Astral Project, two of the guys are career-tenured professors and they got us some really nice gigs teaching at colleges. I remember one of them. This recalcitrant-looking dude at the back of the room raised his hand and said, “What about real simple music like Lester Young or Neil Young?” I said, “If it’s so simple, let’s hear you do it.” I feel that wherever there is depth, you’ll find complexity. It may not be complex chord changes, it may not be complex lines, but texturely there’s going to be something there. I think humans need complexity. Hollywood, the emergence of popular music, it’s all about palliatives: Times are tough! How are you going to face it? You need something to make you feel good. We need to encourage people to use challenges to make them feel good and to use questions. For adults, questions are often much more important than answers and to be able to live with ambiguity and a question. My child is always teaching me. I remember at a very young age, probably four or five, she said, “Daddy, tell me a story that has no moral like the cat eats the mouse and everyone lives happily ever after.” I said thank you. We need that. If we could embrace complexity and embrace questions and, at the same time, cultivate kindness, we’d have a better world.

It’s exciting that you’re in your mid-60s and still trying to learn new techniques and trying to expand what you do.

Absolutely. Music happens to be infinite. At the beginning of the previous century, when they were breaking down tonality and trying surreal techniques, I think it’s really a credit to our country that Charles Ives was writing multi-tonally and atonally and then throwing out patriotic ditties, one of the messages being don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. These gorgeous melodies are great. They’re not a limitation because you change the context. Context has become a huge aspect of all art and I don’t know if that’s just me at this age. Jonathan Freilich is one of my favorite musicians that I’ve ever known or heard of. A lot of his vocabulary is very much guitar vocabulary, but he has such a genius for subverting the context that I tell people he’s like the Shakespearean fool. He’s like the fool in King Lear or Falstaff, simultaneously. I love the way that he reacts against somewhat conventional-sounding material to subvert it and convert it. All the young dudes can do that and that’s why they’re in my band. I need people who can be reflective and intuitive simultaneously because that’s the half trick of so-called jazz. With pop, it’s usually an illusion. It’s sometimes heavily produced but still you’re waiting for that moment that it feels intuitive and reflective at the same time.

I noticed there aren’t many credits on the album.

Yeah. The video woman put the recording date [on the “Malabar” music video] and I went, “Uh oh. I don’t want everybody to know it’s that old.” Dude, I was just broke. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even do any post-production for three years then the pandemic hit. Finally, Scott said “It’s a good record.” I know it’s a good record and I know it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I just didn’t have any dough. Then I turned 66, I’m getting Social Security. I’m in a different world now. A different world. To live like this is a miracle for just a musician who is not a household name. I was sweating. I’ve been deep in debt for 10 years and then finally started getting these checks. Pay off the debt and say no a little more often to some of the gigs.

I consider you to be one of the great composers and improvisers of New Orleans, but simultaneously I’ll walk through the Quarter and see you play in some hotel or at the Convention Center. It always feels surreal to me.

I’ve made my living and I’ve made my life playing most days of the year. I do see limits to that and it usually comes up around French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest when, as you know, there is a law of diminishing returns. In my 20s, I could do four and five gigs a day with all kinds of dirty deeds in between. Now, when I add that third gig, I think long and hard. Where is the part where I lie down? Meditation is a huge part of my life. I started it more than 50 years ago and, from my perspective, the first 30 years are the hardest. You start to get real results. Because we’re humans living in language and using language, but music isn’t the only way to transcend language. We need to cultivate love within. I know it sounds very ‘60s-ish of me to say this but we do have to, more than ever, cultivate this inner kindness and see that that’s the only way we can help others and have genuine connection with others.

You say it sounds very ‘60s-ish of you but, in 2022, we’re still living in a capitalist society where we’re seeing people have some of those realizations by saying things like, “We should unionize and do things that take care of ourselves.”

Yes and the notion that difficult art is important and always has been. Van Gogh went to his grave having sold one or two paintings. We need to spread the gospel that difficult, challenging work is what we’re here for.

James Singleton will perform in various capacities throughout the month: with Mike Dillon and Brian Haas at the New Orleans Jazz Museum (as part of the Louisiana Music Factory’s Factory Fest) on May 2; with Helen Gillet at Hotel Peter and Paul on May 3; with the Stanton Moore Trio at Jazz Fest on May 6; with Nolatet at Portside Lounge on May 8; with Will Bernard, Sasha Masakowski, and Justin Peake at Zony Mash Beer Project on May 9; with James Singleton’s small orchestra at Zeitgeist on May 9; and with the Johnny Vidacovich Trio at the Maple Leaf on May 26. Malabar is out now on Sinking City Records.

top photo by Lenore Seal