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.
Michael Brenneisis a drummer, composer, and improvisor based in Madison, Wisconsin. A volunteer blogger for BlueStem Jazz, he wants everyone to know that he’s a musician, not a journalist.