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Take your noise-oriented album Zero Tolerance for Silence, for example. In the AllMusic review for that album, it suggests that the music on there might have been your way of "saying 'screw you' to the label."
Not at all. In fact, it's the opposite. At that time, [Sonic Youth's] Thurston Moore was involved in the A&R decision making at Geffen. He heard it and just freaked out and wanted to put it out immediately. It actually didn't quite fit in with the touring that I was doing at that time, which sorta got bulldozed over by the record. They were like, "We're putting this out!" [Laughs.]
It sounds like Geffen was actually enthusiastic about that release.
Oh, completely. I don't even see what the big controversy is with that record.
On some level, it must be a blessing and a curse that some of your work is polarizing. It's got to be satisfying and frustrating at the same time that people cling to their own notions of what you mean to them.
Well, on the blessing-curse ratio, it's like 99 percent blessing and 1 percent curse.
You often speak very highly of Ornette Coleman and vibraphonist Gary Burton as being two of the most singular voices you've ever come across. What is it that puts Unity Band saxophonist Chris Potter in that same category?
The specific, pragmatic piece of evidence that I would offer to support that is this: When you do a record with somebody, in almost every case you do a bunch of takes. At the end of the session, you've got this whole bunch of stuff, and then you have to go through it and pick which version you're going to use. The three musicians where I can say you could pick any one of them and it would be equally great were Gary, Ornette and Chris. It's the only time I've ever experienced that, where every single version was different and great. That's also been borne out live. I've played with Gary the most, but I probably did a hundred gigs with Ornette, and I'm getting pretty close to a hundred now with Chris, so it's a pretty good sample size. They're just amazingly consistent improvisers. Of course, they're coming from very different places in terms of dialect, but in terms of being able to get to stuff every time, they're really in a special category.
Can you talk more about the ideas behind the Unity Band?
I can actually talk about this in terms of Kansas City because it's the only place on the planet where the actual meaning of the album title might resonate with a few people. The reason it's called Unity Band is because of [Unity Church world headquarters] Unity Village. The whole Unity Village thing, with my family, my grandfather on my dad's side, my brother playing in the Unity Band from the time he was really young, and my experiences going there in the summer — first as an observer and then as a participant in the Unity Band — were really great memories for me. Unity Village in particular is very special to me. Going back to the time I was an infant, I spent enormous amounts of time out there in the summers. Knowing that this was going to be a band put together mostly for summer events had this resonant thing for me. I was actually going to have an album cover with all this Unity Band stuff from the old days. I got all these pictures from Unity, and finally [Nonesuch Records president] Bob Hurwitz said, "You know what? Nobody has any idea what you're talking about. Would you just stop it with this?" [Laughs.] He said, "Unity Band is a great name for a band. You can think about it how you want, but it's really just [a great name for] what this music is." So we ended up not going in that direction. But, in fact, we're both right because, of course, my memories were included, but also because that word is a great word for so many things that I'm interested in ... it's my natural sensibility to gather things together —