Tagged: jazz

J.K. Simmons on ‘Whiplash’


J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
J.K. Simmons in Whiplash (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
We’re wired to feel a vicarious thrill as we watch a young protagonist become the hero he was meant to be. Whiplash hacks into this quirk of brain chemistry and gets you rooting for all the wrong things. Music student Andrew Neyman aches to earn a place in the pantheon of great jazz drummers. Terence Fletcher is respected and feared as the iron-fisted instructor who handpicks the school’s top talent and leads the jazz ensemble to competitive victory. He teases Neyman with a fleeting interest, then belittles him and withdraws. Neyman yearns for the golden ticket that Fletcher has the potential to give, and when it’s finally handed to him, we share his elation despite every indication that it will lead to very bad things.

Tapped to push Neyman — played by gifted up-and-comer Miles Teller — well beyond the breaking point is journeyman actor J.K. Simmons. As Fletcher, he’s Neyman’s perfect dysfunctional complement. Obsessed with finding the next Charlie Parker, he’s happy to torture the full potential out of the right willing candidate.

You might not know him by name, but one look at Simmons’ face sparks a sense of familiarity and respect from just about everyone who’s watched TV or movies for the past 15 years. Adept at channeling brutal, compassionate and everything in between, he’s played a complex and vicious neo-Nazi on Oz, a loving and insightful father in Juno, an ever-exasperated assistant police chief on The Closer, and a pitch-perfect J. Jonah Jameson. And with his fierce performance in Whiplash, the Oscar buzz has begun — an especially satisfying development for longtime Simmons fans like me.

When I attended a Whiplash press event in Beverly Hills recently, I was particularly looking forward to hearing Simmons’ take on the project — a film which will likely bring him the attention and accolades he’s deserved for over a decade.

Simmons submits that Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle’s point was “to inspire discussion and debate and not decide — are we happy for Andrew Neyman or are we lamenting his loss of humanity? I think, based on the reception and the discussions that we’ve been involved in so far, that’s exactly what he achieved. Plus, it’s just awesomely entertaining. The end of the movie with a 10-minute drum solo!”

Neyman sloughs off all possible distractions, including his budding romance with Nicole (a charming Melissa Benoist) by letting her know that she doesn’t even rank on his list of priorities. It’s a moment of heartlessness emblematic of his single-minded symbiosis with Fletcher. “The debate I love,” Simmons says, “is how far is too far? How much is too much? Is it worth it? This kind of relentless abuse might be necessary and appropriate if you’re training Navy Seals, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate in a music school. But it’s there, and it can be productive; there’s no denying that. From my own perspective, I’d rather have a pretty girlfriend than go work with this guy and have my hands bleed all the time. I would have made a different choice.”

With 19 days to shoot, opportunities for rehearsal were apparently off the table, which was perfectly fine for Simmons. “I actually prefer to work that way,” he says. “Whatever the role is, if you’re working on an accent or a dialect or a specific skill set that your character has that you don’t necessarily have, like playing the piano, then that’s the kind of preparation that I find absolutely necessary. For me, if the words are good on the page, the rest of it just comes from spending some time with the script. Not [in terms of] learning lines, but absorbing what the script has to offer.”

Noting that “collaborative” is his “favorite word in moviemaking,” Simmons is particularly appreciative that the flexible dynamic on the Whiplash set offered opportunities for improvisation. “The freedom to occasionally depart from the page a little bit and just throw the ball back and forth, and throw each other a curveball, was an added part of the fun,” he says. “And the fact that Damien is self-confident enough to not get his ego damaged by, ‘Oh, wait a minute. You didn’t put that comma in that sentence, or you said “perhaps” instead of “maybe.”‘ That’s always a beautiful amount of freedom to have as an actor.”

One of the things that’s always drawn me to Simmons’ work is his ability to bring his singular brand of charisma and humor to such a wide spectrum of personalities — from the warm and kind to the downright despicable. As he explains, it’s been a conscious decision to maintain his impressively varied portfolio.

“I’ve been so blessed to have the opportunities that I’ve had,” Simmons enthuses. “If somebody asked me to play a Terence Fletcher-esque character next week, I would be reticent to do so. Part of the joy of doing what we [screen actors] are all fortunate enough to do here, is you get to do something different every time out. I learned that at the very beginning; I’ve been doing theater for 20 years, but when I first started doing camera acting, really, Oz was my first big thing that a lot of people saw. And I knew going into that, that it was a potential trap — that I could be playing the Nazi of the week on TV for the rest of my life. And from nowhere, all of a sudden Law and Order called and said, ‘Hey, would you like to play the shrink on Law and Order?’ — and it was like this perfect yin-yang that I had at the very beginning, so that I was perceived as a guy who could do a variety of things. That’s what we all want to do. We all want to not repeat ourselves constantly, and explore the limits of our capabilities. So, I just want to do something different than whatever I just got done doing.”

New Ground: Serj Tankian on His Symphony, Jazz Fusion Record, and Moving Forward with System of a Down


There’s a chill I get sometimes when I know I’ve dug too far into someone’s work or philosophy during an interview, a silent request to change the topic before things get weird. I’ve never felt that with Serj Tankian, no matter what I’ve ever asked him, which is one of the reasons I was looking forward to talking with him again. He’s basically the ideal subject — friendly and articulate with a seemingly bottomless aptitude for detail — so when I learned I’d be connecting with him about his full-orchestra album and new jazz record, I knew I wouldn’t have to hold back.

Known for his high-decibel, borderline operatic vocals, Tankian has been taking some creative quiet time, at least in a relative sense. Even as he’s back to rocking live with System of a Down, his two latest solo projects are comparatively low-key. Released this month is Orca, his first symphony, recorded at Brucknerhaus in Linz, Austria, and in July comes Jazz-iz Christ, a wide-net jazz fusion project — both featuring elements of traditional Armenian melodies. Meticulously assembled and packed with guts and pathos, the albums come through as musical meditations with a subtle brand of buildup and climax. Orca’s full orchestra lays out a grand narrative leading up to a heart-wrenching piece played on the duduk, a traditional Armenian reed instrument, while Jazz-iz Christ injects electro-pop, dance-hall synth, ’70s vibe, and classical into old-school jazz. Check out this “Waitomo Caves” track for some serious funk and one of the truly dopest distorted flute solos. Tankian has set himself free and you can feel it.

The multi-genre musician and singer will tour with System of a Down in late July and August and then take his symphony through Europe in September. And as every Tankian fan is anxious for work to begin on a new SOAD album, I have it on good authority that patience will pay off.  After our interview, I sent him a note to clarify — does he see himself committing to a new System record at some point? The answer I received was “Yes.”

I spoke with Tankian just before summer set in.

Iconic Interview: How do you begin putting together a symphony? Take us through the process.
Serj Tankian: Like all great discoveries, it starts by accident. I had started working on Imperfect Harmonies, and I was writing these long piano diatribes and fleshing them out into songs. With one or two of the pieces, they were just so long and so melodic that I couldn’t envision adding vocals to them, so I had put them aside. At first, I thought these would be great at the end of a record, just listening to these long two pieces. I was in New Zealand at the time and a good friend of mine was over, having a beer and checking out music that I had written — just fresh off the press kind of thing — and he’s like, “Bro! These are the first two acts of your symphony.” It hadn’t even crossed my mind. And I shit you not, I Wikipedia’ed “symphony” to see how many of these acts I would need. [laughs] I’m like, wow, you need four acts, roughly about ten minutes each. I could do this! So I put them aside and worked on other music that could complement it, or other ideas that were symphonic. The first instrumentation is piano in all cases, and then I basically work on the celli, bass, viola, violin one, violin two, brass, percussion, in that exact order — and then add on other instruments we might need. At first I did an original demo and then I refined the demo with tempo changes and modulations here and there to add things that I wanted to it. I reviewed it many times and adjusted it and modified it. Then, when I was happy with the final demo results, we went and scored the whole thing. I have an arranger and I sat down with him and gave him all the material and he basically notated everything. At that point, once we had an orchestra to record it live in Austria, we went in and worked with the conductor. We sent him the score, made some other adjustments, rehearsed the orchestra for a few days, and recorded it! We did a live show; that’s what we will be hearing as the final result.

Did you have people playing the instruments for you on the demo, or were you synthesizing it?
I was playing them myself using piano, sample strings, sample brass, sample percussion, and just basically tamping everything that way. Then with the second variation of demos, we started using other samples, better samples, and more modulations and tempo changes, which my arranger does really well with me. I’ve done all the original demos of all of the different layers of the music. Continue reading