KUZU : Rempis - Dorji - Damon

KUZUCafe Coda — Saturday, March. 14, 2020 — 8pm

  • Dave Rempis -- Saxophone
  • Tashi Dorji -- Guitar
  • Tyler Damon -- Percussion

By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 02/16/2020

Dave Rempis is a tireless internationally-touring artist, and has led or been a member of 20+ bands, with Chicago-based and other US musicians, and a select group of international comrades. Over the last seven years he has documented his work with nearly 30 releases on his own Aerophonic Records label. That’s an average of about four albums per year, people! 

In addition to Dave, the trio, Kuzu, consists of two like-minded improvisors (not from Chicago), who impressed him so much, both individually and together, that he knew this trio had to happen. That says a lot. 


MB: Where are you originally from, are you from Chicago originally?

Dave Rempis: I’m from just outside of Boston originally, actually.

MB: and what brought you to Chicago?

Dave Rempis: I came out here to go to Northwestern University in 1993, so yeah, I was in Boston ‘till the time I was 18 and then living in Chicago ever since.

MB: And your first entry onto the scene in Chicago; was it the Vandermark 5?

Dave Rempis: Yeah, I mean my first big entry. I was working in some other bands before that, like, when I was in college. And, you know, my first entry into the scene was kind-of like - I played in a - basically a jam band in college and we played at a local jazz club called The Bop Shop on--I think a monthly gig on Thursday nights--and started playing there. And, I mean I knew a lot of the people who were playing there already from having gone to see them. But that was kind-of my first real gig in the city on a regular basis, basically 

MB: What was your playing like back in those days, has it changed much since then? 

Dave Rempis: [Laughing] Man, that’s a good question. I’d probably have to go back and listen to some recordings to refresh my memory [Laughs]. Although I will say, you know, sometimes when you do that it is interesting what the similarities are in some ways. Your fingers are your fingers and they gravitate toward certain things, so I think some of those licks are still in there.

MB: You think your ears have changed somewhat over time?

Dave Rempis: Oh yeah, you know, my ears have definitely - my ears and my perspective and everything else has definitely changed significantly since that time. And, you know, I mean fuck it’s been what twenty - twenty-some years. I’ve done a lot more listening since then as well. So yeah, my ears are definitely different than what they were then.

MB: The band itself KUZU that you’re bringing to Madison: What is the origin of that band, who are Tashi and Tyler and where are they from? 

Dave Rempis: Sure, so Tashi Dorji is a guitarist who is from Bhutan originally. And he moved to the United States to go to university in Asheville, like, I think around the late 90s or 2000. And he's been in Asheville ever since, working kind-of in the noise scene a lot. I mean he does a lot of solo stuff, he's been doing duos with like Mette Rasmussen and Thom Nguyen with their band Manas. And he's like opening up for like, you know, huge bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor and stuff like that. And we kind-of knew of each other for a while. And then I did a solo tour in 2017, where the whole point was to not just play a solo set everywhere I went, which was something I was working on, but also to work with, you know, local improvisers in all the different cities I went to. And so in Asheville it definitely made sense to do something with him just ‘cause, you know, we were kind-of like minded improvisers. So that was the first time we actually played together. 

And then with Tyler, I met him about 5 years ago on a double bill in Lafayette, Indiana, at this great little dive bar called The Spot Tavern that's been doing concerts for quite a while now. And I had never heard of him before and - I mean I loved his set. He was playing a duo with a bass player and we just kind-of hit it off personally right away. And he started coming up to Chicago to work with different people like Mars Williams and a few other folks in town. So we would occasionally do things. And then Tashi and Tyler have a duo that’s been working for, like, about four years now. And when I heard that band--I heard their records--and I saw them live in Chicago--and that duo just, like, totally blew my mind. So, you know, that kind-of all happened in 2017 and it was like “okay we all need to play together,” basically. So we scheduled something for the fall of 2018, which is when we made our first record and did our first concert, basically.

MB: Does the name itself have any significance?

Dave Rempis: Man, it’s kind-of funny. So kuzu means hello in Tashi's native language, it's basically a greeting. It turns out it also means lamb in Turkish which is great because I'm Greek and I love lamb! And there’s also a radio station, as it turns out, in Texas called KUZU that plays a lot of, like, progressive experimental stuff. So it kind-of fit on a bunch of different levels. 

MB: Are you getting a lot of airplay down there?

Dave Rempis: It think we are, actually [Laughs].

MB: That’s awesome. So is this a completely improvised group or do you play any compositions?

Dave Rempis: It’s completely improvised. You know, I would say that any band that’s completely improvised - I mean at least for me - I have a lot of different groups that are completely improvised bands, and I feel like what distinguishes one from the next is what that particular band sort of gravitates towards or what - like, what its strengths are or what its sound is. So this band for me, like, it really has kind-of a sound, and that certainly evolves over time, but it feels very cohesive and, you know, compositional in that sense.

MB: It seems like - I do this too - there are a lot of groups these days who are, you know, not in that typical quartet construction; where you’ve kind-of removed an element that would normally be found. Do you think this is, like, an intentional disruption or just - does it happen for another reason?

Dave Rempis: You mean just in terms of the lineup or the instrumentation?

MB: Yeah, like you guys don’t have a bass player, you know, that kind-of thing.

Dave Rempis: Right, I feel like the biggest thing to me in the music, as far as putting bands together, is really just the personalities of the people involved. I almost feel like the instrument choices are, like, secondary. I mean, I think you can make really beautiful music with any combination of instruments. And what kind-of - what kind-of stands out more to me is really the interaction between the people involved, if that makes sense. So, it so happens that, you know, this lineup is a little bit off from, say, what a typical jazz lineup would be. But I do think it is more based on the personalities than necessarily the instrumentation, if that makes sense. 

That said, not having a bass player certainly like - it definitely changes things and in a very interesting way. I mean, there's - there's a certain amount of grounding that's missing in that low end area. But then Tashi like - his guitar sound - like, he does a lot of stuff that is very kind-of low-end-y. He can really create, like, this sort of low end rumble. Or he can be very soloistic, or, you know, like he - he really has this wide range of things that he's able to do that can play the role of several different instruments whether that be, say, guitar or piano or something in a jazz-setting that might be more cordial. Or, you know, bass. Something that's, like, just outlining things more or holding down things rhythmically in a different kind of way. 

MB: I think even from the drums, having the low bass drum sound can even root things in a way, do you feel that too?

Dave Rempis: Oh yeah, definitely. And I think Tyler’s somebody who's very conscious of his -  you know, his tuning and his sound - and, like, the frequency ranges and how that's all contributing to, you know - to fill out the sound of the ensemble.

MB:  Can you talk a little bit about your approach to playing the saxophone, maybe? Can you share anything that you’re working on from a technical perspective, or interpretive, or artistic perspective?

Dave Rempis: Yeah, sure. I don't know, it's such a - it's such a common instrument there’re so many different ways to play it for one thing. And there's so many - there's so many just insane masters of the instrument--living and not living. in some ways it's, like, a daunting thing where I feel like you just have to, like, almost push all that outside of your head, to be able to actually be focusing in on what you're doing, you know. For me - I mean, I feel like, you know, the big touchstones are things that aren't that unpredictable all the - all the great saxophone players from Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins, and Sidney Bechet, up through Evan Parker and Peter Brotzmann. And, you know, I mean there's - I feel like all that incredible span of people all contributed different parts to the overall language of the instrument. Outside of that, I mean I've always been really interested in - like, I grew up in a Greek family and grew up around Greek music and, I mean, that's really what kind-of inspired me in the first place to pick up a woodwind instrument—was sort of being around that music as a kid and being really inspired by it. And so, you know, the tonalities, timbres, and modes of, you know, Greece and Turkey in the Middle East have always had a pretty big impact on me. I also studied anthropology and ethnomusicology in college. I was really lucky to be able to go to Africa to Ghana for a year to study there. And so I feel like a lot of those different things of various folk music traditions from around the world, but particularly Greece in the Middle East, and in West Africa, really helped inspire some of the things that I do on the instrument, basically.

MB:  You have your own record label Aerophonic records, and it seems to have a really impressive design consistency among the various releases.

Dave Rempis: Yeah, thanks.

MB: Obviously that’s a conscious thing. Can you talk about that a little bit and also, like, do you have distribution, you know, and is there a model that you sort of followed in developing your own label?

Dave Rempis: Yeah, Yeah. So the reason I did it in the first place was basically because - I was working with various labels at the time and they're all great and everyone who runs them are, like, truly fantastic people who are totally dedicated to the music. And, you know, some of them gave me the opportunity to put out my first record, and they're fantastic. But in terms of what I was working on, there was just way more stuff that I wanted to get out there than I could really find labels to do, you know. I mean, if I was working with other people's labels I could probably put out a couple records a year. With Aerophonic, since that started in 2013, I’m now on my twenty-fifth record, 26 and 27 will be out in the spring. So, basically, within seven years I've been able to average about four records a year. So, you know, I'm able to get just more stuff out there, basically, which is really great. So that was kind-of, I’d say, the first impetus for starting a label. 

At this point, I mean, it's still artist-run. It's just me; I don't have any staff or anything. And I’m working on, you know, the manufacturing, the mastering, the mixing. I don’t do the graphic design. I'm very lucky to have a friend who's a professional graphic designer who has been with the label since the beginning [Jonathan Crawford]. We really workshopped, or discussed the idea of what the look of the label would be. I mean, I've always liked recognizable labels--whether it be, like, Black Saint or Hat Art or whatever it might be--that, like, when you see that record you know it's from that label, which is great. Now, that said, I don't always like the templates they use necessarily. And so part of our discussion was the idea of coming up with something that was, like, a bit more flexible in terms color, in terms of palette, in terms of the look of it. [But] that they would still be, like, recognizable that it was from this label, basically. 

So that was kind-of the inspiration behind the design concept. And I'm really lucky that I'm still working with the same graphic designer since the beginning. And that he -  you know, we're both on the same page. We work together really efficiently. So that’s all really great, and in terms of getting stuff out there; yeah, I mean, it’s really just me, and it's really just - the distribution I have is basically mailing stuff to people who order directly online. I sell to about eight or nine retailers around the world. There’s, you know, like, about, at this point, three in the states, three or four in Europe, one in Japan, and one in Australia. So, you know, pretty much everything is direct. There’s - unfortunately not that many brick-and-mortar stores out there anymore. And many of them that are out there are selling, like, you know, used stuff as opposed to new stuff. So, you know, it's basically me hitting all those folks up, making sure they know about the new releases, mailing everything from home, and then carrying stuff around in my suitcase on tour, basically. I mean - and I feel like that's one of the things that actually kind-of keeps the label running, as opposed to lot of other labels that have folded, is that, you know, because I'm one of the artists on the label, like, you know, sales that I do myself, or on tour, like, help continue the label. Whereas for other labels, who are just giving product to, you know, artists as--essentially--their payment, they're not getting any of the proceeds from that. So it makes it really kind-of difficult to just sustain a label when that's the case. Because, I mean, I can say for me, myself, like, a third to half of my sales are basically at concerts, you know.

MB: Would you be selling the same kind of volume on a different label as you would running your own label?

Dave Rempis: I don't think so, no. I mean, I feel like it depends on the label. I mean, there are a few labels out there now there are really putting some effort into, you know, promoting stuff and - and getting stuff out there, and working with their artists to get, you know, concerts and higher profile playing opportunities. But I’d say the majority of labels in this, you know, music are generally smaller run labels that are basically doing the manufacturing and putting it up for sale. But they're generally not doing that much promotional work. So, you know, I feel like having that kind of control over all of that just makes sense for me as an artist that’s already communicating with my fans. It just kind-of makes it like a one-stop-shop to find out anything about, like, what I'm doing, where I'm playing, what my recordings are. So all of that kind-of gets out there to the people who actually care about it. 

And, really, one of the most rewarding things about the label has been the fact that I actually communicate directly with people who've been buying my music for years who I didn't know before, you know. I mean, a guy, you know, in Germany who's bought every recording of mine since 2000, or whatever, you know, now is buying everything directly from me. We chat. I see him at concerts when I'm over there, you know. You really build up a really nice rapport with people, which is great. I mean, it just feels like a much more personal connection, which is - you know, it's really how this music runs. I mean, you know, we're talking about sales in the hundreds, not like records that are selling 20,000 copies and so - you know, it's kind-of a boutique world of stuff. And I feel like cultivating those types of personal relationships with folks is really important.

 MB: Last time we spoke which, I was trying to remember - and I’m ashamed to say that it could have been as long as 10 years ago.

Dave Rempis: Oh wow, okay, yeah, yeah.

MB: You were here with Frank Rosaly doing a duo show.

Dave Rempis: Oh that’s right! yeah, totally.

MB: We may have spoken in the interim, But I just can’t remember [Laughing].

Dave Rempis: Right. I was actually trying to remember too. ‘Cause I mean I remember chatting with you but I couldn’t remember when the last time it was.

MB: Anyway, in one of our conversations you mentioned that you were supplementing as a bartender when you’re not on the road. Is that still the case?

Dave Rempis: No, I kind-of went from that - I mean I worked as a bartender for a large concert promoter in Chicago called Jam Productions that owned several concert venues, like, large concert venues, you know like 1000 to 3000 people sized venues. And I went from there to working for Pitchfork Music Festival. The first year I did that I ran their concessions operation, and from there I went on to, basically, be business manager of the festival for 12 years. And I left that in 2016, and then started working for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival here in Chicago as operations manager, which is a smaller gig than the Pitchfork gig, you know--much more part-time basically--but, kind-of way more aligned with what I'm interested in personally. And, you know, I've also been working with Elastic Arts here in Chicago for many years. And, I mean, that's strictly a volunteer thing, but, like, curating a jazz series - a weekly series since 2002 over there, and working as board president for, like, the last five years. So, you know, those are the kind of things that fill up my time when I’m not focused on, you know, my own playing--music stuff. 

MB: Dave it’s great to talk to you, thanks so much for taking the time 

Dave Rempis: Yeah absolutely, thank you. I'm excited to be in Madison, I mean, Cafe Coda is run by a couple of friends who - who I've known through their involvement with the Elastic Arts here in Chicago for many years. So I was really excited to see that, you know, BlueStem Jazz has turned into a not-for-profit now. I'm really excited about playing at Cafe Coda. I mean just the momentum that seems to be happening in Madison, in terms of this music right now, is so great. ‘cause it's - you know it’s not a far drive from Chicago, and there was a long period of time where there wasn't really a place to - for me to play there. And now I feel like, man, it just seems to have exploded in the last 3-4 years to the point where there's so many great things happening there and I’m very excited to be a part of it.



ReversoAudio for the Arts — Wednesday, March 4, 2020 — 8pm

Ryan Keberle - Trombone
Frank Woeste - Piano (Fabian Almazan - Piano on 03/04)
Vincent Courtois - Cello

By Michael Brenneis

Interview data: 02/12/2020

Ryan Keberle’s career is an archetype for the talented, creative musician: featured soloist with Maria Schneider; first-call sub on Saturday Night Live; college professor in NYC; projects at every point along the continuum of genre. And now Reverso, which might at first appear to be a left turn, is really just another expression of his musical depth. The other members of Reverso, perhaps less well known in the US, are a big international deal. Even the sub piano player on this Madison date, Fabian Almazan, is a heavyweight. As our conversation shows, both on and off the instrument, Ryan has a lot to say:


MB: Could you give me just a brief bio of each of the guys in Reverso?

Ryan: I'll give you a little background on the group and then the bio. Which is - the group performing in Madison is a slight variation on the original - so the original group was formed, I want to say, around five years ago. A pianist based in Paris named Frank Woeste, he and I met on a recording session with Dave Douglas. Dave was doing a recording for subscribers on his record label--on which I record with my other group Catharsis--and for which Dave and Frank also did a record, so we were on the same session. And Frank and I met and got to talking, and I was checking out his music of the time--really loved his compositional style and just kind-of his approach to music making--and I think he felt kind-of similarly about my stuff, so we started talking and wound up applying for this grant called the French American Exchange Grant, and we got it. It's a pretty - it was a pretty hefty award. So I went to Paris, we recorded in Frank’s Studio--he has like a really beautiful state-of-the-art recording studio in his house. He is really hooked up.

We used a portion of the money to hire Jeff Ballard, who was living in Paris at the time, and we recorded this album called Sweet Ravel. And it was all original music inspired by a piece that Revell wrote called Le Tombeau de Couperin. And it was just kind-of a real meeting-of-the-minds. Frank and I both have a long history with classical music, in kind-of another musical life. And those experiences influenced, you know, our current approach working in a more traditional jazz setting--I think both compositionally and in terms of how we approach our instruments. So there was that. And I think we also have a lot of similar tastes, just in terms of current jazz trends, he and I are both huge Brad Mehldau fans, and I think it was a lot of shared interests, so it just worked really well. I mean, those kinds of grant projects often times come and go, but this one stuck, and we did a ton of touring both in Europe and here in the US, and got to talking last year--we had a few free days in Paris in the midst of a tour--and decided to do another record. So we did a second record and this time we did it just as a trio without drums, for a number of reasons.

It was partly just logistics, you know, it was getting to be a little bit expensive to have four people if we didn’t feel it was absolutely necessary given the amount of touring we were doing. And also we were finding - we were having a lot of success - especially here in the US - targeting chamber music and classical music venues who are, often times, looking for more crossover groups and looking to connect with different audience tastes and backgrounds, so we wanted to explore that. And the one thing we found with these classical music series was every time they saw the drum set on the rider they would kind-of freak out a little bit, you know, it's like “we see the connections, but there's a drum set for god’s sake, how can this be classical music!” You know, so we thought we’d kinda just continue to pursue that road. And without the drums this new record that we’re releasing--this Friday actually [Feb., 14, 2020]--is, I think - I mean from my perspective, aesthetically speaking, a classical music album. I mean it’s trombone, cello, and piano, it sounds like some kind-of piano trio hybrid instrumentation, but of course it's all original music by Frank and I. It's heavily improvised, still all the same kind-of - it’s still the same music he and I always make. I don't think I personally feel like I've changed anything in terms of my approach, it just happens to kind-of have this kind-of classical sound, especially without the drums, and also without the bass. From the beginning without that bass it kind-of changed things up a bit in terms of our instrumental roles.

So that record’s coming out--we’re super proud of it. We kind-of continue down that - Reverso the whole name of the band - the concept of the band is this idea of looking at the kind-of reverse influences that the jazz and classical world have on each other - both in terms of, historically speaking, with the way that Ellington was being influenced by Ravel and then was similarly influencing, you know, Stravinsky and other - other European, Western European composers and many examples of that. And I think still to this day there's a lot of shared influences there, and I think even more so now you have a lot of musicians who were - who are actively performing in both classical or new music worlds and jazz worlds. So the group is kind-of looking to - to highlight those trends and to use those trends in our music making. So this album, kind-of following that trajectory, is all music influenced by this group of composers in early 20th century Paris called Les Six. And that included a few that a lot of jazz musicians know like Darius Milhaud, who was Dave Brubeck's composition teacher, who settled in the Bay area later in his life. And to Francis Poulenc, and then some lesser known composers including the sole female member of the group named Germaine Tailleferre. And actually all the compositions I wrote--that I contributed for this album--were influenced by her and her music.

So we have a new album out it's now just a trio, same cellist as was on the first record, his name is Vincent Courtois and he is, in Europe, considered to be one of the foremost, if not the foremost improvising cellist in the jazz world. He has his own projects that tour around Europe regularly and play major jazz festivals; ECM recording artist and what not. This actually will be his first appearance with us here in the US, we just finally got him a work visa, so that's super exciting. I'm excited to have US audiences hear him play because he is a force of nature on the instrument; just an incredible virtuosic cellist. But also with the kind-of improvisational creative streak that, you know, you're great jazz musicians tend to have, so that's really exciting. And then I mentioned that the iteration is a little bit different in Madison. For a few of our our tour dates were going to be joined by another phenomenal pianist based in New York named Fabian Almazan, and I'm sure you and your - your readers or audience members probably know of, he’ll be filling in for Frank. Frank is the music director for a major jazz star in Europe named Ibrahim Maalouf. And something came up he just couldn't turn down, so he's missing a few dates. But yeah we're super fortunate that Fabian could join us. He's one of my favorite pianists of our generation for sure--incredible music--has his own label called Biophilia--really just doing amazing things in every way. He's best known for, these days, for his work with the Terence Blanchard Ensemble - has been playing with him for 10 years, but does a lot of really interesting things, incredible pianist. And so that's - that's going to be fun. We’ve never actually performed a gig where Frank and I weren’t both on the gig, since we’re co-leaders and kind-of co-creators, so I'm excited, actually. We’re doing a number of gigs with Fabian--the Madison gig won’t be the first. It’s certainly going to go in different directions but it'll sure be equally kind-of enjoyable. So that's basically the group in a nutshell--the history and a little bit on the three musicians that will be there in Madison.

MB: Is Vincent also based in France?

Ryan: He is. He is a born-and-bred Parisian. He is about the most Parisian of people I've ever met in the best of ways, is classic, classic Parisian Frenchman. And actually he doesn't play in the US that often but he released an album with - he’s got a really cool group that’s cello and two tenor saxophones and they released another album this past - I want to say late spring, early summer, and did a pretty significant tour on the west coast. So he has been here recently but certainly not that often - that was the first time he’s been here in quite some time so - and of course the work visa’s like the major obstacle for all these guys. We were able to get one for Frank a couple years ago. But that’s, you know, an incredibly tedious and expensive process to do. But we got it and I'm looking forward not only to this tour with Vincent but hopefully to some more before the three-year visa expires down the road.

MB: Can you talk a little bit about - especially when you're improvising - the difference in the vocabularies maybe that exist sort-of between the jazz idiom and the 20th century classical idiom? Do you combine those vocabularies intentionally or - do you feel there is a distinction or is there a sort of a seamlessness between the two?

Ryan: That’s a great question. It’s something I’ve certainly thought about over the years improvising within these more classically kind-of set pieces. But I will say, for me, my approach to improvisation, I think, works well for the setting here, where - where I certainly wouldn't want to bring in a traditional jazz vocabulary, you know, quoting the bebop language or Kurt Rosenwinkel language. I mean it would feel out of place, just aesthetically speaking, it would definitely feel out of place. For me, you know, one of the big things that I've always kind-of thought about when I'm improvising, and certainly something I do with my students - I'm a - I'm an active teacher and professor at a university here in New York, and been teaching improvising--or trying to teach improvisation--for a really long time, basically my whole adult life. My father is a jazz educator as well, so it kind-of runs deep. And it's - it's obviously an incredibly challenging thing to teach. It's a relatively new kind-of subject and concept, and everyone is still trying to figure it out. But one of the things I, oftentimes, have my students do--especially those students without a significant jazz background--is get them to improvise using the languages that they are familiar with. Whether it's a guitarist using the language of Van Halen or, you know, a trombonist using the language of, like, Rousseau etudes, whatever it might be. Getting people to realize that the act of improvisation isn't just about the language because, of course, that is, in many ways, the most overwhelming part of becoming a jazz musician is to master that language and become fluent in it.

But the act of improvisation is a separate creative process all together. And so for me - and I really - and I think this might also stem from the kind-of ridiculous amount of time I spent playing in big bands over the years as well, or playing other people's music, is I'm always trying to channel the musical setting and musical character of the piece at that moment, when I'm taking solo. So with that approach, for me personally, I don't find there to be too many issues improvising in this more classical setting, as opposed to a jazz setting. I do have to, from time to time, kind-of catch myself if I'm about to jump into some, like, bebop lick or something, you know, but over the years that's become less and less frequent I think. But yeah, I mean it's an interesting thing to think about. I would be curious to hear Frank’s answer, it’s something I’ll have to ask him when we're on the road - it's - it's definitely something, you know, that I’ve thought about because it isn’t totally seamless and certainly for someone who is used to speaking a more traditional jazz language, I think they might find it difficult, on some level, to blow over some of these - these improvising sections that we've created in Reverso.

MB: I could see that definitely being, I don't know, not problematic, but certainly difficult for inexperienced improvisers.

Ryan: Yeah, or just someone who - it could be someone who’s super experienced, but just with one particular genre, you know, and that definitely is a significant segment of our jazz world. And nothing wrong with that at all, but for me personally, and I - I see this as a trend maybe throughout our generation and especially New York where there are so many different experiences being brought to the table. You know, everyone is trying to expand the vocabulary, even if it's not a conscious effort, I think. Really the great improvisers of our day are people who have almost transcended genre with their vocabulary, whether it's through some kind-of rhythmic genius, or through some kind-of just utterly unique harmonic approach. It - you know, many of the people who we kind-of hold up in - in high regard these days as improvisers, I'm thinking like Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch, Miguel Zenon, Joe Lovano, they all kind-of have such unique languages that they really do kind-of transcend genre. They're able to function in almost any setting, you know.

MB: In two of my ensembles I feature the trombone prominently and, in fact, my son is a trombone player. But for those who don’t have so much trombone in their lives, tell us what are the intrinsic properties of the trombone either that, you know, you were attracted to as an artist or how - how it captures the music that you're trying to play.

Ryan: Well, I think the trombone is one of those instruments that brings out a love-hate relationship in its practitioners because the trombone is inherently cumbersome and really not built for the modern jazz language in terms of the higher-faster-louder kind-of approach that - that you oftentimes hear. Or even - I mean it’s really not anything new, even the bebop language itself is predicated on a very small subdivision--16th note-based lines--lots of notes, fast notes, very virtuosic playing. It’s just not easy to do that on trombone. It is definitely one of the most difficult instruments to translate a modern jazz vernacular to. But with that being said, I mean, that's kind-of been the story of the jazz trombone over the last 60 years is: every generation, people just keep getting closer and closer, and of our generation people are doing things on the trombone that, you know, even maybe, say, some trumpet player, or saxophone player might not be able to do. I mean they're - there are true virtuosos out there who have completely broken down those walls, but it's certainly not the norm.

On the flip side there are things the trombone can do that - that really very few other instruments can do, because of the slide and how that allows us to create these glissandos, from one note to the next, that really only string instruments and the human voice are capable of. And for me, I mean, I am a real student of the history of our music and, you know, the first great improviser, Louis Armstrong, was really just playing on the trumpet what he sang. And I think you can trace back, really the majority of our language, to instrumentalists just, basically, trying to be as expressive as what their vocal counterparts were able to do. And, you know, when you're playing piano that is really difficult to do, like a piano is such a - such a rigid, codified instrument. When trying to mimic a vocalist, like, forget about it. but the trombone - we're really fortunate we’re able to - it’s a very expressive instrument. And for me, I've always been torn between those two worlds of trying to become more virtuosic in my language just because, I think generally speaking the jazz language has become more virtuosic, but also I've - I really love that expressive quality, and I love the history of our instrument, and the players throughout history who have embraced the more expressive side of our instrument. So, you know, I think for me I as - as a younger person that oftentimes did create this kind-of love-hate relationship, and lots of frustrating moments in the practice room.

But I would say, over the last few years, I kind-of just - whether I've come to grips, or maybe I’ve just kind-of gotten to a point where the technical demands are not quite so frustrating for me, I'm not sure what it is, but I feel like I've found a balance between those two worlds. And I think that maybe, more than any other musical setting, Reverso allows me to express that, because, really, when you think about chamber music--classical chamber music--it is some of the most expressive music making you'll find especially - well I was going to say especial as an ensemble - but also individually. But, you know, there's this idea of a - where even tempo isn’t necessarily - isn't even necessarily set in stone. Where even tempo, with a chamber music that kind-of breathes and plays together, can bend all the rules and can really create their own, you know, ensemble expression within a - within a piece of music. And so we try to do that in Reverso. And I think in my own soloing I, kind-of, channel that as well--just a very expressive, very dramatic style of playing. And I think the trombone and cello both are perfectly suited for that type of music making.

MB: Yeah, they do seem, to me, to have timbral consistencies, or something, between those instruments.

Ryan: Big time. Big time. I tell most people I’m doing interviews with for the project that one of my favorite things to do as a composer is just write unison lines for the cello and trombone, because there’s really nothing better than just hearing those two instruments play the same melody the same rhythm because - it's crazy. Usually, you know, when you take orchestration classes you’re taught to try to find resonant intervals and when you're trying to create a sound larger than the individual parts you want to think a lot about register and resonance. But with the trombone and cello it’s, like, you can't go wrong. They can literally play the same note, and in any register, and the whole room just starts to buzz with resonance. It's really - it's incredible, it's super fun. So the listeners will definitely hear a lot of that. But the coolest thing about Reverso is, without the bass, and now especially without the drums, all three of our roles are completely interchangeable. I'll be playing - and I think just the roles themselves are maybe blurred because of the classical influence - but I'll be playing what is effectively a baseline at one moment, Vincent might be carrying the melody on the cello and the next thing you know, you know, Frank is playing some kind-of like ostinato pattern kind-of filling in for the drums. Meanwhile, I'm up in the upper register playing a melody, and Vincent's holding down the bass. Like, it can go anywhere so it's - it's been really fun to explore. I feel like we really just scratched the surface.

MB: Actually, yeah, that does seem conceptually very interesting. I mean lots of groups that you see these days will sort-of be eliminating parts of the traditional, say, quartet or whatever, and I always wonder if it's sort-of an intentional disruption, or is it in search of a certain sound or expression. I guess we’ll find out, really!

Ryan: [Laughs] Yeah, I mean, I think, well certainly - in the case of our group part of it was logistics. Part of it is - I think, oftentimes - maybe more than anything, is oftentimes personnel. And it’s like you get the right personnel, nowadays with master jazz musicians, it really doesn't matter what instruments are onstage, you know, it's like “great music will be made” and it's fun to kind-of - almost in an experiment like setting - just kind-of see what happens. And we've been really, really happy with the results, even without the drums. I mean there are certain songs from our previous record that we just won't play anymore because we don't have the drums. That is what it is, but there are other songs that we continue to play, in that we're discovering new directions and new possibilities without there being a drummer in the band.

MB: It’s almost like you get the right voices in the right place at the right time--you can't go wrong.

Ryan: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I love that because that’s really more of an arranging, or orchestrational, you know, approach and that's really one of my - my loves beyond composition and trombone playing. I love - I love the art of arranging. You know, having played so many big band gigs with Maria Schneider, and playing the music of Gil Evans and Duke Ellington--those are really my formative experiences--and still to this day are some highlights of my musical career. And there's something about playing perfectly orchestrated, or perfectly arranged-constructed music that for me I - I just - I really - I really get a lot out of that.

MB: So from Spokane in eastern Washington, to Manhattan School of Music--and now I guess 20 years in New York City--how did you navigate this? Did you have champions along the way or - I mean granted talent, of course - or was it champions along the way, or was it grit and force of will?

Ryan: [Laughs] I think everyone who has lasted in New York for 20 years, regardless of the profession, definitely has a certain amount of force of will, because it is not an easy place to live - to live your life, that's for sure. But no, I was really, really lucky over the years. I think in terms of the musical story, one of the things that really allowed me to last - it's really just about longevity in New York - it takes - I tell my students it takes at least ten years to really be established, and be doing the things that you set out to do. But ten years living in a - in a city where, you know, rents are well over $2,000 a month now for a one-bedroom apartment, like, that's just hard to do. So you just got to figure out a way to survive and last long enough. And so, for me, I think it was all about versatility, not only on the trombone and playing orchestra gigs one night, and playing a Broadway show the next, and subbing on SNL the next day, and then doing a tour to Colombia with a Latin band the next week. I mean, truly playing almost every kind of music you can possibly think about, it all exists in New York.

But also, I'm a piano player and a violin player--as a younger person I was a very active violin player--and the gig that really got me through those hardest years, financially speaking, you know, right out of school - very little work - was playing piano and singing at a Catholic Church in lower Manhattan. It was a full-time gig, you know. I was down there every Sunday morning at 6:30 a.m. and would play three english masses and a spanish mass--I didn’t speak Spanish at all, you know. In fact, I wasn’t even catholic. I had to learn the whole liturgy, I mean, it was a serious crash course. But that really paid my bills for, like, seven or eight years. And it allowed me to survive and last and just continue to develop that network that would eventually lead to more opportunities in the jazz world. So, I think, the versatility was key for me, but I also had enormous fortune to meet some incredible mentors along the way.

And the first was David Berger; incredible Duke Ellington scholar and great composer, arranger and he has had a big band for most of his adult life I - probably 50 years now, off and on. And when I joined the band people like Jerry Dodgion, the original alto saxophonist with Thad Jones / Mel Lewis orchestra, was in the band. I mean that was where I was learning how to play this music, way more than any kind of university setting. Bob Millikan on lead trumpet, Jimmy - the drummer was the guy that played with Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra - Jimmy, I’m having a mind fart right now I’ll think of it in a second [Jimmy Madison]. But the best: Denis Irwin on bass.

I sat right next to Denis Irwin for over ten years on a regular basis, just swinging, you know, and man talk about an education. So, you know, that was a huge, huge break. I mean, it wasn't paying the bills, but meeting people and just getting the real education: the language from the source is an experience I wouldn't trade for anything. Other mentors and kind-of Champions: another big one for me was Lenny Pickett in the SNL band I - very, very early on, had the opportunity to sub for Steve Turre and got to know Lenny. And since then I've been the regular sub in that band for like 15 years now, and Lenny has been one of the few people in my life who will really give me honest, harsh criticism and feedback if I asked for it, you know. He's just a real straight-shooter and has been a real mentor over the years and inspiration. And then, certainly, last but not least, the great Maria Schneider. And that was kind-of my first, like, big gig--regular gig--and that was almost 14 years ago now. And really, ever since then she's been, not to make her sound old, but almost like some kind-of motherly figure to me. I mean, really, you know, my parents live in eastern Washington, I see them like once a year, you know. Maria is just, on every level, both personally, certainly on a musical level, as a band leader as a composer, as an arranger, I really owe maybe more to her than anyone on every level. She is just an incredible inspiration for me and someone I still count as an inspiration, a mentor, and very good friend these days. So yeah, I mean it's like, really, just without those people, I definitely wouldn't be here talking to you now.

MB: You mentioned that you’re a professor, where do you teach?

Ryan: Yeah, I’m a part of the CUNY university system, and there are well over 20, four-year and two-year schools under that umbrella, some really great schools. The university I teach at is called Hunter College and it's a four-year public university on the upper east side, and one of the strongest liberal arts kind-of academic universities within the CUNY system, so we get a lot of very bright kids--very motivated kids. Most of our kids are first- or maybe second-generation of their families to ever go to college. Many of them are first- or second-generation immigrants to this country. So needless to say, incredibly hard workers. Many of them are paying their own ways through college. So it's a very different environment than my college experience, which was at conservatories, and, you know, a lot of the kids just, like, had no idea how good they had it--definitely a little bit - little bit spoiled and entitled. So to work with kids like this at Hunter, is just - it's really almost easy, in a way, because there’re very few issues you have to deal with. Everyone wants to be there, everyone wants to learn. It's been a great place, and I've been there a long time. I started as a part-time adjunct teacher and I've been full-time for, I guess, eight or nine years now. I've been - this is my 16th year at Hunter.

And we’ve built a little jazz program, and it's small but it's mighty. We have some really - really strong small groups and some great faculty. Of course, being a New York we always have some really great private teachers and part-time educators for some of our other jazz related classes. So it's been a great place for me and especially, like I said, I come from a music education family, even my grandparents were music educators, so it's always kind-of run in the family and something that I think I have an affinity for. And it's been a good place for me to kind-of develop, as I mentioned, this jazz pedagogy because I feel like there's so much more to learn in terms of best practices when it comes to teaching jazz--especially when it comes to teaching improvisation and the language. So it's been a really - has been a really great place for me to kind-of workshop that. And a lot of the touring that I do both with reverso and also my other project Catharsis is supplemented by workshops. Wherever we are, we’ll do workshops at local universities, so between those two - those kind-of two parts of my life, I definitely spend a lot of time thinking about, you know, how we're going to carry this music on to the next generation in the most authentic form possible.

MB: Do you have any workshops scheduled in the Madison area?

Ryan: Unfortunately we don’t. I would have loved to, it just didn't work out. I don't have many contacts--personal contacts--I certainly reached out to all the local educators, just nothing came of it. We've done things in Wisconsin. I don't think I mentioned but both sides of my family are from Wausau, Wisconsin. My mom's parents were music educators. My grandpa was the local band director, my grandma was the local choir director. So deep, deep roots in Wisconsin. I’m there all the time, like, at least a couple times a year. Big Packer family - go to a Packer game at least once a year. So I have done a lot of stuff in Wisconsin over the years. We did a residency with my group Catharsis at UW Stevens Point a couple years ago, and yeah we've definitely done things in the Wisconsin area but unfortunately nothing this time in the Madison area.

MB: We’ll have to keep that on the radar maybe for the next time you come through.

Ryan: Yeah, I would love to, always down.



Friends & Neighbors Audio for the Arts — Friday, Feb. 28, 2020 — 8pm

Sponsored by SONS OF NORWAY

  • André Roligheten - Saxophone
  • Thomas Johansson - Trumpet
  • Oscar Grönberg - Piano
  • Jon Rune Strøm - Double Bass
  • Tollef Østvang - Drums


By Michael Brenneis


Interview data: 02/14/2020


The name “Friends & Neighbors” is an homage to inspiration Ornette Coleman, but also describes the members of this Norwegian band themselves. With the classic jazz quintet instrumentation, these players have evolved together over their 11 year history, into a tight unit with a uniquely Scandinavian take on the music that is their heart and passion.

We’ve seen this band in these parts before, and we’ve seen some of its members here in other contexts as well. I caught up with amiable, cogitative, drummer Tollef Østvang at his home in idyllic Os, Norway (pop. 2,034). Here is our conversation:  

MB: Am I reaching you in Os today?

Tollef: That's correct.

MB: And Os is, say, 200 kilometers from Trondheim.

Tollef: Yeah, roughly, like a little bit less, and it's two and a half hours from Trondheim.

MB: And it’s about 400km to Oslo. 

Tollef: Yeah.

MB: So do you find yourself traveling all the time to play?

Tollef: I would say that sort-of is the correct thing to say, and I think that's the case for most Norweigen musicians, wherever they live in a way. It's a small country with large distances. Also the population is only 5 million. So it’s a natural consequence of that; people have to travel to play and collaborate with others.

MB: Norway has a fairly robust transit system. Are you able to use transit, or do you have to drive yourself?

Tollef: No I rarely use a car, It’s either the train, or plane, or bus. 

MB: So when you're playing domestically in Norway, you find the places have drums and pianos and so on?

Tollef: Yeah I think the infrastructure -- the last at least, the last 20 years -- has sort-of become to a certain standard, or, if not, also you know people in the big cities so if the venue doesn’t have any equipment it’s easy to borrow. But usually the jazz clubs have okay drums, in most cases okay piano.

MB: And when you come to the states how do you travel?

Tollef: We travel by car. We've been checking out many options, but time and time again we come back to the rental car option.

MB: There’s almost no other way to do it.

Tollef: Yeah, yeah. We played in Chicago once, I think the first time we were there, and we were going to Detroit. I remember checking all the train options. Yeah, car was not half the price, but almost.

MB: Plus the time involved. The transit system in the US, especially train, is circuitous.

Tollef: Yeah, it seems like it's based a lot on the layout of the cities and infrastructure. And it’s based upon people having to drive, maybe, I don’t know, how it looks to a tourist or a musician that’s sort-of the impression. Of course the big cities have good public transportation. That’s not always the case in Norway either but I would say the traveling in between cities here is very easy.

MB: In the US, certainly, even at a high-level, most folks in this field are supplementing. They're playing and doing other types of work, or teaching. Is it similar for you?

Tollef: Yeah, I think it’s - maybe the percentage part of the income that comes from playing is a little bit higher, but most people - most jazz musicians I know -- maybe at least half of them maybe less, maybe more -- have either a main job or a complimentary job. Most of times it seems to me like it's teaching. For me last night, this night, I worked the night shift in a home for kids with disabilities. So I went to bed 7 a.m. this morning. So that's my side gig at the moment. It would be like 20% or something.

MB: Well, at least the schedule is consistent with music.

Tollef: Yeah, but I think it’s - for me - or I could also teach once a week instead, but it’s a bit more flexible to put yourself available for a night shift in this case and to work something different. And also it's a nice balance to do something else, maybe. It feels like a good balance you - you are always hungry for the music stuff when you get to do that. And I also do a lot of other - I have a couple of like, what do you call it, in a couple of boards - Union stuff. And maybe I have like one month's income of different administrative things related to culture. So I have a lot of different stuff going on, but I don’t know, maybe sixty, seventy percent playing of the income. Probably hundred and fifty percent of the time [Laughing].

MB: [Laughs, knowingly]

Tollef: So that’s fairly similar to all other places in the world, I think. So we don’t have to work a lot, but it’s passion and lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle, I would say. But if you asked a random Norweigen jazz musician “what is your - do you have a sidegig?” - most people would say yes. The big names, of course, doesn’t have that. But I would say it's more common than uncommon. So there are possible ways to - music is subsidized in some ways. The venues have some sort-of public support, in many cases, and the fees are maybe a little bit higher. But you also have to think about that the cost of living is also higher, so it feels like it's quite similar to many other countries just like, yeah, that’s my impression. I know also it's - it's a well functioning system in many ways. We have a lot of good festivals and promoters. And a very robust jazz organization; it’s called the Norweigen Jazzforum. And that works politically towards politicians to make them see the point of supporting culture. So I would say the organized cultural life in Norway is quite good. It’s a strong musician’s union that also supports freelance musicians as much as those playing in the symphony orchestra.

MB: I know some Europeans get tour support or grants from their governments to do tours in the states. Does Norway do a similar thing?

Tollef: Yeah, for instance this tour would not be possible if we didn't have any form of travel support. So, it’s sort-of a gamble. You have to book the gigs before you know - often you have to book the gigs before you know the financial situation in terms of support. So it’s always a gamble. That said, I think it's also getting harder. For me, the impression is it's harder to get support to do stuff outside of Norway, for some reason. Or if you're playing with Norwegians in Norway it feels a little bit easier than if you play with a multinational group outside of Norway. I think that has to do with the - it's a lot of cuts been coming to the foreign ministry part. 

It's not the cultural budget, it's a different budget -- and we have a right-wing government at the moment, for six years now. Yeah, it's been a lot of cuts but we have the musician’s union and jazz organisations - it’s been quite sort-of strong, and trying to prevent and reverse those cuts. Part of the music export support goes through the foreign ministry budget, not all of it but parts of it. And that is sort-of easier to sort-of “Ah! We don’t need this” So it’s easier to sort-of keep the politicians focus on the cultural budget because they know what they’re talking about. It’s quite clear in a way. But culture spans across many parts of the government, like education, foreign ministry, and partly health care. And then we have a separate culture budget. It’s sort-of complicated, but sort-of not complicated.

MB: It’s always complicated.

Tollef: But I find if I travel in the states with only musicians, it’s hard to get anything at the moment.

MB: In terms of this band, and yourself too, what influences are the most important?

Tollef: I mean the name states some influence in a way. There is an Ornette Coleman reference, but I would say the way we think about it is much more than that. It comes from a quite clearly free jazz aesthetical reference, in many ways. But we love so much different styles of music within the band so it's hard to pinpoint one thing. It's some of what you call free jazz and contemporary music. It's a lot of stuff, but I think that the band’s sound acoustic - traditional playing acoustic instruments the way we [do] is sort-of a clear free jazz school reference in that matter, I would say more than a contemporary way of interacting with each other. but I don’t try to sort-of label the playing that way but I guess it’s sort-of free jazz, you could also say avant-garde, modern, yeah whatever.

MB: Right, there seems to be as much time based playing as not.

Tollef: Yeah, and we don't - we don't have any like, not rules but - a song can be beautiful with harmonies and the next thing you can be like an eclectic free impro stretch. It's not that dogmatic. We are open to a lot of things - the possibilities of this band can stretch to, like, an ultimately broad spectrum of music. And we don't talk so much about it, it's just like it - it comes natural. “Hey, this song didn’t work so well” so we take this one instead. So I think it's a lot of unspoken common knowledge and references, maybe that’s a good way of putting it.

MB: Friends and Neighbors formed about 11 years ago in Trondheim.

Tollef: Yeah, late 2008 and we were a quartet first and then the piano player joined in 2010, I think.

MB: And for most of that time has the lineup been consistent throughout?

Tollef: Yeah we had a couple of subs for a couple of tours, but yeah it’s been the same lineup, yeah.

MB: So do you feel like you’ve evolved together in this group?

Tollef: Yeah, that’s the interesting - we’ve sort-of grown up musically together. Three of us, André on saxophone and Jon Rune on bass, and me, we met already - it’s sort-of - In Norway it’s often common that you do something called “folk high school” the year before - it's like a pre-university year. So we met already there, so we’ve been in class for five years. And we’ve sort-of watched each other grow in many different ways and take many turns through many different parts of the jazz tradition. It’s sort-of interesting to look back in at the path we sort-of crossed. We go a little bit back and forth and we’ve grown together, and we are so similar but also so different. So I would say there is a strong social thing sort-of binding the group together. We really appreciate each other's artistic differences, I would say that’s one of the strong sides in the band’s point of view.

MB: This next question is probably poorly formed but I'm just kind of curious about sort-of being a Norwegian group and being influenced by American jazz, a music that originated in the African-American community in the U.S. Do you feel there's a geographic isolation to overcome or is that not a thing?

Tollef: I'm not sure if we think about it that much. It's - for us the music - I mean - the African-American jazz tradition - it's the music we love, like, that's our passion. But we live in Europe and we have our own social structures and way of - not living, but just the way people - the way the society works makes you a different person, and we have our own music to listen and things that influence us to go in a different direction, hopefully. There is strong folk music tradition in Norway. Jazz became known at first, like big-time, in the 70s with ECM so that sort-of had a great impact on the jazz scene in Norway -- Garbarek and Keith Jarrett. That’s not the only thing but that’s apparently a big sort-of pin point historical mark, in a way. I think that - I think for me Denmark and Sweden has a different - a little bit different view and take on the history because there were much more American - it seems to me like there was much more musicians living there partly, playing in Copenhagen, Dexter Gordon in Copenhagen, Stan Getz travelled a lot to Stockholm. Count Basie recorded with the Swedish radio big band. So I think they had a much bigger and earlier exposure to the mainstream form of jazz. So maybe that sort-of allowed the whole ECM thing to happen in the way that it did. I'm not sure but that’s sort-of things we can think about.

I think, also, the jazz education and how it's been formed - school’s are quite liberal and it is historically oriented. All the jazz conservatories are focused on individual artistic expression and you have to develop that sort-of at the same time as learning history. It’s a high focus on individual artistic search in a way. It’s hard to sort-of answer the question. It's not like you think that music is made in a different part of the world in a different time. I don't think about it like that, for me jazz music is just - that's just where my heart belongs in a way. So like when I discovered - there were some doors that opened to me when I discovered Coltrane, and Archie Shepp, Ornette, Don Cherry, John Carter, Bobby Bradford. That's like - it was some things that - it was some bricks that fell into place, like, “ok this makes sense” that way of communicating in a band resonates to me - it makes - it makes sense in my head. So I would rather describe it that way, that I discovered something and I clicked to it. 

And I think music is able to be universal in that matter. But of course we have our - if we sit around the table and discuss music and politics, of course, we sometimes touch into the historical parts that - things that we can’t relate to - understanding completely, of course, in the African-American perspective. Civil rights movements - there are stuff that we can try to understand that we can't understand it and feel it in the same way. But I don't think that sort-of limits the ability to love one form of music.

MB: Right, and you have your own lived experience as a Scandinavian that we may not understand, so that enriches the music too, I would think.

Tollef: Yeah, but it's not so clearly linked into the music we play now. It's not like “ok, we were occupied by Germany during the war” and that affects my jazz music, it’s not - [laughs] - we don't have those kind of direct - [laughs] . So it’s in a different way. In Scandinavian societies now it’s very common - yeah, things that happened only 45 to 50, 60, 70 years ago too. So it's a lot of similarities in some ways but, yeah, every parts of the world have their own issues and conflicts, good sides and bad sides, that sort-of makes arts and artists to act in one way or another, but it's more unconscious and way of doing - it’s more subtle. It's not like ”now I'm going to write a tune about the Cold War” [Laughs]. Because I live one hour away from the flight from the Russian border, it’s not like, yeah, I guess you see what I get.

MB: Tollef it’s been a real pleasure talking with you, thank you for taking the time.

Tollef: Thank you for calling.

MB: We’re looking forward to the show coming up in Madison.

Tollef: We do too. It’s our second time with this group - I think most of us have been, yeah, around with different projects. I played with Mars Williams and Paal Nissen-Love played there with some of the other members of the group. And I think maybe Cortex, maybe with Thomas Johansson on trumpet maybe passed through, I’m not sure.

The trumpeter and saxophone player André and Thomas come from a town in Norway called Skien, and there is a guy from that town living in Sturgeon Bay, so that’s why we go there. There is a connection! Ok we go to Sturgeon Bay and we come from Chicago, we have to stop in Madison. When I first went there with Mars Williams - it’s a great town to visit - it’s a great town to play in - it’s a good vibe. I don’t know how to describe it, it’s just a very nice place to stay.



Kahil El’Zabar Ethnic Heritage Ensemble — Cafe Coda — Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020 — 8pm

  • Kahil El’Zabar -- multi-percussion, voice
  • Corey Wilkes -- trumpet
  • Alex Harding -- baritone sax

By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 02/05/2020

The success of Kahil El’Zabar’s innovative and creative vision is evidenced not only by the substance and breadth of his career, but also by its longevity. Coming of age in Chicago during the early years of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, he is an integral part of that legacy of Great Black Music. Living a life not devoid of its own complexities, he continues his unyielding dedication to his unique musical vision -- to use improvisation as “the key to finding new discoveries in old approaches.“

The trio’s other members are formidable in their own right. Trumpeter Corey Wilkes honed his craft at the Berklee College of Music, has filled the void left by Lester Bowie in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and tours internationally with numerous ensembles. Baritone Saxophonist Alex Harding has recorded or performed with a who’s-who of creative musicians including: Julius Hemphill, Lester Bowie, Hamiet Bluiett, Greg Osby, and the Mingus Big Band.


MB: Sometimes you play with a bass player or a cello player, how does the music differ when you have a quartet versus a trio?

KEZ: Well, you have four people versus three, which is obvious, but it is the chordal instrument that is usually not a part of the ensemble. The ensemble historically has been three people but sometimes I will add that fourth chordal instrument and so it changes the approach a little bit, but the music has its own, I think at this point, genre, you know. I’ve developed a way to approach the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble which focuses on percussion as actually the tonic instrument. The clave that’s been developed for how we approach various elements of this, so-called jazz idiom are unique to the instrumentation and unique to the concept and approach.

MB: You use your voice quite a bit in this group, do you think of that as an independent voice within the group or is it integrated into your playing, your identity, within the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble?

KEZ: It is integrated into the sensibilities of what we do -- it’s interesting you ask that Michael, a lot of times when we’re either doing like clinics or workshops or talking to younger musicians they say “well what’s all the voice stuff and the sound?” so when I then take them to YouTube and show them Art Tatum, show them Art Blakey, show them...who, I’m trying to think of…

MB: Elvin Jones.

KEZ: Charles Mingus, Elvin Jones. But even non-drummers. When you’re listening to uh...what’s the… Bud Powell!

MB: Right, Bud Powell.

KEZ: That’s who I was trying to think of. So that’s always been part of the tradition.

MB: Do you live in Chicago currently? And I guess I ask that because you know as someone who could probably live anywhere in the world is there something that keeps you rooted in Chicago as opposed to say Paris or Madrid or someplace in Europe?

KEZ: Yeah, Yeah, good question. You know my roots are there so I always maintain a residence there. I’ve been an artist in residence in Bordeaux for 16, 17 years so I’m back and forth there. And I have a place in Paris, so Chicago is home but I have other homes as well.

MB: I guess, dwelling on Chicago a little bit, In terms of the lineage of the AACM, you know I sort of think of, obviously, Muhal Richard Abrams as first generation AACM: Roscoe Mitchell, Steve McCall. Do you feel like you’re kind of second-generation AACM, is it sort of a continuum? Or are you maybe independent from that lineage?

KEZ: I’m connected to it, you know. I started working with Muhal when I was 17, like 1969. You know I see myself first connected to the Chicago lineage because many of the characteristics of the AACM were part of what Lil Harden was doing even before she became Mrs. Armstrong, and the sharing that was going on with Baby Dodds, Johnny Dodds, Pops, and everybody at that time, they were very collective, they were very communicative, very supportive. You find the same elements in the Sun Ra Arkestra in the 50s. They’re there and you see the continuum of that in the AACM. And when you’re in Chicago versus New York people always get the feeling that there’s this camaraderie, and more community based kind of exchange with musicians, whereas in New York it’s -- incredible incredible musicians -- but it’s more almost like gun-for-hire. Whereas in Chicago it’s about the community exchange with the music being an integral part of that. And I’m definitely a part of that legacy, and have tried to pass it on to younger generations.

MB: Definitely interesting to think about it in those terms, geographically even. Chicago has such a strong community, a musical community, it’s tremendous, I think. Are you someone who seeks inspiration externally, and if so, what’s currently inspiring you in terms of music, or other things in life for that matter?

KEZ: Yeah, I mean it’s all kinds of stuff, really great question. One of the, or two of the artists that really inspire me right now are the dance duo of Les Twins from France, I find them to be some of the most significant improvisors. And another artist that inspires me a lot is the visual artist, not the musician, but the visual artist Nick Cave, and the optimism that I see in his work graphically and what he communicates and the impact that I see. You know I’ve gone to exhibits of his in New York, Massachusetts, Chicago, and what he says in his art is something that you know I’ve tried to say for years in my work, that besides the critical pessimisms that are part of society that artists are able to describe, we need to be the outlet of optimism and how we find that inspiration and improvisation is the key to finding new discoveries in old approaches.

MB: Thank you, yeah, that’s great. Was there ever another path for you in life, or was this your path from the beginning?

KEZ: You know I was all-city in 1968-69  and in 1969 I was all-state, one of the top 20 basketball players in the state, and it’s so funny, years ago when my sons were small, they’re all adults now, but when they were small Quinn Buckner from the Boston Celtics, and Llyod Walton who played for Milwaukee Bucks, you know they said “Hey Graveyard” and my boys went “why do they call you that dad?” “‘cause I was deadly son.” and they asked them, they said “was my father good?” and they told them, you know that “He won all the tournaments he played against us. And we went on to be pros.” So for a couple of weeks my boys weren’t speaking to me and I was like “what’s wrong with you guys?” I’m cooking dinner and, you know, playing with them and they’re not responding, and they said “We could’ve had Mercedes and big houses!” Ha! And I think it was a good lesson for them because they’ve -- my sons have gone on to their own paths -- and I told them at that time “you have to choose you, and you have to know what you believe is going to make you happy in spite of what might be the material or the social or the fame attraction, and know inside yourself what you want to do, and I’ve felt very lucky ‘cause at a very young age I decided and committed myself to something that has given me a lot of fulfillment in life.

MB: So from there would you care to talk about the economics of this life, and maybe the struggle or, or maybe it’s not a struggle?

KEZ: Yeah, you know I’ve been pretty stable in my career, but it has a lot to do with parents and how they share with you the ability to discover your earning opportunities in unique ways, and you know my parents were entrepreneurs, and they knew how to plan a calendar and they knew how to set goals and go through the tactile process of reaching those goals, so you know. And they educated me well, so you know, I hold a PhD and besides the stuff that people know me for historically with the AACM or playing with Pharoh Sanders or Lester Bowie or Archie Shepp or whatever, you know I also did the arrangements for Julie Taymor for Lion King, and you know scored music for movies like Mo’ Money, Love Jones, and for 24 years was a professor. So those kinds of things gave me stable income to take care of my children and the freedom to do this music which is my heart. The music of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, the Ritual Trio, or duos with David Murray, or you know the things I've historically done and what I believe is my life’s work. My parents taught me to have the practical application of entrepreneurship so that it allowed me the freedom of my lifestyle choices.

MB: That’s very cool. So at the age of 66, right? Do you see yourself slowing down or are you just getting started?

KEZ: I’m seeing myself learn how to use age as a growth pattern with time. And that time is not relative necessarily to speed, or the past, present, or the future, but much more about the frequency engagement. And a lot of older musicians find themselves comparing to youth, which will never happen again. I think our society is too attracted to a moment rather than the journey and I, at this age, have to be about the journey and what those graces come from age. So I accept where I am and learn to use time in a relevant way that I can express something meaningful now.



NOW EnsembleAudio for the Arts — Monday, Feb. 10, 2020 — 8pm

  • Alexandria Sopp -- Flute
  • Alicia Lee -- Clarinet
  • Mark Dancigers -- Electric Guitar
  • Michael Mizrahi -- Piano
  • Logan Coale -- Double Bass

By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 01/22/2020

It’s widely known that southern Wisconsin is something of a hot-bed for New Music in all of its shapes and flavors. With the upcoming performance by NOW Ensemble, Madison has a somewhat rare opportunity to experience a unique and established voice in the music, in an intimate recording studio setting.

Formed about 15 years ago by a group of Yale University graduate students, NOW Ensemble champions new music and young composers. With multiple recordings, and even cool videos, they stand on the shoulders of the composer-performer collectives that have preceded them.

NOW Ensemble is something of a departure from the BlueStem Jazz fare that we’ve seen to date. Curious about the group’s ethos and goals, I rang up Pianist and Managing Director Michael Mizrahi:


MB: Focusing on the repertoire for the upcoming concert, could you give us a high-level preview or description of what the music will sound like, what we can expect?

MM: So, I’m bringing NOW Ensemble to Madison to play the BlueStem series and it’s a chamber quintet that I’m one of the founders of. The instrumentation is piano, flute, clarinet, double bass, and electric guitar. And if you think about those instruments, that can take us in a few different directions. We’re all classically trained, so the bulk of what we play is in the classical realm, but the sound of the instruments can bring in elements of rock and jazz and most of our repertoire has those elements as well. The electric guitar of course is amplified, we often play all amplified, sometimes we play more acoustic. On this particular show we are featuring a pretty big new piece. It was written for us by a composer named Sean Friar, and he wrote us a piece called “Before and After.” It’s this massive piece in 7 sections; 45 minutes long. And we’re actually headed straight from Madison to one other show at a festival in Illinois, then we’re going to record the piece. We’re going to be in recording mode – we’ll play that piece as much as we can before we go into the studio. That’s kind of getting into the repertoire. I don’t know if you wanted more about the sound of the ensemble or the ethos of the mission?

MB: Well yeah, actually you’ve sort of anticipated some of my other questions. Could you talk about the overarching artistic objective of NOW Ensemble?

MM: Sure, NOW Ensemble is a group that is dedicated to bringing new music into the world, very broadly speaking. We’ve worked with over 100 composers and we have a unique instrumentation that allows for certain kinds of timbres that are really not possible in any other instrument group. So, we’re particularly dedicated to working with younger composers, and helping their compositional voices be heard, also challenging them to write for our instrumentation. We give a lot of performances which — for especially emerging composers– can be a great opportunity to get their music heard. We also have at least 5 recordings — I’ve lost count. We are dedicated to recording these premieres. We also do a lot of work in education, going to institutions around the country, usually college level, but sometimes high school, working with young composers and performers who are interested in playing modern music, and giving workshops and masterclasses to them. So our mission is kind-of two-fold: to champion the music of today, and then to also help teach young composers and performers, and model a framework for presenting the music going forward.

MB: So it sounds like you work interactively with composers to help them frame their compositions for your particular ensemble, and you’re commissioning these pieces for the most part?

MM: Yeah, and I neglected a crucial aspect of our make-up. We’re five performers, who will be in Madison, but the group also contains three composers as part of the group. So we’re a composer-performer collective. Our electric guitarist is one of our composers, so he’s the only person that kind-of does double duty. And then we have two other composer-members in the group, who will not be in Madison, but are consistently in the group. The idea behind that was first of all modeled on some kind of famous composer-performer collectives of the 1980s and 90s: the Steve Reich Ensemble; the Phillip Glass Ensemble. But there’s also this idea of creating an in-house sound for the group. We have composers who are members of the group writing consciously for the group so that there’s this sound that’s out there that then the other composers can kind of build off of.

MB: It seems like a fairly rare situation. Do you tend to get unsolicited works?

MM: We do yeah, we do get unsolicited works. And also as I mentioned, we do a lot of performances at institutions where we are working with students who will sometimes all write us new pieces that we will perform. In fact the day after we leave Madison we’re going to the Red Note New Music Festival in Normal, Illinois, where we’re doing just that. We’re going to get nine new pieces that were going to perform at the festival and then were going to do a show of our own stuff.

MB: I’m a bit more familiar, I suppose, with the jazz and improvised music world, and there tends to be, at least on the regional level, a fairly strong DIY component to that. I wonder if you could talk about how you sustain this group. Can you discuss your funding mechanisms,such as  grant support, CD sales? How do you sustain this group?

MM: That’s a great question, I’ll let you know when I have the answer! We’ve been around for about 16 years, and all I can say is somehow when there’s a will there’s a way. It’s a combination of all the things you just said. It’s also having a membership in the group that’s devoted to seeing the group go forward, so that means bringing a lot of energy. Sometimes that means bringing a donor to the group; connections. We are a non-profit 501 c3 so we have access to a lot of grants. We’ve built up over the years — it’s a very slow process — a board, so we have that kind of structure in place. It started as a group of I guess 7 of us who are in the group, in grad school, we were all at Yale school of music together, and at this point that’s 15 years ago. Over the years there have been a couple of personnel changes, but kind of the core of the group is still those original members, and none of us are doing a full time gig, in some ways I think that makes it harder because there’s not this building up towards a huge annual budget, everything kind of stays small scale, but it also allows us to kind of be a project driven group. So if we have something like this piece by Sean Friar that we’re recording, we can do some fundraising and things to make sure we can have time in the studio and take the time we need, and have it not be that we need a year-in, year-out huge budget, that the first project would be to raise money, we’ve gotten more  effective at that over the years.

MB: It sounds like a very sustainable model in many ways, and a lot of passion fueling it.

MM: Exactly, and I think probably there are a lot of small jazz groups operating in a similar way.

MB: I agree, and I think it’s interesting for our audiences to understand how their support can fuel these kinds of projects.

MM: Absolutely.

MB: I’m very interested to get the word out on that kind of thing. I don’t know if you had anything else that you’d like to add before we wrap up?

MM: Well, maybe only that we’re excited to play in Wisconsin. I actually live in Wisconsin now, I teach at Lawrence University up in Appleton, and our clarinet player is at UW-Madison. And this is not where we all were when we started the group, but somehow two of us are in Wisconsin and we thought we should be sure to perform there sometime. We’re just excited to build a new audience in what is now a new home for some of us.



Collector — Cafe Coda — Friday, Jan. 31, 2020 — 8pm
Matt Blair — Piano, Fender Rhodes, Electronics
Jakob Heinemann — Upright Bass
Devin Drobka — Drums, Electronics

By Michael Brenneis

Interview date: 01/20/2020

Collector twists the definition of a jazz piano trio with a collective process, a healthy dose of electronics, and a focus on free improvisation. For this show they may change their routine a little by performing some written material — a set of charts composed by drummer Devin Drobka — rather than their usual improvised sets. Pianist Matt Blair has the privilege of being first in an alphabetical index of band members, so I rang him up to get the low down:


MB: So the group is Collector, tell me about your aesthetic, what’s the band all about?

Matt: We’ve kind of gone in a few different directions. We’ve all known each other for a long time and played in various contexts. Jakob and I went to school together and we both have known Devin for a while. It was toward the end of Jakob and I’s senior year of school that we started to play as a trio and when we first started out it was an improvising acoustic piano trio, not really writing much or composing for it, but just getting together when we can and improvising together.

But, I think, in the last couple of years it has sort of changed in a few different directions as each of us have continued to explore things that we’re interested in. And so we recorded a record, recorded live at Slate Arts in Chicago, I think it was April 2018, so that is much more electronic based. I’m playing Fender Rhodes and processing it through some guitar pedals, Devin is playing acoustic drums and also a Roland SPD drum pad. Jakob was actually all acoustic for that. That was, I think, a turning point in what we were trying to do and it became more focused on electronics, still with the aesthetic of basing everything in free improvisation and that was still the overarching idea behind what we were doing. Since then when we’ve gotten to play it’s sort of taken that idea and kept going with it. I’ve started bringing in more tape recordings and field recordings and samples and different laptop electronics in addition to piano or Rhodes or whatever it might be. So we sort of went from acoustic piano trio to more electronic based stuff. All that being said I think when we play Cafe Coda we might be doing something completely different by splitting the sets we do with one that’s mostly compositions by Devin, and then another set that’s more improvised or having a looser framework.

MB: I was going to ask about the balance of the electronics versus the acoustic in terms of what you might play at Cafe Coda, knowing that they have a piano there. Do you think you’ll use the piano?

Matt: Yeah, definitely, that’s my plan at least. I may integrate some electronics, but it’s kind of rare to get to actually play a piano, so I do like to take advantage of that when I can.

MB: You also mentioned the balance of the improvised with the composed. Does everyone contribute compositions? Is it more of a collective or is there a leader contributing compositions, how does that work out?

Matt: For this it’s just going to be Devin’s compositions. And this is actually the first time the three of us have played written material together. In different pairings we’ve played a lot of written stuff together. Devin and I have a duo project where it’s much more through composed, and we both contribute music for that. In school Jakob and I were doing lots of different stuff from classical music to straight ahead jazz, and also writing our own compositions that we would play with each other. But for this we wanted to focus on Devin’s music because both Jakob and I have gotten to play it in different contexts, but we’ve never played it together. Devin actually just wrote a book of piano trio music that he recorded with myself and Aaron Darrell back in November. Aaron lives in Boston. And we figured this would be a good opportunity to try some of this music as well as some of his older Bell Dance stuff. I think in the future it’ll be more of a collective if we keep playing compositions, we’ll all contribute stuff for it, different pieces and things like that.

MB: You mentioned that you and Jakob were in school together. Correct me if I’m wrong but were you guys both at [Madison] West High?

Matt: No Jakob was at West, and I went to Monona Grove.

MB: And you both went to Lawrence, were you there at the same time?

Matt: Yup, we were.

MB: So did you know each other in Madison?

Matt: No, actually we didn’t. We met there [Lawrence], which is funny, I’m not sure how we didn’t cross paths before that. He’s one year younger than I am. I went to school in Iowa for one year, but I ended up having to do 5 years of school because of transferring and all of that. So that’s how we weren’t able to cross paths in High School in Madison.

MB: With the three of you guys in different cities, you’re in Minneapolis, Jakob’s in Chicago, and Devin’s in Milwaukee, How do you manage the playing time together?

Matt: Yeah, it’s difficult. We try to pick out a few days once, twice, or three times a year. I wish it was more. We try to string a few shows together and make it happen that way. But it’s been interesting because, I think, especially Jakob and I are a little younger we’ve been growing and experimenting in a lot of different ways musically so this project gives it an opportunity to change each time we get together and play. And I think that’s just the nature, also, of improvising, we’re able to bring different tools and ideas each time, and it would be nice to get to work out some stuff together, but there’s a nice excitement that that causes, to not really be sure what’s going to happen this time.

MB: It sounds like the three of you have all worked together in various contexts and have probably built up a pretty good rapport in terms of the music.

Matt: Yeah, yeah, definitely there’s a lot of trust, which is good.

MB: Do you guys have other dates with this band?

Matt: We’re doing a concert and masterclass up at Lawrence after the Cafe Coda gig, and then playing at the Jazz Gallery in Milwaukee that Sunday, and then again at Slate Arts in Chicago on, I think that’s Monday. So, yeah, a four show run, then back to our respective towns.

MB: Back to your three corners.

Matt: Ha! Pan-midwest trio.