Sokoband


Sokoband is a jazz fusion trio, featuring pianist Michael Sokolowski, bassist Houston Ross, and drummer Nir Z. The group formed as a trio in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1991 with Sokolowski, Ross, and the late drummer John Gilmore. They performed live for several years, then released their first studio album, In November Sunlight, in 1996. This successful instrumental album was followed up by 2005’s Two and in 2010 sees the release of Sokoband (eponymous title, having changed their name from “Soko”).


In November Sunlight, featuring guest appearances by members of Dave Matthews Band (Dave, LeRoi Moore, and associate guitarist, Tim Reynolds) -- friends of the band and fellow Charlottesville musicians. Because of this association, the disc achieved high sales numbers for an instrumental record. But from a performance and production standpoint, the recording failed to capture the band at its best.

The band disbanded in 1998, though Sokolowski and Ross remained close friends and musical partners. In 2000, the two began work on their follow-up recording, Two enlisting the help of many studio musicians to flesh out the textures and arrangements. Whereas Soko's music had previously been exclusively about Sokolowski's tunes, now Houston Ross began to collaborate as a writer, arranger, and singer. It took a long time, but in 2005, the CD was released. Though not a commercial success, the band believes it is a far superior musical offering to In November Sunlight.

Two pieces -- "Storyteller" and "Stella: Reflections" -- from Soko: Two were featured in filmmaker Jon Ezrine's dark and comic documentary film, Son of a Bitch! (2007).

Currently, the two musicians have joined forces with formidable drummer, Nir Z (Genesis, Chris Cornell, Joss Stone, Jason Mraz and many others) to release a re-recording of In November Sunlight in an effort to render more definitive versions of their early material.

How do you describe your music to people, Michael?
"Melodic groove piano" is what I tell people about my own playing. On the website, the label we've attached to Sokoband is "psychedelic jazz/rock," but I'm not sure that really captures it. It's music that is heavily influenced by classical music, ECM jazz, progressive rock, funk, fusion, and classic rock.

Tell me about how you originally got into your craft.
I started with music lessons at the age of 5 on recorder. When I got to the public elementary school, they had an ear testing exercise and suggested I take up the violin, which I played throughout my school years. I loved playing in orchestras and spent time in orchestral music camps, youth orchestras, etc. But what I really wanted to play was the piano. My parents told me a piano was too expensive, and that maybe someday we'd get one. Whenever I was around a piano, I'd be drawn to it like a moth to flame. I remember spending a weekend at a cousin's house -- she had an upstairs piano and I spent two days just wailing on the thing. Improvising for hours and hours and hours with absolutely no clue as to what I was doing. I do remember working with dynamics and rhythms, and finding places where I thought I was terribly expressive. No doubt the reality of it could have been described without the "expressive," but it changed my life. I was completely smitten. There was an orchestra in that instrument and the power one could summon up was unlike anything I had ever encountered in life. So, that's it. I was about 8 and that's how I got into it. A couple of years later, my parents bought a piano and signed me up for lessons with a most wonderful teacher, Fira Jacoby -- a legend in the Washington D.C. area at the time.

What is your favorite thing to do in the whole wide world?
Sit on the porch in a thunderstorm.

What is your biggest challenge when it comes to running your business?
Time and money; but if I had to say which was bigger, it's time. While Breezeway Records has always run on a shoestring budget, it's the lack of time that's the real killer. These days, the Internet affords artists an unprecedented platform for global exposure, but cutting through the clutter is the huge challenge. I believe our music can seriously cut through the clutter, but it can only do so if people hear it. I wish I could carve out more hours to work the cyber relationships and really project the music "out there." But since I have a demanding day job and a family with two school-age daughters, it's all I can do just to squeeze out enough time to make some sort of music. If I had more time, I'd rather plow it into writing, practicing and playing. But the biz side still has to be done. For me, it's a Sisyphean task; I just can't quite get there from here. I've recently sort of made peace with this reality and decided that I can't keep chasing Lucy's football. I need to let go of the business ambition and just concentrate on making the best art I can in the amount of time I have.

When you were a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
A writer of some kind. (After I realized that becoming a Cy Young pitcher was probably not in the cards.) As I grew, I realized it wouldn't be fiction (my first dream was to be a novelist like John Steinbeck). I studied philosophy in school for a while, so my writing then drifted toward the academic. There was at a time when I also considered journalism, which felt like a great fit; but I let my mother talk me out of it. I ended up in the advertising field (the absolute last thing I ever thought I would do), writing and editing. I'm now a managing editor for a catalog/website production team. I also always wanted to be a composer of music; so I guess I've achieved that to some small extent.

In what way has your community impacted your development as a musician?
I grew up in a classical music environment -- both as a listener and as a student. Steeped in that world, really. I went to my first rock band rehearsal at the age of 17 wondering who had the sheet music. I was completely paralyzed without it. The subsequent 32 years have almost been about increasing the distance from that moment. Although that past has helped me understand music more deeply, and the skills gained have served me well, I think. It's still my first musical love. Other community, cultural influences include: Grateful Dead shows (this influence is far deeper than musical, in fact its musical influence is fairly mild), spending several contiguous months in Europe in 1985 (living in Paris), hanging out with jazz musicians everywhere I found myself, the incredibly fertile and creative Charlottesville music scene of the late 80s and early 90s, personal relationships with influential musicians in my life (Worth Proffitt, Tim Reynolds, Kelley Chapman, Greg Howard, Billy Stewart, Spencer Leffel, Kenny Roll, LeRoi Moore, Houston Ross, Mike Colley, Spencer Lathrop), piano teachers (Fira Jacoby, Mike Campbell, Art Wheeler), composition (Robert Stewart). Not to be melodramatic about it, but there's no way to understate the influence of humanity and the earth in general. One day I woke up here and, like everyone else, has processed reality though my own filters. My music is, for better and worse, some sort of by-product of the filtration process.

What other artists out there do you love?
Random, off the top of my head ...
Van Gogh
Jackson Pollack
Michelangelo
Shakespeare
J.S. Bach
Bob Dylan
James Taylor
Keith Jarrett
Joni Mitchell
Ravi Shankar
Miles Davis
John Lennon
Paul McCartney
George Harrison
Coltrane
Hendrix
Stravinsky
Beethoven
Tomasz Stanko
Theo Jansen
David Foster Wallace
Georgia O'Keefe
Skip James
Patsy Cline
Dolly Parton
Ali Farka Toure
Peter Gabriel
Ralph Towner
Arvo Part
Philippe Petit
Jerry Garcia
Duke Ellington
Louis Armstrong
F Scott Fitzgerald
Odetta
Brian Eno
Neil Young
Thelonious Monk
Lester Bowie
Sun Ra
Don Cherry
Don Pullen
Lester Young
Edward Hopper
David Lynch
Ingrid Bergman
Ginger Rogers
Meryl Streep
Ingmar Bergman
Frederico Fellini
Johnny Cash
Claude Monet
Pierre Auguste Renoir
Henri Matisse
James Joyce
Thomas Pynchon
John Steinbeck
Ernest Hemingway
Jack Kerouac
Gertrude Stein
I.M. Pei
Frank Lloyd Wright
Michael Jackson
Stevie Wonder
Marvin Gaye
Aretha Franklin
Son House
Robert Johnson
Bessie Smith
Billie Holiday
Muddy Waters
Howlin' Wolf
BB King
Art Tatum
L.V. Beethoven
George Gershwin
Artur Rubenstein
Jascha Heifetz
David Oistrakh
Vladimir Horowitz
Itzhak Perlman

OK, I'm stopping now, but the list is endless

What does your future hold?
Many solo piano and solo keyboard performances. Also will continue doing voice/piano duets with Houston Ross. Would like to explore ambient/techno/electronica groove music.

Our band can only continue given a substantial financial investment to get it on the road. Not likely to happen, so I'm good with letting the last record stand as representative of what it's all about.

I hope someday to do a Common Margins follow-up with Tim Reynolds, though I have no idea how he feels about that. It's just something that taps me on the shoulder once in a while. There are several people I'd like to collaborate with, musically.

I'd like to compose music for classical instrumentation, and arrange some of my past works for large ensembles. Might be getting a chance to work on a big band chart for Coast to Coast this summer.

Otherwise, I will focus on writing and editing (my day job) and helping my 10 yr-old daughter with her musical studies. She is quite talented and plays electric guitar and cello. Working with her is perhaps my favorite musical outlet. She's also very smart and interested in a ton of things. While I will never push her in a musical direction (if anything, I'll warn against it), I want to help her realize her potential -- to the extent I can, in everything she does.

I've had a book in me for quite some time that will have find its way out. It traces my parents' WWII-era stories from Eastern Europe to Western Europe to America. It's an amazing tale of two Holocaust survivors clawing their ways to freedom and meeting many years later in Washington, D.C. when my mom applied for a job my dad was making available. My father died a few weeks ago -- an event that has pushed the story ever closer to busting out. But there's much work to do there, including quite a bit of unfinished research. My life is definitely a too-much-to-do-and-too-little-time scenario, but I think that's what keeps me moving forward.