Q&A: The Blank Quintet talks performing live, blending genres

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tufts-based band The Blank Quintet (previously The Blank Quartet until the addition of trumpeter Pat Wright) has begun taking its jazz endeavors off campus, and its latest show on Thursday, Sept. 19, at the Lilypad in Cambridge was the most recent concert in its run. The quintet includes Wright, drummer Harrison Clark, bassist Max Miller, pianist George Behrakis and saxophonist Ben Mizrach. The Daily spoke with Clark, Miller and Wright two days after the show.

The Tufts Daily (TD): What do you guys enjoy most about performing in front of an audience?

Harrison Clark (HC): I think that music is something that, for me at least, through my childhood and family traditions, has brought people together. Being able to bring people together around and play jazz music, which we experiment with and create new things, and being able to create art together is pretty special. And then the fact that people spend their time to come watch us is pretty cool, and it means a lot.

Pat Wright (PW): I’ve always loved the energy of just playing in front of a live audience. It energizes everyone, and I know Harrison plays very differently in front of a live audience. [Laughs] There’s just so much interplay between everyone, and everyone’s listening to each other. It’s just a really great feeling to watch that unfold, live, in front of everyone.

Max Miller (MM): Yeah, you really get into … the zone when you’re live, and you really can’t replicate that in the studio or in the practice room or wherever. When you’re playing live, you kind of have to transcend to a better level of play.

TD: When you record or perform, do you guys like to blend genres into your music? And if so, which genres?

HC: Definitely, yeah! We fuse elements of hip-hop, elements of funk, Latin stuff, really all over the place. Jazz is so versatile as a genre that we feel like we can mix and match pretty much anything, and it comes out in some interesting and creative way. 

MM: It’s great that we can make jazz tunes into funk or hip-hop, or we can take popular music and give it more of a jazz flare. But now that we’ve been writing our own material, it’s a lot easier for us to incorporate everything right off the bat.

PW: Very few of our songs are only influenced by jazz, there’s a ton of influence from hip-hop and funk, and that kinda keeps it interesting. If you kept playing jazz from the same time era, it just gets kinda boring.

TD: What would you say are some artists/bands that have inspired or influenced you guys to start performing or writing music?

HC: I grew up on a lot of ska punk music in California. My dad was in a ska punk band in high school, so he played it for me growing up. Also, I was just into hip-hop in middle school because that’s what was popular back then. I think what really transformed my view on music, and how I thought about music, was Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015) because it was a combination of everything that I loved. Between being a hip-hop artist, and also bringing all the incredible jazz musicians on that album, there was just so much flavor to it. I was like ‘Wow, I could do that! I could be a part of something that tells a story and incorporates all these different elements from different genres together into one.’ That’s when I decided that I could be a jazz musician, but also do all these other things.

MM: I took a lot of influence from rock music because that’s what I grew up listening to, lots of classic rock, Beatles, etc. Part of the thing that’s so liberating about jazz is that, as a bass player, rock music is a pretty confining genre, and so I can take the influences of classic rock for the purposes of songwriting … but just play my instrument a lot more creatively.

PW: I try to bring everything back to the blues at some point. It’s just one of those art forms that sounds good over everything. There’s a lot of soulfulness in it, naturally. You can bring that out, even if you’re playing very modern stuff under it, like a jazz/hip-hop fused beat, you can still find a way to put the blues over that. It kinda makes it full circle.

TD: Why should people appreciate jazz more, especially those who don’t listen to it?

MM: You gotta listen to jazz live. You gotta listen to it with all of your senses. You gotta watch the musicians, actively listen to it, and I think that if you really commit to just trying it out and listening to it live, you’ll find that it’s a lot more fun than an only instrumental genre would maybe seem. You can get lost in the grooves and harmonies, and the combination of notes are so expressive. It’s a testament to how you can use this music to express emotions and feelings that words sometimes can’t convey.

PW: Listen with open ears. You don’t have to understand it, very few people can; I certainly don’t. You’ll start to understand the form of the songs better. It’s better to see it live … because you can see the artists react to different changes.

HC: Nowadays, anyone with a smartphone can make music. If you can do that, why would you want to pick up a hunk of metal and blow into it? For us, people that have grown up around instrumental music … jazz is the pinnacle of that. To watch the masters of it, and to strive to be like them, is the mission. It’s our mission, especially. And like Max said, you gotta see it live. You have to put yourself into it and experience it that way.

The Blank Quintet will be performing live next at the Washvault Lab in Medford on Thursday, Oct. 17.