Musician Colin Hinton talks with Esthetic Lens about his latest projects, the impact the quarantine had on musicians and recounts memories he shared with his musical mentors.
1.How are you holding up?
Overall, I’m doing alright. I’m lucky to have taught through the whole pandemic, so that kept me busy and financially stable. I feel very fortunate to be in that situation – I know many folks were not as lucky.
But like I’ve heard from so many of my friends, emotions in this pandemic seem to come in waves. I have periods of incredible motivation where I practice a ton, write a lot of music, and get really excited about the future for a few months, followed by intense burnout where it’s difficult to even respond to one email. Right now I feel like I’m nearing the end of a period of intense productivity – I can feel the burnout coming on – but hopefully as NYC continues to reopen, gigs start to reappear (I’m playing my second in-person gig tomorrow!), and my teaching moves back to in-person, my motivation will return to its normal pre-pandemic levels.
Obviously, not being able to hear live music or see my friends has been incredibly difficult. While I’m a pretty introverted person – I don’t hang out much except for seeing my friends at gigs/shows/rehearsals – this period of isolation has been extreme. I’m very lucky to live with my wonderful partner – she has definitely kept me sane through all of this.
A positive thing that happened during Covid was releasing Ocelot – an album by an eponymous trio I co-lead with Cat Toren and Yuma Uesaka. This collaborative group did a tour in fall of 2019 followed immediately by a recording session. We started mixing the album with Eivind Opsvik in February of 2020 right before the pandemic hit. We had to finish mixing remotely by corresponding with Eivind over email – a very different approach from how we normally work. That album was released on March 26th of this year on 577 Records. It’s been very well received and we’re really proud of the album.
2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?
Of course!! I had many tours canceled, as well as numerous gigs in NYC. My (and every other musicians’) entire calendar for 2020 was essentially wiped out overnight. My album, Simulacra, came out in November of 2019 and while we had already performed a small release tour, we had a longer tour planned for late May of 2020 through the Midwest. I was really looking forward to playing in Chicago for the first time, but hopefully, that’ll be rescheduled sometime for 2022. I was also supposed to play at The Stone as a leader for the first time in February of this year with my quartet featuring Tony Malaby, Todd Neufeld, and Eivind Opsvik, but that was also canceled.
Honestly, the hardest thing for me through all of this has been adjusting to being on the computer/phone all the time. I am not used to that AT ALL. Pre-pandemic I was on my computer maybe two times a day – once in the morning and once at night to check/respond to emails. Other than that, the only time I used my computer was for putting music into Finale.
Adjusting to remote teaching has been incredibly difficult and has definitely taken its toll. I already suffer from chronic pain in my neck/back/shoulders from previous injuries, but sitting in front of the computer teaching 25+ virtual lessons every week plus compiling and emailing lesson notes at the end of the day really aggravates everything. I never used to have headaches either, but that’s become a semi-regular thing for me, as well. I constantly joke about how I’ve spent more time on my computer in the last 14 months than I did in all of grad school, ha. Despite all this, I am very lucky to have somehow maintained a teaching studio through the pandemic.
In certain ways, Covid has been like pushing the reset button on my work. Pre-pandemic I was teaching 25-30 students a week as well as playing 3-4 gigs a week. I didn’t really have a ton of time to think – I was constantly moving from one thing to the next, planned projects accordingly, and then rolled with it. Having this much time “off” has really given me the space to think about WHY I’m doing these things in the first place. It’s put a lot of things in perspective and given me greater insight into what my plans are for the future and how I want to present my work.
3. What are some of the unexpected creative things or projects that have developed for you while navigating the current state of the world?
The move to livestreams has been really interesting for me. I’m not the biggest fan of livestreams – it doesn’t capture the same energy of an in person performance, for both the listener and the performer – but it’s better than nothing. What I have been really drawn to, however, is the rise of musicians taking advantage of using video. I’ve done several recording projects at Scholes St Studio (an absolutely wonderful recording studio/venue in Brooklyn) where they also do video recording. In certain cases we have also hired a videographer on our own, and from that we’ve been able to put together some amazing promotional footage/documentation from all of these recordings.
Ocelot actually did this for a pre-recorded “livestream”. We were able to use those videos for album promotion and we were really happy with how they turned out. It’s nice to have professional visual documentation of this work – which is something I’ve definitely overlooked in my career.
A good friend of mine, Stephen Gauci, is a wonderful tenor player and one of the hardest-working people I know. Before the pandemic, he was running a weekly music series every Monday night in Brooklyn that featured six bands and focused on improvised music. Obviously that series got put on hold (it will be starting up again in July), but he used the pandemic to look for other outlets. He decided to do a series of 19 duo recordings with musicians he liked (most of whom were regulars at his series) and I was fortunate to be asked to do one of them. We recorded that duo album at Scholes St Studio, as well. It was released on his label Gauci Music a few weeks ago. We’re both really proud of that one – there’s something about playing duo with drums/saxophone that feels very special – maybe the history of improvised music as it relates to drum/saxophone records. The earliest recording I can think of in that style would be John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space, but I’m almost positive there’s documentation of that setting before that.
A similar thing happened with another collective trio I’m a part of called Petting Zoo. This trio also features my close friend and collaborator Yuma Uesaka, as well as another good friend and one of my favorite guitarists, Jessica Ackerley. Jess had been contemplating leaving NYC for a bit before the pandemic, but Covid sped up her timeframe. She and her husband decided to move to Hawaii. Petting Zoo had been a working trio for a year or two prior to the pandemic and we’d often talked about making a record, but the timing came together mid-pandemic – and we all definitely wanted something documented while Jess was still in NYC. Last summer we recorded about three to four hours of improvised music (also at Scholes St Studio) with video footage. Now we are in the final stages of preparing that album. It’s all mixed, mastered, and ready to go! We’re just finalizing details on labels and solidifying a release date – but look out for that later this year or possibly early next year.
4. Who do you wish were still with us to provide pointed commentary on what we are collectively experiencing and why?
We’ve lost so many people in the last 14 months, and specifically so many elders – Milford Graves, Henry Grimes, Chick Corea, Mario Pavone, just to name a few – but the one that affected me the most deeply was Ralph Peterson.
Ralph was a mentor of mine and someone I constantly looked to for guidance, both musical and personal. I became familiar with Ralph’s work through my good friend and mentor, Tyshawn Sorey.
From 2009-2016 my mental health was in a constant state of decline due to issues resulting from two severe and life altering car wrecks. I almost died in both of them – I’m incredibly lucky to be alive and functional at the level I am. But the decline in my mental health led me to some pretty dark places with substance abuse – specifically alcohol. This came to a head in late 2016 and it became apparent I needed to get help. Tyshawn told me “you need to talk to Ralph NOW” – Ralph had been sober for over 20 years and had a reputation for helping younger musicians with their recovery. Tyshawn gave me Ralph’s email and I wrote him telling him what I was going through and also asking if I could study drums with him. Ralph wrote me back the same day, thanked me for reaching out, told me to get my ass to an AA meeting as soon as possible, and told me he would be in NYC the next week and asked what times I had available to meet. RP, as many of us called him, was an integral part of me getting my proverbial shit together with sobriety, and was such an amazing teacher. Our lessons were split between talking about life and music – we didn’t talk specifically about drums too much.
I studied off and on with Ralph up until his untimely death from cancer on March 1st of this year. Initially I was studying with him pretty regularly, but after a while it became more of a situation where I’d have my annual check-in and get my ass handed to me, ha. I remember the last lessons I took with him – it was summer of last year. I took two or three lessons over the course of about six weeks. RP and I talked about the pandemic, he encouraged me to get motivated again (I was finding it really hard to practice or get anything done after the first few months of the pandemic), and he told me about his plans for the future.
RP and I had plans to talk on the phone late last year but it never came to fruition – like many people, I didn’t know how sick Ralph actually was. I think about him every day – how many people’s lives he touched, how positive an influence he was, and just how honest he was. There was NO bullshitting with Ralph – he was a tough love kind of guy, but you always knew it was coming from a place of genuine care.
I’ve been sober since November 3rd, 2016 and I owe a lot of that to RP. I so wish he were still around to bounce ideas off of, receive perspective from, impart his deep wisdom, and of course to hear his playing and compositions. His passing left a hole in me I’m not sure can ever be filled… I love you and miss you, Ralph.
5. What artists, performers, writers, have you come across recently that have created poignant work about where we are at right now?
The most inspiring thing I’ve come across lately has been the increase in well-known drummers doing regular Instagram live videos. Greg Hutchinson started doing this maybe late last year, but I really started paying attention earlier this year. He would go live on Instagram, practice on a pad, and then just talk to people who tuned in and field questions, talk about life, etc. I found it super inspiring and humbling. I actually hit him up for lessons and have been studying with him regularly for the last few months. Following him, Tyshawn Sorey began doing the same thing. Quincy Davis – a wonderful drummer who now teaches at my alma mater, University of North Texas, does a regular interview series on his Instagram, as well.
All of these things have been incredibly motivating for me – and I’ve also made a lot of friends I don’t think I would have made otherwise. Greg’s live videos have brought the drumming community together in ways I haven’t seen before. It’s interesting because I’m not close friends with many drummers – I think this has a lot to do with us never really working together and me being so introverted. Aside from us not sharing the bandstand together, this means we’re not on the road together, we aren’t in rehearsal together, etc. etc. We miss a lot of hang time because of this. There’s also a pretty harsh divide in the drum community (at least in NYC) between the different scenes – the traditionalists, the modern jazz folk, and then the creative music/avant-garde community. For the first real time since I’ve lived in NYC (about a decade), we’re all just hanging out and talking to each other and realizing we have WAY more in common than we initially thought – it’s a beautiful thing.
I hope that we’ll see a lot more cross-pollination with the drummers working across the different scenes post-pandemic and be more hesitant before we start pigeonholing each other. I’ve definitely felt pigeonholed for the last five to six years as a free jazz/avant-garde drummer. I’ve played sessions/rehearsals where people were surprised I knew standards and that I could play in time, which is kind of hysterical to me because I didn’t start exploring the avant-garde world until I was in my mid-20’s – before that, I was a straight ahead/modern jazz drummer. I hate social media in general, but I think Greg, Tyshawn, and Quincy are doing some incredible work and I thank them for dedicating their time to bringing us all together.
6. What are you looking forward to?
After being in isolation and quarantine so long, at this point I’m just ready to get back to whatever the “new normal” will be. I have close friends I haven’t seen in over a year and I still haven’t met my new niece who already turned one year old last February.
I’m ready to play music again with people in person, for people in person. That energy can’t be replicated anywhere else and nothing else really fills that void. I’ve always operated under the assumption of playing every gig like it’s your last because you never know what could happen (this probably has to do with almost dying a few times), but I think all of us have a deeper understanding of that feeling after this experience. Our lives are so fragile and what we have as performing artists can literally be lost overnight.
I look forward to all the new music my friends will be creating coming out of this period of isolation – I’m expecting so many amazing new records in the next few years. How could people not have a renewed perspective on life after something so heavy? I think the music will benefit greatly from a renewed sense of purpose and I sincerely hope ALL of the music communities can stop the in-fighting, pigeonholing, etc. and start appreciating the fact that we are so lucky to get to play music for people. What a gift! I think it’s something that’s easy to take for granted – I know I am guilty of this as well – but I hope that in that regard, we’ll never return to “business as usual.”
Colin Hinton is an active member of Brooklyn’s creative music community. A drummer, percussionist, and composer, his music draws from the jazz and free music traditions of Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, and Muhal Richard Abrams, as well as 20th-century classical composers Messiaen, Scriabin, Feldman, and Grisey.
He has performed in the US, Canada, Central and South America, and Asia, and has had his compositions performed in the US, Italy, and Canada. An active educator in the NYC area, Colin has taught at the City College of New York, numerous music academies, and runs a private teaching studio. He has given clinics at the City College of New York and the University of Toronto.
Hinton studied drums with Ed Soph, Tyshawn Sorey, Dan Weiss, Ralph Peterson, and Ari Hoenig, and composition with Ingrid Laubrock, Tyshawn Sorey, and Eric Wubbels. He studied at the University of North Texas and City College of New York, completing a BFA in Jazz Performance and an MA in Music Performance with a focus in 20th century theory.
Colin has performed with Ingrid Laubrock, Todd Neufeld, Tony Malaby, Lotte Anker, Jon Irabagon, Eivind Opsvik, Tyshawn Sorey, Jacob Sacks, Miles Okazaki, Michaël Attias, Anna Webber, and many more. His 2019 recording “Simulacra” was selected as one of the best releases of 2019 by Avant Music News. He has performed at notable NYC venues such as The Jazz Gallery, The Stone, Bar Next Door, Rockwood Music Hall, and Cornelia Street Café. Hinton currently leads contemporary classical/avant-jazz quintet Simulacra (Anna Webber, Yuma Uesaka, Edward Gavitt, Shawn Lovato, Colin Hinton), free-jazz/post-punk hybrid Glassbath (Peyton Pleninger, Edward Gavitt, Eva Lawitts, Colin Hinton), Aphelion (Tony Malaby, Todd Neufeld, Eivind Opsvik, Colin Hinton), and a piano trio featuring Santiago Leibson and Eivind Opsvik. Colin also co-leads Ocelot – a collaborative trio featuring Yuma Uesaka and Cat Toren.